Monday, April 4, 2016

Photographers, Fashion and the Struggle for Artistry

This blog follows on from the following, and continues to develop the themes already discussed there:

Those who haven't read these might like to go there first. However, I hope this here is standalone enough to make sense.

First of all an important note:

This article does not construe a criticism of anyone in particular, or of photographers or even artists in general. While I tend to express my sentiments with occasional bluntness, I do understand that mine is just one possible point of view, and that there are, possibly cogent, arguments that invalidate some of the statements that follow. We all have our world-views, needs, passions, values, goals, priorities and notions of what constitutes personal artistic integrity, and its limits and necessary compromises. Therefore, please read this in the spirit of "I'm just sayin'..." 

Any images included in this text that aren't mine are hot-linked to their sources, or else credited underneath the image.

Ok, so with that out of the way, let's consider something that's definitely true—at least right now, and within the working space of many amateurs, serious amateurs, semi-professionals and professionals working in the 'Landscape Photography' space.

There is a lot of photography with the following subjects:
  1. Oversaturated landscapes in general.
  2. Land- and seascape mixtures, or waterfall images, done with long exposures that make the movement of the water blurry.
  3. Images of lone trees, especially set in water or fog.
  4. Images of piers extending into, usually comparatively still, waters and taken at sunsets/sunrises with the usual oversaturation of colors.
  5. Composited night sky imagery, also oversaturated.
I think we can agree that there's lots of this around; and much of it is either amateurish or just plain 'decorative' photography. Some people love it. Others don't. Question is, why do photographers do it?

Item (2) is especially interesting, and it actually provided the motivation for writing this article. 

For starts, let's have a look at a few images that use the long-exposure technique to blur moving water, and below that some that don't.

And another two, also using a blur technique, but in a very different way.

Ponder these for a moment, then let me tell you the story that prompted this blog entry.

So, I walked into the shop of a well-known and awarded landscape photographer the other day. Just looking around, as I do whenever I come around this area; just to see what has changed, what's new, what's still there as far as I can recollect.

I usually make a point of not asking questions about the images, but treat it as visiting an exhibition gallery. I discussed something along those lines before here. In this instance I didn't get away with 'just looking'. I think sales might have been slow and so there was a bit of a running commentary by one lady who may have been the shop manager; and then by the photographer himself.

Unfortunately one of the running comments was made when I stood in front of one of those oversaturated long-exposure seaside/surf sunset images. I guess I could have just nodded wisely and with an impressed kind of mien, but I didn't. My bad.

I said, very carefully, that it was a lovely image, but that by and large I wasn't a fan of flowing water images, as they lacked what I think of as 'power'. Which they do. The 'flowing' and gentle undulations of the water-turned-into-mist completely change the character of what characterizes the ocean—and waterfalls for that matter. Unless you do it like in the bottom two images above; in which case it actually enhances the visualization of both the flow and the power—and it makes it into something completely different anyway and takes it way above 'decorative'. And it takes artistry and skill to get this right.

Anyway, here's the conversation that followed. It proceeded through three stages, each providing its very distinct rationalization for the image.
  1. Response to my comment on me not being a fan of flowing-water images: "Well, you can't sell those." Translation: reason = commercial.
  2. Follow-up response, after I didn't seem to get that first comment: A lecture on the need for long exposures at low light levels because you canna do short exposures because you've got up the ISO and get grainy images. Translation: reason = technical.
  3. When I pointed out another long exposure shot that I really liked—mainly because it wasn't oversaturated and hurt the eye, plus it was actually very, very nice!—that provided a good excuse to finally whip out the ultimate excuse: reason = artistic choice. (That was after the artist found out that I actually knew about the technological issues in item (2), and was a photographer myself; which gained some temporary street cred, of which I lost some when I told him that I was a semi-pro working toward being a full-time pro. But the guy uses a 100Mpx camera! Noise problems at high ISO? How high do you need it? For the shot in that image ISO 1600 at a reasonable aperture would have provided an almost a perfect freeze-time exposure It wasn't really that low a light level), and with that kind of sensor, unless it has a really bad high-ISO performance, blowing it up to a on-the-wall size frame shouldn't have been an issue.)
After the 'artistic choice' card had been played, I nodded wisely, said that I understood, and made what I hoped was a reasonably graceful escape.

My takeaway from this meeting was multi-leveled—and, as an aside, it definitely confirmed my decision to change from landscape to people. Not because of the technicalities or even the business, but because I've 'landscaped' myself out over the years. Every now and then I come across a scene that triggers off something that I really want to capture, and sometimes it's like—yes, I may be somewhat 'antiquated' here!—I have an Ansel Adams moment, where I see something that would be absolutely stunning in monochrome.

But these moments are getting fewer, and my main impetus for doing landscape these days is because I it stimulates a mood that combines awe with a sense of wonder at something that remains inexplicable and is somehow deeply buried in our evolutionary past. And I am utterly certain that misty, flowing waves or waterfalls aren't a part of that.

Seriously, you wouldn't have caught Ansel Adams dead doing misty water-scapes—and never mind the damn film noise. As Neil van Niekerk once said in a very good YouTube video, who's going to get up close to a picture they otherwise love and mutter "I see noise"? Well, I'm sure some people do, but the quality of an image is not determined by some noise—which in most cases printing tends to make disappear anyway—but by the image's impact based on very different emotional triggers.

At another level I took away a lesson in psychology: people will create whatever narrative is necessary to justify their decisions. The three rationalizations were almost logical in their presentation sequence, with the 'artistic choice' being the catch-all that is ultimately unassailable. Still, it would have been more credible if it hadn't been for the presentation of the commercial rationalization first and almost immediately. 

And, yes, if you want to make a business out of this, there's an argument for going with the fashion; said fashion having been set by forces that you probably didn't have control over, but which you may well have contributed to establishing by the work you're doing and keep on doing, rather than forging out and maybe interspersing the odd image that isn't part of the fashion. 

We tend to stick to the tried and true—as we possibly must, in order to survive—but the influence of that on anything 'artistic' is usually destructive. But it doesn't have to be. If there's one thing I learned from my father, it's that you can do commercial work and yet retain your artistic integrity and forge out into new directions and create what you feel you need to create. And people will respect and admire you for being who you are. 

And they'll buy your stuff! There's no need to be lazy and keep on keeping on doing the same thing over and over again, with only minor variations thrown in.

As Doris Lessing wrote:

“What's terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that [...] you like your work when you know quite well you're capable of better.”

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