Hello Photography Phans: below is an essay of little essays aimed towards picture takers whether they be of the hobby or commercial category.  There isn't a light speed, equipment option, or home darkroom accessory mentioned.  The ideas presented here are intended to possibly steer the photographer to think a little more expansively about the subject of photography.  Enjoy.



Dana- Random Thughts On Photography



Random Thoughts on Photography


I am sixty-four years old.  I have been thinking about photography for over twenty years: but I am not a photographer.  How is that possible?  Oh sure, I have held cameras in my hands, and looked through viewfinders, and pressed shutter release buttons; but the number of pictures taken as a numerator over the denominator of the number of adult years available to have been taking pictures gives away the game.  Too few pictures, no noteworthy skills or content, no compulsion masquerading as hobby, nothing to brag about or to feel quietly prideful about or to submit to a photo contest (I don't  really care if I win but I will just submit this pic anyway) or place in front of someone hoping for a favorable response.  After over forty adult years it is what it is and I am what I am.  The evidence is in and no excuses can be made or stories told.  I am not a photographer.


Heck, for thirty of those years I had trouble taking photography seriously as an intellectual exercise and craft that could sometimes yield art.  I now have one foot across the line on this.  Baby steps.

I am making progress.  Before you throw a rock at me, try and open your mind sympathetically on this.  To wit: if you are an Art History major at the University of Michigan being exposed to the greatest examples of the greatest works of art in the world it is pretty difficult (impossible?) to find competitive photo images that are unequivocal  photographic works of art on par with Michelangelo, Bernini, Dali, Ya Liben, Jan Vermeer, Gu Kaizhi, Zhao Mengfu, Kandinsky, and Ma Yuan.  A few examples but the list could be numerous.  I'll mention some other examples later but the point is made.  Photographic works of art?  Maybe in one hundred years.  Now?  Not so much.  Anyway, like I said: I am starting to bend a little on this, but I am still sympathetic to the comparison and the argument.  Are there currently examples of great photos on par with examples of great art?


So, with the above preface in mind; why have I spent the last twenty years now and then thinking about photography?  The key and the clue and the word is image(s).  Cameras (and the attendant photographer) perform a feat of legerdemain.  They take the data that is sent to the brain by the rods and cones in your eyes and reproduce it on a two dimensional surface.  Paintings are a similar kind of magic but the painter has considerably more leeway for how he decides to manipulate reality.  At any rate, the word is images.  The big format expensively produced photography books with an image on every page are addictive.  Hidden in some cozy nook of the library of my university  with a pile of these fun photography books was never disappointing.  My real interest over the last forty years has been aesthetics, photography is part of the big equation.


Recently, at the Boston Public Library, I decided to stroll down memory lane.  Cruise the photography book stacks like the old days.  The card catalogue lists 9158 items.   Too much.  So off I go to the stacks on the second floor.



Some thoughts:


Many of the most artfully composed photographs were by commercial photographers fulfilling contracts to compellingly present an object (car, clothing, art object) as an image.  From my Art History student slide show days I remember that the Japanese commercial photographers were skilled at this.  So skilled that often a sense of scale was lost.  You could not tell if the carved green jade asparagus was two inches long or twelve inches long.  You could not tell if the modern art sculpture was six feet tall or sixty feet tall.  The reality of scale was sacrificed to art.  Nobody complained because the images in the text books or the slide show images on the screens in the auditoriums were so compelling.  Take a Rembrandt painting that is fourteen inches high and make it eight feet high.  Now you have got something.


The scale issue can yield disappointments and the photographer has to be mindful of what he/she is doing.  Does scale matter or can effect be everything?  Example: in the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts in the late 60's there was a  Rembrandt painting and it was very small.  Projected on a screen in an auditorium Art History class the same painting was huge.   Quite a come down viewing experience for the aesthetically interested.  You have to will yourself to stand in front of the actual paintings and take them as seriously as you did the huge photo slides of them.  This does not make the photos frauds necessarily but you have to know how to dance to stay image grounded.  When is the last time you heard photographers take responsibility for this?


Another thought: randomly pulling books from  the shelves I found DAVID AKIBA: Photographs from the Collection of the Boston Public Library.  Mr. Akiba's work is not that interesting, but the fact that the Boston Public Library has a photograph collection should be electrifying to photographers who have a greater interest in photography other than just holding a camera in their hands.  I'll bet many large metropolitan libraries in the world have photograph collections.  Also college and university libraries.  Have you visited the photography collection of the library nearest you?  The next time I am in St. Georges or Hamilton, Bermuda I am going to go to the libraries and ask to see their photography collections.  Who knows what I will find?  And the beauty of this is that in many cases it will be like tipping over rocks.  Buried material that has not seen the light of day in years.


Of course, one of the key words for photography aficionados is collection.   First comes image, then collection.  Put down that photo magazine with the pretty girl on the cover and figure out what treasure trove you could drive to.  Example: there is a book titled THE EYES OF THE GLOBE: Twenty-five years of photography from the Boston Globe.  All large metropolitan newspapers have staff photographers and photography departments.  It isn't all about luck, and deadlines, and page fillers, and record shots, and darkroom craft; some of these salaried commercial image makers have an artist's eye.  Advice: don't call ahead, just go.


Where else can you find photo collections?   Museums, camera manufacturers, photo film makers, auction houses, magazine publishers, engineering and architectural firms, patent documents, local historical societies, book publishers, commercial photographers, law firms, hospitals, non-profits, prisons, airports, clubs, etc.  Maybe the subject of photography is bigger and more interesting than just snapping  'street scenes'  with the latest digital wonder.  Put down that DVD on Double Exposure Techniques and get in your car and go somewhere.  Collectors love to show their collections.  Be the person standing in front of them.


Another random thought: legacy.   I rarely (never?) hear the world legacy when people talk about photography.  To wit: what kind of legacy is your work going to leave behind after you have gone to the big darkroom in the sky?  Maybe it is time to stop hoarding and time to start purging.  Many libraries have a purge policy.  Example: if a book has not been checked out in five years they get rid of it.  Maybe you should consider doing that with your pictures.  If an image does not make your heart jump, or make you smile; get rid of it.  Any writer of experience will tell you that a key editing skill is the ability to swallow your pride and cut out the second rate and the repetitive.  How many seagull and baby and kitten pictures do you need?  Is that all your friends and family are going to remember of you after you are gone, that you had 200 pictures of seagulls?


The subject of legacy is always personal and often challenging.  You have to be tough.  How do other photographers' collections stand up over time?  What legacy are they leaving behind?  Example: all academic photo cognoscenti know who Henri Cartier-Bresson is (was).  Famous, historically important, prolific, internationally respected, etc.  But wait a minute, my opinion (and your opinion) counts also.  We are on the field and we get to kick the ball.  Have your library order the book HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON by the Aperture Publishing Co. History of Photography Series (1976).  I think many of the photos are second rate.  Somebody should have been thinking harder about what kind of body-of-work legacy Henry wanted to leave behind or what kind of body-of-work record they wanted to record for Henri.


Random thoughts . . . the words legacy and purging are not going to make you many friends among photographers.  If a Swiss flower lover wants to take thirty thousand poorly framed and incompetently exposed pictures of mountain flowers that is his business and he should not have to defend it to anyone.   But he is not really my primary interest.  I am more interested in considering the history of photography,  the present status of photography, and the future of photography as an act of expression that can lead to art.  Photographic masterpieces.    And I think that considering some of these issues would benefit all picture takers.   Photography seems to attract the hoarder, the compulsive, the endless cataloguer rather than the discriminator, technology enthusiasts, and the short attention spanned.  But if you are not willing to practice critical observing of your work and the work of others, then you should not let the word Art issue from your  mouth.  Nothing is meaner and leaner than art.  Many are invited to the party.  Few are invited back.  I think one of the best examples of this is in the subject of glamour photography.  Ok, I get it; she is a real attractive lady.  But you saved fifty shots of one lady?  And you have eleven thousand glamour shots?  After you die your son, or your daughter, or your grandchild is going to discover eleven thousand pictures of pretty girls?  When does the activity travel from hobby to needy to creepy?  Should you have started thinking about legacy before you went up to the big darkroom in the sky?  Maybe you should think about having a personal purge party and consider it part of the big equation called Photography.


Last random thought about things photographic: excellent think-about-it books for some of my ideas can be had in Diane Arbus Magazine Work (Aperture Publishing) and Annie Leibovitz: Photographs 1970-1990.  You should read them in that order and have them both on your lap.  Leibovitz carrys on the Arbus pictorial tradition with more skill and attempts at art.  The text is excellent.  But a reasonable person might say:


"Is this the best there is?  Is this Gauguin, or van Gogh, or Picasso, or Ando Hiroshige, or Chen Hongshou, or Hasagawa Tohaku?"


I know this journalistic  'warts-'n-all'  tradition of photography does not represent the best of photography.  Pretension to art and sometimes photos as works of art can more often be found in fashion advertising, landscape, nature, commercial, art object, and one of my favorites; some of the train photos of  O. Winston LInk.   But unfortunately, this magazine drek sold to the masses as photo excellence is what many  individuals think of as photography.  This isn't even derivative crap.  There is no originating higher source in most cases.  Just models, props, or spasmodic shutter release plunging as one roams indoor or outdoor venues.  With the other arts in stone or paint for example: time has to be spent with preparation, hand mixing of pigments maybe, sharpening chisels, blocking or gridding or sketching, and the psychic buildup to the first blow of the hammer against the chisel or the first application of paint on the canvas, glass, wet plaster, vase, furniture, scroll, plateware, satin silk, face, or cave wall.  I believe the ease with which a photo can be taken works against the odds that art or excellence will be created.


Defenders of photography mention that nuances and fine tuning can be achieved with post production work.  True, but shouldn't the idea come first; and the post production work only nuance the art, not produce the art?  Never has an art form had the ability for post production fine tuning as photography.  Oh sure, oil paints can always be scraped off and redone, but mostly that does not happen, and mostly that is not successful.  Because of technology and computers, photography is different.  Maybe photography as a medium of expression will never produce great masterpieces, it is just too easy to take the picture and too tempting to be lazy -- "I'll fix that on the computer."  The idea has to come first.  In most cases, art does not evolve.


Consumers of photo images should be paging through the magazines in the Dr's office waiting room, or the airport gift shop , or the hair salon saying:


"Where are the photographic equals of  monastic illuminated manuscript calligraphy,  or innumerable forgotten sculptors of Buddhist images, or Asian flower painting, or Japanese block printing?

Where is this level of excellence in photography?"


They don't say these things.  Another victory for the merchandisers of taste.


Ok, I'm not a photographer;  but because photos are images that can test our critical aesthetic faculties and give us an opportunity to achieve excellence, I think about photography. 


 Gauguin, the French painter said:


"Where does the execution of a painting begin, and where does it end?   At the very moment when the most intense emotions fuse in the depths of one's being, at the moment when they burst forth and issue like lava from a volcano, is there not something like the blossoming of the suddenly created work, a brutal work, if you wish, yet great, and superhuman in appearance?  The cold calculations of reason have not presided at this birth; who knows when, in the depths of the artist's soul the work was begun---unconsciously perhaps?"


Big words and big thoughts and challenging to read for comprehension the first time through, but Gauguin meant it and he lived it.  Artists can be maddeningly inarticulate when discussing their work but they are thinking and the act of creation includes intellectual engagement.   Gauguin's painted ideas and images violated rules for image making but he achieved excellence because his ideas and emotions were part of an originating higher source--his original mind.  Do photographers think this way?   Do photographers make statements like this?  Or, is it impossible for photographers to think this way because the mechanistic requirements of photography are just too easy?  Hold the camera steady, frame the picture, depress the button.  Congratulations, you are a photographer.  Stories of twenty year old photographers are not that exceptional.   You do not hear many stories of accomplished twenty year old painters, or sculptors, or calligraphers, or jewelers.   Is it possible that photography as a medium of expression will not produce many great masterpieces?  I'm willing to be open minded about this; but please, no more pictures of seagulls.


Will photographers ever achieve the status of western and eastern artists and their masterpieces?  Maybe in one hundred years.  Ok, maybe in fifty years.  I am rooting for them.