Friday, June 28, 2013

Henry Peach Robinson

Pictorialism got a bad reputation somewhere along the line. I have a vague notion that this is in part because of some smear campaigns around the beginning of the 20th century, but I don't really know why. In any case, it's not deserved.

The popular conception of pictorialism, insofar as there is one, is that it's all about muddy dark pictures with scratches all over them, and also that one picture "Fading Away" by H.P. Robinson. It's not. A fellow I know recently summed it up best as making photographs that look like paintings. From that point of view, Ansel Adams was a pictorialist all along despite his rejection of the form.

Robinson believed in making photographs that looked like paintings. In his case, pretty specific paintings, specifically the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Robinson also believed in making these photographs by any means necessary, including composites.

In this day and age we have mostly moved on past the idea that composites are sinful (and anyways, Robinson used composites in a large part, but not exclusively, because of the limitations of technology. Orthochromatic emulsions made it hard to shoot sky and land at the same time). In this day and age new photographers are not infrequently advised to look at the works of the Old Masters, usually by people who obviously have never done so themselves. In short, in this modern era, we have no particular complaints about any of the philosophical underpinnings of pictorialism. Photography is not painting, we should not only make pictures that look like paintings, but it surely does no harm if we make some pictures that do.

Perhaps it's time to rehabilitate Robinson. Certainly "Fading Away" is a pretty awful picture. Certainly all Robinson did was imbued with a kind of sentimentality, but he's a product of his time. Lots of his stuff is really quite good, even if it does look an awful lot like Turner.

Here is a little smattering of quite charming pictures, sentimental to be sure, to give you a little sense that maybe Robinson had a little more breadth than that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Abstraction, Ambiguity, and the Door to the Imagination

Abstract art has existed for, well, for a long time. It doesn't really matter how long. Ambiguous art has existed probably longer. What did the artist mean that figure to be conveying, on that wall in Lascaux?

The point, or at any rate one point, of the abstract and the ambiguous in art is that it stimulates the imagination. We project our own ideas onto what we see, we imagine shapes in the abstract forms, we imagine stories and thoughts for Mona Lisa. We fill in the missing from our imaginations, fueled by our history and our own ideas.

Photography brings something genuinely new and different to this context. Behind a photograph there is, we believe, an single objective reality. A painting of a woman with an ambiguous smile might or might not accurately represent a real woman with an ambiguous expression. A photograph of a woman with an ambiguous smile represents a definite moment in time when there was a real woman, who really had that smile, and who was thinking some real thoughts and experiencing real emotions at that instant in time.

A genuine abstract also generates an imaginative response. A Mondrian or a Pollock, if you can get past the "what the hell is that thing?" response, will typically get the imagination going a bit, at some level. We're pattern-seeking animals, you'll probably seek some patterns and try to make sense of the piece. You might see something, you might not. You might start thinking about what you don't see. Again, a photograph brings something genuinely new and different here: there is an objective reality. An abstract photograph is a photograph of something, and you can, at least, wonder what the something was, where it was, and what its story is.

Even a clearly staged ambiguous photograph partakes, if only at a remove, of this increased sense of reality. While the man is clearly just posing with some accessories, those accessories are nonetheless real, the man is real and is thinking real thoughts (albeit possibly of the "when do I get paid for this?" variety). The ambiguity might be staged, but there is still a strong sense of reality floating around.

Abstraction and Ambiguity open the door to the imagination. In a photograph they do so in a more compelling way.

This is the important part: Don't let me down.

Don't open the door to my imagination, and then permit that imagination to speculate only on trivialities. Don't make me wonder if that man walking down the street is a Banker or a Venture Capitalist. Give me something bigger and more dramatic to imagine. Let me fill in a good story, not a crummy one. Give me choices, dramatic and interesting choices, but not too many. A macro photograph which could be anything at all is too open ended. Don't tease me with a photograph that could be steel siding or vinyl!!!!

Let me imagine that the man is on his way to kill a friend, or rob a bank, or pay a debt, but make me understand that he's on his way to something big. Let me imagine that she is sad because she had to fire her lover, or because her house has burned, but make me know that her emotions are roiling.

Open the door to my imagination, and give me a big space and interesting space to roam, but don't make me do all the work.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sharing as Interior Monologue

Why do I write this blog? Obviously I started it for fame, fortune, and bevies of nubile maidens. Lately, though, these motivators have dropped off in importance. Now I write it mostly to help me sort of ideas that I want to get sorted out. By organizing my thoughts into little essays, and polishing them up sufficiently for "public" consumption, I figure out quite a lot of things and get a lot of ideas straight in my own mind. As a side note, my personal photography has improved, at least in my own eyes, immensely over the last year I've been writing this.

My current theory is that twitter and tumblr and facebook status updates and all of that short-form blogging is closely allied to what I am doing, but in a less organized, less edited and polished, fashion. Where a longer form blog represents some thoughts that have been examined, re-arranged to make more sense, and polished up, "micro-blogging" represents (frequently) something much closer to a raw stream of consciousness. When you're limited to 140 characters but can make remarks as frequently as you like, at any time and from anywhere, you tend to do less editing and polishing.

As we have that constant, silent, conversation with ourselves, our interior monologue, some things naturally seem more important than others. Some thoughts seem particularly apt, some observations of the world and of ourselves seem particularly interesting. For the avid twitter user, at some threshold these apt and interesting elements of the interior monologue get copied into a smartphone and sent out to the world. "World hunger is a political problem" "I just saw a cat with one blue eye and one orange one".

Social media users with particularly interesting observations, or particularly dull friends, or particularly many friends, get a little positive feedback. Social media services make it a one-click operation to generate approval, you can Like, or +1, or re-tweet with almost no effort. This generates positive feedback. This, in turn, tends to increase the amount of interior monologue that is surfaced onto the internet.

Essentially, it's mumbling onto the network like a crazy person, egged on by our idiot friends.

Twitter and similar textual systems allow us to offer up a lightly curated version of the verbal, conscious, part of our own thought processes to the world, and in fact encourage us to do so.

What about pictures?

Being non-verbal they're not really interior monologue, are they? I think they tend to be expressions of the observational aspect of the interior monologue. They are a manifestation of the "I just saw a cat with one blue eye and one orange eye" that gets interjected into that monologue from time to time. When we first get a camera, we do a variation of this. Of course, we're looking for things to take pictures of, we're not merely trotting through life observing things, but there is nonetheless the impulse to photograph random interesting things.

With a film camera, we must husband our film as we wander around taking pictures. Even with a digital camera, after the first love affair with pictures wears off, when we go out to take pictures we're husbanding our editing time. We don't shoot just everything cool, because we know we're going to spend some time picking out the good ones, at least. So we try to make good ones, not just everything.

The ability to dump pictures into a chronological infinitely deep stream with a couple button clicks removes all these brakes. There is no cost. There's no film to buy. We're not going to edit. We're not going to pick out the best ones. Perhaps our friends will, with their Like buttons, but we're not going to. Editing is replaced with simply dropping pictures into a time-stream, where shortly they will be obliterated by a mass of newer pictures. It's all ephemeral. Our observational impulse is unbridled. We can now tweet about the cat, and post a picture of the same cat with a cool sepia vignette, and the whole thing takes only slightly more effort than the internal thought "wow, that cat has different colored eyes"

Is this an indictment? Not really. The only difference between a busy twitter feed of nothing and this blog and the most erudite of books is one of degree. Each represents a selected subset of an interior monologue. This blog is a little more organized, edited, and polished. A good book is more organized, more edited, the thoughts are more thoroughly curated.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's street photography, just to pick an example, is merely a carefully curated selection of his "hey, will you look at that" moments.

In short, you're all just a bunch of crazy people mumbling onto the network, but that's OK.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


I hate "supermoon" nights. The day after the internet is flooded with moon pictures.

Just to review, the moon is tidally locked. It always looks the same. Exactly the same. Everyone's supermoon pictures are literally identical to everyone else's, aside from technical details. The more gear and software you throw at the problem, the more detail you get. That's it.

Please stop, everyone.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


There's this new mode of communication going on this last, I don't know, let's say decade. In it, people simply say stuff, and shove it into the void for other people to maybe read or not. Blogs are certainly a part of this, so you'd think I'd understand it better than I do, wouldn't you?

More obvious examples are things like twitter. An active twitter stream is frequently an unending stream of more or less unrelated short remarks. Updates with factual information about what the writer is doing, updates with some thought that has just passed through the writer's head, and so on. It's not clear to me that this has any analogue prior to the web, but there is just so much of it going on that it seems to be a natural thing. For some reason, people get positive feedback from doing it, because they keep at it.

The important property, here, of a twitter stream, or a blog, or many other things of that ilk is that they are largely write only. There is not much expectation that people will read it, and if they do read it, they will read each item once. A person reading a tweet may or may not respond to it. Responses available include trivialities such as a Like button, a +1 button, and a re-tweet button. Most responses actually given seem to be a one-click equivalent to "I like this".

It's less weighty even than an idle conversation, since there is frequently no flow from one sentence to the next, there is no notion, frequently, that we are talking about something.

Photography seems to be taking the same road. People make pictures and "share" them in essentially the same way. The expectation is that nobody, including the photographer, will look at these things more than once. Most people, even most of the photographer's social network friends, will not even look at them once. Responses, if any, will mostly be single click events.

The purposes of these pictures, like tweets, are all over the place. I am here. I am drinking a latte and here it is. Look, I saw this flower. Here is my girlfriend. A train. A bus. Clouds.

It seems to be some urge to create little things and throw them out to the universe.

Are we trying to communicate with one another? Is this just a form of excretion? Are we worshipping something we cannot define in some new way we do not recognize?

Whatever it is, this speaks to the new ephemerality of photographs. They are, first and foremost, things we make in an instant and spin out into the void, where they are swallowed up and vanish. They are balloons we set free, sometimes with a hopeful note attached to the string, more often not.

That sure is different from the world Susan Sontag was writing about in the 1970s.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Truth and Photojounalism

There's been a few minor scandals lately (and, honestly, there's always been a few lately) about journalistic pictures being faked, or wrong, or accompanied by lies. Recently I ran across a little discussion about a fellow who was photographed with one of his guns in his own garage. He was described in a caption as a former Marine Sniper, living in some seedy district of Rochester, NY.

Turns out most of the caption was wrong, and there are issues with the way the picture was taken and so on and so forth. A lot of irrelevant stuff. The interesting point for me was the suggestion that there may have been a language problem. The photographer is European, and presumably has English as, at best, a second language. The photographer may have mis-remembered some details.

The minutiae don't matter. What does matter here is that part of the problem stems, or appears to have stemmed, from what is really a cultural divide. The cultural divide between Western Europe and Rochester, NY is not very wide, but it's there.

Consider now the problem of western journalists parachuting in to, say, Arab nations and taking some pictures.

In fact, let's consider a hypothetical space alien visiting our planet. In the course of an intensive 8 weeks or so, this alien learns much about humanity, including that the bared-teeth expression with the corners of the mouth curled up, is an expression of amity and happiness. On the last day, this alien takes a snapshot of two boys in the street, smiling at one another, accompanied by hand genstures featuring a raised middle finger. The alien captions this "two male human youths enjoying a pleasant social moment".

A western journalist in Egypt isn't a space alien, but he's probably missing some cultural cues. We, western viewers of that journalist's pictures, are probably missing a lot more of them. Even if the journalist is honestly doing his or her best to accurately and fairly portray some situation, the probability of being able to do this well is very low. When you toss in editors with political agendas, the situation gets worse.

We ascribe too much weight of truth to photographs.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Tyranny of Subject

Why do photographers, and photographers alone, so love these rules which tell you where to put the subject?

Texts on painting are surprisingly silent on the entire topic of the subject. Not only do they decline to tell you were to put the subject, they don't even really talk about the subject. They talk about dominant shapes and subordinate ones, and things like that, but there often is no talk of subject per se. Of course this picture is of a teapot, but it's not that the teapot is more important than anything else. Unimportant things are left out of a painting entirely.

Photographers are stuck with whatever is in the frame at the moment the shutter is pressed. This leads many, perhaps most, to view the problem as one of minimizing the unimportant and maximizing the important - the subject. The problem becomes one of getting close enough to isolate the subject, or using depth of field to accomplish the same thing. We want to hide or minimize the stuff that doesn't work.

Even when there is no subject, photographers tend to be subject-obsessed. They will invent a subject. A beautiful seascape with the sun setting in the background, and a beach, and a lighthouse, and the waves crashing, and the birds flying. There's the bloody sun, bang one third of the way down from the top, one third of the way in from the right. It's not the subject in any meaningful way, but the photographer can't push the shutter button without something on the intersection of gridlines, so there it is. If you're really lucky, the photographer has zoomed in or out so as to place the last beach umbrella on the opposing intersecting gridline, and now we've taken something beautiful and turned it into a shitty cliché.

Thanks, rule of thirds.

As long as we view the problem of making a picture this way, we're hampered. Good pictures can be made this way, to be sure. Many pictures we haven't got a choice, anyways. Professionals work with what's there, when you're taking snapshots of the kids, the kids are where they are.

Really good photos, though, are like paintings. Everything in the frame pulls together. Nothing is unimportant. Nothing can be added or removed without damaging the picture. Henri Cartier-Bresson's genius was to be able to pull more or less complete "paintings" right out of the world, albeit perhaps one attempt in 100 or 1000, but he could do it. Seemingly random elements, the trash in the street, are important but subordinate in a really good Cartier-Bresson picture.

Forget about the subject, think about the frame, what's in it and how it works together to create balance and unity, variety and interest.

Once you forget about the subject, you no longer care where to put it. The rule of thirds and all its stupid little friends don't matter any more. They vanish like dreams.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

On Composition

I've been doing a few things lately. Reading nineteenth century books on composition, reading web pages on composition, and doing some research in Google Books to see when various things turned up.

Until about 1940 there is no royal road to composition. Teachings about compositions are about lines and opposing lines; about balance of masses and colors; about unity and variety. Many basic principles discussed, effects of one thing and another are laid out. Many many examples are uses to illustrate these ideas, usually examples drawn from contemporary and classic "good" painting that meet with the author's tastes. In the end, though, it is clear that no formula is to be given and that the artist's taste is ultimately what rules. Principles can be memorized, but applying them requires taste, and taste is learned by looking at a lot of pictures.

Things like Golden Ratios do seem to have turned up now and then over the last couple thousand years. While it's rarely clear in any individual case that the Golden Ratio or Rectangle was in use, it is certainly credible that it would have been used now and then. It is a ratio and figure that has been known and mentioned for quite some time (2400 years or so) and it's the sort of thing numerologically inclined artists might credibly have picked up. Not every artist, or even most artists, are so inclined. There are surely spans 100s of years long containing none of people doing significant art. To say that most art, or even very much art, embodies this thing is simply false. The examples trotted out are, tellingly, always the same: a couple da Vinci's, the Parthenon, and Mondrian. The Mondrian is particularly hilarious, since many of his paintings are made up entirely of a huge number of rectangles of various shapes. Of course approximations of the Golden Rectangle will turn up. Extensive rebuttals of all these claims have been written by people better qualified than I.

Regardless, I find it credible that Golden Rectangles and Ratios appear in art, here and there, so I let that stand.

In 1940 there is a little book tellingly titled A new approach to pictorial composition aimed at photographers. This is the first reference I can find to this horrid business of placing the subject at the intersection of one-third lines. This dumb idea vanishes again until the 1960s, finally appearing in the Feb 1970 issue of Popular Mechanics. (Popular Mechanics? Really, need more actually be said at this point?) At this point it seems to more or less take off and usage of the phrase and teaching of the method ramps up steadily.

The rule of thirds is, contrary to what we are routinely told, not an old idea. Painters have not used this thing through the ages. It was invented in or around 1940, for photographers, and is still mainly used by photographers.

There is an eighteenth century notion called the rule of thirds as well, but it is about allowing one region of a picture dominate. Two-thirds land, and one-third sky, or vice versa. It is completely different from the thing photographers use, as it says nothing about placement of subjects, and in fact does not use a grid at all. It's entirely about proportion and balance, not about "put the subject here."

To be clear: The "rule of thirds" as introduced to photography by Popular Mechanics in 1970 is not the classical rules of thirds and has nothing in common with it except that the ratio 1:3 appears in it.

The Golden Triangle, another commonly cited rule of composition, is a complete mess. There are at least three differing definitions for this particular pig. There is a mathematical figure with this name, an isosceles triangle where each of the two equal sides is in the golden ratio with the (shorter) base, and a second mathematical figure with a different definition. I suspect this second one is simply a mis-remembering of the first one, which has been repeated here and there by clumsy dolts. These seem to have little or nothing to do with composition although many confused would-be authorities on composition cite them in a muddled sort of way. The compositional rule is this business of drawing a diagonal, and then dropping a perpendicular to either of the other corners of the frame. The intersection of these lines is where you stick the subject. This thing doesn't seem to appear until the 1990s or later, and always in books with titles like "Better Composition With Your DSLR".

The Golden Spiral follows a similar pattern of usage, but if anything starts out later, really coming to prominence in these dumb books around 2006. The Golden Spiral as a geometrical figure is a few hundred years old, and approximations to it appear in nature, apparently. Its use as a compositional device, though, is fully modern and again primarily aimed at photographers.

A word on web pages with advice on composition. These things are universally terrible. Most of them contain wild technical errors, simple errors in geometry. They draw lines on a rectangle, and make claims about proportions that are not mathematically possible. They draw one-third lines in places that are not at one-third. They draw random rectangles on things and then cheerfully proclaim "look, so and so clearly used the Golden Rectangle here!" and so on.

It's clear that all this business is about providing simple and easily mechanized rules for composition to technically inclined nerds who have bought a camera. Painters are not particularly interested in these things, since they're already on board with the idea that art requires a bit of taste and thought, that you cannot reduce it to a technical procedure. Painters still refer to the ideas found in those nineteenth century texts, updated and so forth to reflect the current fads in art. Painters are also presumably aware of the Golden Ratio, and may even use it from time to time. Mainly, though, they use ideas of visual balance, of unity and variety, and so on.

In virtually all cases these little drawings and maxims boil down to this: do not stick the subject in the center, or at the edges. This is disposed of in real books about actual composition with a phrase like "the center of the frame is the weakest point" and then we move on to actual composition.

In short, when someone tells you that these rules of composition are old, they're simply wrong.

All of the rules which advise you on where to stick the subject within the frame are fully modern, and were devised by photographers for photographers.