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Friday, 25 May 2012


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Oh the irony! Now that with digital the incremental cost of taking the next picture is zero, it turns out that a smaller fraction of those pictures have any value (public value, anyway).

Is this what digital means? Too many worthless pictures, just like too many useless telephone conversations, or too many pointless text messages (I'm at the mall now.). All those bits of data flying around, but not many of value. The channels get clogged up so it takes longer to find the good bits.

Man, nothing is ever easy.

Of all the "Great" photographers, only Cartier-Bresson has more than a handfull of true masterpieces.

Well said. I absolutely agree that the digital tsunami requires more serious photographers to raise their standards . . . and lower the axe on all but the best photos. I think it has been that way for many years, well before digital, with virtually all of the techniques attempted, virtually all of the scenes seen and recorded. The online world has brought that home in a brutal way.

Especially given the expense of paper, I just won't print unless the image is way above (my) average and/or is a family snap to be given away.

What I need to see in an image in order for it to make that cut is, in addition to decent light, composition and tone/color, some emotional or existential impact, some resonance on the level of life, love, desire and their opposites.

I agree. The deluge is not new, either, if you think about Cindy Sherman or Susan Sontag's work of decades ago, now. I try to distinguish between "blog-worthy" photos that I'll post on my blog vs. "portfolio quality" photos I'll place in the galleries of my commercial site. Even the latter could stand some serious machete hacking followed by more judicious pruning.

This is one of the reasons I rarely take photos anymore: I'm jaded. I have one (accidental) image I really like, and printed. The others are merely technically acceptable. I wouldn't hang anybody else's "acceptable" pictures on my walls, and I won't do it with mine either.

If I ever started to think that I was getting more than six or seven really good shots a year, I'd be concerned that my standards were slipping.

I think I may have as many as five portfolio-quality photos from the last ten years.

Barnbaum told me once he generally makes 6 images a year that he is willing to sell. Not sure how many exposures he makes during that year. Personally if I get 5 really great images a year I'm happy. That would be tier one stuff, tier two or three could amount to 25 for the year.

Counting the ratio of keepers against total images made is a waste of time in this digital age. Last weekend I shot some images of a local steam locomotive coming towards me out of some trees. In the old film days I would have "previsualized" what I wanted and only took one shot. With the D700 I just put it on "friggen fast" and let'r rip. Instead of one image I have 25 to sort through and just pick the best one. Which probably would have been the shot I would have made if I kept to my old film tactics. It's just easier these days. I must admit I am getting lazier too.

Interesting and worthwhile photographs that are worth looking at more than once always have been few and far between. Before the near universal use of 35mm film, George Bernard Shaw complained that photographers produced photographs in the millions the same way salmon produced eggs.

Digital hasn't changed the fundamental nature of photography - merely made it cheaper and easier to promiscuosly produce pictures. Where digital has had a massive impact is on the distribution of photographs.

The reductive process of editing is as Mike says, fundamental to photographer producing a meaningful picture, let alone a body of work.

Well said.

It kind of reminds of a similar point with people who complain about using RAW because it takes so much time to process 'all' their images. I wonder how many friends and relatives have to sit through the modern evocation of an amateur slide show. And I agree with you, if I feel I can hand on heart say I have a couple of images in a year that stand long term scrutiny I'm chuffed to bits. But self censorship was drilled into me from day one of my life with a camera, perhaps times have changed?

This is why I'm interested in 4X5. With 9 holders on any outing I can carry a maximum of 18 exposures. Or my ancient Kodak Tourist II 6X9, 8 exposures on 120 film. For a guy who for 40 years has never been without a 35mm half frame I hope to become somewhat more disciplined. I know, a little late in life but I have to start sometime.

Oh, and wow! I can finally look at a contact sheet without a 5X magnifier.

Dear Mike,

I think this may be a more common style than you suggest. I suspect most photographers who are any good produce far more meritworthy photographs than they have the time or inclination to print. I recall Ansel Adams complaining about all the negatives he hadn't had time to explore.

My production hasn't been all that much different than what you project. With the nearly-singular exception of the Scotland portfolio, I've tended to look at a proof sheet, pick out the one photograph I like the very, very best for printing and then move on to another sheet. My dye transfer portfolio, extracted from nearly four decades of photography, amounts to 300 prints. That is only a factor of two different from your number; in this context, an unimportant distinction.

Lately, I've been trying to print MORE (digitally, that is), just to see what happens when I work differently. It's a good artistic/psychological experiment, I think, but I still have entire photo trips where I haven't printed a single photo... and there are plenty of good ones. I just hop around too much.

But until you brought it up her, I'd never thought about the extreme editing as being a good, possibly necessary strategy in the Flickr era. A great insight.

pax / Ctein 

Another take on my favorite TOP post of all time - "Reify and Redact." I do think this weeding down of images is so crucial and in many ways more difficult than the shooting.


The internet photo experience would be much more interesting if everyone followed your lead.

Bah. Don't let the "best" get the better of the "good". Spend more time using your camera with a purpose in mind, pay much more attention to light and frame organization, edit rigorously but spend less time looking for "masterpieces" (in your view of what such an image might be).

I guarantee that you'll produce a fine body of photography.

In my view, for images to be original they have to capitalise on technology.

I've just had a sell out exhibition of portraits of ordinary people.

What makes the images original is that I photographed commuters in trains from the outside of the train as they passed me by, approximately 1.5m away at 40 km/h.

I couldn't see the commuters and they couldn't see me. To photograph the commuters, I had to work at 12,000 asa, 1/300th sec.

Another way of what I am trying to say is that only technology can render the invisible, visible. So I doubt a 4x5 view camera or a Leica M6 is capable of anything original now.

To see my images, click on the link below:

Those are great. Sure looks like that one guy fourth from the end saw you, though!


I think I have spent a lot more money on gear since digital photography has taken over than I ever would have spent on shooting film. However, I learned a lot more and a lot faster by shooting thousands of digital photographs and I have developed my style and my senses for the "decisive moment" because I didn't have that little hesitation about taking a shot that used to hold me back with film. Now that I know what I want to shoot, I do shoot film again, medium and large format that is.

Hi Mike

the fourth image from the end is a good image to back of my argument about technology! It's the only portrait taken with the Nikon D4, all the others were taken in 2011 with a Nikon D700.

This is true, but only insofar as you limit photography to the production of individually stunning images. I think it's a more multi-faceted genre than that, sometimes closer to literature. Think "I have something to tell you", as opposed to "I have something to show you"

The train photos (John's) are indeed very interesting to look at. So many look like they are being led to their deaths, or they just lost a love one. I suppose the relaxed state of our faces is often perceived as sad.

John Slaytor,
Those are phenomenal images. I am quite moved.

I'm not so sure about institutionalizing the notion of "ruthless critique" in one's artistic life. I have found that sort of thinking to be the enemy of productive creativity in writing (particularly fiction), dance, theater, and drawing. I think it might be a necessary tool, given the constraints of the flood of images we make, but I have no special enthusiasm for such thinking, and do not believe it needs to be elevated. I am quite confident that you have at least twice as many keepers as you think, perhaps quite a bit more, but I think recognizing them is a special skill that requires practice, a light touch, and creativity. Saying "no" is not the same thing as saying, "yes, this one, with all it's flaws."

Ruthless critique can become an end, and a damaging one, institutionalizing self-hate as a virtue. I think it works against the quiet listening to one's self. I also think it prevents us from listening to others: there are a number of images I've made that I thought well of, but paid little attention to, that mean a great deal to people I love. Looking at them again, I am able to see them from the outside, and recognize what they see. I think learning to recognize when you've "got it" is more important, a more significant act than the act of saying "no."


John Slaytor,
Very interesting, very disturbing, ... and I think back to commuting into downtown Chicago, and I may have worn the "look", but I remember the heady exhilaration of moving through those crowds, of places to go and things to do. I think the bleak and despondent look is the mask of protection, not one of quiet desperation.

Ken, yes, the search for masterpieces, is not conducive to actually producing one.

. . . forgot to get to the point of my first post: Mike, that photo of yours from the previous post does have that certain special something, I agree. I would print that for sure.

Reading this article and the comments, I find myself relieved. I only get a few good photos a year. My definition of 'good' continues to change too. Photos that I was thrilled about a few years ago would not make the cut now. To me, that is good, because it means I'm discerning and I'm improving. I'm just glad that I'm not alone.

Thanks for another great bit of writing, Mike. I spent a few minutes trimming some photos from 'my best' folder before coming here. Your photo yesterday got me thinking similarly to you, I suppose.

I've been ruminating on the "value" of photographs for a while. I can now trawl through the various photography websites and come across lots and lots of interesting, good, evocative, etc. pictures. My question is this, does the world really need another one? Do I? I guess that's two questions but never mind.

Over the last several years of being burned out by my friends' instagram feeds, people's personal website collections, and the loads of photo sites, I have stopped taking pictures. I no longer take any joy in capturing a beautiful subject or making a clever picture. Abstract compositions, landscapes, and nudes (how many nude pictures do you think exist today?) are so common as to be worthless to take time viewing, and even less worthwhile making.

I have now vowed to use photography for what is meaningful to me, my friends and family. In short, I think that the deluge of "art" photographs has made me appreciate the snapshot over all others. No matter how artfully composed, no matter what kind of dramatic lighting, no matter what what skillful technique used, the most amazing picture can't compare to a badly framed, slightly out of focus shot of my mother doing the dishes. Now that capturing a "good" photograph is no longer a feat, I can start appreciating and caring for the things I'm taking pictures of.

I read that Ansel Adams would be happy if he could land 12 1st class keepers a year. (grossly paraphrased) Lets say you shoot seriously for 30 years and only land 5 1st class, fine art keepers a year. That's a career portfolio of 150. 5 of which might be considered icons if one actually became famous. Not a bad effort when looked at over time.

Indeed, it is interesting to do this. I recently signed up to flickr to post my photos and have been going back through my archive. It surprised me how few I consider worthy of posting after only a couple of years compared to what I edited. Far fewer have even been printed, and there aren't many I'd want to.
Even worse, I decided to take your old advice of having a top 10 group. Very few are making that cut.
Maybe I should try your year of printing project.

@ John, I agree with Mike, great work! I am amazed at how sad and tired each rider appears. Did you edit for that or are we all that down in the dumps every day?

Hmmmm.....part of me understands what you're saying, Mike (and others), and certainly now I've probably seen enough stunning conventional images. By that I mean for instance anything from Bryce Canyon, shot well. Almost all current street photography. Almost all architectural photography. And etc. What would have bowled us all over in 1970 is now ubiquitous.

Yet part of me, a big part, agrees with Kenneth Tanaka above. And I also have had my own down the rabbit hole experience: after finally getting some images I was proud of (in photography---in other media I got that decades ago...), that matched the work I'd seen by other photographers I admire, I got to a point where I began to question all the "verities" of images and composition. That has bled over into my other work, and I have DIGITAL photography to thank for it. Reducing the expense of the shooting, in both effort/time and money, radically reduced the presumed preciousness of the output. This has allowed me to view my work in all media in a completely fresh way----and that's pretty tough in the 21st century, with our access to enormous quantities of art, more than ever before, and as a 56 y.o. guy who's been looking at art seriously since he was a kid. This is too difficult to put into words here and now, but trust me, it was like a silver bullet to the forehead.

Carl Weese's project might be an interesting point of departure when considering all the comments here. I'm sure the photographs will be excellent, but I suspect that the project will transcend the quality of individual images, the cumulative effect being more important. If he weeded them down to the few that he considered exceptional, it wouldn't be quite the same

Wow... Isaac Crawford hit the nail on the head.

I have to say I am really struggling to justify getting the new Canon 5D Mk3 that's after owning in order the 20D, 1DMk2, 1DsMk3 and now 1DMk2n and 5D. I now enjoy and take more photos with my phone and instagram... Sad... I am tired.

John Slaytor: Those are very good photographs. They remind me strongly of Walker Evans' work in Many Are Called and also in some of his other more conventionally-shot projects (such as "Labor Anonymous"). I consider that a high compliment, but I'm not sure where it leaves your notion about originality requiring the exploitation of new technology.

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