‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Last month, I gave an after-dinner talk to a local Rotary Club on the subject ‘tweaking your holiday snaps’. The vote of thanks included the hackneyed phrase “… and they say the camera never lies”. This is odd because apart from 5 minutes on using cloning to remove distracting elements, nothing I demonstrated (minor crops, global and local exposure/contrast adjustment, waiting for the light, foreground interest, etc.) altered the essential truth of the image. I then reflected on how often I hear similar sentiments expressed, often with the word ‘photoshopped’ in the same sentence.

The phrase ‘The camera never lies’, or variations thereof is almost as old as practical photography itself, dating back at least to the 1890s (phrases.org.uk) and early photography was used as a reference for artists in improving accuracy, for instance Muybridge’s sequence of the galloping horse. (Harry Ransom Center). Photography is evidential, the photographic image is taken as evidence that the subject matter existed, in that place in front of the camera, at least for the period the shutter was opened.

However, we live in an age when fashion images are routinely retouched, impossible scenes are created by CGI on our television and cinema screens and in advertising, we are suspicious of the photographs that we see in our newspapers, sometimes rightly so (Wikipedia 2016), and the winner of a prestigious photographic competition is disqualified for manipulation. (Cheesman, 2015). Although the layman may blame this on Photoshop, we should remember that retouching occurred in pre-digital days and was considered matter-of-course by the Victorian Pictorialists such as Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson.

An 1982 extended essay by John Berger, ‘Appearances’ (Berger 2013, pp61-98) suggests an essential difference between photography and other visual arts. He says that painting or drawing ‘translates’ the scene whereas photography ‘quotes’ it. This concept of ‘quotation’ gives me a metaphor for a broad taxonomy of ways in which photography can  appear to lie.

‘Misquotation’

The camera may quote the scene accurately but the image (quotation) is then altered in post-production. Spot the differences (not to mention the incompetent use of the clone tool) between the original and altered versions.

‘Selective quotation’

Apocryphally, the newspaper review, “If you want a riotous new comedy, avoid this like the plague.” becomes “… a riotous new comedy … (Daily Blah)” on the theatre posters.

Selective quotation can happen in camera or in post-production. The photographer can select his decisive moment and his framing to show his version of the story. Alternatively, an editor can change the emphasis and meaning of an image by selective cropping.

‘Quotation out of context’

Context is important to understanding. If you hear a person wanting to buy ‘a large farmhouse’ it is relevant to know whether they are talking to a baker or an estate agent.

Words and pictures reinforce each other. A false impression can be given if the words and photographs have different sources.

This image was used to illustrate and authenticate a viral hoax about snowfall in Cairo. The sphinx is actually a miniature from a Japanese theme park (Boese 2015)

Accurate quotation of a lie

I can do no better than quote John Berger on the subject of publicity images, a subject that occupies the fourth programme of Ways of Seeing (tw1975 (2012d)). The following quotation is from Understanding a Photograph (Berger 2013, 69)

‘The lie is constructed before the camera. A ‘tableau’ of objects and symbols is assembled. […] This ‘tableau’ is then photographed. It is photographed precisely because the camera can bestow authenticity upon any set of appearances, however false. The camera does not lie even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful’

A relevant variation on the original phrase is ‘The camera does not lie; photographers do’ (various sources, all unattributed) to which could be added, ‘… and so do art directors’

References

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

Boese, A. (2015) Snow-covered Sphinx. Available at: http://hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/snow_covered_sphinx (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Cheesman, C. (2015) Photographer loses £10k crown; Claims editing ‘not major’. Available at: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/latest/photo-news/photographer-loses-10k-crown-claims-editing-not-major-11228 (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Encyclopædia Britannica (2016) ‘Henry Peach Robinson | British photographer’, in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Harry Ransom Center (no date) Horse in motion, Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886. Available at: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/windows/southeast/eadweard_muybridge.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016)

phrases.co.uk (no date) The meaning and origin of the expression: The camera cannot lie. Available at: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

tw1975 (2012d) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY (Accessed: 22 October 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Adnan Hajj photographs controversy’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adnan_Hajj_photographs_controversy (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

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Assignment 4 – Tutor feedback and initial responses

I have now had my tutor’s feedback on Assignment 4. The good news is that he seemed to like the images but suggests a rework to explore other ways of presenting them. As ever, there are some intriguing suggestions for further research.

Tutor’s substantive text set in bold. My initial responses in plain text.

Overall Comments

This is an interesting interpretation of the brief exploring light and colour. There are some strong images in the submission and you have included relevant contact sheets. Colour is used as a strong tool in composition and meaningful content. You have clearly observed and recorded colour in the work and created your own colour palette. In relation to this I would like to have seen further development with research into theory and symbolism in the use of colour.

This will mean dipping into the ‘technique’ books, which I had set aside in favour of ‘criticism’ books for the duration of the course. I know there is some useful material on colour theory in several books by Michael Freeman. I will have to explore further to find material on symbolism.

You have researched into the work of other practitioners using light/colour and some analysis of their approach to their work.

You make an intriguing statement in your submission that caught my attention – “I will not comment on ‘personal voice’ because I am not yet entirely sure what the phrase means” yet later on you remark that you have selected purely on subjective grounds. If you are questioning the concept of a personal voice in photography this is a valid line to enquire into as we may very well question the idea that it has any voice that can impart meaning.

I am not questioning the concept of ‘personal voice’, which I have heard expressed from several directions – course notes, forum postings and my RPS mentor. I’m just not convinced that I have found mine yet – or at least, I haven’t recognised it.

If a personal voice represents an expression of individualism perhaps we might consider “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. However this self- aggrandizement now appears to dominate the media and culture to an extent that the concept of an individual voice may be in danger of disappearing. Yet Sartre contends “In life man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing. No doubt this thought may seem harsh to someone who has not made a success of his life. But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism. So can this portrait be the personal voice of the individual in reality or does this voice only reflect some grandiose claim for legitimizing the practice of photography as art? As the say on the exam paper – discuss.

A big topic and one for a future blog posting. To some extent it depends on your definition of ‘art’. I came into this course with a view that photography is essentially a craft activity and that ‘art’ is a supreme expression of a craft. Over the past few months, I have been exposed to some other views (apparently equating ‘art’ to some form of political statement) and I need to take time to assimilate that.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

The work submitted for this assignment demonstrates knowledge of technical skills that are clearly evidenced in the learning log. On looking at your prints I was struck overall by the impact that was made by your use of colour. There is evidence of well observed details in the series and across the contact sheets as well as your control of lighting. A profitable evening’s walk enhanced by the effect of water. I particularly like as single images img6903, 7000 and 7014. The remaining pictures are colourful but a little bland as single images.

None were intended as single images, although a few are capable of standing by themselves.

However looking at these and at your contacts I would suggest that there could be more impact made with the images if you considered the possibility of presenting them as a series of triptychs along the themes that you indicate in your submission shadows, puddles and so on. Another possibility would be to consider a single dominant colour for each triptych. The final outcome is of course down to you as in this project you have produced enough images to consider a range of presentation ideas and interpretation of the subject in a variety of ways.

To be honest, I had not considered the physical form of the submission beyond a collection of prints spread out on my kitchen table. I had a hint of problems when trying to arrange them in a 4×2 grid for a blog posting; I’m not entirely happy with the result.

Presenting as triptychs, two or three of them, will allow me to reconsider using portrait format images as the ‘outers’ to support landscape format central images. I will need to think through linking themes. ‘Colours’ is intriguing – gold and red/blue can be done with my existing material but I will have to revisit some traffic lights to find enough greens.

For physical form, I could either print three images onto a single A3 sheet, or produce some sort of folding mount to emulate the traditional altarpiece that is part of the dictionary definition.

Overall a good piece of work that may need to have the format for presentation reconsidered.

Thank you.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

Good references to the work of other photographers but do spend a little time outlining how their work has influenced your approach. This could be underlined by your analysis informed by critical reading.

An important point, but one that I am going to have to work at. Unless I am creating an homage (assignment 2) I do not consciously recognise my influences. That does not mean that I am not influenced by other’s work (which would be an appallingly arrogant thing to say), just that everything merges into my subconscious, from which I dredge up ideas. I recall CS Forrester making a similar point (using a metaphor of barnacles) in ‘The Hornblower Companion’ [ISBN-13: 978-1557503473]

As mentioned I would like to have seen some research into colour particularly as symbol. I have included a brief extract from The Art of Colour and also a link to the full Sartre essay that may be of interest to you.

There will be a blog posting or two about colour before the end of Part five.

The Barthes essay linked in the previous feedback will also have a relevance to the idea of a personal voice.

I have reviewed ‘The Death of the Author’ previously. It was not a happy read and I doubt that I will gain much by repeating the experience this soon.

Remember when you consider submitting work for formal assessment the assessors will be looking to see evidence of reading, reflection and meeting all criteria. At this stage prior to formal assessment it is possible to rework and reshoot assignments based upon feedback given and your own analysis of the work at this point. Before any submission carry out a review of all work and consider any changes that may need to be made.

Suggested reading/viewing

Dark City www.williameckersley.com/

Existentialism is a Humanism   https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

Exercise 5.1 – ‘the distance between us’

The exercise brief is found on p104 of the course notes:

Use your camera as a measuring device. This doesn’t refer to the distance scale on the focus ring(!). Rather, find a subject that you have an empathy with and take a sequence of shots to ‘explore the distance between you’. Add the sequence to your learning log, indicating which is your ‘select’ – your best shot.

At this point I have to admit that I do not understand the brief. These are all everyday English words, all of which I understand, but put together in this way they become mysterious. I have particular difficulty with ‘explore the distance between you’ and, consequently, a secondary problem with ‘Use your camera as a measuring device’. This might be because in my day job as a surveyor, the words ‘measure’ and ‘distance’ have particular defined, literal meanings so I am uncomfortable using them as metaphors.

However, “there are no right or wrong answers …” so I will work with the parts which I can understand. I am looking for a subject that (not ‘who’; this does not have to be a person) I have empathy with, to take a sequence of shots and select my favourite.

When you review the set to decide upon a ‘select’, don’t evaluate the shots just according to the idea you had when you took the photographs; instead evaluate it by what you discover within the frame (you’ve already done this in Exercise 1.4). In other words, be open to the unexpected. In conversation with the author, the photographer Alexia Clorinda expressed this idea in the following way: 

Look critically at the work you did by including what you didn’t mean to do. Include the mistake, or your unconscious, or whatever you want to call it, and analyse it not from the point of view of your intention, but because it is there.

These images were made in the kitchen garden at Chartwell, Churchill’s house in Westerham, now in the care of the NT. I entered the garden in a foul temper; the house was hidden by scaffolding on three sides and the gardens were full of loud half-term kids on a treasure hunt (I know; I can be a real misanthrope sometimes) and started shooting close-ups of flowers [technical note: Pentax K-1, 100mm f/2.8 macro lens]. Without particularly selecting subjects, I found that I was going for “flowers past their best” and also that I was mellowing and enjoying myself.

I found an empathy with this particular subject matter because there is a combination of melancholy (death of something beautiful) and renewed hope (after the flowers come the fruits, seeds and next year’s new life)

All of these images are presented uncropped, with overall exposure and contrast work done in Lightroom but no vignettes, grads or other local adjustments. The framing is a bit ‘loose’ because I was working with a prime lens and sticking to the paths rather than wandering onto the flower beds and getting in close.

The shallow depth of field simplifies, but does not eliminate the backgrounds, and also blurs secondary elements of the subject plant. The crowded beds mean that the foreground shapes and colours get repeated in the backgrounds. There are also the occasional surprises, such as the large pink rose in the background of IMG7156.

It is only when viewing the images on screen that I really appreciate some of the details, such as the ‘3-shaped’ orange bits (sorry about the terminology – I’m a surveyor not a botanist) in IMG7131.

I am only allowed one ‘select’, which is difficult because my opinion changes each time I run through the image set. However, the one I return to most often is IMG7205, which is a slightly longer shot than the others, having a more interesting background as a result.

_img7205

If working it up for competition, or a gallery wall, I would desaturate the yellows and greens, crop slightly from the bottom left and tone down the intruding flower head on the right-hand edge. There is still work to be done, but the image below is a good start.

_img7205-2

Thoughts at the start of Part five

You’ve now reached the final part of Expressing Your Vision and this is a good place to reflect on your progress through the course so far. (EYV course notes P100)

If you aren’t looking back at your old photos and cringing a little bit … you’re doing it wrong (CLICKittyCAT 2016)

Looking back at my first posting, in February, I see that I expected to be well outside my comfort zone. Certainly, I have been outside my comfort zone at times, but not ‘well outside’ – that may come with Part five and the final assignment (a brief that loose is scary).

The course has two threads, the exercises and the collateral research. It has to be said that the exercises of Parts one to three are distinctly mechanical and so was my response to them; ‘Camera Controls 101’ is not going to be a mystery to somebody who has been using cameras for about 45 years, but there were a few nice twists and it is useful to test for myself something that I have ‘always known’. Part four, where we start to look outside the camera and consider the light, is much more interesting and I think that shows in the way that I engaged with the exercises (several blog posts for each). Part five appears to be more critical, and I am looking forward to that.

I think I see a difference in approach to the assignments as I have progressed. My Assignment one ‘Square Mile’ was as safe and uncreative as it gets. By Part four, I am deliberately saying, ‘That is the usual way to do it, so that’s what I am not going to shoot’

The collateral research has pushed me into doing things that are foreign to me, such as visiting exhibitions and reading photography art books (as opposed to technique books), which has been partly self-directed and partly responding to the tangential questions that Matthew, my tutor, throws into the mix with his comments on coursework. At first, I was reticent in expressing opinions for fear of treading on some received orthodoxies and getting marked down. However, I have now taken on board the advice, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’ (EYV course notes P72) I have started to express my opinions more confidently.

The final part of this course … turns the focus back to you, the photographer, and your point of view (EYV course notes P101)

Bring it on …

References

CLICKittyCAT (2016) Instagram photo by CLICKittyCAT.com(ic)  [Online] at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BFWxTcbxmXr/?taken-by=clickittycat (Accessed: 23 October 2016).

Ways of Seeing • John Berger

‘Ways of Seeing’ was originally published in 1972, as a collaboration between the BBC and Penguin to extend and elaborate on ideas contained in the BBC series of the same name. My copy is the 2008 Penguin Classics reissue.

To say that it is a strange book is putting it mildly. It comprises seven ‘essays’, four of which comprise words and images and the other three are images only. Typesetting is unusual, in Univers bold script (quotes and emphasised passages in a lighter script) which is more normally used for headings, and each page or double-page spread appears individually designed. At times I felt that I was holding a piece of conceptual art rather than reading a book.

Therefore, it is unfortunate that production values have suffered. Cheap ink and paper mean that the illustrations are very ‘soot-and-whitewash’ and the shadows have bled into  the highlights. This is one of the reasons why I got nothing out of the illustration-only essays; I spent too much effort working out what the images are, to think properly about the way they are arranged.

The first essay deals with the importance of context and the distinction between the original artwork (the thing itself) and the reproducible image. The original artwork may have been commissioned for the space it finds itself in (gallery, church altarpiece or the drawing room of a stately home) and has a particular meaning in that place. However, once reproduced (for instance by photographing it), it can appear at various scales and in myriad forms: postcard, book, TV screen, Athena poster (OK, I know I am dating myself with that reference but I am reviewing a 1972 book). If seen on TV, or a podcast, it may be accompanied by speech or music, or have details extracted. It can be subverted for advertising – an idea that forms the basis of the final essay. Berger is particularly rude about the sort of art expert who spends 14 pages discussing the history and provenance of a painting, rather than the image itself, and of the obscurantist language used by some critics.

The second written essay deals with ‘the nude’ in art, noting that nude subjects are almost exclusively female. It starts with the proposition that a man’s ‘presence’ is chiefly external (it is about what he can to to or for ‘you’, the spectator) while a woman’s is internal (it is about what can or cannot be done to her) and develops to the idea, also expressed by Michelle Henning (Wells, 2000 Ch5), of men possessing the ‘gaze’ and women existing to be gazed at. Nudes appeared in notionally biblical or classical scenes but are clearly intended to interact with the Spectator (the viewer of the image) rather than the other figures in the painting – even when kissing a lover, her body is turned toward the spectator rather than the lover. I’m not sure that Berger comes up with any answers, he simply makes the rather disapproving observation.

The third written essay is the one least relevant to photography, except as a precursor to the fourth. It deals with the European tradition of oil painting between 1400 and 1900 and puts forward an argument that they were commissioned primarily to reflect the owners status, by reference to their possessions. The techniques of oil painting permitted a degree of realism unprecedented at the time which (according to Berger) was equivalent to owning the thing depicted. Photography also permits realism, but a photograph is reproducible and does not have the one-off status of a painting.P

The final essay deals with the use of imagery in advertising and publicity, and draws parallels with the tradition of oil painting. Artworks may be subverted or pastiched (p134 shows a pastiche of Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ ) or used as background (p135 suggests that Leonardo would have used a Parker pen for his doodles). Colour photography is used in a similar way to the oil painting described in the third essay, having an unprecedented realism and tactility. Berger sees the difference in the notion of ‘glamour’ (which could be an attractive quality, an enchantment or illusion, or a malevolent Scottish shapeshifter) which the photograph has and the painting does not need. The basis of publicity is that it engenders feelings of unease or discontent with the viewer’s present condition, or an envy of himself in an alternate reality where he has bought the product. While painting is rooted in the present, publicity invokes an alternate or utopian future.

The book is a bit of a period piece (but not so much as the TV series, with Berger’s hairstyle and shirt); for instance, it represents a pre-feminist age so much of the second essay appears dated. It was iconoclastic in its time, criticising the conventional way of viewing and criticising art (it was said to be a deliberate ‘counter’ to Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ series) and appears to be still valid, particularly the final essay on advertising.

References

Berger, J. (2008) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin Classics.

Wells, L (ed) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

Assignment 4 – submission and reflection

These images are my final selects and response to assignment 4 – Languages of Light.

Contact sheets. Red-outlined images are my shortlist of 24. Final pics have a second, green outline.

Assignment notes are here

Reflection – assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills: I am fairly satisfied under this heading. The nagging doubt is that I encountered ‘out of gamut’ warnings when printing some of the images with very strong red and blue tones.

Quality of outcome: I have finished with a set of images that I am pleased with, and that work well together. My thought process has been described, almost at a stream-of-consciousness level, in blog postings and outlined in the assignment notes.

Creativity: I believe I have applied imagination, invention and experimentation to produce a set of images from something that most people would walk past, or over, with consciously noticing. Whether there is evidence of ‘personal voice’ is a matter for the reader.

Context: This is a set produced in response to a particular brief, to explore the beauty of artificial light, and I believe it answers the brief well.

 

Assignment 4 – whittling them down

The brief calls for 6-10 final prints. I shot 318 frames; here are the contact sheets:

Whittling-down proceeds by stages. First, eliminating the frames with irretrievable technical issues, mainly focusing or camera movement reduced the count to 228.

Next, having made the decision to concentrate on close-up reflections in wet pavements I can reduce the count to 100 frames. It is this set of 100 that I will be submitting with the assignment.

The ‘first cut’ on subjective criteria gave me a long-list of 36 images. At this stage I decided that, for consistency, I would present only landscape-format images, which eliminates another 12.

The next stage will be to work them all up, with a 3×2 crop (best fit on A4 with 25mm margins) and basic Lightroom adjustments then print out laser proofs for final selection.