Friday, April 29, 2016


Next time you find yourself accidentally on some idiotic web site that Teaches Photography, just start using google image search (in Chrome this is a right click on the picture and select the right menu item) on the sample pictures.

A dizzying percentage of them are "free stock" photos. Yes, that's right, clickbait sites built by wannabee Educators use stock photos. I'm sure they're excellent teachers, though, even if they don't actually own a camera.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Data Hoarders

There seems to be something in the human psyche that makes us want to hoard data, information, gossip, facts.

Bureaucracies invariably seem to become infested with a certain breed of pervert who believes that, if only The State had sufficiently deep Files on Everyone, then some sort of utopia would be achieved. These are the same perverts who are pretty sure there ought to be cameras recording everything everywhere.

As mentioned earlier on this blog, there's a constant siren call, echoing like a particularly obnoxious form of tinnitus, in the mental ears of technologists of a certain stripe. These people feel that it is inevitable that everyone will have wearable recording devices and will record and broadcast constantly. This will lead to a utopia. A different utopia, apparently, than the one envisioned by the creepy bureaucrats. To me they look pretty much the same, but that's just me.

I went to grad school at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut. Every year around thesis time, as the seniors started to write their little papers that would get them, I think, a With Honors designation, the library shelves were stripped. Seniors would check out 50 books, 100 books. More academic tomes than they had even touched, let alone read, in their 4 or 5 years at the school. Somehow, possession of all this human knowledge made them feel like they knew something. They would ostentatiously surround themselves, in public study areas, with literal ramparts of books they would never read. It was touching, in a way.

Photographers have the same bad habit. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Pile up the exposures. Your first 10,000 pictures are your worst. Lightroom! I must organize my archive! Ha ha, my keeper rate is 0.01%! Well, MY keeper rate is 0.001% making me ten times the photographer you are!

The trouble with all of these setups is that a mass of data, of information, becomes more valuable as it grows, up to a point. After that, as it grows, the value drops off, quite sharply, simply because you can't find anything or worse, because you find too much stuff.

The great fallacy of data mining and big data is that with enough data we can find better answers. The reality is that with enough data piled up, you can find any answers at all, right or wrong.

Suppose you've got 100,000 pictures in your Lightroom archive. To flip through them at 1 per second, you'd need 30 hours, after which your head would catch fire. If you instead glance at thumbnails, 40 at a shot, taking perhaps 4 or 5 seconds per sheet, you get that down to about 3 hours of concentration. After which your head would catch fire.

Given our marvelous visual memory, you don't have to sift the whole thing, of course. 100,000 pictures is probably manageable in this day and age, but just barely. Of course, our marvelous visual memory works by eliding a lot of stuff, so if you're relying on that you've actually got far fewer than 100,000 pictures. You've got whatever subset your brain can dredge up, which isn't all of them.

In this era of digital cameras, lots of people are just getting started at 100,000 pictures. They really feel like they're getting somewhere, and all too often, they are not. They're just piling up more and more of the same uninteresting pictures, and getting increasingly finicky about how they select the "good" uninteresting pictures out of their vast glacier of dross.

Travel light. Shoot to a specific goal, and move on. If you happen to find something you love in your archives, that's wonderful too. But the stuff you shot 2 years ago is gone, except for the handful of shots that still stick with you. You may have shot 50,000 pictures in 2014, the year you got your Canon 5D, but you've only got about 10.

And that is OK. 10 is great.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Collaboration Project

Our project is finally coming to a conclusion, right on schedule! It's been a blast and, as near as I can tell, everyone is very pleased with the result. Here is how it all came together, with some remarks on how one might pull off a similar project of their own!

The long-time reader will recall that I put out a call for collaborators, some months ago. I set a theme, "East", deliberately leaving it completely open ended and vague. I invited people to sign up for a rough "amount of content", and then I selected collaborators at random until the conceived size of the book was complete. In fact, since I got more or less exactly the correct amount of subscribed content, I selected everyone! That led to 10 collaborators in total, including me. Two are known to me personally, one is me, and seven are essentially perfect strangers who comment on my blog from time to time.

I set a schedule of: 1 month to receive pictures, 1 month to pull together a draft, 1 month to finish it.

This schedule seems, for us, to have been almost precisely ideal. Aggressive, but doable. I had a few stragglers submitting content a week or two late, but that was not a problem as I had the bulk of the content to start with and had devised some general ideas for the book from that.

There were a number of catalyzing moments.

One contributor gave me beautiful collages, in several arrangements. I found myself in love with the vertical stacks of four horizontal images, and that in turn led me to conceive of the book's layout as permitting pages to be cut horizontally. The creates two booklets, one stacked atop the other. In theory, the pages of one can be turned independent of the other, allowing new juxtapositions of pictures to occur.

The book, therefore, consists largely of two-up pages intended to be cut horizontally in the middle, separating the photos.

Two photographs from two collaborators, strangers to each other, were built around a cabinet centered in the frame, of approximately the same shape. This (extraordinarily strong) graphical co-incidence set a graphical theme. I shot some more things that echoed this, and looked for other pictures that echoed that graphical idea. It appears constantly through the book, creating a thread of connection throughout, across sections.

The same two collaborators, I think, came up with two other photos. One, a beach scene. Sand in the foreground, surf, and then blue sky with clouds beyond. The second, a detail study of a floor, trim at the base of the wall, and a fraction of a window through which sky can be seen. Eerily, the colors of the floor/beach, trim/surf, and sky/sky, matched almost precisely. A little cropping to emphasize the relationship, and I had a page of content. I literally couldn't not do it.

Some of the collaborators produced fantastic standalone pictures, which to be honest can present a problem in a book. How to sequence these in to a larger whole? To the rescue, other collaborators. One of the collaborators gave me a collection of pictures with the miraculous, almost bizarre, property that whenever I needed something to counterpoint another picture, or to fill a gap, there is was. Inevitably, there it was.

Others provided beautiful interconnected portfolios, and it was my job to find ways to connect them to other pictures, and there was always a way. I became inured to the strange coincidence of finding the perfect matching pair of pictures, given me by complete strangers.

I shot some things to fill in the gaps, but mostly just to emphasize themes.

One more bizarre coincidence for you.

One photo has two beautiful girls in bikinis walking in a beach town. Closer inspection reveals a tattoo(?) on one girl's thigh: DISH OUT PAIN. Well, I couldn't leave that alone. I placed the picture of the girls on top, and a closeup crop of the tattoo below, and went hunting for other "texts" in other pictures to bring out the same way. "FUCK YOU COPS" turned up, as did a cross. I went out and shot some graffiti, "FTP" (which means, probably, FUCK THA POLICE here in Bellingham, but other interesting things elsewhere), and in yet another strange coincidence I found "FUCK THE PIG" scrawled downtown. This is almost certainly a reiteration of the anti-police theme, but the missing 'S' in "PIGS" was too good to pass up.

You see, I also had some photographs of a pig being slaughtered. Beautiful, in a way horrifying. Nothing too gory, but you can tell there's a dead pig in there. I'd paired it with some things and was pretty happy with the graphical echoes I had discovered. But now I had a connector from the sequence of pictures with embedded texts, through "FUCK YOU COPS" to "FUCK THE PIG" to the pig that is, in a sense, fucked. So together it all went. Not subtle, not delicate, not pretty, but a blunt progression of themes through a wildly disparate sequence.

The result is a book, built around a process, which I defy anyone to say isn't Art.

The coincidences, the flow, the repeated material is almost all graphical. There is almost nothing in here of a repeated "big idea", there's nothing in here about Man's Place In The Universe. It's all "look, a triangle, look, another triangle in the same place" level stuff, but I think it works. I think you can show this book to anyone, and unless their truly obstinate, they'll get something from it. Like the I Ching, they might find something of real depth in it. They might just spot a few of the graphical coincidences and enjoy that. They might just like a handful of the pictures (and there are some really great ones in here that would stand alone just fine). For anyone receptive, I will go out on a limb and assert, there is something greater here than the sum of the parts.

How can you do it yourself?

Easily! Get some friends, or some strangers on a forum together, or in your neighborhood, or on the street. Send 100 postcards to 100 random Occupant addresses in your home country with your contact information. Set some rough guidelines, set a rough but sensible "license agreement" (if someone wants to get persnickety about license terms, you don't want them on board -- set them free), set a rough schedule that is aggressive but doable. Go forward and do it. You will be astonished, I promise you. It will be an amazing experience, and from it you will get Art. It will be part of you, and you will be part of it, and it will be beautiful.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


This is going somewhere, I want to comment on some moderately dunderheaded essays on The Future of Photography. Before I do that I need to set up some background.

Most of us have probably banged in to complex numbers at some point. This is the bit where you've got an "imaginary number", i, which is the square root of -1 (say whaaaaaaat?). Don't worry about it too much. The point is that complex numbers all have wonderfully aptly named parts, the "real part" and the "imaginary part". The numbers we're all comfortable with are the ones that have a 0-sized imaginary part.


The world is ruled by these things called differential equations, which are by themselves not very useful, but the solutions to them are useful. The differential equation just says how the factors involved interrelate, the solution tells us what actually happens. We'll see an example in a moment, hang tight. The thing is that the solutions are, almost always, some kind of complex valued function, which real and imaginary parts. These things are usually, in fact, complex exponential functions. Often the "real part" is pretty much some sort of exponential at the beginning, so there's a rapidly increasing rise in something or other. As time proceeds, however, other components of the solution rotate out of the imaginary realm into the real one, and the whole thing settles into a sinusoid. A rhythmic repetitive thing.

There is some fairly deep math here, which demonstrates that the sin() function (and its various friends from trigonometry) are sums of complex exponential functions. Exponential curves and sinusoids are, in a sense, the same thing, or at any rate closely related, weird though that seems. You can't see it without taking a little trip through the land of complex numbers, but there it's almost obvious. If you squint and have the right background.

Pull your child back on a swing. Haul her up. Now drop her. Her speed is zero at the moment you drop her, but she accelerates fast. Her speed increses exponentially, since she's in free-fall (roughly) for a moment. But then the swing kicks in, and her speed settles in to a sinusoid. Fastest at the bottom, zooooom! Then she rises up, up, up, slowing down, down.. stops. Reverses. Wheee! Back and forth.

This is, basically, how everything in the world works. Exponential change at the beginning, until damping factors start to kick in, and then dominate. Then the whole thing oscillates back and forth, roughly.

Almost every dumbshit trying to predict the future sees an exponential, and then tries to extrapolate directly from that.

These people see the child dropping from her parent's hands, and deduce that she will, in 20 minutes or so, pass through the center of the earth at approximately the speed of light. Which is idiotic, of course.

Now let us consider this idiot. Set aside the imbecile comparison with "time" which is not merely imbecile but factually incorrect. Matt Hackett quite literally assumes that the exponential growth of "imagemaking" will continue, ending only when every human is continuously broadcasting high resolution video.

Wearable cameras have all been dismal failures, adored by a handful of nerds and ignored or actively hated by everyone else. To first order, that is, ignored or actively hated by everyone. What makes Matt's essay so odd is that he's aware of this, even mentions it explicitly, with some vague dismissive verbiage that purports to (but does not) explain why these contradicting facts do not ruin his thesis.

This other idiot, who cites Matt's stupid remarks, gets the context more correct. She is correct that technology proceeds apace, that mighty changes are afoot. Where she goes off the rails is buying in to Matt's position, based on absolutely nothing whatsoever. Cameras are changing! Lots of new ideas! 3D! 360 degree capture! Computational Photography! watch closely this next bit is where things get sticky It therefore follows inevitably that everyone will be wearing always-on-cameras and broadcasting live, really soon now, how cool is that! The sticky bit of course is that it doesn't follow at all. There is literally no connection between the facts presented and the conclusion drawn.

Matt and his Silicon Valley ilk are under the impression that they're so interesting that when they generate a 24 hour live feed of everything in their lives, someone will want to watch. They're wrong. They also can't understand math. If their glorious dream comes to pass, and every single person on earth is broadcasting a live multi megabit sensorium feed, who the hell is going to consume this media? Is endgame one guy hiking through the Sierras, while 10 billion people experience and rebroadcast his hike to one another? That doesn't sound economically viable.

Yep, Facebook has a lot of photos uploaded every day. And nobody really looks at any of them, unless someone's tagged them in it. The damping factors exist, we just haven't really started to see them. And then the quantity of media uploaded and consumed starts to see-saw, rising and falling randomly according to fashion, the stock market, and sunspot cycles.

For some reason this dumb "everyone will record everything and it'll be, basically, a digital paradise" thing just won't die, even though it's patently stupid. I'm starting to fear the Silicon Valley is going to bring this particular future hellscape in to being by sheer force of bullheadedness. God knows the spooks would love a variation on this theme, and would definitely be supportive of legislation mandating always on always worn cameras.

Privacy and Public Photography

I promised a followup, in which I actually thought a little instead of simply bloviating! And here it is.

Let us, if you don't mind, stipulate that facial recognition is, to some interesting degree, a solved problem, and that it's getting more and more solved over time. This is the general problem of "given a picture of a person, find me public information about that person" (e.g. a facebook page, a blog, something published and legitimately Out There, most notably a name.)

So, to one degree or another, given a picture of someone, I can find out who that person is, and this is going to get easier and more accurate over time.

I said that then this leads to identity theft and so on, which is kind of silly on the face of it. Bad people can do these things without a picture of you, what they actually use as a starting point is that public identity, the kind of thing a picture can more or less lead us to. The picture is, ultimately, irrelevant. It plays little to no role in the bad parts of these scenarios. Mostly.

A see two actual genuine risks for the subject of a picture, here.

The first is that a modern digital picture places a face in a location, at a time, in certain company. If I can connect the face with the name, the identity, I am now in a position to demonstrate that John was Here at This Time, and hanging around with These People. Usually this isn't a problem, lots of John's friends probably know he's there. Still, occasionally John might wish to be discreet, and the idea that his efforts at discretion could now, or at some future time, be blown apart by some idiot street photographer might be uncomfortable.

Worse, with large scale computing and large scale photo sharing, it may soon be possible to establish not only John's location at a given time, but to automatically construct patterns of John's behavior in much the same way online tracking does. I don't think there's really much of anything that's actually beneficial to John that can come out of that, but the possibilities are certainly broad.

I'm fairly sure that people have raised the possibility of this kind of profiling as a real, albeit potential, problem in the UK with the ubiquitous surveillance cameras. I am certain that there are weird guys in the bowels of certain state agencies working on making that potential problem into a real one as fast as possible. The idea of being able to know in a real time where everyone is and what they're up to gives a certain type of spook a very real sense of well-being, and probably an erection to boot.

The second actual risk is this. A bad guy with a name can get your stuff. Your identity, your credit card numbers, your address, and so on. So what? Most of the time most bad guys aren't interested in You. You're probably broke and your stuff isn't that great anyways.

A photograph could in theory be used as a targeting aid. The beautiful girl can acquire stalkers just walking down the street. Amanda Smith as a name hanging in space is of no interest to creepers, but the beautiful girl who's walking down the street who we learn is named Amanda Smith, well, that's something. The young man with the Rolex watch might be good choice for burglary, and so on.

Now, people who are uncomfortable with having their picture taken "because, privacy" probably haven't thought it through this far. They probably have only a vague unsettled feeling, and they probably have some wrong-headed ideas. Like mine, you know, the one where I proposed that pictures lead to identity theft. Regardless, there are genuine risks underlying it, at least in a small way. Legitimate concerns, I would say.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A Curious Pair of Trendlets

I see two threads of discussion appearing now and then, which never seem to find one another.

The first one is "Man, people sure are becoming bitches about taking a few pictures" which, to be honest, has always been with us. Some people simply find the process uncomfortable for one or more of several reasons, and some people always have. Anyways, the self-styled "street" photographers always seem to have a whole bizarro philosophy that boils down to "be sneaky, but not in a sneaky way."

The second one is "OMG, digital technology makes privacy go away!" which is genuinely a new and increasing problem.

Let's smash these two things together and see what happens.

Maybe people are increasingly becoming bitches about being photographed, because they know on some level that with a photo you can (or soon will be able to) find their name, home address, and for a modest albeit illegally rendered fee, god damn near anything else you want to know about them. It does rock one back a little bit, eh?

While you may not be stealing my soul with your magic picture box, it certainly could be step one of stealing all of my stuff.

Now, in reality, does it matter? Probably not. Your picture can be taken without your consent or knowledge. It is taken constantly. Simply denying some clumsy dork with a big black camera isn't an act with any real substance. Still, simply because the gates have crumbled under the mass of barbarians, one still feels something a little off about opening the side door to let a couple more in.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

For Example...

This is a followon to the previous.

Context matters. Suppose I shot a monochrome blue frame. Literally one color across the whole frame. No change in value or saturation.

Pretty uninteresting, right?

What if I had two other pictures, really interesting subject matter. Riveting stuff. No obvious connection between them. In each frame there is a small but important object, which is blue. There are several important objects, most of them bigger, in each frame. Careful inspection reveals, however, that the blue objects are the same object in the two frames.

Now I place these two frames and the blue one on a page together, the two overtly interesting ones separated by the blue one, which happens to be the exact color of the interesting blue object. Let us say, indeed, that it is a macro shot of that blue object.

Is it still an uninteresting frame?

And I am here to tell ya, this kind of thing happens. I had a similar thing happen in a book I am editing now, with two frames show by two different people who don't know each other. Two completely different frames which are, nonetheless, deeply related to one another. Each one has some interest, each could be accused of being banal with some reason.

It is not too strong a statement to say that it was a mind-bending experience to place one next to the other.

Content, placed in context, is a whole lot more powerful than getting the balance of the thing and the other thing to look elegant.

Content, Content, and Content

We tend to get so lost in the technical details, and in the details of composition, that we lose track of content. The issues of where to stick the horizon line, how to crop, whether the frame is well balanced, these are all irrelevant if the picture isn't of anything anyone wants to look at. Not to say that you've got photograph clowns balanced on alligators juggling chain saws. You can take pictures of clouds, abstracts, whatever.

But at the end of the say, the picture has to be interesting, or nobody's going to care. Sure, the camera club will applaud the way the tree balances the setting sun, but if it's just another boring sunset picture, nobody's going to actually like it all that much.

Interest, I am having brought home to me, can be wildly contextual. A picture might be perfectly banal by itself, but becomes fascinating in relation to another picture.

I think an argument could be made that perfect formal composition and perfect technique are in fact a royal road to the banal. There are very few of us who have enough brainpower on tap to hit all those details and still have enough brain left over to make a picture with something interesting in it.

Content is King! Or Queen! It is totally gender neutral, but it is definitely in charge.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Education Biz

Where on earth did this idea that everyone who owns a camera is somehow qualified to educate others, and indeed, ought to charge for this?

It seems like every dolt who gets "serious" about cameras pretty quickly launches a web site where they offer a complete suite of services. You can buy prints, canvas wraps, portfolio reviews, video tutorials, and you can probably join some sort of Online Education Thing or another. Maybe it's an email school, or a for-pay blog, or a fifteen dollar video about how to cut shit out out Photoshop, or workshops, or workshops, or workshops, or portfolio reviews.

The way education is supposed to work, the way it was worked for quite literally millennia, is that the people who do a task communicate with one another. They talk, they discuss things they have tried, they try other people's ideas out. Gradually, over years, decades, centuries, there is distilled out a set of best practices, and these are passed on by the experts from one generation to the next. Master to apprentice, professor to student, and so on. At any rate, that's how it works when it's working well. The set of best practices is organic. Everyone contributes, things change, new ideas enter, old ideas die away. At any given time, though, there is a good-sized corpus of these best practices. Education is the process by which someone who knows what the best practices are passes them on to someone who does not, yet.

The important distinction here is that what is taught is not a way to do a thing, but the best way to do a thing.

Those best ways are usually tied up in details. You do it this way instead of that way because if you slip at this point you don't ruin the piece. You do it this way because when a gust of wind comes along, it won't knock it down. You do it this way because even if you don't line it up perfectly it still won't leak, see where it overlaps? And so on. This is the stuff you can't really work out on your own. This is the stuff that three of you sharing youtube videos over a couple of years are not going to work out. You just don't experience, personally, enough of the things that can go wrong. You don't run across all the weird corner cases. That takes, as they say, a village.

This is the stuff that's worked out over decades, or longer, through many gusts of wind, slips of the hand, rain-showers.

I know the best way to do a lot of things, most of them having to do with mathematics. I don't know the best way to do much of anything with a camera. I know a way to do most anything with a camera. This suits me fine, I am comfortable with my clumsy methods. Photography isn't that hard, and my methods serve my needs adequately.

Guys like Eric Kim, Michael Reichmann, Ming Thein, Crash Taylor, Zack Arias, Fro, David Hobby, and the litany goes on and on, generally know a to do a lot of things. They probably know ways to do a lot of things that are better than my way. I may well be misrepresenting one or more of the names I have listed here, but I'm after then general thrust here not specifics:

The web is simply littered with self-taught photographers, who have learned some things by fiddling around with their gear, and a few other things by watching youtube videos made by other self-taught photographers, and they've generally practiced quite a bit. What they have, as a general rule, not done is hang about with the grey bearded old bastards, talking, sharing ideas, learning about and contributing to that alchemy that distills out the best way to do a lot of these things. They have not apprenticed, as such.

My little efforts at pedagogy are, I hope, almost never about how to do anything. I have no inside track there. I try merely to open minds to imagination and possibility. I do, by dint of a moderate amount of research and reading, rather fancy I have an inside track on how to imagine what you want to shoot. I do, by dint of a moderate amount of research and reading, and by slightly re-tasking a lot of knowledge from my father about how to perform certain classes of physical work (which he got from his father and from other people who Worked, and so on and so on) know a few things about the best way to build a couple of book structures, how to apply glue to paper, how to fit together the parts of a book.

Being self-taught works out OK. I take pictures that I like, and I perfectly satisfied with my methods and, to be honest, I've probably spent more time reading, talking to people, and generally "apprenticing" than many people who are offering up Educational Products. I am, despite this, woefully unqualified to teach anyone anything about methods and techniques.

The point, though, that self-taught people haven't anything particular to offer in terms of education. I could tell you a lot about how I solve my own problems which may or may not be useful to you, as you try to solve your own, different, problems. It's actual education, by people with access to the lineage of passed down and accumulated methods, that will help you to solve your own problems. Or, you can just work it out yourself.

Or, to put it differently, paying some know-nothing idiot (for example, me) to teach you how to shoot is stupid.

You might get some value, sure. Perhaps even value beyond the thrill of hanging around with some internet famous doofus. But it won't be as valuable as if you gave some money to someone who's got access to the accumulated history, the accumulated wisdom of the trade. Go find those guys. Sweep their floors for a month, carry their lights. Maybe even buy their videos. And then watch for the little side notes where they say 'And sandbag the light this way, not that way, so that when you stumble into it it doesn't fall over' or whatever the little bits turn out to be.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Here's a piece from Allen Murabayashi, over at, 8 Photos that Couldn’t Have Been Made 5 Years Ago.

Allen's a reasonably sharp dude and actually thinks about stuff. This one, though, is mainly a filler piece, giving a platform to some products and pros to chatter away about stuff. The title is wrong. You could have made any of these photos 30 years ago. The stupid animated portraits could not have been animated GIFs until 1990, 26 years ago, but they could have easily been video clips before that.

Several of the others could not have been at the time and place they were shot. They could not have been shot in the manner in which they were shot, of course. So, in that sense, the article is accurate.

But by 'Photo' we generally mean, I think, the end product. The two dimensional array of tone and color, and these arrays of tone and color could without question all have been created much longer ago than 5 years ago.

Photographers and the photographic media are simply awful at conflating techniques/methods/equipment with the final product. We constantly hear how one thing or another could not be done then, or can no longer be done. You need film to do this, a magic lens to to that, a specific camera body to do the other thing. None of this is true, none of it ever was.

Photographs have always been wonderfully plastic, malleable, both before and after the shutter press. The digital revolution has only accelerated that, and brought this malleability to everyone.

The only thing holding anyone back is a lack of imagination, really. You don't need an 85/1.4, you don't need a Light L16, you don't need a D810. If you can imagine it, and are willing to work, you can do it. You always could. The only thing that ever really changes is the degree of difficulty.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Hi peeps from photorumors! Welcome.

Please see my commenting policy if you decide to hang around. I encourage dissent, but don't much care for outright insults. I let a bit of that slide too, but I do bring the hammer down eventually.

Also, you could buy my book. Or just leave a bogus review, if you prefer! Do try to be funny if you do though.


Art, Luxury, and High School

My recent musings on Hasselblad's strategy led me off on some odd paths lately.

Luxury products are a curious thing. On the one hand, generally they're perfectly good products. The clothes, the luggage, whatever it is, is usually of high quality. But it it worth 10x or 100x the moderately inferior version from the budget department store? What does that even mean? The value of it, the "worth", is a social construct. YSL products, Bulgari products, Prada products, are worth it because people will pay that much for them, and they will pay that much because of the perceived worth of the products.

There's a whole cloud of interlocking social/human stuff involved here. Because it's expensive, being seen to own it projects wealth. But merely being expensive isn't enough. It's of good quality, being seen to own it projects good taste. But quality is not enough. There's a whole system of self-reinforcing social construct that makes a Bottega Veneta shirt "worth it". It's good quality -- and is perceived to be. It is expensive -- and is so perceived. It is, most importantly and by tacit agreement among the tacitly elected taste-makers, an Object of Desire. Objectively, a Rolex watch is an absurd, pointless, anachronism. In context, it is a social signifier of real depth.

If you're trying to launch a luxury product, there are certain things that are a nearly certain kiss of death, most notably building a genuinely shitty product, or a product that is obviously the same as another, much cheaper, product. See also Hasselblad's Lunar and Stellar products. Success is much more slippery.

This is analogous to the same situation in Art. To succeed, your Art generally has to hit certain notes (originality, limit-pushing, etc) but that is not sufficient. Certain things are probable kisses of death -- being an obvious copy without at the same time hitting the Appropriation Gong in the approved fashion, that sort of thing.

And, interestingly, it has a lot of the same earmarks as high school popularity.

The taste-makers in high school are elected by some mysterious alchemy. Who are those popular kids, and what makes them popular, and why does anyone give a shit what they think? Everyone knows who they are, everyone feigns disdain, and everyone feels the weight of their rulings fully. It's possible to guarantee failure in high school society - join the chess club. It's not possible to guarantee success. Some of the ingredients of success are obvious, you have to try pretty hard, but not too hard. Hair and makeup for girls, fitness for boys. Wear the right clothes, but don't be too obvious about it. Be deferential to the powers that be, but not too deferential. Don't be a wuss, don't be a jackass.

None of this, though, guarantees success. It's a marketing campaign for a luxury product, you. But when you're 15 and you have a non-existent budget and no understanding of what's going on, success will likely elude you, unless you have the right stuff pretty much built in to your psyche.

It's a little more predictable in the product world. There are methods you can use to test your ideas and designs. There's a budget available to really dress the thing up right, and so on. Most importantly, you can hire people who actually know what's going on.

Lest we get too carried away and sneer at these purely social constructs as lightweight irrelevancies, let me point out that Money is pretty much the same deal.

Consider all these social constructs, they're basically the same sort of construct. Within the high school, the football star is often near the top of the pyramid. Outside of high school, in a larger social context, he sometimes becomes nothing at all. Inside your camera club, John's pictures are Superb, Excellent. Outside the camera club, they're derivative garbage, available by the trainload from any number of web sites. The point here is that social constructs depend on the social context.

If you want to succeed, to the tune of a billion dollars (the usual measure of success here is "booked revenue") in the luxury market, the only social context that really matters is the nouveau riche of China and Russia. These people follow the lead of certain others, so in a sense that they tend to set the taste, the elite of Europe and the USA are also included. Someone selling terribly expensive shoes does not care about the society of Springfield High School, although to the second-string athletes at that august institution there is very little that matters more.

Success, therefore, is a slippery thing. You want your pictures to be loved? By whom, exactly?

The entire world isn't going to like them, almost certainly. That social context is too broad to agree, if roughly, on anything but the most basic things. The Art Buying Elite of NYC, LA? Of Europe? What about the South Americans, there are some fortunes south of the equator that are creating some pretty interesting collections. How about the Chinese elite? While they might well follow the Euros as they do on watches, there might be some wrinkles there. China has a pretty long history of Art, after all, which probably comes in to play.

Is it enough if your friends like your stuff? What about paying clients?

If you look around the webernets enough, you'll find people claiming that pretty much any of these actually is the definition of success, and others asserting something very much like the opposite.

Luckily, you get to decide.

The one thing you can't do is fake it. In any and all of the above there is, of course, a degree of artifice. The popular girl isn't as confident as she looks, she's desperate and scared sometimes too. But she believes in the narrative of her on top, with all her heart. She believes in good hair and high heels with every fiber of her being. As an artist, you can be scared and unsure and worried that it's all shit, but somewhere, down deep, you've got to believe in your pictures.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


The tl;dr is this. Most indicators suggest that Hasselblad is staying the course as an effort to become a luxury brand, despite the fact that their parent company does not, as a rule, invest in this sort of thing. The H6D is probably intended not to drive growth but rather is a halo product to drive credibility, to support a to-be-released luxury camera.

A little history. Hasselblad was acquired by Vorndran Mannheims Capital (VMC) then called Ventizz, and quickly pivoted into a nascent luxury brand with the delivery of some embarassing Sony rebrands, the Lunar and Stellar cameras. These were Sony cameras with wooden grips glued on and the price moved up to the stratosphere. After the laughter on the internet died down a bit, VMC dropped in a new CEO, and is now pitching H as a re-pivot back to its roots. That's silly on the face of it, pivoting back is an admission of defeat and an indicator that VMC ought to dump the investment. But there's more.

Let us examine the career of the current CEO of Hasselblad, Perry Oosting:
  • CEO Hasselblad for the last 2 years.
  • CEO of Vertu (marketer and manufacturer of super-luxury cell phones) for 4 years prior.
  • 24 years of Managing Director jobs at, at least, Bulgari, Prada, and Gucci. These are three separate concerns, he's moved around a bit.
His linkedin skills "tags" all revolve around marketing and sales of luxury products, and a suite of business management skills (team-building, P&L, M&A, etc.) Everything up until the Hasselblad job is crystal clear, this guy spend 28 years selling objects of desire to the extremely well-heeled.

VMC is a private equity firm that targets hyper-technical companies, basically the opposite of luxury brands, with potential for high growth. Hasselblad, while technical, is not technical in the sense VMC specializes in, at all. Still, VMC is looking for high-growth and is clearly committed to Hasselblad as a luxury brand. There's something odd going on there, but who knows what? Perhaps one of the partners at VMC just loves Hasselblad.

If you take the Hasselblad pitch at face value, it makes exactly no sense: Blah blah blah passion for the highest quality for the hardest working professionals, etc and so on. If true, what on earth is Mr. Oosting doing at the helm? Also, where is that high-growth market? Last I heard the professional photography market was going nowhere but down. It's probably flatter than the sky-is-falling crowd thinks, but no thinking human thinks it's going to experience explosive growth, or substantial growth at all, any time soon.

If I have the timeline correct, the story we are expected to believe is this:

VMC and H, observing that the luxury play at H was not working out so great, decided the company should pivot back to its roots and deliver pure photography at the highest qualities. To drive this charge into the high-growth market of professional photography, they hired a guy with 28 years of experience at Bulgari, Prada, and Gucci, and some company that glued diamonds on to phones, and no experience whatsoever in the camera business.

Go ahead, pull the other one, it's got bells on!

Try this story instead. VMC and H, observing the luxury play was not going so great, and knowing that there is no high growth to be had in high end cameras, decided to hire someone with a deep understanding of the luxury market, to show them how to do it right. Mr. Oosting took stock and told them that the first thing the needed to do was to fix their reputation, which was in pretty bad shape.

Hasselblad under Oosting has doubled-down on the Hasselblad heritage, delivering a fully up to date Medium Format camera, and doing quite a credible full court press getting the word out. It won't sell many units, but they don't care. It's a halo product, intended not to generate revenue but credibility and reputation. It may or may not make a profit, but that's not its purpose.

So what's the luxury product? I'm not feeling the H6D as a luxury product, really. It has some of the earmarks and is definitely intended for an exclusive market of the well-heeled. But there's no high-growth here, there's no cracking the wealthy Asian markets with this thing. Mr. Oosting wants to sell a billion dollars worth of stuff, not a few million.

Let's look at Hasselblad's job openings. These can be very informative.

They're looking for embedded development engineers, to work on a complete system (VHDL through QML, i.e. chip design through UI design). The specs are consistent with a new imaging system with a modern UI (that is, not piles of menus). They're also looking for a test engineering lead. They've got something they need to build. The job descriptions say "camera" and since there's no call for special skills (animation, rocketry, whatever) I take that at face value. It also makes sense.

Oosting knows about Leica, and no doubt does not want to be a second-rate Leica but probably likes the idea that a certain class of wealth likes to just carry one around. He wants something sleek, beautiful, distinctive. He wants it to scream Hasselblad, he wants it to be a portable status symbol for the elite, and he doesn't want to just copy Leica.

Let's think about what has to be in the design brief for whatever it is H has in the works:

Must fully embody Hasselblad's brand and look the part. Strong branding, which implies 1) strong design notes from Hasselblad's history, 2) an imaging system with perceived very high quality.

Object of desire/Status symbol. Therefore portable, sleek, beautiful. Broadly desired. Not a camera for camera nerds, but a mass-appealing (but not mass-available!) imaging system. Purse-sized, one hand-sized. Slick user experience, social media, cloud connected. Phone-like ease of use. Friction-less photo/video sharing.

Allow me a flyer here. A small camera, with excellent but not earth shattering technical specs. Definitely does video.

Design notes: leatherette+chrome/cube/space for a clearly visible logo/slanted-rear screen, non-removable lens that is nonetheless obvious, prominent.
Size: easily held by one hand, about 300 grams.
System: Touchscreen, syncs with app on your phone (NFC/bluetooth?) for seamless "one-touch" (or nearly) connectivity.
Price: $5000 US.

This will be the Lunar/Stellar reborn as a real boy, it'll be the real article, an actually good camera in a beautiful package that screams Hasselblad. By being ultra-modern (touchscreen, connectivity) it will be both broadly desirable beyond camera-geek forums, and definitely not Leica. It will be blinged out, but subtly. Silver and exotic leathers, not crystals. It will, ideally, be lauded by the camera-geek forums, though, as that's the first step.

The sophisticated elite client needs to believe that their desired object is the real thing, that it is essentially the same as the one used by jet pilots and professional photographers, and they will check the web before they buy.

If Oosting has any sense, he's talking to his old bosses, looking for a Prada or Bulgari co-brand. If he can get Miuccia to carry one, he's won.

Saturday, April 9, 2016


Another issue of the How's Andrew Doing newsletter. In this post I made several predictions, among them:

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

And lo, in a thread explaining (ho, ho, ho) why LuLa hasn't got anything about Hasselblad's New Thingy, Michael writes:

Most people have noticed that I am no longer involved in the site on a day-to-day basis. Kevin is now the publisher. I am mostly involved in the charity that I started last year,

The big prediction, though, the one that matters, has yet to appear. No new management has appeared. Yet. I only wrote that a few months ago, after all, the year is young.


Here's a surprise!

Ming Thein's been big on photo essays lately, and here's his latest. Go look at it. Seriously. Go. Look. Take your time and get past any issues you might have with the man or the methods and really look at one picture after another, take them on their own terms.

I don't give a damn if you like the pictures or not. I don't know if I like them or not, that doesn't matter. I direct your attention to the fact that this is a fully realized idea. The text he gives you is direct, simple, and precisely describes the pictures. I glanced at the photos first, and that's exactly what I read. Like, exactly.

This is real photography, real work. He's taken an idea, and a pretty good idea. He's thought about his tools and methods, and worked out a very clear way to express that idea using photographs. And then he's gone and shot a bunch of that. This is the real deal, it's serious and deserving of accolades and applause.

Well done, Ming, really.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Medium Format State of the Industry

Hasselblad has a new thingy out. Woo hoo!

Ming Thein, the newest Hasselblad Ambassador, has a big ol' announcement on his web site, touting all the glorious features of the Phase One 100 Megapick.. I mean the Hasselblad WonderThing. Interestingly, LuLa has nothing, although they did have an on-time announcement of Phase One's thing. Indeed, Kevin mentions that P1 called him up and told him he had to hustle because they were moving up the launch date.

Ok, so we have some selected mouthpieces for the two camps, and the two vendors have decided who's friendly and who's not (one imagines that there might be an element of payment involved, but there's no evidence particularly). The two mouthpieces named are well understood to have the ears of well-heeled amateurs. Thus, the pitch is that these are the ultimate machines, absolutely professional grade, this is what Real Pros Use, and so on. There's even the business about New Magic Lenses, as if covering a 645 frame at 100 lp/mm was a new thing that wasn't pretty well sorted out 30 years or more ago.

I can find any number of pros named ProCameraGuy on forums who not only use this equipment, but know tons of other pros who do. What I cannot find is any actual identifiable professional photographers who do (apart from the paid shills in the promo videos and, to be honest, I haven't heard of any of those dudes either). Actual identifiable professionals use 35mm full frame or smaller sensors, because they can do basic math and own some software

Chuck a couple of things into the mix. Hasselblad is owned by a private equity firm that mainly has technology plays. But, they parachuted in a CEO from the luxury goods world to fix their "ok, bolting wooden handles on to Sony cameras isn't going so great" strategy. Per Oosting is the real deal, he knows how to sell luxury goods. He talks a good fight about passion for photography and creating the finest whatever, but make no mistake, he's there to shift cameras to rich Chinese who want a status symbol. Period, full-stop. It's literally what he does. Hiring him to run a camera company that wants to build superb tools for professional photographers makes as much sense as hiring Taylor Swift to manage your datacenter deployments.

Hasselblad has rebooted their luxury product effort, which they started with the stupid re-branded Sony products. That went noplace, so their private equity guys dropped in Oosting to fix it. Turns out that you can's shift a thing as an Object of Desire if nobody Desires it. Bolting lumber on to Sony cameras doesn't make people Desire them, it makes people laugh at you, it turns out. So that's gonna be a problem, because the well-heeled Chinese may be status conscious, but they do read the Internets. So Oosting has put together a program for making H credible again. First you make an object that people desire, then you sell it by the trainload to status-conscious idiots. The fact that the new thing looks a lot like the second generation of failed Lytro products may not be that bright, but it looks pretty distinctive, and that is absolutely vitally important.

H is an almost pure luxury play, and has been since their private equity parent bought them, Though they might be toying with a multi-pronged approach a la Phase One, I am dubious. If they can succeed in parlaying the Hasselblad brand into something serious numbers of well-heeled idiots buy, I predict they'll dump the scanners and aerial cameras, because that's the right thing to do. Stay on target, guys.

Hasselblad may be in some sense "getting back to their roots, pure photography, ideal machines for capturing the blah blah blah" but make no mistake, they're only doing it because they have to, and they're only doing it to the extent that they need to. Louis Vuitton needs to make luggage that actually prevents its contents from disgorging themselves all over the jetway, but just barely. H's trouble was that they, metaphorically, were making luggage that literally could not contain objects. Oosting's contribution can probably be summarized as "Jesus Christ you retards, the luggage has to actually hold the shit inside, our customers are rich idiots but they, unlike you, are not morons." (although, to be fair, the backlash against Sony+Lumber was probably not predictable, that particular scam might have gone beautifully.)

Anyways, it's all very fun to watch. The key point to keep in mind here is that every single person with any actual information is lying his ass off, and almost everyone else is a dupe.

It's Bulgari watches all over again: Fucking ASTRONAUTS use our watches ON THE FUCKING MOON! You should totally buy a watch that does not keep accurate time for $10,000!!!!! IT'S MADE OF STEEL AND SHIT AND IT KEEPS WATER OUT SOME OF THE TIME!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Please Compare

Here's a piece from the New Yorker, by Om Malik. April 4, 2016.

And here's me, May 20, 2015. And then, me again, in June 2015.

That's me, out in front! But Google's Photos product has indeed progressed since I wrote that, and it is indeed trying to do more. It's still missing the output piece, and I assume google will abandon the product, or try to pivot it into being the next Social Network Thingy before they get around to it.

Malik and Google have both missed the point that simply organizing this stuff (and what google does is both miraculous and entirely inadequate, at this point) is not enough. You've got to let me do something with that. I need to be able to take those organized collections and:
  • Fine tune them, easily
  • Do something with the resulting bolus of photographs
Google's bread and butter is simply "organizing" things (which they think means tagging, without hierarchy, because they are dumb and anyways all they have is this hammer) so the output side simply hasn't occurred to them. Which means it hasn't occurred to Mr. Malik either.

Let me print the collection as a book, share it as a Ken Burns-ified movie, share it as a collection with my friends, download it to my digital picture frame, print it as a collection of identically framed prints to mass on a wall, whatever. Make some stuff up, do something, anything, with the result. This is a perfect moment to upsell some stuff, google. Arrrg.

Instead Mr. Malik wanders off into vague nonsense quoting various people about how photography is "becoming more of a visual language" (what, again?) and “real value creation will come from stitching together photos as a fabric, extracting information and then providing that cumulative information as a totally different package” which sounds like standard Silicon Valley jive that means exactly nothing. Silicon Valley has, for the last decade or more, eaten well on the theory that if you can just heap up enough data in a pile, then you can IPO and make a ton of money. This standard jive is how they sell that, and what it means is "we have no idea how to turn this pile of data into money, except by selling our own stock, so we're planning to do that" which in turn means that the giant pile of data actually hasn't got any value...

... because we can't figure out what to actually do with it.

So solve that problem, you punks. Except they won't, because the Standard Jive tells them that once you have the pile of data, you're done. It's received wisdom, and need not be questioned. Neitehr Malik nor Google even recognize that there's a problem here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Slicers and Gestalters

Hat tip to ToP for the links and some thoughtful discussion. Steve McCurry has a relatively new book, India and one critic thinks it's rather too limited in scope, and compares McCurry unfavorably to another photographer, Raghubir Singh.

I don't pretend to have any particular knowledge of either photographer. Of course I've seen any number of McCurry's pictures, but this is the first time I've heard of Singh.

Still, I think there's an interesting tangential view here.

Let's think about National Geographic. As a kid, this magazine had me persuaded that living in an undersea habitat at 600 feet was both awesome and the future. This is, of course, insane. It's pitch black and ridiculously cold at 600 feet. The environment 600 feet down in the ocean makes intergalactic space look like Baja California as far as humans are concerned. National Geo's business was to give you 2000 words and a dozen photos and make you believe that you really knew something about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. National Geo gave us narrow slices of the world, neatly packaged, digestible to the Western mind. Foreign, exciting, interesting, but nothing too threatening. This is the essence of what I am calling Slicing. By its very nature slicing is untruthful, simply because it explicitly elides almost everything. It wraps the material up, putting down artificial boundaries. Done well, it feels complete, you don't notice the edges around the material.

In a way, all journalism does this, to one degree or another. The newspaper only has so many column inches for your article, and you've got to wrap it up, make it coherent.

A separate issue here is whether a Slice in this sense is true even within itself. If the National Geo article about habitats at 600 feet had shown that world as a sunlit paradise, that would be one thing. If it merely de-emphasizes the inky darkness in favor of the well lit chamber filled with happy divers, then the darkness is excluded from the story, but there's no actual lie. The Slice is true, but (in the nature of Slices) incomplete. That artificial edge was placed carefully, to exclude the terror and impracticality, but no outright untruth was inserted.

I suspect that McCurry's book is in the first place Slicing at its best. I suspect also that it flirts with internal untruth, in the sense that even within its narrowly defined area there is very little of anything recognizable as an authentic India to be found. McCurry favors bright colors, quiet scenes, austere composition. India, as I understand it, has the first one some of the time and the other two almost never. While McCurry's pictures are surely real, authentic, and taken in India, they define India no more than Ansel Adams' landscapes define the USA.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Gestalt, and to be blunt, this is what we expect from an entire book of pictures named after a country. It's what we expect from India, I cannot imagine it's what is actually in India, and this may be the root of the critic's problem. Frank's book is the best example I can think of, of this Gestalt notion of mine. The Americans is of course still an incomplete picture of the USA, but it's vastly closer to a definition of the country than anything Ansel Adams did. Of course, those two were going for completely different things. Adams had, I suspect, no interest whatsoever in capturing a coherent picture of the entire country. He was explicitly a Slicer, Frank was explicitly a Gestalter.

My guess is that Singh was also a Gestalter, striving to make broad work.

Not only does a Gestalter strive for breadth, but they're less fussy about the edges. They allow that their work isn't complete, it ends, but in a ragged edge that indicates "and so on, there's more which I haven't gotten to yet," at least ideally. Not only is the work more complete, more ultimately truthful, it admits its own incompleteness in turn, it admits that in the end the only complete picture is every picture ever taken.

I expect that I am stretching here, to "find" this in (say) Frank's work. I don't think you can possibly miss it in Winogrand. Perhaps it is likewise obvious in Singh's body of work.

I am, explicitly, a Gestalter.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Where did Color Aesthetics Go?

I picked up an issue of a fascinating journal from the early 1991s ambitiously entitled "History of Photography" which appears to be an ongoing concern, somewhat to my surprise. In any case, I was skimming it and reading this and that (I picked it up for its "The mythology of the f/64 group is largely invented bullshit" piece, but there's lots more!). In there was some discussion of Impressionism and the invention of the Autochrome. Autochromes are the ones where there's a layer of potato starch grains dyed variously red. green, and blue, in front of a standard panchromatic emulsion.

Observations made at the time note that this is essentially Pointillism, and that it scientifically proves some various theories and ideas of the Impressionist painters. The idea that pure tones "blend" in the eye to produce various and sundry hues, while well known to scientists, was convincingly proven and demonstrated in a very precise way by the Autochrome, in a way the general public could easily understand. Interestingly, modern color emulsions (I think) are not Pointillism as such, since the dye blobs overlap and blend optically before they reach the eye, and I think the modern RGB monitor is also not because of the regularity of the pattern of dots. Inkjet might be back to Pointillism, though. That's kind of academic wankery, though, and quite beside the point.

This was also the era of the Pictorialists, who explicitly related themselves to Impressionism. Thus there arose at the time the color version of the usual debate. Should we strive for "true" colors in some technical sense, or should we strive to create the proper "impression" of color, or more generally seek to provide the proper "impression" of the whole thing, using color as one of several tools. The impressionist leaning photographers would naturally have been more or less the same chaps who advocated for a softer focus, for un-realistic tones, and so on. The whole Pictorialist gig. The "true and accurate" color people were the ones who would grow up to be Straight Photographers.

Where'd all this go?

These days we seem to be divided into two camps. There are the "you should calibrate everything" crew, and the "hey, I do what I want!" crew who seem to largely be about popping colors to increase likes on social media. The first bunch is arguably the Modernist "true" color gang, with all new members and all new technology. The second bunch, I dunno who those people are, although I guess they're sort of Expressionists. Or trying to be. The Impressionists seem to have no analog in today's photographic discussion. There is manipulation of color for effect, but rarely for impressionistic effect.

The debate seems to be between "technically accurate" color and "inaccurate color which creates the effect I want", without a "inaccurate color that creates a true impression."

I think we see the Impressionist idea groped toward, from time to time, by landscape photographers who are popping the saturation because that's what their Impression was. Popped the greens off the scale because that's what Hawaii's wet slopes feel like, that sort of thing. There might be a few other specific cases, but there doesn't seem to be an actual aesthetic position in play here. While I see people talking about specific colors in specific pictures, I don't see anyone making a philosophical statement that echoes the impressionist aesthetic.

I happened, just now, upon a forum thread that I think summarizes it all for me. Some relatively erudite fellow asked where people stood on Realism vs. Expressionism in photography. These are, really, they only two schools that exist (insofar as schools exist). Either you're trying for technical accuracy (essentially, Realism both as a noun and as a movement) or you're trying to express your own ideas about whatever it is, usually with saturated colors and cloning out a bunch of shit (Expressionism). The dominance of Impressionism as a philosophy (embraced by the Pictorialists and, notably, by Adams) seems to have simply vanished.

In case you're curious, the forum thread of course veered off into imbeciles talking about leveling horizons and how "ALL DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MANIPULATED" and so on, because they literally cannot be bothered to spend 5 minutes on wikipedia trying to work out what the question is.

I'm not particularly advocating some two-party (or ten-party) system for photography, in which each of us needs to select a camp to belong to. I do think it's a real loss to not have active philosophical schools in play, working to define, refine, extend ideas about what we ought to be doing. It's possible that in "High Art" some of this is going on, but the masses on the street are very much in an every-man-for-himself situation. The arguments aren't philosophical, they're about whether you should use a ColorSpanker or a ParrotNinja to profile your monitor.

Nobody really wants a coherent Aesthetic of Color, or anything else. Not even me, but I am going to have to think about that some.