There’s a type of photograph that I generally think of as ‘red wheelbarrow’ images. You know, after the poem by William Carlos Williams. I’m talking about photographs in which the emotional appeal relies heavily on a color/object element. I saw one of those photos last week–a green hat hanging on a doorknob. The moment I saw the photo, I thought “So much depends upon a green hat….”
Coincidentally, over the last week or so, like a lot of people, I’ve become weirdly besotted with a text-to-image program called DALL-E 2. I don’t understand the tech or the coding behind it, but essentially it’s an artificial intelligence system that creates images and art from a description written in natural language. You type in a description, the system interprets it and creates a series of images based on that description.
There’s a waiting list to use DALL-E 2, I suppose because it produces high quality images which undoubtedly requires some serious computing power. But for those of us who are waiting, there’s a mini DALL-E that produces lower quality images. They’re still weird and wonderful and often satisfying.
So what did I do? I typed in a brief description of WCW’s poem. A red wheelbarrow glazed with rain beside white chickens. And DALL-E mini gave me this:
It’s weird and a wee bit distressing, but I was immediately delighted. Enchanted, even. And eventually besotted (oh fuck, now I have to do a quick etymological dip: besotted comes from the Old English term ‘sott‘ which meant ‘a fool, a stupid person’ and by the late 16th century sott lost a letter and became sot, and was used almost exclusively to describe a person stupefied by strong drink) with the idea.
My point, if you can call it that, is that I became figuratively intoxicated by the notion of mixing red wheelbarrows with random thoughts, straining it through the DALL-E mini artificial intelligence system, and seeing what happened. Some of the descriptions were fairly simple.
It quickly became clear that DALL-E had a rather fluid and elastic understanding of the wheelbarrow concept, but I was okay with that. In fact, that pleased me considerably. It made the result a lot less predictable. It added an element of surprise to text descriptions that were otherwise fairly mundane. Such as:
After these simple experiments, I decided to try something that wasn’t so simple, something that might test the system. And I have to say, DALL-E mini surprised me. It came through with something wonderfully weird and lovely.
It was obvious to me at this point, that the red wheelbarrow concept had the potential to become a project. Since I’d lost interest in the most recent Knuckles Dobrovic project (Japanese are bure bokeh images of Ireland), this seems like a worthy replacement. I’ve no idea how long I’ll do this. Maybe a month, maybe longer, maybe I’ll become disappointed with DALL-E mini and wait to try the big hat version.
Anyway, there it is, Knuckles is back, working the red wheelbarrow corner of the intertubes.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Yeah, I forgot to include a link to the Knuckle Dobrovic Instagram account, so here it is.
Last week while out noodling around I came across a tank. When I say ‘tank’ I mean a decommissioned military tank. An M60 battle tank, to be exact. It’s fairly common when the military starts scrapping old tanks, they offer them to small towns to use as memorials, or to ‘decorate’ public parks or town squares or wherever the hell a small town would like to park one. The US military stopped deploying M60s in 1997.
But this isn’t about the tank, really. It’s about how I photographed it. Which was like this:
A friend asked me a couple of questions about the photo. First, what the hell is this a photograph of? Second, if it’s a photograph of a tank, why didn’t I include the whole tank? Those are valid questions. But they’re difficult to answer.
They’re difficult to answer for several reasons. The primary reason is that I’ve been shooting photos for so long that I rarely actually think about composition. I just kind of know what I want in the frame. Another reason it’s difficult to explain is because shooting a photo seems like it’s just a matter of releasing the shutter (or, with a cell phone, poking the whatsit that initiates the photo). But that moment is the result of a fairly complex process.
I wasn’t paying much attention to the process when I shot this, but I’ll try to recreate my thinking. Obviously, it began by getting out of the car to look at the tank because…well, there was a tank and I wanted to look at it. As I walked around it, I was attracted to that cascade of squarish shapes made by the building–so many different-sized squares of different textures. Then there was that white circle that sort of balanced the round rear tread wheel of the tank. And then there were those sweet vertical lines of the chimney and the light pole. And then I was drawn to that tiny splash of red, and that diagonal slant of the roof of the shed, and even the spade leaning against the light pole. All of those things appealed to me, both individually and as a collective.
I’d be lying if I said I noted all that stuff in that order, but when you’re lining up a shot it’s like your brain is ticking off boxes in a list. That works, that works, that doesn’t–so move a bit, that works. And then there’s some point when your synapses seem to agree that you’ve got all–or most–of the stuff you want in the frame, and you take the photo.
I’d probably have taken that photo even if the tank wasn’t there, because the light and the geometry appealed to me. But it was the tank that drew me to that spot and to me, that wee bit of tank is important to the composition. So, to me, it’s still a photo of the tank. The rest of the tank is implied.
Wait…I think I can explain this better. That same day, I took a photo of an old, rusted out Ford panel truck. Three photos, in fact, but only one photo mattered. Here’s the first photo.
There’s nothing wrong with this as a photo. Again, I composed it intuitively, without a lot of thought. It’s got good lines. The curve of that tree is nice; it sorta kinda follows the shape of the truck. There’s a decent balance to the composition. It’s a perfectly adequate photo, a decent documentation of an old, rusted out Ford panel truck. Nothing wrong with it, but not terribly interesting.
So I got closer. Changed the perspective.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this photo. Again, the composition was casual but deliberate. However, you’ve probably seen ten thousand photos almost exactly like this. A rusty wreck of a vehicle–an artifact of an outdated civilization cast aside in a living environment that will continue to grow while the artifact slowly degrades into nothingness. The best thing about this photo is that it places the panel truck in a larger landscape, which emphasizes how out of place it is. But basically, there’s nothing new to see in this photo.
So I got closer and changed the perspective again.
This is the photo that mattered. I took a bit more care with the composition. I knew I wanted the rust, I knew I wanted the suggestion of a large landscape through the windows, and I knew I wanted the lines of the shattered window and those bubbles formed by the thin layer of ice.
The actual old, rusted out Ford panel truck wasn’t really important; it’s the idea of the old, rusted out Ford panel truck that mattered. It’s a photo of an abandoned vehicle in the same way the first photo is a photo of a tank. The old, rusted out Ford panel truck is implied; you only need to see enough of it to hint at its existence.
The photo of the tank and the final photo of the panel truck are both photos of things that don’t belong there. Was I actually thinking of that when I took those photos? Nope. But after you’ve shot enough photos, a sort of algorithm develops in your brain. It’s like you know at the cellular level that everything in the frame matters, so you become very deliberate about what you keep in and what you keep out.
What you choose to include and exclude is grounded on why you’re shooting the photo. And that’s the thing. You may not be consciously aware that you’re shooting a photo of things that don’t belong where they are, but there’s some chunk of your brain that’s is actively registering that fact. If the tank or the panel truck were what mattered, you’d just photograph the tank and the panel truck. But you keep looking and moving and shifting around until your brain is at least semi-satisfied. Then you take the photo.
Okay, I’ve made the mistake of re-reading this (which I generally try to avoid in these blog posts). It sounds to me like I’m talking bullshit here (which is why I generally avoid re-reading these blog posts). But I’m still convinced that this is how I shoot photos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached something that I wanted to photograph–that I felt was very photographable–and then walked away without taking a single shot because I couldn’t get what I wanted in the frame. There was something in the frame I didn’t want, or something I wanted but couldn’t include. My mind knew it, even if I wasn’t immediately aware of it.
The photographer Marc Riboud once said, “I photograph the way a musician hums.” That makes sense to me. Musicians, even when they’re just idly humming, know without thinking which notes work and which notes don’t. The wrong note ruins the composition.
Okay, look, this whole New Year bidness? It’s bullshit. I mean, sure, we live in a culture that requires us to establish metrics for Time. But basically, I’m with Thomas Mann on this: Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. The objective differences between December 31, 2021 and January 1, 2022 are trifling.
Even if we agree that there are valid reasons to demarcate one year from another, the only reason January 1–a date right in the middle of the fucking winter–is considered the first day of a new year is because Julius Caesar yanked the old 10 month Roman calendar and imposed a new, improved 12 month one. He added a couple of months, clever boy, one of which was January–named for Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and doorways, the god of transitions. Caesar made the imperial decision that the first day of the new month would be the first day of the new Roman year. I’m not saying he deserved to be stabbed to death for that, but c’mon, what an arrogant prick.
Generally, folks living in the Roman Empire at that time (which was seriously huge, by the way) felt a new year began at some point around the Vernal Equinox. Which totally makes sense. It’s around the end of March, winter is over, the land begins to come alive again, leaves grow on trees, plants bloom, days are longer, everything is new. So when Caesar imposed this new calendar on the empire, common folks mostly ignored it. They continued to celebrate a seasonal new year rather than a calendar-based one.
Then three hundred years or so later, Christianity came along and sort of fucked things up. When the Roman emperor Constantine decided that Christianity was the Official Religion of Rome (which is a whole nother story), all his generals and high ranking officials had to become Christian if they wanted to advance their careers. That meant supporting the nascent Church, and supporting the Church meant adapting pagan holy days to Christian holy days AND marking them on the Roman calendar.
Still, hardly anybody celebrated January 1 as New Year’s Day. It was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. You may be asking yourself how Romans decided that Jesus was circumcised on January 1, which is a reasonable thing to ask yourself. What happened was a Roman historian named Sextus Julius Africanus, after some serious consideration, decided Jesus was probably conceived around the Vernal Equinox. That’s why Christmas is mostly celebrated on December 25, nine months later. And according to Jewish law and tradition, eight days after a boy is born his parents hold a bris. What’s a bris? It’s a ceremony in which a mohel comes to the family’s home, snips the foreskin off the boy’s penis, then everybody has a nice meal. Eight days after December 25 is January 1.
Now, there’s a whole weird, uncomfortable history dealing with early Christianity and circumcision which isn’t worth going into (so much of history has been shaped by the relationship men have with their dicks). There’s a whole sub-genre of art devoted to Jesus getting snipped. The important thing, though, is that over time the Christian discomfort over the celebration of Jesus being separated from his Holy Foreskin morphed the event into a celebration of the New Year.
This is why folks are putting on pointy party hats and blowing horns and getting high school drunk tonight. Because Yahweh decided Abraham should be circumcised and Julius Caesar wanted a better calendar and a Roman historian made a wild guess about when Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and Constantine decided to become a Christian and early Christians became awkward and uncertain about circumcision so instead of celebrating a bit of foreskin-snipping they fell back onto celebrating Caesar’s arbitrary decision to start a new year in the middle of the fucking winter.
It’s all bullshit. The sun rises, the sun sets, the earth orbits the Sun, tilts on its axis, we have seasons. And basically, that’s it. Some folks just need an excuse for a party.
Okay, Instagram. As some of you know, I have two IG accounts–one under my own name (or something like it) for the sort of snapshots everybody shoots and another under the pseudonym Knuckles Dobrovic for photo projects (I wrote about my introduction to the devil of IG here).
The first project was more an exercise than an actual photography project. It was basically my way of learning how to use Instagram. I put a thing on a patio table and photographed it. Almost every day for about a year, at different times, with different things, in all sorts of weather. It’s just as ridiculous as it sounds, but it was fun. That project (cleverly titled Things On A Table) started in 2013 and ended in the summer of 2014. At the end of that project, I wrote this:
I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.
The Knuckles account sat idle for about four years. In January of 2018, I started a second project, which was more pretentious than my first, but equally ridiculous. During my daily walks, I’d stopped periodically and photograph something at my feet–some leaves, a crack in the sidewalk, a lost glove. I decided to layer two or three photos taken on the same day to create a single image. It was weird fun, and it made me happy. That project lasted for about ten months. Then I put Knuckles back on the shelf, where he sat for about four months.
The third project took root while I was playing the game Geoguessr, which involves Google Street View. The game basically drops the player somewhere in the GSV world and you’re supposed to figure out where you are–rural Finland, suburban Arizona, a forest in Brazil, a street in Thailand. I loved the randomness of it; I spent most of the game just wandering around and looking at stuff. So I decided to appropriate images from GSV, modify them a bit, and turn them into black-and-white images. Because it was an art project and art projects are famously pretentious, I decided to limit the project to 100 images–sort of an homage to Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e series, One Hundred Views of Edo (which is actually 119 paintings, but let’s not get fussy). It was the only Knuckles project I was sorry to end.
The fourth project was sparked by the onset of the pandemic. The world seemed isolated and a tad disjointed, and I wanted to express that feeling of social dislocation. So I took some of my daily snapshots, diddled with the color a wee bit, digitally sliced it in thirds, then re-arranged the pieces. The result was a photo that didn’t quite make sense, so I called the project Slightly Dislocated. It was fun at first, because the process could be applied to almost any photo style–street photos, landscapes, still lifes, anything but portraiture. But after a few months, it felt forced. The project lacked energy and passion and I just stopped doing it. The last photo of this project was posted in March.
Now I actively dislike the project. I’ve considered deleting it, but that seems somehow cowardly. If you make a mistake, you should just accept it and move on, not try to hide it. However, even though I haven’t posted anything to the Knuckles account in months, I continue to get notifications about it. It’s like a constant reminder of how much I dislike the last project. The only non-cowardly way to resolve that is to start a new project, one I’d actually enjoy, something to get rid of the bad taste left by the Dislocated project.
A few days ago, when it was cold and windy and my knees hurt, I sat at the computer sliding back and forth between social media, the Geoguessr game, and the work I was supposed to be doing. Three things happened. First, I read a comment about Daidō Moriyama in a forum devoted to Japanese photography. He’s basically the godfather of the are-bure-bokeh style of photography. Are-bure-bokeh roughly translates as “rough, coarse/crude, out of focus.” The style developed in post-war Japan, and it conveyed the way Japanese society was fragmented and alienated and shocked following two atomic explosions and a military occupation by a radically different culture. We’re talking about high contrast black-and-white photos, sometimes savagely abstract, sometimes ordinary but with a sort of leaden feel, sometimes almost frighteningly hallucinatory. It’s a style I’ve been drawn to, but I’ve never seriously attempted to recreate.
The second thing–almost immediately after seeing the Moriyama comment, I came across a comment in another venue in which somebody was called “a total bampot.” That’s a Scots term, which means “an idiot, a foolish person, a nutcase.” For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the phrase are-bure-bampot sprouted in my mind, and stuck there.
The third thing–after doing a bit of work, I turned back to Geoguesser and found myself someplace on the coast of Scotland (it turned out to be Portsoy). And hey bingo, there was the burr of an idea for a project. An idiotic idea, but still. What if I applied the are-bure-bokeh approach to Google Street View images from Scotland? Are-bure-bampot.
It’s…well, it’s idiotic. A post-war style of Japanese photography applied to Google Street View images of Scotland? Madness. But it would allow me after a fashion to return to the project I’d enjoyed the most, and it would still fall well within what I consider the Knuckles Project Parameters. It would 1) be simple and grow out of something I’d do in an ordinary day, 2) include an element of randomness and serendipity, 3) maybe not be entirely original (how many project are?), but the result would still be uniquely mine, and 4) wouldn’t require any extraordinary effort.
So what the hell, I tried it. I’ve only made a few images–and only posted three of them on the Knuckles IG account–but so far it amuses me. They’re clearly not in the classic Moriyama style, but I’m okay with that. I’ll keep at it for a while and see what happens. Are-bure-bampot. Rough, coarse/crude, idiotic. Yeah, that has a certain appeal.
I’ve been accused (more than once) of overthinking everything. That accusation is often valid. I tend to overthink some stuff because it’s amusing to me and because it reminds me that everything is connected.
For example, this photograph. It’s just a cat sleeping in a patch of sunlight. Nothing significant, nothing particularly interesting in itself. But if you overthink it, it links together a series of at least ten seemingly unrelated facts.
FACT 1: I belong to an online global collective of photographers called Utata. This group, which has over 30,000 members, creates a variety of photographic ‘challenges’ or projects for its members to participate in. One of the current challenges involves photographing a collection of seven related things.
FACT 2: Pomegranates originated in a historical region called Mesopotamia which occupied the ancient Near East and Western Asia.
FACT 3: The cat that lives here likes to sleep in patches of radiant heat. On winter days, to please the cat, I open the front door to allow the sun to shine in.
FACT 4: For more than three thousand years, Aramaic was one of the prominent languages of the ancient Near East, which included regions of Mesopotamia.
FACT 5: A balustrade is a railing, often ornamental, supported by individual short posts or columns, which are called balusters.
FACT 6: Near the front door, where the cat likes to sleep in the winter sunlight, is a stairway leading to the basement; the stairway is protected by a balustrade.
FACT 7: The earliest examples of balustrades are found in sculptured Assyrian bas-relief murals, some of which have been dated back to a period between the 13th and 7th centuries B.C.
FACT 8: Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian empire.
FACT 9: The term ‘baluster’ comes from the Aramaic balatz, which refers to the flower of the wild pomegranate. Balusters in the bas-relief murals had double curves, which resembled a half-opened pomegranate flower.
FACT 10: I noticed the cat sleeping in the sunlight from the open front door. The light illuminated seven of the balusters supporting the balustrade, meeting the requirements for the Utata photo challenge.
Does knowing those facts make this a better photograph? Nope. It’s still just a photograph of a cat sleeping in a patch of winter sunlight.
But surely you’ll agree there’s a certain delight in knowing that the cat is sleeping in a patch of sunlight beside a railing supported by posts that were originally named in an ancient almost-forgotten language because of their resemblance to the flower of a fruit that first grew in an empire that no longer exists.
I suppose by most metrics, this is a bad photograph. It’s dark, except for where it’s maybe a tad overexposed. There’s nothing special about it, it’s not terribly attractive. It’s just a blue plaid shirt hanging on a stairway post. But I was drawn by the narrow band of December light and the way it slid through the transom over the doorway and sidled up against the shirt.
I saw it originally from another angle, and was captivated enough to go fetch a camera. An actual camera, not my phone. I moved to this angle, squatted down to get the perspective right, shifted over just enough so that the windows in the neighboring house seen through the kitchen window were balanced, and made the shot.
It probably didn’t take more than 15-20 seconds. It’s a semi-casual shot of an utterly ordinary moment. Eggleston might call it a ‘democratic’ moment, though I didn’t photograph it in a democratically Eggleston way. I probably took 14-19 seconds longer than Eggleston would have. You can jam a lot of pretentious formality into 15-20 seconds. He was all about the unpretentious impermanence of everything, after all, and the revolutionary notion that art existed everywhere and anything was worthy of being photographed. I believe in that approach, but haven’t liberated myself from the tyranny of composition. There’s always, always, some level of thoughtfulness in anything I photograph.
After I shot the photo, I chimped it just long enough to see if I got what I was after. What was I after? The light, obviously. But also the darkness–the nothingness of the stairway in the center. There’s really not much to see in the photo; there’s the shirt, the window, the handrail, part of a closet door. What’s not there is as important as what is. I was pleased with the photo.
Then I put the camera down and basically forgot about the photo until yesterday. Yesterday I bought a new card reader and uploaded the half dozen images from the camera. Most of the images were crap and immediately deleted, but this one sparked the memory of the moment I’d shot it.
I don’t often spend time looking at the photos I shoot. I shoot them, review them at some point, process a few, delete most of them, then I post some of the few I’ve processed. That’s it. I’m not very interested in seeing the photo after I’ve finished it. But I looked at this one for a bit, thinking about Eggleston and the democratic eye and the way the light fell and the enigmatic darkness…and I realized I was being a pretentious dick. It was just a murky photograph of a blue plaid shirt.
I’ve had that blue plaid shirt since 2001. I didn’t buy it; I sort of inherited it. It belonged to one of the guys who worked for the moving company that shifted my stuff from a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an old farm house in rural Pennsylvania. The shirt got left behind. I probably should have returned it, but the movers also walked away with my antique shepherd’s crook and a walking stick topped with a hand-carved morel mushroom made by my brother — so I figure they got the better end of the deal.
I’ve been wearing that guy’s shirt for two decades now. It’s a comfortable shirt. It’s a sort of utility shirt–a useful shirt, a practical shirt for knocking around in. I wear it around the house, I wear it when I go mushrooming in the Spring, I wear it like a light jacket when it’s chilly or breezy, I wear it to do yard work. It’s a shirt I don’t have to worry about; I don’t care if it gets snagged by thorns, I don’t care if it gets dirty, I don’t care if it gets stained. I don’t care because I didn’t buy it and even after two decades I tell myself it’s not really MY shirt.
But clearly, it is my shirt. After looking at that photo, I realized I’d taken other photographs that included that shirt. Of me wearing that shirt. Other folks had photographed me in that shirt. I realized how much time I’ve spent in that shirt. I realized I’ve grown fond of it. I realized I have a relationship with that shirt. I didn’t really know that; not until I stopped being a pretentious dick, thinking about that photograph as a photograph.
Which brings me back full circle to being a pretentious dick again. Howard Nemerov, the poet (and brother to photographer Diane Arbus) once wrote, “The camera wants to know.” I can’t really agree with that. I’m more inclined to agree with the Eggleston approach; the camera just wants to see. But sometimes the act of seeing helps the viewer to know.
This is what I know: I have a blue plaid shirt. It’s my shirt. I didn’t buy it, but I own that shirt. It belongs to me. Now that I know that, I’m going to try to forget it. Because if I think about it, it might change the way I wear the shirt, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a lived-in shirt, and it deserves to be lived in. I want to wear that shirt the way Eggleston shoots photographs.
A couple days ago I posted the 50th photograph in the Knuckles Steals the World project — which isn’t really called that. In fact, isn’t really called anything at all, but I felt a momentary need to give the project a title, and that’s what immediately came to mind. As a reminder, this explains the origins of the untitled project.
Fifty seems like it ought to be some sort of project milestone. Milestone is, I suppose, a weirdly appropriate term, given the project is sorta kinda grounded in imaginary travel. Because it’s a sort of milestone — and because it’s a Monday and I don’t feel like doing the stuff I ought to be doing — I thought I’d piss away part of the morning nattering on about the project.
It’s been amusing and interesting and fun (in a very quiet way). I’ve yanked images of windmills in the Netherlands, chickens in a Turkish yard, a woman hanging laundry in some remote Brazilian village, people doing yoga in an Utrecht alleyway, a ruined castle in Andalusia, a small sunlit farmhouse in rural America, an abandoned car in Belgium — all ordinary moment and mundane scenes snatched from Google Street View (as mediated by Geoguessr) and extracted from context. I’m about six months into the project, and it’s still holding my attention.
I’ve actually had a few interesting conversations sparked by the project, mostly about the process and practice of appropriation. One friend, who is also engaged in an appropriation project, said he’d almost abandoned photography. “[I]t got to the point where everything looks like stuff I’ve seen before, and that was in 2005. Curation is the new photography.”
I don’t entirely agree with that last line, but he’s got a point. The unanticipated problem with the notion of the democratic camera is that once we hit the intersection of Everything Can Be Photographed and Ubiquitous Cheap-ass Automated Digital Imagery, it’s only a matter of time before almost everything HAS been photographed.
As I noted when I began this gig, Google Street View has amassed imagery of over ten million miles in 83 countries.
“In that ten million miles, there are bound to be a LOT of things worth looking at. So if you are stupidly persistent and pathologically curious and live a moderately well-regulated disorganized life that allows you to piss away a few hours now and then in an endeavor that has no real value except your own amusement, there’s a decent chance you’ll get to see some of those things.”
I have seen some of those things. That’s where the curation kicks in. Rummaging through all those miles of unedited images and finding a few things that are, at least in my opinion, worth looking at. And of course, because I’m me and I tend to overthink all the unimportant stuff, I’m struck by the fact that ‘curation‘ comes from the same Latin root as ‘cure‘ and originally referred to the act of attending, managing, or restoring health. Art curators attend to the health of the art world — or at least are supposed to. I’m not going to pretend that this project is attending to the health of photography, but it most certainly attends to the health of my interest in photography — so there’s that.
Anyway, here we are at fifty images, deliberately and semi-thoughtfully culled from who knows how many possible GSV images in the world. It’s a ridiculous and pointlessly complicated project. I don’t know how much longer this project will last. I don’t have any end point in mind. But the sheer immensity and randomness of it continues to hold my interest, so I expect it will go on for a bit.
NOTE: If you’re interested, all the equally pointless Knuckles projects — GSV, My Feet Double Exposed, Things on a Table — can be found here.
I have a moderately well-regulated disorganized life. That’s not as contradictory as it sounds, probably. What I mean is I sort of depend on a few daily routines that keep me somewhat disciplined in order to do the stuff I need/want to do. But those routines contain a lot of latitude for things that are unplanned, distracting, silly, random, fun, purposeless, and/or serendipitous. One result of living that sort of life is occasionally different parts of my life carom into each other.
Here are the various bits of my life that have bounced up against each other recently:
It’s winter, and we’ve had like 40 inches of snow in something like three weeks, and I’ve been unable to take my normal daily walk. I have time on my hands.
Because of 1. I’ve been playing GeoGuessr more often.
I recently had a discussion in which I defended the concept of appropriation in art.
I remain stupidly attached to the pseudonym Knuckles Dobrovic.
The Knuckles Instagram account was currently idle, since I’d finished the second Knuckles project.
Those bits all came together and stuck, which is why I’ve started appropriating Google Street View images from GeoGuessr and turning them into a new Knuckles project. (Just to recap, I came up with the alias Knuckles Dobrovic about five years ago when I decided to dip my photographic toe into Instagram; first I photographed Things On A Table, followed by Double Exposures of My Feet.) I’m going to repeat something I’ve already repeated once before (and will probably repeat again), something I wrote at the completion of the first Knuckles project.
I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.
Yeah, so here are the first images of the new Knuckles project. It’s not remotely an original idea. Actual artists have been using Google Street View (and I’m just going to start calling it GSV because I’m that lazy) as source material for years. I’m okay with the idea not being original. Sometimes creativity isn’t about finding an original idea; it’s about taking an existing idea and smooshing it into a form that’s your own.
Here’s the thing: every photo project is defined by its parameters–by some sort of unifying theme. Some folks doing GSV work take a classic street photography approach, some rely on New Topographics surface mapping, some treat it as landscape photography, some concentrate on the interactions between people on the street and the GSV camera.
So the first thing I had to do was to decide on my own project parameters. I spent a couple of days thinking about this stuff because I tend to think too much about just about everything. I always begin by making things ridiculously complicated, then whittling the idea down to something fairly manageable. Here are my basic parameters.
1) Rely on the randomness of the GeoGuessr app to find GSV scenes. The problem with that, of course, is that sometimes (well, often) the app will drop you in a location that’s utterly devoid of anything interesting. You can waste a lot of time noodling around for some scene worth capturing. On the other hand, that’s part of the attraction–coming across unexpected stuff.
2) Look for scenes that are ordinary but visually interesting. A lot of GSV artists seek out the dramatic or the weird or the otherworldy–car crashes, rural sex workers, odd graffiti, a particular color palette. I wanted to find mundane moments that still caught the eye.
3) Transform the image. Just some quick and dirty Photoshop grunt work. Square format, black-and-white. Get rid of the GSV directional markers and the Google trademark.
4) But not too much. I didn’t want to hide the fact that these are GSV images. So any other artifact of the GSV camera–weird angles, disrupted lines, blurred areas–remain.
That’s it. Once I’d decided on those parameters, I went noodling through the game to see what I could find.
I didn’t find much. It turns out that noodling around in GSV in random parts of the world is a lot like going on a photo-walk. There’s a whole lot of stuff that isn’t very interesting to look at. A boring stretch of road in Andalusia is as uninteresting as a boring stretch of road in the Australian outback or a boring stretch of road in central Russia. Playing GeoGuessr as a photo project feels different from playing GeoGuessr as a game. The fun part of it as a game is trying to solve the ‘Where the Fuck Am I?’ puzzle. As a photo project, where you are isn’t at all important; the only important thing is what you can see wherever you are.
Another problem quickly became apparent. When you DO happen to find something fairly ordinary but still visually interesting, GSV doesn’t necessarily give you a good angle to photograph it. In real life, you have control over your position. If you need to take a few steps to the left, if you need to squat down, if you need to get closer or farther away, you can do that. In GSV you only get what GSV gives you. For example, I saw some kids playing on a swing set on the outskirts of a small village in Estonia (okay, on my computer screen I saw an image taken mechanically by the GSV camera of kids playing on a swing set), but the kids were largely obscured by a tree and a recycling can. It was an interesting human moment, but it wasn’t a visually interesting image. If I moved forward in GeoGuessr, a hedge hid the kids; if I moved backward, a house was in the way. There was simply no possible way to turn that human moment into an interesting photograph. This is what happens when you let a robot do a photographer’s job.
On the other hand, the impersonal, un-engaged, dispassionate GSV has mapped around ten million miles in 83 countries. Ain’t no photographer gonna do that. In that ten million miles, there are bound to be a LOT of things worth looking at. So if you are stupidly persistent and pathologically curious and live a moderately well-regulated disorganized life that allows you to piss away a few hours now and then in an endeavor that has no real value except your own amusement, there’s a decent chance you’ll get to see some of those things.
ADDENDUM: Because I’m a self-promotional dunderhead, yesterday I completely forgot to include a link to the Knuckles Instagram account.