the photoshooter's journey from taking to making



CONTEXT, FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, IS LIKE THE CONDUCTOR’S BATON IN MUSIC, that magic wand that dictates fast and slow, soft and loud, ordering a specific world within a confined space. Since it impossible to show the world entire, all shooters decide what part of it, what story within it, that they will frame. Sounds obvious, but without the mastery of this skill, we fail as storytellers, and the eye that we develop for what to include and exclude is, despite all the tools and toys, the only thing that really makes an artistic performance out of a photograph.

It can also be a helluva lot of fun. With some dumb luck thrown in for good measure.

Cactropolis, 2011. A three-exposure HDR blend with a little color and contrast teaking. This whole layout, in reality, is about fifteen feet square, total.

Cactropolis, 2011. A three-exposure HDR blend with a little color and contrast teaking. This whole layout, in reality, is about fifteen feet square, total. Various shutter speeds,  f/8, ISO 100, 52mm.

I love opportunities that allow me to disrupt the original visual “place” of objects, to force them to be re-purposed for the viewer. A few years ago, my daily lunch routine involved a short walk across a bustling college campus to my habitual lunch hang, a stroll which took me past one of the school’s busiest crossroads, marked by the intersection of two superwide sidewalks flanked by small patches of landscaping. Since this is Arizona, such short plots of land frequently are not the stuff dreams are made of. We’re talking pink quartz gravel interrupted by the occasional scabby aloe plant or cholla. And that’s what made this one little rectangle, just several feet long on each side, vie for my attention.

An arrangement of several varieties of small cacti has been arranged in rows, regulated by square tiles, grounded in gravel, and bounded by smooth bluish stones. Simple stuff, really, but this was somebody’s deliberate design, a pattern that registered, to my eye, like some kind of fantasy urban streetscape, blocks of tiny, spiny skyscrapers vanishing off toward an unseen horizon….a miniature downtown from Weirdsville, a tabletop diorama from Beetlejuice.

I didn’t really have to compose anything. I was in the framing business. But getting that frame meant getting rid of the surrounding throngs of students, the sidewalks, the buildings, the sky…..anything that seemed outside of the closed world implied by that little rectangle. Changing the context. In fact, I was adding something for everything I was taking away.

So let’s crop this puppy and see what happens.

Now I saw what seemed to be a self-contained world, one in which I was free to imagine what lay “beyond”. I goosed up the hues and texture with HDR processing, but otherwise, what you see is what there was. Maybe it works as pure design. Maybe I conveyed something, but the fact is, we have to make choices as shooters. The only thing that marks us as individuals is what we decide to see, and show.

Like I said…fun….luck….some other somethings…..

(Many Thanks Dept.:The idea for this post was inspired, in part, by a suggestion from my good friend Michael Grivois.) 

2 responses

  1. mike grivois

    Thanks for the shout out. I was also thinking about how, for example, we can be manipulated by a photograph publshed or displayed in different contexts. Imagine a photo of an elderly couple in front of a dilapidated house. One could use the photo in a display of long married couples. That same photo could be used in a magazine article about the plight of America’s elderly. An unscrupulous politition could use it in a campaign ad showing of what the other party was resposible. Each would evoke a different emotional response I think.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:11 PM

    • The history of photography is all about the selective massaging of context. Look in recent years at the controversy over several different news magazines using the same exact mug shot of O.J. at the beginning of that story. One cover, you’ll recall, was clearly manipulated to make him look scarier, dirtier, more “criminal”. Stock photos are used to illustrate campaign ads to show a “human face” on an issue, when the original image may have been something benign or neutral, unattached to a policy or agenda. Whole college courses are taught on this problem, and kids on the web today are especially vulnerable to those who would sway them via an altered context. Lately Instagram has revised their terms of use to allow them to use subscribers’ images in ads without permission or compensation. So I could smile at a party, have my picture taken on a phone, and find myself as the illustration for an ad for Viagra. Strange days.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:27 PM

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