Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Ideas about Photography, a practice rediscovered

From Henri Cartier Bresson, one of history's
greatest street photographers
I've rediscovered photography recently, and it's got me thinking again: how do I relate to this mode of production? What are my strengths, if indeed I have any? What have the masters and the rising talents discovered about this craft that's still obscure to me? Is there some necessary pivot point, beyond the useful-but-extremely-general 10,000-hour rule? Some solution to the rubik's cube of photography itself, both within the genealogy of artistic practice and in its essential difference from all other art forms?

As I was, as I called it, "rediscovering" photography, I went first back to Flickr, the old bastion for my curation and display of my photographs. Flickr still has some great features: a metric ton of groups that can provide some extra visibility; a very large community that all your friends are probably already a part of. Unfortunately, it's succumbed to some issues that tend to affect these kinds of specialized communities. For instance, it's got so many people on it now that it's inconvenient... nigh impossible... to filter out the noise, so there's no thrill of exploration and discovery. This is a crippling blow, because curation is a big part of this art form, and community and networking were HUGE parts of Flickr's appeal.

Enter: a new site, called 500px, which does a beautiful job of recapturing the freshness that Flickr once had. Its layouts are cleaner, and its population of artists is more streamlined and engaged. The "Fresh" photo page (containing an unfiltered stream of the most recent uploads) tends to have at least a few great photographs on it, waiting to be selected and appreciated by the growing audience of enthusiasts, among whom I count myself. Maybe 500px is just the beneficiary of a smart release and a rush of proficient early-adopters, and the glow will fade as more people discover it. Ideally, it never takes on the broad, middlebrow mass appeal of Flickr, and becomes something in relation to Flickr as Vimeo is in relation to YouTube. We can always hope, right?

At any rate, thinking thus about photography has turned up some new artistic concerns. There are two in particular I've been finding increasingly relevant, and they're not the standard technical considerations of composition, light, color, timing, or framing. They're more embedded in the process, and I'm trying to locate their unique position in the art form of photography. Maybe the best place to do that is in the realm of application and practice, but there's at least a part of this examination that can take place here, in words, on the digital page.

The first of these is curation, which I've already mentioned a few times in this mini-essay. It's the digital age that's forced us to think increasingly in terms of curation, because the steps between shutter-button and final product are so much more compressed in the point-and-click digital age. In many areas (coughTWITTERcough), self-editing seems to be an art in rapid decline. In photography, if you're to be taken seriously, even merely as an Internet personality, it's becoming more and more important, as your work is in danger of getting lost in the sea of Instagram snap-shots and photo-dumps. And if too few people seem willing to edit, temper, and critique their own output, it's because peoples' consumption habits are being blunted, along with their production habits. In curation, the two are merged.

Shot by my good friend
Rachel Mooney
You can see this in evidence, by looking at some of the most prominent photographers on Flickr. One of my favorites, Alex Stoddard, only posts a few photos each month. This could be partly due to the time he takes in production and post-production, but as far as my own experience, each session with the camera could produce five or six easily-postable shots, if you're not severe enough with your own work.

The other thing I've been thinking about isn't something that's specific to photography in any way. In fact, it's a key component in every mimetic art form, and arguably, in all creative production whatsoever. Nonetheless, it seems to be something that the well-regarded photographers have figured out, and (also arguably), it's the key threshold between being an amateur and a virtuoso. This is Choice of Subject.

There are whole artistic movements that seem intent on distracting artists from this very question. Classicism and modernism are both hung up on form, for instance... and in many arts, there's a preoccupation (or at least a transitional obsession) with technique, precision, craftsmanship, and operation of the apparatus. But with every art form, and with photography in particular, the choice of a subject is a critical threshold without much breathing room on the near side. The art form is fairly lenient in giving you the choice of a subject -- pretty much anything that can be captured with the eyes in three dimensions can be flattened onto a photographic print -- but this choice of a subject will feed back profoundly, influencing every aspect of your practice: your technique, your equipment, your audience, and your place in the community.

In my own research and practice, I've become particularly attached to something called "Street Photography"... or as I might prefer to call it, "clandestine portraiture." I don't think this actually needs to happen on the street, but photography taken on the street is what most people picture when they think of this type of lifestyle photojournalism. It's the photography of people, heedless of the camera, behaving and interacting in their natural environment. This is often (usually?) as simple as standing around smoking a cigarette, or drinking coffee. At times, it's a shot of somebody walking purposefully to their office, or a shot of two people talking heatedly about something obscure. It's the attempt by certain photographers to capture the living essence of life in some chosen environment. The first time you do it, you'll probably struggle with the idea that you're invading the privacy of your subjects, and it's certainly a valid ethical question... to continue with this particular type of photography, you've just gotta find a way to convince yourself that it's okay (for instance, that your good intentions excuse your methods and your subjects' lack of explicit consent).

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. Where fashion photographers try to create an illusion of a highly stylized reality, the street photographer is attempting to allow the beauty, the style, the honesty of unconscious human agency speak for itself.

Of course, this carries with it some constraints: it's hard to frame a good shot, so the calculated composition of some types of photography (landscape, architectural) is out the window. To compensate, the street photographer is advised to get a LOT of exposures, and curate them aggressively. A high degree of external awareness is also important, because the photographer doesn't have time to sculpt and control the light, nor to attempt multiple exposures of the same shot. Timing is paramount, and the result is a "capture," rather than a "composition." Ultimately, the "composition" is largely the work of chaos and chance, and the photographer is merely a gentle guide, rather than an authoritarian hand. There will be a lot of bad shots, and the photographer won't feel much of a direct causal responsibility for the good ones.

All these terms -- capture, composition, curation, shutter speed, control, and chaos -- can be considered as part of the broader theoretical vocabulary of photography. I think I'll elaborate on this in a near-future post. For now, though, I'm going to try to keep shooting, and (along the way) discovering new photographers who can help me look on the world with fresh eyes. I have a long way to go to get to 10,000 hours, so I have to hope that part-way there is good enough for now. And maybe for always.

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