Exposure on Hulu

06. What can we learn from Hulu’s new show “Exposure”?

In this competitive reality show, contestants are issued a smartphone and asked to complete photographic challenges.

Show Notes

Exposure Homepage at Samsung.com: https://www.samsung.com/us/smartphones/galaxy-s21-ultra-5g/exposure/

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: https://www.samsung.com/us/smartphones/galaxy-s21-ultra-5g/highlights/

Exposure on Hulu: https://www.hulu.com/series/exposure-43a5ca36-02d8-451c-9c98-e5a0d4860e48

How to shoot the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Rick Sammon: https://ricksammon.com/blog2/cksammon.info/2011/03/part-ii-girl-with-pearl-earring.html

Steve McCurry on "Afghan Girl": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciXIaCF80ao

"When Bad Photos are Better": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyCumQ78ZoI

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Hello and welcome to this episode of Photo 365, my name is Andrew Haworth. Today, I’m taking a slight detour away from our normal programming, because the other night I ran across a new photography-themed reality show called “Exposure” on Hulu. I nearly dismissed the show because, well, it’s a reality TV show. But I’m glad I watched it, because there’s actually a lot we can gain from the show related to the creative process, and producing images under pressure.

If you haven’t seen it, I’d encourage you to seek out at least the first episode of Exposure. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything here, but if you can check the show out, this discussion will make a lot more sense.

If you can’t watch the show, here’s a quick overview. Exposure is hosted by a guy named Cole Walliser of E! Red Carpet fame (I confess, I don’t know who he is, but apparently he’s done some really cool slo-motion capture). He’s joined by co-host and head judge is Cat Jimenez, who seems to be one of the great coolhunters of our time. It looks like she’s been at the forefront of the visuals of many trendy ad campaigns in recent years, and while she’s a photographer, I gather she’s more well-known as a curator of sorts.

They’re joined each week by a guest judge and “content creator” … and just an aside, for some reason that term makes me feel old and sad. It’s vague, soulless and it devalues what we do. It implies our art is nothing more than filler. However we ARE living in an age where users upload nearly a thousand photos to Instagram EVERY SECOND, so as creators we’re doing a pretty good job of devaluing art by volume alone. So I suppose the word “content” should be the least of our worries. Anyway, sorry for that rant, I’ll go back to yelling at the sky after I finish recording this.

Back to the show: We meet eight constants from various cultural backgrounds, who have skills ranging from street photography to conceptual portraiture. Their portfolios, at least of what we’re shown, all look amazing. There’s even self-professed momtographer Anna -- who is around the same age as the other contestants, but because she doesn’t dress like a hipster or wear horn-rimmed glasses, we’re supposed to assume she isn’t a “serious artist.” I immediately want to pull for her.

All the reality show competition tropes are here: The cocky contestant, the strategist, the drama queen, the parent (who will probably talk about missing her kids, and later be ejected off the show, because that’s how they always edit these things). There’s an older person (in this case, an individual who is on the cusp of actually being a millennial, yet acts like he’s never touched a computer), and so on.

Following the popular reality show formula, it’s not really about the results of the show, so much as it’s about the interpersonal drama, and the backstory each contestant is required to have so the audience will presumably connect with them in some meaningful way.

The judges tell the contestants they’ll face a series of photographic challenges. The winner will take home a quarter-million dollar contract with Samsung. Not too shabby.

To accomplish this feat, each contestant is issued the latest and greatest Samsung smartphone for use during the competition -- this is exclusively a mobile photography contest, hence, we’re told the overall winner of the show will earn the title, “America’s Best Mobile Photographer.”

For credibility, a narrator solemnly informs us smartphone images are so good nowadays, that they are featured everywhere from art galleries to billboards. The contestants swoon over their new slabs of plastic and glass, and presumably, the audience does too. They unbox their new Galaxy phablets, complete with a horrid-looking smart watch that some strap on without hesitation.

As you may have guessed the show is sponsored by Samsung, and it feels like a commercial at times. If you’ve watched any streaming media lately, you’ve probably seen their most recent commercial for the Galaxy phone. The one with the perfect blend of hipsters hanging out of car windows with their smartphones and traipsing through Joshua Tree taking photos of each other like they’ve just discovered Ryan McGinley.

The competition kicks off with a “flash challenge” in which the contestants must create a “#ThrowBackThursday” style image by re-creating a photo from their childhood. They only have an hour to complete their assignments.

To that end, they are sent off to personal studio spaces, apparently kitted out with a variety of props. It’s interesting to see the creative process at work here. Although I’m surprised by the arts and crafts nature of it all -- the fabrication of props and so forth. One of the shooters gives a brief lesson on perspective and camera placement, only to create his photo against drab gray seamless. Were they not allowed to leave the studio?

Some of the compositions were obviously more successful than others. Yet in almost every example, I felt like the original family photo was better than the resulting new shot. Maybe it was a case of the old shots simply having more weight because they were lovingly shot and featured genuine emotions, or maybe there was some “wabi-sabi” at play -- that’s the Japanese notion of beauty in imperfection, which I think is reinforced by the snapshot quality of the original family photos and the vintage aged colors. They were just more interesting than the recreations.

The Samsung phones indeed delivered images with what seemed to be plenty of resolution and detail, but they also felt too wide, too sharp, too flat, and too clinical.

Just based on the contestants’ portfolio images, I kind of expected a higher level of work, both technically, and conceptually in this first challenge. I was a little taken aback by their recreations, because most contestants took a literal, rather than deconstructed approach. Although maybe it’s better they played it safe, because criticism from the judges was all over the map, albeit pretty gentle at this early stage -- for instance, a competitor's use of a grain effect was noted by a judge as "really smart and fun." I have to say that's the first time I've ever heard film grain described that way.

For the main "portfolio challenge," contestants were given a selection of famous portrait paintings and asked to create self portraits based on them. I feel like it was basically an exercise in prop and wardrobe construction. The smartphone seemed to be the great equalizer in this regard, as everyone was working with the same tools, and possibly unfamiliar with the phone and its quirks.

Competitor Parker chose Vermeer’s painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” I felt like that was a good choice given the time constraints because it’s a painting that is studied frequently in the photographic world for its dramatic lighting and posing. Also, it’s a simple image, with a nondescript background, and the contestant kind of resembled the girl in the painting.

I have to confess I wasn’t as familiar with the rest of the paintings featured, but they all seemed more difficult to pull off from a set and costume standpoint.

Post-processing also seemed clunky, as it was performed on tablets and phones using what looked like the mobile version of Photoshop, or something similar. Krys, the 42-year-old elder statesman of the group nearly had a breakdown because he kept accidentally deleting his edits. Bad software or user error? Who knows. Trying to work without your normal, familiar toolset is crippling. His frustration reminded me of anytime I've tried to edit a photo using The GIMP open-source editor. It's just different enough to induce a level of cognitive dissonance that sends me running back to Adobe's Creative Cloud.

Final judging of the photographs took place on a videodrome style screen that was just slightly smaller than a billboard. After all, what better way to showcase the 100 megapixel camera on the Galaxy.

The most successful pieces were ones in which the photographer took liberties with the subject matter and changed it. For example, momtographer Anna chose to emulate a very simple painting of a woman in profile. She went off-script with the very meta addition of a smartphone, implying her subject was taking a selfie. The judges interpreted this as social commentary -- perhaps the only social commentary during this entire episode -- and received rave reviews from the judges for the effort.

The lamest critique came from host Cole Walliser, who seemed disappointed that Parker’s fairly flawless Girl with a Pearl Earring re-creation didn’t feature a cracked paint look.

There were some other mixed messages from the judges. Jiminez criticized a couple pieces of work in which the eyes or catchlights were lost in shadow. Some judges praised photographers who took liberties with the recreations, but some were criticized for not recreating the original works to the letter. Like that comment about the cracked paint.

Eventually New York fashion photographer Monroe Scot was sent packing, after his gender-bent take on the Russian painting "Merchant's Wife at Tea" was blasted for poor lighting and being a complete departure from the original painting.

Street photographer Jose was proclaimed the winner for his spot-on recreation of a Dutch portrait of Rembrandt from the 1600s.

This was an entertaining, slickly produced advertisement disguised as a competition Here are my takeaways:

  • First off, let’s talk about marketing. Some people are great at marketing themselves as photographers, and some of us can’t stand doing it. The folks who are great at it, always find new ways to creatively market themselves. I have to praise Samsung for actually creating an entire series on Hulu to market their products, specifically the Galaxy S21 smartphone. It’s a very sneaky strategy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more programs take self-promotion to another level like this. That being said, the imagery produced on this first show wasn’t good enough to get me the least bit excited about the S21. Samsung's entry into streaming shows serves as a reminder that as photographers we should always be on the lookout for marketing ourselves in creative or unique ways.
  • Using minimal equipment, like a phone, can produce decent images, but you need to know how to use it properly. Know your gear!
  • Focus on the eyes. Hopefully this is one of the first lessons you learned as a photographer. The eyes allow us to connect with people in photographs. Think of Steve McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat Gula, commonly known as "Afghan Girl." You know this one: It graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and is considered one of the most famous images ever produced. Why are we still drawn to that image, more than 35 years later? It’s the haunted look of Sharbat’s green eyes staring directly into the camera.
  • You need to bring your own unique spin to your images, aka, your personal style. In my opinion, the most successful images we saw on this show were the ones in which the photographer took liberties with their subject matter and didn’t simply copy the source images verbatim. You have to put yourself into your images, every time.
  • Lighting and composition. These are cornerstones of photography and they can make or break a photo. The losing contestant in this first episode managed to really flub the lighting in the final, and no doubt, that was the reason he was sent packing.
  • I’ve heard the expression concerning how good video production is 90% moving furniture, and 10 percent actually recording, or something along those lines. Often the photographic act is just a small portion of the creative process. In this case, some of these photographers had to become prop, wardrobe, and set designers. The actual photographic act was the easy part.
  • There can be beauty in imperfection. Remember I mentioned the amateurish childhood photos in the first challenge seemed more interesting than their remakes? Technically “bad” or “imperfect” images often have this striking effect. Maybe there is a certain quality of realism or a power in their candid, spontaneous nature. I’m going to link an excellent video in the show notes titled, “When Bad Photos are Better” and it specifically talks about this “wabi-sabi” effect. I think you’ll really enjoy it.
  • Remember, camera placement and lens selection can alter the psychological impact of a photo, for instance, the image of the guy shot from a high wide angle, made him look smaller and more child-like in the frame.
  • At the end of the day, a camera is a camera and light is light. Hardware doesn’t matter much if the content of an image isn’t compelling. Critiques on the show were every bit as frustrating as critiques in the real world. Images that were technically good but didn’t spark much discussion, seemed safe and ultimately boring. The best and the worst of the bunch garnered the most interesting criticism. I don’t know what’s worse. Being in the middle of the pack or the bottom, where, at least they’re talking about you.
  • And last, working under pressure is hellishly difficult, especially when there is so much at-stake, with unfamiliar tools and in an alien environment, like a TV show set.

Well folks, that’s going to do it for this little breakdown on Hulu’s “Exposure” show. I did enjoy the show, and even knowing it’s a Samsung commercial, I’m going to try and catch the rest of the episodes, because I do believe there is something we can learn from it. If for nothing else, just being able to see the creative photographic process in action, is worth the watch.

I think we’ll see increasingly better images from the contestants as they figure out their gear, get used to the environment, and learn more about how the judges gauge their work. And that in itself, is a lesson to keep in mind, because photography is like any other discipline, we have to understand our tools and our audience, and keep practicing so we can get better day by day.