By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH THIS GENERATION’S NEARLY UNIVERSAL EMBRACE OF CONSUMER-FRIENDLY EDITING SUITES LIKE PHOTOSHOP has come a new vocabulary to describe the new freedoms made possible by their use. Terms like painterly, dreamy, and atmospheric signal the reemergence of a far more interpretive kind of photography that has finally broken the long reign of the Cult Of Sharpness that valued crispness and “realism” above all other considerations in picture-making for nearly a century.
The idea, espoused by Ansel Adams and other from the photo group f/64 (a name that refers to what was then supposedly the sharpest f-stop possible), was that only a keen, precise measurement of light and tone could be regarded as “straight” photography and that all other more impressionistic renderings were somehow less authentic. This idea was itself a severe reaction to an even earlier school of photography called Pictorialism, which favored the tweaking of processing and printing tech to manipulate mood in much the same way that painters had always done. Some shooters like Adams regarded P-word pictures as the dead opposite of photography, as a non-scientific surrender to the painting tradition. Ansel, never the mealy-mouthed observer, once even went so far as to refer to Pictorialist William Mortensen as “the anti-Christ.” And so, as a consequence of the f/64 coven’s influence, the historical door on the dreamier side of photography was officially slammed shut and the word went out for decades afterward, to both pro and amateur alike that Sharpness is King.
City Of Ambition, a Pictorialist photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz (1910)
Pictorialists’ images, like the NYC scene from Alfred Stieglitz seen here, were created by odd mixes of cross-mixed chemicals, the etching of pictures on printing plates, deliberate degradation of negatives, and dozens of other interventions done after the shutter click to deepen contrast, soften hard edges, and widen the range of tones for dramatic effect. Think of it as analog beta-testing for the tricks we now do with a few mere mouse clicks. Several generations of tech later, the sheer number of editing choices in the present day has led to a strong reassertion of soft or selective focus, of textures and tones that go beyond the real world in amazing and exciting ways. It’s led even those who still shoot film, like the toy camera devotees of Lomography, to re-evaluate what focus and sharpness are in a picture are actually for, and when to attenuate or even turn them off completely. It’s also led to the success of companies like Lensbaby, who sell all-manual lenses to digital shooters who want an interpretive tool, rather than a scientific instrument, to help them make images.
And so everything old is new again. Indeed, photography may have finally entered a phase in which “eras” and “trends” are just words, a time in which all times (and schools of thought) are equal. Here’s to the opportunity that that implies, and to an art that is just beginning, in its third century, to spread its new butterfly wings.
SEEING THROUGH THE STORM
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.
The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.
More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.
Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine, and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.
Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.