« Something Else | Main | What Is Photography? »

Friday, 12 April 2019


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

A wonderfully incisive, and resonating, piece that will make my weekend better for having read it on the Friday.

There are a few shutterbugs who get together around here every now and then to talk photography and, maybe, watch a photography related film. Your "fishing" piece has been called upon on more than one occasion at these meetings.

I'll be sure to bring this one forward as a means to foster more discussion the next time we meet. Thanks!

It takes a tough person to persist with a vision after he/she begins to suspect that there'll *never* be any public recognition.

[Yes...and no. I personally could name specific people I know who are a.) embittered because of just what you say, and b.) who have worked quietly and happily for many years exclusively for the personal rewards and the joy of doing what they do. (That latter guy did have a longtime career as a photography teacher, at the college level so he does have a pension, so maybe that counts as public recognition? And he did have gallery shows. But he generally has been quite content to work very hard as an artist just doing his own thing, without fame or finances. I wish there was ONE book of his work. --Mike]

I don't think I would tie accomplishment to having gallery shows and commercial success since so few in number will achieve that. I think accomplishment is achieved in the process of mastering the craft.

Back in the day, Leslie Krims, one of the most imaginative photographers ever to pick up a camera, decried and protested his own exhibit (under pseudonyms) to the newspapers, and anyone else who would listen. It helped create the attention and uproar his work well deserved!

You mention Rickard's Google work, which I think I've seen. Two of my favorite Instagram accounts are in a similar vein, one nearly the same as Rickard's. That latter is a person who dubs themself an "agoraphobic traveler" and I think it's just fantastic (well-chosen Google street views, to my eye). I think they had a gallery show. Sort of New Topographics-ish, etc.

The other is "craigslist mirrors" and I believe it now has a book. They do a good job (I think) of choosing people's advertisements for, well, the mirrors that they're selling on CraigsList. Maybe the various snaps' styles would remind some too much of the self-consciously offhand kind, maybe like some's least-loved trends in gallery photography, but maybe that's the point? It's just regular folk accidentally mimicking those styles. Cracks me up, no pun intended.

Meanwhile, I think I have a selfie in process that's probably going to be a year or two in the making: around July of last year I was doing a bike tour in Montana, just outside Glacier NP, when an Apple Maps car drove right past me while I was taking a water break. I think I was standing square looking right at its camera as it rolled by...We'll see. I hope it got my good side! Just have to wait for Apple's upgraded Maps app to come out...I'll be there.

Mike said ...most of your pictures will suck (because we're essentially dealing with chance)...but a few won't.

I got hired to make pictures that didn't suck. If they sucked, I wouldn't get hired again—simple as that. Some of my pix sucked, some sucked-less, and others were keepers. The secret of suckcess is NO sucks-more, few sucks-less and mostly suckless.

Of course my definition of a picture is very different from most photographers. I don't do street, I don't do retail, I don't do landscape, wildlife, graffiti or family/friends either. Since I retired I only do abstract or dreamscape—mind's eye shooting 8-)

After 60+ years of photographing, a BFA degree, many shows, etc. what I produce is for me. It either succeeds in that it satisfies me or it doesn't. I have long since stopped worrying about what other people think about the work I choose to share. If they like it, great. If they don't, well... it wasn't made for them anyway. I'm happy to share the enjoyment of it if they do like it, but that isn't the point.

One idea is "If I travel 2,000 miles I'll get great pictures".
Reality is "same stuff, different day". If you can't get good photographs where you live you won't by traveling, just different location for mostly the same stuff.

One big help is to go to some of the same places at various times and view the scenes looking through the camera. Be it a view camera ground glass or a digital screen, you immediately get rid of distractions as the lens does not take in everything around you. You learn to "see" as the lens does, not just point and shoot at anything and everything.
It helps one slow down and consider things which is often a big help towards better images.

Ten percent (10%) success? That would be about right considering that out of a roll of 36 frames, I could find three maybe four keepers.

On a good day, greatly inspired, I can get half good ones. But to find out, I will have to wait till I soup the film and for that matter, after enjoyin' the smell of the fixer.

I suppose that a lot depends on the psychology of the person doing the work. Some do things just because they can't help themselves, and others because they have a wannabe complex that makes them chase things for which they may not be best suited. Money is always important, and if it is reassuringly there somewhere in the background, then risk shrinks in strength and much becomes possible.

There might be an argument that says people, driven people who have no choice but to follow their dream, have the easier time because of their obsession which may preclude regret and other emotions guaranteed to work against said person making it.

I suspect that a lot also depends on location: some branches of photography, such as fashion, depend very much on the related services such as model agencies etc. and you won't get far trying to do that by yourself. Then the small matter of clients.

A painter has few such worries or restrictions, because if he has the graphic skills as well as the imagination to picture in his head the thing he wants to create, it depends just on him. Doesn't it seem unfair? (That's a cheap, sociopolitical jibe refecting my dislike for political correctness.)


I find your fishing analogy superb, a great essay!

I almost never have any keepers when photographing with an agenda, only when photographing by instinct. The other, of course, gives practice and experience that sinks into the instinct.

( In a play "A Tech Student at King Arthur's Court" there's a scene where King Arthur is fishing with a modern rod provided by the student beside Merlin calmly angling with his wand. Arthur catches nothing whatever he tries, while Merlin lands one fish after another.)
- - -

I think also your essay today is spot on, especially the ending conclusion!
( Also: ".. a matter of chance and taste.", Exactly!)

I too find it harder today to find good photography. And beside the sheer numbers you mention I find another reason in your photo-fishing essay:
"Sometimes, what’s in front of the camera is enough; getting out of the way of the picture is better than willfully interposing our own "vision" on every shot we take."

In photo magazines from 1930-60 (in my father's collection) most photos were "what's in front of the camera", and there was a lot of good photography. When I look in modern photo magazines, even before digital, too much has a wilfully added vision (and I have to search for good photos).

But no, I dont mind that, if it's really well done, but that's rare. I've come to believe that this is much harder in photography than in painting.
- - -

As to the problems with accomplishment, I come to think also of the episode of the trout in "Three Men in a Boat". Several people told *how* they had caught that large stuffed trout hanging on the pub wall - until it turned out to be made of plaster.
Imitating and copying art has always been done, but with the huge volume of photos now it becomes harder to identify.

Mike said..."Creativity in photography is mainly a matter of chance and taste."

It is amazing how often both chance and luck are attributed to the making of a good photograph. I wonder if poets, writers, musicians, film makers, painters, etc. also get the “honor” of having their lauded efforts attributed to chance or luck.

Those who believe in chance or luck, no matter what they do, are better off trying to win the lottery.

You’ve got it wrong, Mike.

Exhibits AND a professorship? Yeah, you're definitely gonna need a (much) better b.) example...

I think we are dealing with chance when we go fishing with not much thought as to what we going to catch. One must plan their vision before casting the fly sometimes.

I have a shot that I've been looking at for weeks now. A 40's something red rust pickup with the raised hood and roof poking above the weeds and brush that surround it. I just know I can land a nice shot of it when the time and light is right.

PS. Yes at least 90% of my shots suck but hey I call them practice.

As regards Creativity: wow, that "Gone Fishing" article of yours to which you link, it certainly is worth a read and a re-read. Really sharp insights.

As regards Accomplishment: why worry about the billions? We all act and interact in our own circles, some are small, some are large, and these circles overlap and influence each other to create the great flow. The overall "culture" of which we are part, it evolves all by itself. The world does not need any one of us to be in command.

An essay that deserves to stand out, even among the millions (thousands?) of essays written every day...

Yes. And if accomplishment comes as late as it did for Vivian Maier, why worry about it at all? Just make the photos... and maybe put the best in a box, who knows.

Which is why I suggested your quest for a history of photography is really for a history of curation, of what we have been led to believe is important, or at least encouraged in that sense before revolting.

On the question of what you can do as a photographer to make a smaller percentage of your photos "suck", you can read a hundred photo books or you could read Scottish Photographer Bruce Percy's blog where he considers all aspects of the creative process in an accessible and very honest and personal way.

Sometimes he looks at the psychological processes of personal and artistic development, sometimes just simple practical tips for composition that you can read once and apply immediately. For example, his current post considers a simple technique for balancing the sizes of background and foreground in your composition (spoiler: use focal length to achieve the desired background and your feet to achieve the desired foreground).

Another article I read recently that was an eye opener was a discussion on how to use local adjustment tools in Lightroom. Instead of doing all the global adjustments first, then finishing up with local adjustments, he recommends doing it the other way around: keep the global adjustments to the minimum and use the local adjustments for most of your editing. That way you avoid the risk of overdoing global contrast for example in an attempt to add punch.

What you won't find much of on Bruce's site is equipment reviews. His focus is on improving the photographer, whatever gear you use.

Highly recommended: https://www.brucepercy.co.uk/blog

So, I come to this from a very different angle of view (hardee har har), as that of a draughtsman-painter first, then also a collagist,who then started printmaking also, who then picked up sculpture as well, and installations. And photography along the way, first to document my other work, then as its own medium.

So, I would make several comments. First, about the 90%-10% cut. That's only true for some. It's not true for Rubens, or Jasper Johns, or Vija Celmins, and many many others. Their excellence rate is very very high, probably the reverse of Sturgeon's Law.

Now, for "photographers", who often have a scatter shot approach----because they can---indeed the hit rate might be much lower, BUT, this is reductive, because the process is about taking more shots than are "needed", or that will be in the "hit" box. So, rather than thinking of the excess as failures, they should be considered mulch or fertilizer, sh*t of a different sort. Also, the potential hit rate is going to be higher today I would think, allowing for PP recovery, which is vastly "better" than before.

As an artist who has a drawing-painting mindset first (I don't think like a sculptor, by and large), my hit rate with photography is now quite high, now that I understand the medium more, what it means to me, what I want to do with it, and now that my skills and yes, equipment, are far better.

Finally I would caution all and sundry about "like" and "success" in work. "Like" is ultimately irrelevant with respect to the work, which is autonomous once the maker is done with it. The work is the work, and you are you, a bag of wobbly flesh. "Success" should only have to do with what the work needs, and nothing else. No. Thing. Else.

Some readers will say, "Well, that is just you". I answer: Understand and take this approach, and watch your hit rate rocket upwards (after the requisite struggle to understand the work), given skills competence as a prerequisite.

I just saved everyone an expensive grad school education, because this stuff above is the key take-away from any decent grad program.

The less I concern myself about whether my work will be seen and what people think about it, the happier I am. But it takes me more effort to convince myself to maintain that outlook than it does to become better at my work.

(Related to that, it's becoming harder and harder to "be seen" in modern terms (Instagram, Facebook) as the corporate gatekeepers have determined that any amount of nudity, no matter how small, tasteful, artistic or implied, is not to be tolerated and will be suppressed. What bizarre repressed, 1950's-like times we live in.)

Oh, and BTW: per my other comments, "creativity" is also a suspect and swampy topic. Use caution.

So why does it take all those preceding words and paragraphs to get to the last sentence.

"Smartphone or 8x10 view camera loaded with B&W film, Instagram or fine handmade prints in a box—none of that is really important. As long as you're doing what turns you on".
Making pictures to share using a camera or whatever, should be all or only about having something that turns you on and is fun to do.

That and maybe having an audience, whether that audience is friends and family who want to see the pictures that you make, or an audience of some undefined cohort of experts who dare to tell us what a photograph should be and how it should have been made.

Making "art" out of Google aerial views-

[Impressive research and memory. Would you say the changes you've witnessed over your lifetime have been net positive or net negative? --Mike]

Would you say the changes you've witnessed over your lifetime have been net positive or net negative? --Mike

I would say net positive until the last half dozen years.

Photography used to be like one of the definitions of a small town - "a place where everyone knows everyone". In my particular "small town" interest of environment/nature/landscape photography, close to everyone knew who Ansel Adams was and the nature of his work, and mostly praised it. Now that type of work is saturated by "big city" numbers of people, but certainly not matched by equal levels of "accomplishment". As you noted, "As a member of the audience, I find it much harder to find good work right now than it was thirty years ago. Just the sheer numbers are agonizing."

Filtering that down to the personal level, my own art displays are purchased a bit less than they were a decade ago - not due (I certainly hope!) to less creative effort on my part but due to the fact there is so much more of my type of art on display to select from. I am always heartened when a certain piece is so well admired that it is purchased over and over again. Even more interesting and striking is the fact every one of those particular images stood out as very personally meaningful well before anyone else ever saw them!

So "as long as you're doing what turns you on", you're on the right path - especially, as the years go by, it's a little harder to just get up let alone venture forth in the field. On those rare occasions where your efforts culminate in an acknowledgement beyond ones own self-satisfaction, those moments are indeed extremely satisfying.

Despite several readings I'm unable to discern your thesis here, Mike. Sorry, but it just doesn't come across coherently to me.

So I'll just say that "success" in photography is, indeed, a relative matter. Your final sentence:

"Smartphone or 8x10 view camera loaded with B&W film, Instagram or fine handmade prints in a box—none of that is really important. As long as you're doing what turns you on."

is pretty much the best advice for the vast majority of camera owners.

[Sorry. I thought it was laid out pretty clearly, albeit in abbreviated form. I'd try again here, but I'm reminded of something Robert Frost said when asked to explain one of his poems: "You want me to say it again, but worse?" --Mike]

Re the volume of pictures, and the 90% Crap.......
I would offer a slightly different take.
First of all Crap in who's opinion ?
Second , re volume of pictures, digital has ushered in the use of pictures as a substitute for language--we now use pictures to remember our parking spot, jot down the price of things, to remember the plumbing fixture I need in home depot, or a tree or bush we might want for the garden, as well as idle snapshots of friends & family that we understand have no meaning to anyone but us. But they ARE valuable to us.
My guess is that if you were to exclude ALL of those kinds of pictures, the percentage of "Not Junk" pictures would be considerably higher.
Digital has changed the nature of Photography, making it easier, cheaper, more accessible, and suitable for many more purposes.
So it is not the same as the photography we grew up with.
Personally, I find it to be better, I can do things that I could not do before, plus I enjoy the note taking, and instant communication we now have.
It does not bother me a bit that I have only seen a small fraction of all photographs, I think that's the way it should be. You say we need more editors, and I agree, but it has to start with each of us.
How many times have we heard "You only show your Best work" I believe that, and practice it. Nor do I participate in Facebook et al.
--Even though the current fashion seems to be disclose everything to everyone 24/7
So technology is changing nearly every aspect of our lives, there will always be good & bad consequences from it, but generally more good than bad. Same as people, and as my Mom used to say "Just take the good and leave the bad"
Artists have always taken what is available and used it in new ways....I suspect that will continue.

I've had a couple of gallery shows and been one of Mike's "Random Excellence" subjects, so I don't think I'm totally languishing in obscurity. But if I am, I reckon that I'm in good company with Vivian Maier and Vincent Van Gogh.

For me, an amateur in its original definition, the work is its own reward.

An old adage one man's trash is another man's treasure. My mother said all his taste is in his mouth, while I say there's no accounting for taste—or the lack there of.

Times change and tastes change. If you were born before WW2, your likes and dislikes will be different than someone born in 2005. Henri who? He ain't on SpaceFace, or InstaSite!

The definition of success changes as well. Oldsters think that gallery shows equals recognition. Youngsters think that selling expensive workshops to ad-am's is all the recognition their bank account needs.

10% doesn’t suck? That’s very optimistic. I think 1% is a better guess.

I think most photographers have a ready made audience: their circle of family, and of friends they know face to face. Within that circle everybody's snaps, good and bad, matter because everybody cares about what the everybody else is doing and experiencing. Family albums from the late 19thC are fascinating to family members now.

The work of those who manage to establish themselves as genuine photographic superstars is fascinating too and has so much to teach the rest of us. Even if we have no desire to join their ranks we value what they are showing us.

We should all worry less about the difference!

Late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon formulated that eponymous Sturgeon's Law: "90% of everything is crap."

Andrew Molitor is entirely correct.

With all the photographs and of all the photographers in the world, it's hard to believe that Henri Cartier-Bresson said that he NEVER thinks about photography...He 'takes' photos and 'thinks' about life, about form, about what interests him, what shocks him. Cartier-Bresson was always more concerned about the next photo and for him the joy of photography was in the simple act of taking a picture. He rarely talked about his own work and didn't comment on his photographs, claiming that "I have nothing to say. People talk way too much, think way too much. There are schools for everything, where you can learn anything, and in the end know nothing, absolutely nothing. There is no school for sensitivity. It does not exist". Cartier-Bresson also worried that many of today's images are "inherited from advertising and represent the outcome and confusion of a certain Americanized world, a world that is headed toward nothingness...becoming part of a Clearance-Sale Society". He found what was wonderful in "the vital reaction in photography where you are yourself and at the same time forget yourself, so that you can question reality or try to understand it..." My latest motto courtesy of Henri Cartier-Bresson is to keep it simple, work slow and just let all those BILLIONS of photos fall aside and fade away.

There are billions of writers and photographers in the world. Mostly, they write tweets or messages on WhatsApp, and illustrate them with a photo or two to enrich the shared experience.

Informal social communication is the area where photography has seen the largest growth, but as the visual equivalent of a throwaway comment, not as part of the photographic oeuvre.

The real problem with photography is that it isn't technically as hard as learning to draw or paint - skills which, like music, require a certain degree of practise and talent just to get off first base.

As such, its representational accuracy is taken for granted. Now that we don't even have to learn the basics of exposure, this is even more the case. A technically adequate image no longer has any currency in its own right. After all, a monkey can do it.

99.9999% of all images taken (I made that up) are only of interest to friends and family, and only for their content, not their art.

If we want a stranger to look at our images, it isn't enough to be technically good. Rather, there has to be something in the image that captures our interest, informs us, surprises us, or pleases us aesthetically. The image has to be greater than the sum of its contents.

The same is largely true of writing. We don't read anything for pleasure unless it has the same elements. Being grammatically readable is a given, and nowhere near enough.

Nor is saying something interesting in pictures any harder than saying it in words. Which is to say, very hard indeed. It isn't easy to be interesting, which is why most photographs suck.

Given that your blog manages to produce an abnormally high proportion of interesting posts, I would suggest that an analogue of the same thought process - and similar graft and skill - is required to be an interesting photographer.

The rest is just finding an audience. There are many more ways to do that now, but simply having a page on Flickr isn't one of them.

Of course, we may not need or want an audience. For many of us, photography is a personal achievement and a fascinating hobby, not a quest for approbation or remuneration.

What do you want to say?

Who do you want to say it to?

What do you want to receive from those who see your work?

Photography is expression, communication, and appreciation.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007