Friday, June 27, 2014

Art of Noise

If you're ever wandering around Paris and you find yourself in need of a toilet, there's a nice clean restroom near the center of town. It's in the basement of a large building called The Pompidou. Can't miss it. It's some kind of museum and they must've run out of money because the plumbing and ventilation haven't yet been walled in. But whatever. They have the toilet working, and unlike the one in Les Halles it's free. 

Once I discovered this location all my troubles faded. I was free to roam the streets in any direction, knowing I could circle back whenever I needed to relieve myself, grab a drink, glance at the map, and plan the next photo raid. Before I quite realized what was happening, the toilet had become my command center.

My last circuit through was on a Monday afternoon around 2 pm. I popped in to take a leak. Then the skies followed suit. When I came out of my command center the sun had been replaced by storm clouds. Within five minutes the light had gone from f/16 to f/4. Then the wind picked up and the rain started in earnest. It looked like it might last a while. 

No shooting! What do to? Someone had given me an extra ticket to the museum, and one option was the large Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition upstairs. It looked enticing but the line was an hour long. Screw that. Instead I ducked into the Pompidou bookstore.

The Pompidou bookstore is a strange place. It's similar in some ways to other museum bookshops, except that it's incredibly massive and well stocked with recent interesting titles. The photography selection was more comparable to Dashwood or Ampersand than the cursory canon-goulash found in American museums, with many small-press and European books I'd never heard of. 

My command center (photo)
That caught me off-guard. But the oddest thing was that the aisles were filled with browsers engrossed in books! It was a regular photobook party. I could barely squeeze in sideways to see the shelves. Maybe people had been driven in by the rain, or maybe it's always that way. I don't know, but in any case there they were. And not only were they were looking at books, they exuded the unmistakable air of giving a shit about photography! They appeared consumed. But these weren't hardcore photo junkies. I can sniff out that crew and this wasn't it. None carried cameras or snuck secret glances or squinted through the plate glass. Instead they seemed to be just average museum-goers who'd come from the exhibits. But they cared! 

I was floored. I'd known already on some level that I was in Europe. But it was in the Pompidou bookshop that my displacement assumed the scale of a truly continental shift. For in America photographers are outcasts. No one understands us. No one worries much.  I can't think of one non-photographer friend who has a sense of what I do, and I suspect that may be true for others. There's no place for us except within a narrow community of other photographers, gallerists, and misfits where we grovel for crumbs of attention in a steady downward spiral of mutual nonsupport. I feel that all the photographers in America could go away tomorrow (except the working pros who have a prescribed societal function) and no one would notice. it would be like the winos dissolving. Or the life coaches. Or Pinterest. Maybe that's why American photography has such a strong tradition, because it's a de facto outsider art.

But in Europe, photographer is a valid occupation. It's like poet, auteur, flâneur, or some other quasi-market participant. The culture has a place for you. Maybe not everyone understands what you do but they sense why it might be important. It's respected. And when they go to the bookshop, that curiosity expresses itself. Many display windows in Paris showcase old photos or journals or books. As if they actually mattered to someone! In America that stuff isn't cherished. It's auctioned from a storage locker on reality TV. But I was a million miles from Storage Wars. Ooh, Baby, was I feeling European. 

One book in particular caught my eye, the Louis Faurer retrospective edited by Anne Wilkes Tucker, severely discounted to ten Euros.  I remembered this book vaguely from when it had first been published in 2002. It hadn't made much of an impression at the time, and I hadn't seen it or thought much about it since then. I'm not sure what it was doing 12 years later in the Pompidou. Perhaps the vaguely French sounding name had caused someone to order it? Or the fact that the American Faurer had lived for a few years in Paris?

In any case, this time he made an immediate impression. This time Louis Faurer struck me as a goddamn genius. Years before I had thrown him in a mental pile with the Photo League and mid-century humanists. I could categorize him and thus dismiss him. But this time I noticed his mistakes. There was something wrong with every photo and the problems were beautiful. 

The photo above for example has all sorts of issues. Faurer is too far away. He's awkwardly clipped off the figures to either side, and included distracting background elements and too much floor. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. But somehow it works, and not in spite of all those elements but because of them. 

Or this one, possibly Faurer's most well known —can that phrase be applied to him?— photograph.

I'd always thought this was taken through a window as a partial reflection. Turns out it's a complete accident. He'd double exposed the boy with older footage of a wedding. Bing, bang, presto. The final result has just the right mix of What the hell's going on? and Ooh Baby I'm in Europe now (Times Square actually).

One thing that drives Faurer's images, and what I hadn't clued into on first viewing, is a very high noise-to-signal ratio. He's saying something, but the message is wrapped up in what he's not saying. His photos have the charm of an old scratchy record. You can barely hear the music over the static but somehow that makes it better. I suppose you could call the extra stuff —the noise— in his photos mistakes. But they're the sort of mistakes that enhance the signal. Sometimes in fact the noise is every bit as interesting as the signal. Perhaps the noise is the signal. 

Remember the Magic Eye posters that were in every college dorm about 20 years ago? If I show you a picture of a race car, it's pretty boring. 

But if I hide the race car in Magic Eye noise, it gets more interesting. And if you're stoned enough it gets downright mystical. You can stare at one of these for hours. Groovy...How does that wooork? But before you reach that point you should ask yourself, would a European do that? I think we both know the answer.

Faurer had embedded his race cars in mistakes. His book was chock full of visual problems. Every single photo had issues of one sort of another. But he owned them. He made them his. And that's a very tough nut for a photographer to crack. What's more, his were the sort of mistakes that mimic the public settings where he photographed. Those places weren't clean. They were busy urban settings. They were messy and moving and problematic, and that's how his pictured looked. How could they look any other way? 

I've been watching a fair amount of World Cup recently, and also playing rec soccer on the side, and I think soccer has many of the same issues. If it were possible for an American in the 1950s to like soccer, Faurer probably would've like it. In some ways it's a very precise game. When played by world class athletes the level of skill and finesse is amazing. But there's a degree of inaccuracy which can never be eliminated, even at the highest level. Because kicking a ball with a foot is inherently less precise than, for example, shooting a free throw with your hands. That's not always the case —some soccer shots are dead on within an inch. But over time and many samples, there's a consistency of imprecision that makes soccer what it is. Turnovers abound. Kicks go awry. The best team does not always win or even score. The noise-to-signal ratio is higher than in just about any other sport except baseball. It's called The Beautiful Game for a reason. Because it's like a Faurer photo.

A Faurer subject paralyzed by the Magic Eye?

Joan Baez came to Eugene this week so I spent some time fishing around for a song of hers to play on my radio show. I realize I don't like her solo work —her tone is too heroic, like a folk version of American Idol— but there is one duet sung with Bob Dylan that I'm fond of, Mama, You Been On My Mind recorded on Halloween 1964 at Philharmonic Hall. Their voices harmonize in perfect counterpoint. And then they stumble. They remember most of the lyrics, then forget them. They stop and start and engage in banter mid-song. "It's not a good performance," according to one critic. "He's clearly stoned."  I can't confirm which drugs either of them were on at the time, although marijuana might explain the noise-to-signal ratio. Luckily there was no Magic Eye back then to distract them. In any case the recording is messy, and that's exactly why it works. So the song went on the show, along with several songs about soccer.

Precision has been an ongoing issue for photography ever since it began. If you're recording reality, how faithful should you be? That's the basic question, or at least one of them. There's never been any good answer. The pendulum has swung back and forth, and in recent years the bias seems to lean toward perfection. "We are in the midst of the Age of Precision," wrote Loring Knoblach a few weeks ago, and I think he's basically right. Which leaves Faurer firmly in the retro camp.

Knoblach laid the fault at the feet of Digital: "The digital revolution" he writes, "seems to have reinforced the existing paradigm rather than disrupted it. The vast power of software manipulation appears to have lead to increased formalism, aestheticism, and staging, rather than increased eccentricity and chaos. " In other words, less noise-to-signal ratio. Or less "ferocity", to use Knoblach's term. I'm not sure if digital is actually to blame, or if it's simply the most current incarnation of a long march toward mechanical accuracy. Photography is rooted in tools. Tools improve. Bing, bang, presto: Visual precision becomes irresistible.

But then there's the pendulum. Even in the midst of precision, its backlash has people attempting to inject mistakes artificially into their work. The rise of Holga, Diana, wet collodion, and neo-Pictorialism is pretty easy to trace, and of course Instagram and Hipstamatic effects (catchphrase: "Digital photography never looked so analog."). I think photographers subconsciously want their photos to look like Faurer's. They don't want that race car to be too obvious. But they're not quite sure how to get there. Can we just apply a filter? Do the photos have enough problems yet? Do we own them now? 

Sorry. No easy answers. Let's just say it's very hard to make photos like Faurer because he was a goddamn genius. And if you're stoned enough his photos get downright mystical.

After a while in the Pompidou bookstore I went back into the main foyer but it was still raining hard outside. What do to? What about Christian Marclay's The Clock? It was playing upstairs. I ducked in to find the large theatre packed solid with viewers, every seat taken. Those fucking Europeans again with their cultured taste! I found a spot on the floor. 

A film still from The Clock

The Clock is easy to summarize. Marclay spliced thousand of old film clips together into 24 hour montage which plays continuously in a loop. The clips are from all years and all styles. Big Hollywood films, small budget, etc. I recognized some snippets but many were unknown. At every minute, and sometimes more often, film clips show brief segments of clocks or feature actors mentioning the time. And these incidents correlate to real time. The film always plays at exactly the same time every day. So the film segment above would be shown every day at exactly one o'clock. It's very convenient. The film tells you how long you've been watching, and gives a friendly reminder of the time at regular intervals. 

I won't say The Clock was downright mystical but it came close. Let's go one step lower and just call it a simple mindfuck. Groovy...How does that wooork? How did he pull it all together? What does it mean? How are we supposed to get lost in the film with these constant reminders of time and the outside world? There's a reason malls don't have clocks, and this wasn't it. 

Was there anything at all in the 24 hours to latch onto? None of it computed. I found myself laughing out loud at several points. The sheer absurdity of it! Maybe the clocks were the signal, or maybe they were just noise. Or vice versa. I don't even think Marclay knew, yet he'd somehow combined bits of fleeting chaos in the most precise way possible. 

I watched from 3:24 to 4:17 pm, then went out to see if the rain had stopped. The sky had cleared. I went outside and spent the next 5 hours making photographs. 


Anonymous said...

I love your writing. And yes, where I come from I constantly struggle with cluttered backgrounds. Faurer seems to be a relative of mine.

gaianautes said...

Ah bloody hell Blake. Is this the mist brilliant piece of photography writing you have ever done or what. You should write more and more often. Or not. Love it. Best/Mattias

gaianautes said...


DD said...

I agree. This was well worth the read, and I'm sure I'll come back to it again.

Hernan Zenteno said...

You explained like a psychoanalyst why I liked Faurer since I purchase an old Photo Poche book in 1990 or around. Football (no soccer please, this is an invent of US) and noise is plenty here in Argentina. I hope they copied our Uruguay neighbors about free marihuana and then I will can feel like if I was in France. With Faurer.

quarlo said...

Great piece. I saw the Faurer retrospective at the Philly museum in '02. I had never heard of him before. I bought the book. It made a huge impression on me and taught me a lot, I thought. But you've really shed some light here.

Giovanni said... we should be grateful to your bladder for this great, great, great post!

CJ said...

Great read, coincidentally, sur la toilette.

Vasco said...

Thanks for the interesting read. Will be checking out Faurer's retrospective.

Unknown said...

An all time favourite Blake post. Thanks for this, delightful reading and so eloquent!

eilemach said...

An absolutely lovely piece of writing!

Blake Andrews said...


Unknown said...

Actually, it is The Centre Pompidou