I’ve meant to note for future reference a wonderful guest posting on 2blowhards a while ago by Toby Thain regarding the difference between digital and chemical photography. This reminds me so much of the debate between vinyl and CDs (now I’m really dating myself). Toby was placed in the position of defending the true statement that digital approaches analog asymptotically in quality. Digital is always an approximation of our wonderfully analog world. The debate regarding the relative function of words and images can also be cast in this light—words are by nature digitally discrete units (in the literal sense of the term) while images have been traditionally resistant to such narrow classification. Images are always analog, or a digital approximation of an analog phenomenon. To suggest otherwise is so much hype.

Toby speaks to a different sort of hype in a follow-up response in a comment:

It’s particularly irritating to see professional photographers taken in by the hype — buying studios on hire purchase and then forced to sell digital images, regardless of whether, after finally plumbing the possibilities, they believe in them. This may turn out to be commercial good sense (digital is cheaper to shoot) but can also mean artistic death.

My last paragraph expresses the fear that marketing will win. There is historical precedent for this, although the losers can be remarkably tenacious: vinyl records, sailboats, petrol driven cars (just kiddin’), horsemanship, valve amplifiers, steam trains, etc. They tend to move from industrial best practice to mere recreational anachronisms for Romantics such as myself.

Critics of Toby’s accurate appraisal accused him of missing real importance of the ascendancy of digital photography as a medium facilitating expression. To borrow Kress’s terms, it is really a matter of “gains and losses.” What is lost in digital photography is the incredible depth and nuance, the texture of chemical photography. This was equally true of the move from large format to 35mm. As is commonplace with technology, we gain in speed only with a loss in depth. Texture (the most subtle form of depth) can be reclaimed, but only through manipulation—as is the case with Bobbi’s work turning the multiple world of digital imagery into a singular world of one of a kind, textured, works. But for every really creative use of digital sourcing and manipulation, there are thousands of grainy cell-phone images that have no thought, and even less feel.

It isn’t about the megapixels, it’s about the touch.

Somehow, sensuality more often gets replaced by bombast and colors, with Photoshopped in textures, because the medium itself is sorely lacking in any sort of human materiality.

And yes, I’ll confess to listening to tube (valve) audio equipment, owning thousands of vinyl LP records, cherishing letterpress books, and longing for the day that I can use my old photographic equipment again. Digital photography is filled with uses, but whether all of them constitute gains is not a matter of speculation. There are losses too.

Street (non)photography

San Antonio Riverwalk

Street (non)photography

Jean Burgess has an interesting post/thread going about vernacular creativity. I’ve been thinking about a post on that subject every since my trip to Minneapolis a few weeks ago. I really must disagree with the idea that the philosophy on this non photography site is well developed. Actually, I find it rather naive. Having “no rules” actually suggests the most difficult to adhere to rule of all—the rule of novelty—or, at the very least, the most counter-intuitive rule possible for artistic practice— that no human involvement is desirable. Disinterested artistic practice is a myth. Without interest, it isn’t art.

The closest thing to “street non-photography” I can think of comes from Chris Sullivan. The Journal of the Public Domain consists of objects found on the street. It neither invites, nor needs, any coherent philosophy. There is a difference between an organizing principle and a philosophy—trashlog has an organizing principle somewhat like Chris’s, and it seems to avoid any “developed philosophy” as well. In both cases, human involvement (in selection at least) is readily apparent and needs no apology. Humans have notions and they almost always preconceive them. The idea of photography without preconceived notions is, to me, so much bullshit.


Jennifer Baichwal’s film is one of the best documentaries on documentary that I have ever seen. Its subject is the photographs of Shelby Lee Adams, a photographer I admire a great deal. It played on Trio twice tonight, but now I’m certain that I need the DVD.

Using the opinions of people like Wendy Ewald, A.D. Coleman, and Mary Ellen Mark the film presents both sides of the problem of documentary. For every speaker who celebrates Adam’s work as remarkable and honest, there is another that brands him as exploitive and skewed.

I would give it an unconditional recommendation. If you care about things such as subject/object distinctions, you really should seek it out. I feel pretty certain that I’ll use it to teach from sometime.

Calls to Action

Calls to Action

The attitude after the peak of the postmodernist critical explosion of the 1980s is reflected by Richard Bolton’s 1989 anthology The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. The efforts at critical deconstruction of the context of the emergence of documentary photography in the 1930s revolved around the political, rather than the cultural environment:

Important reforms no doubt lie ahead, but any recognition of the politics of representation will require a recognition of the importance of politics itself. Arguments for change in the art world, and for change in the history and interpretation of art, also imply the need for change in the world beyond the institutions of art. But how much can art actually change society? The pessimistic responses that this recurring question usually receives indicate just how far we have adjusted our expectations, how much we have accepted the separation of culture and society promoted by late modernism. But a better question might be: how can art best change society? After all, most artists hope to create change; few actually work self-consciously to further the status quo. Most positions within modernism have at some point been considered “radical”— even the much-criticized strategy of autonomy. How, then, do we determine the best ways to create change? (xvii)

Though Bolton hints at the possibility of a rejection of the aesthetic as an island apart from society, his embrace of the futility of attempts to change the masses reflect the sort of elitism which cultural criticism is prone:

Continue reading “Calls to Action”

Error and Perfection

Error and Perfection

The Errors of a Wise Man make your Rule
Rather than the Perfections of a Fool

William Blake, from his notebooks (E:510)

Burningbird’s kind post jogged a few memories. Though I haven’t made pictures in a long time (I suppose you’d say I retired in favor of writing, like Delacour) I still tend to think of myself as a photographer. I remember those horrible critique sessions when I first started out.

Identifying error seems to be a big part of every discipline’s teaching process. In writing instruction, empirical testing has shown that it really impedes learning how to write. The focus on error to the exclusion of all other things makes writers timid, and unwilling to take chances. I think the focus on error comes from a real inability to really say much of anything else. I mean, what does a teacher do? Aren’t they supposed to tell you when you’re wrong? William Blake was error-centric as well. His idea of what constituted error was quite plain, as he proclaimed near the end of Milton:

I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration
To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albions covering
To take off his filthy garments, & clothe him with Imagination
To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration
That it no longer shall dare to mock with the aspersion of Madness
Cast on the Inspired, by the tame high finisher of paltry Blots,
Indefinite, or paltry Rhymes; or paltry Harmonies.
Who creeps into State Government like a catterpiller to destroy
To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,
But never capable of answering; who sits with a sly grin (M41:2-13)

Much contemporary photography strikes me, like Blake, as “the high finishing of paltry blots.” But far more damaging is the idiot questioner, who sits and merely enumerates the flaws of other people�s photographs.

I don’t know much, really, except to say that one learns more by looking at fine photographs than by enumerating the flaws of ordinary ones. Even the best photography (or writing) has flaws. A person could do quite well by emulating those flaws, not just the virtues. Perfection is boring.