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January 15, 2005

Photography Questions

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here are a few photographs by Established Great Lee Friedlander. I'm in awe; Friedlander strikes me as having amazing talent, skill and control. I love his work. It makes me want to see more of it, but also to spend years doing likewise: developing darkroom skills, studying the history of the artform, and applying what little talent I have to learning the ins and outs of a complex craft. I want to apprentice myself to Art.

Here's the website of the Lomographic Society, where people who enjoy snapping pix with a distinctively crappy camera post the results of their amateur experiments. I love a lot of these photographs too, and find the Lomo scene amiable and inviting. Looking at these photographs makes me want to say "screw the whole craft thing," buy a Lomo, and start taking random snapshots of my own. I want to rock out, man.

What to make of the fact that I had as good a time surfing through Lomographs as I did looking at Friedlander's magnificent images? (A different kind of good time, granted.) Do we conclude

  • that I'm a tasteless dolt?

That's always a possibility, and I certainly don't mind if we reach that conclusion. Or do we suspect

  • that we're kidding ourselves when we imagine that photographic wonderfulness can only be the result of talent, skill, and control?

If we choose 2, does that tell us anything about the nature of photography? And if it does, what can we conclude about photography as an art form?



posted by Michael at January 15, 2005


I've concluded that there are two distinct kinds of photographer: those who want to take beautifully shot, beautifully lit, beautifully developed photographs, and those who want to take pictures of things that interest them. In the latter case, all the emphasis (I was tempted to say "all the focus") is on the subject; the quality of the photograph itself is secondary. In the former case, the emphasis is on the craft with which the photograph is taken and developed; the subject is secondary.

As a father of small children, I confess I'm one who's more interested in taken pictures of subjects that interest me...though I'll certainly understand if they don't interest anyone else.....

Posted by: Will Duquette on January 15, 2005 9:31 PM

Hmmm, let's not rush to rule out the tasteless dolt option....:D

(Sorry, but it was waiting to be said.)

I checked out some of the photos on the Lomo site, and a number of them don't seem obviously inferior to Lee Friedlander's work. In short, a lot of the Lomo guys seem to be pretty accomplished photographers, so your binary opposition gets a little muddy.

However, I would repeat something I've remarked on before on this 'blog, which is that photography is NOT the open-ended, endlessly flexible art form people seem to take it for. Or maybe it's our reaction to photos that isn't so flexible. Either way, certain elements must be present in any photo for it to make a 'striking' image, as opposed to something that looks, well, miscellaneous (to use a favorite term of my father.) Once one internalizes these elements (and they are actually quite limited in number) shooting striking pictures becomes pretty much a process of following an algorithm, technically speaking. A possible analogy: technically, photography is more like playing a harmonica (with a very narrow range of notes) than writing a symphony or conducting a whole orchestra. Once you can play it, the quality of the experience is more determined by the tune you're playing than by how exquisitely you play it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 15, 2005 11:03 PM

Good photographs have very little to do with who the photog is. Right place, right time, and good luck have a lot to do with how the public will respond.

Posted by: stonegatherer on January 15, 2005 11:13 PM

Will -- That's a good distinction! Especially because I can now think of myself as a certain sort of photographer (subject-oriented) and not just a lousy one.

FvB -- What muddies the chat up even more is that the appeal of Lomo is that you can't control the results. The lenses are evidently weird, and the cameras leak light. I'm sure many of the people using 'em are pretty skillful in the conventional sense, which can't hurt. But the cameras themselves throw many elements of chance into the mixture. That's apparently the fun of them. Press the camera, and you don't know what's going to come of it. Yet many of the shots are pretty cool anyway.

What fasincates me about photography is the multiple way "good photographs" can happen. I've certainly been awed and wowed by the terrific work of classy art photographers. But photographs that just happened to happen -- lucky snapshots -- can be just as beautiful and mean just as much. Are there other artforms where this is true? I wonder if it drives the skillful pros crazy. Remembering back on my photo-history education, it also seemed to be a question that was missing -- or that at least could have been treated much more extensively -- in the standard photo-history books. The standard view was that there were a bunch of Very Serious People who managed, against all odds, to Turn Photography Into An Art. God bless 'em, of course. But it does seem funny to leave out all consideration of the skillions of other photographs that have gotten taken. It's been good in more recent years to see editors and curators pay a little more attention to snapshots and photo-postcards and such.

I confess that, as a photo spectator, I'm actually far happier surfing the web and looking at a wide range of photos -- some by pros, but many by people who've just thrown snapshots up on the screen -- than I ever was leafing through solemn books and magazines. The mature me should probably say these two activities enhance each other nicely ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2005 11:22 PM

It's worth spending some time at Ed Buziak's Diary of a Dodger photoblog, one of my few must-reads. He's a photographer who exemplifies the dictum, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." Not all his shots are great, but those that are seem to fall out of an athletic technical ability combined with luck. In fact his work spans the entire divide you describe: from right-moment candour to flawless still life. It's great for a younger photographer (hobby, mostly lapsed) to read his detailed discussions of technique, his fascinating location war stories, and he's not afraid to talk about the ups and downs of career and inspiration. He runs a competition to win an original print every month - which I think would a highly desirable item! And sorting through each month's postings to decide one's preferences is an illuminating exercise. So to speak.

Posted by: Toby on January 15, 2005 11:31 PM

Just a few brief and random remarks...

RR1: If you imagine that by looking at the Friedlander images on that website you've seen Friedlander's images, you'd be wrong. Nothing short of looking at the physical prints themselves will provide you that experience.

RR2: As photography is fundamentally subject dependent, what and when one photographs are just as important as how one photographs. The "wrong" subject at the "wrong" time == Lousy image no matter how brilliant an after-the-fact technician one might be.

RR3: Color images == commercial crap. B&W images == "art"

RR4: In B&W work, the production of the print is where one's craftsmanship and artistry have their most telling effect. Even the transcendent images of an Ansel Adams can be made to appear nothing more than extravagant travel photos when printed by anyone other than Adams himself ("The negative is the score; the print, the performance.")


Posted by: A.C. Douglas on January 16, 2005 1:22 AM

I'm not a photographer in any sense of the word. I do take pictures though. I can remember a half dozen shots out of the tens of thousands I've taken in my life that have stunned me, not just with beauty, but with wit and slyness and penetration. The pictures were what I intended for them, but that was just an accident since I don't have the art to reliably turn intention into fact. What I do is point the camera at an object or event that arrested my attention for any of a hundred reasons and push the button. The result almost never reveals what it was that prompted me to push the button, but, like I say, every few thousand times it does.

I could not accidentally paint a beautiful picture or write an exquisite sonnet or build a great cabinet. I can, though, almost purely by chance, take a great photograph. And if I take enough pictures, I probably will.

No other art form leaves such artifacts of its essense out among the uninitiated. You gotta love it.

Posted by: Mike Hill on January 16, 2005 10:08 PM

I worked in a chemical plant for a while, and there were lots of subjects (and odd angles) that I just knew would provide "artistic" images. But, c'mon, why contribute to the fraud when you yourself aren't fooled?

To a photographer: Get some watercolors, give it ten years or so. Then we'll see if you're an artist.

Posted by: onetwothree on January 16, 2005 11:35 PM

Those pictures on the Lomo page are a kind of art that really dispirits me - the near miss.

Most of them go through the "algorithm" that Friedrich talks about, or they get lucky like Mike says, and they come up with an image which conforms to the established dictates of photographic taste. Converging lines; weathered old faces; a lone manmade object in a field; yada yada.

But why? There's no there there, no point of view, no statement, no sense of a fellow spirit behind the viewfinder.

Most of the pictures at have the same effect (on me, at least). All technique, no meaning. Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives... but to what end?

I see it in painters too, and musicians, and on and on, but in photography most of all. The artistic near miss.

Sometimes it almost seems that the near misses somehow devalue the genuine hits. Is the good the enemy of the perfect? Or am I just in a bad mood?

Anyway, here's what Frederick Evans said about photography:

[T]ry for a record of an emotion rather than a piece of topography. Wait till the building makes you feel intensely... Try and try again, until you find that your print shall give not only yourself, but others who have not known your intimate knowledge of the original, some measure of the feeling it originally inspired in you... This will be 'cathedral picturemaking,' something beyond mere photography...

Very Romantic sort of fellow, Evans. Spent weeks living at a site to expose one picture. More here, here, and here (scroll down).

Maybe it's the fact that you can get a good (but not great) picture by accident that sells so many cameras?

Did I say maybe?

Posted by: Brian on January 17, 2005 2:04 AM

Fun post ... youíve got me thinking again! Your post stretches far beyond the banal high- v. mid-brow debate in art. Still, I donít think you want to start an airy-artsy blabfest on aesthetics or the meaning of beauty. Instead, you seem to be circling around a far more down-to-earth, but hard-as-hell-to-answer question, ďWhat makes forms and images enjoyable, and why?Ē

I frankly didnít like the lomographs as art, but I did like them as windows into peopleís lives and thoughts. Most appealing was their ordinariness and scraped-down truthfulness. Though I felt like a voyeur among the lomographs, Friedlanderís more refined images pulled the aesthete out of me. Both were enjoyable.

Having a ďgood time surfing through lomographs as Ö looking at Friendlander,Ē may mean no more than you enjoyed them. Both of them. You enjoy lots of things, Michael. This blog is a testimony to your many loves and likes. Enjoyment, then, may be a useless criterion. Because you enjoy x and y doesnít mean that x and y are aesthetically similar. Enjoyment does not make art. (Iím loathe to describe what does make art, mind you.)

Saying lomographs and Friedlander are both ďartĒ is like putting apples and oranges into the same bowl because they are both fruit.

Saying lomographs and Friendlander are enjoyable, somehow, as art-like experiences makes a bit more sense.

Saying photography can be enjoyable on its own terms, that is, on our own terms, is sorta trite, but oddly makes even more sense.

Or maybe not. This is too hard for me at 3 am. Good nighty!

Posted by: Kris on January 17, 2005 5:59 AM

Interesting post, MB, and it made me start thinking about my own nascent photography habit. Iím entirely unschooled and therefore probably technically horrible (although Iíve finally learned not to point into the sun), but Iíve taken to carrying my digital camera everywhere. I guess itís a type of therapy for me. Whenever I see a person, a view or a scene that sparks a reaction, I pull out my camera and capture the moment. It seems to provide a way of connecting emotionally thatís sharper and more immediate than in words alone.

My best pictures to date have been of people, not of objects, which speaks volumes to me about my inner life. Iím also doing a photographic essay of myself, which no one will ever see, if I have my way. Once a week, on the same day, I snap a photo of myself against a plain white backdrop. The timing is crucial Ė it occurs immediately after the same key event. Itís much more revealing than words could ever be. At this stage, I have no technical skills, but thatís probably the point of it all, actually. If I knew more about technique, itís likely Iíd fuss with that at the expense of emotion. Or something like that Ö

Posted by: Searchie on January 17, 2005 11:52 AM

I love the Friedlander one out the car window of Las Vegas. Now thats a photograph not many people come home from vacation with! A picture like that seems to indicate more skill, including how to use the camera he's got. But that would be a reason other people might want to look at it. There's still plenty of reasons people want to look at their own vacation pics that might not be meaningful to anyone else.

Posted by: annette on January 17, 2005 12:13 PM

Maybe lomographs appeal to the nascent Luddite buried in us, or some of us. As it is for pinhole photography fans, the appeal of lomographs may be its anti-technology and anti-equipment cheapness.

It makes me wonder if Lomos are appealing in a negative way -- what they are NOT -- than in a positive sense -- what they actually create.

Just a morning thought ...

Posted by: Kris on January 17, 2005 1:10 PM

By the way, here's one of my favorite photo Websites. I find it to be quite compelling:

Posted by: Searchie on January 17, 2005 2:59 PM

You've all got my brain buzzing with further musings and questions.

* What's always been somewhat suspect -- or, as Mike and find it, kinda neat -- about photography is that everyone has taken some terrific photos. Keep snapping for years and eventually, buried on your hard drive, will be a handful of really nifty pix. In what other artforms does this -- and can this -- happen?

* One way that art-photography has tried to elevate itself has been via gorgeous printing, heightened craft elements, etc. I'm a fan of gorgeous, handmade photography work myself. But historically, this kind of emphasis is in part a reaction to the suspect nature of photography. Press a button -- what's hard about that? The machine seems to do most of the "work." And a given negative can be used to make zillions of prints. The uniqueness that's often associated with "real art" doesn't seem to be there. So art photographers did their best to introduce elements of the handmade and the unique into photography.

* Is it posssible that photographic imagery made to be digitally reproduced will come into its own? Superfab though the gorgeous hand-printed photographic work of art can be, why shouldn't photography work just as well on computer screens? I'm the world's worst photographer. But I can't help noticing that I print out almost none of my digital photos. I'm perfectly happy keeping and using them as digital files -- looking at 'em on screen, emailing 'em to friends, occasionally even posting one or two on the blog. Now imagine I were someone with talent.

* And the digital thing compound the puzzle in an interesting way, because it kind of erases the identity of "the original." At least in traditional photography, there was usually a complicated camera, and a negative, and a skilled craftsperson crafting a print. But a digital photo is really just a digital file. Click on "duplicate" and how can you tell the two files apart? Every onscreen incarnation of a digital photo file is its own unique event, I suppose you could say. But a "unique event" is somehow a little different than a "unique thing."

* As culture goes digital, a number of things seem to be happening. One is that culture seems to become less a matter of "creative people" and the rest of us so much as "everyone pitching in." The old model of the individual genius imposing his vision has started to dissolve. (Incidentally, I see good sides and bad sides to this development. But it's the inescapability of the development, and not its desirability or non-desirability, that interests me here.) Another thing that's happening is that the relationship between text and visuals is changing. Visual are less likely to be subordinate to print; it's more likely to be vice-versa these days. Text explains and plays second fiddle to the flow of the visuals. So how is our experience of photography changing? There's certainly a lot of high-class pro photography around, for one thing. But I find the existence of things like moblogs and Lomo sites even more interesting. Many people seem quite happy to have fun, please themselves, pitch in, and swap experiences. If that becomes the standard way to interact with photography, what becomes of such Greats as Lee Friedlander? Once he could command attention by virtue of being The Artist. These days, and in the future, what will he strike people as? Really good? Pompous and stuffy? Or will he just be ignored as people get on with the fun of creating their own version of Culture?

* Culture also seems to be getting more participatory generally. Make your own DJ mix. Throw your own website online. Send a video clip to a relative. We're rolling our own, and able to roll our own, in ways we haven't been able to do before. And as we do so, the topography of culture seems to be changing dramatically. What will be remebered as the significant works of art from this era? Who knows, of course. But is it likely to be a Great Novel? Isn't a Great Novel something like a Great Photograph, of the Lee Friedlander sort, likely to be dissolved in the digital solvent. Maybe the solvent means that nothing will remain of present day culture. Maybe some historian will see the development of the "blog" form as far more important than anything any individual novelist did. Yet blogs are highly participatory -- with their links and especially with commenters, they're more like discussions than they are like lectures or performances ....

There's probably a lot more that's interesting that could be teased out here too. Fun as ever comparing notes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 17, 2005 11:34 PM

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