2016 January 18    Photography  Techniques & Art Theory


Have you ever seen the really straight, almost perfect lines of an architectural drawing?

That's what draftsmen used to make all day at their drafting tables. 

Today they use computers, and I don't know if they're called draftsmen anymore.

Let's talk about what makes "art", while trying not to be too pretentious (or contentious).  This is not going to be a scholarly work of some type;  just an exploration of some basic ideas.

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In This Article

Art vs. Drafting

Types of Perception

Pictorialism vs. Strict Realism

Blurring On Purpose, etc

Appreciating Art


Art vs. Drafting

I used to know an artist who called some people "draftsmen".    Now, we might look in our favorite on-line dictionary and see that "drafstmanly" is a compliment.  Well, it's not a compliment in every circle.  Or at least it wasn't.  When an artist would call someone a "draftsman", it could mean the person had a lot of technical skill but no creativity.

I'm not picking on mechanical drawing here, but there is a rather apt metaphor to be had from this.  The draftsman had a very well-defined task.  He had to accomplish that task precisely.  The draftsman used a lot of carefully-drawn lines.  When they weren't perfectly straight, they followed precise curvatures. 

Draftsmanship actually teaches some valuable art skills, yet it can become limiting at the same time.  I think it's good to learn these skills, but then also learn that technical perfection is not the measure of art. 

In some types of art, technical perfection is desirable, but that's not true everywhere.

So the question is, "What is art?"

Actually, no;  that's too open-ended a question.  So let's ask this question instead:  "Why would anyone make blurry pictures on purpose?"

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Types of Perception

There are always going to be some people who zero in on details without seeing the overall picture.   They will point out what they think to be accidental flaws.  Dust, lint, fading, motion blurring... these drive some people to distraction. 

Some people see details first; some notice colors; some focus on shapes or tones.  At least it sure seems that way.  I doubt that everyone perceives detail the same way.  

I do know that some people can train themselves to appreciate different types of art. 

Just an example here:  there was a time when I didn't like pictures with dust, lint, or obvious grain.  I didn't "get" it.

And fading, as far as I was concerned, was just a way of saying the photographer didn't know how to develop film. 

These were all ideas that I had been taught by other photographers;  I assumed there was no other viewpoint. 

Later, I started to realize... some of the most interesting pictures had aspects that I never would have liked

My original mentor was good at mechanical drawing.  He taught me that unless you used Zeiss, Nikkor, or Leitz lenses (or Pentax if you were a student), then you were wasting your time. 

It took a while for me to figure out how limiting that was.   (He also forgot Canon lenses.)

It took even longer to figure out that over-use of the "rule of thirds" could become boring. 

The draftsmanlike approach to photography tends to be boring, because it overlooks an important fact.  A photo can have aspects that contribute to the impression, even if we don't know how or why.   Later on you might think of why, but looking at the photo, it just forms an impression, and you don't necessarily have to understand it.

How could Eggleston or Shore make bland scenes appear so interesting?  

And why, when someone nails 'that look', do we immediately recognize it?

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Pictorialism vs. Strict Realism

The Modernism movement in photography began early in the Twentieth Century.  The basic idea-- as I understand it-- was to produce photographs that were as realistic as possible.  It emerged as a counter to the Pictorialist movement, which was an outgrowth of the Photo-Secessionist movement.

The Pictorialists did a lot of fuzzy, vague renditions of people and things.  Not all their work was like that, but it was basically the early 1900's answer to a question that probably sounds familiar.... "Everyone can take pictures now, so what can we do that's different?"

Soft-focus is a favorite Pictorialist technique.

It's kind of interesting that the Photo-Secessionist movement happened so early in photographic history.  All it took was for artists to want to set their work apart from the rest of photography... which, not coincidentally, had become a real issue because amateur snapshots were suddenly so plentiful.

Eventually, some photographers-- including Edward Weston-- moved away from Pictorialism.  Thus was born the age of Modernism, or strict realism.   (Was it always strict realism, though?   Not really.)

Thing is, Pictorialism never completely went away.  There were always photographers trying to make more artful pictures.   Even into the 1940's at least, there were still self-described Pictorialists at work. 

In some ways, the Lomo and toy camera movements are simply an extension of Pictorialism. 

Also, if you study a lot of the early Modernist work, you'll see it's not actually "strict realism".  Weston photographed a lot of ordinary objects in such a way that they suggested other things.  And that's probably why they became so famous.   No one wanted bland documentary photos of green peppers;  even when people later started trying to make bland photos, they composed them in such a way that the blandness was an art unto itself.

There had to be something, some point of interest, to make a photograph other-than-boringly-real.  Whether the end product was surreal, hyper-real, super-real, or whatever it might be... there was art happening there.

Is any photograph really a perfect rendition of reality?  Probably not.... even for the ones that try!   And now, digital cameras, with all their photo-realism, still have limitations of color and dynamic range.

Any narrow type of photography can become boring if there's no variation.   That's why it's a good idea to try different techniques. 

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Blurring On Purpose, etc

Since art appreciation can be an acquired taste, it is not surprising that many people dislike certain types of art immediately. 

A couple of smudges on a piece of paper?  Why would anyone like that? 

There are several different schools of art that have tried say more by saying less.  Some of these schools of art (such as the original Minimalists) are not officially around anymore.  But they have been revived in various forms. 

"Saying more with less"... both the Pictorialists and the Modernists have tried to do this in different ways.  

Some of the Pictorialist techniques make use of deliberate blurring, or else they're somehow vague or understated.   These can speak of elements that are not even in the picture.

Likewise, the "vintage" and "distressed photo" looks can do this, as well. 

Often these pictures can say a lot more than what could be said with a clear, sharp, perfect photograph. 

Photographers like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams proved that clear, sharp photographs could also say a lot.  Then again, their styles of photography required a heavy investment in equipment and darkroom time.   And often, even with the sharpness, the photos dealt more in what was unseen, or could not be described. 

There's that famous photo of the mountain range with the shadow on it;  I can't think of the title offhand (it's in this book), but there's something almost supernatural about it.  That was Ansel Adams at his best.

Pictorialism, on the other hand, requires some trade-offs of its own;  some of the techniques are laborious or require a lot of darkroom work, too. 

Today, it is a little bit easier to get into either type of photography.   There's a wide selection of both film and digital photography equipment.  This is a great time for both types of photography.   (Actually, the equipment for toy-camera Pictorialism is a bit lower-cost.  8x10 film photography has always been a bit pricey.)

Looks like an old photo, but it's quite recent.

Plastic toy camera, roll of black & white 35mm film (ISO 100).
Pictorialist fun!

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Appreciating Art

There is no better way to appreciate art than to study different types.  Read photo books, learn about the techniques... and of course, take a bunch of different photos using those techniques. 

In terms of artistic composition and technique, there is probably not anything drastically new.  Even masters like Eggleston actually set out to copy someone else.  (For Eggleston, it was Cartier-Bresson).  But then they developed their own style.   It didn't have to be radically different from what it tried to imitate;  it was just different enough that you could usually pick out a work by that artist, even if it was mixed in with others.

And that's a great reason to try already-established techniques, if only because you will then have a reference point.

One reason why I like film so much is that it's really an entire craft.  It is a whole toolbox of different techniques, all in one.  If you get into developing your own film, you can even start adjusting the grain, acutance, shadow detail, and more.

There's practically an infinity of different combinations you can achieve with different films, cameras, lenses, filters... and yes, even digital cameras, too. 


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This was just a quick survey of the subject.  For a more in-depth understanding, pick up a good book (such as any of the ones above).

Art can mean a lot of different things.  Draftsmanship does not have anything to do with raw creativity.  Technical precision is a good skill, but it's only one skill out of many that can be used in art.

Study some different photo books, take a lot of pictures, and decide what techniques you like.  Later in your studies, you may be surprised to start appreciating techniques you never would have liked.  That's one of the great things about art.

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