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Guest Post 9(a): Ken Schles on “Infinite Stupidity”

[Editor's Note: I started off the new year here at Photocritic International with a series of posts describing and commenting on my disappointing December 2011 experiences in four online forums. Two of these forums involved discussions of my November 2011 London lecture, “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism.” One of those forums, restricted to just ten registrants, took that lecture as it premise; in the other, a thread in a 3000-member forum developed as a result of the posting of a link to my text by photographer and writer Ken Schles. I always welcome links to my text, and I hold Ken blameless for what ensued at that forum. Subsequently he emailed me some thoughts about that, so salient that I invited him to convert them to this two-part Guest Post. — A. D. C.]

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

I’m going to out myself here. I was the person who originally posted the link to the text of A. D. Coleman’s “Dinosaur Bones” talk in that online photography forum. Allan has chosen, in recent posts about his forum experiences, to stridently go after the infinite stupidity that the Internet engenders and elevates in online discussion groups. His stridency may come off as distasteful to some, but fellow New Yorkers will remember the story of Kitty Genovese. Allan refuses to stay silent while he witnesses a murder. He won’t go quietly into the night in the face of what he sees as the dying of the light. Both the follow-up on this blog and the coinciding and ensuing kerfuffle in the online forum only further proves points made in his Hotshoe Gallery lecture. The rapid decline of the forum discussion was not a foregone conclusion, as some suggest. But given the nature of the subject presented, why would Allan not go down the rabbit hole?

Posting the link to his “Bones” talk was my attempt to get a conversation going around what, to me, has become increasingly obvious and problematic in our field and that Allan’s talk originally so cogently pointed to: there is dwindling public space for a serious critical conversation about photography. This corresponds to what Coleman observes as a marginalization of the practice of art photography seen in the larger public sphere. And both of these events are symptomatic of, and portend, a diminished public acceptance of art photography to engender a meaningful and cogent public discussion. Nothing I’ve read in any of these discussions, here or anywhere else, changes the truth of those difficult estimations. Recent musings, in regard to the insular quality of the photobook market for instance, tend to confirm his conclusions (see here, here and here).

forum_image_keyboard_keysOur infinite stupidities are a truth we are left to contend with. It clouds public discourse. We’re in these Internet trenches together of our own choosing: decontextualized in every possible way without hierarchies or common appreciation for history or a common base of knowledge, with the barest of protocol to guide us. We are removed from a larger established mediated public space that contains stringent hierarchies for inclusion and participation, and we find ourselves huddled in caves together with ignorance and amnesia.

Some of us embrace this realm exactly for its possibilities, because it contains connectivity to peers and “enthusiasts” who reference work that the physical world cannot provide (or has never easily provided) because (1) of inefficiencies of distance and time, or (2) because of inefficiencies of our market system (which primarily uses desire and scarcity/exclusivity to elevate value in lieu of a yet to be invented viable and wholly rational system), and (3) the limited ability of institutions to react and critically respond swiftly to contemporary practice. The challenging environment for critics to have their ideas shared widely (and compensated for equitably) is directly connected to #2, as the traditional marketplace is quick to jettison the work of critics when a critical voice no longer serves their interests (either by selling the media the critical writing is connected with or to generate ad sales within the community the critic writes about).

Ken Schles, "The Geometry of Innocence," 2001.

Ken Schles, “The Geometry of Innocence,” 2001.

Exacerbated by the disruptive technology the Internet represents economically, these failures aren’t confined to photography criticism or the art world — these failures are symptomatic of a more general set of structural failures centered on societal participation, equity, power sharing and enfranchisement. The real world, of late, as a place for entry and participation, has turned out to contain so many false promises. Some of which can be linked to two tangentially entwined facts: (a) we’re in the midst of a depression, and (b) there’s been proliferation of technology that plays upon social tendencies to gossip, spread rumor and want to be “liked” — in other words — technologies that profit because they play to our infinite stupidity while we amuse ourselves to death. But it’s not the technology that’s the problem. Nor is the medium the message here.

I had already been thinking about issues raised by Allan’s “Bones” talk. Early in November, around the same time that he gave his talk, I gave this talk at Light Work, as part of the SPE “Joint Regional Conference on Photographers + Publishing,” where I touch upon some of the same topics. The loss of critical commentary has been brewing for years. And the loss of critical space, and the problem that it engenders, plagues me as I try to move forward with my work.

Ken Schles, "Oculus," 2011.

Ken Schles, “Oculus,” 2011.

Oculus, my fourth photographic monograph, is a photographic project that talks about the meaning of images and how they operate in regards to memory. It takes a longer view of culture and looks at our use of a particular set of metaphors. It is not directed to the photographic community per se. On the contrary, I think it would speak clearly to a wide audience. In working with my publisher (Noorderlicht, a non-profit photography foundation in The Netherlands), we were hard put to compile a very long list of publications or blogs across the globe that could consider my book seriously and in depth — and in general terms too — in terms that can be enjoyed and understood by a general public.

This is utterly apparent: Most “serious” popular critical press on photography has disappeared, replaced by publications or blogs or other online venues that act more as echo chambers for artist statements and publisher’s press releases, or that promote their own “causes” or speak in clipped entries usually within a fairly limited number of parameters and mostly along traditional genres and practices. These discussions remain “insider” discussions, and at worst tend to touch on subjects in superficial ways or remain half thought out thoughts — thoughts “in process” —  crowd-sourced ideas that rarely connect us to the larger community of humanity that lies outside the photographic world.

Ken Schles, "Invisible City," 1988.

Ken Schles, “Invisible City,” 1988.

The Internet has also degraded the content of what traditional media remains. Mainstream venues that once considered photography seriously will no longer do so, on the face of it. My first book, Invisible City, was designated a New York Times notable book when it first came out nearly twenty-four years ago. Over the last couple of years, the New York Times Book Review instituted a policy that photography books would no longer be considered for such an honorific. They said too few photography books were really that good; they weren’t important enough to be regularly included in their yearly considerations. This is quite an appraisal from the gray old lady who tries to be every publication to all people, all the time, online and off. Unfortunately, the legitimization of serious work for the general “popular” market through venues like the New York Times is still considered tantamount to existing.

Contemporary photography has already become marginalized in just this way, rarely seriously reviewed in the Times or other mainstream press (there are notable exceptions, of course: four that come to mind are Freddie Langer, who writes for FAZ out of Frankfurt; Sean O’Hagan, who writes for the Guardian in London; Rémi Coignet at Le Monde in France; and the entries that Vince Aletti contributes to The New Yorker). Coleman in his “Bones” talk covers tremendous ground and in a lot more depth and detail than I need go here. Suffice to say, lack of critical context is in the air and on many people’s minds within the community. In response, the Fotomuseum Winterthur just launched the blog Still Searching on January 15. Aperture recently debuted The Photobook Review at Paris Photo in an attempt to also try and fill this certain void, even if, without wide distribution, it is certain to stay circulated within a select crowd, although I hope this not to be the case.

Ken Schles, "A New History of Photography," 2008.

Ken Schles, “A New History of Photography,” 2008.

Some would argue that the loss of the printed critical word has been more than adequately supplanted by the Internet, and, therefore, there is less a need for the popular press to provide coverage — that the Internet constitutes a diverse and vibrant international “community” that freely disseminates ideas while acting as an echo chamber for current practice. True enough, barriers of distance and even time have been removed and word can travel around the globe at the speed of light; hierarchies of entry have been eliminated and the “playing field” has been leveled so that we all can give voice and play a critical role in a critical discussion within the critical field. Neglected works can be “newly” discovered and revisited readily and by a larger audience.

But other problems arise that restrict those possibilities, and in many ways the potential good is negated by actualities that arise specifically because of those possibilities. Guy Debord (with a tweak or two) nailed it: “What brings together men liberated from their local and national boundaries [read also in this case “by technology”] is also what pulls them apart. What requires a more profound rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic exploitation and repression [and now with the Internet our repression and exploitation need not be so “hierarchic.” Facebook and Google will happily let us do that to ourselves]. What creates the abstract power of society creates its concrete unfreedom.” “Concrete unfreedom” being the operative motif.

The Internet in many ways and on many levels promises freedom when, in fact, it can deliver quite the opposite. Its multitudinous and disparate voices can give us all ADD. Walls around institutions have become nearly impenetrable, if only for the sake of the sanity of those within. Discussions remain fragmented and remain, not for lack of intent or purpose, within closed communities. Conversation is encouraged and simultaneously (intentionally and unintentionally) degraded and elevated via the form of its dispersion and by the practice of its participants.

(Part 1 I 2.)

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

Some things about Ken Schles can be read here. Here is link to his website and his books. Ken Schles photographs. He may talk and write about that experience as well. His books are considered “intellectual milestones in photography” (Süddeutsche Zeitung). His most recent book, Oculus, just selected as a “best” photobook of 2011 by Photo-eye: “Oculus is an unusual and uniquely important book… Equal parts philosophical treatise and artist book, Oculus asks profound questions about how we find meaning in the world and how images give shape to memory and our lives. Viewers willing to spend time with this powerful work will be greatly rewarded.” (Adam Bell) His previous book, A New History of Photography, was a finalist for the 2009 Rencontres d’Arles Photographie Contemporary Book Award. Vince Aletti in the New Yorker called Invisible City, “hellishly brilliant.” Invisible City was also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “More Than One Photography” exhibition and listed in M+M Auer’s survey of photographic books.

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6 comments to Guest Post 9(a): Ken Schles on “Infinite Stupidity”

  • One question I would ask you, as a reader of your Guest Post-in-progress, is this: Given the fact that one can find serious commentary about photography online — I’ve got several dozen sites on my blogroll, for example, all worthy of periodic visits — why would one (why do you) subscribe to and presumably follow a massive, unmoderated, and shapeless forum such as the one at which you posted the link to my “Dinosaur Bones” talk?

    Of course you can ask questions there, and presumably get answers, some of them perhaps useful. But this seems like crowdsourcing on the same level as “let’s ask the audience” on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? There are many blogs, forums, and other online resources run and/or populated by knowledgeable individuals; if I had a technical question, or a query about photo history, I’d turn there first. Wouldn’t you?

    • Allan, you are right, if I have a question to ask there are more salient and trusted sources to go to. And they are not the place (necessarily) to prove a point. As you pointed out, they aren’t well structured/suited for argument (to put it mildly).

      For me, right now, they serve several functions though. In terms of veracity or opinion, I look at them skeptically, somewhere between, say, Wikipedia, and someone I’m talking to that I met at a cocktail party. Like Wikipedia they serve a similar service in that they give a quick reference, and might connect me to me a deeper reference than what I might otherwise have on hand. In that they are an aid. They can ostensibly remain opaque, in that I don’t know who I might be getting the information from and what angle they are giving it to me. But I must say, over time (or even the time of day depending what part of the planet is awake and free to contribute) I see these forums morph and change accordingly to the people participating in them and the information they are offering. I’ve come to “know” some of the people, what they offer and speak about (or I may have known them before) and some people I’ve met because of first encountering their thoughts and then meeting them in real life. All of it gives a perspective as to their opinion. You weigh it all accordingly. And their concerns might also be your own and in that you can offer something to each other.

      And this is how they differ and offer something “other,” I think these large forums work best as places of where things are being “pointed to.” Where I’m not looking for an answer specifically. In this way they connect me to significance. Just as a photograph points to significance, a forum entry also is by someone saying: look here—this is something significant. Now what is significant to you may not be significant to me. And they remain rather breezy, but they can connect you to other sources of information that can a offer more compelling data set. Yesterday I listened to a podcast on the subway by Clay Shirky, where he talks about “cognitive surplus,” and he talks about the seemingly stupid and trivial aspects of twitter, but then how it also can perform transformative “work” ( I’m not unabashedly as big a “fan boy” as he is about the technology, but the point is there about the kind of work these forums can perform.

      But the other aspect is they are where I’ve ended up because, either circumstance, choice or because of some form of alienation, they provide a kind of “public” space that also allows me and my work to be visible in a way that the physical world is not providing to me effectively right now. I would much rather have my work visible instead of “me,” but these places aren’t structured that way and the physical world isn’t offering that option to me right now either. MoMA rather put on yet another Cindy Sherman exhibition and the curator who recommended my new book for an exhibition there recently retired. I don’t have a gallery and the publisher for my new book is a small foundation with no means of distribution. My journey as an artist has never been an easy one. John Szarkowski once told me that my work was not necessarily easy, but it was important enough that institutions like his would support it. I have yet to see that support materialize and I refuse to stop working. These forums, faulty and unresolved a structure as they are, do offer a way in which significance can be alluded to, even if they don’t provide the significance directly.

  • In the spirit of the “traditional” journalist ethic which I gather is popular in these parts, I am offering a minor correction to this otherwise excellent and inspirational piece.

    Rémi Coignet is not “at” Le Monde. [Marc Lenot], the biggest art blogger in France, Lunettes Rouges, which gets upwards of 1 million visits a year, also has his blog hosted by Le Monde while having nothing to do with the newspaper. France has a somewhat strange system whereby some of the national newspapers (Le Monde, Libération) offer subscribers the option of hosting their blogs on their servers for around 20$ a month. In the case of Le Monde, there are 6,000 subscribers who have blogs hosted at

    It’s interesting, because foreigners often believe that those blogs have some kind of “official” cachet. And yet sadly for Lenot or Coignet, they are not being paid to write. With that said, I read Coignet far more often than I would Le Monde‘s actual photo critic, Claire Guillot.

    • Having now visited both the Le Monde-hosted blogs you identify above, I have to say that I find this come-one-come-all bonus hosting system for subscribers bizarre in the extreme. I’m bilingual Francophone myself, so I can see that in discreet half-gray in the upper left-hand corner of the screen it says “Blog abonné,” meaning “subscriber blog.” You can see that in the screenshot below.
      Rene Coignet blog at Le Monde, screenshot.
      And if I mouse over that I get a drop-down box about creating a subscriber blog. Also, on the upper right of the screen there’s a link to all subscriber blogs, and another to a how-to page for creating one.

      Nonetheless, these blogs appear with the Le Monde logo featured prominently. Maybe everyone in France (everyone in Europe — east, west, north?) knows that these blogs have no official connection to Le Monde, but I wouldn’t have realized that, even though I read French easily; I’d likely have overlooked the little “subscriber blog” link, assuming that, like the blogs at The New York Times, this Coignet blog constituted an official part of the publication. Certainly, as a researcher, I’d cite it that way unless I knew better.

      Very confusing, and definitely not common journalistic practice, at least on this side of the pond. Indeed, because journalistic policy just about everywhere else precludes such a tacit endorsement of an unedited and unsponsored blog, putting the Le Monde logo on anything any subscriber opts to post actually violates established standards in the field. Ooh la la!

    • Thank you Marc. Sorry for that inclusion then (but it would certainly fill that role well). I think it then further reinforces Allan’s original assertion that solid critical writing about photography is becoming more infrequent in the mainstream press.

      To me this all opens the question as to what is a public space, what constitutes a public dialog. How then does our practice get defined, discussed and carried into a larger conversation of a larger “public?”

      We’re at a particular cross roads now, and the technology that has collapsed traditional public space (which always existed in a smaller, more regional confine), has opened it up to a much larger world, but in doing so, it has also become both a much more insular world and one in which we’re become very efficient in doing work/accumulating ideas and moving the product of our enquiries to a large number of people.

      In the past a community existed with expertise of a particular kind and individuals all contributed to the welfare of a community. The baker, the farmer, the teacher, the blacksmith all interconnected and supported each other, and not exclusively in an economic fashion. And we needed diversity of expertise in lots of places. As our communities grew we began to have associations of “like minded” people. They could then share ideas and specialize and enrich each other while developing their areas of expertise while further enriching their respective communities. The internet was originally developed by DARPA as a means for scientist to do exactly that. But as the internet has become “secularized,” so to speak, it has collapsed space in such a way that we don’t need experts everywhere. But I get more into that in my next entry…

      • I suppose we could say that, technically, Rémi Coignet’s blog is “at” Le Monde but not “of” Le Monde. It’s part of the publication’s website, it bears the publication’s URL and logo, but it’s not solicited, edited, or otherwise subsidized by Le Monde.

        Which is all less than transparent, methinks, even for someone who, like myself, speaks fluent French. Things seem quite different at the other newspaper mentioned, the competing Libération. Their bloggers, far fewer in number (about 60, as opposed to 6000 at Le Monde), appear to be either staffers, designated correspondents, or invited outside contributors. These blogs carry a logo that reads “Un blog de Libération,” making it clear that the contents are endorsed by the parent newspaper.

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