January 2011 Archives

Art and Industry .


(more postcards)



Copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder)





Combat commuting. 57mph to a dead stop in 3 seconds. 5 seconds to draw whatever is in front of you.





Some kinds of hard work are best seen in the near total lack of ambiguity sought by its action. At the same time, orderliness can create the illusion that coincidences are logical. Composition is a kind of "reasoning" that has the objective of giving coincidence the illusion of logic. 


Copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder



In sight










(Portal pictures are not really about what's inside the picture and what's outside; they're actually about what's in front of the picture and what's behind it. The best portal picture is brutally simple. In a famous sight gag, a cartoon character trapped by a bad guy gets to paint a large black spot on the wall behind him, and then dive through it for an escape. But he doesn't get to take the spot with him. The bad guy knows it's a hole, but luckily it turns out that he can't go through it even though he knows it's a hole.)

Copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder

In the dot com realm, the Search engines, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and flikr all teach the same lesson: the boundaries of thinking about what art work is good (and why) are not rules but instead simply perspectives.

This does not exclude perspectives that have conventionally identified the champions of artistic standards, but almost everyone now knows that those championships are far more specialized than they have purported to be. By analogy: in baseball, the World Series produces a "world" champion of a game that has miniscule representation globally. The arrogance in this is shameless; but then along comes the Olympics and the football World Cup, to show where it all really is. Likewise, the "best example" of work found in a given place and time can be seen as an exemplar, but these days it is much less taken as a reference model for measuring work found in all others. 

As an activity, critiquing visual art has long recognized the great variety of boundaries amongst the population of recorded imagery -- for example, boundaries including culture, concept, technology, genre and style, As these differences intersect, the number of possible distinctive results mushrooms into the vast multi-dimensional universe that is now so easily discovered in dot com mode. This diversity is, in other words, a predictable phenomenon, even if specific works are not strictly predicted. What is now also predictable is that work found and considered in one set of terms can easily be considered within another set -- and the value of the work may be equally strong in both contexts, but of course for different reasons.

This new reality of the visibility of art work makes it more obvious that a certain kind of study -- about the intentionality of the work -- is only one way to attribute "authority" to the work. As per the old "jury" approach, do the characteristics of the work  have some kind of extra "legitimacy" if they were "meant" by the maker to represent the signature of a certain type work -- or does that matter anymore?

Answer: yes it does, but intentionality and authority are not automatically synonyms.

Perhaps the authority of the work is now completely independent of its "authenticity", and authenticity is simply a set of evidence that allows attribution of the work to a particular maker. What results is that whiile the work is deemed authoritative (or not)  by the community of its evaluators, its authenticity is not a decisive factor in its quality assessment, but still possibly an interesting one.

This relatively new development in art critique is notable in large part because it is so much closer to the mindset of the commercial world, especially as seen in how music is now approached and consumed. Now equally and increasingly, photography follows suit. We no longer assume that what makes the work important to its community is the maker; but the community's assessment of the work can still lead to deciding that the maker is important to the community. And Warhol said that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but his realization does not exclude the possibility that a given artist may have multiple identities, each one getting its fifteen minutes, with nothing preventing yet another identity to be exercized later as well.

In short, each picture is, mainly, a description of a moment in the artist's continual stream of thought. But any picture may, in the hands of another party, find itself grouped by similarity with other pictures -- and it is the similarity within a group that mainly suggests the picture's artist is replaceable... as long as similar pictures are obtainable. Finally, the picture maker, not just the picture, may address multiple communities at the same time or over time -- whether intentionally or not...

Those issues and conditions account for the high level of interest and even shock in such recent occurrences as:

  • discovery of a huge body of previously unknown "master"-level street-photography work done by Vivian Maier, a nanny
  • Richard Fairey's legal trials regarding plagiarism or theft of work done in a different "medium"
  • David Hockney's standing exhibition of his iPad artworks that appear in, or disappear from, the exhibit as he desires
  • Disputes over the validation of a new cache of negatives appearing to be work by Ansel Adams
  • Patti Smith's description of the lucky career of the truly talented and diligently productive Robert Mapplethorpe 

All of these situations press up against conventional ideas of how we should attribute value to art. What follows is a need to find the underlying mechanism that represents how we really now approach pictures in the dot com era.

In the model most typical of artdotdot, an "image" is an idea that precedes any expression but what begins to be expressed in some description of itself. As we've known from years in the darkroom, processing image descriptions is like interpreting a script or a score. Nowadays, software is usually the mechanism that renders pictures from the description recorded in a data file with the camera. And every occasion of running the software becomes, essentially, an occasion of per-forming the image to be offered as a picture.

This "performance" aspect highlights the fact that a picture is not simply a spontaneous unmediated appearance of an image. Instead, there is always a decision made about how and why to render the image as a picture recording. The image is interpreted into a picture.

As evolved for mastering the complexity of the interpretation, production technique matures into art direction -- while production values (which frame the use of technique) mature into art sensibility, superficially recognized as style.

Although those two areas of influence, direction and sensibility, can account for the distinctive variations on any same given image, they fit into a larger general framework of three other reference points: artistic "vision", performances, and recordings.

In this framework, vision provides objectives to performance, and performance in turn dictates recordings.  This happens in a way that does not predict specific final outcomes from the beginning, but that does encourage a belief that each picture can come from a reliable "supply chain". What links the chain together is the formula:  vision uses technique (art direction) to influence performance, and performance uses style (art sensibility) to form distinctions in recordings.

It's nice to have a single "explanation" for general use, applicable across all pictures. Yet with pictures, the production point of view (the "supply side") is not the same as the consumption point of view (the "demand side").

This means that, despite having a single notion of the supply chain and its methodology, there can be at least two different value systems in effect when critiquing photography.

With "vision":

- producers acknowledge predispositions towards ideas;

- but consumers acknowledge dispositions towards their preferences 

With "performance":

- producers acknowledge statements of purpose;

- but consumers acknowledge examples of types

With "pictures"

- producers acknowledge proofs;

- but consumers acknowledge brands

The presumptive relationship between the producer and consumer value systems is what has been called the tension of implied causality -- where the production system provides the causes, and the consumption system hosts the effects. In the view of modern markets, neither system would have importance without the other, and so ideally they intend to mutually derive satisfaction.

But both systems want to be authoritative. They both want to set the terms by which value is generated through the supply chain.

Hence, for the sake of defending authority in conventional art evaluations:

  • "originality" and intellectual property are hallmark notions attributed by production,
  • while "provenance" and uniqueness are tracked in consumption.

Those hallmarks have become deeply ingrained notions and habits, which today, however, are each fighting two battlefronts simultaneously: digital production media, and the ever-decreasing relevance of product scarcity.

It's a losing battle.

There is little difference between digital production and digital re-production; so if the first instance is not available, you just get another one. 

And if the artist is still alive, there is also no special reason why a particular picture should be expected to never lose its role as the principal representative of its image. What if the picture continally morphs due to being used in different contexts,  or due to being replaced by a newer version? Then there is no necessary reason why one picture is more intrinsically valuable than another -- except to the connoisseur.

Instead, the way an individual picture really merits excitement is two-fold. For producers, it is as a demonstration of the picture maker's ongoing potentials as a performer. For the consumer, it is as a specimen, regardless of its origin.

That said, for both parties, there are the same two kinds of big prizes to anticipate: the record of the unusual past performance, and the convenience of any commitment to the next performance. Each new picture is a chance to realize the prize, but the prize is always based on performance.

In shifting picture critiques to being performance-centric, authority in the critique moves away from dwelling on the originating "vision" or on the final "product". 

  • The vision becomes just a plan, an idea that ultimately competes for attention against the preferences of the consumer -- but is useful in how it instigates a performance. It will therefore be unimportant if it is not effective in that way.
  • The product, meanwhile, is expendable, except psycho-logically (which still allows for archaeological importance but does not cause it). Digital proliferation provides a reaonable subsitute for almost any picture, either from the same source or from a different source.

Instead, the focal point of review in critiques is the presence of performance: to get from one end of the chain to the other, production allows performance, and performance allows product.

Said differently, vision allows for performance, and performance allows for recordings. The allowances are the heart of the matter -- namely, direction and sensibility:

  •  In the art direction, the performer finds the inspiration for the actual performance of the image. Note: the art direction is what we have called the Muse.
  • In the art sensibility, the viewer finds the connections between expectations and preferences held in the delivered picture. Note: the art sensibility is what we have called the Message.

And in the middle, between the direction and the sensibility, is the performance, or (Note:) what we have called the Medium, also known in some circles as the "agency".

Evaluating the performance means understanding it, that is, understanding the Medium, as being a functional response to the direction, having the purpose of indicating the sensibility.

Suddenly it is clear that a uniform approach to critique will obviously handle the occurrence of all types and combinations of Media when employed, by decision, as a response to the "vision", in the service of the "picture".

Since we do not attempt to separate the artist from the performance, a certain view of the artist becomes evident in this approach. Generally, we want to know if the artist is, relatively speaking, highly functional or less functional. This consideration would, like the X-axis of a graph, cross the Y-axis of the stages of production stretching from image to picture. If the X and Y axes cross at their mid-points, then we get four quadrants. At the lower left, the production is early-stage, and the artist is low-function. At the upper left, the production is still early-stage but the artist is high-function. At the upper right, the production is late-stage and the artist is high-function. And at the lower right, the production is mature, but the artist is low-function. The upper right quadrant "houses" artistic peaks that may be evidenced by some pictures. The upper left may be where innovation or at least research is beginning to surface. The lower right may be where ability to execute technique, or ability to shape expectations, is weak although there may be some dispute about whether this weakness is actual or merely perceived. And the dispute is important: depending on where you side in the dispute, the work here may be failing, or it may just be ahead of its time.

Art and Industry









Copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder



Hawaii -- Documents have a job that relieves them of the need to be exciting, but that instead imposes the pressure to have high fidelity. In turn, the problem that documents must solve, in use, is to support the separation of the subject from peripheral distractions -- to separate the signal from the noise. This means that documents may also have the responsibility to declare the subject, especially if no alternative declaration has already been made. The idea of high fidelity must first of all pertain to "distilling" the signal. Then, in effect, every "good" document strives to be good enough to be the only one needed, as if no others were available... 

Not coincidentally, this is the starting point of most touring photography, which begins with the intent to describe a place, at least, and then to convey something distinctive with the description, circumstances allowing. Although the shot may repeat a similar effort made a great many times earlier by some other photographer(s), each photographer approaches the task as if it is the first-ever effort to describe the image (the image being an idea of the view that is the "signal" within all the present information).



Documenting a landscape can have what may seem to be the advantage of easy description. But it can then have the disadvantage of not readily suggesting the grounds on which the description has any distinction. For that reason, the landscape document may need to rely on an attitude or opinion that functions as a filter of the description. What this means is that the value of the description's objectivity is generated by the subjectivity that drives the photographer to describe something in the first place. For the viewer of the documents, there may be the question of whether the photographer has formulated the attitude or opinion from the description (evidence), or whether the description has been shaped to fit a preconception.



If a balance is reached between the influences of objectivity and subjectivity, the document is in a position to pose the viewing experience as the key element of distinction in its description. For most viewers, this kind of effect is familiar in such pictures as shots of sporting events. An even more compelling example of this is the description of sports events over the radio, where by necessity there must be an efficiency in creating the "significant view" with the description. Since most of what could be said goes unsaid, what does get said must be both accurate and evocative, else it will not convey the experience of seeing this particular game...  (And so we might even ask, what happens if you unleash a sports photographer on a landscape assignment? What "action" does the photographer find in the stasis of the landscape?)



Distillation has the ambition of making a statement that can serve as the model for experiencing the same locations in the future. Going beyond just being a reference, the distillation is advice.



Most users of documents want to rely on the document as an adequate substitute for having actually "been there" at the occasion or place being described. The point is that the primary audience is not persons who have actually already been there, but persons who have "not been there this way"...



Article dedicated to my brother Victor, Sister-in-law Annette, and niece Gwendolyn, whose exuberance in the arts crosses all boundaries.

Entire article Copyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder





Mauna Lani, HI

Copyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder

Skin Deep





Pictures about trees  come in standard flavors. One kind animates the tree as a character of an implicit narrative. Another uses the tree as a frame of a mythic space. A third presents the tree as a sculpture. Then of course there are clinical photographs. 

Of several additional types, the most prevalent picture of a tree but not about the tree is likely to be using the tree as a model or analog of another form.

Where the picture can fuse the views of the tree so that the image is both objectively of the tree and about the tree, portraits result.

 Copyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder

Prime Ordinal




ShoreRoots-IMG_0395Abw.jpgCopyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder

Fruitvale Depot




FruitvaleShack-IMG_0405A2.jpgCopyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder


Now that the digital web has followed upon 35mm and Polaroid, "personal" photography -- photographs conceived and executed by the individual worker only for that worker's own reasons --  is in a third golden age of viewership, which could alter the way we evaluate photographs.

With internet usage, almost anyone can see millions, not just hundreds, of examples of work having key characteristics in common. Scarcity, and along with it the privileges and fetishes of exclusivity, recede into the past.

Yet, the increase in attention, despite likely including more examples of everything, will not disprove nor further prove existing notions of what good-to-great photography looks like. 

Meanwhile, the unprecedented overall expansion of public access to personal photography need not even be measured for its weight, except circumstantially.

For one thing, the supply of personal work to be viewed now seems virtually infinite in actual practice. And for another, reasons or opportunities to group photographs together for presentation seem equally endless in variety. Thus any measure of the "overall" attentiveness at any given current moment would be either artificial or arbitrary.

And yet, it is exactly the arbitrariness, or the artifice, that creates the notion of "worth" attached to the photographs.

That is, the "arbiter" or the party dreaming up the standard of measure, defines a context -- and the photograph(s) have a life within the context, outside of the personal storage of their maker. In the context, they have not only value (distinction), but they have worth (relative importance).


The internet means that, with the staggering abundance of examples of photography from all times and places in the last 150 years, the decision to collect, sort and select images is now suddenly for the first time just as powerful for most picture consumers as it is for most picture producers. As a result, we can see more often than ever before some demonstrations of "genius" competency on both sides of the relationship.

"Photographers", the producers, have always had the privilege of "disciplinary" claims on the collect/sort/select game; they record their selections about what they look at and, whether amateur or professional, they craft the recording itself according to goals for making the recording distinctive. [The view here is that recording is essentially drawing, and that these records are drawn expressively, so the expressive qualities become evidence of a basic strategy of creating the distinction. This is no more exotic than the "ordinary" effort to be verbally articulate and compelling, if not also memorable, when expressing ideas in speech or writing.]

Conventionally, on the consumer side, it has been "curators" whose efforts to collect/sort/select  enjoyed disciplinary status. There has been an assumption that special skills were required to find, recognize, and understand the worthiness of photographic product.

What we have now, however, is the practical possibility of continual social curatorship more akin to how music is currently embedded and treated in culture. Whenever a social group becomes a special interest group, its web-powered ability to discover and collect, then sort and select, now means that it may rapidly cultivate something of high worth completely indifferent to the conventional historical idea of any artistic "pantheon" of photography. Thus, exemplary curatorship -- meaning curatorship relevant to the social group --  is far more likely to command opinion versus the continuities within the corpus of any individual photographer.


In art history, the photography pantheon has largely acquired mythic status of being representative of highest "art quality", but in general it has been conveniently allowed to mean that its included members were extremely exceptional in capability, not just in achievement. These well-known members of the pantheon will not lose their status as "top-tier". But as more and more examples of comparable work appear, being "exceptional" will become a feature increasingly reigned in by contexts, and instead, being a "benchmark" will take over in the course of conversation.

Benchmark work is fundamentally valuable as a validated demonstration of potentials. But what may be a benchmark in one context may not be at all a benchmark in another. That is not an observation with very much news value, but it is one that will increasingly be the default presumption of any future critical evaluations of photography.

The comfort zone for classicists in this new era of access and supply is that the notion of "masterpiece" still holds exactly as before. A masterpiece is the photographer's personal benchmark work, and it will continue to be the reference for what might be argued to make the photographer "special". Even so, since the masterpiece may now be readily transported from one context to another, the importance of the masterpiece is, unavoidably, a variable. Additionally, versatile photographers may have multiple benchmarks.

For the producer (the photographer), this has the effect of shifting attention from the idea of uniqueness to the idea of performance. Each occasion to make a photograph becomes an opportunity to exercise deliberate efforts towards a goal. That is, the notion of "great work" is primarily situational, not primarily an inherent property of the artist; it will always cover the particulars of the occasion itself, along with the product as an indicator of possibilities actively promoted and realized by the photographer. And, the emphasis of the term "work" is on the action that caused the result. The most familiar and striking example of this kind of thing is any acknowledged improvisation -- an elaboration of possible relationships to a score, which may result in an outstanding performance.


By now, most serious persons who evaluate photographs and their producers avoid confusing the difference between amateurs and experts, and between non-professionals and professionals. Another web-revealed reality is the enormity of the population of expert non-professionals on both the production and curatorial sides. In the third golden age of viewership of personal photography, we are now seeing that the viewership's sensitivity is most likely to be towards the photographer's "visuality". We coin the term here in the spirit of "dexterity", "musicality", and "literacy"-- terms that we already take for granted as labels of the important condition maintained by worthy working experts in other forms of art. This visuality will be the "constant" of the photographer across occasions, whereas the work product may migrate endlessly across many value-changing contexts in social curatorship. In turn, photographers aim to achieve a high level of visuality to call upon on demand.

Punchline: the impact of the vast new access to photography is primarily in its redrawing of assumptions about (a.) where, not who, significant photography comes from, and (b.) how, not why, it is significant.