Saturday, January 31, 2015

Robert Frank, Walker Evans

I have next to me Walker Evans American Photographs and Robert Frank's The Americans. These are two of the more important monographs in American photography, and for good reason. They've got some good pictures in them.

Robert Frank is often cited as one of the seminal "street photographers", and was a student of Walker Evans. I own the Evans book and am generally pretty familiar with his work. Robert Frank, of course I know some of his pictures because they're pretty universally known (even if you don't know who shot them) but mostly I wasn't familiar with the work. Anyways. Onwards.

My first impression of The Americans was "hey, he's a beat Walker Evans!" which was probably influenced by the fact that Jack Kerouac wrote the intro, and my knowledge of both the era Frank was working in and the fact that he was a student of Evans. A beat Walker Evans is exactly what one might expect. After due consideration, I think this summary is still pretty spot on.

Both photographers have that foursquare, head-on style that so exemplifies Evans. Here is a thing. Here is a person. This is what it looked like. And yet, these are not trivial pictures. For reasons that are not always clear, most of them are pretty good. Most of them not only show us the immediate thing, but get at in some way something more fundamental, something underlying the thing. Evans liked his diagonals, either a diagonal thrust to lines, or simply interesting objects placed in opposing corners. Frank doesn't seem to like them as much. Frank has a few other quirks, preferring fragments perhaps more than Evans. Franks pictures are a lot rougher around the edges, more out of focus material, more motion blur.

In general, though, the pictures are a whole lot more alike than they are different.

Every time I though "aha! Here's something Evans never did!" I'd flip the American Photographs and find an Evans shot where did did exactly that. And vice versa, for the most part.

The substantive difference, and the one that makes Frank "street" where Evans wasn't, is that Evans prefers to show us the scene, the thing, the person, where Frank -- sometimes -- shows us the moment in time. Not always, much of The Americans is very much Evans, very much the scene, the person, the object. But here and there, we see an instant, a moment in time that was there, click, and then gone. The moment captures, or makes us believe that it captured, the event.

Evans shows us a row of politicians in fancy hats. Frank shows us a row of policiticans in fancy hats, at the instant one of them stifles a yawn.

It's an interesting evolution, one well worth looking at. Frank strikes me as someone straddling the genres, between whatever you call what Evans did (straight photography?) and "street".

Friday, January 30, 2015


A commenter asked what I knew about how to "succeed" in some sense. At any rate, that's what I took away from the exchange. I am not successful in any recognizable way. This is, at least in part, because I have not made any effort to succeed. I am pretty sure that success -- however one chooses to define it -- is pretty hard work. Still, I can perhaps offer some insights. More precisely, I can offer some insight into how not to do it.

Don't bother "working" the social media. Yes, there have been some successes there. Eric Kim, despite his completely derivative and not very interesting pictures, is a success. If you asked him, he would probably say that it was because he worked social media, gained followers and built an audience. Then he launched a web site and leveraged his audience into a career giving workshops and so on. This is what it looks like to him. That is what he did, certainly, and to that he would naturally attribute his success. If so, he's wrong. There are probably a million people out there with 10,000 or 100,000 followers on some social photography thing (flickr, instagram, 500px, etc) and not all of them are going to succeed.

I watched a great video on Survivorship Bias recently which brought this into sharp focus in my mind (hence this piece).

Don't bother copying other people. Yes, there are guys running around out there selling over-saturated landscape photographs and making quite a lot of money at it. Just because those 10 or 20 guys are doing well does not mean that the millions (yes, millions) of people copying them are going to do as well. If you want to make money selling expensive prints, you would do well to copy their business models, their sales processes, and so on. You would not do well to copy their pictures. The pictures might not matter that much, ultimately, but why start out with a the problem of differentiating yourself from the established guys? Start somewhere new. Find something appealing, crowd-pleasing, and not a saturated landscape. Flowers. Dogs. Kitchen implements. Vegetables. Whatever.

Obviously if you're trying to Art, rather than Sell, don't bother copying people. That's silly. If you're trying to Art, you probably want to start hanging around with gallerists and curators, but that's just a guess.

There isn't any royal road to success, but all the roads start with finding your own voice, surely. Figure out what you want to shoot, and shoot that. A lot.

Success, no matter how to define it, seems to demand that you be able to produce work consistently. A commercial photographer has to be able to go on site, on schedule, within a budget, and make more pictures of more or less the same sort as appear in her portfolio. A wedding photographer, ditto. An artist has to be able to grind out a new portfolio of new work every few years, a new portfolio which is related to but not the same as the previous one. A landscape artist needs to be able to go to a new location, and grind out more of the same, with equal or better quality.

So figure out what you want to shoot, and shoot it. A lot.

Ray Wylie Hubbard once said that the important thing about writing songs is how you're gonna feel playing it at every gig for twenty years, because every song might just be a success. Don't start shooting something you're going to hate if it does become the signature of your success. Shoot something you like.

I suspect that's part of why we see guys like Peter Lik doing landscapes. The work may be horrendously boring by now, but at least he gets to travel all over. If he was doing endless studio shots of flowers, he'd probably have killed himself by now.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Camera Face II

A random thought.

Many people hate pictures of themselves, saying "I look terrible in photographs". In some cases, what these people must hate is their Camera Face.

Camera Face

Here's an exercise for you. Google the exact phrase "senior session" and spend a little time on the web sites of the photographers that pop up. Pick a couple at random, it doesn't matter. Look at portfolios and also the descriptions of what you, as the client, can expect when you book your senior session. Take your time, I'll wait.



Ok, among the several things you may have observed might have been:
  • Every one of these photographers goes on at some length about how they'll personalize the session so your unique style and personality is captured.
  • All the pictures look the same. From one session to another. From one photographer to another. The "processing" will vary in small, irrelevant, ways.

Naturally, the last thing an 18 year old wants is for their actual personality to shine through. That's a pretty uncomfortable thought for a nearly-50 dude who doesn't give a shit, it would be a horrifying nightmare for a high school senior. By "your personality will shine through" the photographer means "we will photograph you holding a book, or a musical instrument, your choice, and if you like you may wear cowboy boots" which is as it should be.

The kids want to look 25 years old and hot, they have no interest in authenticity. In fact, they have no interest in non-conformity. They want their senior session to look just like those other ones except they should look a little hotter.

So we get endless girls incongruously squatting on railroad tracks in new frocks, all looking identical.

These things are a commodity. Whatever, there's no shame in that. I buy a lot of rice, and hold rice farmers in high esteem. It's perhaps a bit unfortunate that the photographers market the stuff about uniqueness, but whatever works, right?

Why are these things all so very much the same though? I was astonished at How. Incredibly. Narrow. the results are. There is:
  • Serious Face
  • Serious Face with teeth showing
  • Smiling Face
  • Laughing Face

and that appears to be almost literally it.

I have dubbed this phenomenon "Camera Face". These are the faces we put on when we're acutely conscious of the camera. These are masks, constructed to conceal, to represent us as normal and average (but hot! and 25!). I don't know if it's built into the human animal, or if we learn it through 13 years of school photos, or what, but it appears to be damn near universal.

The basic Senior Session photographer appears to pose the victim, and then to wait until the victim assumes Camera Face. The photographer waits until the victim is "ready" before releasing the shutter, and this mess is the result.

It's not a tragedy like genocide or a massive oil spill, but good lord, it ain't good.

I'm not a portrait guy, but I've shot some pretty good pictures of people. Plus which, I read a lot.

Actually good, interesting, actually pictures of people are taken not by waiting for Camera Face to appear, but waiting for Camera Face to disappear. You wait for the unguarded moment, the instant when the victim forgets the camera and is, for a moment, genuine, authentic. Alternatively, let the victim act, let them mug for the camera, put on a show. It's not authentic, but it's not Camera Face either. You get something into the picture.

Just Say No to Camera Face.

Monday, January 26, 2015


I take part in a couple of forums, variously acrimonious, variously filled with dunderheads. Since I have ceased posting my own pictures online, for a variety of reasons, I periodically take a bunch of grief from people who want to see my pictures before they'll listen to what I am saying. Which, as an aside, is completely idiotic.

Anyways, I don't post pictures in forums any more, because it will lead apparently inevitably to trying to please blockheads on internet forums.

As proof of this, I relate this sad little tale.

I recently shot a little portfolio for the blockheads on a forum, with a barely submerged subtext of "Fuck You" (you get one (1) guess as to whether anyone perceived this). I got some nice comments from a few nice people, and the bitchy bitches ignored it. Possibly they correctly read the subtext after all.

Now when I have a few spare moments and am shooting for a long term project, I find myself drawn to happy little exercises. Little happy crowd pleasing shots that mean nothing, that say nothing, but which would do quite well on some god damned internet forum.


Sunday, January 25, 2015


Back in the day, books about photography could run to 100 pages or more. They covered how to mix chemicals up, and coat plates of glass or metal, all the way through composition and seating a person for a portrait.

Nowadays, thank goodness, most of that fiddly difficult stuff has been cleared away. A contemporary book, workshop, or similar, on photography is both short and tends to jump ahead pretty immediately to artistic and creative elements. No, wait. That's not right at all. If anything, instruction has become even more lengthy and tedious! What the hell is going on here?

The first thing that's going on is that you can always make a buck selling a book about so big. So the books are about so big, pretty much no matter what. You can always fill it up with trivia, as needed.

The second thing that's going on is that, as photography has gotten easier, the old guard has always insisted that it is hard. It was hard in the days of glass plates. There was an incredible amount of finicky, dangerous, difficult stuff. As things got simpler, the glass plate guys complained that it was too easy now with these new-fangled dry plates, so the books written in the wet to dry plate transition no-doubt started to put in filler, to replace the no longer relevant stuff about collodion. And so the dry plate guys learned that photography was hard, and so when roll film showed up, they stuck in more filler. So the roll film guys learned that photography was hard.

And so it goes. Now we have books and tutorials that are mostly filler. Sure, they tell you a few things. Now we spend a tremendous amount of time "teaching" things that can be learned by the student in five minutes, by using a process best described as Open Your God Damned Eyes. 75% of the crap about where to put the lights can be learned in a few minutes by looking at pictures, and looking at a model, and moving the lights around a bit. But no, it has to be turned into 150 pages of canned formulas complete with diagrams about where to put the lights, and (if you're lucky) sample pictures of the loop under the model's nose, which are the only part that matters a fig.

And let's be clear here, by "filler" I don't necessarily mean that Chapters 5 through 8 should simply be deleted. I mean that, perhaps Chapters 5 through 7 should be condensed to one short chapter, and 8 should be rolled in to chapter 3 as a single paragraph.

As of this writing, searching the web for the exact phrase "photography workshop" garners nearly eight hundred thousand hits. Everyone wants to sell you a goddamned workshop. It's crazy. There's every stripe out there selling this crap. There are internet-famous amateurs and pros looking to squeeze few more bucks out of their hobby. There's art and design schools or varying degrees of credibility. There's National Geographic. There's honest-to-god credible artists.

I'm sure that in some small subset of these real value can be obtained by the student. Indeed, I dare say it would be rare to go to one and learn nothing at all.

Still, the most useful piece and sage course ever taught in photography boils down to this:

Open Your God Damned Eyes.

Look at what you're shooting. Look at other pictures. Look, for crying out loud, at the settings the camera has chosen for you. If the shutter speed says 8 that's probably why your pictures are all fuzzy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ansel Adams

Here is a film clip. Hat tip to The Online Photographer. It's a short educational film from the 1950s about this photographer, you might have heard of him, guy named Ansel Adams. Narrated by Beaumont Newhall, written by his wife, Nancy.

It is straight-up hagiography. The Newhalls loved Adams, and it shows. It's still fun to watch.

Notes of particular interest:
  • West Clay St in San Francisco (Seacliff neighborhood) is much the same now as then, according to google street view.
  • Adams photographs do not stand up well at all to the terrible treatment the film gives them, with ridiculously weak blacks. Many of the pictures disintegrate into pointless jumbles.
  • While Beaumont Newhall drones on endlessly about technique, much of what Adams says is about artistic expression.

I had occasion over the last weekend to spend some time with the standard library of Adams' books. Examples, and The Print in particular, but I dipped in to some of the others.

A constant theme, which surprised me, is that on virtually every page Adams talks about artistic expression. All his technique is explicitly about conveying feeling, emotion, an impression of whatever it is he's shooting. He suggests that you can't shoot it if you can't feel it. He says explicitly that all the technique he teaches is subsidiary to the artistic expression, that these technical details are mere guidelines intended to serve the final expression.

This was a surprise to me. Despite having read all this stuff, probably several times, a decade or more ago.

It strikes me, after noodling on it for a day or so, that the problem with Adams is that he was completely inarticulate on the issue of artistic expression. It shows in his books, and it shows in the film linked to above. He believed in it deeply, but he had almost literally no explicit guidance on how to do it. He reminds me of Harold Hill in "The Music Man" teaching children to play music (or rather, not teaching them) by urging them to simply "feel the music" more or less. While Adams clearly wants us to, he hasn't the foggiest notion how to help us to do it.

In part, I somewhat snottily suspect that it's because Adams himself couldn't do it very well. He made many beautiful pictures, many of which seem to be getting at the sublime, the majesty of nature, but that seems to be about it. When there is anything expressive in one of his pictures, it seems to be essentially "Oh. Wow. Wow." and frequently there isn't anything expressive it all. They're brilliant exercises in technique.

The only really good thing I've come across that isn't more or less "Oh. Wow. Wow." is his portrait of Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox, which looks a lot like an accident. But what an accident!

And so we are left with 100s of pages of explicit guidance on how to retain shadow detail, how to burn and dodge, how to compress or expand dynamic range to give a full range of tone in the final print, and on and on. All this crap has become gospel to many.

But it's not what Adams had in mind at all, as near as I can tell. He explicitly tells us that none of it is gospel, and that all of it is subsidiary to artistic expression.

And yet, here we are, in a world where plenty of self-styled experts will snootily complain about blocked up shadows for no damn reason at all except that they think blocked up shadows are wicked and sinful.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cropping or Not

There's a debate that goes around and around and around. Should I crop my photos? Am I a bad person if I crop my photos? Henri Cartier-Bresson never cropped his photos!

First of all, go ahead, crop them if you want to. I don't care. You should do what works for you.

However, be aware that there are reasons for electing not to crop. They're pretty much all tied up with artistic process, so, have a little respect. If some chap has to quack like a duck every time he presses the shutter button, well, that works for him. That's part of his artistic process. You certainly don't have to do it, but don't give him a raft of shit about it. Unless he's a friend and it's like that, of course.

Among the reasons not to crop:

  1. Artificial limitations can be artistically stimulating. To argue that that your friend should crop is identical to arguing that he ought to paint or sculpt rather than photographing.
  2. Some people simply work better within a fixed aspect ratio, and find that the one offered in the viewfinder is the most convenient. Visualizing a final crop is a step they prefer to avoid, or perhaps are very bad at.
  3. Some people have philosophical ideas that inform their art, ideas that suggest that making a complete composition in the finder is the way they should make their art.

And on and on. There are tons of reasons to not crop. None of them are technical.

There seem to be, basically, two schools of thought.

The first agrees that there are reasons to not crop, not that cropping is evil or wrong (that is a common straw man erected by the second school, but essentially nobody actually thinks that). Some of these first-school people try very hard not to crop, others crop like fun.

The second school of thought thinks that not cropping is just a ridiculous and incomprehensible stance. These people are blockheads. Given the lack of respect for other people's artistic process these people exhibit, one cannot help but wonder about their own artistic process.

So crop if you like. Or think about it, and see if perhaps not cropping might help you in some way. It doesn't have to be a clear and definable way, maybe it's just a feeling. If you're curious, try it out.

Me, I crop all the time. Sometimes I crop heavily just to get some low-fi grit into the picture.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Can Composition be Taught?

I just ran across this question.

Is it even a question? What kind of simpleton would even ask it?

Of course it can be taught. Just because a few people are unable to learn a new language, just because some people pick a language up easily and others must struggle, none of this means that Spanish cannot be taught.

Of course composition can be taught. Art schools have been teaching it for 100s of years, perhaps 1000s.

Only a photographer would ask this.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Taste

Taste is a funny thing. It is both intensely personal, and intensely social.

We learn our taste, largely, from others. We have a natural tendency to align our taste with that of society (we like to be on the winning side). Yet, at the same time, taste is very personal. There is the tendency toward individuality which causes us to try out liking things that other people dislike. We hate our parents music, and love music they hate. And so, we are pushed and pulled, and at the same time push and pull ourself and others.

Somehow, taste does broadly align across society. Not everyone likes Michael Bay's films, but a lot of people do. Not everyone likes Man Ray's photographs, but a lot of people do. Not everyone likes Andy Warhol, but a lot of people do.

When you make some pictures that are satisfying to you, it ought to be because they are to your taste. All too often, you like them because you've overcome some technical hurdle, learned a new technique, acquired a new piece of equipment, and the pictures shows that off well. That's bad. You should like your pictures because you like them, not because they showcase some technical detail.

Photographers, especially photographers attempting to teach other photographers things, tend to overlook taste. It's hard to get a handle on, it's hard to develop, and it might be impossible to teach. Taste is, however, the most important thing. Everything you can learn about composition, be it stupid rules about thirds and triangles, or Victorian ideas of balance and breadth, all your gear, all your technique, none of it means anything if you haven't got taste.

Taste is something you should consciously try to develop.

What do other people like, and why?

What do I like, and why?

These two questions, opposing and supporting one another, with the answers feeding back to one another, are the foundation of taste. Look at art, and ask these questions. Don't forget either one. It's important to balance the individual and the social, even if you shoot only for yourself. You are also a person, and you so your taste tends to run in the same general valleys as society's.

Don't be ashamed to love Elvis, but try to love a a bit more than just Elvis.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

High Art versus Low

There's a thread of thinking, one that I may have been guilty of to a degree, that runs like this:

Where do these "critics" get off, anyways, telling us what's good and what's bad? High Art is for effete overeducated probably liberal idiots. Give me some good old Norman Rockwell.

This is wrong in a bunch of ways. To be fair, kitsch is under-appreciated, but it's not like nobody goes to see those incomprehensible art house films. The good ones can make millions of dollars. It's not like nobody likes Cindy Sherman, tons of people go to her shows. If you don't know anybody who goes to art house films, maybe you need to make more friends.

The point is that the distinction between High and Low Art isn't real. It's not one kind of art for New York Faggots, and one kind of art for Real People. New York Faggots are, it turns out, just a real as you and I. There's just art, of various kinds of sorts. Some of it is more broadly appealing, some it only appeals to a small segment. Some of it is expensive, and some is cheap.

Critics aren't interested in your damned Peter Lik print because there's nothing to say about it. They are interested in Cindy Sherman, because she's challenging, she's pushing boundaries, she's trying stuff out. The fact that tons more people like Peter Lik than like Cindy Sherman is irrelevant.

The critic's job is not to figure out what the most popular thing is, and then sing its praises.

The critic's job is to find out what's new, what's interesting, what's powerful, and to talk about it. Even the simple reviewer's job is not to tell you what movies to go see. The reviewer's job is to tell you enough about a movie to let you make your own choice.

A critic, a reviewer, inevitably passes some sort of judgement on whatever they're talking about. This is an artifact of the process. The critic or reviewer has been thinking pretty hard about the thing, and has, as one does, come to some conclusions. These conclusions are shared as a matter of course with all the rest. Two critics may well arrive at differing conclusions, they are after all different people. Hurrah for dialectic, or something like that.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Introduction to Photography

I have knocked together a first (and possibly final) pass of a "Intro to Photography" mini-course, presented in the form of a 10 entry blog.

Feel free to peruse it, or pass it on to your friends and relatives. Especially the ones that got a new camera over the holidays.

Link: Intro To Photography

Comments and suggestions gladly accepted.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

.. and now, Say It

This is a followup to the previous post.

So you've got something to say, the job now is to say it. How shall you photograph whatever it is to convey whatever it is you want to convey?

At this point you should have familiarity with a large vocabulary of photographic methods. Shallow/deep depth of field. Low camera angle. High camera angle. Wide field of view, narrow. High contrast, low saturation, black and white, high saturation, vignetting, and on and on. The dictionary of "words" in the photographer's vocabulary is large.

But how do we put them together to say something? These things might still just be meaningless noises to you. If you know all the word of Swahili, but not what any of them mean, you still can't say anything in Swahili, can you?

Things are made worse by the fact that each of these photographic "words" has no fixed meaning. It's all very well to say that a low camera angle conveys a sense of, hell, I don't even know. Something. But it's not true. Still, with a deep vocabulary, and a lot of experience in how those "words" have been fit together by other photographers, you can begin to make your own sentences. You gain this experience by looking at a lot of pictures.

In every case of a successful photograph, some specific combination of things has been brought together to convey a coherent something. A "sentence" in the language of photographs. If the photograph succeeds (for you) then you should be able to more or less immediately understand what it's conveying. By looking at the specifics of the picture, you can see what "words" are being used. Sometimes you can see, quite specifically, how the pattern of "words" fits together to produce the meaning. Other times, you cannot, but you still feel the gestalt effect of the "words" in the result. Either way, study the picture. Absorb.

Look at the photographs in magazines, get hold of some photo books, look in the FSA archive.

Look at photographs.

Think about what you're trying to say.

Use the techniques for generating inspiration. See, for instance, this post.

If you're lucky, you'll find a way to use the vocabulary of photographic idioms you possess, to express what it is you want to say.

Now shoot a bunch more like it, build a portfolio around these ideas. Take a bunch of pictures conveying similar ideas with similar vocabulary, or perhaps sometimes an opposing idea with opposite vocabulary. Or whatever. Now you're cookin' with gas.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Something To Say

I really only have one topic on this blog. Not including weird side trips into history.

The attentive reader will know that my theme, my sole theme, is this:

Have something to say. And then, say it.

This is the first of an interlocked pair of postings on that topic.

The first thing about making an actual photograph instead of some random pointless snap is to have something to say. As noted ad nauseum in earlier posts, this need not be expressible in words. It might be a visual idea, a feeling, a reaction. Ideally it is something powerful, but it need not be. The point is that it is something with which your picture is imbued, which is beyond the simple assemblage of things and forms in the frame.

Something clearly visible to you, at least, and ideally to some other people as well.

So where do you find something to say? The simplest place, for me, is inside me. The things I have to say are basically personal statements. How does this object strike me? How do I imagine this neighborhood? How could I imagine this thing is an amusing way?

The car is beautiful. I imagine this basically ordinary neighborhood as a Gothic nightmare. The flowers ooze sensuality. Let's visualize the rock as sexy.

You could place yourself in another's shoes, and try the same questions from someone else's point of view.

You can try larger political statements. Cars are bad. Trees are better than buildings. How would a radical left/right/libertarian view this scene, this object, this situation?

Next up, how to say it.