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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Future of Photography (Again)

I've written a bunch of stuff, speculating about where we're going. Here, for instance, and also here. They're kind of optimistic essays, about where we might be able to go.

Let me now look in my other crystal ball. The black one. The one filled with despair.

Ultimately I think a strong argument can be made that any really cool new things in photography are going to be software driven. Photography is digital, it's all software now. Anything really cool and innovative therefore depends on someone writing some software. Software that's not trivial and stupid.

I happen to work in a segment of that industry which gives me good visibility, and I can tell you that virtually all software being written today is being written by incompetents who go to heroic efforts to accomplish trivialities. The apps on your phone get slower, bigger, and buggier, don't they? But in return you get all these cool new... No wait. The new version basically does the same thing as the old one. Maybe less. But boy it sure looks different! And my phone is now hot enough to cook on!

Ain't looking good for any radical innovation that solves some hard problems and pushes photography to somewhere new and amazing.

So what could happen?

Consider the art of writing. For 1000 years we had the art of the illuminated manuscript. These were awesome. Writing was special, it was hard. We only wrote things out that were important. Because they were important, we took the time to make the manuscript beautiful. Then it kind of got out of hand and the illuminations started to get done for the sake of the illuminations. There ensued a sort of decadent period in which there was a moderately brisk market for these things, but they were still incredibly beautiful, special.

Then the sea change. The nobility learned to read and to write. Then the merchants did too. And then there came the printing press, and ever more literacy. More or less.

Now writing, and the printed word, is everywhere. It is absolutely universal. We live in a constant flow of words. You're wallowing in some right now.

And where is the illuminated manuscript?

Does this sound familiar? I don't claim that this is anything like a perfect analogy, just a kind of example of the way things can change when they transition from hard-and-relatively-rare to easy-and-common.

Now that words on paper is a universal thing, and anyone can put words on to paper, they're not special any more.

More to the point, we value words for their content, for what they say, but not for how they look. It's possible that ubiquitous photography will cause us to value photographs in some wildly different way than we do now. Possibly, for their content, but not the way they look.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film vs. Digital

I'm going to start somewhere odd. Bear with with me. Or not. Your choice.

The ecology of the planet is complex. Like, ridiculously complex. There are vastly long looping chains of causality all through it. Arguably it is entirely composed of vast looping chains of causality.

There was a time when we were pretty sure we had a handle on it. We thought we'd be able to control and manage it, run it on scientific principles to the greater benefit of man. Then Rachel Carson and DDT happened (as well as a bunch of other similar people and events). Turns out that when you knock back some bugs all the goddamned eagles die. Say what?!! Then some math geeks started talking about chaotic dynamical systems and we realized that we're pretty much stuck with unintended consequences and that we probably could lose the whole planet with a misstep.

The whole thing's pretty resilient, to be sure. It's really unlikely that losing all the apex predators is going to stop plants from photosynthesizing. But golly, if they do things are gonna get real ugly. What's alarming here isn't that it's all fragile -- it's not. What's alarming is that we have no way of measuring, a priori, how large of a change will be wrought by, well, but pretty much anything we do.

Anyways. The point here is that these complex systems have unpredictable behavior. Small changes of inputs can cause large and surprising changes in output.

Now, consider photography.

It's profoundly human, whatever it is, in this sense: show a photo of a tiger and an actual tiger to a human, to a horse, to a housefly. The latter two are not going to get much if any "tiger-ness" from the piece of paper, but they'll probably give some distinctly tiger or at least mammal related reaction to the real thing. The human however will identify many characteristics in common between the two objects. Also, some important differences. Along another axis we can consider the underlying reality of the photo versus a drawing and so on. All that stuff I have talked about now and then, and wiser heads have talked about for decades.

Taken in total it's reasonable to treat photographs as, essentially, objects which have meaning in the context of human psychology, neurology, and sociology. Outside the whole gestalt of humanity, they're just flat pieces of paper. Inside it, they're infernally complex, potent, fraught.

You know what the gestalt of human emotion, psychology, community, neurology, shared memory and experience, etc, is? Yep. It's probably a chaotic dynamical system. Endless looping chains of causality.

So we switch from film to digital.

This changes the details of the ways we work, which in turn changes who does photography. People have left the field simply because they can't reasonably work with film any more (F. Evans, the other Evans, famously left photography when platinum paper became commercially unavailable). Loads of other people have entered the field. The process by which we make pictures has changed, has become more accessible.

Also, the physicality has changed. There isn't a physical piece of film anywhere. Pictures today usually have no physical manifestation, existing, always, as a pattern of signals which need to be interpreted by software and rendered by some light emitting system before our eyes can grasp them. This is an interesting fact, but it's not instantly obvious what the impact of it might be. But it is certainly true.

There are probably other aspects that have changed. Seemingly trivial and unimportant, like the loss of the physical negative. Obviously monumental and paradigm-shifting, like ubiquitous camera ownership and photo sharing.

All this crap gets dumped into the chaotic dynamical system which is humanity and humanity's perception of, relationship with, the photographic image.

Anyone who claims that these changes are trivial, or even that they or can predict understand the consequences, is full of it. He's just not thinking, probably because he doesn't care. Most likely he doesn't care and doesn't think because he frickin' loves screwing around in photoshop, and is under the impression that the whole discussion is basically a personal attack, probably because he's worried that his penis is abnormally small.

It's early days yet, we've only had universally available digital cameras for a handful of years. What happens when a generation grows up to adulthood, starting from 2011? What does photography look like then?

It's not a bad bet that something so small we don't even notice it today is, 30 years from now, seen as easily the critical factor, the important fulcrum upon which turned the changes to.. whatever the new thing is.

In short, the "eh, it's all the same stuff, just more convenient, why look, they've been manipulating photos since the beginning!" crowd is a bunch of reductionist idiots (and I bet if you dig through the archives of this very blog, you will find that I too have worn the reductionist idiot hat!)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

More about Photos that look like Photos

Let's consider a couple ways to photograph people.

Consider the standard, what, about five light setup? Main, fill, hair, catchlight, background? Something like that. People look at these and say "how natural" when they are anything but. We do not after all live on Barsoom. This sort of setup does a bunch of technical stuff. I'm not an expert, but I think among the desirable things are: no deep detail-burying shadows, but adequate modeling for a nicely round look; good separation of the subject from the background; a nice lively twinkle in the eye.

But there's another thing you get out of that, a level removed. It looks done, it looks expensive, complete, finished. Well done, it feels like one of those living rooms with the cream-colored leather couch and the dried cattails in the perfect ceramic thingy in the corner, and the vase filled with balled up paper in just the right colors. Done. Designed and executed to all flow and fit together expensively, perfectly.

When the CEO has a good portrait done, the photographer will ideally get a beautiful perfect moment out of him, and then will insert it into this perfectly polished photographic trope, and it will look expensive and polished. Just the sort of image you want your CEO to project, most of the time.

And it is a deeply photographic idiom. Painters can accomplish all the technical details without introducing light sources - photographers cannot, because modifying light is pretty much the only thing we can do. Photo-graphy, light-drawing, that whole deal, right? So we end up with a pile of lights.

Consider another current approach to photographs of people. Dead-on flash, or perhaps slightly off-center. Yes yes Terry Richardson is an asshole. There's lots of people running around out there doing slight variations on the theme. In terms of all that technical niceness, the modeling, etc, it's a total bust. But it's still a deeply photographic look, one that arose out of the vernacular. These things are totally photos that look like photos and not even a little bit like anything else.

What's this look communicating?

Probably usually something about spontaneity? Unposed, natural, in the moment, hip, active? Stuff like this.

In both cases the associations we have with the style (polished/"done"/expensive, spontaneous/hip/natural) derive from the history we have with these pictures. We've seen a lot of million-light portraits, and we associate them with a certain kind of thing, where the subject is carefully posed and a great deal of care is being taken. We've seen a lot of on-camera-flash snapshots, and we associate them with spontaneity.

In both cases, photography has built its own set of associations. There's little or nothing "fundamental" about these things, it's simply that there's a long history, now, of photographs. We're steeped in them. We associate certain looks with certain things.

And thus the connection to Sally Mann and her dismal wet plate photographs, which look the way they do not through anything fundamental about vision or psychology, but largely because we know what old photos look like because we've seen some, and these look like old photos.

This, in turn, leads me to wonder how much of what we get out of a photograph is fundamental in the way our eyes and brains work, and how much is simply because we've seen a lot of photographs? There is a whole school of thought that wants to explain it all in terms of neurology and brain science. Eye leading, rules of composition, etc, etc. But it's clear, at least to me, that at least some of this stuff is learned simply by having a lot of photos thrust in front of our eyes.

Musical theorists used to (and I dare say still do) drone on about whatever the current theories of tonality are, and how they're deeply wired into the human brain. Except, apparently, for all those blokes in Africa and Asia who find western ideas of tonality weird. Turns out that practically all this stuff is learned, it's essentially a local, social, phenomenon.

This has worked out extremely well for music, because there is apparently always somewhere new to go. What has been learned can be unlearned, can be tweaked, can be built upon. If Bach's ideas of tonality had indeed proved to be hard-wired, the final word, music would be a lot less interesting today.

In some areas, it's working out OK for photography, too. Some of the most influential and important work being done today is blessedly "bad" photography being done by people who think, somewhere deep down, that their audience might be able to learn some new ways of seeing without being too harmed by the experience.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Photos that look like Photos

About 100 years ago, part of the backlash against Pictorialism and the subsequent rise of straight photography was a critic demanding, or suggesting, that photographers cease making pictures that look like paintings, and start making pictures that look like photographs.

What that meant then isn't perfectly clear, but it seems to have led in a fairly straight line to straight photography, Paul Strand and those chaps.

What it means today, after 100 years of photography, is interesting.

We now have a lot of notions of what a photograph can look like. There are variations on Olde Tyme photos, with wet plate work, sepia toning, faded colors, Polaroid-like after effects, and so on. Ironically, some of the most distinctly photographic work today is Sally Mann's. Working with wet plate, the photographness is right in your face. The fact that this is a corrupted, flawed, object which is first and foremost a photo, cannot be escaped. The subject matter comes second, albeit a very close second. It is integral to the work that these two things should be bound up together.

On the one hand, there is the inherent underlying reality of the thing that is the photograph. An otherwise dull field is the actual battlefield where thousands died in a day. The corrupted decaying feel of the wet plate frame, the flaws in it, the crinkles and damage incurred during processing, all these speak to and support the idea of the frame. As a painting, the picture would be just a field, It could be any field. As a modern digital photograph, sharp from front to back, with vibrant colors, well, it would be the right field but there would be no feel of nostalgia and loss. These things have to be photographs, and they have to be wet plate. Nothing else works.

They are photographs that look like photographs, as hard as a photograph can look like a photograph. And they are unabashedly pictorialist.

Take that, history!

Anyways. Photographs that look like photographs. Inside the bubble of camera-club/camera-forum/social-media bozos, vintage effects are largely eschewed. You must have IQ! You must have color-managed workflow! Blah blah blah. But these things miss out on a huge range of possibility. How are you going to convey a sense of nostalgia with your peppy ultra-sharp digital camera? How are you going to show us longing, loss? How can you hint and suggest when every detail is there to be seen if you jam your nose close enough to the screen? (Ok, OK, bokeh, sure. You got a second method? No? Ok then.)

To be sure, there are things wet plate doesn't do. It doesn't look happy. It doesn't express ebullience. There's where your peppy colors and razor sharp lenses come in. Also to express the dominance of the machine over man, there's a good idea for loads of IQ. And so on. You can write 'em yourself, all day long.

There's probably something great that can be done with ultra-digital blown highlights, with those nasty sharp edges and fjords of pure white where the sensor just went KRAKOW and recorded all 1s. Of course, you can't get away with that in the bubble either. Interesting, huh?

A photograph with distinctly photographic flaws, failures, and deterioration in it looks more like a photograph than anything else. It's more distinctly a photograph than a clean color balanced sharp "success" ever can be.

Somethin' to think on.

I Have Been Asked ...

I've been asked now, multiple times, why I "have it in" for Ming Thein.

The short answer is that I don't. A longer answer is given here. Ultimately, I get asked about Mr. Thein but not about Mr. Newhall because Beaumont Newhall doesn't have many fans on the internet with a personal investment in his ideas. Also, Mr. Newhall, being dead, isn't continuing to say dumb wrong-headed stuff, and finally Newhall doesn't use a carefully constructed personal narrative as an important part of his authority.

So my remarks on the gentlemen are different in shape and flavor, as are my remarks on the subject of several other fellows I think have infested our world with bad ideas.

But ultimately, it comes down to this:

People say stuff. Some of it is right, some is wrong, some is clever and some is dumb. There are people with outsized influence. Beaumont Newhall managed, somehow, to become the authority on the history of photography, and he managed to become, to some degree, the sole authority on who matters and who does not in that history. And he's wrong on several counts. Ming Thein has become positioned as an authority on several technical matters, and he's wrong about some of them. Michael Reichmann, Keven Raber, Lloyd Chambers, the list goes on.

It's not that any of these chaps are evil. They're human. Some of their ideas are better than others. Some of their ideas are really just prejudices dressed up as facts. Same as it ever was. I'm the same way.

But the influencers, these people with outsized weight in the eyes of the world, need to be questioned. When an influencer says something dumb, it is important that someone point it out. More precisely, when we think that something an influencer said is dumb (accepting that we might be the wrong one) we should point it out. Let the cage-match of ideas begin, and the best ideas win. The point is not that I am right and Reichmann is wrong. The point is that we should be examining these things critically. It is virtually the definition of an influencer that their ideas don't get examined critically, and this we need to fight against, always, in all walks of life.

You would think that the influential writers of today, working in media where this critical examination could take place in situ might allow it, but as a general rule, they do not. These people are, generally, not very interested in being examined. They're selling themselves, they're selling products, they're managing their brands. And so, they choose to interpret disagreement as personal attack, and then shut it down on that basis. I can think of at least two different examples off the top of my head where I have personal experience of this. I assume it's nearly universal. The cage match of ideas must happen, therefore, elsewhere.

Photography, especially the pedagogy of photography, is simply awash in stupid shit influential people and publications have trotted out. If only a few more people had stood up in the 1970s and said "this rule of thirds thing is stupid and wrong" then we wouldn't have to deal with it today, and the pictures on flickr would be measurably better than they are. A billion pictures have been damaged by a piece of shit that "Popular Mechanics" trotted out in 1970.

Down with the Man. Fight the Power.

But it is kind of fun to pick on Ming, gotta admit it.

ToP on Technique

If you don't read The Online Photographer daily, you should. If you still don't, you should at least read this piece.

As always, Mike speaks my innermost thoughts with 100x my eloquence and 1000x my manners.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Something to Ponder

Our sensorium is pretty good at stuff like identifying tigers. There's excellent reasons for this, mainly that being able to distinguish a tiger from a teapot is pretty handy when you're made out of meat. What's surprising and, on the face of it improbable, is that we can identify a photograph or drawing of a tiger. In fact we can identify a pretty poor drawing of a tiger.

I am not a mighty thinker to get this far. Plato was famously interested in it, and built a whole thing around some ideas about it, after all.

Be that as it may, a tiger probably can't identify a photograph of a human as representative of a human. And if it can, well, there's plenty of creatures who can't. There's a whole body of cognitive research classifying which monkeys can and which can't do this sort of task.

A couple of thoughts. Of course we'd develop visual arts that do tickle our sensorium in this way. A method of representing tigers that nobody can identify as such is pretty pointless. What is this welded together pile of melted crayons and paper? A tiger you say? Well, I'm afraid your Rafaelogram isn't very marketable.

Which suggests that there are hypothetical representations of things that make no sense to us, but to someone or something with a differently wired sensorium might well be as clear as a photograph is to us.

I am reminded of a conversation I had some time ago about cognitive development in children. Here is an experiment:

Place some chewing gum in a crayon box, and close it up. Ask a small child what's in the box, and she will say "crayons" most likely. Then show her that it is in fact chewing gum. Now ask her what her friend Tim thinks is in the box. She will, up until an astonishingly late age reply "chewing gum." It turns out that the ability to model the idea that someone else believes something you know to be false is quite a late development.

This sort of thing leads us naturally to a sort of exceptionalism for adults. "Ho, ho, ho" we say, "I'm sure glad I'm not dumb any more" but this is probably untrue. There are probably cognitive tasks we can't handle either. One imagines some hyper-intelligent aliens experimenting on some adult homo sapiens and giggling at the crazy shit this dumbass comes up with.

In the same way, we're probably equally limited in our understanding of representative art. We sort of think we've got it all figured out, but there are surely dimensions to the thing that don't exist to us not because they don't exist, but because we lack the cognitive machinery to imagine them.

So next time you run across some pictures that make no sense to you, keep this in mind. Maybe the artist is just nuts. Maybe it's your own limitations. Maybe both.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Photoshop Videos and The Print

First, a statement of personal bias: I learned darkroom technique from books. Mainly from Ansel Adams' book. I'm a competent printer, but not a brilliant one. A bit brutalist. I can get the blacks and whites and contrast where I want 'em. I can dodge to bring up shadow detail without wrecking the blacks. I can do an edge burn. But I ain't no Fine Printer and I'm suspicious of the idea that a Fine Print is genuinely different from a good work print.

So, we got that out of the way.

I get the idea of teaching through videos. If you're showing someone physical configurations, where the lights go, or physical motions, and you can't do it in person, video's got to be a decent second best. If you want to show someone how to smear paint on a wall, a video is probably pretty useful.

What the fuck is with videos of Photoshop usage? I can never follow the details anyways. There's some tiny mouse bolting around the screen and sliders are moving but I can't see which ones. But then I see that the dude added a layer and is mucking with saturation? OK. That I get. But I don't need a video.

What's actually useful in the video is the before and after shots, and the voiceover. Aha! He added a whatsit layer and frobbed the thingummy 10 degrees, and it did that. Interesting!

What is actually necessary to learn to print, as well as to manipulate digital pictures in Photoshop, is to learn to see specific things. If you don't know what contrast and saturation and everything else look like, then you need to see some before/after, or more/less comparison shots. Stills are fine. With digital editors you can actually go just bang the sliders yourself and find out, but it's probably useful to have a reference to show you what the salient controls actually are. If you can't imagine what a "Vibrancy" slider might do, then you'll probably never slide it to see if it does something useful.

But you don't need some joker making a video. That's just wasting time. You're going to spend 30 seconds watching this guy muck around to show you a concept you can apprehend in an instant from a pair of stills.

Also, you should own a copy of The Print, whether you work in a darkroom or not. The trouble with the web is that it's hypertext. The trouble with hypertext is that you can use links instead of actually organizing your thoughts and your material. Turns out that time is pretty linear, so if you can present your material in a linear way, that works pretty well for people.

So when you have a web page about this stuff, you get links like CONTRAST and SATURATION and you forget to click one or the other. Or maybe you get both of them in a linear page, but there's a link in the middle that you click and wander off to, so you never do see the bit about saturation. Books are remarkably free of hyperlinks, and they're pretty ruthlessly linear.

You'd think that at least a video would be linear, except that even then you're as likely to have two videos, one for CONTRAST and one for SATURATION, as not. And they'll both be way too long and clumsy. And the one on saturation will probably have some weird color banding problem so you can't actually see what saturation is anyways.

Ok, I am conflating "bad videos" with "video as a pedagogical idea" but it's my blog and I'm allowed to do that.

Review: TJ's Camera Bag

This is my camera bag. When I need to carry my camera, or my camera and some other gear, from one place to another, this is often what I use. It's manufactured for Trader Joe's, to their specifications, and it works wonderfully.

As you can see, it easily has enough space for my Nikon D3100 and the Micro-Nikkor 60mm lens, with plenty of room left over for filters, cables, speedlites, and so on. Sometimes, I even put a sandwich in there:

You can see that I also use the GreySlow NoStrap strap product thing. My father used it, so I use it.

The bag is a little light on the padding, but so far, so good. Not being a professional, well, if the camera breaks it's not the end of the world. Mainly I try to avoid smashing the bag in to stuff, and so far it's working pretty well for me.

Here's the bag in use:

Note the ShurGrip(tm) cloth handles. That's my patented grip, though. You have to pay me if you want to hold your bag that way.

Note: I actually do carry my cameras around in this sort of bag. Have for years.

Kirk Tuck Again

Go read this post over here. Heck, read the whole blog, it's pretty much all gold.

I'm on the record as saying that complaints about menus are lame and stupid. Kirk has some excellent points in his piece, among them that I am wrong.

Now, it's still kind of bush-league stuff compared to the bad old days, when cameras would destroy film, or themselves, but still.

The point I make, from time to time, is that menus will become second nature after a while, and the problem goes away. Kirk makes the point that they're not second nature when the system is new to you, and he also makes this crucial point: it makes sense for a professional to cycle through systems, and so the professional spends a lot of time with new systems. It's not the only way to work, but it's perfectly reasonable. Kirk spends a lot of time with cameras he's spent only a few months with, and shot only a handful of assignments with. A badly designed menu system makes his life harder.

Not as hard as a system that welds the lens permanently to the body if you try to mount it with the shutter in the wrong state (lookin' at you Hasselblad). But a reasonable complaint.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Stages of the Photographer II

In these years there is an ongoing, or repeated, discussion about the decline in camera sales. The typical online DSLR owner, unable to conceive of a world in which the DSLR is not the dominant object of worship, finds this decline distressing. The typical online DSLR owner, locked in to the idea that photographers evolve through well defined stages, maturing finally in to Ming Thein, wrestles with the dominance of the cell phone camera, and often concludes:

The phone camera user will inevitably become dissatisfied with their pictures, and will buy a DSLR.

which is a very cozy idea. There's a couple of planted axioms, unfortunately. The first is that the cell phone user will become dissatisfied. Nope. The second one is that the dissatisfaction will take the form of some very specific limitations. The conceit is that the disgruntled cell phone shooter will want more IQ (nerds invariably refer to "image quality", which simply means "the vague basket of shit my DSLR does better than an iPhone", as IQ).

I'm just gonna throw this out there: the disgruntled, dissatisfied cell phone photographer is actually pretty unlikely to say "man, I want to take pictures with more pixels in them!" They're a lot more likely to say "I want to make pictures that make people feel", "I want pictures that make people see this truth that I see", "I want to make pictures that look like that one guy on tumblr."

These are not problems solved by buying a DSLR.

The ones that do want to take pictures that have more pixels in them are sorting themselves into the community of online DSLR owners. They enter the bubble, close the door behind themselves, and there they are.

The ones that want to take pictures that make you feel something, they're doing something else. They're getting apps for their phone to bend their pictures. They're buying Polaroid cameras, old p&s film cameras, Lomos and Kievs. They might even buy a DSLR, but they think the debates about sensor size versus depth of field are deadly dull.

These are the people with the kickstarters that are publishing books. These are the people with their photos hanging in the hipster coffee shops. They don't care about your sneering "these are terrible, they need fill flash" judgements, because you are wrong. These pictures don't need fill flash.

There's a 1000 directions to go from a cell phone camera you bought yesterday. Only one of them is a DSLR, a bunch of expensive lenses, some cheap strobes, and a flickr full of crummy imitation commercial photographs.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Bear with me. This is starting pretty far off from photography. There's actually a conclusion in here, that's going to change my behavior.

Let's suppose it's 10,000 years ago, and you make baskets while I have fish. I want some baskets, you want some fish. So we trade. Fast forward a bit. Money has been invented, and you don't like fish any more. I might sell my fish to someone who wants fish, for money and then use the money to buy a basket from you. Basic stuff. Money is many things, but among those things it is a medium of exchange and an important part of a mechanism by which goods are moved from supplier to consumer more or less efficiently.

The point is that it's a mesh, a network. Goods flow around the system, money flows the opposite way, and in the end mostly people get what they need and want. We have a deplorable tendency to consider it a pyramid, in which the goal, the ambition, is to be on top. We'd like, ultimately, to get as many baskets as possible while giving away as few fish as possible. Success is seen as, essentially, persuading everyone else that your fish are so insanely valuable that they should trade you a truly absurd number of baskets for even a single one.

This is the perception of success in the Art market as well. This perception is flawed in a couple of ways.

The most direct and obvious way is that while we see the phenomenon of insanely expensive Art, the Artist isn't seeing much of that. Yep, those fish are extremely valuable, but by the time they're actually valuable, they're in the hands of some nameless third party who is getting most of the baskets. Indeed, it's usually some sort of corporate entity, perhaps headed by one chap, and the huge influx of baskets is distributed out to a bunch of worker bees in the gallery and so on. The perception that Gursky is getting 3 million baskets for one fish is false, although I suppose he's doing pretty well in baskets, as is the nameless chap operating the third party entity. But, nobody in this picture is getting 3 million baskets and swapping them for a yacht.

The second flaw in the ointment is that it's a mesh, a network, not a pyramid. If you want to sell Art, you should probably buy Art. If you want mainly to sell Fine Art Landscape Prints for a couple grand a pop, then you're not asking for an economy. You're asking for a system in which worshipful people deposit vast numbers of baskets on your doorstep, in return for scraps of paper with ink smeared on them. This isn't tenable at scale. There's only room for a few of those, and as you've probably discovered by now you're probably not going to be one of them. Everyone wants to be an apex predator, but it takes a hell of a lot of taiga to support one tiger.

In the modern system, a system that actually can sustain a lot more artists and art, we're working the mesh. A handful of loyal fans buy your blurb book and promote it out to their friends. You, in turn, give some money to a Patreon here, a kickstarter there. Money flows, art flows, the system works.

There's only a few Kardashians out there, but there's lots of blokes growing carrots. Becoming the former requires vast effort and vast luck. Pretty much anyone can start growing carrots, though.

In short: If you want people to buy your Art, you ought to spend some money on Art as well.

A corollary: I need to spend more money on Art.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


We have this idea of fame which is essentially global in this modern era. Consider photographers. If you start poking around to see who the famous photographers are, you'll come across Adams pretty fast. Everyone's heard of Adams. Dig deeper, it doesn't matter where you are on earth, you might reasonably find Koudelka at some point. He's not a name everyone knows offhand, but his fame, such as it is, is global. He appears in the globally available resources and so on. You might say his famous is broad but shallow.

There's another kind of fame. A more local one, or at any rate more socially compact. Famous in your high school. Famous in your town. Famous among guitarists.

The difference here that I'm interested in is this: global fame is largely granted to the famous by tastemakers. You've got to be good, or at least interesting, but you've also got to be chosen. Local fame, contrariwise, is something you can control. Local fame, incidentally, is generated by genuine social contact whereas the global variety is a construct of the media. Global fame is a arguably a synthetic version of genuine fame, there's no social phenomenon involved. I don't know the Kardashians, I don't know anyone who knows the Kardashians.

Musicians, it is said, just need 1000 "true fans" (or maybe it's 100?). This is sort of false, as the conceit is that the band with this many true fans can make a living, and they can't quite.

A photographer saves a lot of money over a working musician, it turns out. A photographer is also but one mouth to feed, not the several that make up a band. Finally, a photographer might not even want to get a living, just some love.

100 true fans, willing to shell out $50 for a little book every couple of years would delight many of us.

More to the point, this is the world we live in now. The arbiters of global fame are conservative, and there's not a lot of room at the top. No more do we have a dozen top American photographers, a dozen British, a dozen on the continent, and so on. We've got a dozen total. The world is increasingly global and uniform, the regional ponds in which one can be a big fish are merging into a single ocean.

And yet in this era of global media, 1000 channels of television, and a million of YouTube, we are each of us our own channel.

You're reading my channel right now. Among my dozen regular readers, I am well known. I regret that I have nothing to sell you except an e-book you've probably already bought. Thanks! But that's pretty much it!

Magical Thinking

If your picture requires a magical display to "work," if it requires super resolution or a color calibrated monitor or it only "works" as a print, or only as a Fine Print then it doesn't work at all.

Sure, you can ruin any picture with enough abuse, but the functioning of a picture is in the stuff that survives mild abuses just fine.

Show me a great picture, in any medium, that isn't still pretty great 1000 pixels on the long side on the web. Go ahead. Think me up one or two of the iconic paintings and photos that just turn to crap on the web.

If your pictures look like shit on the web, it's because your pictures look like shit, not because of the web. Stop making excuses and go shoot some pictures that don't look like shit.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Inkject Printing Sucks and is Dumb

When you want to throw a dot of ink onto a page with a certain precision, there's pretty much no getting around it: You have to build a mechanical system to that degree of precision. And maintain it there. It's a ludicrous idea worthy of Rube Goldberg.

When you want to throw a dot of light onto a page with a certain precision, you can make the mechanical system out of lumber and hemp ropes if you want, as long as you throw a large enough magnification factor in at the last step. There's a reason the semiconductor guys don't screw around scratching circuits on to wafers with a pocket knife. They use opto-mechanical systems with magnification.

Inkjet is great is you want to print on arbitrary surfaces, or if you need to avoid a chemical processing step post-exposure. It's even better if you want to make an assload of money selling ink. If you want to be in total control and want to change your mind subtly about color rendering half a dozen times in an afternoon, it's also superb. If you're serious, though, you could profile the end-to-end process of your favorite pro lab making Type C prints, and then soft-proof to your heart's content before finally pressing the Order button.

Like so much of photography, if you're a hobbyist who enjoys the process and is willing to spend money on it, more power to you. Just don't try to persuade me that it's because you produce superior results in your tinkering. You might, but probably you don't.

If you just want a photographic print on to something resembling photographic paper, a Durst Theta printer lasering a color latent image on to photo paper works amazingly well. This may be related to why a 49 cent machine print from mpix competes so readily with with an Ultraprint.

It turns out that the staff at mpix (the consumer brand of Miller's Lab) just plain have much much better equipment to use than a top of the line Epson 12345-XJ6 or whatever. They throw down 600 dpi without even thinking about it. They do it all day long, onto square miles of material, without any of problems that mechanical systems spraying liquid around are subject to. They don't need liquids that are so magical they costs a million bucks a gallon, they're using standard bulk chemistry and standard papers with other standard chemicals smeared (albeit very very carefully smeared) onto it.

It Just Works.

Behold the power of this fully operational opto-mechanical printing system.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

More on Portfolios

I could have sworn I've written this material down someplace, and perhaps I have I just can't find it.

Choosing content for, and arranging that content in, a portfolio is, well, it matters. I'm positive that this is something that is taught in depth in the right schools, but I have not myself run across any decent references about it. So, I'm making it up with my big fat brain, as far as I am able. A larger grain of salt than usual, therefore, is indicated.

First, some examples. Ming Thein, despite his many flaws, at any rate grasps that the idea of a portfolio, a coherent body of work, is an important object. He spends a lot of time making these things. And he is right. There, I don't say that enough. The boy's thinking hard all the time, and he hits on some stuff.

Take a look at this thing: studies in blue.

I don't much like these pictures, but that is completely irrelevant here. He's got a strong theme going on here, it's a coherent collection of very closely related photos. He's definitely got an idea, and he even tells us what it is: Magritte. Magritte did a bunch of these pictures with puffy white clouds in a blue sky, seen through some sort of cutout. The connection might not be obvious but it's there.

But here's the thing. You spend a ton of time constructing these pictures. You're carefully placing things in the frame relative to one another. You're creating patterns, breaks in the pattern, progressions from light to dark, all kinds of stuff. Within a single picture you're working hard. Outside the picture, the tendency is to simply pick the best ones and huck them into a bucket.

What Ming has done here is give us a bunch of variations on the same picture. What's he going for here? Is it skyscrapers? Hong Kong? Reflections? Blue sky? Clouds? What's he trying to do, here? The connection to Magritte is not made clear. The point is, he helpfully tells us with words, is the blue sky with white clouds, seen through frames. Had he changed the frame up, made it trees in one picture, skyscrapers in another, a window in another, the actual unifying point would be made clear. There are probably other methods he could have used, but that's what occurs to me in the moment.

There does not seem to me to be any particular progression here, not that there needs to be, but it's not a bad idea.

Evans and the people who are related to him did a thing in their books, where each picture is visually connected to the next. There's a repeated visual element, picture 1 to picture 2. In picture 2 there's a different element that connects it to picture 3, and so on, in (often) a nearly unbroken chain through the book.

Because I am a simple creature, and make small portfolios, I tend to go light-to-dark or something straightforward like that.

You want an organizing principle, it doesn't really matter what. You want an idea of some sort.

These are Magritte-like
The people in this valley are really poor
This car is an erotic hallucination
Flowers are basically about sex

You might find that to create the best portfolio, you have to discard some of the stronger individual pictures, and insert some weaker ones. Don't insist on sticking with your original top ten. You've probably got, at this point, a A list of the best and a B list of the almost-made-it's. When the flow of the portfolio feels off, think about what it needs, and consult that B list. There's likely to be a better fit for that one spot, somewhere in there.

Use it. At this point the pictures are secondary, and it's the portfolio that matters.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A common theme in photographic discussions, it strikes me, is validation-seeking. Lots of people want to "get their name out there." They want to sell some prints (and are thrilled to bits when they do). They want to do a book, they want to maybe go pro. They want to know how to get in to a gallery, or a museum. But what they really want, when you clear away the shrubbery, is for some authority to tell them that their pictures are good.

This is, perhaps, the motivation for joining camera clubs and forums, for seeking critique, and for ultimately modifying ones ides to conform. The community will offer validation, if only you perform a few minor tasks.

And yet, it's all somehow unsatisfying. So Bob, old Bob, who has been shooting for twenty years, gives you a pat on the back. Maybe Bob is an idiot? Is Bob's validation worthwhile?

Suppose you did get a legit gallery show, what does that gallerist really know? You got a book deal, yay, but isn't that mainly about what sells rather than what's good? Not having gotten either, I don't really know how it feels. Probably pretty good, probably validating.

But it doesn't matter. The trouble is that there is no central authority for what's good. There is no certification program for Goodness Judgers. If some guy says your work is good it means, generally, that the one guy likes it, and maybe he thinks he could sell some to... someone. Maybe he thinks it'll sell to rubes.

Ultimate validation doesn't exist.

Partial, conditional, uncertain validation? Sure. Pick your poison.

At the end of the day, there is stuff you like, and there is stuff that will be liked, or respected at any rate, in 100 years. To enter the latter category, you need to be first seen and then liked by one of the tastemakers. We don't even know necessarily, who these people are. At some point it became obvious that Stieglitz' opinions mattered, but it wasn't right away.

It is the job of the tastemaker to reach into the maelstrom and pull out work to bless. This is seen as rigged and dubious, but it is a necessary role. We cannot canonize all the good Art, there's simply too much of it. And yet or society seems to demand that some Art be canonized. Someone's gotta do it.

Will someone pull your photos out of the maelstrom? Probably not. It might happen, and there are things you can do to increase your odds, but it's not something to plan around. And what value is it, ultimately? Not as much money as you think. The secondary market is where the large dollar amounts appear. The primary market is the one where the artist gets paid. The adulation must be nice, but there an element of the arbitrary and random to it.

Having thought it through, I'm not that interested in working to make a tiny improvement in my odds. My validation has to come from me, because when you break it down, there isn't really anywhere else. If someone likes my stuff (and yes, smarty-pants, there are such people) that's great. But it can't be my reason for working.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Influencers, and the Harm They Do

I complain a lot about the "influencers", the people who (basically) do gear reviews for a living. You know them. They have some sort of online presence, which has gear reviews. Often it has other content. All of them seem to have pretensions of being an Artist. They talk about Their Work, they allude, usually in vague terms, to shows they're having, or perhaps participating in, or perhaps have a print in. They're usually contemplating multiple projects for expressing their artistry.

But always, they come back to the gear reviews. Sometimes they wring their hands and bemoan the fact that the gear reviews are what draw the viewers, and generate the revenue, when what the really want to do is talk about "the images".

Whether or not this one or that one truly has the soul of an artist, trapped in a gear reviewer's body, is immaterial. The reality is that the chattering about Art and The Work and The Images is a mechanism which lends a little cachet to the reviewer, boosts his credibility, makes him appear serious. In fact, he is a guy who carries water for the manufacturers. The gear reviews, while generally honest, are largely irrelevant to anyone who is serious about Art, about The Images. The gear reviews are often irrelevant to working professionals as well. Pretty much every camera is superb. Every lens is excellent. It doesn't really matter what you want to do, just grab a camera and go. It'll be fine. If you're working on a schedule, grab two cameras in case one breaks.

So we have these guys writing masturbatory posts about chromatic aberration and resolution across the frame and whatnot. Shit all the gearheads searching for the One Big Answer love to read about.

These guys are, basically, part of the marketing wing of one or more makers of camera gear. No, they don't get paid as such. The more influential ones get trips paid for, but most of them get access. The ability to write about gear ahead of its general availability, without having to buy it, is ginormous. It's literally the engine that drives the revenue. Without it, these guys would have to simply close up shop.

So what about the damage?

The problem is that these guys position themselves as the top tier of photographers, rather than as bought-and-paid-for mouthpieces. All those folks looking for answers see these guys, and aspire to be them. But what do these guys actually do as photographers?

They take lots of photos. They photoshop heavily, as a general rule. They cull vigorously, sometimes bragging about their low hit rate . Then they post the results, which are generally very "bubble-good," in galleries. Occasionally, not as often as they hint, they sell a print or two. They sometimes have a book project or two in the works, much more rarely, printed.

Pick one and look at a gallery or two. It's just a jumble of stuff. Sometimes it's organized by trip, or date, or subject matter. There's no coherent portfolio. There's no point of view. There's no vision. There's no idea. It's a bunch of really sharp pictures from Prague or bugs or park benches or something.

They leave half of the work un-done.

Your average amateur photographer works away at photography for a while, and eventually starts grinding out bubble-good stuff. Things that he and his camera club agree are good. Now what? Checking out the various influential photographers in the world, the amateur gets the idea that he ought to be selling prints, maybe doing a book. Just take a bundle of your Best Images and make a book. Or throw up a smugmug site and start selling prints. Or maybe get in to shooting weddings?

Your average photographer simply has no idea, because nobody's told him, that there's more to a portfolio than a jumble of your Best Images. Nobody's ever told him that there's such a thing as a point of view, an idea, a vision. The closest we get is the half-assery of the "personal style".

This is the damage the influencing class does. They lie about their role, pretending they are Artists rather than marketing drones, and thereby misrepresent what Artists and serious photographers can do, might do. They present, because they are lazy, the idea that the end of the game is a jumble of boring (but very sharp!) pictures on a web site somewhere.

There is more to it. Start from the idea, the point of view. Shoot from that position. You will find that your pictures change, instantly. They're weightier, you'll like them better. They mean something.

Then do something with the pictures. Print them and hang them. Make a book. Print them and burn them. Print them and give them away to your friends, to strangers. Stick them on the walls of your local bank. Whatever. But have a plan to do something, to finish the work, and then do that.

This applies equally well to people who aspire to be professional. Any fool can make bubble-good photographs, and lots of them do. What you are selling, ultimately, is your point of view, your ability to formulate and express an idea. If you're just going to grind out the same old crap, bad news, there are stock photography web sites out there. A professional, in this era, has to sell a point of view and the ability to turn the customer's ideas into something distinctive, something that communicates. It's all the same stuff.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Lewis Bush writes this blog over at Disphotic. To be honest, it drifts in and out of my envelope of interest, but these days he's tending to write things I find interesting. He's definitely worth putting on your reading list. You may find him a worthwhile daily read.

Right now I want to address this recent essay from Lewis. I think he's basically wrong, but thoughtfully so. He makes the distinction between changing people, and changing the world. He says that photographs don't change the world, they change people, who then change the world.

But this is, I think, what people always mean when they say that photographs can change the world. Nobody is claiming that photographs are meteors, physically carving changes on the planet. It's like saying 'guns don't kill people, it's the bullets!' Facile but a bit silly.

I think he radically underestimates the changes a photograph works on a person. A photograph isn't the real thing it depicts, but it's an excellent proxy for a memory of the thing. When we see a photograph of the dead child, the burning child, the deformed child, it is as if we remember that child ourselves despite never seeing her. Photographs of things we did experience we find standing in for direct memories of the thing (see Sally Mann's remarks).

While it is true that a single photograph never, or almost never, causes a radical change in a person's life, causes the person to take up or cast down the banner of some cause, it is true that a single photograph, or a small group, can radically change our perception of events, of a thing, of a place. We now almost remember it. The change we experience is small, but with its domain, extremely radical, profound. Small but intense, perhaps, is a reasonable description. This is the unique power of the photograph.

All the writing and talking in the world cannot create the experience of a memory, or an almost memory. Well, it can, but you need to be quite subtle about it, and it takes a lot of effort. A photograph does it in an instant.

When the person, when society, is balanced on the cusp of change, a photograph can tip the balance in a moment, and great changes can be wrought.

It's only happened, truly, a modest handful of times. It's not as if every photograph changes the world, almost none of them ever have. But it is a unique power that photographs have. They crystallize a super-saturated solution of ideas like nothing else can.

Friday, September 11, 2015


There's a thing that we might think of as the online photography community. There's a bunch of web-famous people (Arias, Hogan, Reichmann, Thein, Kim, etc) and a cadre of actually published guys (Kelby etc) and a bunch of clickbait news sites (PetaPixel, FStoppers, etc), and these people all have people who follow and comment on their posts and web sites. Sometimes there's a forum where people have long conversations about color management.

There's a strong thread of 'pro photographer' in this bunch. A few pros. A few retired pros. A lot of fake pros. And a huge seething mass of wannabees.

This group thinks of itself as everyone, as far as I can tell. The position appears to be, roughly, "We are the photographic community. We buy the cameras, we make the images, we are the serious photographers. We take our craft seriously. And then there's some bums out there with cheap cameras and cell phones and fuck them they're just taking snapshots."

This community worries a lot about the end of photography. They wring their hands and gasp in wonder at multiple billions of photos a day being uploaded to facebook etc. They wail that it is impossible to be noticed. They get a smugmug premium package, and grouse that nobody except their mom is buying canvas wraps of their shitty landscapes, indistinguishable from all the other landscapes. They bemoan "image theft" and rail against people who download their pictures and use them in brochures without permission.

Then there's the other community. It is, I suspect, a lot bigger. This community doesn't give a damn about your Zeiss Otus mumble blat. They're taking pictures. They're making Art. They're finding audiences, or not, as the fancy strikes them. They're publishing books and magazines. They're not gear fetishists, although many of them are fetishists. They take blurry pictures of feet. They take abstracts. They shoot a lot of nudes. They mostly don't give a shit about sharpness or leading lines. They're obsessive about girls, or cats, or stars, or vibrations, or color, or dance. They love Polaroid cameras. They're all obsessive about Art, and they just go out and make it. They're not practicing, they're not building their skills, they're not saving up for that lens. They're just getting down to the business of making Art.

They're publishing on the web, sure, but also in print via a 100, a 1000, 10,000 different channels. They're reaching their fanbase, their audience, their friends and family. They're making things that satisfy themselves and others.

They don't give a shit that Sony's newest sensor has the best DxOMark scores. They don't give a shit about your show in the local Gallery (ach-coffeeshop-choo). They think your derivative second rate copies of pictures from 1940 suck, when they bother to think about you at all, which ain't much.

The Photography Community has never heard of any of these people, and that's just the way these people, these actual Artists, like it. Fuck off, you gearheads, with your half-assed never-realized pretensions. With your photo contests and your cute little blue ribbons. I have fat girls sitting on record players to photograph. And when we're done photographing we're going to get high, go dancing until 4am, and then we're going to fuck like extremely loud dogs until we pass out.

(Not actually me, obviously, I am old and tedious. The scruffy buggers with the polaroid cameras.)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Stages of the Photographer

Why, oh why, does every pundit want to break things down in to stages? They all do it differently, and generally pretty lazily, but it always looks something like this:

First there is the larval stage of the photographer, where he's just got a point and shoot, and he's shooting, I dunno, everything. Or if he trying to emulate the style of Ansel Adams?

Then there's the chrysalis stage, where he acquires a flash, or a DSLR, or begins to experiment with slow shutter speeds, or takes a lot of pictures of fire hydrants. Or maybe it's the teenaged stage, or the tadpole stage, or the white dwarf stage.

Then there's some other stages where the photographer thrashes about doing things wrong.

Finally, there is the last stage. This is the stage in which, invariably, the pundit finds himself. It's a stage with total synthesis of everything and full control and blah blah blah a bunch of other bullshit, hey I have some workshops you could take.

There aren't any god damned stages. There's just stuff you know, and stuff you don't know. Independent of that, there's a degree of seriousness. Independent again there are goals and intentions. Put these and a few other things together, and we come up with "are you shooting the pictures you want to be shooting or not?"

Loads of superb photographers have no idea how to use a flash, or don't own a DSLR, or just started taking pictures a year ago. Tons of crummy ones own all the gear, have taken all the workshops, and have proceeded through every possible stage.

There is no via dolorosa to be traversed, you need not visit a set of stations in order to arrive at some final blissful state in which you are, finally, offering your own line of workshops. There are tons of people out there trying to force you on to a via dolorosa because they're pretty sure that the path they took is universal, and they'd like to sell you stuff. It's absolute bullshit to say that you have to progress through a bunch of stages. You can go out and start taking pictures that satisfy right now with whatever camera you have.

If you're not doing it already, you probably won't. But it's not because you haven't done the required suffering. It's probably because you don't know what pictures would satisfy you. It's possible that you simply don't know enough stuff about pictures yet. It's possible but extremely unlikely that you don't know how to control your equipment adequately. These are solvable problems, and none of them require visiting the stations of the cross.

I took a path to where I am today. I can't recommend it, and I certainly can't remember enough details to help you along it. Why would you want to take my path? I've been blundering down it for like 30 years or something. Find your own damned path. It's practically guaranteed to get you somewhere faster.

You can teach a kid to make good, weighty, work in a couple of days if you're paying attention.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I Dunno... Stick it in the Corner, I Guess

Something that distinguishes painting from the vast bulk of photography is what I think of as total control of the frame, which is a terrible clumsy phrase. Sorry. Anyways, the idea is that obviously a painter is deliberately putting things into the frame, at deliberate places. This becomes obvious when you start looking at the overall frame as a design. In general, you can summarize a painting in a handful of strong lines. There is a design, a skeleton on which the details are hung, and that design is generally pretty pleasing.

Botticelli's Venus:

Whistler's Mother:

da Vinci, The Last Supper:

One of Monet's Waterlilies:

This is what most internet-famous photographers do instead. Not all the time, but altogether too often for comfort:

Just stick the subject in the corner and let the rest of the junk fall where it may. The difference between the "good" ones and the "bad" ones is that the "good" photographers are better at emphasizing the thing in the corner.

Find a lighted doorway in a dim scene. Place the doorway in one of the corners, and wait for someone to walk through it. Burn and dodge in post as necessary to make the silhouetted figure stand out, and de-emphasize the rest of the disorganized junk in the frame. Find a boat on a body of water and shove it in a lower corner. Wait for some interesting clouds to turn up. Find a more or less random array of windows. Wait for someone to pop their head out of one, place that window in a corner and let the rest fall where they may. Click.

I dunno, just stick it in the corner.

This is one reason why we're constantly told to "isolate the subject". If you can simply make the rest of the frame effectively blank, then it looks like you're doing your job. These next photos exhibit a total failure to organize the background. In lieu of actually making a good picture, they're "isolating the subject" and floating some random element, whether good or bad is irrelevant, on an essentially blank page.

Kevin Raber:

Michael Reichmann:

Ming Thein:

This is also why shooting wide open is seen as desirable. If you can't just bang your subject up against a large blank wall, or a flat sheet of water, you can at least render the background a more or less uniform blur. Beats the hell out of finding a point of view that organizes it, or giving up the shot, eh?

The difference between actually good photos and bubble-good photos is that the rest of the frame is also organized. I cannot do it in the field to save my life, but I can sometimes manage it in the studio.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

One Big Answer

Derek Lowe's blog, In The Pipeline, has this recent post: That One Big Answer. His blog is awesome, influential, important, and about chemistry. You probably ought to read it.

Anyways, his post cites this wonderful poem from Archilocus:

The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one.
One good one.

(translation from the equally wonderful Richmond Lattimore.) Derek goes on to talk about the human tendency to look for One Big Answer. The single object, fact, drug, therapy, that will solve all our problems. Or at least a lot of them. Or at least make a lot of things better.

Thus it is everywhere, thus it is in photography. The camera that will make me great, the lens, the mentor, the workshop, the class, the book.

They'll all help, most likely. None of them are going to make you great. What might make you great, eventually, is a massive accretion of things. Bits of gear that enable you, bits of knowledge, ideas you've had, this person who inspired you in this way, and that person in that.

You might find pivotal things, some small element that has an outsized impact. Don't be fooled, it wasn't the Pocket Wizard or the 85/1.4 or that one portfolio review that changed things. The single item was but the catalyst. The change was wrought over time by a thousand tiny things, a reef of tiny things that was poised to shift already.

There's no royal road. You just put in the time and the effort. You think about stuff. You collect ideas and objects.

But be happy. This just means that you can stop looking for the One Big Answer. Don't worry, when the reef of little bits and pieces is ready to shift, the right new bit will turn up, and the pivot will occur. It'll feel like you found the One Big Answer, unexpectedly. And now, you're somewhere else. You're not finished. The accretion, the occasional massive unexpected shifts, and ultimately the growth and evolution, it's all a continuous process that does not end.

Have fun along the way.

Monday, September 7, 2015


That's right! I'm offering a workshop! (But don't get your hopes up.)

This workshop will introduce you to my methods, which are not suitable for all possible subjects, and which may or may not work well for you. You won't make pictures that look like my pictures, at the end of it all. But you will know how my methods work.

You will need a digital camera, a portable computer to put pictures on for viewing, and a book or other mindless entertainment that has nothing to do with photography. If you don't know how to use your camera, you're not invited. If you don't have a clear idea of what various settings do, you're not invited. If you are still struggling with basic ideas of composition, ditto. Your instructor assumes that you're in control of your technique and that you can make a more or less appealing picture more or less on demand.

Day 1
8:30am Meet and Greet
9:00am-noon Photo Walking

On the photo walk we'll be rambling through Bellingham, slowly, taking in suburban, urban, and natural scenery. One of the great things about Bellingham is that all three are within one mile of my house. The goal here is to collect snaps. We'll not be looking for "good" photos here, simply recording things which strike our fancy. Look for "subjects" which interest you, where by "subject" I mean an object, a scene, a place, a theme. You might like a particular building, a park, a vista. You might like the discarded drink cans we'll come across from time to time. Snap these subjects pretty thoroughly, so you have a good record of what they look like.

A "subject" for our purposes is something that will be there tomorrow. The Saturday Farmer's Market is no good, since you won't be here next Saturday (although, if you're playing along at home, this might work out fine.) A specific person is no good. A type of person is fine.

By noon we'll try to have a few hundred shots of a handful of "subjects" and will return to base.

Noon-1pm Lunch (sandwiches) and a lecture on inspiration, which will be pretty much just this little essay.

Afternoon Seeking Inspiration.

We're going to load up the morning's pictures onto our laptops and flip through them. At the same time, your gracious host (me) will make available a collection of books of photographs. We'll be flipping through our pictures, and through the books of photos. The goals for the afternoon are:

  • One or two selected "subjects" (no more than two)
  • A written description of how we feel about our subject(s)
  • A written description of how we might express those feelings

The writing might be simply a list of adjectives, blank verse, a detailed essay, anything. It will be inadequate. The idea is simply to try, to begin to delineate and understand how we feel and how might shoot it. We might also write down photos from the sources being passed around, from which we wish to steal ideas.

Consider, lightly, issues of time of day, timing of the exposure, camera position, angle of view, various camera settings, and overall look of the picture. At least.

Done for the day. You will all be expected to stand me a pint at Nelson's Market, just down the alley from my home.

Day 2

10am Meet up (remember those pints?)
10am-11am Revisit yesterday's exercise after good night's sleep.

Briskly rework everything. The goal is to develop a shooting plan. Where do I put the camera, what lenses should I use, what moment(s) am I waiting for, what settings should I be using, do I need a tripod, etc. We're trying to convert our emotional reaction into specific technical procedures.

You may well find that you want to throw out everything from yesterday afternoon. Only do that if you have a better idea, though! Struggle with the ideas a bit, and take a walk if you get stuck. We've only got about an hour here, so pretty soon you're going to have to cut bait. The ideas don't have to be perfect, everything is just a starting point for the next thing. Any shooting plan is better than no plan.

11am-1pm Execute shooting plan, time of day permitting.
noon-1pm Lunch (sandwiches)

We will now split up as necessary. Some will leave to try to shoot their subjects, some will stare at their pictures and some picture books some more, trying to dig up or refine an inspiration. Read one of the books you brought if you're stuck, or take a nap. Remember how inspiration works, by the alternation of struggle, or trying specific ideas, and of resting and doing something else. By the end of the day, we're aiming to have taken a good solid stab at how we want to photograph our subjects.

Depending on what time constraints you have on when you need to shoot your subject, break out some time to look over the results. Compare with any photos that have inspired you, re-read your ideas about how you feel about your subject(s). By the end of the day you should be down to one subject that moves you, and some pictures that begin to express when we want to say. Not final pictures, but we do want some actual pictures with pretty clear ideas in them.

Again you will all be expected to stand me a pint. Possibly a half-pint, depending on how many students are signed up.

Day 3

This is a repeat of Day 2, but we're refining the ideas. We're shooting the same thing yet again. We're looking for multiple pictures that at least dance around what we're trying to express. We should be getting quite detailed about how we're shooting. Get up a little higher. Stop down a little more. Shoot it a little later for slightly longer shadows.

Our ideas about how we feel, how we react to the subject, have probably evolved a little, refined themselves, and perhaps expanded. Perhaps we have several aspects of our reaction to photograph, and we do that.

Lunch (sandwiches) will be made available whenever you're ready for it. Your ideas about when you need to be where are probably pretty strict by now, so lunch will work around your schedule.

This is the final day of the workshop. At the end of the workshop, you will ideally have a few hundred exposures of your subject that are worth flipping through. Within them, let us hope that a small portfolio can be found. Post-processing and "workflow" and all that horror await you when you return home, although you've probably been tinkering with the pictures as you go to see what's possible.

The price is $15,000 per student, and the class size is limited to 1000 students.

The attentive reader will notice that I am contributing nothing but sandwiches. If $5000/day for sandwiches seems a little rich for your blood, you can simply take this three day workshop at home, for free.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Taste and Compliance

I've talked about taste in the past. Roughly, it's being tuned in to the zeitgeist. You have taste (in the context of a social group, and it is a concept that only means something in such a context) if you can reliably judge what the larger social group will like. You've got taste if you wear clothes that, generally, people will approve of and think look good. Or, at a step removed, if people will generally think that the Important Tastemakers (Savile Row, Tom Ford, etc) would approve. You've got taste if you buy or make Art that people will tend to agree is good.

You need taste to make Art that people will like. All the mastery of methods of composition, all the technical mastery of the camera, none of this will help help you if you haven't got taste.

This still only gets you to likable pictures (or clothes, or whatever). You're still essentially following the social group, you're complying with standards.

The interesting things happen when you get out in front of taste. The great artist, the great designer, produces work which isn't instantly likable. The work shapes taste and nudges the social standard somewhere new. It leads rather than following. The work can't be too far out in front, evolution happens in small steps, but it must be a little out there. The great artist or designer starts from here and now as a basis, but steps out further. It's a gamble, there's risk. The work is at least as likely step in a direction that the social construct of taste declines to follow.

At which point you've just made some crap that nobody thinks much of.

In any case. If you want to do work of weight and import, you need to be working close to current taste (for whatever social context you prefer) but you need to step out past it.

Here we see yet another problem with Internet forums and camera clubs. The taste in these social contexts tends to ossify, to become paralyzed. There is no next step. All diversions from The Standard are simply wrong and bad. It is therefore impossible, socially, to make work with weight. All that is socially possible is to make the same stuff over and over.

So to make work of weight and import, for other people, you need to work within a social context that has some flexibility, some room for growth. Whether that is the wide world of everyone, or some little group of artists, or your immediately family, I don't know or care. Then you need to know, to grasp what the current taste is. You need to know what people like, what resonates with the people in that social context. Then you need to take a guess, leap into the unknown, and make something past that, and hope for the best.

Looking at pictures, being aware of what's going on photographically in the world and what has gone one, knowing what people have liked and still like, these things will help you know where you stand now. This is the method for grasping the basis from which you work.

Where you go from there, and how you get there, is a matter of inspiration.

That, ultimately, is between you and your muse.

The Saddest Thing

Ming's gotten so saddened and upset by the negativity and hostility in the comments on his blog that he had a friend, a psychologist, write this up: The pathology of ‘fanboyism’. Poor Ming, working so hard to provide us with his wisdom, and yet, so attacked and brutalized.

There are only two little problems.

Where are these supposedly negative comments? His commenters are a uniform sea of dopey fans, shills, and sock puppets.

The second one is that it is obvious to anyone who is not a dunce that this piece was not written by a psychologist. There are lots of tells, but let's pick out a couple:

‘Fanboys’ and ‘trolls’, on the other hand, are typically lacking in self confidence or conviction in their work, and in the majority of cases, are actually unable to produce any work that they are actually proud of. They can never muster the humility to admit this publicly, but it does affect their private mental state.

This is wrong. This is very specific diagnosis at a distance, a great distance, of a large and heterogeneous mass of people. It is manifestly a non-psychologist simply slamming some category of people he doesn't like.

Onwards. Again with regard to trolls (in this case people the author doesn't like on forums):

In some cases, there is evidence of borderline schizophrenic or bipolar disorder requiring treatment. This is also one of the most fascinating behavioral changes provoked by the internet: the layer of anonymity and disconnection consistently forces individuals to do or say things they would never consider in personal face-to-face interaction; I cannot help but feel this is not a good thing for society as a whole.

Again we have the baseless diagnosis at a distance, followed immediately by the suggestion that the internet is somehow converting normal people into people with a clinical condition? Or something. Again, it's clearly just a slam written by a layperson. A real psychologist, or even a dumb layperson like me who pays attention, knows perfectly well that negative behaviors on the internet are not driven by pathology, or by lack of confidence, or any of those things. Perfectly normal, well-adjusted, people will do terrible things to one another if the circumstances are right. Google Stanford Experiment to get started, if you're interested in what real psychologists have to say about this sort of thing.

Frankly, the only thing that's missing here is a thick German accent and a thick German beard. This is ludicrous. So who did write it? No idea. I note that the author uses the word "whilst", however, and chooses to remain anonymous.

The hell of it is Ming doesn't have to do this sort of shit. His commenters cannot all be sock puppets, he is widely read, so the inevitable conclusion is that he is genuinely well loved. His comments are uniformly fawning, although I have already observed that he simply moderates out anything resembling dissent. Maybe there IS a lot of negativity, but he's editing it out? In which case, how does his psychologist friend know about it?

And despite my complaining, he's genuinely out there giving it the college try. I think he's an aggressively dunderheaded lad with an enormous ego, but he's actually thinking about stuff and writing about stuff that's interesting. His ego renders him impervious to new knowledge, so he's sort of stuck with a profound ignorance on a lot of points, but he's trying.

He stands up on his hind legs and he talks about interesting stuff, and we need more people doing that.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Muddled Thein

If you want to know what the words "contrast" and "tonality" don't mean, read this piece from Ming. Not only does he redefine the words to mean something quite different from the standard uses, he's not even consistent within the 1500 words of the piece. I give this essay an "F" for muddled thinking and pseudo-intellectual claptrap.

Tonality is a word with a very fuzzy meaning, but I can pretty much guarantee you that it never means "local contrast" or "edge definition" or whatever the hell Ming seems to think it means.

What is a Photograph, anyway?

Sally Mann says,

The earth doesn't care where a death occurs. Its job is to efface and renew itself. It's the artist who, by coming in and writing about it, or painting it, or taking a photograph of it, makes that earth powerful and creates death's memory, because the land isn't gonna remember by itself, but the artist will.

I remembered this, or possibly another remark she made about the same thing, as "the photographer sanctifies the land".

Pause for a moment, hold that thought.

Here is what makes photography itself, rather than painting: We find something in the real world (or perhaps we even make it, or arrange for it, if we're doing a still life or shooting a model, but it is anyways a real thing). We find something that moves us, that we respond to, and then via a mechanical/optical process, we render a picture of it. Unlike a painting, the photograph is rendered without the emotional and inexact input of the artist. The photographer chooses a lot of things, but ultimately, the picture is made without us.

Is this important? I dunno. It is what makes photography not painting, though, so if making the distinction between the two is important, then this is important.

Getting back to Sally.

The point of Art, when it is taken from reality as a photograph is (or a painting from life, or whatever) is that it is an interpretation of the thing. We sanctify, or desecrate, or whatever, that which we point the camera at. Painting from life, we're interpreting it through ourself as we make the painting. The painting comes from inside us. A photograph, not so, it comes in an essential way from outside us.

A painting of a civil war battlefield would be incredibly dull. Look, a field. Sure, a field where a bunch of guys fought and died 150 years ago, but just a field. The painter would be hard pressed to not stick in some figures, to actually show us the guys, in some way.

The photographer can't. The photographer is pretty much stuck with the field. But the reality of that field, and the knowledge of the blood shed there, the lives lost there, lends that field gravitas. It's not a painter's idea of a field where something happened a long time ago, it's one step closer. It is the actual field, where the actual blood soaked into the actual ground.

The photographer creates the memory, or at any rate a memory, of a thing at a moment. There's a moment, Now, when we press the shutter, and there it is. The picture is made, drawn in a literal way from reality. The memory, latent I suppose, unless we print it and someone looks at it, is made. The land is, perhaps, sanctified.

It's a bit like baptism, isn't it? The subject, the stuff in front of the lens, is in an instant reborn as a photograph, with perhaps the emotional freight we found there preserved with it, somehow. And now, per the tenets of Christianity, the moment, the stuff in front of the lens in that moment, now has eternal life.