Archivi categoria: commentary

Is Street Photography Killing Itself?

Is the most egalitarian form of photography, ‘street photography’, being destroyed by its own popularity? Is such a thing even possible? I won’t profess to have a clear answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts. Those thoughts may turn into a rant, but I’ll try to contain myself!

Egalitarian = good, right?

This question hits right at the heart of photography and, most specifically, digital photography. If something is easy, more people will do it. The more people doing it, the more ‘cultivated talent’ there will be (which is a good thing). However, there can be a cost: the dross can become overwhelming.

Street photography is easy for everyone to engage in. If you have a camera and are able to access public areas, you can shoot street photography. While this sounds great, I can’t help but feel something of a massacre is taking place. Cameras have become optical machine guns, mowing down everyone and everything with carefree abandon.

The problem, as I see it, is exacerbated by a particular catalyst: for want of a better word, it is ‘cool’. When something is fashionable in this way, the self-image can become the real target, rather than the photograph itself.

So what has ‘coolness’ done for street photography?

It has clouded judgment, that’s what it has done. Some photographers evidently struggle to see past their excitement at indulging in this fountain of cool. Twenty years ago, to pull this off, you had to tote a film camera around and go through all the palava of changing rolls, developing them, faffing with lightboxes, checking contact sheets and making prints. If a person was prepared to go through all of this inglorious hassle, there was a very good chance they were reaching a bit deeper, within and without.

Now, in the digital age, you can buy the right ‘stealth satchel’, blaze away and saturate Instagram and Flickr within hours. At no point in this process will you have to consider the merits of the photographs being taken, because it doesn’t matter. You’re a rock and roll street sniper. At least a landscape photographer has to deal with bad weather, muddy feet and uncooperative light to get his or her shots and that obstacle of effort acts as a filter.

When it’s raining, the street ninja just slides into Starbucks and takes 482 photographs of coffee cups, tables, people’s feet, the window, people walking past the window, people tying their shoe laces… and they’re all painfully boring. Sadly, this garbage is overflowing into the street so to speak. The visible face of popular photography is more and more being defined by street photography, when we’re not being overwhelmed by photos of people’s dinner on social media.

Why could this be bad?

The good street photography is being buried, that’s why. It is more difficult than it should be to find consistently good street photography taken by someone without an already well-known name. The work is out there, I have no doubt of that, but the process of finding it is exhausting and depressing. There also seems to be a bit too much ego in the mix. Far too many of these (often very young) photographers seem unwilling to learn. They’re already amazing, which they know, because that’s what they tell each other continuously on social media. They also have lots of ‘likes’, so that’s that.

On the occasions when I have seen really good photographs on Instagram/Facebook groups, the inspiring work barely gets a mention. Nobody cares. That’s not what social media is about and street photography has become the social media of photography: an avalanche of banal, shallow and unreflective nothing that hasn’t the time to consider its own context. Tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In the same way, much of this ‘great street photography’ is, well, the new great.

Editing. What is that?

Too many street photographers don’t edit. They share everything, perhaps because they think the world wants to know what fifty different takes of groups of random people walking down the street looks like at 8:56 in the morning, on their way into work. I applaud the enthusiasm, but photography is like selling your house. You show the best bits, while trying to avoid scrutiny of the bad bits.

You put your junk into the loft, or carefully pack cupboards. You mow the lawn, give a lick of paint to that beautiful front door and make sure your new kitchen is sparkling. The whole point is to draw attention to the good bits and let them define your house as a proposition. You curate the impression you want to leave people with. What you don’t do is give them a guided tour of the junk pile corner of your garden, the rotten window frame you’ve meant to replace and then hand them a map of the broken floor tiles.

When you’re Magnum Photos, you can put out a book full of contact sheets when most of the photographers who took those hugely iconic images are dead! Everyone else is better off editing at least until it hurts.

Endless juxtapositions and their formulaic brethren

Visual juxtapositions are akin to a trick that can be performed according to recipe. They are cookie cutter photographs that deliver all of their impact (if they have any at all) in no more time than it takes to mentally identify the game. A boot on a poster steps on a passing pedestrian’s head. The man standing at a bus stop is being shouted at by a woman on a billboard.

See, you didn’t even need a photo to experience all that such photographs contain: a simple, boring, endlessly repeated ‘jingle’. You could only ever write one short line about such photographs, because they contain nothing beyond the superficial.

Some photographers have built entire series (in fact entire websites) crammed full of variations of the same thing. They’re no more interesting than ‘zonies’ obsessed with Ansel Adams’ Zone System, who 20 years ago produced endless photographs of tree stumps and sticks that showed how wonderfully they’d applied -3 compensation development. My personal hit list goes something like this:

Juxtapositions. If they say nothing and have no appeal beyond their initial visual recognition, they’re boring. Really boring. Even the ‘good ones’.

Juxtapositions are almost ALL the same. This is a quick screen grab after google searching ‘street photography juxtaposition’.

Random photos of nothing, for no reason, with no content, thought, insight or anything. They’re not so casual as to be cool. They’re just boring.

Faux edginess. People being made to look mean, when they aren’t. Intensity that has been added in Photoshop, or with a pithy title that over-eggs the pudding. Their landscape photography equivalents are the ones shot in Yosemite (or similar) during evidently pleasant weather, that have been heavily over-cooked in post, and then titled ‘_____, Clearing Winter Storm’.

Arrows and street signs. OK, so there is always going to be potential here. Never say never and all that, but I wish I could erase memory of every photo like the one below I have seen and wish I could un-see.

So what do you think about these photographs?

Note: These following street photos are being shared under fair use for commentary and critique. The names of the photographers have been omitted to not single any artist out in a negative way. Anyone who wishes to have their photo removed will have their request respected immediately.

What can you say about this photograph? Is there anything to say?
Posting a letter. Am I missing something?
Waiting for a bus. Is the appeal in her age? If so, where is this going?
The hand/scarf over her face does not make this photo any less banal.
The most overused street photography formula of them all: arrow with person going the wrong way. I don’t see anything here to elevate this image beyond formula.
Is this photo truly compelling because of the black and white theme?
Does this work? If so, why? I see an initial ‘edginess’ replaced by nothing (along with the realization that there isn’t actually an edge)
Everyone hates a mop handle in the eye. Is this an aspirational photo? If so, why? The ‘punchline’ is paper thin.
We see many images like this. Is there supposed to be humour in the sleeping man? Is there something else going on that I am just not seeing?

What goes in comes out

Really engaging photographs are never the product of laziness, or formula, but this does not mean it should be hard work either. “Endeavor” is perhaps the best term. If we put in effort (and some thought) we can generally produce photographs worth more than a quick glance. That does not mean waiting for all of two minutes until a man of the right height walks past a poster depicting a large open mouth. Such photos are simply the free version of buying a ticket to Yosemite and placing your tripod in the exact spot ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ was taken 75 years earlier. It’s easy. It requires no real effort, thought or (most importantly) personal investment.

I am not suggesting a hipster coffee approach here. Riding to the Andes on a unicycle to collect the coffee does not make it taste any different. Working your ass off in photography without that effort actually affecting your photographs is no different. However, just engaging in the subject of photography helps. Learning a little more about yourself helps. Learning about the people and environment around you and your thoughts and reactions to it helps. The sad truth is that most of our effort in photography amounts to nothing. We’ve all worked hard and come back with a slew of entirely disappointing images, but this does not mean we stop trying.

Street photography is fantastic and compelling, but it is also incredibly difficult to do well. In part, this is because we have seen so much of it before. Brilliant, obsessive workaholics have been doing it for 70 years, but they aren’t us. They haven’t had our experiences. They haven’t seen everything through the same eyes. Their insights are not ours. Every single person wielding a camera has the potential to say something interesting, or see something engaging. Again, it comes down to relationships and, even on the street, our relationship with what is in front of the camera is key.

Once a photographer has learned a few ‘tricks’, they are presented with a choice: keep chasing gimmicks or formulas, or look deeper. It’s OK to be lost. It’s OK not to know what you’re doing. It’s OK to fail. It’s absolutely fine to feel insecure about your work. In fact, all of these things are very cool because they state very loudly that a person is trying, striving, exploring and searching in a very personal sense…. call it what you will.

It is this highly individual engagement that makes photography interesting. Street photographs needn’t take that away. It isn’t an altar that photographers must worship beneath and it isn’t a sport either. Some years ago I read a passage in a men’s magazine advising young men not to approach their sexual endeavors in the same way as they might improvements to their sporting performance. And here we are back to the supreme importance of relationships, expression and connection. Without these things, both just become repetitive, predictable acts that lose their luster.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


About the author: After studying Biological Sciences at Bristol University, Thomas served in the British Army before spending fifteen years living and photographing in conflict zones as a civilian. His work has won numerous international awards and has been exhibited in the UK, US, Europe. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and The Photo Fundamentalist. This article was also published here.

Don’t Mourn Popular Photography

After nearly 80 years, Popular Photography announced that the magazine would publish its final issue on March 10, 2017 while simultaneously ceasing updates to both PopPhoto.com and AmericanPhotoMag.com.

The end of an era will always be tinged with sadness, and of course, we can’t make light of people potentially losing their jobs. But like many print publications, Pop Photo suffered from being a generalist—an aggregator of content that could be widely found (often in more detail) through a casual Internet search.

Sites like DPReview offer more comprehensive buying information, Roger Cicala nerds it out with a level of detail that would flummox most photographers, and YouTube channels like Negative Feedback specialize in niche and DIY topics that Pop Photo simply couldn’t replicate.

And of course none of these channels can compete with the stream of vernacular images and video that one can find through Instagram and Snapchat. Taking better photos has always been a niche concern—and it has become even more so as photos have become a kind of slang communication.

Decades ago, I remember poring over the 42nd Street Camera ads in the back of Popular Photography—dreaming of owning a Nikon F3HP and some exotic lens—but the march of technological progress has been blindingly fast.

Dedicated camera sales have plunged amidst the increasing capabilities of the camera phone. Post-production techniques have become arguably as important as image capture. And even a resurgence in analog processes has fueled the creation of online video training directly from people practicing the techniques—not being reported on by a journalist with only a passing interest.

Mourning the loss of publications like Pop Photo reminds me of recent columns on the NYT’s Lens blog. Long time editor/photographer Donald R. Winslow opined on the state of photography and how difficult the landscape had become for photojournalists, while 20-something Leslye Davis offered a retort unencumbered by historical baggage.

It was an exchange that has mirrored many conversations I’ve had with younger photographers. The young photographer doesn’t know how good or bad it was “back in the day,” she only knows how it is now. This isn’t willful ignorance of history, but rather the reality of making photos today. Perhaps the economics of Davis’ full-time position at the NYT isn’t representative of the struggle of most freelancers, but that doesn’t invalidate her experience as a 21st century documentarian.

I will always remember Pop Photo for infecting me with Gear Acquisition Syndrome from an early age. I will fondly recall being inspired by some of the photos and techniques I saw by flipping through its pages. But there are so many more incredible resources and outlets for photography than ever before. So thanks for helping lead the way Popular Photography. The road to the future is bright and wide open.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.

The Problem of Fake Photos in Fake News

The New York Times just reported an incredible story of how a 23-year old recent college graduate created a fake news story about fraudulent Clinton votes in Ohio and netted $22,000 on a fake news website from ads.

Desperate for cash to pay for living expenses, Cameron Harris concocted the piece, which was quickly picked up by pro-Trump websites:

Embedded within Harris’ story was an image he stole (“With a quick Google image search for ‘ballot boxes’”) that allegedly showed “Randall Prince, a Columbus-area electrical worker,” who had discovered the fake ballots. The image was actually from the Birmingham Mail, a UK-based news site and showed a worker delivering ballot boxes to a district community center in Sheldon.

The original, undoctored image. Photo by Birmingham Mail

According to Snopes, Harris flipped the image and blacked out some of the lettering on the boxes in “an apparent attempt to make it difficult to find the original image.”

History is littered with allegations of staged photography in news settings, but the decentralization of the news media and the rise of hyper-partisan sites has led to something else: image theft and fraudulent captions.

And with the potential for virality, individuals are using social media as springboards for fraudulent imagery like this image from circa 2013 that was promoted by @YoungDems4Trump as evidence of a mass of bikers making their way to Trump’s inauguration.

Don’t Fetishize This Image

dontfetishizefeat

Burhan Ozbilici’s stunning photo of a gunman moments after assassinating the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov spread like wildfire over social media. While many within the photojournalism community quickly declared the image as the “photo of the year,” and worth of top prizes, one voice offered dissent.

Matt Slaby is a photographer and founding member of Luceo Images, a creative visual agency that originally started as a collective of top photojournalists.

On a public Facebook thread, Slaby wrote:

slaby

Media folks, is it too much to suggest that imagery of human beings being killed be spared the awkward, bro-ish fist-pumping whereby we extol the quality of the image in ‘best-of’ terms? There’s nothing amazing, heroic, or powerful about the things we are seeing today. The commentary that’s filling my feed right now is pure discord and belies a kind of disconnected entertainment we get out of horror movies. Except this is real life. Maybe I’m alone in this sentiment, but I think its good to remember that. Always.

I reached out to Slaby via e-mail to get more of his thoughts on the matter.

Social commentary aside, what was your initial reaction to the photo?

Matt Slaby: I don’t think there is any doubt that the picture is a strong news photograph. The image is cinematic. You could have pulled this still from a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino movie. Which is something that, I suspect, we are all seeing in the image. There is a sense of life imitating art in the dress, posture, expression, and raw violence on the backdrop of an otherwise sterile photography opening.

Photo by Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Photo by Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Film still from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs
Film still from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

How does the image compare to Napalm Girl, Jack Ruby, and Asanuma?

Matt Slaby: The differences are actually easier for me to point out. For starters, it’s contemporary. It’s shot in color. It’s impeccably clear in its focus and resolution and, relative to the photographs you are talking about, hyper-realistic. Like I’ve said, we’ve seen this image before. It just happens to be in the movies. The second difference that is obvious is that the focus of this image is on the assailant and not the victim. The three images you talked about are compelling in their own right because we see the expression of the victim and connect with the horrors those images present in an empathic way. This image is different. We are seeing the anti-hero, David over the slain Goliath. All social commentary aside, it is a much different image than the historical images you’ve referenced.

You raised objections to the fetishization of the image. Can you elaborate?

Matt Slaby: My objections were voiced in a Facebook post I made reacting to a string of commentary that I was seeing on the day the image was made. Most of the commentary was from people who are in the photo business. These posts, boiled down, essentially bypassed any reaction to the very human tragedy that the image presented, opting instead to extol the virtues of the images in ‘best-of’ terms. I believe that language and context matters immensely when it comes to how we view imagery. In an era that creates more pictures each day than were created in the first 100 years of photographic technology, I think it matters even more. Essentially, we are rapidly approaching a time when all things can be visible at all times. If we’re viewing those things with this binary good/bad, thumbs-up/thumbs-down framework, I believe we’re really missing the point. Giving a thumbs-up to an image that depicts a human being killing another human being is deeply discordant and troubling. I’m afraid that human nature is to resolve that discord in a manner that objectifies and dehumanizes the content therein. My thoughts on this aren’t new, it’s just something that I felt compelled to point out as it happened because it was a moment in time when we could actually witness the black chemistry that works to transform a human being into an object for consumption and that was happening right before our eyes.

In your opinion, what is the appropriate way to acknowledge a strong image while respecting the subjects?

Matt Slaby: I’m not sure that this is the best starting point for discussion. By way of background, I worked in emergency services for seven years. I spent six years with a major metropolitan ambulance company. We ran about 17,000 calls each year between three ambulances. In short, we were busy. I’m no stranger to tragedy, death, and gallows humor. As I’ve grown from a young man into a man headed into middle age, my perspectives on some of this stuff have developed. I’m afraid that death and killing is something that inherently disrespects the subjects. I’m not sure that the photographer or the publisher of these images can undo that. There’s no real way around that. My concern for our industry is that we have an internal romance with violence that is a little prurient. It’s how we end up with war photographers being hired for fashion shoots. It’s reflective of this fetishization and the cross-over is predictable and a little bit weird.

I’m not arguing that the photograph shouldn’t be seen or have an audience, though I am sometimes challenged by the context in which those pictures appear. They don’t belong in year-end ‘best of’ galleries. I think they compel us to find some morality in our vision and have no placed next to words that contextualize the image in the same way that we talk about a great football play.

You said “populism has a way of eschewing nuance.” I agree in principle, but can you elaborate on the nuance of this photo?

Matt Slaby: The real nuance of this image is not in the image itself, but what it signifies geopolitically, and what it means for the balance of powers that are edging free from the fulcrum. I said it offhand and really meant it as a way to help us refocus on what the image means rather than the fist-pumping for the photographer.

In the Facebook thread, both you and another photographer referenced Daniel Berehulak’s reportage for the NYT. Are you raising objection to the photographer’s work or the industry’s response to the work (or both)?

Matt Slaby: I’m not raising objection to his work. It is in the vein of photojournalism that offers incredible insight and context to what we see in the pictures. [The other photographer] was pointing something out that I happen to agree with: when those pictures published, my social feeds were full of the same hyper-macho talk about the photographer rather than the work and what the work meant. It’s deeply troubling to me.

We can scrutinize the industry response to the image, but what about the public’s response? Many people said it “looks staged” without implying that is actually staged. How should the public respond to a powerful image (I’m also thinking of images like Omran Daqneesh)?

Matt Slaby: There is also an element of the public that believes that Sandy Hook was staged. We are living in a time when lies have as much credibility as truth. The most troubling thing about this is something that you alluded to in a previous question. Namely, our ability to explore the nuanced spectrum that falls between absolute truth and absolute lies has been eroded. I’m not sure how to approach this problem, but it suggests a layer of thinking that probably hasn’t been part of the editorial process before. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with where this goes logically, but the suggestion that people don’t actually believe the content of a picture certainly erodes its efficacy as a communication tool. Which begs the question: is a photograph effective and newsworthy if it is unbelievable? I don’t necessarily like the outcomes that that question suggests, but it certainly illustrates the weird times we are living in.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.

Photography’s On The Phone — Tell It I’m Not Here!

armor_160406-4360

So, time to stock up on bottled water and canned goods — the apocalypse is upon us. The iPhone 7 is here, and with its new and improved high res, dual lens, RAW shooting imaging system, it’s going to kill the consumer/enthusiast camera industry.

No less erudite a periodical than The New Yorker is predicting it, backed up by no less an authority than Chase Jarvis, the face that launched a thousand Instagram accounts. Whether he knew it or not, Chase lent his oft-quoted nugget of wisdom to the piece, “the best camera is the one you have with you…” I hope he gets a nickel every time somebody uses that line.

armor_150624-1995
Photojournalist and documentary filmmaker David Binder covers a smoky fire with his phone

There’s little doubt that this new iPhone will be a game changer, as long as it doesn’t set its users’ shorts on fire. It’s becoming very clear that from this point forward, the joy of photography for almost everyone will be defined more by touching and swiping and less by pointing and shooting.

Just not by me. I’m drawing a line in the silica. It’s finally time to push the furniture up against the door.

For some people, and not just the luddites out there, technology takes all the fun out of everything. I’m betting that most of you reading this aren’t among them, although, like me, you may be skeptical. Those of us who cast out into the stream of technology without necessarily taking the bait hook, line and sinker are known to technophiles as edge cases. I’m a classic edge case, but I’ve gotten about as close to the edge as I care to.

Expert educators from RIT and Brooks Institute explore Lightroom Mobile at the Adobe Educator's Summit
Expert educators from RIT and Brooks Institute explore Lightroom Mobile at the Adobe Educator’s Summit

I already use my phone to turn the lights on and off in my house, to adjust the heat and air conditioning (even when I’m not home), to listen to music and to watch TV, to try to figure out why I’m not where I thought I was, and to claim the long lost fortune left to me by some distant relative living in Nigeria.

What I don’t use it for all that much is to make phone calls, since everybody stopped talking to me once I started writing these grumpy articles for PetaPixel.

If Chase Jarvis and The New Yorker is to be believed, I’d better start getting used to using it for the one thing that has consistently brought meaning, challenge, enjoyment, and employment to my life. Ever since the day I borrowed my mom’s 126 Instamatic and a few packs of film (and, like an idiot, flashcubes) to take pictures of my boyhood idol, tennis legend Rod Laver, photography and I have been on a first name basis.

You can probably imagine how those flashcubes went over at an indoor tournament, but I didn’t have to. Laver promptly fired a ball at me as some guy with a walkie talkie hustled me away from the court. And of course, the pictures sucked.

But after a year or two of teaching myself how to do things better, I went back to the same tournament with my shiny new Nikkormat and a 200mm Quantaray lens. While my new pictures still sucked, my more appropriate equipment and growing knowledge helped them suck a little bit less.

armor_121001-013

That same year, Laver’s long, remarkable career came to a close as players half his age using more advanced rackets, tactics and fitness regimens quickly moved in and grew the game.

Yes, that was a metaphor. Get over it.

With photography, we’ve been through this so many times before, haven’t we? Ever since Niepce’s science project with asphalt and iodine nearly 200 year ago, subsequent tools and methods attempted to make  “the art of fixing a shadow” easier, more accessible and, yes, better.

Think about the march of progress in the medium’s short analog era- the Daguerreotype, the ambrotype, the tintype, the Autochrome, nitrate film, fire extinguishers, safety film, Polaroid, Kodacolor, the Advanced Photo System…okay, maybe not that one. Each welcome technological innovation improved, replaced or expanded on what came before it, even if a few holdouts griped.

Architecture fans get the money shot of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater near Pittsburgh
Architecture fans get the money shot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater near Pittsburgh

This is what the tech term creative destruction refers to — the untidy end of one thing because something better comes along. We can trace the concept back to the industrial revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, when many agrarian economies rapidly converted to manufacturing.

Or back even further, to Johannes Gutenberg, who, in the fifteenth century, put a whole generation of monks with neat handwriting out of business with the invention of movable type and the printing press. While certainly refined quite a bit, Gutenberg’s concept of mechanized printing would remain basically unchanged for over 500 years.

Basically unchanged, that is, until the the 1970’s, when electronic word processors, photo-typesetting and, eventually, minicomputers running desktop publishing and design applications came on the scene. For most people, these powerful innovations made the written word easier to compose, reproduce and share. A few pushed back by fetishizing things like “legendary” Moleskine notebooks and old typewriters, and by dismissing any attempt at literature written on a computer.

But for anyone working in the printing, publishing, newspaper and graphic design industries, it was one of those existential “grow or die” moments we hear so much about these days, and one that photographers would soon have to reckon with themselves.

A street vendor shoots a portrait for a group of tourists at the Brooklyn Bridge
A street vendor shoots a portrait for a group of tourists at the Brooklyn Bridge

To hear some describe it, you would think that digital photography sprung snarling from the loins of the mother of all killjoys. Somebody called “bullsh*t”, and for the first time, technological progress in picture making suddenly became a dirty word. It happened while the rest of us were striking up the band and selling off our darkrooms.

It created its own cast of contrarians, the film fetishist, who blow raspberries at the likes of photographer and author Kirk Tuck for exquisite lines like  “making the process harder for the sake of artisanal martyrdom doesn’t move the art along its way.” Kirk can write.

But this is where my neat little history lesson circles back and bites me on the hiney.

Hiking in the rugged Red Rock country of Sedona Arizona
Hiking in the rugged Red Rock country of Sedona Arizona

Isn’t that the point of smartphone photography — to make what was once a very complicated  process nearly effortless? To put the emphasis where it should be — on the picture, not the way the picture is made? Following Kirk’s line of thinking, aren’t we all just a bunch of artisanal martyrs every time we head out with a heavy camera bag (or stay in with Lightroom and Photoshop), when a phone and a few apps might do the job as well or better with a lot less fuss? Don’t we all run the risk of turning into, pardon the shameless backlink here, just a bunch of hypocritical old poops?

I’m so conflicted- I’ve always resisted using a phone to make “serious” pictures. At first, it was a rational choice- early mobile phone cameras felt more like gimmicks than useful tools. But now that they are extremely useful tools, I’ve become irrational. Call me crazy, but the prospect of replacing my cameras with a phone is kind of depressing. It’s like everything I’ve spent my life learning, doing and teaching would go right out the window, and I’m back to using something like an idiot-proof Instamatc and flashcubes.

A couple of weeks before its official release, Apple snuck some guy a top secret iPhone 7 to use at the US Open tennis tournament in New York. He took some pretty good pictures with it, but then, as a credentialed professional sports photographer with unrestricted access, he probably would have gotten some pretty good pictures with an oatmeal box and a safety pin.

I was there too, with my Fuji X100T way up in the cheap seats, which aren’t all that cheap, by the way. All I got with my very good camera was a bunch of tack sharp pictures of the two knuckleheads in front of me. I should’ve just used my phone, right? Isn’t there an app for that?

BUT… check out that nice creamy bokeh on Rafa Nadal down there on the court. Show me a phone that can do… say what? The iPhone 7 does bokeh, too? I give up.

Like I said, I’m a conflicted, irrational hypocrite, one who the Universe apparently gets a kick out of routinely tapping on the shoulder. Without a phone, I wouldn’t have this nifty picture of Jenny and me with my aforementioned boyhood hero, Rod Laver. The guy at the US Open bookstore only gave us about 10 seconds to get the shot, and it would have taken way longer than that to show him which end of the Fuji to point at us.

I don’t mean to end this on a downer, but the generation of photographers to which I belong only has a few more decades of relevance and coherent work left in us. I heard through the grapevine that after the recent grand opening reception for the new Leica boutique in Boston, someone quipped that it looked like the “old guys’ table at Dunkin’ Donuts.” Exactly.

I can’t say I blame anyone in the younger generation for growing tired of listening to us fetishize our cameras, our processes, our heroes and icons, our experience and our opinions. Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of it all, too. It’s inevitable that by the time those of us in the Pepsi Generation start dribbling in our soup, something like the iPhone 7, or its competitors and successors, will be how future generations “move the art along its way”.

Please just raise a toast to us when some brilliant new, creatively destructive technology comes along to make even smartphone cameras, and everything you learned how to do with them, obsolete.

In the meantime, Apple will have to pry my real cameras from my cold dead hands.

The smartphone shot is a nice keepsake, but I like this X100T shot of Laver signing his autobiography better.
The smartphone shot is a nice keepsake, but I like this X100T shot of Laver signing his autobiography better.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

The Decisive Position: What’s the Best Photo of Phelps and Le Clos?

decisivemomentphelpslecoisfeat

It may seem counterintuitive, but even a sports action photo can tell a story in a 1/1000th of a second, and the Rio Olympics men’s 200m butterfly final provided a perfect opportunity to analyze the role of not only the decisive moment, but decisive position in telling a story.

In the much-anticipated rematch of the men’s 200m butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Chad le Clos spent much of his time playing mind games staring down Michael Phelps both in and out of the pool. He spent the moments before their semifinal race shadow boxing in front of Phelps, who responded with a meme-worthy #PhelpsFace death stare.

stare

So the narrative entering the finals was whether Le Clos had awoken the sleeping giant, and would pay for his indiscretion. How could a single photo encapsulate that?

Position is Key

David Burnett’s photo of Mary Decker from the 1984 Olympics is a stark reminder of the importance of position. Burnett intentionally avoided the finish line, positioning himself on the opposite side of the track. When Zola Budd jockeyed for position and knocked Decker off the track, Burnett was the sole photographer in position to capture the decisive moment.

The swimming venue is a bit more restrictive. The pool is capped on opposite sides with a throng of photographers representing various news agencies and wire services from around the world. A few photographers have the opportunity to set up underwater cameras, but for the most part photographers are restricted to a single position. Where you’re positioned matters, as we’ll see in a moment.

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The Decisive Moment

Most photos of the race that you’ve probably seen are from the last 50m of the race. I watched the event live, and subsequently saw what I thought was a singular iconic photo of Le Clos glancing over at Phelps mid-stroke. But as we’ve already seen, there were dozens of photographers to Phelps’ left, and thus many different images of the same moment.

Yahoo! exclaimed “See the exact moment Chad le Clos regretted provoking Michael Phelps,” while The Huffington Post went with “The Momend Chad Le Clos Realized Michael Phelps Would Win.” But in rewatching the video, it turns out that Le Clos glanced at Phelps at least five times on the final lap. So depending on the photographer’s position there were numerous opportunities to capture the “decisive” moment.

The Right Exposure

Digital arguably gives us more variation in the look of an image than film. Although I’m seeing less variation in white balance than some of the other venues, photographers and/or their photo desks are dialing fairly different levels of saturation and sharpening. Even exposures are off by up to a stop by my estimation. Some photographers “expose to the right” and avoid blowing highlights in the water, while others are more content to get the expose for the subject. The pool offers a significant dynamic range for photographers to contend with.

In this Instagram world, the audience has also become accustomed to fairly significant increases in saturation and contrast – such that it’s arguable that the most life-like images look flat.

Choosing the “Best” Photo

Which race photo best captures peak action, the rivalry, and Phelps’ total domination? Let’s take a gander.

Wrong side

Let’s start with the obvious. Photographers positioned to Phelps’ right had a reverse angle. Because Le Clos had to turn to his left to see Phelps’ these photographers would never get “the shot.” PA Photographer Mike Egerton covered the race from Phelps’ right and captured this image. Egerton most certainly captured images of Le Clos turning his head, but from this position, all you would see is the green cap with no face.

Photo by Mike Egerton/PA
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA

Ahead of the Action

Christophe Simon was positioned in front of the swimmers when he captured this image. Being in front creates visual ambiguity over who was leading – never mind that Le Clos’ head isn’t turned. If you take a few seconds to analyze the photo, you can most likely discern that Phelps was leading at this point, but I would venture to guess that most people don’t undertake such an analysis.

Photo by Christophe Simon/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

Right Position, Right Moment, Maybe Too Wide

Martin Meissner caught this lovely photo of four swimmers, including the eventual silver medalist Masato Sakai in lane 7. There is a certain graphic construction to the image with the rod straight lane lines popping in blue and yellow. And of course, the image foreshadows a preoccupied Le Clos about to be overtaken by Sakai. But it loses some of the drama of the tighter two lane photos. Note the heavy saturation.

Photo by Martin Meissner/AP
Photo by Martin Meissner/AP

Right Moment, Imperfect Position?

Pascal Le Segretain caught one of the moments where Le Clos glanced at Phelps. A really nice composition aided by a fantastic depth-of-field – narrow enough to isolate Phelps and a few drops of water hanging above him, while keeping Le Clos sharp enough to see his face. But because Segretain is seated ahead of the action, the distance between Phelps and Le Clos seems closer than reality. Does it matter? That depends on the weight you give to Phelps’ complete trouncing. Again, note the high saturation and brighter exposure.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The Winner(s)?

David Ramos caught the glance almost directly in front of his position, which (most accurately conveys Phelps’ lead (like Meissner’s image) and the futility of Le Clos’ chase. This particular image has a medium saturation, but much more exposure than the other images. The exposure opens up some of the shadows on the swimmers, but blows some of the highlights on the splash.

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Adam Pretty has a near pool level image that is the tightest of any of the images, giving the moment a certain intimacy. Phelps’ cupping bruises are very visible, and because of the angle, the sheeting water from his back is placed against the dark of Le Clos’ skin heightening the drama. Phelps’ straight-ahead stare is in stark contrast to an almost desperate glance from Le Clos.

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Having dozens of photographers covering the same event from near identical positions gives us an interesting perch to discuss the notion of the decisive moment. As we’ve seen with these examples, some photos are more successful than others, but no single photo can factually represent the decisive moment because as far as the glances were concerned, there was none.

Arguably all of the glancing photos successfully capture the “story” to varying degrees, but it’s unclear that any single photo will end up being as iconic as our memory.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.

In Defense of Steve McCurry

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New York Times Magazine photography critic, Teju Cole, recently penned what could only be construed as a takedown of National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. Cole is no lightweight. Since its launch, his column On Photography has illustrated his deep understanding of photographic history – not to mention he’s an award-winning writer with a PhD in Art History from Columbia.

In “A Too Perfect Picture,” he writes about McCurry’s photos:

Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.

Cole laments that the homogeneity of McCurry’s latest book, India, presents a “worldview” that by settling on “a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.”

He offers instead the work of Ragubhir Singh whose gritty work is a stark contrast to the “boring” work of McCurry, suggesting that somehow the more edgy style is a more authentic view of the world. I object.

First, let’s dismiss the notion that McCurry is staging photos. McCurry is an award-winning photojournalist represented by the heralded Magnum Photos. The notion that he has spent a career setting up scenes to capture his iconic photos is a massive insult to a talented photographer who started his career at a local newspaper before traveling to Pakistan and sneaking into Afghanistan to cover the build up to the Soviet invasion.

I cannot say with absolute certainty that McCurry has never staged a photo, but to start from the presumption of guilt is nearly libelous.

Photo by Steve McCurry
Photo by Steve McCurry

Just because a photo looks staged (i.e. too perfect), doesn’t mean it is. James Nachtwey’s 9/11 photo of a falling WTC behind the cross on the Church of Saint Peter quickly comes to mind as a “too perfect” photo of an incredible tragedy. But that image was a combination of luck (Nachtwey is rarely in the city) and skill (while everyone else was running, he composed an image and hit the shutter at the right moment).

Cole suggests that the perfectness of McCurry’s photos somehow invalidates them – also slyly suggesting that McCurry’s 1 million Instagram followers is proof of the eye candy nature of his images. Cole’s criticism might also imply that the whole oeuvre of National Geographic photography is boring and “too perfect.” But when you’re a highly skilled photographer taking 250,000 images over the course of 3-6 months for an assignment, and then working with a top notch editor, should anyone be surprised that the photos are exceptional?

Singh traveled across India with Lee Friedlander, who Singh commented was constantly looking for the “abject as subject,” an approach which Singh rejected as a western view. Thus Singh developed his own viewpoint that he considered to be more authentic – neither “sugarcoated” nor “abject.”

I would suggest therefore what we really have is three points of view, and one critic’s preference. All three photographers possess tremendous skill, but Cole seems to revel in the street-style photography of Singh, which is perhaps more akin to the street photography of McCurry’s contemporary William Albert Allard, whose personal work in Paris is a tour de force of multiple points of interest and timing.

Cole’s argument isn’t unique. David Shields lamented the “war porn” he found on the cover of The New York Times, which led to the publication of his book War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. Shields argues that because war is messy, the photos representing it shouldn’t be beautiful (i.e. aesthetically pleasing). I find this argument puerile. Photos should look the way the photographer intended them to look. The tragic loss of life doesn’t mean that a photo can’t be well-composed.

Cole’s point of view is also a bit of historical criticism with a contemporary lens. McCurry’s Afghan Girl is one of the most iconic and recognizable images of the 20th century. To suggest in the 21st century that it is somehow a vacuous, staged image is spurious. McCurry helped define a style of photojournalistic portraiture that Cole finds objectionable. Cole’s dislike of McCurry doesn’t diminish his corpus. Having an obvious subject with tack-sharp focus and proper exposure doesn’t mean a photo is devoid of layers of interest and interpretation. Likening McCurry’s photos to a Coldplay video…come on, Teju. If McCurry had spent a career jetsetting into town for a day or two to make a couple of stylized images, then I would agree. But McCurry spends weeks, if not months, in the places he’s photographing.

Still, McCurry doesn’t do himself any favors in dispelling the notion that his images look too perfect given his recent commercial work with Pirelli, Dow and Valentino. But given the insulting decline in pay and job security for photojournalists, one can hardly begrudge McCurry for getting paid.

I was unaware of Singh’s work, and I find it incredible. But McCurry is no slouch either.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.

Photographer, 36, WLTM New Long-Term Partner….

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Although so far the stories of Flickr’s death have been greatly exaggerated, there’s no denying the photo-hosting leviathan is in a difficult situation. At best, it will be taken over by a company content to keep things ticking over and just claim the subscription fees, but I’m guessing that it will change.

I’ve been using Flickr as my online storage solution and a place for sharing and discussion since I became a photographer. Although it’s possible the present situation will blow over and nothing will happen, I need to be prepared for the worst. As well as re-backing up all my images locally to satisfy my OCD, I want to be prepared to move to a new host and new platform. You know, just in case…

Like someone getting back into the dating scene after 40 years of marriage, I’m a little bit rusty when it comes to knowing the latest ins and outs of the photo-sharing world. I’ll confess I had a brief dalliance with 500px a few years ago — nothing serious and we both regret it, though I hear she’s changed a lot since then — but otherwise I’ve been nothing but loyal to Flickr.

Here’s a few of the “must haves” when it comes to finding my new BFF.

1. Must be a photography site: sounds obvious, but I want something dedicated to photography first and foremost. So not Facebook.

2. Plenty of storage: 2TB of free storage was perfect, perhaps even more than I needed but I don’t want to be worrying about capacity.

3. Community: I left 500px when it was just a liking/faving circle-jerk. I hear it now has some form of community? Regardless, one of the biggest perks of Flickr is the ability to join groups and have meaningful discussion. I want somewhere I can interact with others and not just a dump-and-run site.

4. Reasonably priced.

5. GSOH.

6. Inspiring: It must have an easy way to look for examples of great work. “Explore” is hopeless, full of random garbage most days. Other sites prioritize the size of the photographer’s network than the quality of their work. I want to be able to easily see top quality work so I can learn from it.

7. No prejudice against red-heads.

That’s what I need in a nutshell! I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded photographer, so I’m happy to consider anything — even 500px. I’m sure we can agree to forget the rashness of youth.

I hear that these days a profile photo is essential so here’s me on a good day:

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Here’s hoping one of my photographer friends out there can hook me up!


About the author: David Candlish is a photographer from the UK and currently living in Singapore. You can connect with him through his website, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr. This article was also published here.


Image credits: Header illustration based on photo by Jhong Dizon