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Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Probably the best BBC book I’ve seen: the beautiful photographs and the enlightening text complement each other perfectly. It’s not advanced biology, with equations and game theory, and it doesn’t give scientific names. But it does include some recent discoveries, like the rehabilitation of the Komodo dragon. If that’s the word:

The tissue damage from the bite is not enough to kill. Until recently, it was thought that bacteria in the dragon’s saliva poisoned its prey. But it has been shown now that the dragon, like some snakes, has venom, making it the world’s largest venomous animal. (ch. 5, “Frogs, Serpents and Dragons”, pg. 134)

The Komodo dragon has become more frightening. And also more interesting. But the book isn’t only about big and frightening: it’s also about strange and beautiful, like:

A tall Gersemia soft coral bending over to sweep tiny animals from the sediment. It does this when there isn’t enough food in the water for its polyps to trap. Once it has consumed everyting in a circle around itself, it will detach from whatever it is holding onto and crawl to a new spot. (ch. 1, “Extraordinary Sea Creatures”, pg. 39)

Germesia soft coral
That’s in very cold water under “the ice in McMurdo Sound, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea”, as part of an “ancient, isolated and utterly unique community” of marine life: there are also sponges, starfish, proboscis worms and sea-urchins. The Gersemia looks both beautiful and graceful, bowing to the sediment like a jewelled and mobile tree, but those are human terms for an organism that probably isn’t even conscious. And all of those organisms that are conscious, like the mammals in the final three chapters, aren’t aware of how they look to us. Natural beauty – and its absence – aren’t designed for us, but the aesthetics of animals is an interesting topic.

Television wants powerful images and this book reproduces them from the series, like the “lioness charging across a river in the Okavango” on page 228. But I think the static image must be more powerful than the mobile one: the photograph freezes the chaos of splashing water and the pale gold perfection of the lioness herself. She wears a look of immense concentration and purpose and I’ve rarely seen a better example of the power and beauty of the big cats. On page 219, there’s an image of one of the big cats’ greatest enemies. It’s also powerful, but in a different way: “a yawning spotted hyena revealing a perfect set of teeth, specialized for cutting, tearing and grinding.” Hyenas are interesting but not attractive. Big cats are both, from the charging lioness to the cheetahs on pages 231-5 and the alert lynx on page 237.

So why is the cat-family, big and small, generally much more attractive than the dog-family? And why are bats often so grotesque? The bulldog bat sweeping up a fish on pages 242-3 has a flat snarling face, ginger fur, taut, veined wings, hook-like hind claws and what looks like a small dangling penis. Birds are often very attractive. Why not bats? Their hairiness and leathery wings are part of it, as are their faces, which are adapted for sonar and eating, not for appealing to human beings.

And then we come to the primates in the final chapter. Now we’re getting closer to home. The faces of each species has a distinct effect on humans, from the endearing spectral tarsier to the choleric red uakari and the melancholy macaque. And chimpanzees look more intelligent than gorillas. Their faces haven’t evolved for our eyes, but they trigger mechanisms in our minds all the same.

So do the insects, birds and fish earlier in the book. And the plants in the single chapter devoted to them, like the bamboo and the dragon’s-blood tree. Colour and line: beautiful and ugly, attractive and repulsive. But all of this bio-aesthetics is interesting and all of it’s governed by natural and sexual selection. And behind it all is Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World, from the circle swept by a soft coral on the floor of an icy ocean to the pattern of veins in a bat’s wing and the stripes in a tiger’s pelt.

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Front cover of Shots from the Front by Richard HolmesShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

This book is a well-judged mixture of interesting photographs and enlightening commentary. Richard Holmes is good at pointing out how scenes are staged and spotting when subjects are playing games: “it is clear from his mates’ expressions that the centre soldier, shovelling a huge spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth, is engaged in a wind-up” (pg. 26).

And those soldiers have “just come out of the line”, with the crumpled and mud-stained uniforms to prove it. There was a lot of mud and misery in the First World War, but there was fun too and even fraternization, like the football played between British and German troops on Christmas day in 1914. There are no photographs of that: cameras weren’t everywhere and the photographs wouldn’t have been officially approved anyway.* History is divided into B.C. and A.C. – Before Camera and After Camera – but that doesn’t mean history was always more accurate or truthful when cameras arrived. Sometimes the camera simply meant new ways to lie.

But back then there were things it couldn’t lie about. Some of the faces, expressions and postures in this book look like what they are: a century old. But some could be from much more recent wars. There’s actually a lot of genetic information here, because faces are a record of ancestry and race. So are machines, in another way. Military technology is the application of high intelligence to low extermination. It’s part of what Richard Dawkins calls the extended phenotype and it evolves much faster than the bodies it’s intended to destroy – or simply injure, because a wounded soldier can be more harmful to the enemy than a dead one. But for the most part armies haven’t innovated in their weaponry, merely refined what was being used a century ago: the guns, the grenades, the bombs and the first tanks, military aircraft and gas attacks.

Those last three made the First World War something new, separating it from everything that had gone before. Bullets are like arrows or slingshots and even artillery has ancient parallels: Roman siege-engines threw boulders and fired bolts, for example. But the tank made “its first appearance on the Somme in September 1916” on the British side. The German response was a huge anti-tank rifle, a captured specimen of which is being shown off by grinning New Zealanders on page 148. But the tank wasn’t a wonder-weapon: it was slow and liable to get trapped on bad ground. It was also difficult to communicate with and from: one of the photographs shows a carrier-pigeon being released through “an armoured port in a tank”. Holmes comments that this is a “perfect illustration of the way in which the war often combined ancient and modern” (pg. 91).

Another example is the photograph of a “highly successful mounted charge” in 1917 by the “4th Australian Light Horse Brigade” on page 155. That was in Mesopotamia and although the authenticity of the photograph is disputed, it’s certain that cavalry were used on that front. By then there was aerial combat over the fields of France in sophisticated aircraft. But this book is about soldiers, so the only aircraft shown is an “Australian kite balloon” being inflated on page 103. Aircraft are implicit elsewhere: there are three aerial photographs of “Faffémont farm, near Combles on the Somme”, taken from great height before and after bombardment. You can see trees and buildings in the first photo, taken in April 1916; rubble and matchwood in the second, taken in July; and a landscape of craters in the third, taken in September.

Other photos show the effects of such a bombardment from the ground: dead men and dead horses. But this isn’t a ghoulish book and there aren’t many corpses, partly because photographs of them were thought bad for civilian morale. So there are more photographs here of living men preparing to create corpses: fitting fuses, loading shells, sighting machine-guns, digging tunnels to lay explosives, sitting at the top of poles to spot for artillery. Fig. 100 “shows two Australians preparing jam-tin bombs at Gallipoli”. And they were literally jam-tins, filled with gun-cotton and, in this case, with “sections of barbed wire” to increase their lethality. Holmes notes that the two men are wearing “felt slippers, for this was no place to light a spark” (pg. 133).

Small facts like that help you understand the war better. So do small facts like these, included below a group photograph of some scruffily dressed troops:

That winter the first goatskin coats arrived. They came in a variety of colours, but were often unhelpfully light. Although they attracted both moisture and mud, and were noticeably goaty even when dry, they were very popular in that first chilly winter of trench warfare. (pg. 126)

And on page 237, Holmes notes something that the photographer almost certainly didn’t intend to capture: behind a machine-gun crew, a soldier is “‘chatting’, removing lice, ‘chats’ in soldier’s slang, and their eggs from the seams of his greyback shirt”. This familiar routine was “almost never photographed”. War is a big thing that is affected by small things like felt slippers, goatskin coats and lice. It’s also a bad thing, as the lice suggest, but that’s part of why it’s interesting. This book isn’t intended to be a history of the war and it won’t help you understand the strategists and generals. It’s about ordinary soldiers and their officers, joining up, fighting, sometimes dying, sometimes surviving.

The final section is called “In Parenthesis?”. The words are from the title of David Jones’ “great poem” about the war, but the question mark was put there by Holmes. Jones thought he had stepped outside the “brackets” of the war in 1918. But the 1920s and 1930s were actually between brackets: he hadn’t fought in the war to end all wars. The Second World War was more and worse and its origins can be seen in this book. But the First World War also looks back to the nineteenth century, when the Scottish quartermasters in fig. 45 must have begun their service. One is fat, one looks ferocious. They both have extravagant moustaches. Those men and their moustaches are long gone, but the First World War is still important. This book is a good way to understand what it was like to fight then, but an index would have made it even better.


*Update 31/v/14: In fact, there are photos of that.

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I Am A Kamera

Front cover of Mezzogiallo by David KerekesMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 1956. Teenage anti-communist Mirima Kerekes flees to the West as Soviet tanks rumble into Bucharest to crush a desperate popular uprising. A month later, Mirima is in the sea-side town of Bootle, north-west England, finding her feet in a new country and a new culture. Soon she will have a son, David, future editor of Headpress Journal and author of acclaimed counter-cultural texts Killing for Culture (1992), Sex Murder Art (1998) and Backstage Bootle (2011).

But Mirima left a brother behind in Bucharest, also called David. He remains a distant enigma, a mysterious, rarely mentioned figure throughout his nephew’s childhood and teens. It is not until thirty years later, following the fall of feral dictator Antonin Ceauşescu, that the British David Kerekes is able to travel to Eastern Europe and meet his uncle for the first time.

Mezzogiallo is the story of that momentous meeting and its continuing consequences, an extended meditation on fate and free will as the British David struggles to come to terms with the horrific family secret he uncovers behind the former Iron Curtain. As he writes in his introduction:

Once I gained my uncle’s confidence he began to open up to me, but it was not till near the end of my initial stay in the country that he finally revealed the truth about his life under communism. I was aghast to discover the reason for my mom’s silence about her brother all those years: my namesake, my uncle David, had worked for the secret police throughout the years of Ceauşescu, photographing and recording people without their knowledge for the files of the brutal regime that had crushed private life without remorse or conscience. He told me that he had once driven 150 kilometres to look inside someone’s bathroom and take some hairs from their comb. But there was worse to come – a confession that shook me to my core.

Despite himself, my uncle revealed, he had enjoyed the spying and the prying and the sense of power they gave him. In stumbling words, racked by a deep sense of shame and futility, he confessed to me that photographing people, recording their private conversations, keeping files on their quotidian activities, had given him serious thrills. He described how he had once quivered with excitement as he hid under the floorboards of a private home, listening to someone exercise on a rowing machine. In short: he had been a dedicated voyeur, filling the emptiness of his own life by spying on the lives of others.

Securitate archive

Securitate archive


My horror was unbounded. Anyone who knows Headpress, the Journal of Strangeness and Necrophilia, knows that I have devoted my life to offering a fiercely intelligint, passionately non-normative alternative to the ever-increasing voyeurism of the British mainstream – the spying-and-prying peddled by The Daily Mail, by the über-ennui’d teens who take secret photographs and videos of others, then exchange them online with their like-minded peers. And yet here was my mom’s brother doing the exact same thing as had horrified me for so long in Britain. But could I condemn him for it? What if I myself had been born under communism? Might I too not have worked for the secret police? Might I too not have become a dedicated voyeur, gloating over secretly obtained photographs and recordings, relishing the sense of power they gave me?

I could not deny the truth: perhaps I might. Shaken and disturbed, I constantly pondered the words of the great Romanian philosopher Eric Hoffer: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

Did this not help explain my uncle’s behaviour? Had not communism, by destroying his individuality and sense of purpose, rendered life meaningless to him and forced him, in compensation, to become the voyeur he confessed he was? Deep questions. Dark ones, also. I knew that it would be years, even decades, before I could process them to my own satisfaction and write the book that they deserved. (Introduction, pg. viii)

Mezzogiallo is the book in question. David goes on to describe how, on future trips to Eastern Europe, he was able to examine the thousands of files created by his uncle for the secret police using cameras and microphones hidden not only in private homes, but also in libraries, banks, courts, schools, hospitals and more. He will be shocked by both the detail and the futility of his uncle’s activities – the prolonged, obsessive recording of the most minor details of everyday life. Yet David points out that capitalist society has gone in the exact same direction, both at the level of the state and at the level of the ordinary voyeuristic citizen. All David Kerekes’s books are characterized by feral intelligence and fetid honesty. But Mezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. is arguably his ferallest, fetidest interrogation of the human condition to date…


Coming soon on Papyrocentric Performativity…

• A review of Nekro-Feral: The David Kerekes Story, David Slater (TransVisceral Books)

Press Release: Divided into three throbbingly thrilling thanato-themed sections – “Nekro-Kid”, “Nekro-Teen” and “Nekro-Dult” – Nekro-Feral is an intimate and revealing portrait of a transgressive icon by the man who was his simul-scribe on Killing for Culture, inarguably the most sizzlingly seminal survey of snuff-stuff ever set to cellulose…


Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Front cover of The Cosmic Gallery by Giles Sparrow
The Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

I’ve seen some of the images here on-line, but they’re better in a book. The resolution is higher and books satisfy the sense of touch and even the sense of smell in a way electronic media don’t and won’t for some time. You can leaf through The Cosmic Gallery, twist and turn the book as you please and enjoy the contrast between the ultra-modern photographs and the ancient way they are presented. The word “book” may be related to “beech”, because beeches have detachable bark that’s easy to write on. So The Cosmic Gallery combines past and present – and in more ways than one. The gorgeous star-fields here are records of not just of prehistory but of pre-humanity, because the light that made them had been travelling for millions of years when it was captured by human technology.

Some of star-photographs are so colourful and so full of grandeur, distance and antiquity that you can feel them growing like cathedrals in your head as you look at them. But their visual power isn’t accidental. These images aren’t intended purely as objective scientific records:

This book is in many ways a celebration of these amazing technological advances [in photography and computing] that have lately transformed our understanding of the universe. And yet we should not forget that the images on these pages are just as much a product of human artistry as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the drawings of Lord Rosse [an Irish astronomer who made famous drawings of galaxies in the mid-nineteenth century]. Not only are these technical achievements an art in their own right, but also the representation of data gathered by a giant telescope or distant spacecraft is still ultimately a matter of human choice. Many of the images here make use of false or representative colours to highlight certain wavelengths or certain structures, or to bring entire invisible worlds within the narrow limits of our perception. (Introduction, pg. 11)

The star-photos are the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in the book. Some of the images from the solar system, being nearer to home and closer to the human scale, are almost domestic by comparison. But one of them reminds you of the vast scale of the solar system too: a now-famous shot of Saturn and its intricate halo of rings, taken by the Cassini probe as it looked sunward (pp. 148-9). To the left, “just inside the G ring at the ten o’clock position”, is a “pale blue dot”, easy to overlook, easy to ignore amid the splendour of the Saturnian rings. The dot is a planet called Earth, scene for all the horrors and heights of mankind. It’s a powerful reminder of how small we are even on a much-less-than-cosmic scale. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out: the ability to feel small is possible only to big creatures. Neither ants nor elephants are awed by the size, complexity and age of the universe, because neither ants nor elephants can appreciate them.

Nor can they appreciate the mathematics that permeates the universe and that ultimately is the universe. The patterns here are sometimes huge and spectacular, but the forces that shape dunes on Mar (pg. 86, 174) are shaping dunes on Earth too. And the unpredictability of a water-thread, falling, twisting and sputtering from a half-closed tap, is seen in Saturn’s chaotic satellite Hyperion, which has “no set rotation period, or even axis of rotation” (pg. 168). The swirl of colours in a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (pp. 76-7) reminds me of swirling paint in a Francis Bacon; the “writhing mass of cells and tendrils” in sunspots (pg. 172) might almost be competing colonies of bacteria in a Petri dish, or even melted cheese on a pizza. From fire to ice, from dust to gas, from clouds to ultra-violet light, from sun-spots to melted cheese: Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics the Mistress of the World, oversees it all.

She also oversees the brains of the men – and it has been overwhelmingly men – responsible for designing and building the technology that has captured these images and brought them to the coffee-tables of the world. If we are here to go, as Brion Gysin claimed, then this book presents the looks before the leaps.

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How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers, Ian Jeffrey (2008)

I’ve looked at this book to ask myself an important question again. Is photography art? My answer is still: No, it’s a skill, not an art. Art should be ex nihilo or ex parvo: creation out of nothing or little. I don’t think there’s enough choice and possibility in photography for photographers to be called “great” in the same sense that painters or sculptors or novelists are great. There’s less genuine art in even the best photograph than in even the worst painting. Or the worst painting that aims at some kind of realism, that is. But then good photography has been responsible for a lot of very bad art. Photographs mirror reality very quickly and cheaply and artists began to stop competing with them in the nineteenth century. Ars est celare artem, runs the old Latin saying: “the art is to conceal the art”. You aren’t supposed to see the brush-strokes in pre-photographic art or its modern heirs. But some artists asked: if you don’t see the brush-strokes, how do you know it’s Art-with-a-capital-A? And how do you know that we’re Artists? Yes, the rot that started with Impressionism and quickened with abstract art has reached high putrefaction in conceptual art and mountebanks like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Colour photography only made the flight from realism faster, but almost all the photographs in this book are monochrome, sometimes by necessity, like the ones from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sometimes by artistic choice, like the more modern ones. There’s often more power in a monochrome photograph: colour is more exciting and eye-catching, but also more distracting. The viewer isn’t presented simply with shapes and outlines, with light and shade. That’s why some photographers choose to eschew colour, even in the twenty-first century. All photographers choose to eschew another distraction: motion. Unless, like Tomatsu Shomei from Japan, they represent it in a blurred photograph, like the B-52 he captured on Okinawa in 1969. Colour or monochrome? Still or blurred? Yes, there is a lot of choice in photography, but it’s the choice of the right moment, the right light, the right angle, the right combination of images, not the much longer and more difficult choices made in painting and sculpture. That’s why I call photography a skill rather than an art. True, photographs can be more memorable and thought-provoking than some traditional art, but they’re memorable and thought-provoking in a different way. A painting is rather like a cooked meal; photographs are more like raw ingredients that you cook for yourself.

One of the things you can cook from them is a sense of ephemerality-in-permanence. On page 46 there’s a photograph of two young German cadets taken by an unknown photographer in the springtime of 1914, “just” before “the outbreak of the Great War”. One of them is grinning with his hands in his pockets. It’s a happy moment in a life that may have ended a few weeks later. Or a few decades later – who knows? What we do know is that the young cadet is certainly dead now and certainly did not stay young if he survived the war. The photograph has frozen him permanently in that happy, carefree moment: ephemerality-in-permanence, as I said. But photographs can be ephemeral too, if they exist in single copies. In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), the Mancunian writer Anthony Burgess describes another early photograph:

My mother left the stage and became a shopping housewife on those thoroughfares [in Harpurhey]. Just before the War of 1914-18 began, she gave birth to my sister Muriel. I had a photograph of the two of them, long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites, and it showed a firm-featured woman of considerable blonde beauty and a promise of similar beauty in the daughter. (Op. cit., pg. 16)

Burgess’s mother and sister both died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war, so the photograph was one of the few things he had to remember them by. A drawing or painting, unless he had made it himself, would not have been an emotional loss in the same way: it would have been a meal cooked by someone else, not raw ingredients to cook for himself. Unless you know some of the people or scenes in this book personally, you aren’t likely to be affected by the photographs in the way Burgess must have been when he looked at his lost mother and sister. But some of the photos are affecting precisely because you don’t know their subjects and couldn’t ever have known them. The photograph called “The Mountain Nymph” on page 22 was taken in 1866 by Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, and Cameron herself died in 1879. The girl in the photograph is attractive, but sad for an unknown reason. She’s also long dead, so the reason will remain unknown. Overleaf is another powerful photo by Cameron: “Iago. Study from an Italian” of 1867, which shows a stubbly, unattractive young man whose face is nevertheless full of character and interesting lines and curves. He’s also long dead. So, apparently, are the luminosity and richness of these nineteenth-century photographs and the almost sacramental care with which they were created.

The chemicals got much cheaper and easier to use later, so photographs lost the aura of Cameron’s work or of “The Broken Wave, Sète”, taken by the Frenchman Gustav le Gray in 1857. It shows a shore, a ship and some sea, with a wave breaking on rocks in the foreground. It’s simple, but it casts a spell. As photography got easier, it got more informal, but informality has a power of its own, like the unposed street-scenes captured by Louis Vert and Paul Géniaux in Paris at the turn of the century. Second-long slices of vanished life and vanished lives: the children are gone just as the adults are. The trees captured by Gustav le Gray in his “Study of Tree Trunks, Fontainebleau” (c.1855-7) may be still be there, but the sand-patterns and bird-tracks of Edward Weston’s “Dunes, Oceano” (1936) may not even have lasted out the day on which he photographed them. The mathematics behind the patterns is still at work, though, and so is the male gaze that will feast on the female “Nude” lying on the same dunes and photographed by Weston in the same year. It’s an interesting study in contrast: firm flesh and shifting sand; dark hair and white skin. It’s not a pornographic photo, but the girl is naked and her breasts, thighs and pubic hair do supply some of the “Opium of the Peephole” so widely available in our ever-more voyeuristic culture.

The girl on page 301 made her living from supplying that opium: she’s a “Topless Dancer in Her Dressing Room, San Francisco, California, 1968”. Wearing a blonde wig and sparkly, cut-away dress, she has, in the immortal words of the Finnish stoner-rockers Erotic Support, “Tits to Die For”: large, shapely and firm, as one delicate index finger held against the left breast subtly indicates. She’s touching her chin with her other hand and looks both attractive and slightly bored or melancholic. Did the photographer Diane Arbus ask her to adopt that pose? Yes, I think so, because her index finger echoes the raised index finger of St Thomas in a Leonardo print propped unobtrusively on the dressing-table behind her. Ian Jeffrey, who wrote the text for this book, calls this “a curious reference” and you could speculate for a long time about its meaning. I don’t think you need to speculate about the opium of the peephole in this photo or the male gaze that absorbs the opium. The photo’s subject is a topless dancer after all and her breasts, slightly above the centre of the square photograph, dominate the scene, partly because they’re breasts, partly because they’re spectacular, and partly because they’re paler than the sun-tanned skin above them.

If the photograph were in colour, it would be nearer pornography, but it’s monochrome, so it’s a study in shape and shade, not in biological reality. It’s an interesting study too: the dancer’s glamorous clothes and breasts, at the height of their natural perfection and beauty, contrast with the back-stage drabness and clutter of the dressing-room. But in a wider sense, all the photographs here are about contrast. Why choose that moment rather than another? Why photograph that face rather than another? Sometimes it’s hard to see why, sometimes it’s easy. Memorable or mediocre, contrived or compelling, photography altered culture for ever with its chemical chiaroscuro – and chromaticism – but I’d still claim it’s a skill rather than an art. Even the most skilful photography doesn’t match the art of a painting like The Roses of Heliogabalus, but what it couldn’t match it could undermine. Photography and moving pictures haven’t been as destructive as automobiles, modernity’s “mechanical Jacobins”, but their importance in history is partly or even largely negative, in my opinion. Now that they’re here, few of us would want to be without them, but that’s because the opium of the peephole is nearly as addictive as real opium. But it isn’t as inspirational to art or artists.

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