Monday, January 3, 2011

Monday, January 3, 2011
As a photographer, the concept of 'choice' is something dear to my heart, so a few rambling words on the subject today.

I am in no way an expert, but I strongly believe that choice in photography is very much like choice in politics, religion and philosophy. It is best to have a concrete understanding of exactly what it is that you believe and, more importantly, also possess a coherent understanding of both why you believe in this ideal and how you would like this belief to involve and evolve the world around you in the future.

Additionally, one principle should be clearly understood: not making a choice is, in itself, a form of choice. It is deciding not to decide (a meta-decision, if you will). And thus, it is also the decision to allow others to decide what is correct or best.

Of course, this is not always a bad thing. In fact, often it is the primary tool for our survival. I don't know the best way to put out a fire, so I trust the firemen with that duty. I can't farm well or build televisions either, and I'm ok with that. As specialty professionals, we hope that our politicians and bankers understand the laws and complexities of finance more than ourselves (and are not unacceptably corrupt), so we give them (hopefully limited) power over our lives. (As for philosophy and religion though, I tend to handle those delicate packages myself.)

But, where artists and their artwork are concerned, we have a special case. It is my opinion that any artist worth a damn makes as many (non-vague and non-random) decisions as possible. (Unless, that is, the artist is making a commentary about 'choice' itself, such as Han Arp was attempting to demonstrate with his collages.) A good artist needs to clearly realize that every single aspect of their art is a reflection of an intentional and distinct choice that they have made.

I believe (although perhaps I am wrong) that many successful artists have an instinctual understanding of this. What is surprising to me though is, as far as photography students at the University go, a startling number of them do not fully grasp this idea. Painters, yes. Sculptors, yes. But photography students, no. They seem to adhere to a more Cartier-Bresson 'Decisive Moment' philosophy. And I think, perhaps, it is through sheer laziness or lack of imagination that many (not all, of course) of the others do not stretch their minds out forward, towards a specific end result. It is a digital symptom. They would much rather buy a ticket to the shotgun lottery than force a hard decision in advance. It makes me want to instill within them the mantra, "Be intentional! Be intentional! Be intentional!"

(By the way, I must confess, I love Cartier-Bresson. His photos are more complex than many of the other students realize. His images display a beautiful, layered intelligence that is slow to reveal itself.)

In my opinion, the photographer should be acutely conscious of the wide array of possibilities and then should attempt to limit those possibilities down to one exact image, by answering questions such as:

Where do I place the camera? At what height and what angle do I shoot from? How will the subject be placed within the lighting? Will it be indoor lighting? Should I use a flash and, if so, what type? Outdoor lighting? If outdoors, what time of day do I shoot (as it will affect the color and shadow)? What time of year do I shoot (for shadow angle)? What part of the image will be in focus and what part will be out of focus (and for each, why)? Do I use a lens filter here? How will I eventually present this photo? Online? Printed? If so, printed on what paper? How will I frame the image? And, of course, what possible inferences and interpretations will be made by the viewer? Am I saying anything here? Will others be able to understand what I am trying to communicate to them? Is it alright with me if they do not understand? Prope ad infinitum, baby.

These all seem like very basic questions to me, but only a few students seem to consciously ask themselves the same, which frustrates me. Hopefully this will change as I get into the higher level classes.

A while back, a friend of mine (also an Art major) confessed to me that she strongly disliked this photograph. (It is one of my favorites and I have it hanging on my wall at home. It rests in a thick, black frame and is hanging near the restroom, by the way.)

So, I asked her why she didn't care for it.

"I don't know... It's upside down and it makes me dizzy?"

I'm not sure that she understood my response when I replied that, although I was not surprised by her words, I considered the first part of her statement as incorrect and the second part as a compliment.



This is the struggle between the rational and the unconscious. When taking photographs a decision MUST be made. The direction, height, object photographed, scale and so on HAVE to be decided upon otherwise there is no photograph. Most decisions made by people are unconscious, and often these decisions are excellent.

In the case of art I may not have the terms to explain what I mean but it seems you are encountering the difference between intellectual art and folk art. Folk art are pictures, sounds, words that people are pleased by instinctively. Amazonian natives never having heard Mozart can tell the happy songs from the sad songs without ever having heard western music before. Intellectual art are structures designed to make you think about perception, emotion and so on.

Most people hugely prefer folk art to intellectual art. Those who prefer intellectual art tend to find this a failing. I think a good artist is capable of appreciating both aspects.

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