No Pictures at an Exhibition

My resolution to write more seems to be struggling already. As I have said before, life just gets in the way. I seem to have more commitments nowadays even though I work less. Nevertheless…..
I have spent many hours in recent months listening to podcasts and watching videos about photography. Not the gear stuff. These are about the creative perhaps even philosophical side of photography.

Profiles of photographers can be illuminating and I find some of the very best work or art comes from people who have had their grounding in conflict photography. Examples that spring to mind are Giles Penfound, Don McCullin and Tom Stoddart, who passed away this week. Their images are typically simple but complex. The subject is clear and unambiguous but the photos can be layered. Invariably they shoot in black and white and they capture human emotions at their most raw.

How do we transfer those principles onto the street? Human engagement is a start. But the pace of life here leaves little room for that. You have to be very selective in how you impose your desire for a shot on their schedule. I wanted to photograph a small market shop today. I asked and the owner said yes but it was obvious the small shop was busy and I felt I might be standing literally in the path of his business so after a few frames I just backed away. My photograph isn’t worth his lost business. You instinctively know when you see a special photograph and it seems a long time since I saw one of my own. I keep an album of what I regard as my personal monochrome image picks and a second album which is broader and captures more of my wildlife shots too. There are overlaps but in total they are maybe 100 images. Over a decade. Thats less than one a month. The monochrome album has just 34 shots in it. The best have some sort of direct personal engagement. Some are quirky and a few are what might loosely be called architectural – from brutal to sublime.

When I look at those statistics it makes me wonder why I have 9,000 photos on Flickr. For my own context that is since 2006 and averages therefore 600 pa. But it also means only 2 of those 600 each year pass my own quality test. The rest are making up the numbers. In reality that isn’t how I use Flickr. I use it as an easy reference source for my own natural history records. So many shots are just record shots of items that also go on a citizen science database. However I don’t control that so it is not something I rely on. I also have 2 copies of everything on external hard drives. But I can’t claim that 2 pa is a record to inspire.

One aspect of photography that has been much debated is social media. How we use it, how we become hungry for positive feedback and ‘likes’ to the extent that many people shoot with recognition in mind. FB, IG, Flickr, 500PX etc. they all entice us to post in return for the possibility of an image going viral. For me it doesn’t happen. Which is fine although I do wonder sometimes why certain images get little attention. What ‘sells’? Birds, landscapes, pretty girls, quirky street shots….. but one thing you notice quickly is that many of these images are formulaic. They all look similar. One photographer pundit with ‘only’ 500,000 IG followers claimed that the more likes you get the more it degrades your photography. I think I understand what he is saying. There is one London based photographer who is very popular and produces extremely good images. He is instantly recognisable. His style never changes. Is he progressing as a photographer? Is he a slave to what his audience wants. How would they react if he produced something wildly different? Who knows because I have not seen him try.

Perhaps I am at the other extreme and nobody knows what to expect next so they can’t see a theme to follow. Many photography lovers will be familiar with the work of Fan Ho, who had something of a renaissance in popularity in the years leading up to his death 5 years ago. He continues to be widely admired. Rightly so. A new volume of his work was published this week and in it there is an essay on how his art evolved. It seems he was constantly changing his ideas and style. He describes what he was thinking and why his creativity moved forwards as it did. There seems to have been a great self awareness. And he never went online, never posted to FB, IG or Flickr…… He challenged conventions. He cropped aggressively at times and one of his most famous images was a) posed – his cousin was the model and b) manipulated in the darkroom where a critical shadow was added. Nothing is really new. He entered competitions and was always trying to keep up with the latest trends in photography especially when he went on to judge competitions himself. He judged himself not by getting 100 or 1,000 likes but by winning international awards. A slower, more thoughtful and meaningful process. Perhaps that is the lesson.

Shoot for yourself but know how you want to take your art. Don’t rush. Experiment and be different if you feel that is what you want. I don’t know what percentage of Fan Ho’s work was published and how many negatives never got beyond the contact sheet or negative. Digital makes it all so easy.

Only one image per post is my rule. This is a recent favourite. Taken in Central one evening. Simple, uncluttered and eye-catching. And it isn’t in my top selection.


Thanks for reading.

8 thoughts on “No Pictures at an Exhibition

  1. Very thoughtful post, Andrew. I am sure there are many reasons why we photograph what we do. Interest would hopefully be the most important one. Loving your subject does bring out the best which is why I don’t photograph people. Being antisocial isn’t a good quality for a people photographer. As a generalist nature photographer myself, I change my interest at varying times as well as with the seasons. Fan Ho, by your description I think, appears to have wanted to keep his photography fresh so kept adapting as time passed. While not exactly the same, Ansel Adams was constantly trying different approaches in the darkroom and often printed some of his iconic images in different ways. And as far as your average of “keepers”, AA felt one or two significant images a year was doing well.
    You mentioned the photographer who is easily recognized for his images all having a similar appearance. I guess if it works stick with it but change is good for most of us.
    I also like the image you shared. It’s simple yet dynamic and pleasing to gaze at.

    • Thanks Steve. I had that ‘one or two images a year’ quote in my mind but I had forgotten who said it. I know AA reprinted his negatives in many ways over the years much the same as we rework images as we learn more about the digital darkroom.I think staying fresh is very difficult but a small thing can spark a new idea and that is what I strive for. Thanks for the comment on the photo. Sometimes the colours just fall into place and I felt this was one of them.

  2. Your photo posted here gives me the impression of an abstract. The colors are bright and happy and gives me cause to wonder what objects are attached to the bright lights. Anyhow, your post is thoughtful and since I don’t call myself a photographer I don’t have a strong opinion of what constitutes a great photograph. I just know that I really like monochrome and you have produced some great ones in my little old opinion. I really like some of the street scenes of people and and my favorite remains the one of the dog and cat that you stumbled upon in a Korean airport (I think is was). But I still love all those birds that you once upon time found in the general area of where you and Shirley lived before you moved back to GB.

    • Thank you Yvonne. The lights in the background are actually an advertising panel showing some sort of video and the colours kept changing. This was the best out of a bunch I took. We live in the city now so the birds are still there but we have moved. We need to be close to the grandchildren. I like the street shots because everything will get redeveloped over time. There won’t be records of everything so I try to document some of the more hidden areas. It’s a good hobby. But you do wonderful work with your animals and that is worth much more.

  3. This is one of the 3 shots taken
    The others are there too. Each gives a slightly different perspective. I had the same unease photographing people but I work once a month with a mentor – a professional who does some great street stuff. I have learned how he approaches people and it really works. I have a lot more confidence now. Its about body language and how you project yourself. Why not go to the cafe and have a coffee and chat to them and see how they feel. You can offer them some prints. They don’t have to be big prints or specially printed. I took some prints from the Fotomax store back to some people and they loved them. Cost me a few HK$ each.

    The Ricky Nelson message is good! Thanks Linda.

  4. First, the photo. I really like it. I tend to give photos a title in my mind, if not publicly, and the jewel-like colors and the taxi sign make ‘my’ title inevitable: “Journey Into Jewels.”

    Your musings about photography always are interesting. The account of your visit to the market shop was especially interesting. There’s a hotel/cafe with an interesting history and an even more interesting staff and clientele that I want to photograph for a post, but I haven’t known quite how to approach it. For one thing, photographing people makes me a little uneasy. I suppose that’s mostly inexperience. But finding a way to catch the sense of a people-filled place will be the trick.

    As for social media, the temptation to stick with “what works,” and the intriguing approach of Fan Ho, I couldn’t help thinking of this bit of advice that I remind myself of from time to time.

  5. Very thoughtful. I’m always asking myself “why am I doing this ?” when I have a camera in hand – for birds it’s a hope to get ‘em close and crisp – but it’s more up to the birds than me.

    • That’s the joy of birds though John. Unless they are baited you have no control. Your skill is in the ability to see the photograph and react quickly. Picking out a SBS from 1000s of birds on the mudflats is expertise but you then have no ability to influence where it goes, how close etc. So your creativity is endless. But I do get bored with ospreys carrying fish. It’s been done so many times. I like HK neon signs but they need a different angle. Multi-layered reflections are something that add a new dimension. We are drowning in images. Being different is more and more challenging. But I feel I need to keep trying.

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