Sunday, September 08, 2013

tired of the critics, tired of the online photographer

You're looking at a photograph taken by English wedding photographer Kevin Mullens while he was in Tokyo trying out the new Fujifilm XF23mm F1.4 lens. Mr. Mullens is, according to his site, is an award-winning photographer who uses the Fujifilm X-Pro1 as one of his tools. Kevin Mullens is a globe-spanning photographer; according to his basic review of the lens he traveled from Rome to Tokyo to review the lens before heading back home to London. I found out about this excellent review from a link via The Online Photographer.

What got me started writing this piece was this sentence written by Mike Johnston in the post:
Some samples here (all the blown highlights appear to be the photographer's style, not evidence of some technical problem). emphasis mine
When I read that sentence, it was as if a switch toggled in my mind. I'd read one off-handed criticism too many, and I decided to do something about it: criticise the critic, in this case Mike Johnston.

You're probably thinking that with all the problems in this world, such as Syria and the horrific surveillance state created by the NSA, that an apparently minor criticism made by a retired editor running a so-called "high-concept" photography blog shouldn't be that big an issue. In the grand scheme of things you're right. But this was the last straw as far as such off-handed "artistic" calls made by many in the photographic blog-o-sphere. It's been a steady rain over the years, and when someone of Mike Johnston's "stature" makes a comment such as this then Mike needs to be called out on it.

This is the kind of low comment (and worse) I've seen far too many times in the forums on DPreview and 43rumors, to name but two (and the worst of the lot). This is not the kind of critique I would have expected from Mike Johnston. I took the time to read Mullens' review and to really look at Mullen's photos that accompanied the review, individually and together. They are in my opinion excellent photos that formed a nice simple story arc, from his travels around Tokyo, to his trip back home and the final photo of his children racing to greet him. They might not win any specific awards, and certainly not Mr. Johnston's approval, but they are non-the-less excellent photography, "blown highlights" and all.

I then took the time to check out Keven Mullens' wedding photography and came to appreciate his style even further. Not only will you see more blown highlights, you'll see blown highlight's dark evil twin, blocked-up shadows. And yet, if you look at the central subject of every photo you'll see them well exposed, in focus, and full of life, telling an interesting and at times compelling story. What's most important, the subject is the subject, such that so-called blown highlights (which might also be called high-key) or blocked shadows (which might also be called low-key) are not distracting but add to the story the photograph is telling.

Over the last seven years, since my first "serious" digital camera, the Olympus E-300, my tastes, technique, and understanding have slowly devolved to the point where I no longer worship at the feet of the false gods of technique: ultra-high sharpness, ultra image quality, and bokeh. I've gone back to what I learned in art school back in the 1970s.

I learned in two years of art school that technique is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Technique can be all over the map; art and artistic creativity is a joyfully messy and wonderfully imprecise process that produces powerful Art with a capital 'A' if you let it. If all you can do is critique the image quality of a photograph (and questionable critiquing at that) then you've missed the whole point of photography, and that's the artful process of creating a momentary story in an image. And if you miss that you wind up killing any and all creative enjoyment and the joy of sharing your creativity.

5 comments:

  1. "This is the kind of low comment (and worse) I've seen far too many times…. This is not the kind of critique I would have expected from Mike Johnston."

    I have to wonder if he wouldn't agree, and wrote the blown highlights warning to stave off a flood of those kinds of comments on his own site.

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  2. Matthew, I think you've nailed it. Mike is not that flippant with his critiques, and in this case wasn't offering one, anyway. His readers were definitely going to pack his inbox with questions about the highlights. If you read his site regularly you'll realize he was not criticizing the photographer here.

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  3. I kind of agree with the other two. He was posting about a new lens and used wording that the techno dweebs would have used. They would not have called the photos high key they would have said" the lens sux, just look at the blown highlights."

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  4. "...technique is a means to an end, not an end unto itself." So true. I come from a family of photographers spanning 70 years of experience. In the end, the impact of the image is all that matters.

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  5. After looking at Mullen's work, there is no doubt in my mind that Mike Johnston's remark was pure passive-agressive snark.

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