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.

a short list of things I’d like to see in 2020

Last year at this time I put together a short list of things I’d like to see in 2019. I didn’t see any of those things. I didn’t really expect to, but still. Seriously, would it kill the Universe to do something nice for a change?

Anyway, it’s been a year so I thought I’d do it again. My expectations remain low. I’ll probably include a couple of items from last year’s list; if so, I’ll put a double asterisk beside them (why a double asterisk? I don’t know; it seemed right). So here, in no particular order, are some things I’d like to see in 2020:

— More greenspaces in cities and suburbs. And not highly manicured spaces, or spaces where they just let shit grow without caring for it, but spaces that are maintained while still allowing nature to take its course.
— Brett Kavanaugh busted for DWI.**
— A remake of the Highlander television show. I generally hate remakes, whether they’re movies or tv show, because the remake is almost always worse and more stupid. But Highlander had so much potential, and it only lived up to that potential about 25% of the time. Which ain’t bad for television, but still.
— A woman president. It would be stupid to vote for a woman for president simply because she’s a woman, but lawdy there are SO MANY qualified women out there. It’s WAY more stupid that a woman candidate has to be massively more qualified than a man in order to be seen as equal.
— Which reminds me. I’d like to see the patriarchy smashed into tiny shards, those shard ground into dust, that dust buried deep in the earth, the earth above it salted so that nothing will grow there for a thousand years. Or so.
— Which also reminds me. Donald Trump and his family of grifters and traitors in handcuffs.**
— Ditto his corrupt supporters in Congress.
— More front porches on houses. And friendly people sitting on them. In rocking chairs. Or swings.
— More electric modes of transportation. More electric cars, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles, skateboards.
— Streaming services that allow you to buy specific shows without having to subscribe to the actual service. I’ve no desire to subscribe to Disney, but I’d like to see The Mandalorian. I’ve no desire to give money to Jeff Bezos, but I’d like to see Fleabag.
— The end of single use plastic bottles.
— Quiet spaces. Both indoors and outdoors. Spaces specifically set aside in which sounds are muffled or stifled. Businesses that commit to quietness would be given tax breaks.
— A ban on firearm magazines holding more than ten rounds.
— World Bollard Day. A day in which bollards are recognized and decorated around the globe. (I sort of mentioned this last year, but only seeking more respect for bollards; now I want them celebrated.)
— Reality Winner released from prison.
— More dogs welcomed in public venues. Coffee shops, libraries, taverns, etc.
— And, of course, actual usable pockets in women’s clothes. It’s 2020, for fuck’s sake.**

As before, I’m sure there’s other stuff, but this is all I could come up with while waiting for the coffee makings to become coffee.

What about you? What would you like to see in the coming year?

Addendum: Just wanted to include this: More shows/movies/anything starring Merritt Wever. Hell, I’d even watch a remake of Highlander with Merritt Wever as the Highlander. She’s that good.

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.

this is bullshit

I’ve been seeing this particular meme popping up in social media for a couple of weeks now. I generally find this stuff easy to ignore — especially the lightweight pseudo-Zen philosophical near-aphorisms that sound profound but aren’t. But for some mysterious reason I find this particular meme more annoying than most (although, now I think of it, the reason isn’t at all mysterious; the reason is because it’s almost officially winter and soon I’ll be dealing with the reality of snow).

This is bullshit. It stinks of Zen, which is to say it has the appearance of Zen philosophy without the substance. It co-opts the notion of mindfulness; mindful fitness may be a real thing, but it exists outside of a hashtag. It suggests I’m somehow at fault for NOT finding joy in snow. It suggests joy is something I can somehow force myself to experience rather than a spontaneous reaction to the moment. It suggests I’m unwilling to ‘find’ joy in snow, and that my unwillingness is a personal failing. It also suggests joy is quantifiable, that it’s something you can add to or subtract from and measure against some sort of baseline standard.

That’s all bullshit. That’s not how joy works. Joy isn’t an emotion you elect to feel; it’s a natural, unpremeditated experience. Being open to joy can be a conscious decision, but it’s not a response you can compel. You can choose not to be miserable about a given situation — or at least not to give in to misery — but you simply can’t strong-arm or manipulate yourself into experiencing joy.

The idea behind this meme is laudable. It’s saying snow will happen independent of your emotions, that it will fall regardless of how you feel about it, that snow is a natural event over which you have no control, so you may as well get some pleasure out of it. (Well, the real point of the meme is to get you to visit a website and buy snow-related sports products, which will bring joy to the business owners.) I actually like the idea behind the meme — the non-capitalist part, but the meme itself is misleading and it’s bullshit.

There are a LOT of natural events that will take place independent of your emotions and regardless of how you feel about them. Some of them are pleasant. A rainbow, for example, or the way leaves change in autumn. Other events aren’t pleasant. A flood, or a drought. An earthquake, or a mudslide, or a volcanic eruption. Or, if you live in California, a wildfire.

If you choose not to find joy in the wildfire, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of fire.

See how massively stupid that is? I’ve been through natural disasters — floods and tornadoes and hurricanes. None of them brought me joy. (That’s not entirely true; I felt a weird fierce joy at seeing a tornado, while still dreading what it could do.) I can honestly say that even while dealing with the ugly aftermath of those events, there hasn’t been a single day when I didn’t experience some sort of momentary joy. 

It’s going to snow here. It’s inevitable. When that happens, I absolutely WILL feel joy watching it fall. I’ll probably feel some degree of joy when I take a walk in the snow. But I can also guarantee you I’m NOT going to feel joy when I have to shovel it off the driveway and sidewalks. There IS a certain meditative contentment in the repetitive act of shoveling, and some emotional gratification in doing it well. But that ain’t joy.

hardboiled

A couple days ago an acquaintance asked me a question and recommended a television show. The show is called Stumptown, which according to my acquaintance, is sorta kinda about a woman private investigator. The question was this:

Are real private investigators actually hardboiled?

The question had to do with the show. I hadn’t watched the show, so I couldn’t say anything about the hardboiled character of the protagonist, other than in my experience television PIs are about a realistic as television doctors or television lawyers. Which is to say not realistic at all. In fact, television PIs are probably even less realistic. TV writers (and viewers) almost certainly have some limited first hand experience with doctors and lawyers, but relatively little experience with real life PIs. So they’re mostly making shit up based on what other writers have made up about PIs.

So, are real PIs actually hardboiled? Before the question can be answered, we have to decide just what the hell that term means. It generally refers to characters who are cynical, jaded, sarcastic, tough, world-weary, wisecracking, violence-prone, stubbornly persistent, but with an unspoken code of honor/conduct.

 

Most of that is nonsense. Most of it. But some of it absolutely applies to real private investigators. How much it applies depends partly on what type of PI you’re talking about. Just like lawyers and doctors, private investigators tend to specialize. The more technical your specialization, the less hardboiled you have to be. A PI who does mostly accident reconstruction or forensic financial investigations probably doesn’t have to be hardboiled at all.

The more your work involves human frailty, the more hardboiled you have to be. PIs who specialize in, say, domestic investigations — divorces, pre-marital investigations, cheating spouses, that sort of thing — tend to be a lot more hardboiled. Insurance investigators, folks who missing persons, even PIs who specialize in deep background investigations need to be somewhat hardboiled to be effective. The same is true of criminal defense investigation, which was my specialty.

Where the fictional hardboiled character diverges from reality the most is in being openly sarcastic and making wisecracks. At the heel of the hunt, most PI work is about getting reliable information. You won’t get that from folk you’ve pissed off. Worse, when people get pissed off, they sometimes get violent. That’s fine in fiction, where a PI can get beat up or shot and shrug it off the next day. In real life, getting beat up seriously fucks up your ability to work — and if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Being a smart ass isn’t just stupid, it’s bad for business.

In real life, being hardboiled is most apparent in your attitude. It’s more about being emotionally tough than physically tough. It’s less about being cynical than it is about losing the ability to be shocked by the shit people do to each other. Some of the most hardboiled people I’ve ever met were emergency room nurses.

Believe it or not, the only television or movie PI I’ve seen who came close to getting the attitude right was Veronica Mars. Not the smart-ass Veronica, but the skeptical and persistent Veronica. She also showed the long-term debilitating effect of being skeptical and suspicious all the time. By the end of the third season, Veronica Mars was pretty fucked up. That was realistic.

The protagonist in Stumptown.

I decided to watch the first episode of Stumptown, the television show that sparked the question. I had low expectations (hardboiled, remember). And yeah, the show isn’t at all realistic. But the protagonist has the attitude down. She wasn’t actually a private investigator, but she was hardboiled. And she was a smart-ass, but not in the usual hardboiled television style. When she was sarcastic, it wasn’t like she was scoring points or showing off or trying to belittle somebody. It was more like she couldn’t be bothered any more…to be nice, to be cute, to be clever, to be friendly, to be anything other than being completely fucking weary of dealing with other people’s shit. The tone of her voice and her flat affect was more disinterested resignation than anything else. We’re becoming used to women characters who say, “I can’t believe I still have to deal with this shit.” We like characters like that. But this woman was more “Yeah, I’ve seen this shit before, I’ll probably see a lot more of it, but it’s your shit, so don’t expect me to care about it.” It made the character, in those moments, believable.

I said earlier that being hardboiled has a lot to do with losing the ability to be surprised. Stumptown surprised me. Not the action (which was over the top, but well done), not the plot (which was predictable), but the protagonist’s attitude. And, of course, she has the one thing that all true fictional hardboiled characters have — the sense that what she’s doing won’t change much, if anything, but might give one person a slim chance not to fuck up their life.

I enjoyed the show. I’ll watch at least one or two more episodes, even though I’m skeptical that any network television show can manage to avoid turning an interesting character into another dull, predictable clone. (Hardboiled, remember.)

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.