Thursday, December 10, 2015

Here's some ideas

My BFF Ming is at it again, this time with some pretty OK ideas, as he does from time to time.

I will first remove his bloviating to extract the nuggets, pausing here to note that the pictures he uses to illustrate this piece are quite startling in their complete failure to illustrate what appears to be his point, and then I will point out which bits of the nuggets I agree with, and which I do not.

Here is the first nugget:

The order of priority for curation should actually defer to the main weakness of the photographer: if you are strong technically but weak conceptually, then you should cull those with an unclear idea first. If you are strong conceptually but weak technically, the opposite. This forces you to up your game so that taken holistically, the work both conveys what you intend it to convey and continues to improve.

This sounds really really smart, and in a way it is. But upon reflection, I think that you should only ever cull for photographs that are conceptually weak. Period. If the concept demands technical perfection, then technical perfection falls neatly under the rubric of concept. If the concept doesn't, then technical perfection be damned. Breaking out other aspects is just a way to support the "you should always improving, i.e. taking classes" fallacy, about which more in the sequel.

A bit later on, with points numbered (in bold) by me and text trimmed, for clarity:

I’m looking for four things when I curate: 1 firstly, adherence to the theme/idea and overall clarity of conveying my interpretation of that theme – [...] 2 Secondly, there must be a certain aesthetic – I guess it’s best interpreted as ‘balanced’ or ‘harmonious’. 3 Next, the image must be the most technically proficient image and deliver the maximum image quality I can expect to get out of that particular situation; [...]. 4 Finally, there’s the concept of relativity: is the image I’ve selected better than the other ones I’ve taken containing the same idea, subject, aesthetic or combination of the three? Looking at the final set, there should always be some degree of distinction between each image – at a glance, one should not be mistaken for another.

These two sections seem to be the nuts and bolts of what he's talking about. He's got a nice engineering approach here, a multi-step process, clear criteria, and so on.

He's a little unclear about his curation process. Is the second thing he's looking for used only to break ties in the first thing? Or is it simply a lower priority? Can a really really good technical picture win over a picture which adheres more strongly to the theme, or not? I don't know and it's not clear (suggesting that he hasn't thought this through quite as much as he imagines). There's also a problem that the fourth thing (is this the best picture?) should obviously be the most important thing and then upon reflection one wonders if perhaps the first and fourth things aren't actually the same.

What this seems to boil down to is: Ming selects the frames that best fit the concept, which are balanced (why?), and which are technically excellent. His success or failure on these points has been discussed previously. Anyways.

He's correct that picking out the right ones is basic and vital. He's correct that it's a multi-dimensional deal, "rightness" has many aspects which need to be traded off, as with any situation in which you must choose. He's correct that you should have clearly in mind what on earth it is that you're actually trying for.

Where he's wrong is in his effort to disentangle these aspects. There is no disentangling them. If you have a clear idea of what your body of work is supposed to be doing, at any given point there's the best picture for that spot. There's no question, there's no tradeoffs. There's no "well, this picture is sharper but that picture is more adherent to the theme" there's just the best one from your lot. This is an opinion, but a strong one -- I don't care if you have 2 candidate frames or 1000, if you have a clear idea of what the frame is supposed to do, there's 1 and only 1 from the candidates that will do it best. If you can't choose it, it's because you don't have an adequately clear idea of what it's supposed to do.

The second and more important place that he's wrong an almost ubiquitous error in the amateur photographic community. There is an obsession with "improving", with "upping your game", with "getting better." This is largely bullshit.

Plumbers, mathematicians, chemists, ballet dancers, do not in general think in these terms. Sure, there are always things we don't know, or are not good at. But learning how to scope a sewer line, studying differential geometry, reading up a new class of catalyst, or strengthening our hip flexors, are not "upping our game" or "improving", they're simply part of the work. Things change, new challenges present themselves, we learn, we adapt, we expand our repertoire while letting other things no longer important slide.

By renaming this normal process to make it appear that your current state is deficient, to make it appear that learning something new will make you in some general way "better", the scam of photographic education is perpetuated.

Look at the guys in the picture attached to this post. I'll bet you that every single guy in that frame has been photographing for longer than Ming has been alive. Why on earth is he somehow the teacher here? It is, I think, because these guys are addicted to education. They've been told by the amateur photography press, since it was delivered by pigeons, that they need to up their game, that they need to improve their skills. And they, I assume, enjoy the travel and hanging about with other gearheads and talking about bullshit.

Me too. Well, not the gearheads. But I adore talking about bullshit.

Anyways. Can you get in focus the things you want to be in focus? Can you get the exposure dark when you want it dark, light when you want it light, and in the middle when you want it in the middle?

Congratulations. You are now fully qualified to go take pictures. If you want to use strobes or glass plates or you want to build sets, or do (god help you) focus stacked macros, you might have to pick up a book from the library or watch some videos now and then. You might even buy the book or the video. But these aren't going to make you "better", they're just going to make you know more useful stuff.

The only thing that makes you "better" is seeing more clearly with both your inner and outer eyes, and making the two dance together more closely. And that's pretty much down to you.

You can take my workshop if you want to get rid of some money, though.


  1. Technical perfection is a tyranny of first class BS, good work can be blurry or out of focus and still be really powerful a prime example of great work that is not perfect; Daido Morriyama. People would be better served if they spent the money they would on these "workshops" buying monograms by various great photographers and visiting galleries of both photography and other arts, though they will have to look not glance at the works spending time on each one.

  2. "I don't care if you have 2 candidate frames or 1000, if you have a clear idea of what the frame is supposed to do, there's 1 and only 1 from the candidates that will do it best. If you can't choose it, it's because you don't have an adequately clear idea of what it's supposed to do."

    Hmm, I suspect you've never done much interviewing for jobs... It can be a heartbreaking (and, in the end, irrational) process, winnowing 500+ candidates down into a shortlist, then picking The One, no matter how clear you are. Sequencing photos is quite similar, I find. But a bit of heartbreak and irrationality is good for anyone...

    OTOH, I *love* the idea of Bullshit Workshops -- forget the cameras and the paints, just assemble sparky gatherings of like-minded strangers, add intoxicants, and talk all night! Going to have to steal that one...


    1. I have done a bit of hiring, actually. Well, interviewing anyways. Gonna have to think about similarities to picking photos, but I do see your point.

      In both cases I find that there's usually a clear winner, albeit usually by a nose or less if the candidate pool had any depth.

      The differences are that photos don't have feelings, and our impressions of people can be much more thoroughly wrong. Interviewing is not the same as working with, but looking at a picture remains much the same.

      Can a job description be more usefully disassembled into facets, each judged one by one, than a picture's spot in a book? That's a really good question. Ultimately both are very holistic.

    2. Photos don't have feelings ... ? What??

    3. Actually, the mantra I was taught for interviewing might work for sequencing, too: Can they do the job? Will they do the job? Will they fit in?


  3. Are not workshops a continuation of higher education? And how does one see with the inner & outer eye? Sounds like a mystification of the process of visualization.
    I've only taken two workshops and both were helpful. One was technical: platinum/palladium printing with Tilman Crane. The other was on visualization and presentation by Smith & Chamlee. The visualization was really just Ed Weston's dictum of being open to where you are at for subject matter [look down at your feet].
    I agree that most workshops I've seen advertized are BS with only benefit to the instructor, but some are by photographers that I respect. A Sexton workshop, for example, would be valuable to me.

    1. Technical workshops are quite a different beast and can of course be wonderful.

      Do you think of them as improving your photography, or simply teaching you a useful skill which you may be able to use in the work your already feeling pretty good about?

  4. If you're gonna call BS on anything here it should be the dubious appropriation of 'curation' to describe self editing and selection of images for a project. But somehow I think that horse bolted long, long ago (in Internet years at least).

    I've attended workshops and seminars with far more serious photographers than MT and not one has ever destined thier process as curation. Probably because they have been curated and accessions into major galleries.