The Photographic idea

This past week I got into a discussion with two local photographers about photography as Art. Their opinion was that photography has become mostly a point-and-shoot process that is really all about documenting one’s personal life.

I think defining Art has always been “in the eye of the beholder”.  

I remember a friend chastising me when I was too critical of a photographer’s image, by saying that all to familiar phrase, “I may not know about Art, but I do know what I like.” 

Ansel Adams, in the forward to his popular 1950’s book “The Print” said, “Photography, in the final analysis, can be reduced to a few simple principles…” and he continued, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art…technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept.”

I remember the series of books by Adams when photography was about striving for the perfect negative and a good final print.

We don’t need to worry about a perfect negative any more, because even if the image file produced in-camera isn’t satisfactory it’s easily colour balanced, cropped, and sharpened later. Contrast can be changed and increasingly, the trend for many photographers has become to not make large prints at all. 

That said, I still think that Adams’ forward in “The Print” may be as worthwhile now as it was in 1950 for a photographer’s Art. Even with the changes of how an image is managed and finally used (whether print or electronic) the thought process is still important. Adams wrote about the technique of taking the picture, the negative, and the printing procedure. He might as well have been talking about transferring image data from a camera to computer, optimizing the files, and outputting to an online portfolio.

Adams wrote, “We may draw an analogy with music: The composer entertains a musical idea. He sets it down in conventional musical notation. When he performs it, he may, although respecting the score, inject personal expressive interpretations on the basic patterns of the notes. So it is in expressive photography: The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. Exposure and development of the negative…” He continues by saying, “the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”

I have always liked that final sentence of his “…the print (image file?) itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”   Those words remind me not to be as critical of other photographers work, if as Adams put it, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.”

I think what my friend meant when he said, ““I may not know Art, but I do know what I like.”   Was that I should be paying attention to what a photographer might be saying with his or her image and remind myself to think about “interpretation” and the “performance of the photographic idea.”

That is why its good that I still have that somewhat out-dated book, and why I should regularly open it up. After all the prattle about the newest camera, or lens, or computer programs, I need to be brought back to what, in the end, photography is about for me personally.

What is a Good Photograph?

Just what defines a good photograph is, and will always be, a topic of heated discussion with serious photographers; and in my opinion, is one that is certainly worth regular examination because, simply put, a “good photograph” is what those who enjoy this medium want to make.

There are, of course, those that believe a good photograph must capture an image absolutely true to life, while others might say it’s totally about how creative the photographer is, however, if one relies on they number of “likes” they receive on social media sites a good photograph probably depends on the beauty of the subject.

When I taught photography I told my students that a good photograph includes acceptable composition, exposure, and an interesting perspective.

I also said that a good photograph makes us have a connection with, or think about the subject, and might help us understand what the photographer feels about that subject; and if successful, evokes some kind of mood, whether good or bad.

American photographer Ansel Adams said, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” And he elaborates, “Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?”

And Adams reminds us, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

Another of my favorite scenic photographers, Elliott Porter, commented, “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis; you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”

Vogue magazine Editorial photographer Irving Penn, wrote, “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

What is a good photograph? That might only be in the “eye of the beholder”. If one is a camera club member there will be rules on how a photograph is judged. And when I graded my students’ work I was mostly interested in their knowledge.

Sometimes we see a photograph that moves or inspires us, makes us feel, think and dream. And when a photographer is able to convey that to viewers he or she has truly made a good photograph.

Photography lessons with Black And White Film 

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I have recently been talking with many photographers that are very interested in the process of black and white film photography. Most had their introduction to photography in high school using film and although they moved forward to iPhones and digital cameras, they were pulled back to film by memories of the unique “hands-on” experience they had with film.

With all that interest I thought I would revisit an article I wrote in June 2014,  “What I Learned About Photography by Shooting with Black /White Film”.

I began using black and white film because it was cheap and it’s what we used in my first college photography class. After I began to understand the medium as being creative instead of just a way to records things, I grew to like B&W and for years refused to shoot with anything else.

With film, once the camera’s shutter was released what one got was, well, what one got was-what-one-got. There were no second chances as enjoyed today. Photographers were left with only a memory of that moment until the film was printed.

We used a term called “Previsualization”. Previsualization is attributed to photographer and educator Minor White. While studying their subject a photographer predetermines how the final image would be processed and printed. Ansel Adam referred to that as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”.

There was also the Zone System. American photographers Fred Archer and Ansel Adams collaborated on the technique for determining optimal film exposure and development for a method to precisely define the relationship between the way one visualized the subject and the final results.

Those techniques helped us determine how the final print could look. Colour film had to be printed in an almost lightless room, whereas labs for printing B&W were quite bright allowing us to see the image and control an image as it was printed.

With B&W film I learned to previsualize, and as I selected my subject I would think about how I would process the film and make the final print. I could alter the exposure rating, as with the Zone system, and depending on which chemicals I planned on using, how I would develop the film. I would select different papers and chemicals to change contrast or tonal values in the final print.

Shooting with black and white film taught me to think about tonal shifts from black, to mid grey, and finally, to white with detail. Managing the process of developing and printing taught me that the camera and film (now the sensor) are just the starting point to making a photograph match my personal vision, and my personal vision is much more important than the camera’s.

A B&W photograph is a matter for the eye of the beholder, the intuition, and finally the intellect. Of course colour is all that, but much of the time it seems photographers are overwhelmed by colour, rarely seeing anything of importance in a scene other than the colours.

Because black and white images don’t attract with a play of colours, they seem subtle and demand close attention to composition, lighting, perspective, and the context the image is shot in as important factors.

 

Learning From the best Photographers of the Past.

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I had a discussion with a fellow that was looking for help with his photography. He was frustrated with all the books and online publications that seem to be more about the camera, lens, and exposure setting than what I’ll call “one’s mindset” when it comes to making a creative decision about photographing the subject.

My suggestion was to start looking at photographs made throughout history by those photographers applauded by their approaches. I suggested he check out Jerry Uelsman’s creative montages, Arnold Newman’s environmental portraits, Irving Penn’s fashion work, and, of course, the world famous, scenic photography of Ansel Adams.

I offered Digital Camera World’s “The 55 best photographers of all time. ”http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2012/07/17/famous-photographers-the-55-best-photographers-of-all-time/

The editors began their article with “The best photographers of all time? Surely there can be no definitive list! We’re not afraid of courting controversy here at Digital Camera World. OK, maybe we are a little bit, which is why we thought it was time to be bold for once! Over the years we’ve interviewed a number of famous photographers and been inspired by each of them, but one thing we often hear from readers, social media followers and others is… “Who are the best photographers of all time?” It’s a good question! We put on our thinking caps and took a stab it.”

There is another top ten list by the editors of the website, Ansel Adams. http://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/top-10-most-famous-photographers-of-all-time/

They write, “If you want to take truly memorable and moving photographs, you can learn something by studying the pictures of famous photographers. Some of the most beloved artists are deceased, but some are still delighting us with their photographs. The list includes some of the more famous photographers that still impact our lives today.”

I liked what Picture Correct’s editors wrote about how famous photographers are, “impacting our lives today”. I believe a good photograph is timeless and speaks to every generation.

Both articles are great and well worth taking time to read.

I enjoy studying those that excel in this medium, and I think we, as they wrote, “Can learn something by studying the pictures of famous photographers,” and I believe that photographers can advance their personal work by examining the work of others.

Photography is a medium that almost everybody within our contemporary culture has a personal familiarity with and an opinion on.

I suspect it is probably that familiarity with photography that drives many to think that they will excel as long as they keep up with the latest technology their photography will be applauded by their peers. However, I am of the belief that even though a photographer has technical skills, examining the work of photographers with a track record from the past will, as Picture Correct puts it, “help advance personal work by examining the work of others”.

Those two lists are only the opinion of the authors and as I perused the comments readers posted, many felt their favorite photographers had been excluded and others were unhappy with some on the lists. In my opinion that just doesn’t matter who made or didn’t make the lists, I enjoyed reading about them and their personal perspectives on photography.

The Final Photographic Performance   

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This week I wrote to photographer and blogger David Lockwood (https://davidalockwoodphotography.com) about why he seemed to be returning to film. His replied, “The whole process of using film, gives me a feeling of accomplishment; probably like the painter putting on the last brush stroke. Film gives me a feeling of control over the final image.” And regarding film vs. digital he wrote, “The question of film or digital shouldn’t really be asked, it’s a bit like asking why does one paint with oils, and the other watercolours. Both can produce an image, but both give a totally different sensation to the mind eye.”

During the time I taught photography in the 1980s and 1990s for the University College of the Cariboo (now Thompson River University) my students used film. In my initial lectures I would tell them that as well as learning to acquire skills using a camera, they would need to learn how to become proficient in negative development and printing. I would emphasize that those serious enough to strive for a perfect final photograph would come to realize that what they did with the camera was only the beginning, and that their final print would set them apart as photographers. I would quote famous photographer Ansel Adams who said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance…”

Film has now been set aside by many of those serious about photography, although I expect artists will use film creatively for years, nevertheless, even with advancing photographic digital technology Adams’ words from the past are still significant.

I intend to spend time discussing Mr. Lockwood’s insightful thoughts about film photography later, but first I want to say a few words about digital image making.

The digital camera doesn’t make a picture in the sense of light permanently imprinting itself with different intensities on a chemically sensitized surface like film. Instead there are sensors and in-camera computers processing light from thousands of photosites that we transfer to our computers as data files for conversion into countless pictorial possibilities.

I once attended a photography workshop during which one of the speakers said in the past he would get up early and drive to some scenic location hoping to capture an exotic sunrise, after which he would package up his film and send it to the lab and leave all decisions to some technician’s personal vision. However, now he transfers his image files to his computer and he alone controls how his photograph will be processed for viewing and finally printing.

As in the days when I processed negatives in special chemicals and manipulated prints by adding and subtracting light, I now use computer programs to process my RAW images in my quest to perfect my vision.

I say the same thing to modern photographers as I did to my students, that what they do with the camera is only the beginning,

The image on exposed on film, although now a RAW image file, is only the “score” to the “final performance” – the photographic print.

A young photographer came into my shop announcing, with some kind of misplaced pride, that he would never use PhotoShop on any of his pictures because he was only into true reality. Although I didn’t comment, I thought about the manufacturer presets that were applied in-camera to his image files and the limited colour spaces his inadequate JPG files gave him, and his confused notion of photographic reality.

If he really wanted to step away from the unreality of computerized image making he should talk to David Lockwood who wrote, “The camera, light meter, film, paper and chemicals all go towards producing a single and unique image. That does not happen with digital; from the moment the shutter is pressed, the whole thing becomes a cloning process from which endless exact copies can be produced.” However, as Lockwood also says, “The question of film or digital shouldn’t really be asked… Both can produce an image…that give a totally different sensation to the mind eye.”

 

 

Photographing the Chase Falls    

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It is just over a year since I talked about my spring visit to a waterfall about 20 minutes from my home. Photographing the Chase Falls is, as the name infers, the falls just across the Trans Canada highway from the center of the small lakeside town of Chase, British Columbia.

Spring with its warm, snow-melting temperatures sure rolled in very early this year. Gosh, who would have thought we’d experience 30+ Celsius at the beginning of June. With that warm weather I was positive I wouldn’t see high, murky, water rushing over the falls.

I arrived around 11am and took the short walk along the sandy path to the falls. And sure enough, although there was plenty of water coming over Chase falls, the creek level was low enough that I was easily able to scramble among the large rocks along the bank and found many comfortable locations to set up my tripod. Ansel Adams said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”

I guess that’s right when it comes to photographing a waterfall, I leaned against a big bolder and pulled out a couple of neutral density (ND) filters so I could reduce my shutter speed by a few seconds, and slow the water down in my shot. Then began moving my tripod from place to place, in hopes of finding that “good photograph.”

Photographing waterfalls and getting that smooth water that is so popular is really easy to do, and not complicated at all. All one needs is a camera, a sturdy tripod and a neutral density filter.

I put my camera on the tripod, focus, place a ND filter in front of the lens, and release the shutter. I rarely bother with a cable release. I usually just select my camera’s self-timer. I use 4-inch by 4-inch square ND filters that are well worn and a bit marked up.

When I purchased the filters they came with a filter holder to attach to the lens front, but that’s just more stuff to carry and instead I hold them by the edge in front of my camera lens and move them up and down so anything on them won’t show up when I take the picture.

I had a nice time taking pictures and even sat for a while on one of the large, smooth boulders just enjoying the cool air and the sound of the water. I think I might go back next week to try out a fish-eye lens that came into my shop.

 

 

What Inspired or Inspires you to do Photography     

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A member of a photography site I frequented some time ago posed the question, “What inspired you?”

I took that to mean what inspired you as a photographer?

One would think that a question on a photographer’s website page would be a great opportunity for photographers to talk about those that encouraged, influenced, or affected their development in this exciting medium.

Anticipating discussions on celebrated photographers who had inspired others on that forum to get into photography I looked forward to reading members replies. However, I was surprised and disappointed with how few took the time to respond, and those that did seemed silly by only naming long gone painters like Rembrandt. Rembrandt? Not one member on that photographer’s forum mentioned another photographer.

Unable to contain myself I wrote, “I was inspired to do photography by photographers not painters. Those I admired and inspired me at different times include Man Ray, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Arnold Neuman, Gregory Heisler, Sarah Moon, Sheila Metzner and Annie Leibovitz. I must also mention scenic photographers like Elliott Porter, Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen and Edward Weston.”

Today I sent a friend a picture I had taken of him and several other friends in the early 1970s. I remembered at that time I was rarely without a camera, and how frustrating that was to some that just got tired of my constant picture taking. That’s when I recalled the preceding post on inspiration and my response.

I suppose there are painters and sculptors I like, but do they inspire my photography? No not really – I look to photographers for that. The first photographer and artist that inspired me all those years ago was Man Ray. It was after viewing his fascinating pictures that I began to study photography.

However, it is the second photographer on my inspiration list, Richard Avedon that I’ll quote here, “I think many photographers create in order to survive, both emotionally as well as financially. For a photographer, taking a photo is just as important as breathing”.

Sometimes when I see a photograph that I like I get excited. I might not be able to go to the location or find the subject of that picture, but it still makes me want to grab my camera and begin searching for something. I could say that photograph inspired me to create one of my own in my own personal way.

In my list to that forum I forgot to include the famous Canadian nature photographer and author, Freeman Patterson. I think any photographer interested in photographing gardens or landscapes will find inspiration in his photographs and his writing. Patterson wrote,  “Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

There are many things and people that inspire me, too many to write down here, but the original post was on a photographer’s forum, so it’s photographers not painters that I thought about. There are many photographers past and present whose images are worth searching for, looking at, learning from, and of course, gaining inspiration from that will surely affect one’s own photography.

I always enjoy everyone’s comments. Please don’t hesitate if you have a moment.

Thanks, John