Saturday, May 11, 2024

On Choosing

AD Coleman firmly holds the opinion that a photographer, as an artist, must choose their photos. To simply shoot a bunch of pictures is not enough. To him, Vivian Maier essentially does not exist as a photographer. This is a position with which I concur, and which I have argued for at some length over the years. Photography is choosing.

You choose where to stand, where to point the lens, when to press the shutter. You choose frames at the contact sheet. You choose final prints and arrangements. Unless you proceed through to the end, the job is not done.

You can shoot 100,000 frames and choose 12. You can shoot 12 frames and choose 12.

But you must choose.

Colberg has a piece up arguing against projects. You have to subscribe to a thing to read the whole thing, so I don't really know or care where he goes from the part I've linked to. The thrust seems to be that "the project" is a straitjacket in a bunch of ways, some harmful. On the one hand this is obviously true.

On the other hand, you have to choose. In order to choose, you need some sort of rubric, it is the essence of choosing. If a rubric doesn't in some sense constitute a project, I don't even know what any of those words mean.

In the olden days, before say 1990, you'd just choose the bangers. "Chicago, 1968-1978" you dig out the contact sheets from that decade, sort out the ones from Chicago, and circle all the bangers. Pick the best 20 of those in terms of technical details, and you're done. There's your show.

And then we moved on, that got played out and while there are still people trying it on just like that nobody much cares unless it's a Big Name retrospective.

The rubrics for choosing have gotten more complex. We demand some sort of connections, some sort of theme, some sort of meaning in the collective pile of final pictures.

Again, I don't care when you choose. Shooting-to-order is just choosing early. Digging through your midden of contact sheets is choosing later. It doesn't matter.

If Colberg's eventual point is that your project has to be kind of fluid, then I have no argument with him. It's stupid to pin down a hyper-specific rubric too early (although, to be fair, limitations can stimulate creativity.) Let the rubric float a bit, and you'll be a lot happier in the end. Colberg also seems to suggest that photos shouldn't be constrained to a single project, which, again, I agree with. This is just allowing a photo to fit more than one rubric.

On the one hand, homeboy is clearly drawing on his experience teaching idiots in MFA programs, but on the other hand, who the hell cares what corners idiots paint themselves into? An idiot can paint themselves into a corner with any set of tools whatsoever, so the fact that they're crying in a corner might not be evidence that the tools you've given them are bad.

Figuring out a rubric for a body of work isn't easy. Lots and lots and lots of photographers cannot do it at all. The Goldsmiths vanity MA seems to produce a steady stream of people who haven't the foggiest notion, because it is run by a guy who hasn't the foggiest notion. There are loads of people who take pictures for money (where the rubric for choosing is supplied in the form of what we normally call "a brief") who are completely helpless when confronted with doing it for themselves. They take a bunch of pictures on some theme, and throw out the blurry ones. The pile of sharp and in-theme photos grows without limit, but no meaning ever emerges, and it's not clear that the photographer even knows what that might look like or that it would be desirable. They helplessly watch the pile grow until they tire of the theme, and move on to a new theme. Rinse and repeat.

Most people who take photographs never even bother. They hold up their phone and tap the button. They make one choice once, and that's the end of it. They post the photo somewhere, or show it to their friends, or whatever. I do this! I take photos to send to people: "is this your ring?" "are these the right makeup wipes?" "look at what my dumb dog is doing!"

These things are not "art photography" though, they're something else. None of these people is making any kind of statement. There's nothing to say except the immediate content of this photo, right here, right now.

To be honest, I remain completely stymied in my own "practice."

I know (in some sense) that it's not just bullshit, because I see things in which someone chose some pictures and meaning emerged. I see things that I made in which this happened. At the same time, I struggle with the idea that maybe it is all bullshit, that the rubrics are essentially arbitrary, and that the so-called meaning is just pareidolia. My answer, though, has been to stop taking pictures. I am not going to go and shoot on some random theme and hope that something emerges, because I know that ends with a midden of pointless photos.

It's possible I am coming to that point that Cartier-Bresson arrived at. When you draw something you know you've definitely made something. It might be shitty, it might be bad, but god damn if you didn't actually make a thing that has your fingerprints on it.

To abandon the idea of the rubric is to abandon the entire enterprise beyond the "look at what my dumb dog is up to" project. If choosing is bullshit, then photography as an artistic venture is bullshit. I don't see any way to save it.

I dunno man.


  1. Then again, there’s William Wegman, whose entire ouvre seems to be centered on “look at my dumb dogs.”

    1. That is an excellent point. Maybe I'm looking at the wrong way around. Anne Geddes: look at these dumb babies.

    2. Ultimately, photo projects don’t feel too dissimilar to me from any other project, like writing, coding, or home improvement: what’s the vision, who’s the ‘end user’, what are the success criteria, etc.

      Engaging in a project without these answers nailed down can be very good. It’s important to play and experiment, after all. But saying that they’re unnecessary feels like admitting that you’re afraid of being called out for producing something that doesn’t really matter.

      I regularly wander into a new software project with only the vaguest of senses of what my goals might be, and I only get clarity as I explore the possibilities in front of me. Same with my most successful photo projects, in fact.

  2. I find it rather fascinating how often criticism withers in the face of the thing purportedly being praised/criticized. This occurs so frequently I've come to expect it. People have their opinions. I have others.

  3. did u just paint yerself into a corner :) but I am pretty sure yer gonna come busting back out in a month or so. stone seal

  4. A.D. Coleman is the guy who introduced to me to the possibility of making art with photography, 40yrs ago. For me he was(is) a master class on the artistic relevance of photography.

    Choose? Yeah, that's why I use the single exposure mode :-)

    Omer C