Review: The Photograph, by Graham Clarke

The Photograph, by Graham Clarke

I purchased Graham Clarke’s The Photograph around the time that it first came out about fifteen years ago. At the time, I was more concerned with art theory, history, and criticism than I was with trying to make art of my own, and this book appealed to the side of me that, when I was a kid, would take things apart to see how they worked. I approached art in the same way; I wanted to take it apart, examine all those pieces, see how it all fit together, and what made the end result work (or not).

What drew me to art, and kept me circling back to photography ’til I finally gave in — and dove in — myself, is that it made sense to me in a way that, say, electronics or cars just don’t. I could take a radio apart, but I had no better idea of what made the thing tick by the time I’d finished than I had when I started. Art, on the other hand, made sense to me, even if I wasn’t ready or quite able at the time to use those same things to put those pieces — the theory, the medium, the history — together in a way that they’d work.

I’m not altogether sure whether this book was written for a layman or for more of a scholarly audience. It’s certainly not a light read, but neither is it so dense as to be obtuse; to my mind, at least, it should be accessible enough for a general audience, but thought-provoking enough that the academics shouldn’t get bored halfway through. Clarke explores history, genre, and theory, but also does something your average photography book doesn’t; he stops to consider the consequences of the still image, whether as fodder for art, commerce, documentary, manipulation or political purposes. Of course, these things don’t typically stay in their own fenced-in little areas, so Clarke gives the sometimes messy intersections of all these considerations their due as well.

If that sounds a bit different than your average coffee table book, that’s because it is. If you’re looking for a survey of photography that concerns itself mostly with the images themselves, and allows the images to speak for themselves, you’re likely to be disappointed in this book. But that would, I humbly suggest, be your fault rather than the author’s, simply because that’s not what this book is for. The author isn’t just uncritically presenting images; he is, instead, interrogating them, and inviting the reader to do the same. It’s an attempt to look at photography through a critical lens in much the same way that earlier works by Barthes and Sontag had done, but more accessibly (to this reader, at least).

The bottom line is, if you’re picking this up primarily for the photos, don’t; there are other, better, books for that. If, on the other hand, you’d like a deeper understanding of the history and theory of photography (without subjecting yourself to a degree program), this is an excellent place to start. And speaking of starting points, if you’re just starting with a camera, or haven’t even picked one up yet, I’d still urge you to give this book a shot. I can’t say this for everyone who’ll read this review, or the book to which it refers, but I know I can’t possibly be the only person for whom understanding the theory and/or history behind something — learning how to “read” the medium, however haltingly, before trying my hand at it — was a gateway, and permission, toward trying it myself.

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Photograph For An “Audience”

Blue Ford 4

When’s the last time you asked yourself who your audience was, or who you were shooting for? What difference might it make to your craft, depending on who “they” were?

You’re your own first viewer. You saw these things before they were photos, remember, and saw them through the process of composing, exposing, and editing. And it’s not at all uncommon, having lived with our photos and ourselves for so long, that we take for granted what they’re saying is as evident to someone else as it is to us.

Shooting “for” a friend or mentor is a way around that particular trap. I put the “for” in quotes ’cause you don’t necessarily have to tailor every last aspect of your photography to that one individual (in fact, I’d suggest you don’t, ’cause you’re likely to end up crestfallen if you’re relying just on the input or approval of one person, even if you are that one person). Instead, I’d suggest that it keeps us from falling into the trap of creating self-absorbed, solipsistic crap. There’s plenty of that around as it is, so there’s no need for you or I or anyone else to add to it.

Which brings us to the ultimate acid test: putting your work out before the public, whether for sale or for show. Even our best critics, the ones we can count on for criticism that’s useful and perceptive, aren’t exactly going to prepare you for someone passing judgment on your work with their wallet. If you go that route, just bear in mind that low sales don’t mean you suck any more than robust sales mean that you’re the second coming of Brassai.

Of course, any of these audiences (even, or perhaps especially, counting ourselves) can be notoriously picky and fickle lot. Putting your work out there, whether it’s to anyone who’ll sit through your latest batch of snapshots, or a trusted friend/mentor or two is invaluable. Sometimes we know so well what it is that we set out to do, and the meaning we sought to convey, that we see it plain as day even when it isn’t there. Having a fresh set of eyes on your work is a necessary first step to let us know when we have, or haven’t, “got it.”

At some point, that transitions to us being able to take on that “outsider” role for ourselves and to be able to view our own work objectively after all the subjectivity that went into making it. It might feel a bit odd at first, but it’s a worthwhile habit to cultivate; when you’re not just shooting for yourself, you’ll be on your way to finding something that resonates with more people, but also on your way to making sure your images are saying what you mean them to say.

Smartphones for the Smart Photographer

Hydro-Pruf (f/5 1/800 65 mph)

Camera phones have come a long way in the last few years, from something that wasn’t suited for much beyond Facebook and email to something that, in some cases at least, could rival the quality of a halfway decent point-and-shoot. A lot can be written (and has been) about taking good shots with a camera phone, and at some point I will join that particular fray; for today, though, I’d like to suggest a few uses for  your smartphone (and sometimes its camera) that go above and beyond the usual.

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’ve got another camera that usually acts as your primary (whether an automatic compact or an SLR), your smartphone can be a relatively competent backup. For a variety of reasons (tiny sensor, digital zoom, lousy high-ISO performance), it’s not going to replace your camera of choice any time soon, but if it comes down between getting, or not getting, the shot, use the darn phone. As several people have pointed out, the best camera is the one you’ve got. Since, as I’ve mentioned before, you should always have a camera with you, this is one camera you’re practically guaranteed to have at all times. So no excuses!

Then, of course, there are the apps. Here, I don’t mean applications for making half-assed shots look “artsy” (curse you, Hipstamatic!). I mean apps that allow you to use your phone in tandem with your camera. There are several of these, with new stuff being added constantly. Depending on your phone’s operating system (whether you’ve got a Crackberry, iPhone or Android-based phone), some applications may or may not be available for your smartphone. Read the reviews (they’re often a good indicator of whether an app will work on your particular phone, and how well) and release notes (ditto), and remember that your mileage may vary.

Some of what’s been released up to this point includes various light meter apps (which display values in lumens, or exposure values, or both), blueSLR’s Bluetooth adapter that allows for remote control and geotagging (in some cases at a fraction of the cost of an OEM geotagging dongle), Flashdock’s hotshoe attachment allows you to mount your smartphone to your camera, and controlling WiFi bridge devices. I should note that I haven’t personally tried any of this stuff, so I’m not endorsing any of it; if you’re interested in finding out more, however, check out the supplied links below and do some additional research of your own. If/as I incorporate any of this stuff into my own setup, reviews will appear here.

There are a couple of uses that won’t require any apps to download, and so won’t cost you a penny. For starters, put your camera manual on your smartphone. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner (probably because I didn’t have a smartphone ’til recently). Most manufacturers make their camera manuals available as PDF files, and keeping yours on your phone means not having to have one in your camera bag.

Finally, create shot lists, and store them on your phone. Wedding photographers use shot lists all the time, and I’ve begun to do a bit of it myself. In either case (yours, or the wedding photographer’s), it’s a good way to make sure you don’t miss something you’d wanted to catch. Think of it a bit like a shopping list. Rather than going to the grocery store empty-handed, plunking down $132.50, and getting home only to realize you never picked up eggs, you make a list. Similarly, if you know ahead of time where you’re going and the kinds of shots you’d like to get, make note of them. It can be helpful to have a reminder so you don’t get home and realize that you’d forgotten something you would like to have shot.

If there’s something useful I’ve missed — and in this case, I’m almost certain I have — feel free to comment or email me. In the meantime, here are a few links you may find useful in your research:

B&H Photo has a writeup on the blueSLR controller and app here.
Pocketdemo has a variety of smartphone-related gadgetry here.
NikonRumors has a short piece on a lower-cost way to control higher-priced cameras.
Finally, if it’s apps that you’re after, Google Play has you covered for Android, while the Apple App Store has what you’ll need for the iPhone and iPad.


Rule 37: Use It or Lose It!

The Ballerina Revisited

If you’ve ever attempted a workout routine, stuck with it for a while, and then stopped (injury, bad weather, loss of motivation), you know how hard it is to get started again. You also know, as you start to get back into the swing of things, that you start to ache in places you never knew could ache. While photography doesn’t have that many aches and pains to go with it (though with heavy gear, that’s also a possibility), you still need to keep your skills sharp through plenty of practice.

This is especially true when you’re trying something new, like a different compositional technique or a camera setting that you don’t use very often. The first time or two, you may have to take mental — or literal — notes, or even refer back to the camera manual. Do it often enough, and it becomes second nature.

But if it’s something you may only be doing every so often, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned. Yes, I know, some smartass is probably going to say that it’s just like riding a bike. If that’s the case, I’ll have to be extra careful not to fall off my tripod. But I digress. If you haven’t used a skill in a long time, it’s easy to forget how to do it, or even not to do it quite as well as you would have if you’d been in practice.

I was reminded of this comparing some recent shots to an older series taken in the same place. The more recent batch was better in a number of ways (I hadn’t been shooting that long the first time I’d gone), but I noticed in that earlier batch that some of my shots used things that I liked (and still do) but that I’d let fall by the wayside, like using frames within my shots.

Now, that’s a pretty minor thing, all things considered. With that being said, the skills and little tricks that we bring to bear on our craft are a language unto themselves. They have their own vocabulary, their own syntax. As with your spoken/written vocabulary, the more you’ve got, the more options you also have to express yourself. Imagine yourself trying to express something, but you’ve forgotten the word or words that go with it. Your photography’s like that, as well… it becomes just a little bit harder to express the things you’d like to express without the right “stuff” with which to do it.

So. If you’ve picked up some new skill, be sure to dust it off every so often. Leave yourself a reminder, or go back over some of your older work. In either case, it’s a good way to ensure that your skills stay sharp (or at least don’t get too severely blunted) for when you need them later.

Review: Expressive Photography, edited by Tracey Clark

Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters' Guide to Shooting from the Heart

First, a disclaimer: I realize that I’m probably not the Shutter Sisters’ usual demographic, what with being a guy (albeit a married one) with no kids. Indeed, some have taken issue with the reception that the bloggers’ book, Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart has received, with some people catching what they perceive as a whiff of sexism from the old guard (with the emphasis, presumably, on “old”) of male photographers. I’ve seen quite a few complaints, especially over the last year or so, from female writers, artists and photographers, about appending “mom” or “mommy” to something in order to dismiss it or write it off as lightweight. Mommy bloggers. Momtographers. The complaint is a valid one; you don’t just go writing something, or someone, off just ’cause there’s a mom attached to it somewhere.

With that part out of the way, let’s be equally clear on something else: I think that women, often as not, have a built-in advantage over men as photographers. They tend to focus on the image, rather than the gear, while if you’ve spent any amount of time on a photography forum, you’ve probably seen at least one discussion among the (mostly male) denizens degrade into a genital measuring contest, expressed via prime lenses. You won’t, thankfully, find any of that here. The photographers are highly competent, as are the lion’s share of the images here. Yes, you can nitpick over some of the choices, but that’s the case with any and every photography book I’ve ever read (and thanks to this blog, I’ve read far more of them than I ever planned to). The point is, I don’t think there’s anything to take issue with in the images.

I can’t say the same for the writing. And I hate to say that, because I genuinely like the Shutter Sisters blog. The problem is that what sustains a blog — brief flashes of insight, meant to be read and digested in one sitting — doesn’t always sustain a book. And often as not, this feels less like a book than a blog between covers, a sense of disorganization lurking underneath the structure, and a lot of fragments that hint at something promising but stop frustratingly short of ideas in full bloom.

I get the impression that this is a book with an identity crisis. On one hand, it reads as though it’s meant for a novice audience, or people who may have owned cameras for a while but have only recently given much thought to this whole photography thing. on the other hand, a lot of what a novice would look for* — the specifics on getting shots like these — either isn’t spelled out, or has to be pieced together over several chapters. To give just one example, bokeh is mentioned a few times throughout the book, but it’s not ’til page 132 that someone decides to explain how you go about getting good bokeh. Sure, settings are listed with a number of photos, but absent the reasoning behind them, a novice is often left adrift as to why you’d shoot at one setting versus another. The why of the settings is as important as the settings themselves, but getting to that balance of “how” and “why” can be an exercise in frustration.

Yes, vision matters. It matters quite a lot, especially if you’re trying to communicate yours to someone else. The thing is, it’s not just the vision. We’re photographers. We don’t draw about this stuff, or sing about it, or dance about it (though some of us are lucky enough to be able to do those things too). We photograph it. And because we’re relying on the help of one or more pieces of equipment to capture what we see, those experiences and visions are being mediated by a little black box with a chunk of glass at one end.

I wrestle with the same thing, both in these “pages” that I scrawl, and in the photos I make; sometimes I wrestle with the gear, trying to get not only the scene but also the possibilities I see into a single simple photo. It’s why I study this stuff, why I use the controls my cameras give me, and why my writing on this blog doesn’t just cover the ideas. Yes, emotion is vital in photography. I neither want to look at, nor (really importantly) do I want to create, images that evoke nothing. But that goes beyond composition, beyond the Rule of Thirds, beyond chasing the light. Yes, your photography might involve corralling everything from kids to kittens. But like it or not, we all also play the part of photon wrangler. Vision matters, but technique and gear also matter, even if it’s only to learn how to tell that gear how to stay the hell out of your way so you can get the shot you want, and to make the photo you envisioned when you pressed the shutter button.

So yes, by all means, speak to the importance of emotional connections and resonance in images. If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you’ve figured out by now that in that respect, the Sisters are preaching to the choir. But please, don’t just stop at the joys of getting that perfect, resonant shot; don’t just stop at the why. The how is an important part of the equation, and in this book, the how is missing, or fragmented, or assumed to be understood. That’s not always a valid assumption. The authors have the skills, and inspiration, to spare, but they’ve done a better job at sharing the latter than the former. And that, to my mind at least, is a problem; because of it, what could’ve been a great book ends up feeling instead like a missed opportunity.

*At least, what I looked for when I was starting out

Beyond Photography: Joseph Mitchell, Meet Henri Cartier-Bresson

Joseph Mitchell, courtesy Alex Belth's

Some great art and literature has come from a sense of place. Marco Polo’s memoirs, Jack Kerouac’s writing, the painting of Wood or Kahlo, and the photography of Adams, Rowell and dozens of others each have a depth and richness that comes from being exposed to new and unfamiliar places. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, when photographers look with envy on our traveling peers, whether they’re shooting war journalism in Kabul, a Nat Geo spread in Bangkok, or just vacation snaps in Cabo San Lucas.

I’m reminded of this reading the work of Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell’s name has, in large part, faded from memory, which is a shame. Over the course of nearly four decades spent shuttling back and forth between Manhattan and North Carolina, Mitchell made his name documenting New York’s more eccentric denizens (his Joe Gould stories would’ve been enough of a template for New Journalism, even if he’d never written anything else) and everyday folks (fishermen at the Fulton Fish Market, a Trinidadian rent party). And while the writer never made the connection explicit, the heartbeat under the story was just as much the city’s as the subject’s. That’s probably due, in no small part, in Mitchell’s interest in this motley cast of characters not as stories, but as people. Reading his anthologies (My Ears are Bent, which anthologizes his earlier journalism, and Up In the Old Hotel, which collects his writing for the New Yorker) you never get the sense of an agenda beyond just getting to know someone, and letting them tell their own story. In some ways, for as carefully as he wrote, Mitchell seemed almost incidental to the stories he told.

”]Unlike Joseph Mitchell, Henri Cartier-Bresson is something close to a household name, at least if your household’s big on photography. Cartier-Bresson was well-traveled. His work would take him to Africa, Spain, India, the United States and elsewhere, and would find him photographing the likes of Picasso, Pound and Giacometti. But like Mitchell, HCB’s work is built on a sense of place, and built mostly on his depictions of everyday people. He’s practically synonymous with France, but most of all with Paris… Parisian kids, workers, students and lovers, through war, peace, protests and drudgery. Cartier-Bresson emphasized “the decisive moment,” but never found a moment any less decisive because the people or events in it were so ordinary; if anything, like Mitchell, he reveled in it.

In their own ways, each man didn’t just chronicle their cities, they were their cities. They were, in some sense, intensely local, but by no means provinical. Both men’s travels aside, Mitchell’s New York had already become, and Bresson’s Paris was becoming, a global city, drawing their identities and their culture from all corners of the earth. While we remember them both now for other reasons (Mitchell for his influence on a generation of writers and journalists, Cartier-Bresson for practically defining street photography), I’d argue that in their time, maybe without intending to or realizing it, both men were on the leading edge of making sense of exactly where life was going in the latter half of the last century. They introduced their cities anew to the world, not as sprawl but as intensely detailed specificity. It might be exaggerating to say that either man shaped the places they called home, but both had, and continue to have, no equals in communicating a perception and feel of those cities to the world. And both men’s work found itself informed by a generousity of spirit, a willingness to take the denizens of their cities on their own terms. This isn’t the clinical work of sociologists; it’s suffused with the warmth of someone who’s taken the time to get to know the neighbors, and decides that he likes ’em, warts and all.

While a bit of travel can be a great thing — the chance to experience new things, places and people — we can’t have blinders on when it comes to all there is to experience closer to home. That’s not to advocate for some kind of blinkered provincialism; rather, it’s advocacy for, or just a simple acknowledgement of, the riches on our own doorsteps, and the wealth of stories waiting for us to see, hear, and tell them.


Joseph Mitchell on the Web:

The best starting point for anything related to Joseph Mitchell is his writing. I’d suggest reading the books chronologically (My Ears Are Bent*, followed by Up in the Old Hotel*), since it gives a good idea of the writer’s evolution. The obligatory Wikipedia entry will give you the bare facts of his life, but I’d also suggest two tributes written to him, one by the New Yorker’s Mark Singer, and the other by the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli. There’s also an interesting bit on Mitchell’s eccentric collections of things here, and Charlie Rose chatting about Joseph Mitchell with Roger Angell and David Remnick here.

Henri Cartier-Bresson on the Web:

The Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson conserves the photographer’s legacy, but you can also find out more about him on Wikipedia, on Magnum Photos (the agency he co-founded). There’s also an interview with Charlie Rose that’s well worth the time. And while countless gallons of ink have been spilled over Cartier-Bresson’s work, if you’d like a good (if slightly pricey) introduction to his work, there’s Peter Galassi’s excellent Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,* which was published in conjunction with a major HCB retrospective at the MoMA in 2010.

*Links followed by an asterisk are Amazon affilite links.

Do Over!

Seward Johnson, King Lear

A lot of artists understand the importance of keeping a childlike spirit. With that in mind, here’s your official permission to call the occasional “Do over!” It’s not quite the same as when you’ve lost your 874th Rock, Paper, Scissors or hit a wiffle ball over the neighbor’s fence, but every once in a while, you just need to go back to something that didn’t go the way you planned the first time (or even one that may have gone perfectly well), and give it another go.

Things change all the time. I was reminded of this on a visit to the Grounds for Sculpture this past weekend. Several of the pieces on exhibit were still there from my first visit a couple of years back, but (as with any other museum) several had also been changed. So, while I had the chance to revisit some of my previous “subjects,” as with the photos at left of Seward Johnson’s King Lear, some old friends had gone, and some new ones had been put in their places. That’s often true of our subject matter, whether it’s human, animal, vegetable or mineral. Those changes, incidentally, are an opportunity to revisit those subjects over time, to note and document those changes.

Seward Johnson, King Lear

The technology we use “evolves,” too. Sometimes it’s the difference in a camera body — we’ve moved from point-and-shoots to SLR’s, changed the software with which we edit (and how we use it; I’m not as heavy-handed with the edits as I once was), discovered speedlights or tripods or wide-angle lenses… and each of these things allows us to do something we couldn’t do before, or at least to do what we’d done earlier a bit differently.

But, of course, it’s not just the subjects and the gear that change. We’re changing and evolving all the time as well. We pick up new skills and new ideas, while some other things fall by the wayside. I’m not the same photographer that I was two years ago, for reasons that have nothing to do with which camera was around my neck when I made these photos. I would hope that my skills now are a bit sharper than they were then, my eye perhaps a bit more receptive to what’s going on in front of it. As that happens, it can be a good idea to go back to something you’ve shot earlier, not just to see how you’d do it differently, but also hopefully to shoot it better than you did the first time around.

Seward Johnson, King Lear

Subjects, gear, skills… it’s all changing and evolving daily. And it matters, all of it. We can’t, or at least shouldn’t, shoot as though nothing’s changed if and when something does. So revisit your subjects from time to time, since all of them make a difference in how, what, and sometimes even why we shoot what we do, the way we do.

Your turn (no tagbacks)!

A few words about the shots that accompany this post: All three are of the same subject, in the same place. The first was shot in November, 2010 on a Kodak compact; the second shot on a D7000; and the third on a Fuji X10. The odd color cast on the Fuji shot actually isn’t post-processing, but rather a happy accident owing to a quirk in how Picasa reads Fuji RAW files.

More on the Grounds for Sculpture:

Rule 36: There Are No Shortcuts

Hamilton Gothic

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: let’s say you tell a story about someone you came across in your travels. It’s funny, totally random, and if you weren’t there when it happened, you’re not altogether sure you’d believe it yourself. And at the end of the story, the person to whom you’re telling it tells you you’re “lucky,” or that things like that would “only happen to you.”

Well, no… Things like that happen every day, and could happen probably to everybody. It isn’t like it takes all that much. It’s being present to the experience; taking the time to listen to someone, or see something, that someone else would just pass up. It’s that one extra detail you took a few seconds to zoom in on, or the person you chose to hear out when someone else would’ve walked away or just passed judgment.

Here’s the thing, though. Some people have an experience or two like that and they get to thinking they’re somehow special. If you’re one of those people, let me clue you in on something that’s likely to be disappointing: the universe didn’t conspire to give you that shot or that experience. Your wishing about it didn’t make it so; your doing it did. Odds are better than even that all that stuff would’ve been there whether you’d been or not. The point is, you got your ass up off the sofa, went out, met it, and got its photo. Cause and effect is a matter, much of the time, of being there. Whether we’re creating the circumstances or just happening across them, the point is the preparedness and the action.

I bring this up because a few days ago while working on an unrelated thing, I came across a truly miraculous system that’s just guaranteed to make you thousands of dollars on your photography, with practically no effort. </sarcasm>  All you have to do, with this and other, similar, “systems” is plunk down an untold (well, it’s probably told, but I was too cynical to click through) sum of money, sit back in your pajamas, and watch the money roll in. The same faulty reasoning, in short, that underpins everything from The Secret to the Prosperity Gospel.

I’m calling bullshit.

There is no system, no secret. You want a foolproof system? Learn hard, then work hard, then when you think you’re done, work and learn some more. Luck? You make your own. Karma? Neither good nor bad. It’s simple cause and effect. Things happen — you get, or miss, the shot, have an awesome conversation, run into someone you haven’t seen in a decade or two — because your actions set in motion the things that made them possible. Act, and things happen based on those actions. Take no action, get no results. It’s that simple.

Nobody’s going to tell you everything they know. On one hand, it’s impossible. Unless it’s something that’s really simple (how to do one very small thing with a discrete number of steps), the process itself doesn’t lend itself to teaching every last little thing. You’re always forgetting things, leaving things out. And there’s that pesky habit most of us have, if we’re any good, of always learning, always pusing back at the boundries of our ignorance; we know we don’t know everything, but we’re damned if we’re not going to know just a bit more today than we did yesterday. It’s the difference between teaching someone how to make rice pudding and teaching them how to be a chef; those cookbooks and culinary classes leave out a hell of a lot more than they include.

On the other hand, some people wouldn’t tell you all they knew even if they could; to them, knowledge is not only power but also profit. if they told you everything you needed to know all at once, what would they possibly sell you later? (never mind that if they were really that good, they wouldn’t worry, ’cause they’d know that in a year’s time they’d have added enough to their knowledge and skill set that they’d have new shit to sell anyway).

But both of those things end up obscuring a larger point: not for nothing is it said that experience is the best teacher. Anything that anyone can tell you, whether it’s Joe McNally, or Thom Hogan, or even little ol’ me, is just so many words. They’re starting points, signposts along the way. They’re pointing a way forward, but they’re the map, not even a vehicle and certainly not the destination. Our practice is the vehicle, and the destination’s always changing; we don’t always know it, and it’s not always what we think it is, either. Honor that process, and the work that goes with it. It may take longer than you expected, but if anyone asks, you’re taking the scenic route, and you’ll have some awesome photos to show from along the way.

But that’s just my $.02 worth. What’s yours?

Beyond Photography: Gustavo Cerati, Meet Man Ray

The first time I heard Soda Stereo was around the time that their last studio album, Sueño Stereo, came out. Though the band would soon go their separate ways, I continued to follow the solo career of the band’s frontman, Gustavo Cerati, through a series of albums that dug deep into ambient, electronica, guitar-driven rock, and even a full-blown orchestral album. Cerati’s work always made for interesting, and sometimes even challenging, listening. This was not least because he sings in Spanish, but also because the musical style itself was constantly changing, slipping in and out of genres even over the course of a single song.

The language barrier, in my case, meant that bits of half-remembered high school Spanish, things understood in passing and in context, rendered the lyrics are as slippery as the music itself… acertijos bajo el agua, to borrow a lyric. The funny thing is, the lyrics still tend toward the cryptic even in translation; between that, and the music, the whole experience reminded me a bit at first of Radiohead minus the alienation and paranoia, but over time, it’s become something else: a reminder that the things we create sometimes resonate with people in ways that they might not understand themselves at first.

Man Ray, Violon d'Ingres

Which brings us, in typically circuital fashion, to Man Ray. Over the course of his lifetime would cross paths with all manner of artists (Duchamp, Stieglitz, Ernst and Arp, among others) and have a hand in Dada, Surrealism, photography, film, and conceptual art. In nearly every case, whether it was the eye-on-metronome Object to Be Destroyed/Indestructable Object (1923), the memorable portrait Violon d’Ingres (shown at left), or his Rayographs (objects developed directly onto photographic paper), familiar objects, and familiar artistic conventions, were repurposed or turned inside-out by the artist.

They’re different enough to provoke a double-take, maybe even a touch of unease; at the same time, though (as we might expect from an artist who’d been classically trained, and who also worked in graphic arts), they’re grounded in forms we know, and have seen countless times before. Like Cerati, Ray’s “language”, his visual syntax, isn’t always immediately apparent, so the work reveals itself in layers, and leaves itself open to interpretation.

Both these artists’ efforts work in much the same way. There’s a strangeness there, among the musical textures, lyrics, repurposed irons, and photographic prints, but in each case, it’s also anchored in something familiar, whether it’s a four-on-the-floor rhythm or the conventions of portraiture, even as it subverts what we’ve come to recognize or take for granted.

Quiero hacer cosas imposibles… If you’re going to attempt something new and different, therefore, it helps to remember that the things that have the power to surprise us aren’t always those that are radically different. Instead, that little “poke” is just as likely to come from something we know, speaking to us in a language or a syntax that teases just at the edge of our consciousness. Venture off into the strange, but keep one foot in the familiar…


Gustavo Cerati:

Official Site (Spanish):
Official Site (English, via Google Translate)
Official YouTube Channel:

Man Ray:
The Official Website of the Man Ray Trust:
Man Ray on UbuWeb:
A recent article from the Wall Street Journal on the artist’s estate and legacy:

Avoid Useless Gear

Except for antipasto, which is always useful.

We photographers are a notorious lot when it comes to having serious GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). For your reading pleasure, here are a few items you can safely avoid:

1. Brand New Anything: It can be VERY tempting, especially when you’ve heard about a product months in advance, to get it the day it’s released. Assuming that’s even possible (there will, after all, be hundreds, if not thousands, of people who’ve read the same speculation and leaked specs), you should actually be thankful if you can’t get your sweaty palms on a product in its early stages. It’s one thing to get a lousy sample; it’s something else altogether when that hotly anticipated product ends up being a dud, or has critical issues that impede its performance (hot pixels, dead pixels, overheating issues, distortion issues, et cetera.

2. Limited Use Anything: This can be true of bodies, lenses (how many people buy a fisheye lens only to have it gather more dust than photos?), and lots of other doodads that OEM and aftermarket manufacturers are always so eager to foist upon us. If it’s going to be absolutely vital once or twice, or if you’re not altogether sure how much use you’ll get out of it, rent or borrow it. If you’re not sure whether you need it, wait ’til it becomes necessary, and see the previous step.

3. Cheap Anything: Not that much comes cheap when it comes to photography. And there are some cheap pieces of kit that I’d argue you really ought to have in your bag (air blower, wireless remote, microfiber cleaning cloths). But some purchases are easy, and tempting, just ’cause they’re so inexpensive relative to most of the rest of your kit that they’re pretty easy to rationalize. Just bear in mind that those $19.95 purchases add up quickly if you’re making them often.

4. Really Expensive Anything:* Sometimes, good enough really is good enough. There are reasons that companies make lenses that run into the tens of thousands of dollars; a professional buying one can reasonably expect to recoup the price of the lens by using it. However, there are also reasons that lower-cost (and usually lower-specced) alternatives exist. Some of us are just shooting for the joy of it. If you’re one of those somebodies, bear in mind that if you’re willing to take the tradeoffs between one piece of equipment and another (lack of a built-in focus motor, for instance), that’s money that could be spent on other things, whether it’s other gear, or a nice dinner out with your long-suffering non-photographer significant other.

5. A Photography Degree: I’ll probably get flamed for this, and will have more to say on it another time. In the meantime, speaking of expensive… This is not to say you shouldn’t take the time and care to learn the fundamentals of the craft, and always work to improve them. With that said, the same calculus of cost versus ROI comes very much into play here as it would with a body or lens. Given that a degree currently comes at a cost that makes a Sigma 200-500mm 2.8 lens seem like a bargain, think twice before enrolling in a photography degree program. There are several other ways to learn the craft that don’t involve mortgaging the house, donating every organ you have two of, and signing a promissory note that puts your offspring in hock to a lender. Explore those first.

That’s just my top five. What are yours? In the comments, let me know the kinds of photography-related swag you habitually avoid.

*There’s a hidden corollary to this rule, however. Anything that’s so insanely expensive that you’d never once consider buying it — like a Sigma 200-500, or one of the hundreds of special edition Leica M9s that the company puts out on a regular basis for people who don’t take photos — automatically stops being expensive, ’cause you weren’t going to buy it anyway. Talk about cheap gear!