Meeting Michael Hoppen

I was fortunate recently to meet with Michael Hoppen, owner of the Michael Hoppen Gallery, Chelsea, London. The gallery sells the work of some of the most well-known photographers in the world – including Annie Leibowitz, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Tim Walker, Guy Bourdin, and Richard Avedon -  so I was grateful to Juan Curto at Camara Oscura, Madrid, for the introduction. I made sure I set off a good 2 hours in advance to get from Hackney to Sloane Square, and given that it was steaming hot Saturday in central London, that got me there just in time!

I told him a bit about myself, and as he looked at my work he asked me what inspires me. I paraphrased that when I started, I was inspired by anything: paintings, literature, cinema; and recently I have started to look at other self-portrait photography such as Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, as suggested to me by people who saw my work. He was very polite and warned me before going on to give his full opinion on my images, and did stress that he doesn’t want to tell me what to do or where to go. I said that was fine, I wanted to hear his opinion.

His first reaction was to comment on the ‘commercial’ quality of the lighting in my work, although I use all natural light, it seemed to him that I was doing something ‘unnatural’ to the lighting in Photoshop. For example, in Girl dreaming, he pointed out the diffuse glow that I had applied in Photoshop that made the image seem false. He expressed how the notion of ‘chance’ is what makes photography, and capturing things as they really appear, but using lighting in a way that makes it interesting without looking Photoshopped.

However, he was not suggesting that there was something wrong in using Photoshop. All the works in his current exhibition by Alex Prager, he pointed out, took many hours in retouching. However, the aim was to make the final result look as natural as possible, ie. to not look as if they had been Photoshopped. The use of technology was too overt in my images, according to him, he remarked that he thinks I have talent but the Photoshop was ‘standing in the way’. He was therefore saying I was using Photoshop too overtly, rather than too much.

He also said that having been a photographer himself, he had spent years producing images that had the same ’60s/70s filter-like lighting’ that he saw in my images, and that he ‘gets what I am trying to do’, but encourages me to ‘know when to stop’ in Photoshop. He said he liked South by southeast (one of my lesser-processed images, and an image that all three fine-art-gallery contacts I have been involved with have expressed a preference for, which is interesting).

I told him that I had had all these thoughts recently myself, and that my own tastes have been evolving to appreciate these subtleties of ‘chance’ and reality, and going against the desire to ‘polish’ everything and fit everything neatly into the frame in the manner of commercial photography. I showed him my recent image Soliloquy which I had put alongside an earlier, more gratuitous image of mine Coral Sunfish Sorts (a juxtaposition a gallery have made, as you will see in an upcoming blog post). Soliloquy is very different in its abstractification of my body and the use of negative space.

I also showed him my recent diptych Growing pains to show how I have continued along that vein of minimalism and almost what you might call a more offbeat or ‘cruder’ composition.

He expressed initial disbelief that all was ‘as it seemed’ in the actual shots above. I told him that the words written on the wall were actually on the wall of the hospital, as shot. He then moved onto say that maybe I should have photographed with more depth, playing with depth of field to put something out of focus so it wasn’t so ‘straight on’, perhaps if the words were written on a glass door in front of me rather than simply above me.

He also made an observation that I have never noticed before, that most of my images are shot ‘straight-on’ from waist-height, from the same perspective, with few exceptions (at least, from the images he looked at in my portfolio and on my laptop). He encouraged me to play with different perspectives and angles, to make everyday objects, such as a table, take on a different shape, through high and low angles.

He suggested I look at the work of historical artists who were amongst the first to use compositing in their photography: such as Lady Clementina Hawarden, Henry Peach-Robinson, and Julia Margaret Cameron, and to go and look at their work in print, which I intend to do. He reiterated that he just wanted to encourage me to look at them, rather than suggest a restrictive outlook. He showed me books by Denise Grunstein, Bellocq and also the exhibition in the gallery in which we were sitting, by Miroslav Tichy (Tichy’s images were shot for himself, without any intention of exhibiting them, which was an interesting comparison).

Before I went, I wanted to ask whether he thought it was a problem to be doing all self-portraits all the time, and also, whether I should go about with a more specific conceptual purpose to make my images have clearer ‘meanings’. Contrary to the impression I have got from other curators and directors (one advising me not to simply to show off myself looking ‘beautiful and long-legged’, but to look at the work of other trending, and more sobering, self-portraitists; one saying it is not clear what my pictures ‘are about’; and another one asking me ‘what I am trying to say’ because she doesn’t like ‘empty work’), Michael expressed surprising nonchalance regarding my employment of subject and arguable absence of clear meaning. He said that he thinks there is nothing wrong with ‘beautiful images’ and neither did he mention any issue in repeatedly using yourself as a model – these two factors were fine in his view.

I feel in retrospect very pleased with the meeting which was not too formal.

Thinking about his comment about too-overt use of Photoshop, I recall that other people have remarked that my work, to them, does not look ‘Photoshopped’ per say, but uses enough to achieve each image’s certain illusion or effect. This is because those people see a lot more Photoshopped images on the internet and make a positive judgement of my work by comparison. Michael Hoppen, on the other hand, is used to looking at a certain type of photography (his gallery deals only with analogue at the moment, predominantly silver gelatin prints) so how ‘Photoshopped’ something looks is of course will always be relative. Parts of my work may looked Photoshopped to certain people, even the bits that aren’t.

I do believe in challenging norms and expectations of the art scene, after all, being an artist is surely about being different, about expressing oneself without restraint or pressure of convention to ‘fit in’. In that sense, I might consider the unconventional parts to my practice as a potentially good thing. I say this only in a suggestive way, because I am aware that my feistiness in defending my sense of artistic autonomy has sometimes prevented me from having an open mind to what I could evolve or explore in my own work. A couple of years ago, I had yet to be truly aware of the commercial influences that shaped my work, being non-art-educated and spending most of my time on Flickr, looking there for inspiration, along with maybe some fashion magazines and movies.

I thought about work that does look extremely polished and contrived, even commercial, that can still be ‘art’, such as Gregory Crewdson’s. After all, anything can be art, it just depends on context, on who is saying that it is art. Context is also important: the fact that digital photography is somewhat commodifying photography and turning the ‘unique object’ of an analogue print handcrafted in the darkroom, into a global mass-production of instant image-making. If digital photography became (hypothetically) obsolete in the future, the work of a digital photographer could be displayed on walls with the Photoshop flaws as evident as the bugs trapped in the revered handmade camera of Miroslav Tichy, whose remarkable age-old one-offs now sell for £7500 a pop. That probably won’t happen, but I am trying to express how the context of a photograph, its historical relevance as an ‘object’, can be an esteemed part of its ‘art’ and sometimes equate the sum total of its value.

In this sense therefore, I fully appreciate the words of someone as experienced as Hoppen advising me on how my work can fit in with the contemporary photography scene as it stands today, without didacticism or self-righteousness. I also value how it is necessary to make sense of that person’s perspective, where they ‘are coming from’ in order to have made those judgements. As an artist it is important to listen to experienced people’s advice and consider also how your audience see your work, but that must be filtered through your own mind as the artist, because if you don’t have the last say, there’s no point doing what you do. Keep an open mind, be willing to ‘learn’, but let your style evolve through your own genuine desire.

As a result of the meeting, out of interest, I wanted to dig out my  unprocessed Girl dreaming for comparison. Here’s an earlier version before I did the processing to the light and dark (unnecessary?) which obscured the atlas to the left and, erm, The Jolly Postman to the right, and also before I cloned out all the crap on the table…

I guess it is all down to a matter of opinion which is better  – see my ‘final’ processed one at top of the page. (I definitely could have shifted the stuff on the table before I took the shot – but it was hard given that it wasn’t my own house and I had no idea when someone might walk in!)

I meet another London-based curator shortly, so it will be interesting to put what they say into context with this meeting.

The image of the Michael Hoppen Gallery at the top of the post is from Art Review, here

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Posted in Essays, musings, Inspirations - References to other artists on June 28th, 2010 | 27 Comments |

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Comments for “Meeting Michael Hoppen”

    1. Al from
      3:43 pm on June 28th, 2010

      This is a really interesting post – it’s not often you get to hear about what goes on at these kind of meetings, so thanks for telling us so much about it.

      Regarding the original example of ‘Girl Dreaming’, I think your photoshopped version is better, as it draws the focus more – the original is pretty ‘busy’ in comparison. And on the subject of Photoshop, it was your pretty unique use of it that drew me to your work in the first place, so I think it is definitely something unique to you that you shouldn’t lose. Just my two pennies’ worth anyway!

    2. Brooke Shaden
      3:46 pm on June 28th, 2010

      This has to be my favorite blog post ever written. I think it is very brave to share with everyone the critique that you received, and also shows how willing you are to take advice and grow. I especially liked your assertion about breaking boundaries and growing as an artist, taking what is relevant from others and still following your own artistic sense. I have yet to receive a real, thoughtful critique from a curator even when I ask for it, instead I get responses like “Your art is great!” At first I was bothered by this, thinking, “is there nothing worth saying about my art?” but lately I have wondered how much of what someone would say I would take to heart. I feel so strongly about my own artistic aesthetic that I would want to pick and choose carefully the advice that I take. You especially are an example of how someone must follow their own artistic vision in order to create a name for themselves. You have basically branded this colorful, light manipulating style that is so intrinsically “Miss Aniela”, and I think that you are already on your way to defining a new sub-genre of art. At the very least, you have started a movement online :)

    3. Jamie Maldonado
      4:12 pm on June 28th, 2010

      Thank you for sharing the details of your meeting, even ones you could have chosen to take offense to and disregard. I believe what he said is helpful to read for any photographer, and are definitely relevant in my quest to strengthen my work.

      Also, I have to say your unprocessed image is excellent, and I can see why you processed the image in the way you did. I could see a successful middle ground between your vision and a more conservative digital alteration. Perhaps just burning in the peripheral objects to keep the attention on yourself would have worked, too. Regardless, I think you have a great photograph no matter how it is presented.

    4. Miss Aniela
      4:20 pm on June 28th, 2010

      @ Al
      Thank you. I agree that the original of ‘Girl dreaming’ is too busy, so I do prefer the processed version. I think the quality of both shooting and processing could be better, but I guess that I shouldn’t judge myself too much on an image I took 2 years ago.

      @ Brooke
      Thank you ever so much, as I was a bit unsure whether to divulge this write-up. Then I thought that I have not been to a meeting like this before, and I would be interested to read the experience of another artist’s portfolio review, so I would share mine with people.
      I want to better educate myself with regards to art but I don’t want to lose the passion for being different, so I am flattered that you speak of my particular style in such a way… :-)

      @ Jamie
      Thanks very much, it is good to know that my post here can inspire or help others (and I’m sure Michael will be happy about that too).
      Good idea about the middle ground. Those objects on the table could be cloned out but I wouldn’t dodge and burn that wall and lamp again to end up with a migraine-like mosaic of digital noise… ;-)

    5. James Dyas Davidson
      6:56 pm on June 28th, 2010

      That was a very interesting post and thanks for sharing it. You mention how people comment on you pictures not looking photoshopped but he thought they were a bit over done. I was wondering how you presented the shots to him, i.e prints or on a laptop? We see your work on a screen normally. Do they look more PS’d printed?

    6. Miss Aniela
      6:59 pm on June 28th, 2010

      Hello, I brought both a printed portfolio and also my laptop to show more images. The printed portfolio was made up of 20 small C-prints (about 10 x 12″ each). I think my images look pretty much the same in print as onscreen. I often have a problem with my images looking darker in print but I think I managed to rectify this last time round in the lab.

    7. Alistair
      8:13 pm on June 28th, 2010

      Hmm. Wisdom of the purist. I am an ardent fan of silver nitrate, but I wonder how long it will be before all MH’s exhibitors are dead. Your work, Ms A will be seen by more people in a week than enter MH’s gallery in an entire year. So, have the courage of your convictions – learn, experiment, but do what you think is right. After all, if your work has been admired up to now, you’re doing it right.

      The pure, dark-room print is a thing of beauty, but today it’s only one expression of the photographic art – don’t let your work be dismissed as ‘commercial’ – it may only be so because a lot of people actually want to see it.
      A x

    8. RayPG
      8:58 pm on June 28th, 2010

      As they say fix the things in the camera not in post, I believe that you have an excellent job, I what you say at least yo have a wonderful and very useful opinion about your work that will make you work better for the future, the talent is not a problem, and the problem comes on the people who only says word that are not useful, each time you learn something new ant that is what matters :D

      Great job and fantastic work as usual :D

    9. Piotr
      8:57 pm on June 30th, 2010

      Just my 2 cents about the “Girl dreaming” – the unprocessed version is miles better than the overdone one. Better in a sense that it looks real, real person in the real surrounding, even if the pose of the gir is so “over” too, it fits somehow with the mess around – by contrast!

      And yes, this particular photoshopped version of the image will bring you more “faves” and “WOWs” on flickr, but it won’t fit the art world. You are now aware of the art of targeting the right image to the right audience. Thank you for sharing the unprocessed version.

    10. christian petersen
      11:58 pm on June 30th, 2010

      South by southeast is my favourite too!

      great minds etc.

      dudio knows the score.

      i think everything he said is true.

      basically he seems to be saying

      ‘push it further and keep it real’

      haven’t i been telling you that for years???


      love from chris

      ‘keep it real’

    11. Brook Thompson
      9:04 pm on July 1st, 2010

      I enjoyed this post a lot. I feel like I learned something from it. It was interesting to read about someones opinion who is so central in the business. I think the thing to keep in mind is it is “his” opinion. Having said that his critique was well said so you can take a lot from it. About the 2 examples I like them both but for very different reasons. As far as “Girl Dreaming” I feel the Photoshop version better creates the mood. “South by Southeast” is such a classic epic 50’s movie photograph, even the title catches that. I enjoy your work and always look forward to seeing what you will think of next.

    12. Arty Fucking Smokes
      12:29 am on July 2nd, 2010

      I agree with what Piotr says, and – like Christian – I’m tempted to say “Haven’t I been telling you that for years?”
      I dunno whether I said it in so many words on your flickr stream, but part of your “problem” is that most of your work is not clinical/commercial enough to be “fashion magazine fodder”, but not “arty” enough to be in art galleries. You’re sort of floundering in between the two; pissing off half your followers while pleasing the other half, depending on whatever your latest upload is.
      At some point, I think you have to leave the flickr faves behind and concentrate on Art concepts if you want to be taken seriously as an artist by the likes of Hoppen.
      There’s no money in high art though. Not while you’re alive, anyway.

    13. Lash LaRue
      12:52 am on July 2nd, 2010

      Thanks for sharing this one; it is fascinating to read what Hoppen said and how you respond. I learned from both of you, and I think of all the comments above, Brooke’s is closest to my own thoughts. …. Keep at it!!

    14. Sharon Cooper
      12:06 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      Fantastic insight and peep into your journey, this was a riveting read and loved hearing Hoppen’s views.

      Thanks for typing this up and sharing :)

    15. Lucy-Solarina
      12:45 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      Loved reading this post – really interesting and honest – cheers for sharing so much!

      Everything I was thinking while reading has already been said by others, but I have to laugh – as I was reading I thought ‘I BET Arsy fucking smokes will say ‘I told you so!!’ in some kind of arsy fucking way :)

      For the record, I prefer your edited version of Dreaming, because that is what you were going for – it was supposed to reflect a Balthus painting and the editing did that. Perhaps reshooting you could use a shorter Dof/sharper lights to achieve it all in camera, but as far as I’m concerned – it shouldnt be a matter of ‘but I did all this! look! look at all this work and effort!’ (as often analog heads shout) it should be about your idea and concept and the final image.

      ! p.s. Miroslav Tichy – ARRRRGH. Im still praying he’s an satirical invention. Absolute bollocks.

    16. Miss Aniela
      1:10 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      @ Alistair – I think your comment, and angle on the situation, is very interesting. Thank you.

      @ Piotr – thanks, I agree about the image. I’m still unsure whether I want to go down the road of ‘fitting the right image to the right audience’, because that instantly requires one to learn ‘how’ to do something and therefore not act so much with instinctive & honest creativity. As much as I am cynical of the ‘wows’ on Flickr, I also like the idea of pleasing more people than just an elite crowd – not necessarily bozoes who want quick eye candy, just people who understand there is more to art than following conventions…

      @ Arty
      I have never admired your ultra-negative slant… and the ‘I told you so’ tone in response to this blog post could not be more out of place with its intent – of putting the artist’s desires first!

      Blurring the boundaries between, rather than ‘floundering’ between, ‘commercial/fashion fodder’ and art might, for all I know at this stage, happen to be my USP, and you certainly need a USP in a world reaching a human population of 7 billion…

      You’ll be as surprised as I was to discover that one of my most Photoshopped pieces has just been chosen by a notable museum curator in an international art competition, to be exhibited amongst work that would be deemed more up Hoppen’s street. :-)

      @ Solarina
      Haha – fab comment, always interested to see your take on things.
      I do agree about the image (the processed one looking more like a painting, which would fit my Balthus inspiration and intent better, but without that context it could be seen to be better unprocessed).

      @ everyone: Brook, Lash, Sharon, RayPG:
      thanks very much for taking the time to comment, it does make me feel as if it was well worth sharing this write-up, and encourages me to do more in the future.

    17. Fallen Light
      4:35 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      Thanks for sharing your meeting. It is brave of you and enlightened me about you!

      I would love to see you use film, even if just for a short while. One day we should meet and you can try my Rolleiflex! I think you would find it really interesting, especially 6×6 film….

    18. christian petersen
      8:07 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      where’s my @ ?

      everyone else got one!!!!


      love from chris

    19. Stugee
      10:03 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      Hi Miss A,

      Very interesting post. Intrigued to see that you are still so reflective given the level of your success – really nice to see.

      Anyway, I like both versions of your Girl Dreaming image. I think the painterly version in the heavily photoshopped version has something, but elements of the un-processed image are stronger. I wonder if there is scope to work more on the preperation of the space you shoot in and so have less to do with the processing? By clearing up the clutter slightly, blocking off some of the light and reducing exposure slightly, you could have achieved a chunk of the work you got in photoshop in-camera, which might have given you an image better than either versions.

      Anyway, for the record I like both.



    20. Miss Aniela
      10:36 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      @ Chris – oh sorry! and u :)

      Thanks @ Stugee for your comment.

    21. Stephen Reed
      10:57 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      Someone above may have said the same thing, I didn’t read them all, but regarding your original image/processed image, I feel that the pose you struck in this shot is not a “naturalistic” pose. It’s a lovely pose, and shows your body beautifully. If the pose had been a more ‘natural’ one I might agree with his idea not to process the image as you did, but I think that the dramatic pose deserves very dramatic treatment. But isn’t it always good to have an intelligent person looking at your work? Sounds like a really profitable meeting!


    22. bronwen
      10:03 am on July 6th, 2010

      Thanks for this post Natalie, it’s always so interesting to hear the feedback various galleries give about my own work and others’ work, as even if you disagree with some or all of it, you usually walk away with some really valuable insights; and if nothing else, it makes you consider your own work from someone else’s standpoint.

      In terms of Photoshop, I agree with Hoppen that I prefer Photoshop work to appear “seamless” and not *look* Photoshopped, even if the reality of what you’ve captured cannot possibly have been as shot (that’s a general thing, not a response to any of your specific images). Unless the over-Photoshopped or deliberately collaged style is what you are after and works with the concept. But I definitely don’t see any problem with how much or how little post-processing someone may do on their work to achieve the final image.

      In terms of ‘Girl Dreaming’, I think your decision to clone out the items on the table and to darken the shadows behind you to remove the “clutter” from the image were good ones. I also believe the darkening behind you works with the window light – the drop off that you would have had if you’d exposed the shot a couple of stops down. There’s also the factor that the items behind you seem to be anachronistic with the furniture and give it a more modern feel which you were not after.

      However, the one gem I personally feel you could have left in now that I’ve had a chance to see the original [though somehow in a way that would just gently catch the eye, not draw the viewer's eye too much away from the main subject]: the world atlas! Although it potentially also fits into the “too modern” category of some of the other peripheral items, I think there is a nice suggestion of what you may be dreaming about: travel, a foreign affair, etc., etc. It suggests more, but doesn’t close off the narrative / dialogue.

    23. Art of Photography Show 2010
      11:42 am on July 20th, 2010

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    24. Meeting Katy Barron
      11:21 am on July 29th, 2010

      [...] had a meeting with Katy Barron, an independent art curator. Following my blog post that detailed my meeting with Michael Hoppen, I thought I would also write up my meeting with Katy, and with her kind permission publish to this [...]

    25. Art of Photography Show in San Diego
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    26. paula goddard
      7:44 pm on August 26th, 2012

      Hi Natalie

      Tons of comments here so I’ll be short. Thanks very much for sharing this. I found it very useful and it also confirmed my earlier observation which is that any kind of success as an artist is a matter of meeting the right people who appreciate what you do, and that it is all about personal preferences. For what it’s worth, Alex Prager’s photographs to me do not look natural at all, they look obviously photoshopped and, I must admit, I also fail to see their appeal as yet…

      Thanks again!

    27. Miss Aniela
      7:57 pm on August 26th, 2012

      Thanks Paula. You might therefore also like my article ‘The free-range artist’:

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