In the last year, I’ve worked on photography from a slightly different angle than before. Most of my life I have crafted and curated my own images. In the last two years I have had the chance to work with an incredible team at the Medium Format Magazine, which exposes me to a different way of looking at photography. I was not only curating my own photography, but I was curating ideas and imagery for the magazine. This process reinforced my views about the importance of curation and pushed it to the forefront of my photographic thought.
I am well aware that in today’s over-sanitized world of photography, writing about this topic may not be the smartest choice but those of you who have followed me for a while know that I write “as it is” regardless of social moods or trends. A few posts ago I touched on the topic of curation and its importance. In short, I loosely defined the process of curation as “the impartial selection and revaluation of a photographer’s own work for the purpose of presenting one image or a series of images.”
After having in-depth conversations and working with the best photographers in the world, I came to the conclusion that one trace, one common feature among them all is this: they are all great curators! In other words, they have gained the visual proficiency and emotional maturity to curate their own work honestly, thoughtfully and ruthlessly. If the last word sounds strange and rough – it is and I chose it deliberately.
Why do most people have such a problem with curating their work? There are many reasons, some external and some internal. There is no question that among the most prominent factors is the industry itself, especially in recent years. With the explosion of YouTube channels, blogs and social media, credentials to share, inspire and teach have been reduced to owning a camera and a megaphone – the louder the better. It is especially true on YouTube, which has created an entire generation of YouTube stars who cannot shoot but quickly turned into internet gurus. I will pass up giving examples, but it is not difficult to prove my point – just look at the imagery (if there is any) of some of the most popular youtubers. The formula is always the same:
- Inspire – or in other words, use clichés and in-the-moment slogans for people to LIKE and SUBSCRIBE.
- Teach – or in other words, repeat beaten-to-death dogmas and teaching points so it feels good, it is easy and under no circumstances forces the viewer to do any hard work.
- Fit into the current social narrative or, even better, create a controversy which has nothing to do with crafting great imagery.
In short, the objective is to make everyone feel warm and cozy. As you may suspect, the process of curation becomes the first casualty of this nonsense. The situation is even more dire in the photographic groups. The slightest suggestion of any sort of curation is met with the mob-like response sprinkled with the usual slogans such as “How dare you judge my work” and “In art everything goes.” In the meantime, great photographers throughout history have built the case by shooting great imagery but, most importantly, by carefully choosing which images are printed and shared with the public. Furthermore, they stood by their work and defended it successfully against the army of vicious critics (and it is a good thing they did!).
Fine, Olaf, but how do I start? It always starts with you and me. In my early days as a photographer I thought I was a good photographer. I liked my work but in reality, my imagery was poorly crafted and simply boring. It wasn’t until I met my mentor who, in rather direct language, pointed out the mediocrity of my work. What’s even worse is that I was shooting too much and sharing too much. I fell into the common trap of “I like it so it must be great” fallacy.
I quickly realized that the fact I took a photo and liked it, meant nothing! Quite the opposite. Step by step I became critical of my work, asking uncomfortable questions. The more uncomfortable they were, the more I realized how poor my craft was. I was living in a fantasy land propelled by the LIKE fantasy of the FB.
When questioned by some of my mentors, I started working on curating my work, which I found even more difficult than shooting the imagery itself. A thousand question marks appeared in my head. This is where the internal process of detaching myself from my photography began. I looked at every image with new eyes, questioning its visual validity, composition and even purpose.
One of the first outcomes of this process was the realization that when I reviewed some imagery I couldn’t answer the very simple question: “Olaf, why did you take this photo?” It became clear that almost every image which came with the answer “I don’t know” was poorly done and was a prime candidate for deletion. The habit of “because I can” or “just in case” quickly disappeared, which was huge progress already. In practical terms, when I was out shooting, I would not press the shutter button if I couldn’t find a reason to capture the image.
Then, I developed a process during which I would review my work right after shooting it. In this process, any doubt about an image equated with the delete action; no second guessing or finding excuses to keep it. The more I practiced this procedure, the more I liked it. After each session I was left with less and less imagery – this by itself was a huge step forward in my curation process.
In time, reviewing my work has become as important as shooting. Interestingly, each function complemented the other and fed on the other in unexpected ways. I noticed that my curation process directly affected the way I shot. I started curating scenes and frames BEFORE I took them. At one point I would spend three or four hours daily going through my imagery and deleting most of it.
Here are some of the criteria I applied:
Is this a cliché? Have I seen this idea many times before? If so, is this image technically or artistically one of the best I have seen or it is just like most of them? When in doubt – delete!
Is it possible to shoot this particular visual idea better? What would I change? Would better light help? Should I think more about composition?
One question which I always ask when looking at an image is: Was there a way to minimize the number of elements in the frame? And in 99% of cases my honest answer was YES. THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY TO MAKE AN IMAGE SIMPLER!
How does this image represent my visual brand? Am I excelling or staying at the same level?
Is the image elegant? Why did I include the subject in its entirety? What if I could show just part of it?
Does this image stand on its own? What if I share it in a sequence? If so, what would the order be in order to maintain visual balance and scrolling continuity?
Then I play the devil’s advocate. I started finding weaknesses in my image. Why didn’t you place your subject more to the left? How about this pocket of light in the corner? Is it distracting? Does it add anything to the image? Why colour? Why black and white? I questioned even my best images. Only images which I could defend from my own attacks had the chance of remaining in my catalogue.
The entire process, once done honestly and regularly, develops a certain sense of design and taste. The best comparison with the idea of visual taste is with wine. I rarely drink wine but on occasion I do have a sip. Of course, I could tell you which wine I liked or I disliked BUT that doesn’t mean it is a good or bad wine. I have no reference, experience or expertise. Only someone who had studied the wine industry and tasted a huge variety of wines around the world could develop proficiency and expertise. That person would be able to distinguish good from bad wine and, most importantly, articulate why. The same with photography.
To be continued…
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