random thoughts

Ideas for 2016

Continue with One Camera, One Lens, One Year project (at least until December when it'll be one year from the start). If it forms into something coherent, then it forms and if it doesn't, no big deal. The purpose is to keep shooting and have fun.

Continue with short photo essays. Try to shoot with an idea, but keep doing it even when I don't have one.

Try to start with a new project. I have one idea, but I won't say what it is for now. I prefer to talk about it once the pictures are taken.

Buy a print. If I really like it and can afford it, why not. I'm in the print sales business myself, why not contribute to the marketplace.

Do a photography-related trip abroad. Not to shoot, but to see good photography. Maybe Arles, maybe Paris Photo, maybe something else. I'd be glad to go to New York when more galleries are open (and not on summer vacation as it happened last year).

Do a shooting trip. I've dreamed about Iceland for so long, I really want to go there. The downside is that I don't think my edge is in shooting landscapes.

Walk, just walk. Park the f*cking car and walk around the place you want to photograph. This is the only way to get firsthand impressions, to be in contact with whatever you're shooting. Go alone, smile and greet people.

Be open to new ideas and place. Keep searching, keep trying, keep experimenting.

Suggestion for New55

I made this comment somewhere on the New55 blog, but it went unpublished. Could be from the lack of interest, could be it just ended in spam due to including a URL. I'm not going to chase it. As I had it copied to my notes, I'm going to publish it here. Here it goes:

Maybe it would make sense for you to offer a service like this (scroll to the Online Exposure section if the link doesn't open from there). What they do is that you can send them digital files, they make a Polaroid picture out of it and mail to you.

In your case people would send you their digital files too and you would make a New55 exposure of it, together with negative and positive, already fixed. This way you could:

* Add another (small, but possibly relevant - you sell T-shirts after all) source of revenue.

* Test your own film and let others pay for it :)

* Most importantly - attract more people to try the film. There're probably many people (including myself) who would like to see and handle the actual result, but don't have everything that's necessary to expose the film (from 4x5 camera to the specific Ilford fixer).

In your case you could add a good scan of the negative to the service. In addition you can always ask permission to publish the pictures on social media - the exposure will certainly be good for you and probably for the photographers too.

In case of SuperSense (who do the same for Polaroid) the exposure is made from iPad screen limiting the maximum resolution to 2048x1536px, but this, of course can be improved. It's probably not relevant for Polaroid, because of the low native resolution, but would certainly be good for New55. Why I'm so interested in this is because I'd like to have some silver gelatin prints made out of the negatives later and maybe, just maybe - if I'm happy with the results - try to sell some prints this way.

On Formats

Around when I started (again) photographing more seriously, I'd crop the photos however I please. If it looked good in panoramic, I'd cut the top and bottom, If it looked good in square, I'd crop it to square. Not much thinking went into framing at the time.

Then I happened to read a comment on a photo forum on some photo contest where a heavily cropped image (a pseudopanoramic if you will) won - going like "how could a cropped image be better than uncropped ones". To put it another way "The Real Photographers scan their pictures with negative borders included". I did that for a while (these are my experiments on film), because, lets be honest, it felt right thing to do at the time. And it taught me a whole lot about framing and intent. But for me it stops there - the negative borders have a didactic value if you really respect them and don't add them to your digital images. Any serious presentation with negative borders has a wannabee feel for me. They're tolerable in a book, but certainly not on exhibition prints. I know the previous sentences hit photographers like Dan Winters, but is he really in a desperate need to show his images are uncropped and shot on film? Doesn't his work stand without making such statements? (It's a rhetoric question - it sure does, so why the borders then?)

I stopped shooting film long time ago, but I kept following 2:3 format strictly, because it was natural thing to do as the cameras I used shoot this format. Also it was easy to present my pictures side by side when they were in the same aspect ratio. I didn't shoot series yet, but having uniform look went up on the importance scale while having uncropped image went down - you can crop and still maintain the same aspect ratio. But these were very slight crops just to maybe fix a one degree tilted horizon or cut out some obstruction even not covered by viewfinder. My first two exhibitions (Dark Matter and Unfinished Stories) were all 2:3 images in landscape format, not a single portrait (format).

Once I started Blood Unquiet, it became increasingly clear there'll be images in portrait orientation, even the very first drafts had vertical images. 2:3 vertically is ugly as hell, in my humble opinion. It's just fine horizontally, but the vertical version doesn't fit into my definition of 'beautiful'. I didn't want to use 3:4, because it very much associates with the time I shot compact cameras, so I chose 4:5. I tested also 6x7 , but this was too square. And square is just too androgynous for me (I've nothing against looking at good square images, but I can't compose in square).

Next problem - none of my cameras shoot 4:5 natively making the visualization much harder. I had to get used to visualizing 4:5 image inside the 2:3 viewfinder. But it's well worth the hassle as it makes presentation so much easier - if you're interested in what I went through finishing and formatting Blood Unquiet, you can read my Exhibition Considerations series from this spring (scroll all the way down, it's in reverse order as usual for blogs). This was the time when I started to use live view much more than I used to before as the camera can be configured to show 3:4 crop marks on the screen. That's better than nothing.

When I finally happened to shoot Polaroid (which is very close to 4:5) it felt really natural. I'm really looking forward to the time when camera companies start making sensors with different aspect ratios or at least implement cropping in a usable way. I certainly wouldn't have anything against native 4:5 digital camera and why not a real panoramic one? Meanwhile I feel the pull towards 4x5 film cameras - I'd really want to make myself familiar with one, but I don't rush to buying yet. I'd give it another thought if New55 was usable without fixing it (fixing as in pouring a liquid fixer onto a tray and washing the negative in it). I can live with scanning, but I'm not into handling chemicals, that's not even a convenience thing, but rather something I'd call childhood trauma.

Hateful Eight and Panavision Ultra 70

Quentin Tarantino and his crew are obviously making big fuss about resurrecting Panavision Ultra 70mm format (2.76:1) for his new film Hateful Eight (or H8ful Eight or Hateful 8 or however they prefer to write it). This is claimed to be the widest and biggest (by frame size) film format ever used. (From the useless facts department: one of the widest commonly used photographic cameras Fuji G617 uses 6x17 format which is 2.83:1 - very slightly wider than the Panavision Ultra).

On one hand - it's definitely nice to pay some respect to what has been done before, shoot film proudly, tinker with exotic lenses that sat on the shelf for nearly fifty years, do the all-analog screenings in roadshow format, etc.

On the other hand - I find it strange when a piece of creative work, which a movie no doubt is, is promoted using the medium on which it's shot. To me it somehow devalues the film itself, like the content or the great work of actors is not worth mentioning - but the film stock and lenses and projectors are. Of course some breakthrough technologies surface from time to time which add something to our experience - think of 3D for example or the hyperrealistic 48 frames per second (which was actually deemed not-so-cinematic). Probably the very first 3D films were loudly advertised to be 3D and offer new experience, I don't even remember it any more.

For me it has always been content over form. Lately I've been shooting regularly with lens made in the fifties - should I start advertising my photography based on that? I feel the opposite - I very very rarely discuss anything related to photographic gear, let alone making posts like "what's in my camera bag".

I've been discussing Polaroid and New55, but I find it to be a bit different - rather than promoting my work based on the material I shoot on, it adds something to the photographic process that's not achievable otherwise (to be exact, Polaroid/peel apart film introduces a lot of serious restrictions which lead you to work in a specific way - which is worth learning in my opinion).

There's another reason for photographers to work using some exotic process - it adds to the uniqueness. Not many photographers are using wet plate collodion process for example, if you do it and throw in a huge camera, you can be famous just based on that. Another aspect is that exotic processes make your outcome rare, rare in a sense that it's not easy to make huge number of uneditioned prints of it. All else being equal, I, too, would prefer silver gelatin print over inkjet. Signing and editioning is just another way to add rarity to the work.

I've written myself to a point where it's hard to wrap up. What exactly did I say? That I disapprove promoting your work based on camera/material, but adding rarity/uniqueness by using exotic process is OK? Possibly. Your thoughts are welcome, dear (rare) reader.

Outlook for 2016

It has been going on for some time now - every year in my photographic career has been better than the previous one. And not just slightly better in a way I'd expect my skills to develop (I work hard on it), but better in some unimaginable way. I'm not talking about winning a jackpot, but still well over the expectations.

2015 has been the wildest one so far - I had no less than 5 exhibitions including Photoville in New York and I won a major award in Estonian context (Kalju Suur Grant). In november 2014 this sounded impossible.

In 2014 I had an exhibitions in Tallinn Photo Museum, in Viljandi Sakala Centre and one of my photographs was exhibited as part of Environmental Photographer of the Year show in London. And I won Artproof Young Photographic Artist's Grant - probably the biggest single price you can win in Estonia. That's way, way more than I could have imagined in 2013.

In 2013 I had my first serious solo exhibition - Dark Matter plus my photo essay "Blues of the Oil Shale Land" was published in major daily newspaper of Estonia.

In 2012 I won second price at Estonian Nature Photography Competition.

The list goes on, although the high points of 2012 and before seem really marginal by now. Yet every year has moved the high point of my career significantly higher.

Whether I like it or not, this progress leads inevitably in one direction - at some point there'll be a year when I can't top my previous year's achievements.  Right now all signs point that 2016 will be the year when the high point will be nowhere near 2015.

It's not that I'm overly pessimistic, I consider myself a realist. So why I'm saying this is because realistically it's impossible for me to do better than 2015. I have no new work to show - all of my energy (and more) this year went to organizing the exhibitions in Estonia and getting my work and myself to New York. The ideas for projects I had didn't work out as expected and I really didn't have time or enthusiasm to bring them into any tangible form. I don't see a point to send Blood Unquiet to more competitions and expect miracles to happen, I've wasted enough money on competitions already with no results.

I was about to say I at least hope to sell more prints than in 2015, but then I remembered that I actually sold more than a hundred during my crowdfunding campaign this year. Unlikely to beat that too.

It's not like I was pessimistic, it's just I've raised the bar to a point from where it's going to take a while to raise it further. And that's unlikely for 2016. So I plan to hold rather low profile and concentrate on getting new and better work done. Set some actual photographic goals for a change (instead of organizational ones). Topic for another post.

Outsider's View Versus Insider's View

I remember looking at a photo reportage from Estonia made around 2012-2013 (the actual year is even not important, but it is important that it wasn't Soviet time, it was this century, this decade). Sadly, I can't find it any more, but I remember it to be made by a foreigner, probably on assignment. It had very strong visual language, some of the pictures were really powerful. And it had rather gloomy tone. It was well seen and well executed, the author probably earned good money for it. I would have titled it (just by the impression it left) "Small post-Soviet country trying to redefine itself as Nordic or European, rather unsuccessfully as you can see".

So the photography was good, but it didn't resonate with me. It's not like we (as Estonians) perceive life here. Yeah, we do have 12 months of shitty skiing weather (that is, gray sky and rain), we do have young smoking mothers walking with their babies,  we do have ugly Soviet architecture, but still, this is not how we think of life in Estonia. Of course, you could make equally uplifting series about everything that's good here and this is being done too, by the various PR channels (which, too, have very little to do with the reality).

Back to the story I discussed. It was like a person with (probably) multiple preconceptions took a very brief tour in Estonia and tried to find a sample of every idea that he had about Estonia. You photograph something without knowing much of it and not really caring. Or even if you do care, you might not have time to go deep. It's if you walk past a house and see a cross and a burning candle and immediately label it as a house of religious people (having no idea at all who the people actually are and what they are into).

That's an outsider's view in. It can be superficial, it can be wide-ranging, it can show just the projections the imagemaker has, it can be open-ended and inclusive, but it'll probably differ from how the situations are perceived by an insider.

Insiders have their own problems, they might sometimes miss the very obvious things that can be quickly identified by fresh pair of eyes. Yet they tend to have unique viewpoint and if a broad documentary view is not must, this viewpoint tends to be much more interesting and thought-provoking. Talking about the best works - insiders' views have this depth and subtlety to them that are not (usually/probably) achievable by outsiders. Knowing the context well allows you to look past what is apparent.

These thoughts first formed in my head when I was reviewing Andrejs Grants book, but now that they're said out and written down, I'm thinking this has been the criteria for good photography for some time now. 

What Drives Your Photography

I have a friend who devotes about the same amount of time to photography as me. He uses the same camera, has somewhat similar set of lenses. He doesn't do much marketing, just like me. Yet he earns 5-10 times more from photography than I do. Is he more successful photographer than I am?

Well, it depends on what you consider success. Would I like to earn 5-10 times more? Yes. Would I like to do photos like his? Certainly not. Not that he takes bad photos - no, for the average viewer, his photos make much more sense than mine. Would I consider myself a successful photographer if I made the money he does with pictures like his? Again no. I would be happy to earn more money with my work, sure. I don't consider myself successful, yet I'm fairly happy with the work I've done lately and the attention it's been getting. We all have different criteria for success and money is not always the most important one.

Defining that criteria for yourself is actually very important, because it creates what I'd call a feedback loop.

Feedback Loop

Once I got myself into discussion about stock photography - whether it would make sense to try to sell the photos at some stock sites or not. This is where I first came to the idea of feedback loop. Once you start selling your photos at these places and earning money, you'll start creating more and more photos like those which sell best. And what sells? It's a well known joke but "people in suits doing something". Maybe that's exaggerated, but there certainly is some anonymous soulless quality in most of the stock photos. That's not where I'd like to go with my work, quite the opposite.

When you think about it, similar scenario happens almost everywhere you look. You put your picture on Facebook and get 20 likes. Next time you pull the saturation slider a bit and earn 50. Next time you're certain that you've crossed the line with saturation, but you get 500 likes. What's your next picture going to be like?

Recently I saw a film titled  Nightcrawler where the protagonist sold ever more gory self-produced videos of accidents and murders to TV stations for increasing prices - another example of feedback loop. 

These are just a few examples where people tend to optimize themselves or their output according to what they measure and consider to be the criteria of success. You earn more money, reach wider audience or both. Seems like a dream come true, isn't it?

What you measure?

 I've tried the Facebook thing and made pictures that are oversaturated to the point I want to throw up. Yet they're popular and all. In the process I had many inner dialogs where one side is saying "do it again, likes are good" while the other side is like "are you really happy with that work yourself?". I wasn't and I stopped doing what I wasn't satisfied with myself. I even did almost the opposite - I started making more black and white pictures which always loses on the popularity scale. Defiance wasn't the only reason for B&W of course, but it was part of the challenge (the main reason – for the sake of clarity – is that I like B&W).

So what should you measure so that you create a feedback loop that actually advances your work? I don’t have answers for everybody and some are certainly fine with optimizing their work to make more money. But I’m here not for money; from financial perspective I’d be happy if my photography could pay for itself – which is not the case either.

Some say reaching more people is better, but then again, I’ve noticed that some likes (as in Facebook) are more valuable to me than the others. It’s not like some people are less valuable, it’s that I respect some opinions more than others – some are experts in the field and some or just people who randomly saw your picture.

In some communities the exhibitions are considered to be the cornerstone of how good artist you are. Having done several exhibitions, I admit it’s a fantastic feeling seeing your work beautifully printed and framed and lighted in a gallery. And I want to have than feeling again, just for myself. Yet, in the big picture. exhibitions are another shot to reach the audience, throw your work at the crowd and see who it hits. But if I ask myself, would I shoot the photos knowing they’ll never be exhibited, the answer would be ’yes, of course’. Early in my career I never dreamed of exhibitions, I just shot what I found important.

Contests are a good way to reach wider audience – should you win (or at least a narrow, but important audience – the jury). There’s a certain satisfaction in winning, being better than others, but once again you should ask yourself the question if you would have shot those photos without knowing anything about the competitions.

Speaking for myself – I would. It’s about creating something. It’s about self expression. Something others cannot do not because they don’t know the places or people or how to use some specific lighting schema, but because they’re not you. And the criteria for the feedback loop would be – does it express ideas uniquely mine and do so better than before?

Should I Shoot Polaroid?

A short introduction - I'm very interested in shooting native black and white 4x5 medium without the hassle of darkroom. The words are carefully chosen: native BW means no conversion from color, native 4x5 means no cropping. Some of my ideas and experiences with instant film are covered in previous post about polaroid.

I brought out several reasons why I like instant film in my previous post linked above. Just to sum it up:

It teaches you to slow down, do things once and do them good.

It teaches you a very laconic pictorial language.

So, I thought I'll shoot some more instant film. The following is an analysis of various options and constraints related to it.

Firstly - I don't like square format which means  I need to shoot what is called Image/Spectra film, which is almost 4x5. This also restricts the camera makes and models available.

I'd prefer the better contrast of Impossible 2.0 version film, but 2.0 film is not available in Image/Spectra format (at least yet, but I hope it will). This is the first contradiction - choose better contrast and bad format or bad contrast and preferred format. Here's how the looks differs from original to 2.0 film.

I'd like to have more detail, meaning I'd need to shoot bigger format. Impossible makes 8x10 instant film (!), but - of course there is but - it costs a lot and needs separate 800$ development machine in addition to 8x10 camera (which sets a lot of preconditions itself). I'm unable to make that sort of financial commitment right now. There's still problem with output - there would only be originals, they're more detailed and scannable, but would anybody buy a digital print of scanned polaroid?

I want to have the prints (I truly like them), but I don't want them to be the only output. I want to make enlargements and hang my pictures on the wall. There is a solution - called peel-apart film or PN film (as is positive+negative) that produces both negative and positive instantly.

Black and white peel-apart instant film is made by New55 project which has it's own problems - their film is not ready yet, they're seemingly out of money to finalize and start mass-producing it, and although they claim to sell some film already, they're out of stock whenever I check their website. Not to mention steep prices.

Fuji makes PN film too, but they discontinued their black and white film in 2013. Bummer. They do still make color film, but I'm not into color.

Long story short, I have three options:

  1. Buy Polaroid Spectra camera, shoot Impossible Image/Spectra film with bad contrast and no way to use the outcome in any way. At least it's financially affordable.
  2. Invest into 8x10, use Impossible 8x10 instant film. The investment is huge and I'm not entirely sure I'll still be shooting instant film 2-3 years from now.
  3. Keep my fingers crossed that New55 makes it.

So I'm left with only bad options. But then - as instant film needs positive temperatures to develop and we, here in Estonia, are almost out of positive temperatures for the next 7 months, I have around half a year buffer to see if anything of the equation above has changed and take a better decision by then.

PS: Did I mention New55 still needs a fixer bath? So much of "instant" there.

Planned or Random, Staged or Found?

During my artist talk in ambulARToorium there was a lot of discussion over whether and which shots of my series Blood Unquiet are found and which are staged. Lets have a look at some of the most controversial shots.

So the first decision that had to be taken for this shot was to go to Narva-Jõesuu beach from where I have a lot of nice memories. I had an idea in mind of specific clouds - the ones with straight bottom (made popular by the Estonian painter Navitrolla). These are somehow the symbol of rather coldish weather for me when I mostly did daydreaming. I didn't encounter exactly what I wanted, but I kept the camera handy. The rest just happened - my son found the stump, climbed on it and spread his arms. I was able to make like 2-3 frames altogether. Planned or random?

This image is entirely about the place. It's hugely important for me for several reasons (one of them is the bookshop - "Raamatu Maailm", that still exists at the same place, although the name is probably different). So there we went, tried several setups, but they were nowhere what I wanted. I kept shooting until the boys got very tired and uncooperative so I just let them ramble. And then it happened. Planned or random?

This is one of the most meticulously planned shots in the whole sequence, although it started out with a very different background - one with real trees etc. I happened to find the graffiti in the first picture and changed my mind about the concept - the tree with eyes was just too good not to use it. So there's a version with myself, which was once part of the draft, then with my son - how I intended it and the last one, how my son happened to act. Intentionally (but not preplanned) on his side, randomly from my point of view. Yet it works wonderfully. Random or planned?

I always try to be open to the things that happen, to the randomness, be it getting lost on the way or how the kids behave during the shoot (although maybe not as open as some people would like me to be). I can always moderate afterwards, but first I need to have some options to choose from.

Two Thoughts

Firstly - I heard an interesting quote in some other context, from Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

Perfection is not when there isn’t anything else to add, but when there’s not anything else to take away.

And another thing that got me thinking - during the opening of my exhibition one visitor asked what is my favorite picture in the series? I said I don't have one specific favorite, but there are probably 5-6 pictures that define the whole series.

I haven't made that 5-6 picture edit yet, but I'll try at some point. Maybe that will be perfection (not absolute of course, but as good as this series can get).