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Wednesday, 18 March 2020


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That's exactly how I feel about photography in this age. But is so difficult to put it in words as clear as yours.

People seem to like things that are safely and surely likable in particular cultural settings and moments. How else can one explain Instarepeat? https://www.instagram.com/insta_repeat/?hl=en

I'm not sure what's worse though: putting your tripod legs in the holes worn into the stone by all the other people taking that exact picture, or "photography" by people who shudder at the thought a picture might engage someone somehow. To whit, Lewis Balz, "I hope that these photographs are sterile, that there's no emotional content."

I have come to the conclusion regarding photobooks that many of the photographers (excuse me, "lens-based artists") making them don't much like photographs and aren't much interested in them.

I offer Michael Ashkin's "HORIZONT" and "were it not for" photobooks as evidence, but he is far from alone.

People share their b-roll photos with people, in part, because they want to help fill the void that they think the other person has in their life. Because they feel that part of themselves is missing, so part of everyone else is probably missing as well. If this were not true, people wouldn't look toward some thing, person, situation or event for a sense of fulfilment. Dang! That's not strictly about photography. But that's ok, isn't it? Anyway, give me purpose over fulfilment any day of the week.

I belong to a very old and still somewhat popular photo site where there is a film forum I participate in. There are folks who live to do test shots. This film and that developer. Photos of nothing often.

I get that you need test shots but is that all you want out of life? As I get older and less adventurous I walk my local park and trail system camera in hand. Ya mostly boring shots but I am starting to see I can see what has not been seen.

Maybe about life. On the other hand..."A cigar is sometimes just a cigar."


". . . filled with pictures that are just devoid of meaning, feeling, specificity, or any interest in the subject matter whatsoever . . . there's no there there. There seems to be a meaning but there isn't."

Might I suggest that meaning is not inherent in the object, but a creation of the mind of the observer?

Thing is that sometimes functional is very important. My mother - almost 98 - is as locked down as we can get her at the moment. Just her care people and me (from a distance as I'm a teacher and been exposed to many bugs in the last week here in the UK). I usually take her to the garden centre and she enjoys telling me what to do in my garden.
So the wonder of photography is that I can email her photos of the flowers she has got for me and this brings colour and joy into her life at the moment. The mix of photography and electronic communication is really making a difference

ALL shots are test shots because if you look at them critically you will improve. There will be more times when you raise the camera and do NOT take a photo. That is progress.

What I see in a photo is not what you may see.

Remarkably a faint smell can transport us back years and years but more easily and quickly a photo can do the same.

The photo I very keenly remember is not a photo.

My dad gave me an old 'Roll' film and the next day I got my aunt to pose for me. She was outraged (sorta -I was 9yrs) when she found out the camera had no film in it.

So I started off NOT taking photos but I have been making up for it ever since.

Sampling a photo forum that I participate in, it seems that almost everyone is now restricted in movement or "socially distanced." So how to communicate that and share a response in pictures? Some go out when it is permitted and find scenes of isolation. But the Times photo section this morning has a sequence by the excellent Ashley Gilbertson that does that theme to completion. So how about pictures that show how the inside of the house feels when your self-isolation cluster stays together for weeks? Do you remember how Josef Sudek narrowed his focus to the windows around his studio?

I'm afraid I have to disagree, I think Michael Ashkin's "HORIZONT" is a fantastic set of images. But then I like work that peers behind the glossy façade of late capitalism. I'm also a big fan of Baltz and the whole "New Topographic School", so called. Thank you for the head's up. I've added it to my Amazon wish list but sadly it doesn't seem to be available.

I've long held similar views about the content of photographs being more important than the photograph.
For me it is always about the story that's being told, not the cleverness of the photo.
As part of my own photographic practice I have tried to steer my clients towards this approach with varying success.
One format that has worked is my take on family photography; A Day in the Life of Your Family.
Hopefully not, "my sh*t that looks a lot like other peoples' sh*t."
Here is a brief slideshow showing a family's story that I am currently hand printing and binding into a 140 page, large scale photo book for them:

As Maggie Osterberg said, "WHAT THE HELL AM I SHOOTING HERE?"

When our family was together last Christmas, we spent several days and evenings going through two suitcases of old photographs. None could be called a beautiful or even pretty picture. Over exposed. Under exposed. Now and then, one in focus. But almost every one caused a "who's that?" a "where was that taken" an "I forgot all about him" and a story or two or three.

Those suitcases of pictures are better and more important than any perfectly composed, perfectly focused, perfectly exposed and perfectly printed 25 megapixel picture I've made.

Maybe some day when today's pictures are found on an old disk drive somewhere, there will be another Christmas full of "who is that, where was that taken, I forgot all about him" and stories. Lots of stories. Lots of laughs. And maybe a tear or two.

I hope so.

Since the early days of photo essays in Life Magazine, I look for content in a photograph. I take it for granted that a photo is well composed, and technically good.

I agree. As soon as I see a test shot, I know exactly the kind of photographer they are. I call them engineer-photographers. They are the same people who when planting trees plant them in perfectly symmetrical and straight lines. Engineers are very useful, but an engineer who has a true artistic sense is rather rare.

My primary purpose in cataloging my thus-far unorganized images is to cull out the appalling number of 'test shots' I have collected in a decade-plus at digital imaging. So many checks of WB/color fidelity and AF accuracy that, once made, have no purpose except as clutter. I cannot describe how much I'm not looking forward to that exercise.

I got my photographic education whilst working as a low-grade civil servant at the MOD in London in the 70’s.

My job involved going to Stanford’s a famous map and travel bookshop to pick up maps the military and things they did not have. It was almost right next door to the Photographers gallery.

I would stop off at the Photographers Gallery to browse the exhibitions and above all books in the bookshop whilst on my errands.
I discovered Andre Kertez, Don McCullen Fay Godwin and lots of others. I also spent far too much money on books.

These photo books had pictures that moved me, the book binding and layout were irrelevant.

Fast forward to the photo festival we have here in Reggio Emilia every year. They also set up a well-stocked photography bookshop. I make a point of having a look, but my wallet does not need opening. Why? Well for the same reasons you have articulated so well below.

"I've noticed that a lot of photobooks these days are filled with pictures that are just devoid of meaning, feeling, specificity, or any interest in the subject matter whatsoever. They're stylish, or highly stylized. They're going for a sort of attenuated implication of significance. But there's no there there. There seems to be a meaning but there isn't."

I have noticed that the presentation and quirky layout and design seems more important than the contents in most of the books on sale.

Where is the humanity and joy of seeing of Kertez, the wonderful Landscape of Goodwin and the punch in the face by McCullen?

I agree with you about seeing other people's 'Test Shots' which has become code for "I know they are not good but wanted to post something"
Now having grown up in a Studio environment, we 'tested' everything- new emission batches, new lights, weather our concept for shooting a layout would actually work -before the actual shooting day.
But we never showed them to anyone, we made some notes & trashed them.
My Daughter & Wife shoot weddings and I she hasn't shot there before she visits venues before hand, and does a free shot 'Engagement session' to get to know the couple, to get the couple to see what is involved in photography, and to help them decide what kind of pictures they really want. It is very helpful to all.

Mike, while I also like your OT posts, it's thoughtful, well written articles like this that remind me what a genuinely great (and unique?) resource this blog is. Thank you.

Mike, OT a bit but still relevant. During this time of sheltering in place, at least in Ohio, we are sheltering in place, I have been trying to do some photo type projects.
One big project that I have been thinking about for some time is how to pass on my photos to the next generation. This is something a lot of your readers are thinking about, I am guessing since most of the photographers I know are in my demographic. I am not looking for someone to tell me what pictures to save and what to dispose of but maybe some criteria or guidelines to use as I, review my catalog of images. Their maybe some Vivian Meier's out there that are not discovered, which would be ashamed.
I have looked at the web for guidance, and have to really found anything of value so any help on this project would be much appreciated. Thanks be safe. Eric

When my brother and I bought a Spotmatic together in 1968, the shop gave us a roll of film, which included development and printing. One of the pics we took was of the camera itself looking in mirror using the self-timer (now known as they selfie button, I think). When we picked up the prints, the guy in the shop picked out the camera-selfie and said, "Everyone takes one of these."

The self-timer in that camera was mechanical, of course, and using it felt like using one of those crank-up toys. I would exercise it now and then just to listen to the noise it made.

Say Mike, when you combine your thoughts from 'Test shots', with your fine column of Nov 24 'Out of Gas', A camera seems to me...It evolves into one of the most powerful expressions ever of the rational for why one would begin and would continue to include the photographic process in our lives and of how we would make endure.

Ken,Wakefield QC, Canada

Re "my first, most basic question: what am I seeing here?"

I believe there is another category of photographs that ASK a question rather than answering it. They pose the query "what can you see here?"

They are maybe less common and less likely to succeed (but can be more interesting) than the "look at this" photograph where what "this" is is clear and the issue is only how well is it depicted.


A propos of photographs with meaning, photographs about life -- something with which I thoroughly agree -- I just received "The Recent Past," the newest book of photographs by James Ravilious, whose photographs are most certainly about life. I now have all his books, but this one has the most magnificent reproductions of them all.

For those who want to see what I think of as "real photography," I also highly recommend the work of other lesser-known but nonetheless great photographers such as Richard W. Brown, Peter Miller, and especially, B.A."Tony" King, whose books "My Maine Thing" and "This Proud Place" are an absolute delight. I will be writing about these and others in future posts on my blog alifeinphotography.blogspot.com.

Annie Dillard said of writers something that seems to me to apply equally as well to photographers (substituting for 'voice' perhaps 'image'): "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."

Photos that interest me are photos that capture something of the photographer's astonishment--perhaps astonishment that light falls in this way and not that, making shadow here and not there, this line crosses this shape and not another, this color contrasts with that color, etc. But, what brings forth astonishment in me as a viewer of the photograph is that the image elements disclose something worth seeing--this tree, this event, this person, this artifact. When I'm photographing I'm trying to pay attention to what astonishes me. And, to be clear, astonishment is not the same thing as excitement or adrenaline. I'm often astonished by the quietest of images.

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