Archive for March, 2009

Snap Judgment: Blake Fitch at Exposure Compensation

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009


I have three quick responses to Miguel Garcia-Guzman’s post on Blake Fitch and a quick trip to her site:

1. Fitch’s site is one of the worst examples of bloated flash interface I’ve ever encountered.
2. Garcia-Guzman describes Fitch’s work as “Simple but interesting images full of life that look spontaneous and fresh. Images that convey the significance of casual moments.” I disagree. They look to me like images from a clothing catalog. As though Fitch’s first name were not “Blake” but “Abercrombie &”
3. Fitch says: “My focus has been on my youngest sister and cousin. I hope to have captured the simple moments in her search for her own identity as it becomes publicly displayed.” This gives me some of my internet acquaintances would refer to as douchechills. What a horrible thing to want to do to someone.

I’m sure I’m missing the point. I will try to return to this at a later date and attempt a deeper understanding.

Blake Fitch | [EV +/-] Exposure Compensation.


This is the start of a series of rapid-fire reflections on posts in the photo-blogo-sphere-o-thing. These are not necessarily reasoned responses, they certainly aren’t carefully edited, and they definitely aren’t based on full knowledge of the subject. Thus: “Snap Judgment.” I nonetheless want to do this as a way to force myself to read and think about posts that I’m otherwise all too likely to star in google reader and then forget all about.

Please feel free to correct erroneous assumptions on I may make. And know that I don’t intend to offend.

The problem of catching eyes

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Encroaching Green

To continue on my Simone Weil theme of a week or so ago, here is another quote of hers of which I am very fond:

“Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.”

Weil is referring to the heart-stopping aspect of art — the way that a particularly beautiful work, can seize our attention in a way that sort of shuts down or fades out the chatter of our bodies and minds, giving the viewer/reader/listener a sense of pure observation, akin to meditation or spiritual communion or — at the risk of sounding quackish — the “flow” state described by Csíkszentmihályi and folks.

This is an aspect of photography which is of great importance to me. I became seriously interested in photography around the same time I started noticing myself slipping into a frame of mind I was more familiar with from the meditative practices I more or less abandoned years ago. A basic technical fluency (fluency meaning no need to think about the operation of the camera as I operated it) combined with a kind of disciplined vision (a “trained eye,” although how well-trained at that time, or the present?) caused me to photograph without overt thought. Just eyes and hands and legs adjusting position, framing, focusing, shooting. And every now and again, when I’m both good and lucky, I can put enough of that into the photograph that the viewer, too, will be seized by the image, and look with a still mind.

Of course, I’m usually not both good and lucky at the same time, and all too often, I’m neither. : )

But something that worries me, in general, and with my upcoming sofobomo project in particular, is that in some cases some of my best work — or what I consider my best work — may not have enough initial eye-catching-ness to gain and keep the attention needed for the viewer to give the image a chance. It seems like popular photography skews hard toward images with a “wow factor” — whether in heroic content or bravura technique or intense manipulation — that make them leap off of a screen of flickr thumbnails. (Although this problem is not a digital innovation — I think it goes back at least as far as the ascent of Ansel Adams (as opposed to Edward Weston or Minor White or other folks of that general time) in the mind of lay photographers and the general public. The flickr thumbnail is just an incarnation of the problem I happen to encounter on a regular basis.)

I’m very wary of creating images whose success is based on such a “wow factor,” because the typical response to such images is, “Wow, I wish I was there,” or, “Wow, how did you do that,” or, “Wow, I wish I had that lens/camera/film/etc.” This is not the response I want to evoke, or at least not all of the time. (Sometimes it’s inevitable; you can’t take a non-crappy picture of a bird without getting these responses.)

So, partly because of this issue, my sofobomo project (“Engulf”) is deliberately constructed to avoid as many “wow” factors as possible. The subject — small-scale conflict of nature vs. civilization — is not at all heroic. (By small-scale, I mean manifestations in highly mundane urban settings — for example, a tree which is growing around a metal pole and engulfing it.) I’m not utilizing sophisticated lighting techniques or macro lenses, or naked ladies. In fact, many of the images will be of largely two-dimensional subjects.

This leaves me with a limited vocabulary of photographic elements — texture, color, and shape, essentially. This prevents me from getting caught up in the arms race of eye-catching “wow”-ness — but I wonder if it won’t also get in the way of the deeper goal that Weil described — I worry that if I do not catch the eye, I cannot captivate the flesh.


Monday, March 16th, 2009

Twin-Earth Problem (June 2007)

The problem or question of reality is something that has always been at the heart of photography. I suppose this is true to some extent of all representational media, but it is especially true of photography, which has always enjoyed a sort of privileged access to human gullibility, despite the fact that photographic methods are really no more intrinsically truthful than any other.

And I think to a considerable extent, the nature and value of a photograph (or of a photographer) is defined by their relationship to reality, or to the sense of reality. I do not mean to say that photographs ought to be true to life, or that retouching should be penalized. Images which falsify, or images which are surreal or fantastic, are not inferior to images which report things plainly (or attempt or pretend to). But I think a great deal can be read from how a photograph (or photographer) uses the sense of reality as a photographic tool. Do they (try to) tell the truth? Do they challenge what is (or appears to be) real, and encourage the viewer to do so? Do they merely deceive the viewer? Do they invite the viewer to deceive themselves? And, of course, how well do they accomplish these things?

Of course, if one is going to try to take a position relative to reality, one must have some sense of what and where reality is, which (as an empiricist) I regard as a fantastic and largely insoluble problem in itself. Of the many imperfect attempts to address it, one of my favorites is that presented by Simone Weil to an introductory philosophy class taught to a bunch of doubtless very confused high school students. Here are a few quotes:

One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world.

Reality comes into view when we see that nature is not only an obstacle which allows us to act in an ordered way but it is also an obstacle which infinitely transcends us.

There is nothing real whenever there is nothing unforeseen. In science, in reasoning, one sees in the problems one is dealing with only what one has put there oneself (hypotheses). If in actions there was nothing except what we ourselves suppose them to contain, nothing would ever get done, since there would be no snags. All sorts of accidents can occur between the time when I have seen what the problem is and the time when I have acted. Reality is defined by that. It is what is not contained in the problem as such; reality is what method does not allow us to foresee.

Why is it that reality can only appear like this, in a negative sort of way? What marks off the self is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

Of course Weil is a religious thinker, and one of my favorite religious thinkers, but what she points us toward here is a kind of faith which applies equally to religious and non-religious folks. It is the fact that in order for our thinking and action to go beyond the level of game-playing, we must make a leap of faith (or, in Weil’s terms, an act of love) with regard to the world around us.

And if this faith is not present in our photographs (or in logical inquiry, or in scientific research) then our efforts are only (at most) a “symbolic game”…


There was a nice quote in the Magnum twitter feed a while back that relates:

There’s also a nice quote or two in Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography that I’ll try to dig up later.


Friday, March 13th, 2009

So, I recently signed up to do SoFoBoMo. You can click through and read about it there, if you aren’t already familiar with it, but the short version is, it’s like NaNoWriMo for photography. I think it’s a great idea, although I don’t feel so positively about the name. It makes me think of someone trying to cuss me out while eating a peanut butter sandwich.

I signed up in part because I’m a sucker for stuff like this, but mostly because I have yet to do the sort of project where you conceive, execute, and output a bunch of images on a single subject in a delimited time window. And that seems like something I ought to be able to do, and ought to have practice doing.

I’ve debated a bit with myself on the topic. I was considering using my translation of Chapter 18 of the Mūlamadhyamikakārikāḥ (a Buddhist philosophical treatise in verse), but I think I should save that — I don’t think it would be best served by a rigid constraint on time and number of images.


So, I think I’m going to revisit a photograph (at right) I made some time ago, and with which I was never fully satisfied. The subject is a tree which is growing around a metal pole, and if allowed to continue growing, may at some point fully engulf the pole within itself. I plan to return to this subject, and to others like it, which embody the conflict of nature and civilization in small ways.

We’ll see how that works out for me. I plan to use my RB67 and shoot the whole thing on Portra 800, a film I know fairly well and from which I believe I can get good results in a wide variety of conditions. This will have the advantage of giving me high-quality output I know how to work with, along with a degree of built-in consistency. This is good, because consistency between images is not something I’ve previously worked to achieve; normally, I treat every image as a task unto itself. I don’t generally try to match the look of one image to another.

The downside is that this means shooting 35 images on 120 film (minimum four rolls; with any degree of redundancy, more like six-eight), and getting them developed and scanned, which adds overhead in the chronology.

Well, we’ll see.

Peek w/case

Right now what I’m doing is scouting potential subjects. I may do a few still life images at home (likely with vegetables), but for the most part, this is going to be about things found in the “wild,” as it were. I normally just wait and shoot subjects as I come across them, but for this, I’ll need to make a lot of images in a comparatively short period of time in order to have the time needed to develop, scan, process, and design. Thus the need to plan ahead.

To do this, I’ve been using the combination of my Peek email device and Remember the Milk, an online todo list service with particularly good email integration. When I pass by something that I particularly like, I send an email to RTM, along with a reminder date (shooting for sofobomo won’t start for a while) and an instruction to file it in a separate sofobomo list.

I could, of course, keep a paper list, but the metadata aspect is really appealing, and paper doesn’t remind you when to do something. And while paper is great for some things (like taking notes while I’m shooting), I find it doesn’t work well for me when I’m aggregating lots of little notes over time. Either I make the notes in a fixed-page journal, in which case I have trouble finding them all later in the midst of the other text, or else I make them on a removable-page notepad, in which case I tend to lose the pages.

So, yay for technology….

Ektar 100

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

It’s nice that Kodak isn’t just gradually eliminating film types from its lineup. They’re also adding some. Ektar 100 — available now in 35mm and soon in 120 (a particularly good sign), this is a super-fine-grain, super-saturated, high-contrast film. It appears to look best somewhat overexposed, which — unfortunately for handholders — means shooting it at ISO 50.

Ektar 100 exposed at ISO 50

It’s not really my cup of tea — I prefer Portra 800, with its more neutral colors, and its lovely grain. Not to mention its high speed But the Ektar definitely has its own charms. And working with the slower shutter speeds and wider apertures dictated by working with Ektar handheld can lead to some interesting results…

Ektar 100 exposed at ISO 50

Very short rant

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

This is a slight edit of a flickrmail I just sent someone discussing photography podcasts. It seemed worth making a note of, so I’m posting it here:

And both there and in most other photography podcasts, and a lot of the photography blogs, there’s a general sense that the most any of us are supposed to want to achieve is a career as a commercial or wedding photographer. I’m not sure I want to drop the A-word (art) but if there isn’t more to photography than getting someone to pay you to take pictures, I think I need to go back to knitting.

A major source of cognitive dissonance for me when it comes to photography is that I don’t have any background in art history or criticism. (My educational background is rather…scattered, to say the least, but it skews towards religious studies, philosophy, and some bits of sociology and psychology related to the study of education.) This makes it hard for me to identify with the perspective of the art-photography bloggers.

At the same time, I don’t much care about the commercial side of photography and the huge body of amateur photographers who would like to make a part- or full-time transition to doing commercial/portrait/wedding/stock photography.

Hell, maybe I should go back to knitting…