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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Ticking all the Rant Boxes: Airport Terminal Photography

                   (image from Bolshevik Tom)

Julani Palaasmaa wrote about ocular bias in architecture, that's the overemphasis on the purely visual. Tied into this bias is a stripping of other sensory, and so emotional elements from consideration in the architectural process. So rather than being an organic entity which is fully experienced as part of a wider whole, the building is stripped from its environmental, political and economic roots. The story of where it belongs is lost because it doesn't belong anywhere. And so you end up with the absurdity and the horror of airport terminals or fascist-funded arts complexes being held up as wonders of architectural functionality and design.

You get the same in photography, a kind of affectless bias where images are stripped of meaning and then value is assigned to the fact that this meaning is stripped. The fact that images don't have any aesthetic or political or social value, the fact that they float in some kind of miasma of nothingness is what gives them value.

      image from How the Pioneer Hans Saved the Strike Committee

It's airport terminal photography! It's the opposite of ocular bias, it's a kind of cognitive bias where the image is distanced through a range of layerings that make the actual image the secondary or tertiary of point of contact in a work.

This kind of photography is partly due to an aversion to the kind of literal photojournalism and documentary (and I understand fully why people have an aversion to this. It can get really boring and repetitive), but I also think it's due to a fear to confront things head on, it's the fear to have an opinion on something, to show some crack of vulnerability by showing that you care about something. Because if you do have an opinion about something, you're going to upset people and you're going to have to defend yourself. It's not easy.

In that sense I know why people are so scared of having an opinion. We all like to pretend to be progressive and all the rest of it, but it's a bit more difficult when you get down to the knuckle end of stating your case. It's not very nice having to fight your corner. It's far easier to present something abstract or metaphorical, something stripped of emotion and intent than so something that really engages with a subject and drills down hard into its core. And that is what people do.

Another reason for this is the history of photographic criticism that places photography in this kind of hairshirt and millet world of pleasure-aversive photocritics where you really aren't allowed to either make anything beautiful or doing anything with a social intent. I really enjoy reading Allan Sekula for example, but I share Lucy Soutter's misgivings about him as expressed in this interview on 1,000 words.

Allan Sekula was one of the most inspiring intellectuals I ever met, but it bewildered me that he was so uncomfortable with visual pleasure. It was partly because I disagreed so strongly with Allan about aesthetics that I began to suspect that I might have something to contribute to the field, that there might be a position for me.

On the one hand you have this aversion to anything that is beautiful and on the other you have the massive distrust of anything that does have a heart and soul, and all the places (no, most of the places. You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you) where that might be published. Almost all the theoretical reading students do is about how wrong photography is, how wrong it is to show people, how wrong it is to look, and how wrong it is to make something visually compelling.

So you are left with this kind of affectless bias in photography that combines with a race for new ways of showing - here's a graph, here's some data, here's some modelling, here's some blue backlighting, here's an artifact. But where's the story? It's all the frameworks around the image that become the way of showing.

It reminds me of the episode of Black Books (this is a comedy featuring the world's most bad-tempered drunken bookshop owner, Bernard Black) where Bernard and Manny decide to write a children's book.

And so Bernard writes this 1,000 page epic about an academic who survives the Stalinist purges, a lens grinder in Omsk and an investigative journalist who's fallen in love with the academic's daughter. this is Bernard's story.

Bernard: It couldn't be simpler. You've got the academic who survived the Stalinist purges and is now having flashbacks to that time. There's his daughter whose long bitter marriage is falling apart around her and the journalist who's investigating the academic because he suspects he was never in Russia at the time and then he falls obsessively in love with the daughter and sacrifices his career to become a lense grinder in Omsk.

He reads the script to Manny, they make a few adjustments and end up with a story about an elephant who loses his balloon. It goes something like this.

Manny: Well, instead of the? um? academic and the journalist's daughter? um? perhaps it could be about an elephant?
Bernard: An elephant?
Manny: That's right.
Bernard: I see. What's your other suggestion?
Manny: Well? um? instead of the Stalinist purges and the divorce and the investigation, um? it could be about losing a balloon.
Bernard: An elephant who loses his balloon?
Manny: That's it.
Bernard: But, but it would still be my story in essence?
Manny: Oh, yeah.
Bernard: My vision?
Manny: Completely.
Bernard: Yes, all right! Let's do that, then!

Basically a lot of photography is like Bernard Black trying to write a children's story but instead of having someone like Manny to help them out, they've got another Bernard Black helping them out. It's people making stories about lens grinders in Omsk for people who on a metaphorical level want books about elephants losing balloons.

Photography is really a child's game after all, but in a good way. There's nothing quite so sophisticated as communicating clearly to children, or to adults even. Look through something like The Soviet Photobook or go to an exhibition like the New Childhood one on Soviet children's books (or look at this resource of Soviet children's books )and you'll see there's nothing simplistic about communicating effectively and clearly - especially if you get a bit more ambitious that an elephant who's lost his balloon.

Because if you are communicating to children, or people who struggle with literacy, then any short cuts you take will be found out instantly. If your message is obscure or goes the readers's heads they will know about it very quickly and you will know about very quickly in turn. I'm speaking from experience here, oh happy days.

In fact it's far more difficult to do something simple and clear than it is to make a rambling mess of images about something that you don't really have a clue about and hoping that the obtuseness of your images, sequencing and supporting statement (none of which anyone really understands anyway) will blur .

Not that there's anything to criticise, because you're avoiding making a statement and are hiding any kind of commitment in your obtuseness.

Oh my goodness, I saw the picture at the top at the weekend. I think this post is ending up being a number 3, or maybe a number 5. I'd better stop here before I become a number 6. Or is this a number 1. Or a number 2....

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