Harness And Make Sense Of The Noise

- - The Future

If anything is the antithesis of Instagram it’s Mary Ellen Mark carrying a 400 pound Polaroid 20×24 Land Camera into your prom to make a picture. And, if anything separates professional photographers from the pack it’s a book like Prom: a collection of 137 portraits from 13 schools across the country, shot between 2006 and 2009 that includes a documentary produced by Mark’s husband, Martin Bell (story on NPR: Not Your Average Prom Portraits).

But, I think professionals are doing their audience a disservice by not figuring out a way to incorporate the millions of images available online into projects of this scope. Whether it’s some kind of curation, software automated mining or public participation, ignoring that resource is a mistake. This is a wonderful and unknown time for photography, everyone should consider ways to harness and make sense of all that noise.

There Are 29 Comments On This Article.

  1. Honestly, if your going to do such a huge production why not hire a great photo assistant that knows lighting and can help you create a better image; especially if your spending so much money on large format.
    As great a series as this, with so much potential that could have been.
    Mary Ellen Mark missed the mark by doing such a crap job of lighting.
    Nothing in this series that a 1st year SVA or Parsons photo student could not have done given the same budget.
    Reminds me of the time she would not hire an experienced assistant for a project and took a “Noobie” who let sand get in all of the 4×5 film holders while shooting in the desert.

    • Kevin, what is a “better image”?

      Technically, maybe, these look underdeveloped but I bet you that it has to do with being reproduced by copy or scanning and then put into a video format.

      But this is really besides the point, I found the images (especially with the video) incredibly engaging and moving. I wanted it to be longer and can’t wait to watch the video and look at the book.

      A first year student COULD make those images/video and I would love it just as much.

      Tell a story, engage your audience.

      • “Technically, maybe, these look underdeveloped but I bet you that it has to do with being reproduced by copy or scanning and then put into a video format.”
        Often times, second or third generation reproduction quality occurs during this process. Here’s a better scanning rendition http://nyti.ms/HNWgel (View on full screen).

    • Perhaps a 2nd year student would know that “good lighting” is relative and often irrelevant.

    • What value would slick lighting add to the emotion of the images? Are you sure they wouldn’t detract from the push / pull between the craft of a large Polaroid and the look of spontaneity the images present? Just an observation, not a criticism.

  2. To Rob,
    I’m confused with what you’re saying. Are you saying that M.E.M’s project is a way to, ‘harness the noise,’ or are you using her project as an example of one that is ‘doing a disservice to her audience?’ Do you think that she should be incorporating other resources into her project so that viewers have the some ability to crowd-source or comment?

    To Kevin,
    Not all photographers believe that ‘well-lit’ means ‘bright.’ Perhaps it was more important for these images to look timeless and dim, then commercial and shiny.

    • I think it’s a missed opportunity to not tap into sea of prom pictures available in social media. MEM, of course doesn’t need to but others will. In a way it’s not far off from hiring someone to handle operating the camera and the photographer coordinates all the pieces into something original and insightful.

      • If MEM doesn’t need to, then why did you use her as an example? Why does anyone need to? It’s hard enough to find time to work on my own photo projects; the last thing I want to do is waste time “curating” some g-damn photo slush pile.

        • you need to because nobody will ever make a mark in photography ever again simply operating a camera. I mean… you can have a job… and probably that’s all you want but certainly not MEM’s goal.

          • Rob, I’m wondering if you can expand on this in a future post i.e. tapping into crowd-sourcing and commenting. If I have a compelling subject or story for my photographs/video/media, how should I make a ‘call to action’ to inspire other photographers, ‘instagramers’, bloggers etc. to comment or add-to my work without completely overwhelming my work and without sufficient html and coding resources? My first instinct would be to post on my blog, then flickr, then facebook and hope that the word gets out. Then I might post a video to vimeo and hope there’s a response. Very interested on this subject…..

          • Andre Friedmann

            “nobody will ever make a mark in photography ever again simply operating a camera”

            This is a remarkable, this clear assertion about opportunities for ambitious photographers. While I don’t know if this is true, I admire the clarity. Maybe the long-winded version of this is “you better have a team” *and* “you better have a schtick”. In 1976 Norman Snyder’s “The Photographer’s Catalog” described MEM as possessing the crucial hustle needed to succeed at editorial work.
            Based on the web reproductions in the New York Times, MEM’s Polaroids hold the promise of beauty. It’ll be fun to see the big prints on display somewhere, some day.

  3. @Kevin – I’m not sure what you are saying here; “lighting” and “post production” ARE NOT photography. I’m getting tired of these emerging photographers that believe photography is all about equipment, lighting and Photoshop technique. I’m sure Rob has pointed out numerous times; in (commercial and editorial) photography – “it’s who ya know – what ya know – and how you use it.” Good lighting? LOL. What’s that? An “action” in Photoshop? My two cents.

    • I understand what you’re saying about the lighting; anyone from film days and who has worked with a great photographer does, along with how forgiving digital is now with, as you say ‘crap’ lighting. But with these if you saw the original pieces, the impact would be impressive.. would love to use that thing for portraits! The process reminds me of Richard Avedon’s old home page shot, his knowingly engaging eye contact with the subject. They’ll be around a lot longer than portraits off your phone..no matter how much ‘instagramming’ you do.

  4. Tamara Reynolds

    Perfect description of it (the Instagram)….Noise. It is a lot and it is incredible. Make my head spin.

  5. These images are about these kids at this moment, a right of passage in their lives. The photos are beautiful in their simplicity. High production doesn’t necessarily make pictures great, the ability to genuinely relate to your subject and allow them to be their naturally beautiful selves…that’s what a great portrait is to me.
    Mary Ellen Mark got it!

  6. These are sophisticated portraits. More importantly, they are Mary Ellen Mark portraits, not Disfarmer portraits, or Penn portraits, but Mary Ellen Mark portraits. I think it is important to take a critical look at your own work before criticizing someone else’s.

  7. “you need to because nobody will ever make a mark in photography ever again simply operating a camera.” what does this mean? not being flippant here – I sincerely want to understand the why of this statement.

  8. OK so we are plowing the old Diane Arbus ground again?
    Sorry, Mary Ellen Mark does have a history and a reputation but this work is pretty derivative with the added layer of a voyeuristic video.
    I am really tired of work that basically mocks people from behind the fiction of caring about them.
    These people are being used plain and simple.

  9. Great point Rob, There is a lot to life that is passed over, just because MEM used a camera that requires two men, one boy and a girl to move it is not the point. Today’s graduation photo’s have turned into high school fashion shoots. The real essence of graduation has been lost.

    One thing that can be taken form this is that personal work at times can span multiple years. kudos to her keeping to the story.

    • DC-Photographer

      But I don’t think MEM is offering any “real essence” of graduation either: her images are just as ‘staged’ as the super-airbrushed, posed, and heavily processed images of today’s top graduation photographers. I agree 100% that the big analog equipment and film is not the point; my point is that all images are biased visions of the artist who created them.

      My interpretation of the lighting technique MEM used here was entirely intentional, perhaps to enhance an aura of lost memories and reverie, contrasting that with the contemporary looks and attitude of today’s youth. I think images are challenging once you peel-back the onion further.

  10. the photos are great. I think it is perfect the way it is – I’m not sure where a “disservice” comes in to play or why using “millions of images available online” is going to make it better…in fact I would argue that it would make it worse. Their is plenty of noise out there, keep it simple. Of course someone could make use of images online and incorporate it within their project and it could be amazing but that doesn’t mean their is a disservice when someone chooses not too as we all have to edit the clutter of what works and doesn’t work for each of us.

  11. Alright, I vote that we all do our damndest to fight the urge to get swept up into the constant swell and surge of images and instagrams and pinterests and flickr and cowbirds. They are what they are and will only grow in popularity.

    Photography is more accessible to people all over the world than it ever has been, which is a truly wonderful thing! People learning to appreciate and document the beauty and nuance their lives? How can that suck?

    BUT, of course, that means those of us who have studied photography and absorbed it and chosen it as a lifelong love, obsession or career stand in the middle of visual chaos and often experience wtf moments.

    As a digital creative director (who studied photography but don’t do it for a living) , I look for trends and patterns for clients and personal projects. And this constant din of snapshots does not feel like a threat to me, but rather a chance to reinvent, experiment and focus on something. Go old school, or don’t. Do something different. Sink your teeth in and get excited. Whatever. Let the trends be the trends and meanwhile stick to your guns.

    FOCUS is the odd-man-out these days and, when fully present, will likely stand out in the crowd.

    Projects that are going to muster strong opinions and conversations like Prom are not just the flip ‘look at the sky’ shots (guilty-as-charged) but projects that demonstrate that YOU are a part of the project. YOU are involved, engaged, committed. For me, that is the clear difference between a gorgeous image and one that stops my heart for a moment.

    So, MEM seems an obvious choice to demonstrate Rob’s point, whether you like her style, content or lighting ability. She stays focused. She stays true to her vision. She stays true to the voices of her subjects. She presents them to her audience in a consistently beautiful, thoughtful way.

    Like Stella pointed out regarding the work of Tim Hetherington: “the photos [are] so alive, you can imagine Tim there taking the photos….you can feel Tim’s heart.”