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Monday, 13 March 2023


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RE: street photography is 99.9% failure

In my opinion as the author of a book on street photography and someone who has been practicing it for over 40 years, the above statement is true only if you suck at it. I'll be blunt here: most people who try their hand at street photography either don't know what makes a street photo "good," don't care to learn, don't know what to look for and where, or wouldn't be able to get the shot even if they saw it. (Or some combination of the four.) Expert street shooters have a hit rate far better than that 99.9% figure. The same is true for other genres as well: landscape, portraiture, sports, you name it; the more skilled you are, the "luckier" you'll be.

[Oh...thanks Gordon. I wasn't talking about hit rate by individuals. I only meant overall--the proportion of good to all the rest, all over everywhere, by everyone, collectively. (There must be a better way to say this, but I'm tired.) --Mike]

Mike: With your recent interest in monochrome photography, I am reminded of a time 60 years ago when I was caught up in B & W slides. I bought a roll of 35 mm positive film from Freestyle and was fascinated by it's range of grays. Did you ever experiment with black and white slides? I had a Pen F half frame camera and even bought a strip projector to produce strip films (Remember them from early school days?) It got me more interested in B & W movies, such as Paper Moon. When done well they are amazing. Then I lost interest, although now I wish I had kept it up.

About retirement. I think I have it figured out. If I take "late" retirement and "early" death I might just make the spread. Hmmm. Maybe not the best idea I've had...

By the time you get done answering all the deferred questions, you’ll have your book.

Today is Diane Arbus' 100th birthday.

@ Terry Burnes: One of the best sources of very current news of photography exhibitions, collections, and curation moves is Photograph Magazine (https://photographmag.com/). It features an informative newsletter emailed weekly with lots of doin’s.

p.s. I actually did kinda travel the country to see both photographic exhibitions / collections AND opera for several years just before the pandemic. It was fun but tiring! These days I’m far, far more selective.

"Why are photos of ordinary objects or places in our environment more interesting in photographs than in real life?"

If I may- that in a nutshell is the challenge that photography presents when not photographing people, and as with anything else in photography, 99% of the time, the photograph of said object or place is Not going to be more interesting. The photographer however has the option of isolating or exaggerating the object's presence or size, they can emphasize (or negate) its relation with other elements in the composition. It's up to the individual's imagination to present that place or object in a manner that we don't ordinarily see, or simply enhance its presence through the use of: light, composition, lens choice, angle of view, etc. Not to mention that the photograph becomes an object unto itself, very much different from the reality itself.

John Gossage can be exemplary in making the ordinary, extraordinary.

Gordon's comment got me thinking about hit rate and skill. In the arts, say music, what is a beginner's "hit rate" when they perform? Zero, because they are not any good. In photography, it's similar but also not because a single shot can seem like a work of art. Who cares about the rest of the garbage you shot? But you still aren't playing the music well.

Hi Mike,
I saw Thom Hogan’s response to Kirk’s questions in the previous post.

That’s 3 of my favourite photography writers all expressing an interest in those topics. Noting all 3 of you have different priorities and perspectives, which you all wear on your sleeves.

Any chance of organising some collective thoughts / wisdom from the 3 of you on some of Kirk’s questions?

Sometimes a recorded zoom discussion can work, other times the written responses may work better. I appreciate copyright and agreeing whose pages to share any such thoughts on could be tricky - so maybe a pipe dream…

Since 1980, I have subscribed to The Photograph Collector, a monthly newsletter that tracks the print market and the comings and goings of photographic activities domestically and internationally, including extensive auction reports, exhibits, dealer news, shows, festivals, worthy stories (people and business related), etc. It tracks exhibits and shows by state and by country, so I always have a quick reference for things of interest. Cost is now $149/year, but well worth it for me as a photo and book collector, and simply as a photography enthusiast.

Keep in mind, when you do get around to testing the M Monochrom, that it will respond to the full array of colored lens filters, and the histogram, after a brief delay, is rendered based on RAW data (the only Leica with this attribute AFAIK).

On the subject of photo museums and galleries, the largest photography festival in the world happens in Toronto every May. Many of the city's major galleries, public and private, participate in the event. It's a good opportunity to see some wonderful artists and visit a great tourist destination. You can find more information here: https://scotiabankcontactphoto.com/2023-program/

Gordon said in response to the statement that street photography is 99.9% failure, “In my opinion as the author of a book on street photography and someone who has been practicing it for over 40 years, the above statement is true only if you suck at it.” and that expert photographers in any genre “have a hit rate far better than that 99.9% figure”.

First, a minor quibble. The claim was not about a hit rate of 99.9%, it was about a not hit rate of 99.9% which equates to a hit rate of 0.1%. I’m sure Gordon meant to refer to a hit rate better than 0.1%.
Show me a photographer claiming a hit rate of 99.9% and I’d say you’re showing me a liar. As a starting point I’d say that most photographers with a reasonable amount of experience and knowledge would lay claim to a hit rate of lower than 50% and a miss rate of higher than 50%

Alex Webb, a Magnum photographer, photojournalist and street photographer with over 40 years experience and several books of his work published, has stated that street photography is 99.9% failure and Ansel Adams once said that in a good year he got 12 good photos. I think Adams took more than 24 photos in a year but I don’t know how many he took. I think we can accept that he regarded his hit rate as less than 50%.

How should we interpret these extremely low estimates of high failure rates from well respected photographers? For a start I don’t think they’re saying that every photo they put in the failure pile is a bad photograph, what they’re counting as non-failures are ones that get chosen for display/publication.

I own a copy of Webb’s “The Suffering of Light”, which is a career spanning retrospective collection of what he probably regards as his best work over a roughly 30 year period. It contains at a rough guess somewhere between 125 and 150 photographs, the equivalent of four 36 exposure rolls of film. A 99.9% failure rate equates to a 1 in 1000 non-failure rate. If Webb shot 4,000 rolls of film in the 30 odd years of work covered, roughly 133 rolls of film a year or around a third of a roll a film a day on average, and his hit rate is based on the number of photos published in “The Suffering of Light” then his failure rate would be around 99.9% . Quite a lot more than 150 of his photos were displayed or published during that 30 odd year period but he was also shooting a lot more than a third of a roll of film a day on average.

Looked at in that light, a 99.9% failure rate seems a reasonably accurate assessment. I think that very few photographers are going to have a significantly lower failure rate than 99.9% if their work is judged by the same standard that Webb is judging his work by. Looked at statistically, around 33% of our photos are above our own personal “average” in quality and our “best” work amounts to perhaps 10% or so of our total work. The standard we aspire to is higher than the standard of our best work and if we judge our work by the standard we aspire to then a failure rate higher than 90% is far from unreasonable.

[The absolute highest hit rate I've ever even heard of was that Joel Meyerowitz published approximately one out of every four exposures he made with his 8x10 for "St. Louis and the Arch." That's 25%. I doubt anyone has ever done better than that. --Mike]

Re: Why don't you do 'Ask Mike' as a regular feature - I agree with your response but there is so much erudition amongst your readers that I was thinking that you could simply post your choices of question ((by way of your minimum contribution) and let your readership do the rest. I suspect everyone would be very happy and it would give you quite a lot of content without too much effort (unless, of course, you chose to contribute as well).

I was going to ask - how do you define a "good" photo. I've been practicing since around 1966 and I reckon I've got a few good ones, enough to have printed five 40 page photobooks so far. But I don't think I have a personal style that someone would recognise. I still recall with pleasure a colleague saying my photos look like National Geographic photos. That's my style.

My practice has always been to read good photographic books, books of pictures, not technique, which have trained my eye and brain so that I can pretty well instantly "see" a good picture in a scene. Conversely, much of the time I know when it's not worth lifting the camera.

I also recognise a cliche when I see it and know to work through it, past it, to produce my own version.

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