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Sunday, 24 May 2020


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Two things: first, I was just paging through David Dyer-Bennet's website and read a post that reminded me of TOP's on the risks of train photos, so that's where my mind went on seeing this photo. Danger, Will Robinson!

Second, attributed to David Grohl:

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fcking like something, like it. That’s what’s wrong with our generation: that residual punk rock guilt, like, “You’re not supposed to like that. That’s not fking cool.” Don’t fcking think it’s not cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It is cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”! Why the fck not? Fck you! That’s who I am, goddamn it! That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fcking shit.”

Goes for you, Christopher, everyone: music, photo subjects, whatever; like what you like.

Wow. I mean, WOW!

(That's for T.O.P., not the print ... albeit that gets a wow too.)

Nice print...I suspect that "large convex circular mirror" is more likely a headlight; I'm not a train person, but that's a more logical explanation (that is, ask yourself why a mirror would be on the front of a locomotive...though it could be a reflector--a mirror--so that an on-coming training might see their own headlight reflected in it, but I doubt it ).

Nice lesson, BTW, to go your own way...critics aren't always right...an artist has to please him/her self first...be well.

The playwright Tom Stoppard has these lines somewhere in his work.
"Skill without ides, that's craftsmanship.
Ideas without skill, that's modern art."

Maybe it was someone else (Kirk?) but I thought you once said something about not standing on railway lines?

[I know, but I would guess that when you're facing a stationary locomotive it's the safest possible time to be on the tracks. You sure know for sure there's no train barrelling up behind you! --Mike]


Fine thoughts about technique vs content.

Also fine thoughts about Vincent van Gogh. He has been a great inspiration to me for decades.

I would comment that the "A Life" book is a bit iffy. I have not read it, because review have told me that for some odd reason it paints a very negative and seemingly unfounded picture of Vincent's personality.

But there are many wonderful books, for example a few I'm reading by Martin Bailey, concentrating on essential periods of his career, and really well researched.


I’m really enjoying these print crit posts. What a wonderful idea. Honestly, you could keep doing them forever and it wouldn’t get old. Hint.

Two thoughts immediately rose to the top when I finished today’s post.

First, I think you’re exactly right about the two sides (what you say, how you say it). In photography, and especially in print making, there is an extremely deep vein of “how you say it” trumping everything else. The result can be exceptionally finely printed boring pictures that say nothing at all. Good technique is necessary, I believe, but not sufficient.

Second, I think we see a lot of “SPS” because the alternative is often “WTF?” (I leave it to the gentle reader to consult the Urban Dictionary for the meaning of the latter term.) I experienced the WTF? reaction last week when I provided three prints* to a professional colleague with whom I’m trying to do an “art-science” collaboration where I do the art and my colleague does the science. This person’s reaction to the pictures, in short form, was “WTF?” In long form, “I wasn’t sure what I was looking at and only knew which end was up because you signed it at the bottom.” Ouch.

I completely understand why someone would choose to focus on SPS that (a) please them personally, and (b) make sense to the viewer. I see joy for the subject in Christopher’s submission, and I also knew what it was!

* The prints in question were the first three at this link: https://www.robdeloephotography.com/Works/Water-stories/Maddaugh-Spring/ The text at the link was not included with the print (which, in hindsight, was a mistake on my part).

That isn't a mirror on the front of the locomotive, it is a headlight.

The question might be, is the print sent in for critique as a print, or as a photograph?

[I look at prints as both prints and photographs. Except with students or beginners, perhaps, which doesn't pertain here. Mostly, though, I have a tendency to think about the photographer and try to imagine--intuit, even--what I might say that might be valuable to that person. I've always had a natural sympathy for photographers. I care about them as much as I care about their work, maybe even a little more. --Mike]


Thank you for taking the time to write-up such a thoughtful critique. I appreciate all of the kind words regarding the print quality. They mean a lot to me and I'll have a bit more to say about that part of it below.

First, I noticed some comments regarding my safety in getting this photo and wanted to address those. Safety around railroads is of paramount importance and I'm a strict observer of railfanning from safe and legal locations. To that end, it's important that I point out that despite what it looks like, I am not standing in between tracks. The locomotive is steaming out of the roundhouse onto a turntable. Once on the turntable, it will be rotated to the track that will take it to the main loop around the museum. With the longer view afforded me with the FA 77 and the APS sensor, I was able to frame the locomotive coming directly at me without actually being set up between tracks. I urge all railroad photographers to practice the hobby safely and legally!

Now that that is out of the way, I thought I'd expound a bit on the selection of this print and what I was looking for from the critique. When you presented the opportunity, I was very excited to submit a piece for review. I've never had much in the way of formal photographic training and have had absolutely zero formal training with regards to printing. Everything has been learned through copious amounts of reading, trial and error. Because of that, I don't really have any kind of metric on where my print quality falls. Having an opportunity for someone like you to critique the print would be a real litmus test to see if the prints were as good as I hoped they were. So again, many thanks for all of the kind words on that subject.

As for the SPS discussion, part of my submission choice relates to your guideline that it be a single print and on the smaller end of things. I deliberated a long time in figuring out what print to send you if I could only send one. In the end, I decided the print that I had the most experience with and that I thought was most technically sound was the right option for this. Also, in the original post you stated that you'd "provide a critique like you might get from an instructor, not an art critic." Since my personal goal was to gain insight on where my home hewn printing skills resided in a scope far beyond the local art shows and such that I've participated in, I felt like putting my best foot forward.

Your point about it being an SPS does hit home, though. Sometimes I struggle with the fact that much of what I produce can seem like technically sound shots of cliche subjects. I used to spend far more time trackside taking photos. These days, it's not a subject I pursue as much as I once did. Some of this has to do with the fact that I've seen truly inventive work from rail photographers like Frederick Manfred Simon (https://www.steelwheels.photography/). When I see shots like his, there's a part of me that knows that I don't have the vision to be that creative and unique. This goes back to your point about having something to say.

In that vein, my work has changed quite a bit since the Welcome Back, #346! image was taken. I'm much more project oriented these days. The project I've worked the hardest on and the one that I've tried to give my best voice to is my "Icons of the Plains" project in which I try to photograph grain elevators, especially older wooden elevators in a way that gives voice to my appreciation for the simple aesthetic beauty of these structures. While I would have I liked to send something from this series, I couldn't pick one. Since the project really works better as a whole, I couldn't settle on just one print for the critique.

Going back to the SPS discussion, even with the focus that project oriented photography affords, I still struggle with the fact that much of what I produce probably tends toward an aesthetic that matches up with SPS norms. Grain elevator silhouettes at sunset, for instance. The problem lies in the fact that I just *like* those kinds of photos and *like* the process of creating them. Because the end goals of my photography are to enjoy the process and to create beautiful prints of that work (for myself, if no one else), I've started trying to let worries about creating cliche shots of "standard photographic subjects" pass and just focus on making images that meet those goals.

Indeed, this isn't the first time I've been called out about SPS type images. I posted a long exposure shot of a waterfall online once and a novice photographer asked me about my thoughts on making cliche images of a clearly SPS kind of subject. This was my response to him:

There's a quoute from Ansel Adams that I really love. "You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

Unless your name is Henry Fox Talbot or Louis Daguerre, it is inescapable that photographers who have come before you are going to be part of what informs your own aesthetic. But everything else that makes you unique is part of it, too.
Also remember that there's a temporal component to photography as well. While there are a Graham's number of waterfall photos out there, what I took today is unique to today. Tomorrow, the light may be different or the waterfall will be running differently and any other photographer taking in the scene will compose it differently, even if it's just the smallest of changes. For this one moment in time, I was there to make this photo. Wherever you go, whatever you do, those moments are going to be unique to you.

Finally, just because it's be done before doesn't mean it's not worth doing for yourself. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Mt. Everest in 1953. That hasn't stopped thousands of mountaineers from the same challenge since then. Just because sunrises, sunsets, waterfalls, etc. have all been photographed before doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the rewards of photographing these same subjects. If it's the kind of photography you like to pursue, I'd say just enjoy it and try to make the images that you want to make.

While I'll always be trying to improve my photographic game, there may be some SPS images that are made along the way. :-)

Again, many thanks for the thoughtful critique and the kind words about my printing abilities!

In your comment to Patrick Dodds you write “You sure know for sure there's no train barrelling up behind you!” which may be generally true but in this case the track behind the photographer is shown in the “mirror” on the locomotive and is clearly clear.

By the way, Rob de Loe — I like your pictures! They're interesting, unobvious illustrations of the subject.

I liked looking at them, reading the captions and then looking again.

Print Crit is a great addition to TOP. I'm enjoying them immensely. Keep them coming.


Murray Perahia with the LSO. Say no more.

[I like Perahia and I have many of his recordings, but he plays Beethoven like it's Mendelssohn...too smoothed-out and flowing and velvety. He misses Beethoven's spikiness and storminess, his ego and pure cussedness. Michelangeli "stands back" from what he plays, as if he's dissecting it--he's not the most emotional of pianists--but I always got the sense that old Ludwig was an unpleasant egotist you wouldn't want to get too close to anyway. A fine warm human he was not. Claudio Arrau's fourth and last recording of the "Emperor," on Phillips, with Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden, is about the closest any pianist has ever come to just right in a Beethoven piano concerto if you ask me. Although it says as much about Arrau as about Beethoven. That's a magnificent record. --Mike]

I could see 346 on my wall. Specially if it was printed at twice the current size.
And, I am decidedly not a rail fan. I do have a fond recollection of a series of steam era train photos from way back when I was a kid. These were taken some half century ago in western Canada. For some reason the memory of those photos sticks in my head. I wish I could find out who did them and if they look as good to me now as my memory of them.

It shows me that an image can resonate for no predictable reason.
All too many photos are casually and temporarily eye-catching or even a bit interesting- or fall into what Rob called a category of WTF.
My test is if I'd want it on my wall.

These printcric posts are becoming favorites for me, Mike. I love the stress on ideas and photographic content, and, as always, the quality of the writing.

That was a very thoughtful critique and an equally thoughtful reply from Mr. May. I think a lot of us can relate to Mr. May's comments. It's hard to feel creative when you can see thousands of photos a day. So it's probably best to please yourself, if you're not trying to make a living that is. Thanks to both of you.

I'm baffled.

While I do think photographs should be printed I don't get the 'fine print' thing.

Give me a photocopy of a great photograph over a fine print of a crap one every time. I've seen original prints of some of my favourite 'famous' photographs and some have obviously been carefully made, others have been machine prints. The only remarkable thing about them compared to reproductions I've seen on-line or in books and magazines has been their size.

It's all about the pictures for me, and the fact that photographs are pretty much infinitely reproducible rather than unique objects like paintings.

[Well, what's the problem? If you don't care about prints, then you don't. That's okay. Nothing more to say. --Mike]

Very nice photo. Only thing wrong is that it is too severely cropped. Had the scene been allowed to extend, filling the area covered by the mat and printed as a four-side bleed, it would be twice as impressive.

"David Vestal wrote entertainingly about the dissonance between the art market's desire for early prints and the fact that most printers get better the longer they print a photograph. For workers—photographers—late prints tend to be better."

There's a Santa Fe (New Mexico, US) photography gallery that has a respectable collection of classic work, including that of Ansel Adams.
As I recall, there are four versions of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico", an image that anyone who spent any time with Adams' work would remember. However, most of us are remembering the most recent version, which was printed sometime in the 1950s. The earliest, 1941 version in this series, is so much darker, it carries a wholly different feel than what most of us are familiar with.
Most of the image, and particularly the foreground buildings and graveyard, have been significantly dodged out of that darkness.
If you didn't know it was Adams, you would consider it a work print.

“[Ed. Note: You can read the full text of Partial Comments in the Comments Section.]”

But only if they are there. I cannot see Mr May’s full comment even using search.

[SNAFU! Should be visible now. —Mike]

CJ May: of George Tice, someone once said that there wasn't a water tower he didn't like. So, be at peace with your grain elevator project.

I spoke with George Tice about "Petit's Mobil Station, Cherry Hill, N.J. (1974)", a conversation in which I learned that he had taken three different exposures with his large format view camera, and blended them in his darkroom. HDR for the chemical darkroom. The exhibit included both his silver prints and his Pt/Pd ones. I fell in love with the latter. (And have since decided that I may not have enough years left to get anywhere close to good at it, so I'll stick with my Epson printer, and do the best I can.)

Back on tracks !
One of the best post in a while. Inspiring exercice from mike & inspiring "dialogue".

I share a similar concern with Christopher : I'd name it comfort. I like my type and find little incentive to try and break these habits. This is also reinforced by the facts some of my favorite photographers didn't seem to break habits all that often...This might give me a vague dream that perhaps someone will find my work great... post mortem ;-)

Mike, when do we know we should stick with habits ?

Very thoughtful post and discussion. I will say that I completely agree with "Paul in AZ" above. I am not particularly a railroad fan but I really like the photograph and not just the print of it. I would put such a photograph on my wall.

Hummm Maybe this section will become very interesting and controversial as was the Critique column by Fred Picker!

We should all be like that locomotive: through clouds of doubt, frigid cold, snow in your path, we must persevere. Get yourself out of bed, fire up that engine, and get your ass down the tracks. Slow train comin'.

I only shoot for myself now. After shooting for years I am starting I think that I know what I am doing and that if a lot of people hate my work that I am on the right track.

Personally, I'm an opportunist. If while I'm out and about working on a project, I stumble upon an unrelated, but visually interesting scene, I'll happily pause my project and photograph it. In fact, this is usually how I come up with the theme for my next project!

I've also become comfortable working within my comfort zone and I no longer feel much need to expand its boundaries, as I often did when I was younger and actively searching for inspiration.

I no longer feel much of an urge to please others with my photos, either. Which is useful, because a lot of what I photograph these days is of interest only to me and I am okay with this, whereas it would have disappointed/frustrated me when I was younger and still trying to do something with my photography other than just enjoy it.

To quote Popeye, “I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam.”

Shrug. I do SPS on a near daily basis. I call them my "usual suspects" in honor of Casablanca. That said, they are what allow me to learn the technical details that allow the handful of actually good shots I have made shine through. I'd never know the good ones without lots of SPS shots.

[That's a good way to look at it. --Mike]

I've read, so many times, that you have to ask, when you press the shutter: "What am I trying to say?" And my best response has always been "I'm trying to say: Look at this!" I've never considered myself to be an artist by any stretch of the imagination.
On the other hand, I know that there's more than meets the eye in the scenes that appeal to me. Over the years, I've made occasional stabs at identifying common themes. But right now, I'm reading Bruce Barnbaum's "The Art of Photography" and finally seeing a discussion of using photography to communicate ideas that resonates with me.

@Dennis: "Look at this!" Yes! But why?

Something that took me a long time to realise is that when you ask people why, they feel vulnerable if they don't have what they feel is a good answer. But in the a lot of cases, this is the thread the artist is following — the work for them is an expression of something they can't put words to, a response that's reflexive and deep, an itch that needs scratching.

Understanding why happens slowly.

And so it occurred to me like an epiphany, that this is what all those pretentious gallery captions mean when they say "In this series, the artist explores . . ."

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