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Wednesday, 16 March 2016


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Yes, but there are really more categories. Some pictures you look at and discard-not worth another look (the majority?). Some instant response images you look at once and although they make an impression, never (or rarely)look at again. Other instant impession images you return to repeatedly. A few you may ignore and then after a long time look at again and like. And this doesn't address the issue of how they merit your viewing, Are they images you enjoy, that give you pleasure, or are they (often documentary) images you return to because of some inherent social or other meaning -possibly unpleasant- that requires your attention? Or......
Is a puzzlement.

Your question reminds me of the book "Disappearing Witness: Change in Twentieth Century Photography" by Grethen Garner. Ms. Garner proposes that photographers used to respond to the world around them (witness) but that the trend now is to introspection and using the subject, not to tell the viewer about the subject but to reveal the photographer in some way. I wonder if your observation isn't related.

Mike, you got me thinking about precisely this issue with your suggestion that we reflect on what one photograph we would want hanging on our wall. The process of winnowing down my favorites to a short list of 5 (or even 10!) required some genuine deep thought about what I value and respond to in a photographic print. Almost immediately I found myself rejecting superficially beautiful but fundamentally shallow images. To my surprise, this led me to eliminate basically all my favorite Ansel Adams photos; for all their classic beauty, they're just too obvious. Not enough deeper reflection involved. On the other hand, I found the almost chaotic, stochastic beauty of Robert Glenn Ketchum's Cibachrome/Ilfochrome prints of forest images from his 'Hudson River and the Highlands' just got deeper every time I looked at them. Likewise my favorite Minor White images, and the best of David Plowden's work.
Now I recognize that I need to go back to editing and apply the same filter to my own photographs, to make for a smaller, tighter, better selection.

I think the idea of really looking at a photograph on TOP sounds great. Not sure how you see this working, but any opportunity to look at good/great work and learn is welcome.

Pneumatic cleavage isn't worth looking at longer ?

Never mind. I remember a VHS tape on the topic of "Competition Photography" by an elderly photographer who gave advice based on his experience in winning hundreds of such competitions over the years. His main point was that you have a split second to grab the judges attention and then, if you're lucky, another couple seconds to impress them. So it leads to a certain kind of shallow photograph, just like you describe.

I think you may be right about the culture changing because people look at photos online, on sharing sites where there are more photos to look at than you'll ever have time to look at. So the ones that grab your attention do so; they get the "likes", they get featured, they get copied. The clever ones go viral. They're eye candy; pop music - here today, gone tomorrow.

Maybe the whole process has become more democratic because of the web. Centuries ago, the common folk didn't have access to music, while the elite enjoyed their symphonies. Radio brought music to the masses and consumers demanded what they liked. Before the internet, you had to make an effort to see a display of someone elses photography; go to the library or buy a book or go to a gallery (or watch Aunt Ethel's slide show ... something you had to make an effort not to see !) And so books and galleries showed stuff that appealed to people who appreciated photography enough to make that effort. There's my thirty second theory.

The photo that you posted of Carll Goodpasture by Anne Helene Gjelstad keeps calling me back to look at it. I'm surprised that nobody else has mentioned it. It catches my eye instantly by the penetrating gaze, but after I look at it for a while, I start to feel uncomfortable, like he is giving me that look - the one that says, "I ought to know better." I guess I am feeling guilty about something. Carll's Compost photos are great, and done with much more skill than I have. Mine would all look like rot, both figuratively and literally. ...but that portrait of him is really good.

You're right.

My experience has been that some (not many) photographs lend themselves to repeated viewing more than others. I don't know why that is. I have two photographs in my living room that are that way, one by me, the other by John Gossage. But the vast majority of work I see, my own included, is good for an initial viewing and easily forgotten. The ones that stay with me aren't flashy in any way, not even necessarily photogenic. They are unselfconscious and quiet in that salt-of-the-earth way that some people are; you just want to be around them.

I think your comments are probably true of all artistic pursuits in that every artform has pieces that are more easily accessible and others that need more time. Add to that the fact that each viewer / listener brings their own history to the process, independent of the author's intent, and other viewers history / insights.
The ever increasing pace of change in the world has brought many wonders -including instant communication and a general busyness that is the enemy of quiet contemplation.
I do think there is grest value in semi- enforced contemplation---giving ourselves the gift of time to think about things we deem worthy of our focus.
So (in my opinion) any approach that encourages a useful approach to the' slow look' or finding a personal answer to why certain artistic works reward such an approach is probably a good thing.

I don't think 'slow pictures ' are necessarily better than fast pictures, but they could be, and if we don't actively make time for them, and think about them we are likely to miss what they have to offer.
So It sounds like a useful Idea to me.

It's not that photographs have become less complicated in structure and content, it's that we (as viewers) have become more sophisticated in interpreting the essential infrastructure of visual elements.
For examples, consider Television, where one learns to quickly identify the meaning of the content, as well as one of the few perks of aging with its increased exposure to complex subtleties.

I would like to see selected photos on this site.

I don't know how much patience people would have with that, though....

A Lot!

The more talking about photographs the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Someone recently on TOP, perhaps it was a quote, said that the book always struck him as the best way to present his photographs because then readers could go back to them again and again. That struck a chord with me.

Last night my wife and I attended a photography show and lecture by Ken Bloom called Public Domain. It was quite interesting and the photos were great. When he was a young man in the mid seventies Bloom traveled to Japan and lived there for a few years, photographing like crazy. Now, forty years later, He's the director of the Tweed museum of Art here in Duluth, and he has spent the last few years learning how to scan film and make good digital prints of the selects. He remarked that what he has selected now is totally different from the small show he had in Japan before he left, completely people focused and looser and less cliche.

Of course it took most of us around thirty minutes or less to look at all of them and, say something nice to him, drink some tea, and leave.

I really hope you will do exactly such a series!

I do think your "greatest hits" point has some validity. For several years, I once went to virtually every program presented by one of the best chamber orchestras in the country. The musicians campaigned relentlessly to include a couple of "new music" concerts every year, but those concerts were often played to a half-empty auditorium. The musicians tended to disdain the absentees as philistines; but the fact is, all the other concerts featured masterpieces written over the past 700 years or so. The "new music" suffered by comparison, not because it was new, but because so few compositions, of any period, are actually masterpieces -- even Mozart wrote quite a bit of elevator music. The absentees knew something that the musicians weren't willing to admit -- that most of the "new music" wasn't very good. It could be of course, and the absentees took the chance of missing a modern masterpiece, but that possibility was vanishingly small.

Ansel Adams essentially dedicated his life to creating photographic masterpieces, but how many are really well known today? A dozen? Two dozen? Probably not as many as one a year, for his working life. So, there just aren't many masterpieces, and when you look at a collection of masterpieces, assembled across the history of photography, it's very hard for a collection of works by an individual photographer to hold up against it.

There's another aspect to his, as well, although it might stray slightly into tinfoil-hat territory. Making good photo books is terribly expensive, compared to the alternative -- display on a computer terminal. But a computer image is a transient thing, here right now, gone in twenty seconds, with another image coming along with a couple of key-clicks. Maybe we are being *trained* not to contemplate.

I'm not sure what you mean with "to take a photograph every now and then", but if you mean discoursing about a certain photograph, I'll be looking forward to it impatiently. No matter how lengthy it gets.
I always believed good photographs are to be discussed as much as they're to be seen. As works of art, they're open to interpretation and convey the photographer's view on the subject but also the way he sees life, the world around him and his own universe. (There's so much a photograph can tell us about the photographer himself!)
So yes please!

I am going to assume there was a question mark at the end of the last paragraph of todays post ? So I will answer what I think was a question......I would personally welcome a photo of the day, or at least a photo of the "every now and then".

It is my considered opinion that two things are happening in parallel. First, the rise of social media and the ease of digital photography have created a tsunami of photographic images to look at on a daily basis. Whereas once only professional photographers, artists, and enthusiasts would make photographs available for public viewing, now everyone can and does. It's as if the restaurant world only used to serve full gourmet meals, and suddenly it is awash with burgers, fries, and pizza.

And it's hard not to like burgers, fries, and pizza, so there's a run on it. The gourmet restaurants are still there, but it's not where most people go for their meals.

The second thing that's happening is the professional photographers, artists, and enthusiasts are adapting to the new reality. This is partly a function of some existing professionals, artists, and enthusiasts adapting their styles, and partly a function of new professionals, artists, and enthusiasts emerging "natively" out of the tsunami style (meaning high-impact ka-pow images that are liked and forgotten with seconds). To further the restaurant analogy, some burgers, fries, and pizza are going gourmet, and that is changing the gourmet scene.

We live in the age of TL;DR ("too long; didn't read"). So much to see, so much to watch, so much to read. 25 years ago a description of our media saturation would have sounded like we're living a dream. So much! So much! But in fact we might be living a nightmare, where instead of having a little bit of many flavors we have an abundance of salt and sugar and that's all the majority want. The iceberg has been inverted.

All that said, I think there is still a lot of coherent, redacted, and conscious work out there, but it matters less because of the availability of disposable work. By "matters less" I mean it matters less in the public consciousness. Some of us think it matters more. The usual retort by social-mediaphiles is that it's ok to have such abundance, and the key is in curating it yourself; sorting through and finding what you want. That's a quaint notion but it's becoming less and less doable because of the saturation, which makes it harder to find the coherent, redacted, and conscious work, plus the creators of that work are likely feeling a lot less support than their peers of a generation or two would have known.

I would absolutely love long articles about specific photos. And I'd really enjoy the comments. I feel I'd learn a lot, and find the process deeply interesting. So please please indulge yourself.

The hard part, for me, would be coming back to it online. As lovely as displays are today and as beautiful the dynamic range is on a good monitor, I really only engage, on that level, with a book or print. Now, if one could take that image and print it, it would be a lovely thing. I know that the logistics of this suggestion are nigh unto impossible from a copyright/legal point of view, but if you, or another photographer would suspend all of that to allow a reader to print themselves a copy to actually look at, in a chair, in good clear light, it would be a real treat. Maybe one time use or some such. A pipe dream, I know. I have a very good printer and have very good paper on hand. I would love to print out a file and really "see" the picture.

I think that is very true. I have often felt that is why artists feel unloved, that no one "understands". Galleries are filled with the converted, but not the vast majority of average folk. The artists who find great acclaim in the general public are often the "shock" artists and some schools even push this direction to help the young artist survive.
Do we photograph for other photographers to appreciate, non photographers, or just for ourselves?

I could be wrong, but you may get some flak from parts of that first paragraph...

I went to see the Getty's Koudelka exhibition last year and was shocked by how quickly people blew through the whole thing. There were over a hundred photos displayed including huge panoramas and significant chunks of Gypsies, Exiles and more. The vast majority of people spent between one and three seconds looking at each photo - literally the same amount they would spend on a friend's Facebook selfie before clicking through to the next one. I felt a little sad for everyone who didn't take a minute to really get lost in a few of the many incredible works of art there.

Do it Mike. I have plenty of time to look at one photo at a time. Plus it would be great to consider what everyone had to say about the photo - what worked, what didn't.

I agree with you, I was recently discussing a similar topic with a gallery owner.
Something I noticed at exhibitions, mostly famous photographers, is how quickly people run through the images. I usually like to indulge a lot on images, I like them to slowly unveil their full content, not just the first impression. I like them to create a connection and building, image after image, the whole idea and the consistency behind a project. I am maybe at the other extreme of the range since I usually find I enjoy more those exhibitions where a small number of images are shown but I am so surprised to see a lot of people paying an admission fee and going through images at fast pace. And I see the same happening also with paintings, so it is just not photography

My girlfriend was fond of telling me that good sex will not make a relationship, or make it last; but in the beginning, without it, there is a much reduced chance the relationship will gather any steam in the long run.

I don't know if that's true, but maybe looking at photographs is the same: If the spark, or the quick "Like" is not there at the start, how much chance is there that you will end up spending the time getting to know the photograph for the long term?

Great idea Mike, I think it would prove a popular regular column. This sort of analysis is common in the art world and the popularity of books like Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs and Sam Abell's The Life of A Photograph (to name just two) suggest it would be welcome here. I for one would be very interested to hear your thoughts and to read the comments such a column would generate from the TOP readership.

>> Maybe, here on TOP, it would be fun to take a photograph every now and then and really look at it.

Yes, please.

For those of us who are still learning and refining the ability to "see" a photograph in that second way, this kind of feature on TOP would be very valuable. Perhaps you could trace the evolution of what you have seen over a longish period of a time in such a rewarding image? I for one would greatly look forward to that.

I would welcome a critical viewing component to TOP. I'm always amazed at how a variety of viewpoints enriches photographic critique.

You may enjoy some of this fella's photos:

The accompanying tongue-in-cheek captions often add to scenes, and their combination draw myself and others back for more. Some of the humour may be lost on viewers from outside the UK, but not all.

(Note: probably best to avoid the shot taken on the 11th of March if at work, or if more sensitive viewers are nearby!)

In connection with your post, for the photo he posted as being taken yesterday (https://www.blipfoto.com/entry/2156572306980210414 ),
I was surprised by some of the comments from people that obviously hadn't looked closely at the photo - it is mostly, but not all, men in the photo. Perhaps they were just after the "humour fix", rather than anything more. Or else they may have formed their opinion, after misinterpreting the words of the very first person to comment.

pneumatic...Made me think immediately of Brave New World. Don't think I've seen that use of the word since reading that.

As you said, contemporary work, unfiltered by historical Darwinism, is harder to analyse and categorise. A lot of it is always going to be banal, derivative or just not very good.

The difference is we now have to contend with the prodigious volumetric output of the selfie generation, so it's a double whammy.

Even so, I think in 20 years or so, many contemporary photographers will be lauded. It's just hard for most of us to see the wood for the trees, and too easy to passively review what pops up on our iPads rather than get of the sofa and go looking for the good stuff.

I really don't think we change that much from generation to generation, but we all change as we age.

Be careful what you ask for, but yeah that sounds like fun.
I can't think off hand of anyone else doing it on the web, but it was my favorite part of art school.

Galen Rowell used the phrase "image maturity" or maybe "subject maturity" to denote the idea that when photographs of certain subjects are rare and novel you can use simpler images of those subjects to get the attention of people. But, as the subject becomes more well known you have to be more creative. The flip side is that you can also be more obtuse or abstract and people will still understand the subject of your work.

I think some of this is going on with everything in photography right now because the # of images in the world keeps increasing exponentially. Maybe it will balance out, maybe it won't.

I think a lot of people also have a sort of knee-jerk angst about the alleged shortening of the attention span at the hands of the Internet, but I'm not sure this is true. There is a *ton* of long form material on the net, from text to youtube videos to multi-hour live video game streams on twitch. I don't think anyone really knows how that will play out yet.

I will agree though that the presentation of most photo-oriented web sites is awful. I've never figured out why this should be.

This topic was of particular interest to me in that I had just read the New York Times Magazine, March 6, and had taken notice of 3 photographs of individuals in 2 different stories that caught my attention and required some close study. Two were of partial head shots and one was a head shot but at a unique angle (prominence of chin). After examining these photographs I had the idea of in the future putting in writing my take on photographs that I see in a particular publication (here the NY Times Magazine). It would be interesting to put in words my reaction to photographs. I might lean something by such a strategy. Just my take on your topic.

Oh how I love to study a deep portrait print; now that can be a thing of beauty. I'd love to gaze at a quality image posted here weekly if you care to share.

I've learned the hard way with online galleries that if you edit tightly for images that reward longer viewing, most people will breeze right on by. You have to include at least some more obvious "grabber" type shots.

That doesn't seem to be the same for a show, where people have already made a commitment to spend some time with your photographs.

Maybe it's time for a Slow Photography movement. Maybe one already exists.

The internet has shortened our attention spans and devalued images (and music) because there is so much to look at (or listen to), and it's all free!

The zietgeist of our time combines an intense but shallow global culture and short attention span. One has to shout to be heard and photographs make no exception.
Another reason for the overwhelming abundance of 'fast' photography online is the inverse correlation between quantity and quality: photography novices shoot and share. Old photodawgs edit and shoot, then edit more.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of thoughtful, deep, interesting photography to explore on the web. Once in a while you discover a treasure, which makes the search bearable.

Mike, I think you are correct in that the screen age (TV, computers, smartphones, etc) deluge us with so much information that we have to give a quick look just to plow through it. Few people have the discipline or time to see a good photo and make themselves dwell on it for it's impact to sink in.
The gate keepers of quality and good taste who normally curate the information presented to us are getting fewer and fewer. The digital age makes it too easy to throw things in front of viewers.
I like your idea to have a photo to really look at. I can't think of how that would be done.

Yes, I would encourage you to experiment with your idea of posting a photograph or small body of work which you and your readers could then really "look at" and discuss. Hopefully some of those would be outside the comfort area of established names and genres.

Photo by Judy Dater, Imogen and Twinka.

Anecdote: My father was an art dealer and deeply concerned with aesthetics. Throughout his life, I went with him into museums, galleries, cathedrals, or other spaces designed to showcase beautiful things. The crowds in those places moved around and past him like a stream flowing around a rock. He would be captivated by a Matisse, for instance, and spend 10 minutes looking at it. 10 minutes is a long time to take in a static image. The average onlooker can hardly do 10 seconds and I suspect that an entire minute of focused attention would feel like work to most people. In fact, I think it is difficult to really see for any length of time. Looking? Yes, but seeing in an active engaged way, being open to a work's themes, techniques, and emotional import for a sustained period of attention takes energy. I could never tease out whether my father was capable of such attention because of his training, or whether he had an extra aesthetics ability in his head -- part of his genetic blueprint -- that allowed him to focus the way he did. I suspect that it was both, and that these qualities were complimentary.

Towards the end of his life he retired from art dealing and started painting seriously -- big, modernist, non-figurative, paint-on-canvas stuff. I think he was happier seeing critically, whether it was his own work or that of others, than he ever was in the world of commerce. But the ability to do that well seems a rare trait.

A side note: I got my copy of _An American Century of Photography_ a little while ago thanks to TOP, AND the bamboo book stand you recommended, Mike. The book sits in its stand on a "standing desk" and I have been opening it to a random set of pages every day and living with that set of images for 24 hours. It is a great way to have images from great photographers around in a way that is difficult for me to ignore. I probably can't do my father's 10 minutes, but the book's rich collection has given me many individual moments of reflection.

Every generation throughout all of history has come up with the idea that it is far more pressured by "modern" life than any before it.

Art has always done what society, the period, the place and the culture have asked of it. So, for example, in Europe once there was virtually nothing but religious art, and a mostly illiterate society "read" religious paintings long, carefully and knowingly.

Today's trend to content and pictorial simplification in still photography must reflect current needs, but it might also mean that other art forms are taking up some of its traditional messaging about the human spirit. There's video for one.

Thru the ages one or another of the art forms, at least in retrospect, has sometimes appeared to dominate the expression of a given time and place. In 15th and 16th century England, for example, it was architecture, not painting, that stole the show.

I don't believe that shortened attention spans are limited to just photography.

I just received a notice about a public lecture to be presented here next Tuesday titled "Attention as a Cultural Problem" by Matthew B. Crawford.

Perhaps he's onto something.

It's fascinating to me that DDD, W.E. Smith, R. Capa and so many others made photographs that made you look...then look again.
Then there is HCB. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but HCB (IMHO) can't hold a candle to the likes of these journalists.
One has to digest these images.
You are dead on, Mike.
mi dos pesos

Look at anyone thumbing mindlessly through hundreds of images on Instagram. (and then checking Face Book 3 times a minute for updates) There is no attention span for still images anymore. I went to a show by a great photographer and watched some 20 somethings fly through the show barely stopping for a glance at each photo. It is not just photography suffering from this. I have seen the same quick glance art appreciation at the Met Museum of Art.
Is there still photography that merits a longer look? Yes, there is.
Is there as much as there used to be? Hard to tell. There is so much 1 second photography out there that the great stuff gets drowned in the tsunami of the pointless.

Certain feelings I have trigger memories of pictures that speak to those feelings. Pictures that have that quality are hard to describe, but I know them when I feel them


Is that a hard demarcation? I was under the impression that a great photograph falls into both categories, excels in both modes... however you want to put it. The first example to mind is Cartier-Bresson's cyclist speeding by a staircase in Hyeres, 1932. Undeniably eye-catching, and I could look at it forever. I think I have been.


Could easily point to a number of Irving Penn's portraits, Weston's objects, etc.

Maybe what I'm saying is that a great photograph can make you look, and then make you stare and think. For me, there are certain kinds of photographs that don't need to be deep and yet are simply because of POV and subject; nature macros of, say, insect eyes or fiddleheads, for example, or Earthrise.

I've sidestepped another question: are we talking about the way photographs function or are we talking about how we approach photographs? Should we break this down? Is it the same question?

Have things changed so much that we want different things of photography? Are we running out of ways to grab someone's attention? If we try to do what HC-B did, can we do any better than cliche or homage, because he's already done it? Or is it that there is too much competition from LCDs and moving pictures both live and manufactured?

But you definitely end on presentation. That seems to me to be more about approach... how we treat photographs, both maker and regarder.

I think a "photo of the week" or something like that is a great idea. How would it be different from your "Random Excellence" posts?

Brooks Jensen, in his recent Lenswork podcast 946 'Active Viewing' discusses this same issue. He starts with Minor White's dictum that a minimum of half an hour is necessary to take in a photo, to his application of Malcom Adler's method for active reading of books to reading photos.

PS Have you ever considered making a podcast?

The "deep seeing" experience with a photograph (or deep listening with music, or deep reading with text) is a complex thing. In order for a thing to achieve that sort of attention it _usually_ must be at least somewhat successive on the immediate time scale, too.

In somewhat the same way that something probably won't become a significant object if it _only_ appeals at the first view and then sustains no further attention, a thing that is so complex or obscure that it cannot evoke a first response that might lead to deeper consideration will also not have a chance to "live" long.

If a deep and complex work that reveals more of itself over time is to succeed, it must either also offer some immediate reward to the viewer (though it may be less intense) OR it must come from someone whose past work leads us to put more effort into trying to see what we presume must be there beneath its inscrutable surface.

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