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 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?
A photograph is an observation of a scene at a given moment in time. It’s an effectively instantaneous snapshot of the state of a scene or person or other subject, given the relative rate of change of those subjects. If we extend the duration of observation – i.e. with a long shutter speed – we might see some hints at that change in the form of motion blur, or eventually, averaging. If we get lucky, or observe for a long period of time, we might eventually be able to capture an interesting change or temporary state of the system; however, this assumes two further things. Firstly, that we can differentiate what is ‘interesting’ and have a good benchmark of what to look for; secondly, that we are aware and responsive enough to capture it. I think we can already see why there are some serious challenges here.
I recently had a conversation with a reader with a question that honestly surprised me: “How do I hide my photography obsession from my wife?” I have to admit this one stumped me for a while: I’ve never hidden it from Nadiah, nor do I think I could even if I tried to – partially because I’m a really bad liar, and partially because for as long as she’s known me, even in corporate – I’ve always been a photographer first and foremost. But it does bring up some interesting thoughts around photography and spouses…
We acknowledge that every medium of expression has its strengths and limitations relative to others. Yet our basis for discussion and understanding of concepts and ideas is very much a written/spoken language-based one, this remains our benchmark – more so when the concepts become more complex and less intuitive – or the opposite, so simple and basic they’re entirely intuitive and not at all logical. There are of course severe limitations of language when it comes to describing the visual properties of expression and composition, yet it’s usually easy for us to see when something isn’t quite right. Why, how, and what do proportions, weight, balance, composition and aesthetics have to do with each other? Is there a somewhat more objective way to handle these concepts? I’m not certain, but today were going to try.
Borrowing the title reference from the John le Carre novel and (later) movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I think nicely encapsulates the multitude of hats the modern photographer must be comfortable wearing in order to be a producer of compelling images. I’ve said before that photography is both a dialog between photographer and audience and that the process of photographing is really an exercise in curating and excluding elements of the world according to one’s own personal biases, then sharing the results with an audience such that they might be interpreted in the desired way. The technical process of capture, and the creative one of composition, are no more than enablers to that translation: the capture allows recording and sharing; composition is arrangement with the intention of direction and influence over the audience. The whole photographic process – vision, composition, capture, presentation, viewing – is really simultaneously as much and as little as the sharing of an idea inspired by already extant objects.
I’ve recently been accused by several people of ‘not being objective’ and ‘losing credibility’ since representing a brand, and I’d like to address those critics today. Firstly, I don’t get paid for doing so. I enjoy a somewhat higher level of support and some loan equipment, but I still have to buy a good proportion of my own hardware. Secondly, the whole of photography is subjective in itself – equipment is only fit for purpose or not, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ since no two people shoot the same way or same subjects. Sure, we can do quantitative measurement – but as most people (correctly) point out, there’s more to it than numbers. Thirdly, if the only thing you associate me with is equipment reviews, then I breathe a sigh of relief: you might be missing out on 90% of my site, but the gear-related questions and emails I don’t have to answer leave me time to focus on making pictures and the philosophy of photography. Lastly, the philosophy of photography and image-making and human psychological response has nothing whatsoever to do with hardware beyond its necessity as a tool for achieving a certain expression – you cannot have a compressed perspective with a wide angle, but two 500mm lenses are going to give you the same perspective regardless of pedigree.
Not a people mover, and never meant to be. Similar things abound photographically: resolution, or bulk? Reach, or size? Ease of file handling, or quality? Edge resolution, or weight and filter size? Controllability or compactness?
The story of photography is really a series of compromises – I suppose the same can be said of life in general, though there are specific consequences and considerations when it comes to making images. At the risk of appearing to contradict myself*, I’m writing this post somewhere over the South China Sea, after having a little epiphany. The difference between life and photography is that compromises made in the former usually come with a mixed bag of consequence that are both unknown since we have affected causality and the flow of events by making a choice, but in photography, we almost always know what we’re giving up – or we think we have a fair idea of it. Surely this should make creative and technical choices in image capture easier to make?
*Forcing creative development through restriction is not the same as knowing you’ve stopped before you’re done.