Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Three things to think about from David Bailey

April 6, 2014, 6:49 PM

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“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.”

Indeed, it often seems easier to start from scratch, rather than work with something that’s already ‘on the canvas’, done by somebody else, be it a person or ‘nature’. This can be due to objective reasons (poor quality, outdated etc), or due to personal reasons (ego being the usual suspect).

However, I find it much harder to begin from ‘nothing’ rather than start with a defined idea, brief, a pre-existing situation. Christoph Niemann’s illustration about the creative process is one of the best portrayals of the sheer despair a blank piece of paper can fill you with. Excepting a few ‘lucky’ ones (for various reasons), most of us go through this almost daily.

I’ve often thought that, in photography, the work is mostly done by the time you get there. Nature, fate, chance, God, or whatever you call it, has already prepared ‘the scene’, whether it’s done, or being done right in front of your eyes. You just have to frame it, not much else. Of course, framing can be done in so many ways, and it often alters the way the subject is seen. Sometimes it can even change it completely.

“I try to simplify things by just having a white background and no distractions. I don’t care about ‘composition’ or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across … to get something from that person, even if I have to force it out of them by being rude.”

Making people feel something (interest, delight, compassion etc) is the best way to reach them, maybe the only one. It’s very easy to get caught up in details and forget the main thing: if people won’t find it interesting enough to ‘read’ it, consistency, ‘good design’ or any other high standards are worth nothing.

On the other hand, Mr Bailey is just making a point. Many of his photos are fine examples of composition. But that’s just a detail, the cherry on top of an idea that grips your attention in the first place. How many people did you hear saying ‘wow, what a brilliant composition’?

“The pictures don’t get better the longer you’re around the subject. The moment’s the moment. And you don’t want them to get bored with you either, because the magic goes. You have to get the magic quick. If I go to Delhi, I get off the plane and I start photographing, because five days later it all starts to look normal.”

What a brilliant bit: “five days later it all starts to look normal”. Our capacity to adapt quickly helps us in many ways, beginning with survival, but when it comes to creativity, it’s more of a problem. Things that are new, even amazing at one moment, are quickly taken for granted, even invisible. This goes especially for the last ten, fifteen years, with the rise of computers, internet and smartphones. New becomes old so quickly.

I usually get the best ideas in the beginning, thinking and sketching about it before I know too much about the subject. During this period, my mind keeps making connections, some obvious, some surprising, some maybe weird. ‘Five days later’, having gone deeper into the subject, it’s a lot harder to come up with anything unexpected. These ideas might be more relevant, informed, but they’re also less interesting, more fitting for the subject, and more like ‘the others’ (usually the competitors). Of course, the ‘fresh mind’ approach does need a bit of initial knowledge (one of the moments where constant curiosity pays off), just enough to get you going.  Sometimes you realise when you look back that those connections were common sense, in that field or another. But common sense gets left out so often when you get caught up in the brief, or the process.

On the other hand, some ideas you only get in pieces, incomplete. Time often helps, more pieces falling into place, usually if you don’t force it. Leaving them running in the back of your mind is the best thing to do. Most will grow, in time for the current project, or for a future one if not. Some never make it, and you can only hope that somebody else will make them happen at some point.

I know I said three, but here’s one more, to end on an encouraging note:

“I don’t think you’re ever successful. I think if you become successful artistically – as opposed to financially – you might as well stop and play chess, like Marcel Duchamp. There’s no point going on.

I’m distressed every time the contact sheets come back, every time I see the results of a job: I think, ‘My God, after fifty years of mucking about with photography I’m still getting it wrong.’ I get it wrong all the time, and it’s so depressing that I want to keep trying.”

Glad to see that I’m not the only one, endlessly digging in search of gold, feeling like a failure or a fraud most of the time. Judging by how many greats say similar things, it seems that once you stop feeling like this, you’ve lost the spark. Or, in other words, there’s no easy way to do it, it’s all about doing a lot of work. Strive for it to be good, and maybe some will even be great.

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All quotes are from “Bailey Exposed“, a new book edited by Bailey himself. A quick read, with great photos by Bailey, next to quotes from himself and a few others. Another proof that great ideas don’t need hundreds of pages, maybe even the contrary.

The top photo is a crop from Phaidon’s Look monograph of Bailey. Second photo is my own, taken at the National Portrait Gallery, the entrance dominated by one of Bailey’s portraits of Michael Caine. Classic. Worth visiting if you’re in London till June 1.

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One Plain, One Fancy

December 5, 2011, 8:39 PM

The nice fellows at MatDolphin are running a simple but fun project called One Plain, One Fancy — the title is quite explanatory, but the submissions are often surprising. Here’s my take on it:

I took the photos on Cavendish and Regent’s Street in London, using Instagram on an iPhone 4. The second one was quite a surprise, as it’s just a 5-min-walk away from the first one.

You can see more of my photos on Instagram (Statigram, actually, as Instagram doesn’t have a web interface — *hint, guys!*). You can also follow me on Twitter, as you can follow 1Plain1Fancy for updates.

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Changing light metering on the iPhone with Camera+

January 14, 2011, 11:53 PM

Long before every school kid had a photo-taking phone, or even before point & shoot cameras were cheap as dirt, photography was something you had to make sacrifices for. As a student, I could only afford shooting, developing and printing two films per month at most. Each shot meant taking a really good look, carefully setting the aperture and the speed and waiting for the right moment. After that, I would jot down on a small paper the film’s position and the used settings — the only way to learn how everything worked, days or weeks later, after I’ve finished the film and see the the printed photos.

But enough about the good ol’ days. Digital photography is king, and today Flickr’s most used camera is Apple’s planetary-successful iPhone (Nokia still don’t know what hit them). The iPhone4 has a superb 5 MP camera, with a very interesting HDR ability. Like always with Apple, it’s not about the specs — I bet the 5 MP iPhone photos look a lot better than most 6 or even 8 MP other phone-taken photos, but you can call me biased. Still, typical for Apple, you can’t manually set anything except the flash (my old Nokia N73 had quite a lot of manual settings, including 8-steps exposure compensation). Light is mostly spot-metered around the focus area, which doesn’t help much, since you can’t even lock the setting in any way. So, almost each time I took a photo, I wished I had my old Canon Eos 33 with it’s trust-worthy exposure compensation dial.

In comes Camera+ 2.0.

This handy app had quite its quarrels with Apple, being pulled off the App store a few times for making use of the iPhone’s volume buttons to snap the photos — a smart idea, which says quite a lot about the developers, but Apple didn’t fell for it, considering it an illegal use of the device. The 2.0 version got approved though (minus the nifty volume trick), and comes with a lot useful features, but most of all, with a simple way of controlling the metering.

… but add a second finger on the screen and—boom!—magic happens.

It’s all done very easily: the camera focuses just as the default one, when you touch it; but add a second finger and in comes the touch exposure control. You can play around with it on the screen and see how metering the light in different areas provide quite different results, from dark under-exposed photos to bright, over-exposed ones. Here’s an example, first metering the light in the brightest area, the clouds:

A beautiful sun-setting sky: the light is metered on the brightest spot, the clouds.

then metering the light in one of the dark spots, the shadowed house:

An eerie, washed-out sky: the light is metered in one of the dark areas of the frame.

Now, some will say that’s no big deal, as the iPhone’s standard camera can do pretty much the same thing. But what will you do when you’d like to set lens focus in one area of the frame, but measure the light in another? Take this case, for example:

Different focus areas, with similar metering — also, different White Balance settings.

In the first case, the focus is almost macro-like, very close. The metering is in the same area as the focus. In the second image however, the focus shifts towards the back of the picture — but the metering remains in the same area as before. There is however something else changed now: the white balance. Enter the White-Balance-lock button, the second reason why this app is great. In the second picture, the white balance is measured on the screen, locked, then the “touch exposure ring” is moved back to the same area as in the first picture.

These two features are the things that convinced me to buy yet another photo app for my iPhone. It has plenty more, like editing (cropping, rotating, flipping), scene modes and some crappy borders (heh, must give something to the muggles as well, right?).

So, Camera+ is probably the closest thing you’ll get to a manual settings camera feeling on your iPhone. And, for just £1.19, I’d say it’s a steal :) But just in case you’re still not convinced, you can also read the Camera+ 2.0 review on TUAW.


Note:
Some might ask why would anyone bother with SLR-like settings on a phone camera. I’ll just say this: the best camera is the one you have. Hope that’s enough to shoo the trolls :)

Further reading:
• If you want to see some real old-school film photography, check out Kit’s blog — Two words: Leica Noctilux.
Stanley Kubrick’s perfectionism leading to some special Zeiss lenses /via Gizmodo.

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China admits no mistake—seriously

October 2, 2009, 6:46 PM

All is more than clear now: don’t ever fuck with China. They’re this serious:


An instructor aligns the formation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Airborne Corps during a training session at the 60th National Day Parade Village on the outskirts of Beijing, September 15, 2009. (REUTERS/Joe Chan).

Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

(via Boston)

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Singing In The Rain Stormtrooper

September 26, 2009, 11:49 AM

Too much fun not to post it :)

(via jlist)

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Impossible Cool — the great ones

September 13, 2009, 9:12 PM

Awe-inspiring photography, thought-provoking quotes—watch and read some of the great ones that lived on this planet on—what better name than—the Impossible Cool.

My favourite quote:
“If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.” — Francis Picabia

impossiblecool-mifune Mifune

impossiblecool-ray Ray Charles

impossiblecool-caine Caine

impossiblecool-clint Clint

impossiblecool-sophia Sophia

Style oozes from their persona. You can easily feel that they almost don’t give a damn, that is what makes them so cool, so admirable. As Gore Vidal says: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.”

(Thank you Kit)

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Not giving up, no matter how blue

September 2, 2009, 11:10 PM

The Sartorialist took this photo:

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Here’s why he took it:

I don’t usually shoot homeless people. I don’t find it romantic or appealing like a lot of street photographers, and if you asked homeless people they are probably not to happy about their situation either. That’s why I was surprised to be so drawn to taking a picture of this gentleman.

I was being interviewed for an article in British Vogue; and while we walked down Bowery back in April I barely stopped walking when I took the shot. Fiona Golfar, the writer, asked why I took the photo. At that moment I couldn’t really explain – but I just had a feeling about the power and grace of how he was sitting there. It wasn’t until later that night when I was working on the image that I realized why I had noticed this man.

Usually people in this man’s position have given up hope. Maybe this gentleman has too, I don’t know, but he hasn’t given up his sense of self or his sense of expressing something about himself to the world. In my quick shot I had noticed his pale blue boots, what I hadn’t noticed at first were the matching blue socks, blue trimmed gloves, and blue framed glasses. This shot isn’t about fashion – but about someone who, while down on his luck, hasn’t lost his need to communicate and express himself through style.

Looking at him dressed like this makes me feel that in some way he hasn’t given in or given up.

Reminds me of Siddhartha. Or Narcissus. For all we know, he might be living his last life cycle. Who knows. But my guess is he’s free. Unlike most of us.

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Sage

August 14, 2009, 10:58 AM

Wonderful photo taken by my uncle, Petru Goja. It’s a burial stone from Peteritea, a small village on the left bank of Lapus Valley, northern Romania, Eastern Europe).

Daltuiri-in-piatra-Peteritea

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Tiny encounters—Dmitry Maksimov

March 18, 2009, 1:42 PM

Dmitry Maksimov creates wonderful stories by melding delicate illustration characters into tilt-shift-like photography. My favourite is this one, which reminds me of Exupery’s Little Prince and of Spirited Away’s Faceless. You can see more of his work on his website — much more, if you have the patience.

Faceless Little Prince

(via designyoutrust)

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Baldovino Barani—Beauty of colours

January 26, 2009, 10:59 AM

It is not very often that a fashion photographer proves to be so bold, considering how easy it is nowadays to fall into cliché. But Baldovino Barani easily plays with both black&white and colour, creating mesmerizing stories:

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(Thanks Catalin for the tip)

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