Sunday, August 13, 2017

I Cannot Resist - Off Topic

I don't know anything about high end watches, and I assume that they're all priced in absurd ways. Still, I cannot resist a remark.

Ming is selling a watch.

As noted, I have no idea if the $900 price tag is reasonable or absurd, but I do know that the movement in it is a clone of a swatch movement.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Art! Fame! Culture!

Two largely unrelated things have touched my consciousness recently, and per my usual methods I intend to place them next to one another to see what illumination might be cast one upon the other.

The first is the news that Cindy Sherman is on Instagram, together with the associated backlash. Apparently some elements of the media are cooing rather too loudly for some of the more precious critics out there, who are tweeting angry tweets.

The second item is that I am starting in on Edward Said's book, Orientalism. So far I have read the introduction, but I have a day at the beach today!

I must admit that I am finding Said tedious. He's spent an immense number of words to tell us that literature, politics, ideas, culture, and so on are all intermingled, interconnected, and cannot reasonably be understood separately. Further, almost all of what we think and believe is mediated through this mess. This strikes me as so obvious that one hardly need to even say it, let alone expend thousands of words of turgid prose. Still, it is just the sort of thing that galvanizes the undergraduate mind, and is also the exact opposite of much the 20th century's more abstruse academic thought (cf. Derrida). It is possible I find Said tedious because his ideas are so embedded as to be (now) obvious.


What about Sherman's Instagram? Well, to me it just looks like she's having fun. There is no denying that some people think she's doing something Important or Astonishing, and it's not at all obvious to me that she is, but see below. The refrain from the precious critics on Twitter might be if it wasn't Sherman, nobody would care about these pictures which is probably true.

This is to quite miss the point, which is that Sherman did make these things. Her fame is part of the rich cultural stew in which all works of art live. You cannot discard her fame, any more than you can discard a caption or the left half of the frame.

George Bush's paintings would be utterly uninteresting if he were not a former president, but to try to push them aside as uninteresting is wrongheaded. I'm not advocating hanging these things in the MOMA but his fame, his former role, do lend the pictures some interest. If nothing else, they gain a little historical weight, they speak, or might speak, to the nature of the man who was president.

How much more weight do Sherman's selfies on Instagram have?! Sherman is, after all, widely recognized as the JS Bach of the selfie. He didn't invent the fugue, she didn't invent the self portrait, but both mightily thrust their forms forward and up. The fact the Sherman is making these pictures, now, is inherently interesting. Who cares if they're "good" or "new" or "cutting edge"? That's irrelevant, or at best secondary.

If Bach in his dotage had written a series of 24 suites for kazoo, we might legitimately re-examine the kazoo, we might legitimately ask what on earth did the old bastard see in the kazoo here at the end?

Maybe nothing. Maybe Sherman is just playing around and there's nothing really to be read here. Maybe it just means that Sherman, the selfie queen, thinks that Instagram is jolly good fun. That right there is worth noting, though.

This is not to say that what famous people do is automatically "good". It is often important, influential, in a sense. If we wish to understand our world, we need to be attentive to the famous, however idiotic they may seem, for they do shape our world. It's all interconnected, and it is through all of this that we see, we grasp, our world. Sherman's presence on Instagram has changed that medium, it has changed photography, it has changed Art. Subtly to be sure, perhaps infinitesimally. But the change, the impact, is there.

Warhol was a sharp fellow.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Digital vs. Analog

I alluded to some of these ideas in the previous remarks, but I'll expand on them here. This is, in part, me taking another swing at "everyone is wrong about digital photography."

There's a strong current of belief that digital photography is in a fundamental way different from analog photography, in its bones, its DNA, or something. I assert, every now and then, and now once again, that this simply is not so. The new observation I have made recently explains why:

Digital photographic technology deliberately copies analog photography's model. How shall we make a digital camera? Well, replace the small flat rectangle of light sensitive film with a small flat rectangle of light sensitive silicon, and we're done, right? Whatever we read out of the chip is the single first generation object, a direct analog of the negative. Then you process that in ways that are very much analogous to film.

Lightroom (the dominant tool for handling those first generation files) even calls it developing! Photo editors have tools called "burn" and "dodge" for crying out loud.

Everything is easier, more plastic, and you can undo a lot of it and do it over. You can "develop" the same "film" over and over in different ways. You can undo your "dodging" and do it again. And you can do it all easily, sitting on your increasingly broad behind, rather than sweating over trays of chemicals.

The only substantive differences, though, are those. The speed, the ease, the plasticity, the undo. All the normal stuff that happens when you translate something analog into the digital domain.

These things do generate cultural change. It's not that digital is somehow different in a magical way, it's that it's the same thing only super easy, which has led to the current state of things. Pictures are ephemeral, disposable, lightweight, trivial. Or at any rate more than they were. Polaroids were never that serious or permanent an object in our cultural consciousness, to be sure. But the digital picture is moreso.

Since taking, editing, and sharing a picture is so easy, that part is now the simplest part of a larger process of promoting a false image of your own life. Literally every other aspect of faking your life or anything else you want to present disingenuously is more difficult. The plasticity, the editablity, of the digital picture hardly comes into it. The girl who wakes up, showers, puts on makeup, blowdries her hair, and gets back into bed for the #wokeuplikethis selfie is literally a cliche. If you look particularly happy, relaxed, luxurious, people assume that you're faking it.

They still kind of trust the picture. Sure, it's got a filter, it probably wasn't that sunny out, and you're probably not as happy as you look, and you probably borrowed that cute bikini, and you cropped out your tummy for a reason, dintcha? But the picture itself is probably pretty much honest as far as it goes.

The big changes are coming. As computational photography comes along (and it is coming, make no mistake) we're finally dropping the analog model. The "negative" is no longer to be simple indexical capture of the image cast on a flat surface by a lens. It will be a fused, computed, result from multiple lenses, from multiple sensors, of data from various sources. The "negative" will be interpolated, annotated, guessed-at, filled in from here and there. It won't be indexical. It will be rich, literally three dimensional, filled with data and cues that will make it far more malleable than today's pictures.

The plasticity of the new "negative" will astound us. Dropping out the background will be a one-click operation.

"Here we are in front of the Eiffel Tower."
"Sweetie, can we make all the other people go away?"
"Sure!" <click>
"And maybe move us in closer?"
"Ha ha! Can you put us at the pyramids?"

And so on.

People already distrust photographs. Computational photography is going to take that to a whole 'nother level, as the editability leaps to new heights. We now treat the look of the picture as untrustworthy, because you can apply filters trivially. With computational photography the content becomes just as malleable. Now the indexicality of the picture, never truly present in a computed photo anyways, becomes discardable utterly.

Not only do we make the gloomy day look a bit warm and sunny, we can change the sailboat we're standing on to a much larger one.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Colberg on Pictures

I do so like it when people actually take a credible swing at "what's it all about then?" sorts of questions in photograph. Colberg has written a piece, The Perfect Imperfect Picture. Don't misunderstand me, he's all wrong, and I am about to talk about why, but I appreciate the effort, and I appreciate that people are thinking about this kind of thing.

First of all, he's more or less right that there is a great deal of variation in what we actually get to look in with a digital photograph, just as there was a certain amount of variation with analog. He does start right in with muddling things up, though. In the analog world he seems to be talking about frame-to-frame variation. This piece of film rendered this scene in one way, the next one rendered this other scene, this other picture in another way. In digital land, he's talking about how differently the same picture is rendered in various contexts.

Later, he revists this idea in a way that makes it clear that the first thing (different renderings of the same picture) is irrelevant, even to Colberg.

Next up, he jumps to a brief vignette on "what is a photograph anyways, where is the, you know, the actual thing itself?" which is a perfectly good question to ask, and one that doesn't have a good answer, but he fetishizes technology for a moment by saying "it must be the code, the code is the thing" which is a refrain I find numbingly tiresome. In the first place, "code" is the program, it's the app, it's the part that does calculation. "Data" is the passive stuff upon which calculations are done. What Colberg is talking about is, technically, "data" not "code", unless his phone encodes pictures as a FORTRAN program that, when executed, writes out a JPEG file. Which I can assure you is not the case.

To say "code" sounds cooler, though, so it's kind of in vogue.

Anyways, it's all irrelevant, because in the second place there's a clear and precise analog between the first generation file (JPEG, DNG, RAW, whatever) and the negative. It's the unique thing produced by the instrument, and if you must answer "what is the actual thing?" then that's as good an answer as any. And it's simply not very interesting (unless you're planning to fetishize technology, which apparently you must) to examine the differences between "negative" and "first generation data file", they're the same for all ontological purposes. And then, just as every print pulled from a negative is a little different, so every rendering of the file is. In digital land, surprise, everything happens a lot faster, a lot more frequently.

After a mysterious trip to the world of gratuitous and wrong-headed slams on Sontag, Colberg gets to to the meat of his thesis.

People, he asserts, like imperfections in their pictures.

The first problem here is that he's approaching this like an engineer and an amateur gearhead photographer. What on earth is an imperfection? He sounds like some douchebag on a forum bitching about "missed focus" or "white balance is wrong."

Colberg is now back to muddling up variations in renders of the same picture with variations in handling of different pictures, but here it is important.

Nobody cares much if colors look a little different on their phone and your screen. This is variation between different renders of the same picture, and most people consider it irrelevant unless the differences are enormous, and then they find it irritating. The important point here is that the renders remain indexical. It is important to note that an indexical representation of a scene, one that corresponds directly to the scene, is not unique. There can be many indexical representations of the same thing. There can be, in short, many photographs of the same thing, each exactly as "true" as the other, all different.

When people apply filters to their phone snaps, to make them look like vintage film, obviously they do care, and they like the look. This is handling different pictures differently, or sometimes making multiple different pictures from the same underlying first generation file. It doesn't actually have anything to do with the things Colberg started with, with this notion of different renderings.

Finally, Colberg gets around to something sensible and interesting.

So, people are smashing up their pictures with filters and whatnot. Somehow, this is not damaging the credibility of pictures (or is it?), and somehow, people seem to want to want the look of glitchy, weird, serendipitous accidents, and that does indeed have to mean something.

Unfortunately, he leaves it right there, just when it's about to get interesting.

He has an opportunity here to draw his two muddled things back together, to talk about something like the evidentiary properties of a photograph. We, collectively, will accept various renders of the same picture, as well as quite a lot of deliberate variation in the form of edits and filters, as evidence. You can smash a picture up fairly brutally, at least in technical terms, and we, your audience, will still treat it as proof that you were at that diner, that party, that beach. If my screen renders your picture with a weird green cast, or if Facebook's servers have made it all soft with overcompression, I still treat it as proof.

There's nothing inherent about digital technologies here, to be sure. Commentators like Colberg and, and well everyone except me as far as I know, are obsessed with the idea that digital photographs are somehow, inherently, in their underlying nature, different. That is simply not true. There are direct analogs with every aspect of analog photography (of course they are, analog photography is the model the digital guys copied, and continue to copy). There are at least two different approaches to Adams's Moonrise over Hernandez photo out there, and many different prints. Nobody, however, denies that Adams was there on that road, at that time.

What is different is the pace, the amount, the numbers. Rather than 4 different prints, all subtly different, we have a thousand, a million, a billion different renders on different screens. We have different interpretations through filters and photoshop, 2, 5, 100, as many as you care to churn out, every one a click away. None of the individual instances is substantively different from what might have occurred in the bad old days of film.

But the sheer quantity is different, is new. It changes things, in ways we don't fully understand. Digital has changed things, it is different.

Commentators and critics like Colberg and Bush are, however, quite wrong about why.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeing, Objectivity, Etcetera

Ming Thein has a piece up over here that I disagree with, I think. To be honest, I have trouble wading through his prose these days, but I think he's talking about photography as documenting the novel, the changed, the differences. He seems to be, at least partly, espousing the usual rot of how going to somewhere new allows us to see new things, in new ways, and therefore the pictures get better.

This is the mentality that drives the workshop business, it drives a fair bit of travel in general, and I vigorously disagree with it.

The photographer's job is not to notice and photograph the novel, the new, the different. The photographer's job is orthogonal to that, it has nothing to do with novelty. It's about seeing what is truly there, in a way that is idiosyncratic, that is informed by the photographer's person-ness. If you're just looking for the novel, well, a robot will be able to do that in a couple of years. If you're just looking to document what is, a robot can do that now.

As a consequence of this, travel is contraindicated. You can't see what is truly there without spending some time, and you cannot see it in your own specific way without spending more time, and you need to do both. So, as I have said before, travel is fine as long as you spend a ton of time in-country. Indeed, Ming alludes to this in his post, remarking that he doesn't get good pictures until the end of a trip.

The problem so many would-be photographers face, though, is that they have never learned to see what is truly there. Our view of the world is mediated through our big fat brain, which has a big fat visual cortex, which is connected with everything else. It's hard to see what is truly there. But, well, that's the job, so you jolly well ought to learn how to do it. This is one reason, I think, that everyone advocates for taking 1000s of pictures of whatever. It's a half-assed method of learning to see what's actually there.

I advocate just sitting there and looking, until you are bored with looking, and then look some more. George Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which I have not read) is probably a good model to follow.

You can actually observe the amateur photographer's inability to see online, when they "critique" one another's work, or attempt to help one another replicate some look they've seen on the web. They seem to almost always miss the forest for the trees, harping on about "missed focus" or "move the light" or whatever, and don't notice that the main thing is that the picture is dark and de-saturated. The critics are seeing photographs through their own preconceptions and ideas.

Once you know what is genuinely in front of your nose, then you can start to apply your own person-ness, to photograph what is truly there in your own way.

Of course, every photograph does this in a way. At worst you're selected what to take a picture of, although if you have no yet learned to see what is truly there you're just selecting preconceptions and illusions. Still, to really be a photographer, you should be applying your own idiosyncracies in an organized way, not at random.

Anyways, this all leads around to the final point which is an essential conflict in photojournalism, and something I have just realized.

Photography, at its core, is about an idiosyncratic world view. If the pictures are any damn good, if they're interesting to look at, it's because the photographer who took them has inserted a personal viewpoint, an opinion, some ideas, something. And yet, modern journalism insists that these things should be objective, pure document, just the facts, ma'am.

Purely factual photographs are possible, but terribly dull. A robot could, in theory, document much of what counts as news in a more or less objective fashion.

Arguably, robot journalism (we're seeing mentions now and then of systems for automatically writing short press articles, usually based on already extant data streams like auto-generated earthquake reports and whatnot) will lead to a brave new era of more objective journalism that absolutely nobody reads.

Monday, July 31, 2017

FSA/OWI Archive, The Hole-Punch, and Photoshop

Those of us who are more or less familiar with the history of the FSA/OWI know that Roy Stryker used a hole punch to "cancel" negatives that he deemed not suitable for printing. So, there's a big pile of negatives out there with little holes in them. This is often reported as a Historical Travesty etc, and there are sometimes Dark Hints that Stryker cancelled negatives that did not support his propagandist program.

All of this is absurd. Most of punched negatives I have seen have the hole jammed through somewhere obvious but otherwise at random. Stryker wasn't trying to destroy information, particularly. Indeed, the negatives remain archive. To properly destroy the information, Stryker would have shredded them or similar, and he certainly wouldn't have carefully preserved them and arranged for their transfer to the Library of Congress. Techniques for destroying film certainly existed and were used by the government.

What Stryker was doing, at least mostly, was picking out the good ones. The propaganda campaign, which was very real, was executed largely by giving his team shooting scripts.

In some cases, a face is obscured, perhaps a sign or similar important detail is chopped out. In many cases, of course, another negative from the same group will be available, un-punched or punched in a different way. The point is that, in general, the punched hole doesn't really delete anything of historical interest.

Which leads us to Photoshop. This chappie at the University of Connecticut said to himself "what would happen if we used Photoshop's content aware fill to fill that hole back in?" and the answer is, obviously, "it does OK as long as there's nothing interesting in the hole". See his article here.

He goes on to speculate about what this might all mean. You'd think that as the Head of Digital Imaging and Conservation at a University he'd think this stuff through a bit, but no, what we get is this:

Yet, what are we to make of these surrogate negatives? Though they are not based upon standard content replication like their hole-punched brethren, the software-filled versions still hold a certain spell and feel of visual symmetry. From an archival standpoint we may even regard them as born-digital objects in their own right. Perhaps in the end they may simply be best considered informed guesses on fragments of displaced history.

"born digital objects in their own right," how terribly cute! What they are, sir, is they are bloody dangerous and little else. The trouble with these damned things is that part of them is false. Part of them is not indexical, it is guessed at by the computer, and we don't know which part. The thing looks and smells like a photo, and most of it is a photo, so we trust it. Part of it, an unknown part, isn't a photo. More or less by definition this process cannot add to the truth value of the photograph, it can only subtract. Taking historical artifacts and making them less true is probably not a great idea.

These things are definitely going to to muddled up with the real things, hopefully not in the official archive, but definitely on the interwebs. People will be using content aware fill to "fix" these pictures, and they'll be sticking them up on pinterest.

But wait, real research doesn't get done on pinterest, so we're OK, right? Yeah, well, real researchers also don't go painting over bits of history with bullshit like content aware fill to see what will happen either, do they? Oh, wait, yes they do. Of course real research is done on pinterest. People with loads of funny letters after their names pull random shit off the web all the time. And even if they don't, they do look at wikipedia, which is the distillation of random shit pulled off the internet.

It's probably not a huge deal. So someone makes a wrong deduction about how dresses were made in the 1930's based on some garbage photoshop invented in some picture. Big deal. Well, this is how history dies. So, yeah, in a way, big deal. It's one cut of a thousand, but I'm still not in favor.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraiture

There's a modest tempest in a modest teapot that's slopping around the photographic press and online communities. This picture:

won the $20,000 (little Australian dollars, I assume) award, and has been acquired by the Tweed Regional Gallery. What the hell even is it you might reasonably ask, since it's not obvious. The artist asserts this:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

which is an explanation of sorts.

Naturally all the gearheads masquerading as photographers are up in arms. No Skill! No Work! It's Not Even a Photograph! which I gotta say to, pot, kettle, etc. The angry claims that there wasn't much effort expended are hilarious from photographers, who expend the effort of flexing a finger to make a picture. Claims of "no skill" are invariably fraught, there's no telling what a mirror might reveal. And, it is obviously a photograph.

Looking over the catalog that goes with this contest, you can see that nobody who submitted thinks this is about 5-light Sears Portraits. Nobody even thinks it's about the sort of thing Kirk Tuck does. This is about Collectible Fine Art, which means that it's all pretty outré. The winner stands out, but only slightly. So, the repeated complaints I have read about "the other contestants being cheated" are also bunk.

The one issue that leaps out to me is embedded in the artist's statement. Did Grandma test pens in pitch blackness? The scenario outlined for the process is, I think, simply false. There's no way this works. The film is fully fogged and contains no picture in any reasonable reading of the statement. This, I think, makes the whole thing problematic. The thing doesn't work unless Grandma was actually involved. Did Grandma actually scribble on a piece of acetate or similar, which the artist then contact printed onto film?

Weirdly, despite reading a certain amount of online, um, discussion, I have not run across anyone who's pointed this out. Which is extremely weird to me. Has all knowledge of film and its properties been lost?

For the record, I think the work is fine. Portraits don't have to have faces in them, Karsh photographed Pablo Casals from behind. Lots of people have done work photographing traces and ephemera of people, and those too can reasonably be included under the head of "portrait" if you're remotely generous. The work is interesting, and of the pieces we see in the contest's catalog, it's not at all obvious that this is not the winner.

Still, its essence as a portrait hinges on a story that is, in technical details, obviously false.

This raises some questions. If it's just scribbles the artist made, together with a story the artist wrote, is it still any good? Is it anything? If it's Art, is it now a Micro Fiction, rather than a photograph? Is it a prank?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I feel that Duchamp is smiling.