Three Essentially Difficult Pieces

This post started as three different posts, each of which got bogged down in its own overwrought explication. I realized they all shared concerns about essentialism, of what makes a photo... a photo. I’ve decided to just stack them and cut straight down in straight lines across all three. Kick ‘em all.

  1. Why is photography in art shows so bad? Especially compared to the painting. In the past couple of months I’ve seen three local shows that either featured or included “new” photography: this one at a museum, this one at a local arts institution, and this 30,000-square foot "party" declaring itself a route to making San Jose the "next Brooklyn" (I thought the current Brooklyn was the next San Francisco? So confused...) -- in every case there was a some good work and plenty of camera-club cruft holiday snaps that could have been as easily shot in 1937 as 2014. To my further astonishment the cruft was lauded, while good work in those shows was snubbed (Marin Artists at least found the best of the bunch on display -- the California Statewide... not so much).
  2. Cameras matter. Get some black gaffer tape. When I was in school, the library received an PC with a color display. Quickly an array of painting students started reserving time on it, for the sake of using the then-new painting tool: a mouse and screen. They loved it. It was very entertaining to them, and it was entertaining to watch them use it. The resulting final images were rarely of any note. The aesthetic satisfactions were not intrinsic in the product, but there could be ones in the process. It was rarely obvious to those early digital painters. Likewise cameras, with now well more than a century of steady development as consumer-pleasing devices, have made the process of creating Expected Images maddeningly easy to execute by rote -- just find a stock picturesque subject & press (if the computer can’t do it all for you… surely there is some GPS-enabled phone app guide to Kodak Picture Spots?). Enjoy the smooth feel of the device in your hand. Want more creativity? Break out the check book. (From such a perspective, perhaps there really is merit in the retro crazes of recent years -- a desire to make images in spite of the technical shortcomings, rather than to hurtle along making the same photos that ones sees posted as examples in the Canon & Nikon adverts). I was recently asked why I mask the bright white brand names on my cameras with black tape. Why don't I want to show the logos off? To make the camera more discrete, I replied as usual. But also, it is a tiny, almost Banksy-like reaction. Their logos should not dominate my process or pictures. An inescapable paradox, because there is a satisfaction in holding a well-crafted tool.
  3. What you see is all there is. I joined up as part of Zack Arias’s Dedpxl series of photo assignments. He promised to make me a better photographer, and perhaps it is working (little instruction penetrates my thick skull, but he gives it an earnest try). It is fascinating to see lots of people all attack the same assignments in the same weeks. It’s like… school! I admit, I sometimes miss that. Though unlike students in art school, most of the ones in the public-school flickr version bare more than a little animosity to the idea of open critique and discussion. That’s okay, too. But what keeps gnawing at me is the notion that flickr photos (and/or photos on 500px and Google+) represent the entire scope of photographic practice. That there is somehow a “best way” to make “good” photos when it’s hard enough to even begin to gauge the criteria of general success for the shooter. Are they aiming to make better baby pictures of their nephew, planning a commercial product-photo career, or hoping for an eventual retrospective exhibit at the Tate? Flickr and the like present photos in a manner that is loaded with many assumptions, compromises, and copious baggage. I’m astonished that people can get caught-up on pixel peeping when their 4K photos are being displayed 300 pixels across. It’s not a secret, but it doesn’t really feel acknowledged properly, either. Flickr and their ilk reduce all discourse to a stream of random snips, where all images are resized, rehashed, down-sampled, and maybe later appropriated and posted as part of someone else’s Upworthy media-bite.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Three Essentially Difficult Pieces: posted September 21, 2014 | Comments (0)

Camputer

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Dogs and Lunches, etc

If It Has a Ringtone, It's Not a Camera. Panasonic Lumix's advertising slogan didn't last long -- not, I think, because there would soon enough be a Lumix-branded mobile phone, but because it's a slogan that can easily be interpreted either way: that a celphone is less than a camera, or (oops) that a camera is potentially rather less than a cameraphone.

It's also less than a "camera-puter," which is an aspect that is neither camera nor phone.

In the simplest sense, the camputer is a portal for images direct from your hand to the internet. But what about pictures before they ever leave the phone? If they ever leave the phone?

The utilitarian camera-as-scratchpad notion that's been spreading since the advent of home video (even, for a few, on Super 8) is now something that almost everyone takes for granted. End a meeting with a whiteboard full of scribbles that might be useful later? No time to copy them in a notepad? Use the camera phone. Want to keep a snap of the good-for-once haircut? Want to remember that the car is parked on Level 4 Blue zone? Easy and the photos just as easily cast off when they're done.

Camphone as agent of political change? The jury's out on its genuine effectiveness, but certainly it's had a huge and unpredictable effect on the relations of people, governments, politicians, and the media between them.

Beyond these "useful" applications, though, and beyond the camphone's replacement of point and shoots for a quick facebook-upload fix -- are there new ideas that might be useful creatively? The rapid spread of programs like Hipstamatic and Vignette (or even CamScanner) provide a hint to one other direction, closer to usual photographic practice -- the collapse/reversal of the traditional photo workflow. Sure, you could already take a digital photo and then push it through Photoshop to alter the character of the color and contrast, emulating the look of a particular film stock. The patterns were still the same: capture, process, and (potentially) presentation.

The advent of processing tricks in the camera application collapse the first two steps into one. Just set the camera on "Velvia" and go find some fall foliage. Heck, put the processing and border-generating on "shuffle."

Or even shoot with a different camera and import the images into your phone, rather than spend $500 on Photoshop: which is just what is happening here -- cited by Leica, no less. Established commercial photographer Laura Rossignol shooting on a D-Lux 5 (aka Lumix LX5), and then (after doing selects in Lightroom) "I like to take the post processing one step further and I will email a finished version to myself so I can open it in the Picture Show iPhone app. It allows you to add interesting effects and frames."

(Addendum: Adobe's John Nack made a similar post to this one, wondering: why would you edit on a mobile device?, just a few days ago....)

I used to think that the transparency or negative was the canonical object. As Ansel Adams wrote about it, the negative was like a musical score, to be interpreted by a darkroom performance for each new print. Throw that idea away. Immediate darkroom-ish styling on the fly: whether you think they're insanely great or sentimentally godawful, they're as fundamental a part of the New Beast's nature as is the thickness of oil paint or a trumpet's high notes. Get used to it, this is still just an early wave.

Camputer: posted February 02, 2011 | Comments (0)

Vignettes

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I'll be the first to say that I find most Holga/Diana-wana-be photgraphy cloying and twee and it's pretty rare that even the most earnest results feel like anything more than just a rehash of Nancy Rexroth's "IOWA." So you can imagine my reflex reaction to programs that deliberately "crappify" otherwise-clear, direct images, burying them under just so much mannered noise. And you'd be right, at least about my initial reaction. Why my attitude has changed in the next photorant entry.

In the mean time, since I couldn't find one that entirely suited me, here are a couple of guides to the color modes (and below, frame styles) offered as presets by the Android camera-phone program Vignette. A similar chart can be found here, but it was missing skin tones).

Click for Larger Image

Vignettes: posted February 01, 2011 | Comments (1)

Flashy Foods

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What I Ate: 28 Jan 2011

The flash diet doesn't require using flash, and it isn't really a diet per se, but an alternative to keeping a food diary -- photograph everything you eat. A side benefit is that it gives you an excuse to make at least a few photographs every day.

For entertainment value I've given myself a little rubric:
    • Celphone only: twee "FX" apps okay
    • "One bullet": c'mon, it's time to eat
    • Context: ingredients, locations, companions

Here is a great thing about celphone cameras: they're not Hasselblads. They're more like a real "pencil of nature," in that a pencil has incredible range -- you can use the same pencil to jot down the grocery list or to draw a masterwork. The Hasselblad is more like oil paints -- wonderful for what it does, but too grand and technically involved for casual muddling.

Flashy Foods: posted January 28, 2011 | Comments (1)

Dog Apples

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Paul Graham was kind enough not to name the unthinking reviewer who he says doesn't "get" photography -- which is odd, because you'd think he'd want to protect others from the potentially-insulting opinions he cites in this one-paragraph Jeff Wall book blurb by Carnelia Garcia in ArtInfo's February ART+AUCTION (Garcia claims to be a museum "PR Associate" according to her LinkedIn profile -- I won't speculate further).

What Graham's essay seems to miss is "how there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get " a lot of art -- not just photography.

As a handy example I've added the James Gurney cartoon above, which he left us after a visit to Trion a few weeks ago. Gurney is a painter whose skill and talent are more than obvious, whose acclaim among other painters and the public are solid, and whose works are shown internationally in museums yet are essentially ignored (if not actively combated) by the same "sizable part of the art world" that Graham cites.

Why is this?

I think parts of an answer can be found in the closing chapter of the new Gerry Badger book, The Pleasures of Good Photographs, and also in the writings of a certain Norwegian-speaking Minnesotan who moved to the Silicon Valley...

Due diligence declaration: I do really love the work of all the photographers cited below. Okay, maybe not Richard Prince...

The Minnesotan, of course, is our old Stanford buddy Thorstein Veblen, best known for two simple alliterative words: conspicuous consumption.

An item that is to be conspicuously consumed for purposes of status is best consumed for that purpose only -- that is, as an item which exists most completely to waste resources in a way that can be seen and appreciated by... well, people whose appreciation you desire. In the most desire-inducing scenarios, the item to be consumed should be unique as well. If you have the Rubens... well, no one else does. And a prominent-enough purchase can itself create Artistic Validity™

The behavior can extend to institutions-- consider MOMA's Bell Helicopter, which is made unique by the gesture of declaring it as Art -- it wasn't the first of its kind, or particularly iconic, but: its function is erased and its status raised as being, and Deyan Sudjic has pointed out, "the first helicopter to be displayed in the Museum of Modern Art" and hence Important enough to make the transition from the old museum to the newer current one.

In some quarters, such consumption is believed to be an investment -- but at its extremes, even this aspect of non-status utility fades away. What matters is the status act itself, to purchase and display and collect that which only status can afford -- an act that's very different at varying ends of the social financial strata -- while the poor might buy many cheap things, the wealthy may buy only a few stratospheric ones. No surprise, then, that the most expensive photographic purchases so far have been ones where that difference is laid bare: $3,346,456 for Gursky's "99 Cent" (or similarly, $1,248,000 for Richard Prince's relabeled cigarette advert.

(A poor man's acquisition method -- mea culpa -- is to exert control via critique, heh)

(& I'll ignore the $1.5M paid for a snap by Russian politician as revealing more about the Russian art market than about photographic standards.)

To the dismay of the usual photo website crowd, conspicuous consumption of this sort does not include consumption of camera gear, elaborate chemical formulas, new versions of Adobe Lightroom, aspect ratios, or even long-winded arguments about the "truth" of a photo, because "truth" -- like moral convictions and even beauty -- are ultimately utility functions of a picture, and the stronger the force of the image, separate from its market value, well... the more that market value may decline.

For the conspicuous-consumption-of-art crowd, images that are useful in non-status ways are, by definition, not aimed purely at the status and image of the buyer. They are dispersing and wasting status energy. That aspect has driven down the gallery valuation of representational painting and photography since at least 1850. If an image becomes famous, if it can be associated with something external, then its value can rise again, but only in narrow circumstances. One can pay a fortune for "Dovima and the Elephants" but it's unlikely that anyone would pay similar fees (even if the printmaking were as controlled) of, say, the W Eugene Smith pieta.

There are ways to cater to "uselessness" (I am not happy with that adjective, but can't find another one that's more suitable). Formal Kunstakademie games that destroy the content in a photo while retaining its intrinsic photo-ness, like Sugimoto's movie theatre or Ruff's cartoon-oversized jpegs. Roger Ballen's pix (in sympathetic company here) look like documents -- but of what? Philip-Lorca diCorcia creates images that really are documents from the world, but the traditional notion of subject... well, that might be accidental. And likewise Jeff Wall et al, who document events that are not really "photographic" events from the world but merely imaginings. Images that keep the brand value of the artist and the status value of those very large prints close to the center.

And that: market value -- is really the only thing that ART+AUCTION cares about. I'm dumbfounded that Graham doesn't point this out, even though a few others have hinted at it. The portion of the art world that has Graham in a knot is the dealer portion of that world: the salespeople.

Market value has only tangential connection to "artistic merit" (for the right audience, art-for-art's-sake, like technology, is just an opportunity to do marketing) and every art transaction -- whether for money or simply for a viewer's attention -- is an individual one. This is true if you're David Geffen picking up a spare Modigliani for the east guest room or a shopper picking up a vista of the Golden Gate Bridge from Ikea. The image, when it becomes your image, your object, is tied less to the History of Art and much more to what you perceive it to say about you. This is even true for Facebook posts. There's no conspiratorial central hand guiding what "the art world" is, or what they "get."

Not only that, but I don't think it matters.

Photography is not painting. The "art world" Graham laments is one that grew out of previous cultural authorities (e.g., the nobility and church, who used to have the last words on imagery). But that art world has always worked along directions of its own, based on basic agendas of painting and other "object-centric" arts that are quite simply not at all well-mapped onto the nature of photography.

While more than a few photographers (and artists of all media) yearn individually for the cultural respect, authority, and the party calendar granted to the occasional Warhol, the truth is that significance of that "sizable part the art world" has long ago been marginalized by the photographic one, and by photography's cousins cinema and publishing.

"Straight" photography respects no social order, least of all the ordination of "the art world" and their self-declared priests. A photograph is almost as likely to be used in opposition of its author's intent as not, an attribute that many critics and nearly all dealers find confounding (one way to thwart the witchcraft: wait until the photographer and all subjects in the pic are most sincerely dead). But that unruliness, that inability to control who makes the picture, who sees the picture, who uses the picture, is the fundamental nature of the beast. As Gerry Badger pointed out, quoting Tod Papageorge: "my argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the IMAGINATION of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis."

Allan Sekula might call the idea of photographic truth a "particularly obstinate bit of bourgeois folklore" but I don't buy it. Pix or it didn't happen, as the FB (and UPI) phrase goes. Photos (even the ones we know are "untrue," say, in adverts) carry the real power of modern imagery, and what happens inside Sotheby's is just a bubble. The Real World is wilder. I'll let Jeff Wall himself have the last word:

I was interested in the way cinema affected the criteria for judging photography. Cinematography permits, and validates, the collaboration between photographer and subject that was largely excluded in classic documentary terms. That exclusion limits photography, and so my first moves were against it -- working in a studio with all the technical questions that implies. I had to learn some of that technique as I went along; that process was part of transforming my relationship to photography. At the beginning it was done in the spirit of contestation, but as I've said, it was not so long before I realized that I'd lost that contest and realized that nothing I was doing was "outside of photography." At that point -- in the mid 1980's -- I felt I'd worked myself into a position where I needed to come into a new relationship with the kind of photography I'd been questioning. As I saw more of the "new" photography in exhibitions through the 80's, I began to realize that I preferred Walker Evans or Wols to most of the newer work, and I preferred them to my own work, too. Classical photography might have been displaced from the center of attention by the newer forms, but it was not diminished in the process. It became stronger through having been confronted with alternatives, as far as I was concerned."
Dog Apples: posted January 02, 2011 | Comments (0)

A Kind of Radiance

More from The Cruel Radiance:

In 1986, the critic Andy Grundberg observed that postmodern photography “implies the exhaustion of the image universe: it suggests that a photographer can find more than enough images already existing in the world without the bother of making new ones.”

Perhaps telling is that a list of Grundberg's articles for the New York Times is dominated less by art criticism and more by obituaries: Irving Penn, Julius Schulmann, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, Avedon, Ellen Auerbach, Carl Mydans, Eddie Adams.

Which brings us to his difficulties with the very much living Robert Bergman (PDF):

...there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter-day Bowery Bum photography... Perhaps the ambition is for our regard of the pain of others to make us more attuned to human suffering in general (come back, Susan Sontag, please), but this aim is attenuated by our prior experience of pictures in the same vein. We might expect anyone conversant with recent photographic practice to know this as an existing critical problem, which leaves us with a far less ennobled idea of what is afoot here: that Bergman is out to convince us that he is a great photographer. Unfortunately, he has appeared a half-century too late

My italics.

Since when is a critical problem part of "photographic practice"? Grundberg seems to be thrashing about in his cage, unable to take in the idea that Bergman's photos are full of beauty and power despite the fact that Grundberg can't place them anywhere in his neatly compartmentalized Theory of Photography save to call them "untrained" and "fifty years too late."

Hang it up, Andy, if you can't see the pictures but only their place on your org chart.

And Bergman is a great photographer. Too bad you think that's so, like, Over.

In the immediate world, everything is to be discerned..with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is." - James Agee


PS: In writing this entry I found this response to Grundberg's review, from David Levi Strauss: "Grundberg’s main complaint is a bureaucratic one—that this artist should not be recognized because he was not vetted by the proper authorities."

A Kind of Radiance: posted November 29, 2010 | Comments (1)

The Subject

Last night I grabbed the growing stack of unopened issues of Aperture off the living room magazine rack and started in at them. On top was the current issue, which contained an except from Susie Linfield's The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. I'll excerpt from their excerption:

This is a book of criticism, not theory [...] It is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. [...] who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photographic criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them.

Another, longer except can be found here.

I find it telling that on an earlier page of Aperture we're treated to quotes from World Press Photo judges Adam Broomberg & Olier Chanarin's "Unconcerned by not Indifferent" (PDF link), an essay that, in what feels like true Sontag fashion, declares photojournalism as practiced a failure: "...the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images."

Broomberg and Chanarin have a catalog of editorial cliches, much like that collected by Dianne Hagaman in her essay on sports photojournalism while judging the 46th Annual POY competition, "The Joy of Victory, the Agony of Defeat: Stereotypes in Newspaper Sports Feature Photographs." B&C describe a stream of predictably editor-pleasing images:

Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.

To their credit, B&C appear to be more concerned that the industrial mechanism of photojournalism has failed, rather than the power of images themselves. The World Press rules force a streamlined decontextualisation of images, perhaps to make them more credibly "artistic" by insisting that a photo with a caption is inferior to a captioned one -- which is just blindingly blind.

The camera has always been a mechanization of representation. While it's possible to make random squiggles on photo paper with a laser pointer, that's still drawing with photographic materials, not photography. There can be no photo without a subject, without a relationship of the photographer and the viewer to that subject (and in commercial contexts, we must include, somehow the redactive eyes of the editors and publishers and Google search). To strip this away, in journalism, is just astounding.

Okay, photography does not eliminate War, or Suffering. Not with big W's and S's, anyway. But to declare the struggle lost is surely wrongheaded as well. I can definitely say that my own actions supporting Médecin Sans Frontiers (simple, small actions, involving simply writing an occasional checque) were in very large part informed and driven by photographic revelation. Are such victories not enough for the theorists? Must they have all or nothing?

There is a larger trend which is unaddressed by enterprises like World Press: the growing ability for photography in the hands of non-journalists to have an effect that can't be controlled or mediated by professional journalists or their editors and publishers or governments. I'm not just talking about images like those made at Abu Ghraib, where journalists with cameras didn't have access -- but those in the Iranian streets and elsewhere, photos that shot themselves out into the world without the fatherly hand of The New York Times to tell us that they were important.

I'm currently most hopeful about this new path for "photojournalism"-- not really an appropriate word -- as a great leveling force. Does this mean I celebrate the end of the pros? Not at all, and I think there are still many roles for them that play to their strengths. But there is more that an image can do than be a rectangle in a commercial news source.

The Subject: posted November 28, 2010 | Comments (0)

Parallel Developments

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Color study shot for Rift: Planes of Telara

Earlier this week we were privileged to have painter & storyteller James Gurney visit the art department at Trion, both to have him speak with us and also for us to get a chance to show him our game. He's best-know to the public for the Dinotopia books (favorites at our house for many years -- See See & I were also lucky enough to see the Dinotopia show at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach a few months back), and known to a lot of artists for his blog and several art technique books, including the new Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter.

We got the chance to look at some advance copies of the book and also hear him talk a little bit about (among many other things!) how the brain processes color and luminance separately -- which of course reminded me of this old post on the Black and White Brain. It's exciting to me to see someone as accomplished as Gurney coming at the same ideas from a different direction and for different purpose.

It's been several years now where I find that some of the biggest sources of information for my work in computer-graphic coloring and shading come not from computer scientists or even other people doing similar work -- instead, they come from painters. Not just realist painters, either. Gradations, highlighting, punctuation, contrast, shape -- increasingly I think of shading as a sort of painting-without-drawing.

Parallel Developments: posted October 10, 2010 | Comments (0)

ARTFORUM 2007-2009

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The survivors are the pages that get scissored.

ARTFORUM 2007-2009: posted September 27, 2009 | Comments (0)

58 Years @ the Same Crossroads

Photoquotes has recently put up Berenice Abbott's 1951 essay, "Photography at the Crossroads." Mentioned twice already here on Photorant, it's the same essay reprinted in The Education of a Photographer (which is now also indexed on Google books).

So you needn't take my word for it:

"The stale vogue of drowning in technique and ignoring content adds to the pestilence and has become, for many, part of today’s general hysteria..."
58 Years @ the Same Crossroads: posted May 02, 2009 | Comments (0)

New and Contemporary

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There is little that can lead you to treasure good photography than to look at a lot of bad photography, interspersed with an occasional gem. Which is exactly what I was doing a few weeks ago on (where else?) flickr, where I was editing group pools.

When I started the New Black and White group, back in flickr's early pre-yahoo fog, there were no editing or moderation tools, it was slow and painstaking to remove each and every pic I felt didn't belong. And at first that was fine, as there were very few pics submitted. Two or three a day. I stopped messing with it, left it fallow -- came back to find a thousand pictures.

Edited those down to a few dozen, watched it fill up quickly again. Eventually the flood was far more than I could manage as anything less than a full-time job, so I ignored it for months until there were more than 55,000 photos in the pool, most of them "flickr noise" of the cute kitten variety.

Rather than even try to deal with all that, I started another group, Contemporary Black and White, and invited a few select members. I thought: at least I don't need to edit them (and I don't -- they've been contributing good stuff). But then I started wondering about the old one.....

...could I realistically edit-down the 50,000+ photos to a little kernel, throwing away 90% or more of them? Only one way to find out....

So I did. It took time, it took special tools, it took regular attacks. I worked in blocks of from 1000 to 3000 photos. As time passed, it was quick enough to see how many really endlessly-repeating tropes there were, each trotted out over and again and usually accompanied by plenty of enthusiastic flickr badges and boosting comments (especially if the photo involved a pretty girl).

As soon as I started deleting, of course, the hate emails started coming in. What was interesting, if not surprising, was that some of the worst "offenders" -- by that I mean people whose "NB&W" photos were dull, often not even black and white, and massively spam-posted all over flickr -- were the most strident of the protesters. A handful of them diffidently pulled their photos (by the hundreds) from the pool. Thank you for saving me so much time! I thought, but also couldn't help but believe that they genuinely thought they were doling-out a punishment, as if I would somehow be harmed by no longer being able to view (and congratulate) their hundreds of bare-tree-on-the-plains snaps ("Don't bother replying back as I'm blocking you." too).

Photography, especially as practiced socially on the internet, is as vulnerable as any craft to the curious backwards-expectation principle: that is, for any skill, the very best people are constantly self-critical and pushing, always knowing that they could do better -- while the weakest practitioners are quite securely smug in their belief that they've got everything licked, under control, no need to reflect or review except to roll in adulations.

In internet-style photography, this is reinforced to a staggering degree, if only because so much of photography, as generally practiced, is about flattery -- just like most online social networks.

In the aforementioned 1951 article, Berenice Abbott places the blame for photography's emphasis on flattery on the proto-pictorialist photographer Henry Peach Robinson, the creator of the famous Victorian melodrama photo "Fading Away," and most especially on his book Pictorial Photography (A sample: "It is an old canon of art, that every scene worth painting must have something of the sublime, the beautiful, or the picturesque. By its nature, photography can make no pretensions to represent the first, but beauty can be represented by its means and picturesqueness has never had so perfect an interpreter."). Personally I don't think he can quite be credited for human vanity, but the gun's still a little smoky.

It doesn't really matter where it came from, but the belief is rampant that "good" photography equals "flattering" (this was exactly the criterion given to me a recent local photo class, a class which also extolled the works of Yousef Karsh as expressing the highest of all photographic virtues). It's a flattery that aims both ways: if your pic is flattering, then it is "good" which flatters the photographer.

The cycle starts there: the photos are flattering, and deserving therefore of flattery, and flattery leads to flattery leads to flickr badges and group invitations and should a tiny shred of actual daylight get into the party the guests will be in a ruinous uproar over its harsh direct brightness.

Not that the angry messages bothered me after the first thousand photos. I stopped informing, just went at it deleting. Didn't look at the names, didn't look at anything but the pics. And saw the same two dozen shots over, and over, and over...

I started to catalog them for a while: "...cute cats, adorable soft-toned children, footprints in the sand at the beach, misty time exposures of water, streets and railroads stretching off into the distance, casual snapshots, rusting cars, ruined castles, silhouetted trees, tele shots of resting seabirds, trees and unidentifiable silhouetted figures in fog, photos of backs of heads, (abandoned) factories, tourist destinations, parked bicycles, wide-angle upshots of skyscrapers, cathedral ceilings and windows, photos of camera collections, geometric airport ceilings, exterior stairways, wistful old statues, people looking bored while drinking coffee, interesting architectural details in closeup, sunlit spiderwebs..." it was actually a relief to leave in at least a few flattering model shots, if only because they weren't another empty craggy landscape.

For the sake of completeness (no, just to be random) I kept some in place, throwing away the OTHER photos just to keep runs of clichéd ones: say, thirty black trees on white (URL approximate), or twenty men with hats, or 30 shots of animals -- in order. Moderators can't rearrange the photos, I could only do this by eliminating the pix between how many runs of shots were just the same, same, same.

What none of the protesters did is what would have redeemed them. Despite repeated patient invitations in the face of their ad hominem vitriol, not one of them was willing to say why their photo deserved consideration, why it was special or worth anyone's time to view. Not one.

I can't help but feel the person who has benefited most from the exercise, though the obvious result is a much better pool of photos, is me -- seeing in a deep way, night after night for weeks, just how many "gorgeous!!" photos are really not worth a second glance and how many of them are in the same narrow predictable range that have been little-changed since the 1860's. Now the real challenge: remembering to avoid them myself while still making photos. At least photos I'd bother putting on the web.

Caveat eyeball.

New and Contemporary: posted May 31, 2008 | Comments (2)

The Critique

So many good books recently, and some good ones that I've never sung about here though I've had them for many months. There has been a special bounty of books that have no or very few photos, though they are indeed photography books. I'd like to mention four (well, four and a half) of them.

And a video.

Philip Perkis's The Sadness of Men, a true "photobook," is one of those books that has grown on me through multiple visits, until it has become one of my favorites. The pictures often need to be given time. I was a bit underwhelmed at first, despite my adoration for Perkis's and his short book Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled. which he's now put on Lulu for $19.99. I had gone too fast. Notes Assembled is short enough to read quickly during a long lunch and will reward with nourishment enough even then -- but like his photo book, it rewards repeated thoughtful chewing. Broken into a number of little anecdotes and short meditations, assignments, and puzzles, Notes comes from his experience of teaching for many years, and also includes a short passage on critiques that I think should be widely circulated (it's on pages 47-49 -- only page 48 is visible in the Google Books preview, though it contains a critical passage about practice... I've copied it below).

Perkis teaches in a university setting (and, recently, at ICP), and I expect that plenty of his experience comes from teaching university students who are less interested in photography per se than they are interested in getting their Humanities distribution requirements out of the way. This is rather different from teaching at workshops or exclusively in advanced programs, where one can be reasonably sure that the students are motivated by some desire to create and discover. Perkis starts at the root, in his exercise #1: "Go to a museum. Find a photograph that interests you. Look at it for five minutes. Don't take your eye off the picture."

No lenses, f/stops, chemistry, electronics. Don't take your eye off the picture.

Picking up a camera shows up around exercise #5.

A similar sentiment animates John Blakemore's Black and White Photography Workshop. Sure, he's going to get around to the Zone System and split-contrast printing and how the principles all map to digital but -- he spends the first half of the book talking about pictures, about photography's strength and bane, the inescapable subject, about the process of thinking and revising and rethinking and trying and discovering. Oh yeah, and here's some technical stuff to support that.

On top of it, there are some great Blakemore photos in here, and this is the cheapest way to see them, as copies of his Stilled Gaze are running in the hundreds of dollars on the usual used-book sites. In the meantime, I managed to pick up a new but remaindered copy of Black and White Workshop for a mere $3.95, a price that seems downright criminally cheap.

Back in the let's-just-talk camp, the Charles Traub-/Stephen Heller-/Adam Bell-edited The Education of a Photographer constitutes another book based on years of teaching. And like the others, it largely ignores technology as merely a fact of the photographer's life. In his foreword Heller writes that "while photography students had a wealth of material on the technique, technology, history, and theory of photography, there was a surfeit of inspirational and informative material on what it means to be a photographer." Other than the foreword, Traub's introduction and Bell's one-page afterword, the editors are largely absent from the visible stage -- the book is composed of the writings of others on photography and photographers -- always with the practitioner themselves front and center, either as the subject of someone else's writing, interviewing, or the photographer is writing for themselves (including an excerpt from Perkis's book).

Here we have Rodchenko, Levitt, Model, Brodovitch, Sultan, Wall, Crewdson -- an excellent selection of personal glimpses, even in a few cases where the glimpse has to be a bit sideways given the artist's indirectness or playful obfuscation (hi Garry). I found Clarissa Sligh's "The Plaintiff Speaks" would be moving writing even if I had no particular interest in photography. There are also some clips that can't help but raise a familiar smile among modern flickerati when we read Berenice Abbot's 1951 anxiety about too much concern over flattering, "pretty pictures" (placing the blame all the way back to Henry Peach Robinson's 1869 Pictorial Photography) or Ralph Hattersley's 1962 protests against "undercooked and nonsensical" "critiques" such as:

"Great portrait! Best skin texture I ever saw."
"The girl in the red jacket really made this landscape."
"Never put a subject in the middle of the picture."
"A picture shouldn't need a title."

Perhaps conspicuous in their absence are the pictorial and f/64 canons and their famously-talkative members. Calvino, but no Cameron. Warhol, but no Weston. Which suits me fine.

Finally, a book with a lot of pictures -- Joe McNally's The Moment it Clicks, which aims most squarely at the punchy, colorful, readable-at-all-sizes, celeb-heavy sort of photography that magazine layout directors and web site media managers love. The book has been already widely pitched and hyped all over the internet, with good enough reason: McNally's pictures are appealing, many of them familiar, and his clean though tech-centric style is one that's perfectly aligned with the commercial ambitions of thousands of Canon and Nikon customers -- the same people that he has been pitching in workshops for years. He includes the technical details, which is invaluable for those who would like to learn that craft. He knows his audience, and he so clearly genuinely enjoys what he does, what's to dislike? Nothing. As my friend Jeff Pidgeon once said so succinctly: nothing to offend everyone.

Addendum: It's tragic that McNally's strongest work, imo, isn't in the book -- not easily crowd-pleasing, perhaps? A great remedy is to spend an hour and watch this great video of Joe McNally lecturing a week or two ago at Google in Mountain View.


Here is a slice from Perkis's description of critiques in his classes,
from Teaching Photography: Notes Assembled:

A few rules and principles that are quite strict.

  • No rudeness
  • No competition
  • No telling the artist what the work means about them (a critique is not psychotherapy)
  • The class chooses what work will be talked about (Students should feel free to ask that their work be dealt with because they need feedback). No need to address every work in every class.

Here's the main principle:

The person whose work is being addressed can answer factual questions in the beginning, i.e., where was the picture made, what film, lens, etc. They can say nothing about intention, content, or other meaning. At this time, the rest of the group can say anything they like about the work, be it craft, aesthetics, politics, art history, et al. The are free to say anything. They can report associations in their minds, dreams and fantasies as long as it's about the work and not about the person who made the work.

Something very interesting starts to take place if this is done with openness and intelligence; the student is getting real information about what their work is communicating to a group of people who are being as honest and caring as possible. This information is for the use of the student and they can do anything they want with it. The work never has to be defended, justified, or explained. At this point, if a student wants to talk about the work just discussed, they can do so as much as they would like, and a long back and forth discussion can take place.

The role of the teacher in this process is to moderate, and to be a participant along with everyone else.

The sole purpose of the critique is for students to gain insight about their work and have information that will help them proceed to the next stage of development. As a group works together from week to week, a level of trust and understanding can develop so that people are more willing to take chances both in the discussion, but more importantly, in their work. Then you've really done something worthwhile.

It is vitally important for the group, and especially the teacher, to make clear the difference between fact (a smaller aperture gives more depth of field) and opinion (this picture has a violent edge). Making this difference clear allows the discussion to range much bigger.

Get a signed copy of Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled from PhotoEye.

The Critique: posted May 26, 2008 | Comments (0)

Upcoming Ops

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A few busy weeks coming up!

On the heels of Contact, I'm heading to Madrid in a few weeks to visit See See and to scout around the shows of PHotoEspaña (suggestion of "must see" shows greatly appreciated), followed by a zip up to the much-overphotographed Guggenheim in Bilbao and whats sure to be entirely too much fantastic food.

Isaac's birthday and graduation from Middle School are also approaching, even earlier -- and then as soon as I'm back from Spain, he's in for three weeks of rock n' roll camp while we also deal with Siggraph, California Extreme, Oshkosh (maybe), Gamefest, and yeah, the girl on the far right of the photo above is carrying an NVISION bag, where I'll be speaking about the future of real-time character animation and rendering (with special guests -- some incredible NVIDIA partners).

Upcoming Ops: posted May 25, 2008 | Comments (0)

Contact Photo, Pt 2

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For my Contact Photo weekend, I'd expected the Sunday to be the shorter of the two -- instead under the bright sun I was able to visit MOCCA, the remaining Queen Street galleries, the Gladstone, the Drake, drive across town to the Corkin, and still take a leisurely pace back to the airport.

Of the work I saw, there were only a few standouts, but they were well worth the trouble...

My vote for most under-appreciated were Wilma Needham's prints at New Gallery, a space that was quite empty the two times I visited. The prints have a sense of disconnection and depth that, for me, made vivid senses of physicality, of mortality, and yet from them a great, simple beauty.

I was happily surprised to find that Ryoko Suzuki's Anikora-seifuku prints were really as great as their size (and prices) might indicate -- a benefit of their scale is that the photographic reproduction of the small hand-painted anikora dolls, when on a six-foot print, give the impression that the surface of the print itself has been painted. From the catalog I noticed that a few of these prints had already been tagged "sold" -- the most conservative ones in my opinion, which gave me the impression that the buyers must have been institutions.

A bonus while at the Corkin was picking up a signed Photo Poche by Sarah Moon, who I have long admired and think of as one of the key figures, though she has never (afaik) used one, in the iconography of modern toy camera users.

At the Gladstone, the most appealing work was in the collective Exposed show -- not across the board, but a few of the photographers there had compelling voices. One, Jimm Tran, showed work that was nothing like the event and wedding portfolio he displays on the web: instead he had a series of fantasy portrayals of "american dreamgirl" scenarios as created in a low-budget way by a young southeast-asian transvestite. One might think it just an épater le bourgeois gesture, but genuinely I found the work touching, a collision of impossible (or at least implausible) cultural and personal ambitions and expectations.

In the same show I enjoyed the color styling of Tammy Hoy, though her subjects seemed painfully reminiscent of artists like the Parke-Harrisons and obviously an iconic bowler hat borrowed from Magritte. A real standout were the fictographie prints of Jérôme Bourque. The other work in the group show was decent enough -- perhaps becasue it was all part of a group and no one collection needed to carry the show. The other, single-artists shows at the Gladstone left me feeling cold, including the appealing surfaces of I Am Elvis -- too slick, too designed to please, too Entertainment Magazine for my taste.

A curious aspect of a show like Contact is that, as I hear it, if you can set up photos in your garage and pay $400, you can hang a yellow tag outside and call yourself a Contact site. While this doesn't fly well among the main gallery rows, I was surprised (well, not really) to find not far from the Corkin a small (and busy) gallery, complete with a Contact tag, full of photos that were classic, colorful photo.net standards -- vine-surrounded doorways, archways, late-day-lit and person-less travel fare of old buildings in Provence (or was it Venice? Does it matter?). Who will sell more dollar volume by the end of the show -- the $6k Suzuki prints or the $600 generica? Hmmm.

Contact Photo, Pt 2: posted May 10, 2008 | Comments (0)

Toronto Contact Photo 2008

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Spent most of the day running back and forth through the rain to see as much of Contact Photo as the rain would allow, and last night chasing around the Lanch Event. Tomorrow I'll hit the MOCCA portion before returning home. Fell asleep -- coffee in hand -- just as the early-evening weather outside my hotel room was surging past the drizzly form shown here into a real driving storm.

I also had the pleasure during the morning of driving across town to visit the Bob Carnie & Kevin Viner at Elevator Digital, where I got to see their big print line including their digital fiber-print mural-scale line, which they believe was the world's first. These are large-format images, printed on black & white traditional darkroom paper -- a good deal bgger than what the well-known Devere digital enlarger can produce.

I also got a glimpse at the results from the Canon imagePROGRAF iPF9100 60" printer, which delivered gorgeous B&W results straight our of the bx -- that is, on the supplied Canon profiles without tweaking.

To my surprise, when I awoke two hours after dozing away, the view was dazzlingly different: the towers lit by an orange sunset and framed by a deep blue sky. Surprising what a couple of hours can do if you'll just willing to stay put (sleeping helps).

What about the photographs? I'll write more about them in the next entry.

Toronto Contact Photo 2008: posted May 03, 2008 | Comments (0)

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