Friday, March 30, 2018

Hey Joe where you goin'

I've mentioned that I poke in to Lula's "User Critique" forum from time to time. But then I leave, because the only thing that ever comes to mind about any picture is "well, what were you trying to accomplish?"

Most of the time I can guess that the answer is "I was trying to make a Good Photograph" and so I don't even ask the question. There are people for whom, I guess, that actually means something. I think it means "it complies with a collection of unexamined ideas that live in my mind someplace" but I'm not certain.

What I do know is that the idea of a "Good Photograph" is meaningless to me. A photograph is no more good or bad than is a stone.

I take a certain delight in fashion photography, not only because it is fabulous, but because I can imagine what Internet Forum People would say about many of the pictures. Boy oh boy, some of these pictures would attract some serious hate. There's at least one design house that's using a lot of straight-up out of focus pictures. Underexposed, muddy, blurry. Gorgeous.

These guys aren't idiots, they're getting exactly what they want. There's a whole process here for figuring out what the Brand wants and converting that into a vision and converting THAT into photographs.

Kirk Tuck wrote a long piece very recently postulating that there's not much room for individual vision in photography, and to an extent I think he's right. Perhaps all the way out to where he intended his remarks to apply, it's not at all clear he means them in an absolutely universal way.

It's certainly true that people who are plugged in to social media, formerly to internet forums, before that Usenet or BBSes or Camera Clubs, surely are guided by what they see. In this modern era Kirk is 100% right, anything that gets any "traction" will be instantly duplicated. Hilariously wrong how-to videos will be posted by people who literally cannot see photographically, followed a little while later by how-to videos that work, presumably by people who can see.

It is certainly true that brands which care about "social media traction" will want to leap wildly from bandwagon to bandwagon.

Fashion, delightfully, is full of players who do not give much of a damn about social media traction. Some of them actively Do Not Give A Fuck. Dolce and Gabbana at the moment are in a sort of mode of actively chasing customers away. Not quite in a GET OUT sort of way but an "oh darling, I'm sorry, but you weren't invited, you can't buy anything this year." D&G adverts are glorious. And they're not even the weird ones. Bottega Veneta is in strong competition for the weird ones, but they're not the clear winner. Their twitter feed is, to put it mildly, iconoclastic.

Of course there's tons of perfectly ordinary skinny models pouting boredly at the cameras. It's not like it's 100% beautiful strange visions. The point is, there's a certain amount of strange vision going on.

Anyways. These people know where they're going. They have a clear articulation of brand identity, and a cloud of values that they want associated with it. They boil that down (at least on good days) to a mood board for a particular campaign. Mood boards are cool, I first ran into these things only a couple years ago, so you can see that I'm either woefully late to yet another part of the game or, more optimistically, Always Learning!

Note that the mood board might well include a bunch of stuff from instagram or wherever. It is here that the Art Director can "wire the project" to simply jump on board whatever the latest trending thing is. In the long run, it's a bad idea, because you're necessarily diluting The Brand in favor of the Whatever's Trending. Branding is the long game, Trending is the short game. It may be necessary to balance the two in your day to day, but you gotta keep your eye on the long game or you will eventually lose.

From the mood board it's pretty standard Creative Work to develop specifics of photographic style. You can't logic your way through it, you feel it, but this is literally what you hire Creatives to do. So they go and do that. Individual style notes combine with the mood board and produce ideas for pictures. Then the team executes those pictures. It ain't rocket science, but it is complicated, detail-oriented, labor-intensive, and sometimes it blows up on the pad.

Even at standard day rates plus catering, though, it's considerable cheaper than actual rockets.

At any rate, this is a process which produces, more or less repeatably, photographs and other design elements that are well-suited to a well-defined purpose. Here I mean a "well-defined purpose" that can certainly encompass more than some dunderheaded utility like "sells more purses" but things more aesthetic, more emotional.

Compare this, though, to the hapless fellow posting on some forum for Critique. As I've suggested previously, some genres are more or less self-decribing, the desired goal is more or less obvious in the picture.

Perhaps some fellow posts a black and white photo of a nude young woman, clearly lit by some enormous octoboxes. Suppose, though, that she looks very awkward, doesn't know what to do with her hands.

Most of the critique will take the form "amazing!" and "great tones!" because it's a naked girl. Naked girls always have amazing tones for some reason.

The next bits will be things like "you should move the octobox on the left up an inch because reasons."

The one thing you can be sure of is that nobody is going to say "dude, the girl looks miserable and awkward."

Looking at the picture we might guess that the goal, however poorly articulated it might be in the photographer's mind, is probably to produce something in the serenely erotic genre. The pool of calm with the elegant body centered in it, erotic but also aesthetically pleasing, beautiful. It doesn't quite work because the model's hands are awkward and her body language screams "I AM NOT CALM."

Ok, maybe the artist is making some other statement? Or maybe the artist is attempting the first thing, but will end up doing the second thing when he realizes that he's not capable of generating the serenity necessary for the first thing.

Either one of those is possible, so even now we can't really judge the picture without specifically answering the question "where are you going here?"

Unfortunately, this is an all too common scenario where the amateur can be ruined by sloppy critique. They will learn that they're geniuses (because they can hire models willing to work nude) and that they need to move the octobox on the left up by an inch.

A sufficiently introspective artist might, if kept safely away from such dunderheads, eventually find a path forward that produces something other than an endless sequence of ambiguously nervous unclad young women. Or an artist lucky enough to find someone who will look, will actually see, and then will speak.

While you don't need to start with a Brand, and then make a Mood Board, and then brainstorm shooting scripts if you want to shoot serene classic black and white nudes, at some point you're going to have to nail down what the hell it actually means to shoot a good one. There are many paths here. You gotta take one of them.

Unless you're cool with a lot of "great shot", "move the octobox an inch" and nervous girls. Which, I guess, that's not the worst way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Not quite my cup of tea.


  1. What's even worse than critique forums (fora?) like the one on LuLa are websites which offer critique by self-acclaimed "pro's" to amateurs (real "pro's" are busy doing their work and don't have time for such activities). These hapless amateurs are enticed to send in photographs which then receive a "critique". Other readers can then comment on the "critique". The problem is that the "critics" are perceived as authorities by the clients - you have the proverbial one-eyed king among the blind. So you have mediocre and boring "critics" setting mediocre and boring standards - and don't you dare to deviate from those standards!

    I can advise anybody who starts out with photography to avoid these places like the plague. For the same reason, I would suggest to avoid all "How to ..." books about photography which go beyond the exposure triangle.

    Best, Thomas

  2. The periodic Andrew dig at the poor male mugs who take photos of nude women, and a (to me) surprising contribution from Thomas expressing concern for the innocence of neophyte photographers.

    I think both of you hold rather jaded, cynical views of internet 'expertise'. Being an inexperienced photographer does not mean that one is totally without one's own critical faculties. Evaluating criticism is part and parcel of learning to be a photographer. One chooses one's critics to listen to, even when their comments hit home hard at times.

    1. Your models, for reference, have no trouble figuring out what to do with their hands! This was in no way a veiled dig at you or others like you. If I intend a dig at you I promise to mention you by name and curse roundly, so there is no confusion.

      As for critical faculties, certainly. You could read my remarks as "you must engage your own critical faculties, and, often, you will find that the correct answer is to exit the realm where others are offering their advice"

      I have seen people ruined, I have seen others stagnate, and I have seen people leave. Never have I seen anyone develop a voice under the tutelage of camera club style critique.

      I went through a period of offering my work up for critique. I learned two things: these people don't get it, at all; and they don't get it because there isn't much to get.

      And so I went to work on the second one, and found that the first took care of itself to my satisfaction without further helpful critique.

      In short, I left to focus on other things, and it was a good idea.

    2. For me, there was a time during the Bronze Age of the Internet and before digital photography, when there was meaningful 'photo sharing.'
      I found that my work and the feedback it received and the work that interested me the most, was found mostly among northern European and Russian photographers. My recollection is that almost without fail the comments received and given were to the point, detailed, sharp, witty and always of value. Ericke was very much a part of this group and I was always inspired by his postings.
      Some of the comments I received I found so helpful, that I downloaded them and printed them out. I still have some. One is over a page and half, written by a young Dane, who is now an awesome professional photographer.
      That was then, and this is now, and that level of intelligent discourse among photographers is, as far as I can tell just about gone. That is why I so value your postings, Andrew, and those of Daniel Milnor, and Kirk Tuck, and I am delighted that Ericke's voice appears now and then!

    3. I am certainly delighted and honored to have the small group of readers that I have.

      Thanks to all of you (I don't say that often enough)

    4. When I typed my comment, I was aware that it would probably sound condescending. While it is certainly true that one should pick his critics wisely, I do also believe that acting as a critic/teacher comes with a responsibility. This also involves the humility to acknowledge the limitations of one's own expertise and aesthetic judgement.

      For instance, some time ago I read a rather condescending and patronizing critique about a picture submitted by a reader on one of these websites. I then had a look at the personal website of the critic (self-acclaimed "pro") - he boasted three (!) years of experience and a portfolio which consisted mostly of death valley sunsets. Sorry, but this really ticks me off.

      I would also like to clarify that I read "Photos and Stuff" for a couple of years now. I also follow the discussions in the comments section and have had a look at the websites of the participants when possible. Please rest assured that nobody around here needs to take offense by my comment, and accept my apologies otherwise!

      Best, Thomas

  3. Ahahaha. Nothing useful to contribute to the conversation except to say that it's all true. Years ago I tried engaging with people on forums to try to raise the level of the discussion but these days I just do my own work and try to keep this XKCD in mind:

  4. A good fashion photographer has to have a long list of skills. Of course he has to have the technical photo skills but the most important and the first thing a fashion photographer must learn is : choosing the right team and managing his team during the shoot in the most perfect way. A fashion photographer without a great stylist, without a great model, without a great make up artist, without a great hair-dresser, without a great idea (brought by a great fashion editor), without a great post-production artist, without a great assistant, without a great location, can't be a great fashion photographer. And that makes the huge difference between a guy shooting a girl in his garage with 10 profoto octoboxes and a 80 MP Hasselblad and Peter Lindbergh, Nick Knight, Ellen von Unvwerth just to mention only few of a long list of very good pro photographers.

    1. Hi Frédérick,
      I am not a fashion photographer or even a professional photographer, nor do I play one on TV, so I lack a lot of insight into this comment. But because of my interest in photography and having practiced it for a little over sixty years now, I have drawn several conclusions based on my observations and experiences. One of the salient ones is that to be a good photographer one has to be, above all else, a good photographer. Now to be a successful professional photographer one needs a whole set of other attributes that might not have anything at all to do with photography.
      While I am not at all up to speed on the biography of most fashion photographers, I do seem to recall that many of the greats started out with little more than a camera, some film, and a supportive editor. All the other trappings came later.
      One of my favorite fashion photographers was Rodney Smith, and if the stories I have read about him are true, he apparently would turn up at a fashion shoot with some film in his pocket and one 35mm camera. However, regardless, the one underlying thing is that he was a great photographer.
      From looking at an awful lot of fashion magazines over the years I have also concluded that there are a whole bunch of very successful fashion photographers who are lousy photographers.
      So I would posit that a financially successful fashion photographer would now perhaps need the things mentioned above, but that would not necessarily make him a good fashion photographer.
      Actually, I am not sure how we got into this discussion, it seems to be a bit off topic, but hey......

    2. Hello Christian,

      You will always have few who made it because they were at the right place, at the right moment meeting the right people. About being a successful now, it has truly not much to do with photography skills but more about the numbers of followers on instagram! This is what most of brands are looking for now. Because it's cheap. ;-) The pro photo world changed through decades. I worked as a commercial photographers (magazine, newspapers, advertising mostly) from early 2000 to 2014 (last shot bought by DIE ZEIT). And when I talk with friends still in the business it has already changed a lot. Anyway. I feel much better now since I've been shooting only when I want. I went back to my fundamentals. I doesn't make me financially rich but Freedom is priceless. :-)

    3. Hi Frédérick,
      Thanks for your reply! I could not agree with you more that freedom to do what one wants is priceless, so it is great that you are doing that.
      The only reason I commented originally was that I quibbled with the statement that "A good fashion photographer has to have a long list of skills...." and felt that instead of "good" it should have said "successful," "employed," "working" or words to that effect.
      Best wishes, christian