Repost: Derivative works and photography

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Influenced by the architect? Surely. Created by him? About as much as it was created by Apple, because it was shot on an iPhone.

I originally wanted to call this article ‘is anything truly original?’ – however, I think that’s the concluding question I’d like to leave the reader with rather than the opening one. There has been a lot of debate recently – both in the comments here, offline amongst my usual correspondents and in various places on the internet about why a) photography is perhaps not perceived as ‘highly valued’ as other art forms; b) obviously derivative works and the creative value – or lack of – contained therein; and the greater question of whether c) the medium as a legitimate creative art form rather than merely a recording/ documentary one. Perhaps the biggest question is in the title: ‘but is it art?’

Firstly, each individual’s definition of art is so subjective that I’m not going to attempt to define it here. I’ve been told that it can’t be art unless there’s a masterful control of technique demonstrated; at the same time, if it’s nothing but technique and it doesn’t ‘touch my soul’, then it isn’t art, either. But what touches the soul of an individual differs from individual to individual – therefore how can we make a work that hits all the targets across a broad spectrum? The short answer is, we can’t, and we shouldn’t try – because it would become a near miss for many rather than perfect for at least one person. Each individual’s soft spots will have been moulded by their experiences and history; our biases are nurture rather than nature. Therefore, the first consideration is that at very least we as the creator must be moved by our own work – moved enough to create it, moved enough to feel at least some sense of pain/ longing when faced with the possibility of selling the only copy.

This brings me to the next point: fundamentally, photography is thought of as a derivative work; it is not a primary medium in the same sense a painting is a primary medium. This results in two consequences: firstly, photographs are normally reproducible in an identical, indistinguishable way: if you can have two of something, the value of exclusivity will instantly halve (or worse). It doesn’t help that photographs are very easily creditable by anybody; it isn’t a technically or physically difficult process anymore. (That said, doing it well is no easier than it has ever been – the rules of composition and seeing have always transcended time and equipment.) Beyond that, the medium is always a representation of the real world in the sense that the artist does not have the freedom to create the impossible with purely their own skill and imagination; yes, you can move the objects around in a still life, change the lighting, and then go to town in Photoshop, but most would argue that it’s more difficult to paint that than manipulate it later. I beg to differ: to manipulate things in PS is easy; but to do it convincingly and well is actually incredibly difficult. Is there an enormous chunk of skill and at least a dollop of art in good retouching? Absolutely. Wherever a subjective judgement has to be applied – in how much brush to use, or whether to use method A or B, and there are no right or wrong answers – just perceived results – then you can argue that there’s something beyond just craftsmanship.

In fact, I would argue the converse over painting, drawing and other media where the artist has total freedom: photography is in many ways confined by the laws of physics. There are things we cannot physically do, but painters can; variable forced perspective in a single frame, for instance. It’s difficult even to do that convincingly in Photoshop. Lighting, camera position – these things are becoming increasingly feasible with accessibility of new technology such as low-cost helicopters. Being constrained (mostly) by the physical forces us to get creative; it forces those of us who want to tell stories to find a way of doing it within the realm of the possible. Beyond that, there’s frequently also a timing issue: a painting can take many years to finish, but still represent the same instant in time. A photograph with a shutter speed of 1/1000s can only ever represent that 1/1000s instant in time – not before, not after. That moment is fleeting and transient, and if that’s the only moment that represents your story and you miss it – too bad.

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Hommage to Mondrian.

Bottom line: it is a very different skill set, much as how lost-wax casting sculpture is different from charcoal drawing. Neither is more valid or real an interoperation of the subject than the other – the suitability of the medium depends only on the objective of the creator/ artist and their skill at applying it. The same goes for photography: there are some ideas best represented with the minimalism of a watercolor painting; but sometimes you also need the intensity and perceived realism of a photograph.

Notice how I didn’t say realism outright, but perceived realism: all photographic reproduction media attempt faithful presentation of an image, but ultimately the source image itself is a reproduction of something: so it can never be reality. One of the challenges is that our brains perceived this as reality because all of the visual cues are in place, and it’s so similar to the way we normally see the world – if it appears to be close enough, then it probably is. Even if the reproduction is ‘coloured’ – think instagram filters – our brains can still separate out the bias from the base content; why not go the other way and seek out as much reality as possible? That was my personal objectives for the Ultraprints: they do not attempt so much to be photographs in the traditional sense, but immersive vignettes. (You may find this article on ensuring the art/ purpose transcends the process interesting.) It’s one of the reasons why they tend to work better with larger, more detailed scenes and less so with tight closeups or strong depth of field isolation; these situations are simply not immersive enough to make full use of the medium’s resolving power.

I would certainly argue that a properly executed Ultraprint – both subject matter and process – is art, and not just because I’m producing them. Derivative work or not, art makes you stop, think and observe: and that’s just what the prints do, providing I get the subject matter right. And that’s much more difficult to accomplish than the technical part of the process. You could actually go one step further than: if only one print was ever made, and all source files or negatives deleted/ destroyed after that, what would stop it from being more exclusive than a single painting? In short, nothing. We have eliminated the argument for erosion of value due to reproducibility. Would I ever do this? Probably not, but I will (and do already) limit the number of copies of any image in circulation. I believe in doing this both to protect the future value of the image, and the investment of my buyers. But I won’t delete files, nor will I create images specifically targeted at a crowd with the aim of financial gain: they have to pass my personal approval first. I should always be my own strictest critic, at least where personal/ art work is concerned. If not, then I feel a lot of the integrity in creation is lost.

The whole argument for integrity in a photograph is a tough one, with many fine edges and grey fuzzy borders; photojournalism requires no removal or addition of elements that weren’t originally there to begin with, but alteration of contrast, color and tone both locally and globally is ok – as if that doesn’t affect the perceived image. The sky is the limit for commercial, and usually things tend to go too far, to the point that the presented interpretation reality isn’t physically possible anymore. I think if it’s obvious this is fine, but when it isn’t and most people can’t tell – it does feel borderline dishonest. Frankly, the whole act of composition itself is selective exclusion, and affects the perceived image. By this logic, either all photographs are all integral, or none are.

But we could very much say the same of every other self-generated art form: they are born of the artist’s interpretation. They too are derivative works, whether they’re derivatives of nature (e.g. portraits, landscapes) or something else – e.g. a painting inspired by a photograph or vice versa. Is a painting of a landscape garden the creation of the landscape architect or the painter? Similarly, is a photograph of a building the creation of the architect, or the photographer? I’ve been told before that because every single angle and sight line is considered by architects when designing a building, my composition isn’t original: it already existed in the mind of the architect somewhere. Except, there’s no way they could envision what would be built afterwards, or the quality of light on that particular day, or the way a solitary cloud in the right place completes the composition when using the right angle of view. Inspired by? Certainly. Created by? Certainly not.

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Can you identify the influence? I’m sure there is one, but I can’t for the life of me figure out who it was.

I think it’s because the appearance of a photograph is far too close an approximation to reality that causes society as a whole to have a problem with accepting a photograph as a pure art form. Compounded with that is the ease with which anybody can make a – usually mediocre – image. The lack of understanding of just how much thinking must go into the creation of a visually and conceptually coherent image is partially to blame; those who understand the industry and process – I’m looking at you, creative agencies – are equally guilty for only ascribing value when they have to bill clients for use.

We live in a visual, interactive, media-saturated world. Most people are net content consumers, not creators; this means we are influenced more than we influence – even somebody with output as prolific as myself will probably see far more material than he will ever produce in their lifetime. The bombardment is constant, conscious and subconscious – what we don’t acknowledge sticks, too. A good example would be clouds: my current interpretation of them is heavily influenced by Rene Magritte; but my awareness of him came from the 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair in which The Son of Man played a starring role. And I only watched that because I liked Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. I think the chain of causality is fairly clear – though at the same time it’s not at all obvious why James Bond should have influenced my predilection for and the way I photograph clouds.

It would, however, be very different if I just made photographs that looked exactly like Magritte’s paintings, or worse, paintings – then there’d be no originality at all; my ‘creation’ would be recognisable as one of his, not one of mine. And there we have another important realisation: you may well be the first to create something (unlikely in the art world, more likely in areas where the technology or methodology didn’t previously exist), but you’ll only be remembered for it if you are publicly and popularly associated with it: that unfortunately means he who shouts the loudest (or is most visible) has priority of mind amongst the audience. Asserting your copyright is a matter of both registering it, but being able to defend it – and if you don’t have deep pockets, then visibility is your best bet. Thankfully, social media and the internet makes it easy – or relatively easier.

Bottom line: everything is a derivative work. What matters is whether we put enough of our own individual mix of biases into the interpretation to make it different enough that those biases dominate over the original source. And with that, we’re nicely cued up for the next article… MT

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Comments

  1. Just a few thoughts about your lovely images and thoughts. The architect (I am one) usually does consider light, time of day, building sight lines, etc. when designing a building. However, they cannot capture a moment in the future. The space/time continuum is a conundrum for architects as they can capture or form spaces as the exact time and circumstances in which they are constantly experienced can never be anticipated.Therefore, it begs the question if architects can truly capture or mold a space. Time offers an unknown variable in the architectural equation. The time component is most commonly analyzed by the architect as durability of materials, conversion/flexibility of uses, decay, sometimes installations/building movement (witness the new “shed” in Manhattan by Diller/Scofidio) and the development of the local environment in which the building is located.
    In an effort to control this last dimension, architects such as Mies Van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright were notorious for trying to control the environment of their spaces, to the point of alienation of the occupant. No personal photos, no off the shelf housewares, no painting or material changes, no plants, etc. I believe this was their attempt at total control of the experience of architecture. By controlling personal elements/touches, the notion that a building (and consequently its architectural experience) will change with occupants and time, is eliminated. The building design stands “pure” and “timeless.” I believe they would have loved if two photos taken of their buildings decades apart were exactly the same.
    It is true that sometimes architects try to visualize their buildings in all kinds of light and environments but the ultimate control of a moment’s time is in the hands of the artist capturing the moment. I can write pages about my approach to photographing architecture and why I try to find vantage points not necessarily studied or anticipated (in my opinion) by the architect. But that’s for a different time. I will, however, leave on a different note.
    Your most work has seemed to develop into a style in which your photos are becoming more “polished.” There is a hint of the time and process taken to develop them for publishing (the web is my reference, I am not in a position to own an ultra print). Your photos are becoming, what appear to be, more deliberate in their presentation. No longer do I see moments captured, but moments created. It is a subtle distinction, but one I can’t shake…and I’m not sure how I feel about it, but to say I think your images are wonderful.

    • “However, they cannot capture a moment in the future.”
      Bingo: and this is what throws in the twist of interest for future users of the space/ observers of the users.

      “By controlling personal elements/touches, the notion that a building (and consequently its architectural experience) will change with occupants and time, is eliminated.”
      Whilst I can admire the single-mindedness at preserving purity of an idea, this surely defeats the point of architecture: it’s no longer a space for the people using it, but instead a statement of self of the architect (which is fine, presumably for the right client).

      Thanks for your thoughts from the other side of the creative fence – it’s good to know that sometimes what we see probably isn’t accidental. Personally, what’s changed isn’t so much the creation of a moment – but instead of the continued elimination of the extraneous and further distillation of an idea, which in turn would probably seem too controlled to be serendipitous…but often is. 🙂

      • James V says:

        Thanks for the response. While I have tried to verbalize the goal of the two architects mentioned (as examples of artists trying to control the experience of their art and/or to freeze it in time) it by no means was an endorsement of these goals. I find it ironic that the modernists espousing a new kind of living, thinking, etc. considered their works so fragile as to require this type of control for the sake of perpetuating a style. Perhaps is was born of creative intolerance; an “only the artist vision counts” type of thing…Mies was notorious for it, Wright less so. Rem Koolhaas has likened the architect’s job similar to that of a movie/film/stage director, obviously with different methods, tasks, disciplines, etc. but sharing similar functioning roles to create their respective works.The architect has become an assembler of various elements of building technology and construction, as a result of ever more divisions and complexities in specialty labor. According to Koolhaas, or this type of philosophy, the architect no longer personally “paints” or directly creates these solutions, but implements the agents who contribute to them in the construction of such a building (historical analogies have been made to the cathedrals, etc). It is another way of looking at the artist’s role. Credit to Ignasi de Sola-Morales’ book “Differences” for some of these thoughts. (An excellent read for those interested in the philosophies of architecture, and for me, all creative endeavors, in my opinion.)

        And thank you for clarification of your intent. The idea that as you aspire towards distillation of an idea (by eliminating the extraneous), you are creating what APPEARS to be a controlled photo, when in fact it may not be the case, is very intriguing. It reminds me of the process of artistic minimalism. As an architect, I know that the balance of a distilled idea and one that appears over labored is a fine balance indeed. I suppose all works of art have a “heightened” state vs a “serendipitous” one which is to say, a moment in time we patiently work to create vs the one in time created for us.

        Thanks for this site and your contributions. For me they have always been inspirational and thought provoking.

        • Lots of interesting references there to follow up on – thanks.

          As for control vs serendipity…I suspect all photography has to be serendipitous to a degree given the object/ subject itself is not created by the photographer but is essential a found object…

  2. Matthew Leeg says:

    Well said as always Ming.
    One quick grammatical note: In the second-to-last sentence in paragraph 7 it reads, “…won strictest critic”, when I think you intended to write, “own strictest critic”.
    Your grammar is typically excellent, but it makes me feel better that even you can transpose a letter or two from time. :- )

    Anyway cheers, and thank you for a thoughtful essay on a topic that is more relevant than ever for us as photographers. I think your conclusion is right on.

  3. Egmont Bonomi says:

    Yes, I find it best to be very careful with how much I expose myself to other creatives’ work. Especially looking at photographs of a location on Flickr prior to traveling there, that is probably THE worst mistake most people make! Yes, it might make you more efficient in terms of finding points of interest, however you do run the very real risk of just traveling all the way there to take a picture already ingrained in your subconscious by your casual visit to Flickr a few days prior! 😉

    • Actually, it’s almost the same thing when it comes to finding those points of interest to begin with – just actively ‘get lost’ and see where you land up rather than completing a checklist…I personally find it works much better.

  4. Geoffrey Wong says:

    Miro?

  5. My English has lots of limitations but I enjoyed very much your article and would like to remark a couple of view points.
    In the 20’s some people were trying to demonstrate that cinema was also art, Dziga Vertov made a book, I think that was called KinoOko, with a very interesting ideas about how to define art, mostly was about creating an emotion using a known and defined gramma different from any other. Obviously is not a definitive definition as there are lots of other concepts around, art brut, concept art…or even the “art is wat the artist decide it is” from Marcel Duchamp definition.
    Time ago i was designing web sites using flash and there was lots of interesting debates about de future of digital art as it doesn’t has phisical decay, just stylist decay, or provably the loosing of all digitally created designs that will be lost for ever after not having a sistem of reproduction to be viewed any more. Some creations have a sort of interaction with reality or time passing, the shadow on a building can modify the originally created and designed emotional perspective, a simple change of the furniture inside a building can remake the perception of it. A phisically printed photo will have some change unde different lights or some phisical decay, digital reproduction mostly will have only trend decay,
    In any case, if you pretended to create something that could emotionally touch some one, I’m sure that you already know that you did. 🙂

    • “Some creations have a sort of interaction with reality or time passing”
      Is there any reason art has to ‘last’? Since a lot (everything?) of what we create is in response to an immediate environment, maybe transience isn’t a bad thing. Older art is a glimpse into the mindset and physical reality of an earlier era. It might even make people appreciate current living artists more – this I can only hope since without means to survive economically, there is very little freedom to create art…

  6. The idea that there are no new ideas is one basis of post-modernism art. Of course there are many photos, paintings and mixed media pieces in this category. One of the themes of post-modernism is what I like to call ‘recycled art’. Defined as: somewhere in the piece is someone else’s art form. A classic example that I saw once was a live B&W video camera of Rodin’s Thinker which made the viewer pose like The Thinker to watch the video (and the viewer was now on screen). I would absolutely classify the Mondrian homage as post-modern and in no way ‘derivative’. As to comparing the creative process of painting and photography. Painting is additive and more often than not photography is subtractive. And by that I mean that the most powerful photos usually have no irrelevant elements. It takes a special vision to make certain that the frame contains the whole story and nothing extra. The first two images in this post are a good example of this. So to call any well executed photo ‘derivative’ of a painting is a stretch. As to your third image – I would say the influence is chiaroscuro – and with the deep red, this is an abstract take on Italian masterpieces. I don’t think that combining modern and classic art themes and using a new medium for expression can be called derivative either.

    • It certainly becomes much harder to make anything new as more material gets created and more possibilities fleshed out; I agree about additive vs subtractive approaches to photographic composition, which makes making something ‘new’ even harder: there are only so many things you can take away.

      ” So to call any well executed photo ‘derivative’ of a painting is a stretch.”
      One could certainly try to replicate the style of light, no? Especially if said light in painting is something uncommon (or unnatural).

  7. Great article Ming. Very thought provoking.
    However I am surprised no one mentioned Richard Prince yet. He photographed other’s work and some of his work is controversial.

    • He’s not the only one; however I don’t see the need to give people like him any additional visibility, positive or negative. It’s that kind of thing that gives photographers in general a bad rep.

  8. Goetz Haindorff says:

    A true artist has no need to prove her or his point.
    And never bothers what other people might think.
    Proving is a left brain response. And mostly based on defenses.
    I have a feeling that your academic training comes in the way here, too much, and your innate search for perfection.

    The academic side in us always tries to analyze and explain, what is unexplainable.
    True art is a right brain phenomena, and cannot be explained, only experienced. Like a strawberry.

    Just look at your Mondrain homage. You clearly are an artist.
    And your photography is one way of expressing it.

    • “A true artist has no need to prove her or his point.
      And never bothers what other people might think.”

      I agree!

      “Proving is a left brain response. And mostly based on defences.”
      Or commercial necessities…

      “I have a feeling that your academic training comes in the way here, too much, and your innate search for perfection.”
      Actually, the writing is for the audience, not for me: I am very certain in what I want to create what I want to create and how to do it 🙂

      • Goetz Haindorff says:

        😉 Of course you know how to create and what to create. Keep creating, my friend. Love your way of looking into the world.

        • The weird thing is…the minute you start documenting any of that thought process, many assume you don’t 😛

          • Goetz Haindorff says:

            Getting along with your life in cyberspace sometimes is as weird as it is wired, isn´t it.
            Everybody has their right to do their assumption thing.
            This is the beauty of free expression in the modern world.
            But then again, those are just assumptions.

  9. Quite a while ago, there was a comedian called Rodney Dangerfield, and his standard line was, “I don’t get any respect, you know?” To me, photography is the Rodney of the art world.
    Life today is ultra-saturated with photos used in a hundred different ways, And so, many people think a photo is a photo is a photo. When these people see a great photograph, because they have already already seen a hundred others that day, they give it exactly the same amount of time they gave the other 99, about two seconds.
    Many people are now convinced that they take wonderful pictures with their expensive smart phones, and equate them with all other photos they see. This discourages then from seeing it as an art.
    Art is effort. A good painting takes time, as does a sculpture, and often, a photograph. I have spent ten months in total, (February and March), in each of the last five years on the shore of one of the Great Lakes in Canada. Several times recently, after a small group of people have seen them, someone will strongly hint that he could have done the same with his iPhone, and I tell him in rather strong terms that no, he couldn’t. “Why not?” he demands.
    And I tell him that the chances of him putting on about ten kilos of protective clothing and going out in snow, ice fog, and sixty km per hour winds while avoiding the coyotes and wolves that appear from time to time are pretty slim. Never mind carrying four extra batteries jammed into his underwear, so he can change them when they go dead in about fifteen minutes. (Reaching into my underwear with freezing hands has at times produced yelps from me that probably kept the wolves away). Or having his tears actually freeze while trying to look through the viewfinder.
    Extremely few people paint in oils, or carve, or create pottery, but everybody now takes pictures. And these people think that a), the dreck they took on their last Caribbean vacation is art. or b), if they can do it, it can’t possibly be art. One camp is no better than the other.
    There will always be a place for fine photography and the ongoing argument on whether or not it is art. But, the appreciaters of this art will continue to diminish in numbers, I fear. I hope I’m wrong.
    Thanks for your well written and thoughtful articles Ming.

    • Ahh, Rodney: yes, photography is.

      “When these people see a great photograph, because they have already already seen a hundred others that day, they give it exactly the same amount of time they gave the other 99, about two seconds.”
      Even if they have seen a great photo – and even if there are 99 of them – it says to me that the definition of ‘great’ needs to change. The goalposts need to move since subject, technology and the psychology of the people interpreting all of that changes, so how can we use the same criteria to both create and judge as say 50 years ago?

      “Many people are now convinced that they take wonderful pictures with their expensive smart phones, and equate them with all other photos they see. “
      This may well be true: art is subjective and composition does not change with hardware. It’s not impossible but as you point out: lack of effort means lack of result, regardless of your hardware. Sadly this is something almost nobody seems to realise, and either tries to compensate with derogatory statements of the “I can do that with my iPhone” type or simply by spending more money on gear instead of skill.

      This is the crux of our frustration, I think: inability to differentiate/ appreciate stems from a lack of skill and/or motivation. That in turn means fewer people to tell the difference and more marketing dreck put out to convince insecure idiots they’ll be the next incarnation of HC-B if they buy a leics-branded smartphone. And it discourages the truly talented who could actually do something pretty darn good with their smartphones because they do have that kind of eye and mastery of hardware.

  10. Kurt Meyer says:

    Ming, thank you for your thoughtful essay which had me nodding my head in vigorous agreement. It relates to what I’ve been thinking about for a long time when considering photography as art and defining integrity: the difference between generating something of beauty with photographic tools, versus capturing and presenting a beautiful piece of reality. Either requires the skill of the artist, but how much credit does the artist share with the source material captured, and with the tool he used to capture it?

    The example that has had me pondering this: several years ago I got my first smartphone which included a serviceable but not-great camera with limited manual control. I had not yet mastered it when, on a walk with my wife through a local lakeside park, a scene of incredible ephemeral beauty presented itself–amazing light, emotional clouds, mist on the water. We both just said, “wow”. At first I cursed at not having a camera, then remembered the new smartphone in my pocket. With the light threatening to disappear at any moment I pulled out the phone, rested it on a post, composed, and started stabbing at the screen. The camera behaved wildly, was slow to respond, I couldn’t even tell exactly when it was recording an image. Ten or so images resulted; when viewing them later on my computer, one of them stood out as very special. The composition was exactly right, but the white balance was crazy blue; at something like iso 6000 on a tiny sensor the device had applied such aggressive noise reduction it looked more like a painting than a photograph. But, somehow, that picture “works” for me. I think it’s beautiful and one of my favorite images ever.

    I applied some white balance repair and got a more realistically-colored rendition, but that’s about all I did. Either way: how much credit do I get as a photographer or artist for that image, and separately, how much integrity does it have? Somehow I feel the image straight out of the device has a kind of integrity it would not have had I manipulated a conventional photograph of the same scene with paint filters and curve-pulling and whatnot to achieve the same result. Sort of like accepting that grain is an integral part of some film images. So: how much credit do I get for creating this, as opposed to credit for finding and showing a beautiful thing?

    • I’d break the process down into three parts here:

      1. the scene/ seeing the composition; it’s there, but requires the artist to interpret and curate out the extraneous stuff (common to both photography and painting, for instance).
      2. the capture part – yes, using the camera in its self-determining automatic mode yields a certain result, but so does a simple brushstroke. Yet as with a brush, a camera can be applied in many different ways for a different outcome; the more skill/control you have, the more you can use that to your advantage in representing your intended idea. This includes working around/ for the painterly properties of your camera, extended/shallow DOF etc.
      3. Postprocessing for photography is still part of 2.; I don’t think anybody would argue that darkroom skills are amateurish or that they can’t materially change the way an image is presented. No different to PS.

      Credit: given repeatability is easier with photography than painting – I’d still apply the same test of ‘if you put a large number of people in the same place at the same time, would they come away with the same thing?’ If yes, then nothing special; if no, then kudos to you.

  11. Robert Plant: “Everybody is nicking everything from everybody.”

  12. pboddie says:

    “I’ve been told before that because every single angle and sight line is considered by architects when designing a building, my composition isn’t original: it already existed in the mind of the architect somewhere. Except, there’s no way they could envision what would be built afterwards, or the quality of light on that particular day, or the way a solitary cloud in the right place completes the composition when using the right angle of view. Inspired by? Certainly. Created by? Certainly not.”

    Well said! Even today’s architects with their extensive visualisation toolsets cannot possibly envisage every possible depiction of their buildings: anyone saying so is being absurd and, especially if it is an architect saying so, arrogant. Indeed, given the stories of buildings focusing sunlight onto hapless people and things, one might argue that even famous, well-resourced architects struggle to foresee the consequences of their work either through engineering models or by harnessing their legendary imagination.

    Another unfortunate effect of the chauvinism that elevates the architect to a role of sole creator is the curtailment of any kind of “freedom of panorama”, where architects insist that they retain control over depictions of their creations even when part of a broader scene. While buildings may be appreciated to the point of being photogenic, the fundamental contract between architecture and society must involve the gift of each building’s appearance to the public who are, after all, practically obliged to look at it. Any other arrangement is just a greedy form of opportunistic privatisation.

    • “Indeed, given the stories of buildings focusing sunlight onto hapless people and things, one might argue that even famous, well-resourced architects struggle to foresee the consequences of their work either through engineering models or by harnessing their legendary imagination.”

      Ahh yes, the ‘walkie talkie’ in London! I have heard from more than one source (and seen it, too) that a lot of the big name guys do the initial concept work, the selling and client interfacing – but little of the actual design work. No surprise there are losses in translation and execution.

      I’d say the interface between architecture and society extends further than that: the architect has little say in how the building is intended or actually used, and no say in how it’s interpreted by the actual users/ public (who are often distinct from the planners and decision makers). So the actual public perspective can be very, very different to the intended idealism…

  13. Ted Cais says:

    Edward O. Wilson in his brilliant book “The Origins of Creativity” unites the humanities with science and explains why the signature of any creative artwork starts with an “aesthetic surprise” that seizes you on first encounter. Wilson notes this signature becomes the first thought upon recall after the experience is stored in longterm memory. Little wonder then Mondrian continues to exert influence.

    • Fully agreed; I think that’s the extra bit beyond ‘1+1=2’ we were discussing in one of the other comments – I guess you could also call it ‘the insight’ or their ‘signature’.

  14. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Of course photography can be art.
    Painting isn’t always art, or?

    ( And anyone who includes any of the modern forms of “art”, starting with the so called “Readymade”, in his or her concept of art must allow also photography or be considered inconsequent.)
    ( My two cents.)

    Uniqueness?
    Graphic art printed in numbered series vs. numbered photo prints.

    Ming,
    your precise description of the difference between photography and painting reminds me of a book on the art of piano playing (by a pianist).

    He maintained that the piano is a more difficult instrument to play than the violin, as the pianist has to have the next tone complete in his mind and fingers before (s)he hits a key while the violinist is in constant communication with the string.

    • The idea must come from somewhere. And all of our ideas are inspired by something: the question is just how far a leap we make in the process. 1+1=2, and nothing special; 1+1=3 and a nice unexpected conclusion for the audience, and is 1+1=11 genius or some step too far for most people to understand?

      I always thought the violin was harder to play (having done the typical Asian kid thing and being forced to learn the piano) – if you get the piano tune wrong, it still sounds like piano notes. If you get the violin wrong, it sounds like cats being tortured in a bag…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I do agree with your art math,
        there’s also 1+1=1.5 (and less)…

        I thought so too, and I can imagine those cats, but I think he talks about the higher levels of instrument mastery, 🙂 .

        I think one shouldn’t force kids to learn an instrument, another thing is to help them persevere if they want to and start to learn.
        I hope it turned out to the good for you!

        • Agreed on mastery: anything that’s relatively simple to begin with and get a decent result is something that tends to require a LOT of work to become exceptional at simply because it’s already so easy to get something passable out of the tool or process…consumer photography is also a good example, for that matter.

  15. Ian Carroll says:

    IPhone cable on red car seat probably influenced by William Egglestone? Given our photography is a distillation of our own preferences and experiences, and those experiences will involve a disproportionate weighting of other creatives we prefer (unless you are one of those masochists who spend time staring at works you hate), then it is hardly surprising that influences, conscious and subconscious, flow in. There is another direction in which the relationship can work though. When I started taking pictures, I had done no reading around the subject, and had considered myself to be someone who “didnt like all that pretentious photography” (ie the images generally regarded as iconic and important). I had never heard of, nor seen, Alex Webb, Ernst Haas, Fred Herzog, Or even Ming Thein. I took pictures because the scenes before me made my heart race. Then I found all those other guys, and realised I loved them, because their hearts seemed to be similarly affected as mine (and their eyes and brains were clearly superior!), so I steeped myself in their images, because they also affected my heart the same way. We choose our influences to suit our innate tastes and vision.

    • I don’t know which way around it goes Ian, but I’d say 90% is self reinforcing, and the other 10% is the ‘disruptive’ influence that causes just enough questioning or perturbation in the way you see to induce change and hopefully result in something different. You do have to consciously allow for that change, though – if not, one tends to creatively stagnate.

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