Two recent articles in National Geographic have drawn my attention and illustrate two “issues” with the popular view of photography and photographic creativity.
In Blind Photographers Push the Envelope of Expression, Brian Howard describes a new book which “examines the work of visually impaired artists who use sounds, smells, and even touch to guide their cameras.” The article nicely avoids the over-lyrical, at no point did I feel the artists were using their disability as a marketing argument and, while not all to my personal tastes, some of the photographs are just plain fantastic.
Then comes a comment, which doesn’t seem to be provocative or aggressive in any way: “… forgive me if I don’t understand. Photography is a VISUAL art form. If you cannot see what you are photographing, independent of other senses, how can you be a photographer …” (please no comments on the comment. The point is not the comment but to analyze the popular point of view about photography it carries).
What strikes me, seeing the photographs on that page, is the sheer variety of styles. Take a look at Flickr or Instagram or any competition, for that matter, after that and everything will seem so depressingly uniform. Again, I don’t like all of these photographs, but I admire the creativity behind all of them. It’s like having functional eyes is making us unable to see.
Something else: yes, photography is a visual art, in that photographers produce a visual object. What this means is these photographers are unable to see their own creations ! Is that the ultimate form of self-exposure and generosity?
Moving on to Smartphone Photos Take Us on a Celestial Journey. While the photographs on that page seem to take forever to load, you can see most of them on the author websites: Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick. And one photograph that does load on the NatGeo website says it all for me. It is a black and white photograph of a person walking in a river or small lake. Caught in a ray of sunlight, the person is completely washed out, totally white. And the photograph is magical in a way that would have been unavailable to a person shooting with a 13-bit dynamic range digital camera.
That photograph feeds my current fascination for Smartphone photography. It’s becoming more and more obvious to me that, as gear extends its technical capabilities, so does is force most of us into a standardized mold. Group f/64 for the masses. Much like Photoshop turns all fashion models into plastic-skinned skinny angry dolls. Let’s blame Ansel Adams 😉 He tought us all how to make the technical most out of the medium. And let’s now turn our gaze to artists such as Koenning and Protick who show us how to make the creative most out of a medium.
Most of us are going about photography the wrong way. I include myself in this desperate search for X1-D perfection instead of working on my creative juices.
Yes, there’s room for the shallow-depth-of-field high-dynamic-range look, yes there’s room for the high-depth-of-field high-dynamic-range super-saturated landscape. But there’s probably a lot of fun to be had in exploring the creative avenues of low-tech gear. And probably a lot more to learn about creativity and ourselves. Quick, before Smartphone manufacturers give us machines with MFT curved sensors and 16 bit range as I’ve recently been begging them to 😉
What say you ?
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One jump at a time, Pascal.
1 – Blind & handicapped people
I have nothing but admiration for them, and the way they deal with their situation. When I did my first university degree many long years ago, there was a student who had gone blind in his teens, and almost gone insane in the process. Some of us used to spend hours every week, reading textbooks into his tape recorder, so that he could go home and transcribe notes from the tapes on his braille typewriter. The degree we were doing took 4 years – he completed TWO degrees, in 5 years, and the other one was a 3-year course, so it should have taken a sighted person 7. What does that make the rest of us look like? I still have tears in my eyes, thinking of it. He also used to mow the lawns for his mother, since his father had died – when I ask how, he said “oh, that’s easy – I just kick off my shoes, and feel where I have mown the grass, with my feet!” More tears!
2 – Smartphones
“One man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Or “we can’t all be the same – if we were, there’d be no point to any of us, after the first one – except, perhaps, as spare parts!’
My “opinion”, for what it’s worth, is that I’m still coming into digital and still on a steep learning curve, exploring what I can do with it. For that reason, I have been trying a range of “cameras” and lenses, to see what suits me. What suits me is back to the previous paragraph – I sent you a shot of mine, privately, the other day and I’ve not the least notion what other photographers think of a shot like that – nothing, in all probability. But I AM learning – learning what I can do with this gear, and what the differences are between different formats, different sensors, different pixel ratings – different glass – different focusing systems (remembering I only recently ditched my beloved split prism/fresnel screen manual focus Zeiss gear, for all these new toys!)
My opinion, in short, is that I lack Ming’s technical expertise in this field, it’s too late in my life to do a photography degree, and I lack the experience of digital cams that you, and Philippe, and Paul, and Ming have. So apart from noting that cellphones seem to suffer from the short focal length of their lenses and the limited size of their sensors – which make them “uninteresting”, for MY purposes – the only comment I have on them is that being confronted by an uncontrollable flock of demented people waving cellphones in the air, on the end of selfie sticks, is extremely irritating when they stand between me and something I’m trying to photograph. But that’s not a reflection on their gear – it’s a reflection on their appalling behaviour and lack of consideration for anyone but themselves. They behave like a flock of seagulls, all headed for the same potato chip which they’ve all seen lying on the pavement.
As to the technical limitations of cellphones, I have no doubt they will improve, just as “cameras” have improved over the past century and a half. And those who use them DO take “good photos”, if they know what they are doing. And people who don’t, will never take good shots, no matter WHAT camera they have.
Pascal, how true once again… As an electrical and software engineer, I’m very focused on the technical side of photography, but there’s so much more to explore beyond technology. I appreciate it very much that you share your thoughts with us! Thanks & have a nice day.
Thanks Peter. In essence, we need a vision. With a vision, we can decide what technology suits it best. The way the market work is the opposite. Manufacturers serve us more ISO, more DR, more colour, less noise … and do their best to convince us that we need that. We don’t. What we need is technology that serves our intentions. Which is much more difficult since we are all different, since we are human 😉 All the best. Have a great day too.
Pascal, there’s one thing I should have included, which occurred to me later when I was looking at a post on another blog.
Historically, “photograph” was taken to mean a print from a negative, made on light sensitive paper and chemically treated – both to bring out the image and to render it “permanent”. The negative was originally on glass, but later on film. Along came movies, and prints were not part of cinematography – and with this came a fundamental change. While films are projected on screens, there’s a similarity – but once we started viewing photos as slides, by looking through them instead of projecting them, we hit a new dimension.
You mention “high dynamic range”, but don’t develop the theme. Out walking Cris (my Dobermann – she puts up with me!) I found myself reflecting on one aspect of this, which hasn’t seen much discussion.
We talk about “compressing dynamic range”, so we get detail in both the shadows and the highlights. HDR and stuff.
What we don’t talk about, so much, these days is the fact – recognised way back – that photos printed on paper or some other medium can only be viewed by REFLECTED light. And no matter what we get up to, that is necessarily going to be less than “ambient” or “available” light. Whereas slides, TV, digital images and so on rely (instead) on TRANSMITTED light, and that can be way more powerful than reflected light – opening up shadows, without losing detail in highlights.
Part of the buzz of digital photos – most of which will never see a printer – is the luminescence which comes with that difference. I think that this is a major reason why cellphones give their owners lovely looking photos.
And I suspect it is also a reason why many photos shot in colour are, instead, reproduced in black & white – keeping the colours, and ensuring their fidelity, just becomes too hard sometimes, when converting a digital image to a print – and an artistic alternative of converting the image to a B&W one suddenly seems a more attractive choice. Not always, but certainly sometimes – at least, that’s what I think occurs.
Given how easy it is to take photos, most of us are shooting a far greater number than we used to in the days of analogue, and the cost of printing a thousand or two shots, in colour, is a bit daunting. So like the cellphone aficionados, “proper” photographers are also leaving a substantial portion of their photos in digital, without printing them.
I think this is a pity, in a way. Because only when we turn the printer on, and have to produce a quality print from our digital image, do we really address the “true” quality of the images we have created. This process becomes a kind of “acid test” of “whether we’ve got it right”. It’s all very well to claim that we aim to do that “in camera”, so little or no post-processing is needed. But I wonder whether that’s because we sit on a digital copy and stop short of taking that last step, to produce a quality image in a printed format.
That’s also a point where dynamic range jumps out at us, as a key factor in the whole process.
Hi Pete, yes the superb screens on upmarket smartphones do give photographers an unfair advantage over the printer. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though. While I love prints and can’t find enough money and/or wall space for all the prints I’d love to own, art is art on many medium. And if someone gets a kick from the photo at the back of his phone screen, day after day, that works for me 😉 We can have the same debate with Ultra-Fi vs iPod. Whatever moves people is legitimate. I believe phones have become a natural extension of many people and the younger generations have started thinking creatively about how to use them to suit their style, thinking beyond convenience. Cameras today push convenience: AF, speed, ISO, … I just like it when someone thinks different and exploits the lack of convenience as a creative support for their art.
Speaking of prints, I have on the wall one by the Caponigro family that pretty much sums it up. It shows two photographs: on the left, a digitally manipulated iPhone photograph by John-Paul and, on the right, a contact from a large format negative by father, Paul. Very nice 🙂
Regarding the linked National Geographic article – does serendipitous technical failure of the capture device make art? Its the equivalent of an ugly filter applied with a camera phone app or using a hopeless cheap camera like a Holga. Any artistry must surely be only in the final selection of the random failures of the device used to make the photograph?
Hi Artuk, while I agree with your argument, the artists presented here certainly do not rely on random failure for their work. Their respective websites show, on the contrary, a lot of work to exploit the envelope of their tool to the most, for what it is. It’s like the good old days of film. Velvia had its own look. Some kept on rambling about its limited DR, other worked with it, and produced masterpieces. My point is simply that manufacturers are constantly pushing for more technical mastery and that doesn’t make us better photographers, on the contrary. Creativity loves constraints.
I was commenting on the first couple of pictures featured in the National Geographic article, that whilst attractive appeared to be artistic because of the limitations of the sensor, lens etc – the glowing white figure caused by running out of dynamic range, and the ghosting in another. They are not the same as the look of Velvia (or NPH, or Agfa Portrait 160 or Ultra) since the things that make these images striking are nothing more than random failures given the circumstances, not an artistic choice based on the look of the media used for the capture. The photographer may have discovered that the figure would blow out pure white, or that lens flare would cause ghosting across the image, but they are not the look of the camera per se, merely serendipitous failure – in the same way you or I might take a photo where we happened to like the lens flare. I don’t disagree the there is a kind of “camera fascism” amongst some (many?) photographers where photography becomes a top-trumps exercise of specification one-up-man-ship. This has nothing to do with art, good photography and is demonstrated on a daily basis by online blogging and publication that shows tedious or artless photos which are apparently “good” because they were 42Mp, for example. Many users seem convinced that the most expensive cameras take the best photos or are the “best” cameras, when in fact those saying this invariably completely miss the point of the needs of a specific user or the type of photograph being taken. I don’t support or condone this view at all, although I think many of us can have that tendancy when we have a passionate interest in cameras and equipment as part of our interest in photography. Increasingly, I take a view that where some camera or lens will allow me to take pictures that I could not have taken before, or at a quality level that I want to achieve, then I don’t bother to buy new equipment as you simply end up on the endless treadmill of upgrading for no specific benefit. Many, probably most, enthusiasts are not artists, and will never be, and we indulge our interest in photography for personal reasons or a belief that we are artists, when in fact in almost all cases we are not. That doesn’t make us “bad” photographers, it just means we lack the creativity, flare, insight, passion or drive to create genuine art. Strangely some of my favourite cameras with film were simple P&S models like the Ricoh R-10 or Olympus Mju-2 as they took good quality photos but relieved you of all the need to fiddle with technical things and just concentrate on the photos. Conversely, a semi-pro SLR allowed for other types of photos that those happy snap models could never manage. Ironically, in some ways I do think technical fascism has it’s place – the Canon SLR users so wedded to their blessed EOS 5D models because they know all the great landscape photgprahers use them, when a Sony RX10 at base ISO on a tripod would produce images of similar technical quality (DR, colour etc). I increasingly shoot some stock photography, where art is not on the agenda and the technical quality is the only thing that may differentiate your photo from a similar one with blocked up shadows or blown highlights or lower resolution. That’s not art, but it is photography (albeit a rather boring type). I quite liked the iPhone photos, I thought they were quite artistic, but trying to attribute some hi-brow artistic intent to them (the linked article, not you) is in my humble opinion a kind of intellectual masturbation which misses the point that lots of not very good cameras can occasionally take interesting pictures. Sorry for a somewhat unstructured ramble – I don’t think we disagree completely, but have a different view of what makes “art”.
Very interesting, Artuk.
First of all, I think it’s a good thing we don’t all agree 100% on what art is. If we did, someone would institutionalize it, add rules and ISO normalization to it, kill the fun and human element.
Also, there’s no reason to think stock photography isn’t some sort of art. No, it’s not someone pouring out their soul on canvas. But then, neither high-brow artists who live off political ties and get all the media attention. With stock, you are at least shipping something that touches people enough to make them want to use it on their walls, flyers or websites 🙂
What I find interesting with these (not all) Smartphone photographs is that, just as will good old film, limitations happen at shoot-time. You have to understand the limitations of the medium and make them work to your advantage. Whereas the rest of us (I plead guilty, with my 42mpix 13 bit depth Sony) attempt to capture all that can be with the technology and rely on post-processing for the creative realisation of the photograph. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does take a very creative and focused individual to find a consistent style in that scenario. Many others just think that, because the shot is sharp (AF) and well exposed (auto-metering and high DR), it’s visually good enough. Again, not criticizing, and I include my occasional lazy self. I think that working with a technically limited medium has that advantage that it forces us to previsualize a lot more and work more upstream. Just like you had to do with Velvia if you didn’t want white walls and black shadows.
I love discussions like this one, Artuk.
What is “art” is and always has been “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. That said – there’s no way that any piece of equipment will produce a quality image, without a competent person in charge of it – money notoriously doesn’t buy taste, and it certainly doesn’t buy the skill set needed to produce a good image. Otherwise we’d have art galleries full of Rothschilds, Rockerfellers and Vanderbilts, instead of Rembrandts, Vermeers, Van Goghs, Monets, Picassos &c. (Shudder – I wish I hadn’t had that thought!)
I can take a photo which I think is “great”, because it’s exactly what I set out to do – show it to someone else, and they can simply yawn or puke.
Part of this is in our heads. What I see and what you or anyone else sees in an image is not going to coincide, except by pure chance.
As for chasing pixels . . . I still think one of the American pros had the best comment on that; he suggested that if you REALLY want a “sharper” picture with more detail and information, then stop fooling around, go buy a medium format camera with even a mundane lens, and it will blast any DSLR or similar clean out of the water.
Pixels are weird anyway – they come in all different shapes and sizes, do all sorts of different things (depending which set of pixels they are), and perform quite differently in different cams because of other stuff they are building into them, these days. And after we cross that briar patch, we have yet to deal with the limitations of printers. Because THEY don’t run on 55 mega pixels! Oops, I forgot – nobody prints photos any more – my “bad”!
Maybe it’s just in my nature to be rebellious, but after wading through all the stuff on all these issues, I simply go back to “doing my own thing”. I am fascinated by what others do – but perfectly content with my own photos. Well maybe not always, sometimes I feel like banging my head against a brick wall to knock some sense into my head. “Generally” happy with my stuff.
What I read in your comments Artuk is a reaction to what I’ve taken to branding as “opinions”. The world these days is awash with “opinions” and the people who put most effort into “pushing” their opinions have no space in their mindset for the possibility that their opinions might be wrong – or that anyone else might have a different opinion – or (HORRORS!) a BETTER opinion than theirs. Phooey! We all breath, and we’re all entitled to think whatever we want to.