4.16.2015

Editing with Kevin WY Lee

Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob HaggartAshley KauschingerJeff Rich and Miska Draskoczy. Today we continue with Kevin WY Lee.
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Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Kevin WY Lee: I am a Photographer and Creative Director based in Singapore. I founded Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), a humble but well-regarded platform for Photography and Visual Arts in Asia. As an image-maker, I am primarily interested in public phenomena and identity. Aside from my own practice, I also participate in other people's photography through editing, curation and mentorship.

This year I am the Asia curator for the PhotoQuai Biennale 2015 and a nominator for the Prix Pictet Award. I also produce an independent festival showcasing self-published photobooks in Asia.

You can peruse my personal work here: http://www.kevinwylee.com and IPA here: http://invisiblephotographer.asia.

Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

KL: To be a bit more helpful in the context of your interview, I'll wear an editor's hat and answer your questions broadly in the hope that they can find some relevance to a wide range of photographers.

Okay, so let's backtrack a little. You're ready to edit your work when you've amassed a whole batch of images that you have shot diligently and consistently to a theme or vision. You can be very aware of the theme/vision, or it can be intuitive insight. Sometimes photographers know, but can't immediately articulate. It depends on who you are and how you work.

On editing. There's a few rounds of editing/selections to be done. The first round is a wide 'kind' edit where you respond to the images purely as images, without any bias aside from visual appeal. You can be kind to yourself and select any image you like, and for whatever reason. This will help you make that first cut.

Then you move to the next round, then the next. Each time being less kind to yourself, each time introducing a bit more bias, each time aligning the images closer to your theme and vision. One of the key things to look out for is repetition. If two or more images are saying the same thing even when they look different visually, cull them all till you get to the strongest one. Look out for patterns as well that could give you a visual thread to weave the images more cohesively. As you get tighter and tighter in your selection, the story or vision will clarify.

How many rounds of editing are needed will depend on your experience, literacy and confidence. It will vary for different people. You will also need some breathing space in between rounds to freshen your eyes. You most likely will need another objective set of eyes to help you.

Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

KL: This is not easy and straightforward to answer. There are many ways to edit and sequence as much as there are different types of editors sympathetic to different types of photography. A big part of the process is informed intuition as well as logic. But ultimately everything should serve the vision of the work and importantly the purpose of the edit – be it for a book, exhibition or slideshow etc.

I guess it is healthy to mention what informs my own intuition.

I have worked in the advertising and creative industry for a long time, working with briefs and clients. Creative problem-solving to specific goals and outcomes helps in editing.

Secondly, I have written scripts and shot and edited films and videos. This helps in understanding linear and non-linear story-telling, storyboarding, continuity and timing concepts.

I make photographs myself. This helps in understanding why and how a photograph was made and helps clarify intentions.

I’ve lived quite varied experiences in life with ups and downs. This informs my choices.

Lastly, I have wide taste and sympathies so this helps in relating and referring to a broad range of photography and expression.

All of the above informs the organizing and sequencing of the images. The process is fluid and intuitive. Then you insert a little distance and logic and ask if the results are saying what they're meant to say. You find flaws, patch them up and be fluid once more.

I recommend editing with physical prints as the process is more tactile and responsive. You can more easily make adjustments and immediately see differences, then shuffle again if required. But I also edit on screen as and when needed.

Ultimately, everything must answer two questions: 1) POINT? – Authorship is very important. What is the work about and what exactly are you saying? Without a point and opinion, you're merely mulling over superficialities. 2) PURPOSE? – What is the edit for? Book, exhibition, slideshow? Who are the audience?

Editing is a numbers game. The more images and range you have, the more options you have to weave a sequence.

I previously published an introductory guide to editing which may be useful for photographers new to editing. It introduces some basic concepts. Available here: http://invisiblephotographer.asia/2013/11/18/editing101-quickguidestickies/

Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.

f
: How do you consider the balancing of formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

KL: I have no hard and fast rule. Each work and edit is different. Everything must serve the work, it's point and purpose. Sometimes an edit might need that one odd image to make a point.

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying images out?

KL: There are different issues for different layouts.

If you're laying out for a book, then paper, size and form of the book are issues to be addressed. Which images need to be paired or singled out? When to insert a blank page for breathing space? Should this image be cut across the page gutter? Portrait or landscape book? Matt or coated stock and what weight?

If you're laying out for an exhibition, then how do we predict traffic and how audiences are going to move from wall to wall. What distance are they going to view the images? What's the first image they see and should that be bigger?

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

KL: An edit and layout is never absolutely done or finished. You might return to it later and re-imagine or re-interpret the work. Or you might not.

Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

KL: 1) Not knowing what to say. Often, the more novice photographer doesn't know what he wants to say with the work. This needs to be clarified before any meaningful edit can be done.

2) Saying too much. Often we try to say too much with the work, especially very personal ones, and end up saying nothing because the narrative and sequence is too confusing. It is better to be concise, focus on one main point and amplify that.

3) Language, tone and delivery. Sometimes, it works to the work's advantage if the edit and sequence is more subdued and consistent in that tone.

4) Repetition. I repeat. Repetition.

5) Getting too emotionally attached to particular images which don't serve the edit.

6) Not enough images to edit.

f: Finally, what is the best advice you've ever gotten about editing?

KL: There are a million ways to edit but only one gut feel.

Various IPA editing sessions with Kevin WY Lee in Singapore and Asia.


4.10.2015

The Meaning of Film's Decline

I shoot both digital and film. In Colombia, I've found exactly one lab that processes medium format color and it charges roughly 2.5 times what the two labs I use in the US charge me. That means, although it sounds absurd, I can save hundreds of dollars each year by sending film FedEx back to the States. Even cheaper than sending a package to the US is to wait to develop until my next trip back.

The last time I was there to turn in and pick up my rolls in person, the employee of the lab reached across the counter to shake my hand and thanked me for still using film. About a year before, she had done the exact same thing. She also, telling detail, has a spool of 35mm film tattooed in a spiral around her forearm.

This is a problem. Not the tattoo, which I wouldn't get, but to each their own, but because I think she actually accelerates the inevitable alteration of meaning of the format she wants to preserve with that handshake.

The "death of film" - I prefer "decline" - is what it is: inevitable and overblown. We live dedicated to a discipline established on a technological bedrock that shifts ever so often, upending itself, opening fissures that give us opportunities and new toys. Film's eclipse was inherent in its invention, as the end of early digital formats is already written. This is the inevitable history of photography.

It's overblown in the sense that this is any sort of surprise. The next hundred years will continue to bring unimaginable change to the medium and to be surprised by this is your own damn fault. Additionally, I think it's not a stretch to suggest that film will always be available, even if it's through niche businesses with websites that play classical music when they load and it costs a kidney. We can still make daguerreotypes today if we really, really want to.

The interesting conversation isn't around the technological changes of photography, but rather what happens to visual language and the meaning of our work due to technological declines in our medium. It is in relation to those considerations that the woman's annual handshake irritates me, plus the fact she doesn't remember what I had hoped was a more memorable and charming personality and face. The woman thanks me for staying true to some sort of cause, and by doing so introduces nostalgia, superiority and resistance not only in the act of continuing to produce photographs in a particular way, but in the actual meaning of the photographs produced in the medium. This is the irony: staunch defenders of film have actually accelerated the changes in the reading of work produced on film with discourse that creates nostalgia, superiority and resistance in the photographs themselves. The infection of meaning with these overtones comes from its inherent link to technique and form, but also through direct shifts to meaning.
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My father, some would say...well, ALL would say...is nostalgic. I know nostalgia. In contrast to what I just proposed in the preceding paragraphs, there are plenty of reasons we could pull out the bottle and hug every time Kodak drops another type of film or every time a roll of Portra jumps another dollar.

The loss of film as a mainstream photographic practice is, like the decline of every previous format for creating photographs over the last 170 years, the elimination of a mainstream vocabulary and way of visualizing reality as well as an alteration of its meaning and visualization in the corners of photography where it remains in use. Every format has particularities and film renders space, light, color and volume in distinct ways from digital as well as from the formats previous to film's invention. Those distinctions affect content because changes in how photographs appear create different readings just as the changes in how the words we choose when we write a text alter meanings as we read them.

The decline of a format in mass popularity creates a loss of easy financial access to it, also changing the demographics of those involved in the conversation held through that format. Film will become the province of those that can afford it just like every previous format that has declined; the format becomes selective, reduced and specialized in who speaks with it. The visual conversation becomes a much less democratic one and the meaning of speaking through it shifts, just as in the 1950s peppering your speech with French terms meant erudition, aspiration and worldliness and now it just makes you sound like an asshole.

Additionally, digital, as Fred Ritchin and dozens of others have argued, also affects the credibility of images. The ease and speed of manipulation of digital images creates ever more doubt in how we read photographs and this is a major issue in particular to photojournalists and documentarians whose content and authority comes from their integrity. Witness the inevitable annual World Press Photo dance around the questions of truth and photography and the passions that it arouses – for these folks, to lose integrity is to lose one's way of making a living.

Yet while we have legitimate reasons to be nostalgic and while nostalgia is inevitable in the long term, for almost everything and everyone as they are looked back upon from a far enough distance seems nostalgia-worthy, to choose to invoke nostalgia now through conversation and action, with many art photographers still using film and major companies still producing it (if Kodak is still a major company) prematurely accelerates a psychological cultural process that has begun to burden the many of us that still shoot film with unwanted associations and, ultimately, meanings. The power of the content in film photographs begins to be limited by replacing conversation on their meaning and assessment of their value with a focus on the least powerful elements of photography, technique and process and, additionally, the reading of meaning in film photographs is infected by this conversation on technique and process as it injects nostalgia and also sister concepts such as scarcity, the passing of time, decline and death through the interlinking of technique, form and content directly into how we read the image.

For most of us, film was the universal visual vocabulary we grew up in and one that we associate our memories with and therefore see our very selves as. It was the standard capture in most art photography, photojournalism and documentary practice for so many decades it wasn't a choice, but essentially a given. By shifting away from the medium, we slowly rupture those visions and assumptions, the meaning of a film image directly shifts meaning per se towards nostalgia as we perceive the image, and the very decision to shoot film becomes a loaded one forcing the photographer into considering the added variables in regards to how their photographs will ultimately be read and interpreted. While this process is inevitable, it is a process unnecessarily accelerated by a handshake that foregrounds decline as the dominant mental framework around film in conversation and action.
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In addition to issues of nostalgia, the clerk also insinuates, in my interpretation of her handshake, a sense of superiority of film over digital which misunderstands how comparisons should work. Judging digital against film's language - including fidelity to color, expanded tonal range and a separation of planes that gives a realistic expression to air and volume - of course film is superior.

She commits the sin of not letting each medium be its own language and letting it describe reality with its own unique qualities. It's also a judgment that forgets Matisse's maxim, apparently stolen from Eugène Delacroix, that, "Exactitude is not truth." An assertion of the superiority of film based in its descriptive abilities of reality is as exciting as the last season of Lost. I have seen photographs made with early generation one megapixel cell phones that have spoken to me much more profoundly about reality and my perception of living than 8x10 contact prints. It also, one can argue, limits photography's aspirations and the possible range of its future developments by asking digital to ape analog criteria of quality. Formats aren't superior to each other, they are different from one another.

Finally, in addition to the issues around nostalgia and assertions of superiority, trying to make shooting film into an act of resistance links uncomfortably to the belief in film as a format objectively better than digital, again focusing the conversation on technique and process and adding to that an association with shooting film as a kind of attempt to challenge the flow of photographic history. Resistance to this flow would destroy more than it preserves by attempting to limit reality to its current iterations. It's ultimately reactionary.

And so I resent this woman's handshakes. I don't want to be in her club. I still shoot film because I started a project in 2010 in film and I still haven't figured out what the work wants to be yet – I know, I know - and I don't want to switch formats mid-project without some sort of reason based in the project itself. I resent the focus she puts on how the images are made that reduces the conversation from content to technique. I certainly don't want my photographs to be judged by how well they define reality as the criteria for their quality. I don't want to be creating work that's increasingly resonant with the word nostalgia, or to have the way I create photographs be associated with mentalities of superiority or resistance, or injected conceptually with relationships to decline and scarcity.

Film is still available and I shoot it. Eventually it will be much more difficult to get and I probably won't shoot it anymore. Yet while its inevitable continued decline as a contemporary process will bring with it some unfortunate consequences and the eventual loss of a vibrant conversational medium for photographers as has already happened for non-photographers, nothing can castrate film as a medium faster than basing our conversation and actions in its decline.
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Please consider a donation to our microgrant to help a group of young Colombian photographers visit the United States this summer for a workshop, exhibition and studio visits. Donations can be made here and more reading on the microgrant can be found here.

4.08.2015

Editing with Miska Draskoczy

Egret From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Images courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob HaggartAshley Kauschinger and Jeff Rich. Today we continue with Miska Draskoczy.

Miska Draskoczy’s photography has been exhibited in the US and abroad including solo shows at the Vermont Center for Photography, Ground Floor Gallery in Brooklyn, NY and group shows including THE FENCE at PHOTOVILLE 2013. His work has been featured in the press by The New Yorker's Photo Booth blog, Time Out, PDN, Gizmodo, Featureshoot, Hyperallergic, Brokelyn and many others. He was recently named a Photolucida Critical Mass finalist. Miska's visual arts career also includes co-founding a conceptual arts organization, directing surreal sci-fi shorts, writing and developing a Slamdance shortlisted horror feature and creating a documentary web series about objects in people's homes. He also works as a director, editor and animator through his production company snow23 and is an avid rock and ice climber.

Miska's series "Gowanus Wild" is currently showing at Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY through May 10th.
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Fluorescent Tree From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Miska Draskoczy: I'm a photographer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn and my most recent project is "Gowanus Wild," a series which explores wilderness and nature in the notoriously polluted industrial neighborhood of Gowanus, Brooklyn. Besides doing photography since my teens, for most of my professional life I’ve worked in the film and video world as an editor, animator and director, so my approach to editing is influenced by practicing it in other mediums.

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

MD: My first criteria is simply that it be a really strong image, something that I find irresistible to look at. The three general categories it has to hit for me are composition, color, and content. Sometimes an image is almost there formally and I think it can be brought up to speed with more post work. If it's a content issue then I discard or reshoot. I think there's a big difference between editing contact sheets to determine which images become part of the series versus editing down the current core images to smaller edits. Doing a long term project over several years, I went back over the contact sheets many times. Images I had previously passed over suddenly became relevant as I clarified the project theme, or they inspired me to go reshoot something that was a near miss. Or conversely images in the core group fell out of favor. It's amazing to me how much the process of photography is about this iterative scouring of the archives which doesn't always get talked about. I get just as excited about spending a night looking through the images as I do going out on a shoot.

Green Canal From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

MD: The process is fairly different depending on the end format, which for me is submissions, exhibition layouts and now a book project. I edit digitally for submissions and exhibitions. For the book it's mostly digital with maquettes and POD dummies once I have an edit. For submissions I use Adobe Bridge with folders of low res images because it's fast and simple. For exhibitions I mock up wall layouts in After Effects and then make exhibition design sets I can flip through in Bridge. For the book, it's all in InDesign.

I tend to be exhaustive at first, trying many edit combinations and quickly discarding those which are definitely not going to work. I'll start small and build up, identifying various pairs that go well with each other, and then building pairs of pairs and onwards. It feels like writing or music: using notes to make bars, choruses and songs, or words to make sentences, paragraphs and chapters. The categories I'm usually playing with for "Gowanus Wild" are color/tone, shot type (medium/close vs wide), season (spring, summer, fall, winter), and vegetation/animal vs man-made. I've found that sequencing strictly by category rarely works except in small batches. For instance, I tried laying out the book in four sections according to season but it just felt too contrived. Given my background it's not surprising that I tend to shoot and think of the edit like a film - alternating camera angles, subjects and scenes to create a rhythm, a more fleshed out view of the world I'm exploring. I find this is where the real magic of editing takes hold, when the edit is drawing on the poetic, the friction of the dissimilar, versus the literal, a catalog.

In the book I've been pairing the images with short bits of poetry I've written, a sort of urban transcendentalism. At first I had a lot of poetry/image pairs but I've since pared it down as I find the images strong on their own and the text can be distracting when there's too much of it. Juggling all these elements - sequence, tone, text, is where I'm at right now. I think it's exponentially harder the more images there are in a series.

Junk Weed From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: How do you consider the balancing of formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

MD: There's a certain threshold I have for color and form such that if an image doesn't meet it then it's out. After that, it's all about the content and typically the question here is 'is it repetitive?' or 'is it an outlier?' The more a certain shot is the same subject, color palette and angle as another then it's redundant to have both in an edit, regardless of their strength individually. Then there are some which are great images but it's a stretch to relate them to theme of the series, or to get them to fit into a particular sequence, and I have to set them aside, sometimes grudgingly. Also in a larger series such as the book second tier images can sometimes still find a use as a glue to bridge transitions between contrasting images or sections, they're like prepositions. The content of "Gowanus Wild" feels more abstract and dream-like to me so I'm approaching the sequencing decisions on a gut visual level rather than trying to work out any sort of logical documentary narrative.

Moon Dock From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying things out?

MD: The most common and more easily solved problems are clashes in formal qualities. Like too many of the same color palette or composition element in successive images. I usually spot those quickly and find solutions by breaking up the rhythm, getting a feel for the overall design. Content though is often harder to pin down. I could equally make a case for why a section of plant ones should all be together, or instead alternate with man-made themed images. This is where a lot of decisions are made from intuition or happy accident. I try to precipitate accidents by trying out all possible combinations for subsets of images. At one point I think I laid out something like 1000 spread pairs for the book in InDesign, quickly scanning them to find possible candidates, only to later realize that I wanted the book to be only 10-15% spreads anyways. But I find I often have to be exhaustive, otherwise I keep thinking 'what if?'

f: With a rigorous mental and visual process for testing pairings and sequences, it makes me wonder what the relationship of emotion to your editing process is. Does emotion play a role? When you're scouring old archives for work, is it actually a disconnection of emotion that plays a more important role than emotion? And does emotion overlap with how you're thinking about "intuition" in the editing process?

MD: I'd say emotion and intuition are roughly the same thing in this case and play a big role, the deciding one in fact. The word that comes to mind is love - I have to really love an image for it to ultimately become part of the core series. I consider the images again and again and the ones that remain in the core over the years, I just love looking at them. It's like there's a certain mystery where I don't really know how everything lined up just the way it did, it's as if someone else took the picture and I just discovered it on the contacts and it's a real joy to polish it and watch it mature. As for editing the images into sequences, initially approaching an edit with any sort of methodical system is a way to overcome inertia and frees me up to make discoveries without preconceived notions. It's that idea that I may not always know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.

Pilot House From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

MD: For smaller edits, say 5-20 images, it's like Jenga - if I take out or move the wrong piece and it breaks then I know I went one step too far and back up. With this in mind I’ll work up a few candidate edits I like and sleep on it. Then I try to live with them for a while and see which one grows on me, possibly making little final tweaks. For larger edits like the 60ish I'm working with for the book, I'm not sure yet… Deadlines? Exhaustion?

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

MD: I see repetition and randomness as two ends of the spectrum. Both can be intentional, but either one done unintentionally could cause a series to suffer. If all my photographs are of the same subject, same composition, same idea, then it's going to be susceptible to repetition and boredom and I may need to rethink the project or reshoot. Conversely if I look at a series and feel like shuffling it would't change the experience much then I question the purpose of the edit. But I also think that sequencing for images is a lot more forgiving than other mediums. You can hear when a song skips a beat or notice an awkward cut in a film right away. But you can often edit an image sequence a lot of different ways before it starts to feel like a blatant mistake. I think this is the power of images, their loose and associative meaning, and also how the idea of narrative in image sequences can be broadly interpreted.

Red Piers From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

f: Finally, what is the best advice you've ever gotten about editing?

MD: I’d say the best 'advice' I've received has been from borrowing other people's edits of my work. I'm often delighted to see a photo editor's sequence or gallerist's selection I hadn't thought of which I really like. So I'll roll it into my future edits, earmarking it as a known good edit, or taking sections of it and combining it with other bits. I'm already familiar with all the editing issues involved since it's my work, so to see someone else crack the code is far more informative than looking at final edits of other projects where I can't see what’s been discarded.

Sailboat From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts


Spring Tangle From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts


Sunflower From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts


Sunflower From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts


Sunflower From the series "Gowanus Wild" © Miska Draskoczy
Image courtesy Tepper Takayama Fine Arts