"For it not I, just a mouth swimming in a complicit stream of filth, chipped and calcium-deficient canine teeth gnashing chapped and chaffed lips actively conjuring a dark profanity and a darker blessing from the raft of a newer medusa set upon seas of inanity? Listen, the weight of a heavy set foot dragging across the floor boards above unmoored by concern for the splinter in the attic above, the same attic two floor removed from the wet-smelling basement where deer hides are tanned with Borax soap and there hidden below a smokey waft of disgruntled air emanates from the flannel coverings hanging on a rusty nail from the mite-pocked post as though the steam of the human once warmed within could efface its merit of tone by conflating that cold presence still clinging from the outside winds where outside fires meander but small embers from their oil barrel fatigue and find rest placated on the winds, like spring fireflies evaporating in two-minute mists. Howl."This is a sample paragraph from a photobook review published recently on a popular site. I had to read this several times before I could glean much meaning, and even now I'm still not sure what it says. Something about Borax and fireflies? And howling?
If the meaning is ambiguous, that might be just fine. Because I don't think the intention of this particular review is to impart useful information. Instead it is to make the reader feel stupid, and to make the author seem unapproachably wise in comparison. At least that's my take. Seen in this light, adventures in grammar and syntax aren't necessarily problematic. A stream of long words is just another adventure in fluidity. It's poetry, man, improv...high art! You can't expect the simpletons to get it.
All of which might be easily dismissed were it not for the fact that this appeared on a widely read and respected photo site. And it seemed to go down easily, no complaints, no uproar so far as I can tell, just another critical log on the streaming, steaming pile. But still. Oy Vey! If this is what passes for critical analysis nowadays, count me out.
I may have an old fashioned outlook, but I think the purpose of good writing is to convey ideas with clarity. I would like to feel inspired when I read something, not inadequate. I'd like writing to transform me somehow, point me in a new direction or down some fun rabbithole. There are all sorts of approaches, but please, less complications! Ideally good writing should operate a bit like good photography. Think of Atget or Evans or Shore. Just show the thing and get out of its way already.
Some photo critics still write in this manner, but most don't. Critical thought online tends more often toward the clunky, self-absorbed, or market-chasing. All of which are fine traits I suppose, if they serve a purpose. But purpose seems elusive. To see oneself in writing — Does that count in and of itself? To some extent all critique is self analysis. So...yes, perhaps.
Still, what remains online is a critical body which, like many of the photographs it references, operates a bit like a genome. Only a tiny fraction is functional, while the vast bulk is essentially navel-gazing garbage. Perhaps the blog post you're reading now might qualify. Regardless, the online world is a sea of various distractions and deadends. But critical writing suffers too in physical form. I gave up on Aperture long ago. Foam and BJP aren't much better. If Robert Adams edited a photography periodical I would subscribe in a heartbeat. But alas, that ain't happening. Go back in time a few years and read something like Carl Chiarenza's reaction to Winogrand (republished, ironically, in same forum I critiqued initially). You will feel like a visitor to another planet. Who invests that level of care anymore?
Perhaps blogs can provide some minor relief. As a longtime blogger I still have an affinity for this platform. Some of the old guard is still going strong —Colin Pantall, Stan Banos, Tony Fouhse, Joerg Colberg, e.g.— and their blogs are entertaining for what they are. But, as Colberg noted a few weeks back, blogs are yesteryear's fancy. "The world of blogging as it existed around 2007 or 2008 was a lot more vibrant than whatever we’re witnessing now," he writes. True dat. And what is it that we're witnessing now? "Social media have essentially atomized a vibrant community," he writes.
The results of that atomization— Instagram, Facebook, Twitter— are where we pick up bits of information now, in a flood of bite-sized digestables over morning toast and coffee, and at lunch, and in the evening, and during late night insomnia attacks, and also many of the small moments in between these affairs. But these platforms are designed for small thoughts, not longform essays. The daily jab of this or that sentence rebutting some original provocation, perhaps evolving into a thread. Is this a supplement for critical discourse? Again, Oy fucking Vey.
Perhaps it isn't critique we seek online, but community. After all, it's called social media for a reason. Online streams are the equivalent of a virtual bar. Grab a stool and shoot the shit for a while. See who pops in. Certain people arrive in certain forums at certain times. Hopefully there's some interchange and perhaps a sense of common endeavor. Still, social media seems way less fun than bars IRL.
One potential way to bridge the gap between bite-sized social media content and long-form writing are targeted mailing lists. As Colberg notes, several such lists have popped up recently. It seems to be kind of a thing now. So perhaps this is the wave of the future. It's probably a more effective distribution method than just remaining undercover and counting on folks to discover you (my method, with diminishing returns). But meh. I must admit I have a mental block with such lists. They feel invasive and probing. Just about every website I visit lately wants my email address to add me to some list or other. I'm sure they mean well —haha— but still. I'll be damned if I'm giving my info out to any more bloodsuckers.
Does anyone remember the term surfing the web? This was my primary form of online engagement before the rise of social media. Maybe yours too? You'd look up a site. Then a link on that site might take you to another site, perhaps a completely unrelated topic. A link there might lead somewhere else, and so on and so on. This could go on for hours, bobbing and weaving virtually down one rabbithole after another. There was a sense of adventure in it —who knew what the next page might bring?— but more importantly agency. The user controlled the path of exploration. Like a surfer, I suppose.
That's mostly gone now, replaced with algorithmic content. Instead of actively moving through the web, the user now signs up for ("follows", to use the term du jour) certain streams —Instagram or Twitter, or an email list, e.g.— and then relies on their steady feeds for a constant drip of information. It's still possible to see a wide variety of great content online, but more and more it comes to the user, and not vice versa. If the previous metaphor was surfing, what we do now is more akin to a feeding tube. I suppose in one sense it's similar. Content is the most important thing, no matter how it's arrived at. Still, it's tough for armchair explorers to expand any boundaries.
"There was a general sense of excitement," Colberg writes about the early days of blogging, "of producing something new, something that would bring value to the world of photography. That’s all completely gone." Well, Colberg does have a tendency to dramatize. But I basically agree. My blog runs mostly on fumes at this point. I'm not quite sure why I'm even posting anymore. Readership has dried up like a digital stream, and fuck if I'm going to start an email list. Community? Self-analysis? Nostalgia? Howl.