Friday, July 11, 2008

Rant: Commenting on Photographs

A member of NWHPC recently posted an excellent article on commenting on other people's photographs, "How to Win Friends and Influence Other People—A Guide to Commenting on Other People's Photographs."

The information in the article is excellent even though I do not comment on photographs for the purpose of winning friends, maybe I am hoping to influence their possibilities, but not winning friends. Just ask my friends/friend/acquaintance?

The article inspired eighty-three comments. Many of the comments were rude, crude and obviously from people that feel they have nothing more ever to learn about photography. They had filled their comfortable niche and were not about to budge. Just barnacals hitching a ride.

I have been critiquing photographs on a number of Internet sites over the past five or so years and I have ran into many of those people so I have some idea of what I am talking about. My rule now is that without some artistic statement from the photographer or a specific request from the photographer, I do not critique an image. Most just want to share their photograph or to be told how wonderful it is. They are not worth risking carpal tunnel syndrome or your breath.

Number one. The first thing I do is to look at the photograph to see what I find that I can, without changing the image, understand as having meaning in the image. I do not look for the rule of thirds, where the eyes are placed, if the color is accurate or not. Those, to me, are of extremely minimal importance and are of importance only if they affect the meaning of the image either positively or negatively. I do not alway rise to this utopic state, but I do try.

A photograph is a separate entity. It is nothing else. It is not the subject. It is neither the photographer nor the camera. It is a photograph and must stand on its own. as a photograph It is no less than a short story or a novel. It must have some intrinsic value, some meaning or interest to hold the viewer. Otherwise it is a waste of silver halides, pigment ink or pixels.

Discover the meaning then work backwards to assess the technique. Rules first and foremost, is the attitude of people that do not have the ability to express themselves on their own, a crutch substituting for self-expression. So go to the heart of the photograph then you can decide if following a rule would affect the image positively or negatively.

What happens if the photographer is unaware of the photograph having meaning? Or unaware that it is possible for photographs to have meaning? Nothing is more discouraging than to spend fifteen minutes or more with an image, accessing the various elements, writing a critique and then being told, "Oh I just dropped the camera and the shutter went off when it hit the back of the chair," or, "I gave it to my three year old and he pressed the shutter." Of course, that is not what happened but the photographer is too vain or too insecure to admit that either he did not see the meaning or he just wanted to take a pretty picture and didn't give a (you fill in the expletive) about meaning.

There is simply no need to waste silver, ink, pixels or time with such people. That is why I am cantankerous and, as diplomatically as I find possible, unyielding when I critique. I am going to tell you what the elements in your photograph say to me. It doesn’t have to be what it says to you, but I do expect you to show me the courtesy of considering what I say, to look at your photograph, if for only a monent, my way. It just might expand your understanding of photography, your enjoyment of photography. It at least will expand yor understanding of how other people look at your photographs.

There is more to photography than taking pictures of things or even pretty pictures. Try at least occasionally to take photographs about things. Sure, you will at times fail and at times succeed, but in the end whichever you will have expanded yourself. A darn good reason to buy a camera.

Side story: A few years ago I critiqued a panel of three photographs by a young photographer. They were close up images taken at the side of a rail of railroad track. Don't remember the exact elements but it was mostly bolts and nuts holding the rails down and together. When the three images were combined into a single panel in the particular order they were arranged, it created an extremely explicit clandestine sexual encounter, or at least the approach and rejection. Oh yeah, nuts and bolts, the approach, the rejection, the full story of one person approaching another under harsh streetlights.

The photographer heatedly shot back that his photograph was about loneliness not a sexual encounter. This was extremely encouraging to know that he was seeing something in the image that to him had meaning even if he did not see it my way. His final fuselage was, "not everything is about testosterone." Oh how I wanted to, but I resisted writing back and saying, that at his age, it is.

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