Sunday, July 28, 2013


I have devised a theory about art in general, and photography in particular, having to do with the way an individual viewer perceives a piece. There's a spectrum from "Tell" through "Show" to "Ask" that's in play here, somehow. What does that even mean?

Starting with "Show" it means just what it says: A picture shows us something, ideally lots of things. It shows us what is literally in front of the lens. It might show us a relationship, or an idea, or a theme. There's some room for interpretation, probably. A picture "Tells" us something if it leaves little room for interpretation. If we see the man, and we simply perceive him as angry, we might consider the picture to be Telling us that this man is angry. At the other end of the spectrum, there's more room for interpretation. There's ambiguity. The picture of the man might, rather than telling us that he is angry, might ask us "what is he thinking?"

Any art partakes of all these aspects, in various ways, at various times. The viewer, the viewer's mood, attitudes, the viewer's entire life experience, affects how the picture will Tell, or Ask that viewer.

Raising the flag at Iwo Jima tells us something, not necessarily expressible in words. It's something about war, it's something about suffering, it's something about triumph. It's something about American Exceptionalism. The Mona Lisa asks us something about this woman and her mood. Both of them show us some people.

Every piece of art asks us, implicitly, "What do you make of this?" Quite a bit of modern art seems to do little else. This is referred to as challenging the viewer, but perhaps there ought to be more to a piece than simply demanding that the viewer judge it. I'm just sayin'.

So what? I don't know, really. Sometimes it's better to tell. If your art is political, maybe one piece should tell the viewer that "this situation is intolerable", while another might ask the viewer "what shall we do about it?"

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Saving a Bad Picture

For most of us, most of the pictures we take are failures. This is normal. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we conceive a passionate desire to salvage some failed picture. Perhaps the picture is a unique picture of a unique event, or a location not to be soon re-visited. Perhaps we desire the salvage for reasons of mere whimsy.

First: Don't. Reshoot it or toss it. Second: If you must try, don't just apply a cheap effect and hope for the best. Don't tonemap it, apply a vignette, and hope that nobody will notice. Don't just turn the sharpen knob all the way to 11. The picture is bad, you are not going to make it be good.

No. You must re-imagine the bad picture as a new picture, one that is good. If you are successful, the new picture will be a different picture, it will not be the bad one repaired. By this time you have already tried and failed to fix the bad picture, it is unfixable. It is gone. There may rise from the ashes a new picture which is good, however.

First you should get straight in your own mind what is wrong with the bad picture. Since it failed, it does not meet your vision in some way or another. It might be as simple as a technical flaw, the focus is off, it's under-exposed or over-exposed. Possibly it's a more abstract problem. Regardless, get as clearly as possible in mind why this picture isn't a good one.

Next clarify in your mind what must be preserved. Is there a person or object in the picture that must be salvaged? Is there simply an idea that must be saved? Or perhaps nothing at all?

Since the flaws are un-fixable, you have two choices: embrace them, or render them irrelevant. If the picture is out of focus, imagine it as a soft picture. If it is intolerably underexposed, imagine it as a murky piece or a surreal piece. If the colors are un-fixably bad, imagine it as black and white, or as another surreal idea. Can you crop away the problem while preserving that which must be preserved? Experiment. Add grain to an intolerably noisy picture, experiment with radical adjustments and crops, see what the results look like.

Spend some time looking at other people's pictures, keep the results of your experiments in mind. Try to find pictures to look at that bear some resemblance to your experiments. Gather up other people's ideas and let them slosh around in your mind with your bad picture and the experiments and your mental list of what's wrong and what must be saved. Let the whole gestalt ferment a while. Let go of your original conception of the picture, as best you can.

You're trying to pre-visualize in the manner of Ansel Adams and his acolytes, but not a scene, instead a picture you have already made.

At some point, perhaps some re-imagining will occur to you. Count yourself and your picture lucky, go forth, and make that re-imagining. Quite likely, no such re-imagining will occur to you, or no such re-imagining will be successful. Now, having done your best, you may consign the picture to the dustbin.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I wrote a book

It's called Intermediate Photography and you can buy it for Kindle (or compatible device) by clicking here.

Nothing in it will be surprising to regular readers of this blog, but I do expand on some things and clarify others, and I bring in a bunch of material from these 19th century books on composition and painting I've been reading. It's essentially a book about composition for photographers.

There are not very many pictures in it. It's short, novella length. There is one color picture, so if your eBook reader isn't color, that example will be pretty much lost on you.

I don't expect it to sell well. To put it mildly. But by golly it's out there, so now there's no excuse for all the crummy rule of thirds golden triangle rubbish!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On the Skinning of Cats

In any walk of life, probably, but certainly in photography, we find that people boil tasks down to a recipe whenever possible.

This leads to a syndrome in which a certain recipe is presented as the one true way to accomplish some goal. Lighting, post-processing, and so on, are subject to this. You have to use a such and such device, and put it here. You have to use a something or other layer. The photography industry exacerbates this by providing for every problem an object you can buy that is intended to solve that problem. People who purchase that object now have the recipe for solving that problem, and will cheerfully tell all comers that the way, the one true way, to solve that problem is with that widget. Buy it now!

There are two problems with this.

In the first place sometimes people aren't even really looking for the solution to a very specific problem. They just want some ideas for a similar effect, sometimes achievable with what they have on hand. They don't want to get to Bangor, they just want to know what are some interesting places they can go to in Maine on this bicycle they already own. Your specific instructions, involving buying a certain model of Mercedes-Benz automobile and a GPS, for getting to Bangor, are not very helpful.

In the second place, there is often a plethora of ways to solve the specific problem at hand. Even if I do actually want to get to Bangor, I probably don't need your Mercedes-Benz. A bus might get me there, too. Or it might get me to a place that's enough like Bangor not to matter.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. And, sometimes, people don't even want to skin the cat at all.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cotton Tenants: Three Families

There's a new book out, entitled Cotton Tenants: Three Families, which is James Agee's original article for "Fortune" magazine that was rejected and then grew into the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I may have more to say on it later, but I'd like to make one note here:

James Curtis' book reviewed here makes the suggestion that Walker Evans placed a cheap alarm clock of his own on the mantel for a photograph, and accuses Evans of fakery. This claim is repeated and investigated by Errol Morris in his recent book, Believing is Seeing. Both books repeat the claim that Agee's text does not mention the alarm clock as evidence that it did not belong to the tenant farmers, and that therefore, well, where did it come from?

Both books are wrong, the clock is mentioned in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men albeit somewhat obliquely. It makes reference to a noise marking time a time that is two hours fast (or slow, the reference is unclear). This is fairly easy to miss, but the fact that this reference is there suggests that neither Curtis not Morris bothered to seriously check the claim that the clock is not mentioned. Morris goes rather far, identifying the exact brand of clock on the picture, dates during which is could have been bought new, and what it would have cost. He doesn't bother to read the damned book though.

In Cotton Tenants we find a footnote that states unambiguously that the families described in the book each owned a cheap alarm clock, which they kept religiously wound, but which did not tell anything like the correct time, being a couple of hours off.

In short, Curtis and Morris are both simply spinning a web of speculation, based on something one of Curtis' students told Curtis (that the clock was not mentioned in the book -- what the student clearly meant was "I checked the inventory of the things on the mantel on such and such a page and there's no clock" and not "I read the book with a modicum of care to see if the clock was cited, and it was not").

I find this sort of sloppy work irritating, and am bitterly pleased that Agee happened to write such a perfectly clear and direct footnote, rubbing these scholarly noses in their crummy work from beyond the grave, as it were.

Friday, July 5, 2013


I shot a portfolio: a bunch of flower pictures.

After determining a few months ago that I was a dilettante and simply not well suited to staying on task enough to actually shoot a coherent portfolio of material, of course I immediately got an idea and starting shooting one. It's not a great essay on man's inhumanity to man, but I think there's some pretty nice pictures in it.

This was also a little voyage of discovery for me. It turns out that I am a pictorialist of sorts. This might be related to ny constant plugging of Henry Robinson lately.

I'll probably reward myself with a blurb book soonish. Maybe I'll even let members of the public buy it, so I can be astonished at the complete lack of reception. After all, now that I am up to dozens and dozens of hits a month on this blog, perhaps it's time to start monetizing it!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Camera Enthusiasts and Photographers

There are camera enthusiasts, and there are photographers, and then there's a whole spectrum between the two. There's no problem with that, it's a big beautiful world full of interesting people and things. The trouble arises, as always, when people confuse one thing with another.

There are lots of people who don't much like pictures, they like cameras. They enjoy the technical side of things, perhaps they like to take pictures of bugs and pictures of the moon, and they like monkeying around with gear and software. That's great, more power to 'em. Some of these people, however, get the idea that they are authorities on Photography with a capital P, and run around giving advice.

The flip side, the more artistically inclined giving technical advice happens as well. We see people randomly recommending Lomographic equipment, or expired film, or sketchy old lenses. These people also think they are authorities on Photography with a capital P, and, worse, tend to assume they hold the moral high ground because they are Artists, after all, just look at their blurry pictures.

Know who you are and what you like. But more than that, try to pay attention to other people and figure out what they are as well. A camera enthusiast receives artsy advice just about as well as the artist receives technical advice.