The End of Taste

I just got through reading Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which was suggested quite a while ago by Conscientious in his post on A Photo Editor's post on our post on a Salon post about “unliterary” and “literary” audiences. (Circularity, thy name is blogs.)

It’s a genuinely fascinating read — much more so than I would have guessed, since I have relatively little interest in music to begin with, and no interest at all in Celine Dion. What I was expecting is an attempt to make sense of “low” tastes from the perspective of “elite” taste. And the book certainly does deliver that. But what is also there, and what is even more interesting, is how thoroughly the book grounds its explanation of Celine Dion in class and ethnicity.

Part of this is going into Dion’s background, and into the demographics of her listeners — in essence, there are aspects of her music that would seem appropriate to US audiences in a black musician or in a country singer, but which can seem out of place in a musician hailing from the “null set” of Quebec, even though they’re present in Dion for much the same reasons.

But the second and even more interesting part is his discussion of schmaltz, which he identifies as more or less constituting Dion’s musical genre. Schmaltz, Wilson explains, has its roots in the contributions of immigrants to American music and theater (e.g., Irish nostalgia, Italian operatic melodrama), and derives its perishability in part from the process of assimilation.

Remember that “white” is a moving target: ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Portuguese, fancophones, etcetera, eventually became “white,” but initially, to their British-descended neighbors, they were not. A genealogy of American schmaltz would probably track neither-black-nor-white cultures through decades of semi-assimilation. (p. 54)

Schmaltz…is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price. This makes it especially vulnerable to becoming dated: the outer boundaries of extreme conformity, of uncontroversial public ecstasy and despair, are ever-mobile. Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful, the way elites of the late nineteenth century felt when they wondered what their poor ignorant forebears ever heard in light Italian opera. Likewise, as a specialization of liminal immigrants in America, it can become a holdover from a time “before we were white,” perhaps dotingly memorialized, but embarrassing head-on. (p. 61)

Wilson also discusses the increasingly bifurcated musical production and consumption of the upper and lower classes in the US, starting from a comparatively mixed/unified cultural landscape and ending in one where there are sharp divisions between what people of different classes are expected to know and enjoy:

Through most of [the 19th century] opera was popular music too, sung on the same programs as parlor songs and beloved among both high and low economic classes in English translation…Operatic songs, full of melodrama and romance, were sung alongside parlor songs at home and parlor songs would be dropped into productions of operas (often when rowdily participatory nineteenth-century audiences yelled out for them). Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s first mid-century American tour, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, was perhaps the first “blockbuster” event in American pop culture, and Lind would sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” between Mozart and hymns…The same held true for passages of Shakespeare, another popular nineteenth-century commodity. It was only in the later 1800s that a consolidating upper class became wealthy and populous enough to shut out popular treatments of classics in the name of “culture” and “standards,” by building ritzy exclusive opera houses, condemning English translations, and turning against “light” Italian opera in favor of “high” German opera. This brought to an end the mixed programs of Shakespeare, opera, melodrama, parlor song, comedy, freak shows and acrobats typical of the earlier nineteenth-century stage. As Walt Whitman, an enormous Italian-opera fan, put it in 1871’s Democratic Vistas, with “this word Culture, or what it has come to represent, we find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” meaning the snobs and aristocrats of old Europe. (p. 56)

As Wilson explains, Dion “aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago,” in terms both of musical styling and of symbols used in her performances. And the tacky, schmaltzy nature of her music, its datedness, is not just about being out of sync with better contemporaneous music — it has ethnic and socio-economic implications. Wilson attributes Dion’s polarizing tendency to the fact that she taps into this kind of “before we were white” schmaltz material without appearing to middle American listeners as an ethnic performer. That pastward orientation is also in a sense a democratic orientation — although not necessarily a progressive or positive one: “[Dion] stinks of democracy, mingled with the odors of designer perfumes and of dollars, Euros, and yen.”

I have a hard time not jumping from this to photography — but I also have a hard time pinning down on exactly what terms to set up the comparison. Photography differs substantially from music in terms of its age as a medium and how its producers and audiences think about themselves. And while race and ethnicity certainly have their own (sometimes complex) histories in photography, they’re not really analogous to what Wilson is describing about the history of music.

What does stand out for me is the association of perceived illegitimacy with historical displacement/datedness, and the increasing isolation and class-segregation of production and consumption. These things are certainly hallmarks of photography over the last half-century or longer. (And of course photography has always been a medium defined by anxiety regarding novelty and originality.)

And I suppose these things might go some way toward explaining why I (as something of a class outsider or outlier) tend to gravitate toward photography of the past — up to around 60’s and 70’s, about a half century ago. The ease of my appreciation diminishes as art photography is fully adopted into the academic world and as the production and consumption of art photography becomes more and more the province of the rich.

Now, I usually chalk this up to my near-total lack of formal training of any kind touching on art — which is certainly not wrong, but maybe it’s not complete either. Quite possibly I’m drawn to photography’s past not just because I never got an introductory course on it, but because I relate to some aspects of the medium better before it was “white.”

I suppose that begs the question, since we’re on an analogy to Wilson’s Dion, whether I am drawn to photographic schmaltz. It’s not a taste I would probably have thought of myself as having, and I’ve been pretty harsh in the past on photographic “porn” or what @vossbrink identifies as “kitsch,” which overlaps pretty well with Wilson’s definition of schmaltz.

But I wonder if what Wilson has to say about schmaltz doesn’t bear somewhat on my feelings about Roy DeCarava — especially in contrast to my feelings about certain other examples of well-known documentary photographs. I’m thinking particularly of how Wilson frames the opposition of schmaltz to irony:

…songwriter Stephin Merritt argued that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing.” It’s a common belief, though seldom so drolly expressed. He was partly drawing on Bertolt Brecht, who held that the purgative release of catharsis can defuse social criticism. But like many of us, Merritt transposed that political caveat to a personal one, a matter of style. His enjoyment, he claimed only half-joshingly, depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feeling it. (p. 130)

While it would be completely unfair to imply that there is anything at all unsophisticated about DeCarava (quite the contrary!), there isn’t a surplus of irony in his photographs, and certainly no attempt to defuse or diminish or sanitize their emotional intensity — and no attempt to provide either DeCarava or the viewer with any kind of safe distance. And those are the most powerful and important American photographs I’ve ever seen.

Of course, as justly as I can point to DeCarava’s work as offering catharsis which need seek no refuge in irony, it’s still obviously a bit of an evasion on my part. In no sense would it be fair to point to his work as “schmaltz.”

No, if we were going to pursue an analogy to Wilson’s Celine Dion, we’d really have to go for it, wouldn’t we? Really, if we were being honest, we’d have no choice but to go full Geddes. And I simply, honestly do not have it in me to do that. At least, not this week.

You’re welcome.

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. : )

Ruin Porn: Part 1

"Atrium, Farwell Building," by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. From The Ruins of Detroit.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been working on a post about “ruin porn.”

(For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “ruin porn” refers to photographic documentation of abandoned and/or run-down buildings and facilities. The most characteristic and well-known examples are made in Detroit, like those of Marchand and Meffre.)

It has proven to be one of those vexing subjects that constantly splits and changes, making it quite difficult to pursue in an ordered fashion or with any kind of consistency. Which is why it went from a quick post I intended to knock out in a matter of days to something that I’ve been pondering, rewriting, and occasionally even reading up for (gasp!) over a period of weeks.

The results cannot be easily condensed into a single short post, and in fact would not really fit together well even as a single megalong post; many aspects just wouldn’t be reconcilable.

So, I’m going to split it up into three posts. This first post will deal with what folks mean by “porn” when they say, “ruin porn.” The second will deal with the actual or possible modes of enjoyment associated with ruin porn; i.e., what is it about this material we are calling porn that people may be getting off on? The third will more directly address the question of the value of this kind of photography.

What puts the “porn” in “ruin porn”?

Ruin porn is well outside my normal areas of concern. My interest in it was piqued by three posts which appeared in my feed reader around the same time: one at The Online Photographer, one at Conscientious, and one at David Campbell’s blog (which I encountered via Conscientious). What interested me in particular about these posts is the question of determining the meaning and use of the phrase itself, and the different way each approached that question.

I strongly suggest reading the posts. But I will summarize (and hopefully not totally mangle) the aspects that I found particularly interesting::

Johnston (The Online Photographer) is interested in the dichotomy of porn and reality — the difference between the real thing and the idealized representation. He reads the “porn” in “ruin porn” as a criticism of the unreal nature of the depiction in question. This matches up to a focus on the intentions that are revealed by the way in which photographers “quote out of context,” to use Szarkowski’s term for photographic composition. Many attacks on “ruin porn” emphasize the tendency to exclude sites that are in active use or development adjacent to sites that are run-down or abandoned, which heightens the sense of ruin at the expense of a more “real,” contextualized depiction.

This is likely a valid avenue of attack in many cases, and perhaps in all. However, when applying such attacks, it is important to remember that one cannot criticize a photograph merely for decontextualizing a subject, unless one is making a case against photography as a whole. To photograph is to exclude context. So, when one attacks a particular photograph for the way it decontextualizes, one must be able to say how it ought to have decontextualized the same subject. And I think it is not sufficient to merely state that the good and the bad in Detroit and other cities ought to be displayed side by side.

This is an interesting question, and I think for a photographer who is actually approaching the subject, it must be one of the most paramount questions. However, I think that Johnston is misapplying it when he connects it up to the question of whether the resulting photographs should be called “porn” — contextual failing is a characteristic not so much of pornography as of bad journalism. And Johnston’s suggested remedy — which is to more clearly differentiate between “art” and “documentary” photography with different standards of veracity — seems rather bizarre to me, for a number of reasons. (To start with, art v. documentary, especially in photography, is very different from porn v. reality, and it’s not as though a standard complaint regarding porn is, “Man, that’s too artistic.”)

Campbell’s argument is essentially this: calling something pornography does not help us better empathize with the subjects depicted in it. I think that his argument is persuasive, well-reasoned, and certainly well-researched, but I also think it only addresses a strict practical concern for social outcomes. That is to say, Campbell’s perspective seems grounded in the premises of advocacy photojournalism — getting the viewer to act a certain way based on the images they’re presented with.

I don’t think this observation takes anything away from Campbell’s reasoning, but this is not the only basis for judging the quality of a photograph. Campbell does allude to the historical connections of the idea of pornography with the cause of moralistic manipulation but I think that it would be hasty to assume that everyone who is criticizing “ruin porn” and other related forms of photography is doing so because they share the same kind of moral intentions. I would presume that at least some of those who would like to criticize such work are more concerned with the nature and quality of the photographs as art or as document than with their utility as tools for helping people.

Colberg’s (Conscientious) response to Campbell is centered firmly on the side of the viewers. In the humanitarian aspect, Colberg asserts that any outrage is better than no outrage, and that the dissatisfaction expressed by those who describe work as “ruin porn” may be cynical but also includes an idealistic component. (Although even if this is correct, I’m not sure how relevant that is to Campbell’s pragmatic arguments.)

But Colberg also states that, “at [pornography’s] core lies a corruption of the act of mindful viewing.” I think this cuts closer to the heart of the matter for me — not necessarily of pornography as such, mind you, but of the nature of the insult we intend when we append “porn” to a genre name. In this sense, to say that a photograph is “ruin porn” is to say that we are (and are meant to be) enjoying it for the wrong reasons, or that we are (and are meant to be) enjoying it in the wrong way, or both.

But what is the specific deformity of enjoyment that is suggested here? Colberg defines porn-viewing as “mindless and superficial, yet titillating,” and also as “an invitation to shamelessly ogle.” This clarifies something of the character and depth of the viewer’s enjoyment of “ruin porn,” but does not really describe or define it. What about these photographs titillates? What urge is being satisfied by them, or is supposed to be satisfied by them?

These are interesting questions, but addressing them is beyond the scope of this post — partly because they are quite the can of worms, but also because I think they do not necessarily bear on the common usage of the word — that is to say, I think those who use the word in the way Colberg suggests would probably not respond any more specifically or in greater depth if pressed on the point. This is not to say one cannot go deeper with the metaphor, just that to do so takes us beyond the realm of overtly intended meanings for most users of this terminology. So, that’s a matter for post #2.

For the conclusion of this post, I would like to suggest an additional (provisional and probably unsatisfactory) answer of my own to the question of what we mean by the “porn” in “ruin porn.”

I don’t think that Johnston, Campbell, or Colberg are wrong in their responses (although I do have caveats for each, as mentioned). I think that each addresses one of many overlapping meanings of “porn.” As with our discussion on portraiture recently, it is important to bear in mind the phenomenon of family resemblance regarding definitions. (And if one were to expand the inquiry to cover other “porn”-ographic photo genres, like “food porn,” “gear porn,” “house porn,” etc., then that family might have to be substantially enlarged.)

But I think there is one strictly functional use of the word — a use which is not a definition — that runs through all of these “porn” genre identifications: Porn is boring.

No, that’s not quite right. An avid viewer enjoying porn obviously finds it fully (if perhaps temporarily) engrossing. But porn is boring to talk about. So, if I call something “ruin porn,” I may not primarily intend to describe a specific pornographic aspect of the photograph itself. I may simply be saying, “this is a boring photograph of a rundown building, and I have no further interest in discussing it,” — just as I have no interest in discussing the plot, dialogue, or cinematography of a pornographic film, even though I might be interesting in discussing the same qualities of a different sort of film.

To use the term this way is not to express a truth about the photograph as such — it is just to display my feelings about it. A “do not disturb” sign communicates a clear message but does not convey information or meaning; I think much of the time, talking about “ruin porn,” works the same way — as a sign, rather than a message.

In this sense, “porn” as a genre identifier is rather like “snapshot” — a term which has multiple, often contradictory, meanings, but which is usually invoked for its value as a shorthand for dismissal rather than for any actual ability to meaningfully describe a work to which it refers.

"Potato Processing Plant, WA 2007," by Christopher Churchill. From the series, American Faith.

I found this series via Conscientious. It’s quite impressive — both for its photography, most of which is excellent, and for its very successful incorporation of audio alongside the images.

Multimedia presentations are of course quite common, and growing more so especially as photographers perceive themselves to be competing for attention with video content. I usually find such inclusion of audio alongside photographs to be at best distracting, and at worst to significantly undermine the impact of the photography.

This is one of the few really notable exceptions. The short segments of spiritual music and interviews are well-edited, and despite being straightforward in content, seem to share a certain allusive quality with Churchill’s photographs, which are very straight in style and mostly head-on in composition but which — when taken as a sequence — seem to be gently circumnavigating the question of faith rather than confronting it.

I come away from it feeling that I understand a little more, instead of knowing a little more, which I think is a hallmark of the best contemporary documentary photography. (After all, most Americans today can choose to know as much or as little about each other as they like, with fairly minimal effort.)

I find the subject matter particularly appealing, since religion has always been a source of fascination for me. And I think Churchill’s approach to it, which is very diverse without having anything of platitude or generalization about it, is quite fitting to the subject.

But at the same time, because it is oriented toward the cultural experience of religion in America, as opposed to the theological or sociological aspects of faith, I think it should appeal to anyone with a photographic interest in America and Americana.

"Potato Processing Plant, WA 2007," by Christopher Churchill. From the series, American Faith.

I found this series via Conscientious. It’s quite impressive — both for its photography, most of which is excellent, and for its very successful incorporation of audio alongside the images.

Multimedia presentations are of course quite common, and growing more so especially as photographers perceive themselves to be competing for attention with video content. I usually find such inclusion of audio alongside photographs to be at best distracting, and at worst to significantly undermine the impact of the photography.

This is one of the few really notable exceptions. The short segments of spiritual music and interviews are well-edited, and despite being straightforward in content, seem to share a certain allusive quality with Churchill’s photographs, which are very straight in style and mostly head-on in composition but which — when taken as a sequence — seem to be gently circumnavigating the question of faith rather than confronting it.

I come away from it feeling that I understand a little more, instead of knowing a little more, which I think is a hallmark of the best contemporary documentary photography. (After all, most Americans today can choose to know as much or as little about each other as they like, with fairly minimal effort.)

I find the subject matter particularly appealing, since religion has always been a source of fascination for me. And I think Churchill’s approach to it, which is very diverse without having anything of platitude or generalization about it, is quite fitting to the subject.

But at the same time, because it is oriented toward the cultural experience of religion in America, as opposed to the theological or sociological aspects of faith, I think it should appeal to anyone with a photographic interest in America and Americana.

Reproductions

There were a couple of interesting posts in July from Susana Raab and Joerg Colberg on the question of images (i.e., the photograph as it exists independent of the medium in which it is shown) versus prints (i.e., the photograph as print, or whatever, in the specific physical form in which one sees it).

Both Raab and Colberg express some degree of ambivalence, with which I agree. And of course, some photographs are more medium-independent than others, and will have both the same degree of impact and the same kind of impact no matter the form in which you see them. (Typically, these are images which are dominated by subject matter with an obvious and powerful emotional connection.)

The situation is complicated as well by the fact that some photographs have their canonical form in book reproductions, because they were photographed for the purpose of being included in books.

This was a major lightbulb moment for me when reading Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s — when those photographs were printed, for the most part, the prints were strictly considered strictly an intermediate step in the book production process, sort of an interpositive, I guess.

And yet, it’s very hard to remember that fact when staring at a huge reproduction on a wall — and I have seen just that sort of display, with a barely noticed copy of Provoke or something under glass and a huge, technically fantastic, modern print of the same photograph up on the wall. A bit absurd, right?

And of course there are countless examples going the other way — of a photograph whose canonical form is a print, but which most people encounter by way of a crappy book reproduction. The situation is even more complex now, since we have to contend with scans and/or digitally recorded photographs being displayed online, versus their print versions, versus their book versions — and in many cases, there may be several of each category.

It’s not something I gave much thought to before I started making comparisons between versions; now it’s the one thing I always discuss when I’m talking or writing about a photograph which I happen to have seen in more than one medium.

I don’t want to get too hung up on fetishism over reproductions, and particularly over what is the “real” version of a photograph. While it’s not quite irrelevant, I do think it tends to sidetrack conversations, and it’s hardly ever the most important thing about a photograph. And if its the most important thing about a photograph, it’s probably a pretty bad sign. “Process just on it’s own lacks heart,” as Raab says.

There are cases where the difference really and truly matters. A case that is fresh on my mind is Nicholas Nixon’s photographs in New Topographics. I practically dismissed them out of hand when I saw them in book form — and aside from toning, those reproductions were quite faithful — but was forced to totally reconsider them when I saw them on a wall. It’s not a question of them being better or worse in quality; seeing them framed and on the wall (and cold-toned) made them mean something substantially different to me.

That’s the exception, of course. Most of the time, the difference between one version and another will influence the degree of my enjoyment, but not the nature of my understanding, of the photograph.

Still, I do think it’s important to talk about those differences whenever I am aware of them, not because they’re always important, but because most people don’t see most photographs in more than one form. Most people, even if they’re aware enough of the medium to understand that the version they’re seeing is not the only one, will not be able to accurately deduce what the nature and extent of the difference will be between the version they see and the versions they do not.

So, if I can provide people with some insight into the nature and extent of the difference, I do so. I suspect that in some cases, that may be the most important contribution I have to offer to a discussion — particularly when the person I’m talking to does not and may never have physical access to a print that I was lucky enough to see, or cannot afford to buy a photobook that I happen to own. (Please excuse me if that sounds condescending — I’m certainly no art mogul, and the Bay Area has nothing on New York when it comes to this sort of thing, but compared to folks in some parts of the world, I’m drowning in cultural riches when it comes to photography.)

"Autumn sits between a relative’s legs," by Maisie Crow. Via Conscientious.

Maisie Crow’s “Love Me” is a series depicting a teenager living in Southeast Ohio. It is undeniably intimate and gripping, but there is something about it that makes me uneasy. (Something other than the baseline unease that can be expected whenever one is viewing depictions of people who experience poverty-induced despair.)

I think partly it’s to do with the way the photographs are captioned; there is a mix of matter-of-fact description, trite socio-economic commentary (“As she comes of age in this environment, Autumn struggles to find her way,”), and terse, sinister fragments, such as, “What? I didn’t hurt him,” below a photograph of the girl pulling a small dog off the ground by the leash, or “Autumn sits between a relative’s legs.” These comments seem to be leading the viewer in different directions, to different judgments. Together, do they suggest a complex understanding of the subject, or just a confused one?

I’m also not sure what to make of the photographic style Crow employs. The presence of the photographer in the scenes seems always half-acknowledged; it feels like the subjects were told not to look at the camera the moment before each release of the shutter. The camera often appears to be in the corner of Autumn’s eye.

As a result, the “documentary” feeling — of having an interloper’s perspective — is very strong. I’m not sure whether the result is more honest or more dishonest because of that.

I should make clear that I’m not sure that these things which make me uneasy about “Love Me” add up to criticism of the work or not. I wish I knew more about the work, and more about the people involved — because I have the feeling that I’m missing the piece that would enable me to know where I stand relative to these photographs.

"Autumn sits between a relative’s legs," by Maisie Crow. Via Conscientious.

Maisie Crow’s “Love Me” is a series depicting a teenager living in Southeast Ohio. It is undeniably intimate and gripping, but there is something about it that makes me uneasy. (Something other than the baseline unease that can be expected whenever one is viewing depictions of people who experience poverty-induced despair.)

I think partly it’s to do with the way the photographs are captioned; there is a mix of matter-of-fact description, trite socio-economic commentary (“As she comes of age in this environment, Autumn struggles to find her way,”), and terse, sinister fragments, such as, “What? I didn’t hurt him,” below a photograph of the girl pulling a small dog off the ground by the leash, or “Autumn sits between a relative’s legs.” These comments seem to be leading the viewer in different directions, to different judgments. Together, do they suggest a complex understanding of the subject, or just a confused one?

I’m also not sure what to make of the photographic style Crow employs. The presence of the photographer in the scenes seems always half-acknowledged; it feels like the subjects were told not to look at the camera the moment before each release of the shutter. The camera often appears to be in the corner of Autumn’s eye.

As a result, the “documentary” feeling — of having an interloper’s perspective — is very strong. I’m not sure whether the result is more honest or more dishonest because of that.

I should make clear that I’m not sure that these things which make me uneasy about “Love Me” add up to criticism of the work or not. I wish I knew more about the work, and more about the people involved — because I have the feeling that I’m missing the piece that would enable me to know where I stand relative to these photographs.

Photo by Gian Paolo Minelli

I ran into this photo over at Conscientious and was immediately impressed by it. The framing – cutting off passageways and leaving them hanging, along with the repetition of the towers in the background – seems to indicate that wherever the camera would be pointed at, from that vantage point, you would only see more of the same.

I wonder just how unique that may be. You could certainly deduce the same from, for example, a lot of more naturalistic landscapes, but I never have. Consciously, at least. In any case Minelli does this in a very effective manner in that photo and I think the result is powerful exactly because of of that.

Photo by Gian Paolo Minelli

I ran into this photo over at Conscientious and was immediately impressed by it. The framing – cutting off passageways and leaving them hanging, along with the repetition of the towers in the background – seems to indicate that wherever the camera would be pointed at, from that vantage point, you would only see more of the same.

I wonder just how unique that may be. You could certainly deduce the same from, for example, a lot of more naturalistic landscapes, but I never have. Consciously, at least. In any case Minelli does this in a very effective manner in that photo and I think the result is powerful exactly because of of that.

The best criticism is written for only one person. It is up to the writer to decide who this person should be. Of the thousands of art reviews I have written over the last 40 years, the most effective, in my view, have been the great many silently addressed to my sister, Erin. […] Erin is a traveller; she is socially active, interested in art and writing and architecture, and open to new experiences, but not easily impressed. I have always believed that, if I could convince Erin that such-and-such an artwork or work of architecture was worth her attention - if I could argue my way past her flourishing scepticism - then I could convince anyone. I would urge every new writer to adopt this approach—to find one questioning person to write for, framing every review as a fervent message to him or her.
W. Eugene Smith’s Madness 1959 - Conscientious

There’s a nice post in Conscientious responding to the World Press Photo “retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards” announcement.

Colberg writes:


  W. Eugene Smith was one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th Century, but I think he would probably have a hard time if he was still alive and decided to enter World Press Photo, which just decreed that only “retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed”….
  
  If you are familiar with the photo, you have probably seen the second version, where there are no details whatsoever in the background. This version is obviously way more dramatic.
  
  So is the second photo a “photo illustration”, because it’s cropped and - especially - because all the people in the background are made to disappear? Would World Press Photo demand to see the negative (how would they know that the neg has people in the background?), and how would they then decide whether or not Smith conformed to “currently accepted standards in the industry”?


Of course, the roots of photojournalism go back to the sort of photography practiced by Brady, etc. during the Civil War and other conflicts of the same time period. Not only would those photographers routinely manipulate their prints, they would also move corpses and change their uniforms if it suited them.

Which is not to say that anything should go when it comes to photojournalism today, but I do think there’s a degree of inappropriate golden age syndrome….

W. Eugene Smith’s Madness 1959 - Conscientious

There’s a nice post in Conscientious responding to the World Press Photo “retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards” announcement.

Colberg writes:

W. Eugene Smith was one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th Century, but I think he would probably have a hard time if he was still alive and decided to enter World Press Photo, which just decreed that only “retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed”….

If you are familiar with the photo, you have probably seen the second version, where there are no details whatsoever in the background. This version is obviously way more dramatic.

So is the second photo a “photo illustration”, because it’s cropped and - especially - because all the people in the background are made to disappear? Would World Press Photo demand to see the negative (how would they know that the neg has people in the background?), and how would they then decide whether or not Smith conformed to “currently accepted standards in the industry”?

Of course, the roots of photojournalism go back to the sort of photography practiced by Brady, etc. during the Civil War and other conflicts of the same time period. Not only would those photographers routinely manipulate their prints, they would also move corpses and change their uniforms if it suited them.

Which is not to say that anything should go when it comes to photojournalism today, but I do think there’s a degree of inappropriate golden age syndrome….