Archive for the ‘thinking about photography’ Category

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Monday, May 10th, 2010

One of the perennial questions in photography is how to explain the relationship between a photograph and the world — or between the photograph and some specific part of the world (the subject). It is understood that the photograph is in some respect like a copy but is not actually a copy as such; no photograph is either as pure or as boring as a perfect copy would be.

Here’s my suggestion, for today anyway, for how to explain the difference:

To make a photograph is not to copy the world, but to abridge it, or to edit it. We read the world, and when we achieve a moment of recognition in response to some part of the world, we use the camera to excerpt it, to underline it — or to angrily strike it through.

Unfortunately, these marks are relatively unlikely to be incorporated into a new draft of the manuscript, so the photographer is much more like a critic marking up a review copy — or a reader making private notes for himself — than like an editor working in collaboration with the author to refine the work itself.

Of course, that proposed metaphor only covers certain kinds of photography — straight photography, more or less, as opposed to constructed photographs and photographs which are intended to be statements about photography…


Friday, February 19th, 2010

I’m going to plagiarize myself here. This is reposted from the body of a reply I made to a comment over at 1/125.

In theory, I respect the principle that an image should stand on its own, without a title or a caption or any information at all — just itself.

In practice, however, I almost always associate the lack of caption with “picture puzzles” and “fuzzygrams” — photographs that are basically about hiding something from the viewer and daring them to figure it out. If I show someone a photograph, I usually don’t want them wondering what it is, or where it is, or whether I shot it on film or digital, or analyzing the lighting — all the things I do when I look at an image that doesn’t have any information associated with it. That wondering gets in the way of just looking, and just looking is what I want the viewer to be able to do.

In other words, even though putting in a bunch of data makes for visual clutter and complications, it (in my experience as a viewer) makes the experience of seeing the photograph simpler.

Document, Personal Document, or…

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Minor epiphany of the day:

One of the more interesting ideas I came across in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s was the shift from the sort of photography which produced public documents — in the standard photojournalistic/street photography sense — to a sort of photography which was concerned with producing personal documents.

Straight documentary photography is about creating photographs of things in the world (people, places, moments, situations) to act as records of those things. Typically the motivation of this style of photography is based around the public interest — advocacy, journalism, etc.

The personal documentary style is about creating photographs of things in the world to act as records not of those things but of the photographer himself or herself — people and places function as records of feelings or ideas or experiences. This is basically an extension of Stieglitz’s notion of the photograph as “equivalent,” except that in this case, it is usually other people rather than clouds that are the proxy for the photographer’s inner landscape.

I don’t really feel a strong connection to either of these approaches to street photography. On the one hand, my interest in photography is fundamentally quite selfish. I’m not taking pictures of things to fuel a social revolution or record the truth of some moment in history.

But, on the other hand, I’m not really interested in using photography as a tool for introspection. I don’t entirely understand people who view the camera principally as a device to allow them to crawl deeper into their own brains. The greatest value of the camera, as far as I am concerned, is that it is capable of quite the opposite function — it allows me to pull myself partway out of my head and out into — or at least toward — the world…

I’m not entirely sure where that places me relative to either straight documentary or personal documentary photography…maybe it’s sort of the inverse of the personal document — I am interested in photographs of things which act not as records or representations of parts of myself, but as antidotes or…connections. Would the result be something like a wax impression of myself, or even a photonegative?

Photography at the Crossroads

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

_Note: This started as a post for 1/125, but it got rather rambly and personal, so I’m going to post it here, instead._

James Pomerantz, in his excellent blog, _A Photo Student_, recently posted the text of Berenice Abbott’s “Photography at the Crossroads.”

On the surface, “Photography at the Crossroads” is just another highly subjective declaration of what is and is not real photography, and as such, it would be entirely at home as a grumpy post on the “I Shoot Film” flickr group haranguing those who “spend too much time in the darkroom, with the result that creative camera work is seriously interfered with,” and bemoaning “the widespread publication of articles and books on How-To-Do-It” when “what is more important now is What-To-Do-With-It.”

Of course, anyone who is interested in photography and has spent more than five minutes on the internet has probably seen a half dozen semi-coherent declarations regarding what real photography is and how kids these days are doing it all wrong. Certainly I have, and it has made me very skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to know what “real photography” is all about.

However, while I would indeed by loathe to apply Abbott’s essay as the general rule in photography, there are some excellent insights there, and I heartily encourage everyone to read it — particularly in conjunction with some reading or listening on the historical photographers and movements she references, if folks aren’t already familiar. (I for one am kicking myself for not already being more familiar with Abbott, whom I really only know as one of the folks responsible for bringing Atget to a wider audience.)

I won’t try to summarize the essay (seriously: read it), but there are a couple of things I’d like to touch upon here:

I am surprised that Abbott repeatedly emphasizes the “creative” in photography, while simultaneously upholding realism as the standard of virtue. I have grown very weary of the term “creative,” both because it is so often used to refer to the exact opposite of creativity (e.g., new camera users asking how to achieve “creative colors,” etc.) and also because even when it is used correctly, it is necessarily congruent with what I (and I think Abbott as well) would consider the best use of photography.

What I mean is that the photographs in which one most strongly perceives the photographer as creator are not necessarily the best photographs; often, the best photographs are those in which the photographer produces a strong record of a particular moment, without trying to become the author of the scene.

I think — although perhaps I am mistaken — that Abbott would agree with this. Certainly she seems to say as much, and more eloquently:

> What we need is a return, on a mounting spiral of historic understanding, to the great tradition of realism. Since ultimately the photograph is a statement, a document of the now, a greater responsibility is put on us. Today, we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known. Some people are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties. The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself. Once we understand this, it exercises a dynamic compulsion on us, and a photo-document is born.

While obviously one creates a photograph, is the creation of such a “photo-document” really an act of creativity? it seems to me that a good photographer in this style has far, far more in common with a good editor than with a good creative artist. But perhaps I am missing something.

But what struck me most about Abbott’s essay is the following passage, and particularly the sentence to which I have added emphasis:

> To chart a course, one must have a direction. **In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it**. The photographer creates, evolves a better, more selective, more acute seeing eye by looking ever more sharply at what is going on in the world. Like every other means of expression, photography, if it is to be utterly honest and direct, should be related to the life of the times – the pulse of today. The photograph may be presented as finely and artistically as you will; but to merit serious consideration, must be directly connected with the world we live in.

This appeals greatly to me, because it gets at something that has been more or less on my mind since I first started using a camera for something other than taking pictures of my knitting. The use of the camera is, for me, intimately related to questions of phenomenology, and of course the photograph as document (and what it documents, what kind of information it contains and transmits) presents tremendous opportunities for epistemological questioning as well.

Of course, to say that the eye must be backed by a philosophy, and to say that a photograph must be connected to reality, is not really all that specific. “Reality” itself as an idea is rather uncertain and open to contestation, and all photography, at some level, is about reality or about the sense of reality — because the apparent or actual realism of almost any photograph is one of the defining traits of the medium, whether the photographer chooses to embrace that realism, or chooses to subvert it.

It is tempting to say that this is the state of photography now (blah blah postmodernism blah) as opposed to some other state of photography which pertained when Abbott wrote “Photography at the Crossroads,” but that’s not really true. Abbott first became involved with photography through Man Ray, after all(!), and in the world of philosophy, reality had become rather tenuous ground well before this.

Here’s another take on the question of photography’s relationship to reality, from around the same time as Abbott’s essay:

> ABSTRACTION in photography is to reach towards the non-objective without ever breaking the camera’s strongest point—the magic of its tether to visual reality.

That is from Minor White’s journals, written in 1950, and published in Peter Bunnell’s _Minor White: The Eye That Shapes_ (p. 27). I find this an interesting statement in part because White’s sequences seem to delight in flowing seamlessly between apparently straightforward realism and total abstractions which are difficult or impossible to identify as relating to some real subject.

I think White’s point is well taken, and I think it provides an excellent third position, as distinct either from realism per se or from pictorialism considered as a flight of fancy, or, as Abbott puts it, “imitating the unreal.” (Which, if you really think about it, is something of a brain-teaser.) I think in the case of the best uses of abstraction in photography, that _tension_ that arises with the stretching of that “tether” is a significant part of the power of the photograph.

As for myself, the notion of reality which I have always found most compelling is that put forward by Simone Weil in her _Lectures on Philosophy_. (Which are just the transcribed and published notes of one of her high school students.)

> 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.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons why I am so disenchanted with studio photography. But that is neither here nor there…

exquisite incomprehension

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010


One advantage photography has over some other media — in particular writing — is that with photography, one does not necessarily have to convey the sense that one understands what one is sharing with the viewer. A photographer (excluding those who are photographing scenes they have manufactured) is not an _author_, and is not assuming the kind of privileged position of understanding over the subject which the author is forced to carry — sometimes as a burden, sometimes as a badge of honor, sometimes as mating plumage.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that an understanding of the subject has no value in photography, but I do think good photography can be done which is founded not on an understanding of what is being photographed, but on an exquisite incomprehension of it. One can behold a thing with great intensity and convey some part of that intensity to the viewer without necessarily having to get a grip on the subject, or even to really decide for sure what it is.

The challenge is to do this without giving the sense of hiding behind obscurity or engaging in puzzle games with the viewer. This is difficult, particularly if one is interested in reaching a wide range of viewers…

On Creativity

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

This is a cut and paste from something I just posted in a flickr thread in which some people talk about what software will give “creative” colors, and other folks talk about how creativity is something that has to happen in the camera, before post-processing.

>Creativity isn’t something that happens in the camera anymore than it’s something that happens in a computer or in a darkroom. If someone uses textbook “good” composition, textbook “good” lighting, the “correct” depth of field, accurate exposure, and a standard subject, the result is not creative, any more than if they swap some colors in photoshop.

>Creativity is something that happens in the photographer, and it can make use of any tool to hand — whether that tool is the camera or a computer, or whether it means manufacturing a scene to shoot.

>However I would also caution that creativity is not necessarily a virtue, especially in a photographer. There are many fantastic photographs which are not “creative,” but are strictly documentary. They are a record of something which happened in the world. The photographer made the exposure, but they didn’t “create” the scene.

I really do think that much of what is good in photography has absolutely nothing to do with creativity. I would even perhaps go so far as to say that creativity is more likely to be a vice than a virtue when working in the photographic medium.

Photography Against Solipsism

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Late Afternoon

I am by nature, or at least lifelong habit, always apart from the world around me. Solipsism comes easily for me; connections comes hard. In the middle of a crowd, I am perhaps at my most alone, set off as I am by what I think of as my veil of indifference. Behind that barrier, I am free to live in my head and build pocket universes of private images, ideas, and judgments.

But cameras do not operate in pocket universes. The lens is necessarily a window outward. It is not quite an antidote for solipsism, but photography creates an opportunity to perceive other people with…not necessarily clarity, but with intensity.

_Note: strictly speaking, it is not true to say “cameras do not operate in pocket universes–a lot of studio photography is done inside pocket universes. But a camera in the street and a camera in the studio are practically unrelated tools._

Materials against language

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

At the laundromat today, I was reading _Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s_, and I came across this delightful passage from the manifesto of _Provoke_, an influential publication of the time.

>The image by itself is not a thought. It cannot possess a wholeness like that of a concept. Neither is it an interchangeable code like a language. Yet its irreversible materiality—the reality that is cut out by the camera—constitutes the opposite side of language, and for this reason at times it stimulates the world of language and concepts. When this happens, language transcends its fixed and conceptualized self, transforming into a new language, and therefore a new thought.

>At this singular moment—now—**language loses its material basis**—in short its reality—and drifts in space, we photographers must go on grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth **materials against language and against thought**. Despite some reservations, this is why we have given Provoke the subtitle “provocative materials for thought.”

I found this notion quite striking. I’m sure it appeals to me in no small part because I find it so hard to combine photography and written language. Writing about photography is incredibly difficult for me. Writing around photography is easy. We do this all the time by taking up peripheral topics like equipment, technique, biography, and social commentary. All of which is very useful if your interest is in being able to make small talk while looking at a photograph, but not necessarily so useful if you want to actually say something about the photograph.

Another popular approach is, of course, to fall back on artspeak, which I don’t do a lot of mainly because I don’t really know artspeak. I’m sure if I was fluent in artspeak, I would make regular recourse to it. Of course, it’s really mostly still talking around photography, but on the plane of abstract concepts rather than the plane of physical facts and realities. These concepts give us handles by which to manipulate the photograph and make it give up its secrets. Or, rather, they appear to do so.

Often, the manipulation of those concepts doesn’t really take us any farther than the recording and recitation of the technical data related to the photograph’s creation. One is fooled in very much the same way as one is fooled when one thinks, “If I use the same camera as he did, and the same settings, and stand in the same place, I will make the same photograph.”

Of course, there are also photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere ideas, just as there are photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere technical details. But both types are essentially worthless, except insofar as they can be sold for money.

All of which is just to say, I am used to thinking of language as inadequate for describing and understanding photography. But that _Provoke_ manifesto–I’m not sure that I had ever thought of the photographic image as being or becoming the _enemy_ of language. It is immensely appealing in the way that anything which explains away an incapacity is appealing. And it is, in a peculiar way, rather optimistic, presuming the authors were serious about the prospect of a new language and a new thought emerging.

However, I think I rather approach which I had relied upon previously, and that is Simone Weil’s way of interpreting our speechlessness in the face of art:

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

But I have always been susceptible to mysticism…

Provoke Era

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just got back from SFMOMA’s Provoke Era exhibition. It’s my second trip, and I feel like I ought to make some note of my thoughts on it, although my total lack of background when it comes to Japanese photography has made me somewhat reluctant to do so. I don’t even know enough to clearly identify what the scope of my ignorance is, in this area, or how it (and/or prejudice) might be leading me astray in terms of how and what I see…

So, what I’m going to do is simply post a few thoughts that crossed my mind while I was looking at these photographs. Obviously you should be slow to draw conclusions about Japanese photography, or even the work of the specific photographers in question, even if I appear to be doing so.

Hopefully at some point I’ll be less ignorant. I did recently buy a copy of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s, so that might help a bit, if and when I ever get a chance to open the thing.

Please forgive any misspellings and my total disregard of any diacritic marks — my notes are, as usual, illegible.

While viewing Hosoe

I can’t help wondering if some of the characteristic techniques of this period of Japanese photography are influenced (or at least enabled) by the rise of the small-format SLR camera. Previously, man-portable cameras tended to be press cameras, rangefinders, etc., which are generally not optimal to use from strange angles or for close-focus work. The sort of (apparently) extemporaneous, awkward camera positions, and the very particular deformations of the perspective, focus, etc. are all things that would be substantially more difficult to control with non-SLR cameras.

Contrast perspective here with the (mostly earlier) Western photographers I’ve been looking at a lot lately — Bresson, Atget, Weston, Frank, even Winogrand — in those cases, the perspective is that of a person standing in the space. A pedestrian perspective — not in any derogatory sense, as such, but in the sense that it is the perspective of a person who might happen to be walking by. They seem natural. Here, the play with unnatural perspective is used to dislocate the viewer, and to create a studiously unnatural viewpoint. It is practically a vice, although an excessively “natural” perspective can be a vice as well, I suppose.

While viewing Tomatsu

The are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic implies a willingness to discard information. Huge areas of a given print may contain no information whatsoever, or very limited information — a rough tonal gradient, say — these images come close to being purely graphic.

This is also in stark contrast to what I’ve been mostly looking at lately, where compositions and (with some exceptions) film, paper, and chemistry are being used with great care and skill to capture the most detail possible, and as much in the way of relationships (“relatedness”?) between elements in the frame as possible.
This discarding of information displaces us…

While viewing Tomatsu and Kawada

There seems to be a pull toward iconography when it comes to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the war.

If it were me trying to represent these things, I would probably go the same way, simply because icons and symbols are more…manageable. Less frightening. Of course, I have no idea whether that has any bearing on what these folks were doing.

While viewing Moriyama

It seems like the areas of the photograph (dominated by large, irregular patches of pure white or black containing no detail, amid which a person or object may be sandwiched), come together with an almost-audible report, a clap or a clack. Noise. I’m not normally prone to synesthesia, even the merely metaphorical kind…

While viewing Nakahira

Lost detail — defocus, blocked shadows, muddy contrasts, motion blur — these things frustrate the eye, but do they maybe also trick us to project imagined detail (or meaning) where there is none?

Is this why the Moriyama photograph made me see (to borrow from DeCarava) a sound? Or is it merely the vaguely cinematic quality of these choices that makes me think I should be hearing something as I watch?

While viewing Watanabe and Tsuchida

These guys seem to want to be perceived as snapshooters. I find this annoying. Is it also a kind of discarding of information? Not that detail is not faithfully recorded across the frame, but the utterly banal composition or lack of composition deprives the detail of significance.

These do not make a sound. I am probably missing something…

Other thoughts

I don’t know what to say about Fukase’s Ravens,, except that it’s totally heartbreaking.

Also, while I’m not sure this was part of the “Provoke” exhibition, they’ve got an absolutely stunning photograph by Toshio Shibata. You can see a crappy scan here. A really, really fantastic print…

Of course, I would have enjoyed it and the entire museum-going experience a lot more if one of the staff hadn’t forced me to stop making notes with my pen and instead use an f-stopping golf pencil…of all the cockamamy policies…it’s not like I’m pressing my notebook against the photographs to write; I’m several feet away. And on the off-chance that I got it into my mind to go crazy and attack one of these prints, it’s not like issuing me a golf pencil is going to prevent me from doing harm. Honestly, is this what my membership dollars are going to pay for? Because if so, I’d rather they put them toward something else, like the mildewy smell in the vicinity of the staircase on the second floor.

Also, trivial quibble: Why is it that the nomenclature is “silver gelatin print” vs. “platinum print,” vs. “albumen print,” vs. “chromogenic print,” vs. “dye transfer print”? Why not “silver albumen print,” for example. Also, would it kill them to call a polaroid a polaroid? Perhaps there’s a legal issue…

Colin Pantall’s blog: Endless wittering about photography

Monday, October 19th, 2009

In the same way, I wonder if photography and art isn’t degraded by the internet, if looking at pictures on the internet isn’t remarkably similar to watching 2 minutes of All About Eveon youtube and checking out the number of stars on IMDB and imagining it’s the same as watching the movie.

Colin Pantall’s blog: Endless wittering about photography

I would accept this as a valid concern, were it not for the fact that this is almost exactly how the vast majority of museum-goers look at photographs, too. They glance at them briefly, they read the little placard next to them, they may or may not make some brief technical or aesthetic observation to the person they dragged along with them, and then they move on tot he next one, and dispatch with equal speed and dispassion.

The only difference between this experience and the experience one gets on flickr is that (a) the image is often larger, (b) you don’t usually drag your spouse or friend with you to the internet, and (c) the offhand remarks on the internet are often persistent and can be perused by all who come after.

Of course, you don’t have to behave this way when you go to a museum or gallery, and some people do not. However, those people are the exception.

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