Questioning the ‘art’ market

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Too commercial, with no artistry required, apparently.

Attempting to make the transition – perhaps augmentation is a more accurate description – from commercial photographer to fine art photographer as a profession in the last six months has not been easy. I suspect there are quite a few reasons for this: firstly, [defining a product] has become a significantly larger challenge since you are not creating to-spec for a client, but creating something you imagine from scratch. That something has to be visually distinctive enough to stand out, aesthetically pleasing enough to elicit desire, and exclusive enough to appeal to the typical art buyer.

And here the conflict begins.

I’ve also met with a number of galleries and buyers both locally and internationally – some of which were quite famous and representing very well-known names in the industry, all of whom were photography specialists, and the conclusions I’ve come to are both rather grim and extremely depressing. In fact, it makes me believe that what is commonly perceived as ‘fine art’ photography is in reality no more authentic than the images created to spec for a commercial client. In reality, there’s nothing different at all – other than the level of pretentiousness.

Before I tar every gallery or art agent with the same brush, I will add a caveat that it is based on what I experienced, and may well be different for other individuals. I have no doubt that there are still photographers being ‘discovered’ by galleries and then going on to become superstars; what I’m questioning is the exact mechanism by which this happens.

The first problem is that the potential buyer only sees what they’re shown. This seems obvious, but how would you know you like something if you’ve never seen it before? The galleries and curators have a duty to therefore continually be on the hunt for variety; the unique and different. The second problem is that even if you know you like it, it might not be available. And it’s not always in the best financial interests of the gallery to get the buyer what they want because then the whole process becomes too easy, and the more those fires of desire are stoked, the higher the eventual price (and commission). Art has a deeply psychological element to it: not just the appreciation, but also the buying. Do you think a Picasso’s value would be as high if their number weren’t finite and they were easily available? Almost certainly not.

For a large proportion of the buying population, that in itself is enough; having one on your wall implies you have both taste and means, and the skill to acquire what other people with skill and means do not: in other words, primitive one-upmanship. My Picasso is bigger than yours.

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Too staged (it wasn’t.)

Several galleries admitted freely that most of their buyers actually had no clue what they were buying; they bought because they were told it was a good investment or exclusive or because it was expensive and they thought it’d impress their friends. I was told that images needed stories to sell; the more unfeasible and amazing the better – even if the image itself is nothing to speak of, either aesthetically or in technical quality. This means they’re on the lookout for things that are easy to explain and distinctive; the less convincing required, the better. Work that requires further contemplation to appreciate is not really popular because they have to do the extra explaining, and photoessays have long fallen out of vogue (this I can understand, because people generally don’t want to hang documentary work in their homes anyway – it might be an interesting photograph, but either disturbing or aesthetically jarring).

And we haven’t even talked about the common practice of ‘finding’ an artist, getting in on the ground floor, promoting them to the hilt, and then exiting at the top: this is a business, and not necessarily one with any integrity. In fact, from what I’ve seen so far – I’d argue the opposite.

What I took away from all of this is that a very great deal of what we think of as art is really manufactured to be that way; it’s a customer-driven industry like any other, as opposed to a creator-driven one. And perhaps that’s as much my mistake as anything else; one of the fundamental cornerstones of what constitutes art (which I’ve never discussed here) is that I believe it must first originate from the passion or obsession of the creator; not be something that’s made because it is easy to sell to a rube. That just doesn’t feel right: how can it be art if it isn’t made a certain way because the creator believes so strongly with their entire being that it must be that way?

During these meetings, I was told many things. I was told that my work is too commercial. I was told that my stories are not dramatic or strong enough. I was told that I have no visual signature. I was told that I shoot too many things, and this subject ADD means I have no focus. I was told that my images are too balanced, and too technically perfect. The subject matter was too safe and too conventional. Or that I pictures and prints that would only appeal to other photographers, as though that was an insult. But I was also told consistently that the prints – all [Ultraprints], of course – were amongst the best they’d ever seen. And once I got over the initial depression of being judged inadequate – I believe this is a natural state if you care at all about what you do, and this again is necessary to be an artist – I realized that even if I was accepted by the establishment, I don’t think I want to be there.

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A boring, rehashed theme.

You can look at this as sour grapes, or not. I honestly don’t believe that these conventional gallery environments are a good place to start for a new artist. Firstly, there will always be preconceptions and expectations which influence the way you act and what you present, which in turn chips away a little at the honesty of your work. Then, because we want to naturally try to be accepted and affirmed, we keep compromising and modifying things a little more; another chip gets knocked off. Eventually, it becomes very difficult to retain your own identity.

I shoot the variety of subjects I do because they appeal to me. I shoot in the way I do with the precision I do because I believe that looking at the prints is meant to be an experience, and if the technical part isn’t as close to perfect as possible, then you’ll see the flaws or the near misses or the technique rather than looking through all of that to see only the image. And I believe that you can have a photograph that’s aesthetically perfect but has no more than the simplest idea – even a common, done-before one – that has just as much merit as a complex and pretentious one. Finally, I believe that everybody has an opinion and preferences, that these are all equally valid, and that the buyers should have the final prerogative of being able to choose without pressure from the galleries or salespeople because their commissions are dependent on one artist over another.

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Apparently they didn’t like the abstraction of man, either. Too bad, because I’m not shooting images for you: I’m shooting them for me. If you think about it, anything else is really quite meaningless.

Unfortunately, this philosophy is a commercial disaster; but I suppose then again most uncompromising things are, because they will only ever appeal to a small population. But you know what? I think this is just fine, because it’s what makes the artist happy, and that allows them to be able to continue to be productive – without that contentment and belief in their work, there will be no more work. You have to create for yourself first in order to have the drive to go the extra mile, do that extra experimentation and work at something until it’s perfect – and then this becomes art. I am therefore convinced I will have to once again find my own way if I am to make the full transition from making a living from images to spec for commercial clients to images that I am entirely happy with personally. I actually have some ideas and things I’d like to try around this; the first one of which you’ll see very, very soon.

My work will not be conventional fine art photography as defined and censored by the art establishment. It’s democratized, or as much as I can make it. I don’t tell you what to like, or why. I create what I like and I believe that’s the most integrity any artist can offer you. They’re unashamedly prints for photographers and people who care about printing and being immersed, transported to a scene. Pick the one that works for you.

And I suppose we have now figured out why the great artists were never popular in their lifetimes: it’s because they didn’t fit in with the current expectations or gestalt of their time. They were ahead of their peers. But once the world caught up, they found their place – and then were imitated and sought after by the establishment in turn. The cycle continues. I know where I want to be in it. MT

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A few places left for Making Outstanding Images Chicago (September 2014), Masterclass San Francisco (September 2014). Masterclass Venice (November 2014) now open for booking – click here to book or for more info

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Comments

  1. Tom Liles says:

    I see Mr Babsky has come back… And starts with:

    The last time I wrote something here – many months ago, or maybe last year – you suggested that I should go away and never come back.

    Here is why Ming asked you to go away, David. The first comment in an exchange, after a recent pattern of escalating snark, on how Ming doesn’t know what you know. A tone which we see you smuggling in here again: that you’re a teacher — you just can’t comment without dropping this thickly on us, can you? — and again you set about teaching Ming. Are you ever going to relent and accept that it might be Ming who needs to be schooling you? Just a thought, David. Because Ming had to out you with a link to some photography you’ve done a couple comments down that exchange, and you stepped the f— off after that. Ever consider bluing your name up, as Ming does every time, on your comments? Or even better, link to some A-B comparisons of your students before and after… Then we might gauge how worthy your didacticism is. Ming links to all his students; he even posts their pictures in his workshop report articles now.

    It has almost been a year since your snark sent you packing — and please don’t be so inartly charitable to yourself, and uncharitable to Ming, to phrase it as you did above, dog-whistling that it was MT’s fault, not yours, for him sending you on — conveniently, just the other day, Ming had to post about a new approach to character assassins, snark merchants, trolls, and straight up haters. Recommended reading for you. If you can’t keep away, a-OK, but give that article a gander. It’s titled “New Comment and Email Policy.” You are a cumulative part of the reason it had to be written and that things have gotten to that.

    As before you have your slightly smug and stalled ideas of what art is –> “art is what artists make!” and like some aryan of the arts, sermonize those who don’t fit on how penultimate their taste is. And then suddenly give Ming a pass if he confesses some personal detail to you (perhaps you like the idea of having something over him?). Well all your don’t think feeeellll and try whistling when you go out to shoot stuff, the triangles, the “soul” stuff (I told you once that Platonists and the ancients saw perfection and the soul as related or a monic substance and implied things may be coming full circle, i.e., the soul = emotion/feeling philosophy you obviously like is perhaps outdated and being overtaken now; but you ignored the point since it’s uncomfortable for your sclerotic aesthetic sense) it must sound good to your ear, but has the rest of us who keep open minds uncomfortable in our seats, trying to find a place to look other than you being the Dad dancing at the disco.

    At any rate, I couldn’t hold my tongue (though waited a good while) but have to ask you: don’t you think it’s a little poor show to return with the first line you did? Rather than open with:

    The last time I wrote something here – many months ago, or maybe last year – you suggested that I should go away and never come back.

    Might not a public apology to Ming for your last post be the better way to come back?
    Well, it’s done now, so there it is.

    I’ll make sure to stay out of your way, David, but let it be known—until you blue your name up, holding forth on Ming’s style or aesthetic sense the way you do just makes you look chicken hearted. Of course critics are rarely capable artists themselves, we all know that. We all, though, that can’t hold a candle to Ming, or are happy to watch and support his version of himself through photography, draw the line at telling the man how to do it. As you often, invariably, do.

    An apology for previous snark is appropriate.

    • David Babsky says:

      Hi, Tom,

      OK, I’ll write whatever you want me to write. Just jot it down here, and I’ll put my name to whatever you think I should say.

      And I apologise in advance, of course, for ever upsetting anyone with anything I might say, or have ever said or written, and I assure you that any opinions which I may write from now on will never again be my own, but I’ll have been sure to get them pre-approved by you – and anyone else whom you suggest – before I put finger to keyboard.

      I’m terribly sorry, Tom, for having expressed thoughts which are different from yours.

      Yours apologetically,

      David.

      • Tom Liles says:

        God…

        Or just act like an adult and be responsible for what you do write and say? I linked to it above, an easy reminder for you. That was all you, David; not me. Feel like owning it?

        A certain magic word makes this all go away. Or maybe you’re only sorry that I called you out on it. As I say though, David, I’ll stay out your way… Looking back over previous threads getting to that one where we all thought you’d made your exit, I saw how many people, especially myself, would compliment you—and you ignore every single one, or in later instances responding with this sulky tone you try on me now; I’m certainly past my “he’s a pillock” line with you.

        But that’s me. So I’ll stay out your way.

    • Michiel953 says:

      Well Tom, on venturing into the comments section of this blog I stumbled on your August 13 entry, an entry into which I presume you put a lot of thought before pressing the “submit!” key.

      I tried plougjing through the discussion that preceded your entry, but my stamina and determination soon wore out. To put it briefly, you detest David Babsky’s contributions here and probably elsewhere too. Maybe you detest David Babsky as a person; it’s a common though slightly baffling internet phenomenon.

      Anyway. I’ve seen David’s contributions on other sites, in that sense I “know” him, and I can only say I always value his thoughts, even if I may not – always – agree with them.

      You, on the other hand, seem firmly wedged into that vast community of internet visitors that get riled every time an pposing view is uttered; the yaysayers, that detest discussion on whatever level it may occur, and call for a ban on a regular basis.

      What qualifies you to do that, I wonder.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Um… Rather than wonder, why not read comments and know? Then you’d know I don’t detest anyone, so don’t do that Michiel, it sucks. And it’s see-through. I’m not that guy Michiel953; so please don’t try this schtick OK? Please do read first before jumping in, maybe? I didn’t ask for David to leave, this site’s owner did; because David was being a douchebag, constantly in that period. He waltzes back in here (you didn’t read so you didn’t notice, but I said “a-OK”) but invited by? without even an apology for the guy he insulted. The sense of self-entitlement is annoying to me, yes. I can’t stand this kind of selfishness and smugness and self-invitedness, and I call David out on it. I didn’t cause him to be kicked out; and he, and you, need to come to terms with that. His comments and behavior did. This isn’t a public square, it’s Ming’s house. Children who don’t understand the (social) rules, shouldn’t be at the grown ups table.

        Don’t talk about open-mindedness to me of all people; and especially in connection and in defense of David and his comments on this site, thus far. That’s more than ironic, it’s infuriating and you anger me with it. Especially considering you haven’t even read me much. I don’t need to prove my credentials—you need be a bit more fair to me and actually try reading me if you wish to challenge or draw a character profile (though we all understand the desire to protect a friend). All the comments that beat your stamina and determination are on this site waiting for you. I will rap with anyone and enjoy debate, Michiel, and also concede points when I’m persuaded I’m wrong. I also thank people for compliments and for comments. Three things I’ve never seen David do — and OK, he can conduct himself how he likes; he must live with the consequences though, as he demonstrably cannot — but there it is. I’ve made a lot of friends here, many of which I continue dialog with off-site. I’m not that guy Michiel, and you need to say a Hail Mary or two in repentance for putting me in with the “vast community of internet visitors that get riled every time an pposing view is uttered; the yaysayers, that detest discussion on whatever level it may occur, and call for a ban on a regular basis.

        This is so utterly unfair, I’d say a “sorry” is in order, Michiel (I say “would,” to soften it). Really, you have literally no idea about me, do you?

        I have nothing more to say about David, or his return. This whole thing sucks.

        • Tom Liles says:

          No, I tell you what Michiel, your clumsy and lazy caricature has angered me so much—I retire from this site.

          David can’t apologize for being a dick (we’re all dicks now and again, it’s no big deal—except when you make it one by pretending it wasn’t you that was being a dick); Michiel, you can’t read comments but feel OK to just invent a version of me on which to direct arguments which distract from the sole point here: David inviting himself back in without as much as a simple sorry to Ming. Even now after arm bending he can’t offer one — and is all sarky and sulky “Oh I’m sooooo sorry, Tom,” even though I’m not one he insulted — it’s clear David doesn’t feel he needs be contrite in anyway; despite that Ming felt so insulted he had to publicly kick David out — a first in our community — but this point of fact counts for nothing to you or David, ditto my reputation here—and I’m the bad guy in all this.

          I just don’t want to be anywhere near places that you and David are.

          So that’s it for me. Well done, Michiel. I quit. I wish I could do something to you and David directly, but of course I can’t, the only action I can pull which shows the severity of your trespass is to self-harm and quit. And I do.

          Have fun in your new open minded comments section.
          (Are you really this blind to yourselves?)

          David: you refuse to apologize for your previous insults. At least answer this one question for the gallery:

          Why did you come back? I very much doubt Ming sent you an invite to rejoin—why would a guy invite himself back? And why doesn’t that guy — you — have to apologize on his return?

          And David—if you were to apologize now, after all this drama necessary to get there, how grown up and sincere do you think that would look? You have missed — spectacularly — your chance to play this with a little class. You’re a small man. A child, even.

  2. I can’t believe I just read all those comments, but rarely can you read such a good conversation nowadays, so i needed to post for a quick thank you to everyone involved !

    I will add that I get what you do in your personal work, it speaks to me, my english is not good enough to elaborate like all of the people before me did so I won’t even try, let’s just say that I look forward to any new blog post to get some more photographs to look at, and it probably count for something.

    Oh, and I’ll vote for a book too, I live in a tiny space with no room to hang anything on the walls, but I have a bookshelf, and would love to have a book from you in there.

  3. … how can it be art if it isn’t made a certain way because the creator believes so strongly with their entire being that it must be that way? …

    as an art connoisseur once told me, “art” that sells is nothing else but DECORATION … real art claims innovation, uniqueness or a new idea that´s done the first time …

    There are only a few artists (alive) who make a (good) living out of their photografic work … like Andreas Gursky …. for example …

    • Everybody cites Gursky. Do they actually know WHY? Or is it because the establishment says it must be so?

      • This refers back to my previous comments. This guy has the right pedigree – he studied photography under a famous photographer, so was “qualified” and easily accepted by the industry – as an insider as opposed to outsider. His work is also gimmicky – huge scale. He has a larger than life personality so can easily be marketed. He is the perfect storm.
        In terms of the actual images themselve, he definately has a quirky style and an “eye”. I can see them with the subject matter and the huge size being interesting to view as a collection in an exhibition.
        But are the images themselves worth the huge amounts of money that they are sold for – we’re talking in millions here? One piece of work was sold for US$ 4.4 M.
        If the photos were anonymous or were signed off by Joe Bloggs who used to be an ice-cream vendor but had a passion for photography as a hobby – I wonder…………
        In this case, it is obvious that the high value of the artwork is more about the photographer than the work itself.

        • Gursky is an interesting case for multiple reasons.
          he comes from the old school of large format analog and fully established himself decades ago…this really helps to distinguish him from the the daily torrents of relatively quick and easy to produce digital images of today. He is now considered one of the “old masters” of large format color photography (even tho he now uses modern digital gear)….and in this business reputation is a massive factor. he is untouchable in the gallery world, especially after selling the most expensive print of all time. mystique points for the ages.
          TIMING is everything. the right “thing” at the right time. he was making insanely large prints at high quality of ecologically significant sites before it became typical and his penchant for technique could shine most brightly in the context of huge prints.
          He made his bones a long time ago and even if his new stuff is not as “good” (imo) as his older stuff it does not matter…his rep is absolutely rock solid and he can shoot whatever he wants now and it will sell for massive amounts.
          another factor which people sometimes forget about is access. for artists like gursky and burtynsky who specialize in getting their high res cameras to difficult to access locations and vantage points (ie not just another generic “stunning” shot of machu picchu or what have you)….once the rep is established they get incomparable connections, grants, ecological foundation support, etc which in turn result in their access…which in turn lead to one of a kind images because few others are granted access to those location for amounts of time necessary to get perfect shots…so even an artist of comparable skill/talent/etc could not get the same shot…this all leads to high prices because the shots are nearly impossible to duplicate, and once the images are obtained there is an entire art world machinery in place to make sure they get top dollar. success makes it’s own momentum.
          all these things add up to get the result that you get…no ONE factor is the whole story. it is cumulative, complex, and imo some serious talent/skill is almost always required.

          • Luck breeds luck. Access is a good point. I do wonder what the result would be if all the ‘best’ or most reputable photographers in the world were put together in the same place…what would the images look like? And who would even be qualified to judge the competition?

            • having “..sky” at the end of your name might also help…Mingtheinsky….

              • Basically, being NOT Asian…

                • Not sure that race is an issue here. There are many Chinese painters who are very sought after in the West. And there is a plethora of successful Asian architects and fashion designers mixing it with the best.
                  But as I have pointed out a few times on these comments, I am sure that it helps to come from a photographic school background, hob-knob in the right “artistic” circles and have a marketable personality. These qualities give you the “rights” to be a famous art photographer it seems – and to be “accepted” as such from the establishment. Like most industries, they like to elevate their own. If an Asian person has these qualities then why not be successful?
                  Of course it is not impossible to “make it” otherwise, but this is a well-trodden path for a lot of successful modern artists and designers.

                  • race could definitely figure in….imagine a scenario where something dramatic/newsworthy was occurring in a certain community somewhere on earth…and artist of the same race as that community might find themselves having an easier time seamlessly integrating into that community and thus getting images of a much more intimate and visceral nature. this does not seem entirely implausible to me. i recently saw a brilliant documentary film directed by a woman who grew up in the same white rural community she was “covering”. had she been disconnected from that area i doubt she would have been as easily trusted to shoot the footage she did. i also recently saw a similarly brilliant doc about chinese families recovering from a horrendous earthquake…the filmmaker was also chinese and i suspect he was more easily able to get into that situation because his subjects felt kinship with him. you could say something similar about Nan Goldin. it all figures in….

            • if i’ve observed anything in this area (the elusive matter of one in a million success in the arts): it all matters, and it all counts…a confluence of elements, some in the control of the artist, or at least uniquely OF the artist (taste, skill, talent, personality, style, choice of focus, how work is grouped together and presented, business savvy, media savvy, how much you are willing to sacrifice, determination, vision, etc), and some completely out of the control of the artist (timing/historical context, name, looks, blind luck, pre existing connections, how much $ you start with, etc), and often in different ratios to add up to the end result (recognition, $, respect, representation, etc). it all matters….and it all counts.
              keep on!

      • Everybody mentions Gursky because he is the most obviously successful photographer. There are many other dedicated long term large format photographers and most of them are not all that successful commercially while some are doing okay. Clyde Butcher comes to mind. But indeed it seems that huge dose of luck is also needed at various parts of the career, on top of the skill, determination and hard work.

  4. Just popping in to add that technical perfection in a photo can be the result of great passion and emotion as well. What is perceived by some as soulessness isn’t necessarily so. I look at MT’s photos and I have a connection with his passion to find perfection, his dedication to his craft, his clear and precise thought process, that it translate into a clear and precise photo. There is no ambiguity in most if not all of MT’s photo. That clear thought process is something that I can relate to, it’s something that I realised I will never achieve. It’s something that I can appreciate.

    I do not know whether all this translate into “Art” or not. I’m a technical person, I find beauty in an efficient flow chart of a power plant. I even find beauty in a statistical table. So, I believe I am not qualified to define what is Art or what is not Art. But what I do know is that I am a proud owner of some of MT’s prints. And I believe I would continue to acquire his future work, as I believe MT have the potential to be a Master of our time. It might not be immediate, but with time, his work will be recognised as masterpieces.

    • BTW, I vote for a book. I don’t have enough wall space to put MT photos, my own photos and some paintings, not too mention framed calligraphy!!

    • Thank you, Amryl. I’m flattered – but perhaps it’s nothing more complicated than art if you believe it is. The whole thing is subjective after all…

  5. I’d say you might be asking the wrong people. Far too often people will over-intellectualize or use bizarre art jargon (which is in itself a cliché) in an attempt to describe or critique something.

    I produce a fair amount of work related to my military experiences. Some of it involves things that you just can’t experience in any other job, whether good or bad. I remember the first posts on my newly minted flickr page being discussed by a group of people. Some were soldiers who just smiled (some sad smiles depending on the photos) and that reassured me because I knew they “got it.” And then there was the arty crowd or even neo-arty who started conjuring up words used by their film studies professors out of their tight black sweaters and skinny-jean covered arses. They didn’t get it. And then my friend’s son who was looking at a picture of a LAV-III firing a 25mm at night with smoke and dust all over the place in what was basically a scene that any non-soldier would think was straight out of a sci-fi movie or heavily photoshopped image. His eyes went as wide as saucers and out came a delighted shriek: “COOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!” He got it, too.

    I’m not proposing children as all-knowing art critiques, but it is one way to get an opinion which isn’t spoiled by the self-licking ice cream cone of mostly mediocre art schools and self-appointed critics.

    Ming, sometimes I get your photos. Sometimes I don’t. It might be my fault because I don’t understand what you’re trying to show, or it might be your fault because you’ve failed to communicate to me the feeling you had when you took it. I don’t think looking for the approval of the black-sweater crowd is worth your time. I realized that a long time ago (my mom was a pro photographer) and had almost forgotten it when I watched the movie “Ratatouille” and it’s unforgettable ending which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen it. It’s supposed to be a kids movie, but it made me remember the lesson I learned 25 years ago like it was yesterday.

    Just sayin’.

    • Appreciate your honest experiences. And you’re probably right: I shouldn’t forget whose validation I’m looking for, i.e. my own…

    • Your observation about over-intellectualization is certainly on point. Good art is direct and emotive rather than mediated by words and intellectualization. Too many words and preconceptions eviscerate art. When the words and intellectualization are someone else’s, they’re typically a projection of the other person, not the art’s maker.

      Third-party critiques and interpretations, while potentially helpful, would thus often seem to be projections valid only for the person making them, as each person’s own perceptions are their reality. From that perspective, art interpretation and critique ideally would be made tentatively and with humility, not arrogance, and recognized as embodying only the maker’s personal “truth”, not universal “truth”. On the other hand, there’s certainly much to the concept of making less insistently literal photographs that encourage each viewer to look inside and find their own personally valid interpretation and creative reading of a particular work.

      Making art itself and making judgments about art, are rather like doing a karate kata – when you are consciously thinking your way through a kata, then the motion is stuttering rather than fluid and effective. I dislike the cliche, but there should be a sort of Zen-ness to art and photography, coming from deeper personal intuition unmediated by intellectualized concepts.

      That may be a key difference between “fine art” and commercial work. Commercial photography projects have specific goals, usually very literal images and concepts desired by the client, and a logically worked-out plan to realize the specified images. “Fine art” photography is often more spontaneous and serendipitous immersion.

  6. Hi, Ming:

    I decided to not reply to this post until after a few days reflection. There is already quite a range of comments to your initial post, some quite insightful. Other commenters seem to lack both personal insight and humility, which is probably why they’re also gratuitously judgmental and insulting. Outsized yet fragile egos that are easily offended yet thrive by trashing others probably play a role as well. That seems unfortunately common in the “arts”.

    If one’s work is a genuine and close personal observation of their daily world, it will be unique by definition and, with sufficient personal insight, fine art in substance, even if not commercially successful. Acclaim and success as an artist is rather like being awarded the (“Congressional”) Medal of Honor for gallantry. Both are usually posthumous.

    Highly personal art may not be to everyone’s taste and if it is quickly popular then it’s likely suspect, We all know from experience that jurors and gallerists tend to choose what they already know and like. As with all “art” groups, cliques are all too common.

    That’s simply default human nature and it’s the rare person who can rise above that default, even in the hard sciences. Did you know that in the US, new law court judges are sent to training schools where, among other personal and legal skills, they’re taught how to put aside their own biases and initial impressions so that they can fairly hear all of the evidence before arriving at a decision? It would be lovely if that were also true of “fine art” jurors, curators, and gallerists, but not so. And, in the instance of gallerists, they have a commercial incentive to play it safe and stick with what already sells, even if it’s mundane. Too often, it’s a case of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, to recall the child’s allegorical story.

    You’re likely correct about the commercial quirks of the “fine art” industry, and I use that term intentionally. Much “experimental” technique is done for the sake of differentiation, even if it’s forgotten within a year. I recall one article about a photographer who first used their own urine to condition the materials in order to produce blotchy images. Unique? Certainly. Personal? Undoubtedly. Fine art? (Insert your own answer here: _____________ .)

    It’s worth remembering that the most historically prominent fine art photographers were either academics like Minor White and Harry Callahan, or working commercial photographers whose commercial work supported the personal work for which they’re now known. As examples, Steiglitz had his galleries, Steichen supported himself by fashion photography, Weston had his portrait studio, and Ansel Adams did corporate work as mundane as annual reports. Each of these is now known for their fine art photography but their commercial work kept house and mortgage together over the decades, even when awarded major grants like the Guggenheim.

    Although I studied a bit with Minor White while an undergraduate and then graduate student at MIT, I’ve always been glad that I had training in the sciences and then law school to support my family, not to mention my photographic habit. It’s unlikely that one in a thousand makes it a decent living the commercial gallery world, particularly if their art is deeply personal, as all good art should be.

    Despite popular romantic notions, “artistic poverty” has never been a very effective catalyst for deepening one’s creativity. Rather, too much financial insecurity and stress seem to smother creativity for most people. At this point, I stick with exhibits in university galleries, in the hope of encouraging some students to develop their own personal fine art as an adjunct to a full and rounded life.

    • Joe (hope I got that one right), I think that’s perhaps the most intelligent and sensible summary here, and I thank you for that. Artistic poverty is a consequence of sacrificing everything for the sake of art, but not very good for the production of work – think of the limitations in materials, for instance. Being unable to buy canvases generally means making a painting is rather impossible.

      Your point about many of the historically recognised art photographers not necessarily being known for it in their day is a good one – but we tend to forget (or not know about in the first place) the other work they had to do to support their personal work. If this is the price, then so be it. I pay it willingly – it is my own expectations that were perhaps wrong/ incorrect to begin with.

      • Ming, there are two other points that I might mention. In today’s Online Photography, Mike Johnson discusses very similar problems experienced by now-iconic photographers like Lewis Hines. The other is Taleb’s observation in “The Black Swan” about the cascading confirmatory effect of early “discovery” in the arts and sciences resulting in confirmation bias.

  7. This topic is very interesting and thought-provoking. Some of the comments are not something that you would normally read on a photo blog – some quite academic and extremely well though through – philosophical even……I think you have moved this blog to a higher level Ming!
    I come from an Art and design background so this topic is constantly on my mind.
    I personally think that in art, there is room for most things or genres. The very nature of art means that there should be no pre-conceived ideas of what is allowed and not allowed.
    Unfortunately for most of us with artistic pretentions, the modern art world is very much about hype (marketing). It’s more about the artist than their work. To become an “artist” nowadays, you need more than talent. You also need to go to the right colleges, go to the right parties, have connections with the right people (preferably media people), have the right look (self-image) and a larger than life personality………. so that you can get “discovered” in the first place.
    It helps to get “discovered” if you can “create” something unique/shocking that is your signature (such as animals suspended in formaldahyde ala Damian Hurst) so that there is something attention-grabbing for the art establishment/media to actually hype. Being a good self-publicist and bull-shitter (persuasive talker) is seemingly essential. You need to be able to create a (gullible) audience to consume your (high-priced) “work”.
    Of course, if you are already an uber famous personality, then you can forego the art-school/discovery route. Your work will have a ready audience and be sold on association to fans and investors.
    So, Ming, the good news is that it is not your work itself that is the issue. The bad news is that it doesn’t seem that you are famous enough yet……….

    • Almost all of the comments are extremely well considered, and have some valuable points. There is no answer, but since the whole thing is subjective, opinions matter. And in that…the more the better.

      Shock and deception seem to be a rather dishonest way of doing things…no, I’m not famous by any stretch, but it’s also entirely possible my work isn’t good enough, either.

  8. I have just today found your site and have spent the better part of the evening catching up on your work and posts. I have a few comments on this particular entry. First, it is amazingly daring of you to write it at all. To openly discuss this topic, which in large part amounts to some form of rejection (one we can all relate to), is refreshingly honest and I was fascinated by it on that level immensely. Thank you for having the courage to write it and open yourself up to the comments that naturally follow such bravery. And secondly, I do think you might give the art industry another chance, at some point. It’s an industry that I know fairly well and while there is much to loathe about it, I do honestly believe the criteria for what makes it onto a gallery wall is far more vast – and more interesting – than having “to be visually distinctive enough to stand out, aesthetically pleasing enough to elicit desire, and exclusive enough to appeal to the typical art buyer,” as you say. I disagree with some posters here that what stands between you and those walls is between the distinctions of craft vs art. And plenty of fine art photography is “made” not just “taken.” But I do agree with the notion that for any of us to transcend to some kind of status as fine artists, we must be able to tell stories through our photographs. Great ones. And, if you’ve ever talked to a novelist, you know the stories that grab readers aren’t always the ones you think will. The important part is to value the process of continually trying to reach a large audience – NOT because you desire populism, but because that kind of appeal validates the power and humanity of our stories. The same principle that gets me and others to comment on this particular post. You touched a common nerve. No reason why your images won’t, too.

  9. I think it would be difficult for me to count the number of times I’ve read that high sales are assuredly “the true” indication that a work is valid and meritorious. This notion seems to be treated as axiomatic.

    It’s certainly easy to judge the winners, and by extension intrinsic merit, based upon sales or the size of a paycheck.

    What of our experiences of poor-quality concerts delivered by “Successful” musicians and our discoveries of superb-quality music created and played by musicians in small venues earning less than a pittance? Do we filter these out of our memories in order to maintain a greater sense of consistency and order?

    Sociological studies I read of found that a small amount of popularity can attract more popularity to itself (independent of quality), and then more still, producing an amplification or snowballing type of effect. Through this process, very, very different outcomes were eventually obtained by works that were judged to have very, very similar quality. And the very small amounts of difference in initial popularity could be imparted to a work by essentially “random,” capricious, choices of very few people at a given instant.

    • The only conclusion one can come to is that this game is by no means meritocratic.

      • Ming,
        You are right, the art business or being a successful artist is not based on meritocracy. It’s based on what the circus believe it is. Art is defined by the business and the difference between a good artist and a non artist is very vague. Also, there are a big difference in making beautiful, technically perfect images and art. Art photography has something to say. Or should have at least.

      • The study I recall detected *some* influences of quality on average outcomes: over several trials the better quality work vaguely turned in better “average” results than lesser quality work. The selection of winners and losers was still extremely strongly influenced by social popularity that struck randomly and self-attracted (crowd-following behaviors).

        The study seemed to isolate social popularity, set up in a way that avoided other influences such as marketing budgets and backstage personal relationships. I suppose the latter factors could also alter success outcomes independent of quality.

        As far as meritocracy, I’ve focused on and applied personal effort into this concept and suppose I still keep some eyes on it. But I consider a hypothetical young woman who takes care of her very frail, elderly mother and who suffers economically as a consequence. If we consider her actions meritorious, how is her behavior to land up rewarded?

        • It isn’t, and that’s actually quite problematic. One has to believe in some universal sense of karma otherwise it becomes difficult not to simply take the easiest and most self-beneficial route.

  10. Photomatrix says:

    Ming,

    I think things can be simple. If you want to create art you will do regardless of any commercial environment or market, and how it operates. The galleries need to sell to survive and some of them, probably most of them, will go for the easy option of extrapolating trends from the past. I really do not understand why their responses would create such an effect on you. An artist’s opinion about himself/herself and his/her work should be driven from within, as well as the the desire to produce art.

    Sorry I did not have time to read all the comments, so I am not sure if you discussed this, but you should try to clarify why you want to produce art. If it is your own desire, if it is your calling lets say, you will do it regardless. If you are good, people will recognise it and will find you and buy your stuff. If you want to do it only for money (which I do not think it is the case) then you will have to follow the galleries’ recipes. After all, marketing will not be a problem for you as you have a successful website and a tremendous reputation.

    So, do not worry about a specific distribution channel of selling art and focus on what you love, work on it, and become the best at it.

    My very best and thanks for all the work you put on this website.

  11. I’ve never understood the idea, let alone the precise definition (if one exists) of “fine art”. It’s the “fine” that gets me. Is that “fine” as opposed to “coarse”, or “poor”, or “for mass consumption”, or what? It strikes me as terribly vague.

    As others have said, I don’t generally buy other peoples’ photos, however good they are, only because I’m more inclined to work on my own. I did rather impulsively buy a book on Cartier-Bresson last week, which isn’t quite the same as a print, but it was a good deal and contains many of his pictures which I haven’t seen before.

    Another issue seems to be that the market for art is in no way meritocratic, but seems (from this outsider’s view) to be based purely on who you know and if, at any given time, the photographs you produce are deemed to be “in” by a random group of art experts / investors.

    As for you (Ming), could it not be a difference in approach? You succeed commercially because clients ask for a certain thing, and you produce it. Both parties know, to a greater or lesser degree, what is wanted. That seems to be something you do well, and can therefore make a living from. Whereas the fine art area is way more random and arbitrary and depends on the whims of others…something we can’t easily control. And I don’t see you compromising or turning pretentious in order to appease people. Not your style – fortunately!

    I don’t know if you ever came across Viz magazine when you were in the UK, but it had a marvelous strip called “The Critics”, featuring two nauseous art critics who would fawn over whatever the latest fad was. I imagine the fine art world has no shortage of such people… there’s a link below if you feel like laughing and groaning at the same time.

    • …and that should of course be “nauseating”, not “nauseous”. Blame jet lag!

    • nigelrobinson says:

      Hi Mark, this used to bother me too, until I read that the term is used to distinguish from ‘applied art’. They are overlapping categories.

    • Definitely arbitrary. “I’m looking for medium-coarse art, please” – as though it’s nothing more than coffee grinds. Hmmm.

      Perhaps the problem lies in my own expectations: I know what I expect from fine art, and I would have thought so do all creators – evidently not…

      • To understand the term and use it with precision, you have to think historically and contextually, and look at the articulations of and arguments about the idea of “Beaux-Arts” in Europe in the 18th century.

    • If you look at history, the most commercially successful artists are often not the ones we remember and celebrate today. Melville’s Moby Dick was such a flop its printing blocks had to be burnt, and didn’t become a classic decades after his death. I do think the contemporary visual arts have reached a particularly sh*tty stage (postmodern), where most “normal” people walk into galleries and are confounded and confronted by childish pranks called art. But the same selection and distillation process still takes place, and necessarily does so over time and not overnight. Commercial success (and conformity with some kind of “mass taste”) is really not a very good measure of artistic merit.

  12. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Dear Ming, there are a lot of interesting thoughts in your article. (I don’t speak about the comments – there are simply too many of those for me to read them all.)
    Throughout history, so many thoughts have been written down about what art is all about, about what makes a work into a work of art. It’s clear that there exist many truths about this subject. Without being pretentious, I still want to give you a few thoughts of my own.
    First, I’m convinced that whatever we define about the general characteristics of art, must apply to all art disciplines (wether it’s visual arts, performing arts, literature, film, etc). So I think it’s necessary to check out any definition in regard to all different art forms, to see if it can be a valuable definition.
    Now about the essence of art, I strongly believe that a definition of art can not be complex and it can not exclude any work on grounds of politics, religion, morals, beauty or whatever. Therefore I believe art is simply to be defined as “hyper communication” – nothing more, but certainly nothing less. It’s the “hyper” in this definition that needs clarification, althoug again, this is not complex: when a “work” initiates a communication that is stronger and/or more intens than our normal ways of communication, it is a work of art. Yet, this doesn’t imply wether or not it’s a “great” work of art, let alone a masterpiece, but it is still a work of art. Art can have all possible characteristics: it can be beautiful, ugly, strong, flaccid, moralising, decadent, etc. Each individual can be (more or less) attracted to any single work of art, based on one or more of those characteristics and wether or not those characterestics appeal to him. As a result of this, one artist can be more successful than another (given that they both deliver the same intrinsic quality, the same level of “hyper” communication), as his work contains more characteristics that appeal to more people (“can be”, because there’s of course also the marketing element, but this is normally taken care of by other people, whether it’s an agent, a manager, a gallery owner, etc.). In time (and place) the “set of characteristics” that appeal to the majority of the population can alter, hence an artist can become famous long after his death (or he can be successful in one region of the world and not in another). All this implies that there really is only one thing an artist must take care of, to make great art, that is to achieve the highest possible “hyper” level of communication. Of course this will not guarentee commercial success, it only refers to his artistic level. Now, how an artist can achieve a high hyper level, can simply not be explained, because there are too many different ways. One can explain how a specific great artist has done it in the past, but one can never explain how you (or me) will have to do it in the future. Yet we can sum up some general requirements. The subject(s) of our work must allow strong, meaningfull communication and our work must present the subject in the most effective possible way, without unnecessary distractions. OK, a teacher can follow and guide a student, and artists can change thoughts to come up with new ways to make their communication stronger – they indeed càn go deeper into specific ways to go, by connecting to their particular way of working, but that doesn’t apply to a general definition or general way to procede.
    So the choice of the subject and the choice of our message is where it all starts. Can this subject be simple? Yes, as long as it allows a compelling message. This is the most difficult part: finding a subject (or a field of subjects), with whom we connect in a strong enough way, to allow us to come up with messages that initiate an absolute hyper level of communication. Of course, after finding out the subject, we still must “perform” our work – with all necessary skills. It’s clear that the skills will determine the effectiveness of our message and thus they will help to create a stronger work. But it’s also very clear that first of all, the strength of our communication is determined by our subject and how we we connect with it. Exactly here lies the hardest task of any artist, in photography, music, film, painting, literature, etc…
    A thought in the margin, regarding photography. We need to present our subject(s) with the least possible distractions. Therefore it’s a good idea to leave out everything that’s not necessary. You stated that before, and I agree. But recently something crossed my mind and I have to say, I think it makes a lot of sense. To concentrate on the subject and to make it stronger, leaving out everything unnecesary probably also means that we have to leave out all unnecesary pixels. I suspect this to be virtually impossible for you to go allong with (and for commercial work, it’s absolutely unthinkable). But I wonder, when more pixels give more than the necessary information, when those pixels come up with unnecessary “side subjects”, they will surely weaken the message “of our art work” by distracting. We mustn’t forget that in art, it’s all about the subject and the strenght of the message that we communicate regarding this subject. I wonder if leaving out those pixels isn’t the same as leaving out unnecessary colors – what we all often do by creating pictures in B&W… Like I said, this is a recent thought of mine and I haven’t given it full consideration yet. But at this moment I tend to think it’s absolutely reasonable. Maybe I’ll change my opinion later. Isn’t it great to be able to change our opinion? As it is to differ in opinion?
    And one final thought. I also wonder if it’s a good thing to produce “unique” photographic pictures. Photographers often compare their work with painters, which I believe is wrong. When we think of the medium, a painting is unique by nature. But a photographic picture isn’t. It’s a medium that can easily be reproduced. As such, I believe it’s more natural to compare it with a music record. Isn’t it more logical that the more successful photographer would sell more copies of his pictures?

    • Your last point about abandoning unnecessary pixels is interesting – I’ve been shooting a lot of subjects lately that have not much detail; extra pixels don’t help with resolution simply because there is nothing more to resolve but they do help with the realism/ communication of colour transition, which does matter.

      Painting and photography aren’t the same. One is subtractive, the other is additive.

      A more successful photographer could either sell few at a high price, or many at a low price. Many at a high price just doesn’t seem possible in this commercial environment, unfortunately.

      • Ming, thought provoking essay, and the responses are just as insightful.

        In my opinion, for that that’s worth, as somebody who has been a photographer for 40 years you do have a vision, the technical skill to pull it off, and passion about your work. I prefer your still lifes, but that’s me. I think you have some images of the mundane, like the light bulb, I love. One of your articles has the most wonderful black and white of a toilet I’ve seen!

        What art one likes is so subjective, I personally would take the gallery owners’ opinions with a big grain of salt. Though David Kasman’s post did point out sometimes you do need good advise from a qualified outside source.

        Back in the day I attended a pretty prominent photography school. I was young and eager. First year we had the same instructor for our major all year. He and I just didn’t get along. In our last visit he told me,” It’s very doubtful you’ll be a successful photographer.” 10 years later I was shooting for Sony and Pfizer, and he was teaching. I’m glad I didn’t listen to “that” qualified source.

        So, you have talent, now work on marketing and positioning for print sales. Couple ideas…PR is great to get you known, and free. The catch is it can’t be blatant self promotion . Think Ming Thein donates 10 “”Making Outstaning Images” DVD’s to underprivileged school. Ming Thein donates first medium format ultra print to cancer benefit.

        Also, maybe galleries might take some time, but marketing to high end interior designers might work?

        I suggest you really look at your goal and make sure this isn’t a “the grass is greener” thing. If the goal is to shoot for Ming, not to spec, maybe workshops and dvd sales are the path? Or work on making more money with commercial work so you can shoot less for spec and more for you.

        I have a friend/neighbor who makes her living as a painter. She lives very rurally, and is basically asocial. Most of the time she gets to work in her studio by herself in jeans and a T shirt, and I’m sure she’s in heaven. When her galleries have shows/openings she needs to dress up, show up, and be sociable. I know she’s not in heaven then. There’s no perfect world.

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        Indeed pixels help to achieve realism. When you persue a realistic image, you’ll need them. But in art, you’re image doesn’t “need” to be a realistic one at all, it can but it only does so if the artist wants it to be realistic.
        When I compared painting with photography, I was only referring to their ability to be produced in one unique example, or in an infinit number (theoreticallyspeaking). I compared the latter with music records. Never a piece of music will be reproduced in one or only a few examples, at astronomic prices. The price of a record is pretty constant. A greater success for a musician always means: many sold examples. I wonder if it wouldn’t be “healthier” if the price of photographic images would be pretty constant as well, and only depend on its reproduction specifications (like print quality and size). This would probably mean that the photographer no longer performs his own prints (nor does a musician), but of course top photographers would chose a top quality printing company and would personally follow up the printing process and check the copies.

  13. your photos are technically precise with thoughtful composition, but the real question for me is: how do you think even your very best photos are above and beyond, conceptually and/or aesthetically, than what 1000s upon 1000s of mfa grads are producing every year? there is a lot of crap out there, but there is also a lot of solid, unnoticed work.

    it is a difficult market to enter quickly unless the stars align. most of my more successful art photographers friends slaved away at their particular vision for 5-10yrs minimum before getting noticed. check out jeff bark’s work as someone who came from a commercial background. in my mind, this is an example of what you are up against. and there are loads of art photographers with similar talent.

    congrats in your blog. it is a wealth of helpful information.

    thanks

    • I don’t think there’s any reason why I should produce a worse image given the same chances as any other photographer. The thousands of MFA grads might have a piece of paper and some formal teaching, but I’ve got 13 years of experience.

      • But the gist of his post revolved around the fact that there are literally thousands upon thousands of very interesting(interesting is a better word than good, because good is a narrower term and does not inherently preclude “boring” – I am making this distinction because you used the word “worse” in your post, might mean nothing, but in the offchance that it does mean something, then it’s better to include it than not, I think), unique, experienced photographers, some of ’em MFA grads, some of ’em coming from a commercial background, some simply people who are amateurs in the sense that they’ve never had any formal training nor commercial experience, but nonetheless produce interesting work.

        While I do think you make some quite interesting work on your off-time (your best work – which is to say, the work I enjoy the most from you has a… sort of enjoyably laconic feel to it and I like the way you handle colour very much, in fact I’d say that your colour work is far more interesting than your B&W stuff, but that’s probably down to me simply liking colour work more than B&W work in general, so take that with a grain of salt), I would be interested in reading a thought out in-depth answer, because that would very much be interesting to read and seeing someone elses thoughts on the matter can oftentimes be a jumping off point for ones own thoughts on the matter (on ones own, ones thoughts tend to inherently go down far narrower pathways than they would when one is immersed in the thoughts of others, generally) and also I think it would very much help *you* better understand(or perhaps clarify rather than better understand?) your own work, what you like about it, what it makes you feel, what you think is the… point, for lack of a better word, et cetera.

        Perhaps this could be the subject of a future article? I’d imagine I’m not the only one who would be interested in reading it.

      • You don’t seem to be ‘listening’ to the point, and in this reply sound almost truculantly defensive.

        • knickerhawk says:

          Indeed. I get the sense that Ming believes that the skills he’s clearly mastered with respect to commercial work combined with his natural visual talent is sufficient to carry him to success in the “fine art” realm of photography. In some respects the “13 years of experience” Ming refers to may actually be holding him back from successfully transitioning. Question for Ming: how much formal art education do you have and how many classes/workshops by art photographers have you taken? Perhaps it’s time (again?) to place yourself in the role of “student” who knows very little instead of the role of the expert with “13 years of experience,” successful blogger and workshop leader…

          • Time to find the right teacher…

            • To Kinickerhawks point and yours……finding the right teacher is not hard. You just have make a point of finding them.

              • Harder than you might think. I’ve had correspondences with many famous/ skilled/notable photogs and found none suitable – mostly because of personality.

                • knickerhawk says:

                  Yours or theirs?

                  Perhaps you’re going about it the wrong way. Instead of seeking out photographers directly, why don’t you check out the offerings of some of the better photography schools/centers? A few short courses/workshops might be a good way to test the premise and may then loop you into mentoring relationships that go beyond the original course.

  14. Fascinating exchange of ideas you’ve managed to generate (175 comments in the first 24 hours?), Ming. Thanks to you and to your contributors for an articulate, stimulating exploration of what constitutes “art” and how one goes about combining craft and precision in the conscious creation of “art”. My own mindset at this early stage of my photography work leans more toward your own focus on precision and craftsmanship, and I have been intrigued by your work since discovery only one week ago. What captured my interest — aside form the obvious precision in your photography — is your ability to succinctly communicate your thoughts on a variety of subjects, and yesterday’s topic that you laid on the table is no exception. What I was not prepared for are those equally-articulate responses below from people with a genuine desire to contribute positively even when their perfectly valid comments might seem harsh under different contexts. While I wish that I were far enough along in my development of my craft as photographer and imagination as an artist to be able to offer something as constructive as others, I have to confess that I’m taking much more from this discussion than I have to give back. So my purpose in commenting is really just to say (again) “thank you” for initiating an intelligent discussion of art and emotion (of people or simply a situation), and the potential role for photographic precision to contribute to the desire of others to want to engage with a work beyond an initial glance, and to perhaps even relate to it.

  15. Ok, I can’t resist. I never left a comment on this site and here I am doing a second one on this thread. The power of the keyboard is mighty.

    I don’t buy the negative comments, very simply if you think you are an artist then you are. As I said, I am not an expert in Art or photography but I’ve been in entertainment for 20 years and had my share of success and failure, so I chime in. For Art nowadays, the only real test is time. Let see in 30-50 years who we will still remember and admire. Like we discussed earlier, time will also help see your place in (Art) history. It is not only about emotion like I am reading in a few comments otherwise you could compare a Dolly Parton tune to a Scarlatti prelude… It is how you interacted with your time, your society, the world through your medium in a way that is adding something to ze Art (hey I am french and have an accent). And this, we might not be able to see without the perspective of history.

    Now, and just for fun, if I was your agent, I will double down on who you are. I will compare you to a new digital Vermeer (also a great technician) to a perfectionist like Pierre Soulages. It is true that some of your images lack emotion, so what (does Mozart is less of an artist than Beethoven because his music is less emotional)? I will say about your pictures that they represent our time seen by the eye of a superior mind not affected by human emotion but focused on finding perfection in the imperfection of this world. I finally say if the ultimate AI from the future came today and grabbed a Nikon, it would take pictures like Ming Thein.

    🙂

    • 30-50 years means your children will benefit 🙂

      Doubling down is the strategy I think I will adopt. There’s no point in trying to do otherwise because that’s simply NOT who I am.

  16. Hi Ming, some further thoughts… I’d like to concentrate on two areas: why do/don’t people want to hang your pictures on their walls (which covers at least some gallerists oppinions), and, maybe most important, what do you actually want to achieve?

    I’d like to start with a short story from many years ago, when I was still interested in motorbikes and read a comparison review between a Yamaha and a Honda. The bikes were compared in certain areas, and the Honda won in every area hands down. At the end of the review, the author summarized the highlights, which was an overwhelming win for the Honda. And then, in his last sentence, as a comment, he added that he personally would rather go for the Yamaha, since he just liked it more. To his eyes, the Honda simply had no soul… So, like someone wrote here before, unless you want to sell your stuff only to German engineers, this might be an area to think about. Nobody likes perfection.. we all admire it, many of us want to get there, but we don’t (in the original meaning of this word) like it. Emotion comes from imperfection, from doing things driven by feelings rather than a well though through mindset. Your dislike of shooting people is just another pointer into the direction that emotions and you, well, at least you are not the biggest friends, when it comes to photography. If there is one reason to hang a picture on a wall, then it’s emotion (leaving blatancy and covering holes aside). Do you have any „emotional“ pictures at all? Are those the ones you would consider weak? In my eyes, whats upsetting you most is that you were looking for a new playground withing your area of expertise, and you’ve discovered a world where all your personal values don’t count, and things you virtually don’t respect at all are the main driving force. Apart from other topics addressed in this chain of comments, the current Ming just doesn’t fit to this market.

    Which brings me to the second point… what is driving you to do this change? What do you want to achieve? More fun? More money? More fame? Different audience? Different results? Nothing bad about any of those, but could make a huge difference to clearly know this. Maybe you just want to find an area where you could work in a different way? Which would mean that you actually want to change, not for the sake of the new market, just because you want to… this Ming would be quite an added value to the art business.

    • Just wanted to add that I hadn’t read David’s post below when I posted mine.

    • Right, I’ll either make my own market or give up.

      What do I want to achieve? Being able to make a living from producing the images I want, not the images the client dictates (very often ‘here, copy this’.) I didn’t give up a good career in another industry to be a copycat.

  17. David Babsky says:

    The last time I wrote something here – many months ago, or maybe last year – you suggested that I should go away and never come back. So I haven’t been back.

    Today – just for a change – I’ve come by to have a look, and I’ve found your rant against galleries.

    So I will leave a comment here. But feel free to tell me – again! – to go and never come back because it’s your site ..although you’re putting it out here in the public domain for anyone to look at and to comment on..

    I’ve just finished my annual teaching gig in Greece, where I explain that we’re going to take pictures of things which aren’t there. We don’t take pictures of THINGS which are in front of the lens; we take pictures of feelings: delight, uncertainty, imbalance, anxiety, ecstasy, ambivalence, etc. When they get practised at doing this subliminally, then all their pictures become suffused with feelings, emotions ..and that’s what their photos then convey ..their feelings at the moment when they shoot.

    You’re a craftsman, Ming. You buy and use tools which will give you the sharpest results. You shoot – or at least most of the pictures I’ve seen on your site are of – objects, designed and made by other people. Cars. Watches. Buildings. Food. Cigars. You also sometimes shoot people ..but they tend to be – except for your Nadiah, whom you obviously have an emotional connection to – just compositional elements in the layout of your shots.

    But I don’t feel that you’ve shown an EMOTIONAL connection to anything which I’ve seen here, apart from your pics of Nadiah.

    You seem to be wanting to define yourself now as an “artist”, and you’re annoyed that other people don’t see you as an “artist”. But making sharp – all the way up to “ultraprint” sharp – images of things in front of a camera isn’t some kind of definition of “artistry”. “Artistry” is conveying an idea.

    I once saw an image you had up for sale on this site of an aeroplane shape made of sky, caught between the hard-edged outlines of buildings. You weren’t photographing the buildings, but the space between them. That caught my eye. But the whole thing was still too ‘sharp’ for me; it still seemed to concentrate on the technical proficiency of the apparatus (camera, lens, processing software) rather than on the joy of the moment. I’d have been annoyed by that if I’d bought it and hung it on the wall, so I didn’t buy it.

    You may get terribly upset by what I’m going to write next, so you may want to skip over it now and come back to it after a month or so when you don’t care about it.

    I think you’re so used to being praised (scholarship to Oxford at age 3 or whatever, youngest person to ever focus a camera, cleverest photoshop tweaker, etc) that you’ve bought the story: you really think that you’re utterly brilliant at photography, and gallery owners are dumb and stupid and just cannot see what a genius is standing in front of them.

    You are technically extremely accomplished ..but that doesn’t make an “artist”. That’s a craftsperson. Who’s the man who’s won the most Oscars of any living person? ..Not an actor, not a musician, not a director, not a cinematographer ..but the man who designed lenses for ciné cameras. A technician. A craftsman.

    Being a craftsperson is a wholly praiseworthy career. But you’re not satisfied with that. You want to be recognised in a different realm: you now want to be an “artist”. You’re so brilliant, you think, that you can now accomplish “artistry”. ..As well as finance, photography, video and whatever else..

    “Artistry” is something different: it’s about offering a different view of existence. It’s about sparking other people’s imagination or vision or auditory wonderment. In photography, it might be about capturing a fleeting moment ..it might be about another facet of a familiar place ..it might be about shapes and relationships between them ..but it’s essentially about “spirit” ..what do you -f-e-e-e-l-l- about a moment? What d’you feel about that moonrise? What d’you feel about that boy with a loaf tucked under his arm? What d’you feeeel? What d’you fEEEEELL about that egg tucked in the fold of an elbow? What d’you FEEEELL about those people speeding by in that racing car? What d’you FEEEELL about the couple kissing in Times Square? What d’you FEEEEELL about that view of the Rhein? What d’you FEEEEEELLL about that couple racing over the bridge? What d’you feeeelll about that migrant mother? What d’you feeeelll about that stand of trees near Brie? What d’you feeeell about Marilyn looking desolate?

    It takes a different frame of mind from that of technical control to shoot “artistry”. You’re a gear-head, you buy the sharpest lenses and the highest resolution hardware. Forget all that. You’ve got the equipment and you’ve got the expertise ..now let it go (except for your commercial work). Don’t think about it. Forget sharpness, and tonal range, and everything you knew about photography. Just carry a small camera ..anything “sufficient”.. and shoot whatever pops into your mind. Maybe it’s a bus queue. Maybe it’s something on the table. Maybe it’s your wife’s look. Maybe it’s the blurred smile of a passer-by.

    Shoot whatever pops into your mind ..not into your head. Let your subconscious flow. Don’t think.

    You may think that that is not what you want; thoughtless photography. But that’s what artistry is. It’s thoughtless ..it’s “art-less”. It’s just what comes into your mind and you have to do it. It’s not carefully composed. That’s “careful composition”. It’s not deep consideration. It’s not measuring sufficient depth of field. It’s involuntary, born of sufficient subconscious skill and knowledge to achieve it without thinking.

    If you think it out, and you have the skill and knowledge, then it’s craftspersonship ..or just plain craft. The Gandolfi brothers, who made cameras, did it with craftsmanship, but not artistry. If they’d thought “hey, let’s decorate the front with a smiling face, and the lens will be the nose!” that might have been artistry if they’d used their knowledge of woods and metalworking to make a decorative lens which inspired and gave a photographer joy to use it.

    People who are good at things, playing the piano, taking satisfactory photos, weaving serviceable cloth, cooking flavoursome dishes, building reliable cars, devising and constructing elegant apartment blocks which don’t collapse ..they’re not necessarily “artists”, even though they may think that they should be appreciated as such. An artist is a chef who makes a meal, the like of which no-one had ever thought of before! An artist is a trapeze technician who stuns the audience with something they never thought possible! An artist is a painter who paints like no-one had ever thought of doing before.

    Being seen as an artist isn’t the same as getting another slice of cake just because you’ve asked nicely.

    Ansel was an artist because he saw the moon, stopped his car, got out his camera (which he was thoroughly familiar with) and guessed the exposure – through his years of experience – and then, with a thin, weak negative, brought out the glory of the moon over the countryside by dint of his years of printing dodgy negs, and by doing that elaborate real-time dance under the enlarger with his fingers, “dodging and burning” till the earth looked dark and sombre, and the moon looked eloquent and serene.

    Artistry is abandonment ..it’s bringing a flamboyant new way of seeing. It doesn’t depend on sharpness, accurate tonality, dedication to precision ..it’s whimsy, it’s facetiousness, it’s what bursts out of experience, it’s capability plus élan. It isn’t a picture, or an object, or a dish of food, or a timepiece, or a building ..it’s what those things CONVEY to others, not simply those things themselves.

    I’ve seen actors deliver Shakespearean lines, and it’s stodge, dull and uninspiring. But others, by their delivery, or actions, or tone of voice, are inspiring, innovative, scary ..they have “artistry”!

    Your photos, on this website, show accuracy, accomplishment, attention to detail, clarity and some quirks of seeing,

    But artistry stops the viewer or taster or listener or subject or smeller in their tracks: they’re astounded ..they’re non-plussed; they’re experiencing something they’d never thought of before..

    • Ming, you have lots of people that care enough for what you put out here to spend considerable time giving something back to you, even if it is brutally honest. David here has put my own thoughts in much more articulate and better terms, but I will second that. You know a picture of yours that spoke to me when I saw it? It was a Hassy B&W image of a Japanese temple door. It spoke to me I hope for the same reason it spoke to me: serene harmony. Then, but only then, I stopped to admire your perfect midtones. One fed on the other and I would not stop staring. That’s what we mean when we are telling you to put some soul and meaning in your images. Plus then add your amazing craft, and you’ll have a winner. But not without your soul bleeding out of the page!
      Best
      G

    • David, you make some very good points and I’m glad that Ming has allowed your comment on his blog. I agree with you that “feeling” is a key, maybe even the key, element to art. That said, there are no rules in art and also we all perceive things differently. We all feel differently too. One person may find a particular photograph extraordinarily moving. for example, while another may say it is corny and melodramatic. It can get a bit dicey, but I think I understand what you are saying. To again quote Charles Webster Hawthorne:

      “What people are subconsciously interested in is the expression of beauty, something that helps them through the humdrum day, something that shocks them out of themselves and something that makes them believe in the beauty and the glory of human existence.”

      • I wonder if the contemporary art scene, and what interests the gallery system really has very much to do with Charles Webster Hawthorne’s quotation. Contemporary art only sometimes has to do with beauty: think of Hurst’s dissected shark, Emmin’s moulds of the undersides of seats, Koon’s ironic little porcelains, Gursky’s Rhein etc. etc. Much of the contemporary gallery photography I’ve seen over the past twenty years in Britain and Germany, I would not describe as having much emotional content or beauty; it is idea led, often edgy, and often deliberately questioning our identification of the aesthetic with the beautiful. Most of it, you would not want on your living room wall. Gone are the days, it seems, when the sort of aesthetic Hawthorne was describing has much to do with Galleries, or with what sells for high prices.

        • The funny thing is I wouldn’t even say those particular pieces are beautiful – idea-lead and edgy, yes. And I agree with not having any of it on your wall. But why does it sell, and to who? That is somewhat puzzling.

          • I highly recommend Don Thompson’s fabulous book “12 million dollar stuffed shark”. It is a very well researched and thought out examination of the current art market, and what makes it tick. I think you would find it very illuminating and entertaining.

          • Sorry, I was perhaps unclear. When I said: ‘contemporary art only sometimes has anything to do with beauty: think of Hurst’s dissected shark etc.’ i meant that these were examples of how contemporary art has little to do with beauty. In other words, they are not beautiful in any traditional way.

            I agree with the suggestion to read Thompson’s book.

            In answer to your question, there are a number of answers, if we are talking of the sort of contemporary art that sells in the high-end gallery system: 1) art has gone conceptual, at least since the 60’s, so it is largely idea led, and it is intended to be the preserve of a knowing, intellectual and aesthetic elite trained up in art schools and the gallery system. Buyers are expected to want in on that in some way and by purchase and association, to be part of that elite. On its own though, that is not enough, 2) part of it being the preserve of the elite is that prices must be high – high enough to fund the artist that the gallery has chosen to support, plus a large percentage to the gallery, for their expensive premises and their elite or at least well-off bourgeoise lifestyle. Why bother if the money’s not good enough? 3) to keep prices high there must be rarity value, after all the guy who pays 50,000 for a video installation, or 500,000 for a shark in formaldehyde wants to know that he has a prestige item that is going to hold its value. So those producing the goods must be few in number and be of reliable pedigree, and their reputations need to be supported in a sustained way by the system, so prices don’t drop. That would leave the purchaser feeling duped and very angry with the gallery system. If the artist does dry up, or lose his/her reputation and prices do drop, there can always be a convenient fire at the warehouse where the work is kept so the purchaser can get his money back through insurance, since these works are rarely kept in peoples homes. 4) run in this way, the art market becomes a place for investment, just like investing in guilts or gold or shares, it becomes a deposit for money. When I last looked the art market, over the last 20 years, it was out-performing all those others by quite a high margin – there have been staggering price rises and some big money has been made. 5) of course the best rarity value is from works of artists who are dead. Artists who won’t be flooding the market with any more of their stuff, works that have the prestige of already being in collections, so that if one work does come up for sale, a purchaser can enter that world of really elite collectors – national galleries and plutocrats – what a club to belong to! This sort of stuff is a sure fire investment that rises and rises. Just think of owning a few Picassos, or a Rodin or two, or even a Michelangelo drawing! . The added bonus is that with this earlier work, one can also buy something that maybe has some more conventional aesthetic merit and that isn’t just a conceptual elitist installation or a black canvas – it could be a nice Rothko wash or a Tapies tar and sand painting or even Van Gogh’s Irises. Heaven forbid, one might even want to put it on a wall, even if that wall is in a secure building at Heathrow that one only flies into to see once every few months.

            It’s a cynical old world.

        • Well, I understand your confusion. I should have chopped off the quote after “… shocks them out of themselves”. Basically, people still want an escape from their humdrum daily, boring existence. I think, to a large degree, Hurst, Koons, Emin, etc provide an analogous escape. People want to feel something and “get out of themselves”. Art can be thought of as a visual drug. It can be intellectual, visceral, or, more typically, both. Either way, it get’s you relief, from what is for most people, the struggle of daily life.

      • What if you don’t ‘feel’ or ‘respond’ to the same things as other people?

        • Then you should keep doing what you’re doing. Close this thread, I guess it provided the feedback you were looking for, even if perhaps not what you were hoping for. A bunch of people are saying that most people react to and are drawn by other factors that pure formal and technical perfection. They are telling you that content counts, when you are trying to make a potential buyer ‘click’. Up to you to decide what to do with this. Probably best to keep at it, separate it somewhat from this blog, and pne day you’ll have a body pf work that someone will resonate with. You are clearly recognizing your ‘difference’, accept it, work on it, but be aware of what’s out there. The better mousetrap tgat doesn’t sell, it’s not the customers’ problem.
          We read you because of your tecnical abilities, exploit that at its max.
          Peace!

          • Actually, it said no less than I expected: results polarise into three camps:
            1. Keep doing what I’m doing because it’s already art.
            2. Change what I’m doing because it’s not quite there.
            3. You have no clue, the establishment knows everything.

            So yes, it did provide the feedback I was looking for. I think it’s in line with what I have planned.

            But that said, I don’t want to create a site that’s solely about technical ability – that would be no different to everything else out there. The technique is to support the images as a tool, not an end in itself. I’ve long said that and stand by it. Whether those images appeal to everybody at an emotional or rational level is another – personal – consideration entirely.

            • “3. You have no clue, the establishment knows everything.”

              I don’t see many people saying that! Certainly, what I and some others have implied is that the ‘establishment’ controls the market, and controls most artists access to the market. They are looking for some specific things.

            • 4. Neither you nor the “establishment” has to be right, and neither has to be wrong. It’s a false dichotomy. When you pit yourself against the “establishment,” you’re really not talking about how to be an artist, but an existential problem–how does anyone live “authentically” as an “individual”? Nobody can answer that for you.

              For me, a community of affirmative people is a very important source of meaning. Your blog has obviously become a great one. Even as you figure how or how not to be a gallery photographer, you should remember that through your writings and words you’ve already touched many people in positive ways.

        • Matthew Leeg says:

          I would say don’t worry about that; shoot the things you do feel or respond to, and don’t be so sure that there aren’t others out there who respond to the same things.
          For me personally, I can think of three images of yours that I responded to, and thought were artful:
          1. Image of a cloud over water in the open ocean, (presumably) shot from an airplane. This was from a review of the Leica M9, as I recall.
          2. B&W image of a cloud form on the top of Mt. Fuji, I think shot w/ your Hassy V-Series.
          3. Image of some orange buoys floating in the water, is sort of an arc shape, as I recall. I think this was the headline image from a previous post about art.

          On all three of these images, I was not only interested in the technical aspects, and beauty if the subject, but in the question of, “What was he thinking at that moment?”, or “Why did he choose that detail, and what did it mean to him?”
          And there are others that I’m sure other people could identify from memory.

          I think that if you can choose images like that, that make people think not only “How did he do it?”, but also “Why did he do it?”, and if the answer to that “why” question is an interesting one, then you will select images that buyers will want to hang on their walls.

          Just my two cents worth, based on my own thoughts about the fine art photographs that I have seen over the years that I have personally wanted to purchase.

          Sincerely,
          Matt

          • Interesting that those were memorable to you – they’re memorable to me too, but that’s because I’ve got a soft sport for clouds. #1 is correct, #2 was with a D700, and #3 was with an iPhone. Equipment doesn’t really matter, in each case.

            The why – of the artist – as opposed to the subject…is very interesting.

    • Much of what you say David is true, especially of the likes of Brassai, Kertesz, Ronis, Bresson, Erwitt, and their likes, but, other than being idea led, it doesn’t really apply to the big gallery sellers of today, like Gursky, Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. To some extent, their work seems devoid of emotion, and more technique led.

      • knickerhawk says:

        Their work is conceptually grounded, first. While careful preparation, shooting and production technique may be involved, it’s definitely not what differentiates the work of those three photographers from many others. I have a hard time understanding your “devoid of emotion” comment about Gursky’s, Wall’s and Sherman’s work unless, perhaps, you haven’t seen them in person.

        • I should have said ‘idea and technique led’, but I was trying to get over the point that art has many elements and emoting/expressing is but one. I’ve recently seen Gursky’s work in Düsseldorf and Sherman’s some time ago. Gursky’s work is interesting in that it puts the individual human being in its context – usually as a small component of something larger, or more mass-like, I agree, that if the viewer has never thought like that then it might carry some emotional impact, but to many, it is a commonplace, yet Gursky spends a great deal of effort emphasising just that. For me it is the technical accomplishment in his work that is more unusual, but even that is only interesting so far.

    • David, I have to add this too though. I think I understand what those galleries were saying to Ming … but, for the record, I do find a number of Ming’s photographs moving, beautiful and memorable.

    • Well, thank you for your thoughts. You’re correct, for commercial work I am a craftsman – and I’ve said that many times. I have to be, because that’s what clients expect.

      However, there’s a big assumption and part of me do not understand at all. It has nothing to do with praise or success or whatever. I do not think like everybody else, which almost certainly means I do not create images like everybody else, either. What appears to be emotional, calculated, cold and soulless is not TO ME, and I am the creator. You have never seen me work, so you have no idea whether I’m a technician/ craftsman or acting on intuition. I’m pretty sure you’d fall into the latter camp if you had. Rationality and order ARE as intuitive to me – and yes, I ‘feel that’ – as emotion is to other people. I have to think about emotion. I don’t about logic.

      Now here’s the question: why even bother trying to make work that appeals to others at an emotional level if you simply do not understand what emotions drive others to begin with? You said it yourself: I’ve been through an education and career path which isn’t exactly conventional. I’ve never said it here, but I have mild Asperger’s syndrome. We are a product of our experiences. Asking me to understand what everybody else is feeling is about as easy as asking somebody else to imagine what going to university at 13 would have been like.

      • Forcing the emotionality won’t help (even if the matter of emotions was more easily accessible to you than it is now), but it will come with time, if you keep doing what you like doing (even if you don’t deal with emotions the same way others do, they do still exist in you and eventually they will start bleeding into your work more and more – I do think a decent portion of your personal colour work has that, like the urban landscape-y type work and such – though not your street work, that never really clicked for me – which does not mean you shouldn’t make any more, in fact it means the exact opposite – if you are interested in street photography then shoot more and more and more and more, *everything* improves with practice, even ).

        I am very much like you, in regards to understanding and dealing with emotions and such, except I don’t have Asperger’s syndrome (so it’s likely that my case is far milder than yours, but it’s of the same type nonetheless). It took me a long time to actually start noticing… emotions… and sort-of incorporating it in my work (though I prefer to call it atmosphere rather than emotion, because I think they can be the same thing, sort of, at least atmosphere is what I am going for, though with many of the methods David described up above, and many others he didn’t, ones that I’ve just sort of come up with on the fly through practice), but getting there took ages. The biggest jump came when I moved into prettymuch exclusively colour work and switched to the Leica M8 (which was so much better for colour than anything else I had previously owned. I moved over to film about half a year ago, because no matter how good the M8 colours were, film just looks much nicer, in terms of overall look as well as the colours you can get out of it… of course I don’t have a lot of film work up yet, because I only got my scanner a month ago and I have over 300 rolls of film to develop at this point) and got much more… comfortable shooting people, though I’m still not as successful as I’d like to be in regards to images with strong… feelings in ’em, but I do make ’em more often than I used to and I’m sort of going in a more… ambiguous (and/or sort-of-dreamlike, at least when put into a series, single images don’t/won’t/don’t have to look all that dreamlike, but they do need beginnings for it)… direction anyway, while trying to keep those feeling-elements.

        I think the real issue right now isn’t even that you don’t have work that has noticeable emotional content in addition to stylistic and so on type content, it may be because you aren’t that great an editor when it comes to that. You said so yourself, you have to think about emotions to really do anything with ’em (which includes noticing, if you’re anything like me, which you probably are from what I’ve gathered from reading the posts here as well as reading almost all of your articles over time), so I think training that with practice and perhaps outside help from friends (I use a number of people to help me in that regard) should in theory vastly improve your output in terms of more numerous images with noticeable emotional content for your personal work, which in turn should give you significantly better chances to get into galleries and such in the future.

        Eh.. this got significantly more jumbled than I wanted. Hope the point wasn’t lost in this great big disorganised wall of text.

        • I actually find myself moving away from emotion/ people etc. If you have the patience and inclination, you’ll see my early work on Flickr is very different to what I’m doing now. There has been an evolution to this point, and a conscious one. It’s not because I’m not good at editing my output; it’s because I make that choice to begin with. Or am I missing the point?

      • I don’t like to comment, I guess it demands a lot of your time, and besides my ideas are so different from yours that I’m sure I’d ending fighting, so I just read and see your work. But I think that here is a misconception of your readers. I think you are having a situation similar to Borges (saving the distances because he was one of the giants of History) Borges was not understood by the readers or critics, they said that he was a cold writer without emotion. I read Borges when child so I hadn’t prejudices, I just know that I liked what he wrote. The truth is that he is very emotional, the lovers, the loneliness was the motor of the themes in tales and poems. There is so much passion.
        I see, I feel, that you put a great emotional stress in your images. It’s notorious you’re very emotional. Your post is the proof, it’s quite clear that the situation is not what you would like and that set you angry. Your work is also the proof, nobody would do what you did without feel a potent desire that fuels his/her will.
        I like your work, I’d loved to buy some of your ultraprints but I’ve no money because I’ve the same thought as you. I don’t want that my architectural works ends like crap doing the same as others that is just a copy of what real state wants to sell, I study and practice and think in concepts till it gets the best of the expression of a clear idea that answers the person and the place and grow till generate another level of questions. I’m sure that the public that can appreciate your art is mostly in the same boat.
        A good photographer (that I admire) wrote that one of his goals in fine art photography was to produce a work that the public could put in the living room (I would design a space to appreciate art, living room’s function is incompatible with art). Certainly rich and poor people have usually the same tastes and I think fine art photographers know that the customers that can afford the purchases have simple motivations.
        By the way, people started to give merit to Borges’s works when he received an European price (shared with somebody that nobody remembers) so it was fashion to the uneducated people (rich, poor, there is no difference) to buy the book from the awarded writer. I think, I’d be wrong, you don’t have any prize or international selection in an anthology (national doesn’t count because people suspects that it’s a price among friends) that could support you with a market where the currency is fame over quality.

        • I don’t think we disagree at all on this. I care. I have emotion. But I choose to make work that perhaps people find soulless, because it speaks to me – isn’t that the first hurdle for any creation of an artist?

          I have no prizes because I’ve never entered any competitions. I want to keep the rights to my work. In this day and age, it seems too much like a rights grab.

      • David Babsky says:

        “..I have mild Asperger’s syndrome..”

        I should have realised ..now that you’ve said it, it jumps right out at me: of course. I wouldn’t have suggested it myself, as I think that would have been at the least impertinent, and possibly offensive.

        But I understand now.

        People point out the marvellous red flowers on rhododendron bushes, and I just don’t see them – unless I turn up the camera to ‘vivid’ and peer at the screen on the back, or in the viewfinder – because I’m rather red/green colourblind. So I don’t see what most other people see.

        I understand now your attentiveness to detail, to exactitude, to verisimilitude. But that’s not necessarily what other people see – or want – in a photograph: it’s not necessarily pure representation that they want, or the closest match in 2 dimensions to what’s there in three dimensions.

        For many – most? – people a photo is a kind of nudge: it’s a stimulus which brings back our own memories, or thoughts, of OTHER THINGS ..the representation (of a light bulb, a building, a passing car, trees, a lake, or whatever) can evoke RELATIONSHIPS ..almost a kind of synaesthesia, if you like.. it can evoke thoughts of other places, of shapes we’d almost forgotten, of half-remembered experiences which have nothing to do with the exact item or space shown in the photograph ..and so the minutest details of the photo may be irrelevant; it’s the ASSOCIATIONS which a photo summons up which are part of the actual experience of viewing the photograph!

        So when I see a photo of a desolate Marilyn, I almost FEEL the impotence which I THINK she may have felt at not being taken “seriously”, as a “serious” actress. The sharpness or clarity of the features, the exact expression on her face are not what’s important to me when I look at such a photo; it’s MY EMPATHY which the picture evokes within me which is part of my experiencing that picture. It doesn’t need to be detailed: the details within the picture are not particularly necessary, as I’m looking at something INSIDE MYSELF which has been triggered by an expression, possibly quite vaguely hinted at in a not very sharp image ..and the sharpness and critical acuity and range of tones of the image itself may be pretty much irrelevant.

        In all cases, when I see a photograph, I’m not just looking at the details of, or within, the image. I’m not really looking at the image itself at all.

        What I’m thinking of are the thoughts and associations which are triggered within me by the CONTENT of the image – and not how clearly representative that image is of the world around me.

        When I look at ‘Norman Parkinson’s (he invented his own name!) image of a man and a woman rushing across a bridge ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/family_fotos/143864115/ http://www.lannigan.org/Couple_on_Bridge_NYC.htm ) ..even though it’s supposed to be a “fashion shot”.. I’m not looking at the details of the briefcase; I’m not looking at the film grain, or lack of it; I’m not trying to identify that incomplete building at the upper rear right; I don’t care about the details of her coat – even though it’s a fashion shot – because I’m experiencing joy, exuberance, joie de vivre. And then from the joie de vivre, I make the connection “backwards”, so to speak, and consider that the delight of the people in the shot may come from the experience of wearing those particular clothes.

        The EMOTION conveyed by the shot is what – for me, and many others – makes the shot ‘work’. But, of course, Parkinson couldn’t have pulled it off without knowing which shutter speed to use to freeze the action, exactly when to squeeze the shutter button, which focal length to use to get the perspective he wanted within that frame, and what to tell the people to do, and so on. So the technical expertise doesn’t need to be mentioned: it’s a foregone conclusion ..it goes without saying, and it doesn’t need to be “drummed home” by emphasising the sharpness or clarity of the physical photography.

        His artistry was in NOT concentrating on the clothes, although it was supposed to be a fashion shoot, but in evoking an emotion, which would then make people more interested in buying the clothes, by the association of those clothes with “having a whale of a time”, “exuberance”, “joy”, “bucking the trend”, “doing things one’s own way”.

        I think that for you, the clearest and most accurate technical representation of a scene is probably paramount. And I think that’s why some people say that your pictures seem “soulless” ..because your photos are highly detailed images of the things which are in front of your lens ..for example the light fitting near the top of this page.. but those highly detailed images may not trigger, or evoke, memories or associations in a viewer’s mind because they are, perhaps TOO DETAILED or TOO ACCURATELY REPRESENTATIONAL to allow a viewer’s mind to “wander off” and to evoke associations or connections.

        When one looks at your pictures one sees the highly detailed image. But for many people the actual image there in front of them is not “the photograph” ..instead “the photograph” is what the image EVOKES WITHIN them.

        Take this well known picture by George Hoyningen-Huene: http://tinyurl.com/nagg9gg

        It’s a picture, ostensibly, of people wearing swim suits. But its effect – for most people – is not wanting to see the details of the swim suits which they’re wearing, nor the details of their haircuts nor the material on which they’re sitting: its effect is to EVOKE WISTFULNESS ..an emotion.. because the couple are looking at a distant horizon. It evokes ideas in people’s minds of “what might have been”, “what we might have done”, “what is life about?” ..Although it appears to be an image of two people, what it CREATES IN MANY PEOPLE’S MINDS is a FEELING, and that’s a feeling of NOSTALGIA.

        The details, the sharpness, the accuracy, the actual representation are not the point of that picture, and too much detail would detract from what the image EVOKES.

        This capability of evoking feelings via the image is the “artistry” of it.

        Commercial clients probably want finely-detailed accurate representation.

        Art galleries generally sell something different: they sell objects, things, photographs, which EVOKE FEELINGS.

        Think of perfume manufacturers. Why would someone want to smell different from whatever human beings normally smell of? Perfume manufacturers mix whale oil, plant and animal extracts to produce olfactory experiences which make the mind drift off and imagine beauty and bliss ..even though what’s actually in the bottle (substitute there “what’s actually the image in the photo”) is oil, animal sweat and sap (substitute “an image of a particular person or building”).

        An artist generally produces something which evokes associations, memories, ideas – and they are NOT simply producing the object or image which you see in front of you.

        This well-known image by Robert Doisneau is a photo of some people walking and some traffic in Paris. Two of the people are kissing. http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/04/14/article-2129634-0038BFA400000258-59_964x868.jpg

        But what the picture EVOKES and actually comprises is “young love”.

        Is it sharp? No. Does that matter? No.

        It evokes something which most of us can connect with, or respond to: love, bliss, surrender, intimacy. That’s what it’s a picture of; not pedestrians and traffic and a man at a table in the foreground and buildings and a chair and a lamp-post. And that’s what people mean when they say that a photo has “soul” ..it evokes something which transcends the actual content of the image, and it elicits a response, or a chord, within one’s own life.

        That’s what artistry is ..it’s not the situation of having one’s works being exhibited or sold in a gallery.

        Artistry is about the EVOCATION of something DIFFERENT from what’s actually there in front of one.

        Does that help?

        • very nicely stated. well done.

        • knickerhawk says:

          David, your last statement about “evocation of something different from what’s actually there” is an important one. However, there is no singular path to that end, but you seem to be pushing for a “solution” that requires abandonment of the observational remove, technique and control that characterizes Ming’s images. Greater engagement and loosening of technique may be ONE solution to the problem, but I don’t think it is the ONLY solution. Consider, for instance, the work of Andreas Gursky. He is the most successful living art photographer (at least in terms of prices paid for his work) and his images are amazingly technical and clinical, as was the work of his mentors, Bernd and Hella Becher and other proponents of the Dusseldorf look. The human subject is usually absent or very secondary and never presented in a romanticized or empathetic way. That’s art for you: there are no formulas!

          • Gursky is an interesting example. He definitely enters the “other than human” photographic vocabulary and is obsessed with technical perfection. what struck me when viewing his recent prints downtown however is that it is not simply “strong technique” at work…it is sharp prints literally the size of a wall. prints so big that they literally had to take the largest printers available and print multiple parts of the image and physically glue them together this goes beyond personal technical standards to having to have not only the very most expensive equipment and access to unique (and often restricted) locations and vantage angles to having an entire staff dedicated print shop, etc helping with the work flow to final massive output. technical “value” taken to almost absurd lengths to earn and maintain his market standing….and thus extremely difficult to emulate or equal on it’s own terms, which i’m sure was part of his goal. i will also add that the recent work of his i saw in person was far from my favorite of his….but this is entirely besides the point. anyone competing with his type of work would have to prepare to spend 10s of thousands to produce just a single print of a single image at the very least….frame excluded.

            • knickerhawk says:

              Yes, the scale of this new generation of clinical/technical works has expanded tremendously. Another example would be Edward Burtynsky, whose work is technically impressive and the scale is big. His stuff is gorgeous in its own way and emotionally engaging even though it’s almost always lacking human subjects (ironically because the images are usually about human impact on the environment).

              Likewise, I think some of Ming’s work would be amenable to a large-scale presentation. It might catch the attention of galleries in a way that doesn’t work as well at the “ultraprint” level.

              • yeah….i’m a huge Burtynsky fan. His newer digital stuff (“water” project) is maybe even more incredible than his older 4X5 (and other) analog work. simply astounding.
                i saw some of his prints at the same gallery as the Gurksky….the most noticeable technical difference was scale. Burtynsky was making absolutely stunning 48″ X 64″ prints from 80 megapixels afaik. pin sharp detail and incredibly vivid/subtle color taken with 10k remote gyroscopes out of remote drones and airplane bellies. The Gursky was less sharp on an inch by inch basis if you were 1 foot away…but was 3 to 4 times as big a print that loomed over the viewer. even if you forget about just access to subject matter (a crucial element to both their work) the technical/financial/logistical issues are daunting in both cases and the resultant work has its own type of emotional impact due to scale and implications for the planet.

                • Burtynsky’s a great example of a precisely technical photographer who also is making work that transcends the mere technical accomplishment. This sort of points up the difference between crafts and art. A lot of “fine arts photography” (and actually a lot of art itself…)resides mainly in the crafts category, where the technique or technical aspects are foregrounded to an equal footing or even in advance of the art part. In art it is the reverse, typically. But in the example you relate between Gursky and Burtynsky, I would think (I’m guessing, not seeing them together…) that the art part is much more foregrounded in the Gursky work, possibly a bit at the expense of the technical, while Burtansky’s technical virtuosity would be more apparent. But in Burtansky’s case, the technical can be part of the art content, in the way that certain mid twentieth century painting’s technical aspects (Pollock, Morris Louis jump to mind) are part of the art content. Coming out of the Dusseldorf school, the technical aspects of Gursky’s work would be “drier”, as in the Becher’s, as opposed to flashier in Burtansky. Both can work, obviously.

                  • i agree. well stated.
                    for somebody like burtynsky (not that there are many) technical perfection is only the starting point and his obvious concerns with man’s impact on the planet are the subject. his painterly artistry (combined with unparalleled access to sites) finishes the trifecta. spectacular. if you like his work be sure to see this film Watermark and the accompanying book “water”: http://burtynsky-water.com/bwwp/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/H2O_GEO_01_12_SRC_WEB.jpg
                    another book that blew me away was “petro chemical america” by Richard Misrach. different approach and aesthetic but related themes and equally strong imo.

                    • I just saw the trailer. It’s pretty damned epic! Thank you!

                      (And the link in case the fancy HTTP embed above doesn’t work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOPLs_ogF-0)

                      That gets me thinking … I wonder what a moving Ming picture would look like if he was freed from all commercial constraints. I think some of the unique things Ming does with light and complexity of composition would be interesting to explore as motion pictures. The Burtynskyesque scenes in the trailer are really awesome (in the literal sense of the word).

                    • i recommend the film AND the book (and seeing the large prints in person)….they are companion pieces rather than redundant. the film gives one kind of impact and the stills give another….and one definitely does not/cannot replace the other. nobody has invented the 80 megapixel moving camera afaik (or a way to project/transmit such footage should it exist). even imax (and 4k HD) is not CLOSE to 80 MP and the detail and “pop” of the color prints is beautiful….and the implications of the work is even more impactful.
                      sidenote: burtynsky’s previous film “manufactured landscapes” is also very impressive. both films were done in collaboration with director Jennifer Baichwal.

                    • I’d need some money to work with, too 🙂

                    • Thanks for the recommendations! I definitely want to see the prints in person — just hoping an exhibition will come to California at some point. I also remembered that I read an interview with Burtynsky a while back, and it seems to be relevant to access, client tastes, and other things Ming’s written about:

                      http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/the-art-of-industry-the-making-and-meaning-of-edward-burtynskys-new-exhibit-oil/258654/?single_page=true

                      The stories about the stone quarry and the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia seem most relevant. Even the most highly regarded photographers seem to run into the same kinds of critiques: not relevant, too impersonal, etc. Maybe he needs to feel more and add more soul to his photos. 🙂

                    • great article! thanks for the link. definitely buy that Burtynsky WATER book. a must have imo.
                      i think ALL artists face criticism…pollock, warhol, sherman….take your pick. individual viewer/reviewer taste is always personal….but success aways speaks loudest.
                      in Burtynsky’s case he definitely has an extremely strong “go to” answer in terms of the “importance” of the work (besides the baseline technique/aesthetics): every shot he’s ever taken is essentially about man’s destruction of his environment, a very powerful overarching theme that “frames” his entire career and gives it non aesthetic relevance and definitely helps him get grants, access, shows, connections, etc. in every live interview he does, lectures at galleries, universities, etc environmental/cultural/economic issues are foregrounded right along with any issues directly related to his photographic technique, etc. essentially he’s taken what is arguably the most pressing issue on the planet and conveyed it with stunning power using every possible tool of the technically accomplished photographer. by doing so he transcends photography and taps into an entirely other level of interest/audience, an audience who would not know a 14mm from a 200mm lens or what an f stop is but is concerned about the future of the planet and can appreciate a big beautiful detailed color print.
                      that is a sound strategy for the relevant artist/photographer and my hat is off to him.
                      this is similar to Misrach’s situation (although his work looks extremely different for the most part it has an environmental apocalyptic theme). between those 2 you have the pillars of the “non people based” photography (+gursky) of the last 25-35 years.

                    • I stopped by my local bookstore at lunch and they happened to have a copy of Water. $128. Yikes, but it’s beautiful and is going on my wishlist. His work is more meaningful now for us in California because of our drought.

                      The social consciousness aspect of photography has always fascinated me, and now that I think about it, photography has been intertwined with social causes since its infancy.

                    • check out amazon.com and ebay for used copies….worth it!

        • Yes, it does. I think I get it: it’s not MY emotion I’m conveying, it’s YOUR emotion I’m evoking. But of course that’s nigh on impossible if you have no clue what on earth most people feel/ how they respond to most things 🙂

        • Guardian Angel says:

          The Robert Doisneau photo was staged. Just an FYI for those that don’t know.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      @ David Babsky

      You say:
      “You may think that that is not what you want; thoughtless photography. But that’s what artistry is. It’s thoughtless ..it’s “art-less”. It’s just what comes into your mind and you have to do it. It’s not carefully composed. That’s “careful composition”. It’s not deep consideration. It’s not measuring sufficient depth of field. It’s involuntary, born of sufficient subconscious skill and knowledge to achieve it without thinking.”

      I agree with your last sentence.
      ( As does Winnie the Pooh concerning poems in “The House at Pooh Corner”.)
      And Ming has also said it, see below.

      BUT:
      Art is much more than that (or, perhaps, you chose to emphasize this side?).
      Certainly, _without_ emotion or spontaneity it falls flat, like much of Haydn’s music beside Mozart’s.
      ( Although Mozart is considered much more difficult to play, but not for technical reasons..)

      But art is also Feeling plus Thought,
      or, Heart plus Mind.
      Or, maybe, as I said once, “disciplined love”.

      ( Right, it does happen that a complete work of art pops up from the subconscious. But more often it must be reworked before it is ready.
      Or why do painters so often make a series of sketches first?)

      Strawinsky wrote an interesting book, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.
      He says, and I quote from memory, that the stricter the rules are that he sets himself for a composition, the freer he works.

      Ming has said a couple of times that images that come to him tend to be stronger than those he has planned.
      (Ming, apologies for my bad wording.)
      But without his artistry in composition etc. those images would have much less strength.

  18. Very interesting article and comments. Excellent photography to boot, but it wouldn’t be you otherwize.

    Regarding the opposition between art and commercial, isn’t that a new thing? Van Eyck paints were mostly commercials, made to fulfill orders, after getting a down payment. No one would deny it is art. Henry Cartier-Bresson was a professional journalist and most of his famous pictures were made for money (albeit he didn’t need it, but that’s not related). I can make a list.

    I would venture as far as saying the most interesting photographers in history have been professional photographers, just doing their day job in order to pay the bills.

  19. That is a long discussion and a lot of misunderstanding has been expressed here IMHO.
    Firstly, we must see art as something questioning itself. This can’t be done by producing artwork considered as such in the past. You have to add something to the history of art. This can be done in many ways and you might even end up with something very similar to past works. The point is, that the understanding must differ.
    Secondly, art is not an commercial undertaking. Otherwise it would be called “decorative” in a pejorative sense. The unique selling point of art is not that it sells good but that it’s considered genuine artwork.
    And thirdly, beauty comes with this attribution and not conversely. The artworld honors the creation of new artwork by appreciation. It is bought, copied, elaborated on, abused, plagiarized, cited…
    I have repeated the word “considered” in my comment several times because it is the key to the understanding of modern art – it is “considered” as such and nothing else.
    What is the conclusion for a photographer like you Ming? If I knew that, I would be an successful artist by myself. But surely it’s not about technique and skills. You have more than needed and you will improve even more. It’s about artistic program/concept and asking the right questions.

    Uwe 😎

    • I think you and I are on the same page here. My concern is that most of the time I was told that I had to do something similar to what was successful in the past, which seems like utter BS to me.

  20. Guardian Angel says:

    Here are some tips:

    1. Ignore any statements about the quality of your photographs, in the world of commercial art, perceived “quality” is meaningless.
    2. I had many art clients in Singapore – above all other nationalities, Singaporeans purchased art on an “investment” basis.
    3. Things people like in art: dogs are always popular, attractive females, faux-“gritty” scenes. Anything that denotes “edginess”, without authentic edginess.
    4. Black and white photography as fine art sells better than colour, by a large margin.
    5. You can sell the photos yourself, but long term, you are better pairing up with an established gallery.

    On the last point – think about it. By choosing to sell yourself, you are eschewing the experience of professionals. Would you recommend somebody choose to shoot their own wedding, their own magazine photos, using an amateur?

    There is only one path to take with regards to artistic success. Only one – you must involve galleries.

    • #3: that isn’t art, that’s a cliche.
      #4: I presented B&W.
      #5: and herein lies the problem.

      Everybody was an amateur once. I know plenty of ‘professionals’ – who make their living from this – who are utterly crap in every possible way.

      I disagree that you MUST involve a gallery. That simply perpetuates the notion that the greater population MUST have somebody else decide what is ‘art’ for them. Especially if none of them are interested.

      • Guardian Angel says:

        Unfortunately, there is a long history of art – and it is precisely this: a few people decide what is art for the greater population. This happens in galleries, in publicly commissioned art, in music, in sculpture. You cannot change this. Without a gallery, it is extremely unlikely you will go beyond a price-point which is non-subjectively at the “low” range of artworks, and unlikely you will ever sell enough prints to make your fine-art beyond a hobby. Again, it all depends on whether you want commercial long-term success or not.

        It’s the way of the world – you can disagree, but it makes no difference to reality.

        Find a respected, successful, gallery that will support your work, long term. They will take 50% – 70% commission, and it will be worth it. If you want to sell, ask them what sells, and then compare their suggestions to my list in #3 above.

        Finally, here is a list of all the famous fine-art photographers making a living from their art who do not use the services of galleries:

      • Guardian Angel says:

        BTW: #3, I completely agree. But that’s not the point.

  21. david mantripp says:

    Another thing occurs to me, and I apologize if I’m repeating something that has been brought up elsewhere on this thread, but you don’t mention the geographic catchment area of your prospective galleries. To me your style has a strong European element, and I have a hunch that you’d find a more responsive audience in countries like Germany and Switzerland where your style might mesh better with current cultural and lifestyle trends. I could imagine a good reception from both private and corporate customers in Zürich.

    And I’d also vote for the book. Widely recommended as an effective loss-leader into print and gallery sales. I promise to buy a copy.

    • They were in Europe. And I’m holding you to the book 😉

      • So Ming

        Have you ever been thinking of emigrating ???
        E.g. to Germany Berlin, relatively cheap for flats, ateliers etc. , a lot of artist heading to berlin as it is the “new” new york in a way, a lot of new galleries, new urbanism, guerilla gardening, new IT tech like silicon valley….

        Sofia /Bulgaria is another sleeper /insiders tip ;)……but bulgaria has not the wealth, reputation, quality of living and standards in several ways/ field than germany truly has…..

        Hold on! Love your work! Sadly it seems they give people as newcomers/lateral entrants no chances, only with classical/traditional educational background or if youre already famous or your partner, parents etc. as well as have the financial possibilities for surviving until you may get discovered or simply create/building your own gallery (a la roman abramowitsch – his wife). It seems there are hardly any gaps for those lateral recruits in the system….its a shame/ scandal and a bummer….

        Think about it and Take care! Keep it up!

        Best regards
        Florian

        • I have, but visas and employment for the wife are a bit of an issue, unfortunately. Plus my entire support network and partners are in Malaysia…

  22. This is an interesting and emotive subject. This is also the first comment I leave on this very interesting site which I have discovered only very recently.
    Just wish to share my own experiences of putting on fine art photo exhibitions both in the UK and in New Zealand where I live.
    Firstly I am VERY fortunate. I make my living as a medical doctor and do photography purely for the passion of the art form.
    I have had perhaps 10 shows in my life starting at the Royal Photographic Society in the UK. I still show here in NZ and have a major theme I am developing for my next one.
    Secondly I wish to commiserate with Ming on the nature of the industry and the attitudes of the public and curators.
    As an unknown artist you are up against the prejudice of up market gallery curators who by and large rate artists by reputation, not merit. If you are not already known to them you are utterly excluded. There is a near total lack of motive to evaluate a new artists and their work on its merit. You can smell the bias. Any amount of excuses are given but the truth is their market is rich clients who buy for status not artistic merit. Period. You are out of the game at the start. Its a commercial calculation.
    So most of my shows have been in down market galleries where almost anything goes as long as you can pay the gallery fees and can fill their walls for 2 weeks.
    I DO sell work at my shows but its a loss making exercise. I don’t mind that, and I do it because I want to and I can afford to.

    Thats all !

    Then there is the general public. Generally the latter has no conception. To most, photography is not art and LEAST of all digital photographs that have been developed using software.
    One of the most frequent conversations at an opening does something like this:

    “So you must have a very good darkroom ?”
    ” Well actually no – I shoot digital and have a high powered computer and a professional grade printer”
    “Oh, I don’t understand, thought you must have been doing it (embarrassed pause) the proper way. How can you get big pictures like this out of a computer?”
    “Well it would take a while to explain, but things have moved a long way in the 21st century”
    “Oh, thats a shame, computers make it so easy for us these days”
    So thats my pennies worth.
    Its a hard path and some of the people you will meet on the way will want to make you want to eat your knee caps out.
    But then some people will just love your work and will even buy a big tranche. That happened once to me and those images ado\rn the walls of a house in California.
    regards
    Malcolm

    • I completely disagree that digital has made it easier. To get crap results, perhaps, but to do things properly it’s basically necessary to start all over again.

      • Digital in some ways has made it much harder. Its the perception by the public that digital has made it easier. That makes the bar ever higher as really excellent work born of blood,sweat and tears is discounted in the eye of the general public. That is what I meant in the above.
        Malcolm

        • Barry Reid says:

          There’s no doubt whatsoever that digital has made the technical aspects of photography *much* easier than before. Not just digital but the internet, which digital came hand in hand with, means there is more information which is more easily accessible than ever before.

          • Much easier to create technically good images. Much harder to promote photography as art, because it has become easier to get over technical hurdles. So the perception is that anyone can do it (then post it on the net). There are certainly also many more people doing it well. So the hurdles to ‘success’ are so much higher. But the ultimate hurdle still remains creativity. And that’s hard.
            Malcolm

        • Yes it has. And it’s entirely false that there’s no skill or artistry required to operate digital well…dodging and burning, for instance, is as much by feel and an art as it ever was.

    • Guardian Angel says:

      Very good advice in here, from someone with experience with the art world. Malcolm’s story is typical.

  23. I love to look at photographic prints, That’d be at gallery exhibitions or in books. The latter is though being the most precious to me as I sort of become the ‘owner’ of the gallery inside and may open that gallery whenever I feel for it. I would furthermore have the pleasure to show it to other people as well and discus the inherent art.
    Books are the best media to get printed art exhibited to the interested since it may be distributed to individuals, libraries and what have all over the world.
    The Internet is of course where you announce yourself to the world today and as such there’s no real competitor to it. I do though not find the Internet to be a place you would dwell much looking at art. Most of us have a zapping behavior because each site, might it be a picture we are looking at, the next is always just a click away. Kind of Flickr like zapping if I may say?
    Nothing compares to a serious photo art book with well written stories behind the photos.
    To my humble knowledge there are a few book printers, Arturo Chapa comes in mind, who prints extraordinary high quality that’s close or equal to outputs from a high end photo printer as we know them.
    And then there is Super Printed books which has not reached the market in any way… yet 🙂

  24. Almost all artists live and die poor. I am not at all surprised at your experience. Asia is probably more difficult. It is all about conspicuous consumption. Picasso and Rembrandt are conspicuous, unfortunately Ming Thein is not.
    Try to get a book published and sold in some of the big book stores and it is the same story. One would think that book stores are in the business to sell books, but that is not really so. Amazon is easy, as long as you don’t expect any profit and as a foreigner actually pay out of your own pocket for the privilege.
    Sixty years ago bunch of photographers got together and figured they need to start an agancy to keep the rights to their images, and Magnum was born. Maybe you should get together a bunch of right minded photographers and start a collective gallery.

  25. Sorry. I just wrote a too long comment, that jumped to the top of the all the comments. Very strange. You’ll have to go back to the top to read it. Larry K

  26. Wow, another long thread. Struck a nerve. Too large a topic and a very very old one if you want to go back into Greek and Chinese history. The topic will never get settled and will never go away. When an artist brings it up, it always strikes me as a bit of self-indulged whining. I grew up in a family of artists, whose friends were artists, gallery curators, and restorers. First thing I learned–okay, second, first was crawling under the table with my 5 year old twin sister to watch the nude model that was featured in my father’s painting class–was (now second) that my mother’s father refused to come to her wedding because she was marrying an artist. Lesson # 1. Then my brother went to art school to become a painter, which he was his whole life. Lesson # 2, from my mother, unspoken but very real: “Don’t you even think about being an artist; someone has to make money.” Lesson # 3: My grandfather came back as soon as his first grandson was born. Lesson # 4: things change, perhaps too slowly, so hang in there and follow your heart or “path.”

    After reading the critique from the art dealers you met, I realized that they were describing your personal style! Every negative comment–comments that they want you to believe are negative–are to me, actually quite positive. You already have a very coherent and desirable style. That’s hard to come by. Don’t give it up; just find a way to create effective “sound bites” or 1-minute elevator ride descriptions of your style that will help the art dealers help the clients to understand what they want to buy from you. If that sounds even more crass than caving in to demand, then start by doing it for Ansel Adams or any of your own favorite photographers. Did Cartier-Bresson invent the term, “decisive moment”? Not at all. He just perfected it for himself. But it’s still being used to describe his art and why it’s art. I have never seen such a striking, beautiful, and unusual photograph of a lamp above a bare wall. You already knew that was the case! You gave it an official title of “A boring, rehashed theme,” just to bait us, okay me, and it worked. Here I am telling you how silly it was to disrespect your own work. Looks like someone who used to photograph watches would make. What amazing color and texture, structure. Very few photographs have the skills to produce a photograph like that, so they don’t even try. It’s your passion, and that passion is your strongest point. Follow that path. With out a doubt, I’m sure you will. This discussion will ultimately have little impact on what you do next; that photograph will have a much greater impact. In fact, every time you produce a photograph (as art) that satisfies you, you will continue to get better at it. There are almost 8 billion people now, you only need a tiny fraction of them to support your “habit.” It is already quite distinctive. I cannot but think that the dealers you talked to just couldn’t come up with the right “trendy” phrase to place it in its own, right category. Every style of art you can probably think of was given an somewhat artificial but perhaps accurate label. Impressionism was not invented by the artists and it was rejected at first. Cubism: half the time it’s hard to find the cubes! “Realism,” how could that even qualify as art: just drag the trash can into the living room and give it a platform and title. Okay, kick it a few time first or it’s not really art. Perfectionist art. Hmmmm. You criticize your own tendency for perfection. Why? It’s unusual and very few people can actually do it. It’s in your nature to strive for it; it’s what you want to see in the final photograph. I don’t like all of them (that you’ve showed us), but I like some of them very much.

    Seems like all the classic painters had to do whatever they could to acquire commissions to paint very boring portraits in order to support their own painting. My father became a lithograph artist after the great depression to support a family, but he also painted murals on the side for extra income . . . which literally allowed him to get married in the first place. My brother taught art to support his own painting, quite periodically to travel and paint, only to return after running out of money. Renoir barely had enough to eat at times and had to get advances at times. Then there was Salvador Dali. No kidding, someone had that name, and painted things that I personally cannot stand. But I visited his house in Cadiz, Spain, on the ocean a few years ago and marveled at how much he produced and what a large variety of types of art he indulged in. Then it dawned on me how much art (science too, all creativity) is just a form of play, very serious and difficult play. Dali played his whole life. If only my father and other artists could have had the luxury of spending that much time on just their own art. We will never know what he might have done. Then I found out that Dali married into the money! The house, everything. So, there’s lesson # ___. Now, he had to live with her too, you know. At least some of the time.

    Now to the British pop singer, Tom Jones (or the other one!) whose mother warned him, “Don’t record a song you don’t really like because if it’s a hit you will have to sing it over and over again the rest of your life.” And he did. And so did Tony Bennett with “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Miles Davis refused to do. He reinvented himself very 5 years or so and invented whole new styles and forms of jazz. In the last concert he did before he died, he played some of the music that launched his career, and others labeled as “Cool Jazz,” in the 50’s. Muted trumpet. He was asked why he quit playing it, “did you get sick of playing it.” No, he said. I like playing it very much and really enjoyed doing it again tonight. Just didn’t want to get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. I think he actually missed playing it. He was an artist. He played what he wanted on his terms. That was his style. All his music styles were given labels, which I’m sure he hated. A legend. Never a guarantee of success, always ups and downs. And critics, who cannot do anything else, giving you advice that would only make their job easier to do.

    Nice thread. Nice topic. Keep them coming as long as the photos come with them. It’s a unique web site in that sense.

    • Thanks Larry. Sounds very much like we all go around in circles. The more comments I read, the more I come to the conclusion: do whatever you want, and damn the torpedoes! 🙂

  27. I really like your work. I’m sure you’ll find a market for it too. Interestingly, one of two things I learned yesterday was that Ansel Adams paid most of his bills with commercial work until his fine art market really took off. (The other was that he used a Hasselblad later in life, I had thought he was a view camera only kind of guy) So maybe you’re not Ansel Adams now, but neither was he, for a while.

    Additionally, the whole question of “what is art” is an interesting one. I think at the core, we appreciate art because it reveals to us some facet of truth (or beauty, though Keats would insist they are the same) which we either hadn’t seen before, or saw in a different way. And that attempt to portray a universal truth in an original way is the quest and curse of the artist. So while it isn’t the way I make a living, I’d say go with your vision, and if enough other people see in it something which resonates as true and beautiful, you’ll succeed. Until then, you do make some pretty awesome car commercials.

  28. Ming, I think your stuff is real good. If you are not an ‘artist’, then nobody is.
    All those crap excuses are purely defensive.

  29. Just to comment on the remarks of Kye, below. He mentions Pentti Sammallahti, a particular favourite of mine. I almost bought a print of his recently. This is a photographer with a clear vision, much like Ralph Gibson, he has a distinctive style, but somehow, he is more compelling than Gibson, wittier, but also darker. What I have seen of your work, so far, is a very high level of competence, particularly in ‘craft’. What I don’t so easily see is a binding style, or at least not one that says anything more than ‘highly competent’. You say you want to photograph more of what you want (we all want that), but that does not seem to be enough. I do not see that, unlike Sammallahti, you are adding to the ways of seeing the world.

    Please don’t get me wrong, you are a good photographer, but is that what galleries would take a risk on, by including your work, and not others? I think you need to work on seeing and representing in your own way for some time; produce a body of work that coheres and that is different and distinctive, make conscious what you are doing, and understand the process of what you are aiming at, and then work with an impartial curator to go through your chosen pieces without your own input.

    Good luck – any artist needs a large dose of that.

  30. I’ve read all the articles on your site (and I don’t ‘skim’ read). And I’ve seen virtually all of your work that you’ve made available here and on flickr. Brutal honesty? You don’t photograph people particularly well. I can’t put it any kinder than that. But almost everything else you photograph is profound. Exquisite. Sublimely deserving of the title ‘Art’. And as good as the best from someone as dedicated and talented as say, Pentti Sammallahti.

    It’s your portfolio image choice that’s the issue. Like a psychologist needs to occasionally see a psychologist, maybe you need to have someone you respect and trust, show you your best 20 images. Maybe you do that all the time, I don’t know. But I do know that ‘your’ best 20 images would stand comfortably alongside any photographers work that I’ve ever seen printed. Just because you’re “on the internet” doesn’t mean that you are a genuine Master Artist.

    If I’m expressing a thought that includes the notion of a ‘great’ photographer, or compositional genius, your name is usually dropped as the example. In some respects, the only real issue for you is that you’re so spoilt for choice. Because you’re as prolific as you are.

    Hope that wasn’t offensive. Been meaning to post this for quite some time.

    All the best, Kye.

    • Sorry, I meant to write “Just because you’re “on the internet” doesn’t mean that you are NOT a genuine Master Artist.”

    • I agree with you: I photograph people when I have to, not because I want to. I used to, I don’t anymore. Different focus.

      You’re probably right about curation; I need to find the right person to look through the work objectively…that’s not so easy.

    • “It’s your portfolio image choice that’s the issue.” … I think this may be the issue too. That and being a really good fit for a particular gallery.

  31. Rene François Desamore says:

    I had an art gallery for more than 20 years. Each gallery has its own concept but we do not interfere in the artist creation. Genuine artists do no try to please the public but do what inspiration dictates them. The art gallery exhibit their work and I would give the chance to each and even organize exhibition at my expenses. Now it was up to the public to buy what they like. Some would buy pieces because they like the art, others would buy a piece because it matches their curtain. It was none of my business to judge. Discussions about signature, technical qualities, commercial work are all intellectual concepts outside the gallery and public preoccupation.

    • It sounds like your gallery is much more like the kind of place I’m looking for. Most of the people I talked to seemed quite happy to interfere if it would help them sell more work, nevermind artistic integrity.

  32. Mark Wade says:

    Hello Ming…I was directed here by a G+ acquaintance.
    I would not write off galleries.
    They are just one of many ways to exhibit your work. They are also in the business of making money, and rarely take on work from artists without a proven sales record.
    Keep doing what your doing…and build a buying audience if you want to get into the galleries.
    Fine Art redefines itself all the time….

    • I think constant reinvention is the very definition of art. What we see as art today will not, and cannot be art tomorrow. Doing the same thing today as what is currently commercially succesful in the art market is highly unlikely to result in sales tomorrow…

  33. Alexandre says:

    Ming,
    I think you found an entry barrier to the art world, not unlike those that exist in other professions/activities. You would find it easier to be accepted if you came to the galleries from inside of the art world and not as a commercial photographer. By that I mean if you had an appropriate academic curriculum, the right connections and spoke the “language”.
    Studying art, if not anything else, would allow you to give a proper context to your work, how to present and speak about it. For better or worse it would change your photography. It would not make any more or less “authentic”.

    Having written the above, I feel that you are in an enviable position. You might never be accepted into the “art” world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce your own work as you see fit or even study art (even if it’s not the same experience as in academia). You have certainly have an audience and your talent doesn’t lack recognition.
    Also you can pay your bills, which is something many, if not most, artists struggle with (Imagine yourself unable to pay for your equipment, film or prints!) Some decide for that career path not having the fuzziest idea of what kind of work they want to produce. They get caught up in the gears of academia, are formated to produce work within a “contemporary” line and churn out mediocre pieces. They are taught to present their work with ellaborate artist statements that say very liitle through many erudite words. Which artists are promoted to the next level and which aren’t, is often a matter of luck, opportunity or marketing.

    Obviously the above is a caricature. There are sucessful, authentic artists out there to prove it. It’s just not a career path that I would choose for myself. And like you, I will always be an outsider.

    • Whether the career path is through a gallery of the establishment or not, I guess what I’m seeking is nothing more complex than a way to shoot what I want for a living…

      • Why shouldn’t you? I believe that you’ll find a way to do that. What I have doubts is that your work you will accepted by the establishment if you don’t participate in that world. That doesn’t mean you won’t sell pictures. It means it will be hard to sell them to museums, collections or private investors.

        • I want to sell them to people who like them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a museum, collection or investor – perhaps better if it isn’t, actually.

  34. It’s about marketing Ming……not art or photography if you want to make this transition. I do agree with some points above from the galleries. The main one being about having some sort of focus and recognised signature. That in itself is branding and is part of marketing. Essentially it could make life easier to move in the right direction.

    • Franco Morante (Adelaide, South Australia) says:

      Sad but true; it’s all about Marketing and not so much about Fine Art. As a marketer, I fully understand this, but as an Artist, I am reluctant to conform. Branding can be creatively restrictive and I dread the thought of being limited to a certain style for the sake of demonstrating a recognised signature.

    • Perfection can be a signature.

      • Calligraphy. Is art. Is meditation. Reaches for perfection. Perhaps only reaches it when error is accepted.

      • Is it the Buddhists who build imperfections into their temples so as not to offend God with perfection? I have looked at a lot of photographic art over the years. Little of the best is perfect in the sense of sharpness and tone and the other indicia of photographic perfection. Worse, I have recently learned that there is a curse in the art world – decorative art. When you get pigeon-holed into that category, you are dead in the high art world. I learned about this through a painter, not a photographer, but the problem is likely as great for photographers. So technically excellent images better have something undecorative about them to survive in the high art world.

        There is another path. Look at Peter Lik – he makes classic, high quality post card perfect landscape photographs. He sells his art at mid level fine art prices (not the Gurksy stratosphere) through this own galleries. This lets him tap into the wealthy public looking for pretty wall art who are not concerned about being validated through galleries. It has worked brilliantly for him and shows that there is a market out there if you can get past the gallery filter. While I am holding my nose as I write this, Thomas Kinkade also tapped into this market.

        So, do you want to be validated by galleries, or do you want to be a financially successful fine art photographer who is just seen as a decorative artist?

        • Temples: I can’t say, though I was buddhist at one point. Probably not a very good one

          I’m not looking for validation from anybody. Decorative is fine by all means, if it lets me shoot what I want. No point being rich after you’re dead!

          • > I’m not looking for validation from anybody. Decorative is fine by all means, if it lets me shoot what I want.

            Then I would explore how Peter Lik built up his empire. I know one of his selling points was high technical quality work. I think with your business knowledge from your previous life you would be well positioned to build up your own way of selling your art. Given your positioning, I think China would be your natural market – figure out how to be the Peter Lik of China.

            • Hmm. Why do you think china would be my natural market?

              • It is physically close. It is a developing market with a lot of very rich people. You won’t trigger the automatic censorship mode that an American would. As a developing market, you will encounter fewer preconceptions about what is acceptable as fine art photography.

                • I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. Malaysia is also a developing market in many ways, and they just ape the west. No creativity is allowed whatsoever – and then they wonder why the results don’t quite work for local tastes.

                  • I think China is a different case. First, it is so much larger that there is bound to be more diversity. Second, it is highly nationalistic. While some plutocrats may want to ape the west, there is a strong thread of nationalist pride that limits that. Malaysia is a relatively young, tiny post-colonial state that still defines its identity with reference to the West. I just read that Alibaba is trying to attract luxury brands – maybe you should be the person to invent fine art photography over the Internet with Alibaba. Don’t trap yourself in the western notions of fine art and fine art photographers mostly just shooting for themselves in obscurity unless they become an appendage of a gallery.

                    • It’s got nothing to do with trapping myself in that notion: it’s what I want to do. I don’t see why it has to be more complicated (or why I should follow history, when everybody knows that being the second person to do something a) isn’t memorable, and b) inevitably doesn’t give a different result). China still very much aspires to be western, otherwise you wouldn’t see western brands doing so well there – especially in the luxury sector. Nobody wants local Chinese products if they can afford western.

  35. one thing i know: if you want to get into a top gallery, cold-warm calling won’t work and, in fact, comes across as pure desperation from someone more concerned with financial success than artistic vision. make your work, find an art community you gel with, and let galleries make their way to you. also, think about your motivations for being an artist.

  36. Terrific comments on this post ! Ming, you’d appreciate a movie “Exit Through the Giftshop” if you haven’t seen it…

  37. …. but then again, what do I/we know about ‘Art’ ?

  38. ChrisGriff says:

    Are you familiar with the work of Paul Strand, Ming? I can draw some parallels between him and you aesthetically. Machinery photos, buildings and shadows etc etc. His work sits just fine in a museum or gallery. It’s not what you’re doing it’s which Svengali picks it up and runs with it. MOMA only picked up Eggleston because he made the effort to track down John Szarkowski and pitch him a suitcase full of drug store prints. Even after the event Eggleston was laughed out of town by the art world. Such is life. Just keep on creating and making connections. I think the gallery system has a problem with internet made photographers right now, just like they did with the commercial world back in the day. It will change.

  39. Graham Lawrence says:

    I recently watched a talk being given by John Gossage, a photographer who also calls himself an artist. The thing that really stuck in my mind afterwards was his comment, or implication, that a work of art should be “an object of fascination!” This also ties in with that other idea (derived from James Joyce) that art should involve “aesthetic arrest”. (and as a side note, if it encourages you to do something then it is pornographic e.g. buy a car).
    So I guess at the end of the day, what counts is “Does your photo have sustainable interest?” “Does your image grab you and stick in your mind, like maybe a Bacon picture, or maybe even a Cy Twombly or maybe a Koudelka?” If it does these things then inevitably you will find a market for your photos, somewhere at some time in the future. Sometimes you can’t force your own future. Don’t be too impatient. Bide your time and do what you can do. I personally think (IMHO) that some of your pictures would make a great book.
    I wish you all the best.

    • Another vote for the book – interesting. Good advice about not forcing it though!

      • Yet another vote here! As much as I like your work, almost none of it I would like to hang on the walls of my home. The same goes for almost any photographer, and I would assume most print buyers are as selective. Thus a book should in theory have a much broader potential audience, and might not hurt with developing your image either. The sheer amount of work you publish online tends to automatically push you to a different category than most famous photographers, who might publish 50 images per year or less.

        Pure technical execution (composition and print quality) is unlikely to make a best seller, though. The best books seem to be based on multi-year projects focused on particular theme or story. Judging from your online work, you might not have such material available, unless it’s about watches or architecture. Of course there could be something hiding in the drawer, but if not, maybe it’s time to consider long-term personal projects?

        • Actually, there’s something I’ll be presenting quite soon…

          Just curious: why wouldn’t you hang it? Is it because you’re also a photographer and would prefer to hang your own? I think that might actually be a good explanation for most of the audience here; I’m not sure about the rest of the art community, though.

          • Easier said than explained. I recently printed some of my photos to hang on the walls, but somewhat surprisingly every single one that I chose in the end was from a trip to India a few years ago. That was precisely when I had bought a half-decent camera but didn’t know more about making photos than having read about the “rule of thirds”. Still I had managed to capture the feeling of the place better than in my more recent travel photos, which are more focused on technical execution. Now I’m trying to step back and start with the emotion, and let the rest come automatically when capturing an image.

            I think your photos have technical and compositional excellence above anyone else, but somehow the stories seem academic and descriptive rather than emotional. Some commenters seem to imply that the balance could be fixed by weakening the compositions, which is ridiculous. I think working on the emotional component (by capturing what you feel, not by adjusting color balance) would perfect your personal work. Surely it can be done without interfering in people’s personal space without permission – how would you otherwise manage it in your commercial work (e.g. the brilliant steel workers series)?

            What goes on the walls is obviously further limited by overall visual look (“matching the curtains”) and type of emotion. War photography will stay between book covers.

            • Ohi, Ming, another one picking on the issue of ‘soul’ in your images… Seems I’m not alone…

              By the way, have you tried YellowKorner? Very interesting channel for art prints!

              • Not necessarily lack of emotion (“soul”) versus the average photographer’s work. Again difficult to explain, but perhaps the strict composition and apparent favoring of horisontal/vertical lines requires stronger and larger emotional elements to balance things out. From reader perspective it also seems like composition is the clear #1 priority in Ming’s images – strong ones may be published, but strong emotions with imperfect composition will not. That in turn feeds the overall feeling I tried to describe.

              • See my reply to Tarmo.

                Their print quality is dire.

            • I don’t shoot people. I don’t empathise with people. Hell, most of the time I have no idea what they’re thinking. Honestly – human individual subjects no longer appeal. I am shooting what I feel, and perhaps that’s why nobody else understands it.

              • I am somewhat similar, so I think I know what you mean. Actually I should not have mentioned the people subject that way. Your watch and camera photos have a lot of emotion and capture the essence of the subject, so “soul” or emotion does not require having people in the photograph. I just don’t happen to resonate with the feeling in some of your themes, which may or may not be the case with other viewers. Perhaps worth considering is what more you could carry over from product shots to still life / street scenes. For prints those are probably the safest themes, since at least I would not like to have a big camera or a human face hanging on my wall (both just fine in books, though).

                Thank you for the very interesting post and commentary! I’m looking forward to seeing what you will have to offer, even if it is not a book.

                • And that’s the other problem: few people would want photos of strangers, much less large ones staring down at them. That just makes you feel uncomfortable.

                  It isn’t possible to make an image that resonates with everybody on a personal level, so I don’t try. The whole things is subjective after all…

  40. I read with great interest the article and the comments. For someone not from an ‘Art’ background all I can say is I enjoy images that are aesthetically pleasing but that also makes me think or moves me in a certain way. I think my favourite image of Ming’s is the “Only the clouds are free” print. My simple take on all this (and I suppose of life in general) is one of validation… In this case, validation by gallery owners. But Ming has already achieved ‘validation’ by the popularity of this site, his print sales and popularity of workshops etc. I think that must speak for itself.

  41. You cannot just decide to be a successful artist (selling work). Art is about having a vision and finding a medium of expression for it. Art is critical, edgy, and different from previous work. It can be expressive, impressionistic, brutal, figurative or abstract etc. there are so many genres, but it is rarely pretty. Modern art has clearly broken away from ideas of the beautiful in any straightforward or conventional sense. Just take the work of the two most sought after British Painters, one recently dead the other died a little longer ago – Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud – their work is now highly valued and sells for many millions. Why? Many viewers would think their work quite ugly, but, as figurative artists they were attempting to express their inner vision, and both just kept at it. Bacon lived hand to mouth for years, he begged and borrowed for his paints, he didn’t prioritise a comfortable bourgeois life, he just worked. That tenacity was eventually rewarded. Freud suffered less for his work, but he was single-minded and had faith in his vision of representation of the body. It paid off.

    These two were representational painters, other artists like Gerhard Richter are both representaional/figurative and purely abstract, so artists cannot easily be classified, but what they do is produce, relentlessly. Richter is extremely rich, he can now produce just about anything and it will be sold for a great deal of money. Moving to photography Andreas Gursky is also in a similar position, whatever he produces will get gallery space and sell for large sums.

    What characterises these artists and many others is their single-minded pursuit of their ideas from a relatively early age, and developing the right contacts in the art world, often from art school, but certainly later through joining art cooperatives or movements or schools. It is here that the better galleries are looking for new proteges. This how people like Damien Hurst, Tracy Emmin etc. were found.

    Galleries can, of course, be seen as parasitic on this large pool of potential ‘talent’. But it is they who typically make or break an artist’s career. Do they deign to support them or not? If they do, then an artist can be ‘made’ as it were, they receive the seal of approval and the decision is made to promote their work and inflate its value by any means available to the gallery system. The system relies on limiting access to artists and art works. Value relies on rarity, so there is only room for a limited number of supported artists – too many and value goes down. Having others outside the gallery system accrediting worth and value to artists and art would debase the value of those works and artists they control. So galleries try to keep an iron grip on accreditation, helped of course by various prizes, typically judged by other artists and those in the gallery system. This works as well for the photography fine art market as it does for the rest of the art world.

    So artists should have a certain pedigree – well known art school if possible, or perhaps a later ‘school’ of artists. They need to be single-minded producers, with a clear set of styles. Artists are those who are selected by galleries – the makers of artists. Other aspirants who have neither the pedigree, the single-mindedness, the network of contacts, or gallery support are kept out. It is an exclusive club.

    In photography, for some reason, it seems to help if work is produced in such a way that it is not easily reproducible by most others. Hence Gursky’s very large 10′ wide prints made from 8×10 cameras or larger. It also helps if there is not even a sniff of ‘craft’ in the process. Preoccupation with craft skills is anathema to galleries (unless it suits them, of course – they make the rules).

  42. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    “Commercial disaster?” Open your own online gallery. Offer a wide variety of images printed different way & in different sizes (not just ultraprints, but something for the down-market, too). Let the market tell you what is and isn’t a commercial disaster. Iterate the business model as you go. The “Fine Art Market” is defined by pretentiousness. I wouldn’t want to be there, either.

    (Speaking of pretentiousness, did I just offer advice to Ming Thein?!?)

  43. Thank you for another thought provoking article.

    About 15 years ago, I showed my sculptures to a gallery owner in New Mexico. The guy was somewhat interested and wanted me to keep in touch with him. He said that my work was technically impressive, but that much of it was “too academic”. Sound familiar? In hindsight, the guy was right. I didn’t fully see it at the time, but it is so obvious to me now. In some ways, I could not see the forest from the trees. My work has changed considerably since then, and I don’t think I’ve had to compromise any of my aesthetic principles. In fact, my current work is stronger, more cohesive and more identifiable as uniquely mine. Hopefully, I’ll continue to evolve and discover.

    There’s no doubt that you are, in numerous ways, an extraordinarily good photographer, but do you think it is possible that there may be something to any of those things you were told … “too commercial, not dramatic enough, no visual signature, too balanced, too technically perfect etc. etc.”? Or, is your work simply misunderstood and ahead of its’ time, like VanGogh’s? We all know the cliche that “good advice jars the ear”. It seems to me that you have to decide if any of those “constructive criticisms” have legitimacy. I believe that we all have to continually contemplate those things about our work, if we are to grow.

    • The litmus test is this: are you now selling successfully as an artist?

      • I’m not sure exactly what you are asking or if you are making a sarcastic statement? Yes, my work is continually shown in several galleries and yes, I do regularly sell my paintings and sculptures. Compared to most sculptors and painters, I suppose I am successful, though that isn’t saying much 😉

        That said, we all know that good art and bad art sells. Likewise, there is good art and bad art that does not sell. Sales and quality are not necessarily related. Of course, sales are objective and quality is subjective … but gallery owners, at least the successful ones, DO have an instinct for what they can readily sell. I believe that some of those saleability factors also relate to a kind of quality.

        I often think about this quote by Charles Webster Hawthorne: “The world is waiting for men with vision — it is not interested in mere pictures.”

        I think your best work is exceptional and should sell. It is probably just a matter of selecting the right cohesive group of images and finding a gallery that sells similar photographic work.

        NNTR Again!

        • No, it was an absolutely serious question: you said you started off in a similar position and changed but didn’t elaborate on the result, which is why I’m asking. Sorry if it came across otherwise. Beyond the obvious, I also need to decide if the compromises necessary are something I want to do…

  44. “Seeing is a neglected enterprise.”
    – Saul Leiter

  45. Martin Fritter says:

    I think your still lifes are just stunning. I also think you have a photographic aesthetic that is predicated on optimized digital technique. Therefore, in a way, your work has a certain meta-quality: photography about photography. I’ve recommended that you look into Abelardo Morell mainly because I think you’d totally dig what he’s up to. I do think you should focus on one or two themes/subjects, at least until you find an audience. I’m sure Nick Brandt does lots of stuff in addition to his Africa work, but that’s his public face. Since your work has such a strong technology flavor (not a bad thing) you might consider exploring the topics further and maybe developing something of an editorial bent, like Burtynsky. Have you checked out the reports on the Christopher Williams show at NY MOMA?

    I suggested photo books in the past, and know you dislike the idea, but they’re key to the Japan market, I believe. A well received one might help establish your reputation.

    Unfortunately, it seems that most established fine art photogs do not have a self-curated web presence, so that may be an issue.

    Finally, on being an artist: read Proust.

  46. Well, Ming, you are a very self-confident man. You are (obviously) a quite successful commercial photographer, you are running a well written website, you are doing workshops all around the globe, you have a huge fan base and so on… and now you’ve decided that you want to enter the art business, and what a surprise, nobody was waiting for you. And even worse, nobody values what you are regarding as a core requirement… technological excellence and perfection. They must be stupid, misguided, blind or even something worse… So the only correct way of reacting is to put some technically perfect photographs on your site, and add comments in the good, old „ I don’t work for you, stupid, I only work for me“ tone (my children are using this tone as well, btw). Clinical, cold excellence isn’t something that people usually hang on their walls, at least not in the current century. Does this make your pictures less or more „arty“? I have no idea, if art could be measured, someone would have already done so. So we are back to oppinions, and that’s why every gearhead out there can feel like a misunderstood genius, simply because noone can proove him wrong. I definitely don’t mean you, but your reaction unfortunately puts you in this very camp. Well not really, since hardly anyone of them uses Picasso as a proof point, but they don’t have your excellence, so how could they☺?

    Please read the last paragraph of your essay and think about it, just for some seconds… the fact that they did not like your work doesn’t make you a great artist per default, and as well it doesn’t put you ahead of your peers. It just puts you back in line with all the other photographers, whose work as well doesn’t sell in this environment. That’s all… obviously more than you could stand.

    You might have noticed that I’ve refrained from writing anything about the art industry or galleries… I don’t know them well enough to comment, but your observations might be bang on… sometimes both parties are wrong…;-)

  47. A good artist takes criticism in stride. I think some of what you heard from these galleries might be frustrating because your not used to rejection coming from a successful commercial career. You have great technical ability but your images are generally repetitive and at times cliche’. If I were you I would like at my work and purposefully try something different to maybe help myself grow as a photographer. Sometimes it’s ok to be a carpenter rather than an engineer. Good luck.

    • I don’t think you have any idea how much rejection I had to go through commercially and in my professional career to get here…

      • Tuche’

        • Franco Morante (Adelaide, South Australia) says:

          A good artist takes criticism in stride? Having broad shoulders can make one a better artist? I fail to see the correlation Brandon.

  48. Galleries and museums are only interested in photography that is politically correct. The entire universe of curators and buyers is filled with people who have a certain liberal or progressive worldview, amounting to a kind of religious orthodoxy, in which images must cohere to that worldview. Certain categories of images are acceptable for their political content, either overt or covert, other images are simply unacceptable.

    For example, you could show up with images of, say, the prostitutes of Thailand, or drug addicts in the ghetto, and get a full hearing. These subject areas would qualify as commentary on third world oppression, or minority discrimination. But if you showed up with images of, say, intricate machine parts, or flattering portraits of firearms owners, you would be sent packing. You might get a hearing if your machine parts were a comment on the horrors of mass production and the poor treatment of labor; while the portraits of firearms owners would be taken up right away as long as they were shown as ignorant, retrograde human beings.

    I have been told outright by museum curators that any work that graces their walls must adhere to these political narratives. Any work that is presented as graceful, or beautiful without these narratives is just not accepted, as you apparently have discovered. The politics of the subject matter trumps everything. In this regard, the photographic art shown today is not much different from the propaganda art turned out by Stalin’s agencies during the 1930’s.

    • A bit much maybe.

    • david mantripp says:

      Sorry, but that’s just ridiculous over-stereotyping. Here’s just one example of a gallery-represented photographer I discovered fairly recently: http://www.tiinaitkonen.com. If you consider Itkonen’s work has no grace or beauty, then you’re a lost cause. And that’s one example from hundreds. Just take a look at one of the galleries that represents her (and where I discovered her): http://www.kashyahildebrand.org. Getting all hot tempered at the art world on Ming’s behalf is very sweet, but a little naive.

      • Indeed. There are a variety of gallery owners, and the while styles presented in their showcases certainly are not comprehensive, they are not limited to politically correct left wing work.

      • It is nice work but not something I would shoot. Do we all have to be the same to be successful? No. Discovered? Perhaps that’s the difference. Whenever you want something and actively seek it out, people are unwilling to give it to you…

    • Ouch!

  49. david mantripp says:

    I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but could it not be that the criticisms you’ve come up against have some grounding in truth? I think the point about lack of focus is fair, at least from the perspective of somebody you’re asking to take you on as, in effect, a brand. My impression is that you’re in love with photography, with the process of photography, and the art and self-expression inherent in that, but you’re not pursuing a specific vision. You’re covering pretty much all themes in photography, and this means that to a non-photographer, art client, you don’t have a strong identity. I would argue that customers of typical art galleries, including those specialising in photography, are as much interested in the artist behind the works as the works themselves, and they’re looking for a narrative spun by a body of focused, consistent work to tell them about the artist. And the gallery needs this too, in order to promote you, to create a sequence of coherent exhibits. I don’t think your work goes in that direction.

    Also, if there’s one single, jarring thing I’ve noticed about “gallery-represented” fine art photographers, it’s that they have little or no direct web presence. This might be because galleries discourage it, perhaps because they want to retain some aura of mystery or distance, or because the artists themselves want to focus on their work and let the galleries do the PR / marketing for them. Either way, I can’t offhand think of any examples of prominent photography blogger/educator who also have fine-art gallery representation – unless they own the gallery.

    My €0.02 – you can’t have it both ways: you might crave the stamp of approval that prestigious gallery representation would bring you, but you’re not going to get that without letting go of what you’re doing now, it’s just not compatible. Part of the deal is that the gallery runs your PR. But also there’s a parallel with the music industry here: the establishment-run, structured ways to market where the industry provides the channels but takes a huge cut have been near-destroyed by the digital and social media revolutions. Don’t you think that your way of building an audience, and recognition, is the future, and the gallery industry a rapidly dying past?

    • They might well be right. But that’s making the assumption that I presented anything like I do on the site, which I did not. I went in with curated portfolios and clear ideas. It’s got nothing to do with prestige or approval. I doubt any of these people whole have the balls to leave their jobs and do something completely different, for starters. It’s about finding a way to finish what I started and shoot what I want consistently, not shoot somebody else’s creative vision.

  50. Ming, do you think Van Gogh was worrying about marketing and stuff? No, he did what he cared about, died early and poor, and yet he is now looked up at as a revolutionary visionary artist. So, don’t sell your soul, no way, but don’t expect to make money out of your art if you go down that purist path. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Wish you well, but be prepared.
    And, technical ultraprint perfection, noone cares about it much, except perhaps the landscapist crowd. So try landscapes if that’s (technical perfection) is what moves you. All of the masters’ prints I have hanging on my walls are far from technically perfect, but they talk to me on many other levels. Erwitt, ultraprints? not really. HCB, ultraprints? not really. Leiter, ultraprints? neither (wish I had one of his, though).
    Follow your path, man, but don’t be afraid of being lonely out there. Artists are by definition, I think. 99.999% anyways.
    Or, follow the wise comments of many of your readers above, Jack Siegel’s for one. Free is good, when it’s an investment in recognition. Consistent is essential, too…

    • Using Vincent Van Gogh is an unfortunate example. His younger brother Theo was a significant and influential art dealer at the time who supported VVG with money and marketed and sold VVGs works for him.

    • Ansel was known for the quality of his printing.

      • Absolutely. That’s why I suggested you belong in the landscapist crowd à la Briot…

        • Odd since I’ve never really don’t much landscape work…but wanted to try!

          • Hi Ming

            I would try to concentrate on landscapes/culturscapes/cityscapes/architecture! Your architecture compositions and vertical works are already otstanding! I think these are beside animals/wildlife/macro the subjects of interest for the majority of people willing to hang ultraprints on walls and pay money for it more than modern and abstract images due to the fact that they dont get the idea of those ones and why you shoot it (such an abstract motif) as well as a lot of people are too superficial nowadays e.g .social media facebook, twitter friends and followers that are often not real trustworthy friends only people they met and got to know somewhere… Furthermore, a lot of have no interest in abstract modern art and simply not being able to see it -being enough vigilant/intent! Sadly, they have to relearn seeing as it is the same for tasting (due to food industry artificial flavours, aromes in food etc.)

            The majority of people are impressionists somehow imo! They love easily pictures with landscapes, nature scenes (e.g. like Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne…). Only a few are and understand expressionists (e.g. Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc…)) or even surrealists with weird motifs like Salvador Dali, Joan Miró) etc….

            Maybe as one comment stated you should think about a different place where you may have better chances, more of your potential, target audience, buyers etc you could also benefit due to the fact that in Europe you would also get easily access to P1 or Hassy support if higher resolution is needed….

            I know you would need quite a few time to get similar network partners there (e.g. print lab/master like Wesley for you ultraprints….)….

            No real easy decisions…….

            Cheers!

            • That’s pretty much the direction in which I’m going anyway. The painters never painted modern cityscape…because they never had any material to work with!

              • What still come to my mind is that you may should buy a uww prime or zoom lens for your d810 zeiss 15 2.8 zf2, nikkor 14-24 or 16-35 or for pentax 645 Z setup if you mainly & now shoot with the MF most of your upcoming ultraprints…..
                Especially for landscapes the dramatic, impressive look of a 14 or 15mm 35mm equiv. has something special which may be preferred to hang on the wall as an bought landscape ultraprint….
                Furthermore it is even out of an photographers perspective very interesting, demanding and challenging in order to frame and compose the motif with an uww lens….for me as an amateur it was sth. completely new….
                I think also the usage of filters (esp. ND, partially CPL) in landscape photography is recommendable and a must imo to freeze water smoothly (long exposures) or to reduce reflections of water or metal (CPL)…..
                Sadly for some lens with bulbous element you need special, expensive adapters…(nikon 14-24 & the fotodiox wonderpana filter system is quite nice/best!!!)

                i thought you planned to sell your d4 …so maybe a trade-in for an uww lens (+/- filter set) is interesting for you as well…

                PS: Dont get me wrong i dont mean (you should make HDR ultraprints) and i dont like HDRs as well…..I hate them oversaturated,overphotoshopped…still horrible in vogue sadly ;)! I mean natural aesthetically premium landscape ultraprints like your ultraprint series “Tokyo in autumn”/Japan!

    • Well said Giovanni. I agree for the most part but see no reason why technical perfection should be limited to landscape photography.

  51. LOVE this! Seems you are going in the right direction. 🙂

  52. Well….one major problem here is any understanding of how photography interfaces with trends in contemporary art. I’ll hit that in a minute.

    Another is, “which fine art market?”. There’s at least 2: a fine art market of fine photography that sells for the single digit thousands (USD), and one where the pieces sell for double and triple digit thousands and land in the hands of major collectors of contemporary art and museums. If you are gunning for the former, then you are already there—-it’s just a matter of finding a bit of representation or manufacturing your own through a variety of marketing means.

    If you are going for the latter, then we get back to the first thing I said, above. First, you may need to re-orient yourself as an artist first, and photographer second (maybe distant second). Next, my strong impression, based on your comments, is that you may know a huge amount about the technical aspects of photography, and also probably a great (very great) deal about the conventions of photographic composition and your own self expression, but much less (virtually nothing?) about art history in the west or east over the past 30-40 millenia—let alone the last century of craziness leading to the situation today.

    I am an artist first, a contemporary art independent curator a distant second, and art worker in a major American museum, and someone with 2 degrees in art studies who has devoted most of my adult life to the pursuit of art. Note I didn’t say photography. While I think like a painter, mostly, I’ve done work in all sorts of media 2-D and 3-D, and photography is merely—note I said merely—one of them.

    How many years have you devoted to the study of art? I’d ask that question of most of your commenters above, as well. And for those who pooh-pooh it as just a bunch of irreverent/irrelevant crap, through what scholarly mechanism did you come to that conclusion? What gives you the right to pass judgement on it? There’s a lot more than just your personal opinion involved—as there is with anything in life. Anyway, if you (some of your commenters, above, not you, Ming—I think you are more open-minded by experience) have a negative attitude about it, why even engage with it?

    Finally, I’ll say this about Art (that’s a capital A, there), in any media—theater, literature, poetry, music, dance, the visual arts. There’s an aspect of it that is very much like faith or religion. Many will bristle at this, but it’s true. Belief, devotion, sacrifice, mystery, arcana—all these things are shared by art and religion/faith. It’s no accident that the two have been closely intertwined throughout history—and remain so in our rational age, although in a much more sub rosa fashion.

    And all of that is before we ever get to a discussion of “the market”—who controls it, its mechanisms, history, etc. I wish you well, but you have a lot of work ahead of you, probably, unless you have a serious, “lightning bolt” epiphany (something else religion and art share…). If you find any of this intriguing, contact me directly, I’d be happy to engage.

    • I am so curious to see the reaction to this comment… But I will agree with Tex. Art history is important, “l’art pour l’art”, it started a long time ago. I studied art history a bit, not an expert by all mean. In my mind, the artist’s work value is not about being beautiful or pleasing or useful like it was before art moderne but how interesting and new are you when interacting with your time and through your medium. Picasso was able to paint like Raphael very early in his career but he wasn’t successful until he deliberately wanted to change how things were painted in his words “as I think them not see them”. Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns are also two artists who interacted with their time intellectually and within art’s history in order to add something or at least explore new concept. You can add your own favorite examples here.
      Reading the cynical feedback of the art galleries, I humbly think that it is the question they are asking you and your work. Beyond being stunning and beautiful how can I understand your work in the continuity of art as I know it and can explain it.

    • Thanks for the insight. As you say, maybe I’m there and don’t know it or need to repackage it. But the behavior is definitely not something I went in with, it’s a distinct impression that the system was just looking out for its own rather than actually looking for creativity. I’d really like to be wrong, though.

      • Well, of course the system is looking out for its own! What system does not? It’s a bit like water, which finds it’s own level always, at least here on earth. And it’s you who are knocking on the system’s door, yes? Don’t show up to the rugby match with a cricket bat. You are the one who must adapt—and as I said above, for the “art” market, maybe the first step is to start envisioning yourself as artist first, photographer second. Really, you already seem to be successful in the “photography” market. I am starting to wonder why you even want to switch gears….

        Nevertheless, within the system there have always been outlets for acts of extraordinary creativity or uniqueness. It is always just met with resistance, that’s all—-and this has been ever so, pretty much. It’s an unusual period that is very open—the 17th century in the Netherlands and Flanders spring to mind, for instance—but most periods have a closed quality to them that stays that way until exhaustion (the French Academy in the 19th century is the classic example) or some cataclysm (the French Revolution, the “Fall” of Rome). So, you are in extraordinarily good company—-welcome to this sad and frustrating club. Membership dues are pain, paid daily. But seriously, you have already done so much good work to get yourself where you already are. The final ascent is always rough, though, ask any mountaineer. Now you just have to come to terms with some things, organize what you’ve done carefully, and be diligent and constant in your pursuit of this goal, if you decide you actually want it.

        Maybe you should talk to more artists. You know, the main thing we did in grad school, besides working, was constant critiquing and getting critiqued. The best ones were the ones that just asked questions—“why are you doing this, why that? why did you do it that way? what do you think of so-and-so’s work, who seems to have done all this before you?” & etc. It bears a resemblance to certain forms of therapy. The Phd. people were horrified—they only had to go through this once, at the end. We had to do it over and over again. But it was seriously good. Talk to some painters and sculptors (but try to find the smarter ones). Good luck, and enjoy your pain! And thanks for the good website—your 645Z commentary was helpful to me as I sorted out my purchase.

        • The first question is easy to answer: for the creative challenge, to move my work to another level, and to shoot what I want – not what the client wants. Too much of the commercial work is not your own – it’s just ‘copy this’ or ‘do it like that’. Those are not images you put in your portfolio.

          The system lags: it has to catch up with demand, in some ways; especially if it finds tides changing. Almost all the great artists were rejected before being accepted…

          I am keeping my fingers crossed that you used one of the referral links for the 645Z order…:)

          • I think you are well positioned to do the first thing—but there’s one thing that I caught there, “to shoot what I want…” Actually, every really good artist I know in any medium does NOT do that—-the work directs them. They are a vehicle for the work, not the other way around. You give yourself over to the work. This is a huge step that most artists or aspiring artists don’t make, and when you think about it and look hard, it’s so easy to see examples of this very failure of devotion. When artists drive the work, you can see it’s forced or contrived or formulaic or “stylish” or…something (sometimes flashy), and you sense the artist as a lurking presence. When the work is the driver, the artist becomes transparent and there is nothing between you and the work. Sometimes in great works the artist’s presence is heavy (Michelangelo or Rubens are great examples) and the work doesn’t suffer, the work is just so strong. But those cases are more rare.

            On # 2, lots of systems are lagging right now—the world is riven with lag: political, religious, the proper applications of technology, infrastructure, education, and on and on. So the art system is just reflecting all of that. Things are deeply “imperfect” right now, although much freer in every way. And you are right about rejection, so hang in there as you progress. Think about that first thing. I see lots of ways the work you’ve already done might push you.

            And I am very sorry, truly, but I couldn’t use your link—-my purchase was predicated on a couple of things, including a big favor to an old friend who is now a Pentax rep in my area, and my ability to arrange a trade-in of a LOT of gear to a local pro shop, who kindly accepted it and had a 645Z for me (before B&H or Adorama!).

  53. Creating exceptional art, in any medium, is so difficult that it is crazy to not make what you want. Put another way, if your primary goal is simply to make money, there are much easier ways than via art.

  54. I would venture to guess most of your work appeals to the analytically/technically minded crowd (I count myself as one). Perhaps most of your readers are engineers, analysts, lawyers, or otherwise in STEM fields, but not the art community. I wouldn’t take the criticism from art gallery curators personally – it’s just a sign that those aren’t the proper venues for your work.

    From the galleries’ perspective, I would also guess they need works with singular or really unique themes to draw audiences in. As an average museum/gallery visitor with no prior knowledge of the artist, it’s the theme that leaves the impression with me after viewing a series of works. Sometimes the theme is the artist her/himself, but that usually only applies to the famous ones or those with a compelling story (e.g. Vivian Maier).

    • I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Having an audience is necessary – and I suppose it’s the same or similar one to the people who visit this site.

      Perhaps it’s a curation/ presentation thing…

  55. Gary Morris says:

    Change your perspective… you’re already selling photography (your “commercial” clients). You’ve achieved what many of the “fine art” photographers have not achieved… CLIENTS. Why care whether your work is sold by a gallery or directly by you. Not many people who study photography, perhaps even get a degree or other institutional recognition, can say they are a commercial success… obviously you are so I’d say continue to build on that success; who knows, perhaps a client will give you a commission (beyond the commercial project) and then you can add “fine art” to your resumé. And you have people happy to pay you to learn how to photograph like you (or similar to you)… more success. You’re in a good place!

  56. Having done “speed dating” portfolio reviews where 10 “experts” review your work for 15 minutes each, I can tell you one mistake you probably made. The experts (gallery owners) do not want to see a variety of work. They want a cohesive project–1 subject done consistently. I suspect, based on your comments, that that was your first mistake.

    I will tell you why I don’t buy photographic collectible work–there are two reasons. First, if I am going to hang photos in my house as art work, I am going to hang my own. Even though they may not be gallery suitable, if I like the photo, it gives me far greater pleasure to hang it then hang something else.

    Second, collecting art is a sucker’s game if you buy the art for investment rather than personal enjoyment. Of course, there are exceptions. I suspect a Van Gogh oil painting will prove to be a pretty good investment in 10 years. However, unless you are operating at that level, collecting for investment is a joke. I recently sold some stuff by internationally known artists–limited edition prints from good printers. After 20 years, I was lucky to get half of my investment back. I don’t object because I got 20 years of pleasure from the work, but as an investment, forget it. And why did I sell the work. My wife has taken up pastels and I have my photography. We would rather hang our best work than hang someone else’s work.

    The other problem you are running into is “art.” There is a lot of mediocre photography that now sells for big dollars. It does so because the image is not the art, but there is a larger narrative/message. I was in a museum where an artist had photographed 1,700 items (each item had its own photo) that had been confiscated by the TSA . The shots were not well exposed or processed, and the composition was bland to say the least. These wouldn’t have been good product shots for an ad. However, the series was museum worthy because collectively, the artist had made a grand statement (what it was I still don’t know) about our society. The photography was incidental. It was no different than the contemporary art that drives both my wife and me nuts–a pile of dirt in the middle of a museum. And we have seen it and variations on it (rocks, sand) many times.

    Unfortunately, you are in for a lot of frustration if you try to work through galleries: They want edgy messages rather than good photography. One thing that might help you: Uber prints are not 17 by 22 or 28 by 40 inches. You need to think in terms of wall size.

    If I were you, I would take advantage of your location. Try some of your Kuala Lumpur prints in a 5 Star hotel gift shop or other place where the tourists are. Or find a restaurant that is looking for art work to hang. Give them the prints for free (or at a really discounted price–they pay for framing), but get yourself identified on the menu or a brochure that the restaurant has, as the photographer with a note that the prints are available for purchase.

    Best

    Jack Siegel

    • I don’t think distributing or hanging work for free is a good idea. I’d rather not hang it at all. I do agree that unless the work is very different and distinctive, I’d rather hang my own. And certainly not buy anything for investment.

      Here’s a thought, though: if you only ever shot one thing, how are you going to learn the skills to present it in a unique way?

      • I am not suggesting you only shoot one thing, but when you approach a gallery., come with a cohesive body of work rather than a macro photo, an architectural photo, a product shot, and a street photo. Art galleries like series of related photographs. Once a gallery picks you up because of your architectural portfolio, next time they may take your macro photos as a series. They also like a good story about how the photographs came about or why you made them. That story is easier to deliver when it is a body of work with a theme.

        By the way you would not be giving work away for free. You are paying for advertising. And note, I said for free or at a discount. My point is you are using the restaurant to reach your intended audience, all those diners who might like your photographs. We have an Italian restaurant in Chicago that I eat at twice a month. They have these gorgeous black and white photos of Italian scenes on the wall–mostly architectural and landscape (certainly not your the cheesy photos you see in many Italian restaurants). I notice them every time I come in. The problem for the photographer in my case is that I study them for compositional ideas. But I have no doubt that other patrons have inquired about buying them.

        • I presented two coherent portfolios, not a bit of everything – that would definitely be a disaster because it showed little forethought even if individual images worked.

          The problem with the restaurant idea is also one of perception: how often has anybody gone somewhere for a meal and wanted to buy (or even noticed) one of the prints on the walls? Personally…I can say it’s as good as never. Does that justify the investment? I have to day unlikely…

  57. Reblogged this on Ned Hamson Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Life and art are similar to shooting craps – lots and lots of luck involved. Those who make their living from other people’s artistic expression – too many of them but not all – delude themselves and potential clients that their luck is skill.

  58. Tom Hudgins says:

    Art transcends. Create a photo that transcends the medium you’ll have made art. Making art marketable is the business of art.

    • That isn’t art anymore. That’s marketing.

      • Tom Hudgins says:

        It’s difficult to imagine art being created in a vacuum without a market bias. You choose which subject to photograph. You decide on a presentation style. You select which image to print. You title the artwork. You sign the artwork. You add a marketing label (Ultraprint) to enhance the value. These are inseparable creative & market related decisions you, the artist, make. Gallery owners continue the process with promotions and value add-ons like a story to go with the art, preferably delivered by you in person during the gallery opening. That’s art.

        • Ultraprinting is not a marketing label. It’s an easy way of describing the process with considerable R&D behind it, not branding with no substance…

          • david mantripp says:

            Sorry Ming, but Ansell’s comment about fuzzy concept / sharp print comes to mind here. I’m not saying that applies to you, BUT you’re in danger of going in that direction if you’re getting so excited about R&D. I seriously doubt that Ultraprinting or not will make one iota of difference here. In fact it might even hinder you, if the mechanical quality of the print distracts from the aesthetic content.

            • I’m writing about it because the majority of the online audience doesn’t care about images! It doesn’t mean that’s what I’m spending exclusive time on, or what I present to galleries or other buyers.

          • Ming,

            I love your photography, but that statement is a classic example of something that would give engineers or physicists an orgasm, but leave an art director/curator glassy eyed and limp.

  59. I have a successful friend who told me recently, “This art business is unforgiving and cruel. I can’t do it anymore.” I’ve heard this before of course. What can we do? Just keep doing what is true to us, as individual creators. Sure, we all would like some modicum of success or recognition along the way. When I get down, I always think of the many things Saul Leiter spoke about before his passing. In many ways, he got the last laugh.

  60. Firstly I think myself and all your other followers appreciate your work and views because we see you as an aspiring everyday type of guy that we can relate to on some level regardless of our ethnic origin or geographic location because we share your passion for the subject matter and like you aspire to be better at photography than we are today
    However I think still we represent a minority compared to people who share our level of interest but in a different subject like say sport or computer games
    We are thinkers and that’s why we like to reflect on what you say and the work you present as apposed to sports fans who are looking to their peers for pure entertainment
    Sure we can look at work from people like Joe Mcnally and its great stuff but we cant relate to him because he is too famous and out of our reach he doesn’t need to care what we think and that goes for any successful photog, artist sports person or business man
    So your appeal to us is that you are skilled and we aspire to your skill level but at the same time you are real and in our ball park and not on a stage with a headset talking to us like customers, guess its a bit like an exclusive club

    I have always thought the term “fine art” was full of poetic license and many times have looked at the prices on work and thought even if I could afford it why would I want to pay the price, I simply cant see the value in it. Lets imagine a very expensive piece of work hanging in a very small working class home, visitors would think little of it. Then the same piece of work in a large modern up market home full of modern art and pictures we would think they were all equally expensive simply because of the surroundings.
    Walk through a BMW showroom in Londons Park Lane or perhaps Jack Barclays Bentley dealership, the smell the colours the way the staff look and dress, it all adds to that feeling of this is out of my reach (for most of us) which automatically makes us feel it must be good and would be positive for us if we could own one of their vehicles…………mind games I think !!

    With regards to your way forward it has to be on your own but for it to be positively received in large enough numbers to make a successful business I think the subject matter may need to be more main stream like landscape or abstract but of things main stream consumers and not just photographers can relate to, a good example of this would be Peter Lik, http://shop.peterlikaustralia.com.au/
    who over the years has built up a good business and when you visit his shops a lot of his work is stunning and not cheap in price but yet is affordable at a push if you buy just one

    Your problem may be that you are not passionate about the type of work you need to do to make a successful business, but I think compromise and hind sight are both great things

    • Actually, my problem is that I DO actually care about my work. Too much. I refuse to produce images for an audience, but not for myself. I quit a much better paying job to be a photographer because I wanted to make images – not sell out my soul.

      Frankly, lik’s images are over processed and overpriced for the print quality. But maybe I should try adding another zero to the price tag of my prints…

      • Lik’s images are over processed and priced. And Lady Gaga isn’t a great musician. And Nicholas Sparks is terrible. And I think Andy Warhol sucked as an artist, but did shake things up as a social commentator and pop culture figure. To me, the inability to sell quality is classic–look at many senior portraits, weddings, and lots of corporate photography. It’s typically very generic, often sensational, and generally dictated by customs who have severely anemic aesthetic taste–they needs something in neon colors to grab onto. I’d like to think that the fine art market is better, but it’s really not in my opinion. I was offered 2k for a photo I shot–I nearly took it down cause I thought it was cliche. It wasn’t remarkable in any way to me.

        The point being, the further along we go along an art, typically the further away and more detached we become from the paying public. A handful of artist are famous in their time, but honestly, not many photographers/painters/musicians/authors are getting commesuratley paid for outstanding original work. They are getting paid cause they fill a hole. You don’t have strict parameters like a pay gig–wedding party of corporate portraiture, but the idiosyncratic and limiting tastes and interest of potential buyers does limit things.

        I feel you Ming. I used to shoot for money, but I really didn’t like that. Fine art or contract stuff. I went back to graduate school and now I shoot what I love, and I enjoy it. Enormously. The product, the process and the purity.

        • Sad, but true. Quality doesn’t sell. Neither does caring about your output. Only playing for an audience. Where’s the integrity in that? Maybe I am heading the wrong direction after all.

    • I find Lik’s work without soul. It is produced purely for money if that is what one wants to do. His site is even titled, “Peter Lik Publishing Stock Images”. His work is purely decorative. Extremely accessible.

  61. I have sympathy with what you’ve written but recent events have been changing my outlook. My friend with an art background has been encouraging me to take a masters degree programme in “art” photography at a well known London art university. I started reading through the application and learned that for applicants with practical work but no formal art university background they require reading 4 books. I’m not much of a reader and a big believer that images and words don’t mix well. I bought two of the 4 books. I started the first and was bored silly over chapter 1 which asked the question “what is a photograph.” Oh dear, could there be anything less interesting to a person who makes photographs? Zzzzzz. So I started the second, The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton.

    The introduction clarified what I’ve been missing and what I think you don’t get. I was wrong and I think you are wrong. I’m terrible with summarising complex arguments and recommend you buy the paperback which in the UK is £8 so not a biggie.

    Of her Chapter 1 she writes:

    …it challenges a traditional stereotype of photography: the idea of a lone photographer scavenging from daily life, looking for the moment when a picture of great visual charge or intrigue appears in the photographic frame…

    She goes on to say about successful photographers in the art world;
    the focus [of the work] has been preconceived by the photographer, a strategy designed not only to alter the way we think about our our physical and social world but also to take that world into extraordinary dimensions.

    I suspect your work, as mine, lacks this quality. The book is full of work of photographers images and explains what they were working at. It may well be that you don’t like what they do or that you can’t do what they do but I think at the moment that you, as I was and probably most of your readers, are ignorant of what the art world is about in regards to the nature of contemporary photographic art work. In the end you may still feel that the whole art world is pretentious BS. But the difference between sour grapes and a considered opinion is knowledge.

    • I’ll check it out.

    • A while back I went to a talk by a photographer “artist” … I never heard of him and thought his work was just ok, but he did make [some] money from his efforts. The only thing I remember from his presentation was this: he only pressed the shutter button to make a image if he knew who he could sell the photo to. In other words, he knew who his customers were and he trained himself to shoot for them.

  62. I’ve always defined a “professional” as someone who has to please someone else. And, as myself being a “hobbyist”, I only need to please myself. It seems that you might be trying to do both. Personally I find your work stunning. I think I could pick it out among a display with other photographers. Weather it sells or not, I would have no idea. Fortunately, as a hobbyist (serious amateur?) I don’t have to think about that 🙂

  63. Hmmmm… well you are in a unique position. Most photographer artists aspiring to reach an audience via the gallery route don’t already have an audience. You do. Your Ultraprints sell, right?

    Aside from the ‘signature’ of your images (I agree with comments above – your images are easy to spot), I think the ‘signature’ of the ultra print requirements, process, and result, is in itself another dimension in your work as an artist. Your images are very different to Dan Winters’, and to Gregory Crewdson’s, but there is something about your technical and preparatory work that reminds me of them. Ansel Adams too, in a way.

    Definitions of ‘artist’ don’t matter that much. If you can simply *be* an artist, the recognition will come. It doesn’t require any particular route – such as gallery recognition. For some, that validation is an important route. But you ‘arrived’ ages ago.

  64. Excellent article. Two months from now I’ll be one of the 20 photographers that will participate in the annual local art contest – it is the first time I’ve done a project so interesting to pass the initial selections, but I have the luxury to shoot only for my enjoyement. If someone will find my work worthy of further scrutiny, I’ll be very glad. If they will think I’m “not cool enough”… well, it will be ok too!

  65. I think the most suprising “revelation” was the “no visual signature” comment. Whoever said this has already declared their lack of knowledge/observational skills/credibility. Frankly I don’t know anyone with a stronger visual signature…I can pick out your work from hundreds of thumbnails in a heart beat, and independant of subject/camera/lens…to a degree that I have not found with almost anyone else, famous or otherwise. In reference to image #1 and its comment…creating an image with an aesthetic, with balance, of something like that is NOT easy at all. To make order out of chaos the way you manage to requires an incredible eye.

    As has been said before, there is no point in trying to create to satiate the tastes of the time, because tomorrow it will be something else. Sure you could just do what the next fad is…but at the end of that career, what will people be able to see of you in the work? Nothing…they won’t even be able to see that this image, and that image were created by the same person. And your image will be just be one more among the multitudes. Staying true to yourself is the only way to achieve true artistic success (but is of course no guarantee, even with all of the ability in the world).

    The great news is that you have a successful commercial business on which to rely, you can bide your time, being true to yourself, and hope to be noticed in a big way. That does require a large slice of luck, but having the immense technical skills, and the foresight to diversify your interests including developing exposure to thousands of dedicated fans via this blog might just help with your luckiness. When it happens it will be thoroughly deserved.

    • I agree, Ming’s signature is very evident. Occasionally there are images in the reader pool that have a similarity to Ming’s (probably student’s influenced by his work) but you can still tell the real thing from the copy instantly.

    • Thank you, Ian. You’ve captured precisely my problem with the commercial world: you don’t leave much of yourself behind, either because the products themselves are temporal, or because the client overrides you creatively. Only your own work survives.

  66. Jon Barker says:

    Cf Jack Vettriano, amongst (many) others.

  67. Very interesting and good read and I agree with your view. MM 🍀

  68. Brilliant article on an industry and a school of thought I still have a hard time understanding. I went to a photography fine art university and stayed as long as I could. In the end, students in my class producing work I had a hard time understanding and the teacher wasn’t giving me anything… I guess, like you, I found where I belong and what I how I want to leave my mark in photography history.

    Thank you for writing those words.

  69. Hi Ming,

    excellent article as always!!! Totally agree to your opinion and assumptions!

    By the way have you already heard and could also confirm that the D810 has also major problems with regard to thermal heat and hot pixels? http://www.trichardsen.com/blog/nikon-d810-and-why-i-am-returning-it
    Sadly it seems the d800 and e were much better focused on that….i was hoping nikon developed the nearly perfect camera…personally only minor things are missing (wifi,gps built in, better focusing screen,efcs always on, u1/u2 modes,fully tiltable screent like the d5XXX series)

    Hopefully it is “repairable” from Nikon with the first major firmware upgrade….i ll wait until this is done/hopefully solved…

  70. Ming,

    Great stuff again. That was actually part of the discussion we had when you were in hk. What makes photography fun? I am not good in anyway, but I like the uniqueness and the experience. It gives me joy and a peace of mind. I hope that is what photography giving you as well. Satisfying clients is a pain and causing oneself from deviating from one’s approach. I hope I ain’t doing this in our project.

    I am already looking forward catching up with you in October.

    • Yes it was – I’m very honest with what’s going through my mind at the moment. You can rest assured that I’m still very excited about October. I make sure I pull out all the stops for clients who have given me the level of creative latitude you have – pushing the envelope in every way becomes an enjoyable challenge 🙂

  71. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Haven’t tried to enter any market on my own so far. Nevertheless I think you made some true observations. Guess people wouldn’t buy my stuff either :o)

    I wouldn’t buy most of your stuff as well because I’d fell in the category “technically too perfect” (again: category thinking here, but I have no other word for it at the moment). This makes you a very successful commercial photographer. That’s more than most of us can dream of. So don’t get me wrong here. Your technical skills are overwhelmingly dominant in your work that it hides or masks everything else about your photos.
    You might refuse now to the thought to set your tech. perfection to the side and start experimenting or even working deliberately against it. You won’t loose your skills but it might leave you with a whole different kind of photos. I’d personally appreciate it a lot to see new ideas and approaches in your upcoming photos.

    best regards
    Stefan

    • That’s a personal choice. A lot of people do not embrace perfection or precision not because they choose not to, but because they lack the discipline to learn and execute.

  72. In a word, the problem is the very basis on which markets operate. For photographers on the edges, it all boils down to a choice between being a ‘tool of production’ in service of the market or a true (free) artist working from one’s own creative energies. I’m reminded of a quote from 18th century liberal, Wilhelm von Humboldt:

    “Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. And if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.”

  73. Well, sometimes you can learn something from your critics, if you are willing to listen…

    • Sure, which is why I bother subjecting myself to these meetings at all. But sometimes, they really are just full of their own hot air.

  74. I look for gallery owners to represent me to their customers but in the more prestigious spots it usually seems like the reverse – I get a big earful about what’s hot and cold at this time in this area, and how my stuff probably wouldn’t sell even though they do like it. That’s their prerogative – they’re the ones with a monster lease to try and pay. But it doesn’t do me much good.

    I seem to fit better in modest, out of the way venues where the owners share my philosophy of low overhead for maximum independence. They see some new work, they like it, they go ahead and take a chance. Sales are usually tepid, but at least it’s something. (What’s more, most of my funky little galleries survived the recent economic upheavals, while certain more haughty ones did not…)

  75. Douglas Knisely says:

    I am blown away by your selection of images for this article (especially the lead image), and I think your observations are some of the most profound that I have read about this business. My only hope is that you find some degree of success as a “fine artist” during your lifetime rather than much later. All that I can say is that your best work is extremely moving to my eye, as well as being of the highest technical caliber. Sadly, I have realized that my eye is no indicator of a wider audience, but I have the luxury of not needing to care whether any of my images work for anybody else. I greatly admire those (like you) who commit completely to your vision, but I can’t honestly say I envy your struggle. 😉

    • Thank you. Perhaps I should try faking my own death…

      • Ha! I was thinking that might be an option for you … perhaps you could send me a box of your Ultraprints … I’ll say I found them in the basement of a house I recently bought and was renovating! We’ll need to flesh out the backstory, in the same manner as Vivian Maier was discovered. 🙂

  76. Megatron says:

    Art is a process. If they don’t like what you’re presenting today, then they don’t like the 2014 ming era. But keep exploring new styles as you grow, and perhaps the 2020 ming era will be more appealing. Good luck! My personal feeling (with my own photography) is that one should always move in closer to capture the emotion that makes a photo worth looking at. Fine art or not, Humans of New York does an incredible job at this.

    • Depends if your subject is emotional and human-based or not; mine mostly isn’t these days. I’ve been there, done that, and don’t find it personally interesting. And if I don’t find it personally interesting it’s difficult to continue and be inspired…

  77. Well written Ming! You are an amazing artist. If you ever want an art exhibit here in Seattle I would be more than happy to do some leg work. It should not be very hard to get you an exhibit.

  78. SK Saito says:

    Sounds like the way most industries work. Always someone in the way between point A and point B.

  79. Huh. Sounds like the wine business!

    I think Saul Leiter’s story may serve as some inspiration here.

    • He just famously tried to pay the electricity bill and wasn’t interested in making art 🙂

      • True, but I do feel that if you can pay the electric bill while doing something you absolutely love (feel compelled to do), you’ve won. Everything else that could come along – recognition, appreciation, bucket-loads of money – are just the cherry on top. And, those things can be fleeting, gone as quickly as they may have come. And then you’re left with…Paying the electric bill while doing what you love.

        Saul Leiter didn’t become “known” until quite late in his life, and he seemed to hate all the attention he got then. But he did leave an amazing body of work, and we still can talk about him and his photography today.

        Also, I’d say what you do is photography – let others decide if “art” (in the commercial sense) is an applicable term, too.

        One thing I’ve learned from the wine biz (assuming you are not interested in producing something that will appeal to the majority/lowest-common-denominator kind of stuff, which you do not seem to be!) is that you should just make what you feel is right. An audience will find you. A few friends may help along the way. The best you can wish for is to pay those bills, with the knowledge that you didn’t have to sell out. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.

  80. fascinating essay. well written with much valuable insight.
    the art world is a maze to be sure and alienation, cynicism etc is definitely a risk when you see the way some dealers operate and how unthinking SOME of the buyers are.
    however i can only add that when i think of some of my favorite photographic artists they are all very successful in their own time (or else i would never have heard of them in the first place). jeff wall, lorca-decorcia, sherman, gursky, burtynsky, arbus, goldin, crewdson, sherman, sugimoto, eggleston, etc etc and in the cinema world people like Kubrick and Cronenberg all have what looks like an extremely personal vision that comes across in their work, and not one that was dictated to them by the market. i could be totally wrong but it certainly looks idiosyncratic and personal and often far from bland, totally uniform, and anonymously pleasant.
    regardless of all this keep up your own awesome work both in photos and words…it is much appreciated! all artists much follow their personal vision….it is the only way to go even tho it is never easy.
    thank you.

    • I think it’s necessary. If you follow the market demands…you will have no direction. Patience, on the other hand…

      • yes indeed. you have hit upon what is perhaps the crux of the issue. all serious dedicated artists are obligated to follow their personal vision to the max….but the patience required in waiting for the art world (largely composed of non photographers who are looking for elements external to photography itself, sociological, psychological, cultural, ecological, narrative, etc) to coincide with the personal obsessions and style of the artist….that is brutal. technical photographic mastery seems to vary between various successful art photogs….some are technical perfectionists (burtynsky comes to mind) and others seem to use technical “flaws” as a primary selling point (sally mann is one example). i enjoy it all.

  81. Ming. Thank you for telling us this.

    I love your art shots. And i like them because they speak you. You show the way you see. So keep doing what you’re doing.

    You’re in a unique situation. You make a living with photography. I think it might be important for you not to try to make money with your art so can continue enjoying and exploring it the way you do.

    I feel if you go down this path of money in the art. Then it would get dull. And you are anything but that.

    • For it to not get dull, I’ve got to keep experimenting and shooting different things – things that appeal to me. If not, there’s both no creativity or integrity and it becomes difficult to do the day job.,.

  82. Exactly this. Beautifully articulated, as usual.
    Ironic, isn’t it, that the stuff you shoot that is true to you and your vision, is dismissed as “not art”. Sorry, Ming, but I fear your #WankFactor is *way* too low to make it in the Fine Art world. Why not stick to commercial… the more you continue to distill your vision (and increase your fame, thanks to your blog), the more you’ll be able to charge. Then you can continue to shoot “art” on your own dime, and not be answerable to galleries, etc 🙂

    • Worded much better than what I said. And. #wankfactor. Brilliant.

      Art snobs suck. They don’t buy because of integrity. They buy to be in the cool. An expensive hipster to a degree. In the most crude way to say. F#ck those people.

    • Very well put – my ex was a graphic designer but heavily into fine art – the whole industry is all about who thinks who is cool, and not what you know, but who you know. The only way in is to become ‘known’, and to do that you’re going to have to enter public competitions and stump up the cash to show your work yourself. Once the pretentious luvvies with more money than sense decide they like you, then something will happen, but not before. As you say, is it a world you want to be involved in? Most of you says no, but there will always be a part of you wanting recognition that will want to be in that world. I suggest that you keep doing what you want to do for yourself and eventually recognition will come.

    • Thanks – but yes, ironic and I really don’t get it. I guess art is really nothing more than another form of commercial…

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