Can’t bring myself to write the explanatory notes I meant to post here.

Instead I’ll collect some scraps I’ve sent to photo forums and offer them as obiter dicta. For the most part I'm leaving them as they were written, so please excuse the missing context and occasional bad prose.

Remember, all generalities are false:
never be dogmatic.


Last Update: 6/14/2004



Tech Notes


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  • 6/14/2004. Larry Korhnak found that CBS had borrowed one of his old Barbie photos without attribution.

    In Andy's future (which is now) everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes, and nobody will know who he is.

  • 5/13/2004. From a letter.

    I too find that people are perfectly happy with unsharp images. After many years I concluded they just don't see the difference. Not necessarily optically – seeing being after all a brain function. Then again, most people don't see much at all. Few notice the poles and wires and transformers and such that make the American landscape so hideously ugly, but I always see them, just as I see the floaters and other artifacts of vision nobody notices. Maybe my brain just isn't good at smoothing or whatever brains do to hide irrelevant details. It's not pleasant. I'd be normal if I could.

  • 5/3/2004. From a letter.

    A forum comment on the parking-lot shot you liked says, "Great capture." Odd, that phrase. It's kindly meant, but suggests that photography is all Cartier-Bresson – seize the fleeting moment. In fact I had the photo all set up in my mind after visiting the parking lot a week earlier. Was delighted to find Sunday very foggy and spitting down faint rain. Knew there would be almost no cars in the lot if I went early. I'd even planned the perspective shift for that barn-door effect. Not a studio shot, true, but hardly a "capture."

  • 4/15/2004. From a letter.

    I put tech info on my prints for my own reference later, and to avoid any trace of auteur-hauteur sentimentality. I figure if they're framed the mat will cover it up. Same goes for signing. Any college-boy interest I had in first editions and limited editions and signed editions evaporated long since; what's important is the thing itself, not whether Picasso mixed the paint with his own spit.

    True, I signed some photos we sent to Chris's friend in Miami a year or two ago for some church benefit, but only because they asked for it.

    Mind you, there is a reason to want to see originals (or "originals"), even with photos, since no two prints of the same photo are quite alike, and some are very different indeed, 'specially if they're printed years apart and with different equipment. If the same guy is in charge of printing them, you can see trends in his thinking, as in G. Gould's early and late recordings of the Goldberg Variations.

    Certainly I'm glad I've had the chance to see, in NYC, photos actually printed by Weston and Ansel Adams and Gene Smith and many others. Often the prints have qualities you just don't get in reproductions, qualities of luminosity and bronzing and foxing and tones. I always felt that one of Henri C-B's few shortcomings was his lack of interest in the photo once it was taken.

  • 4/10/2004. From a letter.

    Did Saturday chores with Chris today. We stopped at the Korean (or possibly Viet or Taiwanese) market where Chris is on first-name terms with the fish guy, being probably their best customer. While waiting outside I was startled by a sign in the window: Chilean Sea Bass, $12.99. It wasn't so much the price that got me as the really fine drawing of a toothfish (sold as Sea Bass) on the same poster. Looking at it with the critical eye of a hardened museum jock, I saw it was an original, done in colored Pentel. When I pointed it out to Chris, she was sure the fish man must've done it. She went back in and got him to confess that in Taiwan, or Vietnam, or wherever it was, he was a professional artist. He promised to give her a poster. I'd cheerfully pay for one.

    So it is with photography too. Some of the stuff I've seen online is remarkable. I suppose anybody might occasionally get off a lucky shot, but some amateurs are consistently excellent – far better than the Foine Arteests whose crap adorns the walls of the world's most prestigious museums.

    It's a blessing that the new arts of the 20th century – e.g. film, cartooning and photography – have seldom been considered art, being instead mere entertainment (like Shakespeare's plays) and (the real kicker) uncollectable. (You can collect comics like stamps or bottle caps, I guess, but not like Gaugins. Ditto for photos; who wants something that can be endlessly reproduced?) That low status has kept them out of the museums and away from the academy. Museums are the mausoleums, academies the abbatoirs of art.

NB: Years ago I began this diary right here and kept adding to the bottom. Not very smart – the new stuff should be at the top, which is where I'll put it henceforth. If you want a chronological trip through these dicta, start here and go down the page. When you get to the bottom, move to the bullet just above this note and work your way to the top of the page. Sorry about that.

  • Took photography too seriously in the 70’s and gave it up for twenty years. By ’98 I no longer took anything seriously, so had another shot.

  • A word about Photoshop: I always use it, at least as a digital darkroom. The idea that some pictures are more digital than others makes no sense to me – what matters is the way a picture looks. How and why it was done may be fun to know, just as it’s fun to know that Beethoven went deaf – but so what? Wearing earplugs won’t help you write great music.

  • What constitutes manipulation? Most photos represent a three-dimensional view in two dimensions. Is that manipulation? Put a ruler on a print and you’ll find many objects are not life size. Manipulation? Colorful scenes may be rendered in tones of gray. We may be shown only a fragment of what would be visible to the naked eye. Wide-angle or long-focus lenses are used to create startling effects. Long or short exposures give us images that are visually striking but clearly unnatural. Some photographers actually dodge or burn in parts of an image, or use filters or flash, or tilt the easel, or hand-color prints, or solarize or cross-process the film, or choose a grainy emulsion, or tweak contrast by using a particular grade of paper, or shoot with litho stock or infrared. These are all tricks meant to fool us, to manipulate the image and cloud the mind of the beholder.

    Ever read Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy”? Like other apologists of his time, he was defending not poetry per se but what we’d call fiction, which was scorned by grave men as being demonstrably untrue. It’s a case of Plato (who condemned poetry and music) versus Aristotle, a fight that Aristotle won long ago by a knockout. Call it unfair if you will, but Plato never really had a prayer.

  • Let’s admit it: I’m an ithyphallic reductionist with a hard-on for physics. By me, art can deliver new points of view but not new knowledge. The arts are endlessly interesting – what a monkey wants to see most is another monkey – but their function is to help us dream free of our cage, and to give the artist that illusion of purpose that keeps him alive.

    We’re just out of the trees, and full of bush devils who will destroy us if we don’t give them something to do with their hands. Art keeps our demons from tearing us to rags. Whatever comes after us will have no demons and no art.

  • Every photo is abstract, an abstraction of reality, a thing. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” and all that. Easy to forget, when you’re looking at a photo of a mountain, that you’re not looking at the mountain. 19th-century critics remarked that there was all the difference in the world between a painting of a nude and a photograph of a (blush) naked lady. Photographers should remind themselves often that what counts is the photo itself.

  • That Old Objective Correlative

    Technically this is well executed but the subject isn’t very interesting to me.” - Barry J.
    “Don’t you have more important things to photograph?” - Dominique S.

    B.J. and D.S. bring up a point I’ve addressed above: photography’s delicious confusion of a thing and its image. Since photographic images are, I dunno, photographic, and since the eye, being an extension of the brain, is easily fooled, it’s tempting to think you’re looking at a face or a figure when what you’re looking at is ink sprayed on paper, electrons shot from guns, or elemental silver. That’s why porn sells. I buy it myself.

    But (and this is the special glory of photography) it would be quixotic to throw away the advantage this confusion gives us. Photographers can use the responses burned into a viewer’s firmware to leverage the effect of their photos. They can do it trivially, by photographing something pretty or something scary or something weepy, or they can do it more subtly. With a few obvious lapses I try to be subtle. Better an evocation that leaves viewers moved without knowing why than a trivial stimulus-response package - the latter putting the artist in the same class as a chess player who wins by blowing cigar smoke at his opponent or an actor who moves you to tears by wringing your kitten’s neck.

  • Art Is Whatever You Can Get Away With” (Marshall McLuhan)

    (From discussion of a photo called “Honeydew”.)

    Uh-oh. Kyle M. objects: “‘I’m an ithyphallic reductionist with a hard-on for physics.’ Well you are only cutting yourself off at the knees. You have successfully ‘reduced’ a cultured object to superficial sterile image of correctness.” Given the ithyphallic metonymy, let’s be thankful that unkind cut comes at the knees. :-) Anyway, Kyle, are we talking about the same “reductionism”? Handy definition: reductionism posits that all human experience derives from biological processes explicable by the laws of chemistry and physics. (For a more generous view see Edward O. Wilson’s recent book Consilience.) An argument or a person can be reductionist, but not a photo. This photo’s simply a still life, for which the French have (naturally) a franker name: nature morte. I didn’t say it, they did.

    “‘By me, art can deliver new points of view but not new knowledge.’ That is really sad to hear. The choice to deny any possible knowledge that may come from art is my definition of ignorance.” Yo, I’ll take knowledge wherever I can find it, but the “knowledge” that comes from art is, to be kind, illusory – to be less kind, it’s propaganda. With that great American C.S. Peirce, I believe that knowledge is a public matter – if you can’t test it or even agree on it, it ain’t knowledge.

    As to ignorance, well of course. Calling any human person ignorant is mere rhetoric, like saying that women are effeminate. Ignorance is the human condition.

    Some people are less ignorant and more persistent and determined and eventually break free from that proverbial cage, they are called professional artists.” Nonsense: professional artists are by definition folks who live by selling their art – wedding photographers, for example. Most of them are sweet guys, but I never met one who said he’d achieved satori.

    Matt S. adds: “Before jumping all over Leslie for his statement, I’d want to know what he means by ‘knowledge.’” (Hey, pile on, that’s what I’m here for.) “Clearly, a photograph or other work can impart raw ‘knowledge’: a picture of two sloths mating can impart on me knowledge of how two sloths mate. A picture (artistically composed and exposed) of a sign that says ‘The distance between the earth and the sun is 93 million miles’ can impart that knowledge too.”

    Well... A camera, like our eyes, can deliver information that’s new to us, if only as a photocopy of an informative text. But we were speaking about art, not photography.

    What makes ‘art’ special is the facility with which more subtle forms of ‘knowledge,’ like ‘points of view,’ can be transmitted.”

    Close, and I appreciate the sentiment, but I won’t concede that a point of view is “knowledge” – note that even Matt uses quotation marks.

    But nobody quoted my next paragraph, which says why I think art is such hot, such necessary stuff: We’re just out of the trees, and full of bush devils who will destroy us if we don’t give them something to do with their hands. Art keeps our demons from tearing us to rags. Whatever comes after us will have no demons and no art. I stand by that.

  • Mary B. writes: “Poor old wedding photographers often get bashed as non-artists... I just had to speak up for them/us.”

    Let me speak up for you too. As I said somewhere above, “Professional artists are by definition folks who live by selling their art – wedding photographers, for example.” I wasn’t being flippant. As the sun sets on my fifteen minutes of fame, I’ll ride off praising the unsung heroes of photography – those whose work never turns up in museums because it doesn’t have a revolutionary message, those who sell a long day’s work for a few hundred dollars and won’t ever see one of their prints on sale for $17K in a Madison Avenue gallery. Those who get a salary from the local paper, or who spend their days in a studio photographing clogs and Barcaloungers for mail-order catalogs, or who (and a special star shines for them) coddle and sweet-talk red-faced parents and wet babies into poses fit for posterity.

    Some of these folks turn out wonderful work and some don’t, but two things are certain: 1) If they didn’t exist, the rest of us would still be using Brownies and paying a week’s salary for a roll of film; and 2) admitting you’re a wedding photographer or a baby photographer, or that you do product shots or take pictures of dumpsters, is guaranteed to shrink you to the size of a microbe in artsy-fartsy circles.

    A week ago I happened to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I transcribed these helpful hints from a gloss on the wall next to three fuzzy photos of women’s profiles: “In this work, Richard Prince deploys an array of strategies (rephotographing black and white advertisements using color film, cropping, enlarging, grouping according to gesture) to undermine the seeming naturalness and inevitability of the mass cultural image, revealing it to be a fiction of society’s desires.” What wedding photographer dare aim so high?

  • Commenting on a photo by the masterful Garry Schaefer:

    It’s a fine still life, and yet, and yet...this doesn’t look and feel like an authentic G.S. I’m fishing for a good way to express it. Let’s see.

    OK: this is notional; a classic G.S. is relational. Yes, that sounds right; I’ll stand by it.

    For those who’ve forgotten their high school philosophy, “notional” and “relational” have special meaning in discussions of language and epistemology by modern philosophers like Frege. As I’m using the words here, the word has is notional in the phrase “he has a million dollars,” relational in the phrase “he has gone home.” Better yet, consider this abstract I just found in a Web search: The Components of Content – Article by David Chalmers proposing an account of narrow content based upon a distinction between notional and relational content. Notional content allows us to describe the ‘subject-eye’ view of the world, whilst relational content allows us to give observer independent analogues of notional content.

  • Claudia S. writes: “hmmm... i am in my ‘so what is the narrative?’ mode tonight. and i am feeling a bit crotchety about formalism/mannerism as ‘art.’ ... i would love to hear something about what you are communicating.”

    Your “what is the narrative” question reminds me of a student joke from my days in Vermont circa 1963. Story goes that a Bennington student brought her knitting to class. Teacher, wishing to shake her loose from bougeois complacency, says, “Miss Fisher, do you think your knitting may be a substitute for masturbation?” Student answers: “Professor, when I knit I knit, and when I masturbate I masturbate.” In like fashion, when I photograph I photograph, and when I feel a narrative coming on I narrate, usually in letters to old friends.

    I’m a child of the 60’s, and agree with Marshall McLuhan that “Art is whatever you can get away with.” I’m also an unreconstructed reductionist and a Peircean pragmatist, and believe that only operational definitions make sense. “Art,” like “evil” or “good,” is shorthand a fiction we agree to believe in for the sake of discussion. In the wake of 9/11 many atheists said “God bless America,” and meant it. If you quoted that back to them and said, “See, you really do believe,” they’d roll their eyes and say you were missing the point, and they’d be right. Any narrative or meaning you find in my photos should be taken in the same spirit: shorthand, a convenience, a peg to hang your feelings on. I’m a formalist and proud of it. Plato, Rousseau, Hitler, Stalin and Mao condemned formalism in art, reason enough to be all for it.

    (Claudia answers: “i guess i hit your hot button leslie. like what decade do you think i was a child of? this photo regardless of what one is a child of is...Mannerism. to me ‘mannerism’ is a slavish devotion to ‘effect’ even if it is devoid of context and meaning. usually falls short of intention. classic definition for art history students is...” )

    According to your URL, that description (focused on technique, devoid of meaning) is the one Delacroix used to diss Michaelangelo. I should be happy to keep such good company, but honesty forces me to protest: that characterization fits many, many works in many, many schools or periods; it’s too vague and general to be used as a definition of “mannerism.”

    That said, of course my stuff is devoid of meaning and focused on technique. Those are positive qualities in my book. And of course it usually falls short of my intentions – whose work doesn’t? It would be cruel indeed to point to somebody’s art and say, “Ah – you’re satisfied with that?”

    No offense, but I believe you’re one of the innumerable innocent victims of that arch-fiend Rousseau, author of most modern errors. Also I suspect the Zen you’re thinking of is the kind practiced in California.

    (Claudia protests that “u don’t like us cali folk.”)

    Oops, I didn’t know you were a Californian. No personal reflection intended. Besides, I’m sure it’s a great place; I was using “California” in its pejorative sense, the way some use the term “Mannerist.” I’ve never been to California, but everybody tells me it’s better than Heaven – the place angels go when they die. One of my best friends has been urging me to move to the Bay area for twenty years, but I can’t help noticing that he lives in Philadelphia.

  • Janet S., speaking of 327.36: Wow, this one smacked me right between the eyes. I remember once you told me that when people comment on your images you just agree with everything they see in the image. Your comment left me to believe that there is never any rhyme or reason to anything you photograph. This image however... leaves me with the feeling that someone is on a journey that they have little control over. The dark sickened arm, being held up and the wrinkled lower park of the dark arm almost helplessly being pulled down.

    Janet: Your interpretation is exactly right; I agree with everything you say.   ;-)

    In truth, whether or not the maker of an image (or story) intends it, everything’s open to interpretation; every story has undertones that echo the reader or viewer’s own story. Over the last century certain skeptics tried to debunk psychic research and parapsychology by using stage magic to reproduce the antics of Uri Geller and others who claimed strange powers. Their tactic was to pretend they had weird powers too, convince the researchers, then reveal that they were simply doing a trick. In almost every case the researchers said the debunkers were deceiving themselves – that they did have mysterious powers, and simply thought they were using trickery because they were prejudiced against the truth.

    The reasoning of Freud and his epigones was much the same. He insisted that every story’s a cover story, hiding secret meanings too strong for the storyteller to face with disguising it. Hence the hilarious Freudian analyses of Alice in Wonderland and Huckleberry Finn. Freud was a quack and a charlatan. And yet, and yet...

    “Everything which is possible to be believed, is an image of Truth.” –Wm. Blake

  • Hands

    Hands are tough because they’re attention magnets. They’re very expressive, like faces, differing from one person to another. Most people wave them around when they speak. If not, that catches our attention. (The politician speaking to the camera with folded hands glued to the desk in front of him.)

    Notice the hands in old-master portraits – the Mona Lisa’s hands, for instance. If you look at them closely, they’re hardly hands at all. They’re schematics of hands, with carefully tapered fingers that express nothing. They serve a compositional purpose, and there was no way to avoid showing them in a full-upper-torso portrait, but I think Leonardo was trying to sap the character of the hands so we wouldn’t be distracted, would accept them as ornaments only, and would concentrate on the face.

    Hands are as tough to deal with as faces, but of course like faces they can be wonderfully expressive too. We ignore their power at our peril. The devil finds work for idle hands.

  • Grant Lamos posts a photo of “one dog sniffing another dogs butt – high art huh”

    “One dog sniffing another dog’s butt” is a wholly convincing definition of high art.

    In the early 60’s, before it became a color supplement to the New York Review of Books, the Scientific American published an article on monkey psychology. The researcher put a monkey in a large, comfortable box. The monkey could see out through a little window held shut by a spring. The idea was to quantify the monkey’s interest in different objects by measuring the length of time it was willing to hold the window open. Turned out that monkeys weren’t much interested in viewing a banana. They paid more attention to a toy train that puffed and whistled. But what inspired them to hold the window open till they dropped was the sight of another monkey.

  • R.P. writes: “How do I work out, being a novice at reading photos, how big the subject is... if there is nothing to give it a sense of scale.. and the lens used isn’t stated?...”

    Scale’s a big topic. We usually know how big things are because we’ve grown up with them and have a feel for the relative sizes of insects, pets, people, cars, houses, trees, mountains. If we don’t recognize a given object we look for something nearby that we do recognize, which is why archaeologists put yardsticks in their pictures. Some photos intentionally confuse the viewer by eliminating reference objects and by showing small things at a level of detail we associate with larger things. These days we’re inured to such simple tricks as enlarged fleas, but if it’s delicately done an image without referents and with plenty of detail can be subtly disorienting, so the subject seems to live in a dream space where everything looks too good to be true. There’s irony in that, since the unreal feel comes from the use of real detail. It’s like getting drunk on a gallon of water.

  • From a note to Ernest C.

    Of course all still photos are motionless; the only motion involved are the saccades the viewer’s eye makes. Moving the camera (or the subject) doesn’t guarantee a dynamic photo. Some frozen-action photos of Cartier-Bresson – for example, the deathless “Brailowsky” shot – are dynamic in the only way possible to stills: they’re charged with the sense of motion. They goose the eyeballs into gear. I believe your impressionist work (and impressionism generally) is in essence static and flat. Your “static” geometric photos have more action and more depth than those meant to show motion. (Footnote: what could be more active and dynamic than an abstract, or still life, by Kline or Gorki or de Kooning? What more static than the ultra-impressionist paintings of Seurat and Signac?)

    Remember that motion is an artifact of perception. We’re wired to perceive events in time series. But there are other kinds of motion, for example the way a character ambles through the plot of a novel, or the way our mind wanders when we contemplate puzzle pictures like Escher’s woodcuts or Dali’s slippery oils. There are many ways to make an image move, and to make a moving photo.

  • On Different Interpretations

    In matters of art the customer’s always right. An act of art thrives on ambiguities that would spoil an act of science. New York intellectuals praised Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” as an unsparing evocation of rural America’s prune-faced Puritanism. Rural Americans admired it as an affirmation of the country’s rock-solid resolve. Does Joyce’s Ulysses hint that the best hero the 20th century could produce was a clownish free-lance ad salesman, or does it suggest that a humane modern man is in fact a better hero than the blood-guzzling Odysseus? Is The Wizard of Oz a charming fairy tale or an evocation of dark myths straight out of Joseph Campbell – or a campier cult movie than Rocky Horror?

    Or all of the above?

    Unread books and unseen pictures are like Schrodinger’s cat, abiding in every possible state until you open the box, at which point the waveform collapses and they take on a value that’s unique – not uniquely theirs, but uniquely yours.

  • Word Virus

    Certain words have become infectious. They ride living ideas like viruses, polluting the body of discourse. We should quarantine them. Candidates for quarantine might include art and beauty, not to mention good and bad, war and peace, liberal and conservative. (I’d also go along with a ban on like used as a stage direction, e.g. “I was like, You gotta be kidding, you’re gonna wear that?”)

  • A.K. suggests that “talk of ’real’ vs. ’unreal’, ’legitimate’ vs. ’botched’ is quite a bit passe.”

    Naturally the image is what matters, but sometimes one serves as the springboard to discussion of meta-issues. Far from being passé, epistemological issues are central to esthetics. Once you eliminate the naive criteria of the recent past (does the picture or story praise God, does it flatter the donor, is it uplifting, etc), most discussions of art turn on points of epistemology.

  • Hil posts a “nature” photo of stuffed animals at the American Museum of Natural History. There are objections.

    I suppose there’s a truth-in-advertising issue here, something deeply felt at this particular time and in places where these notes are read.

    Remember the young lady from Kuwait who in 1990 stood before the world and told us how she watched helplessly while Iraqi invaders dumped babies on the nursery floor and stole their incubators? Statistics show that an Olympic pool could’ve been filled with the tears shed by her CNN audience. After the war we learned she’d made it all up. Now, when you think about it, that turns her story into theater, and pretty good theater too. I’d much rather witness somebody telling a big lie that helped start a war than watch some fear-jerking news story about Iraqi atrocities. Atrocities are a dime a dozen.

    My point? If her story had been true we would’ve been getting the news at second hand and so what. But in fact we saw a story actually happening. We even acted a part in it ourselves. Now, that’s history hot off the griddle. It’s also one way art can be realer than real life.

  • Another reply to animadversions on Hil’s photo.

    Books could be written. Books have been written, though never by photographers. (Think of Susan Sonntag.) The lesson to be learned, maybe, is that everything (including the photograph) is an object and enjoys equality before the laws of physics. Don’t mistake the ding for the ding an sich, the quiddity for the quidditas, the name for the song. Don’t commit the sin of synecdoche.

    Hil’s visit to the Museum reminds me of a night course Chris and I took there twenty-five years ago, lessons on gems taught by a famous gemologist. Everybody loved this guy. He looked, acted and talked like a longshoreman. And he laughed at the people who brought him cut stones of great antiquity to admire. “This may be from Queen Isabella’s diadem!” He’d guffaw. “Lady, this stone was made by some volcano two hundred million years before Isa-beller was born! There’s no such things as antique gems.” He, at least, knew what the meaning of “is” was.

  • There were many comments on "Mister Bun," a photo of a headless baby rabbit. The first one I replied to came from Patsy Latscha. “It is very gross, besides that general fact, just a bad pghotograph, color, focus, it is just bad. Surely you can find something better to post than this.”

    Patsy: My flower photos would please you more, I think, but to me there’s not much difference. Remember that cut flowers are the severed genitals of plants. To my mind, anyway, the flower photos are informed by the same irony as this one.

  • More on "Mister Bun."

    Robert Graves (1895-1985) literally worshipped women. In his last novel, Watch the North Wind Rise, he imagines himself (or a surrogate) waking up in a future where magic rules. Alone in the woods, with no warning, he meets the Goddess. She’s a skinny, smelly old woman dressed in dirty rags, walking with a stick. “Well?” she says.

    “I instantly fell on my knees, seized and kissed her filthy claw.” (Quoting from memory.) She pats his head and says, “Yes, you’re a good boy.”

    If I were sick enough to spout Aperture-speak, I’d say this photo was an act of devotion; but that’s not all it is. To cite another parable from the lore of the clerisy, James Joyce, at the height of his fame, was introduced to an excited fan. She tried to grab his arm, saying, “Let me kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses!.” Joyce jumped back. “Oh no,” he said, “it did a lot of other things too.”

  • Yuri Skanavy, referring to the rules established by Qiang Li for his photo forum, wrote: “Just realized that, Qiang’s rules are quite clearly against this kind of subject matter. So, simply put Leslie shouldn’t have posted this photo here.”

    It may be so. As old-timers already know, I honor Qiang and share my wife’s opinion that he’s one of the saints of photography. He deserves more respect than he gets here. If I had the energy and innate goodness to set up and run a critique site de bonae voluntatis, I’d rule like Attila or Stieglitz, chastizing my subjects with scorpions. (1 Kings 12:11.) This post may be close to his limit, but let’s not be too squeamish. It’s a rabbit, not a baby or a dog or cat. It looks no worse than what you find in any supermarket, except for the flies. And I’ve seen more flies at a picnic. Finally, if you’re not a vegetarian you should visit the factories that raise the animals you eat, then tour the slaughterhouse. It may not be all bad to remind people where food comes from. Few of us live on flowers.

  • Yuri replied: “...yes, we’re hypocrites (I hope I spell it right :)), we don’t like to see what we eat. But, the thing is that somehow your image doesn’t stike me as act of animal right activism. ”

    Please! It’s not motivated by animal rights, human rights, civil rights or any other rights. Take it as given that I disbelieve in rights, period. Nor is it a Disney celebration of the Circle of Life, whatever that may be. (I think it has something to do with eating zebras.) Nor is it meant to epater les bourgeois.

    Far more repulsive than a few flies to me is this perpetual quest for meaning, motive, agenda, purpose, intention, significance. Think what you’re saying. Is gravity heavy? Is speed fast? Is beauty beautiful? C’est à desesperer, sans blague!

    During my photographic interregnum, around 1980 it was, I came across a little epiphany at the Kutztown Fair. That’s a country shindig held every year in Pennsylvania Dutch country. You can eat funnel cakes and shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy and see how folks used to farm, and how a few still do. There was one exhibit labeled Chicken Science. It included a coop full of chickens and a sort of outdoor wood stove with a cauldron of boiling water, iron skillets, etc. I watched as somebody paid a dollar. A powerful lady put the bill in her apron, went to the coop, pulled out a chicken, walked over to a chopping block, chopped its head off, threw it on the ground and covered it with a bushel basket while it flopped around. Obviously the next step was to pluck and empty it and serve it up as Really Fresh Fried Chicken.

    Standing ten feet away, holding hands and weeping copiously, were two tourist children, boy and girl. They’d suddenly learned something important about KFC. The truth was a kind of slander on their innocence.

    Maybe it’s best to think of photos like this one as necessary follies, the heat engines that drive the rest of the machinery. Personally I think of the rest as window dressing and masquerade. Possibly both are true to a degree.

  • Some regular contributors defended me against Yuri’s comments. I answered in a doggerel sonnet:

    Yuri’s sin, if sin it be,
    Is the common sin of synecdoche.
    I know it’s hard to break the habit,
    But this photograph is not a rabbit.

    So what does it mean? He’s got me there
    By the congenital family hair.
    It’s not an appeal to free the orcas.
    It has no socially redeeming porpoise.

    Is it empty of affect? Deeper than ether?
    Chtonic? Ironic? Any of either?
    Maybe the moral is, “Don’t do that!”
    Or: “Curiosity fed the cat.”

    Telling the truth is always slander.
    Sauce for the goose is propaganda.

  • Ola S. noted: “Some things nature have learnt us to find repulsive: The stench of decompsing corpses, excrements, slimy worms, mutilated bodies... Provocations on this level are like opening a wound, not giving an opportunity for healing.

    Any good photograph is provocative in a sense. Of course “Yuck” or “Yum” or heavy breathing isn’t what I’m after. It’s easy to elicit strong feelings, but what one wants are strong thoughts. I abominate photos, or movies or stories, that evoke pity or terror by showing you, say, a poor abused kitty with wounded paw and big eyes starving in an alley, or a nasty fierce man about to do naughty things to a helpless... You get the idea. It’s like making your audience cry by stepping on their toes – strictly from Woolworth’s. I’m snob enough to disdain facile ploys. Such work is sentimental in the sense defined by George Meredith: “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.” Rather than draw tears by working for them, you give the viewer a Three-Stooges eye-prong.

    I know Ola’s just putting us on, but let’s pretend that last note was posted by his doppelganger. Ola! bah – it’s our parents, not Mother Nature, who taught us that excrement’s taboo. Many cultures are quite casual about it. Robert Mapplethorpe ate it with gusto, though it did give him stomach problems. I myself confess to a weakness for Limburger, Liederkranz and pont-l’eveque. As to decomposing corpses, this photo shows a perfectly edible rabbit, far fresher than anything you’d find at the store. It was alive and kicking five minutes before I made the picture. Some flies have landed on it, true – but they’ll light on your bagel too, if you eat it outdoors in New York in July.

    Finally, as I’ve already confessed, I’m a vulgar man with low appetites. My only hope for salvation is the redeeming power of fine art. Surely folks will be patient as I grope my way toward the light.

  • Rosina P. writes from New Zealand: “I had a pet lamb when I was about day I couldn’t find it when I came home from school.... Dad said ‘Oh, I put it in with that lot that went to the works.....’”

    In the 40’s my parents made the mistake of giving me a green-dyed chick for Easter. I named it Greenie and played with it till it outgrew local zoning, at which point my parents offered it to my Uncle Sammy, who kept chickens. He ate it. This may help explain why I haven&’t been on speaking terms with that side of my family for the last thirty-two years. Or with the other side, come to think of it.

  • There’s a high-and-mighty NY pro who posts to, patronizing "shutterbugs" and reminding us how many shows he’s had and how much people pay for his photos. When people called him arrogant, a sycophant explained that there’s a big difference. He’s a pro and takes photography more seriously than we do. He has professional standards which may not be appropriate on a site inhabited by amateurs. The quality of his work "shatters or threatens the illusions" we have of ourselves as photographers. His rapid rise in the gallery scene as an "art photographer" deserves congratulations, but reaction of the amateurs has been mostly negative. This is likely the result of jealousy or insecurity.

    I was impressed by X’s reasonable and calm note, in which he points out the difference between the values and POV of a working professional and those of the rest of us at PC. It may be easier to understand this without getting carried away if we think in terms of sex. The sex workers I’ve known usually kept pretty much to themselves, but some of them were willing to observe and criticize amateur work, which they often praised in a way that I suspect was 90% diplomacy and good will. Because, well, let’s face it – those of us who do it as a hobby or for weekend recreation will never understand sex like somebody who depends on it to pay the rent, who has to smile and be creative even when he or she has gas or a headache, in a world where the customer’s always right. When I don’t feel like sex I can take pictures, and when I’m tired of that I can play with my Hummel figurines, but a pro has to perform without waiting for the angel of inspiration. That necessarily makes a difference.

    As X says, those of us who do sex as a hobby should congratulate successful pros, yet we seldom do. Let’s confess: jealousy and insecurity are the reason. I try to rise above that level myself, but can’t help feeling envy for those who have the tools and the talent to hit the bullseye twenty times a day while I’m lucky to score once or twice a week. After all, I tell myself, the software only allows us three tries! (Speaking of photos now, of course.)

  • Hil posted a photo of New York graffiti which got a good deal of attention. I couldn’t resist adding my two bit’s worth.

    My my. This post and these comments are more lit crit than anything else. I feel right at home. Worse, I’m reminded of a little epiphany from 1971 or thereabouts which, worst of all, I feel bound to share with everybody. (“Fly home, daughter, cover your ears.”)

    When we moved to the city in 1970 a fancy town house three blocks south of us was blown up by the Weather Underground. On the big fence that hid the rubble somebody spray-painted the motto: Nothing Is Free. A young French intellectual came to visit. (Where are you now, Jean-Claude?) I took him for a walk through the neighborhood and when he saw those words he said sadly, “Ah bien sur, ’Rien n’est libre.’

    “No no,” I told him, “Rien n’est gratuit!” And at that moment I was enlightened.

  • BJS posted a still life done with a digital camera and lens equivalent to 35mm focal length. I felt results weren’t up to par, but a commenter suggested it was “Alternative Photography” – “Has a lovely charcoal or graphite drawing quality to it.”

    When I think “alternative photography” I think of argyrotypes, cyanotypes, chrysotypes and platino-palladiotypes, Luminos liquid emulsion and oatmeal box cameras, Polaroid transfers and X-rays, callotypes and kallitypes, gum bichromate and albumen, edible prints made with nontoxic chemistry, carbro and gumoil processes, etc. Not digital photography.

    As to charcoal and graphite, beware the “painterly” (or charcoal-y or whatever) temptation. I yield to it sometimes myself, so I know whereof I speak. No photo can be as painterly as paint or as graphitic as graphite. Photography has its own qualities, which admittedly may overlap those of other graphic media in the big Venn diagram of categories that’s sold as art crit.

    Maybe the fundamental problem is that BJS’s best photos (unlike, say, my own) are dynamic, while still life holds still i.e., it’s static. BJS’s top-notch work conveys the impression of a thing seen – a glimpse, an epiphany, a recognition – one day perhaps a revelation. His photos are, how you say, outgoing and extroverted, anabolic, affirmative and celebratory, even if they’re photos of somebody who’s just done up a spoonful of junk. But as I said, still life is inherently static: contemplative, catabolic, lysis after the crisis, a museum showcase whose central exhibit has been removed for further study.

    Here my interlocutor protested: “Hmmm. Ok. But, ‘beware’???? and ‘temptation’???? Yikes!”

    Yes! Yes! Beware, beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair.

    Well, let’s not go too far; still, I won’t abate my minatory mood. Making good pictures (or poems or whatever) is largely a matter of learning to resist temptation – the temptation to pull the bull over your audience’s eyes, to imitate things that evoke a built-in reaction, to copy art they’re already familiar with. This is sentimentalism in the sense of George Meredith’s famous definition: “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.” Instead of painfully building up an evocative image that nobody’s ever seen before, I can photograph a cute li’l baby sucking its toes, or make a movie of a naked lady doing hanky-panky. Those things are guaranteed to get a reaction because large subsets of the human race are programmed to respond to them. There are also big cohorts programmed to respond positively to images that look like oil paintings or charcoals, because that’s Fine Art and confers status. My dear, so nice to see you, what sitcom did you watch last night whilst I was reading Proust in the original? So silly to translate it as “Remembrance of Things Past,” don’t you think? That old Shakespeare has a lot to answer for.

    To speak more generally, remember Hemingway’s advice: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” The rest of us need it too.

  • Posted a photo that looked banal. Someone said, “I don’t like this simply because I think anyone with PS could have made it.” Others defended it.

    You folks are kind, but the true test of something like this would be to post it (or publish it) under the name of the guy next door and see how it flies (or flops) when nobody knows who made it and is therefore unlikely to dig for hidden gold. I don’t care for Agatha Christie’s stories, but was always impressed that at one point she submitted some new books to publishers under another name, and got them published.

    It’s an article of faith with me that many (most) photos by world-famous names are not in fact very good and would never reach the public’s eye if they were copyrighted by you or me. But because of the famous name we look for subtle qualities which we then inevitably find. After all, Gene Smith is to me what I am to my cat; if he thought photo X was worth publishing and I don’t get it, the fault must be mine.

  • Made some comments on a photo by Cleeo Wright, a landscape that’s much darker and realer than his usual work.

    I honor and revere Ansel Adams, but his work, though perfection of a kind, lacks the richness and depth of E. Weston’s. A.A. created a world beyond worry, a Perelandran paradise where Adam never fell. However much I honor and however hard I revere him, he has in common with N. Rockwell or Currier & Ives a certain sweetness and light that are charming but, well, facile. E.W. did the dirty work. He even photographed a dead human body he found in the desert. His nudes have hair between their legs. I don’t mean we have to seek out nastiness to be “serious”; but we need to rise above pretty if we want to be beautiful.

    I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remarks on Dryden and Pope from his “Lives of the Poets”: If the flights of Dryden are higher, Pope continues longer on the wing. If of Dryden’s fire the blaze is brighter, of Pope’s the heat is more regular and constant. Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it. Dryden is read with frequent astonishment, and Pope with perpetual delight.

    It’s also worth remembering that in the 17th century the Dutch paid far more attention to Jan Steen than to Rembrandt, much less to Vermeer.

  • Art S. demurred, saying that there was nothing visually interesting about Cleeo’s picture.

    Says Art: For me to like an image there has to be something interesting to see – one can intellectualize that this one is good because its not like AA’s........etc.,etc.....

    The eye’s an extension of the brain, and seeing’s cerebral. You know the old studies in which those born sightless were cured at some advanced age, but never learned how to see. Hence all those figures of speech. Do you see? No, I don’t, quite. Well, look at it this way. Oh, sure, now I see. Cats won’t chase photos of mice, dogs don’t bark at photos of cats, chickens never peck at photos of corn. We see something they don’t. The question whether there’s “something interesting to see” sounds easy but isn’t.

    “A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees.” – William Blake

  • Art answered: “Leslie – I ‘see’ your point but I also think there’s a tremendous amount of mental masturbation in the whole field of art, not just photography. Too often I think we convince ourselves that something is ‘excellent or boring or terrible’ based on the reputation of the artist, ‘trendiness’, intellectualizations, etc., etc. Let’s face it.... a lot of art famous or otherwise just plain sucks.”

    Masturbation’s much maligned. If it’s so bad, why is it popular? But seriously, folks, I won’t argue the awfulness of over-intellectualization. That’s one of many reasons I swore never again to set foot in a university. But that was long ago. Now I’m a tottery old man and less dogmatic. Let’s admit it: there is something to be said for “art appreciation,” though the words still gag me. I’d rather wring whatever juice there is out of a “work of art” than get my kicks sneering at it, though the only way to enjoy some things (like Keane’s paintings) is to see them as high camp or comedy.

    Reputation’s a sticky point. Certainly most prolific “artists” generate plenty of frass and scat. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Still, if somebody I consider a master of the craft produces a picture that looks absurdly bad, I have to consider the possibility that he sees something there which isn’t (yet) clear to me, and that if I find another way to look at it I can see it too. OK, maybe the guy’s paresis finally kicked in and there’s nothing there after all; but as I say, I’d rather enjoy something than not, so I’m willing to try some of whatever he’s been taking and see if I like the trip.

  • The thread then turned to discussions of the beautiful, what it is and whether it’s necessary to make a photo great.

    The problem with arguments involving truth, beauty, art, love, honor, duty and such is that nobody can agree on the meaning of the words. Most of us use them, I guess, as a kind of shorthand, since it’s silly to rely on periphrasis: “The sight of Jane Doe raises my blood pressure, the touch of her hand induces proximate tumescence, and I’m willing to enter into contractual arrangements that will beggar me if I leave her.” Easier to say “I love Jane.” But we should remember it’s only shorthand, and tendentious shorthand at that.

  • Art then posted a Weston nude with the legend, “Any question about this one?” (I.e., as an example of beauty.)

    “Any question about this one?” says Art. But of course. Read “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” by Victorian critic Robert Buchanan, who considered obscene the work of harmless exotics like Rossetti and Swinburne. To him I think E.W.’s nudes would all look clinical and, well, dirty – not nudes at all, since that word evokes the appliances of art, just pictures of naked females.

    Beauty’s strictly cultural. Most G7 citizens (now G8, I guess) are repelled by cosmetic scarification and saucer-sized lip disks and bound heads and infibulation, but those enhancements are still appreciated in some quarters, as are 300-pound brides anointed in pig fat, and circumcision and pierced lips and tongues. Oh, wait, those last examples are all-American, aren’t they? Well, you get my point. Beauty’s learned.

    All right, all right, I hear you say, you didn’t mean matters of fashion, you meant natural beauty, landscapes, misty mountains and like that. But it’s all fashion. Before the late 18th century a high, snow-covered mountain (“a horrid Alp”) impressed nobody in Europe, unless as an obstacle to commerce and invasion. Climbing and skiing and hiking and camping weren’t sports, they were what Europe’s hillbillies did to survive. A suntan marked you as a member of the servile class.

    It’s all but impossible to separate esthetics from ethnology. Sometimes I think there are esthetic elements that cross cultural isobars – the Golden Mean, the Rule of Thirds, the color wheel. Sometimes I believe the whole business is entirely relative and that all our esthetic striving is arrogance and folly.

  • Cleeo himself protested that some analogs of beauty cross cultural boundaries. “Smiles, I believe, are another example of something found to be beautiful that seem to be universal.”

    Cleeo: the problem’s really one of definitions. True about the universality of smiles (even in chimps), but I don’t think of smiles as an aspect of “beauty” – more a kind of behavior, a signal, like the purring of a cat or a dog’s wagging tail. I’d be interested to see the documentary you mention. Certainly some cues are innate: babies will follow any “face” with two “eyes” in it, even if it’s very schematic, and the curviness of feminine fat may well be a universal trigger. Again, though, those are signals. It would be interesting to pursue the idea that “beauty” derives from signals like that.

    But those are trivia, really. I’m afraid you and I are poles apart on the far more important question of immanence. I’m a crusty, unreconstructed reductionist, a materialist of the worst kind. Spirit, bah! Souls, humbug! Of course I know you feel differently, and that your conviction inspires and enriches your work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve got no patience with folks who think it’s a joke to trick vegetarians into eating meat, or who insist on enlightening everybody who doesn’t believe what they happen to believe. In the final analysis such things make no difference – a basic tenet of my own Futilitarian philosophy.

  • Tony S. came back with: “Beautiful, ugly, interesting, boring – why should we need to agree on what these terms mean? Where’s the fun in that??”

    As Tony says, these points are fun to debate but have little bearing on what we do with our cameras and computers. He and Cleeo and I, and probably anybody else reading this, are on one side of a more fundamental disagreement. Plato’s the first guy I know who said it explicitly. His point of view (put in the mouth of Socrates) was that the arts are dangerous because they mislead us. Fiction is by definition a lie, and music affects us like a drug, clouding our critical faculties. Rhetoric persuades us to believe what we shouldn’t. In sum, the arts are useful in the form of propaganda, but serious folks should avoid them: they’re frivolous at best.

    That idea has had immense influence in the Judeo-Christian West and in Islamic societies. There’s a strong puritanical strain that runs through those cultures. At its extreme it forbids not only figurative art but even the worldly vanities of decoration or music. We can debate the nature of beauty or the definition of art till the cows come home, and even get highly ionized about it, but we should never lose sight of the fact that art (whatever it is) and beauty (whoever she is) have enemies who have put the kibosh on the whole business in many times and places, and may well do so again. United we stand. Whatever our esthetic quibbles, we’re family.

  • Finally, I couldn’t resist a peroration. Steve M. gave me the peg to hang it on by defining art in terms of “expression,” suggesting that landscape photography differed from other genres in being “an expression of the subject” rather than self-expression.

    On the understanding that “art” is shorthand and begs a billion questions (see above), what do we know about it in an operational sense? Well, it’s a human activity. It requires an investment of time (and time is money) that could be spent doing something else – finding food or sex. So why do people do it? One reason is to make a living, but for me and most of my readers here that doesn’t apply. What are the other reasons? To be stroked by admirers, maybe, though again that doesn’t happen a whole lot to most of us, and nobody just starting out could count on it. Next reason?

    I suspect there are as many next-reasons as there are people who make art (or even “art”). One that’s commonly reported is a quest for ataraxy, the relief that comes when you scratch an itch or take off your shoes after a day on your feet or drink a cool glass of water after working an hour in the hot sun. The oyster makes pearls for the same reason, because a pearl hurts less than a stone in the oyster’s shoe. Another is the can’t-help-it’s: the artist is (take your pick) chosen by the gods or screwed up by bad toilet training or crushed by class oppression or abducted by aliens who plant a doodlebug in his noggin. Whatever the reason, the artist can’t help it – he squirts out art, sometimes at the most embarrassing possible moment.

    There are other excuses too, of course; far too many to rehearse here. But I take it that Steve M. is speaking of the second one just mentioned. “Expression” is “squeezing out,” and what he describes is an artist squeezing something out of himself (subsuming “herself,” of course). But I have to admit I’ve never quite understood that process. The phrase “self-expression” is used all the time, but what does it mean really? What operation does it describe? The same question applies a fortiori to “expression of the subject,” which suggests bringing to light some aspect of the “subject” (landscape, etc) that’s otherwise not evident. If that’s what Steve means, I’m not sure it describes this photo of Cleeo’s, which seems to me almost a reaction against that motive. A postcard photograph of Yellowstone (or, to be cruel, an A. Adams photo) does seem meant to bring out some essence of landscape that we might otherwise never see, but this one’s muted, un-idealized, un-abstracted, unforced. Instead of generalizing (so that a given sunset becomes THE sunset or a given canyon becomes THE canyon) it particularizes its subject. Instead of expressing (squeezing out) its essence, it shows us the thing itself with essence still intact. Instead of showing us THE canyon, Cleeo shows us a canyon – a lowercase, common-noun, particular piece of geography – in great detail, guts feathers and all, and says, in effect: Behold. Without trying to sell anything, without a bonus of frequent flyer miles. Nobody will ever turn this into a poster and put it on a sign to parade around at a rally. It’s cool, low-pressure, and sufficient to itself. In that sense it expresses nothing.

    All of which is true of nature itself, which has no politics and no agenda. It simply is.

    Maybe the final purpose of art is to tell what the meaning of “is” is.

  • Sometimes I post B&W photos colored in Photoshop. One such brought comments about the suitability of that process.

    I’ve always admired false-color images of one kind or another, where colors are added to electron photomicrographs, MRI’s, heat images, radar returns, etc. Natural colors have a certain naive charm, but most of the time nature needs a little help.

    My colors are not as harmonious as those of old pals like Gauguin or Matisse. My style derives from the comics: large areas of flat color separated by borders breaking the image along lines of anatomy or landscape.

  • BJS suggested he’d “like to see more blues than reds.”

    Thinking it over, I guess I just plain like red and its relatives. (Purple, violet, pink, orange, brown...) Maybe it’s a humanist kind of thing, because if you look at people, inside or out, there’s almost nothing blue about them.

  • EC: “I dig the colour scheme, and I especially like what it’s done to the mud.”

    Mud’s wonderful stuff, but hard to photograph in a way that shows its worth. I’d like to make it look like a folded duvet or crushed velvet. Mud makes great building material when dried and/or baked – easy to work with, and there’s never a shortage. The next step up from the stone age should be called the Age of Mud, but I guess that doesn’t sound so hot as the title of a book. Still, there it is, midway between the stone age and the bronze age. Mud is good.

  • CS: “For once, and I almost feel guilty about it, I am not drawn to this as much as your other work.”

    I don’t pretend to hit the bullseye (or even the target) every time, and don’t know anybody else who batted a thousand (including Shakespeare and Michaelangelo). Nor should we worry about it, or we risk taking it too seriously and getting nothing done. Better to squirt out lots of pictures and let the world pick and choose.

    When you think about it, even the very best photographers (like Cartier-Bresson or Avedon or Weston) are known for a small number of super photos, maybe enough for one book or one show. Most of their work could be a clever imitation done by anybody reasonably competent. Unfortunately some folks, like Lee Friedlander, get carried away by that and substitute quantity for quality. Some balance needed.

  • Joe, commenting on the same photo, called it “weird in a good way.” I answered, privately:

    ...words I’d choose as my epitaph if I dared.

  • And Grant, known for soul-snatching street photography, wrote: “its beyond me.”

    Not beyond, just moving off in another direction. I’m tempted to say it’s another case of Voltaire versus Rousseau, but this owes as much to the Romantics as your street shots do.

    Both are escapes into esthetics. Your fly-on-the-wall slices of life are dramatic in the strictly esthetic sense – the author subtracts himself from the world and lets conjured images do all the talking. This photo’s purely formal and intentionally “unreal,” making a safe nest to sit in for two minutes or so. Like many others who post here, you and I are art machines, spinning out product that gives life the illusion of purpose.

    Of course we differ in deep ways. My own photos are colored by irony and nihilism, but if I had the courage of my convictions I wouldn’t bother making them at all – that’s the irony of ironies, the second derivative of futility.

  • Video, Ergo Sum

    Seeing is being.
    Being is believing.

    Video, ergo sum.

  • J.P. Zorn posted a very fine photo featuring the human form. Heretofore he’s been known for strictly geometric compositions. He said it was “for Leslie.” The first comment, by Rachel B., allowed as how “It is ’leslie-like’ in that morbid sort of way.” I responded:

    Morbid, huh? Nonsense, I have the heart of a boy. I keep it in the refrigerator.

    But seriously, folks, JPZ must know this will please me because it’s evidence that he’s doing what I hoped he would, using his formal skill to make photos that go beyond formal, leveraging their imagery with “objective correlatives.” The result is iconic, emblematic and evocative.

    Pretend we have two photos hung side by side, both showing something that has associations known to catch the eye and make us think and feel – an old lady wrapped in a flag, a soldier holding a dying baby, whatever. Now suppose that one of the photos was done by the guy next door and the other by Cartier-Bresson or Gene Smith. Most people would have no trouble saying the famous photo’s somehow better than the one by their worthy neighbor, even if they can’t articulate the reason. And in fact the reason, in technical terms, isn’t important; my point is that the better picture not only has evocative content, it’s also formally satisfying and therefore especially convincing. That’s why Mapplethorpe’s naughty pictures made such a scandal, I guess. Their formal qualities gave them evocative force. They have far more power than pornography.

    So there are two levers at work in the case of a Gene Smith or Cartier-Bresson or Mapplethorpe: evocative content and compelling form. Making them work together, with one potentiating but not dominating the other, is a trick few of us can do. JPZ hasn’t fully mastered it, but he’s moving in the direction of mastery. True, few arrive at that goal. But it costs no more to try than we’re already spending on photography.

  • Another comment on a JPZ that’s not overtly geometric.

    Evocative, more so maybe than any of your earlier posts.

    Your eye for composition is at its best when the composition’s hidden, as this is, under bushels of chiaroscuro and fantasy. It’s important to have an underlying structure, even if you take it away after you’ve built on it.

  • JPZ posted a photo that simply doesn’t look good. That is, it looks like a snapshot. The photographer’s shadow features prominently in the composition.

    Anybody here remember the last picture in that portfolio Richard Avedon did in Berlin when the Wall came down? It’s a grossly overexposed flash shot of somebody’s head, an absolutely worthless photograph even by the standards of the rankest amateur. Yet in context it’s a terrible dare that Avedon was able to carry off, and the perfect full stop to his series. Unforgettable, like the event it commemorates. Yet if you take it out of context and put it online with the legend, “Hancock calls this an ’unforgettable’ masterpiece,” well...

    “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” is another example, a painting that nobody really likes and that Picasso worked over for quite a long time, way back when. It’s important as a document that marks a turning point in the history of art, and certainly in its maker’s personal evolution. (Almost the same thing.)

    Without comparing JPZ to Picasso or Richard Avedon (but hey, you never know), I wonder whether this photo has a similar place in his own canon, either as punctuation or as an exercise in seeing.

    Time will tell. And as I know from my own fiddling in photography, it’s wrong to take these things too seriously, or let others take them too seriously on your behalf. Maybe this is a case of Homer, Jr. nodding. But JPZ’s talent is real, his shit detector’s never failed him before, and I hope he keeps working to move beyond what he’s already mastered into something he hasn’t.

  • Christel D. responded: “Erm yes but – no offense intended and all that – as so often seen on this site, the name carries the photo – maybe to a level where it doesnt belong... If some newbie Joe or Jack had posted this shot, people would be complaining loudly (that is, if it got any comments at all) that it was cliché, that the horizon is too centered, that it has a yellow cast etc. etc. And forgive me, but thats all I see in it...”

    My answer:

    Christel: Just so. It’s the old question of whether we should or shouldn’t (not in a moral sense but from strictly practical considerations) evaluate every performance in isolation, without knowing who dunnit or when or why. Whole schools of criticism have been built around that notion. Then again, when I get up every morning I give thanks that I no longer have to go to school.

    Context certainly adds depth to our appreciation, even if some say it’s deep folly, sentimentality, self-indulgence. More to the point, maybe, if I know for a fact that a particular photo or poem or piece of music was done by Jane or John, and also know that John or Jane has an impeccable track record, and the case-hardened, antimagnetic, unbreakable shit detector named by Hemingway as the artist’s basic navigational instrument, and I can’t make heads or tails of the photo or poem or piece, or distinguish it from a banal snapshot made by my idiot son, well... Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong viewpoint, or with the wrong expectations, or out of the wrong gestalt or weltanschauung or zeitgeist or some other wrong German word. The 20th century didn’t teach us much about diplomacy or politics, but it did make us aware that “my kid could do better than that” is on the same critical plane as “that ain’t art” or “I know filth when I see it.”

  • JPZ posted a photo that got no comments except my own, viz:

    Home again, with a good monitor, and yes, it’s a fine shot. Reminds me of the rule Avedon claims he set down for himself: “No obvious composition.” (My itals.) Not that this is a new principle – you find it in many of the oldest pictures still extant. Sadly, the lack of obvious composition is hard for most viewers to distinguish from the absence of composition. Maybe it’s one of those gestalt things.

  • And, commenting on an earlier JPZ post:

    Your eye for composition is at its best when the composition’s hidden, as this is, under bushels of chiaroscuro and fantasy. It’s important to have an underlying structure, even if you take it away after you’ve built on it.

  • Bruce MacNeill makes fine black-and-white portraits with an 8x10 view camera. On rare occasions he posts a color photo; recently, for example, one of a couple in a bowling alley. Suddenly he posted two portraits of the same subject, one in black and white, one in color.

    Quite a shocker, to me at least. Color transforms this. Taken with your other post today it constitutes an object lesson in what color can do. Now that most images are in color, B&W abstracts and schematizes an image. Something photographed in B&W is plainly not the thing itself – like it has a watermark reading “This is not real.” Color, and sharp color in particular, is a different story. That’s how and why I use it so much myself: it induces apophenia. Things we know aren’t real can seem so.

    In this photo’s context, however, I much prefer B&W. Color’s fine for situations (the bowling photo, for instance), but here it removes the esthetic distance between subject and viewer that gives your portraits their special substance and monumental feel.

  • Cleeo, master of landscape, posted a very uncharacteristic photo, a macro of a leaf.

    Talk about horizonless landscapes! You’re really ringing the changes on genres, and illustrating a basic (and, for some, sad) fact about art – there’s common ground that all genres stand on, and no artist can escape a lack of talent in genre X by fleeing to genre Y. Competence in different styles depends on some underlying competence. Naturally one person may work best in one style and another in something very different, and a third person may invent an entirely new style. But as big as the differences may seem (X concentrates on form, Y on content), the similarities are bigger. Sort of like the similarities between the DNA of mammal X and mammal Y – 95% identical, maybe, though X eats Y for breakfast.

  • JS praises one of my first digital photos with the words, “I don’t need a 10D but I want one.”

    BJS’s comment begs deep questions. What do we need, after all, beyond water, warm air, and essential nutrients? Toys (and art is a toy) help beguile the time we’re doomed to spend between cradle and grave. At best they give us the illusion of purpose. They’re necessaries but not necessities.B

  • Posted a digital capture with a note saying I couldn’t claim much credit, since digital makes things easier. Juliette slyly asked, “so a photo has to be hard to make???

    Whether or not a photo’s hard to make doesn’t affect its esthetic value (to me), but because I have this (possibly sick) meta-interest in the very deed of photography it does affect my feeling about the photographic act. After fighting or working hard to get something done I feel some (doubtless ersatz) pride that’s absent if I get the thing without effort.

    What’s easy about digital that isn’t easy with film? The main ingredient is negative feedback – negative in the engineering sense, positive in the sense that it’s an immense advantage. I mean, OK, here I am with my camera, and I take my best shot. One second later I see the result, with a little histogram, yet, telling me whether it’s too dark or too light, and if any highlights are blown they’re winking at me like a turn signal. After that, working with film is like shooting ducks in the dark.

    Then there’s the eased workflow. Take as many shots as you like, one or fifty. Don’t worry about finishing the roll. Pop out the memory card and put it in a card reader attached to your computer. Instantly see and evaluate every shot, complete with a gallimaufry of data telling you what lens was used at what settings and even what subject distance, not to mention on what second of which hour of what day. Like photo #X? If you shoot JPG or TIFF simply load it directly into Photoshop. If, like me, you insist on RAW images, click on "convert" and load the result. That’s all. Easy.

    All the technical progress of photography has been aimed at making photography 1) possible, then 2) easy. Because the easier you make it, the more you can concentrate on the part that can’t be made easy – creating a compelling image.

    And of course you get to skip some steps, notably processing and scanning, which add noise (entropy, degradation) to the image. One trivial but very worthwhile result of that is: no spotting. It was beginning to seem like I spent two-thirds of my time cloning out specks in my photos. More important than eliminating those pesky specks is the elimination of variables in processing (is the developer a degree warmer today?) and scanning (which scanner are you using? with what settings?). Making a photo with film involves too many degrees of freedom. There’s the choice of film and its quality (age, batch, ambient temperature, whatever), the camera’s mechanicals and settings, the storage and treatment of the film after exposure and before processing, the many, many variables involved in development, over which you generally have no control (which is why people make such a fuss over preferring Lab X to Lab Y), the condition of the negatives or chromes (scratched or otherwise marred, left in a hot car, licked by the dog, dropped on floor, covered with fingerprints, dusty, moldy, cloudy, etc), the many more variables of scanning (flatbed, film scanner, drum? what shadow density? what resolution? what color balance? what software? what settings?), and only then, after all those variables have nibbled you half to death, do the two paths to your final photo come back together.

  • Rick L. commented on the photo of a slaughtered pig, concluding that “I suspect we are now so removed from our hunter-gatherer past that such reactions should be considered squeamish..”

    Rick: We’re removed only by culture. Kids have no problem with gory edibles until they’re trained up to Twinkies by role models who say "Eww" over tabooed food.

    Food taboos vary. As I recall, Captain Cook was torn to pieces by Hawaiians who handed the parts around for the evening meal. This nettled Cook’s crew, who demanded return of the body. The Hawaiians, embarrassed by their mistake, did bring back his hands, but couldn’t find his heart – turns out two little girls found it hanging in the kitchen, assumed it was a dog’s heart, and ate it for supper.

  • Posted an egregious self-portrait, me nekkid with the slaughtered pig. And this egregious epigraph:

    L’avant-garde d’avant-guerre
    Snobinarde de fils en pere
    Toujours prete à faire le con –
    Lucullus? Non, Trimalchion.

    Olga complained about my “condescending attitude ( the excessive use of french ) ...leslie seems to use french, latin, esperanto, whatever to boost his photos. basically they boomerang from pretty to morbid and i have given up trying to find them aesthetically meaningful. there is a certain shock jock mentality that just doesn’t work for me.


    Many folks have remarked that it’s easier to confess in a foreign language. People with a pathological stutter can put it to sleep temporarily by speaking with a foreign accent or by singing their words. It’s a way of tricking the little man inside, the one who turns out the light when you shut your mouth.

    If I were condescending I’d explain everything. If I explained everything I’d be condescending.

    Self-loathing begets self-mockery. I did say snobinard.

    I agree entirely – my photos aren’t meaningful. As for shock tactics, since Volta hooked frogs up to a battery it’s become more and more obvious that animal locomotion, and no doubt animal spirits and human morality and esthetics and epistemology are just a series of low-voltage shocks.

    Seen the way I see them (a ghastly thought, not a suggestion), most of my flowers and many landscapes are scarier than photos of raw meat, which is, after all, good food.

    Hil’s first reaction is the only one appropriate to appreciation of photography or any other visual art: speechlessness.

    If life had meaning it would be truly intolerable.

  • Do I consider myself a nature photographer? Certainly not, though I do try to photograph flowers in a way that makes folks say, "They look so natural!"

  • Christel Dall (see ) posted a photo/text montage about death. Some commenters suggested it should’ve been more explicit. I demurred.

    It’s only in cartoons that death is a skeleton in a black robe. Mostly it looks like the girl next door, or a fast car blowing a red exhaust note, or your smiling mama bringing a pie to the table, or that perfect hole-in-one you’ve always dreamed of. Life is messy and annoying, a wrong number, a lost dollar, a headache in the middle of the day. Death is elegant, perfect. Most people look better when they’re dead than they did the day before.

  • Christel amazed and delighted me by using my comment as the clou of another pastiche, viewable here.

  • On 4/28 the elves kindly chose one of my posts as Photo of the Week, the second time one of my pix was chosen. I was delighted, of course, mainly because it gave me a bully pulpit from which to fling the bullshit. Examples follow.

    Thanks, Elvish Ones, for turning this into a POW. The credit really goes to the flower, and to the Canon digicams I picked up over the last few months. My immediate impression was that digital workflow makes photography easier. The photos don’t (necessarily) get better, but decent photos are easier to crank out.

    I posted the photos first in Qiang Li’s Photocritique Forum, where I added some notes about that digital ease-of-use issue. Here’s what I said. First, anent the less colorful G2 shot:

    Of course I’m glad folks like these photos, but I want to emphasize what I’ve said before about still lifes with digicams: they’re easy. Believe me, I don’t mean this as a sly easy-for-me-but-hard-for-you pat on my own back. It really is easy to make perfectly good, even striking, flower photos like this once you have a Canon G2 or equivalent.

    The flower I simply bought at the supermarket. Put it in a vase. Put the vase on a chair in a room full of windows. Propped a yellow board against the back of the chair. Screwed a close-up lens onto the G2, put the G2 on a tripod, and focused in close till the result looked good on the camera’s LCD display. Took the photo in AV mode at the smallest aperture (f/8) for DOF. Tried all the three focus points in case one gave better focus than the others. Tried setting exposure compensation up a bit, since the first try was a trifle dark. (Used the histogram display after each shot to judge overall light/dark cast.) That’s it. I took the photo at the camera’s highest JPG resolution, so was able to load it directly into Photoshop, where nothing but a little USM and Auto Levels was necessary.

    You too can do all that. The photo’s pretty, but has no special merit beyond the colors dyed into the flower, and the prettiness of the flower itself, and the minuscule cleverness involved in using a colored background. A nice calendar or postcard shot at best.

    Next day I posted the more colorful version with these tech notes:

    To continue my comment from yesterday’s shot, this is the same flower (or possibly another in the same bunch – they’re almost identical) done with the D30 rather than the G2. This wasn’t such an easy shot as the first one, and did involve more sneakiness on my part. Also it shows off, I think, an important difference between the P&S G2 and the DSLR D30.

    Speaking to the last point first, the D30’s sensor has fewer pixels than the G2’s, but each pixel is much bigger. Therefore the D30’s capable of subtler and smoother rendition of color and tones without noise and with that subtly unctuous look I think of as "digital." As for the ease of making the shot, this one took more doing, not in a physical sense but in accumulating and marshaling experience, the one thing I have in good quantity. (Hey, sometimes quantity can substitute for quality, as in the case of a 300-pound wrestler.) Look at yesterday’s shot and you’ll see that there’s more color in the flower than that simple close-up can show. The tubular petals have a kind of translucence, and the fact that they’re hollow suggests they’d look quite different under diffuse but direct light. (The first photo uses indirect daylight.) It’s a given that photographs bring out colors we don’t normally see, since our eyes (or rather the brain they’re a part of) adapt and adjust. Blue snow shadows are the classic example.

    It seemed to me that the flower needed to be photographed again under direct light. I set the white point to "tungsten" and used the overhead light in the bathroom, going to the D30 and a true macro lens (rather than the G2’s close-up accessory). I picked a composition that shows off the colors as they run their rainbow gamut from the big outer petals to the tiny inner ones. As a raw file the image is dull, but I could tell that the D30 did in fact catch the translucence of the smaller petals and the shadows that show they’re tubular, with those charming organ-pipe mouths.

    OK, I admit it’s not a stroke of inspiration on the order of Weston’s pepper or Cartier-Bresson’s "Brailowsky," but it did take more craft, or at least craftiness, than yesterday’s G2 photo. The point, I guess, being that with modern (digital) cameras it’s very easy to make a photo that’s technically good and esthetically satisfying, of the postcard or frame-on-the-table variety, but that there’s still a role for the "art" (or craft) that gives photos more pizazz.

    Apologies for tacking this self-indulgent note onto a POW. I know that in a deep sense the tackle and gear of any art are "just" or "merely" or "only" the means to an end, but what the hell. I’m glad I went digital and thought I’d say why.

  • There was a funny subtext related to whether or not the photo was “manipulated.” I’d foolishly checked the “unmanipulated” box when I posted it. For example, some folks said it was manipulated because the flower in the photo had been dyed.

    Sure, I see no big difference between PS manipulation and manipulation of the subject or the lighting or whatever, and the animus some folks feel for "manipulated" images puzzles me. Many of my photos are heavily Photoshopped; it’s a fact but not a virtue that this one isn’t.

    Let’s face it: every photograph is a manipulation, nay an abstraction, of reality. Were the people in Cartier-Bresson’s photos really that small? Was the landscape shown in that Ansel Adams print really black and white? Was that pepper so flat that Edward Weston could render it accurately in two dimensions? Sheesh.

  • Aaron L. used the expression “rank amateur.”

    As for you or anybody else being an amateur, that’s cool.

    (I often wonder how "amateur" became an insult. In, say, the 18th century, science and the arts were mostly pursued by amateurs – rich folks mainly, who did what they pleased because they enjoyed doing it, and got very snobbish indeed about anybody "in trade" who did what he did for pay. Now, on the other hand, it’s important to be a Pro. You can buy "professional" bicycles, swim fins, computers, condoms and cameras. Double sheesh. Let’s hope that red herring rots away as soon as possible. It stinks.)

  • Learning that the flower was dyed, Geraldine A. wrote: “...the awe inspiring wonder at the colours has now been completely shattered.”

    So mote it be. I’m a photographer, not a florist. A photo is not the thing photographed, a picture isn’t the thing depicted. However lifelike, the image is the ding an sich, a thing in itself, however and by whomever it’s made.

    Those who admire a photo because it shows them Something Beautiful are in fact admiring that Something, which the photographer most likely had no part in making. There’s not much satisfaction in being told you’re a wizard photographer because your picture captures the true beauty of the Mona Lisa or the Grand Canyon. I know my limits. I can’t make a photo that looks as good as the Grand Canyon. The only thing that does it justice is a trip to the Canyon itself.

    In pre-photographic days there was some point, maybe, in flattering Michaelangelo or Rembrandt by saying they had the skill to copy nature so well they could fool the eye. Now anybody who can afford a disposable camera has that skill. But those guys are still famous; apparently their work’s valuable for some other reason.

    I should’ve known better than to check that box, and the Elves should’ve known better than to put it there. It’s a trap. I stand by what I said before – all photos are manipulated one way or another. And especially mine. I revel in it. Treat these flowers as clever fakes, spun out of pixels, of no known species, spliced from fiendish genes, colored by hand by robots using artificial dyes extracted from oil sucked out of the world’s most scenic and sacred wilderness. If that makes a difference to you, I lose, as I usually do when I try to argue religion. Triple sheesh.

  • Kelly L. writes: "...this is the photographic equivilent of valium... just very comfortable... Well done, but not quite deserving of some of the received praise..." I agree with him utterly. To the beholder intention doesn’t count – who knows what motivated the guys at Lascaux, and who cares except anthropologists or the idly curious? But in my SFP (strictly-for-pretty) photos I’m doing what any oyster does, reducing irritation by making a pearl. Somebody wrote a bio of Vladimir Nabokov called "Escape into Esthetics"; I’m no Nabokov, yet the title pretty well states my case. Valium’s great stuff when you need it.

  • Geraldine (an excellent photographer, BTW) said anent the natural/artificial argument that it would be nice if we could "have it all."

    Geraldine, I think we can have it all, at least in some distant epistemological sense, if we consider that everything is natural. After all, we people are natural phenomena too, and what we make by artifice is therefore a natural product.

    Believe me, I’m on your side when it comes to admiring what folks usually call "nature" (as in Mother Nature) – it’s endlessly fascinating to me. I marvel at it like a two-year-old. But for that very reason I don’t want to make photos that rely on "natural beauty" for their effect – that’s like an actor getting the audience to cry by murdering cute animals onstage.

  • Ironic? Yeah, right.

    Carl R. writes: Many of us enjoy an ironic approach, yet it’s clear that most viewers missed the irony completely on this shot. Is it their fault...?

    Hey, you won’t catch me blaming anybody for liking my pictures, unless it’s that guy in the back who keeps finding Darth Vader’s face in the clouds and bushes. By "overarching" I meant as a general motif or point of view, not something hidden in every photo like Al Hirschfeld’s "Nina."

    Is it OK to present an image that requires explanation? For PJ or documentary photos, sure, but otherwise, well, it’s not to my taste, and if I did it I’d consider it a mistake.

    >Do we create images that work best when presented with other images that reinforce the idea? You bet we do. Many of Cartier-Bresson’s photos wouldn’t get a second glance if nothing else of his had survived. But as his portfolio accumulated over the years, it became clear that they deserved that second glance, which (usually) brought to light subtle qualities that give even his banal shots a boost.

    But wait, is that, well, is it fair? Couldn’t some wag "discover" a forgotten C-B photo and praise it to heaven, and get lots of nods and applause, then reveal that he took it himself, in high school, while winding the film, by mistake? Yes, some wag could. Me, I try to be skeptical. Much as I admire some great artists, I suspect that most of what they did is undistinguished and wouldn’t make the nut if published anonymously.

    A work of art or craft that’s enriched by explanation isn’t the same as one that requires it. By me, at least, every photo’s on its own and has to stand on its merits or fall because it has none. My "ironic" photos are meant to be pretty – otherwise they wouldn’t be ironic.

  • Michael McCullough wrote: "This is a good image,does it warrent a couple of paragraphs, of wonder and excitement, I personally don’t think so, that said well done!!!"

    Michael: Thanks. You’re onto something there. We probably shouldn’t try to parse images into words, any more than we’d try to photograph a poem. "Whereof one may not speak, thereof must one be silent." Many of us have a bone to pick with critics, even when we agree with them. But it’s hard not to talk about something that enthuses (or disappoints) you, and talk keeps us breathing.

  • Lying Filth Comes Clean!

    Folks wouldn’t let go of the idea that I’d cheated by using a dyed flower, then claiming the photo was "unmanipulated."

    Curses – they’ve found me out. I may as well admit it. I colored that flower by hand using phosphorescent paint, lit it with Christmas lights, irradiated it with cobalt-40 till it glowed in the dark, spliced firefly genes to its DNA, then photographed it in a microwave oven using side-scanning radar. When my tricks were detected I tried to weasel out by pretending to think that "natural" meant "as sold at the supermarket," though I knew full well that their apples are waxed with Alar, their oranges brightened by sulfur dioxide, their beef reddened with tocopherols.

    It’s hopeless. I’m a mythomaniac. My name isn’t even Leslie Hancock, it’s Emmet Pismire. My parents died of fright when I was born and I was raised by aunts who kept me chained to a water pipe in the basement, a prey to rats and marasmus. Denied a normal life, I made up a fictional career and became a master of confabulation. Everything I say is a lie. Even this sentence is false.

    Oh, wait! No! Look at this! I take it all back! I just discovered a tag that came with the flowers, signed by Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, certifying that they’re perfectly natural, undyed and unbleached forever, grown in a clean room by albinos. Unfortunately the tag was eaten by my dog, who was immediately abducted by space aliens. But you can look at the photo now with innocent eyes and enjoy it as much as you did before you knew it was unclean.

    Sheesh to the sheesh power! Anybody who has no more than this to worry about should open a bottle of champagne.

  • "Back Shooter," a very articulate and accomplished artist, wrote that he was having "a very strong, negative reaction to this composition... It is something a photgrapher who does not really understand classical composition...would do – I’ll have to look at the rest of the portfolio to see if that feeling is borne out." I pursued him with a little too much vigor, maybe, when I discovered he hadn’t posted any photos of his own.

    When I was a kid I worked in a drugstore. One day a customer asked the owner how much it would cost to fill a certain prescription. "Twelve dollars."

    "What!" says the customer. "I can get it at Walgreens for nine bucks!"

    "So go to Walgreens."

    "They’re out of it."

    "Well," says the owner, "When I’m out of it I charge nine dollars too."

  • Laura N. told Back Shooter off – "If you don’t have something positive to say, at least be constructive in your negativity!"

    Thanks for the nice note, but no fear – I know how to handle rejection. Why, just last week my wife and I saw an architect directing some people who were building a bridge. I told him he was doing it all wrong, that he didn’t understand the classical principles involved in hanging a catenary. He just smiled, patted me on the head, and said to my wife, "Your child, I presume? Boy or girl?"

  • At this juncture the elves began deleting and editing comments, so Back Shooter and I continued our discussion in email. I won’t publish his words here; what he wrote was reasoned and intelligent, but private. I’ll just say that I didn’t have it all my own way. At any rate, here are my own for-the-record sentiments.


    Sorry not to respond in the thread. The elves put me off a bit by deleting one of my posts there. Anyway, what I would’ve said, and wish I could say it in public, is that I agree with you entirely about the "great pic" problem. As I’m sure you know, it’s not a problem that’s peculiar to or to POW. Every forum (including ArtForum) suffers from this ailment. Maybe folks just want to be on the winning side, or maybe we’re all used to admiring what’s handed us in school as an example of something admirable. Plus (let’s admit it) there’s pleasure in stroking a cat, and also in stroking people who may purr if you praise them. Most who post photos to online critique sites are amateurs in every sense, taking a chance. To you or me, "Great pic" means no more than "This sux," but to those who aren’t so sure of themselves there’s a big difference. I don’t get as highly ionized as you do about routine pats on the back.

    Sycophants are another thing entirely. It annoys me as much as it does you, I think, to see a picture (or anything else) praised to heaven because it was published over a famous name. I think I spoke about that in the POW thread somewhere. If I ran an online gallery, maybe I’d keep all posts anonymous for a month or something along those lines, hoping against hope that they’d be judged on their own merit.

    If "judged" is the word I want. I deplore ranking and rating systems.

    All that said, I simply don’t agree with your analysis of my photo’s composition. My intention, and I believe it works this way for most viewers, is that the bud of curled lines in the LRH corner visually explodes into diverging lines, like a sunburst. Your eyes and mine move in opposite directions – you see the lines converging, I see them diverging. As to whether or not this follows "classical principles" (an arch phrase for "common practice"), or whether it’s commonly done by others ("successfully" or otherwise) I care not at all. If it works it works, if not not.

    Thanks for the thoughtful criticism and for taking so much time over it. Believe me, I’m not one of the sensitive beginners I just described. I’m not unsure of myself, and I don’t believe I’m being persecuted. I do think your critiques are vitiated by your use of a pseudonym and failure to keep a portfolio online. (What is a "back shooter," anyway?) When two architects, cooks or photographers disagree on a point of craft in a public forum, the audience may reasonably look to their work for examples. The proof of the pudding and all that.


    Two points that I made earlier (in the reply which the elf construed as a flame and deleted from the thread) bear on what you say below. 1) Though I still haven’t seen your work (only because this PC isn’t up to loading the page – will check again this evening) I believe it’s true that you’ve put yourself in the bind of setting presentation standards so high ("does not merit public display") you can’t live up to them. 2) It’s true, too, that I gave myself sempiternal writer’s block and very likely missed my true vocation for exactly the same reason.

    I get the impression you take photography very seriously. That’s to your credit, but taking it *too* seriously leads to paralysis and an empty portfolio. I know very well I’m not a great photographer and have no prospect of becoming one. I don’t mind at all making public a photo that’s a joke, or just so-so, or Strictly For Pretty. It’s my (all too) educated guess that insouciance was the hallmark of many artists we call "great," and that it was good for them. Remember what Ben Jonson said about Shakespeare? "I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted a thousand," etc.

    Ben was wrong. He was a wizard writer himself, but how many people read Ben Jonson and how many read Shakespeare? There’s real danger in taking yourself too seriously, asking too much. (It’s a more common affliction now than it was before the Romantics made such a religion of art, and especially before 20th-century introspection set in, but that’s a story for another time.)

    To get back to the business of composition: I understand your point, that it’s more usual (and more usually successful) to center a sunburst at least a bit to one side of, and preferably above, a vertex, and I tried that but preferred this *sui generis* approach, which takes more risk for more reward. I think it succeeds, but I don’t insist on it. For better or worse, I disbelieve in the objective criteria you seem to value. ("Misapplication of the term" etc.)

    It would be a sad world if everybody liked the same thing for the same reasons, or at least it would make me sad. I’ve put in my years as an ant; I’m a grasshopper now. :-)


    My own comments in the POW thread were immoderate and aimed at one of my betes noires, not at you. It’s a problem with public forums, I suppose. Saw your note to the elves in their spinoff thread, and posted this note of my own there:

    Moderation in all things, and as I said in the POW thread I don’t object to being moderated by the elves. Refusing to publish my words on their server isn’t censorship – censorship is refusing to let me publish my words on my server. But I do regret the loss of the lively exchange between me and Back Shooter, who’s very articulate and makes a good case for his point of view (though I’ll never share it). We kept it up person-to-person over several long emails, the sort of heady stuff I’d enjoy reading even if I hadn’t been a party to it. Seems a shame there isn’t a meta-thread for POW’s, perhaps a link to a more freewheeling forum, one that viewers of the photo wouldn’t be shown as a matter of course but which would be there for folks who wanted to pursue a particular argument or just get off a dumb but passionately held opinion.

  • Continuity is a leurre, an illusion that evolved with long-term memory as part of a survival package. It was useful to our hunting and gathering predecessors. Us it entraps. As Arthur Clarke once pointed out, you're not the man you were yesterday – literally. Whoever I am today will die tonight; somebody else wakes up tomorrow with my memories. A human life is a pink worm or sausage stretched through time, all one schnitzel but differently seasoned depending where you slice it. You could tie it in a bow, I guess, given the right math or a sufficiently clever novelist.

  • Tony S. posted two images side by side to make a point. One was Turner's "Slave Ship," the other Newman's Canadian "Voice of Fire," a sort of pennant with three vertical stripes.

    The juxtaposition of those two paintings is instructive, but let's face it – few painters are Turners, and the painter of the pennant probably won't, two hundred years down the road, be as well known as Turner is now. Ex pede Herculam – you can recognize Hercules by his big feats.

    There's also a point to be made about academic influences on art, I guess, though to make it I have to tell a personal story that points up my own shortcomings – Mortimer Snerd meets the Beaux Arts. Donkey's years ago, in the late unlamented 60's, I was summoned, along with other teachers of freshmen and sophomores, to a discussion, at the school's art gallery, of a recently acquired, recently painted work which we were supposed to use to inculcate in our sponge-brained charges the principles of Art Appreciation. The painting had the advantage of being explainable. It was a sort of bullseye target whose rings were different colors. They weren't the colors of the spectrum (too easy) but they were related somehow by a rule I now forget (thirty-five years of brain cells dissolved in alcohol) – it was the logarithmic ratio of the wavelengths of light reflected, or the alphabetical order of the names of the pigments, or something along those lines. Anyway it made Good Sense.

    The center of the target, the bullseye itself, was an odd sort of greenish-gray. I could've understood white, I could've dug jet black, and of course if I'd done the painting it would've been blood red, but...greenish-gray? Our expositor had an answer, and again it made sense, but I don't think you'd guess it in a hundred years, because to come up with such an inspiration you have to be a board-certified Artist. It was made by mixing together what was left of all the other colors.

    That apercu or epiphany should've provoked a general sigh of "Ahhhh!" or possibly cries of "Credo!" But I'm sorry to say the assembled teachers sat there grim-lipped, as if in a dentist's waiting room, while the guy in charge, like professors everywhere, rolled his eyes to heaven at his audience's inability to Get It.

  • P.D. admired an "abstract" photo. "It could be used as evidence that would support Joe's claim that you're more of an 'artist' than a 'photographer'."

    Thanks mucho for critique. I almost said "for your support," since all these photos got pretty much a goose egg when exposed to the fickle (I first typed "fuckle") public. Silly distinction between artist and photographer, of course. When the ever-worshipful Edward Weston was accorded a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in the 30's, quite a breakthrough for photography at the time, the original title the museum chose was "Edward Weston: Artist." Weston was wroth. He insisted, successfully, that they change it to "Edward Weston: Photographer."

    And indeed one of the saving graces of photography has been that Anybody Can Do It. Keeping it demotic has saved it from being sequestered in a pimple labeled "Fine Art." Nobody can resist squeezing a pimple, and who can resist making fun of, and finally coming to despise, officially certified Art? The whole point of most modern movements, like Impressionism and Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism and Dada and the Bauhaus, not to mention comic strips and film and popular song and of course photography, was to pop that pimple.

  • Photographed a dog tick.

    Clearly the thing a tick craves most is companionship.

  • Sandy S. suggested I need to shoot fewer still studies and more people, animals, landscapes.

    I don't disagree with what you say in principle, but I've discovered that when I do photograph people, animals or landscapes they wind up looking like still lifes – which is, in a way, what my photos are all about. As you know, I sometimes think in French, and in a way all my photos come under the rubric the French use for still life: "dead nature," nature morte.

  • Posted a sunset photo.

    Overcome by a sudden access of sentiment I looked desperately for a puppy. No puppies. So I tried to find a little boy standing at a wishing well with his eyes rolled up to heaven, a mother duck followed by six fuzzy babies, two young people embracing in Grand Central Station, oblivious to the rush hour swirling around them (shot at low shutter speed so they stand out in the flowing crowd), the scaly hands of an old man or preferably old woman holding a pencil and writing ABC in a child's exercise book, a wartime president alone in his office, staring at nothing with empty eyes, crushed by the weight of the world. Since I was standing at the top of a mountain none of those things came handy and I had to make do with the sunset. Sheesh.

  • A very plain, sharp, clean hosta leaf.

    The hosta really is an absolutely straight photo – hosta against blue background – except for my having perfected the leaf by removing every natural blemish in PS, which (to my fevered mind) moves the image into the ambit of irony.

  • A "painterly" cat photo.

    in this photo, ditto most of my flower photos, I'm trying to have it both ways: make a photo that's pretty to look at, and hint somehow that it's too good to be true. That self-mocking wink is what I have in mind when I use the epithet "ironic flowers."

    'Course it may be only in my own head that this stuff happens.

  • Munich Mike admired some picture-postcard vacation photos.

    Thanks, Mike, but there's nothing to distinguish them from about a billion others. Not that it matters, I guess. If a disaster out of "Star Trek" destroyed the human race and most of the stuff we've made, leaving just a few photographs, then and only then would photos like these, discovered by archaeologists from a distant colony, eager for evidence of their ancestors' genius, be feted as super-duper. I suspect that's why we value most of the otherwise cruddy stuff we turn up in ancient tombs, made to flatter some politician who died of a surfeit in the Year of the Big Wind.

  • Photo of a blood smear.

    If I were asked to give advice to beginners, I'd say: Don't waste blood. Every time I stick or cut myself I run for the camera. Unfortunately, as you've probably noticed yourself unless your blood's royal, bleeding tends to stop. The trick is to keep milking the wound.

  • Posted a shot

    Thanks, all. Al's comment is apropos. Art is debrided by time and usage. No matter how hard I try, I can't see the Mona Lisa or even Weston's pepper with the astonishment they deserve, and which they got when they were new. Stravinsky and Tolkien and (in later imitations of Cranach &c) Picasso were able to evoke that feeling by remaking old things in a new idiom, but there are obvious limits to that approach. Argh, best not to think overmuch on such things. That way lies paralysis of the artsy-fartsy muscle.

  • Posted a photo of clouds. From a letter to a friend:

    Haw. I just posted the photo and one guy sees "the head of a duck," another "a snake coiled to strike." While I was making the pictures, in the parking lot at the office, during lunch hour, a passing colleague, a nice ex-European lady, also saw a snake, or (she said) possibly a dragon. For the life of me I can't see any such. My imagination's been deficient from birth. Very literal, pedestrian mind. This may be why I have such difficulty following the fever dreams of politicians. No "vision thing."

  • Some strictly technical thoughts on current photo tackle.

    Of course the S50 is a point-and-shoot and has a tiny CCD sensor; it can't begin to compete with a CMOS DSLR like the 1Ds, the 10D, or even my antique D30. Yet the more I think about current DSLR's the less satisfied I am with them, at least with DSLR's that mimic 35mm SLR's. Two problems stand out:

    1) They perpetuate the stupid 2/3 aspect ratio, which has crippled small-format photography since the beginning. I don't know why Oscar Barnack chose that ratio, but it was a mistake. It forces makers to build a lens that covers the long dimension, which means big lenses, especially zooms, and big compromises in optical design. Yet few subjects apart from landscapes and langourous ladies fit well into 2/3, and it's hard to use vertically. 3/4 is a far better ratio, and that's become the standard for cheap digicams. That's what I'd prefer.

    2) Loss of resolution. Except for the expensive 1Ds (and the failed Kodak and Contax), DSLR's have sensors of roughly APS size. Yet you're obliged to use standard lenses with 24 x 36mm coverage. As a result you're effectively reducing every lens's definition by 3/5. And of course you also have trouble getting wide angle.

    Some new lenses are being designed for the smaller format, but it'll take a long time for Canon or Nikon to duplicate their 35mm offerings in miniature. Meanwhile of course there are no third-party offerings, no second-hand market, etc.

  • A people photo made at the Museum of Natural History.

    Part of the fun of visiting any museum, but especially the Museum of Natural History, is the living anthropology exhibit, i.e. the museum-goers, most of them kids or people with kids. I don't mean this ironically. It's fascinating to watch the interactions, or the solitary behavior, of these complex social animals. Also their big shoes fascinate me. And the happy rapport the males seem to have with their fat.

  • Put up some straight nature shots. J.D. took exception, and mentioned that "Three elements are needed for a good photograph. Good subject, good light, and good composition, all of which are open to interpretation."

    I have a problem with dogma like, "Three elements are needed for a good photograph: good subject, good light, good composition," just as I do with the Buddha's "Eightfold Path." (Eight elements needed for a good life: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.) Are you (or Siddhartha) sure there isn't a fourth element, or a ninth? Good story, maybe, or good color, or good exposure, or good focus, or good perspective, or good technique, or good bokeh, or good message? Or right hobby, or right diet, or right drugs, or right knowledge, or right sex, or right net worth? And what's right, or what's good? "Open to interpretation" is a modern synonym for "meaningless." Consider how many mutually exclusive meanings have been read into, say, the First Amendment. "Good light" is like "good English." Is it good English to say, I dunno, "This was the most unkindest cut of all"? Is the last chapter of "Ulysses" good English?

    The usual answer is, "Nobody can define X, but I know it when I see it." In the 40's everybody knew what good light was you could see it in every National Geographic photo and every publicity picture out of Hollywood. Then came the 50's, the Robert-Frank generation, with 35mm and "available light" and nighttime street photography. By 1970 even the National Geographic wouldn't print full-sun-on-the-red-shirt-worn-by-a-guy-pointing-at-the-mountain photos. As for good subject matter, try Joel-Peter Witkin or Mapplethorpe.

    So I'm with you on specifics (about these photos, which are pretty pawky stuff) but we part ways when it comes to dogmatic generalities, in which I devoutly disbelieve.

  • A thread on was called "Is There Digital Bigotry?" And in fact many who posted to the thread said that digital photography wasn't photography – it was "graphics" or some such.

    Words become guilty or glorious by association. "Tragedy" comes from classic Greek for "goat song." (Early dramas replaced rituals that involved tearing a goat to pieces.) During the Renaissance the word took on the shine of ancient culture, so folks could object that Shakespeare didn't write "real tragedies" because the action didn't all happen in one place on one day, as required by Aristotle. A few years later the Romantics decided that plays like "King Lear" were the living embodiment of True Tragedy. Pretty soon everybody wanted to die tragically, since it was super cool, and now the media routinely call death a tragedy. Photography, that mechanical manipulation of chemicals and light, was dismissed for generations as "not art," (A case can be made that the realistic paintings of the early 19th century fell out of fashion because they looked too much like photography, not enough like art.) At some point during the generation of Edward Weston and Cartier-Bresson it was discovered that photography is a kind of art after all, or at least "art photography" is. (Oddly, I have yet to see anybody advertise an "art painting.") It's a good sign, I think, that "photographer" has become an honorific, like "writer" or "sculptor," and that so many photographers say the mechanical manipulations of Photoshop don't deserve to be called photography.

    In fact every photograph is manipulated. Things don't really look that way – two dimensional, often black and white, with people two inches tall inhabiting a world of dots, doomed to smile forever.

    But that's beside the point, which is that the worst sin an artist – sorry, you know what I mean – the worst sin an artist armed with new technology can commit is to imitate what was done with the old technology. What you call the new stuff doesn't matter; if things work out, whatever you call it will become a badge of honor.

  • Submitted the infamous "Mr. Bun" to a critique forum and raised a ruckus, getting myself (temporarily) kicked off the site. Comments were, to say the least, intemperate. I'll paraphrase them and copy my replies.

    A lady complained: "Really sick." Told me I should grow up, had obviously removed the photo to hide my name, etc. (It was removed when I was kicked off.) "PP" is the name of the website.

    Some folks lead such happy lives that the sight of a dead animal shocks them. I doubt this photo would get highly ionized comments from viewers in Africa or Afghanistan. Which is a good thing, of course. When you're well fed you can argue matters of taste.

    If PP's rules listed dead bunnies as a no-no I wouldn't have posted "Mr. Bun," just as I wouldn't post a photo of a ham on an Islamic website. In my book one of the worst sins is impoliteness – for example, telling an old man to grow up.

    I thought of removing the photo, but of course after reading your comment I can't do so. Cheer up: maybe I'll be ostracized again.

    Nothing daunted, she replied that she had seen her share of "death and decease" and that she was a cancer survivor who didn't need to be told she was impolite.

    Speaking of "death and decease," I'm not quite sure how your having cancer amounts to a critique of my photo. The rabbit shown here succumbed to trauma.

    You don't consider it impolite to tell a grown man he's childish, "really sick," tasteless, and a coward who hides his identity? Your politeness threshold must be high, so you won't mind being told that too many of my friends didn't survive cancer for me to be much impressed that you did.

    When argument fails, show your scars.

    The next is too tasty to paraphrase. "I'm an ALL ANIMAL LOVER and this really pissed me off. I know the facts of life and death but this is too much ..."

    Not quite sure what an "all animal lover" is, and would rather not speculate, but I take your point. I loved my mother and father so much I refused to look at them when they lay dying.

    If you know the facts of life and death, I wish you'd tell me what they are. I've lived a long time and expect to die pretty soon, but I still don't know the facts.

    Nearly everybody said that I and my photo were "tasteless."

    Most of the comments here say the photo lacks taste, but can that be right? A glass of water is tasteless; a glass of whiskey isn't.

    D.H. said the photo was not only tasteless but "uncalled for."

    "Uncalled for"? Surely this site invites people to post their photos. Or if you mean "unnecessary," the comments I see here suggest a crying need for my kind of irony.

    D.H. replied, "Irony? Try Stupidity!"

    Tut tut, Donnie. If I'm stupid, what are you?

    "Blocked!" was D.H.'s response, which left me puzzled. Anyway, a Canadian commenter said the photo was "at the very limit of good taste."

    As I suggested in an earlier reply, taste is very important to me. GOOD taste is a personal matter. I like caviar, but many of my friends say it tastes awful.

    Another didn't like the purple background.

    Glad to see a critical comment, the first so far. I once read an article by a famous critic – can't remember whether it was Susan Sontag or Clement Greenberg – attacking one of Picasso's most famous paintings. They didn't like the purple background.

    Finally, M.G. wrote a rather sympathetic and sensible note: "'Tasteless'? Well, good taste was obviously not part of your program."

    No, good taste isn't in my program. Public taste varies from place to place and time to time, like fashions in makeup. I've seldom been in sync with it. I don't worry about my lack of good taste any more than I worry about not wearing lipstick.

    I deny that this photo, or any other photo I've made, has a message or even a meaning. I simply want people to see things differently, as if for the first time, and perhaps to think about something they never thought about, notice something they've looked at a few million times but never saw. Gertrude Stein (I invoke famous names not because I'm famous or want to be famous but because there's not much point in parables about Harold "Peanut" Krezenski, who runs the newspaper stand at the town bus stop), asked about the meaning of her line "A rose is a rose is a rose..." (originally printed in a circle so it had no beginning and no end), said she believed she'd made people see a cliché as something more, that she'd made the rose fresh for the first time since Shakespeare. (Modesty wasn't her weakness.)

    What's wrong with this picture? Is it really disgusting? I wish every viewer would stare at it until it becomes banal. As a friend of mine said when I showed it to him and told him lots of viewers said it spoiled their appetite, "In Afghanistan or Vietnam they'd probably ask you for the recipe." He got the point.

    Others will find other points in it. Most won't find anything. Most people are asleep, so soundly asleep no shock can wake them. They'll die in their sleep, won't even notice that they're dead. I envy them. Some artists honor the sleepers and compose only lullabyes. Others, the unkind ones to whose company I aspire, use irony to trick the audience awake. Such artists should probably be strangled at birth. Plato thought so.

  • My dear friend Fiertel, who's also a Canadian sculptor and photographer, objected to the poster-like colors and look of a recent photo. Here's my reply, which I didn't write for public consumption but which makes a kind of public sense.

    I wouldn't want you of all people to think that my fondness for glaring flat colors is just a symptom of twisted color faculties. When I took up, or rather re-took-up, photography in '98 (not even six years ago, just fancy that), I did my thing in the woods mostly. Figured I would retreat from a hostile world into the more frankly hostile wilderness. But it didn't work out that way. I got the idea of doing nature photography as though it was studio fashion photography, partly as a reaction against the stupid websites that wouldn't publish any photo which showed "the hand of man." I began to move in a direction I've long associated with old age, the direction of artifice. (When he was my age, Yeats wrote about this in "Sailing to Byzantium," where he says he wants to be no natural thing but rather like a bird of hammered gold and clockwork that sings to the lords and ladies of Byzantium.) I want to make it clear that my photos are not imitations of natural objects but natural objects in their own right, with their own color and logic. Too good to be true, natural only in the sense we hear at funerals: "He looks so natural!"

    So however "realistic" my stuff is – and I try to make it super-real, realer than real, surreal, by keeping images sharp and well defined – it looks somehow fake-o, studi-o. This is Intentional. Death is more perfect than life. I do lots of still lifes in the French spirit – French for "still life" being, of course, "dead nature" – nature morte.

    Whereas mit der Viertel, even your raunchiest most distorted images are full of life and the approximations and collisions and irritability that define life almost. Like your sculpture – doesn't look quite like a bod, but has earth in the mouth and dirt under the nails and is in all ways organic and a living thing. My stuff being purposely cold, sterile, unfeeling, distant, dramatic. Yours being lyrical, with no obvious separation of the artist from the art. Mine minus the artist, who's presumably bored and sanding his nails in the wings. Yours supercharged with your own blood, sweat and tears. The blood in mine being merely a decorative element.

    You dig.

  • From a letter to Pete.

    I,OTOH, take pleasure in stories where the problems are entirely trivial, maybe because it distracts me from the real problems folks can't do anything about.

    Virtually all of P.G. Wodehouse is like that (except for some early stories), about the shocks and embarrassment suffered by Bertie in the course of a life spent living in expensive digs with his gentleman's personal gentleman, or visiting the vast country estates of his rich friends and relatives, or traveling to New York for a six-month's stay to get away from his overbearing aunts.  (We never hear anything about his parents, both presumably long dead.)

    Wodehouse said he was writing "musical comedies without the music," and never pretended otherwise. When the Irish writer Sean O'Casey called him "English literature's performing flea," Wodehouse used the phrase "Performing flea" as the title for his autobiography. And he's still read and enjoyed today, while O'Casey is a footnote to the Irish Literary Revival (who dat?).

    Some folks likewise get off on the Busby Berkeley stuff, which obviously had great appeal in the 30's because it gave folks a ninety-minute vacation to a happier world. A biography of Vladimir Nabokov was wisely entitled, "Escape into Esthetics."

    Of course PhD's have been done, in the thousands, on this topic. Do artists (or whatever you want to call them) do what the oyster does, turn irritating grit into pearls? My answer to that question, allowing myself the guilty pleasure of a generalization the way I might eat a Belgian chocolate, is Yes. True, in modern times there's been a huge vogue for reality-based art, much praised because instead of being "escapist" (bad) it "raises our consciousness" (good), especially on social issues (best). Dickens, Zola, Steinbeck, etc. But I believe the appeal of that stuff is still based on healing the hurt, though as a counter-irritant rather than as an emollient. After the first or thousandth time, nobody needs to be told that being poor or stupid or downtrodden is a bummer, yet storieand art that depict injustice or unfairness or poverty or such are always popular. (12/8/03)

  • From recent letters to Neil.

    I certainly wish I could work with nude models. I'm sure I could do interesting stuff. I don't want the kind of models you do; what I want are elderly and/or fat people, females by preference. For starters I'd photograph them in cheesecake poses. Unfortunately I'm pretty sure there are few women over sixty or seventy who'd be willing to go along with the gag. However, I'm quite serious about it – it's not just something funny to say. If I were really as Boho as I like to think I am, I'd have no trouble talking some people into it. But... As ever, my neuroses get in the way of accomplishing anything. (2/3/2004)

    Looking over my stuff, I think I have a number of good shots from the last six years, which is how long I've been (back) at it. Odd to see how few pix I was doing at first. Last year, with digital, 476 photos on my personal website, of which probably quite a few are keepers.

    As for amateur status, I take "amateur" in the 18th-century sense, in light of its derivation from the latin "amator" ("lover"), the amateur being somebody who does something for the love of it rather than for profit. Of course that argues a certain financial independence. The big writers and scientists, though not artists and musicians, of the 18th century were amateurs in this sense, usually guys who had inherited enough money to be able to spend their time collecting old manuscripts or fossils or writing poetry or satires or traveling around discovering new species. Actually earning money this way would've been considered being "in trade," a horrible blot on the old escutcheon. (They all had escutcheons.) (2/4/2004)

    As I get older (and older and older) I worry less about the correctness of my opinions. Have been reviewing the big new coffee-table book of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photos, probably the biggest collection of them ever printed. And I'm confirmed in the opinion I expressed to you before, that nearly all of HCB's work would, if published under another name, excite no comment and find no market. Certainly a handful of his pix, the thirty or forty most famous, are super-good, almost superhuman. But it would be silly to worship everything he did, since by far most of it is of only passing interest.

    Even more sadly, circa 1975 he hung up his Leica and went back to his first love, pencil and pen. The book reproduces lots of his drawings. Maybe I'm just a Philistine, but I don't see any talent in them. (2/5/2004)

  • In January, Gordon Simpson of the UK weighed in on “Mr Bun,” suggesting that “no decent person would consider this a worthy image.”

    Gordon's right, I guess. I don't pretend to be a decent or worthy person -- discovered long ago that I'll never pass for one of the boys. Then again, when I see what decent, worthy persons did to the twentieth century, I don't feel too bad.

    Looking over these comments again, I notice that all the objections come from the USA and the UK. Wonder why that is? (2/8/2004)

  • Philip Coggan of Australia came to my defense, sort of. My replies:

    "Good taste" is the art of keeping the demons behind a screen, a silk screen charmingly decorated with paintings of Disney monsters like Sulley and Mike. For example, in 1946, when even "prolonged kissing" was banned by film censors, Hitchcock made a movie ("Notorious") featuring a woman forced to copulate with a Nazi in furtherance of a political agenda. Since no sex acts were shown, or even mentioned except in the most oblique terms, the movie passed the "good taste" test. On the other hand, a movie showing a legally married, loving couple actually Doing It would have been, and in puritanical places still is, in bad taste.

    Sex and death, the two great levers of evolution, are too strong for some viewers. They can't bear to look at the real things, but they'll pay big bucks to watch their shadows dance on the wall. (2/9/2004)

  • Philip wondered why Americans protested “Mr Bun,” since they were so fond of grand-guignol movies and TV, and saw so much gore in the daily news.

    Ah, Philip, you're on the other side of the world. Photos from Iraq and Palestine are carefully picked over by stateside editors: the blood 'n guts component is elided. What's shown on European TV, much less by Al-Jazeera, would be considered in the worst possible taste. If such images were published here, the word "gratuitous" would certainly bob up on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

    This isn't new. War photos from Vietnam, Korea and WW2 were generally quite tame. When I was a boy I was amazed at the snapshots brought home by men who'd fought in the Pacific -- they were so much more, well, explicit than the stuff I'd seen in Life Magazine.

    Your point about the Victorians is well taken. During the reign of that dear old queen anti-sodomy laws were passed in England, but they applied only to men (like Oscar Wilde). It's said nobody had the courage to tell Victoria that some ladies were guilty of a congruent sin. (2/9/2004)

  • J.P. Zorn posted a seemingly banal photo of a suburban hill.

    Unlike D.M., I relish this kind of landscape. Helps, maybe, to think of it as an image beamed back by a probe sent here by MASA (Martian Areologists and Science Animals). It's a landscape full of human influence, though you don't see the people involved. A landscaped landscape. The low contrast is matched by low-intensity graphical appeal, if you see what I mean. Nothing about it shouts. The music is barely audible. The poetry doesn't rhyme. Yet we get enough out of it to make us suspect there's something behind the image.

    It's often been pointed out that a lightly clad woman is more enticing to men than a naked one. This partakes of the same principle. (2/11/2004)

  • I think (we shall see) that I have the true clue on B&W film/developer now. There's lots of mystification and obfuscation, but to me it seems pretty simple. Different combinations of film and developer and time and exposure give you different looks-and-feels. So find a look-and-feel you like and go for it. And that's what I've done. I'm tired of experimenting.

    Bit of a chore, shooting and developing and scanning and Photoshopping B&W film. But one makes these sacrifices.

    These new photos aren't easy to like. Ugly in (I hope) the same way lots of North European woodcuts circa 1500 are ugly. Different from my too-gorgeous color fotos of flowers and beheaded bunnies. More honest in a way. Stare into an asshole, the asshole stares back.

    Remember I'm trying to do without obvious composition, and in these recent fotos I'm also doing without color. Tour de force if it works. If not, not. (2/24/2004)

  • B&W 's role has changed. Until the 60's you expected photos to be sans color unless the photographer made a special effort. Even TV, if memory serves, was mostly colorless. Then color arrived in carload lots, cheaper and better, till by the end of the 70's B&W was unspeakably antique and dead, dead, dead. It's only in the last few years we've seen a black-and-white revival. A whole generation grew up in color, and many of them find B&W refreshing because it's so schematic, so abstract, so stylized, so...artistic, so...CHIC. I mean, who but somebody with artsy-fartsy pretensions would take the trouble to find black and white film and chemicals on the Internet, nd develop the stuff and scan it and print it, at every step of the way using equipment designed for color, so you have to turn off the defaults. (My Epson 2000P printer's instructions say simply, don't print black and white. I set my B&W images to RGB mode before printing them.)

    So universally available color didn't kill B&W after all, any more than photography killed painting - instead the elder technique has acquired real panache. (3/2/2004)

  • Arthur B. responded: “I understand - the more difficult things are, the more desirable and valuable. It only makes sense.”

    Exactly! Exactly! Digital photography (and video for movies) is being scorned as cheating – it's too easy to make a pretty picture. Likewise, photography itself was dismissed as cheating by artists who slaved for years to learn how to make a likeness, then slaved over the product itself until it looked as much as possible like a color photograph, then varnished it. And Old Masters painting in oils were derided by still Older Masters who refused to do anything but tempera on hardwood, who were dismissed as amateurs by the Eldest Masters who applied gold leaf and cow's urine to parchment, undsoweiter.

    So, naturalists observe, a flea
    Hath smaller fleas that on him prey
    And they have smaller still to bite 'em
    And so proceeds, ad infinitum.


  • Last week I heard an interview on NPR in the course of which Chuck Close said: “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Exactly! (3/22/2004)

  • I'm a musical snob. When I finally scratched together enough spare change to buy, at the age of 19, my first LP, I plunked down the money for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Nevertheless I enjoyed the early music of Robert Zimmerman (“Bob Dylan”) when it was sung by Joan Baez. Putting a chain-smoker's sour tongue into the sweet mouth of a soprano made a sweet-and-sour sound I couldn't resist. The same principle works for art in general – I'll spare you a million examples, but I try to apply it myself, when I can, to make bitter sweets. (3/27/2004)

Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Leslie Hancock