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Philosophy of Photography Taking pics is one thing, but understanding why we take them, what they mean, what they are best used for, how they effect our reality -- all of these and more are important issues of the Philosophy of Photography. One of the best authors on the subject is Susan Sontag in her book "On Photography."

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The Mechanics of Image Making
Old 05-04-2012   #1
Joakim Målare
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The Mechanics of Image Making

I have done photography for ten years or so, as a hobby, with no particular goal in mind other than to explore and see what happens. Not a regular activity and mostly as a way of spending time on my own, enjoying the walk and collecting more or less interesting subjects, pictured in a intuitive manner. Needless to say, this doesn't really lead anywhere. Sure, it's nice and all, but when you have taken the same picture fifty times in different places and you realise you're about to repeat a composition of the same subject once again, you really start to wonder what the point is. I have greater ambitions than taking snapshots.

If we assume that we have a goal with our image making, or at least an urge to move forward, to challenge our selves - then we need to pick a method to get going in that direction, even if we can never reach the goal for various reasons. Now, if you have, or would like to have, a direction set for your image making - considering you're reading this - you have already picked the medium for doing so. Photography.

[1]: What qualities inherent to a photographic image made you choose photography as your primary medium? Have you picked up another art form as a complement, because you felt something was lacking? Drawing, perhaps? Or is it your firm belief that photography is the superior, perhaps only, medium able to record and display some certain kind of property in any chosen scenery? A radiating feature in the final image, difficult to define but present only in photographs?

[2]: Some rely on intuition, others on intent. I read that thread. During a shooting session either may work, but I'd like to know if you think you can make good progress in your entire artistic endeavour using both approaches? You either leave the enhancement of your skills to chance or fate and try not to interrupt that subconscious evolution, or you regularly analyse what you are doing and make careful plans for the next step based on your conclusions. Do you just shoot random pictures without a larger plan and hope for some happy correlations, or do you seek to express a deeper context within a series of intentionally juxtaposed images? Have you developed any method of reviewing your progress in order to make it more efficient, or do you trust your natural inner evolution to make subconscious choices for you?

Cartier-Bresson had his "decisive moment" as a driving force. Koudelka speaks of "the maximum". What have you? And how do you work with it?

... After having edited this text a couple of times, an idea pops up about at least one property exclusive for photography in general, but there must be tons. I would happily hear your thoughts, because there is a theoretical and emotional side to the process that is too fascinating to leave unexplored!

Thanks for reading and sorry for my somewhat quriky egnlish!

/ Joakim
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Old 05-04-2012   #2
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Good thread!

Some or most people have a drive for artistic expression. I guess I'm a visual person and I also have an above average (by my estimation) appreciation for machinery and mechanical engineering. These 3 factors led me to photography, I believe.

I may begin a photographic endeavour with an intent, but I always try to stay open to serendipity and to go with the flow.

That's me.
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Old 05-05-2012   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by FrankS View Post
Some or most people have a drive for artistic expression. I guess I'm a visual person and I also have an above average (by my estimation) appreciation for machinery and mechanical engineering. These 3 factors led me to photography, I believe.
This is true for most photographers free to choose their own path. Usually it begins with the fascination for the camera as a tool, then leads to the strike of wonder when you see the direct transformation of your personal visual excerption into an abstract representation in two-dimensional form. To realise how "easy" it is to make pictures - you just have to press buttons. You learn more about technique and you polish your aesthetic sense in terms of composition and reproduction. This is a behaviour most of us repeat and repeat to our heart's content.

Which is fine, really. And it doesn't matter what medium you practice - there are many aspects that are different between photography and for example drawing - but most exercises in visual interpretation share this cycle of input and output. All capable of producing fantastic pieces of art.

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I may begin a photographic endeavour with an intent, but I always try to stay open to serendipity and to go with the flow.
So do I, sometimes. I live basically on the countryside, it's a small village but there's not a lot going on here. The flow I have to interact with here is pretty much leaves blowing in the wind. Grass, stones, the shoreline, the occasional deer. People sceptic of someone walking around the grocery store with a camera.

So I fool myself into believing that I need to get to the larger city a couple of hours away. At first I see lots of things going on, everything is moving. People, cars, trams, birds, all that. I walk around and see all these possible pictures resembling street photography in general, people and others elements in relation to each other.

And I understand that this is something to work with - I could spend hours and hours shooting promising subjects and end up with a few good pictures. I could put them up on the wall and admire my feat of capturing these fleeting, unlikely moments of time and space.

But really - how is this different from taking pictures of trees, my dog or my neighbour mowing the lawn? It's a different subject, yes, but the approach to the subject is the same. It may carry on at a slower pace, but the results are the same.

This is where the next big step needs to take place in your progression as an artist. I am not content with the passive spectating of individual events. I don't think it is fair to the effort you put into making your images to display them randomly or within the directly noticeable theme. And I don't think that photography has any expressive restrictions keeping it from conveying a message that is greater than the sum of the individual components in a series of images.

I suppose that the point I'm trying to make is that most amateur photographers are not interested in editing their work on a big scale, over time, and that most of us are also ignorant to the power of displaying our work in an intentional manner.

I have come to the conclusion that in order to better succeed in expressing any personal emotion, question or point of view towards a specific subject or theme, in the photographic medium it is necessary to do a controlled display of a limited selection of material. To reach an introvert perspective, you need to precisely select your extrovert material.

I would appreciate if someone could suggest examples of photographers working like this. On the internet you rarely see how the photographer intends for his work to be displayed - it is something you have to visit the galleries to experience - but in some cases you understand that what the artist is trying to communicate is best understood "between the pictures", so to speak.

Ralph Gibson has two series that I think make a good example, the "Somnambulist" from 1970, and "Deja Vu" from 1972.

http://www.ralphgibson.com/1970-somnambulist.html
http://www.ralphgibson.com/1972-deja-vu.html

Koudelka may have a similar impact on me, but I can't find any collected display on the net so there's no example. I realise that this is also put to common use in books, but consider Henri Cartier-Bresson... Great photos, but to me, there is no message.

Sorry for the lengthy posts, I guess I'm making this clearer to myself by asking others. Feel free to chime in.
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Old 05-05-2012   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Joakim Målare View Post
. . . I have come to the conclusion that in order to better succeed in expressing any personal emotion, question or point of view towards a specific subject or theme, in the photographic medium it is necessary to do a controlled display of a limited selection of material. To reach an introvert perspective, you need to precisely select your extrovert material. . .
This sounds exactly right to me. It is, after all, a good working definition of 'a body of work'. And it is, as you say, why so few photographers become Big Names, even if they take very good pictures.

For around 45 years I've done pretty much what you describe in your first post, except that often, I've been illustrating a book or magazine article, which makes for a sort of 'body of work lite' on each subject. Lately I've been wondering about taking photography more seriously...

Personal style? I think that it creeps up on you over the years, and that often, others may spot it before you do. My favourite description of my own style, insofar as I have a style, is "glimpses of things, as if you'd only seen them for a moment, or are half-remembering them." The interesting thing about that comment is that it was prompted by some 5x7 inch pictures, all very tripod mounted, rather than 35mm, where it might seem more appropriate. But the same person reckons that the same style appears in most of my better pictures.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 05-05-2012   #5
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... oddly, one of the things that always irritates me about my photos is that they always look like mine, they always seem to share the same style or look even when I set out to do something different ... it's got boring after all these years ...
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Old 05-12-2012   #6
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Quote:
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... "glimpses of things, as if you'd only seen them for a moment, or are half-remembering them." ...
This is interesting. That ability to immediately connect to our memories is one of those qualities exclusive to the photographic medium that I was thinking of, but didn't mention, in the original post. 'Exclusive' may be an overstatement, but it is certainly a prominent aspect of photography, even more so in still photography I believe.

This is at its greatest effect when you see your own pictures, which is also why it may then pass as an unnoticed function. The more recently you took the picture, the clearer your memory of the scene is. So it's pretty much just a documentation of an interesting subject, performed in an artistic manner.

However, when you view pictures from a long time ago that you forgot you made, this effect is also valid although not quite as direct. The photo makes you remember an event from your past, but your memory has to fill in the blanks. The picture may act as a link to a greater amount of emotional content than what is reproduced within the frame... and so you experience nostalgia.

It would probably be easier to take note of this quality by browsing your most recent family album and then pictures from your childhood - but there are many fine pictures by photographers other than yourself that evokes that profound feeling in all of us.

...

As an interesting side track, take a look at the video on this page where Jeff Wall is being interviewed on his process. I can't seem to get the link to youtube (typing on an ipad) but there's often good stuff to read in Luke's blog too.
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Old 05-12-2012   #7
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This will sound trite to the general reader, but it is real and sincere (to me).
What drives the images that I make are "How will look 8X10 - matted to 11X14 - on a cafe wall?"

Putting that constraint on my pictures helps me enormously to focus on what I want to do rather than let the infinite options confuse me to a dead stop.

I struggle quite a bit to imagine and make my "next cafe picture". I collect props and material and it sits around the house until I get that "next great vision".
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Old 05-12-2012   #8
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Its not about 'what' you choose to photograph.

It's your relation to it, your feeling for it, and your unified vision of it as a subject.

Emphasis o UNIFIED VISION. Most work I see posted here and elsewhere ( cafe walls, amatuer contests etc) tend to be pleasant enough visually but really don't say much of anything because they are not part of a larger, consistent theme that runs through the work as a while. Even cat pictures, the bain of internet critique sites, can be elevated to "ART" when done as such - see rhe monograph ERNIE by Tony Mendoza.
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Old 05-12-2012   #9
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I think the thing that is missing from this discussion is goals. When there are no goals, no goal is achieved--in fact no goal CAN be achieved if there isn't one! I think that makes a person's work both visually boring and pointless.

I see that in a lot of street photography (I love picking on that, because there are so many really bad photographers using the street as an excuse to buy expensive cameras they can barely use) in which the photographer doesn't approach the street as anything more than a bunch of visual props, and hunts for nice patterns in them. The really great street photographers were documenting things, USING composition only as a tool, not a point--Robert Frank's book is named The Americans for a reason, not coincidence.

In the same way, I think you will find that the strongest photography in most categories is based on an underlying theme that the photographer has made a game of locating and capturing instances of in the most interesting visual way. As I look through Flickr, as I do quite often, the least interesting photographers are the ones whose work shows no coherence--a horse, a building, three friends, a new car, a party, a pile of cameras on a desk--but the people who choose to develop a theme make interesting work even when I'm not interested in their subjects. I went through about 20 pages the other day looking at the pictures of someone who has spent at least three years photographing one species of common flower you can buy in a flower store, and he had really done something with that very limited subject.

Similarly, I feel the best about work I've done which follows a theme, and the theme helps me to find subject matter, too. It an be as simple as shooting a play. One of the moderators--Frank?--made a very excited post the other day about doing this, and even though he doesn't have prints or anything yet, you could see in his post how good he felt about what he'd accomplished.

And I don't mean that such work then has to be shown as a group. What I'm getting at is that the concentration on a goal and the deeper exploration of it results in much stronger individual visions (single photographs) than random clicking at constantly-changing unexplored subjects.

[and notice that while I was composing this, Teuthida was composing the same concept!]
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Old 05-12-2012   #10
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I struggle (as ever) with the concept of having a unified vision that encompasses my pictures. (I don't know that this is right-wrong issue, either.)

I have stuff hanging around here and that is waiting for me to "interpret" into a picture. But how I think about the stuff changes, depending on whatever frame of mind I am in that day, based on all the other crap going on in my life.

My (hobbyist) approach is to make the picture when the spirit moves me, and make it how I interpret that object or scene on that particular day.

I expect never (especially at my age) to develop a unified vision. I actually don't think that I want one. I don't quite get what that brings to the party.

I think the concept of a unified vision is important to artists, but not to guys (like me) who are happy making pictures that people like to look at while they drink coffee or sip wine and chat about stuff in their lives.
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Old 05-12-2012   #11
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What the unified vision brings to the table is practice and learning. If you don't concentrate on anything, repeat it, and try to perfect it, you can't really learn anything. People who don't want to make the effort will tell you that it doesn't matter, and they are wrong. No one ever accomplished anything better by not doing it. Whether you really want to learn anything is a different matter, and if you don't that's fine, you don't need an excuse.
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Old 05-12-2012   #12
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Quote:
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What the unified vision brings to the table is practice and learning. If you don't concentrate on anything, repeat it, and try to perfect it, you can't really learn anything. People who don't want to make the effort will tell you that it doesn't matter, and they are wrong. No one ever accomplished anything better by not doing it. Whether you really want to learn anything is a different matter, and if you don't that's fine, you don't need an excuse.
Are you saying that people who don't strive to develop a unified vision for their work are people "who don't want to learn" ? or people who "don't concentrate" or "put in an effort" to their work ?

If so, I have to disagree. So be it. We disagree.

Certainly, if your goal is to develop a unified vision of things, then you had better work at doing that. But if that is NOT your goal, then you should make pictures as you desire to, I suppose. I see neither person as being one who does not want to learn or work hard. They just do things differently.
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Old 05-12-2012   #13
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For me, the fun of photopgraphy is in discovering how to see things. A project or an idea, can force you to go out and start seeing things in a new way. You slowly acquire a sensibility for seeing things, that you normally wouldn't notice. It is both a process of learning and a continuous training and perfectioning. The ideal condition, is one in which you no longer look for pictures, but the pictures present themselves in front of you and beg to be taken. This has been described already by many photographers, and maybe the best explanation I've seen, is in the book "The Tao of Photography". If you feel bored with what you do, and do not think you are progressing, force yourself to do something different, explore a new subject or technique. This should help you to open your eyes again.
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Old 05-12-2012   #14
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This is a fascinating thread!

For many people, photography is a hobby or pastime. A way to unwind and relax, share photos and a way to lose one's self in a process. For these people, they may have no photographic "goals", themes present in their work or an oeuvre. That is fine! As long as you are happy doing something you enjoy, then go for it!

For the more serious hobbyists, or those looking to improve their craft: ask yourself, Why?
What makes you take a picture of a particular person, place or thing? Have you seen a similar photo before? Are you exploring a new technique or a new method of working? For me, I try to make myself uncomfortable. I reach out and meet people, talk to strangers groups I might not normally encounter. These experiences can serve to open new doors or reinforce your own ideas.

There isn't a silver bullet to making great photographic work. Study the masters, study painting and drawing. Study anything. Just educate yourself, keep your mind open to new ideas and keep shooting!

Sorry for the disconnected ramble, I am on an iPhone
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Old 05-13-2012   #15
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As a means of artistic expression I find many forms of painting to more readily communicate the artist's intent, rather than photography.

I might also say that I in no way am artistically inclined toward being a painter, but that I appreciate a well-crafted painting more readily than photography. This sounds strange coming from a person such as I who've spent the last three decades pretty well immersed in photography as a past time, but the bare truth is that I've been in numerous photography galleries in my part of the world (Santa Fe), and have seen work by some very famous names, and often can appreciate many of these prints only in the context of having a background understanding of the history of photography, and where their work fits into some larger context. Standing alone, outside of any art historical context, many of these photographs fall flat, at least for me.

Perhaps my lack of appreciation has to do with the fact of the photographic image having been appropriated by the commercial publication world for well on a century (since the advent of the photogravure process), and our culture therefore being inundated with photographic imagery of every conceivable type and quality has somehow jaded my deeper appreciation. I'm pretty critical of what pleases me in photography.

Painting has its own context and history, of course, but for me, the visual aspect of a well crafted painting offers a visual pleasure altogether aside from any larger contextual implications, it seems to exude an air of being hand-crafted (which it is), and especially the genre of plein air painting where the artist isn't painting from a photograph but rather from his own internal visual perspective. And of course the various genres of abstract and post-surrealist art I also well appreciate.

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Old 05-13-2012   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mdarnton View Post
What the unified vision brings to the table is practice and learning. If you don't concentrate on anything, repeat it, and try to perfect it, you can't really learn anything. People who don't want to make the effort will tell you that it doesn't matter, and they are wrong. No one ever accomplished anything better by not doing it. Whether you really want to learn anything is a different matter, and if you don't that's fine, you don't need an excuse.
This makes eminent sense to me.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 05-13-2012   #17
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This is interesting. That ability to immediately connect to our memories is one of those qualities exclusive to the photographic medium that I was thinking of, but didn't mention, in the original post. 'Exclusive' may be an overstatement, but it is certainly a prominent aspect of photography, even more so in still photography I believe.

This is at its greatest effect when you see your own pictures,. . . .
Hmmm.... Not sure I'd agree. There are things we've all seen, and of which we are reminded, even if we have not seen exactly the same thing as in (someone else's) picture. This is why, I think, great photographs resonate with the viewer. In a sense, the less literal a picture is, or the more it reseblees a glimpse, the more it can remind us of common shared experience. This is why extremely literal, highly technicallly accomplished pictures, such as Ansel Adams's, don't please everyone.

Cheers,

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Old 05-13-2012   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by daveleo View Post
I struggle (as ever) with the concept of having a unified vision that encompasses my pictures. (I don't know that this is right-wrong issue, either.)

I have stuff hanging around here and that is waiting for me to "interpret" into a picture. But how I think about the stuff changes, depending on whatever frame of mind I am in that day, based on all the other crap going on in my life.

My (hobbyist) approach is to make the picture when the spirit moves me, and make it how I interpret that object or scene on that particular day.

I expect never (especially at my age) to develop a unified vision. I actually don't think that I want one. I don't quite get what that brings to the party.

I think the concept of a unified vision is important to artists, but not to guys (like me) who are happy making pictures that people like to look at while they drink coffee or sip wine and chat about stuff in their lives.
It's a shame, because (based on review of your website) you have a good eye.

Set yourself a reportage project. About anything. Pick 15-20 of the best and exhibit them at your coffehouse.
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Old 05-31-2012   #19
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Hmmm.... Not sure I'd agree. There are things we've all seen, and of which we are reminded, even if we have not seen exactly the same thing as in (someone else's) picture. This is why, I think, great photographs resonate with the viewer. In a sense, the less literal a picture is, or the more it reseblees a glimpse, the more it can remind us of common shared experience. This is why extremely literal, highly technicallly accomplished pictures, such as Ansel Adams's, don't please everyone.

Cheers,

R.
Right. That was the point I was trying to make, although I admit my reasoning is a little fuzzy at best...

What I meant is that this function of recalling memories is so great when looking at ones own recent pictures that the picture is almost "reduced" to the memory. In other words, you look into your mind and not so much at the picture.

If you look at others' photos, the scene or motif can be suggestive of one of your personal memories - a glimps if you like - in such a subtle way that you become aware of it and resonate with the image (you have a good choice of words), causing a feeling of nostalgia.

So, I agree.

It would be interesting to find out other psychological functions in photography. Too bad I'm just a stonemason... there is only so much time.
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Old 06-02-2012   #20
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photography, painting, drawing, music, interpretive dance,... isnt it all about eliciting emotions?
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Old 06-02-2012   #21
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...it seems to exude an air of being hand-crafted (which it is), and especially the genre of plein air painting where the artist isn't painting from a photograph but rather from his own internal visual perspective...
I agree, drawing and painting can hold a sort of warmth that is never present in a photo. I guess it's because, up to a certain point, you see traces from the person behind the artwork, from the artist him-/herself. When hand-crafted art becomes very technical, or "perfect", this warmth cease to exist. In photography, it would be impossible to achieve because you never hold the pencil or brush. You can only manipulate the arm.

But when it comes to the ability to display the artists intent, I'm sure all artforms are equal. Sometimes one form fit the specific intent better than others. There are strengths and weaknesses to all of them.
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