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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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What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it [Robert Johnson] is, this is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it's his variation on the theme. And so you realize that everybody's connected here. This is not just that he's fantastic and the rest are crap; they're all interconnected. And the further you went back into music and time, and with the blues you go back to the '20s because you're basically going through recorded music, you think thank God for recording. It's the best thing that's happened to us since writing.

Keith Richards, Life 94-95

I think it's important to note that prior to this observation, Richards describes how he and Jagger sorted music by the good/crap formula. This retrospective observation is not the point of view of a young man: old men seldom celebrate evanescence, while the young sing "get it while you can." Tradition matters a lot more when you find yourself to be a part of it, rather than an interloper introduced into a history already in progress. What strikes me most though, is his comparison of recording with writing and the incredibly short history of recorded music. It's actually much newer than photographic recording technologies.

I've been on a kick of reading autobiographies by musicians. Last week it was Andy Summer's One Train Later and this week it's Keith Richards. I've been enjoying them for a variety of reasons, but it strikes me how much I agree with the appraisal (loosely paraphrased from any of them) that "music is the best." But, what I have difficulty buying into is that being a good musician gives you license (or commands) you to become a hedonistic ass with no real responsibilities in your intercourse with other people. What about being a good cabinet maker or mechanic? Why don't they have killer parties and entourages of groupies? If music is, as these players suggest, a craft requiring practice and dedication what makes it different and more noble of crafts involving utilitarian rather than artistic ends? The art/craft divide here seems to be at its widest, where social capital creates/reinforces deviant and antisocial behavior. It is paradoxical that music can be a glue bonding social groups together, while its craftsmen break down traditions to get these privileges. It seems unlikely that young musicians think of themselves as producing "variations on a theme." Instead, they long for uncharted territory. Summers, in particular, was adamant about that. The tension between these perspectives is delicious: in reinventing ourselves, we conserve the past in perverse ways.

I think it's part of recording pieces of ourselves; as we appropriate multiple sources to invent ourselves, it's only natural that the past is enfolded. Richards was adamant about the motivation:

I'll do anything to make a record. It was really narcissistic in a way. We just wanted to hear what we sounded like. We wanted the playback. The payback didn't come into it, but the playback we really wanted. In a way, in those days, being able to get into the studio and get an acetate back sort of legitimized you. "You're a commissioned officer" instead of being one of the ranks. Playing live was the most important thing in the world, but making records stamped it. Signed, sealed, and delivered. (126)

The next phrase of his final triplet (unstated, of course) is "I'm yours." across time, past death even, if you leave behind a record, you belong to the future.

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1970_ The Complete Fun House Sessions [Disc 3].jpg

I was listening to the Complete Funhouse Sessions this morning, not-so-suddenly during take 28 of "Loose" a huge lightbulb went off. I don't think it's a matter of technology making us incapable of sustained attention, it's more a matter of a decline in the popular understanding of the rewards of attention. Attention to detail matters. The Stooges relentless drive to getting all the elements/feelings of the song exactly right was incredible on that album. Each version has subtle and not so subtle differences, and somewhere around take 22 the engineer starts joking about releasing an entire album of versions of that song. The sense that the song was worth the effort never fades, for the band at least, and on take 28 real magic happens. Some might think that such relentless drive for perfection might be unhealthy. I think it's an example of the rewards of attention.

Is digital the cause of music's doldrums, or has it been the insatiable drive for technical perfection that has sapped music's spirit?1 No one can say for sure, but it's a fact that music's function has morphed so slowly from foreground to background listening that most people haven't noticed it happening. One thing is certain: Recorded music doesn't engage listeners the way it did in the analog days. Music now serves as a backdrop as people talk, read, drive, work, exercise, etc. Foreground listening is what audiophiles do— but other than us, very few people really listen to music anymore, even while attending live concerts. If recorded music isn't worth your undivided attention, it's not worth paying for.

Steve Guttenberg, "As We See It" Stereophile May 2011

Insatiable drive is what makes Funhouse an incredibly spiritual album, in my estimation. I think Guttenberg gets it wrong when he claims that only audiophiles pay attention to music. Ahem, musicians do too. And they keep making music. We kicked off our trip to Atlanta a few weeks ago by standing in a crowded club in Ithaca, NY to watch the Mountain Goats perform. Yes, it was noisy and sometimes impossible to hear the comments between songs. But that's a perennial problem— concerts sometimes foreground the social nature of the gathering rather than music. Just add alcohol, and people even try to invalidate the laws of physics— a woman with a full drink tried to plow past me directly into our leaning-table, spilling it over our coats (and my new Mountain Goats LP purchased at the merch stand). Does this mean music is dead? Far from it. A good portion of the crowd was downright passionate about their favorites as the came vibrating into the room.

I'm not claiming that digital has or will destroy music— just what's left of the record business. Musicians will continue to play music, and concerts won't disappear, but income from recorded music will continue to decline. Obviously we can't turn back the clock and return to the analog era. I'm just not sure what it would take to get people listening again.

ibid.

After we got back from Atlanta, record store day rolled around. I usually don't pay much attention, but there were a couple of releases I was interested in. Rain was forecast that afternoon, so we went to the farmer's market early and ran out of things to waste time on and ended up on the doorstep of Sound Garden records a half-hour before they opened. The line was at least 40 feet long, and before they opened it probably reached 100 feet. Why were all these people standing in drizzle I wondered. Concert tickets? CD's? When the doors opened I got my answer. The LP section of the store soon turned into a mosh-pit with people clutching at rare limited edition singles and LPs. Manufactured scarcity still works, apparently. No one really talked about which of the myriad special releases they were there for. It wasn't any sort of unified phenomena, really. Just the coalescence of a wide variety of niche markets, I suspect. Krista and I split up and worked our way down both sides of the river of people, collecting more than a few LPs. Unfortunately, they didn't have the Low release I was looking for. We had to contact a friend in Minneapolis who scored it for us there.

There's still a lot of passion out there both for and in music, I suspect. It's just in a different form now. Curiously, old school analog technology is falling into the hands of the niche musicians/collectors. I notice that the digital downloads that come with vinyl are generally handled by only a couple of jobbers/pressing plants. Nice. Distribution without the record company hype (though they are of course building up mailing lists every time you raise your freak flag high). Seems to me that "income from recorded music," though it is no longer in the hands of the platinum selling boy bands, is alive and well for more than a few folks. Major labels can now officially suck it.

Listening to a BBC Front Row podcast the other day, Elvis Costello commented about his album National Ransom that he didn't care how people wanted to hear it, just as long as they did. He continues to make the vinyl version available, complete with libretto, for those who like to sit and listen and hold a record album in hand. I think that's how I tend to divide it up. There are things that I listen to in the form of digital files that I have little or no investment in. But if I like something, I tend to have it in multiple forms so that I can appreciate it more. In that regard, I think we'll never really surrender the beauty and comfort possible in physical objects.

People are still listening, I suspect. It's just that the media/record companies just haven't been paying attention to how they listen, and how they get to the place where they really want to listen. Which brings me back to Iggy.2

In the early days of rock (particularly with the Who et.al.) music got louder and louder in an attempt to force people to listen. The Stooges represent a sort of peak in the technological sound, I think— but there's was the blue colar technology of the manufacturing plant with crashing metal machines, a far cry from what "industrial" eventually came to signify in music. The band that I'm leaving tomorrow to see at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Low, takes a decidedly different approach. Apocryphally, they are famous for turning down to force the audience to listen more closely. Different strategies, but the same ends in mind I think. It's hard to communicate effectively with people who aren't paying any attention. 


1 In fairness to Guttenberg, I'm sure his comment is a more direct gesture at the rise of Pro Tools and the slicing and dicing of performances to gain technical perfection at the expense of soul.

2 Nice to see that Iggy can even make American Idol seem cool.

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Connie Nielsen and Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.jpeg "According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "snapshot" was first used in 1808 by an English sportsman by the name of Sir Henry Hawker. He noted in his diary that almost every bird he shot that day was taken by snapshot, meaning a hurried shot, taken without deliberate aim. Snapshot, then, was originally a hunting term."1

I had always meant to check this quote. It is basically accurate, except for some minor details. It was Peter Hawker, an English army officer (not sure about the "sir" either). The diary entry was dated 1808, but it wasn't published until 1893, though their are similar usages noted from 1846 as well. Herschel applied "snap-shot" to photography as early as 1860. The comparatively recent deployment of the term makes it dubious to suggest any sort of originary hypotheses or hunting heritage based on Hawker alone. It's easier if you trace down "snap" (sans shot). I love the OED.

Why does this matter? Because terminology always comes with a sort of baggage, a network of associations that persist even though the term is deployed in new contexts. I was reminded of that vividly by a chapter by Carolyn Miller on topos invoking the venatic (hunting) tradition in rhetoric. Photography, it seems to me, has even more direct ties to hunting and its rich tableau of associations. It is facile to simply associate hunting with predatory behavior as Sontag in On Photography, with critics in subsequent decades nodding along without challenge. The venatic tradition is, as Detienne and Vernant suggest, an alternate paradigm that simply does not fit in with the emergent classical world view2. Consequently, hunting doesn't sit comfortably in modern consciousness either. There's a lot more to say about that than I can possibly manage here.

What drove me to explore this again was an interview with Joan Fontcuberta on Eyecurious:

MF: With the proliferation of digital technology, more still photographs are being made than ever before, despite advances in other media like video. Do you think that people would still be as attached to photography if it were no longer perceived as a document of reality?

JF: Yes, certainly. Photography is dissolving into the magma of images. It is losing its historical specificity, but is beginning to fulfil other functions. I just published a book titled Through the Looking Glass about cell phone photos and their circulation through the Internet and online social networks. Teenagers are not interested in photographs as documents but as trophies. When Martians finally invade the Earth, green lizard-shaped aliens will emerge from their spacecrafts. They will fire at us with laser guns but we won’t hide nor protect ourselves. We’ll take our cell phones and we’ll photograph them to prove that we saw them, to prove that we were there when they arrived.

I have difficulty understanding why Fontcuberta thinks that "trophies" are a separate and novel category from documents; photographers have been taking "trophies" since the beginning of the medium. Roger Fenton's Crimean War photographs, for example. They are documents, yes, but they are also trophies of a strange and far away place. The trophies returned to England from Egypt were not simply archeological plunder, but stereo views of places that prove the intrepidness of their publishers. Dissolving into the magma of images? Oh, snap! The onslaught of images began sometime in the middle ages, if not before. I began to wonder about the vocabulary involved: the venatic vocabulary.

Just what is the linguistic relationship between documents, monuments, and hunting?

Snap seems to enter the English lexicon as a verb around 1530 with reference to biting both by animals or humans; a bit later (1586) it is associated with the sound, the snapping of fingers. But by the early 1600s it moves to on a more criminal tack: a snap, also known as a cloyer, is a pickpocket or thief. But there's foreshadowing in the phrasal use of snap up in 1550: "Whan we lyue in ydlenes in all luste and pleasure, the deuyll snappyth vs vp." The nominal use is evidenced prior to this slightly; In 1495 snap designates a bite or bite mark. The predator/prey dynamic is clearly at the core of the term.

In the same time period c.1550, trophy designated both a type of monument erected at a battlefield, and also the spoils of war. Used figuratively, "Anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valour, power, skill, etc.; a monument, memorial." Interestingly, one of the earliest synonyms for "spoils" was prey, in usage c. 1385.3 The prey/monument connection is positively ancient. Famously, Foucault remarked that modernity was engaged in the practice of transforming documents into monuments. It seems that the first monuments were prey or the symbolic representation thereof. It seems impossible to neatly sever the relationship between hunting and memory/memorial. The predatory isn't value added/observed; it's the historical core of the practice. Far from "losing its historical specificity" photography ultimately returns to traditonal social practices.

Of course, this is contingent on granting a sort of "shape-shifter" definition of imaging: images are transformed by technology (i.e., wood-block to metal plate engraving, halftone dots to pixels on a screen) but have a relatively consistent core amid outwardly changing manifestations/deployments. Nonetheless, I am interested Fontcuberta's latest work. I was not able to locate any evidence of the "book" he refers to, but I suspect it's the catalog to this exhibition. The closest bit to the topic he suggests in my prior quotation here:

REFLECTOGRAMS

Mirrors and cameras is a work which describes the panoptic and scopic character of our society : everything is given to an absolute vision and all of us are guided by the pleasure of viewing. With the proliferation of digital cameras and their incorporation into mobile phones a new extremely popular genre of images has turned up, as evidenced in blogs and forums on the net : numerous self-portraits taken by youngsters and teenagers in front of the mirror (in which to close the perceptive circle the camera itself appears as a recording device ). Mirrors in intimate spaces like baths, student rooms , hotels, club toilets and other leisure premises , fitting rooms of clothes shops, car rear-view mirrors , elevators...

In these photos the ludic and selfexploratory character prevails over memory. Self photography and the dissemination of these images through social networks is part of a seduction game and of the rituals of communication of new urban subcultures.

I suspect that Fontcuberta is aware of the fact that his name for the series is appropriated from the well established imaging practice of reflectography, an infrared technique used to locate drawings and other hidden images behind paintings (such images are also called reflectograms). The self portrait, again, is hardly new. But Fontcuberta's emphasis of the "ludic and selfexploratory character" is admirable. Does this negate "memory" though? I suspect not. As people age, they are slow to update their self-image. It has long been a commonplace among participants in social media to use old snapshots (either of themselves, or sometimes of strangers) as icons— particularly baby pictures. Memory is simply redirected, playfully, and not negated. The high seriousness of fixed representation is replaced with a sort of polymorphic shape shifting. This, in the end, is what I find fascinating.

In their quest to uncover the logic/paradigm behind the venatic tradition, Detienne and Vernant focus on metis (cunning intelligence), tracking it through Greek literature like hunters themselves, "in areas which the philosopher usually passes over in silence or mentions only with irony or with hostility so that, by contrast, he can display to its fullest advantage the way of reasoning and understanding required in his own profession" (4). The divisions, promoted by philosophers in couplets: being and becoming, or the intelligible and the sensible, leave little or no room for the functioning of agency or the logic of the hunt.

Metis is characterized precisely by the way it operates by continuously oscillating between two opposite poles. It turns into contraries objects that are not yet defined as stable, circumscribed, mutually exclusive concepts but appear as Powers in a situation of confrontation and which, depending on the outcome of the combat in which they are engaged, find themselves now in one position, as victors, and now in the opposite one, as vanquished [emphasis mine]. These deities, who have the power of binding, have to be constantly on their guard in order not to be bound in their turn.

Thus, when the individual who is endowed with metis, be he god or man, is confronted with a multiple, changing reality whose limitless polymorphic powers render it almost impossible to sieze, he can only dominate it— that is to say enclose it within the limits of a single, unchangeable form within his control— if he proves himself to be more multiple, more polyvalent than his adversary. (5)

The struggle to bind a continually shifting world, to seize it, underwrites the struggle to document and monumentalize the world as evidence of our domination changes its shape but not its intent. In some ways we're still out on the savannah chasing prey.

And like a cat, we often play with our food before consuming it.



1 I would have used the actual clip from the movie, but Fox blocked display of my upload of the 50 seconds I needed to illustrate my lead quote. Frickin' copyright police.

2I cited Miller when I was working on my last RSA paper on Willis J. Abbot and his role in the invention/discovery of Panama in the popular consciousness. Shortly afterward, I dug through to find one of her primary sources on the venatic tradition and its influence on ancient thought, Cunning Intellegence in Greek Culture and Society by Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant. Excellent stuff.

3Amazingly booty is late to the party only entering the lexicon c.1474; booty in its modern, sexualized sense is a very recent development c.1926 "bootylicious" enters the lexicon c.1992.

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James Watt statue

Curiously, icon of the Industrial Revolution James Watt seldom claims to have "invented" anything, rather, he claims the title "improver." Huxley's assertion that he was an "inventor" of time appears to be primarily a twentieth-century invention. As the Wikipedia article suggests, it seems curious to think of patents as a mode of communicating discoveries rather than essays and articles— but this was Watt's way. Reading the 1853 "history" of Watt's "inventions" it seems clear that the legend of the industrial revolution is cast as a myth of originality and invention rather than evolution and improvement is only in a nascent phase. The facts show that his work/research was quite social in nature, and the labeling of him as a "great man" to the exclusion of his cohort occurred relatively slowly in cultural history. Even Huxley mentions him in conjunction with an heir to his improvements, H.F. Stephens.

Watt really seems more like a skilled repairman and tinkerer than an inventor. The events narrated after his repair/improvement of the Newcomen steam engine follow a similar pattern. I was tickled by the tale of Watt and his organ (as told by Professor Robinson):

A mason-lodge in Glasgow wanted an organ. The office-bearers were acquaintances of Mr. Watt. We imagined that Mr. Watt could do anything; and, though we all knew that he did not know one musical note from another, he was asked if he could build this organ. He had repaired one, and it had amused him. He said "Yes;" but he began by building a very small one for his intimate friend Dr. Black, which is now in my possession. In doing this, a thousand things occurred to him which no organ-builder ever dreamed of, — nice indicators of the strength of the blast, regulators of it, &c. &c. He began to the great one. He then began to study the philosophical theory of music. Fortunately for me, no book was at hand but the most refined of all, and the only one that can be said to contain any theory at all,—Smith's Harmonics. Before Mr. Watt had half finished this organ, he and I were complete masters of that most refined and beautiful theory of the beats of imperfect consonances. He found that by these beats it would be possible for him, totally ignorant of music, to tune his organ according to any system of temperament; and he did so, to the delight and astonishment of our best performers. (cix)

So, rather than just the improver of "fire engines," Watt was a dabbler in many areas, including "perspective machines," in Watt's description:

Perspective-Machine.jpg
The perspective machine was invented about 1765, on the following occasion. My friend Dr. James Lind, brought from India a machine invented by some English gentlemen there, —I believe a Mr. Hurst,—which consisted of a board fixed on three legs perpendicularly, upon which close to the the bottom and near the ends, were fixed two small friction wheels, upon which a horizontal ruler rested, and could be moved endwise horizontally, . . .[elaborate description of original machine] . . . This instrument very readily described perpendicular or horizontal lines, as these accorded best with its natural motions. But in diagonal or curved lines it was difficult to make the index follow them exactly, and the whole motions were heavy and embarrassing to the hand. Moreover, the instrument was heavy and too bulky.

I wished to make a machine more portable and easier in its use; and, at the suggestion of my friend Mr. John Robinson, I turned my thoughts to the double parallel ruler, an instrument then very little known and and at all used that I know of. After some meditation, I contrived the means of applying it to this purpose and making the machine extremely light and portable.

. . .The whole of the double parallelogram and its attached slips, (which were later contrived to be easily separated from the board,) were made capable of being readily folded up, so as to occupy only a small space in the box formed by the board when folded up. The sight piece also folded up, and readily found its place in the box, which also contained the screws for fixing the legs of the instrument; and the box, when shut, could be put into a great coat-pocket. The three legs were made of tinned iron, tapering, and one a little smaller than another, and formed a walking stick about four and a half feet long. (cxi-cxvii)

That the father of the industrial revolution (in elementary school textbooks, anyway) experimented with portable pantographs isn't all that surprising, but the extent of his involvement in reproductive technologies is. To put Watt's innovations in perspective, I need to return to Lewis Mumford, who lead me to consider all this in the first place:

This brief view of the course of the reproductive processes in art, from the wood engraving to the colored lithograph, from the photographic painting to the photograph proper, capable of being manifolded cheaply, does not take into account various subsidiary efforts in the same direction in many of the other arts, such as the reproduction of sounds, by means of the phonograph and the talking film; to say nothing of the fortunately abortive attempts of James Watt to find a mechanical means of reproducing, in the semblance of sculpture, the human form, an effort on which the inventor of the steam engine curiously wasted some of the best years of his life.

(Art and Technics, 95)

Just what Watt "invention" was Mumford on about here? I had to find out. Turns out it was the Polyglyptic Parallel-Eidograph. "The best years of his life" turn out to be his later years, because this machine is the last thing he worked on. He turned to it after giving up on inventing the first computer. Watt's "arithmetical machine" of 1785 was never built, though he speaks of making an attempt at making it. His forward thinking attempt at stone holograms, however, had some success. I don't know why Mumford dismisses it so cruelly.

But one engrossing occupation, nearly akin to those of his earlier, but what we can hardly call his better days, Mr Watt also found in gradually perfecting a sculpture machine: a highly ingenious invention, the idea of which was suggested to him by an implement he had seen and admired in Paris in 1802, where it was used for "tracing and multiplying the dies of medals." He foresaw the possiblity, if only some mechancial difficulties could be overcome, of so enlarging its powers as to admit of it making in wood or the softer kinds of stone,—nay, even in marble,—copies of works of sculpture, which should be perfectly true to their originals, although of a smaller size; and the imagination of such an exploit seems to have been particularly delightful to him combining as it did some elements of more than one of his other favorite inventions.

. . .By April, 1809, he had made "considerable progress with the carving machine and it seemed necessary to christen it with a Greek name," which to Professor Young, then the accomplished Professor of Greek at Glasgow College, he suggested might be Iconopoia, Iconurga, Iconoglypta, Aglamotopiea, Glyptes, Polyglyptes, Glyptic Machine, &c.., names to which he afterwords added those of Bust-lathe, Statue-lathe, Pantograph, Double Pantograph and Double Parallel Lathe. (ccxlii-ccxliii)

The machine was not an "abortive attempt to reproduce the human form" but rather a prototype for what would now be named a CNC lathe, and it was according to the source I found, completed:

The invention having been thus fully completed and having been publicly used by Mr. Watt in making the frequent copies of various specimens of sculpture which he, from time to time, distributed to his friends, operated, in more than one instance, to prevent patents from subsequently being taken out by others for similarly ingenious machines.

. . .The sculpture machine, —the youngest of his mechanical offspring, —the child of his old age and of his right hand,1—had always been a great favorite with its venerable progenitory; and it is not difficult to imagine the sort of charm he must have felt in thus "searching for the beautiful forms in the hearts of marbles and of bringing them out into full daylight."

1See Gen, chap. xxxv,v.18 "His father called him Benjamin;""i.e.(adds the marginal interpretation) "the son of the right-hand" (cclii)

Watt did attempt to further push this into a machine that could carve forms from life, but never managed it. His biographer suggests that it was not necessarily a huge loss.

Only one problem, now seems to remain for such means to achieve; that, viz. of at once copying from a living model, in materials of lapidary hardness. For hitherto, in the object to be copied an inflexible surface has always been requisite, to enable the guiding point of the machine to traverse it with firmness. But even this appears to be a difficulty which may in time be overcome; possibly by the power being applied solely by the cutting tools, but their direction being regulated by a guiding point delicately moved over a soft surface, or even in air.

It is, perhaps, neither to be expected nor desired that such a process, which, however exact, must still be entirely mechanical, should ever supersede the freedom of inspiration which breathes in the works of a Praxiteles or a Phidias; any more than the angelic grace of a Raphael or a Correggio, or the glorious coloring of a Titian or a Guido, should be eclipsed by the photographic result of mere chemical action of light an a combination fo optical media.

. . .The classical "garrett" and all its mysterious contents,—the Polyglyptic Parallel-Eidograph with all its tools and models included,—have ever since been carefully preserved in the same order as when the hand and "eye of the master" were last withdrawn from them, and he crossed the threshold never to return to his work on earth. (cclv)

James Watt's Workshop
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Time and the Machine by Aldous Huxley (1936)

Time, as we know it, is a very recent invention. The modern time-sense is hardly older than the United States. It is a by-product of industrialism - a sort of psychological analogue of synthetic perfumes and aniline dyes.

Time is our tyrant. We are chronically aware of the moving minute hand, even of the moving second hand. We have to be. There are trains to be caught, clocks to be punched, tasks to be done in specified periods, records to be broken by fractions of a second, machines that set the pace and have to be kept up with. Our consciousness of the smallest units of time is now acute. To us, for example, the moment 8:17 A.M. means something—something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance  -  did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, Watt and Stevenson were part inventors of time.1 [emphasis mine]

Another time-emphasizing entity is the factory and its dependent, the office. Factories exist for the purpose of getting certain quantities of goods made in a certain time. The old artisan worked as it suited him with the result that consumers generally had to wait for the goods they had ordered from him. The factory is a device for making workmen hurry. The machine revolves so often each minute; so many movements have to be made, so many pieces produced each hour. Result: the factory worker (and the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the office worker) is compelled to know time in its smallest fractions. In the hand-work age there was no such compulsion to be aware of minutes and seconds.

Our awareness of time has reached such a pitch of intensity that we suffer acutely whenever our travels take us into some corner of the world where people are not interested in minutes and seconds. The unpunctuality of the Orient, for example, is appalling to those who come freshly from a land of fixed meal-times and regular train services. For a modern American or Englishman, waiting is a psychological torture. An Indian accepts the blank hours with resignation, even with satisfaction. He has not lost the fine art of doing nothing. Our notion of time as a collection of minutes, each of which must be filled with some business or amusement, is wholly alien to the Oriental, just as it was wholly alien to the Greek. For the man who lives in a pre-industrial world, time moves at a slow and easy pace; he does not care about each minute, for the good reason that he has not been made conscious of the existence of minutes.3

This brings us to a seeming paradox.2 Acutely aware of the smallest constituent particles of time - of time, as measured by clock-work and train arrivals and the revolutions of machines - industrialized man has to a great extent lost the old awareness of time in its larger divisions. The time of which we have knowledge is artificial, machine-made time. Of natural, cosmic time, as it is measured out by sun and moon, we are for the most part almost wholly unconscious. Pre-industrial people know time in its daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms. They are aware of sunrise, noon and sunset, of the full moon and the new; of equinox and solstice; of spring and summer, autumn and winter. All the old religions, including Catholic Christianity, have insisted on this daily and seasonal rhythm. Pre-industrial man was never allowed to forget the majestic movement of cosmic time.

Industrialism and urbanism have changed all this. One can live and work in a town without being aware of the daily march of the sun across the sky; without ever seeing the moon and stars. Broadway and Piccadilly are our Milky Way; out constellations are outlined in neon tubes. Even changes of season affect the townsman very little. He is the inhabitant of an artificial universe that is, to a great extent, walled off from the world of nature. Outside the walls, time is cosmic and moves with the motion of sun and stars. Within, it is an affair of revolving wheels and is measured in seconds and minutes - at its longest, in eight-hour days and six-day weeks. We have a new consciousness; but it has been purchased at the expense of the old consciousness.
1I located this essay through the article on James Watt on Wikipedia, which referenced a magazine article from 1973 which cited the emphasized quote. It turns out that this six paragraph essay was printed in a wide variety of writing text books, including An American Rhetoric by William Whyte Watt. I love this Amazon review of An American Rhetoric:
This book is, unfortunately for the literary world, out of print although it is probably only of interest to 'true and thoughtful' followers of English composition and literature. I am interested in the teaching of Mr Watt and also other leaders and instructors who developed the notions of creative and responsible writing that influenced writers of the period from the 1950s through the 1980s, after which, sadly to say, literature seemes to have 'gone to hell in a handbasket'. I believe it is unfortunate that these fine Professors of detail and research have fallen into disfavor. I purchased the book at a premium price in order to once again enjoy the detailed works and guidance of one of the few who clung to attention and to fact and extactness. [sic]
2  The usage of this essay for evaluation of comprehension has persisted, a evidenced by this notation of the 2002 New York State Regents English Literary Arts Exams:
3. Day Two, Part One: The "Compare and Contrast" Essay: The exam uses the last two paragraphs of a six-paragraph essay by Aldous Huxley, Time and the Machine. The altered passage now begins with the sentence: "This brings us to a seeming paradox." Students cannot know what "this" refers to, without the preceding paragraphs. Compounding the problem, students are asked to answer a question about what the "paradox" refers to.
3 This paragraph, elaborating on the paradox of the culturally specific creation of time, was perhaps the offending part to the NYS examiners. Huxley's deployment of cultural difference was not politically correct, but it was hardly racist. These days though, it seems accurate because I suspect no corner of the globe can be characterized as "pre-industrial." This oversimplified version of culturally relative "time" doesn't wear well into the twenty-first century. It's more far more complex than six paragraphs can describe.
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Mumford.jpg
Lewis Mumford
The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do. (17)

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

When I read Vicki Goldberg's excerpt of Lewis Mumford's thoughts on the economy of images emphasizing the curmudgeonly proclamation that the proliferation of images had placed us all in hades, my gut feeling was that his view must be more complex than that. Three quarters of the way through his lecture series published in Art and Techics there is indeed polemic. But he sneaks up on it, making his way through photography on the way as a democratic process:

Now, by perfecting a mechanical method, the "taking of pictures" by a mere registration of the sensations was democratized. Anyone could use a camera. Anyone could develop a picture. Indeed, as early as the 1890s the Eastman Company went a step further in the direction of automatism and mass production, by saying to the amateur photographer—this was their earliest advertising slogan—you press the button we do the rest. What had been in the seventeenth century a slow handicraft process, requiring well trained eyes and extremely skilled hands, with all the rewards that accompany such highly organized bodily activities, now became an all-but-automatic gesture. Not an entirely automatic gesture, I hasten to add, lest any photographers in this audience squirm in agonized silence or break forth into a loud shout of protest. For after all it turns out that even in the making of the most mechanically contrived image, something more than machines and chemicals is involved. The eye, which means taste. The interest in the subject and an insight into the moment when it—it or he or she—is ready. An understanding of just what esthetic values can be further brought out in the manipulation of the instrument and materials. (92)

Mumford equivocates photography with "registration of the sensations," masking his overwhelming bias toward photography as monosensual: visual to the exclusion of all other sense records. I suspect this is because it allows him to paint photography as gestural, contingent on a button press. Lately I have been thinking that the athletic edge to photography (street photography, as a prime example) invites examination of the invocation of multiple sense modalities. Taste, in its broadest sense, can be stretched to the appreciation of the spatial qualities of representation (beyond trompe l'oeil)— and thus be forced to confront the problems of bodies in space and their relations. The impact of scale, for example, as explored by many contemporary photographers can create special types of comfort, discomfort, and sensual response that are not, strictly speaking, visual. Esthetic values involve more than just the eyes.

The effort to understand the visual often tries to leapfrog over the body to get to the eye stalk. Nonetheless, it is admirable that Mumford does recognize the human qualities of photographs, and has a sense of photography's history/pleasures

All these human contributions are essential. As in science, no matter how faithfully one excludes the subjective, it is still the subject that contrives the exclusion [emphasis mine]. All this must be freely granted. But this is only to say that in photography another machine art like printing was born; and that the standards of esthetic success in this art are not dissimilar than those in printing. If we consider those standards for a moment we shall have a clue to one of the most essential problems connected with automatism and reproduction.

As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended on the photographer's respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before the eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice—which sometimes occurred when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints— the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit. (92-93)

What this passage makes clear is that Mumford is concerned with the improper use of symbols and the clear role of human choice in art as opposed to technics, his word for technology deployed without the human element. That's the primary reason for his coinage of techics— it is neither techn√© nor technology, though it is derived from them— it is the deployment of mindless or inhuman means of reproduction. It's a shame that Goldberg neatly skips this part (quite photographer friendly) in her anthology.

It is this human element that interests me most in all this; to center photography on one sense (vision) tends to render it mechanistic. The sensual/bodily side of it is difficult to address without resort to subjectivity or spirituality. I think there are objectively verifiable, physical elements involved in perception that are ignored in discussions of reproductive technologies due to a tendency to compartmentalize the sense modalities. That's why I can't seem to stop jumping between audio/music reproduction, photographic and sculptural reproduction, textual production and reproduction, etc. It seems like it should all fit together as furniture for living.

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Riverdale, CA

I've been obsessing a bit about Lewis Mumford lately, partly because I always encounter his writing in oft-anthologized inflammatory "theory bites." I couldn't help but think that there was more to it than a simple case of iconophobia. A used copy of Art and Technics, the source for Vickie Goldberg's anthologized snippet I blogged about a few days ago, showed up yesterday. I don't often just rip through things like I ripped through this book (a series of lectures)— but I read a hundred pages in about two hours. When it's had time to digest a bit (and I finish the remaining 50 pages), I'd like to say more. But for now I have to comment about this bit:

Each art has its technical side, and technics involves calculation, repetition, laborious effort, in short, what would often be, were it not for the ultimate end of the process, sheer monotony and drudgery. But in the period when handicraft dominated, the artist and the technician arrived, as it were, as a happy compromise, because, for one thing, their roles were assumed by the same person. By this modus vivendi, the artist submitted to the technical conditions of fabrication and operation, schooling himself to do a succession of unrewarding acts in return for two conditions: first, the comradeship of other workers on the job, with the chance for chaffer and song. companionship and mutual aid in performing the work; and second, the privilege of lingering with loving care over the final stages of the technical process and transforming the efficient utilitarian form into a meaningful symbolic form. That extra effort, that extra display of love and esthetic skill, tends to act as a preservative of any structure; for, until the symbols themselves become meaningless, men tend to value, and if possible save from decay and destruction, works of art that bear the human imprint. (49)

The distinctions that Mumford strives to make in his binary art/techic framework make for an interesting grid: arts are subjective, technics are objective; arts are human, technics are inhuman; arts are orphic, technics are promethean; arts are symbolic, techics are utilitarian; etc. He doesn't argue for the abolition of either, but rather suggests that they are codependent and in danger of losing balance in the contemporary (1952) world. The case that he makes in this section is that symbolic value has greater durability than utilitarian value. Which reminded me of a photographic series I was working on in the mid 1990s.

Songs from the Valley Towns was my name for a group of mostly square format images taken with my Rollei as I drove back and forth between Bakersfield and Fresno visiting my friend Slim, who had recently completed a collection of songs with the same title. What became clear to me was that there was a symbolic San Joaquin Valley, and there was an actual one. The two things were often at odds with each other. I remember passing through Riverdale, which was primarily a two or three block stretch of nondescript stucco strip malls and open farm fields, and laughing inside.

Riverdale was famous! This was the ancestral home of Archie and Jughead in the comics. I didn't see any sign of Riverdale high, where Betty and Veronica would have hung out though. Just a TV dealership, and I think a gas station on the corner. The symbolic content of the place (false documents, after all, because comic books don't exist) overwhelmed its actuality for me. Riverdale wasn't the only revelation, there was also Pixley, which I blogged as far back as 2002. Pixley was the home of Petticoat Junction on TV.

Pixley, CA

There was no sign of a railroad track for miles, just a note on the door of the unattended used car lot that payments could be made at the Pixley Cafe next door. There was a playful dissonance to all this. I remember reading somewhere that Paul Henning, creator of Petticoat Junction, Green Acres (coincidentally a suburb of Bakersfield) and The Beverly Hillbillies, had simply looked at a road map and pulled his place names from that. Many of the places in the popular imagination could be found, in their less than symbolic form, scatted across the San Joaquin. The symbol, as Saussure has so assuredly demonstrated, is strictly arbitrary.

This amused me greatly then. It still does now; one of these days I need to do some decent scans/ fresh prints of these images. But, back to Mumford:

Now, the dynamic equilibrium on which all life depends is a difficult one to maintain, and nowhere has this been more true than in the balance between art and technics. Esthetic symbolism for a long time seemed to man either a short-cut to knowledge and power or an adequate substitute. So he applied it, not merely to things that could properly be created or formed by these methods—works of poetry and art, systems of conceptual knowledge like mathematics, or patterns of law and custom—but also to the physical environment and to natural forces: he foolishly invoked art and ritual to bring on rain or to increase human fertility. Without the counterbalancing interests and methods of technics, man might have easily gone mad, in that his symbols might have progressively displaced realities and in the end have produced a blind confusion that might have robbed him of his capacity for physical survival. At some point in his existence man must leave his inner world and return to the outer, must wake up, so to say, and go back to work. [emphasis mine] The tool tended to produce objectivity or matter-of-factness, as my old teacher, Thorstein Veblen, used to call it, and objectivity is a condition for sanity. (50-51)

Thinking about Slim's semi-fictional songs, and the semi-fictional nature of the San Joaquin Valley tended to suggest that the world was filled with facades, and behind these facades there are a lot of ghosts. Mumford's insights are not wholly negative and technophobic, they are strikingly insightful and progressive for their age. I am drawn to Mumford's thinking, which tends to steer across the poles of print culture, photography, and sound reproduction technologies as lightning rods for productive discussion. There are no hard and fast lines between art and techics, between subjectivity and objectivity, and it seems a shame that he is colored as a curmudgeon.

Human history, unfortunately, discloses many symbolic aberrations and hallucinations. Perhaps the fatal course all civilizations have followed so far has been due, not to natural miscarriages, the disastrous effects of famines and floods and diseases, but to accumulating perversions of the symbolic functions. Obsession with money and neglect of productivity. Obsession with the symbols of centralized political power and sovereignty, and neglect of the processes of mutual aid in the small face-to-face community. Obsession with the symbols of religion the neglect of the ideal ends or the daily practices of love and friendship through which these symbols would be given an effective life. (51)

I think this anticipates Habermas's concern with systematically distorted communication and the disjunction between system and lifeworld. The real treat for me is that Mumford faults not the systems, but the deployment of symbols inside them.

In a lot of ways, California was a sustained hallucination that lasted 37 years for me. My means of coping with it was primarily photography.

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Rock Out.jpg

A screen capture of this Shure ad has been sitting on my desktop for a year or so now. It bothers me a great deal— historically, I think music has been a way of connecting with the world not blocking it out. But music is also linked to escapism and flight to a sort of internal spiritual realm. The dichotomy doesn't resolve itself neatly. There are a lot of things that I could suggest about this image. For one, music began as a social activity that has been gradually marginalized into privatized spaces, culminating in its domain being simply the distance between your ears. It seems like a rip-off and impoverishment of experience when looked at from that angle.

But in the space between your ears, and more importantly with your eyes closed, there is a sort of purity to it. Metaphorically speaking, it's as if god whispers to you. To block out the world requires closing your eyes. But closing your eyes—returning to the dark side— suggests a form of death. Not an actual death, but deep separation from our social natures. I am reminded of a song by Steve Wynn about the ending of a relationship:

When they bring down the curtain
In an hour and 45 minutes
we can talk about the play
and pretend that we were never in it

flashes lit up the skies
thunder and then surprise
you can close your eyes

when the earth shakes,
opens up and swallow itself
I won't be thinking about anybody else

fury and fire flies
it's too late for compromise
you can close your eyes

words turn to anger,
anger comes to blows
nobody feels the hit but everybody knows

when nothing can tantalize
it's gonna take a new set of lies
you can close your eyes

Close Your Eyes, from Dazzling Display

The complexity is rewarding. Part of what I read into this is a sort of necessary blindness in the name of moving forward, in the name of getting to the next sort of fiction you have to believe to be safe within a social relationship: "a new set of lies." The implication is not that closing your eyes grants purity, but rather simply that it shuts out the previous deception. The headphone listener closes their eyes— a different sort of deception, a different relationship with music.

The title track, and indeed the entire LP Dazzling Display nestles in the shadow of its cultural preconditions: the first Gulf War. Many of the songs reflect the shallowness of a television war, with all it's deceptions and facades. But it seems fallacious to suggest that if we close our eyes to outside stimuli and "block out the world" that the messages we receive will have greater purity, particularly if what concerns us is this world rather than the next. It is a conundrum. Music is a communicative phenomenon that unfolds in space and time, not outside it— just like relationships and wars. Both require massive leaps of faith— suspensions of disbelief, or at the very least, cynicism. Nonetheless, we are easily deceived. Try this video for example:


Even when you know the trick involved, you still can't help but be deceived. Unless you close your eyes. But live musical events are seldom experienced with eyes closed. Deception is a core feature of the aesthetic experience. If we knew precisely what the experience was, it would lose its attractiveness.

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