It is the fact that it is Vietnamese people themselves who are driving the project to get these pictures seen that is striking. I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that the full content of pictures is just as much made by those who see and use them as by the photographers (or camera operators) who did the original practical business. Pictures only really acquire any importance when they have something to do. Here is a fine example of a group of pictures which have found their purpose. Call it what you like: documentary, memory, perhaps even something tending towards conscience. Between a former diplomat with gentle eyes and a new generation of people who are hungry to be shown what they cannot recall, these pictures have quite suddenly become something. They’ve become an asset and a collection of stories and an invitation to understand more clearly. That’s what we call an archive of photographs, and it matters for all sorts of reasons which were not predictable when the pictures were first made.

(via John Ramsden – Everyday Life Continued | Francis Hodgson) Emphasis added.

I really, really like this. Probably because I don’t care for the idea that art should be above having a purpose. (cf. This post on Evans’s “a document has a use, whereas art is really useless.”)

But I also like the emphasis on how, even though these are not necessarily presented as great photographs, they are also not presented as implicitly anonymous. (Of course, it no doubt helps that the photographer in this case is a white dude in a foreign land.)

One of the hopes I have for photography in the future is that we will see less and less treatment of “vernacular” photography as a special genre apart from others. As time passes, it is less and less necessarily true that “found” photographs are anonymous ones, and it is also less necessarily true that the people with the ability to reorganize and recontextualize works of art are curators and academics. My (probably unjustified) hope is that it will also be less necessarily true that the latter depends on the former.

The only problem with stories like Ramsden, Maier, Cushman, etc. (aside from in some cases exasperating repetition), is the exaggerated exceptionalism that is implied when we single them out to build stories around them. A lifetime of good photography is not all that unusual in the past, and will be even less so in the future. So let the question not be, “is it a good photograph,” but “is it a photograph we can put to good use.”

“La Villette, Streetwalker Waiting for a Client, 19th arrondissement. April 1921,” by Eugène Atget. Via SFMOMA.

This is one of the two Atget photographs currently on display at SFMOMA. (Note for locals: on the second floor, not on the third floor where the majority of the photography is.)

This was just a little bit mind-blowing for me. I’m accustomed to seeing Atget as a photographer of buildings and neighborhoods, whose long exposures render humans invisible or, at most, half-seen ghosts flitting about their inscrutable business. This is something entirely different: a posed portrait that would almost be at home in the world of fashion photography.

And yet, Atget’s famed sense of composition is still present. So is his ability to work with the light – something that is present in his usual photographs, but not necessarily obvious, particularly if one is looking only at one or two of them. His ability to pose a subject is obviously just as strong, and just as subtle.

Her studied nonchalance is fantastic, and her precise posture and position within the scene are perfectly chosen to make the best possible use of what is one of the most troublesome kinds of light for portrait photography. The woman’s leg and the chair create a line of shadow which runs together with the shadow/light boundary created by the doorway. This line converges with the line created by the by the paving stones at an angle which gives a strong sense of depth to the photograph, and seems to make the woman stand forward from the print toward the viewer.

The posing also places the shadows so that they add to the drama of the scene and the strength of the woman without obscuring her or upstaging her. Which is no mean feat with this sort of light.

Also of interest is the depiction of the subject itself – the woman does not appear to be other than what she is labeled as being in the caption (that is, a prostitute), but she does not, at least to a modern eye, appear to be burdened with any particular sexualized or moralized sentiments. One gets the impression of a tough, handsome, businesslike woman, which is quite likely what she was.

The 1978 Test

“Any schoolboy or girl can make good pictures with one of the Eastman Kodak Company’s No.2 Brownie cameras.” – Kodak ad from The Youth’s Companion. April 29, 1902. At brownie-camera.com, via @vossbrink.

In my feed reader yesterday, I came across this question:

If everybody can be a photographer, what will be the function of a professional?

at Foam. (via Conscientious.) The question is part of “What’s Next: A Search into the Future of Photography.

Note: Judging by the comments, it looks like it was posted about 3 months ago. Not sure, though. Trying to make sense of the content buried in Foam’s web design is like trying to have a conversation with three really enthusiastic schizophrenic hobos.

It is a question that is voiced often, although much of the time it is phrased as a lamentation rather than as a question. Usually it is raised in reference to the availability of portable, highly automated digital cameras and cameraphones; it is often also coupled to one or more of the following:

  • Professional against amateur ranting
  • Aspiring professional against amateur ranting
  • Ranting among aspiring professionals who consider themselves more professional than other aspiring professionals
  • Professional against client ranting

In all of these forms, the question demonstrates the peculiar blindness which many photographers cultivate in reference to the history of their own medium. It is a question that fails what I have decided to call "The 1978 Test.”

The 1978 test is very, very simple. You fail it by presenting as novel a question which John Szarkowski addressed in Mirrors and Windows in 1978:

Portraits, wedding pictures, scenic views, product photographs, PR photos, architectural views, insurance-claim documents, and a score of similar vernacular functions that were once thought to require the special skills of a professional photographer are now increasingly being performed by naive amateurs with sophisticated cameras. Although for the most part these pictures are approximate and graceless, they answer adequately the simple problem of identifying a given face, setting, product, building, accident, or ritual handshake. (Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows, p. 14)

There is no significant difference between Szarkowski’s observation of this situation in 1978 and anyone’s proclamation today that “now everyone can be a photographer.”

The digital photography market is a natural extension of the 35mm/APS film market (easy-to-use cameras for consumers, sophisticated system cameras for enthusiasts/professionals). There is a difference in degree of adoption, but I see no reason to identify the present as the watershed. If the status of the professional photographer was killed by technology, it was done by the Minolta X-100 or the Nikon FA. The iPhone is just pissing on the grave.

(By the way, it is important to understand that Szarkowski did not just observe the situation, though – he also observed and reported the effects of shared awareness of that situation on the work of contemporary professional photographers.)

So you see that the Foam question, “If everybody can be a photographer, what will be the function of a professional?” is an excellent example of how to fail the test. It’s hardly the only one, however. The very best fail-with-flying-colors recent example is this paragraph in a LightBox post quoting Elisabeth Biondi:

“There are no more discoveries to be made,” Elisabeth Biondi tells me on the opening night of the fourth annual New York Photo Festival. “Anyone can take a picture now, so it’s forced documentary photographers to have a more personalized vision.”

Note: Since I don’t have the context, I don’t know whether the it is Biondi or the LightBox writer who gets credit for this 1978 Fail.

This is more or less a summary of Szarkowski’s basic thesis in Mirrors and Windows, which in large part was devoted to explaining why documentary photographers were turning their inquiries more and more upon themselves.

But Szarkowski was describing a change that had been ongoing since the 60’s, and that was already embodied in the work being produced throughout that decade and the 70’s.

So the “now” in Biondi’s “anyone can take a picture now,” is either a “now” that recapitulates the situation of the 60’s and 70’s, or else a “now” that has been stretched over half a century or more by photographers’ persistent elected ignorance of the history of their own medium.

“Anyone can take a picture now,” “everybody can be a photographer,” has been the condition of the medium of photography for a very long time. It has been advertised at least as far back as the first Kodak cameras, and it has been lamented at least as far back as the time when dry glass plates were introduced. And indeed, the invention and popularization of photography itself in the beginning was largely fueled by a desire to make picture-making available to those who lacked the talent and/or time to become skilled painters.

(Of course, this leaves out the question of the socioeconomic resources required to own and operate camera equipment. That is an area where there has been some interesting change over time, and the changes in the last decade or so may indeed be more radical than the changes that occurred over the prior century. However no one is (consciously) talking about that when they invoke “anyone can take a picture now,” so it has no impact on their failure of The 1978 Test.)

But there is an additional dimension to failing The 1978 Test, which is that the great mass of often unjustified enthusiasm and anxiety surrounding the advent of digital everything leads us to focus far too much on the role of equipment, techniques, procedures, and the technical look of photographs.

As Szarkowski wrote:

During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows, p. 14)

Photography is literacy. It was destined (or doomed) to become so, to become as ubiquitous, and as debased, as the practice of putting words onto paper or onto screens. It means as little, or as much.

At the end of his post, Colberg said, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”

The thing is, “photographer” isn’t analogous to “writer” in the sense that we use “writer” today. A “writer” is someone who is good at putting ideas and perceptions into words that are useful, important, educational, etc. (And Colberg was speaking more specifically about novelists, essayists, etc. – people whose job is to produce good, enjoyable, important writing.)

The word “photographer” is sometimes used to refer to comparable functions within photography. However it is often – maybe even usually – used to refer to people who perform work analogous to that of scribes. And apart from highly specialized people like notaries, court reporters, and calligraphers, almost nothing remains of that occupation in industrialized countries, because we no longer have a need for them, because most of us are at least semi-literate.

That role – the photographic scribe – is dying. Of course it is, and it should. And it has been doing so for a very long time. And if you don’t understand that…well, you fail The 1978 Test.

UPDATE: I’m really enjoying the discussion in the comments – I’ll try to put together a “featured comments” update for this post at some point, but for now, I just want to point out that several commenters have pointed out something that I didn’t address above, which is that the distribution of photography has undergone a change in recent years that is significantly more radical than the rate of change in prior decades. I agree with this, and I think that “Everyone is now a publisher – what does that mean for traditional publishers/publications and for photographers,” is a valid and interesting question that belongs to the present and future of photography, and is not a carryover in the way that “Everyone is now a photographer…” is.

UPDATE 2: I pulled a snippet (“Making their photographs mirrors.”) out of the post in response to Andre’s comment. I need to check my copy of Mirrors and Windows to confirm, but I believe he’s right that I flipped Szarkowski’s thesis around. It’s not actually relevant to the main thrust of the post, FWIW, but certainly if I’m going to chastise people for not reading Szarkowski, I should try to report his text accurately. : )

Self-Portrait, Gordon Parks. Via artnet.

Earlier this month, I attended a talk related to a project called CHROMA, which is intended to foster “pluralism within the field of photography and lens-based media by supporting the work of emerging artists of African, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern, North African, Asian, and Pacific Island heritage.”

The conversation tended strongly toward academic/fine arts inside baseball. Not surprising, considering the venue and audience – but not really our beat. However, something that came up in the question and answer period struck me as interesting and within the 1/125 remit:

One of the audience members was worried about changes related to ephemera (like written correspondence) and the impact of those changes on biography in the arts. What, if anything, will take the place of letters in providing biographical detail about the artists of our time? Are emails and tweets likely to be preserved in a way that will be usable for future biographers?

I expected the ensuing discussion to be either a stultifying technical speculation on digital archiving, or else a dirge for old media. But the response from Deborah Willis went in a different direction.

She talked about the upcoming Centennial of Gordon Parks’s birth, and about researching an article she was asked to write about him. She said that Parks wrote five memoirs – which seems like a rather excessive number for anyone. But Willis pointed out that while Parks wrote extensively about himself, few other writers have done so. It seems biographical work on him is scarce, and Parks is missing from a number of recent works which survey documentary photography and photojournalism. (Which seems crazy.)

Willis said, “If Gordon hadn’t written his stories, no one would know he existed,” and so, “My suggestion to you as an artist is: start writing your story.”

The latest TIME cover has kicked up a bit of a response on twitter, and I am really enjoying it.

Here is the cover, Martin Schoeller’s portrait of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son:

And here are some reactions:

Now, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening here. TIME is presenting a deliberately provocative photo, and people are being provoked. This is nothing new. But I’ve found the reactions – mostly dirty jokes, of course, along with a smattering of indignation – to be really refreshing.

Most of the time, lately, when people got excited about anything related to photography, it’s to do with things like digital manipulation, intellectual property, Instagram, etc. Many of these discussions fail the 1978 test. And even the ones that don’t are usually still really boring.

So, I just want to point out some things about a lot of the reactions I’m seeing to the TIME cover:

  • People are paying attention to what’s in a photo, not what tools were used to make it
  • People are making judgments about the content of an image, its concept, and the editorial process that led to its being put on newsstands
  • People are thinking about how a photo will differentially influence the later life of subjects in it
  • People are thinking about the moral agency of those responsible for creating and publishing a photo

Also, the jokes folks are making about this are way funnier than the jokes people make about Instagram. That’s a non-trivial win. One of the worst things about a boring controversy is enduring the boring jokes it engenders.

If you’re interested in the actual photo itself, TIME has a short post about it on its “Lightbox” blog. Not a ton of meat there, and it doesn’t come near addressing the decision to use such a bait-y image. The best part is that it includes this photo of reference images used in planning the shoot:

I am particularly fond of the middle image in the lower row. I would love to know how these images were gathered, and to what criteria, but, sadly, that is also not covered in the post.

The Seeing is Important; The Print is Not

The print, to [Cartier-Bresson] as to most European photo-journalists, is just a transition between the seeing and the publication. It is something to toss by the dozen into the laps of editors; it is nothing by itself…Developing and printing [Europeans] usually leave to a technician in a laboratory. Enlarging is routine, the technician following the photographer’s indications on the contact sheets. The image – the seeing – is important; the print is not, and to American eyes is execrable – not even half “realized.” The print to a European is only a proof; his image is not complete until reproduced where a million eyes can see it. If his intention then appears clear and forceful, he is content.

When a print is required for exhibition, Cartier-Bresson works directly with the technician, and works for a quality much like that of a good gravure. He chooses semi-matte paper, he enlarges to 11 x 14 or 16 x 20, and insists on tones like those of a wash or charcoal drawing.He wants his image sharp enough to be convincing, but the sharpness Americans find requisite seem to him a fetish, beyond and apart from what is necessary.

Nancy Newhall, “Controversy,” 1953. in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, pp. 129-130

I’m not going to make a big deal out of the World Press Photo of the Year thing, partly because it’s not all that interesting, but mostly because there’s a limit to how often even I enjoy pointing out the antique vintage of photography’s problem of the week. (Although yes, I did make a “90’s problem – more like 1890’s” joke when I first saw it circulating.)

I just want to point out the passage above, in which Nancy Newhall describes the characteristic European photojournalist’s attitude to prints in the 1950’s. The range of adjustments made or not made in printing a negative are in very much the same ballpark as the range of digital post-processing that is at issue in the Hansen photo.

Note the distinction between the image and its specific printed forms, which might differ significantly from one another. (And in the context of film, it goes without saying that none are the “true” or “original” or “unaltered” version of the photograph – when printing from a negative, there is no such thing.) Note also Newhall’s comparison to gravure, in relation to derogatory use of “illustration” in discussing “photoshopped” images. Note Newhall’s emphasis on mass reproduction. (And remember who the audience of news is supposed to be.)

I would also suggest comparing the Hansen image(s) (h/t Raw File) with the versions of a Bresson photo here and here (h/t @vossbrink. (Note: when I saw the Bresson exhibit at SFMOMA a while back, prints of the same negative with equal or greater degree of difference were on display at the same time. (More on that exhibit here and here, if you’re interested.))

It’s good to talk about photojournalistic ethics. But I think in the big list of ethical problems that journalism has to deal with, how photos are post-processed should be near the very bottom. Ultimately, it’s not really an ethical question at all – it’s an aesthetic question. And talking about aesthetic questions is good, but applying professional ethics-style thinking to them is maybe not so much. I think it tends to end in people conflating “tacky” with “false.”

Stan Banos's "Forbidden Portraits"

There’s something of a running joke that I only like portraits where you can’t see the subject’s face. Well, this post certainly won’t buck that trend.

Last month, Stan Banos at Reciprocity Failure posted effaced or redacted versions of three portraits that are part of a series which he was forced to abandon. I won’t go into the details – you should definitely click through and read his whole post. But I find myself drawn to the portraits themselves in the redacted form in which he posted them:

And so I’m left with seven orphaned portraits- The Magnificent Seven; three of which I present here in their ghostly apparitions. Although I took care to get signed releases from each subject, I have no idea what the legal implications to showing the actual images are, particularly since it can now be probably claimed that I took them without authority. As proud as I am of these images, they have been as effectively gutted of their context, as they have of their details in this presentation.

There’s not no information visible in them, although there is very little. The shape of the subject’s body, broad strokes of their wardrobe – and of course the posture, which is the only trait that is preserved more or less fully intact.

These are essential aspects of a person’s image, and they give the portraits, even in redacted form, a degree of personality. It might be a greater degree than is found in the most frequently seen photographs of people – advertising photographs and news photographs. These often reduce the complexity and idiosyncrasies of their subjects to archetypes – the building blocks of simple, powerful, salable stories.

In (what is left of) these portraits, the specific person is invisible, and only the shadow of a type is suggested. No story, just a question. Which is the perfect illustration of the post to which they are attached, of course. (You did read it, right?) And it’s probably why I find them so appealing.

In a sense, it’s a more extreme case of what attracts me to old albumen prints – I like that photographs with incomplete information seem to leave more to the viewer’s imagination, interpretation, and judgment.

Of course, this probably isn’t a principle that can be followed to its logical conclusion, or else my favorite photographs would be totally blank.

Pull it Down or Burn it Up

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in some of the stuff I’ve been reading and/or re-reading over the past few weeks, regarding the proliferation of photographic images, and how that proliferation changes the way we see and relate to images and to the world. It’s in some respects similar to the case of the 1978 Test, although it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried.

Here are the relevant bits:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Soundings from the Atlantic, published in the 1860’s:

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. We must, perhaps, sacrifice some luxury in the loss of color; but form and light and shade are the great things, and even color can be added, and perhaps by and by may be got direct from Nature.

There is only one Colosseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed – representatives of billions of pictures – since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth. (pp 161-162)

Wilson Hicks, writing in a 1950’s Aperture article, “Photographs and Public,” reprinted recently in Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976:

[The] public is inundated today by a vast flood of images which, as Lewis Mumford says in his Art and Technics…has “undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection.” There is being waged, he reminds us, a horrific battle of man and machine from which the machine has emerged so far as the victor: witness the images mass-produced by still, movie, and television cameras and mass-repeated by the printing press. I say, “witness the images,” but you dare not do that. For, as Mr. Mumford says, if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks. Mr. Mumford asks whether being surrounded by a superabundance of images makes us more picture-minded, and answers no; we develop an “abysmal apathy” because “what we look at habitually, we overlook.” Moreover, he says, picture users, to get attention, resort to sensationalism – “make sensation seem more important than meaning” – and the shockers so prevalent today cause quieter, and better, pictures to suffer. Still further, the image producers have created a ghost-world, Mr. Mumford says, in which we lead a derivative, secondhand life in addition to our real life. This apparitional world is set and peopled with the artificial and the phoney (note many so-called news pictures). Thus in various ways are the sign and symbol of photography devaluated. (pp. 152-153)

Alec Soth, interviewed in 2010, from From Here to There:

I’m not actually killing the father, though I know that’s in there. But I am interested in killing that genre of photography going forward. It exists in the history of the medium that you shoot the mundane and make it beautiful, right? So people used to take pictures of old barns. Now we all see an old barn and we say, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” It’s a photo cliche so you don’t shoot that, but the world thinks they’re beautiful. That sort of goes on through time. And Eggleston took it to another level with a book such as The Democratic Forest. Just anything, and you can find beauty in it. And I agree with that. But the issue is now, in the digital age, it’s relentless. You have thousands of photographers working that way. it’s really hard to have that moment.

One thing I thought about on that little walk is the scene in American Beauty with the floating plastic bag. That scene has become iconic. I photographed a lot of plastic bags on that walk. In a way, they’re like the old barns. We find the floating bag beautiful now because of that movie, but it’s just harder and harder to do that. (pp. 143-144)

Nathan Jurgenson, writing recently, (via LPV):

Or: Given the proliferation of options, how should I document this cat?

For some, though certainly not everyone, this question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. The most obvious answer is “don’t document that cat. Enough already.” I’m with you. I’m concerned about how social media documentation changes experience…I think there is good reason for why these types of documentation proliferate: most importantly, to be on social media in all its various forms is, for many, to exist. PJ Rey does an excellent job at explaining why it’s not so easy to just opt-out of all of this. In any case, this is not a post about whether this expansion in the ways of documentation is a good thing, but asking if there is a cognitive limit to all of this. So, again: How should I document this cat lying next to me?….

Can one simultaneously see the photographs, video, audio, and GIFs in front of them in real-time? Can documentary literacy be refined as to intuit between what is most shareable frozen-still versus wants to be stuck in the GIF loop? Can one see the fast Vine video in the sandwich being slowly consumed? Can we keep all of these documentary-affordances and potentialities in our head at once? Is there a limit?

To make this even more complex, we modern documentarians also need to keep all of the different audiences in mind. Indeed, that we now have been connected to large audiences to share our ephemera is in large part why we are being given so many documentary options. To see something as a potential snap (sent via Snapchat) is to already know the taste and expectations of each potential recipient. Vine users are different than your Facebook friends are different than your Tumblr followers and thus expectations multiply within the documentary consciousness.

As the complexities swell, might there be in this ecology of documentary consciousness something to keep mediums of documentation from proliferating endlessly? Is there a point of cognitive documentary saturation? Can we really all-at-once see the world as photographable, GIFable, Vineable, and whatever else comes next? And are those who reach that documentary saturation first at a disadvantage, missing out on the cultural and social capital that social media documentation promises?

Perennial millennialisms

As usually, photography’s chronic problem is to believe that its problems are acute. In this case, it seems that photography has, if not always, then from nearly the very beginning, been in the situation it is now: struggling to make sense of a staggering increase in the rate of production of photographs.

Much as with physical goods, I suppose, changes in abundance and scarcity precipitate anxiety about the value of things – compounded in the case of photographs by the dual impact of proliferating photographs on each other and on the world which those photographs represent. But unlike commodities, the value here is not a matter of monetary worth, but of meaning.

For Holmes, it is the value of real places, subverted by cheap access to photographs of them. (Note: Holmes was writing in a tongue in cheek fashion; he certainly was not anti-photography.) For Hicks, it is the value of “quieter, and better” images which is lost in the deluge – and a crisis in seeing itself, in which we dare not “witness,” because we know that “if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks.” For Soth, it is the aesthetic value of photographic subjects, eroded by our very appreciation (and therefore imitation) of it, which transforms the freshly discovered source of beauty into cliche. For Jurgens, it is the value of routine self-documentation (i.e., the successor technologies of the snapshot): for a given thing or experience, how should one record it – and is it even worth doing so anymore?

To put it in terms of Holmes’s signature metaphor: are there too many ways to “skin” a cat? Having perhaps achieved his vision of men who hunt all things worth seeing only “for their skins and leave the carcass,” are we now at the point where the traffic in those skins – what Hicks called the “derivative, secondhand life” of our visual “ghost world” – has also destabilized and devalued itself? It seems like Jurgens would object to Hicks’s dualism, but shares some of his John Henryesque concerns for the limits of the mind.

In summary, does the proliferation of images sometimes depreciate the value of individual images and/or of things? Is that depreciation a problem? And is that problem newly becoming acute and dire? The answers seem positive, but at least in the case of the third question, consensus is not necessarily supporting evidence when it occurs across time.

I am suspicious of millennialisms in photography, because they tend to recur perennially. (This is also the problem with actual millennial cults. If any of them were right, there would be much fewer of them by now.) Of course, just because the end wasn’t actually nigh all those other times doesn’t mean it’s not really nigh this time. But I am nonetheless inclined to follow the wisdom of Nick Fury: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Tonight, on a very special…

My feeling is that anxiety about too many images takes its particular form from the specific technological and cultural situation at a given time, but is at heart more or less a constant: to put it crudely, the problem is that photography and related technologies have a disruptive impact on what is special. (There’s probably a better term, but I can’t think of it offhand.)

A special person or place, when subjected to mass reproduction and distribution in image form, may become less special, or the way in which it is special, and to whom, can be totally transformed. A special image – whether distinguished by technical innovation or the artist’s style or perceptiveness – is easily mimicked, which eventually removes the special, distinct quality of it, aside from its historical precedence. The stunning moment of beauty and insight becomes the standard subject.

Of course, this effect is inextricable from the basic appeal of photography in the first place, which from the beginning has included the (relative) ease, affordability, and reproducibility of the images it makes possible. The camera has always been a turnkey solution to the problem of the unique. It disrupts the economy of meaning that determines what is special, because it is and always has been a tool for exactly that purpose.

Of course, the presence of perennial problems and purposes does not mean the medium stands still. Rather, they play a persistent part in shaping its progress, for better or worse. I think proliferation anxiety tends to drive a kind of arms race of innovation – an always-escalating quest for new or new-seeming or newly-rediscovered subjects and techniques to distinguish the photographer who puts them to use before they have a chance to become cliches.

Unfortunately, different parts of the audience relate to the medium differently, and react to to its changes at different rates. A great deal of effort and attention goes into knowing what things to be over, and when. And when it comes to rediscovering the old – well, it can get awkward when one person’s current/continuing practice is someone else’s antique novelty. Under such conditions, it’s inevitable that photography’s audiences will grow farther apart, and their vocabularies, judgments, and desires become less mutually intelligible.

I think in the case of photography as art, the result is an incentive to move toward the abstract, the conceptual, and the technical, farther afield from the common use of photographic tools – and away from the devaluing impact of naive imitation by the masses. That certainly seems to be an implication (spoken or unspoken) behind some of the predicted futures of photography. (Alternatively, of course, the naive products of the masses can be laundered back into relevance through appropriation by some credentialed party.)

Stick to your knitting

Coming at it from another side, I wonder: how much of this fear of proliferating images, would be resolved by pulling art out of the equation? Or, rather, the artist? The obsession with the unique, the special, the distinguishing, and the fear for the fate of good images that may go unseen in the vast flood of others – it’s not really fear about the quality of photographs or the limits of seeing. It’s about the status of the photographer as artist and author.

In crafts, familiarity or commonality is not antithetical to worth. In that context, one cannot reasonably qualify a description of something beautiful or useful and well-made with a dismissive observation that it is also derivative. In folk songs and stories, the quality of performance often reflects an ability to skillfully iterate but does not require radical innovation. And while crafts, folk arts, traditional music, etc. may be perceived as belonging to the past, internet memes really work in much the same way – and like folktales and songs, they tend for practical purposes to come from a culture rather than from an individual author, even sometimes in cases where we can definitely identify such an author.

I think this is particularly relevant to the question of documentary consciousness/saturation – because I think it points to the fact that as we all become more and more skilled at producing images, and as we increasingly do so for the joy of it, we rely on the camera less as a documentary tool for memorializing moments and more to produce personal variations on standard subjects as an end in itself. Not to the exclusion of documentation, of course, but in conjunction with it. As with, say, knitting, the result is a practice that is partly aesthetic, partly utilitarian, and which imparts a satisfaction of creation without necessarily implying “creativity” in the sense of innovation.

(Please, nobody start pummeling me with your copies of Knitting for Anarchists; I know that many knitters engage in extensive design work, etc. But as far as I know, nobody points to someone knitting from a pattern and declares haughtily, “You are not a knitter.”)

Wait, really?

Well…no. Or, not exactly. In fact, I tend to be on the side of the “quieter, and better” image, too. And I’m copiously on record as resenting contemporary forms of the attention-seeking “sensationalism” Hicks derided, such as the photos that, through a combination of “wow” factor and SEO, rise to the top of Flickr’s Explore.

More critically, I’m concerned for the ability of photographs to let viewers partake of different perspectives (literally and figuratively). One of the most important functions of photography throughout its history is to form connections between people and between communities – even if they have all too often been simplistic and one-directional connections.

That function is not necessarily menaced by the proliferation of images. Take documentary photography, for example: the more universal, common, cheap, and easy photographic production is, and the more people are making photographs, and the more photographs they make, the more chances we have to avoid the great weakness of documentary photography: its dependence on parachuting white guys into any area that needs documenting.

But neither is there necessarily a positive correlation between a more a diverse body of photographs being made and more diverse, broadening photographic experiences for viewers. The increasingly elective distribution channels of the present are only as inclusive and interconnected as we make them. The walls formed by people letting their tastes guide them can be just as solid as those formed by institutional bias and myopia, and numbers alone will not scale them. Someone has to make windows and doors, or at least ladders. It’s a task that gets far too little love.

So anyway, please take about 2-3x the usual dose of salt with everything I’ve said here.

PS: I was also being extremely glib in my comparison of knitting to photography. I did not include fiber arts as an academic practice, or haute couture, which would likely have created annoyingly relevant parallels. Figuring out whether and how those parallels would have undermined my point is left as an exercise to the reader.

But most significantly, in knitting and in many other crafts, there is a direct relationship between the time one must spend in physical work and the result one achieves. Photography is by no means free of work, but the relationship between the time spent in it and the nature and quality of the result one achieves is wildly variable.

The usual read of that is that photography is faster or easier and therefore it upsets balances. I don’t think it’s that photography is faster or easier than other media, so much as that within photography, there is no consistent relationship between the amount, duration, or kind of effort one expends, and what one achieves. I think that inconsistency breeds media-wide insecurity at an hilarious rate.

PPS: This post took me a long time, and in the time between I started writing it and when I hammered into its present, vaguely publishable state, other things have been posted that I really should take into account. But if I stopped to do that, it would be another month before I got this out there, and then the situation would just keep getting more silly. So I’ll just say: read the posts linked here, here, and here.

Sexual Assault Spree Caught on Camera: Or, "V-J Day in Times Square"

I’m always interested (and/or exasperated) when photographic questions come to my attention through non-photography-specific channels. In this case, a tweet from Annalee Newitz pointed me to a post at the blog Crates and Ribbons titled “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.’”

The post concerns the Eisenstaedt V-J day photo, which has been in the news lately because of a recent book offering evidence for George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the two subjects of the photo. (Quite a few people have been identified as the sailor and nurse over the years.)

The Crates and Ribbons post points out that the mainstream news coverage demonstrates (without recognizing) that the kiss in question might in contemporary terms be considered a sexual assault:

The articles even give us Greta’’s own words:

“It wasn’’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip.”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”

“ That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed was sexual assault. Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, “still mesmerized by his timeless kiss.” George’’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.

For some additional context, I did a quick search, figuring that the wonderful Iconic Photos blog probably had a post about the V-J Day photo, and of course it does, including some contact sheetage

and quotation from Eisenstaedt:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.

So, if we define a nonconsensual kiss as a sexual assault, this photo is not a charming document of romantic celebration, but a visually striking slice out of a minor crime spree. (Also, note that Eisenstaedt is both observing the sailor’s kissing progress through the crowd but “hoping” and preparing for him to get to the unsuspecting nurse.)

Reactions to the Crates and Ribbons post are about what you’d think – some folks are disenchanted with the image, some dispute the use of the term “sexual assault”, some reject the idea of applying the term across generations, and of course some fall into the “feminism is dumb” camp. The comments thread is pretty interesting reading (both for good and bad reasons, depending on the comment), and I’d recommend perusing it, especially if you’re interested in splitting hairs over what is and isn’t sexual assault.

To phrase it in a less jargon-y way, the point is that what we’re looking it is not two people enthusiastically celebrating victory and the prospect of peace, but one person forcibly celebrating on another person. This is true if Friedman is in fact the woman in the photo; it is also true just going by Eisenstaedt’s account, regardless of who the woman was. And, as @Vossbrink points out, it is clear from inspection of the contact sheet: “The photo we know is the only one where it’s not obvious she’s fighting him.”

Friedman’s own interpretation of the photograph is very interesting. There’s a transcript of a 2005 interview with her at the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, which some of the commenters at Crates and Ribbons pointed to – it’s short and you should just read it, but I’ll excerpt some of the relevant bits. (Note: I cleaned up the formatting and fixed a couple of errors for the sake of readability.)

Patricia Redmond: When he grabbed you and gave you a kiss, what did you feel like?

Greta Friedman: I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of 'thank god the war is over’ … it was right in front of the sign.

Patricia Redmond: Did he say anything to you when he kissed you?

Greta Friedman: No, it was an act of silence.


Patricia Redmond: What did you do the rest of the day, when you were off and celebrating?…

Greta Friedman: I went home!

Patricia Redmond: Did you think about “the kiss”…

Greta Friedman: Not until years later when I saw the picture.


Greta Friedman: …It wasn’t my choice to be kissed… (in 1945). The guy just came over and grabbed! (in 1980 for the reenactment of the kiss) I told him I didn’t want to redo that pose! We have the picture here, and it is kind of a reenactment of the pose and the sign on Time’s Square says, 'It had to be you!’


Patricia Redmond: So Alfred Eisenstaedt has said that you two were indeed the kissing couple?

Greta Friedman: I don’t know if he really had such a great view of our faces. I think he was attracted more by the pose. It was a black and white shot, and as a photographer, he just knew that he had a good picture. It was an opportunity and that’s the job of a good photographer…to recognize a good opportunity.

Patricia Redmond: In the Frederick newspaper article, that told about the photograph and I quote: “It was an enduring symbol of the joy and relief felt by a nation at the end of the war.”

Greta Friedman: Right. Everyone was very happy; people on the street were friendly and smiled at each other. It was a day that everyone celebrated, because everybody had somebody in the war, and they were coming home. The women were happy, their boyfriends and husbands would come home. It was a wonderful gift finally, to end this war. It was a long war, and it cost a lot.


Patricia Redmond: How does it feel to be so famous?

Greta Friedman: It’s kind of fun, because it’s very accidental. Fame for just being there…being dressed right. Actually, the fame belongs to the photographer. He provided an art… I can’t call it a skill. He was an artist. I just happened to be there…and so did George.


Greta Friedman: …I think [George] was the one who made me famous, because he took the action. I was just the bystander. So, I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress… and a great photographer at the right time.

I’m fascinated by how conscious and specific Friedman is in apportioning agency and intention between the parties involved, and differentiating between her experience of the kiss itself and the meaning and value of the photograph. It seems clear that her experience at that moment was sharply unpleasant but also fairly trivial and – until Friedman saw Eisenstaedt’s photograph and recognized herself – forgettable. It also seems clear that she values the symbolic worth of the photograph, which she treats as distinct from the circumstances of its creation and which she attributes entirely to happenstance plus Eisenstaedt’s ability to recognize an opportunity. (As opposed to the customary function of photographs for non-photographers – memorialization of a personally important experience.)

This is in contrast to the way Crates and Ribbons reads the photo – more or less as a transparent and instant window on the deed, the meaning of which is what matters and is under scrutiny. Eisenstaedt isn’t mentioned at all in the body of the post (although the photo is attributed and the post is tagged with his name), and there’s no speculation there about his intentions or actions before or after the photo. Just, “For so long, this photograph has come to represent that unbridled elation, capturing the hearts of war veterans and their families alike.”

And it is maybe worth thinking about how else the photographer could have proceeded, and with what results. Was Eisenstaedt aware of or concerned with the experience of the women of the sailor was grabbing? Is it reasonable (in that situation at that time) to expect that he should have been? Could he or his editors have selected a different frame from the sheet, or by framing, captioning, or other means should they have better indicated the nature of the scene? If so, would the result have been better photography? Would it have sold more or fewer magazines? And in a similar situation today, would or should a photographer be expected to do anything differently?

(Not to mention the question of what viewers can or should be expected to deduce, or suspect, or (hah) research when they view a photograph.)

Father Louie

In my previous post on Meatyard, I mentioned that Meatyard was acquainted with Thomas Merton, and how flabbergasted I was by that – and that a book had been published with Meatyard’s photographs of Merton, along with their correspondence. Well, almost as soon as I found out about that book, Father Louie, I ordered a copy. (It’s well and thoroughly out of print, but used copies aren’t un-findable.)

The book contains a preface by Barry Magid, an essay on Meatyard and Merton (“Tom and Gene”) by Guy Davenport, two short pieces of writing by Meatyard – “Photographing Thomas Merton: A Reminiscence” and “A Eulogy of Thomas Merton,” correspondence between Meatyard and Merton, and a brief but nicely nitty-gritty note from Meatyard’s son Christopher about the negatives, the prints, and a bit about Meatyard’s gear and technique. And, of course, the photographs.

The photographs are a bit tricky to describe. It’s hard to judge their quality, in particular. They’re an inclusive group of photographs, minimally edited and chronologically sequenced. That doesn’t make them better or worse as individual photos, but because of the way they were assembled, they together make up more a useful historical resource than a significant photographic statement. Which isn’t a ding against them or against the book – although I guess it is a ding against history that Meatyard and Merton didn’t have the time for more of these photos. (The two met in 1967; Merton died in 1968.)

Portraiture and Identity

The photos are, on the surface, totally unlike Meatyard’s best-known work – the portraits of masked children, anonymous (or universalized), blatantly surreal and artificial. To a viewer without any context for them, the Merton photos might appear to be casual snapshots of family and friends – a picnic, a dinner party, and so on. Perhaps the work of a talented but careless amateur student photographer, prone to “accidents” like motion blur and odd exposures and awkward poses.

But we do have context – text that helps to clarify how the photographs relate to Meatyard’s intentions and oeuvre, and to Merton’s personality. Maybe the most useful aspect to this is understanding the meaning of portraiture – and how these portraits relate both to traditional ideas of portraiture and to Meatyard’s other work.

From Magid’s preface:

Thomas Merton became Father Louis to the brethren of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

To the world…he remained Thomas Merton, best-selling author and spiritual guide to his and our generation. But Merton was acutely aware of the danger of being trapped by these personae, and already in The Seven Storey Mountain he refers to that Thomas Merton as “my double, my shadow, my enemy”….

Gene Meatyard’s photographs, with their use of chance, motion, and multiple exposures, mirror the ever-changing, ephemeral nature of the self, which we normally fool ourselves into imagining as fixed and stable. When we open a book of photographic portraits, we are used to looking for how the photographer has captured the essence of his subject in a given image.

These pictures don’t do that.

Rather than gratify what Merton called “the hunger of having a clear satisfying idea of who he is and what he is and where he stands,” they subvert the whole notion of Essence, or of a Self to be captured. (pp. 9-10)

From Davenport’s essay:

Gene was interested in what happens to the rest of the body when the face is masked. A mask, like an expression, changes the way we see feet and hands, stance and personality. These photographs are both satiric and comic; their insight, however, is deep. We are all masked by convention and pretense. Merton would have said that we are masked by illusion. He was, as Gene perceived, a man of costumes (masks for the whole person). His proper costume was a Cistercian robe, in which he looked like a figure out of El Greco or Zurbaran. He liked wearing this in the wrong place, a picnic, for instance, of which Gene made a set of photographs. This was one of Gene’s favorite modes: the candid shot of families and groups, a use of the camera as old as photography, but in Gene’s masterly hands a psychological sketchbook, and a comedy of manners. (pp. 29-30)


Gene liked to say that he photographed essence, not fact. Gene read Zukofsky before he photographed him; Zukofsky’s layered text turns up as double exposures in the portraits, as oblique tilts of the head, as blurred outlines. The “innocent eye” of Monet and Wallace Stevens was not for Gene: he needed to know all he could about his subjects. He did not, for example, know enough about Parker Tyler, who sat for him, and came out as a complacent southern gentleman on a sofa, and the photograph is neither Parker Tyler nor a Meatyard.

The first thing we notice about Gene’s portraits of Tom is the wild diversity. Here’s Tom playing drums, and Tom the monk, and Tom the tobacco farmer, and Tom the poet (holding Jonathan Williams’s thyrsus). Many were taken when tom could not have been aware that he was being photographed. Many are posed in a collaboration between artist and subject.

Gene had agreed with me that Tom could look eerily like Jean Genet–John Jennet, as Gene pronounced the name, with typical Meatyardian intrepedity. This was within the psychological game of belying appearances, one of Gene’s games. For Tom resembled the French outlaw and prose stylist only when he was in his farmer’s clothes; that is, in a mask for the body. (p. 32)

From Christopher Meatyard’s notes:

Merton wore his monk’s habit, and provided Meatyard with his first and best opportunity to photograph him so attired. The black and white elements of the habit represent diverse aspects of the Trappist heritage. The white robe is a reminder of the twelve apostles and of the Trappists’ dedication to the Virgin, and is worn in choir. The black scapular dates back to the time of St. Benedict, the sixty century, when it functioned as an apron for those involved in manual labor. The hood of the scapular was seldom used except in processions. The contrast of black and white corresponds to Merton’s own personal combination of two branches of theological discourse: the apophatic, referring to the unknowability of God, and the cataphatic, referring to the theology of “light,” “good,” “life.” The wide leather belt “girds up the loins” and thus represents a profession even on top of another belt looped through jeans). A fishing cap bearing a pair of crossed swordfish as insignia tops of Merton’s habit. (p. 89)

You may note the contradiction between Magid and Davenport regarding “essence” – it is doubtless a contradiction with real metaphysical weight, and I think it does bear interestingly on the question of how “Zen” Meatyard was or wasn’t. But that’s of decidedly secondary concern; the point is that these photographs are light years away from the portrait as a portrayal of a unitary and fixed inner self inherent to the subject. They show the subject as fluid, as masked – but more than that, as deploying different masks at different times, managing a changeable identity.

This makes them both like and unlike Meatyard’s more familiar portraits – in which he provides his subjects with masks from his rather epic collection. Merton is differently (though not less) masked, but the masks are his own. The staging is similar – a mix of home ground and abandoned structures. The style is a mix – some are very similar to Meatyard’s other work, and some are different – more intimate, and with a greater sense of movement. (In the sense of natural gesture, rather than motion blur as a specific technique – although that is also very much in play.) Because of how Merton relates to costume and to identity, he feels like an equal player in the portrait game. I find this tremendously appealing – I prefer portraits where the subject isn’t totally at the descriptive mercy of the photographer.

Meatyard on Meatyard

When he brought his photographs over to show, always mounted, he was modestly silent. We did the talking, not he. He talked only about others’ photographs. (p. 35)

As to how Meatyard thought about his photography – and what he meant by it – the text is rather more oblique. Meatyard did not generally talk about his work, and what he did say could be obscure. For example, in his correspondence with Merton, Meatyard references a series of photographs he made in which a boy is photographed at different points along a wall, wearing different masks. (Some of these photos were at the de Young, referred to with series title “Along I Walk” – unfortunately, I did not take a picture of them, and I cannot find examples online.) Regarding this series, he composed a poem:

              However -- 
    How rove wearer,
       lovers rave,
                 the prover
    of history's hysterical plover.

Now, I haven’t the faintest clue what that means, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it. If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments.

Photographs in Context

Maybe the book’s greatest service is to provide context on individual photos – situating them in a time and a place, and relating them to meanings and intentions. This is especially valuable when it comes to Meatyard, because his photographs so often seem to emanate by chance from some charming yet monstrous alternate reality.

Some examples:

Meatyard made nine images of Merton’s profile as he read from the manuscript that would become Cables to the Ace (pages 2, 16-19). Each explored a different relationship between the silhouette and the outlining illumination. Meatyard modified Merton’s location by degrees to draw attention to the juxtaposition of the horizontal frame of the window and the vertical support post of the porch outside. He illustrated Merton’s apophatic speech by aligning one black arm of the momentary crucifix with the speaker’s ebullient tongue. (p. 87)

It was at this December meeting that Levertov and Merton discussed the merits of self-immolation as a way of protesting the war in Vietnam. It is tempting to see a visual commentary on this conversation in the triple exposure with the overlapping visages of Levertov, Merton, and Berry: almost everyone of its overlapping forms refers to fire. Levertov is seated in front of an active fireplace. The vivid wood grain of the cedar alter over the hearth opening recalls flames. Another image of the later is superimposed in that of the gas heater. The horizontal exhaust of the heater intersects with the later candle. The candle snuff reflects a flamelike light. A second image of the later candle hovers under a thermometer, which lends together with an alter icon. (p. 93)

Although some of the juiciest context is actually provided for a photograph which does not exist:


We retired to an unused farmhouse and farmyard were I proceeded to make some photographs of Tom and Guy. Backgrounds are important to my photographs and I used many around that farm for constructions and single and double portraits. There was one junction of a row of large leafed plants, a gate going to nowhere and a plowed field that looked interesting. I asked Tom to walk along next to the plants while I worked the camera. As he was walking he asked how far to go and I said for him to keep going. He did – and disappeared from view in the ground glass. I looked up and he was lying on his face in the field with his hat on his head. He was participating. None of us realized that there was a nine-inch drop-off from grass to field. We all laughed until we could laugh no longer – a pratfall is contagious in its humor. (p. 41)

Christopher Meatyard:

Merton asked, “How far?” and Gene answered, “Keep going.” Merton’s stride found the vertical and he fell facedown, his robes billowing and flashing all of him there was to see to those assembled, including at least two women. I suppose my father intended for Merton to hop that step so that he could suspend him softly, airborne, and momentarily relate the monk to the ephemeral windswept wire with its solitary clothespin that reached toward him from the top of the inexplicable gatepost frame. (Wires, cables, and power lines were an important formal element in all the photographs made that day.) In the next frame Merton is seen marching back toward the camera, grinning broadly. Although one of Gene’s passions was recording the interstice of gesture – and he would not have let this moment pass – in this case the frame is blank for the fall itself, the record discrete. Gene dated the photograph “fall” even though the picnic took place in the early summer. (p. 86)

Miscellaneous Fun Facts

  • Meatyard did not use contact sheets. (p. 5)
  • He generally printed 1/3 of his negatives; with Merton, he printed ½ (p. 5)
  • Most negatives he only printed once or twice (p. 5)
  • Meatyard once identified a man immediately on sight based on a photograph of the subject at age ten (p. 25)
  • “Gene had no studio, never directed his subjects, and usually looked away, as if uninterested, before he triggered the shutter.” (p. 33)
  • Meatyard regarded color photography as “just some chemicals in the emulsion, nothing to do with photography.” (p. 35)
  • In some of his photographs, he introduced motion blur by mounting the camera on a tripod, then kicking the tripod. (p. 35)
  • “Meatyard, it should be noted, never took any family snapshots or made casual records after 1955.” (p. 92)
  • “Gene was fascinated with his own name, Meatyard, and was delighted when I pointed out that it is the Middle English meteyeard, or yardstick, cognate with the name Dreyfus. And that his first name is properly pronounced "Rafe.” He approved of Edward Muggeridge’s changing his name to Eadward Muybridge.“ (p. 28)
Masks, Stress, and Selves

Unequally Yoked recently posted a well-phrased take on a theme relevant to my interests:

In C.S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds, most of the selections in the book are critical essays, but there a few pieces of fiction included, one of which is a never completed novel that C.S. Lewis meant to write about Menelaus and Helen during and after the Trojan War. In the excerpt below, Menelaus stops fantasizing about torturing Helen if he regains her.

[H]e wouldn’t torture her. He saw that was nonsense. Torture was all very well for getting information; it was no real use for revenge. All people under torture have the same face and make the same noise. You lose the person you hated.

I was struck by this passage, since frequently discussions of torture (fictional and nonfictional) treat it as revelatory. In Firefly‘s “War Stories” Shepherd Book quotes Shan Yu — a fictional warrior whose philosophy informs the actions of that episode’s antagonist.

[Shan Yu] fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. [He wrote] “Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

The idea that we are most ourselves under stress is prevalent. Hurt someone badly enough, and every decent drapery will be stripped away, and you’ll meet the authentic self they tried to mask. See also “It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism” (from Good Omens) and the idea that wine and wrath lower inhibitions and reveal identity. All of this presupposes that anything we do by effort can’t be authentic, when I’d argue that our choice of mask and drapery is the best indication of our character.

When it comes to seeing someone, relating to someone, and in photography, when it comes to making a portrait, it’s more important to see and understand the masks they choose and how they use them than it is to try to separate them from those masks. This is why Dijkstra’s portraits are boring, but Meatyard’s Father Louie is fascinating.

The only rationale for trying to unmask a subject is an attempt at the universal – which generally and predictably results in a maximally banal depiction which, if it reveals anything, reveals the prejudices and assumptions of the artist. It also, I think, tends toward photograph as implicitly violent.

Document and Artifice

“Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994,” by Rineke Dijkstra (via SFMOMA) and “Untitled #405, 2000,” by Cindy Sherman (via MOMA).

Note: as you may have observed, we are fantastically behind schedule. So, set your time machines for “several months ago,” and join me in a topical journey into our semi-recent past. In this case, I’ll be discussing exhibitions which I saw in April and September of this year.

There is a bit of a running gag regarding me and portraits, that I only like them if I can’t see the subject’s face. (cf. here or here) And while there is a lot of portraiture that I like, it’s true that I generally don’t have much to say about traditional portraits – when I do end up talking about portraits, it’s usually outliers. (e.g., here or here)

So it was a subject of some speculation how I would respond to SFMOMA’s Dijkstra and Sherman exhibitions – two bodies of portraiture (or pseudo-portraiture in the case of Sherman) that are technically great and conceptually…well, let’s say fraught.

I perhaps should have had an easier time with Dijkstra than Sherman. There is at least some semblance of a documentary function at work in her photographs, and in general the farther a photograph is from recording some actual subject, and the closer it is to presentation of a construction or performance, the less comfortable I am with it. Not in this case, however.

I found Dijkstra’s photographs deeply off-putting. It’s tricky to pin down precisely why, though. Taken individually, they’re blandly enigmatic, which I think is more or less the default for large-format color portraits these days. They’re well-executed, and executed in service of a substantial organizing principle: recording subjects in periods of intense transition. (Adolescence, childbirth, military service, bullfighting, etc.)

The implication is that a photograph of a person in such a state will somehow provide more information, or more insight, or more truth – either into the subjects, or into humanity at large. In other words, Dijkstra’s photography seems to be working along philosophical principles similar to those of Shan Yu. Which is to say, it’s (a) creepy and (b) horseshit.

In fact, the way that Dijkstra polices contextualizing details within the frame systematically renders them less informative and less revealing – or, rather, it renders them informative and revealing only about Dijkstra. (Which I regard as a bug, although it can also be regarded as a feature.)

Dijkstra’s photographs form an incredible artifice – which would not necessarily be objectionable if they were not presented as offering an appearance-transcending insight. They deliver the viewer a visceral stimulus sterilized of context and specificity, but with a branding of verisimilitude. A bit like pornography presented in the format of an anatomy textbook.

None of which actually quite accounts for how much Dijkstra bothers me. That litany of complaints really only adds up to “boring,” rather than “offensive.” What pushes it over the line for me is, ultimately, a personal hangup about portraiture, and in particular about the relationship between the photographer and the subject. It’s something I’ve never had a lot of luck expressing succinctly or completely – which contributes to my reticence to discuss portraits on 1/125. (There’s nothing more annoying than a bias you can identify but not fully account for.)

The simplest way I can think to put it is: I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means. I respond positively to portraits where the subject seems to be putting up a fair fight in determining how they appear and what that appearance signifies.

This isn’t something that has a uniform objective measure – it can be a matter of whether the subject has chosen what clothing to wear, how to pose, etc., or it can be a matter of irrepressible personality. But manifested in whatever way, it’s the sense that the person has decided (how) to appear before the camera, and that the subject is therefore in some part a coauthor of their own photographed image.

The nature of Dijkstra’s project effectively precludes this – in some cases by photographing people in circumstances where their appearance is effectively beyond their control, and in other cases (esp. adolescent subjects) through interpretation which reduces the individual to a type. The most we can really deduce about them in terms of their agency relative to the observed photograph is that they consented to appear in it.

In contrast to this, Cindy Sherman’s work – which I had never really been exposed to in a comprehensive way before, just piecemeal – was really refreshing. Which is a strange thing to say about something so extremely meta. I mean, come on: Sherman’s work is a classic example of a medium being fully up its own ass.

Well, it’s a classical example apart from one thing: it’s funny. It is at least some of the time fully laugh-out-loud funny, and while not everyone is going to appreciate it (no joke is truly universal), it has one of the hallmark features of good comedy: it scales well with regard to knowledge of what the joke is about. And as comedy, it can in some ways be more truthful or more honest than a factual treatment of the same subjects would be.

The nature of the comedy is also relevant to my issues with Dijkstra – Sherman is basically doing the polar opposite of what Dijkstra is doing, and the comedy in her photography springs from that.

Baker: What about humor? It seems like there’s more license to laugh in some images than others.

Sherman: I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies. (“Cindy Sherman: Interview with a Chameleon”)

Sherman’s work is artificial, but transparently so, at least when presented in the correct context. (If encountered out of context, a viewer could easily mistake some of them for documents.) It is an honest artifice, which is infinitely superior to a dishonest document. And I say this as someone who is pretty ill-equipped, both in taste and in knowledge, to appreciate artificial and conceptual photography.

And in terms of my particular hangups, the performance nature of Sherman’s work is surprisingly appealing. It would be doubly incorrect to call them self-portraits, but they are a case where the person in the photograph is in complete control of the way they appear in the frame, and what that appearance means. Normally this is only true for certain kinds of model-photographer collaborations, and in the case of subjects who – intentionally or not, by choice of the photographer or against it – hijack the photo. Because this is not the norm for most portraitists, my experience in looking at portraits is usually hit and miss.

In the case of Sherman, I can see – well, if not portraits, portrait-format images – without the need for that little internal flinch that most portraitists trigger in me some or all of the time. And that really is a relief – almost a tangible weight being lifted.

Until recently, hardly anyone considered why some readers might actually prefer clichés to finely crafted literary prose. A rare critic who pondered this mystery was C.S. Lewis, who – in a wonderful little book titled “An Experiment in Criticism” – devoted considerable attention to the appeal of bad writing for what he termed the “unliterary” reader. Such a reader, who is interested solely in the consumption of plot, favors the hackneyed phrase over the original

… because it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

Why we love bad writing - Laura Miller - Salon.com

This is quite interesting. While it is aimed at the problem of why people like Stieg Larsson, it is very applicable to photographic contexts, as well. (Would it be too much to say “the problem of why people like Chase Jarvis”?)

If you show the average viewer of photographs (which is to say, an average person in any country which is at least modestly industrialized) a bunch of Chase Jarvis’s work and a bunch of Alec Soth’s work, there’s an excellent chance you’ll get a better response to the former, for largely the same reasons that Lewis enumerates.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in photography, what the photographer or curator is “trying to sell” the viewer will in many be something that the viewer is ill-equipped to recognize. As a result, the viewer will feel that they are being asked to pay a price not only for something they have no use for, but for something which, so far as they can tell, does not exist. And this is not true only for the “unliterary” viewer of photography; consider the critical response initially received by New Topographics.

Are these situations problematic? I think in the case of literature, the answer is, not necessarily. A taste for Dan Brown novels does not preclude a taste for more interesting fare. And in some cases – for example, in the case of Harry Potter – a mediocre work can become a gateway that leads vast numbers of readers on to better works.

In photography, the situation is somewhat more dire, because it is much, much harder for viewers to move freely between the “unliterary” photographic realm and the “literary” photographic realm. There is hardly any middle ground between them, the way there is with books. (I would not personally say “middlebrow,” but I wouldn’t object to it, although I do generally question the derogatory connotation that word is usually burdened with.) Instead of a middle ground, there is a chasm with hardly any bridges across it.

Most people wouldn’t know where to go to find challenging and interesting photographic work if they wanted to. (And what might prompt them to begin to want to?) For many people of the older generations, a good photograph is something associated more than anything else with wall calendars and perhaps magazines. For the younger generation, make that Explore and The Sartorialist.

In a bookstore, one could easily start at Dan Brown’s allotted position on the shelf and then have one’s eye caught by Octavia Butler, or Borges, or JG Ballard, or Kay Boyle, or Ray Bradbury. There are no (or nearly no) opportunities like that in photography. And while that precise example is not easily replicated in, say, Amazon (for which virtual proximity is a function of user tastes, not alphabetic chance), it is still very easy to start with a bad writer and stumble from there to good writers. (Because the tastes of other users are not uniform, “if you like x, you may also like y” engines do not automatically trap users in unliterary ghettos.)

To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment, and one which few people are homesteading. There are a few notable and interesting attempts – I would possibly consider Pictory to be one and certainly 20x200 is – but I have not encountered any about which I do not have significant reservations.

How do we think about photographs? (Cont'd)

On the 8th, I posted a question:

When you look at a photograph, what questions do you ask about it? What steps do you take in the process of making a judgment about the photograph, or in deciding how you feel about it? What happens in the time between when you first see the photograph and when you decide whether or not it is interesting to you?

I received some interesting responses. By far my favorite was @vossbrink’s reply on twitter: “Does it match my sofa?”

He also posted a longer response at his blog. Do read it. He raises an important point about the context-sensitivity of the degree and kind of question the viewer brings to the photograph – i.e., “that I’ve chosen to visit the museum means I’ve committed to looking,” but the same does not apply to perusing photo blogs. And in the latter context, the fundamental question is: “is this worth my time?”

Simen and JasonSMoore point out that as viewers we don’t necessarily “decide how we feel,” as I put it; we have our feelings and then we rationalize those feelings after the fact. I think this is often but not always the case. Often I’ll have a given initial stance toward a photograph, but sometimes I’ll see a photograph and look at it for a long while before I can decide anything at all about it, including whether or not it is worth looking at.

Ault talks about an experience that I’m sure is inevitable for most photographers: “When I really look at a photograph, I can’t help but view it from a photographer’s viewpoint.” For me, this is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, having an understanding of what goes into making a photograph enables one to pick up on a lot that a lay viewer (or even a viewer with an academic or at background but no practical experience) may miss; but, on the other hand, it tends to make it easy for me to get caught up in minutiae. When all I can think about is how a scene was lit or whether or not a view camera was necessary to make a photograph, it’s easy for me to miss more central questions.

AG De Mesa suggests a useful distinction between categories of question: technical, emotional (“what does the photograph make me feel”), and intellectual (“what does the academe or the so called ‘Art World’ say about this photograph.”). He also points out that really engaging with a photograph may require active research and that research may take time.

This is an important point, and it raises further questions, such as: how do you judge when research is called for? How do you decide when it is worthwhile to do that research? What sort of research do you do? How deep do you go? How do you know when you know “enough”?

I’ve also been working on a response of my own. I reflected on what has gone through my mind when I’ve looked at various photographs, and what sort of questions I’ve tried to answer for myself about them, what ad hoc procedures I’ve applied to them. I set aside the big-picture questions (like, “is it worth my time,” or “is it interesting,” or “is it good”), and tried to pin down the questions that I might have to go through to get to the point where I could answer those big-picture questions. More specifically, I tried to find questions which are likely to have specific answers, at least some of the time.

Here are some, in no special order:

  • What is the emotional state of each person in the photograph?
  • What is the emotional state of the photographer?
  • How big is the photo?
  • What is the path my eye follows as I look at the photograph?
  • List the contents of the photograph in order of apparent size
  • List the contents of the photograph in order of light to dark tonal value
  • What are the race, economic status, gender, and relationships of the subjects in the photograph?
  • What’s just outside the frame?
  • When was the photo made?
  • What are the characteristics of the medium /in/by which the photograph is presented?
  • What symbols appear in the image?
  • Where do the gaze lines of the subjects point?
  • How long did it take to make the photograph?
  • How far away was the photographer from the subject?
  • What is the attitude of the photograph toward the subject?
  • For what feeling is the photograph an equivalent?
  • What is the photograph’s market?
  • Is the current use of the photograph different from it’s original or intended use?
  • Attempt to look at the photograph, without thinking about it, for thirty seconds.
  • What is the genre of the photograph?
  • Is the photograph typical or atypical of its genre?
  • Draw the lines or shapes that are important to the photograph’s composition.
  • How much time passed between the photograph being made and this medium being prepared?
  • Who determined the sequence?
  • How long is the sequence?
  • Where in the sequence does this photograph fall?
  • Compare the photograph to other photographs in the sequence.
  • What is the sense of place in the photograph?
  • Does the photograph expand my knowledge of what is depicted?
  • Does the photograph expand my understanding of what is depicted?
  • What have I previously heard or read about the photograph or series?
  • What have I have previously heard or read about the photographer?
  • Check Amazon to see what books by the photographer are in print
  • Google the photograph
  • Google the photographer
  • Google the subject
  • Google the location
  • Check my bookmarks for related links.
  • Search my notes for related content.
  • Read posts I’ve written before about this photographer or related topics.
  • Ask other people what they think.
  • (As a follow-up to any of the above questions:) How does that influence the way I see and understand this photograph?

Of course, in practice, for any given photograph, I will probably only actually raise two or three of these questions. I’m not sure to what extent this reflects the inherent diversity of the medium, and to what extent it reflects the limitations of my attention span. Nor could I tell you honestly that there’s any kind of method to the process by which I determine what questions are interesting for what photographs.

More on "Literary" and "Unliterary" Photography

Earlier today, Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor put up a nice post referencing Laura Miller’s “Why We Love Bad Writing,“ and the post I made in January applying one of Miller’s observations to the world of photography. (Okay, to fairly represent the chain of citation, the observation originally belonged to CS Lewis.)

Rob is optimistic about the possibilities for building bridges between the realms of what I referred to as "literary” and “unliterary” photography. He writes,

…There’s a lot that can be done to create bridges across the chasm and I wanted to point this out to photo editors, because I’ve been in those arguments about photography with editors where factual trumps sophisticated, but I’ve never thought to turn it on them with a literary example. The two articles I’ve linked provide plenty of ammo to do that. I’ve always believed the only way to engage readers is to challenge them. High dollar advertising will always prefer engaged readers over hits.

Which is heartening. It’s easy for someone like me (i.e., a filthy hippie) to think of market forces as intrinsically inimical to virtue, but it’s good to remember that that’s not actually the only way for things to play out.

As a result of Rob’s post, we got a bunch of new eyes looking at 1/125 (welcome, folks!), and there are some meaty new comments both here and on the post at A Photo Editor.

I particularly liked this one, from Moya McAllister:

If challenging a reader literally requires a dictionary or a master’s degree, that’s one thing. But I truly believe that all viewers, regardless of education, respond viscerally to images. They may not notice “bad photography” if the content is there but they recognize good photography when they see it. A good or even great photograph can convey bigger concepts behind the story or a theme that reaches the reader on a different level than the text. Therefore, the response to the story is more complex and engaging.

I absolutely agree, and I think it’s important to try (where possible) to separate out the question of quality from the question of qualification. Doubly so because making qualifications or resources a prerequisite for the appreciation of “good” photography is virtually the same thing as equating good taste and judgment with socio-economic class, which I consider to be a serious error.

That being said, I would still say that there is a substantial amount of photography in the world which possesses a greatness that will be entirely non-obvious to a lay observer. But I would agree that an attentive, patient viewer (even if untrained and unpracticed) will be able to see that there is something important there and will probably be able to hazard a guess as to what it might be. (This is the process by which I have come to appreciate most of the photographs and photographers I like.)

But in order for that to happen, the person must first suspect or be persuaded that there is good reason to be attentive and to spend some time in careful looking at the photograph. And once they have caught on to the presence of that something, they will probably be able to gain a deeper appreciation of it by spending further time learning about why the photograph was made and in what context (historical, social, critical, etc.) it was made. In photography, we need more places where people can get that kind of initial nudge, and more places that help them figure out where to learn more about what they’ve seen.

I also like this comment by Juanita:

My take on the good vs. bad photography debate is directed at those who are framing what is available to the public. The army of museum and gallery gatekeepers and curators; the stable of photo reviewers and editors; the crowds of print and online media tastemakers. It’s their version of what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that informs what we get to see and what gets picked up as cool or thought provoking.

I’m tired of the sameness of it all: e.g. the legions of photographers pursuing constructed reality, the poseurs trying to put out their version of “conceptual” photography— just look at “500 Photographers” and tell me it isn’t 90% the same. But of course it all looks the same, because Pieter Wisse is reading the zeitgeist through his lens of what young, new, edgy (dare I insert the word “good” here???) photography currently is, and that’s what is being highlighted.

It’s not my aim to throw sticks and stones at artists… Everyone is on their own journey when they pick up that camera–including me. I want to make a dent in “da Machine;” hope that nuance comes through in this post.

This is extremely important. The task of bridging the gap is one that has to be pursued by people who put work from various photographers in front of the eyeballs of viewers.

I think is something I was insufficiently clear on in my original post. I wrote, “To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment,” which I think some folks took to mean that I thought certain photographers need to make work more inviting to unfamiliar audiences.

That’s not what I meant at all; what I was referring to is a deep and largely unmet need for venues (publications, websites, blogs, physical installations, retailers, etc.) which operate in the space between the “literary” and “unliterary” communities in photography.

I should also probably say why I keep referring to “literary” and “unliterary”, instead of using terms like “good” and “bad.” I do this because the issue is not one of absolute quality, but of different and potentially conflicting contexts for evaluating quality.

“Literary” does not simply mean “better” – it denotes something more specific and less value-laden: it means you have to really read it, and that reading it is rewarding. An “unliterary” work is not necessarily bad, but it does not require or reward deep scrutiny. What you need from it you can get casually, without effort or preparation. (There are many, many photographs that are deeply “literary” that I also regard as total wastes of time.)

What worries me about photography is not that there is too much unliterary work, or too little literary work, but that people are too likely to only know and enjoy one kind or the other. That’s why I say that creating venues for breaking down that dichotomy is a major frontier in photography right now.

Suburban Dreams

No one appears to be impoverished…these are not the ‘cool’ photos of down and out drug users, strippers and hookers. These are our own neighbors. We immediately recognize ourselves and our friends.

Amazon review by G. Rothman of Suburban Dreams.

“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards

This weekend I stopped by the Oakland Museum to see “Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams,” an exhibition drawn from the California portion of Edwards’s Suburban Dreams series. (See here and here) The exhibit includes around a couple dozen photographs, as well as a handy binder containing reproductions of ephemera – samples of Edwards’s working notes, correspondence with subjects, etc. I went on the 19th for the talk by Edwards and curator Drew Johnson, which proved quite interesting.

Pictures authentic to the people

Edwards photographs subjects in their homes, in scenes that are staged but also intended to be “authentic” depictions of the family’s life. She follows a set protocol which includes showing subjects examples of her work, and asking if they are comfortable looking like the people in those pictures and interviewing them with intentionally vague, non-leading questions (e.g., “tell me something about your lives,” “what are your favorite things?”) Based on the interview, semi-improvised scenes are staged in which subjects act out some aspect of their daily lives. Specific poses are held for moderately long exposures.

It’s an interesting approach. Johnson contrasted it with the model of the “invisible documentarian,” and asserted that Edwards’s results can be “more real than a candid, unstaged photograph.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, quite, but I find the approach appealing, especially in the context of my recent discussion of my hangup about portraiture. (I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means.)

Edwards’s very interactive way of working strikes a good balance: she’s producing images that have a great thematic and stylistic consistency and strong authorship, but her subjects are active in determining how they will appear. Her intention is to “make the pictures authentic to the people, not just use the people to illustrate my ideas.”

All of which is very appealing to me. But I find myself rather ambivalent about the actual photos.

Everyone can recognize

Part of my difficulty has to do with the type of photograph Edwards is making. My natural inclination is to read them as documentary, even ethnography, but that’s not really what they’re for. Edwards is actually emulating genre painting rather than making photographic documents. Her repeatedly declared intention is to portray her subjects as universal archetypes, which “everyone” can recognize. And that’s the second, larger part of my difficulty: the presumption of universality.

Edwards identifies as a cultural insider relative to the subjects she’s working with. In the California photos, the families are, while not necessarily her friends, within her extended social network – people who know people she knows, etc. In discussing her work, she used “we” and “our” often, apparently referring to a category inclusive of her subjects, herself, and those in attendance(?). (Although she also referred to the suburbs as an “aspirational” world, as seen on TV, and part of her motivation for the project is that she became “interested in the aspiration and what it meant.”)

I asked, given that she produced the work as a cultural insider, whether the photographs were intended for an insider audience as well, or whether they are intended for a different or broader audience – in short, who she thought the viewer of these photographs was. For whom are these archetypes “universal”?

Her response was that while the “stuff” is not universal, posture, gesture, etc. is. For example, a boy about to become a man will stand a certain way whether here or “two thousand miles away,” whether now or in a painting made hundreds of years ago. (The association of universality with the tradition of painting was a recurring and prominent theme.)

This jibes with her take on Europe. (The project includes several European countries, although what’s exhibited at OMCA is just from California.) She said that “increasingly, with globalization, a lot of European homes look like our suburban homes,” and in discussing distinctions between homes in Europe and homes here, she was careful to explain how what differences she did observe were in comparisons between homes of people in the same social class and professional status. And tellingly, when asked about the impact of economic recession on the people in her photographs, she pointed out that people who were doing poorly thanks to economic downturns would not be in the houses she was photographing – they would have left and been replaced by others.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific social class – but I say it is telling because class is the parameter she did not use in talking about the trans-historical, trans-cultural range of viewers who are intended to be able to recognize the “universal” in her work.

(For examples of different relationships between a subject group, an insider or semi-insider photographer, and a viewership, consider Gordon Parks as “Mr. Negro”, which is a case of the photographer overtly acting as a bridge between one group and another, or Daniela Rossell, from whose Ricas y Famosas I think Suburban Dreams differs more in degree than in kind, except that Ricas y Famosas is perceived/used as indicting evidence against the subculture it represents.)

Family of (Upper Middle Class) Man

Jumping back a bit: part of the function of documentary and especially ethnographic photography is to explain a culture to an audience which is not presumed to have extensive prior knowledge of it. This is a function I know how to read in photographs (more or less). It orients the viewer toward the specific, toward information, toward the cultural context of the photograph. It helps the viewer to account for what they are seeing. And it does not presume that the viewer is an insider.

Now, that’s not the function Suburban Dreams is meant to serve, so not doing it is not an intrinsic deficit. But to the extent that the series presumes a relatively “insider” audience alongside its insider author, it is rendered less accessible and less useful to those who are not insiders. I believe Edwards that Suburban Dreams is about showing people as types that transcend place and time, but I think there is a real hiccup when it comes to class. As much as I like Edwards’s protocol and methodology, I think to some extent the photographs that result from them serve as family photographs of the upper middle class en masse: an internally directed self-depiction of people as they are willing to see themselves and be seen.

There’s nothing wrong with family photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with an insider producing something that is implicitly intended for the appreciation of other insiders. But there’s a potentially sharp discontinuity between that appreciation and the appreciation of outsiders. In the case of depictions of “universal” archetypes, the predictable outcome of crossing this discontinuity is that the archetype devolves to stereotype. The result is not an incomprehensible image, but an all-too-comprehensible one – stereotypes being always the easiest type to judge, read, and dismiss.

Our Own Neighbors

This aspect stands out to me particularly in the context of the Oakland Museum, which is located – well, here. If you don’t know what I mean, stop by some time, and walk a couple of miles in a couple of directions from the museum, and see what you see, including but not limited to, abject poverty, notable affluence, everything in between, and both urban decay and gentrification. There are few areas in California where class is more in need of socially critical interpretive context. And the rest of the museum – particularly the California history exhibits, but also plenty of the art – has that in spades.

Still, as I left Suburban Dreams, I wondered if maybe it was really just me – whether I was just personally/idiosyncratically insensitive to the universal in Edwards’s photographs. Would I find the same gazes, the same gestures, the same types, in, say, the photographs William Gedney made in Kentucky? Probably yes, at least in some cases. It’s likely that to some extent, maybe a great extent, my ambivalence toward Edwards’s photographs stems directly from my very real bias against the universal and toward the specific.

Then I went around the corner from Suburban Dreams, and I looked at photographs of Black Panthers and Diggers, and Dorothea Lange’s Richmond welders and Manzanar detainees. And I thought: images of well-off people at leisure, no matter in what posture or gesture, simply cannot be meaningfully regarded as universal representations of humanity, except insofar as rich people all look alike.

PS: To be clear, I am not presenting this as an comprehensive review – there is a great deal that one can get out of these photographs, although I think many of the best uses would go against their grain. (E.g., as records of a specific culture isolated in time and place.) What I am saying is that photographs like these do not get to casually or by default be for everyone, and if it is not clear whom they are for, it is questionable how much light they can shed on the suburban lifestyle, either as actual culture or as aspirational ideal.

History’s Shadow GM1, 2008-2010, by David Maisel. Via Andy Adams.

The photograph above was included in a compilation of “100 Portraits” assembled by Andy Adams and Larissa Leclair for FotoWeek DC. I came across this compilation by way of J. Wesley Brown’s post, “What is a ‘Portrait?’”, which I originally saw reblogged at Photographs on the Brain.

In his post, Brown writes,

What first got me thinking about portraits seeming to lack a solid definition was Flak’s 100 Portraits selection. When I first looked through the selection I found myself thinking, “But a lot of these aren’t portraits.”

A close up of a mouth/teeth, someone’s back, an x-ray of a sculpture, the top of someone’s head shot from above, the side of someone’s head obscured by their winter hat with just a nose and hint of an eye sticking out, a person’s silhouette, back-lit so that no features are recognizable.

There’s no denying the taste of the selection here - they are all excellent photos, but to me these are not portraits. Were I a magazine editor having sent you out on assignment to shoot someone’s single portrait for an article, I would consider these failures and send someone else to re-shoot.

In Brown’s post, this notional magazine editor joins such charming argumentative devices as appeals to dictionary definitions, analogy to religion and the invocation of Richard Dawkins, indignant objection to a metaphorical “portrait of Ireland,” and the airy assertion that,

Only once both parties have agreed on a definition of what is to be discussed, can you have a productive discussion. Philosophy majors are well aware of this. So Why does the photo community seem to have no definition for a portrait.

In the initial draft of this post, I spent a few hundred words dwelling on how poor Brown’s argumentation is. This was fun for me, but not very constructive or interesting, so I omitted it from subsequent drafts. Suffice to say that what Brown is demonstrating is not philosophy major reasoning, but grade school rhetoric. No great loss, since the reasoning of undergraduate philosophers is usually nothing to write home about, anyway.

So, setting aside those non-constructive paragraphs, do I have something constructive to say about the question? Maybe; let’s see.

To begin with, we should take a step back and consider what it is that Brown means by “what is a portrait?” – he claims to want a communal definition, but going by the content of his post, his rhetorical devices, and the kinds of examples he is interested in, one suspects he does not actually want the definition itself, but rather a criterion for exclusion which can be used to justify his instinctive objection to the identification of certain photographs as portraits.

I suppose some people would argue that all definitions can serve this function, but I don’t think that is true, except in some technical domains which are reliant on rigorously defined self-consistent formal systems, as in math or analytic philosophy. Is photography such a domain? I don’t think so, except in those technical areas of photographic practice which abut chemistry and physics. So when we talk about photographs as art or craft (as opposed to science), we are communicating not in a formal system but in natural, common language.

In common language, the task of definition and the task of identification are in practice quite separable, as in the familiar dictum regarding pornography – “I know it when I see it.” (A phrase which I think bears on many photographic conundrums, since they often arise from frustrations regarding the incompatibility of knowing-by-seeing with our verbal attempts to articulate what we know.)

Underneath his rhetorical flourishes, what Brown is really saying is not, “I want to know what a portrait is,” or even, “I want us all to come together and say what a portrait is,” but, “the fact that someone called these particular photographs portraits makes me uncomfortable.” Or, “I know a portrait when I see it, and this isn’t it.” Because this is the real nature of Brown’s objection, it would actually not make matters better to try to apply more rigorous logic to it, or to suggest more applicable philosophical constructs like family resemblance.

The trouble is, standards of the “I know it when I see it,” type, while not invalid or epistemologically inferior, are necessarily subjective and personal. We say, “I know it when I see it,” not, “we all know it when we see it” – or, rather, when people make statements of the latter kind, they are not speaking inclusively about all observers, they are circumscribing a community of the like-minded.

One cannot really go from this sort of instinctive, personal recognition and understanding to an objective, universal standard. Nor would it be beneficial to do so. After all, how much great art (especially, how much great photography) owes its existence to a more exclusive definition of a term? I think the opposite is the case, really – that quite a lot of the interesting and important bits of our photographic history are owed in part to stretching, bending, distorting, challenging basic terms and concepts. Would New Topographics be better if the exhibition had only included photographs which demonstrated obviously and unambiguously topographic images? Less rhetorically, would it be better if it had been confined to photographs which were obviously and unambiguously landscapes, and excluded the more genre-ambiguous work, like Wessel’s and Shore’s?

Of course, this is not to say that there is a direct correlation between reduced literality and increased quality. Each photograph and each sequence (book/exhibit/etc.) must be judged on its own merits. It is also important that a sequence be judged as a sequence. I would not say that in sequencing the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts – there are many sequences in which the opposite is true. But certainly the whole is not interchangeable with the sum.

So, to return to the original case, I would argue that the question of “Is Maisel’s photograph a portrait” must be disentangled from the question, “Is 100 Portraits a sequence of portraits.”

Is Maisel’s photograph (the sculpture x-ray to which Brown refers) a portrait? It’s a question which does not have an obvious answer. If a portrait is a representation of a human face and body, then it is a portrait. If a portrait is a direct representation of an actual human’s face and body, then it is not – or perhaps it is a copy of a portrait, but not a portrait in itself. Of course, if that is the standard, how would one classify a drawn or painted portrait which was made from a photograph or from imagination or memory, or one which was made only in part from a living model, or which was made from multiple models?

Maisel’s statement on History’s Shadow puts the relationship this way:

The x-ray serves as a means to explore mythological themes expressed through ancient objects. The shadow-worlds they occupy are informed by the black space surrounding the images, which in some instances becomes a vast nether world, and in others becomes the velvety ground of some kind of brain scan/portrait. The project’s title of History’s Shadow refers both to the literal images that the x-rays create as they are re-photographed, and to the metaphorical content formed by the past from which these objects derive.

Maisel differentiates the literal and the metaphorical functions of the images, and identifies the portraitlike aspect as belonging to one of these functions, but not both. While Maisel’s interpretation does not automatically trump all others merely because it is his photograph, I think it is pretty reasonable – and I think that the distinction is just as valid for photographers like Minor White, who made literal portraits that had entirely other metaphorical functions. In either case, I think the best answer to “is it a portrait,” is “Yes and no.”

But Maisel did not title this a portrait, nor (as far as I know) does he identify the series as comprising portraiture. Brown’s objection pertains to its inclusion in 100 Portraits, and on that point, we must consider Maisel’s x-ray not only in itself, but also in terms of how it stands in the whole sequence, and what function it serves in that context.

So, is 100 Portraits as a whole a sequence of portraits? I say it unambiguously is. What is more, it is a sequence which, if it is about anything, is about the phenomenal diversity of portraiture – meaning both the daunting diversity of human subjects and the almost-as-daunting diversity of photographic strategies and styles which can be applied to those subjects. It is a celebration of the photographer’s freedom in depicting human beings. As such, it is utter goofiness to object to its inclusion of images whose taxonomic classification as portraits is not universally unobjectionable.

I should point out that I don’t intend this observation strictly as praise. I think it would be entirely fair to question to what extent this diversity as such is actually interesting, and to what extent the specific sequencing in 100 Portraits makes the best possible use of the individual photographs. The title and arbitrary number would also be valid targets. Even more so the statement, which presents the diversity of images as a celebration of the way “contemporary photo culture is marked by a continuous flow of images online” (a rather ambiguous virtue), and ends on the sentence:

In this context, projected several times larger than life, these portraits look back at us and embody a louder voice in the discourse of the gaze.

Which is simplistic, pretentious, vacuous, and frankly creepy. (However, given how hard it is to write non-shitty statements in these matters, I think the authors should be given some slack.)

But in any case, whether 100 Portraits succeeds or fails (for what it’s worth, I think on the whole it does more of the former than the latter), the taxonomic standard by which its individual photographs were identified as portraits is about the least important and interesting measure by which to judge it.

Hopefully this has been a somewhat useful approach to this particular case, and to some of the issues that Brown raised. None of it has actually come near to being an answer to the question, “What is a portrait,” since such an answer would actually have been off-topic, given the disingenuous way in which the question was posed.

Still, I probably owe the reader a sense of what I mean when I say “portrait” – so here it is:

I use “portrait” to describe a photograph which is principally of a person (“person” having a variable relationship to “human body”; the particular relationship between person and body will depend on the photographer’s approach, the subject, and the context) and in which the person is a willing participant.

I think that’s a good enough definition to go by, when I need to use one, for my own purposes – and it is one which does not fit several of Brown’s questioned examples, although some it does. I would not, however, suggest it as a universally valid standard for exclusion of photographs from the portrait genre – although in the interest of full disclosure, I have sometimes used the latter aspect to argue “that’s not a portrait” when dealing with photographs that I considered street photography which were presented as portraits.

A more interesting (indeed, the only really worthwhile) way to answer the question, “what is a portrait,” would be an in-depth historical approach to the intellectual and aesthetic genealogy of the portrait, and/or to the social construction and use of portraits. It’s possible something along these lines exists – if anyone knows of a good book that deals with the topic, I’d certainly be interested.

Postscript: Maisel’s x-ray is not the only case Brown raises – I picked it because I was interested in 100 Portraits and the x-ray is arguably the most extreme case out of the hundred. It’s not the most extreme case Brown raises, however – that would be Leo Mendonca’s photograph of a building with a large billboard ad depicting a woman. Brown considers it questionable as the winner of a portrait competition. I would not personally leap to call this photograph a portrait, but I would consider it unobjectionable to call it a photograph about portraiture. Whether or not I would pick it as the winner to a contest is hard to say, but who gives a shit about photo contests, anyway? (That’s the other reason I went with Maisel’s x-ray.)

“Ward 64, Precinct 11, Philadelphia, Pa., 2008,” by Michael Mergen (via The Halls of Democracy: Places of Civic Responsibility - LightBox)

After combing through thousands of polling sites on Excel spreadsheets, the photographer then chose stations located in private homes or unusual businesses; his journeys have taken him to pizza parlors, living rooms, garages, funeral homes and other eccentric spots scattered across Philadelphia. His eight years of work have yielded three revealing yet non-partisan series aptly titled, Vote, Deliberate and Naturalization, which collectively seek to underscore the importance of citizen-driven governance.

These are lovely series. They convey an absurdity inherent in our civic processes: momentous decisions made under circumstances that are banal or bizarre or both. But they don’t triviliaze them. They seem to me both solemn and reservedly hopeful. Also quite lovely.

Pinterest is for Women, Not Photographers

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter today with @photoshelter regarding Allen Murabayashi’s post, “Hey Photographers! Pinterest is Not for You.”

The thesis of the post is that Pinterest isn’t a place where photographers are losing money, so there’s no need to expend a lot of effort on either keeping their photos out of Pinterest or trying to use Pinterest as a way to get new business. I imagine this is quite true (I’m sure I wouldn’t know, at least), but I find the way Murabayashi lays out the post to be curious:

….Pinterest isn’t for you.

What? What sort of rabble rouser am I?

Here are some facts gleaned from Google AdPlanner:

  • Pinterest drives a ton of page views

  • 82% of visitors are female

  • 79% fall between the ages of 25-54

  • Under “sites also visited” are such places as chef-in-training.com, foodgawker.com, the-girl-who-ate-everything.com, apartmenttherapy.com

  • Under Audience interests are “Fashion Designers & Collections”, “Fashion & Style”, and “Crafts”

In other words, the Pinterest audience isn’t so charmed by your photography because they are too busy pinning clothing, crafts and interior design items. Pinterest is an aspirational pin board for women. The “Likes” and “Repinning” help to validate a user’s curatorial skills. And like every social media site in the world, the service is a tool of self-expression. Let the people express themselves, it’s therapeutic.

I don’t think Murabayashi’s intention was to suggest that Pinterest users aren’t interested in photography because they’re mostly female, but that is the implication of providing that information and placing it so prominently at the top of the data which one would expect to support the post’s argument. Either he’s saying that audience gender determines relevance, or the inclusion of that information is a total non sequitur. (As is the identification of Pinterest as “an aspirational pin board for women.”)

It’s also interesting that he sets up a dichotomy of being “charmed by” photography on the one hand and “pinning clothing, crafts and interior design items,” and an interest in fashion, on the other. I know that what he’s really getting at is that people don’t come to Pinterest to find photos they would want to pay for (or, conversely, to get away with not paying for), but how the text of the post reads is, “Women are too busy doing girl stuff to be interested in photography.”

Not to mention that there’s broad overlap between some of that girl stuff and photography. Fashion and food especially are two of the main areas where non-photographers often become aware of photography as such – not just as pictures of something desirable, but as skilfully made, technically demanding work which is impressive in its own right and which one might wish to emulate. The person who likes to look at clothes today may be the person who is deconstructing lighting in the strobist groups a few months from now – and that person may eventually have a future as a producer and/or consumer of photography as such. And participation in image-centric web communities can be a major accelerating factor in that process.

(I also wonder whether 20x200 should come up in this discussion – I wonder what kind of overlap exists between folks who either do or someday may buy prints there and folks who are super into Pinterest – especially the ones who are also regular readers of sites like Apartment Therapy. Or who share this experience when they look at a photograph for the first time.)

None of this is to say that Murabayashi is wrong about how professional photographers should be approaching Pinterest at this point. But hopefully it demonstrates how peculiar it is that this particular set of demographic data is being put forth to support his argument, in this way – as opposed to data supporting the assertion “Pinterest hasn’t shown itself to be a good referral mechanism for service-based offerings,” for example. (Again – I’m sure that may be true, but the data in the post doesn’t have anything to do with it.)

I don’t know much about web analytics, but I have a little experience with how easy it is to be tricked by quantitative data. Used correctly, numbers are great. They tie us to empirical reality, and help us make important connections between observations in different contexts. But if we’re not careful about how we use them, numbers can give us that same great feeling of solid objectivity while merely sitting beside (or propping up) our assumptions. And it’s especially easy to get bitten by this if you’re a smart, observant person who has a strong intuitive grasp of the subject you’re dealing with – because then your assumptions are going to be right most of the time.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“Tree Line, Mollymook,” Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, from Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Wall in the Grand Canyon,” Timothy O'Sullivan. Wheeler Survey, 1871.

To make Tall Poppy Syndrome, Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar “embarked on a month-long road trip around New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. They set out to meet everyday Australians and explore their reaction to this cultural phenomenon,” which they summarize as “a term used to describe a social phenomenon in Australia in which successful people (the ‘tall poppies’) get 'cut down to size,’ criticized, resented, or ridiculed because their talents or achievements distinguish them from their peers.”

(For background, have a Wikipedia entry. I knew the historical metaphor by way of Livy, but I wasn’t familiar with the modern usage with its connotations of envy/resentment/leveling.)

I’m not sure what to make of the book as a document of Australian reactions. The portraits in the book are mostly either deadpan or distracted. The book reads to me more as an extended riff on visual themes of height, stature, and proportionality, and the camera’s ability to render subjects as typical or atypical.

My favorite images are the ones which invite comparisons between the height of human subjects and the land around them – a sort of reversal of the old-school survey-style photographs in which humans figures are conspicuously included for scale. In the photographic history of the American West, the human figure was a measure of the vastness of geography; in Tall Poppy Syndrome, trees and rocks demonstrate the diminutive stature of human figures, while roofs and walls fall above or below the tops of their heads, like a height chart tracking the growth of children – or maybe more like one of those “are you tall enough to ride this ride” markers. But the way that Stein and Mehrfar persistently play with perspective and composition does not provide a fixed measure; the net effect is a sense that the size of a person is a constant question coming from all directions.

They make repeated use of uniforms – whether company-issued garb for workers, safety gear for miners, team uniforms for athletes, or the functionally convergent design of surfers’ wetsuits. These photos, alongside those of cattle and of parking lot trees, students in a classroom, committee members at a table, seem to pose a question regarding the relationship of a subject to its type. The camera as a documentary tool has always tended either to enshrine the specificity of individuals, or to record the instance of representative anonymous types. Stein and Mehrfar’s photos seem carefully ambivalent in this regard, again, posing a question.

These questions push back against the photographers and against the viewers, because they are really not questions about the subjects, but about how we see them – about how photographers see them through a camera’s viewfinder, and about how readers see them through the pages of a book. In many ways, the medium of photography is a process of determining poppy height. I’m inclined to take Tall Poppy Syndrome as a reminder to do so with awareness and care.