Thursday, February 24, 2005

Stand Up Straight!

Thanks to onionbagblog for the chat, and the bluntly honest reminders that not all photobloggers are photobloggers and that not all photographs are about photography.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"The Adventure of a Photographer"

In Italo Calvino's short story "The Adventure of a Photographer," Antonino Paraggi is surrounded by friends who "go out on Sundays with a leather case over their shoulder. And they photograph one another." Antonino is a "non-photographer." But he is a philosopher by nature whose philosophising leads him to think about photography. He considers many theories to explain why photography is so popular, and to explain his lack of interest in it, but avoids the "more evident process" taking place: that all of his friends (the photographers) are getting married while he is not.

On weekend outings with friends, Antonino is often asked to take his friend's pictures—why not, his hands are free. He does not have a camera of his own, and he has no family. He continues to think about the condition of photography and his thinking leads him on, logically, to a series of actions. He objects to snapshots, calling them hypocritical: if you really want to capture your life, you need to take at least one photograph per minute, from waking until sleeping, every day. "The line between the reality that we photograph because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow." To avoid this hypocrisy, one must return to posed studio portraits, c. the 19th century. Antonino does this. He disappears under the black hood of an old camera to take portraits of his friends. To avoid a further hypocrisy, one must not only return to artificial, ritualised poses, one must aim for complete superficiality. He does this, posing a friend with a tennis racket in a series of ridiculous postures. He seeks a portrait outside of time and space. She must wear an evening dress, dark against her light skin. No, he must highlight the face, letting the rest melt away. He lowers the dress over her shoulders. The dress falls away of its own. She wears nothing underneath. He begins, finally, to take photos. This is what he wants. "I've got you now." He packs up the camera and walks away. Bice cries.

He falls in love with his model Bice. From that point, he photographs nothing but her, everywhere, in every pose. But what he most wants is to photograph Bice unawares, a Bice "whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else." This was his passion, one that was not un-like jealousy. Bice soon leaves him.

In his depression, Antonino begins a diary, photographic of course. Then, in a moment of realisation, he begins to tear up all of his photographs, the one with Bice and the ones without. He will throw them all away. But not before he takes one more photograph, of his pile of torn photographs. He arranges them just so.

And this, he realises, is the answer he's sought all along: only to photograph photographs. (Calvino, 1955)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Another Spree

Thanks to eyematter for our late night typing spree. Yet another photoblogger whose work continues long after work ends.

With you as with so many others: photoblogs don't just offer hundreds of thousands of photos to the watching world, they are creating a new generation of photographers, with their own photographic interests, their own styles, their own practices, and their own audiences and ways of looking.

If You Want

Looking at Flickr, on Feb. 19th, 2005, you can see if you want to:

-20,017 photos of cats (15 minutes ago, you could see 19,954)
-13,919 photos of babies
-32,881 photos of what people think of when they think of "family"
-27,135 photos of Japan
-51,327 photos taken from cameraphones
-20,479 photos taken for moblogs
-25,981 self-portraits
-25,073 photos of weddings
-199 photos of Hackney, the neighbourhood I live in
-14,120 photos of grafitti
-7 photos depicting something homosexual
-0 photos depicting something avowedly, consciously heterosexual
-43 photos depicting something queer
-0 photos of Oprah Winfrey
-7355 photos of the colour white
-19,361 photos of nature
-618 photos of the notion of "public" or which are public
-121 photos of the notion of "private" or which are private
-313 photos of "bad"
-356 photos of "good"
-3 photos of "indifference"
-35,272 photos of parties
-385 photos of funerals
-43 photos of Satan, including this one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

One Hour Photo

As if invoked (I'm not sure it would have arrived here by more conscious means) by my recent post, a video comes home about violation. 2003's One Hour Photo. Sort of a movie with training wheels.

Robin Williams (Psi) is a SavMart photo lab technician. He has been for 20 years. He's middle aged, balding, but in case we don't immediately recognise how unattractive he is, he wears big square metal frame glasses which he's forever pushing up onto his nose with the middle finger push, and he carries a retro airline bag—which only makes the filmmakers appear anachronistic, because didn't they notice that those are cool now? Robin Williams is unattractive and so therefore (the film, nothing implied...the film states, bluntly and often) he is without family. This is the film's central point and principle thesis about photography, as stated in an early wistful voice over by Robin Williams. The first line spoken along the film's timeline (after a Sunset Blvd-esque opening sequence where we see Robin Williams post-denouement, arrested and of course, mug-shotted) is: "Family pictures depict smiling faces." But Robin Williams has no family. He does, however, work in a photo lab and there he processes the family pictures for a lot of families. This is the opportunity the film seizes on for its horror effects: his access to other people's photos. A press quote on the video box says: "He knows your secrets." And one family in particular, the very attractive Yorkins (we know they're attractive because Mrs. Yorkin changes her hair stylishly in every scene, until the trouble starts, and Mr. Yorkin is stylishly "neglectful" as some sort of successful designer...he uses Macs), Robin Williams grows to like very much. He thinks of himself as Uncle Yorkin. He envies them, but other than occassional drop-ins at the photo lab where he works, his only access to them is through their photos. Photos are the vehicle for his envy. When the Yorkins ask for their photos in duplicate, Robin Williams prints them in triplicate, keeping a copy for himself. Creepy. In Robin Williams' house is this franky kind of gorgeous curtain of photos, spanning a very large wall, all photos of the Yorkins, taken by the Yorkins, attractively lit with flood lamps. Creepy. But Mr. Yorkin cheats on Mrs. Yorkin. Neglectful and a philanderer. Robin Williams discovers his philandering by cross referencing another customer's photos. Photos hold our secrets. Be careful what you photograph.

Robin Williams bathetically snaps. Does lots of cinematically crazy man things (scratching Mr. Yorkin's face out of all the photographs in his giant Yorkin curtain of photographs), exacts vengeance upon Mr. Yorkin and his lover, and ends up in jail, interrogated, where we learn that the particular form of psychosis-inducing abuse he suffered as a child was to be forced to photograph the "sick, degrading" things his parents did to him. Creepy. But with justification now. Defend the family.

Photos depict good families, but in the film they do more, they almost are the guarantee that a family is good—we know they are good because the evidence is there in the photos. Photos are intimate, they are the family itself, and so they can be violated, or the family can be violated through photos. But there is another theme that the movies works: photos sometimes get reality muddled up. Mid-way through the picture, Robin Williams fantasises himself into a Yorkin family photo and we subsequently are shown Robin Williams walking in their front door, exploring their house, putting on their clothes, watching football on their television. The scene is filmed as if he's broken into their home, the physical equivalent of snooping around their photos, a logical corollary, but when the Yorkins come home and find him on the couch, the tense moment is broken when they all embrace him as "Uncle Psi." He smiles and the fantasy ends with a cut to Robin Williams in his car, creepily staring into the Yorkin home from the street. This suggests (declaims) a possible instability between photographs and reality which sets us up for the film's climax. The film shows us Robin Williams exacting his insane (but is it?) vengeance on the husband and father who doesn't know how good he's got it, but we learn later that Robin Williams either didn't *load* his camera with film before photographing Philanderer and Lover in degrading poses, or, he never visited their trysting place at all. The photographs the film shows us from that encounter are innocuous (although still possibly insane) photographs of the inside of a (presumably Williams') hotel room.

To get this film made, the producers exploited two things: 1. the star power of Robin Williams and 2. the intimacy and vulnerability of family photographs, their genre potential for horror. But to make the exploitation work, the film has to invent a main character who works in a photo lab. And so maybe the film makes us aware of a small vulnerability in the privacy of our family lives (because don't we all have families like the Yorkins? Or don't we all want to?), potentialised by photographs, but activated by a betrayal of the family (Robin Williams might never have attached the Yorkins if Mr. Yorkin hadn't betrayed his family). Now, assuming that Hollywood has noticed photoblogs, flickrs and the like, they wouldn't need to make their antagonist a photo lab technician. He could be any old creep with an internet connection.

One thing we could say here would be that not only have people not noticed this form of vulnerability, they have extravagantly flaunted it in putting so many personal photographs online. But I don't think that photographs are any less vulnerable or intimate than the film posits, and I don't think that the public space of the internet, for whatever its differences, is less open to violations than any other kind of space. Maybe then (and there are other possibilities here) the internet creates conditions under which family life (or any kind of life) does not need, first and foremost, to be defended.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Step up, Step up

An essay on photoblogging. How rare.


Thanks to [temporarily anonymous] for giving me an Instant Messaging lesson: you were a model of grace, distraction, eloquence, and endurance. You teach me that distraction is only distraction when I adhere too dogmatically to goals, protocols and intentions. In defter hands, distraction is a more expansive mode of conversing.

Thanks also to erinpower for the IM chat. You've got me thinking about the episodes which reveal that privacy works differently online—is something different, is sustained, protected and violated differently. Not that this will be a surprise to some people, but its one thing to theorise it, another to have specific cases to think about. I like the idea that photographs, which many would say 'contain' some of their most intimate, precious moments, are also somehow more immune than text to attacks on privacy and personhood. One can be honest in photographs in a way that one cannot in text. Some forms of honesty require an absence of censorship, or an absence of the need to censor. Photographs allow one to be honest, in this special sense, i.e. without editing or censoring. You can tell all in a photography, so long as the right person is looking. Photos are a different kind of code than written posts, they establish different kinds of relationships with their viewers—the form of relationship varies strongly according to how familiar a viewer is with the life of the blogger-photographer. Photographs are a kind of knowledge which hook up with other forms of knowledge.

But think, too, about a situation where blog text is appropriated without attribution and compare it to one where a photograph is appropriated. Both might be felt as a kind of theft, but if they are also experienced as personal violations, they are different sorts of violations, aren't they? Imagine a photograph of a and a friend are kissing. Someone you don't know steals the photo from your photoblog and posts it on their own site. When we imagine the worst from this scenario, what do we imagine? What kind of site steals our photos, what do our photographs sit amongst in the worst case scenario? What text accompanies them? And then, what about our writing? What is the nightmare scenario there, and are they the same types of nightmare? I think they're probably not. Can we say that photographs connect to personhood, to selfhood, differently than does text? Maybe they spin out from the maker differently, one a web, the other a secreted shell. A skin we shed, an egg we incubate and hatch, a nest we build, plummage that we sometimes spread wide.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Photography as Celebrity

Aside from Amelie and Memento, can anyone think of any recent films in which photographs appear in a central or interesting role?


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A History of Supplements

As everyone writing about photography eventually does (and as I did in a recent post), McQuire tries to reckon with photography's liaisons with reality, the real, with life outside of the camera (whatever is left of it). In doing so, and far more than most authors, he notices the way that photographs, precisely because of the promise that they can perfectly, mimetically represent reality, vitiate that very effort. In other words, however compelling their link to a that-has-been (Barthes, Camera Lucida), photographs also inevitably point to themselves as versions, fakes, and therefore imperfect-as-representations (no more or less fallible than painting). So McQuire comes to talk about Marey and Muybridge and ultimately film in terms of photographic seriality (one after another), where he thinks about seriality as an attempt to recuperate photographic technology's ability to represent reality (if one photo alone can't quite get us there, then certainly 24 per second can). No mere game, this. There was a lot at stake in the effort. Biology, physics, criminology, and medicine were four fields which had put a lot of faith in the capacity for photographic technology to solve their most vexing problems, to advance them into the new century and newly perfect forms of knowledge.

This helps me think about the various ways in which photographs have been (McQuire loves this word, so, in homage) entrained in systems of meaning—placed in contexts that are meant to, or have the effect of supplementing what and how photographs mean. Captions are a strategy of long standing. Newspapers. Serial forms (time-lapse, cinema). Eventually, art galleries. Books. Etc. Etc. And now blogs.

Not that anyone thought it would be possible or desireable to think about online photography without giving some serious thought to what blogs do to the experience of viewing photographs. But to see blogs as part of a history of supplements (systems of meaning) is a more specific task.


Two quotes, for present delectation and future recall:

Duchamp: “You know exactly what I think about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.”

Foucault sometimes referred to his mode of critique as “voluntary inservitude” or “reflective indocility.”


Making the Scene

I'm still happily chewing on Scott McQuire's Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera.

McQuire describes the scene of photography's popular emergence (~1888 with Eastman Kodak's first mass produced camera) as one which coincides (and colludes) with a privileging, across many fields (art, science, medicine), of a relatively new opposition: between reality and mimesis. In other words, prior to this period, and prior to the participation of photography (reality v. image of reality) and psychology (the mind v. our assessments of it) and science (the world v. our measurements of it) and etc., it might have been harder or less instinctual (less natural) to see the world as structuralist semiotics soon came to analyse it, viz. as a matrix of overlapping representations, each point in space a perspective, each experience measured in degrees of mediacy. Heidegger analyses this as the "conquest of the modern world for perspective" and perspectival forms of knowing. Jonathan Crary disputes the dates of this phenomenon, and thus photography's role in it. But whatever the date, McQuire insists on the importance of these continuities (not progressions) to the near-immediate popular uptake of camera technologies in the late 19th century. Cameras seemed to offer the ability to do something which was anyway very much in the popular consciousness: to make versions of the world.

Most histories of photography peddle the idea that photography arrived in these continuities as a kind of acme: the perfection of representation (and it is in this spirit that photography gets pitted victoriously against painting). McQuire argues that, on the contrary, photography (and other camera technologies) were the beginning of the end for the idea that representations were perfectable, i.e. that anything was precisely knowable. It is photography's almost-but-not-quite relationship to reality (a quality that most writers on photography describe as uncanny, including, prominently, Barthes and Sontag) that ultimately scuppers attempts to claim that meaning is fixable, knowable or perfectable at all. In being so close but yet so far, the very attempt to arrive becomes questionable. Maybe it's not possible after all.

And so, I wonder if this helps to understand something I've been hearing from photobloggers: their sense that photographs are not framed shards of reality but are instead products of an idiosyncratic and personal way of seeing. This project is founded on the idea that photographs are irreducibly personal, the product of a singular vision (and some say that better photographs are better precisely because the singularity of this vision shines forth clearly). Not that the idea of photography as itself perspectival, as one representation among many, is a new one. But photography's mechanistic qualities have never quite receded from view—it has always seemed especially cozy with reality, despite various attempts to recuperate it as art or artifice. But some of the descriptions I've heard of photography, weirdly and interestingly, are very close to mid-century descriptions of abstract expressionist painting (i.e. an expression of self through gesture and transferred emotion; but what is the mechanism of transfer for the self in or through photography? How does it arrive in the photo?).

I'm not saying that McQuire's history explains this (transformation or continuity or phenomenon or...). But he sets it up as noticeable, as a distinguishing contemporary feature of photography, and especially of online photography. Which in turn makes it possible to ask: what strains of contemporary thought (ways of knowing, shared desires, shared fears, shared delusions) is photography resonating with (constructively or destructively) that this new expressionist definition could come to exist, and to make sense? Why does it make sense to say this, at just this moment in time?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Persistent Vision

Thank you Persistent Vision for distracting me from my project with talk about punk rock, an excellent sandwich from the world's smallest deli, and a most picturesque bench for sitting.

But also for the insight that toy camers are a "shortcut" to a certain photographic aesthetic. That's very nice. It points out the palpable link between technology (optics, but also the ways we differently invest in technology, e.g. as high-tech or low-tech, consumerist and less consumerist, etc.) and the ways we've learned to value photographs. It's something that escapes the notice of Bourdieu and Sontag and other past writers on photography—which was probably not oversight on their part, but the lack of an opportunity to consider so many photographic technologies operating at once (as we see when we look at photoblogs). Meaning: the lack of an opportunity to witness so many discrete technologies (digital, film, Lomo, SLR, camera, etc.), but also the lack of an opportunity to see so many photographs.

St. Dunstan in the East, interior

St. Dunstan in the East

St. Dunstan in the East, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

Site of the most picturesque interview I've ever done or am likely to do.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

1964, 2005: Photography's Lives

I hear Gerhard Richter is unfashionable these days.

Here's Richter writing about his Photo Pictures (a name he used for his paintings made from found snapshot photography).

“For a time I worked as a photographic laboratory assistant: the masses of photographs that passed through the bath of developer every day may well have caused a lasting trauma.”

With photoblogs, Fickrs, and etc., we can all have this experience. Given that his Photo Pictures formed such a productive stage in his career, I think we can assume that by "trauma," Richter means a formative event. The kind that haunts and motivates us.

So, but, why create paintings from photographs? Aren't the photos self-sufficient? “Perhaps because I’m sorry for the photograph, because it has such a miserable existence even though it is such a perfect picture, I would like to make it valid, make it visible.” He writes here in 1964-5.

I wonder if he means, a miserable life cooped up in photo albums, rarely seen, badly archived, eventually thrown out or put into even deeper storage, and always secretly reviled when shown to hapless friends and family. Well, no longer. I think, had Richter's Photo Pictures never happened, the tactic of creating paintings from snapshot photos would, today, be very differently resonant. A fact which, if true, says a lot about the changed social life of photographs.

Both quotes from Richter, G. “Notes, 1964-1965” in Daily Practice 33, pp. 35-36.

Sneaky Library Fist Pump

“The fact that camera technologies have been an integral part of the process of industrialisation has been as much neglected in social theory as the camera’s dependence on a whole network of industrial practices and production techniques has been excluded from art history. This concatenation of absences skews our perceptions of history, and limits our ability to respond to change in the present.” (McQuire, Scott (1998) Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera. London: Sage Publications, p. 4)

You just know that after writing that sentence he swivelled in his chair to see if anyone had noticed what he had just done. Six years later, I noticed. Nice work. Well said and well worth saying.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Stop Thinking That!

In talking with Chromasia just now, he said something which struck me as really important, and not just because it had never occurred to me before, but a little bit because it dislodges a bit of my thinking that had gotten stuck.

He emphasised how his photoblog is just that, a photoblog, and important to him as such. My problem was this: because his (and many other photobloggers') photographs are so accomplished, and because in his comment box conversations, he seems to put so much emphasis on photography as such, on the technical and aesthetic aspects of a shot, I had been starting to think about *that* kind of photoblog as more of a gallery or portfolio than a blog. Which is wrong. Plain wrong, but also categorically confused. Simple classifications are just not going to work; I seem to have to learn that 10 times a day.

The thing he said which really struck me was that, even or especially on a technically/aesthetically focused site,
"there's a journey of sorts that's told by the photographs themselves (which includes changes of style, focus, equipment, and so on)...". By which he refers to a narrative spun out over time, a kind of continuity in the photoblog (over and above the bare fact that photographs go there) which is akin to that found in the archetypical or historical form of blogging, where, in many cases, it's the personality or some abiding interest of the blogger, related through text, which provides the continuity. And in photoblogs, Chromasia points out, it might be the same thing, but the photographs themselves carry and form the narrative.

Thanks to Chromasia for all of his help.
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