knuckles, returned to the shelf

A hundred photographs. A nice round number, and a good stopping point for the Knuckles Google Street View project. I thought about maybe stretching it out until February 18th, which would end the gig a full year from the start date, but…naw. A project shouldn’t be ‘stretched out’ just to reach an anniversary. A project ends when it feels done.

This project feels done to me. Like every Knuckles project, it began primarily as a way to amuse myself. And I mean ‘amuse’ in the older sense of the term: to cause a person to muse about something. To think about stuff. A project, for me, is just a device to engage my interest and attention. A project allows me to become absorbed, to feed my curiosity, to make me think. Granted, the thinking might seem frivolous — at least on the surface — but it’s thinking. Thinking is fun.

The GSV project made me think about a lot of stuff. The practice of curation, for example. I mean, the entire project is, itself, an exercise in curation. We’re talking about ten million virtual miles of highways, streets, avenues, dirt roads, and donkey pathways in eighty-three countries, all dispassionately captured by robotic cameras, each of which has six to eight lenses. That’s a lot of images. I only saw the tiniest fraction of that universe of images, and culling a hundred images out of that number meant some heavy-duty thinking about what makes an image interesting.

It was exceedingly frustrating to have NO control over the elements of composition. I came across a LOT of scenes that would have made a compelling image, except for some distracting element — a trash can, a parked car, a fence, a sign that interfered with the image. Stuff that would be easily dealt with in person. I knew that frustration would be baked into the project, of course. But it was still maddening.

The project also made me think about culture — how culture spreads through the world, and where it spreads from. I saw business parks in Illinois that looked like business parks in Turkey that looked like business parks in Japan. I saw a town in Indonesia that was jammed with US military surplus Jeeps transitioned into local utility vehicles. I saw a statue of a baseball player on a pedestal in Japan, and basketball courts in Slovakia. I saw American-style graffiti everywhere.

In fact, ‘America’ was everywhere. If you followed the project, you may have noticed the majority of the images are located either in the countryside or in small villages. That’s because so many cities — or large areas of the cities — were indistinguishable from each other. Aside from the signs, a city block in Uruguay looked very similar to on in Romania or Indiana. And they were all dull. The oldest neighborhoods of the oldest cities, on the other hand, were often very distinct. Unfortunately, the streets in those neighborhoods were almost always so narrow, so cluttered, so visually busy that despite how interesting they were, they simply weren’t amenable to a good image.

The project made me think about architecture. Not just the obvious architecture of buildings and homes, but also the architecture of infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, bus stops, sheds, fences. Rural mailboxes in Scandinavia look different from those in rural mailboxes in Canada, which look different from those in rural Indonesia. Telephone poles in former Soviet republics and telephone poles in Mississippi are distinct from each other. It was sometimes easy to tell what part of the world you were in simply by looking at the local infrastructure.

Local infrastructure reflects local attitudes. I mean, consider tunnels. You need to build a road through a hilly or mountainous landscape, what do you do? Some nations will build tunnels; other nations will just level the landscape. That approach tells you something about cultural attitudes.

I was also surprised by how many animals I saw on Google Street View, though I don’t know why that surprised me. We live in a world of animals, don’t we. Pets, livestock, wildlife. Dogs, goats, birds, horses, cats, cattle, sheep, chickens. And, of course, people interacting with those animals. Walking dogs, herding cattle, feeding goats and chickens, playing with cats. These were often the most frustrating images, because there’s something strangely emotional about the way humans interact with animals. But this is another of the problems of relying on a robotic camera; robots have no interest in decisive moments. Nor do animals. Animals move. People will stop and stare at a Google Street View car, but to a dog or a donkey, it’s just another car. So the vast majority of images of animals interacting with people (or other animals) were blurry and useless. Except for those of sheep and cattle. Those guys just stand there.

This has been a fun project. It’s been frustrating, of course, but it’s been interesting. And now it feels finished. It didn’t work out quite the way I’d expected (or hoped), but it did work out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t expected weather to be so important. I hadn’t expected cloud formations to be such a factor. I hadn’t expected telephone poles or trees to play such a prominent role. I expected people to be a more critical element.

I like the fact the project didn’t take the shape I thought it would. I like its final shape. I’m satisfied and pleased. And ready to be done with it.

With the final photo today, Knuckles Dobrovic is going back on the shelf. Not forever, obviously, but for a while. One of the things I’ve learned from the Knuckles projects is how much I like the structure that’s necessary for a project. I like the restrictions and the constraints that impose a certain discipline on me. I enjoy pushing against those restrictions and constraints. But this road ends here.

At some point, I’ll take Knuckles back off the shelf. At some point in the future I’ll cobble together some semi-lazy rationale for a project to distract me from all the other stuff I ought to be doing. Until then, if you’re interested in seeing all the photos — or any of the various Knuckles projects — you can find them here on Instagram.

EDITORIAL NOTE: It’s been pointed out to me that I neglected to include links to the origin of the project and the halfway point. I’m a putz. Fixed it, though.

emptiness and excess

I had to spend a chunk of time on secondary state highways a few days ago. I was a passenger for once, which meant I had the chance to look around and think. In the winter months, the Midwestern landscape can seem awfully empty. Every few miles you can see a clump of trees, which usually means a farm house and the attendant sheds and barns. A water tower lets you know a town is nearby. Occasionally you see some sort of agricultural industrial site; I’ve no idea what gets processed in these places, but they emit strange clouds of smoke or steam. Basically, there’s not much to hold your attention except fields and sky. Fields and sky and your imagination.

And I had a thought. Not an original thought, to be sure. Others have had this same thought and have written about it. But passing through the bleak winter landscape, the thought made more sense to me. Here it is:

This is what Donald Trump’s interior life must be like. Empty. Devoid of warmth. Cheerless. Comfortless. Unwelcoming. Desolate. Barren.

Like I said, not an original thought. Lots of folks have written about Comrade Trump’s emotional emptiness, his discomfort with any emotion that’s not rage or resentment, his absolute inability to empathize with others, his desperate craving for unearned respect, his boundless appetite for praise, his craving for having the ‘best’ without any concept of what constitutes ‘best’.

But looking at that exposed leaden landscape led me to wonder if Trump’s emotionally sterile inner life also accounted for his inability to appreciate beauty. He’s always surrounded himself with a chintzy sort of glamour, a gaudy display of tasteless wealth. All that cheesy gold ornamentation, all those extravagant flourishes, all that lifeless furniture that nobody wants to sit on — maybe that phony excess stems from a genuine attempt to bring some sort of brightness into his dreary, grim, inhospitable inner being.

Trump’s home.

More likely (and infinitely more sad), maybe his inner being is so vacant that he can’t even comprehend the existence of feeling something below the surface. Maybe the concept of inner grace and beauty is completely alien to him. Maybe he’s as incapable of experiencing and appreciating beauty as a weevil is of enjoying music.

Because another thing I became aware of during my road trip, is that if you appreciate beauty and grace, you find it everywhere. Even on secondary highways in the middle of nowhere at the approach of evening. Even in empty fields, even in isolated farm houses, even in the effluvia of mysterious agricultural plants.

very cool, but very sad

There’s a place called as the Sycamore Trail. It’s a rather grand name for about 130 acres of untended old-growth woodland tucked between the Des Moines River and a soccer pitch. The ‘trail’ is a 6.5 mile loop, a narrow dirt path for mountain biking. It’s linked to the High Trestle Trail — a paved 25 mile stretch of bike path that follows an old Union Pacific railroad line (including the old half-mile-long trestle bridge that crosses about 130 feet above the river)  — which itself is part of a 100 mile loop that connects with an even longer set of trails, which is…never mind. You get the point. Iowa has a metric buttload cycling trails.

This, believe it or not, is a bicycle trail.

The thing is, the Sycamore Trail goes through the woods. On a weekday, it’s generally deserted. On a weekday in December the only folks in the woods were my brother and I. We were out…let’s call it sylvan geocaching. That sounds so much more adventurous. I mean, sure, basically it’s just walking in the woods and using a GPS device to look for some sort of container that somebody stashed for no practical purpose at all except to give other folks a reason to go walk in the woods. But that sounds moderately ridiculous, to let’s call it sylvan geocaching.

This is not a bicycle trail.

So my brother and I, we were out sylvan geocaching, right? In the woods surrounding the Sycamore Trail on a singularly lovely day for early December. Almost 50F, sunny, not much of a breeze. Couldn’t ask for a better day to be noodling around in the woods sylvan geocaching. We didn’t stay on the trail, of course. We wandered through the flood plains, we slumped around the marshy oxbows, we pushed our way through the dry brambles, we clambered over the levee.

A levee, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is a dirt embankment intended to protect the land from flooding. This levee was about 15 feet high and anywhere from 30 to 50 yards from the river.

The levee.

Flooding is pretty common, which accounts for both the levee and the oxbows. It also accounts for all the downed trees and the odd bits of debris we sometimes see stuck up in the trees.

As we were noodling around sylvan geocaching, we noticed the outline of some sort of structure in the woods. It’s not uncommon, when you’re in the woods, to find the remains of sheds or the brick and mortar foundations of abandoned farm buildings. But it’s rare to find something that’s still standing. So of course, we went to investigate.

As we got closer, we realized it was bigger than we’d expected. Bigger and stranger.

Strange structure in the woods.

One of the reasons my brother and I go geocaching is because it takes us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, and we see things we wouldn’t ordinarily see. Things that are often completely unexpected. Like a 35-foot houseboat in the middle of the woods.

How did it get there? I mean, it was about a third of a mile from the river. Say 600 yards from the levee. That’s half a dozen football fields. How in the hell did it get there? We found a clue. The boat registration was still visible. It was dated 1993.

It’s called the Great Flood of 1993, but it actually began in the winter of 1992, when the American Midwest experienced heavier than usual snowfalls. The spring melt was followed by what the National Weather Service called an ‘extreme regional hydrological event’. In other words, it rained like a motherfucker — and it did it for a long time. There were persistent, repetitive storms that hovered over the Midwest. Between April 1 and August 31, the region experienced rainfalls that were 400–750% above normal.

Houseboat in the woods. Go figure.

In the end, the flood covered about 400,000 square miles over nine states. In some locations, the floodwaters stayed for nearly 200 days. Almost 55,000 people had to be evacuated; around 50 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Seventy-five towns were completely inundated; some small towns have actually been relocated — some were just abandoned. And at some point, the flood yanked this 35-foot houseboat from its mooring and deposited it at the far western edge of what would eventually become Sycamore Trails.

An oxbow along the Sycamore Trail.

The floodwaters receded, of course. Trees grew up. Twenty-six years went by. We’ve had more floods since then, though not quite as bad. Floods that are called ‘once in a hundred year’ floods, or ‘once in 500 year floods’ take place every couple of years now.

Finding that houseboat in the middle of the woods was incredibly cool. But it’s also incredibly sad. It’s sad because of all the suffering that took place. And it’s sad because the President of the United States, despite all the science and all the evidence, says climate change is a hoax.

The good news? A decade after the Great Flood of 1993, Greta Thunberg was born. So there’s that.

at the fair

You know those mornings when you wake up, deal with the cat, and drink your cold brew coffee while you consider the list of things you ought to do, some of which are moderately important, but by the time you empty your mug you’ve decided to skip all those things and go to the state fair instead? That was me yesterday.

Young couple trying to see how many kids they can stuff in the cab of a really big tractor.

I like the state fair. I love the state fairgrounds more than I like the actual fair; I’ve spent a LOT more time noodling around the fairgrounds during the off-season than I have during the fair itself. But the fair is fun too. The noise, the smells, the crowds, the weird tension, the chaos, the confusion — I like all of that.

I like to look at farm technology. Tractors and combines and — okay, I have no idea what most farm tech is called. Or what it does. I confess, I have absolutely NO interest in the purpose of farm tech. But I’m fascinated by 1) how massive some modern farm equipment is, and 2) the fact that there are people who restore or refurbish old tractors. I like to listen to old guys (and it’s always guys) talk about their old tractors, even though I’ve no idea what they’re talking about. I recognize them as nerd-geeks who have a passion I can respect even though it’s entirely foreign to me.

Old guys talking about old tractors.

I also like that things I don’t understand are being judged by standards I also don’t understand. Like horses and sheep. Or cabbages and turnips. Or sewing and crafting. I look at the prize cabbages and I have no idea why one cabbage is superior to the next. I have no idea why this cow is better than that cow, or why the way that horse trots surpasses the way this other horse trots. But there are folks out there who DO know those things, and I find that notion wonderful. (By the way, I don’t need — or want — an explanation for why one horse’s trot is superior; I’m just happy that folks who DO know and care about such things exist.)

Some sort of horse judging thing. Or maybe a riding judging thing. There was definitely judging going on.

I like the people I see at the fair. Not just the folks like me, who show up and eat the deep fried vegan peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and marvel at the size of the biggest boar, but the folks who move to the fair for a week or so and show their animals. Again, I don’t know dick about farming or farm stuff. But I’m always impressed by the people — and especially the kids and younger folks — who spend their fair days washing and drying their cows or goats, or shoveling animal shit out of stalls and laying down hay (if that’s hay — what do I know from hay?). When I was a kid I had to do the usual chores — wash dishes, maybe mow the lawn, that sort of thing. These farm kids? They’re raising livestock and acting like it’s no big deal.

Blow drying a goat.

Kids. A tangent here. As a rule, I don’t photograph kids. I think kids going about their daily kid lives doing kid things are eminently photographable and interesting, but photographing kids these days is just a pain in the ass. It’s not the kids; it’s the parents. I have, in the past, been accosted by parents for shooting photos in the general vicinity of kids. Not photos OF kids, mind you; just photographs of stuff in a park where kids are playing — stuff with zero kids in the frame. Nothing is more embarrassing and frustrating and infuriating than being waylaid by an irate parent and basically accused, in public, of being a pervert. So I just don’t photograph kids anymore.

Except at the fair. I will occasionally shoot a photo of a kid engaged in some farm/fair related activity. Like blow-drying a sheep. I’m not photographing the kid, you understand. I’m photographing the activity. But sometimes there are moments when a kid is being so perfectly a kid that you have to make an exception. So I photographed a kid. I am NOT going to feel guilty about it.

Woke up from a nap, got chores to do.

Actually it turns out it’s almost impossible to shoot a photo at the state fair without including a kid. They’re everywhere. Which is as it should be, since fairs are all about being a kid. Sometimes when you’re taking a photo of a kid, you’re also shooting a photograph of somebody being a good, caring, thoughtful parent.

Cooling mist on a hot fair day.

When I got home I was surprised that almost every photograph I shot had a kid in it. Or an old person. Or a disabled person. Old folks and disabled folks on mobility scooters zipped around the fairgrounds like hornets, like pirates, like…well, kids. They probably shouldn’t have been eating funnel cakes or deep fried Twinkies or bacon-wrapped BBQ ribs, but they were. They probably should have been napping, but they weren’t. They probably should have headed inside when the sky got dark and it began to sprinkle, but they didn’t. They faired (and yeah, I know ‘fair’ isn’t a verb, but there ought to be a term to describe the act of enjoying a fair). Those folks faired like bosses. It was great to see.

Leaving the fair just as it began to sprinkle.

That was the fair. I saw a cabbage bigger than my head. I saw a massive horse with hairy hooves that looked like it ought to be pulling a Russian sleigh and escaping a pack of wolves. I saw farm tech that looked like mooncraft. I saw a sleepy young cowboy who’ll almost certainly look exactly the same in forty years. I ate a deep fried  peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a damned stick. I walked six and a half miles (unless my Fitbit is lying to me).

I faired moderately well.

knuckles hits fifty

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.

GSV #22

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.

GSV #25

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.

GSV #34

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.

GSV #38

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.”

GSV #46

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.

GSV #50

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.

knuckles is back

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Because of 1. I’ve been playing GeoGuessr more often.
  3. I recently had a discussion in which I defended the concept of appropriation in art.
  4. I remain stupidly attached to the pseudonym Knuckles Dobrovic.
  5. 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.

gsv #1

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.

gsv #2

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.

gsv #3

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.

gsv #4

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.

gsv #5

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.

susan sontag annoys me from the grave

Two or three times a year I’ll open up Susan Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography and read a few pages. I usually do it when I’ve finished reading another book and I want a breather before starting something new. I’ll open it to some random page, read for a bit, then close the book and mutter “Susan fucking Sontag.”

The thing is, Sontag/On Photography 1) always makes me think and 2) always annoys the hell out of me. Always. Always and for a dozen different reasons. The main reason, though, is that she’s usually entirely correct. Nobody likes a person who is always right. This is what stuck in my mind last night:

To photograph is to confer importance.

That’s Susan Sontag for you. Six words, and there it is. Six words, and she confronts you with a notion that ought to be self-evident but isn’t always. Six words, and she lays out a way to both shoot and understand photography. To photograph a thing is to confer importance on that thing.

That’s not to say what a person photographs will be important to anybody other than the photographer. It only means that by making the decision, consciously or intuitively, to isolate one chunk of reality and photograph it is a way of stating that particular chunk of reality has personal value for the photographer. It’s saying “This little chunk of reality is deserving of my attention, however fleeting that is.”

To photograph is to confer importance. Sontag illustrates that notion by discussing a photograph made by Edward Steichen in 1915 — a photograph of a couple of milk bottles sitting on a tenement fire escape. When I say Sontag illustrates the notion by discussing the photograph, I mean exactly that. Any other writer and any other book on photography would have included Steichen’s photo to illustrate the point. But not Sontag. That’s another annoying thing about her and On Photography: there are NO photographs in the book. None at all. If you want to see a photograph Sontag is talking about, you have to go find it. Which I did.

steichen_milk_bottles

Instead of showing the photo to make her point (which, if you recall, is to photograph is to confer importance), Sontag chooses to illustrate the concept by — and I’m not making this up — quoting from Walt Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

Each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty.

It is annoying as hell to quote a poet to explain a photograph. But yeah, as usual, she’s entirely correct. Each precise object exhibits a beauty and to photograph a precise object is to confer importance to it. Remember, Steichen shot that photo in 1915. Photography at that point in time was cumbersome and expensive. Steichen couldn’t just notice the milk bottles and take a quick snapshot of them. He had to set up a tripod, attach a large boxy camera to it, compose the image beneath a shroud using a screen in which the image appears upside down and reversed, then calculate the exposure. And all that takes place before the labor involved in developing the film and making a print. Taking a photograph in 1915 was a lot of work.

So yeah, to photograph was damned sure conferring importance. You don’t subject yourself to all that fuss and bother unless the precise object exhibited a compelling beauty. So Steichen was faced with a question. Milk bottles? On a fire escape? Really? And his answer was, yes, really, milk bottles on a fire escape!

This sort of photo is common now, but in 1915 it was revolutionary. Now, with digital imagery, a photographer can piss away hundreds of photos on milk bottles on fire escapes without any concern or thought. So even if we agree that Whitman is right and every precise object exhibits a beauty (and I’m not about to argue against our boy Walt), we have to ask if Sontag is still right. Does photography still confer importance?

I kind of want to say no. I want to say no partly because if modern photography requires absolutely no training and is subject to anybody’s passing whim, how can it confer importance on anything? I also want to say no just because Sontag continues to annoy me, even though she’s been dead for a decade and a half.

I kind of want to say no, but I can’t. Even if a digital image requires less commitment to the subject and the process, the decision of what and how to photograph remains the same. Here’s a photo I shot recently on a walk. It took maybe ten seconds to notice, to compose, to adjust the exposure, and take the photo using my cellphone. Maybe fifteen seconds. Then I was back to walking.

It probably took hours for Steichen to photograph his milk bottles and make a print of it. It took me only a moment to photograph a shed in somebody’s back yard. But the fundamental process is exactly the same. You observe the precise beauty of a thing, you isolate that thing in a lens, and you confer personal importance on it by photographing it.

Susan fucking Sontag. She annoys me from the grave.