Images Matter

Oakland, CA – The Black Lives Matter movement brought Oakland back into the political foreground in a way not felt since the Women’s March and before that, Occupy. But the granddaddy of them all was the Black Panther Party activism born and bred in Oakland. Only recently has the tremendous role of artwork in that movement been receiving its due attention. But the urgency of the current BLM activism makes newer works the full focus of attention, daily, in the same way.

Art itself is known most broadly for having two key characteristics. The first is that it can communicate universal themes across time, place and cultures. The second is that individual artists will likely either express their common affinity with each other by using similarities, or they will differentiate themselves by tending their expression away from commonality towards uniqueness.

In that light, it is both expected and surprising how artists come together to articulate, cohere, and enhance the universal theme of Black Lives Matter – its insistence on freedom from abuse of power – through a wide variety of styles.

The word “style” itself is often taken for granted. We rarely think of anything artistic as being without a style, but we also do not always consider style to be sufficient as an indicator that something is “art”. This leaves a mental space between what something graphic or visual might do to simply indicate an idea (such as visible writing), and what it might do to represent an idea (such as pictures).

The most noticed exploration of that space in the public outdoors has for decades been graffiti. We have long ago become accustomed to recognizing graffitists (aka “writers” and “taggers”) as artists, and to call what they do “work”. But for many people, the habits of art talk have actually inverted, psychologically, the relationship of the words “art” and “work”. It is for them as if Art is a primary thing in the universe of manufacture, like “meals” – and the output is called “work” simply as a kind of respectful compliment. The truth is, rather, that art is fundamentally work, before it is anything else, and a fundamental question about all art production is this: what kind of work is being done?

This is not a question about genre. Rather, the work that is called art is always effort being made to discover and display how meaning can be created, and that is precisely why we do say “the art OF this, or the art OF that”… Motorcycle maintenance, war, cooking, pitching, farming, design, conversation, composing, seduction, and so on.

Political and religious expression is work, and there is an art OF each.

Considering style again, I am reminded of how the idea of style invariably makes sense to me. I always think initially of the mark that is made on a surface with a stylus. The mark left with a stylus is evidence of a presence, an intent, and a circumstance. The more intentional the mark is, the more likely it is trying to be a sign – whether about something or to something. And the more familiar it is within certain types of situations, the more it is also a signal.

We know that signals have two functions – to alert, and to attract. These are the same two major influences of the large assembly of wall art triggered by, and made for, the Black Lives Matter movement.

The BLM movement is, by definition, a demonstration of the presence of victims, who now insist on social justice through respect from holders of power and who announce their intent to improve social equity through maintaining solidarity of allies. The works of art literally make their mark directly on the very devices and surfaces that were constructed to shield established power-holders — business interests — from harm. Once there, those marks were, and are, rallying points for the like-minded in any community regardless of location, occupation or status.

In the variety of styles and imagery, the range is full spectrum from writing to glyphs, icons, symbols, drawings, portraits and scenes, encompassing all kinds of animate and inanimate items while referencing people, places, ideas and events. This taxonomy of the imagery could not by itself predict or predispose any of the works displayed except in the fact of their diversity, of their range of explorations in how to convey the relevant “meanings” held in common by the Movement.

Easily, the most important impression made by the aggregation of the display is the implication that the works were pre-imagined independently but made with great awareness of each other. Being outdoors, the space between the works was filled with walking, and arriving at each one of them was a very typical gallery-like experience. But because of the streets being nearly empty during a fabulously sunlit afternoon, each piece radiated in the way that a performance does from a stage.

However, more importantly, there was the dual-track nature of the installations.

On one track, pieces were clearly site-specific, literally appropriating the many buildings for their different and special purpose.

On the other track, pieces opportunistically, but in large number, exploited a line of sight usually felt either from a distance or in passing. In this track, the directness of the message projected from the space simulated the presence of persons who at other times might have been on the walkways calling out or shouting.

As a result, the overall effect was that the group of works created their own environment and then populated it.

I’ve said that this was done on two tracks – but they were not really so binary in presentation. Rather, there were those two different directions on a span of effects, with many points along the way that could also blend some of one with some of the other.

Meanwhile, the messages were consistent, and clearly fashioned to be a record of testimony and witness… history made live by being told in the first-person.


Tag Palace

The Un-Ruins of abandoned islands are always about what took over when everything else got out of the way.

Art theorists, galleries, and historians have had at least 40 years to help us “learn” to experience things we encounter outdoors as “Environments”, “Sites”, and “Installations” .

Meanwhile, novelists and filmmakers have shown us again and again that the necessary (emergency utility of the future re-purposes whatever old can be taken apart and reassembled.

So we already know a bit about these incidents and transformations.

Click for gallery

But there is an ordinary type of art labor that starts with what people decide to do with the space they occupy, whether it is a yard, a bedroom, or a town. They decide without need for permissions how things are going to have meaning and they keep going unless something else stops them.

The best and most exotic thing about it is that they do it for themselves. The meaning is in the language of speaking to one’s self or only to others like the self. Whatever was there beforehand is first reduced to the status of being a medium, just material for which the prior logic of its arrangement may or may not ever be needed or reused. But it might be.

And in general, it is a lot like how “Nature” does things.

(Treasure Island, San Francisco/Oakland)


TelePhoto

Social Media took the large known world of photo images and expanded it from a few planets in a solar system to multiple galaxies.

The torrential impact of digital smart phone cameras in particular is measured in the millions of new pictures generated per minute. The vast majority of these pictures will also have a life span of a minute or less, although interestingly they now routinely and instantly have multiple (and often simultaneous) lives.

Yet one of the largest single repositories of great images already exists in a place of incredible expanse that few people ordinarily think to look. Namely, traditional broadcast media: the very vague collective memory of trillions of hours watching television – now increasingly rescued from that vagueness by recovered and rebroadcast shows along with the infinite persistence of new show productions.

The notion of art history has steadfastly imposed a curatorial (which is to say strategic) preciousness on the idea of both importance and authority in the evaluation and promotion of photography. For most images, it is necessary there to survive the vetting process by representing some intentionality or innovation that either proves or transforms how we notice, recognize, and accept visual experience as an influence on events, not just as a consequence of them.

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Conventionally, it is said that we will either accumulate visual stimuli as an experience formed by motion, or we will accumulate the stimuli as an experience formed by composition. While the two are not mutually exclusive, the former is usually tied into some notion of “narrative” while the latter is referred to as a “representation”.

Watching tv shows usually has us in a predisposition that pictures are consumable units of fuel for the action of the show. They are — at least most of them — transitional and have little else responsibility except when it is time for punctuation to be used. That is, their “influence” is fairly mundane most of the time.

But the magic of freeze frame – aka remote control pause — means that a lot of stuff that used to escape our special attention is now retrievable at our convenience. And the results are amazing.

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Even before COVID made re-photographing television a more obvious thing to do while indoors, the convenience of stepping into the cameraman’s shoes has been only increased by large-screen devices. The sense of being inside the world of the show’s camerawork is very strong, yet the ability to see the whole screen at once is not diminished at all. Together, they nicely amplify any moment on the screen if you’re looking and waiting for them.

Early 60s black and white shows are particularly rich with incidental shots that, separated from the narrative, have all of the compositional adventurousness that any teacher or art student might try to take in at some serious theoretical level. The tension between what they were “about” originally, and what they might be about in our own minds, is easily equivalent to — for example — any Friedlander or Eggleston effort, or likewise Sherman, Goldin, or what have you.

The obvious assumption should be that the camerawork in these shows was done by photographers who knew what they were doing even if the rest of the crew didn’t, but their job responsibility was simply more industrial.

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This has been a lot of text about something that ought to be seen, so from here on the subject will be treated mostly with examples. But nothing here will prevent you from just doing it yourself: turn on a show, get your remote, and hunt for stills during the show.

Meanwhile, in some amount of time, I expect the collected discoveries of transient photographs in television work would effectively rewrite the “art history” — or at least repopulate the pantheon — of “important” photographers. This would be all the more interesting since the average tv show has orders of magnitude greater exposure than even the most typically celebrated “important” still photographers. The practical effect, then, would be a radical democratization of the critique of photography.


What is “Street Photography” ??

Street photography is a type of nature photography in which an outdoor habitat common to towns or cities is the setting for observing the unscripted behavior of people including their use and creation of the habitat.

Background

The cultural history of the term “street” photography is similar to that of the sports term “football”. While there are many different variants of games that are called football, the primary distinction being made is that the game is played on foot on the ground, as opposed (historically) to on horseback or other elevating base that had already been established as the acceptable norm. The primary distinction of street photography is versus the studio.

Method

A stylistic convention of the observation being conducted is that it is performed and represented from the point of view of an anonymous inhabitant of the habitat.

A range of interests is accommodated within that point of view.  As a rule, the observer is not included as a performer nor as a catalyst of the observed behavior. However, an important principle at work in the observation is that the opportunity to do the observation can be found in any position of view that an inhabitant of the habitat might have.

In that regard, the observer usually represents, to some degree, someone whose presence is part of the characteristics that are “ordinary” for the particular habitat, regardless of how different the displayed habitat is from other environments.

The result of that representation is the implicit narrative of “the environment taking a look at itself” – which in turn presumes that the subject of all the observation is the a priori condition available to any observer.

Street photography, from that foundational attitude, also accommodates a non-judgmental exploration of any factor that can be argued is a consistent cause of the a priori conditions. Those factors represent the “natural laws” of the observed habitat and behaviors.

Variety

As part of the observer’s point of view, such causal factors normally provide topical context (conceptual perspective) to individual images. However, in street photography, those factors are not the subject of the observation but instead are the occasion. Such occasions can be highly general, such as a time of day, the weather, a social mood, or a type of event.

Street photography emphasizes the a priori nature of the habitat and behaviors to the observer. It consistently positions the observer as having arrived to the scene with the observable conditions already being predisposed by factors other than the observer’s presence. In this specific sense, street photography’s default attitude engages the scene as a theater.

In addition, the observer’s own attitude can be predisposed, evident as a sensitivity to given characteristics. In street photography, however, it is conventional for that observer’s particular predisposition to function merely as a navigational instrument in the observed habitat, which in turn may be responsible for anticipating scenes or determining the representation of a scene.

Related genres

Much of the activity and output of street photography can be indistinguishable from other types of photographic effort. For that reason, recognizing the distinction of street photography as a practice from other types of photography is done in terms of the difference of intent rather than result.

The most notable related genres having overt similarities to street photography are documentary and journalism.

Journalism, in its representation of the “observed”, brings a pronounced attention to the sequence and implications of activities in the habitat. Both the sequence and the implications are visually proposed within a span of occurrence that can be extremely short and compressed or just as easily spread over a very long period of elapsed time.

Documentary, in its representation of the “observed”, brings a pronounced attention to the “state of affairs” at a given time, with a stronger emphasis on portraying the topical context than on the observed subjects.

As just seen, the comparisons of documentary, journalism, and street modalities are not hierarchical. One is not a parent, nor a dependent, nor a subset of the other.

Instead, it is typically true that images produced in one genre may be interpreted within, and even used for, the interests of a different genre. The production can be in any phase: planned, active or completed.

 

 


How Still Photography Works

For the most part, still pictures are used to assign importance to experience. Here are the essentials.

Today, most photography is based on recording the experience of living, for communication.
Experience is primarily communicated as an emotional and mental description.
Experience itself need not be objectively factual; it can be invented.

The purpose of the description is to identify a kind of importance asserted to be immediate to the experience.

Immediacy is actually about fidelity to the preferred importance of the initial experience.
Where descriptions do not already have high fidelity to the preference, people are happy to change the description; this is true whether the person is the originator or the viewer.

Within a given audience, most types of importance are conventional. This means that there can be a group preference; but it also means that “importance” can be defined differently in one group than in another.

There is a range of generic types of importance; they can be distinctively associated with the likely behaviors and intentions of a photographer.

Both composing and editing are photographer behaviors driven primarily by preference. Preference pertains to why the picture is made, not how.

Driven by preferences, modes of behavior are stronger than genres as predictors of future photographic output. This will be true both in the attempt to start a picture and in the criteria for final acceptance of its appearance, post compositionand editing. For any given photographer, each individual mode can vary greatly over time as a proportion of the person’s ongoing effort. The most typical behaviors that account for most pictures are included in the seven intentions below:

  • sharing events in real time: immediately include friends
  • reporting news and sports: characterize a moment
  • “hunting”: show a trophy
  • glamour and romance: promote fantasy
  • scenes: invent or illustrate a story
  • evidence: display proof
  • navigation and history: provide clear and accurate identification

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(c) 2014 malcolm ryder


Alcatraz

(Postcards)

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Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei installed a major exhibition at this prison site, expressing four key perspectives on the aspiration of freedom in the confines of political and social captivity.

Gallery: click here.
(c) 2014 Malcolm Ryder

The Look – Reality and Trump

Time’s cover portrait of Donald Trump is a collage of two different attitudes.

One of them is an editorial expression characterized by an intentional disregard for typographical treatment. While the non-text aspects of the cover are handled in a fairly subdued and even refined way, the mismatches of the differing letterings include sizing, style, intensity, where they sit in foreground versus background, and whether they attempt to be logotypes (banners) or not. The approved effect is about not being careful or balanced, and the point is that this is how the editors see Trump.

The other attitude is about how Trump sees himself. Cutting to the chase, the Trump presentation says “I’m here now.” The function of the chair, with its traditional style representing comfortable success, is primarily to serve as the curtain that is being parted to show the emergent Trump just behind it. The lighting of Trump’s head, along with its turned position, means “it’s me, and here I come”.

Understanding how this image works can be tricky, but not because there is much nuance in it. It’s tricky because it exists in a media environment where, as a matter of age groups, more than half of viewers neither care about Time nor have depended on it to bestow importance on anything. The far more prevalent references are fashion magazines, memes, tv or movie promos, and other carriers of Modeling that are vigorously a-historical.

So, how then, does the image work? Well, more than anything else, in that visual environment the Trump cover is overtly staged and theatrically Retro — which is not about history but instead about Old Fashion, being exactly the way people used to see themselves instead of the way people see themselves now.

This sums up as a strong signal about Trump: he is seen “acting the part”, whether there is much real behind the behavior or not. It is highly probable that most viewers today cannot identify by name the style of the chair, nor articulate how weird the typewriter-ish personality of the “Person of the Year” lettering is, within which suddenly smaller italics would normally be mechanically almost impossible except through special effort. Such precise references can be proposed but are not especially necessary because the items in the picture are already working gesturally.

And yet, given a lingering look, almost anyone might appreciate the snarkiness of having the cover text get smaller and smaller, and “quieter and quieter”, as it reaches its punchline — contradicting the outsized ego of Trump exactly when he would celebrate the most.

Portraiture is almost by definition dia-logical. A portrait “works” as a relationship, between how the portrayer sees the subject and how the subject tries to be seen. In this cover’s example, what results is a humorous uncertainty about whether Trump wanted to strategically project understatement, or whether the editors wanted to diminish him as efficiently as possible.

Intellectual Trump detractors who notice this will be entertained by the idea that Trump would not even know he might be getting insulted. Trump fans, whether intellectual or not. will revel in the appearance of Trump smugly triumphant amongst the establishment regardless of the Establishment’s self-importance and pettiness.


Street Photography, Decoded

The popular allure of street photography rarely wanes, regardless of time or place. Much of its power to influence audiences rides on the ability to take it for granted that it will show us something we either want to see or need to see, without our having to be there. This is inescapably the most dominant factor of street photography’s success. Offered without a script, it is a natural alternative to television.

But even as major museum exhibits and art publications mark its global and historical success, it is notoriously difficult to understand what we are to expect when something is called Street Photography instead of Landscape, Reportage, or some other label.

As a result, while any street photographer has some cachet as an explorer, witness or sharpshooter, one photographer can become preferred or exalted over another based mainly on the influence of the audience. Yet, audiences are diverse at any one time and can change over time, so what today has highest public priority may not remain so, elsewhere or later.

Another key factor at work is the notion that one photographer has a more important style than another. Style is offered as the explanation for why something about the street becomes graspable. It is the visual equivalent of the composer, and the composition is the interpretation of the visible. The interpreter, of course, is the actual messenger. Since style is so often used to justify the importance of recognizing the photographer, it is all the more confusing to discover that not much more than consistent repetition reveals what style probably really is. Under pressure of popularity, style risks becoming its own subject. And increasingly, the wide variety of “styles” on display within the boundaries of a major show or portfolio of “street photography” challenges the idea that street photography is itself anything more than an opportunity to visualize things..

A third significant factor is the photographer’s own perspective. Any given perspective is generated from a point-of-view, and we intuitively look at street photography expecting an answer to the question, “so, what is your point?”… Naturally, we can depend on critical preferences forming around what, in particular, the photographer exposes to us. The photographer’s selectivity and editorialism are more specific value-generators. This is a way of saying that even if all streets are somehow interesting, some are simply more important than others to show — and further, it is more important to show the street in some ways than in others. The question here is, who gets to decide? Well, even if that attitude is marked as “subjectivity” it is still clearly a valid functional discriminator of different collections of photographs. We simply have to identify what makes something “important” at the time we are considering it. For example, if the subject is literally disappearing, then souvenirs, evidence, and nostalgia all rise in importance to audiences that found the subject desirable and would miss it when it is gone.

The interplay of the semi-heroic role of the artist, the audience’s influence, the visibility of style, and the photographer’s mindset maps out the sociological context of the displayed work — a context that can suppress or propel the recognition and appreciation of the photographer.

But photographers do not define street photography.

All flavors of Street Photography contrast mainly with studio or interior images. The essential ingredient is that the photographer is expected to be using the camera outdoors on a street, with the street clearly included in the “depiction” even if only by implication.

Streets are essentially connectors, pathways. And central to all street photography is the fact that streets are created by people. But with still pictures, the default poetic device of street photography is to turn the path into a destination, and to have the image be “about” the destination.

That notion of subject matter usually covers (a.) the street itself as a local scene, (b.) the life at (in, on) the street, or (c.) some mix of the two. We can account for why pictures look like what they look like, and what the look is attempting to do. At any time, a photographer, known or unknown, can take up the camera and produce something that we can readily position within the scope of the table below:

The rhetoric of the image projects its potential meanings in several typical ways. Each way in the following four is a range of relative affects:

  • POV is 1st-person, 2nd-person or 3rd-person
  • Depicted elements are conventional or exotic
  • Familiarity is intuitive or analytic
  • Appearances imply or resist narrative

Because those affects can be blended with each other, the image can engage its viewer with nostalgia, fiction, humor, revelation, explanation, proof, or numerous other impacts. Those results fuel demand that circumstantially translates into the attention that elevates some work and some photographers above others.

The final understanding from all of the above is that “Street Photography” refers to images that are generated from a preoccupation with the presence and influence of the street. The label itself is not a predictor of the content of any single past or future unique picture.


ZONA

Photographs are sometimes just about how something “wants” to be seen. If that means anything, it is about their appearances being distilled in vision.

I try to remember that when you make a drawing, it starts with nothing and proceeds based only on what should be included and how.

Putting those together is a good exercise: looking at things outdoors and drawing with the camera.

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From the archives: Arizona in December.

ZONA 1

ZONA 2

ZONA 3

ZONA 4

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ZONA 6

ZONA 7

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All images in the Zona portfolio (c) malcolm ryder

 

 


70’s Girls

 

 

Modeling is the opposite of mirroring. With mirroring, we catch the image shaping the subject. With modeling, we catch the subject shaping the image.

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Princeton 70s Girl