Book Review: Photography After Photography

I LOVE getting art books from my favourite bookshops in the city, and I hope that bookshops as a venue for the discovery of awesomely bound volumes of literature and art of the graphic and fine varieties alike stay around a while longer – even as the digital age threatens to sweep those institutions away.

Which is ironic that I’m fearing this while I’m reading Photography After Photography: Memory and Representation In The Digital Age. It’s a book from the 1990s. a time capsule that while seeming quaint in some areas – present concerns that are still all too real now. It’s a (very) early history of digital photography and the directions it was predicted to go in at the time it was written. At the time it was written, JPG. was considered the standard for digital photo formats, and machines that digitised photos cost up to $20,000 dollars as the book reports.

And admittedly, in the early days of digital photography when this book came out (i.e., the first four years of my life or so) nob0dy could have seen the digital revolution of technology in photography coming. This book is dated in the sense that it doesn’t really know how the internet and Wikileaks would later change the face of photos taken in authoritarian regimes leaking to democratic countries, but it is eerie to see how concerned human beings as a species in general were concerned that machines and technology would consume our humanity, consume our identity – generally de-humanising us rather than giving us a photographic record of our lives that was tangible. Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are almost harbingers of the apocalypse to the authentic, trustworthy photographic image, and Photoshop’s shadow over journalistic integrity are yet to be felt. It is a strange experience indeed to view the all to recent past in the present, it’s like reading your horoscope from 1993 in the year 2011. It’s not exactly going to be in date even if you believe in it, but it’s a talisman from a very nebulous academic period where a Jetsons-inspired tech based future was as eagerly anticipated as it was feared.

This book is the story, an incomplete story as it may be, of a photography changing formats from analogue to digital, and how this sweeping change terrified as much as it excited practitioners of photography at the time. It was a strange era, where technology could have destroyed us as much as it could have saved us. In an era with no true ideological enemy, academia focused its targeting sights on technology, which they feared was making humanity change faster than it could evolve. Analogue photography is today threatened to be phased out, much to the despair of hipsters who post on their blogs their Lomography shots with their toy cameras loaded with film ammunition that allows the user to shoot for the kill they can bring back to their blog to display to their digital caveman tribe.

There is much worrying over the fate of analogue photography, and analogue film stock these days. When (not if) it completely disappears from both amateur and professional practice, will the children my generation raise even understand that there used to be a time when “running out of film” wasn’t a matter of how much space you have on your DSLR’s memory card? Will my children, God help me to even imagine that happening to me when I haven’t even had my first love yet, even know what it was like to physically hold a negative of film as something that could be destroyed instead of infinitely reproducible from copies of copies, as losseless file formats allow digital photography and video to become more convenient to copy and paste than ever?

This book is a walk through history, a revelation from my early childhood – when the world was still young to me and I wasn’t old enough to take an interest in academia that was researched and catalogued like this. There are artists who are showcased in this book that I’ve seen in high school art textbooks before, and even though I’ve never seen or read this book before my art school Photomedia degree, it seems all so familiar, like some of the artists were old friends whom seeing makes you feel so young again. It’s like I’m finally old enough to listen to what all this theory stuff had to say, what it meant for the world it came from and what it continues to mean for the world we now live in. As dated as some of this is, compared to other books I’ve borrowed and returned from my art school campus library, this one alone had some legit staying power as a document history that could use a revisited sequel volume for our post Wikileaks and social networking world.

I’ve enjoyed reading this book of academic theory like no other, it goes through not just recent Photography and Media history, covering key points in the 1990s where media was first touched by scandals of image retouching and manipulating, but it teaches you truths that photography has been lying to you long before Photoshop came to the scene. Photos have been lying you since your granddaddy’s day, Frank Capa lied to you now and again, dictators lied to you, even colonial Britain used the limited technologies of the time with their antique cameras to lie their asses off.

It is the story of how we assumed that photography told the truth as it began to be distrusted, when really we shouldn’t have trusted it at face value to begin with… but as a medium, photography presents its own opportunities and challenges for a post-digital humanity and future. And I’d recommend it as one of the spur-of-the-moment academic responses that held up better than a lot of opportunistic theses on the subject of digital photography at the time.


Justify My DVDs: Brian DePalma’s Scarface

Say hello to my little friend. Literally. His name is withheld, but he was the guy who exposed me to this damn movie when I was about twelve years old.

Back then, saying I’d seen the whole movie would be an exaggeration. In reality, my mate from primary school ended up fast-forwarding the “boring bits” and just kept to the parts where Tony Montana shot people in the head, or got one of his goons to do it for him. Such ignorance of the point of Scarface probably infected the youth of my too-young-to-watch-this-flick-at-the-time generation, and they proceeded to think that Tony Montana, and as Gore Vidal would say, the way he lived, loved, and died, was bloody awesome. My friend was twelve or so years old at the time, half-Spanish and of strong, plentiful balls. He was the perfect, if misguided, audience for this movie. In later years he was a bit like Tony Montana without the power, or the money, or the women. Kinda sad, really.

This movie, as I found out, has been a massive cult hit for fans and practitioners alike of the rap and hip hop community. Whether they’ve massively misinterpreted this movie remains to be seen, but let it be known throughout the internetz that while this film has been misinterpreted by urban and suburban youths alike for two decades now, it’s still a quality, entertaining gangster flick that manages to combine the action packed shootouts of the gangster lifestyle glamourised in movies with the more business (or as my primary school friend used to call it, “boring”) elements of the drug game. This movie is a lengthy sit, which would normally be to a film’s detriment but further adds to the argument that this movie is best watched as a twenty-something adult rather than as an impressionable teenager from the projects, the suburbs, or wherever else.

Rewatching this movie after so many years thinking of it as a blatant cash in on the macho youth aspect of growing up as a man in contemporary first world society – I realise I may have misinterpreted this movie almost as badly as the young men I shared my formative years with. It was never about glorifying the lifestyle of a macho douchebag, or claiming that such an ideology of masculinity was superior to alternative ideas of manhood were inferior. It is a movie about a man who sees himself as the kind of man that the young men of my generation sometimes fantasise about being, but even he does not reach his lofty goal of completely living the dream.

It is the most ironic aspect of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, he puts up his lifestyle on a pedestal just like youth culture put him on one, but he has feet of clay because he can’t live up to his own bullshit claims about how the politicians and businessmen are “the real bad guys” and that whole, somewhat troubling “first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women” idea of how male-female courtship works. Sure, it works for some people, if all you be fishing for is gold diggers, sucka. Let’s just say that the kind of women who go for guys like Tony Montana aren’t exactly there for his personality – attractive as they may be, their personalities have a bit to be desired. Tony Montana himself is a weasel of a man who’ll claim all he has is his word and his balls, but he’ll screw you over just as easily as the rest of the gangsters in the game.

If there is any moral to this movie, it’s not just an anti-drug movie, it’s a movie that implies the game of gangstas and drug-deals is a game that much like “The Game” where you lose it as soon as you think about The Game in any context, is a game best left to utterly bored and amoral people who will troll the people crazy enough to play it. The drug game is portrayed as a luxurious but empty lifestyle. I’d sure as hell enjoy a lot of the dance clubs depicted in this movie than the horrible discordant noise of contemporary dance clubs, but I’m not exactly a man who’s into drugs that aren’t prescribed by my doctor (and a fine doctor he is, hey, maybe if Tony Montana would have seen him he wouldn’t have been gunned down by Bolivians).

The movie has a very 1980s cinematography, and on a digital video format like DVD, the film stock’s cleaned up a lot, but it’s not like 1970s exploitation cinema which has a specific look which is lost when it comes to restoring it for modern media formats. I imagine the Blu-Ray of this coming out later this year is gonna look awesome, but the important thing is in this review, after having seen the film on DVD, would I buy it? As a suburban white male, I have to say, YES.

Look, there are certain things I don’t like about the glorification of the hip hop lifestyle, but to a certain extent, most blokes in my shoes aren’t exactly going to try and BECOME Tony Montana just because they went to the video store up the road and rented this nigh-three-hour ode to 1980s excess and Hollywood stereotypes I’m pretty sure the Cuban community in America and writers like Junot Diaz have been shaking their fist at ever since this remake of Howard Hawks’s Scarface was released.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s not perfect in the same sense that a lot of entertaining movies are imperfect. I’ll defend the movie Akira as a masterpiece to my last dying day, but there will always be detractors who say it was too long or too silly to be put in the same criterion as Hayao Miyazaki’s works. For that analogy to make sense, you’d have to compare the grim and gritty Otomo versus the kid friendly Miyazaki, to the idea that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, save the third one, is probably going to be held in higher regard to DePalma’s Scarface. But I think Scarface has different goals to The Godfather, and both gangsters inhabit vastly different worlds which are apart from each other.

I’m no expert on gangster cinema, but if the 50 Cent fanboy in your life can stomach a long-ass movie, your main man could do worse than pop this in your DVD player and sit around with his crew to chill and watch some cinematic rendering of what you hope he will never aspire to emulate outside of his post-adolescent fantasy.

Justify My DVDs: Frisky Dingo Season 1 and 2

Frisky Dingo is one of those shows that you love or hate, and I loved it but he HATED it. Sibling rivalry is one thing, but this is one of those times when my brother’s need to have a snarky opinion goes too far. Frisky Dingo is funny, no doubt. It’s just very… random. Random as in you’re laughing because just plain surreal elements are thrown at you with this show. You have to understand once you take the plunge into this show that that’s how the show rolls, and in this case instead of bros before shows, I’m going to go with shows before bros. Spoilers below.

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Micro Book Review: Basho: The Complete Haiku

“Good old Basho!” – James Bond, You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

With these words I was introduced via unconventional methods to this haiku master. Ian Fleming may have been a sexist and a racist – but his appreciation of the finer things in a less than refined atmosphere must be acknowledged.

Basho’s haiku defined generations of Japanese haiku poetry – even earning him the status of a sort of haiku god or Kami as the Japanese call him. The poetry of haiku is very pared down expressions of nature in a set structure that is able to invoke the strongest of mental images from so little, that the power of haiku as an artform is underestimated.

Haiku appears in Western poetry and literature from everywhere from the James Bond books by Ian Fleming, to the Beat Generation poets, and even to stuff that’s more contemporary like Zombie Haiku and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club where the nameless narrator makes what’s meant to be calming poems of nature into passive aggressive fury at society.

All this we wouldn’t have without Basho – the much argued master of haiku who spent many years revising the haiku and travel journals he created as he lived a kind of monk lifestyle even though he was not ordained. He traveled in perilous times, but his tenacity to experience the nature Japanese society would later lose hold of is heartwarming when we now live in urbanised cities trying to shut nature away.

Highly recommended.

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Text Copyright © Jacob Martin 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Micro Review: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

I don’t remember a lot from a book the first time I read it – so this book left a big enough impression on me that I remembered enough this time to warrant a review.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome is one of those lazy Sunday afternoon reads. If you’ve got nothing better to do, I recommend you read this instead of booting up Facebook games for the billionth time today – because it’s come back in vogue to read this classic of three guys bumming around and generally being toffs while drinking tea and roughing it because the inns are full. It reminds one of simpler times when women were seen as property, and going to jail meant being transported to Australia for life… SCREW THAT I’M GLAD THOSE THINGS ARE GONE, at least the transported to Australia part, because in some countries women are still seen as property. It’s a fun read to be sure, but it is a reflection of its times at some points. I was coming into this one cold – I didn’t read the introduction text to give me an idea of what the historical context was – but at one point one of the guys uses the N word in regards to referencing bad fashion sense. I mean, really.

But Jacob! I hear people who know me in real life cry, isn’t Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard even more racist than this book ever was, and you liked those just fine? Well you got me there, I must admit, but I just didn’t see it coming with this book. I expect utter sexism and racism from the likes of Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft – because it’s well documented. With Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome just throws it out there, and you don’t even see it coming. There’s references to the Scold’s Bridle – and one of the men remarks that they stopped making them because there wasn’t enough iron to go around in those days. The unfortunate implications of what these guys think of women is atrocious – and yet this book is considered good young lad’s reading merely because it’s scenic in its descriptions and delightful. Well guess what Britain, you know what else is as English as the scenery? Sexism and racism, that’s what. It doesn’t even stop there in traditional men’s reading – the James Bond books by Ian Fleming are even worse at this and that was in the death throes of the Old World attitudes that British men held towards women and people of a different race to them.

Still, this isn’t the most offensive book I’ve ever read. I like Tatsuhiko Takimoto – but at least with him the misogyny isn’t encouraged in Welcome to the NHK – it’s satirised. Three Men in a Boat is a classic – but it smacks of unfortunate mores of the day. Kind of like how a lot of stuff from the 1970s you can’t get away with these days.

I’ll still give it four stars. Because I’ll be damned if it isn’t written well and is the first book that’s been so fun to read I finished it within hours.

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Text Copyright © Jacob Martin 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Justify My DVDs: Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure

Once in a while you see one of those weird public access funded experiments from the ABC, or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – which just makes you laugh. Examples include John Safran’s Race Relations – in what resulted as the TV equivalent of a Judd Apatow movie if it was filmed by a TV Jewish funnyman with a penchant for gonzo journalism. The ABC went through a phase where every now and again they’d give an aspiring comedian their own TV show similar to what the original pitch for Seinfeld was – a show where they followed the comedian around with a camera whether the events of the show are staged or not. It’s more mockumentary than reality TV as a genre – or comedy TV documentary. But let’s really get into the gist of what Lawrence Leung’s deal is.

Lawrence Leung is a nerdy Asian guy (Cantonese speaking Chinese as we later find out) who likes Rubik’s Cubes, classic movies of the 1980s – and striving to live out his childhood dreams. The results of Lawrence Leung’s comedy stylings on TV is different to what I imagine his stand up is – in some ways it’s as funny as some parts are depressing – Leung makes a lot of fun of himself and his awkwardness that you laugh yourself silly to stop yourself from crying. This my friends is experimental television at its most Generation X-ey – the tale of a young man who isn’t getting any younger and yet wants to achieve his childhood dreams – meet his childhood heroes – and resolve crap from way back in the past that he should have let go a long time ago. You will laugh a lot in the first five episodes – and then comes the sixth episode and you find yourself with Leung coming to terms with not only that MacGyver isn’t real – but that he doesn’t know whether he should become a doctor like his parents wanted him to be – or follow his own dreams which he left rotting in the favour of idolising his heroes. Leung wants to be the best at the world at something, but is thwarted at every turn – he wants to win a break-dancing competition, but he comes 8th… out of 8 places… so yeah… it’s funny when Lawrence Leung wins a wrestling match by default but it’s hard to tell whether he’s putting on an act consciously or if he really is suffering at some points more than others.

But the charm of Lawrence Leung overcomes how depressing it can be at times. It’s not as cruel as other comedies the ABC puts out like Summer Heights High – and it rolls with its dorkiness for the better. Leung isn’t an utterly depressing nerd character – on the Genshiken scale he’s more Kousaka than Madarame (for the three people who know what I’m talking about you’ll get what I mean, for the thousands that don’t go read the Genshiken manga and you’ll find an example of nerdiness in fiction you won’t soon forget). Personally I’d recommend this comedic TV series as an example of TV diversity – Lawrence Leung is not your stereotypical Asian character – he seems very believable and not really offensive. On the blank white void that is the ABC I’d love to see more stuff from Lawrence Leung – and to be honest I miss him already after finishing watching this. The funny pop culture references are put out in a surprising rather than a tired Family Guy style rehash – go buy the DVD of this to see what I mean – and it really does a good job of contrasting Australian humour with American humour – since Leung meets a lot of his childhood heroes in America and travels a lot around there. Truly one of the best examples of Australian TV comedy in recent years.

I give it Five out of Five Stars.

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Text Copyright © Jacob Martin 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Micro Book Review: The 13 and 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally finished The 13 and 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear.

This is a book that will try the patience of a lot of people I imagine who are used to short and sweet entertainment – but like most books of this size – epic fantasy mashups – when you finish the last page and discover you’ve sat there and read a whole epic tale to the very end – therein lies your reward. Books are not like video games where one is tested in dexterity or movies where these days most people aren’t tested at all in any regard what with remakes of already existing film franchises – but a book is a test of one’s attention span, mental fortitude – and one’s ability to imagine worlds. If you still love your imagining of worlds, this is the book for you because believe me it’s a riveting tale once you get to the middle of it.

Walter Moers is definitely a gifted writer – his ability to craft what is possibly the weirdest fantasy world I’ve read so far – and one of the most fun – should be given more credit. He tries to do something new with the fantasy genre by mashing it up with surrealist fiction. I definitely think if you know what you’re in for this is a good read if you want contemporary fantasy with a good sense of humor and humanity about it. There were times where I thought it was dragging on – but make no mistake I do believe this is one of my favourite books I read this year. It’s the tale of Bluebear – who is the only one of his species he has ever met – who doesn’t so much go on adventures as have adventure thrust upon him by coincidence and circumstances. There is some genuine suspense, melancholy – and learning attached to what could have been a random mess of a story. Everything ties together in a kind of Howardesque Hyborean Age – each event slowly build’s Bluebear’s character and understanding of the world. The illustrations equally match just how weird Bluebear’s world really is – and adds with black and white printed drawings a cartoonish dreamscape which has a life of its own that leaps off the page just as much as Moer’s epic descriptions full of high adventure tropes are.

My basic analysis doesn’t do it justice – but if you see this book in a bookshop you could do worse than picking it up. I give it Four Stars out of Five.

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Text Copyright © Jacob Martin 2010. All Rights Reserved.