Photography is Curation (Part 1)

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: 

  1. Inspire – or in other words, use clichés and in-the-moment slogans for people to LIKE and SUBSCRIBE. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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…

2020 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

22 thoughts on “Photography is Curation (Part 1)

  1. You photo of the lamp post shadow on the yellow wall reminds me of Pete Turner’s work, which I always admired (guess I’m showing my age). I enjoy your work and your posts. Thank you.

  2. Hi Olaf,
    Your excellent article reminds me of the old joke about the photographer who curated his entire catalogue of images into three categories: good, brilliant and excellent. That’s the point isn’t it: it’s very difficult to be objective about your own work (apart from the obvious failures) and to improve you really do need constructive criticism from people whose views you admire.

    As always, I look forward to your next post. Best wishes, John

    1. Hello John,

      HA HA Good one! Thank you for your kind and thoughtful note. It is always great to hear from you.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  3. This is a thought provoking read Olaf, so true and very current for me. As a former film photographer where I thought through every image using all of the criteria you mentioned because of the limitations of shots, I have found that since using digital I have become less and less able to curate my images. In fact my inability to be honest and ruthless in editing my images has led to me almost losing my photo-mojo, particularly for post processing…not a good place to be.

    You’ve helped switch on the lightbulb as to why my enthusiasm has waned after so many years, so thank you for that Olaf – I feel several days of editing coming on and some real soul searching about my approach to taking photographs!

    1. Hello Lin,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with me. I know what you mean. I went through a similar period and it was tough. I am glad you found your enthusiasm again. Wishing you all the best and please keep me updated.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  4. Hi Olaf, that’s an interesting essay, I didn’t realise that curation -or editing as we called it back in the day – was a contentious topic. I thought everyone did it.

    My father was a keen amateur photographer and taught me the basics of editing. Out of a roll of 36 (this was film) I’d keep about 5 shots at the most. The rest went into the bin, not a backup file.

    Many years ago I belonged to a camera club. Whilst I’m not a fan of the camera club system and no longer participate, submitting photos to their monthly competitions taught me to edit (curate) my pictures. There’s nothing like receiving a critique from a competition judge to toughen you up!

    Now I participate in a photography collective with two other photographers and we produce books and zines. With three photographers providing input, the editing and sequencing process is very tough and sometimes I’ll have to fight hard to justify the inclusion of a picture.

    If you don’t edit you never show your best work.

    1. Richard,

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and story with me. It means a lot. “If you don’t edit you never shot your best work” – you are so right!!!

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  5. Hi Olaf,

    Interesting read and heading down a slippery slope. Who’s to say what is good and what is not? Actually, I prefer not to use the term “good”. Instead, I prefer to use the term “like”. You’ve posted pics above. I don’t know if they’re good or not but I know that I like some of them and don’t like others.

    IMHO, the only bad picture is one the photographer did not mean to take. If the photographer wants to take a picture that is out of focus and it comes out sharp, then in that photographer’s eyes, it’s not a good picture. Even if others think the sharp picture is better.

    Sorry for getting a little off topic but I think curation, good/bad and like/not like are all related.

    In the end of the day, when asked who a person’s favorite photographer is, everybody should have the same answer. 😉

    I really appreciate your blog. Very inspiring and thought provoking.

    Take care,
    Leon

    1. Leon,

      I appreciate your perspective, even if I disagree with it (please see my example about wine). It is great to have such a civil and thoughtful conversation. Thank you so much for visiting and reading. It means a lot.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

      1. Olaf,

        I agree, conversation is good. And, I’m not trying to change anybodies mind; just get some insight on a different way of thinking.

        So with your wine analogy, what would it mean to you if there was a wine you really, really liked, and a wine expert declared it a bad wine?

        Would you no longer like that wine? Would you question the ability of the wine expert? Would you drink a wine you didn’t like as much but the expert proclaimed as good?

        I think the wine analogy is very appropriate. You can also put music in the same category.

        Take care,
        Leon

      2. I would keep drinking the wine and but the fact that I like it wouldn’t mean it is a great wine. As I say I know nothing about wine. Therefore LIKE and GREAT don’t belong together. This is the reason why we have galleries, experts etc… The MAGNUM photographic agency would be another great example. In order to become a member you need to go through a very difficult process. No wonder they produce such amazing work and so many legends of photography belong to it! Great conversation!

  6. Greetings Olaf, it’s great to have you back on the blog again.

    I am currently in two opposite minds: the most I try to be demanding with myself, the less confident and unhappy I became with the results. I would even stop taking pictures (remember the Amsterdam workshop…?) When I relax and take images, lets say, easier, that I like, they are naif approximations to great masters ones, which is also discouraging, as you describe in the post… I feel as if I were not capable to develop an objective criteria about the value of my own work. Do you think just constant practice and time is enough to get it…?

    Best. regards

    1. It is great to hear from you my friend. You raised some great points in your note. Indeed, I hear it from many of my friends. Answering your question, YES, constant practice and dedication will get you there. I saw your imagery in Amsterdam and you are progressing very quickly. It is working!!!!

      Hugs to the entire family,

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  7. Thank you for the email Olaf. It feels like you are writing “from the bottom of your heart” and it is trully inspiring. Thanks a lot.

  8. Hi, Olaf – another great post with lots of food for thought. I think I am going to get much more serious about my own self-curation. However, I would like to add that I don’t necessarily agree on the timing of the self-curation as it depends on what your final goal is. For example I shoot a lot of models, landscapes, and other cultures. My end goal is frequently to create an image for final presentation entirely in post-production with PS, specifically an image that forces the viewer to see more than what my original image would have evoked (e.g. with textures and composites). Sometimes the best shot for this purpose is not discovered until much later when I am reviewing my photos for the umpteenth time. It could be a matter of lighting, angles, the amount of information in the shot, etc, etc. I totally agree, though, that with images like abstracts your early self-curation is probably a good idea.

    1. Hello Doug,

      It is always great to hear from you. Thank you for your kind note. You have a very good point about some post-production changes. I agree. My post-processing is quite minimal therefore I haven’t taken this into account. You can call me purist HA HA HA. While I prefer minimal post-processing I am not against other methods.

      It would be great to connect in person once things get better with the COVID.

      Cheers,

      Olaf

Leave a Reply to Leon Droby Cancel reply