You Like Me! You Really… Don’t Like Me?


If we want to grow as people, much less as photographers, we need to be challenged and to challenge ourselves from time to time. If we fail to do that, both we and our work start to go stale. Of course, the challenges we pose to ourselves aren’t without their own perils. Sometimes we find that our reach exceeds our grasp; we may not yet have the skills to pull off what our ambitions and dreams tell us should be our next logical step. Other times, we just might acheive what we set off to do, only to find that the people who’ve understood, encouraged, and nurtured our work up to a certain point suddenly decide that this new direction of ours isn’t quite their bag.

Some artists find a zone that’s comfortable, or highly profitable, and settle there. Year in and year out, they produce the same predictable stuff that’s earned them plaudits and a nice living. Some part of them might yearn for something new or different, but they’re afraid of what might happen if they suddenly change course. Others may tread a new path briefly and, stung by what they perceive as a backlash, decide they’ve gone a bit too far off track. Others still will just stubbornly go where the muse leads them, their audience (or lack thereof) be damned.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to view this sort of thing as an either/or proposition. We can either follow our vision, or we can be profitable. I think that’s what’s given us artists like Anne Geddes, Thomas Kinkaid, or Garth Brooks. They’re predictable, and in that predictability, there’s a level of safety, both for artist and audience.

There’s an equal and opposite problem, however, when an artist decides to romanticize their own inaccessability. Yes, you can be obscure for the sake of it, and wear the fact that you tend to alienate people like a badge of honor, but if you view art as a primarily social activity,* the antisocial attitude isn’t helping anybody.

A healthier middle ground, I think, comes both in acknowledging your audience, and having the same faith in them that you’d have in yourself. As my mother’s fond of saying, “There’s an ass for every seat.” Not everything you do is going to be a park bench that seats thousands, but it also doesn’t have to be a game of musical chairs sans chairs. If you don’t make a point of routinely leaving your audience in the dust, they’ll keep up. It won’t always be the same audience; some will be as prone to drifting in and out as others will be to stick around from start to finish. But if you respect the craft, respect your audience, and respect yourself, you’ll always find someone willing to meet you halfway even if not everyone likes or “gets” it.

Be willing to make a strong statement in your own voice. If you’re trying to be everybody’s everything and you want everyone to like you, someone’s going to dislike you just for that. All of this comes down to one very simple question: who are you, really? What makes you who you are, which in turn makes your photos what they are? What is there in your craft and art that can only be seen and realized by you and by nobody else? Okay, so that’s three questions, but really, they all come back in some way to that initial question. Some of the best art — The Rite of Spring, Joyce’s later works (here I’m thinking Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake), the mature works of Jackson Pollack — succeeds not because it aims for a mushy universalism, but because it’s as highly specific (and, sometimes highly controversial) as it is. Your work doesn’t have to be polarizing, need not provoke riots in the aisles, doesn’t even have to be obscure or confusing to half the people who view it. What it should be is completely, irrevocably, and irreducably yours.

Short Tips: Finding Keepers

Outdoor Plumbing

In recent weeks, I’ve mentioned the importance of deleting photos, and also of viewing your work objectively. In both cases, one of the resons for doing these things is to narrow what you’re saving down to your “keepers,” the photos you want others to see, or may want to do something with at a later date. One of the challenges you can expect to face as you try to cull your work — separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were — is figuring out what, exactly, is your best work. There are a few quick ways to do this that can help to cut down on the time you’re spending on your sorting process.

Often as not, when I’ve just come back from a day of shooting, the first thing I want to do is load my work onto the computer, view it, and critique it. After all, seeing your work at full size on a large screen is often a great way to realize what works and what doesn’t. I’ll generally sort by three categories: the stuff that’s obvious crap (out of focus, hopelessly under- or over-exposed, badly composed, or a photo that just isn’t “about” anything); the stuff that could be useable given some reasonable editing (a slight crop, maybe some work on color and contrast); and the stuff that works more or less as it is. The issue is when something doesn’t fall neatly into one of those categories. Maybe it doesn’t work as it is, but could later; maybe there’s just the nagging sense that something’s “off.” When that happens, it’s time to take other measures.

1. The Thumbnail Test: Let’s say you’ve viewed all of your work at full size, and there’s a handful of shots that you’re still not sure about. View these shots as thumbnails, rather than poring over them repeatedly at full size.* When you’re looking at something at 1,024 x 768 resolution, you may find yourself getting caught up in a series of details within the overall picture, versus seeing it whole. This can be useful if you can pull a decent-sized chunk out of the whole to function as an image all its own (let’s say that you’d end up cropping about a third of the image), but if the only thing that works is a solitary squirrel in the corner munching on a bagel, you haven’t exactly got a keeper. Viewing a thumbnail allows you to see the entire image at once, and to evaluate it in its entirety. You may not want to use this for your initial cull (something that looks sharp in thumbnail form might in fact be badly out of focus; similarly, you might miss some small detail or splash of color that could redeem an image that needed a little something on the first pass), but it’s useful if you want to narrow things down after you’ve gone through the batch the first time.

2. The Calendar Test: Let’s say you have a handful of images that might be keepers, but you’re not sure if they’re as good as you thought they were the first time out. Start by asking yourself a question: If this was on a calendar, would I really want to look at it every day for the next month? Of course, you’re not going to start printing calendars like they’re going out of style just to evaluate your images. But try putting a folder together and revisiting it on a day-to-day basis, or setting an image as your desktop background. If it’s already revealed all it can tell you by the second or third day, you might want to reconsider it.

3. The Audience Test: It’s hard to be objective about your own work. On one hand, we can become so attached to our own work that it’s hard to give it an honest critique. On the other, we can at times be so critical of our own work that we’re set to throw out something that might, in fact, have been done very well. If you have someone whose eye, judgement, and honesty you trust, ask their opinion. The perspective that a fresh set of eyes brings to your work can be invaluable in evaluating the quality of what you’re doing, and also in measuring what you’re trying to communicate with your images versus how an audience — even just an audience of one — receives them.

But those are just my tips. What are some things you’ve found useful in critiquing and sorting your own work?

*If your workspace has sufficient room, you can get a similar effect by backing away from your monitor. 

Rule 23: Learn the Rules

Rusty Buds

Whether you view photography as art, craft, or some mix of the two, it’s useful to bear in mind that it does follow certain rules. As with the rules that apply to any other part of life, some will view them as inviolable while some will swear that each one’s made only to be broken. The truth probably lies somewhere in between; these rules of photography have lasted as long as they have because they can be very useful, but breaking them won’t lead to your gear being confiscated.

As with anything else, you can pull up Google (or your search engine of choice), search “photography rules,” and come back with hits in the tens of thousands. One reason for this is that there seem to be nearly as many rules as there are photographic genres, and photographers. Some apply to settings (Sunny 16, for instance), some to composition, and others still to things like the ethics of photography. That’s not even counting the things that we devise as individuals, some for practical reasons and others out of a sense of superstition, to keep our process flowing smoothly.

Do we really need all those rules? I’d argue that they’re useful on a number of levels. As photographers, they give us a sense of focus, and a convenient means of learning the basics of composition and exposure. As a viewer of photography, they help us both to read and critique photos, giving us the tools to realize when and why a photo works or doesn’t. It also allows both photographers and viewers to step into the other’s shoes for a moment; the latter get to realize some of the challenges of making a good photo, while the former have an easier way to ensure that the point they intended to make gets across.

When you are dealing with a mature medium, it’s natural to think that it’s all been done (if we’re going to be honest, quite a lot of it probably has been) and to think that we might stand a better chance of doing something fresh or original if we throw the rules out the window. With that said, I’d argue that there’s actually a right way to break the rules, and it starts by knowing them. After all, if you’re not familiar with how and why a photo is put together, you’re not avoiding cliches by “breaking” the rules… instead, you end up with a lousy photo, or you end up with one that’s quite good, but that simply follows rules of which you may have been unaware.

There’s some validity to leaving behind, or actively breaking, the rules of photography, and I’ll have more to say about that this time next week. But for now, start by learning the rules, and knowing what makes a photo “work,” so that you can avoid some of the things that keep your shots from looking half-assed or ill-conceived.

Postscript: There’s a tongue-in-cheek list of 78 Photography Rules for Complete Idiots that combines some practical advice with some that’s just plain silly.

Photo News Roundup, 11/26/2011

In case of fire, snow.

Another slow-ish news week, though as the time ticks down to the 2012 CES (Consumer Electronics Show), I would anticipate that we’ll see a slow leak of rumored gear and specs start to show up on various sites around the Web. As usual, links go to sources’ full articles.

4/3 Rumors reports that still more Olympus executives have jumped ship. Life goes on at the company, evidenced by the fact that they’re likely to announce a new Micro 4/3 lens (perhaps in the 12-60mm range) before the year is out. In unrelated news, 4/3 Rumors’ Facebook page is back, and can be found here.

Canon appears to have discontinued the EF 15mm f/2.8 fisheye, according to Canon Rumors.

Leica’s promising an M10, a new mirrorless interchangeable lens system, and a “suprise” for next year, says Leica Rumors.

Mirrorless Rumors has a bit more on Fuji’s new organic sensor, including speculation that the aforementioned Leica “surprise” may be related to a partnership with Fuji; it’s plausible, given that Leica will no longer be able to rely on Kodak for sensors.

Samyang (a.k.a. Vivitar, a.k.a. Rokinon, among others) is about to debut a Nikon-mount 8mm f/3.5  fisheye. Yes, they’re aftermarket, and lack AF motors (or much of anything else with which to autofocus, come to think of it), but the last few years have seen a spate of inexpensive Samyang lenses with very good image quality. Also, November 30 should see the announcement of the recently discontinued SB-900’s successor (SB-910?) and a new DX or FX lens (Nikon Rumors)

Pentax discontinuing the K-r? (Photo Rumors)

Sony confirms that they’ve started production on the A77 and NEX-7; also, the 2012 Photokina may see the introduction of a full-frame Sony camera with an as-yet-unspecified “hybrid mount.” (Sony Alpha Rumors)

Monthly Mailbag

An Homage to John Cage

A burning missive from Constant Reader, who writes: Okay, camera-guru… I know I’m not good at this whole “picture-taking” thing, mostly because my subjects tend to blur the cell phone camera I typically aim at them. What came as a shock to me was to hear from a professional photographer who is a friend of mine that pictures these days are almost never shown exactly as taken. First of all, is this true? Secondly, is it unrealistic to expect pictures to be shown as they were captured? I suddenly feel as if we are being lied to each and every time we see a photograph. Do you know if magazines (like National Geographic, whose nature shots are famed and supposedly accurate) also tweak their pictures?

It’s almost like waking up early one Christmas morning to find your parents shoving presents under the tree instead of the jovial old belly-jiggler you were expecting. It doesn’t change the result (ooh…presents!), but it changes your perspective on the result because it takes away some of the magic. I guess I always assumed photography was honest.

Well, it still can be. I think the best a photographer can do (or a writer, or pretty much anyone else) is be as truthful to what they’ve observed as possible. It’s harder, in some ways, with a photo (or even a few of them) than it is with an article, ’cause all the stuff about a picture being worth a thousand words aside, there’s only so much that each image can capture. If the processing is minimal (the digital equivalent of dropping your film off at CVS versus doing a bunch of your own darkroom trickery) and isn’t invasive or dishonest — if all it does is clarify what’s already there, in other words, rather than trying to change or “enhance” it — and you’re starting with an honest photo, then it’s okay. The problem comes when either the photo or the retouching are done in bad faith.

But I digress. Getting back to what I think is the gist of your question: if, after all, most photos are edited, how do you know to trust what you see? It’s all the more valid when you stop to consider that some really powerful stuff is available to consumers for editing that would’ve baffled someone working ten or fifteen years ago. Your photographer friend is right. If it’s published, it’s been tweaked in some way. Even amateurs (like me) will generally make some kind of edits, and the more visible or expensive the venue for the photo, the more it’s probably had done to it. Sometimes it’s little things (sharpening, cropping to remove distractions, fixing color and contrast to make them truer to what you saw when you took the photo, slightly sharpening the photo). Sometimes, it’s more drastic intervention, involving compositing, adding or removing things from the photo (or even the subject)… there are hundreds of options, in thousands of combinations, available in most editing programs.

Some things demand editing. If you shoot in JPG (which most of us do), the camera’s making a lot of decisions for you in terms of how the final photo looks. If you shoot in RAW (which, if you’re a professional, is more or less a given), the camera’s doing next to no processing, and just rendering the image more or less as the sensor captured it, with varying results based on your exposure settings. The thing is, most RAW images look pretty bland, even when held up next to what you just took a picture of, so you’re relying on some kind of software to do all the stuff the camera would otherwise do, only you’re making the adjustments by hand.

But it’s just as important to remember that this has always been the case. With the exception of instant photography (Polaroids, or similar stuff where the photo’s developed and printed in-camera), photographers have nearly always intervened in the end results in some way. Think for a minute about all the choices you make just to take one picture:

  • First, you have to choose your camera and your lenses; the capabilities and limitations of each will dictate what, and how, you shoot.
  • Choose your subject. If it’s a single subject – say, the Empire State Building – what angles will you choose? Will you shoot the building’s interior or exterior? Or will you, instead, use the view from the observation deck or one of the office windows to somehow make a point about the building itself?
  • Now that you’ve figured out what you’ll photograph, how will you do it? Composition carries its own series of decisions within it, which I’ll elide here to save time and space… but among others, will you use a wide-angle, normal, or telephoto? Flash or available light? Will your framing, lens choices and depth of field tend to isolate your subject, or make him/her/it just one element among several in the scene?
  • Dial in your exposure settings. Unless the scene is very evenly lit, you may find yourself, either by choice or necessity, over- or under-exposing some parts of your scene in order to preserve it on the parts you feel are most important. 
  • Okay, now press the shutter.

And again, if you wanted to get really specific (or nitpicky), you could break the process down to a ridiculous degree of detail. The point I’m trying to make, though, is that even when the photographer’s trying to be objective, there are a lot of subjective choices to be made at each step in the process. Perhaps most importantly, whether your work is journalistic or artistic in nature, it doesn’t matter what lens you’re using or where you stand; something has to go in the frame and by definition, something else — oftentimes lots of somethings — get left out.

And then, only after all those subjective choices, there’s the editing process described above. As if that weren’t enough, once the photo’s out of the photographer’s hands, it’s usually going through some form of editorial review, where an individual or group of people will decide which of the dozens, or even hundreds, of photos a photographer’s taken on an assignment will actually be used, and how. So even absent any kind of Photoshop trickery, it is, in a sense, as disingenuous to pretend that there’s some kind of noble, untouched photograph out there, in much the same way that the written word is never truly objective.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A lot depends on the venue, the type of photography, and what it’s “for.” David LaChapelle, for instance, does all kinds of fanciful stuff that you’d never see in reality, but he’s a fashion photographer, so it’s acceptable. If your friend does weddings or portraits, I’m sure nobody minds if the zits and unibrows are airbrushed out. Again, given the type of photography, it’s acceptable, and maybe even expected.

When editing becomes problematic is with journalism and documentary photography. If you’re presenting a photo as a statement of fact — in essence, “This is what I saw, and captured as it happened” — you have a responsibility, ethically speaking, to intervene as little as possible within reason. I say “within reason” because there are a number of things that I think act to undermine photographic objectivity (not least of those the actual process of taking the photo). But it also means not deliberately misrepresenting what you’re depicting.

That’s the photographer’s end of the bargain. That doesn’t let any of us off the hook as viewers, however. We need to approach photography as critically as we would any other medium. In some areas, it’s safest to assume that there’s been some pretty drastic intervention (like fashion photography… I’d be surprised, frankly, if I ever met a model or actor who looked anything like their photos), and in others, not so much. In any event, you need to be aware of the process behind the photo — any photo, really — and give some thought to the series of judgments that led to that photo and not some other.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Whose turn is it to bring the toast and jellybeans this year?

I’m going to step away from photography for a moment here, partly because a turkey, several pounds of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and other stuff will soon be calling my name. But I’d also be remiss if I didn’t wish you a happy Thanksgiving, wherever you may be. I’m grateful to those of you who’ve read, commented, and helped out… some of you since before the launch of this site.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for some time with the family — for whom I’m thankful most of all. We’ll be continuing with our regular irregularity here on The First 10,000 tomorrow.

— PB

Beyond Photography: Bill Bruford, Meet Sebastião Salgado

If you’ve never heard of Bill Bruford — who, at one time or another, drummed for Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Gong, UK, David Torn, and Kazumi Watanabe, not to mention his own projects with Bruford, Earthworks, Patrick Moraz, and Michael Borstlap* — you’re missing out on quite a bit. As if it weren’t enough that Bruford’s tastefully polyrhythmic, delightfully off-kilter drumming practically defined Progressive Rock, the drummer went back to his jazz roots in 1987, and proceeded to expand the boundaries of what was possible behind the kit there as well.

I followed Bruford’s career through myriad twists and turns from my teenage years up to his retirement in 2009. His music was challenging, but always accessible. The man clearly didn’t like to stay in one place for too long. But for as much as I enjoyed the music, one thing he’s said has always stuck with me: “You exist to serve the music. The music does not exist to serve you.” He expanded on this in a recent interview, saying that musicians too often approach music thinking only of what they can take from, rather than contribute to, it… an attitude that’s hardly limited to musicians, unfortunately.

Sebastião Salgado: Fireball, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991
Sebastião Salgado: Fireball, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991

Listening to that interview, I got to thinking about someone else who successfully reinvented himself and his work, and who’s likewise prospered because he’s consistently as willing to contribute to photography as to take from it. Sebastião Salgado started out as an economist, but by 1973 he would turn his attention to photography.

The nearly four decades since have seen Salgado documenting people on or near the margins of society. Concerned more with what he terms the “archeology” of the changes wrought in the physical and psychological landscape by the forces of modernization, globalization and capitalism than with art, his work has nonetheless earned the label and reputation of serious art. In his books An Uncertain Grace, Workers, Terra, Migrations, Sahel and Africa, Salgado has turned an unflinching but sympathetic eye on humanity in all its forms. His work succeeds precisely because he approaches his subjects on their own terms:  “The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” One could argue that as a documentary photographer, he could do nothing else; however, a good many current photographers who claim to work in a Street or documentary style don’t take nearly as much care with their subjects as Salgado does.

On one level, Salgado and Bruford probably couldn’t be more different. They’re separated by geography, experience, their respective media, and quite a lot else. On the other hand, I think that if the two were ever to meet face to face, they’d find that they’ve operated, each in his own way, in and from a very similar place. It’s an outlook and approach to craft that relies heavily on a response to what’s going on (whether it’s a copper miner or a Tony Levin bassline), based on an active act of collaboration rather than a strong-willed insistance that there’s only one right approach. As Salgado himself put it, “It’s not the photographer who makes the picture, but the person being photographed.”

As I mentioned earlier this week (Rule 22: The Art is to Conceal the Art), your ego is not your art. I do think that creativity and a healthy dose of ego necessarily go together; none of us who create, who put the love and the sweat equity into perfecting our craft, do it for the sake of being ignored, and on some level I think we do what we do because we feel that it can make a difference, even if only to one other person besides ourselves. However, if we allow our ego to be a motive rather than just another ingredient, and decide that really, what we do or make is there only for the sake of attracting wealth and followers, then we’ve immediately got it ass-backwards.

That ego can manifest itself in any number of ways. If we’re going to continue the musical analogy, let’s imagine for a minute that you belong to a band that relies heavily on improvisation. You’ve got this bass figure that sounds like Jaco channelling Hendrix. Never mind that the rest of the band is playing something that sounds like it came from “Flamenco Sketches,” you’re getting your Jaco on regardless, dammit. Well, guess what? It’s not only musicians who do it. The rest of us have done it, too, from self-proclaimed street photographers** practicing ambush tactics on their subjects, to photographers who have a favorite Photoshop preset that gets used on everything from wedding portraits to landscapes, or portrait photographers who’ll try to whack their square peg subjects into whatever round hole they’ve relied on for years. If you approach your subject — whether it’s a living subject or an inanimate one, the end result’s still much the same — with the assumption that you know what’s best for it, trying to bend it to your will, it doesn’t matter if your subject’s a bird in flight or variations on “Birdland.” You will have stifled any room that your subject had to breathe, and will have closed your work off to what your subject had to say.

Let me repeat: I don’t think that there’s any work that’s totally devoid of self, of ego. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these “pages,” your craft is about engagement. It’s about finding a space in which creator and creation can coexist, communicate, and be present to one another; in essence, our work is about collaboration with and within our medium. That collaboration works best when it’s not about us alone.

*This is just a partial list, mind you; an exhaustive one, with discography, would be one very long document.

**I can name names, but I’d rather not. Not out of any sense of professional decorum, mind you; just that I hate drawing attention to people whose only aim seems to be whoring for attention in the first place.

Bill Bruford:

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Sebastião Salgado

Website: Amazonas Images
On Amazon: Click Here

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Short Tips

Untitled, Unknown

A few bits of randomness for your reading and photographing enjoyment:

Take Notes: This is especially true if you’re learning by shooting manually with a film camera rather than a digital, or if you’re learning film after having shot in digital for some time. Digital cameras will, in most cases, give you detailed EXIF data. Shooting with film? You’re on your own in that regard. If the exposure is perfect, congratulations – and good luck remembering what you did to get that perfect exposure. If, on the other hand, you’ve made a proverbial dog’s breakfast of the shot, you won’t know how to avoid making the same mistake later. As a friend used to say, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.” Write it down, bearing in mind that having a pad and pen with you is useful for a number of other reasons as well, like jotting down other photographers’ contact information, giving them yours, taking down emails so you can send photos to people whose pictures you’ve made, jotting down ideas for future shoots… the list is practically endless.

Another Use for Paper: A sheet of paper can be used as an impromptu white balance card* if you’re trying to set custom white balance in a situation with screwy (or mixed) lighting. If it’s small enough, it can be used as a bounce card for your camera’s on-board flash, or even for a speedlight. As if that weren’t enough, it can also be used as an improvised reflector if your subject is strongly back- or side-lit. It won’t work quite as nicely as a purpose-built reflector, but it’s better than nothing in a pinch.

Use Your Hands: Lighting, especially outdoors, can be tricky to meter. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a scene that has numerous changes in light values (much darker or brighter in some areas than others) or when you’re trying to meter for an odd situation. For example, let’s say you’re outdoors on a bright day. You might be standing under an awning, and trying to meter for something under another, similar awning across the street. You and your subject are in shade, and there’s an awful lot of light between you. If you don’t want to use spot or center-weighted metering (or you’d like to but you don’t have the time to go back to the menus), meter on your hand.

Find Some Gaffer’s Tape: Gaffer’s tape is to photographers what duct tape is to handymen and rednecks. Many a photographer will tell you the stuff is great, if expensive. You can use it as it was intended (taping down wiring so nobody trips and breaks their neck), but why stop there? You can use it to cover the logo on your camera, to secure reflectors and other paraphernalia, to make sure your subjects know where to stand, or to make minor repairs. I’ve even seen it used as an impromptu band-aid (though I’m not endorsing that here, so as not to have a lawsuit on my hands). It’s every bit as strong as duct tape, but with a less messy adhesive and a surface that doesn’t shine, making it less obtrusive and also giving you a decent grip if you need it.

Any short tips, odd techniques, or random finds you’d like to share with our readers? Drop me a line!

Rule 22: The Art is to Conceal the Art

Small World: Greece, Athens, Acropolis. 1991 (Martin Parr)

The quotation in the title exists in many forms, and dates at least as far back as Roman times. The rhetorician Quintilian (35 CE – 100 CE) said,  “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Another quotation — unattributed, but probably contemporary — says, ars est celare artem (“True art is to conceal art.”) Centuries later, Oscar Wilde said, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”

The idea obviously has considerable durability. Why? What’s being said here that manages to resonate across different cultures and ages, and what does it have to do with us? Here’s my $.02 worth:

When you love your craft — whatever it may be, but let’s assume photography for now ’cause, well, that’s what we do here — at some point or another, you’ll find yourself wanting to move beyond “mere” craft to something that’s closer to art. You work your tail off finding or developing your style, maybe engage in a little self-promotion. However, if you’re going to make a photo that’s artistic — or done with artistic intent, let’s say — you shouldn’t call attention to the fact that you’re doing something artistic.* People who like your work are going to be drawn to its honesty (real or perceived) versus its artifice, generally speaking.

Let’s get specific about this and compare two photographers, chosen more or less at random. At one extreme, you have Magnum photographer Martin Parr. Parr’s built his reputation on street and documentary photography, catching people in their element (and often, one suspsects, completely unawares). There’s a simplicity and honesty about his work that works both as document and as art because it’s honest, and refreshingly free of artifice.  

Mary Kate Olsen by Terry Richardson

At the other extreme, you have someone like Terry Richardson, the photographer whose style has come to define Vice, and without whom American Apparel would no doubt have to find a much different aesthetic sense. Like Parr, he’s got an instantly recognizable style; unlike Parr, Richardson’s style is like a Fabrege egg: all surface, but totally empty if you try to look any deeper. Richardson’s schtick, essentially making every photo look like a prepubescent heroin addict’s mugshot, gets old quick. To me, he’s a great example of what happens when you draw attention to the act of photography, explicitly calling attention to the “art.” To extend the comparison between the two photographers, Parr’s photos are about their subjects, whereas Richardson’s photos are very much about Terry Richardson.**

My take on this, for what it’s worth: worrying about whether something is art is a bit like worrying about whether something is authentic. Similarly, trying to make something an art object is like trying to make it authentic. In both cases, you end up worrying about the concept so much that you end up losing sight of the thing itself, or overdoing it in order to make it something you think it ought to be rather than letting it simply be what it is, as it is. Focus on your craft, and on doing what you do to the peak of your abilities (making sure you’re always stretching your abilities to expand the boundaries of what’s possible). The art, at that point, will take care of itself. If you call attention to the art of it, you’ve just moved beyond art to artifice, which ensures that both the art and the authenticity about which you were worried go straight out the window.


*Unless you’re cranking it up to 11 as a commentary on the fact that you’re doing art, but even that gets tired after a while.

** I say this with the awareness that any photographer’s work is, of course, quite telling about the person who made it. Having said that, I think that each photo also says a lot about where the photographer’s placed their priorities. Some photographers make what’s going on behind the camera every bit as much a locus of attention as what’s going on in front of it, which makes the photographer’s role every bit as central as the subject’s. I’m also aware that this is a highly subjective judgment on my part, and your preference/mileage may vary.

Photo News Roundup, 11/19/2011

After the Flood: Wallington, 2011

I think it’s safe to say we’re back. Here’s the week’s photo news. As usual, links go to the original sources’ full articles.

Olympus’s fortunes seemed to have been revived considerably by the introduction of the 4/3 and Micro 4/3 systems. Cameras haven’t been the backbone of the company’s operations for a while now (that distinction belongs to their medical imaging division), but the brisk sales of the system — especially in Asia — seemed to make it clear that the company could still be a force to reckoned with. Well, until recently. The November 9 New York Times reported that there’ve been some financial shenanigans going on at Olympus that’d do Wall Street proud; apparently, the company had been sweeping massive losses under the carpet through a slick accounting practice called “tobashi”: In tobashi, translated loosely as “to blow away,” a company hides losses on bad assets by selling those assets to other companies, often dummies, only to buy them back later.

In a further twist, quoted in 4/3 Rumors, today’s Times reports that Japan’s equivalent of the SEC is investigating possible ties between Olympus and the Yakuza. And of course, since no story of financial malfeasance would be complete without involvement by Goldman Sachs, the same piece goes on to note that GS sold just shy of a million shares of Olympus just before CEO Michael Woodford was sacked.

After announcing a veritable truckload of new gear early in November, Canon’s gone relatively quiet, aside from a firmware update for the 5D Mark II. Rumors are beginning to percolate that the next round of announcements probably won’t take place ’til the end of Q1 2012. (Canon Rumors)

LeicaRumors reports that Leica’s already pricey optics will get that much more pricey on January 1, 2012.

Reports are cropping up in several places about the upcoming Fuji mirrorless interchangeable compact. This as-yet unnamed entry in the X series will, according to Fuji, feature full-frame image quality and ISO performance on a smaller sensor; given that the body design is very similar to the X100, this suggests an APS-C sensor. How, you ask, will they accomplish this? A CMOS sensor with an organic photoelectric conversion layer (details here, courtesy of Mirrorless Rumors, and further details on the camera here on Photo Rumors). The camera will, it’s said, feature not only a similar design to the X100, but also the same all-metal construction, plus a proprietary lens mount. We’ll find out for sure, at any rate, when the camera’s finally unveiled at the next CES, in January, 2012.

 Per PhotoRumors, Kodak is starting to look less like an imaging business than a fire sale. On November 7, they sold their sensor division to Platinum Equity. They’re discontinuing still more 35mm film. And they’re also desperate to find a buyer for their digital photo sharing service.

Finally, as police have moved to crack down on several of the Occupy Wall Street protests across the country, reporters and press photographers are feeling the pinch. Besides the arrests of a handful of “civilian” photographers, the raids — which some have speculated were coordinated — also snared photojournalists from The Daily Caller, Vanity Fair, AP and the New York Daily News* (NYC), Creative Loafing (Atlanta), the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, RVA Magazine (Richmond). New York mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted without a trace of irony that the journalists were detained for their own protection (and if history teaches you anything, it’s to be wary of anyone who starts detaining people “for their own protection.”) Wired, in the meantime, notes the “Kafkaesque” requirements for getting an NYPD press pass in NYC, not the least of which is that you have to have covered six events on the ground in NYC… which, naturally, you can’t technically do without a press pass.

My take (if I may editorialize for a moment): even if the arrests had “only” been of journalists, and not a single photographer had been taken into custody, this is still cause for concern. We’ve already seen the police in the UK practically criminalize both recreational and professional photography, and we’ve seen steps in that direction in this country recently as well (as with the arrest of a videographer by the NYPD). Whether you love OWS, hate them, or have never given the whole thing as much as a second thought, we rely on the press — at both ends of the spectrum — for the informed function of civil society. The chilling effect that comes from the arrest of journalists and photographers under the flimsiest possible pretext (the same pretext used to detain foreign and domestic journalists covering unrest in Lybia, Tunisia and Egypt not too long ago, don’t forget) is detriment enough to the press; if we hope to be informed and responsible citizens, it’s also a clear detriment to the function of a free and democratic society.

*”Snared” is too kind a word here, at least as regards the Daily Caller journalists, who were badly beaten by the NYPD.