Sunday, August 30, 2015

Photo Tourism

Workshops, guided tours, get-togethers, photo walks. Breaking in to abandoned structures. These are all variations on the photo tourism theme. The idea is to go to a photographically rich place and take some pictures. Sometimes you bring a guide, sometimes you don't. You're only there for a little while. A few hours, a few days.

These trips invariably generate a bunch of In The Bubble Pictures (ITBPs).

The locations are photographically rich because they're unusual, they're usually rich in geometry and texture, and often in color. The conceit is that they're interesting because they're new, something we haven't see. Except that we have seen them. I am sick to death of jerks going to Prague or Shibuya or an abandoned mental hospital, prison, apartment building. This isn't even remotely new. Well, it is to people who haven't seen it, so there's always a few new folks who can get some delight from it, but the charm wears off fast.

The name of the game, for some, is to find the new shot, the inspired shot. Perhaps if I lie down in the mud and shoot up, or use a 10000mm lens to isolate detail or, or, or. The trouble is all that's been done too. Trying to find something new to shoot is the wrong thing to do. This doesn't work, and produces only ITBPs, because it can't work, and it can't produce anything else.

For some, the name of the game is simply to enjoy the process, and that actually makes sense. There's a process, which I can readily understand as fun. But, please, be self-aware enough to know that you're enjoying s process and a place and so on, not making important and powerful pictures.

If I got to Prague to shoot for a couple of days, all I can really do is shoot the same old shit, except now in Prague, with Prague-shaped buildings and people instead of Bellingham shaped buildings and people. There's no real Prague-ness to anything I shoot.

If you're going to get some essential Shibuya-ness as envisioned by you, as moderated by you, into your photos, you need time. I don't know how much, but I suspect that for most people it's more than a couple frenetic days.

You have to form an impression of Shibuya. You need to digest it, let those impressions gel and ripen into a mature and complete form (yes, even if you want to try to photograph that instant first impression, I think).

Then you need to meditate on or otherwise process that mature impression to find if there's something you want to say in it. Now that you have an idea of Shibuya, what does that translate in to, in terms of the pictures you'd like to make? You have to discover that, somehow. Maybe there's nothing there, you have nothing photographic to say. Maybe there is, though. If you flew to Japan for just this purpose, I sure hope there's something to do in Shibuya other than make bad Gurskys.

Finally you need to translate that idea, that thing to say, into a set of specific technical choices. How are you going to shoot Shibuya to convey the idea you want to convey?

Maybe it's just me, but this stuff ain't happening in a few hours, or a couple of days. I have to live there. Or maybe I could visit a several times?

A workshop is just about the worst possible context in which these sorts of things could happen. A bunch of like-minded idiots who want to compare cameras with you, an instructor who's droning on about leading lines and trying out new perspectives like getting down low or using a wide angle lens, a schedule, and a general social whirl blundering around trying to figure out where to have lunch.

If you go spend a couple days shooting with a bunch of guys In The Bubble, I think it's pretty much guaranteed that you're going to take ITBPs. What strength of character it would take to do anything else!

If I had five days free in which I could fly to London to take a workshop, why the fuck would I waste my time with it? I could spend those five days at home in Bellingham, doing something with weight, instead of upending everything and hurling myself into a bunch of unknowns in the hopes that something interesting might happen despite everything. It's like trying to cure the flu by just eating whatever garbage you can find in the alley.

On the other hand, of course, shooting In The Bubble is fun for people in the bubble. If the workshop is about taking a pleasant photo-themed vacation, great. Some people genuinely love the process of picture-taking. They like finding that pleasing geometry, that amusing play of color, the echoing of shapes or textures. There are generally pictures in the bubble, but so what? If the idea is simply to make those pictures, great.

I noodle stupidly around on the piano, playing tunes not even inside a bubble. If you just like shooting, or whatever, you have my blessing to go do that. Go to it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In The Bubble

There's a ton of this stuff out there, but here's an example that just fell in front of my eyes today.

Here we have what photographers consider to be a really great place to shoot and they take workshops there and walk around. They hire models to stand around and be photographed here. You and I look at the pictures and, quite likely, we say "neat!" and maybe even "man, I want to shoot there!" Certainly the LuLa forum has a bunch of people saying "great work, Kevin! How would I go about going there and shooting too?"

So on the one hand, I get it. It's a photographically rich environment, and you can make a certain kind of picture there. Indeed, you can even (to a mild degree) put your own stamp on such pictures. If you lived there you could probably make some really good work. Photographers don't live there, they drop in for a day.

But what the hell are these damned pictures?

They're sure as hell not Art. There's no ideas at all in there, other than, "wow, what a cool place to shoot". Indeed it's clear that the photographer's emotions, his reaction to the place, is entirely about taking pictures there. The statement the photographer is making, if any, if entirely self-referential.

Is it decor? Not really. I wouldn't hang that stuff. It's just abandoned industrial shit, sometimes with a model wandering around in it for no goddamned reason at all. Kevin, bless his heart, can shoot the stuff that the stuff is, but he's got no special understanding of color, and that's what you need for decor.

Does it serve some documentary purpose? Not really, there's those models, and we don't really get a sense of what the hell is there, since Kevin is so focused on getting the "Great Shot".

Is it Vernacular Photography? Hell no. Well, maybe at some meta level. Kevin is signaling to his peers "I was at this cool place, taking photographs".

Which is really the nub of it, isn't it? You take these pictures so you can show your photographer friends that you were in this photographically rich location, taking photographs. The compositions are pleasing enough, I guess, but there's no ideas here beyond the ideas inherent in photographs.

These things are photographs for photographers. Ultimately, they're pictures that aren't about anything but themselves. They exist in a sort of pocket universe where they are interesting because they are of an interesting place. The place, in turn, is interesting because you can take interesting photographs there. This is a lot like how Kim Kardashian is interesting. Nobody outside that little photographer bubble would give a damn about these things, and I don't think they're even supposed to. I don't think Kevin gives a damn what non-photographers think, non-photographers notoriously have no idea what a good photo looks like. Also, he mainly wants to sell workshops teaching people how to make more pocket-universe content.

I can't make up my mind if it's good or bad. I suspect that it's neither. Inside the bubble, Kevin's work is probably good. I find he overuses perspective correction a little.

I'm coming to the conclusion that most "serious photography" exists entirely inside this bubble of photography. Cameras are sold and bought, workshops are sold and taken. Photos are shot and critiqued and admired (or panned). Non-photographers are more or less deliberately excluded, because they say annoying things like "this is just a bunch of abandoned industrial shit, it doesn't go with my couch, and what the hell are the models doing there?"

This isn't a bad thing or a good thing. It's just a bubble thing.

Outside the bubble, where people live, it's just irrelevant.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Luxury

For 150 years, cameras were basically luxury items. If you made a business of taking pictures somehow you could make it a business expense, but for the rest of us cameras were purchased with surplus money, and generally for pleasure.

They were a luxury item. Some were modest luxuries, others rather immodest. The immodest ones remain with us, less modest than ever.

At the other end, though, it's interesting.

An argument can be made that a cell phone is not a luxury in our modern world. You've got to be able to communicate to participate in the economy, and cell phones are, globally, the answer. People who live in tents and herd goats for a living, have cell phones. The very poorest in the world do not, but the wealthier half do. Everyone who is not locked in a daily pitched battle to acquire enough calories to make it to tomorrow has a cell phone.

This means they have cameras. And, frequently, some way to share pictures. They might not have an iPhone, it might be some minimalist feature phone, or a very cheap smartphone. But they can take a picture and send it to a friend. Maybe they can even stick it on Facebook.

The ability to take a picture has changed. It's now wrapped in with one of life's necessities. It is not merely ubiquity, it's more than that. It's a fundamental change in access, you no longer need to desire to take photos, you no longer need to have surplus money. The ability to take and share pictures is essentially built-in to the basics of life anywhere above dire poverty.

It seems to me that this must have some sort of consequences.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Collaboration

Just to plant the seed, since I'm much too busy to make any headway even on my own work -- but some day that will change.

I make little books, I stick my pictures in them, etc. If you've read for any length of time you know the drill. Some day, say some time within a year, I'll probably have enough time to collaborate with someone or several someones. And, I would like to do that. Not to work too far outside our comfort zones, but a little bit.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you're probably a bit of a weirdo. Maybe even my kind of weirdo.

Think it over. If it sounds like something you'd like to talk about, drop me a line. amolitor at molitor dash design dot com will reach me. I might wind up introducing some of you nice people to one another and stepping back, too.

Anyways. Collaborative projects. Think about it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It is the Golden Age of the Camera ...

... Review.

Cameras are all amazing these days, which frees the reviewer to write whatever he likes. (Are there any female camera reviewers out there?).

If you want to write a negative review, you complain that the menus are laid out illogically, or that the wheel on the bottom left of the camera cannot be programmed to select which of the 17 exposure modes (all of which are smarter than you) to use for the next shot. You complain that the shutter button doesn't feel solid. You have to complain about little shit, because the important stuff is all awesome but luckily there's a lot of little shit, and with some practice you can make it sound important. (even menu layouts, I promise.)

If you want to write a positive review, you point it at a cell phone tower miles away and point out that it resolves a lot of detail, and you gloss over all those ugly details about how you can't program that one wheel.

Do you want to position yourself as an Ultimate Image Quality guy? Great news, every camera delivers Ultimate Image Quality, and you can talk about how to squeeze the best out of this camera (buy an insanely expensive lens, use a tripod, but then you can go on about how to turn off image stabilization or something to make it sound like you're contributing something). Toss in some test shots that show us nothing, and you're done.

The reason all reviews seem to be simply a regurgitation of specs with a slight gloss of personal experience is that there's literally nothing to say. The specs are the specs, and the camera is superb. Yes, it'll take the pictures you want. The only things that matter are whether it has a plug for this whatsit, or that. If you need to plug a whatsit in, make sure to buy a camera with a whatsit plug.

Done.

So reviews become purely about marketing the reviewer. Are you a thoughtful and honest blogger? Than slag most everything to prove that you're not carrying water for the manufacturers. Of course, "slagging" is going to come down to stupid trivialities, because the cameras are universally amazing. Do you want to get invited on press junkets? Positive reviews, my friend, positive reviews (and you can even be honest, because the cameras are amazing.) Don't forget to slip in a few minor gripes to keep up the veritas.

I'm going to make a specific and singleton exception for Kirk Tuck here. He actually uses the thing, which is a nice change of pace, he tends not do follow the formula, and he will actually tell you about the whatsit plugs and why they are or are not, important to him. An actual working professional has a lot of whatsits to plug in, and whatsit plugs are actually important. Plus which, he doesn't try to rationalize his love or non-love for a piece of gear with a bunch of technical BS. Love is OK, love is great, just don't try to tell me it's because the buttons are the wrong shape.

Givin' it Away

A not-rare theme in photographic discussion on the internets is "this one dude wants to use my image for free, haw haw haw" and "how much should I charge for my images?" (it's always images, not pictures). The discussion then rollicks along a bit with wiser heads explaining that you need to charge or people will devalue your work, and then there's some hand-wringing about how the industry is getting trashed by the hordes of photographers who don't understand that they're part of a cartel and need to charge a lot.

The common theme here is that virtually everyone taking part in the discussion will routinely share photographs online. In at least one and usually several venues.

When you share a picture, you're allowing someone else to use it for free. No, not the guy who downloads it and uses it in a flyer. You're letting flickr, or 500px, or your favorite forum use it absolutely free of charge. They're selling ads against your content, and you're not gettin' paid.

You poor dumb sucker.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Digital Culture, Digital Photography

You may not know this, but the web didn't have pictures at one point, and they were shoehorned in, in a deeply stupid way, by Marc Andreessen with the <img> tag. The rest, as they say, is history. I think a strong argument could be made that the web as we know it would not have "won" without pictures. It was not at the time clear that gopher was not the correct answer, for instance. Gopher seemed to be better at actually accessing information, which is what we all imagined the web would be for. I use "we" on purpose, I was there, and I thought this "web" thing was stupid and an engineering horror. I still do, and it is objectively an engineering horror.

With a way to put pictures on a web page (be it with a stupidly designed thing like <img> or a better design) the web became in that instant and in a small way about entertainment. It became more than a way to organize and access information, it became a Medium, in the sense of Media. At that point it became perhaps inevitable that it would wind up an advertising-driven eyeball chase, with ever more outre content, and ever decreasing cycle times.

Now, of course, we have vanishingly small cycle times. Trends and fads come and go in, quite literally, hours.

Pictures and videos are now the dominant "viral" objects, small, easily digestible bits of material with a strong visual component. People used to fax, and then email, jokes and lists and fake letters to the president to one another. That still happens, but mostly we share pictures, pictures with funny captions, and short video clips.

Is a viral photograph just an iconic photograph that lives in an medium with a 4 hour memory? Certainly some viral content enters the lexicon, as it were, and becomes something dredged up regularly as an ironic comment, or becomes enshrined as a local in-joke on a forum or in a game. Are those things some sort of "iconic-lite" in our new web based world?

It is perhaps telling that one of the many clickbait listicles currently in rotation on the internet, as I write these lines, is "The Ten Most Iconic Photographs Ever Taken" which does indeed include a few iconic ones. Obviously it's still a lazily tossed together listicle intended to pull clicks for a few hours or a few days, but it's made out of the real stuff. We're currently recycling actual iconic photographs into potshots at "going viral", the modern short-term iconic. A 4 hour icon made out of 100 year icons. Weird.

Anyways, where am I going?

Photographs are the perfect raw material for the new ultra-fast cycle. We consume a photograph in a moment. It's not linear and tedious, like text, with the variable reading speeds across the population. It doesn't require time to watch. We glance, we apprehend, we're done. Mission accomplished. The media is consumed, and the viewer can get on with the all important task of being advertised at.

The photograph, the still image, be it viral or no, be it the teaser image for a video or a genuine photograph, is what causes the scrolling to pause on a social media site. We scroll looking for something written by an actual friend, pausing only when a still image or a noteworthy name catches our eye. The digital camera, usually in the phone, enables the constant production of the scroll-pausing still image. It is the fundamental tool for capturing the attention of our friends, our acquaintances, our target markets. The picture has long been the basis of advertising but now we are, essentially, constantly advertising to our own friends and family.

Without the digital camera, the modern digital life would arguably make no sense. We'd be doing something quite different with our time. While the photograph isn't the entirety of the web, the mobile app, the social/digital life, it is arguably an integral driving force.

So there's the vernacular photograph, the foundation of digital life.

Oddly enough it doesn't seem to have destroyed Art. Museum attendance doesn't seem to be diving. People are printing more than ever (less as a percentage of pictures taken, natch, but more than ever in absolute numbers). And, of course, we have as pretty much as many sad little men grinding out Serious Photographs of bugs or landscapes or street or whatever on all the photography sites. There are signs that might be dipping some day, but that may be just wishful thinking.

The interesting trend here is the social media one, in which more and more of our time is spent farting around clicking wildly at the web, in an app. There's no law that says civilization has to survive this. And when the survivors are clothed largely in mud, and eating cockroaches to survive, we'll have the digital camera to thank for it all.

Kodak was right!