Monday, November 28, 2022

It's Not Vernacular!!!!!

In the previous two notes I have cited vernacular photography a few times, as a source, and inevitably more than one person has latched on to that.

I am explicitly not suggesting that vernacular photography is the way forward!

I am fine with vernacular photography, it's great. I am also fine with overworked photos, although they are less great. My point is essentially Berger's: there is a point of crisis in working to produce a photograph, a point at which you cease to discover your subject, and begin to discover things about the photograph itself. When you continue much past that crisis point you begin to make a picture that is about itself, rather than to discover things about your subject (or yourself, or whatever.)

You can produce highly non-vernacular photos without going past that crisis point. I've shown you this thing, and even given away some prints of it:

This thing is the result of a well-defined process which in almost no way resembles the modern "work with test prints until you die" model.

I observed the lilies on the dining room table, doing their thing. Specifically I noted the way the stems under the water were folding up. I buckled to the urge to photograph these things, because I am weak. I hastily hung up a dark blanket in the basement and set the pot of lilies on a precarious pile of basement junk in front of same, and set up the camera on a tripod. I got a flashlight. This took perhaps 10 minutes.

Then I made a short series of long exposures, painting the lilies with the flashlight, trying to bring out whatever felt right. This took no more than another 10 minutes.

I pulled the files onto my computer, fiddled with a few levels and curves, cropped with 4:5, and was done. Maybe 10 more minutes. Timestamps suggest 80 minutes from exposure to finished, but you should assume I got at least one cup of coffee in there.

The point of all this is that what I was engaged in was an exploration of the subject, an adventure aimed to reveal what seemed to me important, or whatever it was I was responding to when I saw the jar of flowers on the table. That's it. I stopped when I felt I'd brought that out as much as I could.

It's not vernacular, nobody would look at that photo and say "ahhh, I see you're deploying the tropes of vernacular photography." It's an extremely formal photograph, that looks pretty heavily worked. It is not. It is a hastily made voyage of discovery. It shares with vernacular photography not a look, or a style, but rather an approach to seeing. Vernacular photography is about recording what it in front of the camera, about revealing what is seen. Look how cute my daughter is! Look at the way the stems of these lilies are folding up! See?

Can you tell? Does it look like something that would get heavily upvoted on whatever web site?

Well. Kind of? It's formal and beautiful, but it doesn't have any of the marks of being ostentatiously overworked which seem to be a requirement to make Flickr's "Explore" page, and I consider that a good thing. There is, I feel, a harshness, a directness, that suits me very well indeed. These are the kinds of pictures I want to produce, the kinds of pictures that I want to build into larger things with meaning.

My only issue with this photo is that it doesn't mean anything. It is, I feel, a well-made study that hits certain notes that I want to hit, but it doesn't mean anything. It exemplifies a method that works for me, a method which can produce other photographs which do "mean." It exemplifies a method that stops at the moment of crisis, and can therefore produce work that is about something other than the photograph.

This photo, I think, is about its subject, and whatever else these is about it, I think that comes through.


  1. have I mentioned that the curve described by the top edges of the flowers is the exact shape of a roche moutonnee, one of the glacial forms common in the islands of the "Salish Sea" area? It's one of my favourite components of the photo. [stone seal]

  2. For my eyes, this image is loaded with meaning. If I were to attempt to articulate my meaning to you, it would sound like nonsense, to you. That is the nature of visual communication, done right. It comes across instantly, without requiring a caption, an article, or a book.

    I do believe that, eventually, you will recognize meaning in this image, meaning that has nothing to do with whatever pictorial ambitions you are reaching for. This is it, this is your model, that you made for yourself. You may stop reciting the Berger mantra.

  3. Most of the Explore photos on Flickr are overworked, especially the landscapes. Not the ones they featured from Mike Johnston. Those had a much more subdued look.