By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
I seem to recall promising not to write anything about art and aesthetics when I first started this series of photo articles. That was a rash promise and, therefore, subject to renegotiation.
Fear not, though, hardcore hardware fans. At the end of this week’s article, I’ll discuss some of this week’s best buys in digital cameras.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll start looking at this year’s crop of new cameras, more than 60 of which have already been announced. Although most are simply more of the same, there are many new cameras that seem to be significantly improved. Digital photography is still a new technology that, while mature and reliable, regularly introduces cool new hardware that sometimes lives up to the hype.
This week, you have a reprieve from the technical haze of megapixels, electronic sensors and Zone System calibrations, because all of the hot new camera equipment in the world won’t make you a better photographer if you don’t develop some artistic sensibility. At a minimum, that means thinking through your approach to photography and why fine-art photography’s inherently technical basis may make it unique among the visual arts.
I hope to encourage your own thinking about what you might want to accomplish when you push the shutter button or print an image. What’s set out below is strictly my own general approach. There are many other equally valid, or perhaps more valid, approaches.
Every approach to photography can produce worthy images. Each person, of course, chooses what to photograph, and how to present a subject based upon their personal experiences and emotions.
Although troubling photographs can usefully jog a viewer out of an overly narrow or complacent world view and thus may rise to the level of art and truth, such work is not the sole valid basis for making fine-art photographs, even though it’s been the most consistently acclaimed approach over the past three decades or so.
(Caution: Deviationist cultural opinions ahead! Sharp curves thrown.) I believe that American society has trended in a fashionably edgy, somewhat aimless and alienated direction since the crucible years of the 1960s and 1970s. I do not believe that we are inherently the better as a result, either culturally or artistically, compared to eras when optimism predominated. These days, it appears that to be shocking and alienated is to be artistically conventional and accepted by the arts establishment.
Personally, I do not believe that there is any inherently greater truth, artistic merit or emotional content in the consistent selection and presentation of that which is condescending, angry, ugly, tumultuous, banal or bizarre. We should not mistake neurosis for emotional, intellectual and creative depth. Bach was certainly not alienated when he wrote the “Mass in B Minor,” generally acclaimed as one of the two or three greatest musical works ever written.
There may be as much or more “truth” in simply and truly presenting that which surrounds us in daily life. As an example, it’s now generally agreed that the work of renowned American fine-art photographer Sally Mann improved when, after the birth of her children, she took photos of her new family rather than of great social upheavals.
The classic way
Photography may be unique among the visual arts because it can quickly and accurately capture an instant in time and place. That’s its great strength. Classic “straight” (i.e., unposed, basically unmanipulated) photography places a premium upon quick and intuitive observation and insight, as well as upon the technical ability needed to quickly react without fumbling.
As a result, “straight” fine-art photography differs inherently from other visual arts, such as painting or sculpture, because those usually involve extensive prior conceptualization, planning and formal composition, along with enough time to gradually realize the preconceived concept. From my personal perspective, photography as a fine art should emphasize its unique strength — the intuitive and accurate capture of fleeting reality — rather than trying to emulate other visual art forms that rely upon extensive formalisms or that require words to explain the “concept” of the image. A good image should not require any explanatory words beyond those stating what was photographed.
A good image of this sort is not limited to the photographer’s own experience and reaction when taking the photo, but also allows viewers to project their own equally valid experiences and insights into the image. The audience’s emotional reactions to the photo don’t always coincide with what we thought, but they’re equally valid.
That’s one reason why images that are too literal quickly become stale and boring — they really allow only a single, obvious meaning that hits the viewer over the head and doesn’t permit a viewer’s own reaction to the image to evolve over time. Ansel Adams, often considered to be a staunch literalist, wrote empathetically that every good photograph, no matter how sharp, clear and documentary, needed at least some abstract qualities to remain interesting.
Just the details
Sometimes just showing a portion of the subject is more effective than including an entire subject like a grand landscape. Showing only the crucial portion or detail allows the viewer to more readily project their own experiences and reactions into the image. By the 1950s, experimental psychologists studying visual perception knew that seeing just the telling details (the trees) sometimes makes the whole (the forest) even more deeply understood. Similar classic statements of these same concepts are the Zone System “previsualization” process advocated by Ansel Adams, and the “equivalents” advocated by fine-art photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz more than a century ago, as well as later by my own occasional photography instructor while at MIT, Minor White.
A few years ago, Apogee, an online photo magazine found at http://www.apogeephoto.com, published some useful and interesting articles that combined this approach to photo composition with generally accepted principles of visual perception and Gestalt psychology. You’ll need to go to the main Apogee Web site and use the search link to look for the term “Gestalt.”
Used in this manner, “straight” photography can be more akin to Japanese haiku poetry, which uses a few syllables that suggest the essence of an object, a time, a place. “Straight” photographs that are successful in this regard are typically the result of intuitive seeing and quick action, rather than the result of an intellectualized process based upon preconceived overt “meaning” and overly intellectualized concepts.
Because I find that this more “intuitive” approach works better for me, I switched from high-quality, but painstaking large-format, tripod-mounted 4-by-5 and 11-by-14 view cameras to high-quality, compact digital cameras using a RAW format. Similarly, once you’ve found out what photo style works best for you, then the right equipment will be obvious.
Color or black and white?
Photography is one of those art forms that relies upon advances in the underlying technology. After the technology improves, it takes most users years to catch up. Some never do make the transition and remain stuck doing what they’ve always done or in emulating the work of the past. The masters of the medium, though, usually adapt new technology as soon as it becomes practical.
Adams, now almost solely renowned for his huge, black-and-white prints of grand Western landscapes, also worked directly with Kodak and Polaroid in the 1940s and 1950s to develop new color and instant films and the techniques for using them. When high-quality, portable cameras like the Hasselblad became practical in the 1960s, he started using them far more than his very traditional-view cameras. Toward the end of his life, he wrote of his fervent hope to live long enough to work with digital imaging, as well.
No single photographic technique is always best for every subject. In some instances, traditional black-and-white photography works best with a particular photograph, while in other instances, color photography is better suited to a particular moment, image or intent. Although cultural perceptions are gradually changing, black-and-white photography traditionally was considered to be “more artistic” than most color images, and there may have been some truth in that general view until a few years ago.
This general mindset now, at least in part, is a somewhat outdated carry-over from the film and chemical darkroom era when photographers had a great deal of artistic control over the black-and-white process, but only a limited ability to control the final look of color images. Those technical limitations are no longer technically valid with the advent of high-quality digital photography over the past four or so years.
However, these older concepts still seem to underlie the accepted paradigm of fine-arts photography, which seems stuck to some extent in a path whose ruts are the technology of the 1960s and 1970s.
Whether an image looks better in color or in black and white depends upon many factors and there is no single choice that’s always correct. I’ve prepared and posted an online slideshow to help you make your own decisions about when color or black-and-white photography may be better. You can find those photos at http://kashilaw.com/Color_vs_BW_photography.aspx. The matched color and black-and-white photos on that page show versions of the same image so that you can compare them directly. You can also navigate to that page from the main http://www.kashilaw.com Web page, then to the top Photo tab, and then the “Contrasting Color and Black and White” side tab.
There really are some subjects where the drama and inherently more abstracted quality of black-and-white images are preferable. However, I believe that color is appropriate in fine-art photographs much more often than traditionally accepted. I invite you to judge for yourself using those comparative photos. Of course, it’s also possible that it’s just my own style and subject matter that works better in color. Your style may work better in precisely the opposite direction.
You can also judge for yourself in comparing highly colored and nearly black-and-white images in my current photo exhibits at the Kenai Fine Arts Center and at the Homer campus of Kenai Peninsula College. These exhibitions will be open through the end of this week.
- Panasonic FX150 — Leica lens, RAW file option, 14 megapixel 1/1.7 sensor, compact metal body, options for either fully auto, partially manual, or completely manual operation, good image quality although somewhat noisy due to the excessively high megapixel count. $210 at http://www.amazon.com. What more could you ask in a compact camera in this price range? This is a recent model that will likely be discontinued soon and it’s rumored that these high-end specs will not be repeated in an affordable Panasonic compact camera.
- Olympus E520 body plus two lens package — The E520 is a well-regarded and a compact, entry-level digital SLR camera with internal image stabilization. Olympus has a reputation for making very good optics. This package includes a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens and a long telephoto lens. At $502 for the body plus two-lens kit from http://www.amazon.com, this interchangeable lens, large sensor camera is less expensive than many compact cameras and provides better image quality. The Olympus E520 or the Pentax K2000 that follows are perfect entry points to large-sensor dSLR photography for a college student or photo enthusiast.
- Pentax K2000 body plus two lens kit — The Pentax K2000, also known as the Km, is considered to be among the best and most robust entry-level dSLR cameras. Like the Olympus, it also features internal image stabilization hardware inside the camera body. The kit lenses are considered to be better than average optically, although the 50-200 telephoto needs to be stopped down to f8 for best results.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, http://www.kashilaw.com.