Visitations from the future, or new year’s resolutions, 2020 edition

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Greetings, Earthlings of history! I am writing this message whilst my self-flying car shuttles me from my robotised residential utopia to the free workingmen’s paradise, snacking occasionally on a nutrient pill washed down with soylent green. My technology is wireless, there is peace and love for all, and my jacket sleeves have rings – in this year’s fashion, with three stacked, of course. Our children will all be genetically perfect, and even we will live to 150 years. And…my photography is still meat-constrained. It might be 2020, arbitrary date far enough away (“out of our lifetime, and implementation details not our problem”) that peaceful utopia should have been achieved by now according to future-gazers of the past – but the reality is most of what constitutes ‘future’ or ‘new’ technology is merely the window dressing of entertainment, rather than the seeds of deep content. Why? Again, it’s meat-related.

Human nature is a tough thing to change. I’m not even sure it’s possible to do so. We all have our basic tree of needs wants and the like; selfishness constantly fights imposed collective rule of law and internal conscience. Those historical ‘visionaries’ somehow thought we’d all be different people, mentally rewired and better educated. Instead, we got Trump. And the greatest amounts of brainpower and innovation are dedicated to either one of two things: trying to gain some sort of tactical or political advantage, or getting people to spend more money on things they need even less – thanks to the things that came before that were already touted to be the second, third or fourth coming of sliced messiah. Or perhaps just Sony A7R, Mark XVIII.

Yes, I’m cynical; I’ve always been that way since I realised that an ideal outcome or a great step forward requires a lot of very improbably things to happen at the same time, and a lot of people to put aside their own petty egos agree on things that don’t necessarily do them any favours in the short term. When you have entire careers and product cycles that last a year – who’s can afford to take a mid, let along long term view? Yet it’s the short term mentality that’s going to cause long term pain for everybody. For example, I’ve said countless times previously:

  • The more camera companies try to sell on the basis of one-upmanship of a previous product, the sooner they’re going to go out of business. You quickly come to a point where a) you can’t actually make a tangible improvement without serious cost increases; b) your consumer can’t tell or doesn’t care and thus doesn’t see any value in paying for newer; c) more isn’t better because of other attendant consequences; d) as an overarching marketing story or consumer motivation, “last year +1” gets old. Genuine change in user experience is the only thing that will survive. But this is at odds with risk conservatism, and executive compensation.
  • When the majority of your market shifts from necessary tool to entertainment, then you’d damn well better continue to be entertaining. If cameras were movies, we’d be looking at the tenth remake of Superman – but with the same plot, just slightly nicer graphics.
  • When the end goal becomes disposable images that hold no value – the rest of the chain is going to start losing its value, too. It isn’t possible to production costs and values for a single image or campaign when you’re going to have to make another one faster and faster than you did before.
  • Change requires motivation. Improving one’s images is change. But without a tangible definition of that – it’s hard to be motivated when you can’t see the end goal. It’s much easier to make an experimental image when you have a fair idea of how you want the result to look, as opposed to just trying iterations and hoping something sticks.

Traditionally, I’ve started off every year since the inception of this site with a set of personal photographic goals for the coming year, and a review of the previous year; this will be the first year I don’t do that. There are two reasons for this: firstly, a good chunk of my time is now spent in the watch business, and whilst there’s a strong photographic and marketing component to that, there are equally strong design, operational, administrative, customer servicing and R&D components, too. Last year was the first year I didn’t spend the majority of my time thinking about how to make a different and better image.

Oddly, with the consequences of knowing that, I actually made just as many images as in preceding years; it’s just that most of them weren’t for public consumption. Not so long ago, historical me would have been bothered by the idea of a great image sitting unpublished in my archives; now, I’m quite happy to just shoot for myself, and myself alone. I’ve long had the maturity to know what kind of images I like; more recently that’s extended to include the skills to make those images, and develop those ideas further; but it’s only very recently that I’ve been able to say I honesty don’t care what anybody else thinks of my work.

Don’t be too quick to dismiss that as being flippant or arrogant. When we start out, we photograph for ourselves, because we want to. We then seek feedback and approval – maybe for ego, maybe to improve. This balance shifts more towards affirmation and ego the more experienced and confident we get; to the point that a lot of people continue publishing work because of the ego boost it gives them from the recognition. Here’s the catch, though: as a working pro, you need to care what other people think; you need their approval; and you need to continue being popular because that’s directly proportional to your professional and commercial success. But as an amateur (in the truest sense of the word) – none of this is actually necessary. You should be shooting for yourself, and yourself only. So, to be able to go back to this confident and self-centred state – and producing work with integrity of self – takes a big break from the cycle. It either requires the kind of commercial success that few ever achieve, or a departure from commercial necessity. And believe me, it’s very possible to kill your creativity from the pressure of continually delivering. For me, that transition happened somewhere at the end of 2018, or the start of 2019. It took some time to reset my mindset. I now have the luxury of make images for myself, and weirdly enough – that’s been another creative boost in itself. So, for 2020 in a nutshell: I’ll be making more watches, and shooting what I want to shoot, but you might not see it. MT

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Comments

  1. Richard Bach says:

    I was inspired by a Gary Winogrand exhibit I saw this summer. Not only was the work fantastic, but the curators mentioned his working style later in his career: he shot constantly, but didn’t edit or curate very often. He wasn’t concerned at the time of making the image how it fit into the larger whole, but rather left that part until the curating phase. They mentioned that he shot up until his death and left over 200,000 undeveloped negatives.

    Shoot, edit, present and don’t care too much about “that” shot or the kudos. If one is conscious of making good images, then the “whole” will one day come into view. It may be better than we imagined when we began. Patience and quiet persistence is an underrated virtue in the modern creative world.

    Sounds like you’re in a good place, Ming. Happy 2020

    • There was actually an extensive discussion on this in a previous post’s comments: my 2c is that we’re never sure whether what we’re seeing would be representative of his vision or not – somebody else did the curation. (He admitted as much to just liking the feel/sound of the shutter.) And without the feedback loop of seeing what you shot relative to what you saw – he had thousands of undeveloped rolls at death – you’re left creatively static.

  2. A core element of my photography has always been documenting family events and travel which I print and put into well organized and labeled photo books (lots of them). This actually includes many types of photography from portraits, to landscape, to birds in flight. I do some abstracts for my own enjoyment even though they never get the reaction of my people shots. I have to admit that I’m pleased when a photograph has enough emotional impact that a friend, teacher, or family member tears up. I spend a lot more time thinking about the kind of images I want to create than I do about about gear these days because a slight technical gear improvement is not going to give me joy or cause me to produce more interesting pictures. I keep shooting and trying to improve.

    I always enjoy your posts. Thank you.

    • That’s the right way, IMO – the gear is a tool; if you can’t make the shots you want due to hardware limitations, by all means go ahead and upgrade. Otherwise, it’s a meat upgrade that’s required 🙂

  3. Stefan Mokrzecki says:

    Ming, we are all self aware beings, or at least the hope is that we should be without being “self centred”. Self and ego need to be cast aside if we are to move forward as individuals and as a society. Wishing you and your loved ones a happy 2020.

    • Without ego there can’t be progress, just average-ness. Human society has moved forward when somebody asked “what if?” for no other reason than personal (I, ego) curiosity… 🙂

      Happy 2020!

      • Stefan Mokrzecki says:

        Agreed Ming, I was thinking along the lines of ego, being, or having an inflated sense of one’s self importance and ability. Some individuals should “check their ego at the door” and here I believe that to be quite different from an individual who is confident in their ability and has an enquiring mind.

  4. Happy New Year! And true words about ego boost, approval and shooting for self. I have been in the transition for a long time. It sounds simple, but it quite a uneasy process in the mind to realize and accept it….

  5. Larry Kincaid says:

    You’ve touched on what may be the most important question: What are you going to do with your photographs? The good ones. The why question is easy: I really enjoy the whole process regardless of the outcome, even printing 12×18’s for the wall. I finally answered the what will you do with them question, and tested it in Venice. I asked a handsome young couple sitting across from me in front of the Caffe Florian if I could take their picture, “special black and white film.” A bit reluctantly they agreed and I offered to email them copies if they came out well. I did and received a response email saying “This is great! It’s the only photo we have of the two of us. If you’re ever in Venice again, let us know and we’ll take to a great espresso caffe.” They were both glancing at each other and the photo captured how smitten they were with one another. I’ve never seen a selfie that captured that.

    So, give your best photos away to people who will enjoy them as much as yourself. I’ve done weddings where one of my photos was the favorite because the pros had to worry about the whole thing and I could just try to get one or two “favorite” photos. Greatly appreciated. The list goes on. Email makes this kind of sharing possible any place in the world. Then I got a photo I took in 1968 in Colombia published in Black and White Magazine (with several to follow). I took that photo with slides I had to mail back to the US and then wait two years to see them! Simply documenting for myself. It gets better. When my son went graduated and went to NYC, he asked to take four printed photos with him that he liked. “Of course,” I said but “you have to pay me one dollar for each one.” Totally annoying, but he complied. Thanks to you, I said, “I’m now a published, semi-professional photographer.” One published, four sold, but not for enough to make a living, so semi-professional. How else could it be defined? It gets better, through a camera club I had a chance to display a couple of photos in a local gallery. Later, someone bought a B&W print that I made of a photo of a little girl (not a tourist) playing with a shovel and pail on Normandy Beach in France, with ruins in the background, titled, “Innocence.” Sold for $300. I was asked if I planned to continue publishing and selling in galleries. No. One was enough for the experience and to prove the point. No reason to continue submitting for publication either for the same reason. I’m happy making photos for myself and to give away when appropriate. But I’m also retired now and have more time. Still a semi-professional, published photographer. What a luxury. I hope some of this provides solace or perhaps inspiration for others.

    Meanwhile, it’s easy to see how very talented bloggers are growing weary and bored with reviewing new camera equipment, for good reasons. But Ming’s blog is hugely valuable to all of us, not to mention his instructional material. I check his blog out on a daily basis to see what’s new and his latest photographs and personal perspectives. Please find a way to minimize the new equipment aspect, while further enriching the photography part. It’s an inspiration to those of us who follow it. Happy 2020.

  6. As a complete hobbyist, there is no question about priority with photography for me. It’s just like going fishing. I’m doing that on holiday, or at anytime I need to have a break and take a breath. It has to be a relaxed, unstressed activity, or not to be at all.
    So, considering your activity in the watch industry by now, I feel I can understand your state of mind. Just the same remark as others : love what you share here on your blog, so if you can keep it that way, at least from time to time, I’ll be selfishly glad to read you. 😀

  7. Well spoken sir. I am a big fan of your work though, so I will miss your picts if you stop posting. 😦

  8. May this year be one where you get more to experiencing your life road in photo art, ever choosing that above analysis of graphic components like engineering the engine of a car, may your story telling realy show your world that is and becomes, and may you have time for yourself and let the hourglass sand run through your fingers, seeing each grain. Love yourself and your family. It is noticible that as artists and human beings we turn to composing graphic photos more now because we fail to see and discover beauty and have lost the art of 35mm streetschenes. We look at people but we have difficulty seeing them because we have difficulty seeing ourselves. Make this a special year.

  9. “Or perhaps just Sony A7R, Mark XVIII.”

    Hope you’ll be reviewing it when it comes out so that us humans of planet Earth know if it’s any good 🙂

    I’ve come to a similar conclusion about the purpose of photographing. I use a particular site to upload one photo a week, with a link to the related blog post. As I don’t participate in the circle-jerk of likes and pointless, insincere comments (unless I see something that genuinely impresses me…which isn’t often), my pictures don’t pick up large amounts of views, etc. And I genuinely don’t care. The denizens of the aforementioned site site seem very impressed by topless ladies; anything involving that and which is categorised under “nude” or “portrait” has thousands of likes, positive comments, etc – even when the photo itself is terrible. Ditto clichéd sunset shots. I think that’s another reason to shoot for oneself: you don’t have to look at so much drivel if and when you decide to share.

    I keep my blog going as a form of discipline, but I could quite happily stop doing it tomorrow. And on public sites like Flickr, etc, the signal-to-noise ratio is, as you’ll know as well as anyone, noisier than the Digilux 2 at ISO 400 and pushed ten stops. So great photos have to play the circle-jerk game to get seen.

    I think I speak for others, but I certainly speak for myself when I say that your photography has provided me with considerable visual enjoyment and inspiration, so in a sense it will be disappointing to see less of it. But your reasoning makes perfect sense.

    • Hah! Not likely.

      I think we’re on the same page about discipline and why we continue, though. I almost don’t even want to know what anybody thinks of the images – they’re only for me. This is perhaps not a bad thing…

      • I think it’s a very good thing.

        Producing images to suit other people can end up with work that fails to scratch your own creative itch. There is usually no way of knowing who is behind the majority of likes and comments in social media. Do the comments come from someone who shares similar tastes or values? Is there anything about them that indicates you should sit up and take notice? Over time, the herd assumes control and creativity gets squashed in a search for affirmation – a sort of soulless homogenization seems to be the result. Perhaps the internet is a realization of society’s collective consciousness, what a horrible thought.

        This is the first time I’ve tuned in here for ages, but I’ve always liked that you seemed to do your own thing. That you don’t care what others think of your work is a fine attitude.

        • Most of the time, no – but the noise is of course hard to ignore. I am fortunate that I don’t have to think what other care for the most part, but even the ones whose opinions do matter occasionally get swayed…

          • Having said that opinions can be ignored, I should add that many of the images you’ve posted here have that knack of getting a thumbs-up from the subconscious before I’ve even considered the content. Excellent stuff – and not as easy to achieve as people might think. Cheers.

            • That’s still oddly reassuring to hear, because we are both ultimately social creatures (i.e. human) and well, ego is inescapable! 😛

              • Agreed, even though we say it doesn’t matter, if comments are directed at an endeavor we feel strongly about – often those that we’d like to somehow represent us – it can be hard to ignore them. I checked out your watches and they have a large helping of that ‘appeals to the subconscious first and the intellect second’, a certain rightness about their design. I ran them past my wife and daughters who had the same reaction of instant appeal. Many notable watches have a size and solidness about them that’s almost a brutal type of design, perhaps an aim to project power, I don’t know. You’ve avoided this and come up with something a bit special, nicely done.

                • Agreed. There is very fine line between caring enough to make a difference and caring too much and taking it personally.

                  As for the watches – thank you. I approach design in the same way I approach composition, but have to make some guesses about interaction with environment (ie ambient light, reflections) that isn’t the case with photographs. There’s plenty that’s already in your face. I’m going for something for the more experienced collector who prizes self assurance over the need for external validation…

  10. Right you are, Ming.
    I bought the Oly EMD5 II a while ago and haven’t looked at a camera since. It does the job just fine, I don’t need anything else, so why spend the money. I’ll use it ’till it dies. Could the GAS epidemic be coming to an end? Ageing population, maybe?
    Taking pictures for yourself is liberating, you’re looking at something from an inner point, instead of someone else’s.
    Good health and good luck in 2020.

    • It’s definitely coming to an end. More because the improvements are increasingly minor and decreasingly meaningful than anything else – and on top of that, the want factor just isn’t there. It doesn’t help that smartphones are closing the gap…

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