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Friday, November 10, 2006

Seen It Before?

In a comment on yesterday's "Random Excellence" post, "gravitas et nougalis" wrote:

"...right now I'm wrestling with the notion that a lot of 'good' photography I see these days I have seen before."

Right. Gravitas, I think that just means that you've seen enough photography. That is, you've seen enough to realize that there's a lot of repetition.

One of the marks of a true "rank" amateur (the term refers to how you rank, not that you smell!) is that rank amateurs think taking pictures that look like pictures they've seen before is a good thing. That is, if they can take a picture that looks like a calendar or a postcard or a stock photograph then it shows their competence.

Once you've seen "enough" photography, then you start to realize that this competence isn't enough. You start to get bored with the obvious. It's not enough for a photographer to do what lots of photographers have already done. New photographers like to make photographs that work by photographing what many photographers have already figured out are things that work as photographs. If ya follow.

What you need is to scale the heights of anonymous generic competence and come down the other side. What's on the other side? Pictures that are distinctively the photographer's own, in content and style, maybe even technique.

This is one reason why museums and gelleries tend to prize photographers whose work may not be "competent"-looking or anonymously pretty. They, too, have seen enough work, and they recognize individuality and distinctiveness (I'm not saying they're always right, n.b.). But a lot of the work that amateurs love just seems like "more of the same" to the people who've been around it for a long time and have seen enough.

The title essay in my book The Empirical Photographer* deals with this very topic. The essay was originally published (in Camera & Darkroom magazine) under the title "Good Pictures," and it starts out like this:

All the time, newcomers to photography ask a simple question: what’s a “good picture”? How do you tell if a photograph is good or not? It seems self-evident that people who care about photography would be interested in this issue. And while that might be the case, it seems empirically evident that they’re also not very interested in getting the question answered. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll get an obstructionist answer, an answer that puts off the legitimacy of the question: matter of taste? Can’t really say? Don’t have an opinion?

What follows are a number of questions to ask yourself when you're confronted with work. Here's the one that speaks to Gravitas' comment:

• Have you seen it before? If you feel strongly like you’ve seen a picture before, chances are that it’s nothing but a genre photograph, a cliche, one step above a pretty postcard.

The generic is the enemy of good photography. Ironically, beginners and some hobbyists actually strive to make generic pictures, for two reasons: first, because such pictures are competent, and competence is better than incompetence; and second, because a beginner so ardently wishes to be part of the “club” labelled “photographers.” Making “good pictures” is a sort of entry token into that club, or so the beginner thinks. It constitutes a contention that one ought to be allowed to “belong,” and reinforces his or her new identity in his or her own mind. So how do they know what this sort of “good” photograph is? By signifying as “good” a certain craft-competent, slick, generic, corporate style of photograph, for instance from nature calendars or magazine ads or the local portrait studio. If they can take pictures that resemble those, among their more approximate and less competent snapshots, they actually get attention and reinforce-ment for it: comments from their friends like, “Gee, that’s so good it could almost be a postcard!”

Resist this stage. Sidestep it, as you would sidestep dog droppings. We all start there, at least briefly; don’t denigrate (or defend) yourself for it if that’s where you find yourself now—just get past it as soon as you can. To the informed, there are few things more pathetic than a photographer whose thinking about art has been arrested at this early and obvious stage.

I should say here that I don't agree with Gravitas that this is a fair characterization of Vincent Benoit's work in particular. Although some of it is somewhat familiar, I find distinctiveness and individuality in it too. And some of its familiarity is a good thing for me: enough of his pictures hit me where I live that I find the viewing experience a pleasurable one.

Still, I know what he means.


*I'm about to post a second edition, so don't buy this.


Blogger Max said...

This is good advice. If you shoot for others.
I value mostly a virgin eye, If you can keep it that way. I might come to that spot a thousand photographers have visited before, and see beauty and capture it, and then hang it on my wall. Oh yes, it might be a very democratically accepted idea of beauty, but I still feel my opinion is what I care about. What's in an eye snobbishly aching for originality but less opportunity for pleasure?

11:29 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

While I agree with the main point of this entry, I still can't help but be a little mystified when the term "post card" in photography is a derrogatory one.

Consider for a moment what a post card has to accomplish to be successful. It resides in some forgotten corner of some shop in the row of shops, all speciallizing in the craziest forms of trinketry (after all, everybody needs a pair of Lake Anywhere embroidered slippers). It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 3x5. It's amongst dozens, and sometimes hundreds of other itsy-bitsy pictures all trying to get your attention. It has to be the most attention grabbing shot in those awful conditions to get lots of sales to be a "good one."

Quite honestly, I think having a picture labeled a "Post Card" is high praise. Maybe it's just me, though.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Carl Dahlke said...

Current world population is roughly 6.5 billion. If 1/100th of 1 percent of the people of the world were serious photographers then you would have 650,000 serious photographers. If you looked at one picture a second, eight hours a day it would take you close to 23 working days to see one picture from each of them. (Any by the 23rd day it all would have blurred together).

I think my point is that with web distribution of photography the sheer volume of available work makes repetion in the photography we see inevitable. This is true even if we are looking only at work that has gone beyond the genric "good" picture.

So the fact that you have seen something like the picture you are looking at before may not really matter. If you've looked at pictures long enough it is very likely that you have seen something like any new picture you see.

I think the real problem is to keep our ability to respond to photography fresh. And I think that requires that we know how to spend time with new work. If it's fresh for the photographer, and seen well, and in some way the work is a personal rather then a generic vision, then that should be enough.

After all - I have seen my life companion almost every day for the last 25 years. There is huge repetion in that, and yet the repetion does not make my companion stale.

2:53 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

i think digital photography has exaggerated this phenomena.


10:11 PM  
Blogger NIMBY said...

I almost agree whole heartedly with the post. The one area where I have reservations is where you suggest to try and avoid this stage in your photographic learning curve.

I am sure we have all been through this stage, and I would suspect that most visitors here have already "passed through", as it were, and may not realise just how useful that stage was in helping them learn both technical and artistic aspects.

By using others' work as a kind of goal you will find ways to compose and otherwise capture photographs that meet that objective - all the while learning exactly how that is done.

Of course once you have those skills in the bag it is time to focus on making your own images, but I do think it provides a good understanding of principles.

As for moving on to creating your own work - my mantra is to make photos for myself, that I enjoy and to heck with what anyone else says. Of course I don't have to satisfy any publishers or art directors though..


11:55 PM  
Blogger paul maxim said...

I have to agree with Mike on this one, even though it rings true on a personal level. I will say, though, that when we finally define what is "distinctively our own" it may very well look remakably familiar to someone else.

Bruce Jensen touches on this in his editorial in the most recent "Lenswork" (no. 67). He doesn't talk about "originality" per se, but he does discuss what he calls a major paradigm shift in photography - the shift being the sheer volume of work available in the "digital age". His point seems to be that the old notion that "good photographs are rare" may be changing. If that's true, then it most certainly will also be true that there's going to be a heck of a lot of overlapping styles. Which simply means that it's going to be enormously difficult for anyone's work to stand out as "uniquely different".

Not that we shouldn't try. Diversity is, after all, an infinite variable. No two images are ever exactly the same, just as no two photographers are ever identical. The sticking point, to me, is that elusive "degree of separation".

6:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Just a slight correction: I think you mean Brooks, not Bruce.


7:05 AM  
Blogger OG said...

Photographers want to see themselves as artists and yet here is an example where we reject one of the greatest disciplines of art. Know your technique.
A painter copies the masters to understand brush stroke, color and compisition. The Musician learns musical scores to the point where it can be reproduced without thinking.
The sculpture will cut out hundreds of copies of existing pieces until each cut and its effect will be know instinctively.
Yet in photography we look down on the ability to produce time and again consistantly well made work and think of it as limited. Yet I say until the photographer has demonstrated a bedrock of consistant skill I would call unique shots more as a result of luck than a true product of the artists/photographers intent.
Learn how to make stock shots and postcards backwards, then experiment with what you know does work and add to that the new and untried, and you will find ways of expression that result in unquie work that conveys the artists intent rather than just lucky freak shots.

9:15 AM  
Blogger gravitas et nugalis said...

Mike - just a slight correction: I think you mean nugalis, not nougalis.

9:26 AM  
Blogger paul maxim said...

Bruce??? How in the heck did I do that?

Now there's a brain derailment if I ever saw one. I've been reading Lenswork and listening to Brooks' podcasts for a long time. Hope he doesn't see this!

9:39 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"A painter copies the masters to understand brush stroke, color and compisition."

Are you kidding? What painters do that? During the Renaissance they did that, maybe. I can't imagine any of the painters I value ever doing such a thing.


1:34 PM  
Blogger Charlie Didrickson said...

og said "Yet I say until the photographer has demonstrated a bedrock of consistant skill I would call unique shots more as a result of luck than a true product of the artists/photographers intent.
Learn how to make stock shots and postcards backwards, then experiment with what you know does work and add to that the new and untried, and you will find ways of expression that result in unquie work that conveys the artists intent rather than just lucky freak shots."

I guess so...........a teacher probably said the same thing to me 20 years ago. I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now.

I hope I never learn how to make "stock" or "postcard" photos. That is my intent....

I much prefer the unintended beauty and mystery that comes from shooting in an impulsive and spontaneous fashion, usually outdoors and often with people around to help aid in my luck. Then again, the odd and quirky static things interest me as well.

Maybe when I grow up I will think differently intentionally.

4:04 PM  
Blogger gravitas et nugalis said...

In The Art Spirit published in 1923, the American painter and teacher Robert Henri stated it simply -

"The man who is forever acquiring technique with the idea that sometime he may have something to express, will never have the technique of the thing he wishes to express....The technique learned without a purpose is a formula which when used, knocks the life out of any ideas to which it is applied."

Henri's belief was simple - find your passion ("thing")first, then you will acquire or "invent" the technique you need to express the thing.

I agree with Henri - acquiring technique first is going at it ass-backward.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Morven said...

Painters don't, in general, practice the technique of the old masters anymore. That's in fact what "modern art" is about: originality before technique. Whether that produces better results than technique before originality is open to debate.

Would that there was an easy way to attain both originality AND technique - but perhaps that's the point, that it's not easy and never will be.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

How sure are you of the wording of that quote? I'd like to use it in my book.


P.S. Aren't you glad I was mature and refrained from addressing you as gravitas et nougat? (s)

4:35 PM  
Blogger Carl Dahlke said...


I know a painter whose work I love who copies several classical works a year. Her work doesn't look anything like the work that she copies. What she is learning, I believe, is how certain formal tricks fit the hand. She copied Degas, for example to really understand how he extended lines beyond the edges of forms in his paintings. You don't understand it just by looking at it - you understand also by doing it.

I don't think a painter copying a painting is doing the same thing as a photographer copying another photographer's style. A person who copies other photographe's style don't try to copy the exact pictures (at least that I've ever seen). A painter knows they are doing an essentially technical exercise; the person who is copying someone else's style may well think they are creating something more than an exercise.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Paul Butzi said...

You can call it nugalis, you can call it nougalis.

No matter which you choose, it's obviously Hobson's choice.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

What does "nugalis" mean, anyway? I can't find it in any online Latin-English database.


7:00 PM  
Blogger gravitas et nugalis said...

Nugalis means "frivolous" and paired with Gravitas it implies a sort of ying-yang thing. You know, like, full of sh__, but not.

The Hernri quote - 100% accurate. From The Art Spirit - Icon Editions, Westview Press, page 122.

In full, it reads...

The technique of a little individuality will be a little technique, however scrupulously elaborated it may be. However long studied it will be a little technique; the measure of the man. The greatness of art depends absolutely on the greatness of the artist's individuality and on the same source depends the power to acquire a technique sufficient for expression.

The man who is forever acquiring technique with the idea that sometime he may have something to express, will never have the technique of the thing he wishes to express.

Intellect should be used as a tool.

The technique learned without a purpose is a formula which when used, knocks the life out of any ideas to which it is applied.

PS - thanks for being mature, even though most times mature is over-rated.

10:29 PM  
Blogger igb said...

It is safe to assume that art has not to do with creativity or originality but with beauty and truth, which cannnot creates nor pursued (remember “I don’t look for, I find”). If you believe that there is such a thing as “originality”, or “personal view” (big words for “looking at one’s belly button”) or that anyone can actually “create” (c’mon, not even energy/matter is created) you should stop reading right now.

The artist would be a medium, gifted in the sense that that is one of the few individuals that can convey (“actualize”) that absolutes for the rest to be able to realize it. The role of technique is to make the process more fluent and also more comprehensive by giving a better understanding of the object, subject and process. Therefore, technique does not come first or after anything, it is part of the same thing.

Besides one can actually focus on that to leverage the artistic process as long as it is not done mechanically but aiming for perefection in each attempt. You can’t , on the contrary, start by looking for inspiration (Again Picasso: it’s better to copy a master than to be inspired by him, with the latter you’d be at most copying his deffects).

By working on assimilating a master’s technique, you empty yourself (that’s a good thing), and you can *be* that master. Of course when you’ve learned the technique, you must immediately forget it. Really simple.

3:30 AM  
Blogger scotth said...

"Are you kidding? What painters do that?"

I went to the Louvre once, and there were all kinds of painters with easels set up, copyinh the works in the museum.

9:49 PM  
Blogger LinenPhotography said...

"Are you kidding? What painters do that?"

Do you read many art books? It's pretty common for artists to study and practice with another artist's style. That is why we've had art movements,artists inspired by one another.

I find this article thought provoking. I enjoyed reading it.

2:00 AM  

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