I often see pictures where the overriding motive is to portray a particular expression of a subject but where the subject itself did not seem to merit the effort involved. I recognise such instances because some of these pictures are mine. It is so easy to fall foul of the trap of trying to rescue a poor or uninteresting composition through a painterly portrayal of it.
I take it that an ‘art photographer’ is one who pursues painterly expressions that can best give justice to a visual idea. Such photographers spend days, often years, perfecting an idiom, whether straight silver-gelatin or digital manipulation or one of the many alternative process techniques, such as for example bromoil, platinum or wet-plate.
I speak from experience. I have spent days in the darkroom trying to grapple with lith printing and bromoil inking in a trial and error, mostly error, way. We can get so heavily invested in technique that we can fail to see that the image itself does not support that investment in time and materials.
So I now have a rule in my darkroom. When I choose an image to work on, I ask myself ‘if I succeed in making the technique work, even if it is just a straight print, would I hang the picture up on my wall? Would I be comfortable sharing the picture on social media?’ When I go back through the pictures that I have worked on and, in some cases shared, (and if I am being honest with myself), I can say that few of my images merited the attention that I lavished on them. Someone might argue that ‘you have to start from somewhere’. My answer would be ‘yes, but that somewhere is often not worth sharing’.
Self-editing is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to acquire. How is one to judge a good picture from a poor one? Is it only a matter of taste or is there an objective standard for choosing one from the other?
My view is that there is an objective standard but that we do not approach it through analysis. It is partly a matter of how composition and expression combine to produce something different to the sum of their parts. We sort-of collectively know when we see it (hence it is objective) but we cannot prescribe it. That’s what makes photography such an interesting and open-ended journey, i.e. one without a fixed destination.
Social media is full of poor images. Digital cameras make it so easy to take photographs that many poor photographs are posted. Street photography groups in particular suffer from a torrent of badly composed or inane pictures. Chasing ‘decisive moments’ or something similar, many seem to lack the capacity for discrimination.
Likewise the substantial investment in time required in making film-based photographs makes it difficult to reject poor pictures. Altpro and film photography groups abound in pictures that are interesting for the way they have been made but lack the vitality required of a good picture. I have been guilty of posting poor pictures to both types of group, street and altpro.
There is another consequence of putting expression ahead of content. So much time taken up in making pictures in the darkroom detracts freom the business of going out each day and seeing anew. Wedded to the ‘triumphant perfection of inconvenience’ (Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities) that is traditional darkroom printing, playing with chemicals, experimenting with dilutions and temperatures, it can be refreshingly direct to simply go out and take pictures with a digital compact or smart phone.
There! I never thought I would say that! But the foundation of it all must be the business of looking and seeing. As Cartier-Bresson once said ‘people think far too much about techniques and not about seeing’. I don’t fully agree, as one is an adjunct of the other, but I sort-of understand his point.