Monday, January 27, 2020

Howl

"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.

18 comments:

CRW said...

I'd sign up. Howl!

Stan B. said...

Ah, yes, those wild and heady days of the naughts- before FB, Instagram, and the Twits tore it all asunder...

There was a real sense of possibility and community back then: topics were raised, issues discussed and argued, participation rampant... before everyone retreated into their separate enclaves within their respective multiverse, as if escaping a dangerously expanding Red Giant. Now, all that remains is the deadening silence of the rapidly cooling and darkening blogosphere, with all but the occasional self aggrandizing singularities you alluded to grandly flashing in the far off distance.

I just decided to stand my ground till the air ran out and continue on for the same damn reason I continue to take photographs- for myself; I assumed the action was all taking place in those far away platforms- apparently... not so much.

Still, it would be nice if we could rekindle at least some of that back- maybe have some kinda group blog where different people are invited to write on a different topic say every week, and people join in the commentary. Just an idea... in the meantime, just click HERE to get on my mailing list.

JX said...

Please don't stop. I enjoy reading long form and blogs are one of the few places where this is possible. While it's true your readership has probably gone the way of a raisin (in more ways than one), you can find solace in the fact that the readers who are left are more engaged and have greater interest in what you're writing.

And you're bang on about web users losing their agency. Try searching for things on Instagram. It's near impossible. You get what Zuck's algorithm gives you, and you'll like it. Google's search results are absolute trash at this point, almost everything above and below the fold is ads or highly SEO'd garbage. I've always thought Twitter would make a better platform for photographers, if you ignore the pitchfork wielding masses. You get better image resolution, better search functionality and less censorship than IG while maintaining the stream format. Still not as good as blogging though.

Don Hudson said...

Good writin' Blake

Unknown said...

Hear, hear!

Stephen said...

I miss the blogosphere.

Nick Vossbrink said...

I'm glad you're still around. I totally have the same feeling about photoblogging. I post occasionally but it's nowhere near what it was. But I also know that I'm mainly writing for myself anyway. It's nice when people read but I don't think that's ever been my point or purpose.

Philip Cartland said...

I still predominently follow blogs via oldreader RSS feeds but people probably don't know about RSS anymore. I think that is the loss. I subscribed to some of the enewsletters and it's a novelty for one or two issues... then I tend to lose focus, it's like reading an email and the 'window' is small and surrounded by buttons and menus etc. I don't nessesarily want a one-to-one, if I did, I would just write/read an email. Blogs are a public forum, all people see the comments, it's as good as you're gonna get. But the writer has to feed the beast in an oversaturated world, I gave that up years ago. Perhaps people are too short of time now. I'm not so sure Twitter is so bad, there is a little space to write something meaningful that might lead to your long form pieces or books. It's the only 'RSS' feed we all can use - a little snippet art of it's own perhaps, if you choose. Overall it is pretty badly used and as a result we have to sift through reams and reams of junk. I have shut down authors who I love, just because of the endless barrage of irrelevant stuff. Instagram just doesn't do it for me, especilly as a portfolio. it's a marketing/propaganda platform, we use it because we have to.

Harry Lew said...

Spot on, sir! BTW, do you subscribe to Aperture magazine? Although not quite as bad as ASX, much of its writing is unintelligible art-speak. I once wrote the editor to complain about one particularly egregious article. I read the entire thing and for the life of me had no clue what it was about. Predictably, he never responded. The problem is, I enjoy the photographs in Aperture, so I'm loath to drop my subscription. I guess my position now re: Aperture is the inverse of how I used to approach Playboy: I only subscribe for the pictures.

colin pantall said...

Yes, I get the running on fumes vibe - I think the plethora of online 'magazines' (they're not magazines), the time taken to write, the massively fast turnover of ideas, the cross pollination (and contamination) between social media sites also contributed to the dearth of blogs. And they are just too slow for today... which is why they were so great at their best. Maybe a return to that slowness - you could call it slow blogging, or slow social media.

Blake Andrews said...

Harry Lew, I was a longtime Aperture subscriber, but not since about 2016. I still treasure my back issues as a great resource, and I still check in on the current ones to see what's there. But I find it increasingly unrelatable. It's a magazine for rich people, not photographers. Maybe it always was? Who knows. I just know there is SOOOOOOOO much fantastic photography happening nowadays!!! But I see almost none of it represented there. Whatever, not my problem.

Colin Pantall, I think the slow stuff is still out there simmering. Just touch to connect it to any audience. It's all speeding up here as we approach the en....

Peter said...

It looks to me like the writing of a highly precocious fourteen-year-old. I'd gently nudge the fourteen-year-old to work on it a little. (As a ferinstance, "For it not I", which I cannot parse.)

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.

Yes, and thus it is bullshit, as skillfully described for us by Harry Frankfurt. (If you don't already know the book, read it!)

Facebook is a place where the unthinking (and I include myself) dutifully click "Like", thereby revealing more about themselves to Cambridge Analytica or whoever's offered to pay top dollar to Facebook. But Facebook isn't all bad. By contrast, something about Instagram instantly repels me, always.

There's food for more blogging. Plenty of good photobooks seem to attract almost no comment, or anyway almost none that Google or similar can find. (Not that all photography bloggers should be obsessed with photobooks.) And when the blogger's in an irreverent mood, there's material. (How about seventy quid slipcases?)

Karthik Krishnaswamy said...

Thanks for calling out ASX and their bewildering writing style. It's funny that you mention Robert Adams as a counterpoint, because Feuerhelm went after him on Instagram not too long ago, calling Beauty in Photography "garbage".

And no, your readership hasn't dried up at all!

MichaelWPlant said...

Blake, I still prefer your blog to many others and like that you still write your opinions in a form that is clear for me to understand. I agree about the density that people feel that they need to put into a review can be confusing and disabling, furthering ones understanding of their intent when writing often becomes difficult because you spend more time trying to decoder what they are saying than thinking about work they are writing about. I think it comes from a place of insecurity. And yet I think they feel by writing something dense that needs time to absorb, that they are expressing their intellectual depth and for me really it becomes more like a form of intellectual wanking. For that reason I am also thinking of returning to writing more on my blog, but only when I feel compelled to say something.
Michael

Unknown said...

Bang on. I often wonder why I keep blogging (and, now, newslettering), and then remember that I'm a persistent person.

Anyway, I'm retired now and besides gardening, walking my dog, cooking, taking naps and photography, I also enjoy writing. So I do it mostly for myself. Any benefit that might fall to anyone else (enjoying my garden, eating a meal I've prepared, etc.) is just a side effect.

I suppose I'm just selfish.

Luke said...

The more you become a conoisseur of something the deeper the pleasure you take in it, but the harder you become to please...and the smaller the set of like minder people you can find.



TC said...

tl;dr lol

Kidding. I feel the same about what passes for discourse these days on social media; it seems that people are more interested in drama than truth, and drama is easily manufactured.

I began blogging in early 2001, and though I don't do it as frequently these days, I hope to continue. I'm fortunate that I can (sometimes) publish my writing on photography on the BME site as well (though I'm not sure how many people read that either).

In short: Your site is a bright spot in an ever more vast darkness. I hope you continue as well.

George McClintock said...

I am not sure Brad Feuerhelm's intention was "make the reader feel stupid, and to make the author seem unapproachably wise in comparison" in his review of yet another obscure, cliché-striken photobook, what the erstwhile essayist calls a "yearning mythology of a new gothic America."

Whatever Feuerheim's motivation, his sorry doggerel invites the reader to reread Allen Ginsberg's Howl, where the "best minds of my generation ... howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts...."

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl