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Monday, 22 June 2020


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re: "What I'm usually working for when I work on a photograph is that I don't want it to look like I worked on it."

As Robert Adams wrote: "Why do most great pictures look uncontrived? Why do photographers bother with the deception, especially since it so often requires the hardest work of all? The answer is, I think, that the deception is necessary if the goal of art is to be reached: only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that beauty is commonplace.”

My thought, at first unknown but later known, on photography since the first day I picked up a camera.

Everything I've photographed exists regardless of me, my role is only to be receptive. The most important thing is the luck... behind every good image there is the good luck too. Sometimes when you are in a right place in the right moment, you'll feel that the image is a gift and even that it doesn't matter who's behind the camera. -Pentti Sammallahti

I shot several hundred pictures in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder by our Minneapolis police, and have been working with them since.

It's been leading me to think about process, and "work" on photos, both when shooting and afterwords.

I see myself approaching a particular subject (the subjects in this project are plywood or OSB panels people have put up to protect windows, which have then had art / graffiti / slogans painted on them) often from multiple directions and distances, even for a completely static subject.

My admiration for Ansel Adams says "previsualize"; shouldn't I just walk around the static subject (it'll wait for me!) and find the right shot?

I think my answer here is "Yeah, I should, if I were Ansel Adams." My real area of photography (the one I'm any good at) is people interacting on their own—candid photography. That both requires very fast action (they won't wait for me!), and doesn't give me a lot of time to do complicated exposure jiggering, or thinking through renderings, or any of that. So when I see something interesting I get a quick shot, and then try to find improvements on it, by waiting for them to change expression or position, or by moving around to shoot from different positions, or whatever. I frequently shoot what used to be "a whole roll of film" on one small interaction, and will be happy if I get one useful shot from it.

Well, when I occasionally go out and shoot static subjects, I use "working the subject" as a substitute for adequate pre-visualization of what each shot I take will end up looking like.

I have had to go back to locations and re-shoot because the first set had problems I wasn't happy about. That's a really clear-cut example of not paying enough attention during the original shooting—I have habits from working fast which don't help me doing work that doesn't require "fast".

And sometimes people show up and become part of these shots, and it's useful to me to be able to incorporate them; I find they often make the shot more interesting.

Processing the extra shots after the fact doesn't bother me, since I'm used to muchhigher levels of over-shooting in dynamic situations, and have the tools and attitude to cope with that.

I am, in fact, a typical amateur who tries to do too many things. But they're all fun! And I want the photos.

All I really want to respond to this article series is a +1 button. Thank you.

Hi Mike,

I mostly work hard now in computational photography, stitching either aerial 360's or a gigapan (a massive image from perhaps hundreds if not thousands of images.) And I have to say I'm one of those that is driven crazy by off level horizons. Perhaps it the nature of the view - interactive - perhaps it's just the driving need for what is deemed a perfect stitch. Whatever, not perfect level horizons are a non starter. As are stitching errors unless I'm not making money on the post work. If it's a very cheap job, then I simply do not care.

I believe in the 10,000 hour theory, which involves hard work... all done before the event.

When I take a picture now, I can "lens" the scene, pick the best aperture to get the best zone of sharpness (or lack of overall sharpness) and compose the unmovable elements by moving my body, before I lift the camera.

It seems easy, but the hard work was the thousands of slides and prints stacked floor to ceiling in a large walk in closet.

"Sometimes, when I do portraits, I'll actually work to make a picture look less formal and more idiosyncratic, the opposite of what some other photographer might want to do."

This theme must be in the air at the moment. I was struck by more or less the same sentiment in Sean Tucker's latest video, when he was describing the difference between his photos of the Himba people and his photos of his mentors.

I guess I work hard (when I do, which probably isn't often enough) I do it for a similar reason: I try to remove obstacles between the viewer and the subject. What I mean by that is anything in the frame - including excessive formality - that might remind the viewer that he's seeing a picture, or indeed having any other experience other than seeing what drew me to the subject and the scene in the first place.

Sean Tucker's video is excellent, btw, and it's here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep-cicuDCJc

"My father always said that in the fifth draft he introduced that note of spontaneity for which his writing was well known." —Peter W. Galbraith

For me, it's not about some general goal, but rather a particular one. I have an idea about what I want to achieve in a particular shot--which may be radically different from shot to shot--and then I'll expend an extraordinary amount of energy trying to get it right. That may mean recording a huge number of images and/or doing a lot of post-processing (only in Lightroom and Luminar, not Photoshop), but I'm really working seriously on only one image at a time.

Looking at the picture from Shorpy, I think that example suggests the amount of pre-photo work that is needed to approach a person like this to get such a candid image. Perhaps it was done on the spur of the moment, but the man and the baby are at relative ease with the camera (or at least willing to be photographed in such a manner), which reminds me of stories I have heard from a photojournalist friend who will spend hours, days, and even years getting to know a subject.

In fact, the creation of the human connection is the part of the process that she values most. The photos are mere outcome of this process, which she does again and again for her personal projects.

Tilting horizons make me NUTS! Years ago I went to a Robert Adams show at the Portland Art Museum. His work is quite interesting but I was immediately turned of by what seemed to be a lack of concern for basic technique. He had blown highlights, black shadows, and tilted horizons. I guess I'm too hung up on these details since he's received a Guggenheim, is internationally famous, and his work is in museums... and I'm not, and will never be. I'm not sure how to reconcile that, not the fame, I'm happy being me, but I really struggled and wanted to like and understand his work and just could not. I've seen a lot of his earlier work and it's quite excellent. Go figure. Hard work?

I immediately thought of Sally Mann's family photographs when reading this post. I love that most of her pictures in Immediate Family look like beautiful candid moments. And to be honest, I had a slightly higher appreciation for them under that premise. When I learned how hard she worked to create and re-create these "candid" moments, I was a bit disappointed. I came around to appreciating them for the beautiful images they are - DESPITE the amount of work that went into them. For I too prefer the idea of a serendipitous moment captured.

It is a terrific photograph. That's how it was.

The tired, direct gaze of Dad, paired with the bored expression of the baby, is engrossing. And there's a little bonus: Dad wasn't alone with the baby. There are two toes and a bit of foot on the other side of the post. They look about the right size to match the child-sized rocking chair.

A more meticulous photographer would have cropped the foot. Fortunately this photographer wasn't that meticulous.

Maybe this is the most important topic there is and there is so much to learn from other fields and other arts.

I think about how hard actors and dancers work to achieve a state of fluidity and grace at the moment of performance. That 'honing for when something special happens'.

Then there's the work that goes into being where you need to be (in every sense) so that something special does happen, or so that you're sensitive to the specialness in the things that are happening.

The topic today is: why work hard? What are you after? What are you trying to do?

Then there's the work of knowing yourself — of discovering what it is you're after, of asking yourself what you're trying to do, and reflecting on why it matters. Work that fails, or that fizzles out or that frustrates you all teaches us something, leads to the next thing.

"The work" as they say in therapy, is in paying attention to what's happening inside, how it shows up on the outside, and taking some responsibility for that. Anyone with a meaningful engagement with art as a practice has to do that kind of work too as they feel their way towards and into their subject.

That kind of work helps you to understand the why, which helps you to direct your energies, which helps you focus the other, more tangible, work.

All this talk of work makes me think of this interview with Gary Winogrand at the Rochester Institute of Technology:

GW: Whatever word you want to use—you want to use “work”? Use the word “work.”

RIT: Work—play—

GW: I use the word “play”; but you understand the word “play”—if you ever watch children play—what do you observe when you watch children play? You know, they’re dead serious. They’re not on vacation.

I just enjoy the "work" (if you can call it that). To me, it's just a matter of having a camera with me all the time and occasionally making photos that I happen upon in the course of living my life, which certainly doesn't sound like work.

I don't consciously want to make them look a certain way, either. I don't "hunt" photos; if anything, they hunt me.

Editing/sequencing them, however, takes a different mindset. There I am making more deliberate, conscious choices or selection and/or order. While I also enjoy that process, and it is often just as intuitive, to me it _feels_ more like work than the act of photographing, possibly because of the "workflow" involved, the pasting of photos on the wall, the switching around and contemplation and rethinking over the course of months or years.

I enjoy all of it, though, even the course I teach (which of everything feels the most like work)!

By happenstance, I just discovered a photography project that's impressive entirely because of its effort, not its aesthetics:

Artist Barbara Iweins on spending two years photographing all 10,532 objects in her house

Although it may be valuable to future historians and anthropologists...

Many years ago I was at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. They had a print called Cascade Creek by Charles Cramer set up near the door. People would walk into the gallery take one look at the print, stop and forget to breath. I have been working for a print like that ever since. It has been a wonderful journey.

"You want to completely control of your result."(sic).
That made me smile. And that is the essence of it in some ways, the essence of the difficulty of photography or any other art maybe: the fight between complete control and the aleatory, the accidental, the miss-taken. Time and again I have to rediscover that the universe has better ideas than I do.

As a lifelong practitioner of the genre known (to me) as snapshottery, I fairly early on noticed that large gatherings (say weddings) will pay attention to a professional photographer hired for the occasion, just long enough to say "cheese" in order to produce unforgettable images for the newlyweds.

The haitus between one professional shot and the time it takes for setting up the next shot is my moment to pounce. I have many shots of people looking the wrong way, scratching their noses, scowling, or talking to their neighbour.

In other words, the way people really are and the way they react when left to their own devices, can be more memorable than the official shots.

The only work involved, is waiting for the pro to shut up, and then clickety click. The ultimate official misjudgement of the when and where to stand while pressing the button.

My reaction to a tilted horizon is more than a need for "representational perfection", especially if there is water in the shot. It's more visceral and subconscious.

Have you ever communicated with "Mr. Shorpy"? His (her?) photos have a relatively uniform look that must require a fair amount of work. Just looking at your example, I suspected Shorpy.

"You see what I mean. In order to work hard, you need to be clear about why you're working hard...what you're after, what that hard work is intended to accomplish. Regardless of what you're after, knowing why you're working hard is a good first step toward finding effective ways to work and making your hard work count."

Mike, This is great, and exactly what is needed to help clarify the Idea of 'Hard Work' in any endeavor. There is no virtue in working harder than you need to, in order to get the results you want. So a clear idea of the desired outcome helps you to "work smarter" rather than aimlessly hard.
There are of course times when we are new to some endeavor that we have to work hard just to see what is possible. Then once we see the possibilities, we can develop a clearer goal of what we want to accomplish.
There are also examples of artists (like Frank or Erwitt) who concluded that a certain amount of ongoing drudgery is a requirement to realize their vision. But as you point out, the vision or Idea has to come first.

If you don't know where you are, or where you are going, it's hard to get there.
People who accomplish a lot, often see the End before the beginning then just do what is necessary to get there.
It is the 'Doing' more than the Thinking that gets us where we want to go.

I'd rather get drunk than wonder if I'm working hard, or correctly enough at being an artist, or good photographer.

When I shoot movies, it’s always hard work, usually using a truck full of lights. And the goal is usually to make it look like we used no lights at all :)

For my still photography work, all my images require post production and color correction, but the goal is the same. The result should look like nothing was done!

In general, if the final result looks like hard work, you’ve gone too far :)

I would add two more:

You have something to say
There is something you want to make a record of

And in both cases you do so in a way where the formal aspects and artifacts of the photographic process draw viewers in so they pay attention.

I've read that once a guy asked a National Geographics photographer: "That shot must have taken a very long time." "1/125th of a second, and a life of experience."

I love offhand images. Antonin Krachtovil is probably one of the best examples of offhand "loose" photography. I've noticed I get better offhand images when I generally just shoot a lot, mixed with a kind of "I don't give a damn" state of mind which helps immensely.

There are two forms of photographic frustration that can be avoided by hard work up front.
The first is to stand in front of a subject, certain of what you want to say, confident that the raw materials are there but you don't have a clue a to how to pull it off.
The second is to stand over a tray of fixer, looking at the best thing you ever produced and you don't have a clue as to how you did it.

Reminds me of a photo I took in 1966 in country North of Nashville near my parent's home.

I used to take long motorcycle rides on country roads in TN then, always with my Leica in my backpack. I had stopped to take a photo of a horse-drawn hay rake on a field covered with a dusting of snow, when this gentleman came out from his farmhouse to see what I was doing. We had a nice conversation and he posed for this shot. The two photos I took have been on my walls off and on for a long time.

Wish the quality was better - this is a scan from ~1995 before I framed the photo.

Haha, Mike Plews.

Hard work paid off soon or later. It is definitely worth to push yourself!

Working hard to make the result look easy, perhaps like Robert Doisneau´s picture of the man painting the Eiffel Tower. The opposite would be the supersharp, oversaturated,HDR-y, technically impressive pictures that make my tired brain want to take a vacation. This is where that Swedish term I mentioned in a comment to part 1 comes to mind: the result is "skitnödigt". Literally, that refers to a person who has to go and sh...NOW. You know; stiff posture, straight legs when walking, aloof. A bit like Charles de Gaulle. Pretentious, moi?

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