hell is other people: how photography can be difficult for a photographer

the current internet boom and the way that it is being carved — like apps and micro social networks — still leaves a general trend with insidious persistency: the democratization of certain art forms, and the talents that are lost.

the starting premise has to be that at any time, true talent is rare. this notion would not have been difficult to accept a few decades ago, and could have eroded with time, and now fully distorted under the bubbles of the internet. however, if thirty years ago it was easy to accept that 3.17% of the population was talented at photography, then nothing has changed to increase that rarity. there is no technology that can (arguably) affect an innate talent. yes, technology has increased the number of people that can be competent at a craft, but that is not the same as being... well, creative within that craft. « Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere » said Albert Einstein, and in creativity, we are looking for the (rare) presence of imagination. at the same time, we can welcome the increase availability of the "logician" that can execute the craft.

a casual perusal of social networks demonstrates that there is a given currency within a site to draw attention. in the case of photography, we can point to flickr, Instagram or 500px as sites where a photograph is the social currency for attention. in some instances, the photograph is not a means to pursue art, and in other cases, the originator does pursue a form of art to be validated by the social interaction. unlike "old media", there is no curator to filter the art. this can be viewed as a freedom gained by the internet, but Andrew Keen argues otherwise [ link to YouTube interview]:

« ... problem with democratization: it's so soft, so ordinary, so lacking in innovation, so unshocking. [...] so the democratization ethos of the internet is of ordinariness... of boredom... of garbage... of shit. »
Andrew Keen

and in this context, Moby expands with [ link to YouTube interview ] the insidious democracy offered by the internet :

« sacrificing rare creativity that has depth for ubiquitous creativity that's very shallow »

in no instance do they offer a solution, and a solution would not be easy to forment, as in the assertion from Andrew Keen that we need the curator of the pre-internet age. and thus, for the photographer with a talent that could have been brought to prominence in the old system, it is now to be lost in a sea of shit.

Jörg M. Colberg offers the following modification on a Thomas Mann quote about writers:

« a photographer is a person for whom photographing is more difficult than it is for other people »

in which it means to Mr. Colberg that: « Photographers, stop whining about Instagram or the "flood of images." It's hard to be a photographer not because of any of that. It's because what it means being a photographer. » and there is a point to this: a photographer should be so busy with their quest and fostering of their rare talent, that what happens on the internet should not play into their concern with their pursuit.

while the quote is quite fundamental to the pursuits of a photographer, there is the problem for those people that pursue photography as profession to highlight their talent: there is a sea of shit still happening, with a complacent/vapid mass which lends credence to the idea that likes/faves/followers correlate with talent.

thus, we are still left with Jean-Paul Sartre's notion that "hell is other people." or should we modify it too for the photographer world?

personally, I am lucky to be in a position where photography is a tool for an inner quest, which does not rely on the externals of the past — seeking representation — or the present: navigating a vapid sea of complacency and quid pro quo magnification via passive-aggressiveness "social actions." however, this trend is one that piques my interest as many other ways that the masses trivialize what is good photography to maximize the inclusion of a greater number of people under some misperception that there is more talent available under the guises of technological advances.

"pontificators of grandeur**" are relegated to blogging, or curating, but with a lesser effect due to a "tl;dr" audience that processes too much information. on the other hand, there does not seem to be a means to coalesce those people that can educate, and properly curate bodies of work, to offer a new means of utilizing the internet to sustain the discovery of talent within photography. instead, there are the bubbles of the "internet photography" and the "gallery photographer." the latter seem to use the internet solely as a means of advertising, rather than a tool to further the foundations of its pursuits.

** this label came to mind in a snark-reply to one of the famous internet "photographers", and I am still fond of the term: it is endearing in some ways.

[ link ] a nice discussion has happened on this article on facebook (public post)

things behind the sun: Saul Leiter's "mono no aware" of colors

the seminal song by Nick Drake, with lyrics not relevant to the life of Saul Leiter, has a title which is one of the most wonderful way to label what is bigger than life to me.

from  The Telegraph  UK

from The Telegraph UK

I suppose the term for Saul Leiter is the rarer form of "a photographer's photographer." like few in the field, there is also the qualification of a photographer as a whole person, and not just a collector of scenes. 

« I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success. My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window. »
— Saul Leiter

this could be assessed from his body of work, principally the work collected for his breakthrough book Early Color (2008). the quietness of his life, and the active evasiveness of fame. in a way, a contradiction of life is that of how well we can observe, and how loud we can be... at the same time. while he deserved immediate recognition and "fame" (whatever form that would have been) since his work in the 50s, one can only be grateful that he chose the way to live that he did.

in a lack of education about photography's many aspect, I came away impressed when discovering Paul Strand's "Wall Street" (1915) photo in the second half of the last decade  — well into my photographic journey. Strand's take on photography was one rang true to the way I saw the interaction of architecture and life. soon after, Paul Strand became a photographer to discover. subsequently, it was Bill Brandt's portrait of Francis Bacon that began to inform me how to have an alternative look at the pursuit of portraits, which would have to wait a few years.

then, there was Early Color. this was not about a single image, but so many things at once that it was overwhelming. there was the form that so impressed me about Paul Strand. there was the portraiture, more in a "street photography" sense, that really came to enhance the impression of Brandt's approach. then there was the color... well, nobody had showed me a way.  yes, there is Ernst Haas work, but Saul Leiter's approach to color had an awareness and sensibility unlike others. this also extends to the lesser discussed sense of composition, which is as strong as any other photographer.

in some ways, Saul Leiter, I could now describe, offers a mono no aware quality to the presentation of color: "the pathos of colored things". 

the elusiveness of this talent must certainly be among the things behind the sun.

Don't be shy you learn to fly
and see the sun when the day is done
if only you see

— Nick Drake, "Things Behind The Sun"

something about Mr. Leiter's patience for life let him see... and feel.


[ link ] Nick Drake "Things Behind The Sun"
[ link ] "Appreciation | At 89, a Pioneering Photographer Finally Gets His Due" — NY Times
[ link ] "Utata's Sunday Salon — Saul Leiter" by Greg Fallis.
[ link ] "Saul Leiter's Retrospective Opens in London" — Telegraph UK
[ link ] "A Casual Conversation with Saul Leither" — Time
[ link ] "The Colour of Genius: Saul Leiter" — Faded and Blurred

[ link ] obit at The Guardian by Sean O'Hagan
[ link ] obit at The New York Times
link ] "POSTSCRIPT: SAUL LEITER (1923-2013)" — the New Yorker
link ] "Photographer Saul Leiter Has Died" — British Journal of Photography 

PS looking at Early Color for the first time is not to dissimilar to this scene from Amadeus


the accidental book buyer in Paris

there are surely more places to not wanting to be an accidental book buyer, and surely this is hardly an odd chance. this time I met Frank Horvat by chance.

back in May, I was walking by the usual places — I am not an accidental tourist, but just one not very adventurous by must-see standards — and came to a notice at the Tachen store in the 6th Arrondissement that Sebastião Salgado was going to be signing his latest book at the store. by chance, this was the same day I returned to Paris from elsewhere, and then return to San Francisco a couple of days after. I had never bought a bought at a signing before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to do so. there is not much interest in autograph either, but the "why not" takes over. 

on the last day of this recent trip, the temperature was a little warmer, and no rain, so a walk to Jardin du Luxembourg was required for yet-more-photographs of a tree "hedge". I soon remember that I wanted to stop by Le Chambre Claire photobooks store, and check it out. magnificent store, and discovered the book by Sergio Larrain, who I never heard about — which is the most common instance. unfortunately, his work was not part of the Latin America exhibit at Fondation Cartier, but the person at the store told me that it was an exhibit at Fondation Cartier-Bresson. argh, I did not have the time. got the book anyway.

there was an announcement for a signing later in the day by Frank Horvat. ah, yes, I should say that I never heard of him either. see the pattern? I glanced at a copy of the Pochet edition, and thought it was interesting, so it was good to plan to pick up the purchased book while Mr. Horvat would be at the store.

by  Frank   Horvat

by Frank Horvat

on returning to the store, I took a careful look at his latest book La Maison aud Quinze Clefs, and thought it was worth owning. I still knew nothing of the man... nor that, like my recent interest in photographers, he came through the ranks of fashion photography. his disposition was also like that of Saul Leiter: calm and understated. I like that very much in a photographer, and it translates into the photographs that I like. I can relate to the quote:

« photography is the art of not pushing the button »

the accidental book buying is also accompanied by the coincidence of having the same fountain pen to get the books signed. that pen is getting more expensive with time.



• La Chambre Claire [ http://www.yelp.com/biz/la-chambre-claire-paris ]
• Frank Horvat [ http://www.gallery51.com/index.php?navigatieid=9&fotograafid=59 ]

the rarity of a photographer: Deborah Tuberville

« that camera must take nice photos »

when a camera plus lens looks to have some heft, or just be big,  then it seems to solicit this unasked assessment of what it can do. the retort may be along the lines of « I quite enjoyed your meal, and the oven makes very delicious dishes. »

despite all the snark, retort, and stares one can give to such a silly comment, there are instances where the retort should be « yes, it does, and it liberates me to take photos that you can't with it ». ouch. ok, save that for some rather unsavory characters.

for other people with a genuine interest in what is being photographed, at that moment or later, then perhaps this anecdote from Deborah Turbeville can make photographers think of another way to interpret the comment: 

« She began taking photographs on her own in the 1960s, and in 1966, having had no previous instruction, enrolled in a six-month workshop taught by the photographer Richard Avedon and the art director Marvin Israel.
“If it hadn’t been for the two of them, I wouldn’t have taken my photography seriously,” Ms. Turbeville told The Times Magazine in 1981. “It was so out of focus and terrible. The first evening in class, they held up pictures. They said, ‘It isn’t important to have technique, but you must have an idea or inspiration, and we feel the only one who has is this person who’s never taken a photograph before.’ I became very unpopular in the class.” »
New York Times, Obituary [ link ]

this anecdote clearly highlights something that was true before the democratization of photography in the last decade: the rarity of the photographer.

while digital cameras, and relevant software, have further democratized the ability to take competent photographs under most normal conditions by a greater number of people, the talent of a photographer is a gift that has not changed because of any advancements in technology. technology does not change the percentage of people that has a given talent/gift, and that is a simple fact that seems to be trivialized/forgotten about photography — along with so many other trivializations of photography, in contrast to other art forms.

what has changed is that such a talented photographer can, at an earlier stage, realize their potential, and when confronted with the the puzzling statement, give a very sensible answer that highlights a talent:

« yes, it takes wonderful photos, and with great effort by me,
and it can take a wonderful photo of an idea. 

and this was the case for Deborah Turbeville.

she took photos such as... 


via  Agonistica  [  link  ] 

via Agonistica [ link

and, other styles now rather more commonly found than at their time of their publications.  her approach to stressing the photograph's negative is now much more readily done with software.

via  Agonistica  [  link  ]

via Agonistica [ link ]

mobile photography: “don’t you worry, I will photograph my way out”

the quote is from Harry Callahan, and it is in the context of working within limitations. in his case,

« the diminution of the silver content in the paper made for, in most peoples’ mind, less beautiful prints — the darks just weren’t there. knowing this, Harry started to making pictures that would exploit the diminished values of the papers commonly available. [ ... ] the point is that when there were limitations, Harry worked right through them. as he said, “don’t you worry, I’ll photograph my way out.” » — Peter MacGill. [1]

in terms of searching for creativity, photographers may seek limitations as a way to notice scenes differently, and thus, promoting a direction to take from their current status: either drastic, or ever so subtle. one can think of instant film as a limiting medium: if one considers the aspect ratio, and colour shifts inherent in instant film, and in some cases the overall softness.

a modern take on these limitations is “phoneography”. by restricting the recording and processing to be within a phone, and a (false) sense of urgency to share a photo, then phoneography definitely can alter a photographer’s way of looking at scenes or moments. while digital, there are the limitations of lighting, dynamic range, long depth of field, and a fixed (typically) 28mm-e focal length. in a way, the phone became one “complete camera,” the way that Polaroid was, and unlike an SLR that requires the uploading of photos to a computer for processing. other advantages for finer work presentation are available with this SLR approach.

while on a recent trip, the narrow streets and the expansive canvas of what I seeing — regardless of camera — translated into an increased frustration with the phone’s camera. the lines were distorted, as the usual way of working with a square-frame restriction was not a good aspect ratio, and working with the more sensible (for these photographs) 16:9 aspect ratio meant that the lines were very distorted. 

the “style” to be pressed upon all that I was seeing was a sense of panels, either geometrically flat, or “3D”. the phone camera became woefully inept at acquiring the proper detail and angles I was seeking. 

however, I still wanted to retain the small-camera size/weight — as I could return later with other cameras to retake the photos — and I wanted to get to the envisioned result with the least amount of hassle. for this, it was still very much appealing to process the photos with the phone and/or tablet. also, the vast number of apps for processing photos was pretty much reduced to two: Snapseed and VSCOcam.

that’s it: I photographed my way out... to what mobile photography should be for me. photograph with a compact — which I had never purchased before — and a sensible speed to sharing results online. though more importantly, a quick route to results that help me consider a more “serious” return to the scene for re-shooting. (it must be said that, by the very nature of the city's layout, and other factors, it was impossible to find my way back to some locations, or they had an ephemeral element to them.)

consequently, two series (so far) stemmed from this pursuit/rework. mainly, the Lines of Japan, which has a result that would have never been possible (for me) from a camera phone like this first photo below...

kyoto, japan

kyoto, japan

and night photography, which otherwise would be riddled with bad results from a camera phone, such as the second photo below. this second photograph is based on a pre-conceived observation that was borne by the constraints of camera phones: New Topographics, in particular, the work from Lewis Baltz [ link ]. these other photos are collected in an on-going project called Topographies of Japan.

Gion District, Kyoto, Japan

Gion District, Kyoto, Japan

another consequence is a shift from 1:1 aspect ratio with camera phones to a predominant 16:9 with this new style of mobile photography.


[1] Harry Callahan Retrospective, Kehrer Verlag, 2013, pg. 13. 
[2] Lines in Japan, mobile photography by Kodiak Xyza [ link to project ]
[3] Topographies of Japan, mobile photography by Kodiak Xyza [ link to project ]

[4] New Topographics photos from Lewis Baltz [ link to image web search ]


a photographer: Kosuke Okahara

I have great difficulties with so-called "street photography" because, instead of a celebration of the human moment, there is a tendency to feature a sort of freakishness that will bring eyeballs through loudness. to make matters worse, there is an excessive processing to bring out "features" — more so of homeless or drug addicts. I always ask, why not take photos of homeless as Irving Penn would?

averting the eye toward street photography is not perfect, and I glad because today I saw the compelling work of Kosuke Okahara in his project about ex-leprosy patients in China.  in his project Vanishing Existence - 2007, he manages to achieve what I can so readily enjoy about the balance of photographing humanity: leaving it as human.

photography by Kosuke Okahara (all rights reserved)

photography by Kosuke Okahara (all rights reserved)

 yes, photography is about showing us... and capturing our eye, and imagination towards a frame. to do this, reality may be subverted some, and the photographer controls the impression. a careful balance between glamour, and reality. after all, that is what us humans can demand of a photograph to get our attention.

to me Mr. Okahara achieves it in this series: a possibility of going between the reality of the photographs, the plight of the people he has photographed, and making compelling photography.  all the while, we don't have to be battered by the methods used to achieve such photographic presentation.


photography by Kosuke Okahara (all rights reserved)

photography by Kosuke Okahara (all rights reserved)


Kosuke Okahara's website [ link
Vanishing Existence slideshow [ link ]


you can see a lot by looking: ideas via Saul Leiter

actually, it takes more than what Yogi Berra said, and these words from Saul Leiter may give a hint as to what else is required:

« “I arrived at a way of looking and photographing that was, if I may say so, personal. It was a beginning of a certain kind of photography for me, [...] and my mother was kind enough to keep me afloat. My father would have allowed me to sink.[...] But my own view was that you have things for a while, and then they go off and they live in another place. They deserve to have another home.” (laughs) » [ link ]

thus, you can see a lot by looking and see beyond if letting it be  personal.

as we dive into photography, we may (naturally) be concerned with finding “the shot”, until we realize that the “the shot” can be accidental, and that anyone can get it. this is the equivalent of being trapped in a “one hit wonder” type of syndrome. soon after we may drift into seeking a style, but then, as confronted and dissected in Mike Johnston’s Element of Style [ link ], one can realize that style is not always necessary. “the shot” and having a style are calling cards... but a calling card to what exactly?

Saul Leiter seem to have hit on his stride by realizing that photographing is personal. if one can dare to do so, because if it is personal, then other people’s criticism may also feel personal. however, this is only sensitive because we grant a talent for seeing to whomever offers a criticism. where was that most critical (and rare!) of talents given so easily to so many? they are offering an opinion bathed in their bias and understanding of what a photograph should do to them. rare is the person that tries, and never can achieve, seeing what the photographer intended. is this a copout? hardly. it does not call for ignoring what others say, just to digest it properly, which requires even more effort on the part of the photographer.

Saul Leiter’s photographs are the most important that I have yet encountered. perhaps contradictorily, I think that dwelling in that admiration, while awesome of itself, is to miss the greater point of his work: what circumstances produced such work, and how it may relate to something that is already natural within my approach to life/photography. thus I can “see” his photos for their fantastic realization of who he is, but then to “look” at his photos for a greater significance: that is, in the context of learning from someone about photography to hasten the learning process in the areas of the persona that may overlap with his ideas.

this way to look at his photographs is perhaps summarized in one of Leiter’s greatest accolade, which he cannot provide through a Q&A on his views:

« Max Kozloff said to me one day, ‘You’re not really a photographer. You do photography, but you do it for your own purposes – your purposes are not the same as others’. I’m not quite sure what he meant, but I like that. I like the way he put it.” »  [ link ]

photography, at its best, is personal... and let others figure out what they see. also, like Yogi Berra said:

« nobody goes there anymore. it’s too crowded. »

and as field of photography gets very crowded, one way to keep going there with no worries is to go personal, instead of going to see what everyone else is doing.


• for a brief history, Greg Fallis’ essay is an excellent starting point. [ link ]
• an excellent selection of his photographs at Gallery 51 [ link ]