Monday, October 7, 2013

On The Legacy of Straight Photography

Straight Photography is really a form that has been with us from the beginning. While it didn't really get defined formally until somewhere in the early 20th century, it was always apparent that photography's great strength lay in the capture of detail. Photographs do not discriminate between important details and unimportant ones, and therefore it is natural to play to this property as a strength. Robinson extols the virtues of Rembrandt's translucent shadows, in the 1860s, and 100 years later Adams is telling us about textures down in Zone I, and how to obtain them. Capturing and revealing all the detail that there was is taken as an obviously desirable thing, requiring no explanation.

This is the current standard. All that was in front of the lens should be shown in the frame. Methods which give us additional information are good. No portrait is any good at all unless at least three strobes have been used, to show us detail and texture everywhere on the face and in the hair. Blocked up shadows and blown out highlights are the two greatest sins in photography.

Imagine, if you will, a great cathedral. You stand before it, and crane your neck to look up into the bright sky, blinking. Gradually you make out, in the brilliance, gargoyles, bigger than a man, a hundred feet above you. You turn your head left, then right, taking in the vastness of the structure. Your gaze settles on the open door, you peer into the gloom. Gradually, your eyes adjust, and you can make out the echoing immensity inside. Perhaps there are pews, and far off at the other end you see stained glass windows high in the wall. It takes you minutes to begin to apprehend this enormous building.

Now someone takes a handful of exposures, and smashes them together with some HDR software. He presents you with a picture on a computer screen. The building is 4 inches high, the dark interior is rendered slightly darker than the brilliance of the gargoyles against the sky, and he tells you, incomprehensibly, that he has rendered it "as the eye sees it".

If you are not prepared to print this thing 200 feet high, then you may as well give up hope of rendering the cathedral "as the eye sees it". What the HDR techniques are doing here, really, are bowing to the aesthetic of straight photography by showing us, in one tiny picture, which one apprehends all at once and in an instant, all the detail that there is to see. It in no way whatsoever reproduces the experience of looking at the cathedral, but it does show us everything that there is to see about the cathedral. This is not wrong, but neither is it obviously more right than another aesthetic.

Embrace the dark side! Block up some shadows today. Bury some important details in darkness. Or, let them burn up in the light. Either way. It won't hurt you, I promise.

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