Soul

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Let me start off by saying I’m probably the wrong person to write about this topic, but that’s also precisely why I need to. My critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul. There are no right or wrong absolutes when comes to art and photography, only subjective preferences; this of course means that there’s probably a nugget of something legitimate in there. I’ve spent some time contemplating what this last bit might actually mean: what is soul in an image? Why do some images have it, and others don’t? I will also say that whatever I put forth after this point is pure conjecture on my part (more so since I apparently don’t know what soul is), and I’m sure there are as many definitions as there are photographers. So, feel free to add your two cents in the comments…

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My basic premise is that soul in an image is related to emotion, and the evoking of an emotion in the audience by the photographer. There are many ways about this, and I think few are universal because they may rely on specific cultural or local references that don’t always translate. There are some that are universal, such as color, or high key/low key, or human faces displaying emotions like sadness or happiness; or physical ones like smiles and tears. But note how these parameters have everything to do with subject/content and not presentation: you can present a portrait of a person in anguish in stark black and white or in muted color – it doesn’t change the subject matter, and probably affects the impact on the audience less than the actual subject. This is like because the subject is strong enough to overcome the stylistic presentation – though of course a sympathetically reinforcing style would further heighten impact of the image as a whole.

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The part I have trouble understanding is why examples of images ‘with soul’ tend to be predominantly a) dark; b) monochrome; c) contrasty; d) grainy; e) technically imperfect; f) wide angle; g) shot at close range; h) frequently depict human suffering or homeless people. Perhaps I have taken one step too far into the street photography cliche. I don’t think technical excellence and soul are mutually exclusive. I don’t see why they have to be: surely, being able to control the presentation, composition and execution of an image means that you have a much greater ability to influence the audience in the desired way? There is a big difference between images that are deliberately a)-e) and images that are made to be a)-e) to attempt to cover conceptual shortcomings.

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Note that I have excluded f)-h); wide angle is a storytelling choice and makes a lot of sense because it allows control over prioritization of subjects, and the establishment of a narrative flow because elements clearly take on an implied sequence based on prominence. Placing the primary subject in the near foreground is almost a necessity of wide angle work unless you have an exceptionally clean background to avoid losing the subject entirely. Negative emotions are far stronger than positive ones – we don’t have trolls who leave compliments – and human suffering is perhaps the easiest way to evoke this. I suspect the prevalence of images of the homeless is because they’re everywhere and an ‘easy’ target. There is something ethically wrong and borderline exploitative about this, but I leave such moral discussions for another time and place. The bottom line is that a)-h) are an easy way to evoke an emotional response: because when used carefully, it’s easy to create a mood, narrative and associative emotions with subject matter.

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This leads to the obvious question of whether it might be done another way: surely an image can be soulful without having to adhere to this formula; emotion can be evoked in a different manner? Is the definition of ‘soul’ inextricably associated with the idea of anguish, suffering and conflict? Does a happy movie have soul, or only a dark one? Moreover, is it possible to make an image of an inanimate object that still has soul, even though it may be difficult or impossible to associate human emotions by anthropomorphosis (I’ve always thought o this as ‘Pinnocchio syndrome’)? If so, how can we do it without falling into a cliche besides pulling the usual levers of dominant color, quality of light and subject matter? Is there more than this, or perhaps certain specific triggers that work either way – overly skewed horizons or precisely aligned geometry, perhaps?

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The images I’ve chosen to illustrate this post are my attempt at picking images which I feel carry some emotion for me – this may be because of associative experiences, or the subject matter. And they’re probably a far more telling insight into how my brain works than is healthy. But I’ve also tried my best to avoid picking cliched presentations or subjects; this is about the most variety I can muster. Perhaps they all have soul; perhaps none do. There are also inanimate objects in here – which ones do you feel work, and which don’t? They all work for me, but this is not representative of a general audience – and I feel the creative photographer’s job is to balance keeping the audience interested with their own unique twist; if you have no audience, then it doesn’t matter how good the image is.

Addendum: I don’t think increased resolution or technical perfection change the image enough to make a difference; it doesn’t specify the idea to the extent of eliminating imagination and alienating some of the audience. Why? Because I’ve always presented images on the site at the same 800 pixels wide, regardless of capture device. Why, then, am I told higher resolution cameras lack soul? This makes no sense. The only explanation I can think of is one of changed personal artistic objectives that may alter with the tool used, but certainly alter to reflect one’s own stage in life at the time of capture.

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To a large extent, I feel the answers to these questions depend heavily on the individual doing the answering – and any attempt to find universality is going to land us back at the same place as before. But if we don’t ask those questions to begin with, then it becomes difficult to evolve one’s art in a non-repetitive way. If anything, the visual answer to ‘what has soul?’ is an interesting window into the mind of the photographer – it much about their interpretation of the world because presumably they would not capture an image that does not affect them in some way – there has to be some emotional pull to take the photograph in the first place; even if we do not necessarily understand it as an audience. Ideally, what I’d like to be able to do is understand what a wide audience finds emotionally evocative and ‘soulful’ so that there’s some way of referencing and using these elements consistently in a way that allows me to communicate my ideas in a more consistent way. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, so please feel free to add your two cents in the comments. MT

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Comments

  1. Maybe I’m a cold hearted beast. Maybe not. I think the whole soul thing is a bunch of subjective crap.

    I’ve made images with a junk camera that where horribly framed, horribly exposed, of a subject that was completely uninteresting or visually evocative of anything, but because I shot it on black and white film (and said so in the caption of the photo), when posted to the various photo sites, they blow up (relatively speaking), and people comment about how great the image is. I shoot the exact same photo digitally? Crickets when posted.

    I post an image that actually is pretty good (shot digitally), moderate response. Shot on film? Suddenly, it’s “art” and has “soul” (at least according to the commenters). ???!!! Ok, whatever. Point is, I don’t think art or soul has to do with anything except how the viewer feels about it, and you can manipulate that perception/feeling outside of just the image by itself.

  2. Love your blog and your writing – am impressed by how dedicated you are to photography. Your reviews of cameras, both high end and low are very helpful.
    We all specialize in some kind of photography and your specialty is probably expensive products – very lucrative. But the very skill set that renders a watch beautifully works against you in street photography – too technical, over processed and, well, dead.
    Maybe you should go out with a simple point and shoot, set it on JPEG and try to capture life without any processing whatsoever – sometimes the technical gets in the way.

    • Thanks. I guess you missed all of the earlier work, and the iPhone sets…I don’t compose differently with different hardware, nor does my hardware get in the way (which is why I choose what I choose). It isn’t the big conscious technical struggle most people seem to think it is.

  3. This has been an interesting read, and the comments. Photography is an expression of one’s self inner being, the soul if you may. What is in the inside will make its fore to the outside. In one of your responses you said…” I’m logical, ordered and systematic.”….and that’s how i see your photography. We are all different, and that’s good. I’m not technically minded, but i do understand the technical, hence why i come here. You do the technical, i read it. Keep it up.

  4. Jorge Balarin says:

    In boxing, when a man try to nock out his opponent with every punch, usually he will lose his energy and finish losing the fight. The most of the times the nockout is going to come alone, like a gift from heaven, and the best is to not try to force it. I agree with you in the idea that the “soul” in a photo has to do with emotions; and as you said, emotions can be caused only by the atmosphere of some scenary, without any “living” presence. Sometimes I see something that makes me feel an emotion just when I have a camera in my hands, so I will try to capture the scene and get also the emotion that was evoked in my spirit or brain. I think that a misterious light, with clear and dark parts is naturally going to give more material to our imagination and “trascendental” thinking.

    • Because such light forces us to imagine what isn’t shown?

      Sounds like that one dark red dot…with the red as a force meter and the solid black dots as punches…

  5. “She’s too good….”
    From a Seinfeld episode — Jerry Seinfeld’s comment to his friends (while looking for imperfection in his newest girlfriend, but finding none…)

    Ming, if it’s any consolation, the only criticism they could levy against John Singer Sargent (IMO the greatest painter only behind Rembrandt) was that his work was, well, just too good. In an interview, Paul Simon said it most appropriately when he stated that many of his albums (which were panned by the critics, but are now considered quite legendary) were exponentially beyond the capabilities of most music critics’ ability to fully comprehend them, let alone write an intelligent critique of them.

    Your work is so beyond the common denominator of what most of the mainstream sites showcase that it evokes uninformed conclusions (i.e. doesn’t have enough soul) from people who probably couldn’t define, recognize, or create it themselves.

    I always saw your work as inspiring — and soulful.

    • Makes me wonder why Sargent is less well known than Rembrandt, though – I hadn’t heard of him til your comment, and looking up his work – I agree with you. It doesn’t have the smoothness of Rembrandt, but a different presentation.

      As for my work – thank you – but I got ‘compositionally and aesthetically unsophisticated, and therefore imbalanced’ today 🙂

  6. Kenny Younger says:

    Sorry if this has been delved into already, I haven’t had time to read through the great list of comments already posted.

    Not sure you could ever really define “soul” fully — perhaps only discover facets of it.

    But if I had to: I think soul is usually related to the surreal. It’s like getting a view of something you can’t quite believe, or so identifiable that it’s impossible to believe someone else understands (and captured) it that well. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I think those are two good pieces.

    I think on the former it’s difficult for you, because your images tend to achieve such amazing realism, and getting the “can’t quite believe” it out of them is perhaps difficult. On this end, I tend to think of the composited/over-processed/over-saturated images out there that are, quite honestly: appealing. They have soul because they aren’t something we see all the time and make our brains believe in something that doesn’t really exist. They are going to save us from our dull lives, even if just in our imaginations.

    But I think you excel on the latter, and anyone that says you don’t have soul in your images is perhaps limited in the facets of “soul” they have discovered and can identify. Your images speak to me, which is why I have delved so heavily into understanding your process, approach, and thinking. And I can say this because I’ve seen them in person. I think you have soul in your images, Ming.

    • Thanks Kenny. Not every one of my images is literal/real; I’ve always thought the strength of photography is to present the illusion of reality, if you will: there’s enough information there to convince the brain that what’s represented must physically exist, and therefore our eyes are playing tricks on us. Reflections, layering, inversion etc. are all good examples of where reality must be suspended. I use these elements quite a lot to change the texture of the image and force you to notice – i.e. breaking from the immediacy of the perspective of our eyes. That said, I also believe that making an interesting image in a similar perspective to how we see is very, very difficult – especially so because we’re so used to seeing it already that it must be really quite extraordinary in order not to even remotely resemble experience.

  7. I don’t think technical perfection is what can makes image soulless, but I do believe that the search for technical perfection can kill the spontaneity that can make images soulful.

    I’m a strong believer that the technical execution only needs to be strong ENOUGH to make an emotional reaction in the viewer. I shoot a lot of chaotic concerts, which are essentially a technical crapshoot. Often times lighting is so poor, situations so random, and so many variables out of your hands that it becomes random. I shoot with my Coolpix A because it is small, tough, and fits in my pocket. If I had a D800 with an Otus I would miss almost every shot and frankly, given the conditions, would not be walking away with my images being discernibly better. I never use tripods because I feel it kills my “flow” so to speak. Would Bruce Gilden’s work be any better if he used large format and strobes instead of his Leica and hand-held flash? No, it would suffer because his photographic eye and subject matter do not work that way…

    The same goes for processing: I choose monochrome for these types of images because of the aforementioned poor lighting and somewhat random conditions: Color tends to not be very good in these situations, and can often serve as a distraction. I see this type of post processing as problem solving.

    Of course there is the other side to this, where photographers try to slap on enough “soulful” effects to hide their lack of clear subject or idea. Like so many other things in photography the crappy has become the norm, but perhaps this is just another example of a valid technique used to create some not so good art.

    But, as you stated, this all depends heavily on the photographer and their artistic goals, I’m just using myself as en example. I guess to simplify, making soulful images that impact people is just really really hard. Perhaps its easier to make pretty things than soulful things…

    • “If I had a D800 with an Otus I would miss almost every shot and frankly, given the conditions, would not be walking away with my images being discernibly better.”
      And this is a technical execution issue: with practice, you wouldn’t, and you’d be good enough at pulling focus that you probably wouldn’t think of it. Would a 28/1.4 on FF (and associated rendering) allow you to do things a 18/2.8 on APSC wouldn’t? Yes. This is my point about being ‘good enough’ in a nutshell: it’s not just focusing on the technique, it’s becoming so good at it you don’t even have to think about it.

      “Color tends to not be very good in these situations, and can often serve as a distraction. I see this type of post processing as problem solving.”
      I’m not sure what you mean here. If it’s going monochrome that’s problem solving, yes – because you’re completely changing the impression the audience gets by eliminating color. If executing color processing is problem solving, then it’s again the same challenge as the previous paragraph: you just need to do it til you’re so practiced it isn’t a problem anymore.

      “I guess to simplify, making soulful images that impact people is just really really hard. Perhaps its easier to make pretty things than soulful things…”
      If it was easy it probably wouldn’t be worth doing, because everybody would be doing it…

      • Perhaps, someday. But I know from my experience that developing my situational awareness has probably helped me get better images now than if I had perfected my technique to get that last 5%. I see my energies being more effectively focused on seeing than on technique in those situations. I point back to a photographer like Bruce Gilden again as an example of a photographer who’s presentation/technique would be described as “good enough” but who’s eye is incredible. I know I personally find his work more interesting than the hordes of landscape photographers that love the technical stuff.

        I meant that color is just crappy in these situations, not that I can’t successfully process it the way I’s like…

        I’m focusing on one example here and being a bit of a devil’s advocate, but I still think that there are situations where good technique and execution will only get you so far. Perhaps thats what I see as the core of this issue as a whole: that there are for more photographers in 2016 with excellent technique and soulless images than there are who have great images being held back by poor technique.

        • I’m challenging that by saying there’s no reason not to be able to have both, since we are the limitation. The problem is both photographer and audience seems to fixate on either one or the other – and as a result seems to perceive bias where there simply may be none to begin with.

          • I partially disagree.

            While I agree for MOST photographers there should be a drive to increase both seeing skills and technique, I think on the more extreme ends thats not true. Would William Eggleston have produced better work if he had slowed down and used 8×10? No, the same way Ansel Adams’ work would not be improved if he had shot handheld with a beat up old Leica. I think once we come to point of personal artistic achievement, technique is just there to support our vision at whatever level we deem sufficient to support that vision.

            But for most of us who are not “there” yet on our artists journeys, we should strive to improve all aspects of our photography. Even the ones that are inconvenient/challenging for us.

  8. Jeff Chester says:

    As a child of the 50s and 60s, when I hear the world ‘soul’ I think of ‘soul music’, ‘soul food’, ‘soul brother’, ‘Soul Train’ (a TV show), ‘soul mate’ — with no theological association. The appellation generally referred to the influence of the Afro-American experience on culture — as one might expect in music like ‘the Blues’ or in American cuisine by the use of indigenous Southern ingredients. I think the word implies a rejection of sophistication and advanced technique in favor of a readily accessible sense of universal suffering (Weldschmerz). But it appears that it is a synonym for spirituality — a rather vague concept — especially when crossing cultures. But there seems to be a way of becoming a “Soul Artist”

    http://www.soulartcertification.com/

    “What is a Soul Artist? -A Soul Artist is one who creates art that expresses their spirit.”

    I think your photographs express your spirit — how could they not?

    If it’s any consolation, perhaps the greatest violinist who ever lived, Jascha Heifetz, is often criticized having a technical perfection which made the music seem cold and mechanical — perhaps the antithesis of ‘soul’ — but in truth, his technique was unsentimental and let the composers music reveal itself — much as technical perfection in photography allows the subject to ‘be’ itself… Ding an sich…the thing-in-itself

    http://www.largeformatphotography.info/forum/archive/index.php/t-32518.html

    But that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish.

  9. You are obviously very good photographer and it’s really not my place to criticise, however I do find your images way to sharp most of the time and I think this adds to the clinical feeling of them. I do like your composition though. Cheers.

    • As noted hundreds of times here before: I have no control over flickr’s downsampling, on which the images are hosted. There is simply no way you can assess sharpness of the original file on an 800px web jpeg, sorry.

  10. It is even more interesting to read the comments… took some time and I haven’t completely read it yet. 🙂

    For me “soul” in picture have a very simple meaning. What remains in people’s memory after the physical picture is removed. How much the picture moves the audience. Do they remember the picture as being alive and dynamic as related to real world. Do they see picture conveying more than just tones and shapes….

    It is all about the imprint.

    • Isn’t that memory and bias rather than transfer of any qualities from the image itself though?

      • Is there anything other than memory and bias? Perception is all about interpretation. My dog has soul because I (the interpreter) notice its personality and will remember the interaction long after my dog is gone.

        Note: I am a fan of Douglas R. Hofstadter. He has written an excellent book exploring the concept in “I am a strange loop”. He is a professor of cognitive science with background in math, physics, computer programming and AI.

        • That’s a good question – how about logic and something we can call ‘species memory’ (recognition of sunsets, color as attention-getting etc.)?

          But it’s quite possible that the former isn’t really developed – perhaps prominent is a better description – enough in most people, and the latter may not be strong enough to evoke any real emotion. It’s almost as though we’re stuck between the fully instinctive state and the fully rational one…but that continuum makes it difficult for a 100% transfer of intention by purely visual means of communication.

  11. junaidrahim says:

    I don’t get the whole soul thing with photography if truth be told – something pleasing to look at or to document an event or so maybe but soul no, not for me.

    Music on the other hand conveys much more to me, again maybe it doesn’t have ‘soul’ but it will illicit an emotional response…..

    • Could it be a thing of transience? Music – no matter how many times it’s played – changes and is an instant rather than a single static note.

      • junaidrahim says:

        I wonder if our ears are possibly more sensitive than our eyes when something is repeated?

        • Possibly. Our auditory system is probably better tuned for retention and persistence than our visual cortex – much less information to processing for starters. And sound doesn’t make much sense without some sequence.

          • There is always rhythm in great images, so there is a parallelism with music, hence the eyes are more rational than the ears (example: horror film without sound).

  12. Dear Ming, I have never posted here before but wanted to share in this fascinating thread. Yours is a truly erudite and sophisticated audience, unlike any other I have encountered on the web let alone that of a photographic blog-very impressive everyone! And that intellectual bias, the analytical, technical and left brain approach to photography which is the flag that you fly so well is in my view an important part of the issue at hand: The notion that soul in an image is ephemeral, elusive, mysterious, abstract, and certainly not empirical in any way and that the more one strives for technical perfection, transparency, and sharpness in the making of the image, the colder, more clinical, realistic but less emotionally expressive or soulful the work ends up becoming. You are undoubtedly a very controlled and “heady” guy and photographer but I personally believe that it is in your letting go of all those technical aspects that will allow for some soul to appear in your work and will transform this general feeling of your audience that its somehow lacking in it. Perhaps it’s simply a question of your focus or what you value and prioritize most-that you are so intent on technical perfection in your work eking out the very last drop of quality from an image that you are generally less concerned or connected to how you are feeling in the moment. Maybe you are just more head than heart, more left brain than right brain? Soul certainly defies analysis, intellectualization and logic, but the viewer knows it when it feels it.

    The Diane Arbus Book “Untitled” is for me one of the greatest examples of a soulful work of art in photography. What makes it so? The fact it was shot on B+W silver halide film on a Mamiya C300 medium format twin lens reflex camera hand held in available light? Sure does help, but ultimately its the intensity of feeling, empathy and sensitivity that Arbus brings to the aching pathos of her subject matter that makes it so sublimely beautiful and full of emotion:

    https://www.amazon.com/Diane-Arbus-Untitled/dp/1597111902

    All of us come to your site for the technical precision and analytical rigor that you bring to the discussion of all things photographic, we come to see how far you can push the technical envelope of the gear that you review and the great work that is created as a result and the commercial work that shares the same approach and vision and what you bring in this regard is beyond measure and for that we are all so thankful and grateful My advice would be to stop thinking so much and feel more connected to your emotional body-get in touch with your feminine principle for a more balanced and soulful experience for you and us both LOL!

    I wanted to share an image that I shot years ago for the independent fashion magazine Dutch and that got the most positive feedback of any other of mine over the years on Flickr. Did it have something to do with the subject being a beautiful woman in a swimsuit? Probably! But I’d like to think that it was a combination of the mood created by the available light during a long exposure captured on 5X4 negative film and the stillness of the process of using a view camera that allowed for some of Vivien’s soul to be expressed:

    Butterflies 3

    Keep up the great work Ming! Your blog is superlative!

    • Agreed on the audience. Not so agreed on the impression that people get that I’m solely focused on the technical: I’m not. I’m very well versed with it, which is what lets me run all that stuff on autopilot, instinctively. Just because I can describe what and why I’m doing what I’m doing process-wise doesn’t mean that it is a focus at all – it isn’t; far from it, actually. I’ve worked that way for so long that it’s become second nature and reflex; I don’t think about most of this stuff when I shoot: I’m only seeing what’s in front of me in the finder.

      I’ve come to the conclusion that my thought process is different from most. I’m logical, ordered and systematic. Yes, I have to feel *something* for the subject to be attracted enough to it to shoot it, and that spontaneous idea still takes priority over the execution – that’s just the way I see and compose. Maybe what works for me doesn’t work for others; I don’t admire spontaneity so much as the ability to be spontaneous AND still disciplined enough to give that moment the best possible exhibition, which requires a degree of discipline and control: compositional precision isn’t the same as technical bias, which is more about things like focus stacking and tripod heads and resolution than where one places the elements.

      I can accept that rationality is not for everybody, though – and I don’t think I could change even if I wanted to. 🙂

      • OK then, why not consciously and deliberately stop making images in the same way that you have always done so and that has become part of this automatic response-mix it up a bit on purpose and shoot things that you haven’t yet thought of shooting just to be perverse and to disrupt your rational circuits-get out of your comfort zone and see if something fresh and new comes from it…the challenge has to be in becoming less rational now because technical mastery has been achieved long ago and isn’t where new Worlds of discovery lie for you…why not start to shoot grainy out of focus images with limited dynamic range just for the crack with cheap and shitty lenses and no post processing at all-that would be so new for you for a start ;)!

      • …and I only suggested this silly exercise as a response to your wanting to ask the question here in the first place to overcome “the difficulty in evolving your Art in a non repetitive way”…

        • Understood, and taken with the best intentions. The thing is I don’t feel the need to disclose or post all of my experiments (though I do for most) – which means to some degree you can’t know what I’ve already tried before arriving at my current style and conclusions – which is just about everything.

          • Fair enough-you’ve striven long and hard to find and define your own unique point of view and you should continue to refine and evolve what works as the mature artist that you have become…

            • …but part of that is asking the silly questions like…what else can I do? 🙂

              • Martin Fritter says:

                Been interesting discussion. I think the Bechers’ work is incredibly soulful, although it is of course relentlessly formal. However, “soul” is not a common term in aesthetics of art criticism. In the U.S. it associated with soul music, which is itself rooted in African-American church music.

                • Yes, it isn’t common in classical art – but it’s all over the place in photography. One cannot help but ask why…

                  • Martin Fritter says:

                    Well the term is notoriously difficult to translate, even in European languages. According to the OED, it’s etymology is “uncertain” but it’s definitely Germanic, having no connection with romance languages. (The OED devotes four densely packed pages to it.) However, I like this from an on-line source: ” “coming from or belonging to the sea” – http://bit.ly/2aoxi5y. I suppose one could say that soul is that which both the breath of life and a certain something that continues after it.

      • Martijn ten Napel says:

        I think the small sentence “that’s just the way I see and compose” is what is important. In order to communicate what you want with your photography the way you observe is what steps into it. Always.

        For frun, with a bunch of photographers we did an experiment. Point the camera to the side, without looking and take an image. Compare that with your usual style. The baffling part: you could tell whose photograph you were looking at in the context of the normal work. Very weird.

        • Probably because the same discipline would be applied regardless of where the cameras were pointed. If you were careful to focus and level the camera and able to previsualize the angle of view and apply the same curation discipline to the result, there might not be that much difference at all. But slop will always be…sloppy.

  13. Very interesting post, Ming. A measure of “soul” in a photograph might be that a “soulful” image -stripped down- works well as a channel for the emotive core of the image to reach the viewer. Many people seem quick to associate photographs executed with a high level of technique with artifice; cold, robotic detachment; and a concurrent lack of feel for the true heart of an image.

    Personally, I don’t see your portfolio as bereft of soul. Surely, I perceive many of the architectual images as having a cooler emotive climate, but I think they reflect their subject matter. Your watch photographs are, in my opinion, superb. Macro is a real bit**h to get right, and you do a fine job of it. Your obvious love for fine timepieces comes straight through in the watch pictures, infusing them with more warmth and accentuating both the precision and beauty in fine watches.

    Trey Ratcliff, whose work is far afield from yours, for example, gets boatloads of hate and ridicule for his heavily manipulated HDR images. I personally like his work, and after watching his TEDx talk, he is clearly a photographer going his own way and reaching for a reflection of his soul in his work. You might give that a listen. It is pretty short and he speaks well.

    • Thanks – perhaps it could be considered empathy or understanding for the subject, which in turn translates to something extra that’s visible in the end photograph?

      • Jaap Veldman says:

        Yes, think here of your dead-engine photographs of a few months ago. Where we had a discussion about the human/organic nature of those engines and their ‘lives’ . I experienced those photographs as very soulful. Not having read all the comments yet – great thread!- I think soul is usually felt by the viewer when there’s room for the imagination, in a direction that leads to emotions in the compassion-area. Sharp, realistic photographs tend to leave less room for the imagination because sheer reality can block imagination. They often require a higher associative power of the brains. Grittyness, grain, unsharpness etc. are the easy ways to create soul. Being quite an intellectual guy, this has become boring for you I suppose. You’re in the domain of sharpness and transparency. And so, for the reasons mentioned above, harder to achieve and easier misunderstood by the majority of the average viewer. But it certainly is a niche. For viewers at MT wavelenghts you can create those photographs.
        That wavelength though, consist of universal and cultural aspects, nature and nurture. The cultural / nurture aspects can further narrow the niche for a certain photograph, because these aspects can easier be misunderstood. But that might exactly be where your Holy Grail of Soul Photography can be found. It simply just shouldn’t be too easy.

        • “Grittyness, grain, unsharpness etc. are the easy ways to create soul. Being quite an intellectual guy, this has become boring for you I suppose.”
          Not so much as that it’s very difficult to tell a precise or complex story with that degree of ambiguity; on top of that, there’s no way you can transport somebody into the scene in a transparent, realistic way if the details are missing.

          “It simply just shouldn’t be too easy.”
          No, it shouldn’t be. Because then it would be commonplace, and the commonplace has no impact because of familiarity…

          • Jaap Veldman says:

            A complex story doesn’t necessarily have to be precise.
            I think that preciseness makes it more difficult for the viewer to feel the mood.
            But without this preciseness, commonplace is around the corner..

            • I think without the preciseness it’s also much harder to define something very different which might not be something the audience can make rational/imaginative leaps to; the paradox with the kind of photography that surprises/lasts/is remembered is that it has to be both arresting at first glance, but also leading the viewer through the image enough for them to understand it (or better yet, come to the understanding on their own accord).

        • Jaap Veldman says:

          A second thought.

          In your search and with your set of skills, your best photograph might be created with your brains.
          This implies that for the real photograph, you then should create the whole scene yourself.
          Didn’t I see a recent thread where the inherent budgets were discussed?
          I see a really nice Kickstarter project rising on the horizon..it only needs your brainpower.
          You already have an audience here that might give you a start.

          A third thought.

          That brainwork will have to take place in your sleep.
          Those two hours are the only available time slots in your agenda😊

          • Crewdson effectively does that. It’s not far off producing a small movie, albeit with just a few scenes…but he also has the support of an art world that will buy/sell his work, and Kickstarter is not really the same as that. I don’t see anybody paying for a photograph there…

            But yes, those two hours are the only two I have free these days. 🙂

            • Jaap Veldman says:

              I thought of Crewdson indeed.
              He has an artworld.
              You have an audience.
              That is a world on it’s own that also can grow.
              Thinking in possibilities vs limitations.
              Those scenes for your photographs can’t be big from the start but that can grow.
              I suppose Crewdson also didn’t fall into the art scene from heaven.

              • True – there’s a disconnect in the audience, however. They’re photographers – and the aim has always been to create yourself; I’d do the same. It’s not the same as art appreciators…certainly my biggest challenge and one I haven’t quite figured out how to fix, yet.

  14. The best thread ever MT.
    .
    Seems to me soul is the process of creating. All you images have it, for you and others, at some level.

    Emotion and feeling are fundamentally fpdifferent in visual art. Emotion is temporary, like last. Feeling is long term, with thought, like contempt. There is nothing ” negative” in my opinion about either of them. Soul is deeper than emotion. Feeling is a longer term experience that involves the neo cortex. Any lizard has emotions. But not love, or contempt, because only we humans have a visual neo cortex that let’s us invent , semanticize and ponder a visual experience we call “soul. ”

    Our V2 visual cortex area, subconscious if you will, MT, is highly individualized, so what we think about soul, and what appears to have soul, to me, you won’t see and vice versa.

    Thank you MT, excellent learning here and broad enough for a book, the Soul of Photography.

    • “The best thread ever MT.”
      It’s looking that way, isn’t it? The discussion in the comments is taking things to another level. And it’s not even a gear review 🙂

      Emotion > feeling > soul?

      I assume that they are sequential rather than individual – basically, we’re back to the the overlapping circles again. In order for the soul bit to be unlocked, the artist/image has to perfectly hit the nail on the head; that’s only going to happen with the right audience. But this also means that somewhere each image has a ‘right audience’ with which it resonates, and one shouldn’t try too hard for universality because it’s simply impossible…

      • Tom Morgan says:

        “But this also means that somewhere each image has a ‘right audience’ with which it resonates, and one shouldn’t try too hard for universality because it’s simply impossible…”

        And for me Ming that is the answer. I see this thing called “soul” in a lot of your images but due to the amount and variety of images you shoot it would be impossible to have soul in them all. Just keep shooting from your heart and soul and let the results speak for themselves.

  15. Before I comment on your work and soul I thought I had better check with Oxford English Dictionary. This is what it says:
    Soul:
    1) the spiritual element of a person, believed to be immortal. 2) a person’s inner character. 3) emotional or intellectual energy or power: e.g. “their performance lacked soul.” So far the Oxford Dictionary.

    My view:
    1) Your character and your feelings (definition of “spirit” by the Oxford D.) certainly do show in your work.
    2) I think your work also shows your inner character,
    3) and I can see a lot of your emotional or intellectual energy or power in your work.

    It appears to me you are striving for perfection, and this scares people. If you came up with some wishy-washy third-class attempts, people would think “Oh how lovely, he has tried very hard . . . “, and they would mistakenly think you put your soul in your work.
    Some of your photographs show reveal surgical precision and cleanliness – why should this exclude soul?!

    Greetings from Switzerland,

    Felix

    • I’m just wondering how one can consistently hit the emotional resonance for an audience of one (i.e. the creator) – forget soul – without that precision/consistency/deliberation, as many seem to think… 🙂

  16. Seems to me the question of soul — or the lack of it — boils down to resonance. The image causes a response in the viewer (empathy, admiration, revulsion, awe, anger, sympathetic pain) or it doesn’t. If the response generated in the viewer is the same as that felt by the photographer then it’s a whopping success.

    As to whether soul can exist in photographs of inanimate objects — of course it can. Think back to that series of images made of the then-new BMW Z4. Maybe they were taken just to prove one with adequate chops can make photos with a few lights in a bare parking garage that equal the advertising studio shots done under 40-foot Chimera softlight panels, aided by a half dozen assistants with fill lights and reflectors. But I doubt it. Instead, I see one guy’s response to an enticing set of design lines and the engineering excellence they imply. Plus a dash of what a kick it could be to drive this thing under ideal circumstances. If those responses on the part of the photographer are generated in a viewer of the photos several thousand miles away on a different day and in a different setting, then congratulations! A bit of soul has been transmitted and received.

  17. Jim Suojanen says:

    Ming – great musings here. Your images often appear dark and isolated; reflecting an austere world view that some readers misinterpret as “lacking soul”. In fact, they reveal you and your relationship to Creation. That is what every artist strives for in their work.

    • I like order, and I wonder why I’m here and why the world is so orderly in some ways but utterly chaotic in others – yes, I suppose that is questioning one’s relationship to creation…

  18. Martijn ten Napel says:

    Pardon me if this has been mentioned before, but I did not read all comments so far. I did look up what the Oxford Dictionary says about the word “soul”. It is:

    “The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.”

    As such, a photograph cannot have soul. Soul is reserved for living beings. So, perhaps, the viewer or observer of the photograph relates the image to a situation where they has a spiritual experience. Or the act of viewing itself evokes a spiritual experience.

    I think the type of imagery where people express their feeling about it as ‘soul’ are images where it is not exactly clear what the image represents. In the process of observing, you have to construct for yourself what it looks like. The grainy black & white dark image springs to mind, you start to interpret, often unconsciously. Like music (soul music) the sounds or the pixels must evoke an emotion that is not represented in the sound waves or pixels itself, but rather invites the listener/viewer to add their own emotion into it. Like Etta James singing ‘I’d rather go blind’.

    • “I think the type of imagery where people express their feeling about it as ‘soul’ are images where it is not exactly clear what the image represents. In the process of observing, you have to construct for yourself what it looks like.”
      So really, the ‘soul’ is not belonging to subject or image, but the imagined projection of the audience…

      • Martijn ten Napel says:

        I think so. It just reminds me how in the early days of photography conmen would take photos of the ‘spirit’ of people (which were darkroom manipulations, but people were unfamiliar with the concept, so they fell for it).
        Working with the immaterial runs as a theme through art, where Suprematism (the paintings of Malevitsj) is maybe the most transparent about trying to evoke the spiritual (not capture!). It is always about the observer, not the materiality of the artwork itself.

    • Excellent point Martijn!! For me the closet to describing what is actually happening if an image has “soul”. Which as you say, it doesn’t! It’s the imagination of the observer.

  19. Hi Ming
    I get the feeling that ‘soul’ is what some people need to tick a box for their own appreciation of a creative work, a point to score if you like. It is just one of the points that cannot be defined or measured, and changes for each photo and viewer in this case, but we all think we know a bit about what others are talking about when the say ‘soul’ in reference to an image.

    I feel that a lot of people just do not trust them selves to appreciate things without a culture or convention to work within. Not that any of us can escape our cultural background when experiencing something whether created, found, natural. However because there are common cultural conventions promoted, it is difficult to think or appreciate independently.

    People looking for soul they can’t find probably need to ask question of themselves rather than your work. If they simply find (or have learned to value) other styles of photography more engaging emotionally, that is simply their choice, nothing to do with your work.

    Regarding your reference to street photography and soul, the conventions for appreciating this work was developed mid last century largely by middle aged people who had lived through a depression and at least one world war. Many of these images now have considerable fiscal value as well as cultural values, though perhaps now isolated from a shared empathy of lived experience. The corruption of street photography to stylistic motifs has nothing to do with ‘soul’ at all (IMHO).

    • “I feel that a lot of people just do not trust them selves to appreciate things without a culture or convention to work within.”
      This is the start of a much more fundamental problem: do you know yourself, and can you be honest about that? One is often punished in subtle ways for diverging from the popular.

      “If they simply find (or have learned to value) other styles of photography more engaging emotionally, that is simply their choice, nothing to do with your work.”
      Agreed, and this is one of the fundamentals of art – it’s all subjective anyway. There are no absolutes or rights and wrongs.

      “Many of these images now have considerable fiscal value as well as cultural values, though perhaps now isolated from a shared empathy of lived experience. The corruption of street photography to stylistic motifs has nothing to do with ‘soul’ at all (IMHO).”
      And that is possibly the most sensible explanation I’ve read/heard on why the state of that kind of photography is the way it is 🙂

  20. David Lupton says:

    I think of soul in imagery as the animation of the unseen otherness.

    • Does that mean hinting at something not fully defined and letting the viewer’s imagination complete the circuit, or something else?

      • David Lupton says:

        No not always,I am thinking of the things that create emotion that are evocative, the unseen sensory things of the day to day and spiritual things that lay beyond or experience that can be alluded to.

      • David Lupton says:

        Can you photograph love for me?

        • “Can you photograph love for me?”

          I get your point, but here’s also the subjectivity. I can only photograph my interpretation of the abstract concept, but the success/resonance of the image would depend on your definition or interpretation of ‘love’, and whether the two coincide.

          • David Lupton says:

            Exactly, yet…

            I was actually asking you to photograph love for me and post it here, I would really love to see your visual response to this and see what connections come about with your readers as a part of this discussion.

            Commonalities create connections… subjectivity could be seen as risk, risk unconstrained possibility and that to me is where the magic happens… soul happens.

            • Ah, that’s much simpler:
              H51-B0010310 copy

              • David Lupton says:

                Nice!

                But if I asked you to photograph love again but this time take a risk go outside your comfort zone to look in a different place shoot different, way outside what you would ever normally do, chase the the happening the magic the possibility the soul the spirit of love.

                I wonder what might happen?

                • I’d do it if I felt it was something I wanted to do or there was something in a scene that appealed to me and if the opportunity presented itself. I wouldn’t do it because somebody I’ve never met before asked me to do it; sadly time is in much shorter supply than that.

          • I think you have very well done so on your photograph of your wife and your son . . .
            Felix

  21. Jeff Smith says:

    Ming,
    It’s a difficult subject and as you what clicks with a viewer in image is highly subjective. But I will try to delve into the issue a bit and share my thoughts. First the heart of any image is the subject. Secondly the definition of the word soul is the human embodiment of something, or a deep feeling of emotion. Putting the two together for an image to have soul the subject needs to embody or convey a human feeling of emotion. In other words I think for the viewer to feel an image has soul it must stimulate some emotional response. Some examples may be a beautiful landscape that stirs some desire within in the viewer, i.e. they find it dramatic, awe inspiring, intriguing, bucolic, peaceful, the play of light on curves and textures within the scene is intriguing or evocative, etc. Often times the viewer can envision themselves in front of the scene or wanting to be there personally. Note that all of these attributes relate to human feelings about the subject and not technical aspects of the image.

    When doing portraits the mantra always seems to be focus on the eyes. Is this so because it is often said one’s eyes are the windows to their soul? As humans we see happiness and sadness in others eyes, we see a ready smile, laugh lines, and sometimes lines in one’s face of a life lived hard, or we notice the absence of these things. Again for a really striking portrait it is these human connections that make the image click more so than if it is technically perfect.

    Another obvious draw for a viewer to have a connection to an image is that they personally find the subject matter appealing. An example may be the subject of cars. Another person who is in to cars is likely to find photos of them appealing because they can relate to the car’s details that are being captured, the can appreciate the mechanical perfection of an assembly, the artistic aspect of a line or lines in the design, or they covet the subject because they feel it will display or bring out certain human feelings about themselves if they were to have it.

    Coming at the issue from the other side lets try to think about what lacks soul. Repetitive simple geometric shapes do not stir any strong emotional response in many people, they are just repetitive shapes, one rectangle of a building looks like another. A repetitive pattern that has detailed intricacy, or the captured image has interesting plays of light, or the shapes evoke thoughts of something else may have soul because one may find it intriguing. But more often than not relatively plain repetitive shapes just are not that interesting to most folks.

    Again its is the human connection and feelings evoked by an image that provide soul. However, I do not want to down play the importance of the technical aspects of an image. A poorly composed or capture image is simply that, i.e. a poor image. But an image that conveys or evokes human feelings that is well composed and captured moves an image from being a good image to being a great image.

    Since you are seeking feedback I am willing to share some quick thoughts on each of the pictures you posted with the caveat that these thoughts are my thoughts, another viewer may feel completely differently, and sharing my thoughts is intended to be constructive. So here goes:
    Image 1 is the military plane. This image does not strike a strong emotional experience in me it looks like a tired old fighter plane, and from the limited scope of the plane that was captured find it hard to put myself in the scene or to appreciate the larger lines of the plane. Nor does the photo convey enough of a mechanical aspect of the plane to stir my engineering perspective. This image lacks soul to me.
    Image 2 is of the bald headed gentleman. I find this image intriguing. I don’t know what the man is thinking but he is obviously thinking about something. The play of light and shadow on the face is good. Culturally it is not something I see everyday whish adds to the intrigue. The image has soul to me.
    Image 3 appears to be of a lone walker in the rain in Venice. At first its hard to see the person under the umbrella because of the overall darkness of the image. But I can easily relate to walking alone in the rain lost in my own thoughts. Because of that the image has soul to me.
    Image 4 appears to be shot thru a window and a reflection in a mirror. I find the reflections in the glass distract from the person in the mirror and whatever the person is doing to their eye is not intriguing to me. For me the image lacks soul and since I do not know the person in the photograph it has little meaning to me.
    Image 5 is in the hospital room. I like this image and I wonder what the subject is asking about on the phone. I can imagine they are asking about all kinds of things. The image has soul to me.
    Image 6 is of a skewered cooked fish. Perhaps if I had tasted this meal it would have more meaning to me. But it just looks like a rather unappealing cooked fish. This image does not have soul to me.
    Image 7 is more of an abstract with a human figure in it. The curves pattern and line leads to the person, which gives the image more impact than if the person where not in it. The human element adds intrigue and such the image works for me.

    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

    • Firstly, thanks for the detailed thoughts.

      “often times the viewer can envision themselves in front of the scene or wanting to be there personally. Note that all of these attributes relate to human feelings about the subject and not technical aspects of the image.”
      Ah, but that’s not quite true: if your execution isn’t adequate, then there’s no way the viewer has enough information to make that imaginative leap to ‘being there’. There’s a point of ‘enough’, but one has to pass that first.

      “Repetitive simple geometric shapes do not stir any strong emotional response in many people”
      No, they don’t. I think it takes a particularly logical and orderly (unemotional?) mind to find beauty here.

      Thanks for your feedback: what I’m seeing here makes sense and fits the earlier hypotheses: no personal connection, be it direct subject recognition or desire/interest to ask ‘why?’, no soul…

  22. This is one of the best discussions I’ve read on your site. I agree with other commenters that it is both brave and generous of you to offer up your own work as a basis for that discussion. You are an excellent photographer, and I respond strongly to a subset of your images on a range of levels. I’m not sure I can pin it down to “soul,” but your work has artistic value that goes way beyond technique.
    Three small comments:
    1.There is a point where dedicated craft can mysteriously cross over into something with great meaning and emotional impact. One example might be in “folk” art, where deep devotion to craft by dedicated craftspeople sometimes ends up expressing powerful personal and cultural truths. I never disparage craft. It has value in its own right as a life practice and discipline. If it serves as a vehicle for something beyond itself, that is a special blessing. We often can’t control when (or whether) that may happen.
    2. Some of the photographs shown on your site seem like high level exercises to me. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Just as a musician has to play scales every day, we photographers have to work on our chops and hone our abilities. And in fact, I can appreciate and learn from a well-made photographic exercise. If you curated down to, say, one photograph a month, I doubt that anybody would say your work lacks soul (by any definition). Of course, then I might not learn as much from you!
    3. I find that it often takes a long time (years even) for me to gain enough perspective to decide whether my own images are exercises or something more.

    • Thanks David. To your points:

      1. Agreed, but that’s two things coming together: the expression of the creator, and the response of the audience; if they don’t get the cultural references, then the work isn’t as powerful. I’m reminded of this by a meal I had recently; two of us really enjoyed ourselves because of the flavour references to our childhood foods, together with the creative interpretation of them; the third didn’t really get it at all because he didn’t grow up in the same country – reference lost.

      2. Yes and no; there’s both relativity and viewing size to take into account here. Whilst I’m trying to make images that work as well at smaller sizes as larger ones, the simple reality is that it’s nearly impossible with some subjects/concepts, and it seems somewhat silly not to show them – even though I’m happy with the result in the output form which I view it. I also think I’d get a lot of stick for publishing one photo a month and claiming to be a photographer, but that’s something else entirely. 🙂

      3. I’d like to think you know it when you shoot it – if you’re not sure why you’re shooting it – even for a reason as simple as ‘there’s something here which makes me feel odd’ – then it’s probably an exercise. I often stop myself when I have that feeling coming on…

  23. Ming, I’m curious if “lacking soul” might also mean “lacking a feeling from the photo” – happiness, sadness, anger, etc. I think your last photo in the series, one of my favorites from you, _8041831_ evokes a feeling of sadness/melancholy. I’m curious if that’s what you were going for, if that’s “The Idea” when you took it.

    For my part, I think these photos of mine have soul, because of the dominance of the eyes as the subject of the photo, each of which have souls. Maybe that’s a sophomoric definition, but at least I can wrap my head around it.

    DSC07921Jul 30 2015_1
    DSC_8291_DxO
    DSC03051_DxO

    • Ahem, oops. I didn’t mean to post them quite so large. Apologies.

    • Last image – yes, wistfulness and melancholy were definitely in mind.

      Those images – are a good example of where the subject connects to the audience, or not. Personally, I see the other stuff around the outside competing for attention with the subject because I’m emotionally detached enough from the subject that I view it with the same weight as any other compositional element…

      • Thank you Ming, I appreciate the comment that the outer stuff competes because it has the same weight as the principal subject. I’m going to have to think about that.

  24. Jaap Veldman says:

    Ming, it’s simple.
    Emotion on a more complex level isn’t easily recognized as such.
    This limits your audience.
    It also implies that the comments about non-emotionality will never stop.
    You will have to cope with that and just make the images you are happy with.
    So, just go your own way.

    • True – I’m not bothered by that, Jaap; I produce images for myself and myself only (unless for a client). But because photography is communication which is psychology and it’s all about people and the audience, I’d still like to understand that better in order to be a better photographer 🙂

      • I find your photos graphic, detached like a neutral observer. And I like them. Your photos have a very distinctive style, which every artist tries to develop, not always successfully. To me, that’s soul.

        • Style > soul? Interesting. I guess if the style translates consistently, then the photographer has done enough, and maybe the corresponding resonance with the audience is it…

          • Not sure how to put what I think and feel across but here goes. Your style, soul? is your way way of expressing your own point of view. Like your opinion. Not all will like, agree or accept but that’s you. Often people have different facets in their personality, like very contained and calm when working, but absolutely loud during a football game. It’s still the same person but different parts of his personality. So if you have another style for other series or themes that are quite different, this is another part of your personality. Different but the same, if you will. And I can relate to your current distinctive and detached, cold? look with strong lines. Go with your mood and feel.

  25. tribaluxe says:

    Some spontaneous contemplation here (so it may be meandering but, hopefully, not self-indulgent.)

    Soulfulness is a heavily loaded word and carries elements that include profound, affective, expressive emotion – usually, it seems, tinged with sadness (even if there are elements of jubilation – just look at ‘soul music’ or the American ‘blues music’ that both come out of a history and culture of despair, pain, and ‘second-class-ness’). The word often brings up an image of a person (soul) over-brimming with feeling – certainly a nod to the original 17th century word, soulful, meaning, easily enough, “as much as a soul can hold.” Depicting soul using inanimate objects can be very difficult, I think, because each object holds a different meaning to each onlooker. Images of people, of course, also hold different meanings to different people but I’d argue that images of humans (to other humans) lie within a much narrower spread. (But maybe not. I found it interesting that, not being American, you did not read what most Americans would read into the photograph of the Nez Pierce Indian “Black Eagle” that Sohail posted: an individual from a society that had fought hard against an invader and lost, with the consequence that his entire way of life would soon disappear, forever. His resignation, forthrightness and fatigue, to me, are all too visible.)

    Thoughtful is, I believe, a much different word that some conflate with soulful. It has more to do with reflection, introspection and attentiveness. The operating room was thought-provoking and your last photo in the line-up I found very thoughtful and provocative.

    Orderliness. Here, I believe, is where you get into trouble with some of your critics. Order implies, and may/may not possess, a tidy diligence; a discarding of extraneous detail; an unfeeling, analytical application of technique; a methodical, mechanical, systematic… well, we all know the rest. Many people find the application of order to art antithetical to what is supposedly a right-brain activity.

    The following sentence from your post says “orderly” in big letters:

    “I don’t think technical excellence and soul are mutually exclusive. I don’t see why they have to be: surely, being able to control the presentation, composition and execution of an image means that you have a much greater ability to influence the audience in the desired way?”

    The thrust here is focused on control. And ‘control’ for many implies engineering in a rather antiseptic way, that is, orderliness rather than ‘artfulness’. However, we all deep down know that control is pretty important. But, it quite obviously needs to be tempered by ‘an eye’ for what one is doing.

    And, of course, there is (probably) no actual roadmap to the creation of artfulness apart from the steady application of oneself in hard work and the growth and change that comes with it! (Thomas Edison’s “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”)

    Personally, I love the photos you post here. I forever marvel at the clarity and resolution of your images. They are stellar in this regard and just what is called for in product photography. When I want to see the horological details I certainly don’t want ‘mushiness’ and poor detail in place of clear representation.

    I would say your photography (what you post) displays a supreme level of clinical exactness in these shots. In this way I am reminded of my interactions with my accountant: I desire great precision in her work. In my physician, on the other hand, I not only require a high degree of exactitude but something else, that hard-to-define intuitive nature that makes the very best physicians outshine their peers. (Legal) accounting may leave little room for creativity but medicine, even with its close ties to science, still has ample room for intuition (even if it is often penalized in our modern world of litigation.)

    So, while I do find many of your photographs incredibly thoughtful, I do not find many to be soulful. And that is okay by me because I still admire them greatly. Whether this is okay by you is another story and is where the creator of a work meets the onlooker of his work. (As a note, I rarely find soulfulness in photographs. Thoughtfulness, empathy, etc. yes but soul, no. This may speak more to my ‘shortcomings’ than any artist’s output.)

    As an coda, a photograph does not need to provide full disclosure to be soulful but it does mean, I think, that it is probably not possible to recognize its soulfulness unless we, the viewers, also possess (com)passion. It is a two-sided coin (are there any one-sided coins?)

    Recognizing, and, indeed, creating, soulfulness is a self-reflecting exploration of what it means to be human and being able to project an answer to this all-important question photographically. (Obviously, such a portrayal transcends media as it can be seen also in paintings, sculpture, etc.) And it may be that photographs of objects can only portray thoughtfulness and not soulfulness. I do not know.

    In any case it seems to me that soulfulness is a singular state that moves us in a way that tugs at our hearts and minds versus simply computing in our brains.

    OK, this is long enough so I’ll end with the line that perhaps we can equate all this with Louis Armstrong’s comment about jazz: “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

    NOTE: These are complex issues and ideas you raise in this posting. Maybe some bright soul will write an article and enlighten us all!

    • A very interesting series of thoughts – thank you.

      “…usually, it seems, tinged with sadness (even if there are elements of jubilation – just look at ‘soul music’ or the American ‘blues music’ that both come out of a history and culture of despair, pain, and ‘second-class-ness’).”
      This is perhaps the bit that really doesn’t make sense: why does emotion only have to be negative? It limits the general interpretation of ‘has soul’ to ‘the downtrodden’, which is at best somewhat exploitative, and at worst, arrogant.

      “The thrust here is focused on control. And ‘control’ for many implies engineering in a rather antiseptic way, that is, orderliness rather than ‘artfulness’. However, we all deep down know that control is pretty important. But, it quite obviously needs to be tempered by ‘an eye’ for what one is doing.”
      Control is perhaps a bit too strong: understanding, certainly. My point was simply: how can you get to the desired outcome without making rational choices, and without being able to understand what those choices mean? I don’t think it’s possible other than by random lottery. And clearly this does not produce soul or emotion or feeling – at least not consistently…

      “I forever marvel at the clarity and resolution of your images.”
      But they’re always posted online at the same 800 pixel-wide size, regardless of what I shot them with 🙂 So the concept of resolution goes out the window; clarity is there because the elements are consciously included or controlled and isolated – nothing more. 🙂

      “…medicine, even with its close ties to science, still has ample room for intuition (even if it is often penalized in our modern world of litigation.)”
      Hahaha! ‘Creative accounting’ is not exactly a good thing, either. Wither Enron, 1MDB…

      “(As a note, I rarely find soulfulness in photographs. Thoughtfulness, empathy, etc. yes but soul, no. This may speak more to my ‘shortcomings’ than any artist’s output.)”
      It’s the same disconnect that many have noted here already, and I’ve felt myself: there’s no emotional connection between audience and subject, or image, or execution, or some element of the image – ergo, no soul. That makes sense (and wouldn’t in any other way).

      “Recognizing, and, indeed, creating, soulfulness is a self-reflecting exploration of what it means to be human and being able to project an answer to this all-important question photographically. “
      Bingo again: this is precisely why I wrote this article: not to seek sympathy or offer defence for my own work, but to understand the why…

      “Maybe some bright soul will write an article and enlighten us all!”
      I can only hope. I did quite a bit of searching online before writing this, and didn’t find anything that seriously attempted to ask or answer the question beyond providing a precise descriptive definition of what the author themselves found emotionally moving…which is far from being conceptually universal.

      • tribaluxe says:

        Ah, maybe I should have used different terminology here:
        Me: “I forever marvel at the clarity and resolution of your images.”
        MT: But they’re always posted online at the same 800 pixel-wide size, regardless of what I shot them with:) So the concept of resolution goes out the window; clarity is there because the elements are consciously included or controlled and isolated – nothing more.:)”

        What I actually am trying to get at with the poor word choices ‘clarity’ and “resolution” is the crisp terseness and exactitude of many of your images, nothing seems to be included nor left out. They speak to a certain perfection of vision. Sorry to have made you repeat the 800 pixel-wide thing. Lots of photo terms have other standard meanings and I was typing my entry in a stream of consciousness!

        • No problem. ‘Clarity’ makes sense – I agree – resolution perhaps not, though I can see why you used the term. Definition, or acuity perhaps? 🙂

  26. Alan Frank says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve commented Ming, but I can tell you from an individual perspective that I need to be invested in the topic before “soul” is anything but fleeting. Being a realist, most of photographs are sometimes considered sterile. Without becoming too winded, I remember a photo of yours maybe two years ago of two elderly Asian women that is one of the finest I’ve seen. Obviously one of your best. Probably because it went straight to my soul. Like art, soul is hard to pinpoint, but I know it when I feel it.

    • Personal investment = individual emotional connection = audience specific, which definitely means that almost all photographs don’t quite hit the mark unless the subject matter connects – but then the rest of the input of the photographer (interpretation, execution, composition) perhaps becomes not so important…?

  27. Sandra Bingham says:

    Hi Ming,

    It appears that it may depend on where one is practicing their craft. In America Andre Kertesz was criticized because his images had too much soul. As comments come from throughout the world, these days, In the end you can only choose for yourself as you are the only consistent arbiter of your images.
    “If you want to write you should learn the alphabet. You write and write and in the end you have a a beautiful, perfect alphabet. But it isn’t the alphabet that is important. The important thing is what you are writing, what you are expressing. The same thing goes for photography. Photographs can be technically perfect and even beautiful, but they have no expression”. (Andre Kertesz)
    It appears that he was commenting on his American bosses and their expectations re. his images.

    • Without being able to write the alphabet in the hand that appeals to you, instinctively, you can’t express anything 🙂

      But yes, it probably depends on location. I think the internet is fairly location-independent, though. I’ve long given up on Malaysia; here, nobody actually cares about what the work looks like, only how much it costs.

  28. Very interesting discussion, Ming.

    I had a look at Wikipedia, to see what it had to say about the soul as a noun (instead of as an adjective). Some of the lines that, to me, appeared the most relevant and succinct:

    ‘The soul in many religions, philosophical and mythological traditions, is the incorporeal and immortal essence of a living being.’

    ‘In Aristotle’s view, the primary activity, or full actualization, of a living thing constitutes its soul. For example, the full actualization of an eye, as an independent organism, is to see (its purpose or final cause).[8] Another example is that the full actualization of a human being would be living a fully functional human life in accordance with reason (which he considered to be a faculty unique to humanity).[9] For Aristotle, the soul is the organization of the form and matter of a natural being which allows it to strive for its full actualization.’

    So the term “soul”, from a (Western?) philosophical point of view, appears to denote a primal, existential thing; the purpose or essence of something’s or someone’s existence, if you will.

    I think that from this understanding of Soul follows that, in order for an image (or any work of art) to have soul, there needs to be some sort of immediacy and inevitability about the work of art; as if the artist, due to his/her being who/what (s)he is, had no other choice than to make the work of art the way it turned out.

    I think this is also the root cause of the disconnect you’re describing. As the second quote from Wikipedia says, Aristotle considered ‘living ( ) in accordance with reason’ to be the full actualization of a human being. In other words, to him, ideas were the very essence of a human being. Many people will disagree with that notion, and argue that emotions are the essence of a human being. Of course in reality, no one is fully rational or fully emotional, and everyone is somewhere on a sliding scale between the two. Also, ideas and emotions might very well influence each other / be in some sort of cause and effect relationship, but I don’t want to go into that right now.

    The point is, to you, the images you make – or at least many of them – probably come from a primal place, from your very essence. To you, there’s probably no other way to be a photographer – to express the way your essence responds to a situation – than to make the image the way you make them – an inevitable result of that particular spot on the reason-emotion scale that Ming Thein occupies. Hence, you look at the images and find them soulful. To people on a vastly different point on the reason-emotion scale, they’re the opposite of soulful, since their own “primal place” simply doesn’t look the same as yours.

    • Actually, taking it one deeper: reading the line ‘For Aristotle, the soul is the organization of the form and matter of a natural being which allows it to strive for its full actualization’ again, made me see how, at least to Aristotle, your Ultraprint images might be considered soulful by definition; in their neutrality and near-infinite detail, they could be said to organize form and matter in a way to strive for the full actualization of the subject

      • I’m glad somebody noticed. 🙂 The Ultraprint was to raise transparency and question the border between reality and image, and to create the illusion of actuality – Magritte’s ‘treachery of images’ in photographic form…

    • “there needs to be some sort of immediacy and inevitability about the work of art; as if the artist, due to his/her being who/what (s)he is, had no other choice than to make the work of art the way it turned out.”
      In short: an instinctive, immediate response. That instinct may be precise or it may not be, depending on the creator – yes?

      “‘living ( ) in accordance with reason’ to be the full actualization of a human being. In other words, to him, ideas were the very essence of a human being. “
      Bingo: second disconnect. Rationality and thought and structure and order – in this case, in interpretation of the world – not everybody has this, or has the ability to step away from the primal and instinctive and let reason come to the fore. Yes, I don’t see any other way to be a photographer that would satisfy me – but it’s far from primal or instinctive or immediate; maybe I’m too far down the rationality scale.

      But very, very good point on the disconnect…

      What I find more interesting is that underpinning all of this must be some common response since some types of people respond more to some types of images than others – the ‘looser’ more ‘stylised’ stuff triggers responses in one crowd, the formal and precise in another. Yet as you say, they can be arranged along a continuum – both people and artwork. So what is it that underpins all of this that allows each to interpret the image in the way they do, consistently? It’s like trying to find the source code that can be used build very different kinds of program…

      • MT: In short: an instinctive, immediate response. That instinct may be precise or it may not be, depending on the creator – yes?

        b: Indeed. The way I see it, it’s not so much that the action of producing the artwork should be instinctive and immediate. Instead, the particular situation that urges the artist to convey what they think or feel, should resonate with their “primal place”.

        MT: Bingo: second disconnect. Rationality and thought and structure and order – in this case, in interpretation of the world – not everybody has this, or has the ability to step away from the primal and instinctive and let reason come to the fore. Yes, I don’t see any other way to be a photographer that would satisfy me – but it’s far from primal or instinctive or immediate; maybe I’m too far down the rationality scale.

        b: what I meant with primal was not so much a caveman’s roaring assault mode, acting on instinct alone (I’m probably misrepresenting cavemen here, but that’s another matter). What I meant is more about the primary way of approaching the world. I’m guessing* that, when faced with any particular situation, your primary response is to ask ‘who / what / why / how / where / when?’; once you begin to get a grasp on that, you start to derive emotions from your understanding / idea / interpretation of the situation. That is of course not to say that you can’t feel without thinking, just like even highly emotional people are still capable of rational thought; but your primary mode is to ask questions first, and base your feelings on the answers to those questions. “Being in the moment” to you could very well be a state where you are observing and analyzing a situation, and letting that take your inner world wherever it takes you, rather than a state of pure emotions without reason. For others, their primary response to a situation might be to see how it makes them feel, and to derive ideas from those emotions.

        A soulful work of art, then, is one where you can tell from the artwork that the inspiring situation, whether it was real or imagined, resonated within the artist on a primary level; you can tell that the artist himself was “in the moment” and marveled at the beauty, or sadness, or intricacy, or simplicity, starkness, interconnectedness, universality, whatever. You want to be able to imagine the artist being in that situation and saying, WHOA!

        Which brings me to your next question:
        MT: What I find more interesting is that underpinning all of this must be some common response since some types of people respond more to some types of images than others – the ‘looser’ more ‘stylised’ stuff triggers responses in one crowd, the formal and precise in another. Yet as you say, they can be arranged along a continuum – both people and artwork. So what is it that underpins all of this that allows each to interpret the image in the way they do, consistently? It’s like trying to find the source code that can be used build very different kinds of program…

        b: On a micro level, I really can’t answer this, as I don’t know enough about psychology, neurology, anthropology, etc. And I don’t think that, in practical terms, it really matters, so long as we have some insight into the resulting “programs” that have been written using this mysterious source code. Barring some really scary sci-fi scenarios, we can’t change our audience’s primary mode of engaging with the world around them. Of course on the emotional level, people can become either more attentive / empathetic or more blunted, and regarding reason, people can be taught to look beyond the obvious, but for the most part, I think that that the audience’s “primary mode” should be taken as a given.

        As for who finds an image soulful and who doesn’t: since the way I interpret it, a soulful image shows how the inspirational situation resonated within the artist on a primal level, it requires two aspects. First of all, the artist should communicate how the inspirational situation resonates (more on this in a moment), and secondly the recipient should be able to empathize with the artist – in other words, they should be able to imagine that the inspirational situation did indeed resonate within the artist on a primal level. If their own primary way of engaging with the world is vastly different from the artist’s way, that second (empathetic) part of the equation will likely fail, unless they have a great empathetic capability.

        Regarding the empathy at the recipient’s level: since almost everyone (barring a few psychopaths and perhaps some autistic people) can relate to other people’s emotions, images showing obvious emotion within the subject, or otherwise relating to “primal instincts” (blue sky, cosy warmth inside on a cold autumn day, etc) will be interpreted by most people in the same way. Artists whose primary mode is more reason-based have a more difficult time; even if, say, half of the audience were to fall on the reasonable half of the scale and the other half were to fall on the emotional side of the scale. This is because, when a work of art is inspired by a process of reasoning within the artist, that same situation can probably be read in a million different ways. In other words, even if the audience consists of people whose primary reaction to your work of art is also to ask questions rather than to see if they feel immediate emotions, they might still end up at a completely different (and perhaps less profound) interpretation than you did – and therefore, might end up wondering how on earth that situation could resonate within the artist on a primal level. So even people with a broadly similar “primary mode” as you, might not find your images soulful.

        This is where the communication by the artist comes in. The less chance there is of the audience being empathetic with him (either due to a difference in “primary mode”, or because the artist’s idea / feeling is the result of asking a larger number of questions (each of which increases the chances of the audience taking a different turn than the artist)), the more the artist needs to guide his audience, if he wants them to understand the profound level at which the situation resonated within him. I guess this is where “shortcuts” to universal human experiences can come in handy. For instance, both your jetfighter shot and “only the clouds are truly free” in your article, use blue sky as a signal for freedom, happiness, carefree-ness. On its own, one might think of using blue sky as a way to trigger an emotion as a typical tool for an artist on the emotional side of the primary-mode-scale. However, I think neither shot would have worked with a bland grey sky; as it is, even with a blue sky, the jetfighter shot didn’t resonate with me, whereas “only the clouds” does, very strongly. So even within the context of an artist whose primary mode is on the reason end of the scale, using those “shortcuts” to universal human experiences – emotions- can be functional in communicating how a situation or an idea resonates within the artist, simply because there is less chance of the audience interpreting that type of “clue” in a different way than what you meant.

        *I could be all wrong with my characterization of you (after all, I’m no psychologist and I don’t know you personally, only through your blog); if that’s the case, I hope that the mechanism I described still makes sense 😉

        TL;DR: you think too much ;-P

        • “MT: In short: an instinctive, immediate response. That instinct may be precise or it may not be, depending on the creator – yes?”
          Yes – the precision and translation of that instinct depends on the creator’s skill.

          I think you’re now talking about instinctive response to something – and acting on that. Yes, most people don’t try to understand first, but respond immediately; I ask more than I respond, generally. Perhaps that is my ‘soul’ and rationality and order and deliberation are more natural to me than others. Like you, I too can’t see how you can do it any other way – this perhaps more than anything indicates that it really is an instinctive thing rather than a deliberately cold or emotionless choice of expression. This primary mode is at odds withs the audience and thus the result doesn’t resonate – makes perfect sense to me.

          Now we’re down to:
          Resonance with creator > emotion > instinct or rationality in output, quality of translation depending on skill > resonance (or not) with audience > soul (or not)

          “…since almost everyone (barring a few psychopaths and perhaps some autistic people) can relate to other people’s emotions”
          I’m marginally autistic (on the old scale, high functioning Asperger’s) which might explain some of this whole disconnect…my scale simply does not overlap, but I can’t see it any other way. It’s probably also why the human emotion portraits don’t resonate with me at all; unless it’s something incredibly strong, I just don’t see/feel it.

          “I guess this is where “shortcuts” to universal human experiences can come in handy.”
          Well, I try, but the irrationality/emotionality end of the scale means that logic doesn’t always take precedent – as you point out, the analogy I use in one image doesn’t necessarily work with others – even if it’s exactly the same. Context matters. But perhaps by the end of the article you’d already had some expectations of what that blue sky might mean, influenced by the words in the middle…

          Yes, I think too much. But if I didn’t, then I’d just be making snapshots, or nothing at all. Perhaps that’d be more soulful 😛

          • Perhaps that is my ‘soul’ and rationality and order and deliberation are more natural to me than others. Like you, I too can’t see how you can do it any other way – this perhaps more than anything indicates that it really is an instinctive thing rather than a deliberately cold or emotionless choice of expression. This primary mode is at odds withs the audience and thus the result doesn’t resonate – makes perfect sense to me.

            Cool! When I saw how long my piece became, I was slightly worried that it had become an incomprehensible mess, but I’m glad to see that it made sense at least to you 😉

            The autism / Asperger’s does indeed appear to explain the disconnect in soulfulness to a fair extent.

            As for me having read the words influencing my reading if the last shot: you’ve posted it before (more than once I think), and it has always been one of ny favorite shots of yours.

            Have you ever tried the kind of subconscious painting that some of Magritte’s surrealist contemporaries did? I wonder if you could shut off your consciousness at all. I find the paintings quite meaningless (unlike Magritte, who is my favorite painter out there), but I’m also one of those people who’s virtually always thinking thoughts… I wouldn’t know how to not think for a moment. Maybe I should try yoga some time… 😉

            • If there is only one immediately obvious solution, that’s definitely instinctive. If we find another one – or presentation or composition or interpretation – after thinking, then it’s rational/logical. I’m usually not thinking when I shoot – I just see it, and then capture it. I guess I have a logical instinct, if such a thing is possible…

              Subconscious painting – I suppose the photographic analog would just be randomly pointing the camera and not looking at the finder? If you count street photography from the hip, then yes; I got so good at it with the M8/21mm that previsualizing my frame at 28mm has become second nature; to the point I walk around with that frame line permanently projected across my field of vision 🙂 But painting, no. I can’t paint at all – unless you count making a mess redecorating. I too don’t see how you could shut off your consciousness; you’d be doodling without looking at the canvas, at best. Perhaps if you were distracted by something else at the time, though again I don’t see how it could be done.

  29. Your photographs have soul, great soul, so you can stop worrying about that IMO. As I am (so I am told) an expert in popular culture (music, film, esoterica, etc.), I believe I know something about the subject. It never occurred to me that your photographs lacked soul; just the opposite. That you feel you have to write about this topic is either sad or funny. Like myself, you like to write, so there you have it. I like to see you write about it, but I hope it is tongue-in-cheek. You photos are about as perfect as photos get. I can’t think of a better all-around photographer. Not to worry!

    • Barry Robbins says:

      First, I’ll try to say what I think your critics are responding to when they make the comments that you cite at the beginning of the article, based on my own response to your work. What almost always jumps out when I spend time looking at one of your images is how great a roll the near perfect and intentional composition plays in the visual impact of the image. But I don’t find that this awareness detracts at all from the visual impact. I would say that it is more a signature of your work and what makes your images almost immediately identifiable. (Maybe something like Heifetz’s vibrato.) To use the word “soul” or “cold” is to confuse what they are, probably without realizing it, really responding to—the technical and compositional precision of the image—with the actual impact of the image. Images don’t have soul, people do. But that is neither here nor there. It is the impact itself of the image that is important, and here I would take issue with what you and, frankly most other good photographers have to say about the goal they have of the “evoking of an emotion in the audience,” unless (1) you are somehow including intellectual curiosity in the realm of emotions and (2) your own intention goes beyond evoking an “emotion.” Take, for example, the last photo in the series you present here. Of all the photos this is the one that I find the most interesting. Why? Not because it is merely “visually” interesting or compositionally perfect, and certainly not because it causes me to “feel” something, but far more than that because it awakens my curiosity and invites an effort at thought. If you would like, I would be glad to try to explain (or at least explore) in detail the thinking that it gave rise to (if this effect was intentional on your part, then you already understand what the image is pointing toward), but for now I will just say that it awakened curiosity and invited thought in a way not dissimilar from a Rene Margritte painting.

      • “Images don’t have soul, people do.”
        Oooh. I think we’re on to something here: the ‘soul’ in an image is nothing more than the projection of the viewer, perhaps?

        “…unless (1) you are somehow including intellectual curiosity in the realm of emotions and (2) your own intention goes beyond evoking an “emotion.””
        Yes, I am: for somebody to feel curious about something, you have to care enough to ask the question ‘why’: and caring at all = emotion of some sort. If there’s no emotion at all, be it revulsion or love, then the image takes no place whatsoever in your mind, and it has no impact. Asking why is perhaps the strongest reflection of humanity – beyond the instinctive immediate emotion. It is what differentiates us from animals and drives us to create art in the first place – without this, a photograph cannot transcend the reactionary…

        The last image: I’ve always seen it as other anonymous Asian of billions, representing that particular cultural desire to escape to the west (note sign) but inability to do so (represented by the wall) but they can do so in their dreams/ideal world (clouds, blue sky). It’s lifeless and pale because there is no more energy left to leave. The elements included are deliberate, as is the Magritte-esque presentation; he is definitely one of my influences for the particular blend of aesthetics and philosophy/questioning contained in the images. Somebody else interpreted it as imprisonment and remorse, and another person as a metaphor for mental illness – both things I certainly hadn’t considered. So, it’d be curious to hear how you read it…

        • Barry Robbins says:

          Right now I’m on my way back to the states from St. Petersburg, but in the meantime I thought you would be amused by this. My wife and I are waiting for our next flight. I just showed her (she is a painter and poet, by the way) the photo and asked her what she thought. Almost immediately (she’s quite decisive) she said that it looked like Rene Margritte painted it.

    • Haha. I’m writing not to defend my position, but to further my understanding of human psychology – every member of the audience is a unique interpreter of an image, and seeing what works and why (or why not) often helps to better understand your own interpretation of the world, too. The deeper I get into this photographic rabbit hole, the clearer it is to me that once you pass a certain technical level with hardware and composition – it’s really about psychology and clarity of idea…

  30. Harris U. says:

    Hey Ming, love the courage and tenacity you have to tackle this elusive subject over the years. I’m going to offer a counterpoint from the many comments left here as I come from the camp that has has a hard time connecting to your photos—though I can technically understand your execution. Let me just say that I’m a HUGE fan of your writing, and I admire the technical exactness of your photography. Let me also say that many previous comments have it right by saying emotion in a photograph is down to the viewer not the photographer—so finding an answer to a critique of “lack of soul” can just be translated into finding the reason why a viewer says, “I don’t feel anything when I view this photograph.” In and of itself, the viewer statement is not a good or bad thing. It’s just a statement of fact of what the viewer perceives. The answer may or may not be worthwhile in your own pursuits. So with that in mind, here’s some context into my biases so you have a view into at least one person’s mind who does not connect as you would have them connect to your work.

    I enjoy Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic’s interpretation of Mahler 5 over Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony’s interpretation, Norbert Kraft over Segovia, T-Bone Walker over John Mayer, Joni Mitchell over the cornucopia of Pro-tool’d singer-songwriter recordings on Spotify. Visually, I far more gravitate towards wabi-sabi than I do mid-century modern; critical regionalism over modern. I prefer tension and movement over balance and stillness; imperfect over perfection. At first glance, you may read this paragraph and say I prefer old vs. new, but the truth is there are many artists today in music, architecture, and visual arts that I connect with and admire.

    In each one of the “less preferred” examples, technical execution if often flawless, but in each case my first reaction is, “It lacks soul,”—i.e. “I don’t connect with the work.” My answer to “why,” would be that in lacking flaws, it lacks the flaws of emotion. I don’t perceive the word with exactness. My vision is filtered by the patchwork way my mind stitches together visual input of life (as our human brain does), and sends it through interpretation before committing a distorted version into memory. My hearing is imperfect, and more so than anything, things heard triggers emotions that are affected by the accumulation of past experiences before also committing the impression to memory. So, there is nothing in my visual memory that is a flawless representation of a visual (or any other experiential) representation. Seeing or hearing an instance of flawlessness is not tied to any emotion for me.

    The answer to, “I don’t feel anything when I view this photograph,” is trying to answer why that particular photograph is not related to that viewer’s memory. It is not through any technical means of producing that particular photograph that gets you the answer to that question.

    Does any of this make your work or the work of any of the others cited above less valuable? Absolutely not, because as a group, the technically exact are artists striving to achieve a goal that requires effort, attention, persistence, and endurance. All of which can be admired. It may not be so useful to that endeavor to understand why people like me don’t resonate with those works, but rather to continue the pursuit of each artist’s own ideal. Cleary, in each of the cases above and in yours, there is a staunch set of admirers.

    • Thanks Harris. The only way we move forward is by asking the difficult questions and understand both ourselves, our audience and humans in general: photography is communication is psychology. You sum it up here:
      “…finding an answer to a critique of “lack of soul” can just be translated into finding the reason why a viewer says, “I don’t feel anything when I view this photograph.””

      That answer might not be relevant to an individual image or objective, but understanding how people think and why they think the way they do is nevertheless still important. It will always be impossible to please everybody – that’s never the objective; one just hopes to learn something in the meantime.

      Flaws of emotion: whilst that may be endearing, it can often weaken a work to those who are not already predisposed towards it. It’s certainly not an excuse for making mistakes, which is a dangerous possibility!

      It’s also possible that the creator doesn’t feel the same emotions as the audience – and we will encounter the same disconnect again. I think there’s soul and beauty in perfection, not imperfection, because I can appreciate the effort and dedication to get to that point – as you point out, it’s a different set of qualities to the ability to respond immediately and instinctively to something. I still think both would be ideal, but that would require us to be superhuman.

      What would be even more interesting is to figure out why those members of the audience to which my work doesn’t connect still come back here – that says to me that there’s something more going on at a level which they might not be fully conscious… 🙂

      • Harris U. says:

        “Flaws of emotion: whilst that may be endearing, it can often weaken a work to those who are not already predisposed towards it. It’s certainly not an excuse for making mistakes, which is a dangerous possibility!”

        I think you hit the fork right there, Ming. “Flaws of emotion…can often weaken a work” is the key in the matter to those striving for technical excellence. That same statement to those who value the flaws see a different kind of perfect in the imperfect. A gardener told me once that weeds are plants that grow where you don’t want them to grow. The flaws that some people see that need to be “fixed” is what makes certain aspects of a work beautiful.

        Frank here mentions Miles Davis. Looking at his music, in his era, he was known to play ahead of the beat. His contemporary, Benny Goodman played on the beat. Many thought musicians that it wasn’t technically precise—although it was quite intentional. Thelonious Monk was criticized by some in his day for his arrhythmic styling—chaos to many. Today, he’s considered one of jazz giants. “Flaws” and “mistakes” are things that do not align to technical order to many who strive for technical perfection. “Flaws” and “mistakes” are the *qualities* that are part of emotional connection to the other side—in that regard, they are not flaws nor are they mistakes, at all. So to understand those members of the audience, we would have to see why off the beat is more resonant and not seen as flaws or mistakes.

        You point to the admiration and emotional connection to the process in your reply. I can certainly appreciate that. Jackson Pollock’s art is 100% about the admiration of the process. The physical painting is the remainder and reminder of the process itself—which is really the actual artwork—expression in a brief passage of time. Artwork that requires the viewer to have background knowledge to appreciate the outcome is a different kind of art than artwork where the physical artifact itself is what resonates with the viewer. The former requires technical knowhow. The latter requires resonant emotion felt in a past experience.

        I don’t think the combination of both requires us to be superhuman, but rather a technical artist who captures the right moment in the right way where their process enhances that experience. It would be fun to find a piece such as that. I would agree, however, that it is scarce.

        You and a few friends who are post-production pro’s in the industry set the marker (for me) firmly on the far side of technical superiority. With most of their work, I have a hard time connecting with emotionally (and they’ve heard similar to what you hear as feedback)—though they are technically ‘perfectly’ executed.

        I can’t speak for others, but I come back here for your writing. Like I said years back, your blog is the singular corner of critical thinking in the vastness of internet photography writing. That holds immense value. This blog post and the conversations that have transpired in the comment section here is a testament to that unwavering drive to challenge and encourage lively discourse.

        • “The flaws that some people see that need to be “fixed” is what makes certain aspects of a work beautiful.”
          But the whole concept of beauty is subjective, no?

          “Monk was criticized by some in his day for his arrhythmic styling—chaos to many. Today, he’s considered one of jazz giants.”
          Yes, but it was deliberate and consistent. To him, that was control and perfection in his mind. In the same way, disorder may well be perfection – but how many can say that it was deliberately done in an image? Similarly, to some my use of order is not right either – but that’s perfection to me.

          There’s one more possibility here: I simply don’t show what people might consider ‘soulful’ because it resonates with them – there’s plenty I shoot for an audience of one, and that will stay that way for many reasons. External validation isn’t always required 🙂

          Ah, writing. One has to think to write: and one has to do to provoke thought, and without seeking a particular goal – you’ll never begin the doing or the thinking. Without my particular focus and style: the rest of this can’t exist, because I’d just press the button and never ask the questions 🙂

          • Harris U. says:

            Yes, yes! That’s the whole point. The whole concept of beauty is subjective, and those that produce art produces something of themselves in the artifacts. Those artifacts relate to a segment of the population due to their common qualities that triggers the re-experiencing of memories, thoughts, and emotions. The segment size of the population depends on the qualities/subject of the artwork. The subject of your article just points to significant non-overlap of segments with respect to your work and other segments sensibilities. 🙂

            I think in jazz improvisation, I would say deliberate and consistent is cultivated with experience. The reality is that getting there is trial, and experimentation with a lot of failure, tenacity, and *chance*— much like an photography. 😉 Much like the variety of music out there, the variety of what photographers do with images—chance or deliberation is what makes the medium rich. It’s all valid, but each one of us must filter so we have a point of view, and challenge ourselves so our point of view has a wider reach.

            Definitely looking forward to the future questions and discussions! 🙂

            • Harris U. says:

              As an aside, it’d be awesome to see what you come away with after the extensive response and dialogue of this article. Perhaps a follow-up article reflecting on it all down the road? 😉 😀

              • I’m writing it as we speak, actually. But I’ll let it sit for a couple of days to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

                • Harris U. says:

                  Awesome! Looking forward to it! I had assumed a couple of weeks, but a few days sounds great! 😀

                • Harris U. says:

                  Just a thought…given the response to your article from the community at large. It would be an interesting experiment to take an unprocessed photo that you see potential in, offer the raw file to the community and have the community here do their own cropping/post-processing and send back to you. A gallery can be created just to see the diversity of results. It would be interesting to see the distribution and if you have clusters of similar/dissimilar results and to see what the outliers look like as well. 🙂

                  • I don’t think that’s a useful exercise because you’d land up both restricting the audience to what you captured, i.e. your ‘spontaneous interpretation’ and only leaving latitude in PP which might not be compatible with their vision, or yours – it’s like trying to make dinner in a kitchen that isn’t your own; tools and ingredients might work or they might not, you might or might not have the imagination to work around it, or it might be a disaster.

            • I think we are looking at two very, narrowly overlapping circles 🙂

              Jazz: deliberation is the key here. So the break from expected pattern/rhythm is not an accident; the fact that it works is not an accident; the way we respond is almost certainly again not an accident. The same is true of photography. The idea of ‘soul by serendipity’ is really moot…at least not if it’s to be delivered consistently.

              • Harris U. says:

                Yes, that could be with the narrowly overlapping circles. I don’t have enough data to say one way or another (my day job is in the data and AI space, so I am forced to concede that in many discussions). 😉

                Perhaps we’re approaching the same idea from two different view points. As a jazz player, improvisation is experimentation and letting your musical voice flow. In the moment of improv, there is little calculation short of reaching for a musical phrase in a chord sequence. There is chance and serendipity on the rare occasion where you hit that sequence that is interesting that causes your band mates to all look up and say, “Nice!”. This often happens to the surprise of the player as well. I’ve experienced it myself when playing and have seeing the expression on bandmates when they are surprised by what came out of their playing. In this case, the experimentation is deliberate—be it any place in the gradient of straight-ahead to arrhythmic, melodic to atonal, or any place in between—or unexpected by the player or audience. The notes that follow can be construed as guided chance. When it works, it’s magical and the entire band can agree “that’s cool”—when it doesn’t, it’s just okay—and there are a lot more okay sessions than great sessions. (You see there arises again the subjective evaluation of a group of people with shared aesthetics.)

                The convergence of deliberation and chance can be philosophically debated depending on whether one argues the note selection is truly random or note—or is guided by the hours of woodshedding and surrounding music influences that gets the player to play what he or she does. Taken to the extreme, if we’re a culmination of that programming, isn’t the output predetermined (deliberate)? If that is so, is fate then the culmination of programming? You see, the divide between chance and deliberation is where the divider decided to drop the divide. I guess from my perspective, I place that divide far closer to the moment than to the programming—so, to me, chance is in the moment, where the act of experimentation is deliberate. You can see the squishiness in the definition as it applies to the topic. 😉

                By and large, I do believe the debate between chance and deliberation in photography is moot outside of the control of the studio. As almost all photography in the world at large is chance in time and space. We curate by firing the shutter release, then we apply post-production deliberately. The existence of chance in the workflow does not diminish the outcome at all, no? Whether it is that famous snap HCB took of a man jumping over a puddle with all its imperfections or the most precise and detailed work that is drawn out by a technical master—they all hold a place of relevancy the world of photographic arts.

                This all gets back to how we perceive the world and commit our sensory inputs to memory—which ties to emotional recall—and back to emotional response of to a photograph—if we are still talking about “soul” being emotional recall. The evaluation of the experience, whether visual arts, music, or culinary arts is only relevant to the one experiencing the art, as much as the producer of the work may desire it to be otherwise.

                • Okay: now we have something else coming into play: instinct. Primeval instinct – to do with self preservation etc. is probably a consequence of our genetics and ‘hard coded’ into every human. But is that the case with an instinctive understanding of what might sound right, look right? To be spontaneous – and consistently so (i.e. no obviously jarring wrong-sounding notes) in a way that breaks the rules implies that the player has to understand them at a much, much higher level: i.e. he is/was a technician, but has now transcended that to the point that the technical has become instinctive. Why can’t the same be true for photography?

                  I agree about it being all about chance outside the studio: which makes it that much harder to make a very precise frame, consistently. You have to be concentrating on the moment and all of the other contributing elements simultaneously, with the ability to adjust on the fly as the elements outside your control change dynamically. Imagining something and then building it with pieces under your control isn’t difficult; imagining something and then building it from pieces you find and can’t move is something else…

                  • Harris U. says:

                    Ah, now that’s interesting… instinct. Instinct is partially genetics, but it’s also learned responses to either repetition—any practiced endeavor—or learned response to a sufficiently negative outcome—for example, someone who has immediate aversion to the idea of sushi because they got sick from eating it the first time they had it. The ‘wrong notes’ example is a collectively learned response. Atonal music sounds horrible to most people, but for those that study it, there a beauty in its still mathematical precision. Most people would consider those works “noise” and “cacophony”—irregardless of the randomness or mastery of the technician. Improvisation in jazz was a learned response through the 20th century. The advent of it—even though early on it was melodic by today’s standards—was considered “noise” to the majority of population. Rock and roll, rap, hip hop, electronica all were considered “wrong” by the majority in their early days. Now people around the world don’t think twice about any of these genres being “wrong”. I would posit that instinct of what is “right” in art is a culturally learned response. Again, we come back to “wrong” being a relative concept—far from absolute. Instinctual judgement is cultivated by cultural upbringing.

                    As for why a photographer can’t transcend popular acceptance, I’d say that has happened repeatedly over the years—Robert Maplethorppe, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Man Ray to name a few. However, fine art does not always come about from mastery of convention prior to breaking the rules. Often times it comes from cultivating the concept so thoroughly that the artist refines his or her way of expressing it coherently. Friends who have struggled through their MFA to eventually find coherency in their concept later in their career shows not a mastery of technique, but a mastery of the coherent expression of their thesis/concept.

                    That last paragraph you write. Your focus on all those elements and the process you personally take with creation is the value your work brings to the body of work of the photographic arts. Perhaps it is not the pursuit of your understanding critics to expand your photographic skills that will advance your cause. Then again, perhaps that is the road for you to find that coherency in your own work. Whichever the case, the pursuit is worthy of admiration and respect. I look forward to seeing where it all goes. 🙂

                    • “However, fine art does not always come about from mastery of convention prior to breaking the rules. Often times it comes from cultivating the concept so thoroughly that the artist refines his or her way of expressing it coherently.”
                      Bingo: no question that’s probably the case. The idea or expression of the idea has to be clear enough that somebody whose imagination can’t complete the dots can still understand it. However: you still need to be good enough at your technique to be able to control the output to produce that clarity. Technique and mastery and art and expression are not separable: but at the pointy end of the business, not only does the former support the latter – but it becomes so instinctive that the creator doesn’t think about it. Note that ‘technique’ here refers to the method of producing the desired outcome reliably, deliberately and repeatably under the control of the creator: not playing around with hardware.

                      “Perhaps it is not the pursuit of your understanding critics to expand your photographic skills that will advance your cause. Then again, perhaps that is the road for you to find that coherency in your own work.”
                      It won’t. I’m doing this because I want to understand people better – after all, photography is communication which is about psychological response; if you don’t understand that, the rest is somewhat moot.

                    • Harris U. says:

                      Fair enough, Ming. I’d agree that often achieving coherent art requires mastery at whatever technique you’ve cultivated—conventional or unconventional.

                      I do wonder when we say that we take a photo for ourselves and we are indifferent to others’ response to it, whether communication is the intent. Or, if communication is still the intent, perhaps we are not indifferent to others’ response to it. Regardless, the endeavor is worthwhile.

                    • A bit of both, I think. The image has to appeal to the creator first and foremost – assuming of course it wasn’t shot for a client…

                  • Harris U. says:

                    As I’m continuing to read the comments that keep flowing on this topic, I get a sense that your perspective of the world is quite clear and is repeatedly stated in so many of the threads on this posting. However, the repeated articulation of your position doesn’t expand on the exploration of understanding human psychology—if that is still your main goal. Many have posted thoughts diverging from your position, but often to have them countered by your desire for precision, control, and rationality. Could it be in doing so you are engaging in strong commitment bias, rather than inquisitive, open exploration the topic that you had set out to understand?

                    There is such richness in so many of the commenters here that it seems like a missed opportunity to not push past the statement of your own view of the world to accomplish your stated goal of understanding that which you don’t understand—no matter how messy, irrational, or imprecise the answers may turn out to be.

                    • Good point. I think it’s very easy to fall into that commitment bias as you say, but look closely again at the comments: many are saying my lack of soul is because of XYZ, or it’s missing – to that particular audience – in my images. Note that these are not general statements, though I suppose one could infer the personal position of the writer in reverse. I’ll defend my position, but certainly open discussion where the comment is supportive of it. Asking differing questions has been done and is useful to figure out the boundaries of the position of the audience. However, it’s only useful if the other party can see that process too.

                      I know this whole paragraph may not make a lot of sense, but it’s analogous to the arguments of ‘it doesn’t do anything for me because I don’t like it’ – from which you can infer the position, openness and sophistication of the audience indirectly – from vs ‘I can see why you do it, but it doesn’t resonate for most audiences because of emotion empathy etc.’ which is also a direct statement of position, but one that allows for other possibilities. 🙂

                    • Harris U. says:

                      It’s definitely not an easy endeavor to explore the thesis you’ve pushed forth when your own images are when your own images are the discussion pivot point. To those that state, “It doesn’t do anything for me because I don’t like it,” the question could be posed, “What is it about the image that you don’t like?” In reality, there seem to be few here that outright don’t like the images you’ve taken. To the contrary, many seem to respect the body of work, whether it emotionally resonates with them or not. In all the cases, if you’re to take the position of the researcher, is it not the researcher’s responsibility to ask the follow-up questions to unpack what’s behind the immediate response—regardless of the nature of the response?

                      This reminds me of when I was working in the creative agency world. I never allowed my staff to say, “I don’t like it, but I’ll know it when I see it,” as it was our job to be articulate and get to the root of of a reaction—whether it was our own or from a client. This was so we could convey articulately the direction of revisions to the creative team members. With clients who were not articulate, it took patience and persistence to hold back our own reactions and push past the (at times) emotional expressions to get to the root.

                      While the characterization of the thread responses could be varied with respect to position, openness, and sophistication—the one thing is for sure, you’ve got one of the most well-behaved, thoughtful, and respectful audiences on the internet that converge here. That says a lot for that audience—but more so in what you do to draw them here. 🙂

                    • Point taken, and in all fairness to the audience, a lot of them have clearly articulated what they don’t like: which ultimately boiled down to personal preferences and subject bias in a lot of cases. This is not surprising. And it wouldn’t really be fair for me to cite others’ images, as I wouldn’t be able to fully explain or understand them – so we’re stuck with a dual bias (mine included).

                      I like to think the tomato-throwing part of the gallery left when I stopped reviewing cameras 🙂

                      In all seriousness though, this has been probably the most intellectually involving thread on this site ever, which is saying something. We’re at 290 very well thought out comments at this point and still going strong…once things quiet down I’ll archive it and make it available somewhere – it’s certainly very interesting reading for anybody trying to figure out emotional response to photography.

  31. It is easier to capture the soul of the subject in an image than trying to put a soul into an image. Amongst the images of Miles Davis blowing the horn, one can find if one is familiar with his music, his essence in it. That image would draw you into him without you even thinking about technicals and composition because they no longer are relevant.

    • That’s a copout, to some degree: it’s saying you can’t make an image with emotion if the subject is emotionless or the audience doesn’t connect with the subject themselves.

      The technicals and composition DO matter. If you present and overexposed, completely out of focus and blurry image of the lower half of his body with no way to tell that it was Miles Davis, I think it wouldn’t work 🙂 They matter less because the subject is strong enough to carry the rest of the image, and only become irrelevant past a certain point where any shortfalls are no longer distracting.

      • This is where a targetted audience is required say at an exhibition or the audience know what it entails. When viewers are captured by the soulfulness of an image, why should technicals or composition be of concern. Enjoying music does not mean one has to know how to play a musical instrument much as appreciating art does not requires one to know how to paint …. 😉

        • Agreed. But your musician or painter must be good enough the their limitations aren’t also limiting the work by distracting the audience with their unintended mistakes…

  32. soul? It’s the unexplainable fall in love at first glance and the gut wrenching sadness of when it’s lost, the split second heart felt empathic glance of someone pushing themselves in a wheelchair up hill, the ugly stench of child labor, lost of a loved one or the many-sweetnesses of the mystery of life. You know it when you see it, when you feel it, when you smell. its the magic of some to bring to life with words or paint or a push of a shutter. its each own version of the truth and it’s why we are in search of the unexplainable. photographically, for me it’s the perfection of imperfection, not explicitly expressed digitally versus film, B&W versus color, and why we care about life and always carry a camera….thank you for the opportunity to contribute my thoughts. Daniel Stern

    • So…soul isn’t happy, and it has to be film and monochrome? Hmmm…surely it can span both sides of the emotional bridge, and the subject/composition has to be independent of the medium…

  33. Very interesting post, Ming. I have been fascinated by your images ever since I stumbled upon then – essentially when you first started your blog. I consider the blog itself as the preeminent musings on photography currently, bar none. That might in fact be the clue here – if I had to describe your approach to photography in one word, I’d say it’s “analytical”. If, for the sake of argument, we consider clinical to be the opposite of passionate, one sees why your images might come across as lacking soul. I suppose this perception-as-a-process might hold even at a subconscious level. Ergo, soulless.

    The other hypothesis I have is that in your images people are essentially building blocks. A huge proportion of your images – the majority perhaps – don’t have people that are not faceless. Even when you do see their faces, it almost seems like the expressions and the people behind them represent abstract concepts, not personalities. If souls are the ultimate ideal of individuality – I’m not using the word humanity because I was thinking of Nick Brandt’s animal portraiture – then your photography is soulless.

    But I also think my own explanation to be quite unsatisfactory. Can we say that a good poem – vivid imagery and all – has soul, while a mathematical equation doesn’t? Even among painters, nobody can deny that El Greco’s work is soulful. But what about Klimt? No overt passion, generally speaking, but hypnotic nonetheless. What is it that attracts if not the soul?

    • Thanks. I don’t think analysis and passion are at odds, though: think of it as adding direction to impetus 🙂

      “The other hypothesis I have is that in your images people are essentially building blocks. A huge proportion of your images – the majority perhaps – don’t have people that are not faceless. Even when you do see their faces, it almost seems like the expressions and the people behind them represent abstract concepts, not personalities.”
      That’s true, and deliberate for many reasons (not wanting the viewer to fixate on the specific person, but the idea of the individual, for instance, or model rights etc. in a commercial sense) – but I just can’t help but think that ‘lacking faces’ is a little weak, no?

      As for the mathematical equation, not all of them do. But some are so elegant and masterful that they’re certainly more than pure logic – maybe this is the catch: you need to be able to understand it in order to see that, though. And the threshold for entry may be rather high… 🙂

      • You’re exactly right. I think yours fall into the category of images whose attraction increases the more you think about them. I’m not sure if “seeing with the mind’s eyes” is the correct phrase, but that’s as close as is coming to me right now. The distinctiveness of your photos go much beyond the mere style – which latter too is distinctive, of course. There’s almost a subliminal element. Whatever it is, do keep it up and keep sharing.

  34. Best comments section ever – not sure we’re any closer to a definitive answer, but the topic really lends itself to hearing lots of different points of view.

    • I agree. This is by far the most interesting and involved discussion I’ve seen here for as long time – and we’ve even surpassed some of the reviews in quantity! 🙂

      There won’t be a definitive answer, but we always knew that. The real value is in trying to decipher what most people think soul is in their own minds; there are few visual properties that are talked about with such frequency but such a lack of common understanding of definition.

      • Indeed. I’d go as far as to say it’s lazy to use such a subjective term when critiquing someone else’s work, It’s certainly not constructive.

        Personally, I think “soul” in this case has a lot more to do with technical execution and even post-processing (and personal preference when it comes to both) than many people think. It would be really interesting to see alternate versions of the above examples shot at the same time but in a different style – focal lengths that draw more attention to themselves, blurriness in place of critical sharpness, less careful framing, saturated colours, blocked up blacks, grain – and rated compared to the originals. Would a simple change in presentation be enough to alter people’s perceptions of the exact same subjects? I honestly think that it might.

        • Now we’re talking about instant gratification: that ‘gritty B&W’ or ‘pop color’ style is often attractive at first glance because it differs so much from reality, but doesn’t sustain attention because it obfuscates the details that encourage further viewing and contemplation…

  35. robvankoesveld says:

    MT, an intriguing topic. I think many of your images require more work by the viewer. They are subtle and nuanced and many of your portraits and person-in-place images portray aspects of the human experience that are to do with all the tones of human life found beyond and between the sentimental. I suspect you would have no trouble making simple ‘soul full’ images if you chose but it would bore you. Instead you explore richer but more demanding pastures.
    The web is home to many images that can be consumed in a ‘nano-glimpse’ and quickly earn a ‘like’. Little surprise if images requiring more from them are uncomfortable for some viewers.
    I also think that the idea of ‘too technical’ is as lazy as ‘soulless’. MT is concerned about the technical so I label my discomfort that way.
    I think here of watching people in a great gallery. There are the visitors who just don’t get some works and make no effort to work at changing that. Others are content to snap a photo of familiar works. Others have they favourites and savour them. Twice recently I have found myself crying alongside a stranger as we viewed a work. Both times a work full of nuanced seeing of life but not one I would have called ‘soulful’.
    It is perhaps possible that you want to push your own work further still but I am not sure your critics ideas of ‘soul’ will be much help. R

    • Thanks Robert. Depends on the audience’s expectation of ‘more soulful’ – which is the crux of what we’re trying to understand 🙂

      I’m concerned about having the mastery of my visual language and tools so that I can say precisely what I want – for the same reason I’m obsessed about clarity and transparency, I’m also obsessed about the order in which our subconscious visual cortex reads images and things like subject isolation and balance. They’re all various items in the construction kit; we don’t always need them all, but we do need to know what’s best to use for each given idea we want to build and translate.

      The gallery analogy is an interesting one: the more subtle and nuanced a work gets, the more effort it requires on the part of the audience. We get out what we put in. To some extent the great ideal is the image that arrests at a glance – i.e. has very strong macro-structure – but keeps you hooked because there’s depth, subtlety and immersiveness. Wimmelbild-plus, if you will. Do I want to take my images further? Absolutely. Understanding one’s critics – and as much of the audience as possible – contributes another piece to the puzzle of understanding human reaction to images, which in turn helps with making them. Of course, the returns get smaller and smaller – as with everything else – but onwards and upwards!

      • robvankoesveld says:

        What an interesting discussion overall.

        I wonder if the plus in your Wimmelbild-plus is to do with the image more deeply engaging the viewer’s own associations (psychological, personal, existential …) and also the viewers deeper reflection. This sort of association is not sentimental or stereotypical and if universal or archetypical not tritely so.

        So then the ideal (for me) becomes; arrests at a glance; rewards engagement with layers, additional re-inforcing elements, subtlety, nuance and immersiveness; triggers responses of reverie, musing, personal association and searching.

        For me your fifth image triggers the sort of reverie I mean. I sort of fall into the eyes and gesture of the doctor. The ambiguity stops me going straight to tropes like ‘dedication’ or ‘high pressure” and think more about his humanity and individuality and the complexity of medical decision making.

        I really like your framing as ‘great ideal’. Approximating that (for me) probably requires some luck in stumbling on the subject(s), lots of technical skills and some sort of individual attunement on the part of the photographer. I think that personal attunement; being in the right mental/emotional state; needs to be there in both capture and processing. R

        • The ‘plus’ – at least my intention of it – is the gross structure that draws you in at first; it’s the wimmelbild that keeps you looking and thinking. Analogous to your idea. In practice, it’s almost impossible to do consistently though – so much is outside your control.

          “I think that personal attunement; being in the right mental/emotional state; needs to be there in both capture and processing.”
          Definitely: it’s the ‘feeling inspired’ bit or ‘being in the zone’ vs: ‘not again, it’s a job’. I wish there was a formal to finding inspiration; there isn’t. Some days it’s one thing, some days it’s another. The same subject (or photograph, for that matter) on one day may well not do it for you the next – so much fickle variation in our own personalities…

  36. I think the thing people refer to as “soul” in an image is that hard to explain element that makes it *interesting*.

    However, I don’t think it’s impossible to explain. I’ve given this a fair amount of thought, and I think the best way to explain it is as the… weird and/or unexpected, in an appealing way(basically, something that fits the image and also makes it memorable, makes it stand out from everything else similar that has been made, elevates the image above the seemingly purely utilitarian, as many of your images included here are). Something that really makes the image click. Many of the images you included (and the vast majority of the images anyone makes – including the historical greats, mind you) lack that thing. They’re technically competent, but they lack the element of… slightly weird, off-kilter, memorable, interesting. However, I’d say you’ve made a fairly large amount of the images I’m referring to as well, but you seldom include them in photoessays or anything like that (I don’t know if you don’t include them because you just don’t like images like that much and don’t think much of them, or because of insecurity either in front of yourself or your audience, or because of other reasons), but you usually include at least a few in most of the random articles you write. Obviously, as you pointed out, this speaks more of me, in that this is what I look for in images and whatnot, but if you really want to know what people refer to when they say your images lack soul, I think it can mostly be summed up with this.

    Also, I think this is a thing that stands somewhat separate from the storytelling of an image, what the image “says to me”… I mean the storytelling is sort of a part of it, but the weird can be a separate-standing thing as well. In some sense, it’s less about what ideas or concepts (or whatever else) are being conveyed, and more about *how*. It’s far easier to convey ideas and concepts via text, if it’s easily explained, I think one of the many functions of artworks is basically to… show what something is or what something could be or how something could be done or how one can live or whatever else, that is difficult to adequately explain with words (though this is a somewhat separate matter from the “soul” of an image, but I wanted to go into this as well), which is not to say that it should be conceptually incomprehensible, but more that whilst you can frame things with words, the thing you want to say or show or whatever is not possible to explain with *just* words. That is a more general problem I have with purely conceptual art that is more about the idea and less about how the idea is *actually* conveyed (again, a more general subject and has limited bearing on you or what you’ve written on this article, I only bring this up, because you seem to have a differing view of what art is and it would be interesting/fun to see your response that either disagrees or agrees with me).

    In the grand scheme of things, though, it doesn’t really matter – if you want to do something, in regards to pictures, then that is what you should do, and continue doing. Eventually you will either find an audience who really loves that or you won’t – but in the end you’ll still have made a bunch of works that you, yourself are satisfied with. Over time we all move in the direction we want to, whether we do it delibirately, or not, at least in regards to this specific matter, mostly because we get easily bored of doing the same thing over and over again and we start to explore more opportunities of how we can make similar things but in a more interesting way. Actually, in regards to this, I’d also like to point out that it’s difficult to go through this specific process, if you make a lot of very different images and have *too* much variation (too much in the sense, that it makes harder to garner any significant personal growth – not necessarily saying that’s the case with you here, but something to watch out – to anyone – nonetheless), though obviously on the other end of the spectrum, too little variation will essentially leave limited room to grow into as well, so it’s a question of finding some sort of balance, obviously, but I have to point this out mostly because in an earlier comment in this comments section you specifically brought out that you make a large variation of differing work. I think the sweet spot, so to speak, is to find two or three (preferrably two, I’d say) genres of things that you work on, you have enough room to make yourself learn from each of them and apply the ideas to the other ones, whilst also having sufficient obstacles to have to apply creative approaches to you getting bored of what you’ve already made (and getting bored, in that sense, is a very useful tool, in that it’s a great motivator to try and find approaches to doing the same thing that are… interesting, I guess you could say).

    Mind you I don’t necessarily think I’m entirely right about any of this, but I think it’s worth thinking about regardless.

    • Clarification: by utilitarian I don’t just mean commercial photography(utilitarian in the most literal sense), but I’m talking more about the approach to making a picture – what does the picture need to look like to convey this emotion, to have this feeling? Basically starting from the end and working backwards.

      Whilst this is (or can always be, at least) a part of the picture-making process, it isn’t *all* (or even most) of it. For something that one would think has “soul”, it also needs that… serendipity, unexpected, weird thing, even if it doesn’t make a huge difference at first glance, it makes a massive difference to the staying power of the image. Mind you, this is impossible to plan for, more that you have to create a frame of mind and if possible, environment where something like this *can* happen, and thus you increase the likelyhood of it happening. Also, even then, it’s hard to say which images have that and which don’t, not until after months or even years of reflection of it. Maybe the images you included do that for you, but other than the cloud-wall-people one, the images you included don’t have anything that would have that effect on me (but even that one isn’t the one that has had the effect on me the most from all the pictures you’ve included in your articles and whatnot over the years).

      And another thing I didn’t touch upon before – colour. The colours from modern CMOS sensor cameras often do come out quite sterile and it is really, really hard to make them feel… alive, I suppose, even when you turn up the saturation and whatnot, they more often than not just look sort of… dead, to me (though you do an admirable job of trying to circumvent it, but I seldom see a good execution of that from anyone), so that might have something to do with the lack of “soul” thing as well (also, you mentioned high contrast low key black and white – CMOS seems to have fewer issues with B&W looks, in that it isn’t hard to get good looking – which is to say, not sterile – output for B&W). Olympus does an excellent job (compared to anyone else on the market, that is) in giving one a good file to work with, in that the colours just seem to move in a nice direction when you process the raw file (I don’t care about the initial look, I care more about how the file responds to my movements), and of course the older CCD sensor bodies from various manufacturers (Leica M8/9 being a personal favourite, but I’ve always liked the output from the various old Pentaxes and Nikons as well), but I’ve still not seen anything consistently solid in terms of colour (for my personal tastes, of course) from anyone shooting with modern CMOS cameras, which is not to say that it doesn’t happen at all, but it’s just less frequent. Case in point – your CFV-39 output, to me at least, was miles better compared current stuff, in regards to colour (though, again, you do a better job of making the CMOS colours work than most various photographers I see). But this bit is probably off-topic and I guess mostly a rant because I see the world moving in the CMOS direction and away from CCD as well as film, so the future for me is potentially kind of bleak in this regard, and I’m surprised so few people are bothered by this, or if a decent amount of them are, that so few articulate this specific point.

      • Commercial work: agreed.

        Objective-based and idea-driven: not so much; it could be we just aren’t that good at execution.

        “The colours from modern CMOS sensor cameras often do come out quite sterile and it is really, really hard to make them feel… alive, I suppose, even when you turn up the saturation and whatnot”
        I think it’s because the sensors respond very differently to our eyes. I’ve written about this before here, and color and emotion and using this to alter the mood of an image; it’s not a lot of work, but one needs to understand a bit of physiology and psychology to do it effectively. More saturation is almost never the solution – it just draws further attention to the differences.

        CCDs are not linear, and have limited dynamic range. CMOS is linear, and lands up looking flat if that extra dynamic range isn’t used properly. Note that the output matters, too: I have no idea how you’re viewing the images. But on my monitor and in the prints I make from the current crop of cameras are much more natural and matching my recollection of the scene than the CCD stuff, which tends to actually be more skewed and romanticised. They annoyed me because nothing was accurate: tones tended to shift much warmer and redder than reality, and that output didn’t match my vision at all. But because of limited latitude in the sensors, I couldn’t do anything about it without incurring massive image quality penalties (usually noise, sometimes also banding and strange green-magenta shifts). The usage envelope was also very, very limited – basically, daylight or tripod. A lot of the more interesting images cannot be made under these conditions. This may be part of the why; the rest of it might be simply because people cannot see the difference, aren’t consistent enough in their technique to see the difference, don’t care, or simply don’t know how to manage color…

        • In regards to CMOS vs CCD colour, in that sense, sure, fundamentally it is and will always be a matter of preference, in that I *prefer* the romanticised look, in that I don’t necessarily care about accuracy for most of my work, I want it to *feel* natural or nice to me. And yes, I’ve read those articles as well(I’ve read basically most if not all of your articles, fairly long time reader). My main issue isn’t necessarily with that or the processing, it’s that even if I do it to the best of my abilities (or those of someone else, who I’d otherwise consider an excellent photographer, who for instance used to put out excellent colour work, and after switching to CMOS digital, the colour output of their work changed noticeably and for the worse, to me, at least), 90% of the time, it just doesn’t have a feel to the colours, or more specifically, the feel that I enjoy or look for out of colour work, beyond everything else that goes into constructing an image. And this is after years of almost exclusively concentrating on colour and the processing thereof for my own work, and trying my best (which, arguably, is pretty good given the amount of time and energy I’ve put into it, into trying to get what I want) to get digital CMOS output to match what I want, with fairly limited success. At this point I get more success than I used to, but it’s still rare that I get any colours that I enjoy as much as I enjoy CCD out put let alone film output (I mainly shoot film for this reason[to be fair, my film scans come to me through a CCD sensor as well]), and this is after having tried a lot of different cameras from a lot of different manufacturers (some have obviously been better than others in this regard, Olympus being the standout, and to a lesser degree, Leica CMOS sensor bodies, though even those weren’t brilliant), and putting many, many hours into trying to get good output, but no matter how good it gets, it’s never anywhere near what I’d like, and when it comes close, it’s still inferior to what I would have otherwise gotten.

          Again, this is, in some sense, an issue about utilitarianism as well, in that to me, the colours *are* the main subject in any colour image(especially my own, I consider myself a colour photographer more than anything else/more specific), first and foremost, rather than tools to be used for conveying something else, and if I can’t get them to feel good to me(basically, not just serviceable/functional, but enjoyable in and of themselves), then it’s absolutely maddening. I always keep an eye out for reviews of new cameras and look at the output images and if possible, try and play with the RAW files, because I hope to one day see a camera that can give me the kind of output I want out of CMOS, but thus far… nothing. Some are better than others, but still inferior to what I’ve gotten from CCD and what I currently get from film. Now, this wouldn’t matter, if CCD wasn’t almost completely phased out at this point (older cameras are an option, but over time there will be fewer left[and thus will get more expensive] and they’ll either be unserviceable or extremely expensive to service) and if film wasn’t on it’s way out/getting progressively more expensive.

          I view my images both in print (from wetlab prints to high-end inkjet prints) and on various monitors. The difference is visible basically everywhere.

          But like I said before, this was essentially an off-topic rant, so um… sorry for wasting your time, I suppose. 😀

          • Understood. But the difference is just one of tonal response: CCDs have denser shadows, and a non-linear highlight curve – but less overall DR. You could choose not to use the extra DR and simply clip it off, to let your shadows go black earlier – and I think I’d be able to get you pretty close; trouble is, I don’t want to lose information that might contribute to the impression of transparency if I can help it otherwise 🙂

            Leica CMOS: does terribly with skin tones under tungsten/incandescent light. It isn’t the same red-orange shift as film; it’s more magenta and digital/hard caused by one channel clipping.

            There may be one more difference: you need to ETTR for all CMOS sensors and adjust exposure afterwards to make them behave tonally like CCDs; CCDs are exposed to final brightness at the time of capture.

            Your viewing of your own images in print and on monitor from both sensor types is constrained by your workflow; I’m not sure you can make the same conclusion about the work of every other photographer if you’ve not seen their work in print (I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen any of mine, for instance).

            • Actually, I’ve considered all of the things you listed and experimented with everything you’ve mentioned (and indeed, continue to experiment… I haven’t given up yet), still looks weird to me. Like I said, I’ve gotten close, but something always looks just a bit off to me. Of course, I’m well aware that this may very well be a me-specific issue and that noone else seems to be bothered by this within my work (or anyone elses’ for that matter, at least as far as I’ve noticed).

              And yes, I have not seen your images in print. But I *have* seen a lot of different images in print made with a lot of different cameras with a lot of different workflows. But yeah, fair enough, I can’t make a fully accurate statement about someones’ work with one camera being better than with another without seeing the print, except that I have at least some idea of how an image translates from what I see on my screen, to a print, and based on some experience in viewing various prints (my own and from various photographers, made with various cameras, though not for the purposes of testing, but just printing the ones I wanted to print the most and presumably the others did the same), I do at least get an inkling of what it would be like in print. I’m not even saying one is unbearably bad, or anything near that, of course, just less… enjoyable to look at than the other, to me, that is, and this difference translates fairly directly from screen to print (though to be fair, in print, the issue is slightly diminished on some works, but still noticeable to me). Like I said, it is probably mostly a me-thing, but I just can’t help but notice it and rant about it.

              • Legitimate questions often start off with a ‘me-thing’ observation. I think it’s perfectly valid; since the whole exercise is subjective anyway, if it doesn’t work for you – then it doesn’t work, and it’s important you figure out why (and if there’s a solution). I do exactly the same…

                • Well, yes, I agree, that’s how problemsolving works on a fundamental level. Only problem is that, at this point, I just don’t think there is necessarily a truly satisfactory solution to me here, which is why I call these things rants, rather than thoughts upon which to build discussion on. (Still would love to be proven wrong on this, would make my future a lot more secure and a lot less expensive, but I don’t think I will be… but there’s still hope)

    • “I think the best way to explain it is as the… weird and/or unexpected, in an appealing way(basically, something that fits the image and also makes it memorable, makes it stand out from everything else similar that has been made, elevates the image above the seemingly purely utilitarian, as many of your images included here are).”
      Hmm, I think that’s the serendipity that makes an image a ‘5’ – not necessarily soul.

      “I don’t know if you don’t include them because you just don’t like images like that much and don’t think much of them, or because of insecurity either in front of yourself or your audience, or because of other reasons”
      I’m not 100% sure which images you’re referring to, but if they’re the type described by the previous article referenced above – they generally don’t flow together as a series – if they do I include them, but you can’t really present a disjoined set, either. That’s poor curation…

      “That is a more general problem I have with purely conceptual art that is more about the idea and less about how the idea is *actually* conveyed”
      And here we come back to the disconnect between craftsmanship and artistry: you must be a good craftsman to be a good artist, but not necessarily the reverse. Something gets lost in the translation otherwise – the creator’s toolkit isn’t complete, or the vocabulary isn’t mature (pick your preferred interpretation).

      To your final paragraph: absolutely agreed. You still have to do some experimentation to find out what that direction is, but there’s no way one can develop by trying to be what somebody else wants you to be. Thanks for the detailed thoughts! 🙂

      • ” Hmm, I think that’s the serendipity that makes an image a ‘5’ – not necessarily soul.”

        Yeah, you did sort of touch on this matter, I forgot, my bad. Though in retrospect I think I worded myself badly, I meant beyond that, something weird or odd or off-kilter that transforms the image, that makes it truly transcend or stand out, what elevates an image from solid to holy shit I can’t get enough of this image, or something along those lines. A certain je ne sais quoi, as one might say. Hard to bring an example to this, because everyones tastes will be somewhat different (in that sense, if the images you included here or whatever images you consider your own best do that for you, then my point is essentially redundant anyway, but I’m assuming that the reason you are engaging your myriad of readers on this subject is because you are as unsure as we are about what makes a truly great image), basically pick your favourite image or series or book or whatever from your favourite photographer, and think about how those images make you feel, and truly try to understand why, not just on the most pragmatic level, but also on a personal level, think about why you like specifically those kinds of images, why do they move *you* specifically.

        In regards to my point in the brackets, personally, I don’t think it’s any one thing, but rather a confluence of things within the image and also the context that said image is placed within, in that an image that works is more than the sum of it’s parts or it’s abstracted components, basically, more than the 4 (or 5) components you’ve mentioned, but rather, any number of those components can work in some context, in some specific shape or form (but wouldn’t work in another form, despite still being present), it is somewhat difficult to accurately predict what will do it for people and what won’t, the only way to know is to make an image and present it, and see how people respond, all you can really do is just increase the likelyhood of it happening, by basically trying to understand what works and how, basically by trying to get something of a feel for it(whether by trying to articulate and thus consciously understand it or just through practice[not necessarily 100% one or the other, but rather just an approach where the majority of the time is spent on doing one or the other, think 10-90% to 30-70% or something along those lines], or a combination of the two[think more balanced, like 40-60% to 50-50%]), but I don’t think one can ever completely understand this or quantify this (by which I mean, having fairly accurate predictive powers as to what will work and what won’t – if that were possible, there would be a fair amount of enthusiast photographers out there [by which I mean someone who really loves making pictures and wants to make good ones and spends a lot of time thinking about this and doing their best to get better] who only make great images and basically never take pictures that they don’t like), simply because of the total number of variables involved, and more to the point, how those variables interact with eachother, making it essentially exponentially more complicated. Basically, the main commonality amongst history’s greatest artists, the way made their iconic works was by making an absolutely ridiculous amount of works, and a small amount of them turned out to be so great that we know of them and remember them and enjoy them literally centuries later. Or, in other words, they had a love for their craft/art(**WARNING: LONG OFF-TOPIC TANGENT** call it what you will, I don’t think one should necessarily be considered a separate thing from the other, but that’s another conversation, basically my point is that they’re different… extreme-ish ends of the same spectrum of creating stuff, and that one can and oftentimes does get to one end from the other, or at least significantly touches upon one even when starting at the other end, provided they have enough love for what they do, that they will continue doing it, and thus develop as an artist/craftsman – think, for instance, mechanical watches, in that they aren’t purely utilitarian timepieces, someone made them, because they like making mechanical watches, or just mechanical objects, and I’d wager many of the design choices are because someone just wanted them to have that specific sort of feel or function, beyond just the utilitarian means [from a purely utilitarian perspective, a quartz watch is just flat out better for just about anything], but also, what kind of a watch do I want to make… or let’s take cameras, let’s say Leica M bodies[same argument could be made for any body, which I think supports my point even further, but I just like this example, because many people have expressed love for this particular design, including me], it is not just an utilitarian tool, but rather, a tool that was made to feel right to someone, because they had an idea of what a camera should be, what they wanted it to be, rather than what it had to be, even during it’s time, but even more so nowadays, in that it’s a statement from the people who build them, that this is what we think a kind of a camera should be and thus is, it is as much a craft as it is a statement of sorts, and for similar reasons, many people love those bodies **END OF OFF-TOPIC TANGENT**). Perhaps basically getting an image that clicks in this way is what constitutes as “soul” for people. Personally I prefer the word “feeling” to “soul” for this, but that’s a question of semantics.

        I’m probably stating the obvious here, but I’ll leave the paragraph in, just in case.

        “I’m not 100% sure which images you’re referring to, but if they’re the type described by the previous article referenced above – they generally don’t flow together as a series – if they do I include them, but you can’t really present a disjoined set, either. That’s poor curation…”

        Well, you’ve posted them here and there over hundreds of articles and reviews, and most of them were sort of.. one off pictures that could’ve been in a series about something or other, though not necessarily parts series you’ve posted. I guess what I really wanted to perhaps say is that it might help to work on a much longer term (think years… or even decades) series that would basically only consist of extremely strong images that have the aformentioned 5 elements plus the… “I don’t know what” that I referred to, centered around a common “theme”(whether it is a conceptual theme or something more down to earth, it doesn’t matter that much, I don’t think), assuming you aren’t working on stuff like that already.

        • “…pick your favourite image or series or book or whatever from your favourite photographer, and think about how those images make you feel, and truly try to understand why, not just on the most pragmatic level, but also on a personal level, think about why you like specifically those kinds of images, why do they move *you* specifically.”
          And that is a move towards defining one’s own emotional biases, and personal definition of ‘soul’:

          Experience > preference > bias > emotion > reflection/resonance > ‘soul’

          “…who only make great images and basically never take pictures that they don’t like), simply because of the total number of variables involved, and more to the point, how those variables interact with eachother, making it essentially exponentially more complicated.”
          But why would you make an image you yourself do not like? Or show/keep it? That makes no sense to me.

          “Basically, the main commonality amongst history’s greatest artists, the way made their iconic works was by making an absolutely ridiculous amount of works, and a small amount of them turned out to be so great that we know of them and remember them and enjoy them literally centuries later.”
          Not quite. There was luck involved too, and a whole lot of ‘not popular in their time because people didn’t understand something that different or had to have some time to get used to it’ – think impressionism, for example.

          “Or, in other words, they had a love for their craft/art”
          YES. I think it’s more of this than the previous: they did what they wanted to do, to the best level they were able – and that underlying driving emotion is what got translated in it. A few people ‘got it’, some of whom were influential, and the rest of us follow. Do most people know why famous artworks are famous? Do they actually get touched by them to a degree that justifies their renown, price and reverence? No. Do those same people consciously know what touches them and defines ‘soul’? I doubt it, because few will confidently say ‘Mona Lisa does nothing for me’; fewer ‘Mona Lisa does nothing for me because of XYZ’.

          Mechanical watches: I don’t think that craftsman and desire argument can be made to any product below the level of the independents. The rest are purely doing it for the money, and that’s clear in the marketing, in the product itself, in the compromises, and the way the companies are run.

          “…it might help to work on a much longer term (think years… or even decades) series that would basically only consist of extremely strong images that have the aformentioned 5 elements plus the… “I don’t know what” that I referred to, centered around a common “theme”…”
          By definition, the fact it takes years means that there isn’t much to show as a coherent whole right now. 🙂 There is however, Idea of Man and several other ongoing projects.

          • ” And that is a move towards defining one’s own emotional biases, and personal definition of ‘soul’:”

            Only way *to* define it, though, in that it is, and will always be somewhat arbitrary.

            ” But why would you make an image you yourself do not like? Or show/keep it? That makes no sense to me.”

            Is every single exposure you make or even every single photo you process something you’d consider to be truly great? That’s what I was getting at. In some sense we make pictures with the hope that it’ll be good, but we won’t know until it’s shot, processed and considered upon over a longer period of time.

            In regards to mechanical watches, alright fair enough, not a brilliant example, but I think my point more or less stands.

            “Do most people know why famous artworks are famous? Do they actually get touched by them to a degree that justifies their renown, price and reverence? No. Do those same people consciously know what touches them and defines ‘soul’? I doubt it, because few will confidently say ‘Mona Lisa does nothing for me’; fewer ‘Mona Lisa does nothing for me because of XYZ’.”

            In this sense, “most people” don’t matter. The question is more about whether or not there is some portion of people who consider something great, and obviously this does indeed lead to the whole leader/follower dynamic in this regard as well, but for many of the things that are still culturally referenced in various works, including pop culture, you’ll probably find a decent amount of “art people” (and probably some not small proportion of the normal population as well) who do greatly enjoy them (personally, I absolutely adore many of the works of van Gogh, for instance, though I’m not a traditional “art person” in that sense), and that is who we’re talking about, in that we’re talking mostly about you, your audience, the people who could be your audience and the art world (which again, could be your audience, but I’ll bring it out separately, because it works somewhat differently to what you’d expect from normal people who enjoy pictures, in many ways). In regards to the thought you brought out before, about communicating with your audience and the question of soul, we *are* sort of getting to the basic point here – in that it’s fundamentally a numbers game, if we’re talking about the outside world (the world outside your own mind, that is), in that it’s only ever subjectively/arbitrarily defined (and thus differently defined/evoked to how it is defined/evoked to you). I was trying to explain on a somewhat abstract mechanical level what people mean by “soul”, but the actual concrete things that make people think some image or other piece of work has “soul” or not, is endlessly variable, from work to work, from person to person, all we can really do is speak of commonalities amongst audiences/demographic groups. I honestly don’t think there is an objective definition, only complex mechanics that can lead to that definition for someone, and those mechanics have a lot of differing variables from person to person, though, again, you will see commonalities amongst similar demographic groups (beyond just the follower/leader dynamic, that is).

            I sure hope what I’ve written is at least somewhat coherent… it’s 8 am here and I still haven’t gone to sleep. 😀

            • “Is every single exposure you make or even every single photo you process something you’d consider to be truly great? “
              No, but for my personal work it’s at least something I’m satisfied with in the way I intend it to be viewed. Otherwise, I’d really not bother. Commercial is different: we do what we’re paid to do.

              I don’t think the polarisation of opinions over ‘great’ work are necessarily a bad thing. As I stated earlier – it’s got to generate some emotion, be it love or hate. Indifference is perhaps the worst thing any art piece or artist can suffer…

              No, no point in trying to generate a set of rules or hard definition for soul: it’s simply a reflection of the audience, with all of the complexities and limitations that brings…

  37. You photos do have a Kubrickian detachment to them. Which isn’t necessarily a bad (or good) thing. I mean, it worked for Kubrick, and at least he gave the audience the chance to insert their own interpretation into his work, rather than beating them over the head with over-obvious “meaning”.

    • It also requires an audience that’s willing to be observant, curious, and somewhat objective; it doesn’t work with the 2-second social media glance. 🙂

  38. I think it’s a good idea to reference some photographers who have made ‘legendary’ status – take Jay Maisel, for example. If you look at his photographs, it’s all about Light, Color, and (most importantly) Gesture.

    • But whether Maisel – or anybody else’s – images are perceived to have soul is very much down to whether they do anything for you personally. Most of them don’t; they just look like cliches to me. There isn’t enough to hold my attention past the initial casual glance – if anything, closer scrutiny starts to reveal places where perhaps a little more attention might have made for fewer distractions and a resultingly stronger image. However, others may view the same thing and see something to trigger their imagination or memory instead – there are no right answers or universal examples, hence the article in the first place. If there were, we could just dissect those, make a set of rules, and hey presto, instant soul…

  39. At some level I don’t get this whole thread. I care about creating images that speak to me. To do this I spend time trying to understand myself – to center myself when doing photography, to slow down and to feel what speaks to me. Using this approach my style has emerged. While I find review of my work somewhat helpful I try to be conscious as to whether my work is about pleasing others or being consistent with expressing what I feel. This might be a naive view but how can others be moved by your work if you aren’t. Just a thought!

    • “…how can others be moved by your work if you aren’t”

      I think you understand the concept better than most, actually. I agree with this statement (or interpretation of the idea of soul in an image) fully: I won’t show something I’m not happy with, and I can’t be happy with an image if it doesn’t affect me in some way. That threshold for ‘strong enough’ goes increasingly higher as one makes more images, too. So if anything – the strength of the image may well increase, but so does the focus/directionality of it…

  40. Kristian Wannebo says:

    ( My two cents ..)

    #1
    ( A boat would have triggered me more.
    But that’s just because I can sail but can’t fly.)
    But I do see the image. The single cloud reflecting itself in the glass adds the right (to me) amount of life without disturbing.
    ( For the airplane people the pictured decay is probably enough in itself.)

    #2
    Strong emotion in the motif and probably a strong story (for those at home in that culture).
    ( Perhaps a bit of luck to get that composition and a strong expression simultaneously?)
    Additional PP would overload it.

    3#
    A “normal” night photo would, I think, have told only the “lonely woman through the night” story.
    Here (to me) the very dark townscape with only small areas of midtones and strong lights build a story of it’s own complementing and contrasting the woman walking away. And it also makes a fairly strong contrast between the concrete and abstract aspects of this photo.
    And these contrasts build feeling.

    #4
    I agree with your description in your post at 6:01 PM.
    But I also sense sadness (or perhaps melancholy) in the person’s posture, well (I think) emphasized by the mood you chose for the surroundings.

    #5
    Yes, as you say, a bit dry – and (as you say) with good reason.
    But I feel a bit of drama, I think it is the (deliberate, of course) blur and movement of the persons in the foreground contrasting the calm posture of the sharp telephoning person.
    I start guessing: emergency call?, or reporting success or failure?, or just talking to a friend after a strenuous hour?

    #6
    I see the presentation of what must be a delicacy to the cook and his/her audience.
    ( I like fish, but this is unknown to me, though I can see the crispiness.)
    And I certainly see your delight in presenting this moment in this photo.

    #7
    I certainly can’t agree with Sohail here.
    I see a strong story rightly emphasized with a strong composition – the curve in the fence helping and just the right amount of clouds.
    Any additional emotional clue would, I think, overload the photo.
    E.g. more colour would work against the loneliness, and I think movement in the figure would add drama and draw attention from the continuity of this conflict.

    • And I think here we have another tangential interpretation: you’re seeing things I didn’t, but your imagination completed the circuit for you. For example, in #1, I wouldn’t have thought of a boat – I live in a landlocked city, and there simply aren’t such things. To me, flight is the only real way of ‘escape’; being unable to do so because the hardware is decayed and entropied is a state of trapped sadness and lost potential; one believes they can escape but in reality, feasibility isn’t there. The fogged cockpit is almost like a cataract.

      #2 is as close to reality as I could get it – nothing more, nothing less. Colours were intense because of ambient light and night.

      #3 works better larger, because you can then see the woman is moving – the only sign of life in an old, old city that almost feels slightly decaying.

      #4: would you have come to the same conclusion without seeing my explanation first? I guess that’s the litmus test of my ability to translate idea to image.

      #5: I didn’t see the potential for raised questions and the story told by the imagination of the audience instead – here’s where you enjoyed it one step further than I initially intended.

      #6: I believe it’s a species of small snapper.

      #7: I still think this is one of the strongest images I’ve ever made. But again, that may well be because of the cultural references and personal associations with the metaphors contained (deliberately) within…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        #1
        I mentioned a boat only to explain why airplanes are less emotional to me.
        But yes, I live in a country with lots of water and where many people have a boat of some kind.

        #2
        Exactly!

        #3
        I thought I saw that she was moving, possibly by association.

        #4
        Yes, first I sensed sadness (or melancholy) and then the surroundings in harmony with that.
        After reading your comment I also recognized the tiredness, but the feeling of sadness was still there.

        #5
        😉
        I sensed drama first, then, a bit later, the question surfaced: who’s she calling.

        #6
        Anyway, must be tasty.

        #7
        Agreed, it is strong.
        ( Then there is also taste concerning what one wants to look at.)

  41. Danielvr says:

    It may be helpful to consider the various layers in the subject of a photo.

    There’s what the subject actually is (reality);
    What the subject represents or alludes to (meaning); and
    How the subject affects the photographer (sentiment).

    Like you mentioned above, Ming, often “the image reflects the photographer more than the subject” and that’s what happens when sentiment and attached meaning get the upper hand. Photos that are said to ‘have soul’ often distort reality to emphasize the photographer’s view on what he shot and more often than not, that view is fashionable and wholly unsurprising. Such images may be pleasing, but ultimately, they don’t do justice to the subject (which is distorted to fit a certain view), nor to the viewer (who has this emotion or message imposed upon him) and they may not stand the test of time. In a world full of battling opinions and heated emotions, I find it refreshing to see photos that show reality in a balanced, aestethically rewarding way that respects the subject and that trusts the viewer’s intellect and sensibilities to form his own impression. If/when people say that your images ‘lack soul’, maybe you should interprete that as ‘they lack ego’, which I would think of as a compliment. To me, your images betray (in the good sense) a lot of soul; a truth-seeking, skilled, highly aestheticist and rather timeless soul.

    • Taking your layers one step further: perhaps soul is the transfer of emotion (or resonance of emotion) that occurs when all three layers align between creator and audience.

      Lacking ego is good, if one is trying to be objective and simply place the audience transparently in the scene for them to absorb and make up their own minds – I can think of no higher compliment, thank you. 🙂

  42. It’s all about a lack of real connection with the subject matter. If a picture is “soulless” it means that the audience have an intuition upon viewing it that the people, buildings and things as just substructures over which to display the photographer’s technical skills.

  43. Ted Cais says:

    I have found the Enneagram most useful to explain the variability in human behaviour and emotional response to sensory stimuli. The enneagram distinguishes 9 personality archetypes as ego constructs. Then soul may be considered as an essence to liberate the mind to a more universal awareness, spiritual if you like, not filtered through preconceptions of the ego. This is hard to achieve from an image if the observer is preoccupied with technical details that become distracting mental chatter. Meditation helps remove these obstacles and bring heightened awareness, both for photographer and viewer alike.

    • “This is hard to achieve from an image if the observer is preoccupied with technical details that become distracting mental chatter.”

      Which is why I said the photographer has to get to the point where the technical execution is intuitive and second nature and thus does not cause any conscious distractions. Only then can composition be intuitive. I know I’m at that point when I don’t think about what my fingers are doing and I only see what’s in the finder, and nothing else. Most people fail at this either because they do not get off the equipment lust train and never get familiar enough with anything, or because they don’t bother to shoot and experiment enough to understand and remember how things work under a wide range of situations.

      Again, it’s like language: if you have to carefully construct every sentence in your mind before speaking, it’s never going to come out as fluent.

  44. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    That last image, of a prison wall(?), is quite impressive.

  45. Hi Ming,

    i appreciate your articles and i like your images as they are. Still i see why most could be considered lacking of soul. The world as we see it is not as technical perfect as your images are (if that is even possible, but you know what i mean). And so from the get go we think that this is just an image (even a beautiful one) and not the real world. Maybe this has also to do in how far you connect with the subject in an emotional way. I agree that pictures tell a lot about the person that makes them and i tend to think that there is always a distance between you and your subject, no matter what you shoot. As you are running work shops and are successful in your business as a professional photographer that does not seem have anything to do with you being unable to connect to people. But maybe even in your workshops people feel a distance between you and them. Or when you doing your job as a photographer and deal with your clients. I mean your work is great especially when you do “product shoots” so clients know why they call you 🙂 But product shoots often look sterile, too unless they are not advertising. So finally i think it has a lot to do with someones own personality and it is not about the way he or she shoots or how one would do the postprocessing. If you like to keep your distance than it shows in your images.

    • I would like to add that i agree with your definition about what is soul in images. And i also agree that technical perfection and lots of soul in an image can happen but it might be harder to achieve. You remember the movie “The blair witch project” ? Technical a desaster if you will but it had an impact. Also it seems that you you are not a hughe fan of true black in your images. I mean you rarely let the shadows just fall into total darkness. You prefer to have definition and detail everywhere. But shadows (falling into black) can be dramatic and add interest even though there is nothing to see. Might sound strange but that is how i see it.

      But thanks for this wonderful discussion. It is fantastic to read what you and others think.

      • Not true; there is always true black and true white in my images – if you check the histograms you’ll see this is the case. I prefer a smooth transition to either white or black because this mimics the way our eyes work, and thus does not draw attention to portions of the image I’m trying to reduce in prominence compared to the subject. Of course this means that there will be a long tail of grey before hitting black…

    • I respect my subjects’ personal space because I’d want people to respect mine. It’s nothing more than that; if one can’t respect their subject or has to provoke them to get an image, how is that any different from being a playground bully?

      • That was not my point. The way you connect with your subject in an emotional way shows in the image as well as how your subject (if it is a living thing) reacts on your emotions (if you show them). Such a connection can be created in a heartbeat (with a winning smile for example) and cant be forced either. It happens when you are lucky. Ones photographs can be a mirror to ones personality. So the result has lots to do with oneself besides any (technical) skills one may have. You may agree or disagree with that. That is fine with me.

        • Miscommunication – yes, I agree with that. I often don’t engage with the subject til after the image because doing so changes what they’re doing, which was what drew you in the first place…it’s a bit like quantum mechanics, where the result gets affected by measuring it.

          • Very true especially in the art of street photography.
            English is not my first language so excuse my words…

  46. Per Kylberg says:

    What “soul” is? What is art? And not?
    – Close to impossible to define which is what or not
    – Craftsmanship and skill has nothing to do with “soul/art” – but often has to be there to be able to capture “soul/emotion/art.
    – “Professional photo” has nothing to do with art.
    – “Art/soul” is to primarily get under your own skin, secondarily to get under others skin (be subjects AND viewers)
    Examples
    – My granduncle was a famous painter. He got zero recognition for his art here in Sweden, but continued to do his thing regardless. Went to Paris and became a success there. Back to Sweden and became a success here too. When the National Museum in the 1930’s wanted to buy some of his art there was an outrage among the right-wingers in the Parliament leading to a Government decision NOT to buy, signed by the Minister of Justice.Today you need a couple of hundred Hasselblad equipments to buy one of his paintings….
    – Ingemar Bergman the film director definitely made art. I met a person who had met him for dinner. He asked him about the correct interpretation of a famous scene in a very famous film, very much analyzed and discussed. Ingemar’s answer was: Actually I only did that because I liked it that way! But it is very interesting to read about how others analyze it and read into it.
    – Some years ago I did a portrait of a friend at a time when he was relaxed and very open in his mind (drinking Thumba in lower Himalaya). Everybody liked that photo a lot. A common friend said: I did not like Jörgen before, but after seen your photo of him I do, and understand why he is like he is……
    – My best photo so far in 2016 was made right after I got a very saddening knowledge. I went out to do some photo close to home. Made a few exposures and then found the right subject. Made the composition and exposed. Knew I got the right image and went home…

    • Your grand uncle: sad, but true. Often impossible to get anything in your home country without foreign endorsement or validation…

      Ingemar Bergman: because you want it that way is as good an artistic reason as any – perhaps the best, actually. If there is no strong conviction, then why do it at all? I certainly feel that I must at least like every image I produce, which is what often creates conflicts with commercial work…

      We can’t answer the question, but it doesn’t stop us from asking them, and in the process, hopefully understanding ourselves better – including the emotions that go with it…

      • Per Kylberg says:

        Yes! And find out what kind of images I really want to do – and follow my heart regardless what others think. Then to publish in the right context to the right audience. The web is pretty useless for this – anything essential just drowns in the noise.

  47. Homo_erectus says:

    You’ll find this same argument taking place around every art form. It often involves disparaging the more technically accomplished as producing soulless work while reifying the work of the less technical as the peak of “soul”. “Soul” is a meaningless concept ultimately. It’s used so personally from individual to individual that it doesn’t have any real meaning. And, there’s a sort of hidden slur in it as well. As if there’s a continuum with soul on one end and technical accomplishment on the other.

    A few posters identified that last image as being soulless but it nearly brings me to tears every time I see it. I know exactly what that feeling is and you’ve expressed it in photographic form with clarity and brevity. To me, that is the heart of art. And I don’t care if you do it with a cell phone or a hasselblad.

    • ““Soul” is a meaningless concept ultimately. It’s used so personally from individual to individual that it doesn’t have any real meaning.”
      You might well be right here. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if there are any objective universalities that apply to all humans that might transcend this – and if so, how can we use them to make an interesting image?

      That last image: I wonder if it may be a cultural thing. It’s something which I certainly feel more strongly in developing countries, or specifically countries on the cusp of being developed – you have a glimpse at what might be, some ideal that you’re told is good, but yet you can’t quite get there. We dream, but we can’t escape (and then there’s the whole question of uncertainty over what might lie on the other side). Migration vs. staying put is a one of the big things in my country for those with the ability…and those who can’t, dream about it – often only to find that it’s no better on the other side.

      • Homo_erectus says:

        I think that’s why pictures of faces are so powerful. We are keyed into the expressions of others and the expressions that other humans make are instantly recognizable and “readable”. We know what those expressions feel like and there’s an immediate connection made.

        I’m actually from the US and live there still. To me that last image speaks to my experience of living life with mental illness. That wall is the sickness of my brain that can never be fixed. It’s growing into the frame, covering up everything. The man seems to be passing the time, enjoying the sun, but wishing that the wall wasn’t blocking his freedom to go out and participate in the world.

        I think what makes this image work is that it’s SO simple. Anyone who has an experience of looking over the fence at (seemingly) greener pastures can relate to it. There’s a million different, idiosyncratic, ways that people experience that feeling. The image is less like a story and more like a myth in that way. It shows something so universal that anyone can overlay the shape of their specific life experience on it and get an “ah ha!”

        • “I think that’s why pictures of faces are so powerful. We are keyed into the expressions of others and the expressions that other humans make are instantly recognizable and “readable”. We know what those expressions feel like and there’s an immediate connection made.”

          Not always – often I don’t really know whether it’s sarcasm or anger or mirth – unless the emotion is very strong, and by then, either the photographer has had to provoke the subject to get that reaction, or there’s something else going on in the scene which tells the rest of the story (or should be).

          And you’ve got one more interpretation of the last image I would never have thought of in my lifetime – I simply don’t have any association or experience with mental illness – but yes, now that you mention it, I think it’s an equally valid read. Thank you for making me see my own work from another angle! I’m not sure about the universality though – we’ve clearly seen in just the comments here that it doesn’t work for everybody.

  48. Hi Ming,

    If I’m honest, I guess I’m one of those people who sees some your output as lacking soul, i.e. lacking emotional impact.

    Picture 1 for me is simply a picture of a cockpit. It’s slightly contrasty but it’s an image I feel you would be very much at home in a pilot instructional manual. To have ‘soul’, there needs to be some human element to it — something suggestive of human presence. If it’s as i suspect a disused plane, I’d like to see something that speaks of a bygone era. If so, I’m not feeling it. It’s not evoking anything for me on that level. Frankly, it’s not something that holds my attention in any way.

    Picture 2 is for me the most emotionally impactful in this series. The vivid colours (mostly red), the directional lighting and eye contact are crucial, but it’s the expression that counts most. It’s that point where the subject lets his/her mask drop. In this case, he’s still a little too aware of you — slightly wary of the camera.

    Pictures 3 and 4 come across as movie stills. For me they”re pretty to look at but they don’t hold my attention so much so that I want to lose myself in the moment. I guess the reason is partly to do with an over-saturation of pictures from Venice (re #3). What would make #3 more impactful is if there were some sort of twist, tension or incongruence that draws you in. As it stands, it has a postcard quality to it — for me. Picture #4 comes across as a random shot. I’m not feeling anything beyond seeing a woman looking tired. It doesn’t address that the crucial “so what!” of an image.

    Picture 5 doesn’t convey for me the emotional sense of being in an operating theatre. It’s just a guy a making a call. I don’t know what he’s feeling or who he is or what the context is. Overall, the picture evokes no emotional response. There’s nothing drawing me in or holding my attention. It’s pretty dry. Black and white (and a limited tonal range) accentuates the dryness.

    Picture 6 is unusual. It certainly provokes an emotional response — one of revulsion. A greasy, oily fish carcass is not something I particularly want to look at or necessarily shoot — but I guess that’s just me.

    Last, picture #7 does nothing for me. It’s pretty and has an interesting compositional quality but for me it comes across as too ordered. The subdued colours and the almost lifeless body language deprive the photo of energy. What would make it come alive is some sort of tension. In short, it isn’t working for me.

    My apologies if I’ve come across as a little brutal, but I’ve tried to be honest as I could be.

    Best,
    Sohail

    • You and I shoot very, very different things – both in style and subject. 🙂 There’s also a lot more similarity between your images than variety; this could be consistency, or it could be something else – the direct gaze into the camera and dirty faces could be soul, or they could just become a little too repetitive. I DO recognise that they are good images because they make me feel just a bit uncomfortable – even if I can’t put my finger on why. But there’s no story beyond the direct gaze: it’s just eye contact, the backgrounds are often irrelevant or worse, distracting. I don’t find any emotional connection with these people.

      This brings us back to personal preferences: #4, what you term is the snapshot – says something very different to me. You’ve got the gesture of fatigue (which did translate) but also the isolation of the window, and the boring uniformity of the reflected boxes. Couple that with the darker presentation and implication of night – and you get fatigue at the interminable task by the anonymous uncelebrated worker. But because there’s no visible face, I think it may not hold your attention for long enough 🙂

      #5 is deliberately dry: operating theatres aren’t meant to be places of emotional or irrational outbursts; surgery isn’t something that one does in a bad mood or casually. You’ve picked up on the dryness, which I see as objectivity. And the operating theatre, which means the secondary subjects work.

      #6 is a matter of cultural context: what you find revulsive, a lot of us find appetising – me included.

      #7 Again, you’ve read the image correctly, but only partially: another anonymous Asian, representing that particular cultural desire to escape to the west (note sign) but inability to do so (represented by the wall) but they can do so in their dreams/ideal world (clouds, blue sky). It’s lifeless and pale because there is no more energy left to leave. Again: all of these things are deliberate.

      Story, perhaps, is not soul…

      • Yes, we do shoot different things — maybe that’s partly what this all about. I mostly shoot portraits. And I guess for people who like looking at and shooting faces, each is unique and provokes an emotional response as human contacts tend to. In truth, I’d like to shoot more landscape images, but haven’t yet figured out how to do so without ending up making (for me) boring postcard pictures or holiday snaps. There are plenty of course on Flickr. I personally find it pointless adding to the list of beautiful pictures of say Venice — a part of the world I happen to know pretty well.

        Re #5, you say it is deliberately dry and that it is exactly why it’s not engaging — and open to the charge of being deemed “soulless”. As I suggested, if there were an element of tension within the dryness, then that would hold a viewer’s attention.

        Re #6, agreed.

        Re #7, I think if we have to explain a photo, then in a sense it’s already failed. If it’s geared towards a particular audience, then as an outsider I’m going to inevitably (mis)interpret it. That is if I don’t identify the cultural clues.

        On the point of story not being soul, I’m not sure what that means unless you define “soul” which you haven’t — and understandably so. For me, a picture has soul (not a great word) if it has emotional impact. All good stories include a moment of tension. And I think that’s pretty much it. Some of these pictures are lacking that element of tension — something that disturbs or upsets the orderliness of your pictures.

        Sohail

        • ” I think if we have to explain a photo, then in a sense it’s already failed.”
          Agreed. But I’d clarify that a bit: if you have to explain it to a wide audience, then it’s failed – but at the same time, you can’t expect everybody to understand it; if they do, chances are it’s probably another sunset or cat and not particularly deep at all…

          Emotion is a result of personal biases/preferences which is a result of one’s own experiences. We all differ in this respect, which means we differ in preferences and emotional triggers and what we interpret as soul.

          As for story having tension: I don’t agree; not every event is fast enough to create what we perceive as tension or resolution or the critical moment. Some things simply flow…

          • Human emotions are universal. Looking angry, tired, happy or sad don’t require much in the way of cultural explanation. There are undoubtedly cultural exceptions but let’s not make too much of them. I rather agree with Shakespeare’s Shylock (since we’re talking about Venice): “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”.

            All stories requires tension. But on the matter of emotionally impactful photos, I think tension is ONE very effective way of achieving that. By extension, contrived harmony can be a recipe for soullessness.

            • But that’s not particularly deep; it’s almost relying on a sucker punch for impact. It’s not easy at all to add some layer of thought behind that – and we have to do this otherwise there is no incentive to keep the viewer looking, which in turn makes the image memorable (or not). Even harder in today’s disposable image environment.

              I still disagree with you on tension. But perhaps we have a different understanding of what the term means…

              How can harmony be contrived if it is found, not made by moving objects around?

              • Deepness and why photos need to be necessarily deep is a whole different ball game. More to the point, re #3, I’m not sure what other cultural clues are necessary to interpret a woman who simply looks tired. But even still if things were to become so culturally or intellectually complex, then the emotional impact of a photo is already a lost battle. Without specific examples of what exactly is being glossed over lost in translation, I can’t really comment.

                All photographs are contrived. We create harmony by excluding elements, post-processing for a particular colour palette, and dodging and burning to create balance. Re the last picture, if you say excluded a bill poster to the right of the man, you’ve created contrived harmony. That’s true of almost all photos. But the trick I guess (if we want interesting images) is to include elements of (yes) contrived tension. And by tension here, I mean some element or aspect that draws you in, that disturbs the viewer, that upsets the expected order of a scene.

                • I think at this point we’d better agree to disagree. 🙂 I choose to make the images I choose to make for my own reasons, just as you do. Some people get that, some don’t. I don’t, for instance, see how you can have tension in a portrait that only has one element to it – and a background so defocused there is no context. Tension implies a relationship between two things – where is the second thing? In any case, I agree with the reasons you’ve cited for my images not appealing to you – because they must be explained with language, thus defeating the point of a visual medium – but I’m not going to defend them, because I created them for me.

                  • I’m not disputing that you make images you like. That’s of course a given for anyone making pictures. But I am responding to your specific request about “soul” — which I think is lacking in many of your images. And if I understand your right, you wrote this piece because as you said your “critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul”. Presumably you want to better understand why this may be so. The exchanges in this thread are written in that spirit — not to suggest that you need to defend your images or question the reasons you make them.

                    Re tension in a portrait, it strikes me as a pretty straightforward matter. It’s about capturing an expression that has some edge to it that perhaps betrays some intimacy. It may have to do with how light falls on the face and the way colours interact. Mary Ellen Mark is I think a great exponent of portraits that exude tension.

                    BTW, portraiture with defocussed backgrounds (not something that I do that much actually) has a long tradition in photography going back to Curtis. I’m not necessarily a fan of his, but clearly his photos have resonated with viewers for over a century. I’ve picked the following at random: http://portlandartmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Black-Eagle-Nez-Perce.jpg

                    It’s a matter of opinion of course if the photo has emotional impact, soul or otherwise. I think it does. Not hugely but it’s clear Curtis is attempting to create an arresting portrait not simply a mugshot.

                    • “I’m not disputing that you make images you like. That’s of course a given for anyone making pictures.”
                      Not always true. There are plenty of people making cliches because they’re told that that’s good and popular and they haven’t even explored or asked themselves what it is they actually like. How many people have legitimately tried to shoot as many genres and subjects as possible before settling on one or two?

                      “you wrote this piece because as you said your “critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul””
                      Not quite. I said that was a position they took because the images I make do not resonate with them: I don’t feel the need to defend it, because the images I make that are not for clients are to satisfy me, and me only. What I do want to understand is what they perceive is lacking – to better understand human visual psychology – not so I can make up some perceived shortfall.


                      That specific example is exactly what I mean – it doesn’t do anything for me because I have no emotional or logical or any other connection with the person; it’s simply a straightforward ‘catalog’ image, but NOT a mugshot. The difference I think is in having sensitivity to the subject; perhaps that compassion comes through in lighting or expression or pose, as opposed to forced indifference (or one of those boards with numbers). What I don’t see is the tension – firstly, it’s a symmetric and balanced composition with a single element; secondly, maybe I just lack the empathy to read the expression – but without actually knowing the person, or the individual displaying some extreme emotions – I find it almost impossible to have any idea what they’re thinking or feeling. Maybe that is the difference of opinion here…

                    • Hi Sohail ! I find your thoughts very clear about this ‘soul’ component of images …infact this is such a intangible aspect that I often fall short of words as to the REASON why a particular image apeals to me over the others ..there are a few ..but definitely they do exist ..
                      I will be obliged if u can amplify your point further by sharing some of your own images ….[if u do not mind ….of course]:)

                      ‘SOULFULNESS'[for want of a better term] is a real dimension of an image but not necessary that all images have it …we can learn perfect technique from the teacher and add our soulfullness..so as to say ..:)

                    • Ming: You have previously mentioned that you have some degree of Asperger’s syndrome. This may impact the ability to read emotions, and what you can get out of looking at a portrait. And it may also explain why your images of people don’t use this communication channel and therefore many viewers miss their meaning. I think that one may be able to train empathy to a certain degree, which would be interesting as an experiment. For viewers, your work gives them the opportunity to expand their own empathy by experiencing how people affected by Asperger’s see the world.

                    • Already had to, to a degree. I think you probably can’t survive without doing so, but I still frankly have no idea if I get it right or not!

  49. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “The part I have trouble understanding is why examples of images ‘with soul’ tend to be predominantly a) dark; b) monochrome; c) contrasty; d) grainy; e) technically imperfect;”

    I just reread Tom Sawyer (available on project Gutenberg).
    There is a chapter (XXI) with excerpts from girl’s school compositions (from the 1880:ies), hilarious and saddening examples.

  50. Alex Carnes says:

    I’m not entirely sure that I always share my own views on this one – either about any criticisms I might have of your own work (or mine) or how I feel about ‘soul’! I don’t like the term; like you, I’m from a scientific background and dislike referring to things that do not exist. Certainly any work of art should have an emotional impact or ‘message’ of some kind, or put forward an engaging ‘argument’; I suppose that’s what distinguishes the work of art from a technical exercise. (And technical exercises are always necessary in any artistic pursuit – music, dance, poetry, photography, painting or whatever, at least in the early part of a career.)

    Some grumbles: a lot of stuff, especially in photography, that’s deemed to be soulful is just kitsch, and often painfully cliched. You’ve listed a few. The endless orange ‘golden hour’ photos are another.

    Ignoring the merely kitsch, there’s also sometimes a tendency, as you suggest, to think being soulful demands a goodly amount of pathos. Pathos certainly can be ‘soulful’, and indeed often the only way to make a deep emotional impact without it is to rely on something close to religious awe, or transcendence. You don’t have to be religious to feel it; I do and I’m passionately atheist! Here:

    _DSC6230ed

    Soulful? It’s a funerary monument but ancient and devoid of pathos. I think this image has soul, but probably because it inspires a kind of religious awe and also has a certain element of mystery…

    Which I’ll make my final point because I don’t want to bore you to death! 😀 Many of the greatest works of art have an intractable, unfathomable aspect to them, which probably causes the audience to challenge their own feelings in such a way as to deepen them. And, the extreme clarity of technically excellent photos can sometimes tend to remove it.

    By the by, I’ve never found your work soulless on the whole. If I have a grumble at all it’s that I think you sometimes share images that are merely very clever, perhaps just to show that you thought of it/can do it? I’m always happy to look at them though, they ARE very clever and I usually learn something. Oh, one last thing – I cut my artistic teeth initially as a musician, and there in particular you’ll find endless examples of people deriding technically excellent performers as ‘cold’ and scrappy ones as ‘deep’. This is often nonsense. Some people just can’t play very well!

    • “Some grumbles: a lot of stuff, especially in photography, that’s deemed to be soulful is just kitsch, and often painfully cliched. You’ve listed a few. The endless orange ‘golden hour’ photos are another.”

      They mostly are, but they don’t have to be: here’s the challenge in finding something different compositionally, aesthetically. And if it’s different and not to the expectations of the audience, their reaction is more likely to be negative than positive because it goes against their experience. That may well be interpreted as lack of soul, because in the process of composing something different and non-cliched we’ve had to really look at the subject from a detached and impartial manner (trash can = green square, for example). Perhaps that’s what comes through.

      The image you linked to doesn’t feel funerary at all to me – it’s perhaps the start of something; it’s the ambiguity of what we can’t see about to come to light. The mystery is definitely there, but for me I don’t feel the awe. It may well be different at a larger size. (See how personal bias comes into it? 🙂 )

      That intractable element is the one we can’t control or predict: it’s what makes the image a five. If something I show here comes across as perhaps ‘just because I can’ – it’s not intentional. It’s because I believe I need that execution to make the idea translate; trust me, I’m not masochistic…

      • Alex Carnes says:

        Actually, it’s interesting you say that – one of the problems with photographing that particular monument is that you can’t tell how enormous it is unless a Dartmoor pony or a hiker wanders into the frame. I tried doing it as a selfie, standing by the final monolith and trying to look morose, but in my modern winter coat it completely spoiled the effect! 😀

        It does look better printed big; I imagine quite a lot of your work suffers at smaller sizes too?

        By the by, I was thinking about the technique vs ‘soul’ question yesterday, and recalled a few comments made recently in some masterclasses by concert pianists I’ve been watching. There is a point that cropped up a few times that you might find relevant to your approach to photography: if you aim too obsessively for technical perfection, you avoid RISKS, and that can lead to dullness (soullessness?). If everything is excessively polished, and performed in such a way as to avoid any mistakes, with everything rounded off and any rough edges smoothed over, a performance can become overcautious and boring. Some technically awesome architectural photography in particular can end up looking almost computer generated, with everything completely straight and true, and totally ‘four-square’.

        And during curation, how often does the best photograph turn out to be the one where you just missed focus a smidgen, or didn’t get the verticals dead straight etc? I’m increasingly disinclined to choose the sharpest shot, to be honest, only a handful of experts would know or care anyway. Fortunately I seem to have a decent technique and there aren’t too many disasters; of course I would keep to myself any shot that was clearly a miss; but you know what I mean…?

        • “It does look better printed big; I imagine quite a lot of your work suffers at smaller sizes too?”
          Yes and no – ideally, one aims to make images that work at smaller sizes – i.e. strong enough macro structure – which also have enough detail to hold attention at closer examination or higher resolutions (the wimmelbilding). My work definitely looks better when there’s more information viewed, i.e. the full intention is visible. There’s some degree of diminishing returns to this, of course.

          “…if you aim too obsessively for technical perfection, you avoid RISKS, and that can lead to dullness (soullessness?). If everything is excessively polished, and performed in such a way as to avoid any mistakes, with everything rounded off and any rough edges smoothed over, a performance can become overcautious and boring.”
          Yes and no: you have to experiment to reach perfection, otherwise you won’t know where the limits are. There’s safe – in that you know precisely what the outcome will be – and there’s perfect because you tried to put that last little bit into place which you weren’t sure was possible or not. I’m going for the latter.

          “And during curation, how often does the best photograph turn out to be the one where you just missed focus a smidgen, or didn’t get the verticals dead straight etc?”
          Actually, rarely. Perhaps one or two out of a hundred images that I’d keep; they annoy me enough to remind me to be more careful next time. Those people who’ve shot with me and seen a large number of my files will attest to this.

  51. I think a lot of criticism towards your photography is due to differences in priorities, and where you end up from different starting points. You seem to approach photography from a very technical perspective (perfect focus, balanced composition, accurate colours, straightened verticals, subjects placed correctly for the desired order of viewing, etc.) and then strive to include elements that invoke emotion. Sometimes the latter has a lot of emphasis (but is still subordinate to the former, except that one invisible sushi), sometimes very little (geometric architecture etc.)

    Some photographers start with emotion and then work towards better technical execution. Let’s assume for a second that there’s such thing as a platonic ideal of a photograph of a given subject. You can never reach it, but you can approach it from different angles. Of course, on the internets it doesn’t take long for communities to form around a single viewpoint and reinforce it until others start to seem plain wrong or even enemies. Perhaps that’s the reason for many hostile messages.

    To think about the topic, I took a look, probably the second time ever, at the HCSP Flickr group since it’s pretty much the antithesis of your photography. What genuinely surprised me was that a lot of the photos were actually very good (in my opinion, but also from “4 things” perspective). I think they have gone beyond their initial premises in the curation and pay more attention to composition than some years ago. Perhaps they’re moving towards the ideal from their own starting point, while you’re doing it from another angle (increasing emphasis on the idea).

    Then there are stylistic and cultural differences that wouldn’t converge in a million years. In case of HCSP, the preference seems to be to fill most of the frame with human subjects – if there’s only one, it better be close. There’s usually an emotional component so strong that it pulls all the attention to itself and overrides any compositional weaknesses that might otherwise lead you out of the frame. In order to achieve that, the photographers invade people’s privacy and personal space, or shoot in places and situations that most people would avoid. Most of the photos also have a very chaotic feeling, perhaps in attempt to reflect the nature of human life or society.

    In contrast, your compositions are very orderly, and human subjects (if any) are often distant and abstracted, defined only by their surroundings. I don’t think anyone can be blamed for finding the style cold or emotionless if their personal preference is very different. Obviously, they should still be polite and civilised about it (or just look elsewhere), and they probably haven’t taken a very broad look at your photography.

    In my personal opinion the use of shock value, chaos and grittiness is not as interesting as the use of common subjects and subtle cues to deliver a message to the viewers. Unsurprisingly I also follow your blog and not the HCSP groups (or those with pretty portraits, or oversaturated wide-angle landscapes, or…) . But I guess it’s also worthwhile to look elsewhere now and then, and see if there’s something to learn.

    • “I don’t think anyone can be blamed for finding the style cold or emotionless if their personal preference is very different.”

      Preferences play a lot into it: the more I think about the soul question, it’s because we experience a revulsion or negative emotion to the image, because the subject matter is as you have put it: not our personal preference. That I think is not an absence of soul, but simply a difference in personal priorities. Once again, the image reflects the photographer more than the subject…

      • Yes, that is the perfect way to explain what the last sentence really means! How our eyes see the world and how our brains interpret it can be trained and learned, just as the use of camera settings and lenses. Anyone can learn to shoot in B&W or play with geometry in projections. However, the emotional response to what we see around us (or in photographs) is much less controlled, and influences the choices made in the creative process – at the very least, as you pointed out in another comment, if you don’t feel something at all, it doesn’t exist for you and cannot be photographed. It all goes back to what you see, knowing your preferences and respecting others’ viewpoints.

  52. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “There is a big difference between images that are deliberately a)-e) and images that are made to be a)-e) to attempt to cover conceptual shortcomings.”

    Yes.
    Among people I have met, I’ve noticed that some with soul/feeling mean an emotional style rather than that the photo/music/painting expresses soul/feeling
    (badly said, I don’t find better words).

    – – –

    “My critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul.”

    With expression there is the size of the gesture, so to speak.
    Music as an example:
    A musician can express his musical interpretation with more or less emphasis, and it is up to the listener’s sensitiveness if he or she experiences it.
    And opinions as to what is overdone or unnoticeable seem to vary a lot among both musicians and critics.

    ( A lack of interpretation can, of course, also be (de)emphasized, but then the performar isn’t a musician…
    And you *are* a photographer, at least in my opinion.)

    Not to forget how much (or what kind of) music is hidden in the notes.
    Photographic motifs, of course, (like music) have different potentials of being expressed.
    And some prefer/deserve/need/.. to be more – or less – emotionally (and/or compositionally) emphasized.

    ( Consider e.g. music composed for a poem.
    The stronger or more concise the text is, the simpler the melody has to be so as not to overwhelm the text.
    And a wordy text needs a stronger melody in order not to fall flat.)

    • I think I know what you mean: in music, there are no accidents – much like painting. The creator has to put everything there on purpose. Not always the case with photography; you might possibly accidentally/unintentionally press the shutter at something you were not intending to aim at, but still produce an interesting image. You may or may not recognise it, and post-capture curation is still a form of composition, I suppose – but you certainly did not place all of the elements in the frame deliberately at the time of capture.

      If my photographic personality was translated to one of a musician, let’s just say I probably wouldn’t be writing pop. 🙂

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Also true.
        But that is not what I had in mind.

        🙂

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        “If my photographic personality was translated to one of a musician ..”

        I think you might be writing chamber music –
        Perhaps string quartets, perhaps fugues?

        ( For some reason – or no reason at all – I came to think of Bartok’s Concert for Piano and Percussion.)
        [P.S. It get’s rythm – and so feeling – only with musicians experienced in Hungarian music tradition.]

        • I don’t think Bartok is dense enough – perhaps I’m more Wagnerian, or Vivaldi, or Sibelius…

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Vivaldi … yes he made music in strong compositions.
            Wagner? No, I can’t imagine that, flowing music with little structure.
            Sibelius? Yes, especially his 4th Symphony is strongly composed.

            I don’t quite know what you mean by “dense”.
            I might call Bartók’s 4th String Quartet “dense”. ?.

            • Dense, wimmelbilded…Debussy would be the opposite; light, airy, minimalist. Dense is the choral portion of Beethoven’s 9th…

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                Ah,
                Then , by all means, try Bartók’s 4th String Quartet, I think you will find it dense enough
                (as far as a string quartet can be dense.. ).
                ( Once when – as I hope happens – you are at your leisure! 🙂 )

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I think maybe you refer to “music hidden in the notes”?
        ( Allow me to try to clarify.)

        Yes, accidents and unintentionallity can come more into play in photography.
        Consider “motif” to mean what the finally curated (RAW, perhaps trimmed/cropped) photo “contains”.

        Now, in your case the motif (including the composition) would be there from the start – no pop music, ;-).

        The photographer then (taking the position of the musician) interprets this motif by postprocessing it (and perhaps finetuning composition), so it becomes “hidden” in the photographic frame.
        And :
        Different motifs (with e.g. different amounts of feeling/soul) need different kinds and amounts of emphasis.

        >> “And opinions as to what is overdone or unnoticeable seem to vary a lot among both musicians and critics.”

        – – –
        (excuse my wordiness …)

  53. janhettenkofer says:

    That thing about resolution/flawless technical execution precluding soul is something I feel is a bit of an exaggeration. When your critics say they don’t feel the soul of your images, I would be inclined to believe them. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, though (personally I have a few of your images in mind that give me the “soul-feeling”). I think that the more precise an image becomes on a technical level, the more precise the emotion behind it gets. And if the viewer isn’t in the exact focal point of that emotion, they might feel the image is soulless. Feet hanging over the edge of a precipice overlooking a beautiful scenery (cliché here) are conveying a much more generally relatable feeling of “freedom, holiday, adventure” than a green car with just the highway and a clear blue sky as the background (my favourite image of yours; your intention might have been different, my interpretation of it is the feeling of anticipation towards a destination).
    The thing that bothers me about this soul discussion is that some people equate soul with a certain amount of “messiness” and some preclude the existence of soul all together and accuse the other camp of lacking artisanal skills. In my opinion a Quentin Tarantino film – messy as it may be – is no less perfectly executed than a David Fincher one. And both of them have loads of soul (at least to me). I suppose the example is somewhat lacking as there are very few Hollywood films that can rightfully be accused of technologically sub par – my distinction was more between controlled chaos and very tidy shots and camera moves.

    • “I think that the more precise an image becomes on a technical level, the more precise the emotion behind it gets.”

      Now that’s a very interesting way of looking at it; I agree that the more information an image provides, the higher the specificity; it may land up that either you ‘get it’, or you don’t. Or it’s easier to be immersed because there’s less left to the imagination. The only problem I have with this is that I’ve always presented my images here at the same size – 800px wide, regardless of camera, which isn’t exactly high resolution 🙂

      Controlled chaos is NOT easy to execute at all; IMHO, in photography, the masters at this are the Japanese street photographers. It looks like a mess, but try to replicate it and you’ll soon see how difficult it is to do. Is it soulful, though? I can’t personally say…

      • janhettenkofer says:

        In the age of instagram a well shot 800px wide image is pretty high resolution. In this case I mean resolution as not necessarily related to pixels, more the frequency of clean signal (= image content) in the image.
        And I absolutely agree with you, controlled chaos is very hard to do. Every image that pops into my head as an example looks effortless, but when I think about the how, it seems nearly impossible to nail it.

  54. I don’t think you can deliberately set out to capture a soulful image. The harder you try the lesser the chance of succeeding. If you do succeed – and the success is measured by agreement of others – it will be per chance. That is the beauty of soul. It shows itself in an image. And if it is there it becomes visible and is recognised by many. Soul as I understand it, is not necessarily attached to animate objects. In fact, there it is most difficult to capture. The soul of a person for instance is a composite of so many live instances a single photograph cannot capture. If it does on the rare occasion, it becomes a very powerful image and is awed by many. Inanimate objects do have a soul as well. And I remember a number of your industrial shots that to me are soulful. I think you did a catalogue of them (which I ordered but never received) last year. The soul of inanimate objects has a particular sheen when captured that speaks of itself and to that in us which recognises soul matter. So, in my opinion, you need not hunger for creating soul. Soul will create itself wanting to surprise you and not the other way round. Trying to hunt it down, it will escape. That is the nature of the things in life that are most treasured. One of your images you captured in Prague has so much soul in it and was commented on I seem to remember by many of your followers. I do agree with one commentator that the new series of Hasselblad images appear to be technically perfect but without a sign of soul. Maybe, soul does not respond to perfectness. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and images.

    • Firstly, sorry about your not getting the book – could you forward me the order details so I can follow up with the client who was handling the orders?

      I don’t think the perceived lack of soul in my recent work has anything to do with that – I think it’s because of a tangible change in my own creative direction. I’m no longer looking for the quick fix immediate impact image; I need something more. Perhaps that’s more reflective of my current state of mind than any incompatibility between technical execution and soul…

  55. Take a person for example, one can say that person is cold, hard, cheerful, dark or sad etc. That has nothing to do with soul, the mood derived from impression. For soul to happen, interaction with the subject be it long or short has to occur. Therefore unless the viewer considered a series of images based on a theme or themes, then he or she might draw his or her conclusion about the soul of it. Of course this is all rather subjective depending on who you are talking to ….

  56. I think your last two sentences in the article are telling, in my opinion, what it is about. Having insight in someones soul, or for photography, revealing parts of the soul of someone or something is nothing what we can do consciously. It happens in this kind of rare and special moments you’ve described. We all experience them from time to time. It helps to get into it when we are not deliberately looking for them, so it just can happen. Of course you still need to be an excellent photographer to capture this moment in the best possible way. That is why you showed us a lot of ‘soulful’ images in the last years and still this might be just 0.5 percent of your portfolio. I strongly believe there are not many photographers out there which are having a better ratio…

    • Back to curation 🙂

      I agree: we need to experience the emotion first to be able to capture it. And if we don’t, then there’s simply nothing to capture – it can’t be forced. And at those times, perhaps the emotion is too strong and dominates our rational minds; we need to be so practiced at the execution portion of our craft that it can be done reflexively…

  57. I just LOVE your many takes on Magritte — and “Only the clouds are truly free.” is a permanent favourite Any photographer who can produce an image like that, and then add a thought provoking caption, has GOT to have the ability to ‘capture’ an element of ‘soul.’ Maybe I’m subject to fits of melancholia or nostalgia, as the case may be in regard to your images,but for some unknown reason, the Ming Thein who shot those early GR and EM5 images was a different Ming Thein form the Hassled Ming Thein of today. OK, so he’s ‘grown’, but as far as I’m concerned, I prefer the early edition (sigh). Please don’t take this as criticism … it’s just the way I am. I also acknowledge that the past cannot return, though it CAN be evoked through images of earlier days.

    • We also have more experiences and history of our own, and as a result, the images get more complicated: they’re a reflection of photographer more than subject, I think. MT then was an observer and a ‘picker of moments’. MT today is looking for refinement and some deeper meaning. That’s likely the difference you’re seeing…

  58. Peter P. says:

    Hi Ming, I thought I’d chip in here, because this article covers something I noticed as well about your images:

    Your images are mostly as close to technical perfection as is technically in any given situation you choose to shoot, but maybe the fact that you so rarely make mistakes, either while composing your image or whilst covering the technical aspects, which I personally find to be very motivating, because it gives me something to strive towards and a standard I can use to measure my own works, yet at the same time I would imagine that this perfection is a tad alienating as well, because perfection always highlights the inadequacies of anyone else, which I’d venture many photographers don’t wish to confront.

    Now, I took the liberty to compile a few images of yours that I personally feel have “soul”:

    _5000076 copy

    The composition is spot on, yet does not follow the standard rules and the playful title brings humor to the image as well.

    The following images from the “Dusk to Dawn” series:
    B0001890 copy
    B0001963 copy

    The shadows are just that, shadows and yet they are close enough to what a real human eye would see in the same situation to stop them from being distracting.

    These from an assignment:
    _8B09157bw copy
    _8B08840 copy

    Human element, brilliant composition and your trademark soft BW go hand in hand with a very “hard” subject matter.

    Okay, cheating now, but all of these:
    https://blog.mingthein.com/2015/04/17/thoughts-on-portraiture/

    H51-B0000584 copy

    and this one:

    _7004875bw copy

    • It’s interesting because you’ve chosen a bunch of images I personally wouldn’t have put in the ‘soulful’ category – which goes back to my hypothesis that each person has their own soft spots based on personal biases and preferences etc. I can only try to make the process of composition objective by following that one idea for each image, and trying to make sure that the structure of the image is as consistent as possible with that idea; the big risk is of course that my understanding of the idea doesn’t decompose in a way that anybody else understands 🙂

  59. I’ve never looked at a photo and thought “that has soul”. I’ve thought “that photo has great use of colour”, “that photo has interesting composition”, “that photo was shot at precisely the right moment”, and many other such things, but the notion of “soul” has never really entered into it, maybe because it is such a vague concept which anyone can define as they see fit. Such notions can lead to things like the modern art scene, where instead of putting effort into the creation of art, people use these nebulous terms like “soul” and “feel” to try and pressure viewers into liking their work (“I don’t understand it, but people will think I’m a philistine if I say so”).

    For instance, I very much like Nick Brandt’s photos from Africa, but it’s not because they have or don’t have “soul”, it’s because they are brilliant on an artistic and photographic level. Same for my other photographic inspirations like Cartier-Bresson, Jay Maisel, guys like that.

    I think you might get unfairly accused of lacking “soul” because you are can and do articulate unusually complex ideas about photography and thus people think that you’re all about ideas rather than feelings (not a view I share, I should add). Plus you’re right about the whole “starving, barefoot, homeless person” genre…if you can get a shot of that and incorporate a sunset and a cat, you’re made for life!

    • Boiling it down: images that make you feel something, good; whether that feeling is driven by an idea or a mood (which can only be incorporated into an image if you have the idea and technical chops to do so deliberately in the first place) or a cat (emotional subject association) – perhaps it doesn’t matter. If it touches you, maybe that’s the elusive soul..

  60. Jim Smith says:

    Lots of people think ‘soul’ and mastery of technique are mutually exclusive. Ignore them! I always enjoy your site, by the way. Thanks.

  61. It always amuses me when ‘critics’ attach some meaning to an image after searching their thesaurus for some arcane adjective to suit their mood. In my humble opinion an image either reaches the viewer or it doesn’t. It’s always a challenge to remain objective when assessing an image and set aside your own bias.

    In my view, if the photographer displays an image, that means he/she likes it. Therefore it must have merit. If I can’t see the merit then that is my problem, not that of the photographer.

    On a positive side, it is good to have critics as they are obviously looking deeply into your work, Ergo, they must be seeing something that is arousing their emotion. and causing them to express the feelings they are so anxious to share.

    • “In my view, if the photographer displays an image, that means he/she likes it. Therefore it must have merit. If I can’t see the merit then that is my problem, not that of the photographer.”

      A very interesting way of looking at it – but it IS of course possible that the photographer has a meritorious idea but not the language (or composition skills, in this case) to express it.

      On a positive side, it is good to have critics as they are obviously looking deeply into your work, Ergo, they must be seeing something that is arousing their emotion. and causing them to express the feelings they are so anxious to share.

      That’s what I increasingly believe, too: some emotion means the image worked to a degree, but we care about different things. It’s not the same as no emotion, which means it really didn’t work at all…much like all publicity is good publicity, I suppose 🙂

  62. Milsom Porter says:

    Ming, you great berk. The people who say your photos have “no soul” are what we on the internet call “trolls”. I remember a bunch of comments on a couple of your pieces a while back. You were clearly really spiked at the time and no wonder: you are obviously incredibly passionate about your art. But you really shouldn’t let these chimps get on your back. In my very humble view, your photos are works of matchless genuis that leave me wondering if I could ever produce a single shot that was as good as one of yours. The “critics” you refer to are driven by envy and spite, nothing less. Watch the space below for more of the furry critters to pop up and dismiss me as a Ming fanboi! I’ll read the rest of your article when I have a moment, which I am sure will be fascinating as usual. Keep shooting. Keep writing.

    • Haha – well, there are trolls, and there are the critics. I’ve always believed we need the legitimate critics because they stop us artists from going too far off the deep end and losing our objectivity – there’s no point in producing something nobody can understand. Yes, I’m passionate about my art. I care enough to try to master the language, understand the audience and control my tools so I can say what I want. But I do recognise that it is highly possibly – likely, in fact – that what I care about isn’t want most people care about or notice, and so the emotion doesn’t necessarily translate. At the same time, I think it’s incredibly rare that anybody can look at an image and feel nothing – that’s really a failure to me, since the image fails to evoke any emotion at all… 🙂

  63. Hello Ming. I’ve never posted before, but I find your thoughts interesting and I really admire your great technical skills.
    I think nowadays one of the main issues with Photography is that is becoming more and more a sort of entertaining media, more than a language we can use to watch, feel and understand the natural world and human modern societies with all their goods and bads.
    So I think Photography is kind of loosing its “purity”, and more and more photographers are using the medium to make some sort of entertaining “art” for its own sake, shifting from photographs to illustrations.
    -Another issue I find is that in this era the majority of the population receive visual education from the grossest blockbuster cinema and commercial advertising, that put the attention only on some kind of cheap disposable “wow effect”. (I want to make clear that that’s not your case! :D)-
    I think that the question “does a photograph have soul or not” is strictly related to the initial intention at the core of the creation of that particular image. Why the photographer shoot that photo? In these days we are overwhelmed by photographic cliches (from a subject matter point of view, not to speak about visual/technical effects) and I reckon a lot of photographers just don’t have enough capacity to deeply observe the world that surrounds them.
    One thing that I notice observing your photographs is that you tend to be very metaphoric, but studying and reading about the medium I learned that the strongest photographs of history are not metaphors. They represent exactly what’s inside the frame. Being like this they become icons. They expose human weaknesses, and they help us to think about the problems of our times, to try to change for the better, or at least to be aware.
    All this to say that, at the end of the day, the only way to understand the presence of photograph’s soul, is to deeply study the work of the great masters of the medium, both ancient and modern. A book that really changed my way of thinking is “The ongoing moment” by Geoff Dyer. Also the famous “La chamber claire” by Roland Barthes is another important one. These kind of books teach how to read a photograph, without even thinking about the technical issues. And I think that’s something we’re kind of loosing.

    • Good points: the initial ‘bite’ of an image has come to dominate over any sort of subtlety; if we don’t grab and hold attention in the first second or two, forget it. Making images that have that impact plus depth is not easy at all!

      History: people remember the image because it captures a moment, an event, or a story. It is literal proof or evidence or documentary. It can in itself become a metaphor later, but more often than not: right place, right time. We don’t see that now, just as the audience of they day didn’t see it then, because we do not have the immediate benefit of hindsight. Beyond that, there’s also the problem of saturation: with hundreds or thousands of images of an important event, none of them are memorable – there are simply too many. If there’s only one, we only have one choice of mental association and thus that’s what we remember.

      Furthermore, it’s quite possible that people simply don’t understand the metaphors because some actual thinking and background education is required in order to do so, and why bother when Kim Kardashian posted another photo of her behind?

  64. Jim Smith says:

    Lots of people think ‘soul’ and mastery of technique are mutually exclusive. Ignore them! I always enjoy looking at your site, by the way. Thanks.

  65. I agree with Emerson referring to “mood”. To tell that story or portray that feeling can be done technically and/or artistically. The old saying goes something like “our images are a reflection of ourselves (or the photographer). I think it’s more to do with people perceiving you to be technically focused (your knowledge of lenses, cameras and how they effect the final image is incredible in my opinion. Being a very young successful BCG alumni means this shouldn’t be a surprise.). Your images are in focus 😀…, perfect exposure and processed in your signature style and approached with a strong technical view. You have many fantastic images with “soul”. However (at risk of being banished from this blog) those images with “soul” are amongst other images not as strong. So is it in fact a case of posting to many images?

    • Yes, they are: our images have to be a reflection of us, but also the audience – we show what we want to, but they choose to see what they want, too. Who knows, a repulsion to order and precision is perhaps more reflective of the viewer than I might have thought 🙂

      I’m technically focused because if I’m not, I don’t have control of my means of expression. You can’t write an article to communicate a thought or hypothesis if you can’t spell – the spelling errors will be notice first before the intellectual merit of the piece.

      As to my images ‘with soul’ not being as strong – is that a case of personal appeal, though? We may well find that you pick a different selection to me or another member of the audience…I also don’t see the point in holding back images if I think they’re good enough and pass my own personal curation, which in itself gets increasingly strict as time goes on anyway. Surely making more images is the whole point of photography?

      • Hi Ming. As to the last paragraph a couple of points. Yeah 100% I could and mostly likely would have different choices to others. That’s the beauty of art and its various interpretations.

        As for the amount of images again I don’t disagree with you. It’s your art and eye and as you say it passes your personal curation you (and all of us) can do what we like. That said my point is more based on statistics. The higher the volume of images published the greater the probability you will find people ( the audience) have mixed views as to the appeal against each image. I think that is why photographers that I have heard speak will stress how important editing is (depending on what each individual is trying to achieve). But that’s me guessing. I’m not really sure.

        I also don’t think every image has to have soul to be a strong image. Some can be strong for other reasons. The juxtapositions that street photographers take are clever but I don’t think they would have soul.

        • Editing and curation are hugely important – but the objective of the curation must be clear upfront, or you’re just randomly deleting. And that objective might not necessarily be something that translates to a wide audience; it might just be one (i.e. the creator).

          Agreed: there are strong images that create emotion (think very good product photography and the lust/want it generates) – but no soul. And at the same time, there cannot be images with soul but without emotion…

  66. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming,
    Quite timely is this subject on the heels of your last post Foz do Douro part 2 – which in my opinion presents a series of very soulful landscape shots. In fact I have seen (a great) many examples of your work – different genres – watches, food, Street, etc … – that show soul. So my thoughts are that for sure technical quality in an image definitely helps to imbibe some soul on an image, but the ability to touch the viewer is equally dependent on the viewer. My own life experiences will drive/repel me to/from certain images.

    Ps. Human suffering is an easy soulful grab. Enter cliche about beauty in the eye of the beholder.

    Cheers,
    Richard P.

    • Sequencing was intentional. My objective with an image is pretty simple – to make the audience envision (both seeing, and feeling) what I did at the time of capture – that’s probably of course quite different from personal work (contemplative, melancholy) to professional work (‘buy me!’)…

      Human suffering is difficult to photograph without exploiting the subject. Few photographers do this well. Far too many shoot the homeless and call it street art.

  67. Dear Mr.Thein,

    Firs of all I disagree with the comments that your photos are “too cold” and lack emotion. This is the first comment have.

    Second, the “SOUL” means “an entity that exists in self-knowingness with the knowledge that that is a subset of a higher universal consciousness”. This is what the soul is. Our divine connection to the universe, which is a self-aware entity in macro terms, too.

    I just wanted to share what the soul is according to my own interpretation but further explanations can be found in the wonderful book of Dr.Rulin Xiu (a quantum physicist and a string theory expert) named “Soul Mind Body Science System”
    https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Mind-Body-Science-System/dp/1940363993

    I love your style and I highly admire your wonderful, sincere, passionate and loving contribution not only to the photography education. I think that there aren’t too many people around the world who is dedicating so much time to educate public about the photography and the philosophy of photography. Actually we need to thank you instead of criticising you for your choice of style in photography! Thank You

    Utku Oguz,
    Istanbul, TURKEY

    • Thank you, Uktu. I contribute my thoughts and interpretations in a sphere that cannot be objective or rational anyway; disagreement at least is feeling something and being able to in turn clarify one’s own position. Perhaps indifference is the worst possibility…

  68. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Hello Ming !
    It was a big surprise to read in the beginning of your article :
    “My critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul.”
    Is it important what they are saying?
    My best wishes to you and your family.
    Sincerely,
    Anatoly

    • No, it’s not. I merely wanted to point out that to have strong feelings about anything still requires emotion, even if it’s not warm and fuzzy. But many do not realise that…

    • Wilbur Norman says:

      If those critiques are then followed by some instructive comments then, of course, it is important. Good criticism is one of the ways we all grow, no matter what endeavor.

      • I think by definition all good critiques contain some points to work on – it’s the stuff that’s indefensible and unfixable that’s unhelpful. ‘I don’t like it’ is not something actionable; ‘I don’t like it because one side is too dominant’ is. 🙂

  69. Don’t know that I can provide much in terms of explanatory power here, Ming — as you’ll recall I came to the Master Class with the goal of injecting more emotional content into my own images (put another way, “soul.”).

    My hypothesis is that emotional content in images is most likely an intangible capture of the emotional effect that the subject and situation had on the shooter at the time the image is made. I’m told quite often that my watch images are “obviously shot by someone who LOVES watches” even though I never start out with the objective of imbuing those inanimate objects with emotion. Perhaps the camera truly can reflect the “soul” of the shooter?

    • The camera can only reflect the shooter if the shooter has enough control over his or her tools – then, I agree. We cannot express something if we lack the vocabulary or language to do so, but we can also not honestly express something beyond what we ourselves actually feel…

  70. I believe this “soul” equation refers, more than anything, to “mood”. Same as in music, where you have the different genres and moods within them (uplifting, brooding, passionate, melancholy, festive, hopeful, despairing, etc), you can convey a specific mood, spirit, perhaps style under the broad categories of photography.

    • It’s a great question – what is soul?

      I’d agree that it’s mood, and connecting the audience to the mood. Regardless of soul being a specific mood, it’s the application of photographic aspects to convey the desired mood. There’s the sense there’s a human behind the lens with a human story to tell. Gritty, cold moods are easy to make (IMO), whereas warm, inviting ones are very difficult. Human subjects are obviously a huge influence on the mood of an image, as the mood of the subject is generally clear and easy to understand. It’s not always necessary though, as a lavishly decorated room filled with curls of incense smoke and warm light coming through the windows can still feel intimate without anyone in it.

      Regarding this set of images, it’s generally trying to give mood to inanimate objects, which is really difficult to do. When people are used they’re turning away, starting into the distance and generally feeling disconnected (except for one with direct eye contact, but then the mood I get is ‘what are you doing here, go away’). That is a mood, and it’s worth recognising that. But making the audience feel distant and disconnected to the subject does feel like the opposite to ‘soul’. It may also feel like it’s distancing the audience from the photographer, though on deeper reflection I don’t think this is the case.

      It may be obvious given this is a public space, but why are there no family photos in this list? I’ve seen some soulful work from you before when documenting the family.

      • “But making the audience feel distant and disconnected to the subject does feel like the opposite to ‘soul’. “ Is that because the automatic association with ‘soul’ is necessarily individual, human, and in the popularised context of music? Isn’t soul also emotion, and an absence of emotion – rationality – is still a feeling…

        Family: objectivity is impossible. I can’t post and image and say it carries soul because it includes individuals and people to whom I have a connection and relationship beyond them being my photographic subjects. It is impossible to separate that in curation and assess whether there is actual emotional conveyance in the composition and image, or whether it’s just me projecting through my subconscious.

        • “I can’t post and image and say it carries soul because it includes individuals and people to whom I have a connection”

          Yes you can. I’d say this is the very definition of soul, if you can capture that the look and those feelings. Besides, why would you need perfect objectivity?

          • Because you run the risk of simply posting another crap photo of your kid that you’re so blind to and can’t accept that nobody else cares about except you and perhaps your immediate family, because it has no artistic or compositional merit…and I’m not going to take that risk.

  71. You are accomplishing what we try to do with the digital camera and it is nothing short of amazing success. But because of resolution it lacks the room for imagination on the part of viewers. Your images are so pricise and project the coldness. Nonetheless your images look great.

    • Does resolution really affect imagination, though? I would have thought it offers the opposite, in the form of heightened transparency and believability…

      • If you compre your images with such high level precision to the classic oil paints, you can tell which generate more imagination. They are different media and we may not look for the traditional sense of soul. Motherless your images are great!

        • Ah, but an 800px web jpeg isn’t ever going to compete with an 8ft oil painting 🙂

          • What I am saying is that people may be looking for style of “soul” seen and felt in oil paint in your hirez photo which has its own and different style “soul”. No matter what you do ,there are always people who are not happy. You have more than enough fan.

            • Ah, chiaroscuro: perhaps they are looking for the mystery or ambiguity in what is hidden/not shown?

              It’s not about the fans, it’s understanding how people think…

              • Please do not catch up with wording too much. You know what I mean by fan. They are who like and admire your works!

Trackbacks

  1. […] if the necessary process of getting there seems indiscriminate and heartless. Perhaps that elusive concept of ‘soul’ in an image is precisely this: one in which objective, aesthetic and subject work together in a way that […]

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