Sunday, November 25, 2012

The bomb and the trade

One of the more interesting photographers to come to the attention of In-Public recently is Jan Meissner. Although some in the group had known of her for years, most of us including myself discovered her this fall through a profile on the Leica Liker blog. A brief glance through her portfolio showed us that she was someone to be reckoned with. Her photos displayed an acute sense of spacing and of the moment, as demonstrated in photos like this. 
This particular photo seemed to drop out of the sky like a bomb into the In-Public discussion board. What the heck? It was nearly perfect. Who was this savant? 

According to our Meissner contact, she'd only taken up street photography a few years ago at the age of 60! Most of her earlier life had been spent as a painter. That would help explain her remarkable sense of composition, but still. How does someone with relatively little experience find scenes like the one above. Or this one?
Such a beautiful moment plucked from the river of life, with bodies spread evenly across the frame and subjects mirroring and playing off each other. And capped by a delicious sense of the absurd with the PARTS sign! Street photographers wait for decades for scenes like this to appear, and here was a relative novice who'd shown an uncanny ability to discover them repeatedly. Had we discovered the next Gary Stochl? Or Vivian Maier? 

If there was any criticism it was that she relied a bit heavily on flat compositions. Most of her photos, like the ones above, were shot straight on into static backgrounds. They showed a distant eye and one which shied away from complicated angles. Some of the same backgrounds reappeared in multiple photos. For example the PARTS sign photo above was one of several in her portfolio from the same corner.
Clearly she was staking out these scenes patiently, just waiting for the right moment. And probably shooting from a tripod. Some street shooters frown on tripods, but in this case it seemed to work. In fact it seemed like the natural course for someone with a painting background. 

As with any such work coming out of left field like this, I suppose it's only natural that doubts began to surface. Sure they were great photos, but some of them looked almost too great. Even more problematic was that the great ones shared room in a portfolio with many average shots. Why was there such a variance in quality? Were these in fact real street scenes, or were some of them perhaps composites of multiple exposures? 

Quash the thought! Our Meissner contact assured us that these were the real deal. He knew Meissner well and had shared many meals. She was legit. But she was a former painter, so perhaps she didn't yet know how good some of her photos were. To me this made them seem even better. I loved the idea that an amateur with little background could create instant classics. It seemed further proof of the democratic power of photography. 

Unfortunately the group had begun to smell blood in the water. Questions came flying. What about the man carrying the sign? someone asked. Where's his shadow? Forget the shadows, said another. If a guy is running at you that close, you look upAsk to see her raw files, another suggested. 

These comments caught me by surprise. Upon first viewing the photos I'd never considered the possibility of them being anything but straight photos, but now I began to look more closely. Were they comps or were they real? I gave all of them a long second look. I honestly couldn't tell.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601-02, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

I suppose the more important question is, does it matter? To most of the photography world the answer is no. Photographs are no longer expected to be "truthful", whatever that phrase means. We've moved past that. We're almost to the point now where comping is not only accepted but expected. The emphasis is on the final product no matter how it's made, whether in camera or using Photoshop later

In a sense photography has finally come of age. We don't expect paintings or sculptures or novels to be faithful to reality. We can appreciate Caravaggio painting even if it has no physical relationship to an actual scene. So why should photographs be any different? 

Strangers in the Light #7, Catherine Balet

Yes, I know the "does it matter?" question has been with us forever, and it's probably boring to those of you who've settled it in your minds. People have been altering photographs since the beginning of the medium. In recent years as tools have improved, not only have alterations become more seamless, so has their acceptance into the mainstream. 

Lindisfarme Boats, David Byrne

No longer do we marvel over the technical wizardry of Jerry Uelsmann or Robert Heineken. Now we have people like Catherine Balet or Matthew Baum making photographic collages with barely a mention of technique in any accompanying text or review. Julie Blackmon abandons candid technique for pastiche mid-career and it hardly merits a footnote. Or we see countless photographs like David Byrne's Lindisfarne Boats which circulate easily with various other generic landscapes, unless someone happens to look more closely at them and stir up a fuss. But a case like David Byrne's is the exception. For most art photography, manipulation is no longer very noteworthy, and maybe it never has been.

But there are a few pesky corners of the photo world still clinging to the old ways, and one of them is street photography. For street photographers, reality vs comping does matter. Why? Because the bread and butter of street photography is not imagination. It's simple observation. When you mix the two, it's no contest. Imagination can always create a more fantastic image than what can be seen in real life. That's why we have a porn industry or new car ads. 

But that imbalance works the other way too. It's what gives street photography its strong kick. Because when you do observe a fantastic scene in real life and manage to capture it with a camera, it's a rare treat. You can see how someone who spends hours and days and weeks seeking out such a scene might take it personally when a photographer comps one together artificially. In traditional street photography they don't mix. 

If Meissner was indeed mixing the two, her work immediately lost its shine. But was she? The Leica profile made no mention of comping. Her artist statement was vague. The only thing we had to judge by was her photos. We are good observers. We had time. We now held the photos to even tighter scrutiny than before:

1. The lady with the orange cowl to the right of the frame has no reflection in the window. 
2. There are three dogs in this shot all ignoring each other completely. 
3. The metadata gives a shutter speed of 200th/sec yet a pigeons wings are completely frozen top left. 
4. One of the two centre figures has a shadow beneath while the other mysteriously doesn't.
Plausible responses came forth:
1. Reflection could be directly behind her and not visible from the camera - and this is an open-shade exposure, thus reflections are muted anyway. 
2. Centre dog is running, not paying attention; front two dogs beginning to look at each other. 
3. Pigeon is coasting in slowly, not flapping at moment of exposure, and might be slightly blurry if seen larger. 
4. I will grant that the shadows beneath the figures may have been inconsistently burned or dodged. There is a shadow under the woman in the center; the green and streaky bicycle lane pavement paint also mutes it. Notice how faint the shadow is under the running figure with the flowers. The man carrying the sign also has a black briefcase and a pack, increasing both the size and density of his shadow.
I still wasn't sure what to think. Honestly I could've been swayed either way at this point. Many good points had been raised, and all of them potentially rebutted. And we probably could've kept going down this path for a while with no concrete decision. I wanted to believe. I think we all wanted to. "To find they are comped would be a little like finding out father christmas doesn't exist!" wrote someone on the IP board. 

The point that kept coming up again and again was that they just didn't look right. Something seemed off about the photos, something that couldn't easily be put into words. After thinking more about this complaint I think it's the same something that's apparent in any of the photos shown above in this post. Something just doesn't look right about them. At least to a street photographer it doesn't. To a street shooter, a picture of screen junkies looks something like this:

George Kelly, 2011

It looks right because it's not perfect. The photo is imbalanced and awkward, but that's what makes it real. A picture like the one below? Something just doesn't look right. And Meissner's photos shared some of that quality.
Strangers in the Light #2, Catherine Balet

Finally someone suggested we ask Meissner directly. By this point I don't think anyone was surprised by her answer:
The photograph that you specifically want to know about was built. A time came, last December, when I taught myself to bring frames together, and this was the most extreme example, a kind of prototype, a way for all the people, and the dogs, that I had captured in a twenty minute shooting spree, to come together. I felt them there together, wanted them to be together, passing, touching one another, and I learned how to make this happen. But I was definitely suspicious of what I had done--and I definitely had feelings of real ambivalence about the value of this way of working. I still do.  
But, as Whitman said, on his daily walks through these same streets, he passed "thousands of lovers." He had momentary and serial love affairs--one was not enough--and in his mind these lovers came together. I claimed this as a kind of partial explanation of my desire to bring all those moments, those lovers, together into one sprawling moment. 
It was a poetic explanation but it didn't hide the basic facts. Father Christmas didn't exist after all. Oh well. We fumed for a while, then moved on.

Something didn't look right. Street shooters are an observant lot. If something looks off in a street scene  they will generally notice, and those off moments are sometimes the kernel of great photos. But when it comes to looking at photographs the opposite is true. Perfection itself is often the clue that something isn't right. If a scene doesn't look off, it looks off.

A week after our In-Public discussion I put a link to Meissner on the HCSP discussion board. I was careful not to include any clue about whether or not the photos had been altered. I just wanted to get honest reactions from the street community. It took less than a day for doubts to begin surfacing. Were the photos real or comps? A back and forth discussion ensued on HCSP similar to the one on IP, before the general sentiment coalesced around comping.

Street shooters have a third sense about comping. I could probably put Meissner's work in front of any street group and they'd eventually detect manipulation. As for the broader photo world I'm not so sure. Not only is there a general sentiment that comping doesn't matter much. The unwritten assumption is that most photos are comped to one degree or another. Maybe to a future group of photo critics, such photos will look right. Or worse, they'll no longer care. They'll view them as we view a Caravaggio painting from hundreds of years ago, with no burden to bear any indexical reference to reality.

But I would trade every Caravaggio in the world for a crappy vintage 5 x 7 snapshot of St Thomas, if such a thing were somehow possible. Any photograph from that period would be more fascinating than a hundred paintings of it. Assuming the photo wasn't comped.


Stan B. said...

Composite photos are the man made replicas of the minor miracles street photographers seek out (and occasionally capture) in everyday life.

FWIW you could also find a very dubious group of skeptics when it comes to photos of astronauts on the moon.

Blake Andrews said...

How do we know the moon is even a real object in the sky? Could be part of an elaborate set-piece surrounding earth at night, designed by federal authorities to lull us to sleep so we don't revolt. But photos of the set-piece can still be considered truthful.

Stan B. said...

And more than one person has sworn that NASA has been routinely retouching things they can't conveniently explain in their photos since the days it was still called "retouching."

Anonymous said...

What troubles me is how far off many manipulations in landscape photography are, almost like the perspective errors of early paintings. With some basic observational skills the off-ness should jump out at the 'photographer' (and their gallery), but apparently it rarely does.

I say, if the connection to reality is not that important to the work, photography is just a lazy shortcut for the unimaginative with a computer hobby. Perhaps it's just the street photographer in me, but I still have faith that digital photo manipulation will go the way of the synthesiser and that everyone will eventually recognise how impersonal all this plastic perfection really is. 10 years from now they'll re-appreciate the grungy-ness of reality and pick up the Tri-X again to do some serious work.

SR said...

to paraphrase Bill Jay.... 'historically photography is more important than art'.... I suspect sometime in the future both real and created "photography"(ie photography vs. graphic art) will still coexist but there will just need to be a designation that makes clear whether the image is substantially altered or not.....

Kate K said...

Perhaps it might one day become standard practice to present the original RAW file along with the final 'improved' jpg/tiff image that's being offered for display or competition or discussion, possibly with a textual record of what adjustments were made too; a kind of back-up verification for judges, editors, curators, photographers, etc., a guarantee the photographer has engaged in practice relevant to the expectations of the competition, exhibition, journal, newspaper. The RAW would of course not be displayed. Maybe this is a daft idea; with distrust and suspicion as the impetus. I should say I've no idea what proportion of (street) photographers shoot in RAW as a matter of course. Would film users have to submit their negs too? Maybe it's a daft idea after all. This consideration is based on the understanding that RAW is impossible to tamper with. (I think onlinephotographer had something about this recently.)



Blake Andrews said...

That's exactly the problem, Sergei. If we all took our orders from the Kremlin where would that leave the photo world?

By the way, can you get a message to Boris Mikhailov? Do you and him still meet for coffee at Duprovnik's on Mokhovoya?

Anonymous said...

OK, she made some of her images through "comping." So what? Does that make them bad? Does that make her bad? Does she have to turn in her street photography decoder ring?

Blake Andrews said...

Off with her head! Of course it could be later repasted somewhere else in Photoshop.

But seriously I'm not out to bring her or anyone down. But I am nervous when doctored street shots mix indeterminably with nondoctored ones. I know not everyone feels that way but I do. Strongly.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thanks for that. this shots are so great !!!!
uerzo from france

David Simonton said...

The horror…the horror….

Nick Turpin said...

Thanks for this Blake, I think the answer to this is to clearly categorise comped photographs as in fact 'illustrations', they should not even appear on photography blogs and sites, they should be posted on websites dealing with illustrated fictions or 'art'.

If a 'photo graph' is a 'light drawing' then the 'drawing' takes place in the camera not in photoshop.

Mike said...


Great post. I'm in the purist camp where it comes defining the limits of "street photograph." However, I'm not sure why, if IP discovered her via the Leica Liker blog post, there was such a controversy. Quoting from that post, "...her complex and ***multiple exposure*** work push far beyond the specific boundaries of street photography..." So although they didn't explicitly say it was comped/illustrated/photoshopped, "multiple exposure" is a pretty big clue.

Still, I agree with Nick above, that these things should be very clearly labeled so that the artistry, technique, and imagination of the illustrator can be appreciated without first being soured by the disappointment of "discovering" an "imposter."

Blake Andrews said...

Mike, the Leica Liker post has been edited since being first posted in September. Originally it made no mention of comping.

Mike Kayton said...

Good on them for editing it.

On second thought, this being an edit makes their vague allusion to the fact that these are illustrations all the more surprising.

Hernan Zenteno said...

No, the photos are not bad as art, composite or whatever name. Yes, the photo are bad for street photography.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Hi Blake, many thanks for your strong and opportune post. Street photography have some connections with photojournalism and documental photography. I am very scary for how some people use the photos. I think we have to respect some codes in order to not discredit some genres and the work of a lot of people that made their place in the history of photography. Claiming the modernism, a new era and some relativism a lot of people are arguing that all is allowed. And this is ok for the world of photography in general but not for specific genres. And from my point of view, the street photography style, or rules or codes, are the more close to the inherent character of the photography. Be there and capture the flutter of a hummingbird (hope I can express what i want to say in english, my mother language is spanish, would be Estar ahí y capturar el aleteo de un colibrí). Fair play is nice in all the disciplines.

General Goldman said...

Today is the day that destiny has promised us. No longer will we suffer the abasement and the corruption of the foreign street photographers. For as they photograph amongst themselves, we've resurrected our realm creating a new gallery of street photography. Blake, you are destined to reawaken Winogrand, the way of the street photographer. You will be a part of a new street photography, uniting talented photographers from all 4 corners of our Empire. Together, we will first attack Soviet street photographers and not only crush their cameras, but their framed prints, their negatives, and their hope.

Anonymous said...

Well, she got all you guys and the clowns at HCSP talking A LOT about her works. So I'd say that's an achievement in itself. There may be several thousands of SPers who won't respect altered photos; but the greater art world does. Her's is actually clever conceptual art, being that it attempts to mimic reality under the guises of SP (which is assumed to be straight photography.). In that sense her ambiguity in the way she presents her works (by not making a clear statement that she manipulates them) becomes part of her artistic process, and can garner interesting reactions as evident here. OTOH most of the general audience may not notice these subtleties, and ultimately won't care one way or the other. But that question is part of what makes here works interesting, even if they don't fall under the rubicon of "real" SP as we know it.


Hypnoswan said...

If the images in question had been presented as a fabrication at the outset then they would have been assessed in another vein altogether, because Street is assessed on the basis that it IS street and the whole point of Street is that 'decisive moment' - and everyone knows it,.

So if compd work is being presented as 'decisive moment' work, then they are knowingly cheating. If they want to present them as comps then they should make that clear at the outset and not after they have gatecrashed the party (even as a parody it should still be obvious).

It is simply a question of honesty. The whole point of street is its honesty. If someone is pretending to the skill level of, say, Alex Webb, when they obviously don't possess it, then they should rightly be damned for tricking us into thinking they do. Apologists for that charade are equally disingenuous.