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The Art of Photography from a Traditional Posture

paulraphael

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#2
This is a topic that's always interested me. You probably know you're on well-trodden ground here; I suggest that if you want to contribute to the discussion it would be helpful to acknowledge where you stand relative to what others have learned and written on the topic.

One idea that needs to be unpacked is if digital processing really is distinct from traditional processing—and if so, how and to what extent? The excellent show Faking It at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and its catalog) lays out a history of photographic manipulation in the analog era. Without getting into the specter of machine learning and deep fakes, it makes a convincing case that digital imaging mostly brought ease and accessibility.

I'd suggest that the real question isn't analog vs. digital, or any other real dichotomy, but rather, to what degree does a manipulation make an image less fundamentally photographic? You hint at this in a few places, but only in the most subjective terms, suggesting that our feelings of authenticity are what's important. But we as viewers are easily fooled. And what are our standards based on to begin with?

I'd suggest looking more closely at what makes something photographic to begin with. A thinker whose work I find instrumental is the semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, who laid out a useful framework for thinking about the photographic and post-photographic, even though he died in 1914. If you google "indexicality" and photography, you'll quickly get an idea of where the thinking stands on the topic.

I look at each manipulation individually, and through the lens of semiotics, ask to what degree this manipulation makes the image less photographic. Not in terms of how it feels, but in terms of how much it weakens the causal chain between the world and the image.
 
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LanceLewin
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Thread Starter #3
Wonderful and thoughtful response, Paul. You can google my name and find out about my feelings/perspectives on photography.

There are many aspects of 21st century (digital) photography that seem just on the edge of what constitutes photographic technique as defined by the virtues that traditionally defined the Art of Photography. Almost all the (most fundamental) post-production software tools are basically abused. As such, the majority of work that has come across my desk (or what I have experienced in local galleries and online institutions) show the results of excessive tampering, if you will, that ultimately moves past (what should be considered) the limits of photographic technique and into one that anchors within the realm of Digital Art.

This being said, and I am quoting myself here...In its self, I have no issues in promoting illustrative and conceptualized based photography, as long as an equal emphasis is attributed to traditional photographic virtues, and additionally, the two genres be categorized separately when applicable.

In fact, I have been most successful in having two distinct photographic categories in our Annual Photography Exhibition in Ellijay, Georgia.

"Points to Ponder"

But we are getting away from the important points highlighted in your response: a definition needs to be created/realized that will help direct photographic artist and their digital art counter parts that differentiates between the two artistic methods, while at the same time renders each as separate genres of photographic art: one structured by virtue of traditional photographic dynamics/techniques and the other perhaps based on the ingenuity of digitally enhancing (and morphing) photographic files (regardless if scanned negatives or direct digital files) in creating a final piece.

I will surely visit some of the places you suggest - and hopefully help me add more insightful ideas and meaning for a book I am currently writing.
Thank you, Paul.

LAL
 

paulraphael

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#4
A trend I see in the art world, which I think is healthy in many ways, is a move away from rigid categories. Photographers have always loved to argue about what's real photography and what isn't. By always, I mean pretty much since the medium's inception. There were fights across the English channel between the Daguerrotypists and the Salted Paper people, and it pretty much went downhill from there! But museum curators these days are less likely to care about whether something belongs in the photo collection or the digital collection or the works on paper collection. They'd rather talk about what's interesting about it.

I have one general fear with photography, and this has to do with a source of its original power. There was always a sense that a photograph was "real" in a way that other images weren't. I put that in scare quotes partly because it's a lot of work to define real, and partly because people have been faking photographs as long as there have been photographs. But there was usually a part of us that believed, and this belief invested photos with a unique power. Now, manipulation is so easy and so ubiquitous that people with even a hint of media awareness don't believe anymore. Meanwhile, people lacking media awareness believe too much, and get fleeced.

This is a troubling state of affairs for many reasons. I don't know how much of it is significant to photography-as-art, and I know even less about what might be done about it.
 
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LanceLewin
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Thread Starter #5
Paul, I'm busy at the moment and look forward to getting back to you later, but will quickly say, and contrary (as it relates to photography) that a trend to 'move away from categories'...is not so evident to me. Instead, galleries and online institutions (like the Photographic Society of America) for one example have been moving more rigidly to categorize between the differences in photographic art. For example, in 2019 a well promoted photography exhibition at the Booth Western Museum, titled Artistic Photography Today: Artists Re-Presenting Reality, Guest curator...“Photographic Artists make Photographic Art, not take them, shoot them, capture them or snap them. They see the world differently and then show others how they see and feel the real world. The final artistic print is their representation of the world through their eyes, mind, heart and creative artistic talents. The tools of the craft are a camera and a lens but the print is the result of their artistic vision.” At the opening, John looks my way and then adds...'actually, its first Digital Art, more than it is photography'...and this was really important distinction as you can never hang these pieces together in any gallery or worse, a juried photography exhibition with work, for example, by Landscape Photographer Bob Kolbrener or Japanese photographer, Nobuyuki Kobayashi - a lot more to discuss and I appreciate your time and thought provocative views on this subject. A deep and riveting discourse, indeed. Enjoy your day!
 

paulraphael

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#6
It's interesting to see different trends in different places. I'm relaying what I've seen in interviews and panel discussions with a number of curators at institutions like MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, SFMOMA, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and especially the Whitney, which has no separate departments for different media.

Here's one snippet from a 2012 interview with Roxana Marcoci at MoMA:

Four years later [after 2000] I was promoted to assistant curator, but I moved to photography. I never thought that I would move to photography; I was more trained in painting and sculpture but I was very curious about all mediums. I believe in the porousness of mediums and I believe that artists don’t think in terms of straight, ghettoizing, medium-specific disciplines. Since I joined the museum it’s just a different institution. Now there is a lot of collaboration between curators among various departments; back then it was a like a federation with different countries. I think that the reason why [Chief Curator of Photography] Peter Galassi enlisted me to join this department—he was interested in someone to focus on the postwar contemporary period and he wanted someone with a background that was broader than pure photography.
 

amirm

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#7
Wildlife photography is one of my passions and there, I cringe when I see people adding elements that were chopped off from the frame. "I took the wing tip from right, flipped it, and added it to the other side." Likewise, I see landscape images, especially with HDR, going way beyond realism. Some of this could be said to be "darkroom" effects such as boosting the heck out of the color saturation. But it is still wrong in my book to go that far.

At the same time, I don't like the position of not touching anything in post production with authenticity marks and such.

For me, if I can't make the image look good in five minutes, I am done. So more or less where you are drawing the line. Anything beyond should have documentation that states clearly what was manipulated.
 

paulraphael

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#8
For me, if I can't make the image look good in five minutes, I am done. So more or less where you are drawing the line. Anything beyond should have documentation that states clearly what was manipulated.
I think much of this is context-dependent. Different photographic contexts bring different sets of expectations. I'm not a wildlife photographer, but gather that wildlife photographers have informally adopted a kind of journalistic set of ethics. There's an element of presenting the picture as reportage (which it isn't in most other ways—I suspect this ethos has something in common with hunters and fishermen and their trophies, but that's another conversation).

And of course journalism itself is utterly dependent on the facts being unmanipulated.

This has always been about ethics and trust, not technology. Our ability to trust a journalistic image falls back on the same kinds of trust as our ability to trust a reporter's words. What journalistic institution is vouching for them? What's their track record? How have they handled mistakes and controversies in the past? Does the work conform to other standards of good journalism?

In other photographic genres, things are much less clear cut. There is no trade association or ethical body or even loose consensus among contemporary landscape photographers. This is to say nothing of the hordes of photographic artists who are uninterested in genres at all.

I think some of the conversation is just about taste. More powerful tools always allow people to make more horrible things. But I think we should be a little careful about attributing too much importance on our personal taste, unless we're talking about our own work or the work we want to hang on our walls. History is littered with critics who dismissed something because it didn't conform to their tastes. Targets have included all of Italian Romantic opera, jazz, rock-n-roll, impressionism, cubism, fauvism, pointilism, expressionism, color photography ...
 

paulraphael

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#9
For me, if I can't make the image look good in five minutes, I am done. So more or less where you are drawing the line. Anything beyond should have documentation that states clearly what was manipulated.
I'd also suggest that time to work on something might not be the most useful measure. Things can take longer if you're a perfectionist (or a hack), or if you're solving a difficult problem, including a color management one.

I used to work for days on an individual print in the darkroom. This was on very traditional work (in the technical sense). Now I sometimes spend many hours on the computer. Some of this comes from my habits in the black and white darkroom, of regarding a print as a crafted thing. Some of it is just about the last details of getting the color and the shadow values right in the final print.

I can spend all day on something that's natural looking and true to the subject, or 5 minutes on something that's a completely fictionalized franken-print.
 
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LanceLewin
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Thread Starter #10
I'd also suggest that time to work on something might not be the most useful measure. Things can take longer if you're a perfectionist (or a hack), or if you're solving a difficult problem, including a color management one.

I used to work for days on an individual print in the darkroom. This was on very traditional work (in the technical sense). Now I sometimes spend many hours on the computer. Some of this comes from my habits in the black and white darkroom, of regarding a print as a crafted thing. Some of it is just about the last details of getting the color and the shadow values right in the final print.

I can spend all day on something that's natural looking and true to the subject, or 5 minutes on something that's a completely fictionalized franken-print.
If I am understanding what Amir is referring to - as it relates to those who take more time than others in post-production - is, in a general tone, (and as it relates to a digital post-production workflow) those who utilize mostly authentic photographic techniques, are those who will "likely" spend less time in front of the computer screen finishing their work before the final print. This is opposed to those spend an extended time utilizing every type of manipulative process found in their array of photographic digital software, including the iconic Photoshop. Alternatively, when we discuss traditional darkroom post-production much more time will be spent manipulating negatives and also the final print. Ansel Adams was very up-front on the time and energy he spent in the darkroom, sometimes spending all day to complete just one photograph!
 
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LanceLewin
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Thread Starter #11
I feel this passage I wrote covers my feelings and even a sound explanation for (at least some) of the conflicts we see in photography, both from the standpoint of the artist and patrons of the arts viewing the wide variety of photographic aesthetics seen in galleries, museums and online.

The Digital Manifesto:
One may argue I am something of a rogue, as I continue to insist that all types of photography institutions need to continue to support teaching traditional photography methods in the mist of so many that have adhered to virtues that are digitally inspired, and whereby photography’s survival as a pure and proprietary genre of art is being threatened. Large photography institutions, and for the most part, namely, online photography associations, as well as local photography clubs and guilds, have nurtured a new generation of photographers by imposing upon them a wide scope of digital oriented photographic concepts and exercises while de-emphasizing or altogether sponsoring vacuity in teaching traditional photography skill sets. As a consequence, and in my opinion, we are faced with the quickly deteriorating line that separates the essences that interpret the Art of Photography from a traditional posture, from the growing popularity that is changing the focus to a digital philosophy: photography that is heavily dependent upon post-production manipulations in creating a final piece. The digital photography revolution has taken the creativity of the photographer from behind the lens to cultivating most of their creativity, comfortably, in front of computer software illuminated monitors, thus instigating a digital manifesto that outline both physical and philosophical alterations on how photographers and patrons of the art approach and contemplate photography. L. A. Lewin
 
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LanceLewin
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Thread Starter #12
This is a topic that's always interested me. You probably know you're on well-trodden ground here; I suggest that if you want to contribute to the discussion it would be helpful to acknowledge where you stand relative to what others have learned and written on the topic.

One idea that needs to be unpacked is if digital processing really is distinct from traditional processing—and if so, how and to what extent? The excellent show Faking It at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and its catalog) lays out a history of photographic manipulation in the analog era. Without getting into the specter of machine learning and deep fakes, it makes a convincing case that digital imaging mostly brought ease and accessibility.

I'd suggest that the real question isn't analog vs. digital, or any other real dichotomy, but rather, to what degree does a manipulation make an image less fundamentally photographic? You hint at this in a few places, but only in the most subjective terms, suggesting that our feelings of authenticity are what's important. But we as viewers are easily fooled. And what are our standards based on to begin with?

I'd suggest looking more closely at what makes something photographic to begin with. A thinker whose work I find instrumental is the semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, who laid out a useful framework for thinking about the photographic and post-photographic, even though he died in 1914. If you google "indexicality" and photography, you'll quickly get an idea of where the thinking stands on the topic.

I look at each manipulation individually, and through the lens of semiotics, ask to what degree this manipulation makes the image less photographic. Not in terms of how it feels, but in terms of how much it weakens the causal chain between the world and the image.
Paul, I downloaded an essay by Alexander Robin, "Peirce and Photography: Art, Semiotics & Science 2014 - in fact, some of the points you outline above I have already investigated (but admittedly, not in great depth) including discussions written/spoken by David Campbell, for example. I am almost finished reading the 20 pages this piece is comprised of and I think I see where you are coming from as it realtes to a possible method (or source of reasoning) to create a standard that clearly defines what constitutes an authentic photograph. Robins essay is a very interesting journey - I will post final comments upon finishing the read and summarizing my thoughts. Thank you for pointing me back to these philosophical concepts and their realtionship to the photograph.
 
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LanceLewin
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Thread Starter #13
FYI: I use JSTOR for a lot of my research. I purchased the piece by Robin and now have it saved on my system as a pdf.
 

paulraphael

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#14
Great! You're inspiring me to reread all of that ... it's been a while. Photography is what I should be thinking about these days, but the pandemic seems to encourage all kinds of procrastination. It's why I've been rediscovering my music collection, and coming here to learn way too much about headphones and psychoacoustics.

I should mention that some people are not fans of this semiotic framing of photography. Specifically I remember Todd Papageorge (former Grand Poobah at Yale) dismissing the idea. But I find it quite useful ... more than other approaches I've looked. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts.
 

paulraphael

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#15
I feel this passage I wrote covers my feelings and even a sound explanation for (at least some) of the conflicts we see in photography, both from the standpoint of the artist and patrons of the arts viewing the wide variety of photographic aesthetics seen in galleries, museums and online.

The Digital Manifesto:
One may argue I am something of a rogue, as I continue to insist that all types of photography institutions need to continue to support teaching traditional photography methods in the mist of so many that have adhered to virtues that are digitally inspired, and whereby photography’s survival as a pure and proprietary genre of art is being threatened. Large photography institutions, and for the most part, namely, online photography associations, as well as local photography clubs and guilds, have nurtured a new generation of photographers by imposing upon them a wide scope of digital oriented photographic concepts and exercises while de-emphasizing or altogether sponsoring vacuity in teaching traditional photography skill sets. As a consequence, and in my opinion, we are faced with the quickly deteriorating line that separates the essences that interpret the Art of Photography from a traditional posture, from the growing popularity that is changing the focus to a digital philosophy: photography that is heavily dependent upon post-production manipulations in creating a final piece. The digital photography revolution has taken the creativity of the photographer from behind the lens to cultivating most of their creativity, comfortably, in front of computer software illuminated monitors, thus instigating a digital manifesto that outline both physical and philosophical alterations on how photographers and patrons of the art approach and contemplate photography. L. A. Lewin
I have a couple of questions about this.

1. Is the divide between emphasizing creativity-behind-the camera vs. post-production about digital vs. chemical? Is it even new? How would the 19th century pictorialists, or early Edward Steichen, or even Ansel Adams ("the negative is the score; the print is the performance!") fit into this? Is it possible that we're looking at a split between those who see a photograph as something taken vs. something made? Or to borrow some language from contemporary poetry, does the work point more to an event in the world, or to an event on the page?

2. Have photographers and academic programs really abandoned traditional practice (in the sense I think you're using)? Or are we just witnessing some parallel approaches? I've been noticing a lot of the people getting attention these days returning to film—often big film. And a lot of the work is straight (in the sense used by the modernists; it might also be queer ...). I'm thinking of people like Alec Soth and LaToya Ruby Frazier. Their innovations have more to do with photographic storytelling than with process, or even with ways of putting an individual image together. They strike me as coming out of an old documentary tradition, but with new cultural perspectives. I saw piles of work that fit this description at the Whitney Biennial.

What about teachers? I have a few friends who teach photography (at places like ICP in New York, and at a couple of community colleges). This is hardly a big sample. I know they don't spend a whole lot of time teaching digital processing. Are you seeing an emphasis on digitally assembled / transformed / whatever images in university and MFA programs? Which ones?
 

StevenEleven

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I have thought about this at some length.

In your sentence:

For the most part, I am certain we can agree for all practical purposes, these particular (in-camera) image manipulations result in a picture we except as an authentic representation of what we saw through the viewfinder.

—the word “except“ should be “accept.”

Except that my feelings, when I take a picture, are nothing like that at all. I have a vision of what the final picture will look like, and I try to craft something in the moment that I take a picture that will get me to my vision. The more of the work that is done when I snap the shutter, the more effective I was at that point in time. It is a question of craftsmanship and process, not whether the end product is art, or acceptable, IMHO.

I think I may get where you are coming from though. For me it is like trying to distinguish a bush from a tree using only language, but perhaps an order of magnitude greater in difficulty than even that. For me, the end result if one has gone too far is nothing more than a private or internal eye-roll from me, having in mind that the person next to me may be deeply moved or intrigued by the same image.

I started on film and dark rooms. I was thrilled at the advent of digital photography that the same concepts of light and movement and composition could apply. The same applications of shutter speed, depth of field, contrast, grey, color, shape, lines, balance, motion, etc. But I see no need for a talented young one to think as I do. In fact I would be delighted to learn a young one thinks nothing like me at all, and creates art with these new visions, and new techniques.

I went to school on a campus with painters and classical musicians, stunned by their hard-won skills and talent. I respect the painter, the musician, with such painstaking skill, such care and practice, and so much left to feelings and judgment and love and imagination. Why would I strip these powers from the photographer, reduce him or her to a craftsman, if he or she aspires to art?

And I know that I am no more than a craftsman, and a mediocre one at that. I have seen and known the artists in the flesh, and have too much reverence for what they have achieved, to think otherwise.

So you could put me in a box you reserve for those who do not agree with you, if you wish! And close the lid, if you must!

Just my two cents. :)
 
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amirm

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#17
One way to look at this is if you knew what went into that image, would be disappointed in it then? I have seen gorgeous wildlife images but after reading the photographer put some peanut butter on a log to attract said animal, I am disappointed. What I thought was an amazing accomplishment, no longer was. Same then with post-production. What Ansel Adams did doesn't disappoint me. We all know what he did yet admiration stands.

What would disappoint me is sky replacement. For an ad image, sure. But to present as an image you took as art? That would be disappointing if I heard you did that.
 

paulraphael

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#18
...Except that my feelings, when I take a picture, are nothing like that at all. I have a vision of what the final picture will look like, and I try to craft something in the moment that I take a picture that will get me to my vision. The more of the work that is done when I snap the shutter, the more effective I was at that point in time. It is a question of craftsmanship and process, not whether the end product is art, or acceptable, IMHO.
A great thing about a personal pursuit like this (regardless of what you call it) is that you get to make up your own rules, set your own constraints, follow whatever path you find fulfilling. Someone else might have a completely different approach, which may be to say they're looking for something different from the medium.

For me, what I've looked for from the medium has changed over the years. Not for the better, not for the worse. It's more like I finished exploring one kind of thing, and got interested in exploring another. Some people like my old work better, some like my new work better. Some don't like any of it! It's all to be expected from something personal.


And I know that I am no more than a craftsman, and a mediocre one at that. I have seen and known the artists in the flesh, and have too much reverence for what they have achieved, to think otherwise.
I would humbly suggest not to revere artists too much. Artists can be good or bad at what they do, just like anyone else! If this weren't the case, I'd be embarrassed to use the word Artist anywhere on a website or resumé. But we need a word to describe people who are engaged in making art, even if it's art you think is terrible.

So you could put me in a box you reserve for those who do not agree with you, if you wish! And close the lid, if you must!
No need ... photography is a big medium, with room for people using it for all kinds of things, in all kinds of ways.
 

StevenEleven

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I would humbly suggest not to revere artists too much. Artists can be good or bad at what they do, just like anyone else! If this weren't the case, I'd be embarrassed to use the word Artist anywhere on a website or resumé. But we need a word to describe people who are engaged in making art, even if it's art you think is terrible.
Good suggestion. I have been deeply disappointed personally in some artists. It does not diminish their accomplishments, but it can certainly diminish or even ruin my enjoyment of them. I’m sure we can all think of examples. And I am definitely not one to go for the old empty canvas thing. Yet I still know a level of expressive achievement that even on my own terms is qualitatively different and greater than mine when I see (or hear) it, though. :)
 
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paulraphael

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#20
Good suggestion. I have been deeply disappointed personally in some artists. It does not diminish their accomplishments, but it can certainly diminish or even ruin my enjoyment of them.
You and Amir both mention disappointment. An ingredient of disappointment is always expectation, and I think that's something worth thinking about with art.

I go through periods of looking at lots and lots of art. I might "get" about 3/4 of it, I might connect in some way with 1/10 of it, and I might really love 1/100 of it. This would be a totally disappointing experience if I thought the artist's job was to please me. But my main objective it to see what's going on, what, people are exploring, what kinds of ideas and approaches are in the air right now. It's kind of like reading the news. This makes falling in love with something or discovering a new favorite artist a great bonus, not an expectation. So I avoid constant disappointment!

It's also worth thinking about when you make art. It's your job to do your work, and then, to the degree it matters to you, find your audience, wherever they are. It's not a failure if it doesn't connect with everyone. Even is some of those people are major gatekeepers and tastemakers.
 
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