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.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Trend?

Perhaps a trendlet?

I've run across several bits and pieces of Modern Art, or references to Modern Art, or whatever, which take the general form of the artist refusing to admit that there's a concept behind the Art. "The meaning is fluid" or whatever seems to be the catch phrase. One collection on display right now in Vancouver is literally random detritus glued to a table, with the meaning "fluid" and "open to the viewer to interpret" or something. Which tells me "we glued a bunch of shit to a table and have no idea what it means either, fuck you, sucker."

We also see this in a fair bit of the sort of amateur-hour political art that is in vogue in some circles. "My practice deploys multiple media to interrogate the various aspects of the Corporatist Stateoid Mechansism" or whatever.

There is a certain vague sense to it. 200 years ago Art was largely about technique, artisanal skills. It was assumed, I think, that there were ideas and concepts and so on, but that was basically just assumed. Then we get photography and that leads more or less directly to conceptual art, where the work, the skill, is basically nil. The idea becomes dominant. Art is no longer about skills, it's about ideas. Naturally the next thing to do would be to jettison ideas.

The begs the question of what the hell Art's about now, and I think there's a real problem here.

Secondarily, though, we see a related problem.

We've all taken that picture of grandma, which has so much meaning to us. When we were naive and young, we probably didn't see why everyone didn't see what a powerful photo it was. Everyone else just saw a kind of blurry photo of some old lady they didn't know, after all.

In much the same way we have naive young artists taking, I don't know, a bunch of pictures of refugees. Because they are good lefties, they see a Powerful Political Statement here, and assume that everyone sees the same. It's obviously an indictment of the anti-refugee policies of The State, or of the policies that created the refugee crisis, or whatever.

The trouble is that it's not obvious at all. The Artist won't take a position, he or she insists on just documenting the thing. Positions, ideas, concepts, opinions, those are all so last century. We're in a post-conceptual world now, and Art is just printing out a bunch of appropriated pictures and letting the meaning be "fluid." Sure, your friends all get it, because they're basically little clones of you, with your same simplistic leftie politics, they'll recognize all of it and they will applaud you for your Powerful Work.

This, unfortunately, leaves things too open. Plenty of people in this world look at a bunch of refugees in a camp, or drowned on a beach, or whatever, and say "good idea! Send 'em back!" and plenty of people see the tools of The State and say "hooray, we're very powerful!" and so on.

If you don't, as an Artist, make your opinion, your concept, clear, then the critics will gabble on about "fluidity" instead of repeating the position (and then judging you based on it, to be sure, but they'll start by stating your case). If the critics don't state your case, then the only thing that has a chance of leaking into the wider culture is the raw "documentation" you have so cutely put together, and everyone who runs across it will interpret it according to their own lights.

This completely de-weaponizes Art as a tool of change.

Colberg, unfortunately, missed out on a lovely chance to get in to this. His most recent piece reviewed Generation Wealth, which seems to be one of the patented modern "just the documentation" pieces, with very little opinion stated by the author (although one cannot be sure, Colberg, infuriatingly, turns the bulk of the piece into a boring paean to his own sensitivity and forgets to tell us much of, well, anything about the bloody book). This could be usefully, I think, compared to the work of Gordon Parks (which he reviewed the week before).

I admit that Colberg might not be aware of this, it's not clear that the Parks book makes it at all clear what Parks was up to. A book of the photographs of Parks seems about as useful and sensible as a book of Shakespeare's verbs, but there you have it. I assume Colberg has done at least as much work as my trivial poking around, and is aware that Parks a) stated opinions and b) fomentend change, while modern efforts to do the equivalent to the modern oligarchy are mysteriously stalled out.

Anyways. I'm not blaming the academic artists for all the world's problems, but I do think that the ones that persist in not making their position clear aren't helping really at all. Their work is more or less by design not powerful at all. It is completely toothless.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Those Damned Iconic Pictures

I keep coming back to this. The single iconic photo, and its power. Or, really, lack thereof.

I noted in my previous remarks that, somehow, we seem to associate Single Iconic pictures with social changes that occurred before the picture was taken. This, I chalk up to memory effects, the fact that we tend to remember the last thing on a list, the more recent occurrence.

Noodling on it more I think there's also a process of rationalization. We want simple answers, pat answers. We want strong reasons.

I believe in anthropogenic climate change. Not that I want to debate it, but there it is. I suspect that the reason I believe in it is because Al Gore made this movie, which I found convincing. Why was I convinced? Not because the movie is air-tight. In fact it is precisely the sort of well-crafted self-consistent set of things that so often turn out to be bullshit. Did I check any of the scientific facts presented in the film? Nope. Are all those facts even true? Probably not.

I believed the film for essentially emotional reasons. It had the general shape of a strong argument, but more importantly it appealed to my peers, my politics, my history. In short, Gore's film is an effective piece of propaganda. Never mind whether it's true or not.

Over the years since, I have continued to rationalize my belief. The media has not had a Big Reveal that it's all bullshit, in fact the story remains more or less consistently the same. My experience teaches me that this further suggests that it's basically right, in some sense. Kennedy probably was not assassinated by the CIA, and Climate Change is probably a real thing.

True or not, the reasons for my belief are in fact muddy and emotional. All my rhetoric about science and media is merely window dressing, rationalization.

In a similar way I think we seek to rationalize and simplify reasons for changes we see in society, and sometimes those rationalizations crystalize around a picture, or a couple pictures (or a book, or a movie, etc). The US military adventure in Vietnam ended for a wild array of interlocking reasons, one large one being public outcry, a total collapse of public support. The reasons for that outcry, that collapse, are also myriad, interlocking, muddy.

But we like our history simple, so we seize on a simpler version: The US withdrew from Vietnam because of public outcry against the war which was in turn driven by Nick Ut's picture of a naked little girl on fire.

It's rationalization and simplification. The public outcry was driven by a bunch of factors, including but not limited to a steady, apparently unending, drip of media coverage of the war and its atrocities.

Worth noting: I am not the only person who thinks this. The Pentagon, manifestly, agrees. They're very carefully managing the steady drip of media coverage. We know almost nothing about the many dozens of adventures they are currently having abroad, and what little we hear is largely positive (we are heros!) or dramatic (a few of our boys and a helicopter died doing a Super Important Thing). There's nothing of the venal, stupid, dirty, bullshit that is 99.9999% of "warfighting."

A few Abu Ghraib's don't matter, it turns out, though everyone in The Media was pretty sure that one was the Napalm Girl moment that would spell the end of US involvement in Iraq. Oops. Not so much.

And all of this of course, is rationalization for my purely emotional belief that photobooks are the greatest thing ever and the fine print is a dead end. How's my propaganda campaign working for you?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Photos/Social Change/Gordon Parks

I've been doing a little light reading to fill in at least a little background on Gordon Parks. It's obvious that while his name rang no particular bells, his work has its boot prints all over me and my life. And that's not at all a bad thing.

While it is by no means clear to me that his photographic work was particularly seminal or important in the history of photography, it is crystal clear that he's socially, culturally, very important. He did a lot of work on race in America, and it is at least credible to say that he was very influential on that front. He took pictures, he wrote, he made movies. He composed music and poetry. He was, obviously, some kind of freakish polymath.

Let's start out by saying that he worked for Roy Stryker at the FSA/OWI, and then later at Standard Oil. This was a relationship that went on for 5 or 6 years. Not a long time, but enough. Stryker was a propagandist, plain and simple, and he was a good one. This does not mean that I disapprove of Stryker, particularly. When I say "propaganda" I mean it in a neutral way, you could as well say "strong story-telling" and it would mean more or less the same thing. What I mean is that Stryker was expert at -- it was literally his job for 15 years -- shaping a visual story to suit an end. There is no doubt that Parks learned from Stryker, and indeed it shows in the rest of his career.

To be quite clear, let me state it baldly: this is propaganda that the USA was in sore need of, and I am pleased as anything that Parks was able to do it.

There is this enduring idea that single iconic photos change the world. If you're me, you have some vague notions of this sort:
  • Nick Ut's picture Napalm Girl ended the Vietnam War.
  • Ansel Adams's photos of Yosemite led to the National Park System.
  • Gene Smith's picture of Tomoko halted pollution in Minamata.
None of these things is actually true. All of these pictures were taken more or less at the end of the events leading up to the result. More on that in a moment.

What actually changes this is a gradual normalization of ideas, a gradual shift in identity. While things are not perfect by any means in the world, we have shifted over the last 60-70 years. Corporations still pollute, but the general social consensus is that, when they do, they're evil, they're perverse. Racism is still pervasive, but again, the rednecks who do overtly racist things are evil weirdos. What we collectively, generally, consider "normal", has changed. Homosexuality, recently considered evil and perverse, is now rather more broadly considered normal.

Society, now as always, contains a complete spectrum of ideas. Change is not a mass exodus from one ideology to another, but is shift in where the median lies. Behaviors and ideas once considered normal, or acceptable, by most are now considered weird, wrong, by most. Correspondingly, behaviors and ideas once considered weird, wrong, and now normal and acceptable. By "most" people. Every mainstream position from 1980, 1960, or 1150, still has a group of adherents but it's probably smaller than it was in its heyday.

These changes are wrought slowly. LIFE and TIME did a lot of the spade work in their time. Some of the essays Parks did for LIFE are incredible, this is some seriously hot stuff. It's not clear it would be publishable at all today, in our twitchy press environment. It's possible that there is real motion in a retrograde direction now. We certainly see a lot of effort being expended to normalize an anti-Muslim attitude. Using, of course, exactly the same methods.

What Parks seems to have been up to is pretty straightforward, seen through the lens of Roy Stryker's approach to things. He's humanizing The American Negro from a variety of angles. Harlem Gang Leader, Black Muslims, and some ordinary families. I have not read the stories, but I am pretty sure that the narrative is one of normalizing. These are people, first and foremost, with some hopes and dreams and troubles that you, a White American, can identify with, and others that are somewhat mysterious to you.

This is basic stuff. Say some things which are true, which are identifiable, which connect with the reader. Then say some other stuff, the payload if you will. The payload might be true, it might not be. If you're Goebbels demonizing The Jew, your payload is probably some untrue stuff. If you're Gordon Parks trying to humanize The Negro, your payload is probably some true stuff. The mechanism is the same, though. How objectively "true" the payload is doesn't matter.

And then you keep it up. After a while, your readers have the idea that this is normal. They probably think they dreamed some of this stuff up themselves.

This, as far as I know, is the mechanism by which social change occurs. We'd like to think that social change can occur, that we can improve ourselves as a species, as a nation, as a company, as a bowling league, by rational discussion, through reason and common sense. I think that is false. We change collectively when someone has seized the microphone, and is delivering a carefully calibrated message. In days of yore, the microphone was frequently held by religious leaders, tribal leaders, feudal leaders. It's the media, today.

A wrapper of things we know to be true, a generous ladle of things we wish were true, all carrying a payload of things the speaker wants us to believe. A story shaped to gently shove us this way or that, a touch so light we don't really feel it.

It doesn't matter if you're trying to teach soldiers to hate the enemy, or teach white people to accept non-white people as humans, the mechanisms are the same.

Photographs play a huge role here, because they are things we know to be true, in their own peculiar way. But they do not do it through the single iconic picture. They work through the prosaic, the mundane, through repetition. Nick Ut's photo doesn't work because it's unusual, but because it's normal. Perhaps a little more shocking, but by the time Napalm Girl was published, the public had been seeing various horrors from Vietnam for 5 years or more.

I find it fascinating that we (or at least I) tend to associate a picture taken toward the end with the idea that this is the picture that did it, that effected the change. My theory is that, while it's the steady normalizing drip of pictures and words that actually do the work, the one we remember when it's all over is whichever one we saw most recently that was kind of striking. There are some documented memory biases that can have this result, the "Peak-end rule", and the "recency effect" at least.

This does leave open two questions that I think are important:

1. What, if anything, can be done about the pockets of "weirdos"? Is it just a question of keeping the pressure up, and whittling away at them?

2. What about the built-in stuff? An organization can be, for instance, sexist as anything without containing a single person who is sexist. The sexism is baked into the rules, the shared culture, the underlying ideas. Usually it's hidden under various veneers, so that the people in the organization don't even notice it.

Do the same mechanisms apply, perhaps targeted differently? How do I make a photo essay that addresses the fact "we've found that former race-car drivers make the best sales people for our product" almost entirely excludes women from the sales team? And if so, would it work? What social norm can be moved to address these things?

Do pictures work here, too?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


I'm starting to have a problem with Jörg Colberg. His latest piece, a review of Steidl's study edition of the collected work of one Gordon Parks, which you can read here, is a great example. On the one hand, there's some good thoughtful stuff in there.

Everybody can make competent pictures, assuming they spend enough time with their cameras. A competent picture shouldn’t be used as the bar for anything (unless you’re teaching Photo 101). The bar should be higher, and it should be at the height that Parks put it for himself: make pictures that matter. Make pictures that convey a deep sense of urgency, where when someone looks at them even fifty years later they’ll be moved deeply. If you got someone to think that way, now or much later, then — and only then — you’re in business. Gordon Parks can show you the way.

This is basically a little drum I've been beating on this blog for several years (without mentioning Gordon Parks) so, obviously, I approve.

But then, but then. We stumble over Colberg's goofy habit of taking a swing at anything he thinks might be an establishment figure. This time it's Walker Evans, or more specifically, the "cult" surrounding Evans.

To this date, I can’t fully wrap my head around, for example, the Walker-Evans cult (which I will admit I find a bit creepy, too). I mean, I get the man’s importance. But what I don’t get is how there are few, if any, truly critical appreciations of his achievements.

To be honest, I have no idea what he's even asking for. What on earth is a "truly critical appreciation" anyways?

When you see the pattern (Sontag sucks, Steidl sucks, Evans sucks, Frank sucks...) it begins to feel like a litany of "oh, ok, everything that used to be good is shit" which, well, OK then. But you've jolly well got some work to do if you want to make that thesis stick, Jörg, and so far I ain't seeing it.

Then he sticks in his politics (of which we see a lot more on twitter, to our chagrin), which are the same sort of dime-store unconsidered self-contradictory stuff his undergrads no doubt espouse.

For the record, I'm on his side. I'm all for it. Throw the oligarchs out. Eliminate the military, and the corresponding industrial complex. Basic minimum income for all. Hell yeah, and viva la revolución. My family gives a good deal of money to local charities, and I quit my extremely good paying tech-sector job for a complicated mass of reasons, among them I can't stand the Silicon Valley habit of making tons of money selling bullshit, and figuring out the moral issues later, or maybe never.

Here Colberg's discount bin politics manifest in hand-wringing about why Parks isn't in the history books, with an implied "well, it's just racism, obviously" when there is surely the chance that it might be more nuanced than that. Colberg certainly doesn't know. For all I know Beaumont Newhall simply couldn't abide non-whites, but for all Colberg and I know, Parks simply wasn't influential enough. Being good doesn't make you important historically.

Colberg rather makes a point of not knowing (or at least not mentioning?) anything about Parks's actual historical role, so it's not clear to me how he can justify complaining about Parks's absence from the history books.

When you put together the "establishment figures are stupid" with "my politics are left wing and simplistic" you, at least if you are me, begin to recognize a very young person. These are precisely the positions one expects from a 19 year old who just joined the Campus Socialists Club. They are not, unfortunately, what one expects to see muddying the waters in someone's magazine-styled blog of criticism. Hence, my growing unease.

And yes, I am well aware of my role as a Pot here. Hush now.

For the record, the name Gordon Parks meant nothing to me when I saw it on Colberg's blog. It's possible that 20 years ago I was a total fanboy, or actively despised the man, but at present I remember exactly nothing. I take it as given that he was good, and a quick poke around certainly suggests that he was.

But good isn't enough. Being good isn't even relevant.

All that said, Colberg does make some legitimately good general points about what photography is for, what one might aim to do, and how one might distinguish between merely good pictures and important bodies of work. I'd like to see him write a lot more about that.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sequencing III

I am working on a book about Bellingham's Summer, which is a somewhat abrupt and slightly mad time of year. The days are very long, and often very bright. We're sleeping poorly, and furiously trying to get all the Summer in that we can in the few short weeks we have.

Here I experiment with musical themes.

Theme One: the fecund growth of plant life, which we introduce with these pages of morning glories.

The theme of growth and multiplication should be clear, surely? I had thought to have one more page, a 3x4 or a 4x4 grid, that fills the page even more fully than the 3x3, but goodness it's a lot of work to mock these things up.

Once the theme is set, we can reference it by inserting the opening picture of a single tendril.

We can repeat this theme with variations, these two pictures could be substituted in for the first and last pictures, without loss, I think:

Obviously we could mix up the pictures in the collages, or replace individual photos. We could play around with sizes when we recapitulate this theme (or any theme).

Theme Two: photos drawn from the local Farm Market, which is really a sort of weekly fair. A few people making balloon animals, or doing face-painting for kids. Some buskers. A bunch of people selling produce, a bunch more selling made food, and yet another bunch selling candles, art, crystals, and so on. And masses of humans.

These pictures are all the same size, a sort of bass line. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM, of people.

Again, you can obviously swap in any similar pictures without losing the sense of the theme.

Theme Three: The lawnmower. This thing is rotting on the lawn about three houses down from me. I intend to use it in the latter half of the book, representing as it does a cutting down, a decay, an ending. We start with a mild picture of a wheel, with a strong botanical component to echo Theme One, and end on a rather more dissonant shot of the blades.

In this way I visually prepare for the dissonance, the unpleasant departure from what we've seen up to now. These photos are treated differently, and in the final product I expect each theme to have its own toning and contrast profile, to further clarify the point.

In the final book, this theme will probably be introduced in a spread-out fashion, spacing the pictures out by a couple of pages. I might end the book with a recapitulation of the theme, the same three pictures stacked onto a single page, recto, and then turn the page for a final photo of rain/cloud/storm, the gloom of fall closing in.

In closing, an idea for harmony. Here is a variation of theme one, starting partway through a variation on theme two. Imagine this as three pages in a row.

Why would I do this? For fun, of course! And as a way to pack content into pages, and to be, perhaps, appealing and interesting. To express what it is about the Summer in Bellingham? Or if it doesn't do that, well, at least to be absurdly precious.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Two Books on Photobooks

I recently reviewed, in some sense, Colberg's recent book Understanding Photobooks, and shortly thereafter I had commended to me the book by Swanson and Himes, Publish Your Photography Book. I have now read the second one thanks to the generosity of one of my regular readers (thank you, J!). The copy I have is a first edition, not the newer second edition, so bear that in mind.

While I was expecting these two books to cover roughly the same ground, it is immediately obvious to even the inattentive that the titles do not suggest any such thing. And, indeed, they are quite different books. One might say that they do cover roughly the same ground, but the areas of intense focus are almost completely separate.

Colberg's book is aimed at the Serious Artist who wants a design-forward book, essentially an Artist's Book, but printed on an offset press in an edition of several hundred to a few thousand. His book will be most useful to you if this describes you, but it will remain useful to you unless you are very far indeed from that model.

He covers, briefly, the process by which titles are acquired by publishers, but spends the bulk of the book talking about artist-focused issues. Sequencing and editing, the role of design, the characteristics of various bindings, the kinds of issues that arise relevant to the artist in printing, and so on. He talks about marketing, a little bit, but perhaps a little more about markets.

On the other hands, Swanson and Himes are more broadly focused. Their target readers are anyone who wants to publish a book of photgraphs, from the Colberg set to the people who want to make a giant beautiful coffee table book to the entomologist who wants to publish his exhaustive library of focus-stacked bee photographs for his colleagues. Their book is roughly equally useful to all within that spectrum. While the list of topics covered is roughly the same as Colberg's list (with the exception of sequencing and editing -- S&H offer almost nothing on this topic) S&H is much more focused on How To Get Published.

They provide a breakdown of the various roles within a publishing house, they give you worksheets and timelines. They offer detailed suggestions on how to contact a publisher, how to find the right publishers. They give a list of publishers' web sites. They break down, in rather more detail than does Colberg, the nuts and bolts of acquisition, development, manufacture, and sales of photobooks. They also have a somewhat more open view, possibly because they're reporting on a somewhat earlier time, but also surely because they're talking about a broader range of publishers. Where Colberg cautions against one thing (using PoD books for dummies, say), S&H might treat that as a perfectly reasonable choice to approach many publishers with. Both might well be perfectly true within their relevant domains.

Both books emphasize some of the same things. Both are adamant that concept is vital, it is the starting point. Both emphasize the utility of working with physical prints, and physical dummies.

Both are wonderfully vague about how much you, the neophyte artist, can be expected to cough up in up front costs.

As a separate remark, the actual design and construction of the books differs greatly. Normally I don't care about this, but these are after all books about books, so it is perhaps fair to make this comparison. Colberg's book, as noted, feels cheap, and has at least on substantial design flub (white text on a light grey background). Swanson and Himes book, on the other hand, is beautiful, feels luxurious and expensive, and is much better designed. You could argue that they got carried away with white space, I guess, but that adds to the feeling of luxury. The page counts are similar, but the S&H book is twice as thick with only 10% more pages.

S&H uses a fairly heavy page stock, while Colberg's book uses a light, almost magazine weight, stock. Which is, honestly, kind of yuck.

I think Colberg has more words in his book, although the sizes are similar, but S&H give you a much broader range of extended quotations and discussions from a wider variety of industry players. While Colberg gives us a collection of breakdowns of book designs as inserted sections, S&H give us a inserted sections from industry players -- publishers, authors, designers, and so on.

S&H does, after a fashion, echo Colberg's book analyses with a separate chapter of case studies, but their cases are clearly more mainstream books than the ones Colberg highlights.

The S&H book is clearly a useful resource if your mission is to get published. Colberg's book is clearly inferior as a resource if that's what you're looking for. If you want to know how to make a book Colberg has a great deal more information, and might have enough to get you started on the job of actually getting published.

From the books I have read, the perfect combination is surely Keith A. Smith's Structure of the Visual Book together with Swanson and Himes Publish your Photography Book. I would swap in Colberg's Understanding Photbooks in place of Smith's book if you're not much interested in expanding your mind on sequencing and what might be a book. If you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and you're happy to simply depend on a good designer, and you're not looking to make a full-on Artist's Book style of object, Colberg will probably suit you fine. Smith can be slightly heavy going at times.

This, though, is the conundrum. The artists that Colberg wants to talk to most are precisely the ones that probably ought to read Smith instead.

All three books are about the same price, I think. Something like $US30 plus or minus a bit.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Khadija Saye

Khadija Saye was a young photographer killed in the Grenfell Tower fire. There has been an outpouring of grief in the photographic community, with dozens, perhaps 100s, of retweets of the "such a loss, so sad" form.

Interestingly, this vast outpouring of grief generally just copies (automatically?) the same handful of tintypes from a recent show of her work someplace.

I am going to go on the record and say this: I had never heard of her, and I do not believe that most of the grievers had either. In general, they cannot be buggered to even google her and see if she did anything except these tintypes. Even the online "press" (PetaPixel, PDNOnline) simply copies the same pictures. You have to go to her obit on BJP's web site (or, you know, her own damn web site) to see if she did anything else.

I offer no grief here, beyond the general sense that it is always a tragedy when a life is cut short, whether that life had promise or not. Was she destined for greatness? I do not know, and it does not matter. The tragedy is the same whether she was to be the darling of the Fine Art set, or a grocer.

I will say that she did some interesting pictures. Here is her web site. I commend to you especially the Eid project, which works, for me, on several levels. I don't know anything about it. It appears to be a religious gathering, and also a gathering of people from perhaps a shared culture, and also a beautiful study of color. Saye could see, she could edit, she could sequence.

Note the colors of the carpets, of the robes (religious?), of the "street clothes", and on the floor itself. Perhaps this group of people just happens to use the same color palette for everything, but even so, that in itself is a nice observation.

I think her use of color, and her observations of contemporary African-descended peoples, are both much more interesting than some staged tintypes of.. well, of we know not what, honestly, other than the line or two about "migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices" which really tells us nothing.

But your opinion may differ. Regardless of any considerations of your opinion and mine, she at least deserves our attention to all her work if we are to attend to her at all.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Putting the Depth Back

Susan Sontag argued, long ago, that the photograph replaces reality in our mind. Sally Mann echoed this in much more recent book, remarking that where there are photographs, her memories are of the photographs rather than the people. Darren Campion over on his excellent blog spent a little time thinking about Sontag (part 1, part 2) and makes the claim that Sontag is a little too obsessed, and that photography need not do this, that this is just one common way in which photography behaves.

Me? I kind of think it's baked in to photography and the human psyche. It strikes me as basic. It's possible that I am just slavishly doing my best to agree with Sally Mann, though. Anyways, that hardly matters. The point is that photography frequently does behave in this way. The photograph of the thing frequently replaces the thing itself in our mental space.

This is somehow related to Equivalents, although it's not the same thing, but that's not where I am going today.

Consider the "primitive man" to use a no-doubt almost criminal expression. It's so much handier than "humans living long ago, pre-technology, in smaller communities more closely integrated with the world around them" though. These people did indeed live in closer contact to their world. Their worlds were far far smaller than ours, in some meaningful way, and they lived in that world largely without the help of Media. In those communities, a few of which still exist, the answers to the most trivial questions can be infinitely complex, because these people often perceive far more of the interrelated nature of things. The see the web of cause and effect, or relationship, that extends infinitely far in space and time. Where there are gaps, they gloss over with a god or a sprite, but often they have a far more nuanced and detailed understanding of their little worlds.

The modern world is vast. Not just geographically. We have medicine, science, space, planets, other nations, other cultures, machines, and creatures from far away, all available to be understood. After a fashion. To make sense of it all for us, we have the Media, broadly construed. We have handy books and television shows and web features that will tell us about why WWI started (the assassination of the Archduke, of course!) and which will boil damn near anything else we care to learn about down to simple causes and tiny soundbites.

It is inevitable. The world is too vast to be grasped in anything like the way an aboriginal person of 500 years ago might grasp the relationships between certain plants and animals in her environment. We actually need simple explanations for things. "It's Trump's Fault" or Obama's, May's, Merkel's, or Modi's. In fact, this is basically never true. Anything we might conceivably blame on Trump is surely the result of 100s of actions by 100s of players, at least. Trump, at best, it the most recent and most influential of a cast that has been working on this plotline since the beginning of time.

This, incidentally, is why anarchy won't work. People haven't any interest in returning to the narrow, simple, worlds of the past. Burn the media down, and the people will instantly construct another one. We demand simple answers and a complex world. Someone is certain to step up with the answers for us, and as soon as you have a Media, you'll have all the rest of it in short order.

Alright then. The media is an inevitable product of modernity, as well as a supporting structure of it. Photography with its special characteristics is integrated fully into the media, along with everything else. Photography is one of many modes which provides simple answers. It replaces deep understanding, and memory, with the simple picture that shows us The Truth (as whoever is in charge at the moment wishes us to understand it).

I've written a few times about various notions like trame and network, suggesting that Good Photographs should at any rate hint at the external world they're drawn from. I think one might usefully re-frame these remarks as suggesting that the photograph -- while it will inevitably do its dire work of replacing memory -- ought to at any rate replace memory with something that has the same connections outwards to reality as the real memory would have.

The photobook, the essay, can do this far better even than a single photo. If Gene Smith's Minamata does nothing else, it teaches us that this is possible.

My understanding of the tragedies of Minamata is not the real understanding. I cannot grasp it in the way the people who lived it do, nor in the way the later generations living with the outcomes do, nor even in the way a Japanese citizen grasps it. Mine is further removed, mediated through this book. The book, however, by its design, does not encyst a version of The Truth into a neat little package, a small world unto itself. The book, by its design, remains connected to the messy, interconnected reality.

While it would be better, um, in some sense, for me to understand Minamata first-hand, that is impossible. I am the wrong age, in the wrong place, of the wrong parents. A mediated understanding is all that I can have. Better, I think, a mediated understanding of this sort than the other sort, or none at all.

This permits me both the larger world of modernity, with the necessity of Media and therefore Mediation, without the grotesque fallacy of the pat answer, the nifty package of false Truth.

This, I think, is something to strive for.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Photobook as Equivalent

If you've spent any time knocking around the history of photography, you've probably run into Stieglitz's "Equivalents", these pictures of clouds that he claimed were "equivalent" to some emotional state, or something like that. Minor White went on at some length about this idea of "Equivalent", and seems to have considered it fundamental to photography, or at least to the photography he thought worthwhile. It has something to do with the idea that the photograph represents real things, but that upon viewing it evokes something quite different in the viewer. I think it's more than an evocation, though, it is that the viewer seems the picture as a symbol, an embodiment, of what the viewer feels. There is, in short, something like equivalence, natch.

Anyways, this is one of those concepts that has always felt a bit dodgy to me. I've never seen anyone write about it in anything like a clear fashion, which is rarely a good sign.

Minor White seems to think that, whatever it is, it might be pretty personal, pretty subjective (rather than intersubjective!). Everyone might get something different out. White also seems to subscribe to the theory that only some people can do it, that you might need to be specially attuned, or specially trained in order for an Equivalent to work. I find this notion to always be pretty offensive and useless. Art is bullshit if you need to go to night school to "get" it.

So what am I on about with the Photobooks?

When I look at a picture, I can kind of fill in a world the picture lives in from my imagination and experience. I imagine, at least a little, what's outside the frame, what happened before and after. So I fill out things "horizontally", but there's also a "vertical" filling-in. I react to that "horizontally" expanded view of the picture. I might have some emotional response, I might enlarge my mind on a good day, all that sort of thing. However you put it, even a crappy picture probably ripples outwards in several dimensions in my mind. Whether that's an "equivalent" or not, I can't say, but it certainly happens.

Let's suppose that a functioning "Equivalent" is one where that multi-dimensional space of mental ripples is roughly related to what the photographer had in mind, and that the photograph reads as some sort of symbolic representation of those ripples, rather than simply a thing that kicked the ripples off.

I visualize a photograph as a sort of grappling hook the photographer throws toward that whole complicated mental space, hoping perhaps to hit more or less near a specific spot. Weston seems to want to hit the "sex" part of my brain, which is a bit of a cheat because, let's be honest, it's a huge target.

A portfolio gives the photographer many casts of the hook. The idea can become clearer, there's a much better chance of a portfolio of work doing that "Equivalent" thing, surely, whatever it is.

A photobook is one step farther, since it allows the artist to shape the relationship between the photographs. Consider Keith Smith's notion of the book as, really, a single composite picture built up in the viewer's mind by reading the book, present and complete only after finishing the book. The book, considered this way, is perhaps a single cast of a gigantic grappling hook, ideally so large that it cannot help but get a piece of whatever the artist is aiming for.

Of course, it is also multiple casts of the hook, like a portfolio. So, in a way, it gives the artist several different ways to hit the mark.

It's a rough idea at the moment, but I might almost believe in the possibility of a book (or book-like object) of photos behaving as an Equivalent, in a pretty general and accessible way.

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Sequencing

I'm probably going to keep writing about sequencing, which is odd, because I am increasingly thinking that most people who think about it at all overthink it. We treat it like composition "If only" we think "I could get the right sequence, then my work would suddenly be amazeballs." In reality, if you have good content I am pretty sure any sensible sequence is fine. If you have awful content, no sequence will save it.

Colberg's book drags on at length, but is largely concerned with how to get from one picture to the next. Notably, he advocates the "print 'em all out and agonize over it forever" approach, which has the following very interesting consequence:

You can't do repeats. You've only got one print of everything

And once you see that, you see immediately that this approach makes a lot of stuff hard. There's no clear way to visualize collages, or repeats-with-changes (what if I want to foreshadow with an ultra-low contrast version of a picture?)

I think, to be honest, that you need to spend time with the pictures, but more time away from the pictures, imagining things.

Right now, I am thinking about pacing a lot. Keith Smith points out that boring/repetitive material picks up the pace. 10 blank pages in a row would get flipping quickly. 10 identical pictures, much the same. 10 similar pictures with obvious differences, much the same. 10 similar pictures with extremely subtle but important differences -- the exact opposite effect (assuming the reader notices).

Imagine a picture A, with some subtle variations. Maybe A1, A2, A3 are all just successively tighter crops of the same photo while B is a completely different picture. Imagine this series of pages, denoting a blank page with a lowercase b:

A b A1 b b A2 b b b A3 b b b b B

I visualize the pace picking up, faster and faster, even perhaps a little frustration, and then suddenly B appears and the flipping stops. STOP. What possibilities are there in the reader's conception of the relationship between A and B? And how on earth would you imagine this if you were fixated on sorting and re-sorting a pile of physical prints?

What is A1, A2, and A3 were not just tighter crops, but also printed smaller? Or larger? Perhaps B exhibits a radical size change as you flip wildly past A3 and the 4 blank pages after that, as well.

What if B was a repeat of the first picture in the book?

Keith Smith's book is basically 200 pages of this sort of thing. If your mind isn't bigger by the time you're done with it, you are a blockhead.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Clary Estes Again

This young woman writes pretty well, and is thinking about things pretty hard. While I don't agree with everything, and I think she's naive, I also think she deserves to be read more widely.

Read her recent medium piece on photojournalism here.

The Ugly: Why Care?

I've been frothing at the mouth a bit about the ugly side of photobook publishing, notably the pay to play aspects, and one might reasonably ask why one should care. I've asserted that it's bad for Art and one might reasonably ask on what grounds I make that statement.

As an aside, let me clear up one point, and add some information that I have recently learned! It's obvious that not the whole publishing industry is like this. What's less obvious is that the entire photobook industry is not like this. The biggest fellows mainly publish established players, but Aperture at least seems genuinely devoted to finding good new artists and also seems to minimize the pay-to-play (I cite as evidence: I couldn't find anything about pay to play in a quick perusal of their web site, and Colberg doesn't mention them, so, not that strong a case).

One of my readers has done books with a small/boutique publisher that doesn't demand up front payment. That reader has indeed "leveled up" on the strength of those books. So, there is evidence of a system of real publishers out there. They're all muddled up with the fakes, though.

The pay-to-play model for photobook publishing (and, I dare say, other facets of the industry) has a couple of effects that we could do without.

First and foremost it selects artists based on their ability to raise money. The wealthy, the trust-fund-beneficiaries, the expert grant-writers, all bubble upwards (at least within this incestuous little self-licking ice cream cone universe), and none of those things particularly correlate with talent. Indeed, they take away from the work. If you're constantly busy mooching and writing grant proposals, you're probably not doing your best work.

I have seen it argued that this is not a problem, because it has always been this way, and to that I have two responses, the first of which appears in my second point here:

Secondly, it separates the money from the gatekeeping functions, which diffuses the gatekeeping. In the Badde Olde Dayes, you had a Medici who had, well, some sort of taste and a stack of money. He kept the gate, and he paid the money, and there you were. Good or bad, you sure as hell had a coherent vision being paid for. At least, in theory, and sometimes.

These days you have committees of people handing out grants based on who writes the best bullshit, committees who are surely, at least some of the time, deferring questions of taste and vision to... well, someone else. Then you have the publishers, who are struggling to make payroll, pay leases, and who may be more interested in things like book design than photography doing the rest of the gatekeeping function. As I have noted, I suspect that many of these people are unserious people simply playing at it anyways.

In other words, it hasn't always been this way.

The second, and more important, response to the "well, it's always been patrons and whatnot" argument is that in this modern era it doesn't have to be that way any more. I know homeless guys who have 100% of the resources necessary to do a decent book on blurb. They have a phone. They have enough money to buy tape, a blank notebook, and 4x6 prints to make a dummy. They can use the computers at the library to use blurb's online design tool to make their book, and they can get together enough money to buy a handful of copies. Not that they would but the point is that a literal homeless bum in the USA has the necessary resources to do a PoD book.

The system that Colberg endorses, the system that we are supposed to believe is a necessary part of the Serious Art World, turns artists into grant-writers and fundraisers, and then it consigns them to 18-24 months of development hell to get the book finished. All this is effort and time that is taken away from actually making art.

The old patronage system took the explicit form of "You are my chattel, now go do your thing. Probably with a bunch of restrictions and requests and demands, but do your thing." The modern system of grants and competitions which infests photography explicitly gets in the way of doing your thing. You're supposed to constantly attend events, write proposals, and take meetings. A modicum of success means, mainly, more meetings, more events, more proposals, and even less photography.

The single most important thing a would-be novelist needs to do is write novels. Do you want to be an actor? Then go act. Painters paint. Photographers, apparently, fundraise and agonize over how to best use the 7 gatefold pages their budget allows.

No wonder much of the high end photobook market consists of boring monographs by old men and endless iterations of what Mike Chisholm so hilariously characterized as My Sad Project. I'd be pretty fucking sad too, I guess.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Understanding Photobooks: The Ugly

Colberg presents us with a bit of a problem in this book of his. He is unabashedly in favor of traditional publishing, for reasons that he does not make particularly clear, and he is distinctly coy about the down sides.

He explicitly dismisses Print on Demand, repeatedly. He mentions that, in many cases, the photographer may be asked to pay for some of the costs up front when doing a book, but is too shy to mention any numbers. The number you're wondering about is north of $10,000, often considerably north. Let us recall that the up-front out of pocket expenses of PoD are less than $100 unless you are making a very fancy book indeed. Somewhat less than the $15,000 to $50,000 traditional publishers are likely to want.

Colberg is almost as dismissive of self-publishing, claiming that you want to work with a publisher because they know what sells and how to sell it. A few pages later he notes that you'll have done well if you sell 400 copies and don't make a nickle. Which is it, Jörg? Because it sounds to me a lot like these guys haven't got a clue what will sell, nor how to sell it. My evidence is this: They don't sell hardly any goddamned books.

There are people running kickstarters that sell books on this scale constantly. Kickstarters! Not that this route is easy, Colberg points out, correctly, that order fulfillment can easily turn into a nightmare, and you might wind up losing your shirt if you didn't figure out total shipping costs right, but still. Shifting a few hundred copies does not require the services of some magical Euro elf.

Dewi Lewis lays it out for us, although he wisely avoids doing it all in one place. He says, in Colberg's book, that he covers 50 to 60 percent of the $400,000 to $500,000 they spend on production costs each year. That is to say, Dewi is taking between $160,000 and $250,000 a year from the artists to cover production costs. The Dewi Lewis web sites states that they do about 20 titles a year, and also that unless you are an established photographer, you will be asked to "underwrite the risk". Which I think means, roughly, "If you are not Martin Parr or equivalent, you'll be covering the production costs" which begs the question "why on earth would I not self-pub?"

I asked around, and this is in fact basically the situation. Non-famous people pay up front. God knows what the back end of these deals looks like but given that the publishers appear to hold the whip hand, I assume "not great" is a solid guess.

Colberg hints at the real answer, saying that a Real Book might wind up in the hands of a curator, or gallerist, some influencer.

Let me tell you, if I was about to drop $35,000 into the hands of a publisher to do my book on those grounds, I would want some references. I would want to talk to someone who had gotten some success out of a book with MACK or Dewi Lewis on the colophon. My guess is that after I demanded references they'd simply stop talking to me, but who knows?

Colberg has about 21 quotes from publishers in the relevant section of his book, and two from an artist (and those deal with how tough it was to do distribution of a very successful self-published book). Nothing on "I published with Steidl and the next day Larry Gagosian wouldn't stop leaving me messages" for instance. Colberg teaches in an MFA program, surely he knows some artists.

So what's going on?

Well, nobody's getting rich. Dewi Lewis is probably selling 10,000 books a year, grossing, I dunno, half a million bucks or so. He's also taking $200,000 or thereabouts off of artists, for revenues of something under a million, which is covering the production costs and a few salaries. I could be off by a few thousand books, a few $100,000, but no matter how you slice it nobody's getting rich.

Here is another small datum. Colberg says that some publishers won't look at a PoD book dummy. I cannot imagine a legitimate reason for this, but it is easy to imagine bad reasons. "You have blurb on you, you are corrupted." At least some of these people don't want you messing about on blurb et al, and one cannot help but imagine that it's because they would prefer that you not discover that PoD is actually good enough for many projects.

What they are doing is having a good time pretending to be publishers.

Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!"

The difference between this and a proper Vanity Press is that these guys are pretty pretty princesses who will often still say no if they don't much like your project. Unfortunately, what they like is often un-sellable garbage.

What I suspect is actually going on here is that there is a substantial ecosystem of Artists, Designers, Publishers, Editors and So On who all work for one another part time, and who publish one another's books as well as the books brought to them by the marks. One of the books Colberg discusses in detail is authored by one person, designed by another, and these two show up elsewhere in Colberg's book as the designers of someone else's book. I think we're looking at a community of a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who wear various hats and who are eking out a living here. A few of them, one assumes the publishers, seem to be doing OK. Presumably they pay themselves the largest salaries, after all, they are the boss.

Somebody gets a grant, borrows a bunch of money from mum, or just saves their pennies from the waitressing job for 20 years, and scrapes up some cash. This goes into the system to support it. Occasionally, some books are sold as well. Well, that's not fair. Dewi Lewis makes 2/3 of his revenues from selling books, which in the absence of other information we might as well take as the benchmark.

So, as a first swag, the Proper Publisher business is supported 2/3 from selling Martin Parr and a handful of other well known names, people who are already famous, and 1/3 extraction of cash from hopefuls, who are wishing desperately that the book will open the right doors.

Probably there is also a set of galleries and whatnot, the same blokes, who will in fact perk up when they see you have a book with Dewi Lewis. So in fact dropping the $35,000 or whatever to do the book probably does actually open these doors. Is it opening doors because you are a proven fundraiser who might be good for another touch? Or, is it opening doors because Michael Mack signed off on your work and so it might actually be good?

Probably a bit of both.

Either way, it's a pretty scandalous business, fairly seedy, and quite bad for artists. It forces the un-famous author into the role of fund-raiser, grant-writer, penny-pincher, mom-can-I-borrow-50,000. Then it runs that un-famous author through a lengthy process of editors, designers, and other helpful experts who will stick their nose into the project over the course of up to two years.

Now, I like collaboration. I approve of it. Being stuck endlessly toiling on a single project with an every-changing cast of collaborators, not all of my own choosing, and who I am increasingly invested in getting along with no matter what, well, that doesn't sound like fun. When you're in it to the tune of $30,000 of mom's money, and 12 months of effort, when the publisher trots out this new friend of his who's a designer, what are you gonna do?

What if you just don't like this guy? What if you think this guy's ideas are shit, are ruining your vision?

You got the strength to fire him anyways, to push back? I dunno. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. It's a tough spot to be in, and while it might not happen to you, it sure as hell happens to someone now and then.

Colberg is colluding with this system. His book is, explicitly, a how-to manual for entering this system in the role of "sucker".

Colberg explicitly and repeatedly urges his readers to avoid PoD and to avoid self-publishing. He explicitly advocates for the system I have described above, while simultaneously painting it in mildly rosy colors.

I won't go so far as to say that Colberg's view of things is a lie, or even wrong. It is distinctly biased and incomplete.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Understanding Photobooks, Jörg M. Colberg

The short review is that this is a complete primer on the production of a commercial book, from the point of view of the Serious Artist who wants to publish a book with a Serious Publisher. As such, it seems to me a pretty good resource, with a few issues. As you diverge from the Serious Artist/Serious Publisher model, the usefulness of the book drops. However, even if you're hand-building a 1-copy edition of an Artist's Book (roughly the exact opposite model) you may well find something of use in this book.

I approve of much of what he says. I learned several things about book publishing, which was a surprise to me. Colberg recommends things like "make physical book dummies (mockups), in fact, make a series of them" which strikes me as excellent advice. If you don't know much about the creation and manufacture of books, you're likely to learn quite a lot from Understanding Photobooks. If you're thinking about making a book, I think this may be a good buy, almost no matter what kind of book you want to make.

You will almost certainly find aspects of the book that do not apply, that are simply wrong for you, or that irritate you. Plug onwards. It's an easy read, it's accessible, and you will find useful gems.

Should you buy it? That is a tough question. Keith Smith's Structure of the Visual Book will teach you 1000x more about sequencing, and nothing whatsoever about publishing. Swanson and Himes Publish Your Photography Book -- which I have not read -- appears to cover much of the same ground in much the same size of book at about the same price. It has the virtue of being well respected, and in a second edition. As for me, I am not unhappy to own Colberg's book, but I am casting about for a chance to read Swanson and Himes.

Thus endeth the executive summary. Onwards to a more detailed discussion.

This book is, it turns out, actually two different books. The first is described above, the second book is essentially an apologia for the "traditional publishing" industry that makes photobooks. This essay will concern itself, as far as possible, with the first. The second I will deal with in a second writeup.

Colberg has an engineering background, and it shows here. As usual, he eschews the language of Arty Bollocks throughout, the whole thing is quite readable. He has a tendency to try to algorithm-ize everything, although you can practically feel him struggling against this tendency as well. He knows as well as you and I that there is no fixed algorithm here, and he tries to present his organized processes as suggestions, as recommended courses for the first-timer, to be altered as necessity and whim dictate.

The over-arching example of this is his insistence that you start from a completed photographic project, with a clear concept, and then follow a series of steps that end with the completed book in bookshops and for sale online. Colberg does say, repeatedly, that much of what he says should be taken as a guideline, and perhaps a useful "recipe" for the first time book-maker. It is not always clear what he intends as a guideline, and what he means as an absolute, however. Often he uses absolutist language for things that strike me as more like a guideline, and his general remarks lean away from absolutism. I recommend taking virtually every single statement in the spirit of a guideline, to be taken up or discarded as appropriate.

The book is structured around the various phases (editing, sequencing, design, print, binding) that make up the process of making a book, punctuated with "worked examples" in the sense of a more or less detailed examination of this specific book or that. Some of the examples are interesting and well designed, and others are, well, less so. In my judgement. Colberg's preference is for excessively design-heavy books.

Understanding Photobooks lacks in negative examples, even hypothetical ones. Colberg repeatedly comments that there are many many bad photobooks in the world, but he declines to name names. This, I suppose, I can understand. Unable or unwilling to name names, he should have distilled the problems into hypothetical examples, and gone over those. In the end, we see a handful of books that Colberg thinks are good, and we get a fair amount of general discussion about what makes things good, but very little about what makes things bad. The closest he comes is a handful of remarks of this sort: he notes that certain bindings don't open fully, and therefore are not well suited to photos printed across the gutter. These small samples of potential bad choices are, in my estimation, not enough, and his examples of what constitute good choices are, in my estimation, often quite weak.

A few general remarks in more or less book-order.

Colberg starts, correctly, with the statement that your book needs a clear concept from the outset. You've got to know what the hell you're trying to do before you can really make much progress. Everything flows from the concept. Colberg makes a solid argument here, and gives a good example (albeit a book I would never consider buying, but a book that makes his point quite well). He points out that narrative is really just one way to organize a book, and that other approaches can be deployed successfully. I think one could argue that he and I see eye to eye here, meaning and/or concept are necessary, pretty much everything else isn't.

In here Colberg sketches the process by which concept is converted into a book, how it flows into editing/sequencing, and thence into layout, design, and so forth. In reality, everything depends on everything else in a gigantic messy ball, but he does a good job of combing out the important dependencies and suggesting a general way to navigate them.

The chapter on editing and sequencing is fairly weak. He covers the basics. Connecting pictures one to the next through form and/or content. Narrative structures, both literal linear narrative and an example of a sort of montage of pictures that foreshadows and sets up a larger narrative. A little discussion of pacing and intensity. It goes on and on, and covers the basics, but without getting very far. He starts out on the wrong foot asserting that you should always choose the strongest single image from each grouping of similars, before proceeding to sequencing. He hints that you might wind up using a weaker picture from the set later, but doesn't explicitly state it (at least not that I noted). He's pretty dogmatic about how you ought to sequence (the tired canard of "print them all out and stick them on the wall") and his examples are remarkably thin. The nadir of the chapter is an example of straight narrative drawn from Hesitating Beauty by Joshua Lutz. These are all willfully ugly snapshots. Natch.

1. Picture of glum middle aged man.
2. Picture of glum middle aged woman holding something.
3. Reverse angle of same woman, she's holding a b&w photo of a young, happy, couple.
4. Similar photo of a young happy couple.
5. Photo of a decorative wall that's been made to look like its bursting/collapsing.

    I DON'T KNOW!!!!!

Seriously? You think I am making this up, don't you? Especially the wall. But no, someone actually put this sequence into a book, and Schilt published it. This garbage looks like Woody Allen and Diane Arbus had a love child, who suffered brain damage in a tragic car accident, and now makes art with a broken camera.

As an example to drive the point home to even the most dunderheaded, I suppose it serves, but I would be embarassed to publish that sequence.

The chapter on design reads a bit like "hire a designer" written out 1000 times, but it does also make the point that design should serve the concept, which point he's already made several times. It is remarkable that in the chapter on design, Colberg is almost completely silent on what design actually is. The chapter essentially consists of discussion of what it does, why it matters, why you should hire someone to do it, and (a little) how to collaborate with that someone. These are all good things to say, but one does arrive at the end wondering a bit what design actually is.

The next bit is production, in which he briefly discusses bindings, the necessity to hire other people, paper choices and whatnot, and notes that preparing photographs for print is complicated (especially if you're printing offset), and that you ought to hire someone to do it. Again, he hammers the useful and correct point that production, bindings, etetera, need to serve the book's concept, not the other way around.

He wraps up with how to make a photobook in 17 rules, which reads exactly like a long listicle. "Collaborate!" "Avoid Shortcuts!" "Have a Budget!" and so on. It's embarrassing, and one gets the sense that Colberg was struggling to hit 200 pages (which he does, barely). Should have gone with a bigger font instead, Jörg.

In general, this book appears to be aimed at Colberg's MFA students. It assumes that you know basically nothing, and walks you through the basics, but without much depth. There is a brief discussion of each of the major bits and pieces, with generally worthwhile discussion of how these parts interact, and the kinds of problems that are likely to arise. The design of a book and the sequencing of the pictures, while separate tasks, can interact in powerful ways. Finalizing certain design details may require that you go back and revisit the sequence, and so on. The choice of binding will likely affect how the pictures are laid out on the page. Etcetera and so forth, but never with much depth.

Colberg's solutions to most of the big problems are "hire an expert" starting from his recommendation to go with a Real Publisher (MACK, Steidl, Dewi Lewis, etc), but flowing on through hiring or enlisting people to help you edit, design, prepare for print, and so on. He recommends throwing yourself on the publisher's mercy for distribution, marketing, and sales.

This is in line with his relatively light treatment of all the relevant problems. Rather than discuss details of bindings and the kinds of problems that can arise in any depth, he simply recommends that you have a professional helping you out. Rather than give a brief primer on design relevant to books, he recommends hiring a designer.

Colberg's other big solution is "make physical book dummies," starting from pasting pictures into a cheap spiral notebook.

These two "big solutions" are defensible, but Colberg is a bit too absolutist on these points for my taste. None of these things are rocket science. I am not a graphic designer, but as long as I keep it simple and stick to stealing other people's good ideas, I am pretty confident that my book designs are OK. I am not a master binder, but I can make a pretty good looking book. I am not Keith Smith, but my edits and sequences are... well, they're maybe passable on a good day. The point is that you can learn these things.

Physical dummies are a good idea, but it's not clear that you can't do a perfectly good job of this with a series of PoD books in concert with carefully using the computer (a pattern he explicitly cautions against, without much of a convincing argument).

Interestingly, Colberg constantly beats the drum of "limitations are good" and "compromise is a necessary part of book making" while simultaneously advocating for what amounts to a spare-no-expense Rolls-Royce process. He's distinctly down on print-on-demand, making a point of dismissing it at least three times. These are not the only contradictions in the book.

The other truly annoying tic Colberg has is that he forces the reader to do quite a lot of work. The clearest example if the chapter on design, in which he say that you need to hire a designer, repeating more than once that it's about more than the margin widths. As noted previously, he does not remind us what design is, what a designer actually does.

Now, this is not a huge deal. One can in fact work out from the rest of the book what a designer does, and fill it in. Ditto various other places where the same tic appears, where he argues stridently in favor of something or other without giving much of a rationalization. It makes his arguments feel weak, however. And, to be honest, I think his arguments are weak.

The strength of his position is not enhanced by the design and editing of the book itself. Unless, I suppose, he intends the book itself to be that negative example I bemoaned the absence of, above. But no, the book is flawed, but not bad enough to serve that role!

His examples sections are, incomprehensibly, typeset with white text on a medium gray background, illegible in anything short of excellent light (especially the captions, which are set in a smaller font). The text, while not a mess, could have used a better editor. Consistent misuse of like vs. as, he uses the word amount incorrectly now and then, and I found at least one outright typo. I am a pretty close reader, and I expect to notice an error or two in even the best books, but Colberg's concsistent mis-use of what I assume is his second language should have been corrected.

Finally, he's very repetitive. Text and pictures found in the worked examples sidebars are often repeated in the main body. Even apart from that, he repeats the same points in the main text too often for my taste. A good editor would likely have chopped the book by 10-20 percent without loss, resulting in a tighter (albeit somewhat slender) volume.

I don't think Focal Press is a self-pub operation, but this thing felt like a quite well done self-pub book rather than a commercial product.

Despite these flaws, I think it is a useful volume, and I am pleased to have purchased it. In part, because it's quite inexpensive. You should perhaps own a copy, but have a good stiff drink before reading, lest you hurl it violently against the wall and damage the spine.

I regret that I am going to have to say some unkind things about Mr. Colberg in the next essay. This genuinely pains me, as I think he is one of the few genuinely smart voices in the area. Relative to the unkind things I intend to say about the industry, however, it will be as if I were hand-feeding him a fine cake. So there's that.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Sequence II: Examples

I'm going to try to think through a couple of examples. Not of "how" but of "what" -- specifically, how do I want my readers leafing through my book. What order do I want them looking at the physical pages in.

First, I am going to channel QT Luong, who recently put out a book of photographs from every single one of the US National Parks. QT reads has been known to stop by, so, "hi!" and this is just an example. His book and his concept may be completely different. However, it would be reasonable, I think, to approach a project of this sort thus:

1. I want readers to go through the whole thing in order, first.
2. I want readers to be able to find favorite photos easily.

The first suggests that the sequencing should have a firm forward drive. Readers should feel a desire to turn the page, contemplate, and then turn the page again. And so on. The second suggests some sort of useful organizing scheme, likely by location. Perhaps the book should proceed East to West or something, so when you want that one amazeballs picture from Zion, you know it's not at the front, and not at the end but about.. here.

Next, let's imagine we're making a visual telling of the story of Jesse James. Obviously a forward narrative drive makes sense, again. We might want to introduce a flashback, and we might even hope that the reader would literally flip backwards in the book to review those pictures. We might want to foreshadow, and hope to drive the reader to flip back to that foreshadowing picture or sequence when, later in the book, the relevant events begin to unfold.

The trip through this vaguely literary narrative, thus, would explicitly include backtracking in addition to the forward drive.

More generally, we might introduce pictures or sequences that make little sense, or make different sense, until something later is seen. Again, we'd like to see some backtracking (perhaps literal, perhaps just in-memory).

In the ultimate backtracking, we might want to finish the book in a way that demands the reader go back to the start. In the same way the movie "Memento" concludes in a way that makes us re-examine the entire film, our book might try to create a literal loop, requiring two consecutive readings to fully grasp. Two books, as it were, for the price of one.

Yet another coffee table book that is less completist that QT's might not even demand a front-to-back reading at all, it might need no forward drive at all. It might be purely a reference, intended to be dipped in to at random. You could even imagine a random-access with backward flow, with the big important pictures preceded, perhaps, by details and text that readers might or might not want to consult.

You could almost map this out, with a little box representing each two-page spread, and little arrows leading here and there. It's kind of how I visualize it. Arrows might represent remembering, physical page-flipping, or something in between, something else. No plan of this sort of likely to literally work in all details, but one can hope for a general thrust in the general direction. Some readers might do this bit, others another bit.

As with other aspects of Art and Photography, I believe firmly that if you put a lot in while simultaneously leaving space for the viewer or reader to find their own way, they will in turn get a lot out even if it's not exactly what you put in.

These are all different experiences of the book. Much of the lifting is done by the pictures, of course. Some of it is done by details of design. Some, however, is done by the sequencing. All, I suppose, should be working together to try to produce the right sort of effect.

I have a few other things to write about, but I will return to this and try to mention some actual ideas for generating these effects that I have observed here and there.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fake Vernacular Photography

I think I am thoroughly on the record as approving of "vernacular photography", of the snapshot. What it lacks in technical merit it makes up for with the power and mystery of reality. When I find a crumpled snapshot on the ground, it connects me to a life, a series of lives, about which I usually know almost nothing. This genuine connection, this mystery, is precisely from whence these things gain their power, and it is considerable.

At the moment I am reading Colberg's book on Photobooks, about which more in a little while (I'm not finished with it yet) and I have become infuriated by a some of his examples.

He uses several of these things which are obviously meant as explorations of some personal problem (either the artist's or someone else's) through "the language of vernacular photography" which means "willfully ugly fake snapshots".

So, yes, indeed. We have a book made up of staged, fake, vernacular photographs, exploring, no wait, surely interrogating, the fascinating world of "how my mom's schizophrenia impacted my youth" or something.

We are looking at gutless, powerless, photos, willfully ugly, talking about a subject that almost nobody gives a shit about. Look, I get it, your family life was tough (although, to be honest, if you're willing to fake the snapshot aesthetic, I cannot ignore the possibility that you're faking your problems as well). And if you forced me to listen to your story, I would cluck my tongue sympathetically.

But it's a big world, everyone's got problems, and at the end of the day I don't give a shit about you or your problems. I don't know you, we have no connection (beyond that you're trying to sell me a book), and there are many many people I do care about to expend my caring on.

Amusingly, Colberg starts out by explaining that the market for photobooks is tiny, and consists mainly of aficionados who read photographs in specific ways. Of course it's tiny. Frankly, it's a miracle that you can sell 400 copies of a book of shitty fake snapshots that clumsily tells a possibly fake story about some personal problem, Who the hell wants a thing like that?

The game here, obviously, is to try to hijack the power of the vernacular photograph, but it fails, completely, for the reasons above. As soon as the staging becomes clear the enterprise collapses completely. Well, except for the 400 wankers who plug their ears and sing loudly, because they Want To Believe.

Now, Art qua Art is not well served by populism in particular, but this kind of explicit anti-populism, this explicit effort to make awful things that nobody on earth could possibly like, also does not serve well. Perhaps some sort of middle road, you know? And while you're at it, throw in some more universal themes. Blah Blah Blah My Problems was a thing in literature for 15 minutes a decade ago, and a) it's mostly over and b) it doesn't translate very well anyways.

All that said, Colberg's book looks at this moment (about half way through it) like a maddeningly irritating book that you really ought to own if you're interested in photo books of any sort (even photo books that might appeal to a real person).

Gimme a couple more days, I should have something coherent to say about it.