Sunday, December 26, 2010

Between Seeing and Making

Excited Photographer
Excited Photographer, Hong Kong, 2010

I've been taking pictures since I was very small. My first recollection of doing that was when I went to scout camp around the age of eight, and had a little plastic camera around for that. Some years later, my dad set up a darkroom in our bathroom and we developed some photos he had taken in San Diego Marine World. Seeing those bold shapes of orcas fade in on the photographic paper was magical. Soon after that, around the age of 11 or 12, I was making my own prints.

I've never studied photography formally, and the only art training I've had is a few years in after-school art classes as a teenager. Like with most things I do, I'm a dabbler.

Photography is an interesting pursuit. It hovers somewhere along an invisible line between seeing and creating. At its simplest, photography simply freezes a moment in time and space into a delimited frame. It is an extension of the sense of sight, but it also reveals things that get lost in time and motion. The camera's way of seeing is not the human's way of seeing, and while it's possible to train yourself a bit to see like a camera, at least I always notice stuff in my pictures that I didn't realize were there when I took them.

The camera also introduces a disturbance. If you look at people's holiday snapshots—in my view one of the most interesting types of photography around—one of the most common, even clichéd pictures is that of two people standing in front of an attraction, hugging and smiling for the camera.

"Cliché" is French for an exposed photographic negative, by the way.

Then there is the photographer's creative input. Even one aspiring to being an "invisible photographer" in the Henri Cartier-Bresson style will be constantly seeking for elements to come together and make a compelling picture. Cartier-Bresson's photographs have an instantly recognizable style, even though he managed to get very close to removing himself from the pictures he was taking. "Straight" photography in that style is no less a creative endeavor than any other artistic pursuit.

Near the "creation" end of the seeing/creating continuum lies fine-art photography. There, the photographer sets out to create the scene to photograph. "Creator" photographers often consider the negative as raw material, with the actual photo emerging in the darkroom. The popular American landscape photographer Ansel Adams made darkroom work into a meticulous combination of art and science, including construction of purpose-built specialist tools to get his prints looking exactly like his vision, and wrote extensively on photographic technique that made the most of it. This is quite a contrast to Cartier-Bresson, who left printing to his assistant (who, it is said, often complained about his sloppy metering).

Beyond fine-art photography lies photo-art, the area where photography fades into mixed-media art. There, the photos become components of an artwork; pieces used in a collage, or manipulated far enough to become graphic elements or something completely different from whatever once was in the viewfinder.

Photographs have pictorial qualities. They provide a metatext for whatever is in the picture. Sometimes they're so subtle that you don't even notice they're there; at other times they're very obvious. Things like film grain or digital noise, the quality of color and contrast, artifacts of the photographic process such as motion blur, defocus, or depth fo field, lens qualities such as aberrations, flare spots, or the quality of out-of-focus areas all create a narrative about the creation of the photo. So does the display medium. A postcard-size print tells one story; a gallery-size one another. A photo on a Flickr feed carries its own subtext, as does one on New York Times.

TentsTents, Helsinki, 2010

The advent of digital photography has made it easy for anyone to play with these pictorial qualities of photos. There's a popular iPhone app called Hipstamatic that lets you apply what used to be extremely complex darkroom techniques such as cross-processing to your photos with a click. You can make a photo taken with a state-of-the-art camera look like it was shot with a cardboard disposable, and you can sometimes clean up cellphone photos to publication quality. It's easy to add film grain, or—to an extent—remove digital noise. Color can be manipulated to give a vivid, contrasty, slide-like look, or a neutral, documentary, neg-like feel. You can make a photo look "straight" or "artsy," to give an impression of a spontaneous snapshot or a carefully lit posed scene.

I have always been more of a "seeing" than a "creating" type of photographer. My attempts at manipulating scenes, staging photos, or directing models have rarely resulted in anything particularly interesting. Similarly, manipulating those pictorial qualities of photos leave me pretty cold, although I have spent more hours in Photoshop and related tools than I care to think of doing just that.

Over the years, I have drifted further in this direction. The tools I use, both in the field and in the darkroom, have changed to reflect this. "Seeing" photography becomes more difficult the more cumbersome the gear and the process are. Instead of helping with the process, the equipment gets in the way. Small cameras have long held an attraction for me. However, even though I have dabbled in "lomography" of a sort as well, the heavy pictorial qualities of lo-fi cameras get in the way more.

The evolution of digital gear has been a real boon: nowadays it is possible to get hi-fi pictures using very compact and discreet cameras. The Canon S90 was a watershed for me; no longer a poor substitute and occasional supplement to a "real" camera, but a system in its own right, and one that left my "real" gear on the shelf gathering dust. In a sense, it is true that the camera doesn't matter; if you have an eye and an intention and a modicum of technique, you can get pictures worth looking at using any camera. I've seen some remarkable work done with cell phones and cardboard disposables. Yet in another sense, the camera matters very much. It's transcendence of a kind, I think, and getting caught up in the cameras is a trap that almost everyone falls into, to some extent at least.

I like photography, because it is an everyman's kind of art form. Basic technique is dead easy, and it's not much harder to learn enough about "seeing like a camera" that anyone can take interesting and individual photos almost right away. What's more, since photos are made of moments frozen from life, they're likely to be worth looking at just because life itself is so infinitely varied and interesting. Photos are only likely to get boring if you try too hard and lose sight of whatever it was that got you taking them. The only boring photographs are copies of other photographs: golden-hour landscapes with trees, water, and mountains, gauzily-lit nudes in black and white, bald eagles perching majestically on tree limbs in the evening sunlight. It is ironic that the photos that are the most work to pull off end up being the most forgettable.



  1. I love the way you write. If you're half as good a photographer, then I'm sue you have quite the eye.