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The Straight Story

June 10, 2009

“Polaroids” fake of course.

So a few weeks ago I wrote a long post about tilt-shift lenses and how I thought they were basically a gimmick that made just about any image look good. I never posted the post, but I’m still thinking about it. My wife and I were on a short trip and she was using this lens. We were sitting in the car joking that anything you pointed that lens at suddenly become a prize winning picture, just due to the blurred area, short depth, etc. We sat in the car and made 35 different pictures that were a-m-a-z-i-n-g to use a terribly overused word.

But, what I realized was when we stripped away the gimmick, we were left with a bunch of nondescript pictures. The tilt-shift WAS the photograph. If shot in the same position, from the same angle, all things equal, without this lens, you wouldn’t look twice at the picture, let alone print it, include it in a book, etc.

It made me realize something. In my humble opinion, shooting a STRAIGHT, 35mm image, and getting a picture that is truly fantastic, is perhaps the hardest game in photo town. I look around at much of the images I see today, much of those pictures that seem to get the most press, and in many cases the images are HEAVILY manipulated. This manipulation can come in many forms, tilt-shift just being one of those methods. Software is probably the biggest offender. Much of what I see is so over processed I find it difficult to find the original image, and when I do, typically I’m left with just a routine picture. Layer masks, vignettes, hyper-color, selective sharpening, tilts, shifts, throws, heaves, blurs, zooms, spins, thrusts, all lend themselves to hiding the original image, or making up for an original image that was never there. And this doesn’t just apply to ad work, or fashion, or celebrity, the areas you would think most logical for manipulation, but also news, documentary, etc. I’ve seen plenty of pictures in these genres that are dodged and burned, tweaked, at such fine detail that you end up with images containing light that is doing things that light just doesn’t do. Light typically doesn’t come from multiple angles at the same time, on four different planes at the same time. I see faces of refugees peering from under tents, with faces beaming, from unknown light sources. I see landscape pictures where it is impossible to even tell where the light is coming from because every blade of grass has been “touched.”

I got to thinking….why is this so rampant these days? Why do we so rarely see straight images? I think I know why.

Three reasons. First, time. It takes TIME to make straight images that stand alone. A lot of time, and we just either don’t have it, or don’t want to spend it to make pictures. Second, making straight pictures that work is really, really difficult. There is nothing to fall back on. You can’t bang out a picture, then layer it up, mask it up, tweak it up and “make” something out of it. You can, and people do, but we all know these images aren’t anything grand. Images that are made AFTER you leave the field, to me, aren’t images at all. They are visual fast food. Lucky for photographers, people love fast food. Three, competition. There are so many photographers today, and so much competition, it forces photographers to go faster, further, more crazy to get attention. Talk about overused phrases, how about “extreme.”

I look back in history at the number of legendary folks that shot straight pictures, and come the advent of the electronic age, the numbers seem to fall off a cliff.

I know for me, it’s a lot easier to make a picture with a Hasselblad than a Leica. Why? Square. Square. Square. That too is a gimmick in a way. Most people don’t look at a lot of square images, so seeing them in itself is different. It’s easier and I know that. I also like square for design purposed, and being able to make a square print as opposed to rectangular, or a square book for that matter, but I won’t deny that the overall look can make a basic image look more than basic.

I think the time and effort required to make great, straight images is just so damn high that the business of photography has found a way around doing it.

Something else that popped into my brain regarding this thought. A few years ago I noticed something about a high percentage of the “documentary” work I was seeing, especially that work that was being featured in print and exhibited in galleries. The color, environmental portrait had suddenly become the new “documentary” work. At Paris Photo the vast majority of “documentary” work I found was presented as a color, portrait series. Group after group, story after story, medium format, color, portraits.

So a while back I did an experiment. I did a story like this. “The Thoughts of Strangers.” I went out looking for people I didn’t know, then asked them if I could photograph them, and asked if I could inquire as to what they were thinking the minute before I approached them.

Oddly enough, all but one person said, “great.”

A funny thing happened. In two days I had a completely new, completed set of images. Done. Thirty pictures. I realized this was a great way to work if I didn’t have a lot of time. They were medium format, color negative, simply done, and designed in the right way, they “appeared” like a great story, a great body of work.

Only thing was, they weren’t a great body of work. When you boiled them down they looked like images that were shot in two days, but I tell you what..I could have sold this project. I could have shown this around, and I’d bet there would have been takers.

There are aspects of this shoot I really like, but in the end, the body of images are not what they could have been with more time, and more focus. But who has time and focus?

So yesterday, I went to the darkroom again, made about a dozen contact sheets, which I messed up big time, but that is another story. And, I also made three “straight” prints from ‘straight” images. These were pictures shot with Leica, without assignment, just tooling around in my daily life.

As I watched these images come up, I felt like I was looking at prints from the 1960’s, although all these images were made in the last two weeks. I’m not advanced enough in the darkroom to do anything tricky, and in fact these images required no dodging, and little burning.

I’m not saying these are great images. That is my point. Great and straight don’t come around that often folks, and because of this we see all this over the top window dressing. We’ve created this photo-world of instant gratification and over the top magic and show that we can no longer, in many cases, actually take the time to make great images. Instead, we fabricate them.

In fact, many of images I see are more fabricated than captured. What is your field to post time ratio?? Huh??? What is it really? 1:2? One hour field, two hours post? One designer told me after looking at an awards annual in photography and design, “I can’t find anything real anymore.”

I can only speak for myself, obviously, but where I see this going is the continued dilution of the DNA of photography itself. I know, I know, that is heavy, but think about it.

Photography used to be about…what? History, reality, and now? Speed, manipulation, and most important…temporary fragments of an unbelievable reality?

All you have to do is listen to non-photographers. You will hear more about Photoshop and images being lost or thrown away than anything else.

I still think the photograph is the best way of recording history. It doesn’t require anything but a viewer, and does something “mysterical” to the brain. See, I invented a word for this post, mysterious and magical and came up with “mysterical.” The reality of the written word just wasn’t good enough, so I layered up the language and blew you away with my stylish wizardry.

I’m going to focus on making real images from now on. Straight stuff. Nothing fancy. I’ll probably end up working in a coal mine, but perhaps, for the survival of photography, that could be the best possible thing.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 12, 2009 5:19 pm

    AMAZINGLY I see no comments here. I am the first. THANK YOU. Finally someone speaks out against the ridiculousness that is digital photography. If you review other blogs on AllTop you'll see way too many of these images you speak of. I believe in making the image in camera whenever possible. I don't believe in the "I'll fix it later in PS" mentality. That's not to say I don't use it. My primary uses of PS are spot removal, and lens correction. Pretty much that's it.
    I just can't believe the pure crap that passes as photography now that everyone who buys a digital camera is all of a sudden a "photographer". So sad.

    Thanks for a great post; one of the very, very few that hasn't annoyed me recently cauze like I said, some of the crap that passes as photography is very, very sad.
    And I too stopped shooting film this past December. Quite frankly not worth the hassles. I sold the last of my Mamiya 645 AFD and bunch of lenses and accessories just after Christmas.
    Alas, I miss them already…

  2. SmogRanch permalink
    June 13, 2009 1:59 am

    Hey Anonymous,

    Oddly enough, most of my comments come via email. Not sure why that is, but it is.
    I too have sold film equipment only to regret it. In fact, I've done it more than once.
    I think the idea of someone buying equipment and suddenly "being a photographer" isn't new, but there is a new level of frequency. It doesn't take much knowledge or commitment to buy a digital camera and shoot pictures.
    And, I think the overall image quality has gone down, so people aren't expecting much. Couple that with the over the top computer aspect and you land where we are today.
    I figure to just shoot and enjoy it, any way I choose to do it. Thanks for writing, glad you liked the post.

  3. Rusty Tripod permalink
    June 14, 2009 7:47 pm

    Your thinking is dangerous to modern photography. Nevertheless, a photography teacher friend and i were discussing the same issue yesterday. Our output and our display images are way less than digital shooters, but, being old-timers raised on black and white film, we are able to engender a measure of pleasure and self-confidence in our work. Thanks for agreeing with us.

    Rusty Tripod

  4. SmogRanch permalink
    June 14, 2009 10:02 pm

    Me? Dangerous?
    I'm just speaking what I see. I hope it isn't TOO dangerous. Don't want to end up on any photo watch list.
    This post seems to be a catalyst for many folks who are feeling the same about things as I do.

    Thanks for writing.

  5. SmogRanch permalink
    June 14, 2009 10:02 pm

    Me? Dangerous?
    I'm just speaking what I see. I hope it isn't TOO dangerous. Don't want to end up on any photo watch list.
    This post seems to be a catalyst for many folks who are feeling the same about things as I do.

    Thanks for writing.

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