Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeing, Objectivity, Etcetera

Ming Thein has a piece up over here that I disagree with, I think. To be honest, I have trouble wading through his prose these days, but I think he's talking about photography as documenting the novel, the changed, the differences. He seems to be, at least partly, espousing the usual rot of how going to somewhere new allows us to see new things, in new ways, and therefore the pictures get better.

This is the mentality that drives the workshop business, it drives a fair bit of travel in general, and I vigorously disagree with it.

The photographer's job is not to notice and photograph the novel, the new, the different. The photographer's job is orthogonal to that, it has nothing to do with novelty. It's about seeing what is truly there, in a way that is idiosyncratic, that is informed by the photographer's person-ness. If you're just looking for the novel, well, a robot will be able to do that in a couple of years. If you're just looking to document what is, a robot can do that now.

As a consequence of this, travel is contraindicated. You can't see what is truly there without spending some time, and you cannot see it in your own specific way without spending more time, and you need to do both. So, as I have said before, travel is fine as long as you spend a ton of time in-country. Indeed, Ming alludes to this in his post, remarking that he doesn't get good pictures until the end of a trip.

The problem so many would-be photographers face, though, is that they have never learned to see what is truly there. Our view of the world is mediated through our big fat brain, which has a big fat visual cortex, which is connected with everything else. It's hard to see what is truly there. But, well, that's the job, so you jolly well ought to learn how to do it. This is one reason, I think, that everyone advocates for taking 1000s of pictures of whatever. It's a half-assed method of learning to see what's actually there.

I advocate just sitting there and looking, until you are bored with looking, and then look some more. George Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which I have not read) is probably a good model to follow.

You can actually observe the amateur photographer's inability to see online, when they "critique" one another's work, or attempt to help one another replicate some look they've seen on the web. They seem to almost always miss the forest for the trees, harping on about "missed focus" or "move the light" or whatever, and don't notice that the main thing is that the picture is dark and de-saturated. The critics are seeing photographs through their own preconceptions and ideas.

Once you know what is genuinely in front of your nose, then you can start to apply your own person-ness, to photograph what is truly there in your own way.

Of course, every photograph does this in a way. At worst you're selected what to take a picture of, although if you have no yet learned to see what is truly there you're just selecting preconceptions and illusions. Still, to really be a photographer, you should be applying your own idiosyncracies in an organized way, not at random.

Anyways, this all leads around to the final point which is an essential conflict in photojournalism, and something I have just realized.

Photography, at its core, is about an idiosyncratic world view. If the pictures are any damn good, if they're interesting to look at, it's because the photographer who took them has inserted a personal viewpoint, an opinion, some ideas, something. And yet, modern journalism insists that these things should be objective, pure document, just the facts, ma'am.

Purely factual photographs are possible, but terribly dull. A robot could, in theory, document much of what counts as news in a more or less objective fashion.

Arguably, robot journalism (we're seeing mentions now and then of systems for automatically writing short press articles, usually based on already extant data streams like auto-generated earthquake reports and whatnot) will lead to a brave new era of more objective journalism that absolutely nobody reads.


  1. "Photography, at its core, is about an idiosyncratic world view."

    Thank you!

    With best regards,


  2. I absolutely agree! The tension between detailed, "objective" rendering of the things in front of the lens, and the subjective view of the photographer is what I find interesting about photography. It's like saying "here, this is how it looks like, and look how beautiful it is!".

    Best, Thomas

  3. AM, I think you would enjoy reading "The Complete Essays 1973-1991" by Luigi Ghirri. I searched on your blog for Ghirri and did not get a hit, so I assume you - at least - haven't mentioned him here. Ghirri is talking quite a bit about:
    "It's about seeing what is truly there, in a way that is idiosyncratic, that is informed by the photographer's person-ness."
    I found his essays very rich and inspiring (to think - and to go out and take pictures!).

    Best, Wolf

    1. Thank you! I'm old enough to have forgotten a lot, but I don't recall Ghirri at all. Will look him up and have a read!

  4. Of course, one that charges about 1500 USD for one of his workshops advocates the good of taking workshops... ;)