Contra Barthes: a Rant

Last Fall I read Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, for my MFA course work. It’s a short book, comprised of chapters a few pages long that I found maddeningly difficult to get through. Really a series of semi-poetic musings more than a true semiotic or philosophic work. I’ve ranted about Barthes in these pages before. Here’s one I found in my journal from last November.

A single 250-word sentence from the chapter, The Incident, in Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs:

What one can add is that these infinitesimal adventures (of which the accumulation, in the course of a day, provokes a kind of erotic intoxication) never have anything picturesque about them (the Japanese picturesque is indifferent to us, for it is detached from what constitutes the very specialty of Japan, which is its modernity), or anything novelistic (never lending themselves to the chatter which would make them into narratives or descriptions); what they offer to be read (I am, in that country, a reader, not a visitor) is the rectitude of the line , the stroke, without wake, without margin, without vibration; so many tiny demeanors (from garment to smile), which among us, as a result of the Westerner’s inveterate narcissism, are only the signs of a swollen assurance, become, among the Japanese, mere ways of passing, of tracing some unexpected thing in the street; for the gesture’s sureness and independence never refer back to an affirmation of the self (to a “self-sufficiency”) but only to graphic mode of existing; so that the spectacle of the Japanese street (or more generally of the public place), exciting as the product of an age-old aesthetic, from which all vulgarity has been decanted, never depends on a theatricality (a hysteria) of bodies, but, once more, on that writing alla prima, in which sketch and regret, calculation and correction are equally impossible, because the line, the tracing, freed from the advantageous image the scriptor would give of himself, does not express but simply causes to exist.

Barthes, R; Howard, R., trans. Empire of Signs, pp 79-80, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Inc. 1982

The subject at the outset of this sentence, “these infinitesimal adventures” appears to refer to all the little things that “happen” to one in Barthes’ imaginary Japan of empty signs. “Something always happens.” One must take it on faith that these things are true in his imagined Japan and that his imaginings should hold some interest for us.

In what way does the accumulation of infinitesimal adventures provoke an erotic intoxication? Why can they never have anything picturesque about them? How can the Japanese picturesque (presumably a style?) be indifferent to us? In what way is it detached from modernity? How is modernity the specialty of Japan? Murakami would no doubt be surprised to learn that these things that happen everywhere and all the time can never be novelistic either, because they lack narrative “chatter.” However, they can be read (semiotically, one supposes) and offer “demeanors,” which, as a result of Occidental “narcissism” are signs of a “swollen assurance,” a combination of abstract noun and adjective that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around. You get the idea. This endless run-on sentence, with its incredible syntagm-less asides, parentheses, sub-clauses and ellipses is a meaningless tissue of nonsense. It definitely meets the criterion of ’empty.’ Imagine having to read page after page of this and then declaring it to be insightful!

Exciting Musical Week with no Photos

This week was a great one musically although no cameras were allowed in either event. We spent a couple of days in London. On Wednesday evening we were at the Hammersmith Apollo for Shakti’s final London appearance. They gave a rousing performance that brought the audience to its feet after nearly every number (a tiny taste below – if viewing this in email click the post title to go to the browser and see the clip). And to make things even better, the show opened with a performance by Gary Husband and Nguyen Le.

Then, Thursday I was fortunate to be included in a group of English photography students invited to a discussion in a small theatre at the recently re-opened National Portrait Gallery between Stanley Tucci and Paul McCartney about the just opened exhibit of Paul’s pictures from 1964 (you can pay to view a recording of the live-streamed event here until July 6th). Here the secrecy was even greater and we were made to turn off our phones and seal them in envelopes before being granted entry. Tucci conducted an excellent discussion and McCartney was his usual charming, entertaining self. Interestingly, the discussion centered far more on photography and the Beatles’ experience on their triumphant initial US tour than I had dared hope. Below a shot from his Instagram. Two tremendous experiences.

Golden Cap, continued

This past semester my photographic practice has been exploring the subject of inequality: wealth and income inequality as well as gender and ethnic disparities. I have been incorporating text from signs into scenes using Photoshop. For the summer, my tutor suggested placing text-based images I create into the landscape and rephotographing them. So before departing on this trip I prepared 3 images. One simply says “Broken Promises,” a famous graffito from the Bronx, another shows mathematical symbols for inequality, “<>” and “≠,” and I also abstracted a sign I saw in the car park of the Palm Springs Art Museum on a trip several years ago that simply says, “Imagine Art Here.” Then I asked Margaret to hold them for me while we were near Golden Cap. I also found places along our walks to place them in the scene. I’m not sure they’re really doing that much for me. Click any image to see them enlarged.

Camera Obscura

In the same camera-making class mentioned in my last post, Peter Renn turned the room itself into a camera obscura (a dark room) with a large single lens you can see in the first image. It has a focal length of something between 1000 and 2000mm, casting a massive image circle. In the first picture above you can see the lens and part of the image on the floor. In the next couple of images you can see different parts of the image transmissively through a large, hand-held roll of tracing paper bringing different parts of the image into focus by moving back and forth. Next we used a large foam stage flat, and I took pictures of different parts of the image projected onto it. Click any of the pictures to see them all full-sized.

Shoebox Camera Obscura

We had a fantastic camera-building workshop with Peter Renn a couple of weeks ago. I had bought a cheap 135mm, f/4.5 projector lens in a charity shop for £10 and brought in a shoe box to mount it on. The first two pictures show the final product. The cardboard flaps in the first image allow one to slide the imaging screen backwards and forwards to focus. The next picture shows the inside, a focusing screen which is simply some tracing paper in a cardboard frame. The next 2 pictures I took with my phone through a hole in the back. I made the hole the size of my Fujinon 23mm lens so I can photograph what’s on the focusing screen and maintain a pretty good light seal. The 5th picture is a shot my classmate Marilyn took of me using the camera and the bottom right picture is the first image I took digitally. Click any of the pictures to see them all full-sized.

Gallery Space

Modern galleries always have vast expanses of white space, (often) neutral white light, and interesting geometry to photograph. It strikes me there’s something about the capitalist hegemony of the art world about this, a set of signs or a sub-text letting you know your place in this sacred hierarchy but beyond the obvious fact that such space in the poshest parts of the patrician cities of the world is terribly expensive and therefore you are being suffered to be allowed in, I’m not sure I can articulate it precisely. Certainly the way gallery staff ignore hoi polloi is a sign of something.

Equivalents?

Almost 100 years ago, Alfred Stieglitz famously published a series of photographs called “Equivalents” of clouds. I never quite got them. Walker Evans said of them, “Oh my God. Clouds?” according to Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. He describes them as not being meant to document the sky at the time Stieglitz photographed them but, rather, they were equivalents of Stieglitz’s interior state. Dyer contrasts this with Richard Misrach’s Non-Equivalents, which specifically do document the state of the sky. Many others have riffed on the Equivalents, including Vik Muniz. So, I’ve never quite gotten pictures of clouds. Then on a 5-mile walk, under a cloud-laden, leaden sky, I saw these skies like Bob Ross was showing you how to paint the sky with a big soft brush and I thought they were imminently photograph-able. You be the judge.

Inequality, continued

Last week we conducted some group tutorials on our projects. I showed various things I was working on, including some of my seesaw inequality images and explained why I was dissatisfied with them and not sure they were worth continuing. Suggestions from my group included:

  • Use Photoshop to lengthen the seesaw and dramatize better the gap between my capitalist and proletariat.
  • Re-shoot in London with skyscrapers behind – a graphic illustration of the inequality that exists there.

I’m not sure any of those is really having the desired effect but I took a stab at them in Photoshop, crudely lengthening the seesaw and then inserting a shot I had taken of skyscrapers in London last spring into the background, a couple of different ways. It was fun to play with, though still not quite as clear as what I was hoping for:

On Politics and Photography

My internal debate about how deliberate and composed I want my images to be continues. One purpose of planned pictures for me is that they be overtly political, in the sense that they make a contribution to the betterment of life on Earth (unlike my working career, spent helping companies wring dollars out of pockets).

Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment remains indispensable, with an encyclopedic knowledge of (Western) photographers. Commenting that Walker Evans was explicit in his policy of “NO POLITICS whatever.” Dyer then footnotes Cartier-Bresson saying in the 1930s, “the world is going to pieces, and people like [Ansel] Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks.”

There’s a point for the deliberate politics side! On the other side, of course, there’s always Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.

Follow-up

After setting up yesterday’s post on my foray into ‘intentional photography,’ I came upon Geoff Dyer’s* The Ongoing Moment at school. So whilst I am busy aiming at intentional photography, Dyer quotes Dorothea Lange to the effect that, “to know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting.” A page later he quotes John Szarkowski saying Garry Winogrand’s best pictures “were not illustrations of what he had known, but were new knowledge.”

But does this mean I should simply continue wandering about with a camera capturing sights that look interesting? It seems to me anyone can do that (and with excellent phone cameras most people do!). My pictures might be slightly better crafted than theirs, based on my years of experience and technical knowledge, but not necessarily any more interesting to an audience than their own pictures already are to them. What’s the point of an MFA if all I’m doing is capturing ‘new knowledge’ that I don’t ‘know ahead of time [is] what [I’m] looking for’?

I’ll continue to ponder this dichotomy, perhaps in these pages. Stay tuned…

* I was already highly favorably inclined towards Dyer after having read his novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi – highly recommended.

Inequality (draft)

This semester I wanted to start work on much more deliberate, composed subjects. Most of my photographs, for the last 50 years or more, have been just what I happen to have seen. Now I want to create work that shows my intent, leveraging my skills. My subject is inequality both economic (wealth, income inequality) and social (ethnic and sexual inequality). The first scenario I came up with was to have a capitalist (think of the Monopoly Man) at the top of a seesaw, held there by the labor of proletarians at the other end. The shoot was a couple of days ago.

Needless to say, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I had asked classmates to join as my models and many agreed. However, the day of the shoot our all-day workshop was cancelled due to teacher absence so I had to reschedule since many people were not on campus. I had planned to shoot with the Pentax 645 film camera as well as the Fuji digital. For lighting I planned to use 2 flashes on light stands, triggered independently by transmitters on the cameras, the Pentax tripod mounted. In the end, I couldn’t get the extra flash I needed for the Pentax. I tested the trigger for the Fuji at home the night before but on the day nothing I did would get it to work, so I wound up shooting with the flash on the camera. We started the shoot around 5:00 pm as I wanted it to be somewhat gloomy and the sky cooperated, however it was quite chilly, which was rough on the models (and my hands) and the ground was quite muddy, limiting what I was prepared to ask them to do. Here are a few images from the shoot and notes from my journal on what could be better (click any image to see them all enlarged).

  • Lighting. Obviously, not getting any of the flashes or triggers to work is a big problem but more significantly I need a much better understanding and control of how the light is falling. In the shots above I’ve had to reduce the highlights on the faces significantly and introduce a diagonal linear gradient for the bottom right of most of the images to reduce excessive light on the grass and mud in the foreground. There is also the problem of the shadow under the seesaw and in a few other places, suggesting the need for some reflective fill.
  • Costume – compared with, say, Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen and Belgravia, this looks childish and amateurish. I’ve used unsubtle masks to darken the Capitalist’s red sneakers to black (in some of the images) but it’s either obviously blackened or the white trainer laces are showing. Really need to think about the capitalist attire as well as the proletarian attire.
  • Models – Again, using Karen Knorr’s work as a model, I should use professional models in appropriate attire. Need to think about how the models can represent the ethnic/sex aspects of inequality, too. I can probably still use students, but I’ll need to wait for finer weather and really choose models and attire carefully and deliberately in advance to meet the picture requirements.
  • Composition – Lots of problems here. The seesaw isn’t long enough for the height difference needed to dramatise inequality, so the idea doesn’t come across. So, either the concept doesn’t work at all, or I need a much longer, higher seesaw, which will introduce another set of compositional problems. The angle of the shot might need to be entirely different, looking up at the capitalist from behind/beneath the proletarians, for example, or looking down from his end. There’s not enough room at the low end of the seesaw for all the people I want, so they’re spread out, again weakening the gap between the 2 ends. The muddiness also meant I couldn’t really ask my classmates to get down as low as I might have liked.
  • So, a disappointing outcome but a lot of learning…

Blog Note

As my photography grows more deliberate and less what-I-happen-to-see-passing-by-in-the-street, there will probably be less of it. At the moment, for instance, I have no new images to share.

On the one hand, I’m sad not to be maintaining my practice of frequent, daily posting, based on my deliberate habit of carrying my camera in hand almost everywhere I went; on the other, I look forward to producing much more intentional work. Stay tuned. As the current semester takes off I’ll be posting progress here.

Centre for British Photography

The Centre for British Photography opened just last weekend so I went up to London to see it. Our course leader, Anna Fox, had one of her books featured (My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words), as well as a role in the exhibit you see upon entering, curated by Fast Forward, of which she’s the Director.

It was an interesting mix of strong conceptual work and, in the basement a more traditional set of documentary photography, The English at Home, by well known names in British photography (like Martin Parr). I was particularly taken and inspired by the Jo Spence exhibit and Heather Agyepong’s Wish You Were Here. If you’re in London it’s well worth a look.

Lightbox Show

Exciting news if you’re in England – my MFA course will be exhibiting at the Lightbox in Woking next month (I will have a couple of images in the show). There’s a lot of interesting and exciting work to see from a talented gathering of serious post-graduate students so, if you can get to Woking, come see the Gathering.

poster design by Kangyue Zhang

Al Zoe Leonard: Al río

The day after we went to Paris Photo we went to the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and got tickets to the Zoe Leonard exhibit, Al río / To the River, recommended by classmates who had seen it the day before. It’s an immense show that goes on and on for rooms and rooms, vast expanses of white space, perhaps conveyed by the images above. We arrived late morning and were, initially, the only ones there, other than the guards. I was almost more impressed at the opportunity to wander through the vast, empty white space of the museum (reminiscent of my trips to NY’s Metropolitan as a kid, when it was often so empty you could go bowling without disturbing anyone) than I was by the photographs.

The images look at the US/Mexico border area, as loosely defined by the Rio Grande/Bravo. On each wall is a series of pictures, looking at a particular scene, over the course of time (seconds, or minutes, I would guess). Some of these are very affecting; cumulatively, they certainly are. But I was unable to guess at the reason for some of them. One entire room was dedicated to pictures of the swirling water taken, perhaps, over the side of a bridge. While they are far from identical, they are all the same. Another follows a man on horse from a distance, behind, as he travels a short way. The final room is a series of color pictures of a laptop showing security footage of people crossing a barbed-wire-surrounded bridge. No indication of whether this is a public website, or if she’d been granted access to a security control room. Beyond the brochure materials about the exhibit (shown at the link above) there are no placards, captions or other text to explain what you’re looking at or why – which is, in itself, a kind of statement, I suppose. I confess, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Of course, the same might be said of my series of images of the exhibit.

As always, click any image to see them all full-size.

Blog Note

It’s been a busy week for travel. Friday we took the train to Waterloo, then the tube to St Pancras, the EuroStar to Paris, and 2 Metros and a short walk to the hotel for Paris Photo. Walked about 8 miles around Paris before the Expo opened Saturday afternoon then wandered through the glorious (exhaustive and exhausting) expanse of it, along the way picking up a copy of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures (the 2020 Aperture edition not the one at the link) and meeting her when she signed the book. Sunday walked another 8 miles around Paris including a stop at the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Zoe Leonard exhibit. Then took the 2 Metros back to Gare du Nord to get the EuroStar back to St Pancras, the tube to Paddington and the train to Bristol, then a short cab ride to the hotel for Monday’s collage workshop with Justine Kurland at the Martin Parr Foundation. The Workshop was an all day session with about 12 students. Justine was fantastic – very engaging, discursive, open, collaborative, erudite and discussions with her have really forced me to re-evaluate what I’m doing in photography and how I can better strive to achieve the level of artistic mastery that she displays in her work. In particular I think it is pushing me to start using film in medium or large format again and get serious about more deliberate photographic subjects. Martin Parr wandered in now and again and was truly charming, one of the few male photographers to reach out positively to Justine about her SCUMB Manifesto (which I had previously bought as a gift for my collaging daughter). In the evening she gave a talk to a packed house which walked through several of her projects and was again, insightful, engaging and inspiring.

The next morning the cab to the train station never arrived, the rain was dashing down as we trundled our suitcase to the bus stop, getting drenched, then sat in Bristol traffic and passed the train station where construction has closed the bus stop and walked back through the rain and puddles to Bristol’s Temple Meads train station, hustled to the ticket window to upgrade our tickets for an earlier train we needed to catch to Paddington. Then the tube to Waterloo and the train back to Farnham where, panting, I just made it to my lecture on Queer Theory. Alas, rain had seeped into one of our bags and badly damaged the cover of Girl Pictures although, at least, none of the pages or images seems to have been harmed.

All this by way of excuse for not posting. More pictures to process and post soon.

Blog Note: End of an Era

The last post will be my last shot from New York for a while. At the end of August I “retired” from life in the corporate world and in the middle of September I moved to England where I’m pursuing an MFA in Photography.

Needless to say, this will have an impact on the pictures I’m taking and presenting but I’m not sure yet what it will be. Starting tomorrow I’ll be posting some of the touristy snapshots I took in my first couple of weeks here as I got to know Farnham a bit. Where I’ll go from there, I don’t yet know. Stay tuned.

Fotografiska, New York

Some years ago, on a vacation in Stockholm, I persuaded my family to accompany me to Fotografiska a vast and excellent photography museum there. For something like a year leading up to its opening, I received regular teaser emails presaging the advent of their New York branch. When it finally arrived last year I was disappointed to learn how high ticket prices were and, in the midst of the pandemic mostly forgot about it. But my wife gave me a couple of tickets and a pandemic appointment for an hour last weekend and down we went. (Click any image above to see them all enlarged.)

I have ambivalent feelings about what we saw. There were 3 featured exhibits and a fourth one dedicated to the winners of the Photography 4 Humanity 2020 contest, photo-journalistic work dedicated to human rights issues. There was some excellent work here, in the traditional documentary photography school, some of it dramatically artistic as well.

Next came a powerful exhibit dedicated to death-row inmates who had been wrongfully accused and had been exonerated by DNA evidence, many after years of incarceration and some just hours or days before being scheduled to be executed. While it was a very powerful and moving exhibit, it was only marginally photographic. Each of the subjects was shown in their own floor-to-ceiling portrait, in a darkened alcove, with their voice describing some element of their experience. However, the portraits weren’t still photographs, they were video portraits of their faces.

Next was Naima Green’s Brief & Drenching. The first part was a series of portraits, seeking to explode traditional binary-gendered portrait styles. These were quite good, and certainly had their own style, although they remained, essentially portrait photographs. The rest of the exhibit was less photographic. there was an installation of objects, a video (snapshot of bloody pearls, evidently being pulled from a vagina, above, is from the video), framed collections of motion-blurred, deliberately “artless” Polaroids, and so on.

This was followed by the gorgeous photo-montages of Cooper and Gorfer’s Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, shown in 2 of the pictures above). These were beautiful, sensuous images. I’m not sure exactly how they were made, but certainly not through straight photographic processes.

Finally, there was Andres Serrano’s Infamous. Serrano, no stranger to controversy (think Piss Christ), collected a number of racist artifacts and then photographed them. Taken at face value, they’re a shocking evocation of the extreme racism that was quotidian in this country’s culture throughout its history, reminding us, in the current climate, how important it is to extirpate this scourge. While the photography is pretty straightforward, still-life product photography and the exhibit is powerful, it strikes me that it’s not so much a photography exhibit as a racist artifact exhibit with photography almost incidentally being the medium of display.

So, I came away from Fotografiska having seen some worthwhile, and even important, exhibits but not a lot of photography. Granted, photography is a broad term and all these works can certainly fit within a catholic definition of photography, but only to the extent that the term ceases to mean much more than ‘images created using technology, with content not necessarily concerned with the medium.’ To some extent I know as a white man of a certain age, I tend to think of photography in increasingly outmoded ways. OTOH, it almost feels as if the medium has been exhausted – all that’s left is tendrils of new forms growing out of the corpse of the now-dead photography I grew up with.

New Year, New Project

For over 20 years I have been making trips from New York, via the Lincoln Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike, to visit my in-laws in South Jersey. Each trip I look out the window as we pass, what I now know are, the confluence of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers with Newark Bay and the Meadowlands, from high on an overpass, at beautiful wetlands traced with the arteries of human industry and  commerce and think about photographing the beauty below me. But where to begin? Where exactly am I on the Turnpike? How can I get these aerial vistas other than from a speeding train or car?

This year, finally, as my wife drove, I used Google maps to slap down a marker as we passed. Back home after Christmas, I investigated the area on Google maps. There are various parks in the vicinity, on the shores of the rivers and I decided to check them out. Last weekend I booked a Zip Car and we spent an afternoon in the Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus.

I’m very pleased with the results of my first foray and will be posting them over the next week or so as I travel for business. Some of these images may not be strong enough on their own – I’ll attempt to curate them to work together in small groups. I’m pleased enough with this initial set to think of putting together an exhibition of some kind after visiting the area some more.

Lower Manhattan from under the New Jersey Turnpike

On Color

I had an intuition the other day that has stayed with me (so far). At the risk of boring you picture-lovers out there with dry theory, here’s a brief essay on my realization.

I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. I first became serious about photography around age 12 in 1969, purchasing a Voigtländer Vito C second-hand, and I bought my first SLR in 1970 (a Minolta SR-T 101). In those days, serious photography meant black and white. Color was happening, of course –  Pete Turner and Jay Maisel were turning out brilliant color already in the late ’60s, as were Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter and too many others to name here. But for street photographers, aspiring photojournalists, acolytes of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, it had to be black and white.

One simple reason for this, of course, was technology: I could develop B&W film in my parents’ bathroom whereas color was a bit too tetchy. Another was cost. I could afford on pocket money and odd jobs to buy Tri-X film in bulk and the chemicals and paper I needed to develop and print B&W. Color was mostly out of reach except for photomat-quality 3½x5 prints.

And so, unsurprisingly, my taste and skill in photography were driven by the constraints I was forced to work within and attempt to stretch the boundaries of. So when, towards the turn of the century, I switched to digital photography it seemed quite natural to me to convert most of my photographs to black & white. When I bring up a chip-ful of new images on the screen in Lightroom and start “developing” them, one of the first questions I ask myself is whether the color is an important contributor to what’s going on in the image. In many cases, it’s not and one of the first things I do is convert to B&W. Color has to prove its right to remain. Anyone who’s been coming to this site for any length of time will have noticed there’s an awful lot of B&W street photography of a certain type (and I’ve been posting pictures here almost every day for over 10 years now).

But here was my insight. Color is no longer a constraint of the medium. My camera takes color pictures. For me to convert them to B&W because that looks right to me only shows how my tastes were frozen decades ago when that was a real constraint. In fact, it’s really an affectation in this day and age and a dead giveaway of my age and the derivativeness of my work.

A great example of someone who broke with this way of seeing is Alex Webb. In the introduction to his magnificent volume, The Suffering of Light, we learn how he grew tired of black and white New York street photography and discovered light and color in Haiti.

So look for more color here going forward. That’s not to say there won’t still be black and white images here when that makes sense to me, but more and more I’ll be attempting to justify the conversion to B&W rather than justifying the retention of the color that’s natural to the image captured by my sensor.

Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own taste and their own style so my Damascene conversion may not be yours. But I’d be interested in your thoughts.