Monday, March 8, 2010

Purist in denial

Would you go out of your way to see a photo show based on this image alone?

Deja-Vu on Caillabot Street by Harry Bonham Houchins

I did. The image was from a recent show of 70s NYC street photographs by Eugene photographer Harry Bonham Houchins. I've never met him and don't know his work but when I saw that image on the announcement card I drove straight over to Emerald Art Center to check it out. We don't get many street photography shows in Eugene, and that photo was a dandy. I couldn't figure it out. Were they twins, related? I wanted to see more.

Turns out the image was a digital composite. It was hung next to several other street shots which appeared to be straight photos, none of which were as good as the one above, without any particular note about which were composite and which weren't. Groan.

OK. I'm not going to get into the whole question of how much manipulation is too much. I know photographs are not reality, and that virtually all of them are manipulated in some way. I'm not a purist, and in fact I've seen purely manufactured images that are pretty darned entertaining, including a growing branch of street photography which relies on digitally recombined images to create interesting work. Pelle Casse, Peter Funch, Viktor Szemzo, and Manuel Vasquez are just a few. Their photos are great so long as you understand that their methods are closer to Uelsmann than Cartier-Bresson.

Petrzalka, 2004-2005, Viktor Pzemzo

That's fine. But when a purely digital fantasy attempts to pass unnoticed amid a group of relatively unmanipulated images --with no supporting explanation-- I have a problem. Maybe I am just resentful because I was fooled by the Houchins image, but I think such blurring threatens the essence of street photography. In my heart of hearts I feel the core of street photography is looking at reality and attempting to capture it. Combining forms on a computer is something different. Valid, but separate.

I don't think I'm alone in this belief. Just look at the recent flap over Stepan Rudik. When photos mess with the "truth" --however you want to define that-- it ruffles feathers.

How much manipulation is too much? Photo by Stepan Rudik

I wish I could change my outlook but I can't. I've thought hard about why that is. Digital mixing doesn't bother me in other art forms. I like Radiohead or Flying Lotus as much as the next guy. I don't really care how a musician gets a certain sound, or if a heavily digitized song is right next to a straight recording on a CD. If I watch a movie, I don't care which scenes are computer generated and which aren't. It's all entertainment. I don't care which pages of a novel are written longhand and which on a word processor. But when it comes to photography, I care. Am I being hypocritical, or does photography deserve special consideration?

As a counter example consider the following photo.

This was on Broadway in downtown Portland. The form of the cigarette is what first drew me in. Looking closer I couldn't tell what he was putting in his sock. I just knew it looked a bit odd and so my intuition told me to get a few shots. On the contact sheet the surrounding frames fall flat. It's a guy bending over adjusting his shoe, nothing more. In this one frame, however, the shot comes together. For a fraction of a second his leg and foot are exactly misaligned and it appears that he's removing his entire foot. It's the type of street photo that recharges me, at once perfectly mundane and bizarre.

In the contemporary photo world, the question then becomes, So What? Such a shot would be easy to create in Photoshop. You could take any photo of a guy bending over, hire a model even, and then tweak the sock and shoe to give the same effect. Most nonphotographers —and I include here most of the fine art world— wouldn't care one way or another how I got the photo. They would probably assume it was digitally altered, but wouldn't spend much time worrying about it. After all, when you get your MFA you learn that all images are manipulated, that no photo shows "reality". Everyone knows truth in photography is just a matter of degree. Right?

Informing Informers, from Babel Tales, Peter Funch

Is that really what it's come to? If it is, then why go to all the trouble of roaming the streets? Why not make the same photos in the comfort of an office sitting in a recliner?

I'll tell you why. First of all, because truth is stranger than fiction. Although you could make the shoe photo in Photoshop, no one would. No one would dream it up, and if even if they did they would dismiss the idea right away as not looking believable. It looks too strange to be true, when actually it's too strange to be fiction.

Reality is hard to pin down. I think this is why when "street photographers" sitting at home on their computers create what they think are believable fictions, they often have the whiff of unreality. Their photographs are close to credible yet inevitably wind up being incredible, especially in series. Maybe the Houchins photo had a whiff of unreality to it which, ironically, may have been what first drew me in.

Shoppers 2, Quincy Market, Boston, Pelle Casse

The second, more important reason, to roam the streets is that it's life affirming! It's a challenge unlike any other. It combines aspects of meditation, observing, daring, and wondering about the world that cannot be simulated by looking at a monitor.

Viewed from this perspective, photography is as much about process as product. It's about searching, being mindful, living with integrity, all of it. It's a bit like eating. Yes, in theory you could gain all of your nutritional needs through a combination of vitamin pills, raw carbs, and maybe plasma injection. Maybe some folks do. But such an outlook is totally result-driven, and ignores the fact that good food is beautiful.

I'm probably on the wrong side of history here. The trend is toward conceptual, result-driven art. In 20 years straight street photography will be even more marginalized than it is now. Whatever. I'll still be out there doing it.


Unknown said...

I think a lot depends on how the photographer presents their work. Looking at a Jeff Wall shot for instance, I don't get annoyed when I find how how manipulated it is. However, if I went to a show based on that one shot of "Deja-Vu" expecting a street photography show I'd be quite annoyed to find out they were manipulated.

It's probably a tough thing for a photographer though, because they may not feel like they're being untruthful, and they may disclose everything about how their work is produced, but you look at a shot like that and expect something completely different from the work.

Chuck said...

Actually I have a lot trouble with Jeff Wall too, mainly for the same reasons that Blake mentions -- it's only strange enough to look calculated. But aside from that pesky process issue (the thing that makes an amazing street shot appeal to another street photographer because we know how incredible it is to find that little piece of reality-stranger-than-fiction) the problem is more related to our clinging to the truthfulness issue. We can talk the talk about photographs not being real, but in our hearts we still think a street photograph ought to show what the physics caught. In other words, street photography is still linked at the hip to documentary, and capitalizes on the element of amazement. Unlike most entertainments, it purports to record an actual encounter with something in the real world and not just something you dreamed up. But like you, I can't help but wonder when that emotional response will just disappear altogether because the virtual kind of experience will seem just as good; when truthiness is good enough.

Blake Andrews said...

You're right that context matters. I was trying to make that point in the post but not sure if it was clear. I think it's fine to create digital montages. Jeff Wall, Gursky, or whoever can do whatever they want because they don't profess to practice documentary photography, so it doesn't bother me too much. But when those montages are interwoven in a body of work with "real" shots for no clear reason, I think that's a problem.

Photographs are by nature authoritative. That's a powerful characteristic but it's sort of like a genie in a bottle. It should be used with discretion.

SR said...

Dorothea Lange had a quote on her darkroom door from Francis Bacon that read:

The contemplation of things as they are without substitution or imposture without error or confusion is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.

Maybe she too had to remind herself sometimes why she photographed. I for one still agree.

davidplechl said...

Maybe there is a language problem here too. Maybe 'manipulation' is too vague when it can describe both darkroom dodging and say two images combined digitally. To me there is a clear difference between a street photograph over burned and digital 'composites.' To people outside of the photography and art appreciating world the difference might seem negligible, but to those on the inside it should be obvious. It may seem like street photography and work that is cut from the fabric of day to day reality is on the outs, but it could all come back around as people reject over-worked, and overly slick work in favor of something more real. street cred. look what happened to vinyl?

Zisis said...

I just want to say what an excellent and exhilarating post that was (and a superb photograph by the way!).
I think Blake's writing reflect the thoughts of many street photographers and for me at least is going to serve as a signpost for days to come.
Blake's rationale echoes Winogrand's famous motto "There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly stated".

Manipulated images can be pretty cool as long as the context is clear.
Composites and street photography is not the result of digital only.
Ray Metzker was probably the first to mix the two with very eloquent results.

Blake Andrews said...

I was going to delete that Viagra spam comment but then I realized it actually might be appropriate for a discussion of real vs manipulated subject matter.

David, you're right about there being variations in manipulation but sometimes the line is fuzzy. The Stepan Rudik image for example is so slightly altered that it's almost equivalent to spotting dust specks or some other very slight manipulation. Yet it's clear that content has been altered.

I think there are parallels to the music industry and vinyl. Look for a future post on that.

MartinH said...

I often see a lot of street photographs as attempts to bring some kind of order out of chaos. To spot patterns, show flow and the interaction of people in the street. A photo with strong composition stands out against a muddled mess of people because the photographer is constructing his view of what looks best. Obtaining that perfect shot takes a lot of skill, luck and plenty of shoe leather.

Funch and Co's photography takes this desire to find order to the extreme. This is how they would like the street to be. It can be very visually pleasing and I'm sure it sells well, but as you say, it's unreal.

The order and composition only makes sense if it's composed out of chaos. It shows how people influence each other. Creating a staged look is not interaction. It's just acting. And that's not real life.

David Gibson said...

I have read all the above and I may well comment further later but I would first like to throw this website into the mix.

This is all about taking things at face value and trust.
So how should we react to these photographs by Dale Yudelman?

Nick Turpin said...

A good post about a contentious subject Blake, for me the main difference is in the 'meaning' of each shot because it is 'meaning' that I am often looking for a sign of when I shoot on the streets...the composited photograph is missing that vital ingredient, I'm fascinated by the details of human life in public but I don't give a shit about what's going on in some photographers head as he sits at his computer sticking pictures together....its vain, self obsessed and informs me not a bit about the real world. We all know the arguments that a photograph has a tenuous link to the real nature of the thing photographed but you try telling that to my grandmother when she keeps asking for more pictures of her great grandchildren.

Blake Andrews said...

I think you're onto something there, Nick. Photographs derive a lot of their meaning from their special relationship with reality. When that relationship is altered the question "what does that photo mean?" is narrowed down and thrown at the feet of the photographer. We have to rely on them to interpret what they meant in the image. As you point out, much of the time this is an empty exercise since it's hard for most people to say something profound pasting images together on a monitor. It usually winds up looking like a poor imitation of an actual photo. If you're going to take that route, why not go all the way and make collage or abstract painting or sculpture or just about anything but photography?

On the other hand, the fact that this issue touches such a nerve may be a sign that it's ripe with meaning, which people such as Yudelman exploit to give their images a little extra charge.

br said...

a great post and great responses. for me "disclosure" means a lot. I've seen plenty of extremely altered photos that are presented as un-altered: unbelievable shadows, perspective etc. And for what?...three more positive comments from viewers?
In my own work i dodge and burn digitally, probably more so than tradition darkroom photographers but it is usually only to remove a glaring distraction from the intended image.
Additionally, if i use images as "graphics", i enter another genre of visual arts; graphic arts. ethically i can not "grab" a street subject's face and apply it as an element to graphic art. The context would be lost.
Opening the infinite world of super-imposed images etc requires expertise and a personal vision that validates the process and highlights the personal vision. Painting can do anything....the photographer is captured by a fraction of a second in reality.

David Gibson said...

This touches a raw nerve for me, as it does for many others. My initial reaction to any over manipulation is to dismiss it because it simply looks false. However, when manipulation is done well, where you are hard pushed to see the joins then it becomes something quite disturbing.

Of course if manipulation is clearly stated it is acceptable and the work stands or falls on its own merits but if there is any vagueness that vagueness is usually is a deliberate choice to obscure. And that is when we move into a more disturbing territory. I dislike any work like this because it is false and second-rate.

I am sorry that my link above to Dale Yudelman does not work but please have a look through his 100 photos. When I first saw them I was excited and inspired but then doubts crept into my mind. Other photographers raised doubts and I felt let down and agitated by his images.

It may well be unfair to single out Dale Yudelman because he clearly has a good eye and many of his images are genuine. Is he a very good forger or is he genuine? His work confuses me.

Street photography is something real and it has integrity. People who manipulate the world that they see in their images are in another world. I don't like that world at all.

Blake Andrews said...

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