Saturday, December 29, 2012

You Gotta Know The Rules To Break 'Em II

This is, really, a followup to this post. These are themes I have belabored before, but I like them, so I feel like taking another run at them today.

Rules of composition, as well as traditions for how we should handle things in the photograph, play several roles. The least sophisticated people (that is, idiots) trot them out as things you must do, or really ought to do. A photograph is no good if the subject is centered, a photograph is no good if it does not contain a full range of values, and so on. More sophisticated people talk about a visual vocabulary, which is closer to the truth. In reality, what is going on is quite complex and multi-dimensional. Following a rule of composition or processing can do, at least, three different things, and probably more:
  • Directly connect your photograph to other photographs and visual art.
  • Manage actual neurological responses in the viewer.
  • Solve a problem of communication.

Connecting Your Photo To Others

When you take a black and white photograph, and push the local contrast up, and manage the histogram to create a full range of tonal values, you are quoting Ansel Adams. You might not realize it, but you are. When you take a photograph of a sailboat on the lake, slavishly placing it as a crossing of 2 one-third lines, selecting your shooting position to place the jetty so that it leads the eye to the boat, you are quoting every touristy calendar photograph ever. When you take a portrait with the light just so, carefully framing it just so, you are quoting a long line of commercial portraitists, including many painters.

Your viewers may not be able to name what you're quoting, but there's an excellent chance that they will feel the connection, your photograph will feel familiar and, ideally, good, because of the reflected memory from other photographs seen. This is, arguably, the thing most like a "visual vocabulary" that is in play and you can simply enumerate a long list of tricks, ideas, and tropes that are pretty well embedded in our cultural memory.

People from a culture other than your own might have a quite different list, nota bene.

Managing Neurological Responses

There are definitely some basic things about how we see that happen. What they are and how they behave is a little murkier, but at least leading lines seem to be a real thing. We tend to follow strong lines to see where they lead. Probably also degree of contrast affects how we feel about an image, to some extent. Placing a human face in the frame without a doubt tickles some very very low-level brain machinery. There may be things having to do with colors (do warmer colors actually feel "warm" or "soothing" or is this merely a cultural artifact?)

This is a bit like visual vocabulary, but I think the phrase begins to be poorly applied since it's really operating at a lower level than a human construct like language. Nonetheless, these things do help communicate. The leading line brings the eye to the face, and the sad expression on the face invokes a reaction. The murky darkness around the face, concealing the unknown, creates a little tension and worry.

Solving Problems

Rules of composition, rules of lighting, and so forth are most obviously about this. The largest and most obvious problems we experience are letting the viewer know what the subject is, what they should be looking at, and showing or concealing the right amount of the subject. In commercial work we need to show of the subject of the photograph, we usually need to flatter the subject, and we'd also like to create a positive mood and feeling toward the subject. In artistic work, we might be as interested in concealing as in revealing, and we're probably more interested in creating mood than we are in revealing the subject. In all cases, though, the large problem we are trying to solve it how to communicate with the viewer.

This problem can be broken down into smaller problems. How do we use light to reveal or conceal? How do we direct the eye to the subject? How to we retain the viewer's interest? How to we create a feeling of calm, or of unease? How do we make the chubby subject look thinner? How do we make the skin look smoother, or rougher?

Putting It Together

If you choose, therefore, to violate some "rule" of composition or lighting or other handling of the image, you should have some rough idea of what the "rule" is supposed to do. If you choose to have leading lines that go nowhere, you may need to have a different way to draw the eye to the subject. What does centering the subject do, when the image is symmetrical and when it is not, and is that a good thing for your purposes? If you choose to light in such a way as to eliminate all shadows, how will you show the 3-dimensional shape of the objects in-frame, or is your aim to make them look 2-dimensional? Why?

You don't have to know the rules to break them. You don't have to know the rules at all. You do have to know on some level, perhaps subconsciously, how the choices you have made in your photograph will function together to communicate with the viewer.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Seeing Snapshots

In an earlier post, I made some remarks about how we see photographs, especially the way we see photographs we have made. Having made a photograph, we see it as the creator, we see the important things as important and the unimportant things as unimportant. Others may tend to see our work.. differently.

Snapshots take this notion is the nth degree. The maker of the snapshot sees, usually, the subject. This is a picture of my dessert at that one restaurant, and all I see is the dessert, and I remember how delicious it was and what that evening was like. You see a blurry and badly lit photograph of something that looks like it was probably gooey. You also see other patrons of the restaurant, you see the gravy blot on the tablecloth, you see the blurry thumb in the lower left of the frame.

Each of us, the snapshottist and the critical viewer, cannot see the image any other way. This applies to the billions of images uploaded to the internet. The creator sees one thing, their close friends may tend to see much the same thing because they have some related context in which the image lives, and they are generous viewers. A stranger, especially a critical one, sees nothing but a sea of bad lighting and blurry thumbs. Neither group can see these images in any other way.

It is by no means necessary to make anything of this. We can simply ignore Facebook photographs and move on with our lives (I certainly do). If, however, we wanted to make something of this we might choose to create for the critical and uninitiated viewer that same viewing experience that the snapshot's creator has.

We could simply take beautifully lit photographs of lovingly prepared desserts, but I think that would be missing the point. The idea would be to create that visceral experience, to simulate in some way that experience of being there, and of eating that dessert. The photographs need to lose the blurry thumbs, to be sure, and the other distracting elements, but I think a gritty and immediate feel is necessary. Is there some application of street photography here? Can one somehow bring a little grit, a little blur, a little feeling of vérité to the problem of photographing the dessert, or the party, or the new-to-you car?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wet Photography Cargo Culting

There's a lot of people out there doing traditional wet photography, in one form or another. Many of them work with modern films, and then either scan them or print them with traditional enlargers and paper. I am one of these people. I love this stuff.

Among this school of workers are people who believe the most arrant nonsense. Among the ideas promoted by these people are things like this:

You shouldn't use such-and-such a standard chemical because it has such-and-such an effect (contrary to manufacturer claims)

Expired materials are better for some reason or another.

Reasons stated are often things like long term stability of the resulting negatives or prints, difficulty in printing, and so on.

Here's a couple of tips.

Long term stability pretty much doesn't matter. Your prints and negatives will outlast you, and after that nobody much cares. You are vastly more likely to be hit by lightning or to win the lottery than you are to have your negatives printed after your death. Vastly. The number of photographers whose work has been printed in any meaningful way after there death is roughly the same as the number of men who have walked on the moon, or sailed solo around the world. It is probably smaller than the number of people who have been in space. You can make something of a case for stability of your prints, if you're pretty good. As with negatives, though, your best bet here is to select a known-stable process and follow the directions on the bottle.

If using a standard chemical in a standard way produces some result contrary to what the manufacturer says (difficult to print negatives, that sort of thing) you are almost certainly either using the chemical wrong, or imagining the bad effect. The chemists and engineers at Kodak, Fuji, and so on were pretty smart dudes, and they know a lot more about this stuff than you do.

Expired stuff is going downhill. It's not worthless, it might not even be measurably different from newer materials yet, but it's hard to predict. The aforementioned engineers didn't put expiration dates on there for fun. Yes, sometimes you get interesting results, and there's nothing wrong with a little serendipity in your art. Relying on serendipity to save your rotten photographs is not a long term strategy, however. Using expired materials is not inherently better in any measurable way, and it is measurably worse in several ways.

The tricky part is separating the good advice from the bad. Mostly, if the advice differs from what it says on the bottle, go with the bottle. Beyond that, be a scientist, especially if something doesn't sound right. Perform tests, measure outcomes. Decide for yourself, if it matters to you. If it doesn't matter to you, ignore it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How we look at photographs

I had a tiny little epiphany the other day, one of those things that's blindingly obvious in hindsight.

There's all this business about leading lines, and how the eye moves around a piece of visual art, and where it settles, and so on. These are always trotted out as absolutes, but of course we really mean something about "the eye tends to" and we really mean it in a "mostly, most of the time, most people" sense.

There's another minor dimension here, though, which is largely relevant to the creator of the image. We tend, having once seen an image, to get locked in to a way of looking at it. That is, our eye will move to the same thing, and generally in the same ways, when we look at the image a second time. If some minor detail strikes us the first time we see a photograph, we'll tend to focus on that minor detail every time we see the image again. If we made the photograph, we have an idea, for instance, of what the subject is. We tend to look at that subject, each time we see the photograph. It can be quite shocking to observe how differently others look at the very same photograph. They may pick up on what seem to us minor details, or irrelevant material. Worse, most people who look at the image may pick up on the same "irrelevant material."

There are two consequences of this which occur to me. The first is that the photographer in a very real sense literally cannot see the photograph in the same way others see it. You can learn to guess pretty accurately how people will see it, which is what all the business about leading lines and so on is about, but you cannot viscerally grasp how others will see it. You are simply too prejudiced.

The second consequence is that if you show unfinished work, you tend to poison the waters. Suppose you have a photograph that you think is pretty good, but which needs some work to really clarify the relationships or subject, or something. Don't show it to anyone before you've done the work. If the work is muddy and unclear, the chances are good that the cold viewer will see the wrong things, and then never be able to see the final image the way you wanted it to be seen. Even after you do the work, after the relationships are clarified and the subject brought forward, your early viewers will still see the image wrong.

If you're making images for yourself, none of this really matters. You will always be able to see the image the way you want it seen, and who cares about anyone else? If you want others to see it the way you imagine, though, work at it before showing it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Creative Moment

There are fetishists who insist that cropping is bad, or that spray-and-pray photography is inherently wrong, or that photoshop is evil, and so on. On the one hand, there is a legitimate point of view here in that this may be the game they are playing. If you choose to set yourself a rule of no cropping, that's fine. There are, really, unmanageably many choices that must be made to make a photograph, so we all choose to limit them up front (see also my remarks on Style).

Often, though, there seems to be some undercurrent that has something to do with the creative moment. A photographer is one who creates the image with a shutter button press, the creative moment is ideally compressed into that single instant. Click. The thinking seems to be that if you're creating later in the process, the work is not "true" photography, somehow. Oddly, you can create beforehand, setting up the shot, but afterwards you mayn't.

This stuff is basically silly. Ultimately, all photographs are made by a series of artistic choices spread over time. There is no instant of creation at which moment the photographer gets it right, although there might be an identifiable "primary" moment at which some important choice was made. No photographer has a 100% keeper rate, there is always the creative act of simply throwing away lesser images. This occurs, perforce, later than the moment of shutter release. In reality, we are all "spray and pray" photographers, it's only the manner and degree of spraying that varies.

What does it matter if the "major" creative moment occurs when looking at a contact sheet, rather than when pressing the shutter button? Is there really a difference in kind, here? Arguably the spray-and-pray worker edits the Universe down to a manageable set of images, a smaller but still substantial world, with the camera. Then, by perusing the contact sheets or the digital archive, the primary creative moment occurs, capturing a final frame from this smaller and more manageable world. Perhaps, in this sense, there is a difference in Kind, but again, what does it matter?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Hat-tip to Lew Lorton who inspired me to think about this, in a post in an internet forum someplace.

Your definitions may vary, of course. For my purposes, a photographic style is just a set of photographic choices made in advance and applied consistently across a set of photographs, that creates a consistent look. Where to put the lights; how high the camera is set relative to the subject; what sort of contrast range are we shooting for in the final print. Too small a set of choices (for example, just a shutter speed) probably won't really make a style, since it will not create visual coherence across photographs. A good set of choices will determine a coherent visual look and thence a style.

The only thing that matters, really, is that an average viewer looking at the set should feel that the images fit together visually. They look similar enough in enough ways to feel "together" as a collection.

As with any photographic choice, or set of choices, a style either tends to support the images, or not. A visually dramatic style might well support a dramatic subject or collection of subjects. A softer style might support dreamlike images. However, a style not only supports or fails to support a set of images, but also may connect that set of images with other images we have seen. A style may refer to a single image, or an artist, or a fad. For instance, virtually all black and white landscapes made today are post-processed in a style intended to reference Ansel Adams, for better or for worse.

Pop art does many things. Viewed through the lens of this discussion of style we see that one of the things visual pop art does is to create a style by borrowing choices from popular imagery, and then to build art in that style. The style connects the work to the popular imagery. We might borrow certain photographic choices from visual art we see a great deal of, while rejecting other choices from the same art. Ideally, the set of choices we select will cohere into a style that not only supports the images we make, but also creates visual coherence across the work, and finally connects the work with the imagery we borrowed from.

We might, for example, create a portfolio of work identifiably connected with Facebook snapshots of drunk girls. We might borrow:
  • on camera flash
  • girls
  • ... making "duckface"
  • ... and throwing fake gang signs
which should be enough, surely, to create the intellectual connection with the source material. We might, then, hire skilled and beautiful models and dress them in carpet scraps, haute couture, or nothing at all. We might then photograph then in black and white, with a wet-plate camera.

Would it be good? Unknown, and it probably depends on a lot of factors. But there would be a style in play, and that style would certainly be working as a style. It would connect the work with the cliche we've borrowed from. It would connect the photographs in the portfolio together. Whether it supported the photographs well or no would probably depend on other factors.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


"Post" has been with us in photography from the beginning, since day 1, or possibly as late as day 2. Daguerreotypes were being hand-tinted almost immediately. Artists were slashing away at glass plates to create painterly effects almost immediately. Each task performed in post moves the image incrementally away from that "Now" that I go on about now and then. Sometimes post is treating that original Now as mere source material, and seeks to create something new from it. Sometimes post merely seeks to enhance the original moment, to distill it to its essence.

Regardless of the aim, post nonetheless moves the image away from that Now to someplace else. Whether that distance is visual and artistic, or only psychological, the distance is created, and it exists.

This creates, interestingly, an opportunity to diverge from the River of Images. The billions of images shared with the world now, the millions shared tomorrow, are all lightly handled. There may be wild and aggressive effects and filters applied, but the mental distance from the original Now is slight. The point, really, of the shared image is generally to share a Now, in any case. Applying a sepia tone and a vignette does not change that.

Thoughtfully applied post, to create a new image divergent from a Now, or thoroughly distilled from a Now into the abstract idea of an infinitude of similar Nows, or whatever you choose to do, cannot but push an image outwards from the center of the river. Whether it makes it good, or whether it makes it art, well, those are other questions. Divergence from the mass, however, is a worthy step in its own right.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Statistical Pop Art II

This is a follow-on to this post.

As I suggested in the previous post, you can do some of this stuff with metadata, like tags. A very simple approach is to look for unusual tags, simply pick random words from a dictionary after eliminating common tags. A slight refinement would be to search for photographs with at least one tag, but which is not tagged with any of, say, the most common 1000 tags.

This doesn't reliably filter away common photographic themes and ideas, and it doesn't reliably filter in awesome and interesting new ideas. That doesn't matter, we're taking a purely probabilistic approach here, anyways. All we can really hope to achieve is an increased density of work that's interesting in some way, and uncommon in some way.

I have actually performed the experiment of looking for randomly selected unusual words on flickr. It definitely produced search results that were less dreary than, say, flickr's Explored Images, or whatever. I don't think I really uncovered any interesting communities of artists creating basically new work, but I did uncover some individuals doing things I liked.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Art Photography, Personal Photography

I've talked about the Personal Now, which is ultimately what almost all photographs are about. This has grown into an immense river of images posted to flickr, facebook, instagram, and wherever other mechanisms exist to share imagery. This river of images is (and always has been) the background against which Art photography takes place, it is the context in which we all live, and from which we view Art photography.

So what? What does this even mean?

As the river of images grows, it has the effect of trivializing photography as a pursuit. Everyone's doing it, everyone can do it. The commercial guys are feeling the pinch in a pretty big way, now, and it's just going to get worse for them.

The emotional weight of an individual image shrinks as we see more and more of them.

"Personal Now" images, straightforward slice of life images, documentary, street, this pretty flower, that striking view of a building, almost inevitably feel like something we have seen a thousand times. If we haven't actually seen it a thousand times, we feel as if we could have. We sense that a thousand or a million images substantially identical to this one already exist out there, and we are probably right.

On the up side, it's possible that a really good image gains strength from the background of mediocrity, of ordinariness. More and more, a photograph must stand against other photographs, and less against the real world. This may be why we're seeing a pretty rapid trend toward more and more radical processing, the need to "stand out" against the mass? Might the outre approaches to photography be seen as a rebellion against the mass of images made by everyone?

In making an Art photograph one could take the approach of distilling existing photographic ideas, possibly ordinary and common ones. Can one make a great photograph which distills the essence of "This is my entree at this fancy restaurant"? Can one boil down "this is my drunk friend" down to a single fantastic image? This approach is, in some sense, the opposite of attempting to stand out and rise above. It is embracing some elements of the river of images, and trying to make something of them.

As with all influences, one can embrace the river, or rebel against it. Both are good ideas. The bad idea is to dither about what to do.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What I Like, What I Don't Like

We all have categories, for everything, really. The discussion that follows applies to all art, to food, to lots and lots of things. I'm going to cast in it terms of photographs, though.

We all have preferences in photographs. We like black and white, we don't like HDR, we like saturated colors, and so on. We also have ideas, probably, about what good photographs are, and which photographs are "art" (whatever that is). What all this comes down it is, in the universe of every photograph ever made, we would have a reaction to every photograph and could categorize each photograph in a handful of ways.

We try to summarize these categories in the form of a few sentences, giving rules for determining whether we're going to like a photo, or consider it art, or good, a priori. This is certainly a useful exercise, but if we do it with any rigor we wind up with an apparently endless regress of exceptions and sub-rules. It can get a little frustrating, and it appears complex. If you are me, you start to wonder about "the fractal nature of preferences" or some craziness like that. What's going on here isn't as complex as it looks, though.

Ultimately, the real thing here, the actual description of what we like and do not like, is simple. It is that set of all the photographs in the world, and our reactions to them. For every photograph ever made, we either like it, or not. If you prefer, we like every photograph ever made to a greater or lesser degree. This is real, unambiguous, and clear. It's simple. What it is not is practical. We can't look at every photograph and make a note about how much we like it. And, why would we? This doesn't change the underlying reality, though. It's not fractal, it's not complex. It's simple, but very very big.

So remember, blanket statements like "I don't like pictures with people in them" are just shortcuts and approximations. When you say it, mean it that way. When someone else says something like this, just take it as the approximation. Don't get obnoxious when they mention that they like some photograph that has a person in it. The statement was just a rough approximation to the true thing, the collection of all the photographs the person likes, many of which have no people in them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

These Statements are False

Or if not false, at least not true enough to be considered true.

Good or bad? It's all just opinions!

HDR is objectively bad.

People just don't get my work, that doesn't mean it's bad.

You can't make professional quality photographs with a consumer camera.

Art is in the eye of the beholder.

You need a full frame DSLR for <fill in the blank>.

Film is just more artistic.

Everything on <some web site> is crap.

Art and truth, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, these are all things that are more slippery and complicated than you think. Pretty much no matter how slippery and complicated you think they are.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Statistical Pop Art?

One of the problems I think about far more than I ought to is the great river of images being created today. Suppose that one wanted to get a sense of what kinds of photographs are being made today by the masses?

You could look at flickr's Explore to get a sampling, and there are no doubt many many other ways to get a sampling of images being created on a day to day basis. However, as of this writing, flickr gets something over 1,000,000 photographs uploaded every day, and it's not the biggest. How many photographs does one need to look at to be sure that one is getting even a vague notion of what people are actually doing? If I looked at 1000 images a day, how likely is it that I could miss a smallish community of people doing something really interesting? A productive group of artists could easily produce 1000 images a year, and nonetheless be utterly lost in the noise.

It's certainly not necessary to be plugged in to any current zeitgeist, to produce art. However, if you do want to be so plugged in, and you do want your art to be informed by what the mass of imagery is doing, you have a definite problem on your hands. To grasp the current zeitgeist isn't an unreasonable desire, but it does seem to be an intractable problem.

You can simply dip into the river and see what you can pull out. I think it might be interesting to apply technology, however. There are ways to approximately classify images as similar, either by algorithmic examination of the picture itself, or through metadata like tags and surrounding text, or by applying social connectivity graphs (making the assumption that groups of friends are probably taking similar photographs). I think it would be interesting to use tools of this sort to classify and collect, roughly and approximately, large groupings of images.

By creating groupings of, in some sense, similar or related images, you could divide the river of imagery into stuff that has been so grouped, and stuff that has not been so grouped. Sampling a grouping containing a few million images might well provide a more artistically complete grasp of the group than sampling purely at random. Understanding the groups might give you a more thorough grasp of the snapshot zeitgeist than simply digging through flickr's Explore.

Then you've got the unclassifiable stuff, the stuff that you haven't been able to lump in with other stuff. This might be richer ore, in a way. This will surely be where the odd communities that are friends with nobody are experimenting in new ways. This might be where the unusual subjects and methods that nobody likes are in play. This might be where the really interesting stuff is to be found. There's probably still an utterly intractable number of images in here, but random dipping in here might dredge up more interesting work, on average.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Suzanne Opton at the Chrysler Museum

Suzanne Opton has a show at the Chrysler Museum here in Norfolk, VA. The show is Many Wars but also has a couple of images from another concept, Soldier. The main show consists of 19 life-sized 3/4 length portraits of military veterans. The two images from Soldier are representative of that concept - much larger than life size headshots of active duty soldiers, their head lying on a table so the face is presented horizontally.

The images from Soldier are interesting, but extremely ambiguous. I get no sense of what the artist is aiming for here, and suspect that she is hoping that the enormous prints and ruthless detail will say something for her.

The Many Wars collection of portraits of veterans is much more artistically clear. The color palette is deliberately chosen to echo that of certain eras of paintings: rich reddish browns, and so on. The subjects are, with one exception, shot in a life sized 3/4 length portrait, themselves wrapped in a length of upholstery fabric, against a simple hanging fabric background. The one exception is a bit of a puzzle, it is the oldest looking of the bunch, a WWII veteran, who is wrapped in pure white fluffy material and, unlike the other subjects, shows no sign of wearing anything else. Although the print is the same size, the framing is much closer, something like 2 times life sized. Interestingly, this print is hung in the same place the odd-print-out in the Baldwin Lee show was hung. Is this the Chrysler's designated "we don't know what to make ot this one" spot? Perhaps the image represents a connection with the Soldier images, or perhaps the artist simply liked the old guy's look so much she wanted him bigger.

The images are pretty much transparent, in the sense that one doesn't much see the photography. The lighting is straightforward, the colors are muted and pleasant, setting a tone unobtrusively. What one sees is the subjects, these 18 men and 1 woman, each with their own 1000 yard stare. Some confront the camera, posing with clenched fists, others seem mid-conversation, often talking with their hands. Others appear lost in their own world. The overall effect is definitely powerful. These are people who have seen some shit, and done some shit, make no mistake. This comes through with crystal clarity.

There are some problems with the show. Of the nineteen images, 17 are white men, one is an ambiguously non-white guy, and one is a woman. This isn't representative of our veterans, at all. These were shot at a PTSD treatment program in, I think, Vermont, which explains but does not excuse the demographic breakdown. Further, the subjects were all undergoing treatment for PTSD, and many of them have been more or less recently, homeless. This raises the question: Are these photographs of damaged vets, or photographs of homeless people? There's a large overlap between the two populations, but they're not the same. I think the show could have done a better job of addressing the demographic problem, and the issue of homelessness. Had it done so, it would have been much stronger for it.

As it is, the show falls into a grey area between commentary, and outright exploitation of the subjects. As commentary, the show is modestly strong, but falls well short of what it could have been. With the equipment, the subjects, and the extremely coherent and strong visual concept all present, I think the artist could have and should have made a stronger statement here. Instead, she appears to have fallen back into the lazy "we'll print them really big so they look like art" attitude so common today. It would not be unfair to say that Opton has failed her subjects with this show.

Finally, a remarkable piece of serendipity. When I went to look at the show again recently, one of the lights was out. These images are lit with pretty straightforward museum lighting, a spot to illuminate the frame evenly with minimized reflections. With the light out on one of the images, the effect was completely different and quite startling. The transparency was gone, I no longer skipped past the photograph directly to the subject. Now I was confronted with a figure almost lost in the gloom. Reflected in the glass were the two photographs mounted on the wall behind me. After a moment I saw my own reflection, a black silhouette. No longer was this a solitary figure, emotionally naked before me, this was a grouping of figures, one almost lost in darkness, and one of which was me.

It would utterly subvert the artist's intent, I think, to relight the show, but it would be artistically much stronger with tiny spotlights on faces or hands (the hands were often far more expressive than faces). I cannot imagine what the effect of this imagined show would be, as commentary or exposition. Stronger? Weaker? I would have to see it to know.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Art, like everything else, proceeds by processes of evolution and revolution. That which is change, but not revolutionary, is pretty much covered by the evolutionary part. We see art made with clear antecedents, synthesized with some modest new ideas to create a new thing. This is essentially evolutionary. We also see art made with radical new ideas, art which is unrecognizable as art, or barely so. We see art without clear antecedents, or with clear antecedents which are not themselves art, or with clear antecedents from other media.

Photography, perhaps more than other media, leaves room for ideas and techniques from its history. The past is not swept away by the new, it continues, albeit with less vigor and practiced by fewer. We see wet plate technology applied to thoroughly modern erotica and social commentary. We will probably never cease to see new Ansel Adams styled mountainscapes, shot with ever newer technology and presumably with ever higher contrast, and eventually skies so black that neither light, nor matter, nor information can escape from them.

The evolutionary paths for photography's future appear to be well-manned. We see, however, little that is truly transgressive, now that the competition to find out who can make the most banal photograph of nothing appears to have died down.

What is trangressive, though? What form would a revolution in photographic art take? We have seen in the last century a great deal of confusion of social transgression with artistic transgression. This, of course, quite on purpose and intended to assert that the social and the artistic are the same. This is balderdash. Making paintings with your own shit is socially transgressive, but artistically not even interesting. Using a new kind of paint with a limited color palette isn't even new. The fact that it smells bad is even less new. Ultimately, paintings made with shit and similar works are evolutionary art liberally smeared with a dose of social taboo to create interest.

Artistic revolution occurs when artistic boundaries are transgressed.

What do we know to be true about the photographic arts? Invert those truths. Ravish those truths and leave them for dead. Dig past the truth to the problem it claims to solve, and then either solve that problem by other means, or render the problem irrelevant in your work.

Destroy the light. Make art of the drunk-chick-facebook-snapshot. Obliterate the full range of tonal values. Focus on the wrong thing - but make it the right choice; throw white balance to the wolves - but make the image true; Cut off the subject's head - and thereby make me understand the subject.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

FSA Photo of the week

This might actually be a pretty well known photograph. It's certainly a kind of photograph that's very well known:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Image Quality? Image Depth.

In the previous post I pointed you to Mike's remarks over on ToP, which, if you have not, you should still go read.

This may or may not be an accurate paraphrase, but it's what I think he said, and what I want to think about now:

Image Quality isn't a real thing, as an objective measure of goodness in any meaningful way. Photographs simply have properties, which are neither good nor bad, they simply are. There is no use to be gained by assigning subjective qualities to these properties, such as sharpness, dynamic range, contrast, saturation, and so on and so forth. These are certainly measurable things, but we should not use them to measure the quality of the image in any way.

This is a point I have harped on at some length, although not quite in these words. The image exists as it is, and these technical properties either serve and support the image, or they do not. If they serve and support the image, we could describe them as good, to be sure. However, the exactly opposite quality might serve and support a different image. Simply measuring something like sharpness yields no insight into the goodness of the image. Sharpness is neither good nor bad by itself, it is good or bad only in the context of a specific image.

So far, so good. This has all been said before. In fact, this next part has been said before as well, but perhaps not quite in this context.

Photographic properties come in three flavors, for my purpose here:

  • Properties which can be altered in post, but only "uni-directionally" for lack of a better word. I can remove sharpness, I can remove color, but it is difficult to add sharpness or color when it it not present.
  • Properties which can be altered "bi-directionally" in post. I can alter apparent contrast or saturation in either direction.
  • Properties which cannot be meaningfully altered in post. Things like the relationship of the various objects in the frame, the expression on the subject's face, the position of the key light.

Of course what I am saying here is not strictly true. With enough effort you can do pretty much anything to a photograph in post. Further, as I have noted, the line between what can and cannot be done in post is constantly moving (for example the light field camera allows us to focus in post). In broad strokes, though, there are these three families of properties.

What does make sense is to lump the first family of properties together into some sort of named bucket. It is a fact that a camera which produces higher resolution images is a more flexible tool than one which produces lower resolution images. Is the phrase "image quality" a good one to use here? I agree with Mike, essentially, that it is not. The phrase sounds too much like "good photograph" which is a completely different thing almost entirely concerned with the third family of photographic properties.

Perhaps we can measure things like sharpness, dynamic range, color gamut, and so on (in general, the things we can alter only in one direction in post, given the tools of today, whenever that is) into something called "Image Depth" or "Imaging Potential" or similar.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Online Photographer

Once again, Mike nails it. Read it, know it, love it. It's everything I believe in, it's everything I think you should, too.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

You Gotta Know The Rules To Break 'Em

You have to know the rules to break them. I've addressed this bit of conventional wisdom before, but my thoughts have been refined on this point.

You do not, strictly speaking, have to know the rules first. What you need are two things: a grasp on the problems that are solved by the rule, and another solution to those problems.

The rule of thirds is truly about placing things off center, to create a livelier visual result. Various rules about portraiture are, mostly, about creating a flattering look, avoiding making the subject's nose look too big, and so forth. Perhaps your approach to portraiture plunges the nose into darkness, so it's OK if it's too big. We focus on the eyes, perhaps, because as animals we're most interested in the eyes of other animals. By creating or observing an equally interesting element, we might focus on that element instead of the eyes -- the main thing here is to not focus on something random and uninteresting. And so on.

Knowing the rule, therefore, is perhaps nice, but knowing what problem the rules solves is essential. You might well grasp the problem without knowing the rule in the first place.

Solve the problem, don't worry about the rule.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Histogram

Another favorite tool of the Internet Expert is the histogram. They like to show you the histogram of your photograph and point out features of it to explain to you why your photograph sucks.

Ignore these people.

In fact, ignore the histogram, for the most part. It can be a useful learning tool, but it's really not showing you anything that is not blindingly obvious in the image, so learn to see the image instead. By all means, compare with the histogram a few times, until you can pretty much visualize what it will look like for any image. This should take a very short time.

The only other time the histogram could be useful if for checking your images as you shoot. The histogram just tells you what your photograph looks like, after all, but sometimes it's pretty hard to tell what your photograph looks like when you're peering at the back of your digital camera. So, consider looking at the histogram instead when it's hard to see the image.

Anyone who tells you that the histogram has to start at the bottom and go all the way to the top is a twit. In the first place, they're gabbling away in technical terms about something that's extremely obvious visually -- a full range of tones, from blacks to whites. Presumably they're being technical to make themselves sound smart, or because having finally understood the histogram they think it is important. In the second place, it is simply not the case that every image needs black blacks and white whites. The tonal range has a profound effect on the mood of the image, and sometimes you want one of the other ones.

Of course you should think about the tonal range of your photograph, and what the emotional impact of it is. Adjust to taste. There is no "right answer" here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Technology and New Ways of Seeing

In my HDR Manifesto, I proposed that a relatively recent technology, HDR and tonemapping, could be applied to create a new aesthetic vision. This has happened before.

Street photography was enabled by two things, fast film emulsions and the Leica camera. Without the fast emulsion you couldn't freeze motion in the necessary way, and without the small 35mm camera first available in the form of the Leica, you could not be discreet enough to accomplish the "street" way of envisioning the world. The essential new idea in "street" is the notion of an image which is present only for an instant, the momentary coming-together of things in motion (usually people) in a fortuitous way to be an image worth shooting.

Prior to "street" as "street" we have many urban scenes. Some of the earliest photographs made were of city streets, but they were not "street", envisioning the world instead in a painterly way: here is a street, it is picturesque, or otherwise worth recording. I will wait until the light is so, and then I will set my camera so, and I will record this street. This is a fine way of seeing and working, it produced many excellent photographs. It is how landscape done. These photographs were not "street" in the way we understand it today.

I maintain that the very idea of "street" was a new and essential thing -- before this, it had never really occurred to artists that there could exist these fleeting compositions. Things either were or were not good compositions. It is this essential idea of the instantaneous composition of people going about their business, a composition here and in the the next moment gone, that defines and motivates "street". This idea would have been difficult to even conceive without the Leica and without the fast film emulsions of the early to mid 20th century.

In the same way, creating an image without a strong key light is largely inconceivably to photographers of my era, photographers who learned prior to the techniques of HDR. Most practitioners of HDR are simply in love with the process and the look, they are creating images which please them are their cadre. This is fine. They are, I think, missing what the truly have in their hands, which is a technology that truly enables a new way of seeing, a truly new aesthetic, in the same way that the Leica enabled the idea of the instantaneous composition that is "street."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Manifesto for HDR

I was pondering my remarks in the previous post, talking about new ideas and new ways of photographing old things. Naturally one cannot really give a firm example of such an idea, since it is by definition something that hasn't been thought of yet. You can talk about past ideas, such as street photography, which perhaps I will in the future.

In any case, what came out of my fevered brain was the idea of using HDR to create a truly new but undeniably photographic vision. It's not something I want to do, and I strongly suspect that I would hate the results. I am part of the old guard, this is inevitable.

I submit to you a manifesto for a new aesthetic built around HDR.

While you read it, I want you to imagine an HDR image of Half Dome, that reveals it completely, without deep shadows or strong highlights. An image with the strong contrasts of Ansel Adams, but without the shadows. An image that renders Half Dome as if it were a hyper-detailed architect's pencil drawing of a mountain shaped structure. An image which conveys the hugeness of Half Dome, its power and majesty, by revealing every detail of its forms and textures completely. In particular, I want you to imagine that, somehow, the usual muddiness and visual confusion of such HDR images is not present, because of an extremely carefully selected point of view, and very careful processing.


We propose to do nothing less than to destroy light in photography. Not to literally eliminate it, but to eliminate its tyranny over the photographic image. We choose to reveal subjects, not to conceal. We choose to strip away, as far as possible, the shadows and the highlights, to nakedly reveal the structure and form of our subjects. To reveal form by placing texture against texture, color against color, tone against tone, rather than through the modeling effects of a strongly directional light.

Our ideals are the engineering drawing, the blueprint, the exploded view, the architectural plan. Ours is an era of technology, we choose to embrace the visual idioms of technology. We choose to fully reveal the structure and form of our subject, and by doing so, to fully reveal the idea of the subject, and our relationship to the subject. The form without the idea is of no interest to us.

The obliteration of light should never obliterate form, instead it should reveal and clarify form. This is no easy task. It requires careful attention to every detail, it requires a new way of seeing and thinking about imaging. It requires careful application of technology. The techniques of HDR are one way to realize this aesthetic, but there are other ways. One might also choose to reveal structure and form with many light sources, or with very long exposures, perhaps.

In all cases, the dominance of the directional light shall be crushed.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Have all the photographs been taken?

Have we come to a world in which all photographs have been, in some meaningful way, taken? Certainly we have a lot of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the moon is tidally locked, there really only are a couple dozen pictures possible of the moon. Do we need more Ansel Adams inspired mountains?

I don't mean to tell you to stop taking redundant pictures for your own pleasure. Indeed, I think it a fine pedagogical device. Making it your mountain rather than Adams' certainly may satisfy some personal desire. There is nothing wrong with that. Decorating your home with imitation Avedons isn't a bad thing to do at all, nor is selling them. These are fine things, but what they are not is new or original.

The question is, though, what kinds of things can we do that are actually new work? Can we, in fact, do fundamentally new work? The camera is hampered by its perfection, here. Any painting of the Eiffel Tower is arguably a new work, but another photograph of it is most likely indistinguishable from at least one other that has been taken. Obviously if we can take photographs of new objects, these might be new work. Can we take photographs of old objects in new ways?

New objects certainly include people. We keep making them, so there will always be the possibility of a new portrait. People invent new fashions, new fads, new buildings and cars, so probably "street" will always have the potential for fresh and interesting work as it both records and comments on the current state of mankind (or something similarly fatuous). These works of man, buildings, streets, factories, homes, bicycles, and toasters continue to be created, to age, to decay and rot. There will always be something to be shot here, surely. Imitating an existing photograph with new things in it isn't particularly new, but perhaps there's some novelty there. Creating a new photograph around a new idea having to do with the new things, well now, that would be something, wouldn't it?

What about old objects? Can we take a fundamentally new photograph of Half Dome, of the Empire State Building, of the Grand Canyon? Perhaps. Our attitudes and ideas change and evolve over time. It may be that a photograph of Half Dome might be able to express and clarify a more modern idea of Half Dome, or Yosemite Valley, or the planet we live on, somehow. It will not succeed by merely aping Ansel Adams, although it will surely fail if it does not acknowledge Adams work. It will probably only work when a photographer with a genuinely new attitude toward Half Dome photographs it. This in itself is a job and a half, since Adams has long told us what to think about Half Dome, hasn't he?

What isn't new is imitations of old work. The river of photographs in which we now live makes the old work extremely thick on the ground, avoiding imitation is increasingly difficult.

In the early days of photography you could stick your lens anywhere and create something new. Later, we had arguments and rebellions about sharpness, color, lighting. Artists with various ideas formed cliques and created art based on specific technical and aesthetic ideas. These, in the large, in broad and general terms, have been mined out. Subjects have, again in the large, been mined out.

To create new work now requires a greater clarity of vision than ever, whether that vision be conscious or unconscious. To be new, a photograph must be motivated by a laser focused idea, must be fully and powerfully expressive of that motive.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Painting, Polaroid, and Digital

Edwin Land (the Polaroid guy) gave a presentation to the Royal Photographic Society in London, in 1949, in which he said on the topic of painting and drawing:

... the artist initiates his activity by observing his subject matter and then and then responds, as he proceeds, to a two-fold stimulus: the original subject matter and his own growing but uncompleted work.

The important point here is that the incomplete drawing or painting is part of the process. Being able to see the work as it is created is fundamentally and powerfully different.

He then went on to talk about his Polaroid process, and how it allowed a similar mode of working for photographers. You shoot, you see, you shoot more. Interestingly, he is completely unconcerned with technical details here. In Land's mind, you're working for aesthetic perfection, not technical. Each image is a reaction to the previous images taken, as well as to the subject. You're working to simultaneously develop and realize an artist impluse.

This struck me like a bolt a lightning, albeit a very small one. I am as opposed to chimping as anyone, but I still do it when I'm out shooting digital. It's pretty hard to avoid. However, I find that I do it as much for artistic reasons as technical. I pretty much trust my camera to get the exposure right, and you can't really see focus on the back of the thing anyways. Sometimes I play with exposure compensation a bit.

Mostly, I chimp to see what I've got, and what I should do next. Mr. Land has pointed the way, here, and I intend to do this more, and with more intent.

The next time some joker tells you tape over the screen on the back of your camera, tell said joker to get stuffed. I do suggest you turn off the histogram display and all the little technical details, though, and just look at your picture.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What is Photography?

Another post on this topic, from a slightly different angle.

If we try to define a photographer by any specific act, we get in to trouble. If the photographer must press the button, are photograms then not photography? If not, then Fox Talbot and Man Ray are abruptly no longer photographers, which seems problematic. Photograms are made by placing objects on light sensitive materials, exposing to light, and then developing. So perhaps the fact that they developed makes them photographers. In this case, we circle around to photographers who pressed the button, but did not develop, or did not print. Is Henri Cartier-Bresson not a photographer, now?

For any action or collection of actions we can set down, we can probably find or at any rate imagine a bona fide photographer who fails to comply with our list.

I suppose one might make some headway with a list of a dozen actions or so, and claim that anyone who performs three or more of these is a photographer. Possibly. Such a wide net strikes me as likely to ensnare some people who are certainly not photographers, or at any rate not the photographer of a specific image we have in mind.

The point is, as usual, that photography is not an easy thing to get our arms around. There simply isn't a pat definition. We know it when we see it, perhaps? Except that we don't, what with the occasional spates of people who make photorealistic pencil drawings and whatnot.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Correct White Balance

Another in my ongoing quest to stomp on conventional wisdom where it is wrong.

A canard one sees from time to time online and, I suppose, in camera clubs and other places where the amateur with a little knowledge congregates, is the idea of "correct" white balance. This generally means that white objects are rendered as white on the screen or print. This is a classic case of a technical detail that is easy to understand and, in this age of digital, easy to adjust. The amateur with a little knowledge loves these things, they are handy stand-ins for actual knowledge and understanding, like shutter speeds, EVs, and so on. Since they can see it and you cannot, they get to feel superior and correct you. They can easily edit a copy of your picture, and show you. It's one click in most photo editors.

White whites are not, however, "accurate" white balance. The normal reason white objects fail to render as white is because the light falling on them is colored. A white shirt in shade will be a bit blue. The same white shirt under incandescent lights will be a little yellowy orangeish. The camera sees and faithfully records this. The white balance settings in the camera will try to make some effort to work out the color of the ambient light and make white things look whiter, but this is a somewhat haphazard affair. White whites are not always even pleasing, or flattering, white balance. Getting the whites white is, at best, a reasonable starting point and at worst a purely arbitrary measurement that weenies can use to feel smart.

Our eyes and the massive amount of brain we devote to seeing don't really care. We see white objects as white, almost no matter what the ambient lighting is. We mentally subtract the blueish tones of shade, and the yellowy tones of incandescent light. We do this when we're looking at photographs as well, which is why the angry yammering about "incorrect white balance!" is so confusing the new neophyte. We literally have to train ourselves to see white balance in photographs.

In reality, white balance is simply an effect. It can no more be correct than contrast, saturation, or any of a number of other effects we can apply to an image. It can certainly be ugly, it can fail to support the image, it can be visually confusing. It certainly affects the way we feel when we see a photograph. Like contrast and saturation, when a set of images are presented as a collection of related frames, we should try to make the white balance more or less match image to image, to help support the coherency of the set as a set. We can make the white balance more blue or more yellow, to subtly alter the way the viewer feels when the view the image.

A photograph obviously taken in shade, with the white balance adjusted to render white things a pure white arguably looks a little off. Our visual cortex sees the shade and tries to subtract the blue, and then things are just all wrong. We expect a slight blue tone to the whites, and miss it when it is gone.

When someone tells you your white balance is incorrect, by all means take a look. If all the people look orange, they might have a point. Your white balance isn't wrong, but it is ugly. If, having taken the time to examine the colors, they are where you want them, the correct response is "go pound sand, weenie."

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What is Photography?

Mike J over on ToP has a wonderful series of blog posts discussing Doug Rickard's book of photographs drawn from Google's Street View and some surrounding ideas. The most important one, I think, is here. If that one interests you, then read the posts before and after for a little ways as well, there's some more commentary and ideas there.

This all swirls around a single central issue which is "what is photography?" I don't propose to answer that question, but instead to talk around it a bit. These are interesting ideas, I think it's important to wrestle with the question but it is not important to devise a definitive answer. Indeed, I think there is no definitive answer, and trying to produce one is a waste of effort.

There are things we certainly recognize as photography. If I load some film into a camera, point that camera at something, press the shutter release, develop and print that film onto a piece of photographic paper, I have pretty much undeniably made a photograph. What I have done is photography. There are, similarly, things we recognize as certainly not photography. Fishing, for instance, is definitely not photography. Painting a picture, applying pigments to canvas with brush and trowel, is a more interesting case. It is certainly not photography, although it does produce images and contains some of the same elements (selecting a frame, objects to place in the frame, and so on).

Between the two there appears to be a spectrum, a continuum of photographic techniques combined with techniques of drawing and painting. We probably all have ideas about individual works in here: that's not a photograph, it's a digital painting; that's a photogram and I consider that photography. Any two people will probably disagree on some works, and agree on others. This is ok, I can see no particular benefit to having clear and universally agreed-upon lines that delineate photography from digital art from painting from whatever else you might imagine. What is important is that we understand that there is a continuum in which we might need to agree to disagree.

Just as there is a spectrum of possibility between painting and photography, there is a spectrum of possibility between photography and editing. If I edit a set of 227 photographs into a portfolio of 7 images, that is pretty much just editing. If I select from a single person's flickr stream their 10 best images, that is probably pretty much editing too. If I select 10 outstanding images from all the photographs posted on the web, it begins to get fuzzy. As in the previous case, you may well have a personal opinion to the effect that this is, or is not, photography or editing. That's ok. What we need to recognize is that at this point we're entering an area where opinions may differ.

Someone who thinks that photography is about "selecting an image" whether it be from the real world, from Street View, or from the web, may reasonably consider this editing-like activity to be "photography" and there are legitimate reasons for considering it so. If you, personally, think that a shutter release button-press is necessary for photography, so be it. You disagree.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Walker Evans: American Photographs

In keeping with my track record of reviewing books only decades after they are published, I will now record my thoughts on the 75th anniversary edition of Walker Evans' seminal book, American Photographs.

This book contains 87 photographs, in two sections. They are presented with no accompanying text whatsoever, only a number referring to a very brief descriptive text for each photograph at the end of each of the two sections. The reproductions are quite nice, and the book is incredibly cheap - less than $US25 at the moment. It might be one of the best values out there.

There are two essays included with the current edition. The first, on the making of the current edition, is a fascinating glimpse into the problems inherent in re-making a book of photographs after 25 years. Technology advances, and photographs are lost or harder to obtain. The second essay was included in the original edition, and is a discussion of the work and the photographer, written by a friend of Evans, Lincoln Kerstein. I found it somewhat labored and not particularly interesting. It is probably more of interest for the snapshot it gives us of how Evans was viewed in his time, than of much current interest.

I have mostly been familiar with Evans through is FSA work, and the work he did nominally for the FSA but in reality for the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which was a collaboration with James Agee). The current volume gives us a much broader view of the photographer's work. These photographs were, for the most part, selected for the book by Evans himself to accompany an exhibit of his photographs in 1938, so we're probably still not looking at a fully representative view of his work.

The first thing that struck me, looking through this work, was how relatively poor it was. This is not to say the work is bad, it certainly is not. However, it fares poorly when stacked up next to the towering, gigantic, monumental work he did for the book with Agee. The work is still excellent and well worth your time to look at carefully. The second thing that struck me was the breadth of Evans' work. There are at least two different photographers in Walker Evans, the view camera man and the 35mm man. While it's not a perfect correlation, the work with the smaller camera is much looser, in some sense. There's a number of images that flirt with "street" while being, ultimately, documentary. The view camera work is generally more formal, each image having a very deliberate feeling of structure.

The subject matter is all over the place. The title of the book is apt, Evans work here seems to have been an honest stab at capturing the breadth of the nation, in some interesting sense. There are people, street scenes, architecture, still lifes, and strange things drawn, painted, or glued to walls. There are very few landscapes, which is telling in a book of this title. Evans seems to have felt that America is in her people, their belongings, their buildings, their streets.

Buy it, keep it near. It's superb.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

See? I told you so.

In this post I more or less predicted A New American Picture by Doug Rickard. Further variations on the idea in this post. Doug Rickard essentially trolled through google's Street View for photographs, and made a book out of them.

Opinions vary on whether what Rickard did was any good, and I am dubious about the technical quality of the work - the image quality of google's Street View has never struck me as worth a damn. But nonetheless, I predicted this! I predicted it, apparently, about 2 years after the first edition appeared, so, not very oracular. Still, I am pleased and feel vindicated in my theories.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Snapshots and Truth

There is a thing we call a snapshot, I've talked about it here. What we generally mean by the word is a photograph that has meaning and emotional impact only for the photographer and, perhaps, a few people close to the photographer. These are otherwise uninteresting photographs of Aunt Sally's birthday party and so on.

While taking some snapshots of my own recently, a couple of things occurred to me.

First: typically, snapshots are lousy compositions. Even if you have some notion of composition, as I fancy I do, one is forced into bad composition by the reality of the situation. My daughter is doing a very cute thing which we want to have pictures of to share, but she's doing it in bad light and with a terrible amount of background clutter. That's too bad, but it is the reality. It is true. Nothing I can do will make these photographs "good" in any formal sense.

Second: snapshots are often altogether too revealing of the world surrounding the subject. All that background clutter is the detritus of an actual life. The bad light is just what the kitchen looks like. The unfortunate expression, the broccoli stuck in the teeth, all these are real details of a real thing, because the snapshot is more or less by definition not formally posed and cleans none of this stuff up. This too is truth.

How much of our disinterest toward, our dislike of, snapshots comes from the formally "bad" qualities, and how much of it comes from our discomfort at having this intimacy thrust upon us, unasked-for? Should we embrace them, in their billions, for the qualities of truth they bring with them? Perhaps not as art, but as an honest and faithful (in some senses) record of what was and is?

If we were to embrace them, how should we or even could we manage that?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Composition With Lines

If you poke around on the web you will find web sites with stuff like "horizontal lines suggest tranquility" and "vertical lines suggest power or dominance" and similar sorts of things. These things are not quite as common as the "rule of thirds" which pretty much everyone trots out as their first, and frequently only, tip for improving your composition (which they then proceed to get wrong).

Is there any basis for this stuff? If so, what might it be? I suppose we could argue that there are cultural norms in play here, but that seems to be a bit of a stretch. The authors of all these trivial "pep up your composition" web sites almost certainly have no notion of any basis for this business with the lines, they're just cutting and pasting from one another and introducing errors at every step.

This seems to be drawn from graphic design, where things like lines are actual things. A graphic design actually contains real lines as part of the composition. A horizontal line is actually a thing that looks like it cannot tip over, a vertical line looks like a thing that could. A diagonal line looks unstable.

Photographs of things, however, do not generally have actual lines in them, they have trees and buildings and stones and people. A enormous tree, while vertical, does not really have the same feeling of instability that a literal vertical line does. A dragster proceeding at 200 miles per hour in a horizontal line does not have the same feeling of rest and repose that a literal horizontal line on a page does. A picture of a thing that is not at rest does not inherit a "sense of repose" through some superficial resemblance to another thing which is actually at rest. An immense pyramid, despite having diagonal lines, isn't a thing that can fall over. Therefore, unlike a diagonal line, it does not look like a thing that can fall over.

What's great about these guys who talk about vertical lines and whatnot is the examples. "Horizontal lines suggest homeostasis (lack of change)" accompanied by a picture of a frozen leaf on a frost-covered plank with horizontal grain. "Vertical lines can suggest peace" accompanied by a photograph of a verdant forest. No. The subjects suggest homeostasis and peace, you idiot. Worse yet, if you poke around a bit more and take notes, you will find that vertical or horizontal lines can suggest pretty much anything. Diagonals seem to always suggest dynamism or action, at least. Except, I suppose, when photographing immense pyramids that have remained substantially unchanged for more than 4000 years?

Leading lines are a real thing. We do actually tend to follow lines with our eyes, this is at least partly neurological. This other stuff, I don't know. There might be something real there, but the web people hunting for hits to sell ads have so confused the issue that there's probably no easy way to sort out what the real things is. You'd have to dig up original papers and so forth, which sounds like a lot more trouble than it's worth.

You know what suggests peace? A peaceful photograph. If you want to know how to make a peaceful photograph, go find some and look at them. Go into the world and find some things that make you feel a sense of peace. There's no formula for a "peaceful photograph" there are just peaceful photographs.

The more I dig in to this, the more I think that graphic design is the wrong starting point for understanding photography.

Monday, September 24, 2012

But I don't want to be Ansel Adams

Maybe it's just my perception, but I see a lot of people starting out in photography (some of them have been starting out for years) who don't want to do the work to become better. They don't want to be Ansel Adams, they just want to be pretty good. They want to become better photographers. Surely they don't have to do the work, right? Surely one can just practice a bit, talk to some people online and read a couple web sites. I don't want to be Ansel Adams, after all!

The trouble with this attitude is that it's wrong. You don't see people saying that they don't want to be Robert Oppenheimer, they just want to be pretty good quantum physicists, so surely they can just make some stuff up about particles. You don't just creatively invent your way into being a pretty good amateur plumber, you at least read a book. People actually do think they can write their way into being a novelist, but they're completely wrong almost 100% of the time -- you read your way into being a novelist.

The only difference between being a decent amateur photographer and being a really good photographer is that you don't do the work as hard or as thoroughly. You still need to do the work. Read some stuff about composition, look at a bunch of photographs. Look at a lot of photographs, and think about them. Read more things about photography and photographers and art. You have to do the work. You just don't have to do it full time.

If you're having fun just going out and shooting, like everyone online tells you to, great. You're not really going to get any better, but you'll have a good time, I bet.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Learning to See III

I've spent some time telling people to look at photographs. This is still good advice. A novelist might read 1000 novels for every one written, a poet might read a 1000 poems. A plumber looks a lot of plumbing before installing a system. A naval architect in training is admonished to go to the boat show and look at a lot of boats, years before the first finished design comes off the board.

Now I am suggesting that you look at the world, but with a photographic eye. Leave the camera at home, it'll get in the way as you fuss with dials and buttons and timing. Just look at the world, and think about what would make a good photograph. The aim here is to get past the that's a cool thing or ooo I want to capture that and proceed to that would make a good photograph.

Throw imaginary frames around things, or hold up your hands and make a rectangle with your fingers so everyone knows you're an Artist. Most cool things stop being cool when you put them down in a two dimensional rectangle, it turns out.

Think about the objects that you see and their relationship to one another. Do they appear larger or smaller? Does one obscure the other? Are there contrasting textures, or repeated shapes? What is the balance like in your imaginary frame? How would all this change if you were lower down or higher up? How would it change if you moved left, right, or all the way around to the back?

Look at people. Watch the human interactions, look at the body language. What are they looking at? Are there instants in these human interactions that are interesting, versus other instants that are not? When she buys a cup of coffee, what is the instant in the transaction that most perfectly clarifies expresses the moment?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Kill The Rule of Thirds

This thing, frequently cited in amateur circles, seems to not even be a rule at all, in any sense of the word. Go look at some actual photographs, commercial stuff that people have sold or "important art" or any category you like that counts as successful photography.

You will, most likely, find all kinds of stuff neatly centered. If you closely examine the 1/3 lines of the frame you will of course find something there. Is it the important something? Sometimes, more or less at random, yes. Usually not. Frequently it is a boundary between one thing and another, see below for more on this important case. Sometimes it's clearly just random stuff. Sometimes, to be sure, it is strongly the subject. More or less at random, the subject will fall pretty close to one or two of the 1/3 lines.

This horrible bit of anti-pedagogy should be stated more as the Not in the Center principle and should not be stated as a rule. Putting things in the center makes them look one way, and putting them not in the center makes them look another way. It is no more a rule than black-and-white is a rule. Both centering and black-and-white are effects which you can deploy, or not, as the case demands.

Photographers seem to think this rule of thirds comes from graphic design, so let's go look around and see if that's true. We run across amusing things like this advice: divide the page into thirds horizontally, vertically, or both. Now place important elements either within the zones defined by these lines, or in the case of a photograph, you might also place them on intersections of those lines. Let's think this over. So either within the zones.. or.. on borders between the zones. So. You're saying that I can place important elements anywhere at all, correct?

The painters, and later the graphic designers, created regions, and then placed things within the regions. Photographers are urged by the "pep up your snaps" people to place things on the boundaries between the regions, that is to say, in exactly the place where the painters and graphic designers teach not to.

There's something from graphic design here. Thirds are in fact a sort of pleasing way to chunk up a design, or a page. Graphic designs are not the same as photographs, and photographs are not, primarily, graphic designs (yes, there's some overlap, indulge me here). Photographs, in particular, have a subject and graphic designs do not. The graphic design principle is in fact not to place things at intersections of the third lines at all, but to organize the page around thirds. The one-third lines are boundaries between things, in design.

Applying graphic design ideas to the problem of where to put the subject is silly, and it's simply wrong. We might as well try to apply ideas about depth of field to graphic design.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fauxtographer and the Daguerreotypist

In the mid nineteenth century there was a revolution in portraiture. The Daguerreotype become widely available, and popular. Everyone, it seemed, had their portrait made on a funny little grey plate by the funny little fellow down the street. The people selling this service were often hacks, hustlers, and charlatans. The Daguerreotypist was likely selling patent medicines last year, and would be operating a hypnotism show the next. The results, naturally, were a bit variable.

The painters were enraged. The work was awful, by their standards. The image was tiny, albeit detailed. It was not even colored! That marvelous detail captured the subjects flaws just as thoroughly as their good points. It had all manner of weird artifacts due to the long exposure. The people making this things had no skills, particularly, there was no craft to this process. Why, a man could learn to make a Daguerreotype in only a few days! The work was, basically, crap. People loved them, ignored the painters, and bought them by the millions.

The Daguerreotype was not a painting, and did not pretend to be. It was something the customer could not do for himself. It was quick. Something that was good enough to suit the need or desire of the customer at the time. It was also cheap and widely available. The result is, among other things, a fantastically deep and interesting record of socioeconomic classes that had never been given a visual record before.

Of course, in the long run, photography won. Those hustlers and crooks shooting tiny, bad, portraits helped to birth this new form. They helped to set new standards, they contributed to the new aesthetic of visual art and of portraiture which we see today. The painters had their say, our modern notion of photography takes ideas from paintings as well as from the hustling Daguerreotypist who had no idea about any aesthetic. It's all in the mix. But almost nobody has their portrait painted these days.

Today we do not really have the Daguerreotype. We have instead the consumer grade DSLR with a lousy, but cheap, kit lens. This camera has an Automatic mode that is fairly decent. Why, a woman can learn to take photographs in a couple of days! We now see the rise of down-market part-time photographers, styled "fauxtographers" or "mom with a camera" by the some. These are people who have failed to master the difficult art of professional photography. They are hacks selling a cheap service and providing results that simply are not very good. The results are often very bad, by contemporary standards. Standards set, largely, by the professional photographers.

Why look, she's not even using off camera flash! The white balance is awful! The megapixels, there are so few! The composition is.. I don't even know what that is!

All the criticisms are perfectly correct. The painters correctly observed, albeit at excessive length, that the Daguerreotype is not a painting. The irritated professional observes today that the Mom With A Camera is not making professional-looking baby pictures. This is, the attentive reader will know by now, true but irrelevant.

What the down-market photographer does provide is a service the customer cannot provide themselves, at a cheap price. The service is good enough to meet needs of the customer. Every crime and fault that is laid at the feet of the "fauxtographer" was laid, 150 years ago, at the feet of the roving Daguerreotypist. If the same arc occurs over the next 10 or 20 years, and I see no reason to imagine otherwise, a new standard for professional photography will arise. People will look at your carefully posed photograph, with big softbox at 45 degrees camera left and a reflector at 50 degrees camera right, the eyes lovingly sharpened ever so slightly in post and the skin smoothed to perfection, and they will say "That looks OLD, dude. What IS that?" and they will be right.

I don't know what a new aesthetic of event photography will look like, but I bet it will draw ideas from the current professional looks, as well as from the on-camera-flash, spray-and-pray spontaneous look. It will be a melding of Facebook snap with professionally smoothed skin, and a bunch of things we can't predict.

If you're a pro at the end of your career, don't worry about it. If you're just coming up, stay sharp. Those damned MWACs are going to win, in some sense, and you better be ready for it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The photograph is not the subject

I am reading The Photographer's Eye by John Szarkowsi. The preface is an essay that sounds like something I could have written, if I were a better writer! It hits many of the same points I make here. Truthfully, it makes me wonder if I read this years ago, and am simply lifting all these ideas from Mr. Szarkowsi. Well, worse places to steal ideas from, that's for sure.

A point he makes that struck me, though, is this: viewers tend to think that a photograph of a thing is a true and accurate representation of the thing. This is a more specific version of the idea that viewers tend to think that photographs represent some objective truth.

The dedicated reader of this blog will know that, of course, a photograph of a thing is frequently almost everything but a true and accurate representation of that thing.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Learning to See II

This could be considered a followup to this post.

A surprising number of new photographers seem to be unable to see things like contrast or saturation. They seem to be able to tell when their image isn't very good, and they certainly like it when someone increases the saturation or whatever, but they don't seem to see what's missing, in any particular detail.

I do, generally, and I dare say you do as well. Still, here's a handy little test chart of the sort (right down to the somewhat crummy photograph used as a basis!) that appears in every How To Take Pictures Book ever. Do you see what's going on in each row? You can, I assume, see that the three images in each row differ. If you can't see how they differ, look more. It'll be educational!

This image is now public domain. I made it, I say it is so. No rights reserved.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Portrait is like Origami

A good portrait is a piece of mental origami. It should be a complete narrative, a story of a person, a circumstance, a life, folded up into a neat little visual package that your mind unfolds back into that story.

The neat trick is that it might unfold into a different story for everyone who looks at it. But, if it works, it unfolds.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

So it's Propaganda. So What?

I am instantly suspicious of people who want to "raise awareness". Raising awareness does not actually cure cancer, or feed hungry people. In the case of propaganda, which is entirely about manipulating your thoughts and emotions, awareness is actually the thing though. Be aware of what truth and what falsehood inheres in a photograph.

Art is supposed to manipulate your thoughts and emotions. That's how you know it's working. Let it!

Be liberated from worry about truth and some phantom of journalistic integrity. Consider a photograph of a poor man in his home. Is he really poor, or is he the photographer's college roommate? Is that house a set? Who cares! We know for certain that the photographer, if at all competent, framed the image to maximize the sensation of poverty. We know for sure that the photographer chose not to publish the photographs of the man smiling happily, showing off his new watch, his new car. Why worry about whether the man is really poor? The point is to make us empathize with the poor, to remind us that there are poor people. Are there poor people? Why yes, there are. In that sense, the photograph is true and accurate. It may be propaganda, but like much propaganda the narrative it is supporting is in fact pretty much true. Incomplete, but true as far as it goes.

The only time to really worry about it is when a photograph is trying to change your mind or change your vote or change your bank account. If you feel a photograph doing those things -- this is where the awareness comes in -- you can stop and consider what might have been just outside the frame. What was in the frame 10 seconds earlier, and 10 seconds later? Someone shot this and selected it to change your mind, your vote, or to lighten your wallet.

Maybe they're right, maybe your mind and vote should change. Maybe your wallet has too much money in it. Maybe they're wrong. You get to decide that, really. Stay sharp and don't let the bastards manipulate you. At any rate, don't let them manipulate you too swiftly and easily.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

It's All Propaganda

Here in the western world, we periodically have a little flurry of news surrounding some obviously faked photograph released by a foreign government, or occasionally by some foreign stringer. Two missiles in flight when only one was launched, and so forth. We get to have a little fun laughing at the foreigners and their lame photochop skills, but mostly we get to feel superior. Our guys don't do that!

To be sure, we're perfectly correct. Our guys don't do that. Our guys propagandize just as hard, but almost never with badly faked photographs. A side effect of these bad fakes, which our guys are no doubt quite pleased with, is that photographs which are not faked get an extra little boost of credibility. Our media organizations usually have some policies in place about not publishing fakes, to further boost this credibility. The policy will say that only certain types of edits are acceptable in photographs for publication. This is completely silly, any propagandist worth his pay can lie as effectively with a crop (moral, decent, acceptable) as with an erasure (immoral, unacceptable, and just plain wrong).

News Corp.'s papers, the New York Times, and everyone else obscures parts of the truth by selecting which photographs to display. They, and we, select photographs to support at best a partially true narrative, eliding things we do not wish to show and emphasizing things we do wish to show. You and I do it too. In this sense, every photograph uploaded to Facebook is a lie.

I recently attended a more or less typical American wedding, complete with a professional wedding photographer and a second shooter. I also took some photographs. The professional's images are entirely typical, and portray the wedding as a beautiful and idyllic event with at least one important deletion: the ever-present pacing specter of the photographer and his pop-pop-popping flash. My photos were mostly of my daughter, who is two, and of the photographer and other workers making the wedding happen. My images present another, equally false and incomplete, narrative of the wedding.

It is a poor propagandist who cannot thoroughly and effectively promote any desired narrative by commissioning and selecting the right images. The FSA/OWI archive is a 100,000+ photograph paean to this very idea.

A straight photograph tells the exact truth of the instant the shutter was released, right up to the edge of the frame. And that is no truth at all.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Stories are told of musical prodigies who could, on hearing a piece of music performed, could write down a note-accurate score of the piece. Ansel Adams famously referred to the print as a performance of the "score" inhering in the negative.

Happily, we needn't be a photographic Mozart to write down the score of a print. We need be merely a competent technician with fair observational skills. In general, a moderately skilled photographer can, with an existing photograph for reference, reproduce it. With landscapes there are, of course, issues with weather and growing trees and so forth. With a model you probably have to hire someone else, and their makeup will never be quite the same and so forth. Although carbon copies are possible, what I am really interested in is photographs that function in the same way as the original, the light falls the same way, the mood evoked is the same, and so forth. One places a light here, a light there, tries such-and-such a focal length -- oh bother, I need to be a little longer -- and so on. The amount of hacking around depends on the reference image and the photographer, but it can be done.

Let us not forget post processing, of course. The actual printing of the negative, the monkeying about in a digital photo editor. Let us nod to it, and wave it past as all, essentially, technical details which can also be seen in the print and emulated.

Shooting a fake, albeit minor, Avedon isn't even particularly hard. Painting a fake Sargent that would pass even casual muster is a substantially more challenging proposition.

Essentially, most photographic ideas and looks can be reduced to a formula, which is then more or less straightforward to follow.

The professional photographer, being first and foremost in business, is selling a product. The essence of a product lies in reproducibility. The ability to create photographs per a formula is, then, more or less essential to the business of photography. If the pictures from each wedding came out quite differently, the wedding photographer would shortly be out of business (or at any rate, would suffer). There are many reasons people rarely pay to have their weddings painted, but surely one of them is that you haven't a clear idea what it is you're likely to get in the end.

The best professionals will, of course, create their own formulae, new formulae. These will become products in their portfolio, a new "look" the clients can purchase. There is originality here, albeit usually evolutionary, but the professional is forced by business reality to reduce it to formula.

It follows that original work in photography lies mostly in the domain of the amateur and the artist. Professionals and amateurs can, of course, be artists. Earning one's bread with the camera does not exclude one from the exclusive club of original thinkers. Rarely, though, will the professional be able to express those original thoughts while simultaneously earning that bread.