Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Stick a Fork In It

One of the things that separates photography from all other arts is that the moment of completion is concrete. When a photo is done, it's done. This is different from poetry, painting, music, sculpture or any other act of creation. When you write a poem, for example, you write for a while, rewrite, edit, rewrite, throw the page away and start over, rewrite, etc. How do you know when it's done? There is no magic marker. You stop when the poem is complete. The best poets know exactly when to stop, and the art of knowing when a poem is done is a large part of a poet's skill. The same is true of every other art apart from photography.

With photography the image is complete at the moment of exposure. Oh sure there are lots of choices to be made after exposure. You can tweak a photo in all sorts of ways, change the color balance or saturation or contrast, or even add to the image in Photoshop. In the darkroom there are an infinite number of choices involved in how to print an image. After printing you can frame it in purple, rephotograph it, put it in a book, bury the photo with some flowers in the backyard, I don't care. But all of those are secondary to the heart of photography, which is SEEING.

You see something, you photograph it, it's done. All decisions after that point have much less effect on the photo than the decision to press the shutter. In a sense, pressing the shutter is equivalent to a poet deciding that the poem is finis...

Is it done yet?: Jackon Pollack's Greyed Rainbow, 1953

3 comments:

Joe said...

Photography as an activity….as you describe it Blake...can start with the framing decision and end with the release of the shutter, but the reality of photography as an art form…..for better or for worse...in my opinion...only begins with that activity.

...in my humble opinion...it really ends with the edit and sequencing of your images to deliver a lyrical visual experience for your audience…

Yes, it’s true there are those ‘killer images’ out there that people can build a whole career off of…but those stand-alone images offer only a stand-alone experience…

...and when i say ‘edit'...i’m talking as a purist here, purist in the sense that you buy into the fact that sensor/film space is precious and should be guarded as if it were gold dust,….so chopping it into a new implementations in photoshop, or stretching its capture with sliders typically comes at the cost of that precious resource...

...when i say edit...i can’t describe it in any other way than to borrow from moving pictures…part of the image-magic is that sense of pace you get from detail images…, then maybe a context-setting image…then maybe a vague shot....then maybe the killer action scene…..then maybe nothing to let you breath a bit….All of these come together to throw fishhooks in your visual attention…then letting you breath a bit, then dragging you in again with almost story-arc sensations….this kind of edit is getting rid of images that don’t support that pace or are irrelevant to the story and is where the photography process really ends in my opinion.

So it’s admitting the obvious, the ability to edit is just as important as the ability to capture....but ironically...how many of us embed well-captured images inside a set that reduce the pace of the visual experience?...or worse…include great images in set, but are irrelevant to the story?

The epitome of this ‘edit as the last step’ is Frank’s book the Americans…its sequence is what reveals its power….and even with my love for each of those images….i don’t think Frank could have built a career of any single one of them.

So is the activity of photography really over with the shutter release?...I think with each and every note we capture….whether it be the earth-shattering clang of the drum or that uncomfortable pause of silence…I think the activity of providing images back to an audience as art is never really over, because the edit just keeps getting better with each new shutter release....;-)

Blake Andrews said...

I agree, Joe. A lot of what makes for a photographic body of work relies on editing and sequencing. In my post I was referring more to the single shot, which might be compared to the single poem or single song. From there it's a matter of collecting those items into a book or album, or in the case of photography, a monograph or gallery show. (Interesting aside: in the iPod generation, perhaps there is no need to group songs into an album?)

I think photographic creating and editing have been clumped together when are very distinct activities. Some photographers are better shooters (e.g., Winogrand). Some are better at editing (Frank, Evans). Personally I am a very bad editor but I enjoy creating new photos. That is why I think the heart of photography is in the seeing, in the release of the shutter, rather than in what comes later. But admittedly that is my personal bias.

The new HCB book Scrapbook touches on all of this. It gives a fresh edit of very familiar work, and thus makes you think hard about whether the strength of the photos is in the images or the editing, or both.

joe said...

Thanks Blake, I’ll have to check out Scrapbook...i must admit, I was aware of the book, but walked past it thinking it was just another HCB ‘greatest-hits’ albums.

It’s funny you mention the ipod generation ...there are loads of musicians out there that now focus more on the ‘release of a single’ than the ‘assembly of an album’...oh those were the days ;-)