Paying for good video


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I wish I could watch YouTube videos without getting annoyed. I click the pop-up ads away and try to get back to watching, but I’m left slightly agitated and anxious about when the next ones might appear. I wish I could subscribe, in the way I first understood that word, by paying a regular amount of money to receive my content with no fuss. Not that that was a perfect system either: aside from being charged ‘outside the US’ postage, the magazines would regularly arrive dinged or bent or somehow marked by their passage through the post.

The filmmaker Astra Taylor (on the most excellent Theory of Everything podcast) laments the dominance of advertising as a source of revenue for artists making work for the web. The fact that it’s the default mode rather than one strategy among other is what is troubling. Taylor doesn’t sound optimistic about a viable alternative, at least in this podcast.

Schemes like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and Pozible they can be really effective for artists who have a following and who offer specific projects that need a single burst of funding. The ONDU wooden pinhole camera is a good example. It needed startup funds to establish the factory, and provided a well-crafted product that fit a photographic niche. It’s a lovely object, and the ONDU store is now a going concern. Just recently the cinematographer Chris Doyle successfully funded a documentary project dealing with the stories and lives around the Occupy Hong Kong demonstrations. It’s a smaller-scale experimental project with a lot of appeal for Doyle and documentary watchers (like me), but maybe not something easily fundable via regular channels.

A good Kickstarter needs to be a strong project or product obviously, but also carefully designed with specific and appropriately-priced rewards. But not all projects lend themselves to this form of funding. The film editor Tony Zhou’s video analysis series Every Frame a Painting is an engaging series of essays on cinematic style. If you haven’t seen any of his work you should have a look his examination of framing in Drive. It’ll make you look at movies differently, and if you’re a filmmaker or photographer it might make you think about your own process too. He’s a professional editor and he already puts his videos on YouTube and Vimeo. What he needs is time off from his regular work to devote to the ongoing series. He does this with Patreon. The idea here is that each contributor makes an ongoing pledge, and funds get deducted every month, or in Zhou’s case, after every video.

Zhou asks for a minimum of $1, and for this the contributer gets annotations for the videos. What Zhou is able to do is offer the videos generally without ads. The more funding he gets, the more frequently he’ll be able to make them. So there is a slight benefit for contributors, and a definite benefit for all. But rewards aside, it’s a statement against the hegemony of advertising and a way to affirm the value of these engaging and articulate video essays.

The brief disappearance of MPDrolet


A few weeks ago Mark Peter Drolet’s tumblr disappeared. MPD puts up a lot of photography from the web and provides a lot of material for serious photo discussion and sharing on tumblr. MPD was taken down for violating tumblr’s three strikes DCMA notice policy. It was quickly restored, and with that came the revelation of identity theft as part of the story.

Photographer Wayne Bremser as far as I know first blogged about it on 9 January, followed by Brian Formhals on Photographs on the Brain. Blake Andrews articulates really nicely the value that Drolet has in online discoveries of new photo work and prompting discussion and energy around all that online: “MPD was the friend with the crazy record collection who turned you on to good stuff every visit.” Andrews post links to some other interesting writing on the issue, and in 2012 did a Q & A with him, which is where I first heard of MPD. This is one tumblr I like to go visit directly in its own page rather than have it be part of the stream of posts in my dashboard. The sequencing of the posts creates a carefully considered and graphically engaging flow of images. (Wayne Bremser does this quite nicely too.)

All these writers are serious photo makers and commentators, ie not a bunch of photo anarchists seeking to set fire to the idea of intellectual property. Formhals runs the LVP photo podcast and has just edited and published Photographers’ Sketchbooks. It had looked at first like enough angry photographers had tapped Drolet with copyright notices for Tumblr to close his blog. Then it turned out that one of the photographers in question was the victim of identity fraud and someone else was posting takedown notices in his name (someone who’d been systematically trying to undermine the work of this photographer across the internet). Eventually order was restored. Drolet himself wrote on the issue and Blake Andrews did a follow-up post.

The first issue here is one of digital identity theft that the photographer Massimiliano Rossetto suffered, having an effect not just on him. This is not quite the same as having your passwords compromised, but it is a reminder about the circumspection we should treat all claims to identity with.

The other issue of intellectual property gets a good workout in the facebook discussions on Bryan Formhals‘ and Flak Photo‘s pages that Blake Andrews refers to. Drolet is not someone who posted work and claimed it as his, nor did he just reblog random pretty unattributed stuff on tumblr. Is his project fair use or copyright infringement? The murkiness of where exactly these two principles meet was apparent in these discussions during the few days of MPD’s disappearance.

The kind of picture-editing that Drolet does is valuable in a culture soaked in images. But the ambiguities of copyright and the competing interests of artists, corporations and viewers mean that the foundation of a photo blog that many consider to be essential reading is pretty fragile.

Review: Some Notes on Film Vol. 1



I meant to post a review on etsy of Some Notes of Film Vol.1, the zine edition of Tim Nicholas’s tumblr, but I didn’t get onto it quickly enough. Etsy gives you 60 days to review things, and it arrived in my mailbox long before that. Cover of the zine Some Notes on Film
Nicholas writes smart and perceptive film criticism and uses tumblr’s spare interface to mix images and text to good effect. So, as the first essay in the zine asks, “why would someone just print out a blog?” Nicholas discussses permanence, attention, value, the relentless newness of blogs, the way that the physical zine provides a respite from the stream. For me, there’s also a real pleasure in holding something tangible. The saddle-stapled booklet is nicely produced, but not so lush that I’m afraid of chucking it into my bag to read on the bus. And there are footnotes.

The essays don’t aim for comprehensive analysis of a movie as a whole; instead they pick at a particular aspect of how a cinema does what it does and run with it. Nicholas looks at sequence from The Jerk an example of “comedy with heart”. He interrogates the internet-meme-ready quote from Peter Gabriel that artworks should be “triggers for experiences”. He cites the “baby shoe gag” in Altman’s The Long Goodbye as being a Bruegel-esque example of fleshing out the wider world of the film. open pages of the zine Some Notes on Film
The last essay deals with the problem of how, in the 21st century, to depict action and events that take place on the computer screen. Nicholas takes his cue from journalist Quinn Norton, who observes that “going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.” Depicting action on screen that happens, well, on screen, calls for a number of strategies to make it not look too jarring or monotonous, but it remains a fundamental problem. How does this moving-image medium depict action that is mostly static? His analysis has me thinking about what I’m doing as I tap away at my desk, it reminds me of the Tony Zhou video essay on texting in film (something Nicholas picks up to discuss in a more recent post), and it makes me pay new attention to every computer-mediated scene I see on TV or film. When Nicholas speculates about “the return of the intertitle, only now integrated into the diegesis”, it’s something I’d really like to see. Sneakers meets Hannah and her Sisters.

This collection of essays is inquisitive and deft. In a culture where so much is free, buying a piece of online culture that you like is a great way to support it. Some Notes on Film Vol. 1 is available on etsy, and ships internationally.

Nick Cave’s archive



There’s a moment the Nick Cave documentary, 20 000 Days on Earth (2014, dir. Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) when he finishes lunch with his collaborator Warren Ellis and announces that he’s got to be off, he’s going to the archive. Just the thing for the Brighton-dwelling rockstar to do after lunch.

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[from 20,000 Days on Earth: Nick Cave looks through the archive]

It turns into one of the most engaging sequences of an engaging documentary. It skirts the territory between fiction and nonfiction with scenes played for the camera. Among various conversations on location places like a therapist’s office, Ellis’s kitchen, the rehearsal space, Cave also talks to various people from his past as drives around: Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone, former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld. There’s no motivation for it; the doco just cuts to this someone else in the back of the car. Whether it’s meant to be an imaginary conversation is unclear and doesn’t really matter. It’s played straight even if it’s slightly oneiric. Cave and friends are performing deliberately for the camera, but this particular artifice is much more engaging than regular straight-to-camera interviews. And the archive is an artifice of sorts. There is one, but it’s at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, not Brighton.

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 [from 20,000 Days on Earth]

When Cave sits with the archivists, the stories are triggered by objects and pictures: A school photo, Cave in his bedroom, Cave on the couch with a girlfriend. Most of these are prints or projected onto the brick wall. For one though, a screen is pulled down to view it: a photograph of Cave’s wife Susie Bick. She’s not really seen for the rest of the film. At the beginning, when Cave is getting out of bed, she’s a figure next to him but her head is turned away. Later, when Cave is watching TV at home she is not with him and their two sons. In the archive, a screen is pulled down to show a photo of her as Cave talks about their meeting and their depth of their bond. On this screen, there is still only a quick glimpse of her. She preserves a level of anonymity, even at this emotional centre of the movie. (I hadn’t realised this before looking around for other pictures of her, but she’s the model for a famous Nick Knight fashion photo, here also with a hidden face.)

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 [from 20,000 Days on Earth: The screen is pulled down for Susie’s picture]

If we believe that the objects in the scene are the actual artefacts, then the sequence is a close examination of them as primary documents by the primary source himself. The momentary glimpses of the photographs don’t offer up the same scrutiny as being able to look over them in person, but having Nick Cave talk about their meaning is a pretty significant alternative. The 20,000 Days on Earth website twins with an online Museum of Important Shit, which allows anyone to catalogue “things that remind us of those transformative moments that make us who we are”. Artefacts aren’t just for rock stars, and as an anecdote on th Museum web page tells us, chewing gum doesn’t always need to be thrown away.

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 [from 20,000 Days on Earth]

I love that the photographs are presented as part of an archive, rather than a random pile of images. It says that there’s value in the systematic collection and that drawing from it is as vital a part of the storytelling as having Kylie show up in the back of the car.

Book Review: ‘Sanctuary’, Gregory Crewdson


The photographs of Gregory Crewdson that we are probably most familiar with are the large-format colour tableaux from the Twilight series. Looking like stills from movies about suburban horrors or uncanny domestic settings, their construction is also on a cinematic scale. They are made by a large crew that lights up the location as thoroughly as any Hollywood movie.

Cover of Gregory Crewdson's SanctuaryI found a copy of his monograph Sanctuary (Abrams, 2010) browsing in a remainders bookstore that was closing down (a good price on the last copy, but that’s two layers of book-sadness in a place like that). The pictures look on the surface to be a project in a different direction: they’re in black & white, shot with minimal crew and set design, with barely any human figures. But the set design is already in front of him; the subject of the series is the Cinecittà studios in Rome. New York Times Film critic A.O. Scott has an introductory essay that outlines many of Crewdson’s concerns that remain in Sanctuary, among them the idea of dreaming, or of the aftermath of dreaming: “what is left behind when the movie has wrapped and the cast and crew have departed? […] What is left of the world we dreamed up after we awaken?” (10)

Plate 22 of Gregory Crewdson's Sanctuary

The large-format book has 41 subtly-toned prints of these abandoned backlots. Some of them at first look like old European streets, until, for example you see over a wall the scaffolding of another building, maybe from a different era. The photographs are full of layers. Tonally, there is a real sense of depth, with space and distance being signalled by a mix of dark and pale tones. So many of the these pictures are constructed as frames-in-frames: a doorway opening to the light on another wall, collapsed brickwork in an archway through which you see a hill of wild grass and another building in the distance, an abandoned medieval house behind which sits a block of flats. More doorways, going nowhere into other doorways and passages. As A.O. Scott notes, the work is a “foray into documentary”, but unlike the architecture that artists like Atget saw, these buildings are not real. But their “material presence” is “undeniable”.

With these pictures, in style more straight that his earlier work, Crewdson still manages to evoke an interplay between reality and fiction, artifice and naturalness. A note in the book that the pictures don’t represent the normal state of the studios, that Crewdson asked that maintenance be held over while he made the photographs, also undermines any sense that what we are looking at is the actual state of things. In using this location, Crewdson allows us to see the facades of where cinematic fantasies are made; he also allows another way to be at the border between dreaming and being awake.


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