Texturists versus Contextualists. Camera choice follows individual sensibilities.

New discoveries or the relentless display of craft?

An individual's aesthetic wiring directly relates to their choice of camera types when it comes to photographing what we might call their vision. I would argue that there is a spectrum between pure documentation of the subject matter, divorced from technical considerations of presentation, and the other extreme; the exercise of technical virtuosity which would consist of the highest level of craftsmanship.

At each extreme point of the spectrum either the lack of desire to embrace technology, or the wholesale embrace of technology, becomes an impediment to the most effective presentation of a subject --- or a visual idea.

In less extreme examples we can see how this bifurcation of intention in photography; the pure documentation versus the value of craft over context, drives the choice of tools individual artists embrace in order to bring their vision to fruition.

In thinking about those whose focus is to document an event, a person, a scene, etc. with respect for the content and the energy of the image I would put up as examples photographers such as Willian Klein and Robert Frank. In the opposite camp; those to whom craftsmanship and mastery seem to be more important than subject I would point to landscape photographer, John Sexton and supposed documentarian, Stephen Shore.

In their time both Klein and Frank selected cameras not for their ultimate image quality but for their fluid nature and their transparency in terms of getting an image on film interpreted only by their selection of the moment of capture and the selection of an almost reactive composition. In an age where the standard camera format of commerce was the 4x5 inch camera, and a medium format twin lens camera was considered to be a snapshot camera, these two artists (and others such as Henri-Cartier Bresson) chose to work with the (then) tiny 35mm cameras made by Leica, and then added insult to injury (in the eyes of their generation of photographers) by using fast, grainy, less sharp black and white films.

Their images all have an immediacy that allows us to more directly connect with the objects of their observation. Once the images were captured the images were printed in more or less direct methods. While the printers may have cropped slightly or burned and dodged a bit there was nothing like the wholesale manipulation of images that we routinely see in contemporary post processing where many times the captured image is a vague chimera that will be added to and massaged endlessly by today's oppressively addictive software.

In my past role as a specialist lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin I used to take my advanced photography classes to the Humanities Research Center to see actual prints from the HRC's vast collection. We would don on the white cotton gloves and sit around an expansive wooden table and personally handle and view the quintessential photographic work of the 20th century in its purest guise, as black and white prints (mostly in sizes from 8x10 to, at the largest, 11x14 inches).

I was always left cold by the pristine work of photographers such as Minor White or even Edward Weston while any number of works by Leica toting social documentarians could perk my interest (and appreciation for their clarity and speed of seeing).

In one session we were looking at a portfolio of prints of Henri-Cartier Bresson's work. One print was a larger version of a photograph of the Pope, in Vatican City, in a throng a people. A student pointed out that HCB had missed focus. The Pope was not in razor sharp focus. We all sat back and looked at the print for a while and decided that the moment captured (and the way it was caught) certainly outweighed the technical shortcoming of the camera's operation. To be in the right spot at the right time with a functioning camera was much more important than not having the photo at all. In retrospect I have been considering how that image would have worked in a smaller print. Something like a 6x9 inch image on an 8x10 inch sheet of paper. Would we have even noticed the slight softness of focus on the Pope or would the smaller size render the technical deficiency moot?

This always starts me thinking along the lines of "What if HCB had used a bigger camera with a higher potential image quality?" Having shot with a small Leica, a Rollei twin lens, and 4x5 inch cameras I feel confident in saying that he made the right choice of camera and film for his vision and his immediate circumstances.

When I look at the work of Robert Frank I understand that, with the ability to use the camera almost without conscious thought, and with the discreet profile of the small, handheld camera, Frank was able to capture moments of social documentation that were so unguarded that we feel the emotion of the people in the moment instead of just the study in sociology that most journalism-style photography presents.

While held in high regard by many I can't stomach the lifeless virtuosity of most large format nature photographers. They really tell us nothing about nature or our place within it; they only use their naturalistic subjects as foils for their own clinical vision. Their intention seems to be to find in nature scenes that they can use as a base canvas upon which to showcase their skills and technical mastery of otherworldly tonal control, contrast and arch preservation of detail. When their audiences see the work they respond to the way the artist's control glorifies the experience of viewing replicas of nature by providing an alternative representation of what is generally visually mundane in situ.

One imagines these large format artists marching through the chaos of the woods with a folding view camera, stout tripod and a backpack full of film holders, looking for a vignette that can be forcibly composed into a structure considered "harmonious" by the masses and then stolen from its colorful and chaotic place in nature into a black and white showcase of gloriously rendered detail and order, with all the contrast of a Japanese pen and ink image. There is no impression of timeliness or emotional reaction to their moment of discovery, no AHA!!! instead one feels the plodding nature of a researcher who leisurely sets up a camera and then, in a series of investigations works around the subject more or less begging it to yield some meager measure of intrinsic magic to give even the meanest spark of life to the artist's experiment in technical perfection. As sensual as kissing a porcelain mask.

Since these artists have the time, and additionally live and die by the highest expression of technical mastery, their tools of choice are the 4x5 and 8x10 inch cameras and a selection of films with the finest grain and the highest resolution. The classic representation of detail being more important than the subject itself. But the "seeing" doesn't stop with the rigorous capture of the scenic-ly mundane it continues in the dark room with another bout of arduous perfectionism until the photograph is as much a manipulated reference as a purely photographic print. The value, according to curators, is in the artist's interpretation in the final print of the original scene, not in the power of the original scene itself.

Another way to look at all of this (at least in the eyes of the great audience of every man) is that few people outside the small (and shrinking) world of educated artists and art historians see the value of abstract painting, action painting, and non-representational painting in general. The further paintings diverge from hard core realism the less appreciated they are by most audiences. The masses demand as much verisimilitude to reality in their paintings as can be wedged into them. In this way the virtuoso photo-realistic painters, as well as those painters who just happen to be very compulsive, are publicly adored (and quickly forgotten).

In the current field of photography we seem to have same kind of situation that existed in the 1950's and 1960's. The middle of the curve of photographers seems obsessed with the need for "perfect" digital cameras. They define "perfect" as the cameras that can most accurately reproduce the scene in front of the camera in terms of sharpness, resolution, contrast and overall color correctness. They are willing to spend many multiples more money over less well appointed cameras in order to get these camera attributes so that these photographers can dogmatically pursue the creation of a "perfect image".

While any camera today can make a beautiful, reasonably sized print, there is a mania to have the camera that will make the biggest print with the least noise and the widest dynamic range. The maniacal pursuit of technical perfection blinds many to the charms and virtues of alternate tools. While a Zeiss Otus 85mm lens might be the sharpest lens in the photo cosmos it's just one focal length. If an artist has an elastic (and more interesting)  and expansive personal vision of reality that requires being able to switch angles of view with speed and agility then the Otus becomes an encumbrance to his/her vision. It may be that a camera with an almost endless range of angles of view helps bring his/her vision into existence.

A frail or aging photographer with a lively and unique vision may not be able to physically carry all the bits and pieces of the "perfect system" out in the field. The weight of "perfected progress" might hinder him or her from even leaving their home to engage in their art. But what if their vision could give birth to great work with a smaller, easier to handle camera and a small selection of good lenses? Would their work be less valid? See the work of Jan Saudek https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Saudek

When I look across so many arenas of photo sharing; from Instagram to Google+ and to some of the old standbys like Flickr I am generally much more drawn to images that display immediacy and authenticity than I am to cleverly contrived and technically flawless images that lack any sort of contextual soul. It's rare that an image from a Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 is revered in social media for its imaging qualities --- they are almost always "liked" and "favorited" for the angle of composition and insightful  moment at which the subject is captured, or the subject's gesture or expression, not in the way the camera's noiseless purity is displayed. More often, these days, the most interesting work is coming from the least complex of cameras --- iPhones.

There is a giant cult within contemporary photography that ignores the human magic of storytelling and instead concentrates on trying to show the essence of a boring thing because a certain type of subject is a more pliable canvas on which to demonstrate the camera operator's mastery and control of their special tool. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if they had a story, beyond all their proficiency, to tell?

I would suggest to anyone who really wants to see better to practice actually seeing by putting the A7rii/D810/5Dsr in a drawer and rummaging around to find that old point and shoot from ten years ago. Something like a Canon G9 or some Coolpix or an early Sony RX100xxxxx. Put the camera in "P" mode and go looking for subject matter than interests you for more than just its ability to serve as a canvas for your craftiness. Look for the beautiful smile of sensual person. Look for interesting clouds. React to a sweet expression. Consider a quickly fading gesture. Watch the light play across someone's elegant face. Find a moment that speaks to your sympathy for our shared existence. Reject easy opportunities just to show off your chops.

Turn off the review mechanism of the camera and just point the camera at things as they interest you, bring the camera to your eye and click. You might just be amazed to find that if you stop contemplating perfection and start embracing serendipity, and the honest reactions of your emotional self, you may like the images that arise far more than the sterile work of proving your camera is a better artist than you.

Finally, I write about discovering scenes, gestures, etc. And of technologists also on a search for perfect foils for their art, but there is another way. I consistently look back at the work of "constructionists" like Duane Michals whose work is neither "discovered by happy accident" or the result of hours of arduous manipulation and obsessive control in the the darkroom --- after being captured by the "Best Camera in the World". Instead, he imagines and then directs photographic stories that resonate with so many audiences. His stories bubble up from his life. He constructs a visual narrative but without the artifice of perfectionism. It's a third way of seeing that we don't talk about enough. It's powerful and, reading the story of his career, you can see that the camera, or type of camera he uses, is unimportant. A minuscule part of his act of creation. Seems imagination is one of the most powerful tools of all.


Anonymous said...

So, in shorthand: People who are more concerned with showing off how talented they are at getting technical stuff nailed down right buy the latest high res cameras while people who just care about the actual photos can use basically anything. Hmmm. Sounds about right.

Del Bomberger said...

Hey Kirk; Tell us what you really think! Interesting read which will deserve a second or third helping after I go out and practice that "P" setting for a bit. Thanks for making me think today.

christian said...

Thanks for this post Kirk!!!

Anonymous said...

Good thing it takes all types to make the world go round. I'm sure Kirk could add a post from someone promoting the grace of landscape photography vs. the instantly forgotten capture of the latest documentary image.

This argument of whether photography is art or not goes back to the beginning of the craft. I'm guessing the artist who painted the animals on the cave walls in France all these thousand of years ago had critics who questioned why it was needed since the real animals were out there to be seen.

Keep up the good discussion!

Peter said...

I have just been looking at the latest LensWork monograph – series 11, which came out a few days ago. It contains the work of Dalang Shao of China, and the (mostly landscape) images are simply stellar, and beautifully printed. Some are multiple image and some are clearly heavily manipulated, but all without exception are beautiful.

If Shao said he had used a Nikon D850, many would be desperate to place an order as soon as possible. However, his picture on the back page shows him holding a Nikon S3, a camera that predates the film SLR and was used to cover the Vietnam war. (It was Nikon's attempt to make a rival to the Leica M3, but it didn't quite come off.) Give it a little thought and you realize that of course all these wonderful pictures could indeed have been taken using such unassuming gear.

If we choose to work within the performance capability of the camera, then only our artist's imagination can determine the resulting art. Sometimes that capability is much greater than we want to think. It's not what is holding us back at all.

Peter Wright

MikeR said...


Okay, now that I've read this post twice, thought about it, read the comments, and will probably read the post again, one question remains: How many CEU have I earned?

Kodachromeguy said...

Hi Kirk, well-stated! I will go one step further: "I would suggest to anyone who really wants to see better to practice actually seeing by putting the A7rii/D810/5Dsr in a drawer and rummaging around to find that old point and shoot FILM CAMERA from THIRTY years ago." Think about the scene, (think!) and take some black and white film exposures. No instant feedback - you need to believe in yourself and trust that your vision will be reflected on that silver gelatin frame.

Anonymous said...

When Tonality Becomes a Fetish.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Mike. You get 10 CEU points but you can't perform surgery on other humans.

mosswings said...

Yep. One of the dirty little secrets of phonecams and point and shoots. They allow to concentrate on the subject by handling the details of exposure for you. In the process, they relieve you of the feeling that you MUST use the best technical tool to the limits of its, and your capabilities, and grant you the license to risk being a storyteller.

atmtx said...

I've definitely gravitated towards the documentary end of photography. I've increasing gotten bored with the quest for perfection. It seems to me that people who obsess over the latest technical specs seem to either 1. not make compelling photographs or 2. talk a lot about equipment but never seem to shoot their cameras.

Thomas F. said...

I guess it's all a matter of taste but personnaly I'd rather spend an afternoon looking at photographs from Ansel Adams than from Henri Cartier-Bresson.
For me, there is more emotional appeal in a beautiful landscape than in capturing the instant, no matter how decisive.

That being said for family picture, I'd rather have an imperfect picture of a nice memory than a technically perfect one of a boring moment so I guess it's also a matter of context.

Anyway, thanks for making me think once again.

ODL Designs said...

I read the article yesterday, and read it again today. Here is something I hope is coherent :)

One question that arises, is the quest for perfection to be ignored. I mean what if someone could do both, capture that decisive moment and do it perfectly? The push for technical perfection is what has put such incredible tech into the hands of so many, allowing the vast population to engage in exactly the vision of photography you prescribe.

Maybe because I walked through the large galleries in London and enjoyed the immaculate works of art (always painted from the mind or the scene, I don't like paintings painted from photographs), there is something just stunning about a perfect moment you might never get to see.

We might be thinking these guys potter about and click, they might also visit, return, return again, wait all day, shoot a series of frames etc etc. Working hard at realizing their vision of the shot, the scene... at dusk, at dawn, a cloudy day or a clear sky... One could argue they are the true artist in the medium as they are working towards a personal vision, while the reactive shooter is often just doing that, reacting to a scene. Just like art, their market will be divided between those who see something banal and those they are inspired.

I think you prescribed a lot of intention on the part of the shooter as more a description of a trait than the type of person who shoots the subject matter (perfect landscapes). Then suggested that a different subject matter had more value to you. But that is the point of expression and art, to find that which makes out heart sing and to produce what we think must be shared.

The truth is an ebb and a flow, with both our abilities grow. Taking control of a camera shows you what is possible within the medium expanding our imagination and vision, it teaches us to have a goal, letting go and producing work in the moment improves our reactive eye and instinctive vision.

Just some thoughts...

Anonymous said...

The BBC have today published a series of about a dozen images, amongst them is the Robert Capa image of U.S. troops storming Omaha beach during the Normandy D-Day landings. Completely out of focus, but what a story it conveys, would it have been trashed today, maybe!

Mike said...

How many photographers have even thought of creating a deep and consistent BODY of work that expresses an authentic vision from deep inside themselves?

Most people have no idea about what their point of view is, never mind how to express it. Very few. That's why great photography or art is so rare. It's hard to mine your life and express your feelings about what you see.

Duane Michaels has a body of work that is consistent and deep. His point of view about life and his world is well formed and completely from within himself. As does Sally Mann who used an 8x10, but her work is not of the clinical perfection school. And then there is someone like Robert Adams who shoots landscapes that have something to say and are challenging to look at. The other Adams who shot landscapes always left me feeling empty, but he was wildly successful, so who am I to cast aspersions?

Whether they find their inspiration out in the world or from within their imagination is important only in that what they produce is authentically their own vision and based on their own reality.

And then there are those who's only inspiration is to find the tripod holes of those who have come before them and merely want to create a catalog of images that show that they have been there, done that and have created an image of the same thing that someone else made. Maybe for any number of reasons they haven't looked too deeply inside themselves to find what makes them who they are. Not everyone has something to say, and many find the simple joy in the craft of photography. And that's ok too.

We all, hopefully, find our equilibrium and just do the best we can. It's a big boat and there's room for everyone.

Gato said...

Thanks for the pointers to Duane Michals and Jan Saudek. It had been too long since I looked at Michals' work and I had never seen very much of Saudek.

If I had to name one regret about my photographic life it is that early on I paid too much attention to technique and not enough to content, that I too often sacrificed spontaneity for control. In my later years I am trying to find a better balance.

I may need to try that P setting again.

Eric Rose said...

I love how you describe large format photographers! Having been one myself for years I too always felt rather empty after producing what some would say were "expressive" prints. Expressive of what? Once I got past the f64 mentality I concentrated on trying to capture the emotional impact a scene stirred in my soul. Ultimately it's a conceited and self centered pursuit. I still enjoy recording what I see around me, but I do it for myself only. If someone else enjoys it, I'm happy for them, but it does not serve as a personal validation of my photography or craft.

I have other projects where I am working for a "client" and thus need to connect with the target audience. Generally these projects fall into the documentary category. Connecting with people emotionally is much easier when you have people or human situations as the main subject matter.

I feel a body of work like the "Americans" could never be accomplished again. People have changed and are much more guarded and less "real" in todays world. Naturally a book could be done, however I think it would showcase the ugliness and tension that America has inflicted upon itself. America is in the middle of an identity crisis and a powerful book could be made. If the photographer was not robbed or killed in the pursuit of it.


Robert Hudyma said...

I always enjoy looking at images made by: Ruth Bernhard, Edward Weston, Yousuf Karsh, Irving Penn, Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Avedon. Many of the images from these photographers were made on 8"x10" film. All these photographers are masters of composition and excellent technique.

Masters of 35mm such as: HCB, Ernst Haas, Mary Ellen Mark and Sebastio Salgato also get high endorsements from me. The small 35mm negative can still produce excellent images. And all these photographers have made their success using traditional silver based film materials of various sizes.

In the digital world once you have 16 megapixels and a modest sized sensor (say micro 4/3rds or bigger), you can surpass the technical capabilities of medium format film. So we are all working in a great space where the equipment that you are using is not all that important in the image making process contrary to the sales propaganda from camera manufacturers.

Gary B said...

It's often been said that those who obsess about technique and gear tend to be men, whereas women concentrate on taking the photograph.

Bill Bresler said...

Great essay, Kirk. Now where did I put my old Rolleiflex?

Ronald Thain said...

This is a great post. Thanks for the link to the Duane Michals prints at D C Moore Gallery – I now want to see these in real life. The actual size of these prints (5x7) also adds to the argument.
In a portfolio review I had recently, the reviewer suggested I move up to full frame to get more detail. I retorted that I was moving more towards 35mm film. Can you imagine my delight at reading your post!