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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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Almost on cue after my previous remarks we find this piece up on LuLa: The "Real" Factor. It's members only, but don't worry, the text is just a rehash of Ming Thein's "transparency" argument for why he needs a bajillion megapixels, except Harvey calls is "real factor" and uses less pseudo-academic language.

You can look at the pictures whether you are a member or not. These are pictures that Harvey claims illustrates this essential reality he's achieved in an extremely small number of pictures in his career. He talks about sharpness, color, and tonal rendition. Well, he's got 4 criteria, but sharpness is two of them.

So, look at his pictures and judge if they look "real." I'll give you my answer in a moment.



Nope. The colors are absurd, the shadows are ridiculous, and so on. These are highly marketable, highly stylized, kitsch. Harvey is an award winning photographer, and of that I have no doubt. This sort of thing attracts blue ribbons like crazy, if it's well executed, and placed in the right venues. I am certain Harvey executes and places them with consummate skill.

This entire concept of "real" or "transparent" is fundamentally flawed. I've written about it before.

In that piece I go on a bit about how a photograph is in no way going to literally fool anyone into thinking that it is "real", that it is a transparent window into the scene. Then I get sidetracked into Impressionism (for good reason).

Of course the photo won't fool anyone. And of course a very very sharp and detailed photograph does not particularly mimic how we see. We see rather blurry little bits and pieces, and then our brain invents a great deal of material to fill in the blanks.

I guess there is an argument that the real world is very very detailed, and that therefore a very very detailed photograph, when "seen", will better mimic the experience of "seeing" the real world. This doesn't explain Harvey's boosted shadows (which are emulating NOT the real world, but rather the way we apprehend it, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and penetrating the shadows, adjusting back for the brighter areas). This doesn't explain Harvey's boosted colors, which are pure impressionism.

Harvey's text makes it pretty clear to me that he's not sure if he's being an Impressionist, or a Realist. While you perhaps could navigate some compromise position between the two, to my eye, he does not.

While I am certain that Harvey's pictures are exactly the way he wants them to be, his philosophical basis for his choices strikes me as flawed. On the one hand, he elevates one aspect (sharpness) because it emulates reality and therefore will be seen as real, but on the other hand he fiddles with color and tone to represent it as it would be seen in the real world.

The truth is that we apprehend photographs and the real world quite differently. Depending on how big the print or screen, we do more or less scanning. We never have to refocus, things that are "far away" are not. We generally do not have to adjust our pupils for light (although it's possible that someone will build, or has built, some crazily high contrast screen, it's not generally the case).

While I'm not going to particularly begrudge someone their megapixels, I think it behooves us to understand what the megapixels are actually doing. They are not, in particular, making your patently unreal object (photograph) look real.

My experience with "sharp" photos versus "not sharp" photos is that the former do tend to focus the attention on the subject matter, while the latter tend to focus attention on the photograph itself. In that sense, perhaps, a certain transparency is present? I'm not sure if more sharpness produces more of this effect, to be honest. It feels to me as if, once you get to the standard acceptable sharpness, any further detail doesn't really do much. If anything, it creates an impression of a sharp photograph and, depending on how it's handled, risks drawing attention away from the subject matter and back to the photographic object itself.

Groping my way forward here, it strikes me that there is a sort of envelope of what a "normal photo" looks like, about so and so sharp, colors about like that, and so on. Black and white photos can also appear "normal" at least for some of us (younger people seem to be put off by them).

Inside the envelope of normalcy, the subject matter dominates. Outside this envelope of normalcy, the photo-as-object begins to assert itself.

Harvey Stearns photographs strike me as near the edge of that envelope. Stick them up next to a bunch of my crap and they will look completely crazy. Stick them up in a hotel lobby with a bunch of other candy-colored landscapes, and they will look perfectly normal. Presumably, in that context, they would look 'real" in some reasonable sense. Not, I maintain, because the color science in the cameras is particularly awesome, or because there are so many pixels, but merely because the pictures look "normal" and therefore the photo-as-object intrudes as little as possible.

All in all, whenever I see one of these transparent apologias for "why I have to keep buying the latest camera" I find the whole thing exhausting, but always want to rouse myself to respond. And, from time to time, I do.


  1. Makes me think of one of the kid's jokes of my childhood:

    Drugstore customer: "Can you do life-size prints?"
    Shop assistant: "Sure!"
    Customer: "Fine, I've got this negative of the Matterhorn."

    Back in the day, it was one of the jokes that made my parents roll their eyes. Nowadays, if I consider opinions like those expressed in the linked article, I think that the joke contains a bit of wisdom.

    Best, Thomas

  2. "Back in the day,' I used to think Agfa color films were the only ones that reproduced colors fairly closely as to how they appeared to me. Then Agfa I guess realized that in order to sell color film they had to change and be more like Kodak and Fuji, the end.....

  3. Got a good chuckle at using Ansel Adams as an example of realism in photography.

    1. Yeah, wasn't that interesting? A nutshell of the muddled thinking. The first mention of Adams, he paraphrases Adams and says that it's all about communicating emotion "what he saw and felt" and the next reference is about how "real' the pictures look.

      Well, which is it?

  4. I have a "waterlily wall" in my home (the summer-morning-coffee wall) with a collection of painted and photographic images of waterlilies - the painted images ALL include the reflections on the water's surface within which the lilies and their pads rest - mostly sky, some reflected trees - and the photographs capture the objectively-present inky, inky black, against which the lilies & pads look equally lovely but very different.
    I presume that the paintings are wandering off in the impressionistic direction, and are integrating the visual whisps and smears that the human brain perceives and integrates and enjoys when contemplating waterlilies. The photographs are interesting and striking and ACCURATE, but don't quite reflect the experiential REALITY? Thus, this particular little collection pleases me immensely.

  5. Yeah, I thought it was a pretty funny article as well, but fairly normal in the photography world. You have to admit, Lula is a strange place, a sort of millionaire gearhead hangout. You are an odd fit!

    I find solace at The Online Photographer, but I wouldn't mind a site that blends the general outlook of Mike Johnston with the resources of Lula.