Friday, August 31, 2012

Tech and Anti-Tech

Lomography. Holga. Impossible Project. As always in any artistic milieu there is a constant reaction to perceived norms in photography. Technical perfection is one of photography's long-standing norms: sharpness, acutance, compositional formality, precise focus, correct white balance, and so on. As usual with any such norm, we find a community of people who are more focused on complying with the norms of technical excellence than any difficult questions like, is the photograph any damn good?

Lomography and its ilk are surely a reaction to the norm of technical excellence. Commendably, Lomographers eschew technical perfection in favor of more important issues, such as, is the photograph any damn good? This is, at any rate, the theory. As with all human endeavors, Lomography has a tendency to vanish up its own ass. Instead of the perfect photoshop effect, the artist now searches for the perfect light leak, the perfectly broken lens, the perfect absinthe-based developer, which will finally unleash the artist's creativity.

Layered atop this we see a trend toward photographers applying Lomographic effects to technically good digital photographs. At this point we've pretty clearly diverged from the territory of artistic integrity. The effect is (almost) always just being applied because it looks cool, or because there's the feeling that it will bring some "artistic cred" to the image. The artist is not eschewing anything, they are in fact doing extra work to create the appearance of eschewing technology in favor of art.

In all cases, of course, the photographers tend to lose sight of the goal and get lost in technique, method, process. An entirely analogous process occurs in music. Musicians seek out old equipment, or digital simulations of same. They seek to "dirty up" the sound in old school ways. Bad musicians, like bad photographers, ignore the question of whether the "dirty" sound serves the music they are playing or not. They just love the sound of tubes screaming in agony, or the digital simulation of tubes screaming in agony. It's a cool sound, I love it too. It doesn't automatically make you awesome.

There is nothing inherently wrong with technical perfection, or with a Holga, or with a Polaroid. Nor is there anything inherently more artistic about these approaches and tools. The only thing that really matters is this:

Is the photograph any damn good?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pre vs. Post

Gedankenexperiment #1:

Consider an event. Say, a wedding. Suppose that the participants all wear motion-capture gear, and that some other work is done to construct a complete real-time 3-D model of the event. Now, walk through the model and "shoot" the wedding by selecting camera positions, lighting, and framing. Run the model back and forth in time, selecting those perfect moments. Render the resulting frames, and present to the bride and groom as their wedding album. This is indistinguishable from photography as we know it today, but occurs entirely in post-processing and at a leisurely pace.

This is, if not technically feasible now, very very close to it. It would be absurdly expensive. Wait twenty years.

Gedankenexperiment #2:

Consider the same event. Instead of a 3-D model, we use light-field cameras from Lytro. These cameras have the property that focus and depth of field are handled in post, calculated from the data captured by the camera. I don't fully understand the technology, but it's there. Perhaps you have to use an array of these things to create a virtual wide-angle camera with adequate resolution, whatever. If I have to use 16 of them mounted in a bracket, that's OK. The point is you get a high resolution quite wide angle light-field "image" out of whatever you've built. Send a team out with minimal training armed with these things. Automatically take 1 exposure per second.

Edit the "wedding album" out of the 10s of thousands of frames captured. Select focus and DoF, and crop the images out of the wide angle raw image.

This is feasible now, and might cost in the low five figures to implement.

Gedankenexperiment #3:

Instead of an array of Lytro cameras use a very high resolution DSLR or digital medium format camera, with a quite wide lens. Set the thing on Auto, or Aperture Priority with a preset moderate aperture and auto-ISO. Spray and pray. Focus is decided at shutter time, and will sometimes be correct. DoF will be deep, but you can "reduce" it in post. Cropping is the reason you're using a very high resolution system.

This is almost the way pros work now. They tend to be a little more selective, trying to do more of their editing up-front in the real world. No particular reason they couldn't push more editing into post, though. I think it's just habit.

All these are variations on "spray and pray" photography, really, which is really about shifting the "photography" in to post. Where, you might ask, is the ART? Where is the SKILL? The CRAFT?

Good question, I have no pat answer.

It does appear to be on the move, doesn't it?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What Camera Should I Buy?

We all get this one from time to time. It shows up on internet forums, too. The answers tend to turn into technical blather and a Nikon versus Canon debate, which sucks. So, here's the right answer.

There's a handful of cases here, and the answer varies:

  • you're talking to a gearhead who wants a shiny toy.
  • you're talking to someone who has pretty specific ideas about what pictures they want to take
  • you're talking to someone who "Just Loves Photography" and wants to "Get In To It"

In the first case, the gearhead probably already has a short list of toys they'd like to acquire. Identify the most expensive one and tell him (it's probably a male person) to buy that one. Anything will do as a fetish object, as long as you believe, after all.

In the second case, the kind of photographs they want to take will dictate the gear. The answer is probably "lower end DSLR with a decent longish prime lens" because they either want to take closeups of flowers buried in a mass of "bokeh" or they want to take pictures of their kids, and that's the answer either way. You should still listen to their problem, and pick out something that will solve it, though. Maybe they want to do sports.

In the third case, which is really the most interesting, the correct answer is almost certainly their cell phone. If you really want to Get In To photography, you've got to have the camera with you, and everyone's got their cell phone with them. If they have a smart phone (who other than me does not?) they should buy some camera apps for it, and play with them to find one they like. You can do excellent work with an iPhone. Your friend should get to the point where they can do excellent work before they go investing a stack of money in something they will "outgrow" immediately anyways. Once you get on the gear train, it's pretty hard to stop upgrading. So, stay off the gear train as long as possible. Gear is mostly irrelevant anyways.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Art and the Observer

Does art exist without an observer? If I shoot a photograph, and never develop the film, can that be art? What if I develop it and make a fantastic print, but shred it immediately? What if I make the print, mount it, and place it on a wall nobody ever looks at?

These are, really, just silly questions. What sensible person really cares about the answers to these, and are there any answers anyways? The point is not to answer the questions, but to consider what idea spin off from them.

Related, from a discussion elsewhere. Are naturally occurring objects, objects created without the hand of man art? If I select the right object and photograph it, or place it on a pedestal, that's probably art. At what point and in what manner does the object become imbued with art-ness?

These are not really questions with answers. If you try to hard you'll invent Postmodernism or Conceptual Art or something, and that's not something anybody approves of. They're good to think about, though.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Evolving Thoughts

I've expressed before in these notes the idea that "good art" is work that is evocative, that has emotionally power, with little to no context provided. Good work stands on its own, needing no artist's statement, no little textual description of what it is and what it means, none of that stuff. I have also harped on about the context a viewer brings to a photograph or other work -- which is almost a diametrically opposed point of view, when you mull it over a bit, isn't it?

I think I can refine these ideas a little bit. I rather hope I can, at any rate. At one extreme, let us postulate an alien creature. It communicates with radio waves, it reproduces by fission, it lives on the surface of the sun and has no notion of "vision" as we know it. Communicating even the idea of a photograph to this creature would be difficult. If it did react emotionally to any of our art, it would most likely be in ways that are incomprehensible to us. So, obviously, something is required of art, in particular of a photograph, if it is to move the viewer, if it is to be powerful and evocative. Consider also an illiterate tribe member from your favorite faraway land, or an autistic man from Chicago.

In the interest of simplicity I will describe a photograph as "accessible" to a viewer if the viewer can understand the photograph, and if the viewer reacts to it in some interesting way. The degree to which a photograph is accessible to many people might be termed the "universality" of the image. If absolutely every human on earth found the photograph accessible, we might describe the photograph as universal, or universally accessible, or something of that sort. In general, of course, a photograph is only truly accessible to some people, but the degree to which the photograph moves a wide audience, the degree to which is it powerful to a wide audience of viewers, can reasonably be described as a degree of universality.

In general, it is fair to say that a cultural milieu shared by the photographer and the viewer of the photograph will be a big help in making a photograph accessible. There are really two loosely related factors in play here, one of which is the degree to which a photograph is accessible to the viewer, and the other of which is how much shared context the viewer has with the photographer.

A snapshot of grandma at her 90th birthday party is "accessible" to most family members who know and love grandma, but is most likely inaccessible to anyone else. There is an immense amount of shared context required here to "access" this photograph, which is really the problem with snapshots. This photograph has a very very low degree of universality, it requires a great deal of shared experience to make any sense of at all. Edward Weston's Pepper #30 is far more accessible. Even if the viewer does not know what a green pepper is, the vaguely erotic shapes and tones of the image will likely make some sort of connection for most people. A spike-beast from Tau Ceti might find the smooth textures incomprehensible and certainly not erotic, but human beings will probably find the forms reminiscent of bare human skin. Probably, people who know what a green pepper is will tend to find the image somewhat more accessible. Surely this image is moderately to very universal -- many many people across the world might well find it "accessible" in some interesting way.

Is this notion of universality the same as a notion of "good"? I don't know and I don't really even care. Good art, I think, tends to be pretty universal. Universally accessible things might not always be good art, if you like. It hardly matters, the point here is that universality of a photograph is a real thing, even if we can't really measure it precisely (and I don't care much about that either). Some photographs are more universal than others, and it seems to be a useful way to think about photographs as art, and that's really what I care about.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Overton Window of Lighting

I've trotted out the idea of an "Overton Window" applied to realism before. Lately I've observed and pondered a similar notion with respect to lighting.

We're used to certain lighting idioms. Portraits always have a catchlight in the eyes. Models in "fashion" poses are always lit by somewhere between 2 and one million strobes. Even when a model is shot in natural light, we expect to see the shadows filled by strobes to that weird shallow look (see any Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition), and probably gold reflectors all over the place. It only looks superficially like natural light.

A model shot in truly natural light looks downright odd.

The point about the "Overton Window" though, is that it moves. Obviously model lighting moved from somewhere (fewer lights, if nothing else) to where it is today. What's interesting is that it continues to move. As of this writing, Forever 21 (a chain of clothing stores selling cheap clothes to young women, and women who wish they were young) has some campaign photography shot in what I am thinking of as the Facebook aesthetic. The light appears to be dead on front and center, and the highlights are completely blown out. It looks pretty much like on-camera flash, although it's not quite. Possibly the photographer actually could not place a light there, since his camera sans flash was there.

I don't know if this is going to become a new arrow in the fashion quiver, and I don't know it it's really new. It's still an interesting example of how lighting styles evolve, how the window of what we're willing to accept moves. Just as new political idea may or may not succeed in shifting the original Overton Window, this idiom may or may not move the equivalent window of acceptability here.

It's also a marvelous example of how commercial photography steals from popular mass photography. People see this photo of the their friends every day on facebook, it's familiar. To a "sophisticated" viewer, it's terrible, but that's only because we're stuck in last year's Overton Window Of Lighting.

Who's really the sophisticated one?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Artist's Statement and Other Atrocities

"The multi-layered imagery of my work is prompted by an intuitive response to world events and cultures, nature and Jungian psychology, and the conventions of visual and verbal language."

"My Inner Landscape Series explores layers of ideas, perceptions, beliefs and realities."

"I photograph the space between the camera and the subject."

"I believe the 'objects' of our reality are in themselves meaningful and I try to elucidate the 'true meaning' or one of the true 'meanings' of my subjects by revealing one or more aspects of their nature."


What's up with this nonsense? It looks like nearly meaningless babble, and yet the artists do not appear to be illiterate, or imbecile. To an extent, it's marketing. Whether true or not, there is a perception that the one needs to provide some vague artistic sounding bullshit to give your work suitable gravitas.

Whence this gravitas? There is a germ of something in here, as surely as this is marketing, surely there is also, sometimes, an effort to describe in words something not expressible in words. By being seen to struggle with putting the ineffable in to words the artist suggests that the work itself encompasses something ineffable.

That the artist struggles to express the ineffable has, in truth, no relationship whatsoever to the work. The work may or may not express the inexpressible. We should not, though it is difficult, allow ourselves to be prejudiced against work based on the artist's statement (or other similar jibba-jibba the artist has supplied). We should allow the possibility that the jibba-jabba actually is a sort of allegorical description of the work, or the artist's process. If it is truly an effort to say something unsayable, we should respect that. Since we can't know which it is, we should give the respect, taking the high road rather than the low in the face of uncertainty.

My own reaction to this sort of thing is unfairly negative, I find that high road rather difficult. I find that the artsy babbling suggests a lack of confidence. My preference is for no artist's statement at all, or one which merely states that the work speaks for itself, that the artist has nothing to say that is not in the art.

Monday, August 13, 2012

So You Wanna Go Pro?

Don't.

If you must, when you fling up the inevitable web site:

  • put your location front and center.
  • trim your gallery down.

I know it already, you'll know it soon enough. You forgot to stick up anything at all about where you actually are. When someone in Chennai stumbles (by some miracle) across your web site and wants you to take pictures of their baby, you're going to feel silly. Also, all the people in Keokuk, Iowa who are searching the web for photographers are never going to find you because the word "Keokuk" appears nowhere on your web site. Instead, they will find your competition, and give them money. Interestingly, they might also find this post, because the word "Keokuk" appears three times in it!

Your gallery is too big and contains, along with some work that is somewhere between passable and excellent, a bunch of images that you are in love with. The subject is something you love. The subject is unique and you sort of know the image isn't great, but there's something about it you love. Perhaps it's the best example you've ever made of something you're not very good about (see below). If you love it, print it out 16x24, hang it in your bedroom, and get it off your web site.

You also have too many kinds of things in your gallery, because you want people to think you have breadth, and you want clients to hire you no matter what kind of photography they want to have done. When you think of a store where you can buy every kind of thing you need, do you think "quality"? When I see a photographer who can do any kind of photography I might need, I do not think "quality". Figure out what you do best, and build your gallery to accentuate that.

While you're at it, build your entire web site and business around what you do best.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Process vs. Results

Process is fun. Process affects how you work, slowing or accelerating the pace. Process engages you as you work, leading down comfortable paths that let you think and breath, or down new and inspiring paths.

Process only affects the results to the extent that it affects the results. Process is not part of the result. If your goal is to produce 8x10 transparencies, an 8x10 view camera might be the shortest path to that goal. If your goal is large, sharp, prints an 8x10 view camera is among the most cumbersome, difficult, and expensive ways to achieve them (although it will probably work, once you have the kinks sorted out). Some results are only really achievable by a single process (e.g. tintypes) while others can be done by almost any process (e.g. 8x10 color glossies).

Sometimes a process makes the artist better or worse, by slowing or accelerating the working, or through any other intricate psychological process. One process may simply be more fun than another. This is all perfectly well and good. The trouble arises when one tries to connect the process with the artistic merit of the results. Artists and art press do this far too often, talking in hushed tones about the custom-built 16x24 view camera the artist uses to obtain his unique results, or the way the painter uses this material or that, or the way the sculptor uses only tools made of Egyptian mud.

Results don't care about the process used to produce them. They are not better because a more difficult process was used to create them, they are not imbued with more art-ness because an older process was used to create them. I am not a superior artist because I use a 4x5, I am arguably just dumb. You are not an inferior artist because you use a pro-sumer DSLR.

The only thing that makes work better is: being better.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Fake It

We accept artifice in the frame, generally. We accept that the photographer hired that model, or arranged those objects. We accept that there was some post processing, be it only slight contrast adjustments or an edge burn. We accept that, at the very least, the photographer stole a section of reality at a moment in time and encased it in a rectangle.

The contents of a photograph are a mixture or reality and artifice, in somewhat variable proportions, but always a mixture.

Why do we assume that the process surrounding the photograph, if it is described, is objectively true? Whether the process of making the image is "part of" the art in some sense, or merely "context" it's altogether too often trotted out along with the image. If you're going to trot it out, make it good.

Shoot it with you umpty-megapixel DSLR, and then write a story about lugging your 8x10 around, developing the film in Kona Coffee, fixing it in a mixture of honey and your own urine, and scanning the result on your Husqvarna T9000 scanner. If you're a photojournalist this might be a problem, but almost nobody is, so for most of us, why not?

Is this satire? Partly, but not entirely. Even I am not 100% sure how much.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Imitation and Originality

Glenn Gould, again. The first sentence is a bit of a bugger, the money is actually in the second and last one:

When you begin to examine terms like "originality" with reference to those constructive situations to which they do in fact analytically apply, the nature of the description that they provide tends to reduce the imitation-invention ratio in a work of art quite properly to the simple matter of a statistic. Within this statistic, no work of art is ever genuinely "original" -- if it were, it would be unrecognizable.


The point is that originality is opposed to comprehensibility. Something we have never seen before can hardly convey meaning. A Rorschach blob carries "meaning" only insofar as we think it resembles things we have seen before. A new visual idea is best placed in a context of familiar ideas and quotations which can do the work of carrying meaning. The second time we see the idea, perhaps it can carry meaning or otherwise evoke, because of the context in which we first saw it.

Photography, as a visual art, can draw on a world of sources. While photography certainly does draw on its own history as a source of idioms and ideas, as a source of the comprehensible, it can also draw on other visual arts as well as mass culture. In a very real sense, many of the arts build new work on a foundation of the culture as a whole, as a source of ideas and quotations that the audience already understands.

Photography as art draws on other forms of photography, popular/mass snapshot aesthetics, commercial photography, as well as other forms of art. The more I think about it, the more I think that the current fashion of HDR and popped color draws on comics, graffiti, and video games. Arguably the muted colors and contrast-to-the-midtones fashion work we see these days is also a bit of comic book styling, albeit without the bright colors.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Glenn Gould, Provenance, and Art

In an essay on Richard Strauss, Glenn Gould proposes the following thought experiment:

Suppose that a talented musician were to improvise a piece in the style of Haydn. A good solid piece of work, drawing strongly on the musical idioms in which Haydn worked, a fine piece of music and distinctly Haydn, or at any rate Haydn-era.

If the musician was truthful and passed the piece off as a contemporary improvisation in-the-style of, it would be treated as a fine piece of work, but ephemeral. Almost nobody would remember it in a year.

If the musician instead passed it off (successfully) as a previously unknown work of Haydn, it would be accepted into the canon, featured in Haydn performances for a while, and then blend seamlessly into the rest of Haydn's catalog.

If the musician instead passed it off as the work of Mendelssohn, a slightly later composer, the reaction would probably be more negative. This is inferior Mendelssohn, probably from his youth. A mere aping of an earlier era. It would rarely, if ever, be played.

Finally, if the musician passed the piece off as a work of Vivaldi, who was working 70 years earlier than Haydn, the work would be greeted as a triumph. Proof of Vivaldi's genius, that he could reach into the future and deploy musical vocabulary so inventive and fresh, so far ahead of his contemporaries. It would be played frequently, it would occupy a prominent place in Vivaldi's catalog.

Glenn Gould had many problems, but lack of erudition and lack of understanding of contemporary classical music culture were definitely not among them. We may take his discussion as entirely accurate. What he is driving at is that the provenance of a piece figures largely in how we experience the piece (and also that music critics tend to place too much importance on provenance). The same is true of any art form.

The provenance of a piece certainly affects one's experience of the piece. My attitude is that art is essentially about the viewer's (or auditor's) experience of it, so I cannot discount provenance. We experience a Weston print differently if we know it to have been printed by Weston himself. The experience varies according to whether we know who Weston was, and whether we think of him as a master printer or not. In all cases, though, the little note next to the frame reading "the man who took the photograph also printed it" surely has some effect on us. Provenance is one of the many pieces of context surrounding a photograph, it affects our experience of the photo in much the same way adjacent text does.

We could argue at this point about whether provenance is truly part of the art-ness of the piece or whether it is merely contextual. While I am drawn to argue the latter, I can see no way in which that discussion is not the merest of pointless semantic wankery. I enjoy semantic wankery, but try to keep the mere sort out of this blog.

Nonetheless, we need to be cautious about provenance. While we surely experience a Vermeer differently knowing that it is a Vermeer, we should not blather on about how only Vermeer could have executed that brushwork. We experience a Cartier-Bresson differently, knowing it to be Cartier-Bresson, but we should avoid making claims that only that photographer could have captured that circumstance of geometry. The brushwork is good, or it is not. The geometry is good, or it is not. The light is handled superbly, or it is not. That one artist did it and another did not affects the light not one whit.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Joint Attention and Winogrand

I spent some time with a book of Garry Winogrand's photos recently. The Man In The Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand, I shan't really review it, because I haven't really got much to say about it, really.

An extremely important element of the work in it, though, revolves around the concept of Joint Attention. At its highest levels (well, the highest levels humans can do, and therefore the highest levels we recognize) it involves following the gaze another animal to whatever it's looking at, with a mental model of the looker in mind. Evidence of a mental model can be turning back to the looker, checking, and similar. As a human being, there's a pretty good chance you know about this. It is, basically, thinking "what is she looking at?" and turning to look at the same thing. The idea, "what is she looking at" is critical, here. It turns out we can't do this reliably until we're almost teenagers, we haven't the neurological machinery in place. Autistic people can't do it at all. Like young children and a lot of mammals, they gaze-follow, but they seem to lack the idea "what is he looking at?" at some important level.

Winogrand's street photographs are simply littered with this stuff. There's the pretty girl, and then there's the man watching her. And the woman watching the man. Two men in conversation, one is looking at the other, but the other looks out of frame. The sailor and the girl passing on the street, looking at one another. Our gaze follows the gaze in the image, joint attention. Sometimes the gaze ping-pongs around the image 2 or 3 hops. It is us, the viewer, that gaze-follows and holds the mental model of the looker.

It's interesting! It occurs to me that, possibly, an autistic person might enjoy Cartier-Bresson's photographs with their deep respect for geometry, but would probably get nothing whatsoever from Winogrand.

By engaging these pretty low-level neurological phenomena, Winogrand draws us is. We are wired at a very primitive level to gaze-follow, to see an animal's eyes, calculate where that animal is looking, and to look there. Non-autistic humans add in the layer of mental engagement, the "what is he looking at?" thought, that seeks to understand what's going on in the looker's mind. Many of Winogrand's photos, therefore, essentially force a moderately deep degree of mental engagement. This, with luck, gives the geometry and composition of the photograph, and the other appealing elements, time to sink in and work.

To be honest, I don't love Winogrand's work. It's engaging, but it's a rare photograph in this book that I actually like, and those are mostly the witty ones.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Big, The Small, and the Pretty

Some classes of photographs we see around: Macro shots, photographs of hired models, and (occasionally, and from a particular breed of nerd) astrophotography.

Amateurs seem to be mostly awful at this sort of thing.

There is a class of amateur that works feverishly away taking macro photographs of various things. Bug's noses, the innards of flowers, salt crystals. They acquire gear, they learn technique. If they persevere and have some real taste, they might eventually stop making ugly pictures of quasi-moonscapes, and start producing attractive photographs of things that are very very small.

There is another class of nerd that owns one of more telescopes, and takes photographs through them. Again, they acquire gear and technique and, if they persevere and have some taste, they might eventually stop making ugly pictures of inky blackness with a sort of unpleasant blurry sphere in it, and start making attractive photographs of things that are very very large.

(A subclass are photographs of the moon. The moon is, let's review, tidally locked. Literally the only variation in moon photographs is the phase of the moon. There are, in real terms, about a dozen possible photographs of the moon, and they have all been shot.)

Finally, there is a very very large class of nerd that wants to hang around with pretty girls and take photographs of them. The acquire gear and technique and, if they persevere and have some taste, they might eventually stop taking awkward pictures of badly lit, over-made-up and not actually very attractive girls. and start making attractive photographs of things that are very very pretty.

So what?

Let me begin by stating that this is all basically ok with me. All of these things have their place. Well done, they're rather beautiful to look at. Photographs of models are also used to sell things, I understand. Most photographs of these sorts (as well as lots of others) are what one might term "craft" in the sense that there is a lot of technique and skill involved in doing it well, but rarely does the result communicate much of anything. Often, they're made by someone who saw a similar one and said "I want to do that".

The common thread here is that it's really hard to make anything actually good out of any of this. The macro and astro photographs have very little to say. At best, when they're really well done, they are attractive decor. Perhaps they offer slim commentary on our place in the universe. They're basically abstract art, but abstract art that rarely tries to even communicate in the way that Stieglitz did with his Equivalents, and Pollack did and Christo does with their giant whatever-the-hells. They're hampered in their abstraction by the fact that they are actual photographs of things. Does it even make sense to try to convey "existential terror", "love", or "sorrow" with a macro shot of salt?

Shooting models is potentially more productive, at least there are people involved. One could potentially say something. Most photographs made by amateurs are simply aping fashion imagery, but good work is certainly done with models. At that point it's usually it's no longer about taking pretty pictures of pretty things.

Sadly, most of these people never even get to the attractive stage. It's all chubby models badly posed, blurry pictures of Jupiter, and crummy pictures of pencil erasers. I get that you guys love doing it, it's fun. I just wish you'd keep it at home next to your gigantic train set.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Abstract

It is said of Jackson Pollack's paintings that one must experience them in person to "get" them, that the in person experience is a completely different thing. This is true, my experience of Pollack's paintings in person was eye-opening. They're very big, it turns out. Enormous.

Abstract art in general is a fine fine theory. Art is about communication. We have a rich collection of visual symbols we can use to express emotions and ideas. It is the (or at any rate a) role of art to combine these symbols in evocative or thought provoking ways. Arguably, in appealing ways as well.

When we shoot in black and white, we deliberately reduce our available vocabulary, in exchange for a connection to other work and access to certain powerful idioms. By reducing our vocabulary, perhaps we tighten up our communication, make our ideas clearer and sharper. Frankly, we make the job easier, as well. Photography itself works in a reduced vocabulary, being two dimensional and static, as opposed to sculpture or film, say.

Abstract art merely removes another part of the vocabulary, that of identifiable representations of things. Surely an mysterious shape can look terrifyingly, or swoon with emotion, or whatever?

It turns out this is really hard.

Alfred Stieglitz took a bunch of photographs of the sky, wispy clouds on a dark background, which he called "Equivalents". The idea seems to have been to evoke emotional response with these essentially abstract pieces. The work was evidently well received in the 1920s, and were pretty much ground-breaking as the first important work of abstract art with a camera. They were probably significant in getting photography accepted as "art" by the art community.

They do pretty much nothing for me. Too much of the vocabulary I can understand is stripped away. I think they're superb for what they are, I can feel them almost working, and they probably work very well for some people. Some work for me better than others, but I am pretty sure that's because they're evoking specific objects and shapes, rather than operating at a visceral, emotional, level.

If you haven't seen these things, go look at them. Whether they work as art or not for you, they will certainly open your mind to possibilities.

I "get" what the Equivalents photographs are trying to do. I think I even "get" what Pollack was going for. Christo? I dunno, that guy's just nuts. It just doesn't work for me.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Kill The Exposure Triangle

I love this stupid graphic. Every stupid web site that wants to teach you how to use your digital camera (oh, and by the way, monetize your eyeballs by showing you a ton of ads) has this pig on it someplace.

Take a minute to think about what it actually manages to capture and convey. It definitely covers the idea that Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO are all interconnected. Possibly it even conveys the idea that changing one means you have to change one (or is it both?) of the others.

Work through it a little. We see Shutter Speed at one corner. Say that you cut your shutter speed in half. What does that mean? Does it mean that angle at the corner should be cut in half? And what on earth does that even mean for the other parameters? Does the ISO have something to do with the angle at the corner (which is always 60 degrees in the pictures anyways) or is it the length of something? Maybe it's the length of the opposite side! Awesome! So I've doubled the ISO, that must mean I double the length of the opposite side (why don't they label the sides instead of the corners?) so that means I guess I should do something with the other sides of the triangles. Should I double them too, to keep the triangle equilateral?

Ok, great! This is working! I double the ISO, the shutter speed, and the aperture all at once! What? No.

It's just chartjunk, and proof that all these stupid web sites that want to "teach" you are just stealing ideas from one another, regardless of whether they make any sense whatsoever.

Kill the Exposure Triangle.

A New Thing?

Consider the following, which can be taken as a thought experiment or as an actual idea for something one might do. Either viewpoint should be interesting.

Select some source of snapshots. Say, flickr, for now, but any large and active archive of people's snapshots on the internet. A large, publicly viewable archive, ideally with some sort of button that makes it easy to look at one image after another more or less at random. Ideally most or all of the images in the archive should be snapshots, little slices of life made by people who do not identify as artists, particularly.

Flip through images at a fairly brisk pace. When you stumble across one that's good, save it away, or mark it, or something. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you can find it again. There will be good ones every 1000 or 10,000 photos, or something. There's a rate. Continue until you have accumulated a few hundred or a few thousand good images. Now edit this down to a small collection, say a dozen of so. You should be able to pull together a collection of a couple dozen excellent images, eventually. My thesis here is that I, or anyone else, could pull together a modest portfolio of outstanding images in this way in a reasonable period of time, a matter of some weeks.

So what?

First, this activity I have describes resembles photography itself in an interesting way. You look, you see, and you record. What makes it different from photography, other than the superficial lack of equipment, is that there is no pre-visualization, there is no opportunity for composition (which is really an aspect of pre-visualization). This truth makes the activity of curating flickr fundamentally different from photography; nonetheless I think it can be argued convincingly that this activity is close kin to photography.

We can consider this in the light of the issue of intent. Consider a snapshot which happens to be an outstanding image, selected by a curator. The image was most likely shot with no artistic intent whatsoever (perhaps it was, but most pictures simply are not so taken, so statistics are on our side here). If intent is a necessary component of art, it was not art. It was selected by our curator, with artistic intent, however. That selection resembles in important ways the act of photography, and we agree, I trust, that an outstanding photograph, taken with artistic intent, can be art. Has this snapshot been mystically imbued with art-ness by our curator? Surely it is art, now? I think it is absurd to imagine this, but opinions vary. The conceptual art people would likely argue that the "art" is in the idea and the execution of the curation process, and that the outstanding image itself is irrelevant.

I, on the other hand, think that this experiment (thought or real) gives convincing evidence that the "art" of a photograph, if any, resides in the piece itself.

Enough nerding out about the semantics of "art". For now.

Secondly, is this proposed curation activity itself a new form? I think it would be interesting to see a show or a book of material curated from flickr or instagram. Most emphatically I don't want to do this myself, it sounds fiendishly dull. Perhaps someone else would find it less so. Our brave new world with its massive river of images produced second by second by billions of people opens up new possibilities. Like all new opportunities, there are surely horrible options. I am sure that for every book of material I liked there would be 100 books full of the most incredible garbage.

So be it. Most of what is made as art is garbage. If a new way of working produces a small sediment of gold in the bottom of the pan, then it's working as designed, and I approve.