30 August 2010

No Dead Tree Edition for OED3

I was told by a colleague that OUP is pulling the plug on print dictionaries, but this will even include their flagship, the Oxford English Dictionary. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of per cent a year." So OED3 will probably not appear in print. Unless it is shown that iPads and Kindles cause brain cancer and print books make an unexpected comeback.

But Simon Winchester, renowned specialist on professors and madmen (great book), thinks that unlikely, and calls the online-only edition "prescient":
    Until six months ago I was clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last for ever. Since the arrival of the iPad I am now wholly convinced otherwise.

    The printed book is about to vanish at extraordinary speed. I have two complete OEDs, but never consult them – I use the online OED five or six times daily. The same with many of my reference books – and soon with most.

    Books are about to vanish; reading is about to expand as a pastime; these are inescapable realities.

29 August 2010


I find myself challenged by the very nature of music. I think most people, especially past a certain age, are only casual music listeners. Radio people. Me, I rarely listen to the radio, because most music does nothing for me. In fact, I actively dislike most music. But when I hear music I really like, my brain spasms with a flood of endorphins. Like mainlining pure pleasure. It's literally a religious experience, and I don't know why. That this happens with such wide varieties and genres of music deepens the mystery.

I don't know exactly what makes good music good, but some genres I understand better than others. With mainstream country music, it's the sentimental lyrics and simple sing-a-long melodies. It's done strictly to a formula and the formula works. In fact, as Steve Leftridge has brilliantly argued, it's exactly the same successful formula as classic rock. Alt Country (at least the hard-edged Bloodshot kind) does the same thing, but replaces the sentimentality with punk attitude.

Jazz is all about constant motion, waves of chromatic tones over a highly syncopated rhythm, with an emphasis on free-flowing melody rather than chordal harmony. An instrumental soloist usually leads instead of a vocalist. It's the antithesis of post-40s popular music, which is why most of us can only enjoy it in certain moods and small doses. We're just not acculturated to it.

Classical music is just archaic. I can understand why people don't like it (archaic), but I really don't know why some people do. But there is a profile. Most classical music fans either have played an orchestral instrument, have a lot money, are stereophiles, or are old. Or all of those things.

Rock is simple on paper. Strong backbeat, 4/4 time, drum 'n bass 'n guitar(s), a basic verse/chorus structure, vocals and harmony, and lots of youthful and/or counter-cultural attitude. I mostly listen to rock, so I'm a rock fan, but most rock I hate. Especially when it conforms to the classic rock formula. With some exceptions, the more "rock" it is, the less I like it. Why is that?

The fact is, unlike jazz or country, straight genre rock exhausts the formula very quickly. This is why most rock does not fit the classical rock mold in one way or another, which broadens the scope of the term's meaning until it's almost meaningless. Rock is some kind of consensual genre that no formula can actually define. If I say, "I like rock," that could mean I like REM or Limp Bizkit or the Beatles or AC/DC. All superstar bands, but few rock fans like them all equally, or even like them at all. Whereas few jazz fans love Miles but hate Coltrane.

The fact is, rock music in the round is a highly varied and complex musical form. There is a bewildering number of subgenres, that some artists are quite happy to skip across, and it's always both self-referencing and appropriating influences from the outside. It's a connoisseur's music every bit as much as jazz. For these reasons rock is always surprising me, usually when I've all but given up on it, but finding rock I really like is an incredible challenge. Thirty seconds on Flikr and I can find photographs that thrill me. But I can spend hours reading on Pitchfork and surfing Zune, and still come up with zilch.

This ramble is actually a preamble (pre-ramble?) to some music posts I'm going to start doing, highlighting some bands, or genres, or subgenres, or whatever, that have caught my fancy. Not reviews so much as notices and appreciations. For some reason, I find music criticism the most worthless kind of criticism. I can read a couple movie reviews and know with fair accuracy if I will like a certain movie. But I can read several album reviews and have no idea if I will like an artist or album at all.

I guess (as they say) writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but blogs are read, not heard. Sorry. Right now, it's either that, or all photography all the time.

28 August 2010

Forgotten Shoes [Payson 3/52]

There are some ABCs painted on the a bike path next to a playground by my house. I was riding by and saw these shoes left carefully in the hollow of the A, no children anywhere in sight. It struck me as a wonderful bit of found art (click!) representing childhood's little misunderstood dramas. The drama occurred with the owner's mother when she went home shoeless. But for her this was the most visually appropriate place to leave her shoes, while she ran in the grass or played in the creek. She could not have been more correct.

Forgotten Shoes [Payson 3/52]

Addendum: This photo was invited to be added to the Flickr group Lost shoes (baby or children). My first invitation! And I think the very existence of this group proves my theory that if you can imagine it, there is a group for it on Flickr.

25 August 2010

Neurotypical Envy

(Warning, this an unusually personal post . . .)

I heard a feature on NPR driving home the other day about an autistic woman named Lisa Daxer, who blogs at Reports from a Resident Alien. She discusses both in the NPR story and extensively on her blog the differences between neurotypicals and people with autism and similar handicaps. She describes her autistic self as having "a weird brain." A neurotypical (her own great term) is "anyone who doesn't have a weird brain, someone in the middle of the neurological bell curve." Her atypicality is multiplex, but most challenging is her lack of social ability. She doesn't understand other people. Her brain is just wired differently. This isn't a lack of "social skills," something the study of Dale Carnegie and Miss Manners can correct. It's a lack of neurological capacity.

I really appreciated this young woman's honesty and advocacy. I'm not autistic, but I'm certainly not a neurotypical. I suffer from social anxiety and other neuroses that have defined my life, but which I've only come to recognize as neuroses quite late. Better late than never, but I'm still stunned that it took forty years for me to recognize that my challenging personality structure was something other than just a result of moral or religious failing.

Social anxiety, for me, is not shyness or social ineptness. I can be charming, if I need to, can even light up a party, if I need to. I just feel little need to. I'm not antisocial; I'm nonsocial.

But at the root of it, in fact, is anxiety. I find conversation to be full of potential conflict, embarrassment and shame, none of which I process well. I find social expectations a burden. Most conversations, sometimes even with people very close to me, seem like a walk through a minefield. I also handle stress poorly but project it regrettably well, which is (or I imagine it to be) a drain on those close to me, which in turn prompts me to withdraw when a neurotypical would be looking for social comfort. And when other people are stressed, well, I withdraw then, too.

Even casual social interactions are challenging. I'd rather take a fork in the eye than spend two hours making polite conversation at some work or church function. It seems like meaningless suffering.

Neurotypicals find conversation and socialization as natural as breathing. As Lisa Daxer says, "By default, they socialize. You have to actually interfere to stop neurotypicals from socializing." I find that incredible. I'll continue to challenge my anxiety, but I very much doubt I will ever have the neurotypical experience of compulsive and effortless socialization.

And I admit to being a bit jealous of that. Neurotypicals have super magical powers of sociability that are completely invisible to them, even though that sociability enables them to have a plurality of healthy relationships and take social risks that are personally and economically empowering. Their sociability defines their lives as much as my lack of it defines mine. They just have no idea.

But of course, my lack is only revealed by their abundance in numbers. If the bell curve were shaped differently, I'd be the neurotypical and they'd be struggling with the burden of hypersociality. O cruel averages.

23 August 2010

Weegee the Famous

The girls are in New York City right now, so naturally I am thinking about Weegee, the most famous crime photographer of all time (wikipedia). He worked the New York crime beat in the 30s and 40s, publishing in 1945 his first book, Naked City, which became the basis for a famous noir murder mystery film of the same name. Afterward he went to work himself in Hollywood, as a photographer, actor, and inspiration for all future stereotypes of cigar-chomping news photographers.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Their First Murder (October 9, 1941)

A few gems on Weegee: The NY Times published this great little article on him in 2008. Fantastic five-minute read. A kind soul has also put up an mp3 of Weegee himself talking about his work from a 1958 record called, Famous Photographers Tell How. A number of books on Weegee have been published, mostly of his photography, but a few recent works also have great essays on the photographer himself. Two not-to-be-missed titles are Weegee's World (1997) and Unknown Weegee (2006)

Finally, here is a feature on Weegee that was published in the April 12, 1937, issue of Life Magazine (as always, click to enlarge). The trunk murder lead is typical of Life at this early date, under managing editor John Billings, who personally did all photo selection and layout, and who wanted his magazine to really grab readers. He was not averse to (for the time) rather racy and shocking content. But I'll post more about Life another day.

21 August 2010

18 August 2010

Artworld vs. Realworld

Lately I've done a little reading on art theory and art criticism as it relates to modern photography. Perhaps the best book I've read so far is Charlotte Cotton's The Photograph as Contemporary Art. I've been fascinated to find that most contemporary art photography is, as one recent blogger summarized it, "theoretically-driven conceptual photography." I'm speaking here of that contemporary photography favored by galleries, museums and academics. In other words, the artworld. In fact, to distinguish it from other forms of non-commercial or artistic photography, I'm going to label it simply artworld photography.

As artworld photography goes, this is straightforward. No, really.

Artworld photography is a genre of photography most people never see, even in photography magazines, and when they do get dragged into a gallery to look at it, they have no idea why it's on display. Great swaths of it are driven by postmodern theory, which challenges traditional ideas of authorship and meaning a variety of ways. The net product is photography that, counterintuitively, "relies most heavily on words, whether to explain or obfuscate its meaning." It's photo-illustration, or visual performance, illustrating various artistically fashionable political or theoretical ideas. It is a theoretical exercise rather than the aesthetic or documentary exercise most people assume photographs to be.

Part of a gallery series by Thomas Struth. This is more challenging artworld fare, but typical. It is not visually interesting in any obvious way and its meaning is esoteric. Artworld art.

For these reasons, it seems few artworld photographers succeed as artworld photographers on the visual strength of their photographs alone. They invariably offer up explanatory narratives for their work that are heavy in theory and couched in the lingo of artworld in order to impart artistic meaning to their work. Or more precisely, using Arthur Danto's terms, to legitimate their work as a candidate for artistic appreciation. In fact, I expect it would be very difficult to break into the artworld with your photographs if you could not explain their value in artworld terms. Or at the very least, you must attract critics and curators (like Szarkowski) who do that for you.

Realworld photography is basically everything else. It's primarily committed to what artworlders would call a "straight" aesthetic, but it's realworld because it is democratic. You don't have to belong to a guild just to have an opinion on a photograph, as in artworld. There, first you need a certain status or credentials; then you must demonstrate an informed understanding of the photograph; then you have the right to an opinion. In realworld, you just like the damn picture or not. Democratic.

"Funeral - St. Helena, South Carolina " (1955), from Robert Frank's book, The Americans. Realworld art.

Sure, it goes deeper than that. In realworld we have our guilds or, better, clubs. You can become a connoisseur or a collector or blogger or a film fetishist and, very often, you are a photographer yourself. There is a history of the art you learn and become a part of yourself. There are of course cultural, political and historical frameworks for critical judgments. It can be as challenging as anything in artworld. But in realworld a great photograph can just be a great photograph, without having to be overtly transgressive, political, or encoded with a theoretical narrative.

Most photographers are, in fact, realworld photographers. They revere the masters of the "straight" aesthetic that became dominant about a century ago and they still work in strong dialogue with that aesthetic. They take seriously the unique qualities and genius of the medium. They regard photography as an artistic end, not as an artistic means. I'm definitely a realword partisan.

Now, I do confess, I enjoy at least some artworld photography. My biggest objection to much of it is that it is esoteric and pretentiously didactic. I find myself working hard to extract meanings that do not interest me. But I find more compelling that generous portion of photography that straddles the lines. I enjoy the democratic work of someone like Platon, whose portraits are definitely realworld, even fashion, but still is tapped for gallery shows. I guess he gets it all.

14 August 2010

Cold Storage [Payson 1/52]

A popular self-challenge among Flikrers is a 52 week project, where you post a photo a week on a certain theme, or with no theme at all, for a year. I'm going to do it for the town where I live, Payson, UT. Not because it's interesting, but it's what I have to work with. I'm starting with our newest building. It doubles as the rec center.

Cold Storage [Payson 1/52]

13 August 2010

Motorhommage #1

There is something both noble and absurd about motorhomes. In functional man-terms, they are part castle, part conveyance, though most don't serve either function well. At all. My intuition is that the main reason for their existence is to serve as symbols. Land yachts, proof of material prosperity, retirement aspirations, justification for the job you hate, or that second job, the promise of more "quality time" with the kids, the promise of relaxation and felicity and adventure and freedom, and also, or maybe primarily, phallic compensation. Just to get started.

But forget the semiotics. I find motorhomes fascinating visually. See, I love great industrial design. It moves me as art. Now motorhomes are rarely great industrial design, but they are grandiose design, and even if they don't quite move me as art, I'm convinced they are somehow fitting objects for artful photography. They contain ironic and improbable beauty. So I'm going to start pointing my camera at some.

My first subject, spotted on the way home from work today, sat behind a motel parking lot (click images to embiggen).

Land Yacht #1

I snuck up on it, from the side opposite that pictured, not sure if it was inhabited. Junk piled against the windshield and a broken side window. Truck parked next to it full of junk. Looks empty. I step up and take a photo. Then the pit bull guarding it comes out from underneath.

Hmmm, matching colors. Maybe the dog is a factory option.


Wasn't expecting that. But he seemed nice and calm, and was tied up. I took a few more photos of the motorhome. Then a few close-ups of the Deluxe Option Pit Bull. Then he suddenly remembered his breeding, gave a Cerberus snarl, lunged at me, and I ran off squealing like a little girl.

12 August 2010

Obituary for Photojournalism

I know, I should be done with this topic, but I can't leave it alone because it makes me so sad. Anyway, photojournalism heavyweight Neill Burgess, former head of Magnum and World Press Photo, has called photojournalism's death-date as August 1, 2010.

    We’ve been through major recessions; times when the advertising dollar shrank, massive lay-offs and editorial budgets tightened, but still there was a commitment to the photojournalist and what he or she produced. Even as the millennium dawned I was telling people that there was more photojournalism around now than in the 1950’s and 60’s, it’s just spread amongst more magazines. That was probably true then. Not so now.

He mostly rants, but lays out some evidence, which confirms his case but points, at the same time, to the new direction the profession-formerly-known-as-photojournalism is going. "There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition."

Well, walks like a duck, talks like a duck, but maybe we give it a different name. As someone not put out of work by traditional photojournalism's death, I'm less angry than Burgess, and frankly just happy to see documentary photography continue in any form and be financed by any means. One commenter pointed, in fact, to new creator-owned initiatives like VII The Magazine and Latitude Magazine. I think in Burgess's terms, this is not a sign of life, but it is a sign of afterlife.

Anyway, I'll sit shiva with him. And as a gesture of respect for the dead, and for my own enjoyment, I just ordered myself a copy of Great Photographic Essays from Life.