Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Personal Journeys

This post is largely about me, but the plan is that my personal tale will provide some sort of more widely applicable ideas. It is in some ways a followup to this post.

Here is a picture I took:

I put it out there for "critique" on some random photography forum, where it was quite well received. There's some things to quibble about with it, for sure, but basically it's a very likable picture and people like it. I made it that way. I went out with malice aforethought to take a likable picture, and Seattle graced me with a good dose of luck, and here we are.

I don't like it it. At all. I hate myself a little for shooting it. That picture looks like anyone with a modicum of color and design sense could have shot it. Pictures just like it show up on flickr's Explore, and in every other photo sharing site's Trending, Hot, Buzz, Whatever lists. It's likable, and extremely generic. Pictures like it are shot by the thousands every day, and many of them don't have the technical quibbles this one is saddled with. Normally when I see a picture like this, I raise the camera to my eye, and then lower it. It's just not interesting to me.

This doesn't mean that it's bad. It's not bad, it's pretty good. It's very likable. It just doesn't look like something I shot.

Here is another picture I shot:

This was also offered for critique. Same forum. Boy was it not liked! Nobody liked it. I made it with a lot of formal structure, and I happen to think it's interesting, and I like it. Everyone else sees a big confusing dead space of nothing right in the middle and can't get past that. They don't like it, at all.

Ok, so that makes it bad, by my own standards. If more or less regular people just can't stand to look at your picture, then you're not connecting, you're not communicating, you're not garnering a reaction. The work isn't good. So be it. I still like it.

This picture looks like something I shot. It's too much to hope in this world of a trillion pictures that an aficionado could look at a picture and say a priori that it is a Molitor. It is not unreasonable that the same aficionado could look at it after learning that it is a Molitor, and discern clearly that it is consistent with Molitor's other work. It is not unreasonable that my work could be a coherent and visually related body of work.

I want to shoot things that look like I shot them, and that people like. So far, not a lot of luck. It's hard to do, since people mostly like things they've seen before, and things they've seen before don't look very individualistic.

Lots of people have no such ambitions. Some guys just want to duplicate Ansel Adams photos, and that's OK. More power to 'em. Lots and lots of people just want to make pictures that hit flickr's Explore, or similar. That's OK too. They're both technically and artistically challenging things to do.

That's just not what I want to do.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pictures and Cameras

I try to avoid industry commentary, but this particular tempest in a teapot struck some chords, and also inspired a little thinking about larger topics. I hope you don't mind.

Some people, most people, just want pictures. Some people want to possess a camera. Some people like to make pictures with a camera, that is, they want to possess pictures (like the first group) but they also want to have made those pictures. Obviously no single person falls cleanly into one camp or another, each of us partakes a little of each. Still, as elements of markets perhaps, people are primarily driven by one or the other. Let us assume, to simplify things for this little essay, that there are people who want to possess a camera for one reason or another, and there are people who want mainly to possess pictures.

In the 19th century, if you wanted a picture, you went to an artist or a photographer, you paid a fee, and a picture was made for you. If you wanted a camera, well, you could buy one of those as well, starting a few decades into the century. Many fewer people bought cameras than bought pictures. Lots and lots and lots of people bought tintypes. Lots. Many people bought cameras, so they could sell tintypes. A few people bought cameras to possess a camera, or to make art, or something.

When George Eastman brought out his Kodak in 1888, all this changed. People who wanted pictures but didn't much care about cameras could, suddenly, just go take some pictures. 10 cents apiece (3-4 dollars in today's US currency, ouch), and you controlled what the picture was of. You could take a picture of.. THAT THING RIGTHT THERE! It was wonderful. The people who just wanted pictures were suddenly empowered.

Right now there are pundits rushing around yowling about the impending death of the photography industry, or large portions of it. In this way the current times differ in no interesting ways whatsoever from any time in the last 150 years. Still, we can take a peek under the covers, a bit.

I regret that I can't find any sales figures for Eastman's camera. However, in the early 1970s we find that Polaroid was selling in the area of 5,000,000 cameras per year, while Japan is selling in the area of 2,500,000 SLR cameras per year. If we consider the average Polaroid customer to be someone who wants to buy pictures, and the average SLR customer someone who wants a camera, this suggests, very very roughly, that in the 1970s the camera-buying public was actually about 2/3 picture buyers.

More modern numbers from say 2005-2010 comparing compact digital cameras to DSLRs, with a similar assumption, suggest that 85 to 95 percent of the camera buying public is actually buying pictures, not cameras.

All this is complicated by the changing prices of things, opening and closing markets. As devices get cheaper (down to "free" with a cell phone) more and more picture buyers will get into the game, skewing the percentages toward that group. Probably. Maybe.

What does this all mean?

Right now, DSLR sales seem to have turned the corner and begun to decline. This has lead to outcries of the end of the world. The DSLR will be dead shortly!

I disagree. I think that the people who want pictures will all be using their phones in 5 years. Virtually all of them are using their phones now, the DSLR they bought 2 years ago just sits on the shelf. People who just want pictures, even good pictures, won't be buying any DSLRs ever again. So it goes. The heyday of that market has passed. The market will shrink, perhaps to as little as 10% of what it was at its peak. Given that the DSLR market is weighted toward camera people, and away from picture people already, I think the 10% number is quite conservative. Sales will drop, substantially, and then will flatten out as the market is reduced to the "enthusiasts," the people who want, mainly, to own a camera. Then the long tail begins with sales declining year to year more or less to infinity.

Same as it ever was. There's almost always a long tail. The only photographic technology I can think of that it legitimately and completely gone is dry plate, and I'm not sure about that. Everything else remains with us, and shows no sign of ever going away any time soon.

Monday, October 28, 2013


One of the most common themes in the pedagogy of photography is that it simply takes time and experience to learn to take pictures. The single most common theme, of course, is "take my workshop" so this is probably the second most common theme. We see Cartier-Bresson quoted ad nauseum to the effect that your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. We see blog posts chattering away about how there is no royal road to great pictures, and so forth. I've even written some of them. Implicit in all of these is that you can expect to be terrible for years and years and years, but keep at it, and you'll eventually become good.

Unpacking that a little, we find the planted axiom that very little about photography is teachable. You simply have to go work it all out on your own, except for a few technical things here and there which are themselves quite difficult to master.

There is, of course, a germ of truth hiding in here someplace, but most of it is complete rot.

You can learn calculus of one variable in two semesters, while taking other courses at the same time. You can learn to speak a language passably in two years, if you apply yourself. Mastering the camera is, relatively, trivial.

You can learn the details of exposure and which controls do what with about 50 well designed exposures in a decently designed program of education. It might take you an afternoon to fully grasp how your camera works, and what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO do. It will, of course, take some more time to internalize these things.

You can surely learn the basics of composition, at least enough to have a working grasp of some useful ideas, in a couple of weeks and a couple hundred more well managed exposures. I have written a handy little book based on this idea. There's an endless supply of material to learn about composition, both general ideas, as well as the specifics of certain idioms. Still, a basic toolkit of composition is short and easy to master. Again, of course, the problem of internalizing it rears its head. As an aside: here, specifically, we have a problem with masses of misinformation out there, which can really confuse the newcomer and slow forward progress.

You can learn the basics of photographic lighting in a couple of afternoons, if that sort of thing interests you. Again, there are endless permutations and idioms to learn, but a basic toolkit is compact and easy to grasp. The same issues of internalizing it apply, of course.

In short, the material you need to know to take a pretty good picture pretty consistently is maybe a month or two of work. You're not a great artist at this point, but you can take a reasonable picture much of them time, and you can recognize good ones most of the time and even explain why they're good. In fact, anyone can recognize the good ones, that's sort of the point of "good" after all, so what's important is the ability to explain why they're good.

Of course all this assumes that you're in the hands of someone who's good at teaching, and who isn't invested in the ideas that this material is years and years of labor, that it's very hard, and that you have to figure it all out yourself. It might reasonably take you more than a month or two to figure things out, but I think it is reasonable to say that if you have been applying yourself at least a little for a year, and still cannot take a properly exposed picture with the focus in the right place and which is pleasing to the eye, except by accident, something in the pedagogical process has gone horribly wrong.

The germ of truth, and what Cartier-Bresson was surely talking about, is that having mastered these technical issues you are now faced with the problem of internalizing this material, letting it become second nature to you, and of simultaneously finding your own vision and voice. These things go hand in hand. You need to discover what you like to look at, what you like to make, how to make that stuff, and how to make it without laboriously thinking through what aperture does to a picture.

This is not merely a years long process, this is a journey without end. It is arguably a lot of time to get from simply making copies of things you've seen to making things that look like your pictures. Some people get there remarkably fast, others never get there.

Still, this is the fun part. You're done with the "education" when you can take a nice picture with the exposure and focus and focal length that you want. Now you're discovering your art. Now you're "working" and not "learning" in some reasonable sense.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Amateurs and Professionals

I ran across a guy trotting out the usual "these amateurs are ruining everything" line on his blog/podcast thing recently. He's some sort of C-list pro, shoots a little bit of everything, does workshops, sells photoshop actions, the usual mess of stuff. The "these amateurs are ruining everything" line was aimed at his photographer customers, not his photography customers, of course. I'm not going to give a link, because I begrudge him even a single click.

This is a very very tired routine. Henry Peach Robinson was using it in 1869, when he was selling his book, and people selling things to photographers have been using it ever since -- and probably before, as well. It works. The message is "there are a bunch of lousy amateurs out there making terrible pictures but I am above all that, and so will you be, if only you buy my product." This is remarkable effective on photographers, who rather fancy themselves artists but frequently are not.

Here is an important point to keep in mind. Those lousy amateurs, those incompetents who wouldn't know a good picture if it fell on them? Those horrible people, that you are so much better than? Photography is their game, it's their ball and mitt, it's by them, for them, and about them. If you are a wedding photographer, or a fine art photographer, or any of those things, you need to remember that you are basically a rat living in the walls of someone else's house. Without the monied, passionate amateur, you people would still be flowing homemade collodion across glass plates. It's the passionate amateur, taking his terrible pictures, and yearning to make art or yearning to preserve his memories or his family, that has bought and paid for every technological advance.

The industry has been built, for almost 200 years, on the need to deliver easier, simpler, cheaper ways for those amateurs to follow their ugly, skinny little muses. Not only is the professional market not very big relative to the amateurs, professionals are complacent. At every step of the way, the people who have mastered the current technology: wet plate, dry plate, exploding film, roll film, digital, have wanted progress to please stop right there. As a community, they have bitched and complained about the advances driven by the amateur market.

There's nothing that actually prevents the rats in the wall from bitching about the remodeling project, but they haven't exactly got the moral high ground on this argument. The industry is moving on, it's going to continue to move on. Get used to it.

Here's a little view into the future. Some day, pretty soon, the casual amateur will be able to take pictures with her cell phone that are every bit as good as the professional work you are doing now. Optics, sensors, and so on will produce plenty of resolution. Software will select the best composition out of a burst of 100 frames. More software will fix the lighting so that it is beautiful. The work will be, legitimately, just as good as what you're charging a bunch of money for. How do I know this? I know this because I can slap a straightedge down on a trend line and follow it to the right another inch. I know this because these are all solvable problems, and I am confident that these are problems those horrible amateurs will spend a little money to buy solutions to.

Your challenge is to figure out how to make money in that world, not this one. The professionals figured out how to make money when dry plate rendered wet plate obsolete. They figured out how to make money when roll film made photography accessible to a whole gigantic market numbering in millions. They'll figure it out again. Go figure it out yourself, or find another trade.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shooting Fashion

Something we see on the internet from time to time is guys shooting in what they fondly imagine to be the fashion style. The hire a model, get some clothes together, some lights, and off they go. They chuck the model in a defunct factory, or in an alley, because they usually haven't got a mansion or a Rolls-Royce, and the results are... well, they're not that good, often.

The following is my theory of fashion. I don't shoot fashion, because it's hard. There's probably other ways to do it. By looking at a lot of pictures, I have devised this, though, and you might find it interesting or helpful.

A picture can mean almost anything, it can try to convey any sort of feeling or idea. In fashion, there's only one idea: The model looks fantastic, and these clothes and accessories would make you look fantastic as well. Sexy, wealthy, put together. A picture that conveys nothing, or conveys something else, it might be excellent but it ain't fashion.

In any picture, if the model is in an alley, the picture has to sell us a reason for her to be there. Or possibly you're just doing some Dada shit. Most of the time, we're looking for some sort of a reason, some reason to believe that her presence in the alley makes some sort of sense. If this is to be fashion, there is exactly one reason that model can be in that alley: Because it makes her look fabulous and put together.

Look at any fashion photograph. The hallmark is that the photographer appears to be in total control of the frame. There is literally nothing in the frame that doesn't work, that does not fit. There's almost always a very strict color scheme in play: a set of colors form a palette of similar hues, saturations, and values, together with a complementary palette. The bricks behind her, her hair, the purse, and her shoes are all one palette that's complementary to the color of the dress. There's usually strict design, the lines do the leading thing. There are repeated textures and patterns throughout. The tiles echo the pattern of the dress, the puddle echoes the line of the purse strap, and so on.

Sometimes the colors are quite fake, almost always saturation and hue have been selectively adjusted (once you start looking for it), the lights have been gelled for the shoot, and so on. Total control and management of the frame, before and after the exposure.

The reason the model is in the alley is because the brickwork sets off her hair perfectly. The reason she is in the defunct factory is because the graffiti on the broken machine behind her perfectly echoes the drape of her dress; the peeling green paint on the walls completes the palette of colors started by her purse, shoes, and the necklace; and because the bright splash of indigo paint spilled on the floor is the exact color of her dress. Pro tip: The graffiti that matches the drape of the dress was put there by you, as was the indigo paint, and then you adjusted them in photoshop to be exact.

The reason the model is there was created by styling. It is this styling that creates the sense of total mastery of the frame. The frame is perfectly, totally, controlled, because that skillful control is what makes the model and the clothes look incredible.

If you don't hit all the notes pretty much spot on, it's just a girl in an alley, looking lost, stupid, and out of place.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An Interesting Read

James Estrin, co-editor of the NY Times Lens blog, has written an essay for National Geographic. It contains, well, it contains themes, ideas, and even phrases which the readers of this blog right here might find familiar.

I can't quite tell if I am just totally plugged into the zeitgeist here, or if Mr. Estrin reads my blog. Either way, I feel pretty darn validated! He's more upbeat and positive than I am, to be sure, and these things are just ideas not patents. So, if you are reading, Mr. Estrin, and if my writing did inform yours, that's fine with me!

Check it out right here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Nugget

It occurs to me that the actual point of the previous post seems to have gotten lost in a pile of words. It's not very complicated, though.

At some point, ideally, you have some sort of an idea or meaning or feeling or whatever that you want a picture to have. There are a bunch of choices that affect how the picture will look.

For each choice, imagine as best you can how the picture will look. If it looks more like your idea, meaning, feeling, whatever, one way as opposed to the other way, make it the one way.

Boiled down it sounds pretty dumb and simple, but ultimately that's all the power we have anyway as photographers. We can only choose one way rather than the other way, a bunch of times, and then a picture comes out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Meaning and Technique

I have blathered on about how technical whatnots and style thisandthat should support the ideas and meaning of the picture. But how?

Many photographers have pretty consistently exhibited a nearly transparent style. Walker Evans looks like Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson looks like Cartier-Bresson, but there's not a lot of radical technique applied to support their ideas. One could argue that their style choices were deliberate transparency, to support and underline the idea of the reality, the truth, of what is in the frame. Also, a picture can stand a lot of manipulation before it becomes obvious, of course, so there may be a lot of burning and dodging that's clarifying these things.

Adams, as surely everyone knows, made a lot of stylistic and technical choices to support his compositions and ideas. Loads of tonal range and local contrast create visual drama, and virtually all of Adams well known pictures are about drama and the sublime, and his technique directly and obviously supports that idea.

Capa's "Falling Soldier" is generally trotted out as the picture that would be nothing without the blur. Still, this carries over to anything that wants to show speed or a sense of motion. The blur of a pan may be integral to the meaning. Even more generally, shallow depth of field is a common technique in modern portraiture, which uses selective blurring to tell us what we're supposed to look at. If it's not supporting meaning and idea, it is at any rate pointing out the subject to us.

I'm going to think this through a bit more, in the form of a process one might follow. This isn't a recommendation, this is not prescriptive in the slightest. Think of it, perhaps, as a framework for understanding. How might one apply ideas like style and technique to support an idea or some notion of meaning in a picture? Let's assume that we start with an idea, some meaning, an emotion, whatever it is that we wish to convey. Consider how one makes a picture:

  • Find the right place to stand
  • Choose time, or light, to suit
  • Choose exposure parameters (shutter, aperture, ISO)
  • Post process, contrast, tonal placement, effects

Each of these choices affects how the picture will look, of course, and each may support or not whatever the meaning or idea is. While you may or may not be pre-visualizing the final picture, some notion of the affect of each choice will certainly help the result. If you can visualize the effect of, say, shallow depth of field caused by a wide aperture, then you can simply ask yourself if your picture looks more like the picture you want to make with shallow depth of field, or deep. If you have a clear idea of what you're trying to convey, this should be obvious. If there isn't an obvious answer, then perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps you will elect to use similar depth of field across a portfolio as part of the portfolio's style, visually connecting the work together without adding or taking away from whatever meaning you have in mind.

Some choices you may make in advance, the same way for many pictures. Perhaps you make them because you like that look, or because you have a larger idea for a portfolio. This is "style" supporting, ideally, something bigger. Perhaps the central look of your body of work, perhaps the main idea of a portfolio. Other choices get made frame by frame, to emphasize this element or that, to support the idea or meaning of the single frame.

Of course we might well find the idea after we shoot, we might allow chance to make choices, we might deliberately make choices that contradict and undermine the idea. This is just a framework for understanding, not a process you must follow.

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's About Trust

The more I think about it, the less I believe in single photographs. Don't get me wrong, there are loads of single pictures that have been made that I love, and that I think are fully freighted with meaning. It's contemporary photographs I don't believe in any more. This is mainly due to the modern age of a trillion pictures. Weston's peppers can stand alone, your contemporary peppers need some help in this modern age.

I don't trust the viewer of anything I shoot to "get it" whatever "it" might be.

I don't trust the artist to put anything into a single frame for me to "get" -- it might be there, but I don't trust the artist. I need to see a portfolio to develop that trust, before I believe in the idea, the meaning, whatever it is the artist is going for.

I don't trust myself to make a clear statement of whatever it is that I am going for in a single frame, which really circles back around to my lack of trust in the viewer.

Interestingly, to me, this mostly applies to digital formats. If someone goes to the bother of making a print and showing it to me, I am going to have more trust. It's the online digital stuff that I just don't believe in. It's so easy to take a pile of photos and throw some up there. They all blur together, they all look the same. If we're not aping Weston or Lik or Evans or Evans, we're aping one another aping Weston and Lik and Evans and Evans.

This is quite apart from the pretty obvious fact that a lot of pictures don't even made sense alone. Photo essays don't make sense as a set of singletons, by definition, and much of what we see on walls these days is really intended to be seen in groups, to reinforce and support the idea.

This doesn't mean I need to see the same picture over and over -- far from it. I just want to see the same ideas several times, so I can trust you.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Brief Interlude of Vanity

I've been working in Mountain View this last week, staying at a hotel on Fairchild Drive and walking down Fairchild every morning to catch the train. This morning, I took the camera along, and made this little portfolio of what there is to see on this half mile stretch of this piece of road. The name is storied, Fairchild meant a very great deal to Silicon Valley. The street itself is, well, look at the pictures. It's an interesting study in contrasts, let's say.

Fairchild Dr, Mountain View, CA.

I make neither claims nor excuses for these pictures.

The Fundamental Act of Photography

This goes in cycles. Periodically a movement will spring up which remembers what the fundamental act of photography is, and what it is that makes photography different from painting and, really, anything else. The movement will be built around denigrating everything else, more or less. The fundamental act of photography is this:

Put your camera in the right place, and make an exposure at the right time.

It is the job of the photographer to organize the world, or permit the world to organize itself, into a picture. A painter can simply move the tree a little bit, and brighten up the boulder a little, and make the mountain loom a little higher, without really even disturbing the scene all that much. The photographer cannot, the photographer simply has to find the right place to put the camera. The early pictorialists, Robinson and Emerson, were pretty big on this. They had a great war over what sorts of post were "legitimate" and what sort were not (is burning and dodging ok or not? Can I fool about with development? What are your thoughts on composites?) They each really disliked the ways the other made pictures, or at any rate Emerson had words for Robinson. Ultimately, though, they agreed on the fundmentals: organize the scene by positioning yourself and waiting for the right moment. If you're moving trees around and re-touching stuff and drawing on the picture, you're not doing photography amy more, you're drawing.

There's nothing wrong with drawing, of course. But it's not photography.

Then we see the later pictorialists, who were frustrated painters, scribbling all over everything.

Then we see f/64 and straight photography, which circles right back around to the fundamental act.

Things might be permanently fractured now, since everyone's a photographer. Still, we see in fits and starts "anti-Photoshop" people, who get shouted down a lot, but who are as near as I can tell just trying to go around the cycle to the beginning again. Certainly it is rare in these days to find a well made picture that does not come with some caveats like "I cloned out the sign and the other thing" which arguably isn't photography at all. When we're fixing stuff like that in post, removing this thing and that, arguably we've failed in the fundamental act. If you didn't like the sign, why on earth did you stand where you did? Stand somewhere else and take a better picture.

I say all this as a guy who scribbles all over his pictures. I don't claim that the fundamental act is the only way to make a picture because, manifestly, it is not. The point is, that's what photography boils down to. Almost nobody does pure photography any more. Perhaps nobody ever did. Certainly there are degrees, veritable multi-dimensional continua of what can be and is done.

Nontheless, photography in its essence consists of standing in the right place, and pressing the button at the right moment.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Social Network Rights Grab!

Everyone loves social media. There's Facebook for everyone (as of this writing) and there's instagram and a 100 similar sites for photographers. There's social networking sites for musicians, and, I assume, for every other conceivable interest group. Everybody loves this stuff. Nobody will pay for it. Why should we? There's always a new site willing to give it away as part of their effort to build traffic. We won't pay up front, we won't click ads, we don't like ads. The tech-savvy will block ads entirely. Anyways, ads aren't selling for what they used to, because they don't really work.

I think I am justified in asking what the hell is supposed to pay for these services.

Consider a picture you have taken. What is the value to you of this picture? In general, in almost all cases for almost all photographers, the value is emotional and personal. The picture is a thing we made, and perhaps it records a person, event, or object that matters to us. We derive pleasure from looking at the picture, and from allowing other people to look at it. These two things are essentially the only things we will ever do with the picture. A few pictures we may print or place inside of a larger derived work (a photo book or video slideshow with music, that sort of thing) which is just a bigger version of the same thing -- we want to look at the larger work, we want to show it to other people. In the bundle of rights that are attached to a picture, we really only will ever exercise a non-exclusive license for a small set of personal uses.

The bundle of rights associated with the picture has no hard value to us, we won't be getting any money nor will be we bartering, or otherwise converting any of those rights into value. Protecting those rights is of no consequence either, no harm will come to us if some of those rights are acquired by another party, always assuming we retain the aforementioned personal-use rights. There are, of course, exceptions. More on that in the sequel.

Every time some web site makes a "rights grab" by asserting some sort of usage policy which grants the corporate entity some sort of rights to content you upload, we are urged to rise up in rebellion. We are told that this is unacceptable and outrageous. Those rights which have, to us, exactly no value whatsoever, must be defended at all costs. So now we won't pay for it, we won't click on ads, and we won't even give up something of no value at all to us in exchange for the use of a service? What kind of society are we? This is insane.

Now, more on those special cases where the bundle of rights does have some value. If you happen to be selling licenses to your content, it would certainly behoove you to read and understand policies of this sort carefully. It's not likely, but you certainly could end up in a situation where you have explicitly sold a license, and then by uploading some content somewhere have accidentally given away a license which conflicts with the one you sold. Now you have a problem, and potentially quite a big one. Be careful and pay attention.

For most of us, most of our pictures have a bundle of rights with zero value to us. Be generous, share. I don't like giant corporations or even small ones any better than you do, but I do know that if I'm using a service they provide, they gotta get compensated somehow. If they can figure out how to turn my straw into their gold, more power to 'em. It's just straw, to me.

Monday, October 7, 2013

On The Legacy of Straight Photography

Straight Photography is really a form that has been with us from the beginning. While it didn't really get defined formally until somewhere in the early 20th century, it was always apparent that photography's great strength lay in the capture of detail. Photographs do not discriminate between important details and unimportant ones, and therefore it is natural to play to this property as a strength. Robinson extols the virtues of Rembrandt's translucent shadows, in the 1860s, and 100 years later Adams is telling us about textures down in Zone I, and how to obtain them. Capturing and revealing all the detail that there was is taken as an obviously desirable thing, requiring no explanation.

This is the current standard. All that was in front of the lens should be shown in the frame. Methods which give us additional information are good. No portrait is any good at all unless at least three strobes have been used, to show us detail and texture everywhere on the face and in the hair. Blocked up shadows and blown out highlights are the two greatest sins in photography.

Imagine, if you will, a great cathedral. You stand before it, and crane your neck to look up into the bright sky, blinking. Gradually you make out, in the brilliance, gargoyles, bigger than a man, a hundred feet above you. You turn your head left, then right, taking in the vastness of the structure. Your gaze settles on the open door, you peer into the gloom. Gradually, your eyes adjust, and you can make out the echoing immensity inside. Perhaps there are pews, and far off at the other end you see stained glass windows high in the wall. It takes you minutes to begin to apprehend this enormous building.

Now someone takes a handful of exposures, and smashes them together with some HDR software. He presents you with a picture on a computer screen. The building is 4 inches high, the dark interior is rendered slightly darker than the brilliance of the gargoyles against the sky, and he tells you, incomprehensibly, that he has rendered it "as the eye sees it".

If you are not prepared to print this thing 200 feet high, then you may as well give up hope of rendering the cathedral "as the eye sees it". What the HDR techniques are doing here, really, are bowing to the aesthetic of straight photography by showing us, in one tiny picture, which one apprehends all at once and in an instant, all the detail that there is to see. It in no way whatsoever reproduces the experience of looking at the cathedral, but it does show us everything that there is to see about the cathedral. This is not wrong, but neither is it obviously more right than another aesthetic.

Embrace the dark side! Block up some shadows today. Bury some important details in darkness. Or, let them burn up in the light. Either way. It won't hurt you, I promise.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Hello Readers!

I have been peering at the stats for this blog and I seem to have a pretty regular community of readers, somehow. A year ago it was pretty much just robots.

Greetings, hello, and welcome. I hope I occasionally say things that are interesting! Feel free to comment, I do have moderation turned on, but I will let anything through unmodified except just straight out insults. Feel free to disagree with me, that's not an insult at all. That just shows you're plugged in.

There is no schedule for updates, and in fact updates will likely be thin specifically for the next couple weeks as I am travelling.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Art and Communication

People say things like "art is communication" or "art is primarily about communication". People like me say things like that. I'm pretty sure it's a point of view I have expounded. It's also not quite right.

Communication involves one party putting information into a medium, and another party taking the same information out. I make noises with my mouth, they travel through air to your ear, where you hear them and understand my words. I encode 1s and 0s as pulses of light onto a fiber optic cable, a device at the other end decodes those pulses into the same sequence of 1s and 0s. I take a picture of a rose, trying to capture the sublime in the rose; you, looking at my picture, feel the sublime in the rose.

While this is how it works in some idealized sense, in reality it often does not. More importantly, there's no particular reason it must. A good piece allows the viewer to take something out, to be sure. A good piece makes you feel something, and the sublime in the rose is a perfectly good thing for a piece to make you feel. The part where the artist puts that in, though, that's not necessary. The picture could be an accident, or the intentions of the artist could be something else entirely. In general, the very best an artist can hope for is that the viewers receive something that is loosely related to what the artist had in mind. At worst, of course, nothing whatever is received.

An artist can even have a coherent idea about what should be received, without knowing what should be received. An artist might intend that the viewer see themselves more clearly, or that the viewer be confronted with their own idea of "this mountain." As artist might simply intend the work as a mirror or a window, either literally or figuratively, to something else that the artist cannot or does not want to predict.

The point of art is that the viewer receives something. It's not that the artist sent anything, or that if so the viewer received what was sent. It's just about receiving, and that's not communication.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Artist as Critic

It is natural to accept the artist as the ultimate authority on their own art. We often see people quoting the artist when disagreements about the work arise, and fondly imagining that this should put an end to it. On the flip side, we have a Derrida-esque approach which dismisses the artist out of hand as having nothing of interest to say. These are both positions which have been simplified to the point of idiocy.

Of course the artist is an authority on their own work. On some aspects of it they are the primary authority, and on others they have no particular authority beyond that of anyone else who's been immersed in the work for a while. In all cases, the artist must be taken as unreliable, however. This means simply that we can accept what they have to say, but whenever possible we should cross-check it.

The one narrow region where the artist truly is the authority is this: what does the artist have to say about their own work. Since whatever comes out of the artists's mouth or pen is by definition the right answer here, that pretty much nails that down. Whether this is particularly interesting or not, well, let's see.

One might imagine that the artist is also the final authority on their motivations, their processes and methods, their ideas about meaning and so on. In this case the artist is obviously the primary source -- who else, really -- they are equally certainly an unreliable source. Everyone, talking about themselves and their work, will tend to gloss over the embarrassments and errors, they will tend to exaggerate the flattering moments, and so on. An artist striving to be completely honest might skew the opposite way, in an effort to compensate. Another artist might simply lie about things. A third might genuinely mis-remember elements from the past. In all cases, whenever possible, we must cross-check if we're interested in the truth. Biographers have long known this. They read journals, they interview people surrounding the subject, the search for influences, and then try to synthesize that with what the subject has actually said about themselves and their work, to try to create a best guess at truth.

Arguably more interesting and important are the questions about how viewers react to the work, how the work fits into a larger context, what the work means to us as the viewing public, and so forth. On these points the artist is generally peculiarly ill-suited to comment. Having a unique and intimate relationship with a piece of work, having made it, makes it remarkably hard to imagine how others will see it. Anyone who has submitted a photograph to the inspection of others has experienced the surprise at what other people make of it. A good artist will often be able to get over that, but only to a degree. As for questions of how the art fits into a larger context, the artist will have biases and misconceptions to contend with, and may or may not have any special understanding of the context beyond their own work.

As we proceed from questions directly concerning the artist toward a wider field, the artist's special position as the artisan continues to harm the artist's ability to comment meaningfully, but ceases to provide any special access to knowledge. The artist becomes less and less reliable, until in very large questions their ideas have no more weight, and probably less weight, than anyone else equally skilled and knowledgeable about the area in question.

So, next time someone quotes Ansel Adams at you, now you are prepared.