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Tuesday, 17 January 2012


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Thank you so much for the links to the Henry Wessel interviews. Henry's ideas about spontaneous response to the visual world as a rich source of great photography is such a breath of fresh air.


Thanks for the links to the Henry Wessel interviews. Thanks for the great article and, by the way, nice photo!

A lot of thought-provoking material here. Thanks! It's interesting that you should cite Callahan as encouraging photographers to freshen their vision. I distinctly remember a quote in which he said that he had, in fact, explored the same ideas over and over again. And if you look at the work, this seems to be the case: urban landscapes and loving wife-scapes are what I recall. I love Callahan's work specially because of this quiet and repeated contemplation of the things that moved him. (This doesn't mean the other quote is wrong. We are all allowed to contradict ourselves.) Thanks again for the piece.


Thanks for a nice and intelligent 'start the year' piece of writing. I recognised the picture at the top as one of yours before seeing it was your column.

I'll look through all your links, but am very appreciative of the Henry Wessel interviews. I've enjoyed his work ever since you pointed him out to me elsewhere many moons ago.


Articles like this are why "TOP" is a must-read every morning. Mike, Ken, Ctein, Kirk, et al , thank you for the very high standards you keep up.I write a monthly column for a gardening magazine, and often run into "writer's block " to find something completely fresh. "TOP" is always an inspiration. Ken's article is a breath of fresh air. - Mike- yours are ALWAYS a breath of fresh air- especially your "Off topic" rants- which occur at about the right rate for me!! Living in Australia means I can't contribute a lot by purchasing through your affiliates, -(I like to support local retailers who give good advice) but I'll look carefully at my out-goings each month and would like to increase my quarterly contributions to you, although writers and small photographers don't make a lot of money!! , and I've just found my ride-on mower needs major maintenance!! Kindest regards to you all. Bruce

Dear Ken,

Wow. Can't wait to see how you meet the very high bar you set yourself with this column in future ones.

Mike should talk you into writing weekly (hey, easy for me to say-- I neither have to persuade nor do the work).

pax / Ctein

P.S. I don't understand your football at all!!!! Australian Rules {AFL) has grown on me since moving to Central Victoria from New Zealand thirty years ago and abandoning support for Rugby, which now bears no resemblance to the game I used to play. Bruce

Nice shot.


I seem to recall you mentioning an article in the works about using jpg's. I am new to digital (long time film waster_ and I am embracing this concept. However there seems to be very little written on the great interwebs, about making photos in camera... Can you lead us that are interested to anything?

I also greatly admire artists who worked successfully in multiple media. Sheeler is at the top of the list, and a lot can also be learned from Ralston Crawford, Ben Shahn and even Brancusi, whose photographs (mainly of his own sculptures) are fantastic (not to mention rare and pricey).

I also highly recommend the book 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain' by Betty Edwards, which offers a wealth of insights for drawing that are quite applicable to photography (new inexpensive paperback edition recently released). Folks who have used a large format cameras, for instance, will instantly recognize one of her useful drawing exercises that involves turning the subject upside down. I couldn't draw worth squat, but the book provided some incredibly valuable visual tools.

The Phillips Collection exhibit has been on my to-do list since it was announced last Spring. Coming up soon!

Regarding your first question, "how do you feel, " I'd have to say, "getting better, a month after the surgery." Though I'm "only 58," I was diagnosed last fall with basal joint arthritis, causing chronic pain in the right palm below my thumb.

I chose to fix my worn thumb-to-wrist with with surgery before things got any worse. From here on out, this joint should give me no problems...once I teach it how to move again. I chose to do this now while photo business is slow. It really makes me notice the total lack of left-handed cameras, or even something hand-neutral, like a Rolleiflex. Holding cameras and manipulating rear control dials is very thumb-intensive.

Hi Ken,

Admittedly I have not read the article. No mind, I love the image.


Studying other art forms is always a good idea, and something I don't do enough. It got me thinking about art-ed videos — something to watch while running photos through Lightroom or waiting for the film scanner. Any recommendations on quality art documentaries? I'd better see if Netflix has anything along these lines.

Well done Ken,

In fact I have just started to shoot JPEG again with a new puppy in the house. It makes my life easier and I am more impressed than I thought I might be going into it.

Also, 3 cheers for studying paintings and other medium!

Nice to have you writing here.


To counter your first snow pic Ken, trying to get ID 11 down to 20c (68f) to develop a few rolls. The water is coming out of the tap at 30c (86f). The cold tap.

I agree that spending time with paintings, drawings, etc. can be quite helpful. I do so, both in reproduction and originals.

In Fall 2010, I found new insights into light and shadow in the drawings in Millet and Rural France, at the Boston MFA. Fortunately, photography was allowed, so I have images of those that most affected me available to refresh my memories. Quality compact cameras are a great way to save samples for oneself.

Still, sometimes a book of photographic images created with a different mindset or worldview, or simply a different mind thinking and writing about them, can shake things up.

Last year, The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr and Michael Wood was that changer for me. It was reviewed on TOP also by Ken Tanaka.

This year, it may be George Barr's Why Photographs Work. Although many reviewers compare it to Szarkowski's Looking At Pictures, and sometimes find it wanting in comparison, I've dipped into Looking At Pictures several times, without any felt-shift of something new inside. So Why Photographs Work is already more useful for me, only part way through. (Yes, I work these things slowly.)


Your Kerteszesque image is beautiful, Ken, and your words very inspiring for this bright new year.

I definitely WILL shoot more this year.

"The dogma of using only camera-Raw image files was well-founded in the days when in-camera processing produced horror shows and anything shot higher than ISO 200 looked like pointillism.

To completely ignore these facilities on today's cameras is to
discard a big portion of their intrinsic value.

But the plain, blasphemous truth is that most of your
images might be better, and more practically handled
by your camera's own processor, at least as a starting point.
It probably knows much more about what needs fixing than you do. "

In short why the heck do any of us do all the stupidity involved with
converting a digital image from a RAW image to a finished product?

The once small point and shoot cameras now have as good results
if maybe better than all those expensive DSLR's in end results.

Suspect long term the purists shall continue to tout RAW
however for the most of us who use point and shoots and
yes still use (as in my case, slide), film.

JPEG's rule, and all of those small cameras
yes can utilize RAW, however bottom line, most of
what is seen in the popular press is a JPEG, not RAW!

"But the plain, blasphemous truth is that most of your images might be better, and more practically handled by your camera's own processor, at least as a starting point. It probably knows much more about what needs fixin' than you do."

No, Ken, my camera does NOT know more about what need's "fixin" than I do. It's a mindless tool. The true fact is that shooting jpeg, a perfectly valid file format for many endeavors, can/will greatly limit post-processing potential, thus limit creativity.

Nice piece, Ken.
Interesting coincidence that I emailed Mike some comments on the Photo LA show last Sunday night that are relevant to this. A conversation with a LA pro photographer (whom I did not know before we met over pizza at a restaurant's communal table after the show) found us in agreement that the show was mostly boring. Boring? Yes, we've seen the classics (e.g. Ansel Adams) so many times we want to see something new - like the half dozen Vivian Mayer photos on exhibit or the surrealist work from some Czech photographers from the 50s.
We both agreed that the Weegee "Naked Hollywood" exhibit at MOMA was much more interesting. And the recent small exhibit of the favorite photos from the LACMA Photo Board's member's private collections was exquisite.
But even more interesting are the vast number of exhibits of other art like "Pacific Standard TIme" running here in LA. We seen photos from the building of the atomic bomb, lots of wonderful sculpture and even 50s industrial design that are much more stimulating.
Our personal favorite is to go to art schools (one son went to CCS in Detroit and we have Art Center and Otis for example here in SoCal) where the work is fresh and untarnished. Second favorite is architectural tours here where we have the Eames, Lautner, FLWright, etc. structures - not to mention Julius Schulman's photos - to inspire us.
Or head for the Getty for sunset over the ocean. Bring camera!
So living here in SoCal, and on a farm most of the time, we're never bored. There's always something to see and photographs to take, adding to the hundreds of "Only In California" photos or just sitting on the patio shooting the hummingbirds.
And one project I've had for more than 4 decades is photo abstractions. I dump them into a folder and use them for the screen saver on my iMac, so sometimes when I've paused in my writing or are talking on the phone, I'll be entertained by some of the hundreds of photos I've taken.
Makes me feel great!

This January Reassessment really touches me today as I simplify and clean up my photo life and business. The Ctein's quote included hits home so directly..... "Nobody Cares how much time you spend on an image!"
Means to me The Image Buyers quickly Look and Decide. Ctein's quote could also be translated into "Nobody Cares what Camera or Lens or Smart Phone you used to make an image!" Or "The Images stand on their own... once you release them out there to the Image Eaters!"

The jpgs-are-ok comments are interesting. I found that after I read interweb threads on the topic, I actually feel a little guilty when I don't use RAW and the image turns out just fine. Like I cheated or something. We're so easily influenced.

Thanks everyone for the good comments. The community of mature, knowledgeable, and curious readers here represents the tremendous value of what Mike has grown here at TOP. That's why my main goal for this year's articles, as I proposed to Mike, is less to inform readers than to inspire and provoke rich commentary.

@ Bill Poole: Keen observation regarding Harry Callahan, Bill! Indeed Harry sopped every drop of juice from his visual ideas trying every trick, however gimmicky and camera-clubby, to reach his goals for his generally self-assigned projects. And that tended to be the spirit of the Institute of Design here in Chicago (the Chicago Bauhaus) where Harry taught. (You can get an idea of how many concepts Callahan explored by browsing the fairly extensive collection of his prints we have at the Art Institute of Chicago.) But exhaustively exploring possibilities requires consistent forward progress (either apparent or conceptual) which only you can determine for your work.

I could go on and on about the ID (which melted into becoming part of the Illinois Institute of Technology). So many of the folks who studied there in its brief golden age - Ray K. Metzker, Barbara Crane, Joe Sterling, et.al. .. went on to become some of the truest examples of photographic artists the world has known. But the topic is just too big for a comment. And it's already been covered nicely by an exhibit catalog still in print: Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937-1971".

@ Mike Johnston: (from a message) You edited-out my claim in the "Painting Your Pictures" topic that "...that nearly all of the most admired photographers throughout the medium’s history started as artists or at least as art students.". I may have exaggerated the proportions, and of course "most admired" leaves some taxonomic wiggle room. But I do stand firmly by my claim; the best photography has come from those who studied and/or taught art. Yes, Harry Callahan started as an amateur in Detroit camera clubs. But he certainly lived his professional life in the art world as both a teacher and practitioner. Yes, Barbara Crane initially studied art history at NYU but she, too, spent her life as an artist and, in fact, received her MFA in photography from the Institute of Design.

(Side note: The real wonder of late-discovered amateurs such as Vivian Maier and Gary Stochl is that they were able to nurture and hone their natural talent in the absence of formal instruction and outside the invigorating and supportive spheres of the art world. For each Maier and Stochl there are countless millions of talented people who become discouraged or simply let other life rails lead them away.)

So thank you for erasing what was probably an exaggerative claim. But I really do want to make the apex point to help urge others to roll their sleeves a bit higher if they want to progress in photography.

@ gregg: Yes, I did suggest a piece on working with in-camera JPGs. Honstly, I was planning to just let it melt into a suggestive point in this article. But you, and several other readers (some privately), do seem interested in a more dedicated treatment to the topic. And how could I not at least acknowledge the formidable gauntlet tossed to the ground by Chuck Kimmerle! ;-) (Robert Roaldi, I hereby absolve you of your 8-bit sins.)

So, with Mike's permission I'll plan on putting a small piece together in the next week or so devoted to this topic. OK?

"So, with Mike's permission I'll plan on putting a small piece together in the next week or so devoted to this topic."

Just a side note (for others to read as well, so they know): You don't need my permission. All the Columnists at TOP are entirely free to choose their own topics.

Ctein just published column #222, and I think there have been two that I might have quarreled with him about (his memory might peg that number slightly higher, I don't know [g]). But for the most part, he has wide discretion as to what to write about.

As do you, now.


Dear folks,

Futilely trying to keep the record straight--

I did not originate, "Nobody cares how hard you work." (or some such to that effect)

Bob Nadler deserves full faith and credit for it. I merely pass on the words of wisdom.


Dear Mike,

Well, and there were the two you entirely rejected out of hand.

Not that an author would EVER dwell on such things, no never. [g]

pax / Ctein

"Well, and there were the two you entirely rejected out of hand."

Those were the two I was talking about. I just put it more delicately. [g]


Dear Mike,

Ahhh, a semantic subtlety; there had been others you'd quarreled with, it's just the good and righteousness (that'd be moi) prevailed.

pax / unassuming Ctein

Hi Ken,

So glad to see you here at last on a regular basis! I have been eagerly awaiting your first piece and this was, in my experience, not the "high Bar" you set for yourself, but simply you and all that you offer all of us. Thank you so much!


On studying art: "It just imparts a keener eye for organizing elements in space."

I think you might be right. My sole memory of art was at school, being told that my drawing of a dog looked like a pregnant dinosaur.

However, a friend of mine came up with the advice, "look *at* the viewfinder, not through it" regarding composition - because the result will be 2D only. That's hard when you have a regular viewfinder and the distractions of real-world scenery in front of you; however, as I discovered the other month, if you set out to make a simple, minimal work based around a piece of paper, laying out objects on it makes the photographic composition so much easier, and yet more profound (rather like what you get in a fancy restaurant). This applies whether you're going for SOOC results or when combining multiple elements in PS. Quite recommended as an exercise.

I am very glad you shared that anecdote, Tim. Treating the viewfinder (lcd) as a picture, rather than as a hole, is exactly the type of exercise I would have proposed if space permitted. Organizing flat shapes of various sizes within a rectangle is very much an early art school-type exercise (known as "figure/ground composition") that anyone can practice nearly anywhere and any time, with pieces of paper or pencil to paper. Rather like doing isometric exercises for muscle toning while seated.

A very inspiring article. For several months, I've been meaning to put into practice two of the suggestions made here, i.e. studying a couple of books about art, and trying to rely a bit more on my camera's (a K-5) jpegs. Now I feel that I've been given the definitive arguments to stop postponing this and get down to work. Thanks Ken.

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