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?