Is God in the details?
I'll be referring to developments in digital photography but bear with me, it's about analog photography too... Lately it seems that HDR (high dynamic range) photography is sweeping the land. Without getting into the verboten digital details, HDR is about maximizing the detail in the low, mid and high tonal ranges by making multiple exposures and merging them. All well and good, surely, but I've been surprised to see that quite a few photographers whom I thought had good aesthetic sense have lately become enamoured of HDR with what I think are catastrophic results -- pictures so overloaded with detail that the eye simply gives up at first glance (at least mine does). I know that this is function of "if technology lets you do it, then it must be good" and the power of marketing and fad, but it's about something so central to photography and picture-making in general, namely composition and the handling of detail within a composition.
The "trouble with detail", if anything, is much more of a concern in the realm of "fine art" photography where the ability of B & W film to record fine detail as championed by Adams, Weston and a host of others is thought to be of artistic value in itself. It emphatically isn't. God is found not in the mass of details but in the well-chosen detail -- the pearl ear-ring of Vermeer's "Girl With A Pearl Ear-Ring", the breathless gap between the fingers of Michelangelo's God and Adam, the top-hat on the carriage driver of Steichen's "Flat-Iron Building".
Of course it's much easier to avoid making decisions and record everything indiscriminately. But composition is about discrimination and decisions. Great composition is about great decisions. I'll be watching with spread of HRD with trepidation.
Its the latest 'new toy'. Recently 'bokeh' was the buzzword, now it's HRD. It'll pass.
Anáil nathrach, ortha bháis is beatha, do chéal déanaimh.
A sharp, detailed photograph of a poorly chosen subject is still a bad photograph. Unless the camera club judge gives it an award.
A single main subject or a 'punctum' that defines the centre of your particular engagement with the photograph is the norm, and sometimes hardens to a rule, but it's not the only way, especially in as broad a topic as composition.
I have been inspired by abstract paintings and by the art of China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere in the Far East, all of which often lack a single main subject or centre of interest, and which can be filled from edge to edge with fine detail. For me, the distinction is between a photograph that shows a single thing or event, and one that shows a state of being or an environment.
For a canonical photographic example see Winogrand's "World Fair" bench.
excellently put, i totally agree
i've often thought the same thing in regard to more traditional/normal techniques such as split grade printing
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BTW, people (even in the digirealm) have started to catch on to the idea that wide-blur, low-intensity unsharp masking (and inverse masking) can recreate many of the tone mapping effects popular in "HDR" processing.
Unsharp masking is a rather old FILM technique that has been adapted to digi. You can still do it with film, though it's easiest with big negs because the alignment and registration is a real PITA.
(how it works, very roughly: if you make a blurred copy neg from a neg (use an enlarger or stat camera out of focus and 1::1 -- or make two copies, one sharp and one not), then sandwich them together, the areas where they are teh same - no detail - will be black. The areas where the blurred and focused images are different - the details - will let light through. Based on this you can start to use the mark (or its inverse) for burning and dodging.....)
Pardon my language, but I have always found the mindless rush to maximize detail (shadows, highlights, HDR, sharpness, resolution, larger format, larger enlargements, etc) somewhat of an anal fixation, a pissing contest, or a dick-size contest, depending on the mood I'm in.
It's not surprising, though. The Daguerreotype was (and still is) an incredible feat of detailed image technology. Can you believe the impact of the dag on people who seldom had any contact with images at all? Sometimes I have the impression that we want to re-create the daguerreotype's precision but we're not interested in doing it right, so we artificially squeeze all we can from other materials.
Having details is also like bureaucratic power. Think of the leader who has a humongous database of your each and every moves. What power lays hidden in such an amount of precise details! In photography, we can achieve something similar very easily. Some would call that the society of surveillance.
I think it also belies a certain fear of the world. By trying to capture so much detail at once, you are in fact refusing to make the effort of getting closer to your subject. If you can just take one big high-resolution picture of a crowd, and get away with selective blowups instead of taking portraits one by one, then you're not interested in engaging with your subject. That also reminds me of the rush from still photography to video: we would like to capture everything possible, and edit off-line instead of editing on-line.
In fact, I'm sure we would love to have a Google Earth that's updated in real time, replicating molecule for molecule what happens on the current Earth. That way, we could always rewind and freeze-frame everything that happens at any time.
Oh wait, that's what God (if she exists) is supposed to be able to do!
Using film since before it was hip.
"One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal
, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11
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I had HDR explained to me as trying to make digital do what film does already. Film already has a high dynamic range - that's why you can dodge and burn and splitgrade to your heart's content. Unfortunately, bad HDR looks kind of like a poor dodge&burn job with haloing etc. I have to be honest but that's what bugs me more about HDR-type photos than the details.
On the other hand, maybe this is why I find St. Ansel photos so awful. Most of his photos have far too much detail for me to like. I always thought it was purely the subject matter not interesting me but maybe it's a combination of that and the excessive detail.
somewhat offtopic question, is bokeh really just depth of field? Or do I just know dumb digiphotogs who use it as a synonym for depth of field? I could have sworn it was more specific to the lens and aperture than just "the fuzzy out of focus bit of the picture".
Strange really, for years most of us have been chasing detail via the purchase of ever more exotic glass, and hardware, bigger film and hang the expense, but now the digi-camp are trying to catch up it seems to be wrong. I wonder why?
This is one discussion I remember, (there are sure to be more!)
Originally Posted by Akki14
Have we though? I haven't. Probably those who were always into sharpness and detail (and all that) over everything else have simply transferred to digital as it offers them what they were always looking for...
Originally Posted by Dave Miller
HDR makes me think 'graphic art' more than anything else, landscapes seem more often than not like something out of 'Shrek' - though I have seen a very limited amount of excellent images that are doing more emotionally and spiritually than this. I guess there are too many people 'having a go' without really getting to grips with it as artists (is that a kind way of saying what I really think, which is that there is just too much digidross around on internet forums...)