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I get a lot of emails from photography sites – some because I joined and some because I didn’t. Many are similar to this exhortation to improve from Photzy, an offshoot of Light Stalking:

Can you relate to this? You created what you thought was going to be the world’s greatest, most stupendous, most wow inspiring landscape photograph ever- only to be disappointed when you opened it up in Lightroom… Maybe, it looked something like this? Not at all what you saw that morning… after you got up early… and hiked all that way. Flat! Dull. Lifeless. And just plain blah! But all is not lost. Because with a little bit of knowledge… Your image could be transformed into a calendar-worthy photograph of the highest caliber!

Now, I am not going to argue that the transformation here fails to change the photograph into one that is more calendar-worthy. Indeed it does. My argument is much more broad than that. It is that photographs that are ‘calendar worthy’ are intrinsically uninteresting in their own right. I know this attitude puts me at odds with most photographers, many of whom – with greater or lesser success – are striving precisely for this look. It’s part of what is often characterized as an appearance that ‘pops’. A look designed to instantly attract and to hold the attention of as many people as possible.

Maybe is my mildly misanthropic tendencies that alienate me from this trend. Perhaps it’s wandering through art museums and finding greater pleasure in the deliberately understated art of photographers of the Dusseldorf school. Mostly, I think, it’s the absence, to my mind, of any story or philosophy behind such work that leaves me regarding them is such a cold light.

This was brought home most forcefully to me today while watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert”. His first color film and one photographed in a deliberately painterly way. Deliberate in that Antonioni frequently paints his subjects and backdrops to reflect a coloristic way of regarding the world that is based more on psychology than realism. And very much more on an underlying philosophy of existentialism. It’s a remarkable film that in almost every frame reveals an artistry that reveals the vast majority of popular contemporary photography to be conformist, vapid, materialist, emotionally empty and crudely manipulative.

Watching it, I marvel at Antonioni’s vision. As exemplified by this screen grab below. The protagonist played by Monica Vitti stops to rest by a street vendor selling fruit and vegetables. Only all color except pastel grays and yellows has been removed from the shot. In this case, all the produce has been painted gray. Colors that match both the street and the clothing worn by Vitti. It’s a remarkable shot, just a very brief interlude in the film, that reinforces the pale emptiness that threatens to overtake Vitti’s character. An emptiness that acts as the central theme to the movie.

Undoubtedly I am helped in my appreciation of Antonioni’s work by an underlying sympathy with his worldview, but even if I wasn’t, it’s impossible to argue with the overwhelming photographic artistry on display throughout “Red Desert”. In my case, I have to go further. Because I regard work such as this as paramount, I am inevitably compelled to dismiss the manifestations found so often in popular photography. It’s a rather lonely and isolating path to follow, but for me it’s real. That’s where I prefer to be. red desert