On honesty in photography- an opinion piece
Salt mountain, Lake Grasmere
Fujifilm X-E2, 23/1.4. ISO 200. 1/300s @ f11
“You ask me what forces me to speak? a strange thing; my conscience.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
A number of streams in the river have converged for me, come together in a pool, where they will assemble and mingle for a time before continuing on their journey.
And I would like to share these thoughts with you.
It started with this simple photograph of a salt mountain at Lake Grasmere, near Blenheim. It was a Recognition, which compelled me to stop and make its likeness. It felt right at the time. It compelled me to do the naughty thing, to ignore all the Safe Site warnings and wander around with one camera and one focal length. Thankfully or perhaps coincidentally, it was a Saturday, so there was no one around to bark at me and shoo me away. Scratch my head as I might, the significance of the image or the moment would not reveal itself. So I thanked it and waited for the korero (story) to come as and when it was time.
The picture should have gone away and dropped into the deep hole of my hard drives, to jostle, elbow and share space with the 300 000 other images filed away in the darkness of cyberspace. But it would not leave. It has hung around, lurking on the fringes, insistent that it has something to share, an understanding I need to know. I knew it was a metaphor, but for what I could not say. Oh well. Ma te wa. When it is time.
I have come back to it time and time again, attempting to rework it, to play and move it to another space. However it will not budge. I am what I am. I am that I am. Post-produce me at your peril, it has said. Mess with me and I will go away. So I have acquiesced. I am allowed to add a little makeup, but plastic surgery is out of the question.
So be it.
Thus I have returned to my photographic roots, to my virtual darkroom, to a time when everything happened in a dark, smelly place, to the mysteries of enlargers, arcane alchemical formulae, N± development and the toxic secrets of split toning. I have returned to pure photography, to the purity of photography. For a time.
Here before me was a mountain of salt, a huge monstrous pile of the stuff, wrapped round the tower supporting the conveyor belt which had brought it there. Simple salt, but full of history, over which wars had been fought and in which the Roman legionnaires were, for a time, paid.
Useful stuff, salt. Essential stuff, salt. But not particularly romantic.
Perhaps the simple honesty of this salt mountain drew me. That and the dread of getting too close and being buried in an avalanche of the stuff. As I stood before this Everest of salt, I could imagine the three people at my funeral commiserating. One of them wouldn’t be able to help himself. Imagine, he would say mournfully, the victim of assault and battery. And one of the others would reply, just as gravely, well, he was a well-seasoned photographer. Then they would reach for the whiskey.
However there was no other way. When I arrived at the Lightroom, the photograph insisted I reach back to the darkroom, ferreting around among the dusty, spiderwebbed bottles on the shelf in my mental library, pushing the eye of newt and gizzard of toad to one side in my hunt for virtual ferricyanide, gold chloride and selenium. A touch-up here, a spot of lipstick there and the image was finished. I had returned to the world of sheet film and my roots. Heck, the photograph even insisted upon a 4×5 cropping.
Nothing painterly. At all.
Then, over the next few weeks, as I got involved in a judging and began to look at what was happening in the wide world of the medium, a thought began to emerge, framed as a question.
Was digital photography coming of age, finally maturing?
The best photographs in the competition had been ones with pure photographic roots, where post-production had been both subtle and seductive, enhancing rather than overpowering. Was it me, I wondered? No, my fellow judges, equally post-production hard-core, had veered towards the beautiful depiction of moment, of space, place and time. Who, what, where and when. Sometimes why, but almost never how.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”
And I have begun to wonder.
Stream one: we now have tools to do anything with the digital photographic process, limited only by our imagination, and having something to communicate.
Want to change a single pixel? Easy.
Want infinite depth of field? Helicon Focus.
Want an 18-stop dynamic range, far beyond what the human eye can perceive? HDR.
Got a thing for photographing black ants in coalmines? ISO 409 000 should sort it. The human eye (natural aperture f3.5) tops out at ISO 800.
If we have something to say or a moment to communicate.
Veritas gratia veritas. Truth for truth’s sake. Not because we can.
Stream two: And if there is a return to photography for its own sake, whether a portrait, vase of fruit or a fish eagle in flight, how many tools do we need? Do I need to save up for that 10-5000/f1.0 superzoom that the manufacturers would have me believe I need?
May be not.
Perhaps the gear I have will do the job. After all, just about any camera I have today will match my expectations and, in some cases, exceed them.
Maybe, just maybe, I had the Holy Grail all along.
Maybe, just maybe, the best camera is the one I own.
And perhaps that is why global camera sales have slumped dramatically in the last year or so. Perhaps the reason lies not in people’s ability to afford the gear, but because they aren’t interested in the race anymore, in the same way that the millennials can’t be bothered getting their driver’s license, and would sooner talk virtually and use public transport.
After all, how many megapixels do you need unless you are going for gigaprints? 16Mp should do it for most of us. And anyway, there is always AutoPano Pro for those moments.
Will 7fps do the job? It used to.
Is CC that much better than CS5? Not really.
That must have the manufacturers worried.
Every year for the last few, one or two people ask me for guidance in putting together their submissions for PSNZ (Photographic Society of New Zealand) honours. Usually I agree, with the rider that my success ratio is usually 0%. Be warned: my help will be the Kiss of Death.
When he asked me what I thought of his portfolio, I was stunned. His submission was so beautiful, so sensitive that tears rose within me. For some time, he had made images pro bono for a riding school for the disabled, near Christchurch, New Zealand, which helps children with disabilities to bond with horses and learn to ride.
His submission, an exquisite and sensitively-photographed photo essay on one child’s journey, presented delicately and gently, was the medium at its finest.
It was honest.
As all photography should, in one way or another, be.