3.20.2012

Why are we afraid to make beautiful photographs?


I understand that it's fun to see just how minimal you can get with your gear and still pull out a recognizable image.  Recently the combination of iPhones and Instagram has given rise (once again) to the aesthetic of the "distressed" image.  It's like re-strip mining, in a sense, since Polaroid transfers already pulled up the richest lodes of the distressed movement years ago, before people got tired of squinting at the images to see what the hell they were really all about.  Before that it was Polaroid SX-70 film that was reworked during its development with the business end of chop sticks, tooth picks and other implements of art.  In the 1980's we all lived through "cross processing."  It was a groovy way of fucking up your film to get a different look.  Back then you did it through chemistry but now you can do the same amount of damage/inspiration? with the click of a button.  And, of course, there are Lomos and Holgas, and before them the seminal Dianas.  Plastic cameras that help you innovate by producing "distressed" pictorial results.  

I think every generation goes through this kind of experimentation and then, realizing that it is as much of a dodge as any other technique practiced for the benefit of the technique instead of the subject,  the real artists drop the schtick and the glitter and go on to create really original art or they move on to another hobby.  Perhaps "action painting" or bead craft.

We seem to have hit a point in photography where it's not enough to just interpret beauty.  If we photograph a woman we feel we must "enhance" her by smoothing her skin and using "liquify" filters to "thin her out."  We seem immune to the charms of beauty that is too obvious and even an inch outside mainstream constructs.  Same basic idea with men.  We've hit a pothole in the road of photography and now were stuck in the low gear of insisting that all photos of men be rim-lighted and have the "clarity" sliders maxed out.  Craggy skin tones and over the top lighting.  For every male over 21.

If you like doing all the distressed stuff don't let me stop you.  I'm not always right. You could be right.  Instagram could be the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci made whole for the masses.  But if you get a queasy feeling looking at one more "enhanced" portrait or one more Instagrammed snap shot.  If you start feeling vertigo at the non-stop progression of overdone HDR landscapes and city scenes you might want to join with me and ask:  "What's so bad about the reality of beauty?"

I think the appreciation of art follows the pattern of the pendulum.  A gifted artist tries a technique. The technique is antithetical to the prevailing ethos.  The technique finds popular and critical approval.  There's mass migration toward the technique and the new practitioners lack the original, driving idea that acts like a motor to power the technique.  Lots of derivative work is generated.  The technique reaches maximum cultural saturation and like fashion it goes out.  Old style.  Last year's stuff.

If the race, for the last five or six years, has been toward the grunge-ing of images and the instagramming of images for maximum nostalgic distressed effect then it seems logical that we're on our way back to the opposite side of the pendulum where beauty is consumed raw and quality is a technique that society is happy, once again, to explore.  Are we on the cusp of learning how to shoot well? Again.

How to use a tripod to gain clarity?  How to use our cameras to convey the richest manifestation of beauty instead of looking at beauty through layer after layer of dissembling electronic filtration?
Count me in.  I want to be part of the new trend.  I want to aim higher than a lame display on an iPhone or a quick hit on Twit.  How about you?  


66 comments:

Dave Levingston said...

Amen!

Jim said...

I'd like to think that photographing beauty was becoming popular again. Mine is landscape. I know you aren't a landscape fan Kirk but the beauty of nature is cool to me and I don't feel the need to make it look like something out of a futuristic apocalypse film, all dark and brooding. The world is beautiful just the way it is.

sey said...

Yes.

AdamR said...

Not only are you a better photographer than I'll ever be, you're able to put my feelings into words far better than I ever could. At least you're happily married and I don't have to worry about you stealing my wife.

HDR [shudder...] There's nothing more offensive to my eyes than poorly done HDR. Vertigo is right.

Glenn Harris said...

A good portrait has a lasting effect on the viewer. Instagrams and the like are more about instant gratification with a shelf life measured in seconds. They fill the need for most social media uses and will probably never be viewed again once the post has scrolled off the page, or been replaced with the latest instagram. But then perhaps I'm just a dinosaur trying to avoid a social media tar pit.

Mel said...

Kodachrome looked good until Velvia came along. Film, until digital arrived. 6 megapixel until 10, 12, 36... Where does the madness end? Besides, what should we care what anyone else thinks?

figuresofgrace said...

I am reminded of the career of Pablo Picasso. I think the most beautiful works that he produced were the prints from the Suite Vollard that he made in the 1930's when he himself was in his 50's agewise. It's as if he said to himself, "Okay, I've gone through that cubist crap and what not and now I want to create work that is simply beautiful."

He did.

Peter said...

Often nowadays there appears to be a kind of arrogance that believes that if the subject image has not been manipulated in some major and obvious way, then the photographer/artist has no validity. Perhaps it needs a certain humility (in the proper meaning of that word) to let the subject simply appear in the picture as he/she/it is, and to build our skill to facilitate this event in happening.

kirk tuck said...

Mel, Don't be disingenuous. We're all social creatures and we all care to some extent what other people think. Otherwise we'd go around naked and just club people to death to get their stuff. Kodachrome still looks better than Velvia and film still looks better than digital. As to the differences between megapixel it's just like the race to make bigger and bigger pick up trucks.

kirk tuck said...

People who enjoy beauty are everywhere. It's not about being a dinosaur it's about not following fads.

kirk tuck said...

People are also going to have to learn how to take stuff that doesn't need to be fixed. They'll need to add relevance to images by being connected with the subjects and expressing the connection instead of using subjects as mannequins upon which to festoon trendy stuff.

camerakungfu said...

Take solace in knowing that for every movement there is a counter movement. Count yourself in the countermovement Kirk.

cfw said...

Count me in. But please, don't take my Photoshop away!

Willie said...

Hi Kirk,
I have to agree totally.
I love the line - 'what's so bad about the reality of beauty?"

Likewise an with equal importance could one ask - "what's so bad about the beauty of reality!"

Far too many HDR pieces of unoriginal crap, distressed portraits and pseudo-important street shots of innocent (and perhaps unwilling subject matter) vagrants - all masquerading as important works of art.

Kep fighting the fight, Kirk!

kirk tuck said...

We should all be the insurgency. We should resolve to use good technique to make beautiful images. No one can really argue with that. I might have to read Robert Adam's great book on the subject, "In Defense of Beauty."

kirk tuck said...

I would never take away Photoshop. And everyone is free to do as they please. But could we just slow down a bit and really look at stuff before we dollop on the glitter and the foam fingers of digital "enhancement"?

kirk tuck said...

Done well and with a solid idea behind them, no effects are inherently bad. But when they become a checklist of mediocrity that's when we all need to call them on it and stop saying "nice capture". Urban dictionary: "Interesting" = "boring".

blerchin said...

Yes. But you must shoot RAW. And by now we all know that Beauty only shows itself above the 30 megapixel mark.

Carlo Santin said...

All art, all things really, are prone to this swinging pendulum effect, from one extreme to the other. I went through my hdr phase and thankfully I'm done with that. Your post reminds me somewhat of the the change in literature at the turn of the 20th century from Romanticism to Imagism. The Imagists (ts eliot, william carlos williams, ezra pound etc) were intent on getting rid of all the elaborate fluff characterized by the Romantics (the Byron types). The focus became on the image, imagery was everything, it was the art, the reason for putting pen to paper. Gone were the long, tedious, over-blown descriptions. In were poems and prose that left clear, un-cluttered images in the reader's mind.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound

I think this is what you are getting at here Kirk. At least that's what I think you are getting at. This is where I strive to be in my photography. I've only made this realization lately. I was looking through all of my portrait shots and it occurred to me that my best ones were my simplest ones, the ones that didn't try too hard to look like an impressive photograph...and these were the ones that I liked best and that spoke to me. Hopefully I haven't misread you here...my 2 cents anyway.

christian said...

Well, while I agree with much you are saying, I don't think it's the equipment. I present these iphone self portraits as evidence:

http://emese-benko.blogspot.com/search/label/selfportrait

Frank Grygier said...

For me the art of photography is seeing the reality of the image before the shutter is released.

Frank Grygier said...

The camera has nothing to do with it. The real beauty of this women lies beneath the software.

Michael Ferron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Ferron said...

When I'm lucky enough to put it all together my B&W film images developed and wet printed here at home beat things I do in digital in my opinion. I love shooting digital but the classic artist in me insists on traditional printing for serious personal work. Fast working pros meeting deadlines might be foolish to still use film but for me it's the chosen way. :)

Dave Jenkins said...

Filing out the negative carriers was an affectation too, Kirk. :-)

Neal said...

Yep, Amen brother.

Unknown said...

If you can buy a Photoshop Action, its already yesterdays news. If you can buy an iPhone App, it will be yesterdays news tomorrow.

Remember Sir Mixalot's song "Baby got Back??? Without "back" Kim Kardashian would not be recognizable ;-) For those who don't know, a recent magazine cover shot of her was 'shopped to take about six inches (maybe more) out of her hip measurement.

c.d.embrey

kirk tuck said...

Dave, the image at the top of the article is something fun to view. It is not part of the point of the article.

robin said...

"If you start feeling vertigo at the non-stop progression of overdone HDR landscapes and city scenes you might want to join with me and ask: What's so bad about the reality of beauty?"

Well said Kirk !

I think many have gone pass the line they crossed so far that they have lost sight and appreciation for the original "reality" in the beauty. It is the reality that adds the dimension and depth to photographs.

Bert said...

The cycle of construction / deconstruction is as old as the arts...

olli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
olli thomson said...

Agree. The best counterpoint to glamour, glitz, overwrought HDR, 'gritty' high-contrast black & white, plastic skin etc. is Francois Julien, In Praise of Blandness. Well worth reading.

Aeneas said...

Imo it's also caused by the 'search for your own style'. Seems you can't be a good photographer if you take a picture out of camera and leave it like that. Anyone with a dslr can do that.
So to become different and show skills and style, photogs start working on the picture. Just a little bit more post than what someone else has done, to be different.
And the mass will follow a style once it becomes popular.

Jacques said...

Gee... At last....! Whatever authoring one could have in his pictures would be beforehand, tricking reality by situations, framing in the viewfinder, burring with low speed and such ! But the media should stay simple...

John said...

and my favorite model of yours! she is beautiful in every image you have shown of her, grunged up or clean......

Martin Duerr said...

Thanks for this article! As I'm doing a lot of editing after my shots I know that most photographers nowadays don't look through the viewfinder, they have a "Photoshop" filter in front of that. But portrait photography is not the only area which has "problems" with the pure beauty of the object of interest. Here in Germany no car photography is done without CGI. Postprocessing on top, a lot of car ads look like from outer space and don't reveal the pure beauty of lines and car paint.

Dave Jenkins said...

Well, it is indeed beautiful. Just couldn't resist making a wise-crack. Please note smiley. :-)

Philip Ho said...

Count me in.

Jan Klier said...

I think there are several themes in your post here:

There's leader and the herd. People who want to be seen try new stuff in order to differentiate. Sometimes that new stuff isn't really new, it just hasn't been used by the herd in a while, so it seems new in our short-term memory, or at least new enough to stand out. The herd on the other hand likes to follow the hottest trend in town, not because they want to stand out (in fact they don't - either because they're scared, or don't know how to), but because they want to be trendy. So they copy the latest leader. Now the leader has a dilemma - he no longer stands out, so he has to do something different again, which btw may be what the herd just ran away from yesterday. But a leader also tires quickly from something he has tried, so he is ready to do something else anyway, because he gets bored doing the same thing....

Then there is the question about beauty: Like many art forms there is the pro version and then there is the amateur version. The pro version of shooting beauty goes to great lengths of removing distracting blemishes (whether's skin or an unfortunate bend in the pose) but leaves the natural self as is. The pro version also selects subjects that inherently represent the beauty they aspire to - like a 6'0 model. The amateur on the other side thinks that applying the latest Photoshop plugin with skin smoothing will give him the home-run. Sorry, but it doesn't! Also, they don't spend the time finding a natural 6'0 model, so they take the chubby and liquify it, thinking it will look good too. Sorry, but it doesn't!

Which makes me always chuckle about the people that are calling for laws or disclosure about underweight models and excessive photoshopping. Yes, weight is something a model can control within reason. And bad photoshopping is something the media could stay away from (PJs did that for decades). But a model has no control over height / leg-torso proportions, etc. Unless those same people will soon call for growth limiting hormones to avoid some people from being 6'0 tall. Sorry, but some garments just work on tall people, and don't work on short people. Talk to the designer to come up with something else.

The third theme you have going there is lighting and sharpening. Just because you have gizmos doesn't make the results good. But in anything people do, they tend to overdo it at first, before they realize that a more subtle application looks better. Maybe because when they do the more subtle at first, they're afraid nobody will notice that they did it? I'm really tired of sharp and too obvious rim lights or background halos. But that's my person lighting style. On a first impression the image should look right, I shouldn't be jarred with too obvious a light. The skilled lighting person can light so it's controlled and flattering but looks like it was that way all along.

In the end, you have to find your own style and stick to it. Be a leader and ignore the herd. It will do what it wants to do, and there's not much you can do about it.

Clay said...

First there was the quest for beauty; then beauty was passé, everything was grunge; now we have grunge in service of beauty. What's next - do we complete the circle? I can't wait.

kirk tuck said...

If you can recognize the effect then it is too much. If you do the same style as everyone else you're just going thru the motions. If you don't try and risk failing you'll have a hard time learning. Failing comes when trying new stuff that nobody has ever done before. Having your own vision is priceless.

Jan Klier said...

'Having your own vision is priceless', for everything else there is a 9-5 :-)

Tony's Vision said...

A bit of a counter-argument here. I agree that no effect, whether a digital or analog filter, is going to make a poor photograph into a lasting statement. But I think that anything goes where it helps to express what is in our heart when we make a photograph, whether it is an in-camera effect like a choice of shallow depth of field, or a post processing effect, like a digital filter. If it helps to express our inner feelings it is fair game.

I am drawn to the natural world, where nothing pleases me more than a well-executed image that captures beautiful light. I was drawn into photography in the 1960's after first seeing the beautiful tones in hand-printed black and whites. I've have paid my dues in the darkroom, but have embraced digital and its freedom from the cost of film and labs that has allowed me to improve my practice of photography. I am also not shunning digital effects, when used to more fully realize my emotional response to a scene, or the story I want to tell.

A couple of days ago an outing in one of my favorite venues, our rolling oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada Foothills, turned gray and dreary. But i found that photographing with Nik filters in mind helped me express my awe at the annual Spring migration of Sandhill Cranes, and delight in the beauty of hillside copses of oaks. http://tonymindling.blogspot.com/2012/03/hike-no-10-odd-weather-at-cronan-ranch.html

Jan Klier said...

The key difference is that in your case those filters were part of the creative process, rather than a work-around.

That being said though (and I have used plugins myself in the past) is that they tend to be too cookie cutter, used by another 1,000 people who bought the same plugin, and tend to prevent refinement. It's the sledgehammer method to editing photos - fast and rough.

Where a plugin is great is to do a quick preview of how different treatments can change the feel of an image. But then go in an build those treatments by influencing the image through proper technique (just like in the darkroom).

Even the best model needs skin retouch. But you use clone, dodge, and burn on small areas, maybe some frequency separation, not a large gaussian blur to accomplish that.

Similarly, being able to use RGB curves, individual channels, luminosity masks, gradients, and the like you can do everything that Nik filters do, just better, and you are not limited by what their preset does, you can evolve it into your personal style from there....

Tony's Vision said...

Actually, Jan, the Nik filters allow plenty of room for refinement. Each one includes several sliders to adjust the effect, and the option of using control points to limit the effect to selected portions of the image. And the filters can then be stacked, like layers, resulting in infinite options. Free to try, and quite fun.

stefano60 said...

i would not say people are 'afraid' to make beautiful photographs, it has more to do with not being capable... and being a bit lazy ... and the 'fast food' culture that appreciates and rewards instant gratification over thoughtful appreciation.

nothing new under the sun, some people are artist, some aren't; some people 'get it', some don't.

scotth said...

I would not claim that Instagram is the next Leonardo DaVinci, but for me at least, it is fun. If nothing else I always have my phone with me, and I like to take pictures of stuff.

Yes, there is a lot of overprocessed garbage on there, and a lot of cheese, but that does not mean there is nothing good to be found. If you follow some people whose work you like, you can find stuff they like, and on it goes. In my mind instagram is not any different than a lot of other photography sites in that regard.

scotth said...

I would like to add as well, that I think the issue with the social/photography applications is more along the lines of what is described at this link ( via http://youarenotaphotographer.com/ ).

Jeff Jaxon said...

It is a way to hide flaws. Not everyone has access to the most beautiful models and the most talented makeup artists! It's like adding distortion to a guitar track, or having a romantic dinner lit by candlelight. Sometimes the imagination makes better photographs than a camera.

The instagram craze is interesting to me, as are all of the other distortion inducing methods you mention. Is it so different than using lighting angles to create a dramatic effect? Maybe it is. It's not my thing and I've never messed with it, but I can see why some would be drawn to it.

Kenneth Tanaka said...

At its best this is simply affected mimicry in light-minded fun. Nothing to resent or decry against a snap shot fancifully dressed as a tintype. Tee hee hee, nothing more.

But at its worst it's an attempt at faux gravitas. Dressing a 5D image to look like a wet plate image to garner respect is viewed as pathetic within knowledgeable circles. Sally Mann makes photographic art. Joe Bagadoughnuts jerking his plug-in sliders makes "phart".

John F. Opie said...

To be honest, I don't have Photoshop and don't intend to get it: I try to get what I visualize as close as I can in-camera. No spray-and-pray for me...beauty is sublime, trying to describe beauty leaves us inchoate and incoherent. At the end of the day, it just is...

kirk tuck said...

Thanks, Jan. I love that.

Mel said...

Kirk,
Not being insincere, just quoting Richard Feynmann. Sort of like the admonition to "...dance like no one is watching..." Feels like most of the time most photographers are making images based on the expected tastes of others rather than what the artist sees through the viewfinder.

At least as long as there are viewfinders....

kirk tuck said...

Got it. And I agree. Thanks for the feedback.

Jan Klier said...

It's that weird dichotomy of being an artist and a service business at the same time. The pure artist doesn't care, but starves. The pure service business succeeds, but doesn't get judged on taste. Can't have it both ways...

Alex said...

Last year I wrote a fellow photographer some lines around the same subject:

"Too often I see artists trying to reinvent the genre and may be I am just old fashioned, or indeed, just old but I of the firm conviction that Beauty ( Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.- Camus ) is something we all need as much as oxygen and that 'The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before.' Kurt Vonnegut.
So! Let us raise our glasses to beauty, and to keeping our hearts receptive to it."

http://streetscene13.blogspot.com/

Alex said...

That is a beautiful portrait by the way.
You are quite an artist!

Unknown said...

Just curious: So how come you rail against massaging/manipulating an image to hide/interpret what's already "real" beauty, and then illustrate your point with a fairly heavily-diffused print?

kirk tuck said...

You are correct. The that was my point. I don't understand your question. The photo would be better if it were not manipulated. Right?

kirk tuck said...

Forgot to mention. The edges of the frame are diffused by the face is not diffused. Click on the photo and check it out.

PvR said...

" technique practiced for the benefit of the technique instead of the subject"

What a great line.

PvR said...

Although the iFace Fat app I found on my daughter's iPod touch is fairly amusing.

christopheru said...

Could not agree more Kirk - My personal pet peeve is this tendancy to create gorgeous portraits, well lit, with wonderful tones, and then ruin them by polishing up the eyes in post so the person (often a child or older person) appears to be some sort of possessed imp. The eyes need to match the rest of the face and so often they don't. Let the horror stop! :)
Quite frankly, one of the things I appreciate about your portrait work is the fact that you don't do that sort of thing and instead allow the person's natural beauty shine through. Thanks for that.

Skip Hunt said...

I love a beautiful image no matter what the technique. However, what always bothered me in the past were all these self-appointed gatekeepers of what qualified as "beauty".

In the not too distant past, and to some extent still today... there were these photo-tastemakers dictating that in order for an image to get the approval stamp of "beauty" it must be shot with a hassy on such and such film using this zone or that etc. If the proper gear, resolution, film, technique wasn't followed it was given the shutterbug gong and tossed on the trash heap.

Now, people are beginning to learn that it's not about how much you spend on your precious gear, but the quality of your vision. Some are learning to see the beauty in distressed decay, but I also fear that some are going the other direction with it, ie. if it ain't stressed out, it ain't beauty.

I still love the pure beauty of a perfectly executed image made with state of the art tools, but also love to see the other end of the spectrum now accepted.

kirk tuck said...

It's a big tent. And all the rules are gone. Now we (photographers) are just making it up as we go. Photography is largely dead. We're now into digital imaging. Not everything conveys...

Coach said...

Kirk, you mean it's not just me. War zones really don't have desaturated colors, vignetting and wonderful silver light illuminating things?