Saturday, January 14, 2017

You Can't Add Significance in Post!

I liked the idea of adding "significance" with Photoshop or Lightroom so much that I have taken a little poetic license with the title of this piece. What I mean is something slightly broader.

It seems obvious, perhaps, stated this way. You can't compose your way to significance. You can't push-process, or photoshop your way to it. You can't analyze or explain a photograph to the point that it contains substance. While this is obvious, surely, we see a lot of attempts, through, both from photographers and from critics.

The web is filled with deadly serious photographs of nothing. Landscapes processed lovingly, focus-stacked pictures of bugs, reams of black and white "street" photographs, all basically pictures of nothing much. In many cases, the photographer doesn't have any great aspiration, but in some cases it's clear that the photographer is really hoping to have Made Something.

We see this thing:

which is visually arresting, but ultimately not about anything. It's some cops hustling a protester off the street in exactly the way they are supposed to, in exactly the way that we wish fervently they always would. And so, despite the efforts of the critics, it's not significant.

Compare with this one:

The guy in the background is DEAD, and the guy with the upraised finger just now SHOT HIM. In the west we're pretty confused by this because the dead guy is a Russian (i.e. a bad guy) and the guy with the finger is obviously a TERRIST (i.e. also a bad guy) so the story is not sufficiently black and white for us. Regardless, the picture is and always will have significance. I suspect that in other parts of the world, it's resonating just fine.

Recall the trivial and silly picture "analyzed" on readingthepictures, of the kid "dabbing" as his dad is sworn in. Compare in your mind's eye with the famous photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc. In one a kid is mostly likely indicating that he thinks the pompous and silly ceremony into which he has been drafted is pompous and also silly. In the other on a kid is ON FIRE, as a result of geopolitical fuckery of a fairly high order. One of these pictures has weight, the other does not.

The point, here, is that subject matter trumps all in photography. Because a photograph is a record of what was real, that reality dominates. A painting could be of something trivial or weighty, and be great or not great independently. With few exceptions, not so the photograph.

All we can reasonably expect to accomplish with all our composition or our handling of tone and color is to midwife the content

Which leads us around to the obvious question, which I will phrase here as "Ok, smartass, what about Weston and his goddamned pepper?" To which I respond, "well, obviously there's something a bit more going on someplace, eh?" and that something has, I think, to do with artistic intent, ideas, and the expression thereof. I'm pretty sure Weston's picture has weight (and, obviously, it stands in for a whole class of pictures that have weight while also being of trivial things), but I'm pretty sure Weston put the weight in before he shot it. I'm pretty sure he shot 29 others, for starters.

Also, it's a different sort of thing, somehow, than the pictures above.

More on this as I think about it.


  1. Hmm, yes, up to a point... But if, in fact, the second one was a documentation of an art performance in a gallery (which it could easily be, talk about over-acting) it loses much of its interest as a photograph. Besides, I've never seen it before, and only have your word for its authenticity (but, hey, I trust you). Whereas the first has a certain other-worldly magic, regardless of the facts of the matter, and will always possess this quality: it's an aesthetic pleasure in its own right, not just a document. A photograph of, say, "The Raft of The Medusa" would be incredibly interesting, and a significant historical document, but would not be hanging in the Louvre.


  2. "VIsually arresting, but ... not about anything". Golly, I expect you look at the Tiananmen Square photo and say "Traffic stops for pedestrian - so what!"

    By the way, is 'weight' the new trame?

    1. Quite the opposite, Tank Man has weight for a bunch of reasons, not least of which is that he probably got killed. I suspect you are being deliberately contentious here.

      Weight isn't trame.

    2. Not entirely. I am just wondering why you dismiss the 'weight' of the first photo so easily.

    3. I dismiss it because nothing actually happened!

      The story behind the picture is remarkably dull, leaving very little behind. With Tank Man we have the luxury of not actually knowing what happened. While it's possible that the lead tank was driven by his brother, and they got together over beers after to have a good laugh, it seems at least possible that Tank Man was making his protest at great risk, and great cost.

      The assassination photo, and many other Weighty News Photos are of actual events of some substance, and we know those stories. Phan Thi Kim Phuc and various other photos of Vietnam fall into this batch.

      The nice young lady in the picture I show was, by all accounts, taking part in the standard and really quite safe dance of "defy a police order, be calmly arrested, be cut loose the next day" which is a bit of theater we see in this country more or less daily. Ever since Ghandi and MLK pointed out that if you can get the cops to shoot you, you win, the powers that be have really tried to get the cops to stop shooting protesters. With fair albeit not perfect success. The result is that the protesters get to do their dance, and the status quo remains. Everybody wins. Well, everyone except those who might benefit from some change. Anyways. Politics aside, it's a very dramatic picture of a very banal event.

      If the picture I show is instead to be read as an allegory for the police state, or racism, or whatever, what value is THAT? We have plenty of actual pictures of all of the above, we needn't rely on an allegorical version.

      You might as well re-enact the Kent State shooting with LEGO people.

  3. Thanks for taking the trouble to clarify your thinking.

  4. I think it depends on what kind of picture you consider. I would classify the pictures to which this post refers as documentary pictures. The events and people which they depict are of general interest to humans, and the pictures illustrate the story. So their technical aspects are not important. Vernacular pictures go into that category, too.

    A different kind of pictures are those intended to be Art. They try to invoke emotions, or transport some idea, or both. If documentary pictures are prose, then these are poetry. Things like color balance, contrast and composition of the frame are all important for them, since they convey their specific kind of meaning.

    Do you remember your post where you posed the question why some pictures can be modified significantly without losing their meaning, while others can not. If I remember correctly, your example was Ansel Adams, whose pictures fall apart once you mess with brightness and contrast.

    Likewise, a poem by E. E. Cummings will fall apart once you modify the wording or grammar, but a newspaper article about a North Korean missile test will not.

    Best, Thomas