Rule 35: Fail Better


Just ask this guy about the other 574 that got away

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. — Samuel Beckett

I hope you’re not afraid of photography, or of failing at photography. Let’s be real about this for a minute. Think of all the things you can screw up in your life: dinners, relationships, work projects… we could, between us both, probably come up with a list that ran into the hundreds of items, and that’s just the things we’ve already screwed up, not to even mention that which we haven’t yet gotten our hands on and turned to shit. A good many of them, if not most or all of them, have consequences a lot more weighty than your picture of a swan having blown highlights. Why is it, then, when we often wouldn’t give up on those more important things, we’re willing to bag it all when we’re faced with something relatively trivial?

And it’s not like you’re going to screw up once and be done with it. Even — no, especially — if you say, “Well, I’m never going to do that again,” you’re going to. And you’re going to screw it up. Not even the same way. With our wonderful creativity comes a propensity for finding new, and ever more creative, ways to fuck up. Life’s like that, and photography isn’t exempt from it, either.

Be encouraged.

There’s an adage in public speaking, but I think it holds true elsewhere as well: your audience is rooting for you. They want you to succeed, and will be with you no matter how far short your efforts fall. People talk all the time, but it’s not the same as putting yourself out there publicly; for that reason, many people can’t imagine speaking in public. Similarly, people take photos all the time, but I don’t know that many of them do it as though it matters, or as if there’s anything at stake. Granted, it’s not something of earth-shaking importance if we’re going to be honest about it. But if it matters to you — matters enough that you want to do it well, matters enough that you want it to matter beyond just a simple image on a screen or a piece of paper — that fear of failure is always an ingredient in the process.

Taken by itself, there’s nothing wrong with that fear. Like anything else, it’s what you do with it that makes it a good or bad thing. If you let it paralyze you, then, yeah, it’s not a great thing to have around. If, on the other hand, you allow it to motivate you to do something more than you did the day before… well, now you’re onto something. That’s also when your art really begins to resonate with other people beyond the level of being something pretty that goes on your wall or in your stereo. We may not understand color theory, or the how and why of a chord change that turns your heart to jelly, but all of us, on some level, recognize what it is to try, and to fail… and to get back up again, to try and keep trying, ’til what’s left is still far short of perfection, but just as far from those earlier, worse failures.

The best part (even though it often doesn’t feel that way at the time) is that those failures are a good thing. The only way not to fail, after all, is to do nothing. To risk nothing, and therefore to gain nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The upshot of all this failure, on the other hand, is that we keep getting closer — sometimes frustratingly so, with the goal just as frustratingly just out of reach — to what we wanted, needed, or just intended to do. What you see now as failure isn’t; it’s just part of the process, a point on your learning curve. Learn from it, grow in it, and see it as a beginning or a continuing rather than an end. Once you’ve stopped — stopped learning, doing, growning, trying — then, and only then, have you failed.

More Photographic Randomness

Got a Light?

It occurred to me tonight, as I was looking through my Favorites in my browser for something to write about, that I’ve got a lot of little odds and ends worth sharing that wouldn’t necessarily sustain a post on their own. I’ve decided to just lump them in one place and let ’em simmer for a bit.


Allen Murabayashi’s Rant: I Love Photography might just be the best thing you read on photography this year.


Grover, portrait photographer:

Hopefully Grover doesn’t take the “professional” photography advice from 27b/6 seriously (warning: do not drink anything while reading this post)

Dorothy Brown gives photographers a reminder that once in a while, we really should step in front of the lens instead of spening all our time behind it.

Sure Beats Putting Posters on Telephone Poles: check out, a repository of lost cameras…

A bit of photography humor from the reliably awesome xkcd:


Now you, too, can look like a supermodel, thanks to Fotoshop by Adobé:

And, finally, The New York Times’ “Lens” blog has a photo essay made up of contest entries from Kodak’s early days.


In Brief: Art Book Reviews

The Art Book/The 20th Century Art Book

I know that I probably sound like a broken record about cultural literacy and the intersection of photography and other arts, but I happen to think it’s an important thing. No art exists in a vacuum; photography, especially in its earliest days, owed quite a debt to things that happened outside of photography, and really, that will likely always be the case. For as much as the arts have to say to us, they’ve generally had quite a bit to say to each other as well.

I have quite a few art books on my bookshelf, most of them dating from before I took up photography. I bring these two up because they’re good if you want, or need, a quick reference or a brushup. The Art Book is a sprawling affair that covers art from the Renaissance all the way to the present day, while The 20th Century Art Book confines its sprawl to the last century. You won’t find any photographers here (that territory is ably covered by The Photography Book, another Phaidon title of similar layout and breadth), but if you’re interested in seeing some of what influenced photography, existed contemporaneously with certain photographers, or just what else’s gone on in the art world in years past, that’s all here in abundance.

Both books are laid out from A to Z, encompassing artists from several countries and movements. While I can understand the appeal of ordering the artists alphabetically — it’s easy if you’re looking for Miro, Chagall, or Klimt, and it’s also a browser’s delight — it’s simultaneously a frustration. There’s no context to speak of, as there’d be if the artists, and their works, were arranged chronologically so you can see how styles progressed over time,  how artists influenced one another, and even how individual artists found themselves equally at home in multiple media and styles. The cross-referencing system settled on by the editors represents only a half-assed solution, since you lose the visual clues and it’s harder to draw comparisons when you’re flipping among half a dozen different pages. This doesn’t represent a fatal flaw; it’s balanced quite well by the variety of artists on display, as well as a willingness on the part of the editors to occasionally use a lesser-known work to represent an artist.

The books are available in two sizes, one of which is very nearly pocket-sized, and the other of which wouldn’t look out of place on your coffee table. I picked up the pocket-sized works (they cost half their larger counterparts), but would caution that you’re losing quite a bit of detail when a piece is reproduced at something close to 4×6″. For all its flaws, the one thing this book does very well is to encourage you to delve deeper into art, and different artists, on your own… especially those you might not have heard of otherwise.

How about you? What non-photography books or art inform your art and craft?

Support The First 10,000 by purchasing The Art Book
or The 20th Century Art Book
(or anything else you’d like) through Amazon (affiliate links)

How Do I Become a Photographer?


Taken by a photographer. Really.

If you were expecting a comment about Carnegie Hall and practice, practice, practice, you’ve come to the wrong blog. I’m a whole ‘nother class of wiseass.

You want to know how to become a first-class photographer?

Step one: buy or borrow a camera.
Step two: take lots of photos.
Step three: repeat step two, frequently and with furious enthusiasm.
Step… well, no, that’s it, really.

Gee, wasn’t that easy?

The ironic part is, I’m not exaggerating. It really is as simple as that, which means (to compound the irony) that it’s also actually as difficult as you want it to be, or maybe would rather it wasn’t. You can put all sorts of labels on it, take classes, get degrees, sit at the feet of some guru or other, and it’s all going to boil down to those three things.

All that you’ve learned doesn’t matter, and whatever else a teacher might teach you, her advice is still going to be to get out there and make photos (although, hopefully, with some instructions or caveats attached). It also doesn’t matter where you got the camera, much less what kind it is. I don’t care if you’re using a pinhole camera you’ve made out of a modified Altoids tin, a Pentax with a 2GB class 2 card and a lens you got for $7.50 at a garage sale, or a Hasselblad with a digital back and lenses for which you’ve mortgaged the house. Are you making photos? Good. You’re a photographer.

Let’s look at the other side of the same coin. You’ve got an expensive camera body, you’ve invested in enough glass to restock your local camera shop twice over, and you’ve got top-of-the-line everything? Well, good for you. Are you taking photos, or are you spending more time on various internet fora debating the merits of various doodads? Whatever else you may be, you’re not a photographer.

Now, I’m not talking about the distinction between a professional and an amateur photographer. That’s a post, or series of them, for another time; suffice to say for now that merely owning an expensive camera body and getting one good shot in a thousand doesn’t make you a professional, even if you got paid for that one good shot. But just being a photographer? That’s easy. If the camera’s out, and you’re using it to make photos instead of as a conversation piece (“Hey, is that a Canon 60D…?”), congratulations. You’re officially a photographer for the duration. Now quit worrying about whether you’re a photographer, and go photograph something, dammit!

How To Photograph Plays and Recitals

Nothing like the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd… If you’ve got a kid, friend, or relative in a play, recital, or other performance and you happen to own a decent camera, don’t be surprised if you’re pressed into service as the photographer for the evening; even if you haven’t been, it’s a great opportunity to try something new with a bunch of willing subjects, and to be entertained in the process. So whether it’s community theater, a high school musical, or a dance recital, here’s a few tips for getting your best shot.

Your preparation can actually start well in advance of the main event. Before you arrive, see if you can get your hands on some of the music used, or a script. This will give you an idea of who’ll be doing what when.

If you’re shooting because you’ve got kids or friends in the play, see if you can’t make it to a dress rehearsal. You’ll be able to do things you couldn’t if you were there on the night of a performance (standing, using a tripod in the aisles, moving around the venue for different angles and perspectives… you can even ask the director about limited flash use). You may also get the chance to get shots of the cast and crew relaxing, goofing off, et cetera.

Bring more memory than you think you need (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it), and bring spare batteries. Make sure your batteries are charged and memory cards are formatted. I would also suggest bringing some kind of support. While a tripod is going to give you the most stability, it’s also going to be bulky; a monopod does quite nicely without taking up much space. Not only will it stabilize the camera, it will also help to keep your lines straight. If nobody’s sitting directly in front of you, don’t be afraid to brace your elbows on the seat back for additional support.

Choose your lenses carefully (more on that below), and make sure everything – camera body, lens(es), batteries, memory and support – is packed.

Once you arrive, scout your location. You’ll want to pay attention to the pitch of the seating area since some venues have steeper seating than others. Above all, you’ll need clear sight lines – something that minimizes the number of heads in your shots – and you may want an aisle seat for easy access, and having your shooting side free of obstructions. I’ve had better luck off to the sides than in the orchestra seating (again, fewer heads). Somewhat further from stage is better (so you’re not craning your neck, and so the angles look more natural). Arrive early so you can try a few different seats and figure out what works best for you. If you’re using a support, make sure you’ve left sufficient space for it.

About your lens choices: Fast primes are nice for the options they afford you in terms of shutter speed and lower ISO. Having said that, you’re going to be confined to one place for extended periods of time, which eliminates the possibility of zooming/reframing on your feet, and also taking a number of compositional possibilities off the table. A zoom lens – even a slow one – will give you a greater degree of freedom. If it’s a musical, I suggest something that starts wide to be able to encompass what’s going on in the big song and dance numbers. Dramas give you a bit more leeway with a tighter field of view because the staging doesn’t tend to be quite so scattered. In any event, whatever you pack, just be ready to adapt on the fly.

Check your settings: Shoot with the highest quality your camera will allow. That means shooting RAW if you have the option or the inclination, or in the highest-quality JPEG setting your camera has. You’ll likely want/need to edit your photos later, and the more information they contain, the better they’ll stand up to editing.* At the very least, allot one card per act (two per, if your camera has two slots). Auto white balance. Your ISO should be sufficiently high that it allows you to use a decent shutter speed and aperture. If you’re not already familiar with how your camera behaves at high ISO, try some test shots in low light. In any event, unless you’re using a camera that performs exceptionally well at very high ISO’s, don’t go past 1600 ISO. You’ll lose a lot of detail, and notice a lot of noise, especially in dark areas (even if your camera applies noise reduction). Your choice of metering will depend on how you’re shooting; if you’re going to shoot in auto or a priority mode (which, again, I’d suggest you don’t), use center or spot-weighted metering, because average/matrix metering is going to take into account the entire scene, and if the action’s taking place against a black, or very dark, background, you’re going to have some seriously funky exposures, probably with a lot of blown highlights. If you’re shooting manual, it doesn’t matter much; you’ll be ignoring the meter anyway.**

Noises off: First and foremost, turn off your flash. Let me repeat: never, never, never EVER shoot the performance using flash. I don’t care if the blue-haired old lady in the fifth row is doing it. You know better (and if you didn’t, you do now). It’s going to be a distraction to those sitting around you, which is bad enough. Worse still — and I speak from experience here — it’s a huge distraction to the performers. Likewise, if your camera uses an AF assist light, shut that off too. It’s not quite as much of a distraction as a flash, but it’s pretty darn close.

Speaking of distractions, if your camera has a “quiet” setting, use it. That means turning off the little beep that lets you know the photo’s in focus, turning off the shutter noise that the camera makes when it takes a photo (if it has one), and using the setting that quiets the “slap” of the mirror if your camera allows that. Finally, shoot using the viewfinder and not the camera’s LCD. You’ll have a steadier hand, your focusing be faster and more accurate (both manual and auto focus), and you’re also keeping your camera from being a distraction for those seated nearby.

Okay, now it’s show time… and time to shoot in manual. It’s not as hard as it seems, but this is one instance where it pays off. Here’s why: left to its own devices, your camera will try to expose any scene to look like it’s daylight. When you’re dealing with a scene where the lighting is far from ideal, shooting in Auto or even in a Priority mode is going to lead to your camera defaulting to a wide aperture and/or long shutter speed. What’s worse, the end results aren’t likely to look like what you saw in front of you.

While we’re on the subject of aperture and shutter speed, if you’re shooting with a long lens, I’d suggest you sacrifice aperture before shutter speed. If the scenery’s a bit out of focus, nobody’s going to mind, but using a shutter speed that’s too slow is going to leave everybody looking a bit ghostly, if not ghastly. If you’re using a short telephoto zoom (105mm or less at the long end), you can get away with shooting at about f/5.6-f/8 1/125 handheld, and at about 1/200 at the same apertures with a longer zoom, depending on the lighting. Check your photos as you go – you’re only checking at this stage, not deleting/editing/obsessing – so you know what settings need to be tweaked. Don’t be afraid to underexpose a bit (you can brighten photos later), but try to avoid overexposure, since it’s very difficult to recover blown highlights.

Finally, shoot with your ears open, especially if you’re shooting a musical or dance recital. Sometimes getting the shot means not just looking for it, but listening for it. At intermission, check your battery, changing if needed. Change your memory card whether you think you need it or not. Above all, remember why you’re there, and don’t obsess over getting the shot to the point where you miss the important part – the performance itself.

*It also helps if you have to recover highlights or shadows later.

**This takes a little practice, or at least a couple of test shots. The reason I suggest ignoring your meter is because your meter is likely going to tell you the photo’s irredeemably underexposed if you shoot at these settings, but the photos will be a close approximation of what you saw on the stage. Pay attention to the lighting, however, since you may have to adjust from time to time based on how it changes.

If any of you have tips of your own, let’s hear ’em!

Rule 34: Take Your Frustrations In Stride

When life hands you lemons, just Photoshop 'em 'til they look funky.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time during the last few days going through past photos, trying to organize the tens of thousands I’ve taken to a degree that I can actually find stuff later, and also so that I can begin to delete some of the stuff that I will not ever have any use for in the future. I’ve had days — and you probably have, too, if you have any standards to speak of — when I’ve come back from a day of shooting, looked over it, and decided that the whole lot of it was crap from start to finish.

Now that I’ve had the chance to go back to some of these shots — in some cases, a few years after taking the photos — I realize that there are times I was right. The shots were every bit as bad as I’d thought or feared at the time. More often than not, though, there’ve been shots even from those bad days that have been worth keeping, even if I didn’t think so at the time.

As I’ve written about previously, we need to approach our own work with the same critical eye with which we’d approach anyone else’s. We also need to be realistic about it, though. For starters, we’re not always going to be shooting in ideal, controlled environments. It’s easy, when we have the luxury of freezing moments in time, to forget that neither that moment nor the “artifact” that resulted from it were in some way immutable, and just as easy to be frustrated when the results weren’t what we expected or wanted.

Try a little mental exercise. Pick something, anything, random in your field of vision. It could be anything… a cloud, a cat, your breakfast, a road sign. Now, let’s think about this a second. How’d that thing come to be and acquire its thingness? It wasn’t always what it is now. Whatever it is — thunderhead, Fluffy, jelly donut — it had to be brought into being. Over time, it will change, whether it’s your kitten going gray (get your mind out of the gutter), the cloud letting out its rain, the jelly donut going stale if it’s left to sit for too long. With even more time, it will cease to be. The cloud will dissapate, the sign will rust away, and you’ll scarf down that jelly donut (not necessarily in that order).

Now think about your frustrations in shooting. If everything else changes, that will too. Count on it. It wasn’t always what it is now; you probably weren’t frustrated when you picked up your camera this morning; something gave rise to your frustration, whether it’s your photos not turning out like you expected, or a silly mistake you’ve made. That’s okay; like your subject, your lighting, and everything else, it will also fade, change, and slip into nothingness. Nothing lasts. Everything changes. That can be a bit scary at first, in life as in photography. But really, that’s the single best bit of news you’ve gotten all day. Sure, some good things will pass (some experiences, like some shots, really are only once in a lifetime), but that also means that the bad stuff, all the negative feelings, all our halting attempts at learning, all the clumsy results, and nearly everything else, has not always been nor will it remain what it is.

When all else fails, remember that a bad day of photography is still better than a good day at the office. And if photography is your day at the office, it’s time to rethink your approach, and attitude, toward your craft. In any case, cut yourself, and your work, some slack, lest you talk yourself out of keeping it up and always getting better.

We should not complain about impermanence, because without impermanence, nothing is possible. — Thich Nhat Hanh

Photo Opportunity: Perigee Moon, 5/5/12

Get your cameras (and tripods) ready. Tomorrow night is a Perigee Moon, when the moon will be closer to the Earth (and appear somewhat larger in the sky) than at any time this year. If it’s your first time shooting the moon, check out How To Shoot The Moon for tips (and go easy on the Cinco de Mayo libations).


Follow Friday

Getting Ready For Her Closeup

Haven’t done this in a while. Here are a few photographers worth getting to know, and where to find them:

Zack Arias:

You want to start a “revolution” in photography, yeah. Whatever. You’re not. None of us are. Shut up and go shoot pictures.

Zack’s a commercial and editorial photographer who’s based in Atlanta, Georgia, but looking at his portfolio, you get the impression that he’s not home very often. His client list is as varied as the locations in which he’s worked: Spin, the Alternative Press, Carter’s / OshKosh, and USA Today have all featured his photos, and he’s shot in New York, Dubai, and India (among other locales).

Forget all that. Visit his site. Don’t just look at the photos, even though they’re gorgeous. Listen to, and read, what the man’s got to say, as in this recent post from Dubai (make sure you scroll to the end). What makes him worth following is that he’s willing to share the good, bad, and ugly of what he’s learned.

Twitter: @zarias

Chase Jarvis:

Find your thing and do that thing better than anybody else does that thing even if you think
that thing has no value because I promise you that it does. And I promise you that other people will see this value too.

Chase is equal parts videographer, photographer, and motivational speaker. He’s another photographer who’s not afraid to give back, and who’s an unfailing booster of other good photographers with something to say… in fact, it was through a post on his blog ages back that I started to follow Zack Arias. He’s not one to rest on his laurels, or on all the awards or accolades he’s gotten. Take a gander at his book The Best Camera is the One That’s With You, and for a good example of why you need to read his blog, check out The Hit List: 13 Things Crucial For Your Success [In Any Field]. Whether or not his style is your cup of tea, if you’re interested in upping your mental game as a photographer, Jarvis’s website should be one of your first stops.

Twitter: @chasejarvis

Sabrina Henry:

This journey of mine has no planned route but it does have a purpose: to express what I see and how I see it.

Sabrina Henry’s site, which launched late in 2008, has charted her unique vision and the journey she’s taken in getting there. In common with Jarvis and Arias, she’s not only a dedicated sharer and teacher, she’s also interested in pushing (or just eliminating) the boundaries in collaboration between photographers (read this post, a new IDEA, to see what I mean). In addition to her own site, Sabrina is also an active contributor at Craft & Vision and Rear Curtain. 

Twitter: @sabrinahenry

Photojournalism Links:

Sites that share photos are a dime a dozen, and I personally think that half of them exist mostly as aggregators and search engine magnets. Happily, that’s not the case with Photojournalism Links, curated by Mikko Takkunen. Takkunen’s own work is mostly journalistic, and with Photojournalism Links, he collects and shares some of the best of what’s out there in journalistic and documentary photography. While print journalism has taken a beating in recent years, and online journalism still seems to be finding its form and voice, there’s ample evidence on display here that regardless of how things have turned out with their various outlets, there are still plenty of great photographers doing great work, even if it’s a bit more challenging to find it than it used to be.

Twitter: @photojournalism

Review: Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Lens

Sometimes it just isn’t practical to carry a big bag o’ gear, or to change lenses in the middle of what you’re doing. Sometimes, too, there are the shots you miss because you have your short zoom on your camera, when you needed something with more reach (or vice-versa). I didn’t used to take the idea of an all-in-one lens seriously, but after missing several shots on vacation last fall because I had the wrong lens on the camera,* I started having second thoughts. Long story short (who am I kidding, it’s only the first paragraph), I ended up some time later with the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S lens. I won’t belabor the thought process that led to this lens and not some other; point is, after doing my homework, here’s what I bought, and here’s the review of it.

First, let’s get some specs out of the way: ED coated glass does a good job of holding down lens flare and chromatic aberration. The lens doesn’t distort badly at any point in the zoom range. The VR II image stabilization works well, though I’m skeptical of Nikon’s claim that you can shoot up to four stops slower than you’d be able to without it. AF is generally quick and accurate, except in low light; here, similar to the 70-300, it tends to hunt a little. The 28-300 comes with a zoom lock switch, which is handy to keep the lens barrel from poking out during transport. The lens has a rounded 9-blade diaphragm, and while the bokeh wasn’t as pleasing as it’d be on a prime, it’s nice nonetheless. At 820g (1 lb. 13 oz.), it weighs slightly more than the 70-300, but you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without actually putting them on a scale. The Nikon 28-300mm takes 77mm filters.

Now the more subjective part. I won’t bother to compare this lens to the primes in my kit. There’s no point in making the comparison, as they’re not meant for the same things. If I’m going to slap a 28mm or 50mm on my camera, I’m immediately making a concession that I’m going to have to change the way I’m shooting. Sometimes that means zooming with your feet, and other times it means being able to shoot in lower light than usual thanks to a brighter aperture. The 28-300 would not be my go-to lens in low light, or for macro photography, for instance.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t compare it to the other zooms in my kit. I tested the 28-300, which is a full-frame lens, on the D7000, which is a crop sensor camera. Its zoom range, accounting for the crop factor, would be 42-450, at least on paper. In practice, well, that’s something else again. The 28mm on the wide end is, at least for me, acceptably wide most of the time. It’s nothing that can’t be remedied by a step or two back (though I was recently glad when someone asked me to hang onto their 18-55mm, because without it I’d have either missed one shot I wanted, or fallen into the river trying to get it). At the long end, that 300mm isn’t quite 300mm. The camera’s EXIF data says it is, but if I take the same shot with the 28-300 and with my 70-300 with both at 300mm, the 70-300 is zoomed noticeably closer. The 28-300 is longer than 200mm by a good amount, but isn’t quite 300mm.**

The 28-300 is also softer than the other lenses in my kit, not terribly, but noticeably so. It’s helpful to stop the lens down (as with many lenses, the sweet spot on this one’s in the f/8-f/11 range), but not always practical to do so; f/8 won’t give you nearly enough light in some situations, and f/11 not nearly enough depth of field. If sharpness is critical, pack a different lens. While it’s not as soft as a serving of mashed potatoes (and I wasn’t expecting the same sharpness or minimum focusing distance that I’d get from a macro), it ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

I’m aware that up to this point, it probably sounds like I’m a bit “iffy” on this lens. I hasten to point out that I actually like it. It’s been useful in a number of settings, whether I just didn’t feel like packing the rest of my kit, or because I was in an area (a park, for instance) where it was useful to be able to snap landscapes and animals without having to pause and fiddle with lenses.***

The bottom line is that it’s silly to expect a lens to do something that it wasn’t designed to do, much less to do it well. And that brings us to the verdict: Whether or not you like this lens is going to depend on your expectations. Taken for what it is, this is a good lens. It does what it was designed to do — to give you versatility when you’d like to travel light, or are shooting in situations where the time taken to change lenses could lead to lost shots — and within the optical limitations that come with any all-in-one, it’s a good lens. Taken on its own terms, the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S is a competent performer that should be viewed as a supplement for, rather than replacement of, the other lenses in your kit. This isn’t pro glass, but it’s not meant to be; as always, choose the best tool for the job, whatever you’re shooting.

*Not counting the ones where I wasn’t paying attention to the right spot at the right time, or where my reflexes were just a bit too slow… can’t blame the camera or the lens for those.

**Absent the kind of fancy gear used to test lenses, I can’t give you precise numbers. However, I also use my lenses in real-life situations rather than using them to shoot brick walls and test charts, so…

***No small concern when you’re shooting someplace that’s damp, dusty, or buggy, by the way.

Support The First 10,000 by purchasing the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G (or anything else you’d like) via Amazon (Affiliate link)

Beyond Photography: Robert Hughes, Meet Dorothea Lange

Robert Hughes: The Shock of the New

I first came across Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New while I was in college. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Here I was, a budding English major, surrounded by all kinds of academic theories and approaches for analyzing and deconstructing texts, some of which made sense, and quite a few of which didn’t. At the time, I was giving serious thought to becoming an English professor, but started to feel as though some of what was passing for “criticism” was, itself, critically flawed, doing more to obscure or confuse the meaning of something than to illuminate it.

Hughes’ work pointed to an alternative, to criticism that could be lucid — cutting, even — without being empty or pedantic. Where some critics have a tendency to try to wring meaning from work that’s pretty much empty at its core, Hughes called it as he saw it, which also, mercifully, extended to calling bullshit when he felt it necessary. He could be, to use the title of one of his works, nothing if not critical, but across all his work — including his appraisals of Goya and of American art, histories of Rome, Barcelona and Australia, and his unique takes on everything from the culture of his adopted homeland to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe — the uniting thread was a quest to understand, and then to communicate that understanding.

Unlike Robert Hughes, you wouldn’t normally think of the photographer Dorothea Lange as a critic. Her work was, however, simultaneously an eyewitness to, and stinging rebuke of, the shortcomings of 1930’s and ’40’s America. While she was best known for Migrant Mother (the photo at left), her other photos — many taken under the aegis of the FSA (Farm Service Administration) and the OWI (Office of War Information) — played no small part in informing people in America and the world over of what was happening before her lens, and influencing generations of documentary photographers who would come after.* Like Hughes, Lange looked deeply at what was in front of her camera, in order that others might also understand it; not content to be a passive observer, she became simultaneously a participant in, and advocate for, the lives of those she encountered.

Criticism means different things to different people. To some, it’s a popular sport of sorts, assigning a few hastily-scrawled lines (or a handful of gold stars) to a piece of cultural ephemera; to others, it’s an academic pursuit, drawing on tradition, theory, and close reading (not to mention, hopefully, a closer understanding) of the artifacts of our culture. In other instances, artists themselves — and in this category I’d place Lange, Heartfield, Haring, and dozens of others — are producing works that are themselves a critique, not by assigning three-and-a-half stars to something, but by engaging something and creating in response to it.

The space between these things, as embodied by these two individuals, isn’t a fine line, nor need it be a chasm; it’s simply a healthy middle ground. The role of criticism — whether your critique is of an artist’s work, as in Hughes’ case, or of society itself, as in Lange’s — should be, I would argue, one of subtraction rather than addition. That is to say that at its best, criticism should exist not as faint praise or half-assed damnation of something, but to hold it up for scrutiny in order to peel away all of the layers of stuff that’s accrued to something over time, be it dogma, politics, or mystique; it ought not to exist to pile yet more of those things on.

It goes without saying (or it should, anyway) that part of the artist’s role is by nature that of critic. To be a discerning viewer, not just reviewer, of things. We create in the context of a larger society, and also in the context of the different artists and styles that have influenced us; in either instance, we have a responsibility to approach those things, and our own work, with a clear and honest eye, and if we’re going to critique — whether our own work or someone else’s, or using our work to speak to some larger point — our goal, and end result, should be to create understanding rather than obfuscating it.

*At least when they weren’t censored, as happened with her photos of Japanese-Americans interned by the United States government during World War II.

ON THE WEB (Updated 8.8.12):

Robert Hughes passed away after a long illness on August 6, 2012. There’s a New York Times obituary here, and you can also find out more about him via Wikipedia, on Amazon, and a sitdown with Charlie Rose.

You can learn more about Dorothea Lange on Wikipedia, the Library of Congress, and Linda Gordon’s excellent Lange biography (via Amazon), Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

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