Saturday, September 26, 2015

I Have Been Asked ...

I've been asked now, multiple times, why I "have it in" for Ming Thein.

The short answer is that I don't. A longer answer is given here. Ultimately, I get asked about Mr. Thein but not about Mr. Newhall because Beaumont Newhall doesn't have many fans on the internet with a personal investment in his ideas. Also, Mr. Newhall, being dead, isn't continuing to say dumb wrong-headed stuff, and finally Newhall doesn't use a carefully constructed personal narrative as an important part of his authority.

So my remarks on the gentlemen are different in shape and flavor, as are my remarks on the subject of several other fellows I think have infested our world with bad ideas.

But ultimately, it comes down to this:

People say stuff. Some of it is right, some is wrong, some is clever and some is dumb. There are people with outsized influence. Beaumont Newhall managed, somehow, to become the authority on the history of photography, and he managed to become, to some degree, the sole authority on who matters and who does not in that history. And he's wrong on several counts. Ming Thein has become positioned as an authority on several technical matters, and he's wrong about some of them. Michael Reichmann, Keven Raber, Lloyd Chambers, the list goes on.

It's not that any of these chaps are evil. They're human. Some of their ideas are better than others. Some of their ideas are really just prejudices dressed up as facts. Same as it ever was. I'm the same way.

But the influencers, these people with outsized weight in the eyes of the world, need to be questioned. When an influencer says something dumb, it is important that someone point it out. More precisely, when we think that something an influencer said is dumb (accepting that we might be the wrong one) we should point it out. Let the cage-match of ideas begin, and the best ideas win. The point is not that I am right and Reichmann is wrong. The point is that we should be examining these things critically. It is virtually the definition of an influencer that their ideas don't get examined critically, and this we need to fight against, always, in all walks of life.

You would think that the influential writers of today, working in media where this critical examination could take place in situ might allow it, but as a general rule, they do not. These people are, generally, not very interested in being examined. They're selling themselves, they're selling products, they're managing their brands. And so, they choose to interpret disagreement as personal attack, and then shut it down on that basis. I can think of at least two different examples off the top of my head where I have personal experience of this. I assume it's nearly universal. The cage match of ideas must happen, therefore, elsewhere.

Photography, especially the pedagogy of photography, is simply awash in stupid shit influential people and publications have trotted out. If only a few more people had stood up in the 1970s and said "this rule of thirds thing is stupid and wrong" then we wouldn't have to deal with it today, and the pictures on flickr would be measurably better than they are. A billion pictures have been damaged by a piece of shit that "Popular Mechanics" trotted out in 1970.

Down with the Man. Fight the Power.

But it is kind of fun to pick on Ming, gotta admit it.


  1. One cannot fight denial with rational arguments and fans of Ming Thein and al. are in denial.

    I have been reading what you wrote here and on the luminous landscape forums lately and the responses it attracted and I think I finally found out what the problem is with photography in internet forums and blogs. You are turning around the source of the problem in your latest posts, but not exactly nailing it down. I think the real problem is the following.

    Digital photography forums fans are in the same state that high-end hifi (audio) fans were 20 years ago. At the time, your typical hifi setup was imperfect and people could immediately hear the imperfections. So the pursuit was to get a system which minimised the imperfections and people competed on that. The untold idea was that the "perfect" system would actually reproduce the physical sound field of a musical performance. If you talk to Hifi fans (I do on a regular basis, long story), they actually believe that their system sound can be "just the same" as a concert with real instruments.

    Except that it cannot. A stereo system is tailored to the peculiarities of the human hearing system. For example, it has two speakers because we have two ears. The sound field is nothing like what happens in a concert hall. It may sound similar to our ears in some limited cases, but that is the best we can do.

    The same is true for photography. A photograph is nothing like reality. It is flat. The colours are tailored to the limitation of human trichromic vision. A photograph of an object looks nothing like the real object to measuring instruments, but in the right conditions it may indeed look close enough to our eyes that we may be fooled into thinking that it looks very similar indeed.

    Now, the untold promise of internet photo forums and blog is that, given enough money and effort, a photographer can reproduce reality. For example, this is what is meant by concepts like “colour calibration”: that we can reproduce colours accurately. I posted something about chlorophyll (the plant pigment) in a thread you participated to in the cafe section of luminous landscape to that effect. I am awaiting the answers from the crowd. I expect the crowd not to be happy, because the message attacks one of their central beliefs: that photographs reproduce reality.

    (continued in next post, as I reached the limit for this post)

  2. (continued from previous post)

    This is the untold promise of Ming Thein and al. With enough lens sharpness, dynamic range, colour calibration, perfect prints, etc… we will get a copy of reality. The apparatus is still imperfect (and indeed it is, measured lens sharpness is less than ideal, dynamic range is less than the one of the scene, colour is off, prints are imperfect), we just have to minimise the imperfections. Except that photography cannot do that, so all who fall for that trap are in denial. And you can write what you want in your blog or on forums, it will not change a thing because denial does not respond to logic. Besides, the internet gurus are doing a very good business (as you proved by studying the economics of workshops in another post), so they have an incentive to switch you down.

    I have seen that in high end audio 30 years ago: people with bright, yet unconventional ideas were shut down by the gurus and the crowed applauded. It was not pretty.

    And we can probably predict what will happen to photography from what happened to high end audio. High end audio has become largely irrelevant. I visit the few trade fairs for this market regularly and I have seen a continuous downward trend. You can still buy a stereo system, of course, but “audiophiles” are a much, much smaller crowd than what they once were. And the market has moved to cinema sound (and even that is in crisis). At the same time, the position of the few remaining “audiophiles” have become even more radical. I think that “high end photography” on the internet will be the same: you will still be able to buy high end cameras and lenses, but the market will become much smaller. We actually see the first signs of this downward trend: camera sales are down. Forum attendance is down (I read that dpreview has half the traffic that it had in 2006). The remaining members have become more radical.

    For me, it will probably mean that I will have to find a different hobby. But I do not know which one.

    (I am posting as Anonymous, because I do not have any of the other suggested accounts.)

    1. That is a very interesting analysis and, I think, spot on in many ways.

      The analogy with audiophiles is precise. If I have a quibble, it is that I think audiophiles and photographers have a wider span of fuzzy headed beliefs than merely reproducing reality.

      But the search for ultimate perfection at any cost is identical. The nonsense about human perception is identical.

      For a refreshing take, read Daniel Milnor. His site is at, or follow the link from my Other Blogs and Things page.

  3. No comment or analysis, except that I enjoy reading divergent, thoughtful, perceptions that show a hint of self-awareness. Sometimes just reading is enough.