The Mona Lisa Smile

It is a truth universally acknowledged that of the millions of images uploaded to the internet every day, an awful lot of them are rubbish.

We are drowning in a sea of photographs with no beacons to tell us where the safe havens are, and, to quote another photographer, there are no maps either to warn us of where dragons abide.

Over the last week or two, I ran an experiment. I put the same image into a number of different places and waited to see what would happen.  The result was mixed.

One group gave it hundreds of ‘likes’, but there was not a single positive or negative comment about it.

Another location generated a bit more discussion, but not about the image, it was about how I’d achieved a technique, and then busily compared it with other photographers doing the same sort of thing.  Partly useful yes, but not terrifically helpful if I’d been looking for genuine critique.

The point I’m making here is that oftentimes, you don’t get real image feedback from social media, because mostly you don’t know who the people are who are ‘helping’ you.   So the good folks who ask questions such as “which is best, the colour or the black and white?”,  frequently don’t get a satisfactory answer at all.

There’s no harm asking for opinion, provided you ask the right people.  So who are you going to ask – who is going to tell you the truth about your pictures?  Who is going to be brave enough to tell you, to your face, that what you have made is truly terrible?  

I think that as image makers, what we really need to know is this…..what is it about this image that really works, or alternatively doesn’t work, and what can be done to make it better?

What should our response be when someone tells us our work is bad?  This is a delicate thing and massively depends on who is telling us, because the work may truly be bad, at which point you should listen to what they have to say.  On the other hand, the image may really be good, but it just doesn’t appeal to that individual or their aesthetic. 

Another issue is that you might be told what they would do to make it better, which in turn, could turn it into their work, and not yours. Discovering what others do, or don’t like can help you to expand your own creativity.

All of this, of course, has to be tempered with an understanding of who is giving the feedback.  You, listening to it, have to decide if you trust and respect the person offering it to you.  

So to the people asking whether the colour or black and white is the better one, think of this….. did Leonardo ask which smile he should put on the Mona Lisa?  Did he ask hundreds of total strangers what they thought of his painting?  Probably not – he relied on his own self worth, and it was more likely that ultimately it was his students who asked him how he created that smile. 

Cheating the Cheaters

I’ve not really written before about photographic cheats, so this is a first for me. 

Before I start – let’s think about the definition of cheat…..

  1. To act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage
  2. To avoid (something undesirable) by luck or skill

Whether we talk about misleading images, or manipulative ‘photoshopping’ – all we need to think is “does this photograph meet the criteria set down” in a competition.

One of the most famous photographic hoaxes, is a series of images known as the Cottingley Fairies – and I’m sure most of you will have heard of these, and even seen the images.

The images were taken in 1917 by Elsie Wright, and Frances Griffiths, who were, at the time, mere children.

The photographs show them with the fairies, and for decades they were accepted as being perfectly genuine.  They even fooled Arthur Conan Doyle.

They were first published in 1920 in Strand Magazine,  and a newspaper article at the time said the following:-

“The developed negative showed the figures in the woods, and Sir A. Conan Doyle is enthusiastic over this vindication of the spirit world”……… “The original pictures are now being studied by professional photographers to see if they could have been faked”.

The cousins were both still alive in the 1980s, and finally Elsie confessed to the hoax, probably with some relief, in 1983. What had undoubtedly started out as a cleverly stage-managed bit of fun, suggested by Frances, had got seriously out of hand. The cousins themselves were astonished at how readily people of the calibre of Conan-Doyle had accepted the images

We might think that prestigious competitions such as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year would be safe from the cheaters….. but no……. You may remember the image of the wolf leaping over a closed gate by Jose Louis Rodriguez.  The photographer here did not manipulate the image (much as the Cottingley Fairies were not manipulated), it was a straight photograph. Rodriguez ‘wild’ wolf was actually a tame one, used to jumping over things, and was identified by other Spanish photographers.

You may also remember the controversy over the ‘stuffed’ anteater at a more recent Wildlife competition.

But what makes people cheat in the first place?  

It may be to gain benefit, or notoriety, or just because they think they can get away with it.  I’m sure in the case of the wildlife images it was for fame and fortune, but the only people they cheat are themselves.

At the other end of the scale are those who cheat because they can, and because they genuinely believe that they are doing nothing wrong.  For example, on Facebook at the moment there is a group running where a topic is set once a week, for the 52 weeks of the year.  Each participant must take an image that week on that theme.  You are not supposed to check your archives for past work that ‘might fit’.  The thing is, that who would know if you did find something that fitted and posted that – the answer is no-one.  Is there any satisfaction in that though?

Cheaters have convinced themselves that their actions are acceptable, and you won’t be able to convince them otherwise…. After all ‘it was only a bit of fun’….

Welcome to 2022….

I can’t quite believe that it’s 2022 – the year in which I will be officially of a ‘certain age’.  Definitely NOT old, not yet.

I also want to express my thanks to everyone who has supported this blog in the past year or so. Your comments, on here, and on Facebook have given me the enthusiasm to keep writing. Thank you.

The last few days have been those odd ones that happen between Christmas and New Year – you know, the time, when you actually have had no idea what day of the week it is.  We’re still eating ‘Christmas’ food, and my other half is busy making the last mince pies of the season.  The days are dark – and short, and for about a week, there has been virtually no sunshine, just looming clouds of grey.

Suddenly over the last week, the sun came out a bit, the sky (today) is blue and life seems somewhat ‘brighter’ again. (it’s bitter cold out today but lovely).

Over the dull days, I’ve been reading photography books.  Something every aspiring photographer should do.  Not just pretty picture ones either (though there’s everything good to be said about those).

Towards the end of last year, I watched a few talks on YouTube, one of which talked about a photographer I’d never heard of  – an American, Harry Callahan.  The talk itself cost me a fair amount of money, (not the talk), as I searched online for a book about him and his images, creatively called ‘Harry Callahan’.  I managed to get hold of a second hand copy, which, when it arrived looked like it had never been opened.  

Callahan had his first one person exhibition in November 1947 in Chicago. He asserted that ‘creativity can only be measured by the value of an individual’s whole photographic life from beginning to end’.  He did not set out to create photographic masterpieces, nor did he think his later works were better than the earlier ones. He decided, almost from the start, that his photographs would be a record of his life, so each image was just a piece in his growth as an image maker.  His ‘body of work’ was a continuous piece of his life.  Callahan wanted to make images that would grow and change with him, and also preserve photographic integrity and unity.

Interestingly, when Callahan joined a camera club (The Chrysler Camera Club), he said that he learned from the members that photography was important and ‘very serious’.  He was only a member for three years, and his membership defined exactly what he did NOT want to do with his photography.  Later, in his membership of the Detroit photo guild, he found members made highly manipulated, and ‘pretty’ pictures, but discussed work ideas that had been popular over 40 years earlier.

This was in complete contrast to his ideas, which were innovative and carefree.  He went on to say that camera club photography was laboured, analytical and rule bound.  In their quest to create important work they had lost the amateurs eye and joy of discovery.  Callahan thought the guild was ‘silly’ – and created nothing more than an enormous ‘block’ to his work. 

He went on to say that with more experience, you can photograph more freely, and you will go back and forth with your experimentation – and you will repeat the same things, only better.

Harry Callahan 1912 – 1994

I think…… I want to express my life, and that’s also true in my old age. All your whole life is different.  So far I still look forward to going out and photographing” (Callahan 1994)

Find some of Callahan’s images by clicking the link below

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/harry-callahan-harry-callahan-the-photographer-at-work#slideshow