Thursday, April 24, 2014

On "Workflow"

Digital photographers seem to obsess, sometimes, over this idea of "workflow". This is the work that occurs after the shutter press and before the final result, whatever that is. There's a lot of "here is my workflow" or "what is your workflow?" floating around out there. People write up their workflow, "Step 3: Level the Horizon" and 17 other absurd tiny steps.

It's not that this is a terrible thing. The great leap forward digital has given us is the ability to do a bunch of stuff after the shutter press and before the final result. That's a good thing.

I see two things that are bad about it, however.

The first thing is the obsession over it. It's just some stuff you do, it's not the heart of your creative process. Your art isn't in your "workflow" unless you're a digital painter. If you're a photographer, the workflow should be secondary, it should enhance your photography. A common workflow will tend to create similarity between photographs, which is great for a portfolio or other body of work which is supposed to be coherent.

Which leads to the other problem. If you standardize your workflow, then you apply it to everything you do, whether the process is appropriate or not. All your landscapes look the same, whether they're supposed to or not. Your portraits looks kind of like your landscapes which look kind of like your still lifes.

Standardize workflow as appropriate. It's just a tool, use it as such. When a tool suits the job at hand, use it. When it does not, set it aside and take another tool, a tool that does suit the job.

Do you make bespoke wooden furniture, or are you a chisel-user?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Exercise

I don't know that this will teach anything, but it's cool, and it gets at some stuff I've been thinking and writing about.

Go get a physical photograph. A page from a magazine will do, or a print, or a page of a book, whatever. You needn't tear it out, just get it in front of you so you can touch it.

First examine it as a physical object. It's a sheet of paper, probably. Some thickness. It smells, feels, sounds, a certain way. It has some sort of pigments or metallic deposits on its surface.

Now consider the pattern of tone and color on the surface, created by those pigments or deposits. What are the colors? Are they complementary, or what? What's the range of tone? What patterns are present in shapes and lines and masses of tone and color, on the surface of this piece of paper?

Descend further. Step through the frame now, in a sort of Matrix-like transition: What's it a picture of? Note the visual details. Is the man wearing a tie? Is that a mountain in the distance? Inventory the contents of the frame and place them in space relative to one another. Consider those relationships a little, and how that translates into visual relationships on the page.

Further. What is she thinking, is it hot or cold there, how heavy is that thing he is holding? What do you imagine about the scene?

A picture is always many things, and a photograph has the additional feature of having once been something real (usually).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Karsh at the National Portrait Gallery

I seem to fall, always, into the general idea that Karsh wasn't very good. Then I happen upon an exhibition of his work and I remember that it's not so at all, he was very good. Very good indeed. Now that I am old and sophisticated, perhaps it will stick this time around.

The pictures in this show are mostly black and whites, mainly of famous people. I gather that the exhibition will rotate prints in and out, which seems very confusing. If I read the notes properly, Karsh's widow gave a rather large collection to the National Portrait Gallery (why the US one? Karsh was Ottawa based. Surely the Canadians are annoyed!) and this is a subset of those. A few dozen portraits, including some very well known ones.

The dramatic light and large format gives us a wealth of the wrinkles and tiny features that we call "character" in every face. These are nothing like the traditional airbrushed messes we see from lower end commercial guys (Karsh was, after all, commercial). These are all a riot of details, both flattering and unflattering.

Post any of these on an internet forum, and you'd get a huge raft of shit. Plugged up blacks, chopped off limbs, hot spots all over the place. You really need more fill light. You ought to have a hair light. The framing is either too tight or way too loose. Blah blah blah blah. In short, these look nothing like Senior Portraits from LifeTouch Studios.

What Karsh accomplishes with these pictures is wildly beyond the reach of most amateurs, and most low end commercial portraitists. These pictures create a powerful impression that you, the viewer, know the subject a little. Indeed, many of these pictures did a great deal to create our conception of these people. Hitchcock is a haughty auteur, Churchill a glowering lion. This is of course a construct, this is the image of the subject that Karsh chose to make and to keep. Walt Disney was not an affable fellow at all, but this portrait makes us believe that he is.

I think, based on these pictures and on a short film I saw decades ago, that Karsh worked much like a street photographer does. Rather than soaking up the rhythms of the street and learning to feel its flows and patterns, Karsh instead worked with the subject in the same way. He must have learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of emotion and body language in the subject, and was then able to wait.. wait.. and then click at precisely the moment, the decisive moment, the moment when there was a picture, the picture, the one Karsh wanted.

A profile of Snowden I read recently suggests much the same of him.

It is this that separates a good portraitist from a bad one. All the lights in the world, all the strobist studying in the world, won't help you be good if you can't get in synch with the subject, if you can't press the button, click, at the decisive moment.

Conversely, if you can, any god damned lighting at all is fine.

Unfortunately, while lots of people will teach you a bunch of useless shit about lighting, skills that will launch your career right into the bottom end of the portrait market, nobody seems to have any insight into how to work with the subject.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

On The Use of Photographs

The use of a photograph varies with context. Photojournalistic pictures claim to show us what really is and so we tend to look through or past the photograph, and tend to see instead what is depicted. The photograph is transparent. Take that same photograph and place it in a collection of the Best New Photos of the Year and we will tend to see the photograph itself, we'll see the design, the colors, and so on. When told that it's a good photograph we will tend to examine it on those terms, as a photograph.

Simply by directing attention this way or that with context, we can change the way a viewer experiences the photograph. "Look at this object" causes us to look through the picture to the pictured. "Look at this picture" causes us to examine the photograph as a thing itself.

Photographers, but especially novice photographers, worry too much about the photograph. Being interested in the craft of photography, and having recently learned a few things about, say, composition, color balance, lighting, they will tend to examine photographs in those terms. They have a built-in bias against looking through the picture at the pictured, and toward examining the photograph as a photograph. In particular, they tend to examine it in terms of whatever they learned most recently. Non-photographers tend, on the other hand, to always look through the picture to the pictured. They see what the photograph is a picture of, and judge the picture largely on those grounds.

If the flower is beautiful, the non-photographer will like the picture. If the color balance is off, the novice photographer will dislike the picture.

The claim is made, and I have made it, that getting photographic, technical, details right -- good composition, skilled use of selective focus, and so on -- will support and enhance the subject and make even the non-photographer like the picture better. While this is true, the subject will surely dominate. A badly lit picture of my child being charming will trump a beautifully lit picture of my child looking like a criminal, every time.

There are a lot of consequences to this.

How do all these horrible fauxtographers get clients?! Because their customers don't give a god damn about your stupid 85/1.8 lens, what they care about is that Julie takes great pictures of their kids. Maybe a little blurry sometimes, but the kids are so happy. You, on the other hand, take razor sharp pictures of sullen children, and charge 4x as much. Screw you.

Who shall I ask for critique? If you want technical details examined, ask a novice photographer. For anything else, ask.. anyone else. Just as the mom literally cannot see the technical quality of photos from the angry local photographer, so the novice literally cannot see the subject, or the emotional aspects, of a photograph.

How shall I judge a picture? Step past the technical, and look at the whole thing. Don't judge the portrait based on the lighting, judge the portrait based on whether it flatters the subject. The difference is "this type of lighting pattern is generally flattering to this kind of subject" and "this is actually a flattering portrait of the subject."

Technical details only make the picture better if they actually make the picture better.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Garry Winogrand at the National Gallery of Art

There's a pretty substantial retrospective of Garry Winogrand on now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I happened to be in town for a few days with the kids, and managed to take an hour and stop by.

There's a large number of photographs shown in more or less chronological order, from the beginning to the end. 1950s through early 1980s. We get to see a substantial stylistic evolution. Many of the pictures have never been seen before, and probably many more had been seen but not by me. There were certainly samples of styles I had not seen from Winogrand before, at both ends of his career.

I had never seen (much of?) his early photojournalistic work, which struck me as workmanlike, competent, but unremarkable. No particular trace of Winogrand, just a good picture of this politician at that event. I, and everyone else, had never seen much of his later work, about which more shortly.

Also included in the exhibit, as I suppose one must, were various papers and so on. Winogrand's application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as several contact sheets about which, also, more shortly.

A final preliminary note: The curators helpfully noted by each print whether Winogrand had had it printed in his lifetime, whether he had at least marked the frame on a contact sheet, or whether someone else had selected the frame (often because the film was developed posthumously, I suppose?). The curators selecting frames did a good job. I tried to discern some difference between photographs selected by curators and photographs selected by Winogrand, and could not. They seemed to be good pictures, mostly, but not the best pictures. Representative, good, but not remarkable. It's possibly, barely, that the curators picked slightly better frames on average than Winogrand did. However, I am prejudiced here, and not to be trusted.

I was struck by a few things.

I recognized most of the really good ones. I've seen them before. This was not, to my eye, anything like an unearthing of a marvelous trove of outstanding work. The few dozen really good ones might be all the really good ones that there are in Winogrand's oeuvre, at least as far as this exhibition shows us. There's tons of quite decent pictures, there's tons of pictures with a bit of interest, that look quite "Winogrand", that show off one or another of his tropes. There just aren't all that many truly excellent pictures here.

I'm on the record as wondering how much of his really good work was deliberate, and how much was simply the result of skillfully curating an enormous collection of random snaps. I have come to the conclusion that while curation surely played a large role, the underlying enormous collection of pictures from 1960 to 1980 must have been shot with some ability. How much I don't know, but there must have been some clarity of vision, some ideas, some deliberation, however large or small.

I believe this, now, because I have also seen what happened when Garry Winogrand truly did start firing away at random.

The work at the tail end is frankly tragic. It looks exactly like the pictures that might be selected by a curator from a large heap of rolls of film shot out the window of a moving car, more or less at random, by a man driving aimlessly around Los Angeles. The curators helpfully wrote up some text to accompany some of the pictures "the speed of the car echoing the blah blah in contrast to the static blah blah blah" the worst sort of art school horseshit. These appear to be junky random shapshots of nothing, shot carelessly.

Looking at the contact sheets we learn why. It's because these are junky random shapshots of nothing, shot carelessly. Winogrand clearly was shooting anything that looked like it might evolve into something. A girl crossing a street (half of what the guy shot in his life was, apparently, girls crossing streets), a car pulls out of a garage, whatever. He seemed attracted to motion, to transitions, which was a good impulse. It allows the curators to pull a few dozen pictures that they can sell as credible out of the 90,000 or so undeveloped frames left at Winogrand's death.

I don't really care to guess what was driving Winogrand here, but it's certainly consistent with a guy who just couldn't stop squeezing the shutter button. Was it a compulsion, was it just habit, was it some sort of complex half-assery about the way he viewed or related to the world? I don't know, but whatever was driving him, his work from the 1980s is nothing.

Winogrand's estate would have served the man better if they'd simply swept the last few years of stuff under the rug and forgotten it. Tragic development accident, such a loss, we'll never know what work he did, etc, etc.

Ultimately, the retrospective clarifies some things, and muddies others. It calls into question the entire body of work, while at the same time proving that there was actually something there in the middle years, by showing so clearly its absence in both the earlier and the later years.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What Looks Real?

It seems that every time someone mentions the idea of photographs looking real, or not looking real, or whatever, a chorus starts up about how every photograph is inherently false. I've beaten this drum myself, mostly in discussions of photojournalism. The name of the game, from the chorus' point of view, is to shout down the idea that a photograph "looking real" is a meaningful, and to make themselves look terribly clever in the process.

As usual, the chorus is is quite wrong. Any fool can see that some photographs look real, and others look fake, and there's some sort of grey area as well. The fact that the chorus isn't capable of sorting out what's going on doesn't mean that nothing is going on. Here's what's going on.

No photograph is a "true" representation of reality, to be sure. Neither is what we see a "true" representation of reality, our eyes and visual cortex are mighty liars. This matters for discussion of photojournalism, where there is a planted axiom to the effect that a good photojournalistic picture is "true", but it doesn't matter for most other contexts.

A photograph "looks real" for you if, when I give you the photograph and allow you to compare it with that which was photographed, you respond intuitively "that picture looks like the thing it is a picture of". It's entirely subjective, and partly some sort of social construct, but much of the time many people will tend to agree. It changes over time, as well. 50 years ago, most people were willing to accept black and white photographs as looking "real", but now very few people will. Younger people will likely accept saturated colors and HDR-style processing as "looking real" whereas old bastards like me won't.

Photographs are not even remotely "real" but we train ourselves, and are trained, to accept certain things and to not accept certain other things.

  • There are photographs that "look real"
  • There are photographs that "look fake"
  • There are photographs that are in some grey area between these two
None of these photographs actually is an accurate representation of reality.

So, next time someone wants to wave off the idea of a photograph looking real, you can tell them to go pound sand.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Master The Light"

How often has some fatuous idiot told you that in order to be a photographer, you must "Master Light" or something similar? Heck, I've probably done it on this blog.

There's two problems here.

Suppose you have two pictures. One has a random assemblage of junk crammed badly into the frame, but with marvelous dramatic or interesting light. The other has a small grouping of meaningful objects, well-placed in the frame, but the light is, eh, the light serves only to let us see the objects. One of these is a good picture, and the other one isn't. Great content can make a great photograph, regardless of light. Great light cannot save a crummy picture.

Somehow, though, fatuous idiots never say "You must Master The Framing" or "You must Master The Perspective". Nope, it's always the bloody light.

The other problem is that the fatuous idiot always makes it seem like you have to go meditate silently in Tibet for a year before you can begin to Master Light. This is false. It turns out that we have two organs in our face which don't do anything except sense light and keep our eyelids from chafing our brain. Mastering the Light is called "seeing" and many of us do it quite a lot. To be sure, you have to see with some intent and intensity, but for crying out loud, you just do that. Look at some pictures, good ones, and then look at the world.

What you really need to Master is Master Not Looking at 500px for shitty landscapes you can copy. You need to Master Not Trying To Make Amateurish Copies of Second Rate Crap. You need to Master Not Taking Advice From Idiots on the Internet.

Now go away and stop taking advice from me. Git. Go look at some things.