I’ve recently been asked by a couple of people about curation – specifically, the process I use when putting together a portfolio, photoessay, exhibition or something similar. Turns out that whilst I’ve talked about the importance of curation in the past, and evaluating images individually and against each other in Photoshop Workflow II, I’ve never actually addressed about the process as a whole. It’s actually a pretty interesting topic that isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
I’ve always thought there were more senses beyond the obvious physical ones – perhaps they’re synergistic, perhaps otherwise. I suppose to call it pure aesthetics would be not really accurate, either – but the upshot is of course a result that is either pleasing or not. In the course of many discussions with a wide cross section of people on the topic, it seems that the ‘sense of balance’ is either there, or it isn’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those with a heightened sense of balance can consistently create strong images – arguably, in some ways it’s the opposite – but there’s definitely at least recognition of what works and what doesn’t. Two immediate thoughts follow: why? And more importantly, how can we use this to make a better image?
Though a book of photographs is something that I’ve been asked for time and again – I’ve honestly felt that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to do, both because ultimately the audience is quite limited, and because the economics are a bit of a disaster if you care the slightest about quality. Speaking to many possible publishers, printers, and photographers who’ve done it (including those considered to be highly successful in this game, such as Nick Brandt) – it’s clear to me that any sort of photographic-only book is only worth doing if somebody with deep pockets is funding it for you. For example, Brandt doesn’t break even on any of his books – because his required standards for printing are so high; the problem is once you’ve seen what’s possible, it’s very difficult to compromise. Yet…I’ve not only decided to do one, but my editor and I are well into the process of putting it together already. Why? Let me attempt to rationalise – and share some of the frustrations…
One of the best things about this website is the people I’ve met through it. At this point, my motivations for continuing to create content and engage with the community are pretty evenly split between the pleasure I get from interacting with a huge range of people with common interests, and the satisfaction I get from writing. A look at the comments below the line on any one of the more popular recent posts* – that were not entirely gear or review related shows that there’s some very insightful and intelligent discussion starting off the back of the original article, almost always covering viewpoints or interpretations that I hadn’t initially considered – and whilst I do try to be as comprehensive as possible when writing, it’s of course impossible to be exhaustive. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t learn something from these discussions, and I think one of there reasons we enjoy the quality and size of community we do here is because such discussions are both self-curating and self-encouraging. I have been told repeatedly that as far as photography goes, this community is pretty unique on the internet for both erudition, engagement and civility. The next question is of course: how do we grow this?
In the last few days since Kevin Raber at LL published his editorial, I’ve received at least 100 emails asking ‘is it true?’ and ‘is this the end?’ Hopefully by now the internet hysteria has died down and most of us can take a collective deep breath and look at the situation with a bit more objectivity, it’ll become clear that the sky isn’t falling. Indeed, it’s quite likely to be the opposite. However, knowing how quick people are to accuse, react and generally come to (often wildly incorrect) conclusions without complete information, I have to state my position clearly upfront:
- Yes, I am a Hasselblad ambassador but am not involved at all in the operations, finances or strategic decisions of the company. I use the cameras, answer questions, and that’s really about it.
- This post was neither solicited nor compensated for by the company or any other party, and solely represents my own opinions.
- Whilst I am only a photographer now, I did work in M&A, private equity and at senior operational positions for the better part of 10 years beforehand. So I do know something about the issues at hand.
- I am of ethnic Chinese descent (why this is important will become clear later on).
- We’ll look at the situation with as much commercial objectivity as possible.
With that, let’s get on with the analysis.
I’ve written previously about what exactly contributes to the ‘medium format look’. However, I think to some degree we also need to both define what constitutes the hallmarks of smaller formats, but more importantly figure out where each format’s strengths lie. Having now shot what I’d consider ‘enough’ with a complete MF system wth lenses ranging from ultra wide (24mm, or 18mm-e) to moderate tele (250mm, or 180mm-e) I think I’ve built up a much more complete picture. No doubt this will change if the recording medium size increase further – with the 54x40mm sensors, for instance – but I think it’s fairly safe to extrapolate based on the differences between subsequent smaller formats.
I said at the start of 2016 that the overall market for photographic services (commissioned work, art, education) was getting lumpier and smaller: I don’t think that’s changed. If anything, it’s gotten worse. I suspect this is an underlying societal change more than anything: people are simply getting bored. So where does that leave us in 2017?
“Ugly boring boring boring. Such boring images despite having good equipment.” “Talentless.” “Mediocre”. Just a few of the choice statements this image brought out on Facebook for some odd reason; I have no idea why that kind of response only happened with one particular photograph; perhaps the commenters woke up on the wrong side of the bed, had an argument with their spouses or were served inferior coffee. In any case, it’s difficult to take such things seriously if there’s no body of work or any sort of artistic conviction displayed by the critic. But it did make me think about something else: what determines beautiful and ugly? What is the purpose of a photograph, if not to be a record of a unique point of view? Ideally, that point of view should trigger some sort of emotion – good or bad, because surely if there’s no emotion elicited in the audience, then the image has no impact at all – and thus won’t be remembered? Taking one step further, does it matter if the emotion is positive or negative?
I think if I were a painter, I’d probably work in a completely opposite style to the way I photograph most of the time: somewhat impressionistic, with strongly graphic, block structures that are aesthetically pleasing and no more than essential to the mere suggestion of the subject. Forget being explicit; leave that to the imagination of the viewer. It’s much more difficult to do photographically since the medium is one that faithfully records everything that’s there – good and bad and without prejudice towards ‘cleanliness’; you have to hunt quite hard to find something that remains graphic on a macro scale since large objects in an urban environment simply don’t stay perfectly uniform for very long, which in turn breaks the illusion of minimalism. Nevertheless, I think it remains an interesting visual training exercise because it forces you to really observe and distill the essence of an object…even if some retouching is required to clean it up afterwards. MT
85mm lenses and equivalents on native or adapted formats – yes, I probably have too many. Upper left row: Nikon 85 PCE Macro, Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus, Nikon 24-120/4 VR, Hasselblad HC 2.2/100; middle row: Zeiss 1.4/85 Milvus, Canon EF-S 18-55 STM (APS-C), Nikon 85/1.8 G, C/Y Zeiss 2.8/85 Leitax converted to Nikon mount; lower right row: Zeiss Hasselblad CF 2.8/80, Zeiss Hasselblad C 2.8/80 T*. I wanted to add the Hasselblad HC 35-90 zoom, but it wouldn’t fit in the picture. And there also used to be a Zeiss 1.8/85 Batis, Zeiss ZM 4/85, Nikon 80-400 G VR and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO, but I’m recovering now…
Though this post may seem like a hoarders’ justification more than anything – I can assure you, it isn’t. Whilst you could probably pick one lens in each focal length or angle of view and hack your way into making it work, there are some pretty solid reasons why you might not want to – and this is something I’d like to discuss today. Trust me, there are reasons why I’d prefer not to have to carry two or three seemingly overlapping lenses on assignment – but often there’s simply no choice. Here’s my logic, using the 85mm-equivalent focal length as an example.