Friday, March 4, 2016


In what follows, I am pretty obviously just trying to rationalize dismissing a bunch of photography that I don't like. Let's see how I do!

I'm not sure, but I think that photography may be unique in that there is a whole classification for work that is judged by the community as "good" for no particular reason at all.

Long ago there was a guy with a show on PBS, Bob Ross. He taught you how to paint in 30 minute TV segments. It was wonderful. He had a whole basket of methods which, when combined, produced pleasing, pretty, landscape paintings. He had a method or two for trees, for clouds, and so on. Loads of people learned to paint from Bob Ross's TV show, and churned out mile after mile of paint-covered canvas. It was great fun, and very rewarding on a personal level.

No sensible person ever thought much of the output was "good", though. That wasn't the point. This was explicitly a personal journey, a personal craft one could learn and then decorate ones home with. One might even give paintings away to friends. Of course some people tried to sell their paintings, or get them in to museums, or whatever. These people were gently directed.. well.. elsewhere.

Photographic pedagogy is dominated by a seething horde of Bob Rosses, who seem to have missed the memo about "personal" and "pleasing hobby" and "mildly decorative" and "... but definitely not good in any meaningful way."

There is a rough equivalent in semi-practical crafts. One can make a "good" pottery bowl which isn't particularly creative or artistically enriching. Here we have the objective criterion of holds soup inside reliably which can be used as a definition of "good". Something like forensic or other documentary photography could be said to have the same sort of criterion and definition available. That's not what I am talking about.

What I mean is the endless parade of photographs judged "good" by other photographers on their presumed artistic merits.

I think what it actually comes down to is that there is a sort of Bob Ross notion of a photograph out there. There's an idea of an ideal kind of landscape thing, an ideal kind of street photograph thing, and so on. What people really want is to be able to accomplish this sort of semi-art thing on their own. You know, the beautifully saturated landscape with the tree balancing the waterfall just so, and the shadows and the highlights and so on. Or the street shot with the crowd looking left and that one kid looking right with the strange expression. It's a combination of hitting the technical bits and the forms right. It is, essentially, a personal goal. And right up to this point, it's a beautiful thing.

The next step is where we get into trouble. You hit the elements, more or less, in some picture, and you shove it out there for your peers to admire. Look, I have hit the right notes here, and I am pleased with the results!. Then your peers judge it, essentially, on the grounds that they wish they'd shot it themselves.

A notion of "good" has grown up which is really a measure of how much personal pleasure one person would have had in making such and such a picture.

This turns in to a pile of Likes, Favorites, or +1s. The picture bubbles up, it gets "Explored" or whatever. Strangers come along and read the comments and see the likes.

Over time the community is trained to treat this sort of personal pleasure generating picture as Objectively Good.

Then there's endless discussions about why hoi polloi don't much like these things, and how well, they're just not educated, and you should shoot for yourself which really means our little community of photographers is the arbiter of what, ultimately, is good and not good.

I have no problem with loving your Bob Ross style paintings. They're personal things, and you worked hard at them, and they're great. For you. The trouble is when this deeply personal standard leaks out into the world and gets confused with some objective notion of goodness. That is, well, it's wrong. Personally gratifying exercises in technique together with the power of the internet (and before that, but to a lesser degree, photographic clubs and magazines) have taught a generation, essentially, that Bob Ross and Leonardo da Vinci are pretty much the same.

I just saw Jeff Schewe, author and well known internet asshat, cut down Henri Cartier-Bresson on the grounds that his shadows were sometimes plugged up and his focus was off. With this sort of blather going around, it's a wonder civilization stands at all.

In a world where the perceived value of a photograph seems to be dropping daily, surely it helps nobody to keep crapping out endless picture-perfect postcard landscapes, endless empty pictures of guys in funny hats and lovely silhouettes sweeping across lighted doorways. Each of these, seen for the first time, as some of the quality of Art, but seen for the 1000th time merely cheapens the whole enterprise.

Perhaps we should hold the personal closer, and limit what we place under the public's eye to things we think might actually work like Art, things which have a chance of actually enlarging the viewer.


  1. "I just saw Jeff Schewe, author and well known internet asshat, cut down Henri Cartier-Bresson on the grounds that his shadows were sometimes plugged up and his focus was off."

    This bums me out somewhat because I like both - I hope Mr Schewe stated this as an observation from his technical side of thinking; I have some of his books/references to working with raw files and the printing process. I like Bresson's work primarily for the "art" of it.

    There really is a flood of material out there which has the unfortunate baggage of de-sensitizing one to a state of apathy . . . and that sucks.

    Your blog is fortunately one that introduces friction to the usual flow of the stream; a little crazy at times - but nonetheless refreshing!

    1. Schewe's books are, by all accounts, genuinely excellent. His remarks were not entirely negative, he praised HCB's composition. It's clear, though, that he views photographic goodness through the lens of his own expertise which is, I think, in Fine Printing?

    2. These days the technical hurdles of making a fine print are pretty low. The camera technology allows us to produce well exposed, finely detailed images also with a very low financial barrier. And fine printers are about $1200 that wil have you printing 17x22 and wider with ease. It is *so easy* to make the full range print with blacks of just the right amount of detail and highlights just below the blown out point that has almost become boring... See 500px.

      I am not immune to a beautiful print, nor disdainful of technical excellence. I remember the first time I saw an Edward Weston exhibition. There was an undeniable beauty enhanced by the contact prints that he preferred.

      While Mr. Schewe might have been critical of HCB's blown highlights and blocked shadows there is a presumption that HCB would have wanted it differently but simply lacked the technical chops or discriminating taste of Jeffrey Schewe.

      Perhaps next up Mr. Schewe will sneer at Ralph Gibson's failure to show adequate separation in the midtones!

    3. H C-B did not do his own printing, therefore 'technical chops' does not enter into it.
      Merely his vision and interpretation to get what HE wanted.

  2. Sorry - maybe I got your post wrong, but I have to disagree. The attitude of something to be "meaningful" or to have "artistic value" - for whom should your work be "meaningful" or of "value" if not for yourself? If you produce work to please the "art scene", how is that different from trying to please folks in a photo forum or in a camera club? To draw a distinction here sounds elitist to me.

    If you are able to create work which speaks to others, makes them see things they otherwise overlooked, then you have created art. It is not important for me who this auditorium is - "unwashed masses" or art critics. If it is only you, then at least it is an auditorium of one.

    Don't let your joy of creating become spoiled!

    Best, Thomas

    1. I approve of dissent!

      In this case I think we might not be as far apart as all that, though.

      What I was trying to get at is this: I think people like a lot of photography without being touched by it. I think they like it because they recognize the picture as one they wish they had taken, out could take.

    2. Ah, OK, it's what you described by "creating for the bubble". Specifically, to create work just because everybody within your peer group creates that kind of work. As opposed to, create something because you feel an urge from within yourself to create this thing. But this is a thin and sometimes blurry distinction - between "this is my urge to create something to please myself" vs. "create something for the sake of appreciation by others, which in turn pleases me". Perhaps at least when starting, it is in fact easier to ignore any possible auditorium for the work. Food for thought ...

      I think now I got this post.

      Best, Thomas

  3. Thanks for thinking about this stuff and taking the time to distill your thoughts. It's helpful.