Photography

Withdrawing a Photographic Guarantee

As I’ve worked on my photography over the past ten years or so, I’ve always felt I needed — wanted — to give my viewers a certain guarantee. While I might have liked to assure viewers that each image was perfectly true to what I had seen with my own eyes at the time of capture, I knew that such a guarantee was fundamentally impossible, so I offered a weaker guarantee: that at least I hadn’t edited the image in post-processing. I hadn’t cropped it, hadn’t altered the colors, hadn’t messed with it at all. The camera produced a JPG file, and I either accepted that file in its totality, or I rejected it altogether.

There were times when a new acquaintance would ask me about my photography, and as I struggled to find a way to summarize my passions and concerns in this field, I would give up and say: “I don’t edit my pictures.” It was a terrible conversation starter.

Over the years it became apparent to me that I was offering a guarantee no one really wanted or cared about. No one — practically no one — gave a whit whether I edited my photographs or not.

Of course there would be that occasional person who was attuned to all of the philosophical issues about authorship and objectivity that photography raises, and sometimes this occasional person would appreciate the discipline of my process. But most of the time, people’s eyes would glaze over when I began to describe the constraints I adhered to.

Why was it so important to me to avoid editing, and to declare my policy aloud, if no one ever asked me about it or seemed particularly interested in the matter when I brought it up?

Basically there are two reasons. One is about the kind of experience I was looking to have as a photographer, and the other is about the kind of experience I wanted to offer the viewer.

Regarding the first point — what I wanted for myself — I’ve always valued the way photography gets me away from my desk, brings me out into “the world,” and makes me look closer. I love working for a picture — really working physically — because work is engagement. When you shoot with a fixed focal length lens (a lens that can’t “zoom”) you become more physically involved in the place where you are, you move around more, you experiment more, you struggle more, so you end up seeing more. When you know you’re not going to crop or retouch the image later, you work harder to get the composition right at the moment of capture. When you know you’re not going alter the exposure in post-processing, you become more attuned to available light and how you can use it. I chose a very constrained process as a way of maximizing my own engagement in the act of seeing.

Regarding the second point — what I wanted for the viewer — I’ve always felt that photographs can help people reconnect with the simple joy of looking around: a photograph can show you wonder of your own everyday world, it can highlight something that you too could see with your own eyes, if only you stopped and looked a little closer. But in order for a photograph to be effective in this capacity, it has to be more of a document than a construction, more of a record than a fantasy. If the viewer senses that the “soul” of a photograph was formed in software post-processing, rather than at the moment of capture, then that photograph loses its value as evidence — evidence of the everyday wonder that’s available to our unaided eyes. It can still be beautiful, challenging, important, but it becomes less persuasive as an argument for why we should all spend more time looking around us. It seems to come from somewhere else — somewhere detached from everyday visual experience. It loses the sense of connection to the everyday world that would allow it to be a persuasive advocate for that world and its hidden but still-available wonders.

Yes, you could argue that when post-processing is done well, it’s transparent. Far from separating the image from everyday experience, editing can actually make the image more lifelike, can bring it closer to what the photographer observed in the moment. Editing can correct those things which the camera didn’t “get right” the first time around. But this gets back to my first point: editing opens a can of worms for the photographer, and as a photographer I preferred to spend my time outside taking pictures (and occasionally getting one “right” at the moment of capture) than inside, sitting before a screen and trying to coax a picture that wasn’t quite right into being better. Once you begin editing a photograph there’s a slippery slope — editing software can do anything — so it’s much easier practically, emotionally, philosophically, to avoid it altogether.

For many years I stayed true to my no-editing policy. Frankly, I’m impressed with myself. I’m impressed at how many temptations I avoided, how many almost-right pictures I discarded because I did not accept editing as an option at all.

I still think my no-editing policy is appropriate for a certain photographer — the photographer I thought I was — but I’m no longer sure that I’m that photographer.

I once imagined that my photographic mission was to document the excitement of spontaneous observation. Many of my images were true to that mission — they really were impromptu documents of something that suddenly caught my eye on the street, something I might never have noticed before, or never before thought worthy of attention. But as I’ve worked at photography over a span of years, I’ve developed my own recurring subjects. For example, I’ve taken thousands of photographs of chain-link fences and the intricate shadows they cast. I’ve returned to this particular subject again and again, trying to capture a kind of perfect chain-link shot that exists somewhere in my mind. When I present one of my best shots of this recurring subject, it’s not fair to call the image a casual observation, documenting something the viewer might see too, if only he or she stopped to look. In fact, I’ve been stopping to look at this very thing for years, and only after a thousand attempts combining study, trial and error, repetition, and luck, was I finally able to get a certain “blessed” shot.

Now it may be true that I didn’t edit this “blessed” shot after capture, but I can’t call it a spontaneous document, a product of the moment. In fact it’s the product of years of searching. In some ways it’s a highly planned, constructed shot, even if I didn’t set it up before releasing the shutter or alter it afterwards. Edited or not, the photo reflects a sensibility that I developed over time and that includes a memory of all the many other shots of that same subject that I’ve attempted to take. If the goal is to present the viewer with something spontaneous and “unscripted” then what matters most is not whether the image was tweaked after capture, but whether the image represents a spontaneous observation for the photographer, as opposed to something that the photographer studied and pursued over many years.

It so happens that most — not all, but most — of the photographs I choose to include in my portfolio do show things that I’ve been looking at for some time, things that I’ve really worked at capturing over months or years. An image might have been captured in a split second but when you consider all the work leading up to that split second, how can you consider the outcome truly spontaneous? And if you asked me which is more important to me — spontaneity or graphical perfection, I’d have to say the latter. I’m a beauty guy. I’m into form and proportion. I’m into geometry. As a photographer, I do embrace the spontaneous — when it happens! — but much of the time I’m seeking to find in the world a reflection of a sort of abstract perfection that exists somewhere in my mind. I am using the world “out there” as a way of showing the likeness of something that exists in my inner eye.

And I’ve become interested in all the things that are contained inside a photograph. Over the years, as I earnestly avoided editing any of my photographs-to-be-published, I still took peeks at what editing might be able to do. I would try out different software filters and transformations, making sure to revert them, to only keep the images that I liked best without any transformation at all. But when you explore the ways an image can be processed, you do come to question the primacy of any one face of the many-faced thing that a digital image is.

Having maintained my purism for a long stretch, I’ve begun feeling the need to shake things up with my art, to try something new. So, as of this blog post, I’m officially withdrawing the guarantee that no one wanted from me in the first place.

Dear viewer, I no longer guarantee that the images I present to you are unedited. I no longer guarantee that the photographs I share with you are exactly what the camera captured when I released the shutter. Sometimes, I might do some post-processing on some of my images, in search of what I’d really like to show you. I do guarantee that every image I present to you is something I love, or at least, something I loved once.

Wow, was it that easy to withdraw the guarantee? No actually it wasn’t — I’ve been trying to write this little essay for at least a year!

 

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