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Monday, January 11, 2021


If you follow along in my other incarnations online, you might be aware that I'm writing a series of articles for Petapixel (click here) on my theories of how photographs are read. There's a fellow, A. Cemal Ekin, who's offered a few comments along the way. Nice enough guy, thoughtful, generally a little more focused on promoting his own blog than in actually being involved with anything I say but whatever, he's at least in the ballpark and I genuinely appreciate the engagement, which has been generally pitifully small.

He offered up a link to his own blog[1], and I stumbled upon another[2]. I provide links below.

The blog post he offered up was about how to read photographs, and he dragged out the usual sort of thing, the kind of thing I've thought a lot about myself. It's not at all a stupid thing. He wants us to think of our time with a photo as an interplay of "form," "technique," "content," and "mind" all of which mean more or less what you think they do. This is pretty standard, and he has a notion that these various factors can be more or less important, on a photo by photo basis. Ok, fair enough.

In the post I happened over while while trying to re-locate the first one describes an experiment he conducted in a class. One student looks at a photo, and describes what they see, then they pass the photo to another student who reports on how well the photo matches what they were imagining.

One result of this experiment was that, he relates, everyone talks about content exclusively.

Weirdly, the lesson he takes away from this is, roughly, that everyone is wrong. Everyone ought to be looking at line, form, composition, and so forth. And so he laboriously teaches all his students to do that, instead of what comes naturally.

Which leads us around to my conclusion. What Mr. Ekin is doing here, and what photographers and photo critics by and large do universally, is to create and then operate within a more or less sealed ontological system.

The form/technique/content/mind system of objects and relationships is a perfectly fine thing to do. It's absolutely a way to think about photographs, or any other sort of made objects. You could think of dishwashers within this system if you liked, and evaluate them on those terms. This is an ontological system.

Evaluating dishwashers within this system, while absolutely possible, would probably strike some people as fairly odd, which begs the question of why it is then seen as a Great Idea for photographs.

Other photographers use similar systems including things like "accurate focus", "depth of field", "rule of thirds" and so on. Photo critics tend to use a system built mainly on "how much do these pictures look like other 'good' pictures, and what do I think of the photographer as a person."

You can build perfectly coherent systems of all these, and many more, types. There are many ontologies that can be used to evaluate photos.

The one thing they share is an almost complete disconnection from the real world. Mr. Ekin's experiment reveals what we all know: people don't care about anything except content, in most photos. More generally, each system of knowledge has limitations, it is applicable only within a specific sphere. The people who subscribe to each of them tend to be unaware, generally, that theirs is an ontology which is at best co-equal with many others, that it has limits, that it is not universally applicable.

You get people in photography forums desperately trying to connect the Golden Spiral to the way "people react to your photo" which is absolute balderdash: an example of attempting to demonstrate the universality of a "rules of composition" ontology for evaluating photos. You get people who think Michael Schmidt is the bees knees trying to explain the social impacts media photos and droning on about "visual literacy," which is basically the same thing.

I am, with my pieces on Petapixel, trying to bring a new ontological system into the world of photos, one based on what normal people actually see in normal photos. That is, content, and how we react to it. My system is no more universal than any other, but it is specifically crafted to systematize evaluating how photos might work socially or culturally; how photos work as media.

It's useless for evaluating how other photographers will evaluate your photos. It's useless for evaluating whether or not MACK is likely to offer you a book deal. It's useless for a lot of things. There are ontological systems that will do a much better job for you there.

My system, though, might just be a pretty good basis for understanding the way photos land in the real world, how they might strike regular people who look at your pictures. That's the plan, anyways!

The promised links to Mr. Ekin's blog:


  1. The advantage of the formal analysis is that the content can be ANY old boring thing -- a back yard full of winter blackberry vines, a moonrise over a village, an empty German street -- and it's still Art even if it's boring. And if the formal characteristics are nice it might not even be that boring. I believe your article about walking in the forest and the plethora of images there touched on this.
    I'm intrigued by the other end of the spectrum, where there's nothing BUT blaring content: pictures where there are signs, text, graffiti, i.e., actual words: the ultimate distraction from all that formal stuff. All I want to do is take pictures but signs and graffiti cruelly tempt me.

    1. Whelp, all you need do is seek employment at a sign shop, and/or buy a can of spray paint. DO IT!!!

  2. Do I take it that any ontological system can be summarised as “you are not doing right”?

    1. No!

      An ontology is just a selection of things and relationships that you think are important. These are the elements you use to talk about, to describe, to reason about, whatever it is.

      Such a system can be totally arbitrary, rending the process of thinking about whatever into a kind of game, and my position is that much of the thinking about photography is more or less that.

      There's nothing wrong with games. Loads of people love cricket, but cricket doesn't mean anything, and has no impact, outside the world of people who know something of the rules of cricket.

      Contrast with, say, economics, where an economy most definitely impacts people who know nothing about economics.

      There are systems of rules and knowledge in play in both areas, and both are perfectly fine within their own domains.

  3. Your phrase "Photo critics tend to use a system built mainly on "how much do these pictures look like other 'good' pictures, ..." sounds like the underpinnings of a big data algorithm.

  4. With due respect, and thanks for the compliment of being a nice person, the translation of my posts here are not entirely accurate. These "students" were participants at a presentation, all photographers. And, I did not reach the conclusion that there were "all wrong" but did not see other photographic qualities.

    I DO believe and say so, that in some photographs content is the strongest entity and dominates the photograph, there is also an example. However, that is not the only thing in most photographs.

    I wish this reply came on PetaPixel so that others could benefit from the conversation. Contrary to the characterization of my involvement as "generally a little more focused on promoting his own blog than in actually being involved with anything I say but whatever" you will find that I do not hold back from participating in the discussion on PetaPixel or elsewhere. One thing I avoid is to judge other participants character or motives.

    Thank you for providing more traffic to my site, although that is not what interests me the most. And thank you reading my posts although apparently I need to make some parts clearer as they seemed to have escaped your attention.

    Take care,

    Cemal Ekin

    1. Thank you for your thoughts and corrections.

      You shouldn't take anything I say about your blog terribly seriously, my method is to use these sorts of things as jumping-off points for rambling about my own ideas.

    2. I see. Although a bit inconsistent with the notion of "ontology." Even epistemology. But, different folks for different strokes.

  5. I like this site, this post and the gentleman at the mission ate favored posts.

    1. This is a very strange comment, which may or may not refer to things which are not to my knowledge publishd.

      Please explain further.

    2. Possibly you refer to the post entitled "Steve" from a few months ago? I am agitated, slightly, because I wrote another thing recently, not yet published, which specifically used the word "gentleman" and "mission" so I am wondering if that unpublished piece has somehow escaped.

    3. "Possibly you refer to the post entitled "Steve" from a few months ago?"

      More likely the post entitled "Steve" from a few days ago.

  6. Petapixel audience... hmm. "Tilting" and "Windmills" comes to mind.