Or, The Search for 'Specialness'
By Mike Johnston
It is remarkable how many photographers are not content to simply take pictures.
The ways this disaffection surfaces may vary. The number of tricks and gimmicks and special effects gadgets on the market—star filters and graduated color filters and vignetters and worse—is of course one sign of it. With many photographers, it takes the form of an endless search for equipment and materials of the utmost quality. “Is this lens best?” “Is this latest film slightly more saturated in the reds?” A variant of this is the willful but unnecessary use of oddball cameras for effect. In a more sophisticated form it is reflected in the complete fabrication of set-pieces, so that the resulting photographs do nothing more than illustrate an idea in a photographer’s or an art director’s head. Amateur work may be derivative, but of course pros, too, fall all over themselves pandering to the latest trends, whether it be softboxes, or hard light, or “light painting” guns. What it all seems to indicate is that many photographers, amateur and pro, seem to be constantly searching for some technique, some effect, or some material that will set their pictures apart, and make them “special.”
Does this have something to do with character?
The camera is a mechanical intermediary between the desire to create and the reified creation. It rescues the craftsperson from the intimidating challenge of the blank canvas or the uncarved block. The camera always creates something, even with a minimum of direction by the operator. So perhaps photography attracts some people who want and expect their creativity to be automatic. And I’d propose, tentatively, that maybe these photographers’ search for “specialness” expresses their dissatisfaction that it hasn’t turned out to be that way.
Many (not all) of the best photographers—maybe just the luckiest—settle on their mature technique relatively early, and then “get past” the technique and concentrate on the visual content of the pictures. This includes artists as diverse as Weston, Winogrand, Julia Margaret Cameron, Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Caponigro, among many others. The list is a long one. Even a photographer such as Nicholas Nixon—who set out in the beginning of his career intending to deliberately change his technique at regular intervals—has, by now, naturally settled on a signature technique. The techniques in question are all different. Each one suits each individual photographer’s style of seeing, or it suits their times. But each of them found a set of techniques that were satisfactory...and then got down to the real work.
Getting past technique makes the photographer ask a crucial question: assuming the use of the same camera, the same film, and the application of the same basic technical competence—in other words, the same effects—what makes one picture better than another, or one picture better than a hundred others? The way in which a photographer answers that question will ultimately determine how successful, how significant, his or her work will be.
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I admit that I am notorious among my friends and students for my knee-jerk dislike and mistrust of gimmickry, so maybe you’ll end up having to take what I’m saying here with a grain of salt. Actually, though, it’s more than mere dislike. I object to gimmickry. And to be perfectly honest, my prejudice runs even deeper than that. I think the use of trickery exposes not only bad taste, but flabby thinking, an inability to distinguish depth of response, and a disposition to dishonesty. I don’t think I ever got around the implications of those horrid house-of-mirrors nudes that Kertesz was so fond of, until I decided simply not to take him at his word. Galen Rowell’s numb-brained use of graduated sky filters is worse, and erased most of the pleasure I had ever taken from his work, despite my admiration for all the running around he does in the wilderness. (It made me mourn even more the fateful day that Dean Brown tumbled off that mountainside, and the day Bob McQuilken died sixty feet down in Lake Michigan—nature photography is hazardous work.) And Minor White, a photographer I have instinctively never trusted, exposed his weaknesses most plainly, to my way of thinking, with those ridiculous infrared pictures of his.
You might think it small-minded or narrow of me to say that the use of some kind of trick in one picture can cloud my view of other, different pictures that weren’t made with any such tricks. But that’s like saying that a man telling a lie on one day doesn’t affect your perception of everything else he says, every other day: the situation, in fact, is quite the opposite. Being caught out in a single lie opens a credibility gap that takes a lot of truth-telling to close again. The species of trickery a photographer will tolerate functions as an insight, in my opinion, and insights, by definition, alter our overall perceptions.
Infrared emulsions are sensitive to part of the visible spectrum of radiation—light—and part of the invisible spectrum beyond red, radiation in which plants and living things are rich. It yields an image that is a combination of the real and the unreal, in which anything living seems to glow. It’s grainy, too, which adds to the effect. Lazy pictorial photographers like it because it imparts an ersatz impression of atmosphere and mysticality, of otherworldliness, as if it were convenient illustrative shorthand for a dream.
In other words, it automatically makes stuff look special. It’s the ultimate gimmick.
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The technical qualities of photographic materials, while scientifically explicable and precise in their derivation from their causes, can be argued to be aesthetically just the opposite: that is, random and arbitrary. Photographers do deal within whatever limitations their materials impose, and frequently make a virtue of them. Thus, to name just one specific example, early glass-plate photographers learned to mask their skies to eliminate the ugly blotchiness with which the orthochromatic emulsion responded to the overpowering blue; and we are left with photographs that share a definite “look,” amounting cumulatively to an apparently cloudless nineteenth century. The reason for the masked skies was technical, and made sense. But they had a distinct visual effect, too, that had to be accepted because it was unavoidable, but which was aesthetically arbitrary. That “look,” although we may have learned to appreciate its qualities in retrospect (I like it, personally), was hardly linked to any aesthetic preference. One would imagine, rather, that the excessive, romantic nineteenth century, given the means, would have preferred to see the sky in every picture thick with heavy, roiling, visually bombastic cloud-cover.
A few photographers got around the sanction imposed by the materials by “printing in” sky negatives exposed expressly for the purpose, like some sort of crafty Ur-Uelsmanns. The work of Baltimore pictorialist Aubrey Bodine is a perfect example. The unhappy result is different scenes that share the same skies, and skies that show little connection to whatever the reality might have happened to be. They show, too, a subtle lack of congruity between the light in the sky and the light on the ground, and maybe also of perspective. And, of course, there is an inherent dishonesty inextricably imposed on every picture so treated.
Of course if any one artist had decided arbitrarily to render all skies as blank white, in the absence of any natural technical reason for doing so, he would have been considered an unfathomable crackpot.
During the period of still photography’s hegemony we have become accustomed to the aesthetic effects of many of its technical properties. We have learned to accept the lack of rectilinearity that a fixed-bodied camera pointed up or down or tilted one way or the other imposes on us. Probably the second most important such feature is the visual effect of having limited depth of field and a single plane of focus; the eye has much greater depth of field than most cameras, and the brain is seldom if ever conscious of out-of-focus vision. We also got accustomed, for a long time, to the absence of lifelike color, and also to motion blur, camera shake, and the unreal blackness of shadows, among other things—not to mention, to begin with, the wholly peculiar concept of freezing a moment and extracting it from its context in both the time-continuum of movement and the space-continuum of three-dimensionality.
Photographers have learned to accept and work within many of these properties because they had no choice. Good photographers, of course, learned to take the aesthetic effects of these properties naturally and effortlessly into account, and sometimes to exploit them, even for aesthetic ends—just as the nineteenth century landscape photographer presumably learned to love empty white skies. But all of them, while technically quite sensical and logical, are still aesthetically inchoate, and incidental to intention. They are properties, not qualities.
It is simply wrongheaded, if not plain dumb, to mistake the one for the other, and to take refuge in it in the hopes that it will automatically impart a distinguishing specialness and distinctiveness to one’s results. You might as well go back to using insensitive orthochromatic glass plates, on purpose, and claiming as an aesthetic signature what the early photographers understood to be only a technical shortcoming.
And we haven’t even touched on the issue of sophistication. Gimmicks are usually effective in reverse proportion to how well they’re understood by the viewer. If you’re not aware that a Galen Rowell picture has a brown sky because he used a graduated colored filter, you’re that much more likely to find yourself convinced by it. But if you’re aware of it, you probably won’t fall for it. What kind of idiot would “ooh” and “ahh” over a visual effect they know is fake? We’re not talking about fiction here. To allow your work to depend on effects is to assume that your audience will be composed of dolts who are too stupid to catch on to your tricks, or too uninformed to realize what’s legitimate and what’s not.
You might not agree. But if you’re regularly going to use a gimmick—of any sort—you should at least get clear about the ways in which your gimmick is false, the ways in which it is a crutch, and the possibility that you will make sophisticated viewers feel condescended to.
The real business of being an authentic photographer consists in learning first to identify, and later to commit to, your own idiosyncratic notion of what really makes a picture work, effects aside. Those italicized words are important. If you happen to like platinum contact prints from 8x10 negatives (and who doesn’t?), you should know right from the start that the wonderful properties you admire in that technique are nevertheless absolutely not enough, alone, to make more than a scant handful of pictures work. Properties of technique can and should work in concert with visual content in pictures, but in a definitely subordinate role. This is true of any technique, however exalted.
In fact, a technique with too crude or too offbeat a signature is likely to be as much a liability as anything else: it requires that the artist justify it, by legitimately needing it to work in concert with the visual content of picture after picture, over the course of an extended body of work.
In point of fact, empirically noted, most photographers who use infrared just toy with it: they make a few pictures with it, and then, having done “their” infrared pictures, they move on.
You also may want to argue that you can, in fact, name a good infrared picture. (Although I’ll reserve my doubts, myself.) But I’ll bet you can’t name a single significant artist who is identified with infrared the way Weston is identified with the 8x10 contact print, or Arbus with the square, or Cartier-Bresson with the 50mm lens. And if you can name one, then that estimable personage, whoever he or she may be, is undoubtedly the exception that proves the rule. Try naming half a dozen.
If you happen to be committed to infrared, ignore me and keep on doing what you love. If you don’t but you feel its pull, settle on some more authentic technique (or on principled experimentation, for that matter, like Hiro or Ray Metzger)—whatever you need to help express your vision, or that which is consonant with our times and with the current state of technological development. And then get on with the real task of being, or becoming, a photographer—a task which has a lot to do with style, content, ideas, and hard work, but not a whole lot to do with any of the various available species of special effects.
Copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
[Originally written for Camera & Darkroom in the early '90s. I'm unsure now, but I don't think it was ever published, for the obvious reason that some people love infrared and the magazine saw no reason to antagonize those folks with my crotchety opinions. My own position evolved as well; I came to believe that photography is essentially harmless and aesthetics are not intrinsically a moral issue, and therefore people should do any bonehead thing they please as long as they're not hurting anyone.
Curiously, a number of years later Sally Mann contacted me at Photo Techniques wondering how 19th-century photographers achieved the pearlescent glow from bright windows and such, and I helped her secure a batch of large-format film that had no anti-halation backing. So when I wrote "You might as well go back to using insensitive orthochromatic glass plates, on purpose, and claiming as an aesthetic signature what the early photographers understood to be only a technical shortcoming," as if it were something one obviously wouldn't want to do, I was essentially wrong there, too. Albumen printing, anyone?]
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