Two theories

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I promise today’s post is only slightly off topic and still legitimately relates to photography. It takes the form of two theories (or perhaps more accurately, hypotheses). They are somewhat related, and over the last few years have personally changed the way I perceive many aspects of both idea creation and business. First question, before we get into the philosophy: how do you interpret the title image? Is it hoarding, a meticulous collection, somebody making the most of their situation, a choice to live in a certain era, or something else?

1. Your ability to understand and create is limited by your language.

Put another way: if you don’t have the words to describe it, you have to create them or make an analogy to explain the concept to somebody else. German is a good example of this. Off the top of my head, I can think of two words that don’t really exist in any other language: fernweh, or a desire to travel but without the unanchored nomadism of wanderlust, and wimmelbild, which is even harder to explain. I think of it as a sort of recursive visual density that draws you in but still has an underlying structure at scale that prevents the scene from collapsing into complete chaos. You can still read and interpret the scene, as opposed to being merely confused by it.

You may well be aware of the idea and apply ‘recursive visual density’ when composing or looking for an image, but without the words ‘recursive’, ‘visual’, and ‘density’ – how do you even define the idea in your own mind, let alone consistently apply it in a photograph, and much less explain it to anybody else. There’s another level here: photography, and all forms of visual art, requires another set of vocabulary in itself: you need to be able to translate a linguistic and abstract concept into one that is visual and recognisable by a third party. There are many possible presentations for the concept ‘house’, but yet the vast majority of the time, your audience has no problem identifying one. Note: this is different again from the concept ‘home’, which I think differs in implying some degree of emotional attachment, warmth and welcome. The more abstract the concept, the more difficult it becomes to a)translate into other languages, and b) translate into a non-textual form.

I’d also argue the opposite: somebody whose mother tongue (worse, only tongue) is a language that is restricted and never fully developed will forever be at a disadvantage compared to somebody who understands multiple languages. Another good example is Bahasa Malaysia: the original language got studded with a whole bunch of phonetically English-derived terms such as ‘ekonomi’ and the like because such concepts were never developed natively and thus never entered the lexicon. What it means is that even though a term for it exists, understanding does not directly follow because there was no chance for it to enter popular circulation and consciousness. Having a name is merely a first step: I’m sure it would be easy to identify the balance wheel in a mechanical watch (hint: the fast moving bit that oscillates back and forth), but understanding what it actually does and then describing its function to a third party would be a different challenge entirely.

In photography, this actually works both ways: the more different interpretations you can include in a scene (i.e. translation between visual language and verbal/written), the higher the chance of conveying a complex, nuanced message that keeps your viewer engaged by continually offering more ideas the longer it’s examined, and the more subtle you can make the presentation. This of course implies that you have the necessary skill to avoid distracting elements, and the focus to exclude anything that might be highly contextual and subject to misinterpretation – if not, then the more you try to include, the more likely your viewer is going to be confused. Similarly, from the point of view of the audience – if you have wider general knowledge, the higher the chance of you finding alternative interpretations or meanings in a photograph, and thus more intellectual payoff. Whilst I think it’s very easy to make a piece of work so esoteric that only a small audience understands it, something truly great will hit at several levels – the immediate visual punch to attract you in; a broad or easy to understand story, and then nuances that add layers and perhaps make you question whether there’s something else going on entirely.

Many kinds of language exist beyond speech/text: 2D visual; 3D visual; design; mathematics; music; physical signals and communication. Somehow a surprising ‘core set’ is hardwired into most of us; I don’t know whether it’s nature or nurture. But perhaps a clue is offered by autistic people (such as myself) finding communication with others difficult because we find empathy and interpretation of non-verbal cues to be challenging. I do believe the universe has to be fair*, so sometimes we get compensated in other ways such as an innate skill in some other form of ‘language’. Bottom line: the more thinking space you want to have, the more different modes of expression you’re going to need to support it. And I’m pretty sure what’s often interpreted as stupidity can be chalked down to a lack of understanding, possibly due to an inability to express in the recipient’s native language. (A lack of desire to understand is another thing entirely, especially if the vocabulary does exist).

*Another topic for another time, but basically to do with distribution of energy, entropy and overall balance at macro scales

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The second image poses the both the same questions of interpretation (off the top of my head: are we included, excluded, arriving, leaving, on the threshold of privilege, imprisoned in something that isn’t quite as it seems at first glance?) and a further one implicit in my last interpretation: the popular expectation or understanding of ‘luxury’, ‘value’ and ‘price’ are not the same thing – and I believe often misinterpreted.

2. Luxury, value and price are not mutually exclusive, not necessarily linked, and definitely not synonymous.

We have been bombarded by advertising from all sides brainwashing us (i.e. the aspirational masses) into believing that luxury is expensive. Luxury is exclusive. And if you buy me today, luxury can be yours. Wrong! Luxury is choice: it’s the ability to say without consequences that I just want a croissant for breakfast or I want it with lobster, truffles, caviar and gold leaf. The choice can be cheap or expensive – it isn’t solely the latter. I would argue (and I think few would disagree) that it’s far more luxurious to be able to go to work in a t shirt and shorts five minutes away than wear a $10,000 suit and sit in traffic in a $200,000 car. It’s more luxurious to be able to say ‘I don’t need it to prove my self worth’ or ‘I am confident enough to use/wear/buy whatever I please’, rather than feel pressured into something to signal to others that I have means. Oddly enough, I can think of a more than a few things that have lost their appeal after one has the ability to afford them (and of course not buy them). Similarly, luxury isn’t just material: it’s also intellectual and skills-based. It can be saying ‘I can use whatever camera I want and still make the compositions I want’ (image quality notwithstanding) – this requires experience and investment in practice and self-critique and self-improvement. It is the ability to deliver a message in a single sentence or expand it into an essay, should you choose.

I’ll leave you with the final portion of my hypothesis: price and value aren’t the same thing, but they can be (or not). This is something I tell my watch customers when they ask why there’s such a big difference in pricing across the model range: value implies that you’re getting something that has intrinsic worth and/or input that’s fair or greater than what you have to put in to obtain it. It means that if you pay $1,000,000 for something that can be resold for $2,000,000, that’s value; but if you pay $1 for something that is useless and you will instantly throw away, that’s not. It may be cheap – but ultimately worthless. Similarly, you can have a $1,000 watch with a level of components from watches at the $2,000 level, which represents value (and relatively cheap, as watches go); but a $10,000 watch with a level of components from a $30,000 watch delivers arguably better value.

If you haven’t seen it by now, the same is true of camera equipment. To a penniless pro, taking a loan to spend $100,000 on a rig that makes back 10x in revenue is good value; to even the most wealthy amateur, a $10,000 camera that’s used a dozen times is really not worthwhile, and represents poorer value than your smartphone viewed purely as a photography device. Value isn’t always quantitative and monetary, either – you could have two cameras that cost exactly the same, but if one makes you want to shoot and thus create (arguably, the point of photography, not camera collecting) and the other just frustrates you into watching television instead, then the former clearly delivers better value. Socrates was right: know yourself, and all that. MT


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  1. Pierre Lagarde says:

    “Your ability to understand and create is limited by your language.”
    I would have a more positive expression, perhaps, saying something like this : the whole set of elements of expression and their combination or the area of the signs and signals you are able to use and how you are able to use them, is designing the shape of your understanding and the base of your creativity, as I believe creativity is able to give us a way to exceed the limits of our understanding.

    As said Fazal Majid this is connected to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. A very good movie about the subject is “Arrival” (at least, I found it quite good).

    For the second set of thoughts, I’m afraid I’m too concerned about simply hanging on, at hat very moment. So those concepts area bit of a luxury to me… 😉

    Just to say something more funny : as Im french, I would say that wanting a croissant for breakfast and wanting it with lobster, truffles, caviar and gold leaf is not luxury, only bad taste :D. I may be limited by my education though. 😀

    • Pierre Lagarde says:

      … “that” not “hat” and “are a” not “area”, sorry for the typos

    • I thought Arrival was pretty intelligent too – and just goes to show how much our biases cloud our assumptions and potentially result in mistakes…

      • Pierre Lagarde says:

        Indeed, and in a way, something that Platon’s allegory of the cave described, with the addition of more recent semantics knowledge.

  2. Jos Martens says:

    All in for CO2 compensation. Happily satisfying both sides of the coin, never mind the price, is good value.

  3. One more thought now that you have mentioned attending the exhibition. You might want to read Tom Wolfe’s essay Bob & Spike in his book, The Pump House Gang. I suspect you would enjoy it in light of your recent experience.


  4. Brandon Feinberg says:

    Thanks for writing this. I have been having similar thoughts. I’m working on a personal project about the main river of Northern California. I’m trying to convey to people how much effect this 600km River effects our society and how we have shaped it for our uses. Of course I want to show it’s beauty as well. The problem is that when I think I have the content to covey the message I have no way of knowing if It registers with people. At some point ideas seem to be the product of your individual life experience and communicating becomes quite nebulous. Photography seems like one of the most likely ways to start the communique. Of course I’m probably biased in this assumption.

  5. mcrcbryant says:

    Ming, I’m curious of your thoughts on the relationship of art and consumerism. If the goal of art is to communicate some emotion or idea, ideally in a new way. But if at the end of the day the purpose to profit from the art, does not ‘luxury’ begin to sound like lazy creativity?

    • I’m not sure anymore. I think there’s always been an uneasy relationship between art and consumerism because the consumption is necessary to pay for the artist to continue making art. At this point either symbiosis develops or there is contempt, starving artist memes and fame after death from some nutrition related disease (if lucky).

      “Luxury” in any other definition than choice is really just following the herds who define what is hot or meritocratic or interesting…

  6. The first is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

  7. Paul Rodden says:

    Wittgenstein would have enjoyed this… 😁

  8. I am a bit curious as to the impetus for this post that takes us very deep into the subject of subjectivity. I do not disagree with many of the ideas that you have put forth, as many of them have been touched upon over the years by many, including yourself. Photographs, like all languages, are contextual. The lead photo could be spun a number of ways, depending on a caption (or lack thereof) or its place in a series. Lacking any context other than the contents of the image, the view does then have to draw on their abilities and understanding of “the language” of visual communication to make some kind of determination of the image. Regarding luxury, value and price, I would concur with most of what you said, and again see this as subjective and contextual.


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