Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Art and Intent

Before photography existed, things were simpler. Art was made by trained artists. A painting was made with intent, there was no such thing as an accidental painting. A dog could not paint Mona Lisa. Ants on the page could not accidentally form the notes of a moving piano concerto. Art was always made with intent.

With photography as an art, things became suddenly murkier. A camera left on a table, nosed and worried at by a dog, takes a photograph. Click. Is that photograph good? Probably not, but it could be. What if that photograph happens to duplicate in all important ways, a well known and generally agreed upon to be great photograph? Is the dog's photograph also great? If you say no, then what is the art? Is it all intent, no piece? This way lies conceptual art, and you wind up with garbage nailed to the wall next to an essay, which produces no emotional response beyond a vague sense that this is a scam. Still, it's a theory.

Maybe art is the combination of intent and the piece, somehow? Well, what if we lose the provenance of a piece, say, a painting. Is it art now, or merely paint smeared on a surface? This seems unsatisfying. The art world certainly deals with this regularly when forgeries are revealed. Embarrassingly, the work is suddenly much cheaper, and it's badly done and amateurish through some strange alchemy that nobody understands but everyone agrees with because the alternative is that Vermeer wasn't all that after all.

What if I take the accidentally-great photograph from the dog, and write up an essay claiming that I shot it, with intent? Is this thing art?

These sorts of questions lead to madness and absurdity. While one can construct some sort of coherent position in most variations, most of the positions admit absurd consequences. Easier and more aligned with what the common man thinks of as art to simply drop the intent component, and accept that accidental art is possible. The art resides entirely in the piece. If it looks like art, if it sounds like art, it's art. We don't need an essay to know it's good. We don't need to authenticate the artist to know the piece is good. We don't have to shamefacedly adjust a piece from good to bad when it turns out to be fake. We can still love it and appreciate it, we simply don't have to pay as much for it now we know it to be a superb forgery.

A consequence of this theory is that a mere snapshot can be art. We need not postulate a fantastically lucky dog, we need only a tourist with an intuitive grasp of form, a little luck, and a lot of snapshots. Some are offended at the idea of some schmuck making art without trying. Get over it. If it moves you, it doesn't matter what the intent was, it moves you. That cannot be denied, it is tautological. If you want to try to hold the line and claim that while the piece is moving, it is not art, well, more power to you. We part ways here.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Light Pile/Bucket Theory

To support my assertion that the technical stuff is trivial, I introduce the light pile theory.

A picture is made up, more or less, of little dots. On every dot, there is a little pile of light. The bigger the pile, the brighter the dot. Itty-bitty-tiny pile, the dot is pretty much black. Big tall pile, white. If the light piled up is mostly green, green dot.

Exposing a photograph just means letting light in to pile up for a while. Make the hole light passes through bigger, more light piles up on each dot -- this is the aperture. The word aperture even means hole. Let the light pass through for a longer period of time, you get bigger piles again. This is shutter speed.

It's just like filling a bucket. If you use a bigger hose, you fill for less time. If you fill for less time, you need a bigger hose. If you want to stand around filling for a long time, use a smaller hose.

That's all there is to exposure.

If one pile of light is twice as big as another, we say the first one is "one stop" brighter. If you leave the shutter open twice as long, twice as much light piles up. That's one stop. Or, if you leave the shutter alone, but make the hole twice as big (1.4x as wide -- that's geometry), twice as much light piles up. That's one stop as well.

Ok, there's one more thing about exposure: ISO, which is just how big of a pile makes "white". The higher the ISO, the smaller the pile you need to make "white". Make the ISO twice as big, you only need a pile half as big to make white. You can also think of it has how big your bucket is.

So you wanna fill a bucket up. You can use a big fat hose for a really short period of time, or you can use a medium hose for a medium amount of time, or a really skinny hose for a long time. (wide open aperture, fast shutter speed; medium aperture and shutter speed; closed down aperture, slow shutter speed). Or you can use a bigger or smaller bucket (ISO).

Your camera probably tries to get all the buckets, on average, filled up halfway. That way some buckets are full, some are empty, and most of them are in the middle. So your picture has some black parts, some white parts, but mostly it has parts that are between the two. If it's nighttime, the camera doesn't know that, but you probably want you picture to look dark, like nighttime. That means your light piles all need to be smaller, you want to fill the buckets up less. How do you fill the buckets up less? Smaller hose (aperture), or fill for less time (faster shutter speed), or use bigger buckets (lower ISO). Similarly if your scene is supposed to be bright and light (maybe you're photographing a bride's dress, here in the USA where they are white): Bigger hose, slower shutter speed, smaller buckets.

There's a few subtle details here and there but you really don't need to know one single damn thing more about the technical nonsense of photography, even if you're going for a pretty fine level of control. You probably don't need to know this much. Most of the people going on about technology and urging you you to learn about this and that probably don't know as much as this.

It's just making little piles of light, or filling little buckets with light. It works the same as water, except the names are all different.

P.S. Wider apertures (bigger holes, bigger hoses) use smaller numbers. 2.8 is bigger than 4.0 is bigger than 11. Go figure.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Eschew EXIF

There are forums out there on the internet where people spend far too much time looking at EXIF data for photographs, and not enough time looking at the photographs. I've even seen cases where people got irate because a photograph lacked EXIF data. Apparently, some people need to know what shutter speed was used for your photograph, before they can tell you what's wrong with it.

In the first place, don't listen to these people. They have nothing to say.

In the second place, don't be one of those people.

EXIF data, histograms, all that technical ancillary data, it tells you nothing that matters which cannot be seen in the photograph. Look at the photograph. EXIF and so on can be used to test yourself, to help you learn and judge whether you're seeing correctly, but it's never authoritative.

If you can't tell roughly what focal length was used to shoot a photograph (relative focal length, the number of millimeters doesn't matter and depends on a bunch of factors -- all I mean is "super wide", "wide", "normal", "long", "super long") then one of two things is true:

  • it doesn't matter to the photograph
  • you can't see very well

There are plenty of photographs where the focal length doesn't matter, because the scene is pretty much two dimensional. In that case, who cares what focal length was used? Anything will do. If it does matter, and you still can't tell, learn to see better. Practice. This is where looking at EXIF can help you. Just don't talk about it, do it quietly.

Aperture? Can't you tell by looking? Either it doesn't matter, or you can't see. Shutter speed? Ditto. Exposure? Contrast range? Don't you be looking at the histogram! Not until you've made an honest guess, at least.

Lighting? Don't go asking about what lights went where. Look at the photo. Any light that matters made itself known by casting some light. Go find that light.

And whatever else you do, criticize anyone based on their EXIF data. Don't be a stupid nerd! Look at the photo and talk about that.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The FSA File

The FSA/OWI photo archive is online. This is one of the more important photographic artifacts in the world. It holds the raw material of what was to a large extent one man's vision of several narratives regarding the USA, in the late 1930s and 1940s. It belongs to citizens of the USA, it is large (about 165,000 images), it is diverse, it is lightly edited, and it contains a large number of superb images.

You can find it here.

The Resettlement Agency (RA) was more or less the brainchild of its director, Rexford Tugwell, an economist from Columbia University and an adviser to the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. The RA's role, in broad strokes, was to help farmers in difficulty. The original conception of the photographic unit of the RA was to document the plight of those farmers, as well as the results of the aid rendered. Roy Stryker, who had worked with Tugwell at Columbia, was brought in to lead the unit of photographers. He continued to do so as the unit went through several agency changes, first to the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and then to the Office of War Information (OWI), employing various photographers along the way including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Stryker and his unit, despite the widely varied agency missions, were driven by the same ideas of documentary photography throughout.

Stryker seems to have been a propagandist at heart. While working for Tugwell at Columbia, he had responsibility for selecting illustrations for a book. He re-tasked existing images, supplying them with new captions, ignoring the original context. The images still served, in the sense of illustrating well (we assume), and there was arguably a truth to this work. However, the "truth" of the image, if any, in the new context was not the truth of the context in which the photograph was taken.

This approach informs the archive throughout. Any photograph was surely taken in a real place, with a real context. There is an underlying truth, there. Nonetheless, a photograph ultimately stands alone, it is fundamentally removed in time and space from that original context. It could as well illustrate something else. A photograph of a factory owner in working clothes, demonstrating usage of a machine, could as well illustrate as essay on the plight of the worker. And why shouldn't it?

Stryker seems to have always had a narrative in mind when directing his photographers, and often provided them with written shooting scripts, instructions for how best to serve the narrative he had in mind. Initially the narrative was of hard-pressed farmers in drought conditions, being helped out by Generous New Deal programs. Later, he wanted to document an idealized (and arguably completely fictional) notion of small town life in the USA. When his unit was folded in to the Office of War Information (OWI) the unit worked to portray the strength of the USA as it built for war, the clearest case of propaganda work.

So, the archive is propaganda, and must be viewed in that light. One might argue that it was propagandizing an essentially true situation, and that it is irrelevant to consider whether any particular photograph is literally true. The proper answer here is murky. Is the underlying narrative true, that the photographs illustrated? This is another question entirely, and the answer here is also is not clear to me.

So, the archive certainly raises questions, often without clear answers. Regardless, it contains many important and wonderful images both famous and otherwise. Regardless, it should be viewed with suspicion. Regardless, it should be viewed. Regardless, it is important, the images do document something real and important in the history of the USA.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

FSA Photo of the Week

I've decided to mix up the format a little and move all my commentary down after the photograph, so you can enjoy it for a little while as-is.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Photographs and the Personal Now

First: We all live, each moment, in a Personal Now. This is Now. Every instant, about 7 billion Personal Nows occur on this planet. Your Personal Now consists of yourself, what you're thinking, what you're feeling, what you're wearing, where you are. My Personal Now is me, my contents, and my context.

Next: What does intentionality have to do with a photograph? Ultimately, a photograph stands on its own. It works, or it does not. It communicates, or it fails to communicate, and that's all there is. Intent matters to the extent that informs content, both the literal stuff in the frame, and the meaning of that stuff as seen by the photographer. This in turns informs, but does not dictate, what will be communicated to the viewer. Intent matters, to a second or third order degree.

Monday, July 23, 2012


How big is it?
What is he thinking?
Where is she going?
What has the dog got?

Ambiguity is an important element of "street", it's pretty much all there is in "abstract", and it appears here and there in all the arts. Used with care, it is a potent tool.

Viewers, to varying degrees, enjoy a puzzle, a mystery. We enjoy being allowed to fill in pieces of an image from our own experience and imagination. Given something unknown, we write our own narratives and develop our own ideas about an image. To a degree, we enjoy things simply left unknown and unknowable, but hinted at. We may not be able always to hang a story on those elements, but we like them.

The risk the artist runs in using ambiguity is in losing the viewer with an excess of mystery. A viewer might understandably resent being required to work too hard to make sense of an image, and thus move on too quickly. A viewer might stick with an image, but simply find it baffling. While bafflement is certainly a reaction to an image, it is rarely what the artist had in mind. While every viewer will have a different threshold of "too much" mystery, surely the artist wants to calibrate the mystery to a good level for a lot of viewers.

One approach to managing the degree of mystery successfully is to wrap the ambiguous up in a generous serving of the familiar, the easily grasped. It is this, I think, which makes a particularly successful "street" photograph. We understand much of the scene, we recognize buildings, people, the dog on the leash. It is only a small subset of the image that is ambiguous, ".. but what is SHE doing?" A mystery or an incomplete story given to us as a reward for looking a little deeper. It is this wrapping of the mystery in the known that makes a great portrait, as well. We recognize that the image is a portrait, we recognize many of the elements. Somewhere in there, often in the subject's expression or body language, we see elements that are unclear, ambiguous. On this ambiguity, we write our own interpretation.

See also: the Mona Lisa.

Poorly balancing the mysterious with the familiar can lead to images which are either banal, or too difficult to understand. The viewer moves on, the message is lost.

When we abandon the familiar, we enter the realm of the purely abstract, for all practical purposes. This is a tough world in which to create an effective image.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On Critique

What value is there is requesting comments and critiques? It's all just personal, isn't it?

It is a feature of "good art" (whatever that is, let us agree that our ideas of "good art" overlap sufficiently for rough work, here) that it is not only evocative, but that it tends to evoke similar reactions from many people. If your goal as a photographer is to make "good art" then, surely, you want to produce photographs that evoke, and that evoke similar responses from "most" people.

Having colleagues, friends, classmates, or random people on the internet "critique" your work, then, is a bit like a poll. You ask, really, do you react to my photograph? If so, tell me about your reaction, please? Then you gather up the answers, and see if they seem to cohere. If they do, then your photograph communicates in a coherent fashion. It might still not be good art, but it has one of the features of good art. If almost nobody reacts to your piece, you know it's probably not good. If people react, but the responses are all over the place, your work is apparently something odd -- it evokes, but not in a coherent way. All these possibilities are interesting and informative to the artist.

This is science: If you seek to communicate, you should attempt to communicate. "Test, test, 1, 2, 3, do you read? Do you read? Over." If the attempt fails, you should seek to understand why, so you can do better the next time.

When selecting people to critique, it's important to rule out certain groups, I find. Most internet forums are filled with technical nerds, who will tell you all about how your focus is wrong, and how you ought to follow the rule of thirds, and that your white balance is off. These technical details are largely irrelevant. They matter only to the extent that they color a viewer's response to the image. It's also important to rule out excessively studied critics. The last thing anybody needs is a rambling lecture on Postmodernism, or similar.

The useful responses are simply a record of the viewer's reaction, perhaps with some detail and a modest effort to understand the reasons for the viewer reaction, if any can be discerned. "Yes, I read you. Two by three."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: Photoportraits

Photoportraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

This book is almost 30 years old, so perhaps reviewing it at this late date has no purpose. Be that as it may, I shall proceed. This is a large book with 255 portraits in a very simple presentation. On each pair of facing pages there are between 1 and 6 photographs presented. Single photos are always alone on the right hand page. The most common grouping is 1 photograph left, and 1 right, but there are many sets with several photographs on one or both pages. Every photograph is distinctly an Henri Cartier-Bresson image, and just as distinctly a a portrait. I mean here a portrait in that the subject is clearly a person (or, rarely a small group of people).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

FSA Photo of the Week

Here is it. It's pretty snapshotty, but I've been reading Henri Cartier-Bresson lately, and I think there are some HCBish elements in play here. There's some instantaneous co-incidences of geometry (the child in front with the sack, the leaning telephone pole) and some nice repeated verticals. There's a hint of mystery (what's in the sack?) and the sense of a an event, however slight, unfolding.

The scan is nothing much, and this could without a doubt be rendered much more nicely and effectively than this scan shows. This is a nice example of how something that's basically good doesn't actually need sharpening and a full range of tones and and and. Well, it is if you accept my assertion that it's pretty good.

Mar 1939 (or Mar 1940?). Children of paper mill workers bringing home groceries in Berlin, New Hampshire, largely inhabited by French Canadians and Scandinavians. Shot by Marion Post Wolcott.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gadgets, Gizmos, and Sliders

Photographers have always included in their number many nerds. Chemistry nerds, especially in the early days, gadget nerds, film nerds, process nerds. Most of us, to be honest, enjoy some of the tweaky, fiddly aspects of photography.

In the film era, many of the choices one had were inherently limited. One selected a film from a finite number of films available, one perhaps selected a filter to shoot through, a developer, and so on. While the choice grew to be quite broad, it was never unmanageably wide and most of the choices available were pretty good. Mostly, one settled on a one or a few combinations of most of the choices, and confined the greater portion of variability to some few steps of the process from shutter release to print. One selected this film, that developer, these two brands of paper.

In this modern era of digital photography, we see an explosion of choice at every stage of the process. Choices we made once per image, the filter to shoot through, the developer for the film, we can now make over and over by retreating to the "raw" file. Choices which were once limited numerically, this developer or that, are now replaced with an array of sliders in some software tool, representing an infinity of choices, many of them bad or at least radical.

I sound, surely, as if I am railing against progress and technology. I am not. I still shoot film, as well as digital. I came to all this sufficiently set in my ways (I like to think "mature") to navigate the infinity of choices with relative ease. I simply leave almost all the sliders alone and click "Ok" a lot.

I rail against the bewilderment and lack of guidance the new photographer must surely experience. Once upon a time, a new photographer might ask around and be told "Tri-X souped in D-76 will be fine to get you started" and that took care of that for a good long time. The current equivalent is "black-and-white conversion", with an array of sliders for colors. On almost all settings the process will produce some unpleasant and outré result. The "advice" one gets is all too often something like "Your conversion is bad, let me show you how to do it" with an attached image that it much much worse than the original.

We've plenty of choices to make already, we needn't monkey around with sliders. Scientists adjust one variable at a time, and carefully inspect the results. Be a scientist.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Advice for New Photographers II

This post is a followup to this post and this post.

This is the part where you practice, purposefully.

Take some pictures of some things, and look at those pictures. At some point, maybe before shooting, maybe while looking at the pictures, some ideas should come to you. Perhaps it's the idea of an emotion you want the photograph to convey, or a sense of place, or an optical illusion, or the relationship between two objects, or something. Any idea that's a step beyond "a sharp picture of my dog" will do. Let's call this idea your Concept.

Look at your pictures again, and ask yourself how you could make your Concept clearer or stronger. A different point of view, different light, a different arrangement of props. Go re-shoot, testing these ideas. Look at the results. Does your Concept come across more or less clearly? Do you have a new, better, Concept?

Repeat. This is science, this is practicing purposefully: you are formulating a hypothesis, and testing it. Perhaps that by getting down on the floor, the Concept of "angry chair" will be enhanced, will come across more clearly in the resulting image. Test the hypothesis by getting down on the floor and shooting. Look at the result, see if that worked.

You don't have to shoot and re-shoot every subject over and over, but it's very instructive to shoot and re-shoot a subject over and over, from time to time. You may be surprised at how, even after an absurdly large number of exposures, you're still able to easily pick out the one that you consider the best.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

History and Aesthetic Judgement

Once upon a time, not too long ago, a wag posted a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a flickr group called deleteme. This group invites comments with a judgement of "delete me" or "save me" for photographs. He got a lot of comments, mostly negative, mostly from people who did not recognize the photograph. Most of the comments were of a technical nature, such and such is not in focus, and so forth. Numerous suggestions were supplied for correcting these alleged technical deficiencies.

Consider a ballet performance, say, of "Swan Lake". The naive audience member and the extremely sophisticated one will tend to judge the performance similarly. They will be concerned with beauty, emotional power, narrative drive. An audience member with a little knowledge, though, might well judge the performance on the basis of how well the prima ballerina performs certain technical tasks with French names, and how fat the girls of the corps de ballet are.

This is more or less exactly how many of the budding photographers will judge photographs. They're concerned with focus, sharpness, contrast. They may profess to disdain rules, but technical rules are in fact all they are concerned with. They judge a photograph largely based on how well it cleaves to their own ideas about how a photograph should look, frequently without the slightest regard for the subject, and invariably without considering the emotional impact or artistic merit of the image.

Clearly, we have a large population of tyros, either passing through or stuck in that no-man's-land of a small and dangerous store of knowledge. Cartier-Bresson railed against these people in the 1950s, so evidently there is a long history of the nerd-as-critic.

Should we consider these people as among our audience? They will be hard to reach in any meaningful way. They have a strong tendency to see only the technical details of a photograph, to the extent that more important aspects are nearly invisible to them. In order to even begin to reach them, you must comply with their little community's norms of how a photograph should look, which is surely limiting to the artist! Whether to bother with these people at all is a personal choice, of course. It is not an easy road to travel, and I am dubious as to any value to be found there. On the other hand, these people may be our friends, our fellow photographers, or our market, in which case perhaps we should unbend a little and meet them half way.

More important is to avoid being one of these people.

Study the history of photography, at least a little. If nothing else, to publicly not know a well-known photograph is embarrassing. By studying photographs from the past, we open ourselves up to possibilities, we see fads and styles from other eras. With luck, we perceive them as equally useful and powerful tools as the styles and fads we have today. We thereby recognize our own prejudices as fads and styles rather than ultimate rules to be obeyed. You needn't like every "great photograph" from the past, but if you can understand, however faintly, the reasons for that greatness and the emotional power of the photograph, you have trained yourself a little to see past technical details to the actual power of an image, historical or contemporary.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Advice For New Photographers I

This is really a followup to this post and is followed by this post.

Put the camera down. Or don't, it doesn't matter. This part is about learning to look at a photograph. It has nothing to do with the camera.

Most of us think in words. You can't think about baseball without knowing some words for ball and bat. Look up the meaning of these words: tone, value, hue, saturation, actutance, sharpness, contrast, form, line, weight in the context of photography and visual arts. You will find more words to know as you read about these, so look them up even if you think you know what they mean. Meditate on them a little. Ideally, find definitions that include sample images so you can connect the word, the idea, with the visual reality it represents.

Name three photographers whose work you admire. If you can't, spend some time browsing in a bookstore, library, or even online until you can name three.

Find 100 photographs by one of your admired photographers. You needn't find them all at once, but you will need them eventually. You don't even need 100. Any unreasonably large number will work. Spend a few minutes looking at each one, this will probably feel like forever. Take notes, if you like. What do you like about it? How does it make you feel, and why? Where is the light coming from? Where are the objects in the frame? Note both your reaction to the image, and technical details.

Find a book written by a photographer you admire, or at any rate can tolerate, a book of mostly words, not pictures. Not every photographer writes these things, so your favorites might not have written anything. Pick someone else, then. You want something about process, technical or artistic, it doesn't matter much. Read what that photographer had to say about how they made their photographs. You just want to hang out with that photographer, listening to them ramble on about photography and art. Your local library may be a great resource here.

Don't read anything that looks like a How To book. How to Shoot Portraits or How to Sell Stock Photography.

Go back to looking at photographs. Look over some of the same ones again, do they take you differently? Can you understand them better? If not, go read some more or... something. If your views and ideas are not evolving, something is probably wrong.

Repeat until you can, at least some of the time, explain to yourself why you like a photograph or why you don't. Repeat until, at least some of the time, you can get something of a handle on why a photograph makes you feel the way it makes you feel.

You are beginning to learn to see.

Learning to see, the astute observer will note, involves a lot of looking and not very much shooting.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Learning to See

How does one learn to see, anyways?

Some people suggest that "seeing" in the photographic sense is simply built in, or it's not. Then, amusingly, they will cite Mozart as an example of someone who simply had music "built in" and conveniently ignore the fact that Mozart had an intense and completely rigorous formal education in music. Some people will always "see" better than others, to be sure. Some people can probably never learn to do it, most people can learn to do it pretty well, and a few people will easily learn to do it wonderfully. Pretty much like any other human endeavor.

In broad strokes, there's only one way we learn to do anything, and that's how you'll learn to "see" photographically, learn to play tennis or golf. It's how you'll learn to drive a car, or sail a boat.

We start by getting some some basic ideas about how to do it. We observe someone else doing it, we have someone show us how to do it, we read a book about how to do it.

Then, we try doing it.

Next, we evaluate the results. How did we do? Did we fall out of the boat? Did we hit the ball?

Now, we think about specific ways we could improve our attempts. Don't fall out of the boat. Keep your eye on the ball. Try it again. We hit the ball! Where did it go? Why?

The point is to not try blindly. Start with some understanding, and then try. Figure out something wrong and fix that on the next try. When you're learning to play tennis, there are probably a lot of things you're doing wrong the first time you step out on the court. You work at fixing them, one by one. You have a notion of what you're doing wrong because you have a coach, or you read a book, or you watched a video about how it's supposed to work.

So we're going to get some basic ideas about how to do it, by looking at good photographs, by reading books, by reading other people's discussions of photographs (our own or others). Then we're going to take some pictures. Then we're going to look at those pictures and think about how well we're doing, and how we could make those pictures better. Finally, we're going to take some more pictures, possibly after doing some more reading or looking at other people's pictures.

Of course, we don't actually do it step by step, probably we're doing all these things more or less at random. The important thing is, as with all practice of everything, is to evaluate our results. If you want to improve your golf game, you don't just bash at the ball. You bash at the ball, and then you think about your swing, and you think about where the ball went.

Bash at the ball, but with purpose.

There are two followup posts, here and here.

The Second Worst Advice In The World

More terrible and common advice:

Just go out and shoot, shoot, shoot!

This one drives me pretty wild, too. Somehow, there's a myth that if you can just get the first 10,000 frames out of the way as fast as possible, you'll start being good.

Not that I oppose shooting a lot, there's really no getting around the fact that almost everyone has to fail a lot before they can succeed. Recognizing that you're going to have to play a lot of tennis to get any good is rational thinking; simply going out and swinging a tennis racket around blindly for 10,000 strokes is not.

By all means, shoot, shoot, shoot. But do so with purpose, press the shutter release with an idea in mind, and look at the result with the same idea in mind.

I'll have more to say on this, and some counter-advice if you will, in the next few days.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

FSA Photo of the Week

Normally I spend a little time trolling the archives to find something interesting. This was literally the first thumbnail I clicked today, after my usual random clicking into the innards of the archive. Today, I was looking for something representative of the archive, in some sense, and this one certainly is. There's tons of this sort of sterile high-key/bright sunlight documentary stuff in the FSA/OWI archive, intended purely to illustrate "here are some of the things that are here."

On the one hand this is a pure and simple picture of a parking lot. The wires across the top of the frame make it, though, somehow. Echoing the line of the bus tires? Negative space above and below, well handled. There's a simple graphical feel to the whole thing. I like it more each time I look at it.

Oct, 1940. Line of school buses in back of Anderson consolidated school. Caswell County, North Carolina. Shot by Marion Post Wolcott.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Contrast

The (mis-)use of contrast in black and white photographs has been catching my eye of late.

Overall Contrast

Increasing overall contrast increases visual drama, drawing attention to and emphasizing the highlights and shadows of the scene. There's a sense of visual "pop" that comes with increased contrast. Increased contrast also visually connects an image to other photographs we've seen that use high contrast, or a more generally the full range of tones from blackest blacks to whitest whites. In the original conception of the full tonal range philosophy, of course, it was not necessary to have great masses of black and great masses of white, but by having those masses the photographer makes the connection to that philosophy unambiguous.

Local Contrast

Also called acutance, this is usually achieved with some sort of "sharpen" control, of which there are several types. You can also get this sort of increased local contrast by fooling around with color filtering in the black and white conversion process, and probably half a dozen other ways. In all cases, the aim is to increase the apparent contrast between small areas that are close together, to increase the contrast at edges. This will usually steal from the overall contrast, by using up available tonal range on a small scale. Over-applied, it will create the unattractive halos of the tyro.

Heightened local contrast emphasizes detail and texture, and de-emphasizes larger forms and shapes. It creates a sense of busyness, and can create a sense of visual chaos. In addition, of course, you get an increased feeling of "sharpness" to the image, which can add a flavor of higher quality to the image. It feels like it was taken with better equipment, with sharper lenses (this is generally why novices love the "sharpen" control).


Both kinds of contrast control, when increased, stretch the tonal range out, to shove more of your image up into the whites and down into the blacks. Subtle changes in the midtones are spread apart and rendered less subtle. The midtones always suffer when applying contrast controls. Applying both a sharpening step, and then putting the overall contrast back in to compensate, can almost completely destroy the midtones. Your image appears rendered in blacks, whites, and not much else.

None of these effects is necessarily bad, but they can be very pronounced.

One needs, always, to consider the image and what you'd like the viewer to feel. If you want to create a sense of serenity and peace, for instance, perhaps applying some sharpening technique is the wrong thing to do -- does increased busyness, bordering on visual chaos, enhance anyone's sense of peace?

Calm grandeur? Perhaps a good does of overall contrast for drama, but very little sharpening.

Tension and unease? Does sharpening it heavily increase this? I think it's worth trying.

If you just want your image to look sharp, get a tripod and a good lens. Use the sharpen controls for mood, not sharpness.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Worst Advice In The World

I've stumbled across this one several times on those horrible web sites with Ten Tips to Improve Your Captures.Why I keep reading these things is a mystery to me as well.

Learn to use your camera in manual mode.

I can think of no advice for a beginning photographer that is less useful, and I say this as a fellow who routinely uses his DSLR in a fashion rather more manual that Manual mode (the meter doesn't even work using my old lenses.)

All these web sites, with their triangles of exposure, their rules of thirds, and their silly advice about seascapes, promote the terrible and damaging idea that photography is about gear, and that mastery of gear is a prerequisite to mastery of the art. A photograph is not a piano concerto, mastering the instrument is not necessary. The instrument, with its controls and modes and programs, is barely relevant. Mastery of the instrument will not actually harm you, but it's not going to make a photographer of you.

The best advice for a new photographer is, of course

Learn to see.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Popular versus Good

This is a theme I have touched on, arguably harped on, in the past.

Here I mean Popular in the sense of "likeable"  not in the sense of "everyone knows about it and likes it" -- the difference between the two is marketing, not photography, anyways.

Popular isn't the same as Good. Good isn't the same as Popular. Good also is not the opposite of Popular -- the fact that nobody likes your work is not evidence that your work is Good. An even more common, but still wrong, idea is that Good has nothing to do with Popular.

Good overlaps with Popular in the following way: In order to be Good a piece has to be able to affect most of its viewers. This implies, obviously, that most of its viewers need to be willing to look at it for long enough to be affected. A Popular photograph is one most people enjoy looking at (by definition).

An un-Popular photograph might still be visually arresting enough to be effective, but it's less likely. One will naturally tend to be dismissive of a photograph one dislikes, but which is aggressive enough to hold one's gaze. A photograph which is Good but not Popular has successfully overcome obstacles in its journey to affecting the viewer.

Good photographs tend, therefore, to be Popular. There are fewer obstacles to effectiveness.

Of course, there are second order effects: Famous Good Photographs tend to garner Popularity by virtue of their fame, and tend also to direct the public's appreciation of which should be Popular. This feedback loop draws Good photographs gradually into the category of Popular, increasing the overlap between the categories.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Photos of Something, Photos of Nothing

Most photographs are pictures of something. There's an object, or a scene, a juxtapostition of shapes, something photographically promising which was recorded in the frame. Snapshots are almost exclusively this. Portraits are by definition this. And so forth.

Some photographs, a few, are photographs of nothing. That is, they're a photograph of whatever was in front of the lens at the time, but the point is that, whatever that was, it was photographically "nothing." Examples might be a texture, a river-smoothed stone indistinguishable from the rest, or a dimly lit green pepper. There might be a subject, but it's sufficiently crappy and uninteresting that it's "nothing" as a subject.

Obviously this is something of a subjective call, and what we're really talking about is a spectrum from "really interesting subject" to "really uninteresting subject" or something similar. Regardless, let us press on, and recognize that for most of us there are photographs we would characterize as "photographs of nothing" although we might disagree on which photographs those are.

Within that realm of photographs of nothing, I distinguish two kinds. This distinction might be completely artificial, or so subtle as to be a stupid bit of trivial parsing. Nonetheless, it's a distinction important enough to me that I tend to like the one kind, and tend to dislike the other kind.

The first kind of photograph of nothing attempts to reveal the nothing as, in fact, something. The very best example of this is probably Weston's "Pepper No. 30" which does, in fact, reveal a humble green pepper as something. Bad examples of this form litter the art galleries of the western world. Endless stupid pictures of abstract crap that the viewer is supposed to, somehow, come to love.

The second kind of photograph of nothing does not attempt to reveal the nothing as something. It lets the nothing alone, leaves it in the frame to be humble, ugly, and not photogenic at all. The successful examples of this form create, in spite of the humble subject, a fine image. A good example of this is Evans' photograph of the Gudger's mantel, from the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. This is a photograph of a rather unattractive mantel in the home of an indescribably poor family. The mantel has on it many of the family's small possessions, objects which are almost literally garbage. Despite the unpromising subjects, Evans made an iconic and powerful photograph. A good photograph.

Photographs of nothing are absurdly hard to make well. When attempting the first kind, one is likely to fall short. You might find a small audience that gets it, that sees the beauty of mud blobs revealed by your photographs of mud blobs (why are there always a bunch of these photographs instead of one good one?) It's very hard to make images like this that are powerful and evocative for more than a few people. When attempting the second kind, it's even worse, since there is little or nothing to love inside the frame, one must love the frame as a whole. Thus, the photographer has no room for error, the whole must work at once, and must overcome the basic nothingness of the stuff in-frame, or it fails completely.

On the positive side, if you can do it, perhaps you can do anything.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On "Street" Photography

Here are two excellent articles on street photography.

On Street Photography and Why Do Street Photography by Russ Lewis.

Street's not really my thing and I haven't thought a lot about it. You might disagree with Russ over definitions, but what he's describing is definitely a form, whatever you want to call it, and it's the form practiced by many of the greats. Russ does a nice job of describing what he thinks of as "street" and makes a credible argument that what he just described is what Cartier-Bresson and those guys were doing. Then he tells you not how to do it, but at least what some pre-requisites are, and why you might want to do it.

Read 'em, they're worth your time! Russ thinks and writes clearly.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

FSA Photo of the Week

I skipped last week for lack of time. Maybe I'll start doing these on Wednesdays. Happy July 4th, US residents!

I like the dynamism in the man's pose, and expression. He's poised, for what, we're not sure (although obviously it's some mundane thing to do with corn). The backdrop of stacked corn is a nice texture, his clothes are great too. Possibly the legs and feet upper right screw the whole thing up, but possibly they anchor the scene in reality a bit making it clearly not staged.

William Singer, homesteader at Hightstown, New Jersey, helping to store corn for the dairy herd which is soon to be acquired by the colony. Russell Lee, Nov. 1936.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Text and Photographs

Photographs often come with accompanying text, particularly in "art" settings, such as museums and online galleries and so on.
  • title
  • descriptive text
  • artist's statement
It's very difficult to write a piece of accompanying text that does not affect the viewer's reaction to the photograph. The only examples seem to be purely descriptive titles, such as "Nude" and then only if the photograph is obviously a nude. If the photograph is not obviously a nude, this title abruptly provides a new interpretation, affecting the viewer's experience substantially. Even a title like "Nude #3" adds context, by implying other nude images in a series and connecting this one to those. Titles like "Sorrow" more explicitly direct the viewer response.

Longer texts like an artist's statement will tend to have more impact, even if they don't address the image directly.  Having that text in mind, whatever it talks about, will surely affect the way the viewer sees the image.

Viewers will always come to an image with a large set of other material already present in their minds. We have all seen many photographs and images, we all have seen a lot of real things. We're probably been exposed to some art, somewhere along the line. We come to a photograph in a mood, with the memories of the morning drive to work, last night's dinner. All these things also affect how we will view an image, just as the accompanying text will. Text plays a role, but it can only hint, suggest, influence. It cannot control the viewer's response to the image.

Adding text to an image is an explicit acknowledgement that the image alone cannot carry the message. Perhaps the message, whatever that means, is too large and detailed (see, for instance Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) or perhaps the photograph is simply too weak. Perhaps the photograph is incapable, by its nature, of carrying important information; a documentary image might require a date and a location to serve its documentary purpose.

One can argue that the more text there is to accompany the photograph, the more the artist recognizes the inability of the photograph to carry the desired meaning. Why else have all that text? Even if the photograph exists to support the text rather than the other way around, the intent is clear: the photograph cannot carry the piece. We see shows, from time to time, of abstract or banal images accompanied by a one or more substantial texts that essentially tell us how to react to the images. Is this photography, writing, or some sort of multimedia thing? Parsing this out in any kind of detail is probably a waste of time, but it's clear that we should not view this kind of thing as purely photography.

Beware, I think, of writing too much after the fact. If your image cannot support itself without text, adding text afterwards might make something, but it won't make a photograph.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On A New Aesthetic

I don't think this post has any clear conclusion, it's just some ruminations and ideas on aesthetics and how they might evolve, and be evolving.

I speculated last week or so that flickr (and more generally the online community) might be in the process of developing one or more new aesthetics with their super high contrast, their ghastly Silver EfEx 2.0 Pro effects, and so on.

What do I mean by an "aesthetic" here? The word has a definition, and my usage falls under that, but let us be quite clear. The aesthetic of a photograph for the purposes of these remarks means the overall look of the photograph, and includes any elements which are not a part of the underlying composition. Things like contrast, saturation, tone mapping, vignetting. These all contribute to what I mean by the aesthetic of the photograph. The fact that it is a picture of a flower, or an abstract, or a nude, these are not considered part of the aesthetic, here. Some things arguably fall in a middle ground -- is a strong vignette part of the composition? Let us agree to live with these ambiguities.

What does the aesthetic of a photograph actually do?
  1. it can exhibit effort, showing that the artist worked on the image.
  2. it can demonstrate personal artistic taste and ideas, simply showing off a look that the artist likes.
  3. it can emphasize certain elements of the image, and de-emphasize others.
  4. it can connect the photograph to other photographs that have been made, if those photographs applied a similar aesthetic.
There are probably others, but I cannot think of any offhand. The first two are important to a degree, visible effort makes some viewers happy and expressing personal artistic taste is a large part of what making art is about. I want to focus, arbitrarily, on #3 and #4, however, because they're more important and they're connected in interesting ways.

New aesthetics come along pretty regularly, I suppose. Every photographer, perhaps, brings some new ideas about how a picture ought to look. Some of them get tried out and copied by friends and family, perhaps.

An aesthetic succeeds as a new thing, I think, if eventually some good work turns up that uses it, when that good work gets more or less widely recognized. Ansel Adams is the most obvious example, his black and white landscapes have a specific look that is widely, widely copied. These days we see wildly exaggerated versions of that aesthetic rampant on the internet, to the sorrow of us all. Adams applied his aesthetic to emphasize and de-emphasize -- he wanted to make the clouds and rocks dramatic, he wanted his shadows to be shadowy and his highlights to be bright, to reflect the drama he felt looking at these landscapes. The contrast increased the sense of overal "sharpness" in keeping with the f/64 ideas of photography. He also simply liked the look of it, I imagine.

When some aesthetic does succeed, we see it copied widely, because photographers wish to refer to it. They are quite literally citing the previous work in their work, connecting their photographs with known-to-be-good work from the past. They are borrowing successful ideas, like every competent artist, and most incompetent ones. This is surely what's going on with the Silver EfEx 2.0 gone bad crowd, with their jet black skies. Whether they know it or not, they're quoting Ansel Adams in a gigantic and very ugly font, and the intent is that we should react to their landscapes in the same way.

It will be interesting to see if some good work eventually turns up that uses HDR, either in an effective way, or at least in conjunction with some effective and lasting work. Will it always be a gimmick tyros try out for a while before discarding it for something else, or will we see it as a visual trope that lets us cite a body of powerful work in our own photographs?