Sunday, October 4, 2015

When to Portfolio

Examine these two portfolios, this one and then this one. The attentive reader should pick out several similar pictures and at least one that is simply a very very slightly different angle removed a few seconds in time, and then converted to monochrome.

Ming is a smart guy who understands that portfolios are a good end goal. I am fairly confident that he would assert that he shot these pictures with the final portfolio in mind, and I am fairly confident that is not true.

Whatever the true state of Ming's mind, the reality is that virtually all amateurs roam around just shooting stuff, hoping to make some sense of it later. The notion of moving parts of the process from before the shutter press to after is a long standing one both in photography and on this blog. Mostly it doesn't matter or is a good thing.

Ming often pushes the creation of portfolios and the distillation of ideas to after the shutter press, in my judgement. This is one of those places where I opine that the movement to post is an unalloyed bad thing. You are, in essence, shooting stock photographs for yourself. These aren't pictures with purpose, they're just the sort of thing you tend to shoot. You'll hunt around for, and impose, meaning afterwards.

This is also the problem with Vivian Maier. By simply picking out the good ones, her curators have made some pleasing and fairly coherent works of genuinely good pictures. These things only work because the photographic cognoscenti still believe that the individual frame is the main thing, so a pile of them in a row is good enough for a book. There is something missing, that perfect fit, that sharp edge. How can you hit anything when you don't know what you're aiming at?

Compare Maier's books to Frank's Americans. The latter is a fucking violent blow to the head. The former is a nice coffee table book.

I don't know what you want to do, but I'm shooting for more violent blows to the head and fewer coffee table books. If my books aren't violent blows to the head, they should at least be tasteless jokes. Anything but a nice coffee table book.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Stages

LuLa has another one of those easy to write and incredibly lazy pieces on the stages of a photographer. The title suggested that we might be looking at something interesting, since in Buddhism the eightfold path is done all at once, each way is pursued in parallel with the other, and there's some interesting stuff. But nope, Andy just borrowed the name and turned it in to 8 stages.

His 8 steps are mostly pretty OK, to be sure. He coyly claims to be at about stage 6 working toward 7, but he's clearly looking at stage 8. I disagree about "stories" but possibly he means something more general by that word than anything like a literal narrative.

One of the many troubles with these things is that we can't even tell if the intent is to write a personal narrative, or a set of general observations about how photographers tend to evolve, or whether it's a program of development which ought to be followed.

Here is mine. It is explicitly a personal narrative.

Stage 1: Noobibranch

Deep in the depths of the Atlantic Oceam, 10,000 feet down in the blackness and the muck, the Noob emerges from his egg sac. Blind and limbless, he wriggles through the rocky outcropping until he finds his first camera, usually a 1 to 2 megapixel p&s. Adhering this to his ventral surface with mucus, he rises rapidly to the disphotic layer where he feeds on microscopic crustacean life, and develops rudimentary eyes.

He takes a lot of selfies and macro photographs of plankton.

Stage 2: Aerial

Gorging himself on the abundance of food caused by the wintertime upwelling of phosphorus-rich material from the sea floor, the photographer grows immensely, reaching 40 to 60 feet in length in a handful of months and developing vast leathery wings. He leaps, and leaps again, strengthening the muscles powering this enormous span until, in a few days, he takes to the air.

An incredible migration occurs, circling the globe twice and finally landing in Scotland or some similarly picturesque seascape infested region of the world. Here he feeds on the native sheep and takes very long exposure seascapes, until he becomes too fat to fly.

Stage 3: Cocoon

The photographer now builds himself a gigantic cocoon and vanishes into it for a month or more. He takes no pictures at all during this time, to the immense relief of his friends and acquaintances.

Stage 4: Scoundrel

The photographer emerges from the cocoon, in roughly human form, having converted his sheep-fed fat into a skinny mustache and a Leica. He preys on young human women, luring them to his flat, feeding them vegan sausages, and photographing their feet before releasing them, dazed and permanently damaged back into the streets of his chosen city-habitat.

Stage 5: Pundit

He starts a terrible blog and grows fat again on pork products and hubris. Women avoid him. He develops an unpleasant odor. He takes very sharp photographs of the same old shit, reviews ridiculously expensive equipment, and leaves a trail of affiliate links to BHPhoto and Amazon wherever he goes.

Stage 6: Me

Finally, seeing the light, he becomes me. He casts off all weakness. His exquisite taste and perfect working methods emerge, fully formed. He starts a new blog, this one filled with brilliant insights. Women flock to him like children to an ice cream truck, and for much the same reasons.

Most mornings, he limps.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Future of Photography (Again)

I've written a bunch of stuff, speculating about where we're going. Here, for instance, and also here. They're kind of optimistic essays, about where we might be able to go.

Let me now look in my other crystal ball. The black one. The one filled with despair.

Ultimately I think a strong argument can be made that any really cool new things in photography are going to be software driven. Photography is digital, it's all software now. Anything really cool and innovative therefore depends on someone writing some software. Software that's not trivial and stupid.

I happen to work in a segment of that industry which gives me good visibility, and I can tell you that virtually all software being written today is being written by incompetents who go to heroic efforts to accomplish trivialities. The apps on your phone get slower, bigger, and buggier, don't they? But in return you get all these cool new... No wait. The new version basically does the same thing as the old one. Maybe less. But boy it sure looks different! And my phone is now hot enough to cook on!

Ain't looking good for any radical innovation that solves some hard problems and pushes photography to somewhere new and amazing.

So what could happen?

Consider the art of writing. For 1000 years we had the art of the illuminated manuscript. These were awesome. Writing was special, it was hard. We only wrote things out that were important. Because they were important, we took the time to make the manuscript beautiful. Then it kind of got out of hand and the illuminations started to get done for the sake of the illuminations. There ensued a sort of decadent period in which there was a moderately brisk market for these things, but they were still incredibly beautiful, special.

Then the sea change. The nobility learned to read and to write. Then the merchants did too. And then there came the printing press, and ever more literacy. More or less.

Now writing, and the printed word, is everywhere. It is absolutely universal. We live in a constant flow of words. You're wallowing in some right now.

And where is the illuminated manuscript?

Does this sound familiar? I don't claim that this is anything like a perfect analogy, just a kind of example of the way things can change when they transition from hard-and-relatively-rare to easy-and-common.

Now that words on paper is a universal thing, and anyone can put words on to paper, they're not special any more.

More to the point, we value words for their content, for what they say, but not for how they look. It's possible that ubiquitous photography will cause us to value photographs in some wildly different way than we do now. Possibly, for their content, but not the way they look.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film vs. Digital

I'm going to start somewhere odd. Bear with with me. Or not. Your choice.

The ecology of the planet is complex. Like, ridiculously complex. There are vastly long looping chains of causality all through it. Arguably it is entirely composed of vast looping chains of causality.

There was a time when we were pretty sure we had a handle on it. We thought we'd be able to control and manage it, run it on scientific principles to the greater benefit of man. Then Rachel Carson and DDT happened (as well as a bunch of other similar people and events). Turns out that when you knock back some bugs all the goddamned eagles die. Say what?!! Then some math geeks started talking about chaotic dynamical systems and we realized that we're pretty much stuck with unintended consequences and that we probably could lose the whole planet with a misstep.

The whole thing's pretty resilient, to be sure. It's really unlikely that losing all the apex predators is going to stop plants from photosynthesizing. But golly, if they do things are gonna get real ugly. What's alarming here isn't that it's all fragile -- it's not. What's alarming is that we have no way of measuring, a priori, how large of a change will be wrought by, well, but pretty much anything we do.

Anyways. The point here is that these complex systems have unpredictable behavior. Small changes of inputs can cause large and surprising changes in output.

Now, consider photography.

It's profoundly human, whatever it is, in this sense: show a photo of a tiger and an actual tiger to a human, to a horse, to a housefly. The latter two are not going to get much if any "tiger-ness" from the piece of paper, but they'll probably give some distinctly tiger or at least mammal related reaction to the real thing. The human however will identify many characteristics in common between the two objects. Also, some important differences. Along another axis we can consider the underlying reality of the photo versus a drawing and so on. All that stuff I have talked about now and then, and wiser heads have talked about for decades.

Taken in total it's reasonable to treat photographs as, essentially, objects which have meaning in the context of human psychology, neurology, and sociology. Outside the whole gestalt of humanity, they're just flat pieces of paper. Inside it, they're infernally complex, potent, fraught.

You know what the gestalt of human emotion, psychology, community, neurology, shared memory and experience, etc, is? Yep. It's probably a chaotic dynamical system. Endless looping chains of causality.

So we switch from film to digital.

This changes the details of the ways we work, which in turn changes who does photography. People have left the field simply because they can't reasonably work with film any more (F. Evans, the other Evans, famously left photography when platinum paper became commercially unavailable). Loads of other people have entered the field. The process by which we make pictures has changed, has become more accessible.

Also, the physicality has changed. There isn't a physical piece of film anywhere. Pictures today usually have no physical manifestation, existing, always, as a pattern of signals which need to be interpreted by software and rendered by some light emitting system before our eyes can grasp them. This is an interesting fact, but it's not instantly obvious what the impact of it might be. But it is certainly true.

There are probably other aspects that have changed. Seemingly trivial and unimportant, like the loss of the physical negative. Obviously monumental and paradigm-shifting, like ubiquitous camera ownership and photo sharing.

All this crap gets dumped into the chaotic dynamical system which is humanity and humanity's perception of, relationship with, the photographic image.

Anyone who claims that these changes are trivial, or even that they or can predict understand the consequences, is full of it. He's just not thinking, probably because he doesn't care. Most likely he doesn't care and doesn't think because he frickin' loves screwing around in photoshop, and is under the impression that the whole discussion is basically a personal attack, probably because he's worried that his penis is abnormally small.

It's early days yet, we've only had universally available digital cameras for a handful of years. What happens when a generation grows up to adulthood, starting from 2011? What does photography look like then?

It's not a bad bet that something so small we don't even notice it today is, 30 years from now, seen as easily the critical factor, the important fulcrum upon which turned the changes to.. whatever the new thing is.

In short, the "eh, it's all the same stuff, just more convenient, why look, they've been manipulating photos since the beginning!" crowd is a bunch of reductionist idiots (and I bet if you dig through the archives of this very blog, you will find that I too have worn the reductionist idiot hat!)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

More about Photos that look like Photos

Let's consider a couple ways to photograph people.

Consider the standard, what, about five light setup? Main, fill, hair, catchlight, background? Something like that. People look at these and say "how natural" when they are anything but. We do not after all live on Barsoom. This sort of setup does a bunch of technical stuff. I'm not an expert, but I think among the desirable things are: no deep detail-burying shadows, but adequate modeling for a nicely round look; good separation of the subject from the background; a nice lively twinkle in the eye.

But there's another thing you get out of that, a level removed. It looks done, it looks expensive, complete, finished. Well done, it feels like one of those living rooms with the cream-colored leather couch and the dried cattails in the perfect ceramic thingy in the corner, and the vase filled with balled up paper in just the right colors. Done. Designed and executed to all flow and fit together expensively, perfectly.

When the CEO has a good portrait done, the photographer will ideally get a beautiful perfect moment out of him, and then will insert it into this perfectly polished photographic trope, and it will look expensive and polished. Just the sort of image you want your CEO to project, most of the time.

And it is a deeply photographic idiom. Painters can accomplish all the technical details without introducing light sources - photographers cannot, because modifying light is pretty much the only thing we can do. Photo-graphy, light-drawing, that whole deal, right? So we end up with a pile of lights.

Consider another current approach to photographs of people. Dead-on flash, or perhaps slightly off-center. Yes yes Terry Richardson is an asshole. There's lots of people running around out there doing slight variations on the theme. In terms of all that technical niceness, the modeling, etc, it's a total bust. But it's still a deeply photographic look, one that arose out of the vernacular. These things are totally photos that look like photos and not even a little bit like anything else.

What's this look communicating?

Probably usually something about spontaneity? Unposed, natural, in the moment, hip, active? Stuff like this.

In both cases the associations we have with the style (polished/"done"/expensive, spontaneous/hip/natural) derive from the history we have with these pictures. We've seen a lot of million-light portraits, and we associate them with a certain kind of thing, where the subject is carefully posed and a great deal of care is being taken. We've seen a lot of on-camera-flash snapshots, and we associate them with spontaneity.

In both cases, photography has built its own set of associations. There's little or nothing "fundamental" about these things, it's simply that there's a long history, now, of photographs. We're steeped in them. We associate certain looks with certain things.

And thus the connection to Sally Mann and her dismal wet plate photographs, which look the way they do not through anything fundamental about vision or psychology, but largely because we know what old photos look like because we've seen some, and these look like old photos.

This, in turn, leads me to wonder how much of what we get out of a photograph is fundamental in the way our eyes and brains work, and how much is simply because we've seen a lot of photographs? There is a whole school of thought that wants to explain it all in terms of neurology and brain science. Eye leading, rules of composition, etc, etc. But it's clear, at least to me, that at least some of this stuff is learned simply by having a lot of photos thrust in front of our eyes.

Musical theorists used to (and I dare say still do) drone on about whatever the current theories of tonality are, and how they're deeply wired into the human brain. Except, apparently, for all those blokes in Africa and Asia who find western ideas of tonality weird. Turns out that practically all this stuff is learned, it's essentially a local, social, phenomenon.

This has worked out extremely well for music, because there is apparently always somewhere new to go. What has been learned can be unlearned, can be tweaked, can be built upon. If Bach's ideas of tonality had indeed proved to be hard-wired, the final word, music would be a lot less interesting today.

In some areas, it's working out OK for photography, too. Some of the most influential and important work being done today is blessedly "bad" photography being done by people who think, somewhere deep down, that their audience might be able to learn some new ways of seeing without being too harmed by the experience.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Photos that look like Photos

About 100 years ago, part of the backlash against Pictorialism and the subsequent rise of straight photography was a critic demanding, or suggesting, that photographers cease making pictures that look like paintings, and start making pictures that look like photographs.

What that meant then isn't perfectly clear, but it seems to have led in a fairly straight line to straight photography, Paul Strand and those chaps.

What it means today, after 100 years of photography, is interesting.

We now have a lot of notions of what a photograph can look like. There are variations on Olde Tyme photos, with wet plate work, sepia toning, faded colors, Polaroid-like after effects, and so on. Ironically, some of the most distinctly photographic work today is Sally Mann's. Working with wet plate, the photographness is right in your face. The fact that this is a corrupted, flawed, object which is first and foremost a photo, cannot be escaped. The subject matter comes second, albeit a very close second. It is integral to the work that these two things should be bound up together.

On the one hand, there is the inherent underlying reality of the thing that is the photograph. An otherwise dull field is the actual battlefield where thousands died in a day. The corrupted decaying feel of the wet plate frame, the flaws in it, the crinkles and damage incurred during processing, all these speak to and support the idea of the frame. As a painting, the picture would be just a field, It could be any field. As a modern digital photograph, sharp from front to back, with vibrant colors, well, it would be the right field but there would be no feel of nostalgia and loss. These things have to be photographs, and they have to be wet plate. Nothing else works.

They are photographs that look like photographs, as hard as a photograph can look like a photograph. And they are unabashedly pictorialist.

Take that, history!

Anyways. Photographs that look like photographs. Inside the bubble of camera-club/camera-forum/social-media bozos, vintage effects are largely eschewed. You must have IQ! You must have color-managed workflow! Blah blah blah. But these things miss out on a huge range of possibility. How are you going to convey a sense of nostalgia with your peppy ultra-sharp digital camera? How are you going to show us longing, loss? How can you hint and suggest when every detail is there to be seen if you jam your nose close enough to the screen? (Ok, OK, bokeh, sure. You got a second method? No? Ok then.)

To be sure, there are things wet plate doesn't do. It doesn't look happy. It doesn't express ebullience. There's where your peppy colors and razor sharp lenses come in. Also to express the dominance of the machine over man, there's a good idea for loads of IQ. And so on. You can write 'em yourself, all day long.

There's probably something great that can be done with ultra-digital blown highlights, with those nasty sharp edges and fjords of pure white where the sensor just went KRAKOW and recorded all 1s. Of course, you can't get away with that in the bubble either. Interesting, huh?

A photograph with distinctly photographic flaws, failures, and deterioration in it looks more like a photograph than anything else. It's more distinctly a photograph than a clean color balanced sharp "success" ever can be.

Somethin' to think on.

I Have Been Asked ...

I've been asked now, multiple times, why I "have it in" for Ming Thein.

The short answer is that I don't. A longer answer is given here. Ultimately, I get asked about Mr. Thein but not about Mr. Newhall because Beaumont Newhall doesn't have many fans on the internet with a personal investment in his ideas. Also, Mr. Newhall, being dead, isn't continuing to say dumb wrong-headed stuff, and finally Newhall doesn't use a carefully constructed personal narrative as an important part of his authority.

So my remarks on the gentlemen are different in shape and flavor, as are my remarks on the subject of several other fellows I think have infested our world with bad ideas.

But ultimately, it comes down to this:

People say stuff. Some of it is right, some is wrong, some is clever and some is dumb. There are people with outsized influence. Beaumont Newhall managed, somehow, to become the authority on the history of photography, and he managed to become, to some degree, the sole authority on who matters and who does not in that history. And he's wrong on several counts. Ming Thein has become positioned as an authority on several technical matters, and he's wrong about some of them. Michael Reichmann, Keven Raber, Lloyd Chambers, the list goes on.

It's not that any of these chaps are evil. They're human. Some of their ideas are better than others. Some of their ideas are really just prejudices dressed up as facts. Same as it ever was. I'm the same way.

But the influencers, these people with outsized weight in the eyes of the world, need to be questioned. When an influencer says something dumb, it is important that someone point it out. More precisely, when we think that something an influencer said is dumb (accepting that we might be the wrong one) we should point it out. Let the cage-match of ideas begin, and the best ideas win. The point is not that I am right and Reichmann is wrong. The point is that we should be examining these things critically. It is virtually the definition of an influencer that their ideas don't get examined critically, and this we need to fight against, always, in all walks of life.

You would think that the influential writers of today, working in media where this critical examination could take place in situ might allow it, but as a general rule, they do not. These people are, generally, not very interested in being examined. They're selling themselves, they're selling products, they're managing their brands. And so, they choose to interpret disagreement as personal attack, and then shut it down on that basis. I can think of at least two different examples off the top of my head where I have personal experience of this. I assume it's nearly universal. The cage match of ideas must happen, therefore, elsewhere.

Photography, especially the pedagogy of photography, is simply awash in stupid shit influential people and publications have trotted out. If only a few more people had stood up in the 1970s and said "this rule of thirds thing is stupid and wrong" then we wouldn't have to deal with it today, and the pictures on flickr would be measurably better than they are. A billion pictures have been damaged by a piece of shit that "Popular Mechanics" trotted out in 1970.

Down with the Man. Fight the Power.

But it is kind of fun to pick on Ming, gotta admit it.