The test of time

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1957, from the Havana series

A little while ago, I wrote an article on images for posterity and what we would want to be remembered for vs what we might actually be remembered for. I’ve been wondering about why certain images are remembered and tend to stick in the minds of the viewers, or better yet, in common culture. I’ve had a hypothesis or two on that since, and wanted to share those thoughts. Though it isn’t the objective or necessity of every person taking pictures to make a different image for every single shot, I’m sure we all want to make something memorable. And some of us have to because well, that’s our job – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Fog, Vienna

It might sound obvious, but the first litmus test is time itself: there is no way of telling whether something ‘fresh’ – recently shot and shown – is going to make it or not. We humans simply lack the objectivity*. We are immediately limited by our biases: either it’s too different and we lack a frame of reference in which to place the work relative to other work of the same subject or location or genre we’ve seen; or, it isn’t different enough and automatically gets summarily dismissed into ‘something we’ve seen before’. Clearly then, this is a tricky balance to achieve: an image that is different enough to stand out, but not so different that it challenges the viewer to the point that they cannot figure out what is going on. Both require some degree of ongoing or repeat viewing: this way, the audience is forced to confront and consciously assess it. Shocking the audience into attention is necessary. I bet Warhol’s soup cans were the enfant terrible of their day: personally I don’t like, but there’s no denying that the first time you see them, they force you to look. And then stick around in your mind, because they are visually unique. This is of course only one example.

*Unless, I suppose, you are one of those few gallery curators whose word is taken as irrevocable.

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Forest II

History does not remember second place: actually, it doesn’t remember anything, unless the winner was widely publicised. The winner in some ways earns the perceived right of the masses to dictate how he or she will be remembered. There are many images which are accepted today as being ‘great’ – even though if the work was presented anonymously to a fresh audience it would probably be dismissed for lacking something. I can think of several offhand of both ‘classic’ and modern photographs, but in the interests of attempting to keep this discussion objective will not be any more specific. Making an image that ‘works’ and ‘lasts’ is not necessarily all about the merits of the image: it is also dependent on how loudly you can shout about it.

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Transparency

There is an element of historical fickleness here, too: images of famous people before they became famous are only of any interest because history happened, the people became notorious for something, and then there was curiosity and our modern day obsession with celebrities. I don’t think early images of Brad Pitt in his early 20s would be of any interest if he was say, a gardener or janitor. Capa’s Normandy Landing series would probably have been forgotten if the Allies lost the war. And Vivian Maier would be forever anonymous but for random chance of the negatives being discovered by somebody who knew something about photography and the current mass interest in street photography. Individual images of daily life from the current age will probably be far less interesting or memorable than those from the 1900s simply because there are so many of them.

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Only the clouds are truly free I

Even an image that is era-independent – say a still life – is going to requires one ‘sitting time’ before we can assess if it has any of the kind of merits that signal longevity. It’s back to objectivity again: the more invested we are in an image, the harder it is for us to be unemotional about it. And though memorable images work to evoke emotion at a deeper level in the viewer, we must be able to separate that from the attachment which comes with ‘but it took two hours of waiting in the rain to get that shot!’. That is not a good reason to submits something as part of your portfolio. Anybody else could have invested the same effort, which would not make up for compositional or other shortcomings in the eyes of the audience: they almost always have no idea of how easy or difficult execution was or the ‘but I couldn’t move to the left’ kind of defence. We must remember that the audience can only see what was put in front of them.

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Lone tree

So how much sitting time is enough? I don’t know if there’s a concrete answer to this, other than images that have immediate visual punch (contrast, color, size etc.) are much more difficult to be objective about than ones that are subtle and transparent. The former screams at us ‘DIFFERENT!’, and instantly compromises our defences; the latter are much closer to reality and thus tend to get overlooked**. The more subtle an image is, the more time it needs: we have to contemplate it. Punchy images usually last for only one or two serious viewings before their glaring flaws start shouting out at us. It’s one of the reasons why the more advertising there is, the punchier it gets, the less effective the overall campaign: we simply reach a saturation point and switch off. If you go to New York or Tokyo you probably won’t notice the ads at all, but if there was a billboard in the middle of the desert or open ocean, I think you’d probably remember it for some time afterwards.

**Our minds must act as an automatic filter of information, or we’d simply be overwhelmed going through daily life. It’s one of the reasons children find everything interesting and have short attention spans – all of it is new! Jaded adults have to be slapped a few times about the head with a wet fish to notice. Photographers should always be as observant, but perhaps not quite as excitable as toddlers.

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Eyes

This does not mean a very ordinary image will be recognised as a masterpiece if you could somehow make your audience stare at it for a week: if anything, the opposite. At very least, subtle image or not, there has to be some visual ‘hook’ to get you to notice the photograph in the first place and encourage you to take a closer look: color, subject, angle etc. I believe the very best images reward you with something slightly different every time you view them: either additional layers of nuance or story, or  details you didn’t notice before. It’s obvious that this is not easy to achieve. In addition to the four things and the bonus fifth, we must figure out how to consciously integrate layers of nuance into the image in which the less obvious elements both support or suggest additional depth to the initial story, but do not contradict or appear too strong. The display medium of course plays a big part; it’s difficult to integrate nuance if your possible range of tones and spatial resolution are limited. (It is of course one of the reasons I like large Ultraprints.)

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The welder, from Engineering Art in Metal

The images I’ve selected to illustrate this article are ones you’ve seen before. They were all shot over  a year ago, and in some cases even more than that; yet they are images which a) people keep commenting on or ordering as prints, and b) keep making it into my own portfolios which I use to represent the best of my work. To me, they have demonstrated sticking power; but the reason for doing so isn’t always the same as what I envisioned at the time of capture. In Fog, Vienna I didn’t see the small second man behind the primary character – but he’s obvious enough in a print to make the mood rather sinister. There are other images I really liked at the time, but now see flaws in – and they don’t make it. Oculus looks great at web sizes and moderate prints, but I run into technical limitations that rob the last bit of transparency – that particular lens was a bit CA-heavy in the corners, limiting my output. I suppose we must all continually raise the bar.

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Oculus

My students see the impact of time on curation during every Masterclasses: due to time constraints, the final portfolio of 10 must be done immediately after the last day of shooting in time for the last classroom session. However, what lands up being submitted to the reader flickr pool later on is usually quite different, and better. I find the same thing with my own work: on the last day of the workshop, I’ll curate my week of shooting down to ten in about an hour. When I get home and do it again, usually only three or four make it. And if I’m putting together a portfolio for something else much later on, the composition changes again (though of course the objective of the portfolio will affect this, too). I’m going to leave you all with a final exercise to try: shoot for a week, then immediately curate+ the best ten at the end of your last shooting day. Don’t delete any of what you shot. Instead, put it away for say two weeks, and then repeat the exercise afresh. You will probably find that your new ten picks may have changed quite a bit. Are they going to ‘last’? You’ll have to revisit the exercise again in a year or two – I’d be curious to hear what the results are… MT

+The best way to do this is use the four things plus Bridge or LR’s ranking system; I go into much more detail with examples in PS Workflow II.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Ming, on the “test of time”. I just walked in to “Magnum Contact Sheets”, I didn’t have a lot of time, but it was just too overwhelming for one visit. So much to see, so much to take in.
    I’ll have to go back. And back. It’s there until early December.

  2. Riveting read. Slightly disturbing as well, because it touches on so many things I both encounter and am looking for in my photography. I’ll just mention two.

    1 What makes a viewer look longer than just a fraction of a second at an image you make? An eternal struggle between myself and the as yet unknown viewer.

    2 You have to keep an open mind, but that’s so difficult. There’s only one first time to see something in amazement, and that first time never comes back. The first time I was in London (1973), New York (1992), Beijing (1998). That amazement and wondering will never come back, sadly.

    • 1. Difficult to nail it down specifically because of personal, cultural, local biases etc. But there are some things that just work for us at a species level (e.g. bright colors being attractive) – so we have to work within those parameters.

      2. That’s also true. My solution is to go to these places a bit at a time, completely ‘tap out’ one area, then move on to another one on the next trip.

      • Yes.

        1 To start with, and probably to finish with as well, it’s what we ourselves feel that makes an image viewable (for others) that has most weight

        2 Sound advice, although with the ever increasing accessability through the net of places one hasn’t been to yet (or a long time ago), that open mind is still a challenge. A small provincial Devon (England) town probably looks different now from what it looked like forty years ago, and it will make a different impression as well. Anyway, there’s no time like the present, and it’s that time we should treat as the “new” time.

  3. Carlos Polk says:

    Ming,
    Your technical skill are always obvious and greatly admired. These selections (favorites of mine) underscore the artist that you are as well. Truly nice work. Great article.
    Highest Regards,
    Carlos

  4. there are something is bothering me about digital medium format vs full frame ming,
    i thing picture from digital medium format look different tonality, look smooth,
    my question is can we achieved the medium format looking with the full frame nikon camera ming ?
    or we can’t.

    thanks

  5. Spot on image selection in terms of sticking power – I anticipated a good seven of those nine before scrolling through!

    • Thanks – I do wonder how much of it is because I chose to use those images in the past more than once, and how much was on the images themselves though…

      • That thought has given me a new appreciation (apprehension?) for the extent picture editors are responsible for the most famous photographs in history…

        • I also wonder to what extent the sections would change if all of the surrounding negatives were revisited again (Magnum Contact Sheets style…)

          • I’ve been meaning to get that book since you reviewed it. It’s a subject I revisit every time I shoot a wedding: as you might expect from one of your readers/students, I consider the careful editing/curation of my images to be an integral part of the process, and err on the side of telling the story in as few shots as possible (both to avoid fatiguing the audience and to ensure every image gets my full attention when it comes to processing). Personally, I think ~100-150 images is the sweet spot for most events — it tells the story without being overwhelming, and still gives you more than you need when it comes to putting a physical album together. Problem is, prospective clients are being conditioned to expect 400-600+ images for their money. I *shoot* more than that (often way more), but do I think 40-50% of them tick all the Outstanding Image boxes and/or add anything from a storytelling perspective? No.

            I can see why people equate total number of photos received with value for money, but it really is a misconception. There’s an art to the editing process that I think is not well understood.

  6. Believe that’s a 1956 Chevy- had one 🙂

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    One of your best summings-up! (I think..)

    You might (perhaps, but somewhat OT) have added,
    that gems one finds when not searching for them
    are often more genuine…
    Aah, well, your choice of photos did hint at that.

  8. Gerner Christensen says:

    Oh yes, it is all so recognizable. Precisely how I come up with quite different images later on compared to a ‘last day’ curation after days of shooting. I even misses the best ones.
    I have also noticed the ‘mind hangers’ are the lesser visual impact ones.
    Every now and then I take a tour around my curated photos, make a slideshow, and then I stop at certain images and think ‘Oh how I like this one. Contemplate and feel contend’. This is what I think is the award I get after going through hell and fire to take those photos.

    Ming, your treasured ones you show today is certainly also among my favorites of yours. Such breathtaking photos you can be very, very proud of.

    • Thanks Gerner. I think it’s because the ones that last are the ones that we have to think about: they stick in your mind first as an ice and then only as an image. We absorb visual content much faster than philosophical content – this may well be the source of the disconnect in timing…

      • Gerner Christensen says:

        Like a guitar string that just get in tune after a period of off. Maybe such images reflects the better half of oneself and we find ourself coming home.

  9. If you’re familiar with Scott Kelby’s video productions, you might know of the three he did with Jay Maisel. The third was set in Paris, and during it, Maisel talked a little about this very topic. As he’s over 80, he has more perspective than most on the subject. What he said, essentially, was that “I’m not particularly bothered if my work or I am remembered, as my work is not generally sought by curators. What’s important is to enjoy what you do, and be satisfied with your own work, otherwise the whole thing is pointless”. He also mentioned photographers who he knows who were very unhappy that their work was not hanging in galleries, and he suggested that they were missing the point.

    The other thing, which I thought you may have mentioned in this article, is the sheer number of images that exist now. One of the hurdles to becoming an image which people remember is having to break through the millions upon millions of images which are now available with a single google search. There’s that famous quote attributed to Ansel Adams about 12 pictures in a year being a “good haul”…

    I’d be interested to see a survey among members of the public (those who are not particularly interested in photography). Show them a set number of photographs which the photographic community generally agrees are iconic or famous (Afghan Girl, Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl, Bresson’s puddle-jumping or the cyclist going around the corner, that kind of thing). Include digital photos. See which ones are the most recognized. I would imagine the film pictures would be strongly represented. Whether that is due to their being older, or for historical reasons, is a different story.

  10. Wonderful images and article. Also great thoughts on curating. Thank you Ming!

  11. sholtzman@maitresdutemps.com says:

    Thx Ming..

    I liked this one!

    Hope all is well on your side as Kl news seems to be a daily read for me..

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