Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Design Notes II

In an earlier posting, I wrote out some stuff on my work in progress, working title Bellingham Summer showing some ideas for the introductory material. That has evolved, a little, and I think I have a handle on it.

Next up is the core of the book, 20 or so pictures that, I think, nail down something of the essence of what I see as Summer in Bellingham, up here on the 49th parallel, where the days are very long in summer, and very short in winter (the British, of course, are very familiar with this, as are the northern Europeans -- I understand that the approved coping mechanism in winter is to Drink and Complain, both of which I feel fairly adept with).

After due consideration and winnowing down, I found that I have no special needs in this central section. There was no particular reason for pacing, recapitulation, anything fancy. It's just a group of pictures. So, the goal of sequencing here became simply to make it look structured, organized. I spent some time categorizing things, and rediscovered the specific list of things that I had first identified as representing Summer in Bellingham:

I looked for geometrical coincidences, and without really looking for it, I found one pretty decent visual joke. Well. Let's be honest, visual jokes are, at best, about as good as a lousy pun, but this one's that good.

I also worked up a look, one that I have used in the past, roughly. Essentially, high contrast, firm blacks, and a heavy vignette. The intent here is a hallucinatory, dreamlike, flavor. Which is indeed what I am going for, I see summer here as a slightly crazed and altogether too brief experience. We're all sleep deprived from the light, and frantic to get in enough Summering to carry us through the chilly, wet, cloudy winter. Summer here is glorious, it's sunny, it's warm without being too hot. The area is beautiful, filled with natural wonder and rushing water. There's a lot to get done in the few months of summer. And the days are very very long indeed at the height of it.

The pictures look kind of like this:

I didn't kill myself over structure. The aim was purely to avoid jarring juxtapositions as far as possible (keep the Kids a few pages removed from the Topless March) and to exploit whatever relationships seemed obvious to impose a sort of order. Here are some spreads.

This is the joke, the second spread immediately follows the first:

The central content of the book opens with the Wisteria, as I suggested in the first post of this series, to connect with the foliage theme of the intro. The next spread, though, is this kid-themed spread. (note foliage recto to provide some loose link to that Wisteria):

We move on through another page or two of kid-related material, and after a while end up here. This is essentially a geometrical relationship, although there's also a "boys vs. girls" thing, and the people are all college aged, more or less:

The coda is still giving me a little trouble. I have boiled it down to two pictures of a lawnmower, but they frankly look stupid sitting there in a sea of white. I've toned them slightly, to separate them from the main content, and I have an idea for recapitulating the growth pattern behind the main content in a more organic way, to imply fall, to carry the main body of the book into the coda while still indicating a clear change of mood and idea, and then the close.

I have one last picture on the end, a flashback of sorts, printed very faint, which I visualize verso opposite the end paper.

Once I have the coda worked out, I will post a third and final set of remarks, and most likely a link to the finished book so you can buy it yourself! Assuming, of course, that the wheels do not fall off.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

PSA: Misogyny in Photography

In my general perambulations around the internets, I routinely run across little nests of misogynists. For example, recently one photographer posted an ocean sunset in a forum I peek in to from time to time, entitled "Main reason why I go to the beach". Predictably, some idiot posted a photo of a woman's butt two hours later, leading a lot of "hurr hurr right on man". I like women's butts just fine, but I recognize that context is relevant. This sort of behavior in a context in which women are intended to feel comfortable, welcome, and in which they ought to and can reasonably expect to is obviously unacceptable behavior.

Similarly, there's been some poisonous discussion across the internet about the Nikon ad which featured 32 male photographers and 0 female photographers.

I don't even want to get in to a discussion of the rights and wrong here, I don't want to get into a round of explaining the facts, or trying to channel the Woman's Experience, etc. It's not necessary to get in that deep.

I just want to point out that, for christ's sake, it's 2017. On what planet can your dumbshit "hurr hurr" make women feel welcome? And on and on with all the standard BS responses that troglodyte men drag out. Don't these guys hope some day to touch a woman? I mean, it could happen, if they changed... everything about themselves.

Anyways. I can't figure out how to pressure PetaPixel (which hosts some seriously virulent comment threads) because they use a 3rd party comment handling service, as well as using an ad network for supplying advertisements. Conveniently, everything is divorced from everything else. I can figure out how to stick it to The Photo Forum (which has irritated me in the past for other reasons) because they have specific sponsors. I present for your amusement two samples threads from that forum:

Nikon Picked 32 Men
Main reason why I go to the beach.

which are surely not anything like the nastiest things on the internet, but equally surely will make any female photographer seeking help on the internet feel at least a little uncomfortable.

Here is a list of the sponsors, as indicated on the front page. For all I know it's out of date, these guys are pretty disorganized:

Precision Camera and Video, Austin, TX.
Camera Land, Inc. Sports Optics. New York
Pixel HK (the web site seems dead, I have no idea if these guys even exist)
Lee Filters

Do with this information what you like. Personally, I have contacted each of these vendors to let them know that I won't be using their services. You might choose to cancel my vote, and promise to use their services! It's a big world, with room for many opinions. Mine is that misogyny in general audience photography circles needs to get stepped on, pretty hard.

It's one thing to bitch about women and post butt pictures on Pick Up Artist web sites, with all the other basement dwellers, I got no problem with that. It's quite another to go mucking about in public.

Back to regularly scheduled photography stuff in the next post, promise.

ETA: I have decided what to do for PetaPixel as well. Occasionally I supply them with an article, and I will be writing Michael Zhang a note today explaining that I cannot supply any more until I see a firmer hand moderating the more poisonous comment threads. They won't miss me, it won't really hurt them, but it's a stand I can take and it's possible that Michael will think it over a little. My boycott of an Austin camera shop isn't going to hurt them either, really. The point is to get people to think about it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Making Books has made me a Better Photographer

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was obsessively ruminating about books and photobooks and so on, that making books has made me a better photographer. Obviously not in any technical sense, I still struggle with the vagaries of AIS lenses on an ancient consumer body (you have to set it OFF manual mode to focus, and back ON manual mode to shoot, and I am constantly getting lost on the dial and can't find M without looking).

It probably hasn't made my better at composition, although perhaps a little. More focused, certainly.

What it has done, obviously, is that it has caused me to shoot far fewer pointless pictures.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, at least as expressed by Colberg (but he is not alone) I do not start with a finished photographic project, and then do a book. Instead, I have ideas for projects floating around my head: A typology of alleys, Found texts, Bellingham Summer, and so on. I also have vague notions of design and structure floating around: Big, Small, Dos-à-dos binding, french door binding, A stapled zine, A magazine, etc.

These things bounce around my head. Sometimes I shoot a few pictures, sometimes I experiment with some paper, thread, and glue. Every now and then a design/structure idea collides with a photo project idea, and I begin something in earnest. You've seen a little of the Bellingham Summer project, which was just a gibberish handful of pictures until the design ideas started to arrive. The medium is probably an 8x10 blurb trade paperback.

With a mental sketch of the completed book in mind, the pictures begin to almost shoot themselves. Everything from preferred framing to specific themes is clarified. Actual pictures, of course, influence the structure of the book, and the whole thing organically distills itself into the right thing. Ideally. Not always.

What this process seems to do is to eliminate the horrible "open brief" problem that we amateurs are cursed with. We can shoot literally anything, and the more constraints we can get hold of, the better we're going to be most likely. The book, having far more structure than a gallery show (real or virtual), grants me far more constraints. I can shoot with real purpose, I can look for specific shots, specific subjects treated in specific ways. I still throw a lot away, but my hit rate goes up like crazy toward the end of a project as I nail down the last couple of things I need or want.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

iPhone X and Digital Lighting

There's a feature tucked away in the new iPhones that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of traction, but it represents a massive sea change in photography. It's the "Portrait Lighting" mode, and it's the second shot across the bows of traditional photography, from the world of computational photography.

The first shot was "fake bokeh" in which the 3D map generated by a dual (or multiple) camera is used to generate background blur, to simulate the look of contemporary fast lens portraiture. This was widely derided for a few minutes, and then improved, and now it's pretty much accepted. A few holdouts still mock it, but normal people can't really tell the difference.

This next shot is a much much bigger one. With the 3D map the only thing preventing doing photographic lighting in post is available compute power. This is exactly what Portrait Lighting mode does. In effect, it digitally alters the lighting of a portrait to make it closer to a professional lighting style. It's not perfect, and I am sure the internet will mock it roundly when it gets around to it, "looks so fake", "lame", "a professional would totally do it better", all of which may be true. This is not a technology that is going to get worse over time, though. It's going to get better.

When I wrote about this two years ago, I imagined a virtual studio for the professional photographer, with virtual lights placed and moved as needed, after the shot was taken, and the final results rendered as a standard 2D image for retouching. Apple has done me one better and worked out how to consumer-ize it. Rather than moving virtual lights around Apple simply offers a handful of styles, treating it like an Instagram filter. Pick the lighting style that makes you look best! Click click, "that one, yeah."

There's room for both, though, it's just software.

It's not even hard! This isn't even an iPhone, this is me and my rough knowledge of how my own ugly mug is shaped. Original, drop catchlights, shade in shadow, shade in highlights, and finally drop in new catchlights.

What does this mean for photographers? For the amateur it means more power, more flexibility, and potentially more fun. It's simply easier to take ever nicer looking pictures.

For the professional it means that your skill at positioning lights is gradually going to vanish as a differentiator -- if you can't direct your models well, learn how, because that's about to become the only skill that isn't being replaced by a robot.

For the photojournalist, and more importantly for the news editor, it means one more layer of potential falsehood inserted between reality and the printed page, the digital news feed. Think about what features you're going to want o disallow in future.

I can't even imagine what it means for Fine Art photographers.

It seems like a stupid little "selfie-mode stupidity" feature, but it's not. It's our second hint of a radically different future.

A Note

This is a post of mine from slightly less than 2 years ago: A Device.

In it I remarked that synthetic lighting was going to be a new feature enabled by computational photography.

Please note that the iPhone X introduces synthetic lighting features as a consequence of its computational photography package.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Colberg on Art

Jörg has another thoughtful piece up, a welcome relief from his reviews in my opinion. It contains a review, but it's secondary, without being a New Yorker style artifice upon which to hang a bunch of self-aggrandization.

I'm going to provide a handful of definitions, basically because I had to look all these words up. I mean, I knew roughly kinda what they meant, but not, you know, the details.
  • agitprop - A portmanteau of "agitation" and "propaganda", essentially propagandist art nominally intended to stir people up.
  • didactic - Intended to teach, specifically a moral lesson.

Jörg starts out well, making the point that Art with a capital A communicates, but often somewhat vaguely, in ways that may be hard to put your finger on. He asserts, correctly I think, that good art and agitprop, if not actually opposites, at any rate tend to be in opposition. Agitprop is clear, it communicates but one message, without much ambiguity (or depth). I suspect Jörg's complaints about didactic/agitprop "art"are more or less squarely directed at Lewis Bush's "It's Gonna Be Great" show, which was just a bunch of "hurr hurr I photoshopped Donald Trump to look like an idiot" material. Boring, stupid, simple repetition of simplistic leftist narratives. You don't have to look very far to find tons of this sort of thing, though, so maybe Jörg had something else in mind.

Then we move onwards to the assertion that the Bechers work was didactic, which I find interesting but am not sure I agree with. What moral lesson are we to learn here? To my eye, the Bechers were simply insisting that certain objects were interesting, without any particular judgement about what's interesting, about what lessons we are to find in these objects. We could project our own ideas, certainly, and I assume they had their own ideas, but ultimately it's just a bunch of pictures of buildings.

But hold on to that. Whether or not the word "didactic" applies is largely irrelevant here. The point is that, at least in my opinion, the Bechers are expressing a simple idea, namely, "these are interesting", without insisting on a specific reading, a specific moral point of view, or really anything of that sort.

Finally we get to the review. The book he reviews, by the way, is $45, which seems truly incredible for a book with this amount of hand work. I almost want it for that alone, except the content is completely uninteresting to me.

This book is didactic. In fact, it is agitprop, despite Colberg's notion that it is not. He is here betraying himself, allowing his weakness for overproduced photobooks to overrule his obviously good sense. He claims that the book functions because of "the surprise" that the pictures in it are not microorganisms, but instead bits of plastic floating in the ocean, which might be OK except that the publisher lacks the strength of character to make it a surprise. The reveal is right there in the blurb.

While the book itself may not insist on a specific moral lesson here, the fact is that it's being published today, now, when the only reasonably interpretation is that it's yet another piece of self-conscious art about how terrible it is that there's a bunch of plastic in the ocean. We may take it as given that the artist thinks we should legislate the use of plastic bags and so on.

There is in fact almost no disagreement about what is surely the central thesis of the book: "plastic bits filling up the ocean is bad." The points of disagreement are entirely about what should be done about it, with one side claiming that the invisible hand of the market will cure this problem as soon as it's done curing every other ill, and the other side saying that we need to legislate and regulate heavily. I side with the latter, but that does not make me love this book.

While I have not seen the book myself, it is transparently a rather twee concept wrapped around a simple repeat of one of the standard pages of leftist political narrative. I don't like Donald Trump, and I disapprove of plastic bits in the ocean, but simply repeating the same stories is just propaganda, and not very effective propaganda at that. Neither "It's Gonna Be Great" nor "Beyond Drifting" are going to create change. Neither are going to connect with their readers in interesting ways. Both are pure preaching to the choir, one with, I admit, production values that appeal far more to me than the other.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Another Nutty Theory

Hasselblad, as we all know, built this weird X1D thing, which is a medium format mirrorless camera, yadda yadda yadda. The lens lineup for this has received some criticism. They lenses are: 30mm, 45mm, and 90mm, which work out as a "moderately wide" a "kinda wide" and a "weird goddamned thing that's either too long or too short for every possible application"

But consider this: the 90mm lens is more or less a normal lens for 645 format, which is the size of the 100 megapixel sensor Hasselblad is using in their biggest and best uberkamera. On that sensor, the lenses are "quite wide", "moderately wide" and "normal" and the lens lineup actually makes a sort of sense.

My theory is that they were hoping to stick the big sensor into the X1D and pulled the trigger on lens designs before they realized that they were going to be using the smaller sensor.

And now they're sort of stuck.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Design Notes

I'm working on a book design, about Bellingham's Summer. The first thematic element is one of growth, fecundity, and for that I have a bunch of detail shots of morning glory and sweet pea. The conceit is that these pictures will crawl across the page, expanding like vines, for the first few pages. For "too long" really, encouraging a quickening pace as you leaf through, looking for the "real content" after you get the idea.

After that, these elements become background upon which other material is laid. They become graphical design elements rather than pictorial content, repeated on each page, and then there's some things that happen at the end about which more, perhaps, later.

The preliminary spreads look like this. Sepia-ish toning for an organic flavor.

Page 1:

Pages 2-3:

Pages 4-5:

Pages 6-7:

Pages 8-9:

Pages 10-11:

Note that the pattern recto is complete on page 7, so pages 9 and 11 are simply repeats. I think I want to leave 9 as-is, but begin to bring in the main theme, the primary "content" starting on page 11. These are photographs of things which I think embody certain aspects of the summer in Bellingham, something like this:

Well, bugger. That's obviously a mess. I knew there was going to be a separation problem, of course. I tried some borders and so on, but ugh. Nope, the background has to become quite a bit different. Let's make it much lighter.

That's a BIT better. Throw on a border too and fade that background a little more:

Later pages we'll give the verso the same treatment, and start putting primary content on both sides. The background material will evolve, with bits turning off, and probably an increasing fade, and eventually the whole thing vanishes bottom-upwards as we head into the final end-of-summer theme. In the end, the background is blank, and there's 1 or 2 more pictures to close out summer.

This probably isn't the final final design, but I am closing in on it, I think.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Couple of Things from Lewis Bush

First of all, he's doing a book. There's a kickstarter right here. It's not my cup of tea, it's not how I would have approached the material. It lacks any human element, and was pretty obviously put together entirely by screwing around in front of a computer.

On the other hand, it's it most certainly not another instance of My Sad Project. There is nothing in it of Lewis's strained and complex personal relationships, it is not a catalog of his suffering, it is not a journal is his disease. It's arguably a subject of actual weight and interest.

It's also just the right way to assemble this material. While I find a bunch of spectograms and satellite pictures to be remarkably uninteresting, that is certainly just my taste at play. Lewis appears to be assembling a lot of related material, and putting it together into a neat package. The "innovative web platform for the material" sounds a lot like a flashback to 1999, but what can one do, really?

The point is that he's got a subject he's interested in, and he's assembled various visuals, various data and information, and he's putting it together as a completed thing. I would not look down my nose at you if you chose to support his project. I will not be, but that's because it does not suit my taste, not because I think it's crummy.

Second item, Lewis can actually write a thoughtful piece, and proves it for us again over here. It's not earth shattering, but it is thoughtful and, notably, readable.

So, hat tip to Mr. Bush.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Roy Stryker, the FSA/OWI Photos, and the Hole Punch

Roy Stryker ran the great big photography project for the Resettlement Administration (RA), later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The goal was to document the Problems of Heartland America, although it did rather more. It also celebrated the successes of government programs in Heartland America as well as, sometimes, Coastal America. The project was propaganda, it was aimed to document what was arguably truth, but certainly not the whole truth.

Stryker, for several years, executed his photo editing task with the aid of a hole punch, knocking holes in negatives that did not make the cut.

In recent months there has been a resurgence in the notion that this was a horrid and barbaric practice. The quote that gets passed around, because it appears in the 2009 article about this, is from Edwin Rosskam who was not an FSA photographer, although he was married to one. The quote dates from 1965, 25 years or so after the last hole was punched. Rosskam is against the hole punch, considers it "barbaric."

Let's set a little context.

In the 19th century the idea of a negative that is the underlying canonical representation of a photograph did not exist. Negatives did, to be sure, but many photographs were made as unique objects (tinytypes, calotypes, and so on), or as composites. Until the advent of panchromatic film (1913), you couldn't really shoot a nice looking land+sky picture without compositing, for one thing. Somewhere around the turn of the century the negative becomes truly dominant and that idea that behind every photo there is a negative, which represents the unaltered thing, begins to take shape. Somewhere in here the idea that negatives ought to be squirreled away safely begins to come to the fore.

Since then, we seem to have followed an unwavering trajectory toward increasingly fetishizing the negative. Ansel Adams rambles on more or less endlessly about "archival processing" so that our negatives and prints can last for 100s of years, and this seems to have spawned endless legions of bozos who strive to preserve their pictures. I recall seeing a guy say that he didn't use stop bath, only water, as he felt that the sudden change in pH would hurt the longevity of his negatives. No, he's not a chemist, and yes, his pictures are awful. His negatives are going straight into the trash when his heirs sort out his estate.

And now people buy triple-redundant RAID offsite backup bullshit for their increasing 100s of 1000s of RAW files which they will never look at and never print.

So here we are in the modern world with our idea that every negative must be preserved for eternity, looking back on that one. No surprise that we look back, aghast, at defacing negatives.

Added to the simple fetish material of the thing, there is surely the worry that Stryker, as a professional propagandist, was altering the record to fit his vision. So, let's look and see.

A recent article on petapixel suggests searching the FSA/OWI archive for "Negative has a hole punch" to find the digitized negatives with holes in them. Clicking through to one of them, we note that the archive also has a handy "look at the photos near this one by call number" link, so we can browse around photos from the same roll of film, the same batch of sheets.

Do not confuse this with actual research, this is just me poking at a dozen or so hole-punched pictures:

Holes were mostly punched in dupes, or alternate views of the same scene. Sometimes they seem to be punched in every instance of scenes which add nothing (yet another heap of bricks at the abandoned brick factory, this heap particularly dull). Occasionally these seem to be off-script (a picture of a mansion mixed in which pictures of poor farmers). The last can certainly be construed as altering the record to fit Stryker's narrative, and these pictures do exist.

So, to be clear, Stryker does seem to have altered the record. But perhaps not much.

Let us recall, or perhaps learn for the first time, that Stryker sent his photographers into the field with shooting scripts. He told them, clearly and up front, what story they were to get. For the most part, they went and got that story. Whatever altering of the record Stryker did with the punch was as nothing compared to work he did managing his team. The most obvious off-script negative I stumbled across was in fact clearly "off-script" in a very literal way. It appeared to me as a grab-shot, a personal photo taken on company time, as it were. It was also a jarring, contradictory, fact inserted into a quite different narrative.

So what do we have here?

In context, we have a fairly new idea, perhaps a couple of decades, that the negative is fundamental. It's not at all clear to me where we are in the spectrum of "negatives are disposable plates which we smash when the edition is sold out" and "negatives must be preserved at all costs in bomb-proof vaults", but surely somewhere in the middle, and certainly not in the modern era. We have a guy who's editing out what are, essentially, duplicates and very occasional photographs that he'd instructed against in the first place.

In terms of some sort of basic barbarity, I think the idea of the negative as sacrosanct was present at the time, but relatively weak. Opinions no doubt varied, but it's unlikely that most of the photographers cared all that much. Very little material was actually lost, and often the information lost in the hole can be reconstructed from surrounding frames. Not always, but often.

Also, I think that the idea of the sacrosanct negative is stupid. I am always somewhat relieved when a computer accident relieves me of a bunch of files. Of course, also a little sad and worried as I was raised on a diet of The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, but also relieved. Nobody is going to preserve my work, and then should not. Even if I become, mysteriously, famous and wealthy toward the end of my life, I'd prefer that, in death, I would make room for new voices rather than take up space for all eternity.

In terms of the propagandist altering of the story, the effect of the hole punch, while present, seems to have been extremely minimal, and surely among the weakest of the tools Stryker used to control the story. If you're going to complain about propaganda (and you should) this seems rather small potatos.

In short, the hole punch thing is real, but pretty minor. It's a bit like complaining about de Sade's terrible penmanship.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nobody Cares!

I am watching unfold a handful of discussions online, as usual, and recently I've been seeing a particular breed of photographer crop up. These fellows are the guys who are pretty sure that a large format film camera is what they needed all along to make their pictures awesome. They're wrong, of course.

What's interesting to me is that I remember being that guy. I still own a large format camera, and keep meaning to get it out. But somehow it never happens.

The discussions have the usual back and forths about the superiority of film (no! the resolutions and ranges of dynamic stops and and) but what it always seems to boil down to is some vague notion of feel. "There's just something about..." is a phrase oft repeated in several variations.

Here's the thing. Outside of certain obvious clues which are easily managed if you know what you're doing, you cannot tell. It is not even hard to take a digital photo and edit it into shape to appear like film. Large format film has no special creamy tonality, it just has very fine grain and, potentially, some interesting properties in the field of focus. Those giant 8x10 negatives with all their incredible detail and beautiful color rendition and choirs of angels? You can do that all with a good modern digital camera, except for the angels. Angels are notorious for hating on the digital.

All the amazing properties of film vanish when you start blinding the tests, as long as you avoid the obvious giveaways (which are either errors, or not properties of film vs. digital).

More to the point, nobody cares what medium you used. What they care about is content, invariably. Over "basically pretty sharp" the only people who care how sharp your picture is are other photographers, and not the interesting ones. Beyond "skin looks like skin, sky looks like sky" ditto for color rendition. As for "tonality" I don't even know what that means, and nobody else does either. It appears to be a bullshit term used by photographers to mean "special properties that only very sensitive people like me can see and I can't explain it to you because you are a philistine but it is super important. trust me.'

I've said it before and will, no doubt, repeat myself. The reasons for using film, be it large format or otherwise, have zero to do with the technical properties of the medium. The reasons are, nonetheless, excellent. If you prefer to use film, then you should definitely use it. It does not change the pictures, but it changes you, and of the two, you are the more important one.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Khadija Saye, Again

This young woman keeps popping up with people doing vigils and remembering her in this way and that, so she remains in my consciousness. I went and looked at the tintypes that were her last project before she was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire.

With the ideas of Orientalism fresh in my mind, I took a slightly different perspective on these pictures, which you can review yourself over here.

Edward Said gives us this idea, echoed widely and now essentially standard thinking, that the people best able to tell us about anything that is different from our own experience are those people who have lived that life. In this model, Khadija Saye is the perfect spokesperson for the immigrant Gambian community. Born in London of a Gambian-born mother, she has lived exactly the life that informs the tintypes that have been so breathlessly praised.

The point of this way of thinking is that when the wrong people speak on behalf of others, they get it wrong. Specifically in the case of Africa, white people are prone to cast the continent as a dark and mysterious place, beyond normal human comprehension, filled with savagery and war. Or, you know, something like that. Which white people most certainly do. There is a practically unbroken history of this, while I do not pretend to know Africa even slightly, I do know that this picture of the continent cannot be anything like complete or usefully similar to "accurate." While I suppose that all these things occur here and there, Africa is a big place, and I dare say that quite a lot other happens there.

So what's going on with these bloody tintypes?

My first thought upon looking at them, I will admit, is "this is staged bullshit, she's just making up mysterious-looking nonsense" which is, of course, wildly uncharitable of me. There's no evidence that these pictures are anything other than what she describes them as, as we should accept her statement as entirely factual.

Dwelling: in this space we breathe is a series of wet plate collodion tintypes that explores the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices and the deep rooted urge to find solace within a higher power.

According to the official model, Saye is properly empowered to speak to us, to characterize these things for us. But what has she done? This work is not revealing, it is not communicative. It is a view through a tiny pinhole, which serves almost exclusively to emphasize the wall between us (Europeans, Americans) and the African Immigrant Experience.

I cannot speak to the actual motivations of the artists, but the use of the tintype seems to support an other-worldliness. The lack of explanation, the murkiness of the pictures themselves, creates a complete opacity. These are not even things one can google up, the religious practices of Gambia are in broad strokes Sunni Muslim, but we don't even know if Saye's pictures are the Gambian Immigrant variant of the islamic rituals, or if they're based in one of the minority religious groups in Gambia. The rituals we are looking at are not even the Gambian variant which we might have a hope of discovering, but are the migrated versions of them.

In short, the source material is something we're extremely unlikely, as people outside Saye's religious community, to be able to make sense of without specific help from someone like Saye. Her pictures could hardly be better designed to support and enhance this opacity, this complete mysteriousness.

I think a strong argument could be made that, deliberate or not, there pictures support a distinctly unhealthy narrative, one of a mysterious and unknowable continent, a community beyond our understanding. An unhealthy narrative that Said would remind us is designed to support an idea of Africa as a continent we can legitimately colonize, dominate, exploit. One can contest the thesis the the design is deliberate, but the result seems to be unquestionable. The fact that we now do our colonizing through charitable aid organizations and whatnot doesn't really change that picture much.

I think then that a further argument could be made that it is not at all surprising that the Euro Art community fell over themselves to laud these pictures, but ignored the rather more accessible work that preceded it.

These pictures for instance are recognizable as islamic prayer rituals, which a roughly judeo-christian person like me can grasp in relationship to our own prayer rituals. The colors of the people and the fabrics tell us that this is something not quite the same as the islamic prayers we have perhaps seen from the Arab nations, but we can follow the breadcrumbs and make some sense of it. We have a path that leads us into the work. We gain a little insight into the Gambian Immigrant Religious practices because we have that path into this new place. Yes, it's superfical "like that Arab business, only more colorful" is pretty lame, but it's something. It's a start.

The tintypes seem to deliberately deny us any path of access.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shooting Scripts

Lewis Bush recently asked the world if anyone still used shooting scripts, which I kind of do, and it raised in my mind what I considered an interesting philosophical point.

Set aside the entire universe of pictures that are obviously constructed: still lifes, much studio work, and so on.

Contemporary thinking, I think, suggests that the photographer should first go out and photograph, in order to learn what is there. One might think up a project "The Oil Industry in South America" based on some notions and some research, but then one sets those notions aside and goes to learn what is truly there, with the camera. A great number of photographs are taken, and the artist returns home. Then the truth, or a truth, or the story, is gleaned out of the photographs and distilled into a show, or a book, or a portfolio of some sort.

We see this reflected here and there. Most recently I saw it in Colberg's book on Photobooks, in which he proposes that the normal path, the correct path, is to start with a completed project and then to go to work on the book. Shoot first, build the narrative, the project later.

The shooting script, at least in its full form, suggests that the photographer is approaching the work of taking the pictures with preconceived ideas, with the story already in place. Roy Stryker supplied his FSA photographers with shooting scripts, because he did have a story in mind. He probably thought it was a true story, but he was a propagandist, and there is no doubt that his scripts sometimes led his photographers to, well, less true stories. At best, other stories that might have been told were not told, at worst stories were simply fabricated from parts.

My life constrains me. I am the primary caregiver, as the kids say these days, to two small children. I cart them to and from school, and I cook, I clean, I pack lunches, I walk the dog, and so forth. I don't have time to go out and discover the truth with the camera. I don't have time to take 10,000 frames of something or other, and then sift that down to the 37 pictures that encapsulate The Truth about the something or other. Wish I could. Can't.

Shooting scripts make the photographer vastly more efficient. I needn't hunt around trying to discover what I am trying to say, I already know. I've spent a lot of time observing as I go about the minutiae of my life, I have spent a lot of time thinking as I wash dishes and whatnot. As a consequence, I have a clear idea of what I want to say, sometimes before I take a single picture. Sometimes I fool about taking some random snaps until something occurs to me, but I have a clear notion in mind before the real work starts.

Whatever it is that I am doing, whether I am telling lies, suppressing stories, or telling some kind of truth; whatever the nature of the thing I am saying is, I am not discovering it with the camera. I am discovering my work through observation and thinking.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Orientalism, Revolution, And All That

I am reading Edward Said's book Orientalism and finding it almost infinitely irritating. Of course, it specifically sets out to irritate people like me, so I suppose that's a success of sorts. Leaving aside the many criticisms I could offer (and recognizing that it's rather heavy sledding and I am, accordingly, not very far into it), he's got at least one very good idea. My intention is to grab hold of this idea, and to run with it.

Said is interested in the "large structure" of cultural thought, that gestalt of literature, poetry, scholarship, art, politics, and so on. He remarks that it's all interconnected, it all supports itself in a vast self-referential structure. Any individual item, let us say a poem, is simultaneously a symptom of the intellectual system of which it partakes, and a supporting part of that system. Said is largely interested in the ways Euros say mean things about Islam, and points out that things like a speech made by a British Colonial administrator both help to construct the system of thought, as well as being a natural product of that system.

This is, if not purely a restatement of remarks I have made in the past, at any rate related. I have talked about the gradual drip of change, the continuous stream of say, photographs out of Vietnam which helped to but did not ultimately generate the political shifts that ended the US involvement in that conflict. These photographs were simultaneously a symptom of political change in progress, and supported, fueled, that change. History seems to select a more or less random collection of iconic points to identify as "the causes" of the change, but this is, I feel, in error.

With this framework in mind, I have reconsidered my occasional forays in to "foreign" photography. I was disappointed with the Archive of Malian Photography, but I see now (I think) that I was foolish to hope for some instantly recognizable Malian-ness to the pictures. Of course the pictures look vaguely western, photography originated in the west and was extensively practiced in the west before it got to Mali. Of course the Malian photographers and subjects will follow, roughly, the model available to them. After all, to them no less than to us, this is what photography is. It looks like that.

Additionally, of course, photographs look like pictures of whatever's in front of the camera, and there will be a certain sameness built in there. It's not like photography uses uniquely Malian pigments or brushwork. It's all indexical representations of whatever was in front of the lens.

Anything essentially Malian about this body of work will have to emerge from the gestalt. Those structures of thought, of culture, that make up whatever it is that is essentially Mali (insofar as that even makes sense) will not reveal themselves in a single gesture, a single picture. It is a basic human fallacy to imagine that a foreign culture is revealed in a handful of colorful costumes, a poem or two, and perhaps a charming dance. It is not more sensible to imagine that a handful of photographs will reveal Mali, somehow. Indeed, because photography is so imbued with western-ness, such an idea is even sillier. If I want to find Mali, or South Africa, or Vietnam, or Poverty, or Swing Dance in photographs, I will need to look at a bunch of them and I will need to take time with the context that wraps around them.

This photograph:

by Alfonso Iannelli was presented in a forum as "not needing words" to grasp. My response was that it is easy to grasp precisely because we're seen an enormous number of these pictures, accompanied by a lot of words. The picture is, transparently, an execution of the FSA style, and as such is trivially read as American Poverty, Depression Era, Southern. This is, it happens, more or less correct. But we can read it as such only because it exists in the shadow of an enormous body of propagandist work created under the direction of Roy Stryker, specifically to create that big structure, that Idea of America, that would support the FSA's mission. This photograph is a consequence of (a symptom) of the labors of the FSA photographers, and it also supports and expands that same Idea of America.

Walker Evans would never have printed this one, he'd have used another frame where the dog is more fortuitously positioned, but it is clear that Fons Iannalli was copying Evans and the FSA work. ETA: Dog? What dog? Good lord, what was I thinking? The child in the middle ground, half-lying, hiding her face (note the reference to Migrant Mother here) looks sort of like a dog, and she is by golly really badly positioned, but she's not a dog despite the accidental resemblance of certain features.

The FSA's photographic work is, in small, much like the system of thought Said names as "Orientalism", in that it is a self-consistent, self-referential, body of work that represents an idea of something. Said's point is that the map is not the territory, and that the idea represented is not the thing itself (again, this is the sort of thing that excites the undergraduate mind omg the thing and the reference to the thing are different omg omg).

To grasp an Idea of Mali, one needs not a handful of pictures, but a complete body of work. But even that will not be Mali, it will be merely an Idea of Mali. Alas, this is about as good as it gets. It turns out that we can no more fit Mali physically inside of our heads than we can The Orient, so there it is.

Which leads around finally to the Revolution promised in the title.

I am currently engaged in a long term project, the same long term project many of us "lefties" are engaged in. We perceive a problem with global wealth, with capitalism as it exists today, and so on. We're unhappy with the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and we feel that it is doing a great deal of harm. There's a lot of stuff going on, lots of unhappy people grumbling in one way or another.

People tend to seek the single big push, the one action of set or actions that will produce victory. Go on this one protest march! Impeach Trump! Write your congressmen!

There is no decisive battle. Indeed, it's not clear that victory is even a meaningful concept here. All of these actions are symptoms as well as supporting structures of a set of ideas, a system of thought, an intellectual construct which involves less capitalism, more social justice, etcetera and so on. A gestalt of ideas, roughly (but only roughly) agreed upon across the board. This construct is in competition with others, we can speak of the alt-right Idea of The World, or the Neoliberal Idea of The World, and so forth. Paradoxically, all these competing structures are themselves part of a larger structure, at least the total structure of human thought, and probably something quite a bit smaller. All of these ideas are probably rooted in, are merely branches of, Euro/American exceptionalism, say.

My contribution, I have decided, is to write books and take pictures. My goal is simply to add, in another medium, to that large intellectual structure which is the rough set of ideas I roughly agree with. The idea of capitalism controlled, contained. The idea that people's sexuality is perhaps not the government's business. The idea that skin color might be irrelevant to anything except how to light a portrait. Hence, my little book on San Francisco, and perhaps other similar little booklets in future.

My goal is not to provide the seminal work that changes everything, the prime mover, the ur-cause. There will be no such thing, in the first place, and in the second place that title will be granted after the fact more or less at random by those who write the histories. The work is done bit by bit, with a little book here, a picture there, a poem over here, a stirring graduation speech from that podium. I just want to do a bit here, a bit there. My books are a symptom as well as a support.

Victory isn't really a possibility in play here. There will be battles and wars, people will die, people will be broken to poverty and raised up to vast wealth, but the edifice of human thought, of human culture, these Ideas of Who We Are, these merely evolve and change, never dying, never holding quite still. One general theme is ascendant, and then another. I merely want to nudge my pet notions upwards for the nonce.

Still, let us hope that the good guys win!

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.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


There seems to be a little spurt of interest around automated photography, of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to replace the human here, in one way or another. All part of the current trend of Rich Idiots in Silicon Valley being interested in AI, I assume.

A little background, speaking as a recovering technologist.

AI is a blanket term for a set of technologies that allow computers to simulate, with varying degrees of crudity, things humans do. Recognize spoken speech, recognize objects in pictures, play chess, solve logic puzzles, and so on. Despite the name, none of these things are "intelligence" in anything like human terms. These are all things I would characterize as remarkably simple, even stupid, algorithms (pieces of software) that produce startlingly, unreasonably, sophisticated results. In this context, "remarkably simple" doesn't mean "simple", it means "a lot less mind-bogglingly complicated than one might think."

Important notes in no particular order: There's no "person" in there in any meaningful sense, and in fact nobody knows how to even get started making a software "person." This does not appear to be a current area of study. The software that turns your spoken words into text has no relationship with the software that plays chess at a Grand Master level. The phrase "neural network" does not mean that the software resembles a brain in any meaningful way, the phrase just means another remarkably simple algorithm (inspired by real neurons) which can produce useful results.

Onwards. Colberg pointed out on twitter this project: Computed Curation. Philppe Schmitt (whoever that is) has bolted together some of the aforementioned AI technologies to make a piece of software that can sift through some photos and sequence up a photobook.

It does a tolerable, if pedestrian, job. The connections appear to be both simplistic and entirely linear. The only points of real interest are places where I suspect the computer has mis-read a photograph. We should also keep in mind that this might be entirely a scam.

Anyways, let us suppose that the software works as advertised. So what?

The point of a creative endeavor is that it is the output of a person, it is the result of intent driven by a lifetime of experience, experience remembered by the unreliable mechanisms of the brain. Without a person, there can be no intent. Without intent, there is arguably no creative output.

Schmitt's book is sequenced, as I noted, but there's no intent. It's obvious in a moment that this is a random string of pictures connected together with superficial visual similarities. The important point here, though, is that this is not a problem that can be fixed. This isn't simply an early version of the software, this is basic to what the software does. There's no place for an "intent" to be generated by the thing, and to get it right you first have to make a software "person" to have the intent.

This is not to say that some clever Johnny won't take a crack at simulating intent with, no doubt, a remarkably simple piece of software. This pseudo-intent, while potentially interesting, isn't actual intent. Remember, there is no ghost in the machine, there's no person in there in any meaningful sense. If it's good enough, I suppose it would say something or other about the nature of Art. If I can establish a genuine-feeling connection with a simulation, then what? It doesn't matter much, I am not much interested in yet another way to Trick The Brain.

An alternative is to provide a way for an actual person to encode an intention, and to have the software produce results based on that intention combined with the usual collection from the AI parts bin. In that case, what we have is another tool for artists to use. Maybe it's interesting, maybe it's not, but at the end of the day it's not much different from premixed oil paints.

Art is distinguished from much of the rest of human endeavor by lacking a well defined endpoint. I can define exactly what it means to win a game of chess, I can measure accurately how precise a speech recognition algorithm is. I cannot define precisely when a piece of Art works, I cannot define precisely when it is Good. Without a well-defined goal, software inherently has problems, and is left to thresh around a bit wildly. Art's result, Art's endpoint, is itself. The goal is in the thing itself, in the process by which it was made, in the human who made it, an an inextricable ball of entangled relationships. This presents a real problem for software.

Our friend Lewis Bush, writing his usual maze of misplaced apostrophes and abused prepositions (or is "A is different to B" actual British usage?) for World Press Photo over here is on the trail of something more interesting.

Journalism isn't Art, and there's no particular reason that algorithms can't do it just fine that I can see. Lewis is just throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall, a random selection of technological works in progress (that are mostly going nowhere) that he's stumbled over in his reading. Lewis, as usual, is fetishizing technology without much understanding of it.

There is real trouble here, though, which as far as I can tell, he's missed completely. Journalism will inevitably shift to accommodate automation. Lewis needs to recall his Sontag: we don't photograph the important things, we make some things important by photographing them.

Automated journalism will reshape the news. If the algorithms can't be taught to reliably make national elections an Important Subject Of News (to pick an example at random) then national elections will cease to be important news. We see this constantly in all walks of life now, the flexible human bends to accommodate the inflexible and stupid computer.

I don't know if we're there yet, but if we're not, it's very very close: Facebook's robots will select for us which pictures are interesting, and those will be the ones we see. A combination of algorithms and crowd-sourcing will select for us what to look at. It is literally inevitable.

News and journalism do suffer from the lack of endpoint problem that Art has, the difference is that it doesn't matter (in the current zeitgeist, anyways). Anything will do for news, now, as long as it generates the clicks. So, in fact, it has always been. News was whatever got the troubadour paid, news was whatever shifted newspapers, news was whatever got you to watch the TV, and now news is whatever gets the clicks. Still, there were humans in the loop, and ideas about what journalism "ought to be" which now and then got a little play. Algorithms will remove that entirely. The engineers will get it good enough to pull the clicks, and then stop, because that's what engineers do.

You can argue, I think, that Art currently also has to "nobody cares" problem, and that therefore software that does a shabby job of simulating artistic intent will do just fine. You might be right. Not sure the Art Market will put up with that for very long. They don't put up with anything for very long. The relentless pursuit of the novel will push the computer aside in due course, in favor of some new variant of the facile fast-talking young turk with a new story and a new My Sad Project project.

For journalism, perhaps there is space, suddenly, for a revival of Life magazine in some new, contemporary form. People are, thankfully, a cutely aware of the fact that Facebook is running their lives, that Facebook is skewing what they see in order to sell them stuff.

Prepare for some backlash! I don't know what it will look like! I hope it will be fun!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sequencing: Spreads and Gutters

I've been thinking about the two page spread, the sort of "atom", or smallest indivisible unit of the photobook, and looking at what people have done with them.

The most obvious remark one can make is that, since the 2-page spread is (basically) what we "look at" each spread needs to function as a unit, somehow or another. You can make a (strong) analogy with composing a picture, since in a very real sense that is what you are doing in laying one of these out. The spreads, of course, have to work with one another, from one spread to the next, from the first one to the last.

The standard approach is to reduce the 2-page spread to a single picture. Usually, this is printed recto with the verso either blank, or carrying accompanying text. A title, a poem, whatever you like. Less often, we see single pictures printed across the gutter. Perhaps a full bleed spread, or something else.

If the author chooses to place more than one photo in a spread, the most common design is one photo recto, another verso, with the two pictures echoing one another in some way. Similar graphical design, similar textures, similar subjects, similar tonalities or colors. This is the easy way to make them "work together" to create a coherent spread.

Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye is a remarkable example of this. Each spread contains, often, two or more pictures, and is its own little world. Sometimes it's a group of 5 pictures of hands. One places one of Evans's torn movie posters with ruined faces looking to the left, against Lange's Funeral Cortege which features a face in a window, again looking left. There's not a lot going on from one spread to the next, but Szarkowski manages to make each spread amazingly coherent on several levels.

I don't see any particular reason that one could not as well use contrast rather than similarity, but whatever one does, one needs to be cognizant of the rest of the book. If you make verso a high key portrait, and recto a murky architectural study, well, that says something. It's not "together" so you will need it to make sense some other way, in the context of the book.

Indeed, in all cases, one needs to keep in mind the needs of the book. Szarkowski has the luxury of making a survey, so one spread need not particularly related to the next, except in the sense of fitting the larger theme set in each chapter of his book.

It occurs to me that a real tour de force would be to create one theme on the verso pages, and a second theme on the recto pages, while simultaneously making each 2 page spread function on some fashion or another.

About the gutter.

I learned something from Sally Mann's Immediate Family about the gutter and its use. Mostly we consider the gutter a nuisance, a place where content goes to die. Print across the gutter if you must, but try to avoid having important picture elements drop into it.

Mann does something quite different. Most of the book is 2 picture spreads, one recto, one verso, with some strong relationship between the two. Now and then, we get a single photo. Often, it is printed recto with the verso blank. Then we get a handful of single pictures printed across the gutter. Mann can perfectly well just print things recto, she does this a lot, so, what the hell?

The answer is that she's embracing the gutter, which is bloody genius as far as I can tell. I swooned.

If a picture divides neatly into two, she prints it across the gutter with the gutter cutting it at the right spot. Three pictures for the price of one. In a couple of cases, she seems to be, rather, indicating an alternate crop, "take the whole thing, or if you prefer, just take the recto" which is 2 for 1, not quite the bargain, but still a nice price.

Anyways, the big lesson here is that printing across the gutter does not require that the picture be placed symmetrically. The gutter can fall wherever you like, so use it, drop that strong vertical element into the right spot.