Saturday, November 30, 2019

Good Pictures

In 1904 Sadakichi Hartmann issued a plea for straight photography. His argument was, essentially, that the photograph naturally has certain properties as a result of the method of its creation, and that the artist is generally better off working with rather than against his tools.

In modern terms, he's saying that the power of the photograph to witness, its power of quotation, is what you should be relying on rather than your facility with mashing up the emulsion with your fists.

Whether Hartmann was merely the bellwether, or was the impulse that sparked the change, I do not know. History, though, marks his plea as the beginning of the end for emulsion-mashing. Mostly.

I have recently acquired and read Berger & Mohr's Another Way of Telling which read as eerily familiar. I recognize Berger's ideas about photographs as essentially my own, in tremendous detail. Berger wore it better, however. He's far more lucid than I, and gets a lot of fiddly bits more correct than I have done. I take this not as an indication that I am a genius, but rather that these ideas are obvious if only you devote yourself to thinking seriously about them a bit.

One facet of Berger's large essay in this book goes as follows: because of the way a photograph wrests a single instant from the passage of time, and because we are generally aware of this, we tend to lend to a photograph a past and a future. That is, we tend to imagine what came before and what came after in ways that we generally do not when confronted with a painting.

Berger, roughly, characterizes a good photograph as one for which people may be relied upon to mostly come up with similar imagined pasts and futures, and secondarily, a photograph which is highly evocative of imagined pasts and futures.

He is making essentially the same argument Hartmann is. Where Hartmann is arguing for the artist to use, rather than to deny, the indexical nature of the photo, Berger is arguing for the artist to use, rather than to deny, the temporal nature of the photograph.

What struck me about this particular notion is how applicable it was.

If you ask people to put up their best photos, you will in general get a mass of sharp pictures with bright colors, with well balanced mass and line, with pleasing forms, and so on. Almost none of the photos will evoke a past or a future in any substantial way.

They all look like paintings. They are all made, as Berger says of paintings, "in the present tense." These photos, in general, do a masterful job of evoking the moment at which they were made, but nothing much else. The sun sets, the castle looms, the cow grazes in the field, and the flower does whatever it is that flowers do. Even the ones with vigorous action seem to evoke mainly the present. The duck launches itself into the air in a welter of splashes and.. we don't really care what happens next. I dare say it flies off somewhere?

In this way these pictures defy the nature of the medium, and become more or less poorly made paintings all over again.

Consider how people are advised to "improve" their photos. It is invariably a crop, or clone out some irrelevant detail, or focus better, or do something with the colors. It is instantly clear that these efforts speak to the formal qualities of the photograph, they alter, if anything, only the way in which the photograph resembles the painting. Almost never do they alter, specifically, the way we "read" the picture and imagine for it a past and a future.

This is not to say there isn't a brisk market (both dollars and social-media-approval) for photographs that look like paintings. This is not even to say that there are not other metrics by which those photographs are not "good photographs."

This is only to say that there are fundamental properties of photographs, and that working with rather than against those properties produces pictures which are essentially photographic in nature, and that we can after a fashion measure "goodness" in those terms.

And I do.


  1. I'm sorry Andrew but (to put it politely) I'm really not convinced. The argument works if you accept what is essentially a straw man - Berger's ideology-driven (or your) idea of what a photograph is. And it is a very specific, very restricted idea.

    Would your argument above change if you substituted throughout "photo-realistic painting" for "painting" ? I don't think so.

    Why do you think you need to impose rules & restrictions on photography, or indeed any kind of creativity? And isn't "the medium is the message" getting a bit tired now?

  2. Another essential property of photographs is their slicing of space. Does a good photograph make you think about all the stuff outside the spatial frame? Some do and some don't.
    Consider someone looking at a Steve McCurry shot of a crowded but immensely colorful street scene and thinking, "Ah, yes, now I know what India is."