1/125

May 15

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.

May 12


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.”

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.”

Apr 25

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.

Apr 18

A Platform Question: Tumblr, Wordpress, ?

Hi, folks. Nick here. One of my medium-range things to do is set up a new blog which will supplement or possibly replace 1/125 in terms of where I post about photography. (I’m hopeful that I’ll also be able to drag Karl out of blogretirement for it, and rope in some other folks as well.)

Right now, I’m trying to decide what would be the most sensible place to set up, most likely either Tumblr or Wordpress. I have a post up on my personal tumblr asking for advice and alternative suggestions. Please feel free to post an answer there, here, or over on twitter.

I’d obviously be particularly interested to know whether those of you who follow 1/125 on Tumblr now would be frustrated by a platform change.

Apr 12

Step 3: Curate!

Last weekend, I went to see Curating the Bay at the California Historical Society. The exhibit of maps, photographs, paintings, and historical documents and other media related to the history of the SF Bay and adjacent areas, is part of Year of the Bay, which is a project organized by Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. At least, I think it is; the ratio of press release and pseudo-press-release verbiage to actual information is awfully high.

The exhibit brochure includes an interesting statement by Jon Christensen about how Year of the Bay relates to the status of curation today in a time when “everybody is a curator” online. Amusingly, I cannot find the text anywhere on the web, so I’ll reproduce some of the relevant bits:

On Curating

Curation has become a lightning rod word. It seems everybody is a curator these days. People curate their musical playlists, their blogs, their wardrobes, even their cocktails. Some professional curators are outraged, believing that this popularization diminishes their work and disrespects them personally.

I’m not surprised that curating arouses such strong passions. The word has deep resonances. Its roots lie in the Latin curare, for “care.” A curate is, originally, someone responsible for the care of souls, a clergyman. A curator is, of course, someone in charge of a museum or library, especially someone who organized and oversees a collection or exhibition. But a curator is also someone who acts as a guardian of a minor.

No wonder we care so much about this word. The care of souls, of children, of history, knowledge, and art are all at stake — along with playlists, blogs, and, yes, even clothes and cocktails….

Curating the Collections

The exhibition was developed entirely from historical materials in the CHS collections. The care of these materials — manuscripts, ephemera, books, photographs, and art — is at the heart of the society’s mission. Underneath the exhibition space are vaults filled with the very stuff of history and out of which exhibitions, narratives, and arguments are crafted. Selecting, organizing, and caring for these items are essential to understanding our history and ourselves in a changing world.

When you visit the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco, you are literally walking over the stuff of history. CHS’s collections — many housed in basement vaults — include more than 50,000 books and pamphlets; 4,000 manuscripts collections; 500,000 photographs, printed ephemera, periodicals, posters, broadsides, maps, and newspapers; 5,000 works of art, including paintings, drawings, and lithographs; and a variety of other artifacts, costumes, and keepsakes.

All of these items came to CHS because somebody, at some point, thought that each and every one was an important piece of history that might matter to us all and that needed to be curated — or cared for. Each has a story behind it. And each may tell a story — and often more than one — to any of us. As sources, they can be used to write and rewrite the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural histories of California from early exploration and settlement right to the day that a curator, historian, artist, storytelling, or student makes something new of something old….

To tell the whole story of saving the Bay, you would have to go to sources well beyond those represented in this exhibition. But, as the exhibition demonstrates, CHS’s collections can open up new view on caring for — curating — the bay.

Crowd Curating

And that is why this exhibition turns to the public — what we call crowdsourcing — to curate a new environmental history of the Bay. We know that there are more diverse, richer stories of how people have made their lives by the Bay, remade the Bay, thought about the Bay, and cared for the Bay than our current histories reveal. These stories exist in the memories, photographs, letters, and memorabilia of people living around the Bay and of visitors to the Bay from around the world. Through crowdsourcing, we now can include everyone who wants to participate in contributing, collecting, and caring for historical materials, making histories, and making history, in public, as co-curators.

This exhibition does not present a finished version of history. Rather, it opens up the process of curating the multifaceted history of San Francisco Bay to the public through the online experience of crowdsourcing. At yearofthebay.org, anyone can interact with historical sources; help all of us understand them better by adding details and providing context; contribute their own photographs, documents, and memories; and assemble their collections and their own historical narratives. Through crowdsourcing , we hope to fill in the gaps in our historical collections, our memories, and our histories, and to curate — and create — richer, more diverse histories.

Curating Public History

All of this combined — caring for the collections, caring for our history, caring for the places where history is made, opening up history to the multitudes — is public history. It is history made by all of us today, looking back and moving forward with the resources we can muster together. Traditionally, curating has been done behind the scenes, in the vaults and in backrooms. This has given curating a powerful mystique. What happens when curating is opened up in the public square? This exhibition aims to find out…

But we also believe that history matters for our public life. We know that “doing” history in public demands that our collecting, curating, research, writing, publishing, public programs, and exhibitions are relevant to our times. We do history for the present and the future, even as we demand of ourselves that we be faithful to the specificities of the past.

We are only beginning to explore what it means to do the whole range of history in public, from gathering materials, to organizing collections, curating exhibitions, and writing and performing our histories. This exhibition brings our efforts into the public square.

Together we will discover what curating public history means.

I like the sound of a lot of that, but I’m not clear on how most of it actually relates to what they’re doing with Year of the Bay.

It’s weird that so much emphasis is placed on the scope of CHS’s physical holdings in relation to this “crowd curating” exercise. The initial impression I got from reading about the project is that it was going to unleash the masses as amateur curators onto a large digital archive. That could be awesome, but it does not seem to be what’s happening. The actual plan seems to be: “Come stand over our giant physical collection of historical material, and then upload your family photos to a website..” It’s unclear to me how that combination “opens up” curating “in the public square,” let alone how it amounts to “crowd curating.”

It doesn’t help that the Historypin project site doesn’t seem ready for prime time. The map view (which seems to be Historypin’s main thing) works decently well, but other methods of searching or browsing seem to be all but nonexistent, site navigation is janky, and there’s no way to get a sense of the scope of what material is or isn’t there. Plus, Historypin seems focused pretty exclusively on material that is already both geotagged and dated. I can’t figure out how one would use it to crowdsource the curation of material that isn’t yet fully identified.

I don’t see any attempt to provide advice, resources, or references to users to help them understand what they’re expected to do as “crowd curators” or how to do it well. I don’t see a discussion forum where people could ask questions or work together. And it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone in the project who’s performing any of the community-fostering functions that you generally need in order to get a lot of people online working together effectively. (Although it looks like Historypin is hiring someone to (maybe?) do that, application deadline 4/19. I wonder what are the start and end dates on “Year” of the Bay?)

It’s possible that some of these things might be added later; it’s even possible that some exist now, and I just can’t find them. (As I said — it’s a real press release verbiage jungle.)

But as it stands, it seems like the “crowd curating” side of this project is suffering from some underpants gnome/field of dreams thinking. To get people to accomplish a complex undertaking, you have to do more than throw democratically-minded buzzwords at them and give them a venue. You need a community, and you need tools that make the work of that community as smooth as possible, and you need people to put in a lot of time working with that community.

Just because you set up a website that can be accessed by a crowd does not mean that the crowd will suddenly make magical stuff happen for you. As crowdfunding sites have demonstrated, even something as simple as “hey, people, give me money in exchange for something that you want to pay money for,” can get pretty fraught. And that process is of trivial complexity compared to asking people to make “richer, more diverse histories.”

I would absolutely love to see a site tackle crowd curation in a realistic and serious way, and get people to create their own new historical contexts for digitally archived material, and to share and debate and improve those contexts. But that’s not what Year of the Bay seems to be doing.

Even in terms of less technologically-mediated goals like doing “history in public, from gathering materials, to organizing collections, curating exhibitions, and writing and performing,” I don’t see what’s actually being done. The exhibit at CHS is perfectly fine as far as displaying interesting historical materials, but it does no more than any other show to make public the process of finding material, making critical decisions about what to include and exclude, or how they do their writing or their installation, unless one counts the inclusion of the odd file box or catalog card inserted into a display as a meta-artifact. Even something as simple as talking about who makes which decisions and what material was almost included in the exhibit but didn’t make the cut would be a real step toward “history in public.”

Apr 10

[video]

Mar 26

Winogrand at SFMOMA

Note: This took a long time. I trust no one is surprised by that. I may do a follow up post later — there’s a lot to this, and I feel like I may just be scratching the surface. Also, while I do have a copy of the catalog, I haven’t actually opened it yet (because I didn’t want this post to take another month). So, once I’ve dug into that, I may have totally contradictory things to say.

By Reason of its Unmixed Purity

A baby stares out to the left of the frame, his face showing a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and distress or fatigue. Not far off, an old man bears almost the same look, as unselfconsciously and as blatantly. Each seems to be saying, as clearly as if illustrated with a cartoon speech bubble. What is this shit?

They are what I see first as I move through the Winogrand exhibit — well, not what I see first, but what I first notice when I start to really look.

They aren’t alone. Faces are everywhere — male and female, child and adult, human and animal — and seemingly always caught in the middle of something: a grimace, a frown, a laugh, a coolly composed mask. More often than not, Winogrand’s subjects seem to be forming a judgment of someone or something that is just outside the frame. And these are the subjects who seem to be the most thoroughly and mercilessly revealed by Winogrand’s camera.

You know the feeling of checking an unconscious judgment or reaction — when you experience a visceral revulsion, and as soon as you notice it, you shut it down or dilute it to an acceptably urbane disinterest. Or you begin to break out into a belly laugh at something that maybe was not funny, or not supposed to be funny, and so you try to choke it back. Just afterwards, there’s a fraction of a moment in which you are not sure whether you were seen or whether you got away with it and your moment of untoward intensity went unnoticed.

Click.

There is an intensity to the expressions on Winogrand’s faces that is unsettling, even when the expressions are positive ones, smiles or laughter. There is something upsetting (in both the sense of distressing and the sense of knocking things out of order) about seeing undiluted feelings on the faces of others.

The more I look, the more it becomes clear that this is playing out on both sides of the camera. There is a manic aspect throughout, and as I move through the show to the later work, from the late 70’s and the 80’s, there is increasingly a prophetic condemnation (in the sackcloth and ashes sense, not the predictive sense) and a visible despair and disgust.

Click.

Simone Weil described poetry as “a joy which by reason of its unmixed purity hurts, a pain which by reason of its unmixed purity brings peace,” and this sort of poetry is in Winogrand’s photographs, through and through.

Under a glass case, the diary of Winogrand’s first wife declares in big loops of colored ink: “We have so many friends who love us.” Under another glass case, Winogrand’s Guggenheim application declares, “I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue…”

Had I not noticed this in Winogrand’s photographs before? I guess not. I think that in the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of associating him with the wry, dry humor of the bemused European pioneers of street photography. It’s easy to do. In terms of content, his photographs do fall easily into that genre. They are clever and skillful photographs of interesting-looking people.

But that kind of photography, even at its hardest and most critical, is building a different kind of account of the world than Winogrand was making. I glossed it in my notes as the difference between structuralism and existentialism. I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but something like Frank’s The Americans was essentially building a critique out of visual types. Winogrand obviously pursued his own types (animals, women, politicians, etc.), and he did so with great vigor, but his actual photographed subjects never feel typical; they feel absolutely specific and completely fixed each in their moment.

In that specificity, and more importantly in the intensity of emotion going into them, they may actually have more in common with DeCarava than with any other street photographer. But where DeCarava photographed to tell truths (and Frank to break down myths), it seems that Winogrand’s photographs are all questions and provocations.

What is this shit?

A Time Machine and a Red Pen

In the MAN Podcast interview with Leo Rubinfien, there is an interesting exchange regarding Women are Beautiful that I think says a lot about how this show is organized:

Green: “The [book] least represented in your show is Women are Beautiful, and I’m guessing either you think they aren’t his strongest work, or there’s something in them that’s a bit dated, or that those pictures didn’t work for you for another reason.”

Rubinfien:”Well, actually, I think that Winogrand photographed women more than he photographed any other subject, and they appear all the way from the very beginning of his career to the very end. Women are Beautiful was a collection of…”

Green: “82 pictures.”

Rubinfien: “Is that right, is that the number? A collection, I was going to say, that was assembled 1974-75 of work that Winogrand was particularly excited about at that moment. But one of the things, one of the… discoveries of this project for me was that there were many stronger photographs of women that he did not include in that book that came from the very early 1960’s when he was photographing…women relentlessly in the streets of New York. The book itself consists largely of his more recent work, so it’s predominately work from 68, 69, 70, 71, etc. I think that…photographs like the one of the young woman carrying the suitcase, you know that is not in the …Women book —”

Green: “And it’s fantastic.”

Rubinfien “And it’s fantastic. And there are many, many other ones like that; another one is plate 57 in the book, you know this marvelous woman crossing 42nd St., I think it is, with her hand touching her hat — and he left that out.”

Similarly telling is the way Rubinfien introduced Tod Papageorge at Papageorge’s SFMOMA talk. He distinguished between Papageorge as an intellectual and Wingorand as a “tradesman,” and asserted that Papageorge showed Winogrand “the gravity of what he himself was doing.”

The sense I get is that Rubinfien, while not making a big deal out of it, does not fully trust Winogrand’s judgment and understanding of his own work.

In the show, the prints made posthumously from negatives Winogrand never saw, or saw but did not himself mark for printing, are identified, but they are presented mixed in with photographs from Wingorand’s existing canon, as a contiguous unit. The new and the old are combined to make one body of work. It is not a case of newly shown material shedding light on old material; it is simply that they have looked at both the new and the old, and shown us what of each they think is “stronger.”

In presenting the work this way, the curators essentially avoid the question of how and why their approach to Winogrand’s photographs differs from Winogrand’s. It is treated as a nonissue, as it would be in a show of, say, Vivian Maier’s or Charles Cushman’s photographs. In other words, this show is almost an answer to the question I posed in the last paragraph of a short post on Cushman from 2010:

I wonder what the world would have made of the archive of someone like Winogrand if he had never published work during his life time.

The sequence on display does not function as a rejoinder to or a reevaluation of Winogrand, and it does not seem to present itself as a challenge or to acknowledge a discontinuity between it and Winogrand’s editorial distinctions. It’s more of an ahistorical “best of,” or an alternate history second draft. Curation by means of a time machine and a red pen. In other words, it’s a retcon.

It’s a good retcon. But I think I would much rather have seen the images presented in a different way. Minimally, I would like to see some or all of the new ones grouped together and provided with some better insight into what does or does not differentiate them from the previously published work.

Tod Papageorge said, “One is venturing into very treacherous territory to look at a contact sheet of [Winogrand’s] and imagine that he missed a picture,” and that frequently when Winogrand chose not to print a negative, it was for specific reasons — such as a resemblance to work that someone else had done, or that Winogrand had done.

That’s not to say that those photographs Winogrand passed over shouldn’t be shown now — but I feel like there should be more to it than just to say, “these are the strongest” — and in particular there should be more transparency for the viewer in terms of what editorial decisions are being made, and why, and how those decisions are new or different.

I also think the show might have benefited from being organized differently, for example by location (it should be possible to get pretty granular with the NY photos in particular), or by subject. Winogrand’s way of collecting subjects would really lend itself to being grouped this way, just like browsing someone’s flickr stream by tag.

(In fact, I would love to see this work presented in just that way, as a flickr stream, organized by date and tagged with locations and keywords. I think it would provide a maximum of information and utility to the viewer and I think it would be entirely appropriate. Plus you could invite viewers to make their own “collections” using the eponymous feature in flickr. Seriously, think about it.)

I think maybe the most useful way to organize the physical prints would be to arrange them in something like a grid, with rows assigned to subjects, places, themes, etc., and columns for time divided in, say, five year increments. Something very like what the Oakland Museum has for California history would be perfect.

But in whatever format, the show would certainly benefit from more, and more explicit, historical context, both in terms of how it relates to previous presentations and evaluations of Winogrand’s work, and also in terms of world events. Winogrand’s photography is steeped in the historical situations in which he lived, and the show does a good job of referencing that, but it still expects the viewer to bring a lot of history with them. Which means it’s not going to serve all viewers equally well. (It might also be a factor in determining how well it ages.)

I’m not talking about suicide, but I’d just as soon not exist.

The best part of the evening was Tod Papageorge’s talk, "Too Much is Enough." There was a lot of really wonderful material about Winogrand as a photographer and as a person, personal anecdotes, etc. He covered a huge amount of ground, much more than it would make sense to go over here. (I did post a raw transcript of my notes from that day on my seldom-updated personal blog I think at least some of what Papageorge covered is also in the catalog.)

What most caught my attention was Papageorge’s observation that there is something like a Buddhist quality to Winogrand. He ascribed to Winogrand an “almost Buddhist sense of vocation.” and said that, “only if the self is more and more in the background can a body of work like this be profound.”

He opened the talk by relating a presumably apocryphal anecdote about Wingorand going to a therapist, and being told to hit a pillow. Winogrand pounded on the pillow as instructed. The therapist then asked what Winogrand was thinking about, and he replied, “I’m trying to hit as squarely, precisely, and with as much force as I can.” The therapist said, “you mean you’re not thinking about your mother?”

Winogrand wasn’t thinking about his mother because he was thinking about hitting pillows. And when it came to photography, well, he made photographs with the intention of making photographs. To call it “just photographing” on analogy to Zen’s “just sitting,” would be too cute, but not necessarily wrong.

This presents a sharp contrast not only to the classic documentary mode of treating the photograph as evidence of a represented reality, but also to the personality-driven, psychological mysticism of photographers like Minor White, which treats photographs as metaphors or as channels for transmitting an experience — and which is usually identified as representing the “Buddhist” or “Zen” side of photography, something which has long puzzled me.

This gives Winogrand’s photographs a literal quality that makes them hard to write about or think through. It’s a kind of opacity or flatness that can mask how complex, loaded, and yet also emotionally raw they are. They are always full of significance, but at the same time it is seldom easy to say what, if anything, they mean or what they are for. This can lead to a lack of appreciation from both the high and the low ends of photographic culture. (See this Blake Andrews post for good examples of both.)

How far this diagnosis of Winogrand as a Buddhist can be taken is unclear. It may or may not cover the aphoristic and circular way he sometimes talked about photographs — photographing to see how things look photographed, a photograph as the illusion of a literal description, etc.

What is the aesthetic perspective implicit in those declarations? I find it tempting to read in(to) them an epistemologically conscientious insistence on treating appearances as appearances, but I don’t know if that’s really what Winogrand was about, or whether these were his ways of getting out of rationalizing something that shouldn’t need an explanation: the joy of making photographs.

And how should we relate Winogrand as Buddhist to the manic, despairing prophet who thought the bomb might be only the fitting conclusion of a failure of our society to live well?

Papageorge described Winogrand’s reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis as “I know I could die, I didn’t die, I know I’m nothing, therefore I’m free.” He also conveyed one of those amazing Winogrand quotations which went: “I’m not talking about suicide, but I’d just as soon not exist.”

One of the earliest forms of Buddhist meditation involves sitting in graveyards and similar sites and contemplating the decay of human remains. Coming to terms — through the most acute attention — with the factual reality of death in the world as a step on the path to freedom from bondage to the suffering which fear of death begets.

Maybe for Winogrand, especially at the end, photographing America was his way of contemplating a graveyard.

Mar 05

Minor White: “Could the Critic in Photography Be Passé”

We don’t normally post bare quotations here without comment, but this seems super relevant, to one of our recent posts, a nice post that @vossbrink just put up, and several recent posts that we link to as well as others floating in the ether.

Our world is in a state of flux and observers in all fields publish their attempts to identify what is going on in society, art, science, philosophy. Two samples of hundreds to the point may be for Aperture.

Harley W. Parker in the 1967 Winter Issue of the Harvard Art Review looks at the art world. The quotation from Dr. Warren T. Hill encompasses a mauch larger world. Parker says this:

The problem of the aritst, indeed of the entire western world, raises the fact that instantaneity of communication has shattered the slow stutter of printed dispersal of information. as a result the mores of the world and therefore the structure of art which illuminates that world has totally changed. Art, as such, is the domain of no individual today…I prefer to use the word creativity rather than art. For today it is becoming increasingly obvious that the process rather than the product is the important factor in terms of man’s psyche.”

This has a familiar ring. The great psyche-oriented religions of the world have left us m any similar analects, “Give all your attention to the making and the product will take care of itself.”

Two manifestations of “process,” one individual and one collective, are included in this issue of Aperture. Jerry N. Uelsmann represents the individual. With one camera and six enlargers he manipulates images with a skill that makes involvement in process yield meaningful products….

With the contemporary shift towards process and relationships and away from standards, photography is obviously affected. It may well be that mong the more mature photographers the “great” photograph as a goal has lost its attractiveness and certainly among the rebellious youngsters the usual standards are tabu. It may well be that what is now more important and meaningful to the photographer is to be out in the sun, to be out in the streets, or to be in the studios and darkrooms making photographs and making images. Making affirms his existence and the product is a chewing gum wrapper. The product must be paramount in the museums. to keep abreast of the swing, museums may have to reqlinquish their role of the taste setter and standard bearer….

In a period in which process is paramount, the teacher who uses the photographic images as a means of human interchange will be more useful than the critic.

Minor White, “Could the Critic in Photography Be Passé”, 1967, republished in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, pp. 355-356.

I’m slowly but surely mowing my way through the anthology, and I should have a post up on it — well, I won’t say soon, so as not to jinx it, but sooner or later. But this is just too good not to put up in the meantime.

Note particularly the accelerating pace of publication/dissemination of information, the decline of “great” photographs, and the emphasis on process over product.

Feb 21

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.”

Feb 20

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.