Tag Archives: Books

Migraines and Photography

I get migraine headaches. I’ve been getting them since I was 11. On average, I get about 18 each year. On average, I’ve always had about 18 each year. Although I experience minor variations in the symptoms, they play out in roughly the same way each time. The first migraine headache I had at 11 was no different than the migraine headache I had last weekend. I have no idea what causes them and only suspicions about triggers. I’ve never really noticed any patterns…until now.

Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience from Within, by Klaus Podoll and Derek RobinsonI recently picked up a copy of Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience from Within by Klaus Podoll and the late Derek Robinson with a forward by the similarly late Oliver Sacks. It represents the culmination of a project to develop a collection of art produced by migraine sufferers to communicate the experience from inside the head, as it were. They organized a series of four competitions advertised through the British Migraine Association and sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. They received more than 500 entries from children and adults, amateurs and professional artists, often accompanied by descriptions of their experiences. These were adjudicated by both artists and medical people many of whom were also migraine sufferers.

Among other things, the authors hoped the collection would be of practical value, perhaps serving as a diagnostic tool, at the very least, giving non-suffering practitioners an appreciation of the fact that migraines are not ordinary headaches. Also, they hoped that the exercise of using artistic expression to communicate the experience would provide some therapeutic benefit, especially for the children who participated.

Reviewing the art, I realize how varied migraine experience can be from one person to the next. For example, my migraines invariably begin with visual aura. There are six types of aura, but I’ve experienced only four. Mine start with scotoma (holes in my field of vision where things disappear), followed by tunnel vision, hemianopia (half the field of vision is obscured), and concluding with fortification spectra whose outlines shimmer almost like electric arcs. Some people experience only scotoma, no numbness, no headache, nothing. Other people experience “Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome” where they perceive limbs and/or neck as longer than usual (Lewis Carroll was a fellow sufferer). Some perceive themselves as removed from their bodies.

After the visual aura, I experience numbness of fingers, face, and tongue, typically (though not always) on my left side. In the case of a severe headache, the entire left side of my body will be paralysed. My foot flops around like a wet fish; I’ve caught it in the door and not even noticed. After the numbness, there is a period of 5 or 10 minutes when I become aphasic. I can formulate words in my head, but when I try to speak them, I make no sense. People might think I was having a stroke. Paralysis and aphasia are harder to represent in visual art and so, understandably, far fewer of the pieces in the book try to represent these experiences.

Finally, the headache. There’s a scene in a Robertson Davies novel, The Rebel Angels, I think, where one character rams a knitting needle up another character’s nose and through his skull. If I don’t get my medication, that’s what it feels like for me and I go to the hospital. Usually, I have meds handy and everything is fine, but sometimes the headache starts in my sleep and by the time I wake up it’s too late.

As I leaf through the book, I wonder how I might represent the migraine experience with a photograph. I haven’t got an immediate answer to that question, but I do know that I sometimes I get a migraine headache while making a photograph.

That happened to me recently in Montreal. One evening, we were walking along Rue Saint-Paul when I saw the low light striking the dome above the Marché Bonsecours. I paused to capture the moment:


The road had been excavated for repairs and there were hoses running here and there and I saw plumes of water spraying from tiny holes, presumably to keep the dust down. Puddles had accumulated in front of the building. I love puddles. If I have a camera in hand and I see a puddle, I’m like a 5-year-old. I have to go splash in it then crouch low to see what’s reflected in it. Here’s the shot I got when I ran to the puddles:


It was the right idea, but I thought I could take it further. I crouched. I stood up. I moved. I crouched. I stood up. I found something to stand on so I could look at things from even higher. I lay down on the ground. And so on … Boom. Oh shit. I stood up. Something had gone wonky with my vision. I looked at my fingertips and they disappeared. Classic scotoma. I rooted through my camera bag for my Imitrex. I take it as a nasal spray because delivery is faster through the nasal membrane. If I take a squirt within seconds of seeing the scotoma, I can minimize the headache; the next day, I might have a hangover and need to wear sunglasses to hide from the light, but that’s nothing compared to the headache. I stared at the ground and everything shimmered. Here’s the shot I took when a migraine started:


I like it as an abstract shot. I also think it’s a fair representation of my visual field when a migraine starts. When I got home, I realized that I’ve had a number of migraines this spring and summer while using a camera. Scrolling through my archive, I found the photos I shot each time a migraine started. That’s when I noted a pattern.

The last time I got a migraine, I was stalking a seagull along a beach south of Ayr. The sand was wet and reflective. Viewed from a low angle, it had a plastic quality, transitioning seamlessly into the bay beyond, and the distant hills of Arran and the clouds above. It all began to shimmer. Again, a squirt of Imitrex. I packed up my gear and walked away. Earlier in the spring I was hiking along a trail that leads to the shoulder of the Sleeping Giant north of Superior. A stream tumbled down the rocks beside the trail and every now and again I paused for a shot. At one point, I stared up the slope at the water splashing towards me, the afternoon sun glancing off water, and something disappeared. I walked a little further, flirting with denial, but when the aura started in earnest, I had to stop and announce that it was time to turn around.

From this, I surmise that bright sunlight reflected from below acts as a trigger. Unfortunately, bright sunlight reflected from below also produces interesting photographs. Since I’m not about to stop trying to shoot interesting photographs, there’s nothing for it but to put up with migraines. Maybe I should leverage the situation to sell myself as a suffering artist. Maybe I should cut off my ear and shoot starry nights and flocks of birds swarming around my head.

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Photography Betrays God’s Creation

Photography Betrays God’s Creation – or at least that’s the sort of statement that could have served as the headline for an article published in an 1839 edition of a German newspaper in response to rumours that a new process had been invented. The author writes: “To fix fleeting images is not only impossible, as has been demonstrated by very serious experiments in Germany, it is a sacrilege. God has created man in His image and no human machine can capture the image of God. He would have to betray all his Eternal Principles to allow a Frenchman in Paris to unleash such a diabolical invention upon the world.” Cited in Photography & Society by Gisèle Freund. Maybe it was a Lutheran thing. Roman Catholics certainly didn’t share these concerns. Freund reports that in 1867, the Alsatian photographer, Adolphe Braun, persuaded the Vatican to allow representatives from his studio to photograph the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project took 6 months to prepare and 2 years to execute. Freund notes: “Even the Pope, it is said, became interested in the Alsatian’s work, and visited the chapel several times a week to prowl around the scaffolding and to chat with the photographer.”

Meanwhile, I continue in my diabolical ways, as evidenced by this photograph I shot last week in Montreal, a discarded paper Pepsi cup in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Pepsi cup in front of Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

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Jonathan Miller’s Nowhere In Particular

I recently bought a used copy of a photo book, Nowhere In Particular, by a medical doctor/TV and theatre director/photographer named Jonathan Miller. It features photos of rooftops, corrugated sheet metal, bits of canvas, and (mostly) palimpsests of weathered posters and torn advertising. All the images are closely cropped (or presented as a series of progressive croppings) that make it impossible to discern anything about their context and (perhaps) their meaning. The images are accompanied by a fair amount of text. When I bought the book, I assumed the text would provide the otherwise missing context. At the very least, I expected the text to explain the author’s methods or motives. Given the title of the book, I assumed that he was engaged in a project similar to Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul which meditates upon the nowhereness of intentionally global spaces like hotels, airports, and chain restaurants. Closely cropped photos might reflect a similar sensibility.

If the accompanying text bears any relation to the photos, it’s a mysterious relation. One snippet is a quotation from Mansfield Park; another, a discussion of madness from Proust. Some are personal reflections on arcane concerns, like the question why chapter summaries in 19th century novels are written in the present tense while the chapters themselves are written in the past tense. The only discernible connection between the photographs and accompanying text is that they reveal the tastes and interests of a single mind, Johnathan Miller’s. There’s something unsettling about a book whose method appears to be disruption and incongruity. The fact that it appears as a book, with its plastic sheen and crisp corners, lends the enterprise a unity and authority it might not otherwise warrant. It’s a deception or, more likely, a game.


Turtle crossing the road.

Maybe the point of the game is to demonstrate that, when faced with a collection of incongruities, we can’t help but find relationships amongst the disparate parts, investing them with meaning. The discernment of meaning in chaos is a comfort in the same way that god is a comfort to the religious and Darwin is a comfort to the irreligious. Our spirits find solace in the conviction that at the heart of the universe is an unfathomable singularity and that at the heart of that unfathomable singularity is an indivisible kernel of reason. Then again, if the point of the game is that any point is possible, then one can’t very well privilege that point. It’s just as plausible that the point of the game is to demonstrate that what Ponce de Leon was really looking for in Florida was the recipe for Coca Cola, or that, since the deregulation of the bird market, inflationary pressures have made a bird in the hand worth three in the bush. Or maybe seeking a point is beside the point.

Maybe it would be more fruitful to ask why a book of incongruities makes me feel uncomfortable. I like my text to bear some relation to the photographs it captions. This is a reasonable thing for text to do. Text and context. That way, I know what I’m looking at. While Miller shot in film, digital photography has taken things a step further by embedding text (in the form of keywords) in the exif file. And if you post photographs online, you tag them so search engines can properly index them. If your photo of an upper east side mud wrestling competition is tagged #landscape #rural #farm #cow #holstein #patty, the farmer searching for images to decorate his marketing brochure is going to be sorely disappointed. I don’t write this to be flippant, but to illustrate one of the ways in which digital best practices contribute to visual literalism i.e. the belief that the subject of a photograph must bear a one-for-one correspondence to an object in the real world which allows the object to be readily described with a series of specially marked nouns and gerunds e.g. #cow #shitting.


Bunches of carrots at a vegetable stand.

Current photo technology furthers our susceptibility to visual literalism by practically guaranteeing that every shot makes the correspondence between subject and object obvious. Reinforced by literalism in other areas of endeavor—the polarizing effect of social media, the loss of nuance in public discourse, a widespread refusal to engage, or even acknowledge, difference—, what began as a simple observation about the current state of photography has been elevated to an aesthetic which enjoys not merely legitimacy but the force of moral necessity. The failure to make obvious sense is an affront to the sensibilities of decent right-thinking people.

Writing about the contemporary literary novel, the critic, James Wood, calls this aesthetic “commercial realism.” A confluence of trends has produced this aesthetic: the publishing house as subsidiary of the transnational media corporation, the global hegemony of the house style, the digitization and universal dissemination of text, the global ascendancy of rights-based copyright regimes, etc. Commercial realism has such a hold on our collective imagination and on our expectations about what counts as an aesthetic that we can hardly remember what preceded it. We forget that it’s a contingent blip on a wide arc whose trajectory is marked by a long series of other contingent blips.


The indefatigable spirit of the human heart.

What I have described as visual literalism could just as easily be called commercial realism, and for many of the same reasons that invite the term’s application to current literary practices. The same transnational media corporations manage our “visual ecology.” The global hegemony of the house style finds its correlate in the requirements of stock photography pools, modeling agencies, photo competitions, and the EULAs of large photo-sharing web sites. And digitization treats text and images indiscriminately, as do rights-based copyright regimes.

Visual literalism denigrates the metaphor. I use metaphor in its most general sense to indicate the radical leap between disparate thoughts. It’s the patterns of light and dark through a venetian blind that inspire a poem. It’s the image of a snake biting its own tail that prompts a scientific breakthrough. It’s epiphanic. It’s associative. It’s aleatory. It’s a jazz of the eyes.


Russian monkeys lost in space.

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Fetishizing the Really Real

I shoot with a DLSR from Canon’s 5D series and so I was delighted to learn that the new 5DS & R cameras would come with a 50 megapixel sensor. Naturally, I began to salivate: at that resolution, imagine the size of the images I could print! Once the exclusive province of medium and large-format Hasselblads costing tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars, the hi-res image has fallen within reach of the consumer pro market. Although affordable, one must use the term advisedly since the 5DS & R bodies retail for more than C$4,000. I was determined to have one, but wasn’t sure how enthusiastic my wife would be about me spending that much money on something she regards as a toy for someone old enough to know better. We cut a deal: I can buy a 5DS but only after I’ve lost 20 lbs. What’s more, I will have to weigh in each morning and if I’m above my target weight, I don’t get to use the camera. My wife will have a healthy new husband who is more likely to provide her with companionship in her old age; I will have a new camera so I can deprive her of companionship in the here and now.

Halfway to my goal, the inevitable happens: rumours suggest that Sony will release a new camera with a 57 megapixel sensor. I’m despondent. I may as well eat a hamburger and drown my sorrows in a pitcher of beer. Who cares what I have slung around my neck as I waddle my fat ass through the streets.


“Accidentally” left my camera in aperture mode while walking indoors.

There will always be hardware that’s just beyond my latest purchase. The same is true of computer monitors, smart phones, tablets, processors, internet connections. Why do we subject ourselves to this cycle of desire and disappointment?

My kneejerk reaction is to suggest that this state of affairs arises from a conspiracy, or at least a synergistic manipulation, of technology manufacturers and global telcos. But in her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag hints at a more benign explanation—benign because it relies on a cultural narrative that predates (and in some respects lies beyond the reach of) technology manufacturers and global telcos. Addressing surrealism in photography, she writes:

The contingency of photographs confirms that everything is perishable; the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments—an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world. Illustrating that partly jubilant, partly condescending relation to reality that is the rallying point of Surrealism, the photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough. By proclaiming a fundamental discontent with reality, Surrealism bespeaks a posture of alienation which has now become a general attitude in those parts of the world which are politically powerful, industrialized, and camera-wielding. Why else would reality ever be thought of as insufficient, flat, overordered, shallowly rational? In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one. As if only by looking at reality in the form of an object—through the fix of the photograph—is it really real, that is, surreal.

The production of ever-higher resolution cameras may be understood as a commercial answer to late modernism’s disaffection with the limitations of reality and its desire for the “really real”. It is not for nothing that Sontag titles her first chapter “In Plato’s Cave”.

In another sphere of digital life, Google has undertaken an analogous project. Google’s Streetview seeks to produce a regularly updated visual record of every publicly accessible street and path in the world. Its commercial justification is user convenience e.g. determining beforehand if there is parking available in front of a given building. But the project is grounded in a long-standing and well-publicized epistemology, what Jaron Lanier describes in We Are Not A Gadget as cybernetic totalism. Google believes that it is possible to know everything and to produce a searchable record of everything known. (It appears the NSA shares this belief.) However, the belief in a cybernetic totalism engages us with a paradox.

Imagine a future Google so technologically advanced that it can produce a “streetview” that documents every last bit of reality. The result is both granular and comprehensive, reproducing every subatomic particle in the universe. But where does one store a reproduction of the universe? And if a reproduction of the universe is stored in the universe, must it not also include a reproduction of itself to achieve its completeness? And must it not also include a reproduction of the reproduction? And so on.


Boulders in shrink wrap.

I don’t know enough about philosophy to say for certain, but I wonder if cybernetic totalism bears some relation to Bertrand Russell’s set paradox. The universe is like the set of all sets. The set of all sets includes a set whose function is to reproduce sets (like a giant streetview camera?). But a set-reproducing set can’t exist within the set it reproduces. Therefore the set of all sets cannot be the set of all sets.

I don’t engage this paradox for the simple pleasure of mind-fucking photographers, but rather to draw attention to the absence of a stable rationale for the pursuit of ever-increasing camera resolutions and the obsessive documentation it enables. Recently, twitter was awarble with news of a 365 gigapixel panorama of Mont Blanc and environs. It took two months for the team to stitch together the 70,000 images that comprise the panorama. If printed at 300 dpi, it would cover a football pitch. I receive this enthusiastically as data collection; I have more difficultly receiving it as photography. It illustrates the obsessional quality of a quest for the really real through photograph-as-reproduction. If they had the gear for it, I have no doubt our Mont Blanc photographers would photograph the universe and spread the resulting panorama on a giant celestial football pitch.


“Forgot” to delete a mistake.

Often, what jars us from our complacency and challenges us to refresh our craft is precisely what cuts across the grain of contemporary trends. In photography, those trends include fetishizing the really real. Hi-res DSLRs, instantaneous auto-focus, HDR in post-processing. All these tricks alleviate our anxieties about occupying indeterminate space.

Use film. Recharge the batteries in an old point-and-shoot. Switch everything to manual mode. Fuck image-processing software. We aren’t in this game to make enhanced copies of the real world. Leave mimesis back in ancient Greece where it belongs. Surely, after more than two millennia, we can come up with fresh ways to think about light and colour.

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White Picket Fence

Some days, I pass a white picket fence. Although I’m sure there are many white picket fences in the GTA, it’s the only one I’m aware of in downtown Toronto. In general, the white picket fence has come to symbolize a related array of meanings:

• domestic bliss
• a settled life
• North American middle class
• financial stability

Some days, as I pass this particular white picket fence, I take a photograph of it:


In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer writes at length about the white picket fence as a photographic subject. He begins with a well-known photograph which Paul Strand shot in or about 1917.

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The Grammar of Photography

Do photographs have a grammar?

For more than 10 years, I’ve kept a blog called nouspique. I use the blog as a tool to explore more wordy pursuits. That’s understandable given my education (degrees in English, Law, & Theology). I am particularly fascinated by acts of interpretation (how do words mean what we say they mean?) and by the ways we deploy power to determine meaning. Despite my fascination, there are times when it exhausts me. All those words chattering in my head! I have to get away from it, so I turn to my camera. I’ve gone one further and have created a web site to display the images I find. In fact, it’s become quite a distraction and interferes with my writing.

There is an irony in this: images are interpretable in their own right, and the very challenges that hound my writerly experiences now howl loudly in the midst of my quiet photographic contemplations. I may have misunderstood the situation when I launched this web site.


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Synaesthesia and The Ongoing Moment

Geoff Dyer The Ongoing MomentGeoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment is a continuous cover-to-cover meditation upon the art of photography. I say “continuous cover-to-cover” because the book has no breaks, no arbitrary chapter divisions. Instead, it’s a series of riffs that follow one another in an associative way. He writes about Stieglitz and his relationship with his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe (and with other women, too). He writes about hats and accordions. He wonders why so many pioneering photographers took photos of blind people. Despite the meandering path, he names what he writes about, or at least points the way, by prefacing each new riff with an epigraph. Nevertheless, there’s one concern that goes unmentioned. It’s there. But Dyer never draws it into full view. It lurks in the interstices of the text. He hints at it when he describes his approach as aleatory. Remember that Dyer has previously written about jazz, and so it’s not far-fetched to suppose that he would grab a term from the world of jazz to describe the way he writes about photography. His approach to describing his approach is synaesthetic. He mixes up the senses.

I don’t think the synaesthetic approach to describing photography is peculiar to Dyer. I think it’s natural to talk about one medium by drawing analogies to another. In Dyer, this reaches a fortissimo near the end of the book when he describes a photograph by Walker Evans titled Main Street, Saratoga Springs. The photo is in the MoMA collection and you can view it here. After describing the photo and noting how the rain-slicked street looks more like a canal than a street, Dyer goes on:

Main Street, Saratoga Springs is a quietly audible photograph, preserving not just the view of he street but its sounds: the swish of an occasional car, the slow drip of rain from trees. What you hear most clearly, though, is a sound from earlier in the day: the bell — the memory of the bell — as you entered the barber shop, alerting him to your arrival. He was tipped back in the customers’ chair, comfy as a sheriff, reading a paper that he began folding away, taking in the unfamiliar face (in need of a shave) at the door, glad of the custom, confident in the knowledge that if it was a haircut you wanted you had come to the right place …

There’s a sense in which every photograph gives expression to a wider yearning. There is, beyond the photograph, a fuller experience: a taste of grit in the air, dust in the nostrils, traffic rumbling on the street, leaves in the wind, rain crashing like applause. The photograph reduces the full experience to single sense. And yet, sometimes, the images can channel a path back to the other senses. It evokes something. We taste the grit. We hear the traffic. Even as the subject lies still in the image, all our senses come alive.

Off Spadina Oct 02 2014

Alley off Spadina Avenue, Toronto

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Ravines In Toronto

I grew up in Willowdale near a ravine and a nameless creek that flowed into the Don River. I played in that ravine. Pheasants flew out of it and strutted through my back yard. Weird shit happened down there, too. A playmate broke his arm in the ravine. I remember, as a seven-year-old, watching a work crew cut up a wrecked VW beetle that lay in the water at the foot of a cliff. I assumed there had been a body, too, maybe the driver, or somebody murdered and stuffed in the trunk. Why else would there be a wrecked car in the creek? The cliff abutted one side of a cul-de-sac. One summer, a rabid skunk climbed out of the ravine and bit a boy who lived on the cul-de-sac. I heard that he died.

As an adult, I moved further into the city, near a different ravine with a different creek that also flows into the Don River. As long as I live in Toronto, I don’t think I’ll ever climb out of its ravines.

Milkman's Lane, which joins the Beltline Trail

Milkman’s Lane, which joins the Beltline Trail

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Barthes’ Studium and Punctum

Camera Lucida, by Roland BarthesIn his Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes introduces the notions of studium and punctum to help us think about photographs. While far from the last word on photography in this post-structuralist postmodern world of ours, and (as Geoff Dyer cautions in his forward) while far from the last word even in Barthes’ own thinking, nevertheless the studium/punctum delimiters together form a useful point of departure when examining a contemporary photograph and asking: is this worth my attention?

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Ansel Adams, Graffiti

Ansel Adams ExamplesIn Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Ansel Adams gives accounts of how he produced some of his most famous photographs. When I picked up the book, I noted that he had written an account of graffiti he shot at an abandoned military installation north of San Francisco. I anticipated reading the piece as an endorsement of graffiti as a legitimate visual expression, or as the trace of political or cultural marginalization, or as a meaning-laden signifier that demands interpretation. But that’s not what he wrote. Adams delivers exactly what the title promises and no more. It is a technical how-to statement.

I have mixed feelings about the piece — about the whole book, in fact. On reading it, you wouldn’t know that Adams didn’t have Asperger Syndrome. I’m sure he has an emotional investment in his images, but he doesn’t record that here. He offers no insight as to intentionality except as it relates to camera settings, lenses, film, retouching, paper, etc. and how these will help him achieve his visualization. Meanwhile, I want to know why he selected that subject in the first instance. What did he hope for it to communicate beyond its aesthetic considerations? Did he intend for the resulting image to carry political weight? Was he aiming for something subversive? Counter-cultural? Was he offering social criticism?

Or maybe he thinks there is never anything beyond aesthetic considerations. He dispassionately presents the image and leaves it for us to add the layers of meaning. But I wonder if such dispassion is even possible.

Bench on the Champs Élysées, Paris

Bench on the Champs Élysées, Paris

Sacre Coeur, overlooking Paris

Sacre Coeur, overlooking Paris

Face on public bathroom - David Balfour Reservoir

Face on public bathroom – David Balfour Reservoir, Toronto

Parking lot on Church St., Toronto

Parking lot on Church St., Toronto

Nothing excites me anymore

“Nothing excites me anymore…”

Column of old Women's College Hospital, Toronto

Column of old Women’s College Hospital, Toronto

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