Saturday, September 26, 2015

Photos that look like Photos

About 100 years ago, part of the backlash against Pictorialism and the subsequent rise of straight photography was a critic demanding, or suggesting, that photographers cease making pictures that look like paintings, and start making pictures that look like photographs.

What that meant then isn't perfectly clear, but it seems to have led in a fairly straight line to straight photography, Paul Strand and those chaps.

What it means today, after 100 years of photography, is interesting.

We now have a lot of notions of what a photograph can look like. There are variations on Olde Tyme photos, with wet plate work, sepia toning, faded colors, Polaroid-like after effects, and so on. Ironically, some of the most distinctly photographic work today is Sally Mann's. Working with wet plate, the photographness is right in your face. The fact that this is a corrupted, flawed, object which is first and foremost a photo, cannot be escaped. The subject matter comes second, albeit a very close second. It is integral to the work that these two things should be bound up together.

On the one hand, there is the inherent underlying reality of the thing that is the photograph. An otherwise dull field is the actual battlefield where thousands died in a day. The corrupted decaying feel of the wet plate frame, the flaws in it, the crinkles and damage incurred during processing, all these speak to and support the idea of the frame. As a painting, the picture would be just a field, It could be any field. As a modern digital photograph, sharp from front to back, with vibrant colors, well, it would be the right field but there would be no feel of nostalgia and loss. These things have to be photographs, and they have to be wet plate. Nothing else works.

They are photographs that look like photographs, as hard as a photograph can look like a photograph. And they are unabashedly pictorialist.

Take that, history!

Anyways. Photographs that look like photographs. Inside the bubble of camera-club/camera-forum/social-media bozos, vintage effects are largely eschewed. You must have IQ! You must have color-managed workflow! Blah blah blah. But these things miss out on a huge range of possibility. How are you going to convey a sense of nostalgia with your peppy ultra-sharp digital camera? How are you going to show us longing, loss? How can you hint and suggest when every detail is there to be seen if you jam your nose close enough to the screen? (Ok, OK, bokeh, sure. You got a second method? No? Ok then.)

To be sure, there are things wet plate doesn't do. It doesn't look happy. It doesn't express ebullience. There's where your peppy colors and razor sharp lenses come in. Also to express the dominance of the machine over man, there's a good idea for loads of IQ. And so on. You can write 'em yourself, all day long.

There's probably something great that can be done with ultra-digital blown highlights, with those nasty sharp edges and fjords of pure white where the sensor just went KRAKOW and recorded all 1s. Of course, you can't get away with that in the bubble either. Interesting, huh?

A photograph with distinctly photographic flaws, failures, and deterioration in it looks more like a photograph than anything else. It's more distinctly a photograph than a clean color balanced sharp "success" ever can be.

Somethin' to think on.

1 comment:

  1. "virtually all software being written today is being written by incompetents who go to heroic efforts to accomplish trivialities"

    I thought I was the only person to have noticed this. Yet for some reason employers keep employing new graduates (or schoolboy hackers) and consider my 30+ years as a software engineer to be a disadvantage.