How would you describe the specific flavour and interests of your blog?
JJ: My politics list pretty far leftward. My attitude tends toward the irreverent. My philosophical theoretical stance is decidedly pragmatist (in the 'technical' philosophical sense). I approach photography with all that baggage in tow. I also approach photography as something to talk and disagree about. In that sense I think the conventional notion that we should just let 'the work' speak for itself is very, very silly.
Are comments allowed?
JJ: Not just allowed, welcomed. I moderate comments because for a long stretch of time I was plagued by an especially crass and nasty reader. Thankfully he has wandered off someplace.
Describe your own background in relation to photography and why you decided to start a photography blog?
JJ: A confession: I have no direct background. I started considering photography - reading and thinking about it seriously, a few years back. In part this is because I teach in a discipline (political science) whose subject matter is richly visual but which has next to nothing to say about the politics involved. In part, this is because I am concerned with the way communication, especially visual communication, operates in democratic politics - in fact and in aspiration.
In the interest of full disclosure here is what I announce in the sidebar to the blog: "I am a political theorist with neither experience as, nor any real aspiration to be, a photographer. My interest is in the task Mitchell identifies in the passage I quote in the header. It remains, in my estimation, woefully neglected." And the Mitchell passage from the header reads: "What we need is a critique of visual culture that is alert to the power of images for good and evil and that is capable of discriminating the variety and historical specificity of their uses." - W.J.T. Mitchell. Picture Theory (1994). So, that about captures it.
The problem is that most discussions of photography focus on objects - photographs - instead of on their uses. That seems to me to be a pretty big mistake. It generates a whole passel of philosophical problems that I've spent a lot of time trying to address over the past few years. Want to know what I'm talking about? Stop by sometime. For now it is enough to say that focusing on photographs (or images) as objects instead of on how and for what purposes they are used diverts attention from the politics of photography at the outset. Indeed, I think it makes it impossible to recover. I suppose my aim is to help reorient the conversation.
In your experience what have been the highs and lows of blogging? Are there any particular pitfalls to owning a photography-related blog?
JJ: The low point was posting the day that my teenage son Jeffrey died. I anticipated abandoning the enterprise entirely but things turned out quite differently. The high point was the incredible response from readers at that point and since. These were almost all people I have never met. In the two and a half years since Jeff died, keeping the blog has pretty often proven to be a life saver.
I would not actually say I keep a "photography" blog. Sure, I write about photography ~ a lot. But I also write about politics. And I write about other things that strike my fancy too - posting art, music, poetry - mostly as they intersect politics. Because in my 'day job' I teach political theory there is a pretty heavy emphasis on philosophical premises and implications.
What are your top three picks from the world of photography in the last 12 months?
JJ: (1) Although this may be cheating, I'd note two local exhibitions here in Rochester. The first ~ Natura: A Maker/Mentor Exhibition with John Pfahl ~ was held at Rochester Contemporary Art Center in February and March 2009. It featured work by John Pfahl, who taught for many years here at R.I.T. and a bunch of his very accomplished students. The second was On the Edge of Clear Meaning a retrospective of work by John Wood who also taught locally for many years at Alfred University. The exhibition occupied several venues in Rochester last spring and now is showing in New York City. It will travel to Syracuse later in the year.
Beyond the chance to see some terrific work, both exhibitions impressed upon me two things. The first thing probably seems trite - it is the influence teachers can have. In the Pfahl show this is pretty obvious, but the curator of the Wood retrospective was Nathan Lyons, a student of Wood's, who now is head of the Visual Studies Workshop here in town. David Levi Strauss who contributed the typically smart introduction to the exhibition catalogue studied with Lyons at VSW.
The second thing that impressed me is that Western New York has a rich photographic history - and the influence is not just due to Kodak! In addition to Pfahl and Wood, Milton Rogovin has worked down the road in Buffalo for a half century. And Edward Burtynsky (who also gave a terrific talk here last spring) is from just the other side of the border in St. Catherines, Ontario. What good are borders if you can't ignore them? I am sure there are others whom I'm overlooking.
(2) The launch of the quarterly dispatches - a joint endeavor - by a photographer, a journalist and a financier - to couple extensive photo essays with journalistic reports. Each issue addresses a broad social/political theme. This is a terrific addition to the intellectual ecology of the photo world.
(3) Since I have an idiosyncratic take on "the world of photography" I will note the publication of a very smart and provocative work of political theory - The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay. Azoulay is an Israeli philosopher whose reflections largely are occasioned by Israeli-Palestinian politics. In thinking about the ways viewers respond to the subjects of photography, she seeks to displace the centrality of "terms such as 'empathy,' 'shame,' 'pity,' or 'compassion'" and replace those terms with a focus on citizenship with its inclusions and exclusion. This is a really smart book - with an argument that offers plenty to disagree with. But since I am preoccupied with the uses of photography, it represents a serious effort to think through the conventions that structure how we talk about those uses.
If you could only subscribe to one blog (other than your own of course) which would it be and why?
JJ: There are a number of well-known blogs like Crooked Timber and 3 Quarks Daily that I read pretty regularly. But they are collective endeavors. So, while they are really interesting, they lack the idiosyncratic perspective that an individual blogger provides. I would pick Isak which is written by Anna Clark. Anna is a writer (whom I've never met); she is smart and funny and blends literature and politics in what I find to be close to an optimal mix. She lives in Detroit and has a close connection with and insight into the city. The blog's namesake is Isak Dinesen. I highly recommend Anna's blog.