But is it worth talking about?

When Google+ was new and shiny and everyone was excited to be on, I was curating a photography theme for a while. It was called “Fall Friday”, and you won’t guess it: it was about fall photos. I wanted to make a little bit of a difference and not just re-share photos that I liked, but also tried to say something meaningful and positive about them. (ie. why I liked the photos that I picked, beyond “it’s pretty”.)

So for a couple of Fridays I sat there and browsed the #fallfriday hashtag, annoyed that the “clever” G+ algorithms didn’t filter out any re-shares, and collected links to photos that had potential to be featured/reshared throughout the day, together with some notes. Yes, I was serious! And while I don’t recall what exactly I did (maybe a top three or something?), I do remember that it began to suck, rather quickly. I stepped down as a curator of the theme. And here’s why.

The majority of photos were, please forgive me, mundane. Pretty, beautiful, nice to look at – but for heaven’s sake, what’s there to say about colorful trees in a forest, about the colors of fall, about the solitary tree and its leaves turning color and falling in a field? Morning light, fog, and all that? “Nice shot!” – that’s right. And that’s about it, most of the time.

And don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with nice and beautiful photos. I like to make nice and beautiful photos. We get hammered with all the crap that is happening in the world every day, the bad news – we need more beautiful things to counter that. But very, very often, there’s just nothing worth talking about in these pretty photos.

And I think that’s a core problem of all attempts to provide meaningful photo critique. You start a page, a community, a forum for photo critique, and then “the internet” happens: a never ending stream of “pretty” photos gets unleashed.

With digital photography, the number of those photos has exploded. Everyone can make pretty photos now. And not just that, almost everything can be done, by anyone. Photo sharing sites and social media feeds are filled with black & white long exposures, made by hordes/herds of Michael Kenna clones (and I bet 80% of them haven’t even heard of him). Or how about gritty looking, HDR-like portraits of old people, in “Dragan” style? Flowers with shallow depth of field and textures, maybe? And so on, and so on.

Everything that looks new and fresh and “cool” is almost immediately reverse-engineered, explained in online tutorials, sold in workshops and as a result imitated so much that in no time, it becomes mundane. A style isn’t applied because it furthers the expression of an image, but instead, images are made as an excuse to showcase a certain style, look, or technique. A photographer can probably make far more money by selling his knowledge in online classes and books to amateurs who wish to learn how to reproduce that look. Yes, photography should be fun, but how does that make anyone happy, beyond satisfying an initial curiosity?

I think most of my photos don’t go beyond pretty and mundane, either. I go out with the camera and have a certain idea in my head of what I want my images to look like. Like dunes in high-contrast black & white renditions. :-P True vision and creativity is rare. Maybe I have one or the other “winner” every now and then – just like everybody else. A photo that is worth looking at, and intrigues us, again and again. It rarely happens. (and with the personal and emotional connection that we have to our own work, it’s pretty much impossible to judge and evaluate our own photos like that, anyway.)

Sometimes, it’s just not possible to provide meaningful critique that goes beyond some technicalities. Because there’s nothing else to talk about.

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9 thoughts on “But is it worth talking about?”

  1. all very true. I feel so much the same way…. it seems there is not much left that is “original” any more, and some days, I feel down right bored with it all…. But, I suppose we do it to satisfy our own creative selves, and in the long run, we should be doing it to make ourselves happy.

    • Oh, I have no doubt that whatever (most) people do with regards to their photography makes them happy – otherwise, why would they be doing it? :)

      I just remembered what it was like to try and add something to curating the theme, which is sort of like the other side of wishing for better photo critique.

  2. It takes time and thought to create a style that is recognizable as your own. I think most people aren’t interested in photography enough to bother, or are too insecure so they just copy someone else. But there are still lots of good photographers on G+ who do things their way and are slowly becoming true masters of their chosen genre, process, subject matter, and style, one photo at a time. Not every photo will be a masterpiece, and frankly I think the very best photos need to age a bit on the hard drive or online album before they really rise above the rest. Its fascinating to see you or Douglas Knisely re-process an image or dig up an old photo that previously didn’t make the cut. Those are just two recent examples; it happens all the time.

    Theme collections are tough: the theme that ties the collection together also removes one of the avenues of originality. At some point even an excellent photo won’t garner attention if it was preceded by a stream of lesser photos on the same subject. That’s exactly why HDR and max contrast/saturation photos get such attention: they literally outshine the rest. In any case all of those photos are taken out of context with regard to each individual photographer’s body of work and development, so really all you can say is “nice shot” unless the photographer has posted a back story for the image and not just a pile of hashtags.

    • I totally agree with you. Ansel Adams’ sayings make more and more sense the longer I’m photographing: “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

      I hear you with the themed collections (I get it! Too many dune photos!:-) but I like the challenge of creating a larger and (hopefully) consistent body of work. Which is pretty much impossible with color photos for me yet, I’d like to add.

  3. All true, but also true of almost every hobby (quilting, sewing, music, painting, gardening, backyard birding, coin collecting, stamp collecting, reading/book clubs, …)… All of it is just for fun, education, and personal gratification. We all focus on photo sharing, but Pinterest has grown massively popular for sharing almost any interest that can be captured in electronic media. My point is that all these activities are GOOD for you (assuming that you enjoy them). Obsessing or seeking praise and conditional love for your efforts is unhealthy, for sure.

    Finding a small set of “regulars” who look at each others’ photos with genuine interest and occasionally share a real winner is rather rewarding. Finding serious critique to help you grow and advance is almost possible. If I actually wanted that, I would have to pony up the big bucks and take Jay Maisel’s ass-kicking class. :)

  4. Yes, if a photograph is worth more than a cursory glance, it’s worth talking about! Unless of course you prefer to live in a closet and have no interaction with other humans. Whether it’s reading a book, or attending a concert, the same idea presents itself. Do we read a book and just conclude, “nice story”? No, we say how disappointed we were to read that the nice guy got shot, and if he had just stayed away from the church where the jealous guy’s wife attended, that he’d still be alive. The trouble with photography is very few people know how to express verbally their reaction to an image. They don’t know how to read a photograph. But that doesn’t mean that every photograph, just because it’s not a totally new and innovative composition, can’t be discussed as if it were a book or a song.

    • It is so much easier to make a photo than to write a book or a song, and that makes the amount of trivial and mundane photos very high.

      I’m not saying that there’s no photos worth talking about. I was looking at it from the perspective of someone wanting to provide more in depth, positive feedback on photos.

      When I judged the monthly competition of your camera club I was allowed to provide critique. But if I want to provide positive feedback on good photos I have to look very hard for something truly worth talking about today.

  5. Has technology made photography passe’ as an art form?
    Unlike most other art forms, once the camera and its shortcomings are learned, it is a matter of employing good composition sense to make a good piece.
    That’s it. (Over-simplified…I know)

    No other art form is managed this way. Even digital graphic art requires good hand-eye skills.

    That still leaves the artist with a standard that is actually not new. If the piece lacks the components of a juror’s list of qualifications, then it falls short.

    My answer to the question is no. Photography is still a very powerful art form. There are just more photographers than ever before historically ( I am part of the tsunami). If suddenly paintbrushes and paint were usable by simply selecting some settings and allowing the brush/paints to do the work conceived in the mind, it would be easier, and more people would be doing it. SO many more that it too would become unbearable. The end results however would still be limited to the artist, and a sea of beautifully average works would flood the world.

    Maybe there aren’t too many photographers and photographs, maybe we just have access to too many…(a personal projection).

    Not sure about your journey, but mine is about eight years old. Early on, my firsts were exciting and so motivating. I thought I was somebody with what I was doing…very foolish, I know. Over time, as I became part of different photo communities, it all became overwhelming. I have since pared down my presence and started to just make my work fairly quietly…for me. I think this story represents many new photographers.

  6. Sometimes “nice shot” is enough. Another great article Alex-you always get me to thinking


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