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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Critique

I am on the record, several times I think, as being in favor of critique. Over the last year or so, my thinking has, shall we say, evolved. Mainly because I've been watching the process as it plays out on the internet in some detail.

I still believe in it. How can I not? If Art in general, and photography in particular, is about communication, how can we not devote some effort to testing and refining our ability to communicate?

Now, though, I think one must take at least a two pronged approach. Really useful critique of an individual piece has to be a conversation, you have to probe a little. This means that you need to find someone who will put up with a conversation, who is willing to be probed a little. Good luck with that, they're out there, but they're wildly outnumbered by pompous asses who want to force you to comply with local norms.

This does not mean that you should ignore the pompous asses and their local norms. The little bits of local dogma that circulate in one context or another (and they are local, they'll always cite Rembrandt but that's a bunch of rubbish) are based on something and it's not a waste of time to work out what the something is. You can add that to your little store of ideas, of things people like. Occasionally you can add it to your list of things not to do.

In any case, when you're dealing with the tribal behaviors of a camera club or internet group of some sort, keep in mind that you're not there to "learn" what they tell you. As a general, albeit not universal, rule they have nothing of interest to tell you. You are there to unpack their belief system, and to get at the underlying ideas of it. That's actually interesting.

So, just smile, nod, and think "idiot" very very quietly to yourself. And keep your eyes open for someone who's open to a conversation.

At some point I'm going to investigate paying for portfolio review. With the right person, I suspect this might be useful. Mostly, of course, the people offering to do it are charlatans, but I'm pretty sure they're not all.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dogmatism

There are many things in life one can study, practice, and with diligent effort get a little bit good at, or even very good at. Two of them, just to pull some handy examples, are baking bread and taking photographs.

The progression runs, roughly, as follows. You learn a little, and you get some positive results. Your bread rises, your photographs are in focus. You think you're pretty good, and your friends agree. Everyone is a little surprised and astonished that your bread rises, and that your photographs are in focus. Still, everyone also recognizes, on some level, that there are degrees of goodness. You are not suddenly the best in the world, you're just "good" on some very broad spectrum of "good".

As you learn more, as you experiment more and find things out, develop skills, and so on, your idea of what's good will probably narrow. As you begin to actually understand what separates your first efforts from the greatness that you always recognized, you will perhaps, probably, begin to view your early efforts as "bad" rather than "good". You might also grade your current efforts as "bad" but you work to get past that.

At about this point there seems to be a very very natural event that can occur, almost regardless of discipline: You may find a social group with a set of ideas, methods, procedures, doctrines. You discover that by hewing to these, your results get to be pretty good. Leagues better than your early efforts. Furthermore, by espousing these ideas, methods, procedures and doctrines both in what you say, and in how you work at your chosen craft, you gain acceptance into this social group. Some people who you consider to be expert begin to compliment and accept you. This is powerful, this is tribal.

Now there is an excellent chance that what you know at this moment will harden into dogma. You may give lip service to the notion that you're always learning and growing but inside, somewhere, you secretly think that in fact you have found The Answer. You know the true method for ultimate excellence, and now it's just a question of more perfectly executing the approved methods and procedures. Your growth stops. Your results are pretty good, more or less, but as you perfect your adherence to the dogma you have selected, something is lost. The creative spark is gone.

Bakers stuck here just wind up producing a couple kinds of decent bread, and being happy with that. Photographers who get stuck here produce emotionally dead garbage. Any soul they once had, any fresh ideas they once had, will be inexorably squeezed out in the relentless refinement of the approved methods and procedures. These photographers eventually reduce their "mistake" rate to vanishingly small, and wind up crapping out an endless stream of more or less identical lifeless examples of a very very specific form, while their social group cheers them on with cries of "wow, another great one! you are so great! can you teach me your workflow?" (arrg, "workflow" I must write an essay on that particular horror as well)

There is another way.

It happens that I am an excellent bread baker. I hew to no dogma. Well, at any rate I am not aware of any particular dogma to which I hew. Instead, I have a pretty firm and yet ever changing idea of what constitutes excellence. My approach evolves constantly. I understand, clearly, distinctly, and differently week-to-week, the ways flour, water, salt, and leavening work together. At any moment I have methods and approaches, and I have firm ideas about what sorts of things will affect the resulting loaves in what ways; and these ideas changes and evolve constantly. Sometimes I develop genuinely new ideas, and other times I simply think about old ideas in new ways, I develop a new mental image of what's going on to describe the same things.

What's important here is that my thinking is (usually) right, or at least not very wrong. It changes and evolves constantly, but rarely diverges far out of the zone of being pretty much correct. I'm usually in the zone of right, because I do know a lot of stuff, and I have spent a lot of time reading, talking, hanging out with dogmatists who do indeed own a piece of the puzzle. Still, there's infinitely many ways to think about these things, not just one.

This means that my bread constantly changes. Sometimes it is frankly not very good. Usually it's somewhere between good and astonishingly excellent. It's rarely boring. And, let me repeat this: sometimes it is astonishingly excellent. This is an important point.

You can, I think, approach photography the same way. Learn from the dogmatists, take their ideas of excellence and add them to your own. You have always known that there are good pictures, and better pictures, and superb pictures. Your job is to develop an ever-evolving, constantly changing, theory of what makes the astonishing ones astonishing. Keep your mind open, and your thoughts flexible.

Try to hold on to that early naive idea that everything is good, only some things are better.

Sometimes, you'll make pretty bad pictures, or pretty bad bread. If you're not a commercial photographer or baker, that's OK. If you are, of course, you have to find some formulas that work and stick to grinding them out -- at least in the day job. Even so, at night, when nobody's looking, remember that everything is good. Devise a new theory of what makes it good, and shoot a bunch of that for a while.

If your stuff isn't crap some of the time, then, eventually, it's crap all of the time.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Another Common Refrain

One sees from time to time on the internet someone complaining that much critique comes from people who lack knowledge. Many of the people who comment on other people's pictures don't have the knowledge, the training, the skill to know a good picture from a bad one. Sometimes, when it gets personal, there is an attack on the commenter's portfolio, or lack thereof.

This all contains a planted axiom: that we take pictures for other photographers. It's not just a planted axiom, it's false. I could not care less what some bunch of half-baked gearheads think of my pictures. Fuck those guys. And here's why:

For the most part the person making these complaints also has no particular ability to recognize good pictures. In fact, what ability they may once have had, they have carefully trained out of existence. What they have is the ability to recognize pictures that meet the norms of their little social group of photographers. They recognize certain "mistakes" and call them out with stock phrases, and they declare a picture good when it lacks any of these supposed mistakes.

The poor ignorant sods who dare to comment do not know, or do not care about, these social norms, and so they cannot or will not shout out the stock phrases. They are recognizably not part of the social group, and therefore must be either forced to comply, or hounded out.

This is not to say that every random joe has anything valuable to add. People who lack this sort of "training" (ahem) are generally very generous, and like pretty much anything that's in-focus. But consider, what does that say? Think about that a little. On the other hand, it's not helpful for improvement. Random people, who are not part of some ugly little club, are a better source of critique, but I think you have to work with them a bit, and have a conversation.

This is also not to say that every picture is good, it's not. But there are more things in heaven and earth, random internet blow-hard know-it-all, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Also, random blow-hard, because your taste has been trained to like a sort of lowest-common-denominator social norm, your taste is garbage and should be utterly ignored by anyone with any actual ambition.

Some contexts have a bigger problem with this than others, of course. Use caution, and keep your wits about you.