I believe good photographs can be divided into two camps: the literal and the ambiguous. (There’s a third kind, which you cannot really classify into either because they are lacking something fundamental like a clear subject – these land up as being ambiguous by default, but not intentionally.) From an interpretative/ artistic standpoint, a photograph is perhaps the most literal of all art forms; assuming minimal postprocessing, the translation between reality and finished interpretation is predictable and consistent across all subjects and capture conditions. The resultant image has to obey the laws of physics, after all – and these are generally quite consistent. But then how can we use ambiguity to our advantage to make a stronger image?
Welcome to The Idea of Man – a virtual exhibition, for all of you who are unable to visit the physical one at The Rangefinder Gallery in Chicago. It runs until 31 October 2015. I owe Dan Tamarkin of Tamarkin Camera a massive round of thanks for putting it all together and sharing his space – please drop by while it’s still up.
Here we go.
Note: for the benefit of those who prefer no captions, I’ve left them in only if you click through to the images on flickr. The narrative however, is important.
The ideal [insert your obsession of choice here] doesn’t exist.
We all like to think ‘if only…’ and it might. Whether it’s cameras, clients, light or partners, there’s always something that could be better. Perhaps this is a reflection of the consumerist and entitled nature of modern society as a whole, or perhaps it merely shows that we as people are always changing. Ironically, it is this very ‘if only’ that keeps things interesting: if you were to make the ideal image (in your own mind, and subject to the constraints of personal bias) of whatever you framed whenever you pressed the shutter, you’d quickly run out of possible subjects. It is not a bad thing at all that a) everybody has different opinions and b) we ourselves are in a state of constant flux. I know for certain that I approach familiar subjects like family or watches very differently now than from when I did previously. But there is perhaps such a thing as ‘good enough’ – better than 80/20, certainly – and we should probably know when to appreciate it. Today’s post is going to be looking at the business side of photography.
These questions may be technically difficult, contextually difficult, commercially difficult, diplomatically difficult or all four – but at some point, we’ve all had to face them. Some of us more than others. And the real challenge is that the answer always depends on who’s asking. Read on if you dare.
For a very, very long time, I was against instagram simply because of the mediocrity it perpetuated: run any crap image of a cat through one of our filters and make a masterpiece! Slowly, things changed. You could upload images you didn’t shoot with your phone. You didn’t have to filter them, even if they still had to be square. They actually introduced an editor with control closer to Photoshop than a cookie cutter (vertical and horizontal keystone correction, anybody?). I caved, and as previously announced, have been using it for some time – more than a year, in fact. (You can find me here.) Whilst the purpose for the majority of users is clear – it’s a visual social network, of course – my own rationale for using it has been far less clear until recently.
In part one we looked at why images of people fascinate us, and the nature of portraiture. However, this only covers half of the possibilities for ‘images of people’: instances where the subject is a conscious and cooperative part of the process. What about the other possibility: where the subject is not aware the photographer, or only aware of them in the most fleeting of moments before any conscious self-image or rapport can be built?
The images in this article are all candid: unposed, unplanned, and with subject unaware. Even if it appears they may be looking at the camera in certain situations, it is a result of conscious timing, observation of something behind me, and/or a particular moment rather than catching a long stare. None of them showed any acknowledgement of my presence before or after the shot was taken, which was actually quite surprising in some situations. They saw me, but my presence didn’t register.
Today’s article is the first of two parts focusing on portraiture and human subjects as the focus of an image. It is not something I’m normally associated with because I rarely choose to show my work here; it doesn’t mean I don’t engage in it for personal reasons (which are usually not shared, obviously) or professional ones (I do have clients whose mainstay subjects are primarily human). Whilst curating images for a recent assignment, I had a couple of little personal epiphanies which I’d like to share with you all.
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.