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Monday, 18 July 2022


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That’s what’s known as “family stock photography”, Ms. Althouse.

Interesting choice of examples. Most protests are staged public events, even spectacles, which is to say they're meant to be seen and often meant to be photographed (or at least that is the design, the vagaries of turnout, weather, etc. notwithstanding).

On the other hand, most family gatherings, whatever the size, are by definition intimate and private occasions, focused on the participants' experiences rather than on uninvolved observers. Sure, we invariably want some kind of visual record, but staging for the camera isn't the point.

So, paradoxically, the best story-telling image of the family gathering may be the posed group shot, where everyone drops what they're actually doing for a moment and awkwardly crowds together for the camera. Why? Because it's a microcosm of the whole thing, where family members dropped what they were doing and in many cases went out of their way just for the sake of gathering and communing with kin. There's your story in an image.

P.S. Of course, the clever photographer of the massed family will include enough of the setting ("We gathered here.") and perhaps various clues like grills and balls ("We gathered here and did these things.") But the essence, the big story, is: "We gathered," and what better way to tell that than by gathering the gathering?

P.P.S. Sorry about these post-scripts, Mike. It seems to be how my mind works these days.

I tend to understand a story, or convey my own, with a couple pictures and a sentence or three. Establishing a one word hook also can be very beneficial.

Photographing subjects who are ignoring me is what I do best, I guess, so the kids ignoring me would have been excellent. I (and many others, from what I see online!) have problems with cats and dogs who won't ignore me, and keep coming up and sticking their noses into the lens hood. Often closer than the lens can focus, so I can't make a virtue out of it even (at least not the closest approach).

A commenter at Ms. Althouse’s place wrote “Digital photography, convenient though it is, has created petabytes of junk, sitting in the cloud.”

He typed that in the comments section. Of a Google blog.

If ironic meta-ness were toxic, he’d have dropped dead when he hit the “Submit” button. ;)

One of the difficulties I encounter in photographing family events is that people tend to congregate in circles while talking, which means the photo will show the backs of some of their heads. Sometimes this results in an interesting photo anyway, but more often everyone will complain that there are no pictures of Aunt Emma because you got the shot of her hairdo.

Add to this the fact that the family story is many years long, and the tenacity required to stick to it - to take and edit the photos - is daunting.

I’ve found in photographing events that the things you plan (derived from what the organizers *say* they want) often don’t happen. That forces flexibility and “working the space”; that is, doing my best to capture at least something good when those plans go awry. Occasionally, things work out such that great photos result, but not always. I just finished photographing a fashion show where the models were supposed to stop on a gaffer tape mark, pose (as I directed in advance), and look at me. One of seven models did that, forcing me to find something in the walks of the other models to capture the moments. Difficult? Not really, but a bit frustrating. Thankfully, I wasn’t trying to create art (especially not fine art) and my client will be happy with the results. Flexibility is the key…

I always use a series of photos (with captions) because it is very difficult to have a single photo tell the story.

When I first started doing photography I did a few weddings and also a preschool. I was able to get some time with the kids without the adults around. At first the kids were curious about my equipment and then they went back to being kids. That was when I was able to get some very good images and had the most enjoyable time. It was inevitable the adults would see and start directing the kids. There were no more good images to be found. It also resulted in me sticking to landscape photography. But for someone with the talent to be able to manage the adults away, and let the kids be kids there will be many great images to be had.

". . . although it's an ordinary subject, photographing moving kids in action is actually pretty difficult, right up there with the hardest shooting challenges I've faced. "

Digital tech has gone far to address this kind of problem. First, Burst Modes.

More recently, what Olympus calls Pro Capture Mode. Push the shutter release half way, and the camera takes a string of exposures, auto focusing, including face recognition, if desired, for each frame. When your chosen number of frames is met, or the buffer fills, oldest frames fall into the bit bucket. When that magic moment occurs, press the release the rest of the way.

It will either stop then, or make your chosen number of additional frames.

The aftermath does require the skill and willingness to delete a lot of frames, to keep those that would otherwise have been lost to slow reflexes. The results may be what seemed impossible before.

I believe one or both of the big guns have something similar in their pro models? I know no details.

"Lots of times we know the picture we would have wanted, but it didn't work, and instead we got the birthday girl on the porch admiring her own cake. So then that becomes the picture of the 11th birthday because the one that would have told the story better didn't turn out to be such a good picture"

I have quickly noticed the same picture in the article initially, but for a different reason.

Correct me if I am wrong but this is your brother Scott in the middle of the frame ... probably years back, when he was still in his prime ... pictured with his wife and grandchildren .. one Happy Family. I am assuming that this was done by you on purpose and as a tribute ... to include him in the story about families as a gesture of remembrance in the same manner as an empty chair at bottom tells a quiet story of passing and going among generations.

In the end ... we know the actual stories behind these pictures and are therefore the best judges when family photos are concerned.


[A kind guess, but that's my uncle Smokie Polk. And the people in the picture are all related, but some pretty distantly--Marissa (my niece, through my other brother) is third cousins with Henry, the little boy next to her, I think. The woman in the background is Henry's mother, but the baby she's holding isn't hers, he's her nephew; and so on. --Mike]

Love the New Yorker piece!

This post and the accompanying comments are based on what philosophers call a category error. An entrenched but inaccurate belief, compounded by commonplace statements, such as, “A photograph is worth a thousand words”.

No single photograph is ever a narrative, no matter how artfully composed and layered its content. As the late David Vestal observed, a photograph only shows things. Stuff cut from time and space. Possibly interesting to see, but never a beginning, middle and end. Despite whatever interpretations any viewer may overlay upon it.

The inevitable “readings” we make of a single photograph mainly depend on the content and context of the prior knowledge we bring to the image. Accurate or otherwise, these conjectures are never a single story. (The article starts to acknowledge this, then swiftly changes direction.)

Pairing with another photograph or captions, can extend the context. But, however apparently plausible, the resulting thoughts are never a coherent narrative, lacking direction, specificity, or conclusion. This is shown by Mike's final photograph in his New Yorker article, requiring both text and a caption to provide the necessary meaning.

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