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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Attention to Detail

Perform the following experiment, possibly only in your mind for now, but it's not a bad idea to do it in real life as well.

The experiment boils down to walking somewhere, and noting ornamental details. You might walk down an urban street, and notice the decorative casting at the base of the lamp post, the way the door handle is machined into a radius of appealing curve, a few tiles set into the cement sidewalk, the brickwork at the curb, the plantings in the strip of earth between sidewalk and curb, and so on.

You might walk through a forest, noting the curve of a branch, the way a leaf dangles, the tiny flower that peeks out from behind a stone.

A hallway, note the trim around the windows, the pattern on the floor, the ornate script telling you what's inside this office or that.

All those myriad details generate a kind of background noise of beauty, or at least attempts at beauty. In the general run of life, we do not notice these things as such. When they are missing, though, we feel their absence. When they are overdone, we feel the rococo flavor of an overbuilt room. Am I the only one who notices when a window has no trim, but is simply the wall brought out to a box, into which is set a window? Surely people feel the lack of trim, even if they don't note it specifically.

By all these things we know that in some way we are aware of those myriad details. We note the little pattern of tile in the sidewalk by its absence in front of the cheaply built government buildings. We feel the sterility of a building in which everything is functional, and there is nothing of ornament. We are depressed by it, generally.

Consider now the photograph. Or rather, all the photographs.

There is, I think, an analogy here.

When we skim through social media, through Facebook or Instagram, barely looking at this photo or that, I wonder if it is not something similar. Certainly text-only social media is a different thing, and I think one could argue cogently that "sterile" is an applicable word here. Even if we don't really look at the photos, we register something of them. Perhaps we note a fact "Suzie was camping" or an impression "Bill looks stressed out" or something even lighter than those.

We read a book with pictures, or a magazine, the same way. We notice some pictures, and almost-don't-see others. Occasionally we alight like a magpie on some photo, and inspect it. Perhaps, at some point, we make a pass through the thing specifically to look at pictures. It doesn't matter. If printed matter has more than one picture, and especially if it has text, we will pay rather more or less attention to this photo or that. We will not attend to each one equally, drinking in its glory.

All those photos which "we" collectively are not giving due attention to, are creating a sort of background noise of visual information. A stab at beauty here, a datum there, a socially notable impression there.

One can certainly argue that we spend too goddamned much time on our phones, on our tablets, on our computers. Still, that time is I think substantively enriched by those photos we are ostensibly ignoring. Not every photo needs to be printed out large and examined with a loupe.

Not every lamp post's base needs to be a Rodin. Indeed, probably Rodin is a bit of overkill for lamp posts. This does not mean that every lamp post, incapable of greatness, should therefore be an austere model of pure function without a trace of ornament.

In the same way, I think, not every photograph needs to be great. Perhaps most of them ought not to be great. And, this is important, the fact that a photograph falls short of greatness need not consign it to the dustbin.

We see this odd notion, though, in photography. Everything is either tip-top, or junk. Sometimes we keep the junk around as a reference, to learn from, or whatever, but the name of the game is always making some sort of notional "ideal" photograph, some sort of perfect expression of whatever. Mike over on ToP is going on about this. His remarks aren't stupid, indeed they are as usual pretty sharp.

The system he's proposing, though, is entirely about sorting your photographs -- one by one -- in such a way as the "really good ones" (whatever that might even mean) rise to the top. One by one. Mike's attitude toward photography is very much informed by the ideas he was taught. Photographs should be printed, ideally on fiber-based paper, and archivally processed. The goal of the photographer is to produce single photographs, each with as much greatness as can possibly be shoveled into it. Most photographs should have a full range of tones.

It is, essentially, chapter and verse from the Ansel Adams trilogy, leaving out only the parts that matter. This attitude, or if you prefer cloud of similar attitudes, is an aberration that is carried around by photographers. They might not be able to teach one another how to see, but they can bloody well share terrible attitudes and ideas, and pass them on to the next generation too.

This is not the world's attitude toward photographs. No, the common person, as it were, sees photographs far more as the ornamentation on the lamp post, and a lot less as a Rodin.

Photographs are not paintings, not in the way they are made, nor in the way they are used. Except by fetishists.

1 comment:

  1. Not THAT Ross CameronMarch 14, 2019 at 12:16 PM

    On a bit of a tangent, one reason why we may not always notice the detail is that we need mental filters to avoi information overload. When living in towns and cities we don’t greet everyone we see, or even look them in the eye, there’s just too many people. Yet take us out of that and put us into an environment of only a few people, and humans will generally be sociable with strangers.
    Re noticing the absence of detail, I’ll guess that part of that is cultural. Watch a decades old movie that doesn’t have musical cues / soundtrack throughout, and the silences really stand out, especially for those not raised in the eras when these films were made.
    City life brings with it a pace that just doesn’t allow time to stop & smell the roses / note the details, and that’s before we overly it with digital connectivity.
    I will give it a crack, just as soon as I find a few spare minutes ;)