Looking at Photographs

When I look at a photographer’s work, trying to decide if I like them or not – I start with a broad view: do I like how this person sees things? For me, the first things i notice involve light. And composition. I want to appreciate the craftwork (not the same as “technique”). What is the photographer noticing? Not everything they shoot, not every picture I see, will be amazing, but I can at least judge if I generally like their pictures as a set. Do these photos remind me to look at the world in a different way? Am I sorta envious of their ability to see? Or am I only interested because of where they happened to have been?

Rubin, “Napa Cloud” (2019)

Rubin “Sonoma Street” (2019)

Rubin “Pigeon Point” (2019)

Rubin “Pond” (2017)

At this point it’s not usually about any special image. (Although I’ll admit that it’s often one special image that interests me enough to start this process.)

Then I drill in deeper. I’m looking at individual images. As Sontag said, a beautiful photo isn’t necessarily a photo of a beautiful subject. Is it harmonious? And now the element of time is a critical factor. Did they catch something fleeting? Did they stop a moment that anyone else would have missed? Am I stopped dead in my tracks by the artful capturing of an inexplicable event? what Cartier-Bresson would have called a “decisive moment.”

Composition is controlled fully by the photographer; but capturing time—creating a composition from moving elements—takes more energy, more skill, and tends to stick with me when I see it.

Rubin “Flying” (2016)

Then I’m thinking about context: Does it make sense or hold interest when no one is explaining it to me? Is it only interesting because it’s OF something or someone interesting? Or does the context only improve an already compelling image?

Next, I’m trying to notice which pictures draw me in, make me want to look longer. Do I see something after 5 seconds that I didn’t see at first? What about after a minute? How long do I give it before I decide I’m bored? What could I look at all day? Or every month for years? What level of complexity is required to continuously be engaging? Pictures that are just beautiful very quickly become boring.

Rubin “Sea Glass Hunters” (2016)

Does this make me pause? Smile? Laugh out loud? Feel a little twinge inside? An emotion welling up? What am I feeling and do I like that feeling? Am I compelled to some action? I try to quiet myself and pay attention what is happening internally as I look.

Finally, I sorta pull back again and wonder if I can feel the photographer when I see the pictures. Is there an identity here? Does the photographer have a unique vision, something that I haven’t seen much of? Could this photo have been taken by a hundred other people on a hundred other days? Is the photographer a person I’m now more curious about? What life produced this vision? What kind of person moves in these spaces and sees these things? I start to make up a story that fits the individual frames. Do I like this story? Do I want to be in this life, or maybe watch it from this safe distance?

Rubin, “Kids in the Trees, Turin” (2015)

Rubin “Afternoon Walk” (2015)

Some pictures propel me to a place I’d like to go or am happy to remember. Some are simply beautiful, but in a way that never gets old. Some make me feel sad or angry, and it’s nice to be reminded of those emotions too, as I go through my days. There’s obviously no one thing, but rather an assortment of these attributes. In the end, I’m always re-assessing if I still like looking at this image. If I keep returning to an image, months and years later… it’s a keeper.

Life Lessons for my Kids

Marc Randolph, co-founder of Netflix (and new author!) posted a list of 9 lessons for success that his father gave him… that I reposted last week. It was great, but it got me thinking: did I agree with all of them? Was there anything else I’d add for my own kids, from my own experiences?

Me and them, 2006

Me and them, 2006

With a nod to Marc, I sent an “extended” version to my kids yesterday and asked them if they felt these were useful, and somewhat actionable. They liked the list enough that they encouraged me to share it. And so with their blessing, I present the listing here (at least in part so they can always find it.)

1.     Under-promise, and over-deliver.

2.     Notice when things you present as “facts” are really “opinions” – nothing wrong with having an opinion but you undermine what you’re doing when you confuse the two.

3.     Avoid hyperbole – it’s rare that something is an extreme (“the best” “the worst” “always” “never”) and usually when people hear that hyperbolic statement they disregard it. You’ll be more impactful and persuasive if you sound measured.

4.     Treat everyone respectfully – both people above you and below.

5.     Don’t insult, don’t complain. Stick to constructive and serious criticism.

6.     Get informed and expeditiously make the best decisions you can. Realize you’ll almost never have ALL the facts, so you’re always making decisions with incomplete information. Just do the best you can. Keep making decisions and moving forward. Spending extended time getting more facts generally has diminishing returns. (And if you find later a decision was wrong, make another decision to course-correct and keep moving.)

7.     Quantify when possible – be methodical and specific, particularly when problem solving or analyzing.

8.     Be open minded, but skeptical.

9.     Be prompt. No excuses. If you say you’ll be there, be there on time. Period.

10. Help out.

11. Listen. As a general rule of thumb, when you’re about to say something, pause.

12. Always be learning. Reading is ideal, but learn by any method that works for you.

13. Find out what everyone else is doing, then don’t do that.

Christmas, 2008

Christmas, 2008

Homework, 2013

Homework, 2013

14. Accept that you might be wrong. It’s okay. Accept it, change direction. Keep going. Certainly don’t beat yourself up over past errors. If you’re not willing to be wrong, you’re not ready to solve your issue.

15. People want to follow confidence. It’s a highly attractive trait. Just not to the point of conceit. It can be a tricky line.

16. Be good-natured about things. Find the humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. And oddly, when things really fall apart, the absurdity is often at its most comical. [Confidence and humor will tend to trump appearances or wealth]

17. Success is largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. Push through the plateaus and pain points. The good stuff is on the other side.

18. Early impressions linger — and little things can matter: spelling, grammar, saying “like” and how you dress – people judge quickly and often don’t change their minds about you.

19. Look people in the eye. Make sure they know you’re paying attention. In work situations this might mean taking notes. People like it when you take notes while they’re giving you info.

20. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t know something. People want to help. What they don’t want is for you to seem like you get it, and then you don’t.

21. Swing for the fences. Aim big. You won’t hit it out of the park every time (or even often).

22. Be honest. Aim for transparency and candor. Frankly, it’s easier than being deceptive. Notice when you’re drifting toward “spin.”

23. Being an entrepreneur involves a fair degree of self-delusion. The odds of success are astronomically small, but you can’t go into a venture with that sort of attitude. So be optimistic and also be aware when you’re drinking your own Kool-Aid. (#27 and #22 notwithstanding)

24. Beginner’s Mind. Practice remembering what it was like before you knew something, when you saw it or learned it first. This will serve you.

25. Avoid brilliant jerks. This is true in business as in life. People who bring negativity along with whatever positives they have… simply aren’t worth it. The cost to your psyche and to your organization is meaningful. I know it seems like you can’t live without them, but you can. [This is a lesson from Netflix and the “famous” culture deck. RELATED: everyone is replaceable.

26. There are fewer rules than you think. Try to recognize when limitations are external – dictated by a problem, or internal – things you believe are constraints but that aren’t really intrinsic. What is called “out of the box” thinking usually involves recognizing which limitations you can disregard. (see #24 Beginners Mind)

27. Be self aware. You’re easier to be around if you’re reasonably conscious of both your strengths and limitations. Particularly the limitations—they’re not quite as bad if you know about them, and better if you can talk about them openly.

Summer, 2009

Summer, 2009

28. Appreciate your good fortune. You’re lucky. Your problems are relatively small. Keep that perspective when things aren’t going your way. And be gracious about it. Seriously. (Fate can also change any time, so enjoy it while it’s good.)

29. Having more options makes us less happy; ironically, we tend to want more choices. Be aware when you’re creating options for yourself counter-productively. This, btw, is why rich people are often less happy than you’d think they should be: more money means more options.

30. Avoid holding secrets, particularly about yourself. You empower a secret by keeping it quiet. The fear and shame and embarrassment (or whatever) multiplies when you hold that shit inside; let it out and you kill the power it holds over you. Own it and it actually becomes an asset.

31. People tend to do what they want, and think how they think, regardless of facts and influence. “Fact-gathering” is done primarily to make them feel better about doing the thing they wanted to do anyway. You can always find facts to support your position, and friends who endorse your view—recognize when you’re not really assessing direction and only making yourself feel better about doing what you would do anyway. It’s okay to make gut decisions, just don’t pretend they’re well-considered or objectively analyzed.

32. The great art in life is doing what you want to do, are passionate about, and then finding someone to pay you to do it. Do anything really really well — be the best at it — and no matter what it is, you’ll be able to make a living doing it.

33. Make other people look good. Particularly people you work with (and specifically, your boss) but really, anyone. It’s a good general rule to staying employed. (Also #10)

34. “Fair” isn’t always “equal”. There are many ways to divide things and making everything look equal is often the wrong goal. “Fair” takes more judgment.

35. Fancy expensive things—like Ferraris and jewelry —these are not items for parents to give kids; those are rewards you give yourself when you can afford them. It’s great to want shiny toys, but let that motivate you to accomplish goals—and not expect (or even hope) your parents hand them to you. Imagine your folks going to a store and buying you a big trophy for you to show off. Ridiculous and pointless. Also: being given that stuff will make you an asshole.

36. Things rarely go as well as you had dreamed, nor as badly as you feared. In our minds we tend to exaggerate in both directions, but the reality is usually somewhere in-between.

Prom, 2019

Prom, 2019

37. Floss.

38. Your social circle should include people across a range of ages. Support and mentor younger people. Learn from, and apprentice yourself to, older people. The young usually have naïveté, enthusiasm, curiosity; the old have experience, perspective, and wisdom. Learn from everyone.

39. Travel when you can. See the world. Meet people different from you. But realize that what you’re looking for isn’t out there; everything you need is right where you are. If you’re doing it right, you could be just as happy tending a little garden in a small town. The grass often seems greener somewhere else. It’s not.

40. Everyone and everything dies. Death isn’t a problem to be solved. Whether it happens sooner or later, spending your life trying to avoid it is a spurious kind of goal. Living, for any period of time, is the gift. It’s all good.

Mutiny at Disneyland, 2007

Mutiny at Disneyland, 2007

Santa Cruz, 2014

Santa Cruz, 2014

That seems like enough for now…

LeeLee's Elves

When my daughter Leelee was six she found a little hole in an elm tree in our yard and decided that elves lived there.


She didn’t tell Jennifer or me. But she wrote a sweet note to the presumptive little creatures, and made some tiny little “scarves” to keep them warm, and stuck it in all in the hole. We saw her playing in the yard, and when she wasn’t around we went to see what was up. I’m not saying it was right or wrong, but my wife wrote a note back, saying hello.


Leelee didn’t tell us she received a note, in fact she was pretty secretive about the whole thing, but she was clearly ebullient, and set to work on something in her room. When we checked a few days later she had left another note in the tree.


Needlesstosay, the conversation began to escalate. Jen created first one elf, Daphne, and then a brother, Darnell. Leelee still didn’t alert us to this new adventure, but every day she’d go to the tree to see if the elves received her notes and gifts. “Is there anything you need?” she asked. Daphne told her they had all they needed, living in the tree as they did, invisible to humans...

For fun, Jen and her friend Patrice decided to create bits of evidence of the elves’ world. It started small. A little ladder. A pile of acorns. But over time it grew in complexity.

Wedding Chairs. Rocking Horse.


Dozens of objects and notes over a couple months.

Eventually she told us of her relationship. Her brother was skeptical, but also a little jealous of her private friends. This continued adorably all Spring. We’d hear her working in her room... and later see her put something in the tree. And we’d sneak out later and collect up her notes and insert responses and cooler and cooler artifacts.


And then something happened: the City of Santa Cruz posted a notice on the tree. Apparently this elm, along with the row of giant old elm trees on our street, were infected with a tree disease and were slated to be cut down. We were despondent. Leelee would certainly be crushed. Should we just let it happen? Do we fight the city? We had about a month or so to plan.


Daphne wrote Leelee and told her that as the summer was arriving it was time for them to move on to other forests— it was their joyful life to move from woods to woods, and only sometimes they would get to know wonderful magical humans. Daphne told her that she should hang onto their furniture in case they passed this way again, but it might be many years before they’d return — it’s a big world and she looked forward to exploring it. Leelee was sad they were moving on, but happy to have new friends. And when the tree was finally removed, she was just glad Daphne and Darnell weren’t around for it.

None of us really talked much about the elves for the subsequent years... but i asked her about it not that long ago she said that she sorta figured it out at some point, around the time the tooth fairy story wound down, but still preferred to think those elves were out there enjoying the world. So do I.

— MH Rubin, Neomodern founder

Printmasters: The Great Assistants of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams was not only a great artist and craftsman, but an historically important photographer, as a founding member of Group f64 (along with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and others). Beginning in 1946 Adams took on assistants who helped with a range of his projects, but perhaps most significantly he taught them how to print his photographs, and under his guidance became master printers, like him. Of the six men who were Adams’ full time assistants between 1946 and his death in 1984, all were accomplished photographers in their own right. These guys are the models for our current Neomodern “printmasters.”

Pirkle Jones (1946-1956)

Don Worth (1956-1960)

Ted Orland (1971 to 1974)

Alan Ross (1974-1979)

John Sexton (1979 to 1982)

Chris Ranier (1980-1984)

"Ansel''s influence had less to do with technique than the idea that art is your way of life," says Ranier. "Ansel lived his entire life wrapped up in photography and creating art, and his message to me was that life and art are very internal and spiritual. I''m using photography both to create art and beautiful photos that celebrate life, and as a social tool to motivate people to save what''s left of the planet."

Neomodern is pleased to have in our collection dozens of amazing prints by these great photographers; here are a few of our favorites:

Pirkle Jones

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.37.06 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.37.19 AM.png

Don Worth

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.36.45 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.36.55 AM.png

John Sexton

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.35.49 AM.png

Ted Orland

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.36.18 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.36.33 AM.png

Podcast Ep #2 - "Everyday Photography, Every Day"

We’re back! In this episode Suzanne and I chat about Black and White Photography — Is it just nostaglic looking? Does it suddenly turn crappy photos into “Art”? Listen as we dig into the rationale and benefits of monochromatic images.


While most customers want color prints, I'm partial to black & white. It's not to look nostalgic. It's just that we can modify the shades of grey in ways you can't with color, to affect how people look at the image, what is the focus, what's important. For example, look a picture that includes the sky. In a color image it's perhaps blue. But in greyscale what happens to blue? By adjusting the filter the blue can be sorta white, or very grey, or even approach black. None are "false." There is no "real" grey shade that equals blue. So you can decide, based on the specifics of your image, how you'd like the blue sky to look. One reason Ansel Adams' prints are so dramatic is that he used a red filter to make the blue skies dark (when seen in b&w) which makes the rocks (and moon) stand out in certain images. Here's the same image with different filters on the blue sky:

Original shot.

This is not only the case with blue, but with all colors -- although it's a particularly striking effect with blues and also with greens (sometimes a field of grass should be dark, to make it disappear, and sometimes light, to highlight objects in the grass). Where this is particularly important is when the color (blue or green or whatever) is distracting and draws your attention away from the subject. Playing with the greyscale versions of the colors helps you control the attention of the viewer.

Filtering the blue towards white.

Filtering the blue towards black.

I like that shifting an image to monochrome is a reminder that in actuality all photography is surreal, even when it looks "natural" — we experience the world in a large and continuous way: this abstract freezing of a slice of visual space, for a fraction of a second... and the colors we see with our eyes are very different from what can be captured... no, photos are abstractions and b&w is a gentle reminder of that. 

NEW PODCAST: Everyday Photography, Everyday (Episode 1)

Today we are launching a new podcast for amateur photographers: Everyday Photography, Everyday where I engage in short conversations with “enthusiastic iPhone picture taker” Suzanne Fritz-Hanson. Our 12 minute chats are focused on helping everyone take better photos, and don’t get into technical and professional issues. Post questions and topics you’d like us to discuss.

This episode digs into ways to compose better photos. Not “rule of thirds” but just how to think about our photos and making them look great. Helpful?


Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

Feedback is overwhelmingly encouraged…

SF Bay Month of Photography

Elliott Erwitt, East Hampton NY (1983)

Elliott Erwitt, East Hampton NY (1983)

There are a host of cool photographic events and exhibits this September, all month, all over town. Organized by the BAYMOP,  it should be a treat for the photo-oriented. NEOMODERN is participating by hosting a series of TUESDAY TALKS (every Tuesday in September from 6-7pm). Each talk will get up-close with some beautiful prints, and dive into some creative and historical topics, a different theme each week. I'll be talking about prints from the collection here and adding in work by local artists.

Here's the line-up:

SEPT 4: Harry Callahan, Wright Morris and Photographic Composition

SEPT 11: Henri Cartier–Bresson and the Decisive Moment

SEPT 18: Humor and Creative Juxtapositions: Elliot Erwitt and Robert Doisneau

SEPT 25: Beyond Cliché: The work of Michael Kenna and Josef Koudelka

Come on by, it should be fun and interesting (and a great way to see some fantastic museum prints up close). I think this will be good not only for the photo-oriented, but anyone who is interested in seeing their smartphone pictures get better quickly.

On Seeing

"Brooklyn Bridge" 2018 (© MH Rubin)

"Coit Tower, 5:32am" 2015 (© MH Rubin)

"Coit Tower, 5:32am" 2015 (© MH Rubin)

There are so many people taking so many photos, it can often seem impossible to take a unique and personal image. A guideline I enjoy: could my photo have been taken by another person on another day? The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described "the decisive moment" where the image reflects an absolutely special instant: it couldn't have been taken even a moment before or after.

Not every image holds up to these thresholds, but they're good reminders as we take our snapshots: what am I bringing to this image? Why this and why now? One of my personal practices is to go shoot iconic subjects, things we've seen shot by a million people all the time, and from there, see if I can see things in a new or at least relatively novel way.

As Susan Sontag so nicely points out in her landmark work "On Photography," there's a difference between a photo of a beautiful subject, and a beautiful photo. Working on this is part of the fun of photography.