Category Archives: photography

Shoulds

cheerleader

A factoid that got me thinking:

Upwards of a trillion photographs will be taken in 2017, the vast majority on mobile phones (only about 10% [still 100 billion] with digital cameras); and something like 4.7 trillion photos will be “stored” by the end of 2017. Around 50 million are uploaded to Flickr (120 million “users”, many inactive) each month.

If a trillion photos are taken each year, how are we to think about the hundreds or thousands we might take? If the world has 7.5 billion people, how shall we think about being just one?

Those questions provoked this note-to-self, scribbled just before the lights went out last night:

Strive for consistency and principled engagement, and to build things that express the qualities you respect and admire. Fashion a legacy, by working to be clear about what you’re doing. Presence, engagement, candor; shun the ignoble and the invidious. Don’t succumb to pride. Practise humility and honor, don’t waste time or energy. Make things. Engage with people. Serve.

Sort of a tall order, but most of it seems entirely relevant to photography and to writing.

Photography in time and space: technologies of memory

Boothbay2

Among the axes of my engagement with photography are projects that work with collections of purchased studio portraits (Abandoned Ancestors and Bluenose Physiognomy) and with my own images of cemetery memorials. These efforts mostly deal with strangers who have departed from the living world, and so I keep an ear to the ground for material related to remembering and forgetting.

I also preside over a vast collection of musics from all over the globe, most recorded during the 20th century, primarily by musicians who are no longer among the living.

This morning’s RSS feed brought me a sound sample from 49 years ago, a Batwa innanga zither song from Uganda. The moment captured in the recording is GONE in a profound sense: the performer is no longer living, Batwa culture and society has changed irredeemably, nobody now living plays the instrument or sings the song, and the world of the present finds the people and the music a mere curiosity, roadkill to the Progress which produced present glories/horrors. The same sad tale can be found throughout the world. (For vastly more in this line, see Hugh Tracey‘s catalog…)

Photography and field recordings have a lot in common. The stored images and the sounds are in the strict sense memorials: they enhance and embody memory, and remind us what the present came from. This is no small thing, and worth excavating beyond the superficial.

Another bit of RSS serendipity arrived this morning in the form of a blog posting by Alan Levine (a.k.a. CogDog), whom I’ve been following for 15+ years. This one gathers photos of his parents, and investigates the realms of personal memory.

And that brings me back to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. I continue to try to comprehend what Camera Lucida tries to teach me about thinking about photography, and so take up Part Two, in which Barthes describes his engagement with photographs of his mother at different ages, and instantiates the concept of photography’s noeme: its essence, which Barthes identifies as “that-has-been”.

It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. (pg. 80)

…what I see is not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution, a piece of Maya, such as art lavishes upon us, but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real. (pg. 82)

The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.

By way of illustration, Barthes shows us Alexander Gardner’s riveting portrait of Lewis Payne/Powell, about to be executed for the attempted assassination of W.H. Seward (1865):


The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium.
But the punctum is: he is going to die.
I read at the same time: This will be and this has been.

I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred.
Whether or not the subject is already dead,
every photograph is this catastrophe. (pg. 96)


The photograph is unsettling in several ways, and for some viewers the unforgettable punctum may be the manacles; for others, it might be the far-away look in Lewis Payne’s eyes, or perhaps the angle of his head as it rests against the implacable cell wall.

As if the above wasn’t plenty of psychic exercise for one day, the mail brought The Art of Frederick Sommer: Photography, drawing, collage (Yale, 2005). In a Tribute, Emmet Gowin says

In 1966 a chance encounter with a single photograph by Frederick Sommer changed my life… To all who now hold this book in their hands: hold on, your life may never be the same. (pg. 6)

Keith Davis wrote the Introduction, which raises the bar still higher:

Sommer photographed things in order to give life to ideas. To a degree unparallelled in any other body of American photography, he used the camera as a tool of invention, transformation, synthesis, and allusion (pg 10).

Sommer’s devotion to drawing taught him—at least intuitively—many fundamental things. He learned that representation (in any form) is mimetic in only the most simplistic way. At heart, any depiction is an act of synthesis and invention. Representation can never be disinterested or neutral: it is an inevitably personal process, a product of individual ideas, associations, and skills…. All of Sommer’s subsequent work in photography was informed by his experience in drawing. His photography reveals a deep concern for the formal coherence of the image—the relationship of internal elements to one another and to the edges of the paper. (pg. 13)

And here’s Sommer himself on Composition:

Photographic composition is the conjunction of how elements want to come together. To what degree they interact positionally. My first thought, when I look through the camera, is how does this fit on the ground glass? Is too much missing or is there too much there? Does it explain its presence? Does it have any connectedness to things? If you can’t find any way in which these elements work together and are justified in being in each other’s presence you haven’t got anything. The trick is to find what kind of combinatory art has brought together the things that are penetrating. (pg. 211)

Sure enough, the images in the book jerk me back to my first encounter with Sommer, probably in a 1962 issue of Aperture, where (as with the Caponigro 1958 image) I was suddenly aware of new ways of seeing, which continue to resonate up and down the harmonic series.

What a ride. But really every day is as varied and exciting and full of the unexpected.

A sow’s ear

Some photos seem promising in the viewfinder, but once displayed on the computer screen turn out to be underwhelming. I can see what I was after (but didn’t achieve) with this one, but didn’t process it further in the first round:



It was only later in the day, when I was considering possible symmetrical unfoldings among the day’s photographs, that it occurred to me that this one might be a candidate for the GIMP copy-flip-join treatment. I observe that my previsualization of the effects of this procedure is chancy at best, in that I’m usually surprised at what the transformation reveals, and I don’t often make exposures with the intent to produce symmetrical arrays of the resulting images. The products are mostly serendipitous.

Anyway, the result of the transform opened a whole new world of interpretation for the image, and my first thought (and hence the title of the image) was “empty wings”.


empty wings

Now, wings don’t usually have the property of emptiness or fullness; they may adorn the backs of angels and mythological beasts, and be integral to birds and bats and insects, and might be glorious or workaday or fluttery or super-aerodynamic, but empty? Not so much. But this pair of wings seems to have a life of its own, their sweep echoed in the snow-like pattern to either side, and they almost seem as if they might be donned, tried on by a wing-shopper for fit and sartorial effect, taken out for a run around the block to assess their loft and effulgency.

The image partakes of the myffic, because there aren’t really any wing haberdashers in our world. Looking at “empty wings” we are led to imagine that there might be, and imagine that angels might wish to rotate through a wardrobe of wings for different occasions, and that somehow a photograph has transported us thither. Or the viewer might say “humph, seaweed on the beach, just twice as much of it” and pass along to some other image.

I’m trying to pull together the vocabulary to think and talk about the effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography—about how and why some photographs work in the sense of transfixing the viewer with an epiphany, and in the sense of spawning a feeling of unforgettability for the image. We all have our own catalogs of such images, and there’s not necessarily a lot of agreement among appreciators of photography about what truly belongs in the canon. It’s subjective and personal, and that’s basically a good thing, in the many-mansions sense.

One of the writers who has put systematic effort into exploring these matters of photographic essence is Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida. I’ve read through the book several times, with each pass assimilating a bit more terminology and Barthian viewpoint, but it’s very French and demands a lot of a North American reader. I am no expert but…

Barthes does something very clever, while disclaiming any expertise (or, indeed, interest) in technical photography. He uses 25 photographs (many of them not familiar to most readers) to exemplify aspects he discourses upon. Who, for example, has ever given much thought to this image of Queen Victoria sitting on a horse?


(Queen Victoria, photographed by George Washington Wilson, 1863)

Barthes uses the image to introduce the idea that the photograph has a clear studium, an aboutness, something that it relates about its subject: it’s Queen Victoria, in the flesh (well, shrouded in a vast black dress) sitting on a horse. That’s what it’s a photograph of, its “historical interest” and identity in the wider world. But Barthes then points out that for him the photograph also has a punctum, an element that grabs the viewer and makes the image into something with a personal and memorable significance. Barthes’ punctum:

…beside her, attracting my eyes, a kilted groom holds the horse’s bridle: this is the punctum; for even if I do not know just what the social status of this Scotsman may be (servant? equerry?) [in fact he’s John Brown… and the horse’s name is Fyvie], I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse’s behavior: what if the horse suddenly began to rear? (pg.57)

For me the unforgettable punctum of the photograph is John Brown’s sporran, that which marks him as a Scotsman in full folkloric costume. That’s where MY eye is drawn when I look at the image.

So here we have a couple of tools to help us talk about those effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography to which I referred above. Barthes offers a number of others that I haven’t decoded yet myself, so another pass through Camera Lucida is on the docket.

And, going back to the “empty wings”, for me [and for sure Your Mileage May Vary] the image has a punctum in the homunculus that seems to form the point of attachment of this set of wings to our imaginary angel’s back:




As so often before, I wonder aloud if the wings and the homunculus were there before I unfolded the original image. Or did I create them? Or are they purely imaginary? When we read a photograph, are we just projecting a personal and idiosyncratic interpretation? Is a photograph a document whose significance is contestable, or maybe even fungible? Deep waters.

photographic tides

Quite a full day in photographic realms. Soon after sunrise we were at Drift Inn beach, a couple of miles from home, and the tide was going out, exposing rocks and seaweed and such-like. I did the usual thing of taking a lot of pictures, moving from one inspiration to another, and then spent several hours processing them. There’s always more that could be done, but it’s gratifying to get a set uploaded to Flickr and sent off to people who would enjoy them.

At lunchtime today (at Home Kitchen Cafe, of course) I chanced to find myself sitting next to Paul Caponigro, one of the photographers I most revere. I told him that I’d been a fan for 55 years, and that one of his photographs had changed my life, indeed set me on a path I’m still swinging along.

(snagged from Cornell emuseum)

He said “there’s a horse in that…” and it occurred to me that I’d known that immediately when I first saw the photograph (probably in Aperture, long ago), and that I’ve been seeking creatures myself ever since. About 5 years ago I was reacquainted with the image as a silver gelatin print that I could stand inches away from, at a Caponigro Retrospective in the Farnsworth Museum.

There’s a show of Caponigro’s prints from negatives he’s never exhibited, opening in Boston on September 9. We’ll be there, but meanwhile here’s the gallery catalog for the show.

on vexed questions of Art

I’m reading Guy Tal’s More Than A Rock: Essays on art, creativity, photography, nature, and life and Richard Zakia’s Perception and Imaging: Photography – a way of seeing, in preparation for the workshop with Andy Ilachinski, and I’m currently embroiled with the vexed question of whether what I do with photography is art. On the one hand, it just doesn’t matter what the answer to that question is, since I’ll keep on doing it anyway, and don’t got to show no stinkin’ badge. But on the other hand, the answer might be NO, in that I don’t choose to wrap my doings in the garments of pretense, or engage in invidious comparison, by staking a claim as an Artist and seeking a public. I’ve been here before, with respect to my identity as a musician (I play mostly for myself, avoid performance, but take pleasure in being recognized as skilled), with many of the same insecurities.

Here’s a passage from Guy Tal that has me wondering if I could possibly live up to what he invokes:

Being an artist is about living passionately and deliberately, placing curiosity and awe and honesty and significance above social conventions, celebrity, and material spoils. It is not about finding interesting anecdotes, but about discovering them within, creating them anew, elevating and sharing and celebrating them in defiance of all that is corrupt and cynical and cruel and bigoted and shortsighted… (pg 37)

But if what I do is not art, what IS it? Most of my images have some narrative purpose, or seem to me to evoke stories of some sort; but generally the stories come from the images, or fit into some larger narrative project as exemplars (e.g., all those gravestones, or all those Abandoned Ancestors). Something prompts me to frame and click, and once I see the result in post-processing, a story may emerge that seems to explain something about the image. An example from the Acadia National Park adventure:


pursuit

Lichen on rock. Just an interesting pattern that fit happily within the field of view of a 100mm macro lens, no obvious expository insight in the viewfinder. But as soon as I saw it on the computer screen, the notion of Pursuit couldn’t be unseen: the figure on the left side, sharply defined by a line of white sketching its back, with an outstretched arm showing the direction of movement, is obviously being chased by the marvelously indistinct figure on the right, whose whitish feet (in the lower right corner) are clearly running… T’ang Dynasty, perhaps? Susurrus of silken robes? The art might be in the happenstance of lichen growth on granite substrate [not MY circus, not MY monkeys], or in the accident of my framing [definitely MY circus], or it might reside entirely in the post-hoc tale-making [positively MY monkeys]. It’s difficult to imagine that a print of the image, matted and framed and hung on a gallery wall, would have any salience for viewers without the interpretation.

And just why does any of this matter? It’s those daunting but fascinating books, along with a bunch of others in realms of photographic history and aesthetics, that pile up around my reading chair. They keep nudging me to explore further, but also remind me that I’m in search of my own vision. Sure, Stieglitz photographed clouds and made them into Equivalents, connecting them to his own mental states:

A symbolist aesthetic underlies these images, which became increasingly abstract equivalents of his own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. The theory of equivalence had been the subject of much discussion at Gallery 291 during the teens, and it was infused by Kandinsky’s ideas, especially the belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, often emotive “vibrations of the soul.” In his cloud photographs, which he termed Equivalents, Stieglitz emphasized pure abstraction, adhering to the modern ideas of equivalence, holding that abstract forms, lines, and colors could represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas. (from The Phillips Collection)

Doesn’t mean I should or shouldn’t photograph clouds, does it? Or see/not see things in them that aren’t “pure abstraction.”

post-processing

Yesterday’s foray to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens was timed to coincide with the Eclipse (not much more than 50% in Maine), with the idea that colors might be affected by the altered light. That wasn’t particularly noticeable, but I got engaged with looking for novel forms in the vegetation, and found myself using f4.5 and a macro lens for almost everything I photographed in color (I also did a bunch of infrared, but that’s another story). The shallow depth of field produced a lot of interesting results, and nudged me into thinking differently about post-processing. In these three examples I’ll try to summarize what I did and why, mainly to remind myself of my thought process and sequence of decisions. Each of the images could be handled quite differently, and I may try other approaches once I’ve lived with these for a while.

I feel pretty insecure about color, and in general prefer monochrome. That’s partly a matter of age: I began in the days of black-and-white (early 1960s), wasn’t attracted by the anemic color in prints of the time, did a lot of didactic slides in Kodachrome and Ektachrome in 70s and 80s, and only got my hands on manipulable color with the advent of digital imaging. I greatly admire Betsy’s use of color and emergent mastery of color printing, and I’ve enjoyed tessellation experiments that are deeply reliant on color, but I’m still more at home in monochrome. Not that I “see” in black and white—indeed, that has been an elusive goal from the beginning, and I don’t seem to make much progress.

The three examples were processed in Aperture. I’m part way through the conversion to Lightroom, but still find it easier to do quick manipulations in Aperture. And ‘quick’ is what I seem to prefer: I want to see the results sooner, and perhaps return to successful images for more extensive processing later. So I nudge sliders and try black and white filters and generally mess around until I see something that looks more or less optimal. It’s pretty seat-of-pants and tentative, scarcely to be dignified with the label ‘workflow’.

The first image just seems an obvious candidate for conversion to monochrome, and it’s a stronger photograph once the green is stripped out. Obvious and derivative, little that’s original in viewpoint or handling, but satisfying as an encounter with the unique genius of this particular plant species:


approximating the RAW files

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

The second image seems to me much better framed with a substantial crop (should have seen that in the viewfinder, didn’t). Contrast, Black Point, Definition, Highlights, Shadows nudged to enhance drama. I’m tempted to see it as a rooster in mid-crow. But what, I wondered, would happen if it migrated to monochrome? The Red Filter darkens the blue most gratifyingly, and a bit more tweaking (Definition,Mid Contrast, Black Point) brings it to a satisfactory graphic conclusion.


approximating the RAW files

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

The third image is another sort of challenge/opportunity. The original photo doesn’t amount to much, with blown-out highlights and nothing very convincing in the forms/shapes, but some fiddling with parameters (down Mid Contrast, up Contrast, up Black Point, up Definition) makes it more interesting. Something worthwhile is beginning to emerge from the shadows, a sort of background abstraction. Not bad. But take away the color and apply the Blue Filter (and up the Shadows, the Definition, and the Contrast) and suddenly we’re in new territory. Ready for tessellation, headed in the direction of a fabric design. Maybe a reason to explore split-toning.


approximating the RAW files

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

CMBG29a2x

29colored

29coloredred

why?

I’ve been reading Robert Adams’ Why People Photograph (Aperture 2005) and so been challenged to try to articulate my own reasons for the focus of attention and energies in this nexus of technology and aesthetics. Here are some of the current realizations:

  • The lure of fame and fortune has nothing to do with it.
  • I have a lifetime of ongoing mental projects, many of which have visual components. I enjoy both the pleasures of exploration and the assembly of findings into complex narrative structures, as tokens to pass to like-minded others.
  • I’m forever on the hunt for the magical frisson of “that’s it!” as my gaze shifts. False positives abound, and opportunities are missed. Catch-and-release is a better strategy than regret for lost opportunities.
  • My photography is mostly concerned with things and their stories, and not with states of mind, consciousness, or abstraction. I see that as a limitation of perception and vision that I’d like to address via the Ilachinski workshop.
  • The images I do capture trace my twisting and branching pathways in time and space, and are like breadcrumbs dropped to mark my path on the way to the Minotaur’s Lair. (addendum: see Andy Ilachinski’s take on this, below)

Robert Adams puts some things stunningly well in Why People Photograph:

Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community…

If I like many photographers, and I do, I account for this by noting a quality they share—animation. They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it…

When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. (pp 14-15)

I recognize that you can’t really escape the derivative, especially if you’ve studied others’ work extensively, and so absorbed elements of their modalities of perception. It seems appropriate to settle for an acceptance of acts of homage when you recognize someone else’s vision in your own work. To become aware of and to acknowledge your sources, inspirations, debts is an exercise in intellectual honesty. We do, after all, learn to see by having things pointed out to us; gratitude is always appropriate. And our understandings are augmented by explanation and backstory.

Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 is a potent example: learning that Weston achieved the necessary depth of field by making an f240 diaphragm and then exposing the film for 4-6 hours greatly broadens our realization of Weston’s mastery in this single image of an everyday object. One never sees peppers with the same eyes after seeing Pepper #30, but there’s no need to repeat Weston’s procedures, nothing added to the epiphany by retracing his steps. But absorbing HOW he achieved the luminosity of Pepper #30 into one’s understanding of the glorious history of image-making is likely (however subliminally) to contribute to one’s own perceptual palette, and pretty sure to enlarge one’s future comprehension of others’ work.

Addendum: from Andy Ilachinski’s blog, 31 Aug 2014:

Our store of photographs – and/or, just as validly, any other impermanent artifacts that our essential being has “created” along its journey (including, in my case, equations, computer code, technical reports and papers, and even books) – accrued over a lifetime of “seeing,” are intertwined, nonlinearly nested visual palimpsests of an ever-evolving / never-complete document of our being; of who we really are. As such, they serve as potent probes, in hindsight – and only after careful reflection – of who we were, at some past time; and offer valuable clues and insights into how (sometimes even why) our essential being has evolved into its current state. More rarely, and with deeper contemplation, these emergent palimpsests can help us better understand and appreciate the forms and rhythms of the journey itself.

the succinct

One take on ‘simplicity’ is the quality of being succinct: getting a [sometimes complex] message across briefly, clearly, with a minimum of havering and expatiation, in a tidy package of nicely chosen words, or in an image that the viewer may grok without the need for exegesis. Sometimes there’s a way to express a complex story, with details and interconnections with other stories, in a spare or even gnomic gesture: one can know the story at a glance. Here are three examples taken today that seem to meet this criterion of the succinct:


Ann, Wife of

font6

tragedy2


and some from earlier captures:

Boothbay2

screech

awaken


My usual mode of photographic operation seems to favor the whimsical, which tends toward unconventional readings of images and require explanation, or the narrative, which attempts to engage the viewer in digressive backstories that revel in complexities and outward-bound links. Too many years in classrooms, not enough time in quiet contemplation of what I see. One can see a lot by looking.

simplicity

I’m thinking more and more about an online photography workshop with Andy Ilachinski (see his blog) that begins in a month or so. The subject, or title anyhow, is “Cultivating the Art of Simplicity in Photography” and so I’m grappling with what simplicity connotes. Seems like a good idea to keep a running tally of thinkage and experiments in this medium.

This foggy morning it occurred to me that we continually process the images—the video—of our lives. The focus of our attention, the frame, keeps moving, and we extract moments that please us, then (if we’re photographers) capture as still images to REMEMBER (and perhaps further explore) the moments of pleasedness.

Those thoughts in mind, I chanced to look out the window and saw this:


out the window

Since one of the issues I’m exploring at the moment is the personal importance of monochromatic [“black & white”] images, I tried out several filters (red, orange, yellow, green, blue) and chose the green as best exemplifying the overall feel of the moment of capture:

out the window

Now, it’s not that the image is really marvelous, but it does capture something of where my attention went at the moment: to the fog-shrouded treeline in the distance, to the imperfections in the nearest leaves, to the mid-August moment of Queen Anne’s Lace in the lower left. The image is a satisfactory rendering of a moment, something not-just-quotidian to contemplate.

There is a sort of simplicity here, an encoding of a still and quiet moment. Needs more thought, in a reflective mode.