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Saturday, 18 December 2010


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I go through something similar when watching movies. Working in visual effects has kind of made it hard for me to see a movie and not break it down in my head on how the shot was constructed.

and is that the same for a landscape or city street scene? You have spent time out there as well and surely more time than in a studio.

I feel the same way, although until I read this and the "context and no context" piece I probably wouldn't have articulated it so clearly.

It's possible to use that "virtual peripheral vision" (to coin a phrase) in a positive way, such as when we look at good travel photographs or street photographs. We don't just see the grinning guy in the funny hat on 23rd street. We (which is to say, those of us with virtual peripheral vision) also see 23rd street, and imagine it in panoramic (which is to say, in context).

In other words, we see the image, but also beyond the image, which, I think, is a sign of both a good photograph (on the part of the photographer) and good visual literacy and imagination on the part of the viewer. Travel and street photography are all about that kind of dual vision, whereas studio photography is not.

It's a beautiful relationship when it works, which is to say, when the photographer and the viewer (or the writer and the reader, in the literary parallel) are in some kind of sync.

...and I promise not to say "which is to say" again for at least two weeks. ;-)

A studio shot, like the ones you example, are just produced as tools in support of something else. Sure, they are called photographs, but they are really masquerading as “things” designed to manipulate your response and (usually) sell something.

It’s like a trip to McDonalds. Sure it is called a “hamburger”, but it really is just that “thing” which reminds you of a taste, or something else, to get you to buy it.


Anytime I see a photo that's self-consciously "lit" (read: more than one apparent light source), I have the same reaction. "Oh boy, looks like someone had some fun messing around with lights."

However, no photo is context-free. Every photo has an invisible context—real or imagined—that can be distracting. When I look at a Bresson photo, I find myself daydreaming about brassed Leicas. I can't see Terry Richardson's work without imagining him creepily molesting the models. Leibovitz makes me think about the New York real estate market.

You can never truly separate the context (the fantasy, really) and the work itself. So while I agree 100% about fancy studio lighting, I would extend it to anything similarly self-conscious, such as swirly petzval bokeh, ultrawide distortion, or colored grads. For that matter, shooting B&W in 2010 is as distractingly atypical as shooting color would have been in 1940. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to don my flame-retardant suit.


I wonder if what you're talking about (which, incidentally, seems like a real bummer -- but useful if you're into 'studio') is analogous to what some, maybe most highly trained, musicians experience in listening to music, i.e., hearing the changes / chord progressions grinding by as the music proceeds?

Well, nothing but empathy; as I can't visit a museum or gallery without focusing on the frames. Fortunately for me, one aspect of the frame is how well it works with the art, thus I have an opportunity to study the object as a whole, though often, the frame is the first.

Bron, the framemaker.

I don't know the photographer personally, but online I've always found him to be kind, helpful, and generous. I worry that the photograph will suffer an unwelcome reception in the comments here.

Studio photography like that resembles a magic trick. It's not as much fun if you know how the trick was done.

I do appreciate portraits with context, but have found them difficult to do well myself.

Reality is seeing what is not visible
(or there).

Too many staged photographs tend to make all of us wary of the purpose of said
image and what is the "true" purpose,
if any.

Well, Mike, I think you're describing what anyone who has experience with any discipline experiences. Writers who see scene structure, photographers who see key lights, musicians who hear old progressions. What's wonderful is when the effect is so arresting that you forget how it's done.


I wonder if you see the context because it's not really good enough to sweep you up? I feel the same thing about bad writing, especially student and first-novel writing; I often can't read it (can't read my own early unsold manuscripts) because I see the gears working, and inefficiently, and poorly. Very often a book will start with something like, "The storm came in over the city, pouring rain, so that the night seemed to come early. Brad Smith walked along the street..." blah blah blah...Who gives a rat's ass? It's your basic, "It was a dark and stormy night.."

Then, there's somebody like Annie Proulx, who starts a story "The Mud Below," like this:

Rodeo night in a hot little Okie town and Diamond Felts was inside a metal chute a long way from the scratch on Wyoming dirt he named as home, sitting on the back of bull 82N, a loose-skinned brindle Brahma-cross identified in the program as Little Kisses. There was a sultry feeling of weather. He kept his butt cocked to one side, his feet up on the chute rails so the bull couldn't grind his leg, brad him up, so that if it thrashed he could get over the top in a hurry."

I mean, if it's good enough, it'll take you away and you won't see the gears.


This article made me smile, especially all the different contexts in the comments.

From time to time I deliberately go out for a walk without my camera so that I can enjoy the environs without the context of the viewfinder. It doesn't always work as I sometimes visualise shots for later - but I really try and I do really want to escape from that context sometimes, especially when out walking with non-photographer friends.


It all comes down to "ignorance is bliss." Humankind is obsessed with learning the "hows and whys" of everthing but in many cases this will kill the innocence of the observer and take from the enjoyment.
A typical example in nature is a lawn full of daisies which to a non gardener is a beautiful sight; to a gardener it's a neglected patch of turf infested with weeds!!

I totally sympathize with you. I used to make recordings for classical musicians and would spend hours splicing the good parts together. Now I hear every edit when listening to classical music. I am amazed at how sloppy some professional work sounds. I have never been a fan of obvious studio work. What makes me laugh more is when I see comments online like "great capture" for overly planned shots. A devoted reader.

This happens most everywhere. I was explaining the nuances of putting to a fellow golfer. He stopped me and said, "You worry about things most people aren't even aware of."

We always see the flaws in our own work. I don't think it can be helped.

In my late teens I lasted one ten hour day in a Chicken factory for about £2.50p per hr (before minimum wage came to be) Twenty years later I still rib my pal for getting on the bus for a second day. It left me with a six month aversion to chicken & a feeling that crime just might pay.

Since then, I've never been able to look at chicken without thinking...Buddy I know how you got here.

This can work the other way as well.

I was visiting a very well regarded classical music composer with a friend who knew him well. I was very much into "high end" stereo equipment at the time and was surprised that the composer had a terrible stereo system in his den.

My friend let me know that the composer had trouble listening to any stereo system at all. When he listened to recorded music all he heard was the "original" piece as it would have been performed live.


But Mike, does this mean that when you see a photograph taken in the street, in Paris or in Austin, that your mind also fills in all the blanks surrounding that exterior shot? You see a photo of the ranch house, do you fill in the ones on both sides? The asphalt of the street, the clouds, the garbage can out back, the mall in the far distance? Where does the line stop? Because, after all, by our age we've seen all the infrastructure before.......

In his comment, Robert mentions how landscape and street photographers also omit contextual information. How true!

I experimented a bit with context in landscape pictures while in graduate school. I'd take a picture that appealed to me, then revisit the scene to show what else was there, and how things changed in the span of a day or more. My thought was that photographers are essentially editors, choosing what to include and what to omit.

Initially, my plan was to make a normal silver print from the first negative and put it into a mat upon which I had printed the outside area. It didn’t take long to realize that sensitized mat board didn’t hold up well in developing chemicals!

I settled on making two prints, with the smaller one inserted into a cutout in the larger one. Both were then dry mounted together.

I learned to have a little fun with the context issue.

I think there must be some kind of threshold for artistic accomplishment above which illusions become effective. Below a certain level, the 'man behind the curtain' is all too obvious, and the illusion doesn't work. Above that level I don't even notice the strings and bailing wire, no matter how obvious they are, because the illusion is so compelling. The fictional depiction of medical care is my bugbear. My family were mystified when I pronounced 'ER' utterly unwatchable. The show's producers had obviously tried to be at least in the ballpark for technical accuracy (except when it came to the success rate for resuscitation), but I found the characters and drama so unconvincing that the discrepancies stood out in harsh relief. On the other hand, from a scientific/technical standpoint, the medicine on 'House' is completely absurd...but I couldn't care less! Hugh Laurie's character is so compelling I don't even notice the bogus science.

I don't care, you're not going to ruin it for me. I like pictures of attractive athletic women sweating, no matter how artificial the lighting. :)

Esquire cover by Bert Stern, I'm guessing. Or Carl Fischer.

Numerous composers I've heard of have had really bad stereo systems. One in Hanover used to listen to a suitcase-style "stereo" record player (one speaker on each end) so he could listen to 33 1/3 symphonic records at 78rpm--the better to hear the structure of the repeats. Not a great listening experience for others, I'm guessing.


Not necessarily, although I'm interested in the issue (as you might have guessed from the recent Ranchos de Taos post).

I do know I dislike pictures that look too strictly "excluding" of context...you can kind of tell when the photographer has "zoomed in" to "crop out distracting elements." Zoom out, not in, I say.


I was a chicken cook...my old man threw me out of the house at age 14 and told me not to come home until I had a job. I ended up working for two months at a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand, the last place I applied that evening. It turned out to be my first major failure as a writer--I envisioned a long memoir-style autobiographical essay that I never wrote. I still regret that. But, like you, it gave me an aversion to chicken. Mine lasted well over a year, and I still dislike going into KFC restaurants. But I still have stories....


Just imagine how difficult must be for a surgeon (or even worse for a forensic pathologist) to take pictures, especially family snapshots.


Is that why you maybe enjoyed Paolo Roversi´s work the other day?

Yes in real life the model was reputed to have an IQ of 160+ was married to Lance Reventlow, Jack Jones, and Robert Wagner as well as dating Sandy Koufax, David Frost, Frank Sinatra, Michael Caine, Henry Kissinger, and Sean Connery. Presumably not all at the same time.

So I don't know if the outside the box or inside the box is more realistic.

Oh, the model is Jill St. John , Carl Fischer was the photographer, George Lois gets the credit , and Julian Koenig begs to differ.

Rob et al. - Photo by, I'm not sure, Art direction by George Lois and this is one of the many iconic George Lois directed covers (as are most Esquire covers, frankly).

As far as seeing both the image and the production sometimes it may become necessary to put aside our knowledge of "how" and see instead the "what".

BTW - good luck with that... :)

In the early 70's, I got to hang out for a few months in a fashion photographer's studio in New York. Now I can't see a fashion photo without imagining the ugly alligator clips that are holding the back of the dress together.

I must say, I wasn't exactly impressed when I found out National Geographic magazine photographers took thousands of images on their assignments and only published a few. Good articles, but I wish I had not found out. It struck me as too much money chasing a few unrealistic expectations.

I had been a medical student and a physician. Of course I can see under skin. Fortunately I still can appreciate human body as a whole...

I just put on some Inspiral Carpets and that lead to rolling by Sandy Skolund's website, www.sandyskoglund.com, again. (The cover for said band's _Revenge_of_the_Goldfish_ album is a Skoglund photo. I do like the band, but the introduction to Skoglund's work has been a bigger artistic education to me than their music.)

Her work strikes me as somewhat the antithesis of this take on studio photography. It is obviously staged and I of course look at it and think about how she set it up, but at the same time I find myself looking outside the frame to a strange and alien world that is nothing less than a visual feast. Sort of like what Maurice Sendak would do if he were a photographer.

A few years ago I saw a gargantuan print of her Fresh Hybrid work, which features a lush scene covered entirely in colored pipe cleaners, at A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans. They had a small square of the pipe cleaner carpet floor taken from the studio set next to the photo. It seemed proof that truth is stranger than fiction.


I'm not surprised at the composers and musicians with ordinary gear...it is analogous to the many good photographers out there who can't be bothered with pixel-level sharpness or other variants of performance, as they're too busy seeing things and making photographs.

However, speaking of musicians, in our band, it seems that each musician rates how good a particular track is by their own performance, rather than on the whole song. We do pay an inordinate amount of attention to ourselves, it seems.

Really. I always assumed that the NGeo photographers went to the Gobi desert, made 12 exposures and came home. Made me want to recycle my cameras. Take up macrame or something.

True, photography is both art form and trade.

A sculptor and a carpenter may both work with a chisel, but they are not both the same. All photographers use a camera, but they are not all the same.

As a trade, it is the ability to deceive, to create fantasy, that gives it currency. The "product", however cleverly and skilfully conceived, simply deceives to flatter.

But photography exploited by an artist can communicate with a directness and painful honesty that few other visual art forms can achieve.

However, is this summary really fair. Is this a real boundary or an imaginary one?

Yes, context is important, but how much context you choose to include and how much you omit from a frame, or blur away in bokeh, or dodge and burn, is an artistic choice and one that art photographers are not shy of exploiting.

Moreover is the pretention of honesty not more dishonest than the cheerful promotion of idealism? How often is the premise of realism exploited to impose the photographer's own prejudice.

Perhaps there is not such a boundary after all but a foggy grey area in the middle. There is no reason why an artisan cannot also be an artist or vice versa. A simple test would be a body of work that was produced for a brief but which stands on its own as art.

I am sure they must exist, but I cannot think of a well known studio photographer who has really managed it. I am probably wrong though.

After thinking a bit more on it, I'd say that there are levels of competency in any art or craft, and once one obtains a basic level, all one thinks of are the trappings and details, but beyond that, with more mastery, comes an appreciation for the resulting emotion that overpowers such details, which fade into the subconscious.

I am standing looking at my garden right now. It is beautiful. The snow has never been more thick or pristine, more highly piled on the drooping branches. The sun's golden rays play prettily on the soft mounds of the shrubbery.

Of course, there's a nice big framed pane of double glazing between me and the view, and the radiator is blasting out lots of lovely heat over my body. And I'm in my dressing gown, holding a cup of coffee.

Damn! There goes my suspension of disbelief.

One of our traditions for this time of year, we just watched the 1984 movie version of "A Christmas Carol" (with George C Scott in the role of Scrooge and Edward Woodward as a most ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present) and I found myself admiring the lighting in the scenes where Marley shows up. Not for the first time, either.

There's a very effective use of cold colors on Marley vs the warmer tones used on old Ebenezer, and they made great use of dramatic contrast too in the close ups of Scrooge.

It was well enough done that I was surprised to find it's actually a made for TV movie.

I wonder if this "behind the curtain" perception is endemic to all specialized fields. It's not just seeing the flaws in one's own work (something that plagues me) but also seeing the mechanics and flaws in others' work in the same genre.

It's why, I believe, I am nearly unable to read history books for pleasure - as a historian, I see the untold stories behind the supposedly "honest facts"; as a writer, I see the construction of the narrative; as a researcher I see the arrangement of data; as an indexer I see the organization of concepts; as a teacher I see the lecture possibilities, and so on. I simply cannot see it with naive eyes.

One academic I know likened the process as akin to taking the red pill of the Matrix; once you've been trained to notice such things, you can't unsee them and go back to your more innocent existence.

As a result, I treasure those things - like music or film or food - where I know enough to appreciate the work, but not so much that I can't enjoy it without focusing on the technique.

I noticed in college a tendency for the music students to have less-good stereos than other people. This seems to me to support the theory that even the best stereo didn't sound that much better than a cheap one to experts familiar with actual music.

The other theory is that most musicians are rather short of money, so can't buy an expensive stereo. I don't believe this should have kicked in yet during college, though.

Music technicalities I'm not smart enough to talk about, although I've never quite grasped Glenn Gould's pivotal decision to move into the studio exclusively--a really interesting strategy.

I was impressed to see him working with his ultra skilled cut and splice guy in the recent Canadian film. He should have lived to use Protools.

Perhaps more apropos the discussion: I worked on a film where the director had an obsession that in his mind's eye he saw vividly the instrument currently playing at any point in any musical recording and so gave the composer the task of delivering a score that would overcome this idiosyncrasy of his. I think that she used lots of synth.

Regards - Ross

Rana wrote: "One academic I know likened the process as akin to taking the red pill of the Matrix; once you've been trained to notice such things, you can't unsee them and go back to your more innocent existence."

As a retired academic myself, I think there are circumstances where you can unlearn this tendency - in fact have to. I used to research the grammatical correlates of manual gestures accompanying the speech of adult bilinguals. In the early stages of this research, I found that in ordinary everyday conversations I was paying more attention to my interlocutor's hand movements than to what they were saying. Normally as listener-viewers we don't do this unless the movements are unusual in some specifiable way. But because of my selective attention, coupled with constantly shifting eye focus, I must have appeared not to be listening very hard. One can't go through life treating speech partners as convenient data-generators, however, and after a short time, I (and, I am assured, other gesture researchers) quickly return to 'normal'.

This seems to be typical of psychology students too. Most of them go through a period of seeing and interpreting every human action wherever and however they encounter it from a psychological perspective...thankfully this usually proves to be a phase.



"A little learning ...", etc. Gets us all!


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