Thursday, March 22, 2018

Singles and Groups

Dan Milnor's webinar was excellent, and I will likely have more to say about it in the next week. One of the things that popped out, though, was what Dan calls Singles which are what I call (sometimes ironically) "the single iconic image." These are, as Dan notes, what most "serious" photographers spend most of their time trying to make. Pictures that stand alone, that you can stick on your wall with some degree of satisfaction.

As regular readers know, I waffle between declaring these things Too Hard and declaring them Dead. I am a fanatic devotee of Groups of pictures.

So what about these Singles, anyways? We can certainly integrate them into Groups, but then we've got a Group of pictures, about which more in a moment. Consider the thing in isolation.

We used to be able to get some insights by looking at internet forums on photography, which usually have a critique forum. I used to peruse LuLa's fairly regularly since it was, in ways I will examine in a moment, relatively sharp. Looking in now I see that some time in the last year or two even it has devolved into "nice shot!" which often looks suspiciously like "I like you, and you have made some pictures I liked, I will assume this one is also likable!" which I guess is sort of how they all land.

Setting aside the social aspects of Critique which tend to dominate in almost all cases, there are things people can say. They can apply various standards of composition, talk about diagonals, foregrounds, breadth, modeling, and so on. They can talk about, basically, how closely the picture hews to local norms ("you fucked up the loop lighting, this portrait sucks" and "that is a sharp picture of a tree, and since we like trees, I declare your picture good").

The standard fare critique of singles boils down, usually, to applying some sort of external standards to the picture. Everything from warm (or cold) feelings toward the photographer to "rules" of composition.

All of these ignore the reality that externalities are largely irrelevant.

To me, the difference between a Single and, well, anything else, is that the Single contains its own criteria for success. You can look at one of these things and, for various reasons, determine immediately what the picture is trying to do. A portrait is supposed to give the illusion of insight (or perhaps, give real insight) into personality and character. A landscape, often, is clearly intended to evoke a sense of the sublime. And so on. If you can hazard a reasonable guess, just by looking at the picture, what its purpose in life is, then you can next ask whether it succeeds.

A Single can, therefore, fail in at least two ways: It can fail to explain itself (in which case it's arguably not a Single at all), and it can fail to live up to the work it claims to be attempting.

This is, really, what User Critique is supposed to do. It is all too often boiled down to rules and criteria that have nothing to do with the picture. For example, a strong diagonal is a good idea, often. Many photographs could use a good dash of dynamism and drama. And so, the diagonal gets enshrined. Photos like Sugimoto's seascapes might be judged by the usual denizens as lacking, they fail to follow almost any rule or criterion you might care to name.

Still, these same pictures are very readable, it does not take a genius or a degree in Art History to "get" these things in some useful way. Then we can ask "do they succeed in their self-appointed mission" and the answer, for many people, most of us even, is "yes they do." Sugimoto's seascapes not only explain themselves pretty well, but also live up to their self-declared standard. They "succeed" as Singles.

Onwards to Groups.

I have long maintained that a group of photos is easier to grasp, easier to get your arms around. Considering it in the light I am shining around on things right now, it seems at least rasonable that a group of pictures is likely to do a better job of explaining itself.

Dan made a casual remark to the effect that if you just make a book of Singles, you don't have a "book" as such, what you have is a "portfolio". In my terms, each picture in the portfolio carries its own explanation, it's own criteria.

A book, a proper non-portfolio book, is made up with at least some pictures that do not explain themselves. These pictures rely on other pictures, on the entire gestalt for explanation.

Naturally, a Group of pictures in this sense can also fail to explain itself, and also (if it succeeds at least in that) can fail to live up to the goals it sets itself. Again, externalities are largely irrelevant or at least a step removed.

The power of the Group format is that you, as the artist, have a lot more room to work. You can sequence things, you can arrange the pictures physically, you can add text. And, of course, you still have all the tools available to the maker of the Single: You can edit individual pictures in exactly the same ways.

You can throw pictures out, you can insert pictures. You can shoot new pictures. It's not painting, but it has much of the same malleable, formable, character. You can mold the work to fit the message, and you can mold the work to clarify what it is you're trying to do in the first place.

What interests me here, at this moment, is that we can divide the job up. First, we can try to make our book, our Group, clear in its intention. Second, we can try to make our Group perform well, fulfilling the expectation set by that clear statement of intent.

Is it easier? Well, I sure think so.

But then, I have come around to mostly disliking Singles. Anything I offer that smells like critique tends to take the form "ok, now, if this picture was in a Group..." which is pretty unfair. I am, apparently, just not much interested in Single as such. They can be fine decor, they can document things. My kids are very cute. But I'm not going to try to say anything with a single picture any more. Haven't for years.


  1. Are you crazy? Thoughtful insight in regard to photography? How dare you. This balance of single vs story is a tough one. I too have struggled with the single. I always feel detached, just as I do with most street photography. I actually want to talk to people, to be involved, which doesn't play well with the "fly on the wall" guy. So I work in stories where I interview people, record sound and make stills. Story after story.

  2. I don’t think a “Group” needs to have a story (though it can). A narrative isn’t necessary, but a melody is.