Monday, November 20, 2017

Why does Photography Need Theory?

After chopping up the remarkably fatuous Daniel C. Blight a bit the other day over his piece on this, I thought I'd take a whack at it myself. As an aside, I am apparently not the only person who has noted what an idiot Blight it, but he's got the academic word-wooze down pat, so he places pieces in the usual pseudo-academic "web magazines" pretty effectively.

Anyways, to the question in the title. The simple answer is "It does not." It's pretty obvious that photography as a thing, as a cultural phenomenon, as a method of documentary, as an art, could proceed just fine without some bunch of eggheads like Andrew or Blight or Colberg droning on. You point the lens, you press the button, yo.

You need not be an architect to build a house, I happen to know this for a fact. I've seen it done!

But, when you build a house, you are nonetheless working from a pragmatic distillation of architecture. There are things that work, and things that don't. The roof has to go on top if you expect to keep the rain out. There should be places to pee, to cook, to sleep, and they should be separate.

And there are other details, less obvious, but which one could discover by feel, perhaps. Rooms should have window light from at least two sides whenever possible. It is, apparently, a fact that if you have a building in which some rooms have window light from less than two sides, and other rooms with window light from two or more sides, people will avoid the former and spend time in the latter. I mean, unless the latter are perpetually filled with poison gas or something.

This is something one can deduce by living in some houses. This is the kind of thing one can do by instinct, drawing a design that simply has this feature without ever actually thinking about it. You'd have to be a bit gifted, but it could certainly happen.

So, you can do it. Photography can exist, and even develop, by an emergent process based on instinct. People invent new ideas, perhaps by accident, others copy them without much analysis, and you can end up with a sophisticated, broad, creative art form without anyone bringing up the word "dialectic" once.

So what's theory for?

I think it's as much for understanding what you've got as it is for anything else. I, at any rate, treat it mostly as struggling to understand how photographs function. By "function" I mean everything from "how one person looking at one picture reacts" to "how does photography as a whole interact with society as a whole" and everything in between.

You could argue, I guess, that there's also a bunch of theory to be spun around the photographer. Their influences, their philosophy, and so on. And you might be right? It's certainly another topic I am interested in, but I think we already have a name for that: Art History. Perhaps it's a cheat, but I'm going to set it aside.

What I have named as theory is worthwhile, I think, just because it's interesting. It might not be interesting to you, and that's OK. Being interesting is sufficient to be worth studying. But, perhaps there's a little more. Does it inform my, as the kids say, "practice"? I dunno, maybe.

I think it's a more efficient path to communicating. If you ever show a picture to another human or even imagine doing so, you are to some extent invested in what people make of your pictures. Theory isn't anything more complicated than trying to understand, a priori how that might go. On the one hand, what it actually is is simple, but on the other hand how to unscramble the stuff is more or less infinitely complicated. People and society are pretty much complicated all the way down, and how someone reacts to your picture is dependent on all of it, at least slightly.

Things that I think I have derived from my understanding of theory, that are literally in my mind when I press the button:

Shoot what you truly feel deeply about, in a way that exhibits that deep feeling, and the viewers will see it. Maybe.

Propaganda is a real thing, what is the impression I am trying to create here? What idea am I selling?

You can absolutely feel your way through both of these without a whit of theory, but for me, it works to have thought about the ten steps past what I actually need, in order to really nail down the bits I do need.

A Tip for Sounding Clever

Here's what you do. Say something obvious, but then insert some negation and claim that's the interesting thing.

What's really interesting is what the signifier does not signify!

is your template here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lookit these bozos

I cannot resist a spot of outright mockery. Look at this thread on this dumb forum:

Image Quality? No such thing?

Which is a discussion of Mike Johnstone's essay of more or less the same title.

Note in particular the theme of "that guy probably just hasn't ever used a good camera." At least one of the commenters on that theme is a Respected Grand Olde Man in that forum.

Colberg's take on Capitalist Realism

I've been chewing on Colberg's recent essay. He's been tweeting about it a lot and has gotten some traction among the titterati. So, I've been thinking about it.

His central claim is that Annie Leibovitz's portraits, and Gregory Crewdson's photography (as a whole?) make up two sides of the same coin, that coin being Capitalist Realism. The latter being, more or less, an analog of Socialist Realism, which was a straight-up propaganda movement which enobled the Socialist Cause with a series of fairly crude tropes that worked pretty well.

What Colberg cannot seem to commit to is just exactly how this works. He's coy but allows for how Leibovitz probably isn't doing it on purpose (and so perhaps we can infer that Crewdson gets the same pass -- notably, Colberg's discussion is wildly asymmetrical, we hear very little about Crewdson, for what I think are excellent reasons.) His claim appears to be that these two present a sort of package. The successful are enobled. Ok, I get that. That would be some great propaganda, and I kind of see the relevant tropes in play. The unsuccessful, Colberg claims, are shown to be hopeless and stuck. The message, Colberg claims, is that "you can't do anything about your shitty lot, so suck it up."

Ok, now, where I sit, this looks like the worst propaganda in the world. This is absolutely how not to do it.

Let's look at Crewdson. His work is pretty depressing. It's extremely mannered. It certainly illustrates the beaten down, the suffering, the miserable. His themes don't seem to be opposition to wealth, particularly, though. While he's certainly done plenty of work that could be construed as about the poor, it strikes me far more as about family trouble, emotional trouble. Crewdson reads as a sort of northern Faulkner, showing us the current link in a chain of inevitable disaster that stretches both back and forward in time. Sex, incest, emotional distance, the crushing weight of aging, all these things are hinted at. But the theme of being a victim of capitalism, much less so.

What makes Crewdson attractive here is the obvious visual similarities to Leibovitz, and I certainly do feel that sense of opposition. They do feel like yin and yang. But if you attempt to hook that yin/yang up to Capitalism, it falls apart. You can hook Leibovitz up, but not Crewdson, and once Leibovitz is viewed as Capitalist Propaganda, Crewdson more or less ceases to be yang to her yin.

If you want a proper yang, well, photographic studies of America's Poor are the hydrogen of photography. Colberg is waist deep in this shit in his MFA program. You'd don't get the cute visual duality, because all that stuff is washed out fake film these days, but at least the subject is right. And, of course, you don't get to cut down Crewdson.

Ok, so I can't figure this out. Let's see if Colberg will just tell us. As far as I can see, the only explicit remark he makes that's relevant is this one:

being able to buy Crewdson’s photographs at a blue-chip gallery helps the wealthy see the role they play, as those providing the concerned pillars of society

Which, to be honest, appears to me to be gibberish. Well, it literally does mean something, but that something makes no sense. He's buried this quote in parenthetical asides and, so be further honest, I think he lost his way halfway through the thought and just dribbled off. It does suggest that perhaps Colberg is claiming Crewdson behaves as propaganda aimed at the rich, further justifying their wealth and power?

Is Colberg claiming that Crewdson is propaganda aimed at the rich, while Leibovitz is propaganda aimed at the poor?

That might make sense, except that one does not traditionally propagandize the entrenched powers, as far as I know.

And, again, why pick on the ambiguous Crewdson when there are probably billions of photos explicitly about how stuck the poor are?

Let's return to Leibovitz.

As a side note, I want to pull out this sentence:

That said, it [the sheer amount of post-processing] also is the one part of Leibovitz’s work that brings her closest to the world of fine-art photography.

To which I respond, what the fuck? Is it 1870 again? Did you forget to take your anti-dipshit pills this morning, Jörg?

And now we come to that damned reference to Riefenstahl. And let us recall that Leibovitz is a Jew. There's absolutely no way Colberg is that tone deaf. Despite his protestations that he's not comparing the two, blah blah blah, there's no doubt that he's digging the fact that he's found a way to jam these two names together. So controversial! Whoo!

As I have noted elsewhere, I will not deny a fellow his impressions. If he saw Riefenstahl in Leibovitz's book, so be it. Having skimmed a bit of this and that, I even sort of see it, although Riefenstahl always had the drama turned up to 11 and Leibovitz is more of a 9. But this connection seems to serve no genuine point, only a rhetorical one. He could have shoved in John Singer Sargent just as well, and the parallel would have been quite a bit more apt. Of course, while it would have been more apt, it would not have led so neatly to his fairly forced discussion of propaganda. He could also have jumped right ahead to Socialist Realism, which would have gotten him where he wanted to go, politically, but, let us be honest, Colberg wants to cut Leibovitz down. Lashing her, however obliquely, to Riefenstahl, accomplishes that, as well as making Colberg look intellectually courageous (to idiots).

Anyways. Colberg's piece sounds pretty good until you actually start to dig and to think, and then it kind of falls apart. I mean, there's some stuff there, and you could probably dig out two or three themes and make some sense of them, but this particular incarnation of the ideas is kind of a mess.

To be honest, I suspect that Colberg saw the Trump picture and recognized Crewdson in it. The emotional distance is right there, and if you look around you see Crewdson did a bunch of pictures with standing automobiles with the driver's side door standing open. Sometimes with a human figure, sometimes not.

I suspect that Colberg noted this similarity, and then spun the rest out of his own fevered imagination, because we wanted to write a "capitalism is terrible" piece, because that's what all the cool kids are doing. He wound up with a sloppy, glib, and in the end kind of foolish piece.

But it's killing it on social media, so he'll probably get tenure.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Anti-Portrait

What's a portrait?

Well, I think it's a picture that seems to reveal something specific the interior life of the subject. Something of character, something of their emotional nature, whatever. Something more than this guy is a carpenter, see, he's holding a hammer. A good one does, anyone. As usual, I say "seems to" because I've never worked out if they actually do, or if they just make me think they do through some sleight of hand.

An anti-portrait, of course, does the opposite.

I come at this from thinking about Robert Frank's book, The Americans, when juxtaposed with Caleb Stein's pictures which I talked about a while back. Whether Stein knows it or not, he's influenced by Frank. It occurred to me that what Stein has done is made a bunch of pictures in the style of Frank, but which do not cohere into a whole the way Frank's does.

This led to down the mental path to the way Frank's book reveals. He went on a pretty specific mission to find the soul of America, and he came back with one. It's by no means a complete picture of America, but it is a coherent essay. It is one of America's many souls, if you will.

Now, one could set Stein's work up as an anti-Frank, but that's unfair, really. It's not that his pictures are fated to never cohere, it's more that his project is woefully incomplete. Whether it will ever go anywhere (no, of course it won't) is unknown and a different essay. Still, the idea lingers. Looking specifically at Stein's portraits, which are related to Bruce Gilden's idea of a portrait, the clearer idea of an anti-portrait begins to emerge.

When Stein photographs someone, he's clearly less offensive than Gilden. His subjects are warmed up toward him, but they are simply mugging, putting on their camera face. By isolating them from their background, Stein more often than not removes any useful context, so all we are left is the reality of the person's physiognomy. This is roughly what Gilden does, except his subjects are usually one step beyond and actually annoyed with Gilden, closed rather than mugging. Either way, nothing of that person's interior even seems to appear.

Our powerful face-reading ability recognizes these people more or less instantly as revealing nothing, of giving nothing away.

These are anti-portraits.

This doesn't make them evil just somehow less interesting. All of fashion is arguably anti-portraits, we're not supposed to be thinking about the inner life of the model. Just look at the clothes, ok?

Stein and Gilden could, and might, argue that the entire point is to focus on the details of physiognomy, to confront us with the person's skin and makeup, or whatever. Is that good or bad? I don't know, but I think it's a lot less interesting. We are, after all, social animals.

The closed face is uninteresting, or at best alarming. In a photo, it's almost never even alarming.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Blurb Trade Books

I've done a fair number of "trade books" on blurb, with mainly black and white photography. They're cheap as anything. I have successfully learned two (2) things.

The first is to be aware that pictures (especially masses of black) will tend to show through, especially with the bargain paper. Be a little cognizant of that, and consider your layouts appropriately.

The second is that the blacks are weak and it can be a bit disappointing if you do black and white with large masses of blacks.. It's not like they're grey or anything, but they're weak. So, first of all, make sure you have beefy blacks. If you "crush the blacks" as they say, starting from slightly open and airy looking darker tones, you're going to get a greyish mist instead of a photograph.

In order to get a picture that reads more or less normally, I push the very darkest tones down, and lift the darker greys (the ones right above the darkest ones) up a little to shove some contrast down into the darker areas, and then I tack everything else in place. This is all in a curves adjustment tool of your choice, and it looks a bit like this:

The result will look terrible on screen, with plugged up shadows and whatnot. Don't you worry, those are gonna open right back up. The result reads pretty well to me in the final print. The blacks, while weak, still read OK. There's nothing to be done about the narrow tonal range available, but you can fool the eye as it were, to a degree.

If you print "straight" you will wind up with a bit of that "crushed blacks" look, with the slightly "open" darkest tones. Which might be what you're looking for. If you're a weirdo.

Why "crushed" blacks means "lightened" I do not know, but there it is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Somehow, whenever a photographer goes asking for "how to get inspired", or when a photographer offers up advice for inspiration, the answer is always either a piece of gear, a technical method, or a gimmick. Are you uninspired? I know how you feel.

But I know what you ought to do, to get inspired!! I DO! Try macro photography!

Or grab a wide-angle lens!

Have you thought about trying a graduated neutral density filter?!! It's opens up a whole new way to see!

Try a Lee Big Stopper ND filter for super long exposures!

Buy a drone, get inspired by how things look FROM ABOVE!

Use a wide angle macro lens and a 10 stop ND filter ON a drone! Use a drone with a wide angle macro lens to photograph ten things within ten feet of you in the next ten seconds! Because the way to get inspired is to buy more stuff!!!!!

Ahem. Sorry.

I don't know why this is the case, it has something to do with the ways camera owners view photography. There's a strong tendency to seek technical solutions to creative problems, and there always has been. If you can't solve it by buying a widget, perhaps you can solve it with a step-by-step recipe, and if that doesn't work surely a widget AND a recipe will work!

The trouble is that when you're feeling uninspired what you're lacking is an idea.

A widget or a method is not a guaranteed failure here, to be sure. Sometimes a fresh view through a new lens really will produce an idea. Not, however, all that often.

Inspiration can be a lot cheaper. Try asking yourselves these questions:

What is the best thing in the world? What is the worst? What is the silliest? What do I believe in? What in this world is most precious to me? If I could change one thing in this world, what would it be?

Really, any Big Questions. You can probably make up another 50 of your own. When you've worked out something that matters to you, some story you want to tell, then work how to to take a picture of that.

And then take that picture.