Thursday, August 29, 2013

On The Use of Flash

In the old old days there was always a problem with enough light to expose a photograph. Long exposures were the norm. Materials got better and more sensitive. Exposure times went down. Still, it wasn't that long ago that plenty of people used ASA 25 film for a lot of things. The solution was artificial lighting of various sorts. I don't know the whole history of artificial light, nor am I very interested in it, but there was certainly flash powder, and various single use bulbs, and then electronic strobes and so on.

All of this stuff was built and used from the point of view of "we need some more light on this person, on this object." Things have changed and are continuing to change, we now have absurdly high ISOs in our digital equipment, and can make outstanding pictures with sensor sensitivities that would have seemed pure science fiction 20 years ago, or even 10. The pace does not seem to be slacking, we're promised ever more sensitivity in the future, albeit sometimes with exotic technologies which may never see the light of day.

This can and should lead to a change in attitude. Not a change in actual usage, just the way we think about it.

Splashing light all over the subject is no longer necessary. What is necessary is to create and manage shadows. I think of flash as creating darkness. You should too. Flash is useful because it lights up part of the subject, not because it lights up the whole subject. This creates a shadow in the part it didn't light up.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Film, Digital, Whatever

In sailboat racing we do fairly absurd things to make our boat faster. We might sand the hull with 1500 grit sandpaper, for instance. The difference in actual boat speed is minuscule and in essentially no circumstances will make the slightest difference over using, say, 800 grit sandpaper. We do it anyways. The reason, I like to say, is that while it does not make the boat faster, it makes us faster. Rituals like these give us confidence, they connect us to the processes of sailboat racing, they help us get tuned into the boat.

In the same way, using film over digital, or using sheet film rather than roll film, or using a insanely expensive medium format digital back instead of wet-plate, or anything whatsoever that we choose, makes us better photographers. Film doesn't inherently make a better picture than digital, or vice versa. What makes a better picture is a better photographer. What makes a better photographer, in part, is a photographer who is happy and in tune with his or her methods and materials. A photographer who loves mucking around in photoshop will make better pictures with a digital process. A photographer who really likes messing with poisonous chemicals will do better work in wet-plate.

Just as sailboat racing isn't all about getting in tune with your boat, just as sailboat racing is mostly about mastering a suite of complex and interrelated skills, photographer isn't all about methods and materials. You still have to put things into the frame well, you still have to expose the ... whatever it is you're using .. . properly, there's still a mass of technique to master. Still, without being in love with your methods and materials, you'll never fully realize your potential, whatever that is.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Needs Fill"

One of the single most common critiques made in an internet forum I frequent is:

needs fill

which often stands in for:

you didn't use a flash to take this picture of a person, and therefore it sucks

To be fair, sometimes it does mean "needs fill" but even then it's wrong.

There are several things going on here. At least, but not limited to:
  • pros use lights, therefore to get a professional look you must use lights.
  • contemporary lighting has wildly open shadows, so a contemporary look has just enough lighting ratio to produce modeling.
  • the use of diffused lighting flatters the skin in a couple of ways.

Experiment: Take any old snapshot of a person. Use a curves adjustment to lift the skin tones and reduce contrast in the skin tones (grab the middle of the curve and lift straight up a little). Then apply any sort of skin smoothing effect you like, for example duplicate the layer, blur it slightly, and make the blurred layer quite translucent. Poof. You're 90% of the way to a contemporary portrait look, because the contemporary portrait look isn't about the lighting at all. All, amazingly, without the use of fill light/reflector of any kind.

When we see a picture of someone just standing around outside, there are a bunch of "tells" that this is not a professional photograph, that this was not shot with a softbox or beauty dish. There's an assumption in play that everyone want to make pictures that look like professional portraits: magazine covers, wedding portraiture, school pictures, corporate headshots, and so on. These things are always subject to contemporary standards, and currently that standard has several properties. The hidden assumption is that this family of "looks" is correct, and other looks are incorrect.

Fill flash, or the use of a reflector, produces some but not all of those properties. Which is where the idiotic parroting of "needs fill" comes from.

Professional lighting is about having lights, not about where you put them. There's a name for pretty much anyplace you put them, after all. Some placements flatter some subjects but not others. Some placements flatter no subject at all. Any placement at all produces a modest degree of "professional look". Because pros use lights, your pictures don't look professional without lights, and everyone wants to make pictures that look like what the pros are crapping out this week, right?

How much of the contemporary look is caused by simply possessing a great pile of lights? When you've got a beauty dish left, a couple softboxes right, something on the background, and a hair light, and you're not out of monolights, what are you to do? One thing you do is you throw more lights into the mix. If all you have is 1000 hammers, everything looks like 1000 nails. Now you've got light all over the place and, lo, the shadows are mostly obliterated. Pores and other skin texture vanishes under the assault of a dozen diffused lights. Now your picture looks a bit like a contemporary "Good Housekeeping" cover. Congratulations. I guess.

Obviously professional portraiture isn't all silly, in fact it's quite complicated and can be done very very well. The point is there's a specific look that the "needs fill" remark is referring to, that has nothing much to do with how good the picture is. The look applies to terrible portraits as well as excellent ones, and to all the ones in between.

Can you imagine people looking at Rembrandt's paintings, clucking their tongues, and saying "needs fill"? I can, and then I smile because I am imagining Rembrandt punching these dolts in the face repeatedly.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why does Art have to "Say Something?"

I think there's a pretty wide-spread misconception about Art and how it communicates. Either that, or I labor under the opposite misconception. In any case, one of the common refrains from people who fancy themselves too down to earth to put up with that Artsy Fartsy Crap is "why must art Say Something" or "what is this about Meaning" and so on. A common theme in these complaints appears to be the notion that meaning, saying something, speaking to me, are more or less literal.

Successful Art does not encode small chunks of text. When I say that a piece "speaks to me" I do not mean that I can summarize what the piece says in a paragraph, it does not mean that I hear a tiny voice whispering in my ear. The "message" of a piece does not take the form of a telegram. Indeed, any piece that can be summarized on a slip of paper is arguably a failure. If that's all the artist has to say, why didn't he or she simply write it on the aforementioned slip of paper?

When the down to earth no-nonsense gentleman says "this message business is crap! it should be enough that the piece makes me feel something", people like me can only gape, slack-jawed. That's what the "message business" is, it's the part where it makes you feel something, or think something, or desire something.

The language is confusing, I will grant you. We speak, almost always, as if Art is supposed to be communicating telegram style, but that's simply not what we mean.

Friday, August 23, 2013

An Experiment in Curation

Over on ToP, Mike's running a fascinating experiment (see that link, and then later posts with the first cut of edited pictures and so on).

What makes this interesting to me is that it presents something of a solution to the "age of a trillion pictures" problem: How on earth shall we find new, good, work? We can simply dip in at random to the stream of pictures. We can do some sort of word of mouth thing, perhaps. It's not clear what results any of those will produce.

What Mike has done is:
  • start with a relatively small group of very interested, serious people: his regular readers (maybe 100,000 people? small-ish)
  • give them a theme and a narrow time window
  • receive on the order of 1000 pictures
  • edit that down to a small batch

Mike's audience is big enough to contain some genuinely "new artists" whatever that means, interested and serious enough to contain a high percentage of pretty good artists, and and small enough to produce a manageable set of pictures to start from.

As of this writing, he's posted a few dozen of the best, sifted from the submissions he's received. The work is truly excellent.

The question is, can this be replicated? Can you bottle it? If you can, this could be a significant channel for "breaking" new artists in this brave new world of a trillion photographs. That would be nice.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I am a Pictorialist

Here's a picture I made. I rarely post pictures at all, and even more rarely pictures I took. But there's a point here.

There is a little story here, with some lessons. I have been eyeing this little tableau for some days, pondering the light as one does. I decided that what it needed was a shadow. The shadow that, in fact, it has. My first thought was to wait until the sun was in the right spot and then hold up a piece of cardboard to cast this shadow. SACRILEGE! But whatever. In any case, the sun was failing to co-operate. The sun does not hit the wall at all until it is almost overhead. The angles are completely wrong, even though I am willing to shove an object in there to cast a shadow.

This is where I am a Pictorialist. The light you see is actually a mixture of overcast open shade, and a Vivitar 285 flash shot over a carefully positioned hunk of cardboard I pulled out of the recycle bin around the corner. This is not a found scene at all, this is constructed. There's no picture here without the shadow, in my opinion. This picture certainly does not exist without the shadow, at any rate. So, I put the shadow in.

It reads as real, it is pictorial, it is convincing. It is faked, but so what?

Lesson 1: I am a pictorialist.
Lesson 2: Flash can add darkness just as easily as it can add light, and darkness may be a more powerful idiom.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Pattern Language

I am reading A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction which is a 1977 text on everything from urban design to how to select trim around windows. It's a fascinating read that is also, basically, a political tract in disguise. Anyways, the point of the book is that it presents its material as a set of interconnected Patterns. Each Pattern is a problem of creating spaces that humans can live in happily and well, together with the sketch of a solution. Each Pattern fits in to, can be deployed as part of, the solution to one or more higher level patterns. Each pattern's solution is expressed, as much as possible, in terms of how to use lower-level patterns to build the solution. The way you build the world is thus using these Patterns. Each of those patterns is thus and uses or may use these Patterns and works together with that Pattern and that one. The Patterns form a mesh of idioms and ideas.

This seems to be, and I think it is, a useful way to think about photography. One might have a pattern Well Defined Subject which is simultaneously a desired feature in many photographs, and a problem to be solved in those pictures. One might use a Contrasting Values pattern to separate the subject from the background or a Selective Focus pattern to do the same thing. The Contrasting Values pattern might be itself solved by a High Lighting Ratio pattern, and/or some other patterns.

It is clear to me that that which can be codified about photography could be codified by a Pattern Language of this sort. The question that arises is whether doing so would be a good idea. Would this be good pedagogy? I am unsure, but suspect not. Pattern Languages are mesh-structured, and pedagogy is best accomplished in a more or less linear fashion. Certainly A Pattern Language for Photography would be an interesting artifact, but I'm not sure what use it would be. I could certainly use it as a platform for pushing my ideas, and I almost certainly would -- or perhaps will.

Something we can take away, though, is this. The book I am reading talks about the poetry of the language and makes the point that often what makes a poem good is that there are layers of meaning in the words. There is a density of message that is desirable in artistic things. Similarly, there is a density of meaning and message that is desirable in architecture. If a single room can be built to satisfy multiple overlapping patterns, then it will satisfy more of the problems of being a pleasant, useful, compatible space for humans. It will be a better room, a room we spend more time in and take more pleasure in.

Similarly, a photograph that simultaneously contains multiple patterns is likely to be stronger. If we have a subject, and we separate it with selective focus and with contrasting tones, then the subject will jump out even more powerfully. A portfolio that uses multiple methods for creating coherence and interest will be more coherent and interesting. Of course in photography, as in architecture, as in poetry, there are limits. Still, we can take this away and think about it. Don't be satisfied with a single solution to your visual problem, to your problem of conveying meaning, to your problem of documenting what is. Are there multiple ways to solve your problem, and can you use them together, and will they reinforce one another in a good way?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Portfolios

In my little book I have some words about portfolios, and applying the ideas of Balance, Unity, and Variety to them to build a portfolio that is both interesting and coherent. It occurred to me today that there's another axis along which we can in theory build portfolios, by analogy with how we make pictures.

An approach to making a picture is to arrange the visual elements in a hierarchy of interest, of visual prominence. Some element is brought forward as the main thing, the brightest object, the highest contrast area, the most arresting element. Other visual elements are subordinated. There may be other bright areas, other areas of saturated color, other interesting objects, but they are a little suppressed. Arguably, it is the artist's job to create this visual hierarchy, to make the picture read well and be easy to look at, coherent.

Backing out even a little further, let's consider musical composition. In a composition of any length and complexity, there tend to be themes, small melodies repeated and layered against one another. The piece will build to crescendos. There will be passages that are important, and passages that are less important, less dominant. Again we see this hierarchy appearing.

Should portfolios be organized in the same way? I think we tend to simply chuck all the best pictures into the portfolio, and try to arrange them for coherence, but we do our very best to deny that some pictures are more important or better than other ones. This is perhaps a mistake. Perhaps we should build a portfolio around a small handful of the important pictures, the pictures that summarize the portfolio most completely or illustrate the ideas most powerfully. Around these pictures we arrange pictures which support those ideas, that repeat and reinforce those ideas and visual themes, but in a subordinate way.

Possibly I am simply reinventing something perfectly well known by anyone with the relevant education?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Watch This Video

This video is, by a wide margin, the best discussion of photographic composition I have seen on the web. He doesn't mention the rule of thirds once, nor a Golden anything. Instead, he actually talks about composition:

It's extremely refreshing, and interesting. Also, much is revealed about Henri Cartier-Bresson when you start looking at the pictures from a design perspective, from the point of view of a painter or a sculptor.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Devoid Of Meaning

I ran across a snarky remark earlier today, suggesting that lots of people make photographs that are utterly devoid of meaning. The remark was clearly meant as a jibe and not as a literal statement, but as these things do it got me to thinking. How would one make a picture that was truly devoid of meaning?

It's fair to say, I think, that you'd have to remove meaning for both the photographer and for most viewers. Some viewers will simply project meaning on to a picture, and there's nothing you can do about that, so let's set those meanings aside. Such a picture would, generally speaking, produce no emotional response, no particular sense of recognition, no particular memory in anyone looking at it. It would be permitted, like an inkblot, to generate some random associations. This is all a little vague, to be sure.

If I point a camera at something and press the shutter button, there's generally a reason for it. I thought whatever it was is worth recording. If I remember that moment, then the picture has a little emotional resonance for me. Perhaps some sort of random process could be introduced to eliminate this? I could simply start the self timer, press the button, and wave the camera around while talking to a friend? Really, I'd have to do this a lot, in many different contexts, and then shuffle the pictures. A randomly selected picture would be an indistinct blur, perhaps, with no particular connection to any specific moment, but only to the experiment itself of trying to shoot something truly random.

A robot of some sort might do it as well. Do traffic cameras take pictures completely devoid of meaning? Except for the pictures in which a viewer might recognize their own car, or a specific incident, I suppose.

It can be done, it's not even terribly hard, but the experiment of thinking through how one might produce a picture with zero meaning is, I think, pretty interesting and informative. Try it yourself! Photographs have power it turns out. However lightly we take them, they trace a moment in time accurately, and the fact that the moment is preserved in amber for us has power.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Message, Meaning, Piffle

I recently ran across what I suppose is a fairly common attitude.

Why do people insist that a picture should have meaning? Why must it evoke emotion? Why can't it just be a good picture?!!!!

The sticky bit here arrives when you try to get a handle on "just be a good picture." Looking closely at what a good picture might be, where by "closely" I mean anything but the most superficial examination, you find that a good picture has to make some sort of connection with the viewer. With many viewers, in fact.

You could argue, I suppose, that a picture can be good if it's sharp, if the composition meets certain geometrical demands, if the colors are sufficiently vibrant. This would be a frankly bizarre argument, but I suspect that it is the road many would start down in trying to rebut me. You might start down it, but would quickly realize that it's a a dead end. Technical merits in the absence of emotional connection do not a "good picture" make, there's simply no denying it.

If a picture makes a connection with a viewer, it's evoking a feeling or telling a story, or something. Something is happening inside the viewer's mind. That's the point. That's a minimum criterion for a good picture.

That's why it's not enough just to be a good picture -- there's no such thing as just a good picture, without message, meaning, emotional connection of some kind.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Composition, Then and Now

As I continue to read older texts on composition and painting, I am struck by just how completely different they are from modern books on photography. It occurs to me that what is lacking in the modern photography book's discussion of composition is systematization.

A modern reference on photography will happily give you a system for exposure (e.g. Expose To The Right) with a very thorough set of instructions. It's a complete system, based on a model of how digital sensors work. You start from some ideas about How Things Work, and some ideas about what kinds of results you want (e.g. As much tonal range as possible, with as little noise as possible) and then you build a set of procedures that will produce that result. It's pretty straightforward.

Composition enjoys no such system, in the modern world of photography. You get instead, a disconnected and self-contradictory set of tips and tricks. You get endless rules for where to stick the subject which, when taken all together, mean to not stick the subject in the middle. You get a jumble of material on leading the eye, with some vague hints about where you might lead the eye. There is sometimes some dubious material about How Things Work in the form of some generally bogus discussion of how our brains or eyes work, which may or may not eventually be connected to a tip or a trick. Usually something about leading lines, or something silly, akin to "how purple triangles make us feel cold."

Older texts do give a complete system of composition, based on a model. They generally start out with a pretty thorough, albeit dated, discussion of aesthetics, what is beautiful, what is sublime, and so on. They proceed from there to break these down into more specific bits and pieces that might work together to produce, for instance, beauty. They work through a large number of what we might call worked examples -- well known paintings, generally. The whole produces a method, or a set of interacting methods, which produce pleasing compositions. The trouble, from the perspective of the amateur photographer, is that at some point in these systems taste comes in to play. You cannot simply look at some numbers and charts, turn the dial until the needle touches the widget and press the shutter button. You have to have taste, and you have to use it. Which means that you have to have developed taste. Which means that some people simply aren't ever going to be as good at it as other people. Which means you cannot guarantee that you will become excellent at it simply by practicing.

Composition isn't HDR, or focus stacking, or macro photography, or star trails, or a collection of photoshop skills. It isn't exposure. It isn't any of these technical skills which can simply be taught to, and fully mastered by, anyone with enough will, enough time, and a minimum of intellectual horsepower.

There is no royal road to compositional skill. You've got to slug it out with other people's pictures, and there's no denying that you might never be terribly good at it. Almost anyone can become passably good at it, though. We can't all be concert pianists, but almost anyone can learn to play passably.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work: A Pictorial Guide

Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work
A Pictorial Guide
Edited by Marianna Fulton Margolis.

This book is intended as a more or less academic index to the pictures in Alfred Stieglitz' seminal quarterly "Camera Work", published from 1903 to 1917 over a total of 50 issues. The present book contains all 559 pictures reproduced in that periodical, in chronological order. They are neatly indexed, and contain some somewhat compressed but useful notes on such things as the reproduction method used (in the original) for each picture. There are some opening notes that give some context, and which explain the system of notation throughout. At the end several indices are found: By artist, by title, and by sitter.

I am personally not terribly interested in this book itself, although it is clearly a useful and important resource for the relevant historians. I am interested in the book for the pictures it contains. It takes almost no research whatsoever to learn that "Camera Work" is among the most important bodies of work in the history of photography, especially photography as art. Even in the broader context of Art as Art, it is not an unimportant body of work, as it brought forth not only a great body of photography but also other works by Matisse, Rodin, and Picasso (at least).

My edition of this book has four pictures per page, on a pretty big page, which yields pictures perhaps 3 to 5 inches on a side. The reproductions in this book are also suspiciously similar looking in their renditions. Whether this simply reflects the aesthetic of "Camera Work" itself, or is in part the result of some of the pre-press handling of the pictures for this book, I do not venture to guess. Regardless, this is not really a book to get for the quality of the reproductions. They are adequate, but not excellent. Happily, most of the pictures in here are superb enough to stand up well in spite of less than perfect reproduction. The stylistic choices made by the artists are perfectly clear. Some hint of the various photographic processes used in the originals comes through, enough to get the flavor of it. Seeing some originals, by way of giving you some visual information to fill in the gaps, as it were, would do you no harm. But, as a for instance, I had no trouble instantly recognizing the work for Frederick Evans, even though no platinum was used in these reproductions.

The book's very compactness lets the reader quickly skim the entire body of work represented by "Camera Work", which is a very useful and interesting experiment to perform. What strikes me most about the work is the small evidence of progression. Much has been made of Stieglitz' evolution as a photographer and an editor, but it is frankly not particularly apparent in this book. There is some evolution. Surely some evolution is obscured by the non-chronological nature of the works presented, the magazine would back-track from time to time, to show us older work. Nonetheless, there is, to my eye always greater variation between the artists shown than between the early issues and the late. A few ideas drop out over time, there are no heavily manipulated negatives, no masses of scratches, by the later issues, for instance. For the most part, though, a great breadth of excellent work is shown, and the excellent work in 1917 was not all that visually different from the excellent work in 1903.

The lone exception, and it is an exception, is that Paul Strand's work dominates the end. The last issue (possible several issues?) were all Paul Strand. This does not strike the reader as particularly the endpoint of an evolution, but rather another radical leap in a new direction, similar to the magazine's reproductions of paintings and so on. Strand's work is almost completely different from almost everything else in the periodical. It's possible, though, that this last stage has been viewed as the last stage of a natural evolution. It's even possible that it is, and that the other stages are simply not clear to me.

Readers with suitable backgrounds will already know that "Camera Work" was a major outlet for Pictorialists. The magazine published dozens of portraits inspired by Rembrandt, and dozens of scenes inspired by JWM Turner. Not all the pictures in "Camera Work" look like paintings, but a lot of them do. What's missing, happily, is the worst of the Victorian sentiment.

This is, to my eye, the "good stuff" of the Pictorialist aesthetic. Photographs that look like paintings, nothing more, nothing less. Good photographs, not crummy fake looking messes.

They're really pretty good.

They look almost nothing like anything being shot today.

Buy this book! It's cheap, and good, and will be a wonderful addition to your library, caveats indicated above.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My Book!

As remarked in an earlier post, I wrote a book.

I have sold twenty copies of the thing! That is about 15 more than I was expecting. I only know for sure who bought two of them, although I suspect another few copies have gone to friends and acquaintances who are too discreet to mention it. If I sell about another 125, amazon might cut me a check! Also, I have garnered two reviews, both 5 stars (i.e. excellent). I am irrationally pleased.

See also the Schwag page off to the right, if you would like to join the groundswell of enthusiasm.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Instagram Effect

Instagram is a service which allows smartphone owners to apply cheesy canned effects to pictures, and to share the results in a social network sort of way. As of this writing it is the most popular of several similar applications and systems for doing more or less this. It is also roundly denounced by many who style themselves serious photographers.

The point, for my purposes here, of these services and systems, is that they are specifically built to transform pictures of things into pictures which are themselves things to look at, in to what is in some sense Art. The point is not that the result is any good, the point is that the picture is now an object unto itself, it is no longer merely a representation of what was in front of the lens at the instant the shutter fired. The picture is transformed, however superficially, from a representation of the thing photographed, into a photograph to be looked at for its own qualities.

The results don't matter, what matters is the intent of the photographer. By selecting an effect to apply to lousy picture of sushi, the photographer is making a purely artistic choice. It's not a big choice, it's not necessarily a good choice. It is an attempt at artistry, an attempt to create.

The message shared out in the instagram social network is not:

Look, sushi for lunch!

it is instead:

I think this sepia effect makes sushi look cool!

In the terms of the previous essay, instagram by its nature changes the way we apprehend the pictures in it, as much or more than it changes the pictures shared through it. It's not much, but it's a step toward a little more appreciation of art, a little more interest in art, and in photography as art. Instagram doesn't really generate much good art, but it might be subversively generating a society with more art in it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Apprehending Photographs and Portfolios

There are as many ways to look at, to apprehend, a photograph as there are people, at least. Still, in broad strokes, we can think about how people look at pictures.

You can look at a photograph purely as a representation of some subject. Look, a picture of grandma. Susie, standing in front of the Eiffel tower. Here, the criteria for judging are pretty much whether or not the picture is sharp enough to make out the subject, and perhaps whether or not the picture "looks pretty" in some sense. Is it a flattering picture of Susie, or does she look awful? We all look at pictures in this mode, much of the time. Most people look at most pictures most of the time, like this.

Many kinds of photographs really admit almost no other mode. Macro photographs of bugs, pictures of the moon, snapshots of our lunch. Most of the kinds of pictures I dislike, it turns out, are of this sort. We could examine them in the modes discussed in the sequel, but it would be a stretch, and we generally do not. It's also not clear what would happen if we tried. Sometimes these are technical tours de force as well as being a representation of an interesting subject, which adds a little extra something, for the camera types.

Other photographs are a more thoroughly evocative experience. They remind us of something, they make us feel a little about something, they connect us to a larger experience. Beautiful pictures of sunsets might have this effect. A good portrait might. News photographs connect us to current events, make us experience it in a way that words cannot.

Lastly, at the other end of the spectrum, there are Art photographs, whatever that means. These things are all about the emotional response, all about making us feel or think or understand something. They ask probing questions, tell us potent truths, they show us things we barely imagined. At least when they're working well, they do.

Photographs in general tend to be apprehended in a large part by their resemblance to other photos we have seen, often photographs we have seen and apprehended in that same mode. Grandma looks so much better this summer than last. That piece reminds me of that one photo of Giacommelli. I liked the portrait of Bernstein better. The situation in Egypt looks so much like it did last year. Art is compared to Art. Snapshots of birthday parties are compared to other snapshots of other birthday parties. In this age of a trillion pictures, it is almost impossible to look at a picture without feeling the influence of a massive, albeit largely unconscious, collection of other pictures we have seen.

Some photographs benefit by the comparison and the connection to the other pictures. Pictures of grandma fit into many places, not least into a narrative of grandma's life told, in part, through pictures. Pictures of sunsets are arguably supported and sustained and improved by the fleet of other pictures of sunsets we hold in our minds, as well as by the actual sunsets we have seen.

Other photographs, at other times, are ill-served by this connection, by this massive army of other pictures. There is a strong tendency to judge, in particular, Art, in terms of how much it resembles other Art. If the point is to say or show or ask something new, we find ourselves in a bit of a bind. The photographs, especially when seen by themselves, tend to represent not a new message or idea at all, but an endpoint in an evolution of images. It's as if Cindy Sherman shot landscapes in the style of Ansel Adams. It's a Westonesque take on Mapplethorpe. The picture itself is lost in the maze of comparisons and influences, real or imagined.

Thus it is that the portfolio becomes more and more important as more and more pictures are made and seen. A single picture has almost no chance of standing alone. It must be a truly remarkable picture to not be simply seen as a re-mix of previous artists and pictures.

A portfolio, though, has a much better chance of standing alone. The influence of the artist becomes more apparent through repeated stylistic elements. What seems an accident, marring the Weston homage, in one picture becomes the stylistic signature when viewed in a portfolio. The Adams influence in one picture might become a mere accident when the whole portfolio is seen -- or just as well -- the portfolio can be seen as legitimately influenced.

A portfolio of pictures, well designed, provides clarity of vision. I think an argument can be made that the age of the single photograph is over, and I think I have just made that argument. Shooting a good portfolio is leagues harder than shooting a good picture. Is that good or bad?