Thursday, May 31, 2012

OWI Photo

From the Office of War Information, a portrait.

This is some great stuff here. He's not really looking at us, so we're more immediately aware of the few props and bits of context. His hat is pushed back on his head, is that a style, or did he do that for the photograph? The hat dates the photograph, or at least the subject's sense of style. His shirt suggests a worker, and not a contemporary one.

What's that in the background? Some sort of crane? This could be a dockyard or something, or possibly a mine. I happen to know it's a shipyard, so the crane speaks of things nautical to me, but that might be entirely about foreknowledge.

Positioning the crane right there in the empty space over his shoulder was a stroke of compositional genius, by the way.

The face is excellent. Wrinkled and worn, big droopy nose. He's looking, somewhere, is he thoughtful? Spacing out waiting for the photographer? You can read a lot into his eyes, I think.

Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, Baltimore, Maryland. A shipyard worker. Arthur S. Siegel. May, 1943.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Evolution of Realistic

What looks "real" to the average viewer

HDR aggressively applied looks weird to some of us now, but will it always? Black skies with violently processed fluffy white clouds are the thing, these days, and some people like them. Now, I think these people like them because the effect is eye catching, and they specifically like the effect. Will it some day be normalized, will the over processed look appear normal, so we see only the image, with a lot of visual drama, not the processing?

In any photograph, we're forced to mentally edit out an enormous amount of artifice to see the "real" image, see this post, for instance, and there is no reason to imagine that as new approaches to rendering come along, we will not learn to edit those out as well

There is an Overton Window effect in play here, however. At any given time there is a range, or a general "region" of renderings which will feel natural to the viewing audience. This window does move over time, as any cursory investigation into historical photographs will clearly show. If your goal is to make photographs accessible to your viewers, you should respect that window. The overlooked black skies may soon enter the window, and indeed for some more modern viewers they may be in-window now, but in my judgement the general viewer is still seeing the processing. Rendering skies as pure white, in the style of the 19th century, is also out of the window, albeit the other way. At this point we're pretty much expecting a late Ansel Adams look to the sky, and you can probably push that a bit. But, not too far!

Will violently applied HDR ever enter the window? I cannot help but hope the answer is negative, but the choice is not mine to make.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Famous Photos

A commenter, my friend mjr, pointed me at this theme. Let's look at famous photographs, and see how they stack up against the formal "rules". My plan here is to pick out some photo I know and like, without consciously thinking much about how it's going to stack up, plug it in to a post, and start writing what I see.

Of course all of there things have been analyzed to death, but I haven't done it, and it hasn't been done from my point of view. Perhaps I'll learn something. Perhaps you will too!

The rule of thirds seems to apply here, roughly, although the visual center is little high and right to really fall on a 1/3 ruling. The best you could argue here is that the heart of the image starts on a 1/3 x 1/3 position, and proceeds from there to the edges of the frame. The gaze of the mother is anything but across the frame, there is no room at all in the frame for the line of her gaze. This might be ok, since the gaze is clearly on her daughter's face, so that "line" naturally terminates.

Eye-leading is a little vague, there are strong graphical lines, all leading to and from the wrong places. You could argue that diamond of lines making up the edges of the bath form a frame (and in fact, I think they do). The only strong leading lines are the very short mother's gaze, and the line of the girl's body horizontally across the center of the frame. The girl's gaze is straight up, to nothing and then out of frame, another rotten line.

The shadows are printed down to very very dark (although it's possible that texture remains in a good print), the contrast is extreme, the skin tones are not very pleasing. The light is harsh and unflattering.

I think a reasonable point could be made that there are two images here. There's a portrait of a mother and daughter contained in the upper right corner, and then there's the entire image providing a moderately gruesome context for the portrait.

Here we have Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, shot by W. Eugene Smith in the 1970s, in Minamata, Japan. In terms of actual changes wrought on the world by a photograph, this comes very near the top. It is, by any meaningful measure, an extremely important photograph

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Portraits II

This posting is arguably a continuation of this posting.

Here is a theory I am working my way through, slowly. What I'm interested in here is how, specifically, we view portraits in which the subject is looking at the camera, versus portraits in which they are not.

When the subject of a portrait is looking directly at the camera, the viewer reads this as eye contact. We become, at a monkey-brain level, interested in what the subject is thinking. We imagine their mental state. This is the basis of social interaction, and incidentally we're extremely good at this.

When the subject is looking elsewhere, the viewer reads this as unawareness. We are now observing the subject remotely, we are "spying" a little. This is still about social interaction, but we're less interested in what they're thinking. We're evaluating posture, body language, objects and activities. In simple monkey-brain terms, we're probably making a friend-or-foe evaluation.

Anyways, the upshot of this is that we're more likely to read "mood" and "personality" exclusively when we're looking at an eyes-on-the-camera portrait. We're going to project onto the image some idea of the model's mental state, and we're going to be put off if we can't.

We're more likely to read "story" and "history" when the model is looking away from the camera, especially if there are more cues visible: clothing, actions, body language.

I think this means, among other things, that if your model is not looking at the camera, you need to give the frame more room to breathe, give more space around the model's face. This might be the source of the rule of composition which asserts that you should give space in the direction the model is looking, and is, I think, certainly connected to that rule.

The flip side is that when you're doing an environmental portrait, where the props are surround are important, having the model look aside is often the stronger choice, or at any rate the choice the image simpler to look at.

Friday, May 25, 2012

FSA Photo Of The Week

So many of the scans in the FSA file are like this one, basically kind of shoddy. This is clearly sheet film, so approximately a billion pixels should be available. Nonetheless, ignoring the scan, it's some good work.

This is a strong example of very formal composition. We have the man and a balancing vertical bar placed pretty much exactly on vertical thirds. We have echoed shapes and forms throughout, we have a busy structure on the right/top and a balancing negative space left/bottom. The contrast is high enough to give a visual pop, with pretty much the classical "full range on tones" represented, without it looking weird.

There's some good eye leading, several of the metal bars lead neatly toward the worker's face. He's clearly doing some job, so not only do we have a strong visual center in a graphical sense, that same visual center is where the action is, where your eye wants to be to see what's going on in the photograph.

Ben Bow chromite mill, Stillwater County, Montana. Russell Lee, 1942. Of course it's Russell Lee.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


The most common casual remark you will about a portrait is that it "really captures the personality" of the subject. This is, taken literally, completely silly. A personality is a big complicated thing, and it's really unlikely that a single image is going to communicate any meaningful subset of it. Add to that: we rarely know the person portrayed, so what on earth does the viewer know about the actual personality of the subject?

As humans we have an enormous amount of mental machinery devoted to understanding a person's mental state and history from their appearance, especially their face. We constantly build mental models of what a person is thinking, based on their expression. A portrait merely needs to tickle this massive mental machine we already have, to set it in motion. The machine will fill in a complete person with a history, a mood, ideas, and personality. Not, of course, the whole thing, but a skeleton our mind can use to understand the subject, a skeleton which we will perceive in the moment as a complete person.

What's really going on is that a good portrait evokes a strong sense of some element of personality and, if the photographer is lucky or skilled, of narrative. The viewer gets the sense that they know the subject, a little, they understand a little of the subject's nature and life. We glean this sense from cues in the face and the body language. A smile,  a frown, a sad look, each might be genuine or false, each might be perceived as genuine or false. The tilt of the head, the direction of gaze. Our mind processes all this material up. If the cues are consistent and strong, if they are not overwhelmed by a false "say cheese" smile or some other obvious artifice, if they are believable, we'll get that sense of personality. A false smile can be believable, if it appears to conceal something else, appears more than merely a response to a camera. Is the personality we sense genuine, an accident, or is the subject merely a good actor?

Who cares?

How can we convey a sense of narrative, of the subject's history, the life they have lived? Beyond the cues in the face and body: scars, wrinkles, any evidence of the passage of time writ on the subject's body. Also, clothing, glasses, jewelry, and other props all help support an idea of narrative. We'll fill in a boxer if we see broken, flattened nose. We'll fill in a widow if we see a ring on the old woman's finger. We'll fill in a hero's story if we see a uniform, we'll fill in scholar's life if we see tweed and a pipe.

This applies to portraits of people we do not recognize, especially, but also to well-known personalities with whom we have no personal contact. Karsh's famous portrait of Churchill without cigar, Churchill looking cranky, has shaped the way we perceive Churchill. In reality, it reveals nothing of the subject's personality, save that he gets cranky when someone snatches his cigar away from him, which is really nothing. In the viewer's mind, however, we form the impression of Churchill as stormy and implacable, supporting the historical view of him as a the master of the pithy bon mot and winner of WWII.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Symbols, Mandates and Cliches II

First, see definitions here.

A "Mandate" is just a visual idiom that a viewer is likely to expect you to use in some situation. Let's suppose it's attractive clouds over a landscape. If you haven't got any clouds over the landscape at the moment, but you really want to make a photograph, you've got a problem, right? This comes under the head of "breaking the rules" in pretty much the same way one might break the "rules" of formal composition. Let me note in passing that your best option may be to pack up for the day, and return when there are some clouds. However, let us move on assuming that's not an option.

Interestingly, music has more or less formalized the process of rule-breaking. I will attempt to translate my poor understanding of those formalisms to the land of photography.

Roughly, what you want to do is prepare the viewer for the broken rule, in music you sneak up on a dissonance by playing chords that are nearby, by almost playing the dissonant chord. When the dissonance arrives, it might be only a single note off of the previous and following chords. Visually, you haven't got time to work with, but you do have space.

The first thing you can do is follow other "rules" more scrupulously, to couch your cloudless sky in a comforting collection of familiar visual tropes: place your main point of visual interest on a "rule of thirds" line, say. The second thing you can do is make it obvious that the rule-breaking is deliberate: do not try to conceal or minimize the cloudless sky. The third thing you can do is wrap the broken rule itself in something familiar and rule-abiding: find a horizon line that's a strong diagonal, or make the sky be a powerful negative space echoing some other shape.

A broken "rule" is a powerful thing, an attention getter, a way to set the viewer ill-at ease and perhaps plant an idea or a feeling, but you mustn't lose the viewer. Give the viewer something comforting and easy to go with your bitter pill.

There is a school of thought which takes the rather silly remark "you have to know the rules in order to break them" and converts that in to "by breaking all the rules at once, I am awesome." A bunch of broken rules is just a mess.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Symbols, Cliches, and Mandates

These are some definitions I'll be using in the near future. For my purposes here I will use the following rough meanings to talk about things which are strong visual elements in a photograph (or painting, or really any visual medium). There are probably better words for these things out there, but I don't know what they are.

Symbol - a visual element which stands in, for most viewers, for a larger idea. A 1950s era diner, a destitute mother, a cross, a swastika.

Mandate - a visual element which may or may not be symbolic, but which most viewers insist upon whether they know it or not. Attractive clouds in the sky over a landscape, for instance. Clapboard siding should be either unpainted, or white. Old farm equipment must be shown with grass grown up around it.

Cliche - a visual element that appears widely in photographs, but which carries no special symbolic weight for most, and which the view does not require in the same way they demand a "mandate". Moving water that is blurred by a long exposure is a cliche. The homeless man sitting on a curb is also a cliche, but could also be considered a symbol.

The idea of a symbol overlaps with the other two categories. A mandated visual element might also carry symbolic weight, and so on. The point is that a symbol carries a freight of largely pre-defined meaning, for most viewers.
Cliches and mandates do not really overlap, because they are defined in opposition to one another. A cliche, by definition, is not a mandate. If you like, you might consider a symbol something that carries meaning, and cliche/mandate to be a spectrum describing frequently occurring visual ideas. Both are things that are commonly done, mandates because viewers demand or like it, cliches typically because the photographer likes it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Photo

This week's FSA photo:

This isn't all that much of a photo, but it caught my eye. It almost works, despite everything being lined up dead center, and its faults are not that.

The cloud is, of course, lovely, and Ansel Adams trained us to require clouds in our landscapes, so that's a good thing. This is a trope we expect and demand, and here it is. The fallen-down building directly below it roughly echos the shape, slightly smaller, and with different textures. There's a sort of inverted pyramid shape here, leading the eye down. The chimney leads the eye back to the cloud. There's a very strong visual center created by all this nonsense, and of course the absence of anything else in the frame to look at.

The problems with it are the little bits of tree to the right on the edge of the frame, and that dumb log in the foreground. On the one hand we do love the near/far relationship in a photograph, on the other hand the log just sits there, slightly cut off by the lower edge of the frame. It is not fortuitously placed or aligned, it creates a line going to and from nowhere, it's not long enough to really provide any framing.

There are several improving crops available, some of them disturb the symmetry, and some do not. In fact, practically any crop would improve this.

Arthur Rothstein, Sept 1935, Abandoned Paper Mill, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth

Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered, by James Curtis.

Throughout what follows, I will use the word "true" repeatedly. It is my usage, not Curtis's. My usage is deliberately vague, but I hope it captures some part of what the author was driving at.

The central thesis of the book might be summarized thus:

Documentary photography, and in particular the photography in the FSA archive, is not and should not be considered as literal truth. These images are a carefully constructed artifact designed to deliver a message or an impression, and to support specific ideas. Photographs by their nature are imbued with a sense of reality and truth. We believe them instinctively, and therefore tend to believe the impressions they lead us to, and the ideas they communicate. We must therefore exercise caution and a critical attitude when looking at them if we wish to not be led astray.

While Curtis does not describe the images in the FSA photography archive as "propaganda" he makes a pretty convincing case that they are. He shows that much of the work was produced with some kind of a "shooting script" in hand, and shows us that the results frequently match the shooting script. He
argues that the photographers working in the field selected their images to support either a shooting script, or their own esthetic.  The successful images were those which communicated a sharp message which the public was ready to receive.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Image, not process

What's wrong with many images made by people who aren't very cautious isn't really that they're overcooked, although that's a problem, or that they're too heavily vignetted, or that they have HDR applied, although these are also problems. No, the problem is that the viewer can see what the photographer did. The choices the photographer made are extremely present in the frame, the photographer's idea(s) are altogether too front and center.
I don't wish to state a rule that every choice the photographer makes should be invisible, for that would be a bad rule. Some outstanding images have been made which are primarily about the photographer's choices.
The point I wish to make is that if your choices are obvious to the viewer, you run the risk that your image will be about you and the choices you have made, not about the subject and the meaning you wish to convey. You, the photographer, now stand between the viewer and the image. You can see it every second of the day on flickr, the comment is not "what a great truck" it's "what a great HDR."
I vignette everything. Well, not snapshots thrown up in bulk for the family, but any image I am presenting as My Work. I do this from habit, because it's what I was taught at some point a long long time ago, and because it does close up the edges of the frame visually, strengthening what's in the frame. The important thing here is that I vignette below the level of perception. When you take my vignette away, you can tell that it's gone, but you don't notice it when it's present -- at any rate you don't if I have done it correctly. The point here is that I process, I process images quite heavily, but I strive to make my processing choices largely invisible.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Point of View

Point of view matters to how a photograph will feel, and thus what it communicates.
Consider a low point of view, an image in which the camera is obviously at the height of a child's eye, looking up. How will this affect an image of:
  • A toy
  • A smiling young woman
  • An angry man
Consider those same three subjects, shot from seven feet up, looking down.
The results won't be consistent and reliable, but with a little thinking and visualization, you should be able to imagine different feelings and ideas evoked by the combination of viewpoint and subject.

Friday, May 11, 2012

FSA Photo

Here is today's image:
This is classic FSA portraiture here. We have the mom and the child, although in this case everyone looks pretty cheerful. The dark doorway is a lovely backdrop to the brilliant sunlight and the two figures are appealingly placed in the frame. The door is off center in one direction, balanced by the figures off center the other way. The viewpoint is low, a child's view of the scene, accented by the doorway slanting in (which frankly looks more like shoddy construction than keystoning, but nonetheless enhances the sense of looking up from down low). We have lovely textures in the wood and the fabrics, none dominant, all giving visual interest. To top it all off, mom is smiling down at the child, leading the eye and all that business. Technically the photograph is excellent, with a little detail present in the shadowed interior, and in all but the very most brightly lit areas of white fabric.
This is, of course, that consummate portraitist, Dorothea Lange, from April of 1936. "Resettlement clients to be moved from Widtsoe area to farm in another county of Utah."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Pretty Pictures

Pretty pictures drive me insane. The internet is awash in pretty pictures. Any idiot can take a pretty picture, the digital age has democratized the process of photography to the extent that huge masses of people can, and do, now take pretty pictures.
A pretty girl.
A pretty flower.
A pretty building.
A pretty tree.
All properly exposed, often well framed, sometimes even well composed with a nice balance of forms. And all, ultimately, about nothing. The world does not require any more pictures of waterfalls, or flowers, or the Eiffel Tower. We can find 1000 identical ones on flickr with a moment of searching. If your photograph does not engage and then enlarge the viewer, you have made a technical exercise or snapshot, but you have not made an image with impact.
I hate pretty pictures, and I hate the love they get on the internet. The phrases "great capture," "beautiful tones" and so on ring like the worst of insults, but they are not meant as such. Taste is dead, everyone wants an image that gives them 2 seconds of eye candy and then fades in to memory.
Hoi polloi treat photographs like hookers, appreciating them more for leaving without a complaint than for their brief presence.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Commercial Photography

Artistically, commercial photography is mostly fad-following, not trend-setting, and tends to be about style over substance. Most clients (in any business at all, but certainly in the world of photography) want something like that other thing, only a little different.
A couple getting married wants, ultimately, some pretty snapshots. That is to say the couple wants some photographs which function as snapshots in that they serve as mementos of the wedding, as memory aids. The couple almost certainly has some ideas about what they want, and those ideas are almost certainly about a certain look they saw in someone else's wedding photos.
A fashion photographer is all about style over substance. What the client wants is something that looks very much the same as all the other fashion photography being done, but which is also distinctly different. They call this process of copying, but with a tweak, "finding your own unique vision."
And so on. This is not to say that commercial photographs are not evocative. They are, they must be in order to succeed. The point is that a successful commercial image evokes trivially, and typically on one note only. The product. The bride. The dress. Often, bowing to trends and fads, the image becomes itself a symbol. There are certain "looks" to an image in any era that says "fashion", applying this trope to a picture of a mushroom would evoke "fashion." By definition, though, a commercial photograph does not reward inspection, introspection, thought. It's all right there in the first impression.
So, while a commercial image is more interesting than someone else's snapshot, it's not good in the sense that I mean. They are essentially trivial, in a specific way. They must be trivial, it is a requirement of the field.
None of this is to suggest that commercial work is easy, or stupid, or worthless. None of those is true. The point is simply that commercial photography almost never produces powerful and lasting images.
As a corollary: You shouldn't pay much attention when a commercial photographer attempts to advise you on artistry in your photographs. Artistry is not their business, although some of them think it is. Obviously, you should get all your advice from me. Right?

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Photo

And here we have the more or less weekly photo.
Here we have a nice duality between the busy leaves above and the busy crowd below, with the wiggly separating line between as a sort of pseudo-horizon, appealingly placed about 1/3 of the way down. The light's kind of pleasant, dappling the people. We have some near/far with the out of focus person on the left. So, some visual interest and a not-bad basic composition, I'd say.
Then we have this fascinating array of people and expressions. Attention seems to be directed behind the photographer, to the right of the frame, although a few people are looking at the camera. There the guy with the guitar, and someone in the foreground perhaps with a drum? So there's some sort of.. band.. more or less surrounding the photographer?
Something is going on, something we're not privy to. A bunch of characters are watching it, but we have to guess or imagine what it might be. There's a lot going on here, looking at the image a while rewards the viewer, and opens up more questions. Somehow it seems to escape being overly busy, possibly because there's interesting stuff (faces) everywhere, rather than simply clutter meaning nothing.
The caption on this suggests that this is a revival meeting in Oklahoma.
Russell Lee, July, 1939, under the aegis of the FSA.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Overcooking Photos

Photography is going through now what typesetting went through when the Mac came out. If you're old enough, you remember when people made documents with every damn font the Mac had, with horrible results. Now we have photo processing filters and tools and presets and crap, so the web is littered with:
  • Black skies with white clouds.
  • Oversharpened everything, with weird little halos and creepy looking highlights.
  • HDR. Ugh.
  • Instagram. Ugh.
All of this stuff is fine in moderation. Darkened skies are a time-honored tradition to make the clouds punchier, but if what you notice is "the sky is black" rather than "the clouds are lovely!" you've gone too far. The same applies throughout, if what you notice is the effect, not the image, you've gone and ruined your image.
A good image will be a good image without any effects at all. Post-processing should serve to enhance and improve the image, to enhance drama that is already there, to highlight the important parts, to draw the eye in so the image can engage the viewer's mind.
A bad image, or even an uninteresting image, with a bunch of post-processing effects added to it, is still bad or uninteresting. The effects may be eye catching, the the viewer won't even see the image. Maybe that's what you want, but there's an easier way to ensure the viewer doesn't see the image -- don't show it to them!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

To What End?

To what end do you shoot a photograph?
There are many reasons, you could be shooting a technical exercise. You could be attempting to make a piece of art, or a piece of decor.
Let's consider the snapshot, however. I define a snapshot as a relatively informal photograph intended to capture a moment in time, and event or a place, in order that you might remember that time, event, or place, and share that memory with people you are close to. It's not meant as art, although it could be art. It's not meant as decor, although it could be decor. It is meant as a basically personal memory aid, a memento, so that you can remember what it was like to be there.
How do you do this? This does not avoid the basic problem of photography, which is to make a small rectangle of colors and tones evoke something, in this case a memory, in someone, in this case you. As always, I will beat my little drum and respond "shoot what you feel!"
Recently, I went strawberry picking with my wife and daughter at a U-pick farm. The deal here is that you are given as many empty buckets as you like, you go into the strawberry fields, fill these buckets up with strawberries, and then pay a set fee per filled bucket. It's pretty simple. I had the camera and, of course, I wanted to take some pictures to share with family and friends so they could get a sense of what our day of strawberry picking was like. Some day, perhaps, I will also review these pictures, and remember the day fondly. What did I shoot? How did I edit (that is, which photographs did I keep, and which did I throw away)?
It was a blustery day, windy and cloudy. The fields, while not immense, seemed so large relative to my two year old daughter. She in turn was ridiculously cute picking strawberries and cramming them in to her mouth, staining her face red in the process. These are three reactions I had, three emotional responses to the day that I had in the moment, and there are correspondingly three straightforward images to shoot and keep.
One image of the child with her hair blowing all around, standing in a large field of rows of strawberry bushes, with dark clouds on the horizon in the background. One image of a child, red-stained, with a half eaten berry thrust halfway into her open mouth. One image of a tiny child toddling away from the camera, almost lost in the bigness of the field. Then, apply some basic easy compositional nonsense (rule of thirds, balance one thing against another, blah blah blah) and you have a more or less pleasing set of snapshots. Of course more went on, so there were more things to record. People were there with their kid, and so on, things one really ought to record to make the memory more complete. I shot about 50, and kept 15. Not all the keepers were any good, some of them were obligatory photos of something or someone who was there.
None of these were, it turns out art. None of them are decor. They're just more or less pleasing mementos of the day, which are not so lousy that I am upset to look at them. They evoke the day for me, and I hope for the others who were there. They evoke the day, a little, for family and friends who were not there.