Photography has gone through various stages since William Talbot and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre almost simultaneously announced their discovery around 1839. The technical limitations of the time required long exposures, limited exposure range of the plates, bulky cameras, and other necessary equipment created static sensibilities. As time went on both photographers and their equipment improved allowing new aesthetics and new photographic styles to emerge. From “nature’s pencil”, to pictorialism, to photo-secession, to modernism, to post-modernism, and many nuances in between have come and gone. A look through the works of photographers since its early days until the dawn of the digital era will present a huge range of works in style, sensibility, and photographic approach but one will be hard pressed to find examples where the tool or the technique dominates the photographic qualities of the work.
With the advent of digital photography and a myriad of tools for postprocessing, we now face photography where the technique or the tool dominates the photograph pushing its photographic qualities to the background. Part of this is the result of the irresistible seduction of these tools that probably give the user a great sense of power which becomes difficult to control and stop at a sensible point. Other contributing factors are misusing the tools, learning the “tips and tricks” before learning why and when to use them or the large collection of “presets” that reflects other photographers’ sensibilities among others. I would like to focus on one factor that has nothing to do with the tools per se but the approval, even encouragement of misuse by “authority figures” in the field. I am referring to the camera clubs and their parent organization the Photographic Society of America (PSA).
I have recently reviewed the medal winners and accepted images in the 2010 Color Projected Images competition run by the PSA, probably all of them one by one. The descendants of early “salon” photography, these exhibitions invite participants to submit photographs to be judged by a panel of judges, and this is where the distortion starts. Now, for saying this and what will follow many of my camera club friends will be mad at me and may even be offended. My intention is not to offend or make anyone angry. I am merely trying to hold a mirror for them to look at. Organizations that set as their mission to promote the love and understanding of photography should be more careful in what they breed.
In both open and monochrome divisions, by following the link above, you will find portraits of women with Barbie-like plastic skin, yet wire-sharp eyelashes, no eye-sockets and egg-white eyes with no veins; men with wire-like, coarse steel wool beards; many examples of “HDR-mania” (oh, how misunderstood it has become) with their choked lights; B&W photographs that mostly have the same tonal characteristics of “soot and less soot”; subjects that seem to repeat ad nauseum. Even Dove commercials are shunning synthetically reconstituted women with unnatural features, yet the exhibitions, and many who follow them seem to still insist on creating these extraterrestrial women with electroluminescent plasma skin. (View the video at the top of the related post)
Most of the images (I realize this is over-generalization, but not overreaching) you look at will show obvious signs of postprocessing and some kind of “filter” and many will share the same filter-look anyway. There is one filter called Fractalius (no link on purpose), for instance, that produces white, glow-like strands on the photographs, and for some reason that makes the photograph “better”! I am disappointed with the work PSA, and most camera clubs are doing to promote photography and photographic art. Instead, we end up seeing a lot of ph-art!
By these comments, I am not blaming the photographers, at least not directly. They are producing work that gets “acceptances” in various exhibitions to collect stars which will convert to galaxies … The photographers are responding to what the judges “like” rather than photographing for themselves and developing a sensibility of their own. Thus, they are getting caught in a rut from which escape is extremely difficult; I have seen many examples of that. In most of the photographs, the first thing that catches the eye is the technique or the tool used rather than the photographic qualities of the image, that’s where the rut is. They make the viewer think “how did he or she do that”, focusing on the technique. A great photograph, by any great photographer never evokes a thought about the tool or the technique for the purpose is to present a photograph. The mark of a good photographer is that his or her photographs look like they are effortlessly done; the tool is subservient to the vision rather than the other way around, tool dictating the vision which seems to permeate these salons.
People, fans and enthusiasts of photography, take back your love, hobby, your passion. A judge with a 5-10 second glance at your work should not tell you what you should do. There is a whole world waiting to be photographed and the best you can do is to repeat others’ work, created with an obvious touch of poor technique, to please a judge? Photography is more than that, much, much more than that. Grab a book by or on Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Stephen Shore, Gregory Crewdson, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, and many others and deepen your understanding of photography and its rich history and variety. Then, grab your camera, step out, and photograph the world, the real world. You will feel liberated, as photography once was meant to bring.
All said, photography is still a democratic medium; anyone can photograph and anything can be photographed. With that overarching concept of photography, I must also step down from my soapbox and let all the photographers choose their own aesthetic path. All I ask is that they question their direction of growth in photography. If they wish to continue to receive validation through exhibitions and competitions and work in the confines of the “salon rules”, be it! My purpose in writing this post is to raise questions that may potentially benefit any photographer. I do not mean to imply that my thinking is the only and the best way of thinking about photography, just a significantly different one from that of the PSA and the camera club competition circuit.
Let me know what you think and leave a comment, I will approve any comments to the point.