Saturday, September 29, 2012

See? I told you so.

In this post I more or less predicted A New American Picture by Doug Rickard. Further variations on the idea in this post. Doug Rickard essentially trolled through google's Street View for photographs, and made a book out of them.

Opinions vary on whether what Rickard did was any good, and I am dubious about the technical quality of the work - the image quality of google's Street View has never struck me as worth a damn. But nonetheless, I predicted this! I predicted it, apparently, about 2 years after the first edition appeared, so, not very oracular. Still, I am pleased and feel vindicated in my theories.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Snapshots and Truth

There is a thing we call a snapshot, I've talked about it here. What we generally mean by the word is a photograph that has meaning and emotional impact only for the photographer and, perhaps, a few people close to the photographer. These are otherwise uninteresting photographs of Aunt Sally's birthday party and so on.

While taking some snapshots of my own recently, a couple of things occurred to me.

First: typically, snapshots are lousy compositions. Even if you have some notion of composition, as I fancy I do, one is forced into bad composition by the reality of the situation. My daughter is doing a very cute thing which we want to have pictures of to share, but she's doing it in bad light and with a terrible amount of background clutter. That's too bad, but it is the reality. It is true. Nothing I can do will make these photographs "good" in any formal sense.

Second: snapshots are often altogether too revealing of the world surrounding the subject. All that background clutter is the detritus of an actual life. The bad light is just what the kitchen looks like. The unfortunate expression, the broccoli stuck in the teeth, all these are real details of a real thing, because the snapshot is more or less by definition not formally posed and cleans none of this stuff up. This too is truth.

How much of our disinterest toward, our dislike of, snapshots comes from the formally "bad" qualities, and how much of it comes from our discomfort at having this intimacy thrust upon us, unasked-for? Should we embrace them, in their billions, for the qualities of truth they bring with them? Perhaps not as art, but as an honest and faithful (in some senses) record of what was and is?

If we were to embrace them, how should we or even could we manage that?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Composition With Lines

If you poke around on the web you will find web sites with stuff like "horizontal lines suggest tranquility" and "vertical lines suggest power or dominance" and similar sorts of things. These things are not quite as common as the "rule of thirds" which pretty much everyone trots out as their first, and frequently only, tip for improving your composition (which they then proceed to get wrong).

Is there any basis for this stuff? If so, what might it be? I suppose we could argue that there are cultural norms in play here, but that seems to be a bit of a stretch. The authors of all these trivial "pep up your composition" web sites almost certainly have no notion of any basis for this business with the lines, they're just cutting and pasting from one another and introducing errors at every step.

This seems to be drawn from graphic design, where things like lines are actual things. A graphic design actually contains real lines as part of the composition. A horizontal line is actually a thing that looks like it cannot tip over, a vertical line looks like a thing that could. A diagonal line looks unstable.

Photographs of things, however, do not generally have actual lines in them, they have trees and buildings and stones and people. A enormous tree, while vertical, does not really have the same feeling of instability that a literal vertical line does. A dragster proceeding at 200 miles per hour in a horizontal line does not have the same feeling of rest and repose that a literal horizontal line on a page does. A picture of a thing that is not at rest does not inherit a "sense of repose" through some superficial resemblance to another thing which is actually at rest. An immense pyramid, despite having diagonal lines, isn't a thing that can fall over. Therefore, unlike a diagonal line, it does not look like a thing that can fall over.

What's great about these guys who talk about vertical lines and whatnot is the examples. "Horizontal lines suggest homeostasis (lack of change)" accompanied by a picture of a frozen leaf on a frost-covered plank with horizontal grain. "Vertical lines can suggest peace" accompanied by a photograph of a verdant forest. No. The subjects suggest homeostasis and peace, you idiot. Worse yet, if you poke around a bit more and take notes, you will find that vertical or horizontal lines can suggest pretty much anything. Diagonals seem to always suggest dynamism or action, at least. Except, I suppose, when photographing immense pyramids that have remained substantially unchanged for more than 4000 years?

Leading lines are a real thing. We do actually tend to follow lines with our eyes, this is at least partly neurological. This other stuff, I don't know. There might be something real there, but the web people hunting for hits to sell ads have so confused the issue that there's probably no easy way to sort out what the real things is. You'd have to dig up original papers and so forth, which sounds like a lot more trouble than it's worth.

You know what suggests peace? A peaceful photograph. If you want to know how to make a peaceful photograph, go find some and look at them. Go into the world and find some things that make you feel a sense of peace. There's no formula for a "peaceful photograph" there are just peaceful photographs.

The more I dig in to this, the more I think that graphic design is the wrong starting point for understanding photography.

Monday, September 24, 2012

But I don't want to be Ansel Adams

Maybe it's just my perception, but I see a lot of people starting out in photography (some of them have been starting out for years) who don't want to do the work to become better. They don't want to be Ansel Adams, they just want to be pretty good. They want to become better photographers. Surely they don't have to do the work, right? Surely one can just practice a bit, talk to some people online and read a couple web sites. I don't want to be Ansel Adams, after all!

The trouble with this attitude is that it's wrong. You don't see people saying that they don't want to be Robert Oppenheimer, they just want to be pretty good quantum physicists, so surely they can just make some stuff up about particles. You don't just creatively invent your way into being a pretty good amateur plumber, you at least read a book. People actually do think they can write their way into being a novelist, but they're completely wrong almost 100% of the time -- you read your way into being a novelist.

The only difference between being a decent amateur photographer and being a really good photographer is that you don't do the work as hard or as thoroughly. You still need to do the work. Read some stuff about composition, look at a bunch of photographs. Look at a lot of photographs, and think about them. Read more things about photography and photographers and art. You have to do the work. You just don't have to do it full time.

If you're having fun just going out and shooting, like everyone online tells you to, great. You're not really going to get any better, but you'll have a good time, I bet.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Learning to See III

I've spent some time telling people to look at photographs. This is still good advice. A novelist might read 1000 novels for every one written, a poet might read a 1000 poems. A plumber looks a lot of plumbing before installing a system. A naval architect in training is admonished to go to the boat show and look at a lot of boats, years before the first finished design comes off the board.

Now I am suggesting that you look at the world, but with a photographic eye. Leave the camera at home, it'll get in the way as you fuss with dials and buttons and timing. Just look at the world, and think about what would make a good photograph. The aim here is to get past the that's a cool thing or ooo I want to capture that and proceed to that would make a good photograph.

Throw imaginary frames around things, or hold up your hands and make a rectangle with your fingers so everyone knows you're an Artist. Most cool things stop being cool when you put them down in a two dimensional rectangle, it turns out.

Think about the objects that you see and their relationship to one another. Do they appear larger or smaller? Does one obscure the other? Are there contrasting textures, or repeated shapes? What is the balance like in your imaginary frame? How would all this change if you were lower down or higher up? How would it change if you moved left, right, or all the way around to the back?

Look at people. Watch the human interactions, look at the body language. What are they looking at? Are there instants in these human interactions that are interesting, versus other instants that are not? When she buys a cup of coffee, what is the instant in the transaction that most perfectly clarifies expresses the moment?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Kill The Rule of Thirds

This thing, frequently cited in amateur circles, seems to not even be a rule at all, in any sense of the word. Go look at some actual photographs, commercial stuff that people have sold or "important art" or any category you like that counts as successful photography.

You will, most likely, find all kinds of stuff neatly centered. If you closely examine the 1/3 lines of the frame you will of course find something there. Is it the important something? Sometimes, more or less at random, yes. Usually not. Frequently it is a boundary between one thing and another, see below for more on this important case. Sometimes it's clearly just random stuff. Sometimes, to be sure, it is strongly the subject. More or less at random, the subject will fall pretty close to one or two of the 1/3 lines.

This horrible bit of anti-pedagogy should be stated more as the Not in the Center principle and should not be stated as a rule. Putting things in the center makes them look one way, and putting them not in the center makes them look another way. It is no more a rule than black-and-white is a rule. Both centering and black-and-white are effects which you can deploy, or not, as the case demands.

Photographers seem to think this rule of thirds comes from graphic design, so let's go look around and see if that's true. We run across amusing things like this advice: divide the page into thirds horizontally, vertically, or both. Now place important elements either within the zones defined by these lines, or in the case of a photograph, you might also place them on intersections of those lines. Let's think this over. So either within the zones.. or.. on borders between the zones. So. You're saying that I can place important elements anywhere at all, correct?

The painters, and later the graphic designers, created regions, and then placed things within the regions. Photographers are urged by the "pep up your snaps" people to place things on the boundaries between the regions, that is to say, in exactly the place where the painters and graphic designers teach not to.

There's something from graphic design here. Thirds are in fact a sort of pleasing way to chunk up a design, or a page. Graphic designs are not the same as photographs, and photographs are not, primarily, graphic designs (yes, there's some overlap, indulge me here). Photographs, in particular, have a subject and graphic designs do not. The graphic design principle is in fact not to place things at intersections of the third lines at all, but to organize the page around thirds. The one-third lines are boundaries between things, in design.

Applying graphic design ideas to the problem of where to put the subject is silly, and it's simply wrong. We might as well try to apply ideas about depth of field to graphic design.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fauxtographer and the Daguerreotypist

In the mid nineteenth century there was a revolution in portraiture. The Daguerreotype become widely available, and popular. Everyone, it seemed, had their portrait made on a funny little grey plate by the funny little fellow down the street. The people selling this service were often hacks, hustlers, and charlatans. The Daguerreotypist was likely selling patent medicines last year, and would be operating a hypnotism show the next. The results, naturally, were a bit variable.

The painters were enraged. The work was awful, by their standards. The image was tiny, albeit detailed. It was not even colored! That marvelous detail captured the subjects flaws just as thoroughly as their good points. It had all manner of weird artifacts due to the long exposure. The people making this things had no skills, particularly, there was no craft to this process. Why, a man could learn to make a Daguerreotype in only a few days! The work was, basically, crap. People loved them, ignored the painters, and bought them by the millions.

The Daguerreotype was not a painting, and did not pretend to be. It was something the customer could not do for himself. It was quick. Something that was good enough to suit the need or desire of the customer at the time. It was also cheap and widely available. The result is, among other things, a fantastically deep and interesting record of socioeconomic classes that had never been given a visual record before.

Of course, in the long run, photography won. Those hustlers and crooks shooting tiny, bad, portraits helped to birth this new form. They helped to set new standards, they contributed to the new aesthetic of visual art and of portraiture which we see today. The painters had their say, our modern notion of photography takes ideas from paintings as well as from the hustling Daguerreotypist who had no idea about any aesthetic. It's all in the mix. But almost nobody has their portrait painted these days.

Today we do not really have the Daguerreotype. We have instead the consumer grade DSLR with a lousy, but cheap, kit lens. This camera has an Automatic mode that is fairly decent. Why, a woman can learn to take photographs in a couple of days! We now see the rise of down-market part-time photographers, styled "fauxtographers" or "mom with a camera" by the some. These are people who have failed to master the difficult art of professional photography. They are hacks selling a cheap service and providing results that simply are not very good. The results are often very bad, by contemporary standards. Standards set, largely, by the professional photographers.

Why look, she's not even using off camera flash! The white balance is awful! The megapixels, there are so few! The composition is.. I don't even know what that is!

All the criticisms are perfectly correct. The painters correctly observed, albeit at excessive length, that the Daguerreotype is not a painting. The irritated professional observes today that the Mom With A Camera is not making professional-looking baby pictures. This is, the attentive reader will know by now, true but irrelevant.

What the down-market photographer does provide is a service the customer cannot provide themselves, at a cheap price. The service is good enough to meet needs of the customer. Every crime and fault that is laid at the feet of the "fauxtographer" was laid, 150 years ago, at the feet of the roving Daguerreotypist. If the same arc occurs over the next 10 or 20 years, and I see no reason to imagine otherwise, a new standard for professional photography will arise. People will look at your carefully posed photograph, with big softbox at 45 degrees camera left and a reflector at 50 degrees camera right, the eyes lovingly sharpened ever so slightly in post and the skin smoothed to perfection, and they will say "That looks OLD, dude. What IS that?" and they will be right.

I don't know what a new aesthetic of event photography will look like, but I bet it will draw ideas from the current professional looks, as well as from the on-camera-flash, spray-and-pray spontaneous look. It will be a melding of Facebook snap with professionally smoothed skin, and a bunch of things we can't predict.

If you're a pro at the end of your career, don't worry about it. If you're just coming up, stay sharp. Those damned MWACs are going to win, in some sense, and you better be ready for it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The photograph is not the subject

I am reading The Photographer's Eye by John Szarkowsi. The preface is an essay that sounds like something I could have written, if I were a better writer! It hits many of the same points I make here. Truthfully, it makes me wonder if I read this years ago, and am simply lifting all these ideas from Mr. Szarkowsi. Well, worse places to steal ideas from, that's for sure.

A point he makes that struck me, though, is this: viewers tend to think that a photograph of a thing is a true and accurate representation of the thing. This is a more specific version of the idea that viewers tend to think that photographs represent some objective truth.

The dedicated reader of this blog will know that, of course, a photograph of a thing is frequently almost everything but a true and accurate representation of that thing.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Learning to See II

This could be considered a followup to this post.

A surprising number of new photographers seem to be unable to see things like contrast or saturation. They seem to be able to tell when their image isn't very good, and they certainly like it when someone increases the saturation or whatever, but they don't seem to see what's missing, in any particular detail.

I do, generally, and I dare say you do as well. Still, here's a handy little test chart of the sort (right down to the somewhat crummy photograph used as a basis!) that appears in every How To Take Pictures Book ever. Do you see what's going on in each row? You can, I assume, see that the three images in each row differ. If you can't see how they differ, look more. It'll be educational!

This image is now public domain. I made it, I say it is so. No rights reserved.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Portrait is like Origami

A good portrait is a piece of mental origami. It should be a complete narrative, a story of a person, a circumstance, a life, folded up into a neat little visual package that your mind unfolds back into that story.

The neat trick is that it might unfold into a different story for everyone who looks at it. But, if it works, it unfolds.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

So it's Propaganda. So What?

I am instantly suspicious of people who want to "raise awareness". Raising awareness does not actually cure cancer, or feed hungry people. In the case of propaganda, which is entirely about manipulating your thoughts and emotions, awareness is actually the thing though. Be aware of what truth and what falsehood inheres in a photograph.

Art is supposed to manipulate your thoughts and emotions. That's how you know it's working. Let it!

Be liberated from worry about truth and some phantom of journalistic integrity. Consider a photograph of a poor man in his home. Is he really poor, or is he the photographer's college roommate? Is that house a set? Who cares! We know for certain that the photographer, if at all competent, framed the image to maximize the sensation of poverty. We know for sure that the photographer chose not to publish the photographs of the man smiling happily, showing off his new watch, his new car. Why worry about whether the man is really poor? The point is to make us empathize with the poor, to remind us that there are poor people. Are there poor people? Why yes, there are. In that sense, the photograph is true and accurate. It may be propaganda, but like much propaganda the narrative it is supporting is in fact pretty much true. Incomplete, but true as far as it goes.

The only time to really worry about it is when a photograph is trying to change your mind or change your vote or change your bank account. If you feel a photograph doing those things -- this is where the awareness comes in -- you can stop and consider what might have been just outside the frame. What was in the frame 10 seconds earlier, and 10 seconds later? Someone shot this and selected it to change your mind, your vote, or to lighten your wallet.

Maybe they're right, maybe your mind and vote should change. Maybe your wallet has too much money in it. Maybe they're wrong. You get to decide that, really. Stay sharp and don't let the bastards manipulate you. At any rate, don't let them manipulate you too swiftly and easily.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

It's All Propaganda

Here in the western world, we periodically have a little flurry of news surrounding some obviously faked photograph released by a foreign government, or occasionally by some foreign stringer. Two missiles in flight when only one was launched, and so forth. We get to have a little fun laughing at the foreigners and their lame photochop skills, but mostly we get to feel superior. Our guys don't do that!

To be sure, we're perfectly correct. Our guys don't do that. Our guys propagandize just as hard, but almost never with badly faked photographs. A side effect of these bad fakes, which our guys are no doubt quite pleased with, is that photographs which are not faked get an extra little boost of credibility. Our media organizations usually have some policies in place about not publishing fakes, to further boost this credibility. The policy will say that only certain types of edits are acceptable in photographs for publication. This is completely silly, any propagandist worth his pay can lie as effectively with a crop (moral, decent, acceptable) as with an erasure (immoral, unacceptable, and just plain wrong).

News Corp.'s papers, the New York Times, and everyone else obscures parts of the truth by selecting which photographs to display. They, and we, select photographs to support at best a partially true narrative, eliding things we do not wish to show and emphasizing things we do wish to show. You and I do it too. In this sense, every photograph uploaded to Facebook is a lie.

I recently attended a more or less typical American wedding, complete with a professional wedding photographer and a second shooter. I also took some photographs. The professional's images are entirely typical, and portray the wedding as a beautiful and idyllic event with at least one important deletion: the ever-present pacing specter of the photographer and his pop-pop-popping flash. My photos were mostly of my daughter, who is two, and of the photographer and other workers making the wedding happen. My images present another, equally false and incomplete, narrative of the wedding.

It is a poor propagandist who cannot thoroughly and effectively promote any desired narrative by commissioning and selecting the right images. The FSA/OWI archive is a 100,000+ photograph paean to this very idea.

A straight photograph tells the exact truth of the instant the shutter was released, right up to the edge of the frame. And that is no truth at all.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Stories are told of musical prodigies who could, on hearing a piece of music performed, could write down a note-accurate score of the piece. Ansel Adams famously referred to the print as a performance of the "score" inhering in the negative.

Happily, we needn't be a photographic Mozart to write down the score of a print. We need be merely a competent technician with fair observational skills. In general, a moderately skilled photographer can, with an existing photograph for reference, reproduce it. With landscapes there are, of course, issues with weather and growing trees and so forth. With a model you probably have to hire someone else, and their makeup will never be quite the same and so forth. Although carbon copies are possible, what I am really interested in is photographs that function in the same way as the original, the light falls the same way, the mood evoked is the same, and so forth. One places a light here, a light there, tries such-and-such a focal length -- oh bother, I need to be a little longer -- and so on. The amount of hacking around depends on the reference image and the photographer, but it can be done.

Let us not forget post processing, of course. The actual printing of the negative, the monkeying about in a digital photo editor. Let us nod to it, and wave it past as all, essentially, technical details which can also be seen in the print and emulated.

Shooting a fake, albeit minor, Avedon isn't even particularly hard. Painting a fake Sargent that would pass even casual muster is a substantially more challenging proposition.

Essentially, most photographic ideas and looks can be reduced to a formula, which is then more or less straightforward to follow.

The professional photographer, being first and foremost in business, is selling a product. The essence of a product lies in reproducibility. The ability to create photographs per a formula is, then, more or less essential to the business of photography. If the pictures from each wedding came out quite differently, the wedding photographer would shortly be out of business (or at any rate, would suffer). There are many reasons people rarely pay to have their weddings painted, but surely one of them is that you haven't a clear idea what it is you're likely to get in the end.

The best professionals will, of course, create their own formulae, new formulae. These will become products in their portfolio, a new "look" the clients can purchase. There is originality here, albeit usually evolutionary, but the professional is forced by business reality to reduce it to formula.

It follows that original work in photography lies mostly in the domain of the amateur and the artist. Professionals and amateurs can, of course, be artists. Earning one's bread with the camera does not exclude one from the exclusive club of original thinkers. Rarely, though, will the professional be able to express those original thoughts while simultaneously earning that bread.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Theory

I have the theory, which I don't actually think is literally true but which I try to hang on to anyways. It's this: there are technically good photographs everywhere. At any moment, anywhere, there's something in view which would make a graphically strong image. Not necessarily good art, not necessarily an emotionally powerful image, but a strong composition.

As I say, I don't think it's literally true -- if you're in the middle of the ocean under a cloudless sky, the options are gonna be a little limited. Generally, though, most of the time, there's something. You might not be able to get physically close enough to shoot it with the lens you have, or you might not have a wide enough lens, or whatever. The equipment might make it impossible, but there's usually something there.

So what? Well, nothing much, but the following strange corollary occurred to me over the weekend. Well, it's not really a corollary, since it doesn't quite follow logically, it's more of a similar idea that's probably just about as true.

In any sufficiently wide angle deep field of focus photograph, there's a strong composition that can be cropped out of it.

Again, not really true all the time, but I feel like it's true a lot of the time. This obviously hearkens back to my earlier remarks in which I suggest that shooting with a lot of pixels, a very wide lens, and a very very twitchy shutter finger is a valid approach to photography. In that approach, you're just grabbing vast amounts of raw material, and then doing the "photography" as such in post, by cropping and processing.

This theory boils down to "that approach will work" but comes at it from another angle.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Light, Wrong or Right

There are techniques in play amongst amateurs which render the light in a photograph muddled, wrong, or completely meaningless. Chief amongst these is HDR, but you can do the same sort of thing with localized adjustments of various sorts. You can also do it in-camera by hosing the subject down with strobes.

The goal generally seems to be to reveal detail all over the subject. The result is weird looking "light."

What's really odd is that a lot of people like the result. They literally don't seem to see that the light is all wrong. My theory (which I've mentioned before specifically with regard to HDR) is that the younger generation has grown up with video games and animation, which often seem to render with everything lit from nowhere. There might be key lights in play, but shadows are more often added for effect than allowed to fall naturally as empty regions in the frame.

So what if I don't like it? So what if old buggers with ideas hate it? If pretty much every actual person sees no problem with this bizarro lighting then, more or less by definition, there is no problem with it. In a way we already see this in commercial photography, but subtly applied. The real skill -- today -- in a pro is revealing all the detail without making the light look wrong. Is the not-wrong requirement about to vanish? Arguably it should. If nobody in the market cares or can even see when light is weird and wrong, why bother making it look right? Will American Apparel come out with a campaign that makes it look like the models are all in some first person shooter? To be honest, I hope so. That would be bitchin'. I'd hate the work, but I'd love the concept.