It Doesn’t Look Like A Photo

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.

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