Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Brief Note

We adopted a puppy, so all is chaos. No time to think about photography lately. Soon, I hope.

Ming has posted another long "think piece" as he does from time to time. This one, however, seems to be precisely on target. It's a little drum I beat from time to time, but he's not a very thorough dissection of it, and it's worth reading.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Documenting The Decay

While I would not say this essay is gin-powered, as such, gin was involved. Read at your own risk.

A reader pointed me to some pictures, a document of one man's dad's descent and eventual death from Alzheimer's. While I haven't been able to find a complete gallery, I've poked through some links and seen a bunch of samples. They're perfectly good pictures, and include some really very nice portraits as well as some very decent photojournalistic "story telling" pictures.

As the best of these things often do.

This is a genre, though, and it's the genre I want to talk about a little bit.

There's some historical precedent here. Leibovitz documented Sontag's death in something of the the same way. Sally Mann is working on her husband's muscular dystrophy. And then there are endless "When Jane's Husband Was Diagnosed, She Started Photographing. The Last Image Will Break Your Heart!" links infesting the clickbait grids across the internet. It's a genre.

I'm always harping on and on about emotional connection, about how the artist needs to have some sort of genuine emotional response to what's in front of the lens. These things certainly have that, don't they? I mean, a loved one slowly dying, wow. It doesn't get more personal and emotional than that. And that, I think, is why even the least of these things has a lot of genuine emotional power. It's real (although it's only a matter of time before someone gets busted for faking one). Still, I find that these things leave me a little chilly.

Let's poke at a couple. Sally Mann's work in progress is Mann doing her usual thing. Dark, moody, semi-abstracted details. She's digging, deep, for the heart of the thing itself. It's in there someplace. Closeups of weakened limbs. The man's profile. I read this as Mann showing us what MD does, and leaving it up to us to make something of it. For the moment, anyway. I assume she's making something eventually that actually destroys the viewer.

Leibovitz is more like the things we see these days, the slowly sagging, slowly sicker figure, the hospital bed, the grave. All done with strong Leibovitz notes throughout, often an elegant frame but genuine moments. Rather than the huddle of earnest medical staff in the hospital hallway, there's a photo of the Sontag's son in the waiting room, slouched and reading a newspaper, as one does. Sontag looks like shit on her last day in the hospital. It feels less stagey, less carefully selected to Tell The Story than the modern versions do.

We have, I assume, all seen at least one of the other sort. The photographers rather fancy themselves Time Magazine essayists, so they're offering crisp black and white pictures of: the subject hale and hearty, the subject gets diagnosed, the medical staff consult worriedly with the family, the subject bears up bravely while looking worse and worse, the subject looks awful, the empty hospital bed.

The last style, by overtly seeking the sentimental, manages instead to crush it with a sort of formulaic and overwrought treatment. The sentiment is the sentiment of the romance novel, not of Faulkner. These times are difficult, but complex. There is relief as well as grief at the end. There is boredom, vast swathes of boredom, in the weeks and months leading up to the end. The dying person does not always bear up all that bravely. By leaving these things out, by distilling it to the Great Fall and Sorrow, the modern format reduces the whole thing to a sort of stagey veneer, too thin. Two dimensional. Mann and Leibovitz go much further, distilling the whole thing down much more, but rather than thinning it out, they're concentrating it, to my eye. We see only a fragment of the whole, but a very genuine fragment. A fully realized, deeply felt, fragment. A fragment with three full dimensions.

Even worse, the modern format, by concentrating on the Great Loss aspects, create more problems. By distilling the misery and loss out, they distill the thankfully, it's not me and the, for want of a better phrase, misery-porn, which comes out to the same thing. This doesn't mean that the pictures are bad, or not genuine. It doesn't mean that the pictures are not deeply affecting, powerful in their own limited way. They often, even usually, are. What it does mean is that the artist is struggling to justify the work, which is ultimately not fully realized, which is ultimately thin.

These things are deeply personal. For the most part, these essays strive to bring out the individuals as individuals. This is Bob, he's dying. This is Emily, Bob's loving wife. The were married in 1804 and have lived permanently embraced in one another's arms for the intervening 212 years, etcetera. These details, while making the individual story accessible, personal, also provide us with that valuable distance from which we can breathe our sigh of relief. For this, and for reasons noted above, the creators should feel the need to justify the work. It is thin, it is personal. Why do I, a stranger, want to look at it?

Of course, in a lot of cases, they're also processing their own grief. They want to do something to cure whatever it was that killed dad, or mom, or their little sister. I get it, but that too is personal. Your grief is not my grief. Adding insult to injury, it's not really within the power of one person to move the needle on an Alzheimer's cure, or whatever.


There's some nubbin of something in here, I think. By all means, make your Time Magazine essay. This is an important time. Record it and remember it as you see fit. If you want to elide the boredom of the waiting room, go ahead. If you would prefer to forget the relief at the end, go for it. But be advised that your essay is -- for other people -- a bit thin. The two-dimensionality of the material that, in the end, you're willing to share, will come through. If, on the other hand, you want to make your lover's demise something worthwhile, try for all three dimensions.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Inspiration is for Amateurs"

Chuck Close is fairly widely quoted as saying this, the title of my current piece here. The full quote is, apparently,

I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. You sign onto a process and see where it takes you. You don't have to invent the wheel every day. Today you'll do what you did yesterday and tomorrow you'll do what you did today. Eventually you'll get somewhere. Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself. If you’re going to wait a around for the clouds to open up and lightning to strike you in the brain you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.

which, perhaps, makes it clear that he's not talking about quite the same thing I am about to. Still, I think inspiration is indeed for professionals.

What I mean by inspiration is really the wideest, most generous definition. What I mean is, perhaps, arriving at a solution which was not at all obvious beforehand, but which is obviously correct afterwards. Consider a very mundane professional chore. Perhaps you're shooting pictures of hand tools for a catalog. Perhaps next up is a #2 philips screwdriver. Now, you could just take a picture of a screwdriver. Bad news, bub, anyone can do that. You're out of a job.

Suppose instead that out of the 100 or 200 more or less reasonable possible pictures of a #2 philips that one could take, after talking to the client, looking at the tool, and thinking about it, it occurs to you that this particular picture, let's say number 79, is the right one for the catalog. Stylistically you can use the same sort of thing for all the tools, and it promotes the right sort of idea. The client, ideally, will begin with "look, just pictures of tools" but will then talk about the company values, the durability of the tools (or how inexpensive they are, or how well made, or, or, or). They'll look at your test shot of number 79 and will say "aha, yes. yes."

That's inspiration. Sure, you're not inventing a new lighting method, you're not inventing a new way to think about photography. But you are arriving at an answer, a way to approach this shoot, that is obviously the right answer.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Art" Blogs as a Business

Chris Gampat's ongoing quest to turn talking about black and white art photography into a business got me to thinking, is there a business here? Let's poke at a few numbers.

First, let's suppose that the language in question is English (if you're dealing with Mandarin Chinese the situation is a somewhat better). We've got about 1 billion people on the planet who speak English, and let us suppose that all of them read it fluently enough to follow an English-language blog. We're erring on the side of generosity.

Let us also assume that all these people have cell phones and internet access, again, a bit generous. They probably all also have a camera in their phone.

Suppose 1 in 100 of those people has some interest in Photography as a thing they might like to read about. That gives 10 million people who might read some English-language photography content, and let's say, I dunno, 20 percent of those are the sort of people to become regular readers of something other than facebook or whatever the major social media sites are. That leaves us 2 million people.

Given that sites like PetaPixel and DPReview and whatnot seem to clock in around (very vague estimates) 100,000-200,000 regular readers and probably roughly the same number of casual/occasionals, it feels like we're in the ballpark. Those 2 million are going to be spread around a bit over the half dozen or so majors, many of them will have found more niche-y homes, and so on. 2 million is at least a credible number.

Now, what percentage of those are going to be interested in Art & Culture? 10%? 1%? You're looking at a total global market of, estimating generously, 200,000 people. Of that population, let's say 1 in 4 finds your particular take on things interesting enough to read your output from time to time, you're down to 50,000 people. In total.

If you capture 100% of those generously estimated 50,000 readers you can not make a living. Let me re-phrase that. You cannot make a living as a pure media play. There's just not enough money there.

Google AdSense says they think I could make $12 a month on my blog, which has maybe 200-400 readers (in my 50,000 readers sense, so including the casual drive-bys as well as the regular/daily readers). Scaling up to those 50,000 readers (250x), AdSense clocks in at $3000 a month. To capture that market, you're probably spending some money on content, or at least on staff and infrastructure, so there's less money even than that. Maybe AdSense sucks and the real number ought to be more like $6000 a month, if you did the advertising right.

Now, if you chose to make the blog a marketing vehicle for selling something else, services or products, than there might be a business here. But nobody's making a living with a Photography Art E-Magazine, there is literally only a few thousand bucks a month -- globally -- on the table here.

And, to be honest, I think that the real number is more like 5,000 (1% are interested in Art and Culture, not 10%). I've been writing this blog for a while, and every now and then I place a piece somewhere else or get a high-visibility link. There's a spike in traffic, but in a week or two it backs off to the baseline. I think I've tapped my market out pretty completely. There's probably a bit of turnover, people get bored, new people discover photothunk, but I'm pretty sure this is it. Maybe I could quadruple my readership or something, with the right sort of push? That's generous, I think.

So, $48 a month. For, I admit, a pretty fringe blog. Go more mainstream, generate 10x the money! $500/month.

There's no business here. I'm not gonna monetize you guys, because there are easier ways to get $12/month, when you get right down to it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Blackmon, Balthus, and Callahan

Here's a piece from ToP a while back. He's talking about Julie Blackmon and possible (almost certain) references to Balthus paintings in her work. Commenter S. Latkovic remarks that Harry Callahan (the photographer, although it's also perfectly possible that Dirty Harry did as well) also had a bit of a thing for Balthus.

Now look at this, from Callahan. Portugal, 1982:

For reference I'll include the Blackmon (2012):

And the Balthus (1954):

While I certainly agree that there appear to be references, the dates strike me as consistent with Blackmon referencing Callahan just as much as Balthus. There are specific elements in hers that appear to be borrowed from both pictures.

Interesting, huh? Sometimes the referents are tangled up more than seems at first obvious.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Grumpy Notes from Here and There

Over on PetaPixel we find a complaint that it's hard to make a living teaching photography, with, to the author's credit, some ideas about what to do about it. The elephant in the room here is that photography is easy, now. Those motivated, interested, students that are a joy to teach are motivated enough to figure out almost all this stuff on their own, or by spending a few bucks on a craftsy course, as needed.

The main impediment to new photographers is old photographers with their stupid advice. I am watching a tragic conversation unfold in which a guy wants to shoot product for his eBay store in which some doofuses on the internet are trying to teach him how to use strobes. He was using continuous light (totally appropriate, a 100x easier), but switched to some sort of strobed light. Probably because some old photographer suggested it.

Ming Thein has a hilarious post in which he reveals to the world the shocking news that image stabilization technology is not perfect, and also makes some fascinating`accusations that I have not read elsewhere (IS components will wear and the image quality will degrade over time, and IS components may not lock in the right position when IS is turned off). It strikes me as almost certainly an apologia for Hasselblad. Whether written at their behest, or whether it's his own idea, I cannot guess, but I note that either is possible.

Also, he doesn't know anything about control systems. Sample rate and shutter speed? What?

Finally, Mike J over on ToP has this interesting post about little details. The obsession with little details is a fascinating study in the world of photography. You can generally sell your obsession with little details as simply being a super-awesome professional photographer, and sometimes it's even true. More commonly, though, it's about avoiding the big questions. If you fuss endlessly over tiny details, then you never have to worry about whether the picture is any good, if the project is any good, if your work is any good. Photography, being endlessly fiddly but ultimately pretty easy, lends itself especially well to this sort of thing.

You can't do this with ballet, because nobody is going to fail to notice that your feet are all over the place while you're fussing with finger positions. You can't do it with sculpture, or drawing, or architecture. It's actually pretty hard to get to a half-decent looking result at all so your obsession with chisel-work, line weight, or mullions, isn't going to distract people from the ugly lump you've made. As a camera user, though, once you figure out how to focus the damn thing, your rotten flower picture looks pretty much like a flower. You can start rattling on about tonal placement, light modifiers, or microcontrast, or something, and there's a chance people won't notice that you suck.

Friday, August 19, 2016

How Did We Get Here?

PetaPixel recently published a link to a youtube video breaking down the lighting in some photo made by some guy, Karl Taylor. For all I know Karl Taylor is some huge deal, but I've never heard of him and his web site suggests that mainly he teaches people how to Do Photography. Anyways, this picture is sort of typical of a low-rent wanna-bee fashion photographer.

This is, of course, receiving accolades, and people totally wanted to know how he did it etcetera and so forth. And I dare say the breakdown is a good teaching tool for how to spot the light sources. But just look at this stupid thing.

There are three obvious light sources here, with three completely different characters (but all the same color), two of them are on the floor and yet, somehow, the result is still kind of muddy and indistinct.

It's time to come out and say it. Having light sources all over the goddamned place just looks stupid. Yes, yes, I get that you want to show off every little detail of the girl, or the chair, or the car, whatever. Figure out how to do it without looking like you just shoved lights in all over the place because, let us review, it just looks stupid.

How the hell did we get here? Is this just a plot by the lighting companies to sell more crap? Is it some sort of weird technical challenge to see how many lights you can stick in there? Are photographers too lazy to figure out how to show off the object without simply hitting it with light from every angle? Is it basically an easy way to make the picture look expensive and "done"? How the hell did we get here?

For the record, actual fashion photography looks nothing whatsoever like this except that it has hot girls in it. Car photography looks a little like this, possibly because it is very hard to show off both the lines and the wheels without lights all over the place, if you want that nighttime look, which sometimes you do.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Chris Gampat is at it again, trying to figure out how to turn an almost total lack of ability and a bunch of enthusiasm into a business. He really really really wants to do some kind of magazine based around black&white photography, which is a worthy goal. It just happens to be beyond his skills, and is in fact a very very high wall to climb.

Don Quixote here got me to thinking, though. How would I do it?

The concept I arrived at very suddenly but after quite a lot of noodling on it, is a 'zine called "Gesture", stealing from Jay Maisel. His recent book Light, Gesture, & Color defines his rather personal and idiosyncratic notion of "Gesture" as, roughly, the essence of the thing itself. Maisel tries to do it one frame at a time, with varying success.

This is something I am interested in, the uncharitable might say that I harp on it endlessly. My opinion, oft-repeated, is that the essence of the thing is best got at photographically with multiple pictures, a photo essay, a portfolio.

So this mythical "Gesture" magazine would feature one photo-essay per issue, which gets at the essence of the thing in some way. The artist gets a few column inches of text. I get a few column inches of text. And then there are pictures. Black and white, it's called "Gesture", not "Gesture & Color". Artists selected by me, edited by me, judged by me.

Online and print, funded by a Patreon and whatever sales of the print edition happen. Shoot for once a month. Published on the 1st of the month, every month, every other month, every sixth month, as time and available content permit. Pay the artists.. something. Maybe not much, but always something. "Corporate structure" to be determined. Print edition delivery model to be determined.

It's just a concept. I'm not going to do it this year. I have no time and too many projects already. I'm probably never going to do it. Feel free to steal it and go for it. Let me know if you do, I might buy a copy. Indeed, we could all of us do this 'zine, and every one would be different, every one would probably be worth something.

See MagCloud and its competitors as a starting point.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sally Mann, What Remains

I've been living pretty continuously with this book for, I dunno, a month or something. I've seen many of the pictures from it before, I watched the movie, but this is the first time I've had the book in my hands. It's not an easy book. Unless you are new here, you know I am a certified fanboy, and you will likely guess that my reaction is positive. That is an accurate guess. I think I have more to say, however.

I'm going to refer to the artist here as Sally, because she's been rubbing my nose in some pretty intimate stuff for the last month, and I feel like at least in this narrow little region we might as well be on a first name basis. After this we're straight back to Mrs. Mann, though.

First the particulars, a catalog of what we're looking at. Four sections, three of them shot wet plate, one on large format sheet film.

The first section, "Matter Lent" is wet plate, and comes in two pieces. Pictures of Sally's dog Eva after disinterment, and of Eva's dressed pelt, removed before interment. This is followed by pictures of human corpses on the body farm in Tennessee. This bit is about the flesh itself after the organism dies. (notice how I wrote that, "the organism dies") It is frequently stomach-churning, and always very hard to look at.

Next up is "December 8, 2000", sepia toned, quite pale, sheet film photographs of the site of a suicide on Sally's farm in Virginia, together with one color snapshot of the police cars and so forth surrounding the area of the suicide. The pictures look a bit like salt prints, or possibly albumen. Possibly they are, or possibly it's just a look that felt right. With a bit of melodrama, one might imagine they are, somehow, printed with blood. They certainly stand out from the collodion work. Thematically, this is the land where death occurs. The earth to which the flesh returns.

Then we have "Antietam" featuring wet plate photos of civil war battlefields (or, for all I know, just one), following the theme of the land where death occurred into the past. These are lyrical landscapes, printed very dark, demanding and rewarding close inspection. This section emphasizes a trend from the ugly/grotesque to the beautiful.

The book wraps up with "What Remains", close-up long exposures, also wet plate, of Sally's impossibly beautiful children, now impossibly beautiful adults. This is a little spot of affirmation and life, perhaps. The title suggests that these are what remain behind, but I think there might reasonably be seen a little more in these pictures.

The phrase "What Remains" in the English language is pretty marvelously ambiguous, a point which was surely not lost on the infernally erudite Sally Mann. You can read it as "That which is left behind." or "How wonderful are these things left behind!" or "What are the the things that are left behind?" or "Things left behind? There's nothing left behind, what are you talking about?" and probably several others. The phrase is applied both to the pictures of the children, and the book itself. Make of it what you will, but I assume that all apply.

The book is most assuredly sequenced. This isn't some greatest hits monograph, every picture has its place, its reason. There is real flow to these things.

We see progressions toward increasingly ruinous failures of the the collodion process, along with other progressions of light to dark, or increasing degrees abstraction. The "Antietam" section ends with pictures that could be abstract charcoal sketches, "What Remains" ends with milky white pictures with fragments of faces, lips and eyes. There's a plan here, many plans, really. Echoed forms, progressions, references forward and backward. This wasn't tossed together, this was carefully constructed from what I suspect is an enormous body of material. The sheer amount of labor involved here is staggering. Wet plate ain't for sissies.

There is a progression in time, from the decay of flesh, to the land, and back around to the living, which carries with it a progression from the ugly to the beautiful. There's a stick on the Mann farm that I swear shows up on a battlefield.

Now. Onwards to the important part. Time to wake back up.

And now I could dig in to the material, and go on about the bravery of the artist to confront these difficult issues, of death and dying. I could prance around the edges and talk about the artistry and skill she brings to depicting these things, how amazing it is that she found beauty in these dreadful things, blah blah blah. Alternatively I could rattle on about how awful the subject matter is, and rail against the artist, how dare she, etc and so on.

I'm not going to. You can find plenty of this crap out there if you look. (actually, if you look, it's much worse. most reviewers were clearly afraid to talk about the work itself at all.)

What Sally is up to here is something quite different. Sally is a fucking heard-headed cuss who does not dabble in bullshit. There are really only two ways to cope with this material. The first is to ignore it, which you can do perfectly well by talking endlessly about everything except the work and what it might mean. I did it above, blathering about "the organism," it's extremely hard not to.

The second way is to confront it, and see your own mortality, and deal with that as best you can.

This book is about death. Not dying, not the beautiful imagery of the soul departing for more pleasant climes, not the celebration of life lived, not the tragic and beautiful reaction of society to death, none of the usual stuff. This is about death and decay, the essentials of the thing. The soil, the worms, the return to dust (a surprisingly gummy, liquid, sticky journey, it turns out). And then Sally does something remarkable, if you are open she will grab you by the scruff of the neck and insist:

This. Is. Beautiful.

Sally has used her substantial powers to build a collection which echoes the decay and destruction she's interested in, and which is also beautiful, meaningful. Here it all is, no window dressing, no artifice. No attempt to conceal the stickiest, the most grotesque, the most appalling elements, and yet... and yet there is beauty here. Sally is right. This thing, this death business, is many things, but one of those things is beautiful.

This book has the potential to change you deeply, if you are open. Because she's right. It is horrifying to contemplate, it is ugly, sticky, grotesque. And it is beautiful. It is the most natural and normal thing in the world, to return to the soil, to return our matter to nature for her reuse.

The book gains a dimension now with Emmett's death. The "What Remains" section is cast, for us, in a new light. The photographs of the children finish the book with life. These pictures remind us that the decayed flesh, becoming soil, comes back around eventually as new life. Now we are reminded that these too will pass away, and begin anew. Sally was perfectly aware of this, of course. You can see it in the progression of pictures, as the end with the barest traces of ghostly faces lightly impressed on a milky surface.

Emmett's death is surely a tremendous loss and source of sorrow for those near him. For most of us, though, we out here who don't know the Mann family, it is something else. A faraway loss. We can do the usual thank goodness it's not me or mine or however we generally take these things. But we are also granted a new view of this work, to understand and maybe to accept a little better this inevitable end that awaits us.

I thought for a little while that perhaps the present book might be viewed in opposition to the Dylan Thomas poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night" but upon contemplation I think they are simply talking about different things. Nature, the land, the soil, they care nothing if you rage or no against the dying of the light. Rage or no, they will wait. The land has all the time in the world. Where Thomas's poem leaves off is where Sally's pictures start, really, after the rage is burned out, at a point of serenity and a kind of calm.

Sally starts the book out with these lines penned by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, from his "On Death, a Sermon". One supposes that they're appropriate, and they certainly seem to relate to the pictures:

All things summon us to death;
Nature, almost envious of the good she has given us,
Tells us often and gives us notice that she cannot
For long allow us that scrap of matter she has lent...
She has need of it for other forms,
She claims it back for other works.

And is that not, in its own dreadful way, beautiful?

The land, the soil, nature, they're going to take care of you. It's OK.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Ultimate Counter-Example?

Take a look at this picture:

I can't think of a single rule of composition that this thing doesn't violate. Rule of Thirds? Dynamic Symmetry? Golden Anything? Clean Edges? Don't lead the eye out of the frame? Subject isolation? Point of highest contrast "draws the eye"? Level the horizon? Everything. Try your own favorites out to see if this thing passes them. I'm not even sure he's got the focus on his subjects.

What is it? Robert Frank. "US 90, Texas, 1955". It's better than any photograph I've ever taken. How 'bout you?

Why does it work? Because of the things in it. The people we find after a moment and inspect are wonderfully interesting and sympathetic. We find them without any trouble, we don't need leading lines. The bright headlight which, in amateur critique parlance would no doubt "totally kill it" is in fact a total non-issue in terms of finding the subject, and is vital to the life of the frame. The junk around the edge of the frame doesn't matter, because we find the people instantly, and everything else is less important.

Frank framed it to include the antenna and the headlight, and to give his subjects breathing room in the frame (the antenna and the headlight don't need it), and maybe to eliminate other people in the car. That's why the horizon is cattywumpus, but I bet you didn't even notice that until I pointed it out to you.

It's a terrific photo, which nails a certain time and place, and a feeling. That sensation of being pulled over out in the middle of noplace, USA, is distinctive and instantly recognizable. Because Frank got the right things into the frame, "composition" be damned. (To be fair, and to toot my own horn a little, I think one could argue that Ruskin might find some things to approve of, but he wasn't really a "rules" guy and he also sort of actually knew a few things.)

Next time you see some maroon going on about some sort of rule or method of composition, pull this one out and see what you think.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Criticism: Two Photo Essays

This is me really warming up here, preparing to tackle Sally Mann's What Remains, which I've been living with for a few weeks. Note that I will use the word "surreal" here and there, and I mean it in the colloquial sense. It's a term of art, and I am almost certainly using it catastrophically wrong on those terms, but as colloquial usage I think I am OK.

The rationales for criticism are many, but the one I like best is that criticism at its best completes the Art, or at any rate provides a next step in the conversation. There are really three things you can do when you're confronted with some Art. You can do nothing. You can make a piece of Art in response. You can execute the act of criticism to one degree or another. The latter two kind of blur together, both represent engagement with the Art, and responding publicly to it. The difference is, perhaps, that criticism judges and a artistic response does not. Arguably if I make a photograph in reply to yours, and my photograph makes it clear that I think yours is shit, that's criticism. If it's just what I see as the next photograph to make, in response to yours, it's not.

Anyways. A recent commenter wished out loud there was more thoughtful criticism out there, and following a link or two I found Karel Kravik's work. In hour later I found myself, more or less at random, looking at a personal project from Clara Giaminardi. There are, it happens, certain slight similarities, so I'm going to talk about the two. The dreaded "compare and contrast" some of us may recall from high school essays.

(warning: naked people)

Here's Kravik's work: Blood Unquiet.
Here's Giaminardi's work: Manifesto for a New Objectification

Both sets of pictures lean heavily on one sort of surrrealism or another, although they look nothing alike. It took me a while to see why Kravik's photos feel surreal, since upon inspection they turn out to be, generally, pretty much realistic scenes with one of more children. The first part, as I see it, is that Kravik has a nearly remarkable eye for selecting the surreal in the ordinary, juxtaposing elements in these interesting ways. The second part is the use of tone. Whether through dodging or merely careful use of light, Kravik manages to hit the Giacomelli's note in the the latter's picture from Scanno, Italy. The heavily dodged boy in Giacomelli's picture gives a dreamlike quality, which we see all over again (albeit more subtly) in Kravik's work.

My reading of "Blood Unquiet" was as some sort of dreamlike, surrealist allegory or fable of childhood. Which turns out to be pretty much what the artist intended, substituting "memory" for "dream" (and the two overlap a lot, so I don't see that as important).

Giaminardi's work partakes of an entirely different thread of surrealism. Weirdly contorted bodies, bizarre outfits, mud smeared on the models, and so on. It too is a surrealism built directly out of what is in front of the camera, without any sort of compositing, painting, etc. Her pictures feel more "constructed" than Kravik's, but I think that may be a false sensation. Kravik is simply constructing more naturalistic scenes, and finding the surreal in them, while Giaminardi is more directly constructing surreal scenes.

To Giaminardi's credit she can manage color. Her experience in fashion shows, clearly. These things are very much fashion-inspired, the color palettes are very much in the way of a fashion shoot. Very consistent, very well-defined, quite beautiful. Other contemporary fashion tropes turn up, the "ugly" wall that appears behind the models, the bizarre outfits often have a fashion flavor, as do many of the poses.

The trouble is that without Giaminardi's artist's statement, it just looks like a particularly outré fashion house's latest shoot, except where are the clothes? The messaging, from the point of view of a fashion consumer, is unclear. What do these people make? Who wants to buy it, porn stars? Is the lifestyle Hip? Sumptuous? Young? Sophisticated? Nothing really "reads" from a fashion perspective, it's just the usual tropes except with weird poses and more tits than usual.

With Giaminardi's statement the situation gets much worse. She pretends to be re-imagining something or other, erasing gender inequalities, erasing the distinction between body and mind, by reducing all to flesh. She seems, although digging through the International Art English is always a chore, to be claiming that the road to gender equality is to objectify everyone equally. This strikes the present critic as a device for rationalizing a bunch of second-year art student horseshit as some sort of brave Feminist Statement.

Basically what we're looking at a bunch of naked people, beautifully styled, wrapped in plastic and mud (and.. moss?), posing hopefully. It's a bit prurient, although in this modern era of Internet Porn it's barely titillating. It's certainly puerile. And the attempt to wrap it in the flag of feminism is not only crap, it actually makes the total project considerably worse. Now it's not merely softcore porn, it's softcore porn someone is lamely trying to pass off as High Art and Intelligent Political Commentary.

Paradoxically, each individual picture is pretty good. They're vaguely interesting, they're exceedingly well executed, and occasionally one even gets a frisson of something about gender here (but then, fashion is all about that frisson these days, there are entire campaigns and clothing lines built around gender ambiguity today). These are attractive people, although not always traditionally, often arranged appealingly or at least interestingly. These pictures could each be part of something good, or at least part of something that makes sense. It happens that, as of now, they are not.

Kravik, on the other hand, aims lower and hits his mark well. He's not pretending to make some mighty political statement, he's making smaller but completely genuine statements, and doing so very well indeed. I have not seen this sort of work before. Some of the influences seem pretty clear to me, but there's nothing that feels like a copy of something that came before. The techniques in play are subtle and strong.

I feel that Kravik's project could have usefully lost one or two pictures, or gained a couple. There are a couple (one? two?) pictures which feel a little weak, and if this had been my project (I wish!) I'd either have trimmed it, or filled in a few more "weaker" pictures to build an ebb and flow of pacing. The "weaker" ones are really just the ones that hit the high contrast/surreal notes less powerfully, and in a portfolio dominated by the other sort they feel slightly out of place. Still, perhaps they were necessary to fill out the artist's vision, and the result is superb as-is.

I also wish the gallery-show photos got peeled out and moved somewhere else. It's a bit jarring to run into them at the end of this really marvelous meditation on childhood memory.

Overall, I am pretty excited by Kravik's work. It is genuinely new (to me) and good. Not only is it good but I like it. A twofer.

Giaminardi's work is pedestrian, tedious, and uninteresting, although it is very well executed. It is not good, and I dislike it on the grounds of its superficiality.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


There's a forum I poke at pretty regularly to try to keep a finger on the pulse of the dumbest parts of the photography-verse. In it there was a recent thread about William Eggleston, and there was a little flurry of the sorts of responses you'd expect from idiots. They're just bad photos (whatever that even might mean - in this context it probably means that they look nothing like bottom-feeder Lifestyle Photos) Snapshots and I don't get it. Not to suggest that everyone should be an Art History major, but 5 minutes on wikipedia would enable pretty much anyone to say something more intelligent along with the I don't like it statement.

Anyways, one of the I don't like it crowd suggested that probably people like Eggleston because they are "primed" to like him. We've heard that he's important, that he's good, so we try to find a reason to like the pictures. This poster phrased it as a dismissal, essentially suggesting that people are "tricked" by the critics and the Art Establishment into liking something that he doesn't like, that is, which is objectively shit.

The thing is, this sort of "priming" is why we like everything. What art do you like? What books do you like? What music? You like it because of all that you have absorbed in this society. You like it because the critics like it (or hate it), and because your Mom likes it (or doesn't) and because your friends like it. This is the nature of these intersubjective experiences, more or less by definition. Art is, literally, good because society decrees it to be good.

Not liking Eggleston isn't a sin, he's not the most approachable photographer ever. Dismissing him as "bad" or a mere maker of "snapshots", dismissing people who do like or appreciate his work as victims of a scam, these merely mark you as an ignorant rube. You might as well fabricate a scarlet R and wear it out around town. It is one thing to disagree with the social consensus, that's perfectly normal and often reasonable. To deny that a social consensus exists, or to dismiss it as irrelevant, is to be a flat-earther.

Also, "priming" is a term of art in psychology which doesn't mean this really at all, but I dare say if we're careful we can get away with the usage here.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Room for Meaning

Let's suppose I went to Butte Montana to photograph the place, and let's suppose I brought an elephant along and shot the elephant all over Butte. You might deduce, reasonably, that I have no ideas about Butte, and that I am actually shooting an elephant, not a town. Now, let's suppose that I only put the elephant in a few of the shots.

At this point you might reasonably be puzzled as to what on earth I am doing. Is this an elephant shoot or a town shoot? Does Andrew just happen to have an elephant in his pocket that he pulls out from time to time?

Hold on to that though, and now ponder Dan Zvereff's skateboarder journeys in the East, say this one, or this one, and also consider Michele Sons "Feminine Landscape" series. All these bodies of work operate by going to exotic locales, and shoving something into the frame that is out of place. They're all elephants in Butte, only prettier.

I am on the record as not liking Zvereff, but liking Sons. Let's try to step away from the political implications of Zvereff's trips, and the general appeal of attractive young women. Even so, I still like Sons and I don't like Zvereff. It's possible this is based entirely on trivialities, or personal tastes, but I feel like there's another thing in here.

Zvereff drags his elephant out every now and then, but often he's just shooting the location. Close-up portraits of the locals, architecture, landscape. Every now and then he throws in a photo of a skateboarder. The result, I think, is that one can't really tell what the hell he's shooting. Is he shooting skateboarders? Or is he shooting Kazakhstan? Michele Sons, on the other hand, is very consistent. She's shooting women in flowing dresses in exotic places, every time. There's an "elephant" in every frame.

When the visual motif, the raw "what am I taking a picture of" is clear, then there is room for meaning. You can project anything you like onto Michele Sons' portfolio. Is it a metaphor for women isolated in a man's world? Does she just love Emily Bronte? Is it a fantasy of.. something? It doesn't matter, really. We can believe there is some sort of meaning and we can imagine whatever we like for it.

With Zvereff it is not clear, at least not to me, what he's taking pictures of. I'm sure you could say well, it's just docu, innit? but that's a bit of a cop-out. What's he documenting? He's choosing frames to show us, after all, but there does not appear (to me) to be any rhyme or reason to them.

Now, one needn't hit a single visual note over and over, either. With something like, say, American Photographs, we can discern patterns, contrasts between patterns, differences. Evans shows us the same thing several times, and then another thing that's similar in some ways and different in others. Again, there is room for meaning. We can imagine what Evans might have had in mind, selecting these pictures in this sequence. We can feel that he had some opinions about America, and some specific things he wanted to show us, maybe even pound through our thick skulls.

Possibly if Zvereff gave us three times as many pictures, whatever he had in mind would shine through, but as it stands it looks a lot like he shot a bunch of pictures of whatever caught his eye, and then just gave us a sort of highlights reel that covers "the best shots" and maybe a little narrative "gotta have a train pic" but without any specific ideas that he wanted to convey.

See also this post from Allen Murabayashi at photoshelter, He points to two different photo essays from the Rio Olympics, and makes some remarks, judging one to be better than the other (and by the way, Allen, good on ya -- we don't see enough actual criticism out there, and criticism includes judging, damn it). While Allen does make some excellent points, it is worth noting that both photo essays are terrible. Neither one is an essay at all, both are simply jumbles of Greatest Hits photos. The NYT collection is more subtle and balanced, and uses better pictures, but it's not an essay at all. It says nothing, it shows us nothing new. It's the same fucking pictures from the same fucking Olympics with a slightly different color scheme and a few new athletes. Ho hum.

There's no opinion expressed, in the first place, and perhaps more important it does not have any room for meaning. You can't imagine any meaning for a jumble of highlights. There's no place for you to imagine what the underlying idea might have been, there's no place for you to hang your own ideas about the Rio Olympics. There's no room for "dialog" or for you to expand you mind, your thinking, there's nothing for the viewer to even react to. I guess you can say wow, Michael Phelps. wow. but beyond that it's gettin' pretty thin. It's just some pictures to look at.

You might reasonably say that, well, if Zvereff is by your own admission, Mr. Molitor in the same company as the NYT photo editing staff, then he's doing OK. I am going to put my critic hat on extra firmly and make the bold assertion that, no, they both suck.

This is, basically, why I think having a clear concept as you shoot, edit, and sequence is so important. Whether your idea particularly reads or not. Simply by making the final result contain your idea, you have proven to an extent that it can contain an idea. You have at least built a vessel that has some room for meaning inside it. And maybe, just maybe, some traces of your idea will remain when the viewers fills it back up. That would be nice, eh?

Leave room for meaning.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Nikon

The Nikon. Why do I use The Nikon? The only real answer is that if you don't already know, I can't explain it, you just have to do it yourself. But I'll try.

There's something about the way it feels in the hand. The polycarbonate. The balance.

The way the controls fall under the fingers. As if the machine's designer had hands. And fingers. And a thumb. That were hooked up pretty much like mine are. Everything just feels ... right.

And there's the sound. That little clop-snap as the instrument makes the image. Bang. I push the button, and it takes a picture. It's not like other cameras. When you look through the little hole in the back, and looking, really seeing it, you wait until.. clop-snapthere, that's the instant. That's The Nikon. The Nikon is there in that instant. The image.

And the lens. Then the lens. The 18-55 lens. Soft when you first get it, but after you drop it a couple of times it gets ... this glow. This amazing look that's not like other lenses. People recognize it instantly, it looks like nothing else. The Dropped Nikkor Glow. It's why I shoot The Nikon. I can't get that glow in Photoshop, because I haven't bought the right pack of actions.

But it's really the feel of The Nikon. You can't explain it, you just have to pick it up and work with it for a thousand frames, or ten-thousand. Did you know that Henry Carter-Brassaï said that your first 10,000 pictures are your worst? He used The Nikon. And I do too. It's the way it feels. It's the Images you can Make with it

The Nikon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Luminous Endowment Grants

The Luminous Endowment has announced the latest batch of winners. Lest anyone get any silly ideas about sour grapes, let me state up front that I have never applied, and therefore never been rejected. I have considered applying, and have been stymied by the fact that I can literally not think of a way to spend the grant money within the context of my life. So, any sour grapes are at a pretty far remove, at best.

Onwards. The winners are, in the main, perfectly competent photographers, producing perfectly competent copies of pictures we've seen before many times. This is as expected, it was Michael Reichmann's business for 20 years to teach photographers precisely how to do that, and it is what most photographers want to learn. It's not my thing, but it's perfectly reasonable.

Anyways, it doesn't matter. What defines the value or not of these things is whether the idea is any good. So, with my critic hat on, I offer a few lines of comment on each project. I am working from the assumption that the pictures we're shown are the ones that were submitted with the application, and as such only give a rough idea of what the final result might be. One winner states explicitly that the final work will be different, in fact.

"An American Family" from Zachary Roberts. This project makes me uncomfortable. Roberts' brother carried out a murder-suicide of a bunch of little Amish girls 10 years ago, and this seems to be Zachary coping with his understandable personal reaction. It feels exploitative. But then, that's photography for you, isn't it? So, I feel uncomfortable, but maybe I shouldn't.

This is the most fraught and difficult of the projects, clearly. Roberts has, I think, tried to make a movie about this and failed. Now he's falling back on the tropes of mid-20th-century photographers to try to make some sense of this material. The pictures are the most derivative of the lot, knock-off Walker Evans and Frank, with a touch of Cartier-Bresson thrown in. I assume that the title of the project is a deliberate nod to the seminal books by Evans and Frank. Juxtaposing the Amish with the Roberts family is a strong play, and has the potential to be effective. It's not clear what Roberts wants to do here, and I think it likely that Roberts also has no idea, but he is struggling.

I'm still deeply uncomfortable with this project, and I think the pictures themselves are knock-offs, but I'm starting to come around to the idea that this might be a very worthwhile project. It could also dribble out to nothing, or end in more dramatic failure.

"The Retail Landscape" from Drew Harty seems to be "Twentysix Gas Stations" all over again. This artist is right - the project needs more depth. Also, I think the assertion that in 1964 the USA had only 7600 retail spaces is absurd. This might be a typo, the correct number might have been 76,000, but that renders the cited current number of 107,773 less shocking. Not sure what's going on here. The work itself is perfectly serviceable, the project's agenda is more or less worthwhile, but I don't see anything new or interesting here, ultimately.

"Florida Stewards" from Dustin Angell is a worthy idea. I adore the idea of honoring these subjects, and I think this project does a terrible job of it. These are miserable portraits, casting each of these people in a heroic stance, shot from low down with excessive fill and too much whaling on various sliders. I think the idea might be to make them look vaguely like marble statues, as this is certainly the result. This is a terrible visual concept and should get dumped. These are people. Rendering them all identical and ugly does nobody any service.

"Publication Design Grant" from Eric Myrvaagnes leaves me utterly cold. These are all exercises in form and technique, with no content. I actively hate this kind of photography, however well executed (and these are very well executed indeed). There are millions and millions of these pictures out there, all more or less indistinguishable. Eric is, I think, a fine fellow, but that is neither here nor there.

"The Things We Leave Behind" from Ana V Ramirez is one of the three projects I found really interesting. Ms. Ramirez is, really, just making and photographing Cornell boxes made with a few of her deceased mother's things. But she's very very good at it, and the use of photography allows her to use ephemeral things in the work. Cornell could not have used blueberries with the same effect. It's not a photography project at all, except as an incidental bit of technique, but it's still pretty good. I personally love it.

"Made in China" from Kai Loeffelbein is another political statement of the sort we have possibly too many of. Yes, yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it's mostly China's fault, and they are terrible to their workers. It's not as if some minor monograph is going to make much difference, these issues are discussed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Like "The Retail Landscape" this project is a lazy nod to chic contemporary artsy politics. (Politics with which, for the record, I happen to agree with.) The pictures are stylistically all over the place, and almost completely mundane. This is one of the weaker of the winners.

"Homeless at the End" from Daniel Lombardi is another politically charged, potentially exploitative piece. But it's excellent, rather than lazy. Lombardi shows us how to do it right. He's not lazy, he's working hard. He's made personal connections, and is sharing those with us. Rather than some lazy lawsy, homeless people certainly are dirty and downtrodden he's showing us specific homeless guys, with names, with lives and stories. He's granting them dignity, without concealing the reality. The pictures are not incredible, just workmanlike. You can see nods to various influences. What makes it work is the project as a whole, rather than the pictures taken one by one. This project is, easily, the best of the lot.

Interestingly, Lombardi has a web site version of the project with more words, and it's quite a bit weaker than the grant submission that we're looking at. I hope he's not going off the rails toward something crappy.

“Armenia: Off the beaten paths” from Hayk Melkonyan is a bunch of landscapes. Look. Armenia. It looks a lot like other parts of planet Earth, but different in some ways. Ho hum. Technically excellent, and utterly uninteresting. Not entirely clear to me why a professional photographer who shoots these things as his actual job got a grant to shoot more of it, to be honest.

"Road to Nyapyidaw" from Vivek Prabhu is clearly the weakest of the offerings. Possibly Prabhu will produce something interesting in the end, but the samples he provides are a smattering of amateurish "street" photographs from Hong Kong and hopes for the best. He has a concept, of sorts, but it boils down to travel to Myanmar and take some pictures which isn't much of a project. It sounds a lot more like a vacation. You know my opinion about flying in to someplace for a few days and shooting.

It does not help that, to the extent that he has an idea, for example My approach would be to tell the story of Nyapyidaw from the eyes of its people, and not to simply dismiss it off as a bizarre city that is a result of the junta's largesse or paranoia, his submitted pictures illustrate exactly no ability to pull it off. Strong use of Leading Lines in Hong Kong does not in any obvious way translate to an ability to portray cities in Myanmar through the eyes of the people living there.

Anyways, there they all are. The stronger projects all have some sort of personal connection, and an effort to share that personal connection, and are built around substantial amounts of labor. This is my life. This is my family. I know this guy. I am involved, and now I share that with you as best I can.

Interestingly, most of the winners have an expressed intent to "do a book", whatever that means. Myrvaagnes has a specific plan for how the money will assist him with this, the rest seem to be pretty vague. I find the whole thing kind of weird. Making a book doesn't cost anything, it's just work, and you just do it. It's way easier that travelling all over tarnation taking the pictures, and you don't need any money to do it.

Money isn't going to magically generate an audience for the book, either, which for most of these people seems to be what they actually want. Possibly the little dash of publicity associated with winning will produce an audience, or at any rate the germ of an audience? I don't know.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Thing Itself

A comment on the previous post got me thinking. The Bechers (a husband and wife team) did a thing in which they shot buildings more or less dead-on, presenting them more or less artlessly. The point was, as I understand it, that they felt these buildings were interesting in and of themselves. They presented grids of pictures, inviting viewers to compare various buildings, to I suppose note similarities and differences. It sounds kind of awesome.

Historically, their work is considered a precursor of New Topographics, and I do see the connection. Both approaches are interested in so-called typologies, but the New Topographics people are more opinionated. So, some shared ideas, some not so shared, as it should be.

Nothing I shot for the previous little essay really resembles anything the Bechers did, because everything I shot was imbued with some sort of opinion or idea. The first one, the one I dismiss, is crammed full of formalism, and the rest are crammed with opinion. At least, to the best of my ability. I was actively trying to put things in to the pictures which the Bechers explicitly tried to leave out.

This does point out, though, the distinction between the thing you're taking a picture of, and the picture itself. Current thinking among amateurs is very much that the job of the photographer is to make the thing itself look interesting. Possibly the most common critique offered on the internet is some variation of the sneering "you need to study composition" (usually offered by someone who has not), and this is really saying that the thing being photographed is insufficiently interesting. The photographer must make it interesting by using techniques. Composition, post processing, whatever.

At some roughly opposite point on the compass rose from the Bechers, we find Ansel Adams, who was the master of making things look interesting by applying technique. Flatten the contrast on many of his pictures and watch in astonishment as the whole thing collapses. It is perhaps not an accident that in these degenerate times we find that technique is considered the proper path to making pictures interesting. But it is not.

Just to pluck another genre from the air, we have the Birds In Flight people, who do amazing stuff. (and, notably, nobody ever seems to sneer at them for stupidly centering the bird in the frame like some sort of snapshot. It's not a snapshot if you used a huge lens, I guess.) The conceit though is that birds are not themselves that interesting, unless you catch them in the midst of some hard-to-capture behavior. A bird sitting on a branch sucks, evidently. But consider that idea. A living creature of any sort of some kind of freakish miracle. Bone and sinew, blood pumping, feathers a-fluff, it is the wildest sort of improbability just sitting there.

The thing itself is some sort of modernist (?) theory about the essence of stuff, I think, but I'm not talking about that here. I'm leaning more on Szarkowski's idea from the opening section of The Photographer's Eye, the idea of a photograph that is a simple, direct, artless representation of the thing in front of the lens. The Bechers are a notable example of this approach, but see also Walker Evans and so on.

In reality, I think that a balance is usefully struck between the thing itself and the photographer's ideas.

If you're going to have "soul" in your photographers, if there is going to be some kind of emotional connection, ultimately the emotional viewer is going to be reacting to the thing photographed in almost every case. Photographers do not, in general, have the painter's luxury of hoping that the viewer will feel based purely on the use of color, the geometry, that sort of thing. The photograph is altogether too rooted in reality. Confront the viewer with a Mondrian, and one might be rewarded with an emotional response. Confront the viewer with the photographic equivalent, and you're more likely to get puzzlement.

Not to say that the photographic abstract is all bullshit, it's not. Still, people read photographic abstracts as photographs. One reads these things speculatively, with a strong undercurrent of "what is it, really?" and "I think it might be.." One reacts as much to ones fancy of what the picture might be of as to anything else.

And so the photographer's job is to help the viewer along to some sort of reaction to the thing in front of the lens. Sometimes no help at all is required, really. A photo of one guy shooting another guy in the head requires no artifice whatsoever to produce a reaction. A photo of a mother bathing her crippled daughter might not require photographic gimmickry, but to make it really compelling you can make it look like a Pietà painted by, perhaps, Goya. Hit those tropes hard enough, you might change the goddamned world.

If you're just me hacking around with pictures of buildings in Bellingham, well, you do your best. My belief is that you need to begin with a genuine feeling toward the thing in the frame, and then you can try to say something around that, and maybe, just maybe, it'll read more or less the way you want. Faking your emotional response is a bad first step.

And anyways, why would you fake it? Surely there are more things that you feel something about than you will ever photograph. So try to make something of those.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

An Example

Let me preface this by saying that in truth I have no opinion about the building I am illustrating here. Let me also apologize for the lens, I had no idea this zoom lens was so completely broken. I rarely use it, and apparently it's been dropped one too many times. I used it because it is the lens I own with the longest zoom range. The horrible effects are irrelevant, however.

Here is a random building somewhere downtown in Bellingham. This is, more or less, the picture I would expect the average Internet Famous Photographer to produce. It says I can see visually interesting objects, perform perspective corrections, and execute a set of vaguely idiosyncratic post-processing steps to produce a sort of signature look.

(in this case, large radius unsharp mask, desaturate blues, push up the reds, then pull all colors down to taste, then sharpen some)

It also says, probably, I have no particular ideas about this building, it just caught my eye.

Here are some possible opinions and ideas.

The building looms:

In fact, it looms alarmingly:

No, actually it does not loom. It is merely decrepit:

It is a lonely object of pity:

You might disagree with these readings, that is OK. The point is that these are radically different readings of the same structure, shot minutes apart (while I was holding a latte in one hand, mind you). These are the sorts of things I might imagine, or even shoot, as I struggled to devise an idea of how to photograph this thing. If I gave a single goddamned wit about this building, I would go back, over and over, and refine my ideas, and try to devise a way to build an essay or a part of an essay.

These various readings would provide a starting point. I might say no, no, no or I might say kinda like that one but from the other side and then a bunch of details like those or whatever.


I think I've written this essay a handful of times, but I like writing it, so there's that. How does it all work, after all?

The final image you achieve will, to quote Alfred Stieglitz, reveal what you saw and felt. If it were not for this element of felt, the term creative photography would have no meaning.

That's Ansel Adams, technique guy. Less technique-heavy photographers have said much the same. You gotta feel something.

I do not think, as Adams sometimes suggests, that the only thing one can strive to photograph is ones actual, authentic, feeling on-site. I believe that one can re-imagine what one sees as something entirely different, but still, there's something in the chest, something indefinable, something you cannot fully put in to words. Sometimes you can wrap a lot of words around it, sometimes you can only mumble a little and then fall silent.

The steps I'm about to outline take place in no particular order, although the tyranny of text demands that I write them out one after the other. They intermingle and bounce off one another, altering one another endlessly until the work is complete. Also, consider this a blueprint, not to be mistaken for the machine itself. An anatomical drawing, sort of pathetic, certainly simplified, and in no way the organism. But perhaps it gives a little insight, and in any case it's the best I can do.

There is the idea, sometimes we call it the concept, which is that thing in your chest that you cannot put entirely in to words. The feeling you have, that notion.

I want to photograph my little neighborhood in southern Virginia as a gothic nightmare.

I see this Edsel as an erotic hallucination of chrome.

I just want it to look like Vancouver.

Uh. Something about the Pacific Northwest. I dunno. Workin' on it.


You turn this into an idea of how to shoot. This is Adams pre-visualization, which is how I got on to this whole stupid thing in the first place. This is the creative act. You might be able to simply apply some basic tropes, it might be obvious how to shoot it. Gothic Nightmare? Try high contrast black&white, tilt the frames, and throw on a heavy vignette. It pretty much writes itself. Something about the Pacific Northwest is not writing itself at all, I have been locked in a low-key struggle with that for at least a year. I've written about that process by which Eureka! moments can be generated, here for instance.

It is here that the artist looks most intensely inwards, struggling to imagine what those final pictures might actually look like. It is here that the internalized outer world comes most in to play. Without having consumed broadly, consumed the world, the artist isn't going to get any Eurekas no inspirations, no Of course that is how it should look, how could I not have seen it?. There are, apparently, actual neurological reasons, partly understood, for this.

The third and final step is simply to and bang the things out. Once you know what they look like, it's a technical problem to make them. You move the lights and the camera and the subject around in the way that you do, and there you are.

Of course, let us be honest, if there was any real struggle, you've been attempting to "bang them out" all along, the original idea, that feeling in your chest, has been evolving as you learn what things look like in a photograph. The struggle to get to that final visualization involves staring at these pictures as well as everything else.

But the end result of that struggle to see in the mind's eye what these damned things are supposed to look like is ultimately the struggle to convert your feeling, your words and indefinable notion, into something that the world might, just possibly, get a hold of. You're trying to generate the visualization that's going to communicate your feeling, and transmute that sensation in your chest into an analogous sensation in someone else's. Your Eureka! moment is pretty specific, it is Aha! If I do that then they will feel what I feel.

This is a second reason that you must consume broadly. You should look at photographs and art, but also you should talk, and listen, and read, and drink, and play with children, and live, so that your inspirations have some chance of accurately pointing the way toward communicating with all the other East African Plains Apes that make up our society.

There are tools and tropes you can deploy. The Gothic Nightmare toolset is uncomplicated and I feel like it can be used entirely consciously, it's no more opaque than using a screwdriver to put in a screw. There is a vast visual literature here, which you can simply refer to and be done with it, and that is precisely what I did. The "message" is blunt and obvious. Not everything is. The referents available for rendering a car as an erotic hallucination are fewer, although Madison Avenue does provide some material here (they have, after all, been trying to eroticize cars forever). Making Vancouver look like Vancouver sounds really simple but I didn't have any particular tropes to lean on, other than "rainy", so it was real work to sort out what I wanted to make of it.

When your concept is best expressed as Umm... then the bag of pre-made tools might be pretty light, and you'll be making your own tools.

Don't worry too much about "soul", if you're working hard and struggling with things you cannot put in to words, it'll probably just happen by itself.

Good luck!

Friday, August 5, 2016

"Soul, redux" - my reply

Ming has a new post up, continuing his investigation. This one is just wrong.

He is falling in to the "well it's all just subjective" trap, and is either saying outright or implying broadly that one cannot after all have universal reach. His little graphic strongly suggests that you can only have so much reach, which you can spread thinly to lightly connect with a broad audience, or concentrate to strongly reach a small one.

This is a cop-out, an excuse. It is manifestly clear that one can intensely reach a large audience, there is lots and lots of Art of various media that does just that. Not, perhaps, universal, there still remain cultural differences that matter. But broad and intense.

It is possibly to connect broadly and intensely. It is very difficult, but that is the star you should steer by, not some half-assed "it's all subjective" streetlight.

Paradoxically, this is accomplished by looking inward. I believe, I think, that the most powerful work is executed when the Artist brings the world within, and then in that tiny inward, but somehow complete, universe, works selfishly and alone.

This is why the Artist so often consumes art voraciously and lives widely, it is to bring that world inwards, so that the selfish, narcissistic process of Art-Making can then connect with the wide world.

Monday, August 1, 2016


Ming Thein asks a good question over on his blog. His answer is not wrong, but I don't think he's really on the right track. I am going to essentially ignore what he wrote, but obviously you can and I think you probably should go read it. There are really two questions here. The first is "Why do people say Ming's pictures lack soul?" and the second if "what is soul anyways?" and I think that pondering the first can be helpful in mulling on the second.

First, let me dispose of some other details. I read a handful of blogs and other resourses, and much of what comes to mind is a response to something I read in one of those places. This means that my blog posts will often take the form of "so and so is wrong, here's why" or, occasionally, "so and so is not wrong, but here's an interesting point." If you would prefer not to read this sort of commentary, you will find yourself often disappointed at photothunk. I intend to do more of this, to be honest. While I could be, and have been, coy and simply say "well, I was thinking" that's no good. You deserve to be able to check my work and form your own opinions based not only on what I write, but also on my antecedents.

I'm not a lone genius pulling this brilliance out by the power pure reason. I am a lone genius who exists in a constantly shifting mileu of the other ideas and writing.

Onwards. Let's look at some of Ming's pictures.

How does he shoot these things? Well, it's pretty clear that he sets up someplace, and then he waits. In one case he's got this diagonal shadow line pointing down to a spot on the pavement, and he needs someone in light clothing to pass over that spot so they'll pop out against that deep vertical shadow. In the other case, he needs someone to stand against that patch of light, clearly delineated, and silhouetted (or silhouettable in post). Then he waits. A few people comply before the light changes and that magic spot he's picked out isn't any good. Have you spotted the problem?

Ming's moment depends on the position of a person in motion, which person will be the "subject". He's setting that person up to be The Thing You Look At, and he's not allowing that person to do anything worth looking at. They have to behave at exactly the right moment and place.

Once you see what's going on, you might reasonably wonder "does Ming do better with stationary people?" and you will find that, by golly, he sure as hell does. Look at this thing:

This is a cracking picture. It's very good, and it has tons of soul, whatever that even is. He was waiting for the gesture, the literal gesture, rather than the position. So we see a truthful human moment. Ming, having his subject already isolated as a relatively darker figure on a relatively lighter background, can wait until an actual picture turns up instead of an exercise in geometry. His best pictures, and some of them are really good, are of seated people, doing something. Talking on phones, working, etc. He can set up, isolate them in his standard "dark on light" or "light on dark" and set up whatever geometrical games he likes in the frame and then he can wait for something interesting to happen.

We can understand, we can relate, to the the tired woman(?) rubbing her eyes. The woman in the white dress isn't anyone we can connect with. She has her back turned and she displays no emotional cues at that moment. She's just a person walking down the street, who happens to be located at a cute intersection of lines. The silhouette is very distant, but there is a little body language. We might guess that he(?) is looking at some art, maybe? But we can't see what he's looking at, he's small in the frame, and featureless. Not as generic as the woman in white, but hard to connect with.

Ok, but it's not all people. What about architcture? Watches? Whatever?

Ming still exhibits the same problems. His attention to formal qualities of the frame gets in the way of any genuine emotional content. He may well have some ideas about this building, or that watch, but he doesn't share it with us because too focused on the formal aspects, and given a choice between an angle that shows off how he feels about the thing, or one that shows of the thing's essential character, or an angle that creates some formal arrangement of bits and pieces in the frame, he picks the latter every time.

This is essentially the magic of street photography when it is done right (that is, almost never). The moment that expresses the emotional content coincides with the moment that produces the formalisms, because in the first place the photographer has predicted it and is already in place, and in the second place the photographer is very very lucky (and shoots an incredibly number of frames to produce that luck).

The photographer is balancing the two sides of the equation, constantly. She's plugged in to the situation, to the area, she's taking time there. She is not flying in for a weekend every now and then, she's out there every day becoming sensitive to the kinds of situations that unfold. She knows, in broad strokes, what these people are likely to do in the next few seconds.

That guy is gonna step out into the street and throw his hand up in a second, I'll move to place his sunlit hand against the black van.. there he goes.. clickclickclick..a little left..click. That's the shot.

This process might be unconscious, but it's happening. Note that the photographer isn't parked waiting for something sunlit to appear in front of the black van, she's finding the black van in the moment. She's pasting together the formalisms in the moment by moving the camera.

For people not doing this, trying to make purses out of fluid sow's ears of life, it's somewhat easier. But they're still trying to balance the formalism and the relatable emotional response.

Edward Weston spent, as far as I can tell, all his time working out how to make whatever it is look kind of like a female nude. That would probably be a neat and useful exercise, to be honest. Anyways, his emotional response seems to have been kind of one note, and his method was to balance formalisms with "make it look like sex" and by golly, it worked pretty well.

Sally Mann, as near as I can tell, wanders around looking for things to put in front of the lens (her kids, the bones of a dog, a battlefield) that mean something profound to her. Then she sticks them in front of the lens and moves stuff around until it feels right, balancing god only knows what internal criteria she has. Then she shoots it, and looks at the results, and shoots it again, and again, and again, until it feels right. She's not not unconscious of formal details, and she goes to considerable lengths to correct that sort of thing as well, but in general it's obvious that the emotional result is pretty much the only thing that matters. Doses of sentimentality that would be fatal to non-Southerners.

Ming Thein's problem, if indeed it is a problem (his commenters seem to think it's not, and they are legion), is that given a choice he will always choose formalism over emotion. It is only when he consciously chooses the other way, or is shooting a situation when he doesn't have to choose one over the other, that he does well. In those cases, he does very well indeed. Many of us feel, though, that you'll do better sacrificing formalism first.

If you shoot for emotionalism first, then you may find that the formalisms are good enough, or serendipitously just right after all, or that they at least fall perfectly in to place on their own sometimes.