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Thursday, 19 February 2015


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I have a feeling that your post today is going to live on as one of the important, influential essays of TOP. Such a critical point made so succinctly. I've included it my "Important Writings on Photography" folder. As always, thanks for the thoughts.

You are not alone in your belief that you "need" to write. A number of big-name authors have said that writing is an addiction for them - the money they earn with it is secondary.

As an example, Issac Asimov had over 650 books published by the time of his death 25+ years ago. He always took a typewriter and paper with him on trips, including his vacations, because he found it almost impossible to get through a day without writing.

- Tom -

[I believe he also had six IBM Selectrics, his favorite typewriter--the extras for backups in case one of them had to go in for repair. --Mike]

For me a photograph is art if it serves no other purpose than to be a piece of art.

A family photograph is an interesting test case of that definition. The initial motivation may be to capture a moment shared with people you know. For you, it contains memories of the occasion and the people you know. If you later present it as art, it comes to signify the idea of a family. Strangers have no connection with the individuals in the photograph.

Personally, I rarely use a camera for any other purpose. The photographs I take are intended for inclusion in a portfolio (though of course, most of them are failures).

Malaysian Dinner is a belter!

A very interesting and thought-provoking post, Mike. This one had the effect of confronting me with what I want from photography.
I don't do snaps, selfies or even casual photographs. I photograph to try to express my visual and aesthetic ideas. I may be losing the opportunity to capture significant moments of my life by doing things this way, but I can't help it.
Yet I'm not so sure my pictures have any "artistic" content. I don't even know whether they're any good, but I make them because I enjoy it. I don't mean to exhibit my pictures and have no interest in creating portfolios, I don't aim for recognition and fame - and sometimes all this makes me wonder whether it makes any sense to photograph the way I do, or whether I take my hobby too seriously.
What I know, however, is that I don't want to waste photographs with trivialities. The world is awash with such pictures and I don't feel any need to add a few drops in that endlessly vast ocean. In a nutshell, photography makes no sense to me if it's not meant to express something, even if it's merely an aesthetic idea.
Regarding large format photography, I strongly recommend everyone to take a look at the body of work of my compatriot Edgar Martins. He uses a Toyo field camera and shoots exclusively wide-angle. He's gaining a rather strong reputation lately, and he largely deserves it.

Snapshot is such a derogatory term. Most of my pics are snapshots. Some of them are good, most obviously are not.

Sometimes a themed project pops up, which for me usually only last a few hours - inspired by something I come across and can never photograph again.

More usually though my projects are things I have interests in which collections have pictures added over time. Eventually that theme has something I don't mind putting together as a set. A lot of people do this kind of "picture mining" to build themes and projects after days, weeks or years of building up an image library.

And that's why I hate the idea of having a "snapshot" camera for family pics or outings. What if I find a really really good image there? Best to always have a good camera to hand - you never know when you are going to find a great image.

Recognition is spontaneous, but you do need to be prepared.
Intent is organised, but allowing spontaneity is the trick.
The harder I try the harder I can make it. Practise, practise, practise until you are both prepared and open to intuitive responses.

Your comments on having to decide between talents hit true with me. However I'm the other way. I couldn't go without visual expression, especially photography, I just couldn't. I go stir crazy if I go too long with producing something. As far as the two modes of seeing though, I can understand it but I can't do it. My camera is an extension of the artist inside and I have no interest in taking snapshots.Maybe I miss some of those real photographs under snapshot conditions as you say but if I have a camera in my hand I automatically start "recording" things in my mind as an artist so if I don't want to be a social outcast then those situations are photographically null and void for me. 'Social' photos just don't do it for me.

Dear Mike,

Some authors are like that. Jane Yolen was well over 300 books as of 2010. I have no idea what she's up to now. I don't think she knows how to NOT write.

It is perhaps worthwhile to keep in mind that the primary function of photography in the real world is not to produce art. It is, and always has been, as the commercials used to say “to preserve memories.” I'm not saying that the intersection between that set and the “making art” set is the null set, but it is very small relatively speaking.

You are right that I set out to make “real art” quite consciously… As opposed to photographing for the sake of memories. Which I do plenty of, to be sure. This does not mean that every photograph I make when I am attempting to do that succeeds. Maybe one in 10, one in 20 actually turns out to be portfolio-worthy, the rest… well… nice try but no cigar.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

I'm even more schizophrenic about this than you. For decades I did commercial photography for a living and, while I was certainly serious about this professional work, I never mistook it for *my* personal work. But wait, there's more! That personal work was always divided between small format and large format, which I think of as different but of equal importance to me. Monochrome vs color complicates matters even more. OTOH, all along I've seldom made simple record shots, with the vast majority of my pictures fitting into various more or less long-term, themed, projects.

A real Art is anybody named Artur (sic).

So make the end point of a photo project a book, or a show, even if only in a defined space in your house.

Not long ago, a book wasn't something an everyday photographer could easily aspire to. Now, it's rather easy and not all that expensive, especially if one shops the sales offered endlessly in emails.

For me, there is something immensely satisfying in holding in my hands a finished book/project containing images I've made, each individually carried to completion, then edited and ordered into a "final, finished body of work".
And - there is now an unexpected, growing, open ended, unfinished body of work in the slowly growing set of volumes on my bookshelf.

I've also found great satisfaction, and surprisingly little frustration or second guessing, in watching people go through the books, whether interactively or at a distance.

It's impossible to describe the feeling when someone turned to an image I had decided was a mistake, as no one had paid it any attention at all, and burst out crying. "Oh, that one was for her."

I believe I've learned more about my "Real Art" with these projects than in many years of photography before.

Think how OC/OL/OY changes when the end point is a book with that title in your hands. To me, the whole project now has a completely different feeling and driving force.

The possible extension into a commercial project seems to me a different thing. Although quite a few people have urged me to do so, it seems to me somehow as though a commercial endpoint may change the journey in ways I may not like, that may not be my Real Art.

You are setting up some harsh categories for your photography. Haven't you spent the majority of your adult life taking photos, contemplating photography, and writing about photography? You've put in the 10,000 hours. At this point, even your most playful, silly, and thoughtless photos are informed by a lifetime's dedication to this craft. You couldn't take all that experience out of your photography if you tried.

In my photography, I've found that my best images are the result of skill, luck, and a playfull attitude. However, my vain ego doesn't like to admit that many aspects of my photography are out of my control. Categories like "real photography" and "snapshot" help my ego take credit where credit isn't due and offer cover when things don't turn out as I'd hoped. Labelling one of my photos as real photography tells my ego, "This was all you buddy, no luck, no outside help involved." Inversely, labelling a poorly lit family photo as a snapshot lets my ego off the hook, "Don't worry, you weren't trying that hard anyways."

Both photos in this post are the result of both your photography skill and luck. That birthday cake photo works because the colors of everyone's clothes match and the location had great light. Throw a Sponge Bob tee-shirt on one of those kids and this picture is broken. Your lamp in the face photo is masterful, but if the main subject was chubby or had he put on a different shirt that morning, the photo wouldn't have happened.

My point: be happy when a photo works out and don't suffer artificial categories.

You have summarized most perfectly, how I think about me as a photographer and my photography as "art". I have struggled for a long time to try to understand and explain the type of photographer that I am, and you have done it for me. Thanks, Mike

~michael tapes

Ah, now this is a discussion that I could really sink my teeth into...if I had six weeks to write and revise a thesis.

The short version is:

Art happens sometimes. Sometimes I intended it that way. Sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I change my mind about whether art has happened or not. Sometimes my mind is changed for me.

For me, art happens after I've taken the picture. As you say, the final recension is really where the pictures become "fine art" (well, fine enough for me, anyway). When a group of images comes together and makes a whole that is stronger than the individual parts, then I know I've really made art. Individual images do it sometimes, but they never seem quite right all alone, and often seem outright wrong grouped together with other lone images.

When I think of "making art" though, I think mainly of the act of taking a picture. Taking a picture with a 5D Mark II. My 5D Mark II. I use a 7D sometimes, but I don't own one and never will. When I'm with the 7D, I'm not happy. I don't get along with the camera and I can't make art with it. I can't get into the mindset. The 7D is not a "make art" camera. It's a "make money" and a "make do" camera. It's not even a snapshot camera, since after the first week of testing I did, I've haven't taken a single picture for my own pleasure with it. I've taken some nice pictures with the 7D, some that are really really good, evocative, beautiful, moving, and artistic...but I've never made them for myself. The 7D is someone else's camera, in every possible way.

How can we know that Vivian Maier's "work" was even supposed to be "work," let alone even seen?

::gets popcorn:: ::reclines::

I take a lot of snaps of family and so on, and some of those are pretty good. Sometimes I even do 'formals' of a sort. "Let's get a good picture of the baby" kinds of things, and there's usually a pretty good one in there.

My "Art", though, is always done on a project basis. I wouldn't even recognize a piece of "great art" if I shot it as a snapshot. I don't believe in the single iconic image any more. This is not to say that I wouldn't or couldn't DO it, I just wouldn't recognize it as such.

So I've got a really clear delineation. There's always 1 or more projects in play, that will result each in portfolios about such and such big, to be presented in so and so a fashion.

Everything else is playing around.

I'm always looking for it to be an art piece, even with a family snap. It has to have more. Or to have the possibility of having something more.

The only time it doesn't matter is for my satirical blog.

Edgar Martins? Really? Even after 5 years I can't manage to separate my reaction to the "art" from my reaction to the man, and I consider myself a pretty forgiving and open-minded sort. (And even if he provided a thousand Mea Culpas that were more forthright than his ridiculous response after he was exposed, I'm still not sure I could overlook his completely amateurish photoshop work with its glaringly obvious cloning artifacts and other technical issues.) Sorry...didn't mean to start ranting. I'm going to fix myself a nice cup of hot tea now and try to settle myself...LOL.

tographer/2009/07/flipping-real-estate.html and

I'm in the same boat as you in many ways, Mike. I've largely given up on the cell phone as art device as it's always a bit too mushy or fragile to be satisfactory.

I definitely have an "art" making mode where I'm actively stalking the shot - hunting, probing, looking. Some days I catch the roadrunner, other days the rocket sled crashes headlong into the cliff.

And the other days, when I'm just happysnapping away - mind relaxed, friends and family around - sometimes I'll hit something and just be right on the thread without seeing it coming.

Both conditions are certainly satisfying in their own way - the thrill of a successful hunt and the happy accident. I try not to discriminate too harshly in the difference and take the hits as they come. In fact, sorting through the meandering hits and misses is often revealing in itself.

Malaysian Dinner is brilliant! I laughed out loud. Not many photos can do that.

You think you've got problems. Try being a photographer, writer, and musician. Its hell. Yesterday I was planning on spending all day catching up on photo editing and the muse made me spend the day writing a song. I need to photograph, write, and sing more than I need food or air.

Categories are difficult, but I'd definitely consider "work" as another category. I shoot many photos that I don't want, don't need and don't really care about except for the fact that they put money in my pocket so I can shoot the things I do love.

And let's not forget about mistakes. Some photos that are technical mistakes end up becoming favorite art pieces.

I an unable to describe what makes something visually interesting. I'm not that interested in "snapshots" of other people's family, but I find your second photo very interesting to look at, but probably not in the same way that you do. My not being able to explain is unsatisfactory as a comment to this piece, I would say, but it's the best I can do.

I could say that there was something "more universal" about that one photo, but then that would require explanation itself, which I can also not give you, so I am not I am any farther ahead. I am certain that I am not the first to say these things, nor the most eloquent.

I can only say that in my experience, at the moment that I take a photo, I more or less know whether the shot is documentary, i.e., a recording of something I want or need to remember, or if I intend something more. I am rarely able to describe what that "more" is, but if I force myself to try, it comes out pretentious or at least strained. I dislike that feeling so I tend not to do it, but it also detracts from the process, which I find works best when it's spontaneous. I find that last statement a little pretentious, so I will stop now.

For anything to be called art, it must be perceived as art by some "disinterested" viewer, someone who did not create the "art". Probably most of what is perceived as photographic art today is done by people using smart phones who don't even consider themselves to be photographers, much less artists. These casual, undirected, iPhone iconographers are busy creating a massive body of art and they're not even aware that they're doing it.

I wish I could remember the photographer who, when asked how he/she took a great picture, replied "if I knew 'how' to take a great picture, don't you think I wolud have taken more of them?"

They come when they will.

I suppose it just depends what you are trying to say. If you take something as a personal memory, it probably won't have much resonance with anyone else, but some people have an eye that makes their entire collection of personal snaps entirely compelling.

I am not sure we are the best judge of our own work. I know what I try (and mostly fail) to do, but I also know when I'm trying and when I'm not. I guess for me that's the difference. I only select the 'trying' images for the portfolio and the rest I just enjoy because they mean something to me.

My personal view is that the question posed by the title of this post is a rabbit hole best avoided. Apologies for a rant but this topic is a special area of interest for me.

The word “art” (and you emphasise that its specifically “real” art) is so poorly definable and so loosely used by so many that the word and the concept it refers to are essentially meaningless. How many angels do fit on the head of a pin?

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."

So what about "real art"? I recently began reading the kinds of critical theory in photography books that are widely used in BA and MA programmes in photography frequently written by academics but also by curators and directors of photography galleries at major art institutions.

One common point in my readings relevant to the question Mike posed is the talk of one’s “practice”, the defining consistent characteristics of one’s interest and work. For many here it might be enough to say of their own work “I’m a street photographer” documenting life on the streets or “I’m a landscape photographer” looking to reveal the beauty in nature or I try to find interesting shots that pop up in my world. But for those who do a great deal of thinking about “real art” in the context of contemporary photography that sort of approach is not sufficient to even be considered “real art”.

Charlotte Cotton (http://photo.tisch.nyu.edu/object/CottonC.html) in her book “The Photograph as Contemporary Art” begins by challenging “a traditional stereotype of photography: the idea of the lone photographer scavenging from daily life, looking for the moment when a picture of great visual charge or intrigue appears in the photographic frame”. She goes on to say that of course there are elements of this serendipity in the work of contemporary art photography but that the “act of artistic creation begins long before the camera is actually held in position and an image fixed, starting instead with the planning of the idea”

Two examples:
The wonderful book “Texts” by Lewis Baltz is an excellent illustration of the thought that Baltz put into conceptual thinking and study before shooting his famous work.

Uta Barth, 2012 MacArthur Foundation award winner in photography has spent years exploring the very meaning of photography by stripping away any documentary character in her images so that she could study the nature of vision and the act of perception itself. While her individual images are engaging its within the larger context of what she’s attempting to do that makes her a “real artist”.

J.A.P. Alexander in his book Perspectives on Place, Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography puts it this way:
The success of all of the photographers and artists discussed in this book is owed not to their having an eye for a picture but rather a vision for an image… while there may be elements of spontaneity in many of the pictures discussed, none are the product of serendipity but rather all are the result of diligent practice, research and thought”

The authorities in the field of contemporary photography would preclude most of our photographic work as "real art" and if we ignore them as obfuscating academics we’re in Humpty Dumpty land where each of us gets to set the rules.

From my point of view the question Mike should have asked is “How do you distinguish what is your most interesting work?”

"Happy Accidents"

"And let's not forget about mistakes. Some photos that are technical mistakes end up becoming favorite art pieces. "

When I was in school, we had a terrific assignment-pick one subject, shoot it using three rolls of film, then submit your five best images.
Somehow, I produced a double exposure that serendipitously was both reasonably well composed and exposed.
I made the editorial decision to submit it, and without my knowing it, the instructor submitted it to a student show, where it won first prize.

Further to Maggie Osterburg's comment on Vivian Maier (surely an artist if ever there was one):

Perhaps being an artist is more about what you put into the work than what comes out of it.

Funny, I wrote a blog post on this topic last week: http://www.mikepeters-photography.com/Blog/WHOS-THE-BOSS

"Photographs I make for others will never make it into my personal set of images simply because I see them as compromised. Not that doing work for others is bad, it’s good actually, but my motivation was for the client, and that is how it stays, in my mind and in my portfolio. However, what works for me may not and probably does not, work for you or anyone else, nor would I expect it to.

We all have to find our own road, and that’s the beauty of it all. Enjoy the journey."

Regarding your envy of large format photographers and their clear demarcation, I kind of feel the opposite way. Maybe it's self doubt or something like that but for me, bringing out the "real" camera adds pressure and seems to interfere with my ability to just shoot what feels right. This is why I sold my D800. It was my "real" camera and my NEX-7 was my casual camera. Trouble was, I took the NEX-7 everywhere and left the D800 at home. When I finally realized what was happening I decided to sell it all and buy into the Fuji X system. Couldn't be happier. Now I'm shooting much more.

In “A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005,” Annie Leibovitz says that, “I don't have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” For Leibovitz the work's not divided between art and work, or work and family. When she picks up a camera, she's a photographer.

I joke that as an amateur I'm a professional with only myself as a client. That's not quite true. When a 4-year old is blowing out the candles, I'm just one of the five or six, jostling relatives waiting for their “decisive moment,” not mine.

I like to use my view camera to make my art, but I know its not the camera that makes the art it's my vision, so if I really try I could use just about any camera.

Not being trained/educated in "Art," I am always hesitant to make definite statements about it; but I have you, Mike, to thank for one of the most enriching experiences I have had in the appreciation of photography as Art. The Pentti Sammallahti book, Here Far Away- purchased on your recommendation- has given me my first confidence in a concrete maxim (at least in my mind)concerning the subject: the most important element of Art photographs, is that there must be something in them that drives home the concept of an irretrievable moment in time. Sammallhati does it so well.

If I may, on the subject of B&W vs Color:

Years ago, my job required I survey,i.e. gather information, about various businesses. I learned in pretty short order that if I wished to convey adverse condition, i.e. uncared for property, through a photograph, B&W was far superior to the purpose than Color. In the color photographs, the scene would always look markedly less bad than I remembered. B&W photographs conveyed the scene perfectly. To this day, I view a color photograph of an item for sale with skepticism.

I love "Malaysian Dinner".

"Perhaps being an artist is more about what you put into the work than what comes out of it."


Also noted another (unnecessary)kick in the head to your poor iphone Mike. I thought we were past that?


I have recently moved the pieces that I think best illustrate my style to their own photo site, and am using flickr for work in progress and other experiments.

It does have to do with how you "curate" your work, even if it's only in your head. I have many more shots I like, but I want to get more coherent with what I want to do. My aim as style, is to photograph the dream of a scene.


I have also decided to remove all technical detail (camera, film, lens, etc). Even though I use or have used almost every type of medium and combination, these are not relevant to anything, especially the artistic value. Maybe that's part of it? The images that can speak eloquently for themselves without props?

Just to add to my earlier comments, I work as a full time newspaper photographer, that is "my' work and my "real" work, is the photography that I am inspired to do on my time off, but its all good because its all part of my life as a photographer.

I just shoot for me, and me alone. If something comes out good, or even great, I'll know it first, because I only shoot for me that's all that matters. Others will let me know by saying so or perhaps even better, offering me money to obtain one of my photographs or use it for commercial use (which happens around 5-6 times a years with no marketing from me other than posting my work a few places online, and frankly I hate it because then I got to make it all happen, - accepting the funds, printing it to perfection for the customer, packaging, etc all of which I hate to do). If someone likes my work, I'm thrilled, if they do not, I really don't care, I'm not doing my photography for them. I like to learn from others but only so much as it increases my ability to produce better photography in MY eyes. What I like or what I perceive as good evolves as my skills improve and my knowledge of studying different photographers or my technique or "eye" advances. Art vs. snaps? I don't care. I just have fun and love it and don't sweat the stressful or crazy stuff. I put all the technical details I can in my "titles" as I got sick of 3-4 emails per week ASKING me. That and I hate cheesy titles of photographs.

[Wow, is Ben ever getting big! Time flies when you're taking pictures. --Mike]

I find this post/topic very timely and interesting. Some of the subjects that I am most interested in photographing are my every day surroundings - family, neighborhood, town. When shooting those things, I think in terms of creating images that would hold up as great photographs - even when viewed by a neutral party. Call that art if you will.

A few books I have recently purchased have helped me see the artistic value in this thought process - validating it in my mind. Lee Friedlander's "Family in the Picture" and Sally Mann's "Immediate Family" both were great examples of creating art in the ordinary moments of your life. Interesting that we go to the streets to capture candid moments of strangers when we have unbridled access to our own world. I also attended a recent lecture by Henry Horenstein that featured mostly images from his own family. And the Turnley's McLellan Street?

I currently have a gallery show of curator chosen images of mine and about half came from these family moments.

For me, the fact that these images grow and change in meaning over the years is very compelling. I moved to a new street in town recently with lots of kids. I've been trying to make a long-term project of documenting the neighborhood. Not sure what exactly that collection will become.

John Gillooly

If you do give up photography, then see you on theonlineessayist.com (made it up) :)

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