Saturday, February 28, 2015

Urban Photography

I shot this thing on the way back from the YMCA where I had taken my daughter for a swim lesson.

I am reasonably certain it would do well on certain internet venues, especially if I claimed I'd done it on film.

Of course I didn't use film. I used my phone. The observant reader will also note that it is facile and stupid. It's a 'cool thing' of the sort every city is littered with.

It ticks off several boxes on the 'street photography' bingo card, though.

Any fool can bang this crap out all day long by the simple expedient of opening his or her god damn eyes. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Short Form

When your work is good, you'll know. At some point you'll just know that what you're doing is good. You will no longer care much about feedback from other people.

Congratulations. You are now an Artist. Or a monomaniac.

Not that there's a lot of difference.

Short Form

A photograph is whatever is in front of the lens at this instant

If you manipulate the objects beyond certain limits, you destroy what it is to be a photograph.

But, you can manipulate the apparent instant arbitrarily.

What power!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Photography as Art

I admit it. I am fascinated by Ming Thein's blog. Well, more by his legion of fanboys. Mr. Thein is just chugging along thinking about stuff and writing about it. Obviously I have no particular problem with blogs that contain half-formed thoughts, or poorly assembled ideas, and so on (e.g. this blog).

His fanboys seem to think that he is issuing wisdom from the mount, however, which can be pretty entertaining. See, for instance, this thing which is about equal parts gibberish, incomplete statements, and perfectly correct statements. But the comments, my word. You'd think someone would step up and point out some of the dumb.

Anyways. That's not what I'm writing about today, not mostly. It's this other thing Mr. Thein wrote. I think it's sort of silly, but that's just me. More to the point, it's an interesting thing to ponder, and opens up some questions, and so I thought about them a bit.

I've actually written about this a bit, right here, and I managed to get it at least partly wrong. I'd like to spend 1000 words trying to rationalize why my wrongness is actually rightness in disguise but.. meh. I dropped the ball.

Mr. Thein's assertions include, as I read it, that photography is unique in that it is a direct representation of a real thing, unlike, say, painting, and unlike all other art. I have said essentially the same thing, and we're both wrong. Duchamp's readymades (and legions of more recent artists doing essentially the same thing) do photography one better. They're not a representation of a real thing, they are the real thing. Don't photograph the urinal, pry the urinal off the wall and declare it to be art. Go in any modern art museum and you'll see similar pieces.

But more than that, Mr. Thein (and perhaps this author) seem to assert that because photography is of real things, this separates it from the rest of Art. It does not.

Sculpture creates a real thing. A piece of music performed is another real thing, albeit not usually one you can kick. A painting is (sometimes) a visual representation of a thing, as interpreted in paint by a painter. A readymade is a real thing. And a photograph is a.. photographic copy of a real thing. And so on.

It's not as if all of Art is huddled in one corner, and photography huddled in the opposite one, because it dares to begin as a literal representation of the real.

They're all huddled together, partaking of reality in different ways. From their individual characteristics, they derive their strength.

Obviously a photograph derives its power from the fact that it is -- or at least began as -- a representation of a real thing. It is the nature of photographs. If a photograph is to have power, strength, where else shall it derive this from, except from its own nature? It is almost silly to say it.

Photography can certainly be Art, this isn't even a question any more.

But also, it's not a special category of Art. It's just Art.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Short Form

Don't look for "your art" with a camera.

Art, particularly photographic Art, is in the idea. Therefore, nurture the place where ideas grow. Till the soil of your mind. Care for the seedlings. Pluck out the weak and malformed, nurture the best and strongest.

Then shoot.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Short Form

A visual style evokes or supports an idea. Therefore, only if your ideas tend to run in similar paths will you tend to develop a signature style.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Local Maxima

In mathematics you find this idea of a "local maximum" which is, roughly, a place where everything nearby is lower down. Some of us call this a "hill".

The point is, though, that it's the highest place nearby, but not necessarily the highest place there is, or even the highest place in a somewhat larger area.

The thing about local maxima is that these are what iterative processes of improvement find. If you're out walking and you try always to walk uphill, you'll find a local maximum. Sometimes you have to go downhill and cross a valley to find a higher peak.

So you just got a camera and you're taking pictures. Probably they're not that great. You might start out making sweeping changes every day but pretty quickly you're likely to start making small changes. You work on getting focus right. You're engaged in an iterative process of improvement. You change a little thing, you see if the result is better. If yes, keep going. If not, make a different, small, change.

If you're in a camera club or online sharing venue, or really anything that lets other people who don't necessarily love you tell you stuff about your pictures, they're going to help. They'll offer single suggestions "too dark" and so on. They will create an environment of what "uphill" means for you, and they'll guide you iteratively, step by step, up that hill.

So you're going to find a local maximum. At this point making changes will tend to make your pictures worse (in some sense).

Let us imagine the world of all possible photographs. There are higher areas that represent "better" pictures, and lower areas that represent "worse" pictures. It doesn't matter what you mean by better or worse. Whatever you like, really. Popular? Artistic? Thought provoking? Anything. It doesn't matter.

If you find yourself on a hill labelled "flickr Explored" you're at a local maximum. You are simply not going to iterate your way, tentative step by tentative step, to something better.

If you want to make powerful art, or whatever, anything that is both "good" by any definition you like, and which is also not instantly recognizable as "flickr Explored", you've got two choices:

  • Iterate your way step by step through some valley of bad pictures, trying, probably at random, to find a new, higher, peak somewhere on the other side. Ugh.
  • Line up on a higher peak, back off 10 steps, run like hell, and take a gigantic flying leap.

Either way, you have to make a radical change. Small changes are just going to produce crap.

Don't like where you are? Stop fiddling around, and start lining up on some higher peaks.

And get ready to fall.

Friday, February 20, 2015

On Art and an Internet-Famous Photographer

First, go check this out: Ming Thein on "Questioning the 'art' market".

Second, understand that MT is a skilled self-promoter, and this piece is quite likely a positioning piece intended to set himself up against "those lame art snobs" as a democratic and honest artist. See the second to last paragraph where he slips in a plug for, I dunno, something he's cooking up. Or has already cooked up.

Also note in particular the somewhat earlier paragraph where he says:

Several galleries admitted freely that most of their buyers actually had no clue what they were buying; they bought because they were told it was a good investment or exclusive or because it was expensive and they thought it’d impress their friends.

Really? Several galleries pretty much started in badmouthing their customers to some dope who walked in with this tragically awful portfolio of unsellable garbage? Really? I mean, it's possible but it seems wildly improbable.

Be that as it may, let us proceed as if Ming Thein is telling us the truth, or a lightly varnished version of same. It will be instructive, I think.

Because I am about to heap scorn on his head I will start with some praise. MT is clearly a perfectly skilled commercial photographer. He can find his way around photoshop just fine. He's in control of his equipment, and produces pictures that please him and his legions of fans.

He's also utterly devoid of ideas, and hasn't the foggiest idea what Art might even be. Consider that first photo in the linked-to piece, the black and white industrial thing. Ask yourself why you'd hang that on your wall. You're in a gallery, there it is, someone's going to come up to you and tell you a story that makes you want to buy it. What could that story be? Why would I buy and hang this thing?

  • It's not beautiful. It doesn't go with the couch. I'm definitely not going to buy it as decor.
  • It doesn't seem to say anything about anything, does it? That's personal, to be sure, but I'm not seeing this as a piece that makes me think, or that challenges me in any way.
  • Is this Ming Thein guy famous? Is this going to appreciate? Am I at least going to have a "name" artist? Oh, famous on flickr? What's that?

How on earth is a gallery owner supposed to sell this thing? It looks like cross between an Escher poster and a Ford Factory Automation poster. Mainly it looks like a poster.

There is a dramatic gap between "likeable on flickr" and "I'd buy a print of that". The former requires no commitment, and as often as not a favorite or a +1 is an acknowledgement of technical virtuosity, or even more likely a mere attempt to draw the same in return. It in no way implies that the clicker would hang it. The pictures MT claims to have dragged around to galleries are unremarkable and unsellable, but they are very clickable.

In truth he probably does sell some of his Ultraprints, but I am confident that he sells them largely to his existing fan base who buy them as examples of technical virtuosity.

Anyways. Maybe you want to be an artist. Don't be Ming.

There's a spectrum. There's always a spectrum. You have to figure out where on the spectrum you are. This is the first thing Ming seems to have failed to do. Coincidentally, it is the very first thing you need to do.

At one end there's Peter Lik, Rodney Lough Jr., and a handful of guys like them. They make very very pretty, completely inconsequential, pictures. They are sold in high-pressure sales offices called "galleries" which resemble, basically, piano stores with the pianos replaced by photographs. The sales tactics are the same. Lie about how valuable and rare the object is. Play up the gorgeousness of the tone. Make friends with the customer. Talk up some imaginary bullshit about finishes or processes or something that makes these objects different and ever so much better (incidentally, on that subject, check out MT's "Ultraprint" concept. It means "small inkjet print".) Lie about resale values. And push, push, push, to close the deal. What's it going to take to get you in to this car/photo/piano?

At the other end there's Gursky, Prince, Sherman and those people. These people actually have ideas. Some of them have technical skills, too, but that hardly matters, they have ideas and photography as Art is about ideas. Their pictures are not sold in high-pressure sales environments, they are sold to people with a ton of money who know what they're doing. The gallerist will advise the buyer, yes. The buyer will have other resources to consult, and will consult them. The work has to be thought provoking, new, but not too outré. The artist has to be either established or at least have the earmarks of an artist who can become established: work ethic, an existing substantial and substantive portfolio of interconnected work, demonstrated ability to produce and execute ideas. The gallerist's job includes vetting these artists. The gallerist then sells the artist at least as much as the art.

Ming Thein fails on all fronts. The work ain't pretty, at least not consistently so. There's no distinctive visual signature (although if you look close you might be able to see what you imagine to be a distinctive processing style, but you only think it's distinctive because you're not looking at anyone else's work). There aren't any ideas at all. There's nothing challenging. They are empty exercises in form, occasionally they are kind of pretty. They look a lot like a billion other photos out there.

MT and his ilk seem to want to be Fine Artists because they will then be free of constraint. They can simply follow their muse and produce the work they truly love.

Protip: They don't call an artist's work work because it's a fucking day at the park to make it. It's work. Do you think Cindy Sherman was still having fun when she was making the 69th photograph in Untitled Film Stills? Have you even tried to put together a portfolio of 69 excellent, related, pictures?

It's bloody well work.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Urban Photography

There's loads of internet-famous photographers running around out there who do a kind of Urban Something (in addition to selling prints and workshops, natch). Here are some of the basic forms:

  • shadow play
  • reflections
  • signs and arrows
  • the thing out of place

and here's how you churn this stuff out:

Shadow Play

You're looking for geometrical accidents of shadows and the physical stuff. A repeating grid of windows with a repeated pattern of lines of shadow over it at about the same spacing. A shape and a repetition of the shape in a shadow echoing it. Sometimes it's just a big diagonal line formed by a shadow, ideally in counterpoint to some sort of rectilinear building-ness. But at this point that's pretty much it.

Extra Credit: go b&w and high contrast, place a small silhouetted person in there, oblivious to the awesome geometrical discovery you have made.


This is much the same game as shadows, but usually sloppier. Basically reflect anything in anything shiny. It'll be cool.

Extra Credit: place yourself in the reflection, ideally somewhat subtly, or distorted, or both.

Signs and Arrows

Find a sign with a supermodel or other hot young person facing left, and wait until someone who looks homeless enters the frame looking to the right. Or vice versa. Signs with strong horizontal arrows (but not an ordinary One Way sign -- puh-LEESE) should be juxtaposed with someone walking across the frame. With the arrow or against it, it doesn't matter.

Extra Credit: silhouette the walking figure.

The Thing Out Of Place

Find some strong geometrical pattern. Either place something that contrasts with that pattern into the frame, or look around for a pre-existing one. Frame so that the pattern dominates, but the single out of place element pops out visually.

Extra Credit: make the out of place element a dramatic pop of color.

Extra Extra Credit: Combine two or more. Make the Thing Out Of Place be the person walking against the direction of the arrow. W00t!

All of these were pretty good ideas once upon a time, but being distilled to their graphical essence, and being repeated endlessly, they've lost all their substance. They're just +1-bait now.

The distillation has harmed these things in two essentially different ways. In the first, less crummy, ruination, the photographer is repeating someone else's idea. In the second, more common, ruination, the original idea is no longer even present. The photographer doesn't even know that the trope has been used to embody ideas, and is blindly repeating some aspects of the trope.

Reflections used to be used, and could again be used, to juxtapose one thing with another, the reflected object with the object seen through the window. Now it's just a trope, and usually there is no juxtaposition, no idea, no nothing, because the person shooting it is not thinking past "cool, reflection." Contrasting small intense elements with larger compositional structure can be used in a bunch of ways to illustrate ideas of, for instance, isolation, or social class, or man vs. nature, or A vs B, or whatever; or it can be used to manage the perception of the picture so your viewers tend to look at the right thing. Now it's just cool "Hey, shopping carts. And a leaf." And so on.

And so on.

The tropes are fine, but simply churning out instances of the trope isn't art. It's copying someone else's concept, or worse, failing to do so. It is as if you've noticed that Vermeer used oil paint, and missing the fact that he painted a girl. Smearing paint on a canvas as random doesn't make you Vermeer. Copying his ideas doesn't either, but at least it makes you van Meergeren.

Better still, though, make your own goddamned paintings.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


We see a lot about how the right camera for you should just feel right. Ergonomics and haptics (the latter word seems to be showing up more recently, more proof that pundits just copy one another, as if more were needed) are so very important. The camera must be an extension of the photographer, used without thought.


Certainly it is true that a camera or other instrument can be somehow almost magically difficult for an individual to use. I have used oscilloscopes on which, in defiance of the laws of probability, I turned knobs the wrong way virtually 100% of the time. Certainly you should avoid cameras that somehow defeat your fingers.

A camera can be too big, or too small, or too light.

But past that basically anything is fine. You needn't be able to make a dozen subtle adjustments without thought and in an instant. That's just rubbish. If you need to set the ISO, the shutter speed, and the white balance in an instant, you've already failed. You're an unprepared idiot and the gods of photography are not going to smile on you today.

There's no way an 8x10 view camera is an extension of the photographer's soul. It's a big unwieldy brute and that's just that. And yet, somehow, loads of people seem to have made some pretty OK pictures with them.

What you DO need to be able to do is make basic adjustments relatively easily and reliably. But you're allowed to think about it and poke a few buttons while frowning at the back of the camera. You do this in preparation, as conditions change. You step through a doorway from outside to in, you pop the ISO up a couple clicks. Whatever.

When you're actually shooting you shouldn't be worrying about any of that crap.

Any camera will let you adjust the one or two controls you need to adjust on the fly, easily and intuitively. Just figure it out and do it.

This "the camera and photographer need to be one, like the samurai and his sword" crap is just an excuse to fart around with more gear.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I Love Photography But..

When you tell someone "I love you but.." this is usually a red flag, and sometimes a sign that the first clause is actually not true. And yet, it's (yet another) common refrain. I love photography but I don't know what to shoot. I love photography but I don't think my camera is good enough. I love photography but I'm creatively dead. I love photography but I don't know how to start a business.

All of these may be signs that you don't love photography at all. They may be signs that what you really love is the idea of yourself as a photographer. You envision yourself as the steely-eyed photojournalist, Leica in hand, capturing the details under fire. You're the sensitive artist, capturing the personality of your subjects in entirely new and profound ways.

Quite likely, you love cameras and shiny gear as well.

There's a good chance that you don't much love the actual work of getting it done. Crouching behind a ruined building with a Leica while someone shoots at you is, surprisingly, not very fun at all. Capturing personalities in new and profound ways is, it turns out, pretty hard.

Add to this the mass of trivia that other camera enthusiasts seem to think is important and the whole thing becomes quite daunting - how can I capture the personality when I have to calibrate my monitor first and what the hell is white balance, exactly, anyways?

Perhaps I am privileged. I love photography but I don't have nearly enough time to make more than a modest dent in the backlog of stuff I want to do. So I've always got stuff to shoot, work to do.

But that's how it is.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Assumption of Error

I propose the following thesis: One cannot successfully show a picture that is not, essentially, straight photography. By "straight photography" I mean a picture that is in focus, had adequate depth of field to cover the interesting bits, has color that is correct within contemporary standards, does not suffer from motion blur, and so on.

The reason any attempt to show something else is that deviations from straight photographic tropes will be seen as mistakes. Is it out of focus? The photographer must have fucked up. There is a base assumption that the photographer is incompetent, and must have meant something other than what we're looking at. Only if no "errors" can be detected, will the self-styled Photographer (and in some contexts the general public) accept the photograph as any good.

If you show a collection of photographs with similar "errors" you at least have a chance at persuading the audience that you meant it. The more astute viewers might even ask themselves if there was a point to rendering everything out of focus, might ask what it means, what the intent was. At any rate, they will tend to believe that you meant it. They may still think you're wrong.

If you present "serious photographs" (Art, or whatever) with these sorts of things in them, the self-styled photographers will generally judge you an idiot. Either you cannot get things in focus, or you stupidly refuse to, and everyone knows that getting the subject in focus is the most important thing. The broader audience may or may not get it. They may also leap to the conclusion that since you've put in "errors" it must follow that they, or their three-year old kid, could have done it.

Of course other artists get the same business. Abstract paintings are frequently judged as "my five year old could do that" which, as with pretty much all photography, has an element of truth to it but misses the point. The point is that your five year old did not, and would never have had the idea to do that. All art is, ultimately, conceptual, photography more than most.

Still, you can't please everyone, and it's virtually impossible to please self-styled photographers, so you shouldn't fuss about it much.

The general viewing audience may or may not get it when you give them a collection of "mistakes" but there is at any rate a chance.

At this point, with highly automated cameras, we really don't have technical errors in any meaningful way. The average person points the camera, presses the button, and gets a perfectly satisfying picture out. The focus may not be quite where intended, perhaps, but the average person does not care. The minor errors are not meaningful to the photographer. On the flip side, the competent technician mainly gets all the technical details just the way she wants them, and again, there are no meaningful technical errors (she's already deleted problematic files).

Ironically, therefore, the only time when technical errors are actually relevant and meaningful is when someone simultaneously cares about fiddly details like that and is not capable of reliably getting those details right. Unhappily, these are the majority of people out on the internets chattering away about photography. It is these people who line up to judge everyone else. It is these nattering incompetents who want to tell you all about how terrible you are because you make some "mistake" which either you don't care about, or which was a quite deliberate choice.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Inspiration and Work

Two related things I see people talking about. The first is inspiration and where to find it, the second is projects 52 or 365.

Frequently the answer proposed for a lack of the former is the latter.

I am wonderfully unsympathetic all around, as I have kids and therefore very little time to work on photographic projects. I am generating ideas for projects faster than I can execute them and therefore always have a deep backlog of things to be shooting. I never ever ever have to just wander around waiting for something to catch my eye.

When you say you're lacking inspiration, I simply don't believe you. What you are lacking is work ethic. A gram of inspiration can be turned into a tonne of work, and arguably should be.

A problem with p365s and the like is that they are not actually a single large project. A p365 is 365 tiny projects, each of which goes nowhere. In the same way when someone goes seeking 'inspiration' all too often he is asking to be told some thing to shoot. Given a solution, he shoots the thing, and then it's over and he's back to asking people on the internet for inspiration.

Don't waste inspiration. Use work to expand it into something that will sustain you. No, it's not all fun. There's a lot of 'oh crap it's raining, time to go shoot that God Damned tulip again.' But if you're serious, you do that.

If you're some 500px landscape guy shooting vibrant colorful sunsets, maybe you drove two hours to a new beach. WOW! You are so inspired! Do not spend an hour setting up and testing and screwing on your thrice cursed Lee Big Stopper all to make a set of the bracketed exposures which you will HDR together into the usual candy-coated mess.

Just don't.

You've spent two hours driving, you're going to spend two more getting home. There is no prize for driving the most miles for the fewest pictures.

Shoot and keep shooting. You came here for inspiration. Now it's time to work. So, work.

Open. Your. Eyes.

What do you see? Shoot it. What do you love? What makes you feel, or react, or think? You're on the seashore two hours from home, do NOT tell me that the only thing you love is that one crappy sunset, the only thing you feel is the same shitty picture of the big rock in the foreground and the promontory curving around and jutting out into the frame exactly 2/3 of the way up, with the sun setting just off where the lend ends.

Look at that rock, that shell, that flotsam. What about those pebbles? The way the waves break around that point.

If you're paying attention to you'll shoot a bunch of different things. Maybe you'll get your sunset too. If you're doing it right you'll find a bunch of things you need to come back again for, in the morning, or the fog, or the rain, or all three, or some other reason entirely.

Much of it will be crap, but there should be more than one thing that's not, or at least more than one thing that has the potential to be something.

Now you're turning your inspiration into something. You're turning it in to work, and a lot of it. Ideally, that work will turn in to some pictures that express something.

How many pictures are you going to need to express your reaction to this special place? Plan it out. You'll look at the pictures you took over and over, the plan will change, but your job is to force it to converge on some goal, done final result other than 'stick them on flickr and wait for the faves to roll in.'

Ultimately, it's about having some goddamned respect for your subject, and not reducing it to a single stupid frame that could have been shot anyways.

Work. Just work.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Photography as She Is Done

Real Photographers like to go on a bit about instagram and the terrible filters, about photo apps and their terrible cheap amateurish effects, about selective color and how dumb it is. Then they go on about aperture and ISO and depth of field and speedlites and and and..

But photography as she is done today isn't done with all that crap. Photography, as she is done today, is done with instagram filters and the like. A few sliders here and there. Statistically speaking, the photographs taken with a variable aperture camera are a blip, 0%, overall (phone cameras don't have variable apertures, typically).

It is certainly true that altering the aperture before taking the shot has one effect and applying the Midnight Dogs filter in some app after taking the shot have two quite different visual results. Who is to say that one is legitimate true photography, and the other is stupid fakey fake amateur stuff? I might as well tell you that your fancy "white balance" crap is a stupid fad that's going away any day now, and the only real photography is adjusting the formulation of your ammonio-nitrate paper to produce different color casts in the final print.

There's a whole class of dipshits out there who have bought a DSLR and are convinced that this, this, is the pinnacle of human achievement, at least in the realm of photography. Things which came before, and things which come after, all are inferior. Cell phones? They'll never match a DSLR, they're just inherently Less Good. Film? Dinosaur used only by hipsters. The only thing better than a DSLR is a more expensive DSLR. This is partly because the digital bubble has created so very many DSLR owners. They can't all be sensible people.

The argument, if one were to press, would probably go "well, all that instagram shit looks the same, and there's no artistry there anyways" to which one can handily reply "you mean, a lot like the pointless shitty pictures you and your idiot friends grind out with your expensive black cameras?"

Photography, as it is done today, is done with cell phones and canned filters, canned effects. Just as your camera has a canned "aperture/DoF" effect, the cell phone has its own canned effects, with a slider to determine how hard to apply them. This isn't a crappy amateurish fad, this is reality.

By all means, stay in the past if you're comfortable there. I got no problem if you want to shoot wet plate, film, DSLR, whatever. It's all good.

But don't waste your time drawing arbitrary circles around "legitimate, real, photography" (by the merest coincidence: what you do) and "stupid amaterish garbage" (by the merest coincidence: what everyone else does).

We're on to your game.

Friday, February 6, 2015

You Can Do It

Photography, with the advent of digital cameras and all the associated software, has reached a point where (roughly) if you can imagine it, you can shoot it.

Not quite, perhaps. If you can imagine it, it can certainly be shot. You might not be able to shoot it, but with a little patience and a little education on whatever specific techniques are required, you can get close.

The ability to chimp is huge here, people don't talk about it much. Indeed, the self-styled Photographers tend to be derisive about chimping, but they are fools. In context, chimping lets us hunt for the photograph, and ultimately, to find it. Or at any rate to get close enough to finish it in post. Then in post, the ability to try something, undo it and try again, ad infinitum completes the process. If you can imagine it, you can shoot it.

This is important. This means that the idea, the concept, is all there really is. If I can imagine it, I can shoot it. And so can anyone else. Technique is no longer a meaningful metric. My brushwork is not going to separate me from the other painters. My unique talent with the chisel will not be the hallmark of my distinctive sculpture.

All that remains is the idea. All you have to offer, ultimately, is your voice, your vision, your ideas.

Once upon a time, you could just go out there and work like crazy and duplicate what Galen Rowell or Edward Weston did, and it was something. Perhaps you didn't have any ideas, but at least you were a master craftsman, practicing hard-won skills with a proficiency that most people simply could not match. No more. Any fool can do it, and a glance at any photo sharing web site filled with Photographers will show you this. Even if you insist on doing it the hard way, even if you insist on using techniques that most people cannot master, who cares? The results aren't substantively different from a moderately skilled Photoshop user.

Digital cameras have democratized photography, anyone can do it.

At the same time, the have empowered us, they have distilled the Art to its essence, the concept, the idea, the vision.

That's kind of a good thing.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Complexification II

I mull over, pretty often, why it is that newbies think photography is hard. First, of course, is that they are told by the slightly-less-new that photography is hard. Second, of course, is that the explanatory information easily available is terrible.

There's more to it than that, however. Let us suppose that someone explains what Aperture means. There's these leaves, they make a hole, the hole is bigger or smaller. And then with the smaller hole there's more depth of field. It is natural at this point to suppose that the connection between these two things is obvious. One is stated immediately after the other, without explanation, but with a clear statement of cause and effect. Why, why don't I get it? What am I missing? Why does the smaller hole make more depth of field? the neophyte might reasonably think.

In fact the connection between hole-size and depth-of-field is extremely complicated. I know how to draw the pictures for an ideal lens, and, if I work at it pretty hard, I can grasp the details for a moment. And I have a PhD in mathematics. The fact is that all you really need to know, and all virtually all photographers actually do know, is that the bigger the hole, the smaller the number, the less DoF.

Similarly, shutter speed and motion blur; ISO and noise. Similarly, I suspect, virtually every technical detail about photography.

The more brazen neophyte might ask for details on the missing connections. Most photographers have a vague idea that they understand the connections, because they are in fact second nature to us. But in reality we do not understand them. The result is likely to be some muddled and confusing mess that sounds sort of like an explanation, but is not, which leaves the neophyte much worse off Gosh! I don't even understand the explanation. This must be super hard! How am I ever going to learn photography?!!

We emphasize the technical details over the visual effects, and because the technical details are complex (and we don't understand them ourselves) we often leave gaps in explanations we give. This makes the technical details appear more difficult than they are, when in reality they are irrelevant.

That's worth repeating:

The technical details are irrelevant.

Technical detail is important if, and only if, grasping it allows us to quickly and more thoroughly understand the real topic we're interested in. Sometimes a few simple principles can open up an entire discipline, once well understood. Photography is not like this, for the most part. The details of how a focal plane shutter work help us to understand why using flash above the sync speed looks like that, and pretty much nothing else. If knowing about the dragging slit opened up vistas, and explained a dozen different things, it would be worth knowing. Since it explains one (1) actual thing you're likely to run in to, it's pretty valueless knowledge.

What we ought to do is point out clearly where there is a gap, and that it is a gap, and that it doesn't matter. Indeed, I think it is worth leaving out the technical details entirely.

If the aperture number is smaller, you'll get shallower depth of field. The closer the subject, the more dramatic this effect will be

is probably a fine starting point.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Authentic

Every so often out there on the webernets you'll run across someone who's posting the oddest pictures. Seemingly random terrible snaps of.. nothing. Or of something, but done in just arbitrarily stupid ways. Why is the camera upside down? What? Everything is out of focus! What are you even doing here?

In the right contexts, these things will attract all kinds of derision from self-styled Photographers. These latter have spent years mastering the simplest of goddamned things, and pride themselves on making Good Images.

I like the first pictures more than the pictures from the latter. The first have authenticity. Whether or not the picture is any damn good, there was a person, with an idea, who pressed the shutter button for a reason. They found something interesting out there. Perhaps they're mad, but they're real.

The self-styled Photographers are certainly real people, made out of meat and with a pulse and a liver and so on. The pictures they make, though, are produced by a rote algorithm. These people have learned methods and techniques and rules to produce pictures that look like everyone else's pictures, and they are grinding these second rate copies of second rate copies out, thinking they're making something. There's not a shred of authenticity here. The real person holding the camera has become a vessel for the mob's ideas and opinions.

And it shows.

Give me a thousand snapshots by a madman over a single "focused stacked praying mantis on a calla lily stem" or a set of 12 interchangeable photos labelled "senior session with Ally staring, cowlike, into the lens, while holding a guitar as a stand-in for her personality".

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Change Yourself

Let us suppose that you are taking my advice (and indeed the advice of many much more well known artists) and you are Art-ing away with all your might, serving only your own muse. You are making pictures per your personal vision, with all your might. Let's suppose further that you've gotten good enough at this that you are immensely pleased with your pictures. They satisfy you. Even after you put them up on the wall for a few weeks or months, you still love them (that's a stiff and pretty much definitive test).

In short, you are on it, and making the Art you want to make.

One final supposition. You have some need, be it personal or financial, for other people to like your work, and they do not.

The temptation at this point is to change the pictures. Start making them differently, in a more pleasing fashion.

If you do that you're not making your own pictures any more. You're making their pictures, and they can tell. You might be able to walk some line, blending your own vision with crowd-pleasing commodity work, but I am frankly dubious. Based on what I see out there on the webernets, pictures strike me as falling into two boxes, Commodity and Personal.

Thus, I make the following radical suggestion. If people do not like your intensely pleasing, intensely personal work, and if you need them to like it, change yourself. I don't mean psychotherapy, although I suppose that could be part of it. It can be a modest change, altering your personal taste by looking at what people do like and finding things in that stuff to like yourself. The result might be quite similar to simply switching over to making commodity photographs, but it's not quite. You're processing those commodity tropes through yourself, making them personal, taking what you like and what you don't.

An example that comes to mind is a high-end wedding photographer whose name I forget. He shoots a sort of voyeuristic, photojournalistic, kind of thing. He shoots the little scenes that take place down low, in the corner, in the room down the hall. He could shoot this a 1000 ways, but he chooses to shoot it in the gauzy pastel look that is the current vogue in wedding photography. I don't know if he simply loves that look, or if he's blending something he does love -- the shooting style -- with something he found to like about commodity wedding photos -- the gauzy look. Let us suppose, though, that he did. However it occurred, it's working pretty well for him.

Perhaps it can work for you!