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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Rip It Up, Installment 2

As one wise commenter pointed out the other day, nobody has to follow my rules, either, and he's right. If codifying rules and following them slavishly is anyone's idea of fun, more power to them.

And don't think for a second that I'm not sympathetic to the basic problem, which after all I've been wrestling with in one way or another for decades. What to do with the camera? How to please yourself? How to please others? What's it all for?

This brings me back to a few of the critiques I promised more of the other day, and to a specific issue with photography. More so that rules of composition, it would probably be helpful to people to be very clear about what they're doing with photography. A camera is a recording device, and there are inumerable reasons to photograph. Personally, for instance, I don't have much interest in advertising things, but I do take a lot of pictures just as personal records, a sort of visual diary. A lot of those pictures just plain suck, but I need them to remember where I've been, what I've done, and who I did it with. I'm perfectly comfortable with that. I've written about this elsewhere (most notably in "The Photographer's Menagerie" that first appeared in Darkroom User magazine and is included in The Empirical Photographer), but I think many amateurs simply have confused ideas of what kind of photographs they're taking. They "mimic" genres and purposes they just don't have any need to mimic, and they like particular pictures because they "look professional" or remind them of the kind of professional work they admire. I won't go one about this, but you get the drift. [There's an example in amongst the pictures that were sent to me for critique, and I'm going to find it again, too.] It's important to know what you're about.

Here's a picture sent by Jon Glass, evidently taken in the Niagara Falls region (I have to link it rather than publish it because it can't be downloaded). Is it safe to say that this is what you'd call a "record shot"? To me it's one of the many pictures that says I was there, and this is what it looked like when I was there. As such it's of relatively marginal interest to me personally, although you might well feel differently if you love Niagara Falls. As with many such pictures, honesty always helps. If you're going to show what it looks like, then show what it looks like, and don't get tricky. Jon hasn't.

Any kind of principles of criticism tend to go out the window for me when a picture works, and this one by Lekke just does. I like the mystery created by the shadows (in many pictures this is simply annoying, but not in this case), the leading lines, the really beautiful way the planes of the face break up, the just-so distortion that seems to make the figure rear up and away from the viewer, the odd polka-dots. So much about this picture could have just made it bomb, but it's a gorgeous shot. Not sure what rules it follows or breaks, but to me the whole thing sings.


And here's one that for me doesn't work, Seaflower, sent by Auspicious Dragon, who has left a lot of good comments here on T.O.P. (and who I hope has thick dragon-like skin so I don't offend him). There's nothing in it, for one thing, or nothing going on in it. I don't feel the awkwardness of composition is redeemed by anything in particular. And he's competing with a much more well-traveled genre—the seaside scenic—which raises the bar. It's almost like he sensed there was a picture around there somewhere, but didn't find it.

One of the curators I most admire has a distinct faith in pictures; he doesn't mind if he finds a great shot in a State Historical Society archive or an antique store bin, if it's a good picture it's fine by him. I tend to put my faith in photographers: my sympathy is for the artist, questing, exploring, and how they see, what they're up to. It's just my interest. I tend to mistrust single pictures…or, more accurately, single pictures don't usually matter to me as much per se as what I sense a photographer is trying to get at across a number of pictures.

Juan Buhler

Therefore, I suppose it's no surprise that I tend to like blogs and PAD (picture-a-day) and PAW (picture-a-week) postings. It lets me follow the shooter's explorations over a larger number of pictures and often over time as well, which I find adds up to more for me than any picture could do alone. My favorite is the famous Water Molotov, Juan Buhler's site, from whence cometh the above. This guy is just an amazing talent. He tosses off pictures in passing that are better than most photographers ever think of taking.

One of the better PAD sites is that of the photographer known only to me as Alkos. (He tells me he prefers just "Alkos" online.) But he's very playful, has a great eye, and although he often proves a sucker for conventional slice-of-life ideas, his pictures are worth spending some time getting to know. Note how after you've seen twenty or thirty of them you really start getting a strong sense of how he sees and what he's after. I could nip a few out of their context and show them here, but it'll be more fun for you to go see if you can find your own two or three favorites.



Blogger KeithAlanK said...

While there are plenty of great photos at Alkos's site (or is it Stefanski?) I find that photoblogs without any narrative or captions make me lose interest rather quickly. A few words about the where and why goes a long way. Content without context leaves me cold. At worst, it's a pretentious attitude that says "the photo can stand alone" yet if it were published you can bet there would be some accompanying text. How hard is it to type a sentence or two about what is shown?

3:33 AM  
Blogger Donncha said...

The most wonderful thing about photoblogs in general is that the author only posts one photo a day and therefore those are usually his best. For me, they're also a great source of inspiration and help to push my own photography just that little bit more.

I'll be adding those blogs you mentioned to my feedreader and visiting them again!


4:58 AM  
Blogger Colin [] said...

I'm obvously thick skinned :-)

There is no point asking for a critique if you are going to get upset with the answer. Thoughtful opinions are always worth having.

I suggested this pic because it has had a surprisingly good reaction elsewhere, but I remain unsure about it.

5:07 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Thank you for being gracious!


5:31 AM  
Blogger Svein-Frode said...

I agree that there are many amazing photoblogs out there. It's just great to be able to follow so many talented individuals up close. A true photo revolution IMHO, and for those wanting, so many things to learn with so little cost involved!

6:14 AM  
Blogger alkos said...

Thanx for appreciation!

keithalank - it's not hard to write about sentence or two about a photo.
The question is - is it neccessary?

In most cases I leave my photos even without titles. I prefer them to "work" on their own, on purely visual level, without any external, non-visual additions or creation circumstances influencing their perception. Photographs are photographs in very independent way for me, they don't rely on or describe the real places/things they visually represent, neither pretend to mirror the reality... Moreover, I prefer when interpretation is a bit of challenge for the recipient, without verbal aids or clues ;-) I don't like to state what, where and why, justify the act of creation or name the occurrences the photo was taken - my goal for my photos is rather to be universal, "semantically neutral", visually anonymous. Any definite, or even just verbal statement is a move in opposite direction because of associations it inflicts even with the choice of words, because of additional, unnecessary (or rather non controlled) meanings it can provoke... I choose then to leave my site - as it is then :) ... And - by the way - I'd like to than you all for such positive attention :-)


alkos (definitely not Stefanski ;-)

11:05 AM  
Blogger Monkeini said...

I would like to say I find auspiciousdragon's image compositionally compelling. By mere chance my browser window's size lead me to discover a minor crop that I find really improves the image. Take away the top 5-10% so that 'Seaflower II' is no longer visible and that hull sudenly become something far more abstract. I love the way that the lefthand area of much detail is comfronted by a subtle curve which bounds a large area of flat tone. Additionally, the top edge of lighter band on the hull connects with the rivlet attached to the main body of water, creating a subtle link between the areas.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

I have to agree with alkos. If words/narrative/captions add something to the photo, then by definition, something was missing from the photo alone. Great novels, paintings, etc. don't need to be explained, and neither should great photos...

3:04 PM  
Blogger m. said...

Put me in the context crowd. Ideally a great photo (or any piece of art) should stand by itself, but it just doesn't work that way in the real world.

Any piece of art can lose some of its universality because of distance, cultural or temporal. Novels are great examples of this. You may need knowledge of the author's culture or times to decipher some of the clues they've left. Look at Shakespeare. We can certainly understand a great deal of what happens, but we miss a lot of his jokes and allusions because the culture (and yes, the language) have changed considerably since then.

I'm not saying you can't enjoy a photo or a work of art without any background. I enjoy Shakespeare, even if takes me an act or two to figure out what they're saying. I am saying that I prefer to have a little.

7:32 PM  
Blogger alkos said...

M. wrote: "Ideally a great photo (or any piece of art) should stand by itself, but it just doesn't work that way in the real world."

I agree: it doesn't work.


"Any piece of art can lose some of its universality because of distance, cultural or temporal. Novels are great examples of this. [...] We miss a lot of his jokes and allusions because the culture (and yes, the language) have changed considerably since then."

First, I think we can't directly compare photos to narrative text (unless its, uhm, "photostory" ;-) - it is different medium with its own rules and completely different "recipient experience" needed for interpretation... It's a bit like comparing paintings to movies ;-)

On the other hand I'm completely conscious, as a former history of arts student, how important cultural and historical knowledge is at some stage of "reading" any work of art. But - lets face it - its still the matter of recipient's education and not - IMO - an obligation for artist. Nobody expect japanese haiku poet to write directives for translators or foreign readers ;-) Of course - there is "high art" and "easy art", with different amount of knowledge needed for understanding and rather separate group of addressees, and artists/photographers should define from the very beginning, where to aim... but its a story for longer essay ;-)

10:24 PM  
Blogger nvonstaden said...

check out aphotoaday great stuff also

12:03 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

I know I'm getting to this topic rather late, but I wanted to comment on "Seaflower" by "Auspicious Dragon".

Not only does this image "work" for me, but it works really well visually and symbolically. Visually, the stark image of that enormous ship's bow angularly cutting into the otherwise sleepy landscape is very powerful, made even more so by A.D.'s choice to include the ship's rather mocking name in the frame. The small boat in the background presents an even starker statement of contrast.

Of course symbolically the image could strongly represent a statement of man's continuous encroachment into, and destruction of, the natural environment.

Late last year the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition of several prominent contemporary Dutch photographers. One of them (sorry, I cannot recall the name) photographed environmental ironies such as people playing golf on the edge of a toxic waste recovery site. This image would have fit perfectly and strongly into this collection. I would also not be at all surprised to see it on the cover of Aperture Magazine. Believe me, a portfolio of like images would likely do very well on the gallery and museum circuit in NY, San Francisco, Chicago, and probably London.

This image has real stopping power to my eye. Bravo "Auspicious Dragon"!

4:29 PM  
Blogger John Ellis said...

Auspicious Dragon drew my attention to the original critique of 'Seaflower' some days ago. I disagreed with it. He then drew my attention to Ken Tanaka's comment. Below is what I wrote when I first saw 'Seaflower' on AD's site: "... The tones and toning work very well here. Are you trying to indicate that Spring has come?! There is something just right about this composition and the relationship between foreground, middleground and hills. It's also slightly intriguing as to why Seaflower is some way inland. That is definitely worth a print...". I think that the original critique fails to understand the essence of the UK coastline, the particular nature of the changing topography and its relationship to the sea and, in turn, the further way that man interacts with it. I like Ken's thesis and it informs my own photography to quite a large extent. Apart from exploitative fishing though, I have always regarded ships and shipping as one of man's less intrusive activities. But Ken is right about how good the picture is.

3:23 PM  

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