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’?
I originally wanted to call this article ‘is anything truly original?’ – however, I think that’s the concluding question I’d like to leave the reader with rather than the opening one. There has been a lot of debate recently – both in the comments here, offline amongst my usual correspondents and in various places on the internet about why a) photography is perhaps not perceived as ‘highly valued’ as other art forms; b) obviously derivative works and the creative value – or lack of – contained therein; and the greater question of whether c) the medium as a legitimate creative art form rather than merely a recording/ documentary one. Perhaps the biggest question is in the title: ‘but is it art?’
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve mentioned ‘the four things’ in any context – teaching, essay, article, review, photoessay…and promptly realised that there’s actually no article in which I explain and detail them comprehensively. Granted, there’s a sort of semi-prioritized proto-version in these articles (first part, second part) on what makes an outstanding image; I go through it in quite some detail as it forms the underlying structure of the making outstanding images workshop series, and of course I go into significantly more detail in the teaching videos (episodes 1-3) including examples – but after wrapping up the San Francisco Masterclass yesterday, I was looking through the archives recently and didn’t find any solid mention of it anywhere. So, here goes.
Escape from yourself: clouds are like thoughts, the clear blue sky is freedom, and the person left behind is your ego. The car represents your way out, and the road is the constraints of your mind, complete with bright areas, order, logic, and dark, unconscionable ones.
I’ve often been accused of making images that are precise, cold and soulless; the more I look at images from other photographers, I’m inclined to agree. Taken in context with the opening title of this article, that probably doesn’t bode well for impressions of me as a person. It did get me thinking, though: since the act of photographing is really one of conscious exclusion in which we eliminate all of the elements that are distracting or unnecessary to the subject/ story, what does this say about us?
I struggled to find an appropriate image to go with this article. I think this works, though: firstly, it was shot with an iPhone, on an occasion I could not foresee doing any photography. But having an open mind and an active eye meant that I saw it; experience/ practice meant that I could make do with the bare minimum, and enjoying cigars meant that I was in the right place at the right time to begin with. All will be explained towards the end of the article…
Don’t worry. Despite the slightly off-topic title, it’s very much a post about photography. This isn’t a moment of existential angst, but rather a clarification of purpose. It isn’t quite the same as article on Why We Photograph from some time ago; it’s far more personal than that. On reflection, I think it’s very important to understand the motivations behind certain things so that a) we might do them better and b) we avoid doing things we don’t enjoy. Especially when there’s a choice.
Irrespective of format and camera, there’s definitely a difference in the way we shoot film vs digital: a lot of comments from an earlier article examining the economics of shooting both media to a similar output standard suggested that this is the same for a lot of other photographers, too. We may not feel qualitatively that there’s much of a difference, but the higher keeper rate suggests the complete opposite. I think I have figured out why this is the case – at least for me – and beyond that, what we can take away from the process to improve our images – independent of the medium.
The perpetually asked question of ‘but is it art?’ is one that’s impossible to answer. I’ve tried, I know I’ve been found to fall short, and won’t event attempt to define it. But today I’d like to approach this topic from a slightly different angle: how are the three things in the title related?
Some time ago, I went out hunting for a variable ND filter in anticipation of a beach trip. (I know, most people buy a swimsuit or sunglasses, but I’m a photographer; sue me.) What I found was a little troubling. Not only were the locally available options hideously expensive, but they also weren’t multicoated – this brings about an obvious set of flare related problems given the environments (sunny) under which they’d be used. I thought I’d get creative instead.
The final article in this series on printing leaves behind the technique and even the images to consider a far deeper philosophical consideration: art vs. the process vs. the result. To make a successful image, there are three primary considerations: the idea, the execution, and the display medium. Most photographers struggle to manage more than one of these – there are a lot of people who are very good at shooting brick walls and test charts and can remember ever single custom function of their cameras, but cannot compose at all. Similarly, there are a lot of people who point and shoot with their phones but are quite gifted compositionally; yet they are frustrated by their inability to capture what they imagine. And both groups almost never think about how the finished work is to be presented and viewed.