There’s Nothing New Under the Strobe

The greatest revelations in photography every year, are generally repeated revelations. They’re made every year in countless books, blogs and even this newsletter.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s necessary.

Discovery is a problem.

It’s a problem in music, since unlimited access to unlimited music means MTV and radio don’t have the influence they once had to tell us who to follow.

It’s a problem in news, since the 3 networks are now 50,000 and they all have a hard time agreeing on the facts, let alone an agenda.

The problem of discovery is a problem of recovery as well.

Our notebooks are now infinite. We can collect everything, so we spend precious little time reviewing anything.

Photography truths have remained unchanged for a hundred years, but that doesn’t mean any of us can recall them at a moment’s notice or apply them to our current projects.

I’m grateful for those who spend the time to remix information and serve it to us in new ways. It’s helpful. But, I’m aware there’s nothing new there.

Collecting information is easy. Reviewing and applying information is hard. As in most things, the hard stuff is the probably the most beneficial stuff.

The Snapshot is King

There’s no more damning critique of a photograph than “It’s a snapshot.” This makes no sense to me.

Let’s examine what a snapshot is.

  • Snapshots are usually reserved for family, friends and events, where we’d rather be enjoying ourselves than setting up a tripod.
  • A snapshot discards the “rules” of photography and aims for pure emotion. What could be more artistic?
  • The snapshot gives voice to 3-year olds, the poor and many other groups often considered unworthy of the “art” world.

The truth is the vast majority of photographers take snapshots.

The best selling cameras are made for snapshots.

The snapshot is the medium for some of the most important pictures in history (see war time and citizen journalist photography).
Its time the snapshot got a little more respect. I find nothing wrong with it. In fact, for the joy a snapshot usually brings to my life, I care for it far more than anything hanging in a gallery.

And Don’t Call Me Shirley

The Zucker brothers made some of the most classic comedy films of the 1980s, like Airplane and The Naked Gun. It seems like everyone, to this day, has tried copping their style, usually to disastrously unfunny results.

When asked in 1991 about why their comedies were so much better than their contemporaries, David Zucker let loose their top secret (later re-written for Entertainment Weekly):

"Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out. When an actor delivers a punchline, it should be done seriously. It dilutes the comedy to try to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something silly going on in the background, the foreground action must be free of jokes and vice-versa."

Providing a simple background (or foreground) to your subject helps the viewer zero in on what’s really important in a scene. Photographers may differ on the technical aspects of such advice, but I’ve always appreciated a good story more than a technically perfect photo.

Don’t Be Precious

When it comes to getting creative work done, no one dishes out the tough love like Steven Pressfield, author of Do the Work and The War of Art.

Today, Steven released a video explaining his Foolscap Method of capture an entire storytelling project on one sheet of paper. My favorite part of the method, is a principle I’ve written about before, “Don’t be precious.”

Creative work is messy. Most of us are tempted to clean it up. We buy complex apps to organize and track projects that could have been simply written on paper in seconds. We buy cameras with ever-increasing lists of features, when we only need a few to capture a story.

We could learn a lot by grabbing a workhorse camera, a cheap pad of paper and a pen we don’t care about losing, and crafting a story. Everything else we add to that process is just a way to avoid the work that matters, because we’re scared of criticism, self-examination and honesty.

Don’t be precious. You already have the tools. Get to work.

David duChemin on Constraints

David duChemin:

"We need constraints. They force our hands creatively, and while many advocate embracing constraints, I suggest we go one better and create them."

Exactly. Our brains are set up to avoid the pain of creativity and embrace simple, painless and bland solutions. Your brain will always try to rationalize it’s way out of the pain, which is why you can’t allow it.

David doesn’t always use gear as his constraint, though. That’s a good point. As long as you reach some kind of “pain point,” at which the gears in your brain start turning more rapidly, it doesn’t really matter how you get there.

I’d go back to a DSLR tomorrow, if I thought I could rely on my brain to consistently deliver better ideas with automated equipment. That just isn’t the way my brain works. If given the chance to be lazy, it will. It’ll tell me to use the equipment to produce the same kinds of images I’ve seen in all the books. I suspect that’s true of most people.  

"Visual Journalism" in the Instagram Era

An interview with “Photography Theorist” Fred Ritchin in Mother Jones get details about his new book, “Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen,” and his views on the state of photojournalism:

"There is enormous need for professionals who know how to tell stories with narrative punch and nuance, who can work proactively and not just reactively, and whose approach is multi-faceted. We need more ‘useful photographers.’ Given today’s budgets for journalism, my guess is that quite a few photographers will be fired in the near future. But I certainly hope that many visual journalists will be hired or funded along the way as well—we urgently need their perspectives."

He’s right. I think visual journalism is of great value, but the packaging will have to be something new to make it a career.

"What is underrepresented are those ‘metaphotographers’ who can make sense of the billions of images being made and can provide context and authenticate them. We need curators to filter this overabundance more than we need new legions of photographers."

This may be true, but I caution you to not hand such control over your images to a “curator.” They have far more power to craft your message than you do. Maybe the lesson here is the same old lesson:

  • Be a good storyteller.
  • Do it with words and images.
  • Edit savagely.
  • Own the story.
  • Try to find a job title like “Photography Theorist,” because, seriously, that’s pretty cool. 

Photography is an Act, Not a Profession

Being able to please a client and being able to capture images you’re proud of are two very different things.

Making interesting images with a DSLR and making interesting images with your phone are not two very different things.

Telling a captivating story without a client or a journalism pedigree does not make you any less of a photographer or journalist.

(HT: Reason

Is Total Automation the Future of Cameras?

Yep. That’s always been the goal. And, it may serve artists particularly well.

Jason Kottke gives his take on some recent articles about how a next generation camera might work:

"You hold the camera in front of something, take a video or photo of that moment, and post it. If you missed it, it’s gone forever. What if these apps worked the other way around: you ‘take’ the photo or video from footage previously (or even constantly) gathered by your phone?"

Just as anyone can microwave a frozen dinner, what we really want (and pay good money for) is a dinner prepared by someone who knows what they’re doing, has a vision and doesn’t take shortcuts.

Automation will always sell better than the prospect of thought. Welcome this with open arms, because there’s no better way to differentiate your work from the masses. 

Support Your Local Photographer

A few recent posts have me thinking about support among photographers. From Stella Kramer (via A Photo Editor):

"Have you contributed to other photographer’s projects? As much as I can say there is a photography community in New York, I find myself questioning how much of it is self-interest and how much of it is reciprocal."

And from CentUp (via Swiss Miss and Minimal Mac): 

"Pay talented people directly, not by looking at ads."

I’m a member at several websites and I buy self-published books from others, because I believe in what they do and I want to support them.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great tradition of doing this at popular photography sites, because most readers are used to the intrusive ads and over-the-top affiliate sales techniques.

Your participation in a photographer’s blog doesn’t have to be monetary, but you’d be surprised just how much participation of any kind can make a real difference.