Manic-depressive photographers

The life of a photographer is an aimless wandering along a path consisting of equal parts of enthusiasm and despair. One moment excitement about the ridge that provides a perfect panoramic image. The next a desperate sorting of 100 confusing images resembling crap (not to put too fine a point on it). Hours editing the picture that you are convinced will be photo of the year and times where you feel like setting fire to the camera or stick your head in the oven when you’ve seen some pictures made by an obscure Russian peasant who makes yours look like schoolboy snapshots. Days when you are high reading letters from unknown fans on the other side of the planet, and days where you stare up at the ceiling wondering just exactly what the hell you actually do. Times when you shake your head over images from “photographers” who obviously lack any self-criticism or technical aptitude, but perhaps own a good camera. Other times when you flip through your own portfolio and wonder whether you are crazy about it or that you actually don’t have anything to contribute other than bad taste and colour blindness. And there are times when you wonder whether your time and money would have been better spent on a vegetable garden or Icelandic banks.

Thankfully the phase passes. Every time. But only till next time.

Over the years I have discovered that I am not the only one with these concerns, thank goodness. Mike Johnston puts it very succinctly:

“To be honest, must of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly know such a thing? Because most of everybody’s pictures suck, that’s how. I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, and most of his pictures sucked. ”

If this is creeping insanity, then at least we’re not alone 😉

But what is this phenomenon? In my opinion it is two things: Gratification and exploration. Gratification to gaze over the style, whatever it is, that has kept you busy recently. And constant exploration to uncover the gut feeling which a photographer and a beholder experience when they see something that is just amazing – and which yet has to be achieved. When this is finally achieved, the gratification from this style already begins to happen again, and you can revert back to your exploration. And this includes the equipment’s technical specifications, recording method, finishing, design, faces and stories. That’s why we are constantly searching for even better equipment, the perfect face, looking for the narrative that can justify the images to ourselves. Hauling hardware up and down stairs, and constantly crawling around in mud and knee-high grass to find EXACTLY the right angle that is the answer to our prayers. To pinpoint that special technique that will forever give the adrenalin kick we are constantly searching for. But every time the pleasure is all too brief, and we have to hump on until we experience it once again. And this is precisely what I have discovered – that it is quite simply a necessary evil. If you are not exposed to this alternating enthusiasm and frustration, then you have simply stalled or are unable to assess your own work with a certain amount of self-criticism. If you think you will find the perfect image among your 100 perfect shots then you have not understood anything. Because in essence, that is what it’s all about: 20% equipment and creative capabilities and 80% self-criticism, so that you can find one fairly good image among 100 misses, and then just get back on the horse and try one more time !

Ah well – I’m off to burn my camera!

It’s all lights and makeup

That’s what I tell people when they are occasionally shocked by some of my creative images of gruesome subjects. And that is actually one of the aspects of photography that is the most fun: How important light is for the final image. To move a lamp or turn it off can change the message of a picture more than all the finishing in the world and is occasionally exactly what decides whether the image is dull or exciting to see. Even I forget it sometimes – just move the light. So it is only when shooting is going too quickly for all the lamps to keep up, and one of them cannot be recharged in time, that I am reminded of it. I have many examples of excellent pictures in my archive, which were actually only good because one lamp was left out.

But let us take the picture below for example. Created to be fun, and generally a good example of a studio picture that could have been taken with virtually any camera. At 24mm, f8 and ISO 100, even the simplest mobile phone can keep up provided there is sufficient  light.

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Evenly lit with a neutral background – particularly dull for a portrait, but a classic setup for a stock photo.

Let’s turn off 2 of the 3 lamps in use now:

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Exactly the same setup (as exact as the model can keep his expression) but undeniably a completely different picture with a completely different atmosphere and story (I leave the story to you). In my opinion a much more exciting, photograph and story, but also clearly with much more concentrated applications as a stock photo. Let’s continue the experiment and subject the last picture to 10 seconds of finishing, so that it becomes black and white with a slight sepia tone:

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No longer a classic neutral stock photo, but a low key image that most of all resembles a split second in a movie. Just by switching off two lamps. Good for creativity and probably also good for the environment 😉

Absurd banalities

Stock photos is essentially about trivialities. Pictures of perfectly ordinary things in setups designed to give the impression of having been taken directly out of everyday life. Therefore the challenge is to get setups to look real while simultaneously creating an image which is photographically appealing – that is to say, not like anything taken with a mobile phone in everyday life 🙂

One of the truly fun aspects of my speciality is transforming mundane images to the absurd. Let us take an example of a banal image:

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It doesn’t get much more banal than this! A totally simple image that anyone can reproduce without complicated equipment, and with a minimum of props. Yet – despite the banalities – this is among my most-sold pictures and will be found in hundreds of publications. The picture lends itself to different interpretations and it can be expanded upon using text on the toe label.

I very often create different versions of the same image. Either in the same photo session, or else I might return to the theme later if new ideas occur to me. I have a lot of visual themes in my archives that are repeated in dozens of moods.

A good black and white version is almost a must. It conveys a completely different atmosphere – a little cinematic in appearance, and it can be produced in no time.

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Almost as popular as the colour version, but not far from banal. Let’s put some symbols to work:

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An immediately improvement! The picture can no longer be as universally relevant and its marketability is therefore considerably reduced. We no longer have an image which will be sold on the volume market such as Royalty Free (which means cheap) but must instead be upgraded to a Rights Managed image that fetches a considerably higher price and for a limited purpose. If the symbolism is not clear enough, it may be better if you think about the exhaustion of Christmas. That’s enough to kill anyone 😉

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If you think they are too abstract, then smileys (and sadley’s) are other obvious and easily understandable symbols:

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The possibilities are almost endless. Replace the label with an air freshener, a pair of fluffy dice or a picture of the classic, old-fashioned jumping jack, and the picture suddenly conveys a whole new symbolism and tells a different story.

I get most fun out of creating images where the setups and symbols become so absurd that not even I have a clear idea of where they can be used!

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The most fun, but not necessarily always the most profitable. It erodes marketability a little, but someone has to create them 🙂  On the other hand, the price can be high enough to produce a profit with the first order. And selling is what it’s all about.

My speciality – or at least the aspect of photography I am most passionate about – is not just the absurd and bizarre, but rather the grotesque. Pictures of the stories that are not allowed to be told. In an article soon to be released I will be telling more about how the absurd becomes grotesque, and how people react when you challenge the taboos.

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Outsourcing

20101107_MG_5345It is almost 18 years since I went independent and established myself as an independent operator – with all the financial uncertainty this entails. Since then, I have probably made the same mistakes as everyone else – and hopefully learned from some of them.

One of the classic mistakes I have seen many independents make, myself included, is trying to do too many things that are not part of the core business, yourself. In the beginning, when orders – and thus money – are scarce, it might make sense to some extent. But once business picks up, and there is enough to do using your specialised talents, it would be wise to start thinking about which areas should to be out-sourced.

These include wages, accounting, call handling, telemarketing, promotional materials, websites, cleaning, decor, photography :-), IT operations, property management and so on. Depending, obviously, on the nature of your business and your area of expertise.

In our multibillion empire 😉 we very soon entrusted these activities to others. Strangely enough, I made the abovementioned mistake yet again with the photography side of the business, which is probably a combination of my countryside thriftiness combined with solid professional stubbornness.

Over the years I have optimised my workflow considerably – from ideas to photographing, finishing and the necessary paperwork. There are two tasks which are obvious areas for outsourcing:

Keywording

When images are sold as stock photos, whether you do it yourself or through photo bureaux, keywording is essential. Broadly speaking, each image must include a title, description and 30-50 keywords that describe the image content, and will ensure that it will be picked up in a search of photo databases.

Over the years I have done a lot to simplify this task. Among other improvements, basic keywords are automatically assigned based on the model and overall themes. I also have a comprehensive listing of all the common keywords that I use for different themes. But each and every shot still needs individual treatment regarding the title, description and the unique keywords that apply to just that image. This process is time consuming and not exactly the most exciting for a photographer.

Keywording services are offered by several companies around the world, with prices in the region of 50c – US$1 dollar per picture, so I can’t afford to spend many minutes on the task. I have assigned my very last keyword to a picture!

Retouching

To a photographer, the finishing of the image is at least as important as its capture. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it represents half the finished product.

Finishing entails giving the picture the prominence and radiance you are seeking, and often getting the characters in the picture to look attractive. The latter includes things like removing skin imperfections (pimples, scars, birthmarks, etc.), smoothing out the skin, turning the eyes and mouth slightly, whitening teeth, moving the chin and/or cheeks a little and generally whatever it takes to make it all look just that much better.

The image’s overall appearance is undoubtedly the job of the photographer – it’s as much a part of my style as the composition, lighting, background and characters.

An individuals’ physical appearance is however very much a question of having an eye for what looks good and good old-fashioned Photoshop talent – that is to say, apart from the things which are best dealt with with make-up and powder puff BEFORE taking the picture. With only a limited number of hours available per year for the production of images, one should therefore weigh up what proportion of these hours you want to use in front of the screen with Photoshop – or if you prefer to spend more hours behind the camera instead. Regarding the latter – facial retouching – this is a task which can be relatively easily outsourced to specialists – and who might happen to live in countries where labour rates are more reasonable.

With prices of around 30-35 dollars for ordinary retouching there is a limit to the amount of time I can afford to spend on Photoshop with this time-consuming work.

I should probably also admit, hand on heart, that when it comes to facial retouching, I’m probably just too involved in technicalities and documentation. It pains me to violate reality in order to falsify a character into something he/she is not. Despite the fact that I know how important it is for the finished product, I don’t go the extra mile, where I perhaps should. So paying others to inflict the violence could even perhaps give things the extra oomph they deserve.

I’m currently in the process of testing several external suppliers of retouching services and so far it looks very promising. An update will follow.

Later I will be writing more about the technical aspects I have chosen to out-source – even though I am capable of doing them myself.

Capturing reality

With the number of friends I have among photographers, I often get the chance to discuss the more philosophical aspects of photography. Photo sites, both Danish and foreign, bulging with pictures that fall under the headings of street photography and documentaries, and it is difficult to find a site without at least one picture from a run-down city with poverty-stricken people. On the other hand there are far fewer conceptual model images and in my experience these are held in disdain, especially by street photographers and photographers of nature.

Model photographs probably comprise 99% of my pictures and my approach to reality may therefore rightly be classified as “fabricated reality.” I occasionally hear comments like “come out into reality and take your pictures” and come across folk with the conviction that my work is too easy and an imitation of reality. Not surprisingly, I suppose, my view is the exact opposite. It is too easy, photographically speaking, to go into town or travel to an impoverished part of the world and take pictures of slums, dirty children and toothless old people. In fact, I believe that it often borders on misery tourism and a lack of empathy, even if it is perhaps done with the best of intentions. I love travelling around the world too – healthy and stimulating for the traveller of course, possibly interesting from a documentary point of view, but seldom particularly exciting from a photographic point of view. On the other hand I find it extremely difficult to create staged images that can have the desired impact and express emotions and stories without appearing to be staged. That for me is challenging photography and one of the reasons that I’m passionate about my work in the studio.

But then, thank goodness, we are all different and I wonder if we don’t basically all want the same thing but in different ways: to explain to others how we see the world and try to affect them in the same way that we are affected by it.

My favourite website for inspiration and emotions is 1x.com. Here the best of the best images are selected in a rigorous review, and every day about twenty new images are published. Although toothless old people do tend to dominate, the selected photos cover a broad spectrum across all genres and styles and the quality is undoubtedly the best of any photo site on the internet.

Ix.com produce an annual publication. Yesterday I received their 2010 issue – “In Pursuit of the Sublime“. 205 photographs from photographers around the world, including myself, covering every imaginable field of photography. A superb and inspiring collection and without doubt the largest photographic publication this year. I am extremely proud to have received a mention among these prestigious photographers and photographs.

Browsing through the book provides hours of amazement from the most stunning pictures. From architecture and insect close-ups, to documentary images, portraits, conceptual studio pictures, colourful photographs of birds, sunsets and pictures which cannot be called anything other than dazzlingly skilled photographic art. If you’ve got $100 to spare, I recommend you buy this book. If not, take the opportunity to browse around the photo session at 1x.com . You will not regret it. This is real photography – the reality as seen through the cameras of thousands of photographers.

Beauty Clinic

Makeup and cosmetic retouching are issues which can often lead to heated debate in photographic discussion forums. Some see portrait photos as documentary images, designed to portray the person exactly as he or she is now. Others create pictures where the models appear with skin as sleek and smooth as silk. What is beautiful to one person can be repulsive to another.

I think it’s important to form your own opinion on these issues, an opinion you can personally stand for. My own views are quite clear:

In traditional portrait photography I obviously do not decide what people have already done to their faces. If their appearance is normal, that’s obviously how they want to be photographed. Or perhaps they would like to give the portraits a little extra glamour and have given their face the film star treatment. That‘s their own personal decision. Unless they wish otherwise, I am content merely to reduce any negative effects of the studio lighting, with for example a little face powder to remove the glare from oily skin or hide spots.

As regards retouching portraits I make a clear distinction: Transient flaws are removed. This includes for example sores, bruises and obvious pimples. Permanent features such as moles, scars and birthmarks are not removed. The latter may well be disguised a little, especially when high-contrast black and white images would make them more prominent than they really are. Teeth normally need a little whitening in the retouching, since studio lights and especially bright backgrounds can make teeth appear more yellow than normal. People don’t necessarily want to look like the Queen on their portrait, when that is not exactly what they see in the bathroom mirror. Finally, the eyes usually get some extra clarity, where details of the iris are highlighted and reflections from the studio lighting heightened, while the whites of the eyes are lightened slightly.

With model pictures the situation regarding cosmetic retouching is quite different. Model pictures are depictions of beauty, and products that I sell on to a third party. And buyers demand perfection. For model pictures all cosmetic defects are removed, permanent or otherwise, unless the flaw is a part of the design. Teeth are whitened to the limit, and if necessary the skin is smoothed out slightly and eyebrows adjusted.

I ensure that my models know that this should not be taken personally. That, even though I correct some blemishes, they still have far fewer than many others. Don’t go getting any complexes that I adjust them a little on the final pictures.
With child models I use no makeup – except of course where makeup is used for effect or to tell the story. Neither with those a little older where I do little more than apply a powder puff to dampen any glare from oily skin, and only very rarely foundation. The use of skin retouching plugins and other miscellaneous silky techniques in Photoshop is total anathema in my studio!

The Wardrobe

_MG_3823So, it’s time to renew the model wardrobe again. This time it is the branded product section with a few new and colourful items from Jack’s, Lindbergh and Shine. Not the most expensive, but it can still dent the year’s clothing budget :-/

The model wardrobe is an important (and maybe often neglected) part of photography. In the fashion and the traditional model industry it goes without saying that your wardrobe is almost as important as the model and the photographer themselves. In other areas of photography, such as stock photos, it is also significant. And even in portrait photography, I use my wardrobe and extensive collection of props when I create the slightly more unconventional portraits. Here a dressing gown, straw hat or loose-fitting shirt could be just what it takes to produce a striking portrait.

My own clothes do not exactly convey the image of a fashion icon. And rightly so – though this does not mean that I don’t know what looks good on others. It’s also not necessary to be God’s gift to haute couture in order to be a photographer. However, it does no harm to have a feeling for which colours go well together, which clothes look smart and whether they fit properly. Even if I do not decide what people wear when I take portraits, it is important that I know which wallpaper, furniture and props blend together. And if the clothes totally defy photography which is appealing, I am certainly not afraid to offer a few alternatives.

Clothing is all-important for stock photos. For several reasons:

Firstly, it provides contrast – so that the model stands out clearly from the background. The selection of colourful clothing also helps create a vivid picture, of course.

Clothing also tells a story. It is especially essential for stock photos that the picture is close to iconic. Even in miniature, one should clearly be able to see, at first glance, what the model is supposed to represent. That the viewer is in no doubt that this is a business woman, a schoolboy or a building contractor. Although a Bluetooth headset, a satchel and a hard hat are the most important elements here, the clothing contributes to the image’s credibility. The businesswoman’s headset would not be convincing if she were wearing a hoodie, for example.

The clothing and hair are exactly what help to establish the period. Looking at clothes and hair you can usually date the picture to within an accuracy of at least 5 years from the period the picture depicts – or is supposed to depict. This can also be a disadvantage, since this is obviously also the aspect that gives images a limited lifespan – but that’s life. To try to circumvent this by depicting models wearing timeless clothes will only result in an inferior, less saleable picture with reduced, if any, iconic value.

Last but certainly not least, I should also mention the psychological impact that smart clothes from a fashion outlet has on models. To dress the model in the newest outfit that has just come off the racks of the very latest fashion boutique can make them feel like a million dollars. Especially with new and hesitant models this has a marked effect which infects their entire radiance. And therefore the aura surrounding the resultant images.

Clothing naturally includes many other aspects. Clothes and their colours are to a large extent instrumental in strengthening the atmosphere of the image and the feelings of the model, but naturally there are far more subjective aspects than the abovementioned.

The wardrobe of a stock photographer should of course have a lot more than just clothes from the fashion boutique. I also buy clothes at the supermarket, online and in charity shops and I happily welcome any of your various castoffs that you may no longer need. A charity shop can be a gold mine where you can find the most incredible items which could sometimes better be classified as disguises. I even buy clothes wholesale, when I for example need a load of plain T-shirts which I know are going to be subjected to paint-, makeup- and/or food-stains 🙂

The choice is made more challenging when I photograph children of all ages. I need to cater for clothing sizes from child size 8-9 to adult medium, and because it includes everything from socks, summer shorts and bras to suits, hoodies and evening dresses, it goes without saying that this a significant item on the budget. Add to this all the accessories like shoes, belts, caps, hats, scarves, bow ties, chains, bracelets and rings. And a lot more. To organise the wardrobe, so that clothes can be found when you need them, is quite a task. I have so much that it cannot all hang on racks in the wardrobe room, but is separated into large storage boxes, so it is easy to find when you need it. In fact organising the props is just as important as planning the next photo shoot. Not to mention that it needs to be easy to find when you suddenly get a great idea or have some time left to improvise during a photo session.

Copyright Hell

20110123_MG_7877 copyCan this photo ever be a stock photo?

The question is obviously rhetorical and the answer is no. The picture can be sold as art on paper – or as an editorial image which cannot be used commercially.

Why? Because there are newspapers in the background with headlines, text and images which to a certain extent can be recognised and attributed to copyright holders.

At the same time, the image is a good expression of the frustration that stock photographers often experience when it comes to copyright.

Everyone who produces stock photos knows that final images may not contain recognised trademarks. It is the first rule for stock photo agencies that brands such as company logos are strictly prohibited on images. It is a very simple rule which could also be classified as common sense. Naturally, companies’ trademarks cannot be included in pictures sold for other purposes.

Danish, and most European, legislation is based on common sense, and both the interpretation and the common perception thereof may be considered reasonably pragmatic. Unfortunately the stock photo industry is largely based on U.S. law, since most stock photo agencies are American or trade with the U.S. and must therefore respect their laws.

Common sense suggests that trademarks, artwork and recognisable designs may not have a significant impact on the image, unless permission from the trademark owner has been obtained. In Denmark, it would hardly be considered a problem if a stock photo showed the easily recognisable Carlsberg beer bottle in the background or if a person wore clothes that can be recognised as a Danish Post Office uniform, or where a discreetly placed Hummel logo appeared. At least as long as the image is used in a context which can neither be misunderstood or grossly misused. But it is due to exactly the fact that nobody knows how a stock photo will end up being used, that has led to the control of brands becoming pure madness.

Over the years I have experienced rejections of images on situations where I, despite my awareness of these conditions, had not considered some very small details. Like for example, the pattern on the back of playing cards which formed a small part of the subject – the pattern is a piece of art and therefore copyright protected. Or the text on the spine of a book. Or a small piece of visible text (two or three lines) from an old book, which similarly formed a small piece of intellectual property.

It inevitably makes you wonder when an item is visible and/or recognisable enough to be a problem. How recognisable is an arbitrary piece of IKEA furniture on the photo and how centrally located need it be in order not to be a problem? If I compose an image around Jacobsen’s “Seven” or “Egg” chairs, I can easily understand that this may be a problem. But what about cheap everyday furniture, which is after all copyright protected to some extent? Not easy to answer.

What about ordinary interior design objects that may have been purchased in a supermarket, but nevertheless has been designed by someone who earns an income from that design? Including not least the murals which form the blurred background image? Equally difficult to answer and must be considered a total grey area in the industry. For this very reason I even produce paintings with the sole purpose of forming the backgrounds in my compositions. I also often create unique book covers, computer screen images, bar codes, tattoos and the above-mentioned playing cards, for the sole purpose of avoiding any problems with copyright violation.

How recognisable must the design of a car or a laptop be before it becomes a problem, even when there are no visible trademarks? Clothes are in a category of their own. There are probably very few who think of the fact that there are logos and trademarks on shirt- and trouser buttons, on the edge of the frames of spectacles and on the face of a wrist watch. There are – believe me  🙂 To fine-comb an image for trademarks, and preferably before the picture is taken, is a huge task. Patterns are a grey area. When is a shirt- or tie pattern artistic enough to be copyrighted? Not to mention the patterns on a carpet or wallpaper. Generally, simple designs could not be – after all no-one has a patent on dots and stripes. But when are stripes and colours so special that they form a recognisable and protected design? Difficult to answer unequivocally, and I am most likely to interpret the rules in favour of any copyright holders.

In their eagerness to avoid possible litigation stock agencies have recently gone a step further. Several have announced that they now not only check the images for copyright violations but also descriptions and keywords. Now you may not use words in the metadata which in any way can indicate a connection between the image and a product or brand. You can also expect that these rules will be rather strictly interpreted.

Buildings are of course also included, as these are often private property. Generally, the better-known buildings are exempt – for example, most major bridges could be included in the background of an image without a problem, as well as official buildings such as The White House or Edinburgh Castle. This also applies to e.g. the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower – in daylight. At night the Eiffel Tower is illuminated and considered a work of art, and copyrighted. There are also works of art which are exempt – such as those found on bank notes. Pictures of banknotes are fortunately still allowed as long as you comply with national banking regulations not to reproduce banknotes in a form which can be considered counterfeit. Unfortunately, Photoshop includes a banknote recognition algorithm, which is sometimes a little strict, so even here it is difficult 🙁

This ends an article which provides more questions than answers – because there are not many clear answers in the fringe areas of these issues. Hopefully it can be a help to aspiring stock photo photographers to avoid some pitfalls and thus avoid wasting their time on images that risk being discarded by photo agencies.

The image in the introduction is obviously not an accident. It is not designed to be a general stock photo. If it had been, I would have avoided any composition detail in the papers which would be recognisable, thus losing the point. Alternatively, I would have used newspapers so old that all copyright holders had been dead for at least 70 years, which obviously is a little difficult. Or even have produced fake newspaper pages, but this would only leave me with the problem of explaining this fact to each and every photo agency to whom I sold the picture.

Or I can choose to classify the picture to be filed in the archive of editorial images or conceptual art. Thankfully, the margins here are truly wide 🙂

PhotoShelter synchronization

I’m a very happy user of PhotoShelter. PhotoShelter provides me with easy online presentation of my work, extensive administrative functions with galleries and collections, search functions for the customers, advanced pricing profile setup and a complete shopping system with payment transactions, billing, download etc.

They do unfortunately lack a few features. The most important one is the ability to synchronize the online photo archive with my local files.

The way I work, I often make changes to older photos in my archive. Minor color corrections, removal of small skin blemishes, changes to the cropping and now and then also the addition of images that were once discarded. The most frequent change is adding keywords and descriptions to images – a task that is often taken care of weeks later than my first publishing of the image.

Without the ability to automatically synchronize my local files to the PhotoShelter archive I would have to do this manually. Export the new image from my local administrative software (Adobe Bridge), locate the corresponding file on PhotoShelter, manually replace the file and wait for the upload to complete. Then carry on with the next file…

With thousands of images in my archive, this would be a tedious and time consuming task. One of those things that would slowly kill me – and indeed kill all motivation to improve my online archive.

Fortunately I’m also a programmer… A few months back I started digging through the javascript code behind the PhotoShelter administrative interface to find out how they handled the manual update of files. Based on that I created a script that would run on my own machine and make batch updates of the PhotoShelter archive. It have worked very well ever since 🙂

The script requires PHP 5 on your local machine to run. Instructions on use can be found at the top of the script.

This script is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU Lesser General Public License for more details.

You can download it from:

http://www.jhandersen.com/psupdate.zip

I have since then made an improved version that will not only update the exported JPEG files, but will also update titles, descriptions and keywords stored in either XMP, PSD or JPEG files. Very soon I will clean this up (remove code that is of no relevance to anyone but me) and make it available for download.

Until then – happy updating! 🙂

Photographic taboos

Right! I reckon that picture got your attention. I’ll get back to it shortly.

I would be the first to admit that the best known examples of my photography can probably be considered pretty strange to outsiders. That’s not really a mistake, nor is it a sign of a blown fuse at the back of my head somewhere. I do love happy and fun pictures, and my private collection of holiday pictures, family reunions and scouting trips is tangible evidence that I can use the camera for more normal pictures and that my own world is filled with fun, colour and romance. The slightly sinister and bizarre has however become an ingrained part of my world of images, and I sometimes find it almost too easy to get a landscape or celebration photo to take on a little more obscure twist.

The world is full of thousands of stunningly brilliant photographers. Among whom a great many whose skill I deeply admire and respect and which I can in no way imitate. And why should I? Then there would be more people doing the same thing and, quite frankly, this makes no sense at all.

The reason my image production turned toward the darker side of life was initially just a series of coincidences. Only later did it become based on reason, when I discovered that there was indeed a need and a demand for such images for articles, brochures and so on. Because nobody else makes them. At least not to the extent I do. And if you don’t want to be just another random photographer among thousands of at least equally good photographers, then you have to offer something unique. That’s the main reason that I am still in business creating stock photos today.

Perhaps it is not entirely true about it being a coincidence, because there are two factors which have played an important part. One is that I dare. Because I really do not care what others think about what I do. If some think that I’m way out, a “pompous fool” or “sick in the head” then they obviously don’t know me, so I’m so indifferent that you can’t even imagine how indifferent I am. The second factor is that I like to provoke. Not only for the sake of provocation. If that were the case I could just say stupid things regardless of whether they fit or not. No, more like provocation to challenge some people’s somewhat staid opinion of what is right and wrong – because I think that is interesting to explore.

The photo above is a really good example of the latter.

Everywhere this has been exhibited it has led to vigorous comment. The great majority positive and appreciative, but also some negative. And it is the negative that interests me most, because I think it’s intriguing to explore the kind of mechanisms that cause people to react so strongly to such an image. For that is exactly what it is: An image – no more, no less. And it is patently obvious that it is staged and not taken a split second before the youngster left this world. This produced reactions like for example being told that I am “sick in the head” and “should be thrown in jail” and I “make a mockery of death”. Pretty serious inferences when all I did was illustrate something that actually happens all too often. In reality.

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There could be many reasons. People might be reminded of tragic experiences in the family. Perhaps it is rooted in religion. It might also be that they belong to the type of people who believe that graphic depiction of violence and death drives certain people to carry out such deeds, and therefore their protests are misguided concern. Then obviously there is a very small minority who do not understand that it is fabricated and even ask how it went for the boy. Whatever the reason, I find it very strange when people react negatively. Do they not read newspapers? Or is it simply that they’re tired of reading these reports in newspapers? But why do they not tackle the problem instead of attacking the photographer who portrays it?

I have wondered for years and I can’t claim to have discovered the Philosopher’s stone yet. All those who over the years have reacted negatively to any of my pictures have, where possible, received a personal response from me. A reply where I am probably surprisingly hospitable and grateful for their time and opinions, and which probably takes the wind out of their sails. Then I ask whether their reaction is due to what the picture depicts, or the fact that I’ve created the image. The answer is almost always the former, but then I have not yet received any sensible response when I ask why I should not be able to create an image of something which is part of our reality, in the same way as birds in trees or cows in a meadow.

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To illustrate, let me tell you about the guy who thought I deserved to be thrown into jail for the picture at the beginning of this article. He was American – surprise! 😉 When I explained to him that it was in fact simply theatre in single images, and basically no different than for example film, his answer was that all filmmakers should also be thrown into jail. The discussion ended there …
My only conclusion to date is simply that there is a classification of images that for some people just are taboo. Something you do not touch – without there being any rational explanation for the reasons why. Nothing other than that “it is wrong.” But, realistically, is it not remaining silent about reality that is wrong?

I make it sound as if it is just a few individuals who have strayed. A small group of people with a blinkered view of reality. Unfortunately this is not the case. It is very much culturally based. I do not have the knowledge to embark on either anthropological aspects or speculations about group dynamics and political correctness. However, I can clearly see that the picture at the top of the article is unsaleable on American soil. Or rather: there is no American photo agency that would offer it for sale. Despite this, it has sold well one way or the other and graces the cover of at least one psychology manual.

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The adjacent picture is another example of something that is too audacious for some photo agencies. For a short while, I discovered that my products had begun to tend towards what agencies would accept. When this dawned on me, and it had transformed my pictures into a more generic and bland category, I stopped it immediately, and divided my products into pictures for photo agencies and images for direct sale.

I think it’s exciting to photograph subjects which are unusual. A long-term on-going project is to portray the 25 most common mental disorders, behavioural disorders and phobias with 20 photos each. This will broaden my collection of unique themes considerably, but I am hardly doing it because of wretched greed. Nor to make fun of those serious issues. It is because somehow it makes sense for me to do so. It is a challenge at the creativity level and gives me the opportunity to consider problems and issues that interest me.

I am well aware that my current series with titles like “Moments from the Morgue”, “School shooting” and “Suicidal children” make some people choke on their insipid cup of coffee. When I create these pictures with children and young people, they choke yet again, since it significantly increases the impact. So be it. If the titles were “Birds,” “Sunset” and “Happy People”, I would not have very many customers, because there are many others who do things like that way better than I can. And I would have been bored to death. So I can choose to make what customers will buy or make what already exists in the thousands.

To me there are no taboos in photography. I respect that some people don’t want to look at my images, so be it. But I will never allow it to limit me. I want photos with impact – real or staged, studio or street, color or monochrome. Bring it on.

Finally let me point out that the kids in the images wasn’t harmed in any way. They are still very happy and healthy young people that actually think the photos are quite cool. And so do I.

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