I’d like to talk about books, because you’ve published a few and you’ve got one that’s coming up. What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about publishing their work?
Well I’ve done two books. I did a book with the first degree and it was A3 size, it cost me $600. I got two copies and I submitted it as part of my first Masters degree. That was using e-publishing, you could order one or two copies if you wanted to.
I was talking to a gallerist the other day who is also a fine art photographer and a very successful commercial photographer. He had a book printed in China, with 200 pages, quite a large book…he shot these urban scenes on 5x4 film and it cost him twenty bucks a copy in China, but he had to order a thousand so we are talking about twenty thousand Australian dollars for this book, which filled a room then!
This is not a simple question because there are a couple of strands to the publishing thing. If you want to reduce your unit costs and sell via bookshops, because they want to make 100% profit, if you sell them a book for forty bucks they’re going to sell it for eighty. But if you sell it for forty then you’ve got to get it for twenty. Now you can’t get it for twenty if you use Blurb or any of the online people ‘cause their unit costs are much higher. So if you’re using electronic publishing you’re out of the bookshop market.
Now you could have a show, and you could have books available at the show and you could take orders for those books and then you could order them from Blurb or whoever and then deliver them to the people. You’d make a lot less but you’d be cutting out the middle man. Unless you’ve got lots of capital, unless you’ve got twenty grand up your sleeve…the traditional publishing route which is a thousand copies, lower your unit costs, that’s off the table.
The only other alternative that I’ve found, which I’m exploring with this Flickr book, ‘cause I’m doing a book based on that Creative Street Photography group that I set up, that will be done via Amazon because Amazon has their own book software and they list the book as well, so they are both printers and retailers. That’s another way of doing it. Amazon will distribute and they’ll give me an ISBN number and so on, so I’m going to try that process, because I don’t have twenty grand to get stuff printed!
London Canal - Lynn Smith
Is it cheaper doing it via Amazon?
Well the thing is that you’re only obliged to buy one copy, you don’t have to print a quantity. The book goes out there, it’s published, anyone that orders it buys it… there’s no stockpiling of books. Amazon’s got all the software, they’ve got the PDFs… so you want to order my book, you contact Amazon, they print it, send it to you, charge you ‘x’, I get ‘y’, and then the whole thing just sits there until the next person orders, so there’s no stockpiling. So you’re only obliged to buy one book, that’s the interesting thing about it. All you're obliged to pay is your fifty bucks and your book’s in circulation.
That’s potentially quite an attractive option for people considering publishing their work. Ok, a few more questions… you shoot on film, have you always shot film?
I think digital is one of the biggest marketing cons in history!
I never shoot digital, ever. Only with my phone, that’s all.
If you look back at the history of photography, relatively recently, say from the 1930s…you had the emergence of the Leica in the early 1930s, so suddenly cameras were off the sticks, they were very small, and candid observation was possible. The people on the street didn’t necessarily know what this little thing in your hand was, ‘cause Leicas are quite small. Their viewfinder cameras are only about the size of a phone. So the Leica changed the relationship between photographer and subject. Digital has not changed any relationship between photographer and subject, it’s just an easier way of recording the information. There’s no fundamental change between the artist and the environment.
Now Google Glass will change that relationship utterly, because your head then becomes the camera. That’s really fascinating. But anything in the middle…all digital’s done is, like CDs…CDs are shit! They’re nothing compared to LPs. There’s been a big resurgence now of people buying albums and putting them on turntables.
Look I can’t summarise it better than a Czech philosopher called Vilém Flusser. He was a Jewish Czech émigré who went to live in South America in the early ‘30s because of Nazism, and he did philosophy at university. He only ever wrote in Portuguese or German, he never wrote in English, so his books are not widely available in English although some are translated. He became a bit of a media philosopher, he writes about television and about photography. He did a book called ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ in which he says cameras walk around in possession of their photographers, that the industry’s programmed us to produce the kind of pictures it needs for its development…which is really interesting. He says that the only pictures that are worth taking are those that fight the camera.
Thats a really interesting idea, it kind of goes back to what you were saying about a) not taking a picture that you’ve seen already, and b) not following the crowds...
My students machine gun everything, you know, they don’t have to think because it doesn’t cost them anything, so they don’t think! But photography is a process. There’s only three things, there’s the quality of the glass in front of your face, there’s your mind, and there’s the choice of subject. They’re the only things that matter really. The recording device is immaterial. You know, like whether it’s film or digital…that doesn’t matter. If you don’t have to think you don’t, you see.
19 - Lynn Smith
Okay but you shoot film, you shoot medium format, so the process of medium format photography is different than someone like myself walking in the streets shooting handheld, using a digital camera at high ISO… I can just shoot like that (snaps fingers). You can’t do that, you have to take your time, to compose, measure the light etc. Do you not think that process itself feeds into the sort of images you create, because by definition they are going to be more considered than someone like me walking around firing off high ISO handheld shots?
You're hoping the law of averages will save your arse! That’s not a very good way to proceed. Would you proceed in medicine like that? So why treat photography any differently?
So I guess my question to you is, if I gave you a digital camera now and said go out in the same way as you go out with your usual camera, do you think that would significantly change the way you approach what you’re doing? Do you think your camera is a fundamental part of how you approach your work? Or would you still be as considered about what you are doing, using a digital camera?
No I can shoot high ISO. I’ve got a roll of 800 ASA in my camera at the moment, and I can push it to 3200, so I can shoot handheld if I choose to. But I shoot on a tripod because my exposures are long and I shoot with available light, because that’s the way to get good pictures at night. I mean If I were shooting during the day I wouldn’t need a tripod, I could still shoot as fast as you do. Well except it’s going to cost me more. It costs me two bucks a frame…a roll of film costs me ten bucks basically and processing costs me ten bucks and there’s ten shots to a medium format roll, so each frame costs me two bucks.
So I’m often in the situation where I’m looking at something and I think ‘is it worth two bucks…er, no!’
We have a joke in Australia…why do dogs stand in the middle of the road licking their dicks? It’s because they can! Why do people take a thousand pictures, because they can…it doesn’t mean they ought to. Especially if it degrades your thinking.
There was a gallery in the States that did an experiment. They wanted to test out the relationship of shooting pictures of something and seeing it and thinking about it. They weren’t too sure whether there was an overlap or not. So they did this test where they sent a hundred people to a particular gallery, fifty were given digital cameras and were told to photograph the pictures they thought were interesting, and the other fifty were not given any cameras and were asked when they came back what pictures they thought were interesting. And the people that took the pictures had no idea what was interesting, they couldn’t remember. So in fact cameras can degrade memory, can degrade seeing, so when deciding to be a photographer you have to work out ways of elevating your seeing of the world as opposed to degrading it. The great evil of digital photography is it’s too f****** easy, therefore you don’t have to think, therefore you don’t, therefore you don’t contemplate, you see… you just machine gun.
And your work won’t get any better until you stand in front of something, look at it for a while and think ‘ok, well, is there a picture here?’. You mightn’t even shoot it then, you might think about it for two days then go back once you’ve thought about how you might approach it. Good photographs are not taken, they’re built. Built by photographers.
That’s a beautiful idea. I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to think you can achieve that same degree of thought even with a digital camera…
Well if you do I’m not going to launch war against you, if you do that’s ok! (laughs)
The other thing is, in terms of the way things look, there’s no question now that digital cameras especially the high resolution cameras - I had a student in Melbourne a few months ago, he’s a wedding photographer and he shoots with a 50 megapixel Nikon, and he said "I can shoot a wedding group in a hall and not worry about having to get close-ups because I have such enormous files, I can pull close-ups out of the scenes with 20 people in them" - Now there’s no question that those cameras with very high resolution can get incredible detail, there’s no question, but there is a difference between a high resolution digital image and film image.
I found out from my lab what the difference is…I asked the guys who process for me "Is a grain on a piece of film equivalent to a dot in digital?"
And they said "Well, not really, digital is a mathematical unit whereas film is organic. If you were to pick up a handful of sand on the beach, you’d have thousands of grains of sand but not one of them would be the same as any other grain."
That’s one of the differences between the film and the digital look. Film can get amazing detail but also a strange kind of softness at the same time, because the material is organic. Digital can get incredible detail, but it’s brittle, it’s kind of got a brittleness to it. It doesn’t have that little touch of ambiguity that we’re used to with our eyes for example. I mean digital cameras, really high end cameras, are capable of much greater detail than your eyes but it’s a special kind of detail. Now you might like that, I don’t happen to like it, and a lot of digital photographers use a filter to make it look like film which is pretty stupid…shoot film in the first place! (laughs)
But this is not a closed debate, this is just a point of view. I’m not saying that to shoot digitally makes you a bad photographer.
I’m not a Luddite, it’s not because I’m old-fashioned or an old bloke, it’s the look of the medium which to me is eternal, film’s going to be with us forever.
Quadrants of Light - Lynn Smith
Have you ever had any risky or unsafe moments while out shooting at night?
Lots of them, I’ve been attacked.
Do you think being a night photographer automatically makes you a target?
No I don’t think I was attacked because I was a night photographer. I was photographing this small hall in a suburb in Sydney and it had a banner out the front and these guys were teaching martial arts. It was like learn karate or jujutsu or whatever it was. In front of this hall there was a row of concrete posts about a metre high, and they were wrapped in bubble wrap. And I thought to myself ‘this might make an interesting picture’, as it may say that they turn out such little thugs from this bloody martial arts hall that they have to protect the concrete pylons from them! I wasn't sure if it would work but I thought I’ll photograph it and see.
So here I am with my tripod, on public land on the footpath, photographing this building with this sign and these posts… This guy comes out in his martial arts gear and says “You’ve got to stop taking photos”, and I said “No I don’t, I’m on public land so I can shoot what I like”, and he said “I want you to stop” and I said “Well I’m not going to, ok!”
So he went back inside and came out with another guy and they said “We want you to delete the images…”
“Well too bad, because they’re on film.”
So they said “Well we want your camera” and they started swinging me around trying to get my camera off me. Luckily there was a guy walking past at the time who wasn't connected to the martial arts outfit, just a bloke in a suit, and I said “Mate, excuse me, can you stop!” He stopped and I said “Can you ring the cops and don't go anywhere till they turn up”.
So these martial arts guys backed off a little bit. They stood there and weren’t too sure what to do. The cops turned up in about two minutes flat.
I was within my rights, as you are in the UK, to photograph anything in a public space at any time that you choose to, without asking any permission. Unless you're making a lot of money out of it, unless its a commercial project. But I was a bit bolshy, I was asserting my rights fairly directly.
I get annoyed by cops all the time. The later I shoot the more annoying they are, because there’s nothing else around so they’re bored shitless right! This bloke’s doing something they don’t understand so they have to try and stop him, and its very interesting because there's a kind of routine that happens. I’m there with my tripod photographing something on the street, a police divvy van pulls up, and I get “Are you ok mate?”. Now I dunno what the correct answer is cause when I say no that doesn’t seem to satisfy them!
So they stop, they get out, and they ask what I’m doing…
“What am I doing? I’m skinning a f****** elephant, what do you think! I’m taking a picture…”
“Er, what’s in front of the camera…”
Then they look at my ID and they get on the computer, and they check with the bloody head office and all this kind of shit…
I’ve had similar experiences with the police using almost the exact same words…
The last time it happened to me, when they’d finally cleared me I said to them “When you guys go back to the station you have to fill out notes on what happened tonight, and all the stations are connected because there’s the internet, so what you fill out in your reports, all the other stations can get it, they can look at it right?”
They said “Yeah”
“Why don’t you tell ‘em there’s this older bloke, he goes around taking pictures, he’s completely harmless?”
You know what they said..
“We don’t know that’s what you're doing!” (laughs)
Thanks again to Lynn for taking time out to share his insight and experiences with me.
Since this interview was recorded Lynn has published his most recent book, Aftertaste. Click here for details or to purchase.
You can see a video of Lynn discussing his work, here
To see more of Lynn's work or to contact him for print or exhibition enquiries you can find him on Flickr
He's now also sharing his work on Instagram
In the next and final instalment of this interview, Lynn outlines some specifics about how he approaches shooting at night and offers some advice for anyone considering night photography. So stay tuned, and till then keep it interesting!
Ok, so I know you’re involved with the University of Sydney and you’re also working on various projects with young people. How important to you is that role as an educator, guiding other photographers?
I don’t guide anyone mate, I don’t believe you can teach creativity you see. Creativity is by definition taking a risk, sticking your neck out and going in a direction on your own and seeing what happens. I see myself as putting students in situations where they can make discoveries and I comment on what they come up with. So my method is immersion in situations, lots of discussion, I have peer group comments, all the students are paired up and they comment about each other’s best images and then I’ll comment later online. I have a policy of positive reinforcement, I never criticise anything. I don’t say “this is shit” or “you should have done that” ever. If I don’t like it I won’t say anything because the easiest thing in the world to crush is a creative spirit. And a lot of people are out to crush it, so I’m a professional encourager, my job is to let these green shoots emerge.
I love it, I hate it when classes finish. I’m sad when they’re finished, I want them to stick around, I think it’s fabulous! It’s not whether people absorb what I tell them, it’s them stumbling into a course, having difficulty…one of the key difficulties they all have is they don’t know how to approach people. They want people in their pictures but they’re apprehensive. There are various techniques you can teach people about how to deal with that. Nothing is guaranteed but there are various techniques that will make it easier for them to approach people on the street. It’s seeing them flower, seeing them decide ‘I can do this, I’ve got it’, that’s magical! It’s great to be in their presence when they get it. It’s like champagne! But it’s not that I teach them anything, they’re not learning from me. I’m allowing them to discover…
Do you get any benefits from the educational process that feed into your own work at all… Maybe in discussing someone else’s stuff it helps you to understand your thoughts about your own work?
Maybe, but let’s be honest I’m not teaching undergrads, people who decided to be artists…I’m teaching hobbyists. These are short courses and there’s all sorts of reasons they come to my classes. So I don’t necessarily expect a high level of engagement from them.
For example, I did run course on ‘Street Photography: Conceptual’…nobody signed up…nobody! And it’s a whole genre that’s really interesting. Gregory Crewdson, he’s an American who shoots with a crew of 50 on the street, so his stills are like a movie compressed into a single frame.
There’s an English photographer called Gillian Wearing who, one of her series was to take an A3 notepad out on the street, hand the pad to people and say “write down what you’re feeling now” and she shot them, just straight snaps. And there’s a cop saying “I feel insecure” and there’s a mixed race couple with the sign up saying “work for world peace”. So that was a conceptual series that Gillian Wearing did.
There’s also a Chinese guy called Liu Bolin, he works out of Beijing. He got up the Government’s nose about 10 years ago so they chucked him out of his studio in Beijing, and he said “ok, well you think you can deprive me of my studio, the world will be my studio”. So he stands in front of ordinary things on the street and has someone paint over him what’s behind him so he disappears into the environment and then he’s photographed. His series is called Hiding in the City and it’s a beautiful series. It’s a great idea and he’s trying to say to the Chinese authorities that you can’t just tear stuff down without tearing our souls. I mean this rampant rebuilding and ignorance of cultural history is hurting us, that’s his point.
Those three people are conceptual street photographers, they all work on the street. They use it as a kind of stage in order to put forward intellectual propositions. So it’s a very rich multi-layered genre, street photography. I tried to get some people involved with that…nobody! And I had some people who did three and four courses with me who baulked at that one. It was a dead duck! (laughs)
19 - Lynn Smith
I want to talk more about the academic side, you mentioned it was a marketing exercise, do you feel that was the only benefit you gained from your studies or did you gain anything more?
No no, not at all…that was my rather crude objective but I gained a lot more than that, a surprising amount. It enabled me to work out where I sat in the art world which was a real advantage. So I know my peers, I know where I sit, I know who I overlap with and who I’m different from and so on, so that was really useful.
Do you think your studies helped you to articulate yourself as an artist, or were you good at that anyway?
No, when I started off writing I thought this would be a breeze, you know I’m a professional writer with 25 years in advertising, then got pain and got hit over the knuckles very quickly by my lecturers who said “listen Lynn this is not idiosyncratic, this is not vernacular, this is not impressionistic, this is academic writing, buckle down sunshine!”
So I found that quite difficult.
But the interesting thing is, with the second Masters, I submitted my 15,000 word paper, my major creative work to the examiners…they liked the work, they felt moved by it and they felt it was substantial, had depth and it was saying fresh things, but they didn’t like the paper. They said “your paper seems to be almost like it was written by someone else, your medium is street photography but you talk about other stuff, we’ll give you a year to rewrite two chapters then you can re-submit”.
I got a new supervisor who said “I’m gonna get you through this, what do you think you’re doing?”. I said “I’m doing Film Noir”, she said “no, no you’re not, Film Noir is a cinematic medium”. I said “that’s pedantry…I shoot on film and my look is noir!”.
She said “Lynn! Let’s get some things straight. There are some terms that are understood in the art world and one of them is Film Noir and it’s about cinema…if you keep on with this shit we’re not going to get anywhere!”
But it was from precisely that argument that I developed this new concept of Street Noir, so out of an argument with my supervisor…I was nearly gonna walk, I thought ‘I’m finished with this, I don’t think I can cope with this shit!’ It struck me as pedantry, but in her putting a position, a very firm position, and me bashing up against it, out of that came this notion of ‘yeah what I’m doing is a hybrid between street photography and Film Noir’ like the Hawaiian people are a hybrid between Polynesians and Japanese…there are many examples of ethnic hybrids, and why not cultural hybrids. So it was that clash that led to this new thinking, so I'm glad we had that argument. The second paper was about two thousand percent better than my first and I’m glad I got kicked in the arse!
So would you advocate that all photographers could benefit from some academic training?
Absolutely! Anybody that’s serious about this medium should do a degree! For a start you’re gonna have a show, you can’t postpone putting your work on the wall. If you don’t have a show you won’t get the degree, so that discipline is useful for a start. In two years time you’re going to have a show and you’ll be working towards that. That’s one benefit from it, quite apart from the theoretical stuff and the arguing that goes on between you and the supervisor.
And the peer group stuff was interesting as well. I had a lot of discussion in class, but I was the oldest person there in my class, so there was no discussion once class had finished…they were all talking about rock and roll bands I’d never heard of! But within the class there was a lot of discussion about the work and about photography.
Pinball Shop - Lynn Smith
I know you’ve curated your most recent show yourself and I’m interested in the idea of letting someone else choose how your work is displayed. Do you feel having someone else curate was giving away part of your voice, because you’re now taking that role back?
I have a curator who’s worked with me for about 8 or 9 years. Up till now she’s always chosen the pictures in the shows for me, she’s decided on them. We start with a shortlist and she does the deciding and she also does the arrangement, she will decide the sequencing as well.
Look, I learnt from her. If I didn't think she had a contribution to make I wouldn’t have allowed her to do it. The same with my printer…I don’t tell my printer what to do, ever! I'm from a corporate background in creativity, so I’m used to collaborating with musicians, film directors, art directors, producers, like the commercials that I made which got international awards were as a result of listening and working with, and fashioning things with, other artists, so i don’t find this unusual. With advertising really, if one was honest, you wouldn't be able to say that “I had the last word”…that would be bullshit, because there’s this whole rolling process where you’re modifying it all the time until it’s on a television screen, and you and the director and the editor are working this thing up all the time, and listening to the client. So I don't find the work on the wall, I don’t believe that I should be saying to anyone, because it isn’t true, that “I decided on this stuff, I had the last word, I was the man that said yes or no”…that’s not the way it goes.
Sandy who’s my curator, she’s a full-time gallerist who’s been working with the number one photography-only gallery in Sydney for twenty years, three days a week she works there. And she freelances the rest of the time and pulls us together in various shows, us other ‘B-level’ artists that are not really famous yet! So she knows a lot about sequencing, she knows a lot about presenting work, she’s done it for half her life. So I’m learning about that stuff from her.
Obviously you’ve exhibited your work widely over the years and you’ve published widely as well. Did your relationship with your curator develop because you sought her out, did she seek you out, how did that happen and how would you advise other photographers that want to exhibit their work to go about that?
Get a curator immediately! Immediately!
What it means is that you’ve gotta go to galleries that have shows that you like, and you get talking to people, you’ll find who the curator is and you introduce yourself, you say you’re interested in doing a show, and so you get that connection.
One of the most fundamental things about the art world I’ve found is that the relationships in the art world, at my level anyway - I’m what’s called a ‘mid-career artist’, I’m neither an emerging artist nor an established artist, I’m still trying to get some sort of reputation - in the milieu that I’m in anyway, unlike the corporate world where it’s really what you can get out of it for yourself, these relationships in the art world are like unrequited love affairs, you love these people, and they don’t alway work for money.
Sometimes they do a whole show for you and they won’t accept any money. You can go and stand in the gallery for a week and mind it and they’re quite happy for you to do that so you can have a free show here and there, so if you find a curator who loves your work and where there’s mutual respect, all sorts of possibilities can happen. They’re fabulous people. I’ve found gallerists and curators in the art world to be quite unlike anybody else in the commercial world, and I treasure the people that I work with. It’s only a handful of them, two or three, but I treasure those relationships.
So that would be your advice to artists, to find a connection with people…
Get a curator fast! Find one!
Stairway to Nowhere - Lynn Smith
How would you advise a photographer who wants to explore the possibility of having their work exhibited but isn’t sure if their work is ready…what would you say to that person?
Well it’s interesting because I asked my ex the same question. The very first show that I was invited to was a black and white show in 2003. And I hadn’t been shooting for long…I had only been shooting for a couple of years then seriously, and I said to her “I don’t know whether I’m an artist or if I’m any good” and she said to me “Lynn you’re good if you believe you are”.
That’s the only answer to that question. There’s no way of measuring it other than yourself really.
That is so true. If you don’t carry yourself in a certain way or consider yourself to be of a certain standing then no-one else will give you that consideration, so you have to step forward and see what happens.
One of the things I used to teach my advertising students and I teach my photography students this as well is never, ever, do what you're told. As soon as you do, you’re a dead man!
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn't listen to advice, but you decide what you’ll apply. You don’t do anything you’re told. It’s gotta be a rule!
So you're encouraging individuality and making decisions for yourself and being self-directed?
Of course, of course…and it means being loyal to your own instincts and not feeling that there’s a certain type of picture that you are after.
I think it was Josef Koudelka…He’s a Czech photographer. He’s a Magnum member who became famous by doing a series on gypsies in Europe and then he shot the Russian invasion of Prague in whenever it was…70s or something…
Anyway, he’s one of my heroes and Josef Koudelka says if he looks through the viewfinder and recognises what he sees he doesn’t press the button. So in other words if it’s not new, don't shoot it!
Thanks again to Lynn for taking time out to share his knowledge with me.
If you weren't able to visit his outstanding recent solo show in person, you can see a video that accompanied the exhibition and hear Lynn speak about his work (without me getting in the way!) here
To see more of Lynn's work or to contact him for print or exhibition enquiries you can find him on Flickr
And now also on Instagram
For further insights from Lynn, about publishing and much more, stay tuned for the next instalment of the blog. Till then, keep it interesting!