Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 15 2009

Some things got to go

Now that I’ve finally got all of the pictures up from Paris and Spain, I feel I’ve come to somewhat of a crossroads in photography. The basic problem is that I take too many pictures to put up, and I can’t continue being so haphazard about posting them. For one thing, I simply don’t have the time to devote to it.

So raise your standards! You say. Well, duh. But which standards? Some of my shots are technically proficient but lack emotion, and vice-versa, all to varying degrees. Many shots I love are ignored by others, while people rave and gush over shots I don’t particularly care for.

I’ve also become a bit of a pack rat with pictures and struggle to be more objective in judging my own shots. It’s frighteningly easy to judge and criticize other people’s work, but it’s just as difficult to really describe just what it is that we like or dislike about works in such a subjective, emotional medium. Just look at the online critique groups, where people seem to think that a keyboard makes them an expert. Anyone can rub their chin in a knowing fashion and say, “It just doesn’t do it for me,” or “I don’t like the tilt/angle/composition/bicycle/figure.” Which of course is utterly useless. But we always see more in our own photos; we remember how we felt when we took it; we see in our mind’s eye what we were going for. And of course we want to believe that our vision is somehow more special than that of other people, simply because it’s ours.

Photography encompasses so much that finding advice on this particular subject isn’t as easy as you might think. A lot of the advice seems to be about choosing the best shot out of 67 exposures of the same thing, but I don’t use the “shotgun” method of some photographers who take dozens of the same shot in the hope that one will be good; I choose my shots, maybe taking two or three at the same scene from different angles. At the risk of sounding like a snob (which has never stopped me before), I don’t particularly relate to stock photographers, wedding photographers, concert photographers, people who take photos to sell to businesses and corporations, or even photojournalists, though the latter group comes closer than any other to my ideal. I used to think street was Da Shit, but the vast majority of “street photography” I’ve come across is boring, repetitive tripe, the result of retired dentists or bored executives hearing about Henri Cartier-bresson, blowing what to anyone else would be a small fortune on a Leica M8, and then standing on a street corner taking shots of every single person that passes by, and then posting it all on Flickr or Smugmug, hoping to get famous.

As with other pursuits, once you’re famous, you can almost do no wrong. Mediocre shots by a famous photographer somehow have more “meaning” than the same shot by an unknown. Which makes me glad that I’m not famous; otherwise I’d never get any honest input and I would never improve. Perhaps that is why Gary Winogrand shot so many thousands of photos in his later years; people had convinced him that he could not take a bad shot. Cartier-bresson gave up photographer later on, pursuing painting instead, and declining most interviews and photographs of himself throughout his career. I’ve come across so many glowing reviews of photographers online and in bookstores, only to find that their work left me cold, that I’ve begun to wonder just what the hell I’m aiming at. These people got books published? Entire threads devoted to praise? Has the world completely surrendered to the mediocre, exclamation-point-ridden saccharine gloss that is the current state of Flickr’s once-great Explore?

I suppose that it’s really up to me to determine just what it is that I’m going for, what it is that I like in my own photography, beyond such vague concepts as “emotion” and “composition.” Rule of thirds, balance, vanishing points…yeah, I know, I learned how to follow and break those rules, but to me, they’re like the four tones of Mandarin Chinese; more of a rough guide to pronunciation than hard and fast rules. As my friend Brian Q. Webb, one of the best street photographers in Taiwan today, says: “Photography is jazz for the eye.” Emotion expressed via technique, spaces between notes. Perhaps if I am just a little more discriminating, a little harder on myself and my works, I’ll be able to navigate my way through all of my own duds and find just where the path lies.

posted by Poagao at 12:50 pm  


  1. Very interesting post, and if you are struggling than I don’t even need to worry about my photos. I am still so far in the figuring out basics that I am just happy about shots which have something in them for me (knowing what it took to get it for example, etc.). Some rare shots might not be bad, but nowhere even near that claim for unique class.
    At the moment I mostly need to worry about my techniques, play around with different topics and just get the tools into my flesh and blood but what will come after that, when I need to find the real path.
    Anyway, good luck with your search, and be asured that a lot of your shots do have something to them, even it will be always something different for everyone who watches them.

    Comment by Michael — July 15, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  2. Michael, the only thing I’m struggling with really is workflow, selecting photos, etc. I need to focus on where I want to go instead of giving in to the sappy feel-good flickr-view-getting temptations.

    Comment by Poagao — July 15, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  3. I understand and know what you mean. I put way too much stuff on my flickr page, mostly because I also use it for sharing things with family and friends back home, etc.
    I just have anyway a handfull of shots I really think are good, well at least for me.
    I had a discussion ones with a very good friend of mine, a painter and drawer back in Austria. He had also a struggle with his art, when he did the stuff he wanted to do, created the pieces he though off he had no chance to sell them.
    He could create stuff which “the people” liked but it wasn’t his art anymore than, so he also changed and did graphic design to make a living and did his art in his free time but that caused the problems that he had to work hard during the week and didn’t got enought time for his side.

    He ended up more or less giving up the art part, at least for some years.

    I guess there is no right or wrong, no “only way to go”, everyone has to find his way and his style and to it to ones own satisfaction, not to please others.

    Anyway, sorry for spamming your guestbook full here.

    Comment by Michael — July 15, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  4. That’s ok. I suppose I am lucky to be able to take the pictures I want to without the pressure of relying on it for a living.

    Comment by Poagao — July 15, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

  5. I think the trick is to only photograph things you have a genuine interest in. It’s very easy for photographers to fall in the trap of taking shots they think will look good, or get a positive response from the viewing public. If I do that I end up boring myself. It actually took me quite a while to figure this one out.

    I’m totally selfish with my photos and only go for what strikes some emotional chord with me and never shoot with anyone else in my mind.
    I also try not to repeat myself too much.

    Positive feedback is nice of course, but if it pushes artists into producing bland and decorative work, it can be destructive to the creativity and individuality of their work. Money does much the same I guess.

    Comment by Barbara Fischer — July 15, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

  6. Thanks so much for the kind compliment.

    Seriously, I really appreciate it.

    TC, I have * enormous* struggles with self-editing…there are sperm whale vs. giant squid battles in my head between what I like and what I think other people will like or at least understand.

    I usually go with what I like and because of that I think I’ve been able to present a somewhat cohesive style rather then my images get lost in the plethora of “macro of a bugs having sex on a leaf while the sun sets behind them” types of photos… “Michael Bay photos” 😆 .

    So, photograph what interests you. Present the photos you like best. As your interests mature, so will your photos. And yes, photography is jazz for the eye…it’s less about the composition and more about the emotion. But that’s just one of those “IMHO” things…stock and salon photographers would slap me on the hand for saying something like that.

    But I still struggle with it. A lot.

    Comment by Brian Q. Webb — July 16, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  7. It seems to come down to finding a balance, one that shifts and is flexible enough to adapt to different situations, moods, conditions, without completely surrendering oneself to not self editing at all. There is a different type of photography for every photographer, after all.

    Thanks for everyone’s thoughts on the subject. I was just wondering out loud and didn’t expect many people to respond.

    Comment by Poagao — July 16, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  8. Only take technical advises from the people you trust, rest of them it’s up to you 🙂

    who gives a shit what other people or critique thinks?

    Art is a funny thing, for example a photo of a giant dogshit was taken and hang in a gallery for display:

    90% of the people would probably find it grossly offensive, and walk away
    5% of the people would be confused on why this photo is on the wall of a gallery
    4% of the people will pretend they ‘understood the meaning of this “great” piece of “shit”‘ (hehehe XD) and brag about it
    But 1% of the people might truly like the photo, because of the culture;fetishes;personal experiences associated with the subject of the photo; the color; the texture of the subject; or even came to realise the true intention of why the photographer took this photo and hangs on the wall for display…etc

    which brings to my point, who cares? as long as there’s at least 1 person who loves your work, it’s worth doing, even if that person is yourself :). So just do whatever you think it’s right 🙂 even if it means taking a break from it… (you seem to be stressed)

    anyway, you’ll never know, maybe one day the audiences will choose you, instead of you choosing them. (i think it’s already happening ;)~ )

    ps: most critiques are retards, i couldn’t hate them more.. they praise themselves for their opinions based on their “extensive” knowledge to a specific field, yet they fail to keep an open-mind and rejects anything they don’t like for the worst reasons.

    Comment by Mo — July 17, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  9. everyone has already said it, but to put it in my own words: for me it all comes back to why create in the first place? the itch for recognition contaminates the pleasure of creating. i think for art of be ‘good’ , it only has to move the creator. creating for me is something i do for my peace of mind. some creators thrive on an audience, some are rattled/stunted by one.

    on another note, poagao, how can i get your book in both english and chinese from here in the US?

    Comment by v — July 17, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  10. A fine critique of critique. In my simple view, I think that the acquisition of formal skill (accepted practices/rules, and their breakage) is also the acquisition of blindness. The more an artist learns, the blinder he may be, until he knows so much, he can’t see anything. If I’m right, this explains why the days of artistic innocence are remembered as the richest days. It’s not really about being ‘hungry’, although this may motivate heavily. It’s because the artist still has 100% of his natural endowment of vision.

    Comment by Jiaxon — August 23, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  11. Well, I put that a little strongly. Acquisition of skill CAN lead to a kind of creative blindness, and in my experience, often does.

    Comment by Jiaxon — August 23, 2009 @ 10:38 am

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