How Crappy Software Makes Good Photos

Posted on June 23, 2011


A meandering post on project management and photography…

A few years ago, after Microsoft laid off a bunch of people and decided all of us non-essential writer types were overpaid, I decided to make a “career” move and go from writing to project management. That was about four years ago, and I haven’t done a lick of work since. It reminds me of when I worked at Boeing and used to go out to the factory every Friday just to look at airplanes so that I could feel some connection to the product, because nothing I was doing day-to-day contributed to actually building planes. At least when I was painting houses, when we pulled the masking off and drove away there was some sense of accomplishment.  As a writer I could point to books, web pages, white papers, magazines, all kinds of stuff I’d produced. As a manager though, when I’m dead and gone, what will be left behind? Meeting minutes, for the three meetings I’ve been in that had minutes, none of which ever got read anyway.

After a few years of being a professional project manager (versus an amateur at Balefire where we actually did get sh*t done), you hear the same old stories:  Software sucks! That’s not what we wanted! We didn’t know what we wanted, but that’s not it!

These comments have been going on for the sixty years software has existed, and some people must be getting it right. At my first job, we used the Battleship methodology for software development where we would build stuff without any specification, run it past people who had no idea what they wanted, and gradually winnowed it down after dozens of mostly pointless iterations. It was progress by Browian Motion, Drunkard’s Walk, or whatever you want to call it. Actually just calling it progress is pretty generous.

So after a few years at that sweat shop I left for a new job where they used the Agile methodology. Well they intended to use it, but they lacked the courage of their convictions. Still they did send me to training and there I met Brad Henkel, the auther of Digital Negatives. So I got to spend two days at lunch and workshops hanging out with him and  talking photography.  If we hadn’t fallen out of contact, I might’ve added digital negatives to my workflow sooner rather than later. Still if it wasn’t for their crappy software I never would’ve met him.

As my friends at said, “You know it’s time to quit a job when you start blogging about it.” Well, shortly after I started my last blog, FRAgile (F*ing Ridiculous Agile), that job left me (connection?) and I now have  new job with actual smart people back at Microsoft. Microsoft also hears the same feedback on their software, so they have a new initiative called Scenario Focused Engineering, another way to try to make sure that the business people and the developers are communicating. I begged, and they promptly sent me to training (and offered to publish the white paper I wrote on requirements at my last job, where they were “too busy” to read it).

Long ago, Bernard had mentioned there was this guy who lived by me who did alternative processes and “wished there was some way to hook us up.” I thought about mentioning email, but Bernard is a smart guy…Anyway, I’m at this meeting, hear the word “photography,” saunter over, and soon I’ve met David Pitcher. The rest of the time I’m in double heaven, learning some cool new tools to do my job (at a company which may actually let me apply them), and talking photography in betwixt.  I do worry though that the photography seems so much more fulfilling…

I look at a lot of photographers’ work and, like a lot of art in general, I’m left asking: Why did they take that shot? Why did they post that shot? And especially if its something that actually got printed, and not just computer displayed, What were they thinking? Not that these questions demean the art, but it’s neither intuitively nor intellectually obvious to me what the point was. I don’t find myself smacking my forehead and saying “Why didn’t I think of doing an entire show of pictures taken through my windshield on rainy days, and blow them  up to 4′ x 6′ !” Maybe I’m just too dense to see the art in it. I kind of wish I could, especially when I see that they got a grant to do it. How I wish I’d followed my dream to take pictures of foreclosed  lime-green carpeted  tract house interiors. The artist that dared to do that and got the grant beat me to it by mere decades. I guess it’s like project management. Just because I don’t see the value in it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The Emperor, after all, is really bundled up. A urinal, for god’s sake, was voted the most influential piece of art of the 20th Century, and project managers make twice what programmers do.

Anyway, when I looked at David’s work, I was both intrigued and inspired. There are two things that will really get me turned on by another photographer’s work. The first is the feeling “I wish I had taken that shot.” The second is “How did (s)he even get that shot?” Like project management,  I do not believe that the ability to take hundreds or thousands of shots digitally replaces the ability to previsualize and capture a shot correctly in one go. Also like project management,  I find random art to be painful. Bernard and I once talked to a photographer who applied a metallic filter to every shot, not even realizing that sometimes that turned her images into negatives. Just having that conversation was painful.  I felt like her show wasn’t a photography show, but a Photoshop show. Yet, she had the most successful show ever at Balefire, because she stood there and sold her art. Maybe there is a lesson there for the rest of us who feel we are above justifying our products. Maybe project management does do  something .

But, back to intent. David and I had this conversation at lunch. For us, the print is everything. The picture, the in-camera image, that is just a starting point. The post processing –  how it’s developed, how it’s printed, what it’s printed on, what alternative process is used (including Photoshop), how it’s toned, all of this goes into the print, the thing that we previsualze, and often revisualize, that is why we do what we do. (It’s also why I unapologetically post crappy scans, they are just the beginning – you see dust, I see areas to dodge-and-burn.) Because of that, it can be really hard to look at somebody else’s work and not judge it based on that filter. I want to say, “But I made this with my hands, it’s not Photoshop!” And yet, I know that is not really how to view it. It has to be that visceral impact the print makes on  you, not how it got there. It’s the ends not the means, even if the means is what is most important to us, the photographers, the audience doesn’t care, nor should they. It should only matter if that means adds to the impact.  For me, it does. I never liked Impressionistic art until I read about it and understood it a little better, but I’m a little left-brained. I have to know how something came about, and even why it came about. I don’t think I should apply that criteria to everybody else just because I want to see Van Gogh’s EXIF data.

I remember when I finally got to see Jhanavi Barnes work at the Benham Gallery.  Jahnavi is my mentor, whether she knows it or not, and the first time I toured the gallery my brain was full of “Omygod, how did she do that?” You just want to reach out and touch her photos, they are so textured.  I had to turn my brain off and walk around the show all over again saying “How does that shot make me feel?” I cried.  I walked up to her, standing next to Bruce Barnbaum, hugged her and said “Thank you for showing us that film is not dead.” I can still see that show in my head as if I was looking at a book of it in my hand. How many shows can you say that about?

When digital gets there, when a digital photo makes me cry, maybe I’ll do digital. In the meantime, I’m buying a copy of Jahnavi’s picture that moved me the most and hanging it in a place where it will remind me of how far I have to go, just like David’s or Bernard’s photos or Nick Brandt’s do.  Until then, I’m bribing David with beer to come over and use my darkroom that I might benefit from a fraction of his experiments. I gave Bernard my book on Digital Negatives so that I can print some of his work. I’m re-invigorated to launch Analog, a gallery devoted to alternative prints and processes as my next entrepreneurial venture.

And the woman with the random metallic prints? I bought one of them, too. One of her random negatively converted images really spoke to me. I just wish she meant it to.

Posted in: Photography, Style