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Saturday, 08 March 2008


"Art that works is art that convinces." That sounds like a great slogan, but then I asked myself, convince of what? That is where I got stuck. Can anyone explain?

I'd like to bring to attention one small observation I did once that is related to this. I was talking with another hobby photographer, and he stated that he absolutely hated fish-eye photography, and that he's never seen a fish-eye photograph that he liked. As it turned out, there are fish-eye photographs that he like; a few of his favourited images for instance. But they were not _obviously_ fish-eye images - no curving walls or bulging noses. The cues were still there if you knew to look for them but you did need to look. They did not scream "I am a fish eye!"; they were just wide, open, relaxed wide-angle images.

I suspect that a good deal of people who dislike fish-eye, or HDR, or IR really just dislike when it's being in your face and overdone, and when the point of the image is to show off the effect, not present a subject matter. When it is used subtly, sparingly and in order to enhance the subjct presentation then most people will have no problem with it; they will indeed never realize "a technique" is being used at all.

I have to say this is tremendously valuable commentary.

I love taking pictures, and I love learning to take better pictures, but I've long since given up on being an artist. For me it's a craft, I'm not sure if there is a lot of art left in this craft as a whole... if you understand the distinction. As a programmer, I am intimately familiar with the distinction. There are brilliant, elegant algorithms and programs and systems which I would consider art, but programmers spend 99% of our day dealing and looking at the craft.

My photos have value to the extent that they're well-crafted and to the extent that their context concerns their audience. I've long since given up on achieving any sort of distinctive, measurable impact on the art of photography. I don't think it would be possible in this time in the history of this art no matter how hard I tried. However, if I can go on a hiking trip through a beautiful part of Canada, with people whose company I love, and, at the end of the trip, pass on some well-crafted photographs to them that they could not have taken themselves, I think that is the greatest value my personal 'art' can ever have. They will find them beautiful and amazing, but most of that is their involvement in them. I have not created anything beautiful and amazing in any universal artistic sense - I have not contributed significantly to the art as a whole; I'm just not saying anything that 99% of the world would care about - just that I love hiking to beautiful places with my buddies.

Objectively, these photographs are not special; they're echoes of echoes - however much I'd wish they were not. So... I'm left with nothing more than the value that my photographs have to me and to my friends and family. This is more than sufficient to bolster my innate joy in the mechanics and practice of the craft of photography.

I do occasionally wander out on the internet and wonder what the hell everyone is doing though...

Mike's comment: "I respectfully suggest that smart photographers ought to watch out. The online world is becoming a sort of massive, monstrous camera club, an "academy" bound down by strictures and rules and mass taste."

I respectfully suggest that you are absolutely wrong about the internet fostering conformity or a hidebound "Academy" atmosphere. Are you seriously suggesting that all of the billions of people on the internet are going to follow a single global style? If so, please get a grip.

There are at least thousands and probably tens of thousands of individuals expressing their unique photographic vision online. You could not possibly survey even a fraction of the relevant photo sites on offer.

My guess is that you are basing your conclusions on a few dozen sites or maybe even a few hundred sites. The internet is a vast enterprise. You cannot possibly gather enough data to support your point unless you are willing to spider the internet using search engine technology.

I understand that much of the work you see online is following some faddish path that fosters conformity. I agree that this is the case. It reminds me that art world and the pop culture world both enforce a kind of conformity and discount anything that is not within the current norm. The scale of this conformity may be enhanced by the internet but basic herd mentality remains the same.

This blog has featured a number of individuals who doing interesting work outside the supposed "Academy" style. I hope you continue to do so and forget about this preposterous Chicken Little - The Sky Is Falling nonsense.


Well, you keep doing it and I hope that you are sufficiently appreciated in your own time. I doubt there's anything more important to talk about in photography today or anyone saying it better. It's not just photography, of course. The wealth of diversity and possiblities seems to be spawning an angry conformity in just about every facet of daily life, but because I love photography, it's particularly sad there - and puzzling.

I will continue to watch and read TOP for tips on technical excellence and meditations on artistic wholeness - and truth be told, conformation that I'm not the only one who gulps on occasion.

Thank you,

I have to say, Mike, that I found myself wanting to comment and disagree with some of your recent posts, but this most recent post brings it all together, and gives your thoughts some powerful context, particularly this:

-" 'We know too much about how pictures look and should look. And how do you get around making those pictures again and again?" The 'net effect is that now people strive to make cookie-cutter pictures ("again and again") that embody "how pictures look and should look.' Most pictures aren't pictures, they're imitations of pictures. Collectively we're rushing toward what we should be rushing away from."

Before I read this post, I was prepared to argue how photography could be related to a jazz improvisor. There are times when a simple, "real" melody is gorgeous in its simplicity, but that doesn't negate the wonderful things that can occur when a skilled improvising musician can take the theme and manipulate it, sometimes massaging it with subtlety, and in other instances make more sweeping changes. As a listener, I can relate to and enjoy the original melody, the slight changes and also the grand reworking.

But I see a larger point in this post. While the improvisations of the musician hold great value, much is lost if the next wave of musicians simply copy the work of the first. In fact, one could argue that these players (if overreaching in their efforts to emulate the first) are no longer truly improvising.

You've given us much to think about.


There was a time when you could look at a B&W landscape and guess that the photographer was British. They tended to copy each other consciously or unconsciously. I'm sure that British photographers could look at our work and know it was American.

The internet has changed that. We have so many styles to study, we are likely to learn from everyone and develop a style that fits us.

Some of the techniques available don't look natural, but neither does B&W. To each his own. We're just doing this for fun and it doesn't matter what other people think.

Criticism's a funny thing- it only seems to make sense when you agree with it. Recently an article on street photography pointed out how today, everyone's a photographer. The comments section then went on to prove that everyone's also quite the critic (sometimes even offering links to their own inferior examples of "artistic superiority" to make their "point").

I also find it amusing when a visual artist reaches the art world pantheon, and they're automatically exempted from any real criticism. And if one dares to criticize:

1) you're utterly incapable of even hoping to grasp the artist's true scope, talent or vision
2) you're green with envy or have some other ax (personal or psychological) to grind
3) it's all subjective anyway (the "it's all good" excuse).

Heck, even that Six Sense director caught hell for all the turkeys he's made.

Hi Mike,

Thanks for these great posts, it takes a lot of courage to put these opinions of yours into print for everyone on the net to read.

I believe photographers should take photos for themselves and ignore what anyone else has to say. If the photographer is happy with their achievement then that is good enough. But if they display their work then they will need a thick skin because everyone is a critic, some are good critics and some bad at it.

I think there should be rules for critics. Critics need rules forcing them to be impartial in their criticism such as letting go of their own bias of likes and dislikes regarding photography.

Of course that's the photographer in me talking maybe one day I'll let the critic in me have a say !

Keep ignoring the drive-by's its not worth wasting time with them and I personally don't want to read that sort of comment.

Regards .................. Aubrey

I broadly agree with everything you say here but I wonder, also, whether the conformity you write of has anything to do with the technology too. After all, Matrix Metering has been around for years, longer than mainstream use of the web for image-sharing certainly, and what does that do, except make your picture as much possible like one of the thousands of pre-selected pictures that Nikon has in its magic database?

I dare you to compile and post a list of the Top 20 photography enthusiast clichés by the way.

Change? The constant pressure to make new images? Mike, is newness really in the technical, because for you it seems to be? Composition, framing and the like. I would think that you especially would accept the assertion that photography is inherently changing because our reality is. Cities, people, cars, landscapes.

Do we really need another rule of thirds?

Mike, methinks that the seeming contradiction between artist and critic, which you then call duality, could even lead to a dialectic result. In the best case the artist could learn some modesty from the criticist approach. I don't think that an artist needs to be so excluding towards different fields than his own.

Saying that landscapes bore ME, is still valid I guess.

Apropos modesty: JAG, many of us can learn from your views regarding your own photograph endeavour. Reading your reply was very refreshing, thanks.

I for myself experience that it is hard (not sure if due to internet and all this visual and opinionated overload) to find meditation. That means to reduce my mind to the essence of what moves me, what I want to express. And the distinction between what I want and what I (was made to) think that I want is also hard to make. Pair this with equipment angst and all that wannabees out there who alienate you with rude prejudices and you are stuck.

Oddly enough, I also had this fisheye-experience. I always dismissed it as what was called gadgetry, till I saw really compelling fisheye images, that didn't look fishy.

"The online world is becoming a sort of massive, monstrous camera club, an "academy" bound down by strictures and rules and mass taste"

Spot on, Mike. I thought your infrared essay a little OTT, but your reflexive self-awareness here hits the mark. Part of the "problem" (is it a problem?), is that most people, by definition, have a conventional view of the world and have nothing much to say, given the means to express themselves. It's debatable whether the World Wide Camera Club does a useful public service by feeding our vast hunger for "self expression", or a massive cultural disservice by swamping us with our own well-meant mediocrity.

The unspoken component in all such discussions is the undemocratic, unfair nature of the distribution of talent, and the sheer difficulty (even for those granted a measure of talent) of real achievement in arts, especially those which are based on a relatively easy to master craft.

People easily accept the elitism of sports, but seem oddly resentful of the elitism of art. "I coulda been a contender" vs. "Who are you to say I'm not a contender?"...

You, sir, have done it again. Very thought inspiring piece. Bulls eye.
Carrying it one step beyond, you could easily substitute the word "photographer" in the article with nearly any other noun. We are rapidly homogenizing the world and everything in it.

"I dare you to compile and post a list of the Top 20 photography enthusiast clichés by the way."

One thing I have never done (I think--I hope) is to post or link to specific examples of what I consider "bad" photography. I just feel that to single out individuals and their work for disapprobation is unkind and unfair. The person might be a beginner, or, worse, sincere; or perhaps not asserting that the photograph is "good" but posting it for some other reason. In any event I've seen enough photography to know that any single picture, however "bad," isn't worse than a thousand other possible examples that are easily accessible. In the end, the purpose of being a hobbyist photographer is to have fun, and I don't want to discourage any particular individual from doing so by holding up their work to ridicule.

It's tempting sometimes, though, because it would be very instructive.

Mike J.

Well, Mike I've been trying to decide whether to wade in on this one or not, and now so much has been said by others, and much that I might have said myself that I'm still not sure. But here goes anyway.

When I read about why you hate IR it bothered me. It didn't really seem as broadminded as you usually are and I tried to distil, in my own mind, what you were really saying, since that always seems worthwhile, even when I disagree.

Finally I decided that your real objection was not to the specific style, but to an absence of important content and its replacement with mere stylization. The late John Gardner wrote a book of criticism called "On Moral Fiction," which I believe the Lit Crit world was dismissive of, but I always liked, in which he said, if I get it right, that real literature was morally serious. He didn't mean by this that it upheld good v bad morality (how could he, having rewritten the Beowulf poem from the monster's existentialist perspective?) - but merely that it need to engage seriously with serious issues. He therefore excoriated some great modern writers, like Thomas Pynchon, for being all brilliant and flashy style lacking substance. I take that to be your thesis really. Further, I think you're saying that since there's no new thing under the sun, photographers feel forced into mere stylization to attempt to stand out and say something new - but stylization is not saying something new.

I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint but I do think there's more room to be charitable and generous here. Was the highly stylized mannerism of Picasso's blue period mere stylization? Certainly not. He was clearly working something out. And often, I think, an artist hits on a new style or technique and get's taken with it and wants to try it out and see what they can do with it. And often those workings out are lesser art, but if the artist is important, those exercises are worthy of our attention and interest.

Now turning to the video you alluded to. I'm assuming I viewed the right one - it was posted by one of your readers - I watched it to. I don't think it was suggesting here's a great way to create ART. I think his audience includes illustrators and commercial graphic artists and people who, as part of their toolkit, need to master lots of different effects, styles and looks. I think it's a critic's mistake to confuse that kind of craft with art, just as it is to confuse "entertainments" with art. Madonna and Hannah Montana (pace my 8-year old daughter) are great at what they do, but not worthy of serious musical consideration. In Vance Bourjaily's beautiful "The Great Fake Book" a young jazz apprentice doesn't want to listen to a female vocalist entertaining with the band, he wants to hear the soulful music of the jazz band. We may not be in the mood for mere commercial illustrations made with photographic tools, but we oughtn't to confuse them for the real thing and then complain they're not photographic art. The audience "consuming" them know that!


May I suggest that explaining what it is that you don't like about a photograph (or a lens, technique, process, or genre) isn't nearly as instructive as finding something you like and describing the attributes that attract you, especially in comparison with a group of other similar images.

That was what I found frustrating, ultimately, with the now famous "critics of the internet" article. Everybody was in on the joke (or not), but there was hardly anything of substance written by anyone that attempted to explain why these notable images were worthy of their stature.

Dear Mike, I cannot agree with your statement that "...artists must have these blanket prejudices". It seems to me as made by induction. Many artists have these "blanket prejudices" but reasons behind these prejudices are often very personal and often not artistic at all :).

Hi Mike,

These last few days of posts have been great reading material, and have given me much to think about when it comes to the artistic genres we see in the evolving field of photography, as well as the "critiques", drive-bys as you call them that so often happen in an online community, even one as large as TOP.

Stan upthread hinted toward the notion that the value of any critique has been devalued overall. In part, he mentioned that responses to critiques are usually categoriezed into one of three types:

"1) you're utterly incapable of even hoping to grasp the artist's true scope, talent or vision
2) you're green with envy or have some other ax (personal or psychological) to grind
3) it's all subjective anyway (the "it's all good" excuse)."

While I agree that drive-bys are not necessarily all that valuable in the comments section of what I would consider one of the most most verbose blogs online. I would also subscribe to the theory that drive-by comments in photo critiques have limited value.

Having said that, there are some instances where causal or "drive-by" comments and critiques can be of value, or at least, a little helpful or of use. I am reminded of a piece I put together last year for our photo club to help everyone think of the manner in which they critique photographs shared in the community. I classified critiques into four categories and described the circumstances under which you'd see each, and the relative value of them as well. While slightly off-topic, or at least tangential to this post, it may be of interest to share this article with the TOP readership. That can be found in PDF format at our regional club's site:


Thanks again for all that you do here at TOP. Keep up the great work!

Dramatic sunset at the beach with waves crashing
Silky waterfall with lush vegetation
Wide angle shot employing the near/far strategy (for a beautiful example check out the cover of Ansel Adams The Negative).

I think cliches happen because they are initially compelling and then get beat to death.

Interesting challenge: do cliches in a way that is fresh?!? Is that possible?


Just a short comment to say how wonderful and refreshing it is to read thoughts about photography that deal with the art of it.

Thanks for your efforts. And thanks to all who sail in her.

Dear Aubrey,

You've described the criteria for a good reviewer, not a good critic. They are not the same thing. They are not supposed to be.

I am regularly the former, only exceptionally am I the latter. Conversely for Allan Coleman (leastways, I don't think I've read much in the way of reviews from him).

pax / Ctein

"...Show me an artist who doesn't loathe or dismiss whole categories of artistic endeavor and I'll show you an artist who isn't committed to his own art."
Dear Mike,
IMHO anyone attempting to disprove such maxima would have to show that artist in discussion: 1) didn't (doesn't) loathe or dismiss whole categories of artistic endeavor and 2) was (is) committed like hell to his own art. Your statement is little bit too fail-proof, don't you think :) ?

Best regards,
Sergey Botvin


Within a line or two of your article I decided what you were saying was that creating effects - in this case, infrared - doesn't make up for a poor photograph; it just attempts to hide the deficiencies.

I remember the late Barry Thornton, whose website is still there at http://www.barrythornton.com/ saying much the same thing.

And I remember looking at his black and white landscapes, which were so detailed you could walk around inside his pictures.

And that was the satisfaction in them - that as far as you wanted to go, there was something to pull you in further.

And whatever it is in a photograph that holds ones attention, that is what the photograph has to offer.

Above all a photograph with pretensions to being a good photograph should be a thing to arrest the attention. It is after all, just a piece of paper, so it had better contain something worth staring at if it is to be worth its salt.

So perhaps it is not that photos are derivative that makes us not see or appreciate the endless copies, but rather that as with anything, familiarity breeds contempt.


Dear John,

"...convince of what?"

Why, whatever it is the artist is trying to convince you of. That may be sublime, or it may be mundane. All depends on what they're trying to convey.

pax / Ctein

Posts like this have become instrumental for my understanding of art and my own place within it.
I am no artist and don't want to be one, I have stopped fishing for compliments for my photos and no longer care about people's comments on what I have done. That's the main reason I stopped posting on Flickr.

But I keep coming back to this website time and time again and very slowly I am coming to grips with what I want my pictures to do for me.

Thanks for keeping such a wonderful audience so brilliantly challenged and entertained.

Dear Dennis,

"Interesting challenge: do cliches in a way that is fresh?!? Is that possible?"

Here was my thought on the matter:


pax / Ctein

"I am no artist and don't want to be one, I have stopped fishing for compliments for my photos and no longer care about people's comments on what I have done."

That's one way to get good. I'm completely serious.

Mike J.

So the weather there is still pretty cold, eh?

Feeling punchy and cooped up?

Spring Break fever?

Stir up that pot! Fan that fire!

It's a real interesting times these past 15 years and you are right about the ubiquitousness of images, they're everywhere and everyone is a photoshop wizard. There is still as much good as bad, the totals have just inflated both sides and its harder to swim the waters.


"Show me an artist who doesn't loathe or dismiss whole categories of artistic endeavor and I'll show you an artist who isn't committed to his own art. -- Mike J."

Jeff Wall. (If you accept him as an artist.) He spent a lot of time at the Courtauld Institute studying art history, which is his resource for his photos -- and his quotations come from a spectacularly wide spectrum of painting.

One reason that I think James Nachtwey may be the greatest photographer of our time and one of the most important artists of any kind, is that he covers actual, serious, important events (that are important both macro- and microscopically, so to speak: war as a subject and death as an individual event) and that his photographs also incorporate a strong aesthetic vision that sometimes seems at odds with his subject matter, but in the end seems to make the subject only that much more compelling. He has one photo of young Palestinians throwing rocks or bottles or *something* at Israeli soldiers that is so visually powerful that there was actually an argument here on the net a few years ago about whether or not he set it up (the photo.) The skeptics believed that it was simply too visually powerful to have been spontaneous. The argument ended when other photographers who were there chipped in and said that it was, indeed, a spontaneous shot.


I look at Nachtwey sometimes and wonder WTF people like Cindy Sherman or Richard Prince are doing -- I mean, I know what they're doing, but should I care? One of the things that *art* should have at least implicitly is some kind of moral or intellectual purpose. One of the reasons I think Ansel Adams is the real thing is that you can feel the awe coming through his photographs; it's like he really felt he was taking pictures of God's Work. Other people take B&W pictures of aspens glittering in the sunshine, perfectly exposed and printed, and I yawn and turn the page.


"In any event I've seen enough photography to know that any single picture, however "bad," isn't worse than a thousand other possible examples that are easily accessible."

Wow- that's pretty depressing, Mike! Or is that the half full version?

Thanks for your insight. You've expressed something that I was feeling but had been unable to grasp.

This was a great thread. I definitely disagree with what Mike wrote in his original article ("boneheaded" is an appropriate word I'd use for it). Rather than reiterating what has already been discussed though, I'll just say that the best show I saw last year was actually done with IF photography. You can see examples here:


And read about it here:


Ah Leong

Mike - Without attempting to add anything to the debate, I just wanted to observe that this is an excellent set of thoughts, lucidly expressed, and deeply apropos to many venues where many of us participate in photography, especially those where we participate in the discourse *about* photography. Thanks.

- Marshall

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