Photographic Constraints

No matter how earnestly one strives to be “objective” in taking a photograph, and no matter how resolutely one avoids editing the image after capture, it’s problematic to claim that any photograph depicts the “reality” of the scene or even that it shows what a person standing at the scene might have observed with their naked eye. Every photograph is an interpretation. Photographs exist in two dimensions and have borders – even frames – while reality comprises no less than three dimensions and it does not have edges the eye can see. A photograph represents the choices of the photographer – what lens to use, what aperture and shutter speed to shoot with, what distance to stand from the subject, where to focus, what to exclude, what moment to take the shot, which shot out of dozens or hundreds to preserve, how to print and frame the image, and where to display it – a photograph represents these choices as much as it represents the “truth.” But does the impossibility of an objective photograph mean that photographers should not strive to be somehow objective, somehow faithful to what they saw? Does the unattainability of an ideal mean that an artist should not still pursue the ideal? If we acknowledge that photographs are synthetic, that they are creative products as much as they are factual documents, should we then engage in the synthetic aspects of photography without any restrictions, allowing ourselves to edit and transform images in any way that might satisfy our artistic vision? Or are there times when we should resolve that while we could edit an image to make it more beautiful, more striking, more dramatic, we won’t?

Imagine you pass by an old house and, standing on the front sidewalk, you snap a picture in bright sunlight. In reviewing the image, you find it cheery but mundane, but a few quick experiments in your photo editor show that the house can be made to look haunted by applying a black-and-white filter and increasing the contrast. This newly sinister house is not what you saw, but something about the image intrigues you now, and you think it would fit in a macabre storybook. Should you reject this processed image as too radical a departure from the scene you observed, or should you accept it as creative product that tells its own interesting fiction? Or say that the cheery quaintness of the sunlit house in fact appeals to you, but your photo is underexposed and much more gloomy than what you remember seeing. Should you use software to brighten the image and enliven the colors, bringing it closer to your memory than the flawed original shot?

I think that any artist who works in a medium has an interest not only in producing the best work they can within that medium, but also in preserving the integrity and potency of the medium itself, so that their own efforts and those of fellow artists can be received with full impact. What is the value of working within a specific and well-defined medium? Let’s take a step back and consider the medium of the human voice. Imagine that I yell, “I’m angry!” and in hearing this, you feel alarmed. How does my gesture convey alarm? First, my outburst affects your senses directly – maybe it hurts your ears. Second, my gesture has semantic content that you understand – the word “angry” means something to you. But third, my gesture exploits your knowledge of the human voice as a regular, predictable medium: you know that yelling always takes energy and is difficult to sustain, so you can infer that if I’m yelling I must really be bothered. Imagine if the human voice worked differently, so that yelling was as effortless as whispering – in this scenario, my gesture might still carry meaning, but it would no longer stand apart as an “outburst” and it would not likely be as alarming. It is because the human voice has limits that there can be such a thing as an “outburst” that we recognize and respond to. Our shared assumptions about the voice give vocal gestures an expressive potency that they would not have if the dynamics of the voice were indefinite, if the voice were free of all constraints.

A similar point could be made regarding an artistic medium like oil on canvas. When we see the way a painter like Vermeer captures light, we are moved not only by how his work strikes our eye; we are moved because, even if we’ve never painted with oil ourselves, we carry intuitions about the behavior of oil on canvas, and we know that Vermeer’s effects are difficult to achieve in that medium. It is not merely the technical difficulty that sways us, but also what is implied about the artist who took the time to master this difficulty: in Vermeer’s work we see evidence of how much the painter loved light, and this evidence of love makes us look closer at the product. If oil painting were an altogether different medium, where Vermeer-like effects were trivial to achieve, then Vermeer’s own paintings might still please our eye, but they would not have the same expressive impact. Oil paintings by the old masters are special not just because of their visual content but also because they were achieved in a medium whose constraints and challenges allow for a distinction between what is easy or common and what is hard or unusual, thereby helping a viewer identify what must have been truly important to the painter.

Now if photography is indeed a medium, what sort of medium is it, and what are its constraints? In looking at a photograph, what can a viewer assume about the challenges the artist faced in its production, and what can a viewer therefore gather about the concerns of the person who overcame those challenges? When a viewer sees a dramatic effect in a photograph, it might be the product of weeks or years of a photographer’s passionate quest, or it might be the result of the click of a software button. This ambiguity doesn’t take away from the image’s sensory appeal, or from its semantic content, but it does mean that shared assumptions are not available to reinforce the communication act, in the same way they are when we listen to the unprocessed human voice or look at an old oil painting. There was a time when common intuitions about the photographic medium could rest on the limits of available equipment, and on the nature of film and the darkroom process, but in the realm of today’s digital capture and software post-production, anything is possible, and the notion that photography is still a medium at all is in question, if a medium is something with limits. Where does one find limits today? It is up to photographers to set limits themselves.

But the question of how to place constraints on the photographic process leads to an explosion of possibilities. Some photographers might embrace film and the darkroom, or even return to processes from earlier in the history of photography; some might work with pinhole cameras or primitive lenses; some might set a template for their work, like shooting with one specific lens at a fixed focal length and aspect ratio and only in a certain kind of light, or exploring only one kind of subject. Some photographers might use digital techniques but keep post-processing to a bare minimum, or only apply some transformations (like exposure adjustment and sharpening) but not others (like so-called “artistic” filters). Some photographers might shoot in black and white, which is both a constraint and a departure from what most human eyes see. While a physical medium like oil on canvas imposes constraints which do not depend on the artist’s approval, constraints in the digital world must be elected by the artist, and different artists will prefer different approaches.

Given the range of possible constraints and freedoms, what remains common about the medium of photography? A photograph stands apart from, say a painting, in that the photograph is captured, not constructed from scratch: without light reflecting off a subject, passing through a lens and hitting film or a digital sensor, there is no photograph. What importance do we ascribe to this capture process? Is the mechanism of “capture” essentially a convenience, a way of producing some desired image more quickly and accurately than we could if drawing it on a blank page, or does the idea of capture define the way we think about our work? Even acknowledging all the interpretive flexibility in photography, do we still respect the special connection between a subject and its captured image, do we still try to preserve the fidelity of that connection, do we still try to present something that is as close to what we saw – or to what we believe was there – as possible?

There are those who would say that objectivity is not worth much. What makes a photograph interesting is the way it selectively displays the salient features of a scene, blurring or excluding what’s irrelevant or distracting.  What makes a photograph interesting is not how it slavishly depicts what the photographer saw but how it conveys what the photographer found most intriguing, or merely how the photographer felt at the time: perhaps the image employs exaggerated colors to convey the sensory overload of a bustling street scene, or perhaps it uses depth-of-field effects to convey a sense of fantasy or of the bleeding together of the seen and remembered. What makes a photograph interesting is the way the photographer edits it, enhances it, deforms it, draws or paints over it to break free from the constraints of documentation and to make something truly personal, something with more dramatic resonance than what the naked eye would have seen or the unaided camera would have captured.  (Returning to Vermeer, it’s been postulated that he used special techniques involving mirrors and camera obscura to obtain effects that would be been impossible in a traditional painter’s setup – would we have denied him those experiments?)  For any photographic constraint one might propose – only use available light, don’t crop, avoid filters! – there will be someone else who finds value precisely in violating that constraint, and unlike in the case of a physical medium, they can violate it if they want.

There are those who would say it’s too late to preserve photography as a coherent medium that gains expressive potency from our shared assumptions about its possibilities and constraints; that it is inevitable that photography will split into different sub-genres of image-making with their own audiences, and that in the barrage of manipulated images that confront us every day online, most viewers simply won’t care to know how a photograph was made or who took it, and that in fact we’re already there, already living in a hell of artistic vagueness and viewer apathy. A photograph might represent a statement of love from the person who mastered a set of techniques to make it, as a painting by an old master shows love for light, for perspective, for proportion; or a photograph might call out to us, with the urgency of a bothered human voice, but today’s observer, numbed by the indefiniteness of the photographic medium and the torrent of images grasping for attention, will perceive nothing remarkable there, nothing alarming there, nothing worthy of more than the half-second glance that any image receives when it appears in a social media timeline.

What gives me hope is that photographs do not exist as isolated units of expression; they often come in collections. In looking at multiple works by the same photographer, a patient viewer can build an intuition for the particular constraints the artist adopted, and in noting how the artist handled those constraints across a collection of images, the viewer can come to understand that artist’s way of seeing. Although photography as a medium may have lost its coherence in the digital world, each photographer can still impose regularity and constraint in his or her own body of work, and by presenting collections that adhere to the same chosen constraints, each photographer can at the same time define his or her medium and work within it. While it may no longer be possible for a viewer to be surprised by any particular thing that happens in an arbitrary photograph, a viewer might still be surprised by something special or unusual that occurs within an artist’s consistent body of work. An art form dies if we can no longer be surprised by it: to save photography as an art we must preserve its potential for surprise, which means we must preserve its constraints, even if we can’t do this universally, but only in our own ways, in our own bodies of work.

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