This is going to be a two-part piece, a before and after. The before is now, me writing about The Sartorialist from what I know of him on the web, which is all that most people would know of the work. The after will be later this week after going to see the prints in Danziger, the current show.
I think it might be useful to make this distinction, between the work on the web and the work on the wall, because it is the apparent basis of the rabbit that Schuman and Danziger and to a greater extent perhaps, the internet, has pulled out of a jauntily tipped fedora. More on rabbits at the end. So how does one take a photographic novice, add three years, a blogger account and a ton of legwork and get “the leading photographer of the blogosphere” and “the first real fine art photographer of the digital age?”
Gallery hyperbole aside, I want to consider the following: what is it? Is it fashion photography, portrait photography, documentary or street? How do those elements mix? Is the translation from the web to the gallery wall successful? And the larger picture, the emergence of the attention economy.
But this is an appreciation so let me be appreciative, it is fun to read the blog and see through his eyes his development as a photographer. There is a post from shall we say “late career” Sartorialist about an english gentleman and he writes “I always am a little in awe of someone that can stand so still when they are having their photo taken.” and you can see that he is aware of these things, certain moments in photography that occur. I like that he adds these kinds of comments, to me it indicates that he is sensitive to the process. And also, if you look at the whole of it, from beginning to end, the pictures do get a lot better in the last year, and not so much from the subject, but from his attention to figure/ground relationships. It is very hard to make good portraits on the fly, in uncontrolled situations, so when you see those that work, and work as photographs, it is great.
But that is my question, is this portraiture, fashion, documentary, street, fashion illustration, or what? Maybe this is a synthetic question, by his own standards the Sartorialist was primarily interested in creating an inspirational style notebook. But there is no denying with the gallery opening that this has gone to another level, a level where we are being asked to consider this work as something more. So what is that? My feeling from looking at the blog over and over is that these are not portraits in the sense that they are conveying a subjective human quality about the sitters. All of the stylistic elements of portraiture are there, the indicators that make you think these are portraits, but the more I dig into the work the more I am left with the fact that it is primarily the style of the surface we are being shown. In other words, it is photography in service of style, and and not the other way around. So then the question is, is that a judgement of the work, or is this the limit of the format to begin with? I think it is the latter, although it needn’t be. I think it is a question of priorities, and when style is the priority, everything else will tend to diminish. You see, I think it is possible to create a compelling portrait of someone in a fraction of a second, that is what photography can do. Especially street photography. But then the photographer is not really paying attention to the things that The Sartorialist is paying attention to, style, detail, coordination, pattern, color, etc. The street photographer is paying sideways attention to that, and keeping aware of everything that is going on trying to synthesize something from the chaos. I think these are different kinds of attention.
So is a portrait not a portrait when it only describes surface? Is that what I am saying? Actually no. I think in photography all we can do is describe surfaces, all we have is light on surface. But it is the surface that reveals a depth. And the depth is the dimension of human emotion, conflict, joy, reaction, anger, etc. There are moments here, a few. But taken as a whole the sitters display either a consistent good humour or sometimes a fashion-y pout, learned no doubt from fashion photography. There are some where you do get to “I am here,” which is a good place to be in a portrait, and a hard place to get to most times. I hope when I see the prints there is more of this in the edit. It does make me think of Vincent Gallo in Buffalo ’66 when he is taking the photo-booth portrait with Christina Ricci and he admonishes her not to smile-”We are spanning time!” he says, as if we could somehow get back to that kind of innocence. But that is something that has been lost in photography, today it is almost impossible to replicate the kind of Mike Disfarmer look which is not a look but a confrontation in reality. Everyone is thoroughly familiar now with the “affects” of photography. I think sometimes you can see it in school portraits of young children, I have some of my nephews, and a standout features a particular grimace, an untrained smile, it is entirely natural and beautiful, it is a kind of anti-smile, the smile you make before you know what you look like to others in pictures and have assimilated that.
Invoking Disfarmer means also invoking Sander, and the NY Times article made that connection. So I am not going to equate what others say about the work with what The Sartorialist says or does. The comparisons to Sander are pretty thin, that work was made in an entirely different mode, and without the hindsight that photography itself renders, the patina of nostalgia. In this case looking like a duck and acting like a duck is not the same thing as being a duck. I think it shows how our aspirations for photography have changed, Sander was working in the scientific, encyclopedic mode, and at a time when science was regarded as the inexorable way towards enlightenment and the future. His work was to be a catalogue, a kind of phrenology of social types through which objective and accurate knowledge could be gained. Today photography aspires less to record reality than to transform it and escape from it.
While others have worked in this vein before, (I am thinking of Jake Chessum, for New York Magazine. I think Jake’s work is addressing individuality more than style, at least that is my opinion of it. It does not have the attention that the Sartorialist pays to a cuff, a hem, etc. So they are very different in that sense..) I think the biggest difference and lesson is how The Sartorialist has successfully capitalized on the emerging attention economy. Basically, as the amount of available information grows, our ability to pay meaningful attention to any of it decreases. In advertising for example, this means unfortunately that our commercials are louder than the surrounding programming! How I hate that! In the attention economy it is a competition for eyeballs, and there are winners and losers. Looking at our media it is clear that the winners of the attention economy are those that address our aspirations and dreams, to be famous, to be beautiful, to be rich, to be desired.
The blog mechanism is a key component, plus the community of people who comment. This is an interactive ecomony, very different from the static magazine page. I think in that aspect it is the potential and the limitation of the format. The attention economy demands a certain kind of transaction be performed to maintain itself. You see this on many blogs, the commentary is in the majority favourable, the attitude definitely shies away from any negativity or controversy. You could regard this as sunny humanism or servile flattery depending on if you are a cup half full or half empty type. Judging from my writing you might think I would opine the latter but I think it is more complicated than that, or at least it serves my purpose better to regard it that way.
As this transaction gains momentum, the attention economy creates a new kind of wealth which is manifested in “persona” like stars, pundits, the notorious, etc. The persona of “The Sartorialist” allows you to invest in the aspiration of what he is creating. It would not work as “Scott Schuman’s blog.” (guess I am S-O-L) And surrounding this figure of The Sartorialist are the fans, those who leave comments and those who don’t to the tune of tens of thousands of blog hits a day. This is a “real” thing in the sense that it creates a new kind of property, and it has a value. Besides the value of the advertising revenue garnered from the site, there are very “real” prints are being sold in a very real gallery. I think it is even larger than that. If you buy into this idea of the attention economy it has the potential to displace the conventional forms of revenue I have just mentioned.
This brings me around to the art-world connection. Danziger said The Sartorialist was “the first real fine art photographer of the digital age.” This statement is revealing. I know it miffed a lot of photographers to hear that. I can only imagine what the other artists in Danzigers stable think of the project. But if you take my argument above, I think this is representative of how the attention economy has transformed the traditional economy, in this case the art gallery. I might be tempted to re-write the statement to be “the first real photographer of the digital age,” which is to state the reality of the new form of wealth created by the attention economy. The fact that he said “fine art” before photographer shows that there is still some insecurity there, the fact that we have to pay lip service to fine art in the gallery context. I don’t believe there is any way we can justify the work as fine art, and this has nothing to do with photography per se, which is the usual nervous-making aspect of these things. The fact that these are well made photographs does not equate them to fine art. And I don’t believe I am saying anything negative here with respect to the photographs, I am just saying this project is of a different sort as I have described. Maybe someone else has coined this phrase, but it seems to be “attention aesthetic” is a good way to describe the style of The Sartorialists photographs. The photography only has to be good enough to create and keep your attention. It is not a photograph or a question of fine art but a kind of a conversation, like when people say “you know?” It gets you to react, to confirm you are listening.
So in this way we can see the gallery show was not the culmination of a project, as is the tradition, but is a way of extending the conversation, extending the attention. It may seem that it refers to all the trappings of the art world, but that is only superficial, and perhaps unnecessary. Danziger definitely had to placate a traditional mindset which is why it conformed to the mode of “gallery opening.” And the little bit of bait in the form of price, 1200$ and the quote “I have not seen those prices in 10 years” does leave a hopeful note that you too are getting in on the ground floor. Speaking of ground floors, the line outside the gallery at the opening (which I did not attend) was evidently beset by other hopeful proto-sartorialists snapping the snappy dressers. It may not bode so well for them alas. In this respect the first-to-market has the advantage, a rule that holds over from the traditional economy. I fear the same goes for the print collectors. Will their investment hold? And does this question even make sense?
Getting back to rabbits and ducks my conclusion is that this is a horse of a different color. On the face of it, an amazing coup that an “emerging photographer” could attain such heights in such a short time. In reality, a fashion merchandiser creating the next logical marketing form. And maybe not something that could be foreseen, which makes it brilliant and unique.
You will have to wait until later in the week when I have had a chance to see these physical prints for the second part. In some ways the actual show may not relevant given what I have discussed. We shall see what we shall see.
For now I will leave you with a quote I found as I was searching for definitions of “real property.” It is from the Velveteen Rabbit, a book I have not read in a good ten years, but obviously a favourite. I thought it was a nice antidote to all this stylishness;
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” [Margery Williams, "The Velveteen Rabbit"]
I think this demonstrates that kind of attention we all really want to get, that is, love, despite how we look.
Read here about attention economy and Micheal Goldhaber.