Monday, September 25, 2006

Defending Photography

More and more frequently, one happens across internet-based photography discussion forums whose topics gravitate toward the seemingly eternal debate of "Analog Versus Digital", as if this were somehow an inevitability; as certain of continuance, it would seem, as the ever-present Arab/Israeli conflict.

I have, for the most part, avoided participation in such discussions. Part of the reason is that I'm simply too egotistical to engage in a shouting match with dozens of participants where my voice can't be clearly distinguished above the din of the crowd.

I like for my point to be heard.

With a topic such as "A vs. D", by the time I first find the link, it's already three pages long. If you haven't drawn significant blood or made good points by the end of the first page, you're just late to the game; nobody cares any longer.

The irony in all of this is that most participants seem to miss the big picture in all of these shouting matches: that what's being discussed is, for the most part, not photography at all, but rather the merits of certain arcane techniques relevant to the technical aspects of photographic equipment.

Let me make myself plain: disussing cameras is, for the most part, not a discussion about photography, any more than discussing the obtuse trivialities of stretched versus premade canvas equates to a significant discussion about painting. It is this emphasis upon the tools of the trade, this myopic navel-gazing into the arcana of image-recording devices that is at the heart of my inquiry into the debate.

The suspicion has long been held, since the formative years of electronic-based graphic arts technology, that the time would soon come when we would be witness to the death of photography. This presumption has been co-opted in recent years, spun up mainly by the market forces of advertising hype: that the development of electronic imaging devices are merely an evolutionary step, the next phase in the continuing process of improvement to the technology of photography.

What most photographers have missed - and I speak here of the vast majority who are too immersed in the specialities of the field to see the forest through the trees, as it were - is that photographic image making has been swallowed up in the larger field of, and is now merely a subset of, graphic arts publication technology. In matter of opinion, the advertising hype has convinced the vast majority that there is, in fact, no difference at all between photography and commercial publication technology.

Graphic arts have always played a role in the popularization of photography to the masses, first with the technology of photogravure, and later with various improvements in offset printing technology. When we think of the heyday of photography to the masses, we often think of photo-based magazine publications, such as Life or National Geographic. It was here, in the mass-reproduction of photographic images using non-photographic processes that the co-opting of the medium began.

Although techniques such as photo-gravure and offset printing can reproduce already existing photographic images with the mechanical exactness of the printing press, it must be understood that such images are, in the final analysis, not photographic, in the sense that they are 'written with light' - photographed - onto the final sheet of paper actually being viewed by the end user. For this to be a photograph, it must, therefore, be a product of the photochemical process that occurs in what we have come to know as the darkroom, which in this context becomes a highly specialized, low volume print shop, specializing in the hand printing of silver gelatin, or other more specialized photographic processes.

Thus we see the essential distinction between actual photographs - images 'written with light', as it were - and mere mass reproduction technology: writing with ink - atragraphy.

In comparing the two processes - the creating of traditional silver gelatin photographs versus ink or dye printed reproductions - it becomes more distinct that what has become known as "digital photography" is a replacement of light sensitive, silver gelatin media in two phases: in the camera phase, where film is replaced by a television sensor, and in the reproduction phase, where the silver gelatin print is replaced by a mechanically printed, ink-based reproduction.

One can argue, and perhaps even the most diehard traditionalist would agree, that electronic, television-based images are, in fact, photographic in nature: that is, they involve creation of an image by the action of an optical wave front on a light sensitive surface, in this case a photo-transistor array. The resulting electronic image, stored on either magnetic, optical or silicon-based formats, becomes a defacto latent image, just as the undeveloped silver gelatin emulsion contains an image still invisible, consisting of an amalgam of discrete silver halide crystals with individual valence electron dissociations corresponding to the original optical wave front of the camera lens.

Where digital imagery as a process seems to deviate from optical photography is in the printing stage, where writing with light an analogy of the original latent image is replaced with writing with ink a mechanical reproduction. Given this distinction, one could open-mindedly avow that viewing digitally generated images on a computer screen is still truly photographic in nature, since the display technology is actually writing with light a direct analogy of the electronic latent image.

If we are to come to the point of understanding where it seems necessary to argue against digital imagery being truly photographic, then we must therefore argue against all mechanical reproduction of imagery. We would say, therefore, that there would be no photography books, aside from what could be reproduced by truly photographic, silver gelatin technology. This conclusion can only be arrived at by philosophical argument, and not based on the merits of technical argument.

Therefore to understand the place where internet-based argument has arrived from, we must briefly explore the sociological history of the medium, specifically in relation to the professional art industry.

The crucial phase in the decline of photography was when it first began to be recognized as a valid 'art form', to be displayed on the walls of elite galleries, along with paintings and sketchings and sculpture. The problem with being displayed in galleries, along with painting and other arts, is not the problem of being associated with other works of art; it's the fundamental problem of how elite art galleries fail to represent art to the masses. The gallery system itself seems at times to be a wall of elitism, couching concepts and terminology in the language of the university elite, rather than in terms that the common man can relate to. It is no surprise therefore that photographers would find another avenue of approaching the public with their works: the periodical magazine publication.

As stated earlier, it is no small irony that the very presence of such discussions around the subject of arcane technical processes should distract us from the bigger discussions of photography itself. For the most part, few Internet discussion forums engage their participants in deep, meaningful discussion on the merits and philosophies that are central to where photography is at this present moment. In matter of fact, merely the mention of the word 'art' in such discussions will result in a barrage of meaningless opinion as to the very meaning, or existence, of art.

A large measure of the blame can perhaps be laid at the foot of the educational system in America. Few school systems are devoted to the teaching of classic liberal arts - education for the sake of learning. Rather, most schools seem to be over-stuffed job training programs, whose sole mission is to supply the corporate workplace, or future armies, with cannon fodder.

This is perhaps the crux of the matter with regard to the higher faculties, even the spiritual, in American popular culture: ours is a culture where deep, fundamental beliefs and thoughts cannot be adequately articulated in the public forum, for we are a people devoid of any common culture and spirituality, excepting that which is commercially manufactured. We have lost the ability to commune with one another on a higher plane where we can transcend the arena of politics and the trivial nonsense that is sold to us as a cheap substitute for real culture. This metaphor of 'culture' is best understood in terms of the difference between yogurt and sewage. Both involve an environment where growth, at the smallest level, can occur. The difference seems to be whether this growth is healthy for the organism as a whole, or destructive. It is life, or mere rot?

This is a tough nut to crack, the question of how an honest dialog around the higher merits of the arts can occur in a culture mediated by the motivations of greed, selfishness and destruction. The mere fact that the instruments of such a discourse have been co-opted and manipulated into tools for global propaganda is not an easy conclusion to accept; yet the evidence is irrefutable.

In this age of post-modern nihilism, devoid of any philosophical cohesion and unity, perhaps the one thing that artists and like-minded individuals can agree on is that art, as part of a larger culture, is under siege and captivity by a global fascism, that threatens to enslave the planet under an archipelago of connected imprisonments, built around an axis of corporate and state power structures, that deny the individual of value, meaning and identity. If there is to be any future 'art movement', it will be in opposition to this current system of global control, of which the digi-nazis and artist-elites are a part.~

Monday, September 18, 2006

Streeting It

I've been thinking recently about how pursuing a variety of interests in one's life - especially creative interests - seems to produce a positive-feedback kind of response, whereby particular skills and insights gained in one venture aids in the creative flow of others.

This came home to me this week as I began pouring through old notebooks of 35mm and 645 format negatives, shot on silver gelatin filmstock and hand processed, most in the previous decade. What struck me were the similarities - and the differences - between these evidences for my creative vision then, and what I know to be my current strain of creativity. For instance, I've always been attracted to abstractions of line and form and texture in the urban environment. Stucco walls, cracked and decaying buildings, and the artifacts of graffiti vandals: these have long fascinated me. Now, I create such images with large format pinhole cameras; then, I used small-gauge, glass-lens imaging tools.

What is also evident is that I've long taken a keen interest in the landscape, being sensitive to nuances of light and form in the natural environment, even when my film format in use at the time was not optimized for the large, expansive views required of such grand subjects.

Lately, I've taken to cruising the postings at Rangefinder Forum. Street, or documentary photography, I've not been involved with in any serious manner for years; even then, I really haven't been skilled in capturing the elusive nuances of anonymous persons in public places that seem to be the hallmark of the genre.

I'm no Hank Bresson.

I think part of the problem is that my early years of shooting film were done with a 35mm SLR, where squeaking the last bit of depth of field out of every scene was my modus operandi. It was always 'f/16 and be there'. I obviously was never schooled in the style of wide-open aperture, narrow depth of focus and creamy smooth bokeh that is the signature of the diminutive handheld rangefinder shot.

Since cruising Rangefinder Forum, however, I've taken a new liking to the look of shallow depth of focus, especially when the tones in the image are smooth, rich and deep.

So, I've started to fondle my Zorki 4. That's the only rangefinder camera I own. This particular specimen was made in the USSR in 1971. It's equipped with a 50mm, coated Jupiter 8 lens, and seems to be in good operating condition. Cameras of this vintage are referred to generically as "FSU" rangefinders, meaning that their country of origin is what we now refer to as the 'Former Soviet Union". From what I've read, the Zorki 4/Jupiter 8 combination seems to be a classic Leica-clone combination. I'll just call it my 'Like-a-Leica'.

I'm threatening to go out and buy a roll of Tri-X, or FP-4+, and go a shootin'. Lens aperture set to f/4 or f/5.6. No meter, just the 'sunny 16 rule'. I'll try to follow a compositional rule established by one of the greats, which is to keep vertical lines parallel to the sides of the frame, and not worry about the horizontals.

Look out, world!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


The verasermophobes have spoken, and we are not the better for it.

These are the ones for whom the discussion of Truth represents a very real fear.

Of course, one shouldn't be surprised at this turn of events, since posting a highly opinionated statement, on a website devoted to a particular sub-genre of photography, does not lend itself to the exercise of the higher faculties. One only need review the sad history of's philosophy discussion forum to see that the outcome was virtually predetermined. Added to this eventual outcome was the perception that linking the post to one's personal blog was nothing less than a cheaply disguised attempt at Internet marketing.

It started with a rather naive blog entry, whose intent was to speak about the importance of media artifacts in the breaking of the spell of the New High Technology Priesthood. Meaning that the only verifiable truth that can be discerned through mediation is the artifacts themselves; everything else is a byproduct of mediation.

What the verasermophobes heard was someone using the 'T-word'. At which point their brains shut down and they began operating in dino-mode: attacking the very usage of the term, rather than attempting to discuss the merits of the argument posited.

I believe what this phenomenon reveals is a sad state of affairs in the field of Media Studies. Rather than seeing an ever-widening swath of understanding of the effects of mediated data in the culture at large, we are now witnesses of the debilitating effects of propagandizement. One need only challenge the 'conventional wisdom' pertaining to the effects of mediation upon the culture, and the demigods of propaganda raise their ugly heads.

What we are witness to are not the voices of a few paragons of the media elite, but rather the multitudinous voices of the propagandized masses, rising up in unison to deliver a common judgment, intoned as if from the very Collective Unconscious.

The structure of the dominant paradigm is patterned, empowered and reinforced by the sociological effects of a highly mediated technocracy. Available to the power elite are vast spectra of highly interconnected channels of mediation, veritable formats for universal command and control. It should therefore come as no surprise that alternative, off-center and underground media would represent, not merely some universal alternative to the dominant media, but would represent a direct challenge to centrist authoritarianism.

What is surprising is the apparent naiveté of many of the practitioners of pinhole photography, with regard to the power available to them through an alternative photographic paradigm, to grasp the significance of the art and craft they practice in undermining the common usage modes of two-dimensional imagery.

Pinhole is a subset of a 'do-it-yourself' ethic that discards the necessity of riding the 'technology treadmill', replacing the reliance of creative expression upon Global Capitalism with a self-determinism that, at its root, is ultimately a very American, individualistic trait. The 'DIY' ethic is of utmost importance in this highly mediated age because it undermines the very foundation upon which rests the ever-expanding structure of what now appears to be an emerging Global Fascism, which now is being manifest as a complex alliance between governmental, nationalistic interests and Global Capitalism.

The 'crux of the biscuit' (to dissect a metaphor from Frank Zappa) is not the 'what' of Truth; rather, it is the nature of the channels of data and information that we are constantly exposed to; it's the 'how' of Truth: how do we receive a highly constructed and mediated version of reality: how do we formulate our inner conclusions and assumptions concerning the nature of the contemporary world around us: how do we internally filter reality in the context of contemporary culture: how do we see?

What the verasermophobes seem to be concerned with is the possibility that someone might posit an absolutist statement purporting to be Truth Incarnate. It is the very existence of the possibility of Absolute Truth that disturbs them. The irony of the moment is that their opinionated objections to thoughtful musings on the nature of mediation are in themselves the very revelation of that universal close-mindedness that the threat of Universal Mediation points to. It is as if all the discrete lines of communication have been absolutely compromised by a hidden enemy. It is not the Merits of Truth that are under argument, or even whether such conclusions can even possibly be found; rather, it is the means by which interpersonal and social discourse can proceed unhindered that is in jeopardy.

It comes as no mere coincidence that the rise of global mass communications has occurred concurrent with the development of new technologies that enable universal mediation; such forms of mediated discourse are themselves the catalysts and channels of global thought control. Forms of alternative distribution of written thought, such as the mimeograph machine, have been replaced with the personal computer/printer, resulting in little or no real grass-roots socialization. This is ironic, given the potential that access to personal self-publication provides. Cultures that have actually taken to the despised media of the hand-distributed mimeograph are seen to be engaged in real front-lines warfare with the agencies of Global Fascism, whereas more highly mediate cultures despise such simplistic approaches, instead choosing forms of discourse inherently compromised by the very nature of the media chosen.

Hand-in-hand with despised media, such as mimeographed publications, are despised visual media such as pinhole photography and other alternative photographic processes. The power that such alternative media possess has little to do with the commercial nature of the fine art gallery, and has everything to do with unmanipulated visual fact. Rather than being a marketed product of the commercial gallery, pinhole photography should be a media of documentation of, and creative opinion making on, the culture-at-large. Sadly, in many instances it has become merely another tool of post-modern nihilism, rather than a last bastion of unmediated fact. The sad fact is many of pinhole's adherents and proponents have bought into the commercial art-world paradigm, rather than seeing it for what it is: unmediated visual fact.

If it were possible to discern Truth from Non-truth in the realm of the visual arts, pinhole is the one medium capable of doing so. What is not important for the moment is one's version of, or opinion about, truth, but rather the truthfulness of the medium itself; its veracity. And that's the truth.~