Photoessay: The Idea of Man, Chicago, part I

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I was in Chicago at the end of last year for my exhibition of the same name at the Rangefinder Gallery; what we showed was actually only 27 of the 70+ images from that series, curated from a further 10,000+ images over the course of many years of shooting. However, I’ve always thought of Idea of Man as an ongoing project; our interpretation of the philosophy of life is as dependent on ourselves as it is on whatever we happen to be observing. And there’s always a place to go or culture to experience that is foreign to us, and may well raise new questions over what is ‘normal’, ‘expected’, and ‘individual’. Thus, the show must go on.

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This and the next post are a continuation of that idea, refined further and shot in Chicago during the time I was there for the show. They’ve now had the benefit of several months of ‘sitting time’ to allow me to assess the longevity of idea and image. Part one is in monochrome. Part two is in color. You may spot some Magritte-esque images thanks to the quality of clouds and light. Enjoy! MT

This series was shot with a variety of equipment (Leica Q, Sony A7RII, Nikon D810, Zeiss Otus 1.4/28 APO) and processed with Photoshop Workflow II, or The Monochrome Masterclass. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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


  1. Very beautiful and often dramatic images

  2. Kenny Younger says:

    Best bean shot ever.

  3. Wonderful combination of subject/theme with overall visual brilliance throughout the set. Thanks for sharing, hope to see some of these in real life one day.

  4. The first photo is fantastic! That is certainly a differ way to shoot the Bean: the foreground heads are what makes the difference for me.

    Looking at this series now, I’m wondering if there isn’t also the idea of a man traveling through life seeing different things and being in different places. That’s the very strong impression I get from the particular set you’ve shown in this article: that it’s the journey of a single person.

    • Thanks Andre, that was the intent. Some others think it’s a call for help though. I now think if one is to proud to admit we all need help in some ways, well…

      • The thing about comments like that is that they are as much (and often more) a reflection of the viewer than the photographer. Especially with ambiguous images like IoM’s, the viewer is going to bring in whatever baggage they may have and project that onto the photos, so I wouldn’t give much weight to those comments. It is kind of interesting that people are reading more deeply into your images, and that seems like a good thing for your images to provoke.

        • I think Andre has hit on something important here. It’s not the comments themselves, but the variety and intensity that are interesting. If your images, which have enough abstraction to leave some room for imagination, can evoke such strong responses, then you have succeeded as an artist, at least in my books. Because good art has to evoke a strong emotional response. People can reflect their internal struggles in it or find inspiration in it… you can’t control that.

        • And I get free psychiatry in the process…oh well, it says I’m a detached individual. So what? Nobody who ever did anything different was a team player.

          • People say a lot of stuff, most of which should be ignored. In most of these photos, I see one person in an urban environment. Those are the facts. What anyone else wants to bring in, they’ll have to bring it in themselves in their own minds.

  5. Brett Patching says:

    Some wonderful photos in this set Ming! (I’m a sucker for silhouettes 😊)

  6. I always love to see your B&W’s and this set is fantastic. I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on your Chicago exhibition. Did you go in with any expectations? Were the results satisfactory to you (beyond getting the exhibition)? And lastly, did viewers acknowledge the detail you are able to extract in your ultra prints? Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks. No, no expectations – yes, happy with the way it hung, flowed, and the reception it got (I was told 2-3x the normal opening crowd size). The space was intimate and easy to get up close to the prints; not all were Ultraprints because we curated for idea first and some images predated cameras with sufficient resolving power for that.

      • That’s awesome. Do you think believers noticed the difference when they saw an ultra print versus not? Or do you think people paid more attention to the theme and content?

        • I don’t know – I honestly didn’t get the chance to talk in that much detail because I was playing host to about 150 people over the course of the evening…

  7. Gerner Christensen says:

    Your body of work along the theme ‘The Idea of Man’ is steadily growing Ming. These images are really putting you on the map together with the great masters like HCB just to mention one of them. The list isn’t short but neither that long either.
    It is just my opinion of course, but the above images are setting a very high standard and agenda for what comes next.

    • The work is growing, but I think the curation task is, too. I can see several possible directions…and I honestly don’t know which direction they should take.

      HCB achieved fame and fortune. I’m nowhere close 🙂

    • Well mister Gerner, aint`t you a bit overly enthusiastic putting MT in the same classroom with HCB? The man who is quoted for well known saying “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. I like and esteem MT work quite a much but his and HCB`s oeuvre are two very different melodies. My opinion of course.

      • Not to defend Gerner, and no, I don’t belong in that pantheon either, but I do wonder if HCB would have said something different if he didn’t have to work with slow films and lenses. Do you think he’d prefer blur to sharpness if say he had something like a Q? Tools change, and if we don’t change the artistic intent to best match that, then we’re arbitrarily limiting ourselves.

        • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

          MT- I`m defintely sure that HCB might love good AF. I`m sure we all had bad moments discovering that potentially good pict was out of focus as for sure had he. As for ultimate sharpness I`m not that sure. It depends on many things. If one wants to make a landscape, say old chinese or japanese style with a solitary human a mile away then definitely we would prefere as much delineation as possible to a mere tiny blob. The same goes for a huge print of whatever, one would like the onlooker to walk along and savour the pict in small details. As you know sometime an exccesive detail can steal attention from a that elusive magtic called feel. You know, it`s hard to concentrate on conversation with a girl showing her cleavage or a guy with his face covered with tatoo. Good example would be film where narrative and atmosphere are so important that directors go to great lenghts to choose not specifically the sharpest optics to soften that often harsh digital look or go for the film stock despite it`s limitations.
          By the way as an old architect I do like photos that render accurately materials and texture, humans included. Cheers

        • Michiel953 says:

          I don’t think the artistic intent changes with progressing technology, but the execution does. Assuming HCB would have had the same intent with a Q, the execution would have “progressed” in the same way, he would have been stuck with that level of executon, just as he was stuck with the limitations of his tools then.

          • True, but a good example is our ability to shoot in low light: we can capture now, handheld, what HCB could only have dreamed of. This I’m sure opens up new moods, subjects and possibilities both compositional and artistic – surely that’s a case of technology affecting artistic potential?

  8. Matthew Leeg says:

    Were these all shot with 28mm FL lenses, or just the majority?
    Very nice, BTW… always good to see your monochromes. Take care, M

  9. The second from top here, with your own reflection on the roof cover, I like best. It is a statement about yourself. Is it not right, that every photographer (and maybe painters, too) see and experience themselves to be somehow outwith the community, always watching, looking, circling human activities in order to get that picture (even when not working)? Always framing in ones head, thus not really sharing or parttaking in what’s going on. This image tells the story well.

    • Interesting – I felt it made a statement about the perceived separation between observer and subject and camera as a barrier, but in reality – a photograph says just as much about the observer as it does the observed, because it is our own biased vision of the world we are showing.

  10. Very nice shots, not as if we expect anything less from you! Some of the shadows seem to hint that they were shot when the sun was pretty high – a time often said to be the least appropriate for shooting. I’m trying to get over this notion and shoot at such times.

    I’d like to pose a question concerning, as you phrased it, “sitting time”. Do you think there’s an optimum period between taking a photograph and deciding whether or not to keep / present it? Or is it simply a case of the more time, the better? Presumably, you are even stricter on yourself when it comes to selecting pictures for an exhibition than for a blog post.

    I personally tend to shoot throughout the week and process on the weekend, then start the cycle again. At any given time that means that the pictures will be anything from a day to a week “old”. But doing this regularly, I’ve sort of honed my senses to know almost instantly if I’m going to like a picture or not.

    • Thanks. I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘bad light’, or at best the definition is relative. There’s light that’s suited at presenting the subject in an aesthetically pleasing way, and light that isn’t (think diffusion and portraits) – if you’re in the right orientation to the subject at noon, the long shadows cast on vertical surfaces can be interesting.

      Sitting time: too short and you lack objectivity. Too long and you might forget the end intent. It gets shorter the more you shoot; around 3 days to a week for me. And yes, exhibiting is the toughest curation of all – it’s print plus opening your work to judgement by a very wide audience.

      The only challenge is accounting for the postprocessing variable: you may not be able to get what you visualize, or you might get something different after experimenting or viewing other images that might go together as a series. And it just isn’t practical to process every single image before curating.

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