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Monday, August 31, 2015


Where did the standards for "good" come from, In The Bubble?

Look over anything you recognize as a Good Photo, in the sense of the bubble. The kind of photo photographers will like. You know, the rectangular grid of windows, perspective corrected just so, with the lone out of place element in one corner. A person, a splash of color. Whatever. Walker Evans shot a bunch of this, his student Baldwin Lee did a few. Robert Frank did some. Henri Cartier-Bresson did this one:

Kevin Raber, on the other hand, gives us this thing:

and Ming Thein gives us this:

HCB is making a surrealist picture that is, ultimately, about the people. The windows are just there to make the frame into a picture (there's some basic compositional technique from painting that he would most likely have been taught, given the era, that's very apparent here). When Walker Evans shot this sort of thing, he was probably making a statement about society. The point is, generally, to juxtapose the strict geometry of the building with something else, something of human interest. Something contrasting, socially, emotionally.

When modern "photographers" make this picture, they like the contrasting element, but they only care if it contrasts visually. It doesn't have to carry any meaning.

We have dozens or 100s of these tropes, and I dare say many of them can be traced back to photographs with some weight.

All those cursed pictures of spiral staircases? No painter would ever paint anything like that, but as photographers we can't leave them alone. My trigger finger gets downright itchy when I'm looking up or down a beautiful wrought iron spiral staircase, and I've been on a strict diet of abstinence for years now. How many of them derive, ultimately, from:

which isn't about a staircase at all?

I keep dragging poor old Cartier-Bresson out, because he was the king of games with geometry. The In The Bubble Good Photo is usually all about geometrical games, repeated patterns, grids, contrasting elements. These pictures are all about placing the visual elements in such and such a way, to please the judges. Meaning is optional, probably a little frowned upon as it muddies things up. HCB shot about a million of these things, the single figure, at a precise moment, and the diagonals pointing to the figure:

And here's Mr. Thein:

Creepy, huh? Which one do you like better? I'm not actually trying to lead you. They're the same picture so any preference is going to be based on minor details.

1 comment:

  1. In Cartier-Bresson's pictures everything leads into the picture; in Thein's and Raber's work they tend to lead out.

    Between them stands Abstract Expressionism, in which it became accepted practice to put large, aggressively blank masses into pictures. These actively repelled the non-cognoscenti, but were easily imitated. I know they infected my photography for a long time.