thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Eye for Fiction versus Non-fiction

The first use of the term ‘fiction’ to distinguish it from ‘non-fiction’ seems to be in the 1800s, according to casual Web searching and Wikipedia poking around. Turning to the sorts of photos selected by editors in their daily showcase of diverse excellence at they seem to be most fictional work, in the sense that a composition has been fabricated on site, in the camera settings/effects, or post-processed with software to manipulate the image in order to delight the eye or possibly to make manifest the creator’s vision, or even magnifying what the person found in their mind’s eye so that viewers can also perceive the play of light, color or lines in a way similar to the maker’s visual experience.

Screenshot is mostly fiction rather than non-fiction (by analogy to literature)

And so the photographer can focalize the viewers onto a chosen scene by choice of lens, shutter speed, filters/effects and framing to remove extraneous subjects. The result, like good literature, can elevate the person who is engaging with the work, or possibly reveal a new truth, relationship, or pattern. At the surface level it can delight the eye or tickle the senses and connect to a pool of memories from other places and times. But by contrast, what does “non-fiction” photography look like?

Perhaps by minimizing the hand of the photographer, or at least restricting the artful exercise of technical skills to matters that more faithfully capture the scene; not making it into something from the photographer’s fancy, but instead enhancing the light or texture to overcome the difficulty of a particular lens and the relatively narrower dynamic range available to film or sensor, compared to the human eye. Such a minimalist intrusion into the subject by means of carefully knowing the characteristics of a given lens+body combination can only make the viewer’s experience of the scene more accurate visually and perhaps also emotionally so that a bit of the cultural meaning or social moment is translatable. Instead of a visual composition there is human significance and consequence that can be conveyed; perhaps even shedding light or insight into the subject, or by reflection, or about the viewer himself or herself!

Therefore, to all those who desire to hone their “non-fiction” photo (essay series, or single frame) work, there are a few things to pay attention to: the lens should be similar to the perspective of human eyes (expressed in full-frame digital or 35mm film: 35 to 65 mm lens), the field of view of human eye should be approximated or suggested in part (by stitching 4 frames taken in portrait orientation or 3 taken in landscape orientation), the shutter should freeze the motion instead of blurring it, the special effects features on cameras should be avoided, and anything that draws attention to the image-making instead of the subject should be minimized. There is drama enough in the social and natural world. So apart from enhancements and corrections that give a more transparent experience to the viewer, little manipulation or heavy editing should be used in order to create and convey a “non-fiction” photographic work.


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Seeing in color vs. monochrome

screen-shot, 18 march 2015

Vividly close to daily experience vs. abstractly distanced from lived view

Whether movies, still images, or brush and ink pictures there is something fundamentally different between a rendition in full color versus black and white. Looking at the world in grayscale shades and values discards the complementarity or contrast of colors, including the resulting relationships and patterns of a composition. Instead the eye dwells on brightness and darkness and the gradations between; a taste for dynamic range instead of the vividness and verisimilitude to daily experience. The scene is more distant, abstracted from the flow of ordinary vision. As well, texture gets more attention in monochrome. Perhaps the reduced visual diet of black and white focuses the eye on essentials of composition, brightness, and texture. When the mind is free from the distractions of luscious colors, then the engagement and urge to discover meanings is amplified.

Perhaps the same thing happens outside the lens in one’s life course, too. When immersed in daily habits and routines year by year there is vividness and feeling of proximity or connectedness and meaning. But when events cause distancing from that flow (life crisis such as grief, departure from health, or in the hours of coming home from extended travels, or mechanical failure causing a change in routine and mobility that forces one from the playing field to the sidelines) then some space for reflection, contemplation, self-awareness and abstraction result. A search for meaning intensifies.

Now if you yourself appear in the photo recorded in full color, then there is the familiarity of recognition: ah, yes, that is me. I was there. The same is likely true of color video in which one appears, except that the audio is different since one’s own voice perceived from external recording does not accord with the sound of one’s voice heard through one’s throat, ears and skull. But when one’s image appears in black and white, there is a process of distancing, abstraction and perhaps the objectifying that results in some critical awareness: one’s self is now a thing of composition, texture, light and so on. For friends, family or colleagues recorded in black and white or by way of color that has been reduced to grayscale tone, there is a similar process of abstraction and distancing. The mind fills in the missing context and memories so that the 2 dimensional likeness can still evoke lifelike experience or re-cognition. But for unknown places, persons and events, the black and white version causes the distancing and abstraction, no matter if the photo is from 1865 battlefield or 2015 music festival.

Finally, there is the observation about maturity or wisdom allowing a person to hold more than one vision in mind (even apparently contradictory or ironic ones). Applied to the above circumstances this would mean having the ability to “see” in both black and white, as well as color; that is, to see one’s own life in vivid normality and also abstracted distance (giving prominence to shape, light values, textures and overall composition). And applied to places and events not familiar to one’s routines, this means seeing both the exterior or abstracted qualities of the scene, but also projecting, injecting or imagining the color kind of vision that makes a scene perhaps ordinary and lacking in abstraction or higher, hidden meaning.