Over on dpr, there was a response to yesterday’s post that was interesting to me:
Regarding your wine comparison, I would say that to be able to distinguish different top quality wines… requires training, experience, and talent. Same with lenses.
Well, you made me think, and I have two responses.
The first is that people who are serious about wine are quite conscious of the idiosyncrasies of the human sensory system, and go to great lengths to deal with such things as confirmation bias. I’ve been tasting wine since the late 60s, and any serious tasting is done double-blind: someone bags, and someone else labels. In addition, there are component tastings, where wine is adulterated with minuscule amounts of important constituents, and the taster learns her threshold for each. This is sometimes combined with triangle tastings, where the taster is presented with three glasses, two of which have the same wine, and challenged to pick out the outlier. There are library tastings where wine made from grapes in the same vineyard are evaluated throughout a period of years, and horizontal tastings, where a single vintage of an appellation are tasted together; in my main group it was de rigueur to sneak a ringer into the tasting and see who could find it.
The point is that serious wine drinkers have a healthy skepticism for the conclusions that they draw, and they continually test their ability to make those conclusions accurately.
It is not so with photographers and lens character, at least in my experience. In fact, almost always the singing of praise for a particular lens is not accompanied by a photograph at all. If it is, there is hardly ever a comparison shot of the same subject shot with another lens. If there is, the viewer is not usually asked to make a blind choice.
It should be possible to devise protocols for photographers to easily test their abilities to discern subtle differences between lenses. It would help photographers learn the limits of their ability to make such discriminations, and possibly save them a great deal of money. I myself have often done single-blind comparisons, and the results have often not been as expected.
That’s my first reaction. The second has to do with the audience. I make my photographs for myself, but part of the reason that I make them is to communicate with others. A quality of the photograph that only I can see is not particularly valuable to me. Although I admit to being obsessive about removing defects from my images that probably only I will notice, I don’t consider that psychosis to make me a better photographer. A better artist, maybe; but that’s something else entirely.
So what is the use of having some quality in my photographs that will require that my audience have to have “training, experience, and talent” to appreciate? It’s worth something, but not much.
tex andrews says
Hi, Jim. This post caught my eye/brain for several reasons.
I definitely think that training the eye (or tongue, or ear, & etc) makes a huge difference in how we respond to things. What does that say? Well, that’s a bit more complicated. I know the limitations of my palate, for one thing, and have a sense that I could never be a wine expert and am content with mid grade cigars. On the art side, though, I know that the sum of my experience with art, truly from when I was a small child as a viewer, and from primary school as a maker, has made me a hyper-sophisticated viewer and maker.
That has resulted in new joys I get from art, against the loss of some of the wonder on the other side I see others experience (although my wonder hasn’t diminished exactly, it’s shifted and in some ways is more profound). Working in a museum (installations department), we are all hyper aware simultaneously of presentation minutia, and keenly aware nobody sees it but us, mostly. That has underlined the general case for me in a big way.
My dad is as far from an artist as you could be, so explaining my work to him has always been a struggle. The one time I got close was when I “looked the picture” for him (a phrase a grad school buddy of mine coined) which I never do for anyone. In this one case I actually got him to see and understand the things that actually were there in the piece (because really people actually don’t see a lot of stuff that’s there unless it’s pointed out to them—it’s even happened to me), and also the referents that were “extra-opus”, the things that guide us towards deep content. He was impressed, but befuddled, and said to me “But Bill, only one in a million people could see and know such things”.
As a corporate guy who came up through sales, he naturally thought about appeal to the largest number of people. My response, which surprised even me, was that I wasn’t trying to reach the largest number of people, but just that one. Having that conversation with him was mostly an eye-opener for me, because of the epiphany I had about my own work. It wasn’t that I was deliberately trying to be esoteric or occult, it was that I was not trying to put something in front of an audience of viewers, it was about presenting it to The Viewer, or “Spectator”, and I was “Primum Spectator”. What I was going for was setting up a one to one relationship with The Viewer and The Work—all these capitals not designating importance so much as authority and singularity. It mirrored what other artists I admired were doing, like Ad Reinhardt with his black paintings, or what Rauschenberg was getting at when he spoke of the space between the viewer and the object, and what I think Johns is always about.
So, your refining The Work by removing all things you deem defects, only visible to you, is no psychosis, but in truth part of the very essence of the creation of art—which I think of as more translation from the unseen to the seen than creation—and which is extremely important if not imperative in your role as Primum Spectator. For if not you then whom?
I think an important component in this discussion is science. As expected of course. Generally, photographic discussions are seldom scientific. In addition, as you stated, the people participating need to have similar interests, training, experience and so on. This is quite similar to scientific communities where you need specific knowledge, competences and skills. This is certainly true when it comes to appreciate certain types of photographic tools. For example, when I ask 9 out of 10 people about a difference between two similar images shot with a kit lens and a 10-fold more expensive Zeiss prime, the response will be around 50/50 right/wrong. Most people would look at content, and say there is no difference. A photographer would analyze aspects like sharpness, abberations and bokeh and probably base conclusions on previous experiences with cheap/expensive kit and personal preferences. A pixel peeper will ask for the RAWs to look at pixel level differences to pick the sharpest, cleanest and biggest file. The three people mostly operate on different integration levels. Depending on the audience you may or may not benefit from increasingly expensive equipment. However, while thinking about these matters, the thought encroaches me that nowadays even quite affordable equipment will satisfy 99% of all audiences possible. Except me.