Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Seeing Photographs

I skimmed a thread in a forum recently, which began with the question, essentially, can anyone who applies himself sufficiently produce work as good as Ansel Adams.

Predictably, it veered instantly off into idiots explaining that Adams wasn't really that good, darkroom wizard of course but.. you've seen it all before, no doubt.

It occurred to me that loads of people think they are in fact replicating Adams. Shoot some rocks and trees, screw around in your software until the sky turns black. Done! This is obviously wrong, to anyone with a modicum of acuity.

I rather think I could do better. I can, and any competent technician can, replicate pretty much anything. The trouble is that you've got to be able to see it, you have to be conscious of it, before you can replicate it. Doofuses look at an Adams landscape and see black skies with fluffy white clouds and figure that's about it. I look at an Adams landscape and I see the bootprints of a red filter, but also a general sweep of tone from dark to light across the frame. I see a pattern of lighter and darker tones, often, which clarify the relationships between the planes -- one ridge is dark, the next ridgeline is light, and so on. I see repeated shapes, I see unity, variety, and balance.

That much I could certainly replicate with diligent effort.

But. There are surely different ways to see these photo. Tavis Glover no doubt sees them either as examplars or failures of Dynamic Symmetry and judges them accordingly while, most likely, missing the "Victorian" sweep of tone. Ming Thein would likely see and judge in terms of his Four Things. Others would look for rules of thirds, or golden triangles, or something. Are they wrong? That is a separate discussion, and irrelevant here. The point is that they've got systems of seeing which dissect pictures quite differently from mine. Surely there are many more systems, producing many more completely different dissections.

What am I missing? Surely I am not only failing to see these pictures in any sort of universal way, but just as surely, I am failing to see these pictures in a complete way. I am missing things.

In portraiture, I could probably duplicate anybody's lighting setup, or close enough. That's because I know how to see light sources and, to a lesser extent, light suckers. With diligent effort, I could replicate pretty much any setup quite closely. Portraits are much less complex, structurally, than a landscape. It's a person, some lights, a background. I could get the last two. It's that magical alchemy of the person that I know I would have trouble with. There are aspects that I can see that I would struggle with ("her expression is.. too forced, I think") and there are just as surely things I literally cannot consciously see. Something that is not the lighting, not the expression, not the posture, but perhaps some alchemy, some combination of them. The light is good, the expression is good, the pose is good, but somehow, perhaps, there's something in the combination that's wrong or weak, something I not only have no name for but something I literally do not see.

If none of it hit me unconsciously, it wouldn't matter. But it does. There is a reason the idiot with the black sky is producing pictures that are certainly not Adams'. Anyone can see it, whether they know a lick about "sweeps of tone" or not. Adams' methods affect how anyone reads the picture, whether they can see the individual effects or not.

This is probably why I like dissecting pictures, and why I spend a lot of time reading about other people's ways of dissection. I'm not a savant, I have no more than average innate ability to produce excellent pictures. By learning and thinking and internalizing, I rather fancy I am building a workable substitute for inborn talent. Here's hoping!

For extra credit, go find some older posts on this blog that this one contradicts directly! I am almost certain that there are several. I decline to make excuses.


  1. I guess what made Ansel Adams' pictures so unique was his intimate relationship with the places he photographed (as far as I know, he lived in Yosemite or not far from it). This emotional relationship speaks from his pictures to the viewer - the strong composition and pleasing tonality just emphasize the emotional message. Just like a good writing style helps to convey an interesting story. Composition and tonality alone won't cut it - Ansel Adams is missing from the picture.

  2. I'm afraid that all attempts to analyze photographs by any kind of formula will fail. The kinds of photographs that are worth analyzing are art; the others don't matter.

    As I wrote in an (unfortunately unpublished) article some years ago, the terms medium and art are often used as though they were interchangeable, when in fact they are not. Photography is a medium, as are sculpture, engraving, painting, and pottery. When practiced at a high level of competence within the context of its own inherent qualities, each medium is a craft which may become art when imbued with an indefinable presence imparted by the being of the artist himself.

    The operative phrase here is "when imbued with an indefinable presence imparted by the being of the artist himself." That can never be reduced to a formula. Kirk Tuck makes great portraits, and I can easily duplicate his setup to the minutest detail; yet my portraits, though they may be very good in themselves, will not resonate in the way his do, because his are imbued with that "indefinable presence imparted by the being of the artist himself." The same with Cartier-Bresson, Adams, Weston, and a host of others.

    After 45 years as a photographer,I've given up on all such analysis. Either I like it, or I don't. Yet, in some indefinable way, looking at great photographs helps me make better ones.

  3. Both Thomas and Dave have hit the nail on the head, and is exactly how I feel about other peoples photographs. They reflect the person making the camera, and the technique they employ either carries the image and the message, or in the cases of those we don't know, lets it down.

    In the cases of those we so know, their technique worked for what they did. Adams, Weston, Lange, Steiglitz, Steichen, Arbus, Bresson, Smith, and on and on. And the techniques they all settled on were the ones that made sense to them to convey their various messages. But without the lives as lived by the artists themselves and their ability to infuse their experiences and passions into their images, there would be only empty exercises in the technical aspects of photography. And we see that all the time on the internet.

    When a person can connect the dots between the experience of their lives and how they feel about what they see, with an effective way to convey that information, then they have made something authentic that will both intrigue and befuddle those who see it only as a style.