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.
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.
Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?
The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’
Sophie, the mime: the image resonates and means something to me because I have an emotional connection to the subject, to the setting, and I know the narrative story on either side of the frame. It may resonate with you because you happen to like children, or because the facial emotion is a strong an unambiguous one, or you like monochrome documentary portraiture, or for some other reason. But if it were executed differently, you may feel different about it – but not necessarily or consciously know why. It is up to the photographer to control the unconscious influences in such a way that at least their intended communication is fulfilled, but not in a way that draws attention to itself (and thus breaks that illusion).
After the huge amount of very interesting and thoughtful discussion that ensued in the comments – thank you for your thoughts, everybody – and a few days of settling time, I couldn’t leave the previous article on soul hanging inconclusively. There are few very interesting observations made, higher conclusions that one can draw from the responses here, and further logical leaps from contemplation of one’s own work and raison d’être. Firstly, a clarification though: I’m not looking for a magic formula to ‘inject soul’ into my own work, and I’ll explain why later. I was and am simply seeking to understand why certain images move certain people in a certain way – and if there’s anything one can use there to make a stronger image, given the choice, and providing of course it fits one’s own idea.
Let me start off by saying I’m probably the wrong person to write about this topic, but that’s also precisely why I need to. My critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul. There are no right or wrong absolutes when comes to art and photography, only subjective preferences; this of course means that there’s probably a nugget of something legitimate in there. I’ve spent some time contemplating what this last bit might actually mean: what is soul in an image? Why do some images have it, and others don’t? I will also say that whatever I put forth after this point is pure conjecture on my part (more so since I apparently don’t know what soul is), and I’m sure there are as many definitions as there are photographers. So, feel free to add your two cents in the comments…
One image that appears to break the rules, but really doesn’t: relatively flat light prevents texture from being too harsh, but it’s directional enough to create the curved shadow between the mown and unmown grass, with the line leading to the yellow flowers – that stand out from the rest of the meadow. Order in chaos, guided nature.
In the past, I’ve written about ‘The Four Things’ – what I consider to be the cornerstone elements of a good image. I’ve also written about subject isolation and finding that extra unpredictable magic element that lifts an image to the realm of the memorable. I’ve not written about ‘the idea’ yet, but that’s in the works. What I’d like to do today is revisit the core structure of an image with the benefit of hindsight and simplify those four things as much as possible, with the background context of understanding how our brains work. It might seem like photography and psychology all over again; but remember that photography is really a conversation between photographer and audience – and like all forms of communication, the rules are both cultural and somewhat more deep-seated at an anthropological level.
How many careers will the average 30 year old have by the time they retire – if they can even afford to retire? My guess is anywhere north of five. This is a stark contrast with my parents’ generation, where working with the same company for life wasn’t unheard of – and 20+ year stints were pretty common. A move after anything less than five years was seen as ‘unstable’. When I began my career 14 years ago, that timetable was down to three; these days, a year is just fine. Are we learning faster? Probably not. Are we getting more impatient? Definitely. Tomorrow, I’ll turn 30. I am aware that this is probably a bit younger than most in the audience, if the workshop demographics are anything to go by, but I’m both here and I’m not; having graduated and started work at 16, I’m now on my second career and the vast majority of my friends and peers are in their 40s and 50s – which puts me in a rather unique observatory position (or eternal no-mans’ land, depending on how you look at it). If you’ll permit me the digression – I promise we will talk photography at some point later in the piece – I’d like to share some thoughts.
The pixel race continues: more resolving power is being crammed into smaller and smaller physical sizes. The recent Hasselblad X1D announcement is at the pointy end of that: we now have medium format resolving power and tonal quality in a package that’s smaller than many 35mm solutions. I have a theory about resolution and the megapixel race and perception. Aside from the marketing reasons why 100>50>24 and must therefore be better, there are much more fundamental reasons why we feel the resolving power limitations of digital far more acutely than film. And it isn’t just our ability to pixel-peep with ease; it’s more to do with the fundamental nature of the world. Yes, there’s sufficiency in output because of the limitations of the output device itself, but I suspect these will catch up and exceed capture very easily. Allow me to explain why, and why I think there’s a way out that might well result in a very different sort of sensor…
A photograph is like food: endless in variety, universally appealing or an extremely acquired taste; easily obtainable and available at a different level to suit every preference and budget. You can cook eat the same thing several days in a row and still enjoy it, or you can do something completely different every day. You can make it yourself or subcontract. There are no rules about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Moreover, both photography and food are something relatively limitless for us humans: both in the creation, and the consumption. Just as we need nutrition on a daily basis, we need regular visual stimulation – and though you can manage just fine if you never cook yourself, at some point, curiosity is likely to motivate you to create. The more effort we put in, the more likely we are likely to be satisfied with the result: many techniques or dishes are deceptive in simplicity: the fewer elements present, the more perfect they have to be. I frequently think of analogs like minimalist photography being similar to sushi: there are just four ingredients (fish, rice, wasabi, soy sauce) – yet each one can affect the final outcome drastically. An uneducated diner might not be able to say why a particular piece of sushi (or photograph) works, a skilled one will be able to say why. But both will appreciate it. And just as with food, good ingredients and good equipment help, but at the end, it’s still down to the skill and imagination of the chef.
*Masterclass alumni will know I use the cooking analogy a lot: if a finished print is like a plated meal, then the planning and ingredient-gathering process and pre-prep is scouting and seeing; cooking is capture; plating is post processing.
Strung out: this is the photography market at present. Some fruit, none of it low hanging, all of it complex, a complex tangle to reach it and the illusion of blue skies and possibilities.
If there’s one thing I take away from 2015, is that the photographic market is getting more and more complex. There are tradeoffs in every choice – from clients to specialisation to hardware. And for me, 2016 is going to have to be spent sorting a large chunk of that out. But first, let’s see how I did against my 2015 goals.