Photoessay: Semiclassical NYC street photography, part one

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Given how ingrained certain locations are in the popular photographic consciousness due to heavy presentation in a particular style by multiple photographers – Paris and NYC in black and white of course come to mind – I think it’s possible to do one of two things: either avoid that style altogether and try to find your own, or explore a little in the genre and see what falls out. I had a chance to try both the last time I was in New York; to be honest, I found B&W with moderate contrast to suit the timeless feel of the location a bit better – as opposed to expressing the fleetingly temporal nature of life. There’s of course no right or wrong. (My attempt at individual style can be found here, in the NYC cinematics photoessay.)

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Perhaps it’s because the monochromes use the strongly regular urban geometry – NYC is one of the few large environments that comes across as being completely manmade; there is little nature to be had outside a few designated zones, and even these look regimentally regular – the hard-edged rectangle of Central Park, for instance. Yet there’s still a riot of color designed to get the attention of those who live there; if you want to make an individual or cluster of individuals stand out against the whole, it’s tough. I feel that removing color rebalances the visual weight in favor of the subject, and of course emphasizes the quality of light. In any case, enough babbling from me, and time for more images. I’ve split this photoessay into two parts due to its length. This series was shot with a variety of gear, but mostly the Coolpix A. MT

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  1. Fascinating debate here, even tho I’m late to it. “Soulless” seems a pretty loaded term to me. And I’m not at all in agreement that precision equates to a lack of soul, warmth or other highly subjective and loaded superlatives. 🙂 For me, the near perfection and precision of these images does indeed represent a style, an approach, and from what I’ve seen of Ming over the course of many hours watching his video courses, I see the man in every shot. What distinguishes these images from so many others, for me, is the mind blowing level of precision and order to chaos they exhibit. They represent a high watermark for composition. Do I want my photos to look like Ming’s? No. Do I try to absorb, learn from them, and strive for such clarity and intent? Absolutely. Do I search for a style and vision as strongly defined as Ming’s? Every day. Where others seem threatened or want to push these images into another artists vision, I see a level of mastery that i only hope continues a relentless pursuit of perfection.

  2. I am not so clear on the “soul” thing: it would seem that the variables associated with it are an numerous and different as the souls viewing the photographs. As far as “presence” goes, I can think of few, if any, that surpass Ming in creating photographs that allow me to imagine I am standing there photographing the scene. It is as if I am standing, kneeling, sitting right next to Ming as he is taking the shot. For me, that is about as much presence as I could ask for.

    On the subject of having a signature technique, how would a signature technique, or effect, add to the realism created by the photo? How many times has Ming stated that his ultimate objective is to create photographs that exactly duplicate the actual scene?

    Keep it up Ming. I am sure you are imperfect……….But your photos are a blast to view.

    • Thanks Wayne. First time I’ve heard that somebody finds them immersive enough to imagine they are next to me while I’m shooting – I guess that means I’m slowly fulfilling my intentions!

  3. Ming,
    I have read through many of the comments discussing elements of style and some referring to “soul” and images having something that consistent that is an artistic signature. I hope you will not let yourself get caught up in the emotion of those who are so critical of the excellent images in your series.

    Please feel the freedom to continue with the image capture style and technique that you find works well for you. As with most things in life, your approach to photographic expression will continually evolve and take on different elements of “personality.” You don’t need to conform to some critic’s perception of what your images should be projecting. I think that some of your critic’s are just performing some kind of intellectual exercise in egotistical foolishness.

    Ming, the person who you are is already a fine example of a human being. You have a wonderful website/blog and I hope you will not be discouraged by some of the foolishness I have read in this comments thread.

    Please capture many thousands of images and post them for all to review. If a few people take issue with your presentation or style, so what? The only person you truly need to please is yourself. I anxiously look forward to your next series of images and some insights of yours about various elements of what a good photographer might want to be considering in our pursuit of photographic excellence.

    • Dan, as an artist, one doesn’t (and shouldn’t) care too much about what others think. As you say, we only need to please ourselves. But by the same token, because we care about what we do, and take it seriously, we want to find out what it is that is perceived as ‘missing’ – valid or not – in order to try to improve even more.

  4. Hi Ming, you’re not masochist to continue on this topic. I read a lot of things about your way to take photographs in these comments. Some of them are very interesting. Some others are, how to quality them? Very aggressive, is maybe the right term. Carry on your way. That’s the essential. I personally like your work about NY and semiclassical photography. I’m sure some of the critics made here are not done by any “Henri Cartier Bresson”. I’m sorry to read something like that.


  5. I’d like to add a little bit of my opinion to the “heartless” and “soulless” discussion. What guys are talking about is your subject and timing choice most probably – I am a big fan of your work, but after seeing thousands of your images, I noticed you never shoot really “decisive” moments those change the whole person’s life. Like crime scenes, war, hippie demonstrations, dangerous environments or dreamy people flying away to the moon – you mostly shoot everyday life as it is in a relatively safe nice city (but kinda boring most of the time :)). So I would tell you’re trying to avoid strong emotions for some reason and stay sterile observer even when you shoot 28mm. Honestly, I have the same feel about my own work (yet I am not even close to your level of technique and compositional skills), and the answer that comes to my mind is “look for stronger subjects and moments”, get more dramatic, even sacrificing compositional and technical aspects sometimes (who cares about imperfection in Magnum photographers works)? It would be great to keep technical perfection and great composition though!

    • “I noticed you never shoot really “decisive” moments those change the whole person’s life. Like crime scenes, war, hippie demonstrations, dangerous environments or dreamy people flying away to the moon”

      That’s because I’m not a photojournalist anymore, nor do I have time to pursue these things – I think people seem to forget that running this site, answering comments and generating content takes 5-6 hours a day – on top of the work I do that actually pays the bills…

  6. Hi Ming,

    I’m curious about picture 629. The one flipped from landscape to portrait orientation to get the shadows stand erected.
    Did you take it that way intentionally or did you decided in post to try the unusual picture orientation?
    The hydrant is a little disturbing to me, but anyway – nice idea. I guess you’ve realised that in post.

    It is very, very rare to have pictures that work both ways (except maybe abstract shots). I have 2 pictures among hundreds or thousands where I changed the orientation in post and was pleasently surprised of the outcome. And this happend accidently.


  7. What a beautiful series of black and white. Thanks for showing !

  8. One of the many reasons I want to live in NYC. Everything looks good all the time. gah! Nice work! 🙂

  9. That young woman in your ‘439’ photo, with the sunglasses, the headphones, and her eyes locked onto a mobile “social contact” device – she’s so disconnected with the here and now, it reminded me of the student in Dürrenmatt’s “Der Tunnel”

  10. I liked the shot of the Flatiron building – it’s been shot so often that it’s hard to take anything new and unique. But, there’s a lot of good color in NYC. Did you happen to notice the bright red wall near Macy’s? I hope you tried one of the hot dogs at Papaya Dog 🙂

    • Flatiron was a challenge, I admit. I’m not fully happy with the result, but I didn’t have a very interesting sky to work with.

      Did plenty of cinematic color in NYC – see this post.

      Papaya dogs were good. Sometimes, I still get a craving…

  11. Ron Scubadiver says:

    New York streets have been rendered in B&W by some of the best. Unfortunately, a very stupid law effectively makes street photography illegal in France as well as Norway, Denmark, possibly Germany. As for other EU countries, I am not certain and it is difficult to get information.

    • One of the reasons why it’s unlikely I’ll ever do a workshop in Germany now. Though France? That’s a surprise. How can they distinguish between a tourist’s images with some accidental strangers in them, editorial work and street photography? I think we photographers would be challenged, let alone your average policeman…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        The French rule is something like if a person is the subject of a photograph you need their permission to publish it. If persons are only incidentally in the shot no permission is needed. Obviously, this produces a lot of gray area. I believe it is not criminal, but you can be sued. There is no exception for art.

        Where I live, Texas, the rule for criminal behavior is vague and unique within the US. Here it is without consent and with the intention of sexual gratification for anyone. Persons have been prosecuted for photographs of fully clothed people taken in public places because the shot was from “the neck to the knees”. Other circumstances that made the situation creepy. It is a felony with sex offender registration required. There is a lot more to it, but that is the core.

        • What’s the definition of ‘incidental’? Or ‘subject?’ You could have an image with a very small or silhouetted person that stands out and is arguably the subject, but there’s no way to prove the identity of the person. What then? What of editorial – i.e. non-commercial use? Do newspapers get releases from every single person in a crowd? Doesn’t make any sense for me.

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            Of course it makes no sense, and I am not trying to defend it. There is a news exception. I don’t know if the French courts have been giving the media leeway or not. I do know that a very similar law exists in the Canadian province of Quebec and the courts there gave some newspapers such a tough time that they would need releases for every picture. I love street photography, but it is endangered, particularly in the EU.

    • As a Norwegian I am not aware on any restrictions on street photography in Norway, and I seriously doubt that we have one of the strictest regimes in the world on this matter. Thorsten Overgaard arranges workshops in Oslo where people stroll about and shoot the city.

      • Good to know – unfortunately Oslo is also one of the most expensive cities on earth to visit!

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        You happen to not know your own local laws, Vegard. One may take the photo, they just can’t publish it.

        • I wonder where editorial use would fall into this?

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            It has to be news, just like france. The description of the law that I have seen is nearly the same as France. Bjorn Rorslett has posted about this over at Nikongear. He says people have been successfully sued. I am not an expert on non US laws. One article I read said in Germany the prohibition extends to taking the picture. The policy being that Germans should be free of the fear that there are photographs of them floating around that could wind up on the internet any time. One thing I read is that EU law is supposed to balance free expression against privacy. However, that balance in the EU is vastly different than it is everywhere else.

            • Hmmm. That’s not good news for artistic expression, and rather disappointing considering Europe has traditionally been the home of this kind of work. A big shame.

              • Ron Scubadiver says:

                It is most ironic that street photography originated in France, but that was something like your original comment.

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            I hope I was clear that editorial or artistic use without the consent of the subject can lead to a civil suit.

        • Ming

          Since this is a very important matter to me, I checked the legal status of street photography and internet with the Norwegian Data Protection Authority (Datatilsynet), which is the governmental agency tasked with reinforcing information and data privacy (and a salient voice in the public debate on these issues).

          Publication of street photography on internet is regulated by §45c of the “the Copyright law” (my translation of “Åndsverksloven”). I am not a lawyer, but as far as I can see the law states that photos online can be published if the shown event or situation has a general or public interest.

          The law distinguishes between portraits and “situational photos.” For example, you need permission to publish a family portrait on the net, but you can freely publish a street photography if the same family happens to walk by in the street. As I read it, the law sees the family portrait as a representation of a specific family with a clear identity, while a street photography with the same family is seen as a public “situation.” When the family decides to enter the public space they are – exactly – in a public space with general interest for everyone.

          But there are some exceptions. You can’t cause harm to people. Photographing a topless woman on the beach and publishing the image on internet without her permission is considered an infringement of that woman’s right. Likewise, photos of children with sexual allusions. These are clear violations of personal privacy.

          So, Ming, if you somehow should end up in in Norway, that last stop before the North Pole, broke and bewildered, I think we can conclude that your photos are of (unquestioned) public interest and safe to upload. Provided, of course, that you can resist the temptation to shoot that hefty blonde, on a summer day, baring it all, on a rock-strewn beach in the Oslo Fjord.

          Freedom of expression is essential. But the new media society also poses Big Brother Society risks, and there may aspects of the internet age that can provoke a counter-reaction on this matter (these are only my thoughts). Is there a possibility that we will see a redefinition of freedom of expression vs individual privacy as video and still cameras become ever more ubiquitous? I suspect we will see evolving legislation on this matter.

          Maybe this would be an interesting topic for a future article?

          I think it’s a good idea for any photographer to check the relevant and up-to-date laws and regulations on the publication of street photography before going to a different country. Also Norway.


          • Thanks for doing the research! It appears there is still some subjectivity in exactly what is ‘public interest’, but I think art would fall into that category. One would only need a good lawyer to do the convincing if it came to it!

            So, I shall visit Norway, not worry about the photographic part, only the costs of visiting 🙂

            • I followed up with mails to several professional photographers in Norway (since I live mostly in Mexico). Many of them do street photography and documentary and upload the images without any worries. However, for advertising purposes you need approval, and one should be careful with showing people in situations where they are “harmed,” as the examples I mentioned above.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Excellent post Vegard. Thanks for it.

            Freedom of expression is essential. But the new media society also poses Big Brother Society risks, and there may aspects of the internet age that can provoke a counter-reaction on this matter (these are only my thoughts). Is there a possibility that we will see a redefinition of freedom of expression vs individual privacy as video and still cameras become ever more ubiquitous? I suspect we will see evolving legislation on this matter.

            Maybe this would be an interesting topic for a future article?

            I think so too. I recall we had a good talk about this around the time of the Adobe CC switch: there was some updated copyright law in the UK with an effect on photographers [regarding “orphan images” I think it was] mentioned in the same article. So, that time we were talking more about who owns an image and so on… but we didn’t touch on the content of an image itself. Be an interesting article to read, and we might all chip in below the line with our 2 ducats [worth more than pennies] and make it an interesting discussion to have.

            I think, on gut feeling, when it comes to the content of “street” images, the hardest part of the discussion is separating what’s legally acceptable from what’s artistically acceptable. Completely different things on the face of it, but if we think a little more on it—two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

  12. Thanks, Ming, for yet another interesting article. By the way, do you find time for golf?

    • Nope, no spare time at all…and the last time I tried golf, it just gave me blisters; I’m woefully bad – to the point that no amount of practice seemed to do any good.

  13. photos without heart, some of them are “nice”, but no soul at all. Sorry 😦

    • An interestingly dissenting opinion: why?

      • Hello Mr.Thein,
        I never wanted to be rude, just say my point of view. Some people speak about technique, some about decisive moment, some about rules, but when I said “no heart / no soul” I am saying what I see in your work, I never say anything about your technique or your capacity to catch the right moment, I am just saying that when I see your photgraphs I can´t see YOU in your photographs, I see your technique for sure and I agree that some side of the photography is without rules, but you must to be a very visible part of your work, and I just can´t see that.
        What I see, you are in the street: YES, you are taking photographs: YES, but your photos are not street photography, we can say that you are a kind of “resident turist” of NYC
        I wish you all the best

        • I think I know where Julian is going with this … “I can’t see YOU in your photographs”.

          A little while ago I posted a link to an article by Mike Johnston, giving his definition of “Art”. One essential element was the work must be recognizable as belonging to the artist i.e the artist imbues his work with a certain “look” or “style”. I agree with this notion (but I’m not sure if Ming does; Ming was not keen on Mike’s article).

          Now, based on Ming’s written work, he comes across as a clear-headed and precise person. Correspondingly, his photos are clear-headed and precise. Unfortunately, this “look” could be interpreted as being just a little to “neutral” or “clinical”, which could be further interpreted as lacking “soul”. This might be what Julian is reacting to.

          Have a look at the work of Cig Harvey:

          Like Ming’s work, it’s first class stuff. But Cig’s work has a “warmer”, more personable look about it. If you examine Cig’s blog, you also realize that she has a different mindset behind her photography but that’s another story.

          • It’s odd, but these two posts are the only time I’ve ever heard somebody say my work is lacking in character or style. I’d argue that the cinematic series from NYC (here) is very distinctive. I’d also argue that getting clinical precision into a completely uncontrolled street scene is also a stylistic signature simply because I’ve never seen anybody else do it consistently. But, each to his own I suppose – there are plenty of photographers to cater for all tastes…

            • David Babsky says:

              “..these two posts are the only time I’ve ever heard somebody say my work is lacking in character or style..” ..but didn’t I say something along those lines when you offered four prints for sale, and I wrote that they were rather impersonal photos of things which other people had made..? (..I can’t find the exact quotation now, as I’m on a -v-e-r-y- -s-l-o-w- airport lounge connection..)

              So I do understand entirely what julián is saying.

              You always remind us that the severe and unnaturally extreme sharpness of your photos here is an artifact of with the way the photos are presented online, and which you have no control over ..but these photos do seem – to me, anyway – to be so extremely “perfect” that – I agree – there’s no “soul” in them ..even the three women at the steps at Grand Central Station, and the jokey rotated shadows ..they all seem to lack “heart” ..or perhaps they’re just too “clinically precise” ..for me.

              The back-to-front dog’s a funny photo ..but otherwise I’d say of many of these, “so what?” ..I think it’s the overly sharp presentation.

              Maybe printed on paper, and hung on a wall, I’d really enthuse about them.

              But maybe you could try a 4 megapixel camera for a week, and ‘downgrade’ the acuity and the eye-watering sharpness, and just show us some photos with “feeling”, for a change, rather than “clarity”, huh?

              • You also couldn’t find any examples of the same image by others, either.

                You still can’t quantify what ‘soul’ or ‘feeling’ is exactly – if its a lack of clarity, then that’s just mediocre technique, sorry.

                But that’s fine: I say the same thing again: I’m obviously missing something, so why don’t you (or julien) show me an example or two?

                • David Babsky says:

                  Sorry to be late replying: long flight, then long sleep!

                  “..You also couldn’t find any examples of the same image by others, either..” ..well, if I understand correctly what you’re saying, no; I wouldn’t expect to find “any examples of the same image by others” as I don’t suppose any other people were standing in the same places where you stood and took the same shots as you did in New York. That seems to be a silly point to make ..unless I’m misunderstanding you.

                  “..I’m obviously missing something, so why don’t you (or julien) show me an example or two?..” ..okey-dokey. How about Mike Abrahams:

                  His work doesn’t appear as sharp as yours, but he creates moods within his pictures ..not just accurate representations of the things which his lens is pointing at. He goes for shapes and relationships and counterpoint and balance, like you do, but his harmonies are softer, less sharp and insistent.

                  I don’t know if you’ll say that his blacks are too muddied, or his curves are without subtlety, or some other technical comment about his processing of his photos, but I don’t really care so much about ‘perfection’ in the processing of photos: what I care more about is the – here’s that word again! – “feeling” which a photo conveys ..the additional content which the human behind the camera puts into, or captures in, the picture, rather than the technical perfection which that human may extract from the camera and lens combination.

                  You say “..a lack of clarity, then that’s just mediocre technique..” ..but I think that you really are “missing something” if you place technique as most important. Look at Monsieur Lartigue’s pictures ..what d’you think of those? I don’t think he spent much time on extracting the last ounce of “clarity” from his negatives (unlike Ansel Adams), but his pictures (until the much later ones, in his eighties) convey real joie de vivre! Mike Abrahams’ pictures convey the human condition. They have poise and composition – like yours – but they also have (for me) an empathy with – not just an observation of – the people within them.

                  I’m not intending to be nasty, of course! Far from it! ..Your pics are inspirational in many ways, and the dedication you put into the processing afterwards (and retouching) is close to obsessional! ..But what I’m saying – and have said before – is that perfection in presentation isn’t everything (..though paying clients, of course, expect it). For one’s own ‘recreational’ photography – which is what, I think, these photos, above, were meant to be – I’d have thought that one might have eased up a bit on the aim of technical perfection, and taken photos which convey more of the ‘humanity’ of the people who inhabit New York, whereas here (above) the people seem to be merely ancillary components which are there to provide the symmetry, or composition in the flatiron building / street crossing photo, or the people at Grand Central Station, or in the Apple Store, and so on.

                  It may be just a matter of personality we’ve mentioned before: maybe you relate more to concepts, mechanical things, composition, more than you relate to human beings. Maybe I relate better to human emotions rather than to (what often seem to me to be) arid compositions. Maybe that’s how julián sees some of these photos, too, when saying that these appear to be “ without heart..” or “ soul at all”.

                  But these are all only individual opinions, and there’s no reason why our (julián’s and mine) opinions should carry any more weight than yours ..but then again, these are opinions which are all equally valid, from different people’s points of view.

                  You obviously think your pictures are great – and so do many other people. I think most of your pictures are great ..but the photos of, or including, people are, for the most part (except for those of your Nadiah!) – and in just my opinion – rather lifeless, and without much humanity. DON’T OVER-REACT! ..Don’t get upset! ..This is only my opinion: and I’m just some chap on the other side of the world, and only one insignificant person among billions. But you asked me to “ me an example or two..” and so here are a few other photos which I think are rather less “clinical”-looking than your own ..they have less emphasis on the post-production presentation, and more on the human quirks of the people in the pictures:

                  Jane Bown:
                  Stephen Wright:
                  Joel Meyerowitz:
                  Marcus Hartel:

                  But that doesn’t mean that if they have a lack of “clarity”, then, in your words, “..that’s just mediocre technique”. I disagree.

                  • I think I see what you’re getting at now that there are some examples: I personally don’t like that, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it – it just doesn’t fit the way I see. That said, I think my cinematic work is much closer to what you’re looking for than this series. The concept of ‘personal work’ is very much just that: I shoot what I want to, not necessarily what I’m expected to.

                    If the blurriness is intentional, then it’s not mediocre technique, but a lot of the time, it just seems like a consequence of a grab and not quite enough shutter speed or stability rather than a deliberate choice. Unfortunately, small web images make it difficult to be certain for sure.

                    • David Babsky says:

                      “..I think my cinematic work is much closer to what you’re looking for than this series..” ..I think it is, too.

                      “..‘personal work’ is very much just that: I shoot what I want to, not necessarily what I’m expected to..” ..I agree. But it was just an observation of julián’s – and mine – that this ‘personal work’ (above) ..though technically excellent.. doesn’t seem to quite have the ‘involving’ aspect (the “heart” or “soul”) of some other photographers ..that’s all. It doesn’t mean that you have to change anything! ..Nor that you have to produce “..what I’m expected to..”

                      It simply means that different photographers have different styles or capabilities: yours appears to be, mainly, outstanding technical excellence! Others appear to deliver more ‘involvement’, but with, perhaps, less technical precision. You’re more analytical, others are more involved. But so what..?

                      It takes all sorts..

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    An excellent post, David. Good read.

                    • Hola Ming, David, Tom and everyone,

                      here is my Twitter account with part of my work :

                      So you can take a look in what I do and be critical of what you feel with my photograph. Speaking of the reaction from people about all this topic, I think that was too overreacted, as an artist photographer you will always going to receive good or bad comments and you must to accept both in the same way, be spoiled in the art world is not the right way to survive on it (but a lots of photographer do). I continue thinking what I said before about Ming´s work, but the reactions was too fast and trying to protect your friend or the guy who make “nice photos” that nobody saw the real mining of what I was saying, I think that Sven, David and Tom catched the real meaning of my words.

                      But, the good news, is that we all can continue being friends and “coworkers”, enhancing between each others with critics but not “rubbing our backs” without sense just because I like you.

                      I would like to finish all this drama saying to Ming that if you consider yourself good enough, critics are only another way to continue growing as a human being and as an artist, stay away of people that only say good thing of you or your work, try to understand and be part of your critical people, believe it or not, they will help more than the “I like you no matter what others say” people.

                      I really which all the best and I hope that your career continue growing.

                      Big hug!

                    • I can’t do what you do – nor would I want to; that’s because it just isn’t me. However, my initial reaction was to figure out what was missing – and if there’s anything I can usefully adopt to my style. The whole discussion is useful because it makes me revisit my artistic assumptions/ convictions – and I think come out of it more convinced as an artist.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Que tal Julian 🙂

                      I’m on my phone so I couldn’t access that page, unfortunately, but I’m sure your photographs are good. Yes, I enjoyed having the discussion, and it was your observations that got us going. So listen, I get that it can look like we all run to Ming’s rescue because it’s his site and we all rate him… Not quite so true in my case: I think MT is a grown man and can — and should, and will — fight his own battles, so I try and respond to you, or anyone, and compare what you say with my philosophies and my opinions of what Ming is up to.
                      I consider “meditation” a useful word connected to what Ming does. Whereas some artists might trust completely their unconscious and their feelings and just passively ride them — in effect passengers — toward a successful artwork. I think Ming’s whole modus operandi is different. Just calling it plain control isn’t quite right (but is for his commercial work; which is his main work and where most of his ouevre resides). It’s more like, yes, meditation. Think Descartes by his log fire, one night, staring into the flames and wondering “how do I know I exist?” Then consciously setting out to answer his question that same night; or, yes, monks sitting still in contemplation—it’s a grey area between control and no control. It’s obviously conscious and directed, but the results, the route is not. I think this is the ideal for MT. I’m interested to see if he can do it with his photography—so I follow.
                      I don’t think it’s such a feat to elicit a strong emotional reaction from a strong emotional image made with straightforward passion and emotion by the photographer. In fact it makes easy sense that that’s what a viewer’s reaction should be in those circumstances. But what about an emotional reaction from an image made the way MT does it? Wouldn’t that be the feat? And be different. And be something we’ve never seen much before. Something worth watching.

                      There’s a lot to be said for emotion. Some of the best artistic moments are born in it—the crescendo in an operatic solo, the wining goal in the Champions League Final, etc. But in the converse, think of all the truly World Historical moments… Newton’s breakthrough, Napoleon’s battle plans, Boole’s logical language, etc., etc., all the *greatest* products of humanity have been products of the head, not the heart; have been intellectual not emotional.

                      The “feeling” type photographer (I attempt to be one) are like fruit on trees—like trying to find an orange in Seville to find one of them (of us). The intellectual type? There might be plenty out there — I’m completely unaware of most photographers, so it’s possible! — but I haven’t come across any. In fact Ming is the first.

                      I hope he gets super famous and renowned because I bought a signed print at the crazily low price he offered them at; the ink and paper should last decades, so while it’s not going anywhere while I’m alive, once I’m gone it’ll go to the kids and hopefully be worth something monetary to them.

                      I’m confident it’ll be worth something emotionally to them, too.

                      Saludo Julian!

              • Tom Liles says:

                be so extremely “perfect” that – I agree – there’s no “soul” in them

                Just one interesting point: philosophers of old often considered and worked from the premise that soul and perfection were the same thing. Plato, for a quick, easy and wide-as-a-barn-door example. His “Forms,” etc.

                Do you not think it’s funny how we’ve come about on this?

            • I’m not sure which two posts your are referring to (Julian’s and mine?), but I think your work has a certain “Ming” look, which I’d tried to characterize as “clear-headed and precise”. To me that’s a personal style: I can see it in the photos and it correlates with your personality, as I can glean from your written articles.

          • So I hesitate to write this, because I don’t want to start a “my photographer can beat up your photographer” flame war, but here goes …

            Cig Harvey’s work looks like good but standard stock photography, and I was surprised to see how much of her work is actually exhibited. For me, her style is anti-style because it’s not very distinctive from what’s out there already. Put another way, is her photographic voice one that is worth preserving?

            Ming’s style is very different than hers, and for my tastes, more interesting. The biggest difference is the number of elements each of them tries to fit into the frame. Cig’s looks like standard commercial photography (perhaps with a tweak here and there where she adds unexpected framing or motion blur) in that it’s a pretty simple, straightforward presentation of the subject who is strongly isolated from the rest of the frame, usually through strong color. It could be on a greeting card, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but does the world really need another greeting card photo?

            Ming’s most distinctive work for me is when he manages to balance a huge amount of things (shapes, lines, other objects, etc. with deep DOF) to fill his frame, along with his very heightened interest in light. Sometimes I think the light is really the subject, and he’s just waiting for some interesting thing to step into the frame so he has an excuse to show off the light! 🙂

            There’s also an interesting way Ming turns a 3D world into distinct 2D planes. Yes, all cameras do that, but the way he sees and relates them is pretty different. And of course there is his processing look, which I’ll omit for brevity’s sake. His best pictures straddle the line between abstract and realism — it’s balanced precariously between the two, and can be pretty ambiguous about what it wants to be, but that’s what makes them so interesting to look at. The man above ducking under the gangplank above I think exhibits all of these qualities.

            Anyway, that’s what I see, but I’m interested in anyone who wants to explain or defend Cig’s work, or disagree with what I wrote. We’re all grown-ups here having an interesting discussion, right?

            • I honestly don’t get it. I’d really just like to see some examples of ‘soul’ and ‘personality of the photographer’…

              • Tom Liles says:

                I’d like to add a voice to this—Julian, David, anyone: you posit that photographs, good photographs, have soul and heart yet at the moment you just present it as factual and true because you say so… I won’t take it as read that photographs can have soul and heart. Show us. I’m not dead against the proposition, but am naturally skeptical and wonder if this isn’t scrabbling for a legitimate sounding concept to mask what is ultimately just something as basic personal taste.

                Show me a photograph which has soul, or has heart, or both.

                I understand why you might be reluctant to—you might expect that anything you post will invite “No! doesn’t do it for me!” type contrarianism. I won’t do that; I do value honesty above all things. But can I point out that if you had this reservation at all, it already disproves your own point.

                • Yeah, I agree this “heart and soul” phrase is not descriptive enough. My view is that a good photographer includes part of themselves in their [best] photos by providing a viewpoint that is original. It’s the mix of [preferred] subject matter, technical skills and viewpoint that makes a style, IMHO. Ming’s work is distinctive and consistent (but not “in your face” distinctive).

            • Paul Stokes says:

              Hi Andre
              I agree with you. I believe Ming’s work is distinctive for the reasons you give and it is a style that appeals to me through all the different subject material he photographs. Not always, but usually.
              I looked through Cig Harvey’s work for her latest book “you look at me like an emergency” and while I found it interesting, it is largely a series of posed tableaus not street photography so I am at a loss to understand why shy Julian has chosen to make a comparison between her work, an exploration of self-portraiture, colour and emotion, and Ming’s on the basis of their street credibility.
              Perhaps Julian needs to take a longer look at the huge variety of photography Ming has done in both colour and b&w. One should not mistake technical excellence for a lack of heart or soul. Is there a need for some sort of imperfection to make art truly wonderful?
              An interview with Cig provides valuable insight into her motivation for her photographing as she does and I appreciate and understand why she has done what she has done. However this is her motivation not someone else’s motivation. It is not Harvey Steins or David Carol’s or even Jan Saudek’s motivation. So In reply to Sven W, I think the mindset behind her photography is precisely the point.
              I would be reluctant to use one person’s criteria for their photography to judge another person’s photography. There is any number of excellent photographers out there producing very high quality photographic books. Is this the next logical step from posting on the Internet or is this an alternate path. Are these books the self-recorded and released music that is not uncommon today and gains many talented musicians their big break or are they the albums produced after their breakthrough to the mainstream – a concept album perhaps. In addition we know it is marketing that will sell any product be that music, perfume and art. It’s all about the story and selling the story.

              • I think it was me who introduced Cig Harvey’s work. Obviously it’s not street photography! I used it as an example as it was contemporary, digital & well executed — like Ming’s work (ok, I know he shoots film as well). However, the style of Cig’s photos have a more obvious personal element. As I alluded to elsewhere in the comments of this post, Ming’s style would probably “fly under of the radar” of many people who have not seen a lot of his work. Perhaps Ming is a photographer’s photographer! 🙂

            • Tom Liles says:

              Thanks for that post, Andre. I enjoyed it.

        • I don’t find it rude – just interesting, hence why I want to understand your point of view.

          If you think street photography is Bruce Gilden, then I’m imposing my preferences very clearly on my work: I don’t intrude into personal space, I just document what IS rather than being an agent provocateur. Why is that not visible? Why is that not viable? And who’s to say what IS and IS NOT street photography?

          • Hey Ming,
            first of all, I really hate Gilden´s way to work, for me, he is one of the most overrated photographers of all times. Second, street photography have rules, but beyond this, and please understand me, street photography is not only go to the street and take photos (literally yes) but your and my work as street photographers, is give to the viewer more than a simple shoot on the street, try to give the same shoot but, and her we go again, with soul! let to the people know which is your mood only showing your photos, put yourself in each photograph, you take almost all your photos behind/beside of the people, you abuse of the wide angle lens (is easy), be more direct! go in front of each target! use short focal distance lenses! take the photo at not more than 2 or 3 meters! for one second (while you make”click”) be part of the life of each person, dont be afraid, is just a photo! be brave but not agresive.
            Critics are nice! a lot of people say to you “you are the best” “you are titan” “you you you you”, but this doesn´t mean that you really are the best, and yes, sometime somebody will say “Mmmmm I think you are making things not so correct” but the good news my friend, is that you can learn, like every one else.
            So, tomorrow go to the street, and put all this anger that you feel now in your work, show to the people that Ming´s photos are angry.
            All the best!

            • Why would I want to make angry photos?

              I abuse the wide angle lens? A 28mm does have to be used pretty damn close to fill the frame with a person. But since I almost only ever shoot street – documentary – with 28mm, there’s no way I could possibly know that. The first and second images are dead on. The second image I was only 1m away. Foreground is context, not just random people.

              But clearly I am missing something. Perhaps in your infinite wisdom, show me some of your work so I can have an example to follow.

              Or maybe the best thing I can do as an artist is say thank you for clarifying your opinion, but I disagree because a lot of it is accusatory and quantitively baseless, and I’ll continue shoot however I please. For my own personal work I am the end customer, and so long as I’m happy, that’s good enough.

              • 🙂

              • Iskabibble says:

                You don’t take criticism very well MT. Using terms like “infinite wisdom” and “baseless” is profoundly offensive and shows what little character you have when you hear words you dont want to hear. VERY disappointing.

                Julian’s critiques were 100% valid, coming from his heart and while you dont have to agree with them, you should be a far bigger person and respect them.

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Oh come off it Iskabibble.
                  Ming will be in here to give you his reaction, or not; it’s his choice and his house let us remember…

                  But, profoundly offensive?

                • what an annoying little pebble you are Iskabibble.

                • I did. I asked for clarification twice, which I didn’t get – just subjective accusation. That’s pretty baseless to me.

                  And as for not taking criticism – well, putting 17,500 images online and accessible, and 3,500 on this site, I think is asking for it. How many commenters a) show and share their work openly, and b) actively solicit input? I even have an open, unmoderated forum for it. If I didn’t like criticism, I’d justd delete the comments or not allow them at all.

                  There’s a difference between opinion (subjective, personal and therefore acceptable), constructive criticism, and something which is just negative but not in a way that I can do anything about – saying ‘you’re just wrong’ without proof, logic or supported argument is baseless.

            • Tom Liles says:

              Julian, I really have to butt in here and challenge you. I don’t mean to do this in a bad way; disagreement is useful and valuable. So thank you for opening this up for us all. As Andre said, this is an adult place; and we are just talking about photos—this discussion is close to meaningless to any sane person.

              …take the photo at not more than 2 or 3 meters! for one second (while you make”click”) be part of the life of each person…

              The Case Against
              I really really REALLY dispute the entire artifice of photographic endeavor that rests on this cringingly BAD concept. Have you no consideration for the person you take a picture of—-and you are taking, make no mistake. Who asked you or any other street photographer to be part of their life? Where does this presumption, this selfishness, this self-centered importance come from? What right do you have to step, unannounced and uninvited, to someone’s life and steal a moment from it—for your own gratification and not theirs. They will probably never even see their likeness which you have stolen, and will get ZERO from this. I can’t even call “this” a transaction, since they get nothing from the process. It is armed robbery. Theft. Egotism of the worst order. It contravenes thousands of years of human civilization built around the supreme concept, the Golden Rule: what I wouldn’t like done to me, I won’t do to others. How many photogs do we hear get all bashful about appearing in photographs themselves. The following is painful, but it’s true—what right have they to photograph other people? Other people may feel exactly the same. Most people do. I do. I’ve never had the misfortune to be street-photographed in the manner you like and think is good, Julian, but if someone got in my face, or even 2 meters away, with a camera, unannounced and uninvited, at the least they better prepare themselves for some serious confrontation about it; and at the worst, having to buy a new camera and lens and perhaps invent an explanation for work as to why they have a black eye. Yes, I’m a faux-tough guy. I’d probably never do that: but it is what I’d like to do. Answer the question: who asked you or any other photog to be part of their life? Answer the question: what source of importance gave you the right to do that?

              The Case For
              If modern life is anything, it’s isolated. We jam ourselves into train cars, cheek to jowl, face to face, and proceed to ignore each other. The first thing we reach for is our phone. Maybe a newspaper. Something, anything, to escape having to deal with other people. We ignore beggars. We walk past people who’ve been hit by cars. We wall off our houses and gardens. We draw boundaries and put guard dogs at the lines and let everyone know they’re not to come close. The street photographer is challenging and questioning this modern status quo when he rolls up on someone and takes their photo. Like newspaper reporters, street photographers by nature are boundary crossers. No respecters of limits and good manners. If they didn’t do that, the interesting and the true and real would never be uncovered and we’d have to settle for varnished appearance and performance. And only guess at what we’re sure lies beneath [and we’re sure there is a “beneath” because we all know ourselves and that we act and hide ourselves away]. If street photographers didn’t attempt to find something past the boundaries of personal space, then, in the strongest expression, we’d all be living the lie unchallenged [which is no life at all].

              Well, I tried to be like Thomas Aquinas and write both sides, but I found the “Case For” bit tough. I can refute every point in it:

              i) Because modern life is so cramped and jammed up we value our isolation. This is our little oasis amongst the frenzy of being alive, today. We don’t need eye level images of people from close up –> we all see it everyday. There is nothing more quotidian and boring. But even so, street photogs can f— right off for thinking they have the right to intrude on our little comfort zone.

              ii) Until the concept of “property” disappears this stuff about personal space and boundaries will persist. The street photographer is the worst kind of hypocrite because he invades personal space [connected with the “property” concept] takes an image—then claims that image as HIS! i.e., his property and people are not allowed to use it without permission. In fact, they have to pay to use it. The cheek. Seriously. Tone deaf and immune to their own stupidity.

              iii) Do they uncover the real, the true? Do they? This is up for argument, but the premise alone illustrates how up their own asses street photographers are [if that’s what they think they are doing. If they don’t think that—what on earth do they think they are doing and why bother us and insist on “being part of our lives” about it? Egotists. Plain and simple.]

              iv) Living a lie is a hard charge for a photographer to level against anyone. Is hiding behind a camera not the more cowardly and untrue act?

              We all have to think about it and make our own conclusions, and live them. These are some of mine. I can only find two ways that street photography works and carries value:

              1) The Ninja, stealth way —> HCB, MT, etc

              2) The portrait by permission way –> For a more recent example, I like the work of Shinya Arimoto

              With my thinking, (2) is better. And offers the better route to the true. But it is obviously very difficult and VERY easy to make boring, boring photos from [everyone does the facial equivalent of a telephone voice]. Difficult because many of us photogs are shy people and find it hard to just roll up on someone who has caught our eye and start a conversation with them and ask them if we can take their photo. And doubly difficult because to get a natural looking and true image from someone who knows they are being photographed is a feat only the truly gifted photographer can do. It’s easier to just get in someone’s face, or even 2m away, and steal an image. It is. We all know it.

              I think MT is a very open type and not precious and really can take getting ragged on about his photos. As he said himself there’s no need to apologize and no need to feel rude. I agree with that portion. I suppose as a reader of the site — and a follower, and if you were expecting not to find lots of MT followers on MT’s blog then… well, but you never expected that, I’m sure — what confuses me is when you, or David a while back, hand down instructions on how to take better photos to Ming. Or how you’d like to see it done. I just don’t get it. Who cares how you’d like it done? You do it your way. Ming can do it his way. It doesn’t escape anyone that among those posters who tell Ming how to do it, there is a difference between the ones whose names are in blue, and those whose names aren’t. Just saying. Anyway, Funkadelic wrote a great song called I got a thing, you got a thing, everybody’s got a thing, it’s the quickest shorthand I can think of for what I’d like to say…

              And can I end on how happy I was to see David Babsky’s name again the other day. It was hardly even a mild discussion, to me, but David and I disagreed about the approach to MT’s work in the past and we’d never seen him back since. So very glad to see you back David, and even if I disagree and question the tone sometimes, it’s good to see you posting here and read your words again.

              • “…what confuses me is when you, or David a while back, hand down instructions on how to take better photos to Ming. Or how you’d like to see it done. I just don’t get it. Who cares how you’d like it done? You do it your way. Ming can do it his way.”

                I’m fine with that – and want to learn from what ‘the other side’ has to show me – but it’s unfair to criticise blindly and present one’s opinion as fact without any attempt at visual evidence or examples: this is the part that gets me. At least put your money where your mouth is and let me make up my own mind. If I’m happy with ‘soulless clinical perfection’ because I dislike the alternatives, then so be it!

                I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: photography is art and art is subjective. Each to his own…

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Absolutely. It’s so subjective and possible to make an argument for anything, that I prefer to go on public sentiment and monetary value. Whatever we think, at least they are greater than any one person’s opinion. And offer something we can rile or cheer at, outside of each other.

                  But I completely dispute this “soulless clinical perfection” stuff. There’s a great line about embarrassment –> “we’re only embarrassed with our own consent.” I don’t consent that your photographs represent soulless clinical perfection; and further, I challenge that a photograph can have soul, or heart in the first place. Though I’m open to the idea. In the words of Big Daddy Kane: Show & Prove.
                  But it strikes me that heart and soul are human things, so isn’t it obvious that any soul or heart that a viewer finds in an image are his own? Against this, though, I do also agree that artworks can be a kind of transmission device for the personality [or persona] of the creator, the artist, and therefore it isn’t anti-thetical to my view that his or her work may contain soul or heart… I’ve just yet to really see it in a photograph.

                  Looks like my wait will continue.

                  • Against this, though, I do also agree that artworks can be a kind of transmission device for the personality [or persona] of the creator, the artist, and therefore it isn’t anti-thetical to my view that his or her work may contain soul or heart… I’ve just yet to really see it in a photograph.

                    If I’m understanding things right, that’s the assertion in this whole ‘these images are lacking soul’ argument: my photographs are soulless because:
                    a) They aren’t posed
                    b) They aren’t close enough
                    c) They’re too sharp

                    Nope, that can’t be it. Whilst technically mediocre images might still convey a feeling very well and be outstanding artistic pieces – Capa’s Normandy Landings always come to mind – the opposite isn’t necessarily true. Or, perhaps it’s nothing simpler than:

                    d) My ‘soul’ isn’t coming through in the images – what if I’m just a clinically precise person (which I am) – I’d say that comes through very clearly here.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      (d) agreed and this was Andre’s point, too. The photos seem very MT, to my eye, at least. The character of an MT image may still be a plastic and in-development thing, but there are definite signatures. My own version of you — when getting your art on — is a more abstract, contemplative one: the cloud images are a good pointer to this side of you and your work, in my opinion. But principally you are a paid commercial photographer—I think that work speaks the most. And am often baffled by criticism of you that ignores it. I guess what causes all the “eh!?” reaction when you post sets like this is that, as you say, you don’t conform to what we expect from “street” images—and you don’t conform in the formal way of being an enfant terrible, or noise maker, etc. I think that’s perhaps the other angle of it. I think Julian, etc., might jump the gun a bit and reach for “boring” [what they are really trying to say, I think, and it’s OK, everyone’s opinion is airworthy here, isn’t it] and to them it might be, but I’d just say it’s boring in the same way kids into Justin Bieber might think classical music is boring.

                      But it does seem to me that the complaints simply boil down to: not what I expect = don’t like. And fair enough. I’m not innocent of this, by any stretch either.

                    • I’d also argue that conformation doesn’t breed success – the successes are the exceptions, and when copied, don’t typically yield equally successful results.

                      So…I’m just going to carry on precisely as I am. 🙂

                      You might enjoy The Clouds of Prague which I’m currently working on.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Looking forward to it 🙂

    • Ron Scubadiver says:

      Without heart, everyone has an opinion, but I don’t agree with yours.

    • Tom Liles says:

      Julian, I’m not being sarcastic when I ask, but: could you give us an image which has — not expresses, is a proxy for, but has — soul. Really.
      [This is not to poke fun at your choice, but to test if I believe an image can have a soul, etc., by looking at one you attest has.]

      I’m not sure how I feel about your soul and heart thing… I don’t like all the “story” stuff photographers constantly go on about, and I strongly disagree with the premise. Photographs don’t move. Stories move. These two things are COMPLETELY INCOMPATIBLE.
      HCB gave us the best that a photog can aspire to: a decisive moment. Photographs are moments. Decisive, if we are good. But I’m not sure how I feel about soul and heart… On first principles alone, only people have soul and heart; not photographs. But I do believe that photographs can be a proxy for a personality [the photog as a person; or the photog as a persona], so yeah, in a way I can swallow the “has heart,” “has soul” stuff. Though it is close to fingernails down the blackboard territory, for me.

      Just another opinion!

      • The decisive moment encapsulates a story in a single frame. Each element is a subject, things consciously excluded are irrelevant; the spatial relationship between them is the implied relationship, and the structure of the frame controls how the audience views the image – which element in what order through visual weight and subject isolation. We string these pieces of visual language together to make a sentence. The story is not complete – very much open to interpretation by the viewer – and the best have many possible endings/ meanings.

        All of these things – subjects, exclusion, spatial relationship, isolation, leading lines, perspectives etc – should be consciously controlled in the best of images. I certainly strive to do so in every image.

        What I’m really saying is in my opinion, I disagree with you on the story bit, too. 🙂

        • Tom Liles says:

          The decisive moment encapsulates a story in a single frame

          Well yes! 🙂 But at the same time no! 😮
          It’s a moment, that’s why the potential start, middle and end are all there [or so we say]. But to confuse that latent potential that narrative pregnancy for the real thing is to destroy the real thing!

          We string these pieces of visual language together to make a sentence. The story is not complete – very much open to interpretation by the viewer – and the best have many possible endings/ meanings.

          Yes, so who is the story teller here? [and therefore, where was the story?] This is not “story” in any conventional sense and to borrow a character from more legitimate storytelling, is more akin to the investigations of Conan Doyle’s Holmes than being tucked in bed and told a yarn. I agree that the meaning of photographs is a co-creation; and meaning, in this case narrative, on your own terms from above, Ming, requires conscious attention and a whole lot of input on the viewer’s part. Not just to watch the photo, but to analyze and add to it [if it’s that kind of photo]. If the meaning of “story” is to be stretched this far past its real-world bounds and be almost wholly metaphorical, then, well, it’s all a story isn’t it. How useful was that? [not very]
          Yes, we analyze films and books; but the delivery mode being dynamic and in-time, the manner of revelation is different. By type, not degree. So this is the point. Where what a “story” is rests. Photogs don’t come off very well varnishing all this “story” stuff with the general public [I’m still one, just], as that presentation of a story is more like dry geography homework than a rip-roaring time with TRANSFORMERS 4, or for the high-brow types, I dunno, a surreal trip with Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin or something…

          It doesn’t quite end there, in my opinion, either. Photographers perpetuating the myth that they tell stories strikes me as an unquestioned inferiority complex to literature [and its incalculable influence on our culture and history]. “Telling a story” is really the preserve of books and before them the spoken word; and in this connection we note the phrase itself is the parlance of literature. Where was it decreed that a photograph must tell a story? Must be about or contain a story. It never was; it’s just people trying to relate to something they know [and dealing with hard wired “cause/effect” tendencies in our minds]—but the analogy is unhelpful and unsuccessful in my opinion. Cinema has the same problem. How many reviews — yahoo! soccer mom or newspaper — principally consider cinematography or sound design or first day sales or back room staff teams of films? These things are arguably more important and true to the art and medium than story — in isolation — is. Cinema is primarily a visual medium. Primarily judging it on something else just shows how insecure and unsure about art-form we are. Photography is a wholly visual medium. No sound, no movement. Visual and static. Any “movement” MUST come from the viewer. It’s even more ridiculous to now judge this medium on “story.”

          All of these things – subjects, exclusion, spatial relationship, isolation, leading lines, perspectives etc – should be consciously controlled in the best of images. I certainly strive to do so in every image.

          Ming, you’re a Titan to me, let me say that first before I question your use of “should.” You’d be the first to say there are no real rules in this. Where does “should” with the qualitative judgement of “the best” come from? We also seem to smuggle in some degree of auto-back-patting here, by assuming the photog has the degree of control over his surroundings that the line suggests. Even if we control everything, the use of “best” colors it. Your outlook on art. And there’s NOTHING better than a man that knows what he wants [there’s me doing my coloring]. But again, you’re as savvy as anyone to that fact that there is more than one philosophy out there.

          I stray from the point: stories. I think the following would be the strongest way to put it. If I took a random sample of one hundred, one thousand, ten-thousand, whatever, a random sample of people, and I told them we were about to destroy all the stories in the world — and only the stories — but as I’m a beneficent dictator they could keep some random number of stories, say one hundred [or one for every person]—>no one chooses a photograph.

          If I changed that to: we’re about to destroy all the artworks in the World, you can only save… I bet you everything I own we ‘d get photographs in the mix then.

          Put yet another way—-the Mona Lisa: do we [not can we] think of that as a story? Four Darks in Red, do we think of that as a story? And so on, and so on. Photographs are much closer to paintings in my opinion… yes, you can find a narrative in a painting, or a photograph, if you look for one. But that’s not what they are.

          • …no one chooses a photograph.
            That’s a different problem: most people haven’t seen enough good photographs to recognize a story in them. That’s like eating McDonalds every day and being unaware that there are foods other than burgers.

            The really strong photographs should have a message – perhaps story is too definite a word that implies a concrete narrative flow – in them that comes through regardless of the viewer; we have common visual language in human expression and nature that the vast majority of people recognize. You cannot control the interpretation as in a movie – that’s a biased view, too – but certainly the same could be said of a novel; the author can describe a scene, but never fully, exhaustively fill in all of the detail. The rest is up to the audience; in fact I’d even argue that’s an element of the best stories: there’s a bit of flexibility there for each person to see what they want to see, and thus be satisfied – even though nobody ever expects the same thing.

            • Tom Liles says:

              I disagree that “no one chooses a photograph” represents a different problem, but let me take it that by shifting there it’s because you agree, in my scenario, the odds are well on that no one chooses a photograph. This does speak to what the common definition and idea of a story is, and you back me up when you say:

              …perhaps story is too definite a word that implies a concrete narrative flow…

              I think it is. We don’t want to be like prescriptivist dictionary writers, the linguistic equivalent of King Cnut, and demand that a word means something that only we arbitrarily say it does. Meaning is a co-creation, and what the majority agree on, that’s what goes. The hypothetical I outlined gives an idea of what the majority think stories are; and photographs are not what come to mind.

              The really strong photographs should have a message

              I’d go even further, and less precisely, and say: the really strong photographs should have something. A message? OK, certainly. You know that I think photographs are art and art is about one-liners. I could label that one line as a message, if I wanted.

              You cannot control the interpretation… but certainly the same could be said of a novel; the author can describe a scene, but never fully, exhaustively fill in all of the detail. The rest is up to the audience…

              Mmm. I’m not fully sold on this, but as a person who’s spent a while around literary criticism [just as a consumer of it] I can see what you’re getting at. Here’s a quote from one of the best critics I ever read, James Woods:

              Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, wheras literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.

              Does sound a bit like photography, doesn’t it. Novels leave out details and invite the reader to invent, but that is very directed and planned in a way that a photograph can never be. The absolute geographic location of buildings or trees or whatever can not change at the photographer’s whim. He has his legs, his choice of focal length, his exposure settings and his timing. That’s it. He cannot hover unnoticed 3m in the air, for instance. He can not control whether that guy there will go left or right. He can not move this building over to the left side of the street leaving all other elements untouched. A writer could do all of that, if he chose to. That is control. At best, at best, a photographer could influence [shout to the guy “oi! mate! go left!”]. Controlling, then, which elements are there, or not, is a quite different proposition when it comes to photos and novels, wouldn’t you agree? James Woods again:

              Fiction is most effective when its themes are unspoken. An ideal fiction has a kind of thematic ghostliness, whereby the novel marks its meanings most strongly as it passes, as it disappears, rather as on a street snow gets dirtier, more marked, as it disappears.

              Good photos need a message, but as soon as that message is presentable in any other language than the photographic, the photo is diminished and lesser. This makes answering the question: what’s the message? a circular affair. Which strikes me as being very true to life, true to reality: taken on any terms most definitely including the scientific.

              • Good photos need a message, but as soon as that message is presentable in any other language than the photographic, the photo is diminished and lesser.
                Agreed: the photographic language is unique in that it’s both very precise and still subjective; the precision comes from the concrete representation of reality; the subjective from the interpretation of the various elements on both sides, from both the photographer and the viewer. Language can be precisely descriptive but the subjectivity comes in a) translating those words into a visual picture, and b) filling in the gaps that aren’t mentioned.

                Both require some degree of ambiguity to work – arguably, it’s why the book is never as enjoyable as the movie; it lacks the ability for each individual reader/ viewer to add their degree of subjective interpretation to the whole thing.

  14. Sergey Landesman says:


  15. The picture of the man dodging under the gangway to the ship has a very attractive, mysterious quality. I wish I could say something more coherent than that! I’m also fascinated that the man as subject is very clear despite the deep DOF, and similarities of textures and tones. He’s darker than his immediate background, but is there anything else?

    BTW, thanks for the Nick Brandt recommendation. The prints in the book themselves are overwhelming, and it’s given me some ideas to try out on a very different subject.

  16. Superb–as always.

  17. Did that sheep dog get a chunk of you? Or perhaps like in a b-movie, it lead to a romantic evening with the lady? Hey, its NY.

  18. I have to admit that I liked the one of the woman and dog walking in opposite directions while crossing the street. You must have worked very quickly to catch it before it disappeared. Which goes to shutter lag and camera simplicity. What I didn’t like at all was the camera you used. Not because you used it and produced nice photos, but because of its cost and the cost of the Leica M Monochrom that is supposed to arrive at my doorstep today. These days you really have to think about the value/price ratio, which is diminishing rapidly with every new camera produced. When I was young, I found it hard to buy one good camera, not to mention the film and development costs. Today I’m facing zero college tuition for kids for the first time in 15 years or so. Still, US $ 8000 versus $ 1000? Fortunately, I was able to find a used MM (for what, one year?) for $7200. What an experiment. And I’m heading to NYC in the next month or so too. So, your essay is very timely for me. Guess that means I’ll search in vain for a lady walking her dog backwards again!

  19. I’m liking this a lot! I came across your shots in the earlier days of my blogging but didn’t follow you. I’m so glad I’ve found your posts again and I will follow from now on! The black and white medium has so many styles of processing and I like the way you keep your contrast up but retain the clarity and exposure. Looking forward to viewing your work regularly. 🙂

  20. Amazing work.

  21. chasingclicks says:

    great shot

  22. Werner Walther says:

    Are you sure, that B&W is the superior style of photography?
    I still feel, it’s the exception. But when you see the yellow cab as a B&W cab (and many other photographs of the NYC colour photo essay, you see how much (a) information and how much (b) atmosphere is lost.

    Just three weeks ago, I made a Munich trip, just taking everything which is strange and beautiful to the eye (like demolition and construction sites and all this stuff hidden under the street surfaces) and I’m just thinking of opening a blog now.

    I feel the determining element of street photography is just this second of eternity, it gives to people and to things.

    You are not supposed to look in a face for five minutes, or to see a working man for minutes in the same position, but when you’ve got your picture, this view is yours – forever.

    • I didn’t say it was superior at all. Just a different way of presenting things…as with most things photographic, there is no right and wrong – it’s a subjective.

  23. Black and white is great …somehow adds to the depth of the pictures.. thanx trees

  24. Morning coffee and MT. Great post.

    One thing I would like to ask, how often do you find the 5-axis system in the EM-5 making a noticeable difference to the way you shoot – or what you are able to shoot – when on the street? It’s one of the features which is really drawing me to the OMD’s. I notice that, unlike many of the others, your first shot was with the Oly, given the shot, was this a technical decision or was it simply what you had with you at the time?

    • It certainly both increases the keeper rate of quick grabs and extends your shooting envelop to be able to do interesting things with motion handheld; I find it very useful. But generally I use whatever camera I happen to have with me at the time.

  25. Superb stuff. A question: you seem to shift from 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratios. Is this something you decide on a photo-by-photo basis? Or do you say to yourself: OK, let’s do some 16:9 for a bit, and now maybe some 4:3s?

  26. I love the shadow of the two people and how you change the angle to show as if shadow are walking by. well done Ming, love it

  27. Superb, MT. Pls give me a link to your tips re:street photography. Thanks so much


  1. […] background: this photoessay supposedly lacks soul – both the images and the mark of the photographer – but images […]

  2. […] of producing images which lack ‘soul’ and ‘the stamp of the photographer’ (see the comments on this photoessay). At first, it bothered me. I suspect that was the commercial side of me speaking; the need to […]

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  4. […] continues my exploration of NYC’s streets in black and white. Part one can be found here. […]

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