Saturday, June 25, 2011

Co-starring light

I wish I could remember the exact quote and who said it, but the idea is this:

No matter what we are taking pictures of, we are always taking pictures of light.

Seems obvious when you hear it, but I was looking at a contest on "The Poetry of Shadows" and it got me thinking about that idea. The fact is, most of my street photography isn't really about light. Or rather, light is far less important than the people and the geometry of the shot. I quick survey of some of my recent Paris photos made me realize that it wouldn't hurt to let light play a co-starring role if not the lead more often.

Now, if I happen upon some photos that are all about "the poetry of shadows" then maybe I'll submit something. Not the bike shot above (that I photographed one day walking home in Paris), however, because the judge takes photos of garbage smashed in parking lots (I'm not criticizing, I actually think they look really cool) so I don't think the pretty bike shot would be her cup of tea.

In any case, it might be a good exercise to look through some of your own photos and pretend you are going to submit some to a show about light or shadows. What kind of role do you give light? Cameo appearance? star? supporting actor?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Blue Eiffel...

Before I left Paris, I had to go to Trocadéro to retake some early morning shots from last year (when there was an ugly net on the bottom). This is actually a sort of mistake photo because the blur was unintentional. Late last night I decided to crop it like this and then mess around in Photoshop. Mainly, I experimented by adding blank layers, using the paint bucket tool to dump a color (blue and then white) and then with the color layer on top, I started changing blending modes just for fun.

On the default "normal" blending mode, it will just be a solid color and your photo will be hidden underneath, but when you start changing modes, magical things happen. After that, you can lower the opacity to taste and then merge the layers. Repeat until satisfied or bored. I may have done a curves adjustment layer as well. In the age of all these "hipstamatic" photo apps, I tend to shy away from the trendy effects, but I just like the moody quality of this one anyway.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thumbnail aesthetics: does online display change how you take photos?

screenshot of sample Flickr galleries

Recently I've been thinking about how the size of most photos I view (and post) online ranges from postage stamp to postcard. On most photo sharing sites, you start with a thumbnail view and if the mini-sized photo has enough appeal, you click to see a larger size. It's the digital version of a contact sheet. In the analog version, a photographer prints the negatives on a sheet and then inspects them with a magnifying glass or loupe in order to decide which photos are worth the investment of time and money required to do a larger print.

example of a contact sheet via Wikipedia

If you are printing in a darkroom rather than taking film to Walmart, you can see why it makes sense to make little previews of your photos first.

Now, think about what you do with digital photos. If you take them to a big store like Costco, you put in your memory card (or CD or whatever) and you get a bunch of little thumbnails from which you will order. On your computer, you can also view photos in some form reminiscent of a contact sheet. And then there are all of those online galleries. But why bother if it's no longer about saving paper? A few answers:
  1. You are saving time because you can see a lot more at once
  2. Your computer is saving processing time because it doesn't have to produce a large version of the thumbnail image until you click on it
  3. Your online galleries are saving you time, saving your computer and internet connection time, and saving themselves money
If you submit photos to contests, you will also notice restrictions like "the longest side should be no more than 1000 pixels." All of this downsizing changes how we assess photos.

Take this thumbnail image:

If you were looking at galleries on Flickr or JPG would you click on it? Here's the same image in a size that fits the dimensions of my blog:

Unfortunately, I can't show you what this photo looks like on a big flat screen TV, but here a few quick screenshots on my laptop of details you might notice:

Even if I were to make a print at 20x30 inches, it would still be on the small side. In practical terms, this means that photos like this one are bad choices for online contests. If I were to make some hasty generalizations based on what I see getting noticed on JPG, I would have to conclude that simplicity, clear geometry, saturated colors, and whatever else can grab your attention in a split second is what will get you noticed. 

I uploaded the following photo just last night, knowing that it better suits (no pun intended) the online viewing experience:

Of course, I really like the photo. I like the colors, the contrast, and the fact that there is a "survival of the fittest" story going on as the younger businessman walks to overtake the older one. I like the chaos of a riot and the symmetry of the decisive moment. In art, I like baroque and classicism. But the internet seems to have more definite preferences. You know that saying about how the person who sets the terms for the debate has already won? (yeah, either do I or I would have just quoted it) Well, I think that what I will call "thumbnail aesthetics" has set the terms.

What does this mean for visual culture? How much does the typical viewing size affect what we produce and consume visually? Think about how "thumbnail aesthetics"might influence your taste. Does it affect how you crop? what you photograph? what you choose to post? Is it something you have already considered, and if so, did thinking about it lead to any conclusions?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A quick word about copyright law

I'm typing this on my iPad from Cincinnati. I'll be back to real posts next week. For now, can I just point you to this article about that irritating French guy featured in "Exit through the giftshop" known as Mr Brainwash...

As much as I hate to be on his side, I think the judge's ruling against him in a copyright infringement lawsuit is another disturbing sign of how copyright law is going in the wrong direction.

The judge examines the four factors of the fair use test, including (1) the purpose and character of use; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work, and determines that Guetta can't satisfy his burden in establishing this defense.

(read the whole article and see if you think it was the right decision)

Here's the thing: the guy was not simply selling posters or photos of the original, and if anything, his installation (made with 1,000 records) might have renewed a potential market for the original work. It seems to me that there are a lot of corporate wolves clothed in the "protection of the artist" sheepskin.

The article asks if Andy Warhol would have survived the current legal ruling. Probably not, but things are even worse for street photographers. Between all of the people, the businesses, the car license plates, the advertising, etc ,etc--- we are always walking in a legal minefield. Pretty soon we will just stay inside taking photos of flowers or bowls of fruit instead. But not without carefully removing the "Dole" stickers first.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

First fail in the "epic fail" project: Foto8

One of the advantages of making a last minute submission to a photo show is that you don't have to wait long for the results. Here's what the rejection email looks like:

Dear Photographer,
Thank you for entering the Foto8 Summershow 2011.
Your entry has been carefully considered, however we regret to inform you that your work has not been selected.
We hope that this does not discourage you from entering next year and we remind you that on Friday 8th July there will be a Launch Party for the opening of the exhibition at HOST Gallery, 1 Honduras Street, London, EC1Y 0TH which will run until Friday 12th August.   Details for tickets will be posted on the Foto8 website shortly.  Don’t forget that you are also invited to cast your own vote for the ‘Peoples’ Choice’ Award.
The Summershow 2011 raffle, with amazing prizes to be announced soon, will also be drawn on the night. 
Thank you again for your interest in the Foto8 Summershow 2011.
 If you read my "epic fail" post, you know that I'm going into this looking to accumulate some failures ("fingerposts on the road to achievement" and all that positive spin). That doesn't mean I'm not trying, so I'm always still hoping to fail at failing, but this first rejection was more relief than disappointment. Had I been accepted, I would have had to think up a plan to get me and my prints to London on short notice. And since I just got back from Paris, another transatlantic flight would be a stretch. I plan on documenting the failures, so we'll see if there's anything to be learned from the project.

After perusing last year's shortlisted works (you can see a slideshow on their site, they range from "wow" to "what the-?"), I concluded that I really had no idea what they were looking for. Should I choose something from Paris? Some pretty? Something gritty? What? In the end, I decided to enter three (that's how many you submit) photos from my Utah-based State Street project. After all, Utah culture is more exotic (and certainly less photographed) than Paris in many ways. Here is what I submitted (and we all know how well it turned out):

 "Our fathers' God"

 "Temple City"

"Utah Yard Sale"

I obviously wasn't going for pretty. I still like the photos in the context of my project, but they didn't inspire the judges. Why exactly, I don't know, because the judges don't have time to give feedback on a few thousand entries.

I have submitted the same three photos to a show in California. I'll find out in a week if the results are any different. I leave for Cincinnati in two days, but I'm hoping to do one or two more submissions (with different photos) before leaving.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Communication breakdown

Chartres post office box, 2011

To say that our internet connection has been fickle lately is like calling a prostitute "a bit of a flirt." In rare moments like these (at 2:11 a.m.) when the wifi suddenly works, I leap at the chance to post a photo...anything at this "three strikes you're out" mailbox. Aside from the fact that I am drawn to this sort of (ugly?) modern relic, the photo resonated with my current feelings of estrangement from analog communication as I realize to what degree I have abandoned it. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011


When you have a PhD in literature, you don't have to feel guilty about watching TV. That's what I tell myself. And I'm not talking about Masterpiece Theater or PBS Newshour. No, I'm a sucker for competition-based reality shows like Survivor, American Idol, and So You Think You Can Dance. Food Network stuff isn't bad either, although ever since a friend showed me the South Park food porn episode (watch at your own risk) I can't help but hear double entendres in every commentary.

This last season of Idol, sans Simon, led to kinder remarks from the judges. If you happen to be a superstar and you're asked to judge one of these shows, here's a go-to tactic for humanizing and endearing yourself to viewers and contestants alike: talk about your failures. Oh, if you only knew how many times I failed before.... etc. etc. Sounds trite if you're in a cynical mood, but it can be inspiring if you want some positive reinforcement. But rather than quote Jennifer Lopez, let's look at what a google search for failure quotes brings up (and then I'll get to my point). Trite and annoying or deep and inspiring? You be the judge:
  • "The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure." (Sven Goran Eriksson)
  • "Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement." (C.S. Lewis)
  • "Failure is the tuition you pay for success." (Walter Brunell)
  • "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."(Woody Allen)
  • "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Samuel Beckett) 
 There are pages and pages of these.
So why the "epic fail" post? Did I just endure some kind of epic failure? 
No. That's the point. I haven't been doing enough things that lead to letters of rejection.

This is where the "epic fail" project comes into play. If my current photography dreams were to come true then I would 1. get my photography published in some form (my blog doesn't count)  2. get shown in a gallery somewhere and 3. hmmm. I'd be happy with 1 and 2 for now. Other than the ABC Paris project, I've never even attempted publication. And with that one, I think I sent the book to about 5 publishers, made it to the owner of one company, failed, decided to abandon the project as a book and start selling prints instead, got featured on some big design blogs, signed a four-year contract with a licensing agency (super slow process, btw) and that's it. 

During Christmas break, I got the idea I would work on publishing, so I wrote a story on JPG, which got"story of the week" for week 1 of the new year, but didn't make it into the physical magazine, which was my goal. So then my interest in JPG began to fade. I'm a horrible horrible example of perseverance. It's worse than saying "If at first you don't succeed, then stop and do something else." It's more like "If at first you don't get exactly what you want..."

The new plan to overcome that bad habit: EPIC FAIL. It's time to start putting some "finger posts" (huh? fingerposts?) on the "road to achievement." I'm aiming to get some failures, and I'm going to start documenting the attempts as I go. I won't deny that to fail at failing would be the best possible outcome, but maybe that kind of failure only comes after the story gets epic.