Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Various holiday goings-on are interfering with me posting anything. Couple more days and then we're back to the usual bloviating and ranting. Maybe even a few pictures. I'm working on a thing.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Review and a Lesson, Perhaps

Here we have some work from Ming Thein, and I gotta say, he's got a wonderfully clearly articulated idea, which he is pursuing. Huzzah. I don't kid myself that he's gleaning ideas from my little blog, but to my eye he's growing, and he's getting these ideas from someplace. They're out there all over, I don't presume to know his sources. Anyways, owards. He's got a clear idea, a concept. And he has some notions for how to execute it. I quite like the anthropomorphized cockpits with the clouds-as-thought-bubbles.

Where he's still struggling is worth thinking about. Basically, he can't stop shooting like Ming. He seems to be going for a dreamlike, memoryscape sort of deal, but his approach to the technique of shooting is roughly the worst possible for this goal. Dreams and memories are fragmentary, and he's got the isolations down, so, good work there. Dreams and memories are also disjointed, fuzzy, surrealist. They are not razor sharp studies in form, they are if anything the opposite. Furthermore, we have a bunch of tropes ready-made for this: heavy vignettes, dark frames, radically dodge up the point of interest while burying all else in murk. Motion blur, soft focus. There's a whole ready-made vocabulary from film and art to indicate a dream state, a state of memory.

If these were mine, I'd be black and white, tilted horizons, soft focus, vignettes, radical burning and dodging and collage. I'd shoot or appropriate what is to be remembered, what is to be dreamed and layer it in translucent. Or at any rate, those are the things I'd try.

One of the nice things about indicating a dream state is that it's virtually impossible to go too far.

Ming seems to be trying to make his personal toolbox of techniques work, and is trying to solve all the problems with pure composition, with placement of elements in the frame.

So what can we take away from this?

Your technique needs to match your concept. If you can't bear to shoot in a suitable technique, dump the concept, because it's just not going to work. If you love the concept, then learn and deploy appropriate technique.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Mike C. over at Idiotic Hat has written an incisive essay in which he points out that culture, as it exists as a set of shared ideas, texts, and so on, is kind of disintegrating.

Kirk Tuck wrote this piece on exploring across class boundaries with the camera, which one can argue is as much about culture as shared ideas, texts, and so on as it is about anything else.

Finally, please note the very intelligent comment on this very blog here, on this post, in which mlis remarks that the influence of Serious Photography goes both ways, and that the phone-carrying snapshottist is as likely to be wrapping himself in the mantle of Alfred Stieglitz et al as he is to be up to anything else. A specific shared idea.

Let's noodle on this a little and see if it goes someplace, or just dribbles off into stupidity.

Consider a middle aged white male raised under the aegis of Western European Culture, say, me. I have a cheap edition of all the pictures that appeared in "Camera Work", I own books by Ansel Adams, Sally Mann, Eliot Porter, and so on. I've spent time in museums looking at Monets and Sargents and whatnot. I have seen a lot of pictures of a pretty particular kind. Most of the people I have cited looked at one another's pictures. If we consider the guys who were shooting in the late 19th and early 20th century, it turns out that my culture is derived in a pretty straight line from the one they were raised in.

Consider now the world, the internet-connected world.

Take some guy in sub-Saharan Africa, he takes care of the village's goats for a living or something. But he's got a smartphone, he's on facebook, he's been to school. He's not an idiot, and he's pretty in to using the picture making capabilities of his phone. What's his culture like?

As with all of us, it's shattering and getting thinned out. He's probably got some exposure to the really quite deep culture he was raised in. He's heard stories and legends all his life, of people whose names I cannot pronounce, with morals and ideas that, while not incomprehensible to me are probably subtly different. His ideas about proper behavior, how one ought to live, what beauty is, what Art is, are all probably similar enough to mine to get us both in a lot of trouble when we run into the differences. He's also been exposed to a great deal of exported American culture, which according to reports is mainly about consumption and possessing things.

If he's interested enough in photography, he's probably seen a few of those pictures from Camera Work, but who knows what he made of them on his tiny screen and without any of the European referents. These are pictures of people who look nothing like him, made by people who quite likely would have considered him inferior, people who knew literally nothing of his people's stories, ideas of beauty, ideas of Art.

This is universal.

In western Europe and its colonies, for better or for worse, much of that shared stuff is being supplanted. 100 years ago, children raised in Britain in certain fairly broad economic strata literally all knew the same handful of poems by heart, because that was part of the deal. They literally read the same books by the same dead white guys. They shared a lot and that sharing has value, even if the dead white guys aren't really all that. Now that we're insisting on a broader range of sources, which was in play when I was educated, and seems to be ever accelerating, the body of knowledge is so large that we cannot share it. One student learns these things, another chooses other sources and learns other things.

I make no particular judgement here on whether the dead white guys are all that, but there is no denying that forcing everyone to learn the same small set of stuff, whatever that stuff is, has social and cultural value. It binds us together. When that goes away, the problem of how to reach the fellow in Africa expands out to a problem of how to reach anyone at all.

So, overall, we have an expansion of community (Mark Zuckerberg seems to be committed to getting literally everyone on to Facebook so he can shovel ads down their throats) and a simultaneous dilution and fragmentation of the shared set of ideas and texts that make up our culture.

The basic thing that connects the three citations with which I opened this piece is that the people who take a picture, the people in the picture (if any), and the people looking at the picture are different. Potentially very different, or different mostly in small but critically important ways. The world in which we're a bunch of pompous middle aged white dudes taking pictures for other pompous middle aged white dudes to look at has come to a close.

As I said at Idiotic Hat: Fuuuuuuuuuck.

But perhaps there is some hope. One of the beautiful things about photography is that it is universally accessible. If I photograph a tree, literally every sighted person on earth can recognize that photograph as Of A Tree. A painting, while recognizable, runs the risk of carrying a bunch of my cultural tropes with it, of running afoul of the ways people in far-off lands paint trees. But a photograph is indexical, it's a true etching of the thing itself, and is in that sense universal.

So photography gives us, at least, a common baseline in this wildly evolving world. That's a good thing, right?

It's the interpretations that are going to be all over the place. I can't cite Botticelli in my photograph and have that stick in Bangladesh with any reliability. I can take a picture while lying on the ground, and that point of view will translate. Into... something. Maybe in some cultures the paintings with low angles of view mean something about gods and punishment, for all I know. That seems unlikely, to be honest, and with any luck what comes through will mainly be the objective "low angle of view" idea. In the USA we might imagine it as a rabbit's world view, in other countries a different animal might be substituted in the viewer's imagination, but mostly it ought to be similar.

We could just shoot for people who happen to be a lot like us, people who happen to have read more or less the same books we've read. There's a lot of people on this planet, so that's an audience, for sure. That seems to be what's driving the kickstarter-funded photo book explosion: You get on tumblr or wherever, and find 10,000 people who are a lot like you, and then you buy one another's Art.

We could also try to shoot more universally, in some vague indefinable way.

Something to think about.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Get Back to the Print, LuLa Style

Don't read this free article on LuLa. I will summarize it for you.

We think prints and printing are super important, they're what photography is really all about. Here are some pictures of printers and some other pictures of old dudes plugging books about printing, and did you know than Epson uses blue tape to secure their printers for shipping, while Canon uses orange?

I am exaggerating, at most, very slightly. This is a gee whiz gear post.

My guess is that Lula's deal with Phase One has gotten a lot less lucrative, and they're pivoting to try to become the site with the great info on how to spend as much money and effort as possible printing your pictures. It's certainly an underserved niche.

Good luck with that, boys.

Monday, December 21, 2015


Quite some time ago I wrote these remarks: Color Fidelity is Bullshit. It turns out there's another wrinkle. See this rather lame but nonetheless interesting piece. Or google up tetrachromacy and google around a bit.

A substantial percentage of women are not trichromats at all, but tetrachromats. We can also glean from this article that mutations that cause color perceptions to vary pretty widely are pretty common.

Ask a color management expert this question:

Suppose I have an apple. If I really work at it, and use the best gear and procedures to make a color accurate print of that apple, what percentage of the population will agree that the apple in the print is the same color as the actual apple?

Since this is precisely the biggest problem that color management is supposed to solve, you'd think they'd have some sort of answer. Andrew Rodney, one of the recognized experts, does not. Instead he has evasions, bullshit, and snark. Interesting, huh? If you do happen to get a straight answer to this question from someone, please report back here.

I know there is population variation, and I know there is precision in color management. I do not know how they relate to one another, and I would like to. How many decimal places of precision is it actually useful to squeeze out of your color managed workflow, given that there's variation in the population? 1? 2? 50? None?

The problem is that the answer to the question about the apple is, I assume, "well, not very many, and god help you if you change the illumination, it's not even going to be close, and as for those tetrachromats, well, ugh."

That answer, unfortunately, sells very few high gamut displays, colorimetry systems, books on color management, and so on.


Check this thing out, from PetaPixel: How I Work With Compositional Lines in Photos. If you're interested in how bad ideas get spread around, anyways.

Really look at the pictures. He's drawn red arrows all over the place, but declines (interestingly) to show us the arrow-free pictures.

You should be able to find a surprising number of arrows that don't seem to be related to anything in the picture. He's simply drawing an arrow from somewhere to wherever the other arrows point.

You can find some nonsensical stuff, too. Are we supposed to be interested in the fisherman's foot? Here's a news flash, bub, people are going to look at his face, not his foot, and all the leading lines in the universe are not going to change that.

Lastly, the astute critic will note that in most of these pictures all he's done is jam the subject at the vanishing point, or in many cases actually in front of the vanishing point. I confess that I'm not sure what the logic is in having some lines that lead off to infinity, that happen, in the 2D picture, to lead to some "subject". We're interpreting the thing as a representation of a three dimensional thing, surely? We know full well that most of those lines point in fact behind the subject, not at the subject.

But it doesn't matter, but his subject is always a person, so we're going to look at the person.

Neither we nor the photographer actually have any idea whether his leading lines are having any leading effect at all.

In some cases they are creating a certain visual drama, I will grant you that. There's something compelling about single point perspective.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Some time ago, a few weeks or months, Reuters announced that the format, the only format, it would accept from photographers is straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs. Or something like that. The details of the new policy don't interest me.

Responses varied. "But professionals only shoot RAW" and so on, "SOOC JPEG sucks", "They can't enforce that!" and finally "But but but I can still make all kinds of changes in-camera to how it makes a JPEG, sharpening, color balance, tone curves(?), etc."

I don't care about enforcement. Yeah, it's a problem, but it's not my problem. The interesting question to me is what the policy means, and how it makes sense, if indeed it does.

It does.

Sure, you can make all kinds of adjustments to how the camera makes JPEGs out of the sensor data. But this is the important thing: these adjustments are made before the exposure is made. This means that, in practical terms, it's extremely difficult to use the in-camera sharpening to skew the story. You can say the same thing in fancier terms by noting that a SOOC JPEG is indexical in ways that a RAW file processed through some workflow isn't.

Indexical means that it corresponds to reality, in a direct way. It almost doesn't matter what the algorithm applied to convert the light bouncing off reality into a picture is, as long as it's deterministic. Indexicality is precisely what separates photographs from drawings. The human selects a lot of stuff, but ultimately a machine makes the picture. At the moment of exposure, the person steps aside and the machine does all else.

It is from this, precisely, that our inherent trust of photographs comes. The photojournalist can of course choose the framing, the point of view, the lens length, the degree of sharpening, the color balance and tonal mappings, but ultimately, at the moment of truth, it's the machine and the machine alone that makes the picture. And there it is, with whatever truth there might be in it, unaltered by human hands.

We're at an evolutionary point in photography where various tasks can be done either before or after the moment of exposure. There are cameras that let us focus afterwards, for heaven's sake! I have myself pointed out that it hardly matters whether you do things before or after the moment of the shutter press. That is certainly a thread of response to the Reuters decisions "blah blah post processing, in-camera, it doesn't matter."

This is glib and, in this context, foolish. It matters enormously whether it's done before or after. What does not matter is whether or not the pictures is identical. I don't care about that. A picture that is post-processed to be identical to the SOOC JPEG may be the same picture but its provenance is quite different. Provenance matters in photojournalism, and this is what Reuters is getting at.

A van Meergeren is less valuable than a Vermeer, despite the fact that it's indistinguishable from a Vermeer. Provenance matters. Pictures, be they paintings or news photographs, exist in a human society. Without humans, fallible, strange, psychologically complex humans, to look at them, they're just patterns of color and tone. The colors don't even make much sense to non-humans, with our trichromatic vision with the red, green, and blue bands and the whacky processing the visual cortex applies.

I don't know whether Reuters thought this through with a bunch of fancy BS about "indexical" and "truth" but this surely what they're getting at. People trust a SOOC JEPG in ways that they don't trust a RAW run through Lightroom, even if they don't know what any of those words mean.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Exercise your Inspiration

This is really just me belaboring the same old themes. Perhaps with a slightly different angle, though. This is everything I know about Art-Making.

Many photographers, many experienced and skilled photographers, approach the problem of taking a picture as one of selecting the right treatment from a fixed box of available ones, and then executing that. I have my style for landscapes, portraits, still lifes. Or perhaps I like some other fellow's method, and want to apply that. When my picture pretty much looks like the archetype I have in mind, I've succeeded.

Here's the other way to do it. Examine your subject, forget about photography. How do you feel about it, what do you imagine it could be, what's your fantasy of this subject? It's not a bowl of apples, it's a bowl of apples in the lair of a mad scientist. Or it's a bowl of magical apples. Or it's a bowl of very very delicious apples, and I love apples. Or it's a bowl of poisoned apples, or mealy apples.

Having developed that you then proceed to find the right photographic treatment. You struggle with it. Perhaps you realize that you can't shoot this today at all, you have to come back in the morning when it is raining. Or you need different apples. Or a bunsen burner prop.

You take breaks from struggle, you talk a walk, you sleep, you spend a week in France or 10 minutes in the shower. You return and ponder the problem some more.

If you're lucky, the answer appears after a while, usually unbidden, and you see how you should approach this landscape, this model, this bowl of apples.

Then you execute that.

This is what Snowdon and Tuck are doing when they spend hours with the model. This is what Adams was doing when he drove by the same tree every day for a year.

At the end, the landscape might look like a 500px ready photo, your portrait might look like a knockoff Karsh, but it doesn't matter because it's right, that is what your vision, your dream, demanded.

This is a learnable process. It never becomes reliable, but by practicing it, you get better at it. So, practice it. Exercise those mysterious subconscious muscles.

Once you get the hang of it, you're never going to be satisfied with excellent execution of pre-existing ideas. You're going to want to struggle and find that right idea, for everything.

I'd like to say this is the final plateau, the last level. When you can do this, you've arrived.

I am, just barely, smart enough not to. For all I know, this is a step on the way to somewhere even more involved and satisfying, somewhere I can't even imagine.

I'll be sure to let you know, though, if I find out.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


This is really a response to a recent piece on LuLa unfortunately behind a paywall now. In it the author describes her process for pre-visualization.

I will set that aside for the nonce. I have long maintained that any successful picture starts with a concept and ends with execution, in that order. The concept might be a lengthy essay written a decade before the exposure. The concept might be a purely visual idea conceived an instant before the exposure. Usually it's somewhere in between, a somewhat fluid idea which can be roughly but not completely described in words. It's how the photographer sees the subject. It's an opinion, an imagining, a feeling.

The photographer has three problems, roughly. The first is to formulate an idea, a concept, an opinion. The second is to invent a way to execute that, to turn that idea into a picture in-the-mind. The third one which is how to turn that mind-picture into a real picture.

The first one I consider pretty easy, it's a very human thing to do. We all have ideas and opinions. We have fantasies and imagination. While there may be some would-be artists who have trouble with this part, I have no particular guidance for them and I think they are rare and, hmm, "not neurotypical" is I think the preferred term at the moment. Most of us have ideas and opinions about things, people, events that we see.

The third one is a technical problem. Ansel Adams wrote a bunch of books about it, and arguably most books about How To Photography cover aspects of it. How to actually make a picture with desired properties is the main thrust of photographic pedagogy, if any thrust at all exists. How to work out what the desired properties actually are is left un-discussed.

The second one is what I consider to be the hard problem, and it is often called previsualization. Adams, who was very big on it, talked about it constantly, is silent on how one actually does it. The LuLa piece goes through a process which, to be honest, makes no sense to me. The author starts with a clear concept, and then noodles around until the picture appears, and then she goes back and draws lines all over her pictures in an effort to explain how she got there.

I don't think that's possible. I think the process is essentially unknowable. You can't break it down into steps, into a procedure, a road that the conscious mind can follow. All you can really do is oil the machinery of the unconscious, which is where the action is going to happen. I've written a couple of things, here and here, on how to oil the machinery.

What it comes down to is that this, the hardest part of Art Making, is performed by subconscious machinery, a dark engine deep down in your mind. It doesn't work linearly, it doesn't follow logical processes. It consumes fodder and generates ideas, inspiration. So feed it well. All that crap about composition, whether you're reading about balance, variety, and unity in my book, or leading lines, rules of thirds, and golden spirals, it's just grist for the mill of the subconscious. Every picture you've ever seen is grist. It all goes into the machine.

The more material your subconscious has to gnaw on, the more likely you are to be able to turn your concept into a pre-visualized picture. If you can do that, only your technique will stop from achieving victory.

This, ultimately, is why questions of "personal style" and "how shall I make pictures that look like mine" are irrelevant.

The part of you that devises the picture is the same part of you that loves, that hates, that lusts, that dreams. It's the vast engine down in the murky depths of the brain that does, like it or not, almost all of your thinking for you. It knows nothing of deductive logic, or of processes and procedures. It doesn't know what the correct lighting ratio for a portrait of a woman is, and it doesn't know that the horizon line should never be in the middle.

But what it is, is you. Incomprehensible, unreasonable, unpredictable, beautiful, amazing you.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Possibly the Best Thing Ever

Years ago, Kirk Tuck wrote this piece on making portraits. It is definitely the best thing I have ever read on this process, and it's one of the best things I've read period. It's beautiful and true and packed with information.

I've seen a video of Karsh at work, and I read a detailed essay on Snowdon's approach. Both align with what Kirk has written here (Snowdon more than Karsh, one does not get a sense of collaboration but rather of combat with Karsh), but give only the external view. Kirk tells us what's going on inside. In all cases it is about seeking a moment. The technical details are minor, assumed to be dealt with, the subject and the moment is all. How you get there seems to vary, a little. In a striking contrast to the above portraitists, read this obituary for Jane Bown. And yet there are similarities.

This will sound goofy and woo-woo, but it feels almost as if the process arrives at a sort of Zen inversion where the camera simultaneously becomes nothing and everything.

I am, as the attentive readers likely know, fascinated by the process of portraiture. I have no chops with this device, but I've read a lot, and from time to time I take a pretty good photo of one of my kids. That's a very much more dynamic process, but ultimately the goal is the same. Every so often, mostly by accident, I find that moment when the kid has stopped mugging for the camera and is genuinely engaged elsewhere. Often with eating (the small one is two, after all).

Anyways, thanks ever so much to Kirk for digging this one out of the archives. There's also a list of links in a comment at this post, and they're all worth a read. One of them sounds very much like things I've said, but said better and a couple of years ahead of me. I don't think I plagiarized it, but one never really knows for sure what one has read, internalized, and forgotten.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Here's some ideas

My BFF Ming is at it again, this time with some pretty OK ideas, as he does from time to time.

I will first remove his bloviating to extract the nuggets, pausing here to note that the pictures he uses to illustrate this piece are quite startling in their complete failure to illustrate what appears to be his point, and then I will point out which bits of the nuggets I agree with, and which I do not.

Here is the first nugget:

The order of priority for curation should actually defer to the main weakness of the photographer: if you are strong technically but weak conceptually, then you should cull those with an unclear idea first. If you are strong conceptually but weak technically, the opposite. This forces you to up your game so that taken holistically, the work both conveys what you intend it to convey and continues to improve.

This sounds really really smart, and in a way it is. But upon reflection, I think that you should only ever cull for photographs that are conceptually weak. Period. If the concept demands technical perfection, then technical perfection falls neatly under the rubric of concept. If the concept doesn't, then technical perfection be damned. Breaking out other aspects is just a way to support the "you should always improving, i.e. taking classes" fallacy, about which more in the sequel.

A bit later on, with points numbered (in bold) by me and text trimmed, for clarity:

I’m looking for four things when I curate: 1 firstly, adherence to the theme/idea and overall clarity of conveying my interpretation of that theme – [...] 2 Secondly, there must be a certain aesthetic – I guess it’s best interpreted as ‘balanced’ or ‘harmonious’. 3 Next, the image must be the most technically proficient image and deliver the maximum image quality I can expect to get out of that particular situation; [...]. 4 Finally, there’s the concept of relativity: is the image I’ve selected better than the other ones I’ve taken containing the same idea, subject, aesthetic or combination of the three? Looking at the final set, there should always be some degree of distinction between each image – at a glance, one should not be mistaken for another.

These two sections seem to be the nuts and bolts of what he's talking about. He's got a nice engineering approach here, a multi-step process, clear criteria, and so on.

He's a little unclear about his curation process. Is the second thing he's looking for used only to break ties in the first thing? Or is it simply a lower priority? Can a really really good technical picture win over a picture which adheres more strongly to the theme, or not? I don't know and it's not clear (suggesting that he hasn't thought this through quite as much as he imagines). There's also a problem that the fourth thing (is this the best picture?) should obviously be the most important thing and then upon reflection one wonders if perhaps the first and fourth things aren't actually the same.

What this seems to boil down to is: Ming selects the frames that best fit the concept, which are balanced (why?), and which are technically excellent. His success or failure on these points has been discussed previously. Anyways.

He's correct that picking out the right ones is basic and vital. He's correct that it's a multi-dimensional deal, "rightness" has many aspects which need to be traded off, as with any situation in which you must choose. He's correct that you should have clearly in mind what on earth it is that you're actually trying for.

Where he's wrong is in his effort to disentangle these aspects. There is no disentangling them. If you have a clear idea of what your body of work is supposed to be doing, at any given point there's the best picture for that spot. There's no question, there's no tradeoffs. There's no "well, this picture is sharper but that picture is more adherent to the theme" there's just the best one from your lot. This is an opinion, but a strong one -- I don't care if you have 2 candidate frames or 1000, if you have a clear idea of what the frame is supposed to do, there's 1 and only 1 from the candidates that will do it best. If you can't choose it, it's because you don't have an adequately clear idea of what it's supposed to do.

The second and more important place that he's wrong an almost ubiquitous error in the amateur photographic community. There is an obsession with "improving", with "upping your game", with "getting better." This is largely bullshit.

Plumbers, mathematicians, chemists, ballet dancers, do not in general think in these terms. Sure, there are always things we don't know, or are not good at. But learning how to scope a sewer line, studying differential geometry, reading up a new class of catalyst, or strengthening our hip flexors, are not "upping our game" or "improving", they're simply part of the work. Things change, new challenges present themselves, we learn, we adapt, we expand our repertoire while letting other things no longer important slide.

By renaming this normal process to make it appear that your current state is deficient, to make it appear that learning something new will make you in some general way "better", the scam of photographic education is perpetuated.

Look at the guys in the picture attached to this post. I'll bet you that every single guy in that frame has been photographing for longer than Ming has been alive. Why on earth is he somehow the teacher here? It is, I think, because these guys are addicted to education. They've been told by the amateur photography press, since it was delivered by pigeons, that they need to up their game, that they need to improve their skills. And they, I assume, enjoy the travel and hanging about with other gearheads and talking about bullshit.

Me too. Well, not the gearheads. But I adore talking about bullshit.

Anyways. Can you get in focus the things you want to be in focus? Can you get the exposure dark when you want it dark, light when you want it light, and in the middle when you want it in the middle?

Congratulations. You are now fully qualified to go take pictures. If you want to use strobes or glass plates or you want to build sets, or do (god help you) focus stacked macros, you might have to pick up a book from the library or watch some videos now and then. You might even buy the book or the video. But these aren't going to make you "better", they're just going to make you know more useful stuff.

The only thing that makes you "better" is seeing more clearly with both your inner and outer eyes, and making the two dance together more closely. And that's pretty much down to you.

You can take my workshop if you want to get rid of some money, though.


I've been going on about ephemera, so I feel like it's time to circle back.

My main thrust here has been to point out that the primary trunk, as it were, of photography, as well as many of the limbs, are really about ephemera. There's a lot of photography being done which isn't intended to live on for more than a few hours, a few weeks. We cannot simply dismiss this, for a couple of reasons:
  • Numerically, the vast majority of pictures that are taken are ephemeral, mostly by design, sometimes not. Ephemera is dominant.
  • This is the world in which we live. Our customers, our friends, our critics, they all live in a world in which almost all photos are ephemera.
This doesn't mean that we're forced to shoot ephemera. I don't. I don't shoot for future generations either, but I don't intend my pictures to evaporate next week, either. You are perfectly welcome to shoot for future generations. You can shoot for past generations, for all I care, waiting on the invention of time travel.

Still, if you want people to understand your work, you do need to make the point that you're doing something different. Making hard copies of some sort, prints, books, scrolls, or billboards, is a big hint on this point. Prints don't generally evaporate in a week, after all. This is probably not the only way.

Kirk Tuck makes gorgeous portraits. Instagramming these and turning these into personal marketing materials for social media would be a crime. To my eye, though, even in digital online form, these portraits are already visibly something different. I'm a pretty sophisticated looker-at-photographs, to be fair, but to me eye these things are loaded to the brim with cues that these are something different, something timeless, something lasting.

My point, at any rate, is that the world of ephemeral photographs is real, it is here. While it is not everything, you ignore it at your peril. It might pay you to give a moment of thought to embracing it. It might be an interesting path forward.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ephemera III

The for-pay world has long known about the concept of ephemeral photographs. Marketing materials have finite life spans. Major brands use new photographs monthly, or more frequently. Bulgari's been using a specific photo of Carla Bruni for at least a few months now, and it really jumps out at me. These are photos that actually do tell a story (albeit often an abstract one), that's their job. Generating the right mix of feelings around a brand seems to require constant updates, new pictures. This is partly because the message is constantly refined, partly because there's ground to be covered, a campaign to eke out picture by picture, and partly because novelty matters. There are probably other reasons.

There's a reason social media photography more closely resembles this kind of marketing rather more than it resembles art photography, or street photography, or landscapes, or whatever. This is because on social media, people are after a fashion, marketing themselves. A beautiful portrait of myself is totally uninteresting on social media, its marketing value is near zero. What matters is pictures that show me as cool and interesting. This is me at a party. This is me sailing. This is me kissing my hot hot wife.

A blurry phone selfie of me in an interesting context, the supports my narrative of myself, has value.

The only value in a formal portrait or other "good" picture is as a prop for my "I went and had good pictures taken by a professional" story.

I see this on a forum I skim from time to time, quite regularly.

I did a Senior Session with this little bitch, and she went and shared my Professional Images All Over Facebook! With Instagram Filters!!!1!1!11111

Which is to totally miss the point. Your stupid senior session pictures have literally no value to your client outside of the social media universe. You might be able to sell them a couple prints, maybe, if you talk it up right. Mom will probably buy an 8x10. But ultimately, what the client wants is the story, the narrative of being a hip, cool, high school senior, getting professional shots taken because she really is All That.

She's gonna tell that story, ain't nothing you can do about it. You can blather on about no digital rights and no editing and blah blah until you're blue in the face. One of two things will happen: the client will respect the contract, and get 0 value (and probably walk away), OR the client will ignore the contract.

She doesn't want some shitty photoshopped portrait of herself looking like a portly Barbie doll holding a guitar, she wants a Story about how she is All That, and she wants to tell that story on social media.

So, stop selling her prints, and start selling her a marketing campaign. Sell her limited digital rights. Sell her an hour of time where you'll work with her to instagram the shit out of her session's pictures. Don't sell her crappy pictures, sell her your alleged story-telling skills. You can tell a story, right? I mean, it says so on your web site, it says you have a passion for telling people's stories with your camera, or some similar bullshit. So, you can actually do this? Right?

Protip: BMW executive don't hire people to take pictures of their cars because they secretly crave airbrushed 8x10 prints of the cars to hang in their bedrooms.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

More Ephemera

This is a follow on to the comments on the previous.

Those of us who style ourselves Serious Photographers, or Serious Observers of Photography, have a strong tendency to dismiss vernacular photography. Always have. These days, even as it becomes more and more obvious that the increasing tide of vernacular photography should indeed be dismissed, I think exactly the opposite is true.

Consider an analogy to language. We have mighty novels, moving poetry, important essays that shape public discourse, and so on. We also have teenagers talking. We do and should weight the former as more important individual pieces of language. A couplet of Shakespeare had shaped humanity more than two lines of casual chatter between two 13 year olds.

There are at least two worthwhile items to note here, however:

1. To weight Shakespeare more is not the same as to quietly wish the 13 year old would stop saying things. Our society, our world, is formed almost entirely through social interaction, through communication. As our society is becoming ever more digital, ever more online, much of that social interaction is visual.

2. Nobody with any sense would judge the chatter of teenagers, or other casual conversation, against Shakespeare. Nobody pans the babble of children on the grounds that it is terrible poetry. To do so would be absurd. The chatter is trivial and weightless, yes. Virtually all sonnets written this year will have hardly any more weight, however, no matter how well-built they are. They will be much better sonnets than the chatter, but this does not in and of itself render them weighty.

Instagram and the like are made of of trivialities, of weightless pictures, which we should not judge by our standards of photography, as those standards are worse than irrelevant here. Instagram and so on are a new thing, a new way to communicate. Whether I say "I hate Taylor Swift", or post a selfie on instagram, or share a funny clip on YouTube, I am communicating. Those who hear me will know me, or at any rate my public image, a trifle more than they did before. Each triviality connects us by a new, trivial, amount.

We could drop any individual instagram "Favorite" out of the universe without the slightest impact. We could probably drop a million idle words of chatter, a million instagram photos, a million Facebook status updates, and lose nothing. But nonetheless the aggregate matters, the aggregate is, to a large degree, what our society is made out of, for better or for worse.

I, for one, was surprised and delighted to see instagram being used in a warm, personal, in-person and very much real life, catalyst for very real, very human, interaction and conversation. Perhaps there is hope for us after all.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ephemera and Reach

One of the standard lazy blog posts one writes about photography concerns the alleged necessity of the print. I am pretty sure I've written these things myself. The conceit is that photography is about shooting a bunch of pictures which are then edited and sifted and curated down to a much smaller set of the best ones which are then rendered in some physical form or other. The ultimate goal is always the physical object embodying the iconic image, ideally in some sort of maximally archival form.

This spins off variations like discussions of the shoeboxes of prints from the 1970s, and vows to print more myself, and concern about how we're going to lose all this digital shit when we die.

And that is all true, within its little world. And that is a world I inhabit.

But it is not the whole of the world. It is not even a very big piece of the world. I think a strong argument can be made that it is not even a significant blip in the big wide real world.

I saw a phenomenon today in an ice cream shop. A group of young women were having some ice cream together, and messing about on their phones. Each of them was on instagram (or in some app that looks very very much like instagram), surfing pictures of... I don't even know what of. Periodically, frequently, one girl or another would turn her phone around and show it to another girl, or to several. Heads would huddle over a phone, smiling, nodding, remarking. They were sifting instagram streams for things they found interesting, and sharing those in real time, in the real world, with one another.

Instagram photos are ephemera. Any picture on instagram is instantly buried under a pile of new photos. But during its brief moment of life, it has reach, at least in potential. It can be viewed simultaneously by 2 or 3 or 1,000,000 people, something a print really cannot do. A print can be viewed, really, by one person at a time. A photo on instagram can be shown around with a wave of my phone, a dozen people can wave their phone around a dozen tables and 50 people can smile at the picture, all in the same moment.

These things are only lightly edited, generally.

As an aside, about 5 of the 10 most liked instagram photos this year are basically blurry selfies of Taylor Swift grinning the a doofus with her cat. The other five are carefully crafted "casual photos" of various Kardashians Kows. This says something about our culture, probably that it is dying, but god help me I quite like Taylor Swift.

So anyways, there's this whole gigantic world of photography with is really "look at this!" or "look at me!" or "look at me and this!" which are really intended as ephemera, as a way to communicate with your family, friends, fans, whomever, to share in this quite literal way some little visual slice of your life. The idea that we should preserve these things is absurd, and let me emphasize this: not because they are worthless, bad, snapshots, stupid. They are exactly what they are intended to be, the embody that role completely, and are often nearly perfect. But they thing that they are is simply not conceived to be preserved. They become meaningless junk in a matter of months, days, hours. They exist in a context which is itself ephemeral.

But within their mayfly lifespan, they have potential reach. They can go horizontally through a surprising amount of the world, in surprising ways, communicating, sharing, giving joy to girls in ice cream shops.

And that too is photography.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Black and White

A friend of mine asked what my thoughts were on shooting, seeing, in black and white. So, I've thought about this a fair bit, and here are my thoughts.

I don't personally see in black and white as such. I look at the forms and objects in the frame, and let tonal relationships fall where they may.


I was in a gaming shop here in Bellingham (we have at least 3 of these, and probably more). This particular shop hosts collectible-card-game play, Magic: The Gathering and so on. I'd been shooting a little portfolio which was really about living authentically and intensely. A bunch of kids playing Magic are definitely doing that -- nobody plays Magic to get girls and look cool. You play Magic because you think it's fun. It had long occurred to me that I should go take some photos.

I went in to the shop with a few criteria. I wanted it clear what was going on. I wanted a sense of intensity and action. I wanted to protect the anonymity of the kids. I'd already settled on dutch tilt for every single frame (basically because fuck those pedants who say it's a bad idea). So, it really came down to hands and cards and a tilted camera.

And so I shot a bunch of frames, looking for pleasing framing of the hands. One set of hands, two sets of hands. I was looking for motion, action, intensity.

The issues of black and white appear nowhere here, although that was the target (I don't really use color). I was confident that I could separate what needed to be separated in the conversion process, by selecting the right "color filter" (or sliding a slider, or whatever). This project mostly used a red filter to make the skin tones bright in the frame. I was looking for that contrast, that pop, to underline the idea of intensity.

The upper hand isn't separated from the blown highlights, and incidentally the highlights are wildly blown. I am sure that in a camera club or a critique forum I'd be panned for those two things. But do you know how much I care? Guess! I bet you can guess!

The picture succeeds for my purposes. The lack of separation does not conceal anything. The picture is not hard to understand as a result of it, there are no mysteries about where the hand ends and the white stuff starts, and anyways it doesn't even matter. That's not the point.

There are certainly people out there who at any rate claim to pre-visualize fine detail concerning the actual tonal placement in the desired outcome. I am not one of those people. I am pretty sure about the big tones, the bright sky, the dark shadows. The big tonal changes are what really matter anyways, the largest contrasts are the ones that pop out.

In the sample above it seems to me that the dominant tonal relaitionship/element is the near hand against the more or less dark background. That is also where the focus falls, and it is one of the big players in terms of the subject matter and the sense of motion. So it strikes me that things are firing on, if not all cylinders, most of them. This isn't really on purpose, I just made a bunch of exposures in a context that had the material I wanted, and then I dug around for a frame that worked pretty well graphically, and then I fiddled with the b&w conversion until the parts I wanted to pop more popped out pretty well.

Guys like Ansel Adams play much more subtle games with tones. Sometimes he's encoding depth tonally, sometimes he's got a nice rhythm of light/dark across the frame. I don't know how much of that is done with careful burning and dodging, and how much was planned.

In summary, I don't really see in black and white, I just see the world out there. But I do delete the color later, because I find it distracting, and that it generally doesn't add to anything I want to say.

As a bonus, it makes it a lot easier to make a bunch of pictures feel together. In color, you've got a whole new axis upon which your portfolio or book or collection can tear itself apart, and ain't nobody wants that.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Over the last 150 years I have noticed that we are always entering a new era, an era in which a new generation of lens technology finally allows us to take the pictures we have always longed to take.

First we had optical formulae, lens with multiple elements that allowed ludicrous speeds like f/4.0, which freed us from the tyranny of poor lenses.

Later, new glass formulations appeared, allowing for better lens corrections or something, and we were liberated at last from the dank prison of poor lenses.

Coatings and more glass came, freeing us all over again.

Computers arrived, and people started using them for lens design which, I dare say you will not be surprised to learn, unshackled our chains and set us free to fly the heights of fancy.

And now we're starting to see crazy nanotech dffusion.. things. That have negative refractive indices, I think, whatever that means. And I am absolutely certain these will finally enable a good lens, a lens worthy of our vision, to be delivered.

I submit to you this only slightly hyperbolic assertion: There are no bad lenses, only bad photographers.

Unpacked slightly, there are no bad lenses, only lenses in the hands of photographers unable to make sense of the properties of the lens and to put them to good use.

In this same era of 40 pound computer designed lenses with almost no chromatic aberration, we have plastic lenses, we have deliberately uncorrected lenses. We have exotica like the Cooke PS945. We have people running kickstarters to to build Petzval lenses. Lest you think it's just hipsters and idiots, I direct you again to the Cooke PS945, which is emphatically not a lens for hipsters. This is a lens for the very very very serious photographer indeed, and if you lent one to Ming Thein without mentioning to him the price, he would surely find much negative to say about it.

The point is that every lens can be made to do something interesting and good. It might not be something you particularly want to do, in which case you should get a different lens or two. We are not in an awesome new era in which finally lenses allow us creative freedom. We're in the same old era in which manufacturers continue to build new lens designs with new lists of specifications, which they then market vigorously.

These new lenses also have a place in the world. The can render an image upside down on on a flat surface too, with some properties, which properties can perhaps be bent to the whim of the photographer.

Having been raised in the same school as most of you, the school of More Sharpness and Less Aberration, I feel the tug of the Otus. But I resist, because it turns out those are not the pictures I want to make. (And even if they were, I know how to make them much more cheaply.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

'Tis the Season

As a responsible and influential photography blogger, my job at this point is to write a lengthy post in which I enumerate an enormous laundry list of gear, each named with an affiliate link. I've seen at least two of these things and it's not like I monitor the entire blogosphere.

But I'm not gonna do that. Partly because you can't buy new most of the gear I use, and mainly because No.

My implied Christmas purchases post is just this: buy a copy of Sally Mann's Hold Still for yourself, and another one for every single person you know. It didn't win the National Book Award, but it was justly nominated. I can't tell you whether Ta-nehisi Coates deserved the win or not since I didn't read his book.

I can tell you that I approve of Sally Mann in roughly the same way that 13 year old girls approve of Taylor Swift.

Here are some affiliate links you should use to buy the book if you must buy it from amazon, which you ought not. You ought to buy it from a local bookstore.

If you do use these links, someone who isn't me gets paid:

Foreigners, you are on your own, I'm afraid. I'm confident you can work it out, however!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Nudes and Flowers

This post rambles a bit, and I can't really say that it goes anywhere.

These are kind of my safe zones, or at least they were for years. My dad shot a ton of these gorgeous flowers on black backgrounds, super saturated colors, on some sort of transparency film. Mamiya RZ67, no idea what film, but he wound up with Cibachromes. My stepmother's place is still littered with the things. They're gorgeous, they go beautifully with the Bateman prints and whatnot. Lovely decor, not a lot of ideas. My dad would probably think my obsession with Art, Concept, Ideas and whatnot is a bit suspect. Not that that taciturn man would have said a word.

Anyways. I've shot a lot of flowers myself. I spent a year pulling together 27 pictures of which these are some.

These things combined my two safe zones: I shot the flowers as if they were nudes, stealing an idea or ten from Edward Weston (if you're going to plagiarize, don't monkey around, steal from the best).

I do quite like these things. They're very decorative, for one thing, and I use them as decor. I keep trying to mix them in to something more serious, and I feel like one of these days they're going to work as just the right decorative seasoning to something or other. But they are not themselves particularly serious.

The nudes, well, my wife is very beautiful. If I had my way, I'd spend all day every day taking pictures of her without her clothes on; meaning, concept, and ideas be damned. She seems to feel that feeding our children and so on has some value, however, which leaves me with some free time to do other things, which is probably just as well.

I'm not going to share any nudes. Sorry. Imagine a human person with no clothes on in the photos above, and you'll have the idea, though.

Looking back now at these flowers, I see that I was much too interested in techniques. I learned a lot about making pictures that look like one thing or another shooting these things, although I think that in the grand scheme of things my lighting-fu is still weak.

There wasn't much of any idea here. Flowers as nudes isn't a terrible idea, but it's just a kind of a motif, a visual treatment. It's like deciding to use a lot of red in your paintings, I think.

Nudes are inherently more interesting. There's a person there, for one thing, and we like people. And the subject is nude, which is inherently interesting, and freights your pictures with a metric *uckload of symbolism and cultural commentary. But there's still not necessarily much in the way of ideas. Indeed, you might have more trouble getting an idea across, since the viewers are pretty much gonna distracted by the flesh.

Anyways, I feel like I am moving away from these things to murkier (literally and figuratively) things. I think that makes me happy.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ideas/Communication II

The yammering in this blog post from a few days ago surely has some relationship to the Iceberg Theory of writing. This is, I think, attributed to Hemingway. The idea is that you leave you large and important chunks of whatever you're writing. The story is shaped by these absent pieces, and the reader can feel their presence.

In this form, it's attributed to Hemingway. But it's basic stuff, some people call it world-building. There's a reason Tolkien's books read differently from the knock-offs -- he spent decades building a complete world with a literature and a mythology, with epic poems, and so on. It's all there, more or less fully realized, and then almost entirely left out. The published books are shaped by this corpus, but don't include it. The reader can feel the presence of the larger world nonetheless.

My ideas for collections of pictures are not quite the same. I'm not leaving out the important pictures (although there's an idea, eh?), what I'm leaving out is the words that explain it all. The book, the portfolio, the slideshow, whatever, is informed and shaped by my ideas, and hopefully develops a richness and depth thereby.

Does it work? I have no idea, and I have no idea even how to find out. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

State of the Industry, LuLa's going Paid

The Luminous Landscape is switching to a subscription model. $12/year. So what?

Well, it's an indication of the state of the industry, innit? Obviously the revenues are trending the wrong way. Ad revenue is surely in a crunch, for a couple of reasons: ad revenue is in general getting crushed on the internet, and the photographic enthusiast market is on a brisk downhill slope as well. I dare say it's getting ugly out there.

Michael tends to over-inflate Lula's place in the universe a bit, but it still seems to be in the top ten most visited photography web sites. 330,000 unique visitors a month, which probably translates to somewhat fewer actual people (I probably count as somewhere between 2 and 5, depending on how alexa.com's analytics are counting me), and still fewer regular visitors. I am comfortable with 10,000 to 100,000 as the count of humans who regularly visit.

They've made some missteps. Michael, as I read it, hired a friend of his, so now the payroll includes three guys, at a time when revenues were about beginning that inexorable slide. The content, frankly, has suffered. Most of the front page articles are terrible fluff pieces, and they did a site conversion which left the archives of useful historical stuff in a bit of a shambles. They have too many staff, and too little web site. With all due respect, I have no idea what on earth they do with three staffers. So, there's trouble in River City. They gotta do something.

A paywall is a Hail Mary pass, there's just no other way to put it. You either start an inexorable death spiral, or you don't. Most of the time, you do. There's a short interval in which things look good, it's a joyful private club, everyone feels smug, and now if we can just get another 2x or 3x signups we're in fat city, and then people stop renewing and the new signups slow down because things are kind of dead in there, and after a while it's time to turn off the lights.

It's entirely possible that they did some research, I don't know. I'm an active member, and they didn't reach me with any kind of market research, which certainly doesn't mean they didn't do any. It's a datum, though.

Also worth noting is that, based on a handful of comments in their forums, they're tweaking the model to make the forums free. If this is genuinely the basis for the change, they're insane. They have, at a bare minimum, 10,000 regular visitors, and those are the people they need to persuade to part with hard-earned lucre. Just because 4 or 5 or 10 of the self-selected cranky jerks (I include myself in that number) who infest their forums say something doesn't mean it's true or even relevant. In fact, it almost certainly is not relevant, these are by definition outliers. You've got to figure out how to reach that silent majority and find out what's going to make those people part with cold, hard, cash.

Anyways, it's tough out there.

If you're running a popular web site, and you're wondering what to do to solve your money problem, watch LuLa closely, it's gonna get interesting. While you're watching, think about these ideas a little:

  • Launch a Patreon. Running simply on donations with an organized approach is a lot like a friendlier paywall. It can work.
  • Launch a market research firm. Get some books out of the library, read up, and start gently leveraging your subscriber base. Work out a way to compensate them for their time, for their information, in a way that doesn't cost you much, Premium content. Negotiated discounts from useful vendors.
  • Sell T-shirts and other merch. This can produce surprising amounts of revenue.
  • Do you sell anything else? Workshops, prints, videos, whatever? Launch a business helping other people generate and sell similar content and services.
  • Own up to vendor relationships and leverage them. If you like Nikon, or Tamrac, or Lytro, or whatever, ask them if you can be a spokesman. There's no shame in being a paid pitch man for products you like. Just don't lie about it.
  • Etc. Just think a bit, you'll probably come up with more businesses.

None of them are going to be all wine and roses. The trouble is that the pundits and players in the web-o-sphere don't want to do the hard parts. They want to fool about with cameras and write uninformed blog posts (I know that's what motivates me anyways) and they would very much like to get paid handsomely for their goofing off (well, me too, but I'm more of a realist than that). If you just want to play around, you can't expect to get paid a lot for it.

Some people have gotten paid a lot for it, but that was an anomaly, in an anomalous time, which time is now over.

Time to get to work.


There's ideas that we stick into a piece of Art. I make a bunch of pictures, I pick some out, and shuffle them around thoughtfully, and I shovel them into some sort of portfolio or booklike thing. Then I give that away. And it's all intentional, there's ideas and meaning that I intend in there, usually quite a lot of stuff.

Then there's the ideas that we get out of a piece of Art. You find a booklike thing in a coffee shop, let's say in Bellingham, WA, USA, just as a sort of randomly selected for-instance kind of a deal. You crack it open and poke around. Some of you buggers probably read it back to front. Maybe you toss it aside, having gotten nothing. Maybe you see some stuff. Maybe some of the stuff you see overlaps with the stuff the artist put in there.

In an ideal world, I think kind of the best we can hope for is that you get a subset of whatever I put in there, and you get it at an angle I never imagined, and then you get some other stuff I never intended, and you put it together into something that pleases you. If it's one of mine, you might flip it over and read the note that says this is a free book and you can take it home if you want.

It might even occur to you to think "if I take it home, does this mean my visitors can take it away to their own homes if they like?" and I'm just gonna leave that as an open question.

Anyways, that's kind of a practical best case. If I don't write a detailed artist's statement, it's totally unreasonable to hope that we're going to communicate any better than this.

Now, I have a theory, an idea, a feeling. It is this: Even if what you get out does not overlap with what I put in, the fact that I did put things in, that I made this thing with ideas and intent, somehow translates into a more accessible and rich object, from which you are more able to draw your own, unrelated, result.

This is based on nothing much at all. It's basically sympathetic magic that I am proposing here. But I can't shake the feeling. I happen to feel like I see it in other work. Stieglitz' Equivalents have this for me -- I feel like he's getting at something, but I can't find it. It's well known that he shoved a lot of intention in there.

Possibly there is something about density of idea-fragments. You can imagine that if I just thoughtlessly chucked together a bunch of crucifixes, melting clocks, and watermelons, people would probably read some stuff into it simply because of the density of symbols. Perhaps if I put enough ideas of my own in, I produce something with a similar sort of density, albeit a less obvious one. Perhaps the pieces can be re-assembled into your own ideas.

This begs the question, then, of which am I doing? Am I simply larding it up with a jumble of symbolism and hoping for the best, or am I actually executing coherent ideas? Michele Sons pictures of pretty girls in gowns standing in the middle of nowhere could go either way. I can read a ton into it, if I want, but I have no idea if she's actually got an idea, or is just thoughtlessly chucking a girl into the frame to spice up the otherwise 100% social-media-compliant landscape. Who knows? Does it really matter, in the long run?

Ya got me!

Monday, November 23, 2015


There's a veritable cottage industry now in sending people to Antarctica. If you're got about $30 grand you can go tromp around on the edge of the continent. Some, possibly many, of these tourists are moderately wealthy pudgy white dudes with $50 grand worth of camera equipment.

I'm pretty sure these guys grew up with National Geographic. The magazine had these magical pictures of far of places, like, say, Antarctica. It was crazy hard to get there in the 60s and 70s, it was a major undertaking. Indeed, it still is, note the price tag. The Southern Ocean is not to be fucked with and, frankly, it's only a matter of time before a boat filled with well to do older white guys goes down with all hands. They've had some close calls already.

Anyways. National Geo. They had these photos, and they were really pretty great. What made them great, though, was that we'd never seen these things. These huge masses of eerily lit ice. A million penguins massed on a pure white landscape (except for the penguin shit all over, so, frame carefully!) It was amazing, it was other-worldly. So these guys, now they've made their pile and handed a great wad of it over to Phase One, are now ready to, essentially, make copies of the photos of their youth.

Sure, they've all got their own vision. This bloke likes to shoot into the sun. This chap likes starfields in the background. Whatever. It's all cheap knockoff National Geographic stuff. The novelty is now gone, and with it a tremendous amount of the magic. Plus, they never manage to make it look cold. But, whatever. They're having a blast, enjoying the adventure of a lifetime. Good on 'em.

Then there's the workshop situation. At least one outfit offers photographic workshop trips for astronomical prices and I assume that, like rats, if you see one there are more.

The outfit I have in mind generously gave away a Free Trip to a deserving photographer. I don't know what process the portly older white men used to select the deserving young talent, but this was the result:

Now here's the wonderful thing. She went. She took some pictures. And they're pretty great. They're leagues better than a fake National Geo. stuff. It's tremendous vistas with a pretty girl in a flowing gown, small in the frame. Ok, it's not exactly Steichen, it's kind of twee, but it's quite decent. She's got a visual idea and she's working it pretty hard. I'm not sure I "get it" as such, but I at least feel there's something there to not get.

Good for Michele! And good for LuLa after all, she was deserving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Abstraction and Photography

A recent comment has inspired me to really think about this a bit, and work out what I like and what I don't like, and what I think about it all.

Abstract photography is Very Much a Thing. Macro photographs of stuff. Smoke and colored lights. Oil slicks. Intentional Camera Movement. Extreme architectural isolations. And so on and so forth. These things are quite fun to shoot, unless you're me, and they can generate very appealing pictures. Graphically powerful pictures. That sort of thing.

I think a strong case can be made, though, and I intend to make it, that abstract photography has very little to do with abstract painting.

What's going on with abstract painters? Well, there's more ideas than painters, generally, but in broad strokes when they claim to be doing is distilling things out. They're experimenting with processes, techniques, forms, which explicitly remove or alter aspects of reality specifically to distill, to emphasize something important. Perhaps they're revealing the essence of the thing they're painting. Perhaps they're summarizing emotion. Perhaps they're commenting on Art itself.

The point is that the abstraction is, as a general rule, supposed to reveal something or other. I'm sure you kind find some bloke who's gone the opposite way, but this is the commonly held idea.

Photography, in its very essence, is connected to the reality at which the camera is pointed. This is the point. That is what makes photography photography and not painting. Therefore you start out with a problem, right out of the chute. A painter is able to re-mold reality as he sees fit. This is arguably what painting is. A photographer can't, without becoming a painter. A photographer is stuck with techniques which boil down to "get close, and isolate bits and pieces" which removes reality by simply excluding it from the frame, or my blurring it into smears. It's a pretty weak-sauce version of what the painters do.

The second and really important thing is that abstract photography almost never reveals anything. In the first place its one and only technique is one of concealment. In the second place, the practitioners of abstract photographer are, for the most part, either clueless about revealing, or simply not interested in it.

Mondrian did a lot of stuff, but is famous for his primary color square things with the black lines. Whether or not he succeeded in distilling and revealing I am doubtful, but he gets full marks for giving it a shot. Notably, nobody else does this. It's not like Mondrian developed a new way of painting and now we have a whole school of painters working away with grids and stuff because it's so powerful. Nope. That's been done.

We do, however, have apparently millions of people shooting oil slicks in fish tanks with colored lights, millions of other people waving their cameras around to make smeary colorful blobs, and so on. These people have nothing to say, they just think it looks cool. If you hang about and listen to the Serious Practitioners, you'll find a lot of discussion of compositional formalism, balanced frames and so on, but they're still not trying to reveal anything.

It does look cool, and they're having a hell of a lot of fun, and that's great. But the relationship to abstract painting is non-existant.

What can you do with abstract photography?

Well, as mentioned, you can create visually interesting graphical things, eye catching pictures. You can give a new reading of something familiar, with a series of semi-abstract closeups. You could even create a new thing, I dare say. With a carefully shot series of architectural closeups of a wide, squat, building, you could build the impression of a soaring Art Deco tower. You can reveal, if you work at it.

I think it's absolutely inherent in the form that you need many photographs. Because the only technique available is to exclude, you can only get fragments. Unlike an abstract painting where you can represent, albeit in wildly compressed or modified for, the whole thing, the woman descending the staircase, or whatever, you can really only get tiny bits and pieces.

Therefore to show anything, to reveal, you really have to use collage. Literal collage, or figurative. Somehow, though, you have to give us many fragments, and help us to assemble them into the whole, revealing the whole in a new way (whether the whole is the real building, an imaginary building, or the artist's reaction to the tragedy in his life hardly matters).

A Tip. Or, A Fallacy

When you're measuring some quantity that originates with several different sources, do not assume that when the amount from one source exceeds another's, that the other's becomes irrelevant.

We see this constantly in camera land. Blah blah noise is greater than blip blip noise so we can ignore the latter. The lens is soft so there's no point using good filters. Etc.

This stuff mostly either adds together, or combines in counter intuitive ways. But it almost never vanishes.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Photographically Rich Environments

Here's a piece from Ming. For once I'm kind of neutral about it, and I didn't even look at the pictures, really.

The comments as currently trending flow with the piece, reiterating the point I am about to make, so they might be worth a skim.

The whole enterprise in which these people are engaged has the cart before the horse, or possibly they've actually got a cat in the harness backwards.

They're taking about locations, cities, and how photographically interesting or not this city is, or that, and the relative advantages to being a visitor versus a native. Ming talks about how infrequently the light is good in Kuala Lumpur.

The essential problem throughout is that these people are all shooting things. And, since they have read on the internet about The Light! They know they want 'good light'.

Who the hell wants a flattering picture of a building? There are various reasons the building's architect or owner might want some flattering pictures of it, but I certainly don't want to hang one on my wall.

If instead of photographing things, you photograph ideas, then the only quality of a location that matters is whether or not you have ideas there. I am amused that Ming finds it hard to photograph Kuala Lumpur because, basically, it looks wrong.

Nothing looks wrong. Everything looks just like itself. Why on earth would you want to shoot Kuala Lumpur like it's Chicago? Shoot it like itself and you might get something worth keeping. Shoot it like some low rent Chicago and its gonna look like a low rent Chicago.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Booklike Objects

Keith Smith makes the very reasonable point that the standard photography monograph is essentially an archive of the greatest hits. There may be some relationships between the pictures, but that is, in general, secondary to the central idea that "these are the best pictures" from whatever context you have in mind. The best ones from last year, the best ones from such and such a project, the best ones from a lifetime of labor. I've made these things myself.

You pick the best ones out, more or less, and then you put them in some kind of order, and then you press Print.

This is somewhat akin to an Greatest Hits Album (remember those?). The Eagles Greatest Hits, or whatever.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more or less, the Greatest Hits Album was kind of pooh-poohed by people like, well, by people like me. The Concept Album generally meant something poncy and overwrought, but we anyways liked albums built around some sort of an idea, where the songs went together. Ziggy Stardust, The Wall. Now, I'm sure that the artists did their best to make each song excellent, but in the end the songs had to work. They had to serve the concept, the narrative, or whatever overall thing was going on. I'm sure that hook-laden top-40 friendly songs got dropped because they wouldn't work (don't worry, there's always another album, until there isn't!)

One could argue that you ought to simply shoot a Great Picture for that one spot, instead of plugging in an inferior one just to make the structure work, but I submit that there are cases in which what is wanted is specifically not a great picture. Perhaps you want a neutral picture, or a picture that does not jump out, or a silly picture. It might, in short, be necessary for the structure that you plug in a lesser photograph, in the same way that an album composed entirely of top-40 fodder is probably going to lose structure, shape.

What do we see in these kinds of albums?

We see a lot of repetition, interestingly. Earlier numbers are reprised, usually somewhat differently, but clearly recognizable. We see a lot of quotation, but then, we see that in popular music regardless, so that's not much help here.

My favorite example here is Rod Stewart relating how he wrote one of his hits, Mandy, I think. He'd been warming up at the piano with a bit of Chopin, and then started in to work. Pretty quickly he had the bones of the song, and was feeling very smug "that harmonic progression is bloody brilliant, I am a genius" and then a little while later "bugger, actually, Chopin was a genuis."

We see songs deliberately created to fill holes in the narrative, in the idea. We see new arrangements of a prior song intended to serve a narrative which is proceeding forwards (the same song, redone in a minor key because our protagonist is now sad, that sort of thing).

We see the same ideas hammered over and over. If we haven't figured out that Pink is pretty screwed up by the end of The Wall, we're being willfully inattentive. Novelty from song-to-song is actually an impediment. A strong degree, albeit not too much, of sameness is desirable.

All of this has obvious parallels in the making of photography books and booklike objects. I can't actually just write them down, because the parallels, to my eye, explode out in 100 directions at once. I might be able to write a book about it, but it would just be a brain dump.

Two questions, to which I do not know the answers, come to mind:

  • What happens when you give someone a portfolio and say "this is a book" versus "this is a portfolio"?
  • Can you apply any of this to commercial work? Can we usefully conceive of an ad campaign, a catalog, an annual report, as a booklike object?


After, I dunno, a decade or more of raising Expose To The Right, we now have this piece from Michael Reichmann over at LuLa suggesting what I think we can reasonably describe as Expose To The Left.

Whereas in the bad old days the best procedure was to carefully overexpose and fix it in post, now that we have these amazing new sensors from Sony, the correct procedure is to underexpose and fix it in post.

This may seem crazy, I know, but why not just expose correctly and don't fix it in post?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Copies and References

Something people worry about, including me, is making a picture that looks just like someone else's picture.

If you're in the land of the Single Iconic Image, then when you shoot something that looks a lot like Lange's "Migrant Mother" you're simply making a cheap knockoff, or at best, a very good knockoff. If you duplicate it with changes, perhaps you're commenting on Lange, on the original, or something, but it's still pretty lame.

If instead you are making something bigger, a portfolio, a book, something else, then there's an additional and important layer of possibility. You can quote Lange, literally or figuratively, in order to create a link to that work from your own. There are a bunch of reasons one might productively do this.

If you're writing a poem, and you simply lift couplet from Shakespeare, you're a plagiarist.

If you're writing a novel, and you quote Shakespeare, that is quite a different thing. You could be quoting Shakespeare for terrible reasons but, again, there are a bunch of reasons one might productively do this.

Liberating, innit?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: The New Structure of the Visual Book
   by Keith A. Smith

This is a pretty crazy book, no way around it. But it's awesome, as well.

There are some core ideas in it, which I will just present in a sort of jumble. These can be applied most obviously to books, but one could as well find them useful when presenting anything at all, but most especially anything with multiple pieces of content and some builtin organizing structure. It could be five photographs hung along a hallway, a movie, a web site, an iPad application.

Page-turning as an important mechanic. The binding determines the way the mechanic operates (codex, foldbook, fan, blind, etc). Turning pages defines cadence. It creates a moving shadow. Flipping pages quickly can create a sense of motion.

As a particular example Smith does not reference, there is the Amandine Nabarra-Piomelli's Bernoulli's Equation book currently on display at the Whatcom Museum, in which flipping the pages of the blind-bound book recapitulates the flow of water, which is the subject of the book. Which is artsy-fartsy as hell, but pretty neat. There's a video that is worth watching.

For non-book objects, what is the mechanic by which we move from one piece of content to the next? How is it relevant, how can we make it relevant, what problems can it create, and how can we use it?

The ability to see through one page to the next: transparency, translucency, cutout. This creates a stacked combination recto when you open to the first page of the relevant collection, and as you turn the pages, the pattern or collage is disassembled and rebuilt upside down verso. Smith does not mention it, but this occurs in a weak form with thin papers and with vellum -- you can see, murkily, the reverse of the page you're looking at, and there are problems and possibilities inherent here.

Using the blurb platform to make the cheaper trade books, you get slightly translucent pages. How can you use dark masses on the reverse of a page together with the main content of the page?

There's a lot of material about organizing, well, things. We can think of them as pictures, but the ideas are pretty general.

  • Group: Just a bunch of things.
  • Series: A bunch of things that organize themselves into a line, by physical order, allusion, reference, etc.
  • Sequence: A bunch of things with a mesh of interconnection, allusion, reference, etc.

A portfolio is most often primarily a group or at most a series. Certainly I tend to organize my portfolios in some order, and I present them in that physical order, which defines a linear order in which you can look at the things. A series.

A novel might well be a sequence. You have the linear ordering of words and pages, and a possibly second and distinct linear ordering of events in time if the novel is not told chronologically. You will often also find foreshadowing, references to prior events or images, and so on. A novel is a group of words, a group of pages, but it is also several series, and finally also a mesh of connections layered atop that. A poem may also be, in terms of its images and metaphors, but also simply in its rhyme structure.

These organizations can be imposed by the author, but the reader may not perceive them. The reader may, probably will, impose and discover their own.

Multiple organizations can be (are) in play. You almost always have elements of each in play.

Smith believes, and I agree, that you often (usually? always?) should strive for his notion of "sequence" simply to provide the reader, the viewer, with the richest possible experience, the most to enjoy, to discover, to feel.

How can structure and organization emphasize and support your ideas? Is it useful to your project to insert a reference to somewhere else inside the work, and how would you accomplish that? Does a mesh of references make the idea more or less clear? Which references can you remove to clarify things, and how would you do that?

This is an important book, as Mike Chisholm pointed out in a comment here earlier. What it's not is a how to manual, or even a dissertation on book forms. It is really a survey piece, surveying both book art that exists, and Keith Smith's ideas about books.

I suspect that the author has a good sense of humor (he defined "sequence" in a very personal and idiosyncratic way, and then berates other sources, including dictionaries, for getting it "wrong"), and would not particularly mind the following characterization:

The book is, I think, most usefully used as a device for prying open one's mind. It is a torrent of ideas, many of which will almost certainly seem completely outré, but they're all worth thinking about.

The weakest points of the book, unfortunately, are the tied up to the actual work presented. Mr. Smith's own content seems to be quite weak. He takes banal pictures and often does banal Art 101 things with them. His examples of sequence are usually quite forced and seem to originate with a particularly annoying branch of critical theory, the sort that finds Christ Figures in every novel, and is sure that every circle in a picture relates to every other circle in every other picture in some deep and meaningful way.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes you actually need an idea.

But the ideas in this book are killer, even if the cited books are weak. If you're interested in presenting work in book form, you should read this thing, and throw out whichever 90% doesn't do it for you. But keep the rest.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Alain Briot on Composition

So here's an interesting piece: How This Photograph Was Made. It's probably not interesting in the way Alain means it to be, though.

In the piece we see Alain's process. He goes around shooting a bunch of material, and then tries to make sense of it after the fact.

Then, to my astonishment, he uses the Golden Spiral, Golden Ratio, and Rule of Thirds overlays in Lightroom to judge the success of his compositions. This is a guy who actually went to Art School. You'd think he'd know better.

As an aside, some things I've noted earlier in this blog: all this Golden Whatever, Rule of Thing stuff is very new and only photographers pay the slightest attention to any of it. Because it is all BS.

Having followed this process, Alain winds up with what appears to my eye to be a jumbled mess.

This strikes me as an object lesson in bad working methods. Shooting without knowing where you're going generates raw material that isn't going anywhere. Then if you judge your results with ridiculous overlays you're sure to wind up nowhere.

I can pretty much visualize how the composition overlays are focusing Alain's attention on the things he imagines are important, and taking it away from the pointless mess that makes up the bulk of the frame. He's got the hotel and the battleship in the right spots, he's got some foreground and some background. What else is there?

Then, hilariously, Alain drones on for a few hundred words about not doing what he's just done.

I don't much like Alain's work, but this seems particularly egregious. I cannot help but wonder if this is all a bit of satire, an intentional demonstration of terrible methods. Alain actually can make a well organized frame, albeit still not a very interesting one.

Friday, November 13, 2015


I recently took Mr. Thein to task for something he said about sharp tools. Obviously my motivation was that I am an asshole. However, there is a rationalization here. This is bad pedagogy, and promotes a myth that is prevalent in photographic circles. Mr. Thein claims to be all about education, so taking him to task is reasonable, here.

If you want to learn to play the piano, I can tell you immediately what piano to buy. You should purchase an older American made grand piano, rebuilt to the highest standard, with ivory keytops. Steinway is always a solid choice, but Chickering, Knabe, and a few others are also excellent if you select the year of manufacture with a little care. The rebuild is because that's the only way to get ivory. An acceptable alternative is a new concert grand.

Go for the 9 footer if possible. This is the best instrument you can obtain, and it's going to cost you about 100 grand. But it's the right tool for the rank beginner, because it will fight you the least. Of course, budget may be an issue. Do not get an upright or a digital, the actions can be truly excellent, but they're simply not grand piano actions, and grand piano actions are better. Do not get anything under 6 feet long, the tone in the bass is going to be muddy, it's physics, and that's going to interfere with your ability to hear clearly what you're playing.

The same applies to cameras. I used to own a Bender 4x5, and while a perfectly serviceable camera, the Sinar F1 I have now is simply better. It fights me less.

For decades the canonical starter camera was in fact a superb instrument. Simple, robust, well made. The K-1000, the FE2, and so on. These cameras fought the user almost not at all, they did a simple job well, and more or less transparently. They were perfect for the beginner. And just fine for the expert.

It is only now that we decree the beginner should start with a Nikon D3300 or the Canon Rebel Whatever. These are infernally complex machines, and I think in fact wildly inappropriate for the beginning. They're a weird and confusing mixture of unsophisticated "scene modes" and powerful advanced autofocus and exposure modes that even experts have trouble fully grasping.

But we have to start out cheap, and then only when we're "ready" can we move up to the sharp tool that is the D810, or 5DMkIV or whatever?

This is madness. The proper tool for the beginning is neither end of the scale, but an imaginary and much simpler machine. Given the reality of what is available, I suspect that the more Professional models, with fewer helper modes, would be better. I was a beginner back in the Good Olde Dayes, and am not any more, so I cannot be sure.

All, up, the beginner is going to have trouble with any of these instruments without a helpful mentor to tell them to stick it in Av (or M) with a center weighted meter, and leave it there for a year. Since that's the proper path anyways, it probably doesn't matter which you get.

No matter how you slice it, the myth that you have to be ready before getting a good camera is a myth, a very modern myth, and it deserves to be savagely kicked in the face every time it pops up.

But I'm still kind of a jerk.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Art, Kitsch, Subjectivity, and All That

These are themes I've written about in the past, and I feel like taking another whack at them. The interested reader can probably search the archives to find if I've changed my mind. Me? I am a forward-looking man! The past is the past.

Oft-repeated theme: art is all subjective anyways. False. Art is not subjective. Nor is it objective. There is a lovely word specifically invented to describe what it is: intersubjective which is, more or less, "something like subjective, except people seem to agree with one another about it". In practice, it means rough social consensus.

Oft-repeated theme: why don't people like good photos?

This one can be unpacked a little. Photographers are often heard to, roughly, divide photographs up into three categories:
  • Poncy Art Crap that only faggots from New York City like.
  • Garbage snapshots on facebook etc.
  • The pictures my friends and I like.
which is really to divide the world up in to:
  • Faggots from NYC. FfNYC.
  • Unwashed ignorant pigs.
  • Me and my friends.
which isn't very charitable. Still, we all tend to do this, don't we? There's always us and them, and we can generally divide "them" up into the fancy ones and the dirty ones.

Let's all take a moment and resolve to try to do better. ... ok, there.

So we have the idea of intersubjectivity, which tells us that a "good" photograph is something that some group somewhere more or less agrees is "good". If you like you can play games with measuring the size of the group. If it's pretty much just you and your friends, or pretty much just FfNYC, well, that means something, doesn't it? Not that many people like whatever it is. Which may or may not be a good thing.

Let me take a moment for an aside. I think that the Poncy Art that only Faggots Like is actually much more accessible than people make out. I think that the common man, of which I am an example, can get something out of practically anything if they simply apply themselves a little. Read the artist's statement, which will be ridiculous, yes. But struggle with it a little and try to get something from it, and look at the piece or the exhibit in that light. What are the ideas here? Stop fussing about the fact that it was painted with poop for a moment, and look with an open mind.

Which brings us, circuitously, around to the other axis which is ideas. There's kitsch and decor which are typically short on ideas and long on looks. Kitsch actually has ideas, often, they're just not ideas about society or humanity or the infinite, they're ideas about what things can be glued to other things. At the other end we have the Poncy Art which is long ideas and often short execution these days. And then there's all the stuff in the middle.

There's also Dada and so on which tries to avoid ideas, in a sense, but fails. "Has no ideas in it" is an idea. So there.

With all this stuff in play, there's really no point in judging something good or bad. Those words are meaningless, or rather have so many potential meanings as to be pointless.

You can say "I don't think this piece has any ideas" and "I think this piece is poorly executed" and "I think the colors in this piece would go remarkably well with my couch". These are factual statements about your internal state, and as such are not really open to debate.

Because we are humans and are indeed plugged in to our society, and are good guessers about what other people might think, we can extend these factual statements about ourselves to firm opinions, well-educated guesses, about what other will think. "I don't think many people will find any interesting ideas in this piece" is a statement you can make, if you're careful. It's not quite the same as "I don't find any ideas", you have to expand your mind a little. I, for one, have seen many pieces where I got little or nothing, but felt it possible that others might. I have seen many more pieces where I am convinced that the reason I see no ideas is because there aren't any.

Similarly you can say "I cannot imagine there is a couch in the world this goddamned thing would go with" and so on. Generalization from the personal to some broader scope is something that we are unreasonably reliable at, what with our big fat brains. We're not 100%, which is why we think of generalization as a bad idea, but we're much much much better than random. So, generalize away, just hedge a trifle, because nobody's 100%.

It is the intersubjectivity of Art and related things that lets this work. If Art were truly subjective, then generalization would not work. Since it is a social consensus, we, as members of society are both accurate guessers as to that consensus, and also contributors to that consensus.

So, judge away. But your judgement should be your personal experience of whatever it is, and then a considered and careful generalization of that.