Monday, November 03, 2008

In the Details

Japanese maple and evergreen, Janesville, WI

The details are where the image comes alive. In your story, it's the details that make it feel real, the little moments and spoons on the table that make the writing come alive in the mind's eye, become clear rather than fuzzy. You can deal with the big picture, on the epic scale, but if your movie doesn't have a human story, it will remain cold and alien. Warmth and life come from the details. Sharpness of focus in a photograph brings more and more detail to the eye, and provides more surface to contemplate.

A telling detail in a poem or story can give the reader the hook they need to go into the writing, and experience it from within. The details are what pull us into the universal shared experience of being human; they are also what give us the rich experience of living inside the skin of someone very different from ourselves.

When I go out to photograph, I look at the small details just as much as the overall picture. When I shoot a panorama it often feels bland: documentary rather than expressive. I enjoy documentary films, especially films about music and musicians. And I also enjoy great panoramic photography. But when I zoom out to take an overview shot, I often feel as if I am making a context shot, and the real beauty and interest will be found by zooming in more tightly, by cropping out unnecessary details in the viewfinder, or later in the process of editing and printing. This doesn't mean I take only close-ups. It does mean that I am always thinking about the essential details in the frame. When you can't remove anything else that's inessential, or downright distracting, that's when you've found the right composition. It can take some time to find.

Japanese maple and wood fence, Janesville, WI

In 1932, the Group f/64 manifesto appeared. It was written in response to soft-focus "artistic" pictorial photography, which was the dominant style at the time. The photographers within the group wanted to explore a more "pure" photography, to see what photography could do for itself as a medium for pure artistic expression—for fine art, in other words. The Group f/64 were not content to follow fashion and re-create in photos the same themes and settings and imagery that had been found in painting for centuries, which a majority of pictorial photographers were doing. Pictorial photography was human-centered, often storytelling, sometimes illustration. Group f/64, in my opinion, wanted to see the world as it was, in an almost spiritual manner: to discover it, to find within it the expressions they wished to make, rather than impose ideas on a pre-planned stage. They sought out images without pre-planning, and learned that "luck" consists of being always prepared when one finds oneself in the right place at the right time. I practice this principle now by always having a camera with me; I've been "lucky" more than once simply because I had a camera with me, ready to make an image, when the moment presented itself.

Here's a key passage from the Group f/64 manfiesto, which lays this out most clearly:

Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.

The impact and influence that Group f/64 had on photography, in its wake, is so foundational that many nowadays are not even aware of it. The "fine art photography" print is still considered, in most peoples' minds, to be a tack-sharp black-and-white print on glossy paper. Edward Weston and Ansel Adams are still the models and the standards, along with the other influential members of the Group (among them Imogen Cunningham and John Paul Edwards). The subject matter of photography will always evolve, as culture evolves and artists record it, as the land changes and artists record that, too. But the style in which the photograph is made, its technique and craft as a medium, must still come to grips with the philosophies discussed, and practiced, by the photographers of Group f/64.

What's interesting is that the photography that we view as journalistic rather than fine-art has always wanted to be sharp and detailed; rarely has moodiness been allowed in, in technical terms, and even more rarely have pictorial photography methods been used. But news photography, photojournalism, is reportage, and is expected to carry an aura of clarity and objectivity. There have been many great photographers who were essentially documenters of the world.

There is artistry in journalistic photography, nonetheless. A single iconic image can tell an entire story, through implication, inclusion or exclusion, through form and composition. But the purpose of such photos is to tell a story, so Group f/64 did not regard that as "pure" photography. Rather, Group f/64 placed their emphasis on sharp images, maximum depth-of-field, glossy printing paper which showed more detail than rag or matte papers, and on other factors that showcase unique qualities of the photographic process. f/64 is the smallest aperture on the lens of a large-format camera, which provides the greatest depth-of-field. Relatively long exposures are required to obtain this depth-of-field, as aperture and exposure are inversely proportional; so what blur one sees might be caused by the wind's movement of an object in the frame, or the pull and push of an ocean wave. f/64 images are typically rich in detail, although the process of printing is an artistic process, with shading and tone adjusted to affect mood, sometimes de-emphasizing some detail in order to bring out another.

Japanese maple and wood fence, Janesville, WI

What makes an image startling, a poem breathe, a film have a good rhythm, lies in how each artist in their medium handles the details. Sometimes leaving out details is necessary, to bring more important details into higher relief. A long list of details in a story can kill momentum, but one or two telling and important details, with all the rest left out, may heighten the story's impact.

The minimalist approach is to take away everything that doesn't need to be there. This can be seen in architecture and painting, as well. In photography, as in poetry, the richness does need to be there. But if you can do it with less, do it. Better a white wall reflecting the changing daylight, than a Baroque mirror in which all you can see is overwhelming decorative flourishes.

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