Monthly Archives: November 2013

Pleasing the Critics, Pleasing the Public, Pleasing Yourself

Tree and Cross, Near Taos, New Mexico

I’ve observed an interesting state of affairs in photography.  Critics seem to like photographs that are conceptual or documentary – the art value of the photograph is not about the photograph per se, but about a concept that the photograph illustrates or about the thing the photograph depicts.  The public tends to like photographs that are representational and beautiful – the art value of the photograph is the photograph itself, in terms of its appearance, presentation, and craftsmanship.

While these two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s often difficult to produce works that check both of these boxes.  Photographs that are made simply to be beautiful don’t need to present a deep concept or document a particular subject, and often don’t.  Conversely, photographs that are designed to provoke an intellectual response or present a specific subject don’t need to be beautiful, and often aren’t.  Moreover, if a photograph comes down on one side of this divide, it is often saddled with an adverse inference as to the other.  For example, photographs that seek to be beautiful are often dismissed by critics as lacking merit as serious art, while photographs that are conceptual or documentary are often overlooked by the public as objects of beauty.

It seems as if it’s not possible to please both sides of the house.  What’s a photographer to do?

I think there can be only one answer to this question:  make work that pleases yourself.  This strategy certainly avoids the necessity of having to commit to one camp or the other, but there is more to it than this.  The simple truth is, you produce your best work when you are working to please yourself, regardless of how it is received by your audience-at-large.  The image in this post is called “Tree and Cross, Near Taos, New Mexico.”  I have a guess as to which side of the house my audience-at-large would place it, but I’m keeping mum about that for the reasons I’ve discussed herein.

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Black Point Heresy

Trees in Snow, Study No. 1

Those who read this blog may know that I am not a fan of “rules-based” photography.  There are many photographic “rules” floating around that suggest that photographs must be captured, edited, or composed in certain ways in order to be successful.  One such “rule” that I’ve heard mentioned is that every photograph should have a true black point, a true white point, and the full spectrum of gray tones in between.

Enter the black point heretic.

The image in this post, “Trees in Snow, Study No. 1,” has no true black point.  In fact, the darkest tone in this image is roughly middle gray, and there aren’t even many of those.  The spectrum of tones in this image runs from roughly middle gray up to a true white point, and is slanted heavily towards the white end of that range.

More importantly, this image doesn’t need a true black point, at least in my opinion.  I started with a vision for what I wanted the image to look like – wispy, ethereal trees suspended, maybe even floating, in a gauzy background of white snow – and edited the image to make it fit my vision for it.  A “rules-based” photographer probably would have suggested making the trees darker and including a true black point there, but this would have defeated my vision for what I wanted the image to look like, by lending weight and substance to the forms of the trees that I didn’t want.

To be fair, the “rules” of photography do contain elements of wisdom.  I view them as useful guidelines for effective visual communication, encapsulating what often works and what often doesn’t.  For example, the idea behind having a true black point, a true white point, and the full spectrum of gray tones in an image generally is to keep the image from looking dull and flat, which is a good thing.

However, taking these rules as gospel is counterproductive, stifles creativity, and risks producing run-of-the-mill imagery, where one photograph looks just like another.  If I had adhered to the “rule” of having a true black point and the full spectrum of tones here, I obviously never could have made the image I ended up with.  Given a choice, I trust my eye and go with my instincts every time.

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Bend in the Road

Here is a simple image of a simple subject by a simple photographer.  That’s not a put-down, simplicity is a virtue.  I’m not a big believer in applying rules to photography, but one “rule” I learned early on is to keep things simple, and it continues to serve me well.

When I refer to simplicity, what I really mean is keeping compositions simple.  The reason I put the word “rule” in quotation marks is because, really, I don’t think of simplicity as being a rule.  After all, what does it mean to be simple?  Unlike, say, the rule of thirds, or the rule against putting a horizon line in the middle of the frame, there’s really no rote, mechanical way to apply the “rule” of simplicity.

Instead, simplicity is a fluid concept that adapts to the subject matter and circumstances in which I am photographing.  For example, simplicity really isn’t about how much detail there is in a subject:  here, there’s a fair amount of detail in the branches of the trees, the clouds in the sky, and the grasses on the ground.  It also isn’t about the number of elements in the frame:  here, there are at least four – the trees, the sky, the ground, and the road – and any number of components of those.  Moreover, simplicity also is not the same as minimalism:  while most minimal photographs probably are simple, a photograph can be simple without being minimal.

I suppose for me, simplicity is the absence of unnecessary complexity.  This image, for example, eliminates the fence that was just out of the frame to the right, the house that was just out of the frame to the left, the pastures and trees that were just over the rise in the road, and the mountains in the distance that were behind that.  It’s not that any of these elements weren’t photogenic, it’s just that they weren’t necessary for this image.  They would have introduced unnecessary complexity into the composition.

The title of this image is “Bend in the Road.”  Again, simple.

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Five Reasons Not To Take Up Photography

Lean In (White Tree No. 5)

Considering taking up photography?  Here’s five reasons not to do so:

  1. It will never make you rich.  Among the arts, it’s probably fair to say that photography is among the least remunerative.  Other artists at the top of their professions – think actors, musicians, painters, novelists, etc. – are quite well compensated.  Admittedly, I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that even the most successful of fine art photographers probably are able to support themselves at no more than a comfortable middle-class living solely by making photographic art.  More typically, most fine art photographers that I’ve observed have to supplement their incomes by teaching workshops, writing for publications, doing commercial work, etc.  It’s very difficult to earn a living exclusively as a fine art photographer.
  2. It will never make you famous.  Can you name a famous actor?  Musician, painter, novelist?  Odds are you can name several.  Now try and name a famous contemporary fine art photographer.  Those interested enough to be reading this blog might be able to do so, but I doubt that anyone who doesn’t have an active interest in photography could easily do so.
  3. It will cost you a lot of money.  Photographic gear is expensive.  Cameras, lenses, tripods, backpacks, filters, and so on will cost you thousands of dollars.  And by the way, don’t think that digital is cheaper than film.  Not only do you have to invest in quality equipment – a decent computer, monitor, printer, photo editing software, etc. – but the rate at which digital goes obsolete is obscenely fast, meaning you’ll be buying new computers, monitors, printers, and software every few years.  And yes, this point hurts twice as much given point 1, above.
  4. You won’t get much respect from the arts community.  Though photography has gained a sort of pro forma acceptance in the arts community over the last few decades, there’s still a great divide between, for example, painters, sculptors, and other visual media on one side, and photographers on the other.  Go to most contemporary galleries of fine art, and you will see painting, sculpture, and other visual media mingling freely, but rarely will you see photography represented in the same proportion.  Granted, there are exceptions here and there, but by and large they simply serve to prove the otherwise widespread applicability of the rule.
  5. You won’t get much respect from the general public.  Okay, some people will respect you as an artist, but most people won’t.  The average person, not knowing much about photography, generally conflates photographic artistry with expensive equipment.  They think anyone can produce stunning images by buying an expensive camera and pointing it at something.  This is obviously not the case, but good luck trying to persuade people to change their opinion on this.

Does this sound kind of bleak?  Well, there is some good news.  If you read, understand, and really internalize these points, and still want to pursue photography, then I think your odds of being successful at it are quite good.  This is because you’ll be practicing photography for any number of good reasons – you enjoy it, it makes you happy, etc.  I finished the image in this post, “Lean In (White Tree No. 5)” within about the last week or so, roughly seven years after I started practicing photography.  Since reasons 1-5 above fell away quite some time ago, I’m happy to report that I’m really still in this game simply because I love doing it.


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