Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Photography and the Merits of Change

Posted in art, awareness, black and white, film, learning, perception, photography, technique, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on March 9, 2013

pepper1930Edward Weston; Pepper, 1930.

Recently, I had a student ask me about whether or not beauty (ie. aesthetics) influences my decision-making about the pictures I choose to take. Certainly, I consider composition in my work, but my idea of beauty may be different than the student’s, yours or other photographers’, furthermore, it is not always my prime consideration. How can this be?

As photography has metamorphosed throughout the years, both as a vehicle for socialization/expression/documentation and as an art form, the concepts of beauty and composition have undergone similar changes. No longer are the conventional ideas (those pictorialized by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, etc.) acceptable at face value, at least not in the form that we are used to seeing them. Certainly, people still appreciate purely beautiful, well-composed images, but they exist in contexts outside of photographic art; Instagram is the best example that immediately comes to mind. If you are an image fetishist, in the manner of the Modernists, Pictorialists, etc.*, there really is no better realization of what you hold near and dear than Instagram. I’m partly that way myself, and I confess to be a faithful contributor to that social network. To be sure, Instagram has not stopped with composition in re-appropriating art world currencies. The square format, familiar to a certain generation of film photographers and Polaroid enthusiasts, is slowly turning over to iPhone users. At some uncertain future date, the majority of our culture will associate traditional compositional aesthetics with Instagram, and much of the “look” of film too, including the square format. However, a tool that emphasizes image design over content is not really art in the way that we currently understand art, is it?

Contemporary photographic art is foremost the vehicle for an idea. That said, photographers still consider what images look like, but do so in a way that is sometimes adverse to traditional approaches. Most ideas about photographic composition originated from either drawing and painting, or the mechanical/technical mastery of the camera. For instance, although the Rule of Thirds owes much of its gestalt to Renaissance painting, it is evidence of the mastery of craft in photography. Consumer cameras resolve some of the problems of exposure by standardizing metering processes for the middle of the frame; the location where most moms and pops place their kids when they are snapping a picture of them in front of the Grand Canyon. Therefore, it is an illustration of technical knowhow to be able to place the subject off-center while still achieving proper exposure. Over time, the results of many of the more challenging approaches to picture-taking became assimilated into our understanding of what makes a picture “look good”; this is true whether or not the challenges pertain to darkroom procedures, lighting design, camera operation, digital processing, etc. Although, in our current age, most of the “challenge” has been eliminated as most of the resulting “looks” have been automated. It is the aim then of the contemporary photographer to break from tradition, and break from aesthetics, to pursue the idea first. This approach enables artists to really match their content to their medium. Over time though, even compositions that defy compositional standards become canonized, so who knows, maybe those thousands of shots languishing in your Instagram account will be the art of the future (and the past). After all, the merits of change are that everything changes.

01Jason Gray; Dorothy Bergmann, 2009. (An example of my decision to place the subject in the center, breaking the rules of composition.)

raymond_meeks_03Raymond Meeks; adjoining pages from “Pretty Girls Wander“, 2011. (An example of an atypical aesthetic appraoch.)

*An intentional over-simplification of these art movements. However, in defense, what the image looks like, is the primary goal of art up until Post-Modernism (with a few notable exceptions).

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