A few days I wrote this post about what’s important in photography. It may seem surprising coming from someone who blogs about craft in photography – and techy craft at that – but I was making that point that craft is not the most important thing in photography; it’s not even close. My frame of reference in that post was making art, because that’s what I do, or try to do. However, I think that you could make a similar list about advertising photography, glamour work, photojournalism, or any photographic field with aspirations of importance. The priorities would be different. Some things might drop off the list. A few others might get added.
I maintain that the power, effect, and significance of a photograph is primarily dependent on what I will call its content: the totality of the intellectual, emotional, historic, and esthetic experience imparted to people who view it that does not stem from the craft involved in creating the image. You need content to have a successful image. You may need craft as well; how much depends on the content. But images aren’t successful on craft alone.
As an example, consider the Omaha Beach D-Day images created by Robert Capa. Grainy, blurry, smeared, ashes and soot. They are terrible from a technical point to view. Yet they are powerful, scary, dramatic, historical, and maybe the greatest short series of war photographs ever. They are intimate. They put you right there. Content 100, craft 5. Craft is not quite zero, though. You can tell that the images were properly exposed before they were tortured in processing. To some extent the lack of craft in making the exposures – the too-long shutter speeds, the haphazard framing – only serve to make the images more powerful, as they convey to the viewer the pressure Capa was under when he tripped the shutter.
Ansel Adams, a famous proponent of excellent craft, said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” My interpretation of that is that no amount of craft can save bad (or nonexistent) content.
That is not to say that craft can’t be effective in creating a more powerful and effective image. Adams knew that, and that’s why he worked so hard on perfecting his craft. It’s ironic that in spite of his vast and deep knowledge of exposure, his most famous image, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, was underexposed.
I’ve tried to be general in the above, but now I’m going to return to art.
There seem to be artists that disagree with what I said above. I don’t want to pick on anybody, but some of them seem to be using alternative processes. I have seen a lot of platinum, palladium, gum bichromate, albumin, and Daguerreotype images that no one would give a second glance to if they came out of an inkjet printer. It seems that the people who created them think that craft trumps content. Well, it doesn’t for me.
I’ve seen beautifully crafted black and white underwater photographs of featureless wide angle images full of random fish. I’ve taken lots of images like that. But I’ve never printed one.
There seems to be a group of landscape photographers who go to the same places and make incredibly similar, finely detailed, highly saturated, beautifully exposed, wide-angle with prominent foreground object, color within the lines, check all the boxes images. This brings up another point. Content becomes weaker with repetition. Craft does not.
Many curators in museums are invested in the individual, unique photographs in their collections. I can see why, given their job descriptions, they would be. But, if you’ve followed me so far, it will be no surprise to you that I’m not. The object is important, sure. It’s important because it is the carrier of the content. Without the content, it’s just a collection of, say, silver salts and gelatin on cotton pulp.
I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson prints. They are nicely executed. However, medium-resolution web images carry almost the same impact. People may string me up when they hear this, but I think that some Ansel Adams posters are close to as nice as some of his prints.
I wish I had a better word than content to describe what a photograph communicates without regard for its craft. Can someone help me out here?
As always, comments and well-intentioned criticism are appreciated.