Mint Condition

Further expansion on my ramblings on fakeness and authenticity. This time I’m thinking about use, preservation, and the nature of old objects. While I admire and even covet finely-crafted objects, I very much believe in the concept that things should be used.

This puts me in an odd position regarding museums which are displaying objects like chairs or other furniture. So much of the purpose of design is the utility and ease of use of the object. It’s a shame to have them displayed on pedestals or behind glass where all we can appreciate is how they look. It’s always nice when a museum includes replicas you can handle and use and get a sense for all the aspects of the design.*

*This is an area where the new Oakland Museum excels.

As someone who is sensitive to craft, emphasizing use often keeps me from spending money. If I am not willing or able to use the object, I have a hard time justifying its purchase. It is very rare when I purchase a functional object with just its display purposes in mind.* What’s more typical is that I purchase a cool-looking old object with the mindset that, if I can’t get it working, at least it will make a nice display.

*My coin collection may be the only example here. And many of those coins, since they are out of circulation, are preserved as “history” rather than for their function. So perhaps it’s just the modern proof sets which really count as functional objects purchased solely for display purposes.

Keeble and Shuchat’s $5 bargain box has become my indulgence for these urges. The Kodak Retina IIa, Kodak Retina I, and Kodak Pony 135 C were all purchased with no real certainty that they worked, just that they appeared to work. If they didn’t work, they were all too interesting to pass up anyway. Which is how I developed my rules about old camera purchases. They have to take (or be convertable to) 135 or 120 film because if I can’t shoot it (even unreliably), it will feel like a waste to have it on display.

Similarly, as much as I like books and wince when I see them damaged, I can’t stand the idea of having a book so fragile or valuable that it cannot be read. The more creases I see in the spine, the better. I’d rather have a facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer than the real thing. And if I spent the $600 for such a book, you can bet I’d actually read it.

If the object is too expensive or fragile for me to feel comfortable using it, I shouldn’t own it. I’m not careless with what I own, I just don’t shy away from things like shooting my cameras in whatever weather presents itself. While I certainly understand the urge to protect old, fragile, or valuable objects, I just don’t see the point of having such an object if it isn’t to be used. This point of view is one which is frequently shared on Antiques Roadshow and is really the saving grace of a show which would otherwise risk getting bogged down in questions of “worth.”

Fakeness and Authenticity

Obi

I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to the concept of authenticity. In many ways, I’m an orthodox do-it-right, do-it-for-real type who most people would expect to hate any sort of modern fakery. Sometimes I even think of myself this way. But I’m not. I love the concept of fakery and screwing around with the concept that things are not necessarily what they appear to be.

At the same time, quite a few modern fakes and replicas piss me off. Recently, it’s been Instagram’s Nashville filter which has really been getting to me. Inspecting my wife’s replica jersey also set off a couple other rants about “doing things right.” So I’ve started thinking about the right way to make a fake.

As with most things craft, it comes down to a combination of the details and the intent. I have a number of sports jerseys of varying authenticity—ranging from the cheapest fakes you can purchase from a street vendor in Italy to official field-ready merchandise to a specially-crafted throwback. The cheap street-vendor jerseys are, as one would expect, horrible. They aren’t meant to be anything but horrible though. This is their appeal.

As the quality of the jersey rises, so do my expectations of getting the details correct. I don’t expect them to ever be fully identical to what’s worn on the field—fans expect a jersey to last many years, do not need performance fabrics, and are typically not shaped like athletes. I do expect them to otherwise match and have the same patches, badges, lettering, etc. The official MLB replicas fail in this regard in that their lettering is off and they get key details (such as the lack of last names on the backs of the Giants home jerseys) wrong. The result feels more lazy and incompetent than cheap.

And I love throwback jerseys. These are the definition of fakes but since they get the details right (when done correctly) that no one cares that they’re modern versions of old items. I would probably hate them if they were passed off as originals but they’re intended to be new and wearable and their branding celebrates this.

rancho

In photography, the fakery discussion is even more interesting. You can fake things digitally in post or you can fake things through using outdated techniques and materials.

Hipstamatic, Instagram, and Poladroid all take modern digital photos and process them to look retro. You can also use various filters to achieve both the color responses and grain of film. Again, whether or not something feels right for me comes down to the details and the intent.

In the case of photography, the details and the intent are often intertwined and much of the fakery involves a fascination with the details rather than the image.* This means that the details have to be even more correct and all to often, the exact opposite occurs because those people fascinated with the details don’t understand what those details actually mean.

*Photography, by being so technology-driven, is prone to getting sidetracked into technical details which have nothing to do with the image.

So we get the kind of fakeness which I can’t stand: Overdone, poorly done details. Fake film borders which all have the same frame number. Black and white film markings for color images. The same fake fingerprint on each fake polaroid. Crazy vignetting and color shifting. Etc. Etc. Etc. Some of it is indeed fun. But the details are getting in the way of the object and that’s a problem when the details are so obviously wrong. The digital fakery I like so far are all images where the filtering has been turned down, the obvious mistakes eliminated, and everything is considered with the subject in mind.

At least with lomography, the details are arrived at through physical means. There’s the same obsession with form over content, but the process is valid. Of more interest to me is how shooting vintage gear (toy cameras from the 1950s, a Speed Graphic, etc.) or using outdated processes (tintypes, albumen prints, etc.) doesn’t offend my sensibilities. With these, the point isn’t to make something that looks old but in fact to see what those must have looked like brand new. And that’s what makes all the vintage gear/process stuff fun and exciting.

We’re in an age of knockoffs, replicas, and pseudo authenticity. Small houses have details which are intended to make them look big. Cheap furniture is detailed so it looks like it’s been made from real wood rather than particle board. And what I find myself being increasingly sensitive to can only be defined as craft. Take care of the details and I’ll forgive the fakeness of it.

Editing and Art — part 2

Continuing where I left off in part one. I still haven’t stopped thinking about the main question as it applies to Vivian Maier and Charles Cushman. And how it applies to my own work as a photographer.

How much of being an artist means editing your own work?

Photography is unique among the arts in that discards are both preserved and often indistinguishable from keepers.

Even given the uniqueness of photography, that I lump all photography together here is a bit unfair. There are huge difference depending on the format the photographer is using. Digital is distinct from 135. 135 is distinct from 120. Roll film is distinct from sheet film. As the cost per shot increases, pre-exposure editing increases and it becomes easier for someone to make assumptions about keepers, discards, etc. without the photographer’s direct input.

This distinction probably explains a lot of why Maier is being treated as an artist while Cushman is being treated as a pioneer of the vernacular. Even though Kodachrome was not cheap, with our eyes now, small-format color photography is the mass-market standard while medium format black and white just looks like art.

I’ve noticed the same with my own photographic work—both in terms of my own gut reactions to it as well as the reactions I receive on flickr. Medium format is more artsy than small format. Film is more artsy than digital. Square is more artsy than rectangular. Black and white is more artsy than color. And this reaction occurs with both “art shots” and “snap shots” I’ve taken.

overhangingreflection
Wat and SantaSanta!

I find that I often prefer the square medium-format black-and-white shots more than the rectangular digital ones. That I am not alone in my reaction leads me to suspect that the sheer dominance of rectangular color images causes us to notice anything different and treat it as somehow more art-worthy. Maier’s work just looks more like what we expect art to look like.

My own (admittedly inadequate) editing reinforces this belief as well. I routinely toss 60% of my digital images before I upload. I routinely keep 90% of my medium format ones. My behavior with 35mm film is about in the middle. The more a shot costs me, I’m less likely to experiment or cavalierly blow a frame just for the heck of it and I’m more likely to spend a long time composing and visualizing.* Yes, I miss some shots, but I’m already editing before shooting so I have a higher keeper rate.

*That I have similar behavior depending whether I’m in the first half or second half of a roll of film is its own phenomenon. In the first half of a roll, I’m less disciplined than I am in the second half.  But in the last 10% of a roll, I’m even less disciplined as I try and “finish it off.” That’s why we have cats though right?

To say that Maier and Cushman are completely unedited sells them short as photographers. But the question of how an external editor can shape our perception of their work, and what this implies about their status as artist, remains. And I can’t stop thinking about it because I can’t help but apply it to my own work.

I don’t claim to be an artist. At the same time, I know there’s an art edit in my photostream. Finding that edit, or one of those edits, is something I need to work on—something I am working on. I also know that I will need help with this. I suck as an editor of my own work and am overly-inclusive in what I like rather than being extra-critical and expunging everything which I don’t like.

Not that this is a completely bad thing. I shoot for many different purposes and the categories are not strictly defined. Despite being in the digital age, I will take documentary family snapshots with black and white film and equipment older than I am. And I will frame and compose with an artistic eye and intent.

time to go home

I don’t think that I’m unique either. We all need a second set of eyes to look at our work. The more critical that second set of eyes can be, the better.

Editing and Art

Thoughts prompted by the fantastic Vivian Maier story and subsequent debate about her place in the photography canon. While much of the discussion has been (deservedly) on the quality of the images being displayed, I’m noticing a much more interesting discussion in the subtext to many of the comments.

The featured comment in this Online Photographer post raises the question of editing, who does it, and what it means to be an artist if you haven’t chosen what you present. The implications of that question involve curation, influence, and the very nature of what Art actually is.

First, some background for anyone not in the photographic world, or any photographers who have been living under a rock. Vivian Maier took photos for herself, no one really knows much about her nor did she exhibit her work. After she died, a guy purchased her negatives and film and started scanning them. He posted the results online and things sort of took off.

Another interesting case like this is that of Charles Cushman whose massive archive of work contains all kinds of color photography from a period which is mostly documented in black and white. Cushman has generally been described as a pioneer or vernacular photographer though some blogs have considered how curation can change our perception of his work.

While it’s not uncommon for an artist to be unknown until he (it’s almost always a he) dies, in general, the work left behind has been self-selected at some level. Artists (heck, all of us) tend to abandon any work before completion if we’re not satisfied with its progress. And any completed work we end up not liking tends to be destroyed or recycled.

Photography is unique among the arts in that discards are both preserved and often indistinguishable from keepers. The print is the final state, but everything is stored as negatives. This also puts photography in the position where it is possible to have multiple edits of a photographer’s work which end up portraying the photographer in completely different ways.

As we discover huge troves of photographic images, the question of editing will only become more important. I’d love to see a photographic exhibition where multiple curators (and not just art curators) are let loose on a collection like Cushman’s or Maier’s and we can see how different the results are.

So to the big questions.  Does the fact that someone else can edit your body of work to make you look like an artist actually make you an artist? How much of being an artist means editing your own work? I’m inclined to say that it doesn’t matter who the editor is, just that it’s not art until someone has actually edited it. While Sturgeon’s Law reigns supreme, I believe it’s up to us to define what the 90% consists of.

I’m most annoyed as an art appreciator when an artist has become so famous that just authorship matters and we stop editing the art itself—just because a famous artist made something does not make it either art or good. Likewise, finding out a “priceless” famous-named artwork is in fact not by the famous name does not make that piece inherently bad. And don’t get me started on the value question, that’s a whole different post.