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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

It's your fault you don't get it!

picture: Colin Pantall

I posted on the eyegazing research that was used to determine what held people's attention when viewing a photograph. The research was commissioned by an organisation of professional photographers and used 58 subjects attending university. So in some respects it's not a really representative sample, but then again it's representative enough if you want to say that a certain demographic are more likely to look at professional pictures than amateur pictures.

Ultimately though it's a nice little yarn that gets picked up by petapixel and can get us mumbling into our cornflakes for half a day.

A fair few people did question the findings though. And with good reason because the methodology may very well be questionable.

But what of the methodology of anything that is connected to photography. Some of the time, I teach history, research and theory of photography across a number of programmes and most of the time, I'm pointing my students in the direction of  Linfield, Sontag, Barthes, Baudrillard, Clarke, Craik, Cotton, Linkman, Mulvey, Struk, Stallabrass, Fontcuberta as well as a bunch of other subjects depending on what studetns are interested writing about.

But I'm not sure if any of these have a particular methodology in mind when they write their work. Writers such as Linkman, Batchen and Struk base their work on particular archives ( Linkman includes references to Mass Observation) and refer to social history so that's different, but the majority? Don't tell me they just chimp their ideas out and it might just all be made-up - in the nicest possible way! Don't tell me that some of the rather sweeping claims aren't backed up with some kind of scientific, methodological rigour.

But even if it is (and it is), does it really matter? We live in a world ruled by mass psychosis so what harm does it do? We mostly read these these writers because they have a particular agenda and they wrap their particular yarn around that agenda so it fits. And they do it in quite an entertaining and tidy manner. The ideas are neat. It's nonsense but it's neat nonsense. That's important.

Sample sizes and demographic don't come into it. You might as well talk about the sample size used to determine the efficacy of reading chicken entrails or the science of alchemy. It doesn't apply. These thoughts are plucked from the ether and made to fit, no matter what. It's all part of the fun.

Tell me, when we (you, me, anyone) yabber on about exploitation, collaboration, the body or the power of the gaze, does it connect to any field research? I'm sure there is research out there somewhere (and especially with regards to surveillance, weapons and algorithms) but in the theoretical field?

Nearly all the time I am guessing the answer is no. People are just pissing their ideas into the wind. Some do it in a dynamic, engaging manner. Some obfuscate and couch their thoughts in the densest of possible prose. They are literally unreadable.

On Monday I posted on Marc Wilson's beautiful pictures of Second World War defences, The Last Stand, Perhaps the best-known of sea defence work is Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology. It's a great book too but with a brutal photography which suits the subject. And the text is rather brutal too. Virilio was one of the author's cited by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.

This is a book (I haven't read it yet) where the authors debunk the pretensions of well-known theorists (Lacan, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Kristeva) and the manner in which they conflate theory and dubious readings of science.

I don't know. It's science heavy and has an anti-intellectural undercurrent to it -  I kind of like the flaky made-up language some of the time (simulacra is practically my favourite word. I have it on the cornflakes I mumble into in the morning. It sets the day up nicely) - but at the same time, if you have ever had anybody fire off a few key buzzwords at you in the hope of intimidating you, then the debunking is kind of welcome and necessary. Anything that makes language less ugly and laden with incestuous powermongering should be welcomed.

There was a feature in the Guardian today celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Nathan Barley. This is a programme which satirises the idiocy of start-up culture and mass-audience internet content. It's about the Idiots of the Internet in other words. And the Idiots are winning.

But it had a little line in it... "the massive self-regard, the daft fashion statements and the low-level passive-aggressive insinuation that if you don’t get what they’re doing then somehow it’s your fault … these are the hallmarks of the modern creative layabout from Dalston to Williamsburg to Kreuzberg to Nørrebro."

 I wonder if that line isn't something that applies to all our worlds, including the photography world, the photobook world and the academic worlds, if sometimes we feel guilty if we don't embrace the ugly ideas, the ugly language and the ugly pictures and design in all its glory.

So anything that can make photography less ugly (in a metaphorical sense) should be welcomed. There is a parallel in photography (at least our little niche that we deal with here) with Sokal and Bricmont. There is so much bad and ugly photography out there that has lame statement justifications, that ultimately is fraudulent and empty. But we still fall for it, because that is the nature of things. If we don't get it, it's our fault! And it is - sometimes.


John W MacPherson said...

i'm not entirely sure if this is relevant, but it strikes me it might be!

A photographic project I set up and supervised with two men with 'learning disabilities' won them several major arts awards, and numerous exhibitions. A few of these showings were high-profile affairs in the city hundreds of miles from our quiet rural domain.

I chaperoned my two charges to all these events, but hung back well out of sight and observed.

Several times I watched earnest artsy city types collar one or other of the men in front of one of their (wonderful) images and pose some deeply philosophical question, riven with subtleties and designed to engage them in some truly convoluted discourse.

The usual response from the men of "we just took the pictures for the project, it was really good fun, meeting people and being out" invariably completely threw the questioners.

They appeared to have no fall-back position, no casual conversational gambit to engage the men with, so wrapped up were they in their deeper more 'meaningful' considerations. And truth be told, in missing that 'simple' conversation with the photographers they completely missed hearing about the fundamental guiding aspect of the project, that it was primarily all about meeting people, real everyday working people in our community, engaging with them, and photographing them.

Often it really is quite simple, and in looking deeper all you may find is your own blank expression reflected back at you.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely. While I think it's good to be able to talk about your work (and to be honest use some of the ideas that are pre-eminent in photographic theory - sometimes in a positive sense, sometimes to know your enemy) but on many occasions, there are other elements that should come to the fore as you mention: The human story, the social thread from which the photographic fabric is woven.