Literal is not art

This came from a comment made to David Yarrow, that I heard when he was interviewed on a podcast.

You may like David’s pictures or not – he doesn’t care because he sells them very successfully. But the difference between his picture of an elephant and any other picture of an elephant, as explained to him by the head of the Tate Modern, is that his pictures are not just literal pictures of elephants.

Let me explain.

You go on a safari holiday and take a picture of an elephant. Most likely it’s an accurate representation of what an elephant looks like. It reminds you of being there, but it’s probably a straight record of an elephant. The comment made to David was that a record is just that: it doesn’t add anything. It’s not art.

This is not an elephant

I think this explains my feelings for landscape photography. So often it’s just a record of what a place looks like.

I often return to a photography club I was in for examples. In this case they had monthly competitions on a theme. One month was record photography. On asking, I found that it was nothing to do with music. It was about taking pictures that show a thing as it is. (I could be a Kant and bring in the idea of ding an sich, but that would imply not taking a picture at all). In other words, they wanted a straight record of what something looks like with no interpretation. It would have been snide to say that most of the members’ pictures would qualify, but they would.

I think this also goes back to a comment I made in jest: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Do you record what is in front of you or do you interpret what you saw in the scene?

I have a large horde of old pictures that only recorded the scene. For a short period after a holiday or trip they served to show other people what it was like and to remind me where I was. Then they become yet another unplaced picture of a hill or valley. These I can happily throw away. Others are interpretive and have some merit (but little skill). For example, years ago I was around Snowden and went to a famous rock-climbing area that translates as something like the dark black cliff. So I tried to photograph it as such. Nobody else would ever get it, but I still like the picture. It’s far from being art, but it’s even farther from being a straight record of a cliff.

So I think a straight record cannot be art. A photo of graffiti is a record of someone else’s art. Even a photo of the Mona Lisa is not the painting. If you are going to take a picture of something, what are you adding of yourself?

The Treachery of Imaging
The Treachery of Imaging

It may sound pretentious to talk about art in photography, but why else are you doing it? If you don’t interpret, you might as well be the Google Streetview camera car.

Focus assist for rangefinders

I had a bit of a moan about struggling to focus some cameras with my old eyes. It came home to me when I was trying to shoot some leaves caught in a wire fence in deep shade. I was turning and twisting the camera to find an edge that I could see move in the rangefinder patch. And then I had an idea. What I needed was a bright but small spot on the subject, so it would be really obvious and easy to bring two of them together. What I needed was a cheap laser pointer.

As usual, everyone else already seems to know this. Or at least it seems to be common knowledge to astrophotographers.

My first thought was to use a magnet to stick the pointer to the top of the camera. Then it occurred to me that camera top plates are probably made of brass, not steel. A quick test proved that my various rangefinders are not magnetic.

What the clever astro people are using is a hot shoe microphone adapter. Roughly £2 on eBay. On the other hand I don’t want to walk around with a weird gadget on the camera. So what I’ll be trying is the three-handed trick – one to hold the camera, one to focus and one to point the laser.

At this point I need to state what should be obvious – never point a laser in someone’s eyes. Also, never point a laser at a passing aircraft. It’s probably a bad idea to shine one into the lens of a digital camera too.

I had a trial go with the laser pointer we use to send the dog chasing itself dizzy and it’s easy to get the focus. It’s also easy to focus on things that are impossible with a normal rangefinder, like a smooth surface with no pattern. So it looks like a plan.

Off to eBay we go and a little laser pointer arrives in the post. It has a ring to attach it to a keyring, which I thought to use to hang it from one of the camera’s strap rings. What I found I could do though is to both support the camera and hold the pointer with my right hand. It meant holding the pointer like I was throwing a dart and pinching the camera between my little and ring fingers and the heel of my palm. It helps that I have big hands but it works. My left hand is under the camera, with my fingers focusing the lens. It sounds awkward but it works. The ‘dart’ grip lets me move the laser point around to put it on the focus patch. I’ve got a working focus assist.

Use of a laser pointer for focusing a rangefinder

I did try pointing the laser through the viewfinder to see if I could project two dots on the image, but that didn’t seem to work. It might do if I could line it up perfectly, but this is a quick and dirty tool, not a perfect one.

It’s also a good way to test that your rangefinder is calibrated. Shoot down the length of a long ruler or tape measure. Set up a matchbox part way down. Focus on it using the laser spot. Enlarge the negative to see if the lens focuses where it should. Russian rangefinders can mostly be adjusted and others probably can too. You don’t want to be shooting and developing a role of film after each adjustment though, so you will need to find a way of laying a focus screen on the film gate and locking the shutter open on B. I did do this once using Sellotape and a magnifier, but it took some careful cleaning to get rid of the stickiness afterwards.

Even without trying to adjust your camera, using a pointer to provide a focusing mark actually works and costs a couple of pounds.

Hurrah!

Carrying a camera

What’s the best camera? The one you have with you. That’s how the aphorism goes.

It’s a chore though, isn’t it? Lugging a camera around everywhere you go. And do you go clever or small? And then your chosen camera gets more wear, more bumps and scrapes and more chances to be underneath the shopping. So we carry a mobile phone, because you’re carrying it anyway and it has a camera built in.

Perhaps it comes back to that question: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Carrying a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, but it shows intent. Why else would you carry that thing around?

This is why I like small cameras – I can scratch my photographer itch without carrying a boat anchor or straining a pocket.

It can go too far though. I regularly carry more than one camera. Perhaps my worst recent offence was carrying two cameras when I took the dog for a walk. Not some adventurous hike – just a quick trip out to drain the dog around local paths. The only justification is that both cameras were tiny and I did use them both. Why two? One shot black and white and the other did colour.

Bird court
A gull holds court over pigeons

So why am I making a fuss about this? I think it’s useful to actually carry a real camera. Not a mobile phone that can do a dozen other things, but a dedicated device that can do one job. Because if you consciously carry a machine for taking pictures, I believe it makes you think more about taking pictures. It’s that intent thing – I create the ability to take pictures, I don’t just wander into it or take pictures by accident. Carrying a camera becomes part of your deliberate practice.

Postbox
Sometimes stuff just happens in front of you

Cameras can be like hammers though (and not just Zenits): when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Ideally you don’t just take pictures because you’ve carried this camera around all day so you might as well use it. This way lies boring. Or it would be if you showed other people. Since the marginal cost of digital photos is zero, why not just shoot what you see? You can then look at your pictures and ask yourself what you saw, and if you could have done it better. That’s how you improve. Just don’t inflict every variant of that crushed can you saw on your friends. Not unless you want this social distancing thing to last forever.

The great pretender

A digital camera is a Turing camera: it has the potential to emulate any camera, which means it has the ability to emulate any recording medium.

As an example, Ritchie Roesch has posted the recipes or settings to make Fuji cameras emulate different types of film. On the other hand, you could just shoot the actual film you are trying to emulate. Except some types of film are expensive or rare – try getting some Kodak HIE or Kodachrome to play with. So the ability to summon the ghost of films past has its uses. Plus you can effectively change films mid-roll or even for a single shot. It makes me wonder though – if I emulate a particular film effect in-camera, am I just replacing film with digits? What I mean is, that one of the strongest advantages of digital over film is that you have more scope to change it afterwards. If I save a file in the camera that has effects applied, I have actually shot a frame of film.

Genuine Kodak HIE, from when it existed.

Perhaps the best way then is not to apply film effects in-camera, but later? Or at least save a raw file with no effects applied. If your camera lets you save both, you can have the raw file to work on and a jpeg to get an idea of what the final effect will look like. This might be useful if I was taking portraits in black and white. It’s difficult to visualise how colour translates, so saving jpegs in mono gives you something to show the subject.

If I choose to use a certain type of film or to process it in a certain way, I can’t go back and change my mind. If I shoot well-exposed raw files, I can do anything I want with them later. Is this a lack of commitment or is it pragmatism? Actually, it’s something I should do more often. I keep taking my old clunker cameras out for walks loaded with mono film. I should try using one of the digital jobs the same way, but having more options to change the results later. I’ve been having a go with the one camera, one lens, one month thing. Perhaps I should treat one of the digital cameras the same way? I’ve only got one that can swap lenses, so it looks like it’s going to be on the list. The emphasis will be different though. Rather than getting to know an old camera better, this will be more about seeing how much flexibility I can get out of a Turing machine.

Having thought about it, I’ve settled on using my Canon G9 compact. It can save raw files so I can play with the settings but still have the original to work on later. I’ve set it up to shoot back and white. It has two saved custom modes, so I have set them both to black and white but one of them to underexpose by one stop. I will use this when I push the ISO to 800 to see if I can use it for gritty pictures with deep shadows.

That’s the game then: G9 pretending to be a range of mono film types, with the option to later apply filters or effects.

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Update.

I’m quite enjoying this. It scratches my mono film itch and lets me change my mind later.

I might have succumbed to the dark side.

Rosebud