thinking with pictures

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documentary-maker’s 10 Commandments

The current scholar-in-residence this year at U-Michigan is Kazuhiro Soda. His Feb. 9, 2017 lecture will probably be video recorded (in English mostly). Commonly these days the events are recorded and can be viewed online in 2-3 weeks.

=-=-=-=-= Excerpt from announcement link,
The Power of Observation: How and Why I Make “Observational” Documentaries
Kazuhiro Soda, Toyota Professor in Residence
[guiding principles]

1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Roll the camera yourself.
5 Shoot as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, title, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.

His filmography includes “Campaign” (2007), “Mental” (2008), “Peace” (2010), “Theatre 1” (2012), “Theatre 2” (2012), “Campaign 2” (2013), and “Oyster Factory” (2015).

Kazuhiro SODA, documentary maker


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Lens that speaks vs. lens that listens; shows vs. sees

using one's camera to see versus to speak - impressions or expressions

using one’s camera to see versus to speak – impressions or expressions

When the source that structures a picture or story is the photographer rather than the subject, then there is a shift in emphasis from something made out of one’s imagination (fiction), rather than made from what lies outside oneself (non-fiction).

This distinction between something made up from the imagination and something written up based on observation or an attempt to minimize one’s own manipulation of materials seems to be relatively recent, according to best estimates by etymology sleuths and lexicographers, dating to sometime in the 1800s or not so very much before. It’s not that all varieties of written or orally reported information carried the same veracity or to the affairs of government, court or other public truths. But the lines separating the sorts of language were less sharply drawn, or if clearly drawn then not so much worth fretting about.

Now I am reading the user guide, menus, examples and descriptions of features and functions on the large sensor (APS-C) mirrorless camera intended for enthusiasts or as second choice for professionals otherwise busy with larger devices of the same sensor size. I notice an emphasis by the camera maker to “gild the lily,” to use a vivid image of adding excessive manipulation. Other images of the same meaning: to drown the main course with sauce, to have more frosting than cake, to make more package than product, or to give more frame than picture. In other words, there is an abundance in range of filters, special effects, and other intentional manipulations of the original subject captured with the light found (or added) at the time of shutter release. In this way, it seems the camera maker is giving imaginative users a wide collection of tools to alter what comes through the lens and thereby go some way to helping the artist to express what may not be found in the wild, but only in the imagination. This road corresponds to ‘fiction’ in the opening lines, above.

By contrast, the non-fiction photo essayist has the opposite purpose: not to add effects, but indeed to minimize anything that distances a viewer from the subject. However the lens and sensor differ to the human visual experience in having a more limited dynamic range (good camera may distinguish 10-12 levels of light, but an unaided eye can range something closer to 20 by its constant adjustment between lighting extremes). The two eyes comprise a stereoscopic visual field almost 180 degrees from ground the sky and also from side to side. And so the non-fiction photographer-as-technician must be able to manipulate color, light levels, focus depth in order to make the photographic result something closer to human visual experience. As well the photographer-as-social scientist or participant-observer must be able to arrange foreground and background, juxtaposing elements and choosing well the light and moment of capture in order to interpret events in some way — not to dazzle one’s audience with flights of fancy or depth of erudition (performances of one’s powers), but to interpret in such a way as to shed light on the moment, the subject, or the wider society that it forms a part of.

So while the camera maker bewilders the new owner with all the ways to use the camera in its many manipulations, there is too much information and choice for the person who searches only for the technical details necessary to make an accurate representation or is exercising habits of seeing that lead to insightful social interpretation. For a daylight photographer a number of features/effects can be ruled out, disabled, disregarded, or simplified; image quality (opt for least compression level; possibly RAW in some cases), image size (depending on uses: print or on screen only), image aspect ratio (choose sensor’s own full surface, not a subset of it), flash (usually off), shooting mode (AUTO for fast moving times when attention is reserved with instincts for timing and big picture awareness, not the careful thinking for making images more carefully composed and captured).

The question remains, though, how best can one understand the lens. Can it be both an expressive outlet to approximate what is in the imagination of the photographer (strong composition, bold color patterns or textures, dramatic light or dark, conceptual art) and also be a device of impressions in order to document the world that exists independent of one’s mind “out there.” Probably there is partial fiction and non-fiction in each photograph. And maybe it is not vital to root out all trace of the one in the other. So long as the objective recordist knows that personal experience and preoccupations of the person snapping the photo does filter into the frame, and so long as the imaginative expressionist knows that the creation and its process do not start and end in the body and mind of the artist, but instead owe something to what is outside of the artist’s mind and powers, then all will be well. The photo expression or documentary record will engage viewers and thinkers accordingly, as message of creator or as spotlight on the world.

And new owners trying to wade through the user guide or manual of features and functions will be able to answer the questions they have about making photos that either amplify one’s imagination, or pictures that accurately represent a time, place, person or thing on its own terms, together with its context.