Saturday, May 18, 2013

Photographic Style

This from an article written by Michael Gregory. There is much more of the article but I would like to share this small but important bit:

“The word seeing is itself ambiguous in the very sense that the photographic style is ambiguous. That is, it means two distinct things at the same time. First, it means the recognition of an imageable scene, and the recording of that scene by photographic means. But seeing means, at the same time, something quite different. It means having insight; that is, intuitively understanding. And here we come to the real point, a valid basis for defining photographic style. It means having insight.

First we must ask “insight into what?” And “intuitively understand what” To answer these questions, we must consider what a photograph ultimately means. What a photograph communicates. The answer, I think, is that the photograph communicates the imcommunicable, that it means exactly itself—no less and no more, and that is enough. This is another way of saying that the photograph is a symbol of the experience, which unites photographer and object in a given recordable instant of meaning. It is important to understand that the photograph is not merely the recording of that experience, but rather its symbolic equivalent.

What do we mean by “symbolic equivalent?” The nearest definition I think is that which T.S. Eliot provided for poetry; that poetry is the ”objective correlative” of an experience which is in itself unverbaizable; beyond rational, logical language. The poem, Eliot says, is a kind of formula for the experience which, through it uses language, surpasses it, and enables the poet to communicate the incommunicable.

The same holds true, I would assert, for photography. How do we know when we are in the presence of a photograph which is a symbolic equivalent for an experience—a photograph possessing “style”? We know it by the quality of our response; the depth and intensity and unspeakableness of the emotional reaction we feel within us as we view the photograph. We can tell, too, by the uniqueness of that response. If we feel what we have never, in just the same way, before, we know we are confronting style. For style can never be cliché; these are the old, irreconcilable enemies. If we are viewing, les us say, the photograph of a forlorn child holding a torn and grimy doll and we say, “the poor thing!” we are in the presence of cliché, not style. If on the other hand, we say nothing and feel a strange and unique admixture of emotions to which the cliché exclamation would be blasphemy, we know that we are in the power of photographic style—the exact equivalent of an indescribable, memorable emotion response…

…I nevertheless conclude that a better definition of photographic style might be something like this: the recorded insight. This is probably no worse, and perhaps a little better, than most of the definitions we have. It nevertheless returns the emphasis where it belongs; out of the camera, away from the object, back into the very eye of the photographer.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Maybe It's a Rant, Maybe It's an Explanation,,, Everwhat

I was recently honored to be asked to present a discussion on how to judge the Out of the Box category at the monthly club print competitions. I declined.

I realize that I am a worse than lousy camera club member because I refuse to judge prints. I am unable, or possibly unwilling, to assign numerical values to aesthetics, originality, impact, technique, appropriateness, whatever criteria is determined for judging. That is the reason that I have attempted, not terribly successfully, to start a group to discuss photographs.

I have very seriously considered no longer attending on competition nights. There are several reasons for that. One, unwilling to participate in the judging does make me somewhat uncomfortable in entering prints. Two, I very sincerely believe that the practice is far more detrimental to the participants than it is beneficial.

As I have frequently mentioned camera club competitions and Internet photography forums homogenize photography by their insistence on rules and conventions. It creates a ‘follow me’ or ‘do as I do’ attitude rather than strengthening the insight into photography and enhancing the abilities of the individual photographers to move beyond clichés. It is nothing that will be changed. It is nothing that can be changed. I have made efforts on an individual basis but emphasis on rules, technique for technique sake and the tendency for people to want to comply or fit in is simply too strong. Any opposing voice is quickly drowned out. I hope along the way I have imparted some insight but I have no hope of combating the infectiousness of the illness.

I might as well attempt to persuade an East Coast liberal Democrat to become a conservative Southern Republican. That would actually be easier and as I have found even that is unachievable. Or to make a Catholic into a Baptist of vice versa, or a gay into a straight. All, along with opposing the conventional impediments of amateur photography, are equally unattainable goals.

I also do not agree with what the Out of the Box category has become. Michael Young initially instituted it when he was competition chairman as a category where the photographer who wanted to move his work or his photographic experimentation well beyond the confines of straight photography could have an opportunity to compete. Michael understood that manipulated, highly manipulated prints, could not be judged with the same criteria as an unmanipulated print. A highly manipulated print is nonobjective, allegorical, mystical. It can have a variety of themes or purposes but its primary purpose is to separate the image from the presumed reality of the straight photograph. It throws all the rules out the window to rely on shape, form, lines, color or purely subjective content and imagination. It can’t be judged on the rule of thirds or impact beyond emotional impact and therefore stands no chance of being acknowledged when mixed with the other categories when you attempt to apply the rules created by the club and promoted by the club for competitions. It rapidly degenerated into basically another open category or in the case of the past two years where there is a ‘theme’ another assigned category.  It is no longer an “Out of the Box” if it actually ever was.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


The following are excerpts from an article on Criticism written by Minor White. He served as a camera club judge monthly for two years prior to writing this article so he has some personal experience with the subject.


“Without great criticism there can be no great Photographs” Bruce Downs

It [the quote from Downs] is a magnificent idea, a mature one….

He [the critic] has to be the most sympathetic spectator, the most understanding, and the most persistent goad…a source of affirmation for reaching new ideas, the first to discern the creative individual and the creative work. That is one of his [the critics] duties. The other is to explain both photographer and medium to the spectator; for the critic is the first to realize that an unenlightened audience limits the expressiveness of any medium and curtails the photographer’s capacity to communicate.

“Judging” of course goes on, quantities of it; and all of it kindergarten criticism, if that. The judge may ask himself “What else can I do when I must award from the prints present instead of evaluating against all that I know is in photography?” He is standing, however, in the position to educate, to teach, to lead towards creative work, to encourage expressions of individuality. But somehow, mainly through lack of really knowing what judging means, he follows rules that he did not invent for himself, allows competition to be substituted for photography in his camera clubs, and thus does photography as a whole more harm than good. Perhaps he is merely unaware of his responsibility—which does not repair the harm he does.

The subject of analysis and criticism is rather complex, and a competent critic has to have a whale of a lot more than personal preference or his own technical achievement to go on. I realize that to present complexity to the modern reader is to invite yawns; but I think we have pursued the myth that photography is easy long enough—the status of pictorialism today is ample proof that always taking the easy path is as sterile as Lysol.

The critic has a thankless task...[but] driven by a passionate love of the medium, persists. The struggles of the beginners excite him, the bad makes him angry, the banal makes him sarcastic, the good warms his heart, the great--as it comes by on rare occasions--makes all the rest worthwhile.

Consequently this paper is aimed directly at the bottom rung of criticism, at the man who takes judging at camera clubs as a high responsibility.

White goes on to talk about Objective Criticism and the duties of the objective critic: the requirement for an objective attitude as opposed to personal preference and secondly, says that the critic can reach objectivity quickly by assuming that what he sees in a print is neither good or bad, but facts.

Rather than “I would have photographed it this way”, “What would happen if it had been photographed this way?” His suggestions arise from the implications deeply imbedded in the photographer’s work, and his “advice” will tend to strengthen and perhaps clarify hat the photographer is trying to do.

Únder A Tool of Objective Analysis, White says, a means of analysis is needed if the critic is to be able to keep a high impersonal attitude towards a print and still actively study it. Without some such tool the objective approach may leave the critic dangling between objectivity and having no feeling at all. Such a tool would include six major points—or more or less: purpose, craftsmanship and technique, composition, style and subject. They will be discussed separately.


White, correctly in my opinion, puts the emphasis on purpose. Actually, he says that nothing, absolutely nothing can proceed; no critique can be attempted until purpose has been established. I am always at a loss then I try to talk to photographers about purpose only to be met with the comment that the photographer has no idea what if any purpose he had in mind at the time the photograph was taken or even when the photograph was processed and printed for presentation.

This is as far as I have gotten into the article so I am not sure what follows but I will inject a strongly felt personal opinion: that purpose to be worthwhile must come from within the photographer and the deeper the better. It must be something that speaks to him and of him. If not, it is of no value to attempt continuing the critique. The conventional photographic wisdoms are simple enough to achieve and are all that is required to win a camera club ribbon.

I am not sure how to even think about helping someone improve their photography if they themselves have given their photography so little thought. Maybe they are simply embarrassed to confess the purpose. Maybe they are simply telling the truth and have no purpose. Either way I am totally at a loss. I very much know what White is saying when he says that the critic dangles between objectivity and no feeling at all.