Friday, June 29, 2012

Good Art

There are two common reactions to viewing a piece that one doesn't like:
  • it's crap
  • well, I don't like it, but art is in the eye of the beholder after all
both of which are cop-outs. In the first, the viewer sets himself up as the arbiter of what is and is not art, which trivializes the idea of art and is wildly arrogant. In the second, the viewer essentially denies that art exists at all, which is also fairly trivializing.

Good Art is obviously subjective, I think efforts to produce some sort of objective definition have failed utterly and for good reason. However, I think it's also an error to claim it's subjective on a personal level -- this isn't a personal thing at all. It's something to do with society as a whole. You could say that Good Art is simply stuff that most people in a society like, but that's simply saying that Art is the same thing as Popular, which is the waste of a perfectly good word.

Good Art is something more like a piece that successfully communicates with a large segment of a society, in an "arty" way. Whatever that means.

If you polled your society and asked "Do you like this piece?" you'd get a measure of popularity. If you asked "Is this piece Good Art?" you'd get some random jumble of responses reflecting more about the word Art than the piece. If you asked something like "Does this piece make you feel something?" you'd be getting closer to something useful. If you asked a series of questions like:
  • does this piece give you ideas?
  • does it make you feel something?
  • does it grab your attention and hold it for a little while?
you'd probably get something quite good.

Call it whatever you like, really, but the fact is that there are pieces that will grab the attention of "most" or "many" people, and that will then make those people feel or think something more than superficially. There are also many pieces that do none of these. If you think Art is something else, you may call the former GLAK and the latter BLOK if you like, but I call the former Good Art and the latter Not Good Art.

As an interesting side note, the professional art community does not deal exclusively in Good Art. There's a lot of interest in novelty, there's a lot of interest in serving personal connections. This is as it should be, we generally do not know whether a piece is Good Art until it has marinated in society for a while, and it is the job of the curators and artists to throw things into the soup to see what lasts and what does not.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Food for Thought

If you pay attention in the right places online, you see a lot of "overcooked" images coming from people who clearly want to be making art, or at least attractive photographs. Overcooking takes many forms, from HDR and tonemapping, through oversharpening and excessive contrast, to violently applied presets in some terrible photo processing tool.

One of the common themes in the results is that the finished photos look a lot like video game renders. Not all of them, but quite often.

Does this help explain the popular appeal of these terrible images? I don't know, but it might. Perhaps, for gamers, this is an aesthetic they have already absorbed and it's only old farts like me who find it incomprehensible.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Degrees of Indistinctness

You should read this awesome post. It's really good.

As usual ToP has some really smart stuff to say, about some things I had not really thought through. Like many photographers I think about depth of field as an in or out proposition. There's the stuff in focus, and the stuff out of focus. What John, and especially some of the examples he gives, makes clear is that one should think and work with degrees of indistinctness. Putting one thing in sharp focus lets the viewer know what's important, what to pay attention to. Stuff that is less in focus can still be part of the composition, can still carry information, can still be more literal than blobs of pure form.

This naturally leads us in two separate directions.

How else can one deal with degrees of indistinctness, how else can we layer up degrees of importance? Local contrast, which is closely related to sharpness and feels similar to in-focus-ness, darkness and light; and I suppose one could play games with color or degrees of saturation. What else?

The other direction, at risk of slopping over into the technical stuff I so dislike, is to consider ways to control depth of focus in a more detailed fashion. With focus stacking techniques, or with a light field camera, one could arrange for arbitrary portions of the final image to be arbitrarily more or less in focus. My feeling is that pushing this very far would just look weird. The viewer is used to the ways focus softens outwards from a given plane in a single exposure with a single lens, but carefully used it could be quite powerful. These things do evolve, perhaps in twenty years arbitrarily placed focus will look perfectly natural to most viewers.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

You are not a misunderstood genius

If people don't like your work, you are probably not a misunderstood genius. Your work is not too complex and deep to understand. In all probability, your work is just bad. Interestingly, even if people do like you're work, there's a pretty good chance that your work is fairly bad. In that case, though, it is at least appealing, and that's something.

The difference between appealing and good lies in the emotional and evocative power. An appealing piece is one that appeals to viewers, they like it, they look at it. Maybe it's pretty, or interesting, it's usually well-composed (albeit possibly in an ex post facto fashion -- you can tell it's well composed, because people like it). A good piece has power. Usually, it is also appealing (not pretty or beautiful, necessarily, but appealing), but it's powerful. Viewers look at it and feel, they look again, and feel, they see and feel new things over time.

A good photograph is rare. A photographer might never take one, and a photographer might even be ok with that. If all you shoot is weddings, perhaps you'll take and sell 20,000 appealing images and never a good one. I think many photographers might profess themselves fully satisfied by taking only appealing images, but I suspect that in their hearts most of them would like to make a few good ones along the way. Why not, after all? Who would not want to take a photograph that is not only appealing to everyone, but also moves the viewer and changes lives? I would.

The really great photographs are widely appealing. You can sit around and comfort yourself with the idea that "most" people don't like "most" photographs, so it's all about simply finding your audience. This is the irrational reasoning of artists who make bad photographs. I say this as a fellow who takes mostly bad photographs, occasionally appealing ones, and it's not clear that I've ever made a good one.

A great photograph might be appealing to 80 percent of the population, perhaps? A lot. Ansel Adams might be a little too ubiquitous, it's certainly fashionable to dislike him, but his posters haven't sold a hundred million copies because they're unappealing. The work might not be powerful political commentary, but it evokes the hell out of place. It's frequently good.

Not every image is for every viewer, to be sure, but there are trends and percentages. If nobody likes your work, it's not appealing. If your friends like it but nobody else does, it's still not appealing. If 10 percent of randomly selected viewers, eh, it's pretty un-appealing. If you get up to half, you're doing great, but there's a good chance you've just made some punchy eye-candy.

If you've made something good, perhaps something like half the people that see it will be drawn to it, and will look at it again, and perhaps again, and many of them will feel something or think something they never felt or thought before. You can't buy whiskey with that, but wouldn't it be a hell of a fine thing anyways?

Friday, June 22, 2012

FSA Photo of the Week

Check this awesome thing out. It's like a weird little still life of the oddest things. Arguably the artist is not the photographer at all, but whoever assembled this strange tableau. The echoed oval shapes and the cross of.. whatever was used to make the frame. What IS that little box under the electrical outlet?

It's all so clean and simple. It looks like a weird art project, where these objects are placed inside a glass box exactly 1 meter on a side, and then filled with transparent plastic made with the artist's own fingernail clippings. Simultaneously, it looks like a poor family's make-do project, making what they need out of what they've got (the best definition of engineering I ever read).

This is "found object" photography, and a smashing example of it.

Crib made from scrap materials, probably on a Farm Security Administration project. Shot by Dick Sheldon, 1941.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Flickr is Awesome

This posting should be read in the context of the previous posting.

First, flickr is awesome just because it is a community of people who are trying. Trying is better than not trying. Occasionally, some genuinely good work appears. It's a bit thin on the ground, but it's out there. Spend an hour surfing, and you'll probably find a dozen decent images, and maybe one genuinely excellent one.

Secondly, and this might be more important, that horrible echo chamber of ego-barter and over-processed eye-candy might just be creating one or more new aesthetics. Anything is better than the current state of photography as art. Galleries full of crappy photographs of malls, or more or less identical photographs of nothing, all bolstered by an incomprehensible artist's statement about capturing the zeitgeist of the popular wubble wubble blat blat zzzzzzzzz. Ugh.

It's possible that pictures of mountains under black skies filled with puffy sepia clouds, bolstered by 12,529 comments all reading "Great Capture!" is a step up.

I'm not sure that flickr's helping build a new and worthwhile aesthetic. It's possible. I am almost certain that if such new aesthetics do arise, I will not recognize them until well after the fact. Nonetheless, I wish these folks well.

Go, budding photographers, go!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Flickr is Terrible

Flickr is a destination of sorts for the budding photographer. While it, like all even slightly popular photo sharing web sites, is far too vast to allow one person to truly know what's going on in it, it appears to me that many of its users are really taking a stab at "art" or at any rate "good" photographs. On the one hand, I approve. It's not facebook, where you post horrible snapshots of your drunk friends, and it's not instagram where you post horrible snapshots of whatever happens to be in front of your iPhone.

The down side is that it's an echo chamber of budding artists, all furiously influencing one another. Participants can give one another positive feedback on photographs in a variety of ways, and people rarely give negative feedback. Indeed, there are explicit ego-stroking barter systems in play "Post 1 - Comment 3" rules for groups, which require anyone wishing to place an image in the group to comment on 3 (or whatever) other photographs in the group. This leads to an infinite regress of superficial "great capture!" comments attached to the most eye-catching of recently posted images.

The result is that the only thing that matters is eye candy. Grab the eye, make someone look for 1 second, 3 seconds, and that's what gets you the trivial "great capture!" comment. Get a couple hundred of those, and maybe your photograph will pop up on the front page of flickr for an hour.

This leads to all kinds of terrible feedback - people lash HDR all over an image, or push all the sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2.0 all the way to the right, and they get a bunch of positive feedback, and then others copy that look because they want 500 comments too. And so it goes, round and round, at Internet Speed.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ubiquity and Vocabulary

In an essay by Glenn Gould (who was a wildly opinionated musician) I ran across a statement of support for muzak. Gould approved of ubiquitous cheesy music, this despite the fact that (to take one example) he pretty much disapproved of Mozart and Beethoven wholesale.

Why this strange dichotomy? Gould makes the point that ubiquitous cheesy versions of classical music gives everyone, or most people at any rate, an instinctive grasp of the vocabulary of music. He's right. These days, most people have a sense of where the harmony ought to go next, at any given moment in a piece of music, whether they know it or not. Even a musically ignorant rube will generally find standard harmonies pleasing, and will take notice when things diverge from the standard.

Does the ubiquity of photography in our lives do something similar? I think it may. Certainly we are steeped in photographic images every moment, on the internet, on billboards, in advertisements on the bus and in magazines. Generally these photographs are cheesy. High quality, produced by seriously skilled workers, but cheesy. We all have a good working understanding of the vocabulary of photography as it exists now. Most people will probably find an image of a model strange if the lighting doesn't check all the catch-light, hair-light, this-light, that-light boxes.

Is this good? I think so. At least within certain limited areas of photography, the photographer can communicate better both by obeying the tropes we see in advertising, and by carefully disobeying them.

Friday, June 15, 2012

FSA Photo of the Week

Our FSA photo of the week:

This looks like a Walker Evans quotation, I'm not sure it's deliberate though. Lots of good material in the frame, I think, and a nicely handled set of tones. Despite the relatively bright lighting I think it sells as a dimly lit space. What's interesting to me is that the apparent subject, the crock or whatever it is in the center, is really just a negative space. The subject is actually the desk-like object holding it up which is weirdly half buried in straw or hay, and which turns out to be a sewing machine. After a little while you realize that you're looking at some stuff that's been stored away someplace, but it took me a moment or two to work that out.

It's a little busy, perhaps, there might be a little too much going on in the frame, but it's all such good stuff I cannot help but like it.

Birdsboro (vicinity), Berks County, Pennsylvania. Sewing machine in the hayloft on the farm of FSA (Farm Security Administration) client Dallas E. Glass, shot by Dick Sheldon, August 1938.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Sailing Parable

In sailboat racing there are more or less infinitely many things one can do to the boat to make it go faster. You can sand the bottom with 1000 grit sandpaper, for instance. These things will, in general, buy you some few seconds over the course of a typical race. Some of the tweaks will get you a little more, some a little less, and a few things actually matter quite a lot.

Out on the racecourse, there are things you can do, strategic things which involve a lot of observation and estimation and intelligent guessing, largely about things which are not the boat, things like wind conditions, currents in the water, and what other sailors are doing out there. These things will buy you a lot of seconds and sometimes minutes.

The tweaky little things you can do to the boat matter, to be sure. They are important psychological tools, they make the boat slightly faster but they make the sailor faster as well. In close competition, particularly at the highest levels, races are commonly won by a small number of seconds. However, the things you do that are not about the boat matter a great deal more.

There is an analogy here with photography. Photographers are frequently nerds, especially in this modern era of digital photography. They love all that tweaky stuff. Here are some things people obsess over:
  • white balance
  • sharpness
  • black and white conversion
  • local contrast
  • the "fine print"
Notice that these are all internal things. These are all about stuff you can do to an image you've already shot, these are not about that dangerous squishy stuff like composition and ideas and meaning and semiotics.

Try an experiment. You can do it entirely in your head if you like. Think of an iconic photograph that you really like, something you think is really strong stuff. Now go find a copy of it on the web. It doesn't have to be a good copy, or particularly high resolution. Pull it in to your favorite photo editing software and start playing with it. Blur it a little, not a lot, just as if it was taken with a bad lens. If it's color, play with the color temperature a little, just to see what would happen if the white balance was done badly. Play with the contrast a bit. If it's black and white, try to make it look like whatever you think is a mediocre conversion. Maybe burn and dodge a little bit to mess up the local contrast.

Most especially, mentally list what post-processing procedures you think are most important. Try to make the target image look as if those were done poorly. Not disastrously, just not well.

At what point does this iconic image stop being "good"? Possibly, for a few of you, it stops being good immediately. I will speculate here that for most people, you can get it pretty screwed up before it stops being a great photograph.

In sailboat racing, of course, we need only be faster than the other boats. In photography we want, roughly, to be as fast as possible. Of course all the tweaky little things you do in post make the image a little better, a little stronger. I don't suggest that you stop doing them, only that you accord them the appropriate importance. In particular, if your photo isn't very good then the greatest job of tweaking in the universe isn't going to make it good. Nothing is going to make it good.

Of course, some photographers and some sailors just love tweaking, and don't really care much about the final result. That's ok, too. These people are not serious contenders on the race course, and they're not serious about photographer as "art", as a medium of communication. Let me say it again: THAT'S OK. Enjoy the tweaking, it's fun.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

People as Symbols

What I mean by symbol here is anything in a photograph that represents, in a viewer's mind, some larger thing. A cross might stand in, or evoke, a collection of ideas about religion, for instance.

People, especially people with specific collections of accessories, are powerful symbols. A man wearing a pinstriped suit, talking on a cell phone, could be very evocative. For some viewers he might represent banking, or industry. For another viewer the man might represent Dad. Most viewers have known many people in their lives, and have seen many photographs of people. All of this experience is in play when the viewer sees a person in a photograph.

Since people are things we're intimately familiar with, we're more likely to compare the image of a person with other people's images we have stored away in our minds. A viewer with expertise in bulldozers would do the same with an image of a bulldozer. While few of us are experts on bulldozers, most of us are experts on people.

Pictures with people in them are potentially pretty powerful stuff, but potentially lead to a wider range of interpretations of your image.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Trees and the Forest

This post is inspired by a transaction I saw on a forum somewhere. No names, since I don't mean to point fingers and the anyways it's the sort of thing we all do.

Someone posted a picture of a cute little girl in front of a wooden fence, and requested help in black-and-white conversion. Someone replied with a quickly pulled together sample, in which the fence was beautifully rendered by the child looks blotchy and dark-skinned when in fact she was neither.

The helpful individual had gotten distracted by getting the fence "right" in the b&w conversion, and had been fooling around with sliders and curves and who knows what else. The result was the that the fence looked like a fence.

Here's the point: When you're processing something up like this, focus on the right thing. The picture wasn't a photograph of a fence, it was a photograph of a little girl in a white dress. The fence Does Not Matter. If you're anywhere in the ballpark, the viewer will see it's a fence and move on. This applies broadly. If you're doing an HDR, what's the point? If you're trying to render the pews deeply shadowed inside the church visible and visually appealing, go ahead and do that. Don't get your "workflow" right, get the damn pews right. Don't correct the white balance to some mechanical notion of correct, get the skin tones looking nice and then leave it alone. When you're applying effects or burning or whatever it is you're doing, have a reason and a goal, a reason and a goal within the current print, and focus on achieving THAT.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

FSA Photo of the week

This is actually another Office of War Information image.

This is a great environmental portrait, I think. The guy looks like he's at work, a little rumpled and barely posed. There's enough context to suggest his office, but mostly pushed out of focus to grant the subject the limelight. He hasn't quite been surprised at work, but he's giving a definite impression of sparing only a few moments, with his mind on other things.

His posture, his not-quite neutral expression, and the context of the office around him let us impose on him a narrative. We imagine, as we do with portraits, that we have a little window into the man's life and personality.

It's slightly reminiscent of Karsh's famous Churchill portrait, which is probably a big influence on how I personally view this image. It's toned down in mood, both tonally and in the man's demeanor, and therefore less dramatic. But, since we don't know this guy, a little less drama is probably good.

Albert Mayer, Washington, D.C., Principal Architect of Bound Brook project, NJ. shot by Carl Mydans, 1936.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Everywhere you look in the great mass of content on the subject of photography, you find references to sharpness. Which lens is sharpest? How can I test the sharpness of my lens? Does one sensor produce sharper images than another? How can I make the sharpest possible prints? How sharp do my prints need to be? How can I align my camera to optimize its sharpness?

Even I get into the game, peeking dumbly at the pixels in my digital files, and moaning about the lack of sharpness, and getting out this lens or that to see if it's sharper.

I am sick to death of it.

We see arguments which boil down to: you can remove sharpness later in the process, but you can't put it back in. This is true, but for some reason we rarely see people arguing that you can add chromatic aberration later, or you can remove color fidelity later, or you can remove your ideas later.

Sharpness is but one facet of the technical minutiae of photography. I speculate that the reason we've latched on to it, collectively, is that it's easy to understand, and it's something we can always improve. We can get a tripod. We can get a better lens, or a bigger sensor, or or or. We can spend money to get more of it, pretty easily.

If only it was remotely related to making good photographs, wouldn't that be a wonderful thing?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Democratization and Value

With the advent of digital photography, and its ubiquity in recent years, we have seen an almost complete democratization of photography. Virtually everyone with enough wealth to feed themselves has access to a camera, even if it's only in a phone. The DSLR is everywhere. There are now many millions of people with equipment capable of the finest work, equipment which will, when set on Automatic, consistently produce technically fine images.

Pretty pictures, the sharp photographs of a flower or a girl or a classic car, with vibrant and appealing colors, are now accessible to all. I can knock them out all day, so can you, and so can your Aunt Martha who cannot reliably hold the camera the right way around.

The isn't a bad thing, nor is it a good thing. It's just a fact. It has changed the way photography works, however. We now have micro stock web sites, selling outstanding images for pennies. Make no mistake, the work on these sites is often outstanding. These images were made, often, with expensive gear. Models were hired, hours of time spent digitally retouching. The economics are not clear to me, but it seems obvious that in many cases the photographer is operating at a substantial loss. Again, this is not a bad thing, it's just a thing. The market is flooded with people who will work for nothing, because they enjoy the process. You can't make any money playing frisbee either, and nobody complains about that.

What it does mean is that photographs have lost value. Pretty pictures are free. In fact, most pictures are free. Any publicly accessible view of something interesting has been shot, go look on flickr. If you are standing in a place with a reasonable amount of foot traffic, and spot a really neat photograph, don't even bother taking it. Go home, search flickr, you will find 20 copies of the really neat image you saw.

So what still has value? Unique images retain value by their rarity. Photographs of a unique event have value: wedding photography is still a business, because the wedding is a unique event. Sports photography, likewise, as each match is a unique event. News and editorial photographs have value, documenting as they do by definition, unique events. Wet-plate processes, and similar, which produce a unique object produce an object with value thereby. You can also add value to "free" images by packaging them: a book of pretty pictures of flowers has some value because of the labor and curatorial effort you put in to it, the cost of production and materials. A print has some value, although this is decreasing.

This is not to suggest, really, that you shouldn't take whatever pictures you fancy. You should simply be aware that those images will typically have value only to you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Famous Photo of the week

The Steerage, Stieglitz.
As a composition, this is divided in two top to bottom. The upper mass of people is neatly framed by various objects and lines, centering your attention on the white hat. The man's face and hand, if not the actual hat, is placed at about 1/3 of the way down the frame (rule of thirds!) while the various linear objects in-frame give more or less strong diagonals, especially the gangplank. The implied line of sight from the man in the white hat could be considered to be interrupted by the gangplank, but I think one can argue convincingly that it passes behind the gangplank , down into the second mass of people (the ones in Steerage).
The relative tidiness of the framing above contrasts with the relative untidiness below, arguably echoing in the composition the contrast between the two classes of people involved, although this might be a bit of a stretch.
As a composition, I think this one is fair rule-following, as far as the simple rules of composition we run in to over and over. It is a particularly fortuitous arrangement of shapes and lines, a little random to be formal as such, but while it's loose I think it's pretty obedient to convention.
Of course the point of this image is, as is so often with the really good ones, essentially political.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Copy Things

Painting has a long tradition of copying other painters, photography should as well. You see a bit of some kinds of copying, but generally stylistic things. Lighting setups, processing ideas. This is in the right direction, but it's better to try to copy a "look" to get closer to the essence of the thing. Who cares if your lights are in totally different places, if you're getting the same feeling? Do you care about where the lights or, or what the final image looks and feels like?

What photographers do you admire?

Copy their work, or their style, try to understand how it is that they do the thing they do. Make slavish copies of the originals, make similar images that copy the look, make images that are responses to the original. Make witty references to the original. Apply that "look" to something completely different, and so something very very similar.