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Tuesday, 06 November 2007


Thanks for the heads-up on Greg Heins' work, Mike. I like his eye very much, as I'm a sucker for many of the scenes that seem to attract his lens.

Bravo Greg.

There is alot to like in his Detroit series also. Charlie

Usually I share your tastes, but "Chain Link Sky" doesn't do much for me. I do like "Only", though, and there's a lot else to like on that site. Why did "Chain Link Sky" in particular jump out at you? Maybe this is a chance to educate my eye.

Thanks, Mike, for the tip on Greg's work. Very nice, indeed!

As for writer's block, maybe taking some pictures, a very non-verbal pursuit, might help? Stimulation of the kind that gives the word-machine a rest...

Nice shots. Well-handled composition. So digital they hurt my eyes. Classic case of photos with that way too clinical, clean and smooth digital look. Personal preference I know, but I don't like it. Lack depth and soul. (And if they are not digital images--well, what did he do to make them look so digital?)

"Maybe this is a chance to educate my eye"

Not claiming to have an educated eye. I just liked it is all.

Mike J.

I wonder how many readers of this site belong to a critique group. I ask because one of the first things we try to avoid is to get past non-specific things like "I like it" and try to identify exactly what it is about a particular image that sets it apart or "speaks" to us.

The chain link fences are indeed playful in that he takes a mundane subject and puts it in your face by lining up several of them . . . mundane times three equals interesting.

"Only" seems less interesting to me in that we've all been able to isolate words in a way that allows the viewer to consider an interpretation out of context, but I can't make a connection with the messy construction site that constitutes the other half of the picture. Compositionally, we're supposed to play the left against the right . . . right?

The comments that followed the post reminded me why I never really got involved with art in the past, and why I still struggle with it while trying to be a photographer. From one side, there are people who see the picture, don't like it, and then wonder "Oh, Mike likes it, so it must be good, and if I don't like, then I must have an uneducated eye". From the other side, there are people arguing that the image should be good, because of this and that rule.

For me, it has been always a simple matter of taste; in music, in literature, in movies and now in photography: I see/hear/read it, and if it pleases me, then it's good...if it doesn't its not. How can art not be subjective?

DISCLAIMER: I have NO art background at all, so please feel free to 'educate' me. I would love to have an epiphany about all this, I just don't see it coming.

Thaigo said: "For me, it has been always a simple matter of taste; in music, in literature, in movies and now in photography: I see/hear/read it, and if it pleases me, then it's good...if it doesn't its not. How can art not be subjective?"

That's fundamentally the beginning and end of the story for each person. Feeling culturally underpowered simply because you don't "like" something is simply being insecure and wrong-minded. I've spent untold hours of my life studying, and "doing", art in a variety of forms. But I still feel that many works are -ahem- largely personal expressions incomprehensible by others.

My fondness of Greg's images is not based on any esoteric theoretical perspective. Rather, it's based largely on my general fondness of images that feature a sense of humor and / or an eye for irony or incongruity. The image of the dreary dad-of-winter-in-the-dead-of-the-country scene with the Florida travel billboard is a terrific example.

There are many photographers whose work I just don't care for. But, at least with regard to professional photographers and serious photographic artists, each time I've had a chance to hear the photographer's concepts and intentions I've always come away with a much greater appreciation of the work. That's not to say that I make a 180 degree turn towards liking it. But I have a better understanding of its underpinnings and, most importantly, I gain a slightly keener eye towards kindred works.

The only exception I've encountered thus far: photographs by Nan Goldin. I just don't buy her shtick at all.

I do not like it and I do not care that Mike likes it. :)

I like Chain Link Sky. This is a good example of turning an object that often intrudes into a picture into the subject of a picture. Wish I had thought to do that.

My impression of them, as a group, is that they seem cluttered.
I am slowly comming to realize that this is a characteristic of contemorary photography, apparently understood visually by younger viewers. They seem to be used to picking out the important elements of an image for themselves rather than having the photographer impress his vision on them.
Am I visually "reading" at the Dick and Jane level, while the modern generation enjoys the complexity of Shakespeare? I wonder if works like Pepper #30 seem simplistic to them?

My first reaction was Oh My God, Watch Out! I owned the first "Nikon" fullframe, the Kodak SLRn, and the purple color-fringing on that fence photo would have blown your socks off. I don't think you'd have been able to see the holes in the fence wire. I still flinch everytime I see a shot like that.


Sorry, "Chain LInk Sky" ain't workin' for me....

Don't be sorry. Maybe you'll like the next one.

Mike J.

Bill M: I'm 35—is that young or old ? Anyway, Greg H.'s portfolio has just taught me, or reminded me, that the rules can be broken if you do it with style and/or humour.

To elaborate: the genre I struggle to develop in is more or less straight landscape, where, at my standard, a healthy respect for the "rules" is rather helpful. So I felt that every frame of Greg's work made me wince twice; first as one of those "rules" that help me was broken, and second as I understood to my own satisfaction (perhaps wrongly) how, or why, the photographer had done it and the frame worked stunningly anyway.

In the spirit of Carl's crtiques, I hope that's helpful—naturally, it hardly bears on the like/don't like question...

I liked them. I didn't love them. Humour is a risky tactic. I learned a lot.


I have mixed feelings about those shots


I certainly understand where you're coming from. I’m a lawyer and for most of my life I had little to no interest in art. Then I met my wife, an art historian, and she has dramatically changed my view of art, particularly because of her interest in modern art. I still don’t know much about art, but I’m getting interested. Here are my thoughts:

First, I don’t think there is anything wrong with approaching art the way you have been – i.e., do I like it or not? This is indeed a very subjective approach, one based on your immediate emotional response. This is still the way I approach most art, particularly the thousands of random photographs that I view online.

But I would argue that much of art is interesting on an intellectual level that has very little to do with whether you (or I, or anyone else) like it or not. The problem is that in order to appreciate art on this level, you have to: (a) study art history, whether formally or informally, e.g., through books, (b) have access to a lot of an artist’s work and have the time to study it and develop an independent sense of what characterizes the artist’s work and what they were trying to achieve, or (c) get the artist to explain what s/he was thinking.

Let me try to give you a few examples. The artist Masaccio painted beautiful paintings. But he is remembered today as the first artist to use linear perspective. Realizing that he helped to change painting for generations to follow helps us appreciate what he did. Michelangelo’s David is treasured today, not only because a lot of people like it, but because of the fact that Michelangelo chose to abandon the dictates of strict proportionality in forming David’s limbs. Many Cubist paintings are visually interesting, and you may like or dislike some of them on an emotional level. But I found Cubist paintings much more interesting when I found out that Cubism was a response to the problem of depicting a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional canvas.

Now, I never would have figured out any of this stuff on my own. And if you saw a Masaccio painting without any identifying information, you would have no way of knowing whether it was painted by the innovator, the first man to paint using linear perspective, or by your next-door neighbor, who now takes linear perspective for granted, without even thinking about it. But at least you can read about Masaccio, Michelangelo and Picasso in books. Tons of literature exists to help you place these artists in context. With contemporary art, most viewers are left stranded, without a reference point to help them orient themselves. This is aggravated by two things.

First, much contemporary art is not particularly concerned with presenting something pleasing to look at. Instead, the work of art embodies a thought process or philosophy, and is intended to provoke the viewer into considering the concepts involved. The work of art itself is just a starting point for getting people to think about ideas. When Kasimir Malevich painted his Black Square, he wasn’t trying to paint a black square as such. He was making a statement and wanted viewers to consider his conceptual framework, Suprematism. You can’t understand or appreciate the Black Square unless you know something about Suprematism. But learning about Suprematism (or the ideas behind any work of art) is a dual responsibility: the viewer has to take the time to really engage with the artist, the work of art and the work’s historical/artistic context, while the artist has to be willing to engage in a real conversation and to openly discuss what s/he’s getting at. This is where the second problem with contemporary art lies: far too many contemporary artists are too lazy or too timid to really discuss their work. It is very easy to throw up a work of art, call it “Untitled #7” and claim, “My work speaks for itself.” It is very difficult to take the time to work out a coherent aesthetic or concept, and to then defend it against inevitable attack by critics.

On one level, we are very fortunate today. Art is probably more accessible today than it has been at any point in history. And there are more people who are engaging with art, on one level or another, today that at any time in the past. But whereas in the past art was created for and appreciated by a select elite with lots of free time, who were generally educated on art on some level and who had the opportunity to speak directly with the artists they commissioned, today’s art audience is very different. Art history is disappearing from public schools. As math and reading scores [appear to] have dropped and as the focus on standardized tests has increased, schools have attempted to raise their standing by devoting more time to basic subjects, often at the expense of the arts. Budget cuts certainly have not helped. So today art is being consumed by a far broader section of society, but one that is less educated in art history, that has less time to devote to understanding and appreciating art (given the demands of work and family) and that generally views physical works of art in museums, without ever seeing or speaking to the artist.

Many museums contribute to the problem, but not providing visitors with any information other than the artist’s name, birthplace and birth year, the name, date and dimensions of the artwork and the materials from which it is constructed. How are you ever supposed to get to Suprematism by reading “Kasimir Malevich, born in Kiev, 1878-1935, Black Square, Oil on canvas, 1915, 53.5cm by 53.5cm”? I have never understood why museums don’t provide more information to help the viewer. But this is slowly changing. One of the greatest aids to the appreciation of art in museums are those audio guides, where you punch in the number below the artwork and get a little background. No squinting at small text and jostling the crowds. I recently went to a museum in Dresden that had two copies of the same painting. One by the original artist, and a copy by artists working in his workshop. The audioguide did a wonderful job of comparing the pictures and contributing to an understanding of what was special about the artist’s work. There is obviously a risk of these audioguides or accompanying text giving the impression that only one interpretation is correct, and of limiting the viewer’s freedom to interpret the work anew. But given that most people seem to struggle with a lot of art, I think this is the lesser of two evils.

One last note: the internet is obviously a great resource when it comes to art. While viewing art on a computer screen obviously cannot compare to seeing it in person, you have at your fingertips access to representations of countless artworks and volumes of literature analyzing and describing such art (though it is up to you to judge the quality of such literature). In some ways, appreciators of photography are particularly well off. Digital photography is obviously particularly well suited to distribution over the internet. And given that so many photographers have websites with e-mail addresses and/or photoblogs with the opportunity to comment, it is possible to really follow at photographer’s development and engage in a dialogue with them. It’s really pretty amazing.

None of the above is necessary. You are obviously free to view art and simply decide whether it appeals to you or not. Like I said, that is still how I deal with most of the art I encounter. But if you take the time to learn about the conceptual side of art, I think you will find art a lot more interesting and fulfilling, and a lot less frustrating. Plus, you will be amazed by how much art and artists actually engage with the world. As contradictory as it may seem, the more you get into the conceptual, the less abstract art seems. Art doesn’t have to live in a bubble. And thinking about it will get you thinking about other aspects of life.


P.S. This is obviously just my point of view, and it isn’t a point of view that necessarily lends itself to all kinds of art. I’m generalizing here and I welcome responses from others describing how they approach art. I would also like to thank my wife, who has really opened my eyes and shaped my views on a lot of what I wrote above.

P.P.S. Not that it matters, but I happen to like “Chain Link Sky”. ;-)

D'oh! I submitted my comment without reading Mike's post on "Prejudices No. 2". I don't suppose it matters (other than I'm not sure which post I should have commented on). I guess it just goes to show that the comments on "Chain Link Sky" encouraged us to think about art in the broader sense.

In the end, though, I think T.O.P. satisfies an appetite. If I don't read T.O.P. for a week, I crave it. I crave reading about, and looking at, pictures. I dream about T.O.P., even. If I haven't recently read enough new T.O.P. posts, I feel the same sort of need as I feel when I'm deprived of music—I'll go out and find something to read. I "read" photo books again and again like some people revisit favorite films or novels.

Thanks, Mike!


Thanks for writing that. I find myself in a similar position, an engineer/scientist geek photo-hobbyiest married to an oil painter (who calls herself a painter, not an artist).

I have one problem with the point of view expressed, and it is probably because of my own prejudice. I have this idea that visual art should stand on its own. That is, to be of interest to me, it has to interest me when I look at it. If I have to read a book or two of theory to "get" it, well, that bugs me for some reason. I am perfectly willing to accept that the reason it bugs me is because I am being irrational about it. If you're interested, I wrote some partly tongue-in-cheek nonsense about art a couple of years ago in: http://roberts-rants.blogspot.com/2005/08/appreciating-art.html.

I like to think that I am open-minded enough to consider the idea of needing to study something before being able to fully appreciate it. It's true in other areas of life, why not art. But I can't help it, when I look at a painting that's solid yellow (or black or whatever) with no relief, no design, just plain colour, I cannot being myself to accept that it means something to someone because it means nothing to me. And yet, I have doubts because so many people say that it does mean something; so what am I missing?


To each their own.

Adam: OHWOWOHWOWOHWOW! Four Stars. Five Thumbs Up. Maybe the single best goddam post I've read ever on these pages. Brilliant and eloquent.

Thiago: Do you think your taste is constant? Mine isn't. I know that "taste" can be learned (though I wouldn't be able to teach it). Even when it's not consciously learned, it changes. Do you have the same artistic tastes you did when you were 15? 20? 30? (OK, if you *are* 15 or 20 or 30, you can answer "yes" {grin})

There's no moral imperative involved.You are not a better or worse person for having changing tastes or deciding to educate yours (or not).

Robert: What you're missing is that artforms are all media of communication and sometimes there are conversations and extended discussions going on. Just like with written/spoken language.

If you lack the background material or history of the conversation, then it may leave you confused. But that is not the fault of the people having the conversation. If every conversation has to be accessible without study on the listeners' part, then we're all damned to repeating the basics over and over and never saying anything more interesting or advanced.

Nonverbal media can produce extended conversations and discussions; they're just not in words. Classical music is full of them. So are modern and postmodern art.

For a low level, but not *basic*, discussion, look at the Collaborations that Laurie and I have done ( http://ctein.com/Collaboration_portfolio.htm ). Then read the essay. Then look at the Collaborations again.

Yeah, part of what we're doing is just jamming, but the bigger part is that we're having a conversation about what "realistic photography" means. To understand and appreciate that conversation, you have to have some photographic-knowledge background. Everyone here will likely have that, but for someone who's naive or new to photography, much of what we've done will go right past them.

I ain't saying you'll find our 'discussion' personally interesting, just that Laurie and I can't even have it without presupposing previous discussions and background knowledge on the part of the viewer.

pax / Ctein

Well, thanks Adam, Ken, Ctein, Robert. That was a great discussion.

I can immediately see what Adam meant by saying "knowing the history/story behind", as just by reading his examples it made me want to go and look up the work. But at the same time, I agree with Robert in the fact that a Visual Art depending on other media to 'make sense' somewhat counters the point of being visual.

Oh, and I'm 28, since Monday :-). And my tastes are definitely different than when I was 5 :-).

This level of discussion is what makes T.O.P. stand out from any other photography website/blog/forum on the net today.

Thanks again.

Thiago, you misunderstood me. I don't place Mike's taste in a privileged position. But, he has been around a while, has seen a few pictures, you know? There are many works of art which didn't appeal to me at first contact, which I later learned to love. So when someone I respect likes something, and I don't, I often find it rewarding to investigate why. That's how I broaden my horizons.

Adam, I'm intrigued by your comment that many contemporary artists are too lazy or timid to write about their own work. I'm not too lazy or timid, but perhaps I am too ignorant. I think I can talk about my photography reasonably well, but I'm not sure how.

If you were going to write a brief text to accompany a web gallery of photos, how would you go about deciding how to structure it?


Sure Ben,

No offense meant. I only see it too often that people feel a pressure to "appreciate" or "understand" a piece of art, just because influential critics do so, and I think that's not the way. Glad to know it's not your case.



I hope you don’t think I’m avoiding your question when I say that it is impossible for me to answer it. Obviously what you write about your photographs will depends on you and on your style of photography. It can be very casual and whimsical, or it can be rigorous and comprehensive. The important thing is that you put some thought into it.

I personally find it easiest to think about my photography in terms of my selection process. Presumably you aren’t just throwing up every picture you take. Why do some pictures make the cut, while others don’t? Do the pictures have anything in common? Not all of them have to have the same feature, but do you notice any trends in terms of what you photograph and which of your pictures you tend to think are particularly good? When you took the pictures, were you trying to achieve something specific? What was it? While I take a lot of pictures of fairly random things, I find that the pictures I really like all have one of three or four recurring features.

It seems to me that you clarify and hone your message through your selection process. A group of random pictures without any unifying element or style communicates about as much as a page full of random words. I think the trick is to avoid the temptation to show all of the pictures you like right away, since they may not have anything in common. Hold back on some pictures until you have others that fit with them. The passage of time also helps you be more critical and see connections where you otherwise might not. Then you need to sit down and take the time to write about your thoughts, your goals, the common elements of your work (or why some work breaks with the trend).

As both you and Ctein have noted, this isn’t easy. I assume it took you some time to learn photography, it will also take time to learn how to think and write about your photography. Because people know how to read and write in daily life, they often tend to think that writing as a whole is easy. In fact, it’s very hard. But as with anything, practice makes perfect and you will get better over time. Expect to make a few mistakes at first, until you find a mode of thinking and writing that suits you. Also, what they said in grade school is true: editing your writing will make it much better. Ultimately, I don’t think you have to be a perfect writer to be a good artist. My point is just that you should help the viewer by providing them with a few interpretive cues. And if you want to get really Web 2.0 about it, allow people to comment on your gallery. They may notice strengths and weaknesses in your photography that you didn’t, because you were too close to it. This process of thinking, writing and sharing may even improve your photography. Just be careful not to cater to the commenters. You need to be true to yourself and your vision. It doesn’t have to appeal to everyone.


" Because people know how to read and write in daily life, they often tend to think that writing as a whole is easy. In fact, it’s very hard."

You can say that again.

Mike J.

Sorry, leaves me cold. I like my photos to reach out and grab you, sort of like the very first time I ever really listened to Bach's Magnificat, the music stirred something, it pulled me in, and I could not have turned it off. Its like some of the photos of Cartier-Bresson, August Sander, Ansel Adams, you look at them, and they just suck you in, and you see.... To me, Art should stir the soul.

R Murphy said:

To me, Art should stir the soul.

Chain link Sky most certainly stirs me (not sure bout my soul)

It reminds me of just how pathetic I was in little league Baseball.

I think I spent too much time considering the clouds and sky and zero time considering "the double play"

PS I would most definitely have climbed that fence.

@Adam, I appreciate your questions in answer to my question. I've had a web gallery for a couple of years now; you can click on my name to check it out if you like.

My style in photography tends toward the low-key and the casual. I think to annotate my photos, I should just put down some of the comments I make when I show the pictures to friends. The only problem, then, is context; when anyone can come to your website from anywhere, it's a little hard to trust that you know whom you're addressing. I think that will encourage me to keep things terse.

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