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Sunday, February 16, 2014


I am reading a nice little book on H.P. Robinson's quarrel with P.H. Emerson in the last part of the 19th century. More on that later, when I finish my review and discussion of it. A substantive point of the book can be boiled down to something quite small. If you aim to take realistic photographs, there are at least two different things you can be striving for:

I want to make a photograph which allows you to have much the same experience as if you had been there.

I want to make a photograph which allows you to have much the same experience as I had when I was there.

The difference is one of level of experience. Do I want to show you Hoover Dam as it, in some sense, is so that you may have your own experience of Hoover Dam? Or, do I want to show you Hoover Dam as I experienced, so that you may share in my experience of it?

I call the first thing "objective" for lack of a better word, although Realism is a term that may apply here. I call the second thing "subjective" for much the same reason, although it's possible Impressionism is a relevant term. Trying to apply terms from painting to photography is a bit fraught, since the schools of painting often mix techniques and ideas all up together, and the techniques are frequently not translatable.

There are lots of photographers who will tell you that they're not interested in art, they just want to record what's there. Unless you're literally happy with simply having made measurements of certain light bands, this cannot be quite right. There is this notion that a photograph captures what we see, but that is not even wrong. What we "see" is a construct of our mind, only connected in a general sort of way with what a photograph captures.

The only hope, if you're interested in more than measurements of luminous intensity, is that your photograph will tend to cause the viewer's mind to construct something similar to.. well, whatever it is that you want it to be similar to.

Do you want them to construct a "seeing" of Hoover Dam as you saw it, or as they would have seen it?

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