Friday, May 29, 2009

The Viewer Doesn't Care

As photographers we constantly have to evaluate how good our images are. We do so when we decide which ones are worth printing, which to put in a portfolio, or to post to the web. We do so when submitting for contests or publications. Even if we didn't have to, we do it anyway - having favourite images that we think is our best work, even if we don't show it to friends and family. We evaluate our work when deciding which images are worth a $150 frame or are worth pinning to the notice board at the office.


The viewer doesn't use the same criteria t judge images.

The viewer doesn't care how far we had to hike, or how early we had to get up in the morning, or how bad the rain storm - for all they know, we stepped off the air conditioned bus, aimed our camera and fired off a "snap" which produced the print in front of them without any effort at all.

The viewer doesn't care how hard you had to work the scene or how clever you were in finding the one viewpoint which caused everything to line up properly - most of them assume we found it that way and are willing only to grant that we at least knew a good "snap" when we saw one.

The viewer doesn't care how many hours, how many attempts or to what trouble we went to edit and then make this one print.

The viewer doesn't care about subtleties of paper surface and ink type and depths of the blacks. They don't care that we went through a dozen different papers looking for the one that most perfectly presents our images.

Most of the viewers are looking at the print behind glass and can't even tell whether you printed it on matte or glossy paper.

Only a small fraction of viewers can even tell about careful highlight and shadow control.

All the viewers care about whether the picture works for them, or it doesn't - everything else ranks way down there, if at all.

Perhaps it would be better if prints were presented unmatted and thumb tacked on the wall, complete with blood stains and tear marks so the viewer could appreciate our suffering, but that won't be happening any time soon.

O.K., so the viewers don't appreciate my efforts, so what?

Well, the problem is, we as photographers do appreciate all of the above qualities, especially in our own work.

If we had to get up at 3 am and drive through the dark, hike for miles before sunrise to be in place, on 27 occasions before getting that perfect shot - our appreciation is way out of proportion to how good the image actually is. It is really hard for us not to ascribe to the print a lot more value than is seen by the viewer.

So, the next time we are evaluating our images, we need to try to remove from the equation how hard it was to make the image and concentrate only on the image itself. We may not even be capable of seeeing past our biases and here assistance can be sought from others - wives, friends, other viewers.

Next time your favourite image doesn't get any appreciation from an editor or gallery owner or even your brother in law, remember that the medals are being handed out for the strength of the image, not the sweat equity that went into it.

Perhaps we do need prizes for the best "it's a shitty image but damn it I worked hard to get it". We'd never tell the public but fellow photographers could commiserate with the winners - " you worked so long, you deserved better..." but I suspect that none of use would want to step forth to claim the prize.

Some images come easily, others with great difficulty. Fortunately we can probably honestly say that those who are prepared for luck are the ones most likely to be able to take advantage of it when it comes along. The hard work may not be appreciated by the viewer of a single image, but more than likely our efforts will be rewarded by having more good images to present to the public.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Keld Helmer-Petersen

Sandy sent me a recommendation of a photographer who made the following comments:

Keld Helmer-Petersen has been overlooked in the history of photography book's, but he has recently been re-discovered by the English Magnum photographer Martin Parr. His contribution to colour abstract photography started in the 1940's but all the credit for colour photographs was given to the American photographer William Eggleston in the 1970's. In 2005 I went to see an exhibition of Keld Helmer-Petersen's work at the Rocket Gallery in London, I was flabbergasted by the subject matter displayed on the gallery walls both in colour and black and white. His modernistic style and perceptive vision for photographing the over looked mundane subject matter, and making it look ligh abstract paintings is nothing short of amazing. In the fifties he studied with the late great Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Chicago School of Art Institute formerly the New Bauhaus. He was definitely ahead of his time and I felt humbled in the presence of his imaages.

I tried to get his book but at $317 it seemed a bit steep. Sandy also gave me a reference to a gallery site at which you could view a fair number of images, all be it pretty tiny.

Blogspot seems to be on strike but the web address is:

you will need to type this in your browser till blogspot gets working again.

and click on previous exhibitions, then 2005-2006 and then Keld Helmer-Petersen, you can then select "Danish Beauty", "Black and White" or "122 Images" to view his photographs.

Helmer-Petersen first published his colour work in 1948, clearly making him one of the pioneers of modern colour photography.

There are more of his images in 2007-2008. I have sent an email to the gallery to see if any of his books are still available.

Petersen has a wonderful sense of colour and design and I for one am going to have another go at finding his book.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Second Book

My absence from this blog for much of the last several months will have been pretty obvious. I have been working very hard on my second book, called "Camera To Print". The deadline for the text of the book is the end of this month and there will be a lot of further editing and image organization and more editing and index production and more editing but the last few weekends have really broken the back of the work, not to say mine from sitting in front of the computer 12 hours a day - time out to eat and walk the dog.

I think it's going to be a good book, a useful book. The book complements the first book which was all about the art of photography. This one is about the practical aspects of making fine images. Much of the book is dedicated to image editing and showing what is possible with editing while several chapters discuss working the scene. There are lots of bad images compared with good, discussions explaining the differences follow.

I wish someone had written this book for me when I was getting going. Discussions about f stops are minimal but it does discuss stitching, focus blending, HDR, Photoshop techniques and tricks, and has lots of suggestions to improve images.

I think it will be an interesting read for anyone, though I suppose that if you don't like my images, then don't buy the book.

Someone wrote about my first book that I'd made a mistake in the introduction telling people to not buy the book if they didn't like the photographs. He thought the writing terrific and hated the photographs. The ideas in the book may have sounded good to him but surely if the images don't work, then the advice has to be considered questionable.

An old axiom is that "those who can't, teach" but the truth is that people teach because they like teaching, they don't become or stay professional photographers because they hate sucking up to clients or don't have the personality to sell themselves or hate the fact that being a commercial photographer is 90% business and 10% photography.

Many photography teachers could and often do make some very fine images that few ever get to see. My point is that following the photographic advice of someone who "can't hang em' on the wall" is risky at best.

I had a lot less time to make the images for the second book, almost entirely images made in the last 18 months but they nicely illustrate points I want to make. I even found a few gems as I redid a number of images for the book and had to search my files for companion images.

Well, you'll have to take my word for all of this because the book won't be out until late in the year, hopefully well before Christmas unlike last time.

Once editing is complete, I think I'll sneak an example chapter onto my website and let everyone know through the blog that it's there.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Composition 2 - Shapes

Last time I wrote about the different things that make up the elements of an image - things like shadows and reflections, shapes left by the space between one object and another, or between one object and the edge or corner of an image (unless you print in circles - it's been done).

The shape of an ojbect is probably its most obvious characteristic. What may be less obvious is that the shape of the shape affects the quality of the image. The most stable shapes are rectangles aligned with the edges of the image, horizontal ones being more stable than vertical (they can't fall over).Objects that are just a little off rectangular (trapezoidal or parallelograms) can be ever so much more interesting. The other night I was looking at a Matisse print and it consisted of a series of rectangles within each other and it was the slight "misalignment" of one rectangle on another that made things interesting. The lines weren't perfectly straight either and the rectangles really had a sense of life. Parallelograms suggest action while trapezoids suggest perspective - ie. one part is closer than another part of the shape.

It may be true that circles roll better than ovals, but they sure look a lot more stable.

Imperfect circles breathe life into an image and suggest change over time. At least one edge of a triangle is going to be a diagonal line which has energy and movement.

Triangles with a wide base and pointed top also suggest a receding perspective.

You may have different meanings for the usual variety of shapes, based on your experiences and that's ok, just so long as you take the shapes into consideration. Remember too that a change in camera position can radically affect the shapes in an image - narrowing them or rounding them, making them lean or not.

Next time - relationships between the shapes.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Composition 1 - Compositional Elements

Over the next several weeks, perhaps months, I'm going to write about composition, "the strongest way of seeing" according to Edward Weston.

A good place to start is to think of a possible image as a series of compositional elements. While these may be things that exist in the real world, just as easily and importantly they can be elements that only apply to a photograph.

For example, in a top half portrait, the space between the arms and the edge of the image is a shape, likely part of the out of focus background, but none the less for the purposes of the image it is a real element, with a shape and defined edges.

A strong shadow is a compositional element, even if you can't bottle it. A reflection on water can be a compositional element - or perhaps just the waves caused by a puff of wind on part of a pond which changes the tone of that part of the pond significantly.

You might find it helpful in looking at an image in terms of compositional elements to squint, or take your glasses off (if near sighted)or press the depth of preview lever to darken the view through the viewfinder.

Simply being aware of the elements that make up a composition already puts you ahead when it comes to positioning your camera and framing to make a more interesting image. There's a whole lot more to these elements and I'll discuss the relationship of the elements next time.