Sunday, January 31, 2016

Gestalt! Psychology!

I am starting to see this new brand of BS popping up here and there. It's been around for a while, but seems to be getting some traction these days. It's the new Rule of Thirds, the quick route to Good Composition, and consists of two quite different sets of ideas smashed pointlessly together, to produce something that looks like Science, but is not.

First, a quick review.

Gestalt Psychology is a Thing, it comes with a theory of perception. It's a descriptive theory, not an explanatory one, and it's largely concerned with how we mentally organize what we see. There are ways that we group things. If we see several people, all aligned in space, we perceive "a line of people" sometimes, rather than one person, and another person, and another person. There's a bunch of ways we perform this grouping activity. Things which look similar, or which are close together, or which are aligned in space, and so on, we tend to lump into a collection which we perceive as a single entity (while, of course, simultaneously perceiving the members of the collection, usually). There's also some business about perceiving Things as distinct from Backgrounds.

All this stuff is illustrated by pat and simple line drawings, but it's obvious to any thinking human that it translates only loosely to the real world, and to representational art. You may or may not group things or perceive a certain arrangement of things according to one Law or Another, in reality.

Dynamic Symmetry is also a Thing. Jay Hambidge wrote a book about this in the early part of the 20th century, and it seems to be the usual "I will draw lines all over paintings and Unlock The Secrets Of The Masters" nonesense. It does emphasize the use of diagonals for organizing pictures, which seems to perfectly reasonable. The rest I am unsure of, but it looks a bit woo woo. One thing is clear, there are enough lines and enough choices for lines, that any picture can be made to roughly fit some grid or another. It "explains" all pictures equally badly.

For samples see this thinly veiled ad on PetaPixel, but appropriate google searches will turn up a lovely array of hocus-pocus.

Gestalt Psych and Dynamic Symmetry haven't got anything to do with one another. The first is concerned with how people actually perceive things, the second is a set of organizing principles based on grids drawn on a rectangular frame. This does not prevent bozos from smashing the two together.

Gestalt lets bozos scribble on paintings and show how the girl's eyes are lined up with the tree in the background and the biscuit on the table. Therefore, according to the Law of Continuity, we'll group these things together. There! That's why the picture is so good!

Wait, what? No, we probably don't group the tree and the eyes and the biscuit together, and anyways even if we did, why would that make it good?

Oh, well, because the line formed by the eyes and the biscuit and the tree also fall along one of the innumerable diagonal lines we can draw based on Dynamic Symmetry, so, there. It's good!

Wait, what? Why does that make the picture good?

None of this shit is worth anything, absent artistic intent.

Rules, ideas, methods, ideologies, and religions of composition all teach us -- at best -- how to produce certain effects in a picture. Usually they don't even do that. But let us suppose they do. The issue then becomes to use the effect to support some artistic effort. Composition is, at best, a set of tools. Simply sawing up wood with fine japanese pull saws and gluing it all together at random with the very best hide glue and planing the result with english hand planes is not going to produce furniture. You've got to have a goal in mind, say, a chest of drawers, and then use the tools to produce that. Otherwise it's just a bunch of chunks of wood glued together into a pile.

Ultimately, you gotta have some ideas and you gotta have some taste.

Suppose you have a group of people waiting, and you wish to emphasize the sense of waiting. You might position yourself and the camera to cause the people waiting to fall into a line, a roughly diagonal arabesque traced across the frame. By aligning the people, you make it look like "a line of people" rather than "this person, and that person, and the other person". Gestalt theory informs us that this is possible, and even gives some cues for how one might accomplish this visual trick. But you know it already, because Gestalt theory merely describes how you perceive things.

Now, knowing about it consciously isn't going to hurt you any, so it's possibly a little helpful to read a little about this stuff.

Merely aligning the people doesn't do anything except, maybe, cause the viewer to see them as a group. By so grouping them, however, your artistic intent might be realized, which is the point the Gestalt Psych Dynamic Symmetry crowd seems to miss. By making the grouping an arabesque gently draped across the frame you might create a sense of balance and grace. By shoving the line of people roughly against one side of the frame you might create a sense of unbalance and unease. Depending on your goals, one or the other might work.

It's just another effort at Design and Composition According to Simple Rules You Can Learn And Apply, of the sort that is so beloved of the camera enthusiast. If I just read one more manual, surely, I will be a mighty artist?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Biggs-Reichmann Galapagos Cruise

CORRECTION: the article below stated that Mike and Andy were selling their enhanced package at $3360 over rack rate. In fact the correct number is $4350. Management apologises for this error and we have corrected the text.

This post on LuLa is flirting with being outright scandalous and offensive.

I have previously reported that this is, essentially, a package that the principals have purchased for $72,450. They do seem to have added a few things, and Michael clarifies a few points. "Drinks," let us stipulate, includes alcoholic drinks, which the base package does not. They're covering a $100 park fee, and adding on a night of hotel accommodation. Michael makes it clear that there are 10 spots for paying victims, not 12. Still, if they fill it they're laying out $7245 a head, plus drinks, one night in a hotel, $100 park fee, and probably a few miscellaneous things here and there. They are in turn collecting $9995.00 for this. My guess is that they can cover the extras and have a few beans left over on the $2750/head margins here.

Note that the $9995 rate applies whether you're taking pictures or not, so it's not like this is even a clear "$2750 tuition fee on top of our cost", or, really, a "$4350 over rack rate tuition fee." Note the rack rates, substantially under $9995, here. Andy and Michael's cruise will have a few fewer heads on board, to be fair, although I dare say even crammed to the gills with 16 people the boat's pretty tolerable.

Assuming that they're not making up the "oh, we have some cancellations just now" story, they've already collected money from the 4 cancelled heads, and are hoping to resell the spots at full list. We're in the 50% refund (if we can resell your spot) zone, so they're looking at a nice little $20,000 pop here, if they can resell the thing. (Assuming I am reading Andy's remarks on cancellation right which I have to admit are pretty unclear.)

Ok, so all's fair in love, war, and business.

I will now quote a few choice lines from Michael's piece flogging the four suddenly available spots:

Andy is a close friend, and last summer we decided to do a small private Galapagos trip for ourselves in the Spring of 2016. It would include a few friends and a small number of enthusiastic photographers.

Please note as well that this voyage is not a photography workshop per-se.

This means that we will be there 24/7 during the trip to work closely with you on your photography if that’s what you desire. Everything from one-on-one instruction and advice, to portfolio reviews and image processing instructions and suggestions. Or, just kick back and do your own thing.

I dunno about you but this feels downright disingenuous to me. Andy's page insists, interestingly, that it is a workshop, but is similarly chummy, and similarly silent on the subject of what the rack rates for this cruise are, what tuition fees are and are not, and so on.

Let us, generously, assume that they're telling the truth about the 4 spots becoming available about now, and that they extras they're rolling in cost $1000 a head, and that they are able to resell the spots as quickly as they expect. That is, let us assume they are being open and forthright in what they are saying, and let us be generous about the cost of the extras.

Total receipts: $99,9950 (attendees) + $19,990 (cancellees) = $119,940
Total costs: $72,450 (charter) + $10,000 (extras) = $82,450
For which leaves $18,745 each for Andy and Michael to cover their expenses and buy a few cans of soup, maybe a couple potatos.

Nice work if you can get it!

Exercise Your Visualizer

This post is running dangerously close to "ten quick tips to pep up your snaps" but when I hit upon this exercise last night I was so enamored with it that here here we are. The exercise is quite straightforward, and runs thus:

Grab your camera and screw some lens on the front of it. I selected my 60mm macro to give me a lot of flexibility in points of view.

Select a subject. Probably something relatively small/portable. You may want to move it around, put it on different backgrounds, manipulate it, draw on it, carve it up, I don't know.

Shoot four pictures. You may make lots of exposures, but your goal is four pictures.

1. The present.
2. The past.
3. The future.
4. The never-was.

Devise treatments for the subject that reflect your idea of the subject now, in the past, in the future, and as some sort of fantasy of the subject, a hypothetical that never was and never will be. A pencil was new and sharp once, is dull with use now, and will some day be broken. But it might be a starship, if you look at it right.

Here are mine.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Daniel Milnor, over at Shifter is always yelling at the world to collaborate more.

So I've pulled together a concept. If I wanted to collaborate with a specific someone, I'd just send email. It sounds more fun to introduce an element of the random here. Which incidentally flies in the face of many things I have said here. So it goes.

If you're interested in collaborating with me and some other readers here on a book, send me an email. The About/Contact page should give you enough information, or you can just comment here. But read the next bit before you send!.

What I want from you is a number between 1 and 7 inclusive. That represents the number of pages of content you are committing to provide. You will actually need to provide at least 2x that number, but no more than 3x that number. So if you say 4, I will insist on 8 to 12 pages from you. Normally, a page will be a picture, but if you wanted to submit some text or a drawing, I could live with that. No need to specify, just gimme a page count.

I will pull names out of a hat on Monday morning, west coast time in the USA, until I reach a total greater than 30 pages, assuming I get that many interested parties.

My number is 4. My name will be pulled out, for sure.

Then the selected victims will be asked to provide me with content, in short order. Let us set a theme: The East. Whatever that means to you. You may hurl your camera at the ground the appropriate number of times, or sift your throwaway folders, or send me your best pictures of cats. But I will insist that your provide your pages NO LATER THAN March 1, 2016.

I will then commit to pulling together a prototype book in a Blurb format and sharing it out, NO LATER THAN April 1, 2016. I will act, essentially, as the editor, and I will rule with an iron fist, and yet, I will listen to suggestions. I will also commit to creating my 4 pages to, as much as possible, act as glue. In all seriousness, I will have the final say in how the thing pulls together. You may, if you are ultimately unsatisfied, pull your content. You will retain your copyrights etc, and let us agree in a general way that you give to the collective of authors a license to use your content for this book, and only this book.

I will perform no modifications to your content.

The final book will be uploaded to blurb for print, NO LATER THAN May 1, 2016, probably as a trade book (a cheap format). Authors can (should be able to?) print as many copies as they like, at cost.

I don't intend this thing simply as a monograph of "greatest hits from this blog's readers" I'll try to make sense of the submissions and pull together a sequence (please click the link to see what that even means) that imbues it all with some sort of meaning. If necessary, my contributions can serve as a skeleton to hang the rest on, or connections from one thing to another, whatever that means. Which may mean some of my shitty calligraphy turns up.

If I can think of a way that makes sense, I would like to get a little crazy and make this a book designed to have holes drilled in it, to be cut up, to be scratched and drawn in and on. Anything but some awful monograph.

By Your Citations Shall Ye Be Known

Teachers cite a wide range of sources.

Religious leaders cite the primary texts of their religion.

Cult leaders cite their own writings, exclusively.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Mike over at ToP has published a couple of lovely pieces recently, a good review of a Coburn show which is quite nuanced and, relatively, generous. He gets past the default "Pictorialism sucks" position, and actually takes a look at the photos. Then he follows up with this piece, which covers a lot of territory but includes what I think is literally the first good discussion of Kodak's journey over the last couple decades I've seen from a notable media outlet. Again, Mike gets past the default "Kodak was just run by idiots" and gives a nuanced discussion.

As usual, hat's off to ToP. I just take my hat off before I start reading it, each day, really.

I put forward my favorite bull/china-shop thesis over on the Coburn review in the comments. This thesis is that Ansel Adams was as much a Pictorialist as anyone. Mike, to my chagrin, attempted to correct me by reciting the standard treatise on Pictorialism. And he was doing so well! (tongue firmly in cheek here, folks, I have nothing but love for Mike and for ToP.)

I've discussed the problem with the word, somewhat, in this piece. In that piece I seem to have glossed over the idea that Pictorialism might be considered a style, as Mike suggests.

As a label for a style, I suppose one could use it to refer to a handful of things: softness, darkness, manipulated negatives, let's say. Then you can talk about how much Pictorialism is present in a given picture, perhaps. It's not really used in this way, though. Contemporary usage treats it as an either/or deal, a picture either is Pictorialist or isn't, and many of the canonical examples don't particularly partake deeply of the stylistic notes in play. Robinson's "Fading Away" doesn't partake of any of the stylistic notes, for instance, but is generally cited as an early Pictorialist picture.

As a label for a style I think the usage is still unsupportable. In order to use the word Pictorialism to mean the style that we usually associate it with, we have to deny vast swathes of history. Robinson didn't make Pictorialist pictures, and one of the canonical examples of such a picture isn't Pictorialist. Emerson isn't a Pictorialist despite the fact that the standard history tells us he is. I mean, you can claim, based on some mis-quotes about his use of softness, Emerson is but if you actually look at the pictures you will see that they're actually fairly sharp.

I am not a big fan of Newhall, but he is the default historian, so if we want to be talking to one another rather than past one another, it behoove us to respect his usage.

Contemporary usage of the word "Pictorialism" is so problematic as to render the word useless.

The usage is ahistorical, the usage of the word in the period to which is (now) refers was quite different than the modern usage. This would not necessarily be a fatal problem, since words do change and evolve over time.

However, contemporary usage is also so vague as to be worthless. As I pointed out in my earlier essay, under close examination everything starts to fall apart.

And finally, the word is really used as a pejorative. It can be used, according to context, to indicate that the speaker hates muddy gum-bichromate prints (and is In The Know about History) or likes them (and is therefore In The Know, plus Extra Cool).

We should probably just give up and drop the word entirely from our vocabularies.

For reference, when I use it, I use it in the 19th century sense of roughly "looks like a painting" on the grounds that that was the last usage of the word that actually meant anything.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Business is Business

Kirk Tuck pointed me to a recent post of his on The Business of Photography.

Reading it over again, it struck me that we're in a strange state of affairs in the western world, or at least my socio-economic stratum of the western world. The companies in the news are all Hot New Startups, disrupting something or other. If you're on facebook, you probably have far too many "friends" who are plastering their part of the world with the story of their new little business, and How Well It Is Going. We get left, I suspect, with the idea that the way a business works is that you launch it, and then start counting your money.

On the Hot Startup side of things, we have venture capital working very hard on the theory that massive infusions of cash can trim a couple years off the normal startup ramp of a new business. This works sometimes, and explodes messily rather more often (VCs leave that part out when they're talking to you).

On the Facebook side of things, the new side business of photography, or selling tupperware, or jewelry has to be promoted with pep and positivity. Nobody wants to hang around with a loser, so from day one anyone with any sense talks up the positive and doesn't talk much about the negative.

Overall we're soaking in the impression that businesses launch, and start generating money pretty much right away.

It's not true, and it never was. Even a massive cash infusion doesn't shorten the timeline much. It accomplishes two goals: It gives the investor who provided the cash a large stake in the resulting business, and it makes the success (if any) larger and faster. Instead of 8 years to a $2M/year business, it's 6 years to a $20M/year business (or something). Most of the people selling tupperware and so on are in an "infinity years to breakeven" scenario, despite the peppy attitude.

The reason it takes a bunch of time can be viewed thus:

There's a concept of a sales funnel. You've got the mass of people, companies, or whatever your potential clients are, in the world who are not customers. The business's primary function is converting some of those in to deals, transactions in which money changes hands in the good direction.

Your business plan contains, among other things, how you're going to develop a multi-step process for converting some random potential client into a paying client. Lots of people will see a billboard, some percentage of them will note the number, some of those will call the number to listen to a pitch, some of those in turn will make a visit to the store, and some of those will actually buy a product. Or whatever. It is very much a funnel, because you notionally stuff the entire world of potentials into the top, and winnow them down successively to smaller and smaller subsets until finally you have paying customers.

The funnel takes time to fill. You have to watch it, measure it, find ways to measure how many potential clients are advancing from one step to the next, and you have to fiddle with your activities at each step to increase the percentage of potentials that advance. It typically takes something like 7 years to get a nice viable funnel working.

This is where the bulk of the time goes. Compared to filling a sales funnel, developing a product is, except in extreme cases, pretty quick.

Interestingly, a forum I look in on from time to time has a bunch of old timers who pretend, not very convincingly, to be professionals. They leap on people looking to start a business with a series of stock questions "DO YOU HAVE INSURANCE? WHAT ABOUT LICENSES? BUSINESS PLAN?" intended, obviously, to crush the new person and drive them away. They're pretty successful at that. Anyways, they never seem to mention anything about sales funnel, marketing activities and whatnot. Nothing whatsoever about, you know, actually running a business. They're pretty fond of saying that you're not gonna be successful with a Rebel and a kit lens, which makes about as much sense as saying you can't be successful wearing brown shoes.

So, in summary, I will echo Kirk here: Don't look to a bunch of amateur photographers for business advice.

Monday, January 25, 2016


Once again trolling through the internets I run across a common theme.

Can I charge for my images?

NO! You are a noob! You must spend years mastering the light saber I mean the camera! Your technical grasp must be perfect, only then will you be able to present images with sufficient midichlorians!

which, as usual, I find offensive and lame, and not just because everyone insists on saying "images". While there are plenty of noobs who take terrible pictures out there, the notion that they must focus on technical mastery like some sort Movie Kung Fu student is both ubiquitous and maddening. Usually this is trotted out by dopes who have indeed spent years on technical mastery, and 0 seconds on any of the soft skills. Dopes whose work shows, tragically, how poor their non-technical skills are, and how labored their technical ones are.

It takes a couple of days to "master the camera" if you're of reasonable intelligence and are not being distracted by imbeciles. You don't know anything about using strobes or filters or gels and on and on, but you can shoot. Any of the special topics can be knocked out in a couple days, on an as-needed basis.

I make no special claim about being a mighty artist, but I can shoot some. I can grind out various quasi-professional tropes, I can occasionally scratch together a little photo essay that makes some sort of an Art point. I am absolutely convinced that I could teach anyone to shoot as well as me in something like a week. It took me, um, 30 years or something, but I was dithering about on stupid paths almost the entire time.

Still, mastery is a real thing. I can't shoot a portrait like Tuck and it would indeed take me years to learn how if I ever could. I can jolly well light like Tuck. Or, more precisely, I can steal one lighting setup or another from him by looking at a picture. My light saber technique probably isn't quite as good as his, but that mainly turns up as me taking 10 minutes more to curse at the gear. The technical stuff simply isn't that hard. So why can't I shoot like Tuck?

The reason I can't shoot like Tuck hasn't got anything to do with the technical. It's in the softer skills. I don't know which lighting setup to pull out when, and I don't have any feel for how to adjust it to suit. I mean, I could do something, but it wouldn't look like Tuck, and it wouldn't work like a Tuck portrait.

But here's the biggest reason I can't shoot like Tuck. I have no idea how to interact with the victim. Not only do I have no idea how to pull the picture out of the magical gestalt between photographer and subject, I have no idea how to bring the gestalt about. I'm just a dope mumbling at the camera, while the subject sits and twitches uncomfortably.

These are the skills that take years to master. These skills are soft. They're about looking and about seeing. They're about responding, and interacting. They're about finding a way to wrap yourself around a subject and make sense of it in your own way, or in collaboration.

The light saber is easy. It's working out who to stick it in to, and when, that's hard.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


This is a sort of follow on to the previous post.

A theme enjoyed by the camera enthusiast in this digital age is the various ways in which metadata can be generated and added to a picture. The amateurs have been heard to complain about Nikon's so-called "solutions" to GPS tagging photos. We want to automatically add copyright data, lens data, settings and so on of course. Time and date are a given. It is not entirely clear what the actual value of attaching a bunch of extra data to your picture actually is.

In any case, we have Who, Where, and When. All we need are Why and What.

The stuff you can glean from a photographer's social media pictures, without even looking at the pictures, is pretty amazing. You can make a guess as to where he lives, and where he travels. You can probably tell what hours he keeps. You can estimate his economic status. You can estimate his habits.

A modern camera together with social medias, or photo sharing, amounts to voluntarily carrying a tracking device which the darkest spooks in government could hardly have imagined in their wildest dreams.

Chuck in some basic image analysis, facial recognition and whatnot and we're really on to something.

This sort of thing can obviously be used for good. I've rattled on about using this sort of thing to manage the vast wads of photos which infest our lives. It can, equally obviously, be used for ill. We, the rank and file, the vast majority of the relatively innocent citizens, rarely benefit from increased government awareness of us. We likewise benefit little from increasingly targeted advertising.

I find it amusing and downright weird that Lightroom, apparently, lets you figure out what focal lengths you use most by, I dunno, doing something with catalogs or something and sorting somehow? Flickr would love to share with you some trend lines on popular camera models and whatnot.

Why is this stuff even interesting? We literally see articles written on flickr's latest trend data on camera model usage on Who on earth cares about this, and why? There's no use for it, it must be idle curiousity. What a strange thing to be curious about. And why are we willing to, en masse, trade vast swathes of privacy to scratch this particular pointless itch?

One almost begins to suspect a plot, before one remembers what incompetent dolts most plotters are.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Vision Machines

Over at Disphotic, Lewis Bush is writing about machine vision and worrying about the consequences.

I think it's a sort of interesting thread of thought. I imagine myself a Wodehouse character, pottering around and poking at it with some sort of absurdly ornate walking stick.

Lewis seems to be a little concerned that man will be replaced by machine in the very idea, the act, the mysterious cloud of whatever stuff surrounds the act of looking at pictures. I think.

I'm not convinced that this is "seeing" in any philosophically important way. The best the machine can do nowadays is basic feature identification, and we're not going to be doing any better for a long time, because we don't even know what seeing in the human sense is. It's more than feature identification, that's for sure, but our knowledge stops pretty goddamned abruptly and thoroughly at that point. I don't think anyone has an actionable plan for moving past this particular stop sign.

People seem to be pretty focused on fMRI scanning, which is very cool looking but is almost certainly not going to actually tell us anything, the code is not going to be cracked with brain scanning. The data we gather might prove useful later, but there's one or more deeply fundamental things we're missing which we don't even understand the vague shape of.

So, the ability to identify 7-UP cans, BMW automobiles, and long guns in photographs is certainly going to keep the spooks and the ad men excited and busy for a while, and it's probably going to, somehow, make our lives incrementally more miserable. But it's not some important change in the place and role of photographs in society or philosophy.

Lewis has a little bit of a tendency to concern himself with the more chic lines of thinking, and wanders off in to concern about the surveillance state. On the one hand it is a near certainty that the spooks are beavering away at exactly this problem. They are, almost without question, grinding through all the photos on flickr and facebook and so on, trying to find, I dunno, some damn thing.

Lewis' concern is, in my estimation, overwrought. The spooks are also, surely, arguing about what to look for, fiddling with algorithms, and finding either nothing or too much of something. Whittling a trillion photos down to a billion, or to zero, isn't particularly useful for anyone or anything. Well, not typically for government purposes. You can target missiles based on a billion hits if you have a lot of missiles, but you're gonna make even fewer friends than the first world nations have been making of late. You can target the hell out of ads, though...

The spooks, as they often do, will probably find the metadata much more interesting. The where and the when data, gently tied to an object or person in the frame, might prove interesting to them. Watch for cameras and phones adding encrypted metadata to your pictures, "manufacturer proprietary data" which turns out to be cell tower identifiers or something. The sharing/digital community as a whole is leaning on people to attach GPS data already.

Back to machine's looking at pictures, though.

Does the fact that photographs are, or will be, "looked at" in some loose sense more by machines than by people somehow important? I feel Lewis' thesis here, in a vague sort of way, and it does feel important. It's a shift, certainly, another sign and omen that we're not sitting on the floor going through a shoebox filled with snapshots any more.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Event Photos

Here's some food for thought (that means, I don't think I have any thesis or conclusion).

There was a thing in "Vogue" (possibly just online) recently about things brides ought to do these days. One of the things on the list was that brides should not hire a professional photographer, but simply gather up photos shot by their guests.

Predictably this has all the people who pretend to be professional photographers on the internet up in arms. They see their imaginary income being threatened by some blogger who's writing a pretty ordinary "I will just say the opposite of a bunch of stuff" post, and they decide to rant and rave a bit.

Here's the thing worth thinking about: If photographs destroy memory, perhaps no photography at all is the correct answer for genuinely important moments in your life.

You trade crisp, unchanging, 2 dimensional pictures which will tend to get fixed in your mind as The Memory of The Day in. What you get in return is a much more organic, malleable, but 3 dimensional and multi-sensory memory. You'll remember what people said, you'll remember how the music sounded and what dinner tasted like.

As time passes you will increasingly remember it differently from how it really happened, but maybe that's OK.


Hopper's painting has got to be one of the favorite sources cited by wannabee artist photographers. It pops up all over the place. Hop on flickr and search for Nighthawks. It's 75% birds, 10% planes, 5% random crap, and 10% random pictures taken from outside restaurants.

I suddenly realized why.

How do you shoot this thing? You lurk around in the dark outside a restaurant, and then take a picture of people inside the restaurant. That's it. It's easy, and, this is the important thing, it's safe. Your victims can't see you, since you're lurking around in the dark pretty far away, and they're inside, in the light.

You get to namedrop a well-known name and wrap yourself in his banner, you get to shoot some legit-looking "street"-ish stuff, and it's safe.

And pretty much any shot will come out looking vaguely reminiscent of the painting. Restaurants use more or less the same warm lighting as they did in Hopper's day, and the night remains, well, dark. But of course random figures seen through windows is to more or less miss the point of the painting.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Technical Flaws"

If you look over on PetaPixel right now, you'll find sandwiched between the "1287 Tips To Make You Landscape Photos Really Pop" (leading lines! rule of thirds! THE LIGHT!) and "ZOMG SOME COMPANY RELEASED A NEW CAMERA" you'll find some jerkoff going on about balancing artistry and the technical nerd side of things.

In it he pops out the old chestnut, that you need to master the technical details because otherwise the viewer will "be distracted by the technical flaws" and not see the byootiful art shit you have made.

This one gets dragged out pretty often. If you're lucky and attentive, you will sometimes find the selfsame asshole who drags this thing out complaining, five minutes later, that people post just anything on Facebook, filled with Technical Flaws, and everyone clicks Like and it's the end of civilization.

Your viewers, if you had any, which you don't, would never notice the technical flaws. The fact that the earlobes are in focus but the eyes are ever so slightly out of focus? Nobody except some other douchey camera geek is going to notice that. Ok, maybe some serious portraitists might notice, but they're not going to care much. It's not going to make a good picture bad, any more than nailing focus will make a bad one good.

Getting the technical details under control isn't a bad idea. I work at it myself. But it's got nothing to do with whether or not my "viewers" will be "distracted". Indeed, it's as much or more for me than it is for anyone who might ever see the picture. It's about putting things into the picture, not about getting things out of it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

On Composition

Consider any theory of composition you like. You can think of the various ways of drawing lines all over the frame and peering at the intersections and whatnot. You can think of theories that involve balance and the distribution of tone. Whatever you like. There are really two quite different tasks this theory can be applied to:

First, you can attempt to explain an existing picture, and why it works.

Second, you can attempt to construct new pictures based on your theory.

The first one is generally a bit fraught. If you're honest with yourself, you will probably find picture after picture after picture that fails on one front or on several. You can tweak your theory to fit, perhaps, but you find yourself in the same position as the stock market analyst. No matter what pattern you find in past market performance, it will probably disintegrate shortly. This is, at least in part, because if you've discerned a pattern, other people have as well, and they'll be betting in such a way as to disrupt the pattern.

Similarly, there's a tendency toward the novel. Any strict patterns in a group of pictures will as likely as not be defied in the next group.

The second task tends to go a bit better. It almost doesn't matter what set of "rules" you have lying around, if you make a bunch of pictures that obey those rules then they will in the first place fit together pretty well, and in the second place will mostly be pretty pleasing to look at. The trouble here is that you tend to get a real sameness across artists. There's a reason painters in a given era all tend to kind of look similar, they all went to the same schools and learned the same theories (and had the same materials and other influences etc, of course). In a medium that thrives on the novel, well, you've got a bit of a problem.

Personally, I look for balance without worrying too much about what that would even mean. Balance, a strong diagonal or arabesque if one is gifted me, and try to keep irrelevant stuff from intruding too violently in the frame. Then I sort it out on the "contact sheet".

Surprisingly often the ones I like meet more of the criteria of my pet theories of composition (Ruskin's, basically), of balance, unity, variety. But the best ones have someone interesting being interesting, somewhere in the frame.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Kodak's new Super 8 Camera

Kodak had built a new Super 8 format movie camera, and it has attracted a certain amount of attention and derision.

I think of myself as a film guy, but I'm not, really. Having little kids means taking the easier path as much as possible, and that means digital. Still, I think of myself as a film guy.

I'm not a wild eyed fanatic film guy. I'm not going to rant on about the indefinable look of film, or the coming film renaissance which will crush digital and bring back a golden age of Camelot. None of those things is true.

What I do believe is that there is demand for film. Indeed, only morons ever thought demand would drop to zero. The salient question was always:

Will there be sufficient demand to support manufacturing, and if so, how much?

Apparently there is enough demand to support manufacturing the stuff. Kodak makes the Super 8 film, so they probably have a pretty clear idea of how much is getting used and who's buying it.

This thing is a sort of halo product, but more importantly they're targeting movie-making schools.

I am inclined to take them at face value. This strategy makes sense, and I can't think of any other interpretations that do. My guess is that Kodak is playing the long game here.

Hollywood has plenty of film partisans at the moment. Kodak has a modest business making film stock for the movie industry. Great. How does one maintain that over the next 10, 20, 50 years? You've simply got to get film into the hands of the students. Kodak is ensuring that the next generation has access to the whole film deal. The look, real or imagined, and the ways and modes of working.

Not every student will fall in love with it, but some will. Kodak's movie film market will ebb and flow with fashion, but it will remain.

Targeting the students works.

In the 1990s I was building networking equipment. Cisco was becoming the major competitor, and a part of their strategy was to target universities. Their gear was slow, almost unusably hard to set up, and generally crappy. It was also ubiquitous at universities. Those students who worked part time for the U went out into the world and bought Cisco because they were familiar with it.

Eventually Cisco got big enough and rich enough to dominate in quality and performance too, although their user interface is still garbage.

This is Kodak's plan, and I see no reason it won't work out fine.

Worth noting: still photography plays no role in this particular fork of the strategy tree. Obviously. Movie makers use film stock at 24 frames/second. If your business is measured in acres, target the people who consume by the acre, rather than the square inch.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Story of the Picture

Reading recent remarks here one might get the idea that I am obsessed with literal truth in photographs, and that's not quite right. Authenticity isn't truth, at least not the way I'm using it (never mind the dictionary, like Humpty Dumpty, I am the master here, I am not to be bossed around by words). I don't actually think there's a need for literal truth in a photograph. Literal truth-telling is not a requirement to making a good picture, or a good picture essay.

Respect for what's in front of the camera is. An understanding that photography is rooted in the direct connection between the picture and the thing itself, an understanding that the thing photography does best is to minimize that distance between the picture and the thing itself, these are really necessary. Probably some sort of authentic presentation of your own ideas of the thing itself is, if not necessary, at least a good idea.

Let's step back one degree. For some reason we seem to love the story behind the picture.

For some weird reason, people (including me, I am after all a people) seem to have some fascination with the Truth Behind The Picture, the story of how the picture was made. Even, I suspect, people who insist that any and all photoshopping and manipulation is OK, because Art, will become angry and upset if they learn you have lied about how you took the photo. So much for consistency.

This came to my attention because some cow on some gossip web site is bitching about how Tyler Shields basically copying all his photos from other people's work and lying about it. Setting aside the issue of whether there is anything new under the sun, ultimately, why do we care if Tyler makes up a story about how he was inspired, or if he he actually is just lifting ideas wholesale? Tyler isn't a photographer, anyways. He's a performance artist playing the role of a photographer, and anyone with a clue can see this. Why on earth would we expect the tales he tells in his fictional role as a photographer to be non-fiction?

I've never heard of Tyler, but it's still interesting that it matters. I felt the rage myself, but even so I can't work out why it matters.

Alain Briot has mentioned that the process of selling a print is often intimately wrapped up in the story of how the picture was made.

There has long been quite the little cottage industry in "discrediting" various famous pictures "blah blah staged, blah blah, modified" and so on, apparently because, even outside the world of journalism, the truth of the story somehow has some bearing on the value of the picture. If you poke around you'll learn that Migrant Mother was "staged", just as a for instance, and you'll probably hear breathlessly described as a Terrible Secret that a fuzzy thumb in the foreground got erased. Yawn.

This is, somehow, related to my earlier remarks on authenticity.

You'd think that think that some chappie with an obsession with "authenticity" in a photography would find it difficult to maintain this dismissive attitude, eh? But I do, and I can, because authenticity is not literal truth-telling, and as a second order issue, the story you tell about the picture isn't the picture, it's a story.

It is not necessary to tell the absolute truth about your influences (what would that even look like?), and I'm not sure it's a problem to simply trot out a complete fiction. Your story is not the picture, after all. If you ask your subject to turn a little to the left, that does not ruin the authenticity of the shot (although it might, it need not).

I'm sure someone's done a show in which the captions are all lies.

You could just steal someone else's show of reportage, and change all the captions to bullshit. Art!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


I've been going on and on lately about authenticity, or something like that. Here's some more thoughts. Buried in here someplace is one of those awful arguments that philosophers are prone to, which boil down to "these two things are the same color, therefore they are the same" which is terrible. These arguments are just stupid when applied to the real world.

However, we're talking here about human feelings, human reactions, and these kinds of arguments do hold some sway here. I'll try to point out the sticky bit when it comes along, so you can judge for yourself.

Painters do a certain thing. They observe, something. The world, an object, some lily pads perhaps. Or a girl, or a mountain. Then they paint a picture, which may be straight out of their own imagination based on their experiences with seeing things, or drawn more directly from the world. It hardly matters. The picture is explicitly a product of the artist. It may be based on something real, but ultimately it comes from the painter. The painter is making with us a bargain: If you will allow me this divergence from what is literal, what is indexical, what is real, then I will in turn pay you back with my labor, my choice of color, my brushwork, my selections of what to place where in the frame, and so on, all of those things which a painter does.

A photograph, as I am fond of repeating, is not this. It is indexical, it is drawn literally from the world. The bargain the artist makes here is somewhat different, and tends to look more like: This was real, it was there, I recorded it. If you will allow me the relative ease of making this picture, there is no brushwork and so on, then I will pay you back with something that is, at least at its base, real.

Then there's a bunch of stuff in between. Photo collages, digital painting, and so on. These are not two camps, bitterly divided, they are two ends of a spectrum.

Consider this, though.

If the photographer wishes to show you not particularly what is real, but rather what is inside himself, but then declines to do any brushwork, to provide any painterly labor, then is that not something of a cheat?

Consider this example.

On flickr you could easily find a few thousand building facades which are utterly generic. There's some sort of pleasing interplay of geometry in them all, which is why they got posted and why they have 758 Favorites and 12,287 Awards. They are, however, generic, they are ultimately representations of what the photographer wants the picture to be. They have left the actual thing itself behind. They are, in a sense, paintings made without any actual painting.

On flickr you can probably also find a thousand photographs of essentially the same sort, which happen to be shots of Aqua in Chicago. As of this writing, this is a very distinctive building. You can take exactly the same sort of boring "abstract facade" photo of Aqua, and wind up with something that is distinctly Aqua. The thing itself is strong enough graphically that it is not abandoned, the photograph remains photographic. In spite, usually, of the photographer's efforts to obliterate the thing itself.

Here is another example. Majeed Badizadegan is a mildly flickr-famous guy who shoots, basically, these pictures:

One of these was taken on the Oregon coast, the other in Hawaii.

It is not that Majeed has mined this idea out, and should therefore knock it off (although that too is arguably true), it is that by shooting these two different things in the same way he reveals that he's not interested in the thing itself. He's interested in making this picture, over and over, wherever he goes. He could probably make this picture in Salt Lake City, somehow, and if he was there he'd certainly try. Majeed has eliminated the subject and replaced it with an abstraction. He has drained the life out of the thing he pointed the camera at.

You could argue that these are authentic, that this is indeed what it looks like to Majeed, and that this is his genuine reaction. I find this wildly unlikely, and if true, it's very sad. He takes this picture on every seashore, no matter how far flung. Either he has a tragically limited emotional palette, or I am right. Either way, his pictures have a tragically limited emotional palette and therefore by my lights are not very good.

Of course, it's working well for him. He's getting great positive feedback on every copy of his one picture. If positive feedback on flickr is valuable to you, then by your standards he's successful. By mine, he is not.

At this point there's room for a whole essay on how much of this essay depends on the time and the viewer, versus how much of it lies with the artist.

This is not to say that abstraction is a bad thing. You can shoot an abstract sort of a thing, let's say some isolation of shadows on pavement, which is nonetheless the thing itself. When you look at it you don't know where, or whether it was hot or cold, but you do know that those shadows were there on that pavement and nowhere else.

So here is the sticky bit of the argument.

Because the camera is inherently about recording the literalness in front of it, I am going to claim that photographs ought to embrace that literalness. The thing itself should be present. If your aim is to obliterate the thing itself and present only your vision of how a picture ought to look, then you are merely a lazy painter, and not doing photography at all.

For extra credit, note that this is roughly the argument against pictorialism, an argument that I have vehemently protested in the past. I'm going to claim that the argument was a little bit different, and that to the extent it was the same it was often unfairly applied. But more importantly, I am going to quote Emerson (the other one):

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds [...]

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Since I nailed it with the ALPA camera review on LuLa I'm going to make some more guesses. This will continue until I guess completely, ludicrously, wrong, enough times to give up! And that's a bunch of times.

Given that P1 mailed LuLa a very expensive prototype/pre-production/whatever camera, which LuLa very roughly reviewed, and which review KuLa then published under the title "Early Hands One[sic] Report" I assume that, eventually, someone at Silverfleet is going to peek in at this little operation and blow a gasket.

It takes five minutes to work out that site operates without a shred of editorial overview, simply slamming up random pieces that people send them. There's no fact checking, there's no copy-editing. They can't even sort "it's" and "its" out, and they let typos in headlines stand apparently indefinitely. Frankly, it's not at all clear what the hell these guys are up to.

This, I predict, will result in Leadership Changes as we say in the business world.
  • A new member of the leadership team will appear, soonish. Next couple of months, say. Title unknown, but the role will be to clean house and get this bloody shop under control.

  • Michael will take on more of an advisory role as he concentrates more deeply on the Luminous Endowment and his own artistic endeavors.

  • Kevin will be asked to take on new challenges. Perhaps he'll run projects, or workshops, or something. It'll be pitched as an expansion of role, but will actually be a reduction.

  • Chris might just sit tight, or silently vanish, not sure.

Not all of this will happen, but I feel pretty good about the first two!


Who called it? Eh? Eh?


I periodically post a little reminder on this topic.

I appreciate it when people argue with me in the comments. My posts are generally pretty thoroughly thought out, I've generally got some pretty good reasons for where I stand, and I'm usually not going to budge much on the basis of someone's disagreement.

But there is this miracle which occurs when you disagree with someone, state your case, and that someone rebuts, and you have a discussion. Whether or not either one of you changes your position one iota, both of you get a little bit smarter.

So, bring it. Don't hold out much hope for a radical change, but we'll both be better for it anyway.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Most Important Thing

When you're trying to take a picture, you do a bunch of stuff. You wait for things to change, you move around, you direct the model, and on and on. Eventually, if you're lucky, the picture happens and hopefully it's one of the ones you actually shot.

Here is the single most important distinction in photography. It's subtle, so pay attention:

The stuff in front of the camera can be revealed as a specific picture.

The stuff in front of the camera can be revealed as itself.

What you actually want is the second one. This is a little vague, it's unclear what any of it means. That's how it goes. Make sense out of my words in your own way, and think it over. Disagree, agree, it doesn't matter, you're going to be a better photographer 10 minutes from now from thinking it through and forming an opinion.

Read basically anything written by any photographers of any note and this is what they're trying to tell you. From Emerson to Tuck, at least, and I can pull a half dozen names you'd recognize in between in a couple of minutes, with quotes to back it up in.. um, well, that could take some time. Getting quotes is tedious.

But trust me!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Come ON man

Over on LuLa we have some writing from Richard Sexton who is, I think, a respectable and thoughtful guy. At any rate, the name rings a bell, and that bell is positive. (It is possible I am thinking of John Sexton and that Richard is an idiot, however.) He's writing a series of essays that are super ambitious. Photography, where it came from, where it is, where it's going. He's going for a Big Think Piece here. Currently he's hacking his way through the past and, to be honest, not doing a very good job of it. Here's a particularly problematic segment, talking about the Family of Man exhibition at the MOMA, 1955:

But, photographs wet mounted to masonite with radial corners, and hung salon style like a presentation at a sales convention, seem not just quaint by today’s standards, but disrespectful of the medium. I remember vividly at a gallery talk in the late 90s, Danny Lyon, who was in the Family of Man exhibit, telling about his lawsuit against MOMA, which resulted from the exhibit. When the exhibit came down, MOMA did not want to pay the extra postage required to return mounted work to the exhibiting photographers. So, his 8×10 print was peeled from the masonite and mailed back to him in a mailing tube. As one might expect, peeling a wet mounted print off masonite defied a non-reversible process, and the print was damaged.

We have some basic problems here. This thing was put together by Eduard Steichen, so we can be pretty confident that it wasn't disrespectful to the medium. It was not hung salon style, which means "all jumbled together on the wall at varying heights without regard for anything", when used in this kind of dismissive way. It was also not hung "on the line", which means all in a row at eye height and which sucks for this sort of thing. It was hung with great care and in a fairly radical way, but in a very carefully considered way. As far as I can tell the exhibition was not returned to any of the artists, although the the prints were mounted on masonite.

Finally we have the basic problem that Danny Lyon was 13 years old when the exhibition went up, and so wasn't in the show at all.

I have no idea what the hell Sexton has in mind here, but he's probably muddling up two or three different anecdotes here, and can't be buggered to check anything that he writes. Which is pretty annoying.

Come ON, man.

Updated: Adam Marelli heard the same story from Lyon in 2011, and this version is far more reasonable. It also supports Sexton's "even the MOMA had no love for photography" thesis a lot less effectively.

Update Number 2: This list of all the exhibitions ever held at the MOMA pretty much puts the lie to the commonly held belief that Photography Struggled/Is Still Struggling Super Hard To Be Accepted nonsense. Stieglitz stopped pushing for photography's acceptance by the establishment because he had won the fight. Anyone who tries to say otherwise is trying to sell something.

Pre-conception, Pre-visualization

The two words in the title may be poorly chosen, I am at peace with that.

If you approach a project, a body of work, with a firm idea of what it will be before you even begin, it's unlikely to go well. I use "begin" here in a quite broad sense, you "begin" long before you shoot. Perhaps decades, perhaps seconds, but the mental space between the beginning and the first exposure is large. It is in this interval where your conception of what you're trying to do forms. This is the space in which you grasp your subject, wrestle with it, internalize and react to it. It is in this space that the concept of the project is formed.

Doing this in a few seconds is possible but rare. A few hours or a few days is a useful idea of a minimum. But, you cannot begin until you are engaged with whatever it is you intend to shoot.

You cannot conceive of your Chicago portfolio before you go to Chicago, not if you want it to be about Chicago. And if it's not about Chicago, why on earth are you going to Chicago?

Pre-visualization is the process by which the concept is turned, in your mind, into a picture. It's the part after you conceive the project and, ideally, before you shoot, otherwise you're shooting blind.


This is probably best (often? usually? usefully) viewed as a nested bunch of loops. At any step you can always skip backwards one or more steps, and you're probably going to repeat it a lot.

It actually Will Not Work in any other order. Well, you can do something, but you're just shooting bullshit and then digging through it later to see if anything can be found in the mess you've made.

On Doing Photography

I'm reading a couple of things these days, short things. Art and Fear by Bayles and Orland, and "On Being a Photographer" by Hurn and Jay. They're both pretty good in their own right. Both of them are helping me to refine my own ideas, which is pleasant. Both of them, basically, are simply reiterating well-known things about Art-Making, and fleshing these truths out with a collection of personal refinements and observations.

Both align, in broad strokes, with things I say on this blog.

The point here is that most of my ideas are not original with me. From time to time I come up with something on my own, but it's (almost?) never actually new, other people have thought the same things before. None of this stuff is rocket science. What it is, is mysterious and opaque to the earnest amateur photographer who is bizarrely unaware of these things, these methods, these processes, these ideas.

Here is an interesting case study: Dealing with visual overload. As usual, Mr. Thein is merely providing a sort of canonical example, well written and illustrated, of a practically universal phenomenon. Spend a little time of any of the major photo forums and you'll find the same story repeated endlessly, but in a less handily cite-able format.

In summary, Mr. Thein and a Masterclass group had gone to considerable expense and difficulty to place themselves in Chicago, and found themselves with Bad Light and Uninteresting Subjects. They suffered in the cold and wind for a couple hours, and then suddenly, The Light! The Light! and they had to shoot rapidly for a little while to get The Good Pictures.

So what we have here is a group of photographers standing around, engaged with their environment (albeit not in a positive way, they seem to be cold and grumpy) waiting. Their teacher's advice is to use this time to fuck around with their cameras.

I submit to you that instead they could have taken that opportunity, that time of authentic connection, and used it. They could have shot the cold, the banal, the frustrated. Instead, evidently, the aim was to shoot an inauthentic, generic, cityscape. We know for a fact that these pictures are not Ming's experience of that shoreline, we know for a fact, because he tells us, that it didn't look like that, it didn't feel like that. What it looks like is everything else Ming had ever shot. Presumably the students were are striving to copy that, to shoot the same crisply generic cityscapes that their master grinds out. I can practically guarantee you that damn near anything they could have shot an hour earlier would have been more interesting, albeit less +1-attracting.

The same thing surely applies even in the most standard commercial work. If you show up and the model is a bitch, the clothes are being difficult and half your lights are declining to work, what do you do?

You could give up.

You could struggle through it and try to tproduce work per the original concept, working around and through the problems to create the happy model, beautifully lit, in perfectly fitting clothes. Is it gonna be your best examples of the genre, your best work? Nope. Depending on various factors it's going to fall somewhere between acceptable and terrible.

An option is to not fight it. Shoot the bitch, shoot her in minimal light. Embrace her bad temper, fit the lighting style to what's still going POW! and POP! and figure out how to make the clothes look, somehow, awesome.

This might not be available as a choice. If it is a choice, maybe you can't make it work. But, if it is and you do it's got the potential to be great, not mediocre. Fighting circumstance and clinging to a preconceived vision in spite of it all isn't necessarily professionalism. If you're a carpenter, sure, you gotta get the roof on. If you're a creative, surely your job is first and foremost, to be creative.

If you're not getting paid to do it, if it's personal, there's simply no excuse for mediocrity. Don't pass away your authentic experience screwing around with camera. If you're standing around some shoreline bitching about the light, consider that the problem might not be the light, it might be your ability to see.

All this, of course, sidesteps the impossibility of simply flying into a city for the first time, wandering around it for a couple hours, and hoping to make something interesting of it.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Luminous Landscape

A commenter recently inspired me to look in to LuLa and Phase One a bit more.

A quick peek around the network suggests that Phase One sent a demo unit of their new 100 megapixel 645 format camera to exactly one place, that being LuLa. This supports, rather firmly, the notion that LuLa is essentially a wholly owned sub of Phase One. The CEO of LuLa is a former Phase One guy, which is a bit of a tipoff, too.

Let's unpack that a bit further. WTF is up with Phase One? At first glance, they appear to be a small to medium sized company ($50M in revenue, a small number of millions in profits, in 2012) that makes extremely limited market cameras, and which should therefore be struggling for a bit before eventually dying off. This is because if you're mostly looking at photography stuff on the internet you get a very wrong impression.

Silverfleet Capital bought them in 2014 (majority stake, whatever, Silverfleet is calling the shots now). Silverfleet is in the business of buying companies and growing them. They help roll out new products, and do acquisitions, and ultimately sell the resulting larger company off at a profit. Silverfleet doesn't think these guys are circling the drain at all, they think there's growth potential.

Silverfleet thinks there's money, and quite a bit of of, to be made here. They think they can grow Phase One from $50M in revenue to maybe $200M in revenue in the next handful of years. Some of that's going to come from Capture One software, sure, but these guys are probably thinking in terms of shifting $100M+ in cameras (XF, repro, aerial), per annum, as a possible outcome, one to be highly desired. That's several thousand complete systems a year.

So here's what I was missing: Phase One isn't a medium format camera company. They're an industrial camera company. They sell aerial and repro cameras, as well as medium format systems for amateurs.

The 100 megapixel camera system makes perfect sense for aerial applications. More pixels translates into less flying time. The ROI on a 100 megapixel camera can be calculated in a moment, and is going to be very very good. Flying airplanes in extremely expensive. Massive color depth probably makes a lot of sense in the repro market. The whacky "vibration detect" system which can, optionally, fire the shutter only when vibration is low is almost certainly a feature for the aerial market, and so on.

So here is probably what happened: Silverfleet rolls in in 2014 when Phase One had a collection of products and platforms that were sort of separate. They probably shared a lot of bits and pieces, but not enough. Silverfleet funded the development of a shared platform (XF). A common set of hardware to house sensors, control software, communication protocols and connectors, etc. This is why the XF camera system presented on LuLa looks so industrial, austere, and frankly a little weird. It is an industrial camera, in a hastily drawn 645-style body.

The amateur camera platform is now a cheap add-on to what is probably the real business. Not to cheapen it too much, it's probably a million bucks a year or something to maintain the XF camera system in the product suite, but at 30,000 to 60,000 per, you don't need to shift that much kit to cover your expenses.

The fact that LuLa appears to be literally the only place that Phase One talks to, works with, suggests that either they're not taking it very seriously, or that they think LuLa captures very close to 100% of the potential market for this thing (i.e. the more or less traditional 645-format camera system, the XF). I am betting the latter, the Silverfleet guys are not in the business of half-assing stuff.

To be honest, I am starting to think the commenter who kicked this whole train of thought off ain't so dumb after all. The $12/year pricetag on LuLa might be in place almost entirely for the purpose of harvesting zipcodes from the user base.

In summary: Phase One is owned (for practical purposes) by a sharp bunch of guys fixated on growing Phase One over the next couple of years, and selling it to a bigger private equity firm or investment group. Phase One is therefore fixated on growing through more products, more markets, and (maybe) acquisitions. LuLa is owned (for practical purposes) by Phase One, and has recently switched to a for-pay model at a very very low price.

I'm not convinced by the strategy, the LuLa crowd knows how to get 100 megapixels, you take a dozen shots with the D810 and drop them in some photo merge thing. The XF camera system may be a status symbol in a certain very narrow way, but given that it looks like and is an industrial camera, that seems an unsure bet. This isn't a camera system that makes any sense, no matter how you slice it. The commercial photography market has basically no use for this thing, although I'm sure there are a handful of pros out there who have an application for it. Amateurs simply stitch up whatever they need.

The only play I can think of is some sort of purist thing. Some sort of "Get it right in camera" pitch, which will play to both the resolution and the color depth features. I think we can look forward to some articles on LuLa about making 30x40 inch prints, and bigger, and the Obvious Advantages, Nay, The Necessity of 100 Megapixels for this sort of Important Photography.

Also, keep your eyes open for LuLa plugging ALPA cameras. There's already a partnership in place, and ALPA is probably a natural acquisition target for Phase One, if the "sell cameras to retired dentists" business works out tolerably well for them.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Portfolio Construction

This applies to gallery shows, folios, books, whatever you have in mind. Any time you're putting a group of pictures together to make some sort of statement in any format whatsoever.

If I said anything at all smart in my book, it is this:

The approach you take to assembling a group of pictures is much the same as the approach you take to assembling a picture. Consider the balance, the variety, and the unity of the work. A portfolio can be balanced, in that it hits all the relevant themes about equally. It can have variety (or not). It can hang together as a unit, or not.

If you use a different theory of composition that your favor, translate its principles into things you can say about portfolios, and then apply them. It's the same thing at a higher level of abstraction. You might choose to contradict the individual pictures in the construction of the portfolio, or you might choose to repeat the same ideas, it's up to you. But choose, and choose for a reason.

I'm not even going to cite the portfolio that inspires this, suffice it to say that the artist has assembled a handful of more or less identical black and white photographs, and created possibly the least interesting portfolio I have ever seen, and is now wringing his hands about a picture that doesn't fit in at all. If the portfolio is supposed to be a dull collection of indistinguishable monochromes, then dump the color picture. Duh. If it's supposed to be more interesting, then spread yourself a bit and maybe the current loner will fit. Duh. If you still can't make it fit, then dump it. For the third time, Duh.

A portfolio should almost never be simply "the best frames", there's no room for ebb and flow, for rhythm, for highs and lows. That's a symphony in G major consisting entirely of G major chords played fortissimo in 4/4 time. Nobody wants to listen to that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Word of Power

Thanks to all for looking at my pictures. I'm very happy with the reactions, positive and negative.

A few days back I stated that the phrase I don't know held some special power. Of course my readers knew immediately that I was going on to the but I am jolly well going to find out from there.

This is a phrase that drives science and engineering, of course. It's what causes us to find out new things.

In Art, though, it's a little squishier, and little less obvious. When I don't know why an experiment went wrong, or how to solve a problem in a piece of software, I really don't know it. I may occasionally think I know, but always in a Oh, I know, but I will just quickly check it way, and I am rapidly shown the error of my thinking. When you're trying to solve a problem of Art, you may also think you have the answer, and you'll try your answer out. The difficulty is that you're not rapidly disabused of your silly notion.

You get a picture out, or a sculpture, or a piece of music. Your quick answer was correct, look!

Except that altogether too often it is not. What you have is a stupid cliché, not a good answer. The competent and capable may well produce a technically excellent piece that bears the unmistakeable mark of the artist. Absent the starting point of I don't know all too often that's all the artist gets. Look on the internet, pretty much anywhere, and you'll see these things.

We know more or less immediately that we've built a bad bridge, because it falls down and a bunch of people die. We may never learn that we've made a bad photograph, especially if we surround ourselves with people who have more or less the same set of answers to these problems. We become complacent. If you believe in yourself, and by golly you better if you're planning to make some Art, the temptation to believe in your quick answers is almost overwhelming.

I think it might well behoove us, therefore, to explicitly step back and say I don't know when we start something out. Create some distance, some space between yourself and your bag of tricks, the pictures you know how to make. Tell yourself I don't know how to make this picture, these pictures. But I am jolly well going to find out.

The point is to be confident not of your ability to make as such, but in your ability to learn and discover what to make.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Vancouver II

Look at the pictures in the previous post before you read this one. This post is just about what went into the making of those pictures, so, if you don't care, you can skip this! Nice, huh?


I have family across the border in Vancouver, BC. Recently, the immediate family took a trip up to visit the extended family, and Dad got sent up a day early to relax with his sister for 24 hours, kid-free.

I've been visiting Vancouver for 40 years, and even went to school there for a year in.. well, a very very long time ago indeed. I have a strong impression of the place, which isn't really what it is today, but it's an impression. The attached photos were shot mostly in an afternoon, with a few fill-ins over the next couple of days. The fact that this was done at speed is not an excuse. This portfolio is what it is, no excuses from me.

I'm posting these here because I haven't really got an endpoint in mind for this. There's probably going to be some sort of hardcopy. I might do a blurb thing, I will probably hand build a limited edition thing.

I've imbued this collection with a lot of meaning and ideas. Who knows what you'll get out, though. It's not a test, there's no reason you need to get anything out, or if you do that it be what I put in. This is for your enjoyment and entertainment. Comment however you like, but be advised that this is a completed project. If you think I should crop something or other differently, feel free to let me know, but it won't change that photo. I might learn something, though.

Repetitions and sizing are deliberate. Best viewed, I think, by clicking the first picture and using the pager that pops up. That was my intent with the giant white "mat" backgrounds, to give a book-like experience.