We have established so far that the reason we place such a high regard on photographic images over traditional art for instance is that they have a high truth value. Due to their often sharp focus and high level of detail we accept them as true representations of the world, and thus more documentary in style than art per se, despite the very obvious discrepancies in correlation to what we actually perceive through our eyes. However, we have also seen how those margins blur if we consider the roots of photography as steeped as it is in classical art and the way it has been represented from the times of the Renaissance. By virtue of the way photography has developed and is still presented, it is an artistic medium that has gained an almost sacrosanct status due to our sociocultural beliefs about what we consider to be truthful and valid, particularly images in black and white, yet it is still a highly creative art form no less worthy of a place in a high brow gallery than a Canaletto.
There are certain other factors involved when considering the way in which photographic images become art, in the sense that we may traditionally consider it. In an interview with street photographer George Tice for Adore Noir magazine (December issue 2013) he is quoted as saying:
“My pictures are best seen a generation after the fact. When they are no longer familiar and everyday.”
George Tice is famous for his long exposure street images taken in New York during the 1960s.
His suggestion is that photographs become more interesting with the passage of time, and this takes us back to those earlier works by Lartigue and Daguerre as mentioned in my previous post, and the way in which styles of the era coupled with the quality of the images adds to a sense of fantasy almost, or perhaps it can be more accurately expressed in terms of emotional association, or lack thereof, in the way that we appreciate them. A sense of fantasy that is more readily associated with traditional art, but only because of the passing of time, and the way in which photographic images have supplanted the painted medium as a form of documentation. At the time Sargent or indeed Canaletto were painting their subjects and street scenes, they would have appeared very mundane and ordinary to their contemporaries no doubt, despite being rendered in paint on canvas. People’s perceptions of such images as being representative of truth would have been similar to the way in which we now see photographs, despite the way in which both mediums alter what we actually perceive as suggested in the opening paragraph.
What this tells us is that there are two main aspects in the way that a photographic image becomes art based on the accepted premises of what art is, something we covered briefly in the previous post in our examination of the compositional devices used in advertising for example. It can expressed in the following ways:
1. The quality and sharpness of an image: The softer focus, or lesser quality an image has, the less it will be perceived as a truth. It then takes on a fantastical or artful quality.
2. The familiarity of the image itself: The less we can identify with familiar everyday life in an image, the less we will consider it as truth. Again it takes on a fantastical, artful quality. Truth requires pre-prescribed and generally accepted parameters to give it validity.
How we interpret an image is individually subjective, based on what we know and what we accept as normal. So what this also demonstrates is why we make the distinction between the truthful and the artistic in street photography, despite the fact that there are no real distinctions to be made, in that all photography is essentially a form of art. Consider the way in which your perceptions change as you look at the following images. Which images have a higher or lesser impact, and which seem more or less documentary or artful?
You may find that the black and white images would seem to be more artful than the images in full colour, and this is an important point that illustrates the way in which styles of photography have been culturally accepted based on fashionable trends. Black and white photography now has a sense of nostalgia about it, harking back to a time when it was the predominant type of film available to photographers, and cinematographers alike mostly due to availability and cost, it wasn’t the straightforward stylistic choice that we have now. Colour prints were expensive to produce up until the invention of digital photography, which really wasn’t so long ago. There is also something about black and white photography that prevents us from fully engaging emotionally with an image, simply because most of us do not ordinarily perceive the world in monochrome. So monochrome images have an air of aloofness and thus more of a sense of art about them than colour images, because they do not accurately reflect our everyday experience, they alter our sense of what would otherwise be considered mundane and ordinary.
We also take images captured in black and white more seriously because that was the medium that was used by nearly all of the great street photographers throughout the history of street photography, and was the bedrock of the style of photojournalism that arose in the last century. Therefore, black and white photography has become synonymous with a form of art that has a high truth value based on our sociocultural perceptions of what documentary images should look like. This in turn reflects the stylistic attitudes that arose during the Renaissance where scientific fact became divorced from the spiritual and the emotional. However, we can begin to see how perceptions about art and truth within photographic images change with time and application, so that the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur depending on a multitude of factors that contribute to our assessment, and therefore our opinion of an image, and the way in which it might have an impact on us. We begin to see where contradictions arise, and why there is confusion about street photography as an art form.
Evidently, within photography there are scales of high truth value that have been fostered by the Renaissance view to the use of perspective and realism that underpins our cultural attitude towards images today, five hundred years no less after the first Camera Obscura was invented and the concept of ‘photorealism’ first began to be used in paintings. And that is the attitude towards image resolution. New advancements in technology within digital cameras affords us higher and higher resolution capabilities with each new model seemingly, much higher than mechanical cameras with celluloid film could ever capture. There is a snobbery that still prevails however, that lower resolution cameras like those present in handheld devices, phones, and cameras designed to point n’shoot are somehow lesser cameras, and less worthy of taking good street shots.
However, in comparison to some of their mechanical predecessors, they are still very impressive when it comes to resolution. Suffice to say that good composition is not subject to resolution, it is subject to the way in which elements are selected and placed within the frame, and how that is then interpreted based on the stylistic choices of the photographer, and their artistic vision. The choice of resolution and film simulation then enhances the structure of the composition. We might take a shot in colour and then decide during post processing that we’d prefer it in black and white for example. We might actually decide that making the image yet sharper, or softening the resolution enhances the image further. You cannot alter the basic composition, i.e. what is within the frame without very consciously turning it into a piece of art, and thus changing the nature of the original image. All photographic images become an entity in their own right, that is divorced from the original scenes that they were capturing. In the act of creating a new thing, photography becomes art.
Despite my own artistic background, I was one of those photographers who believed in the purity of doing all the work on the camera so that there was little or no ‘darkroom’ work necessary. I realise now however, what a ludicrous notion that is as the development of all pre-digital photography was subject to the skills of the printer working within the darkroom often to the specifications of the photographer. The finished product would often differ considerably to the original negative. In many instances photographers fulfilled both rolls, shooting and developing their own work as Bill has discussed in his part of the series on the historical development of street photography. Post processing or ‘darkroom’ work is still a legitimate practise even for the digital photographer, and much less dangerous and labour intensive than its former counterpart.
There is a sense in some ways that digital photography is a lesser art form than mechanical and chemically produced photography, that we have lost a certain magic, or reverence somehow in the technological transition. This again is a very rigid notion of what photography is, and plays on the nostalgic and thus emotional connection that many of us who remember celluloid film still might have. It also plays on our accepted notions, or perhaps collective misconceptions of what good photography is supposed to be. It also validates our premise that what is socially and culturally accepted plays a vital role in the way that we perceive and value the nature/genre of street photography.
The purpose of this series is to show how composition is fundamental to creating impactful and influential images. That good composition itself is subject to a number of influences and devices that are both innate, and as a result of long term exposure to sociocultural influences. That through deliberate and very conscious design these techniques can be applied directly through practise. Good composition therefore, has little to do with sharpness of image, but it has everything to do with the way our eyes and brains perceive and interpret patterns, whether they be patterns in shape and form, or tonal patterns, patterns are key. In the following parts of this series we will begin to examine some of these patterns, or compositional devices more closely, and explain why Bill and I believe that Vivian Maier is probably the best street photographer in the history of street photography.
We have discussed how resolution and image sharpness are factors in the valuation and appreciation of an image. We will now focus on the structure of composition itself, and consider the following:
1. Resolution/image sharpness as a compositional device.
2. Tonal pallet. Monochrome, colour. Pastel shades versus vivid colours.
3. Unification of tones and structural elements. Simple versus complex.
4. The use of Phi and other shapes to create visual transitivity.
5. The image as a narrative, or dialogue between artist and viewer.
Thanks for taking the time to read. If you want to catch up with previous posts in this strand of the series, click on the links below: