Written by John Kennerdell
Jazz fans may recognize our title as the name of a memorable song by the great jazzman Benny Golson*. When asked about the words, he supposedly said, "You know, you meet someone and you think, is this just too good? Can this be for real?"
I found myself humming Benny's tune while helping judge a photo contest a few months ago. Technically, the quality of the entries knocked me out. But it almost seemed as if the more accomplished the photographer, the less I believed in their photograph.
Generally the images fell into two categories. First, a clean, beautifully composed if rather anodyne style that recalled traditional commercial photography. Second, a more pumped-up, ultra-dramatic look, the kind that inspired one blogger to ask, "Why do photo contest winners look like movie posters?" And sure enough, those were the ones that took most of the awards.
What both kinds shared, to me anyhow, was a purposeful detachment from the look and feel of the real world. Almost all appeared to be staged and lit, and most had a certain self-consciously "processed" style to them. There were few rough edges but not much spontaneity. Visually, you couldn't help but be impressed. But emotionally I found no jolts, no tugs, nothing much below the high-gloss surface.
I confess to much the same reaction looking at the top-rated images on the big photo-sharing sites. While the nature photography in particular can be extraordinary, these photographers' powers of candid observation rarely extend to the one species of greatest interest to most of us. You know, the one called Homo sapiens. There it's mostly beautiful women or elderly exotics or adorable children, so flawlessly posed and presented that it's hard to believe they have a life outside the frame.
Youth center, South Africa. Good, old-fashioned black-and-white documentary work. The photographer? Dave Hill. It’s gratifying to know that photography's Mr. Spinal Tap enjoys nothing more in his free time than a 35mm camera loaded with Neopan.
OK, I'm prejudiced. I came of age in the last great days of print photojournalism. To me, the most powerful and enduring images are the straightforward visual documents, unstaged and often imperfect, just as the world itself. When I look at old photographs it's most often on the likes of Shorpy or Found. Collections like these teach us that honest images of "ordinary" events, people, and places can take on an unexpected richness and significance over time. These are photos that become more valuable, rather than less, as the years pass.
The young photographers I work with show little appetite for that kind of thing. I've interested a few in the approach many of us used to take to learn photography: find a subject, preferably close to home, and then work to document it over weeks or months or more. Most however prefer to focus on what we might call the expressive side of photography, using all the remarkable tools of digital photography to create something that says more about their own imagination than the world at large. They aspire, it seems to me, not so much toward photography as photo-illustration.
And why shouldn't they? Partly it's a generational thing. Their role models aren't Eugene Smith or Garry Winogrand, but LaChapelle and Rankin. Partly it's easy access to the technology: if you can visualize it, now you can probably do it. But beyond that, it's hard—and only getting harder—going around and poking your camera into other people's actual lives, especially for non-professionals who have no financial or career incentive even to try. Why not set it up, light it up, Nik it up, and assemble something with undeniable visual impact that also slots neatly into the current popular idiom?
"Boys run before a crowd in the 'Junior Race' at Eton College in Windsor, England, August 1919. Photograph courtesy Central News Photo Service." This just happens to be the top post on Found on the day I'm writing this, but it makes a fine demonstration of the time-machine qualities of a good documentary photo: nothing more and nothing less than a fraction of a second of a summer’s day, almost a hundred years ago.
Well, there's no reason not to, if you like. But for those of you who haven't tried your hand at straight documentary photography, here's my case for giving it a shot. Apart from motion pictures, still photography remains the most powerful means we've ever been given to capture moments from the flow of time and then hold them up to say: this is what I saw. This is how it looked, and how it felt, to be alive at this moment in this place. A remarkable thing, when you think of it. But it works only if you turn your camera on the world as it is, not an idealized simulation of it. And most likely, these days, it's not going to win you many photo contests.
©2013 by John Kennerdell, all rights reserved
*Benny recorded a few different versions but to my mind the definitive one is with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Moanin' (Blue Note 4003).
John Kennerdell is a writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia. He tries to keep it mostly real at indochina-photoelectric.com, and maybe a little less so at 500px.com/indochinaphotoelectric. You can see more of his writings for TOP under his Category in the right-hand sidebar.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
bill: "I recently entered a juried show, 60 from ~2000 entries were shown. I entered a strong side light chiaroscuro picture. No more manipulation than standard darkroom. I was stunned at the technological manipulation present; 'real' seemed not a consideration at all. During the two openings, I listened to the wows over the manipulated pics, and how if I had spent the time mine could have been really good. The curator apologized but said this is the trend. I don't think most would know 'real' if it jumped up and bit them. Sad."
David: "Very well said Mr. Kennerdell. I'm 38 which makes me not exactly young but not old either. When I got into photography 10 years ago I was primarily interested in taking illustrative shots like you describe. However, while out on one of my many photo expeditions I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that my photos weren't going to hold up over time. My style of shooting only looked good because it was leveraging the cutting edge of technology. In the not so distant future anyone with a newer camera or better processing technique could come along and take a photo that rendered my images dated and useless. I decided to change my subject matter and style. Fortunately, I was a TOP reader and Mike had introduced me to Shorpy. From then on I tried to shoot with an eye towards history. Will my photo still be interesting in 100 years? That's the question I keep in the back of my mind when I'm out taking pictures these days."
Dennis (partial comment): "The same critque could be applied to this summer's blockbuster season of duds. Lots of imagination in the service of nothing."
Svein-Frode (partial comment): "Digital cameras and Adobe Photoshop is to photography what Roland and Yamaha were to music in the 1980s. New technology that becomes in vogue easily gets overused and abused, but then most things return to normal. After Hair Metal came Grunge, and talking of jazz, even the mighty Miles Davis got lost in synthesized music in the '80s."
Stan B.: "Photography is big enough to accommodate a variety of styles, even extremes. Always has, always will. That doesn't mean that they will all have equal footing and enjoy equal access and appreciation—not by a long shot. As far as the young-uns are concerned, yes, many have no clue whatsoever as to what came before them—that extends to history in general, let alone photographic history. Ironically, it is some of them that have revolted and returned to 'the old ways,' helping keep that tradition alive."
Richard Skoonberg: "My wife, a former art professor, when she saw the first image said, 'It's an illustration. It's an illustration using photographic techniques. It is miles away from photography.' Succinct and to the point."
Clay Olmstead: "This is not the age of subtle. It's the age of getting noticed. Specifically, getting noticed by being more outrageous than anybody else. You see it in art, music, TV and in the news. There's no reason for photography to be immune."