Strictly speaking, I suppose most photographs are "naturalistic," because most camera operators don't have the skill or the guile to make them into anything else. Ironically, however—even strangely—most casual photographers also lack the taste to use the inherent naturalism of photography to their advantage.
But before I get trapped down a rathole, though, a few random-ish examples of naturalism in photography. Obviously, there are thousands. These pictures, like all pictures, are illustrations and evidence, not argument or proof.
• Mark Brautigam. I like this set a lot, probably because the pictures resemble the place where I live (Wisconsin). I've actually been to a couple of these spots.
• Demotic snaps that happen to have that Barthsian "punctum." This used to be called "the snapshot aesthetic" and is now called "vernacular photography." Note that the appropriation of snapshot naturalism is all over the place, from Nan Goldin, to Ryan McGinley's young nakeds cavorting and gamboling (his shots would look naturalistic except that everybody's always naked, a blatant telltale of hip styliness), to this shot by Martin Parr, which uses the style of naturalism beautifully but isn't an example of it—it's an advertising photograph, and the woman is a model.
Just as an aside, anyone who thinks that all or most snapshots have the snapshot aesthetic hasn't looked through enough unsorted, uncurated snapshots. (I have. I am not bragging.)
• Many news photographs have the prospect of being naturalistic but many still aren't. An approximate Venn diagram can be usefully plotted by looking at the many attempts made over the years to find the overlap between reportage and art, in the works of artists (cf. some of the early Magnum manifestos, or in the work of photographers such as Josef Koudelka) and in projects such as John Szarkowski's From the Picture Press, in which he attempted to formulate a corpus of artworks culled from newspaper archives. (News photographs usually come with their punctum readymade; blood on pavement will do that for you.)
• The 35mm work of Lee Friedlander. Naturalism is far from the point of early Friedlander—he is a "trickster" (in the folkloric sense of that term), a hunter of found views, and the word that best describes his work before he got old and mellow is iconoclast—but his seeing is naturalistic.
• Kate Hutchinson. I don't follow Kate as avidly as I used to, because I'm just not as interested in her husband as she is (is that sexism? Is there any real reason, other than a slouching voyeurism, why I should be less interested in Kate Hutchinson's husband than in, say, Harry Callahan's wife?) And I suspect you have to look at a lot of her work to "get" her—she's not a single-picture artist; her aesthetic is revealed slowly, gently, across many photographs contemplated at leisure. But I love Kate. (Note that she's no amateur—she's an editorial photographer with an impressive client list.)
• And while we're on to female photographers, Linda McCartney. Yes, I'm one of "those people" who think that Linda would have been better known and better thought of if she hadn't been an über-celebrity's spousal unit. But Sir Paul's wealth and his persistence in honoring his "baby" have meant that we've gotten a broader-than-usual window into her art. She's not a first-tier artist, no matter how good a case the advocates might make (although she's very good, as I say)—but her work reveals a first-tier person, you might say, never immodest. Naturalism isn't always her modus—she tried different techniques like any hobbyist, such as Polaroid transfer, for one—but it often is. She certainly wasn't afraid of it.
And by the way, the new book at the link is the best overview of Linda, with the one single rather major dissonance that she's not a coffee-table-book type of artist. To me she's the apotheosis of the gifted and unfettered adolescent, a free spirit who was able to stay true to herself throughout life. Her books ought to be little gems, with a private, personal feel, rather than big bold tomes.
• Lartigue's childhood work might be the best case for naturalism as a mode of photography. Sometimes when people look at sophisticated work in the snapshot aesthetic, they say "anyone could do that," oblivious to the obvious fact that almost no one can—and Lartigue's early work—his artistic peak—demonstrates the absurdity of a similar louche criticism, "a child could do that."
• Can too much skill in composition fight against the sense of effortlessness we look for in naturalism? If not, then I nominate James Ravilious, another personal favorite. As Friedlander's essentially a subversive, so Ravilious is essentially a romantic, but his seeing is naturalistic too.
• Me. Most of my work is naturalistic, because that's what I like.
Enough yet? I could go on. (I do go on. It's the blogger's brief.) Naturalism's not a way of rendering, or a technical aim—it's not trompe l'oeil and it has little to do with verisimilitude—and it doesn't have to do with any particular subject matter. Importantly, it's not an end in itself; it's not all a photograph needs to have in order to work. It certainly doesn't imply that the end result happens naturally, or without effort (please, y'all). It's a method of approach, an attitude—a way of accepting what is, of taking what you're given, of letting the world in, being satisfied with reality, comfortable with happenstance and accident. How you then process that and select from it is just what makes you you.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "Like you, I prefer naturalism in photography, and I'm a little bit shaken by how accurately you encapsulated and illustrated the concept. My brain is going flippy-flop, thinking 'yes, that's it exactly! Why couldn't you say it so well?'
"Since I'm thinking about what I like so much about naturalistic photography, I am naturally wondering why I have so little interest in phantasmagorical imagery, and I think what it comes down to is that I'm just not that interested in things that are simply 'made up.' I cannot understand the appeal of a woman in a flowery dress holding a big-horn sheep while an old steam train drives by. I have no idea what that means beyond 'whoa, that's trippy!' The same applies to 'constructed' images, such as those by Jeff Wall and the like. I understand that it's a commentary on the nature of reality and all that; I just don't care. Let me comment on the nature of reality while looking at something real, not while looking at something that is so obviously non-real.
"That said, I do understand that some people like that sort of thing. I'm not saying they're wrong (to each his or her own), just that I don't get it. I will also confess to some level of prejudice to what I tend to see in some of the fans of that type of work—perhaps erroneously—as a lack of curiosity about the real world.
"One place where I see this play out is in the comments on 500px.com. I frequently come upon striking photographs of places—usually cities but sometimes mountain ranges or other sorts of dramatic landscapes. The person who posted the image has not indicated in the title or the tags where the photograph was taken (which is to say, what it's a photograph of). What follows is a dozen or more fawning compliments and ecstatic exhortations on what a beautiful 'capture' it is, and how the post-processing is so gorgeous and all that. But nobody asks 'where?'
"In other words, people are only looking at the picture and not at the subject. I like to think they should be interested in both!
"You could argue that the 'where' is irrelevant, and perhaps from the point of view of rigorous photographic evaluation it is. (As it is from the point of view of 'OMG that's so awesome!') But what about the real-world, or 'naturalistic' side? Aren't these people curious?
"I am! I may love (or hate) the photograph for various reasons, but I'm also very curious about the planet we live on, what things look like in different places, and what different places look like. It's a layer of meaning that applies to all visual representations—or so I would like to think. How can they not be curious as to where those incredible mountains are, or what city houses that dramatic cobblestone street?
"That prejudice carries over to the people fawning over the trippy photograph of the woman holding the sheep. I don't care about the photograph because it raises no questions and provokes no curiosity. I don't care what it means because it doesn't mean anything. And I can't help but feel a bit of disdain for people who get excited about something that is, to me at least, meaningless.
"One final note: I think one of the main reasons why naturalistic photography is not as widely regarded as we might like is because it doesn't always gob-smack you on first viewing. You nailed it when you said of Kate Hutchinson, 'she's not a single-picture artist; her aesthetic is revealed slowly, gently, across many photographs contemplated at leisure.' That's often the case with this type of photography. I had a similar reaction with Ryan McGinley's work. First reaction was a simple 'WTF?' But over time, and when viewed in clusters, you really start to see that there's something going on there.
"But in today's Flickry, Facebooked, Twittered, and Instagramed world (all services that I use, BTW), stuff that requires a second look or a bit of thought tends to be backgrounded to the woman with the sheep and the steam train. Which would be even better in HDR!"