CAPITALISM and CONTAMINATION

Okay, I have a newsletter and this blog. What’s the diff? Well, both are about photography but my newsletter, HYPO, is broad-ranging, you subscribe and it gets delivered to your inbox. On the other hand drool. has longer pieces, is more political and, unlike HYPO, you come to it.

I say this because HYPO reader Souki Belghiti, from Morocco, sent along a question. It was pretty political so I’m responding here on drool.

Read on . . .

Here’s Souki’s question . . .

Ok, here is a question I’d like to hear your thoughts about.

Capitalism has created an aesthetics. Is that aesthetics so contaminating in and of itself that it invalidates any attempt to subvert it?

I am, for instance, puzzled, by the work of
Hank Willis Thomas. Yes it is effective, provocative, but then, something feels “bling” and “easy”, as if he is using a language we all know too well, of simple thought association.

Likewise I was making photographs of a mall’s aquarium- with a critical intent-how we are all drowning in this consumer’s culture and I saw almost the same shots in a commercial for that very mall at the airport. That really got me wondering how artists can produce any critical images now, (and showed me how contaminated I was).


Wow.

I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. I’m not exactly what you would call a deep thinker, more of a gusher with ideas. That has its benefits though, because a lot of deep thinking in the art world is based on current group-think and is bullshit-by-design.

Anyway, let me begin by saying what I think Souki is asking: how can artists subvert the status quo when almost all the available visual vocabulary has been co-opted by, well, the status quo?

First of all, I’m pretty sure that the art system is not interested in anything more than paying lip service to upsetting the system. Too many paycheques and careers rely upon preserving that system.

But if, by some chance, something revolutionary strikes a chord that resonates with a larger public, the system will figure out a way to co-opt it and turn it into money. So, unless you want to be co-opted and make money, you’ll have to figure out a way to operate more or less outside that system. And, yes, it can be done.

I also think that if you want to cause some little ripple that might become a larger wave, one that disrupts standard ways of looking at and thinking about things, art must be recognizable. After all, you want people to relate to it, right?

So, to get to the bones of Souki’s question, specifically about the work of Hank Willis Thomas . . . Well, I find his imagery fundamental and completely lacking nuance. It’s so shiny!!!!! and revolutionary!!!!! and radical!!!!! Seems to me he’s just yelling slogans and that’s not going to change anyone’s perspective.

On the other hand take Dawoud Bey (chosen here because, broadly, they are thinking about the same things: let’s call it, again, broadly, African-American history and relationship to power and politics) . . . what Bey is doing is quiet work that gets under your skin and, thus, promotes reflection. And reflection is what will alter you.

Both these photographers use common approaches, their photos are not unlike those you have seen before. But one of them, for me at least, is more effective at moving his agenda forward.

So in the end it’s the intelligence of the creator, coupled with the context they situate their art within, that shifts how that art is received. And no matter what, your work will be used and/or abused by some people in order to bolster their view and/or cut down yours.

The best you can hope for if you are an artist with politics is to slightly alter how a person or two (or a handful if you’re lucky) thinks about things. There is no such thing as radical transformation, there is only evolution, and evolution is a slow, incremental process. Sometimes it makes things better, other times it makes things worse. It’s all a great big experiment. And, to quote Jack Kerouac, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
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Here are links to a couple of recent drool. articles that are related to this:
The System
Photography and Politics

DIGNITY: Chris Arnade

I met Chris online, back in 2011. He’s an ex-astrophysicist, ex-Wall Street trader and, when I got in touch with him (or did he get in touch with me?), a photographer.

I’d been photographing drug addicts, so had he. I’d been criticized for photographing drug addicts, so had he. We compared notes, commiserated and pretty much saw eye-to-eye.

Then, in 2013, business took me to NYC, where Chris lived. I contacted him, asked if he wanted to hang out. Sure, he said, wanna go to a crack house in The Bronx?

Let’s go, I replied.

Chris, Hunts Point, The Bronx, 2013

We kept in touch over the years, he visited me in Kapital City a few times. It felt like we were fellow travellers.

Then Chris, as is inevitable, got worn down, broken down by all the time, energy and emotion he had spent with addicts. (Oh, I know that feeling.)

But his curiosity remained intact. So he set off across America to further the education Hunts Point had provided him. He went to the edges (which are, ironically, in the centre), those places given lip service (and knee jerks) from the media and by just plain comfortable folks.

Three years and 150,000 miles later his head was full. He dropped out to make some sense of what he’d seen, what he’d felt, and what he’d learned. The result is his book, DIGNITY, which hit the shelves this week. It’s a book of words and pictures. Lots to sink your teeth into. Food for thought.

drool. calls it required reading if you want to understand a bit more (different) about what’s happening now in the USA. Or, really in any place or society that is in the grips of, is suffering from, late-capitalism (aka neo-liberalism).

But don’t take my word for it. The Economist, in a review, compares it to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Walker Evans and James Agee). High praise indeed.

Chris doesn’t think of himself as a photographer, although photography is definitely part of his working method. We had a conversation about that, and then got sidetracked. And the sidetrack, as is often the case, led us to the crux, or, more accurately, a crux . . .

Chris Arnade: For me the photography comes second to the story and learning. I think that shows in my images. I do care about taking good pictures but they are secondary, and became more so as this project evolved. 

If I have a framework it is to take portraits that the subject wants. Or trying to at least. Or giving dignity to the subject. Meaning I almost always let them choose how they are photographed, and allow them, should they want, to clean up before the shot. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some action pictures. But more often it is intentionally posed. 

It also means I do relatively simple stuff. I try not to make it too arty, because I think that just feels artificial. 

To the larger point. I care more about learning than getting the right shot.

T. F.: We’ve talked before about how poverty is mostly comprised of stasis and crushing boredom. Yet many photographers who render poverty seem to look for, or at least inject, all kinds of drama into their photos of that poverty. Tell me a little about your thinking on this.

C.A.: Thank you for asking this. One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find. For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty, which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.

But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone. 

This is the world of so much of low income America. Bland & banal strip malls, repetitive architecture, loud & jarring advertising. The attempt to make that pretty, or dramatic, or whatever just isn’t right . . .

I’m curious if you disagree with this. Or . . . curious to hear your thoughts since you are so much more familiar with Photography and its history than I am.

T.F.: I think your take on this is mostly right but a bit too categorical. 

It is possible to manipulate, artify, images of, well, anything, poverty included, in a way that is true (whatever that means) to the subject. Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.

In the end it comes down to the intent and talent of the person making the images. I believe intent and talent can actually be seen in the results . . . if one cares to look.

And therein lies the problem . . . most people (as you know) don’t care to look, they just want their biases confirmed and, thus, to be entertained.

Take, for instance, Sebastiao Salgado, I really dislike his Wagnerian, melodramatic, biblical really, photographs, and Bruce Gilden, who I kind of like for the brutality of his approach. For me Salgado is just lies filtered through Romanticism, while Gilden’s work seems to be more reality-based.

So it’s complicated. I try to judge each body of work on its own merits.

C.A.:I agree there is no set rule. I also fully agree on Salgado, who I was partly thinking of when I wrote what I wrote. I am not sure about Gilden. I really dislike his work because I think he is mocking his subjects, and I hate how he surprises them at times — I think with bad intent.

I fully agree with this “Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.”  

I guess my approach is more literal than most — which is why I am not really a photographer in my heart — I come into a place, look around, think about it, hang, and then try to figure out what is the essence of that place. What did I learn from this. What do I want others to learn? And how can I communicate that essence, or what I learn, the best via words & photos. 

Perhaps that would mean arsty-ing it up. Perhaps not. I don’t think Salgado or Gilden communicate the essence of a place or their subjects. Although by that measure, Gilden does indeed do a ‘Better” job.

T.F.: There’s more than one way, though, to show the essence of a place. For me Salgado’s images are way too melodramatic and idealized to be a “true” reflection of the recognizable world

And I don’t want to be an apologist for Gilden, because lord knows it’s so easy to see his images as just plain nasty. But for me there can be more to them than that.

But folks look for confirmation of their biases. You can easily find that in both those photographers’ work. Whereas with more neutral work (yours, for instance) that built-in bias is moved way to the back.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s there on the surface and not hidden behind trickery.

C.A.: I agree with all that, and fully agree that communicating that essence can come in many different ways. 

With regards to confirming ones bias, or having a bias. One thing you become very very aware of as a Wall Street trader is dangers of having a bias. Perhaps that is why I approach it why I do! 20 years of Wall Street made me determined to be aware of my bias!

T.F.: Okay, we sort of agree. I hope I haven’t bullied you into agreeing.

C.A.: I don’t think you bullied me. I asked your opinion because you know the photo world like a million times better than me. I intentionally operate without building that knowledge so I don’t end up copying a style.

T.F.: Fair enough. I’ve gotta go do the dishes, make dinner. And I’ll let you get back to your life.

C.A.: Cheers.

A NEW ENDING

Well I’m trying to not care about caring about the public face of photography. So I’m wondering why I might carry on here. It feels spent.

Where do I go from there?

Conclusions are good. Or, maybe, they can be good. After all, you arrive at a conclusion, don’t you? And when you arrive somewhere it’s a new beginning, isn’t it?

So I’m going to stop posting here every Sunday. Instead I’ll post when there’s something I feel needs this platform. Who knows?

I’ll be hyping new posts on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, so follow me there if you want to keep track.

Happy New Year.