Sunday, January 30, 2005

Gerhard Richter on What Pictures Really Want*

In the 1960's, Gerhard Richter began a series of paintings copied from photographic snapshots (to see a few, do a search in the previous link for "ordinary life" images). Richter liked snapshots as sources because, as he says "there was no style, no composition, no judgment." I think we get more use out of Richter's sentiment if we take him to be saying that personal snapshots lacked—were free from—the modes of style, composition and judgment that painters, like himself, who had been trained in strict painterly tradition, learned to (couldn't help but) recognise and deploy. Snapshots were free from that which he felt hindered his painting, free from painterly devices and institutionalised modes of viewing.

Of course, Richter's ideas about what snapshot photography lacks are condescending, as if to say artists are the only people for whom visual concepts like style and composition are legible or relevant. His comments seem especially silly now, in light of the compositional, stylistic and formal awareness to be found in the photoblog world. For instance, check out the comment-box discussions on chromasia (with whom I'll be IM-ing tomorrow).

But Richter's paintings can happily exist apart from Richter's expressed interest in them. Let's let them.

To create his images, Richter mechanically traces a photograph which is itself a tracing from nature (William Henry Fox Talbot called photography the "the pencil of nature.") Of course, technology intervenes no less in Richter's process than it does in a snapshot photo, just as intention, artistry, and artifice intervene no less in snapshot photography than in Richter's images. No less, but differently. More to the point, in the viewing of images, we ascribe different roles to different actors in the process in order to make those images legible. Some of the familiar actors are: context (gallery, photo album or web?), image-maker ("artist" or anonymous snap-shooter?), iconography (composed or askew or compositionally askew, in focus or out, high resolution or low?), technology (Hasselblad, disposable camera or digital camera?). In order to make snapshot photography legible as such, we tend to privilege image content as sentiment and/or memory, and in doing so, ignore cues like authorship, photographic process and viewing context (these are tendencies, not rules). In Richter's images, probably we privilege something like the exact converse: authorship, process and context over some unrefracted sentiment that we might find resident in the photographic image had it not been re-rendered by Richter. Which is to say, whatever content we find meaningful in the photographic image itself (wherever that is), we take to be refracted through dominant cues like authorship, process and context, a product of them. This is how Richter's images become legible as Gerhard Richter images.

(Not to draw a categorical distinction between blog photography and any other kind of photography, but rather, to start to distinguish some practices for reading images...) A lot of blog photography draws attention to the image maker (e.g. it sits on a blog which is identified with the image-maker) without quite ceding to the maker absolute control over the image and its effects (e.g. it's quite possible on Flickr, for instance, to view images not according to who made them, but according to catergorising meta-tags). They draw a lot of attention to context without thereby generating contexts which are as homogenisable as gallery spaces (e.g. hard not to be aware that one is looking at a photoblog at the same time one is aware of looking at particular photographs, but equally hard, I'd say, to generalise successfully about blogs as contexts for viewing photography). And they persistently highlight process (how the photograph was arrived at, where it was taken, in what event, over how many beers, etc.) without suturing that process to any notion of authorship (as we might in looking at Richter's images, i.e. we say: that is Richter's unique process, that is how he gets those results).

In drawing attention to the institutionalised aspects of painting (explicitly, but also via the images themselves) Richter seems to encourage exactly these sorts of delineations in our practices of looking. Blog photography might do the same thing, might encourage carefully specified looking, if our instincts for which images deserve the respect of such looking weren't so inveterately tied to the art-image.

* WJT Mitchell "What Do Pictures Really Want?" October 77 (Summer, 1996).

How to Do Things with Words

Philosopher J.L. Austin distinguishes two types of speech act: constative and performative. Constative speech acts describe a situation and can therefore be evaluated for their accuracy, how well they describe the world (Austin probably would have said: constative speech can be true or false). By contrast, performative speech (itself) produces an action (e.g. "I sentence you to life in prison"). Austin further delineates two forms of performative speech: illocutionary and perlocutionary. In illocutionary speech, the utterance itself is the action (e.g. the classical example, "I pronounce you man and wife"). In perlocutionary speech, the utterance is not the action, but produces the action as one of its effects (e.g. "Don't move!"). In light of later work in semiotics and cultural theory, constative and performative speech acts appear not nearly so distinct (e.g. does an influential critic's "description" of a photograph merely describe the work, or does it effect a certain way of seeing). But I think we can say that Austin's typology is still evocative: even if not politically useful, it does speak, at the very least, to the intention behind certain speech acts as well, therefore, to the ways in which certain speech acts are dissembled and disseminated.

Blogs, I think, as public speech acts, are more performative than they seem; and I think they operate in both illocutionary and perlocutionary modes. In fact, this is a pretty good summary of the work I was trying to do in my first paper on photoblogs, "What Does the Photoblog Want?"

Friday, January 28, 2005

This is further in the future than I've yet been

Thanks to Deceptive Media for a great chat and my first opportunity to expore the Docklands. The Docklands is a strange barnacle on London's south east side. This is a peering photo of the Millenium Dome, once so full of promise, now merely photogenic.

This is Further in the Future, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Speaker's Corner Speakerless

At 16:00 yesterday, on my way to Oxford, I passed Speaker's Corner, in London. It was empty, speakerless. I can notice it was speakerless because it is a place marked for public speech. We also know that a streeet corner like Oxford Circus, only .5 miles away, isn't marked for public speech because people who speak there, like the Sinner or Winner man, are called kooks. Some of the people who speak in Speaker's Corner are kooky, but we recognise their right to speak aloud in public, in that space. Which is to say, we recognise that even if their form of speech is outlandish to us, they (like us) have acknowledged a basic rule: only to speak publicly in the designated areas.

Didier Eribon, in part 2 of his book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, examines how a form of coded "gay speech" (p. 7), from the 19th c. forward, has helped to constitute a community and a politics through a form of "public expression." Here, too, there are rules for what one can say in public, and consequences for errant speech-acts, for speech-acts of all kinds. Far more violent and intensively imposed rules.

The internet is a form of public. Speaking there, on a blog, through words or photographs, is a kind of public speech act (the trick is to know what kind--but I don't know yet). And there have been consequences, many and various: formations of communities and sub-communities and splinter communities, cults of celebrity, cries from the outside and from the inside of narcissism, complaints that the internet has been flooded by puerile, (or worse) amateur noise. Etcetera.

So I think we can see blogs alongside Speaker's Corner, and other locations for public speech (all places are—but the consequences for speaking vary). Not that they are the same, or even analogous, but I think they are governed by similar strictures. Offline, the rules of public space are not homogenous or entirely predictable, and they are not simply migrated wholesale onto the internet, but if the internet is a public which alters or perverts the rules of publics elsewhere (and how can it not?), then still, it is working from the basis of those elsewheres, and so sustains a relationship to them.


Speaker's Corner Speakerless, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

Angel and Greyhound

Oxford, home of the Triple J: J, J, and J

Thanks for teaching me about the etiquette of death and blogging. Among many, many other things. The Triple J know a lot more than I do about photoblogging and photo-everythinging.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Interesting comment here about "photo-a-day" projects, which Dick's Daily also mentioned.

And very interesting thread here about how blogging, at an individual level, changes through time.


List or Spectrum?

art photography, abstract photography, compositional photography, stock photography, semi-professional photography, professional photography, documentary photography, journalistic photography, amateur photography, blog photography, slice of life photography, snapshot photography, holiday photography, personal photography, urban street photography...


Photography's Erotic Flaws

Lovely thing about interviews: they don't let you hold onto either assumptions or conclusions for long. Yesterday morning, I wondered aloud and in print about whether the experience of viewing photographs online fosters a kind of double vision: on the content of the photo (seeing through the photo) and, at the same time, on the photograph itself (sight at the photo's surface). When along came yesterday afternoon's interviews with pixeldiva and Dick's Daily, during which pixeldiva described one of the pleasures of blog photography as the opportunity to glimpse the personality beneath the posts (despite their formal qualities, their grammar, their compositional qualities), and Dick's Daily distinguished blog photography from other forms of photography (not absolutely distinguished, but provisionally) by its friendliness to accident, to informality, to what, in the context of "proper" photography, can look like a mistake or simply a "bad" photo. Bad light. Bad focus. Graininess. Somehow, these qualities suit blog photography, or blog photography welcomes them. And to pixeldiva's point, maybe personality shows through (is nicely refracted by) these endearing flaws, or maybe personality travels within them.


Look, that nice building is hiding behind that ugly one!

Then, in the afternoon, I met with pixeldiva in the ugly building behind the nice building, which is much less ugly inside. Thanks to pixeldiva for courageously allowing me to pepper her with questions for 2 hours, which *I* did.

Near Green Lanes

Near Green Lanes, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

Met with Dick's Daily here, in sight of the televised cricket and an old man having a slap up lunch. Thanks to Dick's Daily.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Photography's Old and New Sites

Many people, including two recent email interviews I've done with Daily Images and Donut's Daily Daguerreotype, talk about the internet being the main place where they intensively or intentionally view other people's photographs. Of course, they, like everyone else, see photographs all the time. But in order to see photographs as photographs (this is one way to articulate the distinction here), the web is their primary site. Some mention laziness or convenience as the reason for this. Others say that they find photographs on photoblogs to be more interesting. Here's how one person said it: "I think it's because online portfolios are more personal, more unique. People have the freedom to show whatever they want, whereas galleries tend to show work that is perhaps bound to certain rules. They tend to be good technically, but boring."

There's a lot to comment on and take issue with here. For right now, I'm trying to hold my attention on this in relation to the historical arc of photography:

-from a late 19th/early 20th c. popular recreation, but one where the taking of photographs was far more visible, publicly, than photographs themselves;

-to a medium inching towards the achievement of art status alongside its popular status, and therefore, gaining a new set of sites (galleries, books), a new critical language, a new nexus of comparisons (inevitably, to painting, but also to documentary, to film, etc.);

-to a (now) newly popular medium, digital, comparatively cheap, embedded in a new set of behaviours and rituals (than, say, the ones Bourdieu looked at in late 20th c. France), but which also sits along side other categories, old and new: journalistic photography, art photography, stock photography.

And so, here is evidence of some sliding between categories and modes of viewing: for a lot of people I've talked to, their experience of viewing photography as a medium (seeing photography as such, alongside its content, its iconography and etc.) is an online experience , whereas this was formerly a mode of looking most often fostered (I'm guessing) by art photography, photography in galleries, in books, etc., where the site itself tends to point to the photographicity of photography (not that it's not possible to have the experience of photography as such in, say, the morning newspaper, but I don't think this is the common practice, the ordinary language of photography). Does the internet, as we experience it visually, focus our attention on medium more generally: the textuality of text, the aurality of sound? Is this one of its effects? It's too large a question, however interesting. But within the public life of photography, more specifically, I can start to see where this attention to medium, paired with the familiar experiences of looking for content and tone (photos of people, photos of a birthday party, photos of the family trip to Mexico), is starting to change how photography functions.


Saturday, January 22, 2005

Toast into Bread

When it's a choice, why do we look at all? What are the kinds of attractions that keep us looking? Over time, sensation changes: often fades. Is looking sensation? Does it change with time, and, how does it?

Yesterday, Nicely Toasted likened the experience of reading blogs to the experience of looking down into the ground floor windows of row houses. A deeply pleasurable, engrossing act, slightly perverse, but mortal, short-lived. After a peroid of looking into ground floor flats—the tv-blue windows, the desultory signs of life—the flats start to look the same and the pleasure of looking fades. This kind of looking, or these objects of looking (other people's homes, blogs), seem to rely on the presence of an outside to that looking: looking at a person's blog (or maybe all blogs) is fun when one can still crisply remember what it was like *not* to have that kind of access. Looking into someone's home is fun in contrast to the more public, less sensational, less imtimate sights offered by streets. This kind of looking relies on a contrast, or an oscillation between intimacy and its opposite. Maybe the unexpected view into someone's home is an unexpected intimacy, and exciting for that reason. But also, necessarily, short-lived.

Is it the same with porn? (my suggestion, not Nicely Toasted's)

I don't take this to mean that blogs are a flash in the pan, or a fading sensation. Not at all. Rather, I'm thinking that at the start of a project, about a phenomenon which is relatively new, it's hard to have a sense of how that phenomenon sits in time. Thanks to Nicely Toasted for providing some insight.



Snug, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

It was. This is where I met with Toast, yesterday in Oxford.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

Poppy Thinking

More on my conversation with

We talked about the internet as a new medium for photography, a place where one can see thousands of people's personal photographs on any given day. I'm curious about what this does to the internet as a public or pseudo-public space. Indeed, what this would do to any public space (your local mall paper-posted with thousands of enlarged photographs from people's family albums?). As Sontag is constantly saying (allow me that present tense, please), along with Flusser and, in his own way, Don Slater, our experience of day-to-day life is an experience of photography. But it's never quite been an experience of people's personal photography. "Personal photography?" Leaving aside for the moment issues of aesthetics and iconography, of medium and institutional networks (all common forms of distinction), personal photographs are different than journalism or art photography or most other types of photography for the simple fact that they are personal, and to me, that means that they mostly don't get seen or shown outside a close circle of intimates. They have their own networks of circulation—not private exactly, but intimate, close, sometimes affective, less like commodities and more like rumours. And this form or level of distinction is exactly one thing I think the presence of personal photography online might be changing, which is to say, invalidating. [Displacement, or a mix-up of circulation networks, is one way to account for the appeal of Dave's found photographs, as well as for the melancholy of Barthes' writing on photography.]

So, we talked about the experience of seeing personal photography online and described a feeling of overcrowding (to be fair, she had many reactions to all the photography out there; I'm just picking out one). I think it's fair to say that (here, at least) hers is a photographer's point of view, and her reaction is aimed at people who post photographs in photography communities. Many, many people are posting their photos to photography communities these days (e.g. livejournal's), and if anything, I understate the case to say that the standards of quality (and quality is one thing that was talking about) one finds there are extremely diverse. Which can make the internet a difficult place to browse; sticky; possibly boring or unappealing; even annoying. Full of distractions and what one thinks one doesn't want. Many art forms are confronting this situation. So many writers; so many photographers; so many web designers and illustrators. It's like the mob has come to every medium. On one side, people herald the "democratization" of art and cultural production; on the other, people decry the loss of standards (and as a result, the internet gets painted as a space for "amateur" production, in contrast to galleries and books, the spaces of rarified, legit cultural production). But both responses assume that all forms of cultural production *want* the same thing: audience, recognition, upward mobility. I'm not sure they do. And I think that if we assume that they do, we help to create a cultural economy of scarce resources, where everything out there seems to clamber for the same forms of recognition, and nothing seems adequate—not our attention spans nor our capacities for appreciation. Suddenly, it is consumption and not production that appears to be in short supply and ill-equipped. Interesting. But it also makes me think that "production" and "consumption" aren't going to help us think about this moment (a point that Jean has been pressing for months).


Poppies the First

Very good Instant Messaging interview with yesterday afternoon. It was a follow-up interview actually, about 15 months after I first spoke to her about her photographs and her livejournal blog. Things change fast in the blog world, as they do in the world world. She's moved to a new country. She has two new websites for her photography (including and one due out in short order) and continues to be active on her original livejournal. And she's taking more photographs than ever. These changes seem like diversifications to me. A spreading out into new forms, but related to more keenly felt interests and more clearly specified goals. "Goals" is the wrong word, because in blogs, I've found, goals are less ends than they are means to ends (which are often unknown or unspecified at the outset). The blog itself (for instance) appears to be an end, an outcome, but seems to function far more actively as the means to many and various ends. Further evidence: her photoblog, and all of the activities that constitute it (photography, photographic rambles, the photographs themselves, conversations about photographs staged in comment boxes all over the web...) has been, at least in part, generative of these changes.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Towards a Philosophy of Photography

Not my philosophy, but Vilem Flusser's (1920-1991). Steven Shaviro writes about it here.

One thing to say for him: Flusser takes photography very seriously. For him, two major events divide history: the first was the invention of writing (supplanting images); the second was the invention of photography (supplanting or beginning the process of supplanting writing). If you're writing a grant application to work on photography, and you need a citation which inflates the significance of your study, Flusser is your man. The stakes of photography are human freedom, in the largest possible sense.

That said, for Flusser, photography is important as a philosophical object mainly for the way it prototypes all similar apparatus, all means of "technical image" making. A result being that Flusser is unconcerned with images themselves, with photographic iconography, with any particular image-makers. He does, however, cleave photographs into two qualitative ur-categories: 1. photographs which produce no new information, which are redundant and endlessly reproduced—snapshots are his primary example here, although he also recognises documentary and journalistic photography as of this type; 2. photographs which attempt to produce new information, which try to exceed a camera's program, the technical codes which dictate what an image can be and do—here, he cites something he calls "experimental photography" but gives no better sense of what practices this might reference. Snapshots, Flusser asserts at least twice, are not of interest to his study (although he talks about them persistently). Informational photographs, on the other hand, are of interest because in their attempts to exceed the apparatus' program, they strive to free human intention from "automaticity." He reserves the valorised term "photographer" for those who practice experimental photography. The rest of us are "idolaters."

Obviously, hasty summary does Flusser few favours. I'm finding it impossible to avoid a tone of mockery here, when that's not at all my aim or what, ultimately, I think Flusser deserves. It's an 80-page book, terse, neologistic, and entirely without citation. After the first half of the book, I was ready to write him off as someone who believed many things that I could or would not: that technology can and does ruthlessly determine human action, that the bulk of cultural production is nugatory and the majority of cultural producers are deeply self-deluded, and that the "matter of the world" is separable from the symbolic registers of the world (e.g. photography) such that one can dominate the other in particular historical moments. I wasn't sure I could have any sort of productive dialogue with Flusser's work. But the second half...well, it's not that it gets suddenly more nuanced and interesting; rather, his accretive prose style arrives someplace unexpected.

Flusser's is a doggedly, programmatically pessimistic view of photography. But his philosophy of photography, as he outlines it, is a liberational project. What a strange vision. It seems very worth a reckoning, if only for its complications and the resistances I want, instinctually, to erect against it. [in other words, I'm giving up on this post. I had bigger plans for it, but there are always more posts, and it was offending me, sitting there all misshapen and gangly in my draft folder.]


Monday, January 17, 2005

More on Curiously Incongruous

Curiously Incongruous' awareness of photography's art world has me turning my attentions that way as well. Here's Sontag again—she draws out one thread of the comparison that I'm after:

"Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced—this for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect." (p. 28, Regarding the Pain of Others).

However true this might be in principle, Sontag's point here better suits her case at hand than the de facto rules of the field at large. She is talking about the now famous post-9/11 photography show in New York called Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs. In that show, amateur photographs hang next to commercially and artistically professional photographers' images—the various forces of professionalisation are indeed not insuperable in this specific case. But professionalisation does more subtle work that simply admit or bar the door. It colours how we see; it sets standards and modes of reception for many more than just the so-called professional images. However obscure these standards.

Curiously Incongruous, however, is neither inexperienced nor untrained. On the contrary, he spends a very serious amount of time on his photography, as do many so-called amateur photographers. There are and will be spaces where art-world photographs (photos which arrive from that vector) meet their Others. "Here is New York" is one such space; the internet is another. We can expect all of the familiar reactionary responses: *that's* not real art, *this* is real art, etc. The unique event, the one we might learn something from, will be the practices fostered in the hothouse of this encounter. Practices of image-making and practices of image-viewing. Thanks to Curiously Incongruous for helping me to see the importance of this encounter.


Interview with Curiously Incongruous

This is the pub where Curiously Incongruous and I met.

[that's not him in the back of the photo]


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Regarding the Pain of Others

Yesterday, at the aforementioned workshop, Jackie Orr spoke about panic. This is a great and heteroclite topic for research. It connects so much: the ways in which panic is incited and governed (e.g. the recent simulations of bio-warfare attacks); the ways in which panic is experienced and governed (e.g. prescription drugs for controlling panic attacks); the ways panic is represented and otherwise enacted. It's the kind of topic that is suddenly everywhere, in everything, once one is given the right optic for it.

Orr describes how panic is, at once, the responsibility of individuals (panic attacks) and the outgrowth of collectives (mass panic). I think about how, in representations of panic, the movements of the camera teach us how we might conceptualise panic: it cuts from the source of mass panic (the invading ships) to the faces, close in, of individuals suddenly out of control. Panic happens, we learn, when individuals go crazy--a definition which opens the door for someone to then claim that the source of panic was imagined, and that the individual is therefore merely insane, themselves to blame for their *own* panic. (Orr is careful to admit of how panic might be experienced by individuals, not merely represented. I'm the one obsessed by representation, not Orr so much.)

This busy movement between the individual and the collective. We see it in studies of photography as well. An individual's photograph is given as irreducible. The artist's valuable print. The stranger's holiday snap, impassive outside the family. In both cases, meaning devolves onto the individual, if it does not emanate from the individual. I like how Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others gives us the collective life of photographs, how they act together (if not in concert), alongside a sensitivity to how images work individually, iconographically (in contrast to, say, P. Bourdieu or D. Slater). The dangers of generalisation notwithstanding, I think photographs have a collective life. In that collective life, there is busy movement between the individual image and the collective image-body. What effects this movement? When? To what ends? Can we say there is a collective life of personal photographs? Has there always been (though the photos have been locked away in albums)? Does this life (or the collectivity) change in the context of the internet?


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Fourier Transform

Yesterday in Oxford (as mentioned on the Weekly INCITE) I talked to Who also, btw, runs a beautiful record label.

[In the future, I'll try to post a photograph of the place where the interview took place, but I don't yet have permanent access to a camera. Next time. For now, imagine a building shaped like Freud's face, with mouth as door. The cafe was called Freud's.]

One thing that we (S and I) talked about at length is the extent to which his photographs, which he describes as "Photographs of different places around the world," are photographs *of* those places. He emphasises that they are not "willingly perverse," but that nevertheless, they are not exactly photos which are recognisable *as* a particular place, or which conversely make a place recognisable through the medium of the photo. They are photos of small things, that which might otherwise go unnoticed. Take a look. The perversity, witting or un-, of representation here interestingly raises the issue of representation resident in all blogged photos (as possibly but not necessarily distinct from all online personal photography).

The simple impulse is to say that bloggers' photos are photos which (somehow) represent the blogger (e.g. the blogger's experience of a place, if not the place itself). But. At the very least, this response seems uselessly vague. In other words, I think it's still a very open question. One which yesterday's interview helps to open and starts to answer, although it's still too early in the research for me to quite hear what S is saying in this respect. I think it matters what these personal photographs show--most blogging research ignores this. But it's probably not an issue of representation. I think that the answer (the theoretical framework of the answer) is going to need to simultaneously address not only image content (the traditional scope of representation), but all of the various activities of photography and blogging. Representation's purview is not normally so wide.

If in the world of art (e.g. art photography), the author is no longer popular as a source of meaning (e.g. an author's biography), I think blogger photos are going to call for a very differnt mode of analysis.


Other People's Photographs

For the last few years, Dave has collected photographs that he finds discarded, in trashcans and wherehaveyou. He says that they stand in for tourist photos, which I think we can take to mean: originating in a specific place, in a sense "taken" in that place, from that place, and somehow (both more and less than photographs one takes oneself) OF that place. These photographs are evidentiary in a way that personal photography has always wanted to be. That is, evidentiary in the precise way that people have ever wished they were (would that journalists' photos could finally tell the truth). They are literally the matter of their place of origin. The very stuff. Dave carries them away from that place like we carry away our own photos. Dave posts them on the internet like we post our own photos. Could we dream a situation where, looking through our own holiday snaps, the scene of a beach recently visited shows a person we don't recognise, someone who has slipped into our photo? And a conjoined scene wherein we look at Dave's trashcan photos and think that maybe we see someone we know, the likeness of our mother's aunt, a cousin? Then, what would be the difference?

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