8.31.2012

Why arguing about how to perceive photographs is so much more fun than arguing about which gear is best.


This morning I wrote a post about whether or not photographs need context to be relevant. While I seem to have a combative writing style (I thinks it's just emphatic...)  I wasn't trying to be particularly defensive about my photographs, only the defense of my position that they don't need captions/context. In the course of the ensuing commentary I came to grudgingly see both sides of the argument. BUT in truth I really enjoyed the process because it made me think about something I generally have always taken for granted and that is the idea that photographs exist and are consumed as stand alone objects.  And that when working outside the structure of journalism that captions don't add critical weight. Now I am more carefully considering the benefits of captioning and contextual embellishment.

Some readers more or less jumped to my "defense" while others were quite objective and stood solidly in neutral ground. I enjoyed the whole exercise because we were engaged in actually talking about the art of photography instead of the gear or the business.

When you talk about gear you can go at it from two distinct viewpoints. You can talk about how the gear feels in your hands and how you react to the physicality of the design and the mentality of the user interface, or you can put the machine into the arms of other machines and derive some sort of vaguely objective measure aimed at giving you a series of numbers so that you can graph the relative attributes of the camera in question, via their number scores and come to some aggregated understanding of the camera's potential performance.

No matter which path you take you discover two things: 1. That any preference based on emotional acceptance or "feel" is so subjective that a large portion will hate the very parameters you love, and vice versa.  And, 2. That no matter what you measure when you aggregate all the numerical data points some outweigh others in relative merit based on the tasks in front of the camera while other seem altogether useless to one set of users and critical to others.

Fighting and teeth gnashing always seems to ensue, the owners of the numerically triumphant cameras trumpeting their victory over the cameras of the lesser kingdoms, while the legions of "defeated" camera owners talk about the obviously overlooked faults of the victor and the even more obviously overlooked, nearly magical attributes of the maligned cameras.

As an example: For me the Nikon D3200 is a highly usable, high resolution camera at a very affordable (paradigm shifting?) price point. To fans of HDR the camera is poisonously unusable because it lacks the most critical feature: auto bracketing.

When we talk about art though it seems that we're all on more even ground.  We may like or dislike a piece or a style but we can still talk about it in more interesting ways because of the art's wholesale subjective nature. There are no machines that measure the validity of a piece or the paucity of its contribution.  And if we make cogent arguments they can be used to expand understanding instead of contracting understanding and dividing it (demolishing it) between two warring camps.

Now, does anyone want to take a crack at explaining to me the value (beyond the tasteful enhancement of tonal range)  in obvious HDR photography?

I know a lot of photographers who meet for coffee and end up talking about gear.  Wouldn't it be cool if we each brought a work or book of a photographer we liked and made our discussion over coffee about the merit of the work?   More seemly, I think, to have a smackdown over Avedon versus Helmet Newton than Canon versus Nikon...




32 comments:

Gene Trent said...

Well here is my book contribution. I am currently reading / studying "Lens On Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography" by Stephanie Calabrese Roberts. It's helping me open some much needed new dimensions to consider in how to use and practice photography. So far the insights from the pros in the field are quite insightful.

frank said...

Agreed. Also: HDR are the tribal tattoos of the photography world, though obviously we all try to tweak our photos a little bit to get range out of them.

Jim said...

My own take is that a photograph should be able to stand on its own. If it requires explanation to attract viewers' interest it is a failed photograph.

As for extreme HDR, it is a new gimmick that does things not seen before. Thus people are fascinated by its novelty and like to play with it like a new toy. Like any other technique it can actually produce (albeit usually by accident) appealing images. After a while the novelty will wear off just like 'photograms' (reverse silhouettes of objects placed on enlarging paper) and 'solarization' did. Something for newbies to play with while learning the process.

Michael Ferron said...

I most often don't care for overdone, over Photoshopped images. HDR falls into that bracket for me. Some images come out looking more illustrated than photographic using this method. No knocks against those who like that look. It's a personal thing.

Dogman said...

I like Avedon best.

Did he shoot APS-C or full frame?

8-)

AndyK said...

Were Man Ray and Lee Miller photographers or artists? History repeats itself - Photoshop etc makes it easier to blur the line between "photography" (note air quotes) and graphic art/illustration. HDR, fisheye lenses, pano shots - "gimmicks" or tools to tell certain stories?

AndyK said...

And despite your contrite resolution regarding captions - you present yet another captionless photo at the top of this post :)

Yoram Nevo said...

I like Willy Ronis. His photographs echo his saying that "The beautiful image, it is a geometry modulated by the heart"

Stephen said...

For me, part of the issue is audience expectation. If an image is in an Art Gallery, on someone's fridge, or in an advertisement, the situational context helps direct the audience's expectation. Having an idea of the photographer's purpose (or lack of purpose) helps prepare the viewer to engage the image. A simple title or set-up is useful, and in absence of this, all kinds of assumptions and "shoulds" might assigned by the viewer.

Having viewed your website, I know from experience that you are curious and open about what happens in your images and that you post them because something has caught your eye.

Robert Roaldi said...

Re HDR photography, here's my tongue-in-cheek two cents worth.

Years ago I was speaking with a music lover friend that I hadn't seen in a while. This was during the heyday, more or less, of disco. I asked him what he thought of disco music. He replied that he hated it, but that something good would come from it. I said, "Yeah, it will end."

kirk tuck said...

Well.....um.

theaterculture said...

It's funny: there's so much more at stake in a discussion about art, meaning, and perception than one about camera gear. One engages the paradigms we use to make sense of experience, the assumptions that structure our way of being in the world, the tastes and predilections that make us our unique selves. The other is just about a consumer good than anybody with enough money can buy, and anybody can learn to operate. And yet we (by which I mean the collective we, the interweb community) can have the first debate with goodwill and thoughtful openness more often than not, and the second debate almost invariably devolves into nonsense and ire almost immediately...

Jeff Damron said...

Avedon, definitely. Though I once saw in a magazine a portrait he had marked up for burning and dodging. There must have been 20 spots on that face that he wanted either more or less exposure on and for some reason that didn't impress me although clearly it was supposed to do just that. I just kept thinking, "Wouldn't it be easier to just the lighting right in the first place?" Of course today he could just use Portrait Professional.

The D3200 has also struck me as an amazing deal. And yes, I think that HDR is a gimmick. Just like infrared and Holga and cross-processing and pinholes and lith printing and shooting at f1.4 when you don't have to just for bokeh and deliberate blur and on and on. Still, sometimes these all produce genuinely and singularly successful images (in my opinion), and in the hands of certain individuals with the right vision and mastery these gimmicks can all become something more. But that is rare - rarer with some of the gimmicks than others. Most of the obvious HDRs that I have liked have been of interiors, sometimes with windows, that obviously have a extreme dynamic range but HDR has brought out details throughout.

Robin Wong said...

Agreed Kirk, lets talk less about gear (well, we can't stop altogether can we, it is just too much fun talking about gear !!) and talk more about photographs !!

Steve J said...

Kirk, my hat off to you! Gear is all the same really, it doesn't give you great ideas and ideas are what separate great work from average stuff. If you DO have a great idea, sometimes an iPhone is all you need.

All the "greats" really went down in history because they did something first. Being first is really hard, is always obvious once someone else thought about it, and within no time everyone will copy it and it will seem mainstream.

It's amazing though how much we owe to a few Hungarians. Brassai, Capa, Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy and others pioneered photojournalism, fashion shooting and many of the structural rules that are taken for granted these days. Even HCB tipped his hat to them for his early work, and I think Avendon probably would have acknowledged them as well. Both took their lead from what was around and moved the bar a little higher.

There is a lot of more overtly art-based work in photography but it seldom gets an airing on the internet, and when it does it is generally dismissed because it's a bit challenging. Why are Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky really so highly prized for instance? Is it just arty blather or is it something far more profound? But I would bet most photo forum regulars could not name more than a handful of contemporary art photographers.

People recoil from anything that does not appeal to their immediate aesthetic, but it's valuable and fun to look beyond that to understand the meaning and the process that artists and photographers use. You may still not like what they do, but they all have something thought provoking to say.

So I say bring it on. Pick an era and/or some of the greats and lets figure out what they were saying and whether we think we can take any of that for our own development.

Could be fun as well as educational, but you must ban the term "LIKE" and "DON'T LIKE" from the discussion. It is possible to look at art objectively, and a lot more interesting when you do.... :)

Dennis said...

Obvious HDR ...

I just commented on the "other" thread and said that I believe the purpose of any photograph is to be interesting to look at. Maybe interesting to particularly people, readers of a textbook or newspaper, fine art buyers, family, friends, clients (!) or in some cases, as much of the general public as possible. Maybe interesting for specific reasons (illustration, decoration, etc).

So the purpose of obvious HDR is to grab a viewers attention. Unfortunately, not to hold it. Same as oversharpening and oversaturation. I think there are probably other specific uses; it can lend a grunge look to shots of a garage band or illustrate a book in a graphic novel style. It's probably used to better effect by graphic artists who work with photographs than by photographers.

By and large, I think you can lump it into the same category as other obvious postprocessing techniques that suffer from "market saturation" and the fact that we see so much of it done to mediocre photography and so little of it done with great result. Selective color, lensbaby, using tilt lenses for the "miniature" look, etc. They're today's version of Cokin filters.

Alex said...

To argue about photographic gear, all you need is to be male.
Doing so about a phot, one has to think and feel. Expose a part of oneself.

sey said...

part of the art is allowing the viewer to context/caption the photograph him/herself.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Wow. Another example that a lacking caption can even contribute to the photo. Why?

Well first here we have a photo of a beautiful young girl, whose nose totally reminds me of the young Nastassja Kinski btw. But we know nothing about her. She seems to be talking to someone to her right, could be her mother or anyone. And the topic they've had could have been a serious one. She's beautiful, yes, and caught with her eyes down for a moment, like contemplating about the right thought and/or answer to something.

Then the photo also says something about the photographer of course. This looks like one of those 'stolen' shots, with not intervening at all, like being the invisible observant. Where was this taken? The place could be anywhere in the world of course, but somehow it reminds me a bit of London (could be the fact that it must have been raining soon before?). Was the photographer (I assume it was you) in London? I read this blog since quite a while, but cannot remember. But I also know that the photographer (with the assumption that it was you) is about one year older than myself, and so the chances that he has been there are quite good. Even I was in London when I was about 15 or so. And the reflection of the car in the window tells me this was quite a time ago.

The depth of the photo is wonderful. No blurred background because one simply could - this looks like when I set my OM-2 to an aperture of f=5.6 or even 8, which are the lenses sweet spots. In fact it makes me want to do just this - grab my old film camera and go out and play.

Now is it just a photo of a beautiful girl, or is it a beautiful photograph, or both? No idea. But I know that when you would present a black & white exhibition in some plave reachable for me, I'd be there - and this photo definitely would earn its place in that exhibition.

Love the toning, the granularity, the depth, and of course the subject. The longer I look at it, the more I like it. In fact I have two tabs open in my browser - one to write this, the other to look at that photo...

Lanthus Clark said...

Full frame with built in HDR!
;^)

Goff said...

Bravo, Kirk! Right on all points.
If a photograph can benefit from context, that should appear in the picture, not in the caption.
Surrealist photographs made (usually rubbish) pictures that relied heavily on their captions. Read "L'Amour fou - photography and surrealism" by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston. I have resisted throwing out this irritating book only because it is useful for educating students about the folly of trying to save a poor photo with a smart caption.
Keep up the good work. Goff

Frank Grygier said...

I can accept an image created from a series of files and manipulated in software as a work of art if it conveys some thought or emotion. I just do not consider it photograph. I am studying the works of D'orazio and Newton thanks to a mentor who brought them to my attention.

cidereye said...

Been buying a lot of photo books of late, really is worth looking deeper into the work of the greats for sure.

Brassai & Dosineau are two of my favourites at the moment. So many greats to pick from though we are all spoiled for choice.

greg g said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kirk tuck said...

I keep coming back again and again to early Avedon street images and Victor Skrebneski studio portraits. Both are so powerful for their clear and direct seeing.

Racecar said...

What we photograph is intimately connected to who we are. Do we really need the "cliff notes" attached to our images? Did Leonardo Davinci provide explanations for each of his creations? The explanation in true art, is implicit in the work itself. Now journalism is a different kettle of fish. The photograph is there to support the story. Photography in this case is not necessarily "art", but rather a visual aid.

Raianerastha said...

Kirk, some time ago you cited the photographic philosophy one of your "heroes", Gary Winogrand, who takes photos to see what the subject looks like as a photograph. It was the first time I'd heard that, and it changed how I approach photography. Photography is NOT objective, no matter how much "purists" try to insist they want to be "truthful" in their photographs. Photos are a subjective manipulation of the world from the moment the choice is made as to subject, camera, lens, lighting, angle of view and even the moment of capture.

I say this because to me, it broadens my creative horizon-and my appreciation of other people's photographs-to stop thinking of the purpose behind the photo beyond it simply being a representation of the photographer's subjective perception at that moment.

Writers are regularly told we need to find our own voice, rather than write in someone else's voice. Photography is the same: we need to find our own vision, not simply try to emulate someone else's. We will of course be influenced by the vision of others, but ultimately our goal should be to stop asking "does this work the same way so and so's photo works?" and reach a point where we see our photos working as a personal expression.

As for HDR: isn't one aspect of photography that it allows us to see the world in ways we can't with our eyes? I look at some "overdone" HDR and think in terms of how I am now seeing something of a fantasy world that my "live vision" wouldn't perceive in the same way. As I said above, photography is often about the photographer's perception of the scene or subject. People debate whether Monet's myopia resulted in his unique (at the time) style of painting because he painted the world as he perceived it. And Van Gogh... So, I see HDR as an effort to offer a perception of the world that, yes, is often poorly done because photographers like gimmicks.

Craig Yuill said...

The comments regarding this and the previous post reminded me of a lively discussion I once had with someone who was studying art about whether or not photography was a "real" form of art. His opinion was that a work was only "real" art if its creator had complete control of all of its parts in order to fully express the idea the work is supposed to convey. He felt that photography was a way of recording a too-literal representation of real life. Photography was a way of documenting things that existed rather than creating images straight from the mind of the artist.

"Bollocks!", I thought. Photography is more than mere documentation. Photographs are composed - photographers choose what to include in each photo. Photographers choose what to record images on - in those days it was B&W colour negs or transparencies. Photographers could have a lot of control over the appearances of objects and lighting, especially when it comes to studio-shot photos. Also, final prints could be altered in so many ways to get an effect desired by the photographer.

In the end I felt that photographs can be works of art, although most photographs are probably not. I agree that these types of discussions are very interesting. They help inform our decisions about what/how to photograph as well as what/how to share. But discussion of gear still has its merits. It is the gear after all that allows us to create photos.

Fran├žois said...

Paris, France ?

Steve J said...

Captions are not the same as context. I don't think the photo would lose anything if more of the background was viewable.

Steve J said...

"Bollocks" is right, it's just that photography has a wider application than most other art forms. I think the argument was won several decades ago.

But for photography to be art, it has to be about "seeing" more than about photography, whether the scene is literal or constructed. It's ability to be literal can actually make it uniquely applicable to some kinds of experiential art, for instance the Becher's, Shore, Eggleston, Gursky and arguably Parr all experimented with ways to "see" by changing the way you actually look at things that are actually there. If they had not been photographs, it would not have worked.

kirk tuck said...

Oui.