Big news; Flickr’s inscrutable algorithm has just chosen both of these images for Flickr Explore. It’s an exciting day for ocotillo everywhere!
Our upcoming & much-anticipated trip to Zion, Bryce and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has gotten shoved back to spring of 2018.
No worries, though, we’re on our annual New Year retreat to Palm Springs and its environs. I’ve always like the ocotillo. I tried to grow one many years ago and it was surprisingly difficult to establish. In fact, I ended up killing the little guy.
The fact is that even a healthy ocotillo can look kinda dead for a good part of the year. Then, suddenly, they burst into bloom. You judge. Who is the star of these photos, the ocotillos or the rocks in the background?
The countdown is on; there are fewer than six hours of 2017 left.
Photos of mine have been captured by Elickr’s Explore algorithm a handful of times. Each time I wonder why for a few moments before I remind myself that a computer program can’t see photos, derive possible relevance, think about or consider what the photographer may have been thinking about when the shutter was pressed.
That makes me think, why would anyone care whether one of their photos made it into Explore? I can’t come up with a reason that a photographer would be motivated to try to get his images into Flickr that could possibly relate to the quality of his photography.
After all, who could possibly aspire to impress a computer’s programming?
It’s easy to imagine one possible motivation residing in a miniature version of Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame, and I know some photographers who are looking for just that. At the same time, I can see Flickr’s motive in developing and refining the Explore algorithm. I don’t browse the images in Explore very often but when I do I see lots of close-up photographs of birds and a lot of huge landscapes with surreal or at least very dramatic color.
The photos in Explore are nearly always conventional in the extreme. The occasional unusual photo (unusual either in subject or execution) nearly always strikes me as something that made the algorithm experience the computer-software equivalent of bemusement, for a mere fraction of a millisecond. Today there’s a simple photo of a miniature figurine of a lion. I can imagine the data chain inside the algorithm wondering silently to itself, is that miniature lion really alive?
That question got me thinking about just how unlikely it is that the algorithm will ever be able to judge truly interesting let alone good photographs. Think of the objective differences between an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite National Park and the millions of other images captured from the same or similar vantage points. Now think about how you would go about creating a program that recognizes artistically good light and a well-seen composition. It’s hard enough for a human viewer to get a sense of what the photographer was trying to achieve and so wholly arguable as to how well that effort or vision was achieved. The genuine wonders of artificial intelligence notwithstanding, identifying good photography is going to remain a real problem for Flicrk’s algorithm. I’m sure the folks at Flickr are doing their best but it’s not very good.
This brings me to the photo of mine that found its way into Explore.
Crap, even I don’t like this one all that much. I took it about twenty minutes after the sun fell behind the foothills. I had been out looking for an oak I photographed back in April. Somehow, I couldn’t find it even though I though I was certain about where it was. Obviously, I wasn’t. As I hustled through the canyon, trying to beat the coming darkness, I spied this huge tangled mass of an old tree and looked at the road go on beyond it.
As I did I thought to myself, that old oak knows exactly where that road leads; towardautumn. So, I turned around and snapped this. Yes, I kept the branches of the tree on the right in the frame intentionally.
Now thousands of Flickrites have viewed it and hundreds have faved it.
No, I’m not upset this photo is in Explore.
Yes, it’s nice that so many people are seeing it (I suppose).
But, in the end I am far too selfish to care what a bunch of people who don’t know me think about one of my more marginal photos. I’m trying, in my way, to be a better, more aware, more sensitive and more creative photographer. It’s doesn’t matter to anyone other than me if it happens. Maybe in some backhanded way having this image in Explore has rekindled that singular clarity of mission.
It could be that Flickr algorithm is better than I thought.
Of late, I’ve been thinking a great deal about landscape photography. It’s not just because spring is drawing closer every day. In fact, the prime motivation is the fact that after eight years of using Flickr, I’ve struck up a couple of very interesting internet friendships. It happened quite out of the blue but soon I found myself exchanging emails on subjects that had previously been confined to the hollow space between my ears. To top it off, there were actually discussions about our actual photographs; imagine that.
Of course, there was a bit of the old, does my photography matter and a touch of is photography art sorts of questions. These are old and tiresome points of discussion yet somehow they can seem (briefly) new when bandied about by hopeful folks who simply love the potential of their photography. Anyway, one of the Flickrites offered the idea of his landscape photography as a kind of visual recollective of the places he’s been. I’ll admit that I cringed slightly at this idea. I thought of the millions who had come before him and the thousands of images they recorded, the vast majority possessed with the very same humble intent and I thought to myself, what is the point of that?
Now it’s true that far too much of my own landscape photography has been similarly simplistic and banal. If you have a camera, you tend to use it. If you’re standing before beauty, you record it. But, the problem, the point of a disconnect for me anyway, is the lack of the photographer’s own collective vision and intentionality effectively mating with the images that are in front of him.
Last December, I attended an exhibition of a guy I know from a local golf course. I knew the exhibit photos were from Namibia, a place I had never been. So, obviously, I was curious about the visual elements of the landscapes of Namibia. But I was wondering if I would see something more. The photographer’s name is Ding Kalis. I’d seen some of his work online but somehow that did not fully prepare me to see the richness and depth of his Namibia photographs up close and personal. Then on a cool December night, I stood gazing at this:
I realized at that moment that one rare element of landscape photography is the ability to see something, or even imagining if something can be seen, before a scene is witnessed. Of course, Ding knew these borders, these separations, existed before he climbed into the Cessna. This scarce and precious element of landscape photography is a kind of prior recognition that can show something that is entirely common in what is likely a wholly unexpected way. The end result is that the viewer is given a gift; the gift in seeing something new, or at least in a new way. The fact that the photo was taken tens of thousands of miles away is secondary to the novelty of the photographer’s vision. This could well have been taken on the coast of southern Oregon, or here in California, and it would still stir my imagination in the same way. It’s the way Ding saw the scene that mattered, far more than the exotic nature of the location.
Here’s another one of Ding’s photographs from the same exhibit:
Again, Ding had to have had the separations, the boundaries, between these dunes keenly in his mind before he actually witnessed and captured them. This is a huge part of good landscape photography and maybe the element with the potential to nudge this kind of photography toward art. It is, as I said before, the art of prior recognition. The scene may unfold before all of us in the very same way. But, when we have the ability to see what’s there in a way we recognize a priori, or maybe even expect before we see it, we have a fleeting chance to capture something of meaning, to ourselves at least, if possibly no one else.
I liken this to a writer settling down to write some verse. For his verse to be true, he must think before he writes. He must know what he needs to say while still striving for the best mechanism to convey it using the crude code of words. I dare say he must plan before he writes if he’s to have any chance of saying something of meaning. He cannot merely react to feelings or recollections no matter how strong they live in his consciousness. He must at once look to the future and into the past to have any chance of choosing his words in a way that matters to whoever reads them. Mere recitations of recollections, in either poetry or photography, no matter how well-crafted, simply cannot be possessed of relevance.
So this is the hurdle I see for the aspiring landscape photographer (and that includes me). He must learn to see before he sees and then, confronted with the vision he wishes to capture, must strive to recognize the relationships that were in his mind before he raises his camera and releases the shutter. If not, all of what’s regarded as the good landscape of the future will be captured by drones, hovering overhead with ideal perspectives, 24 hours a day, clicking away and recording images with perfect exposure and massive dynamic range. And, all of them will mean the same thing to those who see them. Nothing.
So now spring draws nearer still and with it comes opportunity for me to capture images of meaning and relevance. I want to thank Ding for the unspoken lessons that his Namibia photographs have instilled in me. I’m not sure the results will be visible in the images I capture this year, but I am hopeful.
Note: I sent a draft of this article to Ding and he was kind enough to add some thoughts of his own. I’m pleased & grateful to give him the last word:
Ansel Adams talked about “previsualization” though for him it meant seeing the final print in your mind’s eye and exposing for the result you had foreseen.
I believe what you talk about is somewhat akin…but to achieve either, one needs to be very ready to grasp the image as it presents itself. The more time spent looking at everything, framing every scene, imagining every light, looking for connections, for graphics within an image, boundaries and how and where the edges of things are, the better prepared one is as a photographer to find ways of expressing the meaning one searches for …
…This stuff starts to sound like “arty gibberish” until one finds oneself on the Cessna.
For me, that two hour ride was one of the more intense creative moments of a lifetime. In a short two hours I captured some fifteen images that were good.
That was only possible as a distillation of everything photographic that came before. No time to think about framing the image, no way to go back the next morning and get a different light. No time really to understand, just grab the image as it flies (literally) by and hope to recognize something afterwards.
Not to stretch a metaphor too far, but, to stretch a metaphor too far…There is no time to think of all the learning and practice that go into a golf swing between teeing up a ball and hitting it, the thing needs to be instinctive…so with photography…