Thursday, March 31, 2005

"The photographer who shows his works is acting improperly"

Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-brow Art, 1965, p. 71:

"The realization of the artistic intention is particularly difficult in photography, probably because, fundamentally, it is only with difficulty that photographic practice can escape the functions to which it owes its existence....

Almost always assuming social functions, conscious or unconscious, and intimately involved in family life, its values and rhythms, its reasons and its raison d'etre are borrowed from elsewhere. The traditional norms of the practice are imposed with greater force the more strongly the practice itself is imposed. So, all else being equal, subjects who do not take photographs much more often have an aesthetic attitude towards photography....

The photographer who shows his works is acting improperly, while the painter is not, because, not being a universal subject, the photographing subject cannot address the universality of viewers. If my feelings toward the child that I am photographing or towards the photograph of the child are not the same as those which I have towards the portrait of a child (either because it is my child or because it is my photograph), I cannot demand that anyone else look at this photograph as they would look at a portrait of a child, and I cannot forbid them, if they happen to look at it in this way, to find it devoid of interest."

Does flickr, then, offer the spectacle of a huge number of people engaging in what StefZ, speaking from the perspective of the viewer, yesterday called “voyeurism” and what Bourdieu, speaking from the perspective of the photographer, calls an “improper” act? In one sense, clearly it does not. For most people using Flickr, the point, precisely (or put mostly crassly), is to show one's works, photographic, cultural, artistic and etc. But what about for people who don't use Flickr? For people who aren't beguiled by the internet and its cultures? This isn't a point about the digital divide; rather, it's to suggest that Bourdieu's seemingly anachronistic point is more than just anachronistic. I think it shows how, within a setting like flickr, new practices of photography can obtain (in other words, photography can start to delaminate from some of its traditional "social functions") even while, outside of that setting, the kinds of social practices that Bourdieu sees as so pervasive and dominant (photography's traditional ties to family, to holidays, to the pose, etc.) still function as the lens through which contemporary practices are viewed, interpreted and criticised. Thus, I think a lot of people are confused by flickr's photographs of food, stick figures in peril, and transparent screens, as I think Bourdieu might have been.

Interesting to ask: what had to happen to get from Bourdieu's photographic milieu to our own? What technologies had to be invented? What practices fostered? With his ur-framework of social class, the thing I think that Bourdieu was unable to conceive was the idea that cultures which are distinct but mutually constitutive (which have to distinguish themselves from one another precisely because they are mutually constitutive) might nevertheless invite differentiated, or tailored modes of interpretation. Even though flickr's users have obvious relationships—photographically, culturally, historically—with flickr's non-users (because that's all there is in the world right now: users and non-users of flickr), I think they call for different responses. Bourdieu's intelligence, his ability to see distinct cultures (classes) within the same analytic framework, was also his blindspot (or, would be in the present day).

Thanks to StefZ for sparking this line of thought.

My Three New Friends

My Two New Friends, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

Thanks to StefZ for such a good chat yesterday afternoon. And thanks especially for making fun of my inability to match your face to pictures I'd seen of it. You make my point for me: photography is complicated.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Can't you find someone more comely to play the role of me?

"How DVD [sic] puts family memories on small screens", The Observer, News section, 20 March 2005

The Observer (UK, the Sunday version of The Guardian) describes how a new service has grown up in London: a company that will take a family's collection of home videos, "lovingly shot videos of birthday parties and beach holidays," and turn them into a "slick piece of film complete with musical soundtrack." What I love is this: "One hour's worth of home video footage will typically produce five minutes of material for the finished montage, with scenes like a beach holiday more likely to make the cut than a school play." Filmic production values, meet family values. An interesting thing that I've been discussing with Jeremy lately has been how bloggers choose what to write about, and what those choices then represent (if representation is the right framework at all) in the context of the life lived and the life re-experienced through the blog. Now, people can leave it to the experts—they know what makes a good memory. Cinema does! (And hasn't this actually been the case for much of this century? See, for instance, Victor Burgin's new book, The Remembered Film, about how film inhabits, and operates within memory). And yes, the service is very expensive. Hollywood is the obvious model here.

The article attributes the legibility of this service to three things: 1. families who are tired of "information overload," not least in their own homes, of their own families; 2. a "national [English] obsession with genealogy and recording life experience for posterity (exemplified in the article by the BBC television series "Who Do You Think You Are?"); and 3. the "vacuum created by the geographical spread of modern families." Upon making the latter point, the article pivots on the thematic axis of technology (as a redress to the aforementioned vacuum) and ends by describing Nokia's new Lifeblog software which "organises photos, videos, text messages and multi-media messages into chronological diary form. Part or all of the diary can be transmitted to the internet in 45 seconds allowing, for example, parents to follow their children's holiday on the other side of the world in close to real time."

In my interviews with bloggers, the themes of memory, recording, and in a certain sense, posterity come up all the time, although these certainly do not explain blogs, if by "explain" we mean: take the measure of what blogs are or what they do. But journalists tend, when trying to explain blogs, to repeat one of three themes: 1. narcissism (as a contemporary social disease, with blogs as *the* symptom or the cause or both), 2. journalism (depending on the attitude and profession of the commentator, blogs are either the "new journalism" or never, never, not on your life will they ever be that), or 3. democracy (e.g. Howard Dean's campaign in the U.S.—blogs as a boon to democracy, a spectacular mode of popular representation). These, at least, are the themes I've noticed again and again. Genealogy is a new one to me, in the sociology of blogs as written by journalists. Have people noticed other explanatory rubrics circulating within popular commentaries on blogs?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Book to Get

Living with His Camera-CL
by Gallop, Jane, Sutcliffe, Jane
Duke University Press, 2003

"This book is a book of almost filial devotion -- a sympathetic reading of classic books in the field of photographic theory. It is especially interesting on two of my favorites in the field, Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, and Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middlebrow Art. Gallop critiques these and others from the point of view of the day to day experience of being the photographic subject of her photographer husband, Dick Blau, whose excellent family photographs illustrate the text. The photographed subject does not often have a voice in theory. Gallop's contribution helps fill that gap."

-Reviewed by Margaret Olin here.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network

"Always a Dull Moment" by John Galvin. I know it's 2 years not-new this month, this news, but doesn't it still fascinate? Doesn't it still take the cake?

The article describes Vatsim, the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network. A 45,000 member-strong network of air traffic controllers, spread all over the world. They have official training. Some have uniforms. They land planes. Tediously. In real-plane-landing-time. We've all, most of us, been on planes. We know how long they take to land, to take off. Vatsim members have day jobs which in most cases have nothing to with air traffic control. The planes they land are not real planes. They don't exist the way real, metal passenger planes do. Except that everything Vatsim does confounds every attempt to talk about it in terms of real/virtual, professional/amateur. There's hardly a virtual aspect to it. They're utterly fascinating.

This is Harv Stein, the Principal founder of Vatsim, speaking with John Galvin: '"We banned emergencies," says Stein, when I ask if it ever gets more interesting than this. "It was ridiculous. O'Hare was having four emergencies a night, and they don't get four a month in the real world. They'd call the tower and say, 'Emergency! Engines out.' I know what people are doing: Maybe they need to go eat dinner, so they call in an emergency so they don't have to wait in a holding pattern to land."' That just makes me want to throw my hands in the air the way some good rock shows do (i.e. like I just don't care). Doesn't it you? Well, maybe I'm the kook.

But I really believe that we don't have the conceptual firepower to talk about what these people do. Galvin's article is very good (how could it miss?), but ultimately calls Vatsim a game. "Game" is pretty expansive territory, and changing fast. Maybe it could work, with some elaboration. Better than "amateur," although the article relies on that notion a bit as well.

And so, while it's been said before (even by me, and I think 2 year-old news is still news), sometimes along comes a case that asserts not just the rightness of a particular thought, but its righteousness. "Amateur" or "hobbyist" or "nutter" don't quite capture it for me. Do they for you? Dont' they seem so impoverished in this context? Likewise: "amateur" doesn't help me think about photobloggers or flickr either. The extreme case gives us insight into the ones that *appear* less extreme, more quotidian.

Monday, March 14, 2005

"Personal Photography"?

As a way to try to define my interests in this research, I've often used the phrase "personal photography." What does this mean? It has an evocative power for me, but doesn't bear up well under other forms of scrutiny, as was pointed out to me, perspicuously, by chromasia.

I think this is mostly what I mean: I’m interested in photographs which get put on the web and which are anchored to personal sites like blogs and flickr accounts—however linked, promiscuously used, and widely disseminated they become as a result of their presence on those kinds of sites. These are often photographs which are presented in the spirit of “sharing" (as long as we mostly disregard the flabbier connotations of that word, instead apprehending a number of different intentions for and outcomes of that sharing: feedback, creative re-use, historical record-making, autobiography, geographic documentation, collaboration, etc.). Which leads me to the framing for the project that so far feels most comfortable: new uses for photography.


Re-enactment seems to be a newly popular cultural trope, but then maybe it's always been around and I'm only noticing it because over the last 2 years I've been involved in a few re-enactment projects in the art world (e.g. pan right to find "Is Someone Coming to Get Me?"). In the art world, Jeremy Deller has re-enacted the 1984 miner strikes. Rod Dickinson has re-enacted the Milgram Obedience to Authority Experiments. Ben Coode-Adams and I, in collaboration, have re-enacted the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest, an event popularised by Jon Krakauer's bestselling book _Into Thin Air_ (see link above).

Outside the art world, of course (but, in light of the projects above, how far outside?), historical re-enactment groups have existed for a long time. In the UK, for instance, there are Tudor Societies (artists Pope and Guthrie have been working on a project with the Tudor re-enactors; and Jeremy Deller worked with historical re-enactment societies to re-enact the miner strikes). In the U.S., Civil War re-enactment societies are the most popular object of mockery. But re-enactors the world over, I think, are equally mocked. And why? Because they're nerds? Because they spend so much time in another century, appearing to eschew the more *present* pleasures and pains of this one? Because they spend so much time passionately participating (full stop) in something (full stop) that most people can't understand (full stop) or that isn't popular? Not enough critical or ironic distance? I'm not sure any of these answers are particularly helpful, but the penultimate one, about passionate participation, gets closest for me. And doesn't this start to sound like a form of mockery often directed at bloggers and WWW participants generally?

So then what do we say about SkyNews' recent Michael Jackson trial re-enactments? Bizarre, right? But compelling I'll bet (I hope to get to see some of it this week, thanks to a kind friend with access to Sky.

Outside of a similarly vectored derision, I think there are some other compelling reasons to think about blogs as re-enactments. The way they consider time. A similarly ambivalent relationship to audience. The way they re-make events by re-playing them. And the related hazards of fidelity, accuracy and a "narrowing of narrative opportunities". Of course, we can identify differences, but I don't think these invalidate the usefulness of the comparison. They may, in fact, enhance it.

I think we can make a similar argument that photoblogs, even photographs themselves, are re-enactments—or share tactics (uses and effects) with re-enactment projects, although the case here seems trickier. Not less welcoming, but more in need of qualification and careful thinking.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

How Does a Photograph Show Respect?

Bellocq, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

In his essay "Falkland Road" Eliot Weinberger compares Mary Ellen Mark's Falkland Road to E.J. Bellocq's Photographs from Storyville. Both are books of photography. Both contain images taken in brothels, Mark's in Bombay (1978), Bellocq's in New Orleans (1912).

Here is Weinberger on Mark's images:

"Falkland Road is a piece of the world that few of us could stand for more than a few minutes. Yet packaged as _Falkland Road_ it is an object with some popular appeal, though it is neither pornography nor reformist exposé. Its attaction, as far as I can tell, is its double dream: First, the dream of travel and its unchanging equation of exotic and erotic: sex, as we all know, is always more available, and wilder, someplace else. Second, the dream of the photograph: to see everything in the world—at a safe distance. These dreams are so powerful that they obscure the dreary evidence of the photographs themselves. Who can resist these images of 'real' people fucking in some strange corner of the earth? It is like watching firemen battle a blaze around the corner, knowing that one's own house is safe."

And Weinberger on Bellocq's images:

"Bellocq, a hydrocephalic dwarf, befriended—and never hired—the prostitutes; his photographs, a dialogue between outcasts, remain among the most loving portraits of women. Although nothing is known of these women—and little of Bellocq himself—no cpations are necessary: Storyville lives in a way that Falkland Road, despite Mark's claim of love and frienship for these 'special women,' never does. And Bellocq, of course, woudl never have used the phrase 'special women.'"

And finally, Susan Sontag on Bellocq's images:

"How far we are, in Bellocq's company, from the staged sadomasochistic hijinks of the bound women offering themselves up to the male gaze (or worse) in the disturbingly acclaimed photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki or the cooler, more stylish, unvaryingly intelligent lewdness of the images devised by Helmut Newton. The only pictures that do seem salacious—or convey something of the meanness and abjection of a prostitute's life—are those (eleven in this selection) on which the faces have been scratched out. (In one, the vandal—could it have been Bellocq himself?—missed the face.) These pictures are actually painful to look at, at least for this viewer. But then I am a woman and, unlike many men who look at these pictures, find nothing romantic about prostitution. That part of the subject I do take pleasure in is the beauty and forthright presence of many of the women, photographed in homely circumstances that affirm both sensuality and domestic case, and the tangibleness of their vanished world. How touching, good natured, and respectful these pictures are."

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Deranging Influence of Blogs

Probably worth pointing again to this:

The Extremities of Nicholson Baker
Published: August 8, 2004, Sunday
New York Times Review of Books

By Nicholson Baker.
115 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $15.95.

[excerpted from Wieseltier's review]
"The novel consists in the transcript of a conversation in a room in a hotel in Washington in May of this year. Jay has summoned Ben to his room to explain what he is about to do ''for the good of humankind.'' We infer from what is said that Jay is a deeply unhappy man. His wife has left him, his girlfriend has left him, he has lost his job as a high-school teacher, he works as a day laborer and has declared personal bankruptcy, he spends his days reading blogs. (About the deranging influence of blogs Baker makes a sterling point.)"

And read Rick Moody's fine retort, in the form of a letter to the editor, here. [That is, unfortunately, purchase the means to read Moody's response there. But the Believer is well worth the effort and expense, I can attest.]

Spark Jumps the Gap

I think this is an important post by Jeremy.

That's most of what I wanted to say, except this amplification: in a post which seems to be primarily about the photographer's and the blogger's experience of her own material, notice the points at which a spark jumps the gap, to something else, to someone else. Look at Jeremy's ideas about "blank time" for instance, in which time is something precious, and can therefore be stolen, re-claimed, lost, possessed, protected, but never absolutely. Which points to something paradoxical and interesting about Jeremy's idea that blog posts (photographs, text, comic strips, etc.) are a way for the photographer/blogger to repossess time as their own--because the mechanism for this is to post those reclaimed moments to the web, to reclaim them precisely *by* posting them to the web. This is perhaps not the most intuitive way to protect one's experiences, to lay a kind of personal claim to them. And certainly this does not jibe with the accounts which grumpily malign blogs as narcissistic (e.g. see the New York Times Review of Books review of Nicholson Baker's book Checkpoint, here), where the connection between blogger and reader is a such an impoverished one: cliche, un-lively, mean. Quite unlike what Jeremy and other bloggers describe, where the circuit is so much wilder and multi-vocal and oddly productive.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Outside the Inside of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

curiously incongruous
Tom RS
[organised via]
conversation which veered recklessly between high-flying technical geekery, philosophic self-investigation and complex aesthetic inquiry. In a dark sub-sub basement. At a pub with "cheese" in the name [the photographers in question are not pictured above].

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

John Berger, "Understanding a Photograph"

In his essay "Understanding a Photograph"in Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things, 1972), Berger's polemics lead him to make some lopsided observations about photography. In order to drive the wedge between Art and Photography (two confusingly ambiguous categoricals that just can't seem to keep out of each other's way)—between Art which for Berger is defined by its inevitable tendency to become property, and photography which does not (yet) share this tendency (remember, he's writing in 1972)—Berger emphasises photography's automatism (its technicity) and its lack of composition. It is easy to register meaningful objections here: of course photographs are composed, of course they are more than a machine's product (for more on this point of view, track down Joel Snyder's and Neil Walsh Allen's essay "Photography, Vision, Represention”). But Berger's intention is to recuperate or rescue photography from the fate he has seen befall High Art: it's commodification. Which leads him to claim, via a comparative mode of analysis, that a photograph uniquely bears witness to a choice being made. And so photographs are characterised by time more than by form: it is not composition which makes a photograph a photograph (which makes it something we can differentiate from, say, a painting), but time, the extraction of a single moment from a related chain of moments. The photograph sits always within that chain of moments (witness the poignancy of photographs of the dead, of buildings no longer standing), yet, at the same time, indexes a process of extraction (witness the strange fascination and the complementary boredom of photos we find in some photoblogs, from people we don't know, whose lives we know not at all). A choice is also a record of all that was not chosen. Likewise, the photograph.

This philanthropic impulse—the attempt to rescue photographs from bad analyses—finds its historical shadow in Walter Benjamin's attempt to rescue art from aura and tradition, to rescue art for politics, to save it from rarefaction. In this, Benjamin sees himself as the assistant of processes of mechanical reproduction, which had already significantly begun this epochal political work. And so Berger posits, finally, that a photograph may be judged effective when the moment it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photograph as with what is present. It's easy to believe that Berger is talking here about any kind of photography, from snapshots to photographs which are regarded and traded as Art, although he never specifies. And I think his emphasis on choice is important for the way it retains a connection to the moment of making, if not quite to the maker (the quality of this connection seems to me to be one of the definining characteristics of photographs as compared to other kinds of images). But in an environment where so many photographic images can be found at any time, from so many locations, and so many image-makers, all collected online, it seems no longer relevant, germane, or even possible to rescue photographs from commodification through bold acts of definition (photographs are this, they are not that). Too late for that, and in any case, commodification's [not perils but] processes, while significant, have been far more promiscuous and multiple than either Berger or Benjamin could have predicted. If an effect of (what Berger might call) the commodification of the snapshot photo (on sites like flickr and snapfish and etc.) has been to foster their new spectacular publicity, then commodification is too poor a framework. Effects have outstripped causes, and we would be justified in breaking the causal chains that tie our answers to our framing questions.
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