On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography

June 27, 2007

What’s mysterious about photography? The first photos were shot about 180 years ago. The conceptual process never changed: have light, see things, point camera, release shutter, make stored image visible and view results. Today’s tools are different and possibly more convenient. But tools do not make good photographs. The more sophisticated the gadgets, the greater the risk of misuse and disastrous results.

Great art does not depend on tools, technology, costly equipment, techniques, zone systems, rules-of-thirds, chemicals, digital chips, net worked cameras or any of these fabulous ways to divert attention KGLPhoto Fence At Nightfrom the real thing. Art does not depend on $30,000 digital backs or $15,000 lenses. Great art is the reflection of a laborious, deep and personal vision as realized by and flawlessly executed by a motivated, creative and original artist.

Art is about art. It’s a state of mind. It is a vision. It is mysterious and magical. It engages and spellbinds. It’s about inner life. It is about honesty and self discovery. It informs and challenges. It exposes, proves and documents. It can be vulgar, ugly, hateful, absurd, beautiful and poetic. That’s art. Let’s explore art.

The Mystery of Photography

The mystery of a great photograph is why and how it touches the photographer and especially an audience. Such a photograph is not just a piece of paper treated with light and chemicals or covered with ink applied using a stream of computer bits. It truly is a piece of magic, as is any real piece of art. KGLPhoto Room at Night

It is often easy to look at a photo and exclaim “this is a great shot”. It’s much harder to say why that is the case. Then it’s even harder to go out and actually shoot a great photo, especially if you don’t know what makes a good photo in the first place.

The mysterious magic of a great photo does not just happen in a random fashion. You don’t suddenly take a walk and come back with a great photo. For one thing, you need to take a camera along, meaning you have some purpose which is a good start. Bringing that camera along may be subject to a deliberate and soul searching artistic vision. Then the probability of returning with some decent shots improves tremendously. Therein lays the subject of this essay.

The Metaphysical Process

To any photographer or artist, a soul searching vision is the life line. Consider Ansel Adams versus Henri Cartier-Bresson, both masters with hugely different, equally creative KGLPhoto - Alley At Nightvisions. One was a large format nature photographer and technical guru, the other a Leica street photographer and painter. One was deliberate in approach to the nth degree, the other hoped to encounter the split-second Decisive Moment. One took hours to set up a shot, the other achieved success in fractions of seconds. One spent endless time in the darkroom; the other viewed a simple camera as his only tool, spending no time in darkrooms. Both are legends. Both produced magic. Both approaches are valid.

However different these two approaches might seem, they share features such as: the images present a multi faceted, relevant and unique experience that reflects the artist’s creative vision and flawless execution. Hang on for details on this somewhat bold statement.

Visions, Light, Distortions and Dimensions

Here is the crudest possible perception of a photo: It is a static two dimensional image of a scene as it existed in the briefest moment in time. That characterization is not true in the simplest amateur point and shoot cases, much less in any photographic piece of art. KGLPhoto Girl in a CrowdThe amateur may well successfully capture something of precious value to an audience. The fine art photo will probably be viewed by a wider audience, presenting a sophisticated, multidimensional and unique experience.

This essay contemplates what makes a great photo and what it takes to make one. I’m writing as a photographer, not a viewer. Hopefully, a viewer will get something out of it as well. This is not a technical how-to article. Look elsewhere for ideas on f stops, flash settings, rules of thirds, the zone system or Photoshop secrets. Instead, enjoy some rather unconventional ideas that reduce the mysteries of shooting great photos (for you) while preserving the magic (to your audience):

  • Understand your vision. Explore it. Let it happen. Persist.
  • Photography is about distortions, not reality. Use that.
  • Light is the basis of all photography. Understand light.
  • Photographs are multi-dimensional. Use that.

Simple, isn’t it. I’m just kidding. It’s really, really hard to shoot a good photograph. It’s really, really absurd to reduce the magic of art into a few simplistic “rules” as shown above. As you will find out, these simplistic rules are not simple at all. But they are doable and real.


About This Essay

The essay is split in two main parts: The Prerequisites and The Toolbox. The Prerequisites part discusses the various steps and thoughts that make creative and innovative photography possible. The Toolbox part reveals some rather unconventional tools that nevertheless are crucial in creative photography. The goal is to understand whatKGLPhoto Rural House at Night the heck I meant above in the introduction:

  • The images present a multi faceted, relevant and unique experience that reflects the artist’s creative vision and flawless execution.

This is a very big post, containing the equivalence of almost 90 text pages, not counting the space of the images. Considering it might be hard to get through it all in one sitting, you may want to bookmark this page – in your browser or by using the bookmark button below.

I’ve included a navigation system to make it easier to get to whatever you may be mostly interested in. The Table of Content below is one part of that system. The other part is the many “TOC” buttons you’ll find after each section. Here is a sample:


Table of Contents

Images in This Essay

There are many images in this post. After all, this is a photo blog and I am a professional working photographer. The purposes of the chosen images are two fold: to demonstrate the mysterious magic of photography and to show examples of the various ideas in the essay. Some photographs are my own, others from a broad spectrum of photographers, most famous, some not.KGLPhoto Pillows

You will notice many of the photos are film based and black and white. That is partly due to my own preference of this medium, but also because for historical reasons – many of the photographers lived in the fantastically creative black and white era. But the discussions make no distinction between film and digital, color or black and white. On the level of this essay, such distinctions are immaterial.

In a couple of places I illustrate the ideas of text using non photographic art – mostly paintings and some sculpture. This is not for convenience but to point out the parallels of various art forms. There are many media but art is art.

This blog, its design, text content (except quotes from others) and my own images and graphs are copyright © Leading Design, Inc 2006-2007. All Rights Reserved. I make absolutely no claims on images or quotes originating in other sources. All image copyrights belong to its owners.


Prerequisites – Understand the Magic

Success in any endeavor depends on self knowledge. In art, self knowledge often defines tDiane Arbus - People against Door at Nighthe artist’s work and is reflected in vision statements and the work processes. Some people require formal vision statements, detailed plans, rules and so forth. To others, it’s all an intuitive process. Right or left brain, there is a process. The photographer who understands visions and methodical executions is much more likely to shot and produce great and lasting photos.

Take wedding photographers, often following a written script: shoot bride; then bride and mother; add brother; add step father, grandmother and former boy friend…. Do Ceremony, Chicken Dinner, First Dance, Wedding Cake, Uncle Ben Ejected, Limo here, Limo there, Collect Fee and Get Out. Not much of a vision but certainly a partial plan.

Another extreme case is the amateur’s random path without a plan but with plenty of heart. Finally, consider the fine art photographer who spent years coming up with an original vision and who acts accordingly in a consistent manner. Guess who has KGLPhoto Branches against Light at Nightthe greatest chance of shooting something worthwhile to a knowledgeable audience.

Many of us look for the middle ground as we deal with the “process thing”, as the elder Bush might have put it. Formalize some aspects to keep on track, be flexible in other aspects to encourage new ideas. The process is vital; the form it takes is personal.

Whether on paper or in one’s head, the creative process depends on a few basics. I’m sure Ansel Adams (who had to write technical books about his processes and thought patterns) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (who neither wrote technical books, nor volunteered to verbalize his processes) both, consciously or not, considered many of the points to be covered below.


Be Artistic

Artistry contains two uniquely personal components. The first is creativity. Creativity drives artistic vision. The second is innovation. Innovation makes creative ideas become real, actual works of art. Most artists create art that is unique and very different from that of the next guy. Yet the basic creative thought patterns tend to be similar. Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson created art with almost nothing in common except cameras were involved. But read some of their thoughts and you will find great similarities, not in everything but in spirit:

Ansel Adams said:

  • In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular…. sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a Ansel Adams - River and Mountainsgood chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.
  • All I can do in my writing is to stimulate a certain amount of thought, clarify some technical facts and date my work. But when I preach sharpness, brilliancy, scale, etc., I am just mouthing words, because no words can really describe those terms and qualities it takes the actual print to say, “Here it is.”
  • When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
  • Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Do these subjects move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?
  • I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term – meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching – there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said: Henri Cartier-Bresson Young Girl Carrying a Picture

  • They asked me: “‘How do you make your pictures?” I was puzzled and I said, “I don’t know, it’s not important.”
  • I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life -to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
  • This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.
  • If the photographer succeeds in reflecting the exterior as well as interior world, his subjects appear as “in real life.” In order to achieve this, the photographer must respect the mood, become integrated into the environment, avoid all the tricks that destroy human truth, and also make the subject of the photo forget the camera and the person using it. Complicated equipment and lights get in the way of naive, un-posed subjects. What is more fleeting than the expression on a face?
  • To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to Henri Cartier-Bresson - Couple by the River Seineform a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organisation of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values.
    It is in this organisation alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organisation can stem only from a developed instinct.

To both photographers, the making of a photograph is a spiritual act, an inner conviction and a desire to abstract essence beyond the material world. Neither of them mentions tools or techniques except to say those are not important. I’d imagine they would not agree on whether a particular photograph is great or not. They had vastly different approaches to just about any lower level photographic technique. But the basic creative thought patterns are quite similar. Let’s consult some other photographers:

Other Photographers Said:

  • “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you Diane Arbus Twin Girlsknow.”; “What moves me about…what’s called technique…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.”-Diane Arbus
  • The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework – that to me is the art of photography. -Berenice Abbott

Here is some more wisdom:

  • Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term – selectivity. -Berenice Abbott
  • “I discovered that while many photographers think alike when it comes to equipment and chemistry, there are seldom two who agree on anything when it comes to what constitutes a good image.”; “Great Diane Arbus Two Ladiesphotography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”; “Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” -Peter Adams
  • “What is right? Simply put, it is any assignment in which the photographer have significant spiritual stakes… spiritually driven work constitutes the core of a photographer’s contribution to culture.”; “What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”-William Albert Allard

Vastly different personalities, drastically different views of the world and what makes a good photo, the creative thinking remains quite similar. It got to be a point in there, somewhere.


Creativity: Visionary Ideas

Creativity is an inner engine that makes you discover unique ideas and concepts. Creative forces push Madge Gill Womanyou towards identifying new links between existing ideas or concepts. Creativity relies on motivation, divine intervention, cognitive processes, spirituality, social environments, your personality traits and chance. Creativity works with your genius, mental illness and humor. So goes one of many definitions.

No one agrees on a precise, general definition. No one seems able to measure this magical Creativity. Scientifically, no one knows if you are creative or not although intuitively most can tell right off. Someone made up a list of about sixty definitions of creativity. Most research suggests creativity and intelligence have very little in common. You can be a creative fool or an uncreative rocket scientist.

Pseudo-Creative Industries sell creative new age advertising, exotic car designs, unusual forks and self help books about being creative. Other industries want to monetize your creative ideas, inventions and art. Celebrity seminars, photography schools and art classes happily teach you their new, improved view of creativity, against a fee.

Mental Creativity

Mental illness, in particular manic-depression, and creativity seem to go well together. Famous examples include Ernest Hemingway, Robert Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Michelangelo, Diane Arbus and Lord Byron.Martin Ramirez Man on Horse

“Outsider Art” refers to the work of self-taught mentally ill or disadvantaged artists such as Delaine La Bas, Adolph Wolfli, Nek Chand, Ferdinand Cheval, Henry Darrger, Madge Gill, Alexander Lobanov, Martin Ramirez, Achilles Rizzoli and Judith Scott. The 1922 book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” by Hans Prinzhorn identified the Ten Schizophrenic Masters: Karl Brendel, August Klotz, Peter Mogen, August Neter, Johann Knupfer, Victor Orth, Herman Bell, Heinrich Welz, Joseph Sell and Franz Pohl.

The six images close by in this section represent works by Outsider Artists. The top pencil drawing of a woman is by Madge Gill, an English artist guided by a spirit. She did thousands of drawings like the one shown here. The woman in the drawing may be Gill herself or a stillborn daughter.

Martin Ramirez, a Mexican who lived in California, did the Man on a Horse. Ramirez suffered from schizophrenia. After his death, the painting became quite valuable. This is unusual: most of these artists are or were institutionalized with their work neither shown publicly nor sold. Even after death, when often their work first came to light, little is made public.

The drawing of a huge dog with his tiny master is next. No doubt based on an accurate view of the world according to most dogs, the artist is Bill Traylor. He was born a slave in 1856 on a Bill Traylor Big Dog Small Manplantation near Benton, Alabama. He remained at the plantation till 1934, described as an illiterate farmer with some English vocabulary. He then worked on road gangs and was essentially homeless. So how come this man is viewed as one of the most important American artists?

From 1939 to 1942, Traylor worked the streets of Montgomery as a street artist. He was 83 when he started this artistic career, eventually producing around 1,800 drawings. Friends brought him drawing materials and others provided small favors such as food and an occasional roof. His first show was held in 1940 – ignored by Traylor who was busy drawing. His next show was held in 1942 at a local high school. By chance, his work caught the attention of the NYC Museum of Modern Art. The Museum attempted to buy some of the works but was angrily rejected. By 1943 Traylor moved north to his children. He died in 1947 and his work fell into the shadows for thirty five years.

In 1982, he was part of a landmark exhibition of Black American art. His work was rediscovered and he is now a regular feature of the art scene. Exhibitions include about some twenty across the South in the last 10 years. He recently was featured in England, Germany and Switzerland.

Adolf Wolfli, Resident Artist, Waldau Mental Asylum, Switzerland 1895-1930

Adolf Wolfli is perhaps the best known of the Outsider Artists. Born in 1864, he was a farmhand, a laborer and a convicted sex offender by the age of 31. At this point he was committed to the Asylum where he remained to his death in 1930. He was violent, subject to hallucinations and diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

He started drawing in 1899, but nothing is preserved till about 1905. Over the next twenty five years, he accumulated a remarkable output of an imaginary Adolf Wolfli Big Thing25,000 page autobiography and some 3,000 drawings and collages. Supported by some of the hospital staff, here is his established routine:

  • “Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else.”
  • “He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night.”
  • “At Christmas the house gives him a box of colored pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.”

He achieved a bit of fame in 1921 when he was the subject of an attention getting publication stating a mentally ill person can be a serious artist. In 1922, he was one of several subjects in Prinzhorn’s book mentioned above. The publicity allowed him to sell some drawings.

Yet that ripple did not last long and it was not till 1972 – forty two years after his death – that he was discovered by the world of art. His work started a remarkable tour through the world that included well over a hundred fifty exhibitions at locations such as the Museums of Fine Arts in Basel and Bern, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Adolf Wolfli Campbell Soup on NewsprintBrussels, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Universities of California in Berkeley and Santa Barbara, Musee Picasso, Antibes, American Folk Art Museum, New York, Kunsthalle, Kiel, Scottish Art Council, Edinburgh, Berliner Museum, Berlin, Centre de Cultura Contemporania, Barcelona, Museum of Kyoto, Kyoto, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo and the Katonah Museum of Art, New York. This is just a sampling;
add many more museums, exhibition halls and galleries.

What about his work? Well, think an enormous collection of newsprint papers completely covered with text, drawings, symbols, poetry and musical annotations. Meticulously organized into volumes: Nine volumes of “From the Cradle to the Grave”, Seven volumes of “Geographic and Algebraic Books”, 3,000 pages of “Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation (allowing his nephew to conquer not only Earth but the entire Cosmos), six books of “St Adolf II” (his alter ego), six books of “Songs ands Dances”, four books on “Dances and Marches” and sixteen books and 8,404 pages on his “Funeral March”. Most of his drawings were part of the volumes but some, called bread art, were single sheet, occasionally sold and the basis of his modest early following.

The drawings are exhausting, epic, complex, grandiose, geometrical, adventurous, labyrinthine, mysterious, startling and based on an incredible imagination. He spent most of his mature life in an isolation cell, yet provided Adolf Wolfli Musicviews on far reaching subjects he could not have observed through anything but imagination.

Here is a bit of trivia: Wolfli did his Campbell Soup Can (above) in 1929. Andy Warhol did his Can in 1964. It seems both of them liked the Tomato Soup. Warhol is the pop artist of fame. Wolfli is known for insanity. May the best man or image win.

Also interesting is the inclusion of musical annotations and hints. Recently, these annotations have been interpreted into actual performances. He is said to have inspired a range of musicians and composers. Here are a few words on the musical aspect of his work off his web site:

  • “Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s music can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music.”
  • “How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well.”
  • “More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.”

Another curious aspect is that he apparently incorporated a detailed vocabulary into his work. This vocabulary included graphics such as birds, faces, decorative borders, snakes, musical staves and mandela shapes.

Adolf Wolfli’s creativity is only the beginning of his startling abilities. It is hard to even imagine what must have been going on in that isolated mind that astonishes a world about which he directly knew very little. There is only room here for three of his drawings (above). Given the uniqueness of his work, I’ve prepared a short multimedia show of samples from his work, accompanied by his own music as interpreted recently. Hit the “Wolfli” button in the next segment and let the show roll.


The Case of Adolf Wolfli – A Multimedia Show

Sometimes, Outsider Artists are referred to as “Folk Artists”. Other descriptions include “brutish, rural, untrained, intuitive, menial, peasant, marginal, clumsy, naive, primitive, extreme, mental, elaborate and fantasy driven”. Personally, I don’t quite agree with any of these classifications. Considering that Outsider Art has become a commercially viable art form, some recent output might be described as opportunistic, simply bad or exploitative.

However, in the case of Wolfli, his music as interpreted in the show below is decidedly Swiss Folk style. Perhaps not all of us favor that particular music legacy but few among us can claim to simultaneously be writers of autobiographies, adventures, poetry, algebraic and geographic text books and symbolic essays plus be accomplished visual artists, draftsmen and illustrators plus be composers.

Hit the button for a rare glimpse of a long ago Outsider Artist and his quite strange world and who beat Andy Warhol to the Campbell Soup Can:


There are, of course, Outsider Music and Outsider Photography artists. Perhaps we have Outsider Postmen, Outsider Plumbers, Outsider Accountants and Outsider Neurosurgeons. Outsider Bloggers most likely is quite a large group.

Creativity Continued

Creativity Reviewed

The digression into Outsider Art shows how creativity can thrive on the fringes of society, far from the sacred halls of traditional art. It is not owned by any population strata: it makes no difference if you are rich or not, intelligent or not, mentally sound or not, physically well or not or trained or not. Artistic creativity surfaces where least expected. Being on the fringes does not mean the lack of ordinary artistic features such as clear cut Ralph Gibson Female Portraitvisions and painstaking execution. Wolfli, for instance, was immaculate in both vision and execution. So was Bill Traylor and no doubt most others in the Outsider Art school. I’d suggest the label “Outsider” to be dumped at first occasion.

Perhaps none of the above is terribly important to you as an artist. To you, creativity is a deeply personal center that does not really require definitions or the interference by others. It is about you, no one else. It is your personal realm. It is your art. It is your way of recognizing and developing a multi faceted view of the world. Nothing is easy about creativity – your unique artistic and creative vision requires honesty, self discovery and a clear purpose. It’s hard, takes a lot of practice and leads to many frustrating dead ends.

You may be right about the personal aspect of creativity. But no one exists in isolation and most creative ideas are influenced by outside factors. Probably, your creative mind benefits from the widest exposure to the creativity of others and to experiences in general.

The worst case scenario is the ease of lazily overlooking the “vision thing” as the elder Bush put it, proceeding to completely ignore it in favor of lines in the sand. This disability he passed on to his president son who no doubt believes creativity is a four letter word. Creativity is not for everyone. Arthur Schlesinger differed and wrote about the ultimate leadership:

  • “The president of the United States”, wrote Henry Adams, “resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grab, a course to steer, a port to seek.”
  • The Constitution awards presidents the helm, but creative presidents must possess and communicate the direction in which they propose to take the country. The port they seek is what the first President Bush dismissively called “the vision thing.”
  • “The presidency”, FDR said, “is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.” In other words, they were possessed by their visions.

Here we have a helm to grab, a course to steer, a port to seek and a direction to follow while discarding engineering and administration and acknowledging historic ideas and KGLPhoto Greta Matassa Jazz Singer at Tula's Seattlemoral leadership. Pretentious maybe, visions are not limited to artistic endeavors. Much of life depends on the creative visions of a few. Make sure you are one of those few as it relates to your world, artistic or not. To artists, the lack of a creative vision means artistic life is dead in the water – no helm, no port.

A vision is not an analytical notion; it has a strong emotional component. It can reveal very personal insights into where you are mentally and emotionally. You cannot truly shoot a happy documentary unless you actually are happy. The emotional context influences and might steer your personal connection with a particular subject. If you hate clear cutting, then that should be reflected in your images of clear cutting. Your emotional stance relates to another vital concept: honesty. If you aren’t convinced your vision is truly honest and reflecting your true convictions, then it is unlikely you will convince anyone else. You end up being or at least looking like a fake.

Creative Artists

Creativity is never static; it evolves in different directions and changes over time. Take Pablo Picasso and his periods: the Blue, Rose, African, Analytical Cubism, Synthetic Dance by Henri Cartier-BressonCubism, Classicism and Surreal Periods. Igor Stravinsky, shocking audiences, covered a vast musical landscape with his Russian, Neoclassical and Serial Phases. Arnold Schoenberg went from late Romanticism to Twelve Tone Music without stumbling one bit although perhaps his audience did.

In the same vein, Cartier-Bresson covered Cubism, Surrealism, went through an African Period, returned to Surrealism, became the Leica symbol in his cross-Europe Treks, moved into photo journalism, founded Magnum Photos (with, among others Robert Capa) leading to his Indian, Chinese, Mexican and East Indies Periods followed by refining the Decisive Moment idea (more later). Then he abandoned photography in favor of painting for the last 30 years of his life.

Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer, actress, film producer, director and a photographer. Starting as a dancer, she moved on to star in the 1920s German Mountain soap operas, Track by Leni Riefenstahlclimbed her way to her own production company, became a Nazi (later denied), a friend of Hitler, covered Nazi Party conventions and the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a documentary film maker and an artistic symbol of Nazi propaganda. Her film work was visually and artistically stunning. After a short imprisonment following the war, she became a Non-Nazi and gravitated into photography; no doubt a camera was friendlier than post war movie distributors.

She achieved renewed fame with her African photos. In her late 70s, she learnt to scuba dive and turned to underwater photography (and some film work). An infamous liar, social climber and self serving turncoat, she was, to her death at 101, an incredibly talented and multi faceted artist.

Other artists stayed in more or less one arena: Robert Capa was the War Photographer. Ansel Adams became the f/64 Yosemite Valley Genius. Diane Arbus fame came from Leni Riefenthal Shodows of Gymnastsdisturbing portraits of society’s fringe. Robert Mapplethorpe showed an in-your-face, explicit homoerotic scene. Cindy Sherman staged portraits, often starring herself. Annie Leibovitz made inventive, staged and much published portraits. Ralph Gibson redefined the photographic notion of symbolic simplicity.

Other one subject artists include Ingmar Bergman who introduced a brand of intuitive existentialism and dark misunderstandings of Lutheran faith to an unsuspecting audience. Olivier Messiaen made strange music resembling birdsong. Rolling Stones “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in spite of trying for the last 42 years. The Beatles quit. Richard Wagner locked in High German Mysticism and Romance. Haydn and Mozart found their grove and mostly stayed there. Ernest Hemingway’s language of concise clarity never changed. Jean Paul Sartre worked his anti-bourgeois and philosophical way through communism, socialism, atheism, metaphysics, addictions and most D-Day by Robert Capaimportantly existentialism. Albert Camus followed essentially the same path. Sartre refused the Nobel Prize while Camus accepted it. Although the fame of Sartre and Camus may have declined, both were
enormously influential.

All of these artists are or were hugely creative and they made a difference. Each practiced his/her own version of art. I doubt many of them bothered putting vision statements down on paper but they certainly had a clear understanding of their art and their convictions. Without pursuing convictions, creativity and the associated vision, they would not be the legends they all are. Luckily, they also knew how to share the results with their audience which leads to the next topic: from vision to results.


The Case of Jeff Wall

Much of this section is a reprint of a preview to this post. Most of the material is updated. Use the button below if you wish to bypass this section. Otherwise, just keep reading.


Jeff Wall is a photographer from Vancouver, BC. His unique art is exhibited and represented worldwide. He will serve us as a deep dive into the far reaches of creativity taken to an extreme. Jeff Wall is not your average photographer in any sense of the word. His 25 year career produced, so far, only about 130 images, sold in extremely limited editions for around $1 million each.

Jeff Wall is a fantastic example of the ultimate in creativity. He is also an example of Creativity (or Obsession) Gone Wild. To some he is a genius, to others a snap shooter on steroids. He is not included here to resolve that controversy. He is here as an example of what artistry and creativity can be in one person and how far it sometimes has to go. I believe serious photographers should think about what it would be like to be in Wall’s shoes and the commitment that implies. Then you can go back to your environment and perhaps think about it a little differently.

  • Jeff Wall uses state-of-the art photographic and computer technology to create images that share the composition, scale and ambitions of the grandest historical paintings. His works often have the formality of documentary photography. He exclusively stages his scenes, sometimes reproducing or interpreting paintings or specific events.
  • He does not seek the decisive moment or a picturesque scene. Nor does he create symmetry, lyricism, formal perfection or abstraction. He does not deceive you, hide his intentions or use the work of others except as visual inspiration. He avoids pop culture images and enjoys some irony.
  • Each of his images is the result of immensely elaborate creative explorations. He may spend from weeks to years on completing a single image. He never repeats himself and is always unique. He tells the obvious story or none at all.
  • The subjects range from very complex to surprisingly simple, even banal “every day” slices of life. He moves from landscape and street photography to still life and genre painting, to Japanese woodblock prints and medical illustration, to Impressionist and Baroque painting.
  • He views himself as part painter, part movie director and part photographer, all three being part, in his opinion, of a single pictorial tradition. Some images are shot on location, others in his studio. The process may include paid actors and consultants such as marine biologists, stage builders and Hollywood special effects experts.
  • His images are very large even considering his frequent use of large format cameras and medium format Hasselblads – often in the order of 6 feet by 6 feet or 2*2 meters. Some measure 10 feet by 16 feet. The people in the images are often life-size. He can combine hundreds of images into one. The images may be prints (traditional or inkjet) or transparencies mounted in light boxes.

Here is a sample of Jeff Wall’s art – “A View from an Apartment (2004-2005)” – a carefully arranged everyday scene where the harbor in the window contrasts with the indoor tranquility: Jeff Wall View From An Apartment

The present material partially depends on an outstanding article, dated 2007-02-25 and titled The Luminist, published in New York Times by Arthur Lubow. This original article is outstanding. I hope my summary, additions and reorganization hasn’t completely destroyed the spirit of it.



The Destroyed Room 1978

“The Destroyed Room,” shows a vandalized bedroom. It was made in 1978 as his wife, Jeannette, had left him temporarily for another man. The ransacked room contains a heap of women’s clothing. The violence directed against a woman’s possessions acknowledges feminist art criticism. Wall used his absent wife’s clothing to construct the scene. “I borrowed her clothes because we were still on good terms and she had the good clothes,” he said. You can easily detect the scene is staged in a studio – check the door and the window. There is no deception. Jeff Wall The Destroyed Room

Wall based the image on a 19th-century painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus” by Delacroix. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king, defeated in war, destroyed his court and harem. The influence is obvious in the diagonal lines and the rich, red palette. Wall wants you to see the reference to the painting:Delacroix The Death of Sardanapalus

Despite Delacroix and feminist art criticism, is this about a rejected husband’s anger? Wall sidesteps. “I don’t find my own experiences very interesting. I find my observations interesting. Maybe that’s why I’m a photographer. Maybe an observation is an experience that means more to you than other experiences.”


Picture for Women 1979

“Picture for Women” (1979) interprets Manet’s masterpiece “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by changing the setting to a photographer’s studio. In Manet’s painting, the central figure, a barmaid with downcast eyes, receives a gaze from the male customer reflected in the upper right corner of the mirror behind her. The customer is located in an impossible perspective that simulates the one occupied by the viewer of the painting. The key features are the male gaze by itself, the relationship towards the female and the viewer as an active, involved onlooker. Manet Resturant Server

When Wall composed his photograph, he set his camera, seen as a mirror reflection, at the center; the woman stands at the left, coolly studying the camera and the photographer beside it. The camera and its operator become the central subject of the picture and the object of feminine scrutiny. Wall mimicked the receding globe lights of the Folies-Bergère bar into the overhead bulbs, deepening the space in the photo as Manet did in his painting.Jeff Wall Picture for Women

There are some common elements in the two images. But they are so vastly different it is hard to see a real relationship between the two. The warm intimacy of Manet contrasts too much with Wall’s cold, stark image. Manet shows a servant engaged by a probing Parisian male while the Wall image allure to an antagonistic relationship between the two characters without any joy whatsoever.


Dead Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan 1992

Wall created an elaborate battle scene based on the Soviet Union’s conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s. The image is old-fashioned, as if just exhumed from a war museum. Then you notice that this is a macabre vision: the dead Soviet soldiers strewn about are all awake — laughing, crying and fingering their wounds.Jeff Wall Dead Soviet Soldiers Afghanistan

Given his propensity for finding guidance in history, here are two possible inspirations, both famous and real but without the laughing part. The left hand image is from the aftermath of the American Civil War Gettysburg Battle. The right hand photo, from the Crimean War 1855 by Roger Fenton, is called “Valley of the Shadow of Death”. Fenton was the first known war photographer. He did not show dead soldiers, as opposed by his slightly later American counterparts. He said of this image: ” …in coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them…”.

Civil War Gettysburg Deaths and Crimean War Battle Scene Roger Fenton

The two images above are just samples of photos that bear some resemblance to Wall’s War study of the strange and absurd. There are many more similar images. Clearly, photographers have a rather morbid (sordid?) interest in the horrors of war. Moreover, the general public enthusiastically seeks out the most graphic war images possible. I know because my “Artistic Awareness System” tracks such trends using real data. Seeing both the supply and the demand side, I can’t help feeling a bit uneasy. Why are those alive so fascinated with the dead?


A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) 1993

“A Sudden Gust of Wind” is based on a famous Hokusai print in which several travelers are buffeted by unexpected turbulence that sends the sheets of a manuscript spiraling through the air. He used more than a hundred shots in the painstaking composition of the final 12-foot-long picture.HokusaiJeff Wall A Sudden Gust of Wind

Here is the Hokusai wood print:

As opposed to the Manet case, the Wall image is great if seen in isolation. You may still ask yourself what is the purpose of mimicking (copying? plagiarizing?) another image? In this case, the two pictures are closely related – both are lovely. Looking at them close together is confusing.


Diagonal Composition 1993

Documentary-style photographs of old, ordinary and neglected spaces and cleaning areas are longstanding parts of Wall’s work. “Diagonal Composition” explore the still-life genre with inspiration from early twentieth-century art, particularly the abstract images of artists such as El Lissitzky, Theo van Doesburg, and Alexander Rodchenko, whose paintings typically comprised grids of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines.Jeff Wall Diagonal Composition (Original)

The image is a modest social statement: time left the surfaces scarred and degraded, symbolizing lives gone by. Wall calls it ‘the un attributed anonymous poetry of the world’. His social and activist statements are generally quite mild and subtle, perhaps in line with being Canadian.


Diagonal Composition No 2 1998

The perspective, composition and staging in this image are as elaborate as any of Wall’s works. It shows the corner of a sink, a rough wooden shelf and a pale green wall. To the right a small stick of plywood lays on top of a white rubber glove. It is placed at an acute angle to the sink. Just left of center, the dark side of the sink produces diagonal lines. The light linoleum above has traces of glue around it, breaking up the straight lines dominated by the molding, the diagonal trend of the work top, the shelf, the linoleum and the little plywood stick.Jeff Wall Diagonal Composition No. 2

No doubt a lot of work went into this image. I find the composition lacking in any kind of interest. The perspective is too bland, especially compared to the more daring one in No 1 above.


The Flooded Grave 1998-2000

Certainly complex, the “Flooded Grave” required nearly two years of work. It shows a freshly dug, open grave filled not only with water but also with orange starfish and sea urchins. The image is viewed as hallucinatory, strange, poetic and surrealist. The scene combines images from two sodden Vancouver cemeteries with photographs of a living aquatic system created in his studio.

Wall kept a large custom-built aquarium in his studio for more than six months. Two retained marine biologists caught sea anemones, sea urchins and octopuses from a single offshore spot. “I wanted to make it just like a moment in time undersea, not a compendium or display,” Wall explains. “I wanted to make it as real as I could.”Jeff Wall The Flooded Grave

Wall likes going to extraordinary lengths. “The artistry of doing something is just fascinating,” he says. “If you don’t like artistry, why are you an artist? It’s fun.”


After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” is about a black man who, during a street riot, escapes into a forgotten room in the cellar of a large apartment building in New York and decides to stay there, living in hiding. The novel begins with a description of the man’s home with its ceiling covered with 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs. Jeff Wall The Invisible Man

The image is an over-the-top re-creation of the light intensive basement dwelling of Ellison’s character. The photomontages are invisible without being truly hidden. The chaotic mass of details is staged to the extreme. Positioning is elaborate, precise and overdone. Its incredibly cluttered and overcrowded nature is claustrophobic: maybe the whole place will cave in. Yet there is some feeling of space because the bottom foreground is somewhat less overcrowded than the absurd ceiling.


Outside a Nightclub 2004-2005

Wall devoted a full year to “In Front of a Nightclub” – a picture of young people standing outside a Vancouver club at night. The shoot took so long because the club Wall found is located on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. It could not be photographed as he wished. There simply was no place for him to stand with his tripod and large-format camera.

He had the club exterior – the columns and grille, the facade, gum-spotted sidewalk and concrete curb – reconstructed in a studio. One assistant worked for six months constructing the set. “Of course, you can’t see everything he did, but that doesn’t matter,” Wall says. “There is dirt and moss growing in the cracks where the bottom of the building is crumbling, but you can’t see it. The discoloration of the sidewalk is extremely accurate, and it took many layers of application. Wall placed his strobes in the precise locations occupied by the street lamps and other lights that shine opposite the real nightclub. Jeff Wall Outside a Nightclub

He and his assistants parked outside the club on several nights and took 300 or 400 snapshots of the kids gathered there. Wall checked the photos for characters and clustering he liked. Then he hired 40 extras from a casting agency. Dividing them into two groups and giving them general directions, he photographed them over the course of a month on alternate nights. “People’s metabolism is different at night, their coloring is different,” he explains. For each group he finished with only one frame that satisfied him. “You only need one,” he points out. He digitally combined the two photos of the crowd with a third one of the building into his final picture.


Men Waiting 2006

On a damp winter morning, 20 well-used men hung at a bleak Vancouver cash corner. Wall stands behind a tripod-mounted camera, patiently waiting for his vision of men waiting at a cash corner to come true. He had hired the laborers at an actual cash corner where the men normally hung out and bused them to the shooting location, a cash corner stand-in. The men waited for Wall to determine that the rain had become too heavy, the light too bright or the prevailing mood too restless for him to obtain the feeling of suspended activity and diffused expectancy that he sought in the picture.Jeff Wall Men Waiting

He was prepared to come here, day after day, for several weeks. On any given morning, typically after three hours elapsed, he would adjourn until the next day. The men received their paychecks of 82 Canadian dollars and got back into the bus. “Men Waiting” is a small-scale Wall production in spite of its cast of 20 laborers plus Wall himself, assistants and equipment, its two-week shoot and on-the-street location. The laborers alone ended up costing as much as $35,000.

The risk is that Wall will overly manipulate the hired hands, transforming them into puppets. Asked about the laborers, he said: “My pictures are obviously related to my own life. Why would I be interested in them otherwise? I’m not a sociologist. I must identify with these figures, even though I often don’t like them, I don’t even feel that sympathetic to them. But I must identify with them in some way because they keep coming into pictures that I want to make.” Wall was fascinated by “the physical animal energy that is present on the street and waiting to be disposed of.”

He plans for all contingencies and commands a shoot start to finish. Yet photography is never fully controllable. Unforeseen events will occur. Some events are beneficial, such as the recompose of “Man Waiting”, which, even so, took several days to create:

  • In spite of his elaborate planning for “Men Waiting”, he changed the frame of the picture. One of the reasons he liked the location he had selected was a scraggly little tree (in the middle right of the final image) that had shed its leaves for winter. Further down the street was another tree, a giant fir (in the extreme right of the final image). After taking five days to find his camera position, he concluded that he couldn’t eliminate the unasked-for fir from the picture, but by including only part of the trunk, he would minimize it.
  • On one of the first days of the shoot, the rain increased, and several of the men huddled beneath the evergreen for shelter. When that happened, Wall realized that the fir had a role to play in the picture after all. He changed the camera setup to encompass the entire trunk, allowing the crowd of men to continue to the edge of the picture and, by implication, beyond. “That tree bothered me all along,” he told me. “If it hadn’t rained hard, I might never have noticed it. Now I’ll just include it. It’s stronger for it.”

Throughout the shoot, he found undirected details — an umbrella stuck in the mud, a hooded head lowered — and choose to keep some. Speaking on a walkie-talkie, he would ask his three assistants to adjust the position and behavior of the waiting men. The final picture was structured by his artistic sense, but did account for the unpredictability of his living subjects. “You can’t make these things up,” he said.

The Storyteller:

Jeff Wall The Storyteller

What do the horizontal power lines do to the composition? Presumable related to trains of some sort, they break the composition without creating tension. The one or two tiny groups of story listeners fit well but the power lines destroy the picture. That’s my opinion.


Jeff Wall The Mimic

This is a picture with a well stated, clear and relevant message. An immigrant “foreigner” worker is mocked racially by a redneck, trashy “citizen”. The worker knows well there is nothing to be done; it’s a battle he cannot win. The redneck knows well what he can get away with.




He makes photographs that are intended to be experienced the way paintings are. “Most photographs cannot get looked at very often. They get exhausted. Great photographers have done it [their masterpiece] on the fly. It [the on the fly opportunity] doesn’t happen that often. I just wasn’t interested in doing that [the on the fly shooting]. I didn’t want to spend my time running around trying to find an event that could be made into a picture that would be good.”


Jeff Wall Insomnia

The art that he liked best, from the full-length portraits of Velázquez and Manet to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the floor pieces of Carl Andre, engaged the viewer on a lifelike human scale. The paintings could be walked up to (or, in Andre’s case, onto) and moved away from. They held their own, on a wall or in a room. “If painting can be that scale and be effective, then a photograph ought to be effective at that size, too,” Wall concluded.


Jeff Wall Jell-O

In Spain, “I saw the Velázquez, Goya, Titian — I loved it and wanted to be part of it somehow,” he said. “Every time the bus stopped, you were looking out the window, and there was a sign in a light box. I began to think, it’s luminous, Velázquez was luminous and I’ll try it.” When he emerged in 1978 as a mature artist, he presented photographs equal in status with paintings. In sheer size, they were measured in feet, not inches.


Large Size and Staging

He dislikes the way photographs are typically exhibited as small prints. “I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10,” he says. “They were done that size as displays for prints to run in books. It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I do, that seems too small.” Many of his images exceed several feet in any direction. Some are over 10 or even 15 feet wide.

An Octopus:

Jeff Wall An Octopus

He desires the sharpness of large formats which comes close to what the ever-adjusting and compensating human eye perceives. The size of his images requires the highest possible level of sharpness. Such precision eludes the documentary photographer who shoots split-second moments. We know the grainy, blurry images of Frank, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and somehow deduct these technical deficits are authentic. Grainy, blurry pictures may convey a desired mood, but they do not reflect authenticity.

Some Beans:

Jeff Wall Some Beans

Early on, Wall sidestepped the challenges faces by street photographers: how to impose a technically satisfying formal composition on a subject that has to be captured instantaneously. Rather than hunt for material to photograph, he manufactured all his subject matter in the studio.

Very soon he moved out of the studio to shoot landscapes and street scenes on location. He looks for “the indeterminate American look”, which he says he can find by not looking for anything in particular. “You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere.”

Using a large-format camera on a tripod severely constrains street photography. Beginning in 1982, he circumvented the problem by re-creating subjects using that he calls “cinematographic photography.” Typically, he would see something, often a small event with compressed human drama and political overtones. Rather than snap it, he would go home, think about this glimpse of everyday life or popular culture. If he wants to proceed, he hires performers to re-enact the scene.


Jeff Wall Stumbling

Does staging a street scene and then photographing it as if it had “really” occurred betray honesty in photography? “Not necessarily”, Wall says. “What an artist can do with photography isn’t bounded by the documentary impulse”. He points out that in visual arts only photographers and cinematographers are criticized for staging rather than directly recording scenes. Other arts always offer re-creations of the outside world.


Light boxes

By the late 1970s, Wall worked feverishly on the light-box transparencies that still are part of his artistic career. His images of the late 1970s and 1980s were enormous transparencies lit from behind by fluorescent bulbs. The “light box” format is similar to that typically used for advertising. Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabs the viewer with its glowing presence and, unlike an advertisement, hold viewers with its richness of detail and harmony.

His use of a light-box format derived from advertising suggests a possible critical analysis of consumer culture: but no. “I was not especially interested in doing a critique of advertising — it was an accident.” His concern with the physical beauty of his images also set him apart from most of the contemporary avant-garde photographers and closer to the painters he admires.



He did his first one-man show in late 1978. He presented his exhibition as an “installation” rather than as a photography show. He put “The Destroyed Room” in the gallery front window, enclosed with a plasterboard wall. You could see it only from outside, where, especially after dark, it resembled an actual vandalized room. Before the show closed, the piece was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada, a great send-off to his career.


Digitalization and Special Effects

Wall no longer restricts himself to light boxes. Over the last decade, he acquired four small buildings in a drug-infested downtown Vancouver district. There, helped by two full-time assistants and others as needed, he develop and print all of his work.

The Vampires’ Picnic:Jeff Wall The Vampires' Picnic

In his studio he recently staged a vampires’ lawn picnic and, extravagantly, a conversation among resurrected Soviet soldiers slain in Afghanistan. He imported Hollywood special-effects consultants as part of his team. “I used up a lot of blood,” he says. He quickly grew tired of these outlandish subjects, but computer technology remains an important part of his artistic arsenal. By converting his film exposures into digital files, Wall can then superimpose them invisibly and endlessly, often assembling a final image on film from many different shots.

He has begun making large, beautifully gradated black-and-white photographs on paper in the mid-’90s and more recently inkjet color prints. Many recent images, such as “Men waiting”, “Volunteer” and “Citizen” are presented in black and white, breaking his past reliance on color.


Jeff Wall Volunteer


Jeff Wall Citizen



Jeff Wall has a strong following both from the general art enthusiasts to professional curators and gallery operators. Some say his work revolutionized their view of art. But not everyone loves Jeff Wall’s work. One critical pool finds his obsessive micro management plain out of sight, not to mention a monumental waste of resources. Other critics find that his work lacks in depth and simply consists of elaborate snap-shots. Here is Walter Robinson:

  • “The critics love his light boxes, which I think are obnoxious, and say his photos are beautiful, when I think they look like big snapshots — but I guess that’s the point of their being so laboriously constructed.”
  • “Many of his images, much reproduced, are less than thrilling. ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’ is a yawn, as is his illustration of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, a set piece showing a shabby apartment with hundreds of light bulbs on the ceiling. ‘Dead Troops Talk’, a scene of fallen soldiers in Afghanistan, is in poor taste, to say the least.”

Other critics chime in:

Another critic says: he is an intellectually ambitious, morally earnest perfectionist navigating through avant-gardism. A control freak who smothers the life out of his picture, hung up on his process, he is seduced by the elaborateness of his techniques and the gorgeousness of his images. The effort to make viewers think hard in a Modernist way about the gaps and distortions inherent in perception is ignored.


Jeff Wall Milk

Another critic claims: his shift into narrative representation and pop versions of subject matter in the light boxes was a strategy to make conceptual art more communicative. It eventually became so grand and so glamorous, aimed so much at redeeming pictorial traditions, that the original intention was lost. Wall tries to do as a 21st-century photographer what 19th-century painters like Manet and Seurat did in their elaborate depictions of contemporary life which is a historically absurd undertaking. “His claim to be a new history painter is very problematic for me,” a critic says. “The pictures have become very overwhelmingly spectacular objects. There is a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk quality. You have the set and the narrative; all we are waiting for is the sound.”


My View

What do I think? First, to me it is impossible not to admire the immense creativity or at least magnitude of his visions and execution. Second, the dedication of spending weeks or years to find the perfect or near perfect image is a lesson to every photographer. Third, the combination of many expressive means, from large format cameras to digitalization to light boxes and huge prints with the references to other art forms is quite humbling; at least it is to me.

Just about everything he does makes sense – if you are him. His techniques are not for everyone but they should provide food for thought to any photographer. After all, no one imposes any techniques on anyone else. Although his influence on individual photographers is quite substantial, I won’t adopt his ways in my own work except as an inspiration to try new things.

A Fight on the Sidewalk:

Jeff Wall A Fight on the Sidewalk

My reaction to what counts – his images – is mixed. Admiring what it took to get there is not the same as falling in love with the result. The extreme staging leaves me with a feeling of aloofness and lack of spontaneousness. It is too deliberate and intellectual even if he intended it that way. Some of his subjects leave me wondering if they are worth the attention.

Why do I need to look at “A Fight on the Sidewalk” (above)? Especially if it is staged: the visual impact of the fight is lukewarm at best. To me, it could equally well be called “People Asleep on the Sidewalk”. The Rocky movies are safe in the fight department. Check out this movie scene (below) for more drama (I know – Rocky isn’t art and this scene is as staged as Wall’s is- but what the heck?):Stallone in Rocky delivering a punch

His idea that photography should have equal standing to painting is fine even if it seems a bit defensive. Making photos look like paintings is by no means a new idea. It was very popular with British Victorian photographers in the mid to late 1800s, for instance. I can’t understand why that means the photos need to recreate an actual painting. What do the links to Delacroix, Manet or Robinson contribute to his images? Are the subjects “better” or more interesting because of these links? I doubt it. Speaking of influences:


Jeff Wall The Overpass

The Overpass image above reminds me a bit of a Dorothea Lange (California 1934) Depression and Farm Agency photo (below) showing two men, clearly vagrants, walking down a dusty road, next to a huge roadside billboard, being the perfect juxtaposition, saying “Next Time, Try the Train”. That image is powerful indeed. The frustration, inequity and poverty of that piece of history are all perfectly clear. But the “Overpass” (above) does not have that power although it seems clear Lange’s photo is the blueprint. But where is the tension, contradiction or juxtaposition? Where are these guys heading? To the Hilton? To their annual Hawaii vacation? To pick apples in Western Washington? To deportation to Somalia? To a Soviet Gulag? Who knows and who cares. Dorothea Lange Vagrants at the

What exactly does “Men Waiting” tell us? I find the “Picture for Women” to be of little interest, especially when compared to Manet’s picture. “The Flooded Grave” is impressive in its many contradictions – but why? How are sea anemones, sea urchins and octopuses related to a Vancouver graveyard? A few subjects are, to me, utterly banal and uninteresting, such as “Overpass” and “The Storyteller”. Perhaps, so are those of other avant-gardists including, say, Andy Warhol with whom, I think, Wall has more in common than he has with Delacroix.

I do like quite a few images for what they are, not for the elaborate staging or art links: “Outside the Nightclub” is great, as are the “Milk” and “Mimic” images. I enjoy the “Octopus” and “Some Beans” scene and the “Sudden Gust of Wind”. The original “Diagonal Composition” is much more interesting than the later No. 2. “The Vampires Picnic” is intriguing.

I do not believe painting, cinematography and photography are of the same pictorial tradition, not in execution or in vision. Ultimately a photograph is the result of releasing a shutter, freezing a moment. That’s the uniqueness of photography. Combining a bunch of such moments into a new image perhaps resembles the brush strokes of a painting. It still does not change that frozen, unique moment that makes photography a standout.


That concludes the discussion of Jeff Wall’s work.

Innovation: Make It Happen

Jeff Wall and the Outsider Artists are two extremes of creativity. It is time to get back on our main track that perhaps is not quite as extreme but yet, hopefully, a challenge. Creativity is a very personal trait and so are visions. No creativity, no vision. No vision, no fame. No fame, no money (Go to Start). But once you have the vision, you must make it real, that is, actually produce some art!

The Process

The vision is clear and in your mind. The next step – execution – might be simple. Shoot the image and take the roll to the nearest super market developer. Or plug the memory Ralph Gibson Man with Framecard into your photo printer. Out comes the master piece. Possible, but it is not a very likely outcome. So let’s start over again.

It takes a process to translate the vision into a real life piece of art. This process may be intuitive or defined in formal detail. It can be based on technicalities such as equipment or items such as location, time of day or target audience. In most cases, existing and well known paths are good enough – not all of us must do it the Jeff Wall way. In other cases, the vision requires innovation for it to become reality.

The start to finish process plan requires effort but truly is a good idea. Without a clear path, the original vision will likely founder in random dead ends such as those New Years good intentions. “A monkey and a typewriter will eventually produce a Shakespeare play”. But monkeys do not come up with Shakespearean plays very often. Neither do amateur photographers frequently exhibit at Museums of Contemporary Art.

You consider and define every step in this process path. The path is always changing, improving or matching new visions. Every path involves trial and error and a lot of tinkering. Do not stop: it is never done – repeat as is needed. Then repeat some more, over and over. It’s a life long task.

Adding complexity to this endeavor, new ways of performing old tasks come along at a dizzying pace, all originally being the result of some one else’s innovative spirit. Not only is it hard to figure out the current path, the ground rules constantly change. Standing still is not an option – take the “digital revolution”:

  • Companies no longer in the film camera business: Minolta, Kodak, Contax, Rollei, Olympus, Polaroid (sort of), Canon and Nikon (both almost), Kyocera, Mamiya – in fact, almost everyone left town. Iconic film camera makers going digital: Leica, Hasselblad and Mamiya. Iconic camera companies leaving the digital camera business: Kodak and Agfa. Digital life isn’t easy.
  • Companies that dumped the film business: Agfa sold film busyness to AgfaPhoto which ended in bankruptcy within a year. 3M, Ilford (off an on), Kodak, (they wish) with perhaps only Fuji hanging on.
  • Film Accessories, Chemicals, Dealers, Development and Processing Specialists going out of business – too many to count. Digital Kiosks, Internet and Retail Printing Businesses, Internet Photo Sharing Specialists entering, struggling and leaving (some) the image business – too many to count with competition our of sight.
  • Commercial Image users (ad agencies etc.) requiring film based formats – almost none. Accepting or demanding digital images – almost all.KGLPhoto Bar Customers
  • Photographers still in the film business – more than anyone of sound mind would find believable. A reactionary bunch of bums, we are. We also favor 8-tracks, typewriters, employ secretaries, drive Beetles and smoke unfiltered Camels with our Wild Turkey breakfast.

Does the last point about photographers make you feel guilty? Heck, we deal with Art here – the painting business – colored pigment, fluid, an easel and a brush or two – has been around almost unchanged for about 32,000 years and sculptures (Big Rock or similar, chisels and heavy things) were first sold maybe 5,000 years ago after being initiated 23,000 years ago – why wouldn’t we photographers survive? With the right visions and execution, maybe we will.

Pre visualization

Pre visualization is a great tool to help defining the process although it means vastly different things to different people. First, we have visualizations, then the special case of pre visualization. Ansel Adams Pre Visualized Rocks with Mountains

Visualizations are common in our cultures. It’s used to communicate messages, concepts and abstract or concrete ideas in industry, science, engineering, education, multimedia and medicine. Computer graphics, drawings, diagrams, napkins and back of envelopes are some of the means. Visualization is prominent in meditation. Alternative health treatments might include visualization.

Pre visualization is a form of visualization that provides a view of a future outcome. The movie industry use pre visualization as a cheap method to check out movie scenes. Ad agencies use story boards in various forms. Most of us pre visualize – or perhaps fantasize about – future events, be it the review meeting with the boss, the next vacation or the Powerball winning number.

Pre visualization in some form is part of most photography. On the simplest level, most off us want the picture “to come out nice” or “better than last time” and we often take some steps, such as focusing, flash on, lens cap off and steady hands, etc., to improve the likelihood of that visualization.

Ansel Adams viewed pre visualization as a part of the Zone system: the scene of a potential photo is analyzed from a reflected light stand point. That analysis is coupled with a development and Ansel Adams Couple against Mountainsprinting strategy. The end result (a print) is visualized even before the shutter is released. The process itself is reused and refined over and over.

My own version of pre visualization operates on two levels. On the lower level, I include the Adams Zone system. I practice it but not in all its intended detail – I’m closer to the more intuitive Cartier-Bresson school. The higher level focuses on your creative vision, applying it to an overall strategy for your shooting and processing sessions. This higher level does not just analyze light ranges, development tactics and printing tricks, it combines items such as story, composition, dimensions, mood, emotions and subject matter into a more complete view. My “City Night Scenes” sequences and my multimedia “Symphonie Noir” are examples of such a broadly pre visualized path.

Modern Times

First we had the digital revolution in photography with devastating effect on some and new opportunities for a few. Artistically, that revolution may not mean much, but the world started mass producing images that ended up in a brand new distribution and Ralph Gibson A Tired Manpublishing media called the Internet. Cyberspace is littered with images. Not only do we have a billion (or whatever) amateur images: museums, agencies, galleries and individual artists got into the act, putting just about every photo, painting and last week’s grocery lists up for grabs on the net’s dedicated, shared web sites or on private sites.

Practically every artist – dead or alive, major or minor – has a web site, many very sophisticated and expensive. A particular artist may be represented on scores of web sites. The artist has little say about the use of the images beyond his/her private site. Photos are passed around, used and shared with no control or consideration of copyrights.Henri Cartier-Bresson Despair

The big time entertainment companies have suffered the mp3 and video problem for years. The difference is they have about a billion more resources to fight piracy than do most photographers. Not even the billion dollars could beat the people happily sharing music around the globe. Remember a few years ago when record companies started to sue grand mothers and minors (etc.)? That sure was a PR winner – not. The fight is by no means over – companies push backwards, the people forwards.

There are millions of bloggers (such as me) that may comment, review or criticize any artist’s work without mercy. 1.4 million Web sites have some explicit connection to “Ansel Adams”, according to Google. “Henri Cartier-Bresson” is linked to 1.1 million sites. Below a million means you’re pretty much a nobody – bad luck to most artists who rather create Robert Doisneau Hostility in a Barart than optimize their web presence.

Never have so many images been printed, eBayed, Web2ed, newscast, talk showed, spammed, fixed, copied, blogged, stolen, podcast, voice mailed, downloaded, uploaded, emailed, serialized, peddled, YouTubed, chat roomed, eHarmonized, pdf’d, pirated, multi mediated, Flickr’d, socially networked, Bluetoothed, SMS’d, invented by Al Gore, narrated by Al Gore, evangelized by Al Gore or shared in any other of the thousands of ways humans miscommunicate these days.

Not only is the distribution and sale of images changing drastically, but the actual processing of images is changing too. Adobe is creating an online version of Photoshop. Scores of Net vendors provide professional printing at rock bottom prices. Other Internet vendors sSebastio Salgado Worker Challenged Guardpecialize in supporting top quality self publishing. Specialized vendors provide just about any niche service ever thought of. Others pursue services no one ever thought or cared about. A search of “Photo processing” yields 1.1 million returns on Google. Narrowing it down to “Photo processing service” still lists 20,000 entries.

I won’t even touch the subject of society changing. The “war on terror”, the War on Arabs, the War on Iraq and Afghanistan (Korea, Iran, Syria…..), Global Warming, nuclear threats and the decline of human rights – the list is long. I do discuss my takes elsewhere.

Do your visions, plans and paths consider the mysterious ways of modern times? If not, think again. It’s better to benefit than being clobbered – not a trivial issue. Just sticking to the Internet, you better consider web design, eCommerce, RSS, Bookmarking, Flash, blogs, search engine optimization, eBay, AJAX, FLEX, XML, ASP and a myriad of other obscure technologies you probably never heard of or wanted to hear about.


See Start to Finish, Act Accordingly

Define the vision. Find the path to make it real. Execute. Exhibit the results. Reap the rewards. Is that simple enough? Well, there are a few other details to consider. But the KGLPhoto Alley Light in the Nightintuitive view of understanding the simplest of path is a good start. Let’s build on that. Keep it simple.

I’ll borrow a technique from journalism to organize that path in more detail. It’s a simple technique – the Five W’s: Who, Why, What, Where and When. It is a way to conveniently organize the points I want to make. The 5W’s are used in many creative environments.

The 5W’s are often associated with a “How” item. The upcoming section “The Toolbox” is the “How” part. You may be surprised to find its two sub sections deal with “Distortions” and “Dimensions”. What’s that got to do with photography? Hang in here and you will see.


Who: The Human Angle

A painting takes hours, days or even years to complete as do sculptures and symphonies. Master painters and composers Sebastio Salgado Migrating Figuressometimes use students to complete parts of the work. Two or more people can collaborate writing a book. Literature Nobel Prize winners see their works translated into many languages by collaborative translators. Several people collaborate to produce one of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures. Jacqueline de Pre relied on Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra when recording the most famous version ever of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Rudy Van Gelder’s recording mastery contributed to legendary albums by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and countless others. Where would Mick Jagger be without Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts? Or where would California nrBritney Spears
and Paris Hilton without paparazzi?

But a photographer can’t rely on anyone in the crucial moment of taking a picture. Photography is unique in art as the critical moment truly is a one person event. Only one Henri Cartier-Bresson Young Girls in a Slingeye at a time can look through the view finder. There is only room for one finger on the shutter release. No one is with you at the crucial moment, when the shutter release is pressed. You are it. You alone created the image and it is yours.

Once the shutter closes, everything changes. You may be, or should be, in charge of the post-exposure process. You might have a team helping you. In commercial photography you work against a specification; various art directors, publishers, editors and accountants will unmercifully walk all over you. Photojournalists have bosses prone to smoking cigars and sneeringly dumping your stuff into the waste basket, next to last week’s Wild Turkey. In wedding photography you work for the bride who sometimes (often) blames the photographer for this loser of a groom she regrets ever setting her eyes on. She, as any client, can make your life quite difficult. Henri Cartier-Bresson -Proud Boy with Two Bottles of WineThey do, yet not one of them can take the magical moment away from you.

Many photographers never set a foot in a dark room (traditional or digital), relying on labs and assistants. Annie Leibovitz uses a small army of helpers to set up her portraiture stage. Jeff Wall hires scores of people for weeks as stage props. Robert Capa’s and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work started and ended with their Leicas; others did the rest, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Ansel Adams used assistants but each image was the result of his own detailed plans and specifications (pre visualization) start to finish. A news or sport photographer submits his image and it appears, or not, in the paper after several reviews by editors. Lucky or rich photographers have assistants carry all the heavy equipment around.

Naturally, whether the whole show is yours start to finish or you have an army of assistants looking for guidance. Various clients testing your patience, there better be a coherent plan in place. But that is for later. For now, the final decision to fire the shutter is yours. Nothing permanent will exist till you make the decision. So you have all the power in the world in that particular moment. That power declines quite a bit once the release is triggered, so savior the moment for what it is worth.


Why: Rewards for the Industrious

We shoot because we expect a reward. The reward is a highly personal part of our photographic career. It means vastly different things from one individual to another. Rewards may be internal – such as the satisfaction of creating a piece of art or pursuing Robert Capa Runing Spanish Soldiersa worthy cause – or external – such as getting paid for the piece of art or receiving praise from critics.

Famous Icons

Some photographers never attempt to publish a single image but go around shooting for decades, being happy with internal rewards. After their death, sometimes the mass of images catches someone’s attention and suddenly the dead photographer is declared a genius. This, of course, is the exception and in most cases the images end up in a landfill. Eugene Atget received more fame and recognition after death. Angus McBean is another such example. Other artists from many art forms were not well known while alive: J. S. Bach, Carl von Clausewitz, Franz Schubert, Emily Dickinson and Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Franz Kafka, most Outsider Artists and the tragedy of Anne Frank. Henri Cartier-Bresson Children Playing in the Ruins

A few photographers become icons in their life time: consider legends such as Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, Eddie Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Alexander Gardner. Sometimes being an icon brings lots of money: take fashion photographers such as David Bailey, Guy Bourdin, Edgar de Evia, Annie Leibovitz, Terence Donovan, Horst P. Horst and Gordon Parks who did or do make fine money.

Sometimes an icon photographer receives “just” the admiration of some strata and remains largely unknown. Some are cult phenomena: Charles Gatewood, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Nelson and perhaps Diane Arbus fit at least partially in here. In other Charles Gatewood Runner in the Overpasscases, the icon status means devotion to some cause, be it whales, Iraqi wars, inner city poverty, VA hospitals, African genocides or globalization. Entities such as Magnum Photos, the Farm Security Agency of 1935-44 (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and others) and National Geographic often explore(d) issues and causes.

Then we have the money sharks. We suffer paparazzi, ambulance chasers, tornado shooters, disaster specialists and National Enquirer forgeries. There is even a new term Waparazzi, standing for amateurs lucky enough to be present at some event, usually catastrophic, with their camera or cell phone shooting away. The videoed execution of Saddam Hussein is a good example. 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami are other examples of amateurs exploiting misery for money.

Ordinary People

To many, the reward is simply capturing memories for oneself, the family and others in a close knit circle. Millions merrily shoot their brother’s wedding, grandma’s 100th birthday, the twins’ high school graduation, the Acapulco vacation or Daddy testifying before the Ethics Committee and so forth. Memories provide long lasting rewards at Stanley Kubrick Chicago Train Stationa very modest cost.

Most photographers simply toil away at the photographic craft because they want to. Hard work, high hopes, little money, no fame, disillusion, 9-5, occasional successes and many failures dominate that life. No matter – they (we) do what they (we) love to do. That is not a bad reward and explains why millions of photographers choose a life style in relative poverty and even isolation.

Lastly, there is the never ending stream of hopefuls who never make it. They come and go, without ever experiencing the reward they dreamt of and perhaps felt entitled to. That is fine; we do need accountants, waiters, CEOs, coal miners and butchers. Photography as a career is not for everyone.


Where: Spatial Abstractions

The Location

The original subject of a photograph must be in front of the lens when the shutter is Robert Doisneau Versailles Statuesreleased. This rule is a unique and obvious feature of photography. Other art forms do not have such a restriction. A painter may paint offsite in a studio from memory, photos or sketches. Music and sculptures do not usually even have a tie to a specific location.

There are exceptions to this rule. In photography, combining existing subjects can lead new subjects. This normally happens in an offsite lab. That’s why I said “original subject” above. Music may have a strong regional root, such as Brazilian Samba or Alpine Yodeling. Likewise sculptures might build on Greek mythology, the 1906 Olympics or the 1945 Iwo Jima Flag Raising. A photo may have such roots as well. OK, that’s a point but not very exciting, let’s move on.

If you have the vision and the requirements firmly in mind, the location of your shoot may well be a no brainier, at least in broad terms. When Leni Riefenstahl found her African vision, the answer obviously was – go to Africa. But Africa is a big place – did she KGLPhoto Guard at the Underpassmean downtown Johannesburg, Congo’s gorilla habitats, Sahara Bedouin tribes, Kenya safaris, Darfur famines, Rwanda genocides or what? As it turns out, her focus was on “straight day time, outdoor color portraits of individuals from the Nuba tribe, onsite in Sudan”. The vision needs to be quite specific if it is to be useful.

It’s easy to allow the vision be imprecise, letting you go out on unfocused fishing expeditions. For instance, one of my visions focuses on low light, usually night time, subjects. What does that mean? Is it shooting the moon, July 4th fireworks or New Year’s Festivities? Perhaps the goal is to set up long exposures catching some dim scene or to fire off flashes on sleeping homeless? Maybe it is chasing African wildlife at their nocturnal watering hole? Well, none of that. My actual vision is quite explicit in terms of when and where.

Staging the Scene

You have the location, now what do you do? The issue is staging. Some are uncomfortable with the very word “staging” as in faking. In reality, the only type of photography disallowing staging is photojournalism and even that is on KGLPhoto The Demonstration Stagershaky grounds. There are many very famous examples of “journalistic” photos that to at least some degree were staged: Capa’s dying Spanish soldier, Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution or Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima flag rising (all of these cases are debated) are just three possible examples.

In just about all other styles of photography, staging is required, optional or allowed. That does not mean all photos are staged but, more often than not, they are. Take commercial photography (advertising, fashion, food etc.) that is just about always heavily staged. Documentary photography and portraits may or may not be staged. Technical photography (industrial, medical or forensic) is staged in the sense the specifications are very tight regardless of the actual shooting environment.

When shooting your brother’s wedding and you ask Uncle Joe to please stop fooling around; you’re staging the shot. Making you son repeat that home run is staging. So is that tricky shot you took proving the officer could not possible see your illegal turn. Moving Egyptian pyramids around in a news photo is much undesired staging. So is adding extra smoke to the Beirut skyline after an Israeli attack. The Soviets famously removed suddenly undesired KGLPhoto Demostration Enthusiasmindividuals from all relevant photos – not to mention these unlucky people were also removed from the socialistic brotherhood of the living.

In some cases, on-scene staging is impossible. Street photographers, such as me, cannot stage anything significant. Paparazzi cannot usually choose or modify the stage, nor do they care. When I shoot a music event or a play, I cannot change the setup. There are photographers who categorically refuse to stage anything at all. I tend to be in that camp, except when it comes to processing the image.

Of course, a photographer may stage him/herself too. In the name of great photo taking, standing on one’s head, crawling in that ditch, dressing as a clown, hiding in a bush, climbing a lamp post or – as you’ll shortly see – performing the “As Time Goes By Can Can” all are examples personal staging.

After a staged or non-staged photo shoot, I’m free to use, and do use, all kinds of processing techniques in effect staging the scene. Cropping, burning and dodging, masking, toning, tilting and filtering are just a few examples of possible manipulations, whether done in a traditional darkroom or using Photoshop.

Composition – Position thyself

Composition is yet another ambiguous concept. There are at least a dozen completely different meanings ranging from math to music to visual arts. Focusing on visual arts, Eddie Adams Man Downdozens of elements may make up a composition. In effect, these elements are rules. In photography, we struggle with the rule of thirds, perspective, straight or curved lines leading to a vanishing point (or elsewhere), depth of field, simplification, symmetry, viewpoint, juxtapositions and the interaction of all these possible rules.

Creative photographers gain their fame by breaking rules, including those of composition. The perfectly composed photo is possibly utterly bland. A vision is similar – a perfect adherence may be quite boring. The tension and challenge of a great picture comes from breaking the rules of composition and/or the vision. Breaking rules is not, however, some random, anarchistic event (actually, sometimes it is!) but something planned for and consciously executed. Henri Cartier-Bresson Bicyclist on a street

Leaving such subtle points for now, let’s consider the down to earth technique of composing by moving around (in, out, left, right, up, down) and, then, deciding on simplicity, detail or complexity.

You are on location. Staging, if required, is done. The subject is present and ready. Camera is loaded. Loaded, you are not. Now you have to come up with a thrilling image consistent with your inner self, your honest convictions, your vision, compositional rules, pre visualization and, now, the idea that rules must be broken or the result will be bland and boring. All present, the model, assistants, art directors, corporate sponsor, bride, portrait customer, and the guy no one seems to know but who looks like a terrorist – they all have a zero tolerance rule about you wasting their time, money, integrity and lunch date through your utter and habitual incompetence.

Keeping your cool, you already know these realities. So you are at the point of improvisation. Your vision did not really get Herbert List An Artist Drawingdown into this detail, did it? It shouldn’t. If it did, you’d likely have an unworkable vision – too detailed and too complicated, filled with ifs and buts. A vision is guidance, not a blue print.

When on location, you face unforeseen details unique to that particular occasion. You are looking for a successful composition while adjusting to reality. One of the most powerful compositional techniques is simply finding your optimal position relative to the subject. Some photographers walk in on the scene, shoot the quota and leave. They are not likely to find the best shot or composition.

More enlightened photographers perform a curious dance before each shot. The photographer is bobbing here and bopping there, up, down, sideways, in and out with a camera stuck to his/her face. Occasionally, the photographer stops, looking thoughtful and rushes over to try a different lens. Then the magician might fire a test shot or too, staring at the result with disbelief. Dance is repeated, all to the amusement (hopefully) of those present. Eventually the photographer stops, mutters incoherently and starts actually snapping away, possibly moving and snapping some more. More muttering; repeat the dance again. OnKGLPhoto Before the Parade it goes till photographer skeptically says “enough”. The dance is called the “As Time Goes By Can Can” (just kidding). The photographer, of course, is composing the image by trying many different angles and keeps going till
the right stuff finally is secured.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a master of this dance, performed right in the middle of unsuspecting Parisian crowds. He is even said to perform this dance with a hankie over the camera, pretending to blow his nose. In his case, he not only looked for the shooting angle but also the Deciding Moment. Walter Evans took an opposite approach by parking himself in a NYC subway train for about three years, camera disguised under his coat, proceeding to take now famous pictures of unsuspecting fellow riders.

Composition – Simple, Detailed or Complex?

Take Ernest “Papa” Hemingway: A sparse prose based on economy and understatement earned him a Pulitzer and a Nobel Price, mostly based on “The Old Man and The Robert Frank - The American Flag 1977Sea”. The winner of the most prestigious literary award on Earth got the job done in 77 pages. Not only a sparse prose but the point was delivered in a record concise form. Simplicity works.

Compare that to Charles Dickens, acclaimed for “rich” storytelling. Many of his novels are sequential, making the style even more elaborate. Florid, poetic, satirical, episodic, social and sentimental, he was not concise and brevity was not a strong characteristic: one set of serialized four novels runs 846 pages. Tolstoy’s War and Peace contains 1,424 pages of narrative, details and subplots. The bible runs around 1,000 pages. The Qur’an gets the job done in half the pages of the bible.

Nature photographers usually favor the “rich” approach. Ansel Adams zone system is designed to set the light range in the final print so that no detail is lost. His images are incredibly rich. Ralph Gibson, a modernistic Leica photographer, favors utter simplicity. Both styles work superbly. EdwardJeff Wall Untangling The Web Weston did nudes or vegetables. Some of the images are so simplified and stylistic that it is hard to tell if the subject is a pepper or a nude. As a contrast, Art Wolfe’s or Galen Roswell’s nature work show exquisite detail and richness. Two sides of a coin, pick your medicine.

Capturing detail is not the same thing as capturing complexity. Forensic photography collects the maximum amount of some specific details, while eliminating irrelevant aspects and complexities. A nature photo is not complex just because it contains a lot of sharply focused details and textures. Complexity implies more than just details. Typically, complexity means there are disambiguates such as perspective gone wild or startling juxtapositions. Juxtapositions create a sense of tension in a photograph.

But complexity in not just based on tension; it may well imply unharmonious relationships between a number of subjects. Nor is complexity the same as complicated. Thought patterns in your brain are complex. Operating on your brain is complicated. Photographs are not complicated but may be complex. Ralph Gibson Two White LinesProcessing the image may be complicated. There is a difference.

On the literary scene, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka wrote quite short, yet famous novels. Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is only 48 pages long (others of his novels are longer), Camus’ “The Stranger” has 144 pages and “The Fall” 148 pages. Most of us would call those novels “complex” and yet stark. Obviously complexity does not need to depend on a mass of detail. Then you have cases such as Jean-Paul Satre going at it for 688 pages in “Being and Nothingness” while James Joyce needed 736 pages to complete “Ulysses”, neither your trivial summer read on the beach. One can certainly be both complex and longwinded.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is anything but stark. Anything Baroque is rich indeed. Miro’s “Landscape” of 1927 contains only the starkest of details as does Picasso’s “Minotaure Courant” of 1928. Sitting through Wagner’s “Niebelungen Ring” sets you back 15 very solid hours of detailed but not complex German Soap Opera. It set him back, deservedly so, 26 years. Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” requires less than 2 minutes of your attention. Reading one of Hemingway’s short stories is a 10 minute affair. Reading “Ulysses” or “War and Peace” might be a lifetime event. It probably will be the next life time.

Those in favor of simplification simplify the matter into simple statements such as:

  • What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely Robet Doisneau Umbrellasto reach the viewer. -William Albert Allard
  • Ultimately, simplicity is the goal – in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it’s easily the most essential. -Pete Turner
  • My pictures are complex and so am I. When I am almost symbolistic in writing, there is a more limiting difference’s of accepting, while I can be even more complex in the photographs and people can usually accept them within the framework of their own limitations or lack of limitations – there is no dictionary meaning… they can look up for the photographic image and allow it to confuse them… -W. Eugene Smith, 1987

Simple/complex, big/small or detailed/stark classifications have absolutely no bearing on whether or not something is a piece of art. These classifications define different camps and, in your vision, you need to be clear on which camp is yours.


When: The Time Factor Where None Exists

It takes a fraction of a second to create a photographic image. Such suddenness is unique in the world of art. Even Mozart could not produce a symphony in such a short period of time; he no doubt tried. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Rome Robert Doisneau Couple Kissing Paris Francewas not built in a day, as clichés goes. God created Paradise in six days according to the bible. Or it took Universe and its Big Bang a tiny fraction of a millisecond to create itself and then leisurely spent billions of years to evolve humans.

Many events trigger a significant and sudden transition from one state to another – turn the light off and it is dark. The suddenly dead from the roadside IED will stay dead forever. The Big Bang hopefully was a one time deal. You release the shutter; the image is frozen forever. The moment comes and goes, never to be repeated. There is no going back – the event happened and that’s that. The state changed from the scene being fluid and temporary to one captured and forever part of our heritage.

That magic fraction of a second is photography’s biggest asset as well as liability. T. In a split second, the image becomes timeless or time bound. Does it abstract an event over time or capsulate a short moment in time? The image can do either. You decide. The decision is yours only.

The Decisive Moment

In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson quoted, apparently from the memoirs of a 1600s Cardinal de Retz, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”. In 1957, he added: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, iRobert Capa Spanish Soldier Killed by Shot to the Headt is gone forever.” He concluded, in 1999, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression.”

Cartier-Bresson published, in 1952, “Images à la sauvette” which translates into “Images on The Run”. The English edition was titled “The Decisive Moment”. Whether it was the translator or Cartier-Bresson who started the “Decisive Moment” fame is up for debate. The publishers choose both titles. The preface to “Images à la sauvette” consists of a lengthy article by Cartier-Bresson. You can read the complete article (highly recommended) online through this link. Here are a few quotes from the article:

  • “I had just discovered Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap” life’ – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”
  • “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates Henri Cartier-Bresson Three Children in the Surfoutward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But that rarely happens.”
  • “Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search…. you cannot be stationary…. sometimes you light upon the picture in seconds; it might also require hours and days. You must be on the alert with the brain, the eye, the heart; and have the suppleness of body.”
  • “A photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do…. The photographer must make, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps…. he is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again…. We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing. From that fact stem the anxieties and strength of our profession.”
  • “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
  • “I believe that through the art of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.”
  • “But this takes care of only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a vigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.”

The article continues with some pretty down to earth advice on practical photography that is well worth reading, although perhaps it is a bit dated – after all, the article is 55 years old.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Man Jumping Over Pool of WaterThe main text of the preface article does not mention “Decisive Moments” except in passing when discussing portraits. The only significant mention of “Decisive Moments” is the English title and the quote of the Cardinal de Retz statement mentioned above. The quotes above are as close to the concept as you get. Clearly, his “invention” came later if indeed it ever was as an invention.

What is a Decisive Moment? Cartier-Bresson’s discussions explain quite well its importance as a photographic concept but do not explain what constitutes an actual Decisive Moment. The memoirs of Cardinal de Retz do nothing to clarify the matter. A thesaurus provides the following synonyms: Critical mass, crucial point, defining moment, important, substantial, momentous, moment of truth, point of no return, crisis, climax, high noon, zero hour, kairos and race against time, crunch, conspicuous, imperative, serious, vital and pregnant plus maybe a hundred others. Clearly, the concept covers a lot of imprecise and not too helpful ground.

“Decisive Moment” photographs usually have a strong time dimension where time is a crucial element of the image. That also means that motion is usually a strong feature.

That means not all photography focus on Decisive Moments. But much does, in addition to the time/motion “rule” above. Even the case of Cartier-Bresson’s opposite (as conveniently depicted in this essay), Ansel Adams, every picture relies on a decisive moment. The sun, shadows and clouds in that Adams’ nature scene have to be captured at exactly the right moment. Or take Robert Capa’s photo of the dying Spanish soldier – that certainly was a Decisive Moment captured 15 years before “Images à la sauvette” was published.

Ralph Gibson Man Jumping over Low FenceWhat is the difference between a “Decisive Moment” and “Random Luck/Chance”? Did the shooters capturing planes hitting the World Trade Center experience a Decisive Moment? Do the (many false) photos of the 2004 tsunami reflect Decisive Moments? I do not think so. There was no vision or deliberation behind those pictures. A monkey would be equally likely to take such random images, with a little bit of training.

The difference between “Decisive Moments” and “Random Luck” is razor thin as Cartier-Bresson voices it. He views it as a spilt second event where a combination of form and content comes together once in a life time. Shoot or it is forever lost. He finds these opportunities by wandering around, keeping his eyes and mind open. He is an outsider, looking in towards the subjects without a strong emotional involvement – after the shot he walks away and isn’t really interested in what he left behind.

Given this remote, outsider approach, the “Decisive Moment” strategy is hard to execute. It is well known that Cartier-Bresson did not easily find such moments – in most cases, it took many false starts, a lot of film and shoe leather to create a single successful image. Many of his images do not show a Decisive Moment. For myself, I do Leni Riefenthal Shadows on the Floornot expect, or look for, Decisive Moments. I concentrate on vision, emotional content, honesty and form. If a Decisive Moment happens to come along, that is fantastic but, of course, rare. I am in the camp of “insider, not outsider” view of Sebastiao Salgado:

Famous photo journalist Sebastiao Salgado rejects the notion of Decisive Moments, asserting that, instead, photo journalism requires the immersion of the photographer into the context he is documenting. The essence of the image depends on the rapport which you have with your subjects, and the knowledge that you acquired about their situation. That is not a Decisive, split second, Moment; it is a longer term commitment. Salgado routinely spend years on his projects:

  • “You photograph here, you photograph there, you speak with people, you understand people and people understand you. Then, probably, you arrive at the same point as Cartier-Bresson, but from the inside of the parabola. And that is for me the integration of the photographer with the subject of his photograph…. An image is your integration with the person that you photographed at the moment that you work so incredibly together, that your picture is not more than the relation you have with your subject.”

Looking at Salgado’s pictures, it is easy to see his commitment and immersion into the subject matter. Yet in the end they all show if not Decisive, at least Special Moments. They magically freeze an event that may or may not be of great significance. Does it matter how you got there, whether it took years of dedication or the split second recognition of the significance of some event? The Decisive Moment is subject to the same fundamentals as any quality photography. That means a vision, a path, patience and persistence. That is the same, always, in any worthwhile endeavor.

Sequences Everywhere

Now, here is an ambiguous term – sequence. It has meanings in math, computer science and real life. Sequences are present in archeology, poetry, music, filming, games, bio polymers, DNA, geology, dance and biology. And it is present in photography.

A sequence of photographs may document a process of some kind, such as the demolition of a building or the Emmet Gowin A Family Sequencelaunch of the space shuttle. A medical MRI session results in a sequence of images that shows consecutive slices of a body. An MRI is not a photo in the traditional sense but the result is captured sequentially on film, or, these days, on CDs as image files.

Any table top photography book contains a sequence of images, as does a regular old photo album. Slide shows can contain photo sequences as can PowerPoint presentations. Photos can be sequenced in multi media shows. Photos of kids growing up are sequences. There are sequences built into many cameras: bracketing and fast multiple exposure series. A roll of negatives or a full memory card contains sequences of images.

Sequenced photographs add a time component. There cannot be two exposures at precisely the same time. One image is exposed before or after another, a sequence over time. Not all sequences aim at a time dimension – a panorama by shooting a horizontal spread of images, going around in a circle is not a sequence over time. Collages or composite images do not necessarily reflect time. Wedding and documentary photography both have strong sequential time elements, as does sports photography. Advertising, food or portraits usually rely less on sequences since the end product may be one single image.

Emmet Gowin is a photographer that chronicled his family from 1965 to 1974. The sequence (small sample to the right) is symbolic, intense, revealing, relevant and honest with a gothic overtone. Incidentally, he started playing with dimensions quite explicitly in 1970 by using a circular lens.

Alfred Wertheimer gained fame as a photographer through an obscure assignment in 1956. He was hired to shoot a young, largely unknown, upstart singer with odd music, odd hairdo and very odd stage behavior. I’m sure you guessed right – the singer is a young but not so innocent Elvis Presley. I used a few of the images and some music for a little modest, but fun, multimedia show as an example of sequencing. The second show is a brief portrait of Seattle jazz pianist Marc Seales and his band. This time I did both the show and the photography.

Elvis Seales

Technically, all photography makes up a sequence as it is unlikely the photographer makes only one exposure in his/her career. From a vision stand point, the trick is to, first, recognize the sequential potential and, second, make the sequence meaningful. It adds an extra, very powerful dimension. Don’t miss out!

Sequences also have a totally different meaning. All photographers end up with hard drives full of images or filing cabinets stuffed with prints, notes, negatives, last week’s lunch, invoices and other junk. A smart photographer tackles that mess and makes sure it is organized to smoothly meet needs. Many of us don’t tackle the issue which is a rather dangerous way to treat your primary business or memory assets.

Do not forget the aging factor. Most photographic assets deteriorate over time. Hard drives crash. CDs and DVDs become unreadable. A traditional print deteriorates as do negatives. You are wise to consider this issue and act in your best interests. Enough said. Sermon is over.

Other Timing Stuff

Seasons: Spring, summer…. Time of day: Sunrise, high noon, sunset…. Events: weddings, births, sports, coronations, vacations and dinnertime. It might be a summer lunch by the river. All these examples can have a time, or perhaps more accurately, a timing element. Consider time and timing in your vision and game plan. Different events or timings require different tactics.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Lunch by the RiverSometimes time and timing factors go together. The wedding photographer must show up on time. He/she needs to consider the light situation given the time of the day. Another practical variable is the seasonal impact – in December, outside shots are fairly rare in Minnesota but much more common in Australia. The photographer must visualize the time and timing elements in addition to the standard wedding scenes, then act accordingly.

Another example: Several of my photo sequences use extreme low light scenes (no flash). This may be shooting a street scene at night or performances in some music club or a theater. I shoot outside at night or in dark interior spaces. Since I have done that for quite a while I know what I aim for and how to get there and it is certainly a vital part of my particular vision. There are many samples of this vision illustrating this essay.


What: Context Layered on Contexts

Here is a summary of the discussion so far. A few items belong to the Toolbox and will be covered in the next main section. In effect, there are four major items (blue): Vision, Plan, Execution and Show. Then there are sub items (yellow). Think of it as a wedding cake – layer after layer:

Artistic Contexts

Does this start looking like some Corporate Planning fad? If so, the point is missed. Read the discussion all over again. I have yet to meet an artist who goes overboard on corporate mania. Most artists I’ve met or studied tend to belabor abstract, mystical and philosophical thoughts and theories. The Paris gatherings in the cafes and restaurants, such as the La Closerie des Lilas, on the Parisian Left Bank in the 1920s come to mind: The Lost Generation of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Getrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Natalie Barney, Man Ray, Madox Ford, Robert McAlmon and William Carlos Williams smoking and drinking their Ralph Gibson Shooting the Breezecigarettes, coffee, Pernod and Armagnac. Perhaps the gang fell into stupor as the nights wore on but they were definitely not corporate in style.

All artists do go through the self discovery, work and dedication associated with creating a vision. All successful artists translate the vision into something tangible that can be shared with others. The graph above crystallizes the steps most commonly used. Most artists probably will not explicitly spell out as much detail as implied above. Not everyone will reach the vision and the plan in the same way. The components may be very different from that of the next guy or the graph. The graph is only a list of useful components. Those components may or may not apply to you. But be very explicit about what you include and exclude from your vision and plan.

All Those Styles

The next step explores the many different types of photographs and their widely different purposes to which the photographer must conform. In some types of photography, “accuracy” is crucial – even though we know accuracy and photography have little in common. No photos are accurate – they all distort reality. Then we have abstractions where eventually the original subject no longer is recognizable. In such a case “accuracy” is nonexistent and undesired. Here is a list of some major types of photography ordered by the elusive requirement of “accuracy”:

  • Industrial, Medical, Forensics photography renders artistic creativity irrelevant. A forensic picture uses precise techniques to capture all relevant detail of a specific item or event. It is not an “accurate” picture of the crime scene but a highly specialized one, serving exact needs of crime investigators. A sequence from an ultra high speed camera might document some industrial or medical process, having little to do with reality as a human might view it. Such a sequence is conceptually closer to an abstraction but covers the specific, exact requirements of the engineers or scientists involved. More examples include ultra high speed pictures of nuclear explosions and the Doc Edgerton stroboscopic images of flying bullets. Current technology easily allows capture rates of 1,000 frames per second.
  • Photojournalism emphasizes ethics, accuracy and objectivity. These images should contain a time element (when) and a narrative (what etc.), telling the relevant story as reflected in the 5Ws. That has to happen while under fire in Iraq, Boise or Watts, during riots, weather extremes, catastrophes, NBA games or Congressional hearings. The ability to run Photoshop in the middle of any war zone, famine struck desert or New York grid lock adds to the controversy. Strict procedural guidelines are in place but overlook that real photography has little to do with such guidelines. The guidelines are typically arbitrary. Photography is not truly accurate or objective.
  • Non-Fiction and Educational is a category I just invented. It represents a middle ground between Documentaries – that may be quite biased and opinionated – and idealistic Journalism. An educational photo sequence of, say, frog eating habits is quite different in tone than documentaries on abortion or IEDs in Baghdad. The latter two are most likely politically charged and the former is, well, about frogs eating stuff. Unless the frog reside in Love Canal, that subject is probably non controversial. Other examples of this “innocent” category include most Discovery Channel “documentaries”, biology text book photos, photo sequences of grass growing or a sun eclipse. Arnold Newman Igor Stravinsky by a Piano
  • Documentaries are another step away from “accuracy and reality”, yet many assume documentaries are objective and accurate. They are not. On top of the fallacies of journalism, nothing prevents – ethically, contractually or guide lined – the photographer from expressing a personal bias or perspective on the subject. Documentaries take stands – Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is a great example. If the bias is hidden, misrepresented or not clearly stated, then we do have a problem. We suddenly deal with propaganda – the recent BBC TV show “The Great Global Warming Swindle” is a perfect example of conscious misinformation.
  • Essays are similar to documentaries but generally advocate a particular opinion even more than the documentary. You are reading (viewing) an essay because you are curious about what the author (photographer) has to say (show). You realize that there are probably conflicting views. Quite likely, you will read those too. Neither essays, nor documentaries are text books. However they are not just polemic tirades either. The more militant in your face view points belong in the editorial field:
  • Editorials sometimes go beyond most journalism or documentaries/essays by expressing personal opinions with little pretence of being unbiased or even fair. In the news world, there are sometimes rules and editorial boards in place to control editorial excesses but as often, editorials are measured against its ability to grab eyeballs byYousuf Karsh Pablo Casalis and his Cello whatever means available. (Falsified) photos of John Kerry and Jane Fonda at a war rally are an example used in many conservative editorials. Greenpeace editorials on Nuclear Energy or Whaling, ExxonMobil on Global Warming, Philip Morris on Lung Cancer and Bush’s representations on Climate Change, Terrorism and Iraq are all very opinionated and biased viewpoints supported by photography and editorial photography.
  • Sensationalism represents the highest level of vulgarism in photography and journalism. The graffiti contra point of art, descriptions include “culture of fear, exploitation, star or Satan worship, junk news, infotainment, reality shows, media circus, absurdity, moral panic, pulp news/books/magazines, tabloid junk, trial by media and, not least, Fox News, Jerry Springer, Bill O’Reilly and Russ Limbaugh shows”. Of course, the reason sensationalism exists is because people want it and are willing to pay for it. Some photographers enthusiastically enjoy such money, including paparazzi and waparazzi. Others continued straight to pornography.
  • Extremism goes even further by typically combining sensationalism with another message. Consider videos and photos produced by authorities on executions, terrorists on beheadings, snuff movies, torture, medical and psychological exploitation of captives may show real events but against a backdrop that is real only to the producers and deplorable to all others.
  • Portraits add another dimension to the “accurate” versus “abstract” spectrum. Some portraits do EDdward Steichen Auguste Rodin the Sculpturnot even deal with the person. Diane Arbus portraits of fringe people are more about fringe society than about the people she used as subjects. Other portraits go beyond the person’s features to tell a story about their life. The famous pictures of Stravinsky (Arnold Newman) by a piano, Pablo Casals (Yousuf Karsh) playing the cello or Auguste Rodin (Edward Steichen) looking like a sculpture rather than a sculptor are all good examples. These three images take on a life of their own, rising far beyond what most think of as a portrait. On the other end of the spectrum, a Sears portrait usually smoothes reality to the customer’s relief. However, portraiture work is, in its day to day
    frame, mostly about customer satisfaction, not accuracy or reality.
  • Commercial photography implies commercial interests are more important than purely creative visions. The focus is on selling products, promoting travel, educating employees or simply informing some targets demographics. Each form of commercial photography has its own requirements. The trick is to mesh the photographer’s creativity with the commercial requirements. “Accuracy” is not a major concern; looking good, polished, unique and attractive is. Here are some of the key types of commercial photography:
    • The super slick arenas of Advertising, Fashion and Modeling.
    • The seductive fantasies of Food & Travel.
    • The ultra conventional fields of Wedding Photography.
    • The matter of fact Catalogs.
    • The huge cottage industry of various specialties – local post cards, souvenirs, real estate etc.
    • The ups, downs, this, that and “anything you want” of Stock Photography.
    • The insincerely nonobjective shadow land of Corporate Photography.
  • Fine Art ranks the highest on not presenting accuracy. Creativity comes before the literal meaning of “accuracy”. Fine Art is actually very accurate. You just have to expand the notion to include impact, metaphors, messages, statements, convictions, emotions and other elements. The all important artistic vision may include sophisticated abstractions and many different manipulations. There is no rule book. Creativity rules the day. But Fine Art is a subject that covers many types of photography. Below are just a few of them:
    • Nature photography may rank high on accuracy, detail and, often, texture. A typical image is much more elaborate than, say, street photography. Large format cameras are still in use. Aesthetics are more important than in most other areas. The genre includes landscape, wildlife, clouds, underwater and some macro photography.
    • Street photography simply implies the image is shot in a public place. In most countries, shooting in public places is a right protected in law (France and Saudi Arabia are exceptions) with some obvious limitations such as not endanger anyone or disturbing the peace. It’s a good idea to observe some ethical standards as well. The step from a legal right to exploitation and discrimination can be quite short. In many cases, the step from the same legal right to invasion of privacy in a non-public place is quite short too.
    • Abstract photography is a matter of degree. Strictly speaking, all photography is abstract since no photos reflect reality. The degree of abstraction usually relates to the degree of distortion invoked on the original subject, but can also simply convert the object to a different level than its ordinary role. There are endless techniques that achieve distortions, such as lens filters, development abnormalities and/or Photoshop. Or you may convert the object to make it appear in some other dimension. The line between art and weirdness is quite narrow. Abstraction truly requires a clear artistic vision to work.

Different applications, different requirements, different techniques. Different visions and different execution paths. Similar creativity, aesthetics, dedication, honesty and ethics. The top level of the stack includes creativity, then one level down you have visions, then there is the convictions-message-activist layer followed (down again) by the execution path and at the lowest level technology. That is the Prerequisite part of creating great photos. Let’s move on to the Magical Toolbox that is a great complement to the stack we created.

Techniques of the Clever Photographer

Before jumping into the magical toolbox, here are a few one liners from the text to date. They may be helpful as a summary of the wisdom so far:

  • Start
    • Define your a creative, artistic vision – honesty, emotions, facts. Be persistent. Don’t quit.
    • Understand your need for rewards. Money, fame, gratitude, sex, inner satisfaction?
    • Determine the execution path you need to follow to translate the vision into real Art.
    • Take advantage of relevant parts of trends such as Web 2.0, etc., etc.. Just face it.
    • Consider technology needed to realize the goals. Use what you need, not what you have.
  • Research
    • Do the subject research, repeat over and over. Immerse yourself. Live it, breathe it.
    • Start shooting, realizing it is not the final stuff but part of the immersion process.
    • Unravel the story, understand the cause, determine the message, show compassion.
  • Preliminaries
    • Pre visualize your end product and revisit the execution path. What modifications are needed?
    • Pre compose the imagery: Simple, detailed, complex or neither. Keep shooting.
    • Define the location, stage the scene: light, color, mood, composition, time of day, season.
  • The Main Event
    • Collect your team, especially if it consists of your lonely hand, eyes and shoe leather
    • Lead the assistants, models, make up people, crane operators, art directors, clients and lab people.
    • Look for the Decisive Moment if you are an optimist and figure out how to find it. Keep shooting.
    • Improvise. Break the rules. Create emotion, tension, harmony, conflict, contradiction as possible
    • Savior the Magic Moment of exposure. It’s you and no one else. This is the moment of truth.
    • Execute the magical moment!
  • Post Shoot
    • Execute the pre visualized path to the final image. Keep innovating. Break the rules some more.
    • Realize the power of sequences. Put that time element back into the static single shots.
    • Sell, exhibit, store, backup, manage and be a good little businessperson all around.
  • Move On

Obviously, steps and their order will vary by shoot and the attitudes and work habits of individual photographers. In this sample series of events, the main event – actually shooting for the final image – is at step 18 out of a total of 21 steps. That’s a very front heavy, deliberate approach favored by some but not all.


The Magical Photograph – Quotes by the Wise

To finish off this essay’s first main part about visions and paths, here are the words on art by a few prominently wise photographers. To me, these quotes highlight the breadth of ideas while the creative focus is remarkably constant:

  • It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. -David BaileyRobert Doisneau Cellos Hate Rain
  • “A photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see.”; Nothing would be funnier than the photographers’ contortions to produce effects that are “lifelike”.”-Roland Barthes
  • In photography, if you have purpose and intent you can [still] allow yourself to be beset by gargantuan problems during the taking of pictures. These problems must be worked out in advance … I do not mean that every minutiae should be rehearsed in advance, for if the taking became a purely mechanical routine, all spontaneity would be lost and the result could only be lifeless and dull. -Ralph Bartholomew Jr.
  • Too many photographers try too hard. They try to lift photography into the realm of Art, because they have an inferiority complex about their Craft. You and I would see more interesting photography if they would stop worrying, and instead, apply horse-sense to the problem of recording the look and feel of their own era. -Jessie Tarbox Beals
  • Photojournalism is the worst it’s ever been. Nobody is doing anything. Today all the photographers are making setup shots, where you go in to shoot someone with a couple of assistants and a few stylists. Everyone does it. I do it. It’s the Value Jet of photojournalism -stuck in the mud. In the end, those kinds of portraits mean nothing. They don’t convey any information. The idea in that kind of photography is to make a picture the subject will Robert Doisneau Cellist on a Mountainlike. That’s not journalism. -Harry Benson
  • My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity. To indicate the ideal proportion, to reveal sculptural mass and the dominating spirit is my goal. -Ruth Bernhard
  • Fashion, flowers, nudes and portraits – they’re all the same: light, form, color and mystery. Mystery is very important. When I started photographing flowers, I thought, “My God, where have I been?” I’m totally addicted to this project. I’d never seen the mysteries of a flower. We walk by wonders every day and don’t see them. We only stop at what shouts the loudest. -Barbara Bordnick
  • When I have seen or sensed – I do not know which it is – the atmosphere of my subject, I try to convey that atmosphere by intensifying the elements that compose it. I lay emphasis on one aspect of my subject and I find that I can thus most effectively arrest the spectator’s attention and induce in him an emotional response to the atmosphere I have tried to convey. -Bill Brandt
  • “There are many photographs which are full of life but which are confusing and difficult to remember. It is the force of an image which matter.”; “The thing that is magnificent about photography is that it can produce images that incite emotion based on the subject matter alone.”; “The purpose of art is to raise people to a higher level of awareness than they would otherwise attain on their own.” -Brassai
  • What I feel is that the picture-taking process is an intuitive thing. You go out and intuitively plan a picture. When you come back, reason takes over and verifies or rejects whatever you’ve done. So that’s why I say that reason and intuition are not in conflict–they strengthen each other. -Wynn Bullock
  • A thing is not what you say it is or what Robert Doisneau Reversed Cello in the Rainyou photograph it to be or what you paint it to be or what you sculpt it to be. Words, photographs, paintings, and sculptures are symbols of what you see, think, and feel things to be, but they are not the things themselves. -Wynn Bullock
  • I now measure my growth as a photographer in terms of the degrees to which I am aware of, have developed my sense of, and have the skills to symbolize visually the four-dimensional structure of the universe. -Wynn Bullock
  • A very fine photographer asked me, “What did it feel like the first time you manipulated an image?”, and I said “Do you mean the first time I shot black and white instead of color, do you mean the first time I burned the corner of a print down, do you mean the first time I ‘spotted’ a dust speck on my print, do you mean the first time I shot with a wide angle instead of a normal lens, I mean what are you referring to? Where does it stop?” -Dan Burkholder

And that is it. The next major segment takes an unusual look at some major tools for creative photography. Think outside the box. Benefit from tricks of the trade in other art forms and even sciences.


Part 2

And hereby, Part Two is awaiting your attention. It is labeled “Build the Mysterious Toolbox”. This toolbox is not a collection of cameras, assorted lenses and wonderful flashes, light meters and camera bags built to survive WWIII, Global Warming or a dive to 3,000 feet beneath sea level. If you haven’t noticed, this essay likes a somewhat abstract level. The vision thing, pre visualization, immersion, complexity, creativity and innovation can be rather heavy subjects if all you wanted to know was how to load film Yousuf Karsh Male in Shadow Lightinto a Leica M series (damn tricky if you ask me). Of course, these days you load a memory card into your brand new M8 and, of course, you still have to dismantle the camera to achieve this task.

This toolbox contains only two “tools”. The first tool is light. No photography is possible without light. Photography is all about the art of capturing light in the tiniest of moments. Light is a vital component in your toolbox but also a tricky and treacherous one.

Some of us don’t realize that we do not see things. We see light, nothing else. Otherwise invisible objects may have the ability to emit light (the sun, light bulbs and certain insects). Other objects can reflect light (the moon, your significant other and Mount Everest). Light is simply energy vibrating at a certain speed. This energy is influenced by thousands of factors, all serving to distort the light originating from some source.

The second tool contains assorted dimensions. The idea is to go beyond the obvious two dimensions of a photographic print to understand what is really in the image. As you’ll see, there are many more dimensions to consider. Some are simple – such as expanding the scope into time and distance or depth. Others are much more complex: the dimensions as exist in math, physics and quantum mechanics and – truly mind boggling stuff.

Then there is another angle – using psychology and its very differRobert Doisneau Portrait aganst the Lightent view of dimensions to understand art and how an artist relates to the world. If you hang in here, you’ll get a glimpse into some research by yours truly.

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most creative and innovative giants of all mankind and all ages. He was a master of almost any field from science to art and far ahead of his time of 500 years ago. He created Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, drawings of helicopters, tanks, calculators and advanced research into anatomy, engineering, optics, geology and much else.

He described a Camera Obscura in 1490 and commented “…Here the figures, here the colors, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!”

Here are some other statements: “He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” “Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” Still relevant after all these years.

The drawing below by, of course, da Vinci, is also relevant to this discussion of light and dimensions. Light is obviously present. The dimensional aspect is curious indeed. There is a very strong spatial, perspectural, scientific component. Then that is coupled with a human aspect – the mysterious people occupying the scene. Clearly, Leonardo saw an interaction of dimensions – scientific and human which is exactly where we are heading.Leonaro Da Vinci Drawing with Perspective and People Dimensions

Execution – Build the Mysterious Toolbox

Photography is a very gadget friendly environment. Starting with hundreds of camera bodies, lenses and equipment left and right, camera stores happily sell thousands of accessories. Add chemicals, development materials, printing accessories, computers, memory cards, special monitors and you end up with an empty wallet and far more headaches than you deserve. Or as some partners put it, all the headaches you do deserve. Boating is a hole in the water into which you throw money. Photography is a hole in the ground into which you throw not only money but perhaps your marriage, career, cat and sanity.

Here is yet another example of Jeff Wall’s art. It appears to be his interpretation of a Magical Toolbox. This particular toolbox seems to contain all kinds of goodies, gadgets and misc. survival gear. No doubt the owner is a happy, well organized photographer with a clear vision and an obviously grand toolbox.

Jeff Wall Suitcase

The first camera I used was one I liberated from my father. Equipped with a bellowed fixed lens, zero batteries and no focusing assistance, it sure was a curious little machine. Using medium format film in a body smaller than a Leica rangefinder, it took remarkable photos. Not only that, the absence of any modern convenience resulted in complete freedom from gadgets. In fact, available accessories numbered exactly zero. Those were the days.

The discussion from now on applies to a camera like that as well as the latest high-tech monster. By toolbox, I do not mean a box filled with gadgets, I mean a box filled with ideas. The discussion splits into two main parts. The first part deals with light, distortion and how to use both to your creative benefit. The second part covers a rather unusual way to look at tools by discussing dimensions and how to add them to that boring two dimensional image.

Here is the idea: the first priority is to understand the basic features of a photography toolbox, such as how light works and why dimensions are relevant to photography. The second priority is to provide some ideas on how to use these features in practical photography. However, all of us photographers are responsible for our craft; the real aim is to inspire you to create your own toolbox – there is no way I can determine what is right for you.


Part 2a – Distorted Light, Distorted Reality

Distortion is the alteration of a shape or characteristic of some object after some change in state took place. In stereos, it is the difference in shape of the signal fed to the stereo and that of the output. It is the difference between the signal from a CD and that of an mp3 file created from that CD. It could be the difference in the sun’s light wave patterns and the light patterns measured in Los Angeles on a smoggy day late in the afternoon versus the noon measurements on top of Mount Everest.

Parts of the discussions below update and expand on the content of some previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality.


That Treacherous Light

Nothing is more important to a photographer than light. No light, no photography. The Angus McBean Stage Actors in Profileone thing your toolbox must contain is your love of light. You better like how light bends, creates color, enters a lens, refracts, reflects, bounces, scatters, disappears, enters eyes for processing in the brain and how it is affected by sun spots, black holes, cosmic rays, atmosphere, clouds, rain, weather, pollution, dust and much else.

All of the factors above are distortions. The original light source, the sun (for most practical purposes) emits “pure” light. By the time that light reaches some place on Earth and your camera lens, it is very different compared to that original “pure” light and its spectrum. Light from space is distorted even before it reaches our atmosphere, then the atmosphere adds its set of oddities. The camera is a virtual snake pit of distortions. Manmade light adds other distortions since its light is differently colored than the “norm”. Our eyes and brains add more layers of distortions. Can you, the photographer, use this mess to your advantage? You sure can and, further, you pretty much have to.

Historical Light

In the beginning, people assumed one saw by emitting beams out of one’s eyes. Pythagoras, 500 BC, assumed light traveled from the eyes and a sensationKGLPhoto High Rise At Night of seeing followed as the beam hit some object. Plato, 400BC, supported the same theory. Around 300BC, Euclid questioned that eyes were the only source of light and formulated quite a bit of light related mathematics. Still, the view of the eyes beaming light prevailed. Then the Bible mentioned “And God said, let there be light, and there was light”, associating light versus darkness as a good versus evil issue.

Around 1000AD, al-Haytham of Egypt finally voiced the idea that light entered the eyes rather than the other way around. He concluded the sun was the source of light. He also invented the Camera Obscura although Leonardo da Vinci received some of that credit 500 years later. Unfortunately, our gentleman resided in jail, so his findings were not immediately available. Most of his ideas were based on the sun light coming into his cell through a tiny opening or crack.

It took over 500 years before al-Haytham’s theories reached Europe, inspiring Kepler to formulate some fairly correct theories late in the 1500s. Galileo, Descartes and Newton added tremendously to the understanding of light over the next 100 years. The wave theory came along through Euler in the mid 1700s. Other contributors include Fresnel, Poisson, Faraway, Planck and Maxwell, leading up to the late 1800s and pretty much the way we understand light today.

A Simple Theory of Light

Light is produced by light emitters, reflected by certain objects and consumed by others. Light is radiation energy affected by combinations of photons, atoms, molecules and KGLPhoto WSindow at Night with a Truckother low lives. It has characteristics such as wave length, frequency and intensity, all of which vary tremendously with quite spectacular results. Most light originates at the sun and manmade processes. Light may be a single beam or scattered in a collision with some obscure molecules.

Radiation is a form of energy with intensity and wave length, vibrating around us constantly. Low frequency waves represent sound. There are TV and radio waves, visible and invisible light, radar waves, cellular phone radiations and X-ray emissions. Light as we see it and as used by a camera is only a small part of the energy waves around us. In some cases, invisible wave lengths affect film or memory cards in undesirable ways. Don’t X-ray your films. Another rather extreme example is the HEMP bomb that can fry all electronics within a large radius, including your camera (unless you use a camera similar to that of my father, but the film is probably a goner).

Light is created in many ways – the sun maintains a controlled nuclear explosion emitting lots of radiation energy, some in the form of light, other in the form of quite deadly variations such as gamma rays. Light bulbs, neon lights and many other manmade devices emit light on demand. Such light is usually created by the combination of energy in an enclosure containing suitable gases. Other light sources include computer, radar and TV screens which operate using cathode rays and energy sensitive coatings or by turning KGLPhoto Security on a Walltransistors off and on. Nuclear reactions produce lots of radiation, some of which is visible.

Light is generated by heat; increasingly hot temperatures transform light from the original color to a glow of red, white and eventually blue – think about your stove, fireplace, kerosene lamp or volcanic lava. Military night sights use slight heat variations as emitted in the infrared spectrum to “see” a battle field. Chemical processes generate light in some organisms: fireflies, glow worms, krill and others. Lightning produces a short burst of light based on heat.

When light falls on an object, some waves with a specific length are reflected and others absorbed. Light emitted by an object also have a specific set of wave lengths. We perceive the light of a specific wave length as a color. We thus “see” the object having a color. The reflected light is not a constant since it depends of the wave lengths of the incoming light. Reddish sunset light makes any object look reddish while the same object is bluish at noon.

Photographers and light meter manufacturers make a big deal out of incident and reflected light. Incident light measures incoming light only and then make assumptions about correct exposure. Reflected readings do the same for reflected light. The problem is that different object reflect light very differently – snow, water and any light object reflects much more light than dark soil, a black car top or any dark object. That means that neither incident nor reflected light measures result in correct exposure. In the case of snow, an KGLPhoto Street Light Over Bushesincidence measure will overexpose the scene while a reflected metering will underexpose the same scene. The only time you get a good measure is when the scene is a uniform 18% grey – a very rare occurrence.

Auto exposure cameras use reflected light only as does the Zone System. The Zone System is unique by actually attempting to correct for the ambiguity in light measures. In fact, that is the major point of the Zone System. Meanwhile, the auto exposure camera relies on you to override its automatics to produce a correct reading. Nothing automatic about that, is it?

Most objects are not producing light at all. They are only visible because they reflect light. A chair does not normally emit light. The moon does not produce light – it solely reflects light mostly from the sun. There is a bit of a fallacy here because heat produces light. Heat the chair up and it will produce light. Humans do not produce light but we do have a body temperature that does cause light emissions in the invisible infrared spectrum. If we actually turned into visible light emitters we are very dead because that implies heat sufficient to make us glow red – blue – white. That would not be healthy. However, it is possible to photograph people in total darkness. All you need is a readily available sensor or film sensitive to infrared light.

Light intensity declines rapidly with distance. Most photographers use a simple formula stating: double the distance from a light source and the KGLPhoto Laughing Lady in the Darkintensity is down to a 1/4 of the original intensity. That is an approximation that serves photography well in most circumstances but is actually wildly inaccurate. If you get close to a light source, then light intensity is almost flat regardless of distance. Nor does the rule hold up when the light is focused with some sort of reflector as you may have noticed using a flashlight, driving at night or watching the beam from a lighthouse.

Light never dies. As time goes by and the light travels great distances, the intensity goes down but it never reaches zero. We are surrounded by light originating billions of years ago. Unfortunately, the intensity is way down making it impossible to see for us humans. The Hubble telescope is extremely light sensitive and can pick up very distant light originating a long time ago.

There is no such thing as “seeing” an object; our eyes only receive light emitted and reflected by the object. The light waves reaching our eyes are quite distorted. The eyes introduce more distortions due to various imperfections. The brain then makes up a “view” of the object, introducing additional distortions. The brain is easily fooled into providing false or biased views. What we “see” is not an accurate representation of the object, it merely is one deemed safe by our brain.

Light Traveling Space

The sun is the major source of light. This light is comes from a massive nuclear reaction that has been going on for billions of years. Sun light affects human health and climates. The current Global Warming crisis is caused by sun energy being trapped by CO2 concentrations rather than reflected back into space, which causes temperatures to rise to dangerous levels. Sun light produces Vitamin D but also skin cancers and ultraviolet KGLPhoto Tending the Shopradiation aging us.

Stars, clusters, galaxies and nebulae provide some light. Polar lights (Aurorae) are clearly visible in high latitude areas and seasons. The moon reflects sun light mostly at night. Magnetic fields in space bend light, space storms distort light, black holes does who knows what with light and sun flares send out a lot of unpredictable and usually harmful energy.

Cosmic “rays” refer to Earth being bombard by energy containing particles. These particles originate with the sun but also exploding stars, novae, galaxies, quasars and black holes. These generally low energy (unless you are an astronaut) particles have some limited effect on climate by affecting lightning and cloud formation. Solar cosmic rays can affect electronics on Earth such as communication devices and possibly digital cameras. Then there is the Oh-My-God particle (really) traveling around the Universe at extreme speed and containing enormous KGLPhoto Blues Musician in a Wheelchairenergy, given its tiny size. But that is another story.

Photography in space is quite different than on earth. The radiation levels are harmful to film. NASA tests film extensively to reduce fogging and color shifts – they tend to use film specially made for them by Kodak. Today I’m sure they use digital cameras with similar quality considerations.

Light in space is either on or off with photography taking place when light is on. With the light is on, it is very constant – no clouds, haze, rain storms or shadow. There are only two basic shooting scenarios: close or far. Shooting earth from the space station means using one standard exposure (reflected light is quite constant) and the lens set at infinity. Shooting “close ups” such as space walks require a similar standard exposure and some focusing. Photography inside the space vessel is similar to that on earth.

Space light is much bluer than on earth. There is far more ultraviolet radiation which is not visible with eyes but may impact images. Contrast ranges are extreme – consider an astronaut in a white suit against a pitch black background. The seasoned space photographer must consider speed. Everything moves way faster than earth speed limits. The shuttle moves at 17,500 miles an hour (5 miles per second or 110 feet a typical exposure of 1/240 seconds) so panning is a necessary skill. The Cartier-Bresson Decisive Moment takes on a different meaning.

Atmosphere and Time

The atmosphere greatly impacts light from space. There are seasonality, clouds, storms, humidity, dust, pollution, inversion layers, refractions and reflections. Other factors Robert Doisneau Baldaccini Portraitinclude time of day effects and temperature distortions.

When light beams reach the atmosphere, they scatter as they collide with atmospheric particles. During the day, this results in a blue sky because the light is coming from a high angle. In the early morning and late night with a low sun, we see a reddish sky because the angle of the incoming beams is low. Without clouds, we experience a mix of sun beams and scattered light. Snow, water and beach sand reflect light more than dark objects. That amplified light level reaches your camera, confuses the light meter and you better step down the exposure. Ice also reflects light but amplifies the blue wave lengths. Thus, photos of ice bergs have a deep bluish tint.

Seasons display unique light effects. Snowy landscapes require special attention to exposure. Fall foil colors can overwhelm a landscape. Some enjoy the Christmas feeling Charles Gatewood Box on Endand warm toned nostalgia. Seasonal sports and graduations are popular events. Some regions suffer extreme weather seasons such as the Arctic winter, the hurricane plagued Southeast US coasts, the mid US Tornado Alley and the Asian Monsoon and Cyclone season.

Clouds reflect the direct sun beams and all we see is the scattered light waves – shadows disappear or dilute. The water content of the clouds scatter light in a way that produces no particular color, hence the grayish feel with a complete cloud cover. The thicker the cloud, the less light passes through. Extreme weather can lead to almost total darkness and a general loss in color. The red rose is suddenly grey.

Bounces and Refractions

Refraction of light is the bending effect that happens when light passes through certain Edward Weston Oceano - Desert Lightmedia at certain angles. The straw in a glass of water is the classic example. Refraction is, for instance, the cause of rainbows. The atmosphere provides refraction of sun beams: the lower the sun, the more the refraction. At sunset the refraction can be as much as half a degree or about one sun diameter. This explains the “oval” sun at sunset or dawn. Another effect of refraction is the “floating mountains” or “elonged islands or ships” seen on hot days (Fata Morgana). Other special effects include mirages and the common illusion of distant pools of water on hot roads. Refraction also makes it possible to see beyond the natural horizon.

Refraction in a vacuum is exactly 1, which means there is no refraction. The atmosphere has a refraction of 1.0003 while ordinary Ansel Adams Clearing after the Stormwater refracts 1.33, quite a bit more. Acrylic glass has a refraction index of 1.49 and diamonds are at 2.42. Silicon has an index of over 4 although that probably won’t be much of a photography issue.

Refraction also is important because different wave lengths of light have slightly different refractions in different materials. This causes dispersion of the light into colors. Diamonds, for instance, are very high in dispersions causing their extraordinary “fire”. One moment you see blue light reflected from the stone, then perhaps green or pure white. Rainbows are another example of this phenomenon. Reflection, dispersion and refraction are the mechanisms by which many different kinds of prisms work – very important design aspects of your camera’s lenses.

Pollution and Dust

Atmospheric pollution affects light. Compare light in a smogged Los Angeles, Mexico City or Shanghai to that experienced on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Broadly, there are three Haze over Hong Kongkinds of atmospheric pollution agents. Some reflect solar beams back out into space, resulting in less light and cooler temperatures. The sulphur dioxide crisis of the 1960s and early 1970s is a good example. Other pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, do the opposite – they allow the sun energy to pass to the surface of Earth but disallow the required reflection of excess energy back out into space. The result is Global Warming. Yet another pollutant, typically Freon, destroy the ozone layer allowing ultraviolet light through at levels threatening health.

Here are the smoggiest cities: London, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Houston, Toronto, Athens, Beijing and Hong Kong. Smoggy areas include the Ruhr Area and Silicon Valley and many places in China, Southeast Asia and India. Forest slash and burn practices in Indonesia cause severe smog and smoke in much of surrounding countries. The disastrous 1952 smog in London killed 4,000 people in four days, followed by another 8,000 in the next six months. On a happier note, both LA and Mexico City have made substantial gains.

Apart from the health issues, heavy smog easily can make any normal photography impossible.

Dust in the atmosphere typically reflects sun energy back out and thus has a cooling effect as well as a darker sky. Sunsets tend to be tremendous. Volcanoes cause massive emissions of dSmog on the Rtiverust, particles and ashes into the atmosphere. The eruptions of Mount St. Helen and Mount Pinatubo spewed out ashes that traveled the world for several years. Dust storms due to drought are another major source. The Oklahoma storms of the 1930s, today’s Sahara storms and those of China affect all of Earth. Global Warming will amplify dust storms due to extreme droughts. Yet another source of particles in the air stems from forest fires due to deforestation in Brazil, Malaysia and, above all, Indonesia. The uncontrolled fires in Indonesia cause severe health problems in not only Indonesia but all of Southwest Asia. The particles circle the

Manmade Light

Ambient, natural light is terrific. Manmade light is a pain. Hundreds of different devices, lamps, bulbs, processes, materials, gases and energy sources result in the strangest of light spectra. Add that manmade light is generally there because the natural light is not available. You are stuck with the darn thing. True, you can set up your own light version Diane Arbus Queen and Kingwith all kinds of expensive photographic lighting devices. That’s fine but really what you do is to replace one manmade environment with another manmade environment.

To photographers and others, K (Kelvin) values and wave spectra are important. A K value is an average of a light source’s color spectrum. The spectrum provides much more information about the scene than does the K value. For instance, the spectrum may have a high wave length peak and a low peak – a ‘U’ pattern. The K value will fall between the peaks and not really mean a thing. What you need is, perhaps, double filtration to correct for the two peaks.

The K value of sunlight is about 5,800. Typical daylight is either 5,000K or 6,500K depending on if you go for the US standard calibration or that of Europe. Computer monitors are calibrated to between 5,000K (reddish yellow) and 9,300K (bluish). Digital cameras often display white balance settings in terms of Kelvin values. In the spectrum of colors, red is around 1,800K, neutral is 5,000K to 6,500K and blue starts around 12,000K continuing up to 16,000K. Examples of low Kelvin light: Match flares, candles and ordinary (tungsten) light bulbs. Here are some high Kelvin items: Xenon light, analog TVs: “the bluish flicker from you neighbor’s window”. Henri Cartier-Bresson The Duke of Windsor with Divorcee Wife

Unless going for abstraction, photographers compensate for the local K value/spectrum to bring the image back to “normal”. For instance, you try to make skin tones similar to those recorded in regular daylight. That may be accomplished through lens filters, white balance adjustments or post production trickery. When you do that, obviously the original scene is distorted – the ugly manmade light was, after all, the real thing.

Most fluorescent and gas discharge lamps have “interrupted spectra”, meaning the spectra are not smooth curves but a series of narrow peaks over the frequency band. Such irregular peaks, often in the yellow to green range, are very hard to filter away. The only real solution is to use alternative lighting such as flash. Gas discharge lamps include neon light and high intensity lights (mercury vapor, metal halide and sodium vapor) as used in light streets, stadiums and factories.

Then there is another issue. Film or sensors react quite differently to odd light situations than do your eyes. Your eyes and brain compensate for strange light to make it more consistent with your built in database on how a face “should” look. A camera has no such database or ability. It records incoming light according to its sensitivity to different wave lengths.


Are shadows the opposite of light? Of course not, shadows are light just as is present elsewhere. They are a bit darker, that’s all. Zone system proponents know all about shadows being as important as high lights. The old film saying is: “expose for shadows, develop for high lights”. Or, in the case of digital photography, do the reverse, i.e. shoot for high lights and balance shadow detail in Photoshop.

The dynamic range of light in photography is typically measured in f stops. If the ratio of Henri Cartier-Bresson Man and His Shadowlight intensity in high lights compared to minimum light is, say 1024:1, or 2, raised to the power of 10, then the range is 10 stops. There is a huge difference in the ranges different media are capable of recording or displaying. Your eyes are amazing in that not only can they cover the largest dynamic range, they also are self adjusting in real time. Other devices don’t even come close.

On a cloudy day a scene may display a dynamic range of as little as 3 stops. On a sunny day, the same scene may display a range of 12 stops. That is well within the capabilities of most eyes, being able to dynamically adjust to a 24 stop range although a more static range of 10-14 stops is more realistic. Most cameras (film and digital) can handle a range of about 8 stops, a considerable reduction. A typical print covers about 6 stops and a monitor slightly less. Newspapers only display a range of 3-4 stops.

Several techniques and technologies exist to extend either the original or the displayed range. One recent example is High Dynamic Range Photography. In traditional photography, special development techniques coupled with corresponding exposures can do the trick. Consider the Hubble telescope and its ability to record and then enhance the dimmest of light.

In practical, everyday photography, the biggest factor in getting a decent dynamic range is simply to use correct exposures. Over or under exposure quickly destroys the dynamic range. One stop overexposure loses one stop of range on the high light side. Please note that correct exposure is not the same as pointing your camera at something and letting the built-in light meter (or for that matter an external meter) blurb out some numbers. Light meters are very stupid about measuring light. Practice, practice so you truly understand exposure. Otherwise, your shadows or high lights are off, were off and will stay off, blowing you out of the water every time.

Using Light

Now that you know a little bit about light, how do you use that knowledge? In generic terms, the benefit of this knowledge is that you know more about what to expect. Make that an element in your plan. Industrial ShapePhotography in big cities usually means polluted air which produces a different light than that on top of Mount Everest. If you shoot in an ice cave, the light is blue, while if you shoot in a sand cave, the light is reddish. Indoor shooting at, say, Christmas, will probably produce warm, reddish photos. Shooting on a lit street may produce very strange color casts.

We do not know all there is to know about light – much remains a mystery. The current knowledge is recent or no more than a hundred years old. Yet we speak of light with deep convictions, especially in photography. An image “captures” the light, a print contains the “full range” of light, the light reflected from a face “accurately” captures the skin tones. Professional critics have a language, of their own but incomprehensible to many of us, classifying and judging light and how a photographer deals with it in his art.

A photographer can use tools to analyze light. The intensity of light falling on a subject or reflected from a subject into the lens is easily measured. He/she can even determine the color of light falling on the subject. Once the picture is taken the image can be analyzed either with software in the case of digital images or by a densitometer in the case of film. That is all fine, but no meters will ever tell the full story and in fact they may even hide the real magic.

The true story about light is not one of analysis. It is about the creative use of light presented at a particular shooting event. To create that vision, you need to realize light is not just one thing. It is a combination of many different kinds of effects and distortions. Once that is clear, here are a few ideas that you might use to figure out your very own creative toolbox. A tool box is an individual treasure chest. What is a trap to some is an opportunity to others. We are all as different as are our visions. So take the following as nonexclusive ideas, not sinister laws.

  • History and Theory: The history of our understanding of light is long, colorful and by no means finished. The “seeing” interaction of eyes and brain is only partially, and very recently, understood and no doubt inaccurate. Think about the significance of all those tricky images designed to fool the brain – where straight lines suddenly look bent. Or where stationary images impossibly start to move? In your fooled brain, that is.
  • Space: Most natural light comes from space. As light travels through space, it undergoes Edward Weston Kneeling Nudetransformations, most quite subtle. It bends, gets malformed, disappears, reflects, is colored and ends up differently than expected in largely a random, uncontrolled manner. Light in its “cleanest” form is quite variable even if you reside on the International Space Station. The atmosphere is then doing it’s best to make matters even more complex:
  • Atmosphere: The atmosphere shields us from a quite harmful space environment. The ozone layer filters out UV radiation. Space is filled with particles harmful to humans that have come close to killing astronauts. These particles luckily do not penetrate the atmosphere. As the atmospheric filters do their work, light from space becomes even more modified. Then local conditions change light again, either by less filtering or more. A photograph taken in Australia or in Antarctica may be subject to a lot more UV light than elsewhere. A picture shot from an airplane at 37,000 feet is subject to more bombardment of essentially radioactive particles than one taken in Times Square, New York.
  • Refraction: Light bends as it passes through certain media such as water or a lens. This leads to many special situations and opportunities, whether you appreciate oval suns, mirages, Fata Morgana, rainbows, floating mountains or tilting buildings. You figure it out. Make a list of the special situations created by refraction in your shooting environment.
  • Reflections: We all have many so-so shots of tall buildings reflecting wobbly images from their glass walls. And those self portraits using a mirror belong deep in that shoe box in the garage. We realize Edward Weston Veggieshow reflections from snow and water may be controlled by polarizing filters. Portrait photographers use reflectors to create a pleasing light. Film and TV crews do the same. Daylight may be modified by fill flash to create an illusion of reflections. Reflections, in any type of photography, represent huge and under used opportunities for creativity. Think about it. Create you own sun! Make your own shadows!
  • Time of Day: Time of day is an essential tool. Most photographs can only be successfully shot at very specific light conditions, whether it is due to the light intensity or its color balance. Examples: Rarely is noon light the best for nature photography. Long shadows may accentuate the emotional impact of a scene. Some animals are only reachable at certain hours. Downtown traffic is busier at rush hours. Indoors, the uses of ambient light through windows depend not only on time of day but also on the angle to the sun. At noon, light from a south facing window is quite different from a window facing north.
  • Seasonal: Many of us associate seasons with specific events. You shoot fall colors as leaves fall. Or delicate spring colors as leaves return. Cherry trees bloom. Whales, salmon and birds migrate. Grizzlies wake up or retire. Frozen lakes thaw. Change your wardrobe. The barbeque is manned. The car gets its annual wash. The first strawberries show up. Taste the Beaujolais Nouveau or fresh halibut. Eat your heart out at Thanksgiving. Do the Christmas shopping. Snowmobiles, motor cycles or power boats roar. Sailboats tack. Dust off the camera after its winter slumber. Wash the windows, cut the lawn. File April tax returns. Harvest the apples, wheat and oranges. Does you vision include such items and more?
  • Weather: Nature gives us hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, fog, heavy rain, soft rain, clouds, thunder, lightning, sunshine, snow fall, heat waves or cold spells. The impact on your creative situation and challenge is obvious. Weather not only impacts light, it affects the range of possible or desired subjects. Some like shooting close up pictures of tornados. Most of us prefer to run like hell.
  • Pollution and Dust: Imagine grabbing your camera, crawling into your bed and under the covers.Edward Weston More Veggies Try taking a photograph of your left foot. That’s not real easy, is it? The bloody covers filter out the light. So do pollution and dust, both of which consist of airborne particles (and perhaps gases), covering earth like a blanket. Both reduce light coming through and both modify the color of light. Dramatic pictures from hazy Shanghai are perhaps interesting but not real artistic in most cases. The thing is, not all light effects are desirable in the sense they create creative opportunities. Some are simply bad news to most photographers. Here is another example:
  • Manmade Light: Speaking photographically, manmade light is a pest unless specifically created for photographic purposes. Blast that sodium light. Darn that fluorescent office light. Curse those wave length peaks and valleys. Green faces, orange hair. What is fun about lobster red skin? Well, nothing much. Maybe useful in some artistic visions, manmade light is a curse to most photographers.

There you are – you have a shopping list for your magical light tool box and a list of features to think about. This discussion of possible opportunities could go on much longer. It won’t, at this moment. The main idea still is that you are the one to create your own box, preferably by thinking outside the box. Try it on. Now, let’s check out colors which are just one form of light.

Colors that Aren’t but Light

The impact of color falls into two categories: First, we live in a color filled world, and therefore our art is in color: we shoot in color. Second, color may be used to accentuate something in the scene we shoot, paint or film. We let some color dominate for specific reasons, usually because of the possible emotional impact of that color.

Color can be a major part of an artistic vision and its execution. Examples include Picasso’s blue and rose periods and van Gogh’s yellow sunflowers. Of course, selecting to shoot in either color or black&white is the obvious example. Colors are part of the science surrounding photography. Equally, colors have an emotional or psychological context in photography.

A Bit of Theory

Light is characterized by three components: amplitude (intensity or brightness), frequency or wave length which relates to color and polarization (angle, vibration, reflection). Light may come in the form of a beam emitted from a light source. If the beam is aimed straight at you, it is visible as a point of bright light. From the side, that Ralph Gibson Shadow on a Red Wallbeam is not visible till it is scattered into a spectrum of different wave lengths. Our retinas and brains map the spectrum of wave lengths to colors.

I’m sure you have seen the standard graphs of wave length and associated colors. It goes like this: the lowest wave lengths are associated with sound as heard by humans. AM radio, TV and FM waves are next up in frequency (lower in wave length), followed by kitchen, radar and signal transmitting micro waves.

Then comes infrared light which is associated with heat – the burning logs in your fireplace emit infrared “heat”. The TV remote uses infrared waves. So far nothing is visible to us. A very narrow band of visible light, split into colors, follows. This spectrum goes from red, yellow, green, blue and magenta to violet.

After the band of colors, we return to invisibility: ultraviolet light causes sunburn. It can’t be seen by humans but is visible to bumblebees. UV light is real important in astronomy – distant galaxies and stars often only emit UV light so the Hubble telescope and some Jeff Wall Milk 2satellites are very sensitive to such light. Then X-rays follow. Finally, gamma radiation can kill, very important both to space travel and astrology.

Have you noticed I sometimes talk about frequencies and wave lengths as in an analog beam (scattered or not) and sometimes about light consisting of particles bouncing around in some pattern? Both ways to look at light are correct but how light consists of both waves and particles is a bit mysterious. An issue of quantum physics, debated by many from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, this unresolved subject is a bit beyond this essay.

But think about it: why would an electromagnetic pulse (light beam) be split or scattered by an atmospheric particle unless it too is a particle? On the other hand, are our eyes really letting in all these dirty particles that have traveled space and bounced off all kinds of pollution? I’d hope not. How do light particles penetrate a camera lens? This mystery will remain unsolved in this essay (as it is in science).

Emotional Colors

So much for theory – electromagnetic waves, infrared this and gamma that, particles, amplitudes…. Let’s switch tack a bit. Visions are emotionally driven, inner convictions. Colors, in psychology, not to mention advertising and web design, associate freely with emotions. I’m blue today. He was red hot. She was green with envy. Here is one opinion (of many) on how colors associate with emotions:

  • Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love. Red is a very emotionally intense color. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure. It has very high visibility, which is why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red. In heraldry, red is used to indicate courage. It is a color found in many national flags. Red is the Color of Fire and Blood
  • Orange combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics. Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation. To the human eye, orange is a very hot color, so it gives the sensation of heat. Nevertheless, orange is not as aggressive as red.
  • Yellow is the color of sunshine. It’s associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy. Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy. Yellow is often associated with food. Bright, pure yellow is an attention getter, which is the reason taxicabs are painted this color.
  • Green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Dark green is also commonly associated with money. Green has great healing power. It is the most restful color for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance.
  • Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It isBlue is the c olor of Trust and Loyalty often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven. Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity.
  • Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red. Purple is associated with royalty. It symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition. It conveys wealth and extravagance. Purple is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic. According to surveys, almost 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colors. Purple is a very rare color in nature; some people consider it to be artificial.
  • White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection. White means safety, purity, and cleanliness. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation. White can represent a successful beginning. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity.
  • Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery. Black is a mysterious color associated with fear and the unknown (black holes). It usually has a negative connotation (blacklist, black humor, ‘black death’). Black denotes strength and authority; it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious color (black tie, black Mercedes). In heraldry, black is the symbol of grief.

Some claim colors guide our lives in a sublime mix of emotions and realities. Personally, I’m not so sure. I believe we all are more complex than that. Form, harmony and discord, for instance, seem important as well. Probably context, such as being fired, getting married, suffering from depression or winning the lottery, emotionally overrides any color setting. Colors as emotional impacts are nevertheless legitimate parts of the magical toolbox but not at the exclusion of other factors.

Real World Color

AA Gills of the London Times recently visited Tasmania and filed the following observation (italics mine). Rarely have I seen so many unusual wave lengths covered in so few sentences:

  • The rocky shore is tortured into a macabre and dramatic beauty. The waves stand up on their hind legs and lunge at the land, to be flayed into bone-white shreds by the black rocks. In the late afternoon, the sky is glowing pale gold, dark mauve clouds are filigreed pink, thousand of mutton birds (sheerwaters) fly low over the silver water, and we hurry back in the teeth of the wind to our hut.

Now, that is the drama of colors, if somewhat tortured. I’m sure Conrad had not been able to put it better. AA GillsGalen Rowell Storm on the Ocean actually is a restaurant critic and feature writer for the Times but seems to have his hands in plenty of pots. Good for him.

Take that sun beam traveling through space towards you. At high noon, that beam will hit the atmosphere straight on. Since the atmospheric particles are much larger than those associated with the beam, the beam is scattered into predominately short wave lengths – blue. Thus the sky is blue during the day. As the sun sets, the angle of the sun beam is to close to 90 degrees. Now we see more of the longer wave lengths – red.

Colors depend on altitude – the higher you are the bluer the scene and the sharper the shadows. A higher altitude means mostly less pollution and more unhealthy radiation from space ranging from UV to gamma light. Sun beams are less scattered, hence the scene is lighter. There are fewer clouds if you go high enough. Perhaps you are high enough to encounter snow which reflects enormous amounts of light. Or, returning to zero altitude – sea level – you better consider a similar high reflection of light from the sea surface. In Galen Rowell Sun on the Mountain Topthis case, polarization becomes yet another tool. Keep this in mind next time you climb Mount Everest.

The color spectrum varies tremendously from one location to the next. You have monochrome environments such as deserts, ski slopes, some beaches, polar ice areas, tundra, oceans, mines and tunnels. Next, there are monochromes with occasional color items, such as many parts of an inner city or fireworks. Low light photography is usually close to monochrome, wherever you are. Intensive colors are found in many tropical locations. Specific places such as the Dutch tulip fields in the right season or Brazilian Samba festivals are colorful. You choose your film or white balance (or other settings) with that in mind.

Colors Ain’t Colors

Colors aren’t real. They simply are associated by your brain with light particles vibrating at certain frequencies. As humans, color processing follows a complex path through the eyes, to the retina with its three basic sensors (blue, bluish-green and yellow-green of all Galen Rowell Camp on the Mountain at Nightodd compositions) and on to the brain, where it is all sorted out according to a set of rules. A given wave length is translated into a “color”.

Put an 80A blue filter on your lens (or simply look through it) and colors change. This particular filter changes light emitted from reddish tungsten sources back to “normal” daylight color spectra, given daylight film or white balance. Here is what actually happens: the filter is manufactured so it absorbs vibrations in the 1800-2500K range (perceived as red) while letting the shorter wave lengths through. The result of applying the filter is that the scene appears to emit relatively more short wave length rays, correcting for the excess emission of light in the 2800K range typical of tungsten light. It’s all a matter of wave lengths, not “colors”. Galen Rowell On the Ridge

Walk into a color darkroom and twist the color correction dials a bit and the color print comes out quite differently. Play with color settings in Photoshop and the image changes accordingly. Put on your sunglasses and colors shift. Color blindness shifts how wave lengths are mapped in your brain due to some part of the system being damaged. Several other deficiencies change our perceptions of color. Colors are what you make them to be.

Next, we need to represent color in print. Now we deal with a totally new set of representations. CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) is the traditional print representation which has absolutely nothing to do with how we humans perceive or process color. Pantone’s system of six colors for increased precision adds orange and green to the CMYK system.

Do Computers See Colors?

Computers use their own concepts of color representation. Colors are associated with an RGB (Red, Green and Blue) model. This model assigns trios of numbers from 0 to 255 to the “colors”. Red, for instance is coded as (255,0,0) and blue is (0,0,255). (0,0,0) means black, (255,255,255) stands for white. These numbers are used not only to describe Galen Rowell Sunset from the Topcolors internally but also to control the electron gun of an analog monitor or the transistors in flat screen monitors.

The RGB model does not actually represent real colors but are simply some numbers that could represent anything or nothing. The numbers do not automatically result in accurate colors. The computer and the monitor need to be told what an “accurate” color is. This information is held in one or more arrays that say “apply this correction when sending info to the monitor or printer”. You are responsible for keeping those arrays up to date, using available tools. Many of us don’t do that and hence get used to strange colors and fail to understand why others complain.

Monitor color guns or color sensitive “dots” must also be carefully calibrated to some standard color space. Such calibration uses elaborate color management tools. The standard monitor color spaces come in many flavors of RGB (red, green, blue): sRGB,Galen Rowell On the Coast Apple RGB, Adobe RGB and ColorMatch RGB. On the printing side (CMYK), we have a set of US standards together with corresponding (different) European and Japanese variations.

A simple but crucial monitor setting is the brightness, referred to as the “gamma” setting. Just for fun, Apple uses a different gamma standard than PCs. A Mac calibrated image looks darker on a calibrated PC and vice versa. Great, isn’t it?

It’s not over yet. Next is the coordination of color spaces and calibration across devices. The digital camera, the scanner, the monitor and printing using external labs or the onsite photo printer must be calibrated accurately to compatible color spaces. This is not a trivial undertaking although special software may reduce the pain a bit.

Computers have no understanding of colors – to them it is just a numbers game.

Colors, Oh Those Damn Colors

Maybe you conclude things were simpler in the old days of taking your color film to some lab or retailer. Heck no. In the “old days”, a good print meant endless darkroom exercises tinkering with enlarger settings, which doesn’t even start dealing with the external Galen Rowell In the Ice Caveviewing or printing issues. Color management was not easier but merely overlooked in many cases, or more accurately, achieved in a different way.

Colors and photography are a mess. Technology makes it all harder, not easier. Truly managing colors in photography is a massive undertaking that many photographers avoid or ignore. The bright side is that if you make the effort to master color and its management, you are far ahead of much of the competition. The bleak side is the hours you spend on tinkering with calibrations, devices and standards. Many of us end up with a compromise. One compromise is to let specialists deal with the whole issue. That is expensive. Another option is to wing it. You learn what makes a nice print on a trial and error basis. You learn that a bluish tint on the monitor results in a great print on your Canon printer. And you get on with life.

Let’s jump into yet another issue. Different films as well as different digital chips have unique sensitivities to the wave lengths of color. A particular film (or sensor), black&white or color, may be more sensitive to blue than red. Another film or sensor may behave in the opposite manner. Each film is associated with a sensitivity profile ranging over the wave length spectrum. This spectrum sets the film apart from other films. The same is true for sensor chips in a digital camera. The difference is that the chip is permanently in place while, in the film case, you can simply change films to match the shooting situation and your vision. The Galen Rowell Sunset from the Bottomback end (film or chip) may be sensitive to waves beyond the visible spectrum. In the case of film, that may be X-ray waves.

The latest Leica M camera, the first digital version, suffered (suffers?) from an abnormal sensitivity to infrared light. This resulted in strange distortions that were visible in the images under some circumstances. Given a price of around $4,500 for just the camera body, that is a bit embarrassing. Is it a unique case? I think not.

Now you know one major reason I love black&white photography. Not that any of the color issues magically disappear (they surely don’t since you have to manage the color to gray scale transition) but dealing with a gray scale is a lot more natural to me than tinkering endlessly with scores of color standards. And in my mind, b&w has an artistic impact unmatched in any medium. That, of course, is just my view.

Using Color: The Magical Toolbox

Color issues fall in two arenas: Before Exposure and After Exposure. Colors are only a form of light or, precisely, they come from light beams split into color waves. Everything in the previous section about light applies to color waves as well. This section expands on the special form of light referred to as colors.

The Before Exposure considerations include:

You have an artistic vision. You developed a photographic style. You are on assignment. Let’s say you’ll shoot color. The first Leni Riefenthal Underwater 1consideration is that your vision most likely favors certain color combinations, mood and overall light. It may be in-your-face harsh light and strong, exaggerated colors. Or perhaps it is calm muted colors with a minimum of shadows. It might be a mix of the two. Next, mesh that vision with the requirements for the shoot (if any). The vision rules, the requirements are the handcuffs.

Then, find the location that matches the vision and requirements. You are, of course, familiar with all the ways in which colors and light vary depending on a great many, but often predictable factors (excluding weather in the case of outdoors shoots – if you need sunshine and it’s raining hard, you’re out of luck).

Now you have advanced to the chosen location. It is a matter of setting up the actual shoot. The dominating consideration still is color and light. Even with the most informed choice of location, there will be color and light issues to deal with. Things are always just a bit out of sync. Sometimes they are way out of sync. The exception, of course, is if you maintain your own control over light and color by Leni Riefenthal Underwater 2supplying you own lighting setup.

Your vision, of course, favors certain compositional elements, including color preferences and associated moods and balances. Now faced with the real world, perhaps the scene does not match the vision perfectly or, maybe, not at all. It is time to reconsider and improvise. Or walk away which might be costly.

So a particular dance starts up, similar to the “As Time Goes By Can Can” already mentioned for exposure and composition. Let’s call this dance “The High Noon Two Step”. You run around the location, checking out shadows, highlights, midtones, light ratios and color shifts, perhaps wishing you were free to move around the country instead. You’re adjusting this and moving that. You Leni Riefenthal Underwater 3tinker with the camera, fitting filters, changing film, moving the white balance this way, then that way. You’re pre visualizing like a mad man. You snapping test shots left, right, up, down and possibly upside down.

Eventually, you have to admit you used all the tools, the scene is OK and it’s time to actually start shooting. The madness actually followed a path (although no one may believe it). So the “As Time Goes By Can Can” compositional dance is about to start. The color work is temporarily on hold. Actual pictures are about to happen.

After Exposure, there are more opportunities to screw up or to enhance the images:

Development strategy or initial Photoshop corrections: You did, of course, pre visualize the image which should define the steps to take in development and printing. But sometimes the initial result isn’t quite Leni Riefenthal Underwater 4what you expected. Maybe your white balance setting was a bit off. Perhaps the color film wasn’t quite to specs or the development chemicals a bit too old. So don’t be too surprised you have to apply some initial corrections to get the colors back on the intended track.

Alter the color balance and related features: Your pre visualization may well include corrections to the original image. Perhaps you shoot digitally but the plan is for a black&white image. Maybe you planned to enhance the original image to fit into your vision or work spec: apply more vivid or muted colors, shift the colors to some off beat point, add some special effect or combine several images. There are literally infinite possibilities to make your vision come true, whatever it is.

End use adjustments: Most likely the image has to be adjusted fit the particular color (and other) requirements of the intended end market, be it a photo album, web site, Leni Riefenthal Underwater 5print advertisement, gallery show, museum purchase or a shoe box. Each end-use has different requirements, usually radically different: the color capabilities of the web are very different from an offset printer as an example. Typically, your image must be adjusted into several versions: perhaps one to show to clients in your carry-around portfolio, one for your web site portfolio, one for your long term hard drive storage, one containing your printing instructions, another for off-site printing, low resolution versions for Flickr, MySpace and the hundreds of other promotional web sites.

The final image and follow ups: You’ll produce the actual high resolution image in all its glorious colors to be used, published, shown or exhibited. Hopefully you’ll reap the well deserved rewards. Then you’ll consider documenting and protecting all the color (and other) work you have put into not just this image but the perhaps thousands of other images in your portfolio. This is a real Leni Riefenthal Underwater 6management issue – how do you keep track of all these versions of a single image and all its unique settings for different purposes? Especially considering you own thousands of images? How do you keep them safe over long periods of time? How do you record color (and other) settings so you can repeat them? There are many solutions available – I’ll have to leave that part to you.

That’s it for the discussion of colors. Together with the light discussion, you have a pretty good foundation for dealing with these two critical elements. The idea was to alert you to some of the intricate details of these basic components of your magical toolbox. Next, we’ll examine the two other fundamental components. That is the camera with its lenses and backends followed by the human system of eyes, retinas and the brain in processing the images.


Light in the Camera

A camera is basically a fairly simple mechanical object. It consists of a lens, a shutter system and a back end device such as a digital chip or a film. The back end catches the light remaining after passing through the lens and the shutter system. Then the back end stores a representation of the light by chemically altering the film or by writing to file a digital representation of the energy hitting the sensor chip. That’s about it. Of course there are additional elements supporting the three basic ones – light meters, flashes, digital software and much else for the gadget happy photographer. One good advice is to stick with the basics as we will in this essay.

Expensive Lenses or Not

A lens is just some pieces of glass or, occasionally, plastic mounted in a tube. It gathers light to be recorded by the back end of the camera. Engineers discovered, over the last 150 years or so, that it is not possible to build an accurate lens. Today’s lenses are incredibly complex in pursuit of the fewest inaccuracies and/or the most pleasing distortions. Even so, a lens does not pass on what it sees but its distorted version of what is in front of it. Each brand with its focal length, f-values, focusing system and Diane Arbus Lady with Curlerseven individual lenses of a particular specification/brand have different and, to some extent, measurable characteristics.

Hence, no matter what you pay, lenses are not perfect from a scientific point of view – the light coming through the lens is reduced in intensity and the light beams hitting the back end are distorted due to the optical imperfections of any lens. There is no way around that. Most of these distortions are correctable, either in a darkroom or in Photoshop (or similar software).

Here are just a few of the possible imperfections: pincushion or barrel distortion, image corners out of focus, image corner light falloff, vignetting, ghost images, flares or the curvilinear effect from fisheye lenses. More generally: there are out of focus optical distortions (monochromatic aberration) such as tilt (perspective changes), defocus (sensitivity to focus changes – related to depth of field and focal length), spherical (imperfect refraction resulting in “circular” blurs of light points), coma (off-axis points are rendered wedge-shaped), astigmatism (certain images KGLPhoto Seattle Demonstratorappear doubled) and field curvature (this stands for barrel and pincushion distortion). Lastly there are the optical lens color shifts (chromatic aberrations) that may be axial or lateral.

Aesthetically, what is pleasing given the distortions to one photographer is deplorable to another. Lens snobs (connoisseurs) often concentrate their attention on the “bokeh” of the lens – how the out of focus parts of the image are rendered. Bokeh is generally not measurable but subjective. In a digital world, bokeh of a lens is easily manipulated in Photoshop.

Adding to the imperfections of the lens are the human errors – using the wrong lens and the wrong settings. Then the problem of low light and handheld shooting often results in handshake blur, in some cases reduced by built in image stabilizers – a fairly new feature.

The wise photographer learns to live with and benefit from the characteristics of a set of favorite lenses. Realizing the full benefits of a lens consists of long and intensive use in typical shooting situations. Some photographers claim the only way to understand the strength and weakness of a lens is to exclusively use it for a year.

The Mechanical Wonders of Shutters

Then we have the shutter system. Better yet, we might include the aperture device and call it the light control system. While we are at it, let’s add the light meter present in most cameras. There are endless engineering variations of these systems. All of them share one characteristic. KGLPhoto Lady BartenderThey are inaccurate.

Accuracy is a relative concept. The shutter and the light system may actually be quite accurate except it is not doing what you tell it to do. Say that you set a shutter speed of 1/500 second. The shutter will actually give you 1/400 (say). Typically, every time you set 1/500, you will consistently get 1/400. The shutter will most likely not randomly jump around from 1/250 to 1/700 and everything in between. Likewise, the light system may consistently set you up for 1 stop overexposure. These issues are not fatal as long as you calibrate the camera or at least identify the issues. This is not very hard to do.

Potentially a much worse issue is that of relying on automation – auto exposure, auto focus and in digital cameras, auto white point. Both work efficiently only in trivial shooting situations and actually encourage bad or at least boring compositions. Consider auto focus which requires you to point the camera at the subject and then expose. That composition is not likely to be very exciting. Of course, you can point the camera at the subject, lock the focus KGLPhoto A Customerand recompose. But if so, why not manually focus which is faster, easier and more accurate?

A few cameras allow you to use off center focus points. My Canon has that ability and that works quite well although even the nine or so focusing points are not enough in my case. How about a continuously adjustable focus point? Is that too much to ask for?

Then, there is auto exposure which works great if you shoot even surfaces of 18% grey. If not, trouble soon pops up. Try this on: grab your camera, go out on a dark night to a nearby well trafficked road, making sure you don’t get run over. Try to take a picture using auto exposure of the oncoming traffic. First, point the camera in the vicinity of the headlight coming towards you and expose. Next, place the headlights off center and expose. The first image will be way underexposed while the second will be overexposed. The correct exposure is somewhere in the middle and only some intelligent guess work will save the night.

To help exposure issues, many cameras can bracket the shots automatically, up and down a few stops. That is quite helpful but won’t work in the roadside example – that variation in exposure far exceeds the typical bracketing settings.

Back ends – Film or Silicon

In a film camera, you load a particular film. That film possess unique features: brand, batch, age, overall sensitivity (ASA or DIN) and the more precise spectral sensitivity over wave lengths all the way down to the individual roll and how it was handled and stored Cindy Sherman Untitledfrom manufacturing and on. Many photographers overlook the importance of handling and storing film correctly and are punished by color casts and other unexpected issues. High temperatures and any kind of radiation make bad news. Film may be over or underexposed, either by mistake or by purpose, in which case the film is pushed or pulled, which, then, is compensated for in development.

In a digital camera, the back end consists of a chip, onboard memory and software. The chip possesses various unique characteristics ranging from resolution and sensitivity to size. The onboard software takes the raw input from the chip, massages it and converts it into an image file of some standard format, usually JPEG. RAW images may – or not – bypass the onboard software to produce an “accurate” image. Some digital cameras allow you to modify the onboard software for white balance, shooting what the manufacturer considers typical situations (”Hawaiian Sunsets”, “Cathedrals” etc.) and much else. Removing “red eyes” has become quite an industry because most camera manufacturers knowingly put the flash in the wrong place.

Of course, the image produced by the back end – film or digital – is not accurate at all. Consider the journey of light from the sun towards earth, bent and hammered as it flies along. Then the atmosphere with reflections, refractions, collisions and Annie Leibowitz Three Girlslots more does its trick or treat act. The treacherous lens adds to the wounds, the shutter and light system adds to the insult and the back end lets everyone down. Then add this little element to the pot:

If you are a Photoshop affectionate, you may have played – or even used – some of the fancy plug-ins that attempt to change the characteristics of various back ends. There are plug ins that “compensate” for or “emulate” all kinds of film brands. You can make your digital photo look like it was shot with HP 400 black and white film. Or Velvia color film. Or anything else you may fancy. There are other plug-ins making your film images look like they were digitally shot. Other filters make your image look like it was shot in 1853. Of course, all you do is to add more distortions to your image.

The Ultimate Camera

All we can expect of a camera is for it to give us images we like. Or images we can Leni Riefenthal Nuba Male“improve” using various tools. We must have sufficient control over the shooting session. We can’t get bogged down in technical gadgetry. We can deal with the distortions produced by the camera. Just accept the unavoidable fact that the camera gives you a highly distorted view of the light from the subject you’re shooting. Then keep shooting.

The Ultimate Camera is the one you are happy with and gives you images you like without too much fuss. It may play nasty tricks on you once in a while but that’s life. Do be aware that automations and gimmicks will generally make your life harder. Keep it simple and shoot as much as you can afford. Equipment prices have little to do with this – $20 Holga cameras have quite a following and artistic acceptance because of the extreme amount of distortions produced. They aren’t as great if you want to be a basket ball sports photographer.

This post surfaced a lot of issues about cameras and photography – sources of untold inaccuracies, distortions and fallacies in almost every step on the road. Some Arnold Newman Alfred Krupp Portraitmay think that digital technology will make all that hassle go away. The answer is no. The reason for that is that most of the issues have nothing to do with photography. The behavior of light and how our brains process color information are items completely outside our control and do not change no matter what the camera is doing or if it is digital or film based.

The few remaining professional film cameras are marvelous technical machines, built from 60-80 years of crucifying development. They survived anything from nuclear blasts to World Wars to landing on the moon. They even survived Uncle Ben and the punch bowl. They have been used to punch out muggers, stop bullets and to drive down nails. They are stolen, fenced and stolen again. They remain faithfully capable of taking great photos as long as there is film to load and a live finger to press that shutter release.

Professional digital cameras build on that tradition but have not quite been through the hazing of their film brothers. Yet they are the result of terrific technology advances that won’t stop for a long Robert Doisneau Two Prostitutestime. But no matter how big a sensor or how smart the auto focus, physical laws do not change. Digital technology faces exactly the same issues as does film technology but is nowhere closer to overcome such issues. That is because these issues go beyond cameras. A $40,000 digital Hasselblad system does not reduce pollution in Shanghai. Nor does it correct for ice cave blues. It can’t cure color blindness. Compositions with the Hasselblad are no better than those from my father’s old mechanical monster.

Cameras give us an image frozen in time. You press the shutter button. The shutter fires for a given period of time. The back end records the light received in that period of time. The raw image is done and reflects only that slice in time. This leads us to the next subject and two very different devices – our eyes that record images in an analog manner and our brain that processes those analog images in real time. This is way more complex and sophisticated than that camera. But first: some words from the wise.

More Quotes from the Wise

  • I like to watch the person viewing my photographs to see if their eyes twinkle or cloud with tears. Does the smile sneak out when they were not expecting it to? Then I know I have captured emotion that can be shared. -Marsha Cairo
  • A big shot is a little shot that kept shooting. -Amanda Caldwell; The mystery isn’t in the technique, it’s in each of us. -Harry Callahan; If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. -Robert Capa; Rules aren’t any good if they don’t work! The only real rules are the laws of physics and optics. -Dean Collins
  • Images at their passionate and truthful best are as powerful as words can ever be. If they alone cannot bring change, they can at least provide an understanding mirror of man’s actions, thereby sharpening human awareness and awakening conscience. -Cornell Capa
  • (Professional) photographers are like hookers: at first we started doing it because we liked it and it David Bailey Portrait Femalefelt good, then we kept doing it but only for our friends, and NOW we’re still doing it but are charging money for doing it! -Dean Collins
  • Pictures, regardless of how they are created and recreated, are intended to be looked at. This brings to the forefront not the technology of imaging, which of course is important, but rather what we might call the eyenology (seeing). -Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing. Success depends on the extent of one’s general culture, one’s set of values, one’s clarity of mind and one’s vivacity. The thing to be feared most is the artificially contrived, the contrary to life. -Henri Cartier-Bresson
    • Our eye must constantly measure, evaluate. We alter our perspective by a slight bending of the knees; we convey the chance meeting of lines by a simple shifting of our heads a thousandth of an inch…. We compose almost at the same time we press the shutter, and in placing the camera closer or farther from the subject, we shape the details – taming or being tamed by them. -Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • ..throughout the history of art it has been art itself – in all its forms – that has inspired art… today’s photographs are so geared to life that one can learn more from them than from life itself. -Van Deren Coke
  • The camera is a killing chamber, which speeds up the time it claims to be conserving. Like coffins exhumed and pried open, the photographs put on show what we were and what we will be again. -Peter Conrad
  • Photography is like fishing. You go out in the morning with no idea of what the trip will bring. Sometimes luck is on your side and all your crab pots are full of prime Lobsters. Other times you get nothing. -Bob Croxford
  • …There are too many people studying it [photography] now who are never going to make it. You can’t give them a formula for making it. You have to have it in you first, you don’t learn it. The seeing eye is the important thing. -Imogen Cunningham

Light in Your Head

What Do the Eyes See?

Superficially, our eyes share some characteristics with a camera. Eyes have lenses, irises and corneas that work like aperture and focusing controls. They understand and adjust Arnold Newman Pablo Picasso Portraitfor different light levels. There is a retina back end consisting of seven layers of light sensitive receptors that pass information to our brains. The eyes’ focusing, aperture and light controls are infinitely more sensitive and fast than those of any camera, however costly or “digitally advanced”.

Do our eyes accurately record the Truth and pass it on to the brain? No. Eyes have limitations. Some of us are near sighted, others far sighted and a few are color blind. Others are blind, or nearly so. Not to forget crossed or wandering eyes. To older people, focus muscles get worn out. The eyes may contract illnesses. The lenses and corneas are easily damaged. Many lenses are shaped in an inaccurate way, resulting in distortions. The receptors may get temporarily blinded by sudden surges in light levels.

There are big businesses involved in fixing your eyes. Eye glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses eat up billions of our dollars while introducing even more distortions. Many of these devices change the focus and color of the light reaching your eyes. Some even change to color of the eyes themselves. Surgery chains happily operate on your eyes at a remarkably low price, changing your point of view again.

The eyes and the rest of the visual system do not operate on light or colors the way a camera does. The human system transforms the light entering the eyes to initially straight lines that eventually combine into curved lines and contours. Colors and light levels are Robert Doisneau Pablo Picasso with Big Fingersjudged by comparing the curves. Colors are no longer represented by K values or any other ordinary system. Light is no longer measured by absolute levels, as is done in the photo cell of a light meter. The process of interpreting all these lines, contours and relative levels introduces yet another level of inaccuracy. It is the basis of the many illusions with which some (such as psychiatrists) like to work or play.

Add the analog feature of our eyes and visual system. There is no such thing as one view of our surroundings. The eyes constantly receive new information. They react to the information in an eternal cycle of adjustments. Most of us have two eyes. Each eye receives a two dimensional view. The visual system combines the two dimensional views into a three dimensional view. Take that, you one-eyed, two dimensional cameras.

Think about it. Here are your relatively tiny eyes that have incomparable power and flexibility relative to any camera at any price and size. But accurate – don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.

Your Brain Is Fooling You

The brain does fix it all, in a manner of speech. It is in complete charge of our perceptions. It even adds a whole emotional dimension to the information from the eyes. Of course, the brain controls the eyes themselves, not to mention all of you. A regular control freak, your brain is. But whatever the brain decides to present to you is the truth Ralph Gibson Female Foreheadbecause you have no source for a second opinion.

The trouble is we don’t quite understand what our brain does with that relatively straight forward stream of distorted light entering the eyes. We can’t control the process. We do know that what we see is an interpretation created by the brain. What are the rules for this interpretation? Here you enter a real complex issue studied by many very clever people with lots of theories, some of which are contradictory.

One theory states that the brain creates an interpolated view that is based on incomplete information from the eyes. This, again, explains the visual illusions mentioned earlier. Manipulate the incomplete information reaching the brain and it makes predictably bad decisions. There are various theories how this interpretation works, such as the one claiming the brain uses the complex math of Bayesian science.Ralph Gibson Oily Hair

Most theories agree that the brain is not an impartial recorder or interpreter of truth. It receives input from the eyes and all our other sensors. It examines the input, compares it to prior input (“experience”, “knowledge”) in its database and modifies the original input to make it more understandable and safer. Take, for instance, the novice 911 medic. The first job experiences are extremely traumatic but become routine fairly quickly. The work isn’t getting easier but that the brain distorts the reality to protect the worker. The same goes for novice soldiers entering their first battle. Later they become seasoned veterans as their brains and experience database kicks in its protective circuits.

In a more peaceful world, how many times have you used the expression “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” as applied to practically anything. The brain learns from experience and applies it to any similar situation in the future. The phenomenon of “deja vu” is similar. A new input is suddenly associated with a previous experience that may or may not be real. Theories abound on how this works, but suffice to say that the brain is quite prepared to play games with you.

The brain also makes basic assumptions such as that light is usually coming from above. It relies on prior experience to produce a predicable, safe interpretation. It is almost like the old (very outdated) saying in IT circles: You will never go wrong by buying IBM. The brain produces an image that it thinks you will like. It even goes as far as making sure that image won’t hurt you too much.David Bailey Mick Jagger Rolling tondes

Then there is the “Gestalt” theory. It states that the brain receives a bunch of sub components of the visual image. The brain then combines these sub components into the whole according to a set of rules. This theory claims the brain uses six distinct rules to achieve its goal: perhaps, perhaps not.

Other theories claim the rules depend on personality, race, gender, occupation, education, age, attitudes and values and so on. I suppose that makes intuitive sense. A different theory discards most of this theory: the brain receives sufficient information and does not make interpretations.

Here you are: a full circle and total confusion. Does this sound like the visual system capable of presenting Reality? Is it even designed to show Reality? The simple answers are No and No. On top of all the other distortions, the brain adds/filters out its own version of Reality. It’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry. Jack Nicholson cried out to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth”. How true.


Part 2b – Dimensions and Photography?

What on Earth do dimensions have in common with photography? That’s an excellent question and I’m sure the answer is not all that immediately clear. For one thing, the word “dimensions” can mean many a thing. Which meaning is it? Photography is physically two dimensional: up, down and left, right. That print or computer image is definitely flat, so what’s the problem?Pablo Picasso Town View

There is no problem. But “dimensions” can lead to many useful ideas to be included in the magical toolbox. As all of this post, the goal is to somehow generate thinking outside the traditional box.

Here are a couple of the “dimension” issues in photography. The simplistic way of looking at a printed photo is to view it as the flat two dimensional object. Yet, we’re concerned with the meaning of the photo and how it gains sufficient interest to be regarded as piece of art.

First, that two dimensional photo really is three dimensional. Very few photos lack some form of depth aspect. Ansel Adams’ landscapes would not have their impact without their strong perception of depth. On the other extreme, depth can be minimal in macro photography due the characteristics of the lens. Take a look at the Picasso paintings in the section – many use a very limited depth perspective.

Second, take sports photography. Sports photography is all about catching excitement. No one cares about a photo with a bunch of 7′ guys in baggy uniforms hanging around gazing at the moon. Kobe Bryant rounding up three defenders and sinking that buzzer shot in split second action is more like it. The basic dimensions here are position, distance and time (aka speed).

Third, a really good photo contains more than a two or three dimensional space. There is something special about that picture. We naturally want to know what that “special” is. It might be an “emotional” or a “time” dimension. Perhaps it is a “social” or “racial” dimension. It can even be a dimension used in math or physics. It can be a lot of things and the purpose of this discussion is to figure out how dimensions – aka unique characteristics – can become integral parts of photographic visions Pablo Picasso Another Town Viewand toolboxes.

Like everything else, the dimensions of an artist’s work are unique and personal. Camera stores do not carry ready-to-go sets of dimensions. There are no standard set of dimensions; each artist defines a unique set. Some dimensions are lifelong companions, some are more flexible. The often lifelong racial dimension, for instance, is important to some, while others only care about perhaps more short term emotional dimensions such as depression or euphoria. Dimensions leave you open to think about your art and its character in a slightly different way.

If it sounds as if dimensions are just another word for beliefs or opinions, you are partially right. A belief system certainly is one part of these dimensions – but not the only influence. There are two groups of relevant dimensions: first – physical dimensions which can project a unique view of the world on our art. As an example, the images in this section distort regular physical dimensions. You might say these dimensions come from the outside flowing inwards. The second set flows from the inside outwards and includes creativity, beliefs, attitudes, skills and motivation. This is about how the world views us as artists – good/bad – and how we’d like the world to view us – and what we can do about any discrepancy between the two. Impact is an important part of art. The images seen here project the artist’s view very efficiently. They make a difference.

Here is an example of impact. The mural below is one art’s most influential statements on war. Denouncing the 1937 Nazi bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, it shows the death, violence, brutality and suffering of war. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed as the war’s Fascist side used massive fire power on Republican civilians. In 1937, the artist said:

  • “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? … In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”

Pablo Picasso Guernica Spanish Civil War Fascism Nazi


Images in this Section

The approach to the images in this section is a bit different. There are a few photos but the main thrust is based on the artistry of Pablo Picasso. If there ever was an artist with very personal dimensions, his Pablo Picasso Naked Womanname is Picasso.

Picasso’s dimensions are not the obedient linear objects where the sky is blue, the sun yellow and the ladies have creamy skin. Skins are blue, red or perhaps rose, noses are displaced with two eyes on one side of the face, men are part bulls, perspective is in uproar or even not existing. He shamelessly uses all imaginable linear and often non linear distortions.

That’s Picasso, one of the greatest of them all. As you get further into this section, I think you’ll realize why he is such a splendid illustration to this section.


What’s a Dimension?

Most of us intuitively know what dimensions are. They are horizontal, vertical and depth – aka a basic three dimensional space. That’s what our senses, especially eyes and brain, are accustomed to and how most of us perceive our surroundings. There is nothing wrong with this basic view.Pablo Picasso Portrait

Many of us go on to muddle up this basic set by mentally adding dimensions that aren’t dimensions. That might include adding altitude, direction, distance and position. Even worse, some would add movement, speed, departure, arrival, season and weekday dimensions. None of these are good dimensions – in the first case, all those “dimensions” are just combinations of the three basic ones and in the second case we should add the common dimension “time” instead of the other “junk” dimensions. It is perfectly fine to use computed measures such as altitude, distance and weekday – they are not basic, unique dimensions of the context. Overuse of false dimensions doesn’t really matter to the average citizen but can cause a great deal of confusion to a visual artist.

Here is the definition we’ll use: a dimension is a unique, basic characteristic of an object that does not depend on any other characteristics or dimensions. That is by no means the only definition – many others are more permissibly. Consider a common statement such as “He added another dimension by claiming Iraq had WMD”. Do Iraq and WMD somehow make a dimension? Do they define some other dimension or is it just a cliché? Apply the definition then the statement probably is junk: no dimension was added. Saying “He claimed Iraq had WMD” is more accurate. Paplo Picasso Two Eyed Woman

Take “time” as an example of a common dimension and say we define that characteristic as “seconds”. The definition then means that “hours” is not a valid dimension since it simply is “seconds” multiplied by 3,600. In a similar mode, “velocity” is not a true dimension since it is equal to “distance” divided by “time”. “Hours” and “velocity” of course are perfectly valid measurements of an object – they are just not true dimensions.

Incidentally, “distance” is not a good, basic dimension since it relates two points to each other – “point” is perhaps a better dimension? But point usually is represented by coordinates so then “point” is not a good dimension. And coordinates combine the height and width dimensions in a two dimensional space. Just scratch “distance, point and coordinates” from your list of dimensions – height and width are sufficient to provide calculations and measurements such as distance, points and coordinates.

Here is an example from the business world: Products and Customers are commonly used, valid dimensions. Neither can logically be expressed as some permutation of the other: “Customers” are not some combination of “Products” or vice versa. On the other hand, “Invoice” is not a dimension – it’s a combination of Customers and Products. “Delivery” and “Rebates” are not good dimensions but “Time” and “Money” are all valid. Pablo Picasso Women by the Sea

Technically, true dimensions are orthogonal to all other dimensions of that object. That means true dimensions are independent from each other – they share no characteristics and cannot interfere with each other. When you think about your art and its different features or when you split up the various important aspects of your work, independence of each feature and aspect will help make them much clearer and actionable. That’s how dimensions come in handy.

Maybe you still wonder what the point of this discussion is. The goal is to extend your photographic art by adding additional content or “dimensions”. We want to reach beyond those naive, two dimensional photographs. This is hard to do unless you know what make a real and unique dimension.


Combining Dimensions

Very few objects are characterized by only one dimension. In fact, if an object only has one dimension, then it probably is a dimension. Already mentioned are the common, basic “spaces” of two (vertical, horizontal), three (add depth) and four (add time) dimensions.

Let’s play a little game. Below are four photos. They all, of course, contain the two basic dimensions but the question is what other dimensions are contained in the images. Now, that is a trick question because we don’t know what the dimensions that the photographer thought about and, second, your answer is unlikely to be the same as my answer. There should be no rights or wrongs. Do make the effort of identifying two or three extra dimensions for each image. Better yet; write them down before continuing to read – no cheating!

KGLPhoto Photographic depth

Sebastio Salgado Social Photography

KGLPhoto Emotional Photography

Robert Capa Motion in Photography

Did you come up with your set of dimensions for each of the four images? If not, go back and start over!

Here is my take – yours probably is different. The first of my dimensions is shared by all images – “light”. All of the four images manipulate light which easily is a unique dimension. Then, “color” or “black and white” are not dimensions. They are just special aspects of light. The first photograph emphasizes “depth”. The second deals with a “social” dimension – the subject is a mine in South America with less than human working conditions. The third image is primarily “emotional” – in this case happiness or joy. The last photo includes a “motion” component, which isn’t really a dimension – use “time” instead.

Let’s go back to the business example – do you think “Customer” and “Product” are relevant dimensions to the images above? That would be really stretching it, right? Dimensions are not universal; they are very dependent on context. If you care to continue this exercise: what dimensions would you associate with specific photographic styles such as Forensic, Journalism, Documentary, Commercial (e.g., Fashion, Wedding, Modeling, Food and Travel), Portraits, Nature, Street and Abstract?

Pablo Picasso Self PortraitOn the flip side, what kinds of photography do you associate with dimensions such as Spirituality, Evil, Cost, Price, Manners, Danger, Meters, Ounces, Health, Ethics, Shadows, Emotions, Money, Climate, Politics, Capital and Food? Are these items actually real, unique dimensions in a specific context? For instance, Evil is hopefully a rare component of Portrait photography. Ethics are especially important in Journalistic and Documentary work. Starting with these two examples, what dimensions associate with particular contexts? Are the associations relevant to photography? If so, how precisely does a photographer make use of this insight? What other (better) dimensions can you think of?

Very few of us have trouble with three or even four dimensional spaces – horizontal, vertical, depth and perhaps time. Another way to describe the four dimensions is width, length, depth and time. Most sciences claim humans can only really comprehend a three dimensional world with some time elements added in, such as motion. The scientific world has identified more basic spatial dimensions although humans really cannot comprehend or “see” any of them. But spatial dimensions are only part of the picture. We will deal with non-spatial dimensions as well.

Rocket Science – Spatial Dimensions

Spatial Euclidian Spaces

Math defines spaces consisting of any number of unique dimensions based on work by Euclid, about 300 BC. A zero dimensional space consists of an infinitely small point. A one dimensional space is a line.Pablo Picasso First Bull

A generic space includes N dimensions where N is any number, including infinity. An actual Euclidian space is usually characterized by a series of planes, defined by sets of points on which certain operations are allowed. You can tilt the planes, move them around, rotate them and measure their distance and angle relative to some point.

The Euclidian space consists of coordinates, angles and distances. Coordinates define points. Two points define a distance. Angles compare lines, vectors and planes. Think about how to apply what you just read to photography: coordinates and points, distances between points, planes made up by sets of points and angles of planes. Henri Cartier-Bresson once said:

  • This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.

Cartier-Bresson was no mathematician. Yet he applied Euclidian multidimensional theory to his art, perhaps without knowing. In reality, anyone applying composition to photography uses the Euclidian Pablo Picasso Second Bullprinciples. Your Euclidian space was initiated 2,300 years ago. After all these years, you are still free to add your personal dimensions.

Euclidian spaces decompose visual composition quite well and have plenty of practical, real life applications in economics, physics, medicine and countless other areas. Yet it is not the only way of looking at dimensions. The weak point of Euclidian dimensions is that they do not define what its dimensions are in a real world. You might assign length, width etc. to some dimensions but, generally, neither Euclid nor modern mathematicians do or care to. Reality is conveniently abstracted away.

Modern scientists have extended the Euclidian spaces in many different directions. The case of up to three dimensions is pretty straight forward. At four dimensions, differences start to occur. Although many regard Pablo Picasso Third BullTime as the best addition, others look at it differently. A fourth dimension may consist of a way to connect several three dimensional spaces, Put your slippers in the floor. Go get a rope. Tie up the slippers with the rope. Congratulations, you just entered the world of four dimensions. Untie the slippers and you return to a three dimensional world. The rope is the way to connect the three dimensions with a fourth.

The slipper example certainly is pretty silly. The point isn’t. In the current context, the fourth or Nth dimension can define a way to go from an N-1 space to N or N-2 dimensions. That is quite useful. Let’s go back to our eyes. They record a three dimensional world flattened into the two dimensional space of the retina. The brain then applies a third dimension to give an illusion of three dimensions that we “see”. The brain analyses the two dimensional information for clues to the next dimension: shadows, foreshortening and perspective provide information to the brain how the two dimensions might extend to three.

As always, the brain is easy to fool. Consider this example of a two dimensional picture, below, that completely violates the brain’s rules making it impossible to get to an illusion of three dimensions:False Perspectives

Look at the picture (which is no Picasso) above long enough and you will likely go crazy. Now, juxtaposition in photography refers to including an object that contrasts in some respect with the rest of the scene. Such an object usually is there to challenge the viewer and to add tension. The tension is achieved by breaking the rules of the brain’s attempts to add a dimension to what it sees: for instance, include a flower vase lit from the opposite of the rest of the image. It can also be an object that is out of context: a portrait of Oprah embracing David Letterman or the pictures of Saddam Hussein with small children. The picture above is an over-the-top shopping list of ways to offend the brain and creating tension (or confusion).

So far, dimensions are useful for cleanly defining compositions that generically create harmony and juxtapositions that add tensions. Compositions and juxtapositions aren’t really dimensions since Pablo Picasso Nude Woman they basically are combinations of the planes, angles and lines already present in Euclidian space. The usefulness of this to photography consists of adding formal elements and organization. That is not bad at all. But the story on dimensions is by no means finished yet.

Spatial String theory

Scientists are not satisfied with two, three or four dimensions, however you define them. String theory, also known as Superstring theory, is an attempt to explore areas in Nature and the Universe and create a universal theory covering more known events than is possible by four dimensions. The areas include explaining the interaction and nature of particles, planets, orbits, stars, black holes, electromagnetism, gravity and the Big Bang when the Universe was born. The scientific driving force is quantum mechanics. Our driving force is looking for new insights and becoming better artists. Perhaps a few warped dimensions will do the trick as it did for Picasso.

String theory went through and will continue to go through many evolutions: originally dealing with special particles called hadrons, then pondering the interaction, at zero distance, of particles with zero mass spinning around, leading to explorations of gravity. String theory can predict these natural and cosmic Pablo Picasso Bull Manbehaviors.

Strings are like guitar strings except not attached to anything. The strings may be stretched and set to vibrate, emitting “tones” or, rather, energy. These strings are quite small or in the order of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. The strings may be closed loops or open ended. They are paired with other particles in super symmetry – if a string emits force (“tones”) then there must be a receptor of this force.

Now that all of that is perfectly clear, none of this has been truly confirmed as existing. Those strings are way too small to be seen. Then there are several string theories to consider. These theories combine with quantum mechanics to add the notion of dimensions. These dimensions are as many as 26 or as few as 10 for “superstrings”. Work is ongoing to reduce the different theories into one single theory called M theory which is known as the Mother of All Theories.

We now have ten dimensions with vibrating strings. One of the dimensions is Time, leaving nine others. Of these nine, you might have a circular dimension. A string particle entering such a dimension starts circling, adding momentum energy to the whole setup. The string can wind itself around the circular dimension. This represents momentum and winding modes. There is a coupling of the string to Pablo Picasso Mother and Childrenthe dimension. There are now zero dimension objects (infinitely small ones), one dimensional (points), two dimensional lines and three dimensional membranes similar to Euclid’s planes.

Here is where we are: we have the three dimensions we are used to. Add the Time dimension for four dimensions, leaving the six other dimensions from string theory. This means that to describe a point, there are the four basic coordinates usually denoted as (x,y,z and t). Add six more coordinates to define a string theory point. These extra six dimensions make it possible to model a lot more events into a common framework. So how do you relate the six extra dimensions back to the four we humans know? One way is to make the extra dimensions real small and the whole system subject to gravitational, electromagnetic and scalar forces. That is, string theory does not just deal with dimensions but also the forces driving the interactions in the system.

This is great – we have a ten dimensional tool that can describe any natural phenomena from the Big Bang to Broccoli. It can tell what goes on in Black Holes and in holes in your socks. It certainly should provide brilliant insights into your photography. Unfortunately, those six extra dimensions are a mystery – no one knows what they are. They are “compacted” to be as small as possible and out of the way. Their only current role is to make forming the equations of a string-based universe possible. One sticking point is that these equations are so complex that only approximations are possible. A Six Dimensional Calabi-Yau object

One possible view of the six extra dimensions is that they are associated with Six Dimensional Calabi-Yau Shapes. These shapes or manifolds look like crumbled up paper with curves twisting all over in an incredibly complex pattern. There are no straight lines in this very strange environment. To the right is an artistic rendering of such a six dimensional monster. Unfortunately, there are thousands of possible objects like this, each extremely complex. Which one is the right one? It may take generations to reach a conclusive answer.

Now, if ten dimensions are hard to deal with, how about two hundred forty eight?

Spatial 248 Dimension Lie StructuresThe 248 Dimensional E8 Lie Group

Recently, 19 mathematicians each spent four years specifying a Lie group, named E8, which contains 248 dimensions and is based on a 453,060*453,060 matrix of parameters. That is 205,263,363,600 parameters that aren’t even straightforward numbers but complex equations. After toiling collectively for 36 man years, they did manage to define this mysterious thing.

Lie was a Norwegian mathematician living in the mid to late 1800s. The two images to the right are math’s ways to explain some of the relationships.

It takes a supercomputer three days just to make a test run on this massively complex “group” or structure. The 205 billion inputs, thought, are tiny compared to the output. A small font printout demands a paper sized 50 square miles. The Genome Project, as a comparison, uses only 1/60 of the input data of the Lie group. To the right and a little up and down, are two different representations of the E8 Lie group. The top shows the “root” and the bottom one shows the form of the matrix. 248 Dimension Lie Group

A Lie group captures the essence of symmetry, manifolds and geometrical elements. Applications of these groups include string theory, particle and theoretical physics, structures of complex materials such as crystals and even some aspects of the Internet. The Euclidian N dimensional spaces are Lie groups as are various types of matrices.

So What’s the Deal with Strings and Lies?

At the end of the day – what on earth is this all about? “Am I supposed to apply Lie groups to shooting Grand Ma’s 90th Celebration?” you ask. I would advice not to attempt that – where would you put the 50 square mile printout? There are a few lessons to be learnt from this curious stretch of our road.

The case of the Euclidian spaces should be pretty straightforward. There are direct parallels with composition and other aspects of photography. When you compose a picture, you really are Pablo Picasso Abstract Girlworking in a three or four dimension Euclidian space with planes, lines and points all related to each other and where you can adjust how these components work in harmony or tension.

The other two parts – String theory and Lie groups – differ from Euclidian spaces: the three/four dimensional spaces we are used to do not represent a complete and generic view of “Reality”. Nature is far more complex than that. That complexity is not well enough understood to directly aid us in photography. These extra dimensions, at least in the case of string theory, are spatial in character and subject to electro magnetic and gravitational forces.

The physical impact of the extra dimensions is probably unlike anything experienced before – if indeed they will ever be experienced. Nothing will be like the square, linear spaces of our ordinary environment. Objects, people and other creatures will twist, fade in and out, drop into deep canyons, hit high mountain tops where no mountains exist, switch from one space to another in a maddening experience. No, I’m not a Sci-Fi fan. Star wars are not for me. Sci-Fi writers are quite aware of the Lie groups and String Theories. I’d be surprised if there isn’t quite a bit enlightening interpretations in the Sci-Fi literature. I wouldn’t know about that.

Think about the images coming out of the Hubble telescope. These images do not penetrate the missing dimensions but do display some of the results of the interactions of such forces and Hubble Imagedimensions. The bluish image to the right above the portrait is from the Hubble. There is no accident the image is quite similar to the artist rendering of the Six Dimensional Calabi-Yau Shape a bit further up: that’s how I choose it.

The lesson is that reality may well be a lot more exciting than many of us think. Nothing should limit us to think in only the old linear dimensions. Those of us into portrait photography may hesitate about introducing twirling dimensions into the portfolios but that’s ok. A nature photographer may not appreciate his elk subject fading in and out. That’s OK too. Other may continue experimenting with the reality none of us have ever seen. That is very much OK.

Another item for thought is that dimensions do not exist in isolation but are linked to forces or energy. Such force might be a truck hitting you (let’s hope not) or lightning striking your model (let’s hope not). It may also be a strong wind across a landscape or a Tour de France biker heading up the Pyrenees. A time dimension may be strong or weak, long or short, discontinuous or linear or, why not, run backwards. A scene we shoot may be subject to imaginary heavy gravity, flattening everything. A subject’s hair may be suffering from heavy electro magnetic charges. You shoot an ad for McDonalds showing cows sucked into a black hole. Your camera turns on you and shoots only cats from now on. You yourself may fade in and out of nonlinear dimensions on occasion. I know I do.

Madness, you say. Out of question, you exclaim. Blasphemies, you cry. Are you familiar with Igor Stravinsky? Those are quotes from the audience walking out on the premier performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913 Paris. The collective walkout developed intIgor Stravinsky by Pablo Picassoo a full riot over this shameful, pagan ballet with its animal rhythms and offensive, unfathomable dimensions. Stravinsky is now viewed as one of the most influential composers of the 1900s. The Rite of Spring is one of his major early masterpieces. The portrait to the right is Pablo Picasso’s quite straight view of Igor Stravinsky.

Pablo Picasso was of the same generation as Igor Stravinsky. They knew each other well. Picasso’s images violate every perspective and linear space known to man, yet absolutely everything was there for a clear artistic reason and vision. Igor Stravinsky violated the rules of composition in an era when romanticism still ruled the kingdoms and the high seas of the Empires.

Only a dozen years before The Rite, Queen Victoria was still on the British throne. I doubt any of them (Victoria included with Igor and Pablo) thought about missing dimensions, non linear or not. But their work can be interpreted in that light (except Victoria – she has left the room). The key point here is the courage it took from both artists to break down walls and, most definitely, think beyond the ordinary paint and score boxes. That is a heritage worth carrying on. It was the beginning of the end of the British Empire, eventually leading to bra burning, nuclear bombs, G8, Britney Spears and the Beatles.

As they say, let’s add a new dimension to the discussion. Math geniuses and physics lions do not have a monopoly on this dimension stuff. For now, let’s return to the world of humans and maybe more familiar realms. That will be the day, you murmured.


Non-Spatial Human Dimensions

No, I don’t care about your waist line. I mean dimensional analysis as applied to and by humans. Psychologists apply dimensional analysis to see if you’re mad or not. If mad, they apply more dimensions to see if you are suicidal, should be locked up or are unable to pay the bill. Art critics love to apply newly invented dimensions to artwork whether or not anyone else has a clue what they talk about. Some churches Pablo Picasso Sceneforce values on their members to ensure proper spiritual dimensions. The Internet provides thousands of “dimensional” personality tests followed by an opportunity to join their communities of eternally young, merry, well adjusted and extremely compatible lovebirds at a minor fee. Politicians and their spin doctors like to control every dimension possible and usually deep six them far out of sight. Witness Bush with his brave war
against the “Terror” dimension and his Global Warming Denial dimension.

Many of the ideas about human dimensions come from work done in psychology. Human characteristics are mapped into categories to aid the psychologist in determining a treatment, if needed. There are countless tests available to that end. Here are a few:

  • MMPI uses “scores” such as Validity (is individual providing valid data?), Clinical (attempts to id illnesses), Content (Anxiety, Depression, Fear, Cynicism, Work Interference, Negativity and others), Supplemental (Chemical Dependency, Maladjustment, Demoralization, Martial Distress and Social Dominance) and PSY- 5 (Similar to NEO PI).
  • NEO-PI measures “facets” such as Agreeableness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience.
  • Raymond Cattell’s Personality Factors include: Warmth, Reasoning, Emotional Stability, Dominance, Liveliness, Rule-Consciousness, Social Boldness, Sensitivity, Vigilance, Abstractedness, Privateness, Apprehension and Openness to Change, Self-Reliance, Perfectionism and Tension.
  • MBTI identifies personal preferences and dichotomies such as Extraversion/introversion, sensing/ intuition, thinking/feeling and judging/perceiving. This test is generally criticized for validity and reliability. It (or a copy) is used by several Internet dating services.
  • PAI applies scales in the general categories of Clinical (Neurotic, Psychotic, Personality Disorders and Behavioral Disorders), Interpersonal, Treatment and Validity.
  • The Keirsey Temperament Sorter uses four scales: Expressive vs. Attentive; Observant vs. Introspective; Tough-Minded vs. Friendly and Scheduling vs. Probing.

These “scores, facets, factors or scales” represent abstract groupings of personality features for an individual or a group. They are often referred to as dimensions. Each dimension is made up of a series of properties or features – usually a set of answers to test questions. These ideas can apply to art, photography and you as an artist.

Dimensions of an Artist

Take Picasso as an example. He, like all of us, saw a three (or four) dimensional, traditional world. Yet much of his work bears little resemblance with that world. He added something. No one really knows what went on in his head, but it seems “Perspective” must have been one important factor – after all, he Pablo Picasso Lady drawingwas a founder of the Cubist school which reduced Perspective to almost nothing. As with all visual art, Light is a given – in his case it was even elevated to a “Blue” and a “Rose” period, colors being part of Light. Other features might include “Distortion” and “Focus”.

Picasso’s work had at least seven dimensions: the standard three spatial ones, Light, Perspective, Distortion and Focus. The last four dimensions contain many properties. Focus, for instance, might include cubist features: abstractions of shapes such as cylinders, spheres and cones. The Light dimension would include Monochrome since much of the cubist work is monochrome or close thereto. Picasso’s politics generally made for a dangerous life in particular in the 1930s through 1950s but also defined his art. Here is a simple map of Picasso, the Cubist Artist:

3 Basic Dimensions


















Depth (lack of)




Partial, stripped views

Anti Fascist

This is much easier to visualize than Strings, Liens and Calabi-Yau Shapes – we have hundreds of samples in the form of his paintings. The table shows, however, only one specific dimensional view of one artist in one early part of his life, painting in one particular style. Later developments rapidly outdated this view. It was replaced by new dimensions and features, such as classicism rather than Pablo Picasso Peoplecubism. Some individual works are so overwhelmingly important that they require their own set of dimensions. Picasso’s Guernica (above) painting is an excellent example. It defines antiwar in art.

The typical visual art artist lives with the three basic dimensions and a few technical dimensions, such as Light and Time, plus a set of personal dimensions. This section will concentrate on the personal part – the basic dimensions are covered previously and the more specific technical dimensions are too dependent on the photo style to cover here.

It is not easy to come up with valid, personal dimensions. Most of us do not have a good view of the fundamental drivers of our lives – we are too close and too biased. That’s why the personality tests exist. But personality tests are not designed for artists; they aim at uncovering illnesses, not artistic features.

Analyzing the Artist

It just happens I have a proprietary process and tool aimed at analyzing personal aspects of artistry. Originally developed in house as a web site and search engine analyzer, I adapted it to more general tasks. This tool supports formally detecting and objectively developing the dimensions of an artist and his/her work. Pablo Picasso Blue Lady This can, of course, be done intuitively as it has since the dawn of humanity. But who knows how many more masterpieces we might have if the visions had been more focused and more objective?

The example in this section uses a hypothetical artist as a basis. We’ll come up with dimensions and specifics for this fictitious person. In a real life situation, all aspects of the analysis are customized to the real, actual individual. The process is quite labor intensive and requires a sizable investment. Here, I’ll cover only some basics – perhaps I’ll devote a future post to more detail.

The basic assumption sets the sample artist up as a pretty complex and cocky individual who is a bit vain although down on his luck – perhaps due to some mental issues. He is searching high and low for some commercial success. He is not the best of persons or the worst. He has some secrets but is no terrorist, war criminal, jay walker or addict.

The process consists of three basic steps and a lot of iteration with involvement both of the examiner and the artist. The steps are 1) create and verify a word list (concepts) relevant to art, the world and people in general, 2) categorize the word list, add a first go at dimensions, verify, iterate and 3) add value components, refine concepts, categories and dimensions, iterate and produce final report.Pablo Picasso Two Ladies

The first step list contains concepts or phrases specific to the subject. The word/concept list is quite exhaustive – about 1,500 entries or up. The concept list is based on three criteria: first, add personality items similar to, but less generic than, those used in psychology tests. Second, add concepts specific to art. Third, add features specific to the artist and his/her real life orientation. Most of the list is simply made up by adjectives as descriptors of for such features.

Once we have an initial list, each concept entry is moved into categories. In our example, the two categories are “Bad/Good/Neutral” and having “Major/Minor/Little” impact on the artist’s art work. This process is iterative and goes through several cycles as does the whole process. Luckily the process is computerized with a wide range of tools. Rarely do initial classifications or concepts make it through the whole process of continuous improvement.

A first go at dimensions follows having secured a reasonable set of concepts and classifications. These dimensions are tested logically against the classifications and the individual. Several more rounds of iterations, supported by the tools, follow. Usually the dimensions change substantially from the first go. In the example to come, the dimensions boiled down to “Brainy”, “Private”, “Public” and “Secret” after perhaps ten iterations. As it turned out, our hypothetical artist is apparently quite concerned with his image and not very modest about his intelligence. Pablo Picasso Two Blue Men

Eventually, a set of dimensions, classifications and concepts appear to fit the artist reasonably well. But this still is just a collection of concepts split this way and that way. A very fundamental part is missing. We need to be able to assign values to all aspects of the collection. Once we have values assigned to each feature down to the individual, original concepts, we know what truly is important and how one feature becomes more important than another. This is where the real insights come.

The values used in the example are based on proprietary Internet concept analysis: we measure the perception of each concept and, then, the competitive rank of the concept. The actual values chosen depend on the goal of the analysis. Anything that is collectible at a reasonable cost can be used. The values used in the example are good ones for determining an artistic web presence with a potential for commercial success. Other data sources include vocabulary statistics. Here is an example of a vocabulary scale:

Vocabulary Scale for Artists

This post contains some 38,000 words (I know – it’s a challenge). This mass of words certainly might provide a base for an artist concept list and also the value component – a simple frequency count might do. One simple way that does not include the mysteries of the Internet is to choose a text well regarded on Pablo Picasso Pink Ladythe subject (such as portraiture or journalism) and run it through the list creation and evaluation process.

As an additional example, an initial cut of 25,000 words of this post were extracted into the database and then culled down to 15,000 by getting rid of words with no stand-alone meaning – the “the”, “a”, “of” and “I’m” type of things. The 15,000 should be reduced to less than 2,000 to be manageable in the next steps. The analytical part of this process is fully supported by software. Still, each step requires extensive human involvement – this is not a black box, download from the Internet as a wonder-in-the-box solution but a process based on human judgment.

The resulting list, shown in the graph above, is quite typical. Since this post has a well defined purpose and orientation, the most “valuable” concepts are well defined and not unexpected. The top ones are Light, Dimension, Image and Color – certainly important subject of this post. Also typical is the steep shape of the list – there are usually some 4-7 concepts that tower above all others. This simple example was aimed at giving you a bit of hints about the real thing. We’ll leave it behind and move on to the main course.

Stepping Through the Process

The first stage concept list is inspired by the psychological tests and their scales, factors and facets. That initial list then is expanded by adding more “psychology” concepts. Next follows a set of generic art related concepts, last comes the set of artist specific items. Overall, concepts should cover segments such as Art, Pablo Picasso Strange PeopleMorals, Ethics, Spirituality, Emotions, Physical and Mental well being and perhaps Philosophy. It is not hard to come by well focused vocabularies. Suitable text can be OCR’ d or downloaded. Thesauruses and dictionaries are helpful.

Some concepts are specific to the artist’s actual specialty. Most are not. Don’t be too specific by including a lot of technical items – this is not a tool to determine how many minutes to use when developing your film. Too much specificity tends to add many biases – we aim at finding new dimensions, not validating old impressions. It’s important that this list provides a random sample within each category and remains free initial biases.

Concepts are added and thrown away during the iterations to identify classifications and dimensions. The process typically involves a universe of 2,000 to 3,000 conceptual phrases, ending up with about 1,000 to 1,500 final concepts. Our example list contains 1,381 concepts. The next two graphs show some of the dimensions and categories of the set.Goodness Impact by Dimension

The Goodness Scale splits the concepts into three categories: Good, or positive, as the concept relates to the impact on the artist and his work, Bad, or negative, or finally Neutral – neither good nor bad. Overall, 15% of the concepts are negative/bad, reflecting many human fallacies. 11% of the concepts are neither good nor bad in this context but Neutral; they are allocated to the Private dimension which also contains 21% Good concepts. We tend to make our negative/bad streaks secret, even from ourselves. We make sure that the environment sees only our best Public features. We tend to keep quite a few Good features – and certainly the wishy-washy Neutral stuff – Private to ourselves. 74% of the concepts are ranked Good or positive. In the example, 43% are Good, split equally to the Public and Private dimensions. The remaining 31% are labeled Brainy and reflects the positive, but not Public sides of our minds.

We all have a closet of skeletons that we keep secret, often even from ourselves. Next, we posses features with which we promote ourselves publicly. Third, our pride of being intellectually superior, well educated and knowledgeable makes up out Brainy dimension that may or may not be public. Most of us avoid bragging or appearing superior or elitist. Then, there is the middle ground – good or neutral features we keep to ourselves. Our “Earnings” is a good example – there is usually nothing negative about making money but we rarely make the details of this feature public – so it remains in the Private dimension.

Impact Scale by Dimension

This graph slices the dimensions by the Impact scale. This scale splits the concepts into three categories: High impact on the artist’s art, or lesser impact – Some or Little. In this example, only 11% of the 1,381 concepts ended up viewed as highly influential on the artist’s work. Of that 11%, a third had highly negative effects. Only 8% of the features ended up as high impact positives with 5% being Public or Brainy.

The original sample is now culled down to 5% of the original size. It now supports a high impact, public, positive set of dimensions and features – 95% of the concepts turned out to be of little value to this particular artist. That is a great result – the process provided very specific and focused results, Pablo Picasso Lady Playingdiscarding a lot of maybes. So far, though, all we have are some broad dimensions and categories. We need to get a lot more specific. The next graphs drill down to some of these specifics.

Arriving at the Final View

We now have a reasonable set of features and classifications with some agreement on the dimensions. It is time to introduce the value components. We’ll use Internet hit/buy scales. This leads to yet another round of iterations until we have a believable set of conclusions – dimensions, specific features and categories. This stage slices and dices the data, looking for logical and factual relationships. In the end, the whole thing simply has to make sense. It does not have to confirm biases or reiterate previous opinions. The strength of this process is its ability to bring new ideas to the table.

Here are the views we’ll run through: The Public Image that’s very important to most of us – it is so important we’ll look at several cuts. The bad stuff follows. We store this in our Secret compartment. Yet another view lists some real obscure features on which to waste no time – no one cares. The next view shows the opposite – what is important and provides real opportunities in presenting a strong image as a full artist. The final two views filter out features deemed not valid by this rather head strong artist.

The Public Psychological Dimension

Above are the features we believe leave a good impression on others – be it coworkers, bosses, landlords, curators or gallery owners. Most of these features are rather traditional or even conservative. The wild side is absent and so are the dark features. Top features include being Responsible, showing Excellence, being Involved, Inspirational and a good Listener. Being Alive helps a lot. Being Heavenly and Fabulous apparently is helpful as well to our fictitious vain artist.

Anotherf view of the Public + Brainy Dimensions

This graph is similar to the one above it. Both show features that may or may not be seen by others. The difference is that this graph includes the Brainy dimension in addition to the Public one. The distinction between the Brainy vs. Public is that the Brainy dimension points at internal features while the Public is geared to external issues. The Brainy features aren’t promoted by us in front of others as much as the Public ones. Brainy features aren’t really hidden – the environment will pick up on whether you are smart or plain stupid regardless of whether or not you promote one or the other.

Based on the value system employed and the fact we deal with an artist, the top features change quite a bit. Brainy features rank high, followed by Creativity, Originality and Abstractions. Being Smart, Goal Oriented (Specific and Effective) and an Expert are important features.

Secrets Stores Out Of Sight

‘No one is perfect’ as the Billionaire in “Some Like It Hot” remarked when finding out that the love of his life – Jack Lemmon – was a man, not a gorgeous female base player. Above you see the horrid calamities of the Secret Closet. We hope our poor artist is not beset with all of them, at least not at once. Being Destroyed, Desperate, Wild, Dangerous, Crazy and Violent won’t help our image much, whether true or false. These features may or may not be displayed in the artist’s work. Demonstrating Superiority (Ubermensch) and appearing close to a Breakdown are items perhaps best kept limited to discussions with a psychiatric.

Obscure Features of No Importance

This slice of the data lists generally useless, bottom-of-the-barrel concepts. Its only value is in providing logic to totally ignore such features. Even if they may be important to some, the general public could not care less. Be Mopey, Prudish, Heartsick, Scraggy or even Jinxed if you like. No one will pay attention and neither should our artist. As you notice, this process does not only surface what to do but also what to ignore.

The Good Features in th Whole Person

Here we allow the system to map features without regard to limits or categories. What you see is an overview of the most important features associated with our illustrious artist. Most of the top features are unchanged which is good – the top level focus remains unchanged. Lower down there are some fairly notable changes: the Private dimensions become more prominent.

Now our hypothetical artist has a set of personal dimensions and associated features. These should be used in three ways – first, by ensuring a pursuit of public efforts that are consistent and positive in nature. Second, the same features should be coordinated with the more internal artistic visions. Third, the process hopefully has provided some focus and some original thinking that just might have an impact on the art work itself.

Here is a quick take on an Artist Statement for our illustrative Artist. “As a responsible and alert Artist, I actively pursue creative, effective and original routes to enhance my classical abstractions of good, funny, happy yet specific essentials in interactive biochemistry”. Ah well, maybe that statement could use some wordsmith – I’ll leave that to the dear Artist. However, those words find 5.6 billion references on the Google network. That could be a useful starting point for our unknown, broke Artist apparently specializing in some form of humorous biochemistry abstractions. The comparable hit count for “humorous biochemistry abstractions” is 58,000,000 or 1% of the count mentioned above. That is something for our Artist to ponder. Broaden Thyself.

Going back many thousands of words in this post, I wrote: “Creativity is about you being creative. Creativity is your mental process of discovering new ideas or concepts, or finding new associations between existing ideas or concepts. Creativity derives from divine intervention, cognitive processes, spirituality, social environments, your personality traits and chance. It associates with your genius, mental illness and humor. So goes one definition.” The process described in this section is simply one attribute of the whole notion of artistry. It maps to a way of self discovery and moving ahead artistically. It’s yet another part of the magical toolbox.

Final Scale Indiviualized Features

But wait, the story isn’t over. The hypothetical artist comes storming into the office of the examiner, waving his copy of the report and yelling that he is neither Smart nor Original and wants nothing to do with either. The examiner sighs and mentally calculates the outstanding billings. He agrees to make a special run if the balance is settled and the original report is accepted as is. The Artist agrees, mumbling obscenities under his breath.

The individualized (biased) run is shown in the graph above and it paints quite a different picture. At the beginning of this sample application, I said: “The basic assumption sets the sample artist up as a pretty complex and cocky individual who is a bit vain although down on his luck – perhaps due to some mental issues. He is searching high and low for some commercial success. He is not the best of persons or the worst”. Doing the run on the artist’s biases and conditions pretty much confirmed those points: vanity, complexity, down on his luck and a bit mentally unstable while being obsessed with the public image – all confirmed and easily seen by comparing the graph above with the optimal, original one a step further up. This graph amplifies the point:

Comparing Optimal vs Personal Views

The upper right hand curve in the graph illustrates what the artist wanted “in” while the lower left hand curve shows what he wanted “out”. The rejected features are mostly quite conventional while those going in are not. The artist surely did not expect Desperate, Wild and Dangerous would end up top features. He was mesmerized by Cool and Hip, no doubt.

So which is the valid run? Both are. They are just based on different assumptions. The artist version practices status quo and surfaces quite a few biases. The original report suggested some change from status quo and is far less biased. However, we’ll leave it to our fathom artist to sort this out – after all he is the one to gain or lose. We, on the other hand, must move on. Fun as all this is, it can’t go on for ever.


Dimensions and Art

This section started out by claming photography and any “flat” visual art is not two dimensional as a thoughtless view might assume. Such a limitation ignores and misses almost everything that is the mysterious magic of photography. Pablo Picasso LadyThe exploration of dimensions set sail onto a strange and stormy ocean. Things got a bit shaky here and there. Dimensions suddenly popped into two major versions: the Math/Physics approach and the Human/Psychology inspired analysis. These two approaches seem vastly different yet they are complementary.

The most obvious pattern is one of incredible complexity. Physicists work with around 10 dimensions and are completely at a loss to explain what those extra dimensions are. Yet other scientists reach for 248 dimensions where supercomputers have trouble just running some equations involved. Mathematicians easily jump into any number of dimensions but remain high up in the clouds since they completely ignore real life details.

Clearly, dimensions exist beyond the three or four generally viewed as graspable by humans. There is evidence that if we human would actually be able to experience such extra dimensions, the event would be far beyond any prior experience. Our safe linear world would turn completely nonlinear.

Yet, art also provides experiences beyond anything previously known. I used Picasso and Stravinsky as examples how a familiar reality gets stretched beyond belief simply with a paint brush and a pen. Adding new spatial dimensions, or distorting the common ones, is very possible and done all the time. To me, that notion belongs in every photographer’s toolbox. Even sticking with the basic spatial dimensions, it is easy to apply Euclidian spaces tPablo Picasso Three Musicianso composition and design in any photographic environment. In fact, photographers do that everyday, mostly unconsciously.

Then there is the matter of another class of dimensions derived from psychology. Primarily focused on self discovery and self knowledge, the aim here is to reach a higher artistic level. These dimensions do not deal with bent light rays, crooked perspectives or black holes. If anything, they straighten out biases and drop erroneous ideas about us. I ran through a pretty detailed example how dimensional analysis might be helpful to any artist, if sufficiently open minded.

Dimensional analysis is part of all art forms and actually life itself. It is simply there, whether you like it or not. Photography does not have a unique ownership of the concept by any means. But photographers will benefit from this addition to the magic toolbox. Thinking outside that three dimensional, square, linear box is always the right thing to do.


The Magical, Mysterious Toolbox

At last we are at the end of this long and winding road. The road originated some 38,000 words ago. The first part, optimistically labeled “Understand the Magic”, discussed artistic visions and the higher level aspects of making that vision real. Jeff Wall provided a great example of visions and execution on steroids, but other photographerPablo Picasso Female Portrait s had their say as well. Henri Cartier-Bresson was mentioned more than anyone else.

The second, current, part of the post is labeled “The Mysterious Toolbox”, aka The Magical Toolbox. This is not the toolbox in your garage containing a broken electrical drill and 147 odds and ends, including a spare set of false teeth of dubious origin. This toolbox makes more highflying promises designed to make you a better artist. The approach may not be very conventional but is actually based on solid research.

The toolbox section contains two parts. The first part dealt with light and its distortions. Any artist can benefit from them. That’s better than to suffer from the illusion the fallacies of “reality” do not exist. This part dived rather far down into light, color, cameras and our human visual system with quite a bit of specific advice. The second part made a brave jump into the world of math and physics including quantum mechanics, followed by some analytical work based on psychology research. Go just half a page up for details.

In one of first paragraphs of this the mother of all posts, I stated successful photography means “the images present a multi faceted, relevant and unique experience that reflects the artist’s creative vision and flawless execution“. I hope I have clarified what I meant and that I provided some ideas about how to create art to that effect.

That concludes this post, except for a few wrap-ups below. I appreciate all of you that actually spent the times to reach this point.

Thank you, Karl


Final Words from the Wise

  • So what is art? Simply stated, and in perspective to photography, art is a visual form of expression that brings constructive social value to the masses. It is endearing to those who view it, and it enriches humanity in general. Visual expression that is used to personally attack and ridicule a specific group, belief system, or culture, or to promote a political agenda, is not art. -Robert Devere
  • The ingredients that go into the creation of outstanding images are subject emphasis, the eradication of time, and universal themes. That is, a readily identified subject in a timeless setting that is universally recognized everywhere. Such an image is not only the hallmark of a truly remarkable photograph; it is achieved by very few photographers. -Robert DeverePablo Picasso Lady Sipping
  • The magic of photography is metaphysical. What you see in the photograph isn’t what you saw at the time. The real skill of photography is organized visual lying. -Terence Donovan
  • Making pictures is a very simple act. There is no great secret in photography schools are a bunch of crap. You just need practice and application of what you’ve learned. My absolute conviction is that if you are working reasonably well the only important thing is to keep shooting…it doesn’t matter whether you are making money or not. Keep working, because as you go through the process of working things begin to happen. -Elliott Erwitt
  • The meaning of quality in photography’s best pictures lies written in the language of vision. That language is learned by chance, not system; …our overwhelming formal education deals in words, mathematical figures and methods of rational thought, not in images. -Walker Evans
  • The first impression of a new subject is not necessary the best. Seen from a different angle or under different condition it might look even better. Always study a three – dimensional subject with one eye closed. -Andreas Feininger
  • The camera can push the new medium to its limits – and beyond. It is there – in the “beyond” – that the imaginative photographer will compete with the imaginative painter. Painting must return to the natural world from time to time for renewal of the artistic vision. The key sector of renewal of vision today is the new vistas revealed by science. Here photography, which is not only art but science also, stands on the firmest ground. -Andreas Feininger
  • I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject-matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others – perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph. My photographs are not planned or composed in advance, and I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind, something has been accomplished. -Robert Frank
  • A photograph has always been a lie. We can not freeze time, we are not two dimensional, we are not the size of an 8 x 10 glossy, we are not composed in geometric patterns, but we are real. Photos have power because of this illusion. Using the power and exploring it as communication of the collective sub-conscience can be fun to. -Misha Gordin,


Previous and Next

Here are more posts from this blog that deal with photography. The posts are newer as you go down in the list:



13 Responses to “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography”

  1. […] is a exceprt from my main Photography essay: “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography“. It also updates an earlier preview on Jeff Wall: “On Reality 6 Preview: The Magic of […]

  2. Kathryn said

    Please let me know the name of the photographer or the image that you used in your chapter The Magic of Photography Quotes by the Wise – at the end of part 1.

    The image is of a man holding the umbrella over the cello.

    I would like to reproduce it and need permission.

    Thank you,

  3. Karl said

    Hi Kathryn – The photographer is Robert Doisneau – one of his many great Paris shots. If you right click on most images and select properties, you’ll see the name of the artist. This image is widely available on the net = you can probably find a higher resolution image elsewhere.

    I can’t help with permissions – I have no special powers. Copyrights belong to copyright owners.


  4. […] post is largely an extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography“. Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On […]

  5. […] post is largely an extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography“. Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On […]

  6. […] of this post is an update and extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography” as well as On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions […]

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