Category Archives: craft

Just My Type

For Christmas, I received a copy of Just My Type. Since I’m already on record as being a bit of a book junkie and printing nerd who scrutinizes the way type is displayed, Simon Garfield’s book about fonts is aptly-named. It’s not for beginners but for people who are already sensitive to type. It’s also not an educational book about type but rather a collection of essays regarding the use of type as it has changed over the decades.

Which means that it’s really about both the democratization and obsolescence of a craft. Stop me if this sounds familiar?

The history of photography is a sped-up version of the history of type.* Technology and technological changes have consistently expanded the reach of words to more and more people and in doing so, have rendered countless professions obsolete. Typesetting and fonts are a particularly interesting area to look at due to their revolutionary impact on the written word and their continued evolution as other technology changes.

*Any conclusions from the facts that I work in printing and practice photography as a hobby are left as an exercise for the reader. 

The other wonderful thing about type evolution is that the end product is all that’s needed to really see the changes. We can observe the changes in the letterforms and understand the technology changes that created the printed type just by looking at printed material. We may lose fonts and the ability to use them anymore, but we can still observe the craft and inspiration which created them.

Since typesetting is thought of as a craft* it doesn’t get as hung up on the “is it art or not” question and has been more open to new technologies. The biggest problem with computers and the digital revolution has been the loss of quality.** It’s not a philosophical issue like it is in photography.

*Occasionally it becomes design. And thus relevant to art museums.

**This is different than the amateurization of professional photography gear. In photography, what used to be amateur formats have become professional. With type, it’s more like signal gradation in the transfer between technologies and generations.

That more and more people are aware of and have access to fonts and typesetting tools is a good thing. While people love to misuse fonts, those of us who care tend to use those instances as teachable moments. And we have some fun with it. There are no wars, really, about font superiority or which typesetting process is most pure. As long as it’s considered and appropriate for the usage,* everything is fine.

*This was the problem with the IKEA switch from Futura to Verdana. It smacked of a corporate all-look-same mandate rather than something which considered the fact that the print catalog and online web presence were different mediums and served different purposes.

Which is a lesson that we need to learn as photographers. Don’t forget the function. When we lose track of what art is for, it becomes harder to appreciate and we give in to the temptation to judge everything based on arbitrary distinctions of process and method.

Typesetting doesn’t care about gear. What matters is where the words are expected to be displayed and what message they’re supposed to convey.

Less and More

As a design major, it was practically mandatory that I see the exhibition of Dieter Rams’s work at SFMoMA.* It is indeed brilliant and it does a wonderful job of showing how the complexity of a product can be distilled down to the core essentials of its functionality. It also provides a fantastic exercise as a design refresher course for anyone inclined to be a designer—or a design critic.

*Side question. At what point does one stop purchasing books which fit in with the core curriculum of one’s undergraduate study? Or does one’s continued interest in the subject matter confirm the correct choice of major?

Design exhibitions are always tricky since museums specialize in objects which cannot be touched and to truly appreciate product design, you have to use the product. A design exhibition cannot be just about the products as things to be admired and looked at. While you can’t try sitting in a Dieter Rams chair or put objects on the bookshelves, the exhibition does a very good job at communicating his philosophy of design and explaining how it has been applied to all the products.

That Rams is so clear and obvious in his design makes a lot of the “how is this used” question disappear. And while some of the pieces do look sort of dated, they’re not that bad. His design legacy, between Apple’s current product line and even some of the way IKEA’s modular systems work, is pretty clear. The most-dated part of his designs is the actual technology—bringing up the question I was trying to figure out the entire time I was in the exhibition.

In another 35 years, how will these designs be displayed?

Right now, most of the people looking at the exhibition still know about things like records, radios, and reel-to-reel cassettes. Explaining the functionality of the devices isn’t needed in part because we know (or remember) what they’re used for. After another decade, the clarity of the design will still be there but the genius won’t be as obvious. Something can look simple because it’s been refined to look simple or it can look simple because it’s been dumbed down and handicapped. The less we know about the functionality of the product, the less we can distinguish between the two.

There’s also the fact that all the Braun designs exist from a time period before remote controls and graphical user interfaces. We interact with our products very differently today and while the design fundamentals are still valid, placing them into context will become increasingly difficult.

None of this takes away from the brilliance of the designs and the importance of his design methodology. His ten principles of design will remain both relevant and applicable. If anything they’re even more important for computer design. Physical controls are expensive so minimizing them has a quantifiable benefit. Graphical controls are cheap and easy to implement—making them much more prone to feature creep and the mistaken conclusion that “more and more” is better than “less and more.”

MetaMaus

I began reading MetaMaus because I was a fan of the Maus books. It is a very interesting read for anyone who wants in-depth information into the creation of and research behind Maus. There’s a reason why it took Art Spiegelman 13 years to create it—the amount of work to get the information and then distill it into workable graphic pages is incredible.

What’s much more interesting though is to read it as a treatise on media and the way we define, display, and approach art.

Much of the MetaMaus concerns the critical reception (both pre and post publication) that Maus received, and continues to receive. In short, many people don’t know what to do with it. Is it low art or just a low medium? Commercial art? Fiction? Biography?* Juvenile? Satire? And what does it mean about other comics? That Maus sits nicely between almost all possible labels we have for art makes it an interesting test case for how people like to curate things.

*I’ve classified it as a biography on my bookshelf.

While my post on Serious Art is about individual pieces, it could just as well talk about mediums. Maus is an extremely serious work in a non-serious medium.* We recognize it as art but have problems with fitting it into the rest of what critics dub to be serious.

*Once you are appropriated by Pop Art you’re essentially non-serious from an art point of view.

Spiegelman discusses many of the different ways which curators have tried to put Maus in context. Most of them end up being either patronizing* or just flat out wrong.** But it’s fascinating to see the thought process behind the exhibits. The attempts aren’t crazy, they just reflect that people don’t have the context required to curate it correctly. At the same time, I found it fascinating that it doesn’t even seem like anyone bothered to exhibit it by itself.***

*Bringing comics into a “high art vs low art” exhibition.

**Interleaving Vladek Spiegelman’s and Anne Frank’s location during the war.

***R. Crumb style.

A lot of the material in MetaMaus would have made a fantastic exhibition on its own accord. Instead of treating it as part of a comics exhibition or placing it in opposition to painting or other “high” arts, it could have stood on its own. As much as I say that context matters, the context doesn’t have to be other art.

MetaMaus, as a result, ends up being the curation for a stand-alone art exhibition on Maus. Read Maus first. Then read MetaMaus with Maus on the nightstand.

Monuments of printing

This weekend I went to Stanford to see the Monuments of Printing exhibition at Green Library.* I’m a bit of a printing nut as well as a type nut so exhibitions of book design and typesetting are always up my alley.

*It’s been almost a dozen years since I spent any time in there. Heck, I’m still getting used to the Bing Wing. It’s also interesting to visit as a guest and be asked things like “Is this your first time visiting Green?” In many ways, enough has changed that, even though I used it as an undergrad, I really haven’t visited this incarnation of it.

The exhibition is pretty good—as long as you already know a lot about the history and craft of type. If you don’t know what ligatures, counters, etc. mean, you’re in for some trouble. Similarly, the term “gothic” is never fully explained even though, unlike “roman” or “italic” (which are explained), gothic no longer means what it used to.*

*Gothic once described Germanic letter forms. Then it became known as blackletter and survived to the 20th century as fraktur long after most of the rest of Europe converted to roman type. In the mid-19th century, gothic started to be used as a synonym for sans-serif type and survives today in fonts like Franklin Gothic which have nothing to do with the gothic font used in the Gutenberg Bible.

I did enjoy the descriptions of where roman and italic came from and I was pleased to learn about civilité. That alternative, local variants to the too-italian italics were considered (but eventually discarded) is both extremely interesting and a nice reminder of how art and technology evolve. Too often we just see the successful developments and not the failed experiments. That civilité failed due to an abundance of ligatures and alternate characters means that, if done correctly, P22 Civilite should be a lot of fun to play with.

What I would have liked to see more of was a discussion of craft. It wasn’t clear to me if we were looking at the craft of the book, layout, or just the type. Discussions of book formats (octavo vs. quarto etc.) and intents were barely present. And discussions about typesetting were practically absent. Many of the books showed the evolution of reading aids through typesetting* but you had to really pay attention to see them.

*From a solid block of text with pilcrows inline to separate the paragraphs to more-modern extra leading between paragraphs.

All that said, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the second installation featuring the book-arts revival next year.

Archival life

White Painting (Three Panel) by Robert Rauschenberg, at SFMoMA

It’s a chromogenic print, meaning it’s of questionable longevity, and it’s “face-mounted to Plexiglas,” which is questionable from a conservation standpoint.

—Response to my comment on the Online Photographer

Continuing from where I left off previously

I can’t think of any other artistic medium where the conservation quality is considered to be part of the artistic merit of the piece. In fact, very few artists even consider how their work will age.* As a result, the question of how to preserve a piece is one of the most important debates you can have in art. Should a piece look its age? Should it always look brand new? Are previous conservation attempts worth preserving as part of the piece’s history? And this is just in the context of museums and academic art display. With personal collections, it’s even more confusing territory since each collector will think of the piece uniquely.**

*The photo accompanying this post is an example of a work where aging has been considered by the artist. Robert Rauschenberg has stated that his White Paintings are to be repainted periodically.

**Recommended reading: The Art Doctor by Rebecca Mead.

So why is photography singled out? The collector who bought Rhein II didn’t purchase it because of its life expectancy. That’s not why people collect art.

It is, however, why people take photographs.

The generally-accepted common usage of a photograph is to preserve a personal memory. The archival life for a memory should be as long as possible. This desire for permanence seeps into our concept of what a photograph is and how it’s to be used. As a result, we have a medium where longevity and ease of conservation is a large part of the value for many people.

This sense of memory preservation informs many other ways people observe photographs and also explains a lot of the concern about Photoshop. It’s difficult to not look at a photo without trying to put it in context. Sometimes, we’ll be struck by how modern an old photo looks. Other times, we’ll think a new photo looks like it could have been taken a century ago. But we’re always looking at who the photo is of* or for other period details that the photo reveals.**

*Something I’m always hyper-aware of in any portrait exhibition. e.g. my notes about Mapplethorpe.

**I’m one of the few who does this with old paintings and things too. and I know I’m one of the few since I pay attention to other museum goers who generally don’t look at the backgrounds of  the paintings they’re looking at.

With Photoshop, we feel betrayed as if we’re being lied to. People want photos to be true. Even if though we all know better. It’s all about the memory archive. Photos are supposed to last.

And tell us the truth about the past.

Gearhead

An introduction to the scientific, artistic, and computing aspects of digital photography—how digital cameras work, how to take good pictures using them, and how to manipulate these pictures afterwards. Topics include lenses and optics, light and sensors, optical effects in nature, perspective and depth of field, sampling and noise, the camera as a computing platform, image processing and editing, history of photography, and computational photography.

—Course Description, CS 178 – Digital Photography

My undergraduate education involved taking classes on drawing and illustration through the Engineering School. The idea was that it was easier to teach engineers how to draw than it was to teach artists how to do math. Similarly, in my art classes (through the Art Department), oftentimes it became very useful to know the technical workings of the medium. I’m not at all opposed to mixing the two worlds of techie and fuzzy. Yet when I saw the curriculum for this Digital Photography class, I quickly had a bad reaction to it.

It took me a long time to figure out why this class rubs me the wrong way. The assignments all look good. As does the technical information. Then it finally hit me; there’s nothing about seeing or communicating in the syllabus.

My drawing classes were not about turning engineers into artists. Because freehand drawing is a useful communication and notetaking tool for anyone in mechanical engineering, the point of the class was to learn how to illustrate our thoughts. I don’t get the same vibe from this photography class. Instead it looks like it emphasizes technique and technical know-how. This is always dangerous territory in photography.

When people ask me how to improve their photographs* the first thing I always ask is “what are you taking photos of?” The second thing I usually ask is “and what’s interesting about it?” Technique and gear are good to know and understand; neither of them are typically responsible for why people take bad photos.

*While nowhere near as annoying as “You must have a good camera,” “You’re so creative,” or “Did you take a class;” I hear “How can I take good pictures” or “What camera should I get to take photos like yours” enough that if I’m having a bad day, I’ll be in danger of reacting poorly. At least with the questions which indicate a wish for self-improvement, I can turn it into a teachable moment rather than smalltalk.

Why do people take bad photographs? In my experience, it’s usually a lack of vision. They fail to ask themselves: What am I photographing? Why is it interesting? How can I present what interests me in a way which interests you? Any beginning photo class which fails to emphasize that will rub me the wrong way.

The internet is full of technical experts who take boring photos. Or, worse, technical experts who don’t recognize good photos because they’re hung up on technical flaws.* At least be emotionally honest and say “this isn’t good because I don’t like it.”

*Brilliant satire becoming tragic reality.

Now, if this were an advanced photo class for people who had the basics of photography down and needed to learn more about the equipment? Completely. Different. Story. Sign me up for that class.

E-reader Expo

Our local library had an e-books expo today where “industry experts” came in to answer questions and let people try out devices. While I’m not exactly an e-reader person (yet), we do have an iPad and I have been impressed with Amazon’s strategy of moving toward a “you pick the licensing agreement, we deliver the content” marketplace. So it made sense to check things out in person.

Sigh.

I should have known better. The Barnes and Noble guys were probably the most useful but the Nook is somewhat limited in its PDF support. The rest of the “experts” were really just salesmen and it was pretty clear pretty quickly that they were not that familiar with books. Which was disappointing.

What I was pleased to see is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appears to be a standard e-text sample text. For what I’m interested in in e-books, Alice is probably the ideal choice. It’s supposed to come with a specific set of illustrations and it includes a very obvious concrete poem. This means that in addition to checking on obvious things like text/illustration handling, I can also check whether special typesetting is also do-able by flipping directly to the Mouse’s Tale.

The Kindle on display? Failed the test.* When I asked whether it was a function of the e-text or e-reader? Blank stares until I was patronizingly assured that it displayed pictures too.

*Our iPad passed. Was probably the first thing I did in the e-reader too.

I do like the Kindle display though. So at least not all was lost. I’ll have to keep an eye out to see how things develop. But at this point, I still get the sense that the technology isn’t being driven from a “how to improve reading” point of view.

Art, Craft, and Function

The introduction of totemism as a third term may also disrupt the binary model of art history that opposes an “age of images” to an “era of art,” or (even worse) opposes “Western” art to “the rest.’

—W. J. T. Mitchell. What Do Pictures Want?

Non-functional items from the third world are assigned pseudo-functional descriptions such as “fetish figure” when the same kind of item from the west will be given a name and creator.

—My post Serious Art

In the practice of art conservation we are used to thinking about what all the different agents of art – the artist, the curator, the public, etc. – would want for the object’s material condition.  Very rarely – if ever – do  we  consider that the object itself might want something.

Does Art Want to be Conserved? at Cantor Science

To-date, I’ve thought that the distinction between fine art and craft is one of presentation only. Fine Art is presented as being intellectual and having an equally-important creator. Craft is functional and the use is often more important than the creator. I haven’t thought of it as function of agency for the actual piece in question.

The Cantor Science blog turned me onto W. J. T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want. It has taken me a while to get through the book* and, while I can’t recommend it as a book,** there is a lot of stuff worth thinking about in there for people, like me, who consider themselves art appreciators.

*It’s interesting how, once having left school, book reports become something worth doing again.

**Good god, I’m glad to see that my skimming skills from college are still useful. I can no longer deal with 20 pages of throat-clearing followed by 2 pages of interesting stuff.

In particular, I’ve had to completely reconsider my position that the fine arts vs craft distinction in how we title western art versus third world craft somehow shortchanges the third world as being less important. The opposite is true. Unless we can articulate what fine art is supposed to be used for, it’s almost inherently less important. That so much western art is curated as being important because it’s by someone or part of a movement is a large reason why so many people don’t get art.

And they’re often right to not get it. Much of western/fine art has become an exercise in collecting specimens. The object, and all its uses, is no longer important. What matters is the artist.

The problem with this is that specimen-based curating requires museumgoers to understand the context for the art. Some museums try to explain this but most don’t. So the museum becomes an intimidating place for people who haven’t been taught any art history—no one likes to feel stupid.  And the art is shortchanged since it’s forced to exist in a vacuum.*

*I never liked Chuck Close until I saw a bunch of his work displayed together and could see what he was actually doing. I’ve had to explain Cindy Sherman’s work to numerous people. My favorite experience in an art museum is still hearing a kid point at the pile of Brillo Boxes and proclaim, “That’s not art!”—but there was no information in the museum to explain why it was.

This also explains why, in addition to my preference for design exhibitions, I find myself enjoying pre-renaissance art. The closer the artwork is to being useful, the more I find myself drawn to it.

Specimen-based curating is only acceptable in a retrospective where the artistic path of one person or movement is on display and anyone can see how the pieces fit together. Retrospectives are biographies and are committed to telling a story. The context for the pieces becomes obvious to any museumgoer.

What we need are more art exhibitions which work as both art and as craft. The art objects need to be treated as being important in their own right and not just as specimens without context. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the DeYoung Museum was a great example of this.* In addition to being an exhibition of functional objects, there was information about the different artists as well as background information on the quilting traditions. Yet, at the same time, this was very much an art exhibition, not a natural history exhibition.

*The Pixar exhibition in Oakland is another example which comes to mind—very much a craft-based exhibition, but it was also clearly about art.

Which brings us to the question of agency. It’s not really about what pictures want but more the understanding that we all relate to functional items at a much deeper level than we relate to a specimen. Specimens are purely intellectual. Functional items, whether a jewelry, furniture, totem, etc., engage us more and we relate to them better. With regard to display and conservation, we need to take this into account and treat art, if at all possible, in a way which allows people to appreciate its use and purpose. Usage, after all, is why most things are made to begin with.

The Art of the Book

It’s always fun to go to an exhibition and feel the I want that urge manifest itself. I’m not used to that particular emotional response—even with photography. I generally approach art from a much more detached space where, while I am willing to respond emotionally, the pieces I’m responding to expect a more academic approach.

Not so this weekend. I managed to get a quick visit to the Stanford Museum this weekend to see the Art of the Book exhibition before it ends in a week. Very cool.

Books are meant to be held, handled, and read. Repeatedly. The books in the exhibition were no exception to this. As beautiful as the craft of binding, printing, typesetting, and writing were to look at, all the books present were demanding to be opened and used.

I have a hard enough time not accumulating mass-market trade paperbacks. Put me in front of finely-crafted books? I’m in for some trouble. These are things to own and use and share.

And yes, as much as having a darkroom would be cool, if I could throw myself into any craft, I’d be messing about with a letterpress and making my own books.

Gimmicks and gimmickry

GiraldaView
Quoting and expanding from one of my previous posts.

Anything photographic can become an exercise in technique over content

Photography, by being such a technology and technique driven field, tempts people with the fallacy that better/different gear or improved technique is all they need to take better photos. Sometimes, the temptation is because of marketing-driven numbers and “technical” specification which allow people who don’t know what they need to pretend that “better” can be quantified. Othertimes, the temptation comes in the form of eye-catching results which look markedly different than what comes out of most cameras.

There have been plenty of articles about the myths of sharper/faster/better lenses. I’m not going to go down that road. People who chase the myth of the better lens end up shooting lens tests more than anything else. I’m more interested in the temptation toward superficially eye-catching techniques whose results rarely hold up to additional scrutiny.

These techniques are almost always all form and no content since they only serve to say “hey guys, look what technique I can use!” I call them gimmicks since they stand out through form rather than content.

buzz buzz buzz
Commonly-used gimmicks are HDR, bokeh, panoramas, selective color, toy cameras,* through-the-viewfinder, and apps such as Hipstamatic.** These are all extremely seductive to the photographic neophyte since they are relatively easy to perform. You don’t have to learn a skill, you just need new tools or equipment. With minimal effort you get lots of eye candy*** and don’t have to worry about content.

*And all the related effects that lousy lenses, light leaks, etc. create.

**Hipstamatic and Instagram are possibly so common now that they may no longer be eye-catching. 

***debatable

Other techniques with high gimmick potential include wide-angle lenses, infrared, and contrast filters. What prevents these from being typical gimmicks is that the motivation for using them is usually content-driven. Sometimes it’s extremely naïve motivation (e.g. trying to “get it all in”) but it’s still looking at what’s inside the frame and trying do something with it.

Gimmicks, by being so form-based that they dominate the content, are extremely hard to use well. It’s already a struggle for many people to master the camera to the point where it does what they want. Once a gimmick is added to the mix? Watch out. Too much camera, not enough photographer.

Which is why I find myself being drawn to gimmicks.

bench

I don’t necessarily want to control the gimmick. I do want to be able to influence it and figure out how best to use its effects. This is the extreme of my typical approach with lenses.

I’ve been shooting toy cameras somewhat consistently for years now and an gradually getting a sense of how to use them. Sometimes it’s for the sense of achieving that “retro” look through semi-legitimate means. Othertimes, it’s because I enjoy the exercise of having to stretch my brain to figure out how best to use the camera. My Brownie Hawkeye Flash is probably my favorite toy camera since it hits the sweet spot between being somewhat retro, having limited functionality, and creating a unique look.* There’s nothing that screams Brownie about my results but I know I wouldn’t have gotten any of the shots I took with it using any other camera.

*Compared to, say, my Duaflex II which is too distinctive and toy-like for my taste.

But I’m starting to like my Kodak Pony 135 C a lot since I can almost use it like a regular camera. Now that I’ve figured out not to trust the focusing and just scale focus for near or far only, I find myself liking it for quick snaps when I’m out walking during the day.

It’s also great for double exposures.

efi multi

Probably the most obvious of the gimmicks I play with. I find myself favoring the planned versions rather than the unplanned ones. So, for example, compositing a shot in two or three consecutive exposures rather than taking the entire roll, rewinding, and reshooting it for random overlaps. Not that I have a problem with randomness, it’s just that I prefer trying to influence the gimmick.

It’s definitely an interesting exercise to try and see things that will composite well. I’m also still barely getting started in this technique so I suspect a longer post will come once I’ve had a chance to really get my hands dirty and run many rolls through the camera.

rosina with light leaks

Other gimmicks I use which I’ve already covered on this blog are shooting with my flipped lens, through the viewfinder, and even tilted horizons. With all of these, I find myself testing how to control what I’m doing and learning how to see things with the special viewpoint. For an exercise which seems to add a lot of options* I find that gimmicky shooting makes me take fewer photos than regular shooting. A roll of film in a gimmick camera takes me months to get through.

*Just point it at anything and it will look interesting!

It’s interesting to realize that I spend more time thinking about my compositions and content the lousier my equipment is. But my photography brain is growing no matter how I choose to force it to grow…