Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Apparently I disagree with Ming Thein about everything, but anyways, he's a thoughtful guy. So here's a piece you can read: A question of clarity. Essentially, in it he argues for ultimately realistic photographs. He claims that he's unable to get "through" the photo and see the scene as it was, and wishes that he could. It turns out, surprise surprise, that his equipment approaches this ideal in strict order of price, the more expensive ones doing a better job.

Let us leave aside the obvious fact that Mr. Thein is seeing not his pictures but the price tags of the cameras he uses to make them. He's gearhead, 'nuff said.

Now consider this thing some photographers do: They take photographs of photographs.

Ponder that for a moment.

In reality Mr. Thein is fundamentally wrong. Clarity, transparency, whatever you want to call it, is a property of photographs that comes for free. Most people look at a photograph and they see the things in the frame, not the photograph. The ability to step through the frame into the world depicted is automatic and basic to photography. Everyone does it. Consider their reactions: "what a pretty flower", "wow what an amazing mountain", "you look beautiful". In almost no situations do people comment on the photograph as such.

The guys who photograph photos are struggling against that. They're forcing you to consider the photograph as an object in its own right.

Does this mean that the search for clarity, for ultimately realistic and transparent representations of the scene, the object, whatever, is wrong? No. But it's boring as hell. If I just want to see Berlin as it truly is, I can go to Berlin, and, lo, there it is.

When I see your picture of Berlin I don't want to see Berlin, I want to see how you see Berlin. I don't necessarily need to be aware of the picture as an object in its own right, although that doesn't hurt any when it comes to distancing from me from Literal Berlin. I do want to avoid Literal Berlin, and instead apprehend Your Berlin. A photograph of a photograph of Berlin is one method to give that distance, and make me consider the photograph depicted as a thing which, perhaps, embodies something other than Literal Berlin.

As as side exercise, let us try to reconcile these two things from Mr. Thein's article:

Food doesn’t look that juicy, watches never look that perfectly lustrous and scratch/dust free, and I’ve never seen anybody who wears the clothes or carries the handbag ever look like the models in the ad. Clearly, this is both a cognitive problem and a visual one; our expectations of that reality are defined by the art director and the client because that’s what they want us to think; it’s more attractive and sexier than the real world, making it very easy to ignore the latter.


The interpretative school of photography [...] has almost zero commercial value at all, or only in very special circumstances: imagine if the idea you wanted to convey was a fuzzy happiness after drinking a certain brand of alcohol; an out of focus (but pleasing) image of the bottle would do absolutely nothing for product recognition.

Say whaaat?

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