When photography is dishonest

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” – Richard Avedon

I came across this ambiguous and mysterious quote from Richard Avedon while searching for portrait ideas for a project I will be starting soon. It was Avedon’s portraiture that I turned to for inspiration.

The iconic photographer had a long and successful career as a fashion photographer, while also building a huge body of portrait work of actors, celebrities, the famous and the not-so-famous. At the end of his life, with worldwide adulation safely in hand, he pulled away from the glamour world that had made him famous, and chose instead to photograph more everyday subjects. In one case he applied his distinctive “minimalist” style to his aging father; in another, he spent time in the American West, photographing miners, poor families, and sundry other subjects.

There is stark contrast in his treatment of the famous and the ordinary of human existence. With some exceptions, his portraits of celebrities are what I would call “respectful”: he clearly intends to leave the viewer with a positive impression of the subject. Whether the subject is a grizzled old actor, or a beautiful young actress, his camera is revealing in a pleasant way; the picture makes you wonder about the interior soul of the subject. There is no sense that Avedon is trying to steer your emotions about the person, or put another way, impose his values onto the portrait.

But now let’s turn to the work of his later years, particularly the American West series. In his minimalist style, straight on poses against a plain white background, we are presented with the polar opposite of his New York celebrity work. It is unmistakeable: the ordinary people in front of his lens are deliberately made to look degraded. Miners are shown just as they emerge from the grime of the mine, their bodies coated with black dust, their faces black, and their expressions too. Images of mothers holding their children are devoid of any beauty, the faces of both clearly implying great misery and depression. No one is happy, no one is smiling, the pictures are relentlessly gloomy. As a body of work, the intent is clear: these are people of a lower order. Their lives, their existence, is miserable, and he wants to make that clear.

It is only in seeing the contrast of the two phases of his photographic career that the essential dishonesty of his work shoots out at you. Celebrities are the beautiful people, their lives “work”, and they deserve to be admired, even worshipped. But his everyday people, well, they are almost disgusting, or at best pitiable.

This kind of thing has been going on for a long time in the creative arts. It has become a world of celebrity worship, combined with deliberate contempt for the dignity of everyday people going about their lives. I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

How I think about the drug problem

There is something drastically wrong with a society in which 70,000 of its citizens die every year from something they voluntarily do to themselves.

I’m writing of course about the so-called “opioid epidemic”. The very term itself is a distortion of the language: an epidemic is a contagion that comes from without, an organic disease that infects a person without the person asking for it.

The misuse of the word “epidemic” is another example of how human behaviors have been converted into medical problems. The same thing has happened with alcoholism: it is now spoken of as a “disease”, again distorting the older meaning of the word.

In both cases, the traditional understandings of these words don’t seem to square up with the medical models now proposed. Most people, myself included, think of epidemics and diseases as something you would never wish upon yourself. But drug and alcohol deaths result from conscious and willful actions taken by an individual. So lumping these tragedies in with cancer, strokes and heart attacks is taking the medical model too far.

Or put another way, drug and alcohol deaths have some mental or character component for which the medical model is totally ill-prepared to handle. Thus, a medical solution is not going to “cure” the problem.

In writing this, I understand that there may be an underlying genetic or hormonal component to these addictions, so that once a person gets started, he can’t stop. In this sense, the addiction is not “voluntary”, as we ordinarily understand that word. I have spoken to people who have overcome alcoholism, and they tell me that the urge to have a drink becomes overwhelming, despite getting sick, wasting through earnings, ruining close relationships, and so forth. Reasonable thought about the drink is simply impossible.

So of course, the question has to be asked, “Why would anyone continue with a self-destructive behavior?” Why does anyone “need” the sensations induced by drugs or alcohol, especially when they lead to terrible aftereffects?

Trying to answer these questions must take you into the strange byways of the mind, into the netherworld of compulsions, self-destruction and other psychological realms that no one really understands.

This conclusion hit me really hard in a conversation I had with a pastor who was trying to help what he described as a “beautiful young woman, pretty enough to be a model”. She was so addicted to opioids that she had run out of space on her arms to inject herself. Her solution was to pull out her eyeball and put the needle into the space behind. This horrid detail convinced me that thinking of the opioid “epidemic” as a medical problem was going to be of limited value, if not ineffectual altogether.

Can anyone say honestly they would know how to help a person who pulls out an eyeball to give herself a drug injection?

Right now, our culture seems to be oscillating between a largely futile attempt at medical interventions, psychotherapy treatments, and just plain criminal solutions such as jail time. Whole industries have sprung up like mushrooms to “treat” opioid users, who are now suffering from “substance use disorder”, the new, kinder-gentler term for drug addiction. The whole calamity is becoming normal, and a successful growth industry.

I can’t go there. I refuse to accept this dreadful waste of human life. In my next posting, I will advance my own solutions, which will be pragmatic, straightforward, quite harsh in some ways, and quite compassionate in others. Stay tuned.


Why I started this Blog

Ever since I was a teenager, I have noticed that I think a lot about how the world works, and how people think and behave. Now that many decades have passed since then, I have concluded this tendency is something of a gift and a curse.

The “gift” part is the ability to see through to reality, or truth, often with remarkable clarity; the “curse” is in realizing just how broken is the world, which can lead me to cynicism and a depressed spirit.

Friends have commented on the observations I have made, often telling me I have some unique ability, which may be the case, but which sounds pretentious. I am always the skeptic about anyone who claims to know more than the next person, and that goes for myself. It is with this desire to remain humble that I decided to address the passing parade.

Understanding the mind of a builder

Here is a way to understand Donald Trump

I don’t think it is any profound insight on my part to observe how divided people are about the presidency of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump the person. He has been a polarizing person in the extreme.

Why is that? We have had controversial presidents before, Ronald Reagan comes to mind, but with Trump in office it all seems different, as if some alien descended onto the public scene. He has disrupted politics to a degree unmatched in my lifetime. There is even a name for it, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and the therapy professionals are now talking about a new disorder they are calling Trump Anxiety Syndrome. A lot of therapists seem to be suffering from it themselves.

I have not felt any of this and it might be due to my professional education as an engineer and therein lies a way to understand the current President of the United States.

The government of the United States is without question the largest collection of people who in their daily work have no connection to the world of the concrete. Theirs is a world of ideas, abstractions, theories and plans of one sort or another. It is a world of talking about things, or put another way, the world of the mind. It is a world where everybody, on a daily basis, is doing a lot of thinking, and to a remarkable degree, not a lot of doing.

It is simply true that as any institution heads in this direction, the split between thinking and doing gets wider and wider, and the larger the institution, the more this happens. Everyone instinctively knows this.

If you get caught up in this kind of activity, it can be a heady experience. Thinking about things, disconnected from any concrete outcome, is a narcotic to the personality, and allows for a narcissistic “rush” that makes you feel like a master of all before you.

I am going to say outright that the world of Washington, DC, is a place where abstract thinking, disconnected from any concrete outcome, has now reached pathological proportions. It is an end in itself, and has corrupted the people who live in it.

Now into this world comes this strange creature named Donald Trump.

His entire life has been about concrete things, that is, the building of structures, and highly complex structures at that. This is not a place where you can succeed if you do not understand physical realities. It is not a place where your own ego holds any sway over the immutable laws of physics and the sound practice of engineering. Abstract thinking is basically useless and may even be dangerous to the general public, for obvious safety reasons.

So if you can appreciate the mind of the builder from that perspective, you can understand the complete disconnect between Donald Trump and Washington, DC. He thinks differently from the people of that community. His whole life has been spent understanding the physical world, toward the end of building, literally, concrete structures.

I’ll have more to say about people who are builders and engineers in future posts. It is their kind of thinking that has been badly discredited and ignored for many decades, and our society is the poorer for it.