In the previous article, we distilled down the two components of an interesting image: subject and presentation. We looked at the theoretical implications of both; today we’re going to attempt to address practical application. It will be in a very limited subjective way, as there’s simply no way to do it at an absolute level; I suppose it will be as much a snapshot of my current state of interpretation of the purpose of photography as a medium as much as anything. I certainly would not have had this line of logic two years ago, nor will I probably agree with everything again in another two years. The more we see, the more we experiment, the more our own vision evolves together with the creative philosophy behind it.
A traveller’s view. We have the required visual cues to say ‘airport’ – the aircraft, boarding gates, apron, terminal, bits of ground hardware. But also the vertical bars that suggest perhaps we are being imprisoned or limited in some way, and the lack of clarity or definition from the plastic windows making it unclear if the view is a reflection or perhaps the illusory product of jetlag…
In previous articles, I’ve explored what makes a technically good image; what makes a visually balanced image; what makes an emotional image, and of course what makes an outstanding image. But at no point have I really addressed what makes an interesting one. I’m going to attempt to tackle that today; but bear in mind this is an extremely subjective topic, and opinions may diverge enormously.
You have been warned.
A question of orientation
Post-CP+, and in a stunning reversal of recent events, I’ve been given a camera to test. Not just any camera; one that is not even currently available. It is light, portable and sits in a class of its own amongst all cameras I have used. I can’t say yet what this camera is, but I was told I can post a review and images from it so long as I don’t reveal anything about appearance or specifications for the time being. This is obviously a rather unusual state of affairs, but I felt that there were some greater lessons to be learned from such restrictions, so here we go. I’ll start by saying that this is a singular device: it is a professional’s camera ne plus ultra. You must know what you’re doing to get a decent image out of it, and if you do, it’ll reward you in unexpected ways. Read on, if you’re curious.
Today’s post is one from the archives; back nearly to the beginnings of the site. I’m pulling it out again to set you up for what comes next.
A series of experiments was done many years ago that showed humans have been conditioned to expect certain things in the way of color: blue ketchup just doesn’t fly, for instance. The theory is that it’s a primeval subconscious response to warn us of danger. Think of it this way: rancid meat looks a certain way, and has a certain color. Even if we can’t smell it – looking at a photograph of vomit or something decomposing makes us go ewwww. Such examples are to be found in nature all the time – think of those brightly colored poisonous beetles, for instance. In fact, the link between color and range (and thus emotion) is so strong that many species mimic the coloring of more dangerous species to warn away predators, but at the same time rely solely on that as protection because they pack no venom or toxicity. (Toxicity is energy-consuming to produce, and in food-scarce environments, you want to waste as little of your nutritional intake as possible producing something that’s only going to help you if you’re eaten – and thus probably going to die anyway.)
The images in this article are unconventional compositions: products of long periods of experimentation, sometimes the result of a single fast grab, or several iterations of adjustment and refinement. I think they suit the theme well.
Today’s essay is a slightly odd one. Consider for a moment: is it better to be a prolific photographer, or a slow, methodical, considered one? No matter how you slice it, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. And I honestly haven’t been able to figure outs which works best, so I’m hoping the comments are going to spark an interesting discussion depending on the approach of my readers.
Having shot extensively with oue 645Z over the last few months, I’ve developed a new hypothesis: the format – i.e. the physical size of the recording medium – matters to the output, but not in the way that we’d expect. Naturally, we assume that the larger the sensor or film, the higher the image quality. Since so much of that is both subjective and perceptual and thus affects the final impact of the image, perhaps it’s important to understand exactly what’s going on.
I believe it’s very important to have a sense of purpose as a photographer. If it’s not clear exactly why you’re photographing, or what the aim of your output is, you run the risk of not only making weak images, but not knowing they’re weak, or even worse, not being able to step up and move on. However, only you can decide exactly what that purpose or aim is; and in the past couple of years since starting this site, I’ve realized two things: firstly, you’re going to evolve, so don’t be afraid to say ‘my objective has changed'; secondly, you’re not going to satisfy everybody (and some of those people are bound to be extremely rude and vocal about it, but really have nothing more than hot air). The latter is easy to rationalise but difficult to accept if you care about your work.
Some months ago, I wrote about the idea of clarity in an image: the experience of being able to see through the picture and beyond the facsimile representation to the scene or subject in itself; it’s akin to breaking the fourth wall in cinema, but In the opposite direction. Ironically, the ability for a still photograph to do this is very much related to technology: we need the hardware and technical chops to be able to make it look as though the hardware is unimportant.
The idea of a photograph looking like a painting isn’t a ridiculous one. In fact, I personally find it quite appealing, and a very good solution for the times when you don’t have strong enough light to make something more dynamic. It’s certainly a style I’ve been exploring increasingly – beginning consciously with Havana – but what exactly makes a photograph ‘painterly’?