Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bring on the Drama

The photographer's art is making the mundane seem less ordinary, more dramatic, than it seems to the naked eye. We do this a few ways. Call them techniques, or call them cheap tricks. They usually work!

Isolation: Take something that is normally seen in context, remove the context, and there's a new drama to a simple object. You could photograph a dancer on a stage, or you could photograph her in a studio doing the same moves. Chances are, the studio shot will outshine the in-context stage shot. The use of heavy "bokeh" (out-of-focus elements in a partly focused field of view) also isolates that which the photographer wishes to present out of context.

Juxtaposition: Using a contrast between two opposed ideas or symbols is another way to isolate a subject. If we show protesters holding up God Hates Fags signs, we should show them in front of a billboard depicting a great homosexual contributor to our society. A puppy is just a puppy, until you put it near the jaws of an alligator. A flower is beautiful, but not terribly dramatic as a photographic subject. A flower lying in a dirty gutter addresses feelings of loss, despair, and resignation.

Absence: Tire-tracks can say more about a road than moving vehicles do. A vigorous performer can be captured backstage, exhausted and without his audience, and say more about how hard he works than he can when we see him moving enthusiastically in front of his adoring fans.

The ultimate poignance is found in pictures of 9/11's "ground zero," everything there except what is supposed to be there, the World Trade Center.

Enhancement: Motion blur connotes fast action. Bokeh adds mystery by taking out specifics. Tweaks to saturation can add and subtract realism from an image. Conversion to black and white is a kind of enhancement through subtraction. By removing unnecessary color information, the photographer directs attention to tones and contours that would otherwise be buried in psychedelic controversy.

Echoing: This means finding scenes where the lines or mass of one object are repeated, possibly at a different scale, in another object of the background. Picture a sleeping lion backed by golden hills, the curves of the flesh making the same lines as the hills in the background.

Plain old line work: We see this in any "tunnel" shot where lines recede to a vanishing point in the distance. We also see this in many commonplace photos, where lines on a road, a building, or any other straight-sided entity combine to emphasize or enhance the subject. Perhaps the lines in the greater field of view echo those in the subject. Perhaps they point to it, converging on the center of interest. Regardless, good lines are appealing to the eye and can make a mundane item seem extraordinary.

I'll be working into this essay if I think of anything else we do to make the ordinary worth looking at again and again, for its beauty, singularity, and yes, drama.

Why You Hate Flower Macros

--Flowers are inanimate and unchallenging to shoot. There's no need to snap the shutter at just the right moment. Insect shots fare better than do flower shots, by way of illustration. The person who shoots a dragonfly hovering above a pond will do far better than does the one who shoots just the waterlilies.

--You hate flower macros because they represent the feminine. You are manly and aggressive; the soft, pretty petals of an old rose are ladylike, weak.

--You might think of flowers as Other People's Art (OPA), and dismiss them the way I dismiss pictures of buildings, which are another category of OPA. Though many pretty flowers are the results of humanity's hybridization efforts, and therefore works of some kind of art, flowers are also, in a broader sense, fait accompli when we come upon them, regardless of the origin of their beauty. Whether you cite your god or the marvelous unfolding of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the beauty you see when you view a flower is less the photographer's accomplishment than it is a natural fact of the world you live in. So, rather than having captured an ironic street scene, framed and timed with your expert eye, you have really just seen something pretty and pointed a lens at it...something "anyone" can do. And worse, there's no irony!

I don't love most OPA shots. I have trouble praising those who shoot vintage cars, old buildings, neon signs, and even sunsets, though I have made a study of the sunrises I see from my living room above the Port of Los Angeles. As with flowers, we only see a screenshot of that what is beautiful, and owes its beauty to something other than the photographer's talent.

I love flower macros. I love the patterning in the elements of a flower, whether it's the mathematically perfect petal arrangement of a formal double Camelia japonica, the elaborate layout of the seeds in a sunflower's center, or the spiral arrangement of the leaves of an agave.

Not only does the rebel in me enjoy loving an innocent beauty that is despised by the majority, but my family's roots are in working the land. I see every plant and every flower as the outcome of a wondrous transformation when a seed, some soil, and some water conspire to break the earth, reach the sky, and release to the breeze the pollen that will make more seeds, more breaking and reaching and pollenating, and yes, more sighs at the beauty of it all.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Photographing Poor People

I have so many objections to street photography depicting the homeless that I felt the need to get them all down. Some are personal, some are political. I'd love to hear from you if any of my reasons resonate with you.

1. Unattractive: We usually avoiding looking at the homeless outdoors. Why make it hard for us indoors?

2. Elitist: By documenting the "otherness" of your homeless subject, you inherently separate yourself from his milieu and cannot avoid condescension.

3. Not sympathetic: Well, how would you like being photographed at your worst?

4. Not brave: Not when compared to asking a beautiful stranger if you can photographer her as she shops.

5. Trendy and facile: The excesses of an era are easy to document. Got anything else?

6. Self-serving: Always meant to indicate an eye for depth or pathos, they bring about such reactions only in the artistically naive.