Abandoned U.S. Consulate—Danang, by Bill Burke. Burke spent much of the 1980s and '90s traveling through some fairly dodgy parts of Southeast Asia, processing his Polaroids in a bucket. It’s no surprise that his photos display what we might modestly call technical flaws. The surprise is how powerfully their imperfections help capture a sense of time and place.
By John Kennerdell
Photography has always attracted an interesting mix of artistic and technical types, and since the advent of digital we seem to be getting even more of the latter. Well over half the young photographers I work with (or "teach," the word they like to use) come from scientific backgrounds like programming, engineering, and medicine. They tend to arrive at photography with a confidence that it must be subject to the same kind of rational analysis and processes that apply in their own fields.
Too often this results in what we might call theoretical photography. These fellows (that's their gender, almost always) have all the gear: lenses in every possible focal length, cameras with sensors so noiseless it's almost eerie, software that can all but turn pixels inside out. They've done the research and spent the money. They've read the books and watched the videos. Theoretically, they're ready to create photos of unsurpassed quality. But somehow that isn't quite happening yet. And judging from what I see of the online forums, they're not alone.
Even as an arts and humanities guy—writing and taking pictures are the only real jobs I've ever had—it took me years to appreciate how much of photography turns out to be non-intuitive or even counter-intuitive. The hard part is explaining why.
Take equipment. How can going out the door with less of the stuff result, so often, in returning with more good photos? When is a new camera or lens not necessarily an "upgrade" (a word nobody even used until cameras became computer peripherals)? For that matter, how can a piece of kit that doesn't fare especially well in tests produce more visually satisfying images than one that does?
Or consider technique. Why can a flaw like flare or color cast or motion blur improve a photograph? How can blocked up shadows sometimes say more than deep shadow detail? When do the "rules" of composition become an impediment to a great shot?
(This leads into another topic for another time: how these anomalies extend even to subject matter. Why does shooting a small, personal subject close to home generally end up more successful than going off in pursuit of a grand one far away? Why is parachuting dozens of photojournalists into a country for a day or a week unlikely to produce a book as good as by having just one of them spend a year there?)
At the heart of this, I think, is something more fundamental than learning to separate the technical qualities of photos from the aesthetic ones. While most photographs don't aspire to be art, ultimately their value to us depends on something that art teaches us: direct emotional response. Develop that and, rather quickly, your gear and your expertise begin to feel a lot less important than your subject and your relationship to it. And those are the concerns I see, every time without exception, whenever a new photographer suddenly finds his stride and starts to create truly good work.
John Kennerdell, an American who has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for most of his adult life, writes several posts a year for TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "Thank you, John—a very important and timely post. In the analogue only days, I often cursed the flaws and inadequacies of film, hoped and prayed when something, anything would come along to replace such an antiquated 19th-century process. And now that the new and improved digital era has arrived, I am truly underwhelmed. Sharpness, resolution and detail abound like never before, and yet, something seems lost and forgotten nevertheless. Perhaps, without my knowing, it was (at least in part) the slight imperfections of craft that enamored me to the medium. Much of what I see today is technically perfect, and perfectly plastic. Perhaps that is why work such as Burke's and Boris Mikhailov's still resonate so strongly with me to this day. The questions you raise towards the end also need to be addressed more often, far more often than all the pixel peeping issues that are constantly regurgitated."
Featured Comment by Doug Howk: "I agree with what you say about the mistaken belief that perfection through equipment yields great photos. But at the same time I too often see images created through some technically imperfect tools as being a short-cut to art, e.g., plastic lenses."
Featured Comment by John Camp: "Okay, this is a cliff I'm willing to jump off.
"I've long argued the simple proposition that at the margins, where excellence lies, people are what they do, or what they're made to do. This is where you find the nerd syndrome (or the jock syndrome, if you prefer—jocks are simply a variety of nerd.)
If you're a technical guy, chances are good that a) you are smart, and b) as a young person, you voluntarily or under pressure from parents focused on a particular kind of learning which was strongly oriented toward the solitary: math, rather than dance; physics, rather than drama. But because you are smart, you grow up and realize that you missed something along the way. You then go looking for an art—you yearn for one—but what you tend to land on is the technical, because that's what you know you're very good at. Photography seems to be a quick answer to your problem.
"But it's not. I am constantly amazed to look at photography forums and see the emphasis on the technical. I've never had a response to my challenge, 'Show me one great photograph whose greatness comes from resolution.' There aren't any—yet on landscape forums, that's all anybody talks about. A top-end medium-format system, which seems to be the great desire of all forum-based landscape wannabes, will cost $100,000 or more...yet all you get is resolution, and nobody can cite a single great photograph that relies on resolution for its greatness. Even those you might be tempted to name (Ansel Adam's 'Moonrise') were shot with cameras whose resolution probably couldn't match a contemporary Canon S-95 point-and-shoot.
"What these people need to be taught is not technical skill, but social concerns. They could learn all the technical stuff they need in a week, but they need in-depth work on the social. That's because when most people were learning about social things, they were compulsively messing with computers (or compulsively shooting baskets.)
"I think if I were to teach people photography (not that I would) I think I might require them to spend a lot of time in social situations, without cameras, simply socializing and asking people what they were up to. I'd encourage them, maybe, to take part in a political campaign as a volunteer, take a dance class, join a drama group. It'd be hard, because that's not where a techie's training lies.
"For people who just can't make themselves do that...well, there's always more resolution."
Featured Comment by Matt Stevens: "Hear hear! But then, I'd be considered old school on account of my age alone."
Featured [partial] Comment by jeffharris: "I read an interesting quote today...which I'll paraphrase badly...A worker uses tools. A craftsman uses tools and their brain. An artist uses tools, brain and their heart. There's so little heart in the images people churn out."
Featured Comment by Sergio Bartelsman: "The general direction photography is thaking is that of reproducing the world as exactly as possible with the technological advances such as high resolution and noiseless pictures and so on. However what I really like about photography is exactly the contrary, that is, how can I distance myself from reality and experience it in a different way than trying to reproduce exactly as it was when I was there."
Featured Comment by Fred: "Edward Weston sought technical perfection as well as artistic. And achieved both. Why didn't Joel Meterowitz shoot Cape Light with his trusted Leica...? There are many aspects of the art of photography that are not easily divorced from the profane technical considerations. I get your point though."