Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Photographic prejudices and presuppositions

My grandfather, Troy Matthews, made his living developing photographs in the early years of the 20th century. I don't recall ever talking to him about it. He died in the early 1940s of tuberculosis when I was about nine or ten, but I inherited some of his photographic equipment. Did my grandfather ever take his own photographs with his own camera and consider it an artistic pursuit?

I referred to Vivian Maier a while back. After she died (or while she was dying) someone found boxes of her photos and undeveloped film. She was an eccentric lady who walked the streets in her spare time snapping photos of the people she saw. She did it all in black and white with one of those cameras you looked down into. I had one of those once. You didn't set anything as far as I recall. You just looked down into it, framed your photo and pushed the button. She may have had more than one camera, but maybe not. If there was anything photographically exotic in the world at the time, she wouldn't have been able to afford it -- and she didn't seem to need it. She got by quite well with her simple little black and white camera. People who have seen her photos are heralding her as one of the great "Street Photographers."

I wonder what Vivian Maier would have thought of all the tools the modern photographer has. Maier had to know in advance what was going to happen before she pushed the button, but that isn't a constraint for a modern photographer. If Maier's finger slipped at the wrong time, she threw the resultant photo away, but a modern photographer who has Photo Shop might think that no more than a minor challenge. He can "clean it up," or if not change it into something exotic looking and call it "art."

I'm reminded a bit of those kits children used to paint "by the numbers." They paint every number 1 red and every 2 blue, etc. and when they are done they have a painting. Photo Shop strikes me as being something like that. You click on certain things in various menus and change your photo more to your liking. Why struggle to get a sepia-like effect, someone asked, when one can create it with Photo Shop? That's a very good question.

If one looks at the photos on http://www.lawrencehelm.com/2011/01/pentax-50mm-on-clouding-morning.html one can see that some of them appear to have a sepia-like tone to them. The sun was overcast that morning and I shot more into the sun than would normally be possible. Also, I was using some ridiculous aperture setting like F 2.8. Some of these came out very well, but I can't take credit for knowing how they would come out. I was experimenting in difficult light and hoped to achieve something like what I was seeing. The finished photos were a little different. Oh sure, I took them the morning of the 26th with an SMC Pentax-M 1.2 50mm lens mounted to my Olympus E-520 camera with a Fotodiox PK-4/3 adapter, but how much "artistic" credit can I claim from such happy experimentation?

A term I have frequently seen used in the photographic forums as an indication of artistic excellence is "the eye." The photographer (it is often said) with "the eye" will be able to take excellent photos no matter what camera he uses -- even an old black and white camera like the one Vivian Maier used. I suppose there is no reason why one must choose between seeking an "eye" like Vivian Maier's and mastering Photo Shop. A "Pro who spends his life in "Photography" will probably strive for both, but in my case, with my photographic prejudices and presuppositions, I only have room for the former.

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