By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Let’s now turn to how changes in photo technology affect what we can, and do, photograph. I’ll suggest how we can use the spontaneity of new digital technologies to develop a more modern and intuitive approach to photography.
Photography is the most technologically based practical and fine art. We can only photograph subjects that the technology of the time can handle and then only in technically feasible styles and ways.
At the most basic level, all types of photography and optics are governed by unchanging laws of physics and by the neurology of visual perception. However, technological advances improve our ability to make certain kinds of photographs, and those improvements, in turn, have changed what we photograph and our cultural views of photography as documentation and as art.
As an example, consider the slow, bellows-equipped film cameras that predominated as recently as 1940. These were suitable for subjects that did not move quickly, or at all, such as landscapes, carefully devised portraits or constructed still-lifes not unlike the cliched bowls of fruit seen in far too many paintings.
Such cameras and their slow lenses and films were ill-adapted to most types of spontaneous photographs, such as high-speed sports photos or photographs taken under very low-light conditions. As a result, totally spontaneous, handheld photographs were rare until decent-quality 35 mm and 120 roll film cameras and their fast, chemically based films were perfected in the 1920s and 1930s. Early portraits often seem overly serious to us because subjects could not hold their spontaneous smiles long enough. The famous “decisive moment” photos of Cartier-Bresson or the surf-level images of the 1944 D-Day landings at Omaha Beach would not have been possible with the cameras of even 10 years earlier.
However, once such images became technologically feasible without too much hassle, they become not only common, but completely change what we expect of photographs as both documentation and as art.
In the 1970s, easy-to-use film SLR cameras and good commercial labs eliminated the need for deep technical knowledge about photographic concepts and methods. Everyone could be an “artist,” and long-term technical and artistic training under an established master of the medium was no longer critical.
Many beginning photographers were “Ronin” from the beginning. “Social relevance” became so en vogue politically and culturally that even boring or ugly but “correct” images began to be hailed as “art.” Prominent photographers like Robert Adams felt compelled to write a defense of “beauty” in photography.
The image’s stated conceptual and political assertiveness became more “relevant” than the image itself. Critically acclaimed images were frequently banal or emphasized the grotesque and the negative, or had a sense of condescension about them. Indeed, earlier this week, my wife, Teri, and I saw a critically acclaimed exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago that seemed to embody most of these traits.
To my way of thinking, whenever an image that purports to be art rather than documentation requires a lot of words to make sense of it, then conceptual aspects are dominating the visual image, something that I believe detrimental. When a photo’s subjects are highly manipulated when the photograph is taken in order to make a point, then all too often, such images seem forced, and that’s even worse.
Why did this current mainstream approach to documentary and fine-art photography take such firm root? I believe that it was partly a predictable reaction of the countercultural rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s, and partly a belated emulation of politically and conceptually assertive painting and sculpture styles that dominated other mainstream art forms in the first half of the 20th century.
When you’re ideologically passionate, then using a highly documentary art form like photography becomes an extension of your cultural politics. When you’re sure that you’re right, then making photographs that allow only one fairly evident meaning makes a certain amount of sense, at least to similarly inclined people. Color photography was not often used because it was deemed too literal and not sufficiently artistic, even though we see the world in color.
Unfortunately, life’s not always black and white, even in photography. Life and society are often ambiguous and we often do better by using inherent ambiguity as a means of discovering nuance and depth.
I believe that this highly conceptualized approach to fine art photography, which has now dominated for about 40 years, is due for a major change as digital photography takes over from film.
Digital photography is inherently spontaneous, yet allows later corrections. Images can be viewed immediately and deleted or redone if necessary. You can capture the moment quickly and, when in a spontaneous frame of mind, see and make a number of really good images in a short time. Ansel Adams, one the preeminent fine arts photographers of his day, once commented that he felt lucky to make a dozen good images in a year with his 8-by-10-view camera. In fact, as soon as fast, handheld Hasselblad cameras provided equivalent technical quality, Adams used a Hasselblad in preference to his trademark view camera whenever possible.
I suggest that one useful 21st-century approach to photography is to see and photograph the world as it really is, without a lot of prior intellectualization or forced concepts.
To do this, it helps to develop a new, more spontaneous and intuitive way of seeing the world with an open mind and without elitism or condescension. This approach is sometimes described as one developed from Gestalt psychology or from the perceptual aspects of Zen, which emphasizes seeing a mountain simply as a mountain rather than as something else.
Try to see any image in the most powerful and effective way, even if it means breaking the “rules” of composition. Open yourself to seeing and photographing more broadly rather than working the same ruts too long. Use whatever techniques work for that image.
See and photograph both the beautiful and the negative and ugly. If an image is both conceptually powerful and also visually striking, then it will be more effective in all ways.
Rather than being utterly literal in all your photographs, work with ambiguity in your photographs and how you take them. That allows each viewer to project personal thoughts and experiences into an image and, as a result, sometimes see deeper into an image than was previously realized.
Above all, use the inexpensive yet technically sophisticated and spontaneous nature of digital photography to be yourself rather than copying whatever seems to be in style at the moment. After all, you’re only using a few electrons and can delete whatever doesn’t work.
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.