Monday, December 24, 2012

Photography as a way of seeing


Lith, the Netherlands: Photo with pinhole camera

There is no good philosophy but only philosophy that is not bad. This was the conclusion of my last blog. But how about photography, for instance? It is often said: With these modern digital cameras everybody can make a good picture. And although we know that it is an advertising slogan, many people belief it’s true. For isn’t it so that by simply pressing a button, nowadays we can make pictures that are sharp, well exposed, and thanks to the newest techniques, taken just at the moment that everybody is smiling? What more do we want in a good photo? Okay, you need to keep your camera straight, but Photoshop or another good program can solve it, in case you forgot it. So why do we still need photographers? As a result it has become increasingly difficult to make a decent living of photography. Another consequence is that the quality of photos in newspapers and magazines is often low. But it’s strange: on the one hand there is no accounting for taste, so seen that way, you can’t say: This photo is good, that photo is bad. All criteria for quality in art are subjective, aren’t they? On the other hand, people say: This photo is better than that one. How can they say that, if there are no objective quality criteria? Apparently, there are bad photos and photos that are not bad, just as there is bad philosophy and philosophy that is not bad. However, good and bad can have two different meanings here: It can mean technically good or bad, or it can mean good or bad with respect to its contents (and maybe we can apply this distinction to philosophy as well). The former refers to aspects like sharpness, exposure, and other “technical” aspects. The latter is what the image on the photo represents and how it is composed. A good photo tells a story, for instance, or we call the image beautiful, intriguing, or having a good likeness.
A photo that is good in the first (technical) sense need not be so in the second sense (concerning its contents), and that’s what we often see. But the other way round? Needs a photo with a “good” content also be technically good? In the past it was generally thought that a technically bad photo could not be good, anyway, but why should it be so? I always say: A photo is good if it represents what it is supposed to represent. A feeling need not be sharp but can also be blurred, by way of speaking, and that must be in the image. If we wanted to make a picture of John and it shows John, in fact it is a good photo; other aspects are secondary. This is striking when I present photos on an art market or in an exhibition. When I show sharp and otherwise technically good photos next to photos taken with a pinhole camera, which are a bit blurred, because such a camera has no lens, then the pinhole pictures draw the attention of the visitors, and less so the technically goods ones, even when both types of photos have basically the same contents. Obviously there is more than just good or bad in photography. Let’s call it expression or feeling, the way we look at it. Indeed, there is quality in photography – I’ll certainly not say there isn’t – but I think it is not about good and bad but it is rather a matter of seeing and perspective.

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