And furthermore ...

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Wednesday, 14 August 2013


Snapshots of the landscape
“It's about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”
Elliot Erwitt

Kodakery, Eastman Kodak’s monthly magazine for amateurs existed to sell Kodak products, so you would expect it to have a broad definition of the facts. Still it was a bit mean to publish beautifully exposed, crystal clear and tonally perfect landscape scenes and not tell the readers these were taken by professionals, with professional equipment, who may have spent hours in the darkroom getting things right. How many people got their snapshots back from the lab and felt despondent realizing their images did not at all match their experience of being at Yosemite or the Scottish highlands?

As genres go, landscape photography was always the most rigorous, with the highest expectations. A bit of camera shake or misplaced focus might liven up a street scene or a portrait but landscapes were expected to be flawless. Anything less not only looked amateurish, it suggested a lack of proper respect for the subject. There were rules after all. Mountains had to look majestic. What was the point to a photo of the desert if you couldn’t evoke vast and empty space? As for the forest, it did take a bit of skill and something better than a $25 dollar camera to get an exposure that captured the detail in the gloom. 

One way around the problem was to rely on postcard and souvenir photographers who sold wallets with 10, 12 or up to 24 small photos in them.  They promised to get it right and save the poor tourist from inevitable disappointment. The images were professional looking of course, and usually quite dull to look at, the problem being that professionals not only knew how to take a photo, they understood exactly the type of image that represented the scene and shot accordingly. There are some places that can only be photographed a couple of ways. Mount Rushmore isn’t what it is without all four presidents’ heads in the frame so inevitably it didn’t much matter who made the postcard, they tended to look the same. Tourists on the other hand were more likely to be inspired by the moment. Grabbing the camera and snapping off a couple of shots might have been against the rules of good photography but the results can change the way we look at things.

All of the photos in this post have some element in the composition, the exposure or basic technique that their taker probably thought made them failures. They aren’t to us. If anything, it is the mistakes that confirm their authenticity. A decent professional would have included the entire car in this image but the way it is cut off at the bottom transforms it from nice but predictable composition to something that catches the eye. Some people would find the poor framing intensely irritating. That is also why they work.

The structures in this photograph look like Martello towers, possibly in Canada. My guess is the photographer realized that a photograph was necessary but this was the only one that could be taken from the deck of a boat. Technically it is a failure. Aesthetically it captures something that would have eluded the most competent professional. The crooked horizon and the slight overexposure give it an abstract feeling professionals might have seen but could only achieve after a few hours in the darkroom. 

Sometimes we can’t be absolutely sure whether what we are appreciating is a mistake or an interpretation. Had the photographer conceived of the image before shooting or was everything left to hope and chance? The way the sea wall dissects this image suggests the photographer wanted to capture it as a line slicing across the frame, but did he or she envision this result, or something else altogether? 

Jean Cocteau once advised aspiring novelists to rewrite the great classics and in their failure they’d discover their originality. The same could be applied to amateur photographers. We should set out with the intention of capturing an intrinsically Edward Weston image of the landscape and when we get the results back, rather than complain about the obvious shortcomings, value them for all the elements that don’t belong to Weston because they are now ours.