To me, there are three types of photography, two of which can be considered art. The first type, which is not art, is that which has no thought attributed to its meaning – it is a simple aim and press the shutter affair. Of the types which have artistic merit, one portrays idealism; the other portrays reality. Idealistic photography may or may not have the scene altered by lighting, backgrounds, after-editing, etc; what all idealistic photography does is portray the scene as we romanticise it to be. It requires some mental ability to be able to think about a setting and decide what it should be, in an ideal world. In that sense, idealistic photography – and every other sort of photography – is also expressing the feelings and opinions of the photographer.
The most interesting sort of photography is the sort that portrays the dirty reality of the world. These photos may also be altered, but they are altered in such a way as to enhance what was originally found, and not add or subtract to it. These photographs not just rely on their sense of timing to capture the moment, but also their understanding of their subject to also capture the mood, the feeling, and the essence of being there. They know how to use their equipment to achieve exactly what they want. They know how subtle change in subject arrangement or composition changes the meaning of the photograph. They know how to use black and white, how to isolate subjects, even in busy backgrounds. These people see the world, and capture it in a way that most people do not even stop to notice. Without them, there would be precious little record of being there. Photographers who were masters of this art include of course Henri Cartier-Bresson; Robert Capa (both founders of the Magnum agency); and more recently, people like Alex Majoli who use the new properties of digital equipment to further enhance their images.
But still people ask, is photography really art? Undoubtedly it requires technical skill. Art is a person’s interpretation of a subject, his feelings, his thoughts, his opinions – an encapsulation of the person’s experiences and ideas. In that way, the very best photographs reach this level of art. They capture a moment, a place, through the eyes of the viewer. They also share that view with an audience – something no snapshot can ever do. Argueably, making a masterpiece photograph is more difficult than making a masterpiece painting or other piece of art – for the simple reason that not all of the elements in your composition are under your control. The photographer has to be able to see the story – and adapt it to his or her vision – almost instantaneously, and be able to anticipate the peak action. He does not have the luxury to create over a long period of time. One image, often only hundredths or thousandths of a second; a blink of an eye on any timescale, a moment that would otherwise be missed.
I have been asked many times, ‘what is the best camera?’ The answer of course is always that it depends very much on the user. Forget the technical aspects, counting megapixels and rating ISOs. The best camera for you is the camera that lets you capture your vision the way you want it, and doesn’t get in your way. A good photographer will be able to adapt to many cameras, though many cameras does not necessarily make you a good photographer.
How does one view a photograph? Photographs should be able to tell the story all on their own, without supporting text. If a photograph cannot do this, then in most cases the photographer will have failed. We could see long before we could communicate with speech or text; in this form, an image is one of the most primal ways of sharing information, emotion, thought. It is no different today. Even though cinema and televison are more popular than books – perhaps because they require less imagination on the part of the audience – no less imagination goes into their production. Visual media just allows the artist to communicate more of his perspective to the audience.
As a viewer, you should at least give the photograph enough time to speak to you. That should be fairly instantaneous. Look at the details. Object placement is never accidental – even if all it does is fill up part of the composition and balance out the image. Often there are very subtle details hidden in the photograph which can tell stories all of their own, much like subplots in a novel. This is one of the reasons very large prints are the best way to view photographs.
With the increasing popularity and accessiblity of photography in the digital age, a whole new generation of people, much larger than previously, are starting to record their view of the world around them. There is no right, there is no wrong. There are a lot of very good photographers who have been given the chance to share their art with the world thanks to technology – I cannot complain or begrudge new entrants, because not long ago I too was one of them.
But what seperates the artists from the snapshooters is the deisre to go further, and to make sure your audience sees in your photograph what you saw in the scene. Sometimes lack of doing this is down to ability, sometimes it is due to carelessness. Always make sure the feeling is there. Forget about the technical aspect; if the feeling is there, the image is there, the emotion is there – who cares how grainy it is or how many pixels the image has? Of course, the more the better, but these things become secondary in the face of the primal message.
This is my manifesto of photography - to see and preserve the moment nobody else sees, and present it in a way that allows everybody else to appreciate it too.
A NPS UK member and Getty Images member.
Ming Thein | photographer
Commercial photographer specializing in watches, food, architecture and interiors
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
*Yes, EXIF data reveals that I use a lot of different equipment; most of it was/is on loan for magazine review. Right now I have one compact, one CSC, one DSLR and one DRF. At the end of the day...it doesn't matter so much what you use, just that you know how to use it and your camera doesn't get in the way of you capturing the image you want to capture.
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"Ming is the type of photographer who thinks carefully before he shoots. Each photo he produces evokes an emotion out of the viewer. It forces you to stop and reflect, which is something most of us do not do these days because of our very busy lives. I love looking at the work he produces because it makes me sit back and enjoy the world I live in."
18th December, 2007
"More than any photographer I have seen on Flickr, mingthein's work has always made me look deeply at the light and shadow, the gentle interplay between the two. Somehow his B&W images evoke the contrasty images of some of my favourite old film types. He has given me something to strive for, and I look forward to each new day of mingthein's images."
24th April, 2007
- Ming Thein
- May 2006
- Kuala Lumpur
- Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
- I am:
- Male and Taken