Sunday, July 15, 2012

History and Aesthetic Judgement

Once upon a time, not too long ago, a wag posted a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a flickr group called deleteme. This group invites comments with a judgement of "delete me" or "save me" for photographs. He got a lot of comments, mostly negative, mostly from people who did not recognize the photograph. Most of the comments were of a technical nature, such and such is not in focus, and so forth. Numerous suggestions were supplied for correcting these alleged technical deficiencies.

Consider a ballet performance, say, of "Swan Lake". The naive audience member and the extremely sophisticated one will tend to judge the performance similarly. They will be concerned with beauty, emotional power, narrative drive. An audience member with a little knowledge, though, might well judge the performance on the basis of how well the prima ballerina performs certain technical tasks with French names, and how fat the girls of the corps de ballet are.

This is more or less exactly how many of the budding photographers will judge photographs. They're concerned with focus, sharpness, contrast. They may profess to disdain rules, but technical rules are in fact all they are concerned with. They judge a photograph largely based on how well it cleaves to their own ideas about how a photograph should look, frequently without the slightest regard for the subject, and invariably without considering the emotional impact or artistic merit of the image.

Clearly, we have a large population of tyros, either passing through or stuck in that no-man's-land of a small and dangerous store of knowledge. Cartier-Bresson railed against these people in the 1950s, so evidently there is a long history of the nerd-as-critic.

Should we consider these people as among our audience? They will be hard to reach in any meaningful way. They have a strong tendency to see only the technical details of a photograph, to the extent that more important aspects are nearly invisible to them. In order to even begin to reach them, you must comply with their little community's norms of how a photograph should look, which is surely limiting to the artist! Whether to bother with these people at all is a personal choice, of course. It is not an easy road to travel, and I am dubious as to any value to be found there. On the other hand, these people may be our friends, our fellow photographers, or our market, in which case perhaps we should unbend a little and meet them half way.

More important is to avoid being one of these people.

Study the history of photography, at least a little. If nothing else, to publicly not know a well-known photograph is embarrassing. By studying photographs from the past, we open ourselves up to possibilities, we see fads and styles from other eras. With luck, we perceive them as equally useful and powerful tools as the styles and fads we have today. We thereby recognize our own prejudices as fads and styles rather than ultimate rules to be obeyed. You needn't like every "great photograph" from the past, but if you can understand, however faintly, the reasons for that greatness and the emotional power of the photograph, you have trained yourself a little to see past technical details to the actual power of an image, historical or contemporary.

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