Photography - The Limited Range of Our MemoryFriday, July 15, 2016
In my current state of photographic isolation I have found out that a lot of stuff stored in my head has some redeemable value. As things disappear the concepts behind them vanish, too. My present obsession with Jorge Luís Borges (magnified from an erstwhile interest that bordered on obsession) reminds me that Borges often said that our memory is based on what’s left of all that we have forgotten.
As an example I noticed a recent and very popular essay in Medium.com (I write for that blog platform, too) about improving one’s art and photographs by following rules. The most obvious one, which I used to teach at least 30 years ago was that the centre of attention should not be in the centre. Another is the so-called rule of thirds. Most very good painters and photographers instinctively grasped the concept of composition.
The problem now is that with so much bad photography, a newer generation has no memory for what may have been good.
As an example there is this striking photograph that was on the front page of my NY Times (hard copy) today (I am writing this on Wednesday July 13, 2016). It is a remarkable photograph that has no photo credit except for NY Times.
The most major problem in photography until most recently is that the human eye always exceeded film and videotape to discern information in the shadow parts of a photograph. The shadow parts are magnified in high contrast situations like a person’s eyes (and eye sockets) at noon with the sun overhead. Between the light on the face and that of the black eye sockets the difference is much too much for film. Our eyes can adjust and as we shift from that person’s face to the eyes our eyes will adapt and show us the eyes in enough detail. Photographers in the past used what was called fill flash. This is the reason why you so often see wedding photographers using flash on perfectly sunny days.
Photographers, cinematographers and painters know that sunny days reduce the ability to recognize those middle tones. Those same photographers, cinematographers and artists know that cloudy days will show the most gradations of colour and shade.
Digital cameras have the same problems. Since contemporary (and young) photographers are used to high definition, ultra sharp, punchy and contrasty colour images they do not notice the detail lost in the shadows of their pictures.
Which brings us to the picture in the NY Times that many years ago would have been impossible to take. Film could have never rendered the woman in the doorway, the shadows in the street and the darkening sky behind well.
|Cuba - NY Times|
Contrast has always been the enemy of photographer. A good photographer will grasp the existing contrast situation before snapping a shutter. Sometimes the scene can be lit to reduce contrast or camera settings adjusted. In times past slide film was less generous with showing detail in shadows. Colour negative was better. Fast film of any type was worse.
And worst of all the methods used in the past to print colour slides and negatives on colour stock always added contrast and reduced detail in the shadows. The modern combination of a good scanner and film with subsequent printing on a quality ink jet printer has remedied the situation a lot and to a certain point.
The photograph taken in Cuba at one time would have been called extended range night photography. I was pretty good at it (the one below I took and the sky was pitch black. The film saw the clouds to my surprise) but I was limited to only doing it in b+w. With the advent of digital cameras, photographers could take separate photographs of the bright spots, the middle spots and the dark spots and combine them in one image. This kind of photography is called High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.
|Burrard Street Bridge - Vancouver|
A pioneer in night photography before digital, was photographer Arthur Ollman who later became the head and curator of the excellent San Diego Museum of the Photographic Arts. I remember seeing some haunting photographs that he took of Southern California and Tijuana houses at sundown. I suspect that his technique was either the double exposure or very long exposures at sun down.
You may wonder what the pictures of Bronwen Marsden here have to do with it all. They are here because I am digressing to the concept of forgotten memory. These pictures have a certain charm because the colours are not accurate. I mixed too many kinds of light sources with a Fuji Superia 800 ISO colour negative film that simply could not adjust it all. There is a charm to shooting a sequence that is planned not one where on is indiscriminately shooting with a high-speed motor drive. And there is a charm, too of being a voyeur with previous permission.