Confidential To Recent Commenter!
8 May 2023 | 5:12 pm

Hey, I didn't publish your comment for complicated reasons, but I'd like to hear from you and try to work something out. I sympathize. Shoot me an email at if you'd like to. Or not, it's your choice!

Crit Followup: Depravity's Rainbow
25 April 2023 | 6:33 pm

As sometimes happens, I am unable to let well enough alone.

I spent some time digging around and thinking about Bush's book, Depravity's Rainbow because I found its contents to relentlessly un-surprising, and yet his own and others descriptions are clearly intended to lead us to believe that the book is in fact surprising. I was, as noted in my initial review, uncertain as to whether my lack of surprise was due to my own situation.

In short, no. In terms of factual information, in terms of conclusions, in terms of the archival photographs offered up, Bush's effort hews entirely to the well-established mainstream contemporary story. His textual description of relevant history could be assembled in an afternoon from Wikipedia, with one exception I was able to identify. That exception is found in Neufeld's biography of von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War which is the source everyone including wikipedia and Bush cites.

The photos are mostly (or entirely) available on the web, and many of them are more or less canonical. The V2 rocketry photos, and many of the early von Braun photos, can mostly be found on the various V2 Rocket fan sites that appear on the first page of google search results. I cannot prove that Bush simply downloaded his photos from a couple of V2 fan sites, but there are a lot of V2 photos, and the subset that appears on the fan sites overlaps a lot with Bush's book. This is the general theme, Bush's book seems to have winnowed large collections of material down to exactly the subset that appears in the first page of google search results.

It is, of course, much easier to reconstruct this sort of thing than to assemble it in the first place, but I am pretty sure I could pull together if not exactly Bush's corpus of materials, at least an equivalent one that overlapped enormously, in a few days.

It is, of course, possible and even likely that Bush labored away and assembled an enormous mass of fascinating detail, with many never-before seen photos, many obscure facts, and so on. However, he seems to have thrown away everything except what is essentially the mainstream contemporary narrative. The facts, the photos, the conclusions, these are all precisely what you'd find in an even cursory research effort.

So what is the point here?

If he's done anything of value, it has to be in the way he's assembled these components. He's not saying anything new, and he's not bringing any new or even slightly obscure material to the table; there's literally nowhere else this book can contribute except to bring a novel approach to how the standard materials lead to the standard conclusion.

Let's look at his archival photos. To my chagrin, I did not notice what is in fact obvious.

He's crushed the photos into a common format. He's eliminated shadow detail entirely, rendering all the photos as super high contrast "low quality" black and white, regardless of source. He's printed them as black and white (I think physically — if he did it digitally it's very well done) on highly textured yellow paper, with a black border. This brings them all into a common format.

Here, for instance, is an original:

And here is Bush's version (note: none of my reproductions from the books are particularly good, but they should give the flavor and certain facts):

You can see the loss of detail, the textured paper, and so on. But also notice the 3-hole punch hole. The original is a copy of a page from a three-ring bound book. Bush has almost cropped out the holes, but not quite, part of one remains. Then he re-framed the picture into a larger blank space before putting the black border on and printing it out badly.

Here's von Braun being carried through the streets of Huntsville after Apollo 11's astronauts, the first to land on the moon, returned.

Bush's version, smashed as usual, but also cropped and, oddly enough, rotated slightly. There's no black border this time, as this photo appears in the front matter not in the body of the book:

And one more, von Braun shakes hands with JFK:

Bush, again:

So.. what's going on? Well, Bush is tinkering with archival photos. Nothing major, and god knows I am no stickler for "preserve shadow detail at all costs" or whatever, but some of the modifications don't seem to be worth it. Bush is definitely not respecting these things as documents (but then, he wouldn't, he's philosophically opposed to treating them as such, I think.)

If you'll recall, his gimmick here is to fold von Braun's life back on itself, in a "Memento" structure, and so Bush wants photos to be comparable. I am certain this is how he justifies the process of bringing them all to a common format. The common format has to be low-fi because some of the photos are pretty low-fi. He probably argues for the yellow tone on the basis that it complements the blue tone of his cyanotypes.

But at the same time, the effect (which he cannot be ignorant of) is to imbue the archival photos with a false oldness. They look like they were extracted from dusty files by a diligent researcher, rather than simply downloaded from the internet and smashed with a saved Photoshop action. He has to be aware that this effect is present; the alternative is that he is incomprehensibly stupid, and he simply isn't.

I have to say that his willingness to tinker with the archival photos and at the same time to describe his book as:

... tell[ing] a little known history of space exploration that starts in Nazi Germany with the Second World and the Holocaust, and examines how these problematic origins continue to shape the field today.

which makes it sound, well, like a history. Like the pictures are real, and not tinkered with. Which, in a sense, they are? It's not like he's photoshopping little green men in there, but at the same time no mainstream news outlet would touch these photos. The whole business makes me uncomfortable, but I am also loathe to say it's wrong.

But what does it do here? How is this a novel way of using the standard materials to tell the standard story?

Other than some gimmicky color theory and a not-very-illuminating "Memento" trope deployment, there's just not a lot here. I don't find this to be a particularly revealing new way to see the story, I find it if anything kind of a pointless meander to nowhere.

Perhaps what he has done is create a novel combination. He's brought "V2 Rocket Fandom" imagery to a sketch of the Neufeld biography, and maybe that means something.

What I am not seeing here is any kind of a novel epistemology. There is no new way of seeing the story here, it comes across as a kind of clumsy reprise of the photo essay of the 1960s, without even the benefit of telling a new story. The refusal to "merely illustrate" the story seems to add nothing much to the method, and the need to pile in large quantities of visual material, likewise.

Like Asselin's Monsanto this is just a big exercise in "what the actual fuck?" to no real purpose, simply repeating a well-known set of ideas, briefly, clumsily, and with a lot of more or less pointless pictures.

This is not to say that the method couldn't produce something, only that in the few cases I have looked at closely, it has not.

We Need a Word
22 April 2023 | 5:28 pm

Well, if not a word, at least we need to admit the existence of a category.

Since the inception of photography, we've been treating photorealistic figurative depictions of stuff and photographs as more or less the same thing. Yes, it's certainly true that there have always been exceptions. Photos that aren't very figurative, and paintings that are very very realistic, and so on. Technically we have acknowledged the distinctions.

In practical terms, though, as a society, as a culture, we have tended to grumpily brush those away. Abstract photographs have to struggle a little to get traction. Photorealistic paintings were rare and weird. We could, in practical terms, treat the two categories as the same by simply glaring at the occasional exceptions.

And yet there is a category of figurative photorealistic things. A photograph of a banana, whether you believe my specific theories about photorealistic depictions, hits differently than some abstract expressionist painting of a banana, or a pointillist painting, or even a Renaissance still life thing. You've got to paint very very carefully indeed to land inside the same reaction as a photo of a banana — even a black and white photo. But you know, you can paint that carefully.

There are objects that people look at and think "why, it looks just like a banana" and there are other objects that people look at and think "what a nice painting of a banana" and still others where they think "what the fuck is that, is it supposed to be a banana?"

None of these categories have crisp edges, of course. There's an element of subjectivity, and even the viewer's mood.

The categories nevertheless exist, and they don't mind being a bit fuzzy around the edges.

Also, we can't really ignore the situation much longer.

We've entered the land of dipshits asking if AI renderings are "photographs" and the answer is obviously "no, and you are dumb, please close your food hole to muffle the noises coming out of it."

Just as a placeholder, let's call these photorealistic figurative representations of stuff photoids. It's my blog, you can't stop me.

Most photographs are photoids and, up until now at least, most photoids are photographs.

There are things that are obviously photographs. Let's say a relatively small amount of post-processing or whatever. I literally do not care. It's a fuzzy category, the edges probably contain a lot of heavily photoshopped or composited stuff, or AI renders based on a photo, or whatever. It's fuzzy, who cares? There's stuff in the middle of the category that pretty much everyone is going to agree is pretty much definitely a photo (a frame of Tri-X souped in D76 and printed on Ilford grade 2 paper with minimal burning and dodging, say, but it doesn't matter.)

There are things that are photoids. A lot of photographs, for one thing, but also a lot of AI renders, and some Chuck Close paintings.

There are photographs that pretty definitely are not photoids, notably anything that's pretty abstract. Some photomicrograph of a bug's wing or whatever, so close it represents nothing you can identify. So it's Tri-X souped in D76 and printed on Ilford, it's a photograph but not a photoid because it doesn't look like anything. Except to a bug scientist, for whom maybe it is still a photoid. The categories, while real, are both fuzzy and subjective.

There are photoids that are not photographs, like some AI renders and some Chuck Close paintings.

The point here is that photoid and photograph represent different categories. The categories overlap a lot, but they're not the same, and they're defined completely differently. Define them how you will in the details, it doesn't matter, they're still different things.

The advent of widespread AI renders of photoids means, I subject, that we can no longer usefully ignore the distinction. Someone please think up a better word than photoid.

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