Friday, July 31, 2015

Vernacular Photograhy

Vernacular Photography, to review, is the fancy way of saying "snapshots".

I've talked in the past about how it's changed, with the advent of digital and sharing. In the 1980s we got 1 roll per year with the kids posed stiffly in front of: The Christmas Tree, One Birthday Cake Each, The Eiffel Tower (because we went to Europe that summer) and then The Christmas Tree again. Now we have 1000s of digital shots of much more interesting, or at least entertaining, stuff. We get the weird faces, the messes, the funny dancing, the parties, and so on. Digital is free, so we shoot a lot more, and therefore get more of the trivial moments, which are to my eye the more interesting and in some sense important ones.

But here's a little thought for the day.

The function of the film snapshot, printed and put in a shoebox or an album, was to reach across time to our future selves. Remember the trip to Europe? Remember that christmas when you got your first bike? Remember?

The function of the digital snapshot is to reach across space and social connections to talk about now. It's horizontal, not vertical, or something like that.

It's still vernacular, because the picture doesn't matter, only what the picture is of. The photo need only be a fair representation of what the camera was pointing at, good enough to provide evidence or a spur to memory. People like me still take snapshots for our future selves, of course. It's virtually all of what I do, but I dare say lots of people do it to some degree or another.

That usage is dwarfed by the horizontal "look at this thing which just happened", "this is my present, my now, look!"

There's something here that's leaking out into the world of Fine Art photographers. Just as a for instance, these guys go on safari or otherwise make fabulously expensive trips out to the ends of the earth. Frequently they come back with pictures of lions or penguins or whatever which, while technically amazing (oooo, ahh, the resolution, the colors, you really nailed the focus!) could have been made at any good zoo.

When Adams went on epic trips, he sat there and thought to himself "What the fuck am I feeling about this mountain, and how can I shoot that?" and it's not his fault that he always felt the same way. Weston went to the desert and saw the sensual curves and thought "Man, I love women" and shot that.

Kevin Raber says "I'm in freakin' Antarctica! You gotta see this!" and shoots what are, ultimately, incredibly detailed facebook photos. So we see a bunch of penguins and some ice, but it doesn't feel cold. Michael Reichmann is going to give us a bunch of lizards and birds that say "I'm in the Galapagos!" but in the end they're just supporting evidence that he was. They will look like they could have been shot at a zoo. There will be some vistas and stuff too, of course.

But Kevin doesn't shoot how cold it is on the ice, of the way it feels to walk on the layer of ice atop the ocean, or what he felt about the mass of penguins. He shoots exercises in form, he shoots to show off his mastery of the gear, he shoots to provide supporting evidence that Right Now He Is Somewhere Cooooool.

Michael will not shoot his awe at the uniqueness of the ecosystem, he will not shoot how it feels to walk where Darwin walked, he will not shoot the sensation of luxury he gets in the chartered yacht. He's definitely not going to shoot how it feels to make $20,000 in a week for helping old white dudes with their cameras. It's gonna be "Here I, Michael-al-al Riechmann-an-an-an... IN THE GLALAPAGOS ISLANDS! Dun-dun-DUNNNNN" all day long. It's gonna be high end facebook.

And what's wrong with that, I suppose? I object, I suppose, to dressing up ephemeral "look at my present, look at my now" in the clothes of "hear me, future generations, look upon my works."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Isn't It Hot?

There's a whole genre of photos I think of as 'affluent white guy goes to Thailand.' You probably know the ones.

Small ancient woman in funny hat selling colorful things.
Guy in funny hat in rice paddy. Maybe with ox.
Solitary monk looking serene.
Line of young monks. Saffron robes.
Distant mist-enshrouded hills/ridge beyond green fields.

Etc. The theme is generally serenity with a bit of the mystery of the east. Look how foreign and strange. Look how serene. How strangely beautiful. You can shoot these things outside of Thailand, obviously, and you needn't actually be white to do it. But here's a question for you: why isn't it hot in these pictures?

I've never been and don't have a lot of interest. But every single written or spoken description of the area says: chaotic, loud, often squalid, and mind-destroyingly hot. I literally cannot bring to mind a single written description of anywhere in southeast asia that suggests anything of serenity.

The pictures and the descriptions seem to be from completely different places. What on earth is going on?

I'm pretty sure that when amateurs go to Laos or wherever, they're not really there to take photos of Laos. They're there to crank out the pictures they've seen online or in magazines of the Mysterious Orient. And so we get nothing of their impression of Laos at all, nothing of their experience, nothing new, nothing true. Just copies of copies of copies of false pictures.

See also Havana, Cuba. It is apparently also not at all hot in Havana, but all walls have a patina of peeling paint and yet none are freshly painted and none are bare. The Communists, one is left to assume, have perfected a way to preserve paint eternally in a picturesquely peeling state. One wonders if all the beautifully preserved Chevys are part of this strange alchemy.

And so it goes with the various photo-tourism spots. It's devolved to trophy hunting, and that's a shame. You spend ten grand or whatever getting out somewhere really interesting, someplace about which surely, if you have more sensitivity than a melon, you have some strong reaction, impression, idea. And you squander that by shooting the Trophy Photos instead of something personal, something meaningful. Something, one imagines, perhaps even important.

People are different, and I know I am slower than most. Still, a major reason I never consider going on some photo safari is that I know I cant'd do anything in three days. Chuck me into Vietnam or Nigeria on a whirlwind tour, and I'd be lucky to crank out a couple trophies. There's just no point in shooting, unless I've got a month to sort through the impressions and develop an approach. I might go, but I wouldn't shoot. Well. Snapshots. My wife in front of the Eiffel Tower, my children in front of a charging lion, that kind of thing.

On the one hand, I can see that there is pleasure in producing even lame Steve McCurries, but on the other hand, what a waste.

Are you serious, or are you just noodling at a piano you cannot really play?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


I occasionally wonder just how profitable photography workshops are. Michael Reichmann has helpfully provided some useful information for us!

Check this out Reichmann and Biggs Galapagos Workshop.

The price for the workshop is $9995, for a maximum take of $119,940 gross.

If you google a little, you will find that the charter company runs two web sites. The one Michael doesn't link to has prices. You can buy this exact cruise rack rate for between 5 and 6 grand, depending on cabin. You don't get to wander around with Andy and Mike, though. You do get to wander around with the naturalist in all the same places. Andy and Mike are paying $72,450 for the charter, which includes pretty much exactly what they're calling out in their glowing description. There's a little ambiguity surrounding alcoholic beverages (not included in the charter, but Andy and Mike say "all meals and drinks"). Basically all that crap they talk about in the description of the awesome cruise is just included by the charter company as part of the basic package. I can find no extras, apart from possibly booze, that Mike and Andy are arranging. They're buying a charter for $72,450, and attempting to resell it for $119,940, which is pretty nervy, I'd say.

So anyways this looks a lot like a net of $47,490 to Andy and Mike, if they can fill the workshop. Note that there will be 14 (12 paying, plus Andy and Mike) participants, and there are 9 cabins. I wonder who'll be getting cabins to themselves.

"There will be no classroom sessions, no lectures, no slide shows, and most importantly — no unnecessary egos. We will all work closely together, sharing our knowledge and experience." Or to put it another way, "We won't be doing much of anything except wandering around with you. You'll be paying about a $4500 premium over rack rate for the pleasure of our company, and possibly a T-shirt."

Now, according to the web site with prices, they had to front 20% to nail down the dates, so they're out of pocket $14,490 right now and they could lose it. If they need to cancel, the charter company is gonna take $7245 and pocket it, and they'll take the rest if they can't resell the charter week to someone else. So, there's a legit risk.

Notice, though, the incredibly stringent terms. The charter company wants payment in full 60 days in advance, Mike and Andy want it 90 days in advance, and so on. So they're hedging and leaving wiggle room, throughout. These guys need to sell 8 spots to make their nut and get a free vacation to the Galapagos. If they can sell all 12 spots, they're gonna clear 30-40 grand for handholding some rich wannabees for a week and making a few phone calls.

Nice work if you can get it.


Next time you see some dude photographing kids in public, consider some of these alternatives to 'AAAAA! PEDOPHILE!' Next time someone you know freaks out on facebook about some creep photographing children at the playground, consider these possibilities.

Maybe he's doing research on how kids play, to design a better and safer play structure.

Maybe he's doing a book on the innocence of youth.

Maybe he's preparing a report for the city on playground usage, to justify increased funding.

Maybe he's actually photographing the moms in yoga pants, and shooting the play structure from time to time as cover.

Maybe he's just messing around with his camera.

Maybe that little girl reminds him of his own daughter who died of brain cancer.

These are pretty much all more likely scenarios than PEDO! Feel free to use them on your freaking-out friends.

If you're feeling brave you could also try out 'So what? Are we now thought police?' but you may want to buckle in for backlash if you try that one out.

Monday, July 27, 2015

App Land

I'm going to prognosticate. In fact, I'm predicting the imminent death of the internets. Well, not quite.

One needs neither wisdom nor courage to speculate that the web will be different in five years, in ways we can't imagine now. Change is a constant, in this game. The tricky bit is in guessing what the change will be.

Here's what I am smelling in the breeze. The increasing dominance of Mobile as a thing (fucking around on your phone, instead of on a computer) is leading increasing toward Apps and away from general web browsing. Don't let the bastards lie to you. An app is generally pretty much just a web browser that only goes to one web site. It's the holy fucking grail for web-based businesses. If they can just get you to download and use the App, now it's a gigantic goddamned problem to go to any other web sites. So, if my web site isn't utterly crappy and broken, and if I can get you to fire up my App, you're a whole bunch more likely to just stay put while I sell you to advertisers.

What's this mean?

Well, in theory it means less cross-fertilization in photographic style and method, perhaps?

Are we actually going to see anything other than the current complete homogeneity across the entire interwebs (inter-apps, whatever)? I dunno, it doesn't take very damn much cross-fertilization to create homogeneity. If you want grizzly bears that don't look pretty much like all the other grizzlies, you need to completely isolate them for quite a while. And then, zowie, white bears. WTF?!!!

There should be some more differentiation, at least. And perhaps even a little renewed enthusiasm, as people stop having it forced upon them quite so obviously that there are a billion Joes Just Like You out there.

I dunno. Cautiously optimistic. I don't see how this could be bad for photography.

Terrible for everything else? Oh, hell yeah. Definitely.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


I am back and forth on this one.

On the one hand, most contemporary photography is ephemera. Something to post to my social media presence, liked or ignored, and then we're on to the next thing. Photographs persist, but down the timeline, where they might as well not.

On the other hand, perhaps one should aspire to do something else, something not ephemeral. I make prints, and I stick them in to books. That's more permanent, more solid. Wherever the book is, it's a present object that is there, not lost in some digital history, 17 clicks out of sight. It's right there on the shelf. I can see the spine of it.

But still I embrace the ephemeral nature of it. Ultimately, despite the best efforts of Ansel Adams, selenium toning, and archival washing, we're making pictures on paper, a substance not really well known for its properties of longevity. Sure, a couple hundred years or so, if you're careful. But the stuff rips, it burns, it doesn't like getting wet. We're not talking bronze here, it's not marble. It's paper.

Books? Also paper. Also flammable, don't like getting wet, and so on.

I use a lot of machine prints from down the street, 19 cents a copy. The print will look fine, most likely, when the book bites the dust. And if it doesn't? Well, that's OK too. The point is to have made it, not to have it endure forever.

So I continue to waffle, or perhaps to straddle some line. Ephemeral, but solid, physical. Ephemeral, but not too ephemeral.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"How do you capture emotions?"

I ran across a thread entitled "How do you capture emotions?" in a forum I skim from time to time.

The stock answers to this and all other essentially artistic questions, all questions which don't resolve to some immediate technical solution, are:
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Horizontal lines create feelings of... yellow makes people feel... etc

Regular readers will be able to predict accurately that I think these are bunk. Well, not quite bunk, there are germs of truth.

To address the first one, undirected practice is almost completely worthless. Even focused practice, where you shoot and examine your work, is nearly useless. To get places efficiently, one can go quite a bit beyond that. Spending 10,000 hours taking 'properly exposed' photos from eye level will teach you very little.

To address the second, well, these things are all neat ideas, but presenting them as fixed rules is quite harmful. They are not fixed.

The correct answer is directed practice. You want to try things out, specific things. You want to learn what the visual effects actually are of the technical things you can do. What does this cactus look like up close? in B&W? What if you shoot it dark? Bright? In the morning? From far away with a very long lens?

This develops a visual vocabulary. By doing and looking, you learn at a visceral level what is possible, visually. You may learn some trends about horizontal lines and the color yellow along the way, but more usefully you will develop an intimate photographic idea of what it looks like when you do that, or that, or this other thing.

Practice thus, look at lots of other photographs (and maybe some paintings), and you'll develop a deep vocabulary of what is visually possible, together with the technical mastery to employ that vocabulary.

Now look at the thing you're trying to shoot, and think about what you're trying to say, what emotion you're trying to capture. Riffle through your vocabulary "words" of visual effects, and visualize roughly what they look like. You will, with luck, get a couple ideas. It's possible that you'll suddenly see that enhancing the yellow colors will make the place feel cold, and that the horizontal lines will make it feel dynamic. That's not usually how it goes, but maybe it's just what will happen with the rock you're trying to make feel happy.

So, the first one is true, as well as false. Practice, but don't just go poke keys on the piano at random. Learn your scales and chords, and listen to them.

So, the second one is true in a way as well. It's about knowing what diagonal lines, dark shadows, and the color red look like. They're gonna do something, it's up to you to see what they're gonna do.

There's a bunch of exercises over on my Introduction to Photography thing that might help here. They're supposed to.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Making Archetypes, Imagining Workshops

Every now and then I resolve to go shoot a pile of those awful archetypes that clutter up Flickr and 500px. Generally street/urban, so I don't have to drive all over tarnation and wait for the damned golden hour. My idea varies. A portfolio cranked out one afternoon to prove how easy this shit out to grind out. Sometimes I'm going to open a Flickr account and work my way up to thousands of followers which I will then monetize or whatever.

It always ends the same way. I go shoot for an hour. I load up 150 shots on the computer and sift it down to an A list of 3 or 4 or 8 or whatever, and a slightly larger B reel.

Then I can't bear to look at them any more. Usually I've got a small handful of photos that would serve. 'Process' them a bit, edit the EXIF so they look like they were taken with an expensive camera, and I'm good to go. I dunno if I can grind out terrible landscapes, but I can produce urban observational quasi-street at a rate of probably 3 or 4 an hour. Counting 'processing' and so on' I'm confident that I could pump out 2 an hour more or less forever. Except that I'd kill myself.

I just can't do it. It's not that I'm an honest guy and can't bear to go through with a scam. I'd love to scam a bunch of people on 500px. I can't bear to look at these photos. I can't bear to spend my time polishing these pigs up in the approved fashion. They're pointless stupid photos, by design.

So the whole project goes in the dumpster and I go back to something that's just going to cost money, with no chance of making any.

What makes this thing something of interest to me is that I have no problem at all doing precisely this at the piano.

Grinding out a decent rendition of Bach's Prelude in C (a very beautiful, very easy to play, piece of music) gives me great pleasure. I'm not trying to express anything, I'm just trying to bang the right keys in the right order, with a respectable approximation of the force indicated on the sheet music. Grinding this thing out respectably is, surely, pretty close to the same achievement as crapping out some terrible Urban Contemporary photograph.

There are a few differences.

Nobody listens to me noodling at the piano and suggests that I ought to take it up as a profession. People looking at photographs are notoriously wont to make just that suggestion, based apparently on the observation that your pictures are "clear" whatever that even means.

I do not kid myself that I might someday become a professional piano player. That simply isn't going to happen. I don't know much about piano playing, but I do know enough to visualize the vast gulf that exists between me and the lowest paid piano player.

I do not kid myself that I can teach the piano to anyone else. Sure, I have a few simple suggestions for the genuinely ignorant, based on memories of my own lessons, but it turns out that teaching piano is a profession in its own right. Again, I am aware of the vast gulf, etc.

Photographers are weirdly unaware of the same vast gulfs. They'll cheerfully start offering up workshops, and even more weirdly other photographers will sign up for them. Most workshops appear to be travel to a beautiful location and take an metric fuckton of snapshots while there, and every night get together with a bunch of like-minded twats to drink and "critique" one another's work. In other words, it's not really about learning anything. It's about hanging out with other gearheads on vacation.

There are no workshops offered in Bellingham, WA, although there are 100s of workshops being offered to photographers every single day of the year. They're all in Venice, or Hawaii, or Antarctica.

I try to envision the same thing for piano players. Go to Vienna, and hang out at the Bösendorfer factory, noodling away on pianos with other people who also cannot play very well, while receiving lessons from some dope who has no idea either how to play the piano, or how to teach people how to play? Then go get drunk?

Doesn't that sound awesome?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ming Thein is an Idiot

Jesus H. Christ.

Check this out: Repost: Defining cinematic.

Note some distance into it these words: I’m not aware of any other photographer who’s actually spent time shooting in this style which he qualifies in a footnote, blabbering about some guy whose name he forgets.

While not everyone on earth should necessarily be familiar with this sort of thing, I am pretty sure that some jerkoff who offers Masterclasses and Workshops all over the world, and styles himself an artist, and all that other stuff Mr. Thein does, ought to have heard of Cindy Sherman. One of the, I dunno, top 5 or 10 most important photographic artists over the last, say, 40 years. You know. That woman who rose to fame on the basis of a series of 69 photographs, a portfolio entitled:

Untitled Film Stills

which incidentally are a lot more cinematic than Mr. Thein's. Mr. Thein, despite his posturing, is simply taking horizontal shots of the same stuff he always shoots, and fiddling with the color balance until it looks like something he saw in a movie.

Maybe what he means is that he doesn't know of any photographers who shoot horizontal shots of nothing, in which case I think he really needs to get out more.

I may have to introduce a tag "theinwatch" or possibly "nottheinwatch" so people who don't want to don't have to read my ranting.


Oh look, you can see in the comments that he's looked Sherman up, and hurriedly invented a bunch of reasons why he didn't mention her. Anything to avoid looking dumb.

Leading Lines Are Also a Bunch of Crap

A year or two ago I spent a bunch of time digging to the Rule Of Thirds, and proving that it was a modern idea, only used by photographers, and basically pretty stupid. Turns out that Leading Lines are pretty much the same deal.

We learn about Leading Lines everywhere we look for references on photographic composition. The eye allegedly follows these things around and theye are anciente thinges goinge backe to da Vinci or before.

This is crap. Simply unadulterated garbage. Go find me a reference to these damned things prior to 1900. Go find me a reference to these damned things outside of some crappy book or magazine on taking better photos before about 1980 (at some point this piece of shit started creeping in to popular "How To Draw" books). Go find me an eye tracking study that shows one damned test subject's eye following a leading line. So you can add Leading Lines to the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, the Golden Spiral, and all that other ahistoric shit that only started "appearing" in "Art" in the twentieth century, as modern man tried to systematize beauty into simple rules.

The way the eye actually moves around a picture is actually pretty simple. You're going to be gobsmacked by this next bit:

Our gaze moves from interesting thing to interesting thing within the frame. Our gaze lingers longer on more interesting things. We don't follow the goddamned railroad tracks to see what's at the end, unless we're specifically thinking "ahh yes, leading lines!"

What are the interesting things, you ask? As well you may!

In order from most to least:
  • Faces. Human and animal.
  • Figures. Human and animal.
  • Areas that contrast with their surround. Perhaps, tonally, texturally, or chromatically.

It's really not very complicated.

This is why non-bullshit theories of composition focus on how to make the picture pleasing, not how to "lead the eye". They are not based on bogus physiology or neurology. They're about making the picture interesting, easy to read where appropriate, and so on.

We get ideas like figure-to-ground, in which we might place a human figure or face against a tonally separated background (dark on light, light on dark) by way of clarifying which human figure we're interested in, by way of making it easy to get to the interesting meat of the picture.

We strive for balance, unity, and variety, to make the whole frame work for us, each piece pulling together, while still being interesting to look at. If the entire left side of the frame hasn't got anything interesting in it, well, why not? There ought to be a reason that makes some kind of visual sense.

Here is an experiment you can probably perform in a few minutes. Go find a photo with a very successful use of leading lines (the examples we are shown, by the way, all have the leading lines leading to something interesting, or at least some someplace no less interesting than anything else). Now go make several versions of this photo. Eliminate whatever is interesting at the end of the leading line, be it a person, or simply a bright spot, or whatever. Insert something interesting elsewhere in the photo. Another bright spot, somewhere new. A simple clip-art human figure pasted rudely in at about the right scale will do.

Where does your eye "go"? Does it trot down the "leading line" or does it just go to the interesting things?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Photograph-like Objects

Daniel Milnor over at Shifter does these "Just Listen" pieces. It's basically a few dozen written words of context, and a 30 second clip of ambient sound.

They're interesting.

It hit me the other day that they're quite photograph-like. They embody a relatively small slice of time, in a specific place. They give you a brief, extremely limited, experience of the place at that moment in time.

There's an aspect of reality to it. That sound actually occurred there at that time. There is a literalness, a direct connection with the underlying reality of the place. A connection that a description, a poem, a painting, a drawing, cannot have, but which a photo does.

As such, they give me that same sensation of "knowing" and yet being aware that my understanding of the place in question is ludicrously limited. I feel some sort of probably false (but maybe, sometimes, profoundly real) understanding of what is going on there, what the deal is with that place, at least in some specific dimension of understanding.

You'd think film or video would be photograph-like, but I find it oddly less so. It stretches through time in a way that photographs don't. To be sure, they're rooted in the real, they are limited, they give a probably false feeling of getting it, but I feel like they're different. Possibly a really perfect short clip? But then, aren't we pretty much making a photograph?

So, Milnor's "Just Listen" seems to be a fundamentally different thing, which is nonetheless somehow the same thing, as a photograph.

What else is like this?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Punditry Gone Mad II

As I have noted in the past, guys like Michael Reichmann (LuLa), Thom Hogan (a phalanx of blogs), Ming Thein (, and probably many others are fond of writing little essays about how dumb camera makers are, and how smart they are.

Michael, in particular, is fond of talking about how he has meetings with the camera makers, drinks sake with them. He knows stuff. And yet they mysteriously continue to not implement his dumb feature ideas. Michael has drunk sake with the engineers (almost certainly not -- probably engineering managers) and he can tell us that the reason Nikon doesn't do X, Y, or Z is pure hubris. Why drinking sake with the engineers is supposed to give insight into high level corporate strategy is left, apparently, as an exercise to the reader.

Despite all these people's claims of business acumen (and they do universally claim substantial experience and ability) they seem to not know a basic fact:

We call people like these influencers. They do not, in general, influence the company. The influence goes the other way, they influence the market. Customers listen to these guys.

These meetings meetings have a very specific purpose, they are to give Michael and his ilk a carefully curated message to take to the market. As a courtesy they'll listen to his feature ideas, and will nod pleasantly. Hai! Hai! Kampai! But the purpose is not so that the influencer can help us develop strategy, thanks. We have other people we talk to for that (see below).

The influencers job is to carry water for the company. Period. In return, they get to feel important, they get access, they get content to write about. They most certainly do not get to drive product development.

Either these pundits are ignorant of how business works, or they don't care. They're all in the click farming business, after all, and articles about how dumb camera makers are are rich soil for growing a crop of clicks.

If these bozos really want to influence camera maker strategy, they need to use their position to launch a market research firm. This has a couple of problems. Actual market research would almost certainly not support their pet features (oops, how embarassing), and it would be actual labor. Drinking sake, flying around the world taking crummy pictures, and bloviating on the internet are not much work. I can personally attest to how easy it is to bloviate on the internet.

Until they actually start gathering market data in an organized way, you should ignore any implications and suggestions that they have influence with the camera makers.

They don't.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Writing About Gear

Another winning essay from Kirk Tuck right here.

He's making the well known point that writing about camera gear is way more widely read than writing about pictures or about Art. This is a depressing reality, especially for those of us who find gear talk boring, and who decline to write about gear.

Many self-styled photographers are in fact camera enthusiasts, as I have noted ad nauseum and, in the way that audiophiles listen to their gear with your music, the pictures they make are mainly about showing off the capabilities of their gear, and their mastery of it. Macro photographs of bugs, endless pictures of ospreys, and so on. As a dabbler in the piano, I am loathe to condemn these folks too loudly.

But there is more. Gear can be quantified. Experiences with gear can be discussed without getting abstract. "My big hands have trouble with the tiny buttons" and so on. These are easily relatable statements. You can argue about specifications. You can discuss future features, and so on. There's simply a lot to be said here, most of which is accessible, most of which doesn't require firmly held ideas about abstractions to absorb and enjoy, or to disagree with.

Art, and pictures in general apart from the quantifiable, the measurable, that's a lot harder to talk about. It's all abstract and kind of vague. It's pretty hard to talk about without first clearing away some intellectual underbrush. One cannot, for example, talk meaningfully about the artistic merit of a photo without having some idea about what Art is, and what Artistic Merit might be. You needn't necessarily settle on some universally agreed upon definitions, but you've got to sort them out to a useful degree for the purposes of a single discussion.

Your choices are to either spend time and words clearing away this sort of underbrush, which is pretty dry stuff, or you can assume that everyone's already on the same page regarding the underbrush and launch into the discussion you want to have. In the latter case, you're essentially launching the layperson onto an sea of words without a chart. It's meaningless blather. Worse, it appears to have meaning, but since the layperson probably means something different than you do when they say "Art" the apparent meaning seems all wrong, incoherent, disconnected.

At book length, you can do the underbrush work, and then have some space to talk. On a blog, all is pretty much lost. Short form, low-context blather, the stuff the web thrives on, flatly cannot support any meaningful discussion of Art and related ideas.

Finally, most intellectual discussion of any depth whatsoever requires that you state some definitions up front, to set the context of the discussion. "For our purposes, let's consider Art to mean blah blah blah". The vast majority of people seem unable to permit this basic first step. You will bog down inevitably in arguments about definitions, which will mostly be idiots posturing to try to look clever. Of course, people will tend to do the same thing for lens resolution and so on, but in those areas there are well-defined, universally agreed-upon definitions and ideas. The posturing is a lot easier to put a stop to in technical domains.

Pretty quickly, people learn that discussions about things other than gear, picture sharpness, white balance, rule of thirds, where the lights are put, and a few other easily measurable things are off-limits and snowball into flamewars and furious ranting. So, efforts to start such things up die away pretty fast, and we're back to gear.

With the notable exception, obviously, of this blog. Where I moderate the comments, and have essentially no readers!

(That's tongue in cheek, I know a couple blogs that get a bit more traffic than this one that talk about Art and stuff, see my Other Blogs and Things page)

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Michael Reichmann of LuLa went on some silly rant about how every camera maker should support DNG for its RAW format, casting it as a no-brainer. Obviously, it's just clickbait.

In later discussion he attempted to make it a moral issue, claiming that the image data belongs to him, and that it is therefore immoral for the camera maker to force him to convert their RAW formats to DNG offboard, and that they should do it onboard the camera. Huh? If it's about access to your image data, well, you have that with a one-step offboard conversion. If it's about accessing it immediately, you should be demanding a sensor access port. In fact, Michael just wants clicks, and perhaps to a degree wants DNG output for convenience. If there is a moral issue here, DNG output is not a relevant part of the discussion.

But he did raise an interesting idea. These are his 1s and 0s, it's his image data.


That is certainly the law in most of the world. But is it right? Is it in fact the moral and proper position?

I don't see that it's immoral as such. And, given that camera makers are making cameras in the current social and legal milieux, there's certainly an assumption of fitness-for-purpose where the purpose includes "image data that is mine."

But is that the way it ought to be? Or the only possible way it ought to be?

What if, for instance, a camera maker decided to claim certain rights to every picture you shot. Would that be immoral? Obviously it would be if they didn't make it quite clear, given the current legal and social situation. There are certain assumptions in play, and not being clear that these default assumptions are wrong would constitute a lie of omission. But if they made it clear? Perhaps if they offered substantial discount on the camera, provided you gave up certain rights, or gave the camera maker certain licenses.

I am confident that there are photographers who would go insane with fury if Canon started offering such a deal, and lots of others who would deride them for such a terrible idea.

That would be pretty fun to watch.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Attention Seekers and Kicking It Up A Notch

I'm going to talk about girls.

Girls use their appearance to get attention. I dunno if it's all socialized in to them, or if it's built in, or whatever. No, it's not universal, not every girl does it. Boys do it to, and so on. Please insert all the sensible caveats here. But it's an identifiable girl-related thing. Of ourse, we all like attention. Boys, girls, middle-aged men with angry blogs. But let's start with girls.

In my youth the competitive landscape consisted, mainly, of one's school. You had to compete with, at most, a couple hundred other girls for the attention of, well, whomever you wanted attention from. Generally the idiot jock boys who, by some bizarre consensus, became the desired attention-sources. But even attention from dweebs like me was not entirely without value. The competition wasn't with all the girls, of course, just the ones in roughly the same social stratum.

Enter Facebook. Abruptly there are 20 million girls roughly the same age as you are, all contending for attention. The attention sources are somewhat more amorphous, but the measuring technology is much better. You can gather Likes! Now you gotta up your game. It's time for more revealing outfits and a whole lot of duckface!

A related phenomenon. Boys with cameras have been talking girls out of their clothes since approximately 15 nanoseconds after the camera was invented.

Enter the Internet. Now we're getting a double-dose of attention: the model and the photographer are both getting attention. Dropping photos of naked or nearly naked young women into anywhere on the internet appears to flip a switch in people's brains. They return to the age of 17, and enter an attention-giving mode. In photographic forums, this manifests as a bunch of facile comments about photographic things. The light is always fantastic, the processing is wonderful, the mastery of technique is, well, masterful. Even when it's not. Nobody actually looks at any of that stuff, they're simply giving positive attention, mouthing the locally-recognized praise words. On wider social media it's Likes, +1s, and comments about how gorgeous you are, which really means how nearly naked you are.

Taking pictures of naked girls is an easy road to genuinely beautiful photos. It's pretty hard to go wrong.

It's an even easier road to Internet Approval, and it doesn't matter whether you go wrong or not. The only things that matter are the age of the model, her body shape, and her degree of nakedness. Literally. Nothing else matters. Find a hot model, get her naked, and photograph her any goddamned way you like, it just Does Not Matter. You'll be told that you a great photographer by pretty much everyone, except some other dudes who also photograph naked girls who will nitpick a bit mainly because you are stealing attention away from them.

Finally, we come around to kicking it up a notch.

Remember how we all seek attention? Maybe you're too shy or cheap to shoot pictures of naked girls. What can you do?

Well, find a place where attention is given, and then take pictures just like the ones that garner attention there. Then kick it up a notch. More saturation, more contrast, more of whatever it is they like there. This is the photographic analog of more naked, and who doesn't like more naked?

OK, so what?

Nothing in here is about photography. It's 100% about engineering your social situation.

But here's a puzzler for you: Isn't great photography supposed to be pretty much about social engineering? Doesn't that great iconic image create a social impact, and isn't that pretty much the point?

So why do we feel it's cheap and stupid to generate a desirable reaction with a naked girl, but it's awesome and cool to do it another way? I don't have an answer here, but I'm gonna noodle on it.

Ming Thein on Street

This is probably worth your time to read: The evolution of street photography.

He gets an incredible amount of stuff wrong, and the piece is clearly a self serving 'no, street photography is whatever I want it to be' piece. He's got this whole thesis about how "People want street to be, X, Y, and Z" which is true as far as it goes. What he gets wrong there is that the list X, Y, and Z is extremely fluid. And there's tons of other stuff that's pretty out of left field. So what. "Street Photography" either means something specific that basically nobody does these days, or it means nothing. Your choice.

The thing worth noticing is this: he's actually got his thinking cap screwed on quite tightly. He's got some ideas. Just because they're self-serving ideas doesn't mean they're bad. In fact they're pretty good ones.

Also, he knows what a decisive moment is. Kind of slips that in there.

His pictures are still pretty awful but I can see his idea in them, and I saw it before he told me what the idea was. Note my post on Three Cases in which I remark that Thein's Prague photos are... well, universal is certainly a polite way to say it, and no less true for being polite. What I think he's missing is anything particularly interesting to say. The pictures are universal, but do they meaningfully encapsulate The Idea of Man? I'm not feeling that, yet. Maybe he'll get there.

Am I impressed that Mr. Thein is, like pretty much every single other internet-famous photographer out there, attempting to stretch the meaning of the phrase "street photography" wide enough to wrap himself in it? Nope.

I am impressed that he's actually thinking, though.

Go read it. You'll probably find something you can take away from it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

An Acid Test

If you're trying to decide whether some chappie who takes pictures is any good at formal composition, here's some more grist for the mill:

  • Does he use arabesques?
  • Does he use oval or circular compositions?

In general, the internet-famous guys simply don't. They're all about straight lines. Rectilinear shapes, often with a strong diagonal. Whenever they can manage it, they shove in an actual diagonal line, and when they can't, they imply the diagonal by placing stuff in opposite corners. This is all very well and good, but it's a pretty narrow palette of technique.

I use the pronoun "he" deliberately, here, because I cannot offhand name a single woman who does this stupid heavily gridded derivative stuff.

And, for reference, I am rotten at this sort of thing. But then, I am not offering any workshops.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Three Cases


Go look at some of Sally Mann's Southern Landscapes. There's a handful you can peek at on under Selected Works, as of this writing. The subject matter is pretty distinctively southern, you certainly could not have shot some of these photos any old place. Some others, sure, anywhere. But knowing that the set goes together and were made by one person, with intent, some things are clear. The identity of the region becomes clear, at least in general terms. If not the American South, then somewhere else with much the same history and feeling about it. Perhaps not the American South as such, but definitely not Alaska, or Nevada, or Paris.

The way Mann handles the subject matter shows a particular feeling. It's clear that these things reflect a personal view of.. something, someplace. In this case, Sally Mann's idea of South, which is for excellent reasons much aligned with William Faulkner's view of South. While that exact fact is not obvious without context, it is obvious that these things represent someone's personal idea of a place.

This portfolio combines some distinctive Mann-isms with some portfolio-specific choices, and produces something that is a singular vision of a place.


Contrast with Ansel Adams. He too applied a set of tropes to the way he handled subject matter. His methods, in contrast to Mann's, tend to unify the places. There is no particular sense of place in his work, unless it is an abstract place, Unspoiled Wilderness, or something. Mountains in Alaska are made to look pretty much like Mountains in California.

Adams is clearly going for something universal about there places, some sort of sense of wonder he feels that is common to all these places.

Adams applied some distictive Adams-isms pretty widely, producing a body of work which, while note place-specific, does give us a singular vision.


Finally, go look at Ming Thein's recent "photo essays" on Prague: Praghitecture, People of Prague I, People of Prague II.

This crap could have been shot anywhere, by anyone.

Mr. Thein is banging out tropes as well. The strong rectilinear geometry and then in a lower corner, a pedestrian walks briskly into the frame. Look, reflections! Here is a building in the distance, with some shit in the middle ground, and some shit in the foreground, because that's what the book says to do. Etc. Etc. These buildings and people could be anywhere, because Mr. Thein is simply making copies of copies of copies of photographs that everyone else on flickr makes.

The tropes have had any sense of place squeezed out of them, and so they are perforce universal. They have also and more importantly, had any sense of personal point of view squeezed out. If these things are recognizably Thein's at all, it's going to be because of the way he handles sharpening, or color grading, or some goddamned thing.

If he has any ideas about Prague specifically, any personal view of Prague, it is painfully un-apparent in these pictures.

What is interesting to me is that Thein clearly does have an idea of Prague. We see it in this picture and its caption:
The slight oppressiveness that is impossible to define

By itself the picture is ho-hum. You can find glum people anywhere. Had Thein elected to work on this theme a bit, to collect a series of pictures that expound on the theme of the caption, he could have made it distinctively Thein's view of Prague.

Instead he trundles off through a series of well executed but boring exercises in leading lines, figure to ground relationships, a handful of visual jokes, generally ringing the usual "street photography" changes that thousands of other blokes crank out daily.

Had he developed a real portfolio, instead of this garbage, it would have been personal, of course. Prague is many things. The South is many things as well, many more things than a bunch of trees and tumbled-down buildings. But Sally Mann's South is that distinctly Faulknerian idea of The South. It is a distinct vision of The South, with the clarity of a thrown knife. Which is why her work has weight and presence. If Thein had decided to pursue his notion of Prague, instead of being distracted by the lure of endless shitty "street photography" tropes, he too might have been able to make something worthwhile.

It would probably take more than a couple days of shooting, though.

Frankly, Thein's idea that he can fly in to a city for a couple days to teach a workshop, and produce not one but three worthy portfolios is some mighty hubris. Arguably it is a measure of how little he respects his audience. "Here's a bunch of shit I saw in Prague. Eat it up, yum yum."

Have some respect for your audience, even if it's only you. If you have nothing to say, shut the hell up until you find something to say. Then work until you find a way to say it.

You will find that it is worth it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

An Exercise

Pick out some internet-famous photographer. Someone you like, someone you hate, it didn't matter.

Now pick out a monograph, an actual book, from some photographer who's... recognized, let's say. You could use Evans or Frank on Americans. Any number of Mann books. Adams. Salgado. Cartier-Bresson. Anyone who made a book that sold some copies.

Now sit with the book and the web site. Compare.

Are there differences? Apart from stylistic choices, really. Are there differences in depth, in ideas? Does one set of pictures feel more focused than the other? Does one set make more sense? If you ask yourself:

How does the photographer feel about this thing?

does the answer come through more clearly from one than the other?

(For me, it's like night a day, or perhaps heaven and hell)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

An Interesting Historical Moment

Photography exists at this moment at a curious location in the space of philosophical possibility.

Name the most prominent and influential photographers, the photographers most likely to be named as "an influence" by an enthusiastic photographer. You're going to come up with names like Adams, Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Winogrand, maybe Stieglitz or Weston. There are others, but my list is going to overlap with practically everyone's list in several places.

Did any of these people do much modification to their pictures? The equivalent of photoshop? Well, you can argue that all day, but mostly they didn't. The adjusted contrast and tonality, for the most part (or had people do that for them) but most of them were somewhere between mildy and rapidly opposed to "retouching" to any substantial degree. Don't paint out the telephone wires, shoot it right in the first place! And so on.

The slightly sophisticated contemporary photographer knows to revile those awful pictorialists, and may even be able to give a few names to hate. And they hate them not because of anything about pictorialism, but because those awful pictorialists were inveterate modifiers of photographs. Smearing, cutting, compositing, scratching. Ugh. Those bad people. Most people conflate pictorialism with a set of modification techniques, in fact.

And yet these same photographers will, more often than not, declare that any photoshopping they choose to do is OK. Usually because whatever they are doing is Making The Image Better. Presumably those awful pictorialists (who were often actually trained in stuff like What Makes Pictures Better, unlike your average dope with Photoshop) were modifying their pictures to Make The Image Worse?

Anyways. The received philosophy, as widely held, is wildly at odds with the practiced philosophy.

There remain a few "don't use photoshop" people (me NOT among them) out there. Just watch them get pounced on when they show their colors in public, though!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Photoshop

People often say, and I have said it myself, that the only thing which matters is the final image. Photoshop or not, who cares?

I have come to the conclusion that, to a degree, process does matter. Or, more exactly, perceived process matters. Why else would Peter Lik's sales associates go on about how he only uses film (false) and that he doesn't use photoshop (also false)? These are in fact words of power used to drive sales.

I don't know everything that's going on here, but at least part of it is that the sales associate is building the perception that the picture is a true representation of what was there. This is reality, as discovered by Peter Lik. The incredible scene in the picture is the result of Mr. Lik's efforts in finding the location and getting to the location and in shooting, and not "merely" photoshop.

And so on. This piece of the puzzle is about the reality, the vérité of the photo. The viewer places additional value on the picture if they hold the impression that it is real, in the sense that what is shown is what was actually in front of the lens at that moment. The actual content of the picture is not relevant to what I'm talking about here, although of course that is part of the whole experience of looking at the thing.

In truth, I agree with the viewer. We should place additional value on it if it's real in this sense. This is what makes a photograph a photograph and not a painting. It is not that a photograph is more valuable than a painting, it is that a photograph's value is partly in the fact that it's not a painting. If it looks like a photograph, but is not, surely that cheapens the thing? It loses the vérité that lends value to a photograph without gaining much visibly in terms of the personal interpretation and so on that lend value to a painting.

A diamond has larger absolute dollar value than a watermelon, but nonetheless makes a terrible picnic snack for a hot day. We should value a genuine watermelon over a diamond -- as a watermelon.

Paintings and photographs are not watermelons nor are they diamonds. Unlike the latter objects, they arguably exist on a sort of spectrum, with "unaltered" photos on one end, and Rembrandt and all his friends on the other end, and in between all that digital art and paintings made with a camera obscura, and so on.

Still, I see no reason the the same general ideas cannot be applied.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

But Still...

The previous post notwithstanding, I am just kinda fuckin around with stuff most of the time.

Which isn't incompatible with the other stuff.


My wife and I talked the other day about some things tangentially related to this, which is where this comes from.

I'm basically midwestern in outlook. When I'm working on something, especially something artistic, I tend to be very vague and non-committal about it. "I'm just fuckin' around with some stuff". I don't really share unfinished things. As the long-time reader will know, I most definitely don't share stuff online, but I also don't share with people close to me. People you'd think I want to include.

This is because, I am pretty sure, the process is essentially a solitary one. I'm trying to dredge things up from inside me and turn them in to something in a picture, and then a set of pictures, and then a set of pictures mounted in a book. I don't know if this picture or that picture is any good. I probably won't know for a while, and anyways it's possible that one picture isn't much good until you stick it next to a different picture, and so on. I'm groping in the darkness, inside myself, with the camera, in a mass of half-finished crap, trying continuously to sort it out and make some sense out of it.

The reality of this situation is that the last thing I need is any kind of external commentary. What's someone going to say? My wife, because she loves me and thinks I'm pretty great even when I am not, is going to be tempted to say something nice. Which might be lovely, but might be exactly the wrong thing to say at that moment. Anyone with firm opinions about pictures and definite ideas about how they ought to be might try to offer helpful advice. God help me.

Even a simple reaction, an indication of whether the project or the pictures or this picture "reads" a certain way, it's no good until the project is done.

The most recent thing, the Edsel books, relied in part on the angle in which the photos were mounted. It wasn't a big deal, but it's a piece of the whole experience. It's an element. If my beloved wife didn't "get it" as a stack of photos, I'd be left wondering if maybe it was because I hadn't yet mounted them.

At this point it's got to be a kind of wild leap into the unknown. Just do it. Pull it together as best you can, finish it, and put it out there. Maybe it's crap, maybe it's good. Maybe it's somewhere in between.

All I can be sure of is that I don't want the waters muddied by other people midway. The waters are pretty goddamned muddy already and it's a job to find my way through the mess I've made all by myself.

But in the end it's all about whoever picks the work up and looks at it. I love you and I hope you find something in the book.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


As I have mentioned, the thing I do these days is make handmade booklike objects with pictures stuck into them. In editions of three. One for me, one to give to ... someone project specific, and one to release into the wild.

It is such an enormous relief to wrap one of these stupid things up. To get that third book abandoned in a coffee shop, or into the hands of the right person, or whatever. To be done. Freedom to move on.