Action & ReactionTuesday, December 07, 2010
Four years ago at the Vancouver blogging conference Northern Voice the latest buzz was all about something called Twitter. In this year’s Northern Voice the head speaker, Chris Messina told us of his invention the hashtag (sample, #Photography).
As I see it, in what we call a rapid era of change it still took Twitter four years to become mainstream. The same could be said about facebook. It is mainstream.
I have already learned my lesson about putting a critical comment on a person’s photograph (it was terrible and her friends kept telling her how beautiful she was and how fantastic it was). My comment was perhaps not a kind one as I said that the photographer in question might want to chose a second career like plumbing. My friend and all her friends and photographers sent me terrible and nasty private emails to the effect who did I think I was that I was making blanket opinions on what were good photographs and bad photographs. On facebook any photographer who posts is a “professional” and thus we all have the same opinion and all the photographs are fantastic. If they aren’t we must keep silent. I am now most willing to tow that line and keep my keyboard trap shut.
But there is another way to study this phenomenon that all the photographs are wonderful and fantastic and everybody’s avatars are compelling and lovely.
I think there are two classifications for most photographs, There are the reactive ones and the active ones.
Consummate French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was an extremely good active and reactive photographer. But he is better known for that second category. His method he named the decisive moment. He patiently would wait (or perhaps he knew where to wait or had a second sense that something was about to happen) and when what he was waiting for happened he would capture it on film with unerring accuracy.
Most who attempt to imitate Cartier-Bresson’s method, of waiting until something happens and then to react by taking the picture, usually fail or have problems with unfamiliar equipment and they don’t get the image.
Another reactive photographer of note (and also dead like Cartier-Bresson) was Ansel Adams who would patiently wait for the moment when clouds, sky, sun and landscape achieved what he considered to be that optimum moment. There is no denying that Adams was the consummate reactive photographer as he was able to take his most famous image, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico because he knew exactly what the luminosity of the full moon was. He took his picture (one) and as soon as he did the clouds changed, and the image he had taken was gone. Perhaps there are some that would point out that Adams’ reactive talents came from years of observation, particularly in the areas of landscape that he frequented.
The second type of photograph is the active one. In this case the photographer thinks of an image in his or her head and then executes it (triumphantly or in failure).
It is difficult for the active photographer to make the sun do this or the moon to do that. The reactive photographer is unable to play God with nature. The reactive photographer will have more control with inanimate objects (whiskey bottles, fruit and other miscellaneous stuff) where lighting can be controlled. The active photographer can further affect that image with choice of cameras, lenses, sensors, film, lights as well as with viewing materials which can be photographs on photographic paper, on inkjet paper or on a monitor.
For me the crown of active photography is the portrait. It is here where the photographer has as much control as he or she will ever have even though subject might not be malleable or forthcoming while at times they might be cooperative.
If you start looking at the pictures in facebook and try to classify them in my two categories you might note that the reactive type is the more frequent.
The modern DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera is a marvel. It is an enormity of features within a rather tight and not too big package. It has capabilities even in HDR Video that exceed what some expensive video cameras only a few years ago.
While Cartier-Bresson waited for his decisive moment we can assume that he might have had one Leica with one lens attached. His element of control involved focusing and using the correct exposure. The correct exposure was not all that difficult as he might shoot in a Paris café or in a landscape where he already knew of his exposure because of practice.
Cartier-Bresson was unaware of:
1. The available focusing modes of a DSLR
2. Had no idea he could switch from jpg to RAW or that he could use RAW and then switch to monochrome or b+w
3. He had no idea or concern (he shot in b+w) about how light had colour at different times of the day and with mixed lighting. He did not have to be concerned with white balance, custom white balance, and tungsten white balance.
4. Cartier-Bresson (with plenty of film in his pocket) was unconcerned with digital storage cards that were full or that might become corrupted.
5. Not using more than one or two lenses, Cartier-Bresson did not have to make the decision that 33.7mm was a better focal length than 73.8mm was. Not having a zoom lens gave him yet one less option open to the photographer.
I could go on with all the other stuff that is inside a DSLR and that is somewhat explained by a manual (mostly on-line these days) that may be as complicated as integral calculus.
What exactly am I driving at?
The first picture here is one that I took with my iPhone during one of my nude classes at Focal Point. As the teacher I feel that I have to watch my students and give them instructions. I don’t think it proper for me to snap pictures of the models. But I do succumb every once in a while as I did here and I just pointed and shot my iPhone.
It is not exactly a lucky image. I know that the iPhone cannot handle high contrast (it will severely overexpose whites) but it will do just fine in a situation where a nude model has a white background. It all blends to a medium gray and phone will work fine. There are no controls with my 3G except to shoot in a silent mode or in an artificial click mode. Knowing when to use an iPhone where it will do a good job is easy if you have been a photographer for some time. Thus the picture that you see here is an efficient picture taken in a situation where the photographer has few choices but knows that the results will be likely not bad.
The paradox here is that my iPhone in a controllable situation where the photographer knows of the reduced parameters might just be likely to take a better picture than the photographer with a big DSLR and who might be saddled with the problem that is over choice.
The smart restaurateur of the 80s prepared elaborate salad bars in which customers had their fill and might have been confused with the over choice of synthetic bacon bits, pickles of all kinds and dressings from ranch to Sicilian.
To me the DSLR is a compact version of that dizzying salad bar. Something I see so often in my photography classes is students looking down at their cameras (checking up on their zebras or in confusion that their camera is not reacting as predicted) instead of looking through them.
I tell my students that the more stringent the parameters for a shooting session, the fewer options considered, the more likely that they will take a picture that they will be proud of.
If those who facebook take the bull by the horns (instruct their cameras to do as they, the photographer, think) and instead of waiting for pictures to happen, make them happen, then we will be less likely to consider every image we see to be fantastic, when it isn’t.
The second picture, one of my favourites was one that I never planned (preconceived) but simply happened as I waited for Patrice to be made up for the shoot we were going to collaborate on. When I saw this I quickly put a long 250mm telephoto on my Mamiya and guessed the exposure (the window light on a snowy day). The second picture I planned. It was to be one of my interpretations of La Santa Muerte who is the patron saint of drug smugglers, and other low-life in Mexico, particularly in such states as the State of Sinaola. I knew who my model was going to be and I knew how I was going to light her.