June 2011 Archives

Uncle Sam's Island Home
Thousand Islands region, Saint Lawrence Seaway

"Life is hard enough, without people having to worry themselves sick about money, too. There's plenty for everybody in this country, if we'll only share more."

"And just what do you think that would do to incentive?"

"You mean fright about not getting enough to eat, about not being able to pay the doctor, about not being able to give your family nice clothes, a safe, cheerful, comfortable place to live, a decent education, and a few good times? You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?"

"The what?"

"The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it—and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from the mighty river to our hearts' content. And we even take slurping lessons so we can slurp more efficiently."

"Slurping lessons?"

"From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers' men! We're born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply by using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes' screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping."

"I wasn't aware that I slurped."

Conversation between Senator Rosewater and Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, p 121-122
*For the record, I was raised in a desert of sorts, where the Kern River is mostly choked off by a dam. My mother and father taught me not to slurp.
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Dear Ophelia—

Elsinore isn't quite what I expected, or maybe there's more than one, and I've come to the wrong one.The high school football players here call themselves "The Fighting Danes." In the surrounding towns they're known as "The Melancholy Danes." In the past three years they have won one game, tied two, and lost twenty-four. I guess that's what happens when Hamlet goes in as quarterback.

The last thing you said to me before I got out of the taxi was that maybe we should get a divorce. I did not realize that life had become that uncomfortable for you. I do realize that I am a very slow realizer. I still find it hard to realize that I am an alcoholic, though even strangers know this right away.

Maybe I flatter myself when I think that I may have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I'm temporarily mixed up about how it should be done. Hamlet had one big edge on me. His father's ghost told him exactly what he had to do, while I am not operating with instructions. But from somewhere something is trying to tell me where to go, what to do there, and why to do it. Don't worry, I don't hear voices. But there is this feeling that I have a destiny far away from the shallow and preposterous posing that is our life in New York. And I roam.

And I roam.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 34-35 (1965, 2006).

We watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) last night (it's hard not to drink while watching that movie). The story begins with the violation of a trust, the disclosure of a secret imaginary story shared by an academic couple (George and Martha, America's founding parents, played impressively by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton). It doesn't take long to figure out that the form of the scathing banter is the point— not its content. The outsiders, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, furnish the only "trustworthy" content. You grow to expect that Burton and Taylor are simply confabulating from every fact they can get their hands on. The posing is all quite cruel and as a side effect, somewhat funny. It's hard to look away, once this expectation is aroused in the audience.

This effect, interestingly, is precisely where Kenneth Burke begins his excursus on "Psychology and Form" (1931) in Counter-Statement (1931, 1953, 1968). Burke uses Hamlet as an example, painstakingly describing how Shakespeare sets up the audience to receive, indeed to expect the ghost that drives the narrative ahead. In retrospect, Burke sees his own early approach as an oversimplification:

Counter-Statement shows signs of emergence out of adolescent fears and posturings, into problems of early manhood (problems morbidly intensified by the market crash of '29). The role or persona of the author seems not that of a father, or even of brother, but of conscientiously wayward son (whom the Great Depression compelled to laugh on the other side of his face).

He had early decided that ideally, for each of Shakespeare's dramatic tactics, modern thought should try to find the correspondingly critical formulation. But he soon came to see that any such orderly unfolding of the past into the present would be greatly complicated, if not made irrelevant or completely impossible, by the urgencies and abruptness of social upheaval.

Kenneth Burke, "Curriculum Criticum" published in Counter-Statement, p. 213 (1953, 1968)

It is interesting to me that Vonnegut's Rosewater and Albee's Woolf both address dealing with the past through the distortions of alcohol and questionable deployments of history. Albee's past is a mixture of fabrication and fact, while Vonnegut's approach is clever punning. Eliot Rosewater is writing from the Elsinore California Volunteer Fire Department. His grasp on reality is under scrutiny as we meet him through the revelation of certain facts about his life, always a mixture of fact and fabrication. Vonnegut invented word that suits it: chronkling. He explains it in the dedication to his collected essays:

This book is dedicated to the person who helped me regain my equilibrium [his wife, documentary photographer Jill Kremenz]. I say she chronkled me. That is another coined word. She came to me with an expressed wish to "chronicle" my wonderful life from day to day on photographic film. What eventuated was much deeper than mere chronicling.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. "Preface," Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons p. xxi (1974)

Even here, Vonnegut is punning with newscaster Walter Cronkite (most trusted man in America!). Both Vonnegut and Albee self-consciously interrogate the ends of literary form. What Burke, Albee, and Vonnegut (in the sixties, at least) have in common, though, is a celebration of the conscientiously wayward son. I'm not familiar enough with Albee to know if he rejected this eventually, but Vonnegut and Burke do conclude that this approach is fatally flawed.

The excuse for lying and behaving badly? In all cases, it's a matter of form. The villains (or heroes, it's hard to tell through all the irony) are always champions of impecable form. As opposed to what? It seems fair to ask. Content might be the easy answer, but I think Burke nails it down better than that. For Burke it isn't that content is somehow unimportant or bad, but rather the scientization of content as information which they seek to vilify. This is strikingly similar to the bit I posted a few days ago from Werner Herzog.

One of the most striking derangements of taste which science has temporarily thrown upon us involves the understanding of psychology in art. Psychology has become a body of information (which is precisely what psychology in science should be, or must be). Similarly, in art, we tend to look for psychology as the purveying of information. . . .[Joyce, Homer, and Cézanne are summoned as examples]

. . . Thus, the great influence of information has led the artist also to lay his emphasis on the giving of information— with the result that art tends more and more to substitute the psychology of the hero (the subject) for the psychology of the audience. Under such an attitude, when form is preserved it is preserved as an annex, a luxury, or, as some feel, a downright affectation. It remains, though sluggish, like the human appendix, for occasional demands are still made upon it; but its vigor is gone, since it is no longer organically required. Proposition: the hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form [emphasis mine].*

Kenneth Burke, "Psychology and Form" published in Counter-Statement, p. 32-33 (1931, 1968)

There's a lot to digest in this short essay. One of the key things, I think, is his claim that information is intrinsically interesting but not necessarily intrinsically valuable. This tends to be borne out by the focus on the commonplace by many modernists like Walker Evans and Edward Weston; it's as if they sought to provide a sort of value-added by reintroducing form to an audience's perception of common objects. Of course, Evans did so with great irony and Weston might be considered irony-deficient. Both were uncomfortable with any sort of psychological criticism. I suspect it's because, as Burke claims, people are too interested in the psychology of the hero (or artist) while ignoring the psychology of the audience.

I suspect we'd all be more comfortable if Hamlet's father's ghost would show up to tell us what to do.

And I roam, too.

*I'll have to come back to that— I think that we might have swung to far the other direction in the ensuing years.
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Because when you find yourself the villain in the story you have written
It's plain to see
That sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemption
Would you agree?
If so please show me

I gave up on photography to a certain extent when I left California (circa 1995). It seemed "hollow" to me, without real value in its truest sense. Getting involved with people and taking pictures of them for the preceding years hurt me in profound ways. In retrospect, I think its because I unconsciously felt complicit in the suicide attempt of a close friend. I had documented his life, and when he failed at suicide he called me up to document that too. The resulting photographs are powerful, yes, but at what cost? His life began an even more severe downward spiral just after that and I had to walk away. It wasn't the only reason I left California, or even the main one, but it was a central event that pointed me away from everything I had ever known for thirty-plus years.

I never expected photography to be one of the casualties. In fact, after surviving another even more crushing failure to communicate my first move was to start taking pictures again and get a job in a photo lab. The attempt to suture up the wounds failed, miserably. I couldn't play the thief any longer, because I had seen the cost of deluding oneself into believing that work as a documentarian was somehow "valuable." I'm still working on that. You have to feel like what you do has value before you can commit yourself to it.

I suppose that's how I came to study rhetoric/communications in the years that followed. Most turning points in my life resulted from a failure to communicate or understand the messages being sent to me.

Any photographer worth his salt is a kind of thief, for no matter what angle you consider it from, any photograph is a kind of theft. You must shoot without thinking, because the unforeseen will never present itself again. From the exposure of his first films, Cartier-Bresson was immediately aware that he was committing an act of violence as soon as he incorporated human beings and not just nature or the inanimate world of objects. What would a passer-by think if the photographer pointed his Leica at him? You could be as discreet, as rapid and charming as you liked, but this aggressive cyclops eye would strip the subject naked in his most intimate moments.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 72

In Assouline's story, Cartier Bresson is aware of the violence his photography visits upon its subjects. But he justifies it by intimating that to see people "naked" is something of value. I'm not so sure. It's part of what I'm struggling with right now. Perhaps the line between erotic voyeurism and an addiction to pornography is not as sharp as aesthetes would insist.

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I've always been drawn to folk music, to roots music. I stop at Barry Manilow. From a very early age when I was a kid listening to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five - you know, that's very crude music in the one sense but it's very sophisticated and advanced and harmonically interesting but its surfaces are crude. I suppose I fell in love with that sound when I was quite young and its something I've always looked for: sophisticated but crude.

. . .

They wanted me to transcend something and sometimes if it's rough and has a rough quality it transcends. If you repeat music too often . . . if you rub the edges off music you take away the music itself. The music is in the edges, its in the rough bits. If you smooth it over there's really nothing left. You've got lots of notes left but there's no music, so its always a striving to keep it alive as something fresh that really has vitality to it.

[Richard Thompson]

I've been always after something like a deeper truth, an ecstatic truth. I've been after balance, after something like justice within pictures. Very strange to explain it and I've hardly ever seen a film that has complete balance within it. There are exceptions like Rashomon by Kurosawa where I'm sitting in awe and wondering how did he do that. How for god's sake can I get somewhat close to this. Of course I never will but trying it anyway is okay and it gives some sort of meaning to my life and in a certain way going for the essential right straight without detour where is it . . . it's the essential I'm looking for what is the deepest essential that defines us as human beings.

[Werner Herzog]

"In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session" bonus feature on the Grizzly Man DVD

I have problems of different sorts with both Richard Thompson and Werner Herzog. One seems completely foreign, the other all too familiar. Richard Thompson has always been a bit weird for me because he is always "in character" in all his songs. There is virtually no sense of who or what he really is as a human being. Even watching/listening to something like A Thousand Years of Popular Music gives you little insight into what or who he is through his consumptive choices. It's a bit like the split between the Romantic poets and the Victorians like Tennyson or Browning— with Blake or Wordsworth, you never fail to recognize who is speaking. Victorians are tricky role-playing creatures, impossible to take at face value. I tend to think of Thompson as a bit of a Victorian, and this extra bit is uncharacteristically revealing of his preferences.

At the onset of this featurette, Herzog declares that film and music are closely related, more so than film and literature. The discrepancy between container metaphors between these two collaborators is striking. For Thompson, the music is found at the edges. For Herzog, he wants to seek out the heart, the essence inside the human condition. "Straight without detour" hardly describes the arc of most of his films. He seems to want to play the trickster, dancing around the fire until the heat is unbearable. And always, the focus is on him and his feelings about the fire.

Grizzly Man is probably my favorite Herzog film so far (I haven't seen that many) because of a profound affinity between the lunatic filmaker in charge and the lunatic filmaker under scrutiny. One sees nature as friendly and welcoming to kindred spirits, the other sees nature as hostile and unforgiving. The tension is in the dialog between the two. Because Treadwell is dead, though, he really can't correct the crazy German. At least it's easy to believe that although they disagree, these two guys would probably like each other.

However, the whole idea of the artist as a crazy egotist is just tired and rubbed in the ground. That's why even after just a few forays into Herzog's films it seems tiresomely familiar. The artist makes his statement, reality be damned. Herzog is often guilty of shaving off the edges, but less so here than in the other films I've seen.

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. . . I feel like I'm disappearing
      getting smaller every day

   but when I open my mouth to sing
   I'm bigger in every way

Tunic (Song for Karen) Sonic Youth

Kim Gordon's homage to Karen Carpenter is deliciously polysemic, given that she died of anorexia. I've been thinking a lot lately about the level of ego it takes to believe that you have something to day to the world. This has been a huge problem for me for the last couple of years. One of the side effects of graduate education is that you really begin to doubt that you have much to contribute to the global conversation. The "artistic" fall back is to think that your thoughts and feelings are unique and worth sharing. My talents are largely observational (visual and verbal I suppose) and only occasionally critical/judgmental. I think that's why grad school was not necessarily the best choice for me, but I went that direction anyway. It's difficult to return to that more "artistic" root: it's hard to open my mouth to sing.

In the process of studying writing, I nearly forgot how to write.

But there is a more basic problem. Anyone who would take up the task of trying to communicate another person's reality has to believe that their impressions have value: they are "true" in some manner to the reality under scrutiny. Sometimes it is hard to make that case. I taught Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to undergraduate writers as an example of that complexity. The more I parsed that book, nearly a sacred text to documentarians of the late twentieth century, the more I could only see it as a monument to ego. Evans's photographs only incidentally reveal the reality of those tenant families; for him they are props in the creation of works of art. He has, as far as I can discern, no real warmth or feeling toward those people. In one sense, that makes them truer and less distorted as evidence of that reality. Evans is never deflected by sentiment. But in striving for an "egoless" photograph the work becomes a testament to his desire to disappear into the details of materiality. That denial of self becomes the ultimate egotism. Agee, on the other hand, screamed his feelings off the page at maximum volume. The combination, it might be argued, strikes a sort of balance through tension that makes this way of working a model deserving of imitation. That's a hard sell, particularly to undergraduates. The towering ego involved in constructing such a text is hard to come by, especially for nervous young college students. No, that task is best left to the professionals, the "artists."

I have difficulty picturing egoless writing. Some of the scholars I've followed seem to think of it as an idyllic possibility— wikis and collaborative enterprises where the individual writer is subsumed into a collective whole, like an army of Borg assimilating each task. I really fail to see how, except in very specific circumstances, such writing is sustainable. I mean, why bother to write if you aren't singing your song? I can understand the choral argument, but I just don't feel motivated to join in. That lack of motivation is what stifles me now.

I suppose, in the back of my head I always wrote out here in this public space to the people who I've known over the years that seemed to genuinely care about my observations. A sort of aggregate reader, composed of people from my past and present who had experience many of the same realities and personalities that I had. My shrinking motivation is due in no small part to the shrinking of that imaginary public. Almost everyone I have ever known or cared about is dead. There are a few left, but in the last few years most of the biggest characters on my life's stage have exited with much drama, or by slowly fading away. Some are left that care, I know (don't feel the need to comment to reassure me). It is a natural fact of entropy, though, that my world is shrinking every day. Without these characters, it's hard to find motivation.

It dawned on me, walking away from this post, that it feels like I've written it several times before. Why keep repeating myself? Have I contributed anything new other than another layer of whinging? It doesn't really feel like it. What I am concerned with (that seems a little new, at least) is the role of ego in expression/craft. I was thinking about the hunt metaphor in photography that I wrote about a while ago, and the permanent incognito that I wrote about recently. Somehow, I got derailed into a pityfest.

I'll start again. The only take away from this digression is the question, right below the surface for any writer/photographer: what gives you the right to say/show that? Without an ego, you can't answer.

Addendum 6/17 Re-reading Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater I was struck by this counterpoint to what I was thinking in this post:

That evening he and Sylvia went to the Metropolitan Opera for the opening of a new staging of Aida. The Rosewater Foundation had paid for the costumes. Eliot looked sleekly marvelous, tall, tailcoated, his big, friendly face pink, and his blue eyes glittering with mental hygiene.

Everything was fine until the last scene of the opera, during which the hero and heroine were placed in an airtight chamber to suffocate. As the doomed pair filled their lungs, Eliot called out to them, "You will last a lot longer, if you don't try to sing" [emphasis mine]. Eliot stood, leaned far out of his box, told the singers, "Maybe you don't know anything about oxygen, but I do. Believe me, you must not sing." (34)
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St Lawrence River
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If I were only fact based the book of books in literature would be the Manhattan phone directory. Four million entries, everything correct. But it dusts[?] out of my ears and I do not know do they dream at night? Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night? We do not know anything when we check all the correct entries in the phone directory. I'm not this kind of a filmmaker. I'm not this kind of a filmmaker(4:33-5:10)
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MORRO-CASTLE-burning-at-sea.jpgMorro Castle burning at sea, 1934 © International News Photos, Inc.

At the end of the 1920s Paris witnessed the birth of the weekly Match, conceived as the sporting version of L'Intransigeant, and simultaneously the creation of the Dephot Agency, the first to provide complete photographic records to the press.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 63

For years, I have wondered what/when the first photo agency was. However, I cannot really take Assouline seriously here. Dephoto was founded in 1928. Associate Press was distributing photographs by mail in 1927, but it seems clear from works comprised of syndicated photos (such as Pare Lorenz's The Roosevelt Year in 1934) that there were a variety of other picture agencies, such as Acme News Pictures, long before AP got involved. A big shake-out occurred in the 1930s with the advent of wirephoto, leaving AP and UPI as the main players in the US. The point being, though, that I suspect that picture agencies or syndicates probably sprung up not long after national distribution of illustrated weeklies like Harper's and the Illustrated London News began in the 1850s or 1860s. I'll bet that it occurred at around the same time in several countries, with international distribution coming just before the turn of the century.

As a lark, I was googling around looking for some dates and found this interesting bit regarding the mail distribution of images on the AP history page:

On rare occasions, the AP would use the AT&T; picture transmission system to send a picture of special urgency from its origin to a distribution point.

In virtually every instance, however, delivery could take up to 85 hours. An example: When the ocean liner Moro Castle caught fire off the New Jersey coast in 1934, an AP photographer flew over the vessel and made shot after shot of the flaming scene. The negatives were then processed in New York and original negatives sent via air mail to key distribution centers in Chicago and Los Angeles. The pictures were printed and redistributed by train and mail.

Compare/contrast this version with a contemporary report regarding AP's coverage from Time, September 24, 1934:

The blackened hulk of the T. E. L. Morro Castle was hardly cold last week before newsphoto agencies leaped headlong into the advertising pages of Editor & Publisher to tell the trade how they trounced their competitors in the race for pictures of this latest marine catastrophe. All the boasting was done by Acme Newspictures and International News Photos at the expense of their common enemy, the Associated Press.

Fundamentally the warfare between Associated Press, Hearst's International News, and Scripps-Howard's Acme should be three-cornered. But last spring AP drove the other two into a defensive alliance by announcing plans for a $1,000,000-a-year telephoto system which would flash all the day's newspictures to all the AP's clients within a few minutes of their taking (TIME, May 7). A few clients have already begun to install equipment, but no date has been set for starting the service. Meanwhile Acme and International have been working hand in glove.

When the Morro Castle's SOS flashed into Manhattan, weather along the coast was vile. The average commercial airplane pilot would have hesitated long before flying a cameraman offshore in the dark, wind, and rain. But International and Acme had classified lists of pilots, including certain ones who had the equipment and the courage to fly through anything. At about 7 a. m. two such pilots took off from New York with International and Acme cameramen, returned three hours later within five minutes of each other, with magnificent pictures of the burning vessel. Somehow AP was left at the post.

Last week's trade-paper advertisements rubbed it into AP unmercifully. International News's spread bluntly stated: "The Cleveland News, first newspaper to be supplied with Associated Press Telephoto, RELIED exclusively on International News Photos for first pictures of the burning Morro Castle." That jibe was mild compared to Acme's. The latter in a two-page layout showed facsimiles of the New York World-Telegram and the New York Sun the day of the disaster. The former, labeled 12:15 p. m., bore a large picture by Acme of the liner ablaze. The Sun, labeled 4 p. m., carried a stodgy still of the Morro Castle in her prime. The credit line was Associated Press Photo. Across the top of the advertisement streamed this headline:

YOU MUST FIRST GET THE PICTURE BEFORE YOU NEED A MILLION DOLLAR TELEPHOTO

But last week's set to over newsphoto supremacy in the pages of Editor & Publisher was generally considered only a mild prelude to the cut-throat battle ahead, if and when AP's telephoto service opens fire.

It just goes to show you how versions of the same chain of events can be spun. Then, as now, superior technology doesn't always win the day.

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There is a fundamental difference between photography and painting. The one observes, the other creates. The one is a document and remains a document, even if devoid of all general interest. The other is based entirely on personality, and everything crumbles into a mess of fine materials if the latter is defective. How can one talk of a rivalry between the two? Only photographic painting and pictorial photography are rivals. They should devour each other, so that they may disappear for ever! Photography is the very conscience of painting. It constantly reminds the latter of what it must not do. So let painting take its responsibilities. . . . After admiring all that the sensitive photographic plate can reveal to us, we must search for a new sensitivity — namely, that of the photographer. What attracts the photographer is precisely the chance to penetrate inside phenomena, to uncover forms. That impersonal presence! The permanent incognito! The humblest of servants, the dislocated being par excellence, lives only in latent images. He pursues them into their last refuges and surprises them at their most positive, their most material and true. As for knowing whether he should be distinguished with so controversial an name as 'artist', in truth it is of absolutely no importance whatsoever.

Brassai, L'Intransigeant 15 November 1932, qtd. in Henri Cartier Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 59.

Celebration of the latent image has long been a part of photographic theory. In the beginning, the process of Daguerre and later variants such as the tintype are not so dependent on it. The triumph of the negative/positive processes have lead to much thought about invisible potentialities. It might be a matter of duration; metal/glass plate processes go from a state of latency to fulfillment of their potential almost immediately. Negative/positive processes leave evidence of their latency in the form a doppleganger, a negative lurking filled with secrets. It's akin to thermodynamics: the latent heat of a material is its ability to absorb energy without reacting until a sudden change of state, i.e. boiling or freezing. Materiality is absorbed into latent image and through the agency of photographic development, made to appear as an image. In the beginning, it occurred only once; during the intense moments of photographic discovery/theory in the early twentieth century it was something in need of constant attention as a necessary part of photographic reproduction. Alchemy in the transmutation of images was an omnipresent force to be reckoned with.

It seemed to me, for a moment, that all this talk of latent images might be a thing of the past. After all, the digital image is instantaneously processed (or so it seems) and appears as an image fully formed without even the slightest hint of chemical vapors or potions. No alchemy at all— perhaps part of the reason that photography has seemed to lose its luster in the digital age. But on deeper reflection, I don't think this is the case. Photographers still speak of "digital darkrooms" and Adobe sought to resurrect the negative as a universal form. Their "digital negative" is a standardized transformation of raw digital data files into a interoperable format for image production. A "latent image" is contained within sensor data. This latent data, if anything, is evidence of a richer materiality, even more importantly, this "impersonal presence" is now linked to geographic data and timestamps, as well as hardware identifiers that reveal limitations and biases of the image. Alchemy still exists, in the form of algorithms and transformations of these codes. Digital images are still containers for what Brassi labeled "the permanent incognito"— documents divorced from personalities that created them. Images still reveal sensitivities rather than personalities; the added bonus is a surfeit of documentary potential in the form of bonus data to be mined.

In a profound sense the latent image has been taken to the next level; a level filled with patterns beyond our comprehension. The latent heat of images linked through the interwebs makes me really wonder what the the next state will be. Questions regarding the status of art/artists/artistry seem absolutely trivial in the face of that. What are the sensitivities that will serve us in an environment overflowing with code? That seems to be a more pressing concern.

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