« Limitations Aren't | Main | Not the Same »

Thursday, 26 July 2018


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"but more and more it's the same, or a similar, aesthetic look." I agree! A billion digital pics are taken every day (every minute?) and they just look the same. Perfect focus, perfect color, perfect lack of grain, and perfect boredom. That is the main reason I have mostly returned to black and white film, complete with its flaws, scratches, grain "lousy" dynamic range "obscene" cost, etc.

Also see:


This is merely an extension of Sontag's thesis. To stand out, you have to stand on the shoulders of those that came before you and do something different.

What's different today than 50 years ago is how many people are taking images and how ubiquitous images are in our lives. Thus, more people are taking images and we're seeing more images. That puts the bar for standing out as unique higher and higher.

But we had plenty of people trying to do that during the late film era. The whole drag-the-shutter with a fullframe fisheye thing that started in mountain biking was unique for a while, then became mainstream.

And that's the real problem: the pace at which any unique thing is seen and then copied has increased dramatically. That means that even if you can achieve a unique look, it won't be yours for very long and you have to move on.

Always wondered where "shake your tail feather" came from.

"... but more and more it's the same, or a similar, aesthetic look."

Hmm. I'd never have guessed that with all the flame wars going on - between brands, between formats, between models, sometimes even between rumored models!

Very interesting. Ralph mentions that people tend to let the camera determine what they are going to see. I think that’s true of a beginner or long term dabbler who has never really studied what they do. I was one of those dabblers back in my film days but since going digital I’m more of a student. I now think that a stable personal look comes from years of trial and error and thinking of your photos as paintings that you control. I’m still working on the trial and error part.

I noticed a nice variety of styles in the dog portfolio from the other day. The portrait you featured had a nice painterly effect and the low-key shot of the Great Dane was quiet and moody. Even though I’ve been tinkering with low-key lately, my favorite was the Glenturret Autumn Gold, flat-coated retrievers. The detail and color in that image is amazing. While these effects may not be a consistent aesthetic for these photographers, they did use their software in a way that did not produce a standard photo and they were recognized as a result.

And just in time, here's an article about an Instagram account that shows how Instagram photos look the same:


Kodachromeguy, I assure you that not all my digital photos have perfect focus or perfect lack of grain (=noise).

I'm sure we can find an add-in to supply flaws, scratches and grain to taste. I have not yet felt the need.

How I nurture my visual identity in the digital photo era:

1. Constantly observing --searching for scenes, situations, or moods that match up with the themes I'm exploring.

2. Sticking with themes that are compelling to me as well as to others.

3. Practice.

4. More practice.

5. Making prints: A print is something tangible. Viewing and revisiting a print enables me to get a keener sense of a photo's strengths and weaknesses.

6. I limit myself to posting only one photo per week on a social media platform.

7. Discipline: a willingness to be highly critical, able to discard an image I've invested a lot of time and resources on.

8. Flexibility: I try to have two or three different types of photo projects going on at any given time.

9. Motivation: Regarding projects, I rate my motivation level on a scale of one to three (low, medium, high). It usually takes several shoots before I can assess motivation. If I'm not compelled to work on a subject/project/theme, it's time to move on.

10. Retirement: Freedom to take pictures without the necessity of fulfilling clients' needs has afforded me the time and space to grow (as a former pro photographer, bringing in the bacon consumed most of my time).

This thesis haunts me. I was at Grand Canyon just two days ago (on business, as it happens) and took a few (more) pictures of the usual things from the usual places. I doubt I made any photograph that has not been made before. If any has a "point of departure", I don't know what it is. I'm sure none could be identified as uniquely mine.

But he gives the credit to the nerves in his eyeball, which isn't, um, helpful. My eyes must not be as creative. His insight of making photography rather than a photograph is key: A visual signature comes forward only in a body of work, not in a single photograph. I believe that, but I don't see my own signature in my own body of work, yet who else's could it be?

Even his surrealism with its graphical themes--his point of departure--has been done to death. The dates on those books tell that tale.

I keep hoping that craft will make the difference--that my choice of equipment and technique will being something no amount of mere software on an iPhone can match. But of course that is ultimately a fantasy.

When I'm in front of the scene, though, I just can't help it.

As Thom Hogan clearly states, this has been the dilemma/quandary/problem of photography throughout its entire history. Photography, a relatively simple process (it's never been brain surgery or rocket science, after all), means the photographer has to work damn hard to make his/her work stand out. It’s never been about process, or tools, or mechanics. If it was those, there would have exponentially many more photographers of the caliber of Adams, Winogrand, Mann, et al in the medium’s history. It has never been easy to create a photograph that stands out, to say nothing of a body of work. Never. Why damn the tools? It’s like painters damning acrylics, or sculptures cursing modern media they work in (e.g., plastic trash bags). Or claiming Shakespeare couldn’t create the same work on a typewriter or with a word processing program. Tools always improve. Read about the total history of photography. To damn the modern tools is looking for an easy way out. And there is NO easy way. Nor should there be.

[Er, who's damning the tools? --Mike]

This is one reason why even though I use a 4x5 for most/all of my portrait work, I do not use my super sharp 150 APO Sironar-S for that
but instead the Cooke PS945. If I want sharp, a full frame digital will get me there. However, to get that 3-D large format look... well, nothing beats using large format.

I love Ralph Gibson. Thanks for sharing Mike.

Creating (discovering?) one's visual style is one thing and standing apart from the crowd is quite another.

The former involves study and contemplation, whereas (sadly) the latter frequently requires promotion and marketing. Quite a lot of promotion and marketing, in fact. (sigh)

Coincidentally, Brooks Jensen's recent podcast talks about this exact issue. daily.lenswork.com Scroll down to the podcast "It Has Become Too Easy".

After a major life shift from professional photographer to business owner in a completely different field, I have been able to find a visual identity that matters to me. All the photographs I make now are in an effort to document my boys and family. Maybe that’s more of a consistent subject than a distinctive look, but it works for me and my photographs have never had more value.

Wow, I read about Ralph back in the seventies, I’m amazed he’s still active.

I liked some of his pictures where he cut off the heads of subjects, a big no-no in the photo club.

The modern criticism that the digital era has resulted in rampant homogeneity is as inaccurate as its ever been. Black and white film snapshots made by the masses in the 50's and 60's were as homogeneous as any pile of digital snaps made today. There's just MORE digital images today and we have more access to them. The stuff that creates a unique digital image today is no different than the stuff Ralph Gibson used.

I do like Gibson's suggestion that we each have a unique 'eye' that sees its own shapes and forms. And to find your unique photographic voice, one needs to pay attention to what our eye likes to see.

Thanks for the link to the TED talk, Mike.

The sentence toward the end tells me his point best. He sees a photo he took with an uncharacteristic medium and thinks, "That looks like it could have been taken by me." I know pretty well what that means, for Ralph, but how about for me? Does my eye see anything so distinctive and personal that my pictures express it?

Thankfully, photography is only a hobby for me - I don't have to worry about staying one step ahead of the masses or the copycats. I don't post or share my pictures with the general public - only with some friends and family. I shoot for my own enjoyment, so I don't really care if what I photograph is unique or has been done to death a thousand times over - it is mine and if it gives me pleasure to view, that's all I need.

How I nurture my visual identity in the digital photo era:

1) I don't. I just follow my intuition.

2) Take a photograph or two every other day.

3) Use multiple cameras to keep the fun factor alive.

4) Process them in multiple software to try and get the effect I'm after.

5) Could care less what others think of the results.

6) Have FUN ! Distancing myself from (preoccupation with) results allows better concentration and usually enables better output (Bhagavad Gita: as in where Arjun, the great archer, sees only the eye of the fish and NOTHING ELSE).

7) What greater blessing than, at 69 going on 70, to spend one's twilight years in doing what one loves.

8) It's all about Love.

The answer to the NSFW book cover is "Not particularly." It is a visual rhyming slang. Particularly nasty weather ?= tickle your arse with a feather. Readily understood by Britons and Australians.

As I see it, trying to be unique is childish and hopelessly counter productive. Expressing one's love or fascination for the visual world as well as one is personally able, is all one can do - walking the thin line between inspiration and imitation while doing so.
That being said, one danger of digital photography with everything but the framing 'on auto' is that it can be done with very little attention to what we are actually doing, thus missing many opportunities to let our heart or soul find expression and unwittingly inviting machine-made uniformity.

The solution lies in exploring our subjects more in-depth. That's one thing the snapshooting masses don't bother to do, and the shallowness of their Instagram images show this. As photographers our expertise should be not just in techniques and gear, but in approaching our projects with the sensitivity and patience required to reveal their true nature and depth.

Retinal peculiarity, interesting theory.

My practice as a street photographer has made me long think of a photographer's visual style in terms of gesture.

Not sure if this is what Gibson meant in the middle of his talk, "You learned to do gestures," but what I mean is the momentary act of making an exposure -- that the act of locating a subject, positioning yourself and camera towards the potential photograph, and timing the moment of exposure is a kind of gesture made by the photographer, and that 'artistic' photographers (as discussed in the last few posts) have a more or less consistent gestural style, and that this gestural style can be felt in their work.

Seeing, in a documentary, Cartier-Bresson dance through a crowd chasing/making photographs also made me think of this. Here is another point of departure, HOW we make exposures!

Thanks for the video suggestion Mike and Richard.

Perhaps I'm kidding myself, but I sometimes feel like I've developed a unique style in one genre of photography that I've immersed myself in for some time - jazz in-concert. (I would have said "live jazz", but Frank Zappa's "Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny" quote was ringing in my ears.) Browsing through social media, mostly FB, images of mine posted by musicians under my licensing terms (and sometimes outside them) jump right out at me, even before I've examined the contents of the image and checked it against my image database. It's not just that they're B&W and a certain composition style. It's the way I edit the image to accentuate the light and shadows that immediately captures my attention, ahead of the musicians and venue in question.

Is whatever style I've managed to develop really unique? No. Sometimes an image jumps out to me as being mine, only to discover after checking that it's not. There are a few images posted regularly, to promote gigs, which I can't help be certain are mine, but no amount of checking makes them suddenly appear in the database. I suspect that if I was to undertake a thorough survey of the genre I'd discover just now non-unique it really is, so I settle for basking in the illusion that limited browsing on FB creates, rather than confronting the truth of Thom's Sontag observation.

I absolutely agree with your opinion on "L'histoire de France".

This talk was really insightful. I've never tried to shoot unique images, my process is to simply get out of my own head and my own way. To forget those around me and try to frame something that gives me that inner sense of balance and excitement.

"If you don't know Ralph Gibson..."
Mike, who do you take your readers for? ;)

Thank you very much for posting this TED talk by Ralph Gibson.

As it turns out, it's very timely for me personally for a number of reasons. As I've just retired from a professional career in biotech, I'm now focusing on my photography full-time, one "tier" as an "emerging professional" and the other tier on becoming a more fully deveoped artist.

Remember the concept of "synchronicity"? Definition: "the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.

Well, thats happening to me exactly right now.

Just as you posted this video, I was enrolling in a course by professional photographer Giulio Sciorio called, "Finding The Photographers Vision". The course starts today.


Neither of these two could have happened for me at a more perfect time in my journey as a photographer.

Many thanks.

PS: What Thom said.

I saw this Exactitudes at an open air exhibition in Naarden Vesting many years ago. Great to find it here.
Well, that is what TOP is for!

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007