A couple of days ago, Ugo Cei published a “A curmudgeonly look at the current state of landscape photography” rant on landscape photography which has stirred up quite some debate.
As I read, “There is this prevalent style in landscape photography that aims to capture the viewer with dramatic light, strong composition and bright, saturated colors” I found myself nodding wildly in agreement, but on reflection, I’m not sure that firing at such an obvious target is fruitful. And to be brutally frank, Ugo’s own work, beautiful as it is, doesn’t seem to be so many notches away from that which he decries.
Yes, much popular landscape photography on 500px is formulaic, garish, fluff, craving attention, pandering to a lowest common denominator threshold derived from endless identical tutorials. It’s much the same on 1x, wildly so on WhyTake, and also on Flickr, even if there some dilution is evident from the sheer volume. But so what. Commentary on the post is largely split between people defending their right to be superficial, and others agreeing but without much in the way of realistic alternatives. For example, “going back to film” is a popular panacea, but film - specifically, Velvia - is actually what got us here in the first place. The opposite trend of the exaggerated “Portra 400” heavily unsaturated look, usually featuring anonymous, bland subject matter, is equally as affected as the saturation sliders to 11 wave. Black & white is a valid alternative, but equally open to wild contrast exaggeration. The dark, scratchy gothic look is also a popular counter-trend, but again, often superficial. The problem is not the presentation, but rather the content.
There seems to be a great desire from a subset of landscape photographers to produce “meaningful work”. I’d include myself in that group. Unfortunately, at the same time, they seem to crave popular acclaim, and that’s likely to be a problem (and yes, that’s me, too). The key point about social media is that the “social” part often outweighs the “media” part. Getting likes on 500px et al is not going to be hampered by showing great photos, but playing the social networking game is far more important. I honestly do not know of any inspiring landscape photographers who are stars on photo sharing sites.
It certainly isn’t impossible for landscape photography to be meaningful and artistic. Some high profile examples include Ed Burtinsky, and Salgado, obviously, but there are plenty of others out there. Some favourites of mine include Stuart Klipper, Dav Thomas, and Tiina Itkonen. I don’t think any of these are big (if at all) on 500px.
Coming back to the tricky topic of meaningfulness in landscape photography, the debate has helped to crystallise my own views a little. First of all, I would propose that any photograph which provokes some response beyond the superficial holds meaning. I do not think that landscape photography, or indeed much photography at all, generally holds explicit meaning. Why should it? We have several senses, why do we need to translate a visual, visceral response into textual description? The meaning in landscape photography is general intangible, and we should be comfortable with that. As landscape photographers, we have compositional tricks of the trade to deploy to make our photos more visually interesting. And of course these are flogged to death in magazine tutorials, how-to books, and “fine art photographer” websites. They’re all well and good, but going out specifically to find leading lines, Ye Olde Foregrounde Intereste, or s-curves is going to result in bland eye candy, although it might get you noticed on 500px. It’s the wrong way round: these techniques can be used to enhance an interesting subject, but they’re not terribly interesting of themselves.
So then, what makes a photograph interesting? Well, there are several key reference works on that topic, for example by Stephen Shore, John Szarkowski, or George Barr. But these are generic - useful, enlightening, classic maybe, but not infallible sets of instructions. I believe that individually we have to find our own parameters. About a year after I started posting on Flickr, I started indulging in a little conceit which was to give my photos one word titles. These titles were often oblique and obscure, but there was a method behind them. After a while, I started to realise that for some photos the titles came quickly, and for others it was a struggle, or nothing came at all. For some, the title turned out to have several layers of meaning, some direct, some indirect. And so I imposed the rule on myself that until a photo “named itself”, I could not post it. The photos with the strongest titles were not necessarily technically stronger, nor did they get huge acclaim on Flickr, but they were the most satisfying to me. I’ve notice other people using different ways to express meaning by association, for example by adding fragments of poetry. I’d like to think that if a photograph speaks to me in this way, it may speak to others, eventually. Of course I could just be delusional.
It’s actually very, very hard in my experience to produce meaningful landscape work which excludes human elements. So it’s a shame that so many landscape photographers seek to do just that, and yes, mea culpa. We’re shooting ourselves in both feet, as well diving deep into denial, in trying to separate ourselves from nature.
The following two photos attempt to illustrate what I’m getting at. The positive example (the second) was much harder to select.
A lot of photos I see online give homage to the hackneyed “capture the light” theme. And often that is all they do, albeit often very, very well from a technical perspective. But they don’t capture the place, and don’t hold attention beyond a quick social blast. Getting away from the addiction to instant fleeting praise may be the first step on the road to a true sense of accomplishment, but it’s a long road to take. And whatever I may have said or implied here, being dismissive about other people’s take on the wide, wide world of photography is not a step in a rewarding direction.
The current events landscape makes talking and writing about photography seem rather shallow, disrespectful even. However, life should go, in all its aspects. Motorsport journalist Joe Saward expressed this far better on his blog. So I’ll carry on whining about my very distinctly first world problems here, regardless.
We’ve just about left behind the season of Lists, of “Best Of Whatever 2014”, and plenty of photographers have joined in with their best shots of the year. I haven’t, partly because being an insufferable grouch, I loathe New Year celebrations, and secondly, because I don’t honestly feel that I’ve got any best shots to show. They’re all pretty average.
There are certainly people who disagree with this. Mostly friends, or friends of friends, who’s praise of course I dismiss because “they’re just being polite”, or “they just like the subject”, or, snobbishly, “they’re not photographers”. Well actually this isn’t entirely true. At least one of these people is a respected and highly experienced creative in the photo publishing industry, and another, if I may permit myself to say so, is well-respected landscape photographer Steve Gosling, who was very positive when reviewing a small print portfolio of mine last year. I’ve also had considerable support from Olivier Duong at The Inspired Eye, who has kindly published my work both in the magazine, and on their blog. And deep down, when I look at most stuff that gets published, I know that I lot of what I do is better. So what the hell am I complaining about ?
There’s no getting around the fact that despite all the above, I am significantly dissatisfied with my photography. The question is, why? First of all, why is this such a big deal anyway ? After all, it’s only a hobby, it’s not a matter of life or death. And yet hobbies mean a lot to us, and for many people, myself included, it isn’t necessarily the case that the things you do that make money and pay the rent are more significant that those that don’t. Although I set myself on a science / technology life path many, many years ago, I’ve always had to balance this with a strong creative urge, which if left ignored, is very damaging. Initially I satisfied this through drawing and painting. Then, for a long period, music, in several forms. And finally it all coalesced into photography.
I’ve been seriously into photography since the late 1990s, boosted by a short period of (very) relatively high income in the early 2000s. Having said this I’d been taking photographs since mid-childhood, so I knew one end of a camera from another, more or less, and I’m also therefore very familiar with pre-digital photography. For the first few years I was learning a lot, and on an upward curve. I carried on using a Canon FD system, never getting into autofocus SLRs, eventually making the leap to autofocus and digital at the same time as an early adaptor of the Olympus E–1. At the same time, I made extensive use of the Hasselblad XPan I bought in 2000, and which I carry on using up to now. The learning curve was as much technical as photographic - scanners, raw converters, photoshop, filters, cameras, tripods - there was plenty of ground to cover. I suppose around about 2006 I was starting to explore the art of photography rather than the technology. And around about that point I started to want to reduce my options a little. Various people have written that the digital age is “a great time to be a photographer”. I’m not sure I agree - it’s certainly a great time to be a geek, and possibly also to be a wealthy photographer, but the relentless march of “upgrades”, which is only now showing some signs of slowing, meant that often the gear you were saving up for was obsolete before you could afford it. A decade ago you could buy, say, a Nikon F–3, and you’d be set up for years. This all started to become a serious distraction, and being a compulsive reader, I often came across writings which insidiously made me obsess about gear rather than photography. The same thing happened with music in the 1990s: the digital revolution unleashed a non-stop conveyor belt of new gear on the market with ever more options and features, and the corresponding collapse in creativity was striking.
Anyway, I carried on, trying to improve the quality of my portfolio, and trying to find a niche. Eventually this turned out to be a mix of travel, landscape and urban landscape, with a bit of wildlife thrown in: what I eventually came to describe as “opportunistic photography”.
However in the last few years things have tailed off. Photography is become more and more an addiction and a burden, and less enjoying and fulfilling. I don’t seem to be improving in any particular way, just randomly pursuing different directions to see if anything works, basically throwing mud at a wall. The endless editing and optimising of vast amounts of digital photography kills off any spark, for me. Actually I prefer the parallel process of scanning film: although it is time consuming, it feels more tangible, and the character of a particular film stock is already imprinted and difficult, indeed pointless, to try to change much. One could say the same for digital, that a given camera/sensor/processing pipeline has a particular character, but generally I find the initial look brash and tiring, and it takes a lot of work to get to a satisfying result.
The other issue is, as with music in the 90s, that there are two many options. Far too many options. The number of menu items in my Olympus E-P5 is literally mind-numbing. It seems that camera designers have completely abdicated any sort of design decision responsibility, and have passed it on to their customers. I’m sure I’m far from the only one who just wants a camera to take photos. I don’t need video. I don’t need “picture modes”. I don’t need “art filters”, or “photo stories”, or “image memories” or “sweet child perfect puppy desert mode”. If there is a automatic image stabilisation mode that works in all cases, then don’t give me 5 other variants to mis-use! All this just ruins the experience of making photographs. And if designers do want to load up hundreds of features, at least think them through! What on earth is the point of having user presets, in 2015, if you don’t give the users the option of naming them? (Ricoh, who are one of the lesser offenders, actually have worked that one out, although they couldn’t resist adding their own layers of complexity).
I can’t believe that all of this is not counter-productive. If cameras are getting so complex to use, then people will stop enjoying them and stop buying them, and they’ll use their phones instead. Actually, the digital cameras that I find the most satisfying to use are the ones with the least features: my two Sigma Merrills, which, within their very tight restrictions, produce beautiful output. They’re also easy to use, with a well designed, simple user interface, although the lack of any kind of useful viewfinder adds further serious limitations.
Some time ago, Brian Eno described the problem he was having with digital music technology: “The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates “more options” with “greater freedom.” Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: “How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?” In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.” —sound familiar ? It does to me. The last sentence might just as well be referring to Leicas.
So what of the future? I really believe that if I could give it all up, I would, but addictions don’t work that way. I’m getting more and more close to the idea of reverting to film cameras, partly because I like the output, but more so because the cameras are far more enjoyable to use. I’m still principally interested in the end, not the means, but I can’t help but waste hours reading addictive websites like this one, dedicated to film cameras. There really does seem to be a revival going on, and the same thing has been seen in the music world. Not just vinyl records, but companies likes Moog Music being revived and flourishing. It would be interesting to see a camera following the design philosophy of the Moog Sub 37, and no, the Fuji X-T1 is not that object - it doesn’t take film. So yesterday, having seen a local shop advertising a Leica M5 for a very attractive (and affordable) price, I seriously considered giving it a try. Until I saw the price of Leica lenses, even secondhand. Oh well. But I do have a couple of Olympus Zuiko lenses, one of which I took for an outing yesterday afternoon, so now I’m looking around at OM bodies. I already have the Olympus XA and Minox 35ML, but neither are really good for precision work. I’m not fully convinced that 35mm is the way to go (I’m not even convinced that film itself is, either), but it could be a good start. I do really wish I’d held on to my Fuji GW670.
That’s one part of the story, and something that might help to revive my enthusiasm. But the other part is the output side. Putting stuff here, and on Flickr, and wherever, is all very well, but only for so long. For a couple of years I’ve had several book ideas floating around my head, and that has to be the next step. Even a self-published book on Blurb that nobody buys is a big step up from a random photo stream on Flickr, I even if I wonder if within my huge digital vaults I have enough material to tell just a few stories. But this has to be the next objective, something where I’ll make a real commitment to doing something constructive. In fact, the couple of very limited edition self-published calendars I’ve produced so far are by far the most satisfying thing I’ve done.
This is the conclusion I’ve come to after quite a few weeks of introspection: without some tangible result, there’s no satisfaction or sense of closure to be found in many pursuits, including photography. Just playing about with cameras doesn’t do it for me.
As part of a dedicated weight saving exercise before leaving for Colombia, I decided to buy the Olympus 14-42EZ “pancake” zoom. According to reviews it is better optically than the standard 14-42, which I already feel is pretty good for a kit zoom, and so it seemed to be a good idea- Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t. The 14-42EZ is the worst Olympus lens I’ve ever used, in fact the only one I’d qualify as bad (or even less than very satisfactory). The results from it are uniformly soft, far more so than could be explained by poor technique on my part. This was not helped by the terrible “shutter shock” behaviour of the E-P5 body. Yes, I know there’s a fix for that, yes I installed it, but not having read all the reams of internet chatter about this, and in the absence of any guidance whatsoever from Olympus, I failed to set all the correct obscure menu entries. And since I hadn’t really used the E-P5 much I hadn’t noticed the issue before (actually it seems to be much worse with lighter lenses).
This photo looks ok as a small web jpeg…
...not so good at 1:1
I also had the 40-150 “plastic” zoom with me, and that worked pretty well, as ever. I’m not sure why that lens gets so dismissed by the forum denizens. But in general I’m pretty disappointed with Olympus in general, and not regretting my decision to pass up a good offer on an E-M1. It seems that camera is plagued with exactly the same issues for which the company does not appear to want to invest in research for a fix.
At this point then I’m wondering what to do next. I’ve sold off a lot of gear this year, initially to fund a Linhof 612 (which I chickened out of), and now I have no “rugged” camera. My general idea was to buy an E-M1 at some point, but now I’m really questioning that decision. I’ve been using Olympus cameras since the introduction of the E-1 in 2003, so changing brands now would be a major shock to the system. I find the Sony A7 series interesting, but the lenses are expensive and there’s no realistic telephoto. Also, I tend to believe that rather than an expensive camera makes you a better photographer, you should first be a good enough photographer to justify an expensive camera, and my output doesn’t merit a Sony A7 system. Another option, going against the flow, would be a Nikon DSLR, but the same caveat applies. However that would open up the potential to use tilt/shift lenses … but then again, would go totally counter to the objective of having a lot weight, good quality travel kit. Based on personal experience I wouldn’t touch Fuji X-series cameras with a bargepole. Too fragile by far, and slightly ridiculous with all their design pretensions and luvvy owner clubs.
Perhaps my 14-42EZ is a “bad sample”, a concept I’ve always been a little dubious of. From a sample of internet reviews is does seem to get a mixed press, and some report very good results. But even if that’s the case, and even if I could get it replaced, which would be pretty hard in Switzerland, the damage is already done. And my confidence in Olympus Quality Assurance is severely dented. I have one major trip planned for next year which without doubt would require me to replace my now sold Olympus E-5s with something equally robust and flexible. However at present I’m feeling more like cancelling the trip and taking several steps back from photography. This might sound like a major over-reaction to disappointing performance from a (fairly) cheap lens - well, also from a fairly expensive camera, but in fact it’s perhaps the final of a whole series of nails. Investing all this time, money and emotion in photos which attract little interest except from me is getting a bit ridiculous.
This is the first installment of what might turn out to be a semi-regular series. Or it could just be #1 of a series of 1. Basically a bunch of mini-blogs (blogettes?) inspired by random stuff I come across while commuting. Even more flippant, sarcastic and opinionated than usual.
So here we go:
Absurd gear rambling of week. Geek idol Ming Thein declares the Sony A7r as “unusable” (quick, somebody warn Joe Cornish!) and parades another million dollars’ worth of gear he’s just bought while declaring he’s just in the pursuit of Higher Art. Well, he does make some nice photos, but, really, “unusable” ?
The truly unique wildlife photography of Vincent Munier is given center stage in this month’s edition of Reponses Photo. I devoured every page, several times. So far away from the usual so-close-you-can-see-the-DNA wildlife shots.
And I’m still trying to over the shock of discovering that my 20 year old Minox 35ML loaded with Kodak Portra 400 is aesthetically more satisfying than my Olympus E-P5, and is pretty much a match technically too in equal conditions.
I came across National Geographic’s Your Shot Iceland collection the other day. To say that Iceland has become a cliché for photography has itself become a cliché. And fittingly this collection is a soul-destroying sequence of clichéd clichés of pretty much every crushingly over-exposed photo-op on the island. The dream location is fast turning into a nightmare.
And finally, on a positive note, the hopeful resurrection of Ferrania, starting with of all things, an E6 slide film. Really, who saw that coming ? Hopefully the first batch will be ready in time for my next trip to Iceland.
(Crosspost - the majority of my small RSS feed subscriber community do not subscribe to my TEOH channel)
I recently received my annual web hosting invoice for this site. This, together with domain name registration, costs me around £100 per annum. And, by the way, if you’re looking for a reliable independent web hosting service with excellent technical support, full features and non-USA hosting, I can safely recommend Meirhosting.
The reminder that all this costs money as well as time gives me cause to reflect on why I’m doing it. My data on Google Analytics makes quite depressing reading: I get very low traffic, my most popular posts are the few dedicated to gear, and the least popular are those talking about photography and photographers in general. Earlier this year, the stats were trending upwards. Now they’ve slumped.
I’ve maintained a website since around 1996. I registered the snowhenge domain in 2001, I think, and the earliest version of snowhenge.net went live in or before August 2001, according to the Wayback machine. I added blogging through MovableType in mid 2003. My first post was made at 04:32 PM on 17th July 2003. Apart from a pause of a few months in 2007 when I transitioned to Expression Engine, and switched hosting, I’ve been adding material fairly constantly. So far there are 673 blog posts. There have been several design overhauls and refreshes, but the current look has been around for 4 or 5 years. The photographic content has changed over time, as I tried to improve presentation and focus, and the non-photographic stuff has dwindled to very little. The one constant in all of this, though, has been the flatlining statistics.
My original motives for having a web site included a large part of experimentation with web technologies, which fed into my various “day jobs”. This is now gone, my day job has no need for such frippery. So it is now essentially a platform for publishing and talking about photography, and the arcana surrounding photography. The question is, then, is it working? At present the answer has to be no. There’s very little conversation, although what there is tends to be of above average quality, and statistics on my galleries show little interest from the outside world.
So why so little traffic? A number of reasons spring to mind: the content is uninteresting, I’m not an engaging writer (or photographer), it’s all too self-serving, it’s all too idiosyncratic or weird, the presentation is poor. Or, also, I have no reach, I don’t publicise the site well, my search engine optimisation doesn’t work, I don’t network enough. Or the site performance is bad and the navigation is confusing. Or the Disqus comment platform is unpopular and puts people off. Probably a combination of all of these factors means that the site fails to get noticed in the vast ocean of similar voices clamouring for attention on the web.
So what next? Should I just call it a day? It would be a shame, after close to 20 years of uninterrupted web presence, then again you could say after 20 years of failure I should have got the message. I could run a survey to see what my audience thinks, but there’s a bit of a snag in that plan. And then again, I’m not even sure I could keep up with things if I started getting a lot of feedback.
It’s clear that one criticism could be that the site is too generalist, that is has a split personality. This is true enough, but it’s not accidental. It reflects my personality: I’m not just interested in photography - far from it - and not even in one particular field of photography. Personally I find that photographer “portfolio” sites get boring pretty quickly, however good the photographer is. I like to understand some of what makes the artist tick, not just photographers, but writers, musicians too. And I’m interested in science, and in much else. So the somewhat “warts and all” approach is me basically trying to create the type of website that I’d enjoy visiting. Seems I’m in a minority! One reason I axxed my Facebook page is that I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the wide cross-section of “friends” I had: I felt that by posting stuff on say, Antarctic science, I was letting down people who followed me as a landscape photographer.
The ultimate goal of snowhenge.net is to promote my photography. That isn’t working, and the years are ticking by. My feeling at the moment is that I’ll give it another year, and seriously put some effort into improving traffic. I don’t hope for thousands of visitors - I’m happy if just one person gets some benefit from an article I post - but I don’t want to carry on shouting into the void. So in the coming weeks I need to settle on some realistic expectations and measurable objectives, and work out a plan for achieving them. If trends start to improve, fine. Otherwise, in one year it will be time to call it a day.
This is the point where, ironically, I ask for feedback. It would be great to get any opinions, suggestions thoughts, advice on all of this, but also just to let me know that you’re reading my writings and getting some sort of value out of it. There are many blogs which I read frequently, but never comment on. Maybe it’s a similar story here.
Hey, maybe the problem is that all my posts are too long ?