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.


  1. Oh my God ... you have demolished that good guy ...

    1. Aww, I hope not! There's a lot more to Mr. Thein than his desire (?) to be a respected Fine Artist, and I was only really interested in that one thing.

      I'm pretty sure his essay was just clickbait and marketing. In which case, I think he's awesome!

  2. Well, perhaps you are right about his marketing attitude (though he is fully legitimate to do it on his blog, also because he spends a lot of time in writing).
    However, what you said about what is art (and what is not) made me think a lot about the common mistakes that would-be-artist people (like me) usually do when considering the artistic value of their photographs. And now I see what gallerists said to Ming Thein in a very different way. Thank you and keep on writing.