Friday, October 23, 2015

The Ritual

In a more or less recent video on LuLa, Michael Reichmann mentions that he was "reviving the salon", gathering with a few friends to talk "about the images, not gear" and I have to admit that my visceral reaction was one of horror. Not that I am likely to be attending private photographic salons in Ontario, but I could not help but feel that it would be a terrible experience.

Here, I think, is why I felt that way.

There is a ritual observance among people who style themselves Serious Photographers, that the image must be built on ones emotional response, that it's really about Art, which is really about communication and emotion and ideas. That's all very well and good. Ansel Adams may not have originated this ritual but he certainly makes the statement on, roughly, every single page of every book he ever wrote (and provides, roughly, 0 words of actual guidance on how to do it). Adams actually succeeds. It takes but a glance at any of his landscape pictures to see that he was simply gobsmacked by landscapes that he saw, and that he was able to communicate that gobsmackery pretty thoroughly.

Beyond that we seem to have an almost perfect correlation between observance of the ritual, and actually imbuing photographs with emotion. When you see someone talking about the importance of emotion, of Art, of all that stuff in a photograph, you can be almost guaranteed that their pictures will be technically perfect and almost utterly devoid of emotion. I could name the names, but you know them. On the other side, we have people whose work I quite like.

Look at a Kirk Tuck portrait. He's engaged with the subject, he's got all the tech stuff squared away and isn't thinking about it one iota. He's looking, he's seeing, he's waiting. And then there's a "click".

Look at Daniel Milnor's work. The dude takes pictures of his freakin' feet and it works. He's engaged, he's in the moment. He's not thinking about tech stuff, he's seeing, and when he sees the right thing he presses the button.

Sally Mann, same thing. Although in her case, she also has a magician's touch in selecting the thing to see. Frequently it makes not one goddamned bit of sense until the picture is fully baked.

The other chaps, when you look at the pictures, you can tell they were thinking about apertures and points of focus and balance of the frame, and placing the dark subject against a light background and and and and. A million details of camera settings and points of formal composition. There's zero engagement with the subject, and so the result is sterile. All the blather in the world about capturing emotion and ideas doesn't change that.

Here's how I, perhaps unfairly, envision the Photographic Salon:

Well, really wanted to capture the emotion of the moment.
Yes, yes, I can see that.
<long pause>
So I lifted the shadows to bring out a hint of detail in the darkest parts of the print, and shifted the color a trifle warmer to create a sense of warmth. I felt that the girl's hand was important, so I applied a little selective sharpening there to really bring it out.
<etc. etc.>

If you want to bring emotion to your photographs, first you have to feel something. If you want to express an idea in your print, you need first to have an idea.

If there's anything worth talking about in a photograph, it's surely the feeling you had or the idea you had, not the bloody shadow details.

But talking about "images" is a bit like dancing about architecture, innit?


  1. So I wanted to wait until I finished reading all your posts.

    But if I do that I'd simply lost track of time and never comment anywhere; which I didn't want to do specifically on this post but once again it's so true to my ears that i stopped dead and so here I am, what I want to say is: thank you Andrew, you have proved to me that the internet is not so bad and I can still find these hidden gems.

    I have discovered your blog only yesterday -- guess where? on a comment left on Ming Thein's blog, none other... then I discover your love/hate for the guy and I love you even more!.

    So yeah, discovered yesterday and found a treasure; truly a treasure with so many things that I am reading with a stupid smile on my face saying to myself "oh this is so fuckin good! fucking right on everything this guy is!".

    So. Next time I hope I have something more clever to say. For now I just wanted to know that you've got another reader (how many so far? 10? 12? I'd love to have this many readers, you know).

    And finally, totally out of place here I know, but: you know the ultrasomething photography guy from Canada? I think you would like him.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! If you read much of the archive you will hopefully find something to disagree with. I can't be right all the time, plus I contradict myself a lot.

      I will poke around for this guy in Canada, thanks for the tip!