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Friday, 19 June 2015


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Um, no, when it comes to aphorisms, snappiness trumps inclusive fair-mindedness every time. Stick with "OK"... ;)


I don't get it, most of my best photos are not technically correct. But they are aesthetically correct.

Yes. A guy in my old photoclub expressed it like:
"The technical quality does not matter, as long as it's perfect."

I might quarrel about perfection being important, but the sentiment is the same I believe.

I might say we need a technique which is good enough that it does not stand in the way of what we want to send to the viewer.

For example, maybe you said it, Mike, Ansel's Moonrise picture is not sharp. But it has not stopped it from become one of the most liked and famous in history.

There is often too much emphasis placed on technical matters, especially mere sharpness. Of course, it is important to know how to make sharp images (and I generally like my own pictures to be sharp), but content trumps technicals every time and the history of 20th century photography has many examples of great images which are technically weak in some way. I think we can all take heart from that.

I thought of rewording it myself, for punch:

Technique is where photography begins, not where it ends.

"Making a picture that's technically what you want is where photography begins, not where it ends."

And that first part is hard.

... which is probably why everyone worries so much about equipment!


Only took me about 30 years to get there. Now I can start having fun.

"Making a picture that's technically what you want is where photography begins, not where it ends."

And that first part is hard. - Moose

Of course it is. Achieving excellent technique is hard in all art forms, though I believe that if a person is a serious artist with a particular vision (Ralph Eugene Meatyard, for example) that photographic technique is perhaps more accessible than than that of any other art form. Given a D800, I think Meatyard could have made his photos with a couple hours of instruction, as long as he didn't get distracted by exploring the camera's potential.

Geniuses in other art forms (Cezanne) worked for years to achieve the necessary technique to do their work, as did dancers like Baryshnikov, singers like Callas, even pop bands like the Beatles, and so on. Photography also seems to me to be the only art form where a disaster can wind up being hailed as a masterpiece -- Capa's photo of D-Day soldiers in the water, shot hastily and then badly mishandled in the darkroom, to become one of the signature shots of WWII. As in photography, there are people in other art forms who become so obsessed by technique that they neglect to perform. Usually, though, that is widely recognized within the particular art form; people understand that performance is the key, not the technique, while in photography, that understanding is not so prevalent. IMHO.

I had a few more thoughts. For myself, one of the most important aspects of a photograph is how it reads. As long as the technical aspects don't inhibit the reading of it, the viewer won't care about the technique, the camera used or the minor front focus or deep shadow grain.

We may make images for ourselves. And we may hold these technical qualities close to our hearts (indeed, I am a perfectionist and it has taken me twenty years to let some of it go). But, ultimately, our images aren't just ours. We make up only half of the equation that breathes life into an image. The other half is the viewer. And a viewer will connect with an image faster, and more deeply if the technical aspects fade into the background.

I personally aim for acceptable focus, impeccable tones ( regardless of minor noise/grain) and loads of feeling. I have images in my portfolio from a 15 year old D30, a five year old 8mp cell phone (Gasp!) and a plethora of camera's marching through the last 15 years. My current portfolio doesn't showcase my Tri-X days, however.

Dear John,

Drifting with the topic…

About Capa's D-Day photos: what's going on here is that we're concatenating the two distinct functions of photography. The first is the one that Mike mostly writes about and that most of the readers here are interested in reading about–– photography as a craft and art form. The second is the primary function of photography in society, which is to preserve people's memories–– the reason the overwhelming majority of photographs get made. News photographs fall into the second category, it's just in this case they're preserving the collective memory rather than the individual memory. In those cases, the merit of the photograph doesn't lie in the technical craft but in the act of preservation. Many of the photographs we remember best from the last century are technically mediocre. That's fine. That wasn't their function. We remember them because the memories they evoke are significant to us.

And there are exceptions, of course; some of the great news photographs do rise to the level of high art, divorced from societal and historical context, and we honor those for that as well. But that's a lovely happenstance; it's not why they were made.

Drifting further… Capa's photographs were not mishandled in the darkroom. That turns out to be an intentional lie, promulgated by LIFE's London picture editor to preserve Capa's highly-orchestrated reputation as the Superman of war photographers. A.D. Coleman and J. Ross Baughman have written about this at some length. I'm familiar with it because Allan asked me to examine photographs of the surviving filmstrips and give him an expert opinion on the matter.

What I am absolutely, positively certain of is that the blank and overexposed frames are not the result of any kind of darkroom mishap. Not only was the promulgated lie not credible, on physical and chemical grounds, but if it had somehow (magically) been true, the strips of film would've looked very different from the way they looked. The factory-exposed edge and frame information, just one example, is sharp and clear down the lengths of the strips. If something had so badly damaged or destroyed the photographs Capa made, it would've also affected the edge imprinting..

Another telling bit of information is that the “surviving” frames are all at the beginning of the roll. (Capa's cameras could be used with reversed-wind, which is sensible in the field for a number of reasons, which results in the highest frame numbers being exposed first, and counting down from there.)

The correct answer is that Capa fucked up. I'm not competent to judge exactly how he did–– Coleman and Baughman do a good job of that. I can just attest that it was not a darkroom failure.

It's also a massive failure of ego. Working under those kind of conditions, any sane person would applaud Capa for coming back with ANYTHING. I think they're amazing photos, obtained under amazing conditions. But there was the whole legend-in-his-own-mind thing going, and admitting anything less than perfection was not on the table.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

Thanks for writing this, Mike. I have been thinking a lot about craft this week. I realized that I study the craft of photography for reasons that have nothing to do with my pictures. My real secret is that I study the craft because it makes me feel better. When life is tough, when I have weighty things to be concerned about, when some dismal event strikes our world, it is soothing to pretend that what is really important is wether I really need shallower depth of field. And the puzzles are interesting! Getting a feel for how Tessar lenses handle center sharpness versus edge sharpness is fascinating.

But the craft isn't why I take the pictures. I take the pictures because I am drawn to my special subjects, because I like those sorts of things, and i have the necessary artistic training to make something new from them. I am drawn to take pictures, but I am not driven to seek perfection.

If DSLRs hadn't been so bulky and expensive when I returned to photography, I don't know that I would have spent so much time on learning the technology. All I really needed was a compact 35mm-e, an 85mm-e, and a decent kit zoom.

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