Tell the story or ask the question?

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Donald Miller, Feb 10, 2004.

  1. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    This will probably be a matter that many of you have considered and resolved for yourself. For that reason, I will share with you what my recent thoughts and considerations regarding photography and it's application as an art form.

    For many years photography has been to me a matter of "telling a story" whether that be the depiction of a mountain stream, a stand of aspens, a waterfall, or even an old building. I worked hard at refining technique to provide the tonal range that I envisioned as being "appropriate". As I critique my images today I find that they were mostly about "things".

    Some years ago I encountered the work of Brett Weston...to be quite honest I initially was put off by the empty blacks that he printed in some of his images. More recently I encountered the work of Edward Weston at a showing in Fort Worth, Texas. Once again I was put off by the heaviness with which those images were printed. In fact I commented on this with some others privately.

    I have come to a point recently of recognizing that there was something inherently captivating to me about the images of both of these photographers. I also found that same ingredient was involved in the work of Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee, in my experience. It took me awhile to sort out what that ingredient was.

    What I have come to realize is that rather then telling a story by photographing "things" the images of the photographers that I have mentioned are asking me a question. They are addressing the nature of things as opposed to the thing itself. That is what draws me into their images. There is an inherent sense of "mystery" involved with these images. In other words they tell me only "part of the story" to paraphrase Paul Harvey.

    This sense of mystery is conveyed with the empty blacks of Brett Weston, the heavy printing of Edward Weston, and the complex visual images of Michael and Paula.

    To me when I look at an Adams landscape...I am initially struck by the beauty of the image...but I am not captivated in the same way. Maybe this is a personal thing but for myself I think that I will begin attempting to depict the "mystery" of life. To begin to capture the nature of "things" that I have failed to observe before, to ask the questions that I have not taken the time to formulate.

    I would appreciate your comments about this.
     
  2. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    Excellent analysis. More people should ask themselves just what it is that they are trying to accomplish with their photography.

    I too find AA's images while "pretty" are generally devoid of any intellectual stimulation beyond the technical considerations of making the image. Although one must keep in context the motivation for his photography. Initially it was to showcase the beauty of nature so the conservationists could use his images as ammunition in their efforts to save the parks or establish new ones. For this he was successful.

    On the other hand Weston's images showed in my opinion a far deeper intellectual analysis and representation of a message. His type of "pre-visualization" was much different and again in my opinion much deeper than AA's. Weston went beyond the shear mechanics.

    Eric
     
  3. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    Thanks so much, Don.

    I have put it this way. I am not photographing things, but the relationships between things.

    I have also referred to photographs as rhythmic events.

    Wrote this here a long time ago: (quoting my former wife, who is a painter): "Art is about space. Illustration is about things."
     
  4. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    Donald,

    Would you please adapt your theory to photographs of people and portraits and elaborate.

    Is a successful portrait, in your opinion, about telling a story or asking a question, or both?

    As for your appraisal of AA et all, I think that early on, in our endevours, we see certain things, and as we progress in ability and in years we begin to appreciate other things. Something that is apparent to you now, may not be apparent of even interesting to someone who is younger in this hobby or in years.

    Maybe something like music. Classical music is in this country, is perhaps an acquired taste. Younger people don't usually appreciate it for one thing, another is that to them, their music is a way to distance themselves from their parents and an older generation, a way to declare their independence, so to speak. A form of cutting the umbelical cord.

    Perhaps newer people to photography are so overwhelmed that they can only work on a more superficial level and are not yet ready for the overloaded or complex experience that you talk about.


    Michael MCBlane
     
  5. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Perhaps Michael it depends on the viewer.

    Several years ago, the big perennial "Leica Manual" has a section on Ralph Gibson, in which he said that some photographs are highly-specific, while others show the human form in the role of a non-specific everyman -- and that the photos he prefered were those in the region between, the threshhold from the specific to the universal.
    • [list:15da66d907][list:15da66d907][list:15da66d907][​IMG]
    [/list:u:15da66d907][/list:u:15da66d907][/list:u:15da66d907]For my own photographs, I'm sometimes perplexed by comments from viewers who say they "agree" with the photo. Beats me what they see stated there.
     
  6. victor

    victor Member

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    don...
    i like your post very much. if u think this way, just use this perioud and implemante things that comes in your mind. i mean in makeing photography. u will totaly benefit fromit. it may be not eassy to go further and beyound, to build or rebuild, but it worth to try it, especially when u talk in the mood i here in your comment.
    about hte blacks u talk in b.westons works and the heavy prints in e.westons... and u can give more examples like old steiglitz with okeefe or more modern ralph gibson...
    well, we take things like "symbols" and we assosiate it with something. in the case u talk the blaks that leads our visual experiance from that print to some mystery in our feeling. we create codes. that is art.
    read my topic in this form about "principles of photography as art form" - i gave there an epistemological account and its possible outcomes on the level of our coscious behaviour. sorry if it is a bit difficult to read.
     
  7. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

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    I think a great portrait makes you think in some way. It may tell a story. It may ask a question. It may simply spark an emotion -- any emotion, depending on the viewer's perspective and experiences. A great portrait goes deeper than face value (literally).
     
  8. victor

    victor Member

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    bjorke..

    in saying that, gibson simulates in greatest way one of the most mysterios mental confussions of ours (the human mind). the tention between the singularity and the universality. the tention between the substance and the idea. this is great photography. i agree with gibson and with u.
    this is not a simple tention. it is in our mind. no im not rite. this is the way our mind behaves. i think that half of my phd in philosophy deals with this issue. u know... when i refer to a singular i cannot talk. when i talk of it i talk of it in terms of "universals" and then i loose the essense of that singularity. im trying to give some explanations to this behaviour of ours, with it im trying to find within our conscious behaviour the loyalty to each of the sides. metodologically, the point is to be concentrated on the tention itself. all this is good teoretically. the research is even useful in some fields of phycology, but i have to say that this tention between the singular and universal is a true joy.
     
  9. Francesco

    Francesco Member

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    I hone my techniques to help in my visualisation of shapes around me so that together vision and technique become a reflex, an extentions of my own eyes, in order to find harmony in things around me. For me a great photograph evokes feelings of harmony and elegance somehow - these two traits being simultaneously technical and emotional.
     
  10. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    Michael,

    In the form of portraiture what I addressed could be both. However to be a successful portrait I think that the photographer must have an enquiring mind into the nature of his subject. He must be posing questions about the subject before him, if only at a subliminal level. His/her skill comes more from the connection that occurs from this point of enquiry then it does from the ability to regulate and control lighting, determine exposure, or print the negative. When he/she takes the time and has the interest...something of great moment occurs.
     
  11. Alex Hawley

    Alex Hawley Member

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    "They are addressing the nature of things as opposed to the thing itself."

    Yes, I agree this is the way to do it. Now, if I could just Do it myself.

    Portraits? Take a look at Karsch's; Eisenhower and Churchill come to mind. Now there's DETERMINATION and bright intellect in those faces. You can FEEL it. Einstein comes off as the intellectual he was; rumpled, kind, thoughtful. But he doesn't have the soldier's determination of the other two; he never was a soldier. How did Karsch get these subtleties on film?

    I recently saw an Adams that I really liked; Mt Williamson. A good use of backlighting and geometry. I think most people are attracted to it just because of the 16x20 size. Would it be so popular if it was confined to an 8x10 print?

    The longer I stay in photography, the more I see that Adams missed.
     
  12. Francesco

    Francesco Member

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    Same here. I used to like looking at Clyde Butcher's book and website now all I FEEL is sloppy exposure, development and printing. One I used to neglect is one I now keep on looking at - Jay Dusard. Simply elegant. I feel that Jay Dusard cares for his photographs.
     
  13. lee

    lee Member

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    Francesco,
    Jay Dusard is my inspiration also. He is without a doubt one of the best imagemakers I have seen.

    lee\c
     
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  15. Sean

    Sean Admin Staff Member Admin

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    I think there are other levels of photographic expression not mentioned here. I photograph based on my emotions, meaning if it moves me in every way I try to capture it. Because of this I'm able to leave a collection of images behind that in a way show the world who I was. I don't usually set out to tell a story, ask questions, or explore objects. I simply set out to find things that move all of my emotions at once, if it can do that, then to me it's a winner. I've always felt like that is how AA photographed. When looking at many of his images I can imagine him behind the camera flooded with emotion, it's like I can almost feel what he felt at that very moment. Maybe there needs to be a new word to describe that feeling when all of your emotions ignite at once? That's the magic moment in my photography. Sort of hard to put to words.
     
  16. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    *Very* close to the way I work, Sean.

    I think the most profound statement I've seen in a while is here:

    "Because of this I'm able to leave a collection of images behind that in a way show who I was".

    Well said. I cannot hope for more in my work.
     
  17. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    I like what you have said here a great deal. Perhaps what the comments you mention may be interpreted as is "I relate to the photo." For a photographer that would seem to be a compliment of the highest magnitude.

    It is interesting that Ralph Gibson has said what seems to be the same thing that I understood Paula Chamlee to say in her interview in B&W magazine. I quote from that publication.

    " Although I view things on the ground glass as if they were abstractions, I'm always drawn first by something very recognizable and specific before I set up my camera," explains Chamlee. "My photographs are on a fine line between recognizable subject matter and total abstraction. Usually I am looking at and responding to the tonal arrangements of things. For me the photograph must reach beyond depicting reality of subject matter and touch a resonant chord through it's abstracted arrangement of space and form".

    It is interesting that as I become more aware the same message consistantly seems to be delivered from many different sources.
     
  18. Thomassauerwein

    Thomassauerwein Member

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    Don and company, I wish I had time right now to pipe in on this one. The best thread we 've had in a while. As a painter and a fine art photgrapher, The two mediums have flushed out one common denoniminater for me that I was slow to learn. Every concept has an education hidden within it about the world being created. each image has things to teach and understand before they make sense enough to complete. This I think is what creates the residual mystery for both the creater and the veiwer. From different perspectives of course but the same none the less. I hope this thread is still going in a couple days so I can join in but for now it's back to work.
     
  19. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    All great photographs have aspects of both the particular and the universal. One can only photgraph particulars, not universals. but if there is not a universal resonance, the photograph is only about the thing photographed and does not resonate with those not familiar with that specific subject matter. It is the universal resonance through the particular that is why the viewer relates strongly to it. True for all subject matter, subjects included.

    Now for makers: how do you get that universal in there when you are only photographing something particular? You see space, as well as the things you are photographing. (With portraits, you also see expression, but if the space is not right, you won't get it.)

    Space has to do with the relationship of everything in the photogaph to everything else.
     
  20. victor

    victor Member

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    michael...
    read my two last posts here, im talking about the conection about the singular and universal. u dont have to photograph universal. they have no ontological existance (not in my opinion) so u cannot see them. universals are our mental creation whenever we think. if be percept something - that is singular, but if we "think about it, talk about it than we relate to those singulars in terms of universals. there is no other way to think but by the universals (properties, generalizations etc etc.). wehn u see the expression of human for example... what do i see... only the expression. i see the person, i sense the atmospher, but than u call it "happy" "sad" "paasionate" etc etc, u difine it by the universals. if some person is "sad" for example, u cannot feel his sadness. u recognize it by the physiology, and then by realte it to "sadness" upon your expiriance in life. from here u only can asosiate that sadness with something from your memory wether with particular memory of yours or some memory of that sense. the sense "of sadness" it can rize itself to and then u can feel some compation or solidarity etc. the conection of the singularity and universal is an mental act. when we see the singular case by image or by verbal story etc, this mental act is a part of our imidiate interpretation.
    in reality, we behave this way (the mental behaviour of linking singular to universal) so naturally that we hardly can distinguish between them. we are not normally conscious with this behaviour itself. normally, we are conscious of what we think and not how we think.
     
  21. dr bob

    dr bob Member

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    “Question or answer?” That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to present enriching information to a viewer or display an image requiring the observer to make their own interpretation? Hmm….

    Some personal details follow – skip if you please. I love a mystery. My former life was devoted to the solving of puzzles of various types. Most involved concentrated effort, but were non the less gratifying. I suppose that is why I attempt to convey some sense of mystery in my prints.

    Prints that bring questions to my mind seem the more interesting to me personally. “What is in those black shadows?” “What is around the corner?” When will the storm overtake the artist” “What is ‘for dinner’ in that house on the hill with the light burning in the window?” “What is the model thinking?” “What will that mischievous child do after the shutter closes?”

    Yes, I am definitely entrenched in the “question” camp.
     
  22. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    Michael,

    I think that as I view Edward Weston's, Brett Weston's, Paula's, and your photographs that the universal (which to me carries a spiritual connotation) is what is addressed but by virtue of what is not seen. In your work that is represented by space. Your language is expressing a relationship between the particular and the universal.

    In the images of Edward Weston this seems to be expressed in the relationship between light and shadow, in the images of Brett Weston we are even more graphically involved with form as light and shadow.
    I think that the result is the same in each of these examples. I, the viewer, of the image am allowed the experience of contemplation of the "unseen" but nevertheless "ever present". This may not occur for all at a conscious level but the opportunity is there for all nevertheless.

    It is interesting to me that as I examine eastern philosophies/spiritual disciplines, there is clear language that addresses this same dichotomy. However the comparison is most usually expressed in the terms of "form and void". This correlates very closely to me of your observance of "particular and universal" and also your comparison of "thing and space".

    In the ancient language of the Tao De Ching I find an interesting passage. "Ever desiring one sees the manifestations, ever desireless one observes the mystery".
     
  23. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    In Brett and Edward's work, they use light very differently than I do, but what is at the heart of it is space. Always space--the interplay of deep and shallow space, the flatness of the picture plane against the three dimensionality of the real world--and the relationship of each thing in the picture to each other--in space. This is true no matter what the light, what the subject, how abstract looking or how realistic.

    "Ever desiring one sees the manifestations, ever desireless one observes the mystery". Interesting quote, Don. I do not know Eastern thought well, but this goes along with what I have been saying about the print being a bonus--the key thing is the experience. In other words, just go photographing with the idea that you will have a deep experience, not that you have to come back with a "winner." The winners will be there. Don't have worry about that at all.
     
  24. GreyWolf

    GreyWolf Member

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    I find myself in full agreement with Cheryl and also Sean on this topic.

    When viewing the gallery I am always drawn towards the portraits that Cheryl composes and presents. There seems to be an element that lures a person into the composition when a portrait is taken. I do not have the words to explain this but I feel it and seem to dwell on the expression or character being depicted.

    I guess the most interesting part of this thread is that it is quite obvious we each have a different outlook. Our tastes and appreciations are our own which are neither better nor worse than anyone else...just different.

    I guess that is what makes photography such a wonderful adventure.

    Kind Regards,
     
  25. Alex Hawley

    Alex Hawley Member

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    Ahhh, and this is a KEY point.

    Now, go to one of the other BIG photo websites and see how the "Top Winners" all sort of look the same - and that the same group of photogs seems to always be in that top bunch - and anyone else mimics what they do - because that's the winning formula that gets you up in that Top Weener club. (What was it that John Lennon sang about Instant Karma?)

    I guess that's one thing that drew me to the large format community. Differences are still valued as they here in the APUG community.
     
  26. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    I certainly don't contend that the choices that I proposed were the only ingredient that produces an enduring and expressive photograph. Taking Cheryl's images, which I also like, what is that ingredient? Is it the fact that she connects with her subject? Is it the fact that she cares about her subject? Is it that her interest in her subject is genuine?

    I am asking these questions because I also recognize this quality...what is the ingredient that separates her images from a portrait at Sears or Walmart?

    I recognize that photographs of "things" whether that is a person, a still life or a static landscape is not where it is at. I don't care how well they are lit, how well the scene was previsualized, or how well it was printed. It is still an empty and meaningless "thing". What takes an image out of that arena? What is it that transmits the "nature of the thing"?