Saturday, September 17, 2016

Wheat and Chaff

Ming Thein has another think piece up, and as happens from time to time I have a response.

Mr. Thein's problem here is that he's unable to separate wheat from chaff. He asks if the Great Photographers of yore would be well known today, and he asks if this generation will even have any great photographers. He recognizes, as do we all, that there are a lot of pictures being made and that most of them are weightless fluff. Chaff. His concern, which is not completely unfounded, is that with this quantity of chaff, perhaps the wheat will be lost forever.

In fact it's not clear that he fully realizes that there is wheat in there. Obviously he thinks his work is special and deserves recognition, don't we all? But it is not clear to me that he recognizes the more general truth that there still is wheat among the chaff, and what, exactly, would distinguish that wheat from the chaff.

There is wheat.

And to some extent, it will be surfaced, criticized, pushed out there, and remembered. Not all of it, maybe not even most of it. It's probably unknowable how much will be "lost" in this sense, but rest assured that we'll be granted more excellent work than we can consume. The critics and curators are always at work, digging and remarking, and pushing. I try to do my bit down here in the lower sub-levels of the mine, pushing the slightly richer ore upwards a few feet, and the poor ore down.

Most of the chaff is easy to identify, and vanishes without any help at all. Only a very small percentage of total photographic output is shown to us with some hope of longevity. We have people like Lewis Bush and Ming Thein who really haven't much of anything to say, but who are working hard and are hopeful. With respect, my judgement is that this is poor ore, to be buried slightly deeper. My judgement is not final, I am but one very minor voice.

Others who do have things to say, who can pull together truly meaningful bodies of work (e.g. Mssrs. Carnet and Kravik) I push upwards. I have by no means guaranteed anyone's success, I am but one very minor voice. Still, the process cannot help but work. While I do not scour the net for hours each day, I do try to take a serious look at some random body of work every few days or so. Other people like me do as well.

People who speak coherently, with earnest intent and some notion of what they are about, will read one another (even if only to disagree). Names and portfolios get passed around, consensus gels, names are repeated. Where do you think I get these names and portfolios to look at, after all?

I can't tell you what form the final result will take, we're in a time of flux. But surely the inevitable loose consensus around this name or that will produce some lasting result. The Vivian Maier story gives us, perhaps, a hint. While she was working long ago, her fame is largely a product of the digital age, and that consensus building.

Certainly we'll wind up with lots and lots of disposable kickstarted blurb books of naked girls as well, but they will be disposed of. The consensus will gel around some duds, many duds, as well, surely. So it has always been, But at the end of the pipeline, a manageable train of names and bodies of work appear, a manageable train that history can then usefully judge. Many of them will, in 50 years, be consigned to the dustbin.

Perhaps, I can hope, Mssrs. Carnet and Kravik will make it through the gauntlet. Perhaps, I can hope, someone with a larger voice than mine will slum it on my blog for an afternoon, loudly mocking me from her chair, and will stumble across some of the artists I happened to like and think to herself that putz is actually right about this one and the name and portfolio get passed on.

The point is, though, that serious people (you may include me in that list or not, as you see fit) are actively looking. They will find. They will do what is needful to surface what they find, and we, all of society, will enjoy the fruits of their labor.

It's all gonna work out OK.


  1. "Certainly we'll wind up with lots and lots of disposable kickstarted blurb books of naked girls ..."

    Is 'naked girls' your prototypical chaff category, then?

    1. Certainly not! One can do wonderful things with nudes even today, I am sure.

      But lightweight volumes of uninteresting nudes are pretty easy to kick-start. Chaff comes in too many flavors to enumerate. To be glib: one recognizes chaff mainly by it's not being wheat.

  2. I read his latest with dismay.

    I wonder if he is just trolling photography with his essays; and the responses to his essays, which often seem written by Ming pretending to be others.

    There's far to much dissing of everyone and everything in photography -- he undercuts all fame and accomplishment by, at best, faint praise, while producing almost nothing of interest himself (just take a look at his piss-poor Flickr stream).

    1. I generally think Mr. Thein is sincere and earnest. Alas, he wants too much for 'the answer' to be essentially in the application of technique and tools. He's heavily invested in both and seems to be unwilling to genuinely let go of the idea.

      In my opinion, he's stuck barking up the wrong tree. Still, he frequently writes things interesting enough to bother thinking about, which is something of an accomplishment.

    2. I recently happened to look first at some photographers home page (where he had rather strong projects with tight edits) and then followed a link to his flickr stream (where the pictures are all over the place, different topics, drafts, loose edits, etc). I'm not a fan of Ming's work, but I don't think anybody should be judged by Flickr stream. For example I've been using it for backup since they started their 1TB free accounts.

      The more interesting question is whether photographers should even publish their drafts/notes/random findings anywhere. It seems to work for some on social media where you can keep up some activity while working on more serious stuff. The value of doing so is another question.

  3. The technique question is a tricky one, the history of art shows us that particular techniques or pigments can be integral to an artists vision. Of course these technical aspects do need to be married with a vision to cement a place in the canon of great artists.

    Unfortunately Mr T seems not to realise that, hard edged technical perfection (sharp, high DR/long tonal range etc) is only one of a number of possible, equally valid approaches.

    After all it's now around 100 years since Stieglitz and his contemporaries chose to move away from the tyranny of technical photography...