Deja vu

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Spot the difference.

I had a rather strange experience at a local specialist photographic bookstore the other day – not just because the books were surprisingly affordable and heavily discounted*, but because I felt like I was looking at my own work – but shot by somebody else. It was almost as though there there was a lost assignment whose contact sheets I’d just discovered. Some color themes and specific subject matter may have been transposed, but for the most part, even those were the same: earthy tones playing off against greys-blues in skies or manmade elements, and a lot of heavy engineering. But those are the most minor of the similarities: it’s as though the underlying structure of subject elements and camera angles/ perspectives were very, very similar, too. There’s the same use of parallel orientation of cameras relative to subject ‘planes’; the use of contextual elements to concentrate framing; leading lines and repeated elements, and above all: a very strong emphasis on emphasis of texture both spatially and through lighting choices. Even the interpretation of color was pretty similar: a mostly faithful but ever so slightly cinematic bias (read: just enough hint of a WB shift to give the image some life).

*Books are heavily taxed in Malaysia; a phonebook with an European MSRP of say EUR39.95 will land up being easily RM400-500 – or 2-2.5x. This is a huge amount compared to relative average monthly income; 20-25% to be precise. Such taxes only discourage erudition; form whatever cynical conclusions you will – they’re probably correct.

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The book? An anthology of Edward Burtynsky’s work: Essential Elements. I of course know of Burtynsky and have seen some of his earlier work in the Water and aerial series, but not to any great level of familiarity. I don’t think the similarities can be put down to subconscious influence: none of the earlier stuff I’d seen had these kinds of texturally-focused images in them. My comparison images given as examples here were all shot on various assignments, but almost all of them had briefs focused on documenting the human element of construction rather than the pure hard engineering, and as a result 90% of the images feature man as subject or in important context. These images therefore almost represent the outtakes; most of the time the quasi-abstracted, industrial-wimmelbild texture studies that personally appeal to me (and much less to my clients, but I always include examples of the work I want to do as future encouragement for more of it). Burtynsky, in contrast, is 100% about the metal and concrete and rocks; unapologetically so.

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Could the root of our texture fetish be the result of something more fundamental, perhaps? If we take the artist’s statement in the book at face value – then there are certain things that affected him and provided the underlying motivation for the work; it’s presented as something stronger than visual – rather, being affected at an emotional level by what we humans are doing with our surroundings and being compelled to document it. The presentation is a result of the original motivations and personal preferences of the artist rather than being the end goal. We approach the same subject but with different motivations. Personally, I prefer to focus on the humanise the process, man in context, in control, and the hidden anonymous mensch behind the massive engineering feats we take for granted every day – to educate and inform about back story and hopefully provide a greater degree of appreciation to a wider audience. There is almost always a human present in my frames – either to give context of scale, to add emotion to labor, or to put a face to responsibility. But just occasionally on these assignments, a scene tugs at my subconscious and makes me stop, frame and record: the overlap of our work is to be found here.

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I fully admit that it is the opposite thing that attracts me here: the absence of scale; the abstraction of subject into nothing more than color, texture and geometry (or lack of); the removal of context that allows us to evaluate an image at a purely visual level: to avoid dismissal of a potentially interesting scene of this nature simply because of the pedestrian subject. I like the presence of a general structure that encourages an image to be read in a certain order along its dominant lines or color/luminosity gradients. I find it rewarding to get lost in the details and in doing so, feel like I’ve earned the right of context; there is a sense of achievement in figuring out exactly what I’m looking at after being presented it in a way that’s deliberately obfuscating.

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I’ll be the first to admit that none of the image/set pairs chosen here is a perfect match: there are definite differences in subject, perspective and dominant color palette. But given that Burtynsky had the benefit of curating deliberately for this book and processing the images accordingly, and mine were simply pulled from a contact sheet folder over the course of ten minutes – I’m pretty sure an even better match could be made simply from reviewing all of my files (in the hundreds of thousands for this kind of subject matter) and processing the pairs better to match (my own image pairs were almost all shot years apart on different sites and processed to match other elements on those sites rather than each other). As I’ve said many times before: curation matters.

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What I take away from this is two things: firstly, a lot of these images were shot several years ago. My personal style even for these assignments has evolved; more so for the ‘bonus’ images I shoot because they interest me rather than because they’re part of the core commission. I’m sure Burtynsky too has moved on, given this book is a greatest hits anthology of previous work. I’m glad, because the last thing I want to do is find myself refining a style that turns out to be a duplicate of somebody else’s work; I’m past that point in my career and want to make work that is unique to me. This is important commercially because you need to offer something different to play seriously in this game; it’s more important creatively because you want to feel like you’re advancing your own vision and techniques rather than following a path that’s already been trodden. It’s also interesting that two people who’ve spent a lot of time seeing, interpreting and attempting to communicate the same subject landed up producing very similar work. Either there are very few ways to capture the complete essence of such a subject and we’ve arrived at the same place through a process of conscious or unconscious derivation, or we land up drawing on a common visual language that somewhat transcends subject and local context, but is modified depending on what I can best term ‘experience of seeing’. Very complex, information-dense subjects such as these initially only present texture and gross form; fine details are only appreciable with a) patience and closer examination, and b) the appropriate presentation medium. They are multilayered and can be appreciated by different audiences, but of course the level of what one gets out of it will vary – in contrast to a very literal or straightforward image that doesn’t yield anything extra when contemplation time or medium changes. In any case: the only way forward is to keep evolving. And I went back and forth about this because it felt weird to buy a book of very familiar images – but objectively, it’s worth a recommendation as sequencing and printing are excellent, and I am of course biased towards the images themselves… MT

Edward Burtynsky’s Essential Elements is available here from Amazon.

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Comments

  1. Kirk Tuck says:

    “land up”? We always say “end up”. When did “land up” enter English vocabulary. Not nitpicking but seriously interested.

    • It’s always been ‘land up’ as far as I know. Perhaps it’s a colonial thing post-sailing voyage… 🙂

      • Kirk Tuck says:

        I think the rest of the English speaking world uses “end up” or “ended up” or “ends up.” In all my years as a student, and then a lecturer, at the University of Texas at Austin I never once heard “land up.” Can it be that this is a completely different etymology? I generally like your writing but that phrase seems to show up in about every third post and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ear. And since we are using it to mean “when everything is finished and at the end of the process” it just seems that “ended up” makes a hell of a lot more sense. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/end%20up and https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lands%20up

        • US English (including your dictionary), English English (every country I grew up in, studied in and worked in)… 🙂

          • Alex Carnes says:

            I must admit I don’t like ‘land up’ either and I’m English and educated to PhD, although that’s offset somewhat by being from Stoke-on-Trent! 😉

            To the content of your article: I agree that art shouldn’t be too literal, otherwise it can become boring, unable to signify anything beyond the brute facts: in our case, what we’ve photographed. Too abstract and it doesn’t mean enough! Now, abstract can be very pretty – one can reduce what’s in front of us to “nothing more than color, texture and geometry (or lack of)” as you put it, and land up (!) with a funky looking photo; but if you overdo it, someone’s going to say that it’s a clever trick rather than art, and they might have a point. Such is the elusive nature of artistic expression I suppose. I still don’t fully understand my own feelings on this, but as the years have gone by, I find I admire gratuitously opaque works of art rather less than I did as a younger person, when I was rather more readily convinced that I was at fault for failing to apprehend their meaning! Like with some modernist poetry – and indeed the works of some academics I could name! – it might sound impressive but mean nothing.

            I like the parallels you’ve identified between your work and Burtynsky’s. It’s always especially interesting when two people happen to see the world in similar ways rather one person simply influencing the work of another. Rather like the distinction between homologous and analogous evolution!

            • A work either speaks to you or it doesn’t – I don’t think there’s a right or wrong approach on the part of the artist or audience, here. Such is the nature of anything subjective, which most certainly describes art and photography…

          • kirk tuck says:

            Same in the English Oxford Dictionary…..

            • pboddie says:

              I don’t find myself using “land up” much any more, but that is probably a consequence of consuming global English. Nevertheless, to “land up” is very familiar from my British English upbringing. I would hazard a guess that landing up is a bit like surfacing or washing up somewhere, that something or someone having been out of sight reappears somewhere else, for instance. See also: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/land-up

          • Cambridge (UK) educated here, and teaching the subject in Japan. Both end up and land up are acceptable usage, the former is far more commonly employed in contemporary society. Land up only surprises in this case because we are not accustomed to seeing or hearing this form very often. Having experienced the sometimes creative use of English ( and in Malaysia too! ) I can understand why you might prefer land up. It’s fine. We all understood what you meant. nothing to worry about. Sleep easy people.

  2. Ming, I’m rather surprised that with your justified emphasis on curation, you did not highlight the fact that this collection was curated not by Burtynsky, but by William Ewing, with a very clear objective to put Burtynsky’s work in a different light – which indeed it does, by removing his photography from the conceptual contexts he is famous for.

    And I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply any imitation – but Richard Warren might benefit from 10 seconds of Googling before making such ridiculous claims. Burtynsky is a genuine modern master who has been following his own very unique vision for decades. His “Manufactured Landscapes” is a very unusual example of how “landscape” photography can be devastatingly moving.

    • richard warren says:

      Actually I didn’t make any claims. Ridiculous or otherwise.

    • I’m aware of that, but didn’t feel it was important as if Burtynsky hadn’t a) captured the images to begin with and b) allowed them to be used, thereby passing his own personal curation in a way – there wouldn’t be anything for Ewing to curate from in the first place 🙂

  3. This speaks to me about earlier comments I’ve made bemoaning the [seeming] difficulty of creating or contributing anything that’s truly unique. More than once in my tech career I’ve encountered someone who’s done independent parallel development of a patent-able notion — often within a few months of me. And in photographic art the situation seems much, much more crowded.

    I suppose there are fewer numbers at the highest heights of the top of the game, with high visibility and strong professional income, but I have an uncomfortable feeling always that there exist talented others producing very similar images — people we don’t know of because they don’t have the platform or visibility.

    There are a lot of people with sensors. The likelihood that efforts invested would produce work that is merely duplicative of others’ is, for me, probably the single most discouraging aspect of the photographic crimson ocean.

    • There’s definitely a lot more restriction when it comes to photography compared to say painting or sculpture. And the subjects tend to be limited to the scope of things we can easily see.

      I fully agree with you on talent vs visibility: there are almost certainly a huge number of talented ‘seers’ who have either not had the opportunity/visibility, not had the hardware, or not even tried photography – but fundamentally have the vision. (One could of course make the same argument in pretty much any field, I guess).

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Camera angles/ perspectives…? :
    Most of us grow up with a lot of rectilinear structure around us. I find that images of that seem more harmonious when lines make certain angles. Is that because that makes an easier to see three-dimensionality? Are they angles we often and unconsciously see around us before we translate what our eyes see into our inner 3D model of our surroundings?
    If so, is this mirrored in art and photography? How much is seeing influenced by art and photo history?
    But it *is* fun to speculate!

    And Ming, when on assignment perspectives have to satisfy a large audience, you seem to experiment with perspectives much more in your architecture photo essays.

    Textures…? :
    Now didn’t sensor resolution fairly recently (not many years ago) grow large enough to allow fine textures to be significant elements in.digital photos? – inviting photographers to use it.

    • I think it’s a bit more than perspective – perhaps something like underlying structure and how it’s arranged in the frame. I agree on the rectilinearity, but most people tend not to try and ‘force’ that order into the fame as much.

      Perspective experimentation on wide appeal images: it’s often because the brief is to ‘get the whole building in’ – which necessitates being creative with camera position and angles to work around other limitations such as line of sight and not being late because of other buildings behind you…

      Texture and resolution: we could always go closer. Also, at these reproduction sizes – extra resolution doesn’t really make much difference 🙂

  5. Craig Carlson says:

    Very cool! and what interesting, varying color palettes. Just put in an order for one of the books, as i felt i had to see the images closer up. Thanks very much for sharing this. Craig

  6. (Déjà)

  7. richard warren says:

    A bit like bumping into someone who is your “double”?
    If indeed he did imitate you, Ming, you could take it as flattering. Some might argue “breach of copyright” – but in the world of art, and photography lays some claim to being a corner of that world, imitation has always been the norm – up to a point.
    Artists generally learn what to do with the pencils, crayons, charcoals, paints and brushes by imitating great artists – and then going on to develop their own style. Those who succeed may end up as “great” artists too – and there’s always going to be a trail of lesser mortals, left in between, but having fun anyway.
    Plagiarism in photography up to this point has only been reported back to me, where someone used a photo from a site like Instagram, and entered it a photo competition – then got sprung. Why anyone would be so stupid is beyond me.
    As to the tax system in Malaysia – someone has to provide the money that was fraudulently paid to certain politicians!
    When I was MUCH younger – in my ‘teens and twenties – I used to buy a lot of books. Then I found out most of them were printed in the UK, and whereas it might cost $2.50 there, it was costing $3.75 here. The publishers in that example would produce the book at a trade price of $2 and the British bookshops would sell it for a 20% markup – but the Australian ones wanted a 50% markup on the British retail price! Even after paying postage, it was massively cheaper to buy direct from Britain!
    As to your tax rates – anywhere you look, the people controlling countries around the world are in cloud cuckoo land – milking the “poor” and making the lower, middle, and – even – “the lower-upper” classes poorer, and using what they skim to make themselves and their friends richer. Businesses thrive on handouts from these governments and give massive kickback payments (one way or another) to the politicians running those governments. They have a delusional belief that this is self sustaining. It is not. It is like a Ponzi scheme. Eventually it will tank the economy, cause a crash, bankrupt people and businesses all over the place, and have the villains rounded up and at least some of them jailed.
    Economies don’t work on such a basis – instead, the rich can actually become far richer – and on a sustainable basis – if the strata of society underneath them have more money, and more opportunities. Because that makes the whole economy sounder, and the fallout brings better living standards, more revenues into the exchequer, the possibility of better infrastructure, education, health & welfare, etc, etc, and ultimately lower taxation for everyone.
    Greed is NOT good – it is ultimately self destructive.
    But these politicians can’t see it – and instead of creating, they destroy. Because they don’t have the knowledge and understanding of economics to run government. Or the morals, integrity, brains and foresight necessary to do it.

    • Not imitation by any stretch, but arriving at the same place at the same time as somebody else also going via the same route independently…I can only shrug and look for a new course.

      “As to the tax system in Malaysia – someone has to provide the money that was fraudulently paid to certain politicians!”
      Not paid to so much as removed by. 😦

      “Eventually it will tank the economy, cause a crash, bankrupt people and businesses all over the place, and have the villains rounded up and at least some of them jailed.”
      Every ten years or so, in the modern world. It seems that’s about the length of collective memory.

      “Economies don’t work on such a basis – instead, the rich can actually become far richer – and on a sustainable basis – if the strata of society underneath them have more money, and more opportunities.”
      Precisely: if there isn’t money to circulate, it can’t grow and be re-harvested. Selfishness unfortunately precludes common sense most of the time, though.

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