Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 02 2022

E-xodus

I’m seeing more people these days, particularly photographers and writers, eschewing the chaos of mainstream social media and returning to the quiet world of personal blogs and websites. Perhaps they feel, like many of us, that the algorithms pushing conflict, sensationalism and drama over meaning, empathy and subtlety have made their efforts inconsequential in the face of the “influencers” and “creatives” who crave and cultivate the former over the latter. It’s simply a battle that cannot be won, and not even worth engaging.

My theory is that with ever-growing access to social media as well as ever-growing dependence on it driven by recent events such as the pandemic and general paranoia, our online tribes have simply gotten too large; we’ve opened our doors to nearly everyone, and there’s a reason tribes topped out at a certain number; beyond that they just became mobs (This is one reason I feel that VR-based engagement, limited to more human-scale interaction, is inherently superior to the mass-text-based chaos that dominates FB and Twitter, but that’s another article). As it stands now, greed-fueled social media corporations are throwing these mobs at each other and calling it “engagement”, raking in the resulting profits. I can see the attraction of returning to the previous paradigm, disposing of the myth of instant, real-time internet fame and focusing only on one’s relatively small group of peers. It feels like a return to sanity.

However, years of those dopamine-fueled hits have left their mark, it would seem, as those artists who are seeking to lessen their dependence on the Likes of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram are leaving a door open from one MO to the other in the form of newsletter mailing lists like Substack, Buttondown, Memberful and TinyLetter. The idea is to utilize the following one has cultivated on social media by posting links to one’s mailing list, gathering subscribers, and then going on from there. Readers will be informed of upcoming projects, articles, etc. via that antiquated form of communication we Gen-Xers call email, and then proceed to the website in question to peruse whatever it is. It’s all rather quaintly endearing, like letters arriving in the post.

I am, as usual, late to the game, only having recently followed a few interesting photographers/writers in this fashion lately, including Craig Mod, Sean Lotman and Andy Adams (Craig described his views on newsletters quite succinctly here in 2019(!).

So far I’ve only come across these newsletters on social media, so the reliance is still there, but I assume the goal of this trend is to lessen such dependence and time spent on social media where one is simply not in control of anything. The cost of this is, on the surface, less interaction with the authors in question, but that would seem to be a fallacy in that what little actual interaction occurs on social media tends to be toxic and ill-informed. In one striking example, I signed up for Heather Cox Richardson’s political analysis mailing list, and continue to enjoy her missives. But on her Facebook page, when I left a comment objecting to her use of “self-ruled island” to describe Taiwan, I was flamed and eventually banned from the page. The same (or worse) would most likely have happened on Twitter.

Not having cultivated a large group of followers in any particular space, I can only envy those gentle, enterprising souls who have managed to do so. It’s my own damn fault as I can often be rather blunt in expressing my opinions, and I am bad at hiding my feelings, so it’s kind of WYSIWYG. So, thanks to both of my readers who have stuck with me across the decades (and now that I think about it, “both” might be on the optimistic side).

Nonetheless, with the trend of photographers abandoning Flickr for Instagram and then realizing that Instagram isn’t for photography, I’ve been looking into making a website just for displaying my photography in a fashion I can somewhat control (which ironically is the very reason I made this site back in 2001, before this damn blog took it over). I could use WordPress to add a photography page to this site (right now it points to my IG), but the WP website interface is rather daunting, so I’ve been looking at paid services like Squarespace as well as free services such as Google Sites, both of which would seem to be capable of helping me make a simple photography site with varying degrees of classiness. Squarespace can serve up a suave site, but it’s pricey, and I’ve been experimenting with test sites both there and on Google Sites to see what I can make.

Would making an actual newsletter be pointless? Would anyone want to get actual email notifications from me about whatever I’m blathering on about lately? I doubt it. But I’ll at least be sure to let you know when I get my photography site up and running. Both of you, even.

posted by Poagao at 12:04 pm  
Jul 04 2022

Egography

ego

/ˈiːɡəʊ,ˈɛːɡəʊ/
noun
  1. a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

Numerous discussions of the practice have been popping up on social media platforms such as Twitter, where one can come across diatribes centered around the evils of what is being called ‘toxic’ street photography; the practice of Bruce Gilden, described as running around rudely violating the personal space and ‘rights’ of hapless pedestrians with his closely held flash and brusque New York attitude, is often brought up as an example. Garry Winogrand is also criticized for his admittedly questionable “Women are Beautiful” work. Many speakers state the remedy to this state of affairs can only be first engaging with one’s subjects before any photography can take place, which would seem to negate the possibility of truly candid photography unless a great deal of time is spent becoming familiar with all involved, at which point it would then become pure documentary work. The work these critics point to as “ethical street photography”, and in many cases the work they themselves produce, is however more akin to staged portraiture, often photos of people standing on a street, staring blankly at the camera, many of them posing.

While some of this kind of photography can be interesting, much of it seems to be more about satisfying the photographer’s ego than the people being photographed. And the photographers themselves, satisfied that they got the shots they had planned, don’t even seem to be aware of nor care about this limitation, let alone the degree to which they have inserted themselves into the work at the expense of their subjects.

Of course, all photography is about the photographer to some extent. But in the course of such an interaction between photographer and photographed, the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’ When viewing such work, I can’t help but wonder what the photographer interrupted, what these people had been doing, what they’d been thinking before the photographer called their attention to them: “Hey can I take your picture? Could you stand there? That’s it.” The insistence that a subject acknowledges the photographer’s presence and purpose, then acquiesces to their requests – rather than making a photograph respectfully and without intruding – could almost be bordering on narcissistic.

On the other side of this debate, of course, you have what I’d refer to as the “street bros”, who are quite vocal about expressing their right to “shoot” and “capture” strangers on the street. To them, as they stride down the thoroughfare with GoPros recording their safari adventure for their YouTube channel and TikToks that will no doubt be accompanied by fast-paced percussion music in their videos, street photography is an almost vindictive, chest-beating pursuit, getting as close and aggressive as possible. One of these guys (and yes, it seems to always be guys), popped up in a Flickr street group the other day, slamming anyone with the view that the feelings of one’s subject should be considered: “Enough said: street photography is a harsh genre and not for the faint hearted,” he posted. “You must be committed to the genre and retain a stiff upper lip when it comes to snowflakes and their feelings…these snowflakes will always find me, and a bunch of others, ready to confront them and put them in their place.” The use of the term ‘snowflakes’ is quite revealing here, and reeks of the kind of toxic masculinity and straight-white-male entitlement that accompanies the subjugation of others, fueled by an egocentric worldview and lacking human empathy.

“…the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’“

I’ve only run into a few such individuals myself. Again, while there is potential for interesting results, the work produced tends in most cases to be rather sloppy, jarring, and lacking contemplation. It seldom says anything except, “Look at me!” But as much as this behavior is described as being fundamental to street photography, it doesn’t correlate with the majority of photographers I have encountered.

Perhaps, as dichotomous as these two extreme positions of “street photography should be banned” and “street photography should be practiced ruthlessly” may seem, these two approaches could be said to be essentially about the same thing: the photographer’s ego-driven urge to impose themselves into the work, making the purported subject a secondary consideration.

The obvious reason for this migration towards these particular binaries is the desire to invoke public perception: The kind of photos that get attention these days on social media tend to be straightforward, obvious pieces that immediately hit the viewer over the head; after all, they only have a fraction of a second before said viewer swipes on past on their tiny screen, and these days attention is capital. Thus, details, subtlety and contemplation have receded from our template.

That street photography is being boiled down to two such unappetizing choices isn’t just depressing, it’s a gross misrepresentation of what was once seen as a much more diverse and complex genre of photography. There is an entire-disregarded world in between the two poles, a world encompassing multitudinous ways of engaging with subjects without imposing oneself onto them…photographs that are instead gentle, detailed, reflective and poetic observations without the need to either shove the crux of the content down the viewer’s throat for the ‘Likes’ or decry the ethical nature of one’s practice with a diatribe on ‘consent’ as a corollary to quality. Instead, these two strikingly similar extremes have somehow come to bear false witness to the entire genre.

How did we get here? Perhaps one extreme created the other, and the two polemics have expanded and reinforced each other, overtaking more moderate and nuanced positions, strict black and white crowding out all the tones on the spectrum in between. Social media companies have thrust us into this paradigm to keep our attention riveted on the ensuing drama, which in turn keeps their bottom lines going up, and they’ll continue to do so as long as it can make them more money.

Might it just be that the deeper problem isn’t how we choose to photograph, but rather how the role of personal photography is perceived in the context of our ever-more tenuous connections with each other amid the constantly growing encroachment of 24/7 surveillance by the government/corporate realm trying to wrest such observational authority from our purview? This would explain the compulsion of the ‘street bro’ crowd to assert their ‘rights’ to take pictures, as well as the desire for other individuals to insist on the conscious, consensual participation of the subject in all pictures made in public spaces. Yet, in both of these binary counterpoints, the imposition of the photographer’s ego erodes authenticity in the relationship between photographer, subject, and audience. Real photography should be about genuine connection, at its best conveying the human condition, but as we lose touch with each other, as social media paradigms encroach upon our sense of self, seeking to replace generations of actual social connection, we have lost much of any basic sense of trust we ever had.

Our true masks in these times are not made of fabric or paper, but of mistrust. As our connections have been siphoned off by media manipulation, blue checkmark validation vainly attempting to replace actual self-validation, our attention being redirected to bolster corporate bottom lines, our desperate urge to prop up our sense of self has overflowed into the space we previously reserved for others in our hearts and minds.

Observation with compassion and empathy may be cynically described as nearly impossible in such a state of affairs, driving the view that street photography can only be either inherently exploitative or a billboard for the ego, but it is vital that we keep it alive. Otherwise, it won’t just be photography that disappears from view, it will be our very humanity.

posted by Poagao at 10:40 am  
Jul 01 2022

George’s Folia

I get earworms sometimes. They seem more common in this Spotify-driven era, or perhaps it’s just brain chemistry. Regardless, like most people with earworm tendencies, I have a method of removing them. Some people swear by the “By Mennen” jingle as a definitive way to end the constant cycle. I’ve found that putting the opening to one of the many versions of the authorless renaissance tune La Folia on the record player in my head, I could reset my mental song palate, to mix a few metaphors.

One night as I was attempting to get a certain song out of my head (probably something like Lil Nas X as that man can make a catchy tune), I put on La Folia, but somehow in my mind it morphed into the 1955 recording of George’s Dilemma by trumpet legend Clifford Brown. I tried to wrest it back, but even though one is in D and the other in C# minor, the two overlaid each other until I realized that one of the reasons I love George’s Dilemma so much is that is seems to follow closely the chord progression of La Folia. When I looked up the roots of the song, Caribbean roots are mentioned, but not La Folia. I suppose the two are not exclusive, as La Folia is such an old tune that has been incorporated into many other forms of music.

I’ve always loved La Folia and often wondered if one could do a true jazz version that would lend itself to an improvisational style. Brown’s composition seems to be just that, and you can tell from his solo, which pounces on the notes that are at once the least expected and the most satisfying. Harold Land follows with a rather standard sax solo that does the job but doesn’t explore out the possibilities of the tune. Then Richie Powell constructs a delightfully exotic and evocative piano solo before the instruments come back in for the ending, which is a reprise of the beginning, all underlied by George Morrow’s bassline and Max Roach’s percussion. I would have loved to have heard another sax player take on that piece, Coltrane or even Parker, who died the year the song was recorded. Sometimes I take out my horn and try to follow Brown through the song, getting little hits of satisfaction on the few bits I can keep up with, but it’s a difficult key for trumpet, and all I can say is that Brown must have loved the workout his fingers got from it.

I’d still be interested in hearing more jazz adaptations of La Folia, particularly as I can imagine renaissance musicians in some small Spanish village getting together, eating, drinking, smoking and jamming to it all night, resulting in the tune becoming stuck firmly in their ears the next day.

posted by Poagao at 8:41 pm  
May 22 2022

Above and Beyond

I just finished the VR version of Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. There are six “missions” in the game. It starts out in Tunisia, takes you to occupied France, England, though the D-Day invasion at Normandy, through to various battles in Europe, on planes, parachutes, trains, motorcycles, ships, sleds and submarines, and finally a rocket base in Germany before a thrilling escape sequence. The game was first released in 2020, but was ported to a standalone VR version just this year. Obviously some compromises in the graphics had to be made, but with the quality set to high the game looks fine and runs smoothly. I’ve never been much for the shooting part of shooting games; I’d much rather enjoy exploring the spaces and atmosphere, and this game does that well despite being a few years old and made for mobile VR.

Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like I’ve just completed a series of good books…happy that I got to experience it, but a little sad that it’s over, and wondering what’s next. Though the lines of the NPCs are scripted, they’re reasonably well acted, and the feeling of immersion with the environment was good in general and sometimes even quite strong. I turned off the accompanying music as it interfered with the sense of being there, and sometimes lingered in spots to just enjoy them. There’s the time right after I’ve jumped onto a German train from a motorcycle; I just stand and watch the scenery go by, walk around the engine listening to the sounds it makes, maybe taking a seat in one of the cars and sitting quietly for a while looking at the luggage on the racks, at the wood and leather seats and all the other little details as the mountains and forests slide by outside. The game doesn’t care if I linger, so linger I do.

At another such point that sticks in my head even more than the storming of the beaches in Normandy (which is intense, obviously), I find myself behind a little shack in occupied France in the late afternoon of a sunny day, and I watch through a gap in the wall as the German commander orders his soldiers off and walks dejectedly back to the shack where he shakes his head, pours himself a drink and slowly sips it as he looks out over the countryside and sighs. It’s obvious he knows he’s doomed. I’m meant to just go shoot him, but for some reason I find myself just standing there watching him drink his Schnapps, thinking about how that moment really felt at the time. I found myself wandering around bombed-out cafes in France, wondering what they might have been like before the occupation, musing about what submariners’ lives were like while perusing their cramped bunks and notebooks, uniforms and other things. Throughout the game I just found myself stopping and just being in whatever moment I was in and wondering how it really felt to be there back in the day. On the ship heading towards Normandy before I shimmied down the rope into the landing craft, I looked at a sailor working in another craft on deck and actually caught myself thinking, “Damn I wish I had my camera on me, that’s a nice shot!” Obviously simulations are still a way from being able to even approximate the reality, but they fire my imagination and curiosity in areas of my brain that literature and movies can’t quite reach.

And here we come to the part of VR experiences that I simply cannot seem to communicate to people who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. They are fixated on how silly people in headsets look, they see references in media like Community and Lawnmower Man and all the other derision hurled at the vomit-inducing early 1990’s-era simulations that are presented as modern-day VR tech, while the 80’s nostalgia-ridden mess that was Ready Player One just created less realistic expectations. And the recent attempts by tech bros to tie virtual reality to NFTs and cryptocurrency has done even more harm to the medium’s reputation.

More and more I’m convinced that people have a deeply held, tribal-level reaction to the act of someone willfully subtracting themselves from our shared physical reality. Think of how we all make fun of groups of people staring at their phones, how people used to do the same for people with their heads stuck inside of books and newspapers. It all comes from the same place: How dare you not be a part of our tribe by taking your attention elsewhere! The VR companies have tried to combat this, portraying VR as a fun group social thing in their advertising with people sitting around together, one or two with headsets and the others watching raptly on a screen, but I feel this approach is pointless and misleading. Whenever I’ve been at such gatherings, whenever you put on a headset, you were no longer really there, and people would just leave you to it, screen or no. Because the feeling of not being in your physical location is much stronger with VR than it is while looking at a phone or reading a book. Would you want to go over to someone’s house and sit in the same room reading books or looking at your separate phones? I realize this happens, but people don’t tend to make a whole thing of it. And in these Covidian Times, it would seem like a bad idea at any rate.

So all I can do is shut up about VR in the few “normal” social situations I find myself in, unless I’m asked by someone who is genuinely curious and interested. Instead I watch as the companies fumble around trying to port this or that console game into the medium, looking for all the world like the producers of stage plays in the 1920s setting up movie cameras in the back row of theaters. I hope that someone, somewhere is working on developing the true advantages of this medium, attributes that are unique to it. Meta’s Horizon Worlds continues to exhibit the worst of humanity, simply-formed spaces low on detail or subtlety yet full of screaming kids and other trolls, as Horizon basically leaves moderation to the users, a tried and true recipe for disaster. The result is, despite the more advanced avatars they’ve come up with, a greater feeling of fear and trepidation, and a consequent lack of true engagement in those spaces. AltspaceVR, nominally run by Microsoft, has done much, much better in terms of moderation and engaging worlds, though they seem of late to want to follow Meta’s terrible example and are getting rid of some of those tools. VRchat and Recroom=more screaming children/trolls. The Multiverse is a shoddy, poorly-made sham designed to separate users from their money. It all feels a bit like the period of the Internet when everyone started to come online, and the social media companies hoovered up all the possibilities for creativity and put everyone at each other’s throats. That could happen in VR as well, but I still hold out hope that interacting as avatars with voices and expressions can pull in a bit more of our social interactions than just text, which hasn’t worked terribly well in that respect.

The next step, if we get that far, could feature a mixing of social apps and games…the upcoming GTA: San Andreas could theoretically become a place not just to play, but to hang out. Disney might be working on creating another Star Wars Galaxies-esque gaming/social world. Are the big dogs working on VR MMORPGs where users can inhabit places such as Star Trek or Hogwarts? Or are they all just sitting and waiting for someone else to do it first? MMORPGs such as Zenith and Illysia are doing quite well, and are both small independent companies with few resources. But Apple seems intent to get into the game as well, and if they take the iPod model of letting a few companies do their thing before modifying and perfecting it themselves, we might see something interesting as a result.

So people seem to see that there is potential in VR, but few seem able to pinpoint exactly what that potential is. Artificially intelligent NPCs, hinted at in the movie Free Guy, might be instrumental in providing more interactive experiences…we already have decent AI-driven bots, so that shouldn’t be a problem; rather, maintaining some kind of orderly storyline under those circumstances would be a bigger challenge. We’ve learned, unfortunately, from previous iterations of online behavior that people can largely suck if you promote hateful interactions, which media like twitter/Facebook/etc. have long been doing and seem poised to rip society apart. In fact this has been given as a reason why VR will never work, but it seems to me that the more intimate, multifaceted engagement afforded by more closely replicating physical presence online creates an opportunity to redefine the often toxic nature of online interaction.

I suspect that VR has the capability to let us see who we really are. Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

 

posted by Poagao at 3:41 pm  
Apr 21 2021

The dangerous idea of danger

A quick scan of street photography workshops online these days will inevitably reveal a bizarre emphasis on fear: “Conquer your fear!” they cry. “Overcome your fear!” or “Get over your fear (in five easy steps!)”

It would seem to be one of the basic tenets of street photography instruction, yet I feel that there is a potentially harmful misconception in many street photography circles that the practice somehow requires photographers to be “brave” and “bold”, implying that one is performing some feat of great intrepidity, engaging in a competitive challenge full of strutting machismo rather than the contemplative exercise I’ve found it to be, where bravery of the intellectual and emotional varieties are much more useful in challenging one’s own preconceptions as well as those of others. The Internet coaches, rather, tend to describe SP in hunting-related terms, making getting the “shot” or “capture” the paramount goal, and videos of famous photographers engaging in aggressive behavior have been both held up as examples to emulate as well as “prove” to others that street photography itself is a questionable pursuit, even at times encouraging violent physical reprisals.

“Oh, I could never be that brave!” is something I’m often told, sometimes in a disapproving tone, when people find out that I engage in candid photography. But truth be told, I am not at all brave; in fact, I’m quite shy. I’m uncomfortable in large groups, and the thought of too much social engagement often overwhelms me; I never know quite what to say in such situations, and I usually end up on the edges of things, listening and watching. The things I am most confident in saying, I tend to say with my camera, because it is more faithful to my thoughts and observations than I can ever hope to be in other forms of interaction.

Robert Capa’s oft-quoted words, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” might have had something to do with this, and adherents of Capa might want to delve a little deeper into the notorious photojournalist’s history before applying his words to their physical street photography practice. Closer to the present, the focus on machismo perpetuated especially by the IT-driven influx of people attracted to the practice of street photography from the mid-2000’s on also had an annoying tendency to remove empathy from the process, turning our focus away from the nature of what we want to say and placing it squarely on the superficiality of how we can dominate others. When I look at work, however, I don’t generally judge it in terms of how brave the photographer might have been in taking the shot, but rather the depth of their perception.

This isn’t to imply that all of street photography has been infected with this point of view; there are still many out there continuing to work from a genuine sense of visual and emotional curiosity. Indeed, it does seem that many if not most of the most perceptive photographers have been introverted individuals who give themselves the space, both mentally and socially, to perceive things that others don’t, resulting in more interesting photography. Framing one’s goals in terms of confidence in one’s perceptive abilities and a healthy respect for one’s subjects seems more likely to take one farther than sheer derring-do, which emphasizes the photographer’s sense of entitlement at the expense of their subjects, throwing the results of the interaction further from our realm of consideration.

This also doesn’t mean that bravado is simply bad, rather a suggestion that it might not be as vital a parameter as we’ve been lead to believe. Courage may indeed be useful, but the best work in my opinion is not about the bravery; it’s about the honesty. Bravery is certainly necessary in the realm of photojournalism, and the conflation of that type of photography with street photography is no doubt at least partially to blame for this approach, but I maintain that, at their best, both genres come down to empathy, introspection and respect more than physical courage.

Everyone is different; some people feed off the energy such anxiety provides, but in general one’s approach will show in one’s results, and outside of the Gildens and Cohens of the world (both of whom could be said to be shy by nature, which I believe has resulted in compelling, introspective work that is overshadowed by the superficial perception of their practices), a large portion of the street photography that is taken under the misconception that “the bolder the photographer the better the shot” is actually rather tedious to look at thanks to a lack of real connection or observation, sometimes even embarrassingly so. Conversely, the imperative that one must be recklessly bold to create compelling work might also have resulted in a contrarian sector of street photography practiced by photographers who have simply gone the other way, eschewing human interaction almost entirely and relying solely on geometric shadows and colors in lieu of the direct portrayal of humans.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps, instead of these attempts to assuage some feeling of guilt that people assume is inherent to the practice of street photography, we should ponder just why that tired trope is given such prominence. What engenders this feeling of fear, and what effect does it have on our work? Why do we fear to express ourselves? Why do we see our own gaze as potentially offensive to others? Are we compensating for a reluctance to examine our own issues?

In my view, it is one of many indicators that attention has been commodified and thus weaponized by certain sectors, starting with the media taking an ever-greater share of our limited notice with its 24/7 presence, followed by social media, which has worked to capitalize and assign a power structure to the nature of our attention. Thus, only certain kinds of attention, e.g. fame and “likes” and “follows” are seen as positive and worthy of pursuit. They hold power and authority in today’s attention market. As a result, other kinds of attention have become vilified and shunned according to this scale. Among these is being noticed in public when one hasn’t specifically asked to be (and sometimes even if one has, but it’s the “wrong” kind of attention). If social media fame and praiseworthy attention hold power, it creates a structure wherein the act of gaining this attention must, in many people’s minds, come at the expense of others. Thus the “hunting” analogy has come into the common street photography lexicon as far as most people were concerned, along with not only an influx of street photographers seeking such a pursuit in such a mindset, but also a flood of thus-inspired photos vying for fame on Instagram, which also increased the pressure to post multiple times a day, regardless of quality, lest users’ “brand awareness” takes a hit. The irony, of course, is that such servitude to social media popularity is the antithesis of bravery.

Be that as it may, distancing ourselves from the entire paradigm might be more effective. Perhaps if people new to street photography were steered away from the redirection of their sense of intimidation, examining rather than avoiding the vicious cycle of questionable behavior and guilt suppression, they could concentrate instead on the nature of their perception. Photographers might be better served by exploring their own motivations, what they have to say and how, rather than investing themselves so fully in the assumption that they are somehow doing something so wrong that they need to summon a certain amount of physical courage to effectively pursue it.

Introspection, however, isn’t exactly a path for the meek. It is much easier to talk about “overcoming your fear” than addressing why the fear is there in the first place. It could be that the bravery we actually need to express ourselves fully through photography or any other medium is emotional rather than physical in nature, and can only be found in the courage to be honest with ourselves. I think Oliviero Toscani, one of the founders of Colors magazine, described this quite aptly in an interview when answering a question about modern photographers’ motivations: “…no one teaches them not to be frightened of being frightened. If you do something without being frightened, it’ll never be interesting or good. Everyone wants to be sure of what they’re doing. Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.”

posted by Poagao at 10:34 am  
Apr 08 2021

Clubhouse talks

I’ve been using the (for now) Apple-device only application called Clubhouse recently, mainly for photography-related talks, but also sessions on other topics as well. It’s part podcast, part radio show, part voice chat, and the moderation system allows it to flow relatively seamlessly without most of the usual trolling that occurs in places like Facebook and Twitter. Though such talks I’ve been able to listen to some fascinating views and discover some very interesting work from people whom I’ve never heard of before. Celebrities from several fields have been involved in conversations, allowing access to verbal interactions with them that has hitherto been unthinkable.

So I’ve found it both useful, educational and entertaining. But is it the game-changer people are making it out to be? Some have claimed that direct voice communication creates greater empathy and is more able to actually change people’s minds. Earlier this morning I was listening to a Clubhouse session headed by podcasting luminaries Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ira Glass; the topic was stories about people changing their minds based on a specific CH conversation, and I could actually hear them wincing as person after person was brought up on stage specifically to share such stories, when nearly none of them actually had such a story, or indeed any story at all. As we know, Ira’s podcast work centers around stories, and he seemed particularly exasperated at the apparent and continued lack of stories despite constant and clear instruction that this was meant to be a conversation about such stories. This isn’t to say that the people themselves were not interesting or didn’t have anything to say, of course. But in general they were more interested in what they had to say than addressing the topic.

It was an interesting experiment, but though I had been quite interested to hear such stories as well, they clearly were not coming, so Ira fairly quickly suggested that they were done. Perhaps if they had waited longer, or if they had promoted it even more strongly things would have been different, but it’s disappointing that, even when two of the most renowned and brilliant podcasters in the world put out a call for stories about people having their minds changed by CH sessions, virtually nobody could bring up concrete examples.

What does this say about the nature of Clubhouse conversations? The difference is supposed to be that personal voices elicit closer connections than such conversations can have on text-based social media such as Facebook and Twitter, et al.

But people insist on being people, no matter the medium. I’ve attended several conversations that were supposed to be about street photography, but where the conversations were nearly always centered around non-SP matters such as portraiture, wedding photography, models, clients, etc. I’ve tried to take part in conversations that couldn’t proceed because the moderators of the room didn’t respect ideas different from their own. To be fair, I’ve also been surprised at how welcoming other rooms centered on things like photojournalism have been towards the practice and theories of SP. But if I’m being shouted down in a conversation or if I feel nothing interesting is being said, I will simply hit the Leave quietly button and probably not be inclined to join that particular club’s rooms going forward.

So there is a limit to how effective these conversations can be in terms of influence, especially when rooms are not welcoming of reasonable views that might differ from those moderating the space. Personally, I’ve found that even with VR apps such as Altspace, which has been the most effective media in that respect, only so much can be conveyed. And the cynic in me can’t help but note that Clubhouse has made monetization a greater priority than making it cross-platform, which shows me where their priorities lie. My hope is that it turns out to be more than just be another path to hell, just with witty banter along the way.

Clubhouse and its inevitable ilk definitely have a future, especially once they bring Android users into the fold. What kind of future I can‘t say, but the risk is that once user numbers reach critical mass, the conversations will Balkanize even further into mere echo chambers, and at best we‘ll be right back where we started. No matter what form our communication takes, it seems that with sufficient numbers the specter of tribalism that has governed human interaction for so many millennia inevitably works to direct our conversation, sometimes for the better, but too often, if we let it, for the worse.

posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Mar 15 2021

Feeling a way

Been in and out of various moods lately. Who hasn’t? It’s 2021, the world has changed, is still changing. Nobody knows where things will end up. Reassessing priorities has been the name of the game.

We here in Taiwan, of course, have been fortunate to be living under responsible governance, which makes for conflicting emotions when we see the vaccines we don’t have access to being so widely spread in countries where people felt free to ignore competent advice. They need it more, obviously. But remember, please, why they need it more.

Last weekend revolved around a St. Patrick’s Day gig at Bobwundaye. I don’t particularly care about St. Patrick’s Day, but we hadn’t played at Bob’s in a minute, so it was a long-overdue show. Cristina is getting ready to have Baby Paradise, so it was her last show before the big event. I saw some familiar faces, which was nice and got me back into a more social mood than I’ve been in lately. The show went well, and I shared a late-night/early morning taxi with Slim back to Xindian afterwards.

Sunday was spent recovering. In the morning I chatted with some folks in VR, meeting a fellow from Maitland, Florida, where I grew up, reminiscing about various landmarks. Later I walked down to the area just downstream from the Bitan traffic bridge, where they’re revamping the catchment infrastructure to allow fish to traverse it. I talked with some of people fishing in the river there for a bit before returning to the Water Curtain Cave for a dinner of questionable pasta leftover from my pandemic-induced shopping spree last year. Verdict: Ew.

I’ve been getting on Clubhouse chats lately…it’s a kind of mixture of talk radio, podcasts and chatrooms, with moderated talks where listeners can participate. It’s Apple-product only so far, which has added to its aura of exclusivity for some reason. Rammy, ABC and I founded a Street Photography club on there, and have had a few interesting sessions so far. Quite a few other SP clubs have cropped up, some of which do discussions almost on the daily, but we’ve elected for a quality-over-quantity approach. Still, who knows how this thing will develop.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also been working, slowly, on a photography book. My floor and walls remain covered in prints, but the work is now largely a matter of presentation. Of course it changes every time I get new advice, but slowly it seems to be taking form. It’s difficult as I am so close to the subject matter and the photos, and objectivity is hard to find sometimes. Also time is more of an issue these days as the semester has started up again. Again with the violin, although I feel I’m stuck at my current level, most likely as I am loathe to practice.

Been feeling stuck in many areas recently. Last week after work I took train out to Keelung to walk around and say good-bye to the old pedestrian overpass by the harbor. Usually walking around with no particular agenda helps me get out of my head and reconnect with the world around me, but it was rough going for some reason. I walked over to where the Taima Ferry docks, and while I was walking away the ship entered the harbor and docked. It was something I would have liked to see, but I missed it. Then, after I walked back over to see the ship and was walking away again, it departed…another thing I would have liked to see and missed. It felt like a metaphor for life lately. I keep missing things. Perhaps it’s time for a reset.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:05 pm  
Sep 26 2019

This world and that

Everyone at the campfire last night was talking about the upcoming Oculus Connect 6 announcements. People were speculating about new gear, new capabilities, doubting Facebook’s intentions, etc. I’ve met some interesting people there at times…other times there’s not much going on. On occasion, there are idiots. And sometimes shouty kids who have slipped past the cordon, but they are usually kicked out.

None of us were really there, of course. And there’s not even any real “there” there; it’s a virtual reality social space called Altspace. We’re all in our individual locations, living rooms, offices, cars, truck cabs at rest stops…wherever. The portability and ease of the Quest has made it easily the favorite gear to use to access these spaces. I’d been using the Sideload app to gain access a month or so before the official release, but now it seems like just about everyone there is using the Quest; you can tell because they move their hands and heads and walk around in sync with their actual physical selves.

This adds another dimension to communication beyond speech: Headnods, fistbumps, daps and other gestures are now all part of the mix…just seeing someone look away or put their hand behind their head when they say something tells you more than mere speech would. And, generally, just “being” there, with full motion, in the 3D environment that you move about in freely. Even the audio is spatial; you can pretty much tell who around you is talking even without looking to see which Lego figure (which is what most of the avatars resemble at this point; a new system is in the works, however…Altspace people say they’re rebuilding it from the ground up) or robot figure is speaking. Why some people chose more human avatars and others choose robots is a fascinating topic by itself.

I’ve witnessed roast sessions and rap battles, and yes, they were most entertaining. There’s even an amateur improv show every week, stage and all. By early next year, supposedly, our hands will be mapped directly from the headset, rather than using controllers. These are people in all corners of the world, yet somehow standing next to each other, just talking, as if you bumped into them on the street. And since the streets these days are filled with people texting on their phones, it actually feels refreshing to just talk with strangers from literally anywhere, as if you were together. The armor of the keyboard warrior is somewhat thinner; these are your actual words, not text to impress and be impressed by; you hear them as does everyone else in the vicinity. It’s…different. You can still be a jerk, of course, but when doing so, you feel more like a jerk than you would just typing impersonal letters on a keyboard.

It should of course be noted that Facebook itself is launching Horizon, its version of a virtual social environment, though after seeing how Facebook censors certain voices and allows others to voice BS, I can’t say I’m not concerned that that space could end up being similarly toxic.

But it’s strange, the feeling of presence in these places that don’t exist. After greatly enjoying the first episode of Vader Immortal, a canon Star Wars story produced by LucasFilm, I’m looking forward to going back into that world for the newly announced Episode II. And it does feel like actually going back there; the detail and atmosphere of these worlds can be jaw-dropping. When a door opened in front of me in a corridor and a stormtrooper charged out, I literally jumped back and said, “Oh shit!” while my virtual companions actually dealt with the situation. Not the most heroic of actions (I suspect I’d be rather useless in a real Star Wars environment), but honest at least. And at another point when we were edging along a shelf high above Mustafar, I just sat down on the ledge for a minute to enjoy the view of the lava and occasional TIE fighter flying by, even though my droid kept reminding that we were, uh, like, kind of in a hurry, you know? Being chased, threat of imminent capture…any of that ring a bell? The dialog is actually well written, I have to say. And the view was nice (again, I would suck at actual Star-warring).

But the point is that I was there.

Some friends have expressed concern that these virtual environments will cut off our connection with the real world, but, perhaps ironically, I find myself with a renewed appreciation for the details and subtleties of said world, sometimes just letting go and looking around me at all the wonderful things that, if they were part of a simulation (as some argue this world actually is), are so intricate and beautiful. Could it be that virtual reality’s greatest gift is an appreciation for actual reality? That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to meeting up with Monsieur Vader once again. Dude is downright intimidating when he’s standing in front of you, threats in his voice as well as his stance and movements. It’s a good thing there’s no real way to “lose” the game (that I know of), because I suspect one of the smart-ass remarks I make to him would earn me a force-choking.

Whenever I see VR being discussed on “traditional” media such as Facebook or tech sites, many people seem to have long-since dismissed it, especially after Spielberg’s dismal rendition of it in Ready Player One. It’s mostly tech people who are dissatisfied with the specs of the gear involved. “Deal killer” is an oft-mentioned term (then again it’s the same for camera gearheads). But there seems to be a general gulf of awareness between that world and the Internet As We Know It, like using radio to convince people to try television (which eventually worked? I assume?). Will it become impassible, or will it eventually disappear? Time will tell, I guess. When I started this blog in early 2001, even such things as smartphones weren’t even around yet, but after a few first-iteration clunkers, they’re now so commonplace that hardly anyone would entertain the thought of leaving the house without one. Will it be the same with VR? Noted photography critic A.D. Coleman wrote in 2014, “Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome…Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say.” So it would seem that we are in this first, vital stage of the medium’s development.

What happens next? Maybe we can talk about it at the campfire.

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm  
Oct 22 2018

The real source of good photography

“Going out to take photos?”

“Get any good shots?”

Even though I’m often asked one of these two admittedly innocuous questions, my first reaction is usually puzzlement: Do they know something I don’t? Then I realize that the questioner is looking at the ever-present camera on my shoulder and thinking that today is special, that I’m going out today to specifically capture certain images that I already have in mind. Or that have just returned from doing so, mission accomplished.

“Not really,” I say. Usually I leave it at that, and watch as the puzzlement volleys back into their court.

“But you’re carrying a camera-“

“This is true.”

“Are you not going out to take pictures?”

There’s not much I can honestly say at this point without causing them to look around for escape routes: “Maybe!” or “We’ll see!” or “Ya never know!”

Mostly I just lie, because I realize most people are just making small talk, and talking to a person who is obviously going out shooting but steadfastly refuses to say so can’t be a pleasant experience.

And I can’t blame them. Photography has in recent years become so wrapped up in itself at the expense of its very purpose that such conversations usually end up going nowhere fast. I also suspect it might be much worse if I were a Real Photographer.

So many people are looking through the wrong end of the telephoto lens, so to speak. These conversations might continue on to things like “So what camera/lens do you use?”followed by endless listing of specs and the kind of loyalty statements usually reserved for sports teams, then moving eventually, perhaps, to “Where/when/what do you shoot?” and almost never “Why do you shoot,” much less “Who are you?” Ironically, mall security and cops tend to be the ones asking this last question, though I’m not sure if they’re really interested in the answer unless it involves letting them arrest me.

Whether it’s out of politeness, caution, social mores, or simply an unspoken fear that one hasn’t even bothered ask oneself these questions, the result is that we rarely actually communicate on this subject. Photographers are often so ill at ease with social navigation that we resort to photography as a primary means of communication. That, of course, doesn’t excuse resorting to a similar amount of shallowness when working in one’s chosen medium.

In a nutshell, who you are determines what you notice, the questions you ask, your doubts and inspirations. All this is constantly changing, and simply saying “I’m going to shoot different photos now” is an oversimplification of that process. The photography is incidental, more of a result than a cause.

People often express a desire to improve their photography, their desire to take “better” photos; that means taking different photos than the ones they’re taking now. Changing the location or equipment involved will most likely not result in fundamentally different photos; you can’t take different photos until you see different things. And that, in turn, won’t happen until you are different than you are now in some fundamental way. You see the things you see because of the person you happen to be at this moment.

And you are always changing. Some say travel changes a person, some say switching jobs, some say switching partners, some say limitations engender creativity¦when it comes down to it, life changes you constantly, by definition. At some point, some that youness might intersect with photographic expression for an undetermined length of time. Or it might not.

So try not to distract yourself with the superficialities of gear and travel. Photography, as Jay Maisel once wrote, is about everything else. The most vital variable in the mix is you. You are the genesis of your photography; start with that, and everything else will follow.

posted by Poagao at 11:45 am  
Sep 18 2018

Photography and Personing

Are you into photography? Do you like to person? Do you like to do both at the same time?

When I say “into” photography, I don’t mean someone who has/desires a great deal of gear, or someone who knows all the best places to find the best birds/orangutans/fire escapes, nor am I talking about dudes who take thousands of photos of women models in studios and random parks. I’m talking about people who are afflicted with the condition where they can’t not see photographs everywhere they go, even if they don’t have a camera at hand.

Another group I’m not talking about: Those who “got into” photography when it became the hot thing with the popular kids a few years ago (featuring skateboarders, that oft-used demographic every large corporation knows is perfect for bringing “the youth” into the fold for effective consumerism). I won’t waste my time because soon enough you’ll be saying things like “I just haven’t had time to go out shooting” and “There’s just nothing going on here” when something else comes along. Whenever I hear those phrases, I recall my ophthalmologist’s advice that I really need to stop rolling my eyes. Just admit it: You are not really into photography. But hold up: That’s great! It’s not an insult; it’s a compliment. Congratulations, because, as it turns out, being really into photography (as opposed to being a professional photographer, which is often a different thing), can be rough.

What could I possibly mean by this? Isn’t “everyone a photographer” these days? Don’t most people have a capable camera in their phone or around their neck? How do these people people, as it were?

Let’s say you are with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, eating, in a car, on a bus, in a meeting, having sex, or paragliding, or all of those at the same time (which admittedly sounds like one hell of a party). Do you remain committed to maintaining your interaction with them, or do you remain open to all of the potential photos happening around you?

Most normal people opt for the former. Obviously. Even in the unlikely event that you can engage with your companions as well as paying sufficient attention to your surroundings, what happens when a photograph become apparent to you? Do you maintain eye contact? Try and keep the conversation going? Think up an excuse to leave suddenly?

Again, for most people, the conversation is their literal focus. Most non-photographers, regardless of the photographic machinery they may have on hand, aren’t even looking. Of those who are looking, most ignore it. Of those who can’t ignore it, most watch helplessly as the photograph disappears while they try to keep their attention on the other people. Of those who make an attempt to socially disengage in order to make the photograph, most will be too late as well as flustered from resisting the ancient DNA-level code of Not Being an Asshole to one’s tribe. And those who just go take the damn picture are of course rude, self-centered malcontents who think their so-called “art” is more important than the actually important matters their companions are earnestly discussing with them at the time of the aforementioned abscondment.

“But TC,” you say, “I’ve found the Perfect Friends/Significant Other who is perfectly fine with me shooting anything I want at any time!”

That’s great! I’m sure they’re very nice, lovely, accommodating people who are really into you, and willing to put up with this behavior in order to be around you. I’m jealous, truly I am. Perhaps they even point out little scenes they think you’d be interested in, even though you aren’t because they can’t actually know what you see, and by the time you’ve followed their pointing finger and excited, slightly patronizing tone that of course has alerted the denizens of said scene to your attention, it has vanished. But I’ll bet a reasonable amount of money that they in fact hide their dismay when you display in a most abrupt fashion how much more devoted you are to some imagined, phantom scene than you are to really being truly “with” them.

That they’re willing to go through that for you is admirable. But perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll eventually get to wondering exactly why you can’t deny yourself this stupid photography shit in order to be with them. It’s not like you’re exactly famous or really any good at it. Which is most likely true, because in their eyes you can’t be good until you’re famous, and becoming a Famous Photographer is not only nearly impossible, it almost by definition disallows continuing to be into photography, because you need to person. If they don’t want you to give up photography for them, they will almost certainly try to steer you into a more lucrative, “useful” form of it. Again with the personing, extreme personing in this context, because lucrative photography is generally more about the lucrative part than the photography part. Can you schmooze? I mean, are you really good at it? Here, I’ll just take that camera; you won’t be needing it. Your attention is elsewhere. Go person.

This condition, of being disconnected enough from the tangled skeins of social obligation in which most people are ensconced that you are able to readily observe the things around you, can wear you down if you let it. Someone is always in the way, if not physically then mentally, assuming that you are engaged in the conversation or whatever else that may going on. People see you as off in the clouds somewhere when you are actually as present in the world as they are, just in a different way. They don’t notice the man quietly sobbing in the corner, the cat perched precariously on the railing, the estranged couple maintaining an awkward distance in the park, or the factory lazily polluting the river. And you don’t notice the latest gossip, that thing we have next week, or that horrible insult someone said that might mean something else. You’re there, but not in the “right” way. Not for personing.

Some extremely talented photographers in the past have obviously been the kind of “difficult” individuals I’m talking about, but by definition and due to survivor bias, the ones we know of are the ones who had special ways to deal with it. Many, such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, were independently wealthy when they started out, and just DNGAF. Others like Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand failed spectacularly at maintaining the relationships in their lives.

Of course there are many successful photographers who are friendly, engaging, well-adjusted individuals with happy friends and families. That’s great. I’m happy for them…mystified, but happy. The rest of us are left with a sense of not quite belonging to the world we are so intent on observing because, were we capable of belonging, we would no longer see it. Some of the photos resulting from this state might happen to be interesting, but nobody will know or care because we cannot person*.

So what can we do? Don’t worry; all is not lost. While we may not be able to ignore the draw of photography, we might be able to control how much we care about superficialities, things that are on the surface at least tangentially related to this Thing We Can’t Not Do, but in reality just drag us down…things like social media addiction to likes and faves, trying to be noticed and published, things like gear obsession and one-upsmanship. Take that time and use it better; instead of clinging to the impossibility of being universally adored, try to make friends with a few like-minded souls instead of just anyone you think will advance your social status. Recognize, explore and embrace your own instincts and inclinations. Be there for yourself. Person for yourself.

If we simply value being as open and genuine as possible, we might stand a chance of getting through all this with some semblance of sanity. And maybe, just maybe, collect a few good shots along the way.

 

 

*Of course, if you’re “lucky”, after you’ve died someone might buy your photos at an auction and “discover” you, now that your difficult ass is safely beyond having to deal with.
posted by Poagao at 10:46 am  
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