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The long version:

This blog amassed a few feed subscribers before I realized that it had a feed. But only a madman or a turnip would not use Feedburner to manage feeds if he cared about feeds. And since I'm now deciding to care about this feed, I'm Burning it. My suspicion is that most of my current subscribers are Chinese and Ukrainian bots, but if you can read this, if anyone out there can hear me, if there are other survivors, go west. Keep moving west, and watch for my beacon.

The Future of Photography Has No Cameras or Photographers (Part 2)

Part 1 of this essay addresses cameras. Now we get to photographers.

Like the smugly flatulent unicorn on the ark, photographers are an endangered species. I'm going to call © Peter M. Ferenczi on this as a derivative work. If some undead medieval glass painter has a problem with that, step up, fool.

Like the smugly flatulent unicorn on the ark, photographers are an endangered species.

I'm going to call © Peter M. Ferenczi on this as a derivative work. If some undead medieval glass painter has a problem with that, step up, fool.

So, that's cameras. But circling back to my click-baity headline, what happens to the photographers? In my future so far, they’re still there, taking pictures, even if the camera never leaves their face.

That won’t last. At first, there will be a constant capture feature that lets people retrospectively “take” a photograph. Some cameras can already do this, but having full-time recording would change the game fundamentally. When something happens that you wish you’d shot, you just rewind and mark the image (or video clip -- I think the distinction will become ever-blurrier) for storage. From there it’s a small step to recording everything and keeping it, just in case you decide much later that it was worthwhile (and of course for more nefarious advertising reasons). This is the idea behind the apparently still-born but actually just premature “life-logger” product category, a viable idea in advance of the technological and social structures needed to make it widely appealing.

In this PR shot from Narrative, we see an attractive, diverse group of friends wearing the company's life-logger, the Narrative Clip 2. Narrative recently declared on its blog that it was "filing for voluntary dissolution," which is presumably the corporate equivalent of conscious uncoupling. Then, 20 days or so later, the blog blurted out that a group of employees had acquired the assets of the company and it would soldier on in some form. Astoundingly, this announcement was made without reference to "the story continuing" or similar.   © Narrative

In this PR shot from Narrative, we see an attractive, diverse group of friends wearing the company's life-logger, the Narrative Clip 2. Narrative recently declared on its blog that it was "filing for voluntary dissolution," which is presumably the corporate equivalent of conscious uncoupling. Then, 20 days or so later, the blog blurted out that a group of employees had acquired the assets of the company and it would soldier on in some form. Astoundingly, this announcement was made without reference to "the story continuing" or similar.  

© Narrative

But it will appeal, especially when it’s a feature of something indispensable for a million other reasons rather than a ridiculous nerd necklace. And super-especially when combined with the kind of artificial intelligence that lets people have pictures without needing to take them. Even today, ordinary people generate more digital images than they know what to do with. The volume is overwhelming, and the accepted wisdom is that few people bother with the time-consuming task of separating out the best results from the mountain of not-quite-as-goods into a form that allows convenient perusal. Google again gives us a glimpse of the future: if you dump all of your photos into its cloud now, it generates little slide-shows, supposed highlight reels. The results today are hit and miss, but that will change. Soon an AI will do a credible job of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Then it will make a little extra wheat by editing and combining images to create synthetic scenes that feel right even if they didn’t quite happen, that moment when everyone laughed at the same time (this future is also already here in stunted form, with apps that do this with some laborious handholding). The distance between what happened in a given moment and the content of an image will increase as computational photography grows more ambitious. The idea of a single "exposure" will be displaced by a summarizing of data over time that includes everything, highlight and shadow detail and smiles and everyone who was there, whether they were all in-frame together or not. The result will be a fiction in the service of truth: not only do people not want to take pictures, but they’re more interested in the feel of the moment, the truth of the experience rather than what, on the literal level of atoms and time, actually happened.

I find the images in the Narrative press kit strangely compelling. Here, a family, delirious with joy, is abducted by aliens. They whoop as they are beamed up at sunset into the hovering saucer. The father is rising fastest: it seems that the aliens respect our patriarchy. Of course, Narrative's product could not have captured this image, unless another family member, a less favored cousin perhaps, is looking on with his own Clip 2. © Narrative

I find the images in the Narrative press kit strangely compelling. Here, a family, delirious with joy, is abducted by aliens. They whoop as they are beamed up at sunset into the hovering saucer. The father is rising fastest: it seems that the aliens respect our patriarchy. Of course, Narrative's product could not have captured this image, unless another family member, a less favored cousin perhaps, is looking on with his own Clip 2.

© Narrative

This is the moment when ordinary people stop being photographers and become sensor platforms. That sounds dystopian, but it’s totally appropriate within a restricted context. Most people never wanted to be photographers in the first place. They just wanted those pictures, to help remember what the Grand Canyon looked like or rub their Caribbean vacation in their coworkers’ faces. Which leads to a digression that perfectly illustrates why this is good for the common (wo)man. If you’ve ever been to a Major Site (Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower, etc.) you will see people approach to the designated distance, lift a camera or phone in front of their face, and then turn away to find the next Site on their itinerary. There are probably millions of people who have been to the Louvre, stood in front of the Mona Lisa, but have never actually pointed their retinas at the painting. They saw the preview on a screen. Then maybe they posted the picture on Facebook. This is how they take pictures, and this is what they do with them. I’m getting judgy here, but it’s absurd and I feel that it’s bad for people. They are tyrannized by their desire for pictures. Their picture-capture practices have blinded them to what life is for (that is, living). To be a simple platform, to look from alongside rather than through the camera, would be a liberation for them. The limitations of that platform, the human head, will lead to the most distant prediction I’m willing to make.

Not only do people want pictures without necessarily taking them, but they want to be in those pictures. To the extent, it was recently revealed, that they’re willing to balance a phone on a stick held out in front of them to get them. In public. In fact a lot of the folks in the above example have their backs to the Mona Lisa when they preview the image, so the Giaconde can smile over their shoulder in the selfie. The cameras we love have been woeful at addressing this need. Nobody uses self-timers. I guess there are those Casio TR selfie cameras, an apparently isolated bright spot in the market at large that put Casio's camera division in the black for the first time in nine years. We can argue about whether social media is the cause or the effect of this, but I don’t see it changing as long as humans remain descended from small-group-living primates.

The solution: image capture must be physically detached from the subject, the ex-photographer. The solution is a drone, or drones (though they probably won’t be called drones by then, given the distasteful connotations of violent death the word is accruing). Drones already serve as remote controlled cameras, enabling aerial photography in a way that was unimaginable a few years ago. That use case might appeal to a few of “us,” but it will never catch on with normal people. The breakthrough will come when you can pull a drone out of your pocket, toss it into the air, and have it capture imagery of you and your surroundings autonomously. This will be particularly easy if you’re at a Major Site, since there will be millions of suggestions in the cloud, helpfully annotated with more or fewer likes, for the best angles and flight paths. Eventually, even the decision to deploy the drone will be unnecessary, and they will either always be around or will emerge from somewhere when needed. In urban areas a kind of distributed imaging network might complement or even replace these personal swarms, imagers embedded in the environment (which would also have AR applications) that would mesh seamlessly with our forward-facing sensors.

The problem with writing about the future is that if you don't type with your mouse hovering over the "Publish" button, you find yourself writing about the past. This is a picture of the AirSelfie from a press kit that includes five product shots featuring four disembodied hands but zero confirmably attractive people (I could make guesses based on the hands, but guesses are all they would be). However, the hands are identifiable diverse. The product name is terrible but tells the story effectively. As of my present (your past) the AirSelfie's Kickstarter campaign has pulled in over eight times the funding goal. © AirSelfie Holdings Group

The problem with writing about the future is that if you don't type with your mouse hovering over the "Publish" button, you find yourself writing about the past. This is a picture of the AirSelfie from a press kit that includes five product shots featuring four disembodied hands but zero confirmably attractive people (I could make guesses based on the hands, but guesses are all they would be). However, the hands are identifiable diverse. The product name is terrible but tells the story effectively. As of my present (your past) the AirSelfie's Kickstarter campaign has pulled in over eight times the funding goal.

© AirSelfie Holdings Group

Since I'm now talking about ubiquitous imaging, I'll stipulate that these scenarios require some social changes as well as technological progress. Google Glass was rejected not just by its users, but by everyone else. It freaked people out precisely because it conflated looking and photographing. Hence the media-ballyhooed banning of Glass from a number of restaurants, bars and other private-public places. Many of these businesses had security cameras, but never mind. Despite the fact that we are recorded hundreds of times a day, that we trade the most intimate details of our lives for “free” services, people get nervous about “being photographed.” I’m making this sound crazy partly because it is, and partly to show how easily it could change. In 1950, it was unimaginable that the post office would read every letter it delivered -- that's what Communists did! -- and here we are. Privacy norms are going in one direction, and I don't think we'll have to wait long for mores to embrace truly ubiquitous imaging. There's grisly dystopian potential in that direction, but I'm going to call "beyond the scope" or we'll be here all day.

I readily admit that I may be wrong in the particulars or exact timeline of these predictions, but I'll be surprised if my central thesis is disproved. So where does that leave us? Let's eat dessert first and indulge in some anticipatory nostalgia for the now, before it's gone. Let's be in our moment, appreciate that we're at the apex of a two-hundred-year arc that will fall off abruptly in the near future. And maybe, let's use this time to think about what photography means to us, personally and as a culture, and what we'd like the shape of the thing that replaces it to be.

Paris Photo 2016 Show Report

“Would you rather stew over the fraying of western democracy or soak in a deep pool of fine art photography?” And so I found myself at Paris Photo last week.

The Eye of Mammon shines over Paris Photo. It's much nicer since they moved the show from that subterranean warren under the Louvre to the Grand Palais.

The Eye of Mammon shines over Paris Photo. It's much nicer since they moved the show from that subterranean warren under the Louvre to the Grand Palais.

Paris Photo is both a trade show and an art expo. It’s advertised in the metro, on the street, where the unwashed masses can catch wind of it and subsequently attend in an effort to better themselves. But the show’s true raison d’etre is getting galleries together in one place to facilitate the Monopoly-money economics of the fine art world. There are presumably collectors prowling around, collecting, though they are not immediately identifiable. I assume the galleries do some horse trading among themselves as well. Prints are sold for 5,000 or 15,000 or 50,000 euros. You see a lot of bottles of champagne opened: commerce at this scale is thirsty work. This kind of transaction usually happens in rooms where the hoi palloi never tread, so there’s a voyeuristic thrill to be had in rubbing up against it while wearing pants from Old Navy.

Apart from its sheer size and total lack of curatorial unity, this is what sets Paris Photo apart from a museum show: you can stand right next to the great pounding pistons of the machine, tucking in any loose clothing to avoid mangling accident. The hood is off, you feel the thrum of it, see the teeth of gears meshing implacably, shining and smiling hard in the bright daylight-balanced illumination. You hear the ecstatic greetings of near strangers, witness the carefully presented facades of clothes and faces, the leaning close, the parted lips, the excitement of acquisition and being acquired. You sense the invisible flows of currency coursing through the veins and arteries of the show, the fuel that drives this engine for transmuting art into investment.

Attractive people spend their time talking on phones amidst enormous prints. I have been attending Paris Photo for over a decade, and the women who work there never seem to get older. What is their secret? Mammon knows.

Attractive people spend their time talking on phones amidst enormous prints. I have been attending Paris Photo for over a decade, and the women who work there never seem to get older. What is their secret? Mammon knows.

I go, not to increase the size of my collection of fine art (which contains not a single object or print, excepting my own), but to bask, to marinate, to steep myself in photography, potentially of excellent quality, and certainly of excellent print quality, especially if you like big prints. There is always art, real art, that resonates in the cockles and subcockles of my heart, shown at Paris Photo. A lot of it is canon, some of it is still damp from the womb, blinking in the bright light, untested.

The photographs hang naked on the freshly erected pre-fab walls, as honest and true as the artists that made them. That is, presumably, of greatly variable honesty and truth. There’s always a fair amount of stuff that does absolutely nothing for me, that I suspect, thought don’t quite have the courage to call out specifically in print, is dross of the most empty and cynical order. I strain to credit my own laziness, my closeted philistinism, for this interpretation, because it is depressing, enraging, to consider that in fact the gatekeepers and taste makers don’t know the difference, or more likely, know but don’t care, that their consideration of the bottom line outweighs all other considerations. If this is the case (and how, in this world, could it not be, at least often?) then I assume the buyers are complicit, more concerned with appreciating investments than appreciating art.

My frustration with the ratio of truth to trash at Paris Photo is offset by my secret delight in the worst work, which allows me to revel in a sense of superiority as I compare it to my own, ignoring for the moment that I am on the outside looking in, that I face the walls rather than face out at thousands of considering, judging eyes. These pieces allow me to indulge in that eternal fantasy of the unappreciated artist: that my work, as easily as some of this stuff, could be anointed, if only I were willing to play the game, dance with the vulpine elegance of gallerists, pander to fashion, etc.

A tilt-shift lens, a snappy suit, and a gold-plated handgun are all useful when attending Paris Photo. Flowers are appropriate for any occasion. I had never seen the rather amazing photo by Sean Hemmerle back there on the left (or had I seen it and forgotten it? In which case there is no hope for me).

A tilt-shift lens, a snappy suit, and a gold-plated handgun are all useful when attending Paris Photo. Flowers are appropriate for any occasion. I had never seen the rather amazing photo by Sean Hemmerle back there on the left (or had I seen it and forgotten it? In which case there is no hope for me).

Not all of the attendees with artistic aspirations are likely to be so bitter. A disproportionate number are photography students, dutifully toting heavy film cameras and notepads in which they scribble discerningly. I drift through them, vampirically savoring their youthful enthusiasm, stopping up my impulse to condescend, noticing how well their jeans fit. I never speak to them, would not spill the black ink of my cynicism on their clean white pages (they are almost always white). I imagine that they imagine themselves on those walls, that they are taking aim, carefully ignoring statistics, the preponderance of work by photographers who died before they themselves were born, the recurrence of certain names further slimming the room for new entrants. But as with the army of tiny fresh-hatched sea turtles blitzing the beach beneath the wheeling hungry gulls, some tiny percentage will make it. Under such withering fire, luck will play its role alongside ability. Such is the design of things.

The glass ceiling of the Grand Palais reflects the stalls below. If I'd had a tilt-shift lens maybe I could have corrected the perspective distortion evident here. But I didn't, because I don't own one. Ditto a gold-plated handgun.

The glass ceiling of the Grand Palais reflects the stalls below. If I'd had a tilt-shift lens maybe I could have corrected the perspective distortion evident here. But I didn't, because I don't own one. Ditto a gold-plated handgun.

Despite the nose-bleed elitism that drives Paris Photo, the event also embodies a wholesome democracy. A print that sells for more than a house reflects the same light into my eyes as it would into those of a collector with an exotic credit card. The galleries have staked their claim, merged money and mouth: this is what we have selected, what we think is best. And anyone can praise or piss on their selection (anyone with a disposable 30 euros and a free afternoon, anyway). For a few short days a year, the cards are all on the table. Then they’re folded back into dark, deep pockets.

Galleries are contractually obligated to use only information technology sourced from Apple. This is not true, but the show seems to exist in a pocket universe where the PC and Android never happened.

Galleries are contractually obligated to use only information technology sourced from Apple. This is not true, but the show seems to exist in a pocket universe where the PC and Android never happened.

Anyway, this year I saw some cool photography, familiar and not. I might mention it in another post. Also, a lot of people were carrying neat old cameras, which was fun to see. You’d think film never went out of style. BMW is still a sponsor, and JP Morgan attached its name and apparently lent out some photographs from its collection. Money and cars: the link to photography is oblique, but I believe it is there. Leica had a little pavilion where I saw the new TL, mated absurdly to the already absurd new-old 28mm Summaron. In its glass case under LED spotlighting, perhaps bathed in an inert argon atmosphere, the TL looked impossibly clean, too pristine for this world. I did not particularly yearn to profane it with my touch: it seemed distant, an idol once worshiped by a long-disappeared alien race.

This might actually be the T rather than the TL, not that it matters. The camera will join the digital junk stream in the near future, but the lens will live on, hopefully taking wide angle views in bright light but probably sitting mintily in a cabinet.

This might actually be the T rather than the TL, not that it matters. The camera will join the digital junk stream in the near future, but the lens will live on, hopefully taking wide angle views in bright light but probably sitting mintily in a cabinet.

Leica: The Unreasonable Choice

I wrote the following over a year ago, before I plunged into the madness.


Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Why do I want a Leica M film camera? Honestly, I'm asking you, because I can't figure it out. I'm basically a digital native photographer: although I grew up in the last years of film's supremacy, I didn't get seriously into picture making until I bought a Canon digital point-and-shoot in 2004. From there, I followed the familiar camera-DSLR-mirrorless trajectory. At each step, the image quality got better, the cameras got more responsive. Now, with an Olympus OMD E-M10 as my daily driver, I'm far more likely to not see a shot than blow it because the camera couldn't.

And yet. A mechanical Leica. Apparently, now I want a camera that costs money every time I release the shutter, that requires me to focus manually with the camera mashed against my face, not to mention set aperture AND shutter speed on my own (and since I'm looking at fully mechanical bodies, doesn’t even suggest what those settings should be), that needs to be disassembled after taking 36 frames (and forces me, right then, to decide what the ISO will be for the next 36). Also, it's heavier than my current kit. And it costs more. What the hell am I thinking?

Whatever it is, I think it's been percolating for a while. From time to time over the last several years, I've started looking at metal-bodied SLRs on eBay before deciding I was just being silly. I had a lot of fun researching obscure lenses that might work on my NEX 5N (I once blew a whole night learning about Exacta-mount lenses) and I enjoyed using the old Olympus 38mm Pen half-frame lens that I bought from someone in Japan. Sure, it was a great performer above f2, but I really liked the mechanical solidity of it, a dense metal knuckle with a focus ring that felt good against the fingers compared to the plasticy stuff I was used to. I’ve long been interested in what I refer to in my head (though not, generally, out loud) as “knob feel” – the tactility of control surfaces. One of the main reasons I bought the E-M10 over the contemporaneous Panasonic GX7 was knob feel: the Panasonic’s control wheels had an unsatisfying clicky movement that I couldn’t abide. But a fine mechanical camera has knob feel all its own. The knobs and wheels and rings actually do something – they aren’t the disconnected surface of a virtual machine but physically linked to their purpose. This changes the way they feel, both in the fingers and in the mind.

Olympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

Olympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens

So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

And speaking of mind, I took a pleasure in that old half-frame lens that was entirely apart from its functional qualities, something more poetic than practical. What light had already passed through its glass? Whose fingers had focused it? Imagining the answers to these questions somehow enriched my experience of using the lens. And what stirs imaginings more than a Leica?

Then there’s the harder-to-admit part. The credence in legend. The illusory connection to a tradition that encompasses some of the greatest practitioners of photography we have known. The ridiculous but irresistible sense of aligning one’s self with genius through the tools used by geniuses. Is there a pathos in this, an admission that I have not produced immortal greatness with the best tools of my day, and so I retreat to tools proven in another age? Well, let’s look out rather than in.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

Then there’s the soft Neo-Luddism that permeates our moment, with our reactionary gaze towards the vintage and authentic. Do I entertain ideas about how digital abundance erodes the thought I put into each frame? Do I harbor fantasies that shooting film will force me to contemplate, slow down, consider, and perhaps see more clearly? Do I imagine that each image will be more precious, will be imbued with some quality that is otherwise sacrificed to digital disposability? I confess, this does seem to be the case.

Now, you might reasonably suggest that there are less torturous ways of dabbling in film and old cameras than joining a cult whose demands are as onerous as Leicaism. And I would retort that, first off, I've tried other mechanical cameras and they didn't do it for me, knob-feel-wise. And second, la la la, I can’t hear you. I don’t want a reasonable camera. I want one that satisfies my unreasonable hungers, that sings silently over the sadnesses of the everyday.