We acknowledge that every medium of expression has its strengths and limitations relative to others. Yet our basis for discussion and understanding of concepts and ideas is very much a written/spoken language-based one, this remains our benchmark – more so when the concepts become more complex and less intuitive – or the opposite, so simple and basic they’re entirely intuitive and not at all logical. There are of course severe limitations of language when it comes to describing the visual properties of expression and composition, yet it’s usually easy for us to see when something isn’t quite right. Why, how, and what do proportions, weight, balance, composition and aesthetics have to do with each other? Is there a somewhat more objective way to handle these concepts? I’m not certain, but today were going to try.
Following the last two articles on rules of vision, it seemed very appropriate to finish the mini-series with this little reminder from 18 months ago…
Many photographs do not work. Subsequently, we find out they do not work because there is a difference between what you saw and what your audience sees in the image. Sometimes this comes down to lack of skill in translating an idea, but often it’s more subtle than that: the camera doesn’t see what we see, and we need to be both highly aware of that and how to compensate for it. Yesterday’s photoessay is a good example: it’s no big deal to make a monochrome image, but our eyes only perceive a lack of color under very exceptional circumstances. Yet it’s these differences that make some images stand out, and others not really ‘work’.
Continued from part I – hopefully the first part has had time to settle and digest; let us press on…
We draw temporal inferences from direction of shadows
The length and direction of shadows also suggests time of day: this is one of the indelible subconscious rules dating back to the very beginning. It is a consequence of observing sunrises and sunsets and being able to judge approaching darkness accordingly, by both overall luminance of a scene and the shadows cast by the sun. Sadly, for a lot of us, this is somewhat academic as there are far too many offices with hours that extend beyond daylight and further have no natural light whatsoever…
Regular readers will know that I hate arbitrary maxims labelled as ‘photographic’ rules simply because there is no such thing as a ‘universal scene’ or universal set of parameters for every image. Every composition is different, and every creative intention is different, which means the whole premise of there being a fixed set of laws that make a ‘good’ image or ‘image that works’ can only be nonsense. However, I do think there are some fundamental principles of human vision – and consequently psychological response to elements in an image – that we cannot ignore since they directly influence the response of our audience to the ideas we are trying to present. That is what I wish to address today: what are the autonomous/ subconscious/ reflex/ automatic – pick your preferred term – visual responses that we should be aware of and seek to utilise when we compose an image? Think of this post as the predecessor to The Four Things: it’s the underlying reason why some of the Things have to be the way they are.
Borrowing the title reference from the John le Carre novel and (later) movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I think nicely encapsulates the multitude of hats the modern photographer must be comfortable wearing in order to be a producer of compelling images. I’ve said before that photography is both a dialog between photographer and audience and that the process of photographing is really an exercise in curating and excluding elements of the world according to one’s own personal biases, then sharing the results with an audience such that they might be interpreted in the desired way. The technical process of capture, and the creative one of composition, are no more than enablers to that translation: the capture allows recording and sharing; composition is arrangement with the intention of direction and influence over the audience. The whole photographic process – vision, composition, capture, presentation, viewing – is really simultaneously as much and as little as the sharing of an idea inspired by already extant objects.
I’ve recently been accused by several people of ‘not being objective’ and ‘losing credibility’ since representing a brand, and I’d like to address those critics today. Firstly, I don’t get paid for doing so. I enjoy a somewhat higher level of support and some loan equipment, but I still have to buy a good proportion of my own hardware. Secondly, the whole of photography is subjective in itself – equipment is only fit for purpose or not, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ since no two people shoot the same way or same subjects. Sure, we can do quantitative measurement – but as most people (correctly) point out, there’s more to it than numbers. Thirdly, if the only thing you associate me with is equipment reviews, then I breathe a sigh of relief: you might be missing out on 90% of my site, but the gear-related questions and emails I don’t have to answer leave me time to focus on making pictures and the philosophy of photography. Lastly, the philosophy of photography and image-making and human psychological response has nothing whatsoever to do with hardware beyond its necessity as a tool for achieving a certain expression – you cannot have a compressed perspective with a wide angle, but two 500mm lenses are going to give you the same perspective regardless of pedigree.
Not a people mover, and never meant to be. Similar things abound photographically: resolution, or bulk? Reach, or size? Ease of file handling, or quality? Edge resolution, or weight and filter size? Controllability or compactness?
The story of photography is really a series of compromises – I suppose the same can be said of life in general, though there are specific consequences and considerations when it comes to making images. At the risk of appearing to contradict myself*, I’m writing this post somewhere over the South China Sea, after having a little epiphany. The difference between life and photography is that compromises made in the former usually come with a mixed bag of consequence that are both unknown since we have affected causality and the flow of events by making a choice, but in photography, we almost always know what we’re giving up – or we think we have a fair idea of it. Surely this should make creative and technical choices in image capture easier to make?
*Forcing creative development through restriction is not the same as knowing you’ve stopped before you’re done.
‘Quality of light’ is one of those phrases I use often, but perhaps should explain a little better. Similarly, we are all guilty of overusing the ‘good light/bad light’ phrase; but what does it (and we) actually mean? To a certain degree, we photographers are programmed both with preconceptions of what constitutes favourable light – based on our own or others’ historical work – and what constitutes ‘bad’ light. At the same time, we also have our own aesthetic biases and preferences – some of us may prefer flatter or more diffuse light as a consequence of spend childhoods at extreme latitudes, or be predisposed towards hard contrast because we’re tropical people. Here’s the kicker, though: I believe there is no such thing as truly bad or wrong light; there is only suitability for a given subject and set of aesthetic preferences.
When is a photograph not a strictly a photograph?
This is a little question that I’ve bumped up against now and again with increasing frequency as I produce personal work that’s less literal and more abstract. I think at simplest, what we have here is a continuum from ‘straight’ untouched images of literal objects that happen to be taken from an unusual vantage with unusual light that contributes to them feeling abstracted, surreal or both, to the opposite end where there is so much manipulation going on that we are no longer sure that what we are looking at can be classified as photography instead of mixed-media art. Some ‘conceptual’ commercial work can fall into this latter category, too. What is clear is that none of these images are in any way attempting to represent themselves as transparent photojournalism. The question that I’d like to address is not so much the definition of photography as at what point we must start to unburden ourselves of conventional notions of image-making and really start trying the crazy stuff.
I recently attended two exhibitions. First was a semibiographical retrospective of Yves St Laurent at work by French photographer Pierre Boulat, and the other was Steve McCurry’s ‘Iconic Photographs’. Both were in Asia, but held at two of the top galleries in the region – Galeri Petronas and Sundaram Tagore, respectively. There was no faulting the presentation or hanging in either case. For both shows, print quality was frankly disappointingly mediocre. I’m prepared to give Boulat some latitude since he was working in relatively early film days and under ‘documentary’ conditions; McCurry’s film work often has obvious motion blur and focus misses, and his digital compounds that with oversharpening haloes – all of which land up being distracting from the image. He should really have tighter control on his post production, or stop outsourcing altogether – as the recent cloning scandal demonstrates. It’s not so much the use of postproduction enhancement, but the addition or removal of elements in what is expected to be work of a documentary nature. All of this has raised two questions in my own mind: firstly, if either photographer was starting out fresh today, would they have anywhere near the notoriety and fame, and secondly, has the game changed so much that we modern photographers have little hope of making a truly widely-recognized ‘iconic image’?