Dear friends, something I realize: I think the goal we are striving towards is to become a more artistic photographer. What does this mean? And how do we do it? Some of my thoughts:
Art and photography
What is art? I think art is our way of configuring and reconfiguring the world. We could do it digitally, embodied reality, in our minds, with atoms, with streams, etc. We could use any matter, or “meta-matter” as our way.
For example, you could do in three dimensions, you could do it in two dimensions, you could do in virtual reality, you could do it in embodied reality, you could do with photography, music, words, etc.
“Good“ art versus “bad“ art.
Now this is the big issue at hand: because modern day society is all about ranking, there is a striving towards making your art “better“. But what does this even mean?
First and foremost, it seems what we try to do is to quantify our art. Why? With modern day society, we could only rank if we use numbers. For example, this is why we like sports: you could judge the superiority of somebody or a group based on hard numbers. How many points the score of the game, who the clear winners or losers are, etc.
Why photography is so elusive
Out of all of the art forms, photography is one of the newest ones. Also, because it is one of the more technical ones, a lot of the old-school artists look at it with suspicion.
But this is the funny bias: if you think about the great artists of the past, like Leonardo da Vinci, they were actually very technically reminded. For example, the way they used oil paint is extremely technical. Also, Leonardo da Vinci might be better seen as an engineer than a “artist“, yet it is his Mona Lisa and his paintings which have more valor and notoriety than his mechanical works.
So what are we to do about this as photographers?
Funny enough, the thing which has probably benefited me the most to improve my photography, art and creativity isn’t reading art, creativity or photography books. Rather, reading philosophy and studying ethics. Why? Essentially our table of values as a society is predicated on ethics, morality, and philosophy. Even if you think about what a PhD is; it stands for philosophy doctorate. That means, whenever you master your field, you are seen as a philosopher, or a teacher of that field.
So what are we to do about this is photographers? I say, strive to first unlearn all the negative prejudices about art which you were indoctrinated with.
Society and art
To the ancient Greeks, in which life was pretty easy and carefree, the highest apex was art. Reciting poetry in public, writing plays, philosophizing at the stoa, etc.
However nowadays, we are now the new slaves. For example, if you think about your email, even when you’re not at work, consider your mind enslaved.
Perhaps it is a thing about industrialization, and are further focus on self-reliance, which makes us valorize work, toilsome and hateful labor above everything else. It is a strange morality and ethics; to become more virtuous and good, you must become more loving towards doing hateful duties.
What is considered the most “useless“ thing? Art. Why? Superficially, art doesn’t pay the bills, art is not seen as “work“, and it isn’t directly tied into money. In modern society, the only way art is seen as virtuous is that if it makes you a lot of money. Otherwise, it is soon as a waste of time.
One of the greatest windfalls of my life is having Seneca. Currently, he is one year and four months old, and watching him learn and interact and engage with the world is the most fascinating and sublime thing of all time. For example, his infinite curiosity, and infinite energy.
His first exposure to art was probably through Cindy, who first taught him how to hold a pencil or crayon, and to write on a blank sheet of paper. To Seneca, this was amazing and magical; by moving his hand and holding this thing, he can leave his mark on something. Now, he likes to pick up chalk, and write on the sidewalk, or on chalkboards. He does not do this for praise, or money; he does it out of curiosity, just to see what it will do. It isn’t even necessarily “play“, it is more about experimental physics; figuring out his input and the reaction.
Perhaps this is the way that we should approach our artwork; to think of it more like an experimental physics thing. For example, what we do as photographers is manipulate light and embodied reality with our technical apparatus, which is a camera. And what is a camera? A camera is a device which captures life, interprets it, and spits out an image.
For me, the most artistic photos are the most subtle ones. For example, a tiny speck on the sidewalk, or a small detail, scratch, rust mark, etc.
There are certain visual triggers that we have, that which we are not certain why is a trigger to us. But it is. And this is what I say:
If you see something that is even .001% interesting to you, just shoot it, and figure out what to do with it later.
Digital is superior
This is the great upside of digital photography is that there is literally no downside shooting additional photos. Even a modern-day times, because of all this retro hipsterdom, the greatness and the grandeur of digital photography is not fully realized yet. I don’t know any really really serious photographer who is super gung-ho about digital. Everyone is always rhapsodizing about the glorious analog past. But perhaps this is more out of preference for the status quo and old way of doing things, rather than thinking carte blanche, first principles, and striving to use great human technology to the maximum.
For example, the greatness of Elon Musk and Tesla is how first principles he thought. Rather than thinking about how to take the past car and make it better, he thought about it blank slate. What should a car be, and what shouldn’t a car be?
For example, we charge our phones every night. Shouldn’t we do the same with our cars, in the year 2022? To me it is insanely bizarre and backwards that even in the year 2022, which is insanely the future, we are still extracting fossil fuels, producing gasoline powered cars, and actually purchasing gasoline powered cars. To me, only losers would buy a brand-new Porsche 911, or even a brand new Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, etc. Any modern car you purchase that is not a hybrid or an electric vehicle is unbecoming of a man.
Therefore, a very simple thought: to become a more artistic photographer, first recognize that digital photography is actually superior to film photography, and also consider all of the untapped potential of digital photography. Yes, we still have at least 5000 years ahead of us as photographers, in terms of what is possible in photography.
Even as an entrepreneurial thing: consider that now, with the iPhone camera, photography is at least 1000 times the superior and popular art form creation technology on planet earth. Any new technology, platform, service or approach you do with photography can easily make you a billionaire or beyond.
Some other practical thoughts:
- Think high contrast black-and-white, and use highlight priority exposure metering. In digital photography, the most ugly thing you could do is blow the highlights. If you obey the highlights, and don’t blow them, they will look sublimely beautiful.
- Currently speaking, the Ricoh GR 3X is the best digital camera. Pair it with an ERIC KIM WRIST STRAP or ERIC KIM NECK STRAP and call it a day.
- If you love color photography, I recommend digital medium format. The best colors I’ve ever gotten in the camera, whether film or digital is actually the positive film preset JPEG on the Pentax 645Z digital medium format camera. For color photography, digital medium format is the game changer.
- Look at things with an innocent eye. look at things without bias.
- Use macro mode. Get insanely close, and focus on the small details.
- Love decay, rust, corrosion. Typically speaking, gritty and grungy neighborhoods make for better photos than clean ones. Therefore when you’re traveling, or even at home, go to the places with some urban decay, instead of the clean-cut ones. For example, there is a good reason that all of my Singaporean friends like to shoot in Little India, instead of just going to the mall.
- Study philosophy, not “art”. Rid yourself of your prejudices about art, by ignoring art books. Just study philosophy and poetry.
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If this gave you any artistic thoughts or motivation, feel free to forward to a friend!