Sunday, December 05, 2010

What Our Photography Says About Us

Photographers are often going on about the story in a photo. You know, the editorializing the photographer engaged in when creating the pic. But if you step back and look at a photographer's work from a distance, as a body of work, does it say something, perhaps a lot, about the person with the camera in his or her hand?

Generally, I divide photographers into two, overall categories: Those who observe and document and those who observe, document, and express. That's not to say there's not an abundance of gray between my general binary perceptions of photographers, often there is, but sometimes it helps to categorize and generalize for the purposes of sharing personal observations.

Photographers who observe and document seem less interested in style. That's not to say some amount of style doesn't exist in their photos but, for the most part, they seem less interested in expressing style than they are in documenting an event or a thing. Photo-journalists often fall into this category as do those who shoot nature. Certainly, all photo-journalists and nature shooters aren't merely style-free documentarians but many of them seem to be.

Photographers who observe, document, and express are looking to share something beyond documentation. They're as interested, if not more interested, in developing a personal style or using stylistic elements or points-of-view that add expressive nuance to whatever it is they're photographically documenting. In this way, they are often saying something about themselves as much as they are saying something about what's in front of them.

When viewing a photographer's portfolio, the first thing I notice is if there's an overall theme to the photographer's images, a common denominator. It doesn't matter what genre the photographer mostly shoots although a photographer's preferred genre might also be revealing in terms of who the photographer is and what he or she might be about. At the very least, it poses questions about the photographer-- Questions that might, themselves, be revealing.

Is someone who prefers to shoot landscapes or still life images also someone who is less of an intimate, social, or people person? Edward Weston photographically bonded with peppers. What does this say about Edward Weston? Was he more an observer than a participator? How do you participate with peppers beyond growing them or eating them? Weston found a way.

These sorts of questions are the kind of stuff that has always made, and continues making, photography so fascinating to me. Not just as a photographer but as a viewer as well.

I know I'm generalizing but sometimes generalizing allows us to discover truth. That's probably why truth is so often described in general, universally-applied and non-specific terms.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. - Oscar Wilde.

Or to bring it home to the art and craft of photography, leastwise a specific genre of photography: It seems dangerous to be a portrait artist who does commissions for clients because everyone wants to be flattered, so they pose in such a way that there’s nothing left of truth. - Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Cartier-Bresson, recognized as the father of modern-day photo-journalism, certainly included much expressive style in his work. Yet, in the quote above he (in a sense)
takes style to task, complaining that it obscures the truth. A very complex man, Henri must have been.

But Henri's right: Style obscures the truth! (Not that that's necessarily always a bad thing, certainly not in the world of photography.)

My apologies if I seem like I'm rambling on, writing in an eclectic style, searching for a point to make. But then, a photographer's life is rather eclectic. One of constantly being on the look-out, in search of, a point to make with each photograph we snap. Sometimes those points are obvious, sometimes they're subtle, sometimes they indicate what we're searching for even if whatever that thing is remains elusive and undiscovered.

It is exciting, of course, when we discover what we're looking for and artfully make our points: Points that hope to tell some truth even if that truth might be shaded (with expressiveness and personal style) in ways that obscures other truths. At the same time, obscuring truth with expression and style reflects something about ourselves. In other words, through photography, and beyond the techniques we use to snap our subjects, we also capture some truths about our attitudes and perceptions about whatever is in front of us.

Other times, of course, we simply make seemingly pointless photographs of whatever we momentarily deem "interesting" or, perhaps, are commissioned to shoot. I suppose that says something about us as well. What, I'm not sure.

The gratuitous eye-candy at the top is Aleta. Does the pic say something about me? Perhaps that I'm a gratuitous eye-candy kinda guy? Regardless, the pic was captured with my Canon 5D and a Canon 17-40 f/4L. I used a wide-angle lens to slightly distort the perspective. I suppose that was my way of further distorting the truth about who this model might be. You know, to further help the model's pose and expression and wardrobe (or lack of it) remove, as Cartier-Bresson said, some truth about her. (Although removing the truth about how sexy Aleta is would be fairly difficult.) Two lights were employed: Mainlight modified with a 5' Photoflex Octodome and a back/side light modified with a small, shoot-thru, umbrella. ISO 100, f/8 @ 125.





2 comments:

photobyvictor said...

I think it would be fun for a group of photographers to get together and do what you are talking about here. Pull out a large portion of their body of work and see what people think or feel about it.

Just print several hundred 4x6's and stick them on a wall. Let a bunch of people (photographers and/or real people) look at them, then have a discussion about what they feel about the person who shot the images.

I would love this.

Studio3 Jim said...

Who cares? I only "care" if it's a client or future client's opinion and even then it's still just an opinion. Just like mine.

Is it fun to get praise or respect or new clients? Hell yes. But we still ain't curing cancer here.

As for your header image... Nice outfit and, I believe, for you Jimmy a fairly rare use of a sorta wide angle. And it certainly works seamlessly with your subject. Good call.