27 November 2010

Now What Was I Doing - Photographic Theory

I love the discussions of style and technique among photographers. These debates are endlessly interesting to me. Holga, HDR, Minimalist, Pictorialist, Photojournalism, Bokeh, Abstract, and on and on – they make me think and ask questions that I might not have even considered otherwise. Yet, in our vigorous discussions of style and technique, we often lose sight of the fundamental function of photography, and that is to record. First and foremost, we are striving with our cameras to capture a visual image of the way something looks.

We all hope that something more than simple recording happens when we create an image. We hope that when we create an image, the subject and moment captured will carry meanings which will extend far beyond the instant when the shutter snapped. We hope that the photographer will bring vision and experience to the creation which will reveal layers of meaning and value much deeper than the mere surface appearance of a subject. We hope that those who view the image will bring their own experience and interpretation to the graphic which will give life to the image, extending far beyond the original impulse of the photographer to snap the image.

And yet, when all of the theory and romance of photography is peeled away, photography is a matter of recording how the light falls upon a particular subject in a specific place in a discrete moment in time. Many photographers have taken to calling photographs “captures” which carries the sense grabbing a moment and preserving it, and I like that. When we make a picture, first and foremost, we are recording how something looked at that moment. We are creating an historical record. Style, art, interpretation, layers of meaning, and the rest, come afterwards.

Now, why am I musing on these obvious fundamentals? Earlier this summer, I went driving through southern Indiana and found myself in the picturesque town of Paoli, Indiana. It has a classic 19th Century county seat layout. The court house sits in the town square, surrounded on all four sides by businesses housed in ancient buildings facing inward toward the court house. In the southwest quadrant of the square was an old building with an intriguing spiral stairway outside the building. I snapped this picture:


The stairway caught my eye first because it was an oddity being on the outside of the building and second, I liked it because of the visual contrast of the spiral stairs against the straight metal box running up the wall beside it. The photo may never make the top ten photographs of the 21st Century, but I like it. A couple of days ago, I heard on the news that a huge fire had broken out in the square at Paoli. Eventually, images of the devastation filtered out, and I found this:


This is the building that once held my lovely spiral staircase. The building and staircase are gone. Somehow I doubt that they will ever be replaced in the way they were. It hit me that buried in my archive of CD’s and negatives, is a record of how this building looked before it was destroyed. One might question the relative value of preserving a record of an old building in a small country town, but it was a part of my world, enough to trigger me to photograph it, and now it’s gone. In a practical sense, the photos could be useful for insurance claims or for a restoration if one were ever attempted. What’s important to me is that I captured a piece of my world before it disappeared. That’s enough justification for me. I recorded it with my camera.

My earliest and perhaps most powerful photographic influence was LIFE Magazine. My parents subscribed to LIFE and Time all through my childhood. In that powerful, formative time in my life, photography was what you saw in LIFE. If I could produce a photograph that looked like the black & whites in LIFE, I had succeeded. In terms of models, one could do worse than emulate the LIFE photographers: Eisenstaedt, Bourke-White, Steichen, Halsman, Capa, Feininger, Lange and so many more. The LIFE photographers were, for the most part, photojournalists and realists. They brought great artistry to their photography, but job one was coming back with a portrait of Hemingway that looked like Hemingway.

In terms of style, I have to confess that I’m still strongly, probably unconsciously, influenced by this ideal: get a good picture. A good picture means correct exposure, sharp focus, pleasing composition and a smooth tone curve of grays. I never have been a Zone System fanatic, but the closer I can get to filling all eleven zones with a subtle gradation of grays (or color), the happier I am. Overly contrasty pictures still bother me. Underexposed pictures bother me. My idea of a great photograph is still the exquisite portrait of Ernest Hemingway glaring down from the ladder at photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. Eisenstaedt shot on a 6x6 cm Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera. I’m such a fan of Eisenstaedt that I actually own a TLR 6x6 similar to Eisenstaedt’s. I guess that’s what you would call hero worship because the thing is damned difficult to shoot pictures on.

So, I’m amazed when people deliberately throw their cameras out of focus, use rotted film to get weird colors, or computer software to open up the shadows and suppress highlights (HDR). And make no mistake: I’ll use all of these techniques and I have done some wonderful shots using them. I’m a graphic artist by trade and I am not above manipulating the hell out of a photograph to get what I want for an ad or poster. But, when it really counts, and I’m shooting a picture that’s important, I invariably revert to get a good picture – sharp focus, correct exposure and pleasing composition. I’m a recorder. I want to capture what my eyes see. To me, this is the greatest wonder of the camera: to be able to capture a moment in time as it looked, with the meanings and memories it carries.

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Christine H. said...

What a shame about that building. I'm so glad you caught it on film. I hate to think what will replace it.

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