I just got my first digital SLR—quite a step up from my little Sony point-and-shoot. But giving me this sort of camera—a Nikon D200—is a little like giving a nuclear weapon to Jim Jong-il. The question is, What will I do with it?
Photography is in many ways the opposite of drawing and painting. When the audience walks up to a drawing, they know it’s a drawing; the game is to trick the eye into seeing the real thing. With a photograph, it’s easy to make it look like the real thing; the game is to make it more of an object, but not too much so. This seems to me the key to artistic photography. For instance, see the work of Bill Brandt. Documentary photography is another thing altogether. The key there is to get a great shot. I think that probably takes a different kind of sensibility. When we see a picture of, say, soldiers in Iraq, we want facts, not an artistic experience. At least I don’t.
I’ve been searching around on Flickr and Photo.net for models to emulate and ideas to use. It’s surprising how similar people’s photographs are. There are the shots that have similar mistakes, such as no foreground or a horizon that isn’t horizontal. And there are the bad compositions that don’t even try the rule of thirds or the golden section or anything at all, leaving the subjects in the middle. Then there are the blurry, too light or too dark photos. Those don’t bother me as much, actually. I’ll take a good composition with blur over a crisp banality any day.
Like most things, the mean quality of photographs has risen, I think. The “mean refrigerator” is better now than in 1950, and so are the mean pop song and the mean bad novel. Things can still be relatively bad—the human mind will always find a way to sort “bad” from “good”—but they are a lot less bad. The problems we have today aren’t much of a problem, at least in the developed world. And our photos are the same way. Pretty good, if a little dull.
What sets the best apart? It’s a matter of taste, as all things are, of course. For me, I like photos that—as I mentioned above—engage the eye, which means engaging the mind. Blurry. Pinhole. Silver gelatin prints. Stuff like that. The picture needs to fuck with me a little bit. Fool me. Make me have to think—visually—about it. Not consciously. But there has to be a little itch in my visual cortex.
The subject matter doesn’t much matter to me, unless it’s really disgusting (say, a slaughterhouse—no thanks). I look at the subject second. First I take in the composition. Then the texture. The tones. The colors, if there are colors. Then, if I can figure out the subject, I look at that. I don’t read photos. That’s a different operation. I just look and check my gut: What do I feel? Sick? Good? Nothing?
I think this is something like the way the mind approaches the stimulus. The gross features then the fine and then the meaning, if any. By the time we get to meaning, the emotional machinery has already decided how we should feel—or at least given us a default interpretation. Snake! Yuck. Pizza! Yum. Looking at a photo is like looking at any part of the world, but slowed so you can feel it happen, feel the mind assembling your world, percept by percept.