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Photography

Massachusetts State House at night, seen from a vantage point inside the Brewer Fountain, a Boston landmark, which — I was surprised to learn — is one of sixteen copies of a piece by Michel Joseph Napoléon Liénard situated around the world. Liverpool has one and so does Tacna, Peru; there’s one Geneva and also one in Launceston, Australia. I had to climb into the fountain last night to take this shot — luckily the water wasn’t running. I believe the Greek sea-nymph depicted here, one of the fountain’s four main figures, is Galatea.

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It may be a secondary and unintended “function” of fire escapes, but they sure cast beautiful shadows.  This kind of geometric intrigue is abundant in an urban setting and while I never get bored with it, I sometimes feel there’s a problem of too-muchness: as one sets out to take this sort of urban-geometric shot, one gathers a host of beguiling images with no way to choose between them.  A few years ago I decided to shoot in squares because it made me work harder and it made successful shots rarer but more easy to recognize.  A square is a tight space.  Nothing can really “stretch out” in a square and you can’t use long diagonals to convey a sense of flowing, easy motion.  A square frame can expose the asymmetry of an image and make it look lopsided, while the same square frame can make a highly symmetrical image look stylized, pretty but not dynamic.  In a rectangular composition you can leave some corners unaddressed, establishing a hierarchy of active versus inactive areas, but this is harder to pull off in a square, where all four corners exert a balanced magnetism: if the eye is drawn to one corner of a square and finds nothing interesting in that place, there’s a greater risk of disengagement.  For an image to seem truly dynamic in a square it needs to struggle against the square’s symmetry in some way while still being full and balanced enough to do justice to all the available space.  It is fun to step away from these challenges sometimes and not shoot in a square.

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One way to evoke the size of something enormous is to show only part of it.  Enclose the entire object in a frame and it will look small, but let it bleed over the edges and it will look huge.  The most dramatic use of this technique I’ve seen is an engraving of the Tower of Babel by the artist Barry Moser.  At first, Moser’s depiction of Babel looks like a mistake, as if the artist had missed the subject and only shown some imposing rock that partially obscures its base, but as you contemplate the small section of tower that can be seen rising up beyond the rock, just beginning its ascent at the image’s upper left corner, you realize Moser has shown us all we need to see.

Though the effect in this image of the George Washington Bridge is not nearly as stark, I had Moser’s engraving in mind when I shot it.  The photo is something of an outlier for me since I don’t usually find the kind of connection I seek when I shoot from such a distance, but I was pleased with what happened here.

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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?

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Steam is one aspect of the urban landscape that always catches my eye.  I’ve been trying to photograph it for three or four years now.  Some days seem magical as far as particular subjects are concerned, and last Saturday — Jan 10, 2015 — was a magical day for steam.  I came across an alleyway in downtown Boston where I had noticed steam venting before, but on this particular day the steam’s release seemed wilder and more dramatic than ever.  The alleyway was dark but there was a shaft of sunlight illuminating the puffs and plumes in an improbably specific way.  And although I had fallen out of my street photography habit in previous weeks, I happened to have my camera with me on Saturday.  It was cold enough that at the end of the shoot I barely had enough sensation in my fingers to be able to put the cap back on the lens, and actually I had forgotten what that felt like.

The images here show physical prints of the steam photographs from Saturday.  What you see in these images represents a departure from the process I’ve followed since I first got serious about photography.  I usually avoid doing any significant post-processing of my images beyond the minimum necessary to create a physical print.  That’s because I prefer to keep photography as something that happens in the moment: I want to maintain a connection to my images as things I saw and captured when I was there on the scene, not as things I created or altered after the fact at my editing desk.  But in reviewing these steam images, I had a strong hunch that they’d be more powerful in black and white than in their original color versions.  In some sense, white in a color image can never reach the same dramatic intensity as it can in a black and white image.  You might think that converting a color image to black and white is a straightforward or deterministic process but it’s not; there’s probably as much room for interpretation and variation when you go from color to black and white as there is when you colorize a monochrome image.  So this is one case where I let myself experiment with tweaking brightness, contrast, and the like in software to “create” effective black and white versions of the color images.  Letting the final versions of these images be so heavily influenced by post-processing decisions is not how I’ve typically worked — as mentioned, I prefer restricting the most the important choices to the moment of capture — but I’ve decided to offer these steam images in their black and white re-interpretations because, in looking at them, I’m so strongly reminded of what it felt like to stand there on Saturday gazing at the scene.  I wasn’t thinking about color then; I was occupied with the steam’s many grays and its brilliant sun-drenched whites.

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Here are a few of my recent images from the East Boston Shipyard.  The first is something of a mystery shot:

Rudi Seitz - Untitled Shipyard Image 1

The second is also a geometric abstraction, but it reveals something more of the context where first image was captured:

Rudi Seitz - Untitled Shipyard Image 2

I go to the shipyard to look around and take pictures almost every week.  With its active warehouses and constantly changing piles of metalwork and nautical equipment, the place would seem to be a goldmine for my type of photography, and yet — for whatever reason — I rarely walk away with a keeper; the challenge keeps me coming back.

I’m not sure where the metal pieces in these images are headed, but last time I spoke to a worker in the shipyard about some similar components, they were being fabricated for use in a bridge in Connecticut.  Here are some shavings that can often be found in pails at the shipyard alongside the finished metal pieces — this image reminds me of a spice tray:

Rudi Seitz - Untitled Shipyard Image 3

 

 

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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