Sunday, May 18, 2008

Selection, Selection, Selection,....

Michael Reichmann, author of the wonderful blog Luminous Landscape, recently posted an interesting essay on the convergence of still and video photography. Citing such new cameras as Casio's EX-F1 and the Red Scarlet (which can shoot 60 frames per sec and 100 fps, respectively, without mechanical shutters, and at speeds approaching 1/40,000 sec), Reichmann suggests that new technologies are harbingers of a future in which the distinction between still cameras and video cameras is blurred, if not made moot entirely.
His assertion is both well argued and nuanced, and I encourage interested readers in clicking on the provided link to enjoy the article for themselves. For my purposes here, I'd like to focus on the aesthetic issues that such a convergence of technologies portends; and will argue that the distinction between "still" and "video" is - artistically speaking - somewhat of a red-herring.
While still photography and videography obviously represent two objectively distinct modes of expression, the distinction has heretofore been largely a technological - not artistic - one (I hope to explain what I mean by this in what follows). Because the two technologies have up until now been sufficiently "different," they required an artist (note I do not say photographer or videographer, but artist, because I think the category must now be made larger) to invest (sometimes huge amounts of) time and dollars in two sets of "still" and "video" equipment. What the technological convergence is leading to - indeed, what it already has led to, judging from cameras such as the EX-F1 - is a time when all serious artists can now use one and the same recording instrument to express their artistic sensibilities. The real issue is "artistic expression"; or what the artist wishes to convey with his/her art, be it still photography or videography. And what lies at the heart of any form of expression is selection; indeed, an almost endless (and endlessly nested) sequence of selection upon selection upon selection. The fact that the act of "taking pictures" has now become essentially synonymous with "taking videos" only serves to emphasize the fundamental role that "selection" plays in the creative process. And that part, at least, has not changed; if anything, it is becoming more difficult to do.
Consider the basic steps that any traditional photographer follows when approaching a subject and, ultimately - after recording and processing the images in either an analog or digital darkroom - using some medium (print, folio, gallery exhibit, or book) to express and communicate a "vision." Each step entails a myriad of decisions - or selections - that a photographer needs to make to complete the work. The not-quite-infinitely-long chain of selections begins with a basic question: "What does the photographer wish to express?" Is it a feeling? A thing? A sense of place? A sense of family? A still-life? The list is almost endless, but a selection must at some point be made. Once made, the photographer must decide on where to go to "find" (or "search" for) pictures.
Having arrived somewhere, the real work begins. In no particular order, and from a first-person perspective (speaking from my own inner experiences): What grabs my attention? Where do I look? Where do I stand? What light do I need? What do I exclude? What lens do I use? What f-stop/exposure-time combo do I use? Do I need to change the ISO? Do I need a filter? Should I shoot a sequence? Should I take a couple of different perspectives? Do I need to position my tripod any lower or higher? I could go on, but the point is clear. While most of this is automatic, much of the "creative process" consists of making a repeated series of selections.
Of course, the need to "select" continues (intensifies even) after we get back to our darkroom. What images do I keep (and "work on")? What software do I use? What factors need adjustment? White balance? White/black points? Tonal distributions? Shadow noise? Global/local contrast? Dodging or burning? Toning? Sharpening?
Now, suppose you've processed dozens (or hundreds) of images for a shooting project, and are ready to start thinking about what needs to be done to "communicate" a vision to an audience. More selection. Which images do I use? What sequence of images do I combine? What manner of expression do I use? If a book, how many to a page, and in what layout? If a gallery, what is wall placement? One row or two? How large should the prints be? ...the list goes on and on. And so we come full circle to the new cameras, such as the Casio EX-F1, that purportedly blur the distinction between still and video photography. While the fact that the distinction between these two technologies is becoming more and more blurred is arguably and demonstrably true, the deeper question is, "How does the lack of any distinction impact the creative process?" If one accepts the premise that art, in the broadest sense, consists of however many selective steps a given artist needs to go through in order to express (in some form, of the artist's choosing) an original idea or feeling, then the only way in which a convergence of still-video technologies impacts art is in providing the artist a richer set of technologies for recording and expressing images.
The question of whether what results remains "photography" (albeit in a different form), changes to videography (but, again, different from more traditional forms) and is no longer photography, or becomes some as-yet undefined "hybrid recording process" (that is different from either of its two historical antecedents), seems to me to be the wrong (or, at least, not most meaningful) question to ask. A better question is, "In what ways will artists adjust their creative process to find a better way to express their artistic vision?" It may turn out that some photographers find great artistic merit in having not one image (or only a handful of images) with which to express their vision but an entire movie; and/or find clever ways to combine still and "moving" images to expand their repertoire of artistic expression. The way in which they "do art" will therefore change, and the "art" that they eventually wind up doing may bear little or no resemblance to what may have in the past been called "photography." Other photographers, earnestly trying out the new technology for the first time, may find themselves overwhelmed with the now thousands of images from which to choose the "right one" - where before they had to sift through a few or at most a dozen - and either walk away from the new technology or (regrettably) take a step backwards as artists. Annie Lebowitz, in a PBS documentary of her life's work, admitted to having virtually no editorial skill when it came to selecting the one or two images that would make it into print from a shoot; a task she was more than happy to leave to the editors. Being good at one aspect of the creative process - or being good at making some "artistic selections" - does not guarantee the same success for other aspects of the creative process or ensure that the photographer will be equally as adept at making all required selections. In the unfortunate event that some new technology enlarges the "selection space" in precisely the dimension in which a given photographer is least gifted as an artist, it behooves that photographer to proceed slowly.
For many photographers (particularly those still working with "analog" large-format cameras), the convergence between still and video recorders will likely make no difference whatsoever. Their art will remain what it is, and evolve as it has and will continue. Still others will inevitably forge a new and unanticipated path - and an entirely new form of art - for which we do not yet have a handy label or phrase, and the nature of which none of us, at the moment, are prescient enough to predict or imagine.
Art, by its nature - and as life - grows, adapts, and evolves. In time, perhaps the very words "art" and "photography" will be supplanted by something else; and, in some future time, be recalled by historians as archaic "symbols of something that used to be done using some older forms of technology." But whatever the new words will be that convey the essence of what we now call "art," I suspect that the creative process itself will remain fundamentally unchanged. And what lies at the core of that process is selection, selection, selection, ... (as determined by the artist's soul).

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Finding New Things in Old

I am always amused when I hear young photographers lament about there not being anything interesting left over to take pictures of (after they have spent all of a few hours somewhere taking pictures). The lament only deepens and becomes more poignant after a particular place has been visited a number of times (days, weeks); and reaches a fever pitch after visiting the "same old place" for months (or - goodness - years!). To be sure, even experienced professional photographers go through inevitable dry spells, during which they find their wellspring of inspiration at a low ebb, and nothing seems aesthetically inviting or interesting (especially - so the argument goes - a place that the artist knows extremely well).

But there are really two issues at play here: (1) the feeling that one's inner muse has temporarily put up an "out to lunch" sign and does not wish to be disturbed, and (2) that the worst place to find the muse quietly "munching on its lunch" (and in a receptive mood) is somewhere where the photographer has already "been" with his or her muse. An artist’s chagrin during such lows is certainly understandable, and (speaking as a photographer who has had his fair share of "searching" for his "lost" muse) immediate family members are usually the ones who suffer most since they must bear the brunt of the artist's unhappy "low tide" mood (never a pleasant experience for anyone involved! ;-) But it is still sad for me to see young photographers, who genuinely aspire to find and develop their artistic vision, continually lament the apparently dull visual landscape that they've convinced themselves is all their "day jobs" permit them to be surrounded by and in which to find their "vision." I suspect that the real problem is not the place - per se - but what needs to be done to reconnect to the place (the "connection" being what may otherwise, and more poetically, be called one's "muse").

"Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen." - Minor White

“How many times can I go to that same park?” one might ask; or, “I’ve shot a dozen rolls of film in that garden, and I’m bored; all the flowers are beginning to look alike!” While there is no magic elixir to remedy such moments of temporary angst—which all artists, from aspiring to established, are destined to experience countless numbers of times in their careers—I can offer two useful pieces of advice: (1) the angst is temporary, and requires nothing more than simple patience for its effects to wear off, and (2) to accelerate its disappearance, remind yourself that any place in nature, no matter how small or transient or seemingly devoid of any interesting features, can be perceived in an infinite number of ways, in an infinite number of contexts, and yield to an infinity of interpretations.

Case in point...not far from where my family and I live in Northern Virginia is Great Falls state park; indeed, I have written about it several times (Rocks, Leaves & Water and Staccato Flow Abstracts). Because parks and kids go rather well together, and my wife and I have two, we visit this park often all year round.

It is no exaggeration to say that both my wife and I are familiar enough with this park’s many paths and walkways to be able to navigate it in the dark. As such, one may be forgiven for believing that my intimate familiarity with the sights of this park robs me of my photographic muse.

But - perhaps paradoxically - not only does my familiarity not diminish my desire for picture taking, it — if anything — amplifies my ability to tune out distractions and focus entirely on what intuitively catches my inner eye. Familiarity, in other words, somehow (for me) breeds detachment. A detachment (i.e., an "objectivity") that, in turn - and involving yet another seeming paradox - enhances my subjective artistic/aesthetic sense. Despite frequenting this park dozens and dozens of times over the years, I have never failed to see something entirely new, or failed to reinterpret—contextually and photographically—something that I may have seen and photographed many times before.

Perhaps the most visible benefit of my frequent visitation of Great Falls (at least, from the point of view of the consumers of my photography, namely my family;-) that sometimes (but just sometimes;-), I manage to leave the park with images that actually look like something that was photographed in the park (rather than my usual "abstractivization" that robs photographs of all possible clues as to where they were taken; see previous blog entry).