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Thread: Do you care about what you photograph?

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    Do you care about what you photograph?

    It seems to me that photographers whose muse is the natural world have a tough time talking about the natural world and the problems facing it. Are landscapes and the natural world just opportunities to take pretty pictures? Or is there more to the natural world than that.

    Apparently, talking about the human impact gets us into trouble. Why? Or is that the same with all photography. Are people who are photographing the social condition just using it for cool pictures? Does anyone really care about what they photograph? Is photography its own end?

    I am really interested on how folks think about this in reference to their own work.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    This topic goes right to the heart of the difference between form and function. Kant's classic notion of the "aesthetic disposition" and judgement of taste in art is based on disinterestedness. The main argument of his "Critique of Judgment" is that aesthetic contemplation is external to the function or content of an artwork. Contemplation of the purpose, use, or subject matter of a work is not considered aesthetic.

    Many photographers (photojournalists etc) produce work with the sole intention of educating the public about the content itself. Their creations might be excellent tools for social action, but they are too based on interest to be truly considered aesthetic. In other words, what they are creating is more propaganda than art.

    There's nothing at all wrong with creating propaganda. In fact, the majority of photography that exists is non-aesthetic. My main point is that the disinterestedness required for the aesthetic disposition is the exact opposite of the interest necessary to promote social action. So, there will always be a sort of tug-of-war taking place between the photographers that prefer "form" rather than "function" in imagery.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Good question Shashin.

    Excellent answer Mike M.

    I think the photographic essayists, both historical and modern, do care about what they photograph ... such as the work of W. Eugene Smith, or some recent works published on the Burn Magazine site curated by David Alan Harvey.

    I also think some of these photographers intuitively have a more refined aesthetic eye than others, and many of their images "taken out of context of content" would be deemed "beautiful". Whether that violates the strictest definition of "aesthetic" I couldn't say. I don't know if a visual expression can truly be either or. Smith left Life Magazine because the populist demands were impinging on his well developed sense of moral and artistic standards.

    To answer the specific question asked:

    Personally when I shoot with a rangefinder (or in the manner of a Rangefinder), it is to strip away more of the aesthetic decisions to concentrate on content. What the image is about takes precedence over what it may look like. I care about recording a humanistic moment holistically or universally speaking more than the specific subject that is being used to illustrate it.

    However, I am not photographing so called "big propaganda" such as Smith's essay: "Minamata", or Javier Arcenillas' recent insights about mass violence in Latin America on Burn Magazine. My subjects are normal people doing human things we all do ... which can be interesting, humorous, and even self-reflective to the viewer when isolated down to a nano-sliver of time ... more Elliot Erwit than Smith.

    I freely admit to having trouble with pure aesthetics in photography. I grasped it as a painter, but struggle with it in photography. I fully experience the aesthetics of a painter like Kandinsky, but can't seem to feel it that intensely in photography.

    - Marc

    A few "mini-moments" on subjects like age, eavesdropping, lechery, etc.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    I always look for a message, some kind of story, when I take photos. Only after I've found that, I compose and push the shutter button. People have individual needs, photographers as well as viewers, but since we live in a world that is controversial by nature, telling stories and presenting an alternative view is to me an obvious thing.

    Interesting question and good answers so far. You show some excellent examples, Marc, but you would wouldn't you? You are one of those who know how to combine esthetics and story-telling.

    I remember an interesting debate some time during the seventies in the German car magazine "auto motor und sport" regarding esthetics vs. functionality in car design. Most readers came to the conclusion that functional solutions were most of the time beautiful by nature. It's simply how humans think.

    There was also some famous yacht designer, I can't remember which one, who said "If it looks good, it probably sails well".

    Etc.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Quote Originally Posted by fotografz View Post
    Excellent answer Mike M.
    Thanks, Marc

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Hello Will
    I think your question is profound and yet at the same time been with us since the first cave painting. The previous posts from Mike and Marc, define the question and the dilemma with insightful answers.
    I personally think images are powerful things. In the case I think you are referring too, I have to feel that your interpretation is by no means wrong, as a matter of fact insightful. I do feel it is wrong to try and restrict people reactions to images as they experience them.
    Many images are taken for many reasons as noted by Marc and Mike. For example some people look at images of the Great Wall and see a monumental structure beyond comprehension a supernatural feat (you can substitute the Pyramids, if you like) , other people look at the same image and question the human cost to build such a structure.
    My work for what it is worth (I am just an old guy who shoots and make my money elsewhere, I take images to stay sane) – no matter if I classify my shots as "Story Telling" "An Image" “Calendar Shots” “Street Photography” “Social Commentary” or what I am still striving for "Ethereal, Ephemeral Realistic” images, a concept I have in my head. If I look at what I made and like it, then that’s enough, I am not selfish - I hope other do also, but how they interpret it – is sometimes interesting and sometimes amusing.
    I like this forum, I like the dedication and passion of the members, and I find the work submitted inspiring. Looking at a image – in my opinion, there is nothing that is “out of bounds” otherwise put the image “out of bounds” or attach Cliff notes.
    Personally I am a “Bal Haus” kinda guy, but still like a pretty thing once in a while for its own sake. I do have a problem with images where content is supposed to trump technique – with exception of front page of the newspaper.
    My 2 cents
    Phil
    Last edited by alajuela; 8th August 2013 at 22:52.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Quote Originally Posted by alajuela View Post
    Hello Will
    I think your question is profound and yet at the same time been with us since the first cave painting. The previous posts from Mike and Marc, define the question and the dilemma with insightful answers.
    I personally think images are powerful things. In the case I think you are referring too, I have to feel that your interpretation is by no means wrong, as a matter of fact insightful. I do feel it is wrong to try and restrict people reactions to images as they experience them.
    Many images are taken for many reasons as noted by Marc and Mike. For example some people look at images of the Great Wall and see a monumental structure beyond comprehension a supernatural feat (you can substitute the Pyramids, if you like) , other people look at the same image and question the human cost to build such a structure.
    My work for what it is worth (I am just an old guy who shoots and make my money elsewhere, I take images to stay sane) – no matter if I classify my shots as "Story Telling" "An Image" “Calendar Shots” “Street Photography” “Social Commentary” or what I am still striving for "Ethereal, Ephemeral Realistic” images, a concept I have in my head. If I look at what I made and like it, then that’s enough, I am not selfish - I hope other do also, but how they interpret it – is sometimes interesting and sometimes amusing.
    I like this forum, I like the dedication and passion of the members, and I find the work submitted inspiring. Looking at a image – in my opinion, there is nothing that is “out of bounds” otherwise put the image “out of bounds” or attach Cliff notes.
    Personally I am a “Bal Haus” kinda guy, but still like a pretty thing once in a while for its own sake. I do have a problem with images where content is supposed to trump technique – with exception of front page of the newspaper.
    My 2 cents
    Phil
    Phil, I think you touch on what may be the most burning question about photography today ... at least it is a big question for me as I leave behind the world of defined purpose (or excuse to shoot) that paying work was, and find myself once again adrift on a vast ocean of possibilities ... which sounds good, but is actually quite intimidating ... making a thread like this perhaps the most important one I've run across yet. So, dear readers, forgive the following ramblings of a temporarily lost soul

    On one hand we shoot because we want or need to express ourselves ... even, as you say, "to stay sane" ... on the other hand, photography is without a doubt the most practiced visual form of expression in history. The latter has made me question the very nature of my content driven philosophy, and your last line actually resonated with me: "I do have a problem with images where content is supposed to trump technique ... "

    While I could argue that "technique," or use of aesthetic principles, is integral to making the content sing, or making a single image story speak to viewers, its' relevance in today's world seems to be waining. Content oriented images have become the domaine of the masses, who take photos of everything and anything to the point that it dilutes any insightful story telling attempts. The audience for such work has dried up. I noticed this with my wedding photography ... where even those educated in the arts, including practiced photographers, can't see the difference (which to me is obvious) ... or perhaps they never did. I cannot tell you how frustrating that has been in the past few years.

    It could be said, ignore the audience, shoot for yourself and let the chips fall where they may ... yet a Picasso quote on that subject haunts me: "A painting kept in the closet, may as well be kept in the head".

    Therefore, I DO care about what I shoot, and not for some social reason like problems with the environment, or to make cool pictures of a social condition, but to advance my vision of the world around me, and hopefully by extension the vision of those whom I share with. I want that way of seeing to be unique and worthwhile, not something that "funds the clutter' that photography has become.

    Therein, dear readers, lies the rub.

    Personally, like a sponge, I suck up every published, hung, or posted image I can, yet am left dry. I find little inspiration in the endless parade of street photography, or post card landscapes with a few notable exceptions ... and it is those exceptions give me a glimmer of hope.

    What I do find more challenging is exploring photography's role in modern art. Most of which destroys much revered beliefs we attach to photography. Take a moment to peruse this MOMA presentation and click on the names in white to see what I mean:

    MoMA.org | Interactives | Exhibitions | 1997 | New Photography 13

    Perhaps we are on the cusp of a deconstructivist movement, or a dadaist teardown of photography as we know it. Or does photography slavishly suffer from the tyranny of reason?

    - Marc

    As I cautioned, mere ramblings of a disheveled mind
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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Excellently written, Marc

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Pretty interesting and I'm not sure I really have a answer to the question . It really depends on which Guy your asking at a given moment since I run the gamut of commercial, personal and art type of shooting. I'm frankly all over the map. It's a profession, a hobby , a passion, a escape from life and honestly its been my whole adult and even young man life. I think I have asked this question to myself for over 40 years and I still don't have a answer to it. I don't specialize in any area and all areas have some interest to me. I guess I'm just a lover of the art and leave it at that and don't question the whys too much. I just do it and try to be great at it in any capacity of producing images. It's a great question and one I simply can't really answer, for me its in my DNA. Maybe if I did think about it more and the human condition, maybe it would not give me the lifelong pleasure of it. For me it touches on every emotional level in life and every style of it I enjoy to some degree.
    Photography is all about experimentation and without it you will never learn art.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Quote Originally Posted by fotografz View Post
    .................................................. ...................

    A few "mini-moments" on subjects like age, eavesdropping, lechery, etc.
    Marc:

    Had someone shown me these images and asked who is the photographer, I would have answered Diane Arbus. My compliments.

    Tom

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Thanks for the replies.

    I never really understood why I photographed for a long time. But for me, at least my own work, it is to understand the world and to connect to it. The connection between the subject and my photography is very direct. I can go out and take nice images, I post them here I GetDPI, but they are not very satisfying. If photography was just about taking photographs, I doubt I could do it for so long.

    Photography, at least the good stuff, is subjective. This applies to even the best documentary and journalistic work. Photography is not, at least outside the sciences, is not a product of reason. Even its justification can be weak--at least from the artist's statements I keep reading.

    I generally don't talk about my work--it is just hard to do with any accuracy. Personally, the best photography comes from the honesty of the artist. But an intuitive honesty. I find the conceptual bent in art today is just not very effective at producing art. It does not mean concept cannot be implied or stated, but if that is all it is, then it is rather flat--bending a photograph does not help. None of what I consider my successful work is objective nor conceptual, although those things might be present. (I did study the metaphysical definition of art, but it just kept coming up too short and was just falling into the same problems of conceptual art--axioms can only take you so far.)

    But there is a feedback loop. I am passionate about the subject and the more I work with and learn about that, the more it feeds that passion. The beautiful things is that it can really open up the world. Not just in conceptual ways--I usually do a bunch of research when i work on a project--but in actual effects and results. I have been playing with the natural landscape more in my work. You come to a place like Maine and it is easy to think that the State is in a very natural condition. But that is the beauty of the landscape, its structure is a result of real forces. The history of the place is there in its current form. You just need to read it--who is better at deciphering spacial problems than photographers. The more you look, the more you see, or sometimes don't see because something is missing.

    What I find interesting is the social documentary folks go looking for the problems and issues, the nature photography folk go looking for the beauty and harmonies. Both groups are doing a disservice for essentially the same reason--an incomplete view of the world. Both views are biased. I read a book called Doing documentary work by Robert Cole. He would send his students out to very rural areas to photograph poor mountain communities. He would then visit the subjects of his student's work and get their responses. One man said that the students never wanted him to smile. He explained while they were poor, they were basically happy people.
    Will

    http://www.hakusancreation.com
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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Shashin’s question is an interesting and disturbing one. I am not in a position to address any purpose or goal of photography other than my own. Most of us, in first world countries, live a comfortable and routine life. We see the same scenes every day and see nothing extraordinary in them. Photography can isolate and reveal the profound beauty everywhere (consider Ernst Hass’ photo of a smashed can on a NYC street). For me, that’s my motivation.

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    I find there are two tough things about art. Art is beautiful, even the grim war photography has a beauty. I think art is always an affirmation of life--beauty is hardly a negative expression. Art says yes to life (here is my metaphysics background coming out). So photographers that think they are trying to change the world defeat their own purpose with their work. I think beauty is a prime motivator with any photographer.

    I think every photographer needs to find their own relationship to their art--and I admire the chameleon nature of commercial photographer, it took me a long time to get that flexibility. That is actually a great thing as we get the largest number of voices and points of view.
    Will

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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Quote Originally Posted by fotografz View Post
    Phil, I think you touch on what may be the most burning question about photography today ... at least it is a big question for me as I leave behind the world of defined purpose (or excuse to shoot) that paying work was, and find myself once again adrift on a vast ocean of possibilities ... which sounds good, but is actually quite intimidating ... making a thread like this perhaps the most important one I've run across yet. So, dear readers, forgive the following ramblings of a temporarily lost soul

    On one hand we shoot because we want or need to express ourselves ... even, as you say, "to stay sane" ... on the other hand, photography is without a doubt the most practiced visual form of expression in history. The latter has made me question the very nature of my content driven philosophy, and your last line actually resonated with me: "I do have a problem with images where content is supposed to trump technique ... "

    While I could argue that "technique," or use of aesthetic principles, is integral to making the content sing, or making a single image story speak to viewers, its' relevance in today's world seems to be waining. Content oriented images have become the domaine of the masses, who take photos of everything and anything to the point that it dilutes any insightful story telling attempts. The audience for such work has dried up. I noticed this with my wedding photography ... where even those educated in the arts, including practiced photographers, can't see the difference (which to me is obvious) ... or perhaps they never did. I cannot tell you how frustrating that has been in the past few years.

    It could be said, ignore the audience, shoot for yourself and let the chips fall where they may ... yet a Picasso quote on that subject haunts me: "A painting kept in the closet, may as well be kept in the head".

    Therefore, I DO care about what I shoot, and not for some social reason like problems with the environment, or to make cool pictures of a social condition, but to advance my vision of the world around me, and hopefully by extension the vision of those whom I share with. I want that way of seeing to be unique and worthwhile, not something that "funds the clutter' that photography has become.

    Therein, dear readers, lies the rub.

    Personally, like a sponge, I suck up every published, hung, or posted image I can, yet am left dry. I find little inspiration in the endless parade of street photography, or post card landscapes with a few notable exceptions ... and it is those exceptions give me a glimmer of hope.

    What I do find more challenging is exploring photography's role in modern art. Most of which destroys much revered beliefs we attach to photography. Take a moment to peruse this MOMA presentation and click on the names in white to see what I mean:

    MoMA.org | Interactives | Exhibitions | 1997 | New Photography 13

    Perhaps we are on the cusp of a deconstructivist movement, or a dadaist teardown of photography as we know it. Or does photography slavishly suffer from the tyranny of reason?

    - Marc

    As I cautioned, mere ramblings of a disheveled mind
    Good morning Marc
    I agree with you – we are experiencing a sea change in photography. On the one hand cameras are ubiquitous, photography for the masses (maybe they said the same thing about the box brownie). Photos taken that will never be printed; you cannot go into a restaurant or walk down the street without seeing cell phones held up taking photos. I do think there is an upside to this as far as photos are concerned; such as recording things, taking a picture of a product to remember (helpful as we age) , communicating with photos, proving things, which otherwise are hearsay.

    BUT and here is the big but in my opinion.

    I think (again without getting esoteric or too philosophical) there is a difference between photos and images. I have seen your work, to use your images in this post, these are great images, they tease the imagination. Not “candid” shots, nor haphazard street shots, they are composed, balanced, framed (we are taking exposure for granted) and it is obvious they are thought out. As photographers – we work within a frame, we decide what to put in the frame, what to dodge and burn, what to accentuate with contrast and focus, if we want color or black and white. To put a fine point on it, I don’t think of Cartier-Bresson as a great “Street” photographer, I think he made great images on the street. Same with Dorothea Lange in her world, she did not just take photos of destitute people, or Arnold Newman didn't just take snapshots of famous people, Ansel Adams didn’t just take photos of mountains, they all created great images. The list goes on.......

    I think that Images are like songs, the good ones take us someplace, stimulate our imagination. I don’t think there is just a passing relationship between the words image and imagination. This is the elusive challenge. To stay on this analogy for a moment more, look how many orchestrates do Mozart, Strauss, Tchaikovsky or for that matter covers of Dylan, The Beatles, some are great, almost mysterious, and others well – you ask yourself why?

    One of the comments you made – is disconcerting; the audience for such work has dried up. I noticed this with my wedding photography ... where even those educated in the arts, including practiced photographers, can't see the difference (which to me is obvious) ... or perhaps they never did. I cannot tell you how frustrating that has been in the past few years. This must be very frustrating. You are probably correct, “perhaps they never did.”

    When I made the statement “If I look at what I made and like it, then that’s enough” I did not mean it in an absolute sense, I meant that – I see something there, and yes I value criticism – but I must temper it with “not all opinions are equal”.

    I think we are always working on our skills, learning by looking and listening, but it does not follow that we should follow the crowd, we should listen to our own drum. We should constantly try to define our vision, much as a painter is constantly challenged to get it down on canvas.

    We are our own meanest critics, we are always working without boundaries, sometimes we see something, and we know what we want the final print to look like, other times, we see something, we like, make sure we have done the fundamentals correct, exposure and framing, and stop there, then if the final image comes back to us later, we look at it, and it tells us what to do to it. This weekend I went back to look at some shots I took in January which I found interesting, to see it I can communicate the sensation, I felt when I saw them.

    The only goal is to try to constantly improve, try new things, get better at our ability to express ourselves.

    If I ran on with the trite and the obvious, then with all due respect I apologize.
    Best
    Phil
    Last edited by alajuela; 12th August 2013 at 00:31.
    Philip
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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    #1 I remember I started photographing things, when I was 12, just pointing the camera and shooting stuff. I didn't care about it, but it troubled me as we were poor and I wondered what I was trying to achieve. The act of photographing was what I cared about.


    #2 Later I ran a print business and repro work meant photographing things as technically accurate as possible. Kind of rewarding, but the technique was what I cared about.


    #3 I developed further and found that the aesthetics of the picture could be very pleasing. People looked at my images and gave me complements, for a long time actually, the aesthetics were what I cared about.



    #4 Many years and careers later, the print really came to be the thing I cared about, not just my prints, but my customers. It was the creation of an object that I cared about.


    #5 As my photography continued, I realised that some photo's were not just pleasing or looked good as prints, but they also have a message. At this time, having a message was what I cared about.


    Now as I look at my photography, it's what the image says that I care for. I do like to capture aesthetics, I find portraits rewarding as I do still life and as I do shooting as technically optimal as I can possibly make it. But what drives me, is what the message is. I find many nice 'opportunities' that I simply don't bother with. I like to capture peoples expressions, place people in a context that says something about them or about how I feel. I'm turning a corner in my journey where I want to use the medium to start suggesting my point of view, on world debt, on the appalling behaviour of our most trusted leaders, on people who are poor and happy, rich and miserable, on the trap of 9-6 working, the lack of family life, the mistake of working couples and how we're no better off because now we both work and still can't afford a decent place to live. All these topics, I want to express through my photography. I have these visions in my head that I feel this desire and urge to capture. I'm struggling with how, but I'm driven. I've only just begun on this path, but it's my message that I care about.


    Please write to me in prison.


    - Paul
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    Re: Do you care about what you photograph?

    Quote Originally Posted by Shashin View Post
    It seems to me that photographers whose muse is the natural world have a tough time talking about the natural world and the problems facing it. Are landscapes and the natural world just opportunities to take pretty pictures? Or is there more to the natural world than that.

    Apparently, talking about the human impact gets us into trouble. Why? Or is that the same with all photography. Are people who are photographing the social condition just using it for cool pictures? Does anyone really care about what they photograph? Is photography its own end?

    I am really interested on how folks think about this in reference to their own work.
    Great question, Shashin, and some very thoughtful responses.

    My muse is indeed the natural world because it is my great love and motivator. I have no problems talking about it and I'm doing my best as a naturalist to understand the problems facing it. (Indeed, as a director of the Nature Conservancy of Canada I'm doing my best to do something about the problems too.)

    The "Color Photo Book" by Andreas Feininger contains a a very important passage, at least for me. He states that you'll only excel in in your art by photographing things you love. Don't be a canine photographer unless you really love dogs, for example.

    Prior to reading that, many years ago, I photographed anything and everything I thought worth a picture. Architecture, weddings, some fashion work, press pix - pretty soon I was a jack of all trades and not particularly good at any of them. Though I did sell quite a lot, I could not have made a living from them. But I saw myself as a photographer so I had to snap everything.

    It was then that I realized the best pictures I was taking were of the natural world, particularly intimate landscapes and wildlife. These gave me the greatest satisfaction - and coincidentally, sold the best though sales were not my motivation. But I have always been an outdoorsman and undoubtedly picked up much from my father who was a botanist and a biology teacher. Why didn't I see, much earlier, where my heart lay? Maybe just a question of growing up...Now I see myself as a seeker and portrayer of natural beauty. Or at least, I try to be.

    So to answer your question - yes, I really care about what I photograph! And most of the photographers I most admire clearly care about their subjects too.
    Bill CB

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