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Photographs and Impressions

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This page was created as a project for an aesthetics class (AVT 307, George Mason University).  It describes the course's student-defined "Aesthetic Journey".


Introduction

The subject I decided to briefly explore is the relationship between a norm traditionally associated with a particular medium (photography's accuracy) and the ability for that medium to leave an impression -- rather than just an assemblage of accurate visual components of a photograph. 

The starting point for this comparison is the body of painting generally categorized as "impressionist", "neo-impressionist", and "post-impressionist" that were primarily created during the period from the 1870s through the first years of the 20th century.  Coincidentally, that same time span covers a period of rapid movement for technical and aesthetic developments in photography.

Through a variety of techniques, including perspective, brush work, use of color, selection of subject, etc., the artists of these movements sought to leave an impression when viewed.  To many, their departure from "accuracy" (though accurate renditions or recording of fact/history were often heavily stylized by romanticist painters) seemed an abomination, and a regression into almost childish renderings.  Considering the centuries of study and development within the arts that lead to the paintings most favored by academies and critics in the mid-19th century, this new form of painting must have seemed like treachery to many.

For my part, I envy the ability of impressionist (and neo- and post-) painters to filter out distractions, flatten out the details, and with economy of elements, leave that impression.  One of my favorite examples of this is Monet's "Rue Montorgueil.  Fete du 30 June 1878" (right).  A photograph taken from that same balcony, overlooking the street below, would have given us all kinds of details, but when you see the painting you "know" -- and certainly "feel" -- that you are looking at a major celebration on a street in France (and probably in Paris).  You really don't need the "reality" of the photograph.

To draw back from the photograph's intrinsic emphasis on realistic detail, some kind of intervention may be performed.  This could take place through a number of approaches:

  • Selection of subject and method
  • Technical measures during the execution of the photograph
    - Through equipment and medium choices
    - Actions related to the subject
  • Post-production manipulation
    - Traditional
    - Digital

When all is said and done, as a photographer I'd feel very fortunate if I was able to consistently instill an impression in the minds of the viewers of my work.
 


Selection of Subject and Method

Selection of the subject, either by active inclusion or exclusion of visual elements, is one of the most obvious methods of crafting the final impression of the photographic image.  To illustrate this component of the discussion, we can separate the taking of the photograph into two different shooting styles; documentary and tableau. 

A documentary photographer operating within the Dorothea Lange ethos will keep "hands off" and deal with the visual elements by selection of lens, framing, and his own position relative to the subject. 

A photographer creating a tableau image may control every aspect of the visual elements -- to the extent of constructing an entire environment for the photograph (which may become an art installation in itself).  Some contemporary tableau photographers limit themselves to this sort of staged image, while others may combine 50 or 100 different visual elements using digital technology.  In some cases, the goal of the photographer is to demonstrate that the photograph no longer represents "truth".

There is a sort of progression that can be followed with regard to digital image processing.  Except where noted on this page and throughout this site, digital processes take the place of some or all of the traditional chemical darkroom functions.  Elsewhere on this site are photographs that were digitally "stitched" together, overcoming a technical limitation of the camera used to take the original image (lens not wide enough to capture the scene, for example).  Beyond that, a photographer may elect to use digital means to alter, introduce, or delete visual elements.  Sometimes photographers do this subtly, other times radically.
 


Technical Measures:  Equipment and Media Choices

One of the first choices a photographer makes is whether to shoot the picture with color or black and white (B&W) film (or digital capture).  In some cases color is a necessary part of the photograph, but in others it distracts the viewer, calling attention to color rather than the subject(s).  In the example below, the photographs, identical except for the use of color, convey slightly different messages.

Part of the process of creating an impression is controlling the amount of visual information offered to the viewer.  By its very nature color adds visual information.  If the photographer wants to concentrate on basic form and composition, the presence of color information complicate that effort.
 


Technical Measures:  Subject-related Actions

Subject-related actions can cover a lot of ground.  Most photographers work within a system that places some value on the "truth" of the image.  Therefore, unlike the painter who has traditionally had some degree of freedom with selection and placement of the subject elements, the photographer is usually "stuck" with what lies in front of the lens.  To get around the limitations of a physical or geographic situation, the photographer does have some tools.  He/she may use the element of time (waiting) for the photograph to arrange itself (an obvious exception is a posed portrait or group photograph).  The selection of lens, aperture and shutter speed, artificial lighting, filters, positioning of the camera, etc., can be used to overcome what, at first, appears to be an uninspiring shooting situation, or make a good situation even better.

In the situation below I was shooting with a very wide (21mm lens) in the Point Loma lighthouse near San Diego.  The intent was the pure shape and form of the spiral staircase viewed from above.  I took my first shot (left photo, below) and then some visitors and their hands, on the handrail, "intruded" into my shot (right photo, below). 

 

I realized that what I wanted to express -- my expression, the viewer's impression -- was better said with those hands on that handrail.  (I also realized that I had the wrong lens, and that a 35mm lens would be a more appropriate focal length...and it was in the car off in the parking lot.)  After the hike back to the car, and then waiting for the right number of people to be in the right locations in the lighthouse, the picture below:

 

In the sequence below, shot at the Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida, I wanted to show the guests and the staff, but with a feeling of detachment between the two groups.

 

As the waiter came closer I knew that I wanted to blur him, but also wanted to make sure that his image was large enough so that the viewer could tell that he was a waiter, even with that blurring.  I shot a couple of frames, and then hunkered down in my chair, selected a very slow shutter speed, and hoped for the best.  You can see the difference between the blur of ceiling fan blades in the first two images and in the final image.

 


Post-Production:  Traditional

Traditional methods mostly center on presentation of a photograph's visual elements, starting with whatever is recorded on the source film, plate, or digital file.  Which elements will included?  Which ones will be cropped out? Where will these elements be located within the frame?  Do we lighten or darken certain elements to emphasize or deemphasize them?

This photo is was taken at London's Speakers' Corner.  It probably stands on its own merit for most uses.  

 

But there are other “images” in that first photograph.  In some respects, this is the classic cropping exercise you do in beginning photography classes...Find one that says what you want to say:

 


Post-Production:  Digital

The use of digital image processing software, such as Photoshop® enables the photographer to re-render the image.  One of the easiest steps is to change a color photograph to B&W (as illustrated in the first example).  Another method is to adjust color, contrast, color saturation and other underlying characteristics of the image.  Either of these echo traditional methods of post-production adjustment.  Software like Photoshop® brings to the photographer working with a lens-based image a series of artistic filters that allow certain groups of pixels in the source image to be changed so that special visual effects are created.  These might be brush strokes, stained glass or mosaic, drawing styles, watercolor effects, etc.

This is a fairly straightforward photograph of fishing boats tied up in the main harbor of Procida, just off Naples, Italy.

Using several of the artistic filters from Photoshop®, we can change the impression the viewer gets from the image.  The real question for the photographer then is not if he/she can adopt the look of another art form, but should that be done.  (Some of these filters are much more dramatic on images larger than used here for illustration.)

 


Pencil


Cutout


Dry Brush


Paint Daubs

Original Image

Plastic Wrap

Poster Edge

Rough Pastels

Watercolor

 

More radically, digital processes allow visual elements to be cut, pasted, erases, altered, added, etc.  This can be done in small ways to clarify an images message, or in a more elaborate manner that allows the photographer to completely erase the original visual truth of the source image(s), substituting his/her concept of reality (or fantasy).  That is a whole different subject, and one where the intrinsic nature of the photographic medium, in the opinion of some, is suborned to other artistic forces.
 


Summary

If the photographer decides to pursue a more impressionistic image, he/she has choices.  The method selected depends upon the subject, the photographer's intent, and some kind of artistic ethos.  Some methods just don't seem to work well for some subjects.  Some may seem a bit "too far out".  I tend not to like the use of Photoshop® artistic filters...It just seems like a "cheap" solution most of the time.  But there are situations when that's the best way to make an image, or perhaps salvage a marginal image.

The point of this project was not to look at ways of copying the works or methods of the 19th century impressionists.  Rather, I wanted to think of what they were trying to say, and then to figure out if there are methods within the medium of photography that might help get me to that point. 

This is just a starting point.  In the course of this project I visited the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  It contains works of art from between 1848 and 1914.  Housed in a renovated train station, it is one of the most pleasant art museums I've experienced.  The purpose of the visit was to see some of the great paintings from that era, and also to surround myself will all kinds of visual stimulus from the period that produced the impressionists.  Along with the first reference listed below, the visit helped get me in the frame of mind to consider the issues surrounding impressionistic themes in photography.
 

References:

Bayle, Francoise.  A Fuller Understanding of the Paintings at Orsay.  Paris: Artlys, 2001.  ISBN: 2-85495-185-9.  This book explores paintings at the Orsay both in chronological and thematic terms.

Dempsey, Amy.  Styles, Schools, and Movements, The Essential Encyclopaedic Guide to Modern Art.  London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2002.  ISBN: 0-500-28376-1.  This book is an excellent supplement to standard contemporary art appreciation or art history texts.  It includes a time line covering the period 1860 to 2000, arraying the styles, schools, and movements into "Art for the People", "Art and Style", and "Art and Mind" time bands.