I've mentioned that I poke in to Lula's "User Critique" forum from time to time. But then I leave, because the only thing that ever comes to mind about any picture is "well, what were you trying to accomplish?"
Most of the time I can guess that the answer is "I was trying to make a Good Photograph" and so I don't even ask
the question. There are people for whom, I guess, that actually means something. I think it means "it complies with
a collection of unexamined ideas that live in my mind someplace" but I'm not certain.
What I do know is that the idea of a "Good Photograph" is meaningless to me. A photograph is no more good
or bad than is a stone.
I take a certain delight in fashion photography, not only because it is fabulous, but because I can imagine what Internet
Forum People would say about many of the pictures. Boy oh boy, some of these pictures would attract some serious hate.
There's at least one design house that's using a lot of straight-up out of focus pictures. Underexposed, muddy, blurry.
These guys aren't idiots, they're getting exactly what they want. There's a whole process here for figuring out what
the Brand wants and converting that into a vision and converting THAT into photographs.
Kirk Tuck wrote a long piece very recently postulating that there's not much room for individual vision in photography, and to an extent I think he's right. Perhaps all the way out to where he
intended his remarks to apply, it's not at all clear he means them in an absolutely universal way.
It's certainly true that people who are plugged in to social media, formerly to internet forums, before that Usenet or BBSes or
Camera Clubs, surely are guided by what they see. In this modern era Kirk is 100% right, anything that gets any "traction"
will be instantly duplicated. Hilariously wrong how-to videos will be posted by people who literally cannot see photographically,
followed a little while later by how-to videos that work, presumably by people who can see.
It is certainly true that brands which care about "social media traction" will want to leap wildly from bandwagon to
Fashion, delightfully, is full of players who do not give much of a damn about social media traction. Some of them
actively Do Not Give A Fuck. Dolce and Gabbana at the moment are in a sort of mode of actively chasing customers away.
Not quite in a GET OUT sort of way but an "oh darling, I'm sorry, but you weren't invited, you can't buy anything
this year." D&G adverts are glorious. And they're not even the weird ones. Bottega Veneta is in strong competition for
the weird ones, but they're not the clear winner. Their twitter feed is, to put it mildly, iconoclastic.
Of course there's tons of perfectly ordinary skinny models pouting boredly at the cameras. It's not like it's 100%
beautiful strange visions. The point is, there's a certain amount of strange vision going on.
Anyways. These people know where they're going. They have a clear articulation of brand identity, and a cloud of values that
they want associated with it. They boil that down (at least on good days) to a mood board for a particular campaign. Mood
boards are cool, I first ran into these things only a couple years ago, so you can see that I'm either woefully late
to yet another part of the game or, more optimistically, Always Learning!
Note that the mood board might well include a bunch of stuff from instagram or wherever. It is here that the Art Director
can "wire the project" to simply jump on board whatever the latest trending thing is. In the long run, it's a bad idea,
because you're necessarily diluting The Brand in favor of the Whatever's Trending. Branding is the long game, Trending
is the short game. It may be necessary to balance the two in your day to day, but you gotta keep your eye on the long
game or you will eventually lose.
From the mood board it's pretty standard Creative Work to develop specifics of photographic style. You can't logic your
way through it, you feel it, but this is literally what you hire Creatives to do. So they go and do that. Individual
style notes combine with the mood board and produce ideas for pictures. Then the team executes those pictures. It ain't
rocket science, but it is complicated, detail-oriented, labor-intensive, and sometimes it blows up on the pad.
Even at standard day rates plus catering, though, it's considerable cheaper than actual rockets.
At any rate, this is a process which produces, more or less repeatably, photographs and other design elements
that are well-suited to a well-defined purpose. Here I mean a "well-defined purpose" that can certainly encompass more than
some dunderheaded utility like "sells more purses" but things more aesthetic, more emotional.
Compare this, though, to the hapless fellow posting on some forum for Critique. As I've suggested previously, some
genres are more or less self-decribing, the desired goal is more or less obvious in the picture.
Perhaps some fellow posts a black and white photo of a nude young woman, clearly lit by some enormous octoboxes. Suppose,
though, that she looks very awkward, doesn't know what to do with her hands.
Most of the critique will take the form "amazing!" and "great tones!" because it's a naked girl. Naked girls always
have amazing tones for some reason.
The next bits will be things like "you should move the octobox on the left up an inch because reasons."
The one thing you can be sure of is that nobody is going to say "dude, the girl looks miserable and awkward."
Looking at the picture we might guess that the goal, however poorly articulated it might be in the photographer's mind, is
probably to produce something in the serenely erotic genre. The pool of calm with the elegant body centered in it, erotic but
also aesthetically pleasing, beautiful. It doesn't quite work because the model's hands are awkward and her body language
screams "I AM NOT CALM."
Ok, maybe the artist is making some other statement? Or maybe the artist is attempting the first thing, but will end up doing
the second thing when he realizes that he's not capable of generating the serenity necessary for the first thing.
Either one of those is possible, so even now we can't really judge the picture without specifically answering the question "where
are you going here?"
Unfortunately, this is an all too common scenario where the amateur can be ruined by sloppy critique. They will learn that they're
geniuses (because they can hire models willing to work nude) and that they need to move the octobox on the left up by an inch.
A sufficiently introspective artist might, if kept safely away from such dunderheads, eventually find a path forward that produces
something other than an endless sequence of ambiguously nervous unclad young women. Or an artist lucky enough to find someone who
will look, will actually see, and then will speak.
While you don't need to start with a Brand, and then make a Mood Board, and then brainstorm shooting scripts if you want to shoot
serene classic black and white nudes, at some point you're going to have to nail down what the hell it actually means
to shoot a good one. There are many paths here. You gotta take one of them.
Unless you're cool with a lot of "great shot", "move the octobox an inch" and nervous girls. Which, I guess, that's not the worst
way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Not quite my cup of tea.