What to photograph?

Here’s a thought: it’s not about what you photograph, it’s about how you photograph.

We put so much emphasis on what is “worthy” to shoot and what’s not. We often make a huge deal about taking pictures as if we would have something to lose if we take too many photos or photos of “unworthy” things.

Or perhaps, it’s that we want to not look weird by taking photos of random things.

But we should photograph everything that even slightly draws our attention. Why? Why not!

There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.

When I take pictures of random things, I don’t worry about if any of them is going to be decent enough – I don’t care.

I photograph them because they look interesting and because it’s a practice. It’s an exercise to practice my composition – and e.g., mannequins are perfect for that although you can also very well practice composition on trees, street signs, buildings – virtually on anything basically.

I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.

Garry Winogrand

So be creative, walk around in your room or office and take pictures of the mundane “boring” things and try to make aesthetically good photographs. Simplify the scene, create ambiguity. It’s all just a practice. Do it for fun without any outcome in mind.

KRISTJAN

The worth of pictures

Everyone has heard the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It implies the notion that in some cases you can simply show the picture without the need to say anything about it – as no amount of words could possibly convey the essence of the image than the image itself.

For me, this notion sometimes doesn’t make any sense.

I was recently in a photography event where a well-established photographer was supposed to give a talk. I was hoping to hear her talk about her work, but she didn’t. She chose to show her photos on the slides while reading an essay off the paper.

Nothing wrong about this approach, but I don’t think it’s the reason people come to these kinds of events.

If you’re going to read something off the paper, you might save everyone the time by sending the pdf of slides and the text by e-mail.

It’s not even about the content – people want to see you, hear your ideas, your view, your passion, your stories – your authenticity.

And if you’re an artist, then more than anything, they want to learn about your work. That’s what they came to see you after all.

“When shown an object, or given a food, or shown a face, people’s assessment of it – how much they like it, how valuable it is – is deeply affected by what you tell them about it.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Kleon brings a great example of a couple of guys who, in order to prove the point and to show how powerful stories attached to objects can be, set out to do an experiment.

Basically, they bought a “bunch of insignificant objects” from flea markets, yard sales and thrift stores for an average of $1.25 apiece. They hired writers to invent a “story” for these items. Then they went to eBay to sell these items that they bought for $128.74.

How much did the make? $3.612.51. Now, granted, they probably had to pay for the writers, but that’s not the point – that you can make a huge profit. The point is that you can drastically change the value of – probably everything – by talking about it.

“Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

So, no, your pictures don’t talk for themselves. That’s your job. Everything is your – as the creator’s – job. You create it; you show it; you talk about it and you market it.

What’s is especially cool about photographs, is that you can tell almost any story you want. It doesn’t matter. As Errol Morris has said: “To fake a photograph, all you need to do is change the caption.”

Now, I personally don’t like to caption my photos with anything more than a place and a date. I think if we describe the photo, we ruin the ambiguity and therefore the story the viewer might make up.

This does not contradict the previous as presenting your work and talking about it are separate things. One is the work itself in its whole – including the format, caption and everything else; another thing is talking about the work – how it was made, what I think about it, etc.

Besides, I personally love to make up my own story about the work and then find out more about it by reading on it.

Is it not interesting to first read “Farewell to Arms” and then find out that Hemingway rewrote the ending 39 times before he was satisfied – and then read the different endings? Or to read about how some of the world-famous photos were made and look at all the failed frames?

KRISTJAN

Art x self-development

I hope you’re all having a great day so far.

Some of you may be wondering why I write about topics such as productivity or about the importance of focus while at the same time, I do articles on photography and art. “Aren’t they completely different?,” you may ask.

The simple answer is this: because I like to write about things I’m passionate about.

The more complex answer, however, is that at the end of the day it’s not just about art or just about photography or technicalities. It’s about us. It’s about you.

For me personally, I want to become a better version of myself. I’m obsessed with it. It doesn’t really make sense to improve oneself in the field of let’s say photography while not giving a fuck about anything else.

Here’s why I think so.

It’s the principle of input=output. I’ve already written about it, but I’ll do it again.

I’m positive that our input greatly affects our output. The best example is the food we eat. The food contains nutrients, and these nutrients are used by our body, including our brain. If the food is low quality, the nutrients are low quality or insufficient, and therefore the brain can’t work at its peak performance.

However, our thoughts and connections are formed in the brain, and the efficiency, speed, and quality are determined by the nutrients – the fuel.

I don’t think anyone would argue that if you only eat hamburgers and drink sugary drinks, you will thrive in art – on any other field in fact. Just as we can’t thrive in terms of athletic ability if we don’t eat properly, our mind is unable to perform properly with bad nutrients.

This same principle applies to not only the food we eat but the books we read, the movies we watch, how we spend our time in general.

In order to become a better artist at a certain art form e.g., photography, it’s necessary to improve ourselves in general. In other words, I think learning about e.g., psychology or being able to focus better helps us become a better artist just as much as learning about color theory or composition. It’s hitting the same target from different angles.

So I encourage you to read, watch, and listen about everything: marketing, history, politics, languages, self-help, psychology, art, composition …

In the end, it’s all connected because all of that will shape you as a human being (input) which in turn has an impact on your output (art), even if we can’t see the connection at the time being.

KRISTJAN

8 important insights Marc Riboud can teach you about photography

Intro

Marc Riboud (1923 – 2016) was a French photographer. He joined Magnum in the fifties and left the agency in 1979.

“We learned that the magazine was doing a story on the best and worst of British cities and Leeds was the only city left to do. Capa said, ‘Perfect, give him Leeds. It is the dullest city in England and he comes from Lyons, the dullest city in France. He is the perfect choice for the story!’”

Marc Riboud, Magnum Stories

To best characterize Marc Riboud would be to use the word “shy.” At least this is the word he used a lot to describe himself.

He was definitely more of an introspective photographer who fought for justice (he was a member of the French resistance) and was against staging and “cheating” in photography. He liked to stroll and take long walks. His favorite places to photograph according to him were streets, villages, and countrysides. In a sense, you could call him a romantic photographer.

Interestingly enough, he wasn’t afraid to get close to his subjects. Or maybe he was, but he did it anyway. One of the iconic pictures of photography history clearly proves that.

Marc Riboud, 1967

This photograph shows the juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful which he captured in many of his other photographs as well.

Even though his photos have very strong composition, he was criticized for being a bad storyteller. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson told that to Marc.

Indeed, according to Marc Riboud, he did not like the story aspect of photography and eventually became too independent to be a story photographer and left Magnum.

Below are some of the interesting ideas Marc Riboud had about photography.

A photo is a surprise

“Why dissect and comment a process that is essentially a spontaneous reaction to a surprise? This can’t be analysed …”

Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

For Marc Riboud photography is a reaction to a surprise, and good photographs come from being surprised. Perhaps this was also the reason he did not like doing stories as stories mean planning and you can’t plan being surprised.

This is an interesting point of view of photography. Yet, it makes sense. We photograph what draws our attention and curiosity. For a nature photographer, nature offers surprises, and therefore he photographs these events. For him and other similar minded people, these surprises make sense. For a fashion photographer, they might not. And the other way around.

Marc Riboud, 1982

The cat in the picture above is a surprise, and according to Riboud, if you remove the cat, the photo doesn’t work anymore. That’s the surprise – not the naked woman in the mirror.

Marc Riboud, 1969

The photo above was taken in Vietnam in 1969. According to Riboud, he was probably the first European these kids had ever seen.

“There was a fashion, for a while, of becoming a miner to photograph miners, or a muslim to photograph muslims, etc. I don’t believe in this, because if you become like the other, the surprise is gone. You better remain yourself and let yourself be surprised.”

Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This photo clearly portrays a surprise and curiosity. This photo demonstrates that there’s no need to hide yourself as a photographer. Many street photographers try to stay invisible. Yet, if you’re invisible, you miss out on a lot of great pictures. The surprise by you and by your subject is what makes the photo often interesting. No need to blend in.

Be a curious wanderer scrutinizing details

He said that he liked to constantly wander around, scrutinizing details that might have been insignificant to others.

Marc Riboud, 1965

I think this is an essential aspect of being a good photographer. To be interested in details others don’t see.

Regarding the image above – according to Riboud, it’s the curves that make the photo – not the windows by themselves. This is a seemingly insignificant detail to many, but I guess this is also the reason Riboud was a master of photography.

A picture can’t be trusted

“The target of our line of sight is reality – but our framing can transform it into a dream.”

Marc Riboud
Marc Riboud, 1987

You may not recognize the person in the photo above. He looks just like any kind and gentle old man. As Riboud says: “You would invite him to your home or hire him to teach your children.” Yet the “gentleman” in the picture is Klaus Barbie. Google him!

“The idea of photography as evidence is pure bullshit. A photo is no more proof of any reality than what you may hear being said by someone in a bus. We only record details, small fragments of the world. This cannot allow any judgement, even if the sum of these details may convey a point of view.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This is also why the best photographs are ambiguous. If the story in the picture is too obvious – the picture is boring. That’s why I personally don’t like funny street photos. They lack ambiguity. They may be funny, but that’s about it.

Even if you’re shy, you need to get close

The simple lesson is this: when photographing a protest, not only do you need to get close, you need to photograph the faces of the people.

Marc Riboud, 1962

I haven’t been to many protests, but I have seen how other photographers work. They mostly stay in the sidelines or worse, they stay in the back.

Nobody wants to see the backs of the people. It results in boring pictures – unless you know what you’re doing.

You need to get inside the crowd. This makes the viewer feel as if he’s in action. The picture above is very powerful just because of that. Riboud is inside the action – he’s not a spectator – he’s a participant.

Riboud agrees with Capa, who said the famous quote: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” And Riboud was the shy one!

Riboud gives another piece of advice on photographing protests: move backward. Otherwise, you would get in the way as people are moving forward.

You need the technique and sensitivity

“Technique and sensitivity go together, one cannot exist without the other. – As with music : no other form of expression is constructed with such mathematical precision, and yet it grips our senses and our guts.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

Having a photographic eye is not enough. It’s not enough to be a sensitive artist. You also need to have a strong foundation on e.g., composition. You need not only to see interesting moments or details, but you also need to make them work as a photographic whole.

Marc Riboud, 1953

“We cannot create forms, as painters and sculptors do, but our purpose is the same : to simplify what we see, in order to make it understandable.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This is also why it’s necessary to take many pictures. Not to take many pictures just for the sake of it, but you’re essentially searching for the right photo with the right composition. You change the perspective, angle, framing – you are looking! For Riboud this search is a “visual and sensual pleasure.”

Always strive to make better pictures

“When somebody asks me what my best photograph is, I answer, I hope to do it tomorrow and thus try to change my way of seeing.”

Marc Riboud
Marc Riboud, 1967

Don’t hang onto your old photos. This is an idea I personally also resonate with. For me a photo is just a photo – it’s not some sacred magnum opus. Always keep moving forward.

Ask yourself, “does this stand out?”

“I recently spent a whole summer gathering my photos from the last 35 years and editing them for an exhibition. It was an interesting exercise. I didn’t look for any link between the ones I chose, neither by subject matter nor by style. I only asked myself : “Does this one stand out?”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This is actually really good advice when selecting your best shots. We don’t always know if our certain photo is good or not, but we immediately recognize a photo that stands out. It takes place in an instant. You know it immediately if your photo stands out. And if it stands out – it must be good.

Marc Riboud, 1979

Do not stage a photo

There was an interesting discussion between Marc Riboud and Frank Horvat where they were discussing staging in photography. The interview can be found here – I highly recommend reading it if you want to have a deeper insight into Riboud’s personality.

Marc Riboud, 1957

Riboud says, “that the role of photography is to record what’s there, not to stage.” To which Horvat points out that if we make a portrait photo, we tell the model to move there, or pick up something – which is essentially staging.

“All the erotic photos I’ve seen, and where I could sense some kind of emotion, were staged. And staging is an art by itself, I wouldn’t know how to stage a photo in which the emotion seemed genuine.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

For Riboud, it’s more complex than that. Just by telling someone to do something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s staging. It’s not staging if they don’t “pretend to be anything but their own character, in their own environment.”

For more amazing photos by Marc Riboud, check out the website dedicated to his art.

KRISTJAN

On the importance of doing deep work

I’m not going on a long rant about social media and smartphones and how these things significantly inhibit our ability to focus on our work. Instead, I’m going to give a short rant.

Research says that every time we check our phone, email, or chat with a colleague, it takes us around 20 minutes to get back the deep focus we had before. Needless to say, we never continue from where we left off.

With the constant buzzing and beeping by smartphones – more appropriately called distraction devices – they have the effect of us only doing shallow work. It’s impossible to get into deep focus if you’re constantly pushed around. Essentially you are always reacting to the outside influences. You’re not at the cause; you’re at the effect.

Email notifications at work are one of the best examples. Every time a notification pops up, you are distracted, you lose your focus, and it will take you 20 minutes to get back – in the meantime, some other distraction occurs. Therefore you never actually do deep work.

Open offices full of distractions – same story.

This shallow work is easily replicable and doesn’t add any new value to the world.

This is why I have turned off all sounds and vibrations on my phone. I check my phone when I want to, not when the phone wants to. I fight for my sovereignty.

I think it’s essential for artists as well. I don’t see the possibility of doing great work while having distractions and spending time browsing social media or news sites.

We have very limited time, and as an artist, it is important to spend that time to produce, not to consume. Or to consume only in order to produce. Just to consume without producing is a waste.

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

It doesn’t mean to switch yourself off from the world – but I do believe it absolutely essential to switch yourself completely off when doing meaningful work.

If I write an article, I don’t check social media – good thing I barely have any social media presence. I don’t check my phone. It’s just me and my thoughts. This allows me to go deep.

Even if I go out taking pictures, I just focus on that. Now, I don’t have many people call me, but if I would, I’d probably switch my phone to airplane mode for the time being.

J.K Rowling finished the last Harry Potter book by checking herself in a hotel because she couldn’t concentrate at her own home with dogs barking and kids running around.

There are countless other similar anecdotes of course, but the bottom line is this: if you want to do great work that has value to the world, it can only be done while working deep, in a distraction-free environment.

Here’s another shocking truth. Every time you react to a distraction (check FB, because you really need to), you train your brain to act on these impulses. The opposite is also true.

Also, the more you practice deep work, the faster your brain cells start to communicate with each other. Basically, you will upgrade your brain this way. You start to connect more ideas and connect them faster. Pretty cool upgrade for an artist or anyone else as a matter of fact, if you ask me.

I highly recommend reading Deep Work by Cal Newport and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

KRISTJAN

The hard thing about hard things

This is the title of Ben Horowitz’s book. The guy who built a company from scratch and then sold it for $1.65 billion.

Although it is perhaps best categorized as a management book, there is (among many others) one key takeaway point. The point is this: There is no formula for running a business, there’s no recipe for leading people, there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs, no recipe for making great art, and so on.

There are no shortcuts. There’s no easy way out. You have to do it the hard way.

There are times when everything goes to shit. And we’d wish someone to tell us what to do. We want some sort of a map. But there is no map.

“The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.”

Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things

We have to walk the road and make the decisions we think are the best. Then again, sometimes we don’t know what the best decision is. Sometimes every decision seems bad. Whatever we decide, someone gets hurt. Someone loses.

“The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running a company.”

Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The same is also true for art and photography.

There are no guarantees that you’re going to succeed. Nobody will tell you what to do – or they will tell, but you have to decide still if it’s the right thing to do.

It’s uncomfortable, but to paraphrase Horowitz: get used to being uncomfortable.

You feel uncomfortable doing street photography and interacting with strangers? Get used to it. You feel uncomfortable knowing that someone might ask you to delete the photo? Get used to it. Not knowing if you’re going to make it? Get used to it.

But it’s not such doom and gloom either. Even though there are no formulas or maps and it’s going to be uncomfortable, we learn by the experience and by the experience of others who have had similar struggles. And this just might be enough to get us through.

KRISTJAN

How to know if your photo is good?

I recently received an e-mail from a follower who asked me how to know if a photo is good enough to share it with others.

It’s an excellent question, and it got me thinking. I also think the answer would benefit others, so I decided to write a blog post about it.

This is a highly extended version of the reply.

I think when we come across a dilemma like this, there are essentially two ways we can go about it.

The first way would be to think if others would like it. We would then compare our picture with similar pictures made by others to see where our photo stands. We would also take into account our previous e.g., social media likes or comments. These are the so-called external metrics.

The second way would be to use our internal metrics. Do I find it to be a good photo? Do I think the composition is good? Not compare it to other’s work, but to our standards. What is my standard of good composition?

However, I think a kind of a hybrid between the two is actually more prevalent. It’s probably impossible to only use internal metrics purely.

But the question is – in which direction does the scale tip?

Do we value more of our gut feeling or we try to “please” others? I do think the word “please” is quite accurate here, because when we’re afraid to share our work by saying and having the vibe of “check this out!”, we’re essentially unsure if it’s good enough for them.

I think it’s important to use our internal metrics as much as possible. If we think it’s a good photo, it’s a good photograph. Simply because we say so. Why should the opinion of others be any better or more valuable? We’re all human beings, and we’re all equal. Even if someone had 10 art Ph.D. degrees, it wouldn’t make that person more authoritative. This is my opinion.

The reason why I think that is because nobody knows the truth of this world anyway. Nobody has figured it out, and my guess is, nobody ever will. So, essentially nobody knows anything. Some people claim they do, but do they really?

If some sort of a god would come down to earth and would say what is good and what is not, then perhaps I would rethink. Until it’s just human being(s) – flesh and bone just like me – I don’t put them on a pedestal as someone “higher” than me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t respect their opinion. If it’s something constructive, I respect every opinion, whether it’s positive or negative. But ultimately, I decide for me.