Rule 31: Smash Your Idols

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. -- Lin Chi

I got to thinking recently about many religions’ prohibition against idol worship. Judaism and, by extension, Christianity both caution against idolatry (the Ten Commandments explicitly warn against graven images. Islam takes the prohibition so far that neither Allah nor Muhammad may even be depicted in art. What’s this got to do with photography? Well, hold on a second. I’m getting there.

The Buddha was famously supposed to have said to one of his disciples, “My teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t mistake my finger for the moon.” Some photographers, unfortunately, engage in this sort of idolatry all the time.

Let’s start with the gear worshippers, shall we? Never mind that your average photographer wouldn’t think, even for a second, of waxing rhapsodic over a ratchet screwdriver, cordless drill, or even one of those little rubber thingies you can use when the lid on a jar of pickles is too tight. A good many photographers* get a little woozy when they talk about the gear they’ve had, have, or have yet to purchase. The virtues of bodies and lenses are debated as though their spec sheets were an arcane form of scripture.

Then there’s an even higher echelon of gear worship, wherein the penitent swears fealty to only a particular type of gear. One may “only” shoot with primes, or certain speedlight setups, or with the proper medium format back. All others are proscribed, and must be forsaken.

Then, of course, we have the photographic Calvinists. Digital, to this lot, is an abomination. To them, film is the only medium worthy of consideration by a “serious” photographer. Certain subsects will take this a step further, and insist that the sacrament of film must be placed in a Holga or other suitable plastic vessel, preferably with duct tape affixed to keep out the light leaks.

And lest we forget the fundamentalists of style. They know all the rules for their genre of choice, and they are thoroughly convinced that no matter what your intention, if you’re not doing it their way, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t think they’ll neglect to call you out on it, either.

Gear, ideas and techniques are belabored as if they’re fine wines, with the unspoken assumption a little too often being that these things aren’t what they are — tools — so much as objects of awe and veneration. If you’re going to focus on something, focus on the simple act of making a good photo. No more, no less. If you fall into one of the above categories, here’s a clue: you’re a photographer, not a freakin’ Gnostic. Get over your obsessions, get over the mistaken assumption that gear makes the man, and most of all, for the love of all that’s holy, get over yourself.

Ahem. Sorry, got a little carried away. Let’s circle back to the original point. All the talk of idols doesn’t just apply to worshipping objects in stone or wood. It also means the idolatry of our own ideas and fixations. This isn’t an altar call; I don’t expect my comments section to be flooded with sudden remorse over gear obsession, or the fact that you told someone on a street photography forum that they’ve violated the spirit of Bruce Gilden by not getting close enough to their subject to constitute adultery in 35 out of 50 states. All I’d like to suggest is that if your photography is a labor of love (and really, it ought to be), make sure that love’s going in the right direction.

*Mostly male photographers, to be fair.

Call For Writers

If you’re a photographer with something to say, we’d like to hear from you.

Here’s what matters:

  1. You’re a photographer
  2. You have something to say
  3. You’re capable of saying it in clear, concise written English

Here’s what doesn’t matter:

  1. Your gear
  2. Your level of experience (amateurs and professionals alike are welcome)
  3. Your ego
  4. Did I mention gear?

If you’re interested in submitting, even if it’s just a single piece, feel free to email thefirst10000 (at) gmail (dot) com and let me know what you’ve got in mind to write about. You’ll receive a byline, a link to your site/blog/Flickr page, and not much else (we’re not exactly rolling in cash over here).

A Few Thoughts on Thomas Kinkade

" burns, but does not consume." Candlelight Cottage, by Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade passed away earlier this week, aged 54, leaving behind a troubled legacy and art that was like a Fabrege egg, revealing itself to be empty if you peered beyond the glittery surface. I won’t concern myself here with Kinkade’s personal demons; plenty of others have covered that territory far more expertly, and in more depth, than I could manage. I’d rather address his art, which at one time was speculated to hang in somewhere upward of one fifth of all American homes.

Some time ago, I wrote of the dangers of trying to please everyone, and singled out Kinkade as one artist whose work points up the dangers of doing that; playing it that safe might earn you millions (indeed, Kinkade built an empire that branched beyond painting to retail, publishing and real estate), but it’s not really going to challenge anyone.

The artist’s work was often derided as kitsch, but this was no ordinary kitsch. Milan Kundera once famously said, “Kitsch is the inability to admit that shit exists.”* Therein lies one major problem I have with Kinkade’s art. To paraphrase Eric Idle, sometimes life’s a piece of shit when you look at it. Denying that won’t make it any less so, and making art in that spirit ends up producing the very thing it denies.

Further along, Kundera states:

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.

Yet another problem: in order to provide answers, you first have to figure out the questions you’re going to ask. The artist’s work has been called “life affirming” by his fans, who are legion, but if anything it’s bleak beneath the forced cheer of its exterior; it brooks no questions, no challenges are issued or accepted, so that the only thing left is an exercise in nihilism that occludes the future by denying the present as it is, or the past as it really was.


I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. — Franz Kafka

While that quotation’s stuck with me since the first time I read it half a lifetime ago, I don’t agree 100% of the time with Kafka. There’s a time and place for escape and simplicity. As with everything else, though, something needs to balance that simplicity — something, in short, needs to acknowledge the bumps and imperfections, acknowledge that life itself isn’t all sunshine and roses, rendered in your medium of choice. Art, whether we’re talking about literature, music, painting, or photography, isn’t strictly a representational medium, after all; it’s also an interpretive medium. It’s a lens through which we can see the world from another perspective, at some times getting the wide angle that allows us to see the wood for the trees, and others allowing us to zoom in on, and maybe understand a bit better, that which we would otherwise overlook or take for granted.

As Kafka reminds us, we can make art that makes us happy for ourselves. What’s harder to find than happiness — which, after all, is pretty transient if you stop to think about it — is the joy that comes from those flashes that happen in the creative process that hint to us that we’re thisclose to getting it right after falling short so often. And, in the end, that’s perhaps Kinkade’s biggest failing. The payoff (what there is of it) feels empty, devoid of joy or even happiness, because it really didn’t take much effort to get there. There’s no puzzlement, no Kafkaesque blow to the head, or even the belly laugh that comes from a punchline that whacks your funnybone like a bolt from the blue. All that’s left in the end amounts to a pile of oilcolors stacked before a mirror, reflecting nothing but themselves.

*From an extended meditation on kitsch that appears about halfway through his wonderful novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Review: Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

The first review run on The First 10,000 was of a photographers’ handbook first published 70 years before. Like that book, Robert Leverant’s Zen in the Art of Photography is an oldie (first published in 1969), but this one doesn’t show its age in the least. It’s a short book that you could probably get through very quickly. I’m going to suggest that you don’t do that.

It’s not that this isn’t a good book. Quite the opposite, really; it’s very good. But it’s not a how-to in the conventional sense, where the author lets you in on his or her secrets to getting a particular shot. One of the cover blurbs on the book addresses a librarian’s exasperation as to how, exactly, he ought to file the thing. Is it photography? Philosophy? Religion? Poetry? The short answer would be “Yes, and…” It’s a book that’s all about the philosophy of photography, and it proposes, in its own low-key way, a more spiritual approach to photography.

Befitting a radically different approach to photography, even the book’s layout and writing are unconventional. It’s a poem in prose, a series of epigrammatic snippets that nonetheless hold together if you try to read them the way you would, say, Ansel Adams or Freeman Patterson. The advantage to this is that you could, if you wanted, read the book in sequence, cover to cover, the same as you would any other. But you could also, if you wanted, read the book’s, or poem’s, individual lines and pore over them the way you would a series of Zen koans.

Like koans, the cryptic phrases given by Zen monks to new practitioners to prod them toward enlightenment, Leverant’s phrases — either on their own, or read as a cohesive whole — don’t reveal themselves all at once, hence my earlier suggestion not to plow through the book in one sitting. You could, but it’s better — or at least, was more fulfilling for this particular reader — to approach each of the 168 segments on its own merits, and to give it full, mindful attention.

So is this even a book, or is it a series of snapshots in words? The advantage to the author’s approach is that it turns the cliche of a photo being worth a thousand words completely on its ear. This book isn’t as explicit as it could be, and to my mind, that’s a good thing, since it gives the words, as sparse and minimalist as they are, plenty of room to breathe. Your own experience, practice, and thought process ends up fleshing out what’s already on the page. In that sense, these aren’t fragments of poetry or prose as much as they’re seeds, meant to be watered by attention, meditation, and practice. Then it’s a matter of transferring that approach to your own life and craft. As the book hints at, this is both as simple as it seems, and as difficult as anything rewarding usually is.

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Beyond Photography: Alan Lomax, Meet Jacob Riis

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina (Photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain)

It would be too simplistic somehow to call Alan Lomax an archivist, curator, historian, or musicologist, although he was all of those things. Meticulously and single-mindedly — without regard for money, fame, or even personal safety — Lomax criscrossed the globe for the better part of six decades, recording thousands of songs and interviews, alongside hours of film footage. By the 1950’s, he’d also added photography to his already formidable arsenal, the better to document the locations he visited, and the musicians and people with whom he interacted.

Jacob Riis, like Alan Lomax, was a documentarian with a camera. While Riis’ politics and motivation have come into question (both in his time and after), he was an innovator who literally took documentary photography to a new place; his photos, shot in tenements, flophouses, and other places too often overlooked by the citizens (and many of the other photographers) of the day, expanded not only the vernacular of photography, but also the sense of what photography was “for.” Like Matthew Brady before him, he turned an unflinching eye, and lens, on what he saw, using his craft as a tool for protest and change.

Bohemian Cigarmakers at Work in their Tenement (Photo: Jacob Riis; Public Domain)
Both men leave behind vast bodies of work, some of which has broken out of its original categories and spilled over into the culture at large. While Lomax is perhaps best known for his field recordings and the Association of Cultural Equity, the music he championed cropped up in some unlikely places, such as Moby’s 1999 CD Play. Riis’ signature work How the Other Half Lives not only remains in print, but its title has become a shorthand of sorts when talking about society’s less fortunate. His legacy, too, lives on, not only in his photos but in parks and social services organizations that honor his name and the spirit of his work. 

In both Lomax’s recordings and Riis’ photography, there’s something that suggests a bygone time that stretches back even farther than what’s been captured on the observer’s medium of choice. These recordings and photos are simultaneously of their time and hovering somewhere outside or beyond time, a fleeting glimpse of lost customs and cultures. They’re positioned somewhere between the strange familiar and familiar strange; we recognize these things as part of our own cultural, and sometimes even literal, DNA even as they seem somewhat alien to us.

What I draw from these two men — an archivist who happened to be a photographer, and a photographer who was an accidental archivist — is that when we’re consciously trying for something timeless in our work, we’re not only trying too hard, we’re also missing the point. Much, if not most, of what’s timeless attains that quality usually because it’s so much of its time, rather than in spite of that fact. It reminds us where we’ve come from, and that we’ve less of an idea of where we’re going than we’d generally like to think. Sometimes the best we can do, whether as photographers or just as people, is be here now, as best we can… observing, documenting, and bearing witness so that those who come later will have the means and motivation to remember.

 Further Reading/Resources:

Alan Lomax: Check out his Wikipedia entry, as well as the website for The Association for Cultural Equity and an NPR story chronicling the digitization of the Lomax collection.

Jacob Riis: The Museum of the City of New York has an extensive Riis collection. NPR’s All Things Considered ran an appreciation of How the Other Half Lives, which you can access here. You can also read his Wikipedia entry here.

Prompts and Photography

Paul Simonon by Shepard Fairey

I’ve been writing far longer than I’ve been photographing (though I guess you’d never know that by this site). One thing that you’ll find in many creative writing guides are series of writing prompts meant to help writers break through creative blocks, and to help take their writing in different directions. Since writers are hardly the only ones who hit a wall from time to time (it happens to all creative types sooner or later), or who need a change of direction, I thought I’d take the subject up today.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve discussed this before, but really only obliquely, in a post about photo projects. The idea of a “project” can be intimidating, especially if you’re a hobbyist* (where, after all, will you find the time to commit to something like that, to say nothing of the motivation?), so it can be useful just to have a bite-sized moresel to ruminate over without having to worry about biting off more than you can chew. If we’re going to extend the writing/photography metaphor a bit further, this would be like freewriting, where you free associate for a page or so, usually on a particular subject or theme, versus trying to crank out a short story or novel.

Now, if you’re not a writer, it’d probably help if I explained what free writing was. What you’re doing is a stream of consciousness exercise, leaving aside any considerations of form, grammar, spelling, and even content. If it’s in your head, it goes on the paper, simple as that. It gets a bit more complicated for photographers (we can’t just visualize a muskrat and have it magically manifest in front of the camera), but that doesn’t mean it’s not still useful. What writers and photographers have in common, I think, is a tendency at times to mull something over to a degree that the thoughts get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish; in plain English, we overthink the damn thing (about which, more in the next post).

So where does that leave us? Well, for starters, give yourself a series of prompts. We’re not after sweeping ideas, or grand, arching themes here. The whole idea is to stay deliberately small and eminently manageable. Instead of thinking to yourself that you’re going to come up with a photo essay on the passage of the seasons in your favorite park, tell yourself you’re going to shoot something feathered, for instance.** Or set a particular small theme for the day, even if it’s something as simple as “red.”

The next thing is to just shoot. Take some time to let the rules go out the window. The results, same as they’d be for a writer, won’t be pretty, but then, pretty isn’t the point here. The point is to get your ass out there and make photos. The only rule? For whatever length of time you choose — a few minutes, an hour, or a day — if it catches your eye, it’s getting its photo taken. Once you’ve gotten to, or over, that bit (especially if you’re blocked), then you can engage your brain and start taking all of that raw material and following it in whatever direction it suggests to you.

Finally, a little something for any writers who may have come across this post accidentally (you didn’t think I’d leave you out, did you?): even — or maybe especially — if you’re not a photographer, find a camera (even if it’s just the one on your mobile phone), get yourself away from the computer, and take some photos. Once you get back home, you will have snapped enough writing prompts to last you a while. Repeat as necessary.

More photography prompts to follow… In the meantime, have any you’d like to share or suggest? Comment below!

*Or even a professional, since pros are prone to talking at great length about all the stuff they’d be shooting if they weren’t so busy making money off their craft.

**With your camera, of course.

Rule 30: Show Yourself!

Sharp Shooters

A short post for today, since this is a pretty self-explanatory rule. I’m going to repeat myself (which I hate doing), since this bears repeating: photography is a social activity, and a social medium. Yes, there are plenty of times that it’s solitary, especially at those times when it’s just you, your thoughts, your camera, and a bunch of inanimate subjects. However, photography doesn’t end when you’ve packed your gear and gone home.

If you’ve been doing this for any length of time, it’s likely you have thousands of images stored on your hard drive, memory cards, CD’s and DVDs, as well as in albums, envelopes and shoeboxes. All of those images — all that effort, all of that love — shouldn’t be left to gather dust. Share your photos!

You may not be comfortable yet with the idea of selling your work, or putting on a gallery show. Honestly, though, you don’t even need to do anything that drastic. You don’t need an audience that numbers in the thousands, hundreds, or even dozens. A person or two can be quite enough to share with, and the people with whom you share might change from time to time depending on why you show them.

Whether it’s sharing your vacation snaps with your Uncle Zbigniew, or maybe you’re not sure how your skills are shaping up, or would like advice on how to perfect a certain type of shot, finding the right audience can be a great experience for both you, and your viewer(s). Finding an experienced and sympathetic person with whom to share your photos can be an invaluable resource to get your craft where you’d like it to be.

So. Enough out of me for today. How do you share your photos, and with whom?

Photographic Miscellany

Happy Easter…?

Every so often, someone at a traditional media outlet discovers that the iPhone takes photos, and uses their newfound insight to declare the death of every other camera out there. This week, it’s the Wall Street Journal’s turn (“Is the iPhone the Only Camera You Need?”). Far be it from me to knock the iPhone for its photography capabilites,* but I hardly think that a camera phone — no matter how much it’s improved — is a match for an SLR or even a Micro 4/3 camera in terms of versatility or image quality. This isn’t some kind of elitism on my part; it’s simple physics, especially now that phone makers are trying to squeeze more pixels onto very tiny imaging chips. For all author Kevin Sintumuang’s breathless prose (up to and including that the iPhone will make you feel like “Terry Richardson and Ansel Adams rolled into one.” After all, it’s got Hipstamatic), saying that the iPhone will replace everything out there is like saying the George Foreman Grill is a more than adequate substitute for a Weber.

In the meantime, Byte — which, unlike the WSJ, tries to stay au courant, if not somewhat ahead of the curve — seems to have decreed the iPhone passe (“Lytro: The Next Big Thing in Photography”). Todd Ogasawara has an in-depth review of the camera, which combines minimalism and simplicity with the innovation that it allows you to choose the focal point in your photo after the fact. That’s the good news. Among the bad news: as Ogasawara points out, this is still very much a “1.0 product.” Some of his gripes come off as trivial (he doesn’t like the squarish aspect ratio of the photos), but some of the others are anything but (like the fact that PC users are, for the time being, left in the dark).

Wired unplugs for a feature on a small Indiana newspaper whose photojournalism can and does go toe-to-toe with the big guys, all while resisting an online presence (“Small Paper Prioritizes Photography, Wins Awards“). At a time when many local papers — including those with national readership — are struggling to get back into the black, author Jakob Schiller notes that “[…]a strong local readership and the family structure of the paper have prevented a precipitous decline. Rumbach says the paper has had no layoffs and has given the staff a raise each year.” While I don’t think that photojournalism, even when very well done, as seems to be the case here, is a panacea, it’s certainly encouraging to see a paper with strong local ties fall back on solid local reporting rather than puff pieces, and seeing that commitment rewarded in the bottom line.

newjerseynewsroom’s Wendy Ekuah Quansah reports that Temple University student Ian Van Kuyk can be added to the long list of photographers arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights (Temple student photographer arrested for snapping police). The lesson in this, as it’s been so many times before, is twofold. Know your rights as a photographer. Just don’t expect that the police will know, or honor, those rights.

Finally, from the Not Necessarily the News desk: The Huffington Post features a piece by Canadian photographer Peter Carroll (Creativity Exercises) that’s a great tool for breaking out of the periodic slumps that beset us all as photographers. While longtime readers of this blog (both of you) will recognize some of the advice given, there’s plenty of wisdom there, alongside some lovely photos.

*I’d much rather knock it for the trail of dead in its wake

Embrace Imperfection

A Pretty Bad Photo of Mike Doughty

I can’t even pretend that the photo at left is a great picture. I’m well aware that, as the caption indicates, it’s a pretty bad photo. And yet, for all its blur, it conveys a sense of motion that might’ve been lost in a photograph that was more technically correct. If I had a mind to, I could even pass it off as an abstract. In short, for all its flaws, I like it.

I didn’t always. The morning after the show in question, I went over the hundred or so shots I’d taken, and deemed every last one of ’em crap. I saved them in spite of that, though, because I learned a long time ago that I can be absolutely brutal with myself when I’m taking the first look over something I’ve just done (which, incidentally, I still tend to do).

I’m hardly alone in this. I think that most of us (not counting those who’ve downloaded Picnik and bought an SLR and so feel entitled to call themselves “professionals”) have, at some point,  convinced ourselves that our work — every last bit of it — sucks. The irony of it is, if you’re convinced your work is terrible, it probably isn’t as bad as you’ve convinced yourself. And even if it was (we’ve been there, too), it won’t stay that way as long as you keep working at it.

But I digress. There’s an expression that I come back to from time to time: “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” As I told a friend not long ago, sometimes good enough really is good enough. And sometimes, the imperfections in something have a charm all their own, or communicate in a way that a more accomplished-looking result (or one that we’ve gone back and polished to a high gloss) wouldn’t. Rolling Stone won’t exactly be beating my door down or blowing up my phone looking for the rights to this photo (nor, I can safely assume, would Mr. Doughty). But you know what? I can live with the photo, so I can also live with that.

The best thing about your craft, whichever one you happen to practice, is that you can always revisit it later. Photography, like writing, allows for a certain amount of revision on top of the practice that any craft allows, and even encourages, you to put into it. Hang onto your work, because when you do that, you may be surprised to find out that it was better than you thought when you first made it. There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable in your own skin; there’s every bit as much to be said for being comfortable in your own craft.

New Page: Free Photo Software

Screenshot from the Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)

In place of the usual Tuesday post, I’ve added a new page to The First 10,000. On it, you’ll find more than 80 sites and programs for photo editing, all of it available for no cost. From time to time, we’ll also be reviewing the best and worst of these sites. If there’s something I’ve missed, feel free to drop me a line at thefirst10000 at gmail dot com. In the meantime, click here for more.