There is little that can lead you to treasure good photography than to look at a lot of bad photography, interspersed with an occasional gem. Which is exactly what I was doing a few weeks ago on (where else?) flickr, where I was editing group pools.
When I started the New Black and White group, back in flickr's early pre-yahoo fog, there were no editing or moderation tools, it was slow and painstaking to remove each and every pic I felt didn't belong. And at first that was fine, as there were very few pics submitted. Two or three a day. I stopped messing with it, left it fallow -- came back to find a thousand pictures.
Edited those down to a few dozen, watched it fill up quickly again. Eventually the flood was far more than I could manage as anything less than a full-time job, so I ignored it for months until there were more than 55,000 photos in the pool, most of them "flickr noise" of the cute kitten variety.
Rather than even try to deal with all that, I started another group, Contemporary Black and White, and invited a few select members. I thought: at least I don't need to edit them (and I don't -- they've been contributing good stuff). But then I started wondering about the old one.....
...could I realistically edit-down the 50,000+ photos to a little kernel, throwing away 90% or more of them? Only one way to find out....
So I did. It took time, it took special tools, it took regular attacks. I worked in blocks of from 1000 to 3000 photos. As time passed, it was quick enough to see how many really endlessly-repeating tropes there were, each trotted out over and again and usually accompanied by plenty of enthusiastic flickr badges and boosting comments (especially if the photo involved a pretty girl).
As soon as I started deleting, of course, the hate emails started coming in. What was interesting, if not surprising, was that some of the worst "offenders" -- by that I mean people whose "NB&W" photos were dull, often not even black and white, and massively spam-posted all over flickr -- were the most strident of the protesters. A handful of them diffidently pulled their photos (by the hundreds) from the pool. Thank you for saving me so much time! I thought, but also couldn't help but believe that they genuinely thought they were doling-out a punishment, as if I would somehow be harmed by no longer being able to view (and congratulate) their hundreds of bare-tree-on-the-plains snaps ("Don't bother replying back as I'm blocking you." too).
Photography, especially as practiced socially on the internet, is as vulnerable as any craft to the curious backwards-expectation principle: that is, for any skill, the very best people are constantly self-critical and pushing, always knowing that they could do better -- while the weakest practitioners are quite securely smug in their belief that they've got everything licked, under control, no need to reflect or review except to roll in adulations.
In internet-style photography, this is reinforced to a staggering degree, if only because so much of photography, as generally practiced, is about flattery -- just like most online social networks.
In the aforementioned 1951 article, Berenice Abbott places the blame for photography's emphasis on flattery on the proto-pictorialist photographer Henry Peach Robinson, the creator of the famous Victorian melodrama photo "Fading Away," and most especially on his book Pictorial Photography (A sample: "It is an old canon of art, that every scene worth painting must have something of the sublime, the beautiful, or the picturesque. By its nature, photography can make no pretensions to represent the first, but beauty can be represented by its means and picturesqueness has never had so perfect an interpreter."). Personally I don't think he can quite be credited for human vanity, but the gun's still a little smoky.
It doesn't really matter where it came from, but the belief is rampant that "good" photography equals "flattering" (this was exactly the criterion given to me a recent local photo class, a class which also extolled the works of Yousef Karsh as expressing the highest of all photographic virtues). It's a flattery that aims both ways: if your pic is flattering, then it is "good" which flatters the photographer.
The cycle starts there: the photos are flattering, and deserving therefore of flattery, and flattery leads to flattery leads to flickr badges and group invitations and should a tiny shred of actual daylight get into the party the guests will be in a ruinous uproar over its harsh direct brightness.
Not that the angry messages bothered me after the first thousand photos. I stopped informing, just went at it deleting. Didn't look at the names, didn't look at anything but the pics. And saw the same two dozen shots over, and over, and over...
I started to catalog them for a while: "...cute cats, adorable soft-toned children, footprints in the sand at the beach, misty time exposures of water, streets and railroads stretching off into the distance, casual snapshots, rusting cars, ruined castles, silhouetted trees, tele shots of resting seabirds, trees and unidentifiable silhouetted figures in fog, photos of backs of heads, (abandoned) factories, tourist destinations, parked bicycles, wide-angle upshots of skyscrapers, cathedral ceilings and windows, photos of camera collections, geometric airport ceilings, exterior stairways, wistful old statues, people looking bored while drinking coffee, interesting architectural details in closeup, sunlit spiderwebs..." it was actually a relief to leave in at least a few flattering model shots, if only because they weren't another empty craggy landscape.
For the sake of completeness (no, just to be random) I kept some in place, throwing away the OTHER photos just to keep runs of clichéd ones: say, thirty black trees on white (URL approximate), or twenty men with hats, or 30 shots of animals -- in order. Moderators can't rearrange the photos, I could only do this by eliminating the pix between how many runs of shots were just the same, same, same.
What none of the protesters did is what would have redeemed them. Despite repeated patient invitations in the face of their ad hominem vitriol, not one of them was willing to say why their photo deserved consideration, why it was special or worth anyone's time to view. Not one.
I can't help but feel the person who has benefited most from the exercise, though the obvious result is a much better pool of photos, is me -- seeing in a deep way, night after night for weeks, just how many "gorgeous!!" photos are really not worth a second glance and how many of them are in the same narrow predictable range that have been little-changed since the 1860's. Now the real challenge: remembering to avoid them myself while still making photos. At least photos I'd bother putting on the web.
So many good books recently, and some good ones that I've never sung about here though I've had them for many months. There has been a special bounty of books that have no or very few photos, though they are indeed photography books. I'd like to mention four (well, four and a half) of them.
And a video.
Philip Perkis's The Sadness of Men, a true "photobook," is one of those books that has grown on me through multiple visits, until it has become one of my favorites. The pictures often need to be given time. I was a bit underwhelmed at first, despite my adoration for Perkis's and his short book Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled. which he's now put on Lulu for $19.99. I had gone too fast. Notes Assembled is short enough to read quickly during a long lunch and will reward with nourishment enough even then -- but like his photo book, it rewards repeated thoughtful chewing. Broken into a number of little anecdotes and short meditations, assignments, and puzzles, Notes comes from his experience of teaching for many years, and also includes a short passage on critiques that I think should be widely circulated (it's on pages 47-49 -- only page 48 is visible in the Google Books preview, though it contains a critical passage about practice... I've copied it below).
Perkis teaches in a university setting (and, recently, at ICP), and I expect that plenty of his experience comes from teaching university students who are less interested in photography per se than they are interested in getting their Humanities distribution requirements out of the way. This is rather different from teaching at workshops or exclusively in advanced programs, where one can be reasonably sure that the students are motivated by some desire to create and discover. Perkis starts at the root, in his exercise #1: "Go to a museum. Find a photograph that interests you. Look at it for five minutes. Don't take your eye off the picture."
No lenses, f/stops, chemistry, electronics. Don't take your eye off the picture.
Picking up a camera shows up around exercise #5.
A similar sentiment animates John Blakemore's Black and White Photography Workshop. Sure, he's going to get around to the Zone System and split-contrast printing and how the principles all map to digital but -- he spends the first half of the book talking about pictures, about photography's strength and bane, the inescapable subject, about the process of thinking and revising and rethinking and trying and discovering. Oh yeah, and here's some technical stuff to support that.
On top of it, there are some great Blakemore photos in here, and this is the cheapest way to see them, as copies of his Stilled Gaze are running in the hundreds of dollars on the usual used-book sites. In the meantime, I managed to pick up a new but remaindered copy of Black and White Workshop for a mere $3.95, a price that seems downright criminally cheap.
Back in the let's-just-talk camp, the Charles Traub-/Stephen Heller-/Adam Bell-edited The Education of a Photographer constitutes another book based on years of teaching. And like the others, it largely ignores technology as merely a fact of the photographer's life. In his foreword Heller writes that "while photography students had a wealth of material on the technique, technology, history, and theory of photography, there was a surfeit of inspirational and informative material on what it means to be a photographer." Other than the foreword, Traub's introduction and Bell's one-page afterword, the editors are largely absent from the visible stage -- the book is composed of the writings of others on photography and photographers -- always with the practitioner themselves front and center, either as the subject of someone else's writing, interviewing, or the photographer is writing for themselves (including an excerpt from Perkis's book).
Here we have Rodchenko, Levitt, Model, Brodovitch, Sultan, Wall, Crewdson -- an excellent selection of personal glimpses, even in a few cases where the glimpse has to be a bit sideways given the artist's indirectness or playful obfuscation (hi Garry). I found Clarissa Sligh's "The Plaintiff Speaks" would be moving writing even if I had no particular interest in photography. There are also some clips that can't help but raise a familiar smile among modern flickerati when we read Berenice Abbot's 1951 anxiety about too much concern over flattering, "pretty pictures" (placing the blame all the way back to Henry Peach Robinson's 1869 Pictorial Photography) or Ralph Hattersley's 1962 protests against "undercooked and nonsensical" "critiques" such as:
Perhaps conspicuous in their absence are the pictorial and f/64 canons and their famously-talkative members. Calvino, but no Cameron. Warhol, but no Weston. Which suits me fine.
Finally, a book with a lot of pictures -- Joe McNally's The Moment it Clicks, which aims most squarely at the punchy, colorful, readable-at-all-sizes, celeb-heavy sort of photography that magazine layout directors and web site media managers love. The book has been already widely pitched and hyped all over the internet, with good enough reason: McNally's pictures are appealing, many of them familiar, and his clean though tech-centric style is one that's perfectly aligned with the commercial ambitions of thousands of Canon and Nikon customers -- the same people that he has been pitching in workshops for years. He includes the technical details, which is invaluable for those who would like to learn that craft. He knows his audience, and he so clearly genuinely enjoys what he does, what's to dislike? Nothing. As my friend Jeff Pidgeon once said so succinctly: nothing to offend everyone.
Addendum: It's tragic that McNally's strongest work, imo, isn't in the book -- not easily crowd-pleasing, perhaps? A great remedy is to spend an hour and watch this great video of Joe McNally lecturing a week or two ago at Google in Mountain View.
A few rules and principles that are quite strict.
- No rudeness
- No competition
- No telling the artist what the work means about them (a critique is not psychotherapy)
- The class chooses what work will be talked about (Students should feel free to ask that their work be dealt with because they need feedback). No need to address every work in every class.
Here's the main principle:
The person whose work is being addressed can answer factual questions in the beginning, i.e., where was the picture made, what film, lens, etc. They can say nothing about intention, content, or other meaning. At this time, the rest of the group can say anything they like about the work, be it craft, aesthetics, politics, art history, et al. The are free to say anything. They can report associations in their minds, dreams and fantasies as long as it's about the work and not about the person who made the work.
Something very interesting starts to take place if this is done with openness and intelligence; the student is getting real information about what their work is communicating to a group of people who are being as honest and caring as possible. This information is for the use of the student and they can do anything they want with it. The work never has to be defended, justified, or explained. At this point, if a student wants to talk about the work just discussed, they can do so as much as they would like, and a long back and forth discussion can take place.
The role of the teacher in this process is to moderate, and to be a participant along with everyone else.
The sole purpose of the critique is for students to gain insight about their work and have information that will help them proceed to the next stage of development. As a group works together from week to week, a level of trust and understanding can develop so that people are more willing to take chances both in the discussion, but more importantly, in their work. Then you've really done something worthwhile.
It is vitally important for the group, and especially the teacher, to make clear the difference between fact (a smaller aperture gives more depth of field) and opinion (this picture has a violent edge). Making this difference clear allows the discussion to range much bigger.
A few busy weeks coming up!
On the heels of Contact, I'm heading to Madrid in a few weeks to visit See See and to scout around the shows of PHotoEspaña (suggestion of "must see" shows greatly appreciated), followed by a zip up to the much-overphotographed Guggenheim in Bilbao and whats sure to be entirely too much fantastic food.
Isaac's birthday and graduation from Middle School are also approaching, even earlier -- and then as soon as I'm back from Spain, he's in for three weeks of rock n' roll camp while we also deal with Siggraph, California Extreme, Oshkosh (maybe), Gamefest, and yeah, the girl on the far right of the photo above is carrying an NVISION bag, where I'll be speaking about the future of real-time character animation and rendering (with special guests -- some incredible NVIDIA partners).
It’s been a couple of years now since I wrote this entry on digital Black and White conversions. I’m still using a variation of the Caponigro conversion described there. What prompted me here was a combination of events, including reconciling the many scripts and actions I had on several different Photoshop-equipped computers, each of which had diverged from ts brethren; meeting Bob Carnie at Elevator Digital in Toronto, thanks to Dinesh; this APUG thread, which also included more info from Bob; and the latest edition of Digital Photo Pro magazine, which has run B&W articles as its cover story quite a lot over the last year or two, and this one was no exception. What surprised me was that DPP were freshly touting the old Gorman/Holbert method (aka the Gorman Method).
I've tried the Gorman method a few times in the past, stored actions for it like many other people have no doubt, and... it puzzles me. It puzzles me because:
As an Action the method makes sense to some degree -- I can imagine applying it to whole directories of pictures at a time. What it lacks in control it might make up for in volume, though you could say that about any Photoshop/Bridge/Lightroom action.
There's also the proof pudding -- Gorman's published shots. They genuinely look great, but... is it really the conversion, or the practiced studio photographer? If he really uses this method, my guess is that he's learned how to nail his desired B&W results time after time by rigid adherence until it has become very natural to use and light for this scheme.
Bob likes Lab too, according to the APUG thread. I'm still scratching my head, though I suppose that the same "use what works for you" logic could be behind his comments (and I have no argument with that line of reasoning, believe me). It's also true that using a combination of all three colors, regardless of just what that composition might be, has the potential to give you really smooth and gorgeous floating-point-precision gradients even without resorting to Dark Side trickery like HDR.
Still, I like the Caponigro method, and have adjusted it slightly since the previous entry. I don't try to put the color toning into the same operation, and I put all the adjustments into a folder, so I can turn them of and on as a group (or fade them by adjusting the opacity of the entire layer group at once).
I've also added a blank layer I label "burn" to the folder, and set its blend mode to "multiply." Anything I paint into this layer will essentially burn-down (darken) the corresponding areas of the final B&W image, and it too can ave varying opacity in case I get a little too heavy-handed wit the brush (which happens a fair bit). The illustration shows a complete "Modified Caponigro Method" folder.
What about that undisplayed "Layer 2" above the folder?
It's the result of my very favorite Photoshop key commands, a trick I've only heard verbally described as "The Move." It's "ctrl-option-shift-E" and does in one step what the Gorman method does in two -- it merges all visible layers into a new layer at the top of the stack (in the Gorman method, this is done by creating a blank layer and then running "merge visible" on that layer -- exactly the same result).
That "Layer 2" is just such a layer, which has then been hidden for later use (as we'll see).
A problem with (pre-CS4) Photoshop is that it doesn't let you specify arbitrary blend operations (or filters) on a folder. So the only way to use those sorts of effects are to do a "move," create that new layer, and then execute whatever on that layers pixels. That's what the Gorman method does for its high-pass layer, and how I use it will be described below.
These "merged" layers are great, but do remember -- if you edit any of the underlying Hue, Curves, etc layers, those changes will not automatically appear in the merged layer. Instead, you'll need to hide or delete the old merge and make a new one (clicking the little visibility icons then makes A/B comparisons pretty easy too, btw).
Recently, I've been experimenting with using these merge B&W layers to manipulate color images:
Here are some pics: the first is an un-modified original, followed by two possible B&W conversions, and then the color result of applying those conversions back to the original color image. In the first, darker one, I liked the somewhat bad-color-printing appearance it had. In the second, which also washed-out a lot of the detail in the freckles, the color becomes very soft, looking almost like hand coloring. The last in this group uses the same brght luminance source, but the effect is faded back by reducing the luminance layer's opacity.
As long as we're in Photoshop, it's hard to resist trying near-useless tricks, too. Here's a completely negative luminance applied to the original colors, and its inverse (which gives positive luminance to negative colors).
These samples use a different blend mode: the "lighter color" mode. The result (which looks best, IMO, when slightly faded back) gives slight variations in the overall color saturation according to the overall luminance -- another rather film-like effect and one I really like.
Finally, why not blend components of techniques for something new? The pics below show the high-pass layer from the Gorman technique, applied via "overlay" to the original color image.
So what about video games?I would be remiss not to mention that all of these methods, except for the high-pass filter, can be executed in a single unified pass in hardware shaders, thus also making them appropriate for using in video games (the high-pass filter would require an additional render-to-texture pass). If you've been paying attention to John Nack's blog, you may also know that such effects will eventually be available in real time for Photoshop and Flash via "Pixel Bender" shaders.
High speed ftw! A quick $12.99 sale price later, and the LX2 is somewhere between 25-30% faster on RAW capture. Thank you OCZ and thanks Gary for the hint!
To my surprise, shooting time for ten "high quality" JPEG images remained about the same -- around 20 seconds -- indicating to me that for compressed pix, the limiting factor is the speed of the "Venus Engine" processor itself.
Addedum: yesterday saw the publication of dpreview's test of the Sigma DP-1 which is probably the closest competitor to the LX-2 and considered by many, in anticipation of it, as the compact streetphoto heir apparent. To my great surprise, the Sigma is significantly slower than the LX-2 -- the only got a little over 7 seconds per frame in RAW while the LX-2 turnaround was only 4.5 seconds (even faster than what I was getting). The Sigma does have a three-frame buffer, though it's not clear to me if you can use it in regular shooting mode. And a hotshoe for Martin Parr & Bruce Gilden fans.
Addendum #2: And on the heels of that, another review lamenting the DP-1's lack of speed, this time by Edward Taylor on The Online Photographer -- "My main complaint about the camera then was that it was painfully slow. It was and it is...." Hmmm.
As I expected, I've gotten more used to the LX2.
In the clichéd and time-honored tradition of pointing Leicas at brick walls to prove that their lenses are top-notch, here's a closer sample of an in-camera-sepia JPEG. The right-hand area shows a detail from the picture on the left -- pixels at one-to-one size (if anything, the image here is degraded just because it's a web-compressed pic. It was also hand-held).
As long as I'm willing to put my thumb on the monitor, it's fine in the hand. During the past week I've been shooting with it at the ION Conference, using it as a notepad to keep track of presentation slides. In the hand for an hour at a time and I've gotten used to the idea. No hand strain. In JPEG, it's also plenty fast.
Tomorrow I'm taking Gary's advice and trying a much faster SD card for shooting in RAW mode. If it can get the differentials indicated on Rob Galbraith's benchmark site, there might be as much as a 4x acceleration, which will keep me quite happy (even a modest improvement might be enough).
For my Contact Photo weekend, I'd expected the Sunday to be the shorter of the two -- instead under the bright sun I was able to visit MOCCA, the remaining Queen Street galleries, the Gladstone, the Drake, drive across town to the Corkin, and still take a leisurely pace back to the airport.
Of the work I saw, there were only a few standouts, but they were well worth the trouble...
My vote for most under-appreciated were Wilma Needham's prints at New Gallery, a space that was quite empty the two times I visited. The prints have a sense of disconnection and depth that, for me, made vivid senses of physicality, of mortality, and yet from them a great, simple beauty.
I was happily surprised to find that Ryoko Suzuki's Anikora-seifuku prints were really as great as their size (and prices) might indicate -- a benefit of their scale is that the photographic reproduction of the small hand-painted anikora dolls, when on a six-foot print, give the impression that the surface of the print itself has been painted. From the catalog I noticed that a few of these prints had already been tagged "sold" -- the most conservative ones in my opinion, which gave me the impression that the buyers must have been institutions.
A bonus while at the Corkin was picking up a signed Photo Poche by Sarah Moon, who I have long admired and think of as one of the key figures, though she has never (afaik) used one, in the iconography of modern toy camera users.
At the Gladstone, the most appealing work was in the collective Exposed show -- not across the board, but a few of the photographers there had compelling voices. One, Jimm Tran, showed work that was nothing like the event and wedding portfolio he displays on the web: instead he had a series of fantasy portrayals of "american dreamgirl" scenarios as created in a low-budget way by a young southeast-asian transvestite. One might think it just an épater le bourgeois gesture, but genuinely I found the work touching, a collision of impossible (or at least implausible) cultural and personal ambitions and expectations.
In the same show I enjoyed the color styling of Tammy Hoy, though her subjects seemed painfully reminiscent of artists like the Parke-Harrisons and obviously an iconic bowler hat borrowed from Magritte. A real standout were the fictographie prints of Jérôme Bourque. The other work in the group show was decent enough -- perhaps becasue it was all part of a group and no one collection needed to carry the show. The other, single-artists shows at the Gladstone left me feeling cold, including the appealing surfaces of I Am Elvis -- too slick, too designed to please, too Entertainment Magazine for my taste.
A curious aspect of a show like Contact is that, as I hear it, if you can set up photos in your garage and pay $400, you can hang a yellow tag outside and call yourself a Contact site. While this doesn't fly well among the main gallery rows, I was surprised (well, not really) to find not far from the Corkin a small (and busy) gallery, complete with a Contact tag, full of photos that were classic, colorful photo.net standards -- vine-surrounded doorways, archways, late-day-lit and person-less travel fare of old buildings in Provence (or was it Venice? Does it matter?). Who will sell more dollar volume by the end of the show -- the $6k Suzuki prints or the $600 generica? Hmmm.
(By request of Ralph, a set of photos for the monthly SP salon)
Spent most of the day running back and forth through the rain to see as much of Contact Photo as the rain would allow, and last night chasing around the Lanch Event. Tomorrow I'll hit the MOCCA portion before returning home. Fell asleep -- coffee in hand -- just as the early-evening weather outside my hotel room was surging past the drizzly form shown here into a real driving storm.
I also had the pleasure during the morning of driving across town to visit the Bob Carnie & Kevin Viner at Elevator Digital, where I got to see their big print line including their digital fiber-print mural-scale line, which they believe was the world's first. These are large-format images, printed on black & white traditional darkroom paper -- a good deal bgger than what the well-known Devere digital enlarger can produce.
I also got a glimpse at the results from the Canon imagePROGRAF iPF9100 60" printer, which delivered gorgeous B&W results straight our of the bx -- that is, on the supplied Canon profiles without tweaking.
To my surprise, when I awoke two hours after dozing away, the view was dazzlingly different: the towers lit by an orange sunset and framed by a deep blue sky. Surprising what a couple of hours can do if you'll just willing to stay put (sleeping helps).
What about the photographs? I'll write more about them in the next entry.