Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: the relativity of aesthetics, and a (partial) reconciliation with hipstagram-things

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A slight inclination for coffee. This image goes against so many of my personal rules – the horizons are slanted, the main subject is out of focus, and very out of focus, and the light is so-so – but I like it. The important question here is, why?

This is an old carrot: it’s been used to lead the same set of donkeys around the garden path so many times that the donkey himself doesn’t even believe it he’s ever going to get to eat it anymore, at least not deep down in its heart of hearts. But I think it’s still a topic worth discussing because relativity affects people in many more ways than they are conscious of; and being conscious of what works for you and what doesn’t is of course a very, very important part of making strong images, and moreover, ensuring those images are in a style that’s consistent and reflective of the personality of the photographer. (And of course the latter exploration and understanding of one’s personal style is important because following what comes naturally to you makes it much easier to develop and evolve as a photographer.)

Of course, what we’re really talking about here is relativity: everybody has a different point of reference. If you’ve never left Saharan Africa, then the concept of a suit would seem rather foreign to you; but if you came from an upper-class English family, you’ve probably owned one since you could walk. Hence the roots of relativity: an observers’ – let’s leave photography out of this for now, because it introduces some additional complications – personal taste is defined much by the familiar, be that good or bad. For the most part, people are naturally curious to varying degrees. Add that to the mix, and preferences can start to vary wildly: just because it’s not familiar doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or favorable, and just because it is doesn’t mean that it isn’t extremely distasteful – think of teenage rebellion, for instance. (I’m told by a psychologist that a good portion of teenage rebels grow out of that stage fairly quickly and land up turning into their parents in middle age; it’s the silent, too-good types we have to worry about.)

The attractiveness of a piece of art is of course purely a function of personal taste; art is inherently controversial simply because of the sheer number of potential forms it can take. By definition, almost anything can be art – be it completely familiar, or completely not. To a limited extent, the same goes for photography. However, because of the nature of the medium, there are more constrained limits the artist has to operate within – you’re (mostly) stuck in two dimensions, cannot use moving imagery, have finished work that is (today) viewed at many reproduction sizes, and (again, today) is affected by the quality of the viewing device. Making it worse, is the fact that it’s perhaps the medium with the highest diminishing returns; it takes no skill to take a photograph, and not much more to luck out and produce a good one if you take enough of them. Yet to do so consistently and in a way that’s fully controlled is incredibly difficult because of the sheer number of variables that one has to deal with, often in a very short space of time.

Perhaps it’s this medium-induced limitation that has meant photography in the early days took some time to be taken seriously as proper art form in its own right; imitation of reality was always the intention, but until relatively recently, the results were but a poor facsimile. The same of course cannot be said for art, because nobody expects a painting or sculpture to be a copy of the original subject, but an interpretation of the subject as seen and translated by the artist. In reality, what this means is that the photographer’s primary tool of control is subject and composition, and to some extent the reproduction method – this includes format, color and output. The difference between a fairly good photographer and a truly oustanding one can be subtle, and I’m of the opinion you can’t really tell if you only see one image: it’s simply too easy to get lucky. Repeatability and demonstrable control is not to be underestimated.

And here we run into a bit of a dilemma: what if a lack of control is the desired output? What if some degree of uncontrolled randomness is a signature of the artist? (I personally don’t find it appealing, but I suppose this is one of the reasons Lomos and Holgas have become popular in recent times, along with the digital-fake hipstagram-alikes.) This of course is personal taste too: taking off my photographer hat and putting on one belonging to an objective commentator, it’s important to recognize that whilst I might not personally like putting artificial light leaks and scratches onto my cameraphone images to disguise poor composition and hand shake, there are a lot of people who find it appealing – hence the success of such products.

But is there anything inherently wrong with it? A recent – let’s say heated – discussion with my wife over her use of instagram has lead me to seriously consider this question. Whilst deep down it offends my artistic sensibilities greatly to even consider using such things, I admit that I cannot think of a single objective reason against it. But why am I against it? My full (and definitely not-objective) thoughts can be found in this article, but the gist is that basically you’re outsourcing a large chunk of the creative decision making to the preferences of a third party; worse still, all of your images will have the same style and look as everybody else who uses the same program. By nature, it’s designed to make images look like something they’re not. It’s the integrity of the thing – or specifically, the lack of it – that really irks me. The fact that some of those looks were products of a certain workflow or method that was developed, learned over time and refined; earned, if you will. Yet now they’re being adopted and trivialized by a bunch of hipsters who have no clue that Tri-X is a film, or Rodinal comes in bottles.

Let’s back up a minute, and be objective again. The two core points in that argument are really hokum: firstly, that one is in total creative control of the photographic process from end to end; secondly, that one has to earn the right to use a method or technique through understanding and practice. By that flawed logic, I shouldn’t have the right to use a camera unless I grind my own lenses made out of glass I fused myself from sand I collected off a beach somewhere, with optical formulae I derived myself, coupled to a camera I made myself, with either film whose emulsion I concocted out of household chemicals, or a sensor whose chip pattern I photolithographed from a hand-drawn mask and a projector. And I can’t use Photoshop unless I wrote the program myself, either. Clearly, this is utter crap.

I can prefer to take over some elements of the process because they give me more creative control over elements that matter to me; postprocessing or developing, for instance. But whilst I might prefer a Distagon design to a Sonnar, there’s no way I’m going to go out and make myself one. I think the cutoff in this process is generally the point where you can no longer do a better job than the third party – be it in processing, or lens design. But preferences change this: whist we may get better results if we sent our film off to a pro lab, or avoided mucking around with retina-searing HDR and just using our camera’s expanded dynamic range JPEGs, we might prefer to do it for whatever reason – personal accomplishment or satisfaction, learning, or perhaps something else. I suppose it’s just like how most drivers would be faster with a double-clutch gearbox or a modern automatic, but might still prefer a stick for the feel and experience.

This preference – subjectivity – extends of course to equipment, images, compositions and subjects, too. We use certain types of cameras because we prefer to, either because of the way they make us feel, or because somebody we respect says they’re the best, or because we simply want to. Cameras that seem masochistic, ugly and antiquated to some – meterless Hasselblads come to mind – might be really quite enjoyable to others (me, for instance).

It’s of some critical importance to a photographer to understand both what they like, but also why it appeals. This exploration upfront saves a lot of time both in avoiding exploring creative avenues that might later prove to be dead ends, but also helps hone artistic development by focusing on the elements or subjects that feel inherently natural and instinctive to the creator. There’s no point in forcing yourself to try and replicate somebody else’s style if it doesn’t come naturally to you, or shooting with a wideangle lens if you natively see normal or telephoto compositions. It might be worth trying it as an experiment, but why bother if you simply know you don’t like the way the images look? Now, if you knew that it was because you didn’t like the diminished background or lack of depth of field separation or the keystone distortion when you point the camera in any orientation away from the horizon, then you could avoid buying that lens and wasting three months shooting with it in mild dissatisfaction instead of just enjoying that 85/1.4 and making cinematic.

Bottom line: look at lots of images in a wide variety of styles; it’s likely that you’ll find some you like the look of, but it’s also likely that none of them will be a perfect fit for your own personal preferences. You’ll just have to understand which elements about them you do like, as much as which you don’t; the next step is to translate this into a technical how – if it’s not obvious, then find yourself a mentor or friend. (My Email School of Photography is designed precisely to help with this.) This will in turn help focus your own work on honing the skills you need to make the images you want, or if you’ve already got those skills, then on the elements and subjects that you prefer. Quite often, it’s not the how that needs the kick: it’s exposure that’s required – of course, how the balance lies is down to where you stand in the creative stages of evolution as a photographer.. I find it too easy to get shuttered down one’s own creative alley – even if you have a good idea of what works for you – which in turn closes off potential ideas and developments.

Closing with a full circle, I want to talk about why I like the opening image: it’s because from the viewer’s point of view, it throws you a bit off balance, and draws you into the details of the scene to understand and give context to the image as a whole. Did it have a caption originally? No, none of my images ever do, but this one seemed somewhat appropriate. It was made with unfamilar equipment in an unfamiliar location – a mall at night, with a Hasselblad 501C and CFV-39 digital back at high ISO – not exactly my first choice for this kind of work. Yet I’m reasonably pleased with the outcome, despite it disagreeing with most of my cherished tenets. Metaphorically, look around a little: force yourself to see the different, either vicariously or by putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation. It might just yield some unexpected results, but you’ll never know if you don’t stick your neck out in the first place. MT

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Enter the January 2012 black and white challenge – win a multispectral Sony NEX-5 B&W machine modified by yours truly!

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Comments

  1. I have read and read your article several times. Partially I get the impression that your article is filled with a kind of anxiety. I get the sense that you take great pride of all the knowledge, experience, and craft you learned and gained over so many years. You write about art, perfection, and control. You might have artistic intention, but like beauty I personally believe that also art is percieved in the eye of the beholder. And when the beholder becomes aware of all the care, knowledge, and perfection you strived for it might only arise the respect for you, but not necessarily the appreciation for your work. Perfection and getting full control might come from your desire as a person, but are by no means necessities for making art.

    It seems to me that you are worried too, worried about the new kids on the blocks with their smartphones and apps who are maybe connecting the dots faster than you did. Sure it is easier to get started if you are taught. By being more concerned about the tools they use and you use, there is the risk you become unaware of the effort they put into it. Culture and technology change, and they change faster and faster with more and more people gaining access to culture and technology. If you have the desire to stay on top of this, be creative instead of worrying about all of this.

    • I’m not worried about it from an artistic point of view, but a commercial one. There is a real risk of death (or severe incapacitation) of the industry here in the long run; even in the last year, the number of full time commercial pros has dropped considerably, and even the renown survivors agree that the market is nothing like it used to be and work is definitely harder to come by. But at the same time, we’re not seeing any new people emerge with any kind of staying power – which says to me they get a couple of jobs then can’t deliver and fizzle out, or clients keep hopping thinking that the next one will be better and cheaper. Of course this concerns me as I decided to quit a healthy corporate career last year for this! To be frank, it appears that the only sector that’s doing well is weddings – and again, only for the low end amateurs and a tiny handful at the top.

      • Between the lines and in your comments I sensed your commercial worries. You say that quit a daytime job to pursue the life of a professional photographer. Many did so before and many will follow after you. In your article though I got the impression that you where mainly concerned about the creative side. It was in your comments that you showed your real concern in current state of photography.

        Is it unfair to be concerned and worried about the commercial side of your photography? Of course not, but you should always be concerned and worried as a professional. How do you stay on top? How do you make all the difference? How do you remain consistent? How do you know what your client wants? And how can you remain creative when you need to pay your bills with your passion?

        Like Seth Godin says: Instead of looking for answers, find yourself looking for more questions.

        • It’s both, because you can’t unlink one from the other. In more developed countries, there’s usually a creative director who does most of the thinking on-set, but in Asia the photographer does everything. So, clients are paying for both your creative and technical execution abilities. If the majority of people who are engaging photographers can’t tell the difference between good and bad, you’ve got a problem.

          Hey, in writing for you guys I have to question my own logic and why I do things the way I do – it forces me to deconstruct my own shooting process, pick it apart, and thus figure out where to improve. There’s a method (of sorts) to this madness.

          • Don’t take the deconstructing too seriously. Not everything can be rationalized.

            I applaud you for your efforts to write more interesting articles about photography. You either find articles about gear, post processing on the internet (possibly the easiest to comprehend) or the more intellectual articles about contemporary photography (generally these sites seem to quote each other). Personally I really prefer the subjectiveness in photography. What drives you, what are your intentions, what challenges you?

            • Thanks Wouter. I’d just like to treat photography holistically: the technical stuff is easy to deal with, which is why people a) find it non-threatening and are attracted to it and b) plenty of people write about it. The language to discuss/ deconstruct the artistic portion, understand the whys and hows, and the psychological aspects of an image – both doesn’t really exist and isn’t an easy thing to quantify or describe. But since photography is about making images, you can’t really decouple the technical (gear, technique) portion from the artistic.

              For me, it’s easy: I just enjoy the whole process, and the final image is what drives me. Not the stuff in between; they’re merely waypoints. However, the ability to do this at all requires some commercial considerations, and this is where things get a bit sticky. In writing about the hows and whys, I’m forced to understand them and myself better, and hopefully in turn become a better photographer. It’s also why you’ll notice despite the content and traffic of the site, there’s no advertising and very little monetization.

              • When you treat it holistically and you say you decouple the technical portion from the artistic I wonder what additionally makes the sum of your holistic view greater than what you still write about. Your articles, to me, mainly focus on your knowledge and (technical) experience. How about why you photograph and your personality, your desires, your doubts and uncertainties add up to all of this?

                • Actually, those articles are in the works and scheduled for within the next couple of weeks…as for my personality, I don’t think anybody is interested in that. There are plenty of egotistical ‘me-centric’ blogs out there, I don’t want to be one of them.

                  • Even if you don’t write your personal thoughts I still consider your blog highly ‘me-centric’. I just get the impression you try to show the more certain part of you. Fine with that of course, if that is what you want. In that regard you maybe try to be too ‘perfect’, like your compositions. Not everything in the world is equally unsharp masked and can’t be hidden with a crop.

                    In the meantime I doubtfully continue with my highly egostical ‘me-centric’ photography and blog.

                    Cheers,
                    Wouter

                    • When you’ve got hostile people trying to question, undermine and call you out on every possible mistake, it’s too risky to be uncertain. Especially when all of this is highly visible to readers and clients alike – the latter still remain my priority because they pay the bill.

  2. Andrew Gemmell says:

    Interesting article Ming. I think what is great about Instagram is that it has ignited a whole new range of people to join the photographic community. My 22 year old niece has a DSLR and I gave her my old Tamron 2.8 28-70mm lens. She has barely used it!! She uses her phone and instagram…..i like how she sees the world, though know that if she went deeper into the photography it may open up the next level for her…(what ever means) or if there is one!

    My 11 year old daughter and her friends love taking photos and sharing those over Instagram…..and as a keen enthusiast I think it’s great. The way these 11 years see and some of the images they create could lead to a rewarding life enjoying photography.

    • Well, I can only hope that some of those people manage to shed the delusion that letting an automatic filter determine the dominant look of your images is art…otherwise they’ll either kill the industry – ‘no need a proper camera, just use your phone for everything!’ or perpetuate that attitude into adulthood and destroy the value of professional photography (not that it isn’t already happening) – ‘oh, why pay you? I can do that with my phone’.

      • Andrew Gemmell says:

        Well I don’t think these people, as a general comment, would enter the professional world. If they did i think we’d all agree they would come up short if relying on that instagram aspect. However if instagram encourages people to take up photography I think its a good thing.

        The question you’d have to think about Ming is “do you not want people to move in this direction because you are a professional and have certain standards or are you the genuinely worried about this new aspect of images diluting your profession?” If it’s the former then I agree with your wife…..Isay drop that and look at the glass half full. They are becoming involved in image making regardless of their tolls. If it’s the later…I think people may be worried at this stage without hard evidence as yet.

        • No, I don’t think they would either. But they might well be on the opposite side of a client pitch – in fact, I’ve encountered them before. The trouble is when they’re influenced by their very limited knowledge and experience and are the ones making the decisions as pertains to who gets hired.

          I think it’s a less of the standards thing, more of the dilution and even more of the aforementioned comment – especially having encountered it personally a couple of times of late.

  3. Interesting post. This is a very difficult topic to engage in any meaningful way outside of some treatise length writing. It’s difficult to separate concepts like taste and artistry. It’s true that taste is, ideed, quite relative. I’m not sure that is true for art itself. And if Keats’s insistence that “truth is beauty and beauty truth”, is at all a fair image of art, perhaps beauty itself is not quite so relative as taste might consider it.

    The human condition has broad commonalities and the arts all engage those commonalities. That engaging develops through a process, and a creative one to boot. That creative process must come from within the artist. No machine can do it. Outside of science fiction, no machine has achieved any creative function.

    My “problem” with the single button processors like hipstamatic or even lightroom presets is that they represent, as far as I’m concerned, a machine product. All art is process. One need not invent the tools, but one must surely use them him/her self. The instant processors are an attempt to produce deus ex machina or perhaps, in this instance, formositas (beauty) ex machina. Disapproval of that attempt goes all the way back to Aristotle. On this, I’m with him.

    Am I trying to say that the popular little apps are of no value? No; only that they, in my view, are of no value in terms of making art. They are useful, amusing, and even interesting aides to social communication. Folks should use ‘em all they want, they just shouldn’t mistake the end product for art.

    • Well put: it’s a machine product and not art – simply because there’s almost never any real creative input on the part of the photographer – (except for composition, which is usually ignored by these types of users anyway). The bigger problem is that the very reason most people use these things is because they think it turns a terrible snapshot into something artistic when the opposite is true: if everyone is doing the same thing, how can it possibly be art?

  4. Great post Ming, as always – thanks once more! I enjoy these non-gear related articles a darn lot … keep them coming !
    One factor I missed though is that of motivation. I’ve been asking colleagues and clients about their motivation (…) for many years; it’s part of my job. To keep it short: Asking yourself a number of questions in that direction can open the door to greater clarity and maybe (the (way to) greater picture(s). Done right it can even cure chronic cases of GAS (It’s not the gear, st…. :)

  5. For many (if not most) photographers, the goal is to attain the skill to predictably (or, as often as possible) translate your unique vision to a final image that anyone can look. Templatized shortcuts like Instagram are seemingly anathema to that. I’ve come to look at it like this:

    Why should art be hard?
    Why should it require skill?
    Why should art be done on purpose?
    Who cares if your photograph was just a “happy accident?”
    Who cares how an image gets made? (Pretty much, only photographers :-)

    This being said, I appreciate and value the results of a person’s years of experience, attention to detail, and respect for their craft (whether it’s photography, furniture making, or any other endeavor).

  6. Linden Wilkie says:

    A good, thought-provoking piece, as usual Ming.

    Perhaps I see the issue too simplistically. For me, this is divided between aesthetics/emotional impact on the one hand and technical skills on the other. The technical side – the quality and suitability of the equipment for the job, the skill of the photographer in understanding the photographer’s repertoire of composition, light metering, and so on, and the post-capture workflow, are all tools. The photograph itself – the composition, colour, grain, intensity, subject – all of this is the ‘art’. Per Andrew’s comment – there are no rules. That includes any sense that the final image needs to represent anything to do with the photographer’s initial intention, or “mind’s eye”. Though not unique, and though I am sympathetic to, that’s a rule you have created for yourself for your work. The technical skills free up the creative side – give more scope to what the photographer can do. But everything is fair game, including whether the photographer considers the audience’s view at all. Perhaps I overplay this.

    I think where we come unstuck is the notion that a photograph is by its nature something ‘objective’ – because it is made by exposing film (or a sensor) to the light coming from a scene. It differs in that regard from paint or sculpture. We implicitly trust a photograph to be ‘real’, unless it looks patently otherwise. But all photographs are already interpretations rather than facsimiles of a scene – not just through the technical limitations of the process of delivering an image to the eye of the final viewer (the viewer is not transported back to the scene in a literal sense), but also because each element in creating the final image involved choice – from camera and lens, composition and perspective, WB, exposure…..

    Anyway, thanks Ming for another thought-provoking piece. You’ve put me in a philosophical mood! Haha!!

    • I don’t think that’s over simple at all: the end viewer sees the photograph. They should see what the photographer wanted them to see; they shouldn’t see the artefacts of tools or technique; that says the composition and idea are too weak.

      Photographs are never objective. But what gets my goat is that photographers should know why they want a particular look, and not just use it because it’s popular.

  7. Hi Ming – interesting article as usual – I think what you are coming up against is what happens to most artists who study the discipline involved in their art. As someone who has been trained in music and involved in other so called “creative” arts including photography, the basics between them are really very minimal ( as with all art ) – differences are more technical than aesthetic. That said, most good artists of any discipline will tell you there are only 2 rules to art:
    1. There are no rules
    2. See Rule # 1

    However, one can only arrive at an understanding of Rule #1 when one has absorbed the fundamentals and they become even less than second nature…part of yourself really…so really there is no reason to worry about anything such as Instagram where a person can with a click pretend to have absorbed the time required in study to produce the result – and they have no understanding of where it came from anyway…the same way that a musician would not worry about somebody with a Wii and Guitar Hero or some such who for 5 seconds happened to sound like Jeff Beck…they know not what they are doing so it’s nothing serious…the tough part comes when someone HAS absorbed the fundamentals and then decides that they need to go beyond that to satisfy their reason for what they do…that is when some criticism may be shall we say ” uneducated” – as an example, a lot of people said about Picasso – ” my kid could paint that ” – but none of them had ever seen his pencil and charcoal work studies of hands etc where it was blatantly obvious that the man could draw anything under the sun in a “more realistic” manner if he wished – he just found it eventually lacking for what he wanted to say…unfortunately what seems to happen is that one individual gets there by working through it all on his own, gets some respect and/or controversy then suddenly everybody else is doing the same thing without the understanding that got the first person there …part of the problem as I see it ( and this is multi-discipline , not only photography ) is that artists tend to look at artists of their own kind way too much – I mean photographers look at other photographers work and neglect all other visual forms – the same in music or anything else. I still recall the advice of my most respected teacher when I studied jazz guitar : ” If you want to be a great jazz guitarist, don’t listen to jazz guitarists….” what he meant was that if that’s all you did it became a self-perpetuating continuum where eventually everybody sounded the same – listen to horn players for melody ( that’s all they have to work with ), listen to piano players to learn harmony…I took his advice further and decided listening to totally other forms of music – African drumming, Gregorian Chant etc was even better….so perhaps with a broader influence base you may come to understand WHY you like that tilted horizon in your ( can I say Moriyama-esque? ) top photo…

    You have perhaps the most intelligent and intellectual photography blog online and I for one am glad for it. I most enjoy your posts such as this because it is almost becoming “beyond” photography – which is a good thing! ;-)
    Keep up the great work !

    • The problem is that the result probably appears the same to a lay audience: whether I intended to have the instagram look for a certain effect, or whether it was a random snapshot by a non-photographer. Intention might land up being both non-transparent and/or masked by the superficial effects. Would Jeff Beck sound better playing Jeff Beck with Guitar Hero? Probably not, in fact, he’d probably sound worse than somebody with no real musical ability but played the game all the time.

      Actually, whilst I do look at a lot of other photographers’ work, I don’t try to emulate or copy it – it’s already been done, and anything in that vein would be unoriginal. These days, I spend more time looking at paintings to both understand composition better – if you have full control over your scene, then any compositional decisions must be deliberate – and light (same logic goes). I think you also have to be careful not to let the outside influences send you so far off the mainstream course that your work is only appreciated by a limited few; that would be a shame. And even more so if you’re a commercial photographer – you still have to produce relatively ‘safe’ stuff on a daily basis to pay the bills.

      As for the site – thank you. That was always my intention; I didn’t want to duplicate what already was, but rather create something along the lines of ‘the thinking photographer’s daily read’ – where we care both about the mechanics of image making, but more importantly, the whys. Images are made by humans, for humans: it seems only logical therefore that understanding the sack of meat at either end matters.

      • I think in your case you have to differentiate the “paying jobs” from the “artistic” ones- the paying jobs are where there study comes through to make it work for what you need – ( the wedding gig applies to both photographers and musicians ! ) and it pays the bills – the artistic work is not constrained by such demands – that is where you test yourself…I might go so far as to say why stop at paintings – why not set yourself a study of images based on a particular piece of music you connect with – or a piece of pottery – or whatever inspires you outside of photography….I don’t think great work was ever produced with a (paying) audience in mind…that’s for the day job thing
        …the hope is that that inspirational work “becomes” the day job – but it is rare ( and sometimes more PR than talent ) ,,,and in photography outside of the studio, you will never have full control of the scene…so part of that is letting it happen in front of you and deciding to either take or not take the photo – sometimes the latter is a wiser choice but I am a bit biased from film days in that respect – digital seems to lessen the discipline in hopes that one of the 100 will work….
        Most important of all is to challenge yourself – if you end up doing something and you like the result it *may* be important to understand the theory behind it…but sometimes theory gets in the way if we let it…
        If we do artistic work with the idea that we want to appeal to the masses then it is already constrained and not true to yourself…let them be separate for now and see how later on in just might creep into the “paying” work without being over the top for those demands….but I think it very counter-intuitive to approach artistic work with an audience ( however large or small ) in mind…it is for you first and foremost…
        Cheers,

        • Absolutely. The catch is that you of course cannot have one without the other: you need the paid work to buy you time so you can do your own personal work. Ideally, you want clients which have some artistic understanding and want you to work for them because of your own personal work; I think one has to be very careful about what gets shown or included in a portfolio, because otherwise you run the risk of pigeonholing yourself. If clients only see the ‘safe commercial’ stuff, then you’ll always be hired for that and not your personal style. Yet there has to be a balance, because one’s personal style may not appeal to anything beyond a narrow audience.

          As for inspiration – music is definitely up there. I’ve got some thoughts on an essay of how a piece of music relates to a photograph and vice versa, but I’ve yet to find the language to adequately convey them.

          Funny you should mention the film thing – even though I try to bring the same discipline to digital as I have with film, it just doesn’t happen – I don’t know why. Out of three rolls with the GR1V, I’d say I got 50 images that I’m very, very happy with. Comparing to the digital gear I was also carrying – that ratio drops from 50% to something like 2%. And I was shooting both side by side, so it’s not as though there was enough time for a significant shift in mindset to even take place.

  8. Faruk Senoglu says:

    Oh yes.. I forgot; thanks for this article again. Articles like this one is what makes your blog so special for me! Thank you again for sharing and thanks also to your wife Nadiah for being such an inspiration!

    • No problem – I enjoy writing these, but it seems that few enjoy reading them – most people would rather read gear reviews than understand why they photograph and why the audience responds in a certain way…I care about the making of images, and all aspects of that process.

  9. Faruk Senoglu says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this and like to share some fragments of this process of thinking… No matter wether you want to freeze a moment of reality and show this moment as it was with your camera or you pretend to do some Art allowing yourself to manipulate the image you’ve taken until the original isn’t recognizable anymore, both ways have something in common. First of all both are subjective and relative. Even if one pretends to photograph and develop the image as a 1:1 image of what one has seen, still this is subjective. Your perception of a motif as well as the framing and compositioning is already subjectif. If you are in a certain mood this influences the choice of what you are considering as worth to be photographed… However more so it is a question of intentionality. We all are photographing and reworking on the images because we all love and have an inclination towards beauty and like to share this with others also. Instagram and using filters is ok but this way seens to go without a real depth of intentionality. It has something accidental and is lacking something. Let me put it in more metaphorical words: This large field of photo manipulation is fundamentally oriented on producing something spectacular and is short-term oriented. Usually it covers reality more instead of prevailing it. It’s lacking something like the smile of the Mona Lisa, this element of timelessness, unity or mystery. If ever I could drown into photography more, one of my projects would be to make something like this visible. Somewhat it is like you go from A to B by an aeroplane. You will for sure reach your goal earlier but you will lack the depth of experience of the one who has been walking the way from A to B. The quality of arriving and thus the result will be different… This walking is very important and the secret of mastery for everything in life. This intentionality and mastery of walking the way makes the difference between instagram, photographic art and classical photography. By the way the nice thing about black and white is that it’s got more soul. Colors, filters and effects are like a veil. They can (not necessarily need to) veil the intention and cover the imperfections of a missing walking and for sure this will create success at a majority of non reflecting beholders of pictures, but this will not diminish the true worth of real and honest and intentional photography which might be realized only by a handful of knowers of the matter. This must be the reason why Andreas Gurskys photographs are sold for millions on auctions ….. !

    • I agree with you, Faruk. It’s about intention: if you saw the scene that way in your mind, it’s very different to if you just tried to make the most of a random snapshot with a silly filter…

  10. I remember a version of Ming who once ago shot me down for saying the exact same thing as you wrote above, though of course I didn’t say it quite as well or as eloquently. It’s interesting to see how you’ve developed over time.

    Nadiah is not just a muse it seems. She puts truth in the phrase, “your better half”! :)

  11. Guillaume says:

    Really interesting article Ming !

    This is really a heated debate…and quite a philosopher one.
    Indeed I started photography just few years back and I didn’t know anything. I learned thanks to internet content.

    When I had my first gear I could not understand why my pictures where so dull and flat while others pictures on internet were bright, clear, colorful, vivid with amazing colours.

    After a while I discovered RAW and Processing and understood from where this vividness was coming from…and I have to say I was kind of chocked.
    I felt that all those amazing pictures I could see where just a lie, indeed, and was not representative of what the photographer really saw…but disguised with computing artifices. I was so disappointed.

    I had of course some discussion about it of internet forums, heated one of course, where people explained me that photography is an art…so modifiying pictures via Processing is normal because it is part of the creativity and artist’s view. Well…I am not that convinced. When I do a mass modification on my picture with processing, I don’t have the personal feeling I did something good. But if I get it right in Camera…I feel so proud and rewarded.

    Of course, even during film age, and at the time of Henri Cartier Bresson even (I remember a reportage where we could see HCB pictures being taken care of with a brush to clean it and slightly improve contrast of the print), pictures where also kind modified and improved visually.
    But the difference with today, even with programm like Instagram, it’s like one can take a real useless picture with no soul…and create something magic with few clics, while slightly modified HCB pictures where only his already Masterpieces.

    I think that behing that there is a social phenomena. This days, most of serious photographers and amateurs are designing their creations and processing them to get a kind of social positive feedback. It’s important that the social positive feedback is clearly seen (huge number of LIKE’s etc.). To do so and exists, most of photographers will just serve the same soup ever and ever because it is what works to the mass.

    Are they wrong or not ? Well…it’s a bit like when you want to make your clients happy. One could say that viewers are the clients so if there is no like’s on your picture…does it mean it’s a bad one after all ? Aren’t they right if they produce picture attractive to the mass…even if on a more traditional artisitic and photograhic approach one could consider it’s pure artifice ?

    If HCB was alive today and had an anonymous Flickr Account…I am not sure he would have many LIKE’s comparing to the one who make HDR panoramas or Noctilux Portraits at night.

    • Here’s the question you need to ask though – and not one with an immediately obvious answer: if you see an image that’s been processed, how can you tell if that’s what the photographer saw in their mind’s eye in the first place as opposed to ‘on, I’m mucking around in PS and this looks good’? For the most part, I don’t think the majority of photographer shoot with the end in mind, i.e. they don’t visualise the results. My litmus test is that if you notice the method of presentation more than the content of the photograph, then somebody has gone overboard…

  12. this pix taken in publika?

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