Thursday, May 31, 2012

What Stays and What Goes

"Pay attention to 'outliers.' They're your worst enemies.  They're your best friend."       ~John-Paul Caponigro

Putting together a portfolio collection of photographs is hard business.  Perhaps it's not quite as drastic as Sophie's Choice, but deciding which images stay and which images go can be an intense and excruciating experience.  Here is a fascinating example of this process by esteemed photographer John-Paul Caponigro.

Celebrated photographer Ansel Adams said once that "twelve significant photographs in one year is a good crop."  Considering that the classic number of photographs in a portfolio is between fifteen and twenty, one can easily add up at least the time commitment that goes into creating a body of work, and that doesn't yet take into account the cost of producing them, or the effort put into working on them.

Many professional photographers separate themselves both academically and commercially from the herd by labeling themselves as "series photographers."  These are the ones most likely to create cohesive bodies of work that will be published in book form, or exhibited as a collective in a gallery.  Some photographers are content to produce "stand-alone" images, usually destined for the commercial market. 

Usually, we all start out as photographers looking for "the one."  This is our best one, our prodigal child.  This keeper (at least in the beginning), is what usually sets the tone for future work.  This progression is not unique to photography, but it is also found in other arts, including literature.  For example, some writers might flex their muscles in various genre, until "breaking through" in one particular field, and then continuing in that direction steadfastly. 

When I was working on my graduate school thesis, this is the photograph that became "the one:"

I had been working in frustration for many months, trying to blindly find a source of inspiration, and when I saw this image through the viewfinder of my camera, I knew this was it.  The next fourteen or so images came in skips and spurts, and the collection came together almost as if by magic:

Not that there were images that didn't fit.  In particular, I had a hard time with these two:

The reason I cut this one is that I felt there was too much interaction between the main character and the secondary characters.  I didn't like what the story line was alluding to.

This is went along the same lines.  I've always been wary about text in images; the subtlety of the collection would have been lost with images like this one.

Sometimes even "the one" doesn't make the cut (like a company's founding father that is no longer 'with it,' sometimes the board of directors has to make the tough choice of edging him out).  It is this realization and the consequent decision of what ends up on the cutting room floor, that can be the most difficult to process for an artist.  Both as a student and as a teacher, I saw artists during critique do pretty much anything to sway their critics (usually peers, teachers, or advisory committees) to allow them to keep the images in the portfolio: some had long, emotional tales attached to these images, for some the sheer financial investment was enough, some saw something in the image that not a single other person saw, some were convinced that this one image was powerful enough to carry all the other images, even if it didn't fit.  People cried, became enraged, begged, had fits, wailed, argued, pleaded, or become despondent.  What was clear to me, immediately, is that all artists, at some point when putting together a cohesive portfolio, lose sight of Rule # 1:

Do not become attached to your work.

We have heard it said from Buddhists that attachment is the source of all human suffering.  Whether or not we agree with the Buddhists, it is true that attachment can be deadly to the purpose.  One of the best pieces of advice that I felt I was ever able to give to a student was to remind them that the point of photography was to tell the tale visually; if you need to attach a long, rambling account to the side of the image telling us why this image is important to the whole, then you've already missed the point.

Focus and intent are the two most important features of the collection.  "The one" may help to add to guide the photographer in the direction that they want to go in, much like a plot line will tell the writer how his characters will act.  One of my favorite photographers, Alec Soth, used to carry a list with him when he went out photographing; as a matter of fact, he turned it into his business card.  In this way, he is not always setting out to photograph a specific thing beforehand, however if he manages to find it he will decide later whether it is a good fit for the "collection" or not.  The idea of intent and focus have a direct correlation on Rule # 2:

Shoot A LOT.

The more photographs you have taken with your collection in mind, the more you will have to choose from.  Of course, this also exponentially increases the number of "outliers" in the bunch, images which for some reason or another, have captivated us so much that we have a hard time excluding them from the whole.  Still, the amount of new and potential work far outweighs the risks of creating more attachment.

Another direct effect of shooting prodigiously with intent in mind, is the idea that, just as you get to know a person better by spending more time with them, the more you will become familiar with the tone, personality and weight of your project.  Adjectives will begin to flow (melancholy, spirited, hopeless, lustful, complacent, for example).  Physical attributes will emerge (strong verticals, color blocks, left-weighted focus).  The more we become aware of these traits, the better we will be equipped to cut through our work.  Strong pieces will  be emboldened, and the strong pieces will support the more ambiguous ones.  When we are finally ready, we can stride forward and apply Rule # 3:

Kill Your Darlings

It is okay to love some of your work more than you love the rest, however when it comes to a portfolio, pieces that do not "play well" with the others do not deserve a spot.  Perhaps these pieces will become symbols of new potential collections, or some may even be left to stand alone forever.  It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who first posited this idea, in his enlightening passage on style in "On the Art of Writing."  Since then, scores of artists have acknowledged that this is the key, the need to be bold, ruthless and decisive, in order to succeed.  If you feel that your grouping would collectively suffer in poignancy by lack of dominant, stand-alone images, you are not thinking of or looking at the whole.  For example, when we think of our favorite books, even though we may appreciate a few lines here or there above the rest, we do not usually think of the book individually by chapters, but by how it comes together as a unit.  How many times have we thought, "well, that was a good movie, but all those special effects at the end really ruined it."  Don't let your ego and your need for praise detract you from the storytelling.  For that, there is always Flickr.    

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Legitimacy of Social Media in Journalism

"We also spent a great deal of time analyzing how we utilize and deploy photojournalists across all of our locations in the U.S. [...] We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company."
From a CNN staff memo, citing reasons for massive layoffs, 2011 

Image Credit here; T-shirt tribute after  Katrina.
This week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that they were severely cutting back their print edition to three days a week, effectively eliminating daily print newspaper service for the city.  Although other newspapers have been doing the same since the digital revolution, this is the first major American city to face the prospect of their direct news sources being available solely on the Internet.

Occurrences like these bring about legitimate questions, such as the impact on education, news dissemination to the poor, and further cultural detachment from the local environs.  The American community's ties and access to the Internet have never before seemed so important, in an era when, for example, election outcomes can be determined by the percentage of eligible voting adults who own smartphones.

Last week, we analyzed the rising use of iPhones for "serious" photography, and there is no type of photography more "serious" than photojournalism.  The debate has been raging, quietly, but there is a strong environment of polarity in this debate: people either love it or hate it.  

The increasing use of social media around the world has put further pressure on photojournalists, whose numbers (in terms of gainful employment) have seen a drastic decline in recent years.  In December of 2011, CNN laid off almost its entire photography crew.  As more and more common citizens contribute to global digital journalism with their own pictures, professionals have seen themselves hard pressed to make a successful argument towards their usefulness.  The term "citizen journalist," is a catch-all term, which has existed for years, used to describe the local, first-person account of a newsworthy story by an untrained civilian.  These citizen journalists, armed with web-ready mobile phones, are the new wave of visual newsmen, and a bane on the existence of professionals.

Image credit here, © Damon Winter
While most career photojournalists bemoan the death of their rubric, some, like Damon Winter of the New York Times, see a window of creative opportunity, and have taken it to task.  His portfolio, "A Grunt's Life," won an award from Picture of the Year.  He is part of the derring-do new chorus of photographers, eschewing the pomp and circumstance of big cameras for the emotional pop and intimacy of "instant" formats.  Even famed photojournalists, like James Nachtwey (today's generation's Capa), experiment with smaller formats in their spare time, and one must wonder how long it will be before they shed the heavy Victorian shroud of "seriousness," and embrace the possibilities of mobile "photography."

If we were to condense the unbreakable parameters of photojournalism, we would probably define a true photojournalistic photo as: un-retouched (or "raw"), well-composed, and un-biased.  I believe that the public would like to think that we only truly have control over one of these parameters, but in truth the journalist also coherently chooses what he wants to photograph, which makes it biased towards their own aesthetic code, and "un-retouched" is really one big hippocratic ideal, because unless the photographer is plugging in his shutter speed and aperture at exactly the level of what the human eye sees, in those conditions, the effect is that the scene is ultimately "altered" and "touched up."

Damon Winter writes about this fact beautifully:
"People have covered war with plastic toy cameras. Most recently, Erin Trieb in Afghanistan. David Burnett used the tilt of his large format cameras to render major sporting events into miniature dioramas. Paolo Pellegrin creates exquisite black-and-white images of major news events around the world that often more closely resemble paintings than photographs, using the same digital camera we all use. Each photographer uses a technique or tool that helps him or her to best tell the stories and all of their work has been acknowledged and celebrated.  None of these techniques are grounded on the idea of visual accuracy but they are effectively used to tell stories, convey ideas and to enlighten, which is the real heart of our work."
Arguably, in working with mobile phones, and iPhones in particular, the un-nuanced parameters of photojournalism are greatly enhanced: applications like Hipstamatic, for example, do not have integrated editing controls (not even cropping, which is popular tool for photojournalists, and a great reason for their harping by critics), and are only "modified" by internal filters which apply lighting, grain and vignetting effects at random.  These photographs can also be "instant" story-tellers, by their inate digital properties that allow them to be uploaded to the Internet immediately.  Is it perhaps this capability that most unnerves critics of the genre?  Is it because the importance is no longer on aesthetic, but on accuracy and timeliness?

If so, we are only barely now embarking on a tremendous watershed moment.  Perhaps what will be shed are the pounds of heavy equipment required these days for visual reporting.  It would probably be a welcome change for photojournalists if their only equipment during travel and their stay in less-than-pleasant accommodations in war-torn places was a teeny little gadget that fit in the back pocket of their cargo pants.  In the end, the debate over whether who the best and most sought-out photojournalist might not hinge on their talent, but on the speed of their Internet satellite connection.

For more reading on this subject, the following articles might be of interest:,0

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"iPhone-ography?" Is that even a Word?

Image from
There are a few things that instantly raise the hackles of any "professional" photographer.  For example, ask one of your friends who considers themselves a serious member of this field about "soccer mom" portrait studios.

Everyone's personal pet peeves aside, nothing seems to be more contentious these days than "iPhone-ography;" or, more accurately, photographs taken, processed, and shared using an iPhone.  With the recent $1-billion acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, the potential scale of iPhone-ography is just now starting to rear its (ugly?) head.  Other digital apps, like Hipstamatic, are only helping to increase the availability of photo resources on-the-cheap to budding "fauxtographers."

Photo © Winder Holeman
I recently curated a show for An Otherwise Empty Room by a photographer that uses mobile phone media to capture his images.  As I often would say to my students, I am fully convinced that the medium never matters, it's the concept, intent, development, follow-through and result that are most important.  When I was looking at this photographer's work, I was not looking at the light flares, grain and vignetted edges that are so prevalent with mobile phone photo apps, but at his use of the frame space, of the way he carried an idea from one frame to the next.  To appropriate the saying, a thousand monkeys pounding away at a thousand iPhones would eventually produce one monumental image (or, according to the new popularity of the "abstract" aesthetic, maybe just one monkey and one iPhone), but this is a big difference from approaching the photo with a pre-conceived concept in mind.  The development of this concept is what drives the push of the shutter, the eye looking for the right image to complement the work.  I liken it to a writer searching for the right adjective to enhance the sentence.

Image from
If people are upset about iPhone photography, I don't know how they're even going to begin to feel about some of the products emerging on the market.  I recently tested the new Creative Suite Photoshop 6 beta version, which introduces one of the most mind-blowing options I have seen on a digital manipulation platform: an actual tool to manipulate the depth of field (tilt/shift) of an image, very much like a view camera.  Now, I own a view camera.  It is an expensive, very much adored, custom-built cherry-wood 4x5 Wista.  I used this camera to photograph a portion of my thesis portfolio for grad school, and took some of my favorite portraits of all time with it.  It is cumbersome, heavy, and must be handled carefully.  As much as I love the tonal range and buttery bokeh of the view camera, it is a burdensome and costly process to product an image.  At about $3 a sheet of color film, plus $3 per sheet processing (plus mailing fees, since very few of us live near a place that still processes large format film), not to mention the scanning (and drum-scanning fees, if you are a perfectionist like me), you are not very likely to use the view camera as your go-to.  When I played around with this feature, using images I took using a Canon 5D, my heart sank with sadness for my view camera, but my spirit stirred in excited anticipation for potential future projects.

"Buy the best and fastest computer you can afford," is what I tell people when they ask me to recommend a camera.  Follow that up with a reasonably recent version of Photoshop, and learn how to use it well.  The camera will happen one way or the other, where it's your phone or a photocopier, or even the built-in camera on your new computer.  The idea is the intent.  Process away on your computer to get a consistent result.

Why are iPhone photographs so compelling? Probably because they incorporate, at a flick of a finger away, all sorts of digital actions that take a long time to reproduce using Photoshop.  The designers behind the scenes at Instagram know what they're doing.  The better argument, I think, is whether an iPhone creates an artist, or an artist creates using an iPhone (a fantastic metaphysical question prevalent in the ever genre in the art world, in one form or another).

Until the day we all stop applying labels, may all iPhone "photographers," paint-by-number "painters," auto-tune "singers," and other faux-tistes carry on, the world is a richer place with your contributions.               

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New Gallery Opening!

"Millions of men have lived to fight, build palaces and boundaries, shape destinies and societies; but the compelling force of all times has been the force of originality and creation profoundly affecting the roots of human spirit."  
- Ansel Adams

An Otherwise Empty Room has big news! As an off-shoot to this blog, I have started an on-line gallery also named "An Otherwise Empty Room."  In the tradition of some of my favorite photography heroes, Alfred Stieglitz and Aaron Siskind, whose visionary ideas and pursuit for the excellence of photography within the fine arts propelled the craft further than anyone could ever have imagined, the gallery aims to give young up-and-coming artists a place to present their craft, in a traditional and curated format.  

The space is a blank slate for artists, with little distractions, if any.  It is a big white room, "otherwise empty," ready to be filled with the work of visual craftsmen.  

The portfolio of each featured artist will be displayed for two months, and then it will be archived in a second gallery, until such a time as room as needed for other artists' portfolios.

The first featured artist is Winder Holeman, from Chicago, Illinois.  His work can be seen here.  Please take a moment to view the images.  

Thank you, and thank you again for supporting the work of independent artists.