Happy New Year as we enter the 2017 portion of the season. We kicked off with the first of two editing related sessions, next week we have a speaker talking about the Photoshop Plug In, Topaz. This week it was members to turn to sharpen, hue, pare, crop, colour, desaturate and or generally mangle, torture and deface – depending upon your individual tastes – a common set of five images. The proof of the pudding being in the consumption it is fair to say that though the number of source images was small, no two interpretations were the same.
At the risk of being thought to have imbibed too much of the new year spirit we are going to look at what it is we are actually presenting. Taking this right back to basics then no two images, once altered, are the same. They bare the imprint, however minute, of the person who altered them and the peculiarities of the tools that they were altered with. Also they are most definitely not, cannot be for reasons of time, geography and interpretation be the same as the photographer – s/he who pressed the shutter and was witness to what was captured. What is actually being photographed is another perspective again, because it is in a different place in time and space to the camera.
So much is true, essential in that we are talking the laws of physics, but nonetheless not particularly of great importance when it comes to our taking photographs. Except in two circumstances. One is in the circumstance of where we are using the image as the basis of a piece of art – The conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words (Freedictionary.com) – a pleasing representation of something we have seen, framed, captured and post processed in the hope of making something that the viewer can form an emotional attachment to. The other is a claim that what we are showing is the truth (as opposed to a truth) – Conformity to fact or actuality (Freedictionary.com). The first is an opinion the second is an assertion, for unless present we have no way of knowing just how truthful a claim that is.
So what? Well in the former, I agree with you, so what? Not being a collector of fine art, or otherwise, prints. Apart from the fact that a lot can be learned by looking critically at other peoples work, it is a personal matter as well as something that is subject to fads and fashions and more or less informed opinions. That is not to say that certain commonalities cannot be agreed in what we accept as pleasing to the eye.
It is said that “The Camera never lies” (Robert Louis Stevenson), which Caesar Romero contradicted, “It lies every day”. Stevenson was making a point about the difference between fine art and photography though I prefer David Bailey‘s assertion that ” It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. (In “Face,” London, Dec 1984). The fact remains that certain physical limitations endure and it takes a certain skill to get round it.
Does it matter, then, if we alter images? Of course not and yes, absolutely! As ever context is all. The camera is neutral. Whatever is in front of it it will render a more or less recognisable facsimile of, depending on our mastery of focus and the exposure triangle. Our job, behind the camera, is to let this story making tool tell a story. If we are claiming that the story we are telling is a true one, then absolutely it matters if and what we enhance/remove. This is especially the case in photojournalism where the reputation of the publication using an image can be severely tainted by the manipulation of a photograph to tell an enhanced story.
So there is, in some areas, a tension between truth and beauty. That is before we come back to matters of taste but there is still a question of whether it matters if an image is a photograph or a graphic design? Again, of course not and absolutely! It counts in the matter of work flow, especially when editing. We have, many times, referred to the opposing camps of Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. In truth we probably aspire to the former but fall back on the latter, but there is a reason why the Camera-ista has a point and it is linked to a number of themes we have looked at over the past couple of years.
First off is the argument about artist/artisan. Frankly I find this to be an empty one. If you take something and make something else of it then you have created art. Art may not be the end which you had in mind, for instance if you took wood to make a chair I am guessing that you would rather sit on it than look at it, but there will be a reaction to the way that it has been put together and thought about, its design, that will include an overall effect. This overall effect is where the art concept lives. It is not all of it, but it is an integral part of it.
Secondly, fine motor skills and the ability to pick up a pencil or a brush and create a representation of a person or thing is the same as picking up any other tool and making the same. The camera is a tool. Mastery of the tool leads to mastery over the final result. It does nothing to add soul to the final result, but it is a gate keeper to others interacting with that same soul. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax, Olympus, Hasalblad, Phase One and the rest, immaterial. Light and the laws of physics work the same way for them all. Post processing may be able to put things in but it can only bring out soul if soul is there to be found in the first place. Post processing, and by far the most commonly found is the Photoshop/Creative Cloud family but I mean post processing in general, is just another tool. You can be good bad or indifferent in using it.
So get out, photograph, think about what you photograph, look at others photograph, learn the ways of light, bring it home, polish it, present it and go again. Sounds like some sort of hobby to me.
Happy New Year.
Dockside this week, the last meeting of the 2014-15 season, near full moon and clear skies and the biggest boat ( the Lady Sandals, a private yacht that was, maybe, once owned by the actor Nicholas Cage for a few days, who also, I seem to remember, once owned a castle hereabouts he never visited – he is a man of expensive hobbies) seen in the basin for a long while (the MV Balmoral possibly accepted and then there wouldn’t be much in it either way though she was in the Bristol Channel I believe). We met under the “Big Shiny Ball” aka “The Disco Ball”, in reality the Planitarium in Bristol’s Millennium Square. Can’t say my own pictures were particularly heart stopping but I do have one, straight out of the camera, absolutely no post production, that apparently breaks the laws of physics. Need some time to puzzle that one out, or possibly engaging a Galactic Lawyer, but hey can’t say the evening wasn’t productive!
The Millennium that the Square celebrates was supposed to bring in many apocalyptic changes. Photographically it marked the beginning of the commercial change from film to digital and the relegation of a dominant medium to a men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth medium in a couple of years. Then nostalgia isn’t what it once was. Stephen Mayes in an article in Time Magazine (thanks Mark Stone for posting via Facebook) this week argued that the changes were bigger than we first thought and that the photograph as photograph isn’t “Dead as many have claimed, but it’s gone“. The interconnected context of a photograph today, never mind the volumes of data about ourselves their sharing gives away, does not represent the optically and physically fixed idea of an article of record we think it does. Only a third of any image produced digitally, represents this century and a half truism of an unadorned record (and that was always at least part myth anyway), the rest of a JPEG or TIF file is interpolated. And the data in a RAW file, the digitally closest thing to a negative, can be manipulated in a near infinite number of ways. He cites Kevin Connor’s conjecture that the camera has evolved from picture making device to a data collecting one.
This does actually matter in our interconnected world, one where the next evolution of the i-phone may have a 12mp camera and 4K video capability, but also one where ALL the data on the phone, your life, good days, bad days and secrets between friends are shared globally in real time without you ever thinking about it. The delete button ONLY works on your phone. The myriad privacy statements and unread end user licensing agreements (EULA) allow us, distracted by the shiny things that these little miracles do and say, to unthinkingly give away data worth billions and permanently record those things we, maybe, one day wish had been left to fade from memory. Oh yes the digital camera now fits right in and not just camera-phones either because we upload/share not just the image but the exif data as well, maybe add a few comments, most of them instantly forgettable, lol, corny or otherwise steeped in a sauce of our own delusional wit, rotfl – to the point of incontinence. The point is “Except in photojournalism, there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’; everything will be an amalgam, an interpretation, an enhancement or a variation – either by the photographer as auteur or by the camera itself” (Mayes after Marc Levoy).
My answer to that is, it always was. Composition? Decisive moment? Story telling? All a part of the art from day one because it was life imitating art at the beginning and ever since the very presence of a camera makes a difference to the way people act. That’s why “authentic” street photography sounds akin to stalking or surveillance in behavioural technique. That, however, maybe to (slightly) misrepresent Mayes, who is actually pitching that the photograph has and is becoming much more. It may, at the simplest level, represent a 2D representation of a 3D world but that 3D world now includes other experiences. Like the hyperlinks in this post represent layers of definition, interpretation and ultimately meaning through multiple perspectives with the text serving as guide in the same way as the image fires the story we put to it. Another point that this raises in my mind is that photojournalism isn’t immune from these things it is enhanced and increasingly depends. Apart from? Especially? Isn’t a crowd sourced citizen journalism closer to the notion of a cinema verite (Though someone still has to curate it)? And who has got the time to navigate this planet around every image world? Apart from Cultural Historians, Auteurs and the long term unemployed “Ain’t nobody got time for that“. Maybe that is the point. An image has a during, usually of a fraction of a second, we can only speculate about the before and afters for the most part.
Without a doubt photography is changing. Arguably there are fewer professionals around these days and someone turning up with a camera is no longer an event because everyone, virtually, has a camera as long as they have a Smartphone – and not just in the advanced economies. Mind you, turn up with a tripod and everyone thinks you know what you are doing. Within seconds you can be surrounded by men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth telling you that nostalgia isn’t what it was and sticky fingered children asking you what that button does (not to ignore a few sticky fingered adults making off with your camera bag). Mayes is right though, new technologies, or the shrinking and disseminating of old ones does ask questions of society, not all of them comfortable to answer and in a culture of exploitation for profit the balance of privacy v profit will not naturally fall to the best individual interests of you and I. Then can you take the word of a bloke on the run from the World’s Creator Myths for breaking the laws of Physics?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Back to School for the first meeting of the 2015-16 calendar. Bring along your images of the summer and share.