Personal favourite images from 2016: or, a year in curation, part I (warning: possibly NSFW)

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Wet departure, Hong Kong
Bad weather is usually the bane of any available light/ documentary photographer – in this case, just the right amount of bad came together for a much stronger sense of atmosphere than if on a sunny day (that bit of atmosphere between subject and distant background helps, too)

I thought I’d try a little exercise to round off the year: aside from the usual introspective new year’s resolutions, I felt that a retrospective curation of work done the previous year might prove to be interesting from both an analytical standpoint and a higher level view of where I’m headed creatively. However, as with every curation exercise – there was a serious struggle to get it down to a manageable number, topped of by questions around emotional bias, wildly different subjects, and some images having significantly more sitting time than others (e.g. January vs December captures). I shot close to 50,000 frames in total, which is significantly less than in previous years, but tempered by the fact that a lot of that was controlled, deliberate single-shot capture off a tripod (‘conventional’ medium format style). Overall productivity remains the same, I think.

My usual hit rate (for images I consider portfolio grade) is averages about 1:20 after the medium format switch (more like 1:70-1:100 previously). For this exercise, I aimed for 50 images in total – a 1000:1 curation, and managed to get it down to 32, which I’ll present in two parts. To at least make the task somewhat easier, I set myself specific curation criteria, in roughly this order:

  1. The image must rate a ‘5’, at least to my eyes. This means that beyond the normal Four Things, there has to be something unique, temporal, serendipitous or unexpected about it.
  2. The story (or idea) must be strong.
  3. It must be aesthetically pleasing – again, this is highly subjective, but curated to my personal tastes (feel free to disagree)
  4. Technical qualities must be as good as possible given the capture circumstances and camera used, which means critically sharp pixels and preservation of at least one if not both dimensions. Note how this is in position 4: technical quality comes last on this list, but there’s no reason to compromise if you don’t have to.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of images in this set were shot with the H5D-50c, because that was my workhorse this year; by the numbers, I’ve got quite a spread though: E-M1.2 (1); 501CM/CFV-50c (1); H5D-50c (23); H6D-50c (3); Sony A7RII (1); iPhone 6+ (1); Leica Q (1); D810 (1). The only absentee camera I used but had no representation was the Canon 100D, which was mostly for family grabs (and unsurprisingly, these aren’t really that interesting).

Finally, advance apologies to the dissenters: they’re getting titles, and a few lines of explanation or thoughts as to why the images ‘stick’ for me. Secondly, this may be a good exercise to try yourself if you’ve got some time over a few days; don’t try to do it all at once, because it’s too easy to hit saturation after a few hours and a few thousand images. Some sitting time is also required to review the final curation, too. If there’s one thing I take away personally from the exercise, it’s that my style has become even more precise and controlled than last year, with more use of color and fully exploiting the extended dynamic range from the larger sensors. Despite a lot of experiments in a more layered, Saul-Leiter-esque style, none of those images (hundreds, actually) made the final curation – I just didn’t like them enough; perhaps the message isn’t quite as strong or the overall coherence not quite as mature.

Time for some images!

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Wanting out
There are so many emotions and interpretations that go with this image for me – a child reaching out to a parent; reaching out to explore; trying to escape; or perhaps it’s a metaphor for ourselves trying to make sense of a world that’s never really fully possible.

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Under Metropolis
The elegant flow of shadows, the focus and intensity, the curl of sparks – I find this evocative of both the art deco era and a kind of grandeur past. That, the curved structure, and the way force seems to be projected from the anonymous worker supports my underlying desire to create an appreciation for the people who make the world we take for granted.

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Bodyline VI
Strength in the upraised fist, grace in the right hand; an abstraction of hard and soft form underpinned by human beauty.

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Urban rainbow
This image was actually shot out of the studio window immediately after the Bodyline series – I have no title for it, but included it not just because it appeals to me at an aesthetic level, but because it represents the dichotomy in my photography: I can plan and light and control everything, but I much prefer to observe, see, distil and react spontaneously – there were no other people with coloured umbrellas after that one, and the rain was too heavy before (and things quickly dried out afterwards).

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Fighting entropy
A metaphor for life, really: we battle to preserve order and beauty, but must always keep the dirt at bay – and the green monsters top-right can be merely observing, jealously trolling, waiting to pounce or simply our misinterpretation of the natural course of things – or all of the above.

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Gravitation is relative II
Light where you want the top to be, not where it has to be under the dictates of gravity. Real surrealism, no lights, some gymnastics, and a little imagination.

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Illusions of popularity
This is the hot party you weren’t invited to: we don’t know what’s happening inside the wall, but it looks rather inviting from outside especially when compared to the surroundings. Yet things are not quite perfect, either: look closely at the string of lights.

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The wall III
If you look very closely at the full size image or a print, you’ll still find irrepressible signs of personality in all of that faceless corporate anonymity: there’s still hope.

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Head in the clouds
A surrealist moment: who do the legs belong to? What does the body language suggest? Is there a hint or clue to the thoughts (head) just barely visible, and the direction and objects faced?

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Thoughtful work
I can only come to the inescapable conclusion that I have a thing for welding – it must be the intensely directional and colored light of the arc torches, or the stark resulting textures in everything else. Construction should be thoughtful work: decisions made here tend to last much longer than anywhere else.

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Postmodernist temple
This building’s podium level reminded me of nothing so much as a reinterpretation of a classical Greek temple, but heavily reduced and minimised. What you can’t see – deliberately – is that the area has bene repurposed to the worship of leisure in the form of entertainment areas and swimming pools, instead of the pursuit of knowledge and faith – I suppose it’s a good analogy to the state of society today, too.

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The zip
Highways part to reveal your final destination. It may not have been what you expected or desired, but it’s what everybody else says you should want. Conform, or otherwise, at your own risk.

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Sunset idyll
The most remarkable thing about this image is the colours are as accurate as I could make them to the original scene. If anything, I had to tone things down a little. Places like this do exist…

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Sensuality I
There’s something richly textured, relaxed yet slightly tense and inviting about the figure here – with pose mirrored by the tap. The shadows suggest more than the highlights reveal and leave the rest to the imagination. Shot impromptu at the end of the Bodyline series.

Part two continues here from 30/12/2016.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Comments

  1. Wow. The monster over the wall, the lamp, creeping lamp shadow, the look of concern over her shoulder…brilliant. It speaks to my style, and yet this entire post is spectacular. Thank you for sharing.

  2. That’s quite a variety of styles and subjects for one year, even in part I (and forgetting all the experimentation that didn’t make it here).

    It’s also educational, as some pointed out below. I think the most challenging type of image to ‘make work’ and also most risky to show is one with very literal subject/s but very implied message, like “Fighting entropy” (strangely familiar scene, btw 😉 I would expect that one to divide the audience.

    I find myself favouring the documentary shots with strong use of colours, but I’m not sure they’d work as well if the other types weren’t there to provide eye relief and something different for the mind to process. Perhaps that’s something to consider in making larger sets.

    • Thanks Tarmo 🙂

      Documentary: I agree, and I think it’s because they were shot to go in a sequence with other images to provide narrative flow; that’s a different sort of image to standalones.

  3. Wow! Fantastic work, Ming. Very nice collection. Looking forward to new posts from you in the new year!

  4. I think the one taken with the iPhone was the best of the bunch (imo). Brides magazine editors should definitly read this article.

  5. Michiel953 says:

    Hi Ming, interesting selection, well worth a thorough look. I find image #4, Urban rainbow, fascinates me most, if only because of all the lines, pointing in puzzling directions.

    A February 2011 image of mine, slightly similar, was included in Sean McDonnell’s fascinating book ‘Ambiguous’, published through Blurb. The link to my image is included here:

    • Michiel953 says:

      Ho ho, that came out indecently bigger than I anticipated. Sorry about that Ming!

      Cheers

      Michiel

    • I think it’s the visual non-sequitur of the planes appearing impossible: the road is too vertical, the man is too horizontal, or something between…

      • I think it’s the multitude of lines with no apparent sense of direction, flattened against or pressed into a greyish background with additional (adding to the confusion) direction pointers that attracts me most in this image. I, respectfully, could have done without the figure with colourful umbrella.

        This image inspired me to look again at my abandoned shoe with direction pointers image and, for some reason, I’ve started to see abandoned shoes in Amsterdam. Which I duly photographed.

        Happy New Year to you and yours Ming!

  6. Philip Brindle says:

    Dear Ming,

    I liked your image ‘The zip’ best of all from this collection. Well done, thanks for sharing.

    Best wishes to you and yours in 2017…

  7. Amazing images love your work

  8. I love your curation guidelines — just as i LOVE your images. Stunning work, Ming. Expect me to stop by for inspiration (and instruction) again and again.

  9. Really great images — I like a lot the gravitational trick! Just the idea is outstanding. The execution plain perfect. And BTW, thanks for the title and the comments, I find them really helpful and great teaching points.

  10. What a fabulous collection of photos! I especially like the ones of workers — it’s the little things that make me see a city in a new way. Best wishes for a great new year! — Rusha Sams

  11. Junaid Rahim says:

    My first thought was ‘only’ 50000 shots. That is not a lot for you Ming!

    What I find interesting in these images is the varied subjects – of course your style is consistent and I can see some of the preciseness you speak of but I doubt we’d have seen such a set a few years back (especially the more risqué shots). The whole subject of it being a ‘5’ is less so important looking at the whole body of work for the year.

    Look forward to the next set 🙂

    • It really isn’t; I’ve bene shooting far less and thinking far more with MF, and whilst quantity is much lower – I think peak Nikon days in 2014/2015 were of the 200-300,000 frame count – I think quality has definitely benefitted from more thought 🙂

      “I doubt we’d have seen such a set a few years back”
      I think you’re right, but I think the reasons why have as much to do with being more confident about what I want out of an image and not settling for compromises as much as experimentation not so much for the sake of ‘seeing how it will look’ – but starting with the idea first and then trying to make the visual translation.

      • Junaid Rahim says:

        ‘seeing how it will look’ – what’s interesting about that is over the years you’ve been teaching us to try visualising beforehand the idea yet even for yourself you’ve ‘only’ just managed to really be confident in doing it.

        Show’s how hard that really is to achieve and how far we mere amateurs have to go in getting there 🙂

  12. There’s some lovely work here. I especially like Under Metropolis for its b/w use of light and shadow; it gives the blue and rusty red on the wall a lot of punch. I also enjoy Postmodernist Temple for the great definition it shows even though contrast is moderate. It’s a soothing image.

  13. Number 3 (the suspended welder) catches my attention the most. Chiaroscuro in photography can be just as effective as in painting. You have done it splendidly.

  14. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Purely a personal thing – I love the first one, Ming – conditions like that are very challenging, an intriguing challenge for you, and the result is stunningly good photography.
    I’d hate to be the judge at a photography competition if you put in multiple entries, Ming – I’d go nuts trying to find one to label “best in show” 🙂

  15. Looking forward to part II already. My favourites from the ones shown above are: Under Metropolis (numero uno by far) and the Wall III.

  16. I usually try to avoid going overboard, but several of these pictures are just staggering (in the best possible sense of the word). No other word for it. I imagine part 2 will be the same.

    Other than the images, it’s also interesting for me to read this kind of article because the way you think about photography and curation is pretty much the absolute opposite of how I think about it. I do wait before curating, but when I’m going through my images, I can usually decide in an instant if I’m going to keep it or not. The ones that don’t make the cut rarely even make it into Adobe Bridge. Once in a while I’ll open a photo in Bridge before realizing that I don’t like it enough, but it usually doesn’t even get that far. It’s a very quick, intuitive process.

    On top of that, I usually openly resist analyzing a picture to find out “why” I like it. There’s no conscious reason for doing this; it’s just how my personality operates.

    In any case, roll on part 2!

    • “the way you think about photography and curation is pretty much the absolute opposite of how I think about it.” ” I can usually decide in an instant if I’m going to keep it or not. The ones that don’t make the cut rarely even make it into Adobe Bridge.”
      Out of curiosity – have you ever tried keeping everything and going back later? I used to do the same process as you, and with too much volume to go through – I never had time to do a second pass. I shoot less with MF which leaves me time to look over stuff again, which sometimes yields some unexpected bonuses from the B roll.

      • Actually, no, I’ve never done that, probably because of my “gut reaction ” way of curating, plus the fact that I consider curation and postprocessing to be a sort of “one shot” process : once it’s done, that’s it. So far I’ve never regretted not keeping an image. Nevertheless, it could be an interesting experiment to try that method…

  17. Thanks for sharing! Appreciate your mental filters, constructs and commentary. And, of course, your images. Best wishes for 2017!!

  18. Some standout images!! Think i might try to view this years images using your overlay….really useful 😊

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  1. […] Continued from part I: a curation and analysis of my favourite work from 2016. […]

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