Musings on Photography

Hit Albums/Hit Singles

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on August 8, 2008

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The other evening, Paula mentioned that she’d read about how iTunes and similar music download services selling individual tracks were pushing the world of popular music away from the ‘album model’, where the recording artist puts together a cohesive set of songs intended to be listened to as a whole, rather than just a collection of individual tracks.

It reminded me of my thinking while I was working to assemble my SoFoBoMo book, and thinking hard about the differences in process between making individual photographs, and the process of assembling a larger cohesive body of photographs.

One of the differences, I think, is the possible depth and discernment. To borrow a concept from the world of statistics, it’s all about signal and noise level. That is, if we’re limited to a small number of samples, the signal is sometimes buried in noise and can’t be picked out. But as we increase the number of measurements/samples/photographs, the statistics start to work in our favor. Effectively, the multiple samples allow us to average out the noise, and we end up with even fairly small signals standing out.

In thinking about it I’m concluding that I’m increasingly interested in those signals which tend to get buried in noise – the ones we need to work a bit to pick out from the din. The fact that a signal is smaller in magnitude than our measurement noise doesn’t make the signal insignificant. It just makes it hard to discern, and as a result it’s unlikely to be something that is understood in a commonplace way.

So I’m looking at what things make it easier for me to pick up on those faint signals. Making lots of photographs and looking at them closely, working them into prints and collating the prints into larger portfolios or books – that’s one way for me to pick up on those faint signals.

Of course, the audience for such work might be limited to just me. As a society, we seem to be moving away from having the attention span needed to appreciate the work (and here I don’t mean appreciate in the sense that someone thinks it’s good, but more in the sense that someone else will have the patience to follow along and view the entire thing with enough attention to let the signal emerge from the noise for them as it did for me).

All this makes me wonder how many photo books I’ve looked at and dismissed as boring, when if I’d taken the time to sit down with the book and really attend, I might have seen the signal emerge from the noise floor. I’m betting it’s quite a few.

That’s not a particularly comforting thought. It would seem that such work is probably largely for the benefit of the artist, and if someone else ‘gets’ it, that’s an unexpected event.

6 Responses

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  1. Juha Haataja said, on August 9, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    “Images as commodity” seems to be an overwhelming trend, and perhaps there is no reversing it. Your observation about the short attention span are to the point.

    Perhaps there are arising new markets for photos – for example, tailored photo books for a really small audience, made by a professional to a client/sponsor. But perhaps there aren’t such clients and thus this can’t happen.

  2. Seth Glassman said, on August 9, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    The end of the album as a statement started to come about twenty-five years ago with the introduction of CDs and random access track selection. People with short or shallow attention spans could listen to the first few seconds of a track and move on quickly if they weren’t grabbed. The problem for the artist becomes, do you complete the album with filler tracks and hope to move the album because of the singles? That’s the most common solution. The other is filling the rest of the album with songs as good as the singles and hoping someone will trouble to listen. As you said, if someone else gets it, it’s a pleasant surprise.

    Then you hope they actually pay for it…

  3. Martin Doonan said, on August 9, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    One thing I like to look for in a photobook, at first viewing, is a sense that there is a signal there – a sense that there is a thread and some more meaning to be found. It’s like plotting noisy data on a chart, seeing a clear trend and then digging deeper to understand what it means.
    Taking this approach gets over any initial “this is boring” reaction, just as (following the stats analogy) the many samples gets past the “this is rubbish” initial impression.
    If that makes any sense at all.

  4. Paul Maxim said, on August 10, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Having worked as a statistician for some 35 years or so, this is just too tempting to ignore….

    Paul said, “The fact that a signal is smaller in magnitude than our measurement noise doesn’t make the signal insignificant”.

    Well, yes it does. In terms of our ability to say that the signal is significant (actually, I prefer the term “detectable”), we must conclude that it is not. It’s part of the measurement system noise. Now, it may be that the noise level is so high that we are unable to recognize real signals, but it doesn’t alter our conclusion. If we believe for some reason that there is a detectable signal in the data, then we must find a way to increase the signal to noise ratio (an “improved” measurement system perhaps).

    By the way, increasing the sample size in a high noise system might help, or it might not. Personally, I’d spend my energy in reducing the noise level.

    Having said all that, I really like the analogy as it pertains to bodies of photographic work. The problem, of course, is that there is no gold standard for a measurement system here. We all have our own internal measurement systems, none of which can be externally verified. For some people, the noise level tends to be high, so the image that stands out as “signal” must be very, very good (with respect to the internal measurement system). For others the opposite is true – a large number of images will be signals because the baseline noise is low.

  5. latoga said, on August 17, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Perhaps the contention point is that the world has moved away from the value of critical analysis toward valuing popular opinion. Critical analysis takes time and effort. Popular opinion is the knee jerk reaction that masks itself as a short attention span. Critical analysis can pick out a single instrument in the orchestra, while popular opinion just hums along with the tune.

  6. Subtle « Musings on Photography said, on August 20, 2008 at 11:12 am

    [...] help us pick things apart so that we can apprehend them in terms we understand. I’ve talked before about how one of the reasons I’m coming to feel that making a lot of photos of something is [...]


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