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Photography

One of comments I receive most often on my photography is: “It doesn’t look like a photo!” Viewers sometimes ask me whether that’s an incidental effect, or is it something I’m going for? The answer is it’s something I’m going for — not in every piece, but in much of my work. I’m interested in how a non-photographic quality can be achieved in a natural way, through careful attention to composition, and not by manipulating the scene, relying on camera effects, or altering the image after capture.

So how do you take a photograph that doesn’t look like a photograph? If I were being glib about it, I’d say it’s easy: all you need to do is avoid giving the viewer any clues that would let them know they’re looking at a photograph! In practice, this can be quite challenging because an image might have many features that point to photography as the underlying medium, and if you try to avoid all of them, you might find that your subject matter is restricted to an empty wall.

Here are some of the things that I think about when I seek a non-photographic quality in my work. First of all, you need to stay away from all the visual tropes that are associated with photographic images, like bokeh, motion blur, vignetting, film grain, and the like. You also need to avoid the standard bunch of photographic defects like lens flare, noise, chromatic abberation, bad focus, and underexposure or overexposure. The image has to be, in a sense, perfect.

As for composition, one of the most important points is to avoid any sense that the subject has been abruptly cut off at the borders of the image, as is so common in photographs. In my work I pay special attention to what’s going on at the edges, and I often aim for a sense that the image is bleeding over its boundary.

Perspective is another crucial factor in determining whether an image looks classically photographic. In general, I try to create a sense that the subject is right there in front of the viewer, within close reach. I try to prevent the viewer from thinking about the camera lens and how it has transformed the scene, or about about a third party observer whose vantage point is being represented. The ideal is to create a direct, unmediated connection between subject and viewer (I call this an “ideal” because it’s never fully achievable, but it’s something I strive for). On a technical level, you need to avoid perspective distortions that would bring attention to the lens (no fisheye shots or extreme wide angles). Choosing subject matter that falls on one plane, and avoiding subject matter with lots of straight lines are ways to prevent the viewer from thinking explicitly about perspective, and thus becoming aware of the lens, as they explore the image.

In my work I like to emphasize texture, to excite the viewer’s sense of touch, to give them the sense that they could reach out and feel the subject — that it is real and not a “mere” image.

It’s also helpful to avoid subjects that will invoke the viewer’s preconceptions about “how it should look.” We’re all intimately familiar with faces, for example, so it’s easy for us to sense whether a face has been photographed.  On the other hand, if the photograph presents an abstraction, or an extreme closeup that conceals the identity of the subject, the viewer has less to compare it to. Further, it can be interesting to include traces of another artistic medium in the photograph — for example, a skillful photograph that includes a painted surface might itself look painted.

The world is tangled and complex. Images that reveal an uncommon sense of pattern or order in a typically chaotic subject can sometimes contribute to the impression that the image could not be a photograph, although this can backfire too, as any sense of artificiality may lead the viewer to suspect that the image that has been staged or set up.

As for the final presentation of a piece, many people are used to seeing photographs on glossy paper. Printing on matte paper is a way to avoid that clue, although the texture of the print surface becomes somewhat less of a factor when the image is framed and presented behind glass.

So these are some of the factors that go into making a photograph that doesn’t look like a photograph. There’s no formula for achieving this quality. Each image is different, and the sense of “not being a photograph” arises from a combination of concerns including subject, composition, perspective, and final presentation. Now the question is why would a photographer want to pursue a non-photographic aspect in his or her work? My main reason is that I find images become more gripping or powerful when you can’t immediately guess the medium, or when you know the medium but the image seems to defy it. It’s easy to write off a photograph as “just a photograph” but if you can’t quite tell what it is at first, you might look more closely, and with less prejudice. If you then discover that it is a photograph, but that it shows no signs of being doctored or “forced” to look this way, you might spend more time with it, trying to unravel its mystery. Another reason for me is that I see the art of photography as a process of questioning one’s perceptions, and inviting the viewer to do the same. Presenting a photograph that “doesn’t look like a photograph” is a great way to get people thinking about their own visual preconceptions and more generally, how they see.

I just returned from the HarborArts Festival in the East Boston Shipyard.  Thanks to everyone who stopped by my booth!  For those who weren’t there, this is what my setup looked like:

Rudi At HarborArts 2013

In the back of the photo you might notice there’s some rope tying the tent pole to the fence.  The rope (and accompanying duct tape) was an improvised solution to prevent the tent from doing a second round of cartwheels down the dock.  It was a windy day, but beautiful.

One fun moment was when this couple offered some spontaneous feedback on their favorite photo.  They each said “I like this one” at the same time, but they had different images in mind and pointed to opposite ends of the table.  I asked if they’d recreate the scene for this snapshot, and they kindly obliged:

Visitors at HarborArts Festival 2013

To everyone who stopped by today, it was a pleasure to share my work with you.  If you haven’t told me already, please let me know which image caught your eye.

Rudi at HarborArts 2013

I asked my friend Dan Koff of New Relic Media to help me make a video about my photography.  We wanted to do our own soundtrack so we met today for our second jam session, which was lots of fun.  Some of this material will probably make it into the video, but we decided we just wanted to make some music and not force it to fit.  In these clips, Dan is playing in his own style on a dholak that Kathir and I got from a street vendor in Pondicherry a few years ago.  I’m playing on my Eastman archtop.  (Amplification is new for me, as I generally prefer completely “unplugged” playing, but the Acoustic Image Corus I’m using at a low level here is changing my mind and opening some new possibilities.)  Both clips are improvised without rehearsal, though the first one (15 minutes) is more structured — it explores the “Charupriya” concept that I’ve been developing recently:


This second clip (20 minutes) was pure experiment.  It takes a little while to get into a groove, but one of my favorite parts is the craziness that ensues between 3:00 and 4:00, and resurfaces again towards the end:


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Seitz Photo 54

This is the gift I gave my brother for Christmas — it’s the first print I’ve made of Photo 54.

54 is one of those photos that I forgot after I took it.  For many months it remained on disk, in a pool of images that weren’t marked for further consideration.

Every once in a while I take a random look through my “rejects,” and last time I did so, this image stopped me.  Was someone staring at me through the computer screen?  As I looked closer, I couldn’t tell whether there was a person or a mannequin in the suit.

After being so startled by this abandoned image, I decided to make a print.  The discrepancy between “on screen” and “print” is different for each photo: some photos give me a similar experience in both settings, whereas others need to be seen in physical form.  I only realized that eerie 54 was a keeper when I finally held the print in my hands.

The tuxedo is seen from behind a scratched plastic window.  If you viewed this setting in real life, your eye would immediately tell you that the scratches and smudges were on the window, not on the surface of the tuxedo.  And that distinction remains clear when 54 is seen on screen.  One special quality of the print is how two layers of texture get flattened: it looks like to me like an artist drew the tuxedo glove with white chalk and then deliberately smudged it over a drawing surface.  And that’s something I love to explore: how unedited photographs can have a painted or drawn quality simply by virtue of how their elements interact.

54 ended up with the color scheme of an antique photo even though it isn’t antique and hasn’t been post-processed.  The antique look came about naturally and, to my eyes, seems fitting for the subject.

My portfolio has around 100 images as of now, and it’s always interesting to me when a viewer quickly focuses on one among all of those.  (I sometimes wonder: what if I hadn’t taken that one?)  My brother chose this one quickly, with no deliberation, and my whole family helped me frame it on Christmas day.

My friend Dan was the first person to buy one of my prints, around two years ago, and he helped me select the pieces for my recent show, Imago.  Along with a few other friends, he also helped me frame the pieces at a great DIY workshop in Brookline–it took weeks to do all forty-five.   Dan’s print waited patiently in my portfolio book all that time, while other prints left to be framed and new ones came in to give it company.   Today we finally took Dan’s print to the workshop.

One of the things that made Imago possible for me to put together is that I decided on a standard format for all the pieces: 8×8 squares in identical 12×12 frames, and since then I’ve been doing all my work in that square format. Constraints like that make so many things simpler.

Dan’s print is a rectangular piece that I shot sometime after my iPhone phase (more to say about that) but before I adopted the square format and the equipment that I currently use.  There was a little stress this morning in having to decide on a frame style, mat size and color, etc. for dimensions that I’m not used to framing.  In the end I think we came up with something that really works.  Here’s what the materials looked like when we got to the framing table:

55Materials

And here’s a snapshot of the finished piece:

55Complete1In the image above, you’ll see an extra black mat at the back of the table–that’s the first mat that was cut, and we didn’t use it, because the opening was a few millimeters to narrow.  One of the most “traumatizing” things for me as a photographer is to see the details at the edges of the photo get cropped by a mat that’s too narrow.  That’s because, in my style of photography, it’s often what happens at the edges that makes the photo “work.”  Dan is one person who totally gets this and so when he saw the details that were being lost he shared in my feelings: “Oh no!!!”  We tried to make the narrow mat work, shifting it around a millimeter this way and that (if you show this staple, then the other one goes out of view, etc.) and finally convinced the folks at the workshop to cut us a new mat.  When the second mat arrived it was just wide enough.  Phew!  The snapshot below shows the “proper” orientation of the photo, as it will hang on the wall:

55Complete2It’s a photo of a subject that fascinates me: staples on an old bulletin board.  This piece is #55 in my catalog.  I usually give a piece a number when I frame the first print of it–that’s why the number for this one is higher than some of my more recent stuff.

I often recommend placing my pieces at eye level in a place where you’ll see them close up–the close-up perspective matches the vantage point that I’m usually in when I work.  Finding a spot for this piece in Dan’s place was interesting because we discovered it actually looked good in a high-up position on the wall, close to the ceiling, where it could be seen anywhere in the room and where it reflects in a mirror on the opposing wall.

This video is a record of Imago, my photography installation at Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, MA.

Imago was on display between June 2011 and April 2012. When it was time to take the show down, I didn’t know if I’d ever see the 45 pieces together again, so I walked the halls with a video camera.  Here is that raw footage, along with my original soundtrack.

 

When I take a photograph — that’s to say, when I discover an image — I enter an altered state of awareness — it’s like getting stoned.  In the rough video here, I move the camera as if I’m returning to that place, trying to get back inside each image.

The music consists of three free improvisations that I recorded around the time I was taking the photographs in Imago. A free improvisation is a completely spontaneous act of music making, with no planning and no theory — for me it has been a way to find my voice.  In these clips I play guitars by German Vazquez-Rubio and Stephan Connor.

This video is 32 minutes.  The soundtrack has some ambient noise and some humming toward the end.  I’d like to produce a shorter version at some point, but here’s the raw material for those willing to look and listen.

From the show’s opening announcement:

Rudi has put together this collection of what he calls “found images” – candid photographs that explore the wonder of the ordinary world. He is interested in the way photography can inspire us to look closer at the things we pass by everyday – a bit of peeling paint or rusting metal, a feather on the sidewalk, or the shadow of a chain link fence. He explores “the random grace of light” – the way sunshine reveals the interest in whatever it happens to touch. Rudi’s closeup perspectives and attention to texture give viewers the sense they can almost reach out and feel the objects depicted – common things rendered strangely beautiful by an uncommon perspective. The photographs now on display in CIC are the record of a year’s worth of close observation in places ranging from Kendall Square to Mahabalipuram, India. Rudi works with digital equipment but avoids cropping or editing his images after capture – keeping them as close as possible to what he saw in the moment, and what you too might see with your own eyes if you stop and take notice.

The word imago can mean:

an image — as in “imago dei,” the image of God

the adult form of an insect after metamorphosis

the idealized mental image of a loved one

In a decade of living in Boston’s South End, I never needed to get a VCR repaired, but it was comforting to know if such situation should arise, there was a place I could go: Hite Radio and TV at 1672 Washington Street.  Every time I passed the place, I would admire their vintage sign and fantasize that someday, I’d find myself in a 20th century electronics emergency — perhaps I’d be driven to the edge of sanity by noise from a failing radio, or maybe a friend would get their finger stuck in a voracious cassette deck — and then, in the chaos and confusion, just before it was too late, I’d think “Hite!” and we’d rush to safety there.

Here is the sign in all its glory (credit to David Salafia):

Hite

On a recent trip back to the neighborhood I found the sign had been taken down and was resting against the back of the Hite building:

 

It was time to say goodbye to a neighborhood icon, and to the mental comic strip I had created around it.

Me (wistfully): “Turns out I won’t be getting a VCR repaired at Hite.”

Me (impatiently): “Don’t have a VCR so what’s the problem?”

I turned my eye to another Washington Street icon, a cluster of payphones that stood outside Hite since well before I’d been in the neighborhood.  I spent quite a while photographing the payphones together, and then just one of them, gradually finding a more specific subject in the reflection the yellow receiver made against the shining silver keypad.  Out of roughly a hundred shots I chose the one below to include in my portfolio.

Just today I learned the entire site, including the payphones, has been demolished.  An article in SouthEndPatch quotes the developer of the new property as having said “I cannot wait to get rid of those telephone booths.”

Payphone (by Rudi Seitz)

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