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How Still Photography Works

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For the most part, still pictures are used to assign importance to experience. Here are the essentials.

Today, most photography is based on recording the experience of living, for communication.
Experience is primarily communicated as an emotional and mental description.
Experience itself need not be objectively factual; it can be invented.

The purpose of the description is to identify a kind of importance asserted to be immediate to the experience.
Immediacy is actually about fidelity to the preferred importance of the initial experience.
Where descriptions do not already have high fidelity to the preference, people are happy to change the description; this is true whether the person is the originator or the viewer.

Within a given audience, most types of importance are conventional. This means that there can be a group preference; but it also means that “importance” can be defined differently in one group than in another.

There is a range of generic types of importance; they can be distinctively associated with the likely behaviors and intentions of a photographer.

Both composing and editing are photographer behaviors driven primarily by preference. Preference pertains to why the picture is made, not how.

Driven by preferences, modes of behavior are stronger than genres as predictors of future photographic output. This will be true both in the attempt to start a picture and in the criteria for final acceptance of its appearance, post compositionand editing. For any given photographer, each individual mode can vary greatly over time as a proportion of the person's ongoing effort. The most typical behaviors that account for most pictures are included in the seven intentions below:

  • sharing events in real time: immediately include friends
  • reporting news and sports: characterize a moment
  • "hunting": show a trophy
  • glamour and romance: promote fantasy
  • scenes: invent or illustrate a story
  • evidence: display proof
  • navigation and history: provide clear and accurate identification

 

Whats next for Photography.jpg
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(c) Malcolm Ryder



Critical Talking

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Chances are that, if your discussion of an artwork cannot trace the following model, then you are either not trying to talk about art or the work you are discussing was not art work. Having made that assertion, an equally important one to make is that using work as art is readily legitimized by the experience of the audience.

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The model emphasizes the relationships between the essential factors of the way art is made (as opposed to "found"), The typical key influences on creative acts -- namely, ideas, motives and means -- are neither surprising nor extraordinary; whereas the sources of those influences may be wildly varied and rooted in contextual layers such as geography, societies, and historical period. These variations are normally accountable in terms of prevailing or at least evident forces that mediate creativity, such as expectations, intentions and rules. These are often the matters that get discussed as the distinguishing signs of movements and environments that host or generate bodies of work and communities of artists. These discussions, and the model, suggest that the inherent but outward-facing promotion of art effort can go on to be catalogued or profiled in the intuitive or intellectually basic dimensions of What, Why and How, providing half of the rubric for any good story (who and what, where and when, why and how...). The circumstantial half -- who, when and where -- tends to be presented as a theory of originality, leveraging the dynamic half -- what, why and how -- more fundamentally applicable to the general phenomenon of art.

When looking at the position and impact of art work as a product, we still wind up respecting the process of art, by deciding on our understanding of the relationship s between the three essential dimensions. That is, there is no What in art that is unaffected by a How or a Why; moreso, each of the three aspects is affected by the other two. In the model, these relationships are easily identified as Class, Form and Function which provides another way to profile the product's presence and behavior amongst other experiences that we have.

The external perspective also characterizes the aspiration of the individual who does not intuitively translate their creative impulse into art work, pending orientation and training. In the model, the keys to the orientation are in providing awareness of what art practice fundamentally requires in the dimensions of What, Why and How. The fundamentals involve, at minimum, resolving a pair of impulses or decisions that characterize each dimension. For example, "How" is resolved when the constraints of a technique are balanced against the preference for using the technique; together they present the "effective" means of the creative . Likewise, the pair of terms surrounding What and Why are resolved. Whatever balance is decided by each resolution leaves the terms accountable within the relationships between What, Why and How. For example: as ordered in the model, What and How influence each other, which means that the object type (of the work) and the constraints of the technique used (to produce the work) are influencing each other.

The importance of the model is in its ability to repeatedly simplify how the numerous aspects of creative production wind up interacting and reiterating each other. This means that different kinds of discussion points can be introduced and emphasized without discounting the actual role or incidental intensity of other factors.

 

 

Quantum Photography - Part 1

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A 21st Century Recognition Of The Medium

Copyright 2013 Malcolm Ryder / all rights reserved

 

THE WHO CARES QUESTION

The point of all art is to influence.

The essential differences amongst all arts are in what kind of influence is intended for what kind of audience. There is a notion of “importance” attached to art, based on how these occasions of influence turn up, and how they turn out. There are the circumstances of what was supplied to these occasions, and there is the status of what kind of demand was satisfied.

The relationship of marketing to art had always allowed photographers at least two parallel lives. In one, stock photography served the interests of commercial publishing. In the other, galleries promoted recognition of a photographer as an important communicator or observer of life and ideas.

Meanwhile, photography always involved at least two perspectives, as well. On the supply side, there are the production methods of photographs; and on the demand side, there is the environment of available images within which we as consumers form expectations about pictures.

Photographers have been trained for 150 years in techniques that are calculated to allow a goal-seeking image, meaning one that will succeed with a presumed viewer. As part of that, most photographers who want recognition as practitioners, and who want their images to be deemed valuable, will think about what kind of display situation will encourage a viewer to have an experience that, in the viewer’s own terms, is at least momentarily important, perhaps recurrently so.

When more than a million photographs are instantly available to anyone, any time, with a web connection, how does the intersection of production and expectations make some of them matter more than others?

The new landscape obliterates many traditional boundaries that have been used as conventions for evaluation. Creation has become production; Exhibition has become broadcasting; and Marketing has become social networking.

From the perspective of critics, the vocabulary of discussion therefore shifts heavily towards new defaults. Photographs as objects are primarily media presentations. Photographic practice is not a special philosophy of perception but instead just an imaging craft. Almost anything of note is usually about the impact of a picture on the immediate viewer's experience. And in the realm of experiences, it’s a buyer’s market. Photos are just not heavy. 

But from a critical perspective, one bias or principle remains intact. Even if any unit of product is small, lightweight and cheap, the secret formula behind it may be extremely valuable. Increasingly, the concepts and decisions underlying the execution of the work are the formula cited to distinguish the artistic importance of one work from another. The work itself becomes a demonstration. The originator of the formula – the artist – need be more important than the artwork, because we're going to need more product.

The critic’s response to the new environment of images is, therefore, oddly unchanged, while photographers looking for recognition face an ironically hostile new world. Suddenly clear of most institutionalized barriers to exposure, many photographers are stunned at how much less their huge new audience seems to care. The answer to surviving it is in knowing why. Put simply, it takes two to tango, but neither party is doing the same old dance.

This story covers the following issues in current photography:

- Products and Factory

- Method

- Production Values and Performance

- Context and Relevance

- Design and Distribution

- Culture and Critique

- Environment

 

Reference Diagrams, (c) Malcolm Ryder, subject to change:

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Quantum Photography Image2.jpg

 

Quantum Photography - Part 2

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A 21st Century Recognition of the Medium

(From Quantum Photography - Part 1)

When more than a million photographs are instantly available to anyone, any time, with a web connection, how does the intersection of production and expectations make some of them matter more than others?

The new landscape obliterates many traditional boundaries that have been used as conventions for evaluation. Creation has become production; Exhibition has become broadcasting; and Marketing has become social networking.

From the perspective of critics, the language of discussion shifts heavily towards new defaults. Photographs as objects are primarily media presentations. Photography as a practice is not a special philosophy of perception but instead just an imaging craft. Almost anything of note is usually about the impact of a picture on viewer experience. And in the realm of experiences, it’s a buyer’s market.

This story covers the following issues in current photography:

- Products and Factory

- Method

- Production Values and Performance

- Context and Relevance

- Design and Distribution

- Culture and Critique

- Environment

-----------------------------------------------------------

Part 2:

CRITIQUE

The impact of modern technology on photography is most rationally investigated in certain ways.  Different approaches are individually worthwhile, but because of technological impacts, none can ignore how they overlap each other.

One possible investigation would be about the artistic influence of photography in an image-saturated world. When “viewing audiences” are constantly consuming a spectacular range of visual stimuli, how does a picture distinguish itself “above” the commoditizing pressure that over-abundance puts on all images? For that, we have to consider marketing.

Another investigation would be about the practice of self-identifying as a photographer. The analysis here need never be definitive because this self-identification has only two uses: public and private; and both realms are ever-changing. The difference between being a camera owner, a camera user, a photo-maker, and a “photographer” is normally irrelevant except in professional or social contexts. For example, there is often some excitement surrounding the discovery that a person professionally or socially re-known for one type of practice (say, acting, math, or music) is proficient in a different practice such as picture-making. We have always had the convenience of the label “advanced amateur” to indicate that pictorial expertise exists outside of the rules of commercial acceptance, all the while layering over it with the label “professional artist” specifically to signal which activities have the practitioner’s highest priorities. These personae, blown to bits by the actual portability of any photo-image across networks, are maintained mainly for the benefit of providing limited warranties to picture-users, in combination with the legalities of licensing. The side-effect of needing the warranty is that “serious photographers”, to protect their personae, adopt production methods that make it easier for them to enforce the warranty they want to offer. Consequently, perhaps undesirably, such methods will increase some kinds of uniformity in the forms of work produced. So far, protecting the persona has been misconstrued as being a nearly unsolvable problem of defending intellectual property rights. In reality, for photographers who really need the persona in order to feel satisfied, the problem is an old one: how to maximize the brand while minimizing the supply level needed to maintain it. The trade-off now is that high-volume is more necessary to establish the brand in the first place -- before limiting the supply of future work will not limit the “serious” audience for it. This becomes strategic. For example, will having many different audiences and multiple personae allow a photographer to “succeed” with lower volume for each audience? Ironically, because of networks, this may be happening “to” the photographer now, not “because of” the photographer, entirely without any demonstrable compensation for the photographer’s effort.

A third, investigation would be about why a picture maker chooses photography as a method. An “aesthetic” is sometimes defined as “A set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.” While this need not be taken as the only useful description of aesthetics, its virtue is largely in that it identifies “work” as the reason why aesthetics matter. An aesthetic is a characteristic of production.

In the production of photographs, this definition of aesthetics aligns well with the notions of “instrumentality” and “orchestration”. Simply put, instrumentality refers to an emphasis on distinctive effects producible through typical uses of an instrument; orchestration refers to planning and arranging those effects for a desired complex and synergistic result.

As an instrument, the camera is used as the most direct connection between the photo-maker’s observations and that maker’s ideas. The ways that the camera initially shapes and transmits observations are the intended effects of the instrument. The camera aesthetic includes the principle that this directness supplies credibility to the picture maker’s ideas, specifically because the ideas are about how meaning derives from observation. Meanwhile, the picture is a “proof” of the idea.

The camera aesthetic, consequently, supports a huge diversity of work, because the aesthetic does nothing to arbitrarily suppress the simplicity or complexity of ideas, nor does it suppress the ease or difficulty of proving them. Instead, there is continual exploration and celebration of what ideas can be tackled and how, using the camera. As part of this, the instruments evolve, to offer a variety of tactical approaches.

A fourth, if not final, investigation would be about how the presumed unification of the technique and the medium is disintegrating, making it less clear what the term “photography” is supposed to even mean. For that, we have to consider that all photography has been rendering, and all rendering is essentially Drawing.  The matter at hand is not whether drawing with light is obsolete (it isn’t), nor whether drawing with pixels or bits is legitimate (it is); instead, the emerging concepts that must be in the foreground all have to do with Style and with the relationship of visual “fidelity” to visual “definition” (high-, low-, or somewhere in between). At this point, amongst notions of the evolution of photography, the “aesthetic” of the Camera (which is a cultural aspect) is more important than any other. What we come to understand from this is that as an instrument, the Camera plays many types of images just as a saxophone or piano plays many types of music. The instrument, and its associated aesthetics, does evolve -- offering both additional ways of expressing things and additional kinds of expressions. Once beyond the camera, there is little that distinguishes photographs from the results of other manufacturing methods.

Beyond the camera per se, the top disruptive developments in the field of photography have one thing in common; each one permanently resets expectations about the sources and consumers of pictures, simultaneously. The most well-known of these are not necessarily the only examples of their type, but they are great reference points. CGI, Photoshop, and digital printing are clearly permanently disruptive, both separately and, especially, together. But the following examples are hugely prominent for the purpose of charting the continuation and adaptations of the camera aesthetic:

Apple iPhone 4s

1080p Video in DSLRs with freeze-frame

Google Street View

Instagram

Getty/Flickr partnership

Canon Project Imaginat10n

 

ENVIRONMENT

A current discussion on Wikipedia is as follows.

“In the famous thought experiment called Schrödinger's cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. There is a supposed 50% chance of this happening. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead [a state called superposition]. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.”

When a photograph is initially produced today, networked audiences detect it, triggering some degree of further transmission. The probability that the audience will be initially favorable is varied from time to time. But at any given point in time, the picture is either being propagated and used, or not. Without specifically checking, it is assumed that after a while the picture is simultaneously in circulation and out of circulation. Yet when tracked down, the picture is either in circulation or out, not both in circulation and out. Reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

In photography, this collapse is only the reality of the moment. Due to technology, the autonomous life of the picture seemingly never ends; instead, it is merely articulated by occasions of rediscovery and reuse – here one day, and there the next. Reality never collapses permanently into one possibility or another…

Photography today is mostly characterized by the increasingly unpredictable life of the photograph. The picture morphs, migrates and manifests, in ways that have practical purpose but otherwise respect few enduring limits. Because technology has made it very clear that these conditions are now virtually inherent in any image, the influence of photography will be more and more characterized by the ways in which these conditions are managed or exploited to achieve a picture’s relevance to context -- by the episodic occasions of selectivity and style, and of design and distribution.

If there is a primary message in all of this, it is that photography is a practice that, overall, is enduringly more important due to its impact on culture than to its place in art. Yet through its impact on culture, it drives ongoing adaptations of our understanding of what we think is art.

Copyright 2013 Malcolm Ryder / all rights reserved

My Beautiful House

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Art is an activity that generates an object from a process of construction.

In this discussion of what that means, there are four special points included as a preface.

First, the notion of construction is the most important way to think about process, because it aims everyone's attention at the resulting product as opposed to merely at the end of a procedure.

Second, (as demonstrated at least by "conceptual art") it is understood that the constructed "object" -- the product -- may be an intangible: a rearrangement of the mind.

Third, the process of construction applies to all "art forms" and genres.

And fourth, while work is in progress, the artist may always change course: decide to aim for a different result, or to approach a desired result from a different direction. Because of those variations, it is always possible that under pressure of timing or schedule, the product of the work may get delivered in a version that is not "finalized". The finality is not what determines whether the product is art, is significant, or is effective. And furthermore, the process is fully capable of upending conventions of "finality". What actually becomes more significant is the degree to which the product is usable, which obviously has a dependency on how it is put into use.

The construction that is characteristic of art has an architecture that accounts for how the art product works and how it is usable. The architecture has four distinctive dimensions within which the process is active:

  • Design
  • Influence
  • Invention
  • Labor

The following surveys how this applies across several viewpoints of examination and discussion.

 

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As the foundation of art, labor exerts force on an existing circumstance with the intention of causing a change. The nature of the change is that it is a relationship that the worker perceives between the initial circumstances (including materials), and a property or state that is needed for a functional purpose. People often expect that the type of change will be something that distinguishes art labor from other kinds, but it is here that technique is rooted, regardless of the materials that often distract people with the notion of "mediums" or, that is, "media". Media is circumstantial; technique is essential. But technique is exactly what you'd think it would be: the method of manipulation used to cause the change of conditions towards the needed functional properties or states.

In the course of the labor, problems can occur in accomplishing the intent of the technique. Problem-solving becomes the origin of experimentation to derive an acceptable manipulation. The discovered solution can involve new and/or modified techniques; also, the outcomes that are deemed acceptable can be unprecedented. In other words, the actual thing that becomes accepted is the relationship determined between what is done and what results. This decision -- the relationship -- is an element of the ultimate constructed object and, in art, is more important than the material per se. It is what is identified as composition. And where the composition proceeds from the new solutions, the problem-solving is identified as invention.

The labor and invention of art work always occurs in a context. A context is not inherently artistic or non-artistic. One obvious proof of that is that in art both labor and invention may be appropriated from some other domain having no necessary bearing on the current effort of the artist. Instead, in art the idea "behind" the work is to make a presentation of effects, with the intent to influence the way that experience is interpreted. Presentation in art is essentially rhetorical in intent, whether it is circumstantially effective or not. The presentation is the primary context of the art work. Without the rhetoric achieved by the presentation, the work in art would still be understandable as research and development (such as with invention); but the value of the delivered work is defined elsewhere -- by the context. Put bluntly, the purpose of art is to influence: to suggest a perspective, and provide a point of view on experience. This influence, which is a crafting of experience, is where most people begin to receive and/or attach their notions of style, content, and intention. Loosely speaking, the receiving and attaching modes parallel the presentation's being taken as philosophical or celebratory, respectively. This will be true regardless of what kind of experience is under the pressure of the influence; it is why subject treatment always trumps subject matter; and why subject matter cannot define art. But in the work of art, where presentation delivers the treatment, we will find an ontology and taxonomy indicated by its "composition" and proposed by its presentation, and those ways of distinguishing things -- as critics are likely to point out -- will be the main ingredients of "meaning" that are offered -- thus also of "value" (by definition: the significance of the difference).

Finally, with influence coded into the work, the art includes a decision about how to provide for the interaction with the viewer, reader, audience or whatever. This aspect -- which is design -- focuses on the characteristics that signal the audience to engage the work. Presentation gives a persistent shape to the idea of the work, but design shapes the experiencing of the idea. Because of design, audience predispositions are incorporated into art work without compromising the independence of the idea. Design uses the predispositions to amplify the work's influence. This design is typically described as the impact the work has on the audience, but it is actually the relationship that the work supports with the audience, made of emotional, intellectual, and other components.

An important concept covering all of the above is that the four different aspects of the construction effort are free to influence each other at almost all times. One may anticipate the other, or issue direction or limits to the other. Meanwhile, each of them may be independently and variably aggressive in conforming to any prior expectations and examples, or departing from them.  

Equally important, an architecture provides both a guide for construction and a framework for critiquing the results. Criticism is essentially analytical, not responsible for the production of art but commited to the investigation of how art "coheres" to become effective. In so doing, criticism commonly applies notions of importance, style, form and method -- traversing the same domains of the architecture (design, influence, invention and labor, respectively). However, it is common in criticism to propose a theory of coherence, and the formulation of that theory is based on predispositions that can affect with equal ease the formula's discovery or its synthesis. This is significant because of the possibility that the critic's observation promotes a value system originating outside of the art's work.

The autonomy of the critic is neither necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but it is necessary to call it out. Whereas, both preceding criticism and without it, the work in the art process comprises a value system of its own -- one that is applied to ideas and objects in order to position them as "expressions" of how senses design sensibilities for being communicated over time or across different perspectives.

To accomplish that, in making art, it is essential that labor, invention, influence and design are exercised; it is circumstantial that these correspond or not to critical notions of method, form, style and importance.  The artist building the house inhabits it during building; the critic visits that house and others. Art makers always have the option of responding to additional differing stakeholders as well, including: consumers who desire or even commission work; reviewers who suggest and evaluate usages; or even historians who situate work in social and cultural contexts. The message of this discussion's description of work is that these various special interests do not change the basic distinguishing characteristics of work in art.

 

 

Photography Next

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(Notes for practitioners) Each single day, for under $20 of operating cost, an individual can now record, store, catalog and distribute a thousand different images produced photographically, over a geographic range including most of the industrialized world. 

As a consequence, scarcity of images is predominantly a decision, not a precondition.

For the last 60 years, almost every approach of "critiquing" photo images automatically presumed that an image's "value" accumulated in seven stacked layers of scarcity. Each layer was a characteristic of the available picture, relatively measurable against other pictures. Listed in order from bottom to top, those layers are:
- occasion (opportunity to discover or draft the new image)
- insight (distinctive idea about the image material to capture)
- craft (construction skill)
- production (output volume)
- stylistic difference
- supply (distribution volume)

and finally,
-access.

As with most marketing, twisting the dials in any given layer (or combination of layers), to raise or lower the perceived level of scarcity, created certain kinds of demand; and promoting the importance of the demand was the default way of attributing importance to the image. Put simply, in any layer, the higher the demand generated from scarcity, the more important the picture's showing up there was deemed.

But now, the combination of  cameraphones, hidef video, computerized image processing, and the web has nearly blown that entire system away.

Before, in isolating pictures by "importance", the "system" was the likelihood that the hierarchy of scarcity would predominate, with occasions being the discriminator at the bottom, and access the premium distinction at the top.

In its place, the new reality is that technology rapidly and almost freely overcomes scarcity in every layer, making each layer virtually independent of each other. At any moment, hundreds of thousands of people, machines, and even animals are actually generating images without significant constraints in any aspect (layer) of the old hierarchy. At the least, cameras are everywhere, all the time, being easily controlled by more people than ever, who can find, see, exchange and approximate each other's pictures at frequencies and volumes blurring nearly any reason to assume a significant uniqueness of any picture.

Of course, there are still relatively exceptional pictures. But now that every layer of potential exception is most likely to feature abundance instead of scarcity, the simplest useful perspective for critiquing photography relies on contexts in which the picture is finally encountered.

The default situation today is that you are looking at an image that may have hundreds (or even hundreds of thousands) of reasonable substitutes, and you know that this is the case; so the formula for importance has little to do with the individual instance of the picture.

Instead, the fit of the picture to the moment of experiencing it is the source of its importance. This points directly towards the practice of designing the presentation of the picture to predispose its influence in the moment of its presentation. This is neither a new concern nor a practice likely to diminish.  But what it means is that the "eventfulness" of a picture is the hardest-driving factor establishing its importance.

Very soon, highly affordable cameras will run in video mode at high enough performance to allow any "freeze" in the image stream to be saved as a still image with fidelity comparable to most images actually produced only as stills now. Knowing that this will be true, photographers will definitely take advantage of it as the simple logical extension of the motor-drive, bracketing, and in some instances even high-dynamic-range (HDR) technique. The practice of selecting moments from the image stream will become ordinary and it will succeed enough such that the customary alternative of preparing for "the decisive moment" of exposure will not absolutely lessen but instead will retreat to more specialized use. This change of default practice is important because it will draw out what is already true in photography, namely that following the original conception of an image, editing is the most important aspect of all.

In effect, editing is the fundamental stage in designing the presentation of the image's picture with intent to influence -- and overall this concept of design will ascend to a dual role of both branded critical differentiator and primary audience attractor.

It is not by coincidence that the two major commercial photographic industries sensitive to demand (Hollywood and advertising) build their product  on "art direction", their term for the presentation design. In the much smaller industries of galleries and publishing, editing the show has had due recognition; but going forward this skill now anticipates expansion by orders of magnitude -- to cover both the skillset of most photographers and the vast collection of imagery circulating throughout the web.

The impact of that will be to call into question the meaning of "artistic importance". In criticism, as opposed to in connoisseurship, this will actually go through a re-conceptualization.

The question will NOT be "what makes a photograph art?", but instead, "what purpose of art does this photograph serve now?"

And the question will not be "is this photograph an important artwork" -- but instead will be " how is the artistic function of this photograph significant?"

Postmodernism

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(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.

Distillation

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

IceCloudSplash-IMG-20110813-00507.jpgMost
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".

  

HowPicturesWork_Distilled.jpg
...

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)

On design

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The purpose of Design is to make ordinary perception able to host the extraordinary experience.

Say What I Do, Not What I Say

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Artwork sometimes suffers from being "finished", because the finish hides the labor that went into it. This phenomenon is so well known that artists sometimes intentionally leave reminders of the labor clearly evident in the work, to help announce that something was made and did not just simply appear. Their objective is to discourage the viewer or audience from taking things for granted. But observers will still have their own way with art works, nonetheless, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. It turns out that being a good observer or audience may take some training, just as being an artist will.

At some point we have to go back to the simplest descriptions of our relationships with things produced from labor, in order to get a grip on the different ways that things matter to us. For example, with "art", there is always at least "consuming", "appreciating", and "making" -- three entirely different relationships with art. Each relationship delivers a different kind of value. Each relationship calls for something you have to know about yourself and something you have to know about the art-ifact. And each relationship's characteristic pairing is different from that of the other two.

Observers and audiences can become pretty sophisticated in the sense that they will "role play" while they are experiencing artwork -- in effect shifting or roaming around in the possible relationships. Mentally, if you go into an experience with some bit of art from one POV (say, "making"), and you get frustrated by some aspect that is a problem for you in another POV (say, "consuming"), then the issue is that you have to decide whether to let the tangential thing be a show-stopper, or whether you're going to sort yourself out and keep going.

The interestingly subversive blog post online at Buzzfeed called "The 15 Most Expensive Pictures Ever Taken" offers up, seemingly for free, reproductions of several million dollars worth of celebrated pictures.

Of course, the "free" pictures on the website are assumed to have none of the key qualities that cause the "originals" to be worth millions of dollars, so it's interesting to consider the identifiable value of the website's pictures (which of course "share" the images with the originals) as compared to the "originals" which, obviously, are neither present with most of the website's viewers, nor likely to ever have been or to ever be!

The web pix value is easy: publicity. Making interesting stuff widely known is enriching for individual members of all audiences. We can forgive slight distortion or gimmicks in the publicity, such as the quaint idea that these pictures were merely "taken" when without exception each one was very carefully made

(The titles of the pictures below will have to suffice as your link to the pictures, but this information should be good enough to get you to the pictures through ordinary search engines if not to the Buzzfeed site itself.)

But prices in the millions? Seriously? What could the value criteria really be? Assume that being a picture, not just an image, starts the bidding. And the different prices would have to be adjusted for the different value of the dollar at different time periods. Still, at any period, these buyers had enough money to buy almost anything else.

Meanwhile, thanks to the internet, all these images can be seen at almost no cost, unless you count the price (pro-rated) of the internet connection, etc., and furthermore, thanks to the net, the ubiquity of different but similar images is an established condition. Yet that still has virtually no impact on the price of these pictures.

Noting all that, assume that all of these fifteen big ticket pictures came back to the table, starting from scratch to be sold again. Who cares? The buyers.  What do they care about these pictures? What are the criteria? What's happening?

Here's what's happening:

- Fetishism: including style, sex, or nostalgia

- Preservation:  including documents as artifacts of scholarship, archaeology or events

- Subject's historical importance: including things, people, or concepts

- Innovation: including artistic or intellectual

- Tokenism: including totems, souvenirs, and models

- Scarcity: including market availability

 

So. Of the fifteen expensive pictures cited, here's the breakdown, with related pros and cons of their prices.

 

15. Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol (1987) - $643,200

Con: Theatre shots. What's the big deal?

Pro: Fetishism, historical significance

 

14. Eugène Atget, Joueur d'Orgue, (1898-1899) -  $686,500

Con: Posters. What's the big deal.

Pro: Preservation, tokenism, scarcity

 

13. Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sete (1857) - $838,000

Con: Salons. What's the big deal.

Pro: Innovation, scarcity

 

12. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, 113.Athènes, T[emple] de J[upiter] olympien pris de l'est (1842) - $922,488

Con: uhhh... nothing.

Pro: Preservation, historical importance, innovation, scarcity

 

11. Peter Lik, One (2010) - 1,000,000

Con: Summer camp; romance movies. What's the big deal?

Pro: Fetishism

 

10. Edward Weston, Nautilus (1927) - $1,082,500

Con: Advertising. What's the big deal.

Pro: Fetishism, preservation, tokenism

 

9. Richard Avedon, Dovima with elephants (1955) - $1,151,976

Con: absolutely nothing. Circuses?

Pro: Fetishism, innovation, tokenism

 

8. Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989) - $1,248,000

Con: Hollywood. What's the big deal?

Pro: Historical importance, tokenism

 

7. Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe Nude (1919) - $1,360,000

Con: Art class pastels. Well, not really.

Pro: Fetishism, preservation, innovation, scarcity

 

6. Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe (Hands) (1919) - $1,360,000

Con: Centuries of hundreds of thousands of unexhibited drawing studies. What's the big deal?

Pro: Preservation, innovation, tokenism

 

5. Edward Weston, Nude (1925) - $1,609,000

Con: hmmm. Maybe nothing.

Pro: Fetishism, preservation, innovation, scarcity

 

4. Dmitry Medvedev, Kremlin of Tobolsk (2009) - $1,750,000

Con: Resort advertising. What's the big deal?

Pro: Fetishism, historical importance, tokenism

 

3. Edward Steichen, The Pond-Moonlight (1904) - $2,928,000

Con: Watercolors. What's the big deal.

Pro: Preservation, scarcity

 

2. Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001) - $3,346,456

Con: Store surveillance videos, highway billboards. So what's the big deal?

Pro: historical importance, tokenism

 

1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96 (1981) - $3,890,500

Con: several thousand shots from any number of movies or tv shows during the '60s or the '90's. So what's the big deal.

Pro: fetishism, tokenism, scarcity

 

The easiest reason to not be excited over the pictures (con) would be that they are too much like something else. That said, quasi-scientifically, the Avedon and the Weston nude seem easily to outpace the other pictures with their singular appeal, not borrowed from any comparable other sources but achieved on terms completely within their visual frames. Interestingly, they are almost devoid of any dependence on great timing, and they don't mimic any other techniques of visual representation. Furthermore, they are highly reflexive, in that their presentation of their subject is dominated by an explicit intent to make the image more important than the subject while still being about the subject.

Really, most of the pictures have some of those characteristics, but the importance of that commonality is simply that they all qualified for the heavy competition for good reasons; whereas amongst buyers, the "winning" pictures emerged because of other reasons -- the reasons listed with the titles above. It's not so much that the buyers got the best pictures: it's that the pictures got the best buyers.

Live and In Color

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This is just a link to the Atlantic online magazine where excellent pictures of people doing something extraordinary have been posted. As a matter of not challenging copyright issues, and by adding only one paragraph of commentary below, I'll refrain from trying to further change the context of the pictures in any way.

As seen in the Atlantic posting, Hindus celebrated the Festival of Colors, Holi -- which is a popular springtime festival observed on the last full moon of the lunar month during which people throw colored waters on each other with memorable results. Since it is an annual event, then in some sense it is "ordinary". But since it is also a "special" event but in time and space, it is extraordinary. Capturing the color with crisp high-speed photography , photographers describe the effects of the event. The selectivity making up the description is a function of both a narrative and a perspective. One thing of particular interest is the degree to which the perspective of the individual pictures can represent the emotional perspectives of the people who are throwing and wearing colors. The best outcome here is that the pictures show how the participants would describe things, not how external onlookers would describe them.

 

The Beholders

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Throwing out over five years of jealously hoarded W Magazines means chucking a huge number of pretty great photographs that won't be coming back around anytime. But the epiphany amidst the trauma of disposals was that the only way remaining to permanently claim the accumulated clutter was not to collect it but instead consume it  -- to transform it into a memorable opinion. 

So, as an experiment, provoked by current television's dazzling breadth and show casting, and keeping in mind that all the W's at hand were the U.S. market edition, I decided to survey how W had portrayed non-caucasian models compared to caucasian models.

Unscientifically, because the first pile started where it did, I began with the target of Jan 2004 and actually looked at every page of every issue up through December 2005, where for this first go round both time and stamina ran out.

For all those issues, I completely discarded any issue that had no pictures -- zip, nada, bupkiss -- of non-caucasian models in any feature or full-page photo. (Exceptions: who knows, maybe I made a mistake somewhere and missed a shot once or twice that could have saved an issue; and, every Kate Moss photo was saved no questions asked.)

Of the surviving issues, the cover models were:

March 2004: Naomi Watts

May 2004: Uma Thruman

Aug 2004: Scarlett Johansson

Dec 2004: Daria Werbowy

Feb 2005: Renee Zellweger

Apr 2005: Lindsay Lohan

May 2005: Natalie Portman

June 2005: Gisele Bündchen

Sep 2005: Kirsten Dunst

Oct 2005: Kate Hudson

But, due to the conceits of fashion mags in general, and W in particular, most models, most of the time, on most pages under the covers, were anonymous except to the really devoted investigator.

Key trends and notes:

1. Overwhelmingly, non-caucasian models who were apparently African American (a.k.a. black) portrayed women in "real" life situations, doing "real" life stuff.

2. More than 50% of models who were photographed with darker skin were apparently caucasian models who were artificailly "bronzed" or shadow-lit for graphic effect.

3. The epic May 2004 issue contained both a transcendent and whopping Naomi Campbell portfolio and a monumental Kate Moss portfolio, rendering almost everything else in the issue pointless. But nothing even remotely like the Campbell portfolio occurred again in any issue following through December 2005. Basically, her one portfolio outnumbered the sum total of all other portrayals of black models in the entire rest of the two-year sweep. 

jewelry-calgaro-12.jpg

4. The most important use of black models was to be a backdrop for shiny stuff. These were also among the most stunning pictures, but while being brutally artistic they were also the least provocative of fantasy -- the stock in trade of most other model shots.

5. The large majority of pictures of "name brand" black women were actually pictures of either musicians or athletes -- that is, popular performers --  not of women who were primarily models. In 2004 and 2005, these black celebs can hold their own against the notoriety of the cover girls, getting some page real estate, but not on the cover. And mreanwhile, although actresses hugely outnumbered models on the covers, the models "belong" to the advertisers, while the covergirls merely belong to the magazine. As far back as 2004, magazine favorites Destiny's Child (Beyonce Knowles) didn't make the cover nor the ads, but they were getting editorial coverage. Like the other blacks and the cover girls, they couldn't just be hot; they had to earn their fashion appearance with extracurricular activity. Punchline: people don't buy fashion celebrities, but they do buy celebrity fashionistas.

6. The August 2004 issue actually failed the inclusion test, but it snuck in through a back way: it featured no non-white women, but it also very prominently featured a black man, Denzel Washington. Across many issues going forward, in W's society, black men "outweigh" black women by a large margin, simply by having their name with their picture.In 2004 and 2005, except where a black male performer or entertainment mogul was spotted, black male "models" were virtually nonexistent in W. (Assume that this last assertion is an exaggeration, but just go try to find out differently: good luck with that.)

Almost nothing of real substance is indicated by the above survey, unless of course it repeats in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008 and 2009, which would tell us all about W but not about what non-caucasians think about fashion. The 2004/2005 advertisers had decided who they would like to take their money from, and the incredibly low price-per-issue of W has always meant that the magazine is actually narrowcast aggressively to a known moneypool.

The point taken from the casual survey is that the definition of the niche addressed by W's U.S. publication probably will not change because there's no good reason to do so. With the amazing diversity being cultivated on television and on the web, a "fashion magazine" really needs to be a premium amped-up serving for a special interest group, and there is little danger that it will overwhelm or prevent other different groups, Publishers, on the other hand, might need to cater to multiple special interests -- with multiple magazines, as 21st century-style internet industry speads the haute at the expense of the merely haughty. It's not clear at all that black females, body artists, and athletes in the U.S. won't evolve pricey monthly coverage of their art of style -- not reducing Hollywood and New York, but pulling "couture" permanently across culture. Warhol/Interview disappointingly didn't do it, and for now, the example of hip hop, led by black males, will have to do.

 

As explained by Lauren Kirchner in The New Frontier:

"Writers who contribute free content to a website may be individually happy to do so, but collectively, that work contributes to the overall trend of devaluation of writing as a skill and a profession."

The context of that phrase is the discussion about profit-sharing by AOL and The Huffington Post in the article AOL Settled wit Unpaid "Volunteers" for $15 Million, which at first seemed to point out that, so to speak, the owner of the theater gets to set the ticket price -- but on closer reading points out that the holder of the deed to the property that the theater stands on gets to sell the deed to the highest bidder.

Continuing the analogy: performers may feel that the value of the deed was established by their performances. But the more reasonable explanation is that the deed is valuable because of where it sits in relation to other deeds. In the environment of the internet, the "deed" is actually the brand -- and the brand is created by the producer's control of the production values of the website. Because of that, the controlling producer gets the money. 

Hard-working "industrious" artists understandably may lose sight of the difference between the value of their expertise (competency) and the value of their product (commerce). But when not much time is spent generating income with other kinds of labor, artists need their expertise to translate into revenue, so the key is to be competitive on-demand producers. "Professionalism" connotes a reliability in the level of expertise, but that interpretation is missing the point. The most essential aspect of professionalism is competitive production that minimizes the opportunity cost of the seller under buyer-demand. Artists need to find buyers, not vice-versa.

Kirchner sounds an alarm on behalf of working artists who have not identified a buyer or set of buyers that measures up to their own level of production effort. But this does not default their status to being defacto  "investors" in any productions involving them as participants. Even less does it default their market value to the level of their expertise. Warning against contributing work for free does not change the dynamics of competitive production. The internet, in fact, means the very opposite -- namely, that unless a buyer has negotiated exclusive rights to one's product, one is more than ever free to distribute product to a vast range of outlets and prospects. But the problem is not that the product is "contributed" at any one place; the problem is loss of advantages when the contributions are not managed by the contributor as investments.

The web has made it plainly evident that the supply of expertise is enormous in all art, not just writing but even more prominently music and visual art as well. The point of this observation is not about writers catching up with what photographers and musicians already know; instead it is about calling on analysts like Kirchner to evangelize professionalism correctly. The flaw in Kirchner's alarm is that lack of pay does not, despite her claim, devalue skill. And, what makes something a profession is a community of buyers who require that certain standards of production and provision be met and maintained in order to satisfy the buyers' demand. Artists must recognize, as buyers already do, that many professionals are not at a high level of expertise, and also that many experts are not professionals. And they must accept that buyers have different ways of "paying".

 

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.

Viewers

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).

Choosers

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.

Critics

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.

Experts

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.

The Architecture of Art

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When Julius Shulman, photographer, died in 2009 at the age of 98, he had given interviews since 2005 to both the New York Times and to W Magazine. Both times his photography was traced to the influence he had as a shaper of a public perception of Modernism, and both times he was cited for his intellectual autonomy about the architecture he photographed. Interestingly, in 2005 the influence of Nature on Shulman was highlighted, and Shulman disavowed being an artist himself or even having much interest in art as he felt satisfied by Nature.

Since we do not think of Modernism in architecture as being "natural", it is interesting to think that Shulman, unfettered by notions of "Art", generally compared the forms of architecture with the forms of nature. What we want to know is whether Shulman's use of film, light and camera position intentionally extracted, from within the observed architectures, design that made sense to him the way Nature makes sense.

Although celebrated as a champion of the acceptability of Modernism, he was equally famous amongst architects for disparaging what he considered to be failures in Modernism. Taken together, the two attitudes propose what may be the most important description of Shulman -- that he was essentially an architecture critic practicing criticism with his camera.

There is no reason why a critic of exceptional visual articulation should not be as effective, no less legitimate, in identifying, analyzing, comparing, abstracting and even remodeling the principal values of the studied architectural form. Shulman's ability to represent his observations and concepts proved to be both reliable and extraordinary, as well as holding up under having a life of their own, subject to scrutiny.

What may be the most important idea related to that is the awareness of criticism  in visual arts as a creative enterprise, in which the critic exercizes a collateral medium at the level of imaging (conceptualization ),  before the presentation vehicle has become decided exclusive to the medium selected by the subject artist. In reviewing Shulman photographs now, it is also worthwhile to consider that natural archetypes may have provided a compositional framework for Shulman's visual positionings of what was "right" about Modernist design. In this experiment, ideas of "natural" organizational principles would be sought in the Shhulman pictures, made evident by his own modeling of the visual components of the subject architecture. As a result, the architecture's overt sense of artifice would not be fundamentally contradictory to the sense of "natural", but instead the artifice would be seen expressing principles strongly typical of natural structures.

This proposed review is not an accusation or a suspicion, but just an experiment in the criticism of photography itself -- a type of architecture of art.

[Because Shulman photographs are prolifically reproduced in other reviews and online search tools, this article does not include additional redistribution of those images, and instead focuses on the point about criticism as a creative and multiple-media discipline.]

Style -- the Content of the Mark

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In readings on the discipline of visual arts criticism, and on photography criticism in particular, one is struck by how much critics express certainty about what they are critiquing, yet how much thinkers about criticism express uncertainty about the legitimacy of critics.

Many of these very hard thinkers seem unable to get away from debates over conventional art-historical frameworks or the psychologies of aesthetics. These debates almost invariably spend their time arguing either for or against the usefulness or correctness -- that is, the reliability -- of intellectual idiosyncracy in determining "artistic meaning" or "artistic value" in a still-image visual work. Put simply, the problem lies within the idea that we should accept the perspective of the critic as the authority on how to accept the art work, and the uncertainties lie within whatever is spotted as the limitations of the perspective.

What's left out in the general shuffle is attention to investigating how meaning in images is finally "authoritative" in the image itself, not just in whatever context the critic finally agrees to be associated with as an authority.

Regardless of any observer's perspective, the image has its own terms on which to project significance with its organization of information -- and the key to discussing that organization is in the rhetoric of the decisions that it displays in its construction.

In the breadth of received experiences, every premeditated image is simply a "mark", one which was not there before and which has an intentionality of expressing a distinction. By default, the significance of the distinction is the inherent value of the image. But part of the intent is to express the inherent value, and this is done by the organization within the image. Style is the rhetoric of the mark's ability to express the distinction it is intending, and so that rhetoric, style,  becomes synonymous with the essential "content" of the mark.

The diagram below describes a basic rhetorics of the image itself as a counterpoint to the  various rhetorics of critics.

In this diagram, the key assumption is that all images produced by human construction as premeditated images are driven by a predisposition towards one of two basic motives: to imagine real things, or to present imagined things as if they were real. Produced images can always be positioned somewhere along the span between these two poles, which are more specifically identified as two presentational "intentions", namely the invention of evidence or the evidence of invention. But the imaging is also driven by an essential "referent" that sits closer to either a concept or an observation.

This double axis of concerns results (as below) in being able to detect four essential styles of imaging, each one of which indicates the inherent content of the mark.

It follows from this diagram that a given image (which can span more than one quadrant of the area displayed) may have a complexity originating in more than one dimension, and so there may also be more than the two dimensions (axes) cross-referenced here. But we already have a standardized framework broad enough to manage most of the images we can remember, regardless of place on the historical timeline or geopolitical neighborhoods within the academies of art theory.

Fashion photos, crime scene photos, war correspondent photojournalism, movie freeze-frames, family snapshots, landscapes, portraits, pictorial bios, calligraphy, signatures or what have you, it doesn't matter: they all fall within the diagram. (If an additional dimension emerges as proof to better explain the inherent diversity of image originality, then we'd add it to this diagram.)

Meanwhile, for the most part, the diagram allows a peripheral discussion about why the image producer leaned towards a particular position in the diagram's space; this can be held without attempting to reposition the mode of expression that the image itself has, experienced by any unsuspecting viewer as a matter of fact during the encounter with the image. In practice, intentions and outcomes often diverge, and most of the life of an artwork occurs on the basis of what outcome it became.

 

The New Black

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0001-georgie-badiel.jpg
Photographer Laurie Bartley rolled out Georgie Badiel (left) in the massive September 2010 Elle Magazine's short flash on a New York visit, deftly drafting an aesthetic from two cultures: political memory and craft formalism. Result: an Afro-Urban suite that, like a lot of mid20th-century jazz, just doesn't stress out about itself.

Formally, the portfolio ranges oddly but without any discomfort, from postcards (as below), to a mild voyeurism, to outtakes from an imagined film or television narrative. In these shots, all of the forms ride the same type of energy: an attitude of casual but acute recording, the photographer being in the right place at the right time as opposed to directing, but definitely by intention, not by luck. This agile attitude on point-of-view also provides a high degree of graphical permissiveness in the surfaces of the pictures, something more typical of cinema and so-called "amateur" snapshots.  Result: anonymous, yet emotionally familiar, genres.

But as "professional" stills, these shots very assertively manage the light within the margins, deliberately creating and preserving Badiel as a sculptural presence. Her presence is then made all the more interesting through the careful styling of her iconic Afro.

It's a fashion shoot, and styling is the essential decision-making going on. Is this decision retro, and if yes, is it exploitative? And if it is, is that important?

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Well, this go 'round, one has to accept the highly evocative choice of hair simply in terms of the way it is used -- that is, not mainly as a retro nod, but instead as a headdress. There is no basic difference, nor need for difference, between the way Badiel carries the style and the way hats (crowns) of similar shape and scale should work -- something  particularly familiar in fashion had the model been, typically, a pale or light-skinned woman instead of having Badiel's silky and dark complexion.  The fresh success with Badiel is based on simply having her pronounced presence without looking like she is trying, like it's just the way people look. And it works great with her face. In Bartley's work, we further award many extra points here for not having Badiel's demeanor rely on being disengaged nor rely on mimicking the walking dead.

With that, the dialectic between political statement and glamour is unusually calm here. This is cool because the politics is an invocation, while the glamour is a proposal -- the reverse of the usual formula, and successfully so.

With Bartley's Badiel, the Black is Beautiful '60's/'70's grabs its vague Egyptian royalty reference and swings it very easily "forward"  as a dignified counterpoint to what passes for political postures today. It is more matter-of-fact; more mature; and it is seen taken as a "given"  but not as a requirement. Selected, not adopted. Impressive, not dramatic. Imminently repeatable, not enforced.

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Meanwhile, back to graphics, the immediate environment works hard, featuring "urban" iconography around Badiel as she has already entered the city. Among the key signals, drawing is prominent on the street and on walls, and poles and lattices string more lightweight lines industrially across one space or another. But, wherever Badiel is in the city, the spaces are local to her. She is in them, not at them, and although we don't know why she is in them, she does not seem to be worried, and both she and all the places seem "normal". This is because, for the most part, the impression is that she is using the spaces, not finding them or only touring through.

Because the set of pictures altogether implies a narrative, it is notable that there is virtually no other character represented in them, making the set all about her, and staying entirely within the sense that there is nothing unusual going on with her.  It's a case of watching someone already a little extraordinary being ordinary, as opposed to so much modelling which is based on someone ordinary presuming to be more than a little extraordinary in pose, place, or circumstance.

Still, she is a character without a name, and we don't know her personally. She's an image; in this case, a re-vision. In effect, the pictures as a group create a context in which it appears that a recognized stereotype is not being further repeated, but instead an acknowleged archetype is being re-iterated. With that, what we might also want to know about is whether to ascribe special value to the shots being made by a woman photographer. The notion of a young empowered woman, a female archetype, and a character cross over each other here while also rebounding somewhat against the Cindy Shermans of photography but no less against the Marlo Thomases of tv -- not just other fashion shoot precedents and divas, which had led to a not so long ago bottoming out of black models in haute couture. One wonders if the comeback trail for many of those black models is a thematic/narrative one, or self-determination through gender alliance, or perhaps the combining of both.

 

The Laurie Bartley photos are all copyrighted by herself and/or Elle Magazine.

RePresentation as Innovation

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Note: Roxy Paine makes gigantic, tree-like branching objects that amplify the familiar but less understood, into the newly understood but less familiar. 

NY Times, quote:

"As with Mr. Paine’s Dendroid series, these art-making machines and mushroom fields are based on analyzing the visual language of the thing he’s replicating, establishing a set of parameters, then finding as much variation as possible within those rules. "

Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/arts/design/17roxy.html?ref=design

The "replication" referred to in the NYT quote results in exhibited items, but the items are not just replicating some other finished thing. In this case, the idea about re-production is that Paine finds the rules that generate what he initially saw, then he grows his own new things from those rules. The result can be understood as Paine's idea of new instances of the "genus" or "species", although he is all the while at liberty to use only the rules he is interested in.

For the moment, we're taking for granted the Times article's predisposition that Paine's sculpture is visual art (or at least that the art wants to be making its sense that way). Consequently, the fundamental question asked and answered by the labor of the current Paine sculptures is: how does the way something looks determine what it is?

It's a two-part question. The second part of the question addresses what we think the subject is of the exhibited item's presentation.The first part of the question addresses the effects of presenting the exhibited item under observation. These effects are experientially bundled into what we'll call the "presence" of the subject. The function of the presence is to attach the item to certain ideas while separating it from others. Due to the labor of establishing that presence with the exhibited item, the item is able to indicate the subject.

"Replication" is a catchy way to bring up the topic of representation. But a closer understanding of what is done by the "work" in the art work is that re-generation occurs in a presentation -- and to put a finer point on it -- in the presence of the exhibited item.

With all that noted, it is more likely that what distinguishes "representational" work from other work is a position on a line in a spectrum, not on one side or the other of a dividing line.  Towards one end, work takes conventionalized or at least prior rules of subject recognition as its basis -- but more importantly, recognition of prior acknowledged subjects. Towards the other end, In a different mode (non-representational by any name), the work begins with creating or at least discovering new rules as the basis, aiming towards proposing a new subject. Plenty of room in between those two poles. In fact, the situation is more like regions: new rules about old subjects, old rules about new subjects, new about new, and old about old...

The obvious thing that Paine's sculpture has in common with other visual art forms is that is poses the question, can visual expressions tell us something that we already know or at least that we ought to know?  

Of course we know that the answer is yes, but that is why we actually tend to start our "critical" assessment of the work with the question,"why are we being told this now?"

And in turn, as established through contemporaneous criticism,  the rise and fall of the "value" of the work-- in fact, of most new visual work -- tends to ride on this matter of "relevance", as much or even moreso than it does on whether the work is successful at what it tried.