It has been awhile since I did a deep dive into one of my own photographs. I like to do this as an educational tool, but I need to be in the right frame of mind. The objective is to find what works with the image and what doesn't. Sometimes I find that my link with the image is emotional and that the photograph really is not well taken. Other times I find the key that makes the photo work compositionally.
So here we have an image I like to call "People & Light". As many might notice, the image was taken in the Pantheon in Rome. This is an amazing building, built in 126 AD and it is a marvel of engineering and mathematics. The best part, it is free to enter as it is a Church now, and while people should be respectful of the services that are conducted there, it is free to walk in and look around.
I took this image many years ago using my D300 camera a the 24-70mm lens that I still use. They do not allow tripods and there is little light for a camera with such basic ISO performance.
What I wanted was an image that would do this building justice and I only found two unique attributes. The first is the ceiling that is a massive dome with a hole in the center. I first shot this ceiling and then realized that this is what everyone shot. So I looked around and my eyes settled not he door.
The image was to highlight the size of the building by keeping the tourists in the shot. The massive door in the background gives a sense of scale compared to the people, and the columns outside help break up the bright light flooding in. I would not have the dynamic range to keep the highlights outside the door and the darkness inside in the same image. So by allowing the light to be blown out, but shooting at an angle I was able to break up the bright light a bit.
The door frame support columns, fall on the lines of thirds along the vertical. Horizontally the horizon is below the bottom third, accentuating what is on top. While the people are in the frame, they help the shot as they give everything perspective. A bit advantage is that no one is looking at my while I take the image. Tourists looking at the camera when an image is taken can be very distracting.
Even the square hole on the upper right side of the image, was left on purpose. This is the hole that Michelangelo made in order to study how the Pantheon was built.
Due to the poor lighting, some of the people are hidden in shadows. If you are going to have people in the frame, it is important to be able to see them.
The curve of the building gives a bit of tension in the shot. I like this tension but it contrasts with the people standing around. If the image had some movement, a person walking or running, this would tie in better with the tension of the curve in the building.
I believe this is one of the best images I have taken of the Pantheon. It is a rather unique vantage point while making it instantly recognizable. Overall a nice capture with some interesting elements that allow the viewer enough to look at to stick around for a little while.
I was recently looking at some Leica lenses and was surprised to hear about how "flawless" the image was. The ideal of almost zero distortion, no color fringing and pin sharp from center to edges. It struck me as a very clinical way to approach an artistic pursuit. We all understand that it is not the gear that makes an image, but can the gear be too perfect to allow some character?
If you look at the image above, you have a wonderful little Chinese girl, dressed in a traditional hat during their National Day Celebrations. This image is one of my favorites because of the girl's expression, her hand gesture and the lady eating noodles in the background. When I look at this image, I am not thinking of the perfection of the glass, in fact, this image would be wonderful with any glass.
As a photographer, I am not interested in capturing the truest rendition of a scene. I am interested in conveying a feeling, and image detail does not carry through to the emotional. A shot of a temple in Xi'an China can be photographed a great many ways. Each visitor attempts to create their own memory of the scene. Some look to some detail of the building, others try to capture the entire magnificence while others focus on the light and shadow to convey a feeling.
Irrespective of the approach the photographer takes, the clinical perfection of how a lens captures the scene is not important. In fact, we use modern digital filters to dumb down the image, to add color casts and to remove detail. Why do we do these things if perfect rendition is what matters?
The answer is simple, in the digital world we are able to capture a perfect rendition of a scene, and so is everyone else on the planet. We need something to stand out, to let the world know that an individual took this image. We take the straight photography movement, championed by the lines of Paul Strand, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and return back to pictorialism where the artist feels the need to make an image unique.
What Man Ray did in his darkroom with techniques like Polarization, is now being done on computers, cell phones and various applications. I do not criticize any of these movements, it is the world of art, and it will change and move depending on the pressures in society. I do however wonder why seek the perfect lens, why not go after the one filled with character?
I recently bought the 7artisan 50mm lens for the Leica M mount. This is a f/1.1 lens, making it the fastest that I own. I bought it for about USD 360. Every review I read compared it to the Noctilux (a USD 10,000 lens) and argued about all the limitations the lens has. When I took the first few images with the lens I really liked it. The images have all these odd, results that make it unique. The lens is imperfect and this gives it a character and that is what I want my images to have.
So the next time you are looking for a lens, why not try some old, used lens with scratches, dust and yes, even fungus? You might be surprised at the artistic results it gives you!
I began downloading some photography documentaries and watching them. I do not enjoy them as much as a photography book, mostly because I can't stop and just look at the picture without the narrative changing my viewing. But I do find them fascinating to get to know the photographers themselves.
Speaking about yourself and your art is never easy. Effectively we are seeing the image of the person they want us to see, but occasionally we get a little peak behind the mask and walk away with a bit more insight into the photographers we love.
And so it is in "What Remains", a documentary about Sally Mann. I first saw a photograph of hers back in 1999 or so. I was in New Orleans and I walked into a gallery to see a mixed set of prints by different photographers. I remember seeing these half naked kids looking like they were in a dream. The image impacted me but it bothered me as well. This is long before I had kids of my own, hence I considered nudity of any type from a single perspective. Only after seeing the joy and freedom my kids had when very young did I begin to see that picture in a different light.
What Remains is a biographical documentary where Sally does most of the talking. You get glimpses into their family dynamic and are left wondering how it must all work. This is not a critical contemplation but a true curiosity which comes from seeing another persons life and trying to understand it.
You see Sally speak with such pride in her work she seems unstoppable. But then you see one of her projects get rejected from a New York gallery and you see the timid, delicate side of Sally. The fact that the documentary captured both extremes so very well is one reason this is one of my favorite photography documentary.
The second reason I like it so much is that they mix footage from the 1990's with their latest fillings. This gives us a chance to see Sally working on three very different projects, one about her family, one about landscapes and finally one about death and decay.
The final reason I like this documentary is that it shows her working. Few documentary spend more than a few minutes of B roll on the photographer at their work. What Remains spends a great deal more time showing how she works.
The film quality is great, the insights are interesting and the human element of pain, enjoyment, desease and family all come through. It will leave you with more insight into how the photographer views her own work. One thing is for sure, you will not see a Sally Mann picture the same way again.
In the book "On Photography" by Susan Sontag, she theorizes that the camera in the hands of a vacationer helps them deal with the anxiety of travel. Standing in front of any amazing site, leaves one perplexed as to what to do, but the act of lifting a camera to ones eye allows a socially acceptable action to be done. The refocusing of our attention to the camera, helps us assimilate what we are faced with and gives us a chance to process it.
When this book was written, film cameras were the only medium available. The picture being taken would not be viewed for days, weeks or even months later. Today with digital cameras the only thing that has changed is the immediacy of viewing the image captured. This being true, and with digital camera improving by leaps and bounds, why would one ever decide to take a film camera on vacation? Here I give my explanation for this seemingly odd choice.
1. Perfection versus Character:
Digital photography is an amazing medium and I often times take a digital camera with me on vacation. There is nothing as perfect as a image from my D800 of a landscape, city scape or even a street shot. But the perfection of the images removes from the character of the scene. What I am trying to capture is a scene and that is very rarely perfect. A film captured image, with the imperfections of development and printing, gives an image a character that often enhances a scene.
2. Extending the Visit:
The latency or delay of developing a roll of film, allows me to enjoy the scene a second time. It allows me to look at the scene with a critical eye after development is done, then through the selection process on a contact sheet and then finally in a darkroom as I print it. With digital I see the image right after I take it, select the image on the computer and spend five minutes on Lightroom or Photoshop refining it and rarely if ever print it.
3. Enjoying the Limitations:
Film is not cheap, so I end up being more selective on film. I have a higher hit rate which allows me to slow down and enjoy the limitations of film. The ISO limitations force me to take advantage of any "spoonful of light" (Don McCullin) and really think about the image. Overcoming limitations is part of the artistic process. As digital improves, there are less limitations making it less an artistic process and more of lucky one.
4. Digital is Less about Photography:
Digital is about post processing on a computer. Film is about the art of the capture as the limitations of the darkroom are such that I am unable to create anything in the darkroom. All I can do is enhance what was originally captured.
5. I Always have a Digital Point & Shoot:
This argument I am blatantly stealing from fstopcameras.com. The argument is a good one so I will use it. With my iPhone I always have a good point & shoot digital camera with me. It is easy to use it as it is always with me. So for the quick snapshots for Facebook or Instagram, I have a tool that is very well designed and always at hand.
6. Silver Gelatin Prints:
I cannot print the same tonal range of B&W in digital than I can in film in the darkroom. This could be my own limitation on printing, but there is a depth to a silver gelatin print that I just cannot match. I have a great number of digital images, perfectly converted to B&W that I cannot get a great print from. I wish I had shot them on film.
7. Digital is Easy:
Look at the images on Instagram, Facebook or all over the internet. Look at the number of photographers who are shooting amazing works of art. All of them are standing on the shoulders of scientific brilliance using digital cameras that make it difficult to shoot a bad shoot. Take a digital camera to Europe and you can make amazing images (using your computer) just like the thousands of others that same day. With a film camera, getting that amazing image is much more challenging which increases the satisfaction when finally obtained.
In all honesty, I typically do take both a digital and film camera with me on vacation. I love the benefit of having the immediate gratification while I develop my film images. But in the end, my favorite image of a vacation is usually captured on film.
Patrick...confirmed film & digital photography addict.