August 2011 Archives

Highlife .





























Soda Springs, Tahoe, CA

(Copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder)



















Long Lake, Soda Springs CA

(copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder)



(For the coffee table)

Postmodernism is dead, say some. They would include Edward Docx writing for Prospect Magazine (UK).

 In trying to "define" an era, this effort is aiming to make its 20/20 hindsight seem like an old prophecy fulfilled. Retrospective explanations have that funny way of making what they describe seem to have historical (or at least logical) inevitability.

I suspect that all the points I like about this article would still be in it in a major do-over, but the offramps to many of its dead ends would have to be removed. How to remove them? Be more careful about distinguishing why things that were being done were important to do, versus why the effects of what got done wound up being important.The two things might coincide, but in * practice* by actual artists they more often don't, and having two different kinds of importance doesn't invalidate either of them.

It's probably equally or even more important to hear about post-modernism from an intelligent do-er, not just from an intelligent consumer. Consumers might be tired of post-modernism, but it is almost entirely unlikely that artists will stop thinking and working that way. But whether very many people still care or not is a separate question.

This article at least suggests the issue on the surface: it implies the question "why should people care?" And the answer, which it also pointed out, is "because it changes the way they think about things." Left unspoken is that most of the audience for this article is, unfortunately, a relatively elite audience. So we don't just get to say "people care", and leave it at that; we call it what it is, and we decide to not ab-use it.


(Below, a gratuitous short do-over of the above, as posted in the comments on the article's website although it may not have been submitted and posted correctly.)

In reality, the audience for this article is a relatively elite one, which is important since the point of the article is to try to explain "why people have cared" about something other people did. Of course, the answer to "why" is that what some people did made other people think about things in a different way. That's a broadly applicable phenomenon of note, one that the article clearly tries to highlight. But let's be real about who we're pointing at: a minute fraction of the population of do-ers (artists) who survived the gauntlet of intellectual consumerism. While both parties included people who are dead serious about their intent, the idea that an "era" hit an end presupposes that these two special parties stopped aiming for each other. That's all.





SmileHighClub-IMG-20110812-00481A2.jpgCopyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder



Have "motion pictures" finally overwhelmed the distinctive significance of still pictures?

single pictures that most people see every day come with an unspoken expectation that whatever is shown is part of something else -- that what lies experientially just outside the boundaries of the picture justifies why the picture is made and shown. That makes sense, because most single pictures that they see really are within a passing stream of others.

But what about the ones that aren't?


By now, cinema, television and also editing software but more pointedly digitization and the web, have permanently altered the presumptions we have about the relationship of imagery, experience, and time. The intensity and pervasiveness of our exposure to pictures makes hardly any one of them exceptional. We can see almost anything, anywhere, anytime. We become more likely to remember why we saw something than we do remember what we actually saw.

And it isn't just that we take for granted the ability to blend and bend those ingredients (imagery, experience, and time) into something beyond caring what is actual versus invented. That capability has been practiced for far longer than any photography has been around. Imagists have always been interested in convincingly picturing the life of times and places other than where they themselves were, and they did so, particularly excelling at delivering even fantasy with high "realism". This capability to invent within the picture will continue indefinitely... and notably so with printmaking.

But the dividing line of importance, between what those established capabilities have been offering and what remains to be seen in photographic stills going foward, is the camera. Right from its earliest introduction, the method of the camera, with its instant drawing, made pictures not which were started and gradually finished. Instead, even if the result was terrible and/or unimaginative, the "unmanipulated" photograph straight from the camera, once started, was right away, suddenly and dramatically, done.

But this is not to say that the importance of the "still" is covered by this property of being "instant". The immediacy of the instant picture is simply the way that it finally showed up, not necessarily how it got there.

The getting there would be the preparation of that moment, the basic work of orchestrating the effects before the recording is started. The result of the orchestration -- the result that we care about -- is the stillness expressed through the record, not just that the production of the picture is stopped.


Notably, as photo-technology evolved over decades, an increasing range of visual effects -- ranging across symbols, decor, icons, and factual details -- could be included in the preparation, reproduced on demand and thus prescribed, for that sudden moment that is the picture's occurence. 

As part of those increasing inclusions, the sophistication about visual effects also increases, meanwhile having the tendency to make each new noticed effect run quickly from initially being a pictorial topic in its own right to being a stylistic option in the production of future pictures. 

This continual cycling, of new pictures being made from the effects experienced of previous ones, is simply a given. And it is certainly not a kind of evolution peculiar to photography; rather, it's part of the deliberate evolution of every form of art work. The art worker is always invested in discovering and/or preserving what any given effects can "mean" -- which is merely to say what experience (especially if repeatable) can be driven by the effects chosen to use. In still photographs, this cycling of earlier effects into new presentations can lead to pictures that have "depth" in the same sense that we understand a "literate" person's statements to be speaking more deeply than an illiterate one's.


In that sense, "depth of meaning" certainly helps the single picture to stand on its own, aside from references external to its apparent boundary. But even so, the most valuable aspect of "still" photography going forward is not this depth (a third dimension provided to the picture by time); rather, it is the important phenomenon of our having experiences that, as events, are not based on elapsing times and receiving narratives.

That is, in an era dominated by streaming imagery, the most distinctive value of still photographs, and thus the genesis of their worth, is in the key characteristic of "stillness" itself, which although conveyed visually is mainly conceptual.

It is clear that for many photographs the target status is to be a "proposition" or a "conclusion" -- both hugely important instances of still phenomena in the mind. Meanwhile, as vehicles of experience, most pictures, whether offering a proposition or a conclusion, are readily seen leaning towards either a celebration of its offering or an investigation of it, and their "eventfulness" is in that leaning. At any viewing of any picture, (see for yourself) we can ask, what is the picture's disposition? For example: is it investigating a conclusion? Is it celebrating a proposition? And so forth.


But even more basic than having those essential orientations, still photographs have always been "descriptions". And the most vital aspect of the all-at-once description produced has always been the rhetoric that the picture uses to project a decisiveness about "what" is being described. In the moment of viewing, the appreciated completeness of that description is the goal.

This goal is actually the product of two things: not just rhetoric, but also design.


The essence of rhetoric is to generate persuasion. Most often the notion of persuasion is presumed to be about an attitude towards a subject. Contrary to that, in still pictures the primary persuasion to be accomplished is the sense that from all the various and simultaneous information be offered, something self-contained, or "singular", is being portrayed -- not just an arbitrary segment pulled from streams of visual stimuli.

Building upon that, the most distinctive additional issue is the effort to produce "specific" pictures. Again, this specificity is not dependent on "subject" matter or about subject matter, but instead it bears on the context of the picture's viewing.  Our proof point here is simple: two different viewers can look at the same given picture and experience the picture in, respectively, two different ways -- yet each viewer perceives the picture as being "about" just one thing, not about two different things. This difference in specificity happens because the picture, regardless of being self-contained, is experienced in the viewer's context. Context is the "matter" actually addressed by design.


Notably, pictures which knowingly incorporate design are not necessarily persuasive in any way beyond the effect of simply establishing their own scope of interest. In fact, regardless of any particular viewer except the maker of the picture, declaring scope is always the first purpose of the picture's production.

Because the notion of scope is about imposing limits, it can be compared to the notion of framing, and it should be. But the key comparison of scope to framing is a contrast, a division of labor that shows them to be complementary, not substitutes for each other.

Scope is the conceptual perspective derived from a point of view. Therefore, scope effectively drives the decisions about what kind of thing to include or exclude.

Framing "realizes" the results of the scope's decisions, by deciding what to use to represent the scope.

Meanwhile, a given scope can be framed in a variety of ways. In a dramatic production, framing would be casting; in a musical production, framing would be the instrumentation decided to render the music. In sports, framing is the rules of the game that distinguish between violations of the game and fair play. As conducted with the camera, framing is like "framework" -- ultimately the tactical structure that is made in order to provide for a chance to align visual ideas with conceptual ideas.

This helps to point out that pictorial framing cannot be understood simply as a visual boundary containing things. Instead, framing is really determining the way that things about the scope can be included in the presentation. Compared to each other in a functional sense, scope may altogether disqualify types of  things, whereas framing may simply omit certain examples of them.

For things that have survived both scope and framing, "composition" is typically doing the remaining organizing in the picture. Composition refers directly to additional critical "work" that is being done -- namely, to assemble things for the final visual presentation.

But if composition is to be worth doing, and if the picture's design will then succeed, the critical success factor is framing. Said again, framing will have preselected the specific effects to be arranged, having made those selections on the basis of being compatible with the scope. Therefore, in a dynamic very similar to chemistry, framing also predisposes what arrangments can be tolerated in the picture, a key function that is the defining characteristic of rhetoric.


So here is how the picture "works".

Any moment of viewing comes with a point of view, but the initial point of view is mentally held by the picture maker. The point of view creates a perspective, which sets the scope originally driving the production of the picture. In production, scope is what framing is serving, and framing is what composition is serving. Relative to each other, scope determines what the picture is trying to be about, while framing correspondingly decides why particular things are in the picture, and composition then determines how those things are going to be in the picture. Once done, the composition is presented. 

The consequences of composition are that the initial scope may finally be more or less evident. But in the same way that test results don't always prove the initial hypothesis, it is possible that the presentation of the composition will wind up challenging the initial scope by suggesting a different one. This is why rhetoric and design are necessary -- to bridge the gap between the original pre-production scope and the context of the of actual post-production viewing moment -- or in more traditional terms, to provide "form".



Describing that sequence of picture-making decisions makes it seem like the production of a picture always goes through some linear processing. But for continual art workers, i.e., the steadily practicing photographer, the real situation is more that the three types of effort -- scoping, framing and composing -- are running simultaneously, looking to intersect, trying each other out, superimposing on each other, and maybe discovering at some moments that they are compatible.

From that moment of compatibility, pictures will either be delivered ones or later simply found. Either way, for most viewers, our interest in them presumes a moment of acceptance appropriate to some circumstances demanding more than the picture's mere occurrence.

In that moment of demand, the scope of the picture might be lesser, equal to, or greater than the circumstances of its presentation. The specific purpose of design is to align the rhetoric of the picture to an expected circumstance of its presentation. Some design is always within the picture, influencing decisions. Often, much of the design is at work outside of the picture, setting the circumstances in which the picture can be viewed.

In the role of the producer/presenter, it is possible to exercise design proactively (formulating rhetoric that anticipates the presentation) and/or reactively (finding a suitable presentation that promotes the picture's existing rhetoric). But it is also true that design is not always assertively exercised.


As seen above, pictorial rhetoric really lives in two things -- the relationship between framing and scope, and the relationship between framing and composition. In this way, thanks to framing, rhetoric within the picture is virtually pervasive and gives the picture its "singularity", it's characteristic of self-containment.

But aside from that singularity, the most important persuasion that a picture can exert is the sense of certainty that it is authorized by the producer/presenter to be the basis of a distinct experience. This distinction is most likely to be felt when the picture and the viewer share the same framework -- not at all unlike two strangers who have independent thoughts, and say different things, but can rely on using the same language.

But there is no guarantee that the unexpected picture will speak the viewer's language. The language may need to be translated, or learned. Again, this is where design goes to work. And again, not all pictures have strong enough design work to succeed with an unfamiliar audience.


If the above is taken as an explanation of how still pictures have meaning, it seems partly inevitable that someone will have tested it by working on contradictions to it to see what holds up.

For example, we've already seen galleries and museums busy with the deliberate cultivation and exhibition of snapshots that are simply the outcome of chance recordings, or pictures that actively disclaim any supervised alignments between how something appears and why it appears. This type of content management pointedly creates both an analog and a foil to the benign or indifferent relationship we have with so many still pictures to which we are randomly exposed. It underscores the question: "although these pictures weren't made for me and were finished without me, should they mean anything other than what I need them to mean?" So, ironically, highlighting a collection of relatively meaningless pictures turns out to greatly sharpen the fact that viewers co-operate with a picture to allow it to make some kind of sense. 

Understood that way, the bottom line is that what counts the most is whether someone is looking for pictures, while only secondarily in whether they are looking at the pictures.


Which brings us to the punchline: the most siginificant impact that motion pictures have had on still pictures is that where cinema, television, and the internet of streaming imagery continuously push pictures at us, the individual still picture asks for us to pull. Individual still pictures now have meaning and worth primarily in the experience of their being sought out, not just in their being encountered.

(copyright 2011 Malcolm Ryder)