December 2009 Archives

Cover Story


Without actuallly doing the legwork, we might assume that statistics are available on the number of digital cameras that are actually in circulation now, thanks to the evolution of traditional hobbyist equipment and the concurrent explosive increase of camera phone availability.

The number would easily be meaninglessly large to most casual observers. On the one hand, above a certain income level, it is now easier to assume that anyone you meet has a camera on them than it is to assume that they don't. Utilization is, of course, a different matter. But it is fair to say that digital cameras are to photography what the affordable "word processor" was to writing.

Brian Kunde wrote about the breakthrough moment for writing in his Foothills College class paper called "A Brief History of Word Processing (through 1986)", excerpted here from a Google excavation of the paper:

" In 1964 IBM brought out the MT/ST (Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter), which combined the features of the Selectric with a magnetic tape drive. Magnetic tape was the first reusable storage medium for typed information.14 With this, for the first time, typed material could be edited without having to retype the whole text or chop up a coded copy. On the tape, information could be stored, replayed (that is, retyped automatically from the stored information), corrected, reprinted as many times as needed, and then erased and reused for other projects. This development marked the beginning of word processing as it is known today.  It also introduced word processing as a definite idea and concept."

One of the most interesting aspects of that breakthrough was the assumption that users of word processors needed to manipulate their initial work as drafts because they were typically "unfinished" versions of the desired artifact. But, unfortunately or not, increasing affordability and convenience meant that more and more people would use the instrument casually and not craft-ily,

Digital cameras bring a dual legacy to the party. From one direction, the convention and aesthetics of the snapshot are brought to full force. From another direction, the "media" orientation of "live coverage" obtains. These two directions seem to intersect at a point called "immediacy"; meanwhile, the jury is probably still out on whether (in survival mode) snapshots have the franchise on "history" more than does "coverage". Coverage seems to be conducted with a speculative approach to history, except under the model of journalism. Snapshots seem to be more intentionally aimed at "remembering"; the highest ambition of a snapshot is to make the inherently disposable picture convey an unforgettable image.

Instinctively, we know that most digital images made these days are not only disposable but probably deserve to be thrown away. The only thing more obviously "throwaway" than digital pictures is probably conversation. Most of what we said yesterday, whether memorable or not, simply need not be remembered, but that doesn't take away from the utility of the conversation in its original moments. The mind-boggling thing about it all is that easily 1% of one day's photography could be the "good stuff", to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pictures that didn't exist the day before.

Utilitarian photographic coverage of the time and space of experiences places a certain kind of value on the pictures. It is not the crafting of the pictures that matters nearly so much as the expected use of the pictures.

To understand how current usage is most significant, non-professional use of pictures is likely a more important concept than non-commercial use. This is mainly because the opportunity to exchange usage privileges of a picture for some other property -- i.e., the commercial mechanism -- is almost entirely indifferent to the reason why the picture exists in the first place. Additionally, if the commercial effort can't get the picture it wants from the provider that it wants, it will simply substitute a different picture and/or a different provider instead.

A professional effort applies standards to the picture that may of course be leveraged commercially, but the important distinction of "professional" here is more in the sense of being consistent with the expectations of a community of "expert" practitioners, not whether anything is actually getting sold.

Pervasive digital photographing runs past the expertise of crafting pictures much like highway commuting is indifferent to much of the engineering brilliance built into even a decent car's driving capability.

That's not to say that anything is wrong. Instead, by similarity to that, the most notable aspect of digital photographing is that the production of most digital photographs is so highly circumstantial. The single most important decision that the non-professional photographer makes is to decide to take a picture instead of to not take one -- and that decision is based mainly on the photographer's "expertise" about the situation at hand.

This is a simple, but earned and profound, individual expertise that makes use of the photographer's ability to predict or trap the expressions of their own sensibility -- and that sensibility can be highly sub-cultural but is not required to be. (Also note that it may range from very primitive to pretty mature.)

On a case by case basis, the non-professional photographer does not need to be concerned with standards outside of the essentially conversational and personal use of the picture. However, the mechanics and tools in use mean that unlike most verbal stuff of conversations, the images recorded by such photographers now easily pile up and hang around as part of not just their personal circumstances but the public environment. (This is drastically different from an imagined environment where conversational sound bites would be captured and broadcast with similar ease and volume -- although of course micro-blogging only needs a "Google" to accomplish the trick, so it won't be drastically different for much longer! Please search for sound bites like "<this>"...)  

As an environmental characteristic, the vast collection and presence of non-professional pictures is still not yet in the driver's seat of influence on how to make a picture -- but it's riding shotgun. Commercial photography is equally pervasive and more highly motivated towards wide circulation and notice. Consequently, observant people with digital cameras have more and more of an opportunity to revise their personal standards (especially by getting more picky) or to rehearse professional pictorial ideas (especially by getting more crafty) towards commercial effects. On the other hand, the impact of personality and personal expression can go unfiltered into the picture-making of a non-professional mode, and it gets there faster and cheaper.

As any brief trip in a web image search engine shows, these different production efforts obviously co-exist very successfully. Given that, we might wonder how the feedback of looking at more pictures than ever affects the kind of decisions we nowadays make when we make our next pictures.

What this feedback issue comes down to is an interesting comparison: between a notion of a very wide-scale increase of visual competency comparable to "literacy", versus a proliferating pictorial competency comparable to "idiom". 

As said (at the time of this writing) on a Wikipedia page:

"an idiom is an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply. When a speaker uses an idiom, the listener might mistake its actual meaning, if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before... In the English expression 'to kick the bucket', a listener knowing only the meanings of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression's true meaning: to die." 

The betting money here says that assertively idiomatic pictures are the norm of non-professional photography, varying mainly in the degree to which the photographer pushes them to some formallly premeditated state. But it also says here that the design industry will appropriate as much of that photography as it can, to generate commercial images for mass consumption (including journalism).

Meanwhile, it is probably conventional (at least) to associate "art" pictures with idiomatic expression. But for that reason, the feedback from non-professional photography fueled by digital cameras will not influence much of a notable change to photographic art work. However, it may very well exponentially increase the number of photographers who would be considered artists. (The only apparent reason this would not happen would be some kind of political interference in the now available channels of distribution and promotion.) 

Disclaimer: Most of the above pertains only to the camerawork that digital photography encourages. Naturally it is important to acknowledge how dominant computers are in digital picture production, and so the closest technical parallel to the word processor would actually be the "picture file processor" -- another whole instrument -- running on the desktop.  But for this time around, the ideas are concerned with how the photographer chooses to use the camera alone to form an immediate presentation version of the image, thanks to the camera's advanced technology.


As written here, Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder.

Please quote-and-credit as much as desired.

Boudreaux Working




Above: we glued everything into place but it turned out that we didn't need to do that.

Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder






Pathing-IMG_2849ApanBW.jpgCopyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder

Signs of the City


As a photographer, I've watched Shirley Massinter, New Orleans painter, go from the car window to her photo to her drawing to... her final painting based on the target first spotted through the car window.

As part of that observation,  a different but parallel progression would appear, paved of decisions Massinter made at each stage of production, creating the path of transformations that the visual information would take in her hands: decisions involving selection, interpretation, transposition, and presentation.

Respecting her craftsmanship, a technical discussion could easily and lengthily dwell on the "how" of each transformation at each stage. It's usually more intriguing to ask about the "whys"; but cutting to the punchline, Massinter's final "how" (i.e. presentation) sets her squarely in a group of elite stylists -- ultra-precise renderers who constantly balance re-presenting a subject against re-producing it -- and nearly erasing the distinction between how and why.

In re-production, the key point of the paint is the ability to display why the look of something is the primary way of defining what it is. We might expect some "artistic license", some preferential enhancements or reductions, to make this more obvious, but that isn't what Massinter offers. So in her discipline, what is it that merits the microscopic attentiveness and fidelity to the look that the things in view already have?

Much of the time, in apparent super-realist or photo-realist paintings, the drama of this display of non-interference can come from doting on the ordinary as a foil for the extraordinary rendering. However, in re-presentation, the painter's obsessive refusal to alter a thing's own look also requires the thing to be posed such that it "proposes" why we should notice it. So how does this proposal make itself special even without a reliance on special ingredients? 

Ironically, some of that might be argued in terms of notions of "concrete painting" that insist on the value of the materiality or "object-ness" of the painting itself. But, given concrete painting's insistence on generating the painting from the world of the mind absent external "real world" references, the notion of borrowing from it here is just a segue from thinking about technique. Dwelling instead on a purpose of this object-ness, one possibility is that Massinter's overall image works like a literal excerpt or, with more "subjectivity", like a quote

The secret of the successful quote is not to state fancifully but to be apropos. To the audience, the immediate importance of this type of statement is derived from the circumstance in which it is currently used; but a large part of its distinction is always held in its reference to its source. That is, when quoting is going on, we care about what particular snippet is used, when it is used, and where we got it from in the first place -- and the act of "quoting" aims to satisfy all three aspects. That aim begins to explain the overall connecting gestural logic of the path of transformations to the final painting: the "why" behind all the "hows" within the technique is aimed at the successful quote.

But one challenge, or even problem, with that lies in the occasion where the source of the quote does not register with the audience. Does this mean that the gesture will come up half-empty, will not succeed?  

My take is that this isn't the right problem to worry about. Instead, from a critic's perspective, the necessary impact of these pictures is actually the impact of looking in a mirror. The image in a mirror is intended not to call up a foreign reference but to "match" the viewer. 

Apropos of a mirror, the "viewer" is a state of mind with which the seer identifies. The painter tries to form the information of the scene to invoke the state of mind that is, in effect, the proposed identity of the viewer.

What must be made special by the picture's specificity is that state of mind.

This state of mind tracks quickly to a range of possibilities including nostalgia, documentary, and marketing.

Said differently, the impact of the "mirroring" may rely on memory, investigation, or argument. In a single session standing before a mirror, a viewer may cycle through all three attitudes, privately testing  and changing mental poses to determine if the reflected identity is appropriate or presentable. In each case, evidence is paramount.

We know that memory, investigation and argument are all highly subject to selectivity. This necessarily makes the richness of graphical data in Massinter's painting functional to a purpose. Namely, it reinforces the "presence" of the scene such that the presence resists all filtering except for the current activity of the viewer. This places the viewer approximately where Massinter herself was in the beginning, in an opportunity to "see onesself" in the place she shows, liking it or not.

Massinter additionally tends towards public scenery, rather than the confines of intimate private spaces. This makes the viewer reflect in the attitude towards the public locale. Furthermore, as much of her work actually dwells on scenes that risk being socially ignored or rejected in "real life" (notably, including grafitti), the gesture of her re-presentation makes her "trans-formations" political as well.


Image copyright 2009 Shirley Massinter. Promotion: LeMieux Galleries, New Orleans. Photo of the painting is scanned from a reproduction.








Social Art 101 -- A back alley near Pikes Place, Seattle, is bombed by pedestrian grafitti consisting entirely of chewing gums. Eiither embarrassingly or brilliantly, its effect reiterates an idea of art that we're supposed to have learned, but it's unclear whether the players here are still learning on the fly, or whether only the learned dare to play.   


The wall recalls the saying, "a work of art is never finished, but merely stopped..." -- a point most valuable because it talks about the production instead of the product.

The great thing about the work here is the ambiguity between found design versus collaborative design, which comes from cultivating co-incidence instead of planning. There are no gates or tickets guarding access to the wall. The implicit permission to continue modifying the current wall leaves every successive contributor acting as a decision maker with the option to use or abuse any sensibility that the current surface provokes -- including any impulse towards cooperation, intervention, or invention.

While each of those three modus operandi is available at the wall, their respective applications would have widely differing effects depending on what scale of the surface area the participant decides to take over as "workspace" --whether as a starting point of inspiration, or as a boundary.

The choice of scale on which to work is one of the most interesting decisions each contributor can make, in the sense that it stands for a "propriety" assumed by the contributor in the heat of the moment. In a public arena, "encounters" can be large or small incidents, with their emotional and political significance being loaded at macroscopic or microscopic levels of observation. Whether the incident is large or small, the energy of that significance creates the social propriety.

For example, pasting over someone else's "work", multiplying it, contradicting it -- or indeed avoiding, using or abusing their evident "workspace" -- these are all social rhetorics that make public statements.

For the observer, the meaning of those public statements can vary widely. They might be felt wavering around somewhere between the nasty indifference of seaport bird droppings versus the combat of South Bronx tagging -- or instead between the natural layering of sedimentary evolution versus the strategic designing of abstract expressionism.

But in the end, the only certain thing is that the work continues at this wall mainly because it is popular work given an opportunity. For this wall, the "public-ity" is the art.

In the photograph seen above (click to enlarge), the spontaneity of nightflash, the deliberateness of framing, and a number of graphic transformations grab the raw material offered by the wall's effects and begin some reconstruction of that material to start building out a different workspace extending from the wall.


Opportunistically, the photography probes the scene to find an image that it wants to picture, and changes the surface to produce it.  Its ongoing production doesn't rely on the explicit but unwritten rule of the wall, which is to use gum (click low-relief picture at right). Instead, as the picture itself becomes a proxy for the wall, the essential act of the original work, which is to further mark the wall, now falls to making gestures through ongoing transformations in or on the picture. Incidentally, that seems like more private work, but it doesn't have to be. 

At some point we could glue the resulting pictures to the original wall with gum. But, that might violate the social conventions that have developed so far in and on the wall. Perhaps the next step would be to ship the picture off to anyone that wanted to modify it further.

(Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder; as shown, "The Telly")


Etceteras involving stickups, alleys, and other deliberate accidents:


Rauschenberg Cobine Collection1954_L.jpg


Robert Rauschenberg
Collection, 1953-1954
Combine painting: Oil, paper, fabric, wood. metal, mirror on three wood panels.
79 x 95 3/8 x 3 3/4 in. (200.7 x 242.37 x 9.5 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

 "...nothing in my work represents something other than it is."





 Autoterrorist on Berlin grafitti.

"Strategies for urban living through negation, detournement and self-inflicted panic... One method of autoterrorism, for example, is to walk through a dangerous part of town at night..."


Berlin Grafitti3368560390_02f93b533f.jpg

Found primarily online, the Confluence collection of photographs is self-described as follows:

"The project is an organized sampling of the world. The goal of the project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location... There is a confluence within 49 miles (79 km) of you if you're on the surface of Earth."

This is an interesting parallel to Google Maps Street View which accomplishes, essentially, the same trick except under a different "organizational" scheme -- addresses of public locations. Addressing is not as literally uniform as longitude and latitude, but it serves the same purpose and has the interesting additional dimension of some local history superimposed in it, such as the address being a response to a simple and social embracing of the inevitability of a known natural pathway becoming a main street instead of being bludgeoned by indifferent construction.

One might imagine that other formulae could drive the collection of ground imagery, such as a program that told the camera what path to take and how frequently (or in other words, "why") to make a new exposure. This is of course how we map distant planets or foreign military sites. 

The Mars Land Rover had a navigation program and in some sense a set of rules to tell it when to take a picture on its path. And back to the future, a current Wikipedia entry notes: "On March 16, 1955, the United States Air Force officially ordered the development of an advanced reconnaissance satellite to provide continuous surveillance of 'preselected areas of the earth' ..." albeit " order 'to determine the status of a potential enemy’s war-making capability' ".

Meanwhile, even as the implications of surveillance challenge the prospects of being private and secure, the existence of national public parks owes its conservation to influences such as the following:  

" The Hayden Expedition was the most extensive expedition into Yellowstone yet.  Not only did Hayden bring with him an extensive list of notable natural scientists with him, but also he had three photographers, an artist, and a military expedition which had scientists, artists, and photographers of its own...  The Hayden Expedition and the accompanying Barlow Expedition, like the Washburn Expedition before it, produced definitive scientific evidence about Yellowstone's natural wonders, helped strengthen the call to make Yellowstone a national park, and furthered the purposes of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  However, these expeditions were the first to produce photographic evidence of the region, and therefore the first expeditions that convinced the entirety of the public that "Colter's Hell" was a real place." Likewise, we tend to believe that Mars is a real place, and we expect that the photographs, at least collectively, will tell us why we should care.

Sampling, mapping, documenting, and other co-ordinated surveys always have an ingredient of "why" -- or in other words a formula or "motive" -- that accompanies the organizational schema of the image collection. One can imagine that after some period of time, if there were thousands of photos made at each intersection of longitude and latitude, there would be millions of combinations possible from selecting just one shot of each intersection to present along with one shot from each of the other intersections. The editorial or "curatorial" principle used in this selection could readily drive the creation of a composite "sampling" that would dramatically differ from another composite made up of different shots selected by other principles. As such, the "sampling" or composite would be an invention by which the power of suggestion would be the most notable effect obtained -- the "suggested world" view would be different from the suggested worldview of other composites...

In this light, one important moment in the history of photography will be the moment when most of the location images currently showing via Google Maps Street View will be at least five years newer than most of the images shown there today. The collection at that point will not necessarily be showing a different world; but it is certain that it will be a different showing of the world.

This activity -- called "rephotography" or rephotographic survey -- is already well underway by TahoeByPeterGoins167.jpgrecognized practitioners such as Mark Klett and Peter Goins, with the primary distinction being that the navigation and selection program in effect is not based on "neutral" or "agnostic" coordinates but instead on "significant" locations. The key element of the imagery, then, is in its ability to express how the location is significant as of the moment of the pictures' production.

(credits: NASA photo of Mars surface; Lake Tahoe by Peter Goins)