Picasso was once accosted on a train by a stranger. 'You're Picasso, aren't you?' said the man. ' Why do you distort people so when you paint them? Why can't you make a realistic portrait of a person for once?' Picasso looked genuinely puzzled. 'But what would a realistic portrait look like?' he asked. The man produced a photograph of his wife. Picasso peered at it intently then asked 'Is your wife really so small and flat?' �
'There are no such things as 'just' images,' said Godard, 'there are just images.' I suppose he meant that words are metaphoric and symbolic, a streamlined signifying system, whereas images, photographic and filmed ones especially, have something irreducible about them; they just are what they are. This makes them both less and more trustworthy than words. Less because they're pinned to the literal, the circumstantial, the contingent, the trivial. More because they make no claim to Platonic statements of truth. They lack the authoritarian bluster of words. Images are what they are. And we like them because we know what we like.
Images have become even more humble, amiable, accessible and intimate since people could start posting them casually on the web. Since digital photography and photoblogging started getting popular in the late 90s, I suppose you could say that photography has just become more and more like itself.
She's crouching on the white table top naked licking a white plate. It's the first image I click on the contact sheet. The URL's been mailed to me by some San Francisco art students, Sea Horse Liberation Army. The photo, I soon realise, is a re-enactment of a scene from Godard's film Weekend. The girl is very handsome, but what's so magnificent about this picture, apart from its immediate beauty, is that it takes me to a world where groups of friends re-enact scenes from Godard films. That's already a very bold, sexy and interesting world. It reminds me that an image is not just remarkable for itself, but also for the parallel world it invites us to imagine and enter, the world in which the anomaly it depicts is normal.
This photoblog reminds me, for some reason, of a John Cage song where the performer makes banana milkshake for the audience.
I'm a word person, I come from a word family (the Adjectives of Edinburgh). But I've never really trusted words. Can words even semi-adequately describe a human face? Can words capture the satisfied 'oh!' I just got when, wiping my hands on a pink towel in the bathroom, I noticed that the brown of my quilted waistcoat, the teal blue of my shirt and the baby pink of the towel made an excellent colour scheme worthy of a tricolor swatch? I mean, what is 'teal blue'? Why do I have to betray the 'thisness' of my shirt by calling it 'teal' when it's just itself, and could be less treacherously represented by a photo? Why do words tug me so, and try to take me to a place I can't help thinking of as dusty and conformist? Why does every thought, once it's 'framed' in words, start to hunt for its place in Flaubert's 'Dictionary of Received Ideas'?
Only the best poetry escapes this staleness, often at the price of intelligibility. That's why, if you do a blog, please make it a photoblog.�
What Is Photoblogging?
'People have kept chronological diaries, journals, and logs for eons. Blogs are the next permutation of this. "Blogs" evolved from "web logs", which were nothing more than personal journals published on the web for all to see. Blogs have grown quite a bit since the early days (the late 1990s) and now may offer several interactive and multimedia features depending on what the author wants to share. A photoblog is a type of blog that is regularly updated with photos. Some photoblogs focus only on photography, while others have photos in addition to other content. All photoblogs, however, consider photos to be an important part of their chronological blogging structure.'
Here's what you'll need to make a big tureen of photography soup:
One internet, one camera (probably a digital one), one website, one computer. Mentally, you'll probably need a combination of an exhibitionistic streak and a puritan-protestant 'diary-making and accountancy' mindset like the one Max Weber discusses in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. If you're a post-protestant trying to escape your word-bound culture and fly towards the aesthetic and the sensual, you may need a foe in the form of a strawman joy killer, a sort of iconophobic Preacher Harry Powell or Tipper Gore.
You may have simpler motives. You may just be an avid collector keen to document all the Oskar Niemeyer buildings you can find. You may want to show off your talent, or you might want to convince yourself, by convincing the world, that you have a life. You might be the stereotypical Japanese tourist throwing the shutter to prove that you were there. Or you might be scattering a paperchase designed to lose, confuse or save the world.�
Lucid as Euclid
Writing about images, even putting down words about the mistrust of words, one has to be aware of a certain tradition of 'fine writing about photography'. Barthes' Camera Lucida comes to mind. It's late Barthes, autobiographical Barthes, the Barthes that talks about pleasure and his mother rather than systems and Benjamin. In this tradition, one polishes the mechanisms of one's heart and observes them tenderly as they spring into oiled action, triggered by the associations of a photograph.
That might be right for 'art photography' and 'family photography' and 'photography that celebrates the dignity of the Sicilian labourer in the 1920s'. But is it right for a weblog? Shouldn't writing about a weblog be as fucked up and disposable as a polystyrene cup containing cigarette ash, lipstick smears and a paperclip?
Some snaps I found
It's trendy these days to use 'found' photos, I've noticed. Artists and graphic designers will often find some snapshots on the street, some slides in a flea market, and incorporate the images into their work. There's a designer in Paris who makes the sleeves for the Active Suspension label who does that very effectively. He puts blurry group snaps of people in the 70s behind ugly typefaces surrounded by odd black bars and lines. Initially, you resist. But once you've seen a couple of his sleeves your irritation, your sense of a certain ungainliness turns into a recognition of 'his voice', and you begin to like it.
It's the same when you first encounter someone like Andreas Gursky or Doug Aitken. At first you say 'What's the fuss, what's this work about?' Then you resist, declare yourself mystified by and oblivious to the hype. Then you see some theme, and how it relates to something important in the world. Aha, Gursky's photographs are that unphotographable thing, apparently literal images of the processes of globalisation. Aitken is -- well, you haven't yet named what that's about, which is the most interesting part, the period of unnameability. Thomas Ruff is -- monumental, classical, some words like that. Except when he's reappropriating porn. You know it when you see it.
Switch me on
Artists 'break us in', chip away at our resistance, create appetites for new types of ugliness then make that specific 'seen' and 're-seen' ugliness the new standard of beauty. If you're not prepared to go with them, you're left behind with exhausted formulas of beauty. (Of course, only go with the ones you trust. Don't take candy from a stranger.)
Themes and threads run through Sea Horse Liberation Army and Jip de Kort's photos. For the San Franciscans, for instance, retro tech -- old synths, computers, bicycles -- is important. They're thrifters, that's for sure. As a fellow thrifter, how can I not share their thrill with the kind of electro-mechanical junk that makes your day when you find it at a market? How can I fail to applaud their fabulous finds and the 'cave paintings' they've posted of the things they dream of stumbling across for bargain prices on eBay? (I don't believe they actually have that Italian-styled Moog. I refuse to believe it. I will kill them.)
Mr and Mrs Andrews and the air hostess
Here are a couple of Sea Horse Liberators. They're perfectly placeable as students, probably art students. They belong to the international 'retro airline bag' set. They're in San Francisco, but those people are in Tokyo and Berlin and London too. Hello! You're people like me. I don't have a retro airline bag, personally, but I was at a club the other week where there were people like that, and the music they were playing was really good, played loud through a tinny sound system that hurt my ears. They smoke too much, those people, but I like them. There were lots of cool lesbians at that club, Golden Gate under the S Bahn. A Mexican singer performed in a wig. Holger and Marcus from Bungalow threw the party, and Stereo Total were there. Those guys all have retro airline bags.
Actually Stereo Total have karate bags.
Keeping up with the McDonalds
Photoblogs can set style alarm bells a-ringing. For instance, if you've been keeping up with my friend Jean Snow's weblog, broadcast from Tokyo, you'll have seen this. It's the new McDonald's in Ikebukuro, snapped from a poster out front of the construction site. And, guess what, McDonald's in Tokyo, in a desperate attempt to get more hip and reverse declining burger sales, have adopted 'retro airline bag' style themselves!
Downwardly aspirational Burger King style has been trendy since the mid-90s -- my favourite pants from 1998-2001 were a perma-creased pair of brown nylon burger server trousers -- but now the burger bars are buying into Wallpaper style, getting upwardly mobile, we all might meet in the middle and there's going to be some embarrassment. The thing we have to do is move into the style recently abandoned by McDonald's, which is their cheap version of Memphis style. There's an old McDonald's like that on the road out from Shibuya to Daikanyama. It's got purple leopardskin applique, poised yellow plastic triangles and thick red plastic piping. It's all chunky plastic, so very electro-80s, so Ashley Bickerton, so Ettore Sottsass on-the-cheap. That's the style we need to aspire down to now.
When a photoblog announces the time, you might want to reset your watch.
Dutchman and photoblogger Jip de Kort likes coloured plastic, art galleries, fire extinguishers, and trains. The plastic bottles in his bathroom are arranged according to colour, like a Tony Cragg installation.
Like me, Jip clearly lives to photograph. He does it with an eclectic, sensual abandon, and as a result I feel like an initiate in his world. I understand his love of plastic, his affection for the future, his gentleness and the harmonious hedonistic pacifism of his life. Oh, the words are so much uglier than the images! Hedonistic pacifism, indeed! The photos train me to see as Jip sees, to recognise his holy holies, his habits, his fetishes, his wounds.
Jip is a 'designer'.
An important function of Jip's photoblog is to document his 'nieuw haar'. The blond cut is the fourth radically different way he's had it this year. 'Look at my hair, like the design!' Mere language is unfit for the stern task of specifying hairstyles, especially Jip's. What do I call his knotted braided toplock style? The 'hairnoodle'? The 'ring tin tin'? Or simply 'the Jip'? Could it work on my head? Why do I identify so readily with his quest for an interesting 'hair identity'? Why do I so implicitly trust his hair-restlessness?
Along with Sea Horse Liberation Army, I'd like to proclaim Jip de Kort the world's most excellent photoblogger. One day I'd like to release an Analog Baroque DVD of hundreds of photographs by these people, who, to my mind, rival any art photographers out there. (But make my day, tell me if you know about anyone as good.)
This is the time, and this is the record of the time
It was 1998 when I saw my first digital still camera close up. Toog was visiting me in London with his Japanese friend Kohei Higuchi, a labelhead neat freak with a gentle manner, a quiet voice, a cool haircut, and a Sony Mavica. You'd shove a floppy disk between its teeth, and the camera would chew, grind then shit out a painful photo file to the disk every time you pressed the release button. A floppy disk could only hold a single uncompressed image, so you had to carry a stack of them around with you. It was big and clunky, this clumsy digital Box Brownie. But Kohei's photos were nice. They were very flat, very grey, very empty. Mostly graphics he'd seen on walls, illuminated traffic island bollards, alien views of a Britain which, to him, must have seemed very fresh and strange.�
On my next trip to New York I bought a little Panasonic on Times Square and began taking pictures for my website; pictures of tours, pictures of America, which I was by now visiting regularly, pictures of Japan. The camera was slim and lithe, fitted an outer pocket and came on very quickly, so it was great for spontaneity. The resolution, though, was lousy, so you tended to go for high graphic impact rather than subtlety or detail. When the Panasonic broke down in about 1999 I graduated to Fujifilm Finepix cameras, which I've stuck with ever since, enjoying their warm colour balance and macro capabilities.
I've always kept diaries and I've always taken photographs, but only recently have they become one and the same thing. Since 1998, whenever I want to know what any given year, month or day felt like, I go to my digital photo folder and, instead of reading, look. My diary has become exclusively visual. Lost things and people are restored to me, and feel less lost.
It's weird how my Daily Photo section isn't daily, and has now turned into a little visual essay appearing approximately once a week.
The web is a kind of huge lightbox
I love how slides look on a lightbox. Now it seems the lightbox has joined the other technologies aped by the internet. The Sea Horses and Jip have software that makes their thumbs look like slides lying on a lightbox. In fact, the web itself, with its colourful contents on bright white backgrounds, is a kind of huge lightbox, a backdrop to the clutter of the world.
The web, and especially the web as a lightbox with a vast array of slides slipping all over it, is -- another metaphor! -- a vast patisseur's window full of cakes. I gobble the daily fare of amateur patisseurs worldwide thanks to the invention of the photoblog.
The latest developments in blogging are audioblogging, where you simply phone your entries in from a mobile phone, and moblogging, where you take snaps with your camera phone and upload them to your site with a line or two of commentary.
Now, when your digital camera and your cell phone were two separate gadgets in your bag, it was easy to characterise the 'digital activity' that each tended to promote. The phone was for 'talking to my friends'. The camera was for 'preserving things for the future / strangers'. The phone tended towards the disposable, the phatic, the private, the trivial. The camera tended towards permanence, seriousness, and the idea of communicating rather thoughtful things with strangers. When you used your phone you took a step towards life, but when you used your camera you took a step back from it, to look at the bigger view.
Now the gadgets are combined, that distinction becomes harder to make. We can have trivial, fuzzy little snaps posted remotely to our blogs, with reductive one-liners printed below. I still think, though, that the act of phoning a number to leave a word message for an audio blog is inherently less creative and less interesting than the act of uploading photos. I persist in thinking there's something arty and slightly transcendent about photos which cannot be destroyed by the merely technical achievement of putting a camera into a phone.
The school of art knocks
How can I trust you if you write to me, but do not include an URL to your photoblog? How can I tell, first, what your face looks like? Isn't that enormously important? Secondly, without a photoblog I cannot know if your perception of the world is stale or fresh. I cannot know if you look around you, and, if you do, what you're looking at, and how. I cannot know how you dress, and whether it would be appealing to undress you. I cannot know to what canon of beauty you subscribe unless I can subject you to rigorous style analysis.�
You may be a brilliant writer, like Ian Penman, and you may have a blog stuffed with lively wordplay and interesting opinions. But the world is already full of opinions, of commentaries on commentaries, glosses on glosses, and spins on spins. Photos, in a world where the word-snake dines on its own tail, give me hope. Maybe photos can break the ever-narrowing vicious circles of language. Break them with textures, colours, forms; the peculiarly irreducible specificities of the visual world.�
I want to know what you look like, and what the world around you looks like. It's tremendously important to me, because in the end I don't care a fig about whether you pronounce in favour of this or that book, film or record, or what life has taught you. Don't tell me, show me! I want to look at the new shapes you're seeing, viddy the texture of your lips and the colour and condition of your teeth. I want to see your face and use your eyes, damn it, because mine are always stalling and failing.
You have no choice but to start a photoblog. It's a course requirement in the art school of life.