Go read this piece, if you haven't already. It's Sally Mann's piece in the NYT Magazine.
In the 1980s Mann took a bunch of picture of her kids, while they were growing up. Using a view camera to get at those spontaneous instants of childhood. This is manifestly impossible, and people who accomplish that which is obviously not possible are always impressive to me.
Anyways, that's not what I care about. What I care about is that the Manns suffered a more or less predictable backlash because some of the pictures were of children without their clothes on. And, let's be honest, some of the pictures are decidedly sensual. Not, I think, sexual, but decidedly sensual.
These are children, naked, and children are simultaneously unaware of their bodies and in love with them. They are strong, flexible, everything works and nothing hurts. (As a nearly-50 man, I am pretty of jealous of kids.) These are children, engaged in the sort of deeply physical, muddy, often touch-based play that children engage in. Of course the pictures are sensual. They are a celebration of youth and of what defines youth and separates it from not-youth. Of course the pictures are sensual.
I don't mean to justify the work, though. I don't care to and it doesn't need it. If you have a problem with the work, fuck you, you ignorant hick.
We seem to have many kinds of objections:
you shouldn't let your children run around nude
you shouldn't photograph them nude
if you must you shouldn't let anyone else see the pictures of them nude
and you most definitely should never ever let a stranger take photos of your kids, nude or not
The last doesn't really apply to Mann's Immediate Family but it's still an idea in play.
There's some combination of straight-up prudishness in play here, obviously (the first bullet point) presumably by people who have not raised kids. Kids are gonna get naked and unless you want to fight a particularly pointless war with them, you're going to cave in and let them run around naked.
There's also a strong sentiment of but the pedophiles will kidnap and rape your children to death. This, interestingly, seems to be utter nonsense.
I admit that this is not a large sample size but the Mann family and the book provide an interesting case study.
One of the most well known photographers in the world produces a book, which sells like hotcakes, one of the best selling photo books ever, a book that is infamous for having pictures of naked children in it. One can hardly imagine that a single actual pedophile in North America was unaware of this book.
The family is easily identifiable, and easy to locate.
The net result? A large number of creepy letters, and one genuinely frightening stalker (who, it happens, seems never to have actually crossed the line in to making threats). While exceedingly unpleasant and frightening for the family -- make no mistake here, they had fears, and those fears were justified -- in the cold light of day, decades down-time, we can count up the number of actual kidnappings and rapes and the number of attempted kidnappings and rapes: Zero (0).
While there is surely an element of genuine concern among the but the pedophiles... crowd one cannot help but think there is also an element of the pedophiles will rape and kill your children, and you will deserve it, because you are a bad person, because you photograph your children without clothes on. Not necessarily in a vindictive way, but in the way that we kind of hope the serial killer in the TV show knocks off another victim, or the way we kind of hope that there will be a crash at the race track.
Certainly pedophiles do, from time to time, kidnap, rape, and kill children. I don't think there's a shred of evidence that they do it based on photographs.
So, again, to all of you who think parents mustn't photograph children in the nude, fuck you, you are an ignorant hick.
There is, essentially, always a raging debate on somewhere in Photography about whether or not, and what types, of manipulation are permissible. I think I have been pretty consistently on the record as thinking it's all idiotic and arbitrary.
Today I feel like writing a little more about it.
Let''s start from the basic premise that photography is interesting specifically because it is a literal tracing of reality, through the mechanism of optics and some sort of sensor. It is a literal record, subject to some limitations, of what's in front of the lens during the time of exposure. This is what makes photography Not Painting and Not Anything Else. It is what makes everything else Not Photography.
A photograph isn't reality, and in truth it's an inaccurate representation of reality, starting from the fact that you've thrown a frame around something, and proceeding through various technical limitations of the medium, and onwards to various manipulations to the underlying latent image (be it made up of exposed silver halide crystals or a digital file), to the final rendition bangin' on the retina of a viewer.
Still, it is the connection to reality that separates a photo from a painting, from a drawing, an etching, what have you. It is that connection that is the essential "photograph-ness" you're working with.
The key point here is that everything that you do, starting with putting a frame around something in front of the camera, and finishing with the choice of paper you print on, takes away from that reality. The picture's connection to reality is weakened at every step.
Some of these steps are mandatory. Without a frame, without a lens, without some choices for the final rendering, these is literally no photograph. Some of them are less mandatory, you can make more or less radical changes to tonal placement or to color rendering, or what have you. You might choose to remove elements or paste elements in to the final picture.
All these things are done in order to make a picture that looks the way you want it to look, that expresses what you want to express. So, you're explicitly trading that which makes a photo a photo (connection to reality) for expressiveness.
And that's OK. That's the name of the game, in fact, it's what photography is all about.
As with all systems in which you are trading one thing off for another, though, one needs to take care. This is why one shouldn't manipulate wildly. You are, in a sense, spending "reality" with your changes, and usually more of it than you think you are. Squandering this finite resource for trivial reasons is silly, and a waste.
Lots of photographers seem to wander around, looking for pictures. I'm not saying that this sort of spontaneous shooting is a bad idea. It happens that I am not very good at it, for reasons I will elucidate shortly.
Some very very good photographers, if you watched them work, would appear to be wandering aimlessly. Every now and then, the camera rises to the working position; click; click; move; click and so on. What appears to be going on is that the photographer has seen a potential photograph, and shoots it.
I think this is a misconception.
What has happened is that the photographer has seen something to which he or she has some reaction, which invokes a feeling, or that the photographer otherwise feels could be the basis upon which a photograph could be made. Then the photographer tries to make that photograph.
The distinction is subtle but, I think, important.
NOT: That waterfall would make a great picture.
BUT: I love that waterfall, I love the way it sounds. I want to make a photograph of that love.
This sounds fatuous and silly, and surely many photographers don't think this sort of rubbish consciously. The two different mental processes could happen in a moment, or over weeks. You can't tell by watching which it is, but you often can tell looking at the pictures.
Avedon said that he had to fall in love with his subjects. Adams said that how you feel about the scene is vitally important and must be shown. Cartier-Bresson told us about the moment when the picture is present and is The Picture that illustrates what is there. And on and on.
Even Winogrand told us that he photographs things to see what they look like photographed -- he's making a vital distinction here. It is not that the thing he shoots is obviously a good picture. He doesn't know until he sees the photograph.
Why can't I do it? I'm too slow. I can't fall in love with the scene and shoot it in a single fluid motion. Just doesn't work that way.
In any case, every photographer who's made any important pictures seems to tell us something of the same thing: you're not seeing a thing and then photographing that thing.
And yet, the internet is cluttered with photographs of things. What a pretty sunset/waterfall/mountain/child. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, we might use the word "snapshot" appropriately here, and I have long been on the record as being un-opposed to snapshots.
The difficulty is in conflating these things with actual photographs with meaning and power. If you take a super high-resolution snapshot of a sunset, and then lovingly caress it in photoshop for hours and hours, it's not going to somehow acquire meaning and power. It will always be a snap of a beautiful sunset.
And that is OK. Just don't confuse it with something more.
I'm a big fan of Daniel Milnor. He's the real thing, an honest to god hardscrabble artist. He's not a pretentious fop, and he doesn't hang around with pretentious fops. Plus since he works for blurb sometimes he has great discount codes.
I have, over the last few years, taken part in The Photo Forum. At first under my widely known, or at least very Google-able, identity. Later I used an anonymous identity. There doesn't seem to be any rule against this, for the record.
The anonymous identity has not been a model citizen. I disagree with people and am not a very nice person. My opinion differs from that of the moderators, but they have seen fit to warn me several times that I am on Final Warning. (Several times? Huh?) OK.
So I left. No fuss, no scene. Other stuff I ought to be doing anyways.
Couple weeks later this moderator, runnah, wants to moderate me some more. Maybe he misses me. Anyway he decided that I have snuck back in under a third identity, sneakily using the identity MolitorPhotography. Since this provincial retard runnah thinks that I am a moron and that there can only be one person on earth with any given surname, he sends both my identities and this poor schlub a message accusing us of being the same guy.
He's wrong, natch, but think about it: MolitorPhotography now knows that the other two identities are likely the same guy. He's a Google search away from the home address of my anonymous identity.
Thanks, runnah! You fucking imbecile.
So. Even a more or less professionally run 'biggish site' like thephotoforum.com can't be trusted with your privacy.
Be careful out there, kids. It takes one disgruntled idiot.
Luckily there's nothing much I need to worry about and the leak is very small, so I am personally covered. Pretty much, anyways.
In "Star Wars", Luke is urged to use the Force, to reach out with his feelings, and this is surprisingly good advice not just for saving the forces of good from Ultimate Evil, but also for doing photography.
Consider this. Quite a lot of pictures are taken by people who are wandering around looking for pictures to take. They're looking for things that look a bit like other pictures they've seen, or they're looking for interesting people. Or strong diagonals. Or a good figure to ground relationship. Or something. The point is they're looking for pictures. I had in mind a social experiment, which I am much too lazy and busy to carry out ultimately, which involved aping this behavior. Here are some pictures:
These pictures are all bullshit. If Ming Thein or Eric Kim or any number of other Internet-Famous people posted them, they'd get some accolades. Posted on some internet forums they'd probably do pretty well. But they are bullshit. Boring, sterile, nothing pictures. About nothing. Of nothing. Saying nothing.
These are pictures made for other photographers.
This is the sort of crap you come up with when you're looking for pictures.
Go look for something that makes you feel, react, or think. Then photograph your emotion, your reaction, your thoughts.
These are a finicky studio shot, a grab shot on the street, and something between the two. All are about my reaction to something, my desire to express something. The essential eroticism of flowers, the intensity of youth, and the dreamlike semi-erotic madness than is Edsel. The elements of composition, the photograph-ness of them, is secondary.