Form factor is the term for the physical dimensions of a thing. Thinking of 1860s battlefield pictures taken on large glass plates by Matthew Brady &co in the USA, or before that in the 1850s Crimean War by Roger Fenton there is a certain gravity that comes from the subject of human lives destroyed willfully, but also a ponderousness lent by the mechanical process of preparing, exposing, developing and printing from the glass negatives. How different would the visual documentary have been with Point-and-Shoot film or digital cameras? By the time of the Spanish Civil War the photographer’s Cooperative, Magnum, was running and the age of the 35mm camera was dawning. The concept of street photography arose and gained ground with the poetic eye of Henri Cartier-Bresson [more on H. C-B]and many others since then. The same brute physical facts of camera size and film handling affect the photographer’s ability to capture and convey what appears in his or her mind’s eye. And while the shooters of long ago only had a few choices for lens and light-sensitizing processes, we have those old recipes and even the surviving apparatus to try out, in addition to the latest wonders from the annual photo trade shows. The almost ubiquity of camera photography and videography takes the saying about “The best camera? It’s the one that is closest to hand” and makes it a reality with some many hands and some many cameras in them. On any given foreign tourist group there will be those vowing to record impressions with eyes and journal only so that gear does not distract from the being there; others will have simple cameras to make mementos; and still others will have a few kilos of kit to make really big pictures and be preoccupied with the decision process leading to eventual burst of shutter releases. It is worth thinking through the consequences of easy shooting versus deliberate and ponderous work required before setting the exposure settings and releasing the shutter. Must the process be slow and deliberate to achieve deep vision, slow either due to the apparatus limitations or through one’s self-imposed discipline to slow down the steps before capturing a scene?
This is a bit of verbal dancing, but it may carry some truth:
English ‘know’ is an all-purpose word, whereas Spanish and many other languages distinguish between ‘know a person’ or subject versus ‘know the answer’ or fact. And so the dictum “knowledge is power” can be coupled with “power corrupts” (and absolute power corrupts absolutely). The resulting chain of logic then gives “knowledge..(as basis for power) corrupts.” But then the extend this line further, there is the equivalence considered between vision and comprehension: to see is to know (a person/connecting relationship? a fact?). For example we say, “I see what you mean.” Or we say “I can’t see the point.” By this usage there is an even verbal chain of reasoning: see =know =comprehend = power =(risk of) corruption.
Photography, or “written with light” is a way to express (to others) or impress (upon one’s senses) a subject. It is a way to capture and then carry a meaning to others. We have such things as long exposures to stretch time, or time-lapse exposures to shrink time, macro lenses to bring small things into clear view, and stitching software to comprise panoramic moments frozen in time for study and wonder. This extend the daily, lived visual experience of our places, purposes, and the persons we related to. And so, to the extent that “Ah-ha, I see” is both a statement of visual acuity and simultaneously a statement of comprehending a subject, then frequent use of camera can amplify one’s experience of the social and natural arena we are connected to and seek to comprehend. You see? You know?
The walls covered in photo exhibits for the Clinton County 4-H Fair carried a limited number of subjects undertaken by the club or clubs (groups of young people together with adult or mentoring older youth helpers). Most if not all were presented in tasteful mattes and neat labels and tended to put a single subject in the center frame, isolated from context and with uninteresting lighting. For amateurs the first steps in seeing compositions is to spot a subject that catches the eye and then figure out the technical mastery to capture it somehow. As experience deepens, so does the complexity of vision one is capable of imagining and indeed the connections that are invisible but still perceptible, like the movement of tide, change in seasons, or the relationship of main subject to surroundings at the moment the shutter is released, or in the flow of time as it connects to something previous or yet to come. Hopefully the volunteer leaders have a long lasting and deep love of light and photography so that kids who went through the year of club activities and lessons and projects will want to persevere rather than to stop and check off their list of skills by marking “yes, I can take pictures now.” First comes seeing compositions, then taking or making pictures, and finally gaining some fluency in the language of light, both to hear it and to speak it. “Hearing” the light means to pause and quiet one’s mind in order to carefully consider the light in all its characteristics, whether in shadow, reflection or brightest values. “Speaking” light means to identify the parts of the light expression to which one can reply, respond or dwell upon by careful choice of composition and so on.
- Most days I browse the 100 images picked by editors on flickr.com/explore as well as the group “landcape” (sic; landscape). Frequently there are certain photo characteristics that distract and detract from the beauty, and the engagement that I look for and mark “favorite” sometimes. After listing the complaints, I will reflect on the reasons that seem to underlie my annoyance.
1. Gimmick: figurines in tableau (cute; little else to engage in)
2. Magnified colors: eye candy (post-processing steroids)
3. Technical distortion (compared to normal eyesight)
4. Constrained crop (isolating the visual subject from context)
5. Wide noise (lens imposes “motion” from corner to center)
6. Context lost (panorama stitch would be truer view)
7. Letterbox aspect ratio (better to stitch vertical frames)
8. Abstracted subject (visual delight, surfaces only desired)
Are these just the crankiness of middle-age or does something deeper underlie these irriations that intersperse my daily search for magical light or engaging places portrayed? Looking back at the list of annoyances it seems that all of these take the viewing experience away from the goals of immersive visual experience of a scene that simulates human binocular sight.* To the extent that lens or post-processing or artistic license (focus blur, depth-of-field mush, or shutter blur of water, for example) distort the communication between the photographer and the person viewing the work, then such treatment takes away from the subject being captured. The same measuring rod can be applied to images that frame, crop or otherwise isolate the scene so that the viewer is blindered from seeing the full experience of a place if they were seeing it live, on location at the moment of capture. And so, my quest for delightful pictures goes on day by day. Now knowing some of the reason that I dislike certain distracting images makes the process quicker and easier to understand.
*see also the set of slides to illustrate the reasoning behind emulating a human field of view at http://bit.ly/seepano