Sunday, December 29, 2013


The previous post, about my Winogrand style cafe picture, and how it is of no use to me, perhaps opens up a little area of discussion. The picture is of no use to me: it contains nothing personal, it evokes no personal memories, it does not give me any particular joy to look at, it is not part of something larger I am making. It's pretty good. It's not good enough to stand alone, really, as a piece of Art. If it were as good as it is, and not an obvious copy of Winogrand, perhaps, but it is, so no.

In what follows I will use the words use, useful, useless and so on in as broad as sense as is reasonable. I consider, for example, artistic appeal to be an example of usefulness. If I think a picture is pretty and so derive pleasure from looking at it, that is a use of that picture. Of course, if I can sell a picture (to someone who presumably has a use for it) that is useful to me. The essence is that there is some transaction here, the picture will give me something, perhaps if I look at it, perhaps if I let others look at it. I get something, be it pleasure, emotion, education, money.

Any picture I own, whether because I bought it or shot it, may or may not be of use to me.

Personal photographs, snapshots, have a personal use. I use them to evoke memories of things past, I use them as a record of people, places, events. These things are generally not of use to anyone else. Indeed, being of no use to anyone outside the family is almost the definition of a snapshot. It might be an excellent picture or a terrible one, but it is of no use to a stranger. The very idea of so-called "vernacular" photography is a re-tasking of these useless pictures, rendering them useful to strangers as parts of a larger Art Thing which comments on, or celebrates, or records, something of culture or community or something. The meaning of a snapshot is not really changed here, we see a picture of strangers and either do or do not feel some affinity. The idea does not change, but by embedding these useless fragments into a larger thing, we potentially create a larger entity which is itself useful.

More generally we have the problem of the use of a photograph. Regardless of details, perhaps we can agree that a picture that is never looked at is not in any meaningful way, useful. It may once have been useful, but now, with no viewers, it barely exists, and is certainly not useful. Thus, virtually all pictures are currently useless, having been uploaded and then compressed under the mass of newer pictures, pushed down the timeline into the past, and obliterated from view. These pictures were useful, but only for a little while, viewed by friends and family until newer pictures are uploaded into our account.

We see that usefulness has, potentially, a timespan. News photographs are also only useful while relevant. Some few are dredged up again to serve the use of summarizing the year, the decade, the era. Most news pictures vanish into the morgue and are, essentially, gone, useless.

Iconic photographs remain useful, however. We derive something from looking at them, over and over. They remain in the broader cultural memory. We think of them perhaps as timeless (although this is surely false). Prints, posters, and calendars are sold. Many transactions of many kinds constantly surround these pictures, from an appreciative and rewarding glance in a museum to the exchange of $17.99 for a calendar.

All of this stuff fits into my grand unified over-thought theory of photography, somehow.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Picture

It took me most of a year, off and on, to make this picture:

To be fair, the "work" involved was sitting around in a coffee shop drinking fancy coffee drinks, keeping my eyes open, and occasionally pressing a button.

It should be obvious, but this is about that moment when a pretty girl walks into a coffee shop. Men glance at her. Just for a moment, but there's a particular way that glance looks. Ultimately, I made this on my birthday when my birthday present was several hours to do with what I pleased. I was pleased go drink coffee. I made one exposure, without looking at the camera, in that 90 minutes of coffee shop time, and this is it.

It's a Winogrand street shot, complete with tilt, shot with the exact opposite of Winogrand's technique. It was possible, for me, because this is a moment that occurs over and over, every 10 or 20 or 30 minutes. The problem is where to sit, and when to press the button. The moment will happen again if you miss it.

So what?

This is a good picture, but it's useless to me. It's a single instance photograph, which is basically a copy of someone else's pictures. I can't do this sort of thing often enough to pull together a coherent portfolio, and having made this I don't feel any particular need to shoot any more street photography. Can I print this and hang it? It doesn't really fit in to my decor, such as it is. It's not clear it fits into anyone's decor. Could I sell it? Is it journalism?

I don't think it's any of those things. This is a picture without a home.

That's a shame, because it's a good picture. One of the better ones I've ever made.

Friday, December 20, 2013


I tend to go on and on about how digital photographs, social media, most-recent-first viewing, and so on have changed our relationship with pictures. We treat them as temporary and ephemeral.

Recently I was asked "well, what about prints?" and I have to say I have no idea!

It is said that we're making more prints than ever. As a percentage of photos shot, it's dropped off to so close to zero as to make no difference, but in absolute terms we're making more prints than we ever have.

Surely many of these are local drugstore prints, not necessarily very good, but exactly equivalent to the old school business of dropping off a roll of film and picking up an envelope of prints an hour later, or the next day. Probably these are a little better, overall, since we're generally selecting the pictures we want before ordering prints.

Surely many of the prints we're making are in the now-ubiquitous photo book. Everyone on earth, it seems, is running a business to print books of pictures. Some of them are pretty bad, others are pretty good. They mostly let you do a little book design, so the results are usually pretty awful, most people not being book designers. Still, there's a lot of these things being churned out. Surely we give a little more weight to a Book than to a handful of slippery prints?

I know how my family treats these things, but I can't take that as typical. I don't even treat my digital/online pictures in a typical fashion. I print, frame, and hang pictures. I make nice books of the very very best pictures, which books we take down and look at several times a year. But we're atypical.

I don't know what typical is, on this point. But I'll keep my eyes open for analysis and discussion! Maybe someone knows, or has an idea.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


We are novelty-seeking animals. New things stimulate us in ways that familiar things do not. Conversely, familiar things stimulate us in ways that new things do not. For reasons I do not pretend to understand, this novelty seeking is what powers the internet, the world wide web. Web sites do not remain static, providing a comfortable and familiar experience. Web sites are constantly updating, changing, replacing old content with new. It is this property, we have determined, that makes web sites "sticky".

A sticky web site keeps us coming back, and it keeps us hitting Refresh or whatever the relevant button is. This keeps us present, and allows us to look at more ads, and that is what makes the web go 'round.

I've written some stuff on how getting people to generate new content for one another on your web site is far and away the cheapest and most successful way to produce this constant stream of new content. See also social networking. There seems to me to be a bigger issue here, though.

As photography went digital, it found a natural connection to this digital network. As that network converged rapidly on a newest-first display model, with a constant stream of new content, so changed photography. This is the source of our new relationship with pictures. Our relationship with pictures is this ephemeral thing, this relationship in which we glance at new pictures briskly, seeing them largely in terms of other pictures we have seen rather than as themselves.

This is in stark contrast to the old model in which pictures were more or less permanent, they were static. Our relationship with them was centered around sameness, nostalgia, the moment of the past frozen forever on the print. Pictures used to tickle those other pathways to pleasure: the permanent, the familiar, the old. Now pictures work quite the other way around, they are yet another source of the new, the novel, but not too novel, not too new. They're familiar faces, familiar tropes, familiar arrangements of shape and light, but in a new picture. Now we want our pictures to be, always, a new version of the same old thing. Our friends at a new party. A different, new, sunset, rendered in more or less the same way.

I hate this so much.

People don't look at pictures. Try putting up pictures for critique in some online venue for critique. Pay attention. You will, quite likely, notice after a while that some people are quite literally not seeing your picture. They're seeing a bunch of similar pictures in their memory, and noticing only that yours is darker, or lighter, or greener, and softer. Then they will offer critique reading, in toto: "too dark", "too light", "too green", or "too soft". Part of this is simple inattention and laziness, but I feel sure that at least part of this is that we're training ourselves not to look. Each picture is merely a trivial point in a larger river of imagery washing over us, and is to be seen and understood only as a sample of a much larger collection of similar things.

Opt out. Make pictures and portfolios for permanence, for nostalgia.

That's what I'm doing, anyways.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Old Photos

Every few months it seems that someone digs up the same set of color photographs from Russia from, I don't know, a long time ago. Some chappie ran around with a view camera taking color separations 100-odd years ago. A couple of years ago some other chappie dug these things up, scanned them, and put together some pretty decent digital color pictures based on them. Every few months, they show up on someone's blog, or on some crummy clickbait "photography news" site like petapixel, and then get a lot of links, clicks, and views.

There is also the venerable which is really quite decent. Yet some other chappie digs up old pictures, acquires very good scans of them, and manages a well curated collection of these 100 year old, plus or minus, pictures. Shorpy gets a fair bit of traffic and interest.

There are periodic news items about people finding a collection of glass plates. Frequently these are somewhat sketchy: Unearthed Ansel Adams Negatives Discovered! Man Finds Fully Developed Glass Plates Still In The Camera (what?), and so on. Again, flickers of interest, views, clicks.

Apparently there's a bit of a thing on facebook these days, too.

So what? Well, Susan Sontag, writing in the 1970s, was at some pains to think through the fact that photographs are physical artifacts. There are slices of frozen time, turned into a flat physical object which we can hold, and touch, and which is itself more or less permanent. This permanence and physicality had huge effects on our relationship with these things.

Right about the time Sontag died, this all changed. Digital photographs are, while in theory permanent, in reality completely ephemeral. The "most recent first" viewing model of the internet, and our constant thirst for novelty, means that, absent substantial effort, photographs are buried under other photographs and lost to us very quickly. And yet we have this fascination with the physical artifacts, as well.

And yet, our fascination with those artifacts takes the form of rendering them digital, and throwing them into the maw of the great most-recent-first internet where they march down the time stream into oblivion in a matter of weeks.

I don't know what it all means, but I find it extremely odd that we have an ephemeral fascination with the permanent. Our relationship with pictures as they exist today is the exact opposite of the relationship discussed by Sontag, and we hold this modern relation with a digital phantom version of the same pictures Sontag was talking about. It probably doesn't mean anything, really.

It's very strange to me, though.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Our Lying, Visual, Brain

Here are some things that are true.

The first thing is the stopped clock illusion. This visual quirk reveals some interesting things about how we see. When turn quickly to look at a clock, the second-hand appears to freeze momentarily before starting to move. What appears to be going on here is that we do not actually see the clock for a moment. It takes time for our visual system to gather enough detail for our brain to construct the detailed and clear picture of the clock, and its second hand. And here's the creepy part:

Then our brain goes back and edits our memory, to create the illusion that we saw the clock clearly all along. Not knowing what to do with the second hand, it essentially paints it in place for those few moments.

Our conception of visual sensation as a sort of continuous high definition movie is in fact an illusion. It is not continuous, our short term memories are a lie. What we "see" is in fact a continuously rendered movie inside our head, built up out of memories of what we've been looking at a few moments before, ideas about what things ought to look like, best guesses and estimates. What's actually coming in through the eyes is actually pretty low resolution, it has detail only in a narrow field of view. We fill in the whole wide angle picture from a variety of sources, including our imagination.

The second thing that is true is that when we look at a picture with any kind of detail or content in it, we will discover new things about it for an astonishingly long time. Look at a picture of something, anything, for a couple of minutes. If you're attentive, you'll probably be seeing new things through the whole process. Perhaps minor details of how a shadow falls, or some minor object in the background, some detail of color.

The third thing that is true is that, presented with a picture of a decent model of some well known object, we can be fooled for a moment, or for several moments. If the model is ok, we might just do a quick double-take. If it's better, it might fool us for some seconds. If it's excellent, we might never be sure.

The details don't matter much, the point is that there are features of the model that are more and that are less important for that "fooling us" interval. I don't know or much care what the details are, but let's suppose that getting the color and overall shape are enough to fool us for a moment. Getting the shadows right might fool us for a few seconds more. There are, equally clearly, things that matter less for the purpose of fooling us.

This is surely related to the fact that we're not actually seeing what we think we're seeing. We see something that looks like the cathedral of Notre Dame, and we recognize it. It takes a little while for whatever the relevant details are to soak in, to alert us to the fact that it's a model.

So what does this all mean?

When we look at a picture, we don't actually see it. What we see when we look at a picture, or at anything else, is a collection of preconceptions, some imagination, some guesses based on other things we've seen before, with just a little bit of the actual picture's content thrown in there for seasoning.

As we look closer, over a longer period of time, we can soak up more of the content, but what we see, and more importantly what we remember, is not a true representation of the picture at all. It's a construct of our brain. A great deal of it is simply made up, a great deal more than than we'd like to think. We're remembering some visually important elements, probably related to whatever it is about a model of Notre Dame that would fool us. We're remembering an idea of the picture. We're remembering bits and pieces lots of similar pictures, and similar scenes from our own life, and they're all piling in to this construct. The picture itself is, I suppose, the single largest contributor to what we "see", and to what we later "remember", but it is by no means the only one and probably not the only important one.

Here's a quick test. In the well known photograph, "Migrant Mother", shot by Dorothea Lange, what is in the background? And how many of them are there? If you are like me, you feel that you can picture this thing in your mind with crystal clarity, but you're not quite sure about the background. If you nail that one, think of some other well known pictures, pictures you can "see" in your mind's eye in an instant. Ask yourself some relevant detail "what's in the background", "what's to the left of the tree", "does the river turn right or left as it leaves the frame" and see just how much detail that crystal clear picture in your mind's eye really has.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


It is fascinating to me how frequently people confuse the subject with the picture. Even a pretty competent amateur photographer will look at two completely different pictures of similar objects, and will declare them to be much the same. The lighting, the point of view, the rendering might be totally different, but the inexperienced eye will see the pictures as "pretty much the same".

This isn't that harmful, I suppose, except when the idea is totally different as well which it often is when the renderings are different. If you are declaring two pictures with quite different ideas to be the same, then you are manifestly missing the ideas entirely. And that's a shame.

Should you find yourself in this boat, or rather should you suspect yourself of perhaps being in this boat, make a list of the differences between two pictures. Focus not on what is the same, but what is different. Light, point of view, framing, depth of field, contrast, blacks, highlights, midtones. How are all these things, and anything else you can see, treated differently?

What sorts of emotions, feelings, ideas, are invoked by the differences, especially in contrast to one another?

How might this affect how you feel about the total picture, in each case?

Here's a sample to start with. I've made some.. modifications to Weston's Pepper #30. See if you can see what they are, and how they change the way you feel about the picture. Some are obvious and ham fisted, and at least one is moderately subtle but, I think, important.

Much better examples exist.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Of course ...

Apropos my previous remarks, the current setup works out just fine for most working models most of the time. There is a brisk little industry of models taking a fee to model for a photographer who will take some pictures of some degree of merit between negative infinity and excellent. The model gets a few hundred bucks, but no rights to the pictures.

Still, in this case, the point is that it hardly matters who has what rights. These pictures aren't going anywhere anyways. Terrible, excellent, it doesn't matter. The market for pictures of models is not a lucrative one, in general. But one has to ask in this case, why not share rights? It doesn't matter, surely.

It gets tricky when you're photographing people who are not working models, and who you may be photographing in something less than a flattering light. You're taking more and giving less. The pictures still are not going anywhere, but the transaction is balanced far more in the photographer's favor here.

There isn't any money in play at all, but pride, self-respect, dignity are.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Always Get A Model Release

A common thread in the photography community is that one should when photographing people, always get a model release. In the USA the photographer holds most of the important rights to a picture, but the model holds a small, specific, collection of rights unless those rights are given away. Thus, the normal process is to have the model sign those rights away in exchange for either nothing, or something trivial. This is the standard: That the model should not have any rights whatsoever to the picture.

The legal situation is part of the general collection of law surrounding copyright of photographs. Generally speaking, the default is that the photographer gets everything and nobody else gets anything. Since there are a few lacunae in this coverage, it is deemed necessary to fill those in with a model release.

This is, frankly, silly. It's wonderfully convenient for photographers, and since photographers are used to the situation they will of course create furor and outcry at the notion of taking away their undeserved free stuff. Still, this is a massive giveaway to photographers, for no particular reason. As far as I can make out, when copyright was being sorted out there was a notion in play that someone should get all the rights, and the decision mas made -- narrowly -- to make that someone be the photographer. And here we are.

This speaks to the problems of photojournalism.

W. Eugene Smith, certainly one of the luminaries, produced an astonishing photo essay about Minamata. He portrayed the ruined people of Minamata sympathetically, but with a profoundly revealing eye. Neither the viewer nor the subjects were spared much. In this project, he took from, he used, he exploited his subjects. The pictures belonged to Smith, and to nobody else. However, he kept up his end of the photojournalist's bargain by telling the story, telling truth. He did not hold these pictures closely, he spread them for the world to see. In doing so, he literally changed the world with those pictures, to better the lives of the people.

Ultimately, Smith's wife gave up the copyright to the most famous and intimate of those photos to the family of the (now deceased) subject. Smith's wife recognized that, legalities aside, the people in the picture have some moral rights, which ought to be respected. This, even after Smith had kept his side of the bargain of photojournalism. He had, in a sense, bought and paid for the rights according to custom, and still his wife reverted the rights to this picture to the subject.

We operate with a split personality, here. On the one hand, our society continues to hold on to vestigial ideas about the rights of the subject, we hold on to the idea that the photograph takes, that photographers do not get a free ride, do not deserve free rights to everything. If you don't believe me, go take pictures of strangers' kids for a while and see what happens. On the other hand, we simultaneously hold the bizarre notion that the photographer, properly, holds all the rights to every picture taken, regardless of subject, and that the photographer is rightly empowered to do anything whatever with those pictures.

Perhaps one should consider a more generous model release. Some people already use quite generous ones, by current standards.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Photography is an appropriative act. One takes a photograph. When you press the button, you acquire possession of an object you did not have before, and to which you have no particular rights.

A photojournalist, no less than any other photographer, appropriates. A photojournalist, according to a somewhat labored argument, is taking pictures which reveal Truth and for this reason must remain separate. The photojournalist, in order to avoid disturbing, altering, the Truth, must not be jumping in to assist, must not be paying people to pose, must take care not alter the situation in front of the camera. This is particularly disturbing when the Truth is evidently about human suffering, about disaster, about death.

Of course this is to ignore the bulk of photojournalism, which is mostly "here is the parade", "these two teams are playing a game", "this is the mayor, giving a speech filled with lies" and so on. Let us set this aside, and focus on those scenes of poverty, disaster, suffering.

The photojournalist tries to record unmodified, undisturbed, Truth. Often, the goal is explicitly to generate change. By showing the suffering, the disaster, the journalist seeks to cause the viewer's response: This must change, this must never happen again, this will not stand. Whether or not the goal includes generating change, the goal is always to tell the story: that this happened, that these people lived, suffered, died.

There is a straightforward bargain here. The photojournalist appropriates, takes. The photojournalist remains separate, lending no aid, no succor (this is largely a fiction, but set that aside as well, it is a popular fiction). The photojournalist does these basically unpleasant things so that the Truth may be told, as it was, pristine. That is, in return the photojournalist will tell the Truth, will seek to generate the greater Change, or will at any rate tell the world that this injustice exists, that those suffering suffered. The story will be told, to whatever effect that telling produces.

If you, as a photographer, are not in a position to tell that story to anyone, then you have no business with the first half of the bargain. If you can take an item off the shelf, but cannot pay for it then get out of the store.

This is fauxtojournalism. People with no power to tell the story, to speak Truth widely, have no business wrapping themselves in the mantle of photojournalism. If you're taking pictures of homeless people, but carefully maintaining photojournalistic distance because you, you know, ethics, and then simply dumping the result into your flickr account then, let me be clear:

Fuck You

You're appropriating. You're not helping. You're doing all of the taking side of the equation, and none of the giving side. You're not shopping, you're just shoplifting.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Photographer is Present

Photojournalism usually asks that we allow the polite fiction that the camera is not present. In this modern era, however, we're less and less willing to accept that polite fiction. Everyone has a camera now, and a surprisingly large number of news photographs are made by "citizen journalists" (i.e. free pictures, from the point of view of the business packaging news for our consumption).

The fact is that the camera has always been there. Ethical standards for photojournalists suggest strongly that the journalist maintain separatation, not taking part in the news, merely recording it as it unfolds. This has always been nonsense, of course. News-makers have always mugged for the camera, performed for the camera, run from the camera. Only with quite a bit of luck and skill has the photojournalist been able to approach the standard of non-involvement. More often, they have been able to create the illusion of non-involvement.

When amateurs get involved it gets worse. They ape the standard, but nobody is even attempting to hold them to it.

I saw recently a series documenting the day of a homeless man, in a photojournalistic style (read: black and white). The series closes with a closeup shot of the subject's face as he tries to sleep, shivering with the cold.

The presence of the camera and the photographer is overwhelming here. We're much too close to believe the fiction of non-involvement. Are we to believe that the photographer is a monster, watching a man freeze from a couple of feet away, and doing nothing? Contrariwise, are we to believe that the scene is staged? Or that the photographer allowed the man to freeze, but only for a little while, and is therefore only an exploiter, not a monster?

What's going on here? The camera implies a photographer. The photographer is present, that is the essence and power of photography.

The photographer is present.

And yet, all too frequently, we are asked to take part in the fiction that the photographer is not, or at any rate might as well not be.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How to Art

Here's another of my more or less arbitrary and somewhat forced deconstructions of how a photograph gets made. There are three elements, because there's always three elements.

In this case: Idea, Subject, and Rendering.

I try not to think of subject in the usual sense, it's not just the thing in the middle of the frame. What I intend here is the collection of everything the camera is pointed at. This might be a single obvious object, or a person's face, but it might also be a chaos of things with no clear single object in the fore. Subject for my purposes here means simply all the stuff that you, the photographer, have chosen to point the camera at.

Rendering is often inextricable from subject, but I choose to separate it out here. It is everything about how you the photographer have chosen to show the subject. The framing, the point of view, the use of color, the use of post-processing effects, and so on.

By idea I mean the meaning to be conveyed, in the usual broad sense I employ. The feeling, the emotion, the message, the whatever-it-is beyond a simple representation of the subject that you have in mind for this picture.

The subject and the rendering together make a picture. You choose where to point the camera, you choose how to make the print (or whatever the final output is) and there you have a picture. It may or may not have an idea associated with it. The point of photography as art is to get an idea attached to the picture.

Here's a simple example where we have all three elements, working together perhaps as well as they ever have:

Weston's Pepper #30. The idea is something about sensuality, something about sex. Just like every single picture Weston ever took, as far as I can tell. The subject is a pepper. The rendering ties the two together, a lot of darkness, a lot of accentuated curves and skin, a carefully selected point of view. A very very carefully selected point of view. The rendering of this subject is such a clear illustration of the idea as to border on smut, as well as on parody.

What happens when we have in hand less than all three elements?

I venture to suggest that most photographers never really get past subject. They see a thing, a scene, a juxtaposition of objects, a subject in the sense defined above. They point the camera, click, and they're done. Some minimalist rendering occurs, often just whatever the camera produces, sometimes with a little fiddling to make the subject "more clear" or something. There's probably a hint of an idea here as well, "this object is pretty" or "these things are cool." Still, it's mostly about subject.

What if all we have is a rendering? The internet is awash in these things as well. HDR techniques applied to nothing at all. Instagram filters applied to pictures of nothing much, or of randomly chosen objects. Lomography. Black and white pictures of.. stuff. Again, there's a little subject, maybe a little idea, but it's mostly about rendering.

If all you have is an idea, there's no picture at all here, and very little to talk about.

What if you have two of the three? Now things start to get interesting.

Suppose you have an idea and a subject. This is, essentially, the pre-visualization problem. Here is this tree, or mountain, or model, or instant in time on the street, a subject. I have an idea in mind. The grandeur of nature, the isolation of man, or more likely something I can't even put in to words. But it's an idea, something I want the picture to mean, something I want the viewer to feel, to experience. What is lacking is a rendering. How shall I make a picture of that subject which conveys my idea?

Ansel Adams writes about this sort of thing a lot, driving past the same view day after day, gradually refining his ideas of season and light until the day came when he simply stopped the car and took the picture, because the environmental aspects of the rendering were right at just that moment. I have written some ideas about how to actually perform this task of finding a pre-visualization, a rendering to suit, in this essay here and some of the following material.

Suppose you have a subject and a rendering but no particular idea? You're on the hunt for an idea. You can go the Modern Fine Art approach, and simply write an idea down in International Art English. Almost any idea will do. Something political is best. It should be loosely connected to the pictures, but only a faint connection is really required.

This isn't really what I am interested in, though. What I like is is a strong connection between the work and the idea. To get this, you're going to have to tinker with your subject and rendering, and work toward some inspiration about an idea, and then complete the circle by making some pictures which are about the idea (based on your original notions of subject and rendering). I wrote about this problem here and here.

For these two situations, I have proposed approaches that reduce to trying to simply invoke inspiration in the one case, and in trying to iteratively sneak up on inspiration by a process of tinkering and trying things out. Both are basically methods for persuading ones unconscious mind to find the missing pieces of the puzzle, and both are essentially built on possession of a large and broad photographic vocabulary. Some mixture of the approaches is surely just as good, if not better. Tinker, try things, then have a nap, a shower. Leave it alone. Tinker some more. Use whatever ratio of tinkering to napping suits you.

Finally, consider the third option, a combination of an idea and a rendering without a subject. This is a lot like the pre-visualization problem, really, except stood on its head. Generally you're going to have some idea, and a rendering concept that supports the idea. If that pair is any good, the rendering already supports the idea just fine. You could be using erotic art tropes for rendering, and an idea of sensuality and sex. You could use shadow-eliminating HDR techniques and some ideas about modernity and technology, perhaps.

This isn't a situation in which I have found myself, to be honest. I'm not sure how common it really is, but I suppose it might turn up now and then. At the moment I do have a minor version of it, as I seek to extend a portfolio with new subject matter. I am currently testing out subjects that share certain things with the previously used subjects, and are wildly different in other ways.

In general, It seems reasonable to seek subjects that support the idea as well, but possibly obliquely. Weston's pepper is a brilliant example of lateral thinking here. His idea is always the same, so we may assume that he had it a priori. This approach to rendering appears quite frequently. One can imagine, at least, that his choice of pepper was a subject-last situation, and he saw, somehow, the erotic possibilities of the vegetable.

And there you have it. That's how to Art. It's how I Art, at any rate.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I have never had any formal training in photography, which to some degree I regret. I've had a lot of formal training in lots of other things, though, including quite a few piano lessons.

Something I have harped on in the past, and no doubt will harp on in future, is this idea of vocabulary. The idea is simply to have in your mind a large number of bits and pieces of the raw material of photographs. These are lighting idioms, compositional idioms, post-processing effects, tricks for getting the subject to smile, anything, and everything. You gain this vocabulary by looking at pictures, for the most part, but also by reading (or consuming other media) about photography and about how pictures are made, and by doing photography.

You wouldn't try to write a poem without knowing a lot of words. Even Dr. Geisel knew a lot of words, even though he used as few as 50 to write a book. Knowing a lot of words makes you comfortable with the ones you're using. It gives you a larger pool of words to pick from, even if you're only going to wind up using a few. If you don't know a lot of words, then you cannot pick the right word, for starters, and (this is the important part) you're going to have fewer ideas about what to say.

When you learn to play the piano in a formal setting, you learn a lot of notation. You learn a notation for playing notes in a so-called staccato fashion, where each note is struck very briefly and released immediately, making a short percussive TINK sound. Contrariwise, you learn notation which means to connect a series of notes together in a phrase, and to leave a perceptible space after before beginning the next phrase. More importantly, you learn that there is the possibility of degrees and of connectedness between notes. You learn to phrase staccato notes together. You can separate legato phrases. You learn that there are degrees of length of a note. While it may be notated as a quarter note, indicating that it should be played for such and such a time (relative to the pacing of the piece) but that you can shorten that a little or a lot, and that this will result in different results.

Working with a teacher, you spend a lot of time working out how you want to use these bits of vocabulary. How can I use these ideas of phrasing, and of playing this note slightly louder than that note, and a thousand other things, to express what I want to express. Glenn Gould, it may be assumed, had at his command the entire vocabulary of the piano. For a specific piece he might well have selected a fairly small subset, he was famous for his pointillist readings of Bach, heavy with a staccato touch. Surely, though, his ability to render a piece in this manner was supported by his complete command of legato, and everything else. His ability to play the same piece extremely fluidly surely allowed him to manage the pointillism better, to select the exact degree of pointillism he wanted.

More to the point, though, his understanding of the wider vocabulary gave him the raw material to choose from, to select pointillism where he felt it right, and to select a more fluid style where that better served the music. Without the ability to imagine and experiment with a wide array of sounds, how could he have best selected the sound that served his needs?

I submit that, without the deep vocabulary, Gould might never have found his pointillist interpretation.

This is, sadly, unknowable. There's simply no way anyone gets to be much good at playing the piano without a decent teacher, and a decent teacher will generally make sure that you have a deep vocabulary on hand. Vocabulary building is absolutely central to teaching music, and many other fine arts. There is not, as far as I am aware, any similar process in the teaching of photography, but fairly obviously there should be.

As I read and learn and think about the problems of inspiration, and of making pictures that you actually like, and so on, the more it becomes clear to me that vocabulary is terribly, terribly important in photography. You've got to know a lot of little things, to give you a rich pool of ideas and raw material. It is from this pool of ideas that your ideas will come. They may come in a single Eureka! moment, they might be teased out by a process of refinement, but without the large vocabulary you're not likely to have much success.

How do you get the vocabulary? The same way you get the one made of words. Mainly, you "read", secondarily, you "write". Look at a lot of pictures. Look up the "words" you don't know, by which I mean figure out how the thing was done. Go take pictures, too, try things out. Try out things you don't think will please you. You don't think you'll ever use flash? Go take some anyways, that work will inform your landscapes, I promise. Shoot black and white, shoot color. Shoot portraits and street. Copy things you've seen. Fool around in your photo editor, trying to re-create effects you've seen, whether you like them or not. Read up on effects, how they were done in the darkroom and how they are done today.

There are degrees of knowledge here. You can recognize a visual effect when you see it, as you might recognize staccato. You might have some passing familiarity with how to produce an effect, or an idiom. You might feel extremely comfortable with some element of the photographic vocabulary. There is some value in each. Even a passing awareness of a photographic idea might inform an inspired moment, you might say "Oh man, THAT look, THAT would be PERFECT!" without having the foggiest notion of how to produce that look. I theorize, though, that your unconscious processes are more likely to seize upon just the right thing the more thoroughly you understand it. The inspiration machine that searches for solutions while you shower is, it seems reasonable, more likely to seize upon solutions you can execute than upon solutions you cannot.

A long, long time ago I wrote about the Second Worst Advice which is to just go out and shoot. That makes about as much sense as sitting down at the piano and poking notes at random. Go out and shoot, by all means, but with a plan. Today, I will work on phrasing. Today, I will work on black and white pictures of people. Today I will write a sonnet, however awful. Today I will take a still life backlit with flash. Today I will expand my vocabulary thus.

Vocabulary is the fuel of inspiration.