If this post seems like a retread of a previous one, well in some ways it is. But whereas my previous thoughts served to situate these photographs and supply some technical details, here I wanted to concentrate more on the feel of the photographs themselves.
I’ve become aware recently that my appreciation of photography is moving away from the technical issues that once preoccupied me towards a greater awareness of the emotional impact of an image.
Take these three photographs. All film. Top is color from Fuji Superia film, the bottom two black and whites are both Ilford HP5 Plus, with the middle image shot using a red filter, the bottom image using a green-yellow filter.
Each has a slightly different feel that is a product of the way light is portrayed within them. The color has a warmth that suggests the beginnings of spring, to mind a stronger and more pronounced warmth than a digital color rendition of the same scene (below). Looking at the digital image reveals the sharpness of all three film images to be moderated compared to the crispness of the digital photograph, yet it is anything lost?
I would say no.
The black and whites, by virtue of subtle differences of light and shade, evoke a slightly bleak and wintry emotions (the top b&w) or a more open and expectant set of the feelings (the bottom b&w image).
To reach this point has taken quite an evolution in my thinking. Like so many other digital photographers caught up in the technicalities of the art, I obsessed about sharpness and pixel perfection, and through doing so spent a lot of money on better cameras and better lenses.
Better in terms of specifications. Not better in terms of producing art.
A photograph is an artifact. These days most are the realization of a digital sampling of color and intensity seen most often on a monitor or screen. As are all of these images. But whereas the bottom image remains at source a collection of bits and bytes, the top three can be traced back to 35mm film. Something to hold, and something that collected color and intensity through photochemical means.
A more tangible artifact and by being so, somehow more meaningful. Of course this difference is moderated if you actually print out your images – a print from a negative is no more or less meaningful that a print from a digital file, even if it has slightly different qualities.
Suggesting, surely, that the best way to really appreciate your photography is to print it.
Certainly something I have observed. A print hanging on a wall invites contemplation, study, engagement and disengagement in quite different ways from what you do with a image projected on a screen. It takes on a presence.
What’s more, it forces you to step backwards from your image and prevents you from obsessively zooming in to every detail. Almost, that is, I suppose you could go over a print with a magnifying glass – but that seems absurdly finicky for a print. So why do we go over every pixel on a screen when playing with a digital image? Again, losing yourself in the trees because it is so easy to do so when encouraged by Lightroom and Photoshop.
All of which brings me back to the point of this article. A photograph is not intended to be scrutinized at near molecular detail anymore than a painting is to be scrutinized for every turn of the brush. As an object of artistic appreciation, that is. The overall effect is what counts, an emotional response invoking feelings and thoughts – whatever they might be.
If all you feel when you look at a photograph is some sort of appreciation for the technical mastery behind the image, yet nothing at all for what the image actually shows, the photograph is an artistic failure.
This, I feel, is the trap that so, so many popular photographers have fallen into. At least, it’s the trap I perceive when I look at endless pantheon of soulless images that fill up websites all over the world.
Whereas those three film shots of barns on the American Bottom floodplain, imperfect though they by modern technical standards and certainly not outstandingly original in terms of subject matter, nonetheless each evoke a strong emotional response of appreciation of the land and its inhabitants and the march of the seasons around them. A feeling I got when I stood there, camera in hand, regarding the scene.
To have bottled a little of that sense of rootedness and time is enough for me to call those shots art.