07. Testimonial

I’ve not written a testimonial for another Flickr photographer (yet!) because I’m afraid that it would make me sound as though I thought I knew what I was talking about. When someone, a long time ago, coined the phrase: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,” they were unwittingly talking about me. I do know what I like and I sometimes know why I like it. In fact, the photographers whose work I admire most are those who are taking the kind of photographs I, myself, would like to be taking. I know that I like their work because it speaks to me on an emotional level. But do I understand it on the aesthetic or intellectual levels? Sometimes I think I do; but most of the time, I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not even sure that it is possible for anyone to fully understand another’s work.

I find that the more abstract a work of art, the more difficult it is for me to judge. With a realistic interpretation of a familiar subject I have a frame of reference against which to compare the work; but an abstract representation of an intangible subject lies at the opposite end of that spectrum for me. For example, I once visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see The Nightwatch by Rembrandt. It was displayed in a small gallery, on the wall facing the entrance and flanked by two paintings of similar size and comparable subject – but totally different in their effect. In the other two paintings, the light was flat, making the figures look 2-dimensional; but in The Nightwatch, Rembrandt had used bright highlights and deep shadows to make the figures appear rounded and 3-dimensional. The technique used by Rembrandt in The Nightwatch was relatively easy for me to recognise and understand. But ask me to critique Picasso or Mondrian or Pollock or Rothko and I wouldn’t know where to begin.

I sometimes look at photographs that win competitions and wonder what the judges saw in them; especially when there were other candidates that were, in my opinion, far more deserving. And this raises the concern in me: if I cannot distinguish between a good photograph and a better one, how can I expect to produce photographs of quality myself? Perhaps this is why I find it so difficult to predict others’ reaction to my own images.

Recently, I uploaded two images to Flickr on the same day. They were both street scenes, taken on a visit to Hong Kong. Frankly, I don’t think that either of them was particularly striking in itself; but they were part of a series and I felt that the series as an ensemble did convey reasonably well the ambiance of the streets on that particular occasion;  so I uploaded them. Of the two, I felt that the one I called “Queen of the Alley” [Q] was by far the stronger in the mood it captured. The other, entitled “King of the Street” [K] seemed to me to have little appeal on the pictorial or narrative levels; but because it included some signage in Chinese characters, it looked a little more exotic.  I expected that [Q] would arouse more interest than [K]; but viewer reaction, in fact, was quite the opposite.  To put it bluntly, [K] was Explored while [Q] was (comparitively) ignored.  How could I have misjudged the reaction so completely?

King of the Street

Reviewing the comments received on the [K] shot (above), it would appear that the appeal lay in its tones/colours, the angle (looking down on the street), the clutter of bric-a-brac on view and the man himself. 14 people called it a favourite and I was invited to post it in 5 groups.

Queen of the Alley

The [Q] shot, on the other hand (above), received less than half the number of comments, was favourited by only 3 people and I was invited to post it to only 1 other group. Several comments referred positively to the mood created in the shot while others appreciated the “framing” but clearly I had failed to convey to the viewers what I had felt when I happened to glance down the alley that day and caught sight of this scene.

Every work of art is an attempt at communication where the author seeks to convey to his[1] audience the essence of something that so moved him that he felt compelled to share it with the world. Where the medium of communication is photography, the language of communication used is a visual language, based on a vocabulary of visual elements (e.g. shapes, colours, tones, light and shade) and techniques (e.g. DoF, contrast, grain, foreshortening, wide-angle distortion). Just as a writer assembles words to create the effect he is trying to communicate to his readers; and the composer uses notes and sounds to create the effect he is trying to communicate to his listeners; the photographer selects and uses the visual elements and techniques at his disposal to create an image that embodies and projects the message he is trying to communicate to his viewers. Of course, it is important for the photographer to have something to say; and the skill in communication lies in his ability to convey this message clearly and unambiguously.

Some images convey their message unequivocally; while others are more nuanced; more subtly wrought. In the case of the former, reaction is usually instantaneous and universal; whereas those images in the latter category require more thought and often produce a spectrum of interpretations as the viewer’s experience bonds with that of the author to create a dialogue between the two. Where the message of the photograph is not blatantly obvious, the reputation of the photographer plays an important role. Where the photographer has an established reputation for quality images, the viewer is more likely to take time to study the image, explore its nuances, consider its depth and seek out the meaning that he is confident resides in the composition of visual elements; whereas a challenging image from a photographer with no reputation may be quickly dismissed as a “dud”. With so many images to view on Flickr, it is understandable that viewers are more receptive to images that convey their messages quickly and clearly.

Generally speaking, we photograph what appeals to us. That is why some of us specialise in landscapes while others prefer to capture people on the street and others again are more eclectic in their choice of subjects. But whatever our proclivities are, within the broad arc of our interests we are each susceptible to fluctuations of mood and maybe we seek out or are at least more sensitive to subjects or interpretations that reflect our mood at a given time. Among the comments on my [Q] shot was an observation that the image conveyed a sense of sadness and perhaps this is why I felt that it was more meaningful (to me) than the [K] shot – because there was a pervading sadness in my life at the time I captured this image. And perhaps viewers who recognised this had experienced their own sadness at some point in their lives, which the image brought to mind.

The two images that I uploaded on that day were not pictorially dramatic; did not have big stories to tell; were not the kinds of image that grab your attention in a mosaic of thumbnails. But when I saw the old woman in the alley, something told me to capture the image. I do not know this old woman’s story; but I can imagine it going something like this.

I am disappointed that this image did not provoke the reaction that I had expected. I am disappointed for myself; but I am also strangely disappointed for the unknown subject whose story I attempted, unsuccessfully, to tell. So, this is my testimonial, to all those who find themselves in lonely, deserted places.

[1] I have elected to use the male pronoun because English does not provide a gender-neutral pronoun and the repeated use of “his or her” is very clumsy. My use of the male pronoun, however, does not imply that the point I am making does not apply equally to female photographers.


9 thoughts on “07. Testimonial

  1. Keith,

    I think your own opinion should count the most.

    But as an artist, there must be some reason that you took a particular shot and though you make think other shots are better does not mean that others may not enjoy and be inspired by the “lesser” shot.

    As far as “Explore” and comments by others, it is a kind of crap shoot.

    To get others to comment, you must comment and of course there are few people commenting who can appreciate what an artist seeks to do or even care what he is seeking to do.

    I have had lots of shots on “Explore” and I am always surprised at the ones that do not make it as they are some of my best work.

    Great article!

  2. I totally echo your sentiments expressed in this article. I stopped long ago taking pictures I thought would interest other people. Invariably the picture I preferred was not the most popular. My shots now are only of things I find interesting, and I consider it a bonus if others like them too.

    • Thank you Keith for your support. I too tend to take pictures that, primarily, appeal to me; and get added pleasure where they also appeal to others. I guess my point in writing this piece was that I had uploaded two photographs in a similar style, of similar subject matter, on the same day in what turned out to be an (unplanned) “controlled experiment” and the results were vastly different. By writing the blog piece, I was hoping to gain an understanding of why that was the case; why one image had worked while the other hadn’t.

  3. Intriguing issues you’ve broached. I haven’t the vaguest ability to address. I have wondered similarly.

    And while I didn’t feel a connection at first with queen of the alley, after your story, I did. I feel it’s my story, perhaps the story of all of us.

  4. Very interesting exploration of some good questions. Flickr is, in the end, a bit of a game. I, like you and most, never really know how anything I photograph will be received and I often wonder why I care if it is or not– but, in all honesty, I do care.

    As for both photos, I missed seeing them over the holiday break. Now that I have a chance to see them, I especially like the photo of the lone woman sitting in the distance. I see either loneliness or acceptance– I’m not sure which and I think the photo has plenty of room to allow both (and other) interpretations.

    I always enjoy your work even if I sometimes fail to comment on it– or, even worse– miss it.

    Happy new year to you.

    Cheers, Nathan

  5. Really fascinating article. When it comes to thinking about art, it’s too easy sometimes to dismiss everything as ‘subjective’, to say that it’s impossible to categorize into good and bad, valid and invalid, etc… i find myself falling into the trap of using only platitudes, giving up trying to analyse what works and what doesn’t. And you’re right, it’s probably got a lot to do with the sheer volume of work on flickr – it’s easier not to look too hard, and not to think! Which is a shame when it comes to many brilliant and challenging images. I agree with your own analysis of your two photographs here. I like them both very much, but the ‘Queen of the Alley’ is certainly the more affecting of the two. Brilliant imagination of her story, too. I love your writing! Dust off those manuscripts you mentioned! 🙂

  6. your articles are always so thought provoking.
    I saw both images back when and commented on only the K. to me, the K had more life, more drama, and its light pulled you straight away into the image.
    the Q on the other hand, was dark and moody and if, as you said, personal emotion is reflective, not surprisingly Q was less appealing.
    I found her sad and full of despair, altho the man depicted in K could be her husband on his way home from work.

    i do feel, as far as a work of art, that Q has the better composition, and focal point, with the light illuminating just the intended target. because this works so well, maybe it’s hard for you to reconcile the flickr reactions, as fickle as they are anyway.
    if the two images are dissected, I probably would rate Q as more significant, I simply reacted initially more favorably to K. on another day and feeling less vulnerable, perhaps my first impression would have been to value more the artistic merit of Q.

  7. Keith,

    you know your images are demanding. They are not the bright cheery, pretty, eye popping kinds, but the kind that need to be seen up close and slow.

    The image of your Queen really needs to be seen on black in large, then only did I recognize the mood and could appreciate the tones and the atmosphere. If this was an enlarged photo hanging in a gallery, we would not have to go through so many steps to actually get exposed to it and drawn in to it.

    So part of the problem for you seems to me is the medium, the tiny size in which your images first appears on our computers, at least for most of us. Too tiny to appreciate it’s subtleties, too dark to reveal the richness of tones and complexities of composition.

    No doubt, the dark mood in itself is a challenge for many, sometimes even for me. The news has been overwhelming of late and I found myself seeking peace in my gallery of ‘Satoshi’s Magic’ of extra ordinary, exquisite, calming and uplifting images of – flowers.

    I really appreciate your laying your feelings out in such great detail for us and sharing with us your vulnerability. While it is interesting to note others responses, in the end I hope you just keep on posting what means most to you, for whatever reason. I must say that this post greatly added to my appreciation of the two images you wrote about, and really your work in general. I am sorry for having missed their impact and importance before, om.

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