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Tuesday, 23 July 2013


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Another flag-

Incidentally, the French word for an exposure is "un cliché".

Taking pictures is not difficult; making pictures is.
Everyone can see a subject that appeals to him/her, grab a camera - whatever camera - and shoot. The difficulty lies in incorporating the expression of your own ideas in the photograph. Everyone can make meaningless pictures that appeal superficially to the viewer; creating a lasting impression, however, is not for everyone.
It looks as if today what everybody cares about is to make images that strike the viewer; HDR seems to be all the rage these days, and yes - these photographers never stray away from formulaic compositions. Most of these pictures, however, are ultimately hollow. The impression they cause lasts only until the next fabulous picture that appears when you scroll down Facebook's main page. In this regard my opinion coincides with John Kennerdell's findings.
Digital photography and Photoshop may have been a breakthrough in that they allowed many people to express themselves through photography, but they also had the rather pernicious effect of exaggeration. Now we have so many superficially great pictures that we forgot what a good picture should look like.
I felt this myself, even though I always rejected the artifice of Photoshop Cs: my pictures were becoming ever more overprocessed; I was forsaking the pursuit of a language of my own for making pictures visually appealing to a multitude of uneducated, undiscerning viewers. In a nutshell, I was trading content for style.
I realized I had gone too far, but I found an antidote in film photography.
All of a sudden photography started making sense again. Now my digital pictures emulate the look and feel of film. Surely the number of 'likes' on Facebook dwindled, but who cares? When I saw the prints from my first colour film roll, my brain almost burst with joy: they were wonderful! The colours, the tones, the contrast, the absence of blown highlights, the detail in the shadows and sharpness were all spot-on, save for a slight cyan hue, induced by the Fujicolor Superia 200, that affected reds and some blue and green tones.
I can't stop looking at those tiny prints: as Bert Stern said in a documentary I saw recently, pictures are like drugs. (Only less expensive and quite less harmful, I'd say.) And they're my pictures, not something I did to please the crowds.
Was it difficult? Technically, no. I got exposure and focus on my Oly OM-2n right from the first frame. Filling the pictures with that quality that makes a photograph special was (is - I'm not quite there yet) the hardest bit. And this takes a lot of learning and emptying ourselves of all false concepts that plague photography these days.

Thanks, Mike.
I needed that.

Excellent essay, Mike--one of your best (though I haven't read them all). You ought to consider combining pieces like this into an "On Photography" book. I suspect you'd also be an fine teacher; ever considered that?

Yes! You nailed it in one of the best posts I have read anywhere in a long time. It is very hard to do something that is your own, even harder to do something nobody has ever done before. It is so much more rewarding when you get recognized for something that is your own. Since most of us aren't getting paid for our photographs, how sad would it be if we did it just to please other people?

Do you think it all boils down to a passion Mike? If a photographer has that passion to try and try again and to see something in what they do which moves them to keep on going - then maybe it isn't really difficult for them -just inevitable?

You describe well much of a certain type of art making in general. I've just finished Keith Richard's book Life (highly recommended) and it was so clear how much work they put into making their music from the beginning. Of course, as with the occasional great song, the occasional great shot comes in an afternoon, but usually there are years of thought and practice leading up to that moment.

Acumen, photographic, business or otherwise does not guarantee that anyone will recognize your expertise. Why should it? If you want to impress a wide audience then you must provide them with what they desire. Regardless of your desires or goals.

I once spent a couple of years designing, building and attempting to sell a product that was actually named Acumen. It was an excellent product that performed useful functions but did not capture the imagination of a wide audience. That was not the fault of the consumers I was trying to reach.

You have a choice to pay attention to the desires of those who will pay for your time and effort or not. If you are really lucky you might be able to create work for yourself and still find an audience. Could work.

I'm not a professional photographer and will never be one no matter how many images I sell. My photos are enhanced or not, cropped or not, edited or not as I see fit. That is not to say that I am indifferent to the judgements of others. Just that photography is my creative outlet first and foremost.

What a wonderful post.

I resemble that post…

In any genre there are those that follow the current fashions and paint by numbers, as it were. But each genre also has those that say, "I've done that before. I've seen that before. How can I make something original?" That's true of photographers, but also true of painters, writers, illustrators, and the so-called "quasi-illustrators" that are receiving much of the criticism on this site lately.

I imagine that those quasi-illustrators working hard to produce truly original pieces are working just as hard to create an original interpretation of a flag as the hypothetical photographer that you describe. True creativity is not bound by media.

Some people just need to be in complete control. They don't want surprises. These are the same people who always eat at McD's (even thought there might be more exotic food available). You know exactly what you're going to get but then life starts to get a little blah. Leaving some things to chance might be a little scary but life becomes much more exciting. Making good art requires risk.
Great article Mike. I am inspired!

I think the modern fad for manufactured images is really just a replacement for photo-collage (eg Rodchenko) but it's not really photography, it's just a different artform altogether.

Really good photography actually does two things really well. It either captures real life in a way that resonates or the world around us in a way that we never really saw before, except perhaps unconsciously out of the corner of our eye.

To capture something that has resonance (even it's an uncomfortable one) or to see something in the mundane world that is sublime, is really really hard. You have so see it first.

Back in the dark ages of film photography when I was learning the craft I was taught how to retouch negatives and make 'corrections' in the process of printing. The goal was to have your adjustments invisible, undetectable by the viewer. Now I see photographers who turn every photo into a neon display of color or a surreal HDR image (even if it was made from a single exposure) and they believe that that constitutes their unique style. It's just technique people. Technique divorced from content.

No, it isn't.

Taking photos that make good pictures is.

I'd have this tattooed on my arm if it were shorter (the post, not my arm). Totally captures why I pick up a camera each day.

This seems sort of familiar, some other guy from Wisconsin was thinking about this a while back...


In my experience, if I like my flag photo, it is likely someone else at the fair will also like it - hopefully enough to buy a print.

"To really make a photograph of a flag, you'd have to go out into the world and find flags where they fly."

If cameras still had the little slot on the back for the film type I think I'd print this line and slip it in there so I'd always be reminded that there is a lot more to it than just getting to the flag pole and looking up...

Wonderful post/comments. Conveys the often solitary nature of making pictures. Makes me think why is it that photographers don’t collaborate more? There are examples (Becher, Broomberg & Chanarin) but they are rare. Yet collaboration is commonplace in many other art forms; drama, music, film. And many of us know that one of the primary benefits of attending a workshop is not simply the listening to the tutor but experiencing the way the other participants see the same subject matter differently. Maybe we could all gain more from the occasional collaborative photo project?

A great piece Mike, I really enjoyed the read.

I suppose the same thoughts all flash through my mind every time I read 'they are all keepers', or 'I only use JPEG because I haven't got time for post processing' and I wonder why they are bothering with a camera in the first place, they could just trawl the internet for photo's they like.

Photography should be difficult, in the sense that you are always questioning yourself, otherwise you simply aren't trying hard enough. People buy image quality as pixels and 'glass', but only half the job is done by not working on the quality of the image as well.


That's the best summary of the photographic process I've read

Thanks Mike,
Great post.

Some of my favourite photos I didn't look at initially but over time there has been a certain something that grabs me when I'm looking through them.

cheers phil

No these day only living is difficult, it used to be the other way around, I know.

Manuel wrote: "It looks as if today what everybody cares about is to make images that strike the viewer; HDR seems to be all the rage these days, and yes - these photographers never stray away from formulaic compositions. Most of these pictures, however, are ultimately hollow. The impression they cause lasts only until the next fabulous picture that appears when you scroll down Facebook's main page. In this regard my opinion coincides with John Kennerdell's findings."

I wrote something similar in reply to the last post. It's not that I object to the techniques being used or the resulting images that look more like illustrations than photographs. It's that there's nothing really to see. Don't get me wrong - Dave Hill's work is visually "stunning" (to add to the overuse of that word). His photos can sell stuff. I couldn't produce anything like his work if I tried - I've always lacked any desire/ability to create an image in my head and then go out and make it happen. I don't have that type of creativity nor the technical skills. But it doesn't interest me, either. I'm not a commercial photographer. As an amateur, I'm not sure why I would want to emulate that kind of aesthetic just to get likes on a photo sharing site. Yet so many hobbyists are posting exactly this kind of thing (just not so well done). Photos that make you look, but can't keep you looking. Not that we can all be Vivian Meier, either, but at least we can make images with staying power for a small audience. That Dave Hill photo makes me want to see the movie. A more interesting photograph makes me want to keep looking at the photo and might make me want to know more about what's in it.
It all has a purpose, but I think a lot of amateurs are a bit lost in the woods, chasing likes by emulating commercial photographers because don't really know what they want to photograph and because they're hooked on the dopamine fix they get from those "Great capture" comments from people who really believed the Asiana flight was piloted by Captain Sum Ting Wong.

Yes! Great Post! The photographs that I've taken that please me the most are usually just passed over and very different from those I get compliments on. And that suits me fine.

I remember reading somewhere that the difference between a paint and a photograph is that in the paint you must decide what to put in and in the photograph, you must decide what to take out.

When I see a picture that is made with sections of other pictures, altered and overmanipulated, I always think about the collages that were so common in the 1920s Russian photgraphy.

It seems to me that you're setting up a false causality. Illustrative style and heavy processing are tools, and like any other tools can be used to construct originality or cliche. Cliche itself is in the mind of the artist. Illustrative photos are infected by cliche because all of photography is infected by cliche, but there's originality out there to be found as well.

Thank you for this - it applies far beyond photography, and a was a needed slap on the back of the head.

This is an excerpt from an article for which I, strangely, could not find a publisher.

The essence of photography is that it is photographic. It is a picture made by the action of light reflected from something that has objective reality onto a sensitized surface. Light rays bouncing off something that is really there go through a lens and are recorded onto film or a sensor. It is "writing with light." The unique power of photography is derived from this direct connection to reality.

Dorothea Lange kept a quotation by the English essayist Francis Bacon on her darkroom door: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

As Fred Picker said in the March 1994 issue of Shutterbug, "This Koudelka (print by Czech photographer Joseph Koudelka) on the wall contains the most amazing combination of things that I know happened, because when he made that photograph there was no electronic imaging. Here are two horses, standing in a certain position, a boy sitting on a bicycle wearing an angel suit with angel wings, here's an old lady scolding him, all in magnificent light and beautifully composed. Today, that picture could be made by some guy sitting in front of a computer. Knowing that would take all the wonder out of it."

In actuality, it isn’t likely “some guy sitting in front of a computer” would make such a picture, because those who alter and/or combine photographs are limited by their imaginations. They can only do what they can conceive. But photography goes beyond human imagination. As novelist Tom Clancy has said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

The magic of photography is that life holds so many amazing and wonderful things that are entirely unanticipated, unexpected, even unimagined in the deepest sense; that is, that no one would ever have thought of such a thing happening. And then, suddenly, right out of the fabric of life, there it is.

"I can do a beautiful illustration, but it doesn't have that 'instant of wonder' that a photograph will have." (Art Director Tony Anthony, quoted in "Photo District News," February, 1987.)

Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened. It revels in the beauty, the mystery, and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created.

How does choosing to push the vivacity slider or whatever you use up to 11 differ from shooting Velvia instead of Agfachrome? Or Kodachrome instead of Panatomic X?

I think herein lies an essential difference between art and photography: art accepts all comers (a photo of a flag printed on loo paper sellotaped to your jeans), while photography has its restrictive contingent. It's as though only a particular subset of camera outputs, defined by specific rules, qualify.

To be properly ironic, the one photo that meets your final criteria, that you never tire of looking at, will definitely be named IMG_0001.CR2.

I think that many photographers follow technical fads. Some other photographers may overuse the technique for a short period of time, in order to learn what works and what doesn't work. One needs technical skills to transfer what you saw and felt at the image capture to other viewers of the final image.

What bothers me a little is the photographic guided tours which often devolve into a group of photographers trying to imitate the leader/teacher - 10 cameras on 10 same-height tripods in a row, all with roughly similar views. What is worse is when the tour takers's photos are entered into competitions. I might enjoy seeing a famous view and taking a rather cliched photo as a souvenir, because other views are inaccessible to the public. I would rather go to a less crowded site and poke around looking for the photos I want to take. The joy is in the discovery and study of the subject, before and after the actual image capture.

This might be the finest thing I have read on this blog, which has many many very fine things in it.

Interestingly, it decreasingly describes what I actually do, and increasingly describes how I feel about photography.

I have been shooting my whole life and I still find editing your own work is more of an obscure, esoteric art. There is no easy nor fast way of doing it. The only way that really works for me is to print them and hang them for several days ina place where you can look at them all the time while doing other things. Then you can separate the wheat from the chaff.

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