9.11.2010

A repudiation of all the over complication of photography.


Just because I can change something doesn't necessarily mean I should.  Many, many years ago I was walking down Commerce Street in San Antonio.  There was a fantastic bookstore called "Brock's Books". It had been there just about forever.  I shopped there from time to time and my real pleasure was going into the maze like basement, through acres of magazines, books and other collections of paper, searching for the vintage photography magazines.  I'd stand there for an hour or so, until the smell of mildewing paper overwhelmed me, and I'd leaf through photography magazines from the 1940's and the 1950's.  The magazines were enormous then.  Hundreds of pages.  Hundreds of photographs.  And the writing........

It's enough to make you cry.  Back in the days of the American enlightenment, before the fall from intellectual grace that began in earnest in the 1980's and has accelerated since then, even visual magazines paid attention to the written word.  Interviews spanned five or six pages.  Discussions of trends and styles were meaty essays that left you sated, like a good meal.  Now.....American Photographer and even Photo District News run articles that are little more than captions.  Squiggly gray space between photographs.

The image above is so simple.  I was walking around with some sort of sad sack camera from Nikon.  I'll guess it was the original FE.  I had the cheapest 28mm lens on the front.  Had to be the old 28mm 3.5.  Probably had to be updated to meter on that body.  I was just out walking,  on the prowl for images and coffee and pastries, though not necessarily in that order.  I was alone.  Always alone.  Because photographers are like little magnetic fields and when they come into contact with other photographers or even just people who want to tag along, it distorts and disrupts the purity of the magnetic field and causes problems.  The creative impulse gets detuned and the underlying rhythm of of the walk gets distorted and wrenched out of shape.  Some people are totally immune to disruption.  I don't know what to say about them but they seem to be the same people who are immune to positive social pressure, subtle hints or straightforward instruction.

Anyway,  I walked over to Brock's Books and stood in the open shade looking down on the box of bargain stuff that they always put outside.  I don't know if they ever sold the stuff in the boxes or if it was just there to let people know that the store was open.  On this particular day I leaned over to see what was inside and loved the look of the True Romance magazine cover.  I shot two or three frames on automatic, with slide film, and then I moved on.  Didn't think much of the image at the time but it's steadily grown on me over the years.

It's too simple an image for anyone to appreciate these days.  Too quiet.  Bereft of flash and sizzle.  And that's what I like about it.  It's about the content and the juxtaposition to the close surroundings.  It's calm.  You can rest your eyes on the image.  At most it's decorative art.

But the process of bringing it to life was so simple.  An interested look.  A cutting out of the image from it's multi-dimensional existence.  A commitment of resources and then,  like water behind a boat I moved on and it receded from my immediate consciousness.  

Have you ever noticed that much great art is relatively simple?  I think of Picasso's Dove of Peace series.  Simple lines, casually drawn.  Quick, intuitive gestures.  And then he was smart enough to leave it alone, in a simple state.  Distilled to its essence.  The same with the line drawings of Matisse and the beautiful Nakamura drawings.

I was in a short, three way discussion with two other photographers last night at an opening.  I had an epiphany.  The difference between printing with Photoshop and an inkjet printer versus printing in an old fashioned wet darkroom is all  encompassed in risk and intentionality.  The traditional print maker must take a risk at the time of print creation.  Every segment of the process is analog.  It's never precisely repeatable.  Even the chemistry of the developer changes subtly between each iteration.

The wet printer makes decisions, executes them and moves through the process with necessary commitment.  Most artists have limited resources.  They needed to get wet prints just right in as few iterations as possible.  They didn't/don't have the luxury of endless tweaking and endless indecisive manipulation.  They can never really return exactly to a previous version.  Everything changes.  The motions of burning and dodging aren't mechanical.

Conversely, digital printers can, through soft proofing, try variation after variation after variation with no real economic or temporal consequences.  Rather than working to get the perfect image as a reflection of the camera capture, they become free to be like the clients we love to hate in our day jobs as photographers:  You know the ones.  You'll likely be doing a fashion shoot for some mall property with a little agency.  The art director doesn't get to do many photoshoots in the age of cowardly stock photography usage.  He knows there's real money riding on the shoot.  When asked "Which colored shirt should we use on the male model?"  He will become paralyzed.  Unable to make a strong, assured creative decision he'll move to cover his bases.  He'll answer,  "Let's try all of them.  Let's do some with the red shirt, some with the green shirt and some with the yellow shirt."  Then we ask the same thing about the female model's wardrobe and we get the same answer.  So if we try every combination of the colors for both models we may end up with a possible matrix of 12 or 16 or 20 pairings.  Imagine shooting that!!!!!!!  Imagine trying to keep up good energy on that set.

But I conjecture that the lure of PhotoShop and digital printing exerts as similar effect on budding artists and, in a way, diminishes their energy to truly create photographs.  There is always something you can fix.  But should you.  In the  photo above, it would be normal to find a pleasing color balance and exposure.  Once you do that the image is created.  But the addiction to "playing God" with the images rears its incredibly ugly head.  Now it comes to mind that with a few layers and a few simple key strokes you might just be able to increase the dynamic range.  You could restore the color of the cover (never mind that doing so would destroy the feel of the image completely....).  You could increase the shadow detail in the tennis shoes.  You could create a mask in order to do something to the tile floor.  You could add elements to the scene you could use filters and you could liquify.  But at some point you'll become paralyzed by two things:  1.  The enormous, almost infinite range of abuse you can bring to this image with no financial consequences and no rules.  2.  There is no stop sign or safety net.  There's nothing to stop you from absurdly continuing to torture a simple image until it's not longer recognizable as the original image or until you drop from exhaustion from your efforts.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't use a digital printer to output your images.  And I'm not saying that no one should use PhotoShop.  I just think it's instructive to think about how much less is required to make art than a current generation in love the with the ability to add ad absurdium is willing to admit.  The Mona Lisa won't necessarily be better if we fix the faults, add some glitter around the edges, drop in a few images of Lady Ga-Ga and 50 Cent into the background for extra flavor, maybe Photo Shop the Giaconda's outfit for a some cleavage and even the hint of a nipple.......

At every step there needs to be commitment to an original vision.  Otherwise every image is nothing more than a gessoed canvas waiting to be sprayed by the latest (soon to be cliche) technique.  I guess my first rule would read:  Be true to the content.  Everything proceeds from there.