Saturday, September 7, 2019

Shoot RAW!

A photograph, arguable, has about three jobs to do all at once.

The first thing is does, which it does all by itself pretty well if you just leave it alone, is to witness. It testifies that something was.

The second thing it does I am somewhat sloppily calling representation. It expresses an opinion about that which was. This is a little harder to do, you, the photographer, probably need to take an active and thoughtful role here. If nothing else, you should have pretty clear what your opinion of the subject is.

The third thing is does is to be aesthetic. Usually pleasing but not necessarily. Again, the photographer is probably involved here.

All of these things interact. If the photograph is aesthetically pleasing (or not) that is going to influence the opinion the photograph appears to express. If you tinker with a photograph to excess in order to improve the aesthetics, you lose the power and right to witness. By choosing what to witness, you influence the opinion your picture expresses, if nothing else about what it worth witnessing.

These things need to be in balance, whatever the right balance is for the job at hand.

It is probably fair to say that any photograph is going to do all three of these things no matter what. The question, as Humpty Dumpty observed, is who is to be master? Are you, the photographer, going to be in charge, or is luck, happenstance, and perhaps your unconscious mind going to be in charge?

Fine Art photographs invariably chuck everything except aesthetic appeal out the window. They appear to care about literally nothing else. This is not surprising, since modern photographer culture is 90% monkeying around with gadgets and 10% trying to figure out how to "make a good photograph" in an aesthetic sense. Note that witnessing and representation appear, um let me see, nowhere.

The Art photographers, especially those in the Documentary area, tend to worry exclusively about representation. They want desperately to convey their opinion, which is that fascism is bad, and that's about it. There's a little dash of witnessing (but most of the time they can't be buggered to find anything worthwhile to witness, so they photograph microfilm readers instead) and they certainly don't care about aesthetics.

Representation is important because, good god, if you don't care to communicate what on earth are you doing? Just format your cards at the end of every day.

Aesthetics matter because they influence the mood and receptiveness of the viewer. A graphically strong picture attracts attention (not, I note, "the eye" like some rule of thirds bullshit). A beautiful picture might well warm the viewer up, an ugly picture rile them up. I don't know, there is no formula. You just lay them out and see what it looks like. But aesthetics matter.

Witnessing, last of all, is what photographs do, as long as you let them. It is the well from which the power of the photograph is drawn. Without it, you have a badly made drawing. With it, you have the power of truth in your hand, to support your meaning.

Representation, Aesthetics, and Witnessing.

RAW. Shoot RAW, everyone. It's just better.


  1. "Are you, the photographer, going to be in charge, or is luck, happenstance, and perhaps your unconscious mind going to be in charge?"

    Well, as it happens, when I am not (consciously) in charge, it is always my unconscious mind; to which my critics always say, "that was lucky" and if they don't; it was still my unconscious mind acting poorly.

    (just couldn't resist a little nick picking, eh?)

  2. That's an interesting way of analysing photography / a photograph. I do keep all three points in the back of my mind when I photograph (in some vague way), so your article resonates with me.
    And a good pun on RAW, as well ;-)