Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Gap between Expectation and Reality

Luminous Landscape published more or less the standard piece (albeit a good instance of it) on why manipulation in photographs is OK. There's the usual business. Viewers ought to be OK with manipulations, because, reasons in this context or that although of course not in newspapers heaven forfend. This segues as expected into well all photographs are manipulated in a sense, right? with the implied result that a little Photoshop cloning when we've already adjusted the saturation, eh?

All this is generally just rationalization for whatever the photographer wants to do. Disagreement is interpreted, usually, as an attack and we're off to the races!

All the usual discussions are simply smoke, covering fire to prevent people looking at the real issue which is, as my title here suggests, the gap between expectations and reality.

There are times when a person approaches a photograph expecting it to, in some meaningful but squishy and difficult to define way, look real. Ansel Adams made photographs that did not objectively look real at all, but at any rate his goal was to make them feel real. If you've seen his pictures and also been to Yosemite, it's possible you have observed that his pictures do not look real, but the place does kind of feel like that, and people like his pictures. So, what truth, what reality people expect has a fair bit of wiggle room.

I managed to disappoint one of my readers (who we may safely assume stands in for a larger group, possibly notional) by taking pictures of people and hand-writing -- in my own hand -- testimony from those people onto the picture. The nature of the picture does indeed suggest that the writing is in the hand of the person in the picture, and mine are not like that. The expectation did not meet reality, resulting in unsatisfactory results for all of us.

It depends on the context, it depends on the viewer, but I think that to a very large degree it depends on the picture. If the damned thing is sharp and not obviously composited or distorted, odds are the viewer is going to think that whatever you pointed the camera at looked like that. Their expectation is for a certain degree of reality, and if they find that you cloned out a highway they're going to be disappointed to one degree or another. No amount of explaining how they ought to feel is going to change that, all that's likely to do is make the photographer, who feels attacked by the disappointment, feel better about his heavy-handed cloning.

This happens to connect up neatly with John Maloof's work on his archive of Vivian Maier's negatives.

Here again we have books which, to my eye, set certain expectations. Their authorship being attributed to Maier, we are led to believe that these things are somehow connected to her. These are perhaps the books or portfolios she would have made if only she'd had the chance. These are the collections that represent her, perhaps. There's any number of ways to interpret these things, but an intimate connection with the photographer appears in all of them. The expectation is that these are somehow, inherently, the work of the photographer or at any rate a best effort at it.

The reality, on the other hand, is something quite different.

First of all we know exactly what she would have done, which is nothing. She had plenty of opportunity to do many things, and simply had different priorities. The story of her demise in destitution is carefully laid out so that the reader will naturally extend it over her lifetime, leading us to imagine a stunted life of limited opportunity. In fact, Maier's life was more complicated, and she wavered between firmly middle class for much of her life and, for a time, was mildly well-off.

This leads us around to whether or not, supposing she had made different choices, how would she have chosen to represent herself? Or, how can a third party reasonable choose to represent the artist here? As detailed at great length in previous remarks here, or in the more recent posts focusing on Maloof, we can be pretty sure that the books we're seeing are none of those things (with the possible exception, I think, of the Selfies book which I suspect is roughly the last things she would have published, but might actually represent her as an artist best of all).

It's not that these are inherently bad books. In a way, a collection of vernacular photographs that show strong stylistic resemblances to the Great Photographers of the 20th century is a fascinating and wonderous document. It's just not Vivian Maier.

But, the gap between expectation and reality is large, here, and it should be noted and deplored.


  1. "The Gap Between Expectation And Reality." What makes you think it gets any better?



    1. Well, there is certainly work that does not disappoint, eh?

      More importantly, there are at least two axes upon which you may operate to better avoid this disappointment. You can be aware of the expectations your audience has and strive to better meet them, OR you can manage and alter the expectations your audience has, to better fit what you're actually doing.

      While perfection is likely impossible, it strikes me that thinking about this stuff isn't worthless.