Tag Archives: Philosophy

Photographing Babel

At the end of each year, I print up a coffee table photo book, a “best-of” summary of my year in photography. I do it mostly for my own satisfaction, a way to verify that, in spite of frustrations and setbacks, I still now and then make a good photo. I do it incidentally as a portfolio to show prospective purchasers in need of wall art. The problem with a collection like this is that it tends to be a mishmash of images without a sense of coherence or an organizing principle. The only thing that unifies such a collection is the fact that all the photographs have been made by single person. To remedy this, I have chosen to assemble the images as answers to a question: what is the purpose of photography? 100 Images. 100 Answers. To give the book some heft, I open it with a reflection—a state-of-the-union address—introducing my question in light of current trends in the world of photography. Be forewarned: it’s a longish reflection, approximately 2,500 words.

Opening Reflection

By one of those innumerable coincidences that seem to shape my life, I started reading Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, by Jorge Luis Borges, on the same day that I photographed Robarts Library alongside its distorted image reflected in one of those convex parking garage mirrors. One of the stories, “The Library of Babel”, opens in this way: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors.” One wonders if perhaps the architects of Robarts Library had read this story before they set to work designing their brutalist monstrosity. There is speculation that the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose took its inspiration from Robarts Library given that Eco wrote most of the novel while in Toronto. I think it more likely that he was inspired by Borges, or that his inspiration was a mashup of both sources.

Robarts Library

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White Men In Business Suits

Why do street photographers do so little work with white men in business suits? Why are they so preoccupied with “grittier” themes? After all, if street photographers ignore white men in business suits, they might feel left out. Who knows? They might even feel discriminated against.

If you take the time to talk to white men in business suits, you’ll discover that they are people too. I should know. Once or twice a year, I put on my armour and go out into the world as a white man in a business suit. It can be an alienating experience. It makes me feel lonely. I want people to hold my hand and to comfort me.

Man in suit climbing stairs

I took the photo above while wandering through Toronto’s financial district. During rush hour, a lovely late-afternoon light was streaming down a west-facing staircase. I positioned myself at the foot of the staircase and waited. Being a white middle-aged man means I blend right in. Okay, I have a mustache, but apart from that, I blend right in. Every now and then, a person would veer from the standard rush-hour course and climb the stairs. Click, click, click. And then I’d wait for someone else to pass.

This photograph (and my cheeky remarks at the opening of this post) point up a conflict inherent in street photography. There is a conflict between street photography’s professed claim to be a documentary discipline (maybe even a species of photojournalism) on the one hand, and its aesthetic aims as a photographic art on the other hand. Ethics and aesthetics.

As a documentary discipline, street photography aims to capture the world as it is. But it would be naive to believe that the world presents itself to us as it is; the world is mediated to us through our interpretive lens even before it passes through the camera’s lens. The world as it is includes white men in business suits, but street photographers make a decision to weight the world as it is in favour of less well-dressed subjects. At its best, this is the photographic expression of a liberation theology with its preferential option: photography becomes a radical approach that casts light into the dark corners of marginal lives.

This is high-minded language, and something worth aspiring to, but I don’t always trust photographers who use such language to justify their encounters with the world as it is. It’s telling that photography deploys the language of mastery to describe the mechanics of image-making. We capture moments in time. We frame the subject. We take photographs. The flavour of our language is distinctly colonial. Do photographers care about their disenfranchised subjects? Or do their actions merely fetishize the homeless and people of colour? Maybe this is just another species of poverty porn.

As an aesthetic discipline, street photography likewise aims to capture the world as it is. But “the world as it is” means something specific within the enterprise. Here, reality doesn’t refer to the world as it is so much as to a set of visual conventions that has evolved over the past 180 years. Elements in a photograph signal meanings just as words in novel. A catch-light in the eye signals a deeper interior life. Wrinkles on an elderly face signal wisdom and lived experience. An upturned gaze signals hope or optimism. In the same way, other elements can certify reality. The graininess of a high ISO, for example, suggests the grittiness of a dirty street. A slight blurring indicates motion, as if the photographer was pursued when the shutter was released. Perhaps the most important element to certify reality is the portrayal of suffering.

In his Poetics, Aristotle said that in order to produce the cathartic effect of tragedy, the poet had to evoke feelings of pity and terror. But in the age of Oprah and Disney, the rules have changed. Our world avoids tragedy the way bats avoid light. Our narrative insists on a redemptive end that’s won through suffering. Like the ancient poets, we are free to evoke pity with portrayals of suffering, but it’s an ironclad rule that we must simultaneously hint at the possibility of hope. If a narrative denies the possibility of hope, it denies everything we know to be real.

Suffering is the nexus where the twin aims of street photography come into conflict. As photojournalism, street photography justifies the portrayal of suffering as a way to expose the consequences of unfettered power and seeks to hold such power accountable. But as aesthetic expression, it forces the portrayal of suffering into the constraints of the prevailing narrative (perhaps invented by organs of that same unfettered power). That narrative trivializes suffering by attaching to it the puerile moral assumptions that are fed to us through social media and airhead news commentators: suffering is the prerequisite to redemption, and if redemption never comes, you probably didn’t deserve it anyways.

Returning to my photograph of the white man in a business suit, I think I understand what’s troublesome about it. While it includes a pseudo narrative of suffering and redemption (man climbs stairs and will eventually emerge into the light where he will go to his club and drink a single malt), it fails to fulfill the documentary convention because it offers us nothing to care about. It resorts, instead, to a faux grittiness. It trivializes the trivial. What could be more au courant than that?

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My Grandmother’s Eyes

My Grandmother died on April 20th. I’ve never been present before when a death is declared. My grandmother had obviously expired, but the attending VON lacked the necessary government-approved certification to say unequivocally that she was dead. At times like this, I become strangely practical. I suggested we turn off the oxygen machine (why waste perfectly good oxygen?), but the VON said no; we needed to wait until his supervisor arrived and declared the death. To my mind, these strict procedures could mean only one thing: some time in the past, a well-meaning relation had turned off an oxygen tank and inadvertently suffocated his grandmother who wasn’t in fact dead but only appeared to be dead. I pulled my hand from the machine and sat like everyone else, waiting for the supervisor to show up. I had to pee but didn’t move. I was afraid tinkling sounds might disturb the solemnity of the moment.

When the supervisor arrived, he did the usual things you’d expect. He felt the wrist for a pulse. Then the carotid artery. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened for a heart beat. Logically, it’s impossible to prove a negative proposition, in this case, that my grandmother was not alive. Everyone in the room—my parents, me, the VON, the supervisor—everyone knew that my grandmother was no longer alive. But how do you establish that as a fact? You want to avoid the Pythonesque situation where, on the way to the funeral home, the presumed corpse sits up and says: I’m not dead yet.

The day before, they had wheeled a hospital bed into my grandmother’s living room so she could die in comfortable surroundings. Now, as the supervisor followed his procedures, I sat to the west of her, on her favourite couch. As a kid, I had sometimes slept on that couch, but in the living room of the house on the family farm. As a teen-aged sci-fi geek, I had read Robert A. Heinlein novels on that couch. Later, as an English major, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses on that couch. Now, my grandmother’s body lay propped a little to one side, facing me where I sat. My parents stood to the east of my grandmother and so they missed what I saw next.


The supervisor asked for a Kleenex. My mom found the box and handed it to him. He took a Kleenex and rolled it to a point. He leaned over my grandmother from the far side of the hospital bed, with his back to my parents. He pushed back the eyelid of her left eye. My grandmother stared directly at me with her one unblinking eye. Her pupil was dilated, ringed around by the thin band of her blue iris. The supervisor tapped the cornea, once, twice, three times, with the tip of his rolled Kleenex. I don’t understand the physiology of it, but I guess he was looking for some kind of autonomic response. He didn’t find it. He shut the eyelid and scribbled some notes on his official declaration of death form.

At that moment, I couldn’t help myself. I guess it has something to do with my literary background. As I stared at my grandmother’s dead eye, I couldn’t help but think of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Near the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the old man’s eye:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Although my grandmother had died, still she stared at me. Based on that stare alone, I would not have been able to tell that she was not alive. They say (and by “they” I mean some impossible-to-identify person in the misty past) that the eyes are the window to the soul. But my experience suggests that the eye is a deceptive organ.

When I do street portraiture, the number one rule is: focus on the closest eye. As a result, I’ve become adept at manually shifting the active auto focus point into position as I’m yakking it up with prospective subjects. When I capture an expressive face and discover, in post, that the closest eye is perfectly crisp, I smile and give myself a pat on the back. I’ve got myself an image that viewers will care about. Inevitably, the image will draw their attention to the eye. They will stare into it and sense that, almost mystically, it reveals the inmost depths of my subject.


Diane Arbus observed: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” I would suggest that her observation is doubly true of the eyes that appear in a photograph. When we stare at an image of a person’s eyes, maybe all we can know for certain is the content (the hopes and expectations) of our projections. We meet an elderly man. We observe the time-worn lines etched deep in his face. We think: he looks like wisdom personified. He squints and it looks to us as if he’s staring halfway across the galaxy. As photographers, we want to capture this look and share it with others. But when we talk to him, the mystery evaporates. The man is a moron. Or worse, an asshole. He tells dirty jokes. He says he has a stash of kiddy porn under his bed.

I would hazard that the eye isn’t a sensory organ so much as an aesthetic convention. When we look at a painting or photograph, its eyes tell our eyes where to look. We stare first at the eyes, then follow their gaze into the scene. It produces drama. It suggests the culmination of a narrative. What’s more, the presence of eyes tells us how to engage the work. If eyes are the window of the soul, then a representation of the eyes is a representation of the window of the soul. The eyes tell us that if we look closely, we will discover hidden depths. Just as a perspectival trick (first invented in the Renaissance) produces the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface, so a moral trick produces the illusion of deeper meaning.

A Child's Stare

In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer opens by drawing a thread through the history of photography: the thematic preoccupation with blindness. He suggests that blind subjects are the objective correlative of the photographer’s desire for invisibility. I don’t think it’s that complicated; I think photographs of blindness lay bare the moral trick. Unless there is something in a photograph that indicates blindness (in many of the early photographs Dyer examines, the blind person wears a sign that declares the blindness), the photograph is no less meaningful than one in which the subject is sighted. Photographs of blind people reveal that the functionality of eyes has no bearing on the effectiveness of a photograph. By extension, they play on our anxiety that photographs—and art more generally—may in fact have no deeper meaning.

As we sat with my grandmother’s body waiting for the supervisor to arrive and to declare the death, the VON spoke to my mother. Maybe the silence bothered him and he felt compelled to say something. He asked if my grandmother was a Christian. I rolled my eyes. While my grandmother was a regular at a local Presbyterian church, she never talked about her religious beliefs. As I later discovered while sorting through her belongings, she maintained a hefty stash of Bibles and they were all dog-eared. My mother nodded and the VON went on a riff about how Jesus’s resurrection was a promise from God blah blah blah. As the VON went on about Jesus, I felt anxiety descend like a fog upon the room. I stared at my grandmother’s body. After 97 years of life, is this all that remains? What if we have no deeper meaning?


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Rob Ford’s Funeral Procession

Yesterday morning I walked down to St. James Cathedral bearing my camera gear like a giant question mark. I wanted to see if I could discern what makes Rob Ford tick—not Rob Ford the man, obviously, since he’s no longer with us, but Rob Ford the cultural phenomenon.


Mourner, hat in hand, waiting for the funeral procession.

I went with a theory: that Rob Ford is an accidental postmodern. The way I understand postmodernism, it began as an intentional critique of the relationship between power and culture and supplemented its theorizing with a set of practical tools for subverting that relationship. It challenged the hierarchical structure of cultural production. The distinction which privileges high art over pop culture is a false distinction. So, too, the distinction which privileges scientific/academic discourse over lay inquiry. Professionalism over the amateur. Religious orthodoxy over grassroots spirituality. Reason over dreams. White over black. Man over woman. Straight over queer. Not surprisingly, the earliest theoretical glimmers of postmodernism coincided with the rise of practical movements: Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights.

More recently, we’ve witnessed the emergence of cultural phenomena which, while never intended to fulfill a postmodern agenda, nevertheless bear some of its marks. They are accidentally postmodern. Facebook is a good example of this. It has ripped down the walls between our neatly compartmentalized discursive habits. Now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re reading news or advertising, gossip or fiction. Facebook makes it impossible to privilege one discursive mode over another. (The only thing that’s privileged is Facebook itself.) In the same way, Rob Ford never woke one morning and said to himself: Hey, I’m gonna be a postmodern mayor. It just happened that way.


Consider the evidence (or don’t, since that might be too scientific). Ford occupied the office of mayor which, traditionally, evokes a sense of gravitas. The mayor is addressed as Your Worship, and he has all the powers of a Justice of the Peace which entitles him, among other things, to preside over marriages. Tradition treats it as an office marked by dignity. People loved Ford for the fact that he was accessible and casual. He was hands on. Accessibility may have come at the expense of dignity. Everybody knew he was smashed on the job. Everybody knew he worked while driving. Talked on his cell phone while driving (gave a woman the finger when she told him to hang up). But so what? He demystified the aura that enshrouds the mayoral office.

He blurred lines. With him, it was impossible to tell whether he was politicking or entertaining. The conflict of interest scandal that nearly cost him his job underscores this blurring of lines. He didn’t appear to understand that it might be inappropriate to solicit funds for a personal charity on City Hall letterhead. But why should he when such distinctions belong to an earlier time with its archaic assumptions about propriety? Or consider his personal wealth which suggests white male privilege. And yet he styled himself a man of the people. A mayor for the little guy, enormously popular with working class and Black voters. Never mind his union busting, his racist rants, his groping and butt patting, his refusal to attend LGTQ events. One could call him hypocritical or contradictory. But I wonder if, maybe, he occupied a Both/And cultural space that gave him an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Clowns in gowns pretend to be officiants at a religious service.

Clowns in gowns pose as religious officiants.

At Jarvis & Adelaide, I cut through St. James Park. I remember when this was a tent city during the Occupy Movement. Although I was early, a line had already formed in front of St. James Cathedral, members of the public hoping to get inside for the funeral. I crossed to the south side of King Street and positioned myself across from the front door. Beside me, the media had set themselves up, talking heads, live commentary, drooling experts. A man in shorts and a Santa Claus hat was posing behind them. I laughed. It seemed perfect. I squinted at the man with his goatee and cigarette. Wait a sec. Isn’t that Zanta?

Have you heard of Zanta? He’s something of a fixture in these parts. You can read more about him on his wikipedia page, but the short version is that, 16 years ago, he fell down a flight of stairs and may have suffered neurological damage. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. His name is David Zancai, but he has adopted the performing name of Zanta. His performance involves wearing a Santa hat, doing a lot of push ups, posing (totally ripped), and wishing people a Merry Christmess on any day of the year (except Christmas).


Zanta (David Zancai) kneeling in front of St. James Cathedral.

Zanta lay down on the street in front of the church and started doing pushups. When he finished his pushups, he lay his sweatshirt on the pavement, pulled out a magic marker, and started writing a message on it. Three police officers stepped onto the street and encouraged him to leave, forcing him to the eastern edge of St. James Park where he simmered for a time on a park bench. I spoke to the police officer who led the push to expel Zanta. If I was going to play amateur photojournalist (or whatever the hell I thought I was doing), it seemed a good idea to do some fact checking. The police officer confirmed that, yes, the man is Zanta. He rolled his eyes. He’d had dealings with Zanta for probably 10 or 12 years now. But they had to get him out of there. It was important for the funeral to go off with some decorum.


Police remove Zanta from the scene.

Later, I spoke to Zanta. He was pleased to hear that my name is David. He asked me if my parents are alive. Yes. Grandparents? One. How about the other ones? Well, um, uh, no (logic didn’t appear to be one of his strong suits). He said he’d tell me where they are. His rambling boiled down to this: my deceased grandparents are with Rob Ford. No doubt they’re delighted to have his company. He talked in a wandering way. It wasn’t an associative wandering. More a string of non sequiturs. It was impossible to have a rational conversation with the man.


The pipers piped. The honour guard marched. The hearse arrived and pulled to the front door of the church. And behind it all, the rabble. People with their signs and little flags declaring their allegiance to Ford Nation and proclaiming Rob Ford the best mayor ever. They were loud and unruly. They shouted their non sequiturs, their contradictions. I turned and Zanta was gone. I caught sight of his white hood disappearing into the mob. He fit right in. So much for the police and their decorum.


It would be easy to ridicule the Ford Nation phenomenon. I was born into a modern world, but educated into a postmodern sensibility, so I tread on fractured ground. The reasonable me, the one who likes neat categories and well-reasoned arguments, would very much enjoy running Ford Nation through my privileged blender. But the unreasonable me recognizes that my reasonable upbringing is intimately tied to stories of unjust relations. With time to reflect on the photos I took of Ford Nation’s citizens, I’m reminded of the Black Lives Matter tent city at Police Headquarters. These are not two separate groups. They merge like a Venn diagram. Their points of intersection are messy but they need to be acknowledged. As for Rob Ford, I wonder… Privileged white man with a penchant for hypocrisy? Or could he, indeed, have been an ally? And what does that make me if I dispute those who claim he was?


Citizens of Ford Nation follow the funeral procession.

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Photographic Literalism

Synecdoche is a classical Greek word that the English adopted to describe a specific rhetorical practice—referencing a part to mean the whole. The standard (very English) illustration is the word “crown” which refers to an ornamental headpiece but which can be used to mean the entire state. Synecdoche can also apply to other forms of expression, including photography. We often reference cities through images of memorable geographic features or buildings. We see the Eiffel Tower and we think of Paris. We see the Opera House and think of Sydney. Even in a provincial backwater like Toronto, the same thing happens. Our city has a distinctive city hall and our media often uses images of it to evoke the idea of Toronto.

Clarke Quay fountain, Singapore

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Visual Hygiene

Last night, I went to a clinic in the suburbs for a sleep study. I rode the subway and got out at Leslie Station just before my 9 pm appointment. Leslie and Sheppard is one of those big suburban intersections where cars rule and pedestrians are an afterthought. My head was in a different space. I’d been reading a poetry journal and couldn’t make the switch to the more prosaic task of crossing the street. The light changed before I was halfway across and I had to run. My boots crunched on the salt. The road was slick and reflected the headlights beaming through the darkness.

This is my fourth sleep study, a followup to make sure everything is fine. My first—the one where I was diagnosed with sleep apnea—was 16 or 17 years ago. My current CPAP machine (which makes me look like one of those Giger-inspired creatures from Alien) is 11 years old and has logged more than 22,000 hours of use. I find that shocking. That’s 22,000 hours when I’ve failed to be a productive contributor to the global economy. Instead, I’ve spent time refreshing myself and dreaming. I’m so irresponsible.

I suffer a clinical loneliness during these studies. You sit in a cramped stark room while a technician daubs putty all over your head then sticks wires into the putty and tapes them in place. Then you have to lie back on the bed while the technician performs a series of baseline tests. “Blink ten times,” he says through the futzy intercom. He’s sitting at a computer terminal in another room and watching you through a camera hanging from the ceiling. “Cough three times. Point your left foot down, then flex it. Move your eyeballs up and down, up and down. Now side to side, side to side.”

The last time I did this, there was a man in the next room who snored like a tractor and when he wasn’t snoring he was buzzing the technician to help him unplug his wires so he could go for a pee. I had a miserable sleep and, the next morning, rode home on the subway like I’d been out all night on a bender. It could have been worse; I could have been him. The time before that, I met a girl who looked like Drew Barrymore. I stepped into the room while she was having wires stuck into the daubs of putty. She looked up at me, smiled, and fell asleep. She functioned like she was a hundred and three.

This morning, the technician opened the door and flipped the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault. Once I’d adjusted to the light, I noticed, for the first time, a print of a painting that hung on the wall above my feet. It was the only adornment in an otherwise bare room. It was a “realistic” painting of a maritime scene: ocean, rocky shore, green grass above the rocks, lighthouse, rainbow, and bald eagles. The colours were gaudy. The horizon line cut straight through the middle of the scene. It was sentimental. It was kitschy. It was worse than the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault.

It reminds me (of at least one of the reasons) why I spend so much time with a camera. I feel like King Canute declaring war against a rising tide of visual garbage.

Cycling in snow flurries

Cycling in snow flurries

There’s a phrase I learned, probably after my first sleep study when I went back to the clinic to get outfitted with a CPAP machine. The RT (respiratory therapist) spoke to me about sleep hygiene. I’ve always been a fan of the Buddha whose principal claim is that he wanted people to be awake. I think the Buddha was talking about a spiritual state, but he could have been speaking literally, too. You can meditate until your toes fall off, but it won’t amount to anything if you’re dozing with your head between your knees. So I practise sleep hygiene.

By analogy, I think there is visual hygiene. I have lofty aims. I want to SEE the world. I want to see in a way that isn’t distorted by my own situatedness in it. Or, at the very least, I want to see in a way that is aware of its distortions. But sometimes that seems an impossible task. Every day my eyes are assaulted by a barrage of images. Advertising. Facebook memes. Glossy magazine spreads. Instagram posts. Book covers. Traffic signs. Instructional manuals. Cheesy prints on clinic walls. I swim in their culture. I swallow their meanings. I become desensitized to visual garbage. I lose my ability to distinguish one thing from another.

Desensitization and the inability to distinguish modes of seeing are distinctively postmodern experiences. I don’t think we need to evaluate them. As experiences, they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. However, these experiences should alert us to the risk of overwhelm. Psychologically, we aren’t designed to cope with the barrage of imagery that screams for our attention, just as we aren’t designed to cope with perpetual wakefulness. We need time to tune out, turn off, recuperate.

My experience with a camera engages me in intense seeing, but it also shields me from the risk of overwhelm. The very fact that I can frame a scene gives me a measure of control over it. I can eliminate excess detail and focus attention. I can use depth of field, cropping, desaturation, black & white conversion, and mindful curation to accomplish the same thing. Using a camera also helps me to hone my visual literacy so I can reacquaint myself with the habit of distinguishing one thing from another. Finally, as a practical matter, whenever I’m looking through a viewfinder, I’m not staring at advertising, Facebook memes, cheesy prints on clinic walls.

I’d love to write more, but I had a horrible sleep last night and I need a nap.

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The Ugly Truth

The first time I visited Glasgow, it was to visit a friend who had settled in the nearby town of Kirkintilloch. He showed me the sights and I was happy to shoot whatever I saw. However, I sensed a certain — I’m not sure how to describe it — maybe embarrassment? — as my camera sometimes strayed from the more palatable tourist subjects (the Kelvingrove, Buchanan Street, Glasgow Cathedral) to the stuff you’d never see in a brochure (panhandlers outside the Lodging House Mission, graffiti in an alley off Sauchiehall St., empty liquor bottles on a street in Govan). I didn’t mean to embarrass, but with a camera in hand, I felt compelled to shoot what’s there, not what other people wish were there.

My friend’s response brought to mind something we all do: call it pride of place. We tend to tell narratives of the place we call home. Maybe because we need to believe that we have some mastery over our circumstances, that we have chosen where and how we live rather than submitting to forces beyond our control, we tell stories of our place that reassure us we have chosen well.

I have found myself doing the same thing as my friend visits me in Toronto. I show him the sanitized sights (the Eaton Centre, the U. of T. Campus, Yorkville, the ROM, Chinatown, Kensington Market) while pretending not to notice the man on the sidewalk outside the Waverly Hotel with a needle in his arm, or the police shaking down a shoplifter, or the (presumably) schizophrenic woman harassing strangers. Toronto is a wonderful city, I tell myself. Ignoring, for the time being, that I was born here and so never had a choice about living here for the first 18 years of my life, and, ignoring for the time being that, for the rest of my life, I have been too afraid to go anywhere else, I couldn’t have done better for myself. Truly, I am the … uh … master of my universe.


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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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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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