Thursday, May 30, 2013

Your Process, Your Business

I am (frequently) on the record as stating that process doesn't matter, results are all that matters.

That's perhaps not quite right. Your process does matter. It matters to you. Whatever makes you happy, whatever allows you to make the results that you want, that's yours and you can love it or hate it as much as you want. If you can't make what you want without using expired TriX, then use expired TriX. That's great! That's what it's all about, really. It's you, working your way through your process, to produce results that you're happy with.

The thing is that your process does not matter to anyone else. There is one (1) notable exception to this, art buyers sometimes are rather fond of process. They value difficult processes and outré processes over more ordinary ones. This is some sort of extension of the desire for provenance, I think, and is a generalized form of "a real Vermeer is worth a great deal more than van Meegeren" in some sense.

This has an unfortunate consequence in the photography world. When you post some picture or another and note the process in loving detail: Expired Kodak FooChrome stand developed for 12 months in Campbell's Tomato Soup 1:100000, or similar, it feels like you're marketing to the art buyer set. Since the picture is invariably kind of crappy, the overall effect is rather lame. It feels like you want me to value this turd as a piece of high end art.

It's not, it's a turd. The reason it's a turd is because you're more interested in developing expired film in dilute tomato soup than you are in making pictures. That's fine, whatever floats your boat. See the second paragraph in this little essay. The result, though, isn't anything anyone wants to look at.

Yes, there are obviously exceptions, Some people make exceptional photographs and develop them in Caffenol. Not, however, very damn many.

Keep your process to yourself, unless someone asks. The art buyers will ask, don't worry.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Steerage Redux

Here is a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, which I have examined before in these pages.

I suggested previously that it was something of a rule follower, which it is to an extent. Understood in terms of classical composition rather than modern photographic "composition", though, it completely falls into place. The excellence is immediately understood as a consequence of the photo's adherence to visual ideas that we simply work. The "rule of thirds" has nothing to do with it.

There are many lines in the picture, none of them quite parallel, and none of them quite perpendicular, but certainly grouped into more-or-less vertical, and more-or-less horizontal. The lines give interest and a sense of regularity without being tedious and repetitious. There is a bright white spot in the hat, and a sightline from the white-hatted man down to black-headed figures in the steerage connecting that light spot to the darker spots below. There is a light region, contrasting with a dark region. There are spots of light and dark in echoed configurations. There is even a strongly pyramidal collection in the darker mass of the steerage topped by the man in the white hat.

Viewed as a nineteenth century painting, this thing is practically textbook (except for the subject matter).

The point here is that there are a bunch of elements which we recognize after the fact as being part of many successful compositions, and they have been applied here with excellent taste and balance. There is variety, and there is unity. There is visual balance. You can't really measure these things, but you can see them when they are present, and you can to a degree learn to apply them yourself. There is no royal road to a good composition, but there are some signposts, some blazes on the trail.

Ultimately, you simply have to learn to see it yourself by looking at a bunch of pictures, and to do it yourself by taking a lot of pictures, mostly bad.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Andrew's Composition Course

Go get a free edition of Henry Peach Robinson's Pictorial effect in photography from Google Books.

Now google up a web site or two of great paintings. Many museums have a web site with a searchable collection. You don't need great reproductions of paintings, but you want decent ones. Poke around a bit until you can definitely find a bunch of pictures that you pretty much like, from anywhere between the 1400s to the 1800s. Sure, that's not all the paintings in the world, but they're the ones that will make sense in this context.

Skim over the little section of background I provide below.

Start reading Robinson. When he mentions a painting, use google to find a copy of it to look at before you read on, and take a look at the picture.

Keep reading until the end.

What you read will be somewhat dated, not everything should be taken as gospel truth. Robinson had some ideas about photography that are pretty old fashioned, and other ideas that are so modern that they are only now being viewed as acceptable (again).

When you get to the end, which should take a handful of hours, you will have learned more about composition than a 100 years spent on crummy web sites with their rotten Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratios, and their terrible terrible sample pictures.


Robinson was writing in the nineteenth century, when film did not exist. Emulsions were coated on to glass plates, instead. Exposure times were long, measured in many seconds, so moving subjects was a big no-no. People had to hold still. For portraits, a head-rest was used, to assist the subject in not moving.

Emulsions were also orthochromatic, which means that it was more or less impossible to take a photograph that included a decent rendering of clouds and landscape at the same time. The sky was normally white in a landscape photograph, without compositing together multiple images.

The long exposure times meant that shutters as we know them did not exist. One simply removed the lens cap, counted for a bit, and then put the lens cap back on.

Chiaroscuro means, basically, the arrangement of light and shadow in a picture.

Book Review: Pictorial effect in photography

This is a book by Henry Peach Robinson, one of the original "Pictorialists" in the late nineteenth century. It's a book that's available free through Google's books section, being long out of copyright and having been scanned by those folks. There's actually a couple of editions available as PDFs or other eBooks.

Pictorialism has been declared a terrible idea and dead as a doornail for something like 80 to 100 years as of this writing. It was replaced by the Modernism, or something. Ansel Adams, as a fallen-away Pictorialist, is trotted out as an example of the new thing as contrasted with the old thing. The old thing is usually represented with some muddy blurs, and the new thing with crisp, sharp, contrasty images. It's of interest to me because I think I might be becoming a Pictorialist, although I am not really in favor of muddy blurs.

All of this context makes reading this book pretty interesting, since (for instance) Ansel Adams landscape work appears for all the world to be reading directly from Robinson's playbook. Virtually any Adams landscape makes a marvelous illustration of virtually any point Robinson makes.

All that aside, though, this is a fine little volume with a great deal to say about composition. Robinson's taste runs the gamut from sentimental to twee, and many of his ideas are a bit dated; but this can largely be ignored. The bulk of the book is a truly excellent primer on composition. It's a quick read, with many examples, and it doesn't mention a Golden Ratio anywhere, thankfully. The material in the book is clearly lifted from orthodox (in 1860ish) theory on painting, which is no surprise since Robinson was trained as a painter. Robinson does make a serious and largely successful effort to translate this material into photographic terms, and to render it applicable to photography.

There's also a fair bit of philosophy of art to be found, in little veins between the technical information. Fact versus Truth is a common theme, and a good one to be thinking about for any would-be artist. Robinson feels that Truth is vital to a photograph, but Fact can be dispensed with. Indeed, he makes a pretty solid argument that Truth is more important to a photograph than to a painting. He does explain what all this means, by the way, and quite ably. Again, here, we find that as many Modernists agree with Robinson as disagree. Weston's photographs certainly told a Truth, always, without necessarily being Factual. No surprise, Weston was another fallen-away Pictorialist.

Nowhere in this book does Robinson advocate the murky blurs that usually held up as examples of Pictorialism. On the contrary, he's all about depth of field, detail, and a full range of tonal values. He merely wants the photographer to manage these things carefully instead of dumping endless masses of equi-potent detail into our eyes. Robinson does advocate compositing of images, but this appears as much to be to overcome technical problems with the emulsions he was working with as anything else. Where Robinson cuts and pastes, Adams dodges and burns, Adams having access to panchromatic film.

The book is filled with amusing quotations and remarks, and references to other work. There is a wealth of detail which gives a bit of historical insight into the working of a nineteenth century photographer. And, there's a bit of straight-up bitching about bad photographers mucking things up, now that it's all so easy to take pictures, what with these new-fangled dry plates. While he doesn't use the term fauxtographer, he would have if it had been around. Same as it ever was.

This book is completely worth reading, whether you're an expert or a newbie. It's fun, it's informative, it's short, and it's free.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Free Business Idea

As of this writing, flickr has switching things around. Now everyone gets a free terabyte of storage for their photos. Conservatively, this means that everyone can store 100,000 high resolution images in their flickr account (assuming I have done the math right). Somehow, this is seen as a good thing. 100,000 images is just about as useful as 0. 10,000 images is similarly useless.

People who have not thought it through think that the digital photography problem is simply reliably storing all the pictures. This is not in fact the problem. The problem is the same as the backup/restore problem - it's the restore that's tricky, it's the restore that must work. Similarly, storing pictures is easy, it's getting them back and looking at them that is hard.

The predominant model for online picture storage is chronological. 1000 pictures, 10000, 100000, all turn into the same thing: the most recent 30 or 40 pictures. Sure, you can click back in time, but you don't as a general rule. Even when you do, you go back a couple hundred pictures and then start dipping in randomly for another few dozen and then you quit.

The problem is not one of storage, it is of curation. Or, more bluntly, the digital photography problem is a problem of throwing things away.

So, here's the business idea: or similar. Users can store up to, say, 200 images. They can organize and sort and fuss around with their portfolio. However, they cannot show to the world more than 50. You have to select the 50 for display, and once you hit the limit, you have to deselect one before you can put another one up. You can only select 5 pictures a day for display, so no slideshows.

Monday, May 20, 2013

On Rules of Composition

Let me begin by distinguishing between "rules of composition" and "principles and techniques of composition" in what is perhaps a bit of an arbitrary way. By a rule I mean something like the rule of thirds, or the golden spiral. Something that tells you specifically how to arrange things in the frame. A principle or technique might be to "use leading lines" or "lead the eye to the subject" or "balance visual masses within the frame". A rule tells you where to put things in the frame, a principle tells you how people look at pictures. There's probably overlap. Such is life.

Poking around various web sites for these "rules" is always an exercise in hilarity. You'll find examples of "rule of thirds" with lines carefully drawn through the subject, and nowhere near a one-third line, you'll find ludicrously squashed golden spirals. You'll find golden triangles proudly drawn on top of examples images that bear no graphical relation to the drawn figure whatsoever.

Why do I care about rules of composition, today? I'm interested in whether "good photographs" tend to use these things or not. I'm also interested in, when we examine a "good photograph" for rule compliance, to what extent are we doing ex post facto fitting of patterns to reality, and to what extent the photograph actually deployed some rule or another.

There are two ways to approach this, or perhaps two ends to a spectrum of ways. One can say that in order to be judged "compliant with a rule" the main subject and other elements must be exactly placed according to the rule. One can also allow a moderate degree of latitude, and say that the main subject and other elements must only be placed approximately in the right places to be deemed "following such and such a rule".

One gets in to trouble in both directions.

Rules of composition tend to be very crop-sensitive. If you change the crop, the designated locations for subjects and so on move around, sometimes quite dramatically. Surely a great photograph remains great if you shave off 10% on one edge or another? Or at any rate many of them do. If you demand extreme precision in placements, you will find almost no good photographs that follow the rule -- although you will certainly find many postcards and calendars that have the bear's nose, or the boat, or the top of the waterfall slavishly placed exactly on the intersection of two 1/3 lines. These photographs would in general be improved by any crop at all, the more complete the better.

If you permit rough compliance, then many more good pictures will be found to be in compliance with some rule or another. If you have enough rules, you can find one for any occasion. This image:

Shows the subject placements in a 4:3 crop permitted for Golden Triangle, Golden Spiral, and Rule Of Thirds, if we permit a 5% deviation in any direction, which isn't really all that loose. It's not quite "stick the subject anywhere but in the middle and on the edge" but it's inching firmly in that direction. The Golden Spiral doesn't even apply, really, to any crop except the Golden Rectangle, which nobody uses, anyways. You can, of course, apply your rules of placement to a rectangle within the frame, not to the full crop, but at this point all bets are off. Now you have an more or less arbitrary rectangle in the frame, with presumably some slop to it, and then you're putting things inside that rectangle with their own fudge factors.

Why not just say "stick the things that matter in the frame, not at the edges and not in the center, unless there's a good reason for it"? Why not talk about balance of visual masses, eye leading, and so on?

It is absolutely the case that every rule of composition can produce a pleasing balance of forms within the frame. To codify these things as rules, however, is to place the cart well before the horse. We might as well say that to produce an appealing cheese, you should wrap whatever it is you have handy, some milk solids, old clothes, a dead cat, perhaps some mud or a set of house keys to a house you no longer own, in a layer of suitable wax and place the result it in a cave for a few months.

This is, after all, how many excellent cheeses are made. So it works, some of the time.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Truth, Photographs, and the Media

I have beaten this little drum before, I think. As of this writing, though, we have yet another scandal about such and such a press photograph was allegedly faked in some as-yet undetermined fashion, etcetera and so forth. So, I feel like it's time for another round.

Photojournalism isn't. This discussion is at least 30 years old, and probably 30 years dead, but nobody seems to remember it. Some photo is shown to be manipulated to a greater or lesser extent. Shock and dismay is registered. The photographer and/or editor are duly pilloried and Media Standards For Photographic Manipulation are dutifully rolled out to remind us that the press adheres to strict rules to guarantee that only True Photographs will be shown to you. The system has worked, Untruth has been stamped out again. Phew!

This is all crap, designed to make the Media look honest, designed to bolster their fantasy of being purveyors of objective truth. It's simply not true.

Photojournalism isn't. It isn't journalism, that is. A photograph can show you What, and maybe hint at How. It leaves out Who, Where, When and the most important one of all, Why. Photos are, by their very definition, a frame around a tiny fraction of what it true at an instant in time, removed from all context and presented to us. Truth, and journalistic Truth in particular, is almost entirely about context. It's about how these things fit into the larger world, it's about why these things are happening.

A photograph feels like Truth, because it is a literal tracing of something that was actually there in front of the camera. In that sense, it is true. Media Standards For Manipulation are all about preserving this trivial and uninteresting truth. Essentially, you can't print a photograph in the press unless the stuff that appears to be in the photo was actually there. So what?

A photograph, by the its power of apparent Truth, is as likely to distort as to reveal. A photograph makes us believe it, so if it is lying to us, that lie has far more power than if someone simply wrote the lie down.

The press loves photographs for their power. Someone writes a piece about something or other, presumably striving to be Truthful. There's still a narrative there, one or more ideas are presented. So-and-so are a bunch of Bad Dudes, or something. Whether it's True or not, whether that even means anything, that's irrelevant to the current discussion. The point is, the photo editor or someone sorts through the available pictures and selects a picture to support the story. They select a picture, perhaps, of one of the so-and-so's, in which it appears that the dude is in fact being a Bad Dude. We read the story, or at least the first bit. We learn that we're supposed to think so-and-so are a bunch of Bad Dudes and, my goodness, here is proof! The newspaper has guaranteed us that this picture is of a genuine so-and-so, and that he is indeed Being A Bad Dude. The backs up the text, and gives us a much stronger impression that so-and-so are in fact a bunch of Bad Dudes. This despite the fact that the picture shows us one (1) so-and-so out of perhaps millions, in one instant of time, apparently being a Bad Dude. The photograph is not meaningful supporting evidence at all, but it certainly acts upon us as if it were.

You can lie with a crop just as easily as with an erasure. You can lie by choosing to run this photograph instead of that photograph as easily as with a crop.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Argument Against

I've been rambling on for a while about photographs and copyright. Now I'm going to try to pull it all together into a relatively short and straightforward argument against universal copyright for photographs.

Some caveats and clarifications. I think there are photographs deserving of copyright, and I intend to leave the details of which those are unspoken. It doesn't matter. Also, I recognize that photographers are going to disagree by default with this position. They (and I am one as well) are used to having copyright. It has been true since birth that you own the result of your button press. My argument is, in truth, trying to take away from you something which you have always owned. Sorry about that.


Economic Rationale: This is the easiest argument in-favor to dispose of. Nobody's being paid a dime to make most pictures, and yet they keep getting made. With rare exceptions, the copyright on a picture is irrelevant to any actual compensation. If anything, society would benefit more if we compensated photographers to stop taking pictures.

Moral Rationale: As noted, this one lives and dies on the how much creative input went into the image. Plumbers put intellectual effort into their work, so it's not intellect that does it. It's creativity. By far the vast majority of pictures made are made with virtually no creative input whatsoever, see facebook, see flickr, see instagram. Virtually every photograph made is heavily, heavily derivative of other work. Other vast swathes of work are simply by the numbers problem solving - put a light here, a light there, higher to get the catchlights right. Yet another category of work is collaboration between models, stylists, set dressers and photographers, only one of whom is granted complete ownership of the result for life and beyond.

In short, there are only rare cases in which the photographer has been the clear and definite leading source of creative input to the photograph. In all other cases, the moral rationale for photographs as the intellectual property of the photographer is suspect.

These are the arguments in favor of photographs as intellectual property, addressed to my satisfaction. What about arguments directly opposing?

Appropriation: As I have noted in the past photography is an appropriative act. When I photograph something or someone my subject arguably loses nothing. However, I gain something, something to which it is by no means clear I have any rights.

The Golden Gate Bridge is not mine. The cars on it are not mine. The boats under it are not mine. The sun behind it is also not mine. And yet, when I point my camera at it and press a button, I acquire an image, a notional construct, containing the tracings of all those things, an image that is completely mine, under the law. This is absurd.

If I am in a hall rented by the bride, am handsomely paid by the bride to take a photograph of the bride wearing a dress selected and paid for by the bride, the photograph I take is by some mysterious and incomprehensible alchemy, mine. Brides, for the most part, find this absurd. This is not because brides are idiots, it's because this is absurd.

Social Damage: Has our society been well served by the mass of photographs of various icons? I certainly don't think so. Our ability to appreciate certain objects has been damaged by the mass of imagery. Our ability to look at Half Dome and see its natural beauty is, to a degree, damaged by the endless parade of photographs of it.

Our ability to look at and appreciate Half Dome is further eroded by our personal desire to take a photograph of it. Not everyone wants to take a picture of the thing, but a hell of a lot of people do. Those people's perception of the thing is altered by the postcard they saw a few minutes ago, and by their desire to replicate that postcard with their iPhone.

We would be better served as a society by a system which discouraged this mass of photographs. This is not to suggest that copyright is the cause of a billion terrible snapshots of Half Dome, copyright is merely a part of a system which encourages us to take pictures.

In Conclusion

Not every photograph is undeserving of copyright. The degree to which a picture is varies a great deal, and definitely occupies a spectrum. Still, the idea that every photograph is simply born with a built in and fairly absolute copyright held by the presser of the button is ridiculous. It's might be the only practical legal solution, but that does not make it not absurd.

Monday, May 13, 2013


A commenter on the previous essay wants me to get down to brass tacks. Ok.

Suppose that I write down a copy of the melody "Londonderry Air" in the key of G. I have transposed it, and written it down. Do I have any copyright on this thing? Certainly not. That would be ridiculous and insane. Suppose that I arrange Londonerry Air in the key of G for 2 violins, a flute, and an electric guitar? That, interestingly, is copyrightable. The arrangement is, the melody is not.

The distinction here is the degree of creative act, or something.

Suppose, now, that I go out with my camera and stand in one of the usual places and take one of the usual pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. Do I have a copyright? Well, the presumption is that I do. This, despite me having done the photographic equivalent of writing down a well known tune in the key of G. Could this copyright be broken? It's certainly possible that it could be. Do I have a right to this copyright, under either of the traditional rationales for intellectual property? I certainly do not.

I don't care if you worked super hard to make your copy of the same picture. I don't care that it's "your copy" of the same old picture. There is no creative act and therefore there is no intellectual property that belongs to you by any reasonable rationale. You pressed a button. You own a media card with some 1s and 0s on it, that is certainly yours. You do not really own the intellectual property which is that picture, any more than I own "Londonderry Air in the key of G". But see the sequel, it turns out that you may just as well.

If you take your photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge, and photoshop eagles all over it, you've got something. You've performed a creative act. You have, roughly, arranged Londonderry Air in the key of G for 12 kazoos. That is an atrocity, but a copyrightable atrocity. Well done.

Now, in practical terms and under the law, you may as well have a copyright of your stupid picture. You might complain if I "stole" it, so if I am sensible I will simply find some boob on flickr who will give me a copy of a picture that's pretty much identical to yours. This is an economic judgement on my part, and in no way reflects anything about intellectual property. Essentially, you have possession of a thing which you do not own, but arguing about it simply isn't worth my or anyone else's time.

Not every picture is a stupid copy of everyone's picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, to be sure. Lots of them are, basically, but there are lots of the other kind as well.

Pictures which I cannot trivially find a free or nearly free copy of are typically the ones that are actually deserving of copyright. So, in practical terms, we may as well assume that all pictures have a fully potent copyright.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Photos and the Rationale for Copyright

There are, basically, two traditional rationales for copyright:

Economic: It behooves society to motivate the creative people to create things, by allowing them to reap the rewards of their creative labors.

Moral: The fruits of ones mental labor are as much yours as are the fruits of your physical labor. If you make a thing, then it is yours.

These are both perfectly fine reasons for creating some sort of notion of ownership of creative work, some notion of intellectual property and some legal machinery around doling it out, managing commerce in it, and protecting it. Both have a hidden assumption, which is that such fruits of creative labor are in fact creative and original. This is typically made explicit in the legal machinery.

There is no economic benefit to giving ownership of unoriginal intellectual property to the creator. In fact, doing so undermines the economic benefit. If I can simply change the name from Harry Potter to Gary Motter, J.K. Rowling's incentive to write drops quite a lot.

There is no moral right to unoriginal creative works, since the was no labor. Replacing Ishmael with Bob throughout isn't creative labor, particularly, and does not result morally in ownership of a new edition of Moby Dick.

At this point the attentive reader may have detected that we have a problem with photographs and copyright. The vast majority of photographs made today are nothing like original. It is, for instance, essentially impossible to take an original photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge. A photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge made today therefore enjoys no particular right to copyright. In fact, I submit that the copyright on such a photograph could be easily broken, should someone choose to go to the mat and take it to a judge.

Obviously there are original photographs still being made, ones with a copyright that would stand a concerted legal attack. There are also many that might or might not. Finally, there are some with a copyright that could certainly be broken. It is probably a safe bet that many photographs have a secure copyright that, in the light of the opening remarks here, it probably should not. The courts, in general, do and should tend to side with the author when there is doubt.

The real situation, however, is that essentially all photographs have usage rights which can be purchased for less than the cost of breaking the copyright in court. I can buy usage rights for stock all day long for pennies an image. I can buy usage rights from people on flickr for, well, not very much. Certainly a paltry sum when compared with the costs of a legal assault.

Essentially, we are in a situation in which some unknown percentage of the photographs made have a copyright which is a sham, but nobody cares to remove the curtain and reveal that the copyright is breakable. The courts have happily arranged a situation in which is is cheaper to simply live with a lot of silliness and outright injustice than it is to sort out any kind of just and reasonable truth.

This is true, of course, far more broadly than with issues of intellectual property.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Alternative Compensation

Alternative Compensation is at least one of the terms of art for how creative types can arrange to get paid for their creative works, apart from copyright enforced mechanisms.

How, specifically, can a photographer get compensated for doing photography, in a world where copyright does not exist? Since in many areas of photography copyright does not exist in any effective fashion, we can look at the world as it exists today. There might be some other ideas rattling around as well, though.

Work for hire is pretty what most photographers who make money do anyways. You're hired to shoot the wedding, the engagement. You might even be hired to shoot photographs of local newsworthy events. Your technical skills, your equipment, and your time, are rented to the customer. This is essentially how plumbers and most other skilled laborers operate. It's how I work, even though I produce copyrighted materials for a living. My employer pays me for my labor, and my employer enjoys the copyright protection on the fruits of that labor.

This is how the world works now. Wedding photographs and the like get copied and passed around to anybody who has the slightest interest in possessing a copy, despite copyright law. Copyright law is, for almost all intents and purposes (but not quite - there are rare exceptions) absent here.

What else?

Musicians are allegedly returning to performance as a primary money maker. Rather than relying on copyright law to protect the revenue stream from easily reproduced digital songs (which revenue stream mostly doesn't go to the musicians anyways) they are providing the consumer with an experience. They provide an entertaining live show. They also sell schwag, shirts and whatnot. This leads us to:

There's always a market for things, objects. Unique objects are better, but objects with any kind of perceived value can be sold for money. Ordinary photographic prints have very little perceived value, but there are other related objects.

So you can, at least, provide experiences and objects. Interestingly, we see experiences already being offered.

The photobooth, a computer set up with a webcam or a better camera, and some software, is increasingly an entertainment provided at events. The event photographer is perhaps uniquely positioned to offer this, and to sift through the results. This provides both an experience, an entertainment within the larger event, and a collection of pictures.

The currently-popular "trash the dress" event is another photographically themed entertainment, which can be orchestrated by the photographer.

As for objects, the standard photographic print used to be the object provided by the professional photographer. A high quality print was viewed as a valuable object in its own right. This is simply no longer true. Given a digital image I can have any number of prints at any number of sizes and qualities made for me for any price I care to pay. A photographer providing this to me strikes me purely as a way for the photographer to clip off a piece of the action, when I can place an order with a couple of clicks of the mouse.

There are processes such as tintypes and Ambrotypes which produce unique objects. These are indeed making a little bit of a comeback in the portrait market, mostly aimed at monied hipsters. There might be a market for an add-on to the usual wedding package, here, as well.

It's not clear to me what else there is, but if I was a wedding photographer I'd be thinking furiously about what kinds experiences and objects I could be featuring as add-ons to the basic wedding package.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Photographs as Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property is a pretty big area, but I'm going to pretty much stick to pictures here. Copyright, for our purposes, is the legal machinery around ownership of intellectual property (yes, yes, there's lots of other stuff, patents and trademarks and trade secrets blah blah blah, I don't care). A photograph is copyrighted, and it is that legal machinery that provides the maker of the photograph with a meaningful idea of "ownership" of that photograph as an abstract image, not merely as a physical artifact.

Intellectual property in and of itself is arguably a pretty odd idea, and it is certainly just a social construct. The idea of property of any kind is a social construct, after all, and ideas like "land ownership" are virtually incomprehensible to some societies which remain with us to this very day. Be that as it may, we have a notion of intellectual property in general, and legal machinery exists very specifically in the western world to create a clear notion of ownership of a picture.

Another traditional and particularly clear example of a copyrightable piece of intellectual property is the novel. The particular sequence of words that makes up a novel, the sequence itself, is an ownable thing, a piece of property. There are a couple of dimensions to this:

Until recently it was pretty hard to actually make a copy of a novel. The means of production was constrained. An individual could copy a novel, but it was quite difficult. Even the dullest person could see that there was some value in a physical copy of a novel.

Orthogonally, even the dullest person can see that creating a novel, devising that unique sequence of words, is real labor. Not just any fool can be taught to do it even acceptably well, it takes a degree of talent. It takes many many hours of mental effort. Furthermore, the maker's stamp is more or less indelible: while many people can write a novel, only Agatha Christie could have written Murder on the Orient Express.

There are, therefore, at least two dimensions in which people perceived value in a copy of a novel, value in the book they held in their hand.

Contrast this with, say, a typical wedding photographer in this current era:

Making copies of the photographs from the wedding costs nothing. It's all digital, and I can have my local drugstore print out copies of digital photographs for pennies a picture. I can post a digital picture to a dozen places on the internet to share with my friends for nothing at all. Digital images have perceived value approximately equal to 0 cents.

Taking wedding photographs is certainly a craft, like plumbing. Not just any fool can do it, but almost any fool can be taught to do it. Furthermore, wedding photographs tend to look pretty much the same. Bob's wedding photography may be distinctly different from Alice's wedding photography, but Ralph's, Susan's, and Albert's wedding photographs look a heck of a lot like Bob's. Finally, it's pretty easy. There's some hours of labor involved, before, during, and after. It's work, but it's a lot more like plumbing than it's like defusing bombs or writing novels.

Photography loses in both dimensions: it's digital, and thus trivially copied; and it's easy.

The perceived value of wedding photographs has always been quite different from the perceived value of a novel. People have always suspected that commercial photography is really work for hire. They are paying to have something recorded, and are vaguely surprised and irritated to find that the photographer mysteriously retains ownership of the pictures. A plumber does not retain ownership of the pipes he installs in my home, after all.

This perception is increasing, and will continue to. More and more, people are simply ignoring the copyright held by the photographers, and posting wedding photos, school photos, portraits, and other commercial work on their facebook pages. The sole-practitioner photographer can rail about it and send angry letters, but not much else. The commercial photographer is free to "educate" the customer about copyright, and to try to explain why it is that they "own" the pictures. The commercial photographer is also free to buzz down to the beach and attempt to hold back the tide with a stick. Insofar as anyone bothers to think about it, there simply does not seem to be a supportable rationale for "ownership" of the intellectual property inhering in wedding photographs. There's the law, but the law appears to be an ass.

Digital media has dropped the value of a song, a picture, a movie, to very close to zero. Stock photographs are virtually free. I expect to be able to watch all the movies I want for a modest monthly fee. Ditto music. A song is worth -- at most -- 99 cents, and to many people that's much too high. It is simply not reasonable to expect that wedding pictures, engagement photos, baby portraits, are going to retain high values. They are not. When you shoot these things, the perception today is largely that you are performing skilled labor for a period of time, and that alone is the basis on which you should be compensated.

The legal machinery of copyright isn't going anywhere any time soon, but it is increasingly becoming irrelevant and ignorable. Speed limits aren't going anywhere any time soon either, but it's not like anyone follows them.

This sucks for people who want to make money taking pictures. I have some ideas on that point, coming up.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Copyright, RIP.

I didn't make any of this stuff up, people who think about these things know all about it. Still, photographers seem to be really in to copyright, and often a bit clueless about it.

This isn't a reference on copyright law. For that I suggest that you just go and read the law, it's surprisingly readable. There are also umpty-million web sites with loads of information, some of it correct.

This is a post about copyright, and its lifespan. Copyright is the right to make copies, and copyright law is about regulating who has that right, in what forms, and what it all means. Copyright law makes no sense for things which cannot be copied. Just as there are very few laws regulating the use of magic, there was little to no copyright law before the invention of the printing press. Copyright law also ceases to make sense when the ability to make copies is completely ubiquitous. You can have all the laws you want, but they're un-enforceable.

Copyright as we construe it makes sense, roughly, from the period between the invention of the printing press and the invention of digital media and digital networks.

This isn't a question of what is right or wrong. I create intellectual property for a living, I am certainly not advocating for the destruction of intellectual property rights, I am facing the reality in which we live. Digital media and digital networks are in the process of rendering large swathes of intellectual property rights completely moot. A king can claim the newly discovered continent of North America all he wants, but if he can't enforce that claim it might as well not exist.

There are serious questions confronting us. We don't actually know what to replace copyright law with, if anything. We don't actually know if capitalism can survive the advent of digital media. We don't actually know if civilization can. We've never tried it before.

It's exciting, isn't it?

Friday, May 3, 2013

This Is Unsupportable

I have maundered on, on these pages, about how important it is not not let process tell us how good the work is. We must not elevate someone's art because they use salt, or film, or wet plate. We mustn't give people credit merely for hard work.

This remains firmly my opinion and, in fact, most people will tell you this is how they feel.

I am reminded of my own industry. Pundits, in fact everyone, agrees that the status quo is completely unsustainable and Something Must Be Done. Nothing is done. The industry exists because another industry generally does a shoddy job. This shoddy work, distributed broadly, enables a multi-billion dollar industry (where I work) in not doing very much effective to mitigate the effects of shoddiness. Despite the drumbeat to the contrary, it is manifestly clear that nothing whatsoever need be done in my industry. In fact, if something were done, then quite a lot of us would be out of work.

It's not that anyone's scheming to prevent progress, it's simply that human institutions don't generally solve the problems they are intended to solve. Instead, they tend to perpetuate themselves.

In some ways that are roughly similar, the art world exists as a completely artificial economy. Received wisdom about goodness of art is repeated faithfully, and then ignored. None of this stuff has any intrinsic value. All of this stuff is assigned values on a purely arbitrary basis by what are basically emergent gatekeepers. It is painfully clear that hard work is a significant input into the value-assigning process.

Given two randomly selected artists who produce work that is adequate, that is marketable within the current milieu, made by artists capable of producing more related work at a desirable pace, the artist selected for the gallery show will tend to be the one who simply works harder. If one fellow makes wet-plate objects, and the other fellow uses Ilford paper, the first chap's getting the show. This has, partly, to do with marketability. The harder work certainly supports the illusion of greater value. Still, part of it surely has to simply be that it's merely a criterion which can be used to winnow down the altogether too enormous field.

This doesn't mean that you and I should judge work by how hard it was to make. It's just that the rest of the world will tend to. Which sort of sucks.