Monday, August 31, 2015


I'm not a fan of HDR as a thing, at all, and I don't know the nitty gritty details any better than any random joe, but I'm pretty damn sure this is a great big stack of pure ignorance.

Ming seems to think that HDR is still back in, I dunno, the 1990s or before. Before anyone had heard of it. The notion of globally mapping tones around is simply wrong.

Yes, a common result is that some lighter tones will map to a darker tone than some darker tones, and vice versa. This is an ancient technique. Good HDR methods are trying to do this (squares A and B are actually the same tone, we've all seen this thing 100x, right?):

In which larger scale tonality alters our perceptions of smaller scale tonality, so create the illusion of greater tonal range.

You know who else used this technique? Ansel Adams and virtually every other darkroom worker in the world.

As soon as you start dodging and burning you're committing Ming's terrible sin of "overlapping tones".

What a mook.


Where did the standards for "good" come from, In The Bubble?

Look over anything you recognize as a Good Photo, in the sense of the bubble. The kind of photo photographers will like. You know, the rectangular grid of windows, perspective corrected just so, with the lone out of place element in one corner. A person, a splash of color. Whatever. Walker Evans shot a bunch of this, his student Baldwin Lee did a few. Robert Frank did some. Henri Cartier-Bresson did this one:

Kevin Raber, on the other hand, gives us this thing:

and Ming Thein gives us this:

HCB is making a surrealist picture that is, ultimately, about the people. The windows are just there to make the frame into a picture (there's some basic compositional technique from painting that he would most likely have been taught, given the era, that's very apparent here). When Walker Evans shot this sort of thing, he was probably making a statement about society. The point is, generally, to juxtapose the strict geometry of the building with something else, something of human interest. Something contrasting, socially, emotionally.

When modern "photographers" make this picture, they like the contrasting element, but they only care if it contrasts visually. It doesn't have to carry any meaning.

We have dozens or 100s of these tropes, and I dare say many of them can be traced back to photographs with some weight.

All those cursed pictures of spiral staircases? No painter would ever paint anything like that, but as photographers we can't leave them alone. My trigger finger gets downright itchy when I'm looking up or down a beautiful wrought iron spiral staircase, and I've been on a strict diet of abstinence for years now. How many of them derive, ultimately, from:

which isn't about a staircase at all?

I keep dragging poor old Cartier-Bresson out, because he was the king of games with geometry. The In The Bubble Good Photo is usually all about geometrical games, repeated patterns, grids, contrasting elements. These pictures are all about placing the visual elements in such and such a way, to please the judges. Meaning is optional, probably a little frowned upon as it muddies things up. HCB shot about a million of these things, the single figure, at a precise moment, and the diagonals pointing to the figure:

And here's Mr. Thein:

Creepy, huh? Which one do you like better? I'm not actually trying to lead you. They're the same picture so any preference is going to be based on minor details.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Photo Tourism

Workshops, guided tours, get-togethers, photo walks. Breaking in to abandoned structures. These are all variations on the photo tourism theme. The idea is to go to a photographically rich place and take some pictures. Sometimes you bring a guide, sometimes you don't. You're only there for a little while. A few hours, a few days.

These trips invariably generate a bunch of In The Bubble Pictures (ITBPs).

The locations are photographically rich because they're unusual, they're usually rich in geometry and texture, and often in color. The conceit is that they're interesting because they're new, something we haven't see. Except that we have seen them. I am sick to death of jerks going to Prague or Shibuya or an abandoned mental hospital, prison, apartment building. This isn't even remotely new. Well, it is to people who haven't seen it, so there's always a few new folks who can get some delight from it, but the charm wears off fast.

The name of the game, for some, is to find the new shot, the inspired shot. Perhaps if I lie down in the mud and shoot up, or use a 10000mm lens to isolate detail or, or, or. The trouble is all that's been done too. Trying to find something new to shoot is the wrong thing to do. This doesn't work, and produces only ITBPs, because it can't work, and it can't produce anything else.

For some, the name of the game is simply to enjoy the process, and that actually makes sense. There's a process, which I can readily understand as fun. But, please, be self-aware enough to know that you're enjoying s process and a place and so on, not making important and powerful pictures.

If I got to Prague to shoot for a couple of days, all I can really do is shoot the same old shit, except now in Prague, with Prague-shaped buildings and people instead of Bellingham shaped buildings and people. There's no real Prague-ness to anything I shoot.

If you're going to get some essential Shibuya-ness as envisioned by you, as moderated by you, into your photos, you need time. I don't know how much, but I suspect that for most people it's more than a couple frenetic days.

You have to form an impression of Shibuya. You need to digest it, let those impressions gel and ripen into a mature and complete form (yes, even if you want to try to photograph that instant first impression, I think).

Then you need to meditate on or otherwise process that mature impression to find if there's something you want to say in it. Now that you have an idea of Shibuya, what does that translate in to, in terms of the pictures you'd like to make? You have to discover that, somehow. Maybe there's nothing there, you have nothing photographic to say. Maybe there is, though. If you flew to Japan for just this purpose, I sure hope there's something to do in Shibuya other than make bad Gurskys.

Finally you need to translate that idea, that thing to say, into a set of specific technical choices. How are you going to shoot Shibuya to convey the idea you want to convey?

Maybe it's just me, but this stuff ain't happening in a few hours, or a couple of days. I have to live there. Or maybe I could visit a several times?

A workshop is just about the worst possible context in which these sorts of things could happen. A bunch of like-minded idiots who want to compare cameras with you, an instructor who's droning on about leading lines and trying out new perspectives like getting down low or using a wide angle lens, a schedule, and a general social whirl blundering around trying to figure out where to have lunch.

If you go spend a couple days shooting with a bunch of guys In The Bubble, I think it's pretty much guaranteed that you're going to take ITBPs. What strength of character it would take to do anything else!

If I had five days free in which I could fly to London to take a workshop, why the fuck would I waste my time with it? I could spend those five days at home in Bellingham, doing something with weight, instead of upending everything and hurling myself into a bunch of unknowns in the hopes that something interesting might happen despite everything. It's like trying to cure the flu by just eating whatever garbage you can find in the alley.

On the other hand, of course, shooting In The Bubble is fun for people in the bubble. If the workshop is about taking a pleasant photo-themed vacation, great. Some people genuinely love the process of picture-taking. They like finding that pleasing geometry, that amusing play of color, the echoing of shapes or textures. There are generally pictures in the bubble, but so what? If the idea is simply to make those pictures, great.

I noodle stupidly around on the piano, playing tunes not even inside a bubble. If you just like shooting, or whatever, you have my blessing to go do that. Go to it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In The Bubble

There's a ton of this stuff out there, but here's an example that just fell in front of my eyes today.

Here we have what photographers consider to be a really great place to shoot and they take workshops there and walk around. They hire models to stand around and be photographed here. You and I look at the pictures and, quite likely, we say "neat!" and maybe even "man, I want to shoot there!" Certainly the LuLa forum has a bunch of people saying "great work, Kevin! How would I go about going there and shooting too?"

So on the one hand, I get it. It's a photographically rich environment, and you can make a certain kind of picture there. Indeed, you can even (to a mild degree) put your own stamp on such pictures. If you lived there you could probably make some really good work. Photographers don't live there, they drop in for a day.

But what the hell are these damned pictures?

They're sure as hell not Art. There's no ideas at all in there, other than, "wow, what a cool place to shoot". Indeed it's clear that the photographer's emotions, his reaction to the place, is entirely about taking pictures there. The statement the photographer is making, if any, if entirely self-referential.

Is it decor? Not really. I wouldn't hang that stuff. It's just abandoned industrial shit, sometimes with a model wandering around in it for no goddamned reason at all. Kevin, bless his heart, can shoot the stuff that the stuff is, but he's got no special understanding of color, and that's what you need for decor.

Does it serve some documentary purpose? Not really, there's those models, and we don't really get a sense of what the hell is there, since Kevin is so focused on getting the "Great Shot".

Is it Vernacular Photography? Hell no. Well, maybe at some meta level. Kevin is signaling to his peers "I was at this cool place, taking photographs".

Which is really the nub of it, isn't it? You take these pictures so you can show your photographer friends that you were in this photographically rich location, taking photographs. The compositions are pleasing enough, I guess, but there's no ideas here beyond the ideas inherent in photographs.

These things are photographs for photographers. Ultimately, they're pictures that aren't about anything but themselves. They exist in a sort of pocket universe where they are interesting because they are of an interesting place. The place, in turn, is interesting because you can take interesting photographs there. This is a lot like how Kim Kardashian is interesting. Nobody outside that little photographer bubble would give a damn about these things, and I don't think they're even supposed to. I don't think Kevin gives a damn what non-photographers think, non-photographers notoriously have no idea what a good photo looks like. Also, he mainly wants to sell workshops teaching people how to make more pocket-universe content.

I can't make up my mind if it's good or bad. I suspect that it's neither. Inside the bubble, Kevin's work is probably good. I find he overuses perspective correction a little.

I'm coming to the conclusion that most "serious photography" exists entirely inside this bubble of photography. Cameras are sold and bought, workshops are sold and taken. Photos are shot and critiqued and admired (or panned). Non-photographers are more or less deliberately excluded, because they say annoying things like "this is just a bunch of abandoned industrial shit, it doesn't go with my couch, and what the hell are the models doing there?"

This isn't a bad thing or a good thing. It's just a bubble thing.

Outside the bubble, where people live, it's just irrelevant.

Friday, August 28, 2015


For 150 years, cameras were basically luxury items. If you made a business of taking pictures somehow you could make it a business expense, but for the rest of us cameras were purchased with surplus money, and generally for pleasure.

They were a luxury item. Some were modest luxuries, others rather immodest. The immodest ones remain with us, less modest than ever.

At the other end, though, it's interesting.

An argument can be made that a cell phone is not a luxury in our modern world. You've got to be able to communicate to participate in the economy, and cell phones are, globally, the answer. People who live in tents and herd goats for a living, have cell phones. The very poorest in the world do not, but the wealthier half do. Everyone who is not locked in a daily pitched battle to acquire enough calories to make it to tomorrow has a cell phone.

This means they have cameras. And, frequently, some way to share pictures. They might not have an iPhone, it might be some minimalist feature phone, or a very cheap smartphone. But they can take a picture and send it to a friend. Maybe they can even stick it on Facebook.

The ability to take a picture has changed. It's now wrapped in with one of life's necessities. It is not merely ubiquity, it's more than that. It's a fundamental change in access, you no longer need to desire to take photos, you no longer need to have surplus money. The ability to take and share pictures is essentially built-in to the basics of life anywhere above dire poverty.

It seems to me that this must have some sort of consequences.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Just to plant the seed, since I'm much too busy to make any headway even on my own work -- but some day that will change.

I make little books, I stick my pictures in them, etc. If you've read for any length of time you know the drill. Some day, say some time within a year, I'll probably have enough time to collaborate with someone or several someones. And, I would like to do that. Not to work too far outside our comfort zones, but a little bit.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you're probably a bit of a weirdo. Maybe even my kind of weirdo.

Think it over. If it sounds like something you'd like to talk about, drop me a line. amolitor at molitor dash design dot com will reach me. I might wind up introducing some of you nice people to one another and stepping back, too.

Anyways. Collaborative projects. Think about it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It is the Golden Age of the Camera ...

... Review.

Cameras are all amazing these days, which frees the reviewer to write whatever he likes. (Are there any female camera reviewers out there?).

If you want to write a negative review, you complain that the menus are laid out illogically, or that the wheel on the bottom left of the camera cannot be programmed to select which of the 17 exposure modes (all of which are smarter than you) to use for the next shot. You complain that the shutter button doesn't feel solid. You have to complain about little shit, because the important stuff is all awesome but luckily there's a lot of little shit, and with some practice you can make it sound important. (even menu layouts, I promise.)

If you want to write a positive review, you point it at a cell phone tower miles away and point out that it resolves a lot of detail, and you gloss over all those ugly details about how you can't program that one wheel.

Do you want to position yourself as an Ultimate Image Quality guy? Great news, every camera delivers Ultimate Image Quality, and you can talk about how to squeeze the best out of this camera (buy an insanely expensive lens, use a tripod, but then you can go on about how to turn off image stabilization or something to make it sound like you're contributing something). Toss in some test shots that show us nothing, and you're done.

The reason all reviews seem to be simply a regurgitation of specs with a slight gloss of personal experience is that there's literally nothing to say. The specs are the specs, and the camera is superb. Yes, it'll take the pictures you want. The only things that matter are whether it has a plug for this whatsit, or that. If you need to plug a whatsit in, make sure to buy a camera with a whatsit plug.


So reviews become purely about marketing the reviewer. Are you a thoughtful and honest blogger? Than slag most everything to prove that you're not carrying water for the manufacturers. Of course, "slagging" is going to come down to stupid trivialities, because the cameras are universally amazing. Do you want to get invited on press junkets? Positive reviews, my friend, positive reviews (and you can even be honest, because the cameras are amazing.) Don't forget to slip in a few minor gripes to keep up the veritas.

I'm going to make a specific and singleton exception for Kirk Tuck here. He actually uses the thing, which is a nice change of pace, he tends not do follow the formula, and he will actually tell you about the whatsit plugs and why they are or are not, important to him. An actual working professional has a lot of whatsits to plug in, and whatsit plugs are actually important. Plus which, he doesn't try to rationalize his love or non-love for a piece of gear with a bunch of technical BS. Love is OK, love is great, just don't try to tell me it's because the buttons are the wrong shape.

Givin' it Away

A not-rare theme in photographic discussion on the internets is "this one dude wants to use my image for free, haw haw haw" and "how much should I charge for my images?" (it's always images, not pictures). The discussion then rollicks along a bit with wiser heads explaining that you need to charge or people will devalue your work, and then there's some hand-wringing about how the industry is getting trashed by the hordes of photographers who don't understand that they're part of a cartel and need to charge a lot.

The common theme here is that virtually everyone taking part in the discussion will routinely share photographs online. In at least one and usually several venues.

When you share a picture, you're allowing someone else to use it for free. No, not the guy who downloads it and uses it in a flyer. You're letting flickr, or 500px, or your favorite forum use it absolutely free of charge. They're selling ads against your content, and you're not gettin' paid.

You poor dumb sucker.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Digital Culture, Digital Photography

You may not know this, but the web didn't have pictures at one point, and they were shoehorned in, in a deeply stupid way, by Marc Andreessen with the <img> tag. The rest, as they say, is history. I think a strong argument could be made that the web as we know it would not have "won" without pictures. It was not at the time clear that gopher was not the correct answer, for instance. Gopher seemed to be better at actually accessing information, which is what we all imagined the web would be for. I use "we" on purpose, I was there, and I thought this "web" thing was stupid and an engineering horror. I still do, and it is objectively an engineering horror.

With a way to put pictures on a web page (be it with a stupidly designed thing like <img> or a better design) the web became in that instant and in a small way about entertainment. It became more than a way to organize and access information, it became a Medium, in the sense of Media. At that point it became perhaps inevitable that it would wind up an advertising-driven eyeball chase, with ever more outre content, and ever decreasing cycle times.

Now, of course, we have vanishingly small cycle times. Trends and fads come and go in, quite literally, hours.

Pictures and videos are now the dominant "viral" objects, small, easily digestible bits of material with a strong visual component. People used to fax, and then email, jokes and lists and fake letters to the president to one another. That still happens, but mostly we share pictures, pictures with funny captions, and short video clips.

Is a viral photograph just an iconic photograph that lives in an medium with a 4 hour memory? Certainly some viral content enters the lexicon, as it were, and becomes something dredged up regularly as an ironic comment, or becomes enshrined as a local in-joke on a forum or in a game. Are those things some sort of "iconic-lite" in our new web based world?

It is perhaps telling that one of the many clickbait listicles currently in rotation on the internet, as I write these lines, is "The Ten Most Iconic Photographs Ever Taken" which does indeed include a few iconic ones. Obviously it's still a lazily tossed together listicle intended to pull clicks for a few hours or a few days, but it's made out of the real stuff. We're currently recycling actual iconic photographs into potshots at "going viral", the modern short-term iconic. A 4 hour icon made out of 100 year icons. Weird.

Anyways, where am I going?

Photographs are the perfect raw material for the new ultra-fast cycle. We consume a photograph in a moment. It's not linear and tedious, like text, with the variable reading speeds across the population. It doesn't require time to watch. We glance, we apprehend, we're done. Mission accomplished. The media is consumed, and the viewer can get on with the all important task of being advertised at.

The photograph, the still image, be it viral or no, be it the teaser image for a video or a genuine photograph, is what causes the scrolling to pause on a social media site. We scroll looking for something written by an actual friend, pausing only when a still image or a noteworthy name catches our eye. The digital camera, usually in the phone, enables the constant production of the scroll-pausing still image. It is the fundamental tool for capturing the attention of our friends, our acquaintances, our target markets. The picture has long been the basis of advertising but now we are, essentially, constantly advertising to our own friends and family.

Without the digital camera, the modern digital life would arguably make no sense. We'd be doing something quite different with our time. While the photograph isn't the entirety of the web, the mobile app, the social/digital life, it is arguably an integral driving force.

So there's the vernacular photograph, the foundation of digital life.

Oddly enough it doesn't seem to have destroyed Art. Museum attendance doesn't seem to be diving. People are printing more than ever (less as a percentage of pictures taken, natch, but more than ever in absolute numbers). And, of course, we have as pretty much as many sad little men grinding out Serious Photographs of bugs or landscapes or street or whatever on all the photography sites. There are signs that might be dipping some day, but that may be just wishful thinking.

The interesting trend here is the social media one, in which more and more of our time is spent farting around clicking wildly at the web, in an app. There's no law that says civilization has to survive this. And when the survivors are clothed largely in mud, and eating cockroaches to survive, we'll have the digital camera to thank for it all.

Kodak was right!

Ming Thein's Email School

In May of 2012 we find a blog post from Ming plugging his $800 email mentorship program. At that time he'd had more than 150 students. The program was open ended. Take all the time you like.

Yesterday or thereabouts we see a new plug. Same price. A one year limit has been introduced. And more than 200 students in total, with 50 still working through it.

If I read this right, in the last three years and change he's signed up about 50 new students and currently has 50 students in the pipeline. No wonder he's introduced the one year limit.

Had he been running this program for 15 years? Was there a huge pop early on? Does he just have a long tail of foot dragging students signed up from before the one year limit?

All these things are possible. But they're not the most likely explanation!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Transparency, Thein Style

So Ming has this concept of transparency. The idea of total immersion in a print, creating the sensation of looking through a window. More or less.

Set aside the obvious fact that this is a clever gimmick to allow him to nerd out about resolution and color management and all the other bullshit so beloved of the gear head, all while pretending it's about Art. Let's take it at face value, and evaluate the idea on its own merits.

There is flatly no way your visual cortex is fooled by a print for more than a few milliseconds. There are too many visual cues that you're looking at a flat object, with unrealistic colors. The objects refuse to move relative to one another when your head moves. The colors refuse to fluoresce and the light is all wrong. The scene is clearly static. The leaves do not stir in the breeze. And on and on.

It takes but a moment's thought to see that the idea of literal transparency, of a literal sensation of being there, is a chimera. It's not going to happen. Promoting is as a possibility, if only we apply enough money and technique, is disingenuous at best.

What can be done? One can use what one has to recreate in some ways the sensation of being there. You can't do it literally, obviously, but perhaps you can create a similar impression.

Hey, that's a nice word. Impression. Weren't there some painters?

Yes. Yes there were. And virtually the first thing they discarded was the idea that endless depth of detail was a useful idea for their purposes. It's not. More detail simply drags you further in to an uncanny valley (Google it) with an unscalable far wall.

I dare say one could use immense quantities of detail and sharpness to create an Impression of busy-ness, to create a picture in which the Impression of great detail is the point. But trying to use great detail as a substitute for motion or smell is silly.

If you want to explore the idea of transparency in any useful way, you'd do 1000x better to study the impressionists for an hour than read the entirety of Ming Thein's ideas. He's simply barking up the wrong tree, because he can't shake his faith that simply throwing more money and more technology at any problem is the right answer.

P.H. Emerson had some ideas that aren't all bad (use tilts and swings to put everything but the subject a trifle out of focus, for example). You can use softness or deliberate blurs to recreate the impression of motion. Not to look like motion, but to suggest it, to remind you of motion. You can fool around with color a lot. Rather than try to reproduce the literal colors, use a riot of pigments to suggest the riot of colors in that field of flowers. Etc. The impressionist gig is all about a sort of allegorical transparency.

In short: Discover and internalize the visual effects that are possible with the camera. Use whatever methods you like to work out, to guess, to divine, which effects are likely to produce the impressions you want. Then apply those effects.

Dump all a priori notions like 'well, first I must make sure I capture with plenty of resolution' or whatever. That is to place the cart before the horse.

Open your eyes. Think. Then, act.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Gallery-Industrial Complex

I don't know all that much about how the Art World works. But it seems to me that there are gatekeepers, gallerists who represent and promote artists. The "usual path" for an artist is to get a show in a minor gallery, maybe accept some representation, then move slowly on up through galleries and representation until whatever peak possible is achieved. Representation and Gallery Shows are, I think(?), loosely coupled, but not strictly.

There's a finite number of galleries out there. Every gallery needs to shift some artwork for some real money, to make rent. They're a business, with rent, staff, insurance, credit card processing fees, a marketing budget, blah blah blah. This means they all want, ideally, to maximize revenue and minimize overheads. This suggests fewer higher value artists, making as many saleable pieces as possible. As a general rule of thumb, within the confines of the kinds of clients and artists each gallery can attract.

I recently watched "What Remains" while on a business trip. It loosely follows Sally Mann's work on a large project about, basically, death. It's built around Battlefields, Body Farm, Faces, and some other things, I think. All up, she spent years working on this, and wound up with a high end gallery show in NYC. Except that the gallery cancelled it at the last minute, after she'd started packaging things to ship and so on. She'd shot the photos, made a bunch of very large prints, spent countless hours planning and arranging, and then the plug simply got pulled.

One of the finest and best respected living Artists on the planet got yanked, and was utterly crushed. The film shows her crying freely.

All is redeemed when she gets a museum show instead (which merely shows that someone in the museum world was mildly on the ball, as this was a monumentally important show).

Still, we see the endgame of more or less top-end Gallery-Industrial Complex (GIC) operations. Vast amounts of labor are expended. Years of full time effort and god knows how much expense, potentially up in smoke because the gallery needs to make a stack of money, and they realized belatedly that sales of enormous prints of dead bodies are likely to be low.

The GIC demands scale and tremendous amounts of work from the artist, but potentially gives back nothing. In return for your blood, sweat, and commitment, you get, um, nothing.

Eschew the GIC. Think small. Work, but not for the big score. Work for love, work small, for a small audience.

That's my thought, anyways. Probably sour grapes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Credit Where Credit Is Due

This is pretty good.

Strong compositions, if drawn from Ming's relatively narrow range. Which might be a strength? It makes the portfolio cohesive. Strong figure to ground relationships throughout. Nice uses of repeated shapes here and there.

More importantly, there's an actual idea, reasonably well rendered. The portfolio is on point and strong. It's got enough variety to be hold your interest, but every picture contributes and supports the theme.

The only really significant thing Ming could do is drop most of the text. The titles are terrible and distracting, and he doesn't need to explain the theme.

Now, if he didn't explain the idea, the theme, we'd still get it. Perhaps not quite in the same way, but wouldn't that be a good thing, rather than a bad thing?

I find the idea that the viewer gets to find something personal in the work very appealing. I never caption or write statements. You get a portfolio title, which is likely to be suggestive, and that's it. I admit to being on the laconic end of the spectrum, both philosophically and practically.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Think Small

Photographers, and I suppose all Artists, seem to be obsessed with "exposure". "How can I get my name out there?" they ask. "I want to sell prints," they say. They want to reach people. Well, of course. We all want to reach people, I suppose, to one degree or another.

As I've noted ad nauseum, and as everyone knows anyway, there's a lot of photographers out there. Rising above the mass is somewhere between hard and impossible.

But here's what I am doing, philosophically. I didn't invent it, I'm not even in the vanguard. But it's a thing. Think Small. What I mean is to envision how your art exists in a much smaller universe, a much smaller audience. There's a lot of really great art out there. There are a lot of supremely talented people making it. There's way way way too much for the traditional gallery-industrial complex to digest.

Sure, there are slums you can run around in and try to rise to the top of (flickr, etc, I've talked about those at... some length, let's just say, to be kind). If you read this blog regularly you probably don't want to mess with that, but if you do, well, it's more about social networking than pictures, so get networking.

You can go professional. It's a lot of work, but there's your audience. The clients are your audience. It's a small universe of people who like your work well enough to pay cash money for it. There's a lot of business work here, invoicing, driving, marketing, sales, etc. Maybe your thing, maybe not. Definitely not my thing, but it's well established that I'm a weirdo.

What else? Let's say that, like me, you fancy yourself a bit of an artist, but you don't see the need to make money at it? Suppose you decide to take my advice, and just try to reach a few people?

The easiest approach is to simply give people Art. Just give it to them. They will, in general, love it. You can leave it in the street for anyone to pick up, you can hand it to a stranger, you can hand it to a friend. Whatever. Congratulations, you just reached someone.

You can collaborate. You and two other artists make something, and create your own audience at the same time. Congratulations, you just reached two people, and you have some cool Art that you had a hand in, but which is more than that. Well done.

This is basically just the indie/DIY model that's been with us for a while now. 'zines. homemade albums. street art. street performance.

The thing is, don't be a lazy ass just because it's small. We've got plenty of idiots running around out there doing things badly.

If you're going to reach out and touch one person, one living breathing feeling human being in the middle of a life that began with birth, will end with death, and most likely will contain love and hate and terror and laughter and all the fullness of life, don't you owe it to yourself and that one person to give them the very best you can do?

It's not marketing, either. The goal isn't to generate the Big Break. The act is the goal.

Because, ultimately, fuck the MOMA, fuck the Guggenheim. If you can weasel a piece of Art into there, is anyone really going to care? Or will they just see it on the wall, and nod sagely knowing that the wisdom of the Curatorial Staff Has Decreed this good?

Hand a stranger a print, or a book, or some beautiful made object. No quid pro quo no nothing. "Here. I made this. Take it. It's yours." How much more powerful is that, than the same stranger looking at some incomprehensible installation in a museum or gallery?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Shoot Like Ming!

"How DOES he do it?" goes the refrain. I dunno how he does it, but I can spend 20 minutes pulling together some ideas and create a rough facsimile.

Original boring shot:

Same shot, Minged(tm):

The first thing to notice is the crow on the wire. This is basic stuff, I learned it embarrassingly late in life from an Adam Marelli video. Figure to Ground relationship. Dark crow on a light background. White seagull on a dark background. Silhouetted figure in a bright doorway. Dark-skinned man against a pale wall. White girl in a light coat against a dark doorway.

The second thing to note is that Mr. Thein always seems to get rich color, but doesn't oversaturate everything. My gimmick here is to saturate one band of colors (red, in this case) and desaturate globally to compensate. This gives rich reds but doesn't botch the whole thing.

The third thing to note is that, man, it pops. I used an Unsharp Mask of "large" radius. Your unsharp mask tool is probably going to default to a radius of 5 pixels, or something. Crank that up. Way up. Try 50, try 100, try 25. Also, pound on the "amount" quite a bit until you can really see the effect. Unsharp mask with a normal radius increases very local contrast, it makes the edges jump out. At large radiuses, the area of the local-contrast boost goes up. You get larger scale contrast boosts, which gives that punchy feel without mucking up the global contrast too much.

Learned that one from Ctein, who uses it in a less violent way to create film-like looks.

Edge burn. A gentle vignette that you can't even see unless you're looking for it, and even then it's subtle. (source: Ansel Adams) A thin black border, always chic (source: everyone). Presentation matters.

Put the subjects off-center, look for reflections, strong grids, and strong diagonals.

Done. Now you can shoot like Ming.

And it didn't cost you a thing.

But it's still got that swing.

Badda-badda bing.

On Workshops and Pedagogy

Occasionally, less and less as I interact with fewer and fewer people, I get grief for presuming to educate without sharing many of my own pictures. This is, I feel, a curious thing. What does it matter if I can take a good picture or not, if the point is me teaching you to take a good picture?

Consider the workshop-giver. Google "photography workshop" and click around to your heart's content. You should easily find, quite literally, 10,000 workshops available. Usually, it seems to me, you spend a couple thousand bucks to go to some photogenic place and to have your portfolio reviewed by... well by some guy who posts a lot of his own photos.

Imagine, if you will, Sally Mann rolling in to your average Fine Art Landscape workshop with her Southern Landscapes portfolio. Imagine, if you will, Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand rolling in to your average Street Photography workshop. Imagine, if you will, Andreas Gursky bringing 99 Cent II to Ming Thein. Just mull on that for a while. Of course, I selected the artists carefully. Ansel Adams would do fine in a contemporary Fine Art Landscape workshop portfolio review, and so on.

One of the things you do when you put your own work out there in the context of education is that you set the expectation in your own mind, and the mind of the students: I will teach you how to shoot this sort of thing. While all workshop givers go on about helping you find your own style, while they all imagine they're teaching photography in the broadest sense, while they feel they have some insight into helping you find your own vision, they betray the truth when they post their own work. They know how to do this thing, and they can help you do that same thing.

The results of workshops seem to bear this out. The before portfolios strike me as "some guy who shoots a bit like so-and-so" and the afters "some guy who shoots more like so-and-so." Given that so-and-so has so little to do and say that he's spending time giving workshops, that's kind of sad.

I am interested in process, in the way ideas evolve and get realized. I do one thing, I do another thing. What I do is completely irrelevant to your pictures. My pictures are not your pictures, and looking at my pictures as such, analyzing my pictures, will not help you one whit. Indeed, if I as the Teacher show you my work, I influence your idea of what you're supposed to be doing. You're paying me $2,000 or $10,000 or even $100. Your tendency is going to be to copy me.

Therefore, I try to teach how to find something to say, and how to develop the skill to say it.

If you really want to know how to shoot like me: set up your camera for black and white, think the saddest thing, and underexpose by 2 stops.

It's pretty simple, really.

Friday, August 14, 2015

I can confirm...

.. that the overwhelmingly positive and supportive tone of comments in Ming Thein's blog is due, in part, to Ming simply banning people who fail to toe the line. I've been polite, but not supportive, and find myself banned. Interestingly, it's silent. I post a comment, and everything happens as if the comment posted, but.. no comment. If they're going in to some sort of moderation box, they don't come out.

I assume I could simply use a different email address and "sneak through" but while I may be a raging egomaniac, I'm not quite that bad.

If It Looks Good...

I feel like there's often a disconnect between the picture and the gear. Ultimately, people want to make pictures that look good (whatever you mean by "good", that's up to you) and so they look for gear that would do that. They try to match specifications and methods and gear to their vision.

Somewhere along the way, the vision kind of gets lost, and people begin to wonder if they have the right gear, or if they've mastered the right techniques, and they stop looking so closely at the pictures.

It's as if photographers feel like there's more to the picture than what it looks like. If the picture had been made with a better lens, even if it looks the same, it would somehow be better. If I'd had another strobe to illuminate the whatsit, the picture would be better, even if it looked the same as when I just used a towel to bounce some light onto the whatsit.

The formula used to make a picture doesn't actually matter. What matters is what the picture looks like.

There isn't, ultimately, anything more to a picture than what it looks like. That's what it is.

If it looks good, it is good. Doesn't matter if you used a cheap lens.

Here's a caveat, though.

Perception is a construct of the mind. When a fellow spends $50,000 on a stereo, he can hear the difference, whether it's there or not. Doesn't matter if there's anything measurable. Doesn't matter if the differences are undetectable in blind testing. The point is that our fellow isn't doing blind testing. He spent $50,000 on the very best, and his brain is adding that to the construct it's creating of the sound. He can literally hear the money.

Same with photography. Buy an expensive lens, and you can literally see the money. Quite probably not in a blind test, but if you know which picture was made with the expensive lens, it will look better to you. Your brain will construct reasons why the picture is better, according to your expectations of the lens. If you think the lens is sharper, the picture will look sharper. If you think the colors should be better, they will look better. Your eyes can't see the differences, and in all likelihood there isn't one. But your brain is fully capable of filling in a difference for you, and it will. It's actually quite hard to stop the brain from doing this, which is why we have to actually measure, and do blind tests.

This can be good or bad. If you have money to spend on a hobby, you're going to get more pleasure from your pictures. Awesome. Money well spent.

See, for example, this essay from a while ago on this very blog: Photographers Lie Redux. This is not a very charitable piece. The charitable, and let us be blunt, more accurate way to talk about this phenomenon is that Ming Thein (and, I suppose, his Ultraprint customers) can see the money, and the effort. A quick objective inspection shows pretty clearly that there's nothing remarkable about Ultraprints, in reality, but I dare say they're quite amazing in the perception of a believer. If you believe, in short, Ultraprints may be excellent value. If you don't, you should probably just use MPix or the local shop.

If you're trying to sell pictures and make a living, this may be a bit trickier. On the one hand, in some cases you can tell your clients about the lenses, the lights, the whatevers, and they too will "see" the money. Not, however, in all cases. If your clients glaze over when you start talking about line pairs per millimeter and color temperature, you probably shouldn't have bought the Otus.

If you're trying to make pictures for a wider audience, an audience you cannot pre-prime with the pitch about the methods and the tools, you're not getting any of this stuff. You're stuck with how the picture looks, and literally nothing else. It behooves you, therefore, if you wish to reach an audience wider than yourself, to learn to see your own work without these beautiful veiling effects.

A healthy dose of cynicism helps. Using cheap gear helps, by removing expectations of awesomeness. Actually measuring and blind testing, from time to time, to counteract your lying brain, is probably helpful.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Standard Lenses

I don't much care about the whys and the details of this lens versus that. But since I went to the trouble of calling Ming out yet again, I got to thinking about it.

I shoot a little long almost all the time. Mainly because I love this one lens on this one camera, it's so damn fine, blah blah. But I can rationalize it by remarking that I print small, 6" to 12" on the diagonal, and I put prints in books which I read at 16" to 30", let's say. So "Standard" should be a bit long. It's perspective-accurate, more or less. That really means something like neutral, it doesn't feel weird, it just looks like a picture.

Project I'm fuckin' around with from time to time is about peering out, about hiding and looking out. A little claustrophobic, a little fearful. Turns out the 300mm lens on the crop body with some out of focus crap in the foreground more or less framing the view does a nice job here.

I can't manage wide. Too much crap in the frame, I don't know what to do with it. Same like color, I am just lost.

Anyways, my advice is to know what it looks like to use this lens or that lens, and then think about that when you're trying to figure out how to handle some idea. Don't spend a lot of time on "well, a wide lens emphasizes the foreground more" or whatever, just know what it looks like, and see if that helps to make sense of whatever you're trying to do. A wide lens, a long lens, a standard lens, they all can do 100 different things in terms of your pictures. A wide lens might emphasize this, or distort that, or it might not. The point is that it looks wide.

Well, This is Weird

Apparently people are reading this dumb blog. Not, you know, a LOT of people. But some.

Now I feel all self-conscious. Oh yeah, 500 posts the other day. Woot.


Ming Thein doesn't seem to know why a "standard lens" is that length (focal length roughly equal to the diagonal length of the frame): see The Fuss about Fifties, which suggests that he cannot even be bothered to look it up in Wikipedia. He's just going to use his big brain to think through why the conventional wisdom is wrong (wait, that's my schtick!!!).

Then he rattles on about optical design, just like he knows something about it. Hilarity ensues. He's obviously capable of looking up esoteric facts about specific lenses, which begs the question of why he cannot also look up the simple stuff.

What's odd is that the "standard lens" is the length at which, granted more or less the standard viewing distance from the print, "transparency" is achieved in terms of perspective. Isn't there some guy on the internet whose artistic vision is "transparency"?

This guy is the Ken Rockwell of.. the internet. I guess that makes him the second one. Maybe he's the KR of Art Photography or something.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On the Proper Ordering of Carts and Horses

Suppose you plan to take some pictures with a camera. One possibility is to conceive your idea, with all the visual details, all the photographic properties, clear in your mind. Then you can go and scour the earth for a camera that will accomplish that, ideally easily. The other end of this spectrum is to find a camera, perhaps one already in your closet, or if you prefer at some store. Go forth and practice with this camera, and see what can be done with it. Finally, conceive and shoot some pictures that the camera is capable of producing.

In the first case, the cart is well in front of the horse. In the second, the two are the right way 'round, but arguably the cart is rather too far back.

The point is that gear informs vision, and it should. This is, really, the entire thrust of my approach to photography and to teaching photography. Go shoot with the camera you have (don't "practice" endlessly, just go try it out). Look at the results, look at what the pictures look like. Then, use that as you struggle with your muse and try to find something to say. If you simply let it happen organically, the pictures you conceive will fit neatly into the pictures your camera can make. If it just won't happen, well, then maybe a gear change is in order, sure.

You can make beautiful pictures with anything. You can make interesting pictures with anything. You cannot make every possible interesting picture with every camera, but you can make some interesting pictures with any camera. Frankly, it's difficult enough to conceive an interesting photograph without having to contend with some infinite universe of possibility. You ought to welcome some limitations.

Sally Mann shoots this wet plate stuff, which has absurdly long exposure times, and often has all manner of weird artifacts. This has, clearly, shaped her vision of certain things. She's fully capable of shooting sharp, artifact-free photographs on film. She's done a lot of that. But she lets the wet plate methods shape her vision, and she flows with those visual ideas to produce some truly wonderful, amazing, things. So you're shooting wet plate, and the exposure is 6 minutes long. What can you shoot with that?

You've just got to work with what you've got, to develop an idea, or ideas, that work with what you've got.

Of course vision will ultimately shape your gear choices as well, but it should happen in an evolutionary and organic way. If you insist on buying a new system, with completely new visual properties, then in a way you're throwing out all that you knew about the one you're "upgrading" from. There will be similarities as well, of course, but if you insist on revolution then by definition the changes are quite radical and you are, to the degree that the changes are radical, starting out anew.

While I am not a commercial photographer, I submit that this isn't a bad approach for commercial work either. There are certain restrictions, of course. You have to be able to make pictures that are usable by your target market (perhaps that means sharp enough for print, or in color, or whatever) and you have to be able to make them in a way that suits your clients (a single-shot pinhole camera is unlikely to work for weddings). But if you have a vision that's sufficiently commercial to sell, then by definition you can sell it. If that vision is shaped in part by your equipment, so what? If you "upgrade" in a revolutionary way you're just going to have to start over, selling the new vision. "Yeah, I'm shooting large format now, and the pictures look totally different from the ones in my portfolio, but they're ever so sharp..."

The cart and the horse are fastened together. Each pulls on the other, and that is as it should be. But if the horse is not in front, you're not going to get anywhere.

If you don't let the gear shape the vision, to some degree, you're going to be locked in an eternal quest for the right gear. You're never going to find it, and if I catch you at it, I'm going to yell at you.

Photography is Easy

John Camp made a very simple but ultimately wise remark, elsewhere. He said, this may not be an exact quote, "Photography is easy".

It is. You don't have to muck about learning to weld, or how clay works, or how to use a chisel. You don't need to learn how to mix colors, or what the difference between painting wet on wet and wet on dry are, and all this technique so many of the other arts demand. You walk around a bit, you point the damn thing, and you press a button. It's just not that hard.

The trouble here, though, is that you cannot baffle people with your technique. You're gonna have to scrape up an idea, someplace, or at least something pretty to look at. An idea is probably better, in the long run.

It's just you and your muse, and you're buck naked. Go.

Of course, you can try to baffle people with your technique. You can rattle on about resolution and color this and Zeiss Otus that and ergonomics the other thing. But it's all just bullshit, and if you're doing it, you probably have a little nagging voice somewhere in the back of your head saying "you suck, better distract your audience with some bullshit about microcontrast or the ineffable look of medium format."

Ultimately, if you're paying attention, that microconstrast and the ineffable look of medium format don't mean a goddamned thing. Yeah, they're real effects, to some extent. You have to be a bit careful, and people do tend to fall headfirst into a sort of audiophile world of 1% science and 99% crap that's not real but still is very very expensive indeed. But what do they accomplish, in terms of the idea? Not one thing. Most people can't even see this stuff, not even the parts of it that are actually real, visible, effects. Most people will see your idea, if you deliver it with a blunt enough stick.

Our internets are awash in people who want to buy expensive shit, and fool around trying to wring the last erg of technical cocksucking out of their expensive shit. Then, because they know in their heart of hearts that they're barking up the wrong tree, they attempt to justify it in terms of the Art They Want To Make. "My vision", they will say, "my vision cannot be realized without the incredibly wide color gamut of the Phase One DICKSUCKER 1200" and then they show us pictures of Antarctica which is, let us review, pretty much white. With occasional penguins (black).

These people are trying to complexify a simple task, and they are doing it because they are laboring under a 100-year-dead idea that Art has something to do with Hard To Do. Suffering under this idea from the Victorian Stone Age, they feel the need to show that photography too has tons of hard technique in it, just like carving in marble, or ballet, and that therefore their work is Art.

Wake up and smell the Duchamp, sheeple!

Art doesn't have to be technically hard. Photography is easy. Ideas are hard.

Go scrape up an idea, point your camera (whatever it is) and press the button. You may whisper "click" as you do so. It's ok.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Just How Fictional is Ming Thein?

I gotta say, this post just keeps delivering the joy. There's always some new loser jackhole fanboy strolling by, years later, to holler at me. 11/6/18.

Greetings, new readers. Please note that this piece was published in 2015, some years ago. Some changes in what is verifiable, what sources are still live on the web, and so on, is to be expected. I stand by my general position that Mr. Thein has tended, at least at times, to at least exaggerate some aspects of his careers. Still, this piece exists more as a historical note than anything resembling contemporary analysis.

Update, Oct 2018. Ming has recently posted these remarks on his experience as a senior Strategist at Hasselblad. To be quite blunt, these are not the kind of remarks that would be made by anyone with any genuine corporate experienceof any kind. They display an almost incredible naivete regarding how corporations work, as well as being extremely unprofessional. This is not a former executive. Not a real one, anyways. He may have had a few sham roles here and there, but he's never actually worked with other people in any meaningful way.

In my estimation, these are the remarks of a spoiled little rich kid who's played at various roles, but never actually done anything.

End of Update.

If you're just here to hate-read this post, here's a few other items for your angry misreading pleasure: one, two, three

I've also said some nice things about your hero, but I leave them for you to find.

---- Original post from 2015 with updates from that time period begins here ---

Based on some new information, I've made a few updates, in bold. Ming is, at least partially, fact and not fiction.

Within my recent memory, I've seen posts and comments from Mr. Thein indicating that he had a hard time selling his Ultraprints because he doesn't know any rich people, that the market for professional photography in Malaysia is terrible, that he's up to his neck in work and his clients demand the highest quality, some clients want Ultraprints.

Well, I suppose if you squint it's not necessarily inconsistent? How does he not know any rich people, wasn't he in Private Equity? Anyways, I decided to spend a little time digging deeper. I know, I know, not super healthy.

A caveat: I didn't spend all that much time checking up on these things. It's perfectly possible that on the next page of google results it was revealed that I am wrong. It's perfectly possible that Ming's blog has tons of client photos, if you go back one page further than I did. And so on.

Ming Thein's reputation is of a boy wonder, graduated from Oxford at 16 with a Master's degree in physics. A career in finance or business, about 10 years long, retiring in his mid-twenties to pursue his passion, photography. Now a successful commercial photographer, teaching and blogging in his time between gigs.

The degree(s) from Oxford. Oxford is wonderfully tight-lipped about its graduates, You need written permission from the student to verify much of anything. I don't know if this is a British thing or an Oxford thing, but it certainly places "graduated from Oxford" into the category of uncheckable claims. The Master's degree, though. University libraries, it turns out, hold graduate theses in the collections. Dig up the Bodleian Library catalog at Oxford and type in "physics thesis" for instance, and you'll find a bunch of theses in physics for people who got an M.Sc.

The search for "thein thesis" turns up nothing that could represent a Master's thesis from Ming.

Perhaps Ming only got an undergraduate degree at Oxford, although he has claimed a Master's in at least one interview (link below). Maybe he never wrote a thesis, somehow? Maybe they lost his thesis.

Per comments below, Ming did attend Oxford starting in 2001, which fits with his timeline, sort of.

Business career. Apparently he spent two years in "audit" whatever that is (ages 16-18, about 2004-2006) then three years management consulting (ages 18-21, 2006-2009) than launched a hedge fund which was too stressful (ages 21-23, 2009-2009, the dates here are vague) and then tried freelance photography in London. Then worked for two funds (head of m&a in Asia), and McDonald's (director) in short order at the age of 24-25-ish. (All dates estimated from this interview.) That sure seems like an improbable career for a chap who's educated as a Cosmologist. Not impossible, for a boy genuis who got a Master's at age 16, but then where's the thesis? Also, note, pretty much un-checkable.

Working backwards from the economic meltdown cited in the linked interview, I'm having trouble fitting a 3 year career at Oxford, starting in 2001 and finishing up in 2004 into this. Even compressing the pre-hedge fund career into 4 years (2+3 can equal four, with rounding, after all), I'm still into late 2008 for launching a hedge fund which then tanks.. immediately? Which is certainly would have, late 2008 was a blood bath for hedge funds. Very few were launching and tons were closing up shop. A year or less later Ming's a PJ in London. Possible, but tight.

Successful commercial photographer. Ming doesn't seem to share any client work. There's some stuff from a few years ago in his portfolio that appears to be client work. Maybe Malaysian rules are stricter? Kirk Tuck frequently shows client work on his excellent blog, subject to certain restrictions. Also, compare the google results of "kirk tuck photo credit" with "ming thein photo credit". The latter turns up pages of Ming's blog and flickr, and a few friends pages, but I didn't stumble across a single thing that looked like paid work.

Ming posts something upwards of 20 pictures and 10,000 words a week on his web site. He makes videos teaching people how to shoot and process photos like his. He travels around the world doing workshops, occasionally. He has a family. He spent a bunch of time developing the Ultraprint process, and is, I suppose, constantly refining it.

When, exactly, is he doing this commercial photography gig? 20 personal photos a week, even not very good ones, represents a day or two's work, all by themselves. His writing is sloppy, but it still takes time. He clearly spends several hours a week replying to comments on his blog (count the comments, look at the timestamps).

So we have a narrative that Ming promotes, which appears to be entirely un-checkable, and where checks can be made, the checks come up empty. Are red flags going up, yet?

What about an alternate narrative?

This one probably isn't right either, but let it serve as the other end of a spectrum, with truth, as usual, somewhere in the middle.

Suppose we do not have a boy wonder, but rather a relatively ordinary boy of the same age, with some wealth. Packed off to college around age 18, in about 2004 or 2005, spent 4 or 5 years doing the usual thing. Got a camera somewhere in there. Gets married about the time he stops going to school. Around 2007 to 2009 starts to get more serious about photography. Buys gear, works away at stuff, and after a bit starts to think he's really quite good. Maybe he even gets some commercial work.

He learns the power of popping the local contrast, and starts to post soulless pictures of bullshit on flickr, plays his social media cards right, and gets himself a following.

He writes about the trials of the commercial photographer, based on what he reads in other places for the most part, while simultaneously claiming to be extremely successful himself. He writes about the extreme technical challenges his clients force upon him (and of course how he rises to those challenges). He writes that his clients demand Ultraprints. Since he's made these clients up, they can do anything he finds convenient, including fund his Leica habit.

Now the vagueness and improbability of his business career make sense. The meteoric and uncheckable rise of the wunderkind, which resulted in no rich friends who want to buy Ultraprints. The all-over-the-place career: analyst, consultant, executive, m&a specialist, all in a decade. These stories all make sense as a work of fiction, but are a bit hard to swallow as fact.

Now the obsession with technical details, sharpness, his vague artistic goal of "transparency" and his generally completely non-pragmatic mania for technical perfection make a lot more sense. A scientist, successful businessman, successful commercial photographer would normally have a pretty wide pragmatic streak. You just can't do any of those things without having a good sense of when to compromise. An independently wealthy gearhead, of the other hand, doesn't have to have a drop of pragmatism in him.

I'm just sayin'.

In reality, perhaps we have a relatively ordinary boy, the scion of some wealth. Goes off to Oxford at a young age, does.. some things there. Works in the family business after that doing investment sorts of things under the direction of Uncle Someone-or-other. Then leaves the biz to go be a dilettante, as wealthy scions sometimes do. Does a little commercial work now and then. Inflates almost all aspects of his story a little bit or a lot, but everything is basically based on something true.

It doesn't matter, of course.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Developing a Personal Style

Here's another lightweight piece from LuLa, which is basically plugging some guy's workshops.

I'm gonna take a look at it, and then use it as a jumping off point for a little discussion.

So we start with the usual blather about three stages of whatever the hell, and some crap about how using the camera becomes natural, melding with the eye(?) or something. This is pretty much boilerplate.

When we get on to stage three, the photographic adult, we finally start to talk about this chimera, the "personal style" and how to get one:
  • Shoot what inspires you. This will keep you motivated, and it will "shine through" in the images Whatever that means.
  • Shoot a lot and analyze the results (how? what analysis?)
  • Embrace the failures, step outside your comfort zone, learn from your mistakes.
  • Get feedback and critique. From regular folks, from a club, or from someone who's offering a workshop.
  • ... but be careful and don't start shooting just to please people
  • Look at lots of photographs.
  • Cross-train. Learn methods from areas of photography outside your area of interest.

This is all very nice, and about half of it is actual actionable stuff that might help. The other half is bullshit that might as well be about management consulting or tennis, it's glib, empty, pseudo-inspirational blather.

Nowhere do we learn what a personal style is, or how to develop one. None of this stuff is really harmful, a lot of it is helpful, but his thesis appears to be that a personal style, whatever it is, will simply emerge by screwing around a lot. The author's personal style appears to me to strongly resemble popular cliche.

So what IS a style? Let alone a personal one.

It cannot be anything except a set of photographic choices, made the same way across multiple pictures. There's literally nothing else. See, for instance, this essay, and this one.

What's a personal style, then? Presumably it is a style that you make consistently for all your pictures. For some people it seems to mean "I always screw on a Lee Big Stopper, and take incredibly long exposures" or "I mute the colors slightly and bang on the local constrast a lot." They might not be interesting or unique, but they're sure as heck some choices.

Why would we want one of these things? I think there's an analogy with painting. We want our pictures to be identifiable as ours, we want that cool Art cachet, we want to stand out from the crowd. It ain't gonna happen, of course, there's too many photographers. Someone's gonna cook up a style a lot like yours and they're going to market themselves better, and that's that. Standing out from the crowd has nothing to do with style and everything to do with marketing yourself. Just tell people that these pictures reflect your personal style, it doesn't matter if you have one or not.

Painters, I think, have "personal styles" for a couple of reasons. First of all, they may be the only member of their school that became famous. The current pigments, the current ideas of how to draw faces, all that stuff, might have been all over back in the day, but now it's just da Vinci. Second of all, painting is jolly slow work, and it's pretty hard to learn. "Why do I paint a buckle like that?" "Well, it looks like a buckle, doesn't it? It took me all day to work out that method, why would I waste another day just to have a second way to paint a buckle?"

We're not saddled with this in photography. We can create a new style as easy as pie, simply by making some different choices. Unscrew the Lee Big Stopper, set the camera to Vivid, and shove a vignette on everything. Lo, another style.

The point of a style isn't that it identifies you, anyways. The point of a style is that it serves the material. Vermeer could never have painted The Last Supper, because his damned window would never have lit all the dudes up. His style constrained him to pretty narrow subject matter. His strength was not that his personal style was sooooo awesome, it was that he found things to paint that looked good under that style.

We can change our style to fit whatever we're doing, in but a moment. Arguably making those choices is what photography is all about. There's no brushwork. It's not like we have special skill in mixing colors. We're just making good photographic choices and, as a mass of choices, this comes out to selecting or creating a good style for the work at hand. If you have a personal style, arguably, you're all finished. The creative act inherent in photography is all wrapped up for you, you're just churning out the same things over and over.

Make your photographic choices again and again. Make good choices.

You don't need a "personal style", nobody does.

Friday, August 7, 2015


Time for another one of my more or less standard rants.

It's a common refrain on Photography Blogs and so on, that the camera you choose must be transparent. It has to be capable of being used without thought. You have to find the camera that fits you, that you can learn to work with in this way.

The obvious problem is that this is false. There's tons of photographs that can and are made while swearing loudly at the camera.

The less obvious problem is this: the conventional wisdom is that most cameras are too poorly set up, and the problems are too complex; you have to find that right magical camera that will somehow, magically, just feel right, and then you'll be able to just use it without thinking. The conventional wisdom is just wrong.

Here's a fucking tip: If you're still struggling to get your camera to behave, you're not practicing with it enough. Damn near any task can become unconscious if you're willing to work at it. If you have a dozen cameras and keep dragging all of them out, don't be too surprised when they're all kind of mysterious and cantankerous. The problem ain't the cameras, though, it's you. Pick one. Any one.

People can and do learn to heel-and-toe a manual transmission automobile. Don't worry about what it is, or look it up.

In this move, you simultaneously manage all three pedals on the floor (with two feet), while steering with one hand and shifting with the other. Five controls, all inter-related, all simultaneously. You're integrating all the usual sensory inputs related to driving to keep the car on the road, between the lines, without hitting anyone. You're also listening to engine pitch, considering your speed, and the impending gear shift, and putting that together with the previous stuff. Simultaneously, and usually at a pretty brisk pace. If you fuck any of it up too too badly, you might die.

People learn to do this well enough that they literally don't think about any of it, and instead enjoy the pleasure of coming out of a curve under full power, VROOOOOM. Whee!

This is way more complicated than anything to do with cameras, and with practice it becomes completely automatic. And, amazingly, it does not require the purchase of dozens of cars in order to find the one that has the right spacing between brake and accelerator to make it all fall together. Learn how to do it, and you can pretty much just do it on most cars with a little practice.

You can probably manage to focus AND adjust aperture at the same time, even if one of the control wheels is a little too nubbly or whatever the hell your problem is. Just work at it a bit.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

At That Rate...

An inherent problem with being an internet-famous photographer is the rate at which you have to churn out new work. This is always one of the more daunting obstacles to my occasional plans to go scam the plebes on Flickr or wherever.

If you're internet-famous, or want to be, you've gotta have a feed. Whether you're posting on Flickr or Instagram, or on some forums, or on your own blog, new content is king. If you're just putting out a new portfolio of six pictures every few months, it doesn't matter how many people you follow. You have to generate, at a minimum, a couple new pictures a week. Better if you can do a little group of three or four about every two days.

The is absolutely opposed to being serious. Nobody has new ideas at that rate. Therefore you are pumping out more or less the same ideas, or no ideas at all.

The best you could do, in terms of being serious, is to continuously share out work in progress. Ideas as they evolve, half finished, half baked work, tossed out there at the most vulnerable moment. This is the time when you're groping for the final form, trying to find the ultimate expression, or at any rate your best try at it. This is probably not the best time to let the masses start helping out, unless you're after some crazy internet/collaboration thing.

Commercial and retail people do a lot better here, by there way. They're grinding out the same ideas over and over, but that's kind of the job. And then they can talk about the gear they're using, and the new gear they're gonna buy, and so on. It totally works, there.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Two Ways Of Life

(I am being cute in the title. Google it if you want to learn a little history of photography)

There are people, lots and lots of them, who are trying to technique, to gear, and to think their way to great photos. They treat it as a rational process. A problem to be solved with methods, tools, and thinking. Ming Thein's recent photo essay on trees is a great example. He's trying really really hard. He's got the gear. He's got the theory. He's even got some ideas. They are essentially rational ideas, ideas that he can express in words and then attempt to execute as-is. I think. I mean, he could be just twitting us, but let's be charitable.

Then there are people, often people who have just picked up the camera, who want to just feel their way to greatness. Perhaps their natural talent and freakishly sensitive depth of feeling will show them the way.

Both, of course, are wrong.

You need, of course, both. I advocate for more-or-less infinite use of thinking and skull-sweat, rational methods to an absurd degree, but even I know that's not the whole answer. It's just something to do while the real answer is in process.

Thinking about things, practicing, looking at pictures, even buying and owning gear, all this can be worthwhile. It creates a fertile ground in which your inspirations can grow. But ultimately, some non-verbal part of you is going to have to grind out something visual you can use. A visual ideas that expresses, here and now, what you want to say. Perhaps your id merely makes as affirmative grunt to some idea you're consciously tried out.

Still, that non verbal part has to get involved, otherwise you're just shooting what you can verbalize, and then, well, why not write an essay? Words are a marvelously efficient way to express verbal things. If you can think your way through to it, then so can someone else. That is, arguably, the entire point of rational processes -- someone else can arrive at the same answer with the same methods.

Rational processes are marvelous for science and engineering, where being able to agree on truth is of some importance. They are arguably anathema to Art, where the point is something about new truths, personal truths, truths which shift and change as you absorb them.

Monday, August 3, 2015


Is Ming just screwing with us here?

Vernacular Photography, Again

Another way to think of the difference between snapshots intended to reach across time, and snapshots intended to reach across social connections, is this.

In the film era, the snapshot was supposed to reach across time. It was a tool to trigger memory, "Remember that trip to Disneyland?" and as such is filled with temporal and spatial references. The pictures from Disneyland contain The Mouse, and The Castle. They are recognizable, more or less instantly, as "us, in Disneyland." They would make no sense without the specific objects which tie the photograph to that event, that time.

Pictures from Christmas inevitably contain the Tree, birthdays have Cake, and so on.

These days we get a lot, a LOT, of photographs with no such things. A picture of a latte is useless as a spur to memory, I've drunk a lot of lattes in my life. A picture of me at a party is useless as a spur to memory, I've been to a lot of parties.

As a tool to tell my friends "I am drinking a latte right now, and it is delicious" a picture of a latte is marvelous, however. It neatly encapsulates the moment in an instantly apprehensible object.

In this light, I am being very unfair to the photographic-safari people. These people are generally taking pictures that are rife with objects that anchor the photo to a place and time. They are excellent spurs to memory, in general, and as such could well serve to reach across time to a future self. And, indeed, I am certain they do serve this function. The wealthy gents who take these things, no doubt haul them out 10 years hence and recall their trip to Africa.

Still, I continue to hold that the primary function of the pictures is social signaling in the here-and-now. The pictures exist to say "nice latte, but I was in Africa."

Sally Mann argues that photographs destroy memory, and I am inclined to agree. But she is referring, I think, to the photos that we use as spurs to memory. The photos from Disneyland become our memory of Disneyland, the photos of Dad become our memory of Dad. I'm not sure what the photos of lunch, parties, and lattes do. I already don't remember those things specifically. I think we generally remember those things mostly as categories rather than specific instances.

Does the line between the category of things, and the category of photographs of the things, get blurred? If you're in the habit of photographing your latte, when is your idea of "a latte"? Do you think of an actual latte, or is what floats to mind an instagram photo of a latte? I don't habitually photograph my drinks, but maybe I should start.