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Author Topic: What's Photography For?  (Read 4086 times)

RSL

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« Last Edit: February 28, 2017, 08:14:46 AM by RSL »
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degrub

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2017, 11:07:19 AM »

Well stated and i agree.
Frank
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Rob C

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #2 on: February 24, 2017, 12:33:53 PM »

Thoughtful stuff, Russ.

"The camera is a recording instrument. It's not the kind of tool that lets you express your own ideas about what reality should look like. If you're careful, it can give you images that are pretty; sometimes verging on beautiful."

And that's always been the challenge if you want to do more than record. Taking Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas as two examples: along with much else they both did great city street work, possibly more from the point of view of catching colour harmony - or its opposite - than defining moments, but certainly very captivating and influential work. Though I now find myself doing black/white in preference to colour (when I stir at all), the influence of those two men has allowed me a new lease of photographic life because it encourages me to think beyond the conditioning of work, and look at other aspects of imaging that meant nothing to the bottom line when I was working. You can be freed from work. It raises the question of how those two found time for self-indugence like that, though maybe the answer - for Haas, at least - lay in very successful books.

Yes, the camera can't, as you write, actually let you express your idea of what reality should look like, but it certainly does allow you to take that real shot and then consider it carefully later on, much as St Ansel must have done, and figure out what you can do to bend it away from the factual towards the fantasy of that fact. This has always been possible, but the advent of digital manipulation has made the possibility of doing this effectively very much greater: the creases are less likely to show. However, that's not to suggest that you can just snap any old thing and then produce interesting images from that - you still need to use your eyes and imagination a little bit before you go click!

"To clinch the point, there's the work of W. Eugene Smith. Gene Smith did some wonderful street photography, but the pictures he made that fall most surely into the category of art are pictures of people he shot as parts of photo essays. One of those is Smith's picture from his Life magazine essay "Country Doctor," of Doctor Ceriani leaning against a counter and smoking a cigarette after losing a patient. The tragedy in the man's face is powerful stuff."

Ironically, I first came across Smith in Popular Photography Annual, with the essay on Pittsburgh, so yes, it used to be a wonderful picture source and an educational influence. (Isn't it odd how even the good things in life eventually tend to become corrupted; one would have hoped it worked the other way - that the lesser tried to emulate the great.) Only a very limited few from the thousands of images in that work (that precluded the whole essay ever being published complete, anywhere), those few images in Pop Phot have remained with me ever since as wonderful examples of looking, of printing and style - which perhaps was something he couldn't control anway - and also of techniques like bleaching and so on and so forth. If anything, he really defined why every photographer really should be obliged to print his own negatives, if only to learn what he, himself, is all about. Another printer will never do that for you: you learn what he is about if you use one regularly, but that's cart before horses. It (the essay) also pointed very clearly to Smith's political inclinations, and made me aware of what Pittsburgh represented, with its mills, bank magnates, mansions, private clubs etc. and I wonder if Mr Trump saw that essay too.

Rob

Tim Lookingbill

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #3 on: February 24, 2017, 10:07:45 PM »

http://www.russ-lewis.com/essays/What%20is%20Photography%20For.htm

Quote
"The camera is a recording instrument. It's not the kind of tool that lets you express your own ideas about what reality should look like. If you're careful, it can give you images that are pretty; sometimes verging on beautiful."

That's not been my experience especially shooting and post processing in Raw. I do agree the camera is a tool, but it's the user of that tool that controls and determines how they make reality look different when photographed, different meaning enhanced, mysterious, colorful, strange, off kilter, disturbing, etc.

If all a photographer is doing is shooting to record what's in front of them be it a landscape or macro shot of broken glass then I'ld say they have a different kind of sensitivity to the awareness of this power to express them self by telling a different story photographing reality.
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JNB_Rare

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #4 on: February 24, 2017, 10:27:06 PM »

Thanks for sharing your views, Russ.

"But on the other hand his (Albert Bierstadt) painting gives you the sensation of the mountains in a way no photograph ever will."

Interesting. I feel absolutely no emotional connection to Bierstadt's work. Perhaps that's because I have been in the mountains; nowadays, this sort of imagery has been taken over by CGI and Disney. For me, a photograph such as Adams' The Tetons and the Snake River, or some of Mehmet Ozgur's landscapes (to name a contemporary photographer) far better give me a sensation of the mountains. And not because they are simply a record of the scene, or more "real" than a painting. Mitch Dobrowner and Camille Seaman have put me with them at the edge of storms. Some of Wynn Bullock's landscape images are the equal of (well, not just the equal of, more evocative than) any landscape painting I've ever seen. My opinion, of course.

"The camera is a recording instrument. It's not the kind of tool that lets you express your own ideas about what reality should look like."

Perhaps should is not the right word (unless one is in the business of advertising or propaganda)? But I believe that photography most definitely allows one to connect, evoke, and provoke, no less than any other art.

"But it's very difficult to make it (the camera) give you an image that'll grab you and shake you with a transcendent, spiritual experience -- that sudden flash that goes beyond anyone's ability to describe or explain. And that's really what art is about."

I'm afraid I can't agree. First, because NO piece of art that I have ever viewed in any medium has affected me in the way you describe (and I've stood in front of many original masterpieces in galleries, museums and cathedrals). Yes, I've been impressed by mastery, and emotionally moved by images (feelings of happiness, sadness, compassion, surprise, anger, etc.) But no less so with photographic images than any other medium.

You mention street photography and photo essays I would agree with some of your evaluation and examples. W. Eugene Smith has been an inspiration of mine since I first saw his Minimata essay, even though I've never pursued that type of photography. But I think you've missed out on so many other genres in which photographers have produced images that connect with me, and with others, on a visceral level.

"A photograph is a recording. That's all it is. It's an image of a small piece of the world -- a very small piece. It doesn't allow the recorder to change things in that little piece. In post-processing you can change colors, remove things, move things around, and introduce other recorded pieces of the world that weren't in the picture to begin with. But in the end, you can't force into a photograph the emotion you can force into a painting."

I would wholeheartedly disagree, and I think Smith's photo of Tomoko Uemura is an example of why I do. Smith made that image, he didn't just record it. Nick Brandt made this image, and then this one.

But, then, images do connect with different people differently. I love some abstract impressionist paintings every bit as much as some Dutch Masters. Most people I know hate abstract art. I think Ralph Gibson's photo Leda (NSFW) is more provocative (and beautiful) than any of the many painted and sculptural renditions of Leda and the Swan throughout history. But, hey, that's just my opinion.  :)

Tony Jay

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #5 on: February 24, 2017, 11:16:34 PM »

I cannot really agree with the central thrust of Russ' argument.
Just because a camera is a tool does not in any way exclude camera-generated images from being art or being significant on an emotional or spiritual level.
A paint brush is a tool, and the same goes for a hammer and chisel.

Art is created by people - never the  camera, or the brush, or the hammer and chisel.

Simply put, everything one does when shooting, from positioning to choice of lens,  aperture and shutter speed, as well as framing and composition can be exploited for artistic effect. And, it is the person behind the camera who makes these creative decisions.

Also, a camera-generated image is never just a "record" of a scene. This particular argument has been played out several times on this very forum and by my recollection rejected with interest.

Whether something can be viewed as art, or whether it has emotional or spiritual impact, is NEVER a function of the tool that produced it. These are characteristics that, quite literally, are in the eye of the beholder.

Tony Jay
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Rob C

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #6 on: February 25, 2017, 04:53:42 AM »

I suspect that folks have not read the OPs opening gambit properly, and without instantly projecting upon it their own sense of understanding.

The words in italics are in italics intentionally; Russ is a good writer and not given to random sloppiness of expression. Reread and reconsider what he has actually written with what you are interpreting. Not the same things.

Rob C

RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #7 on: February 25, 2017, 09:46:01 AM »

If all a photographer is doing is shooting to record what's in front of them be it a landscape or macro shot of broken glass then I'ld say they have a different kind of sensitivity to the awareness of this power to express them self by telling a different story photographing reality.

Sorry, Tim, you lost me there. I'm afraid I couldn't follow your logic. All a photographer ever is doing is shooting a record of what's in front of the camera, whether or not he has a "different kind of sensitivity." The camera isn't a magical box full of fairy dust.

RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #8 on: February 25, 2017, 10:09:23 AM »

I'm afraid I can't agree. First, because NO piece of art that I have ever viewed in any medium has affected me in the way you describe

Hi John, I wish I had time this morning to deal with all the points you make in your post, but I'm in a rush. Maybe I can come back later and do a better job.

I'll admit I have trouble with some of the more schmaltzy stuff in Bierstadt's paintings. There's another, quite similar to the one I linked, that contains Indian maidens. But my point was his use of distorted linear perspective to make a point -- something you can't do with a camera. I stand by what I said about his device giving me the feel of the mountains.

I'm sorry to hear that no work of art ever has affected you in a transcendent, spiritual way. I suspect you mean visual art rather than all art. I'll grant you that it's more likely to happen to me with music or poetry, but occasionally I get twinges of it from visual art. How does Pavarotti doing "Panis Angelicus" grab you? How about Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill?"

I appreciate your reasoned responses, though I may disagree.

RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #9 on: February 25, 2017, 10:36:17 AM »

. . .a camera-generated image is never just a "record" of a scene.

Hi Tony, I'd submit that that's exactly what a photograph is: a record of what's in front of the camera. I'll grant you that the guy behind the camera decides where the record begins and where it ends, but that's as far as photographic creativity goes. You can't make the mountains taller without making the lake shrink, and you can't make the lake expand without making the mountains shrink. It's physics. That kind of physical limitation doesn't extend to what you do with a brush.

Of course there are all sorts of things you can do in Photoshop. In the current Pop Photo there's a picture of a cave with a starry sky outside. It's a "grand prize" winner in some sort of contest, and all you have to do is glance at it to see that it's a fake. The "photographer" pasted in the starry sky. As the "Tech Info" says, it was "Edited in Lightroom 5 and Nik Color Efex Pro 6."

And to go back to John's post for a moment. I overlooked the point he made about Gene Smith's Minimata photo: Yes, I'm well aware of the kind of post-processing Gene did with that picture, but he didn't add stuff that wasn't there, though he did do that in the famous Schweitzer picture.

RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #10 on: February 25, 2017, 02:01:49 PM »

And this has what? to do with using distorted linear perspective, Keith?

Rob C

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #11 on: February 25, 2017, 02:37:34 PM »



Out of camera.


But that's not the point: that's what you get at whatever settings you choose to apply. The camera isn't letting you go beyond what the mechanics of focus, shutter and stop allow you to do. For example, had your desired reality demanded you turn some of the highlights blue, the camera wouldn't do that. To do that, you need to eff about in PS. Or even worse, cut out and suspend tiny coloured gels.

That's why I think that the OP wasn't referring here to manipulation; what your camera (and you) have achieved is to make a recording of what those setting you chose produce. Beyond that, neither you nor camera have actually made what reality should look like - that would be a step beyond its capability.

The part where one turns reality into what one thinks it should look like comes later, in PS.

Of course, one can always claim that what came out of the camera was how one intended reality should look, but I think that would be a bit disingenuous in the case of this thread...

Possibly angels and heads of pins, but definitely no pixies!

;-)

Rob

Tim Lookingbill

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #12 on: February 25, 2017, 03:09:33 PM »

Sorry, Tim, you lost me there. I'm afraid I couldn't follow your logic. All a photographer ever is doing is shooting a record of what's in front of the camera, whether or not he has a "different kind of sensitivity." The camera isn't a magical box full of fairy dust.

You don't give much credit to the photographer, Russ.

And I'm still puzzled why you needed to point out the obvious fact that a camera is just a tool to record reality. What's the significance of pointing this out and what does it have to do with why we photograph or what's photography for? I read all over that essay and couldn't find your answer or was all of it a kind of thinking out loud rhetorical questioning? A lamenting casting about of why we are here photographing and what does it all mean kind of philosophizing?

So what is photography for to you, Russ?
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Tim Lookingbill

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #13 on: February 25, 2017, 03:20:34 PM »

I suspect that folks have not read the OPs opening gambit properly, and without instantly projecting upon it their own sense of understanding.

The words in italics are in italics intentionally; Russ is a good writer and not given to random sloppiness of expression. Reread and reconsider what he has actually written with what you are interpreting. Not the same things.

Rob C

Good writing does not equate to effective communication of such a broad subject reflected in the title of his essay.

So, Rob, why do we photograph? Or what's photography for? Russ clearly states a camera can't be used for self expression. It's just a recording device. Maybe he should have reworded the title subject to "What is the photographic process for?" or "Why do we want to express our self through the photographic process?"
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Tim Lookingbill

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #14 on: February 25, 2017, 03:27:25 PM »

I'd contend that the camera is far more than a recording device: it is a creative tool.

Technically in the digital world the camera is just recording electrical voltage variances provided by various amounts of photons hitting each sensor cell.

Now, if framed within the context that the camera is a tool for creating unique and inventive compositions while utilizing filters, exposure and DOF tricks to make reality a bit distorted, I'ld agree that it's a creative tool.
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RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #15 on: February 25, 2017, 03:43:35 PM »

Good writing does not equate to effective communication of such a broad subject reflected in the title of his essay.

So, Rob, why do we photograph? Or what's photography for? Russ clearly states a camera can't be used for self expression. It's just a recording device. Maybe he should have reworded the title subject to "What is the photographic process for?" or "Why do we want to express our self through the photographic process?"

Exactly where in that essay did I state that a camera can't be used for self-expression, Tim? Please show me the quote.

I'd suggest you go back and read the first sentence in the essay. You might even want to read the title.

Of course the camera can be used for self-expression, but the expression comes from your selection of subjects and lighting, not from attempts to distort reality. Keith comes up with an array of colorful blobs as an example of self-expression, but anybody with a brush and canvas could outdo that in almost as little time as it takes to throw your camera out of focus and shoot.

In a nutshell, what I said is that there are certain things in visual art that paint can do better than a camera can, and there are certain things a camera can do better than paint can. I don't think you have to be a particularly careful reader to understand that.

Tim Lookingbill

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #16 on: February 25, 2017, 03:46:07 PM »

And just to clarify my point about "some folks have different sensitivities" in determining whether a camera is just a recording device instead of a creative tool, I'll put it this way...

Some people are tone deaf to the creative process just like someone not being able to see certain hues of colors or feel an emotion in a song melody. It's a physical limitation.

They can only look at paintings and assume to know the artist's intent without even picking up a paint brush and studying how one has to think and organize the methodology behind artists expressing them self through the "process" of painting. It's a process, and it's different process on a personal level for each individual artist.

It's the same personal process used to make a photograph express something. No one can know this or how it is done, you can only discern or read into the results. You can't reverse engineer creativity. You are either sensitive to the end result of the artist or you read into it something that wasn't intended at the outset. Or you just don't get and move on to something else that addresses a different sensitivity.
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Tim Lookingbill

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #17 on: February 25, 2017, 03:53:11 PM »

Exactly where in that essay did I state that a camera can't be used for self-expression, Tim? Please show me the quote.

Quote
The camera is a recording instrument. It's not the kind of tool that lets you express your own ideas about what reality should look like.

What were you expressing in that essay, Russ? A lot of it is just pointing out the obvious. I couldn't discern any new information. What in that essay did you think no one knew? 
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RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #18 on: February 25, 2017, 03:59:09 PM »

And I stand by that sentence, Tim. With a camera you can't express your own ideas about what reality should look like, but you can express your own grasp of the beauty of reality. What kind of reality? Well, it depends. Landscape can be pretty. Sports and reportage can be fun. But with a camera, real art comes with catching the relationships between people and people and their surroundings.

RSL

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Re: What's Photography For?
« Reply #19 on: February 25, 2017, 04:00:46 PM »

By the way, I'm glad at least a few people are getting excited about discussing photography as an art. Sure beats the crap that's going on about politics on a photography site.
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