Thursday, June 16, 2016

Performance Photography

There seems to be a substantial and perhaps growing brand of photography in which the photograph is entirely about the performance which (allegedly) produced it. While Performance and Process have a history in Art, there is always been at least a cursory nod toward some sort of bigger idea. The complicated removal of the whatever they ares mirrors the subtext of the masculine tyrant-state or whatever.

In this new (?) brand of photography, there is no pretense that it's about anything but the picture and the making of it.

There is gear being made and sold which seems to have no purpose except to allow this sort of thing. Light painting "brushes" (shaped flashlights), the pixel stick products, arguably drones, that sort of thing. Tools built specifically so that you can, with great effort, produce effects "in camera" which are trivial in photoshop, or effects which are simply outre. The results of these things are incredibly popular, as near as I can tell, with a pretty large population of enthusiasts. Each of these tools could, with a bit of effort, be used to do something or other with some weight, or meaning, or at least wit. Generally none of those options are in play, and they're clearly not the point, however.

I am having trouble inventing a scenario in which the complicated dance necessary to produce the starting frame "in camera" is important, though. In anything I can think up, one might was well photoshop it, or do a couple of frames and merge them, or whatever. This arbitrary "degree of difficulty" that is so often present strikes me as having no actual application beyond simply being difficult. There might be, as with say wet-plate, something in the way it makes you think, approach the work, that sort of thing? This seems to be, at the moment, hypothetical. Most people are using light painting and drones to make pictures and movies that say nothing more than "I HAVE LIGHT PAINTING THINGS AND A DRONE!"

It resembles modern Art in that there is always a story to go with it "umpty-billion frames, 12 pixel-sticks, and a team of ninja-assassin-pigs" which serves to, I dunno, legitimize the thing. The story is necessary to support the claim that the thing was done in-camera (whatever that even means, there's always cleanup and fixing details in photoshop anyways). The story is arguably the piece. The story serves as the template the next guy has to top.

I'm not sure what it means. The picture itself has to look "cool" in some way, the story has to be (marginally) credible, and the performance allegedly involved in making the picture has to be pretty complicated. It's some sort of "hold my beer and watch this" phenomenon, in which the purpose of the stunt is the stunt, any results are pretty much incidental. This phenomenon seems to be very popular.

It feels like the photo enthusiasts have come to realize that the digital camera is pretty much tapped out. It's a finished product, just buy anything, it's fine. Therefore the new gear to please the gearhead, the new item that will finally "unlock my artistic potential", the shiny gadget to impress my friends, the thing I have to have before the other guys get it, the system which (once I master it) is going to make my photographs stand out above the crowd, this cannot be a camera. It has to be some other gadget, and here we are.

It feels, to be precise, that this is the market that the camera market has evolved in to, in part. A sort of bizarro-land effects-gadget world.

Professionals probably don't care about all the stuff that simply makes it possibly to do Photoshop in-camera, but manifestly they care about drones. The general public that just wants pictures is already gone, they use phones. But that surprisingly large and incredibly vocal audience of gearheads, they eat this crap up.

I wonder if it's too late for Canon, Nikon, Sony, to pivot and start developing a suite a tools for this. Not copies of the stuff that exists, but "professional grade" tools that solve the same kinds of problems, better, and which have the all-important branding (and support). It smacks of the "effects filters" era, but the margins could be way way way higher. I can imagine a light-emitting device that has pixel-stick capabilities and light painting abilities, and which has integration with the camera's shutter.

It's not photography as we know it, but it could shift some product.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You're gonna have to show me how to create drone perspectives in Photoshop

    1. Cute, but I was mostly as some pains to not (quite) say that. I probably did accuse drone perspectives of being outre, though, which is a point you could argue!

  3. A drone gives a photographer/videographer the abity to get dramatic perspectives that were previously only available to those with very large budgets (think cranes, tracks for long pans, or helicopters).

    Like any new technology opened up to the masses, I have no doubt it will go through a phase of being overused. Maybe it already is, but I do applaud bringing that tool to the masses. I have neither, but I think drones and action cams (go-pros) are great. I'm all for better tools in the hands of talented but poor artists.

  4. Maybe I should also add that special tools for light painting is just goofy.

  5. One photographer said:"No one cares how much hard you worked". A picture that is totally forgettable to the audience at large doesn't suddenly become interesting when you say that you took it hanging upside down from a bungee cord using a wet plate view camera. Except for the gearheads, of course...

  6. I confess that I've read this piece twice now and I'm still not sure that I understand the point(s) you're trying to make with it. Perhaps if you posted a few examples?

    1. I just mean any photograph where the point of the photograph, the reason the fellow made the picture, is to show off the results of some gear or method.

      Obviously that's just one reason of many, for most photos, so what I *really* mean is photos for which the dominant reason the photo was made is to show off a technique, a method, a tool.

      Most "hyperlapse" and drone videos made exist in this space. Light-painting photos, those ridiculous pictures where you get a burning object on the end of a string and whirl it around, and so on.

      It's a genre.

    2. Ahh ... I thought you were referring to photographers such as Spencer Tunick (the guy who photographs large groups of nekkid people) or Gregory Crewdson (whose photos, IMO, are as much about what went into them as what they show) or any number of others.

      I confess that, being a bit of a techno-nerd about cameras, I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to separate technical image quality from content when it comes to evaluating photos.

      For instance, I don't believe that my long-exposure, nighttime photos of urban scenes would be anywhere near as effective and/or as compelling as they are if their technical quality was any less good.

      Yes, the idea has to come first, but IMO, there's no shame in optimizing the IQ of a photo in order to display its artistic qualities to their fullest.

      Of course, I now understand that's not what you're addressing here (although you have walked down this path a few times in the past.)

      P.S.: If you're part of the Round-Robin photo sharing group, it will be interesting to hear your thoughts about some of my photos ... assuming you're inclined to share them, of course! 8^)