Sunday, July 12, 2015

Three Cases


Go look at some of Sally Mann's Southern Landscapes. There's a handful you can peek at on under Selected Works, as of this writing. The subject matter is pretty distinctively southern, you certainly could not have shot some of these photos any old place. Some others, sure, anywhere. But knowing that the set goes together and were made by one person, with intent, some things are clear. The identity of the region becomes clear, at least in general terms. If not the American South, then somewhere else with much the same history and feeling about it. Perhaps not the American South as such, but definitely not Alaska, or Nevada, or Paris.

The way Mann handles the subject matter shows a particular feeling. It's clear that these things reflect a personal view of.. something, someplace. In this case, Sally Mann's idea of South, which is for excellent reasons much aligned with William Faulkner's view of South. While that exact fact is not obvious without context, it is obvious that these things represent someone's personal idea of a place.

This portfolio combines some distinctive Mann-isms with some portfolio-specific choices, and produces something that is a singular vision of a place.


Contrast with Ansel Adams. He too applied a set of tropes to the way he handled subject matter. His methods, in contrast to Mann's, tend to unify the places. There is no particular sense of place in his work, unless it is an abstract place, Unspoiled Wilderness, or something. Mountains in Alaska are made to look pretty much like Mountains in California.

Adams is clearly going for something universal about there places, some sort of sense of wonder he feels that is common to all these places.

Adams applied some distictive Adams-isms pretty widely, producing a body of work which, while note place-specific, does give us a singular vision.


Finally, go look at Ming Thein's recent "photo essays" on Prague: Praghitecture, People of Prague I, People of Prague II.

This crap could have been shot anywhere, by anyone.

Mr. Thein is banging out tropes as well. The strong rectilinear geometry and then in a lower corner, a pedestrian walks briskly into the frame. Look, reflections! Here is a building in the distance, with some shit in the middle ground, and some shit in the foreground, because that's what the book says to do. Etc. Etc. These buildings and people could be anywhere, because Mr. Thein is simply making copies of copies of copies of photographs that everyone else on flickr makes.

The tropes have had any sense of place squeezed out of them, and so they are perforce universal. They have also and more importantly, had any sense of personal point of view squeezed out. If these things are recognizably Thein's at all, it's going to be because of the way he handles sharpening, or color grading, or some goddamned thing.

If he has any ideas about Prague specifically, any personal view of Prague, it is painfully un-apparent in these pictures.

What is interesting to me is that Thein clearly does have an idea of Prague. We see it in this picture and its caption:
The slight oppressiveness that is impossible to define

By itself the picture is ho-hum. You can find glum people anywhere. Had Thein elected to work on this theme a bit, to collect a series of pictures that expound on the theme of the caption, he could have made it distinctively Thein's view of Prague.

Instead he trundles off through a series of well executed but boring exercises in leading lines, figure to ground relationships, a handful of visual jokes, generally ringing the usual "street photography" changes that thousands of other blokes crank out daily.

Had he developed a real portfolio, instead of this garbage, it would have been personal, of course. Prague is many things. The South is many things as well, many more things than a bunch of trees and tumbled-down buildings. But Sally Mann's South is that distinctly Faulknerian idea of The South. It is a distinct vision of The South, with the clarity of a thrown knife. Which is why her work has weight and presence. If Thein had decided to pursue his notion of Prague, instead of being distracted by the lure of endless shitty "street photography" tropes, he too might have been able to make something worthwhile.

It would probably take more than a couple days of shooting, though.

Frankly, Thein's idea that he can fly in to a city for a couple days to teach a workshop, and produce not one but three worthy portfolios is some mighty hubris. Arguably it is a measure of how little he respects his audience. "Here's a bunch of shit I saw in Prague. Eat it up, yum yum."

Have some respect for your audience, even if it's only you. If you have nothing to say, shut the hell up until you find something to say. Then work until you find a way to say it.

You will find that it is worth it.


  1. After having lived in Prague for the better part of two deacdes I thought Thein's pictures were pretty poor. I like the idea of channeling an author to give a substrate for a portfolio and might give it a go.

    1. Hmm, I hadn't actually thought specifically about starting from an author ;) Mann's photos are Faulkner based, I believe, because she read him during her formative years, and I think he gave her a lens through which to look at her own experience of The South.

      But it is a pretty good idea!

      Thanks for your remark on Prague. My sense was that there's nothing of Prague-as-Prague in Thein's photos, but I have never visited there, so it's nice to have some confirmation.

    2. Can I send you a link to some Prague stuff? Email me to