A Formula For Making Meaning with Photography

I am just about moved into my new office which while exciting means that I have piles of magazines and books that I have to sort through, organize and get on bookshelves in a semi-logical order. It’s more work than I would like it to be and also means that in the interim I have to hunt for books that I need for reference.

I was recently looking, unsuccessfully I might add, for some books on alternate processes when I came across Terry Barret’s ‘Criticizing Photographs’. I’ve read and reread ‘Criticizing Photographs’ multiple times over the years and struggled each time. I feel that it’s not that complicated and yet continue to struggle. On this visit I found an interesting equation buried in one of the chapters:

Meaning = Subject Matter + Medium + Form + Context

While I’m not going to argue whether this is right or wrong it’s useful to occasionally stop and think about how the choices that we make as photographers influence what we’re trying to say with our photographs. There are a couple of takeaways for me from this that mostly relate to context and medium that I want to dig at a little here.

By my own estimation much of the photography that I deliberately look at is in that collected in books. While this should have rung some bells for me it took the above equation for me to realize that the way that we present our work will have a significant impact whether we fully realize our intent for it. A single image from a series may work just fine but may not have the impact if it were seen as part of the larger project presented in a book. It also struck me that regardless of how you arrange images for a gallery show there’s still not the same strong physical connection between images that can be achieved by placing images on facing pages in a book. It’s not necessarily better, just different and certainly worth paying attention to as you’re developing projects.

The message is in the medium or not. Perhaps as much or more than most I can get sucked into the technical aspects of photography and forget that you’re supposed to actually be saying something. At the end of last year I took a brief detour into the world of photogravure. Even though I had read Brooks Jensen’s piece on testing the quality of inkjet prints against traditional photographic prints including photogravure the tactile experience I had with the Norman Ackroyd print I had recently acquired drew me on. That and the fact that what I knew about photogravure seemed to me to be ‘real’ printing and involved an element of craft that I had come to believe that making an inkjet printing lacks. I even went as far as meeting with a local expert to discuss how my photographs would translate to photogravures – her answer they wouldn’t. Too much open white space. The nagging feeling that I was chasing a gimmick pushed me to abandon the idea and focus on finishing something – any of the various things that I’ve started would be a good idea right about now. I wonder how many other people get sucked into a similar technology vortex, chasing something that doesn’t necessarily add to what they are trying to say.

I’d be delighted to hear what you have to say – add your voice to the conversation in the comments

Friday Inspiration: Gregory Crewdson

dreamhousecrewdson

I had a chance to look at some of Edward Hopper’s paintings of scenes from small town America over the Christmas break and couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Gregory Crewdson. Like Hopper’s paintings, Crewdson’s photography shows scenes from small town America. They are vignettes that raise questions, that invite you in to wonder what happened before and what will happen next.

Many people will talk about their photographs being ‘cinematic’ but Crewdson’s images could really be stills from a movie. The work that goes into setting up each of the shots is not far from what you might expect for a cinematic production. You get a glimpse behind the scenes in the videos below. The second video is a trailer for the documentary ‘Brief Encounters‘ filmed over a 10 year period it gives not only an in depth look at what goes into the making of the work but also a sense of the events and experiences that shaped Crewdson the man.

Light, Lines, Moment – Light, Gesture, Color

I truly enjoy looking at other people’s images, mine drive me nuts, other people’s work I enjoy. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are photographs, paintings, drawings or some other way of interpreting the world. I enjoy looking at it all. As I’ve mentioned here before, I do feel as though in some work I’m missing the joke and so I’m working hard to be able to see more, to understand more clearly what was the intent behind the creation of the image.

This of course cuts two ways – it allows me to enter more deeply into the world that creator of the work has established and it also gives me tools to help bring my vision and voice into the world. In thinking about how I look at images – what is the light, how do the lines work, what is the role of color etc. I was reminded of some of the phrases that I’ve heard thrown around when people are both making images and looking at them. Variations on light, lines, moment such as Jay Maisel’s Light, Gesture, Color.

Since I’m easily distracted, with this thread to pull at I disappeared into the internet only to find that Jay Maisel has a new book out ‘Light Gesture and Color‘. I’ve been fascinated with Jay’s ability to find photographs in the most mundane places. After watching some of the videos of him at work such as the one below and looking at the resulting images I always feel that I could try harder.

This is the fluency that I am striving for – to not only be able to take to see and appreciate the image once captured but to see and anticipate the possibilities all around me.

A New Tilt on an Old Theme

Nixon_141019_3517-Edit 2

I thought that I’d share my first in the field experiment with a tilt shift lens. My first attempt with a tilt shift was this which of course taught me that in addition to manual focusing I needed to also be manual exposure. Probably not too much of a surprise for anyone whose used these lenses but it’s all new to me. I also was ready for the back end freak out where photoshop isn’t able to stitch my images together for me but that comes later.

So how did I get here? I’ve been worrying unnecessarily about depth of field. While you, like me, are setting the F stop to 22 (or some other high number) focusing a third into the scene and then firing away with the knowledge that you’re going to have good front to back focus. While this has served me well I realize that the only thing in your image that actual is in focus in the thing that you’ve focused upon and everything else in the same plane as that point of focus. Everything else is acceptably out of focus.

The medium and large focus photographers that have access to tilt and shift are able to angle the plane of focus and by doing so get more (all?) of the image in focus. Scheimpflug principle anyone? With a DSLR one way to achieve the same large depth of field is by taking multiple images with different points of focus and then blend them to extend the depth of field. Helicon focus is a well respected piece of software that can help if this is something that you’re interested in, beyond what you can achieve in photoshop. This approach is somewhat problematic when things in your image are in motion, such as my favorite subject – water. This is where a tilt shift lens comes in. It should give you access to the same tilt and shift functions that you would have with a medium or large format camera.

My playing so far has been restricted to the shift function which is how the image above was made. A vertical panorama stitched together and then cropped. See the images that I used below.

Top:

Nixon_141019_3521

Middle:

Nixon_141019_3518

Bottom

Nixon_141019_3517

Which when stitched together give:

Nixon_141019_3517-Edit

Which I then cropped to this:

Nixon_141019_3517-Edit 2

I think that this is working. The next experiment will be to see what I can do with the tilt functionality. That should be fun.

Friday Inspiration: Wynn Bullock

831.624.2801 c. 1960

I’ve been working through how to give meaningful feedback to other photographers about their work and in the course of that I realize that our reaction to work tells us more about ourselves and less about the photographer. That was certainly the case with my initial intersection with Wynn Bullock. Bullock is generally regarded as one of the most significant photographers of the mid-twentieth century. He was a close friend of West Coast photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and a peer of Minor White, Aaron Siskind and Frederick Sommer. I remember seeing his famous photograph Child in the Forest from the 1955 Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen and dismissed him as not doing something that I was interested in.

I was recently given a copy of ‘Wynn Bullock: Revelations‘, a comprehensive look at his entire body of work that was produced to support the exhibition now showing at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Of course there are a good number of nudes included in the book which was where he was as a photographer early in his career but then there are a large number of images such as the one above that reflect his interest in how to represent time in a still image. There are a large number of abstract color images that I also find very interesting.

In listening to the interviews with Bullock below much of what he has to say about his photographic explorations resonated with me. Well worth a look.

Conversations With The Masters, rare interview with Wynn Bullock. This interview was conducted by Steve James of the Eikon Gallery

This video highlights excerpts from the 1975 film by Thom Tyson, Wynn Bullock: Photographer.