Photography only became a fulfilling endeavor to me when I stopped trying to tell a story with it. To me, the only thing which has meaning is the image itself, and it has nothing to do with the subject. Edward Weston's pictures of urinals, bedpans, dead pelicans and beach detritus are just as compelling, and maybe more importantly, just as beautiful as his pictures of his lovers' nude bodies or the cypress trees and succulents of Point Lobos. When I used to read Weston's famous quote: "Composition is the strongest way of seeing" (perhaps I'm off a little, but you all know the quote) I always wanted to say to him: "Yeah, we know that. Please tell us something we don't know, like how to do it."
Originally Posted by bjorke
Since one of photography's masters showed me how to do it, I no longer bristle intellectually when I hear that quote; I'm actually comforted by it now. In fact, I believe he failed to go far enough. He should have said: "Composition is the only way of seeing". After all, if you leave anything to chance in a photograph, how much do you really care about it? As Michael Smith is always so fond of reminding us, the photographer is responsible (such an important word) for every square millimeter of image area, just as a composer is responsible for every note in a musical composition. A superb demonstration of this concept is a careful listening to Mahler's 10th Symphony. Mahler wrote a piano score to all five movements. He then completely orchestrated the first movement (Adagio) and the third movement (Purgatorio). Then he died. Legions of musical scholars and composers have attempted orchestrations of the other three movements, and there are recordings of some good performing version out now of the whole symphony. But you can always hear the touch of the master's hand in the 1st and 3rd movements, and not in the others. He left nothing to chance and made every movement uniquely his own.
So, how much of the composition in a portrait is the result of what I did, and how much of it is the result of a caprice of nature? A blink, a flickering scowl, a child's unexpected fidget-all these can ruin the most carefully composed portrait. But even more to the heart of the matter-a portrait, by definition, says something about the subject, especially environmental portraits. How do you compose that? To reveal the subject, the subject must present something of him/herself to the photographer, automatically limiting the photographer's compositional choices. And when you do find a compelling image, its evanescent nature almost guarantees that you can't capture it. By the time you push the button it's gone. Surely portraiture is the most difficult photography.
(Written at 31,000 feet, somewhere over Oregon)
Originally Posted by c6h6o3
A fascinating and somewhat surprising response, confirming my suspicions about a conflict between intent and effect but from a point much further down the “form” end of the “content vs form” axis than I had expected (by that I mean using the body as parts of an image element first and foremost, as opposed to using image elements as a means to bolster representation. No photograph or image is ever 100% at either endpoint of this axis!). Maybe I should have suspected as much given your classicist LF leanings and distaste for Garry Winogrand… yet portraitists like Sturges and Nixon also work with big negs. Your examples of Weston’s people are rather impersonal so it’s not surprising that they would lose in a character contest against, say, a rock or a bit of gnarled-up kelp.
(Aside to Michael: in this case the choices for definition of “portrait,” while fuzzy, have been reduced, as previously written: a portrait made by choice of the photographer, rather than a third party (including the subject). So while I get your point about self-anxiety, at the same time a certain amount of artistic hand-wringing is perhaps justified. As Rob’t Frank wrote in his Guggenheim application, it can seem embarrassing to want to accomplish so much – but how else to justify all the work and frustration?)
The other night Courtney & I went to see Sebastiao Salgado at UC Berkeley and during the conversation Salgado said that even in extremely remote cultures, cultures without the media saturation to which we are all accustomed, people have an innate notion of how to behave for the camera. My own read on that is that almost everyone treats the camera (or person holding the camera) socially – as opposed to privately. As Darwin (then later Klineberg, and most recently Ekman) has shown, expressions of emotion are largely innate and inherited, without regard to culture or social situation— the later researchers elaborated on how emotional inner states are moderated by cultural norms when in a social context. That is, everyone has the same response to, say, something unpleasant, but that every culture also has different ideas about how to handle that expression when other people are around. Once learned, these social masks are hard to remove.
I think that what is often described as "penetrating" or "insightful" portraiture is what we get when the photographer manages to catch a moment when the displayed inner state, whatever it may be, most-closely corresponds to the outer state – that the subject’s body (including the face) is most like what it would be alone, or with a trusted private confidante. For someone within our same culture, the telltale signs of the social mask are as evident as are the genuine underlying emotions. For photographs of people outside our culture, the masks may still be there but we might not be able to read them — their variation may give us (the impression of) a more revealing glance.
I suspect this may also be why children tend to photograph so well – their learned, adult expressions have yet to dominate their raw emotional connectedness. They are always "candid" – that is, unguarded. In the state so often asked for by formal portraitists of their older sitters: "just be natural." (The portraitists I thought of when this started were Avedon & HCB — in fact Tete a Tete and Portraits contain several portraits of the same people. Both sets of portraits show the shooters' wise knack for getting both kinds of shot, depending on the sitter....)
This presents something of a paradox for the photographer – to develop a sense of intimacy so that the subject can be directed (if that’s what you want) without their guard and socially-presented persona getting in the way of that direction. Never easy.
Last edited by bjorke; 11-04-2004 at 09:53 AM. Click to view previous post history.
A prime example of why I am saving up for the Canon 85 mm, f/1.8...
Originally Posted by bjorke
Damn good picture!
No problem .. I did not translate "Self involvement" into something including "angst"... but rather, "involvement of the self".
Originally Posted by blansky
Agonziing over the work is not good. A good antidote to that frame of mind are the one- and two minutes poses in a Life Class. One cannot agonize .. there simply isn't emough time. Wthout that excess time the work flows - of necessity... and the overall improvement is, most of the time, astounding!!
There may be a parallel in Small-bore Rifle shooting (of all places). It takes a LOT of practice, where one THINKS, heavily, about what one does... the postition of the feet, the elevation of the non-supporting arm; the position of the trigger finger ... a LOT of practice -- possibly described as "angst"; at least, not far from it. When the Match begins, the time for thought and practice is over - the skill is either there or it isn't - and no amount of agonizing/ effort will get it there in the time allotted.
I work in my studio in much the same manner. I do not over-think or agonize - that is not the place for that type of activity. The best way, for ME, is to stay loose, and DO.
Ed Sukach, FFP.
I agree .. without question, the photographer *IS* responsible ... BUT...
Originally Posted by c6h6o3
Unfortunately, we cannot completely CONTROL every square millimeter of a photograph - there is a difference. What landscape photographer (or anyone else) can exert precise control over every leaf, every rock, in the image?
All that is possible is to make the best compromise we can.
Am I CONCERNED with EVERYTHING in my photographs? Absolutely... however, I can, on my BEST day, only do the best I can with the what I have to work with.
It is true ... a slight fidget, a blink, a twitch .., CAN "ruin" a photograph ... there is an equal, if not greater, chance that the photograph will be IMPROVED by the inclusion of these "defects", which prove the humanity of the subject.
Ed Sukach, FFP.
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