The Eye and the Hand - Photography and Technique

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by bjorke, Dec 19, 2003.

  1. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    I'm short-circuiting part of another thread (http://www.apug.org/site/main/viewtopic.php?t=2602&highlight=) because it's strayed quite far from its initial charter.

    Photography inherently operates in two conceptual arenas -- those of the viewer and the photographer. The photographer sees something (in his viewfinder or imagination) that leads to the creation or recognition of the photo before presentation, the viewer only sees the photo. Both pairs of eyes are involved. But the photographer must also somehow MAKE the photo -- must set his or her hand to the task.

    The viewer rarely sees the hand of the photographer, so it's often a forgotten aspect. But I think it was Winogrand who once said something like "without the eye, there are no good photographs. But without the hand there are no photographs."

    In the previous thread, it's been asserted that there have been great photographers whose mastery of technique -- the process of picture making -- was on minor importance in their work. This has been challenged (rightly, imo) by Michael Smith and some others. Requests for examples of such photographers have not been forthcoming, and I personally don't think they will be, It seems so simple to me: if you lack the ability to make photographs to some standard level (you may have a personal definition of this, but you need to control your process to some extent), then you simply won't make photographs.

    - - - - - -

    For the sake of illustration, the best example of "anti-technical" I can think of right now is probably Nikki S. Lee (one dealer URL here: http://www.tonkonow.com/lee.html). Lee doesn't take her photos, they're snapped by passerby using point & shoots. Or in the case of "the yuppie project," by a hired portraitist (in a manner similar to Parr's "Autoportraits"). Yet ask yourself -- could these images have been made another way with the same impact? Would they have been made this way, with such obvious care and deliberation, without a very keen and specific knowledge about the feel that such snaps have, and a specific technical notion about how to acheive the correct desired look?

    Even as they seem on the surface to reject technical considerations, they are in fact the product of a very specific technical agenda. Lee may not be a great printer, maybe she never touched an SLR (unlikely, given her NYU and FIT photography degrees), but she had a very specific notion about how to technically acheive those particular images, and the subtle signifiers of vernacular photography that they would carry. As an example of "untechnique," Lee fails. Instead her work is technically precise and formal, hewing close to a very specific genre who technical considerations are narrowly defined.

    Any other better examples?
     
  2. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    As in the last thread I think we cam get bogged down with examples.

    To use an anology.

    If you don't speak English, you couldn't be Shakespeare. You must first learn the language, the rules of the language, the nuances of the language then you can begin to speak it. You may only progress to be able to say a limerick or two or you may go all the way to being Shakespeare.

    To play the piano you need to know some basics. You can't write a song without that knowledge. You can't play a song without that knowledge. Even if self taught, play by ear, whatever the basic knowledge needs to be there. If you want to play chopsticks or Jazz, or Chopin or Billy Joel.

    You can't be a dancer until you know how to walk. First you crawl, then walk then move with some rhythm then you dance. Maybe like your brother in law or maybe like Fred Astaire.

    In my opinion without the language, which is the craft of the medium, you can't go far. You will be an unfulfilled talent.


    Just my over expressed opinion.



    Michael McBlane
     
  3. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Actually, in the last thread the examples were not actually to be found.

    I've yet to see any example of someone who made more than one generally-interesting photograph who didn't end up putting effort into craft. That especially includes the toy camera fetish club.

    Oddly, no one ever confuses playing the piano with playing the radio.
     
  4. georgep

    georgep Member

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    To be free of technique is to master technique. A lack of mastery gets in the way, or limits, expression. It is not an either/or situation. It is not a matter of saying which is more importrant. Both are necessary and what I embrace is an integration of seeing and the skills to present that seeing.

    When I was in college I studied both art and music and it was amazing to me the differences. In a music class, the teacher would play a (unknown)melody on the piano and the students had to write out in musical notation what the teacher played (by hearing the notes, not by seeing the hands on the piano). This was part of ear training. Now either you could do it or you couldn't (well there is a continuum I guess...like you might get the first few notes, or all of it, or none of it). Basically, either you had the skills to hear and recognize the intervals between notes, remember them, and write them down in musical notation, or you did not have those skills. It was an objective, measurable skill that had nothing to do with thoughts or feelings. You could not fake it in the music class like you could in the painting class.

    Can you imagine a musician without technical skills? Are the technical skills everything? Of course not; the technical skills are a means to an end, expression. When a musician has mastered the technical part of it, she or he can focus on expression. When the technical skills are not mastered, the focus is on technique. Is sloppy playing intended to be sloppy playing or is it sloppy playing by default?

    If I have a vision I want to express, I don't want to compromise that expression, or make it harder on myself to share that expression, because of technical weakness.
     
  5. dr bob

    dr bob Member

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    It is heart rending to hear a musician who exhibits abilities but who lacks technical skills. It is equally uncomfortable to sit through a recital by persons who have acquired the technical abilities but who lack the internal fire and emotion. One can be taught the other cannot. It is sort of like the parable of the talents: use them. Improve on them or loose. I see a direct parallel to photography.

    Since retirement from the world of engineering research, I have fallen back on an old love – music. Now I am a semi-professional singer (tenor). Semi- means that I often volunteer as needed in certain situations. The point is: I have heard musicians, of all ages, perform. Many have excellent technical ability but lack the ability to give the listener an emotional response. Their music remains technically perfect but there is no heart or soul. Then there are some who intimate capabilities but who are untrained. Some of these will go forward to obtain the training and will become well founded musicians. I notice this in many jazz (read: music other than “classical”) musicians. You wish, hope, they will study but many will not. I am probably a good example of the latter. Ignoring two music scholarships. I chose engineering as a career. Regrets? No. Well, maybe, but I do eat regularly and well. 

    I “hear” music in most photographs and in all “good” ones.
     
  6. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    Each in your own way, you guys have said it all. There is nothing to add.
     
  7. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    I understand your reasoning here ... I would suggest that *very* few learn English, or any other language in their formative years by first learning the "rules", the nuances, the shades of meaning. I do not think that the one or two year old - has in fact, any concept of structure. I've found, In studying other languages, that it is much easier to learn a phrase, as a whole, than to struggle with rules and syntax. True, the study and understanding of the "way it all hangs together" CAN be helpful... but I am forced to wonder if Shakespeare really did have a microscopically clear understanding of English or if he was more focused on the CONTENT -- (everyone may cringe... but add "emotion"). As an aside ... English itself was a relatively "new" language in Shakespeare's time ... and not that far from the first written examples.

    I'll try to clarify ... an abbreviated "Lesson Plan" (mine):

    1. Take your cameras and DO something with them. What ... is up to you.

    2. We will now process the film, and see whether or not you got what you wanted.

    3. We will now evaluate the results .. which images did you want that did not "turn out right" ... why they did not... and what we can do to fix them (the last is most important and has the most emphasis).

    The first consideration here is the VISION. I do not try to influence the "WHAT to take... ever. My goal is to support and NURTURE each individual vision. That aesthetic sense will change at its own speed and level of refinement. The student will look at things differently ... without any conscious help from me. Their vision is to me, sacred and untouchable.

    The technical matters "follow". Suprisingly, the most common error I've found is that the students usually do not set the ISO film speed correctly on their cameras... so there are exposure considerations, grade of paper selection or dichroic filter settings in enlarging ...

    That is what I mean by "primary" and "secondary" areas of interest.

    Others will argue that there is a "better" way, that first one should (or "must") learn the "mechanics" of the equipment and processes ... only then will they be able to be effective as photographers. Many have learned just that way ... But I would suggest that, as in studying language, it takes far more time and is less efficient -- the instances of successes along the way are far fewer - and it is a lot "tougher on the bodies and minds" of the students.
     
  8. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    Ed,

    Your approach is exactly what I always did when I taught beginning classes. It would be insane to learn all the technical stuff first--it would take all the joy out of it. If someone is serious they will eventually want to learn the technical stuff in order to better communnicate their vision. And eventually, if one is to amount to anything as a photographer, you must have the technical stuff you need for your vision down cold. There are no exceptions. It has to be automatic, second nature, so that it doesn't require any thought at all.
     
  9. noblebeast

    noblebeast Member

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    It has been interesting watching this debate evolve - first at the other thread and now here. It is also interesting how often music comes up as an analogy. Here's one of my favorite anecdotes that kinda sums up the whole question of technique versus innate vision (the debate also points out that although many of us work in "black & white" we tend to think in "black OR white," ignoring the many shades of gray that give our photos their character):

    This is usually attributed to the great Jazz musician, Charlie Parker. Once a young musician asked him, "To play Jazz, what chords should I learn? What scales? What modes?"

    Charlie Parker replied, "Learn it all - then forget it and just play."

    Intrestingly, from my vantage point as a message board lurker, this is essentially what both Michael and Ed are saying. The conflict seems to be that they have arrived at the intersection from different streets.

    And while still in a musical setting, I personally have experienced someone with absolutely no consciousness whatsoever regarding technique who was able to play beautifully. I worked with developementally delayed adults, and encountered this one man who in the terms used then was considered an Autistic Savant. He could sit down at the piano and play any song he had ever heard, even if he had only heard it once thirty years ago. The strange and remarkable thing was he would actually imbue his performance with dynamics and emotion - a tremendous rarity for someone with his particular disabilities. All of the other individuals I have met with similar "roadblocks" were able to do some amazing things, but in a robotic fashion.

    So it can happen, though granted, this was a highly unusual circumstance, and it did not involve photography (though the fact that he was blind would have made for an interesting experiment!)
     
  10. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    Who was it that said, "Thirty percent of the world's greatest photographs are nothing more than fortunate mistakes."?

    I have a copy of "Edward Weston - Forms of Passion" ... one of the most highly prized books in my library.
    Interesting information about Weston here .. his "being" and the way he influenced, and was influenced by photography.
    In 1930 he produced a photograph that was critically acclaimed: "Egg Slicer, 1930", page 167. He wrote about that photograph in his "Daybooks, II, 197": ..."the egg slicer, one of my worst".
    What does one do when the critics *love* your work ... and you consider it to be one of your worst?.

    One of my greatest, if not *THE* greatest, interest in the *study* of photography is in the "being" (-so many labels could be applied .. "soul", "spirit" , "psyche ...) of the photographer. Weston was a vegetarian, an archer, ... he loved to dance - he "positively reveled in it" ... he regarded the body as the motive as well as the motifs of his work, "Its urgent rythms and attendant transformations providing a springboard."

    ... And the end result presented to us - is his work. An understanding of the underlying factors can enhance our understanding - and certainly will influence our interpretation of his work ... although, of all photographers that I am familiar with, his will "stand alone" more than any other.

    Knowing that he was a vegetarian, for example, and "saw" female forms in his vegetables - leads me (us?) to a view of his work from a different vantage point...

    I don't try to "copy" his work ... that is not possible ... but I am positive that somewhere inside - in my preconscious - it does have an influence.
     
  11. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Not sure, but it's funny how many of those "mistakes" were made by pros, don't you think? (Wasn't it Thomas Jefferson who said "the harder I work, the luckier I get"?)

    (And do you include work that deliberately invokes chance, like that of Philip di Lorca-Corcia?)("Corky Lorky" among a few of my friends -- see this URL: to see a recent London Corky outing (with a couple of hangers-on from Denmark): http://www.botzilla.com/photo/corky2/ (and yes, those ones are d*****l, which is why I don't post them here))
     
  12. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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  13. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

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    Personally, I learned 'proper' technique so that I could forget about technique completely. To me, the best thing technique can do is to get out of the way of the image. Poor technique can break an image, but good technique can rarely make an image.

    Slightly off topic, it's funny how many photographers are / were musicians. You can count me among them -- I began playing the piano 27 years ago at age three. I am absolutely incapable of creating a successful print in the darkroom without music (of some sort) playing. It draws me into the creative process.
     
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  15. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    I am absolutely incapable of creating a successful print in the darkroom with music (of any sort) playing.

    Remarkable how we all use various different tools to get to the same place.
     
  16. doughowk

    doughowk Subscriber

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    Great pictures can be taken by amateurs devoid of talent & by great photographers. We can thank Kodak, Polaroid & digital cameras for that leveling achievement. I'm reminded of Auggie in movie Smoke who takes a picture of same view same time every day. Occasionally, he'll be lucky in capturing an interesting moment - kind'a like monkeys with typewriters creating a sonnet. Same technique used by fashion photographers - use up enough film with an attractive model and you might get one or two good pictures. Now, we can use a digicam, separate the images, & find a valuable image. Is this photography or more the recognition of value within a pile of rubbish. I don't think that finding the occasional gem among many mistakes can be used to prove that we should avoid or downplay the learning of technique.
     
  17. Joe Lipka

    Joe Lipka Member

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    The quote that 30% of your photographs will be lucky accidents is by Brooks Jensen. Originally in LensWork, volume 1 #4 (December 1993). it is reprinted in the current volume, #50.
     
  18. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    One other example of "Carpe Errata" (will someone fluent in Latin correct this - "Seize the Error"?) - from a rumored darkroom incident. The "Sabby" referred to here is Sabbatier:

    Man Ray: "Dammit, Sabby, the red light!! Don't just walk into the darkroom with the red light on ...!!!
    Aiiee!!! ... and I'm developing a print ... well, let's see what happened before I toss this one ..."
     
  19. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    I tried to respond once before -- but something happened??

    I won't argue the point. Ansel Adams said this (quoted?) in his Video Tape tape at our local library. I'm not sure of the title - I'll visit the Library and look it up when I get a chance.

    Interesting tape. It shows St. Ansel drying prints in a microwave oven to "sidestep" the "dry-down" effect.
     
  20. lee

    lee Member

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    It shows St. Ansel drying prints in a microwave oven to "sidestep" the "dry-down" effect.

    Is he trying to sidestep or test the "dry-down" effect?

    I seem to recall that he was testing the time for the dry-down so it would not ruin the prints he was doing.

    Am I remembering this correctly?

    le\c
     
  21. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    Lee,

    My memory coincides with yours. I have always heard that to be a quick way to dry a print to determine dry down percentage. I believe that dry down is a factor no matter how the print is dryed.
     
  22. lee

    lee Member

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    thanks I thought I was remembering correctly. I did that when the wife was not at home to do my tests for the different papers. No telling how much trouble I would have been in if she knew I had used HER microwave for photo testing. hehehe

    lee\c
     
  23. doughowk

    doughowk Subscriber

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    If I accidentally spilled a cup of coffee on a washed portrait image & discovered I liked its effect, is this a case of fortuitious accident or more a reflection on my not having learned various toning techniques? You can discover new techniqes, as with Man Ray example, in order to work at the edges of a medium; or you can work well within the medium's limitations. A posture of naivette may only result in repeating past failures, whereas a knowledge of existing techniques may enable you to transcend them. Creativity without knowledge is a crapshoot (and I shoot enough crap already).
     
  24. Les McLean

    Les McLean Subscriber

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    I use a dry down factor when making prints and can confirm that it does not change with the method of drying. What does change on some papers is the print colour, it usually is warmer (in colour not temperature!) when dried quickly in the microwave.
     
  25. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    Whoo .. did this get complicated. Ansel went to his kitchen with a newly made, wet print. He tore the print in two .. saying it was too large to fit in the microwave .. placed it in the oven, set the thing off (one minute on "high" .. or something like that), took it out, said that it "looked good", and returned to his darkroom to make another, final print.

    Adams was a "fine" printer -- I have absolutely *no* doubt about that, but I have to wonder if he was so super-methodical as some people imagine him to be.

    There is one sequence where he exposes film in a polaroid back, neglecting to remove the lens cap. He pulled the print, waited, stripped it... and found a completely black image. "Well", he said, "This is an example of Zone X"...

    Interesting tape ... Georgia O'Keeffe provides some of the narrative.
     
  26. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    As I recall, in Adams' book The Print he addresses the dry down effect. This was related as based upon his experience of relying on his assessment of a number of prints that he printed one evening. He left them to dry overnight thinking they were properly printed. He found the values depressed in the morning after they had dried.

    I imagine that this was a lesson that he remembered, certainly had remembered to include it in his text. I would think that he was fairly methodical in his efforts. Certainly was methodical about his "emergence factor" as an attempt to achieve similar printing results in consideration of developer temp fluctuations and depletion. Did these experiences make him more methodical? Who knows...he certainly is not present to say one way or the other.

    Based on Ed's recounting of the non-exposure of the Polaroid material Ansel certainly appears to be not consistant since that would have been Zone 0 rather then Zone X.