Monday, November 9, 2015

Beautiful Tones

When a socially popular photographer puts up a black and white photograph in one of his usual haunts, he will invariably get positive feedback in the form of the dreaded 'beautiful tones' compliment.

I've been noodling this morning on what this could possibly mean, and I am damned if I can work it out. Taken literally it's violently stupid, of course. 'I love your zone VI grey especially.' I suppose I have to reject that as an interpretation, however appealing.

I think that, if pressed, the writer of the remark would probably babble a little about liking the way the light is rendered or something similarly near-meaningless.

I'm pretty sure that what it really means is 'I like you and wish to pay you a compliment.' There is a further corollary that the reviewer has not really looked at the picture. Sure, they glanced at it, maybe even trained their eyes on it for a handful of seconds.

What they saw, though, was a bundle of expectations. They looked, and what they perceived was a bundle of good feelings they have about the photographer. They've probably seen many pictures from this fellow. Each of those pictures has passed very lightly across their vision. Each picture has left a gentle impression. The things the photographer says, and what other people say have likewise left an impression. All told, in this case, the impressions are good, of a talented and capable photographer, and so the commenter reaches for the standard stock phrase of positivity.

The point is that the chap who says 'beautiful tones' isn't expressing personal judgement, but rather agreement with a social consensus.

... and that in turn is driven by the fact that people don't really look at pictures, and are therefore not really judging the picture.

This is not to indict these people, this is merely to identify them as people. We all do this.

For whatever reasons, the person who says 'beautiful tones' has nothing to say beyond a generically positive feeling. It's a way of saying 'I like it' without sounding like a rube.

Anyways. This is just an example of the truth that people don't look at pictures any more than they look at anything else. We glance, get a couple of cues, and the visual cortex fills in the rest with whatever it has lying around.

I'm not sure how one can train oneself to actually look. I know it's important, and I'm pretty sure I can do a decent job at it if I apply myself. I assume, without any real information, that looking at a lot of pictures is part of the process.

This flows, finally, into an important question: what on earth can you do about it?

Shows and monographs aren't going to do it. The people who choose to look will, and the rest will pass trivial judgments based on the artist's reputation and some minor features (How saturated? How sharp? Are the subjects attractive? Are there any cues that this is Weighty And Important, and how do I feel about Important Art today?)

I have some theories in progress about books. I'm reading Keith A. Smith, about which and whom more anon, and I am thinking about these things. I think there's something to do with repetition and structure that might be able to cause people to, in their light and superficial viewing, to still get a more thorough impression of what you're doing, and thereby judge based more on the work and less on the surrounding gestalt.

My goal, I think, is not to use the book to further explicate the subtle depth of ideas in my work (there aren't any subtle depths) but rather to use the book form as a blunt instrument to further flog my coarse, simple, ideas into the consciousness of the unsophisticated reader! I am the dumb thug of Art Photography.


  1. Regarding "good tone," take a look at the following from the Online Photographer blog. I'd never heard of this photographer, but putting aside the subject of the photograph (who is beautiful), I'd have to agree that it has "good tone," meaning something beyond mere social consensus (or maybe not!). There is no "meaning" to the photograph beyond the obvious, and so it does not require a long look, but it is very pleasing to my senses, and maybe that is as far as "good tone" goes in my judgment. I don't know if this corroborates your idea, or not, but I think that "good tone" means something more than what I think you propose.

    1. Well, yeah. Good tone means.. something. Mike can't explain it either, and I'm not sure he's not just saying "my word she's pretty" ;)

      There is such a thing as making good choices about how you place tones, and making less good choices. The cited photo has lovely bright midtones, which flatter the skin and thereby the model. These days you grab the "curves" tool in the middle, and lift up a touch. Then go push the shadows back down as necessary.

      There's even something about large format tonality (or, more exactly, very low magnification prints) which might just be oodles of details, but I think is actually very very low noise. It's that buttery thing.

      Anyways. If any of these things were going on, in the first place we'd see it in the pictures and we generally don't, and in the second place we would likely see the hapless commenter trying to expand the statement at least a little bit.

  2. I don't know if there's a set of criteria that define "good tone", but for me it's basically "hey your black and white image isn't a flat, soulless conversion made by simply pressing "B" in lightroom." This could also be expressed as "thank god this conversion doesn't suck because I like you."