By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S IMPACT IS ONLY PARTIALLY CREATED BY WHAT HE CHOOSES TO RECORD. That is, whatever his subject, be it banal or magnificent, his choice of what to shoot is only, at best, half of what makes or breaks his picture.
The other half of the miracle comes not from mastery of light, aperture, gear or conditions. It is in the frame, and what he includes or excludes from it. Landscape mode, portrait mode, big crop or little crop, the frame is the final determinant of how well the image argues for itself. The legendary director of photography for the New York Museum Of Modern Art, John Szarkowksi, expresses this idea for all time in his wonderful book The Photographer’s Eye:
To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. The photograph’s edge defines content. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of his picture’s geometry.
Consider, for a moment, the most vital, most inspiring images you’ve ever seen. Now imagine them cropped two inches wider, four inches to the left, five inches higher. The visual terms of engagement would be completely re-ordered. And what would be the result? Would you draw different conclusions, make different assumptions, experience a diminished ( or enhanced) sense of mystery?
The frame, and the choices the photographer makes in its design, is more decisive in the success of a picture than any other single factor. Technically imperfect photos become world-beaters every day simply because the frame is eloquent. And it also follows that a well-crafted bit of exposure can be dulled or blunted by a frame that is carelessly drawn.
The above image represents a choice, the drawing of a visual boundary. The top of the flowers and the objects surrounding the bucket aren’t missing because I shot too close, they’re deliberately excised because I made a deliberate decision that they didn’t add anything to the story I was trying to tell. You can disagree about whether I made the correct choice, but the making of that choice was as important (actually more important) than the subject itself.
Photographs have visual parameters, since we can’t make images big enough to include all of our experience. There are limits on the dimensions of what we show, and intelligent use of those boundaries can transform our work in marvelous ways.
It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual. –lyrics from the Oscar-winning song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ERRONEOUSLY BILLED, EARLY IN ITS DEVELOPMENT, as a mere recording of reality. This was, of course, an attempt to characterize the picture-making process as more bloodless, less artistic than painting, which was an interpretation of the world. What early haters of the camera failed to realize, of course, was that photographers were just as selective in their depiction of life as painters, since their medium too, was an interpretation…..of isolated moments, of preferred angles, of temporary actuality.
If you look at individual frames within a strip of motion picture film, it becomes perfectly clear that each still image is a self-contained world, with no way to intuit what has come before a given moment nor what will come next. Thus, no one frame is “reality” but a select sample of it. In daily photography, our choice of angle, approach, and especially light can allow us to create an infinite number of “realities” that only exist in the precise moment in which we see and freeze them.
Let’s look specifically at light. As it’s jumbled in multiple reflections, light is particularly precious to the photographer’s eye, since a captured image may recall an effect that even people within inches of the shooter could not see. In the above photo, for example, this mosaic of reflections inside the vestibule of a high-ceilinged building was visible from several specific positions in the foyer. Move yourself three feet either way, however, and this pattern could not be seen at all. In other words, this photographic “reality” came briefly into existence under the most controlled conditions, then was gone.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography for the New York Museum of Modern Art, dedicates an entire section of his essential book The Photographer’s Eye to what he calls “Vantage Point” and its importance to a mastery of the medium. “Pictures (can) reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things…and these mysterious and evasive images can also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”
Photography is about viewing all of reality and extracting little jewels from within it.
That’s not mere recording.