The Essential Property of Photography

Now that most everything can be done in digital imagery, I find myself more and more searching for the unique visual quality and expression of photography. What is it that makes photography differentiate or stand out from other media of artistic expressions? To even try to look for the answer I first need to define what I mean by photography, again since digital imagery has blurred the transition between most artistic media. Today all kinds of imagery can be blended in digital tools like Photoshop or Illustrator. It’s even hard to say what is what, when for instance CAD (computer-aided design) recreates reality in such convincing ways that the result looks almost more real than the imperfect look of «real» photography. We talk about convergence of media, in that everything can be blended, in that everything mixes together, in that the origin of the final result is hard to tell, in that the tools we use to make images no longer is limited to only one output. We are able to make videos with digital cameras and we can make still photos with video cameras – and so on. This is all very exciting and opens up for previously unthinkable creative possibilities. Still, or maybe as a consequence, I find it valuable or even necessary to keep in mind what is the unique language or visual quality of each media, for instance photography. Now that everything may be mixed and there are so many ways to get to the same result, for me at least, it is helpful to have a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the various tools and inherent qualities of each media to be able use them most efficiently and to the better of the final result.

We have all read or heard the origin and the Latin meaning of the word photography – almost to unendurable lengths. The word itself still doesn’t give much help to define or limit the definition of what photography as expressive art comprises, since there are so many ways to «draw» with light. Thus we have to go outside of the strict explanation of the word itself. Instead I will use a maybe old fashion understanding of photography. For me photography implies catching something that real exists – reality if you want – by some sort of mechanical devise. Traditionally and generally the photographic media is about rendering and interpreting the real world – in some way or some form – through the technique of photography and its visual language. This is exactly what differentiates photography from other media and artistic expressions. Even the photographical abstraction requires a real and existing object in front of the lens. As far as I am concerned. By this limitation I don’t mean to underrate other media or ways of making photo-like imaginary. It’s just a practical definition.

To proceed one more step and to look at the topic a little bit more concrete, let’s try to elaborate what the visual language of photography really implies. Because rendering and interpreting the real world are properties photography shares with its close cousins, film and video. The very specific property of the still photo is to be found in the photographical process itself. A photograph is nothing more than a capture of time – a moment of time – whether this moment lasts only 1/1000 of a second or is stretched out to eight hours for that matter. No matter the length of the time slot, though, the moment is captured in one single image. When photography came about some 170 years ago the then new media brought with it a complete new language of imagery. On one hand it was able to freeze movements, to capture the climax of the moment in a way that no human eye had ever been able to experience up until then. On the other hand the camera had the ability to collect through long exposure time an event over time into one single frame, and by this show the structure or form of movement, or express a feeling of speed or movement, also in a way that human beings had not be able to before. After the development of photography these new elements of the image language have been adopted and used by other media. Just think about the ever present speed lines in cartoons, they are taken directly from the visual language of photography.

As photographers we need to hold on to the specific properties of the visual language of photography and use them to their utmost advantage. That means catching the moment of time or capturing the pattern of movement. We should strive to capture a sudden and telling expression in a face, the expressive interaction between people, reactions, the play of coincidences or the climax in a game. It can be explosive or it can be subtle. Of course capturing time in one single image is not the only property related to still photography – a handful of other elements come into play as well. Still for me the time capture is the single most specific visual quality of photography. Depth of field for instances is just as important in film or video language as in still photography, and thus less specific for the latter. Even the human vision is influenced by depth of field. I am not trying to devaluate the importance of depth of field in photography, as a matter of fact along with time capture those are the two most expressive visual language elements in the images we created. And to put it into perspective, I would say that those two properties are almost all we need to take into consideration – at least on a superstructural creative level – to created expressive and catching imagery.

15 thoughts on “The Essential Property of Photography

  1. Glad I stopped here following your comment on my blog. (Yeah, I know – I shouldn’t tag my posts with “photography” because I’m not at any “level” other than striving to tell stories, which is my real job as a writer but I get fed up with people having to drill through text sometimes when they could instead look at a picture). In journaling, we tend to put out “any old” picture, just to engage people a bit, but this photography thing has really stumped/fascinated me of late.

    I found this entry particularly pertinent since I’ve been reading a lot on photography (as well) and wonder about all the “fixes” we can do to pictures. (I’m guilty, on a very small level using an MS software package to “play” with some photos).
    And I think of my grandfather, who took “real” pictures and developed them in his own lab/workshop and wonder what he’d say often about all the digital manipulation.

    (BTW, love the photo in your aug 16 post!)

    Anyway, I will go in search of some of your book recommendations, and will then get out there with my camera.

  2. I am glad you did tag your posts with “photography” otherwise I would have missed your very interesting blog – maybe. I love words myself – read a lot of all kinds. And I do write myself, too, besides this blog, journalistically and fictional. Thanks for the nice words.

  3. Interesting. I don’t have Photoshop myself nor do I bother editing other than cropping or resizing if necessary. Being a painter, I figure if I want to really change a photo, I’ll paint a picture of it. (The majority of my photos are for painting references.) I actually took over one hundred of Mount Rushmore before I ended up with the four shots that I wanted.
    I don’t mind when others Photoshop. But I have noticed with many of my friends who are hobby photographers that Photoshop editing is so often over used to correct photos that people are not having to learn the basics of taking a good photo in the first place. Personally I think the most valuable tool any artist, photographer or painter, can have is patience. The patience to take the time to learn and to practice is invaluable.
    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

  4. I think Photoshop is a great tool. But it doesn’t really do good at correcting what isn’t well done at the time of capture. Yes you can save or enhance some, but the best photos are those with a clear idea from capture, through post production and finally presentation. Patience is definitely very important not the least for photographers, whether one shoots documentary style or landscape pictures. Patience in many different ways, as you point out. Thanks again for encouraging words.

  5. How nice to read your articles, your thoughts and your experiences in photography. At the beginning everything was a real magic for me with my camera. Especially when you see how could be amazing the images between light and shadows… But then when you meet and learn photoshop, this amazing way takes you in another worlds too… This is something seems never will be ended.
    Thank you Otto Von, with my love, nia

  6. That photo just blew my mind. Must be amazing to view the world up there, via the magic of your lens. A very honest and helpful insights on photography. I always enjoy reading your thoughts and interpretations. It shows a lot of heart in your craft. Happy Holidays my friend. May love , joy and peace be with you and your family.

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