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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stop Making Tests

Something I find myself doing too much of is: testing. I'm not making a real picture, I'm just experimenting with an idea, I'm testing out a new technique, I'm making a test shot of a potentially interesting subject. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.

If you're doing this too, here's my advice to you:

Knock it off.

Take pictures like they're the last ones you'll ever make, like this is your sole legacy. Take pictures like you're going to be killed if they're not good enough. At least make a picture like you're going to frame it and try to sell it. Stop making tests.

At least for a while. You gotta learn, too, but you gotta do something with what you've learned.

Friday, April 26, 2013


I am on the record as questioning whether people like Garry Winogrand and Vivian Maier actually were all that great as photographers, and how much of their perceived value lies instead with the curators of their archives. I am also on the record as suggesting that process doesn't matter, and that a purely accidental photograph can be and should be considered to be just as good or bad as one made deliberately.

One might legitimately ask why I am such an inconsistent dog. There are two reasons, one of which is that I am an inconsistent dog. I am ok with that. The other reason is that attribution does matter. An accidental photograph that has been carefully curated out of a massive archive is, I feel, arguably the work of the curator and not the photographer. At best it's some joint effort. In general, editors and curators are under recognized, and in these cases of heavily curated massive archives it's clear that they are even more woefully under appreciated.

Even if Maier was a genius, even if the process of curation consists of selecting a random handful of images, because it's all gold, the curators are still doing a great deal of work here. She didn't even develop much of the film. Selecting, cropping, and printing photographs is a real part of the creative process, and Maier didn't do any of that. Suppose, conservatively, that her archive contains the usual percentage of keepers for the superb street photographer the hype machine suggests she is. This is still a low percentage. Lots and lots of grunt work has been done, lots of creative choices have been made. Much of the art has been done by the curators, even if we assume she was superb.

The most important act of photography, circling the right frame on the proof sheet, was not done by Maier.

This work ought, in a just world, to be properly attributed. It's not, and it won't be, since the Maier legend sells a lot more books without mucking it up by spreading the artistic credit around more thinly.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


I recently ran across a mention of a painting in some art magazine. The painting was by a "monochrome artist" which means some chap who paints canvases all the same color. The bit went on about brushwork and luminous depth and so on, but ultimately, the dude had painted a square of canvas blue. It was a blue square. Anyone sensible knows perfectly well that this thing is a scam. The first couple of these things, sure, some sort of commentary on art or something. Now that we're seen a few monochrome canvases, it's pretty much over, there's not much more to say there. To be fair, it looked quite pretty. I'm sure they're quite nice to look at.

Still, these things remain marketable, so the art world continues to ramble on about brushwork and luminous depths.

Here's an interesting aside, though. It's actually pretty hard to cover a big canvas with a single color. Go ahead and get yourself a 3 foot square canvas and some oil paints. Mix yourself up a pretty color, and start painting. You'll be amazed at how difficult it is to nail that exact color when you go to mix up some more. Getting a blue square that's gently mottled is easy. Getting the thing actually sleek and purely monochrome is tough. Now, for all I know, it's an exercise they do in art school and if you go through a BFA in painting you can pretty much do it, but that doesn't make it easy.

Compare with complex and technically tricky wet chemistry processes. Film, salt prints, wet plate, whatever.

Just because it's technically challenging doesn't mean it's good. What makes it good is being good.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Kill the Exposure Triangle

There is this appalling little graphic that gets tossed around to "explain" exposure. It's a triangle. The sides, or sometimes the points, are labelled Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO generally. There may be some arrows in there, there might get regions within the triangle called out. There might be other words pasted on there like Blur and Grain.

There are two true things about this piece of chartjunk: firstly, it explains absolutely nothing; secondly, through some Zen alchemy, it seems to crystallize the relevant ideas for some people. If you poke around, you'll find plenty of people who tell you that they never got exposure until they learned about the Exposure Triangle. They use it to explain it to their friends. If you dig in a bit further, you'll find a truly bewildering array of explanations. Nobody seems to see this stupid thing the same way.

If you pose the question:

What question about exposure can be answered by examining the Exposure Triangle diagram?

you will be greeted by silence. Of course there is no such question, the Exposure Triangle answers no questions, and provides no intuition into the relationships between the things it purports to explain. I can only assume that, somehow, the picture causes knowledge newbies have been struggling with to somehow crystallize and clarify itself.

Anyways. This thing is terrible.

Here's something else that's terrible, but which at any rate gives some intuition. This is an info-graphic. It gives you nothing at a glance, but it tells you quite a lot with a little study.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Inspiration. Who needs it?!

Almost nobody needs inspiration, it turns out.

Do you want to make a picture of a pretty thing, or an interesting thing? Point the camera at it, and press the button. If you want your picture to be specially appealing, apply some technical know-how, apply some rules of thumb, and pick a gimmick or two out of the gimmick bag. You're pretty much there. Do it competently, and it'll look just like the pictures in the calendars. Arrange to have extraordinarily pretty things in front of the camera, and you might do very well indeed.

Taking pictures of babies and weddings isn't easy. It requires technical skills, problem solving skills, all around ability to do it well. What it does not require is inspiration. The pictures you need to make are all on a list. These groupings of people, these objects, these moments of the day. You might need non-photographic inspiration to get enough light onto the bride or baby, to get the family all in frame at once, or to get a smile out of the grouchy toddler. You won't need any inspiration to imagine the images, though.

You only need inspiration when the desired image is not obvious. It's not a list, it's not a copy of some other image, and it's not a copy of whatever's in front of you. It's something else.

A wedding photographer might look for inspiration, to find that one image that captures the essence of this wedding as it is distinct from all other weddings, as it is unique in and of itself, and special to the people in it.

A landscape photographer might look for inspiration to find that image which looks nothing like the scene in view, and yet somehow exactly like it, but distilled to an essence, a feeling.

My suspicion is that many photographers, even many excellent photographers, don't know that this is even a possibility. Many photographers like cameras more than they like pictures, and many photographers like pictures that pretty much look like the thing they are a picture of. Their highest ambition is to make a picture that really really looks like the thing that was in front of the camera. There's nothing particularly wrong with that. The stuff in front of the camera can be pretty amazing.

Do you look at Ansel Adams' picture of El Capitan and think "Wow, that is one spectacular rock!" or do you think "El Capitan looks nothing like that, and yet also exactly like that?"

Monday, April 15, 2013

Inspiration Thought Experiments

I'm going to sketch a couple examples of how inspiration might shape a couple of photographs. This is a follow-on to this post.

Let us suppose that you have a flower, and you want to take a picture of it. How would develop a really good pre-visualization? First you might consciously trundle through some visual ideas. Black and white picture, flower on a white background. Color picture, flower on a black background. Flower in a vase. Flower in my hand. And so on. If you come up with a visual idea that works for you, congratulations, you are done. You might refine the idea mentally, as well as in the studio, but there you are.

What if nothing satisfies?

Notice that you have been going through ideas one after the other. You examine one idea, and discard it or modify it into a new idea. You're going through ideas one by one, at a not very brisk pace. If, after you arrive at an impasse, you relax a bit, a very interesting and powerful cognitive process may occur.

Take a walk, or a shower, or a nap. Evidence suggests that your unconscious mind will continue trying out ideas, but in parallel, many ideas at once bouncing around, banging into one another, combining and recombining. Your mind will pull up an image of the Virgin Mary you saw as a child and bounce that against the image of Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and a thousand other possibilities.

Your unconscious mind can sift a much wider range of visual ideas, much more quickly, than your conscious mind can.

If you're lucky, a mental image will emerge, startling and clear, from this dozy chaos, this largely unconscious swirl of ideas and possibilities.

The recognition process is neurologically fascinating, I gather, but I'm not very interested in that. It does seem clear to me that in order to recognize the answer, you must prime those parts of the brain that will say Eureka! You must have consciously thought about the problem with some intensity. Some general notion of what you're after has to be clear, possibly at a very high level. Clean and simple. Dark and moody. Chaotic. Tense.

With the brain's targeting system primed, and a pile of visual material for your unconscious mind to gnaw on, inspiration can strike.

Another example, at the opposite end of some sort of spectrum:

Shooting "street" and shooting portraits have some similar properties. The general idea of what you want exists before you start, but here the moment of inspiration has to occur in real-time. You can produce pretty good portraits, and mediocre street, by conscious thought. For very good work in both areas inspiration is necessary, there's simply no time to consciously think your way through the possibilities and find a truly great image by sheer mental effort. You might find one by accident, but not through effort.

Your mind needs to be in that relaxed state, cutting and trying visual ideas out of sight of the conscious mind (or largely so, at any rate). Through some incompletely understood alchemy, the real world and the unconscious mind will, on rare but happy occasions, converge in an instant and the image will appear in your mind and in the world at the same moment. Click. There must be some process here by which the mental machinery which tests ideas is informed by the observed world. Cartier-Bresson's writing is, at any rate, consistent with this idea. Observing is done intently, pre-visualization is done instinctively.

The intense observation feeds into the unconscious image-tester, driving that engine. The conscious mind oversees, looking for higher level things, looking for ideas and personality in the visual field. Sometimes, inspiration strikes, the image is recognized in an instant, the idea crystallizes, and the shutter snaps.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Whence Inspiration?

Ansel Adams and his acolytes, who are legion, are big proponents of a thing called pre-visualization. This is a process by which you imagine, in detail, the final print of an image before you shoot it. The Zone System is, essentially, an extremely finicky and laborious mechanism for translating a sufficiently detailed pre-visualization into a final print. This is all well and good, but there seems to be very little out there on how to get that pre-visualization in the first place.

How on earth shall I visualize a photograph I wish to make?

Previous exercises given here can help you practice the mechanics, if you will, of visualization. What are the features of a photograph one can visualize? Contrast, saturation, placement of objects within the frame, and on and on. This still does not address the problem of what to visualize. What shall we stick into our blank mental frame?

Let's take a little tour of some photographers, and imagine how they might have gone about making their pictures, how their inspiration might have arisen.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Claims to have worked largely by instinct, seeing the image and pressing the shutter all in an instant. Certainly he seems to have been largely uninterested in post-processing and printing. He worked largely with a single printer, who no doubt brought a vision to the printing work. Cartier-Bresson's visualization was surely informed by this knowledge of how the final print would look. In any case. for his street photography, he seems to have simply placed a frame around objects in his field of view by selecting a viewpoint, and a moment in time.

Ansel Adams: Of course very interested in post processing, in the sense of printing in a dramatic and stylized fashion. At any given time, he surely had a specific style of printing that informed his way of looking at the world. His method was perhaps to look at an object in nature, and to see how it might look now, or at a future time, in one of his prints. One imagines that his inspirations took the form of "nice tree, but if the sun was right there and there was a bit of snow on the ground, it would be perfect. I should come back in January, about 3pm." He wrote things that suggest that this is in fact just how he worked, at least some of the time.

Andreas Gursky: All about the post-processing now. One imagines that he sees a scene, and imagines what it would be like with this removed, and that placed into the frame, and the light so, and the clouds so, and so forth. He applies an intense layer of imagined photoshop on top of the sorts of things that Ansel Adams applied in terms of light, season, time, and so forth. His inspiration, perhaps, consists in looking at the Rhine, and coming to realize how it might be made to look in an enormous print, with enormous amounts of photoshop.

By chewing on this and other imagined examples, we can see that the pieces that go into an inspired image are: the objects in the field of view - what you are looking at; post-processing ideas; stylistic ideas - which combine placement of seen objects with post-processing and other photographic ideas; and probably many other inputs. This stuff is pushed around in the mind and then, either instantly, more slowly, or never, a pre-visualization appears. An idea for a picture is upon us.

These inspirations might be small, a simple treatment for a subject: I should light the flower from behind. They might be larger: I want an elephant, 400 bricks, a lights here, here, here, tint it all red, and then -- then -- I really have something. The inspiration might be developed through hours of tinkering, or it might hit you in an instant that now, this instant the street scene has fallen into perfection.

Let's take a moment to see how inspiration works. Roughly speaking, this is the process:

  • You begin to think about a problem of some sort. Mental resources are marshalled.
  • You test solutions, imagining possibilities and trying them out, to no particular avail. Perhaps you devise solutions, but they are unsatisfactory.
  • You relax and let your mind wander a bit.
  • This in turn causes a wider net of mental associations to be unconsciously cast. More ideas and resources are marshalled, but you are not aware of them.
  • The mind generates a solution, pulling together a really good set of associations which neatly solves the problem.
  • You, in your conscious mind, recognize this solution as such. (this, it turns out, is a really interesting step)
  • You shout Eureka! and leap out of your bath.

How can you help this along? You need some resources to marshall, in the first place. You need more resources that are further out there, to be scooped up and examined by the unconscious parts of the process. Then you need a problem, and proper management of your mental states. First concentrate, then relax. Finally, you need some luck.

In order to develop an inspired photograph, therefore, you need a bunch of visual ideas. Pictures you have seen, styles you have thought about, digital effects you know about. You need a wide array of stuff: paintings, styles of art, novels you have read and songs you have heard, people you have loved. Your whole experience as a person can be involved. Make that experience rich, but make it richer in art, richer still in visual art, and richest of all in photographic art.

The problem for the photographer will generally be simple. How shall I photograph this flower? How can I make this mountain look dramatic and yet beautiful? What light would make this model look terrifying?

Now, manage your mental states. Think hard on your problem. Devise specific solutions:

I will use a hard-edged light on this model, to make her look scary. No, I will light her from below, with a hard-edged light!

Carry on until you get stuck, and find yourself mentally spinning uselessly. Carry on for a little while to give your brain momentum. Now take a break. Go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap. If your mind has been wound up enough, it will carry on with a mass of unconscious inertia, gnawing on your problem. If you are lucky, at some moment a bit later on, you will suddenly see how your should photograph the model, or the flower. The solution will appear, more or less fully formed, ideally.

Now you must translate this solution into a photograph. This is a technical problem.

How shall I produce that lighting effect? How can I make the shadows deeper and more sharply edged? How can I create a densely grainy effect?

Technical problems, being technical problems, are solved by the gigabyte load, on web pages all across the internet.

May I suggest google?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Style, huh, yeah, What Is It Good For?

The word style seems to be used in a couple of overlapping ways. Some people seem to think that the fact that they shoot film is their style, or that they shoot black&white, or that they like pictures of landscapes. That's all fine and good, I suppose, but what they're really talking about is their style as a photographer.

This use of style is as a descriptor of the photographer, not of the photographs. The photographer's style, of course, does affect the look of the photographs but not necessarily in a strong enough way to tie the photographs together stylistically.

Photographs enjoy a style when they share sufficient visual elements with one another to look as if they belong together, as I have noted in the past.

As an aside, I haven't got a style. I lack the focus and dedication necessary to create a body of work that is visually connected in this fashion.

Anyways, why do you want a style? What's a style good for? As noted, it connects a collection of pictures into a bigger thing. It's a way to connect a bunch of pictures into an oeuvre. It's not the only way, though. You could use tape, or glue, to connect stylistically divergent images into a collage, and that would also be an object for consideration, neither more nor less than a stylistically connected body of work. Stick a bunch of pictures in a book. Give them all the same title.

Connecting a bunch of pictures together creates a bigger thing. This bigger thing is potentially quite a bit more interesting than the individual pictures, especially today when many pictures have already been taken. By creating a body of work out of more or less redundant photographs, you might create a genuinely new object, with a new set of ideas and visual interests.

Let's classify photographic style into two kinds:

  • The kind created through curatorship, in which a larger collection of pictures is sorted through to identify a small subset that embody a style.
  • The kind created consciously by the photographer, through a series of conscious choices.

The key difference here is that the first kind of style cannot be produced on demand. The photographer may or may not ever produce even a single other image in that style, it's a crapshoot and largely useless beyond the curated collection. On the other hand, the latter kind of style is useful both to the artist and the commercial photographer. This is a style in which new pictures can be made on demand. It's a marketable product.

How'd Cindy Sherman get so successful? Well, she seems to have been launched with a project entitled Untitled Film Stills which were the embodiment of a pretty intense style. These are cinematic photographs, shot in black and white, all the same size and shape, and all featuring Cindy Sherman. There's a very very strong visual connection. Whether you like the work or not, and I don't, there's no denying that she made a thing that's much bigger than a single photograph. She demonstrated the ability to produce a body of work within a specific style, a collection of connected photographs. She demonstrated the ability to formulate a more or less novel idea, and to do the necessary and frankly tedious work to bring it to fruition. I don't know how many of these things she shot, but the final result was 69 photographs. The idea of shooting this project makes my head hurt. The first few are fun, the last few are surely just grueling labor.

Curators and other tastemakers could tell, as a result of this, that this was a marketable commodity. This artist can produce work that can be sold. Whether it's good or not hardly matters. Certainly the fact that I don't like it doesn't matter a fig.

Wedding photographers, at least expensive and successful ones, tend to have a look, a style. A bride will select them because they want photographs that look like that, only with the bride in them and not that other woman. There are other reasons, to be sure. Personality, price, availability and so on. The style, though, is the product differentiator. The ability to produce that style on demand is, ultimately, the product that the bride purchases.

I might make a book by curating my pile of photographs into a set of 50 images all stylistically connected. I might even sell some copies of the book, who knows? My inability to produce work on demand in that style, though, means that I will never be a successful artist, and certainly never a successful professional.