Thursday, April 30, 2015


Don't forget to buy my book! Or leave a really great review! Or both!

Intermediate Photography

Just for fun I'll leave this at the top for a bit.

This is totally working! I have sold two more books! That's US$1.20! But mainly, an ego boost. Thanks, my new customers! I appreciate it!

New content is BELOW.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Lessons From the Hudson River School of Painting [not]

First of all, read this:

Lessons From the Hudson River School of Painting

and when you're done, try to articulate a single lesson the author has learned, or feels that you could learned specifically from these painters. Stuff about 'light it important' and 'leading lines!' doesn't count because those "lessons" can be "learned" from almost anywhere, and there's nothing specific about the Hudson River School there.

Let's examine this little piece and see what he's actually saying.

He begins with a little discussion of how he teaches and has this creativity/personal expression based approach. Then he states that a great way to cultivate creativity is "the study of painting". So far so good.

So, perhaps he's going to show us how to cultivate creativity by looking at these paintings?

Then he goes on to discuss the qualities of 19th century landscape painters (getting the century wrong along the way, but that's the sort of error anyone can make) talking about the sublime and so on. Harmony, the serene, the mysterious, are all referred to. Certainly these were the intentions of these painters, no argument there. He's quite right.

So, we have some things we could strive for, if we wish to make landscape photos with similar qualities. Fair enough.

A thumbnail history of the Hudson School follows, which as far as I know is perfectly correct. It hardly matters for our purposes, though. I assume it is all spot on.

Then we get to, apparently, the meat of the thing. He actually tells us what we can learn! Three things: Composition, Light, Symbolism.

Then the wheels begin to come off, as he steps through these things:

Composition. The Hudson River School used it. The composed pictures. Yup. Leading lines! Shapes!

Light. The Hudson River School used that too. Really well! Masterfully!

Symbolism. Here he actually deigns to cite a specific thing: Small people in big landscapes, a fully legit bit of symbolism. Well done. But then he's back to how the Hudson River School used symbols! Masterfully! To create emotion!

So, there's one actual, actionable, lesson here: put small people into big landscapes to create a sense of bigness of the landscape. The rest is filler.

Then he goes on to show us a bunch of his own pictures, which look nothing like Hudson River School pictures, and which draw no apparent lessons from that school.

So, what's he actually saying? Half the time (during the the Composition/Light/Symbolism) portion, he seems to be suggesting that we can draw actual lessons, in the sense of methods we can use, from these paintings. He does not bother to tell us what those methods might be, though.

The other half of the time he seems to suggest that we should just look at the paintings for inspiration. He gives us no specifics here, either, though, beyond "gosh, these guys were great at painting!"

It strikes me that the point of the essay is not to actually communicate anything.

It exists to wrap the author in the mantle of authority he perceives the painters to have. It is targeted at an audience that does not feel they need to learn anything from paintings, but do like to nod their heads wisely when some dope says "we can learn so much from painting." This audience will be too busy nodding to notice that there's no actual content in the essay.

It is an essay aimed at people who imagine they already know it all, in exactly the same way so much contemporary photography is aimed at photographers, who can then nod wisely at the powerful leading lines and so on.

And, let us not forget, the author runs workshops. You could give him some money and have him bleat at you about Light! Light! Light!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sally Mann in the NYT

Go read this piece, if you haven't already. It's Sally Mann's piece in the NYT Magazine.

In the 1980s Mann took a bunch of picture of her kids, while they were growing up. Using a view camera to get at those spontaneous instants of childhood. This is manifestly impossible, and people who accomplish that which is obviously not possible are always impressive to me.

Anyways, that's not what I care about. What I care about is that the Manns suffered a more or less predictable backlash because some of the pictures were of children without their clothes on. And, let's be honest, some of the pictures are decidedly sensual. Not, I think, sexual, but decidedly sensual.

These are children, naked, and children are simultaneously unaware of their bodies and in love with them. They are strong, flexible, everything works and nothing hurts. (As a nearly-50 man, I am pretty of jealous of kids.) These are children, engaged in the sort of deeply physical, muddy, often touch-based play that children engage in. Of course the pictures are sensual. They are a celebration of youth and of what defines youth and separates it from not-youth. Of course the pictures are sensual.

I don't mean to justify the work, though. I don't care to and it doesn't need it. If you have a problem with the work, fuck you, you ignorant hick.

We seem to have many kinds of objections:

  • you shouldn't let your children run around nude
  • you shouldn't photograph them nude
  • if you must you shouldn't let anyone else see the pictures of them nude
  • and you most definitely should never ever let a stranger take photos of your kids, nude or not

The last doesn't really apply to Mann's Immediate Family but it's still an idea in play.

There's some combination of straight-up prudishness in play here, obviously (the first bullet point) presumably by people who have not raised kids. Kids are gonna get naked and unless you want to fight a particularly pointless war with them, you're going to cave in and let them run around naked.

There's also a strong sentiment of but the pedophiles will kidnap and rape your children to death. This, interestingly, seems to be utter nonsense.

I admit that this is not a large sample size but the Mann family and the book provide an interesting case study.

One of the most well known photographers in the world produces a book, which sells like hotcakes, one of the best selling photo books ever, a book that is infamous for having pictures of naked children in it. One can hardly imagine that a single actual pedophile in North America was unaware of this book.

The family is easily identifiable, and easy to locate.

The net result? A large number of creepy letters, and one genuinely frightening stalker (who, it happens, seems never to have actually crossed the line in to making threats). While exceedingly unpleasant and frightening for the family -- make no mistake here, they had fears, and those fears were justified -- in the cold light of day, decades down-time, we can count up the number of actual kidnappings and rapes and the number of attempted kidnappings and rapes: Zero (0).

While there is surely an element of genuine concern among the but the pedophiles... crowd one cannot help but think there is also an element of the pedophiles will rape and kill your children, and you will deserve it, because you are a bad person, because you photograph your children without clothes on. Not necessarily in a vindictive way, but in the way that we kind of hope the serial killer in the TV show knocks off another victim, or the way we kind of hope that there will be a crash at the race track.

Certainly pedophiles do, from time to time, kidnap, rape, and kill children. I don't think there's a shred of evidence that they do it based on photographs.

So, again, to all of you who think parents mustn't photograph children in the nude, fuck you, you are an ignorant hick.

Monday, April 20, 2015

On Manipulation

There is, essentially, always a raging debate on somewhere in Photography about whether or not, and what types, of manipulation are permissible. I think I have been pretty consistently on the record as thinking it's all idiotic and arbitrary.

Today I feel like writing a little more about it.

Let''s start from the basic premise that photography is interesting specifically because it is a literal tracing of reality, through the mechanism of optics and some sort of sensor. It is a literal record, subject to some limitations, of what's in front of the lens during the time of exposure. This is what makes photography Not Painting and Not Anything Else. It is what makes everything else Not Photography.

A photograph isn't reality, and in truth it's an inaccurate representation of reality, starting from the fact that you've thrown a frame around something, and proceeding through various technical limitations of the medium, and onwards to various manipulations to the underlying latent image (be it made up of exposed silver halide crystals or a digital file), to the final rendition bangin' on the retina of a viewer.

Still, it is the connection to reality that separates a photo from a painting, from a drawing, an etching, what have you. It is that connection that is the essential "photograph-ness" you're working with.

The key point here is that everything that you do, starting with putting a frame around something in front of the camera, and finishing with the choice of paper you print on, takes away from that reality. The picture's connection to reality is weakened at every step.

Some of these steps are mandatory. Without a frame, without a lens, without some choices for the final rendering, these is literally no photograph. Some of them are less mandatory, you can make more or less radical changes to tonal placement or to color rendering, or what have you. You might choose to remove elements or paste elements in to the final picture.

All these things are done in order to make a picture that looks the way you want it to look, that expresses what you want to express. So, you're explicitly trading that which makes a photo a photo (connection to reality) for expressiveness.

And that's OK. That's the name of the game, in fact, it's what photography is all about.

As with all systems in which you are trading one thing off for another, though, one needs to take care. This is why one shouldn't manipulate wildly. You are, in a sense, spending "reality" with your changes, and usually more of it than you think you are. Squandering this finite resource for trivial reasons is silly, and a waste.

Make your sacrifices count.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Just Wandering Around

As a little followup to this earlier piece.

Lots of photographers seem to wander around, looking for pictures. I'm not saying that this sort of spontaneous shooting is a bad idea. It happens that I am not very good at it, for reasons I will elucidate shortly.

Some very very good photographers, if you watched them work, would appear to be wandering aimlessly. Every now and then, the camera rises to the working position; click; click; move; click and so on. What appears to be going on is that the photographer has seen a potential photograph, and shoots it.

I think this is a misconception.

What has happened is that the photographer has seen something to which he or she has some reaction, which invokes a feeling, or that the photographer otherwise feels could be the basis upon which a photograph could be made. Then the photographer tries to make that photograph.

The distinction is subtle but, I think, important.

NOT: That waterfall would make a great picture.

BUT: I love that waterfall, I love the way it sounds. I want to make a photograph of that love.

This sounds fatuous and silly, and surely many photographers don't think this sort of rubbish consciously. The two different mental processes could happen in a moment, or over weeks. You can't tell by watching which it is, but you often can tell looking at the pictures.

Avedon said that he had to fall in love with his subjects. Adams said that how you feel about the scene is vitally important and must be shown. Cartier-Bresson told us about the moment when the picture is present and is The Picture that illustrates what is there. And on and on.

Even Winogrand told us that he photographs things to see what they look like photographed -- he's making a vital distinction here. It is not that the thing he shoots is obviously a good picture. He doesn't know until he sees the photograph.

Why can't I do it? I'm too slow. I can't fall in love with the scene and shoot it in a single fluid motion. Just doesn't work that way.

In any case, every photographer who's made any important pictures seems to tell us something of the same thing: you're not seeing a thing and then photographing that thing.

And yet, the internet is cluttered with photographs of things. What a pretty sunset/waterfall/mountain/child. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, we might use the word "snapshot" appropriately here, and I have long been on the record as being un-opposed to snapshots.

The difficulty is in conflating these things with actual photographs with meaning and power. If you take a super high-resolution snapshot of a sunset, and then lovingly caress it in photoshop for hours and hours, it's not going to somehow acquire meaning and power. It will always be a snap of a beautiful sunset.

And that is OK. Just don't confuse it with something more.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Daniel Milnor

I'm a big fan of Daniel Milnor. He's the real thing, an honest to god hardscrabble artist. He's not a pretentious fop, and he doesn't hang around with pretentious fops. Plus since he works for blurb sometimes he has great discount codes.

You should read him.



He inspires the hell out of me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Be Careful Out There

I have, over the last few years, taken part in The Photo Forum. At first under my widely known, or at least very Google-able, identity. Later I used an anonymous identity. There doesn't seem to be any rule against this, for the record.

The anonymous identity has not been a model citizen. I disagree with people and am not a very nice person. My opinion differs from that of the moderators, but they have seen fit to warn me several times that I am on Final Warning. (Several times? Huh?) OK.

So I left. No fuss, no scene. Other stuff I ought to be doing anyways.

Couple weeks later this moderator, runnah, wants to moderate me some more. Maybe he misses me. Anyway he decided that I have snuck back in under a third identity, sneakily using the identity MolitorPhotography. Since this provincial retard runnah thinks that I am a moron and that there can only be one person on earth with any given surname, he sends both my identities and this poor schlub a message accusing us of being the same guy.

He's wrong, natch, but think about it: MolitorPhotography now knows that the other two identities are likely the same guy. He's a Google search away from the home address of my anonymous identity.

Thanks, runnah! You fucking imbecile.

So. Even a more or less professionally run 'biggish site' like can't be trusted with your privacy.

Be careful out there, kids. It takes one disgruntled idiot.

Luckily there's nothing much I need to worry about and the leak is very small, so I am personally covered. Pretty much, anyways.

Use The Force

In "Star Wars", Luke is urged to use the Force, to reach out with his feelings, and this is surprisingly good advice not just for saving the forces of good from Ultimate Evil, but also for doing photography.

Consider this. Quite a lot of pictures are taken by people who are wandering around looking for pictures to take. They're looking for things that look a bit like other pictures they've seen, or they're looking for interesting people. Or strong diagonals. Or a good figure to ground relationship. Or something. The point is they're looking for pictures. I had in mind a social experiment, which I am much too lazy and busy to carry out ultimately, which involved aping this behavior. Here are some pictures:

These pictures are all bullshit. If Ming Thein or Eric Kim or any number of other Internet-Famous people posted them, they'd get some accolades. Posted on some internet forums they'd probably do pretty well. But they are bullshit. Boring, sterile, nothing pictures. About nothing. Of nothing. Saying nothing.

These are pictures made for other photographers.

This is the sort of crap you come up with when you're looking for pictures.

Go look for something that makes you feel, react, or think. Then photograph your emotion, your reaction, your thoughts.

Like this:

These are a finicky studio shot, a grab shot on the street, and something between the two. All are about my reaction to something, my desire to express something. The essential eroticism of flowers, the intensity of youth, and the dreamlike semi-erotic madness than is Edsel. The elements of composition, the photograph-ness of them, is secondary.

Monday, April 13, 2015


There's this thing called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that says, well, it says a lot of things. The basic observation is that we generally think with words, and then the hypothesis proposes that the structure of our language reflects and limits the way we can think. Variations suggest that if there's no way to say a thing in a language, then you cannot think that thing, and so forth. Babel-17 postulates a language with no first person constructs, with interesting results for the way speakers of that language think and view the world.

There are aspects of this hypothesis that are obviously true, aspects that are almost certainly false, and a whole bunch of grey stuff in the middle. It's pretty hard to study, for obvious reasons.

Photography demonstrates pretty powerfully a variation on Sapir-Whorf.

If you don't know anything about photography, you're probably pretty OK at "grading" pictures, at least in terms of how powerful the picture is from the point of view of a layperson. After all, you're a layperson.

If you have a strong background in compositional theories and whatnot, you might be able to "grade" pictures pretty well, too, and you can, as a bonus, talk about why they're powerful or whatever.

If you have a weak and shoddy background, however, you suddenly lose the ability to grade things worth a damn. If is as if you've learned how to salt a soup properly, and now you judge soups entirely on whether they're properly salted. A soup made out of dogshit, properly salted, seems pretty good to you.

Go in any photography forum. You'll find people posting awful pictures, dogshit soup, which are in-focus, have some sort of correct white balance, and use the rule or thirds, or leading lines, or something. Then you'll find the community lining up to say how great the pictures are.

Having no vocabulary, they would be forced to simply report how they feel about a picture. With a rich vocabulary they could explain why, maybe. With the little bit of vocabulary most self-styled photographers have, Sapir-Whorf comes boiling out, and now, it seems, people have no other way to judge pictures. So they judge huge swathes of pictures as equally good. A crummy fashion photo that's in focus, and a superb one, are all "great shot!" because they have no vocabulary to describe the differences, and therefore literally cannot perceive them. The standards in play are simple, imbecile. The pictures are all over the place, but generally not very good.

It's an interesting phenomenon, which underlines why photographers are more or less the worst people to get any kind of critique from.

There's a further consequence. You, while obviously you are wise and good looking, are not immune. You probably can't see flaws you have no vocabulary for. If you strain, you might see that your picture is bad, but you may lack the words, the ideas, necessary to quantify why.

This is why being "self-taught" is bullshit. If you can't see what is wrong, you can't fix it. You can look at other people's pictures, and maybe mimic what they do, but unless you're naturally gifted you're just going to be doing a great job of salting soup made of dogshit. You might some day learn enough by mimicry to produce good pictures from time to time, or even pretty often. But you could just go do some learning.

Just sayin'.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Looking at Pictures

As if we needed more evidence that people don't actually look at photos. I happened across a thread in which some chap asked advice in duplicating some lighting and gave a link to a medical clinic's staff page. A glance at the thumbnails on the page showed that several lighting styles were used and that the commonality was the framing and a few other things.

This did not stop each of the self styled experts from clicking one of the thumbnails and declaring the lighting to be 'one softbox up high' or 'a beauty dish camera left'. Because each picture was lighted differently, a hilarious sequence of equally definite and completely different responses ensued. None of these jokers was looking at the pictures. They were all clicking in and looking at catchlights. All but one were too lazy to click more than one thumbnail.

The point is that people don't look at photographs.

Self styled photographers look at a picture and see technical details. Whatever details are foremost in their mind.

Regular people look at a picture and see the subject.

Only a few of us look and see the gestalt, the masses of tone and color, and the design, and the subject, and the technical details. It takes practice and interest to see a picture this way.

Most people, even most photographers, aren't interested. That's just how it is. Ours is a niche.

If you're really going to enjoy a picture, or anything else, the name of the game is to find the right mix of detail and overall sensation.

If you're tasting a soup, you could spend all your time trying to identify the spices, but that's not enjoyable. Better to pick out a few of the stronger flavors and then move on to the textures, the mouth feel, and so on. Better to savor it. The point is to discover your own reaction to the soup, to find your own delight (or distaste), not to analyze it to death nor to give it short shrift.

In the same way, we might look at a painting, a sculpture. We note details. We note larger design ideas. We note emotion and color. All this is in service of one thing and one thing only, to wrap ourselves around our own reaction to the thing, our own pleasure in it.

These bozos looking at catchlights are certainly having fun. They're spouting off and flaunting their tiny stores of boring technical knowledge, mainly for one another. While they're having fun, they're not enjoying pictures very much.

If taking apart pictures for the technical details is fun for you, rather than necessary work, you should consider the possibility that you're not all that in to photographs, but rather, photography.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


This is a book-like object in an edition of three. 6" x 6". Hand-made. 140 pound watercolor paper, hinged with mulberry and wheat paste. Machine prints from the local place, because I'm that kind of guy. Sharpie and micron pens.

Some PVA glue involved as well, because I was having a bit of trouble with wheat paste (I am pretty sure, because I am dumb):

See also WIP which is a 2x2 version of this same design.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


To me, pasta doesn't really have rules, I just follow my feelings.

Lately I've been making these cubes, six meters on a side, out of herbs and cement. To me, that's what pasta is.

(Yes. It's satire.)

Why Criticism Matters

By criticism I mean here, loosely, talking about Art. Which is pretty much what the word means, but I don't want any of my two or three readers to get bogged down in connotations. Criticism is, I like to pretend, a good part of what I do here.

Criticism changes. There are new theories of criticism always roiling about, rising to the top, and then being submerged. Do we worry about the author's intentions or not? Do we worry about the reader's reaction or not? What's Art all about anyways?

This arises partially out of the academic need to invent new things, whether or not there is anything new to be said. Nobody is going to give you a PhD for pointing out that the field is pretty much wrapped up and there isn't anything left to say. But. That's not all. Art changes. Art's position in society is always shifting around. The constant seems to be humanity's need to make Art, but the way we use it, the way society perceives it, all these things change constantly.

Way Back When, Art was largely storytelling, a sort of vague version of history-keeping. It has been primarily decorative. It has been, and is once again, a way to comment on society and politics and power. Lately it does a fair bit of commenting on itself. For each change, criticism needs to keep up. Criticism's larger job, beyond keeping academics employed and out of our hair, is to help us as a society understand what Art is all about. Not that lay people read the latest thesis on The New New Old Postmodernist Criticism, but someone does, and they talk about it at a party, and someone else repeats some of those ideas, and eventually some sort of think piece appears in The New Yorker, and then the New York Times, and finally someone says something in The Keokuk Herald.

The ideas, some of them, filter out there.

Most people, I think, have at least the vague notion that Art, today, is often political, and often self-referential. They know this because of critics thinking about things and writing them down.

Photography is particularly problematic here, since it plays so many roles in our society. If we're trying to understand how photography "fits in" to society, we find ourselves endlessly stumbling across new and different ways it plugs in and fills a role. This creates, both for people taking pictures and for people looking at them, a kind of confusion. I see photographers all over the place who appear to want to make Art, but who are winding up making Decor, or recording personal pictures. Others who just want to sell $75 mini-sessions to hapless seniors are struggling with Art, what is it anyway, when this is completely irrelevant to their goals.

The various overlapping roles of photography push and pull us, as people with cameras. Without a clear goal in mind it's difficult to know what you're supposed to be doing.

By understanding how photography fits in to our society, by reading and doing a bit of criticism, we clarify our goals. I do many things with the camera, and, usually, I know which one or ones I am doing when I press the shutter button. It's been a gigantic leap forward.

You don't have to do it. Many photographers seem to find their groove by instinct and are perfectly happy with whatever they're doing.

But if you're not, well, now perhaps you have some hints as to what to do.

Monday, April 6, 2015


I recently made the remark that a lot of the "well known" photographers working today are quite awful. I was accused, in turn, of simply not liking them, and was snootily informed that my personal taste is just that, personal taste, and by implication of no consequence.

Ho hum, retards abound on the internets.

Still. What do I mean when I say something is good?

What I mean is, of course, an expression of my opinion. But it is not that I like it or not. I dislike plenty of things I estimate are "good". What "good" means is that the social consensus says so. The tastemakers, usually, have some say here, the gallerists and curators. But generally, some notion of The Public agrees that it's good. They might not like it. Most people don't "like" Warhol or Pollock, but they grudgingly agree that it's Art and that they suppose it must mean something to someone (possibly a homosexual).

What I mean when I say something is good is that I think, it is my opinion that, the social consensus will, or at any rate ought to, coalesce around the work and declare it good. I don't mean that I like it.

It has something to do with whether the work will stand up in time. If Ming Thein hung it up today, nobody but a few fanboys would remember him in a year. If you stumbled over his pictures five years later, you'd shrug. Flickr-ready junk. If Kirk Tuck hung it up today, people would stumble across his portraits year after year and think "man, that guy could shoot". If Daniel Milnor hung it up, again, he'd be remembered by a relatively small cadre and newcomers would look at his pictures and think "yeah, there's something there, isn't there?"

Usually it embodies having something to say. The point is that people look and they thing "there's something there" or "maybe there's something there" they do not think merely "how sharp! How wonderfully pretty!"

Anyways. It's all about that social consensus.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Photoshop is [Not] Ruining Landscape Photography!

Here's the context (which is nearly 3 years old, but a recent essay on LuLa dredged it up again):

Opinion: Why Photoshop is Ruining Landscape Photography

It would be an interesting thing to discuss is only wiser heads had not had it out more than 100 years ago. Compositing in skies was standard procedure in the early days of orthochromatic emulsions. P.H. Emerson and H.P. Robinson had an epic Victorian war of letters on, more or less, this exact point.

The players in this round strike me as thoughtless children, when stacked up next to those elder statesmen.

The trouble is that nobody thinks about much of anything these days. Consider this quote from the cited piece:

Removing power lines from a landscape is one thing. Changing the colour of the sky from grey to orange quite another.

How? The author goes on to claim that, basically, if only you were patient you could get the right color, and landscape photography is all about stalking the right color (it is?), blah blah blah. The whole piece is a lame mess of justification for a poorly thought out opinion held for no particular reason at all, except that his friends hold it. (To be fair, almost every opinion we hold, we hold because our friends or family hold it, but golly, you can do a better job of rationalization.)

Emerson, who is on the same side as the cited piece, points out that if you don't shoot the sky from the same place at the same time you're not going to get the light right. You can get it close, but you can't get it right. And, a quick look at the relevant picture shows that he is correct. The light is improbable. Now, if you don't know it's photoshopped, you probably wouldn't say that, you'd probably feel that the light was a bit surreal, but you wouldn't likely peg it as wrong. But it is wrong, and pretty obviously so, once you know.

Emerson also suggests, and I agree with him, that manipulations will out. People will feel it. They will, somehow, know. And your picture will be, somehow, wrong. No matter how careful you are, it is artifice and the fact that it is artifice will damage the picture.

Now, we all manipulate. There is always artifice. You have to accept that there is artifice in pictures. Getting hissy about "well, this is OK and that is not" is ridiculous, but it is equally ridiculous to claim that artifice is always wrong, or that it is harmless.

What is true is this:

Every bit of manipulation you perform sacrifices a little bit of the reality of the photograph. The power of a photograph over other forms lies in, precisely, that reality. Therefore, make your sacrifices count.