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.

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