photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Some Guy bites back

large pinch of salt absolutely mandatory

in General Rants , Tuesday, October 04, 2016
This stuff I wrote the other day was picked up by Andrew Molitor on his blog "Photos and Stuff" (hmm, sounds familiar), and put forward as an example of what happens when a photographer lacks a firm goal. He’s put it in a benign enough way - God help me if I should get on his wrong side - but I think maybe he’s hung his coat on the wrong nail. I don’t lack a firm goal - the problem is that I have far, far too many goals.

I could say taking my Iceland photography as the focus is not the best idea. To be honest, for me photography is just an excuse to spend time in Iceland. But since recently I have actually evolved a framework that I might be able to drape some Icelandic photography over, let’s leave that aside. Generally, the problem I was rambling on about the other week is not that I don’t know what I want to express.The problem lies in the detail of how to express it. And by extension, coming up against seemingly diametrically opposed advice on how to do so.

There is something slightly odd about advocating someone to study photo books (you should see my bookshelves) read about Real Photography (ditto, and a pretty broad selection) but at the same time advising them to steer clear of anything that smacks of technique, especially, God forbid, post-processing. Technique doesn’t make you a good photographer, but lack of technique - applicable technique, that is - can prevent a good photographer from emerging.

Certainly it is all too easy to go overboard on technique - the web is overflowing with examples of dangerous idiot savants who’ll sell you their useless advice - but that does not invalidate technique in itself. It would be like saying that a writer has no need of vocabulary or grammar. And that is a useful analogy: I often feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of stories to tell, pictorially, but I don’t quite have the technique to tell them. Let’s not fall into the trap of taking that too literally - of course there is a storytelling aspect to photography involving the sequencing of and relationships between photos. But there is also a storytelling aspect to single images, and the language to tell that story has verbs like dodging and burning and nouns like micro-contrast and tone. It’s hardly a new observation. So just because I may be having some trouble reconciling apparently contradictory advice on how to apply the language of post-processing doesn’t mean I haven’t got a clue about what I’m trying to express.

There’s another trap easily sprung - Andrew picks up on the not uncommon advice to flip a picture to study the balance. It comes naturally to view camera photographers who see the world upside down on the ground glass. The trap Andrew stumbled into is this: he exclaims “Really, who gives a shit about balance? I don't. Balance is a thing, but it's not an unalloyed good thing any more than blue is a good thing. It's just a property of the picture”. Well, yeah. But, er, who said anything about it being anything else ? The point is the trick frees you up to consider the balance. It doesn’t say, anywhere, that the balance has to be “right”. It just IS. Balance can be harmonious, and serene, or it can be tense and uneasy. If you “don’t give a shit about balance” then honestly I wonder if you give much of a shit about photography, finally. But I’m pretty sure Andrew assumed balance, in this context, means nice pretty blue skies with unicorns jumping over perfect rainbows. His reaction to my mention of this idea, by setting up and demolishing a straw man, somewhat tainted the rest of his argument. Actually I think he’d rather enjoy reading David Ward’s philosophical treatise on landscape photography, “Landscape Within”.

I suspect anything hinting at Landscape Photography is a bit of a red rag to Andrew. Landscape has become the stamp collecting or transporting of photography. It’s what socially inept people in smelly anoraks do, which lets them conflate their longing for shiny toys with wanting to impress the girls by being creative (we’re pretty much all boys). Well, anyway, that’s a view which Andrew sometimes gives me the impression he may subscribe to. He’s hardly the only one, but this idea that Landscape Photography is just a crutch for DPReview or 500px denizens and not something real Real Photographers do is pretty prevalent. Hell, it’s not far from the truth. But it’s a generalisation, and generalisations cloud vision.

To quote another bit “So what was it like, David? (and not just David, all you folks in the cheap seats should follow along) Take some time. Get out a notebook. Write. Think. What was it like to be in Iceland?” - well, actually, I’ve done that. Quite a lot. It’s scattered all over this blog, and it’s starting to coalesce.

(note, all this is in good humour. Andrew Molitor seems like the kind of guy I'd be happy to buy a drink for). Read his blog - he's definitely wrong about one thing - I'm not an "an occasional reader here", actually I read pretty much every word he writes.
Posted in General Rants on Tuesday, October 04, 2016 at 10:30 PM • PermalinkComments (6)


Andrew Molitor October 04, 2016 - 11:16
Aww, thanks! This was really very nice to read. As is usual in my posts where I name names, one should *probably* take the named person as an example, and archetype if you will.
I don't think Landscape Photography is terrible, I just happen to think it's insanely hard to do well. I mean, it's pretty straightforward to check off a bunch of technical boxes, but actually making something meaningful is extremely heavy sledding.
Also, getting on my wrong side doesn't seem to do anyone any, you know, actual harm, since nobody reads my blog. So, don't fret overmuch about that.


David Mantripp October 05, 2016 - 8:25
Ok, but why is it hard too do well, particularly? I'm not claiming I do it well (actually I'm not even sure I do it all), but I certainly don't see that you could not substitute in there "portrait" or "flower" or (cough) "street". And what do you mean by "hard" ? It's all rather relative - if I were gifted with some kind of talent I wouldn't find it hard, would I ?
I'm absolutely not disagreeing with you, I'm just curious as to why you're singling out landscape photography as "insanely hard". Perhaps because it is insanely easy, these days, to produce some visual horror, which the proud creator immediately decides is "fine art"? Because 99% of this stuff is Painting-By-Numbers, follow the Rules (of Thirds), ND-filtered and saturated to hell and back fluff? Because 99% of (Fine Art) Landscape Photographers wouldn't know an original thought if it fell on them from 35,000 feet? I don't know. But as far as I can see, I could apply exactly the same disdain to 99% of the Hire-A-Hot-Model and drape her, pouting, as undressed as possible, over an industrial landscape with By-The-Book lighting and the VSCO filter du jour.
I'd be very interested to see what you consider to be good landscape photography. Then I could try and copy it 😊


Thomas Rink October 06, 2016 - 12:48
Hi David,
now that I've read both of your blog posts and Andrew Molitor's reply on the first, I think that I can see two problems:
1) In this post, you state that you have an idea what you want to express. However, in your first post, you say that when you open your pictures in the editor, they look already fine to you, and you don't know where to start. To me, that sounds a bit like that you feel that your pictures are lacking something, and you can't put your finger on what this is.
2) To me, it sounds that the advice you've got in your workshops was more focussed on the "how" instead of on the "why". E.g. "The sky looks nicer with clarity up as opposed to using more contrast" vs. "The sky looks a bit bland for my liking; I think it's a problem because of this and that - so let's see how to fix this". If this was actually the case then the teaching was not very good (regardless of artistic skills of the instructors).
I see that 1) and 2) combined make for some confusion. But, are you *really* sure that there is something wrong with your pictures at all? Your workshop instructors have their taste of picture making, and you have yours. Just because that their work may appeal to broader audience doesn't mean that it is "better".
Best, Thomas


Andrew Molitor October 06, 2016 - 3:02
I honestly am not completely sure why landscape is so hard, but here's a couple things I think are true:
It's very hard to "say" anything other than "wow! WOW!" with a landscape photo. This is partly because that's what people *expect* you to say, so they're loathe to read any more in to it.
Partly it's because landscape more or less by definition lacks people, and often lacks the "hand of man" entirely. We find it, I think, much easier to "read" stories in to people, their expression and body language, their position in the frame, and so on. We "read" stories into the works of man -- a tumbled down building might speak volumes where a mountain merely says "I am big".
The landscape that leaps to mind as "good" is (surprise!) Sally Mann's pictures of the south, and those would just be muddy snaps of nowhere without context. If you don't know that's a Civil Wat battlefield, it's just a supremely ordinary field, and why on earth is is shot wet-plate? If you DO know it's a Civil War battlefield, a whole bunch of very human freight comes along with the picture, and it is literally transformed.
Adams did very well with "wow! WOW!" and that's fine. The stuff really is beautiful and awe inspiring, and why not show people that? That's a pretty limited palette though.


David Mantripp October 06, 2016 - 6:41
Well.... If I may say so, you do seem to be taking quite a restricted view of what landscape is, and then bolting on a massive outlier in the shape of Sally Mann's work. There is plenty of landscape work that goes beyond the superficial or the wow. An obvious example would be Adams. Robert, that is, not Ansell. What could be considered very hard would be marrying the non-superficial with attractive vistas. I can think of some examples - Stuart Klipper springs to mind, but also Ed Burtynsky, before he got too famous, or even Gursky at a stretch.
I'm not sure where the definition that landscape lacks peope or the hand of man comes from. Uninteresting photo-club Flickr like-bait landscape usually does, but don't let that crud define the genre.
And there's the essential problem: the goal, unstated or not, of the vast majority of today's photography is to get Likes on Flickbook or wherever. And there are three easy ways to do that : one is formulaic landscapes. And hence the impression that landscape=superficial tat.


Andrew Molitor October 07, 2016 - 5:27
Well, we COULD quibble about how broadly the term "landscape" applies, but let's not!
There is some sort of spectrum or continuum from, I dunno, macro photos of watches to untrammeled vistas with no hint of man. The degree of difficulty, I maintain, rises as evidence of man drops out. The pure untrammeled wilderness photo is quite difficult to make anything of, because as humans we find human things interesting, un-human things less so.
You can certainly do interesting things with the juxtaposition of Human Things and The Land, and there is stuff to be said there. I think this is, in broad strokes, what Robert Adams is about? And, to be fair, it's definitely what Mann is all about, whether you can actually see the work of man in the picture or not.
In my defense, most of what we see coming back from Iceland is attempts at untrammeled wilderness, so I certainly did jump to that conclusion.

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