Sunday, February 17, 2013

What's Wrong With These Pictures -- Update

Saw this today on Facebook from photographer David Burnett:
tonight, running around the net, found this cogent description of the "new phone" photography: "'s fine, it's fun and funky..looks artsy...but i get tired of photographers acting like they're now 'artists' when it relies so heavily on the phone to do the effect..they're not even making cool effects in their printing or even photoshop..they're just picking an app...." geez, sounds familiar!

Monday, February 4, 2013

What's Wrong with These Pictures?

I was in the kitchen the other day, when a simple still life struck me as interesting.  But, here's the thing: It wasn't just the subject and light that caught my imagination ...

You see, it's interesting and all -- nice, soft, raking light, reflections, lots of exciting colors and shapes -- but in this image, it's not really striking.  It's not something that would make you stop walking by and look.  But what I saw in my head was this:

Now that's much more arresting.  Still not satisfying for me, though, as we lost the bright colors.  So I tried one more thing:

That was more like it.  Perhaps not perfect -- I think a painting, say oil or watercolor, might be even more what I want -- but it was good enough for the moment.  And then I paused. What really did I think I was up to?

With the rise of the iPhone and its many photographic apps, there has been an accompanying rise in controversy (like when a New York Times photographer made a bid for the Pulitzer).  First, it was bad enough that digital cameras made amateurs think they could be professionals, because the cost-free making of thousands of exposures while the ever-increasingly smarter cameras did all the complicated exposure calculations for you allowed them to actually make a nice frame or two.  But now your ever convenient phone did the same, and had a bunch of options that took care of the processing and Photoshopping process for you too!

Secondly, these effects -- effects that in the past required you to actually know how to handle film in particular ways or, for that matter, make a wet plate exposure using techniques a century old (see second exposure above) -- were far more dangerous than merely relieving the "photographer" of any need for knowledge or experience.  They tempted one to make frankly bad or nonsensical exposures, overlay them with a thick coating of special effects, and then act like they were somehow now "good."

So what the hell did I think I was doing when I made those two artsy images?  And are they really better than the first one?  (Actually, the first one is the last, timewise, as it occured to me after making the other two that I was leaning, as so many have, on the iPhone's fancy apps, and I wanted to blog about this.  So I shot it untouched using the iPhone as a "control" of sorts.  It was frankly too much work to get out a DSLR and make an even more conventional control.)

Since the Hipstamatic Tinto 1884 package came out, I've noticed a lot of my photographer friends using it.  And, to be totally honest, I promptly sought it out as soon as I learned what to search for.  It's a cool little effect, and I have been interested in the look and technology of wet plate photography (though I haven't had the chance to try it) for a while now.

However, though I may be able to rationalize my hackneyed use of the Tinto by claiming an interest in photographic history, I have to ask whether I and all my friends are just leaning on it as a crutch to make otherwise mediocre or uninteresting pictures somehow fascinating and artsy.

This reminds me of an anecdote I love to tell when the question of photo manipulation comes up.  I was standing with another photographer, he older and working for a newspaper, waiting for the start of a Pentagon news conference one day.  It was still in the days of film, the earliest versions of Photoshop were just gaining acceptance.  He told me how a young, techno-savvy photographer was showing him all the things that could be done with the program, saving under- or over-exposed pictures, correcting faults, evening out bright and dark spots, and so on.  He ended with the punch line: "I asked him, 'Wouldn't it be easier just to make a proper exposure in the first place?'"

So I have to wonder: Wouldn't it be easier just to make a proper, interesting photo in the first place, rather than something that depends so on special effects to be attractive?  And, countering that, is this yet another example of Marshal McLuhan's overused axiom that the medium is the message?  Is art what you make of the tools, and art designed with certain tools in mind (just as I shot the second picture above specifically with the Tinto package in mind) still art?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Don't Fear the Reaper

So the commute in to work at 3 in the morning can be a peaceful time.  It can also be a frustrating time, but that's for another day.  Today, I want to talk about the odd moment recently when, hurtling down the interstate in the predawn darkness, my radio scanned to an FM station playing the old Blue Oyster Cult song, "Don't Fear the Reaper."

It was one of those moments, like when you catch a special, familiar aroma, when memories suddenly flood back.  You are totally in a moment, that moment so long ago, that it takes an effort to return to the present.  Slowly, you rise back from a waking dream.

I was in my family's Datsun B-210 hatchback again, returning from a dozen parties in the 1970s, plunging through the Washington, DC, post-midnight darkness.  "Don't Fear the Reaper," along with Boston's first album and any amount of other music, was new then.

My mind wandered to how often I have found myself driving alone through the dark at odd hours.  After those parties, traveling to and from college, heading out to assignments for wire services.  The last time I remember being so conscious of that moment, that circumstance, was some 25 years ago, rushing out into Northern Virginia from DC to photograph a train derailment.  As I headed off the main highway and into the countryside beyond Leesburg, I remember thinking how oddly alone I was, sweeping down the two-lane highway as the trees that bordered it flashed by, making an even whooshing sound.  Nothing but the blackness of unlit farmland around me, my headlights lighting the road lines and those trees.

At the time, I thought it would make a good transitional element for a movie, opening with that metronomic sound, like breathing, the undercurrent of the car motor beneath, the lit trunks sliding past, in and out of the headlights.  Whoosh ... Whoosh ... Whoosh.  Whenever the film came to a turning point, we could return to that moment, as the protagonist moved further down his memories of the story, back to long childhood trips and forward to angry departures from lovers.

But this day, on my commute, I reveled in the simple experience of having all this come back, bathing in the memory like a hot tub, and honestly clinging a bit to the feeling of being young again, in high school with the world full of possibilities and nothing denied you by time or bad decisions yet.  How strange it is to be at the other end of the timeline; I don't think I ever really expected to be here ...