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.

a few simple rules

I was pushing a loading cart holding maybe ten heavy boxes and an ironing board down the hallway of ‘senior living center’ (it’s a long story, but irrelevant to this post) when an old guy using a walker came tottering down the hallway with a small homely mixed breed dog that was suffering from some serious sinus issues. I stopped the cart, smiled at the guy, and said “Now that’s a fine-looking dog.” He smiled and chuckled and thanked me. Told me the dog’s name. Said, “He’s friendly,” which I took as an invitation to lean down and pet the wee creature, who was largely indifferent to the entire situation.

My friend, who was pushing a smaller loading cart, gave me a familiar WTF look as we started moving again. I said, “Always compliment a person’s dog. The dog’s don’t care, but it makes their owners happy.” She said, “Is that like a rule of life?”

Always compliment a person’s dog.

I decided that it was. Or should be. And here are a few more basic rules of life.

— Always compliment a person’s dog.
— Don’t block the aisle with your shopping cart.
— Apologize when you’re wrong.
— Don’t wear blackface.
— Hold the door open for everybody.
— Vote.
— Tip your server, even if the service is poor (because these folks are always overworked, get paid very little, are often abused by their customers, and sometimes they make mistakes like everybody else).
— Read at least a few paragraphs after the headlines.
— Tell the people you love that you love them.
— Tell the people you like that you like them.
— Push your damn chair in when you leave the table.
— Check the batteries in your flashlight.
— Don’t argue with stupid people.
— Park between the lines.
— Don’t judge people for the TV shows they watch, or the books they read, or the games they play, or the music they prefer, or the god they worship, or the clothes they wear, or the food they cook, or…just don’t fucking judge people.
— Refer to folks by the names they ask you to use even if you don’t understand and even if you think it’s stupid.
— Say ‘hi’ to strangers now and then.
— Try new foods, even if they sound/look gross.

Say ‘hi’ to strangers now and then.

Okay, that’s not a complete list. And maybe they’re more like guidelines than rules. And they’re my guidelines; they don’t need to apply to anybody else. I figure you’ve probably got your own. But these work for me.

a short list of things I’d like to see in 2019

In no particular order:

The Great British Baking Show with Paul Hollywood as a contestant. Let’s see how he likes that.
— A movie car chase in which the police officer doing the chasing decides it’s just not worth the risk to the public and just stops.
— The return of home milk delivery in glass bottles.
— Playgrounds for adults, so you could go play on a swing for half an hour without other adults looking at you like you’re some sort of pedophile.
— Louis CK continuing to perform in comedy clubs…and the entire audience standing and walking out.
— A remake of Killing Eve with all the same actors but with a plot that wasn’t phenomenally stupid.
— Donald Trump and his family of grifters and traitors in handcuffs.
— Universal health care in the US.
— Universal selective service in the US. Not necessarily military service, but a couple years of compulsory national, state, or local service.
— George RR Martin admitting he’s sick to death of GoT and acknowledging he’s never going to finishing the last books, so everybody should just watch the HBO show and be satisfied.
— More respect for bollards.
— A harsh, severe, punitive tax on houses with pointless gables and extraneous dormer windows.
— Brett Kavanaugh busted for DWI.
— Gun owners actually held accountable for their guns.
— Actual usable pockets in women’s clothes. It’s 2019, for fuck’s sake.

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

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

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.

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?