Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pictorialism and the History of Photography

I'm continuing to read and re-read this book on Robinson and Emerson, struggling to make sense of things. One thing that's becoming quite clear is that Beaumont Newhall did us a great disservice in his discussion of Art Photography versus Pictorial Photography versus Straight Photography.

Historians always strive to categorize things into neat boxes. Eras, movements, schools. Photography is remarkably unfriendly to this occupation.

You can attempt to organize by school, according to the way photographers organized themselves:

This produces a first wave of Royal Photographic This and National Committee That, generally rooted in Victorian artistic principles, perhaps with a scientific bent. They aspire to make, with the camera, mawkish Victorian paintings. They revere Rembrandt and all the old masters of oil painting. They're trying to figure this new Photo Graphy thing out, and trying to make sense of it in the context of the paintings they know.

This is followed by a couple of breakaway groups, Secessionists. Linked Ring in the UK, the Photo-Secession in the USA, and some other related groups in the rest of Europe. These people are, in broad strokes, motivated by the ideas of the Impressionists. The pictures from these people tend to look like impressionist paintings, with occasional bursts of Caravaggio and Rembrandt because if there's one thing a camera does well, it's chiaroscuro.

Following this group, we get Straight Photography. f/64, Camera Work's final issues, and so on. These people are generally reacting against the soft impressionistic look the previous waves has settled on. They like sharp pictures, and a lot of gritty realism. These people are producing pictures that do not look like paintings, they look like photographs. You can make a strong argument that this is actually when photography comes into its own, incidentally.

After this, the wheels kind of fall off and it's every man for himself. Which, as we shall see, is how it has always been.

Another approach to organization is by technical approach:

This is an approach photographers are quite fond of, being as we are obsessed with technique. In broad strokes here we have a spectrum of how much modification is permitted. The usual simplistic approach to defining Pictorialism is in opposition to Straight Photography, and this boils down to a "lots of manipulation" versus "no manipulation" argument, mainly because that's how the Straight Photographers tended to style themselves.

This, it turns out, is utter nonsense. Emerson, who is argued by Newhall to be the ur-Pictorialist, was perhaps the strictest anti-manipulation photographer that ever lived. Meanwhile the f/64 crowd manipulated wildly, stopping just short of composites and scribbling on negatives.

The categorization by technique approach is generally accepted, at least as a simplified method, but it's utter rubbish. All we really have is a bunch of disconnected fetishists arguing over what manipulations are OK, and which are not. The historical record contains manifestos and other statements with signatories, but the reality resembles the manifesto not at all. Everyone manipulates. Except Emerson, who bailed out of photography after a couple decades.

Yet another approach could be the arrange photographers by ideas:

This runs into even more trouble, since we have multiple axes involved here, and every photographer is essentially unique, and is difficult to compare with any other photographer:
  • Is Art made or is it discovered?
  • Should photographs look real or surreal?
  • Should photographs look impressionistic or literal?

The trouble really is that every attempt to categorize with one method yields quite different categories than another method. Henry Peach Robinson appears in multiple categories. Peter Henry Emerson likewise, and furthermore appears to be an outlier on all fronts (albeit an influential one). Stieglitz is well known to have bridged the gap from Pictorialism to Straight Photography, whatever those even are.

Is Robinson a Pictorialist or not? There seems to be no way to define the term that does not admit Robinson, except the Newhall method with is to simply assert that Robinson wasn't, because Emerson started it and said Robinson wasn't. Robinson was a strong proponent of the kinds of techniques that might be said to define Pictorialism. He never made a picture that didn't look like a painting. One can argue that they look like the wrong kind of painting, but even that's not true. Robinson's inspirations do not seem to include the Impressionist painters, but he certainly made some pictures that look like some of Emerson's pictures. Differing inspirations (Turner vs. Impressionists) seem to have produced very very similar results at times. Robinson was a founding member of Linked Ring, a Pictorialist group.

Was Emerson a Pictorialist, or not? Certainly. His pictures explicitly look like Impressionist paintings. Was he a Straight Photographer? By some definitions, certainly: he opposed "hand-work" more than any Straight Photographer ever did, despite the fact that many of the latter defined themselves in opposition to "hand-work". He certainly felt that Art was discovered, not created. You had to see it, photography was, for Emerson, a minor (albeit very technical) detail that occurs after the important seeing part. If he bridges Pictorialism and Straight Photography, he does it 30 years early.

Was Ansel Adams a Pictorialist? Surely. His pictures look like paintings, and are heavily manipulated. Arguably, Adams is a throwback to earlier versions of Pictorialism, before the softness of Impressionism turned up. If you wish to exclude Adams from Pictorialism on the grounds that his photographs are sharp, then you have to exclude Frederick Evans as well, which is going to be a bit of a problem. If you wish to exclude Adams on the grounds that he didn't heavily manipulate his pictures, then you are an idiot.

The point here, really, is that these things simply don't fall in to neat categories. If you try to really pin down Pictorialism, or Art Photography, or Straight Photography, or any of Newhall's neat little boxes, everything slips away from you. These are not neat boxes, they are broad and overlapping generalizations. Each photographer should be seen as embodying more or less of any given category: mostly Pictorialist, but with a pinch of Straight Photography, until his later work which really reverts to.. and so on.

Photography is easy. Unlike painting you don't need to commit much of anything to accept an influence. You don't need to spend 6 months or 6 years learning specific brush techniques, you can simply see a photograph and steal a visual idea in an afternoon. Photographers have always influenced one another, styles evolving at a dizzying pace.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Clear Concept

As regular readers will surely have deduced, I am a big fan of having a clear concept, by which I mean a clearly imagined subject, rendering, and idea.

It occurred to me yesterday that my biggest single forward stride is simply that I no longer press the shutter button without having a pretty clear concept in mind. That's not quite true, of course. I take lots of pictures of my kids, and I take pictures as part of the preliminaries of finding a concept, and so on. But it is accurate to say that I don't press the shutter button "in anger" or one might say "with artistic intent" without having a clear concept in mind.

A couple days ago I burned off a couple exposures of a pretty girl who works at a local coffee shop. For some time I'd been toying with the idea of asking her to duplicate Johnny Cash's iconic photograph, in which he is grimacing at the camera, arm and middle finger extended. I don't know why this felt right, but it did. The other day I got around to asking her, we took a couple pictures, it was good. The result is a pretty good picture I'm not going to share with you. Sorry. But it's pretty good.

So what's the point? The point is that I didn't take pictures of any of the other pretty people there. I want to photograph all the pretty girls, of course. Doesn't everyone? The world, however, does not need more generic pictures of generically pretty girls. There are plenty of GWACs out there shooting those by the gross, every single day. Not my thing at all.

So I shot this girl, because I had a concept. It's a picture of a pretty girl, but it's also quite a bit more.

My concept did not survive intact. My concept was a duplicate of the Cash picture, and that did not happen. What happened was something better, more honest, and more interesting. The girl did her own take on it. Her body language is completely different, and much more her than Cash, and that is a good thing. I am delighted that my concept had to evolve, it was forced to grow up, and to become something better.

An oft-quoted remark attributed to Ansel Adams: "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept". It's true. But it's usually misused wildly.

In the first place it usually is used to mean "Your picture(s) suck" and is quoted by somebody who's never had a clear concept in his (rarely, her) life, and has certainly never executed a clear concept of anything into a photograph. Unless, I suppose, you consider making poor copies of other people's pictures a clear concept.

In the second place, there is a planted axiom in it. Adams was very serious about promoting the narrative that he always had a clear concept of the final image, and that he then executed that final image, and the result was pretty much just as he had imagined it at the moment of pressing the shutter button. This is, I suspect, nonsense.

What is important is to have a concept up front, not that it is immutable and, ultimately, perfectly executed in the final print. I suspect strongly that there was a lot more serendipity in play in Adams' work than he let on. This is not a high bar -- his conceit was that there was no serendipity at all after the shutter press. I believe that he generally had a clear idea. I do not believe that the print is always a perfect reflection of that idea. Indeed, one need only inspect different prints of the same negative to see this. The man's concept changed at the enlarger, and that is just as it ought to be.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I am reading a nice little book on H.P. Robinson's quarrel with P.H. Emerson in the last part of the 19th century. More on that later, when I finish my review and discussion of it. A substantive point of the book can be boiled down to something quite small. If you aim to take realistic photographs, there are at least two different things you can be striving for:

I want to make a photograph which allows you to have much the same experience as if you had been there.

I want to make a photograph which allows you to have much the same experience as I had when I was there.

The difference is one of level of experience. Do I want to show you Hoover Dam as it, in some sense, is so that you may have your own experience of Hoover Dam? Or, do I want to show you Hoover Dam as I experienced, so that you may share in my experience of it?

I call the first thing "objective" for lack of a better word, although Realism is a term that may apply here. I call the second thing "subjective" for much the same reason, although it's possible Impressionism is a relevant term. Trying to apply terms from painting to photography is a bit fraught, since the schools of painting often mix techniques and ideas all up together, and the techniques are frequently not translatable.

There are lots of photographers who will tell you that they're not interested in art, they just want to record what's there. Unless you're literally happy with simply having made measurements of certain light bands, this cannot be quite right. There is this notion that a photograph captures what we see, but that is not even wrong. What we "see" is a construct of our mind, only connected in a general sort of way with what a photograph captures.

The only hope, if you're interested in more than measurements of luminous intensity, is that your photograph will tend to cause the viewer's mind to construct something similar to.. well, whatever it is that you want it to be similar to.

Do you want them to construct a "seeing" of Hoover Dam as you saw it, or as they would have seen it?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

It's a Golden Age of Photography

Inspired by smogranch, who is awesome.

It is, it truly is.

There was a time and a place when being literate, simply being able to read and write, was sufficient to earn a living. There was a whole lot of learning involved. You had to know how to make and maintain pens made out of feathers, and probably how to compound ink. Lettering was quite complex. You might have had to know some Latin.

These days most of that has been swept aside. We buy ballpoint pens and throw them away when the ink runs out. Lettering is simplified, and the standards for adequate lettering are mostly non-existent. We write mostly on computers, anyways. You can still get paid to read and write letters for people, but it's rare and making a living at it is nigh impossible. In the first world nations, and increasingly across the globe, "everyone" can read and write.

This is considered a good thing by all thinking human beings.

There's a science fiction novella called Gunner Cade in which the title character joins the military of the future. The details elude me, but, roughly, he undergoes years of training based around The Gun, a sort of energy pistol which is the weapon of the soldier of the future. Loads of technical detail, maintenance routines, a quasi-religious set of rituals around The Gun. Later, Cade joins a revolutionary group that has acquired a large supply of these Guns, and he is charged with training the rag-tag group in their use.

At first he is daunted, this takes years! Then he sorts through his training, and trims it down to the essentials for the job at hand which is winning this battle. His training regime is thus reduced to:

Grab a Gun.
Turn it on with this switch.
Point it and pull the trigger. When it stops firing, throw it away and grab another Gun.

Mastering The Gun does not take years, after all. It takes seconds. Does this sound at all familiar?

Spoiler: Cade's side wins.

We now live in a similar golden age of photography. Everyone can take pictures. A few people think this is terrible, woe, the standards have fallen so, etc etc.

In the first place the standards haven't fallen all that much. Sure there's daylight between what a "professional" would have done and what some bozo with a cell phone does, but it's daylight that doesn't matter to anyone.

We might, for instance, see fatuous idiots explaining that the standards for prints are, really, 300dpi, and your picture will only print 1 inch across! The correct response is a blank stare and "but I just want to stick it on facebook. print? what?"

We might, for instance, see another fatuous idiot explaining that without a DSLR and a fast lens, you'll never get good bokeh, and the subject will never be really well separated from the background. One can either go straight to the blank stare and "I don't care. In fact, nobody cares, except you" or you could, for extra fun, pull the picture into an editor and hastily blur the background.

At this point the fatuous idiot will point out that the blur doesn't look like convincing focus blur. Then you get to point out that the mission is to make the subject separate from the background, not to simulate a full frame whateverthefuck and an 85/1.8 GLZ whateverthefuck lens. Did you want to separate the subject or were you just trying to justify your $4000 camera kit?

"Nobody cares, except you."

Most of the difference between self-styled expert photographers and the bozos with the cell phone cameras is pointless ritual aimed at producing effects most people cannot even see without training, and optimizing parameters nobody cares about. You don't need to know how to mix collodion, or what sodium thiosulfate is, or what the aperture setting does.

It's a golden age of photography. Anyone can take pictures. Anyone can take excellent pictures. You just stand in a good place, point the camera in a good direction, and pull the trigger.

Isn't it great?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's a Web Of Pictures

People don't read, on the world wide web.

Well, that's not quite right. Still. Find yourself a context in which people can write things, and other people can reply to those things. Write some sort of thoughtful remark, say 200 words or so. Make sure it's on-topic, that is makes a single clear point, and that it backs that point up with a straightforward argument. Now watch for replies. You might have to do this a few times to actually draw a reply.

Almost invariably you will find that even a direct reply -- someone hit a "reply" button, and perhaps quoted some or all of your text -- will make almost no sense. It won't be a reply at all. You might ask yourself if the replier is insane, since your point was quite clear, and yet the reply seems to be about something else entirely.

People don't read, on the web. They're here to kill time, they're here on mobile devices that make reading text quite a chore. One could probably perform a study to measure the average amount of time people will devote to trying to read and grasp a comment, a forum remark, or any other "flow of conversation" snippet of content (as opposed to, say, a longer form news article). I bet the answer would come out to a small number of seconds.

People don't read. Instead, they skim. They pick out keywords and phrases, they try to guess what your position is based on that. They may slot you into a social group "my side" or "their side" if there's some sort of argument going on. Based on this sort of snap judgement, they will they dash off a reply based not on what you said, but what they imagine someone like you might say.

Ok, so what? Andrew's a damn crybaby, and nobody bothers to read what he wrote.

The important point here is that people allocate a very small number of seconds to some content you post. So, you're best off posting a picture.

If you write: went to a party last night, drank too much, it was awesome. Hung out with Billy and Susie, and laughed and laughed. Now I am hungover. people might read it. They might not. It's an impossibly tiny fragment of impossibly tiny text on their iPhone.

If you post a picture of you and Susie and Billy laughing very hard and visibly drunk, you communicate exactly the same thing, and people reading your social media thing will grasp the idea reliably and instantaneously. There is zero effort involved, no reading, no puzzling out of tiny letters. Instead of engaging a linear/reading part of the brain, what's engaged is the picture-recognizing parts of the brain, which work all-at-once.

Memes are somewhere in the middle. There's a picture, but there's words. What's nice about memes is that the structure of the picture with words on it enforces both a large font (easily read on mobile devices) and a very short lump of text (quickly read). It's not quite as instantaneous as a picture alone, but it is grasped by the reader very very fast indeed. It is a fine way to make some point in, nearly, an instant.

It's a world wide web of pictures. It's what people want, it's what they consume.

Hooray, photography for the win! (as civilization crumbles!)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Inspiration/Perspiration. A Worked Example.

A couple of relevant essays I have written in the past: pre-visualization and inspiration and a post on terminology I am citing a lot since I am using some pretty specific and idiosyncratic terminology. You may have read them before, and they're not mandatory pre-requisites. Just precursor material to what follows here.

Over the weekend, I had some time, so I decided to perform an exercise.

I would select an object, at random, and attempt to discover an inspiration, a eureka moment, in how to shoot the thing. The process here is, as I have noted in the past, to alternately think about the problem, and to take breaks from thinking about the problem, until a solution pops into one's mind. This can take a while. In this case, it was a day or two later that my inspiration occurred, such as it was.

The object I selected was my wife's bicycling helmet. I started out looking at it, pondering it in a fairly vague sort of way. I shot a couple pictures of it with my phone:

Pretty uninspired, but the idea was to simply have a record shot so I would know what the thing looks like. After noodling on it a bit, I moved on to other things.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I came across the pictures on my phone a couple of times, and noodled some more. My usual technique is to simply bury the thing in shadow. Heavy chiaroscuro and call it good, but I wanted to not simply revisit old tricks with this exercise.

At some point a couple of days later came the inspirational moment. Not a big one, just a little "aha!". It went like this:

I was thinking, for the second or third time but I don't want to just bury it in shadow when the critical thought occurred the holes, something about the holes. My first idea, discarded almost immediately, was to skim a light across the top, burying the holes in shadow. A white helmet with inky black holes. The next idea was no, put a light inside it, and have rays of light beaming out from each of the holes! I forget precisely the circumstances, but I may have been on the verge of sleep when this happened. That's typical. Showers and baths are also good times. After a sufficiently long period of thinking about the problem, and resting (not thinking), a proper period of restful, semi-conscious, vague thought on the problem can often cause a solution to bubble up to consciousness.

This was the concept I had in mind today when I revisited the helmet to actually shoot it. That was the moment of inspiration -- the holes! Now we get to perspiration and serendipity, and how ideas don't always work out the way you envisioned.

I set up the helmet with a flash inside it, and took some shots to calibrate composition and exposure, roughly.

That sucks. You can see the flash, and there's no light coming out most of the holes. Let's wrap that flash up in a pillowcase and reposition a bit.

That's more like it. Now for some rays. Hmm. What happens if we spray a water mist around? I had a feeling this part was not going to go as planned, and I was right -- making well defined "light rays" is something I have not mastered. Or apprenticed. Or even started figuring out, really. It's a total mystery to me.

Ok. Huh. That's not really at all what I envisioned, but it's definitely something. I'll take it! Crop out the ugly bits, tighten it up a bit, dodge up some of the features of the helmet and vignette gently to close up the frame, and call it done:

Inspiration, brought about by planting a problem firmly (How shall I shoot this object) and then alternately thinking hard about it and relaxing and thinking about other things, or nothing at all. A couple days later, inspiration (holes, light rays). Perspiration, actually try to shoot it, tinker with what we have on hand. Work toward your inspired solution, but be open to possibility.

The result is recognizably me. There's a lot of shadow around, there's a lot of inky blackness, but it's not just a copy of something else I've made. The result is something I am OK with.

Now there's a visual idea in play. You can invent some meaning to go with it, and to build a portfolio around. Perhaps we are envisioning the athlete a glowing force. We shoot sporting equipment with the athlete represented by brilliant light. We bring in environmental cues to suggest rain, wind, sleet, mud, to express some notion of athleticism in the elements, in tough conditions, against difficulties. One picture doesn't suggest this idea at all, but 4 or 5 or 10 would make the concept quite clear, and now we have a portfolio that's saying something.

An idea that is unclear in a single picture can be made obvious across a series of pictures, a portfolio. Or a campaign.

There are probably other equally strong ideas, I don't know. This is the idea that occurs to me right now. If I wanted to pursue this theme I might well try to build a portfolio around these ideas -- these kinds of subjects with these kinds of ideas carried by one or more renderings. As for use I don't know. This feels like a prototype for some kind of advertising campaign, perhaps.

And that's how I do it. Perhaps it will help you find your own process for inspiration.

On the Use of Processes

A process is a set of steps that produce a more or less predictable result.

If I shoot black and white film, develop it according to directions, and then take some more steps with some more materials, what results is black and white prints. If my process involves placing a flower in front of the camera, my process is one which produces pictures of flowers.

There are tons of photographers with processes that relate to subject or rendering, often both. Most so-called street photographers have a process that involves setting their camera to black-and-white, and then taking pictures of people outside in an urban environment. This produces, surprise, black-and-white pictures of people in an urban environment. To many photographers, that's what street photography is.

Other photographers have processes that are about light, or lighting. These people will urge you to Master The Light or something similarly fatuous. Among these guys, consider the 500px-popular landscape photographer. These landscape guys might have a process that involves waiting for certain times of day, certain weather conditions, and so on, and then taking wide angle pictures of land. Or water. Or whatever. Then they might apply a process of photoshop activities. The final result is usually more or less the same as everyone else's landscapes. It's brightly colored, it's pretty, the moving water is rendered as a freakish mist, and the whole thing would look terrible on a giant canvas wrap print above the couch.

The trouble with all these processes is that they are all about subject and rendering.

If you want to produce pictures that look a certain way, if your goal is to make pictures that look like Peter Lik's, or Eric Kim's, then your process should be about subject and rendering, because that's all these guys have going on. You follow their process, you get their results. You add a little of your special sauce, you get their results with special sauce. It's pretty straightforward. It's not my thing, but if it is your thing, you shouldn't be ashamed. Well, no. You should be ashamed of yourself, but only a little bit. It's ok, we all have faults.

If you want to produce pictures that have a certain idea, a certain feeling, a certain emotion, and you want them to make more than one picture that connects to the same idea, feeling, or emotion, then a process is a good idea here as well. It's just not a process that's entirely about subject and rendering, it's about idea and use as well, where I use all these words in the sense defined in the linked essay.

Another way to put this is that if you have a clear idea in mind then your pictures have a chance of being connected at that level, of all expressing the common idea, or facets and variations on that common idea. It is likely that subject and rendering will tend to follow along as well, since idea is really expressed through these, but it it by no means certain. A portfolio which uses a handful of radically different subjects and renderings to express similar ideas is going to be pretty interesting, and certainly won't suffer from the problem of just being the same damned picture over and over.

As always, the usual caveats about the blurriness of lines between subject, rendering, and idea apply here.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Taking Bad Pictures

It is part of the received wisdom in photography that one must take a lot of bad pictures.

Cartier-Bresson is frequently quoted as saying that your first 10,000 pictures are your worst. What is left out is that your first 100 and your first million are also your worst, taken as a whole. Generally, we get better over time.

Another oft-quoted truism is that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, anything. This is, of course, completely idiotic. It probably takes 10,000 hours of work to become proficient, in some sense, at flying an airplane or playing the piano. It does not take 10,000 hours to learn to fry an egg. I can get you frying eggs exceedingly well in an hour, if you're more or less attentive. Photography is slightly more complex than frying an egg, but much much easier than flying an airplane.

If photography were hard, there wouldn't be nearly as many people doing it. Yes, yes, most of them are awful. There are still huge numbers of truly excellent photographers out there. It's basically pretty easy to do pretty well, for pretty much any definition of pretty well.

These sorts of things bolster a culture of photography wherein one must take a lot of crummy pictures "first".

In reality, doing anything badly is the best possible way to ensure that you never do it well. A piano student is given accessible pieces to play, and urged to play them as slowly as necessary to play them first correctly, and then well. Of course the student would have trouble with the trickier Chopin, which is why the trickier Chopin is reserved for later in the process. Music teachers are at some pains to tell students not to practice mistakes, not to practice bad playing. Practice good playing, practice with focus, and only when you can focus, and only things that are within your grasp. Attempting pieces that are far beyond your grasp teaches you nothing, at best stalls your education in its tracks, and at worst teaches you a lot of bad habits which must be unlearned.

The admonition to carry your camera with you, always, and to shoot, shoot, shoot, is all about practicing bad picture taking. Are you a terrible pianist? Well, just be sure to spend 6 hours a day hammering randomly on the keys, 7 days a week, until you get awesome! Pick a piece of music, any piece, and smash your head against it endlessly!

It simply doesn't work that way. Even the neophyte should try to take good pictures. Simple ones, perhaps copies of other people's simple but good pictures. Don't just charge into the world clicking away at everything that looks cool. I certainly tried to learn to take good pictures by shoot, shoot, shooting. I'm still mad about it. The sculptor is not urged to carry a slab of marble everywhere, the painter does not carry paints everywhere, or even a sketchbook. Only the photographer is urged to Always Have The Camera.

If photography were a musical instrument, how would you practice your instrument today?

Instead of carrying your camera everywhere today, do that.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Blog Notes

My email address is: amolitor at molitor-design dot com

To follow this blog, you need to be able to log in the, or google, or something. Anyways, go to and if you see a "Dashboard" you're in the right place. Look down, and you'll see "Reading List" and under that a button for "Add". Click that!


The web is, it sometimes seems, simply littered with people offering workshops on photography.

I occasionally think to myself "I write an incredibly unpopular blog, I know some stuff about photography, should I do workshops?" and then I start mulling over what on earth I would say.

There's plenty of really smart knowledgeable folks out there doing technical workshops. You wanna know how to light people? There's probably 100 people out there offering really excellent workshops. Also probably 1000 more offering terrible ones, but that's beside the point. The world is full of crap.

There's a whole bunch of dudes (why is it always dudes, anyways?) who will, ostensibly, teach you how to make pictures more or less like they shoot. These guys tend to produce flickr-ready landscapes or flickr-ready street photos. Technically solid, utterly derivative, very very popular on sharing sites with some equivalent to Trending Photos, and completely uninteresting to me. If you like that sort of thing, shop around, there's a lot to choose from.

I'm not a particular expert on anything technical, although I can generally muddle my way through the technical details of whatever to make a pretty good picture when technique is necessary. As a muddler, though, I probably shouldn't be teaching.

I'm haven't got any special skill in shooting exceedingly derivative 500px-ready photographs of any particular stripe. It's another thing I can muddle through, but usually only by accident, because frankly the whole thing skeeves me out entirely. I hate that crap. So, I probably shouldn't be teaching people how to do that either. Partly because I haven't got any special insight and partly because I'd end up screaming at the students.

The only things I can think of that I could legitimately do a workshop on is some sort of history of photography (after a bit of brushing up on the subject matter) or on the processes of inspiration.

And, to be honest, you can just look that stuff up, or read old posts on this blog. You'd have to be some kind of idiot to pay someone to teach you that stuff.

Beyond that I could probably yell at you to stop producing derivative garbage, to stop pixel peeping, to stop fucking around in photoshop.

Not sure there's a really big market for that, though. Maybe I should do a youtube video.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


No, no, I'm not done talking. I'm never going to be done blathering on and on about things. Don't worry!

Ambrotypes, tinytypes, Daguerreotypes, all these processes share the same general shape: You make an exposure, you follow a series of well-defined steps, possibly with some variation along the way for artistic effect, or not, and then you are done. The result is a unique object, which exists, sui generis, and is essentially immutable. You've made the picture, it is what it is, there is no more.

Glass negatives, film, and wet darkroom work began to change this. Now you could, and still can, revisit an exposure. You can break out the negative, load it into the enlarger, pour out some chemistry, and start burning money on paper. So there's some dis-incentive, at least, to endlessly revisit a picture. You need to have a bit of motivation to go pull some new print from and old negative. There is real effort, time, and money involved. So, even though it is not impossible to tinker forever, you are generally motivated to declare a picture done at some reasonable point.

I find myself, mostly, to be done with a negative after I have pulled satisfactory prints from it. When I am motivated enough to get my hands wet and ruin paper, there is always a new negative I could work on.

Digital has altered this, fundamentally. There is now almost no barrier to going and reworking an old picture. People can and frequently do revisit an old picture merely because they are bored. In the modern "correct" conception of digital, you're shooting RAW (because you have to! everyone serious shoots RAW!) you can back quite far toward the beginning of the process, and re-imagine much of the exposure. With enormous pixel counts, you can re-frame the shot with a crop. You can damn near go back in time and re-shoot this thing.

The online environment in which we now share and critique one another's pictures assumes this malleability. Critique from "serious" photographers almost always boils down to unwinding and re-working. There is no recognition of the idea that a photograph might be done and that perhaps we could talk about it as it exists.

There is almost no pressure on you to declare a specific picture done, the door can always be left open to go back. If you share your pictures online, you may find yourself urged to back through the door, again and again. The default critique, online, includes "go back and tinker with the picture". Rather than influences urging you to declare the picture done, there are instead influences urging you to never so declare it. Somewhere between 35mm film and the DSLR, the pressure changed subtly, just enough to reverse the direction.

Anyone who has written software professionally knows that a lack of a firm endpoint is not freedom, it is not luxury. It is to be strapped eternally, screaming, to a great burning wheel. It is a terrible fate, although it often feels like luxury and freedom. You will endlessly chase perfection, you will endlessly tinker, and after a while you will imperceptibly begin to make things worse rather than better. Eventually your software has 1000s of features that don't quite work, and your photograph looks like a ghastly plastic object with no concept, no idea, and no reference to the original scene.

A project I am currently working on involves some rules I have made up for myself. Among them are that I shoot the picture with my phone, that I edit on the phone, and then I am done. The picture either is, or is not, good enough. My phone has a very decent camera, the editor isn't photoshop but is surprisingly capable for a phone app, and the ultimate portfolio is aimed to be 6 very small pictures, more or less. So, I have more wiggle room than you might think.

The salient point here, though, is that the rules include: And then I am done.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On Use and Idea

Having thought about the idea of use as part of the process of photography I now see it all over the place, of course.

I tend to print small, usually 8x10 at most. This is partly due to expense and equipment, but I have tried to make a virtue of necessity. It is certainly true that it is fashionable to print quite large and I am never one to bow to fashion. I like the intimacy of little prints, it turns out. To the topic at hand, though, one result is that my subjects tend to be quite simple. If your goal is a print 4 inches by 4 inches, you really ought not be putting in a complex and detailed scene. There can be detail of course, but the picture needs to make sense seen simply.

These days I tend to think more and more in terms of the final disposition of the work, use of the work as a whole. Do I see this as a book? How big? Is this a small portfolio of bigger prints? A large portfolio of tiny prints? My vision of the final product drives the work to a surprising degree. How many pictures am I going to need?. How shall I pace myself? How broad of an area should I be exploring? Do I need to expand my concept, or refine and shrink it? If the prints are tiny I need such-and-such a kind of subject, if the prints are bigger I need these other things. If the prints are to be square I need to think of that as I shoot.

It doesn't matter if the final product ever happens. More of my projects due on the vine than get completed, by quite a wide margin.

The point is that by having that use clearly in mind from near the beginning, my overall concept is dramatically sharpened.

Of course I do not begin with a blank slate, and fill in the subject, rendering, idea, and use all at once before making an exposure. It's an iterative process that begins, usually, by more or less random tinkering with a random snap. The tinkering generates the germ of an idea. More pictures generate refinements and an evolving concept. Use crystallizes along with everything else somewhere in here. then I am, as we say, "of to the races"and know what to do next. This might happen half way through, or earlier, or later.

Then, usually, the project doesn't come together anyways, and I shelve the portfolio-in-progress, and return to the beginning. I snap, I tinker. Perhaps I revisit a previously shelved project.

Sometimes, though, it really comes together. That's nice.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

It Is what It Is

Photography is, ultimately, an act of selection. You might hire a model or set up a still life, but then you select. This is why, unreasonably often, the first crop is the best. By cropping and re-cropping you begin to enter the world of digital art which is something else entirely.

All photographs are of course more than a simple selection of things to frame, there is always some sort of postprocessing that occurs. Still, the more selection and the less tinkering after the fact, the more it looks like photography and the less it looks like some sort of drawing.

In an ideal world, when you press the shutter button, you have a fully realized previsualization in your head, which you then simply execute to make the final print. In reality not so much. For good work, though, it's fair to say that the photographer often or usually has a fairly clear concept in mind. If not, then this artist isn't really doing photography. This artist uses the camera to generate raw material for digital art. That's a thing, and by no means a bad thing, but it's not photography.

It is for this reason that the most common sort of critique we get from fellow photographers is so insulting. The vast majority of photographers, when asked to comment on another's work, won't. Instead they will chatter on about other pictures, pictures they would have made. Frequently, in fact, they will insist on demonstrating their Photoshop skills, or lack thereof, and render some different picture. They will completely ignore the actual photography, the selection part of the process, and will work instead on making something new and different.

In short, they refuse to acknowledge the original picture except to imply that it sucks because it's not the picture they would have made. They will insist instead on talking about other pictures, their own, and finally they will insult you by doing some digital art loosely based on your photograph to show what they mean about how awesome their picture would have been if you hadn't fucked it all up with this terrible starting point.

Consider the kind of critique we get from non-photographers:

  I like it!
  I don't get it, what is it?
  What a sad picture, it makes me cry.
  How beautiful!
  I don't like black & white.
  I love the shadows!

Compare with the kind of critique we get from photographers:

  The white balance is wrong.
  It's soft.
  I would have put a hair-light on her.
  You should clone out that thing, let me show you
  Have you tried it in black & white?

An actual artist is likely to circle back around to what non-photographers say, but perhaps with some explanations and discussions of artistic intent and methods. Only the photographer spends all this time on dumb technical choices which you have already made, and ignores absolutely everything about whether the picture is any good. The photographer focuses mainly on rendering issues, mostly ignores the subject, and apparently doesn't know that the idea or meaning might even exist.

A photograph is what it is. When I show you a picture there is very little about it that isn't there on purpose. When you show me a picture, I assume the same is true unless you specifically state otherwise. What I want to know is not what your pictures are like. I'm sure your pictures are very nice, but what I want to know is how this picture right here works for you.

Yes I'm sure Romeo and Juliet would be much better as a rom-com and I see that you don't like sad plays. Please stop writing a comedy about Romero and Julie, I don't care. Please stop.

In the absence of request for some specific kind of response, the only respectful kind of critique is whether the picture works for you, how it works, how it makes you feel, and perhaps why you think it makes you feel that way. If you don't get it, say that. If you really think you get what the original photographer was going for, and you see a way to get at that better, maybe a little editing is in order, but only if you're pretty damn sure you're in the artist's head. Don't waste the artist's time talking on and on about your own damned pictures.

It's rude.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Passtime

Next time you run across some dunderhead rattling on about IQ, meaning Image Quality, mentally pronounce it as "ick". For example:

  The J9400 has better ick at high izzos than the J9300 does.

This should provide a useful referent for how actually useful and interesting this sort of thing is. Obviously if you shoot sports, blah blah blah, if you don't know by now that in the first place I know, and in the second place I don't care, you need to spend either more or less time reading this blog.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


To first order, the internet is people arguing about how much rocks weigh.

  I weighed a rock. Rocks weigh 7 ounces.
  What?!! This link clearly states that rocks weigh 12 tons.
  You people are all fools Rocks come in 3 sizes, maybe even 4.

A thinking human being can only gape in astonishment. This goes on and on about cameras and camera gear all the time. Aperture and full-frame and this lens and cell phone cameras and everything else. Is it the photographer or the gear? Blah blah blah. Film! Digital! Medium format!

This is what you need to know. Anything you own that can take a picture at all, in this modern era, can probably make excellent work. Your mission, if you're interested in pictures, is to work out what the character of those pictures is. What can your picture-making equipment do? What kinds of pictures does it take?

Now find some pictures to make that will be well served by the character your equipment will imbue them with. The one truth is that no equipment is neutral. All equipment, every combination of sensitive medium, camera, and lens, will imbue the resulting pictures with some character.

Of course, if you mainly like gear rather than pictures, I urge you to start saving for the next generation wunderkamera immediately. As soon as you have purchased it, be sure to start saving for some lenses, or the generation after that, or a medium format whatsit thing. Don't even bother taking pictures with it, except a few test shots to verify that it is more of whatever it is you paid for than the other thing. Low shutter counts will help with the resale value. Be sure to keep the original packaging as well.