Sunday, January 10, 2016

On Doing Photography

I'm reading a couple of things these days, short things. Art and Fear by Bayles and Orland, and "On Being a Photographer" by Hurn and Jay. They're both pretty good in their own right. Both of them are helping me to refine my own ideas, which is pleasant. Both of them, basically, are simply reiterating well-known things about Art-Making, and fleshing these truths out with a collection of personal refinements and observations.

Both align, in broad strokes, with things I say on this blog.

The point here is that most of my ideas are not original with me. From time to time I come up with something on my own, but it's (almost?) never actually new, other people have thought the same things before. None of this stuff is rocket science. What it is, is mysterious and opaque to the earnest amateur photographer who is bizarrely unaware of these things, these methods, these processes, these ideas.

Here is an interesting case study: Dealing with visual overload. As usual, Mr. Thein is merely providing a sort of canonical example, well written and illustrated, of a practically universal phenomenon. Spend a little time of any of the major photo forums and you'll find the same story repeated endlessly, but in a less handily cite-able format.

In summary, Mr. Thein and a Masterclass group had gone to considerable expense and difficulty to place themselves in Chicago, and found themselves with Bad Light and Uninteresting Subjects. They suffered in the cold and wind for a couple hours, and then suddenly, The Light! The Light! and they had to shoot rapidly for a little while to get The Good Pictures.

So what we have here is a group of photographers standing around, engaged with their environment (albeit not in a positive way, they seem to be cold and grumpy) waiting. Their teacher's advice is to use this time to fuck around with their cameras.

I submit to you that instead they could have taken that opportunity, that time of authentic connection, and used it. They could have shot the cold, the banal, the frustrated. Instead, evidently, the aim was to shoot an inauthentic, generic, cityscape. We know for a fact that these pictures are not Ming's experience of that shoreline, we know for a fact, because he tells us, that it didn't look like that, it didn't feel like that. What it looks like is everything else Ming had ever shot. Presumably the students were are striving to copy that, to shoot the same crisply generic cityscapes that their master grinds out. I can practically guarantee you that damn near anything they could have shot an hour earlier would have been more interesting, albeit less +1-attracting.

The same thing surely applies even in the most standard commercial work. If you show up and the model is a bitch, the clothes are being difficult and half your lights are declining to work, what do you do?

You could give up.

You could struggle through it and try to tproduce work per the original concept, working around and through the problems to create the happy model, beautifully lit, in perfectly fitting clothes. Is it gonna be your best examples of the genre, your best work? Nope. Depending on various factors it's going to fall somewhere between acceptable and terrible.

An option is to not fight it. Shoot the bitch, shoot her in minimal light. Embrace her bad temper, fit the lighting style to what's still going POW! and POP! and figure out how to make the clothes look, somehow, awesome.

This might not be available as a choice. If it is a choice, maybe you can't make it work. But, if it is and you do it's got the potential to be great, not mediocre. Fighting circumstance and clinging to a preconceived vision in spite of it all isn't necessarily professionalism. If you're a carpenter, sure, you gotta get the roof on. If you're a creative, surely your job is first and foremost, to be creative.

If you're not getting paid to do it, if it's personal, there's simply no excuse for mediocrity. Don't pass away your authentic experience screwing around with camera. If you're standing around some shoreline bitching about the light, consider that the problem might not be the light, it might be your ability to see.

All this, of course, sidesteps the impossibility of simply flying into a city for the first time, wandering around it for a couple hours, and hoping to make something interesting of it.


  1. Parachute-ography. Load a template into your camera and brain and do a drop by photo-session. The actual city is inconsequential, the template does the heavy lifting. Just be careful not to color outside the lines...

  2. I think you can do a better job if you live there, for, oh, say 20-30 years. But this is just an old man talking. Just my 2 kopecks. ;~)

  3. "Consider that the problem might not be the light, it might be your ability to see" - like becoming mentally and emotionally open for what's around you and let go any expectations and preconceptions? Under the pressure of your peer group (masterclass??) and time constraints? Not going to work for me, I have to be alone and without pressure to achieve this; and even then, I fail often enough. But that's not a problem, as I don't make a living from taking pictures. And, if it doesn't work today, who cares? As I'm shooting close to my home, there is always a tomorrow for a second chance. Maybe the pictures will be back then ...

  4. I think you need to get over yourself, and whatever problem you have with Ming. I was one of two students who was with Ming at that particular time and location, and we did not stand and "fuck" around with our cameras during the first part of the session when the light was flat, nor was that suggested then or now in the write-up. We were all trying to get a photo of the place that worked.

    And who are you to suggest that Ming should take a different picture? Perhaps his goal was to take a skyline in beautiful light, instead of a photo that reflected his feelings about the weather at that moment in time. Or maybe the cold wind made him even happier to finally see the skyline in that beautiful light, and that's why he made the picture that he did.

    It's too bad Ansel Adams never made pictures of his donkey and the unpaved trails they had to trudge through, along with the attendant work, effort, and frustration he must have felt instead of the beautiful landscapes he chose to make. He might actually have made interesting photos!

    1. I think you would do well to read a trifle more closely.

    2. And while we're here, Ansel Adams is virtually the poster child for what I am talking about in this post. If you'd read anything Adams wrote, you'd know that his obsession with shooting your personal reaction to a thing makes mine look like distaste.

      As for the rest, well, it's all there in the original post if you care to set aside the "must defend Master Thein" for a moment.

    3. I reread your blog post again, carefully, and I still stand by my comments.

      How do you know that Ming's "authentic connection" to the scene isn't represented by the photos he showed on his blog post? Why does it have to be about "the cold, the banal, the frustrated" especially when that represented only the first hour of our time out there?

      Later on when the light and sky changed, isn't what he shot a reasonable candidate for an "authentic connection" to what he saw? Should we ignore the last hour?

      And if we had truly given up on the scene, we would have left well before the light changed. Instead, we stuck it out to try to make the scene work, and got very lucky. None of us expected the light to change, but perhaps you think we can accurately predict the weather, too.

      You miss the point about Adams: he suffered countless frustrations to make the photos that he made, but that is not the point of his photography and therefore it's not shown in his photos.

    4. How do I know how he felt about it? Because he tells me in explicit careful detail. How do I know that the final results are inauthentic to the place? Because they are indistinguishable from everything what he shoots.

      This is precisely why I liked to Ming's post. He gives us tons of excellent detail on his process at that time at that moment, and it is that process I aim to critique.

  5. Group shooting? All together? In one place? At one time? Is "workshop" just another word for clusterf@ck??? Can't imagine a more creativity deadening way to make photographs...

  6. Fantastic discussion/post.Totally agree that the emporer has no clothes on.