Archive for November, 2010

Group Shoot

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Group Shoot

Last week, I took part in a group studio shoot. You may have noticed me bitching about it on twitter, if you follow me there.

It’s an interesting experience. As you may know, I am not fond of studio photography. Not that it’s not a legitimate way to do photography, of course — but it breaks a lot of what makes photography important to me, particularly the stuff having to do with the unexpected. The basic ethos of studio photography is _control_ — controlling the light, controlling the appearance of the subject, controlling the photographic outcome.

Because of this, I generally don’t enjoy doing studio work — and while I’m not _always_ incompetent at it, it would be fair to say that the results are generally uninspired.

None of that pertained last Saturday, because the lighting and backdrop were all pre-set by the instructor. And while I could (and occasionally did) give suggestions to the model, I didn’t try to compete with the 15-20 other photographers for her attention. So, I was able to approach the situation more or less as I would street photography — street photography happening in a very confined space with a whole lot of competition, that is.

Kelsey (Delta 3200 120 003 01)

And it was competition. Not that the photos we produce are going to be compared, and not that anyone is getting paid — just competition for _space_ on which to stand. Even with a substantial backdrop to work with, a cluster of lights, all with modifiers, does not provide a wide range of angles from which it is practical to work — in our case, it was perhaps a 10′ x 4′ area, into which most of the time ten or twelve photographers at least would try to cram themselves.

I worked with an RB67 loaded with TX and Delta 3200 with a 180mm f/4.5 and a D40 with a 105mm f/2.5. I spent a certain amount of time elbowing for space (sometimes with and sometimes without a tripod) and verbally abusing my fellow photographers when they inevitably wandered into my field of view. However, I generally had the best results when I abandoned the carefully lit backdrop and instead framed the subject against the black or gray gobos, or curtains on the other side of the room, or whatever else offered.


I’m not sure whether those compositions were more to my liking because they gave me more breathing room, or because they put me outside the corridor of attention between the subject and the other photographers, or simply because I like blank, untextured backgrounds. For whatever reason, they seemed to work.

(I also found that I almost always preferred the compositions which chopped off hands, arms, elbows, legs, etc. to those which included them. Something about surrounding the model’s body with empty space (whether blank gobo or lit backdrop) simply seemed paradoxically to kill a part of the vitality of the image, in almost every case.)

As for the subject, Kelsey, she was great — as a dancer, she had both excellent physical control and excellent performance instincts. Plus, she was extremely patient with the gaggle of photographers, although whether this is just her personality or something she picked up working extensively with reptiles, I’ve no idea.

Between the forty frames of 6×7 and the perhaps 60 NEFs, I came away with a few photographs that are presentable, and a couple that I genuinely like.

Kelsey (Delta 3200 120 003 09)

That being said, I still don’t feel a very strong connection to any of them. When I look at them, I am reminded of Minor White’s “thin red line of uniqueness to the man” — mine, if it is anything, must be phenomenological, the photograph as a reflection on experience. And the experience behind these photographs is a sort of microwave dinner version of studio photography — not unenjoyable, and I certainly cannot say that I would rather have done it from scratch, but ultimately not fully satisfying.

I wish in retrospect that I had photographed the other photographers more — they made a rather disconcerting visual, all huddled together, blazing away with DSLRs and 35mm cameras, and most making what I can only describe as “photographer face” — an unflattering, squinting, slack-jawed grimace which, if it occurs in the field as well as in the studio, goes a long way toward explaining why people react with such revulsion to street photographers.

Seriously, that facial expression is perhaps the single greatest argument for working with waist-level finders or the groundglass, as opposed to rangefinders or prism SLRs.

On the technical side, it was interesting to work with D40 NEFs again. They’re certainly much more pleasant than GRDII DNGs, and I have a very good feel for them from quite a lot of past experience. However, there is something deeply frustrating about working with RAW files when I know I have film to develop and scan, so I pretty much rushed through the D40’s output so I could get to the Delta and Tri-X.

I shot the Delta at 3200, because the lights were arranged around the assumption that everyone would be shooting 35mm with ISO 400. I guessed (correctly) Delta 3200 in 6×7 would provide a good tradeoff between grain and DOF, at the expensive of some shadow detail that I probably wouldn’t miss anyway. The Delta results are excellent (or, rather, any errors are mine), and those negatives are surprisingly easy to print.

I also — just for fun — shot a couple rolls of TX at box speed, meaning I was working wide open on the 180mm f/4.5. I made quite a lot of focusing errors on those rolls, and I had a few motion blur problems as well, either from my handholding technique or subject motion or both. The film held up reasonably well, despite the characteristic lack of contrast, and it wasn’t hard to get good scans of those frames where I had everything straight in-camera. I haven’t tried printing them yet; if I’m lucky, I’ll just need to go up a contrast grade or so, and won’t have to fiddle too much.

I also shot a few images with the GRD, primarily reference shots for the lighting, or photos of the room, like the one at the top of this post. Those photos show something I already knew, which is that the GRD is quite lame at high ISOs. (“High” in the old-school sense, i.e., 400 and up.)


Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A few weeks ago I read _Mirrors and Windows_, by John Szarkowski. (About whom we’ve [posted]( once or twice before at _1/125_.) It’s pretty fantastic.

I’ve tried quite a few times since then to write a useful post about the subject, with little success; each draft tends to spiral out of control, until I feel like I’ve written myself into the middle of a book-length disquisition on the nature of photography. That’s an easy trap to fall into with Szarkowski, because he’s such a moving target; his writing is so rich with information, allusion, interpretation, and provocation that it is hard to keep attention focused on any one argument or claim.

So, I’m going to give up on trying to write one coherent post on the book tackling everything that really interests me (which would still have only touched on a fraction of everything contained in the brief essay in _Mirrors and Windows_) and write two or three shorter posts, instead.

Let’s start with this passage:

> During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (pp. 14-15)

This interests me because I think it helps me understand a confusion many photographers have regarding the nature of what they do.

Following the metaphor, let us assume that we are living in a time after that in which the scribe had a useful role — a time in which (in developed nations) everyone has the ability to read or write for themselves.

In that context, what do we make of someone apparently performing the functions of a scribe? Examples might include:

* Translators
* Editors, designers, etc.
* Paralegals
* Medical transcriptionists
* Notaries Public
* Calligraphers

These are people who have technical skills which are not required for the normal, everyday reading and writing functions routinely performed by people in both their business and personal lives.

There are photographic equivalents to many of these functions — or, rather, there are photographic professions which have a similar relationship to the photo-literate as these professions do to the word-literate. For example, I doubt one hears the complaint that, “with digital, everyone is a crime scene photographer.” (Note: If there are any forensics people reading and I’m getting that wrong, please let me know.)

However, most types of professional photography currently being done today are not so well sequestered from the realm of everyday, non-professional photography, which is usually (although not quite accurately) classified as “amateur.” But there may still be parallels.

Of these post-scribe forms of technical literacy, the last — calligraphy — is the one that I find to be the most interesting in relation to photography. For our purposes, let calligraphy be defined as the practice of making series of written letters appear aesthetically pleasing; it is (or at least, can be) totally agnostic with regard to the meaning of words represented by those letters. It is about making things pretty, on demand.

I think calligraphy is interesting in relation to what people want from photography. Specifically, to what they want _when they first become excited_ about photography — when they stop regarding it as a routine task requiring no special knowledge or insight and begin to regard it as something they can and should do well. Perhaps even as something which they are _called_ to do well.

When people today feel that way about the written word, virtually none of them say, “_I want to be a calligrapher_.” They want to be novelists, or poets, or journalists, or what have you. They want to write something in which other people can find meaning, amusement, excitement, solace, escapism, or insight.

But when people feel that way about photography, huge droves of them turn to the photographic equivalents of calligraphy — like wedding photography, commercial portraiture, stock photography, and advertising — disciplines which are, at heart, dedicated to producing prettiness on demand.

Budding photographers are often obsessed with becoming skilled in technical areas related to these disciplines, so that they can be more “pro” — which, amusingly, means that these industries are generally less and less sustainable for those who actually do set up shop in them. (And, as with calligraphy, hand knitting, and similar crafts, this tends to shift the area of commercial viability away from doing the work in question and towards books, supplies, workshops, instructional videos, etc.)

Of course, that does not sum up every budding photographer. There are plenty of photographers who are deeply embedded in the art world (which has largely swallowed up serious photography), and photojournalism is not dead. And I would not suggest that art photography and photojournalism are not worthwhile pursuits.

But is there a photographic equivalent of a novel, at this point, or of a short story? (Equivalent in _use_ I mean, not in structure, like the “literary” photographs of Frank Gohlke.) Is there photography which is produced for and consumed by the general public, for the joy of it?

That is more questionable.

Certainly there are people who are making photography that I would consider to be suitable for this role; there is good photography that exists outside the art niche and apart from the perversely utilitarian industries of prettiness on demand, and also apart from the civic-minded function of photojournalism and documentary photography.

But what is happening to that photography after it is made? Some percentage of it is published in various forms, and some percentage of what is published is bought (if applicable) and viewed, but the extent to which that happens outside the art community or the community of people who identify as photographers is more questionable.

And that — well, that worries me a great deal.