I admit to being very late to the game in landscape photography – it’s something I’ve not really done seriously until pretty much this year; I suppose the main reason was a solid lack of opportunity. When you live in the tropics, then your shooting hours are limited: light is great in the morning and evening, but weather usually conspires against you with pollution, convection rain, or just general haze. Travel opportunities have changed that somewhat, however I think my quest to create images that are the kind of art you’d want to hang has lead me to look at new subject matter. This of course in conjunction with the ongoing quest to find subject matter that makes the most of the immersive experience of the Ultraprints and vice versa. Of late, however, I’ve found the process meditative (if frantic when light serves) and challenging in a good way: a successful image must parse a very three-dimensional and fractal subject into a limited reproduction medium, which forces you to carefully visualise the result and output medium.
Opening questions: What is beauty? What is elegance? What is ugliness? What is refinement? What’s the difference between functionality and art? What do we prefer one object over another, given choice, and identical function/ consumption of resources? These are not easy questions to answer: they require us to address fundamental challenges of not just personal preference, but also identity. We like something because we choose it over something else; we find that beautiful but that preference is a consequence of personal biases, needs, requirements and ultimately – experiences which make our personality and preferences the way they are. Yet our instinctive responses to things are often both immediate and quite strong: the like or dislike is established within moments of contact, and whilst prolonged exposure might breed some latitude born of understanding and tolerance, it’s unlikely to change love into hate. I want to address a very difficult set of questions today: what is the aesthetic sense? How can it be developed? Does it matter for photography, and if so, how does it make us better (or worse)?
In the past, I’ve written about the importance of conscious exclusion in the process of composition: you don’t want to confuse your audience by including elements that are irrelevant or worse, distracting and visually stronger than the main subject. As we know, the very act of composition itself is one of both cropping and curation: we are choosing what not to show as much as what to show, based on our own preferences and biases. How we structure the rest of the composition around that is very much up to us, and of course the intended story or message of the image. But where do we end things – and in what situations is a little trimming necessary? How can we achieve a clean frame and a clean idea?
Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?
The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’
One image that appears to break the rules, but really doesn’t: relatively flat light prevents texture from being too harsh, but it’s directional enough to create the curved shadow between the mown and unmown grass, with the line leading to the yellow flowers – that stand out from the rest of the meadow. Order in chaos, guided nature.
In the past, I’ve written about ‘The Four Things’ – what I consider to be the cornerstone elements of a good image. I’ve also written about subject isolation and finding that extra unpredictable magic element that lifts an image to the realm of the memorable. I’ve not written about ‘the idea’ yet, but that’s in the works. What I’d like to do today is revisit the core structure of an image with the benefit of hindsight and simplify those four things as much as possible, with the background context of understanding how our brains work. It might seem like photography and psychology all over again; but remember that photography is really a conversation between photographer and audience – and like all forms of communication, the rules are both cultural and somewhat more deep-seated at an anthropological level.
I was playing equipment tetris* for a job recently – a regular occurrence. It occurred to me that most of the hardware I was packing was ‘just in case’; contingency planning if something happens to go pear shaped or I encountered a situation at the very edges of the envelope. There are of course no excuses for not delivering what the client wants, at least if you intend to keep your clients. This means I basically had two complete Hasselblad medium format kits – including backup lens coverage – a set of filters, double the number of batteries and triple the number of cards, critical backups, etc. Add a spare tripod head and brackets to the mix, plus a day bag to work out of, and you’re soon seriously encumbered. This wasn’t even a job requiring external lighting, which brings the packed weight to somewhere in the 50kg region once you include stands and modifiers. In practice, for that once in a blue moon occurrence, you’re glad when you have it – but the rest of the time, your back is cursing you. The rest of the time, you shoot with one body and the zoom. There’s probably got to be an easier way, right?
*Attempting to fit in various camera bodies, lenses and accessories into the smallest possible volume for that amount of gear, but the largest possible volume that would pass for carry on – my record is 24kg overweight for hand carry, at which point Air France forced me to buy another seat. At full price. In one of the front cabins, because the rear one was full – and with a penalty fee for cancelling the old one. I definitely didn’t want to repeat that.
How many careers will the average 30 year old have by the time they retire – if they can even afford to retire? My guess is anywhere north of five. This is a stark contrast with my parents’ generation, where working with the same company for life wasn’t unheard of – and 20+ year stints were pretty common. A move after anything less than five years was seen as ‘unstable’. When I began my career 14 years ago, that timetable was down to three; these days, a year is just fine. Are we learning faster? Probably not. Are we getting more impatient? Definitely. Tomorrow, I’ll turn 30. I am aware that this is probably a bit younger than most in the audience, if the workshop demographics are anything to go by, but I’m both here and I’m not; having graduated and started work at 16, I’m now on my second career and the vast majority of my friends and peers are in their 40s and 50s – which puts me in a rather unique observatory position (or eternal no-mans’ land, depending on how you look at it). If you’ll permit me the digression – I promise we will talk photography at some point later in the piece – I’d like to share some thoughts.
The term ‘format’ has come to represent two things in photographic parlance – firstly, the aspect ratio of the capture area or composition (e.g. 3:2, square, 16:9) and also the physical size of the recording medium (compact, APS-C, M4/3, ‘full frame’ etc.) – to the point that we have somewhat generic terms like ‘medium format’ and ‘large format’. How medium is medium? Is that 44×33, or 6x9cm? How large is large – 4×5″, or 20×24″? Capture medium choices are more of a continuum than anything, and all other things being equal, to see a significant difference a good rule of thumb is that you’re going to have to double the linear dimensions – i.e. 4x overall area. But what does all of this have to do with the actual making of images, and is it possible that larger isn’t necessarily better for some things? Absolutely.
Dali ‘Atomicus’, unretouched. Source: Wikipedia, used under the terms of the Creative Commons
One of the less commonly cited photographic greats, Philippe Halsman is perhaps best known for his Atomicus portrait of Salvador Dali, above. He also photographed a number of other personalities of the time for Life and other magazines; I personally get the feeling his work is about as close as you can get to a constructed biography in a single frame. I had a discussion with one of my students recently about his six rules for the creation of photographic ideas – and the execution of that portrait. There was no Photoshop in 1948, and retouching was limited to painting over things – in this case, the removal of some of the supports for the various elements in the frame. The final image was take number twenty eight: by that point, the cats had probably had enough. The salient points of Halsman’s life and career are better summed up by Wikipedia, here. Today’s article is a few thoughts on that portrait and his principles in general.
Almost everybody falls into one of two categories: creator or consumer. Do you spend more time making content or material, derivative or otherwise, than consuming it? Do you prefer to make or view images? Of the creators, there are positive, derivative and negative. The positives try to advance art, science and and knowledge by providing a point of view or product or device or service that hasn’t existed previously, whilst maybe or maybe not benefitting personally from the provision of said novelty. The line between positive and derivative is a blurry one, and perhaps doesn’t cleanly exist – in my mind, it’s down to whether the creator tries to add some element of originality or not; there’s no such thing as 100% uniqueness or 100% invention from nothing. We cannot create without some base of precedent or inspiration, no matter how remote or seemingly unrelated. But the more remote the connections that are made in the creation of something, the more the creator contributes by joining the dots, making the logical conclusions and helping the rest of us see what we might have missed.