Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Personal Style

Occasionally one runs across people who worry about developing a personal style, or who talk about their personal style, or who think it is important that a photographer have a personal style. Adam Marelli has a pretty insightful essay here.

Style shouldn't be about you. It should serve the picture, or the portfolio, or the show. The style should support and clarify the idea, the meaning. And by the by, there should be an idea, or some meaning, of some sort.

If you do develop a personal style, it's because the work you do tends to cover some of the same ground, in some sense, over and over. It's because the meanings overlap, and therefore the styles which support those meanings overlap, and therefore the work tends to look similar along certain stylistic lines.

If you're just doing the same thing over and over because it's your thing, you're not an artist with a distinctive personal style at all. You're a one trick pony, and that is a different thing entirely.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

By The Way

If you cannot grasp the difference between these two sentences:

It is possible to take excellent pictures with any camera.

Every excellent picture can be made by any camera

then you need to get off the internet and think about it until you can. If I see another "does equipment matter?" "no it does not!" "but you cannot take a picture of an eagle's nose hairs with a kit lens!" discussion I shall scream.

On Creativity

Yet another dumb thing we see given as advice is to simply shoot. I've talked a little about that here, quite some time ago. There's a variant in which one is given or invents little assignments. These are supposed to inspire you or something. Sometimes they're pitched as a way to break through a creative block. Go outside now and shoot every red object you see!

This is all well and good, and it even works as far as it goes. It is closely allied to the advice given to the blocked writer: just write, jam words into the page, any words at all. This works, and it works very very well. The difference is that the writer is going somewhere. The writer may have something in mind, perhaps 2500 words on the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel. Even if not at the beginning, the writer does not aim to simply have a bunch of words on the page. The end goal is something coherent, an essay, a short story, an article, a novel.

The corresponding advice to the photographer essentially leaves that hapless soul with a bunch of words. Yes, you took a bunch of pictures out the window of a moving car, and now you feel ever so inspired. What now? That feeling of inspiration will only take you so far, eventually you will realize that you still don't have any ideas, except perhaps to take pictures out the car window.

Inspiration is not a stand alone concept. An inspiration, a eureka moment, contains the solution to a problem. It is not some bullshit state of mind in which suddenly everything you do is awesome.

This is not to say that you must start with a clearly stated question or problem. Inspiration is no more an oracle than it is a state of mind. The point is that, eventually, a problem of some sort is solved. The inspiration might contain the problem and the solution all in one, or like Archimedes in his bath, it might contain only the solution to a precisely stated question, or any number of other variants.

If no problem is solved beyond "how shall I make myself feel better about owning this expensive camera" then we're not really talking about inspiration.

These little projects like take ten pictures in ten minutes within ten feet usually do nothing but increase the shutter count on the camera. Ditto P365 and so on. You cannot reasonably approach the problem of getting inspired from a blank state of mind, a state of generic enthusiasm, or just because you bought an expensive camera. You've got to be going somewhere, you've got to have some reason for wanting inspiration. Without a target to aim for, your unconscious mind can't actually do any of that inspirational magic for you.

What are you trying to work out? Is it simply that you don't know what you like? That's a pretty common one. If you haven't got a direction to go then perhaps you should approach the problem as one of finding a direction. If the inspiration you seek is a blinding flash of light which reveals to you what you like, then perhaps you should work on that. You don't need a camera at all for this. Indeed, a camera will probably get in the way, producing endless reams of crap that you don't like. Instead, look at pictures. Look at pictures, think about them, think about whether/why/how you like them. Then take a break, take a nap, take a shower. Repeat.

Eventually you will discover what you like. Now you have at least some chance of applying the same methods to discovering what kinds of pictures you want to make. They're probably some of the pictures that you like, but not every kind of picture that you like. Work at that for a while. After a bit, with luck, you'll have a short list of kinds of pictures you might like to make. Ideas you might like to express. Feelings you might like to invoke. "Looks" you might like to emulate. Now you have you have a direction, of sorts.

Once you have a direction the problems refine themselves into problems of how to proceed in that direction, problems of whether the direction should be modified, and so on. Eventually you drill down to very specific problems of how to make a very specific picture, how to express a specific idea, how to distill a particular feeling into a picture.

Great work is a synthesis of inspiration and hard work. Inspiration provides ideas, hard work refines them, sharpens them, breaks them into multiple ideas. Ongoing episodes of inspiration, ideally, driven by the work and by your ongoing process of looking at pictures (you're still looking at other people's pictures, right?) and struggling, direct and focus the labor.

And around and around it goes, inspiration begets perspiration begets inspiration.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

100,000 Negatives

So you have a chance to buy 5 or 10 thousand rolls of exposed 120 film, shot by some unknown photographer.

What could be on here? Well, the photographer could just have been some obsessive, and it could be 100,000 pictures of his penis. It could be 100,000 willfully bad pictures; I am pretty sure that many photographers have bad ideas that they carefully put in to every exposure. So, for example, if it's all attempts to copy Ansel Adams, it's probably worthless.

But what if it's something else? What if it was someone working in a picture-rich environment, say, a city, and shooting at least as well as random? At least as well as I did in my experiment with randomness, to be precise? 100,000 is about 239x larger than 420. Let us, for now, accept my assertion that I took 2 pretty decent street photographs out of 420. This suggests that such a large archive of negatives might contain 478 pretty good street photographs.

We can fiddle around and say that perhaps some random shooter would have done better, because the 100+ unusably blurry things I shot would mostly not be there, so maybe there would be 600 good ones. Perhaps our subject would not have shot all that architecture, so there might be 700 or 800 decent street photographs. On the other hand, perhaps our hypothetical photographer would have been less lucky than I, so there might only be 200. Regardless, it seems at least credible that in an archive of 100,000 negatives shot more or less at random by some not particularly talented photographer, one might find 500 really quite good pictures.

Just to put this in perspective, we've seen something like 300 pictures from Vivian Maier, the current darling of street photography as fine art, from an archive of something like 140,000 negatives. There are probably more Winogrands out there under the public eye, but a strong argument can be made that a lot of those are crap.

Should you buy a giant collection of exposed film?

If you can, develop a few rolls in advance, and see what you've got. If it's all pictures of the same penis, you might want to reject the deal. If it seems to be willfully bad, again, you might reject the deal. If it seems like random photographs in some promising genre, or genres, you might want to pick it up.

Now you've got a giant logistical problem. You'll want to develop and contact print (or equivalent) the whole lot. Then you're going to pick out the top 1% of the pictures, the top 1000. This should be pretty easy, really. Just be ruthless. Now you've got a 1000 pictures ranging from superb down to 'eh, not bad' with about 500 'hey, that's pretty good' pictures. Go over this collection, and pick out the best 50 to 100.

Now you have some myth-making to do.

You have to impose style on this collections, by pulling together stylistically similar pictures. If you're lucky, your photographer has some sort of style, but you'll probably need to at least refine and focus it, and you may need to create it entirely. You're creating an imaginary photographer who worked in a particular genre, and used a strongly defined style. Look to your best 50-100 pictures for guidance here, you're going to want your created style to have as many of these superb pictures as possible.

You have 1000 pictures to choose from, this should not be terribly hard. Again, it is at least credible that you should be able to pull together a couple hundred loosely related pictures, built around a core of a couple dozen truly excellent ones that are strongly in the same style.

Now you can release a book or something, with 50-100 pictures in it, liberally salted with the excellent ones. This creates the myth that we're dealing with a superb photographer. The next 100 pictures aren't as good, but that doesn't matter as much, the myth is already in place. The Public knows that this is a fine photographer, and therefore the second book also contains superb pictures, because they were shot by a superb photographer.

The 99,600 negatives that never see the light of day might also be excellent, but they might all be crap, too.

I'm certainly not accusing the curators of Vivian Maier or Garry Winogrand of constructing a completely imaginary great photographer by sifting an immense morass of pictures. I am merely pointing out that it's possible. It's not even very hard, given the right sort of mass of negatives to work from. Perhaps relevant is that we've seen a couple books of street photographs from Maier, and the curators have already moved on to Self-Portraits. This might simply be because they want to go broad, rather than deep. One cannot help but wonder, though, if it's because they've already shown us the best of the street photographs.

Just to put the numbers into perspective: If Maier took pictures for 40 years, a rough guess, she shot on average about a roll of film per day during that time. Generously, what we have seen from her represents about 1 picture per month of the work in that period, at a time when we can estimate she was shooting about 350-400 pictures per month.

It's definitely work, make no mistake. There are logistical problems with developing and archiving 100,000 negatives. There are indexing problems. There are issues of taste and style and judgement in play. In order to make this work, the curator has to be a kind of an artist. This doesn't remove the artist from the equation, it just obscures the artist's identity in favor of a good story.

It also, and this is important, does not make the work any less. Process doesn't matter, what matters is the result.

An excellent picture is excellent whether it was shot by a genius, or by a terrible but prolific photographer. This is the miracle of photography.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


There is so very much on the internet about photography, and so very much of it is technical. When I do stumble across something about the creative process, about how to inspire oneself, about how to create/find one's own style, I jump on it! It's so exciting!

And nearly every time it's some stupid horseshit about "buy a new gadget, gadgets are inspiring" or "try macro photography!" or "be a kid again!" It's almost always either advice to spend some money, or a bunch of words that really mean "the way to be creative is... be creative!"

The truth is, most of the people writing about this stuff don't have the foggiest idea how to be creative, how to fuel that inner creative beast. Mainly they don't know because they don't care. Many of them are selling something, usually some shitty class in which they'll urge you to try macro photography and tell you how to use a neutral density filter to make a really terrible landscape that looks just like theirs. The ones that are not selling something are generally gearheads making some nod toward this other thing they have heard of, which isn't gear, so ultimately whatever who cares all that much I'll just blat some crap I cribbed from someplace else.

Creativity isn't all that complicated. A few web searches on the relevant cognitive science turn up some interesting stuff, just be sure to leave any mention of photography out of it lest you wind up at some doltish web site urging you to try colored filters or HDR.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Another Blog

I'm not 100% sure I'm going to keep reading it, but I like this guy's approach. Worth checking out, anyways.

SMOGRANCH - reporting from the edge of the creative world

He's the photographer at large for Blurb, the vanity press/print-on-demand joint for photographers (I use blurb, they're pretty good). As such he is liberated from, as far as I can tell, all constraints. This gives his viewpoint a little something different.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Experiment

Recently I performed an experiment. I had to run an errand downtown, a twenty minute walk away. I took my camera, set up for auto exposure and good depth of field. I simply pointed it anywhere I thought a picture might be and mashed the shutter button over and over. At no time did I stop walking. I avoided looking through the viewfinder. I just pointed roughly, and mashed.

The result was about 420 exposure of random crap. Perhaps 100 were unusably blurry or otherwise useless. In what remains after straightening and cropping there might be dozen or so passable pictures and two or three quite good ones.

I heartily recommend this experiment to everyone, by the way. Its quite liberating and you shoot stuff way outside your comfort zone. Outside in the daytime, try aperture-priority, ISO 400, aperture f/8. Inside, go up to ISO 1600 and down to f/5.6, or thereabouts.

A few interesting conclusions:

I wound up with pretty good results in something like two or three distinct genres. There's some New Topographics style architecture. There's shadow play, with street markings and repairs. There's something like street:

I am not convinced that good Decisive Moments can occur this way. There's not much suggestive in my little sample, at any rate. Maybe one thing with a faint sniff of a Decisive Moment. If that. There are a number of decent or mildly interesting pictures of people, though, the kind of thing many people think of as street in these degenerate times

In terms of style, well, it was all over the place. It was possible to group pictures into styles, but this is really just lumping together pictures which randomly share certain elements. Of course all shared the fairly deep depth of field, black&white, normal-lens setup I was using, but to get beyond that the results were more or less randomized. Nonetheless, style could be imposed. The dozen or so half-decent pictures can be lumped into 3 or 4 groups which are recognizably connected stylistically.

How random was this? Could anyone go do this and get the same degree of success that I did? I rather think so, but I am not sure. It's possible that my sense of where a good picture might be helped me out here, I suppose. Mostly, when there were people, I pointed the camera and them (roughly) and mashed. When there were no people, I pointed at things that I thought "might be interesting" which might have something to do with the half-decent architecture pictures.

The photo above does suggest that at some level I know that there's a sub-genre of street that's about reflections, but I think I was just thinking "look, there are people in there, clickclickclick."

A final remark, I suspect that some photographers might actually be worse than random. My suspicion is precise: by peering through the viewfinder and thinking furiously, some photographers are at some pains to put what turns out to be one or more bad ideas into every frame. They end up shooting consistently bad pictures, rather than a random assortment of pictures, some good. I might be among these photographers.

Friday, January 17, 2014


We tend to like our own pictures more than other people do. We see things in our pictures that other people do not. It is often something of a surprise when other people do not like our pictures. We naturally assume that what we see is obvious to everyone, and it is a bit of a shock when others do not see what is right in front of them, and so obvious!

The same logic applies to phototographers that we like. Having developed affection for a photographer, we tend to see the things in their work which please us, and we tend to overlook the things which do not.

This gets deeper when we start to talk about specific techniques a favorite employs. Now we're not just looking for things we like, but those things which the photographer does. We look for their lighting trick, or the approach they have to arranging things in the frame, other tropes which the photographer uses and re-uses. Because we like the photographer, because we arrive at the picture with the idea that this is a good photographer, we tend to conflate the photographer's signature style notes with actually being good.

An odd consequence of this is that a photographer can go downhill for quite some time before anyone really notices, and can go downhill more or less indefinitely before everyone notices. There will always be a few hangers on who insist that so-and-so still has it, whatever it is, and everyone else just cannot see what is right in front of them, and so obvious!

Another variation is community standards and norms. The camera club, the Ansel Adams aficionados, the HCB fans, the online forums, any social group which spends some time with pictures will tend to have a set of norms. These folks will tend to conflate their norms with quality. The Ansel Adams fan will dismiss any picture without a full range of tonal values, and without texture in both the highlights and shadows. The camera club member will probably dismiss any picture that lacks a single well defined subject placed at the intersection of 1/3 lines. Worse, the Ansel Adams fan will tend to think any picture is good if it has the hallmark Ansel Adams tonal range, and a few other notes (black skies, white clouds, and a mountain will usually suffice).

As with the loved photographer, we tend to conflate conformance to specific identifiable standards with actually being good.

Breaking out of this is a bit of a trick, to be sure. I don't have any really good answers. Obviously I don't think that I am subject to there silly infatuations and dumb standards. Nobody does, our prejudices are astoundingly invisible to ourselves.

Step back, look at the whole picture, and try to react to it as a child.

How do you feel?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Decisive Moments

Lots of people write about The Decisive Moment, with all manner of ideas and analysis. It's not very complicated. When you're looking out at the world, from time to time a moment will arrive when the scene forms a picture. That is, a picture as opposed to an uninteresting jumble of stuff. What follows is roughly a worked example. The result is not the greatest street photograph ever, but it should be illustrative, and that is after all the point.

Some caveats. I am not a street guy. I don't shoot street much, I just take a swing at it every now and then. I recognize and enjoy it, I like the little design and geometry puzzles in Cartier-Bresson's pictures in particular. It's definitely a bit of an acquired taste.

I happened to be sitting in a bus in Vancouver, BC, waiting for the bus to leave to Seattle. The bus had about a half an hour to wait, so I amused myself by taking snaps of what I saw out the window. Across the street was a hair and nail salon, and every now and then one of the employees would step out onto a sort of deck-like structure for a smoke break, or whatever. At the same time, people walked by along the sidewalk.

It occurred to me that there was some potential for an interesting visual interaction between people walking along the sidewalk with people on the deck thing, or maybe with the signage, or something of that sort. I was mainly just idly snapping pictures of people walking on the sidewalk. Mainly girls. I like girls.

Here are some of the snaps:

Most of these are not pictures. They're random assemblages of stuff, including a pretty girl. But wait. That one in the middle:

Note the echoed lines of the legs, echoed in the two sides of the sandwich board. It's not perfect, but it's not terrible. Note also that the man on the deck, the girl, and the sign, all form a triangle. The design, the geometry, isn't great, but it's not terrible. Now if only there's some content.. Ok, there's some stuff with posture and attitude and motion going on. Again, not great, but it's there. Then there's some little details in leaves and things, gives a viewer a little reward for looking.

The main problem of course is that the picture which is present is just a part of the frame. Also, the elements are not particularly well eludicated. So we have to crop and pull things out, emphasize some things, de-emphasize some others. The result isn't gonna be any Henri Cartier-Bresson, but it should be recognizably a product of that school.

Here it is:

As with all of my rare and mildly successful efforts at street, I was looking for something specific, but pretty small. In this case a pedestrian and a man above, in some sort of visual interaction. What I got was that, and fair dose of serendipity. If I'd shot this one stride later, the geometry would have been stronger. Or, if the man had stepped backward 18 inches, my triangle would have been perfect. Some minor changes in his posture would have been nice as well, although I would not change hers for all the tea in China. It would have been great if that car had been positioned differently.

This is, I think, how it really works. You're looking for something, and you get that something, or close, and then luck grants you a bunch of other things in addition, and you end up with something pretty good.

The decisive moment is when there is, for an instant, a picture. In that half hour in Vancouver, I took a bunch of dull snaps, and came quite close to taking a picture. I got close enough to be pretty pleased with it.


Is this a trend? I'm not sure. Regardless, whenever I am on some photography themed web site, I frequently see ads for photo books. Make your own book! With your own photos! Since these companies remain in business, I suppose that having a photobook made must be a thing that people do.

In fact, I've made a few books, for one reason or another. It's kind of fun. Bit of an expensive hobby and rather time consuming to do a half decent job, but kind of fun.

And, I've seen a few photo books from other people. Not enough to really know if it's a trend, a thing people do these days, Still, there are these hints.

What do people put in these things? I've seen and made event themed books. The family reunion, the annual week-at-the-beach, whatever. Some mildly special event. Possibly even little Timmy's Birthday Party, but generally a little more distinctive and rare. I have made portfolio themed books. I've also seen year-in-review books.

If we do indeed have a new digital vernacular it certainly seems reasonable that this is what would mostly go in to these things. This is consistent with the few books I've seen.

We're printing photographs, even in this digital age. The distinction is that we're only printing some of them. We're curating, at least lightly, we're picking the best of them. We're shooting a lot of frames, we're sharing a lot of frames. We're making prints of the good ones, or the important ones. If there's only one picture of Aunt Sue, well, we have to put in in the book. Aunt Sue doesn't look very good, but she was hiding from the camera all day, so, what are you gonna do? We can't leave her out of the book.

There's a 129 pictures of the kids making goofy faces before lunch, so pick the best three of those.

Probably the goofy faces, the duckface, the iPhone-mirror-selfie, these all will look as ridiculous and dates in a few decades as the 1970s pictures of stiffly posed families in front of objects look now. We're always going to be dating ourselves. I think an argument can be made that we're getting better pictures now, in some useful sense, simply because we've got more to choose from and we are choosing them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

ToP on prints

Mike has a great insightful post right here. You should read it.

This is, essentially, everything Susan Sontag was trying to say in the 1970s, with the pretense stripped away, and placed into the context of now, the digital photography era.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Digital Vernacular

This posting is really a variation on this theme.

There's this thing called Vernacular Photography, which is really a nice and arty way of saying "snapshots" without saying "snapshots". The word snapshot is mainly used these days as a pejorative, and like most pejoratives really means "I suck and have no confidence" rather than anything about the picture under discussion.

Vernacular photography, let's say, mainly means pictures which appeal mainly to people with a a direct connection to the subject matter. They lack universals, they make no particular connection with the average person on the street. The child blowing out her birthday candles. Grandma in front of the Christmas tree. Bob standing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

There has been an interesting change in this with the advent of digital cameras. In the first place, there's a whole lot more of it. Several orders of magnitude, at least. In the second place, it's become quite different.

In years past, when the average family in the USA had perhaps one 35mm camera, that average family shot a few rolls of film each year. Maybe 1 roll, maybe 5. It was a pretty rare family that shot as many as 10 rolls. Film was therefore a resource to be husbanded, at least a bit. We don't see 100 shots from little Timmy's birthday party. We see 2 or 4 or maybe 10. A few of these are no good, out of focus, overexposed. Of the ones remaining, they tend to be Timmy posed stiffly in front of presents and Timmy blowing out the candles. In fact, the stiffly posed in front of something picture is practically the iconic American Snapshot from the 20th century.

Digital cameras have changed all that. Exposures are free. We might still get some people stiffly posed in front of things, but we also get silly things, goofy expressions, people falling down, Timmy covered with icing, because, why not? Free!

The vernacular has changed, it has broadened to include rather more genuine moments of life. There are what seem to be literally new icons in the vernacular. The mirror-iPhone-selfie is ubiquitous, and has perhaps no pre-digital analog. See also groups of drunk white chicks throwing fake gang signs, the duckface selfie, the photograph of my lunch or of my latte.

Along with this we see changes in how we use pictures. This new vernacular is a product not only of the cheapness of exposures, but of the venues and methods for sharing. It's not at all clear to me whether one drives the other, or if they simply evolved together, but there is no doubt that the new ways we use pictures work very well with the new pictures we are making. The drunk white chicks throwing gang signs is the perfect facebook picture. It says "we had a very fun time last night."

The very permanence of film and of prints, together with the associated costs, pressured the photographer to make pictures that were worth keeping, pictures that we'd want to look at in 20 years. You can certainly argue with the methodology, but the prevailing wisdom was that pictures worth keeping were mainly someone posed stiffly in front of something else. Proof that we were somewhere, or that something occurred, and a carefully arranged opportunity for the person or people in the picture to look their best.

Now that we're sharing online, now that pictures are ephemera, there's less perceived necessity to make permanent pictures. The content is permitted to be ephemeral, to be trivial, to be goofy and silly. We needn't look our best in these pictures, we needn't even try. In a week or two, they'll be so far down the timeline nobody sees them anyways. It's not like these damned things are going in a shoebox where we'll stumble across them every 5 years or so, to our increasing embarrassment.

There's probably something to be said here about the other ways we're using and displaying pictures, as well. We still print, but now we make books, we use digital picture frames, we email photos, we send them from one cell phone to another, and so on. More, perhaps, on that later.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Things and Connections

Metcalfe's Law states that the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected things. That is, as you add more things to a network, the value of the network increases quite a bit faster than you add things. Metcalfe's Law is true.

The value of Things are often dramatically enhanced by metadata. My name has not much value. My name together with a cloud of demographic data and some information about my shopping habits is surprisingly valuable.

A piece of Art without an idea, and without a use (see here for the precise details of the rather specific and perhaps unorthodox way I am using these two words) has little to no value. Add in a good idea and some use and your Art becomes pretty valuable, potentially in terms of money and certainly as a cultural artifact.

There is a common fallacy which is produced by all these things, and many similar and related things. That fallacy is that when some factor, X, adds a great deal of value to Y, whatever you mean by value, then it follows that Y has low value. Especially among people who are in the business of X, there is a strong tendency to overvalue X and undervalue Y. The root of the fallacy lies in forgetting that, without Y, X's value collapses. The value in the add-on factor is second-order, and built on the value of the underlying Things.

We see this in Art. The central idea of Conceptual Art is essentially the statement that the Art Object itself is stupid and irrelevant. A great deal of modern art, whether conceptual or otherwise, partakes of this notion. A show of pictures can be of terrible, uninteresting, repetitive pictures, but with a great Artist's Statement it's a success,

We see this in the technology industry, we have endless millions being spent on things which boil down to the idea that the metadata or the interconnectedness is as valuable, or more valuable, than the Thing Itself. We lose sight of the fact that this value, while real and large, is second-order value. Without the Thing Itself, the structure collapses, and there is no value.

The information about my shopping habits and demographics has a value, to be sure. That value has a very strict upper bound: It is not and never will be worth more money that I am going to spend. In reality the upper bound is a very very small fraction of the amount I am willing to spend. Nobody but a fool would spend $100 in order to sell me $100 worth of products. There are fools, to be sure, but they don't stay in business long.

The shell game works a bit better in Art where the value is all perception anyways. It's still a shell game.

We see this game being played out in popular photography as well. On some picture sharing sites, the object appears to be to get your pictures to be popular. You'd like them to be Trending or Explored, or Most Liked or whatever. The way you do this is by making a pretty good picture, but more importantly a picture that hits the locally accepted standards, and then most importantly of all by marketing the hell out of it and yourself. Follow/Friend everyone. Like and +1 everything. Add your picture to as many groups or whatever as you can. Get it out there.

It doesn't really have to be that good, it just has to be well connected, and then you win the game.

And then you can take your winnings from the game and go... um. Well you't do anything with them. But it feels good.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Bad Article, But..

This article by Craig Mod in The New Yorker is, maybe, worth your time. Skim it, but read the last couple paragraphs more closely.

Basically the article says "I am very cool, I live in Japan, and I have had a lot of cool cameras and I shot film, and stuff." which is pretty typical of the shorter pieces in this magazine. They're all auto-hagiography disguised as articles about something or other, and this one certainly is no exception.

What makes this one interesting to me is the bit at the end, where he makes a couple of points, jumbled together.

The first is that digital photographs, especially those made with smart devices that are not necessarily just cameras, potentially have a lot of metadata attached to them. This makes a new object, it's analogous to "picture + title" but instead it's "picture + extra data" where the extra data might be as odd as radiation levels, or as mundane as map co-ordinates.

This is an interesting idea. (I admit that I am dubious, but...) He suggests that a mundane picture taken near the site of a nuclear accident (in Japan, natch, Craig Mod is so interesting!), will be, when annotated with the ambient radiation levels, somehow elevated to something more. This is, I think, wrong. The interesting information is the radiation level, and attaching that to a shitty photograph just makes that information less accessible. It is possible that his example is just bad. He's fallen in to the Wired Magazine trap of "if it has data somewhere in it, it must be ever so cool."

There may be special cases. I can imagine that a portfolio tied to map co-ordinates which connect a sequence of pictures to a sequence of locations might create something bigger than just the portfolio, for example.

Regardless, it is certainly not true that hanging a bunch of data on just any old picture is going to make it better, any more than a really cool title will. Occasionally, hanging appropriate and interesting data on a picture, or group of pictures, could elevate that picture, or group of pictures to something bigger.

Anyways, that is the bit that's potentially interesting, and perhaps worth your time. Perhaps worth a bit of a think. It's something new that is enabled by the digital era. In what follows here, I'm just going to burn the rest of Mod's piece to the ground, there's not a lot of interesting commentary after this!

The second point Mod makes is, roughly, the same point everyone else who's paying attention has been making for the last few years: that photographs are for sharing, that connectivity is the essence of how we use pictures these days. Or, more precisely, of one important way that we use pictures these days. He cites Sontag, apparently just to give us the impression that of course he's read Sontag la de da, but the usage makes it clear that if he did read Sontag he didn't understand anything.

Sontag makes the point that things which are not photographed are lessened in our collective mind. We understand the world, to some degree, through photographs of it, and therefore what is not photographed is not as forward in our consciousness. This is perfectly correct. Mod then leaps to the conclusion that now it is not the photography of the thing that makes it important, it is the connectivity, the sharing of the pictures of it.

Again, we see the sloppy Wired Magazine thinking: it's the network, it's the data, it's the connectivity, the future is so darn cool because the thing itself doesn't matter, it's the connectivity, the network, the data, the access that matters.

He's missed some things. It was always the sharing and connectivity that created the effect. An undeveloped roll of film never did anything to enhance the social importance of a thing. Furthermore, the increased connectivity and sharing is on the whole lessening the importance of things, in Sontag's sense.

Her point was that the world was divided in to things photographed, and things not photographed, and that this division had certain effects. This division no longer exists, all things are photographed. It is all photographed, it is all shared.

It was always the case that a thing un-photographed and un-shared (in the 1970s sense) was lessened in importance, this has not changed. The change is that everything is photographed and shared, so, in the way that Sontag meant, nothing is more important than anything else. Being photographed is no longer differentiates the uninteresting from the interesting, the trivial from the important.

Of course, trivial and important things still exist. Interesting and uninteresting things still exist. The change is that photography no longer has much role is revealing or dictating these differences.

This is important, and Mod completely missed it, because he wanted to make some labored analogy about editing photos on an iPhone and developing prints in wet chemistry.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Clarifying Terms

I realize that I am using this word use in a very specific and pretty confusing way. I just don't happen to have a better word on hand for what I am trying to think about. So, some examples.

I've talked about what I intend by the word meaning in this posting and I've talking about what I intend by the word use over here. I have this notion that some examples might help.

Also, if you have an idea for words that might be more usefully deployed to carry these ideas, let me know!

Suppose I shoot an abstract photograph that invokes, for me, the sensation that I am glimpsing the very face of God. The meaning would be, for me, that sensation, that connection with the sublime. If I love the picture and hang it where I will see it every day, then that daily moment where I glance into the face of God, becomes the use of the picture. The picture is well used, I look at it daily, and get that emotional response. If, on the other hand, the picture terrifies me and I bury in the basement because I fear to look into the face of God, then the picture gets no use at all. It has exactly the same meaning but the use is nil.

A landscape which is particularly beautiful, perhaps a particularly striking sunset, might have the somewhat thin meaning boiling down to "my, how pretty" but that is nonetheless a meaning. Looking at it might well give pleasure every time. Hanging it over the couch, and looking at it from time to time is use.

A similar landscape, but without the striking beauty, might have almost no meaning. We might see it as a generic landscape, we might see it not as itself, really, but as a representative of a class of pictures. Hotel rooms are full of this stuff, quite deliberately. There is little to no meaning here, but if the colors are right and it really pulls the room together, and helps make the room feel beautiful, comfortable, warm, welcoming, then that it arguably a good use of the picture. It's getting looked at, and rewarding us for looking at it.

Of course more direct meaning is possible. A photograph can simply show us something new, or something that happened, as a piece of journalism or documentary. A photograph might be a little essay on the horrors of war.

More direct use is also possible and reasonable, a picture might illustrate a technical detail of a manual on auto repair, or might illustrate an article about an event in the newspaper. An even more direct use is simply to have sold the thing.

Perhaps an analogy will not further muddy the waters.

Among my skills is the ability to teach mathematics. This is something in me, something which is true about me. This might be in a sense analogous to meaning. I might also have a job, which might be in some sense analogous to use. The job might, or might not, be to teach mathematics.

As in my analogy, meaning and use may be entangled. If I have a job teaching mathematics, then my skills and my vocation are entangled and when I say 'I am a math teacher' it's not at all clear, or important really, which I mean. If my job is to break rocks, then when I say 'I am a math teacher' means something quite different. On the other hand, if my job is to teach something I know nothing about, perhaps I might say 'I am a sociology teacher', making a statement purely about what I am paid to do.

In the same way, the meaning of a picture, or any other piece of art, may or may not be entangled with or orthogonal too, the use to which that art is put.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Process

This little essay should be considered a snapshot of my current overthinking of the process of photography.

As documented here I think of making a picture as having three components or aspects: Idea, Subject, and Rendering. To this I want to add the idea of Use from the previous essay.

In narrative form, then:

We make a picture by pointing the camera at something, in some direction. This is our selection of subject. The way we frame the subject, the way we expose it, and the way we handle the post processing details constitute the rendering we select for that subject. This produces a picture: a print, or a file, or some other final result. If we're doing well, this picture will, to some degree, embody an idea. That is, at this point our picture will ideally express some meaning in the general sense of that word. The picture will express some emotion, or will be attractive, or will teach something, reveal something, or whatever. It will in some way be bigger than a simple record of whatever was in front of the camera.

Finally, that idea, that meaning, will enable the picture to have some use. You'll print it, frame it, and hang it. Or perhaps you'll sell it. Or you'll share it with family. Perhaps you'll put it in a book, or use it in an advertisement for your tomato farm. Whatever the use is, it mostly the idea, that synthesis of subject and rendering to produce something at least a little bigger, which drives the use.

Perhaps one might find a use for a picture without an idea, perhaps a record photograph of some object need only be a record of the object to appear in the book about the object. Is there an idea here that drives the use? Maybe, maybe not, I shan't quibble. The point is that these notions of subject, rendering, idea, and use are things which may, and frequently do, appear in the total process. Furthermore, the relationships between these things are often as I have sketched them.

Most pictures are made today with a focus almost entirely on rendering. We worry about the lighting, the model's pose, the way the background looks. We worry about how to photoshop bad things out, and good things in. We worry about how to accomplish some visual effect or another. Some attention, but not enough, is given to the subject, to where the camera ought to be pointed. Some mild attention is given to the idea, the meaning, the emotional impact. Almost none is given to the idea of use.

Yet, use is the ultimate goal.

There are somewhat degenerate uses: many people derive satisfaction simply from making a good picture. I suppose that one might derive satisfaction simply from having a collection of good pictures on one's hard disk, pictures that one rarely or never looks at. These are uses in the sense I mean. Someone is getting some value from the picture. Still, it's a pretty thin use.

Mostly, pictures get little to no use. They're made, they're uploaded someplace to vanish down the time stream, they languish on a hard disk. Responsible photographers lovingly back up their collections of unused pictures, and store them on triply redundant hard disks, or whatever. To no purpose whatsoever.

In this era of a trillion pictures, it behooves us to consider that last stage, the use, ever more vigilantly. The days when you could simply throw a handful of drugstore prints in the box and be done with it are over. A physical box with a couple hundred pictures gets looked at from time to time. In a sense, the use of a print is a problem which solves itself, as the physical artifact presents itself randomly in the process of living. Now, that box is digital, invisible, and might contain 100,000 pictures. It never thrusts itself into our attention for a moment like a print, it lies fallow and silent, out of sight.

In truth, we cannot really use this many pictures in any realistic way. Still, we should consider the idea of use, and how one might use pictures. We should make pictures with this goal in mind.

Perhaps we can make a few, from time to time.