Shifts in subject matter over time

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2017

A recent discussion with some photographer friends centred around changes in our output over time – with almost all of us present (7/8) remarking that what we shot now was very different from what we shot when we started out – or even halfway through our careers. The eighth man was a relative beginner, with 3-4 years of experience compared to the 10 (or 15, or even 20+) years in the rest of the group’s case. The funny thing was that most of us never even noticed it happening; it sort of just did. In a lot of cases, we don’t really feel that different about working with our current subjects as compared to earlier ones, either. I left thinking that a lot of what is commonly perpetuated in the art and commercial worlds (“So-and-so must be great because they has 30 years of experience shooting the same thing”) may well be both untrue and a deliberate delusion.

Here’s where the alternative working title for this post comes in: You won’t be shooting the same thing forever.

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2008

The most obvious underlying causes are due to what we eventually termed ‘organic personal changes’ – from something as simple as picking up portraiture or biasing towards family documentary with the arrival of a child, for instance; or photographing subject matter that you become interested in outside photography (in the instance of one of the group, cycling). I myself started photography this way: firstly, to document some of my university experiences (abject failure; I had neither the understanding or technique to have the level of control I required to say what I wanted, not the funds to buy enough film to practice, or hardware beyond a point and shoot) – then later on, as part of the horological hobby. I wanted to buy myself a decent watch, but had a limited budget and one bullet to fire; somehow in the course of research I landed up falling completely down the rabbit hole and out the other side into the world of independent and extremely high end horology – needless to which to say I didn’t – and still don’t – have any hope in hell of affording. I instead collected knowledge and photographs of the watches of friends who were kind enough to let me stick them inside my diffuser box. Naturally, I wasn’t happy with the results because they were both miles from what I saw, and miles from what I was seeing both other people and the commercial guys produce. The quest, as they say, was on.

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2011

The next set of changes I think of as environmental and/or business-related: if you’re only shooting as a hobby and have limited time and funds, the rate of improvement/ change will be naturally much slower; leave it too long betweens sessions and you probably won’t see any improvement at all because we have a tendency to forget if we don’t practice. On the other hand, if you land up shooting intensively – you’ll eventually reach a point where you wonder if you could do this for more than a hobby, or at any rate use it to partially offset the costs involved. One of two things happens at this point: either you find that what you enjoy shooting doesn’t match what’s commercially viable, and you change focus to match (usually, if you’ve already made the leap, or if your repertoire is diverse anyway) – or you abandon the idea. Naturally, the first option results in a shift towards what does work economically – and the second tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth, resulting in a subconscious shift anyway.

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2011

As a pro, one has to be very careful not to pick the best of all the work you do to display in your portfolio: if you do, you’ll be hired with a scope to generally match what you’ve shot before. In other words: your portfolio is self-reinforcing. This is important, because it means that if you’re shooting subject matter that’s just to pay the bills – rather than because you enjoy it – there’s a very high risk that you’ll land up losing creative drive because you’re not working with inspiring subjects. The converse is also of course possible: you land up finding new inspiration from subjects you might not otherwise have considered previously. I know this has happened to me personally with industrial and heavy engineering documentary work.

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2011

There’s also the question of hardware and technical capability: I don’t like to place too much emphasis on this simply because I believe the period where digital hardware was truly a limitation has passed; even if this was certainly the case as late as five years ago. We can now produce higher quality results under a wider shooting envelope than ever (both light and physical circumstances); AF tracking systems are more prescient; post processing is more flexible, and cost accessibility better than ever. There are really no excuses. However – there was a time when each generational leap opened up new possibilities; I remember the D3 allowing all sorts of ‘available darkness’ work; today, noise levels are comparable or lower on M4/3, with double the resolution. Pushing the envelope to see what else we could do, and how that could be integrated with our creative choices, was both liberating, commercially differentiating, and successes egged you on to keep going. Curiously, lighting hardware hasn’t fundamentally changed much – yes, there are more portable options, but we haven’t fundamentally gotten that much more power or flexibility.

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2012

I also think that beyond a certain level, technique becomes universal – any of my students will tell you that the basics really don’t change with subject matter: you still need to light, to isolate, to compose and structure, and to know what you want to say. You might have more or less flexibility, but fundamentally – you’re still working with the same visual vocabulary, whether you’re writing about people or landscapes or watches. With experience, a photographer can a decent job with any subject matter: but the truly great photographs require understanding of the subject matter beyond the visual; without that, there can be no story, and without knowing the story you want to tell, it’s impossible to structure an image that is beyond skin deep. What I find more interesting though is cross pollination of specialist techniques across subject matter: lighting that I use for watches, for instance, can be applied at a larger scale to cars; or stealth and observation with wildlife used for reportage and documentary of people. I think of it as the visual analog to having a bigger vocabulary.

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2012

A bit of research shows that a lot of the famous/ successful photographers shoot across genres and subject matter, even though I’ve been told by countless galleries and industry pundits (including Magnum representatives, who went so far as to suggest that you should only ever work in color or black and white but not both) that to be an expert you can and must only do one thing etc – I think the truth is you should probably curate your displayed work to be limited to only the work you want to do more off and be known for, but not limit your own personal creative experimentation. I can see the value in focus, but simply fail to see how you can be so sure that a single subject and/or style is the way without having tried enough other options. Apparently it’s impossible for people to be good at more than one thing, or so rare that it’s believed to be impossible*.

*I think of this as the ego problem: I can’t do it therefore nobody else possibly can, and because assessment is subjective, I can continue to believe what I want.

Yet if you look at the greater body of work of the same artists cited as examples, it’s clear that cross-pollination was hugely responsible for the work they were famous for. Magritte was also a photographer, as was Kubrick; neither were known for it. Salgado’s recent work is heavily dominated by landscapes – all in a distinct, dramatic style – even though he’s almost always known for his work with people. Most really commercially successful pros will be able to pull together a credible portfolio of work from any subject, because at some point they’ll have shot it – even if that’s not what they want to be known for. Even I’ve shot a few weddings.

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2014

I’ve illustrated this article with a series of watch photographs because that’s perhaps the subject matter with the greatest longevity and consistency for me; whilst I photograph few watches now for various reasons** – I still do a few assignments a year, plus photograph personal pieces. Some of these images will still make the portfolio because I think they’re representative of what I want to shoot. It also turns out that 2011-2012 was the period of greatest experimentation and progress for me personally and professionally with this subject – which was not what I thought going into this article. And the longevity of subject matter makes for a good barometer; I’ve tried to select images that are representative of my general work at the time of capture.

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2016

Even though my personal interest has so far outlasted my involvement in photography, it’s clear that both my way of photographing, my vision and my own subject interests have changed – that’s the organic and business shift I was alluding to earlier. I think from my best of 2016 curation (part I, part II) it’s clear that both my personal and professional subject matter are completely different to where I started out – when perhaps 90% of my work was horological. I can only wonder what I’ll be shooting in another ten years… MT

**A lack of interest in retouching, the desire to keep another hobby separate and non-commercial and purely for personal enjoyment, local market protectionism meaning hiring of foreign photographers has greatly dropped in the last few years, the rise of CG images etc.

I cover basic watch photography in three parts here, here and here.

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

Comments

  1. It occurs to me that your 2017 image is the beginnings of a convergence of ultimate optical acuity as art, with your photographic predecessors’ technique who incorporated makro symmars and rodenstocks and 8×10 film and double polarized light to produce the most stunning examples of watch entrails. I believe MOMA has one perhaps more examples of a watch photographer’s work as above in their collection (name not recalled but of French descent). Know thy history and you shall be one with it as there is nothing new under studio lighting that one cannot make their own. From that standpoint you are almost there.? If you have not tried it, I encourage your exploration. Yes 8×10 film is acutely expensive. I think you will find the H6d-100 is not quite there unless you stitch to produce max DOF. I would be interested in your findings.

    • The 2017 image was already stacked – had to be. I think that exceeds 8×10 because of pixel clarity, though. The only two challenges are these kinds of images really don’t come to life except as very large prints, and not every subject is interesting enough to justify that kind of magnification, either!

  2. I do hope, in 10 years you’ll be shooting your own Axel Lange watches 😉

  3. Winn Halverhout says:

    Ming, as I was reading down this wonderful evolutionary post, it was quite apparent to me that the quality of your images improved dramatically between 2011 and 2012. Then as I read further, you revealed that you noticed the same thing (even though you weren’t anticipating that) and that the 2011-2012 time period was a time of greatest experimentation and progress both professionally and personally. Can you elaborate, either here or in a separate posting, what you were doing during this time that you believe resulted in this growth, particularly in distinguishing between the professional and personal aspects of that growth? For those of us who have hit (or perceive to be hitting) a creative wall or may be going a stagnancy period, the steps you took in 2011-2012 that you believe were critical to this improvement would be helpful. Thanks as always!

    • Actually, I don’t think I did anything differently, but it was a period of immense personal/professional frustration; what I wasn’t getting out of my day job, I had to find elsewhere. I was putting a lot more effort into photography as a result because it was giving me better intellectual return and personal satisfaction. This was the period immediately before I left corporate. It coincided with an unusually high (for that time) number of photographic commissions; perhaps I was doubly motivated by both the new opportunities and frustration in the day job. Needless to say – I don’t think I can recommend this as a means of freeing stagnation, but variety definitely didn’t do any harm! 🙂

  4. Your article can also apply to my job, project manager. The portfolio can be compared to the curriculum vitea. Over the years, the types of managed projects (and how I manage them) are changing. The selection of my next work is done on the same principles as yours and my approach on the selected one is constantly evolving. I consider the subject of your article as universal!

  5. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I suspect it’s in part a growth in our knowledge and skill set, which opens the door to possibilities that weren’t “ours”, back at the start. And as in any creative field, a desire to expand our horizons and try something new, something different. Even if it’s no more than a different way of doing the same thing.

    Technology also gives the process a boost – things we couldn’t have done “way back then” were, possibly, things we couldn’t do with the gear we had at the time. That said – an interesting challenge is to ask someone with all the junk imaginable to try his or her hand at using a one hundred year old folding camera, to see what photos they can produce with it. Too often, these days, what may be perceived as “our” skills is merely something that the particular camera does for every user – rolling things back to less sophisticated gear might be a good testing ground, for the skills we claim to have.

    • There’s that, too – but those skills can only be acquired when we do change something in the process (subject, location, hardware etc.) to force ourselves to learn again.

      I find less sophisticated gear quite liberating – probably one of the reasons I love my 501CM so much…aperture, shutter speed, focus, timing of release, and a whopping great viewfinder – that’s all you get 🙂

  6. Stefan Zielonka says:

    Thoughtful and interesting article, Ming, thank you. Without change there is litle progress individually nor as a society. Anyway!!
    Ming, when I saw upur photo of the watch with the toothpick-flag and “moon” to the right, it reminded me of one illustration in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild THIngs Are” and it’s the image of Max sailing in his boat. Just a thought. Great author and book, great article and photographer. Thanks.
    Stefan

  7. The first 2011 image hits so many sweet spots for me. Wonderful article… I’m facing a bit of a frustrating creative block due to repetition of subject and approach; repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think. As an enthusiast, it’s allowed me to do postmortems, so to speak, and compare/contrast with recent efforts which has taught me quite a bit. But it’s stifling as well. Or maybe I’m falling into a beginner’s trap by allowing it to stifle the process (i.e., “how do I manage creative latitude within these constraints?”)

    Regardless, I’ve been rueing the day I ever bought a tripod/ND filters because they’re starting to feel like manacles. Maybe I need to hit the streets/alleys and do a little exploration. 🙂

    • Actually, I think the creative block imposed by the same subject too often is one of the reasons why we need to continually diversify to get new ideas and approaches to cross-apply; the whole adage of ‘to be a good specialist you really also need to be a generalist’ to know the edge cases… 🙂

  8. Sven Illert says:

    Thanks for this article, Ming!

  9. I am 67 years old, and I got my first camera when I was eight years old. There has been only one significant change in my photographic life – my work before, and my output after I had taken a couple of courses at Ming. Needless to say: the result has improved dramatically . . .

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