Friday, March 13, 2020

Interstitial Photographs

There are these two projects out there, one nominated for some award, the other claiming that the nominated one copied theirs. You can look up the details if you want, but they do not matter here.

Fading Flamingos

The Eyes of the Earth

If you flip through these things casually, like a normal person, you could certainly get the impression that they are very similar projects. Some of the same objects and scenes are shown, the locations look similar (and, if you inspect closely, are indeed sometimes actually the same). The color palette is similar, and so on. They are, in fact, projects shot in the same area of Iran, covering the same subject matter.

If you are a sophisticated reader of photographs, like all of us, if you are very clever indeed, like all of us, of course these two bodies of work will be obviously different. You will no doubt roll your eyes at the absurd notion that these are similar projects, right? Well, ok, maybe not. But they are. If you give them time, and really look, you'll see that they are quite different studies of more or less the same material. I promise.

The cries of plagiarism are based on similarities of a handful of the photos, which are the marquee photos. It turns out that everyone takes those photos when they go to Lake Urmia. The blue ferry, grounded at the dock is the main one. That is to Lake Urmia what the DC3 plane wreck is to Iceland.

Which leads us around naturally to what's different rather than what's the same. One project is very personal, there are family snapshots, often the subjects of contemporary photos are family members, in family places, and so on. The other is not personal, it has a certain distance. The people photographed are not my family but rather local residents. It has all these weird interiors (some natural history museum? a laboratory?).

It strikes me that for a project of this sort there are really two kinds of pictures that are being taken.

The first are the marquee shots, the scene setters. The ferry, the salt flats, the locals drinking tea. These establish us at Lake Urmia, and they're the same shots everyone takes, because these are the things you see there. This is the impression one gets, everyone gets, when they arrive at the lake and hang around a bit.

The second lot are the pictures that define what you're actually trying to do. Are you telling a personal story of your family's trials? Or are you trying to do straight reportage of the situation?

I am thinking of these are the institial pictures, which phrase I liked a lot but am finding less and less appealing as I noodle on it.

Anyways, the point is that anything that is obviously interesting and public is going to get photographed to death. If you go somewhere, or just stay somewhere, and try to make some photo essay, the first thing you're likely to do is duplicate a bunch of the Standard Photos (unless you are somewhere really obscure, or doing something really obscure.) As your project refines itself in your mind, ideally, you will find the little pictures, the pictures nobody would think of, the pictures that don't make any sense by themselves but which complete your idea.

At this point it might be a pretty smart idea to go throw out all the marquee pictures. Or a lot of them. How much scene setting do you really need? Maybe none, probably less than you thought.


  1. Well I'm not clever, but they look very different to me. The "Flamingos" one is painfully trying to be hip, looking like it was shot on trendily overexposed Portra 400 (or some digital replica thereof).

    The second looks very heartfelt and engaging.

    I haven't looked into the background, but sometimes coincidence is just coincidence.

    1. It's interesting what people pick up on. You are quite right that the rendering is quite different (although I am unsure how much training you need to see it. It's obvious to you and me, but we've spent decades learning to see subtle differences in color rendering)

  2. After viewing the first couple of photos from "Flamingos" I thought "MFA", but that's because I'm a cynical, old, retired press photographer. Mr. Mantripp says it all better than I can.

    1. Glad you introduced the c-word, because here I was thinking "Somebody" is gonna get a book, show and award(s) outta starting this...

  3. This controversy, and your commentary, struck a chord! I visited Lake Urmia, briefly, with my wife in 2017. We both took some photos and my wife, a poet, wrote a haiku (see link below to our blog, TheSmallestSuitcase). Your point about marquee photos hits the mark, as you will see from the first photo of our blog post on the Lake: the abandoned blue ferry. Without doubt this is a photo everyone who goes there takes. As a social anthropologist and photographer, I am much more attracted to the project of the female Iranian photographer (Solmaz Daryani), as it includes family snapshots from many years past. But having read the “defence” of his entries to the World Press Photo contest, I do not believe that M Mann is guilty of plagiarism. This is much more likely a case of a male European photographer getting more attention than a female Iranian one. Whatever the case, our visit to Lake Urmia was profoundly moving and unsettling, notwithstanding the stark beauty of all that salt where once was water.

  4. obviously one needs to buy both portfolios, and print off the haiku, and then go visit (perhaps next year) and drink tea and photograph stuff and take it all home and think about it, maybe do some paintings of it - that would be a beginning. [stone seal]