A Photographer's Photograph?
I received a very interesting email from Oceans reader Adam musing on whether there are two classes of photograph; layman's photographs and photographer's photographs. Here (with his permission!) is his text in full for you to ponder on...
A few months ago a friend was looking at some of my photos and said of a fairly straightforward shot from Red Canyon (Utah) that it was a photographer’s photograph. I asked him to explain, and he said something about the way trees were placed around the image, the restricted colour palette (just green and hues of red) and lack of horizon (the sky was desperately bland that morning). I forgot about that conversation until recently, when as part of a discussion about photo clubs, someone else I know said that he would wish to avoid the “dreary photographer’s photography …. I'll lose the visual immediacy ….”. And this time I started thinking a bit more. What is it that makes an image arresting to the general viewer yet also evokes admiration from those who know about photography?
Let’s take the case of a wonderful landscape in dramatic light: as long as we can set up the tripod and point the camera in the right direction, then we will get a satisfactory image whether we use a simple digicam or LF big gun. It’s point and shoot, period. For this exercise I will ignore the problems of balancing out a dark foreground with bright sky etc.
But the enthusiast photographer could perhaps take a bit more care, think about using some elements of the foreground more effectively to strengthen the composition and add more impact. Perhaps using a rock the shape of which echoed that of a distant mountain. Here the photographer hopes to reproduce his own vision and uses some specialist equipment – a wide angle lens and a low viewpoint, or perhaps an LF camera with movements. By injecting his own vision, is he being creative and therefore moving towards being artistic? Well, I think yes if the resulting image is clearly more effective than that first point-&-shoot of what the photographer first saw.
As long as the image follows the conventionally accepted “rules” of composition, is sharp and well exposed, then the p&s as well as the more impactful image should get good marks from a photo club judge – and hopefully the second image will get a point or two more.
But let’s consider the case of pealing paint on a Tuscan door (forgive me DW!) where the subtle colours and textures contrast with the straight lines of the door structure. It’s a technical shot in that it would be difficult if not impossible to get the same image using cameras lacking the movements of LF. The rules of composition are probably irrelevant, the colours muted, the exposure spot on; what could or should a judge make of that? And what could an uninitiated viewer make of it? Unless the photographer manages to convey a sense of the feeling or emotion he experienced when he saw that door, the image will fail: better days gone by, current dereliction, abandonment, someone’s handiwork going to ruin…. Otherwise, it’s just a shot of a door, a so-called record shot and will be judged on that basis. Many non-photographers might just walk on by to the next print on the wall.
Or what about an abstraction from nature, perhaps detail from some colourful tree bark or contrasting colours of lichen and rock. Again the composition will probably not follow the conventional rules, and might leave the viewer to wander around the image noticing little details here and there. Some effort may be necessary and go beyond the "wow" of colours and textures to realise what the image is. Here David’s Detail at Poverty Flats in Utah is a wonderful example.
Are these last two photographer’s photographs? Possibly, but they are not necessarily dreary (certainly not the Detail). Conversely, I have seen some wonderful strong images full of passion being panned by judges for being composed not quite on the rule of thirds, or with the exposure “too dark” despite thereby separating the main subject from its background. Here the judge was seemingly looking precisely for conventional photographer’s photographs and didn't know how to react to something different. And it is that tendency to judge an image against a set of "rules" which strangles original photographic interpretation of the beauty around us.
So, what do I feel?
It's obvious that the interpretation of any image is dependent upon the level of sophistication of the viewer. An expert in Renaissance Art would certainly have a richer experience when viewing the Mona Lisa than the mythical man in the street would. The important question is should I, as a photographer aspiring to art rather than illustration, be worried that some people don't 'get' my images. I think the answer has to be a resounding "No!" This doesn't mean that I'm being elitist. I feel that my images are accessible on a number of different levels. Some viewers will only appreciate the colours or form, some think about the relationship of negative to positive space, some see references to other forms of art, some be lost in what the image evokes for them, some all of the above and more. It doesn't matter whether a viewer accesses the image on one, two or all available levels. It doesn't ultimately matter if an individual viewer isn't moved by a particular image. Neither Picasso nor van Gogh nor Monet nor Turner nor Whistler nor Mondrian nor Pollock were exactly populist for large parts of their carreers. Yet now their works are accepted as important milestones in the history of art. Popularity alone has never been a sign of quality. What would matter was if no one other than the photographer was moved by the images that they made.
I certainly don't worry that camera club judges might mark me down for not using the "rule of thirds" (this is a merely a degenerate bastardisation of the more subtle Golden Section and the fact that they probably don't know this only shows up their ignorance). Art isn't about formulas, it's not something that should be constrained by rules in this way. That doesn't mean that certain approaches aren't better than others, they obviously are. It just means that the whole exercise is more subtle and rich than any rule might suggest. Of course the real reason that judges apply rules is so that there can be some standards for comparison. And here's the fundamental flaw in the whole exercise. The appreciation of any work of art must necessarily be relative not absolute. One man's 10/10 is another's 2/10. The range of possible connotations in any image are too wide and subtle. Trying to constrain the possibilities for solving the three dimensional puzzle of composition by constraining the outcome using rules is a denial of the existence of these subtle signs. It shows a paucity of vision. There cannot be a consistent system for making an absolute comparison between one image and another. Period.
Are there photographer's photographs? Absolutely! If there weren't it would show that no one had really explored the possibilities for the medium beyond bland illustration, beyond the postcard. I feel that the image at the top of this post might well fall into the category of photographer's photograph. The only downside that I can see is that these images are probably less commercial than ones that are more straightforward.
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.