step away from the holga and no one gets hurt

I’m sorry, as cool as your out-of-focus, Hipstawhatever iPhone looks, it isn’t creative.

I don’t know how more bluntly to put it, but the proliferation of imagery lately is slowly sucking the creativity out of photography.  In fact, it has become more formulaic than anything else.  I’m just as guilty.  Just scroll down and see my last post.  I find a wall with some random graffiti cover-up and a splash of paint and I nearly wet myself.  It’s refreshing.  Therapeutic.  Completely worthless and self-absorbed.  I have come to a realization that I am contributing to the decline of photography with every click of my camera.

You are too.

This rant (blogged about by Scott Strazzante here) was brought to you by an aphotoaday post by myself over a photo posted by a young, developing photographer.  He gets an unfair amount of attention and criticism, but I think it is only because he is everything that is right and wrong about photography today.

Iphone images, vignetting, tilting, out-of-focus accidents turned Flickr “works of art,” Kodachrome throwbacks, Polaroid snaps of random crap…it all just reeks of what Ashton Kutcher would see as art.  It’s not that I dislike Kutcher, he’s just low-hanging fruit for those ridiculous camera commercials.  While I’m at it, Dear Flickr and Tumblr, there’s an “e” in those words.

I’m only 33, but seeing the photo made me feel old.  It was a simple black-and-white, vignetted, completely out-of-focus photo of birds flying and a building.  The photo itself reminded me of something that I peeled off a fixer stained floor in my high school darkroom.  That’s how I felt, and I wrote it.  A day later I feel guilty, years older than I am and wondering why.  I looked in the mirror and felt like, well it’s not the photo so much as it is me.  I need a change.  Visually.

We’ve all turned back the clock visually 20 years.

Creativity is on life-support.  Everyone is a photographer.  Everyone has Photoshop.  My mom has a better resolution camera than a lot of newspaper staffs.

So how do we fix it?  And by “we,” I mean the self-proclaimed “Professional Photographer.”  How do you grab your work by the proverbials and start making images that matter, that inspire, that are truly creative?  God I hate lists, but SEO and Twitter loves them.  Here are 10 things to get your creativity back:

  1. First of all, you use that little thing in your head called a brain.  You think.  You pause.  You come up with an idea and execute.  An essay.  A story.  Something besides just motor-driving your way through an assignment and going with what looks the most “Luceo-y.”  (You know I love you, Luceo – rockstars).  Come up with a new way of seeing and a new way of delivering your voice.
  2. Stop carrying your camera with you everywhere.  This goes against everything that I preach, but that wacky 5D photo of that lady at the bar is about as re-sellable as a carrot at fat camp.
  3. Put that Holga, Lomo, and Diana camera in a shoebox and set it on fire.  Seriously.  I have all of them.  They sit on my shelf and gather dust.  Disclaimer:  not my fault if you actually do it and burn down your house.  See #1.
  4. Stop shooting so much.  There is no reason to come back with 2000 images from anything.  Try shooting an assignment in under 36 frames.  Harder than it sounds, right?  Well do it.  I promise you the result will be amazing.  You learn to see, compose, and wait.
  5. Find a new client.  I don’t mean another newspaper or magazine.  Find a business, writer, or artist.  Someone you would never have even thought of working for and collaborate on a project.
  6. Everyone always says buy a new lens around this point in a Top 10 list.  I say go the other way and shoot with one lens for an entire month, but you have to make it a lens you never use.  Break out that 50mm f/1.4 and shoot with it all month.  Yes, at sports, slacker.  You might be surprised by the results.
  7. Turn off your lights.  And if you don’t use lights, turn them on.
  8. Buy a moleskin notebook, put it by your bed.  Write down everything that comes into your head at the middle of the night.  In the morning, you might have some crazy new ideas to pursue.
  9. Ask opinions, then do the exact opposite.
  10. Take the long way home.  Throw a dart at the map and travel there – even if it is just a map of your town.  Change your scenery.  Get off the computer.  Stop reading Alec Soth’s blog.  Something.

Get off my lawn.

66 thoughts

  1. Between you and Strazz today, I am inspired to say the least. Add a month of being laid up (and probably longer), and obviously all I want to do is be able to get out and shoot some pictures.

    Oh, and sorry, I’ll fix the divot in your lawn!

  2. Geez, I would write in all caps, but people would say I am yelling … oh what the hell!


    One of the things that separate an exceptional photographer from the run of the mill “good photographers” is the gray matter between their ears. Exceeding expectations, going past the ordinary, finding new ways of seeing are what it means to be a real professional photographer. Whether it is an assignment for a client, a staff assignment or a personal project, it is just going that one little step past ordinary to extraordinary.

  3. Interesting take. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment here perhaps, but it seems a little preachy to me. Who are any of us to decide what is art, or for that mater what is good? Not to say that I don’t agree that we all need to raise our own personal bar and be more critical of our own work, because I do, but to knock someone (anyone) else in this way seems counter productive in my mind. What is considered good can be such a personal and subjective thing.
    I like the thought behind many of the items on your list, but at the same time I harken back to some wise words told to me a long time ago about how photography, or art in general for that matter, should not have any silly rules attached to it, as in ‘do this, don’t do that.’ I mean, how do you think an artist like Mark Rothko, who you obviously have a great affinity for, would respond to something like this?
    And please believe me when I say that I know where you’re coming from, as I too have been in this exact same place in the past where I couldn’t understand why certain photos that I felt weren’t what I would call good were being praised, and it got me down. I think that what you’re trying to do with this is to raise the collective consciousness of other photographers out there, but, from what I read here at least, it seems to be coming from a place of anger or maybe even sadness. I guess I just wonder why what anyone else does with their camera would effect you personally? Just because someone else would shoot something in a certain way that you may not agree with doesn’t have any bearing on your personal vision or ability to make the kind of pictures you want to make.
    It’s OK to feel like you need to step up your game, so to speak, but at the same time, flogging yourself and others may not be the best way to accomplish this. Also, it’s also OK to feel like what you do is good, even if others don’t always agree.
    Hope this doesn’t offend, as that is really not the intent. Thanks for opening up the discussion,

    PS – I’ve been shooting with a 50 almost exclusively on assignment for the last three months and love it, more should really try it.

    • Damien,

      I’m not knocking anyone. Trust me. Well, maybe besides Ashton Ktucher. I think what may have been lost in my ranting is the need to let go of the ridiculous crutches a lot of photographers instantly gravitate to when their creative juices have reduced to a simmer. There are some amazing photographers out there using iPhone Hipstawhatever filters to create these little bodies of work that really seem all the same to me and take away from their original vision and/or style – and more importantly distract from the story they are trying to tell. Photographers (myself included) get so wrapped up in the process and/or tools to make the pictures rather than just going out there, thinking, and composing a rectangle – free from all the frilly, vignetted, tilty, out-of-focusy, worldpressphoto-y images everyone seems to gravitate forward. The underlying point is that conceptualization is so much more important. It’s kind of like gift-wrapping a piece of poo. The person who gets the present maybe stoked, but once they see inside – not so much.


  4. To be more than just what’s trendy on the internet, whether it be Holga photos, cell phone camera filters, grainy black and white, pictures of feet only…I think a photographer must really want to pursue the art from within (although there is inherently nothing wrong with using these things). This is good advice for photographers who want to be more than just what other people think of them, but with any art form, if you can’t put aside what’s hot and what’s not on APAD or Flickr or whatever, and shoot from the heart, you might make some money, but you may stagnate. Some people either don’t have it in them or don’t care. Some people are content with stagnation.

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  6. Loved the post, although I do have to say that I love shooting on film from time to time, not because it’s “cooler” but I like the non-deadline, non-rushing-around part of it…shoot a few pictures, wait another two weeks to finish the roll, drop it off at a lab a month later, pick it up, get some pleasure out of running a loupe over your negatives. It’s for fun and most likely, no one ever sees it. Taking photos on a cell phone and running them through an app is weak, agreed on that.

  7. 11. Quit trying to please other photographers and fit in with the “cool” kids, just shoot.
    12. Oh and quit turning a photo B&W and then saying, “there that looks good” or “now its art”

    Thanks Chip as always for reminding everyone to think.

  8. I have done #8 for years and have come up with just about all of my best ideas from it. The following through is the hard part, i’m still working on that.

  9. Well you got my number with the Alec Soth remark, in my defense his exhibit was free today, and you have to support the hometown team. I like the idea of limiting shots, if I get an assignment I’ll consider the 36 exposure rule, hopefully that ‘if’ isn’t too big. The concept of limiting yourself to a 50 is interesting, but I think that a lot of us kids are limited to it because of budgetary issues. I’ll throw my weight behind picking up a shitty walgreens disposable for a bit of refreshment, I hadn’t seen a photo of mine in print form since high school.


  10. Damian, you’re right on a lot of counts, especially that tearing down others doesn’t necessarily get anyone anywhere.

    I think that’s kind of what Chip is getting at, though. He had a reaction to an image, and when he explored that reaction further, he realized it was more about him. Note that none of his suggestions are “Join a critique group and trash the shit out of everyone.” They’re all about the individual taking the photos, not the people around them.

    As for the post itself and flogging, I know how it is, sometimes it’s an outlet, Chip may just be howling into the wind on this one… or hoping for better stat conversions, who knows.

  11. Chip,
    Perhaps I misread the sarcasm, but what I hope I got around to saying was that I think your overriding point is an important and valid one. I agree with the notion that people do gravitate toward “the next cool thing” when they want to try something new. I guess it just doesn’t influence me one way or the other, as when I look at photographs these days I tend to rate as like vs. dislike rather than good vs. bad. Obviously people have been trying various methods of stylization for years, and I think most of us would say that some of our favorite photographers have done various things along the lines of what you’re talking about — as have we all at one time or another. I just don’t necessarily see it as a good or bad thing, or something that is necessarily damaging to photography as a whole, but maybe I’m misunderstanding?
    Take for example the recent gallery on the NYT photo blog by John Stanmeyer where he photographed religious rituals in Bali with a Holga. And a rather severely vignetted Holga at that. I liked these pictures, but at the same time the “crutches” used didn’t bother me. The interview was interesting as well, where he explained his thought behind choosing that particular “tool”. I’m wondering what your take on these were?
    Hope I’m not being obnoxious here, as once again that is not my goal. This particular discussion does interest me though so I’m bound to overstay my welcome until someone tells me to move it along,

  12. What the new cameras and apps are doing is making photography democratic, I think everyone should have the rights to take their pictures in anyway they want without relying on their photography skills, and I’m happy there people now can do it.
    Applications or fun cameras, like lomography offers, will never take out creativity from anything, perhaps they just make good photographer out-stand for capturing nice things without such effect.
    These apps and cameras at least make our world prettier, or at least my news feed on facebook, and I’m pro that. pro giving people tools that make what they want easier.

  13. chip… i love this post. my favorite parts being the carrot at a fat camp reference, and ask opinions and then do the opposite. 😉
    thanks for putting yourself out there and sharing your thoughts… (and i am SO sick of the hypstamatic, or whatever they are called, pictures!)

  14. Dear Chip and Damian,

    I really enjoyed reading your correspondence. So, Chip, thanks for posting, and Damian, thanks for responding! There are points I agree with in both accounts. I think they actually complete each other. When it comes to rating photographs, I also tend to rate as like vs. dislike rather than good vs. bad. However, I must admit it is a “tendency” after all, and sometimes I do think an image is shot poorly and therefore “bad.” When it happens, I often share my opinion only with my wife. I prefer not to knock anyone because I am aware it’s my subjective opinion. Some people might suggest that criticism would actually help, so I should speak up, but my preference is to offer that criticism/help only when I’m asked by that photographer.

    As a photographer, I prefer to judge where my own photography is going rather than where photography is going. I love film, but I’m sick of heavy complaints about digital photography. It doesn’t make any sense to me to complain about the capabilities of Photoshop either. If toning that makes your images saturated and high contrast is a sin, how would you justify Velvia? I don’t like it most of the time, but I don’t care when people vignette so much that the final image is jokingly circular. I cannot understand when people criticize dodging and burning. Then how would you justify using your flash? You take pictures in color and make them b&w, because your inner voice tells you that it’s more likely to be acknowledged in a contest, what about that? You throw in a blurry picture, which you took without looking through the viewfinder; otherwise, an edit of all technically decent photographs will bring criticisms for being a rigid shooter.

    Furthermore, it doesn’t bother me that so many enthusiasts have access to digital cameras, shoot poorly, tone ridiculously and share it over the Internet, even when they get praise. Enthusiasm is good. If that’s their art, and I don’t like, it’s fine. If they want to do photojournalistic art, it’s their choice. If a professional wants to do artsy/artistic photojournalism, that’s something I appreciate. However, if the former claims that their “art” is photojournalism, then I have a problem with that, and I would tell my wife no matter how my language could change the atmosphere in our living room (and I would receive a friendly reminder to watch my phraseology). 🙂

    Cheers to all,


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  16. Great post. Makes me even more angry about the “photographers / artists” in London who are selling their pictures of Banksy’s graffiti for a profit and thinking they are being creative. Makes me sick actually. Thanks again.

  17. Cody, go back to sleep.


    You call yourself old at 33? I remember a young man ten years ago who came through here and showed a lot of promise. I don’t think he’s old just yet. When you’ve done this 30 years you can call yourself old. So I’m old and all around disgusted by all the genuflecting to iPhone apps and such. But it’s really just another tool for people to express their own innermost artistical ethereality with the delicate interplay of light and shadow blah blah blah (or something like that.) It really bugs the crap out of me but why bother? It is what it is. And what it is has already reached the level of being merely pedestrian. When 3 million people are making the same images hourly then, yawn, wake me at some point. If everyone could’ve painted like Monet in his time would he have been considered a Master?
    But there are some extraordinary photographers having fun with them and showing in galleries. What’s art to some is garbage to others. That’s always been the case though. I like Rothko but not nearly as much as many others. It’s just one of those things about art and photography: they’re very subjective. I do think though that if a iPhone image is published or sold it should carry a dual credit with the software developer who had as much if not more to do with making the image somewhat better than a snapshot.

    Your mention about making photos of graffiti patches (buff spots) made me smile because hey, I do them too. Quite a lot of them in fact. But I don’t shoot graffiti and never heard of Banksy until the above comment. I find the accidental or unintentional art to be much more interesting. And I have a set of them on Flickr. Don’t discount Flickr. 5 billion images. Wrap your mind around that. In our Merlin archive we have about 5.9 million. I thought that was a lot.
    So there are a lot of outstanding photographers and photographs on Flickr. You just have to find them. 95% of it is just crap (oops, art to somebody) but If you just forget about the faves and fawning comments it’s not a bad place to see and learn from. I think it’s the single most incredible online community there is. It honestly floors me to think of the number of people around the world making and sharing images and that this could not have happened just 7 or 8 years ago.

    Photography is now an Everyman proposition and griping about it won’t change that. Buy a camera, insert batteries, take good pictures! Such a deal! Everyone’s a photographer and that’s a good thing at a very basic level. And as one commenter above said (or tried to) if it’s now easier for her that’s great; what’s wrong with easy?

    In your ten-step program you talk about limiting exposures to 36. Why not 24? There were 24-exposure rolls of film too. Better yet, 12 or 10 or 2 (Speed Graphic, double-sided 4×5 holder) or just one. Now that would be a true test wouldn’t it? Just one shot. But I understand the intent: slow down. Think. I do that with the dreaded Holga. It was and is a good way to, well, slow down. Or Polaroid (before I ran out of film). One frame at a time. When every one of them cost me $1.75 you bet I took my time. And ttv and pinhole and 4×5 film. I do them all every now and then and now I even have an iPhone (appless forever) and I’m absolutely astounded by the images the damn thing makes. So they’re all just tools. It ain’t what you eat, it’s the way how you chew it. (Delbert McClinton)

    g’day and g’dluck

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  19. Chip, I hope you are speaking to other photojournalists / people who want to make money off their photography. Otherwise, I don’t really understand. I still remember the first and second geekfests as fondly as possible, and I remember us going around in South Beach and what you had to teach me. But to be honest, I gave up on pursuing photojournalism as a career because I felt like it was too critical and too closed of an industry, or maybe I am too free-minded of a person for that industry. If you are addressing other photojournalists/working photographers, then I agree completely. But I feel like any people who shoot Holga or the iphone equivalent, not for journalistic/career purposes but just because they feel like it, are certainly not doing anything wrong. Every single person on the earth should live for her or his own pleasure, because that’s really all there is. Maybe I’ve paid too much attention to Alan Watts, but the truth is that I actually gave up on photojournalism because of these kinds of standards and criticism. Because I felt judged – and more importantly, limited – all the time. PJs are the scenesters of photography. No offense, because I still worship all of you guys, and will never forget the mentorship and education I got from APAD. But sometimes, shooting with a Holga brings me joy. And yeah I’m still young, but I no longer believe that anything else matters.

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  21. Jeez, chip, lighten up. It’s a successfully developed and popular iphone application. Let ppl have fun with it, let ppl shoot what they want to shoot. I’m not sticking up for hipstamatic (I don’t even have an iPhone), but this post just makes u seem old, bitter and insecure. Don’t feel threatened– from some of these comments, it seems like you have enough followers to validate your own work for you. But don’t judge someone just because they enjoy using a Holga every now and then. To each their own. A rant like this only stifles creativity.

  22. This hits home like a baseball bat to the side of the head. With instant communication being the norm, imagery has become so prolific that it is like grains of sand on the beach, so many and they all look the same and are becoming less relevant. My one suggestion would be to slow way down, shoot manual focus, manual advance, manual exposure cameras with one lens as suggested above, film folks, you will love yourself once again.

    Think about the truly GREAT photographs in history, now how many were made with a state of the art DSLR? Very, very few.

    It ain’t the camera, the software or the Photoshop action you should concern yourself with, it is simply seeing for the sake or living.

  23. since i am only 17, i still don’t get why we shouldn’t shot 2000 images. i thought it was what people wish they could get in early photography history. i think it’s ok to shoot more, no matter what kind of camera you use. it’s so much better than leaving your camera in home and never take any photograph. i mean how you could say that you’re a photographer if you never take (or make) any? i don’t mind seeing bad photograph with good story than the opposite.

    though, i like your idea about using only one lens and write down everything in a notebook in the middle of night.

  24. I’m not anti holga/Lomo really but i’m not really a fan of moderately to high priced funky blurry plastic cameras. i would like to encourage everyone to give photography a try that’s for sure, but get a “suchadeal” old film camera instead of a lomo if you really wanna learn photography & hone your skills. anyway i was in the lomostore today in west hollywood & i was the only one there.

  25. About time someone screamed about the BS that is Holga, scatter gun photography etc etc

    Nice one………………..I’ll be checking in again

  26. You make some good points here, but I have problems with generalizations…
    Who decides what is a good picture or art? You? Me?

    I agree, that there are many bad Lomo/Pola/iPhone stuff out there. However, they are still out there – the diamonds, the treasures, really good work. Saying to throw away your Holga as if its pictures were bad per se is exaggerated.
    And believe me, I have seen a lot of pictures taken with real expensive, professional equipment that could not be less interesting.

    But still, if someone produces what you consider as bad with their iPhone, but they have fun – what’s the problem? Nobody forces me to look at those pictures. And I prefer that someone has fun making miserable pictures over someone who spends their time with destructive things. It’s all relative.

    I am sorry, I don’t want to attack you personally, but in your above rant you sound like someone who is bitter and cannot live with the fact that even bad art is appreciated by some people.
    Live and let live, I say.

    BTW: a picture does _not_ necessarilly have to tell story. Who says that? Sometimes a picture is just a picture.

  27. good post! i agree and disagree with some of the things you say.

    you’re right – taking XYZ amount of pictures and then coming home is ridiculous. taking time and patience are virtues that have to be learned in photography. also, using the same setup for a month gives you better insight into the capabilities of your equipment. trying to create meaningful stories and expressing certain ideas are also good ideas, but not every photographer is trying to do that.

    but at the end of the day i don’t think there is any harm with the lomo aesthetic. i mean look, digital cameras aren’t capable of recreating some of the nuances of film. vignetting, light leaks, double exposures in the lomo aesthetic can capture a reality that a digital camera is just unable to. there is something quite human of lomo’s inconsistency. and @Doc is right and makes some really valid points as well. there are some beautiful lomo pictures out there, and being 23, i feel a kind of affection for the medium. it throws in some much needed unpredictably in life. look at it like this though, not all lomographers are talking about photography at large. i think its mostly a closed community, just doing their thing. i don’t think there are many people who are calling it real art anyways, except maybe some pretentious folks in williamsburg.

  28. Great food for thought. Some of your points are bang on like using ONE lens and taking fewer pictures. I do however think it’s OK to carry the camera around if you have a target in mind and keep it to that when you actually see it. It might also help to not pick up those dippy photo magazines full of equipment reviews and HDR images. Cheers.

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  31. Interesting essay. I have always heard from professors and such to take your camera everywhere. I have never been that type of photographer. I take a camera with me with a solid intention of what I am there to do with it.
    Glad to hear that this isn’t just me. I am always surprised by how easy people think it is to be a “good” photographer. I attend and art school that has a BFA program and their are students enrolled that do not know how to operate an SLR in a manual mode. 🙁 a disappointment and a testament to how the complicated nature of photography is being diluted.

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  33. I,m going to do what you said and do the oposite. Buy a Holga use Hispamatic and take 2000 pictures. I think art is expression and the medium and how one expreses ones self is personal to the artist. Using a tool does not mean the camera frames the shot fore you. I shoot allot of skate pics using fish eye because it allows me to get up close and personal and always get the trick. Should I dump it and see it as a cheap gimmick? People always complain about change just like when digital came out first. I think it is arrogant to think your original and beleve in inspiration and intuitive. Imitation is the highest form of flatery. Let people shoot what they whant to shoot with what they whant to shoot. Let’s get back to simply doing what we love and enjoying it without the need to bash others to make ourselves feel better.

  34. I landed here from a link about the evolution of photojournalism. I have to say this article reeks of the same argument made by traditional media. Just because YOU find a genre of media distasteful, non-creative, outside the bounds of tradition, doesn’t mean the new media itself is any less diminished.

    As a creative person you should be thankful that the technology exists to allow every day people the opportunity to express themselves through art and media. The only reason you’d disapprove is if you are 1) A Paid photographer losing work to hobbyists or the masses of Flickr, or 2) Have such an elitist attitude that anything less than manual 35mm film and your own dark room constitutes sacrilege.

    I feel sorry for anyone who thinks that the proliferation of cell phone cameras or simple Point and Shoots, with the ability to edit them in a way that the creator wants it presented would be a BAD THING. Creativity is never bad. If you think it is, you are simply photography’s version of the corporate boy-band: created to make money, artistic merits come second.

  35. Having read this, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the work of James Whitlow Delano, Teru Kuwayama, Antoine D’Agata and Igor Posner, to name but a handful of photographers who, for one reason or another, would be barred from working in the Photographic Republic of Chip Litherland. I do, however, find myself nodding in agreement with your advice regarding Alec Soth’s blog…

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  37. “3. Put that Holga, Lomo, and Diana camera in a shoebox and set it on fire. Seriously. I have all of them. They sit on my shelf and gather dust.”

    Do you consider donating them? 😀

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  39. Daddy love Holgy, Holgy love Daddy. (and Hassy). I’ve shot commissions with my $20 plastic fantastic. It’s very refreshing for a jaded hack like what I am… 😉

  40. Pingback: New Age Fun With Vintage Feel: In Defence of ‘Hipstamatic’ « shut up and deal

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