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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'.


  1. You are saying that people in photography forums are the equivalent of cooks who would judge soup by the amount of salt in it. This is true, but is the same anywhere else.

    People in photography forums judge photographs on sharpness, color saturation and exposure to the right.
    People in painting forums will judge paintings on the ability to mix colors and to hold a brush correctly.
    People on golf forums will judge your game on the price of your clubs and the amount of green fees of your favorite round, etc...

    Any group of humans will quickly evolve to a competitive game where people are judged on some ridiculous metrics. The metrics are ridiculous because they are always simply chosen so that:
    -they are measurable
    -they please marketing experts, meaning winning the competition must be easier for people who spend the most money.

    If we keep the soup analogy, it is always like judging the soup by the ability of the cook to add salt, or spices and you can get points by buying rarer spices. Nobody is interested in the soup and nobody actually eats the soup (it's dog shit anyway). Everybody is only interested in the salt and spices, because that is what the untold competition is about. Members of the group are only interested in wining the competition or at least not losing it too badly.

    A further dynamic is added by the fact that the judge are members of the group. We, as human, have an innate sense of hierarchy: the group always has a strong pecking order. The people at the top will actually decide on the right amount of salt and spices, but they can't be too obvious about the fact that they will always win at the end. The people at the middle will actually support them because they fear they will lose their status and be relegated to the bottom status if the hierarchy crumbles.

    1. I agree that's probably how it is. I have limited experience with other similar insular groups, although I do recall that bread bakers seem to have some of the same patterns.

      What I've been wrestling with is my perception that knowing a little bit seems to actually, literally, make you stupider in these narrow domains. I could not quite see how that was actually possible, and so I assumed it was just a form of groupthink or something, and that people kind of "knew, but privately" or something.

      I no longer think that. I think people literally lose the ability to see and judge reasonably, for a while, until (if ever) they develop enough vocabulary to think consciously about things they used to sense unconsciously.

  2. Knowing a little bit or even knowing a lot will make the group work against you, which may feel as if you were stupider.

    This is simply another facet of the same dynamics: members of a group will follow the leader or the group. If the leader is challenged by an outsider or anyone of low rank, the people at the middle will defend the leader. They do that automatically, without being conscious of what they are doing: the group and its ranking are important to them, so they will fight whatever threatens to disturb the status quo. At a larger scale, it is the same phenomenon which explains religious fanatics or tyrannic country leaders.

    On Internet forums and especially on Internet blogs, there is an extra dimension: the leader of the group is normally also the owner of the blog and can control the comments. He or she usually creates a few sock puppets when the blog starts to populate the comments (nobody wants to comment on a blog without audience). The sock puppets will defend the blog owner in case of criticism and the rest of the audience will follow the apparent majority. On popular Internet forums, especially now that cameras don't sell very well, I would expect that some of the sock puppets are hired by camera brands. It is almost an open secret: it will not take a long google search to turn up a few firms offering positive comments, facebook friendships, blog followers or forum members by the hundreds for a fee.

  3. I forgot to add something. You wrote: "I think people literally lose the ability to see and judge reasonably". Indeed they do, when they defend the group leader.