The Idea is Everything: Thoughts on Justine Varga's Maternal Line by Neal Auch

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

The 2017 Olive Cotton Award -- which I gather is some kind of prestigious photo contest in Australia -- was recently awarded to artist Justine Varga for her wonderful work Maternal Line.  (Go here for an article on petapixel.)  In her artist statement Varga explains the piece as follows:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

I wanted to talk about this work, and the ensuing controversy, because it speaks to a point I have made somewhat tangentially several times before on this blog: the idea is everything.  Varga's beautifully written artist statement is what elevates Maternal Line from a bunch of scribbles to a thought-provoking and moving piece of art.  It's the idea that makes this a portrait, which is something the judge understood and wisely rewarded.  (It's worth mentioning that the contest came with a $20,000 prize.  So congrats on the prize and the lovely work Justine!)   I have said it before but I'll repeat myself here: regular people who view photography want to see images that speak to them, that are about something, that strike an emotional chord.  The viewer doesn't care about the technical stuff at all, insofar as that stuff doesn't interfere with the meaning of the image.  That stuff only matters to gear-obsessed pro photography nerds.  This truth seems well understood by artists working in other mediums (film, painting, sculpture, music, etc) but somehow the point is utterly lost on a large and vocal segment of the photography community.

In a turn as predictable as it is depressing, certain "pro photog" denizens of the interwebs have taken great exception to Varga's award and have been sending hate mail, both to her and to the judge who selected the piece (Dr Shaune Lakin).  It seems that, in some eyes at least, Varga's work has committed the cardinal sin of photography: this photograph was produce without even using a camera!  However are we to then proceed to critique her choice of lighting modifier!?  However are we to have long protracted debates in the comment section weighing the pros and cons of digital vs analogue!?  Dear god won't somebody please talk about ISO noise, preferably with charts and graphs!?

Of course, complaining that Maternal Line isn't really a photograph completely misses the point.  The piece is about questioning the meaning of what constitutes a photograph.  The fact that folks are arguing in comment sections about whether or not this is technically a portrait speaks to how successful Maternal Line is as an art piece; fuelling this kind of self-reflection and intellectual debate is certainly no cause for criticism.  Note also that the fact that Varga has chosen her grandmother as a subject is telling, since the piece is about not only her own genetic blood line, but also about the artistic lineage and the history of photography that has led up to this work.

At the heart of this "controversy" is the tedious debate about whether photography is an art or a craft.  I've always been baffled by the animus certain "pro photog" types have toward the idea that we're artists.  These same narrow minded folks tend to take great exception to art, like Varga's work, that seeks to push the boundaries of the medium.  It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of exercise artists like us should be engaged in.  Do painters have this kind of argument?  After all, painting is also a technically demanding task that requires a considerable amount of skill and craft, but I'm unaware of any painters who scoff at the idea of making paintings that are about something, or that speak to the human condition.  Perhaps design would be a better analogy, since there is an explicitly practical aim in mind when one creates an iPod or a wine glass or a sports car?  But, rather often, those kinds of utilitarian objects have a certain beauty in their form that is hardly accidental.  Indeed, I know several designers and none of them seems perturbed by recognizing the artistic component of what they do.  

It seems to me completely trivial and without question that photography is art.  Of course it's art, anything can be art.  Art is about intentions and ideas and creativity, it's not about the medium and it's not about the technical stuff.  Getting angry in internet forums and sending hate mail to talented and successful artists won't change that fact.



Dunk's Bay Cemetery in Toberymory, ON by Neal Auch

I recently got home from a family vacation near Tobermory, ON.  At one point during the trip I more-or-less accidentally stumbled into Dunk's Bay Cemetery, located just meters away from a surprisingly diminutive public beach.  I've wandered about my share of these sorts of small country graveyards, and they tend to all blur together after a while.  But there was something surprisingly idiosyncratic about Dunk's Bay Cemetery.  Many of the graves were adorned with lawn ornaments (like the plastic gargoyle in the first shot in the slideshow above) and garden flag stands that were hung with various trinkets and religious items (5th image in the slideshow).  Maybe these kind of grave decorations are commonplace, but this is the first time I've ever seen such a thing in a cemetery before.  Certainly the most moving grave I stumbled across belonged to a  7 year old child, and was adorned with toys and little ceramic angles.  The 3rd and 4th images in the slideshow above are detail shots from that particular grave.  I've visited a number of cemeteries in my travels, many of them far older and more picturesque than Dunk's Bay Cemetery, but most of those visits were less affecting, for whatever reason.  The place felt haunted.  Enjoy!

Book Review: Steven Dunn's Potted Meat by Neal Auch

It's thanks to this book that I now know that Potted Meat Food Product is a thing that exists.  It's a kind of canned meat, similar to Spam, I guess.  Potted Meat is a blend of a variety of animals and organs; the typical ingredient list involves beef tripe, pig skin, "partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue", and "mechanically separated chicken".  This last ingredient, in case you were wondering, is "a paste-like product made by forcing crushed bone and tissue through a sieve to separate bone from tissue".  Yet another reason I'm happy I don't eat meat...

Anyway, enough about Potted Meat the "food product", which sounds fucking horrible, and on to Potted Meat the book by Steven Dunn, which is absolutely fucking fantastic.   Potted Meat is a kind of coming of age story that follows a teenager in a dying town in West Virginia through a troubled adolescence that is marked by poverty, domestic abuse, racism, crime, alcoholism, and lack of opportunity.  The story is told in short fragments, each one a small snapshot of a difficult life.  There are moments of brutal violence, there are moments of hope, there are moments of crushing disappointment.  It's amazing to see how much emotional power Dunn manages to squeeze into these short narrative fragments; most are only a few pages long and yet several of these little snippets seem to take the breath away.  (Indeed, the whole book is really more of a novella than a novel, it's only about 100 pages long and yet it never feels incomplete.  Some reviewers on Amazon seemed unhappy about the how short the book is, although this didn't bother me.  Frankly I think that if this narrative were drawn out over several hundred more pages the story would likely be far too emotionally draining for most readers.)

At times I was reminded of a novel by Katherine Dunn (no relation, the shared last names are a coincidence as far as I know).  Katherine Dunn's Truck is a wonderful novel that is vastly underrated, perhaps because most reviewers feel compelled to compare it to her career-defining masterpiece, Geek Love.  In any case: both books describe rather unconventional coming of age stories, both employ somewhat unorthodox narrative structures in places, and both authors share an admirable gift for conveying a deep and dirty physicality with their prose.  Some of the most squirm inducing scenes in Potted Meat involve descriptions of food, or uncleanliness, or bodily function.  These are often nearly as upsetting as the descriptions of violence and child abuse.  On learning the definition of "mechanically separated chicken" from Wikipedia I found myself musing on the analogy between the preparation of this commercial product, and the long, gruelling process by which the narrator of Potted Meat extracts himself from his home town.  I don't know if this kind of analogy is what Steven Dunn intended with his choice of title, but it certainly struck a chord with me. 

Finally, I can't help but mention the cover art by Angel Whisenant.  Obviously this is the kind of thing I can't help but love.  I mean, fuck me, just look at that cover.  Beautiful.


Book Review: Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence by Neal Auch

Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence is a wonderfully enigmatic novel.  The book has a reputation for being confusing and inaccessible, and this reputation is arguably well deserved.  The first half of the book consists of a fairly straightforward account of the final days of a terminally ill woman.  These are recounted by our narrator in some detail.  On the surface the narrative feels mostly banal and uneventful, but these early pages are filled with anxiety and dread.  Port of this atmosphere comes from the obvious fact that we are watching a woman die, but this isn't really what makes the book fascinating.  Indeed, the reader knows very little about this woman other than the fact that she's ill; we are not particularly invested in her or any other characters in the story.  Rather, the disquieting feel of the book seems to stem from the narrator's oddly detached approach to the situation (he remarks at one point that illness has made this woman more beautiful) and from the sense of something almost like a supernatural horror looming behind the scenes.  This sense of looming horror is subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but it persists throughout the novel.  There is a wonderful moment, for example, when the dying woman's eyes seem to follow something invisible through the room.  There is a mysterious "treatment" that has been administered to the woman by a shady doctor.  There is a strange insistence by our narrator that his blood chemistry has been altered in some way, and his curiously inconsistent perception of temperature.  The narrator frequently reassures us that he is going to be honest and tell the truth about events, but we are frequently left with the exact opposite impression.

The second half of the novel is rather less straightforward than the first.  The "plot" here mostly concerns our narrator's relationship with another woman.  Again, very little happens and, again, the book feels strangely unnerving.  There is a moment that initially seems like a hallucination (or an encounter with an undead apparition) but is, ultimately, quite banal and easily explained.  The "climax" of the narrative is similarly at once empty and somehow also feels filled with a sense of looming dread of death.  The fun of this book lies in its inscrutability, so perhaps there's little point in trying to dissect the "meaning" behind all this.  My best guess is that the second half of the novel -- focused mostly on the mundane relationships and daily grind of the narrator -- is the true titular "Death Sentence".  Perhaps the point of all this looming menace that haunts the banality of the narrative is simply this: Blanchot wants to remind us that, from the moment of birth, we have all been issued a death sentence.

FAQ: Common Meat Eater Objections by Neal Auch

I'm an artist who doesn't consume any animal products (a dietary vegan, as the kids may or may not say) but makes lampshades out of raw rotting animal stomach and encourages nude models to breast feed dead fowl.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that I periodically have people objecting to my work, both vegans and meat-eaters.  Obviously the standard rules of engagement for dealing with art one finds offensive apply trivially here: viewers who are upset by the images on this website are more than welcome to not view those images.  However, in this post I did want to address some of the most common arguments that come up.  I've already addressed the most common objections I get from vegans in some detail in a previous post.  So for this post I'm instead going to focus on the most common complaints I get from meat eaters.  I had been putting off writing this post for some time, mostly because I was worried about seeming biased or looking like I'm making fun of meat-eating folks as a group.  The issue is this: while most of the objections I get from vegans are perfectly sensible and well-reasoned reasonable ethical concerns that I happen to disagree with, most of the objections I get from meat-eaters tend to be... well... less so.  With all that being said, I will proceed to throw caution to the wind, and do my best to address these issues.  The reader is urged to take note that none of the points below were cherry-picked to make meat-eating people look silly.  I have nothing against people who eat meat.  Some of my best friends eat meat.  These argument are genuinely the most common objections that seem to come up when real meat-eating folks really make when they see my work and feel the need to object.

Your work didn't make me become vegan therefore you have failed!  

I'm an artist, not an activist, which is something I also discussed in several previous posts.  First and foremost I aim to produce compelling visual imagery.  My work on the commodification of suffering is about presenting something we all interact with daily in a new and unfamiliar context.  I hope this encourages thought and reflection and discussion, but I am obviously not possessed of the notion that every meat lover who looks at my portfolio will instantly become vegan.  I mean...  That would be a pretty silly goal, no?

I'm eating meat even as I look at your portfolio!  Ha ha ha!  Take that!  Doesn't this shock your delicate vegan sensibilities!  

Yeah....  No.  

I'm the guy who reupholsters furniture with fetid goat innards and repurposes severed pig heads as flower pots.  I spend much of my photo shoots literally elbow deep in viscera.  It stands to reason that my vegan sensibilities aren't quite so delicate that I can't handle the image of a person eating a cheeseburger.

You vegans want people to stop eating food!  

I have gotten this comment many times but, for the life of me, I cannot make any sense of the argument that is being made here.  First off: I frankly don't care at all about what some random bro on the internet eats for dinner.  Why would I?  But there's something even more perplexing about this comment.  Namely: people know that there are edible things that don't come from animals, right?  I mean, people do know this, don't they?  For the record: legumes, nuts, fruit, grains, and vegetables are all food.  Real people really eat this stuff all the time.  True story.

Your work is hurting farmers / legitimate business! 

First off let's dispense with the painfully obvious: vegans don't eat less food than meat eaters, they eat different food.  The money that I don't spend on hot dogs does get spent on black beans or lentils or chickpeas or soy beans; all of those things are produced by farmers who run legitimate businesses.

But there's a subtext to this kind of complaint that's deeply weird and is worth pointing out.  The assumption here seems to be that if an industry employs good people and makes up a significant part of the economy, then we should all be expected to purchase its products, regardless of personal ethical objections.  This idea seems borne of a perverse sort of capitalist thinking where, as a culture, we are supposed to put corporate profits before individual consumer freedom in all circumstances.  I disagree with this sentiment.

I want to argue with you about whether vegan diets are healthy / whether it's possible to get protein on a vegan diet / whether eating vegan is a hippy fad / whether eating vegan is elitist / whether eating meat is "natural" / the minutia of contemporary farming practices / the minutia of how slaughterhouses are run / something something something bacon / etc!

This webpage is a place to showcase my photography; it's not meant as a veganism 101 educational tool.  There are plenty of places you can go on the internet to learn about the basics of vegan diets and the reality of how the meat industry works, but this really isn't the place for that.

If comments of this type were being made in good faith, then I'd be happy to link to some useful educational resources.  But, let's be honest here, this kind of comment is almost never intended sincerely.  Most of the time someone raises this sort of objection it's because they're hoping to get into a yelling match with a stranger on the internet.  Arguing with faceless strangers on the internet is an activity that is almost never productive and does not interest me at all.  Life is way too short to spend time having pointless and repetitive arguments in Facebook comment threads.

You and all vegans are terrible hypocrites because plants can suffer just like animals!  I saw a link to an article on Facebook one time that totally explained how scientists have totally proved that plants have feelings using way complicated science stuff!


Tips to Become a Better Fine Art Photographer by Neal Auch

The internet is full of "how to be a better photographer for beginners" listicles.  For the most part, these fall into two broad categories: (1) technical tips, and (2) inspirational suggestions.  In the first category we have stuff like advice about how to use your camera, soft vs hard light, the rule of thirds, etc.  The latter category tends to be a bit more vague and artsy, offering suggestions like "focus your attention, not just your lens".  I have nothing whatsoever against either type of article; both can be very helpful for particular audiences and I have certainly consumed my share of this kind of media.  However,  I feel like there's a middle ground between these two extremes that might be worth exploring.  I want to focus on non-technical stuff, so I'm aiming this article at readers who already know about light and understand what F-stop means.  However, I want to be as practical as possible.  The issue with advice like "focus your attention" is that it's rather vague and probably works best for photographers who already "get it" on some level.  This kind of tip can be very useful for inspiration/motivation, but it's often not so simple for beginners to know where to start with actually implementing that kind of advice.  So that's the challenge I've decided to try and tackle with this post: I'm going to attempt to distill down some non-technical tips for folks getting started in fine art photography, but I'm going to try and limit myself to suggestions that are as concrete as possible and straightforward to implement.  

Okay, with that out of the way...  Here goes!

Invest most of your time / energy / money into putting more interesting stuff in front of your camera lens.

I've rambled on about this previously but it bears repeating: the most important part of taking an interesting photograph is having something interesting in front of the lens.  Standing in front of something interesting before you fire the shutter is more important than your choice of F-stop, or your lighting technique, or your post-processing skills.  Not only is this the most important part of photography, it's also the most challenging part.  Taking a good exposure is easy.  Doing the leg work to make sure there was an interesting scene in front of your camera, less so.  And this fact is precisely why too many photographers end up spending their careers taking technically sound shots of boring subjects. 

Let's consider a concrete example.  Suppose you're an aspiring landscape photographer with a tight budget.  You can spend your limited funds on Canon 5D Mark iii and outfit your fancy new camera with the finest quality wide angle lens and the best tripod in the world and a whole array of neutral density filters, and you can use this gear to shoot technically brilliant shots of the park near your house at high noon.  Or, on the other hand, you can buy an entry-level DSLR and shoot on the kit lens, investing the money you've saved on a plane ticket to someplace with amazing vistas.  If your goal is to wow audiences with your photography, then you will almost certainly end up with a more impressive portfolio in the latter scenario.  Note, as anticipated earlier, that the second option here is not only more interesting, it also requires more effort.  It requires taking a long flight, researching locations, dealing with jet lag, navigating an unfamiliar location, and spending your vacation hiking around some remote and possibly rugged terrain in the pre-dawn hours in order to stand in front of a beautiful landscape at sunrise.  This kind of effort is what makes a great landscape photograph.  Almost any aspiring photographer can put their camera on a tripod and stop down to F22 and slap on a neutral density filter and make sure there's a foreground element and put the horizon line in the upper (or lower) third of the frame and fire the shutter.  That stuff's easy.  Editing a landscape shot in Photoshop/Lightroom is only marginally more difficult.  Getting to an interesting landscape in the first place, that's what takes the effort and that's what makes the photograph.

This advice rings true for nearly all genres of photography.  Ours in an art-form where the key challenge faced is not getting the technical stuff down -- almost anybody can take a good exposure and compose using the rule of thirds.  The real challenge is getting an interesting or unusual or compelling subject matter in front of the lens before you take the shot.

Try to show the audience something they don't see every day.  

 Everybody is a photographer and the internet is overflowing with technically competent, well-processed images of the same handful of subjects that we've all seen over and over and over again.  There is no shortage of macro flower shots that needs to be addressed.  What's comparatively much more rare are photographs that reveal something that we don't see every day.  When choosing a subject matter try avoid re-iterating the same images that everybody else is doing.  Your job as a fine art photographer is to aim for something new and unique and interesting, whatever that may mean to you.

Remember that most of your audience are regular people, not professional photographers.  Pay attention to what kinds of images strike a deep emotional chord with most folks; regular people care much more about what the image is about than any of the technical stuff.  Regular people don't give a shit about high ISO noise or small-aperture diffraction or chromatic aberration or lens distortion.  Nobody in the world has ever looked at Kevin Carter's famous photograph of the little Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture and thought: "Was this shot on a cropped sensor, or with a full frame camera?"  Audiences want to see something they haven't already seen a hundred times before.

The truth of the matter -- a truth many professional photographers don't want to admit -- is that the technical part of photography (composition, lighting, F-stop, etc) really isn't very hard.  It may take years to become a true master, but a person who's never used a DSLR in their lives can pick one up and easily nail these skills down "good enough" with a little effort and dedicated practice.  (Here "good enough" means the vast majority of regular viewers will consider your shots indistinguishable from the work of a professional.)  

The technical stuff is easy.  The idea is everything.

Study serious art.

New ideas are not born in the vacuum, they arise from the synthesis of lots of pre-existing sources.  The creative engine works by mashing lots of old ideas together until they coalesce into something new.  To facilitate this, you want to be surrounded by new ideas and inspiration all the time.  

To that end: Look at paintings and sculptures.  Go to museums and galleries.  Buy photography books by important photographers and study the images that speak to you.  (Don't spend all your time looking around on Flickr or Instagram.  Those site are great and serve a very useful purpose, but you want to be inspired by the masters, not by the hive-mind of some social media outlet.  You're aspiring to greatness, so study the greats.)  Read books.  Read poetry.  Listen to interesting podcasts.  Listen to challenging music.  Watch foreign films.  Etc, etc, etc...

Nurture your interests outside of photography.

Think about photography as a skill that you bring to bear on your interests, rather than as an interest in and of itself.  This approach makes it easy to find photography subjects that you are passionate about, and your genuine passion will come through in your images.  So pursue your interests outside of photography, whatever they may be.  Every subject you're passionate about is potentially a great subject to make into art.  Great sports photographers love the sport they're shooting.  Great landscape photographers enjoy nature.  Great concert photographers love music.  Etc, etc, etc...

Are you passionate about helping Syrian refugees find homes and employment in Canada?  Awesome!  Shoot a photo essay that reveals their day-to-day struggles.  

Are you passionate about animals rights activism?  Awesome!  Sneak into a slaughter house or a factory farm; show the world the ugliness that the meat industry would rather remain hidden.  

Are you passionate about the indie punk music scene in the city where you live?  Awesome!  Go to basement shows and capture a kind of concert photography that rarely receives such a loving treatment.  

Do you love going to the drag shows at your neighbourhood gay bar?  Awesome!  Make friends with the organizers and get permission to shoot some behind-the-scenes images.

Etc, etc, etc...

Use only gear you need to get the shot.

It's easy to get caught up in the rat race of thinking you need more and better gear to make better images.  Avoid this way of thinking.  Figure out what gear you need for the project at hand, and purchase only that gear.  Buying more and more gear is a money sink, and that money is better spent getting interesting things in front of the camera.  Buying new gear is also a time sink; each new gadget you buy will require that you spend some time figuring out how to use it.  Again: that time is better spent figuring out how to get interesting things in front of your camera.

Modern camera are very sophisticated.  With a few notable exceptions, entry level gear is more than good enough to shoot professional quality images, providing you know how to use it.  Owning too much gear -- or excessively complicated gear -- can be a trap.  Always remember that you're shooting to make an audience of regular people feel something; you're not trying to impress those tedious "pro photog" types in internet forums.

Learn how to recognize a bad image.

This sounds like it should be obvious, but recognizing a bad shot is a skill that takes practice.  The definition of a "bad" shot is, obviously, highly subjective.  There are no hard and fast rules, but there are some common "mistakes" that run through all genres of photography.  Remember that you're welcome break the rules all you want, but it's important to know what rule you're breaking, and why. 

To start to develop a feel for what makes a bad image I'd suggestion you watch KelbyOne's The Grid Blind Critique episodes.  (Go HERE to watch for free on youtube.)  These will give a rough sense of some common "errors" that beginner photographers make and, better yet, the hosts often show you how to fix those issues in Lightroom/Photoshop.  (Note that I am not being sponsored by KelbyOne; I honestly doubt that Scott Kelby would want his brand associated with my work in any way.)  Start by watching the older episodes with Matt Kloskowski and RC Conception first; the newer episodes are light on critique and waste a lot of time with Scott reading comments from viewers who are in the live chat.  Watch enough blind critique episodes until you can anticipate what the critiques are going to be.  At this stage, stop watching and ignore everything the hosts say.  You've learned the rules, now you are free to break them.  

Note that The Grid blind critique episodes tend to avoid fine art photography and emphasize genres like landscape/travel/sports/etc, so sometimes the advice may feel a little bit prescriptive.  Of course fine art photography is less constrained than commercial photography, and it's worth bearing this distinction in mind while you watch the critiques.  However, I still think that aspiring fine art photographers will learn a lot by watching these episodes, especially early into their career.

Once you've found your voice as an artist, stick to that voice.  Trying new things is great, but try to keep a consistent "feel", at least within any given project.

When you're just starting out in photography (or any art form) the goal is to find your "voice".  Experiment, try different post-processing techniques, shoot different subjects, play around with lens choices, lighting rigs, etc.  See what works for you as an artist.  But once you've found a "look" that works for you, you will generally be best off not straying too far from that territory.  You want the audience to be able to look at your images and say "oh, that's a shot by So-And-So".  Think about the greats of photography: Ansel Adams is known for shooting landscapes in black and white and his work has a specific look where all the mid-tones are represented.  Diane Arbus is known for shooting outcast members of society in black and white.  Anders Petersen also shot black and white and his work shares a similar subject matter with Arbus, but there's a gritty grainy character to his images and a candid vulnerability to his subjects that makes his work instantly distinguishable from hers.  Joel Peter Witkin's best-known images all share his signature "scratched negative" look.  Having a consistent "feel" to their images helps these artists have a clear and easily recognized voice.  Audiences want to know what to expect from you.  (This discussion of "voice" is really the artist equivalent of branding, if you like.)

Think about this in the context of any other art form.  When people purchase the latest album by their favourite band, they have an expectation about what the music will sound like.  This is not to say that a musician can't evolve their sound.  Take Autechre as an example: their career has been marked by constant evolution and experimentation, but their music always sounds like Autechre.  It is possible to experiment too much: if the latest Autechre record was entirely acoustic folk music, the fans would be understandably annoyed.  When audiences go see a David Cronenberg film, they have an expectation about what kind of themes will be explored and how the movie will look.  When you purchase the latest Don Delillo novel, you have a reasonable expectation that the prose style and dialogue will conform to his signature style.  You want to find the thing that works for you as an artist, and you want to become known for that thing.

I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not saying one shouldn't try new things.  Experiment, try new stuff, be adventurous, etc.  What I'm saying is that you're (generally) going to be better off when that experimentation fits within the context of your pre-established voice.  You want to be evolving as an artist, rather than jumping haphazardly from one thing to the next.

Set your camera to spot metering and single point autofocus mode.

I realize that this sounds like a technical suggestion -- something that I promised I wouldn't do at the start of this article -- but it really isn't.  This is a conceptual point.  By setting your camera to single point autofocus and spot metering you are forcing yourself to choose a single subject in the image.  Wherever you place the focus square, that's the spot that's going to be in focus and that's the spot that's going to be properly exposed.  The rest of the image might be soft (depending on your F-stop) or it might be blown-out / clipped (depending on the contrast of the scene).  When you set your camera this way you are forcing yourself to choose a single point in the scene that is of penultimate importance.  Before firing the shutter you are forcing yourself to decide what the subject of the image is; on some level you are forcing yourself to decide what the image is about.  

Now, I get that for some readers this might sound like a trivial point, but for a lot of beginners it isn't.  Often beginning / amateur photographers will take a shot because intuitively they feel like there's something interesting about the scene, but they may not be able to articulate what exactly it is that's capturing their interest.  Setting your camera up like this is one way of forcing yourself to make that decision explicitly.

Shoot RAW and learn Lightroom / Photoshop (or some equivalent editing software).

I'm including this tip only because there are a surprising number of folks on the interwebs who seem to think that post-processing your images is "cheating" somehow.  In the most extreme cases I've even seen folks arguing that even cropping an image shouldn't be "allowed" because reasons.  The folks making this kind of argument are not serious people.  The truth is that post-processing accounts for a significant amount of what makes a professional shot look professional.  (If you're new to the game I suggest you watch some youtube videos showing start-to-finish edits in Lightroom so you can appreciate how big an impact a little toning and/or dodging & burning goes to making the "look" of the final product.  Serge Ramelli has a handful of youtube videos of this type, but he's certainly not the only photographer out there who's willing to show how the sausage gets made.)

Also, know that there's no special award for getting it right in camera or always shooting fully manual; audiences don't care, it doesn't influence your print sales, and there's no coherent reason that you (as a photographer) should care about this kind of silliness.  Don't fall into that silly trap of thinking that if you use the clone stamp tool or the spot healing brush you've somehow broken some golden rule of photography.  This way of thinking is silly and out of touch with the modern world.

Share your work with people, both in real life and online.  Social media is great, but you want to own your own platform.  

Don't be afraid to share your work with others.  A part of the creative act is making yourself vulnerable: when you share your work you are opening yourself up to criticism, or mockery, or derision.  Don't be put off by that fear.  Being an artist means being vulnerable, embrace it.  (If/when the mockery does come, it's useful to keep in mind that this is almost always coming from a place of cowardice; taking a shit on somebody else's art is usually an excuse that cowards use to justify the fact that they create nothing of value.  David Wong wrote a rather cogent article about this over at Cracked, of all places, skim down to the last item in that list to read the content I'm referring to.)

Share your stuff on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Flickr or 500px or ETSY or whatever site you like.  Those are all great websites.  But you want to have a homepage that belongs only to you.  You want to own your own domain name.  This is a part of branding yourself, and it's crucial to being taken seriously as an artist.  If you aspire to be a successful Instagrammer then that's awesome, I have nothing against that.  But know that a photographer with their own website is generally going to be taken more seriously as an artist, rightly or wrongly.  

If you don't want to learn Wordpress then that's fine, you don't need to.  It's easy as all shit to set up a website on Squarespace or Smugmug or some similar platform, and those sites usually look quite professional.  Even if you're not tech savvy at all, you can probably set up a professional looking website in an afternoon using templates.

Have fun!

Enjoy yourself.  Make images you'd want to hang in your own home.  Meet interesting people.  Have interesting conversations about your own work and about art in general.  Follow your passion.  I'm guessing you didn't go into fine art photography to get rich quick (if you did know that very few people are making a shit-load of money just from selling fine art photography prints) so you may as well enjoy yourself.  Making art is about doing something personal and idiosyncratic, so do that and enjoy it.

Book Review: Don DeLillo's Zero K by Neal Auch

Death has long been a favourite theme for Don Delillo.  Sometimes he comes at this theme somewhat orthogonally but in Zero K -- a novel that feels very much in dialogue with Delillo's classic work White Noise -- the topic is placed on centre stage.  

The plot of this novel concerns a young man who accompanies his estranged billionaire father and terminally ill stepmother to The Convergence, a high tech cryogenics facility buried deep below the desert landscape of  Kyrgyzstan.  The set-up borders on goofy science fiction territory, but the book never descents into that space.  Instead, because this is a Delillo novel, the scientists who run The Convergence speak in long, beautifully poetic quasi-religious, quasi-philosophical monologues and the cryogenics facility itself is decorated with cryptic modern art installations.  The facility and its denizens feel like a mix between a death cult, a successful Silicone Valley start-up, and a modern art museum.  Much of the novel is spent with our narrator wandering the austere halls of this facility, contemplating these strange art installations, contemplating mortality, contemplating the strange journey his mother in law will embark upon.  The narrative is full of space: empty hallways, empty rooms, long periods of waiting.  Even when we leave the cryogenic facility and return to the city the novel is still haunted by a feeling of vastness, of emptiness.  The characters often speak past each other in cryptic fragments of poetry.  This is pure Delillo.  It's the kind of stuff that I gather some readers can't stand but, personally, I love the ever loving fuck out of it.  It's also the kind of stuff that defies conventional review.  Delillo is best read like Beckett or Kafka, both of whom this novel recalls at points.   The reader is best off focusing on the poetry of the prose and mood and atmosphere.  There's a quote from Harold Hobson that I've always liked.  Hobson was speaking about Beckett, but his words might apply just as well here (and to Delillo's career writ large): "Beckett is a poet; and the business of a poet is not to clarify, but to suggest, to imply, to employ words with auras of association, with a reaching out towards a vision, a probing down into an emotion, beyond the compass of explicit definition. "

Zero K is Delillo's 16-th novel.  At this stage in his career his voice is so polished that he makes writing like this seem effortless.  I'm endlessly impressed by how much meaning Delillo can pack into a single sentence or a single image.  Near the beginning of the book our protagonist's father is wearing sunglasses indoors, which Delillo describes as "bringing the night inside".  In this single line we have a wonderful metaphor for the cryogenic experiment this man will later embark on: "bringing the night inside" here suggests an attempt to take control of the vast and mysterious darkness that surrounds us all.  The promise of cryogenics is an attempt to domesticate death, in some sense.  These kinds of gems are scattered throughout Zero K.  The novel ends on yet another wonderful metaphor.  I won't spoil it, but the final passage is painfully beautiful and does an impressive job of summing up Delillo's central thesis about death in a way that is at once both infinitely clear and infinitely open ended.

"Why are you doing this?" by Neal Auch

When I started this project my intention was to present the images without context or explanation.  This is more-or-less the norm for photography websites and, after all, I reasoned that the work should stand on its own and be left entirely for the viewer to parse.  What I learned rather quickly was that it's almost impossible to present this particular kind of work without simultaneously being called upon to explain it; the question "Why are you doing this?" came up so frequently that adding an elevator pitch explanation in my About page became necessary if for no other reason than to save me the time of repeating the same statements over and over.

For an artist, explaining your intentions in this way can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, I see no reason to obfuscate my own motivations in making this work and, moreover, I feel rather strongly that providing context to an art project can often deepen the work.  For example: consider Rose-Lynn Fisher's delightful work The Topography of Tears.  It's Fisher's explanation of the work -- left sidebar of that link -- that gives the project its sense of poetry; absent this and most viewers would think they're just looking at figures from a science textbook.  (Another example: just think of how much more enjoyable the modern art section of a museum becomes when you take the time to read the little placards.)  But the downside of including an explanation is that you risk alienating viewers who may not share your sentiments and/or would prefer to engage with the work on a purely aesthetic level.

In my case, my impression is that the majority of viewers who enjoy my work do so because they like the creepy horror-movie aesthetic, but they do not necessarily share my concerns about the ethics of eating animals.  And that's awesome!  I like horror movies and creepy stuff too, and this is absolutely a completely valid way to engage with this kind of art.  I have touched on this issue somewhat orthogonally elsewhere, but perhaps it bears repeating: I'm a visual artist first and foremost, and a vegan second.   My aim with this work is to present something that we interact with daily in a new and unfamiliar context and, perhaps, to inspire thought or conversation about contemporary animal farming practice.  Obviously I do not expect that any meat-lover who stumbles across my portfolio is going to trade in his bacon cheese burger for a PETA membership.

The concern of alienating the audience by contextualizing art is rather more salient in my case for one simple reason: the word "vegan" comes pre-loaded with certain political and rhetorical baggage, which is why I avoid using it in my About page.  There are certain folks out there who, as soon as this word comes up, assume that I am the kind of guy who would be joining these folks shrieking at patrons in a steak restaurant.  (For the record: while I'm sympathetic to their concerns, I find those particular "protesters" about as annoying as I imagine most meat eaters do.  I also think that their approach is counter productive in that it reveals nothing new; asking a meat-eater why they don't eat dog will just elicit the response "dogs are pets, not food", it doesn't strike at the core of the underlying carnism in any deep or thought-provoking way.)  

Fundamentally I think what's going on here is that any mention of ethical concerns over the factory farming of livestock primes a certain subset of viewers in such a way that they engage with the work as though it were activism, rather than art.  While this way of engaging is not what I had in mind when I took the photos, I suppose that it's somewhat unavoidable.  (On balance: this seems to be a minority of viewers, and it's likely that such folks are not the types who would enjoy my photography anyway, with our without the vegan context.)  Of course, at the end of the day I think that once an artist's work is out in the world viewers are entitled to interpret it as they see fit; the intentions of the artist may be of some interest but they do not override all other interpretations.

Book Review: Thomas Ligotti's My Work is Not Yet Done by Neal Auch

I love H.P. Lovecraft as much as the next creepy fellow out there and yet I do not share the interest many of my fellow horror nerds have with endlessly re-imagining and re-visiting his ideas/mythos/style/whatever.  To my mind I feel like that ground has been adequately covered, and I am much more interested in reading something that carves out new territory in this particular genre.  

So my interest was certainly piqued when I learned that "corporate horror" is apparently a thing that exists.  Thomas Ligotti's My Work is Not Yet Done is a collection of 3 tales (the titular novella, along with 2 short stories) that interweave demonic/supernatural horror with the drudgery of faceless corporatism, office gossip, and terrible bosses.  Think Franz Kafka meets Stephen King meets a Dilbert comic.  The result is a lot of fun, indeed.  Ligotti has a self-assured style, a distinctive voice, and displays a considerable amount of creativity in these 3 short works.  While the centrepiece of this collection is plainly intended to be the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, I was struck at how much fun the appended short stories were.  My impression was that, freed from the constraints of a longer narrative, Ligotti was able to let loose and get a bit more experimental/surreal with his writing.  This was my first exposure to Ligotti, but I am definitely planning to seek out more of his short stories.

Hamilton Art Crawl Tonight! by Neal Auch

Hello friends in Hamilton and the GTA!  Just a friendly reminder that I'll be at the Art Crawl tonight on James St N.  If you are in the area please swing by and say hello!

Update: I had a great time Art-Crawling!  Thanks for the support, Hamilton, it was great chatting with everybody and thanks so much to everybody who bought pieces.  By the end of the night I sold more prints than I took back home with me, which was fucking awesome.  You rule, Hamilton!

Anders Petersen and Coping with Harsh Light by Neal Auch

In my last blog post I used Diane Arbus as a jumping off point for illustrating the importance of subject matter in photography.  I might just as well have used the Anders Petersen; he shares Arbus' eye for compelling subject matter in portraiture.  But rather than re-tread ground that I've already covered, I'd like to use Petersen as a case study in clever ways to deal with hard light.

Anders Petersen is perhaps best known for his work Cafe Lehmitz, a series of candid portraits of the denizens of a dive bar in Hamburg's Reeperbahn.   In that work, and throughout much of his career, Petersen works with available light; no doubt carrying around cumbersome speedlight rigs would spoil the raw emotion and spontaneity that make his shots so compelling.  

I want to use the images above to ground a semi-technical discussion on how Petersen often uses unflattering available light to great effect.  First off the obvious: he's shooting in black & white.  It's hardly a new observation that harsh light usually looks better in monochrome and, moreover, one has a lot more latitude with dodging and burning in post-processing.  

The second interesting feature of these images is that Petersen lets the highlights blow out.  He's presumably exposing for the shadows, which are still dark but have a richness of detail and texture.  (In the first image above compare the skin detail on the left side of the woman's face with the right.)  I think this missing information provides a sense of mystery to the images, but it's interesting that Petersen wants to leave the mystery in the brightest parts of the image, not in the darkness, which is rich with detail and on full display.  Perhaps Petersen intends a visual metaphor here?  Too pretentious?

Finally, the last interesting thing I wanted to note about these images is the way Petersen uses the harsh light as a design element.  In the first image note how the single line of line of light (presumably from blinds that are slightly ajar) slices the woman's figure in two.  In the second image note how the slivers of light (presumably from venetian blinds) creates an interesting pattern on the subject's face.  Of course this option isn't always available, but when possible it can be used to great effect, as Petersen has shown us here.  Great stuff.

Diane Arbus' Untitled and the Importance of Subject Matter by Neal Auch

The internet is full of listicles with titles like "10 tips for becoming a better photographer" or "5 tips to make your photographs more compelling", usually focusing the discussion on technical stuff like depth of field, hard vs soft light, the rule of thirds, the importance of having a clean background, etc.  This is all great stuff and I have nothing against articles of this type, but here I wanted to emphasize something that's often omitted (or perhaps left implicit) in these discussions: subject matter.  The most important part of making a compelling image is putting something interesting in front of the camera.  I sometimes think about this in terms of a (decidedly non-vegan) culinary analogy: the subject matter is like the steak, post-processing is like the seasoning, composition/lighting/F-stop/etc are like the cooking process.  If you have a garbage cut of meat then it may well be possible to make a tasty meal, as long as the chef is brilliant and the seasonings are incredible.  However, as a general rule, your dinner is going to end up a lot better if you started with a good steak.  It's the same with photography.  While a great artist can perhaps make interesting imagery out of some completely banal quotidian subject matter, most viewers would probably rather look at a poorly executed shot of something they've never seen before.  Given the choice between a brilliantly composed, well lighted, gorgeously retouched image of a fire hydrant, and a cell phone snapshot of a 6 legged tiger, I'm probably going to ponder over the latter for quite a while longer.

This is certainly not a profound point that I'm making, but I'm often surprised at how often articles about how to create more compelling photographs seem to omit the fact that the most important part of the process has nothing to do with the camera or editing or lighting.  This is the reason that great fashion photographers hire professional models, rather than just shooting their friends and family.  This is the reason that great landscape photographers hike out to amazing vistas, rather than just shooting at the park down the street from their house.  It's no different for fine art photography.

Diane Arbus was a brilliant photographer and her book Untitled makes for a fantastic case study in the importance of subject matter.  This was Arbus' final project: a series of intimate candid portraits taken at residences for the mentally handicapped between 1969 and 1971.  There's a legitimate discussion one could have about whether this work is exploitative, how/if consent was obtained for these shots, and the ethics of photographing the most vulnerable members of society in order to make an art book.  But here I'm going to side-step that discussion and treat the images on their own merits.  (For what it's worth I personally find Arbus' Untitled to be tender and humane and raw, not exploitative, but I am aware that not all viewers will come away with this impression.)

Here are a few images from the book to ground the discussion:

I think there can be little question that these shots are compelling.  And yet, it's easy to nit-pick and find technical "faults" here.  All these images are shot in harsh midday sun, the backgrounds are often messy and distracting, the horizon lines are often crooked, in some cases the subjects are dead centre in the frame, feet and shoulders are cropped out, ...  But I would guess that 99% of viewers don't notice or (like me) don't care about these things because every one of those images is absolutely affecting.  This wasn't a camera setting, and it wasn't something Arbus did in the darkroom, and it's not a trick of composition.  Those portraits are fascinating because Arbus put something fascinating in front of the camera before she fired the shutter.

Book Review: Blake Butler's There is no Year by Neal Auch

A while back I decided to try an experiment with crowd-sourcing my reading list to social media.  I got lots of great suggestions and discovered a bunch of awesome new authors, but I think it's fair to say that Blake Butler's There is No Year has been one of the true highlight of this little experiment. This novel is a truly delightful exercise in weirdness that I probably never would have stumbled across on my own.

I would strongly recommend There is no Year to anybody who enjoyed House of Leaves; both books share the "family in a creepy house where things aren't quite right" setting, and both are stylistically innovative, although Butler's writing feels less like a puzzle to be solved and more like a hallucinogenic experience. Comparisons with David Lynch films abound in reviews of this book, and that's certainly the vibe that Butler has captured here. Personally this book reminded me a lot of Eugene Ionesco's plays (especially the Bald Soprano), in that there is no plot in the conventional sense, but nevertheless the book seems to have a 3 act structure where the narrative progresses by gradually becoming more and more absurd. Admittedly Ionesco is usually thought of as a comedy writer whereas Butler is going for horror, so there's that distinction. But I think that distinction isn't really so substantive.  For one thing: I belong to a minority of readers who consider Ionesco's plays to be horror stories, so for me the analogy is apt.  And, for another thing: while the overall vide of There is no Year is certainly creepy, there is a lot of humour in here. 

It's difficult to articulate exactly why Butler's prose is so compelling, but I think a part of the appeal is how wonderfully visual this book is.  Butler is endlessly imaginative and the reader is propelled along but on ongoing stream of delightfully strange set pieces.  I really can't recommend this book strongly enough.

Book Review: J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition by Neal Auch

J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition is a book that reads like an art exhibit.  

This book is devoid of most of the ingredients that normally comprise literature.  The bulk of the novel is divided into individually titled paragraphs; these function rather like the individual pieces that comprise an art exhibition in that these fragments are thematically connected, but do not comprise a linear narrative in any sense.  Rather, the reader's eyes are allowed to meander about the page, focusing on fragments that attract her attention, ignoring others, darting back and forth throughout the book as desired.  It's difficult to give a sense of what the individual "pieces" that comprise this novel are like.  Here I've quoted one paragraph in its entirety to give a sense:

Go, No-Go Detector.  These deaths preoccupied Tavers.  Malcolm X: the death of terminal fibrillation, as elegant as the trembling of hands in tabes dosalis; Jayne Mansfield: the death of the erotic function, the polite section of the lower mammary curvature by the glass guillotine of the windshield assembly; Marilyn Monroe: the death of her moist loins; the falling temperature of her rectum described in the first marriage of the cold perineum and the white rectilinear walls of the twentieth-century apartment; Jaqueline Kennedy: the notional death, defined by the exquisite eroticism of her mouth and the insane logic of her leg stance; Buddy Holly: the capped teeth of the dead pop singer, like the melancholy dolmens of the Brittany coastline, were globes of milk, condensations of his sleeping mind.

The book carries on in this spectacular fashion for some 100 pages, or so.  (The final few chapters abandon this structure for reasons that are not clear to me...)

The effect of The Atrocity Exhibition is remarkably like the feeling of wandering about an art museum.  Indeed, not only is this book structured like an art exhibition, the emotional impact of each "piece" on me was similar to the effect of consuming visual art.  I found myself lingering over the more compelling fragments for much longer than I would spend on a paragraph in a conventional novel.  It seems that without the drive of a plot to carry one forward, the mind tends to drift into introspection and abstraction.  I have read this book several times now and find myself returning to it from time to time as a source of inspiration.  

Hamilton Art Crawl: Friday June 9 on James St N by Neal Auch

Friends in Hamilton and the GTA: barring unforeseen circumstances, I'm planning to be out Art-Crawling this Friday June 9 on James St N. (I'll update with my exact location on that date.)

I'll be selling prints, of course. For this kind of event I tend to focus on smaller sized prints (4X6, 8X10, etc) so that it's not too cumbersome to carry around and also to keep the price point down, but I will have a few larger pieces and, of course, I'm happy to make large format custom prints if that's what you're looking for.

If you're in the area please feel free to swing by and say hello!

Album Review: The Humming Tapes by Cities Last Broadcast by Neal Auch

Experimental music is a bit like poetry (or photography for that matter) in that, when a piece works it tends to work because of the confluence of a number of small details working in synchronicity.  This makes the difference between a piece that resonates brilliantly and one that falls flat rather subtle, and it also means that this distinction can be painfully difficult to articulate to listeners who aren't necessarily familiar with the ins and outs of the genre.  Therein lies the difficulty of a reviewing albums like The Humming Tapes.  The album just works and it's hard to put your finger on why it works which is, I suspect, the reason that most reviews of this genre of music tend to linger unhelpfully over visual metaphors and vague references to atmospherics and soundscapes and dense resonances.  This review will be no different, but I shall throw caution to the wind and proceed nonetheless!

Cities Last Broadcast is a solo project of Pär Boström (a veteran of the dark ambient scene who's perhaps best known for his earlier work with Kammarheit).   With Cities Last Broadcast Boström experiments with a decidedly vintage sonic palate; the album is full of the sounds of detuned pianos, old creaking architecture, the warm hiss shortwave static, the warbles of an old radio scanning frequencies, ...  This is the aspect of the album that really resonated with me and the first track, Lights Out, probably best exemplifies this delightful intersection between old-time-y instrumentation and modern creepy dark ambient sensibility.  Lights Out is sadly also the shortest track on the album; I would have loved to hear a lot more of this.

For a while I was obsessed with listening to digitizations of old recordings from the turn of the century (there's lots of be found on the Internet Archive).  I loved hearing all the hiss and crackle and fuzz and imperfections of those old recordings, and it's this fascination that Boström has tapped into with The Humming Tapes.  However, Boström has the benefit of modern mixing tools and is able to capture those gritty noises with a wonderfully deep production that gives the whole record a great sense of space, like we are hearing these tones resonating through an empty cathedral that's been left rotting in some war torn corner of Eastern Europe.  (Remember earlier when I warned you about the unhelpful visual metaphors that plague reviews like this?)

But enough waxing poetic...  The album just works.  For me the first 4 tracks worked the best; there the detuned pianos and crackling hisses and old-time-y noises seem to take centre stage, while for the last 4 tracks the focus feels like it's on more familiar dark ambient mainstays, like slow droning synth melodies.  But this is, of course, just my impression and I have no doubt that other listeners will have different preferences.  All in all a delightful album that I would only be too happy to recommend to fans of dark ambient.

Book Review: George Bataille's Blue of Noon by Neal Auch

Blue of Noon is a charmingly inscrutable little erotic novel that details the various perverse and destructive exploits of its protagonist, all set against the backdrop of Europe's pre-WWII descent into fascism.  Although this is not Bataille's most famous work of erotic fiction -- that would be The Story of the Eye -- I've always thought that it's his strongest.  While much of Bataille's writing feels cold and detached to me, Blue of Noon strikes a surprisingly human note amid the din of depravity.  The plot of the novel, such as it is, seems to exist largely to connect the two wonderful set-pieces that bookend the novel: the drunken scene of scatological hotel room debauchery that opens the story, and the strangely touching sex scene set on a cliff overlooking a candle-lit graveyard that functions as the climax for the narrative.  The final sequence of the novel is an ominous description of a group of Hilter Youth playing drums and fifes before an empty rain-drenched square, the background music for our protagonist's contemplation of the imminent war and his own impending death.

Most writing about Bataille seems to be rather academic in nature and tends to focus on his philosophical work.  Personally, nothing could interest me less about this figure.  At its best, Bataille's writing is the fever dream of a drunk philosopher, scrawled out hastily with one hand on the typewriter and the other wrapped firmly around his cock.  To subject this kind of writing to scholarly analysis seems counterproductive to me.  This is a novel that functions like great portraiture: at the end of the day one is left with more questions than answers and yet the experience is somehow wholly satisfying.

Travel Photography: Montreal's Tam Tams by Neal Auch

In Montreal they have this weekly informal festival in Mont Royal Park that the locals call the Tams Tams. The centrepiece of the festivities is a giant freeform hippy drum circle with hundreds of folks drumming and dancing and drinking and smoking weed. It's pure Montreal and it's fucking glorious. Off to the side of the drum circle there's a regular event where dozens and dozens of people garbed in duct tape medieval costumes and carrying nerf weaponry engage in these big crazy live action role-play battles. This is an old shot I took a few summers ago of one of my favourite warriors. The eyes aren't photoshop; this guy was wearing demon contact lenses for the event.

Book Review: Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless by Neal Auch

Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless is quite possibly the punkest book I have ever read.

It would be a fool's errand to try and summarize the plot of this novel, but it suffices to say that the stream of consciousness narrative involves a post apocalyptic wasteland, CIA conspiracies, drugs, a character who is "part robot, part black", and shit-loads of sex, violence, and sexual violence. There are some negative reviews of Acker's work online, mostly focusing on how her writing is rough around the edges. This, it seems to me, misses the point. This is a novel that is all rough edges; the novel is about rough edges. Just as some albums demand to be listened to on high volume to be properly appreciated, so this book demands to be read quickly and drunkenly at 3am.  Acker's writing seems to owe a lot to William S. Burroughs -- one of my favourite authors and someone who I'll have to write about in this space at a later date -- although she certainly has a unique voice and the novel never feels derivative.  Personally, I found it rather refreshing to see a female voice tackling this particular style of stream of consciousness writing that revels in the most sordid aspects of the human condition.

Book Review: Tom McCarthy's Remainder by Neal Auch

From time to time on social media I find myself rambling on about books, or visual art, or music, or whatever else happens to be a source of inspiration for me.  I've decided to start moving this content from my social media accounts over to my blog since, after all, my thoughts of this stuff constitutes a part of my creative process and it seems natural that they should find a home alongside my own artistic output.

Kicking off my new series of "Art & Inspiration" blog posts is Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder.  Hot holy fuck I don't have enough good things to say about this delightfully odd story of a millionaire amnesiac who becomes obsessed with reenacting various banal events from his past. There is an incredible formal accomplishment here in how McCarthy manages to keep the reader fully engaged in a narrative that is often repetitive and focussed on minutia. In the end I was reminded a bit of Don DeLillo -- specifically The Names and Mao II. While these works are stylistically very different, I think that both authors share an interest in charting the descent of a strange kind of conceptual art project into amorality and violence. But where DeLillo's writing tends to drift into poetry and come at these themes somewhat orthogonally, McCarthy's writing seems to plow towards its inevitable conclusion like a car crash. And the fucking ending of this book. I won't spoil it but goddamn that's some beautiful shit right there.  The final passage of this novel is ambiguous and open ended while, at the same time, providing a perfect and satisfying sense of closure to the story.  Incredible.