By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
I felt sufficiently contrite about the admittedly late submission of last week’s column (“My computer ate my homework!”) that I filed this one early enough that it’s probably an adequate penance. Is that my Italian Catholic upbringing showing?
I also advised last week’s readers that my digital photography columns would shy away from aesthetic issues. As with most public declarations of high virtue, that’s subject to reconsideration, particularly on a sunny Sunday evening while playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” at a volume roughly equivalent to a deuce of F-15s scrambling on full ’burner.
In fact, I’m surprised that our editor, who lives next door to my law office, hasn’t already called the Soldotna Police Department to complain. Of course, if I was carted away, there might be a big white space in this week’s edition and that just wouldn’t do.
Because last week’s column was probably a high-tech overdose, this week we’ll look at a less technical, but no less demanding, photography topic — your eye and your brain, and how to train and use them to best effect. They’re the most important hardware and software you’ll ever use for digital photography. A technically knowledgeable photographer with a good eye for the interplay of light, form and subject will take better photos in most situations with a decent pocket camera than a less-accomplished photographer using the most expensive available equipment.
Rather than pontificate on aesthetic principles that usually everyone interprets differently, I’ve recommended below some books and Web sites that I’ve found helpful in developing a personal approach to high-quality photography. These may help you broaden your knowledge of photography’s history and of various practical and fine art photographic approaches that might best suit your interests and needs.
First and foremost, it’s important that you understand what you want to do with photography. Although the fundamental technical concepts do not vary, how you approach photography, how you train yourself and what equipment you might purchase depends upon your intended uses. That’s the first decision you’ll need to make.
As examples, photojournalists often make spontaneous or high-speed action photos that help us understand news and sporting events or empathize with human-interest stories. Scientists use photography as a highly precise basic research tool — the Hubble Space Telescope comes to mind. Casual snapshots and formal family portraits preserve and share memories of our children, families, friends, travels and experiences.
Trial lawyers like myself use photos of real estate and traffic accident scenes to help a judge and jury better understand what happened, how and why it happened, and the effects upon the parties. Accident reconstruction experts use skid mark and vehicle damage photographs to help them determine how a traffic accident occurred and how much force was experienced by an injured person.
These are all practical aspects of photography that rely upon its ability to accurately preserve data and observations. In such cases, your task is to capture all pertinent detail without avoidable data loss or distortion. Knowing what facts and observations you need to document and how to reliably capture that data are the critical skills.
Although a well-composed or emotionally powerful documentary photograph is usually preferable, exercising “artistic license” in these sorts of documentary situations becomes highly undesirable if it detracts, obscures or misrepresents the objective data. “Photoshopping” to manipulate allegedly documentary photographs is often a serious misrepresentation that can give rise to civil, professional or even criminal penalties.
On the other hand, advertisers use slick photographs to persuade you to buy idealized products that you didn’t even know existed, let alone wanted. In such cases, well-composed and well-lit idealized photographs that are compelling or beautiful are wanted, even if they bear little resemblance to reality. It’s unlikely anyone would mistake an advertisement for a documentary photograph.
When your objective is to create a lovely image or to convey an emotional experience, then you’ve crossed the line into fine art photographer, where anything goes as long as it works artistically. Once you’ve crossed that line, you’ll want to develop a different sort of “eye” — a different way of viewing the world, selecting what you’ll photograph and visualizing how the final product will look.
Although it seems obvious now, photography was not generally accepted as a visual fine art until the 1960s. Until then, photography was considered painting’s stepchild and dismissively treated. Now that it’s widely accepted, the problem for the aspiring fine art photography is to avoid emulating whatever style is currently fashionable. First and foremost, it’s critical to develop your own unique and sincere way of understanding and viewing the world — that’s your “photographer’s eye.”
To do this, it’s helpful to clear one’s mind and see the world as it really is, without mental preconceptions, whether your own or some currently popular artistic trend. My own photography instructor at MIT, Minor White, spoke of stilling one’s mind and heart in order to react truly and intuitively to the wonders of the world around us.
A last point: The “intuitive” approach to photography presupposes that you have already developed strong technical skills so your mind can focus upon the image rather than secondary matters of technique.
Recommended print media
Most photo enthusiast magazines are basically too general and vacuous to be really useful guides to the serious photographer. You can special order most of these materials from local bookstores. Examples:
- “The Making of 40 Photographs,” by Ansel Adams. In this book, famed grand scenic landscape photographer Adams discusses both the technical and artistic considerations behind 40 of his most famous photographs. Some of the philosophical and visual concepts he suggests will likely surprise both the admirers of his hypernatural grand landscapes and also his critics, who tend to view the man and his more publicly known work as one-dimensional.
- “The Photo Book,” Phaidon Press — This thick, pocket-sized paperback book is probably the single best history of photography I’ve seen. It includes hundreds of historically and artistically significant color and black-and-white photos, each by a different photographer, along with explanatory text. This book is priced between $10 and $15. Get this one if you get nothing else.
- “Photoshop Lightroom 2 Adventure” (Paperback edition) — Lightroom is now the photo processing software of choice for many pro and advanced amateur photographers, and this well-illustrated book is one of the best ways to learn how to use Lightroom to its full potential. This easy-to-follow book should be your first technical manual if you plan to use Adobe Lightroom software.
- “Interaction of Color: Revised and Expanded Edition,” by Josef Albers and Mr. Nicholas Fox Weber (paperback, May 15, 2006). This is the classic book about using and mixing colors by the Yale University art professor who had been one of the leading lights of the famed Bauhaus movement.
- “The Edge of Vision, The Rise of Abstraction in Photography,” Lyle Rexer, Aperture Books. Over the past 50 or so years, photography has had a strongly documentary flavor that tended to push out other visual approaches. This new book may help you see in other ways and learn additional visual approaches and techniques.
- “Beauty in Photography,” Robert Adams, Aperture Books. Adams is a former writing professor who turned into a serious photographer of the American West. His book is, as you might expect, both well-written and thought-provoking.
- Aperture monograph series, which publishes slim volumes that display the photographs of renowned photographers like Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock and Paul Strand.
- Aperture Magazine, Aperture Foundation, 547 W. 27th St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10001, 212-505-5555. Quarterly magazine that discusses both current and classic photography. You probably won’t like everything in it but it is intended to be thought-provoking, something that every serious photographer needs.
- “Practical Composition in Photography,” Axel Bruck. This classic manual is probably the best how-to guide to photographic composition principles and about when and how to use them or break them. It’s only available as a used book at this time through online booksellers like http://www.amazon.com or http://www.barnesandnoble.com.
- http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/jp-composition-intro.shtml — this is the first in a series of columns by a very well-known photographer discussing basic principles of photographic composition.
- http://www.luminous-landscape.com — an excellent Web site primarily devoted to outdoor and landscape photography.
- http://tao-of-digital-photography.blogspot.com — The author is a theoretical physicist and serious photographer who has thought long and deeply about what sort of mental processes are conducive to serious photography. Also included are numerous links to other interesting and worthwhile photographic Web sites and blogs.
- http://www.jnevins.com/whitereading.htm — has posted the classic essay by Minor White on equivalents that should probably be read by every photographer who aspires to doing anything more than taking casual snapshots.
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.