Friday, January 11, 2013

Ideas about Photography, part 2: the practical space

On the heels of my last post about photography, I've thought a bit about modeling the relationship between photographer, camera, and subject, and I took a shot at plotting it in classic two-dimensional space. I wish I could make some exciting claim... like, this is the decisive way to model the photographer's art, and all other theories can be reduced to this structure... but obviously none of those things are true. This is just one theoretical shot in the dark, the type of thing that Marshall McLuhan might have called a probe... which is the most creative and least rigorous way of doing theory and analysis.

I've perused some of the key literature on photography, like Flusser's Towards a Philosophy of Photography and Susan Sontag's On Photography. I know that the former theorist really emphasized the black-box nature of the camera itself, claiming that the essence of photography was to be found in the photographer's relative ignorance of the physics and optics that actually capture his image. Sontag seems to take the idea of "capturing" the subject more literally, claiming that photographs possess an inherent aggression, and that photographing a subject is appropriating it, certifying it, collecting it, and at the same time protecting the photographer from its full psychological force.

My own ideas are a riff on my last post, that in photography, the key issues are 1) choosing our subjects, and 2) determining our final products, whether by composing the images or by carefully curating them. These are the two axes of the conceptual space. The vertical axis is the choice of subjects: we either find subjects by discovering them out in the world, or we create subjects on our own terms, employing craft and artifice within a controlled space. The second axis, the determination of the image, is centered around the idea of CAPTURING, and it's split between composing images before the shot, or curating them after the shot.

Here's the basic quad:

Interesting to note: the spectrum that goes from "curate" to "compose" correlates to the shift from film photography to digital photography. When you only had 36 shots in a roll of film, it was extremely important to frame your composition carefully, and manage your exposure with precision, so you didn't waste a shot. Those were the days of Ansel Adams, zones, and the rule of thirds. Most of the image-determination took place before you clicked the shutter button.

The inverse of that is the curation model that's come to prominence in the era of infinite storage, crowd-sourced galleries, and snapshot Polaroid kitsch. These days, you shoot as many photos as you can, using a few loose rules of composition... know your aperture and shutter speed, experiment with exposure, and try to isolate and differentiate your subject. Once you take hundreds of exposures, you've got a new job: go back with a severe critical eye and figure out which ones are actually worth further attention. Intensive curation (and post-processing) has taken the place of obsessive composition, rendering the latter an anachronistic fetish.

I think the various traditional "types" of photography can be differentiated by their position within this space. I've plotted them, below, and it makes for a nice little constellation of techniques and approaches. Here they are:

There are some exemplary types, mapping to each of the four quadrants. Landscapes are the ideal case for the traditional craft of film photography: you, the photographer/explorer, go out into nature to discover a stunning vista or a sublime subset, and then you put all your technical skills and craftsmanship into composing a single perfect photo, captured in your 35mm frame.

Fashion portraits are essentially the opposite: instead of discovering the landscape in its natural state, you create a scene and sculpt your models, and you direct them in their gestures and positions. Then, like a vigilant moon, you orbit around them, trying to capture a natural moment or a sharp glance, taking as many shots as you possibly can (as a fashion photographer, you should always max out your camera's capacity). You'll depend on your curatorial skills to select the best exposure after the session is over.

The most artificial type of photography is the food photograph, in which the photographer creates a perfect sculpture of the food (often inedible) and then painstakingly composes the shot to bring out the shapes and textures, with grave attention to depth of field and isolation of the subject. In the opposite quadrant -- discover and curate -- is the street photographer and photojournalist, the visual scavenger who scrounges for the perfect, fleeting moment, and then pursues it like a hunter, hoping beyond hope to catch it and harvest a perfect exposure in the heat of the moment.

Last time I wrote about photography, I said something rather silly, which went like this:
"Street photography has a sort of visceral thrill, and a sense of purity, the very honest and unadorned ethos of aestheticizing the gestures and postures and details of everyday life. At times, it feels like this is what other types of photography (especially Fashion Photography, the most glamorous of the photographic disciplines) aspires to."
This was an honest sentiment, but it was also the result of my recent interest in street photography, so it's a bit self-validating. It completely short-sells the creative and compositional aspects of photography... the act of arranging a scene to be shot, and the act of composing the actual picture within the frame, both of which were part of photography long before ye olde point-and-snap. Oddly, looking back at my quadrant, I've decided that there is a different type of photography that really exemplifies the spirit of the medium, and it's not one that I expected. It's actually the high-speed photograph, like those amazing shots of bullets going through light bulbs! Imagine that!

After all, it's both an exercise in perfect composition (choose the right light, arrange the elements, organize the frame) and an exercise in perfect timing, which can only be achieved by sifting through thousands of imperfect exposures produced by the experiment. It's also a triumph of both discovery and creativity: the photographer creates a perfect scene, but then has to discover an elusive fraction of a millisecond within the physical unfolding of the action.

Also, it's aggressive, per Sontag: the photographer is forcibly extracting a cross-section from the middle of a lightning-fast burst of movement. And it's highly mechanized, as per Flusser: it's so precise, it can rarely be managed manually by the photographer, and usually requires an extended mechanical apparatus to initiate the action and release the shutter.

This is the essence of photography. Who knew?

Or maybe this is a great example of how rational over-analysis can lead an intellectual douchebag into a totally misguided conclusion. Contrary to the evidence, I still take all my claims with a grain of salt.

In conclusion, I leave you with two of the only high-speed captures I've ever personally attempted, which I think resulted in some of my better photographs. Thank you for reading this rumination on photography. Jesse out.

EDIT: Paragraph 3: That is obviously not the horizontal axis, it is the vertical axis.

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