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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Process

This little essay should be considered a snapshot of my current overthinking of the process of photography.

As documented here I think of making a picture as having three components or aspects: Idea, Subject, and Rendering. To this I want to add the idea of Use from the previous essay.

In narrative form, then:

We make a picture by pointing the camera at something, in some direction. This is our selection of subject. The way we frame the subject, the way we expose it, and the way we handle the post processing details constitute the rendering we select for that subject. This produces a picture: a print, or a file, or some other final result. If we're doing well, this picture will, to some degree, embody an idea. That is, at this point our picture will ideally express some meaning in the general sense of that word. The picture will express some emotion, or will be attractive, or will teach something, reveal something, or whatever. It will in some way be bigger than a simple record of whatever was in front of the camera.

Finally, that idea, that meaning, will enable the picture to have some use. You'll print it, frame it, and hang it. Or perhaps you'll sell it. Or you'll share it with family. Perhaps you'll put it in a book, or use it in an advertisement for your tomato farm. Whatever the use is, it mostly the idea, that synthesis of subject and rendering to produce something at least a little bigger, which drives the use.

Perhaps one might find a use for a picture without an idea, perhaps a record photograph of some object need only be a record of the object to appear in the book about the object. Is there an idea here that drives the use? Maybe, maybe not, I shan't quibble. The point is that these notions of subject, rendering, idea, and use are things which may, and frequently do, appear in the total process. Furthermore, the relationships between these things are often as I have sketched them.

Most pictures are made today with a focus almost entirely on rendering. We worry about the lighting, the model's pose, the way the background looks. We worry about how to photoshop bad things out, and good things in. We worry about how to accomplish some visual effect or another. Some attention, but not enough, is given to the subject, to where the camera ought to be pointed. Some mild attention is given to the idea, the meaning, the emotional impact. Almost none is given to the idea of use.

Yet, use is the ultimate goal.

There are somewhat degenerate uses: many people derive satisfaction simply from making a good picture. I suppose that one might derive satisfaction simply from having a collection of good pictures on one's hard disk, pictures that one rarely or never looks at. These are uses in the sense I mean. Someone is getting some value from the picture. Still, it's a pretty thin use.

Mostly, pictures get little to no use. They're made, they're uploaded someplace to vanish down the time stream, they languish on a hard disk. Responsible photographers lovingly back up their collections of unused pictures, and store them on triply redundant hard disks, or whatever. To no purpose whatsoever.

In this era of a trillion pictures, it behooves us to consider that last stage, the use, ever more vigilantly. The days when you could simply throw a handful of drugstore prints in the box and be done with it are over. A physical box with a couple hundred pictures gets looked at from time to time. In a sense, the use of a print is a problem which solves itself, as the physical artifact presents itself randomly in the process of living. Now, that box is digital, invisible, and might contain 100,000 pictures. It never thrusts itself into our attention for a moment like a print, it lies fallow and silent, out of sight.

In truth, we cannot really use this many pictures in any realistic way. Still, we should consider the idea of use, and how one might use pictures. We should make pictures with this goal in mind.

Perhaps we can make a few, from time to time.

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