This Week’s Instagram

Munchow_1698-007_E2

Once a week I will show one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Posted in Photography | Tagged , | 7 Comments

The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Obelisken på Place de la Concorde med Eiffeltårnety i bakgrunnen

Postmodern photography is an approach that on the surface looks quite dull and dreary. Deliberately so. In the art world postmodern photographers are elevated to heroes, but when I look at some of their works, I cannot avoid thinking a lot of this is the emperor’s new clothes. Is it really so?

In my post last week about ethics and where to draw the line for acceptable alterations in photography; in a few comments I referred to postmodern thinking, particularly when the relation between reality and photography was discussed. Postmodern photography is very closely linked to the understanding of how a photograph renders reality. One could actually say it is other way around; how a photo doesn’t relate to reality – at least in the eyes of some postmodern thinkers who state that a photo is not a capture of reality but of our collective recollection of all imagery from the past. Not surprisingly postmodernism turns its back on the ideas and thoughts about photography that has been developed and refined by generations of photographers – with their understanding again based on the development of the visual language through centuries of painters.

Artists regularly want to re-invent the medium in which they work. Boredom, a need to experiment and an urge to simply challenge the status quo take hold. This has always been the way art evolves; first refining and developing earlier ideas, then overthrow them. These revolutions are sometimes significant, sometimes not. In photography, one of the most radical changes began in the late 1970’s and the beginning of the 80’s and amounted to a rejection of what until then had been the accepted norm compositionally, expressional, philosophically as well as to what subject to capture and how subjects should be rendered.

I think it’s not coincidental that postmodern photography came about the same time digital photography started to develop. The digital revolution spurred the development of the new thinking. Postmodernism had already evolved in architecture and was slowly spreading to the art world. With digital imagery, the way for postmodern thinking was paved for photographers as well. Digital photography suddenly made it much easier to alter the photographic expression – the consequences of which I discussed in the previously mentioned post – and to separate a photograph into its various parts for them to be treated independently. The digital technology transferred a continuous tone into bits; that is zeroes and ones. The photo was decomposed, which is – at least part – the idea that postmodern photography is grounded upon. Deconstruction, as it is called, is an underlying force in the ideology of postmodern photography.

Postmodernists believe meaning cannot be determined by surface appearances since everything from a photograph to a television program is a text that must be decoded. The act of deciphering the text – or a photograph as is the subject for discussion here – and unveiling the hidden assumptions behind it is what Jacques Derrida, one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy, calls «deconstruction».

What is postmodern photography then? There is no one and simple definition of the movement. As a matter of fact it can hardly be described as a movement since postmodernism encompasses so many different directions. Nevertheless, the notion that there is not a single truth of experience is at the core of postmodern thinking. Postmodernism embraces the idea that the context a piece of artwork is shown or seen in changes its meaning or interpretation. Furthermore, as mentioned, deconstruction is a significant element of postmodern photography. So is appropriation. Appropriation is the act of borrowing – stealing some would call it – imagery or forms to create something new. One of the most well-known examples of appropriation is Sherrie Levine’s Untitled (After Edward Weston), for which the artist simply made a copy print from a reproduction of the famous 1926 Edward Weston image Torse of Neil and claimed it as her own. Denouncement of authorship is also part of the postmodern dogma and closely related – or a precondition even – to appropriation. Postmodern artists challenge the essential assumption of a discrete, identifiable, recognizable author. Every idea is, in fact, a conglomeration of past ideas. Hence a work of art is a collective vision, not a singular on.

In photography the postmodern idea very much breaks with any and all accepted and established rules and principles. In many ways it conforms to an almost boring expression. Compositionally, for instance, any dynamic elements and any accepted or clever harmonies are discarded. The focus is on static balance instead of dynamic, no vectors, no rich colour themes, frame shapes as close to anonymous as possible (with the passive square format being preferred) and divided either equally or inelegantly. Certainly, strong diagonals are to be kept out of the picture. Hence there is a strong preference for frontal, squared-up viewpoints, and the use of normal or slight long focal lengths, and certainly always avoiding ultra-wide lenses.

For the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, one of the first showing postmodern photography, the curator, William Jenkins declared that the theme was «stylistic anonymity», focusing on content to the exclusion of form: «The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information, but eschewing the aspect of beauty, emotion and opinion.»

Paradoxically by denouncing and disowning established photographic skills, postmodern photography replaces it with its own set or rules and principles. Plain is not lack of intent or compositional considerations. The viewer is being manipulated into believing that apparently plain composition means plain, unadorned truth. The difference between a postmodern style – if I may use such an expression – and the traditional – neither which is conformed to one standard, though – is that part of the manipulation is taking place at a conceptual level, rather than an openly-declared manipulation of the geometry of the image. The same may be said about the aim of keeping the photographer’s personality out of art work; it’s quite a paradox as well, because postmodern photographers such as Cindy Sherman, William Wegman, Nan Goldin and Lorna Simpson – to mention a few, have gained huge worldwide recognition and have influences the way photography is look upon and exerted.

So, is postmodern photography the emperor’s new clothes as I stated in the beginning of the post? Yes, some of it is in my opinion. I find some postmodern work simply plain and boring – almost as intended – but raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation. In particularly I too often find this theoretically discourse lofty and pompous. George DeWolfe, an award-winning photographer and teacher, claimed in an issue of Camera Arts that postmodern art is the result largely of academic theorists and critics posturing hegemony over art with words. DeWolfe makes a strong argument about the «failure» of postmodernism and the course needed to bring art back to the individual artist. It seems as Dylan would say «there’s a battle outside and it’s raging».

At the same time I am always encouraged by anyone daring to break with conformed and established «truths». Postmodern is certainly challenging the established photography world and belief-systems. And it has produced some stunning work, namely by artists such as the ones mentioned above, which brings photography forward into our contemporary times.

What I find to be most agonizing is this antagonism between modernism – or traditional photography – and postmodernism and this tendency to identify with one camp and reject everything from the other – this battled I was just referring to where the front lines are sharp and insurmountable. Why not take and learn from all of them? None of them has been appropriated (excuse the pun) and fenced off, and we can all, if we want to, join in. Why not experiment? Why not follow different stands? The history of photography is made by those who did.

Posted in Photographic Reflections, Photography | Tagged , | 46 Comments

Let Me Give Your Photo Feedback!

Do you have a photo you need feedback on, a picture you are unsure about, a picture that is different from your usual style or just a picture that you want to know how to do better? I have once again opened up for my popular picture critique. Post a picture on my Picture Critique page here on this blog and get my feedback on the photo.

It’s been a while since last time. But here I am with another round of picture critique! So once again, I open up for submission of photos anyone would like some feedback on. This is the fourth time I do this, and the previous rounds were well received by those who sent me their photos.

As last time my idea is to let any of you who have pictures you want to have some feedback on to post them on. Go to the Picture Critique page, post a link to the picture and I will soon give my honest view and perception of your picture in what I attempt to be constructive and meaningful critique.

I both teach and attend a lot of workshops, and one of the greatest values from participating in photographic workshops is the possibility to have feedback on pictures you take. I know from the workshops I teach that this is what students appreciate the most. Therefore, here is a chance to get feedback on your pictures without having to participate in an expensive workshop. Not quite the same of course, but I hope it can be of some value.

If you are interested, go to the Picture Critique page to read more or just post a picture there. I hope to see your picture soon. Please do not post any picture or links to pictures here, but go to the Picture Critique page.

Beneath are a collage of the pictures submitted in the last round of picture critique. Are you ready for – or need – some feedback on one of your photos? Here is the chance.

Posted in Creativity, Photo Workshop, Photography | Tagged | 10 Comments

This Week’s Instagram

Munchow_1700-021_E2

Once a week I will show one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Posted in Photography | Tagged | 58 Comments

Where Do We Draw the Line?

Ungdommer trener i Rafael Trejos boksegym i gamlebyen

Nobody likes to be manipulated. Not by a car salesman, not by politicians nor by a photograph. Of course when it comes to the latter, it depends both on individual preferences as well as the context the photograph is presented in. Nevertheless I think we all can agree upon the fact that there is a thin line between acceptable enhancement and deplorable manipulation. The question is; where do we draw that line? As for myself I am likely to accept almost anything that goes with art, but hardly anything done with a documentary photography.

We often think that manipulation is a feature of the digital era. But photography has been altered through all times, both in desirable ways as well as by shrewd methods. I remember how upset the photography community got when it was first known in the late 80’s how the renowned documentary photographer Eugene W. Smith had altered many of his photos. For instance how he had combined many negatives to obtain one of his most famous images of Albert Schweitzer and how he had burned and bleached the eyes of the mourners in the even more famous photograph The Wake so they would look at the man on lit de parade. Even so, most photographers and connoisseurs of photography accepted during the time of analogue photography, that the negative was usually the starting point of a creative process aimed at attaining an aesthetic interpretation of reality.

The big leap with digital technology, however, is how easy it has become to enhance, alter and manipulate photography. In addition we have gotten a whole array of new tools we can deploy if we wish to. Almost every day the boundaries for what can be done with a photograph are stretched. The result is that nobody trusts a photograph any more. The old saying «a photograph never lies» doesn’t hold much truth any more. In many ways the visual language of photography has reached a staged that can be compared to the written language. Writers have always been capable of writing fiction, personal comments, reports, eyewitnesses as well as lies and deceits – if they wanted to. In the end, how we read something comes down to what kind of text it is and who has written it. The same credibility is about to have – or already has – a similar decisive bearing on photography.

Where do we draw the line, then? The whole photography society is debating the question.

Gateliv i gamlebyen

Gateliv i gamlebyen

If we are talking about documentary photography, for me the line goes between digital enhancement and actually moving pixels. Darkening or lightening whatever is in a photograph is fine for me. So is altering the saturation – as long it is done true to the how the subject was when the photo was captured. The two photos above show what I find quite acceptable. One of them is how the scene was captured in RAW-format and the other the final processed photo. The difference is quite striking, but then it also has to be taken into account that the RAW-image itself is not by any account true to the original subject, that’s just the nature of the digital negative. On the other hand, the processed photo is very close to how I perceived the street scenery. It’s still an interpretation. And it’s still valid to ask if it’s acceptable.

What I am saying, is that basically enhancing is OK with me. In contrast then, adding, moving or removing pixels is not acceptable – again only in my opinion. At the same time I realize it’s not necessarily as easy as that. For instance if you by accident captured a Coca Cola can that ends up being very disturbing within the frame, most people would agree that it’s still not acceptable to digitally remove it – again talking about a documentary photography. But then, what difference is there really between removing the can before taking the shot and then afterwards digitally? Or is there any difference? Many photographers wouldn’t think twice about removing the can beforehand – but would oppose the idea of doing it digitally. Take another example: The shot underneath of a biking police officer was captured with a fast shutter speed. But I wanted to convey the feeling of movement, and blurred the image after the fact in Photoshop, in a way that makes it look like the biking policeman was captured with a long shutter speed. No doubt pixels have been moved and removed. But what is the difference between this photo and an actually photo taken with a long shutter speed? The end result would have been almost the same. I leave the question open for discussion.

Munchow_0989-027

The reality is that the transition to digital technologies is still controversial, even amongst professionals. What happened to Klavs Bo Christensen, disqualified in 2009 by the panel of judges of the prestigious Pictures of the Year (POY) contest for an alleged abuse in colour and tonal enhancement of the original RAW files of his pictures, is just a clear example. I believe that the jury’s request to produce the original RAW files in order to verify that no pixel had been manipulated in the final print was legitimate, but I do disagree with their final decision. Manipulation and digital enhancing – as I have tried to indicate – are actually two completely different concepts. The «over-photoshopping» techniques can be aesthetically judged, but they correspond to a photographer’s interpretation of reality and should not be mistaken with an attempt to temper with the visual content of an image.

© Klavs Bo Christensen

© Klavs Bo Christensen

Looking back at Christensen’s photo, it’s easy to see that nothing has been added nor deleted from the original image – the RAW file. That is the place where the frontier between manipulation and the digital enhancing process lies: on the one side there’s a mystification of reality, on the other a tonal and aesthetic interpretation of it.

A final example: Do you remember this post’s opening picture of a boxing gym (captured in Havana by the way)? Let’s say I captured an image like the one below, but my client needed to have a photo in square format. If I had known beforehand, I could of course have asked the young boxer to move over to the right. If I didn’t know beforehand, would it be acceptable to digitally move him over? In effect, what would the difference be? (Let me add that the digitally moving of the young boxer was only done for the sake of argument. I didn’t have a client asking for such a photo).

In the beginning, I said that I would accept almost anything when it comes to art. But what if the opening photo was requested by an art gallery? Then it suddenly would have become art, no? Is the digital moving/manipulation then tolerable?

Ungdommer trener i Rafael Trejos boksegym i gamlebyen

Posted in Photographic Reflections, Photography, Photojournalism | Tagged | 112 Comments

A Stream Running Through

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

© Ståle Prestøy

Detachment and alienation from Mother Nature are essential elements that run like a red thread through the pictures above taken by Ståle Prestøy. They also tell a story about the destruction of our surroundings, as well as the paradox between human ignorance and well-being. The photos were taken for Ståle’s personal project he did for the eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» I taught earlier this year. As he wrote in the introduction to the project, Ståle is interested in how human activities and needs influence our natural made surroundings. In the project he wished to tell a visual narrative based and captured around a small stream running through a narrow valley. The stream is squeezed between roads, suburbs and small industry plants. Despite contamination and human trash left along the banks the flowing water still represent some hope in this estranged world that Ståle depicts. This could have been a traditional documentary photo essay, but Ståle decided to use a set of techniques when he explored the subject, and approached the theme using a more personal voice. His images radiate iciness and discomfort, and force the viewer to suffer in the view of what we human beings have done to our close surroundings. Through a limited colour palette with mostly gray, muted and cold colours, Ståle enhances the feeling of detachment and distress. For more photos by Ståle Prestøy, please look up his blog prestoy.org.

Posted in Photo Workshop, Photography | Tagged , , | 52 Comments

This Week’s Instagram

Breiflabben på Bryggen

Once a week I will show one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Posted in Photography | Tagged | 60 Comments