On the Art Establishment – Revisiting Peter Lik’s work

It has been a busy week of moving heavy things.  That’s not great for photography but it did give me some time to think about an article I read earlier this week and I thought the topic was worth revisiting.  A few weeks ago I wrote about photography as art and specifically in relation to Peter Lik’s landscape photography.   In that post I wrote that Mr. Lik has worked hard to establish himself as a master photographer and that, in addition to his technical abilities, he is a master at marketing and selling his work.

Last Saturday, The New York Times published an article about Mr. Lik and while I think author David Segal provided a fairly balanced story, I think Mr. Lik comes across as, well, not the kind of guy I’d like to meet.   Two quotes in particular jumped out at me in the article.

I’m God.  Nailed it.
-Peter Lik regarding his success as defined by having a gallery in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas

Just a nice shot of Yosemite.  Right place at the right time.
-Peter Lik in response to master photographer Ansel Adam’s work in Yosemite National Park

So clearly there is some ego involved – but let’s face it, every artist has an ego.  I have one, I’ve seen it in my least adept photography students, and I’ve witnessed it in each of the artist interviews I’ve done for my intro to art classes.  I think that might be an essential characteristic for artists to have if they have the desire to share the product of their creation with the world and I don’t think that is necessarily bad.  The hope is, of course, that we can temper that ego with some humility – balance in life is good.

But this post isn’t really about how much ego Mr. Lik has but rather that he has been called out by the art establishment for, essentially, ‘doing it wrong’.

Before I continue, I’ll admit that in a way I am a part of the art establishment – I am a working artist and I teach art courses at the university level but I’m really the proverbial small fish in the big pond here.  When I write about the art establishment, I’m really referring more to the art critics, art dealers, galleries, museum curators, and big art auction houses (think Christie’s or Sotheby’s).

Peter Lik owns fifteen galleries and those galleries sell his prints in over a dozen major cities.  According to the article, he’s sold more than 100,000 of his photographs totaling more than $440 million in sales which puts him pretty much in a class of his own.  You might think that with those kinds of numbers the art establishment would be eager to embrace him but it is clear that just isn’t the case.  It seems that they don’t like his sales methods.

I’ve come to know a number of successful working artists over the years and one thing that has struck me is that, as a whole, we are really bad at marketing ourselves and our work.  In order to achieve any sort of major success, artists tend to need a bit of luck, a bit of help, and sometimes even to die.   Basically, we need the support of the art establishment if we are to have any hope of making it big.  I think the issue that the art establishment has with Mr. Lik’s work is that he’s found a way to make it on his own by using a sales formula that is highly successful.

It is almost comical in the way that they are discounting his $6.5 million dollar print sale because it did not go through ‘the proper channels’.  In fact, they didn’t even know the print existed until the PR media release announced the sale, but because it was brokered through an attorney and the buyer remains private, some have even gone so far as to hint that the buyer might not be a legitimate third party.  (Hmm, I wonder if I ‘privately’ buy one of my prints for big bucks if that will raise the price that ‘legitimate buyers’ will spend on my work.)  Mostly it has the feel of sour grapes to me.

One thing that I can say with some certainty is that Mr. Lik’s works will never achieve the same historical standing as that of artists who have been embraced by the art establishment and that’s not just because they are snubbing his work.  The real issue here is that his marketing is geared exclusively toward everyday (well off)  buyers.  These buyers see that each print is sold as a limited edition of 995 prints and as the line sells out, prints become increasingly expensive.  According to the article, early prints in the edition sell for $4000 while the last print can sell for $195,000.  To the uninitiated, that implies that his work appreciates in value.  To those in the know, that means that he is FLOODING the market with identical prints and there are too many prints in the market for buyers to even recoup their initial investment in most cases.

So then, what’s the bottom line?  By all means, purchase one of his prints if you like his work and can afford it.   I’m sure that it will look beautiful on your wall.  Just don’t call it an investment.  In that regard, Mr. Lik himself offers the perfect analogy:

It’s like a Mercedes-Benz.  You drive it off the lot, it loses half its value.
-Peter Lik on the poor resale value of his prints.

 

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

On color, part 2

Last week I wrote about color fidelity in photography.   I said that I thought that color fidelity was important for some images but not for others.  Nothing like a wishy washy answer but sometimes there is simply more than one right answer.  Today I want to write a bit about using color in an image and why color choices are important.

Lyle on red (more than a few years ago).

Lyle on red (more than a few years ago).

I’m sure you’ve all heard that certain colors can affect mood but if not, you might enjoy this quick read.  We’ve been conditioned to associate some colors with certain emotions, holidays or times of the year.  Can you guess what time of the year I made the above photograph of Lyle just based on the color of the background?   These associations are largely cultural but I think most people understand how color might be used in photography to convey a certain mood or to play off of these cultural color associations so I won’t really go into that except to say that these are both good reasons to choose certain colors for your compositions.  Instead, I want to share a bit about how a photographer might use color to help focus the viewer’s attention even within a color photograph.

Consider again the photo of Lyle above, do you think that he stands out prominently from the red background?  How would you feel if instead of being a tri-colored dog, he was an Irish Setter?  Surely Lyle here doesn’t exactly blend in, but do you think the red is a good choice?  Take a look at this next photo of Lyle for comparison taken on the same day but instead with a white seamless background.

Here he is again photographed on the same day but on a white background.  How does it compare to the red?

Here he is again photographed on the same day but on a white background. How does it compare to the red?

It turns out that, assuming normal color vision, our brains process colors in a pretty specific way – we tend to notice highly saturated colors before we notice desaturated colors but it is actually a lot more complicated than that.  Entire color theory courses are available on the subject but I think even incorporating a few lessons can make a big difference in composing images.  One of the things that I find interesting is that our mind plays tricks on the way that we see colors.  One trick is that our perception of color is HIGHLY subjective.  Check out these examples below.

Consider the blue squares, which one do you think is darker?

Consider the blue squares, which one do you think is darker?

Take a look a the above figure and specifically the two blue squares.  Try to look at them both at the same time then stare at one followed by the other.  Which one do you think is darker?  I’ll give you a moment to ponder the question.

Oh look - pretty flowers to make you scroll down before reading on in the post.

Oh look – pretty flowers to make you scroll down before reading on in the post.

It turns out that they are exactly the same color of blue but it appears to be darker on the yellow background than it does on the green background because we perceive colors in a relational way.  Cool, right?  How might you use that in your compositions?

Another way that our mind plays tricks on us is that certain colors seem to advance in the frame while others recede.  There are, of course, photographers that play with this concept (called neo-plasticity) but the most famous artist known for this kind of work was actually a painter named Piet Mondrian.   Check it this concept out by staring at this painting for a while (you might want to click on it to see a larger version).

Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow by Piet Mondrian painted in 1930.

So what did you see?  The black lines go a long way toward helping our minds see this trick but generally speaking, our minds tend to advance warm colors (reds and yellows) while receding cool colors (greens and blues).  Did that happen for you?  This illusion is more profound when viewed against a black background than it is on a white background.  With that in mind, I’ll share another photo of Lyle for your comparison.

How does the perception of three dimensions of Lyle on black compare to Lyle on red or white for you?

How does the perception of three dimensions of Lyle on black compare to Lyle on red or white for you?

Okay, so it isn’t exactly a fair comparison because the poses and the depth of field vary from one photo to another but I chose this photo because it illustrates how you might play with the illusion of depth in two different ways.  First (and not related to the color of the background), having his head in sharp focus while his feet and tail are a little soft suggests a certain depth in the image.  To get more to the point for today’s topic though, just look at his head against the black background.  The darker tones fall back into the background while the tip of his nose appears to advance significantly in the frame.

I’m sure now you are thinking that of course it is easy to manipulate these things in the studio but you can also use these concepts to help you visually organize real world scenes too.  One way to do that of course is by adding color into your composition but another is to change your point of view so that the color you want to emphasize is placed in the frame so that it is in front of a contrasting color rather than a similar color.  That can be as simple as shooting up at your subject so that you have blue sky in the background or down on it so that you have mulch in the background like this example below.

There was no use of selective color here, I just photographed this flower as it grew out of a rocky soil.  The color differences practically make the bloom jump out of the frame.

There was no use of selective color here, I just photographed this flower as it grew out of a rocky soil. The color differences practically make the bloom jump out of the frame.

I’ve given you a lot to consider this week so I’ll leave it at that.  Be sure to let me know if you have any questions.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

On color, part 1

Have you noticed more and more people using the #nofilter?  Or have you noticed lately photos where you’ve thought the colors can’t possibly be real?  And if those colors are not real, does it even matter?  These are the kinds of questions that bounce around in my head as I try to keep up with social media and as I review student projects.

The popularity of the #nofilter is in part a reaction to the common use of filters in Instagram – I think that much is clear but I can’t help but wonder if there is more to it.  Sure, technology continues to evolve so we are able to capture photos with more colors but I also think we are seeing more of these highly saturated photos because we are consuming visual media at an unprecedented rate.   And it’s no wonder – taking and sharing photos is easier than ever.  In fact on Instagram alone, over 70 MILLION photos are shared on the service EVERY SINGLE DAY.  That’s a staggering number of photos and that’s just one of several popular social media platforms.

Last week I shared this photo with you and said that the colors were pretty much as I remembered them and I think it is a good example of the kind of highly saturated, colorful sunset photo that I’m writing about today.

Wheat Farm at Sunset

Wheat Farm at Sunset

The colors in this photo are highly saturated and include blue and pink and yellow and orange – okay, this is starting to sound like the song about Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat so I’ll stop there but I think you get the point.  Anyway, I said this is one of my favorite Washington State landscape photos and the colors have a lot to do with that.  So what is it about brightly saturated photos that makes people stop and pay attention?

I’ll get more into these color preferences  (and how you might choose to incorporate them into your work) next week but this week I want to spend some time on the importance of color fidelity in photography.  That is, does it really matter if the colors are real?

M_Kloth_crazy_daisy_6437

These colors are accurate – does it matter for this image?

 

First off, any discussion on whether or not colors matter necessarily needs to exclude certain genres of work.  In photojournalism, for example, colors should be rendered more or less accurately because that is a profession where truth in reporting is expected.  Another example might be (but not always) commercial work.  After all, if you see a can of Coca-Cola, you expect it to be labeled with an exact color of red and white.  Seeing it in shades of pink and blue would go against the branding that the company has worked so hard to establish since it was introduced in 1886.

We expect a super handsome whigle to have these colors so in this case, the colors do make a difference.

We expect a super handsome whigle to have these colors so in this case, the colors do make a difference.

That aside, is accurate color important in an image?  Does it just depend?

To me, I think it does depend on the image.  Certainly there are some types of images that should generally be accurate (like portraits) because we expect to see people with ‘normal’ skin tones but even that is subject to artistic aesthetic choices.  In the end, I think it comes down to the intent of the photographer.  If an image is made primarily for artistic purposes, then anything goes – Andy Warhol (among others) taught us that – but if an image is meant to be a record of something (even just a pretty sunset or a rainbow), then color fidelity probably does matter.

I think I’ll leave it here for today.  Do you agree?  Do you think I missed an important consideration?  Leave a comment and we’ll continue to conversation next week.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Tips for photographing dogs

From time to time I look at the puppy photos of our first dog Little Bit and see that I’ve come a LONG way as a photographer.  She was mostly black then (she had the white lucky 7 on her chest) which means that most of our photos of her have little fur detail.  Still – I’m lucky to have those photos.   I’ve photographed thousands of animals since then and I’ve learned a thing or two on the way.  I’ve included some of those tips in my books but I’ve never written about them in this format – until now.  Okay, that seemed overly dramatic but I think you’ll find some of these tips useful so let’s get started.

Step one:  Find a willing dog to photograph.

Willing dog model - check!

Willing dog model – check!

That seems a bit obvious but I include it only to point out that some dogs (Hi Maebe!), like people, just would rather not be in front of the camera.  If you have one of those dogs, you’ll want to spend time working to desensitize them to the camera before you begin.  Sure you might be able to snap a quick image or five before they run away but if your goal is to capture a lifetime of memories, get them used to the camera.

Step two:  Find a good location for your session.

Okay, so you might want to take the shot in less than ideal situations anyway but for most of your photos, you can probably do better.

This isn’t ideal for your portrait session.

Okay, so you might want to take the shot in less than ideal situations anyway but for most of your photos, you can probably do better than this photo of Lyle.  Specifically, you’ll want to find a nice location that doesn’t have cluttered background and has fairly even lighting.  The lighting thing is especially important if your dog has both dark and light fur like Lyle because your camera will have a tough time keeping detail in both the highlights and the shadows.  Notice in this photo that Lyle’s white legs do not have any fur detail in the brightest spots – that’s because his head was not in direct sunlight and I needed to overexpose his legs in order to see good detail on his face.

Step three:  Eliminate distractions so that your dog focuses on you.

Is that a rabbit running by?

Is that a rabbit running by?

Sometimes you’ll want those sideways glances but let’s face it, if you are trying to make a portrait of your dog while the squirrels are doing squirrel things in your yard, you are going to have a hard time competing for your pup’s attention.

Step four:  Don’t use treats or toys for your session.

Keep the energy of your session as low as you can.

Keep the energy of your session as low as you can.

It is much easier to ramp up a dog’s energy than it is to calm them down.  If you pull out the bacon flavored super amazing toy, most dogs will find it hard to sit still – or turn off the waterworks (drool isn’t pretty).  Don’t let your pup know that treats are an option when you get started.  If you have a hard time getting them into the spirit of the shoot, then…

Step five:  Use toys and treats for your session.

Grrrr!  Vicious puppy!!!

Grrrr! Vicious puppy!!!

The key here is to use the least exciting toy or treat that you can get away with using (see step four).  If you can’t get your pup’s attention without the distraction, then don’t jump straight to the filet mignon of treats – start with the dry biscuits and see if that will do the trick (also your hands will smell better).

Step six:  Use plenty of light.

Because lots of light can make your dog look demonic.

Because lots of light can make your dog look demonic. BWAHAHAHAHA!

Okay, so you want to use plenty of light but clearly, you want to consider your light source.  I took the above photo in a dark room using my smart phone and the on camera LED flash – it perfectly illustrates why on camera flash is probably not your best option.  When you consider your lighting, make sure that your primary light source is not right next to your camera’s lens otherwise the light will leave your camera, bounce off of the back of your pup’s eye, and give you varying shades of green eye.  Your best lighting will always fall on your pup at an angle that is at least 15 or 20 degrees off axis from your lens.

Step seven:  Have fun!

And give your pup his (or her) just desserts!

And give your pup his (or her) just desserts!

 

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

On macro and close up photography

Macro photography has been around for a while, in fact, William Henry Walmsley defined the term photo-macrograph way back in 1899 (he also defined photo-micrograph but that’s a topic for another time).   He originally went to school to study botany but had to drop out so that he could support his family.  Eventually he found work in the field that he enjoyed by preparing slides of insects and plants for a number of scientists.  Today, if you do a quick search for macro photography you’ll see that plants and insects are easily the favorite subjects of photographers – and with good reason.  If we take the time to see these small objects magnified, it’s like a whole new world is revealed to us.

Strictly speaking, most of what we’ve come to think of as macro photography is more accurately called close up photography.  See, the definition of a true macro image is that it has to be at least a 1:1 ratio in object size to the size media is is recorded.  That is, the image that you record on your sensor (or film if you are old school) has to be at least life size.  Don’t think of that in terms of the print, but the physical size of the sensor.  Check out this amazing graphical representation of a penny and a digital sensor to help you understand.

Imagine the rectangle is your camera's sensor and the circle is a penny - that is the 1:1 size ratio that defines macro photography

Imagine the rectangle is your camera’s sensor and the circle is a penny – that is the 1:1 size ratio that defines macro photography

Okay, so now that you have that little factoid stored away for some future trivia night, let’s get on to something a bit more practical:  tips for close up photography (macro or otherwise).

This is not a true macro even though it was made with a macro lens.  It is a close up photograph of Spring's soft front parts.

This is not a true macro even though it was made with a macro lens. It is a close up photograph of Spring’s soft front parts.

If you are using a point and shoot type camera, you are likely limited to what you can achieve.   Point and shoot cameras usually have a macro mode which allows you to focus closer than you can in the regular focusing mode.  If you are using a digital SLR camera or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, then you can get the best results by using a dedicated macro lens.  If you don’t have a macro lens, and you are very careful, you can also try this trick – take your lens off of your camera, turn it around, and hold it against your camera’s lens mount (be very careful not to scratch the lens!).  You won’t have any of the automated features but your lens will now allow you to focus MUCH closer than when you have the lens on the right way.  If you think that’s pretty cool, you can even buy inexpensive mount adapters so that you can attach the lens to your camera backwards.

Gear aside, there are two main considerations.  First is that macro photography generally takes a lot of light.  And second is that it has a VERY, VERY narrow depth of field (DOF) – like millimeter wide areas of sharp focus when you shoot with your lens wide open.  If you decide to stop down your lens for a larger DOF, then you might get another few millimeters or (gasp) even a centimeter.

My grrrl Spring's right eye.  Notice that there is only a very narrow plane that is perfectly sharp (look at the fur more than the eye).

My grrrl Spring’s right eye. Notice that there is only a very narrow plane that is perfectly sharp (look at the fur more than the eye).  This is typical for macro photography.

So I’m guessing you know where that’s leading, and you’re right – macro photography is usually best done with a tripod.  The lighting is of course enough of a reason to use a tripod because you’ll want one to avoid camera shake but the bigger consideration is the depth of field.  Using a tripod will also allow you to carefully frame your subject because a very little movement can change your composition drastically.  A tripod will allow you to better study the composition to determine what should be in the frame and which part of the image should be in the sharpest focus.

This was a quick cell phone snap of the setup I used for the flower gallery images this week.  You can see that I not only brought extra light to the scene, but I also had my camera on a tripod and I used a remote to trigger the camera to avoid bumping the camera when I pushed the shutter button.

This was a quick cell phone snap of the setup I used for the flower gallery images this week. You can see that I not only brought extra light to the scene, but I also had my camera on a tripod, and I used a remote to trigger the camera.  The dynamic range (range from light to dark in the scene) was too great for my cell phone resulting in ‘clipped highlights’ in the flower.

So there you have it – macro photography in a nutshell.  Let me know if you have any questions and happy shooting!

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)