Category Archives: craft

Art Photographer

Here’s what I think: I think an art photographer is a photographer with an opinion.

An opinion about which of their photographs can truly stand as one of theirs, and about how the photograph ought to look.

—The Online Photographer:
The Difference Between
a Photographer and an Artist

This was a great post. I don’t agree with all of it. But it’s all worth thinking about and my response is way more than what would fit into a comment dialog.

First, the point about having an opinion. 100% agree. What are you photographing? Why is it interesting to you? How can you make the image be about what you’re interested in? And that’s all in the pre-exposure phase. Too many people take photos of things just because they think they’re supposed to photograph them. Many of them even learned all the other rules of composition and exposure and take perfectly nice photos. But there’s often something missing.

This is how people get sucked into the equipment acquisition spiral. They conclude that they “need” a better/wider/faster lens/camera/etc. instead of thinking about why they’re not satisfied with their images. Even if the goal is technically competent pictures of pretty things* many many people sense that their images are missing something. And that something is quite often the point of view of what is actually interesting.

*That group is a bit of an in-joke which references a much-older discussion. As easy as it is to knock this type of photography, we all do it. A lot.

Having an opinion is what distinguishes between artists and artisans. Artisans can’t choose between multiple technically-good images. Artists are looking to make a point.

Mike’s second point about editing is one I don’t agree with fully. In terms of presenting yourself? Absolutely agree. In terms of presenting other artists? It depends.

But even in presenting myself, I don’t fully agree. I should edit more. A lot more. But I also know that I’m a crap editor of my own work and I really enjoy the raw feedback from contacts on flickr, etc. I also know that only after I’ve had stuff posted for years do I see the patterns emerge. If I photograph in a zen state of mind, the results appear to approximate pu.

You’re damn right that pun was intentional.

With presenting other photographers? It really does depend. I hate the idea of displaying art objects as collect-them-all specimens. This does a disservice to both the object and the artist. But at the same time, if the not-good work is presented as context to help illuminate the way the artist worked or to show experiments which didn’t work out right? I’m fine with that. I love seeing contact sheets and process. If anything, seeing how the great artists edit, or are edited,* should help me become a better editor as well.

*Since, to me, it doesn’t matter who does the editing.

Edward Weston: Life Work

I’ve been wanting (needing) a Weston book for some time. Giant gaping hole in my shelf without him since he’s one of my favorite artists (in any media). Thanks for the recommendation and the deal. I don’t normally impulse buy anything over $50 but this is a special exception.

—My comment on TOP’s Weston Offer

It’s hard to explain exactly how excited I was to order and receive this book. And how scared I was that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Weston is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed without realizing it.* I know that a lot of things I see and notice are rooted in images in my memory which I’m no longer conscious of. Many of those images are Weston textures and I know that I’m always looking for found still-lifes around me.

*Something I’ve noted previously when I visited the Cantor Center. 

I’ve already discussed how I consider Weston to be as cutting edge today as he was a century ago. This book just reaffirms it. Despite being organized thematically and biographically,* it’s impossible to not see how the consistency of vision results in the extraordinary exploration into form and texture without regard to the actual subject matter. Having a hundred images to look through and see this experimentation at my leisure just allows me to get a greater sense of it.

*I really love the idea of seeing Weston images in a sequence which puts similar forms together without caring about the content.

It’s interesting reading the text since it includes a lot of the reactions to the images. The still lives are often considered highly erotic while the nudes are expressly not erotic. Despite being all about the form as photographed, because of people’s expectations regarding the content, the reactions to the images are very different. I’ve reached the point with Weston where I don’t really care what the image is of, but I can see how other people get hung up on that aspect. It’s a fascinating thought experiment too which has me thinking about what kind of baggage certain content comes with.

I also can’t write about this book without mentioning the actual quality of the publication. This is an impressive printed object. Different paper types. Nice typesetting. And fantastic image quality. The commitment to making these images look as close to the original contact prints means that I’m fighting the urge to tear this book apart and start framing the pages. Most books, I feel like I’m looking at printed pages. This book feels like pages and pages of prints.

2012 Tech Awards

The true power of money is the ability to give it away

—N.R. Narayana Murthy

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

—JFK’s Inaugural Address

HIGGINS: About you, not about me. If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.

LIZA: That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.

HIGGINS: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.

Pygmalion by G.B. Shaw

I was lucky enough to be go to the 2012 Tech Awards last Thursday. One of my previous jobs always printed the collateral for these and I’ve been going to The Tech ever since it was known as The Garage. Attending their big gala event looked like something that would be an interesting experience—provided that I didn’t get hives from the corporate backslapping which these charity dinners always risk becoming.

Toward the end of N.R. Narayana Murthy’s acceptance of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, it became pretty clear that we wouldn’t experience that. Murthy ended up discussing how technology brings people together, provides opportunity to the poor, and levels the playing field for the classes. Technology treats everyone the same and does not discriminate.* Technology in this case is not about the cutting edge either. The Tech Awards are really about the innovations of appropriate technology and solving big problems with simple ideas.

*I’m not sure if technology is Pickering or Higgins.

The two best examples of this this year were the BioLite stove and the Embrace infant warmer. Neither is cutting-edge technology but both are hugely innovative in terms of the problems they solve and the way the solve them. It’s not enough to have a good idea, it has to be applied in a way which encourages adoption. Both of those products don’t force people to do anything truly different—they’re both pretty obvious in how they’re working and what they’re doing—but will make huge differences in lives.

But there is also some heavy research on hand too. This year, Pamela Ronald won an award for her GMO submergence-resistent rice and, in the process, helped open the discussion about what’s good and bad about GMO foods. It’s clear that we’ll need more flood-resitant crops in order to feed the world. Anything which improves this is welcome. It’s easy to hate on GMO food because it’s new technology that seems odd. The real danger is that it locks farmers into a seeds-as-service scenario where they’re no longer allowed to save seeds since those are now intellectual property. If the GMO food is distributed without licensing? I’ve got no real problems with it. After all, we’ve been genetically modifying our food for centuries.

Changing topics

Another aspect of this year’s awards was a recognition of photography and photojournalism—in particular, Steve McCurry, Frans Lanting, George Steinmetz, and Doug Menuez. I had mixed feelings about this part. These are all great photographers and their photographs are both good and often beautiful. But they were used in this event as decoration only. Aside from Afghan Girl, none of the other images received any mention or context. Which is too bad since the intent of all of the images is to educate and inform the viewers.

These aren’t supposed to just be pretty pictures. They’re supposed to inspire and inform us. The event program even acknowledged as much. While it’s fantastic to see the images and, for the ones I recognized and remembered the context, quite wonderful to see them projected large. Turning the rest into wallpaper minimizes the impact.

As much as National Geographic has been a fantastic proponent of good photography to everyone, its photojournalistic travel photos have inspired too many travelers who think that travel photography is all about taking photos of the locals without regard to them as humans.

—My aside to Un surtido de fotos mexicanos

I know the Tech’s intent with picking these photos was mostly good. I’m just worried when the execution encourages lazy photography and people traveling with the goal of getting pretty pictures rather having experiences. I don’t have the same aversion to travel photography as other people do but I sensitive to the issue. McCurry, Lanting, Steinmetz, Menuez, etc. all immerse themselves in their subjects and try to present images which tell us about them and inspire us to action. Most of the rest of us just try and mimic their visual results without thinking about the rest of the process.

Still, a good event with good food and a lot of stuff to think about. I’d like to go again too.


A conversation which sprung up as a result of a conversation about Dieter Rams. It’s so odd. We try out furniture, try on clothes, and test drive cars but suggesting that we try out flatware before buying gets you all kinds of weird looks.

And yes I did this. I even got my wife to do it too. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about how the metal content can change the taste of things.

Obsolescence and Design

It’s an interesting comparison with visual art, a world in which objects are valued for their permanence. A great painting never changes or undergoes annual updates, yet it manages to remain relevant. High design pieces like Eames lounges or vintage wristwatches are things that can be passed down to children and grandchildren, gaining significance as they age. In comparison, a ten-year-old computer or  five-year-old PDA is basically unusable. In the realm of technology, permanence has very little value. It would be to our benefit to value it more.

Apple’s iPhone 5 and
Getting Angry at Planned Obsolescence

by Kyle Chayka

Very few artists even consider how their work will age. As a result, the question of how to preserve a piece is one of the most important debates you can have in art. Should a piece look its age? Should it always look brand new? Are previous conservation attempts worth preserving as part of the piece’s history?

—My Post Archival Life

frontBabbage Engine
1890 CensusHollerith 1890 Census Tabulator
QWERTZEnigma Machine
curtaCurta calculator

As a self-confessed design geek whose primary thought for much of the Dieter Rams exhibition involved thinking and worrying about how we would be able to understand the designs once we had forgotten how to use the products, I should have realized that the answer to my question had already been addressed by technology museums. In fact, I had even seen an exhibition of completely-obsolete technology done in a very good, completely fascinating way.

I visited the Computer History Museum over three years ago to see the Babbage Engine but also took in their Visible Storage exhibition. Both exhibits were fantastic examples of how to mix technology with use and really explained the long-obsolete technology specifically from a use point of view.

And these objects were, in many ways, much more abstract than any consumer product. This was about data storage/entry/retrieval. Sounds boring. But completely fascinating because the exhibit emphasized exactly how the function mattered to us.*

*Especially how the data we collect and find interesting runs hand-in-hand with our ability to enter, store, and retrieve that data. Compare the difference it took to tabulate the 1880 census (8 years) and the 1890 census (1 year) and you can extrapolate that out to the massive amounts of data being collected and processed today. And how it matters. And why it matters. 

Instead of this being a liability for design, this is a strength. It’s often difficult to present art with its function in mind whereas design is, by definition, concerned with use at some level. When displaying design, telling the story about the problems it solves and why it eventually went obsolete actually helps us understand the user, and thus the design, better.

In 20 years when records and reel-to-reels are long-forgotten, people will still be listening to music. We’ll still need power switches and volume adjustments* and so seeing how we interfaced for this functionality will be both familiar and interesting. What will be added is that the technological details of how we recorded the sound will be displayed as well. In 20 years, it’ll be necessary to show a reel of tape or an LP with the explanation that this object stored 45 minutes of stereo sound on each side. And we’ll look at the record and the record player and start to see how it had to be used and understand the problems it solved.

*Both of which will be difficult to do with voice controls. An object which is off may not have the juice to wake up to a voice command. And adjusting volume with voice controls amounts to shouting, “louder, louder, louder, too loud!” at a machine.

Whereas in the art side of things, we’re going to be dealing with how to preserve and display all kinds of deteriorating modern art. How long is a vivisected shark supposed to last? Are all those color photoprints really archival? How do we handle low-resolution digital ipad-generated artwork?

Design—even planned obsolescence—considers the future. And in our current cradle-to-cradle world, designers shouldn’t be considering that their designs will be permanent. Good design now should break down and have its lifecycle completely considered. It’s only the rare product which should be expected to last forever. The iphone is not such a product.

Illustration Purist

Writing about the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth reminded me that I get a lot of crap for being a big stickler regarding the illustrations in children’s books. I can’t help it. Children’s literature is often so image-dependent that the illustrations in the original edition are as important as the text. While I have yet to see a version of the Phantom Tollbooth without the Jules Feiffer illustrations, I’ve had to reject copies of many other books because the illustrations are wrong.

Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Disney Alice is wrong. As are any other versions. That this is standard on all e-readers makes it a great benchmark text. I should note that the Ralph Steadman version of Alice brings up the single exception for my insistence a specific illustrator: if the version is being sold as another artist’s take on a classic title, I’m fine with treating it as an art book rather than literature.

Winnie the Pooh by E.H Shepard. I hate Disney Pooh. And I can’t stand the “Classic Pooh” retronym. If i see a picture of Pooh, it had better be Shepard’s vision.

The Wizard of Oz by W.W.Denslow. This needs to be in the original colors too. The original issue of Wizard was printed in two color on all pages.  The spot color in each chapter would change depending on where Dorothy was* and everything tied together perfectly with Denslow’s artwork.

*Blue in Munchinkinland, Red in Quadling Country, Green in the Emerald City, Yellow in Winkieland, and Brown in Kansas.

Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting. I love his original drawings. Even though things get a bit racist when the Doctor visits Africa.*

*But hey, it’s not as depressing or racist as the Babar books are now.

Stuart Little by Garth Williams. And Trumpet of the Swan and a bunch of other books of similar vintage.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. This book needs Kipling’s hand-drawn initial capitals for each story too. The lettering is frequently absent now.

Little House Books by Garth Williams. These get special mention because of the way the covers were recently changed. So wrong. I hope they change back to what they should be.

I’m sure there are some I’ve forgotten. It doesn’t matter. My family and friends already know to consult me about whether the illustrations are correct. And it’s probably a good thing that most books aren’t like this.

Now what?

Painting erupted once its burden of depiction was lifted. Maybe as photographers we can do our own lifting, realizing what it means, for example, to say that every photograph has already been taken. Seen in that sense, photography could maybe be the first medium to move forward because it has made itself obsolete, at least to some extent.

—Joerg Colberg: Photography After Photography?

Let’s shift from the emphasis on finding “new” elements to how we can combine elements with increasing sophistication.

—Fototazo: Responding to Colberg

As much as I’m an advocate of it being necessary to keep the function of art in mind, this does not mean that I am biased against non-functional art. If any thing, what I’m asking for is for museums to keep context in mind. If the art has a use, please let me know. If the art has no use, there’s still a purpose which I’d like to be informed of.

Photography, both because it’s still emerging as an art and because it skews majorly toward function,* has yet to really take the leap into the non-functional realm which other, older media have taken. It’s still very much about taking pictures of new things and it’s still very much about what the photograph is of rather than what the photograph is.

*Whatwith the misconception that photographic truth exists.

There’s a point in art where provoking the medium and exploring different elements of it become more interesting than just excellence of craft. Painting, sculpture, and music are already at this point—admittedly with a massive head start—and it seems like photography is reaching it.

There’s a sense in looking through new photo projects that we’ve kind of reached a point where documenting something—no matter how well it’s done—is no longer enough. It turns out that while the standard complaint is “now everyone is a photographer,” the real complaint should be “everything has been photographed.”

Which, of course is all crap. Photography, by coming into existence in parallel with modern art, has always had people who were pushing elements of it into sophisticated areas where the subject of the image isn’t the main point. Much of Edward Weston’s work, for example, can be seen as distinct explorations of the concept of texture and pattern. William Eggleston meanwhile is best seen as an exploration into color.

But we’re due for more of this. Less taking picture of things; more taking pictures of concepts. And more experimentation into realms which may not be thought of or immediately recognizable as “photography.”* It’s time to start exploring the toolset of photographic elements we use and really push our understanding of what those elements can do.

* To the three examples Colberg gives (do read his piece first), I’d add Jessica Eaton.