Photoessay: San Francisco monochromes, part two: channeling Winogrand

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One of the exercises I did at the last round of US workshops was an exploration into finding style. Naturally, having taken both of the groups in San Francisco to see the Garry Winogrand exhibition that was on at SFMOMA, there was more than a healthy curiosity amongst the groups to attempt to shoot replicate his way of shooting. I of course had to demonstrate. Whilst I don’t particularly care for his off-center/ misaligned/ ‘loose’ framing and various forms of blurring, I do appreciate his sense of timing and getting into the moment and the scene. Plenty of shooting from the hip or with the tilt screen and a wide lens ensued; the OM-D and 12/2 was weapon of choice. Enjoy! MT

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  1. I like the photos as much as the comments. Especially in regards to what is and isn’t Winogrand’s style. Fortunately, Winogrand has his own style and Ming has his own style. They aren’t interchangeable, but a lot can be learned from one another. That is the primarily reason I keep returning to this site. And is the same reason I admire and stare endlessly at photographs by the masters, including Winogrand.
    Winogrand and his photographic kin live in a different era. We, as photographers need to find our own definition and medium of photography. That was another topic covered by Ming. From his own inspiration and vision, Ming has produced a collection of images that he is proud of.
    On a completely different note, I have a hard time imagining Ming photographing like Winogrand. Ming often writes with such certainty that he is equally certain of his uncertainty. On the other hand, watching Winogrand’s interviews, he has this demeor that I call, “confused old man” where he scratches his head, looks at his settings with confusion. Tries again. More confusion. In today’s day and age, it is simply chimping. That allowed Winogrand get amazingly close to his subjects. I have a hard time imagining Ming walking down the street like Winogrand.

    • Haha, you’re right: I don’t shoot like that at all. People who’ve seen me at work tend to think I’m somewhere between an energizer bunny and a ninja…I most certainly *know* what I’m going to get – or at very least, what I want – before I even raise the camera.

  2. Juan Schmidt says:

    These pics are easy to emulate, I would do this in an hour easily. Winogrand’s pics are not easy to emulate. There’s some kind of eeriness to his pics.

    The exception is the second shot with the kids, I like that one.

  3. It has been fascinating to read through this stream of comments and replies. I’ve admired this blog, and deeply respect the formal and precise nature of your carefully composed images, Ming, as well as the informative and well thought out quality of your writing. It interests me that your introduction of the work of Winogrand has elicited such enthusiastic comments. On the subject of style, I would like to suggest that there is an enormous danger in working to establish one’s individual signature. One’s style should be what appears when one removes all extra, self indulgent artifice. Photography is visual poetry. We are all poets, and each of us has his or her own take on his or her experience of life. Of course we are influenced by other poets: we learn from them and are affected by insights they have expressed. And for a brief moment their work may quite evidently affect our “style”, whether deliberately, as Winogrand’s has affected the photographs you’ve shown us, or subconsciously, as so often happens after experiencing any truly inspiring performance or exhibition. The exercise that you have proposed in your wonderful, loose, Winogrand-inspired images above, is an important one for us to develop and stretch our compositional abilities and perceptions. From such exercises we take something and incorporate it into who we are and how we express ourselves photographically. Slowly, over years of living, of photographing, of perfecting our technique and our eye, an individual style might become more evident. It will be a reflection of who we are, and will evolve, just as we do, over time and with experience.

    Thank you for this blog!

  4. I like this serious of shots,but would not compare it with Winogrand. Well,again it’s just a matter of personal taste and vision.
    And yes,this is art!

  5. I was just wondering, “is style harder and harder to achieve because of the huge numbers of photographers?” In other words, is it harder to come up with a new song now because most of the “good” songs have already been composed? Or doesn’t that play in the equation.

    • I think it definitely affects things in that one must work a lot harder and develop that style further; simply getting sufficient visibility is already a challenge.

  6. Hi Ming, i thought the lead pic caught that early NY street photography vibe quite well. Todd Papageorge’s speech at the opening of the Winograd retrospective had some nice insights. One that maybe isn’t talked about much was how GW described his focus not being on the thing being photographed, but on how the thing looked photographed.

    When you see so much of his work laid out in such a long chronology, and notice him looking for some of the same shots so consistently over so many years, it’s pretty impressive.

    Although I still don’t know what he was trying to say with it, I did catch your homage in capturing people mid-stride. What I didn’t see was any of the almost overbearing masculine/feminine themes or the loaded expressions and postures that he seemed to look for. I don’t think he was so much worrying about the scene as much as capturing the players and their expressions or body language.

    That being said, maybe he would have benefited from picking up a bit of your sense of balance and proportion. It comes through clearly even in the inherently untidy 24mm urban views.

    Looks like it was an excellent workshop!

    • Thanks – I always got the feeling he was a little uncomfortable with the frame, but at the same time my source material was a little sparse; NYC was much richer. Workshop was loads of fun!

    • Tom Liles says:

      Hi Arejukas,

      Here’s another example of the dissonance I’m talking about [when you ask a creator what something’s about; when you look at his work and ask yourself]:

      1) …his focus not being on the thing being photographed, but on how the thing looked photographed

      2) I don’t think he was so much worrying about the scene as much as capturing the players and their expressions or body language.

      I take exactly the same message as you — said in (2) — from his pictures, Arejukas. What would’ve GW said, how would he’ve responded to this dissonance? It’s all academic; but I take it as another exhibit for the pile of evidence marked: don’t ask artists what their work is about; don’t [seriously] listen to the answer if someone does.

      The work is all we need.
      [I think so]

  7. Great discussion of GW’s work, everyone. Part of why this blog is a step above the rest. Ming, did you zone focus for these?

    • Thanks. Yes, I did.

      • Thought so, I’ve never used an OM-D (although your review of the EP-5 makes me want to get one… don’t NEED one, mind, but…) and I just didn’t know how easy or hard it would be to zone focus with that camera/lens, and that’s why I asked.

        • Depends which lens – those with the manual focus clutch like the 12 and 17mm are pretty easy. The others with electronic fly-by-wire rings only, nigh on impossible…

  8. Did you happen to travel a hundred miles south to my part of the world? I would like to see your take on the Monterey area.

  9. Ming, may I ask you what camera you took these pictures with? Cheers, Felix

    • Tom Liles says:

      In the hopes of saving MT a reply, read the text. Second to last line:

      Plenty of shooting from the hip or with the tilt screen and a wide lens ensued; the OM-D and 12/2 was weapon of choice

    • Tom Liles says:

      Sorry Felix, my reply to you has been nagging at me. It was only intended in friendly way, but reads way more adversarial than it should. My apologies.

  10. Great street photography! Thanks for sharing this with us! Cheers, Rudy.

  11. Nice images, with Nbrs 1 & 4 really standing out for me. If these were mine, and in my often very critical style, i’d have left these two, and the 2nd last one only – in my SF series

    • Thanks. These were demonstration images from the style exercise during San Francisco workshops. This kind of work isn’t my personal preference.

  12. Tom Liles says:

    I saw “SF,” I saw the first photo, and I honestly thought for a moment I saw Steve McQueen. Like an episode of The Twilight Zone for a few seconds there 🙂

    Whilst I don’t particularly care for his off-center/ misaligned/ ‘loose’ framing and various forms of blurring… Plenty of shooting from the hip or with the tilt screen and a wide lens ensued

    I cared for Gary Winogrand’s work a few months ago. Really did. The more I get into photos, the more I’m coming to a view approaching yours, Ming, and finding that GW does it for me less and less. I couldn’t do without a fair degree of randomness in this type of picture, but I suppose my boom, what gives me pleasure to look at, at the moment, is a very purposefully composed frame, with all inanimate objects where they should be, intentional tonal choices to go with… and close to random movement inside the frame [waiting for whatever fate delivers]. I’d rather that than a very definite snipe of an intentionally chosen subject and everything else just happens to be where it happens to be. This is just now, though. At heart, I go for the second type of image. I’m sure.

    I absolutely loved “hit and hope” photos when I began. Snaps, I suppose you’d call them. Pictures I consider my best [on my low standards] are still from this exuberant beginner period. Which shows I can’t make the images that I like at the moment: I’m in the “learn how to control it; therefore how to replicate it” phase. With varying degrees of failure. I inch closer to a success day by day. I’ll crack it. And I have no doubt, in, ooh I don’t know, ten years or so, I’ll be snapping again. Though, in true Li Mu Bae style, I hope hope hope those snaps will be qualitatively different [even if they may look the same].

    I’m not saying anything important or original. I know this. But I enjoy talking about this kind of stuff, with my kind of people, here at MT’s blog.

    Back to GW:

    …his sense of timing and getting into the moment and the scene…

    Yes, beautiful. I think you got the spirit spot on with these shots Ming. The McQueen lookalike will stay with me for days 😀

    • Haha. I thought the same when I saw him. As uncontrolled as Winogrand’s work looks – much in the vein of modern Japanese photographers – I think to do it so consistently requires practice and conscious decisions leading to reproducibility. These were shot as part of the finding style exercise during the San Francisco workshops; not my personal preference even for documentary/ reportage work.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Understood. Just before I say what I say, I want to quickly get my disclaimer in: I’m only casually familiar with GW’s work and speak from having seen a few famous pictures and watching a short YouTube on him that a Japanese pro photographer friend pointed me to [not to copy or learn from; my friend likes GW intensely, and wanted me to see it and translate for him]. But I know what I like and I have seen a few pictures — of all sorts — in my time, so I feel at liberty to have an opinion. I don’t need an entire oeuvre for that 🙂

        I’d agree there’s control. Winogrand was a master craftsman, no doubt. As with all professional output: we don’t see the duds. This, by the by, was what was so interesting about that Magnum Contact Sheets book you reviewed a while back, Ming. And, well, perhaps one of the community might tell me, but I don’t know how many misses GW had to get his hits.
        Hit rate was something you told us about on a previous thread, Ming. Circa 2% for your digital output if I remember correctly. But it strikes me that your misses are compositional or technical experiments that didn’t meet your satisfaction when looked at on the computer… With GW’s method, I bet he would have had many compositional and plain “don’t like” duds, but not so many on the technical side—because I’m not sure his style really lends itself to intentionally technical photographs or intentionally technical experimentation. GW’s pictures seem purely about the subjects. They’re zoological, in the soup, dynamic freeze frames and the method seems trivial compared to the end.
        This kind of image is very seductive, arresting, etc, etc—but for me, all these attributes come from the nature of the situation he captures. Is “control” really the right word then? Mmm, not sure…

        much in the vein of modern Japanese photographers…
        Tell me about it! My route to discovering GW is outlined in the disclaimer above. There is definitely something about the taste of these photos that Japanese people, especially artistically inclined ones, go for. And not just photographs—I find this taste in much of their art [not the high church stuff, admittedly].
        I periodically give this taste that they like my best shot… but I still can’t bring myself to like it, or understand why someone would like it. I’ve given up [at this stage in the cycle] being humble and saying to myself “there’s something I don’t understand that they do.” I’m on the opposite tack. I feel like they’re the ones with bad taste. Yes, yes, I know about art is subjective and no right or wrong etc, etc., but sorry… I can’t help feeling, for some things, there is a line in the sand. You’re either this side of it, or that. And if you’re on that side—you’re wrong.

        In Japanese art, in Japanese photography, and particularly in the “street” stuff, I can only find surface—which by definition has no depth.

        [last clause is a pre-emptive strike against comments like “surface is deep in its own way..” etc. My Japanese friends always say this, but cannot fight their corner any further, and have no repost to the argument that if that were true, if they were allowed to have that, language is then so divorced from meaning that no word means anything and the whole discussion thus far was a waste of everyone’s time. Why would they even have a discussion in the first place if “surface” could mean “depth” and so on and so on for the rest of language… I think it’s just semantic cherry picking, artsy posturing with nothing behind it. Kaboom!]

        • Actually, here’s the catch: Winogrand didn’t edit a lot of his own work, and the most recent posthumous exhibition was of work never seen by him at all – they were mostly from thousands of undeveloped rolls of film he left behind. I have a feeling he didn’t even look at some of his own images. They’re not always ‘freeze frame’; in fact most are very loose compositionally, have dead spots or imbalances, and are frequently out of focus or motion-blurred. I’d have thrown most of them away if they were my own images because they don’t meet my personal aesthetic. For all we know, he liked this imbalance and imperfection and felt like it was necessary to augment the story in his images; he might well have strived for it. But like all artistic deconstructions: it’s purely speculation. I still recall one interview in which a literary critic praised some particular metaphorical quality and allusions of an author’s work, ending with a question about why he wrote it that way – the answer? ‘I didn’t think it that way; I just thought it sounded good.’ Much of photography might well be like that too, for all we know. The key is in consistency and uniqueness of vision of the ‘I thought it sounded/ looked good’ part.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Good points Ming.

            The conversation about meaning: I’m very glad you bring up literature—because it seems to me this is of supreme interest to all photographers, everywhere. Centuries of work on the topics we’re interested in are available from the other arts. Literary critics, and the writers themselves, have been delving into the topic of “is the meaning what the author intended, or what the reader reads?” for ages. They call it the Intentional Fallacy. Rivers of ink have been spilt over it. It’s well worth dipping your feet in; I’d recommend doing so to all photogs [who create texts of a different nature, but still texts]. And anyone with an interest in life.

            I just thought it sounded good

            Well, as you know, this is in the spirit of my philosophy. Especially when it comes to photographic images—you tell your one liner, that’s the lot, you’ve been a wonderful audience, thanks for coming.

            P/S by “freeze frame,” I only intended that the business of life has been stopped for an instant; I didn’t intend any technical meaning to “frame” as in “framing,” etc. Like arbitrarily pressing pause when watching a film or something, GW was pressing pause on the World as it went by, just capturing an increment of that “frozen in motion” picture, from his particular angle [a camera lens]. I could be completely mistaken—wouldn’t be the first time!

            • It’s also why every single book studied during English literature class at school killed the pleasure of the original – we were forced to over analyze the text to death, find deeper meaning where there might not necessarily have been any, and not once stop to just *enjoy* the prose…

  13. Wonderful Work Ming!

  14. Ming, i am a real fan of your writing and insight and photos. I wish you had said more about Winogrand’s show. His photos have a power that is not evident in the shots you show in this thread.

    • Thanks. Care to define what that ‘power’ is a bit better? At any rate one would certainly expect his work to be stronger since he’d been shooting in the same style for decades as opposed to an hour…

      • Tom Liles says:

        Not to mention, he’s him and you’re you. Real head scratcher of comment from Ed—excuse me for butting in, Ed, but I had to say it.

        • But there’s some truth in it – there’s no way I’m going to replicate and better somebody else’s style in a short period of time. I’m genuinely curious to see how others perceive the difference though – as we all know, it’s very difficult to be objective about your own work…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Mmm. Not sure about the truth:

            His photos have a power that is not evident in the shots you show in this thread

            Photographic art, like any art, is a co-creation [forever in Roger’s debt for this one]. The only way you could create the power of a GW picture would be to be GW himself. Otherwise we’re talking about recreation, which leaves us to wonder why anyone would think a counterfeit carries the same force as the original.
            [If it could, would we be right to call it a “counterfeit”]

            • Counterfeits are only counterfeit if they’re claimed to be a duplicate or equivalent to the original. That’s very different to ‘inspired-by’ and ‘in-the-style-of’, I think.

              • Tom Liles says:

                Interesting. Can an “inspired by” piece carry or exhibit the same power as the original? No, OK, that’s unfair to Ed’s point, perhaps: can an inspired by piece carry the power of an original?

                For me the answer is a firm no
                [because I doubt the grounds of comparison]

                • It depends if it’s a copy of subject, message and style or just style – the former two, no; the latter, why not?

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Perhaps “style” has to be personal, individual?

                    [Otherwise I’m not sure what “style” means. Any “power” is necessarily wrapped up in style –> comparisons are problematic.]

                    Difficult topic. No doubt 😮

                    • “Thanks. Care to define what that ‘power’ is a bit better? At any rate one would certainly expect his work to be stronger since he’d been shooting in the same style for decades as opposed to an hour…”

                      I hope I’ve got this in the right place in the thread…. Was unsure which reply button to hit.

                      By the word “power” I mean emotional impact. In addition to seeing a world that’s gone, which tends to carry its own emotional weight, I think Winogrand’s exhibiton photos – that represent a real winnowing of the number he took – were selected by him to show the feelings or lack of them of people in their societal context. In his first Guggenheim application, which is in the show, he says something to the effect that he finds America to be a disheartening place and that he keeps taking photos to try to prove he is wrong in his appraisal. It sounds as if, and looks as if, he is doing research. The exhibition prints are almost invariably far more than compositional arrangements. I agree with Ming that it is no easy task to hit the streets of Chinatown and capture that kind of narrative. I guess, to put it another and perhaps less offensive way, I could say that what I was reacting to was not the quality of MTs street shots, but the fact that he didn’t give GWs the credit I think they deserve.

                    • That makes sense: there’s definitely something slightly disturbing in all of GW’s images – just that not all of those in the exhibition were his picks, which very much introduces selection bias. I think this is pretty critical in the editing process – of there are two fairly similar images, a small change here and there to the composition can make a bit difference to the end feel of the image.

                      I didn’t do too much analysis into GW’s images as that wasn’t the purpose of the post; it was meant to be more of a homage to his *visual* style rather than content.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Hi Ed,

                      Your reply is to Ming’s question, so I won’t get in the way there. But lovely comment and every which way but loose on the replies! We’ll find them 🙂

                    • Yes it does – style is one’s personal biases imposed on the technical choices you have for exposure, composition etc. All covered thoroughly in earlier articles 🙂

              • Tom Liles says:


                I’ve just got back home from the office and upon re-reading our exchange, I think I may have given you the wrong end of the stick by using the word “counterfeit.” It’s an unfortunate choice of word, by me, because 10 out of 10 people are going to take it as meaning bluntly “copy.” And this implies that I think you’re just making knock-offs, cheap mimics, or wannabees here…

                Below I used the word “spirit.” I hope this signals my intent: I fully understood that you are just channeling GW [I wonder where I got that idea from!] and the intention is not facsimile but emulation. You’re doing GW MT’s way; and the whole thing was an exercise for the workshop. A day at the photographic gym, etc, etc. But plainly not just an exercise: if it’s worth doing, then do it to the best of your capabilities, right—so you’ve attempted to capture the spirit of GW of in these photos. This is why I carefully chose the word “spirit.” I think it’s the best fit for what you’re up to.

                So why would I say counterfeit up here? Well, knowing you’re a man of letters, my choice was poetic: I chose a word used in The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 2 –> you might know it, all that glitters is not gold, etc?.. the suitors have to choose from three boxes to win the hand of Portia. Bassanio, goes for one of the boxes:

                What find I here?
                [Opening the leaden casket]
                Fair Portia’s counterfeit!

                Using “counterfeit” for your pictures here was my attempt at flattery. It probably had precisely the opposite effect!
                You have to laugh 😀

                • No insult taken – I think I know what you were getting at, but at the same time there’s still a big difference between a direct knockoff/copy/equivalent replacement and something ‘inspired by’.

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    We’re in perfect agreement there. And when it’s obvious that emulation/inspiration, etc., was the mode of production, is it then fair to bring the same set of expectations as you did to the original? As I say, for me anyway, the answer is a firm no.

                    We reiterate exactly the same point about “style” too [I did, and continue to, read your excellent articles on this Ming]. It’s necessarily individual [in its purest expression]. Where we part, perhaps, is I think the force/strength/power of an image is bound up with style. You can’t, on definition, get the same effect/magnitude from two disparate images made by two different artists. Especially if one wasn’t exactly serious [serious as in that’s his wheelhouse] and was doing it for a blog entry!

                    Just to labor my point: GW is GW; MT is MT. There’s nothing else to it.

                    Back to cleaning the veranda with the kids! 😮 🙂

      • It’s solely my interpretation, but I read Ed’s post as suggestive that he appreciate’s or is at least impacted by Winogrand’s style, and for that reason hoped you might convey a bit more information about Winogrand’s style to readers of yours. (Supposing further that doing so would enhance introduction of Winogrand to your unacquainted readers, and/or further set up the background of your Photoessay.) I took Ed’s post primarily concerned with Winogrand rather than comparisons with your images in his style. Sorry Ed if I got that wrong but that’s how I understood it.

        • I think we may all be reading too much into it at this point. I was just curious to see how somebody else saw the images – everybody has a different perspective on art, and it’s always good to hear an alternative but objective (well, as objective as one can be when it comes to the subjective) view.

    • First time commenter. BTW, love your blog, Ming.

      I do think Ed makes a valid point. Winogrand’s best images function like an x-ray machine revealing life’s anatomy (and disease). Sometimes the diagnosis is quite obvious; other times, it’s masked, leaving nothing but a vague unease. I’m thinking about images like the backlit women striding with haughty indifference past the beggar in the wheelchair, with one woman sneaking a sidelong glance (of contempt? of fear? of fascination?). The black man holding a chimp, accompanied by his white wife (or partner), the nightmare scenario of white supremacists. The six women sitting on a park bench, bookended by two men, in a ballet of hand positions and postures, engaging in a form of communication men will never understand. The baby standing on a driveway, shrouded in suburban emptiness (great future, kiddo!). All of these (and many more) have so much embedded “content” it’s hard to tear your eyes away from them. Although a few of yours approximate Winogrand’s surface style, they’re missing the underlying meaning that made Winogrand’s artistry so palpable. It’s as if your subjects are in the right place in the frame, but there’s no soul, no spirit, animating their bodies. And I don’t think this is due to your not having enough time to master Winogrand’s style. I think it’s due to his special way of seeing and also of the unique temper of his era. You’d never be able to replicate those things, even if you had decades to do so. Having said this, I really do like your images, especially the second one. Something about the young leading “the old” into the future resonates with me. Probably because I have a teenaged daughter who often drags me into new experiences before I’m ready for them. In any event, I really enjoyed your post, Ming, and I salute your effort to replicate Winogrand’s style. Courageous effort, that! One time I tried to recreate Eggleston’s famous tricyle shot . . . I failed miserably!

      • Thanks Harry. GW certainly has some striking images from a social commentary standpoint; I would never replicate them even if I was there in the same place at the same time, because I’d probably default back to my way of composing etc. There’s simply no way I’m going to find the same kind of material to work with in a tourist area of Chinatown…

        • “There’s simply no way I’m going to find the same kind of material to work with in a tourist area of Chinatown…”

          You’re really right about that. Tourists on Grant Street, San Francisco, in the early 21st century is not the same as New Yorkers trudging the sidewalks of Manhattan in the 60s! As I thought about some of the comments here, I realized/remembered what a disturbing time the 60s and 70s were in the United States: assassinations, Watergate, 15% interest rate, plus the incredible cultural distortion brought on by the mainstream culture attempting to absorb the counterculture.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Hello Harry,

        Excellent comment. I enjoyed it and hope your first wont be your last. Listen, I want to lay down a challenge to GW…

        Ed told us above, about GW:

        he says something to the effect that he finds America to be a disheartening place and that he keeps taking photos to try to prove he is wrong in his appraisal.

        A famous clinical psychologist once began a lecture “I’m going to begin our course if studies by telling you about myself. My likes, my hates, my fears and joys; what I think about politics, what I think about art; what turns me on, what turns me off… For the truth of what I really think, please think the opposite of what I say.”

        This is more than anecdote. At the same time, it’s not 100% cast iron take it to the bank fact. Sometimes what we really think is the opposite of what we say. Sometimes it is exactly what we say. We just don’t know until we hear it and feel it. Even then it’s unsure. As everything in life is [except deductive logic].

        I think Winogrand was squarely lying above [about what he wanted to do with photos]. He sought out the strange, the harsh—the disheartening. If ever there was a self-selecting in-objective body of work, this is it. I think, deep down, Winogrand probably loved people, but had a hard time dealing with the fact we don’t all want the same things he did [peace, friendship, etc, etc]. Hence the reaction we see in his pictures: people as zoo animals.

        • We are the opposite of who we want to be? Unsure if I agree with that entirely, but there’s definitely a disconnect. For all we know, GW hated the motion blur but the films of the day weren’t fast enough or too grainy; we’ll never find out, either.

          In effect – composition is nothing more than the act of applying personal bias to a scene…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Umm, not what we say we are… Often, what we are and what we say we are can even be opposite. Actions speak louder than words (great song of same title by Chocolate Milk). It’s really a very good maxim. Look at the actions. Some broad stroke examples:

            Great Britain
            What they say: Fair Play / Gentleman
            What they did: The Empire / Divide & Conquer

            United States
            What they say: Land of Opportunity / American Dream / Freedom
            What they do: last place you want to poor / need money to make it / The Patriot Act, etc etc

            Guy at work who you ask if he can finish on deadline
            What he says: Yep. No problem
            What he does: Asks for more time a few hours before deadline [+excuses!]

            GW said — he may have — that he was trying to disprove his theory that America was/is a disheartening place with his photos. Look at his body of work. All I see is a guy doing the opposite—reaffirming his theory. Seeking out and capturing only that that fits his philosophy.

            Good for him. We spoke about good artists being ones with a philosophy. But lying about it perhaps isn’t so impressive…

            [GW is a Titan to me, let me just say!]

          • David Babsky says:

            Harry says (above) “..It’s as if your subjects are in the right place in the frame, but there’s no soul, no spirit, animating their bodies..”

            When I saw your takes on Winogrand photos (also see above) I thought – where there are multiple people in the shots, not just one person – “here, at last, there’s some dynamism in Ming’s shots!”

            It seems to me – and I know that you don’t take well to criticism – that many of your shots are bereft of humanity: there are people (sometimes) in your shots, but your emphasis seems to be on impeccable presentation, rather than on interest in the subjects themselves.

            But here, in these “fake GW” shots, the 1st low-level shot of the man staring beyond the camera, the women and kids crossing the street, the three people eating in the street, the man striding past the bus stop, the woman with a drink about to get on the bus, there’s dynamism and interaction between these people ..they’re relating to – or ignoring – each other as people: they’re not just ‘found objects’ standing in a street, which I feel that many of your occasional ‘street photos’ tend to be. Your pictures are mainly objects of composition, arrangement, precision (like those watches themselves, and your watch pictures, or your pictures of hospital equipment ..or your four prints for sale) ..whereas these pictures – the ones which are not of single, individual people – have human relationships and interactions at their centre.

            These are works of precise presentation (range of tones, sharpness, clarity), but these also introduce “involvement” looks into the picture to see “what’s going on?”, “why?”, and “who?”

            You may not like these faux-Winogrand photos, but – to me – they’re so much more involving than your usual shots. I don’t normally like pointless street photography, but here you demonstrate that you have the knack – like Mike Abrahams ( ) – of catching not just “the decisive moment”, but the decisive, er, “triangulation” between people in motion ..and maybe you hadn’t realised that you have that knack.

            These, disregarding the one-person-alone shots, are ‘relationship’ photos ..and that makes them appealing to me, along with – for the most part – the ‘not-at-eye-level’ point of view ..rather like M. Lartigue’s below-waist-level photos as a child, which also gives these an aspect of “wonderment”: the world seen from a child’s, or ingénue’s, an innocent’s point of view.

            The reason I haven’t bought any of your limited editions is that – to me – they’re just photos of things which other people have constructed. The compositions are great, but – essentially – they are photos of other people’s work. Even the “aeroplane” photo: your composition, but the buildings were created by others.

            But these GW-style photos are all your own work: they are not photos of objects made by others; they’re moments of (unwitting, even) relationships between people: relationships which YOU have seen, and frozen. These do have your innate, and long-practised, composition ..but they show your skill in choosing and capturing fleeting moments of relationships, and often from a naive point of view.

            These, I think, are some of your best work, Ming.

            You may prefer what I see as sterile ‘compositions’, like your limited edition prints, but I wouldn’t put those on my wall: too dead for me, no matter how exquisitely ‘perfect’ in shot and presentational rendering.

            But these have -l-i-f-e- ..and are great seize-the-moment compositions of human relationships, so I’d happily hang ‘Man Striding Past Bus-Stop’ on my wall: it really evokes American Metropolis with its dynamism and multi-directional glances. This is far more than I get from most of your other pictures, which often, or generally, evoke “static precision”, but which are usually not really frozen human moments – like your ‘limited edition’ pictures which could have been taken at any time, and which just don’t show your great skill at capturing the perfect compositional human interactions ..but these pictures do.


            • It seems to me – and I know that you don’t take well to criticism – that many of your shots are bereft of humanity: there are people (sometimes) in your shots, but your emphasis seems to be on impeccable presentation, rather than on interest in the subjects themselves.

              I don’t take well to criticism that lacks objective or thought – that’s meaningless. But well-constructed arguments like yours are a different matter entirely; we need them to improve, even if one’s initial reaction is to disagree with the message.

              I actually shifted away from this kind of photography some time ago to my current style out of personal preference for a cleaner, more detatched aesthetic. I did a lot of documentary work at one point, and I do know exactly what to look for and how to time/ anticipate critical action – if you look at my work on flickr from 2009-2010, this is a good example – i.e. predating this site – you’ll see most of it falls into this category. I don’t think the GW-style suits me; it’s too loose, and I feel like it has to be forced. You’ll see that even my reportage work is a lot more structured in composition and presentation. There’s also the commercial aspect of things: this kind of work does not make money. I’ve had to recalibrate my eye towards producing the kind of images that clients will pay for. That said, perhaps it’s time to revisit and re-integrate that element into my current work.

              That said, the feedback I’ve gotten from most people is that they would NOT want to hang/ display GW style work on their wall; it’s a bit too disturbing/ unsettling to have emotional moments involving random strangers displayed in one’s home. Hence the exclusion of this from the first proper print run. Perhaps in future if the audience is larger, I’d consider looking at it again.

              Thanks for the detailed thoughts – I had no idea this post would generate quite so much serious feedback…

              • David Babsky says:

                I think you’re better at this than you realise ..or than you feel comfortable with.

                This is terrific: ..I could look at this all day.

                Thought of not trying so hard. Maybe not aim to keep the camera horizontal. Maybe don’t force yourself to “compose” ..let it come without even thinking about it.

                Many other shots in that ‘London Peace Week 09/ GIFTED Fashion Show’ are just records of an event. But those two women looking past each other, with the man at top-left looking down towards them, that’s immortal. That’s composition, that’s emotion, that’s “what’s happening here?”, that’s a triangular relationship between those three faces in perpetuity.

                Of course “..this kind of work does not make money”.

                (As a side note, when I teach, I ask people to shoot “harmony”, “distrust”, “imbalance”, “greed”, “scale”, or any series of abstract notions. When they’re quickly adept at that, then – without even thinking about it – they automatically include hints of emotion and human attitude in every picture, so that their pictures aren’t just records of the objects or people within the photos, but they all carry a payload of feeling, not just an objective record of what’s physically there in front of the lens.)

                You say “..I actually shifted … for a cleaner, more detatched aesthetic”. But that makes your pictures – for me, anyway – all like pictures of watches, or other automata.

                “..I’ve had to recalibrate my eye towards producing the kind of images that clients will pay for. That said, perhaps it’s time to revisit and re-integrate that element into my current work..”

                Why not let yourself go for a day or two, and shoot “loose” and let your subconscious take over? (You can afford one or two days, surely?)’ve got all the skills to inject feeling subliminally: all honed through shooting and shooting and shooting. Why not hum a tune or think of something else while shooting? Just let it flow. Forget ‘perfection’ for a day ..more of this: ..and this: ..and this: ..and this:

                Everyone knows you can do this: ..but maybe you forgot that you’re also brilliant at this:

                Do more of that, and let it subliminally ooze into your commercial shots, too. Perhaps, then, it may begin to pay..

                • It doesn’t. Clients never picked that stuff and complained it wasn’t clean or tight enough. And to be honest, you’re one of the few who thought they were any good.

                  I just don’t like the sloppiness of tilt, loose edges, misfocus, motion blur etc especially when I can eliminate all of that. There are rare occasions when it can help the emotion, but this is an exception – I looked at this in ‘balancing content and technical perfection’ some time back. On a larger scale, it goes against my aesthetic; my long term goal is never to copy the work or style of another photographer but to continue to develop my own.

            • Tom Liles says:

              Hi David,

              It just goes to show how “horses for courses” this is. I bought one of Ming’s prints precisely for the reasons you say you wouldn’t. In my opinion, just my opinion, what Ming’s doing there is actually the more artistically daring thing.

              I’m sorry but these kind of “energy” photos, that appeal to the unconscious, the GW type shot, the Moriyama type picture, are ten a penny to my eye [and all that implies for how hard they actually are]. Just trawl Flickr. There are literally ENDLESS amounts of “street,” “raw,” stuff. In, guess what, wait for it: black and white! It’s about as cliche as it gets, just for my taste let me remind you.
              You want life? This is the last thing I want. And if i wanted it, I don’t want it on the nose. I’m living my life, I’m in the soup already, I don’t need or want GW or anyone else to tell me what people are like or what’s going on around me. An image of a couple kissing, for instance, we know GW has done a few of them… if it were a painting I may very well be inclined to buy it [wouldn’t be closed to the idea; and supposing I had the money], but the LAST THING I want is a photo of that. There’s a qualitative difference between the two and it’s not something as mundane as surface texture: one’s a painting; one’s a photo. The painting may have been posed, but at heart is a work of imagination and capable of expressing, to me, something of the nature of love [not exactly concrete]. The photo is a snipe of an actual couple. A brick through the window of someone’s private, intimate moment. The photo is anti-love, almost. Absolutely incapable of saying anything that couldn’t be said better through another medium. Some say the Golden Rule was coined by a Rabbi, some a Chinese philosopher, but either way: it’s a pillar of civilization. With the kiss photo the photographer flushes thousands of years of civilization down the toilet. For the sakes of a quick fix, or his ego, or both. All this “street” stuff, it’s an anathema to me [to my palette].

              This is why I think Ming is much braver. Moving away from all that. Toward total abstraction: the shape of the mind. Absolute technical perfection. You don’t, definitely do not, see images like Verticality ten a penny, on Flickr. I’ll grant you, without much investigation the images MT offered for printing look like the sort of thing a coffee shop or Gap outlet might hang on the wall. But what is art if not about investigation? We look again. We look at the ouevre of MT… who’s this guy? Is he a “kittens in the basket” type? No, this is not a guy who produces coffee shop or greeting card doggerel [for art; MT might do it commercially, and why not]. Ming actually expressed it well himself [and I need to rethink my opinions on what the artists themselves say!] and his words above stand on their own; but the skill, the detachment, the intellectualizing, the abstraction—all in photograph: these are valuable parts of the artwork. How many artists are capable of this? I don’t really know any…

              MT’s works certainly aren’t the finished product, but I am way more down with the path of most resistance that Ming’s on. If he takes criticism for not being organic, or not in the moment, or not making alive pictures, etc., I want to applaud him in the midst of the criticism. I think he’s testing different waters with his work. Just think how supremely hard it would be to elicit an emotional reaction with work that’s plainly detached; on purpose; cerebral in nature. Now compare again with the low hanging fruit of street photography…

              MT’s the one worth following. In my opinion… which isn’t just talk. I put my money where my mouth is.
              [at ~200 USD, it was a STEAL]

              • David Babsky says:

                Well, each to their own.

                I’ll tell you what I see in that ‘triangular’ photo of two women and a man:

                (a) Choice of aperture: the woman on the right is in clear, sharp focus; her hand, bracelets, face, elbow. Beyond her, it all slides out of focus.
                (b) Perfect positioning and capture of light: her face is beautifully lit, and the highlights on her face separate her from the background, and no-one else in the picture has such intense highlights on their face; SHE is the subject of the photo.
                (c) Wonderful, captivating expression on her face: people go into ecstasy over the Mona Lisa, but this face is at least as captivating, maybe more.
                (d) Her eyeline is midway between the woman looking back, beyond her, and the man at upper left: MY eyes keep following that perfectly contained triangle between the three of them, and never bleeding outside the frame.
                (e) Golden Section? This is a well-nigh perfect composition.

                This isn’t ten a penny “street” photography, much of which, as I said above, I think is pretty pointless.

                All these points, and these aspects of the photograph, show artistic and technical skill of a very high calibre. (But we knew that, didn’t we?) ..At least I think so. Perhaps you – and maybe even Ming – don’t.

                This isn’t “..the low hanging fruit of street photography”. Unless you think these are, too: ..and these:

                We obviously have different ideas about which photographs appeal to each of us. So I’ll just let it rest there.

                • Of course I’m aware of all of these things: a) through e) are pretty much the four outstanding image criteria I keep banging on about 🙂

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Hi David,

                  Interesting. Yes, we do have different thoughts… thoughts? Taste certainly. You seem preoccupied with “who,” “what,” “why,” questions; I recall in the medF pictures you made a comment on the image of the lady with the umbrella: who is she? where is she going? You make mention again on this thread.
                  These type of questions seem as good as pointless to me. If her destination, and somehow being able to clairvoyantly get that answer, changes your reaction to and estimation of the image, OK. Doesn’t make an iota of difference for me, David.

                  MT will definitely disagree with me here, but I also object to photogs self-importantly — and tone deafly — going on about “stories.” Please. My 3 year old daughter’s speak&spell books do a better job of telling a story. I also have the odd book by Conrad, Nabakov, Chekhov on my shelf. This is not to mention films. They are all dynamic mediums and can actually tell a story [which is necessarily in time].
                  I think this grandstanding about “stories” really betrays an insecurity of photography. Grasping for something important sounding…
                  [there’s plenty of importance in photography, just not “stories”]

                  We can agree on pleasurable composition, pleasing light. Two of the reasons I like MT, for sure. While I was formerly into more loose and energetic frames, where more weight was given to the moment than the composition, recently I’ve done a u-turn. Though as I mentioned, my default setting may be for that type of [more unconscious, organic] thing. I just spent a long time explaining that I think MT displays a technical mastery [an belief gleaned from looking at all of his images] that I think is important, I even bought one of his pictures to prove it. So I’m not sure why you say:

                  All these points, and these aspects of the photograph, show artistic and technical skill of a very high calibre.. At least I think so. Perhaps you – and maybe even Ming – don’t.

                  Why would you say that. And why you’d say that after having only a few posts ago [and previously too] tried to school MT on how to take a good photo.
                  We note you’re a teacher [of photography?] MT doesn’t have to, but perhaps I should watch my tongue with people who’ve obviously got some stripes… But the last thing I am is a respecter of authority. And orthodoxy. You seem like a paragon of both with the who, what, where, when, why stuff and your triangles and your insistence on human interaction.
                  For all the “let it go, forget about perfection..” and “try whistling when you shoot” stuff, that on first reading sound like the advice of a libertine, for all that you demand an end product that fits your orthodoxy and drop unfortunate quips like “At least I think so. Perhaps you — and maybe even Ming — don’t.” This from the guy who tells others they don’t take we’ll to criticism [challenge].

                  If you like to let it rest here, OK. We don’t have all day to write comments on blogs… I wouldn’t say this was great, fun, etc., but I think there’s value in discussing the obvious friction between our viewpoints.
                  You probably know a lot about art and photographs. I just know what I like.

                  OK then David. Cheerio.

                  • Tom, I have a feeling that David’s questions are more abstract than literal questions. It’s not so much that we have to know a specific destination, or even a particular story about the woman, but that the photo has life because it implies the existence of a story or destination.

                    Switching art forms for a minute, George Balanchine was the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century, and was known for his elevation of abstraction in ballet to high art, where ballet had almost all been story-driven before him. But when he was asked about this, he’d object, and said that when you put a man and woman on stage, there is a story there already. It’s not that there is a specific story, but that by putting those two elements together, you have the implication of a story. I think that’s what David’s getting at.

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        Very accurate comment on the subject Harry Lew. I think MT asked for it a bit by bringing GW in the subject. Pablo Picasso had so keen eye on the novel approaches that many artists didn`t let him in their ateliers. Accused for copying others inventions he answered disarmingly. I DON`T COPY, if I have to, I STEAL. But then very few if any knew what to do with his bounty, Picasso did and in his great unique style at that. What else, a genius. There`s a lot of misuse labeling one`s work. Most known is of course HCB. Sometimes it`s unfair as there must have been photographers shooting similar stuff at HCB time without ever have seen his work. It`s often a curse when the critics say, oh you shoot in Moriyama, Salgado, Nachtway or whom else style. I shoot in my style and should there be some style and approach affiliation with some world known picture maker then I`m as much in his camp as he`s in mine. But should I use some famous names as a reference to my work, then I wouldn`t be surprised attracting a very critical scrutiny. All in all, the fact that Daguerre invented photography doesn`t mean that his got a patent on it.:-)

        • Ah well, perhaps I should stick to writing meaningless drivel-reviews of cameras and posting terribly composed images of cats! 🙂

          • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

            Below the level my friend

            • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

              I mean, that would be below YOUR level.

              • Hey! if you think shooting cats is not worthy a project, I’d humbly refer you to Ernie the Cat* by Tony Mendoza – he’s done some of the best cat photos I’ve ver seen. And no, you won’t find many such photos on Flickr or elsewhere either. Becasuse Tony really understood what being a cat is and knew how to convey these impressions.

                Like any great artist one has to have someting to say in addition to the skill to implement one’s vision. Photography is perhaps the trickiest avenue because it can be so deceptively simple .. just press the button at the right time in the right place at the right angle and you’re done. LOL
                Seriously, I like the title “channeling” .. because it implies one has completely internalized and understood another artist’s work. I always remember that anecdote about Picasso and Zhang Dai Chien – they once were together in Picasso’s place in southern France, and an aide came in showing Picasso five paintings, asking him to pick out which was really his work – Picasso said, ask him (CDC) .. and sure enough Zhang Dai Chien picked out the correct one. CDC, by the way was so good an artist, he was asked to authenticate old Chinese masters work .. including his forgeries ;D ( a better way than the Feds to print your own currency btw).
                Personally I wish I had the strength and discipline to learn the hard way (studying/ emulating past masters etc. ) but .. life’s too short.

                (*) He did them when he first arrived in NYC, Ernie was his roomate’s pet and as he didn’t have a lot of money at the time, he ended up shooting Ernie a lot. Lucky for him Ernie was quite a character. Was delighted to see some of these pictures are online courtesy of Kodak. The book is a lot better, pictures are larger and storylines are a lot of fun to read.
                Looking at them again, especially the "tips" section reminds me to start shooting flash again.

                One of Mendoza’s shots of Ernie from

                • Animals are worthy subjects, it’s just that most people don’t do them well. They just shoot them because they’re the closest thing to hand, not because they want to say anything in particular.

  15. Brilliant black and white images. Great.


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