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.

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a mild defense of facebook

Facebook, I’m told, isn’t cool anymore. I’m not sure it ever was — but now, at this point in time, I’ve been assured by folks who have a more confident hand at the ‘this is cool’ wheel, Facebook is decidedly not cool.

Cool or not, Facebook is an integral part of my morning routine. Since I haven’t held a straight job since 2000 and since I have little native self-discipline, I rely on routines to make sure I get stuff done. Without routines I’d spend my entire day with a cat on my lap, researching stuff I don’t really need to know (seriously, how does a turtle pull its head into its shell–do the vertebrae collapse somehow, does its neck just curve a lot, what the hell is going on in there?), or entranced by the way the morning sunlight refracts off the sugar crystals on the top of the blueberry muffins, or indulging in the shame of politics (indictments of Jerome Corsi, yes please), or pointlessly unpacking all the elements of the most recent Doctor Who episode (what other sci-fi show would do such an intimate exploration of the Partition of India?).

Initiating my morning routine.

So routines (which are also not cool) are important to me, and Facebook is part of my morning routine, which is as follows:

  1. Check the perimeter (though c’mon, I’m living in an incredibly safe and boring suburb now, and the only thing I’m likely to discover when checking the perimeter is the weather) with the aid of the cat.
  2. Feed the cat her stink food.
  3. Make coffee.
  4. Read the news — general Google news headlines first, dipping into stories that interest me; Washington Post for fundamental news reporting; Daily Kos for the lefty take on events.
  5. Tell myself to read my email, look at my email subject headings, then usually ignore my email (unless it’s clearly hate mail, which I’ll generally read for some reason; today’s hate mail: “Are all you cunts ready for cw2? We are!” Which I probably shouldn’t have read, because now I feel I have to get ready for the Second American Civil War, and who has time for that?).
  6. Scroll through Facebook.

I should note that I don’t do Family Facebook. I keep my personal life separate from my online life, so I don’t ‘friend’ loved ones or family members (and I might as well confess that I’m really not at all interested to hear that somebody’s grandchild scored a goal at a soccer match over the weekend). Instead Facebook for me is about friends and art and politics, which may sound like three separate categories but in reality are generally all smooshed together.

Friends, art, and politics smooshed together through Panel Pulp.

What that means in practical terms is this: Facebook inserts serendipity and random weirdness into my morning. I like that. I like that I’ve become friendly and familiar with folks and I have no recollection at all how I came into contact with them. These are people who’ve come bouncing into my line of sight from some odd social angle and caught my attention in some pleasing or interesting way (and now that I say that, it occurs to me that the process is a lot like seeing the morning sunlight refracting off the sugar crystals on the blueberry muffin). It just happens and I’m lucky enough to notice.

The serendipity and random weirdness isn’t just how I’ve made friends on Facebook, it’s also an intrinsic and essential part of reason I keep this as part of my routine. People post the most unexpected and wonderful stuff on Facebook. I’m not talking about videos of amusing cats or goats playing balloons, though I often enjoy that stuff too. I’m talking about stuff for audiences that I didn’t even know existed. Like Panel Pulp (which is actually a Twitter account, but is often reposted on Facebook).

Another example: international marble racing. If not for my friend Young Jo, I’d have never encountered Jelle’s Marble Runs or seen these exciting qualifying races for the 2018 Sand Marble Race (I prefer the organic nature of sand marble racing over the more sophisticated manufactured marble racing tracks…but that’s just me; also, I’m inclined to be suspicious of Marbly McMarbleface).

Another bit of weird and random I love about Facebook is that I encounter folks who are open and unapologetic about their weirdness. So open, in fact, that they’re not even aware of how weird their weirdness is, and I find that completely endearing. I mean, who creates marble race tracks, records the races, keeps track of the stats of the individual marbles, and narrates the videos? Even weirder is the fact that these videos have an audience. I love that.

The most consistent thing that draws me to Facebook (aside from the politics) is that it exposes me to some really diverse facets of the arts. Bizarre sci-fi art, stark 1950s Japanese noir photography, beautiful original pen and ink art, strange and/or practical yarn art, and lots of personal photography. For example, this morning I saw this photograph by Larry Rose:

Larry Rose — West room corner.

I have no memory of how I became friends with Larry Rose. I know little about him as a person. But I know and enjoy his work. This wonderfully subtle photo kept me from doing the work I was supposed to be doing for maybe ten minutes. At least two different light sources, each operating at a different wavelength, creating strange but predictable shadows and colors. An antenna at an almost perfect 45 degree angle that creates a bit of visual tension against all the other horizontal and vertical lines. And that beautiful Borg Cube of a lampshade that seems to be floating in the corner. Without Facebook, I’d probably never have seen this photo.

Facebook isn’t cool. But there is cool stuff to be found there. There’s a chance I’d have learned about Burning the Clocks without Facebook, but probably not. And right now there’s an excellent chance that you’re wondering if Burning the Clocks is a band, or a movie, or who the hell knows what. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll click on the link and find out.

Is that cool? I kinda think so.

knuckles steps away

Back in January I began a second photo project (and seeing what I’ve just written, there’s a part of me asking ‘What sort of boneheaded idjit starts a photo project in fucking January?’) under the Knuckles Dobrovic alias. The first project was simple and stupid and rather fun: I put a thing on a table and photographed it. This second project was also simple and fairly unoriginal: when I took a walk I’d stop periodically and photograph my feet. The only original aspect of the notion was that I’d layer two or three of those photos on top of each other, making double or triple exposures.

January 29, the project began.

Why? Well, since it’s a photo project, there has to be at least one pretentious bullshit element at work, right? Dude, this project has two pretentious bullshit elements. Here they are.

Pretentious Bullshit Element One: Susan Sontag described photographs as ‘a thin slice of space and time.’ By layering different photographs shot at different times in different places on the same day, I wanted to suggest there’s a thread that ties together those discreet slices of time and place. I wanted to suggest that although I shot THIS photo HERE and THAT photo THERE, they’re basically one photograph of the same walk.

Pretentious Bullshit Element Two: The Buddhist monk Thích Nhat Hạnh, said this about walking meditation: When you walk, arrive with every step. I love that idea, though I’m not entirely sure what it actually means. But when I stopped to take the photos for this gig, I liked to tell myself that I’d arrived at that scattering of dead leaves, or at that lost mitten, or at that manhole cover.

February 19

See? Told you it was pretentious bullshit. But it helped me establish the gig in my head. It made the project purposeful. The concept appealed to me. The concept still does. But it’s been nine months, and I think I’ve learned as much as I can from the gig. I’d like to say I’ve accomplished my goal, except that there really wasn’t any goal. It was just an interesting thing to do while walking. And now it’s beginning to feel a tad stale to me.

March 12

One of the things I learned, though, is that the sort of stuff I’d originally thought might be interesting, often wasn’t. Shadow turned out to be surprisingly difficult to incorporate. Bright colors were often discordant in double exposures, or else they just turned into a muddy mucky brown. And small visually interesting stuff (like, say, a dead sparrow or a pair of sunglasses with one shattered lens) just tend to disappear in double exposures. 

April 26

I also discovered that I’m in bondage to a certain level of geometric orderliness. Initially, I deliberately photographed a lot of diagonal lines in the hope they’d add a pleasing complexity to the final photographs. Sometimes they did, but more often they just made the double exposures confusing. So I found myself relying more and more on lines that were horizontal or vertical — a sort of Mondrian neoplasticism (and boom, there’s more pretentious bullshit).

June 11

Finally, I was sort of surprised that not every walk resulted in a double exposure I found pleasing enough to publish. I’ve no idea how many total photos I shot for this project, or how many walks I took, but I generally shot at least three and up to eight photos of my feet on each walk. On some walks I simply failed to photograph two things that would work as double exposures.

August 17

So there we are. Nine months, 124 photographs. That’s enough. This gig is done. But I’m going to re-repeat something I said at the end of the first Knuckles project (and repeated at the beginning of this 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.

September 29

I don’t know yet what the project will be. I’m still intrigued by double exposures, so it may have something to do with that. And I’m intrigued by the concept of appropriation, so that may work into it somehow. Or it may be something completely unrelated to those things. Or hell, I may not come up with any idea at all, and this will be the end of Knuckles Dobrovic.

But I doubt it.

October 31, project ends.

ADDENDUM: I have been chastised for not including a link to the project on Instagram. For some reason, it never occurred to me. I suck at self-promotion. But for those interested in seeing all the photos, here you go: Knuckles Dobrovic.

in the box

They’re still burying John McCain today. They’ve been burying him all week. I don’t know when he’ll actually get put in the ground. For that matter, I don’t know that putting him in the ground is part of the plan; he may be cremated, for all I know. But the thing is, he’s been dead for a week — for seven full days — and people are still gathering to pay their final respects (or, in the case of politicians like Pence, McConnell, and Ryan, to fake their final respects) to the man.

Comrade Trump, of course, isn’t there. He’s off somewhere else, tweeting angrily about what a great president he is, and how unfair it is that he’s being investigated, and how nobody can be trusted or believed except him.

But knowing that Trump is alive and tweeting while McCain is being buried, an obvious questions comes to mind. Some day it’ll be Comrade Trump’s day in the box. Who’ll come to his funeral? Who’ll give speeches praising him? Who’ll be his pall-bearers? Who’ll weep uncontrollably?

How many ordinary citizens will wait in line for hours to look at his casket?

something something photography something

I used to be a camera app junkie. I regularly walked around with half a dozen camera apps on my phone — each of which did one or two things particularly well. I had two apps just for black-and-white work (one in square format, one in 3:2), another app just for awkward lighting situations, one for…well, you get the idea. I regularly downloaded new camera apps just to see what they could do, and discarded them ruthlessly

I’m in camera app recovery now. I only have two apps on my phone — one sophisticated app that gives me a lot of control over exposure, and one app that I’ve simplified in such a way that I can toggle between color and b&w (both in square format). I shoot almost exclusively with the simplified app. All the photographs in this post were shot with the same app.

A few folks have asked me why I bother to shoot in b&w when I could just shoot in color, then process the image as black-and-white. It’s a valid question. After all, a digital image in color contains a more information than a b&w image, and the use of color filters in post processing gives you more control over the final image. It would be smarter to shoot in color.

But I don’t. There has to be some sort of decision-making process that takes place in my head — some sort of algorithm firing in my brain, evaluating the scene and arriving at a decision. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much thought involved at all. I usually know if I’ll be shooting color or b&w when I pull the phone out of my pocket.

I also tend to photograph a lot of stuff that’s not obviously photo-worthy (if there is such a thing as photo-worthy), partly because I often find a photograph of a thing to be more interesting and appealing than the thing itself. Sometimes the entire point of a photo is in the act of photographing, not the thing being photographed. If that makes sense. Sometimes the point of a photo is in the decision of what to include in the frame and what to exclude.

As I wrote that, a thought occurred to me. Over the last several years, I’ve made my living dealing with narratives in one form or another. Now I walk around shooting photos that tend to be narrative-resistant. When you get down to the bone, a photograph isn’t anything but an arrangement of light on a surface. There’s no inherent narrative content. No matter what people say, a single photograph doesn’t tell a story. It can’t tell a story. Any narrative that might emerge comes from the viewer, not the photograph.

I don’t recall who said all photographs are self-portraits. One of those photographers from the 1930s and 40s, I’m sure — the ones who did the grunt work of turning the craft into an art form. It’s a great line, partly because it’s artsy bullshit and partly because it’s got a fuzzy kernel of truth. There’s a decision made behind every photograph. Every single one. And that decision reveals something about who you are.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who photographs kids at a birthday party, maybe you’re the sort of person who is passionate about photographing life on the street, maybe you’re the sort of person who is attracted by the arrangement of weeds growing along a drainage ditch. You might even be all the sort of person who does all three.

I had a point to make when I started writing this. I’ve totally forgotten what that point was. I suppose if the point was important, I’d have remembered it. This is what happens when you think about photography instead of doing photography. You might learn something new; you might also lose the point.

alchemy, hermetically-sealed trump, zosimos of panopolis, and other stuff

A lot of folks I know are baffled by Comrade Trump’s apparent popularity among Republicans. As of this week, 84% of Republicans approve of his job performance. That’s huge. How is it possible, they wonder, for them to support a president who blatantly tells lies, who has repeatedly cheated on his wife, who routinely bullies and vilifies his critics, who brags incessantly, who claims to be a Christian but is ignorant about Christianity, who deliberately undermines the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence services for his own political purposes? How the hell is that possible?

The simple answer is…wait. Hold on. Have you ever known me to give a simple answer? No fucking way. So allow me to digress. And I mean seriously digress. I’m going to explain Comrade Trump’s apparent popularity by turning to Zosimos of Panopolis.

Zosimos of Panopolis, with an alembic.

You’re almost certainly asking yourself (well, you’re actually asking me, but…wait, never mind), Who the hell is or was Zosimos of Panopolis? He was an Egyptian alchemist and mystic who lived at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century AD. Zosimos wrote one of the earliest books on alchemy. In it, he describes several devices invented by an earlier alchemist known as Mary the Jewess (who was also known as Mary the Prophetess…because apparently only men can be prophets, which is a whole nother thing I haven’t time to get into, along with that whole ‘Jewess’ business). One of those devices was a…okay, wait, I feel another tangent coming on. The early alchemical practices were known as the ‘hermetic arts’, for Hermes, the Greek god of science and art. One of the devices invented by our Mary — not the one I’m going to mention in a bit, but a different apparatus — was an airtight container. This is where the phrase ‘hermetically sealed’ comes from. Cool, huh? I now return you to the original digression.

Zosimos’ book credits Mary with inventing the alembic (although this is probably not so). What’s an alembic? It’s a sort of gourd-shaped container with a hollow half-ball thingum on top, from which a tube runs…well, hell, just look at the illustration below.

An alembic.

An alembic basically works like a moonshiner’s still. You put a liquid in the container, heat it until it creates steam or vapor, the steam rises into the upper ball where it cools by contact with the walls and condenses, the condensation then drips down the tube into another container. This is the process of distillation, and it works whether you’re trying to create alcohol or perfume or medicine.

That distilled liquid is the essence of the original liquid. If you take that essence, put it back into the alembic and distill it again — and do it a total of five times — you end up with a quintessence. A very pure form of the original liquid.

Right. Now apply that concept to political parties. In 1944, 38% of U.S. registered voters identified as Republican (41% were Democrats, 20% were Independents). As of July 11th of this year only 26% of voters identify as Republican. Although the numbers have fluctuated, there has been a steady decline in Republican numbers (as well as a more gradual decline in those identifying as Democrat (30%), with a corresponding increase in Independents (41%)).

We’re talking political distillation here. A slow process of separating out impurities. Both political parties have been distilled, though Democrats, who’ve historically been more tolerant of ideological impurity, remain considerably less pure. Both parties have boiled off Independents, though at radically different rates.

But here’s the thing: after the distillation process — after all the good stuff has been boiled away — there’s still stuff left in the bottom of the alembic. That, you guys, is the modern Republican party. After a few decades of boiling, Republicans are left with a residue of mostly older white Christian uber-nationalist racists. Among whom Comrade Trump is immensely popular.

Faust, with an alembic and your basic homunculus.

Oh, and back to our boy Zosimos of Panopolis for a moment. In his book, he includes a series of mystical dream/vision sequences (remember, we’re talking 3rd and 4th century Egypt here; they were hot for that dreamy-visiony stuff). In his dream, Zosimos meets “a priest of inner sanctuaries” who proceeds to chop Zosimos up. boils the bits, and from the steam he creates a creature that is “the opposite of himself.”

The idea of an alchemically-created homunculus is said to have influenced an alchemist named Johann Georg Faust, who was possibly the inspiration for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama of a man who made a pact with the devil. The notion also intrigued another alchemist named Johann Conrad Dippel, who was born in (and I swear I am NOT making this up) Castle Frankenstein in the village of Darmstein. Dippel was almost certainly the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein, who created the monster that…well, this could go on forever, couldn’t it.

The residue left at the bottom.

Anyway, it’s all down to alchemy, Zosimos, Mary the Jewess, Mary Shelley, and…and at this point I’ve totally lost track of my point. But that’s why Comrade Trump is so popular.

suicide

Kate Spade a few days ago. Anthony Bourdain today. I’m rarely surprised when I hear somebody has committed suicide. Saddened, yes, to be sure, but hardly ever shocked or surprised. Why? Partly because there are so many reasons for folks to want to kill themselves, and partly because thoughts of suicide are universal, and partly because the thought of nonexistence can be so strangely attractive.

I doubt I know anybody who hasn’t, at one point or another, thought about how nice it would be if you could just remove yourself from existence. All your problems, all those life complications, all that stress and anxiety and pressure — all of it, just gone.

For some folks there might be some measure of vindictiveness in the thought; that whole ‘They’ll miss me when I’m gone‘ thing. But I suspect most folks who indulge in the thought of suicide are more likely to be thinking something like ‘I wish I’d never been born.’ It’s not death itself that’s attractive, it’s deletion. It’s not being whited out or erased from the page so much as having never been written onto the page in the first place. That way nobody misses you when you’re gone, nobody suffers.

Kate Spade

Most of us never act on those thoughts, of course. Some do. Some succeed. But here’s the thing: everybody has a reason to commit suicide. Everybody. Most of us also have reasons not to do it.

Here are my reasons for suicide: 1) I’ve witnessed/done way too many ugly things in my life; I have way too many ugly images in my head, and not a day goes by without at least one of them popping up, 2) I’m getting old and my body is beginning to fail; I hurt a lot; my knees are crap; I can no longer do things I used to do easily, which is sometimes comical and sometimes terribly frustrating, 3) I’m moderately poor; I never expected to live this long, so I took no steps to insure I’d have enough money to live comfortably as I aged (in the same way I took no steps to insure I’d be healthy). I’m not so poor I’ll ever miss a meal, but more poor than I ever expected to be.

I don’t regret any of that. I may not like the images in my head, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where I experienced stuff most folks haven’t. I may be beat-up physically, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where fear of pain or suffering never stopped me from doing something. And I may be poor, but I’m glad I’ve never felt the need for financial security and I’m glad I’ve never made a safe career choice or taken a career path for a steady paycheck.

Anthony Bourdain

Here are my primary reasons for NOT committing suicide: joy and curiosity. Every single day — hell, several times each and every day — I find something fascinating to see, think about, watch, study, enjoy. Every day — several times a day — something happens that makes me laugh, that delights me, that makes me stupidly happy. Every day, several times a day, I’m glad I’m alive. All that far outweighs any passing desire to delete myself from existence.

Besides, the convenient thing about suicide is that you can always do it tomorrow. It’s almost always an option. There’s some weird comfort in that.

I need to acknowledge, though, that I’ve never experienced actual depression. I’ve been deeply sad, I’ve been desperate, I’ve been terrified, but I’ve never felt any sort of sustained depression. That’s a closed box for me; I can understand it intellectually, but I’ve no idea what it’s like to live with any more than I know what it’s like to be blind. But if depression makes a person blind to beauty and joy and curiosity, I understand why it would seem to close any option for living.

So I’m sad about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I’m sad for their friends and family. I’m sad they felt they’d run out of options. I wish they’d been able to find a reason to delay the decision to kill themselves. I wish they’d continued to find reasons to delay that decision. I’m not surprised by what they did, and I think the world is a slightly lesser place without them in it — not just because they were celebrities or accomplished in their chosen fields, but because their continued existence was part of what made being alive worthwhile for others.

I think that’s probably true for almost everybody who considers suicide.