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Tuesday, 27 December 2011


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Fantastic, John. As someone who is trying to jump of the gear train, myself, this writing comes at a welcome time for me. Thanks.

I counted about 8 question marks in that article. I look forward to your future articles when you point us in the direction of some answers. Perhaps we could 'learn' (the word I like to use) something.

The sarcasm is intended but seriously I see no shame in being 'taught'. I for one am interested.

While most photographs don't aspire to be art, ultimately their value to us depends on something that art teaches us: direct emotional response.

So so true.

Eureka! That's what my photos have been missing. Where can I buy one of these imperfect cameras?

Made me think of that superb, yet less than perfect D-Day image by Capa!

More of Bill Burke's work at http://www.binhfoto.com/books/fireiron.html

A wonderful photo - he's caught the moment when the giant Flash Gordon-esque ship appeared quite nicely.

Lucky the consulate was abandoned - that wormhole it came through looks like it ruined the building.

'The surprise is how powerfully their imperfections help capture a sense of time and place.'

Aren't technically perfect photos more fitting to our modern day and age? Would a photo like the example you've shown but taken in 2011 really represent the time and place of 2011? A technically perfect, digital photo is much more '2011' than a polaroid with extra imperfections.

The biggest reason Leica M series and Hasselblad produced so many great fotos in the film days wasn't the superiority of the cameras.

It was because they were simple, and so bloody expensive nobody could afford more than two or three lenses.

Because of that, they learnt to use them properly. Kind of a Zen thing.

Your essay hit the bulls-eye, John. In fact, you've written the piece that's been on my mind for a long time...and you've done it far more skillfully than I could expect to do.

@ Steven House: A part of my forthcoming January essay, purely coincidentally, offers a few ideas for turning some of those question marks to bangs. I am sure that John has many others to offer, too.

Superbly put.

This difficulty in expressing oneself in photographs is interesting, considering that we live in a culture swimming in images and in which many people's lives are fully exposed to the world on social media. It's an odd juxtaposition, exhibitionism vs communication failure. What are we missing?

There isn't a problem with perfection. The problem is that people who think of themselves as photographers need to do one very important thing: Go forth and photograph!

The camera, by itself, does not make the photograph. The scene, by itself, does not make the photograph. The processing, by itself, does not make the photograph.

It is the photographer who makes the photograph. This is what is so often ignored.

What does it take to make a photograph? A photographer. A photographer takes a camera, and goes out and finds what's supposed to be photographed. It's just that simple. You. Your camera. Your time, your effort. Raising that camera, again and again. The shutter opens, the shutter closes.

From the tiny Minox to the 8x10 view camera, there is someone toting it around, being ready for a single moment in time. There is nothing to be done but make one photograph after the next, and go where you think you should be.

Wherever you go, there you are, and bring a camera.

A photographic capture device these days is computer with a camera attached.

I still believe a recording chip in a camera is as a roll of film. Each image recorded should be done with similar reverence and care
as one would with an unexposed roll of film.

As a timely appendix to John's essay, it might be instructive to browse some of the photo books that the New York Times hails as best for this year. I've not seen them all but enough to know that they punctuate John K.'s message nicely and bluntly.

You can argue all you want about where good photography comes from (I think it comes form a combination of talent, practice and most of all: a subject you really care about). The core of it is hard to teach and the stuff that is easy to teach is mostly irrelevant.

But, please spare me this nonsense about anti-social computer geeks. Computer geeks, just like all the other people in the world come in various shapes and sizes. They just happen to have a talent and interest for a certain kind of technical problem solving. This means that their probability of being socially crippled is, in my estimation, about average. The balance used to be different, but the machines are so ubiquitous now that you can't honestly come to any other conclusion. We are all computer geeks, whether we want to believe it or not.

You should teach middle school students. They have very few preconceptions about photography, and care little about image quality (often). The first year I taught them we used old digital point-and-shoots that they dug up from parents' junk drawers (memory card and battery horrors). Then the school bought dslr's. I noticed a jump in image quality, but the funny thing is, in the end, after picking keepers and making prints, the crappy point and shoots put up a very good fight, even with one student having a camera that looked like it had a dead fly stuck on the sensor.

Thank you for the excellent article John. My iPhone is proving to be an excellent tool for seeing. I find myself taking photos practically every day and never worry about the finished product. It's very freeing and I feel that I am becoming more creative in the process.

Interestingly, my friends seem to be going through a similar process. Photography appears to be becoming more integrated into our everyday experience and I wouldn't be surprised if many of the iPhone snappers might not become even more interested in obtaining more sophisticated cameras in the future.

Every once in a while I come across a post at TOP that makes me pea green with envy, as in "gee, I wish I'd said that"

Point after point right on target.


When I first learned photography in High School I was all the technical details. How to use the camera as a piece of equipment, how develop, how to make a print and very little composition...indeed I can't remember ANY discussion of the art of photography. Years passed as I moved around without darkrooms and I moved on to other interests. (Writing, primarily poetry) When I returned to the visual medium with my first digital camera I found I was far less concerned with the camera I was shooting on, but rather of the content I shooting...the art instead of the gadgetry. I went through the Gear Acquisition Phase as most novice photographers do, but now I've settled down to the basics, a few good lenses, a dependable body and concentrate on trying to make a beautiful image. I may not be turning out million dollar pieces to hang in museums, but the satisfaction of a beautiful photograph is worth far more to me.

I have often tried in vain to make the same points on internet forums. I have given up and come to the conclusion that's because most forums are out to "sell" things and not necessarily enlighten people on the aesthetics of photography. Most cameras have more features than most of us will use or ever learn. Same goes for the quality of the images- it is more than most of us will ever need. Good article.

"Featured Comment by John Camp: "Okay, this is a cliff I'm willing to jump off."
When you jumped off that cliff, I think you landed in a pile of manure. (As the old joke about Harry and Bess Truman goes.)

Yessir. Time to pull out that old scrap of paper from my wallet (ahem):

"...remembering something Alexander Calder believed: 'The trouble with a lot of artists today is that they have too much technique and equipment. They don't know what to do with it all. If you cut down on it, you can work more strongly within narrower limits.' He always carried a pair of pliers with him."

I believe it is something more than/different form (simply) emotional response. My understanding is that is =direct sensing=, a connection with consciousness that is fundamental, i.e. beyond either thinking or emotion.

How can going out the door with less of the stuff result, so often, in returning with more good photos?


Why is a new camera or lens not necessarily an "upgrade"?

Because not everything new is automatically better.

How can a piece of kit that doesn't fare especially well in tests produce more visually satisfying images than one that does?

Because cameras aren't made to do well on tests.

Why can a flaw like flare or color cast or motion blur improve a photograph?

Because they're parameters, not flaws.

How can blocked up shadows sometimes say more than deep shadow detail?

Because shadows are things too.

Why does shooting a small, personal subject close to home generally end up more successful than going off in pursuit of a grand one far away? Why is parachuting dozens of photojournalists into a country for a day or a week unlikely to produce a book as good as by having just one of them spend a year there?

Familiarity with the subject.

You're teaching and they're learning. I don't see the problem. You were there once. Maybe you didn't come from the same place but you came from somewhere other than where you are now. You grew. As for the technical geek... who was that nerdy guy that went on and on about that Zone System?

Mike, as a sort of New Year's Resolution, could we have more articles like this, and fewer like "camera of the year", "most desirable camera", etc., etc.?

And zero off-topic posts by Ctein. ;-)

I agree wholeheartedly with everything said in this article - but it's not the whole story. There are many different types of, and uses for, photography. In some of these the technical aspects are rather important. Try talking to a sports photographer, or wildlife photographer or someone who wants to take photos of bugs. (Having the "right" equipment still doesn't guarantee results of course). Even ultimate image quality can be important - if it is part of your vision to print big. I'm not saying that making big prints is the route to photographic stardom either.... but

..."A technically perfect, digital photo is much more '2011' than a polaroid with extra imperfections.".... Kevin Shoenmakers

I am not so sure about that, as I believe many, many more photos are taken with cell phones than DSLRs. Is a cell phone photo more technically "perfect" than a polaroid? Would a too technically perfect photo be representative of a 2011 cell phone photo, or even an iPhone photo?

Twenty years from now will anyone care, or will they just look for pleasing, interesting photos?

When is a new camera or lens not necessarily an "upgrade" (a word nobody even used until cameras became computer peripherals)?

Just because nobody used the word doesn't mean they didn't do it. The chase after better gear isn't new. Not even close.

I wonder if Mike would publish a similar article by a geek dissing the artsy-fartsy types for not having the brains to figure out how to use the technology that makes their photographs today? Nah, that would be insulting, wouldn't it?
And it's only the guys, eh?
C'mon Mr. Kennerdel, making generalizations like you do is silly.
I guess I need to buy you a copy of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" like I did my sons' art teacher who flatly told them that computers could not make art and computer users were never going to become artists because the two cultures don't mix.
Just in case you think geeks don't produce or appreciate art, see this from MIT:
and the photographer's site:

Wonderful. I do so enjoy all these TOP items, along with their attendant comments. (I enjoy both the off- and on-topic, from both Ctein and everyone else.)

The last year or two has been photography pretty much with a couple of lenses, next to no 'chimping' -- which breaks my concentration. I think my photographs are the better for it.

While I briefly have your attention, a (belated) happy Christmas to you all, and I wish you many 'decisive moments' for 2012.

This is the kind of article that every aspiring pro should read and heed but won't partly because of the dominance of trade mags like "Popular Photography" which frankly disgusts me.

@ John Camp,

Then I am no-one since I can find hundreds of foto's which do just that, rely on technical excellence in order to promote a meaningfull image. Think of all the work done by the Becher/Düsseldorfer fotoschule.

And yet I agree you don't need 100.000 of equipement in the field to achieve technical excellence. An old analog 6 x 9 or 4 x 5 will get the same job done if you are using good film and have the skills to find the correct exposure etc. and know how to make an interesting composition (off course).

By the way John, technique is something you learn not buy. And in my opinion it takes technique to be as free as Bill Burke to abandon it. Dilletants have never created anything of meaning to me and to me they never will. If your camera is limited, limitation is not the art, the art is to combat it and produce excellence not withstanding the limitations. How the excellence is expressed will change but make no mistake Bill Burke made an excellent picture, and yes some luck was involved here, but selection/curation are aquired skills just as finding the right exposure and composition.

Greetings, Ed.

Betty Edwards and her "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" applies to photography as well, if not even more. The constant juggling between technology, judging the light condition, reading the situation and applying settings while trying to be creative at the same time. It shows in forums as well as in many photos.


Photo geeks who freak out if something isn't "tack sharp" (an absolutely loathesome expression), or spout test results, graphs, test shots and DxO ratings as some sort of gospel. Look at "winning" images on photo sites. Perfect, yet perfectly lifeless, hollow and dull.

I mainly use manual lenses, because I like the way they feel and the way I am when I work with them. I'm not looking for perfection.

I read an interesting quote today... which I'll paraphrase badly...
A worker uses tools. A craftsman uses tools and their brain. An artist uses tools, brain and their heart.

There's so little heart in the images people churn out

Wow, John Camp's featured comment eerily resonates with my personal experience. Been a computer guy since I was a child, realised something was missing and found photography. Where my personal experience diverge from his description is that I've already understood that technique won't give me strong images. That said, I'm still struggling to get good ones nonetheless.

Great post.Peoples are forget that with camera you can be yourself,don't need to be what others think who you are.One of the 20th Cent. giants Henry Miller was write one of the most beautiful text about photographer (The wisdom of the heart, Eye of the Paris).Like Picasso said:"I can learn to paint like Rembrandt in a five years but learn to paint like a child I need all my life".

...and yet, I've seen many a possibly interesting or impactful photo that hasn't been all it could be, because someone didn't focus correctly or missed the exposure, back in the film days (or now, over-blew the color saturation!)...the real answer is that technical proficiency is AS valuable as creative input, it's just that the more significant a subject, the less difference it makes, until it gets so screwed up, you can't make out what's in the frame...

You'll never sit around with a group of professionals, and I mean real professionals, and hear them spend hours talking about gear, we used to refer to that, even 30 years ago, as "photo-wienie-talk". You got proficient in your technology, and then forgot about it, it was second nature.

Ditto for cameras, you bought that Hasselblad, and tested the lenses when you first bought them, because once you approved it, you forgot about it, it was always going to do what you knew it could do, now concentrate on the subject at hand.

BTW, I was once testing an old 8X10 film holder to check for light leaks, and when I processed a piece of film, it had a big light streak across it, so I had to look for the hole. A buddy of mine who was teaching photography looked at it and said: "...I can sell this holder 'as-is' if you want to get rid of it, to any of my students that are trying to create 'art', they'd love this thing."

I'm reminded of the axiom "the poor workman always blames his tools". Now we blame the digital gear for being too good. It somehow has gotten in the way of what the "artist" wants to say. Perhaps the message is that a lot of people just haven't figured out what their message is, and that takes contemplation not "better" stuff.

It's taken me forty years to learn that I've always had equipment capable of a lot more than I was, and that's a humbling realization. We would all be better off, I'm my oppinion, if we spent more time thinking about our own message and making photographs, than poring over spec sheets in search of that magic piece oh gear that will make us better photographers.

"Take equipment. How can going out the door with less of the stuff result, so often, in returning with more good photos? ... Why can a flaw like flare or color cast or motion blur improve a photograph? ..."

Yes, they can. But that does not mean they will, or always will. I think what the author is trying to say is that "technical perfection" does not a good photograph make, and sometimes "imperfections" make the photograph "better", but the way the article was written somehow gives one the impression that technical considerations are not important.

@ John Camp, "'Show me one great photograph whose greatness comes from resolution.' There aren't any"
Well personally I think this one does, and the SF MOMA seems to agree, and I can think of one or two other people I know who like it quite well.
Oh, but it does have lots and lot of imperfections, quite flawed overall I would say.

An analogous situation has to do with high definition televisons - a lot of people wring their hands over the terrifying thought that someone else might have a "better" TV picture than they do, but you never hear the technophiles talk about content. Why do I need to watch garbage like Jersey Shore in high resolution? Would that somehow mitigate my suffering? I doubt it. And the same is true for photography - megapixels are a red herring.

It seems to me that a great deal of the issue about "perfection" vs. "artistry" relates to the purposes of the photos and the general visual experience of the viewer.

If the purpose is product photography, then a kind of technical perfection is indeed the goal in most cases. The subject is of much less consequence, and the content is really more of anthropological/political(in the Marxist sense) interest. This is also true for subsets of product photography, such as architectural, fashion and increasingly now sports photography photography. If one thinks about it , a lot of wedding and portrait photography seems more like product photography these days as well.

I would argue that so many of the people who glom onto the technical aspects of photography as a kind of raison d'etre do so for a couple of reasons: 1. that's the type of photographic image they've probably been most exposed to, given the ubiquity of photography for product shots & etc. 2. they are tech types or have an engineering mindset anyway, so expecting them to have an innate soft spot for the unpredictability and unruliness of much of what is more artistically oriented is like cutting across their grain. You'll see the same thing in a lot of wildlife sculpture, where there are a lot of ooohhh's and aaahhh's when a carver concentrates his (again, nearly always male) efforts at rendering super fine detail. You'll see it in museums as well, where certain folks will gravitate to or better appreciate works with a lot of "detail", versus all the other possible qualities that energize a work.

I second Marc's motion!

Oops, I should have checked that link to the George Lawrence photograph. That one really does not have enough resolution to work well. In the original picture you can see what the workmen on the ground are wearing (it takes a magnifying glass on the 48" long photograph to see the detail)
I think this link can lead you to a better version,
But viewing an original print will be best until someone scans one of those prints and perhaps makes it available.

Don't worry Mike, whilst we may be in agreement, we'll keep your boat afloat by buying plenty more unnecessary gear for our collections, via the links.

Dave (Engineer, and being from Scotland, sometimes referred to as a "Jock", by certain rude folk from England...)

I think John Camp's comment dovetails nicely with Ctein's (I think it was Ctein. If I am mis-attributing, I apologize) concept of photographic fetishes. Some people are just really into one aspect of picture making, and that seems to be all they notice, or respond to. John could similarly ask for one truly great photograph that is great because of its shallow depth of field, or its lack of noise. I bet there are just as few.

To the featured comments by John Camp (whose contributions here and elsewhere I always appreciate), I'd like to respond that photography can provide the means for a geek to participate in a social situation -- and I should know!

Mike, I am entranced, intrigued and delighted by the balance you manage to strike on this blog. Between you, your guest writers (a million thanks for introducing me to Kirk Tuck, by the way) and your commenters, I consistently find things worth reading and thinking about. Frequently, the reading and thinking opens new vistas for me.

I could not ask for more and only hope that you will continue to dance along the tightrope of this daily blogging thing with the same curmudgeonly grace and passion that you have brought to it this year.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I strongly recommend "The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition", by Gustavo Mercado, because the elements that photographers agonize over, film-makers do at 25fps.

Perfection is a disease caused by our plastic, mass producing time.
Back when everything was hand made, every object would be more or less different from the next object. Some objects would be better or more beautiful, other not so much, and even objects that were all good enough and beautiful enough would not be exactly similar. Picking a good or beautiful thing would demand a keen eye and taste, and was not that easy. It required skills both by the maker (to select a certain level of 'good enough') and by the user (to select his personal favourite). With mechanised and automated production, most items would start to look similar, and only technical flaws would set them apart. Now those technical flaws are much easier to pick; just discard anything that is different from average.
By now many people have lost their skills needed to pick real quality, all they do is look for technical flaws, and think of the lack of technical flaws as quality. Real quality, feeling, message and personality have become to hard too read for many.
Society dumbing down?

It's a bureaucracy thing.

A prolonged analogy:

Many years ago, I worked sound-desk at a church. One evening, during practice, some little squirt of an upstart came round and started noting down the positions of all the knobs and sliders so they could have a "standard evening preset" - oh, and "don't complain, because they're your settings" (for which I did not bust his ass the length of the aisle). What idiot got that idea in their thick head?

Go to a (classical, proper) concert and see, with that number of performers and notes, how many bum-notes are played. Musicianship is not just avoiding screw-ups, it's getting a musical performance covering them up. You don't care about the motion-blur in the leading boy's hand, because the photo's merits are the story of Kim Phuc!

It may be that, when mankind first started putting reality in a frame, people said "5x4 ratio works; near/mid/far works" - and then some jerk got *prescriptive* about it. "Thou shalt incorporate near/mid/far in thy landscapes", "having everything sharp is good", etc. A better analysis would be to consider composition, message and mood - e.g. choosing a blue/cream duotone "look" to convey *coldness*, a platinum "look" for antiquity, etc.

Of course, mixing on sound-desk is a dynamic affair, making the best of the mezzo-soprano with a cold this week versus the piano whose mic's come unplugged.

One to bake your noodle: having rules and breaking them is a duality; if we did not have these rules, would we need to have invented them anyway?

And: there's no EXIF tag for soul.

"direct emotional response. Develop that"
Any tips or pointers in that regard? The real challenge is in getting an emotional response from more than about 5 people. I am, at the moment, looking at a picture of sailboats that I made from the Isle of Anglesey while on vacation with my family. I think it is a decent photograph, but it will likely evoke a "direct emotional response" from precisely 4 people as we remember an incredible vacation in Wales. Will others have that same response to my image? Unlikely. Do I care? Not really.

So I think your point about developing a direct emotional response is valid, but it is all a matter of degrees. The happy snapper might take a thousand pictures of their kid in a year, getting great emotional responses from the grandparents, aunts and uncles, while not being terribly great artistically by someone else's standards. We've all seen so many millions of images (thank you internet and digital media) that I think we've become a bit jaded. The image you lead with is interesting precisely because of the imperfections and the history. On the merits of composition and subject, I find it ho-hum.
How do we create that emotional response beyond a few friends an family?

There is something disappointing about
a photograph that looks exactly the same
as it did when you released the shutter.

A good point John, but hardly a new phenomena. As Edward Weston said in 1927...

"The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don't know what to do with it."

...and as long as some folk believe that better equipment = better photography, it's going to continue.

I feel I have something to add to this discussion because I am a completely technical person who always pursued that side of personality and I am attempting to begin photography as a creative release. I have that yearning for art John Camp speaks of but for me it is a yearning for creation in the hopes it will lead to emotional fulfillment. Pursuing the technical things that I am good at has not gotten me anywhere. In fact, I am starting my third technical career next month and I am only 34. The others have been completely unfulfilling and have left me bored and depressed. Since I am technical, I have spent years reading the "correct" way to pursue photography. All that reading has done no good. One problem it has caused is to make me to realize my photography will be full of cliches as what interests me is the typical nature and architecture. The world is full of mediocre nature and architecture photography. Being technical and seeing everything as black and white, right and wrong, means that I believe my photos will be either good or bad with no gray area in between. So, I am trying to use photography to teach myself to do what I *feel* is right to me and only me; to try to create and not give a damn what others think. And I'll tell you, that thought scares the sh*t out of me! WAY out of my comfort zone.

Here is how I plan to thwart my fears. The reason I have been unfulfilled in my careers is that after several months I am comfortable with the new technical work. My personal strengths are learning new things and solving logical problems. After those several months I learn nothing new and the problems have been mostly solved. I'm missing the key component of flow where my work occupies my mind and makes the time fly by. I would come home from work feeling like I needed a project around the house to get the desire for creation and completion out of my system. So, with my photography I need to create flow by just leaping out to take pictures and stop thinking about 1) why I'm photographing, 2) what this or that photo will say, and 3) whether or not anyone but myself will like it. By immersing myself in the process, I get into flow and my brain becomes preoccupied and forgets to consider these cognitive hindrances. Without the focus on the fears, the worry and depression subside. It is definitely hard to just take that first step so I have to remind myself with sayings such as "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I have gravitated to film cameras because I spend so much time in front of computers in my technical jobs. Plus I love to manual focus and compose in a viewfinder. I am trying to use those loves to get into flow by enjoying those acts rather than thinking about what my pictures say. My other saying is "The journey is the reward." I have that on a paperweight on my desk to remind me that if I focus on enjoying the journey then I will be fulfilled emotionally. It's the focus on the end products that is detrimental to me. But a technical education always focuses on the end products.

John Camp's idea of putting introverts with lots of people is interesting. I don't think it would work with me. If great photography comes from passion for a subject, I'm afraid I will feel no passion being forced into a way that I am not comfortable with. Plus, I will not have a desire to pursue something that is not closely tied to my personality or values. If you take an extrovert and force them to spend long periods alone will they become creative in new way or will they just shut down? It's an interesting topic to consider.

Sorry for the long comment but this topic weighs heavily on my over-analytical mind!

What a wonderful piece. Thank you!

These points seem obvious:

1. Serious photography use to require a high level of technical skill and expertise. It does not anymore.

2. Almost anyone can pick up a modern digital camera and, with minimal setup, make technically perfect crappy pictures.

3. Artists with no capacity for technicalities can now do art with photography, producing even more great art.

4. With the additional amount of crappy photography we also are able to enjoy much more really great photography. We must ignore the bad and celebrate the good.

5. Our medium is thus much more important and meaningful.

Great post. Reading it made writing my daily blog post a snap.


Hmmm; I've been a photographer longer than I've been a computer person (I have negatives going back to 1962, but I first got anywhere near a computer in 1968), and had in fact started using a manual-exposure 35mm camera and doing some darkroom work before I started programming.

Then again, programming is as much art as science anyway. Getting a syntactically correct program that produces the required results when run is a fairly small part of the task. (Software has been my profession since I was 15.)

I'm not happy seeing what I view largely as a disagreement about personal taste in art being blown up into a philosophical or even moral issue; which is one thing I see happening here. Some people seem to be saying that many of the photos I like lack "heart", or perhaps even "soul", apparently due to my stunted emotional growth. Is it actually productive to toss around grenades of that magnitude?

"Why does shooting a small, personal subject close to home generally end up more successful than going off in pursuit of a grand one far away?"

I couldn't agree with you more on this subject, John. Most great photographers and the great photographs they produce are a result of intimate knowledge of the subject. Ansel Adams spent years in Yosemite; Steve McCurry spent—and continues to spend—month after month in Afghanistan. It's really a requirement to produce a solid and important body of work.

I've written a book about it (http://craftandvision.com/books/close-to-home/) and continue to explore this in my work going forward. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on it.

Dear Steve,

Ooooh, so close... just a few syllables too many:

A Haiku

Something disappoints
When photos look the same as
When you pressed the shutter

pax / poetic Ctein

John's article was so interesting that I did a search for more of his writing.
Not easy to find, as most leads back to this.
In a future article, please give us some links to his past writing.

Although wholly behind the sentiment, I'm a little puzzled by the OP's implication that all this is new.

I left the first (and last) camera club I ever joined in the early '80s after one month because if you didn't own a Leica M or a medium format camera, shoot exclusively in B&W and develop your own film you were not a photographer.

Thirty years on, all that's changed is that forums have replaced clubs and we now have a new brand of "neo-nerd" competing for blog space with the fusty old "togniscenti" I met at the camera club, still legislating on all aspects of photographic worthiness and merit.

But here's a thing, and I echo John Krumm's sentiments, that among those millions of ordinary people producing happy snaps and the clinical minority producing technically perfect mediocrity, there are those (usually the young of all backgrounds and persuasions) who pick up a cheap digital camera or an iPhone and find a talent they never knew they had.

They produce exciting and insightful work mainly because they are unburdened by technical and artistic prejudice and perhaps because the new technology imposes far fewer restrictions and allows them to concentrate on the story.

Love TOP - exercises both lobes of my brain!
Decrying the contributions of technology to photography is denying what gave you the opportunity to be a photographer. Whether it's chemistry or physics or engineering, photography would not exist without science. And some of those scientists who developed the processes and products we use created some quite nice work.
Were I to be in a mood to rant, I'd probably go off on those who "teach" art (or photography) who want me to follow their rules of composition or exposure or whatever to produce an acceptable "art" photograph.
What is Art? I Googled "What is Art?" and up pops "About 4,810,000,000 results (0.19 seconds) " I especially liked the second entry "What is art? 6.8 billion different things, strictly speaking. When writing a paper, however, you should probably stick with "Art is form and content."" I guess that explains everything!

The Japanese have the concept of "wabi-sabi," which defies a full translation into western sensibilities/English, but a close approximation is that it's the aesthetic of imperfection. Cracked vases are repaired with gold and the scars are seen as improvements. Asymmetry and irregularity are strived for. Simplicity and austerity are held aloft as ideals. This flies in the face of the standard western view that tends towards more Cartesian values.

With the ease and clarity of digital photography it's no surprise that the hipsters have rebelled and made Holga/Diana photos cool, this of course being replicated on iPhones via Instragram and similar filters that deliberately add imperfections.

I have to admit I'm drawn to it. I love using Instagram, although I should emphasize that I see it as more of a "fun" and "social" thing than any sort of meaningful representation of anything. Instagrams are basically just visual tweets. They have very little longevity and are intended to be fun, in-the-moment visual brain farts to share with friends.

When it comes to more serious work, I've always been drawn to the quirky and unconventional. After all, it's not hard to take a clear photo with good composition. Millions of them are made every day. So what stands out? The oddball stuff that works despite the so-called errors.

On the other hand, I'm also drawn to exceptionally well crafted stuff such as the large scale images of Edward Burtynsky. That works because it takes real expertise and effort to pull off. That kind of work will always be exceptional.

But due to the advanced state of digital photography, the dull middle-of-the-road is now the wide swath of well exposed, nicely composed photographs of reasonably interesting subjects. We're drowning in them. So why wouldn't people prefer interesting quirks and "errors?"

If you check the "Categories" in the right hand sidebar, you'll see one called "John Kennerdell." I just can't guarantee *all* of his articles will be in there, because I have such a lazy, incompetent assistant.

Mike, boss of TOP / also TOP assistant

John - I was very disappointed when I reached the end of your essay and there was no "Continue reading..." link.

Photographers like Gursky and Ansel Adams produce pictures that are perfect in every way and this doesn't stop people from enjoying them.

I guess perfection or not is just a means. It depends whether that adds something to a picture. Whether it helps you understand the picture better.

I like Rick's puzzle best:
"How do we create that emotional response beyond a few friends an family?".

In even the most technical job, don't let it be black-and-white. Don't settle for the first answer that meets the bare requirements of the problem. Keep going until you find a good answer, one that doesn't waste resources and will be easy for people to understand and work with in the future and can be easily adjusted for small changes in requirements and all those good things.

And if you find you're mastering your job in a few months, look for a higher-level job. Product development? Large-scale system architecture? Security? R&D? Even pure science?

I cannot even begin to give an accurate account as to how many articles, blogs, I have written on all of the above. Incredible article. To the point and very right on in every area.


I'll try this again, since it seems like Mike may have misread my comment the first time around...

John - I was very disappointed when I came to the end of your essay, and there was no link to "Continue reading...".

I really enjoyed the piece, and it left me wanting to read more. I'm looking forward to the next time.

I think a lot of the most famous news pictures are imperfect. Unlike some, I don't think that the imperfections are usually positive factors for those pictures; I just think that some of those pictures are so fantastic that the pluses heavily outweigh the minuses. ("perfection" is subjective of course.)

I think this works less well for pure art. What's "right" is an artistic decision and hence subjective, but I think art needs to get most things right to succeed enough to find a market. Possibly some artistic concepts are so big that, like the great news pictures, they can shine through layers of imperfections, though.

Thanks for the reply about my problem with technical work. I have always tried to make my work about productivity and easy to use for others. A large problem was that I haven't found much interest in my former careers of engineering and finance. So, little interest meant little desire to push for more responsibility and challenges. All the career advice from my schools has never helped. What has helped is looking into my personality and choosing work based on that rather than my talents. I am starting IT work next week and for the first time I am excited about working. Plus, in interviews I can be myself rather than memorize the "correct answers" to questions about my interest in engineering or finance. That second statement tells me tons more than any career advice ever has. IT fits my favorite things of learning new things and solving logic problems since there are constantly changes in technology to learn and problems to solve or solutions to improve upon. I'm going to try systems analysis or some form of networking first. Not the best place to have this conversation (sorry, Mike) but I wanted to thank you for the advice.

I think this applies to printing too. rare for the pic to rely on a perfect print for greatness, unless, it is about the printing or the resolution. I took a photo of sand on a beach with the 6x6 the other day, and every grain was visible
If I had only had my iphone, I would have just noted the composition and detail in my head and moved on. The photo is to a great extent about the sand detail. Occasionally a photo is about the colour or the detail in the highs and lows, but this is rare. I don't agree about the new gear not making any difference. It doesn't make any difference to the picture quality itself maybe, but it is an inspiration and spur to get out and shoot where you might not have done so otherwise. Even a downgrade in gear can do this.

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