A photo reflects the photographer

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Escape from yourself: clouds are like thoughts, the clear blue sky is freedom, and the person left behind is your ego. The car represents your way out, and the road is the constraints of your mind, complete with bright areas, order, logic, and dark, unconscionable ones.

I’ve often been accused of making images that are precise, cold and soulless; the more I look at images from other photographers, I’m inclined to agree. Taken in context with the opening title of this article, that probably doesn’t bode well for impressions of me as a person. It did get me thinking, though: since the act of photographing is really one of conscious exclusion in which we eliminate all of the elements that are distracting or unnecessary to the subject/ story, what does this say about us?

All choices are a reflection of our personalities and the combined consequences of our experiences in life, photographic, compositional or otherwise. Assuming we are not on paid, client-dictated shoots (and even then, to some extent) what stands out to us as being interesting or unusual and worthy of photographing thus is specific to the individual. Even if we are on a commissioned shoot – most of the time there is some flexibility in the angles, lighting choices etc. that are left to the photographer, dictated by his or her aesthetic preferences and limited by technical skill and experience.

There is an abundance of pictures online that are technically dominated: by this I mean photographs that have neither strong story nor clear subject, but tick all of the boxes for image quality. They show good shot discipline and an ability to use the camera, but little else. This too reflects on the photographer: they’ve spent plenty of time on the process sand the gear, but very little on actually finding something to photograph, and nothing at all in developing the idea underpinning the composition of the image. This isn’t to say that the creators of these images are poor photographers; they may just be lacking in direction and experience. I’ve always felt it’s much easier to learn the technical parts of image-making than the aesthetic/ artistic ones.

Opinions are like noses; everybody has one – or so the saying goes (with more crude variants). When it comes to certain things, I do believe that experience and expertise matter and some opinions are more valid than others; however, with something s subjective as photography and art, then there’s no right or wrong. There is only what you like, or dislike. It is categorically impossible to please everybody simultaneously as there will always be somebody who finds your subject uninteresting (or worse) or your composition off, or so on. Therefore, so long as you are not producing images for a client, the most important thing is that you yourself are satisfied with your images. I have presented a lot of photoessays on this site – most generally receive positive comments, but occasionally I’ll get one person who doesn’t ‘get’ the images, even though they might have liked previous work, or somebody who’s just misanthropic (the latter I try ignore). All points of view are equally valid, but I am firstly happy with my own work – otherwise I wouldn’t show it publicly at all* – and could defend it if required. You should be at very least able to confidently say this of your own images.

*You are judged solely on what you show, not what you shoot.

Exclusion matters: both within the frame, and of your images as a whole. We include what we deem interesting or important – and exclude that which is not. At the very minimum we should be excluding and not showing images that are not interesting or in line with our vision; at best we should be fully in control of all elements in every image, or at very least be aware of them so we can make a conscious choice as to whether they are important, unimportant, or worse, distracting. Watching your edges and your set matters: by removing that which is distracting, what remains is visually more dominant and therefore clearer. Less is more, as always. Most people do not have problems finding and photographing a subject: they have problems excluding distractions. Though in reality your eyes may instantly zero in on your object/ subject of interest, in an image, it’s not as straightforward as we are firstly viewing in two dimensions, and secondly, the independent observer lacks the same bias (think of it as an irrelevance filter) as the photographer. Therefore, even though it is unnatural and counterintuitive, it’s actually very important to look carefully at what isn’t your subject, even more so than your subject itself. Again: most people miss the things that creep in around the edges of the frame. It’s one of the reasons why both frame coverage and eye relief are important: you need to be able to see the edges in the finder to begin with, then not have them occluded by the eyepiece.

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Injecting whimsy into compositional order

Aside from the obvious subjects being biased towards the personal interests of the photographer, we also need to consider execution: a person who prioritises execution over artistic quality or the idea is likely to be a meticulous, and possibly a stickler for rules, hierarchy and order; those who play it fast, loose and Lomo tend to be of a more bohemian bent**. I am aware that this is a huge generalisation, but I’ve never met a photographer whose personality conflicted with the way they shot, how they shot, and what cameras/ equipment they used. There are a few of us who might use a wide variety of gear and techniques – I run with everything from large format film on a technical camera to an iPhone and medium format digital – but there’s still an overarching logic to the way we do things. Even though I might be using an iPhone for instance, I’ll still do my utmost to get as much image quality out of it as possible. I don’t use any less shot discipline with a method that has lower potential image quality yield; if anything, I’ll be just as careful, if not more so.

**I’m talking solely about people who’d consider themselves serious photographers. The loose documentary snapshots of non-photographers do not count as they generally do not have the interest or inclination to bother with the technicalities.

The execution is usually also reflected in the final output: beyond image quality, there are some things that simply cannot be done – low light night sports with large format film, for instance – and something things that look odd – think large-budget commercial shoot with iPhone. This not only limits compositional and lighting possibilities, but also the possible ‘looks’ or styles the final image may take, though arguably the borders have become very blurred in the last few years with the ever increasing reliance on photoshop and digital filters in creating the final output. I’ve often been criticised for my stubbornness in wanting to get as much as possible right in camera, even if it’s a more difficult method of execution or results in less ‘spectacular’ looking images, but this is as much a part of the way I see as anything. There’s no way anybody can argue that lighting isn’t an integral part of composition, for instance. What you see is revealed only by the light, and light cannot go around corners.

Clearly, we have subject and execution and equipment choices being a consequence of preference and personality; style is an evolution of that, and at an even more meta level, one’s whole approach to photography – ‘belief system’, if you will – is a reflection of your outlook on life. A jaded pro will make a very different image to an enthusiastic amateur who just got their first DSLR. It’s not because one person is more skilled than the other – though they may be – it’s a consequence of their experiences and preferences. The jaded pro might be technically superb, but lacking in imagination (or unable to stimulate their creativity after being forced to make the images the client wants for so long, rather than the images they want); the amateur might be technically loose but have a pent-up store of creativity waiting to be unleashed. You just never know.

I suppose it’s time to finish with a little introspection. I’m a scientist by training and a rational, logical person by nature; I analyse things to the nth degree before making a decision (much to the consternation of friends and family). This means that my images push the boundaries of quality and execution; I try to challenge what is technically possible under certain shooting situations (medium format reportage on a recent commercial assignment, for instance). But this also means my compositions can sometimes come off as being too perfect and ‘soulless': lacking in that little imperfection or spontaneity that some might find endearing or a subconscious reminder of one’s humanity. It is why I prefer to photograph the idea of man, rather than a man. Is this good or bad? Is it right or wrong? I have no idea. But I do know that the images I produce appeal to me, otherwise I wouldn’t produce them, much less share them: I’d be trying to up my game again so that I could produce the images I want. I think at this point the reason for choosing the illustrative images for this article are pretty clear: they’re very representative of who I am, and how I photograph. Logical, ordered, thought out, minimalist with a clear subject and idea, technically strong, and with a carefully considered touch of the unusual.

I’ve come to the conclusion that how we see is really nothing more or less than who we are; whether we are able to translate that into something appreciable by an audience or not is another matter. But to fundamentally change your images, you need to change the way you view the world, and to do that, you have to change yourself. MT


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  1. I’m quite fascinated with your opening image. For an image that I might guess was a rather serendipitous capture, there is a tremendous amount of symmetry and optimally placed elements throughout. A lot of dynamic tension – almost a tug of war.

    • It was planned and not planned – not planned in the sense that I had an idea of what I wanted after seeing the general location, but planned in the sense that I waited for the right elements to come into play – shadow, car, clouds, man. It took about 45min to get this (and one other) image.

  2. Martin Fritter says:

    The Nikon D1 was introduced in 1999, so we’ve had about 15 years of practical digital photography. It took that long for recording engineers to get digital sound right – and for musicians to understand how to perform for digital recording. Many of the founders photographic art were obsessed with technical issues, especially chemistry – Steglitz for example. When your work hits the mark it doesn’t seem soulless at all. There’s a passionate seeing that I think transfigures the quotidian subjects. Both soulful and ascetic. So keep it up. The only advice I might have is: are you working too hard? Problems are solved by setting them aside and growth happens in periods of rest. (I know you wrote about this, but do you follow your own advice?).

  3. Bohemian? …

    Ohhhh… hippie-dippie. Peace symbols. Haight-Ashbury. ;)

  4. “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Anais Nim

  5. Another very interesting thought, confirmed by the long list of responses. Since I already accepted what you were saying long ago, I skipped decided to respond first then go back and read the others. But on the way down, I counted the number of women who responded (this too is related to what you’re saying). Only one, Kate, and she’s a painter first! Reminding me again, how everything from computers and cameras (with computers embedded) to the Cern Particle Accelerator are, well, guys toys. We are (okay tool) toy makers and users. Women cannot understand what all the fuss is about, they just want to use computers, iPads, and cameras, not examine them inside and out, compare and compete with them. [Qualification: a huge generalization; not all women or all men, for sure.] First, “making images that are precise, cold and soulless” is contradicted by your second set of photos from Cuba . . . the one’s with people caught in various narratives of their lives. Second, again to confirm what you’re saying, the photo you “selected” as an illustration of your “thesis” is titled, “Injecting whimsy into compositional order.” But which part is the whimsy, and whimsy to whom? Obvious answer would be the gallons, but crop the left side out in your mind and you could say that including all the construction workers is the whimsy and distracts from the “perfect” geometrical structure of the balloons in context. If your choices are so “precise, cold and soulless,” what are those construction workers doing in there in the first place? Third, you must be aware of the traditional practice of always weaving a mistake or error into every seemingly perfect “Persian” rug in order not to be blasphemous to God, or to put it in your terms, “arrogant.” But in all your most perfect photographs, can you not still find some imperfection? Live concerts, say piano or violin, are recognized as better (more perfect?) than studio recordings in which the mistakes are simply done over until correct. But this “correct” by its very nature falls short of perfection “because it makes these corrections.” The live performance is enhance and hence better (closer to perfection) as a performance than the studio version. People used to listening to CD recordings are sometimes taken aback when they go to a real, live performance and it takes a while for them to warm up to the higher quality sound and performance of a live performance (in my own experience). So, match your clinically perfect images against some of the ones that were taken more quickly and spontaneously (outside the studio) and then try to judge which one is closer to perfect. You take both types of images whether you like it or not. Arrogance. You bet. I used to tell my students that a professor is not just a teacher. The latter conveys the knowledge of others. A professor “professes.” That’s why the verb is part of the title. How egotistical and arrogant can anyone be to pretend to profess their own point of view of history, a scientific question, a painting or a photograph. Let’s hope you keep on professing as well as teaching. Finally, there is a genre of photography that mixes Haiku poetry and photographic images and (almost forgot) classical Chinese/Japanese paintings that may evoke the poem or visa versa. I stumbled on a photograph that spoke with little effort the following Haiku poem: “A still blue pond. A butterfly pauses. Alone, not alone.” Every reader can see the image(s) that would reflect that thought. I don’t think I could ever produce another photo and image that matched that well. So, not so quick to separate types of art from one another, or science for that matter.

    • Surely imperfection is relative: if it doesn’t sound or look wrong to the audience, it isn’t?

      There’s nothing wrong with professing absolutes, like mathematics: 1+1=2, not 3. But on subjective arts, we have an opinion, no more, no less. The difference lies in the defence, surely.

      • MT,

        I’m almost certain that I don’t get the defence part.

        Since art is subjective, given that any artist’s work will assuredly never win universal appreciation — if for no reason other than differing subjective, personal tastes, and since it may be considered arrogant to assume one is “right” in an aesthetic matter, then in the realm of art what exactly is it that I should give a defence of?

        Besides the issues of arrogance I can’t picture it being fully rational to become quarrelsome about the correctness of subjective tastes, so I’ve got that possible explanation ruled out.

        Perhaps by defence this is referring merely to willingness to explain the notions behind the work I do, and perhaps sharing some rationale about why I personally enjoy producing it?

        Or should it be defence regarding technical skill of execution; or, the validness to be possessed of personal tastes independent of what those are; or, the validity of engaging in an act of producing art that is to my own tastes and preferences; or my professional skills or “stature” as an artist; or is it the extent of labor that I have personally invested in producing the art; or, maybe some notions about the “quality” of my work which I might try, perhaps with some difficulty, to isolate away from the realm of personal opinions and tastes? Something else?

        I apologize: I understand I might be asking a question that is intuitively obvious to a person who works in the domain as you do.

        • I should have ben a bit more specific: defense not in the sense of being argumentative, but explaining the rationale behind why one made an image and why it works for them. Surely that’s not unreasonable?

          • Ah, thank you very much for your reply. To explain the rationale behind an image and why it works for the creator seems very fair indeed.

            To me, it also seems quite preferable to the approach of argumentative conflict.
            Thank you again.

      • Michiel953 says:

        Well. I happen to think that however valuable the opinions of others are (and they are); If I think one of my images sucks, the praise of others won’t help me get over that. I’m my own worst critic.

  6. Ming,
    “Precise and minimalist” – yes. “Cold and soul less” – no. That’s the thing about the art world that really gets to me sometime. I’m not a big fan of critics and artists, who are in the “know”, and who claim to be the end all and be all in telling the viewer or the audience what they should feel. I think that is precisely against the entire point of art.

    Art should evoke a feeling, but it is entirely up to the art, the artist and the audience on what that feeling should be.

    If the audience “gets” the feeling or story that the photographer or artist intended, then perhaps the piece was successful in its intent and capture. (By the way, your photos of your beautiful wife are the opposite of cold and soul less… at least, in my opinion. Before I even knew the subject was your wife, it was clear there was a connection between the photographer and the subject…)

    You stated:
    “I’ve come to the conclusion that how we see is really nothing more or less than who we are; whether we are able to translate that into something appreciable by an audience or not is another matter. But to fundamentally change your images, you need to change the way you view the world, and to do that, you have to change yourself.”

    I agree entirely! I think the more important question is: “what risks are you willing to take, outside your normal style and world view to challenge yourself and further your art…?”

  7. Precise, cold and soulless. Or put another way; accurate, impartial and true to the original scene. Depending on the final audience and intended message these could be great attributes.

  8. I don’t normally comment on blogs, but I thought I’d make an exception here. I very much enjoy browsing your site, although I “don’t get” a fair number of your photos, in part because some of them do strike me as a little cold. But because I’ve looked at a number of your photoessays, and read enough of your writing to respect your skills, when you post something I “don’t get” I try to ask the question “what am I not seeing?” rather than “why is he wasting his time taking photos of this?”. This makes your blog a lot more interesting to me than if you just posted a long series of dull but pleasant photos that didn’t make me think.

    However, it’s a lot easier to give a knee-jerk negative reaction (which is why I normally refrain from commenting on blogs – my initial reactions can be unfairly harsh). I suspect that as your site becomes more trafficked you see more visitors post off-the-cuff comments without taking the time to reflect on your work.

    I’m also interested to know if you’re looking for mass appeal? I know you need to make a living from your work, but that aside, would you rather have 10,000 people “like” your pictures on facebook or a handful come up and praise you in person for making a significant impression on their life?

    • I’d much rather you ask if you don’t ‘get’ an image – that helps others too, and helps me to see what I’m missing in in forming the impression I want. Nothing wrong with that at all.

      I don’t need to be popular, but the making the economics work does lie in statistics…

  9. david mantripp says:

    Ming, you certtainly must know this, but the photo illustrating this article is the total opposite of the criticisms which seem to be weighing on you. It’s precise, yes – cuttingly, absolutely precise, but in beautifully, poetic way, not clinical. Tbere is so much depth to this photo, so much that just works, so much that could be analysed, if desired, but beyond that it tells a story, it allows the viewer to construct their own story, and the colour, the balance that so perfectly captures that split instant where everything just falls into place, well, if that’s “soulless” tben soul is very much over-rated.

  10. I thought this was a very interesting and well written article. I can see where some of your photos could be considered cold and precise (not necessarily a bad thing as far as I’m concerned), but I think your “People of Cuba” parts I & II show you can also produce technically excellent photos with soul. I enjoy both aspects of your work.

  11. “I’ve often been accused of making images that are precise, cold and soulless” … I would agree with “precise” but not the other two descriptors. Some of your work – like this old car and the clouds – has a certain element of whimsy to it. There’s more of an intellectual element to your images and the emotion is more of whimsy (if people can see past the precision).

  12. Rube Redfield says:

    The thoughts, philosophy expressed here, probably go for teaching as well. What you include/exclude, how you teach reflects what kind of person you are, striving for excellence but falling down, the need to please yourself in your work but still being always subject/open to criticism, the possibility of burn out and the desire/need to explore other ‘ways.’
    Thinking about it, I guess it applies to many things. . .

  13. I think a big part of the influx of negativity might be to your increased visibility. The more popular your site, the bigger target you become, and negative comments stay in one’s memory longer than words of praise. Not every one will like your work, and I don’t think that anyone should ever make it their goal to be liked by everyone.
    It does seem like you might be suffering from a bit of a burn out. Considering your hobby is also your job, taking a break wouldn’t make sense, but have you considered maybe mixing things up a bit? Doing some exercises to keep things fresh, work in ways you are not comfortable with. I personally always thought that your style would be wonderful for portraiture. I would imagine it being a great looking as your product photography, but with subjects bringing in with them that “warmth” and “soul” your work is accused of lacking.

    • I used to do a lot of photojournalism and fashion work. I stopped because it no longer appealed to me. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that.

      • Fashion?! Interesting. You recently on Flickr had a model in purple walking around. I saw no model or fashion in the shots. I saw your normal shots with a person in them.

        I thought. Wow. Ming could use some work in staging people. One of the few areas I felt you could use some work in your venture.

  14. Recent events seem to have set you back a bit. I used to think we saw the worst of humanity while driving but now I believe we see it in online comments. I’m not referring to thoughtful critiques, even those that may seem harsh, but the constant barrage of the negative (or worse) that seem to eventually arrive at every worthwhile site on the web. I hope it doesn’t reach the point where you decide it’s not worth the effort.

    You shoot what appeals to you in a way that allows you to derive satisfaction from your work. I don’t see how you can change that and be happy. The things that appeal to you will change over the years and at some point may cross into an area where there is a larger audience but I don’t think you can force that change. It obvious from the success of your site that you have a large group of people who enjoy your work–both the images and the writing. Most photographers will never experience even this much success.

    I often disagree with you but I always enjoy your thoughts and images.

    • The thoughtful critiques are important. But yes, it seems that all of the former bad drivers are now also keyboard warriors.

      I shoot what appeals to me to make me happy, but this isn’t always what the clients want – the worst thing is when you deliver exactly what they want (usually ‘copy this’) – knowing it will be a bad idea, voicing your objections, and then finding yourself on the receiving end of unhappy feedback…except you can’t say ‘I told you so’.

      There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing – it’s all subjective and we are all equally entitled to a point of view – it’s being abusive about it that I don’t understand…

  15. This is one of the few photographic essays I have read from a modern photographer that blends the artistic with the technical, and nails the essential – “I’ve never met a photographer whose personality conflicted with the way they shot, how they shot, and what cameras/ equipment they used.” I may not ‘count’ as a serious commentator, given I am a painter typically that also shoots some commercial work but nonetheless I very much appreciate your perspective. I find a great joy (and frustration, and puzzles to solve) in exploring what I see and then what I can achieve (in camera – and after, I will never be a purist). Thank you for writing so boldly and so honestly.

    • A pleasure – I think you’ve got a unique perspective as painter and photographer though – both sides of the conscious inclusion/ exclusion divide, as it were…

  16. Per Magnussen says:

    The important point is the second part of your first sentence. It’s the same in litterature and other arts. It is why some writers spend 20 years not beeing able to translate what they think they are translating to the audience…and maybe they sucseed later, maybe not….I don’t know about you, I know too little of photo as art to say, but I guess this is the same for photographers as well: you think what you do is this, but to the audience it is not. The answer? To go on, I guess.

  17. Jesper Olsen says:

    First of: Thanks for sharing your amazing articles, images and thoughts. You are a great inspiration to me – both technically and aesthetically.
    I have been following your quest in to art vs. commercial work for a while. There is no doubt in me – you are an artist. Your soul and style shows in every picture. Also I admire your courage in sharing your doubts and thoughts on this subject so honestly.
    To me the question is not weather you shoot wrong or should shoot different – as you say it’s a question of staying true to who you are.
    So here is a thought: What if a human develops his/her personality and preferences in a kind of fight for “survival” – a combination of leveraging one’s talents and skills and avoiding what one’s piers and culture discourages – so that one ends up with a strong believe system which is yet just on version/fragment of one’s total potential…
    You talk a lot about a camera’s shooting envelop – how about supplementing this concept with the concept of a photographers psychological/personal shooting envelope. So as a serious photographer first you master your predestined shooting envelope. The more you perfect this, the more clear do the “blind” spots become obvious to one self – a kind of yin/yang of the soul – yin being what you have mastered – yang being the complimentary part of your potential…
    In my opinion you are on the right track – shoot as you believe. Don’t shoot what others think your pictures should look like – that just pop… But since this topic comes up from time to time, maybe the unconscious par of your soul wants to encourage you to enhance your personal shooting envelope. So instead of mimicking a style (I totally agree with your aversion to this) your could challenge some of your “demons” and see how that will affect your shooting. – A Zen way of becoming whole – your current level of mastery as a self-imposed Kōan for your journey towards enlightenment…

    • Thanks for your compliments. Aren’t we – our personalities, preferences, way of seeing – a consequence of that ‘fight for survival’? We are thes um of our experiences.

      Whilst we all probably have personal limits in terms of what we can or are willing to shoot, I’m stubborn and don’t want to believe that: I would like to believe that we can all photograph anything if we have the determination to do so :) Those ‘demons’ you mention aren’t demons: I’ve tried it, disliked it, moved on. You can’t do everything all the time…

  18. “Opinions are like noses; everybody has one …” I think it is more like ‘Opinions are like fingers and toes, everyone has a bunch of them…! :)

  19. Well written. Obviously you are having an existential moment in your life. It seems as if you have figured it out, though I wonder if it is something beyond photography.

    Regardless, I remember having a photo critiqued by my mentor and a number of others. They didn’t like it. When pressed as to why someone said, it makes me feel cold, another said (the subject) seems lonely, another added something similar. I was elated. My photo, disliked though it was, elicited strong emotions. What else can you ask for?

    I think that your photos elicit specific feelings as well. It may be a sense of emptiness or a soulless place (and often it is much more than that), but the point is your viewers are consciously or unconsciously feeling something. Be content, be yourself.

    • It’s definitely beyond photography. It’s a bigger question of having tried and not liked the ‘conventional’ career route; quitting and doing something you enjoyed before, but is now starting to become not so fun, and wondering why you bother to spend so much time and effort producing content and corresponding with an increasingly negative, discouraging audience – 4-5 hours a day. There are only two conclusions: either you go your own way, or give up.

      As you pointed out: ‘liking’ and being affected by aren’t the same thing: if your intention was to make them feel cold and elicit feelings of loneliness, then you succeeded: I cannot imagine necessarily liking feeling this way though…

      But yes, I do have a lot of these empty themes running. I wonder what it says about me…

  20. Thank you for another engaging article. I began reading your blog in large part owning to what I find the very artful, and to me appealing, qualities of your images….

    “…with something [a]s subjective as photography and art, then there’s no right or wrong. There is only what you like, or dislike.”

    I suppose to the extent this is true, the subjective properties of personal art appreciation must work both ways: if there is no necessity to prove the validity of my personal likes, then there must likewise be no necessity to prove the validity of my personal dislikes. Perhaps personal subjectivity if held onto firmly illuminates some extent of the pretense lurking in the Art Establishment.

    One wonders then why it is necessary even to give a defense of something that has been defined in the first place as subjective.

    Still, in spite of all the subjectivity, people do form ideas that there are skilled or even “great” painters or musicians or writers. I might label it as a kind of ‘recognition of capability that a person is endowed with. If I do the latter I’ve crossed over into implying that there’s something objective to be observed as difficult as that observation might be to define.

    But before I stray even farther from where I began, in terms of preferences, it still seems to hold that one need to prove validity of dislikes to no greater extent than one is required to prove validity of likes (and vice versa).

    • Well, I did put the definition there – at least in the context of this site – hence the necessity to continue to expand the idea. But beyond that, there’s been a lot of negativity here lately which makes me wonder why some people bother to come and comment at all. If I don’t believe in my own work I shouldn’t publish it, and I certainly should at least be able to defend it – likes and dislikes aside.

      • Ah, yes. Personally I suppose I could understand someone who comes visits and comments that a certain style is not to their own tastes or that there’s a certain series that they’re not captivated by: I suppose inevitably the comment box invites that sort of airing of personal responses which I hope are at least honest and essentially benign, maybe even constructive.

        But as for visitors leaving acidly- or bitingly critical comments, I agree, they can choose to browse elsewhere (I presume you haven’t received compulsory messages from physical captives as of yet!), and those sort of comments would seem senselessly rooted in antagonism or animus. The world is full of such, which is sad.

        Comment sections of online newspapers I’ve read are so full of interpersonal ugliness that I’ve now chosen not to read them. Much better things to do, and all that.

        I wish a certain blog I’m involved with would generate more traffic even if some mild, benign disagreements motivated a portion of the engagement. Yet when it comes to the really negative stuff my plan of record is for the editor to delete liberally; better not to waste my time or waste the time of readers.

  21. You say “But to fundamentally change your images, you need to change the way you view the world, and to do that, you have to change yourself.” Charlie Parker put it this way: If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.

  22. For me, many times the perfect capture is quite enough. I’ve come to realize that I’m not particularly or personally interested in a great many things, but I’m endlessly fascinated by me ability to organize or at least recognize “order” as it applies to structure and light, regardless of what it strikes. That’s enough to keep me busy… forever. And, I’ve found that I like being assigned the subject, since it forces me to shoot things I otherwise wouldn’t, due in fact, to lack of interest… but being assigned, and compensated it for it, allows me to look at everything “as if” I were interested in it, and that’s fun, rewarding, and challenging. Left to myself, I’d only photograph what I see on vacation… which really isn’t more then a minutiae of what is out there. Really, even a vacation is sort of an assignment: to find anything interesting wherever you find yourself. Same fundamental discipline, different venue.

  23. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? Those descriptions of your work indicate that your photos didn’t leave them unaffected. Good or bad, your photos made them feel something and touched a nerve in them somewhere. That is a positive in my book. For example, I seem to be the one person who doesn’t “get” Ansel Adams’ work. I won’t have it in my house. His photos makes me feel cold, sad and lonely. But they do make me feel something. I love the places your camera takes us. You capture a flavor and essence that few photographers can. You invite us to linger in the scene and we do. Keep up the great work!

  24. roblowephoto says:

    Another excellent read, Ming, and a train of thought and practice to which I can certainly relate.

    In previous posts, you have written about “conscious exclusion” and since I read your thoughts on this practice/mind-set a while back, seeing as how it struck a cord with me, the idea and philosophy has stayed with me since, whenever I shoot. Personally, I do not find your images ‘soul-less’ or ‘clinical’, however, I get where you (read: some of your ‘critics’) may be coming from. MY issue: having varying degrees of OCD myself, often reflects in how I compose, shoot and process and I don’t try to hide the fact that my brain works this way. I’m not always seeking perfection (nor am I assuming that I have ever come close) but I do know that my images reflect me, as this must be the same for each of us. Possibly, a little too much perfection is not always desirable but surely this is down to how we ourselves, wish to photograph and I agree that (whilst I have been guilty in the past of shooting for the pleasure of others on occasion) we each must photographs for our own personal pleasure and satisfaction, first and foremost. Otherwise, where’s the line drawn between the freedom of our own expression and, for example, the need to illicit approval from others? The latter saps my creative juices (I quickly came to realise) and that you write, “one’s whole approach to photography – ‘belief system’, if you will – is a reflection of your outlook on life.” speaks more loudly to me than almost anything else you have ever written and I have been reading your work for a long while.

    As always, MT, thank you for sharing your honest insight, knowledge, and personal philosophy on the ‘art’. Though I don’t think for one single moment that you write to seek appreciation, I am aware that you have it spades from both those who click +/- comment and, those who merely read; and many more than I find your work inspirational on many levels. As for your images here, superb work as always.

    • Thanks. Lack of emotion isn’t the same as lack of soul which isn’t the same as lack of passion. If anything, sloppiness is NOT soul, that’s just laziness.

      If you’re a commercial photographer, you unfortunately DO need to seek approval from others – otherwise work may not be forthcoming…

  25. I am somewhat troubled at the idea of you taking on the label of ‘soulless’ in relation to your very considered wok. It seems both inaccurate and kind of sloppy judgement (by others). Perhaps they mean unsentimental? Whereas ‘ Logical, ordered, thought out, minimalist with a clear subject and idea, technically strong, and with a carefully considered touch of the unusual’ seems accurate,though it leaves out, for me, the emotional strength that is in certain of your images The image at the top has plenty of soul to me; brooding tensions and a kind of powerful split – the sunny sky and the tensions of the lower half. Cinematic of course both in look and the sense of implied narrative, with the distance between the driver of the car and the small figure increased by the wedge of the lower shadow. I am against taking on others labels, especially when it is hard to name some qualities that might be a part of your style. I think of Edward Hopper and Wyeth as well as some terrific movies. The ‘idea of man’ element links in my mind to hyperrealism in terms of the social and cultural observations.

    • Believe me, I’m just as troubled – I don’t put the label on myself, but since it keeps getting applied, one has to figure out why. At least I didn’t get passionless, though ‘unemotional’ is probably much more accurate – and just fine with me, because that’s precisely what my images are.

      • robvankoesveld says:

        Just for the record these are the 9 emotions all humans are wired to communicate-
        Interest/Excitement, Enjoyment/Joy, Surprise/Startle, Fear/Terror, Anger/Rage, Distress/Anguish (Sadness), Shame/Humiliation, Disgust (“you taste bad”), Dissmell (“you stink”).(Silvan Tomkins) You are certainly not lacking in the emotion of ‘interest’. You are passionately interested which is what makes your blog so engaging (and I am sure you would put your hand up to others on the list.) I think the label ‘soulless’ is just sloppy thinking. It is hard to identify what characterises an emerging style. I do think of your images as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘discerning’ but that’s just me.
        I do also wonder if some of your images demand more from the viewer. The viewer needs to bring their own emotional and associative literacy to the images (compared to a ‘sentimental image’ which tells you what to feel). Like those pictures in a gallery that require you to sit with them and revisit a few times but which can be much more rewarding in the end. (Illegitimi non carborundum) r

        • Well, I’d definitely like to make an image that has more to offer than ‘disposable entertainment’ for a single glance, but then again it it requires too much from the viewer and is too ambiguous, I too have failed…

  26. I think the honesty, and courage, to open with:

    “I’ve often been accused of making images that are precise, cold and soulless; the more I look at images from other photographers, I’m inclined to agree”

    disproves the “soulless” tag. Ming, I commend you for being able to let the reflexive defense down and examine the criticism (often poorly executed) for potential truths. And, as always, what has resulted is an engaging, concise and human discourse. I agree whole-heartedly with the hypothesis…our images give insight to us as individuals, though will always be “filtered” by the perception of the viewer. And the relationship between subject and execution and the mindset of the creator aren’t always obvious to the beholder. For example, what do Burtynsky’s images say about him? Technical, large scale, usually from a similar viewing angle regardless of scale or subject, often grimy, industrial scenes, or nature abstracted. Does he love the industry of mankind, and that which it creates, or does he rail against its effects on the planet? Or does he compare the works of man to those of nature? You can only know by asking him, or having credible sources that can speak for him, and even then is the response unguarded and honest, or disingenuous to build an air of mystique or suggest a deep social conscience? (I am not saying that this is the case with Burtynsky by the way!).

    Ultimately, your reflex responses to art are deeply personal, and wholly your own, and “true” for you. It amazes me how often people project their own “truths” as universal, even down to the finest details of that personal construct.

    Do what you do, so long as it enrichens you, Ming, and those for whom your work resonates, even if not always, will continue to support you, which means you are satisfying the only people that matter in the transaction. For what it is worth, I don’t think your images are “soulless” (if that word can have any value in the discussion of a subjective topic, being in itself highly subjective as a concept). As I have said before, inorder to successfully produce such exact compositions, of often mundane subjects, in often hugely chaotic environments, shows sensitivity. Is it more, or less, than someone who makes a pleasing image of an adorable child, dog, or flower, in a sunlit glade? That is up to the individual to decide. I know what I think…

    • Photography is so subjective that there’s no right or wrong. All we can do is have conviction: if you don’t believe in your own work, nobody else will. Sometimes those who say you’re missing something have a point, sometimes they don’t. Ask yourself honestly. If you find it doesn’t resonate with you, then just carry on…

  27. liramusic says:

    Since I do not work as a photographer, I am a bit liberated and I maybe do this by choice. I started taking pictures of “things,” this objectification, but quickly exhausted my ideas.
    One person once hurt my feelings, but without knowing he did, and laughed asking me, was I still looking for that perfect shot. He laughed again and then trailed off saying that he thought photography was silly. I do not agree and I’ll explain with a story.
    My dad had one year to live. This is hard to type so, I don’t know that it matters to anyone else and I am feeling some emotion with this. My dad had one year to live and he would take pictures of birds, and the thing was that he was going blind. He had won awards and had a Hasselblad during his lifetime. Now he had a walker, and he dropped his camera I think. I could not figure it out but he would call me.
    There emerged this idea for me that photography is about feelings and about what we as photographers are feeling as we look out at life. I don’t give a damn if someone takes pictures of old doors and nothing else, it can have some meaning at least to them. We take pictures to say that we are here and that this or that matters. Maybe what my friend meant was that it is too self centered?
    I more think, though, photographs can be like poems. I do think that the photographer is in the photo in an abstract, oblique sort of way. We assemble thoughts and feelings.
    I think that there is a sort of context like that to the very taking of photographs.
    At least, this is a side to photography that is not often even talked about and maybe it is the more quiet side of things that we as photographers sort of enter into a picture; the picture was there potentially and we stepped in to it… I look at Ming’s pictures and I think, aside from the tremendous clarity, this right there is what Ming saw. I wouldn’t have seen that. His mind saw that picture.

    • Sorry to hear about your father. If it matters to you – then one probably shouldn’t have to care what anybody else thinks; that’s secondary. Especially if you are happy with the images. I’ve always said you should be your best friend, worst enemy and harshest critic. You don’t have to see the same as everybody else (and frankly, shouldn’t at all). It is unquestionably an introspective process…

  28. That was a good read, thank you.
    I basically agree with / share your point of view.

    Actually, I find that it’s easy to mistake images as “soulless” if they are to technically brilliant.
    If photographs stand out boldly due to their technical image quality / top-notch shot discipline etc. it impresses most viewers so much, that it may actually be ‘hard’ to look beyond that surface, so to say
    (or, the other way around – think of how easily a mediocre black and white photo shot from the hip with a holga is perceived as “deep”).

    • Thank you – I agree; surely there has to be enough passion in the first place to make an image that requires that level of technical perfection…

      • I don’t think many people would associate “passion” with technical expertise. I’m not criticizing but making an observation. Technical expertise is associated with attention to detail, knowledge, self-control and dedication (amongst other things).

  29. Well one think is sure, Ming, you are not just good at your chosen craft but you are also very good at writing. There’s plenty of prolific writers in the photoblogosphere, but you are one of those that join quality to quantity, and that’s rare. Your posts reflect loads of introspection first, and clarity of expression second. In this day and age, a rare find. How much do you get to sleep? Because writing this deeply takes time, and you are by the way also nurturing your photography practice during the 24/7 cycle..
    Hats off…

    • Thanks. Sleep – what’s that? Honestly, very little. Between maintaining the site, writing content, replying emails/ messages etc., teaching – excluding the mainstay of my time which still remains commercial work – there aren’t enough hours in a day…

      • Remember, sleeping is an essential brain function. Don’t burn your cells too fast!

        • I agree about this one.

          I remember Ming’s earlier images of “isolation” of people even in urban environments. Recently I read that moments of wakeful rest and contemplation activate the ‘default mode network'; to the extent I ‘got it,’ periodic activation of this network is evidently perceived to be correlated with health, introspection, and creativity. It seems those moments of isolation or maybe better to say “non-tasked time” could actually be an input to maintenance of health.

          • Which is precisely why smartphones and tablets are a fundamental threat to mental health. Easy instant access to countless distractions, decreasing attention span, inability to let the mind idle in neutral and digest experience into coherent ideas. Not by chance, showers are great idea generators…

  30. And what a viewer sees (or doesn’t) in a picture also says a lot about the viewer. So I wonder what that says about people trying to find soul in pictures …

    Also, many people assume something should be in a photo when it may not have been present at the original scene: just because something looks soulless in a picture doesn’t mean it wasn’t soulless in real life.

    (Assuming we can all agree what soullessness means …)

    Re. exclusion/inclusion, there was also an interview with Eisenstadt where he says he always looks at the background of his potential photos first.

    • Perhaps something is missing for them?

      As for assuming something is missing (or not present) – that may well mean the photographer got it wrong: they created the impression that there should have been something there, but there wasn’t…

      One man’s soul is another man’s disaster.

  31. I think your thought about the first (wonderful) image proves you are not a machine Ming.

    “Escape from yourself: clouds are like thoughts, the clear blue sky is freedom, and the person left behind is your ego. The car represents your way out, and the road is the constraints of your mind, complete with bright areas, order, logic, and dark, unconscionable ones.”

    What you have taught and showed us about the conscious choice of object/objects and the deliberate exclusion is well documented by one essay by the other, your videos and images. In the videos you emphasize the importance of the story behind the images you show, and that does not prove to me that you are made out of steel and polish, but is a very soulful human being.

    When I am out shooting I always point my camera at something that reflects my mood, my traumas, my positive biased likes and actually never at what I disgust. Seeing a batch or series of images will always tell a lot about the photographers personality. He/she is after all the person behind the camera and by that I mean we see in an image what the photographers values are. That’s a story by itself and perhaps the most important one.
    Liking your photography is often the same as liking you as a person.

  32. I think you should get drunk more often and shoot while you are pissed. You might be surprised what you have inside you ;-)

    • That would be against my religion.

      • You’re religious? Wouldn’t have expected that.

        • I don’t see the need to advertise it publicly.

          • I suppose this can affect one’s shooting style and especially philosophy.

            For example my religion tells me there’s someone greater than myself or my audience to please when I’m shooting; then again it doesn’t tell me that I for one would, necessarily, have tremendously well-developed skills or talent in it :P

            • Mine says assuming that anybody else cares (or that you’re right on subjective/ aesthetic matters) would be presumptive and arrogant :)

              • It sounds modest and humble, while perhaps making it more challenging to write a blog that engages many strong opinions.

              • A bit of presumption and arrogance is healthy, though.

                Not too much of it, but in moderation.

                If you didn’t have that, you probably wouldn’t be running this blog. Without it, people usually don’t really bother with doing something that deviates from the norm, is interesting in one way or another (ie running a blog, making art, et cetera), and sharing it. One could make the case that one would just be throwing it out there and seeing what people take a liking to, but even that takes a bit of presumption and arrogance, to think that the work has even a chance of doing that. Basically, they’re useful tools, if used properly. If they weren’t, then those traits would have either never developed or have been weeded out over time by evolution.

                Out of curiosity, though, which religion do you ascribe to, then, assuming it’s not a secret or anything of the sort?

                • Not a secret at all. After having tried most of them, I’m Muslim.

                  • Another curiosity-related (but not in any way photography-related) question – why are you religious?
                    Honest question, mind you, I never really could understand (I mean I know most of the reasons people give, but I don’t truly *understand* ‘em) why people go for that, but reading descriptions from people as to why is generally interesting and gives me a bit more insight into that (especially given that reasons tend to be varied, assuming stated reasons are the same as actual reasons, which they fairly often probably aren’t, but when taking that into account, one can start to build a… general picture on the matter, I suppose).

                    • This isn’t a simple or fast answer, but in short: if one doesn’t believe in some higher karmic balance, there is basically no point at all to doing the right thing. Our world seems set up to reward the opposite, yet we have consciences for a reason.

                  • Can’t reply to your last comment (the one I actually want to reply to), so I’ll reply to this one.

                    Why not? In the grand scheme of things it’s far more beneficial to do “the right thing” (which is to say, something that is unharmful to others). Sure, it doesn’t force you to do it, but being a secular humanist would have the same practical effect but for different reasons (basically, a philosophy of life rather than being just that plus simply assuming that one specific mythology is based on reality [despite it being unproven and by definition unprovable]). Basically, that there is no *reason* to do the “right thing” other than simply not wanting to make the world a worse place for ones self and for others.

                    Do you really *need* external reasons for you to do “the right thing”? Is “the right thing” always the actual right thing, especially if what is “the right thing” is dictated by someone other than you (which is to say, why would someone else be more qualified to say what is or isn’t “right” than you, the person making the decisions)?

                    Just something to think about. This comment chain unfortunately is long enough that this discussion cannot, in practice, continue much further (though there is room for one more reply, so I’d be interested in reading your response to these points).

                    • I think WP limits nested comment replies to 10, which might be why.

                      Right as dictated by conscience. Almost always the most difficult, too – for any given outcome. Why torture yourself? Why make life difficult if we’re struggling for the same outcome? That’s the troubling bit.

    • mosswings says:

      In the opinion of Robin Williams, that’s how golf was invented. No other logical reason for it ;-)

      Great piece, Ming. Knowing one’s self and constantly rechecking that one still knows one’s self is essential. What others think is secondary in the realm of artistic expression.

  33. I think that the only thing that can destroy the poem of a picture is the attempt to put it on paper. The picture inspires. Poems are poems, pictures are pictures.

    I also think that many of the best pictures are somewhat blurry and that that adds to the dreaminess that a picture can project. The ultra sharp technical pictures can rob from the picture…for example one can concentrate on the writing of a medicine bottle and miss the human expressions in the picture.

  34. This is beautifully written.


  1. […] all know that. How each and everyone of us photographs is nothing else than who and how we are, as Ming Thein says. Each and every photo is a reflection of our very own condition. As much as you can judge a […]

  2. […] show that are representative of who we are as photographers. This point was explored at length by Ming Thein, and it’s worth reading. Similarly, choosing not to make the image can be as important as […]

  3. […] Photography News: A photo reflects the photographer I’ve often been accused of making images that are precise, cold and soulless; the more I look at images from other photographers, I’m inclined to agree. Taken in context with the opening title of this article, that probably doesn’t bode well for impressions of me as a person. It did get me thinking, though: since the act of photographing is really one of conscious exclusion in which we eliminate all of the elements that are distracting or unnecessary to the subject/ story, what does this say about us? All choices are a reflection of our personalities and the combined consequences of our experiences in life, photographic, compositional or otherwise. Assuming we are not on paid, client-dictated shoots (and even then, to some extent) what stands out to us as being interesting or unusual and worthy of photographing thus is specific to the individual. Even if we are on a commissioned shoot – most of the time there is some flexibility in the angles, lighting choices etc. that are left to the photographer, dictated by his or her aesthetic preferences and limited by technical skill and experience. Read full story => MingThein […]

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