Monday, September 30, 2013

The Critique Echo Chamber

I am on the record as being something of a fan of having people critique your pictures. Increasingly I am thinking that having a bunch of photographers do so is less valuable in some ways, since photographers bring a lot of prejudices and ideas to the table which can get in the way. These present remarks are about one of the more irritating ways this can occur.

It will from time to time happen that somebody who knows what they are talking about will periodically mention some flaw. "This photograph suffers because of X" where X is some feature, technical choice, whatever. If photographs are regularly harmed by X, whatever it is, this expert may mention it fairly frequently. This is important: X is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just that X is something that's not working in these pictures. The expert has at no time made any universal claim about X.

This is where it gets irritating. People in the audience, as it were, will reason as humans are wont to reason, from the specific to the general. They may tend to conclude that X is universally bad.

Because of the nature of critique, we usually get a litany of flaws with, perhaps, a token positive note here and there. In particular, we may never ever see the factor X mentioned in a positive light. It is in fact not completely unreasonably to conclude that X is universally bad -- every single time it is mentioned, it is mentioned as a flaw, after all.

The underlying problem here is trying to convert Art into a set of rules and algorithms. The people who reason that X is universally bad are making a reasonable deduction, but their entire approach to photography and pictures is flawed. They want, as camera enthusiasts, to have a set of rules they can follow to make Good Pictures, and "don't do X" is clearly a rule they can add to their little Manual Of Art.

Then, to everyone's amusement, they begin to trot out "don't do X" as critique of their own. Less amusingly, entire communities can take up these rules, reinforcing one another. It's a bit like a School of Art, only even more stupid and annoying.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Dishonesty of Straight Photography

Somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century, "straight photography" became the dominant mode of photography. I think it was a backlash and so on, whatever. I don't really care all that much about the history. The point is that for the last 100 years or so the default setting for photography has been: sharp, in focus, exposed to give detail throughout the tonal range. That is, pictures which show us as much as is technically possible about what was actually in front of the camera.

This is not to say that straight photography is all there is or has been. I mean only that other styles are viewed as relative to straight photography. Straight photography is the dominant thing. If you want to be "edgy" or "creative" start doing something else. Further, photojournalism and other reportage genres are all straight.

The trouble is, a straight photograph isn't any more honest than a.. bent one. In fact, it's arguably less honest. By presenting itself sharp and clear, with details in the highlights and the shadows, and with a fleet of social conventions attached, we take a straight photograph as truthful. It is in fact no more truthful than any other photograph. Straight photography methods allow the photographer to paint a veneer of truthiness on anything. A bent photograph might be more honest, more truthful, and more real. What newspaper today would publish a photograph that shows what it felt like to be there over a straight photograph that does nothing of the sort. See also Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier", which would be much lesser as a straight photograph, which might have been staged, but which may be the single greatest photojournalistic shot ever made.

I rather hope that we are on the verge of a new idea of photography, one which finally steps away from straight as the standard. With instagram filters, with easy digital processing, with any number of approaches and idioms in play, one at least can imagine a new generation of society which treats photographs with a skepticism as well as a little more art. One can imagine a future, I suppose, in which the New York Times publishes an honest picture of what it felt like to be there over a dishonestly cropped straight photograph that supports a lie about what it was to be there.

That might be pushing it, though..

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Advertising and Social Media

I'm not an ad guy. Still, there's some stuff that you can figure out that's pretty obvious when you live in an advertising-steeped culture like mine. Ads serve at least two purposes. The first is to directly sell stuff, to induce you to go out and buy a thing. The second is to create an idea in you, and more generally in society, about some brand or product. BMW's advertising is rarely trying to induce me to go buy a car. BMW's advertising is almost entirely about creating and maintaining a widely held belief that BMW automobiles are of high quality, and are fun to drive. Internet ads have traditionally focused on the first one, which isn't as important, and internet ads are pretty unsuccessful anyways. The result is that internet advertising is kind of going in the crapper according to some analysts, as of this writing. I'm interested in the second one right now.

We are dramatically influenced in our beliefs by what we perceive as the beliefs of our peers and our friends. To a large extent, our beliefs are roughly the average of what we perceive as the beliefs held by "people like ourselves." If you were, for instance, to hand out plain white flyers that read simply:

People like you are saying that Geffenmacht cars are incredibly luxurious.

the result a month or so after is almost certainly that some people would think that this entirely fictional brand of automobile was quite luxurious. I don't know if anyone has done this specific experiment, but I bet it would work, and there's tons of science that says stuff kind of this sort pretty much works much better than you'd think it does. We are much simpler creatures than we imagine we are.

Obviously this is some sort of network effect. If BMW can convince many of my peers and friends that their cars are fun to drive, if they can convince people with whom I feel connected, they are well on their way toward convincing me that BMW cars are fun to drive. Whether BMW cars are in fact fun to drive is largely beside the point, although if it is true it makes the job of convincing people that much easier.

Network effect. Social network. Wait a second!

We're starting to see advertisers using "user created content", which is to say pictures from instagram and the like, in their advertisements. Of course this will resonate with the customers. These are real people, people like me, enjoying that product in a real setting. This is true. I feel this is only the tip of the iceberg, however.

Let us suppose that you want to create the idea that your new energy drink, POWJUS, is a great drink at parties. What if you could arrange for certain pictures on instagram or facebook, the pictures of parties in which a bottle of POWJUS appears, to be featured in someone's feed with somewhat greater probability. What if, when I log in to my social media network of choice, I am shown somewhat more often than random, pictures of my friends and peers drinking POWJUS at parties? This can be done with software. There will be some misses, the software may occasionally identify a cloud as a bottle of POWJUS and a herd of buffalo as a party, but we're talking about just nudging things up in the rankings a bit, so they appear somewhat more often. Some misses is OK.

I'll tell you this, if it's not being done already it's because someone's asleep at the switch. This stuff ain't even hard. It's all very well to push tweets about how awesome Coca-Cola is forward. How much better is it to push forward actual real true pictures of people just like me drinking Coca-Cola, driving BMWs, and smoking Marlboros? I can see it. It's real. It's true. My peers actually do all those things and, apparently, they do them quite a lot.

Mission accomplished! You just can't buy this kind of exposure! Oh, wait, actually, now you can.

Welcome to the future!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ansel Adams: Pictorialist

It is received wisdom that Ansel Adams rejected pictorialism. It is received wisdom that the the f/64 group formed at least in part in opposition to pictorialism. I have made the claim here and there in passing that Ansel Adams was in fact a pictorialist, and here I'm going to spend a little time digging in to that a bit more.

First of all let's distinguish between pictorialists and pictorialism. At the time Adams and f/64 were rejecting pictorialism, the movement had become one of muddy, blurry, scratched up pictures. There were a wide set of techniques in play, mostly it seems to bring some notion of physical work into the picture making process, and perhaps to ensure that each picture was a unique object like a painting. There was some sort of effort to make photographs which felt like fine art, created by an artisan with his own hands. This, as far as I can tell, is what Adams and f/64 rejected, it was a rejection more of pictorialists and contemporary pictorial technique than of pictorialism per se.

What is pictorialism? Well, according to Henry Peach Robinson, loosely interpreted, it is making photographs that look like paintings. The photographs, according to Robinson, should read as "real" whether they are or not (note that this criterion seems eventually to have been abandoned by many working pictorialists). Manipulation is OK, as long as the result appears truthful. Pictures should be beautiful, they should have the properties of repose and breadth, the pictures should invoke the sublime perhaps. These are all ideals of 19th century painting. There is none of this edgy business here, it's all about beauty and peace and virtues and so on. Pictorialism was also rightly accused of a sort of mawkish sentimentality. Robinson and his contemporaries certainly made sentimental Victorian twaddle about virtue and dying and so on. There was a fair bit of worship of nature and the past going on, as well. Natural things are good, old things are good. New things, things which taste of the modern hand of man are worth neither painting nor photographing.

What about Adams, now? Looks like paintings? Why, yes. If J.M.W. Turner had used only grey paints, his paintings would be practically indistinguishable from Adams' photographs, apart from the human figures Turner liked which Adams did not. Repose, breadth, the sublime, and beauty? All there in the frame. There's nothing edgy about an Adams picture, and they are very beautiful. Sentimental? My goodness yes, the most breathless sort of nature worship suffuses all the most popular pictures. While Adams lacks Robinson's Victorian obsession with death, Adams merely replaces that sentiment with a blind adoration of mountains, trees, and streams. Did Adams consider manipulation OK as long as the result "read" as true? Why yes, yes he did. While he did not paste in new skies, he didn't have to what with his fancy new panchromatic emulsions.

Adams' photographs are awash in the techniques of 19th century composition, he has strong diagonals, he places light tones next to dark to tell you what to look at, every frame is wonderfully balanced. All the specific methods used by painters to manage the viewer's experience of the frame, and to create feelings of repose and invoke the sublime are present in spades. Adams photographs make an almost perfect accompaniment to Robinson's seminal Pictorial Effect in Photography (excepting the sections on portraiture).

Adams arguably rejected the techniques and the look of his contemporary pictorialists, but there's just no way he wasn't a pictorialist.

Interestingly, Edward Weston to my eye was nothing of a pictorialist. His work is completely different, and looks nothing like 19th century painting. It's unsentimental, it is occasionally edgy. Also, it's pretty much entirely about sex.

For those of you who might be fans of 1970s rocks, Weston reminds me of old Aerosmith (sex, sex, sex, occasional drug use with sex, more sex) and Adams puts me in mind of post-reunion Aerosmith (unendurably mawkish ballads and hardly any sex at all and definitely no drugs -- but really well made power rock).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Gross Oversimplification

I'm muddling around thinking about Art, and Kitsch, and things of that sort. Here's a gross oversimplification:
  • Fine Art gives us the old content, old ideas, old meaning, with a new look or style.
  • Commercial Art gives us new content, new ideas, with the same old look or style.
  • Kitsch gives us the same old content with the same old look or style.

Something, presumably, gives us new content in a new style.

Fine Art pretends to do this, but generally does not. To succeed, Fine Art is generally a mass of references (but heavens to Betsy, it certainly isn't derivative, it's referencing previous work in a knowing fashion, not simply copying ideas. Ahem.) only this time in welded steel that has been corroded in the artist's own urine for 12 months.

Commercial Art presents new clothes, the current bride, the next generation car, almost always in an existing style or look. The PR firm pulling it together has selected a look, perhaps with a tweak "but make it more blue, and with more motion blur", and wants the artist to present the new object with the old style.

Kitsch is just the same dogs playing poker as ever, the same porcelain figurines in the same color palettes, over and over.

I suspect that anything that gives us new content, new ideas, new meanings, dressed up in a new look, a new style, is simply incomprehensible.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Truth at the corner of Design and Meaning.

This will likely be a somewhat rambling essay. I'm just trying to think some things through. By "design" here I mean, I guess, composition. Perhaps I mean it as the result of the process of composition or something. I feel like saying "design" today, rather than "composition" in any case.

Most fine artists have direct control of the design. The painter puts paint wherever he or she wants it, the sculptor removes marble or welds on steel similarly. Where randomness is used, it is used on purpose. The dancer may not be fully aware of her eyebrows, but has certainly spent a great deal of time developing such awareness.

The photographer is stuck with what's in front of the lens. You'd think that a still life photographer, like me, would be in better shape. We are, but it's not perfect. There are always things in the frame that surprise you. The still life photographer is, perhaps, in the same general area as the actor or dancer. In theory we have total control, in practice we strive for total awareness and fall short. Things turn up in every frame which we did not expect, and did not notice while shooting. Shooting anything but still life moves the photographer more and more into the realm of having to find design, rather than to create it.

What about meaning? Let us consider meaning to be whatever a piece of art communicates to the viewer, and let us assume that as an artist you have some sort of meaning in mind that you'd like to communicate.

In well made art, the design supports the meaning. Design emphasizes the parts that are important, and de-emphasizes the rest. Design directs the viewer's attention in the appropriate ways, to create the appropriate sequencing of what is experienced, and to create whatever sensations are desired.

The painter perhaps places light paint next to dark paint, to create a region of highest contrast, where the most important thing is. The photographer would like to do the same, but must wrestle with the real world to accomplish it. The photographer must wait for the light or the model to behave, or move a strobe. At best, the photographer can manage many of the elements well, and must leave a few to their own devices. Design in photographs tends to approach the ideal, but never to quite get there.

As for truth, we seem to take pleasure in found designs, in design which was not staged. Much of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work gives us this joy. There are whole genres of photography devoted to witty juxtapositions, which is really about truth in design. The dog shaped like the fire hydrant isn't as amusing placed next to the fire hydrant when we learn that the dog was in fact placed there for the picture. We can measure the degree to which we enjoy these designs as found rather than made my examining our ire when it is revealed that something was staged or in any way other than simply found as-is. As with all truth in photography, we're quite irrational about it.

Somehow, it's honest to fashion the design by moving the camera but dishonest to move the objects in the frame. Regardless, we are nearly as annoyed to learn that the design was fashioned rather than found as we are when we learn that the meaning is not literally true.

Photographs more than most other arts balance meaning and design. A poorly designed picture with potent meaning can stand well, like a technically poor singer with great emotional presence. A beautifully designed picture we permit a certain paucity of meaning, like a technically superb dancer who connects tenuously with the emotion of the piece.

The most iconic, the very best photographs, combine all three: design, meaning, and truth.

Think of a great photograph. Was it staged? Is the design excellent? Does it create an immediate and powerful emotional response in you?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Prize Winning Photographs

Camera Club prize winners, blue ribbon winners from the state fair, photos that made Explore on flickr, trending photos on 500px, and so on, and so on, and so on. I hate them all so much.

How many crisp and clear, pretty, colorful, empty frames of despair can a man stand? The landscapes are so lush and green, with perfect little clouds. The macro bugs are so sharp and colorful. The various pets are so charming, as are the children. It's like visiting an expensive suburb, but not too expensive, with the strip malls all done up with columns and red tile roofs so you hardly notice that they're strip malls with the same collection of Starbucks, Supercuts, Walgreens at one end, CVS on the other, and the funky little indy bakery that's going to go out of business pretty soon.

I haven't the heart to scream at the photographers in question as they accept their accolades, but the whole awful enterprise makes me itch.

Truth and Photographs

In my ongoing quest to grasp how we think about photographs, I have devised the following thought experiment:

You visit a gallery, online or in a venue. It doesn't matter. You view a portfolio of serious black and white work, perhaps photographs of people. Each photograph has a title and a lengthy caption that fills in the story. Taken as a whole, the portfolio teaches, it reveals, it makes you feel, it connects you to something bigger. Universal truths are more open to you now than before. It's not news, it's not a documentary essay, it's not depicting important Things or Happenings. It's more universal and abstract, but it is mighty. It is powerful, profound, and it moves you.

At the end of the gallery, you learn that the portfolio is a work of fiction. The photographs are of models or actors, the captions tell invented stories. How do you feel?

Probably you feel cheated, lied to.

Why? You might claim that the work was misrepresented, but it was not (let us suppose). You simply assumed that it was not fiction. You're not enraged by the revelation that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is fiction, are you? Or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

The point is that we view, by default, photographs as true. This is why the press uses them, not because they are true, for they are not, but because we believe them to be true.

What does it matter that a powerful image with a powerful caption is fiction? If it's not misrepresenting itself, why should we either assume that it's true, or be upset when we learn it is not? Isn't it enough that it tell its powerful story well?

I hold no moral high ground here. I'd be as mad as the next fellow. But I'd be just as wrong.

Friday, September 6, 2013

ToP Strikes Again

The Online Photographer doesn't always overlap much with things I like to write about, but from time to time Mike really writes something that I wish I'd written. This post is definitely one of those.

I will add to what Mike wrote, to point out that what really has meaning, what the piece is, if you will, is the photograph plus some text. The caption, the title, or both. Any combination creates a piece with real depth. Without any text at all, the picture is, while slightly enigmatic, not much of a picture.

This is a truly stellar example of how attached text can violently alter our perception of picture, or a piece of art. In this case, the alteration is a complete transformation from bland to powerful.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


In what follows I do not mean digital photo editing with photoshop etc. I mean picking out the good ones.

Two facts.

Most writers of any understanding know perfectly well that they cannot edit their own work with any effectiveness. There are editors out there that do this for you. There's some notion of objectivity, some notion of distance from the work, that seems to be mostly required to make most writing good, and any writing truly excellent.

When you make a photograph, you know what you intended. You know what the important things are, you know what doesn't matter. When you look at a picture you made, generally speaking, all that stuff comes back to you and you see the picture you meant to take. Sure, there are methods for getting some distance. Put the picture away for so and so many days, weeks, years, and come back to it. Those help, but unless you have a very poor memory or a very large number of pictures, you'll never quite shake the picture you meant to take, and that's what you'll tend to see instead of the picture you actually took.

Why do photographers think they can edit themselves? We all do. Many professionals are even required to. Wedding photographers shoot, edit, and produce the final set of pictures, all in one for the most part. Arguably things like weddings are easier to edit, since there's the required shots and you simply pick the from the instances of the required shots those that have the fewest technical problems, and best embody that well known picture. Arguably, though, that's a problem. Probably the results would be better if someone else did the editing.

I have argued that some photographers may be almost entirely creations of that editing process (Winogrand, Maier). We don't know, but we know that they certainly did not edit themselves, and that their work at the very least benefitted immensely from that third-party editing process.

This is an area in which critique can really help. The simple information that some picture simply isn't very good might be the most valuable thing a photographer can look for from others. When you get that, respect it. It might not be true, the viewer might be missing it, or not "getting it" or something. If you've chosen someone sensible, someone you trust, to look at your picture, you should not dismiss their view lightly.

Your editor is your friend, your editor is how you get from good to great.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Instagram's Failure

I've argued in the past that instagram and its friends are having a positive effect on.. something. One-touch art-ification software has the potential to alter the perception of a photograph from a record to a piece of art. Not necessarily good art, just not a record any more. An instagram user begins to see a picture as an artistic expression, not merely a picture of a plate of sushi.

Similarly, plugins, add-ons, and various bits of software that will make your picture look like an oil painting, or a pencil sketch, or an etching, whatever. These all have, potentially, the same perception altering effect.

What is lacking is any kind of next step. I apply a Wingo effect to my picture of my cat. The scales drop from me eyes as it were, and I begin to grasp the idea of photography as art. What do I do now? How can I do more of this? Quite briskly I will see that the Wingo effect is trite and overdone. Perhaps I move on to some other effect, but the whole thing will dry up shortly. What is the point of it all? Either I am permanently trapped in a cycle of ultimately cheesy effects, or I bore of the whole thing and the scales return to my eyes.

There is no ArtHistoryGram app for my phone that can lead me anywhere interesting.

This is in part because any reasonable next steps are hard. As I have noted over and over and over and over again, there is no royal road to Art. There is no one-click app for strong composition. Quick Tips will only go so far. However, the makers of the various "make this artsy in one click" software have abdicated any responsibility to lead their users anywhere. They provide no easy next step, however small, except perhaps in the form of an advertisement for some other one click software, or perhaps a sketchy educational establishment which will, for a fee, fill you up with Quick Tips gleaned from various web sites filled with Quick Tips gleaned from other web sites.

I have no particular solution. It does seem unfair to give people a taste of art without then offering them, if not a full meal, at least a snack.