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DPChallenge Forums >> Photography Discussion >> Blurbs #02 - Technical Aspects of Photography
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12/12/2003 10:09:22 AM · #1
"Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important." -Henri Cartier-Bresson

Why would one who recognized as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century say something like this? Why do technical aspects not matter to him? He's about 92 or 93 years old now and still selling prints for over $5000 each. There must be something about his work that allows it to command such a price.

Maybe there is something about photography that makes an image great other than technical wow power. When was the last time you saw a photograph that didn't have high technical merit that really moved you in some way? Did the photo stimulate your senses in some way other than visually? Did it make you feel like you were standing in the scene looking at what the photographer was showing you? Could you hear the sounds? Could you smell the air? Could you hear a conversation taking place? Could you feel happiness or sadness? Did it bring back a fond memory?

Technical merit won't sell fine art prints in most cases. The viewer has to connect with the image in some way.

During the past few months, I have been studying people who buy art to decorate their homes or workplaces. When I see art hanging on a wall, I like to ask the owner a few questions. I generally start with "Where did you buy that?" If I find out that it was not a gift and they had picked it out on their own, I ask what made them choose that paritular piece. The answers to this question are incredibly different depending on who I ask. Some sample responses are:

"It matches the colors in my room. I didn't have any particular interest in the subject itself."

"I needed something to put on that wall. The space was too empty."

"It was painted by a friend of mine."

My mother has a painting of a white Bible with a pair of rim-wire glasses on it. It's a simple still life. She bought it because it reminded her of her father's bible and glasses. It made her think about something other than the image itself.

Interestingly enough, I have only come across a few who have any photography hanging on their walls. In the cases where I have, none of them told me they bought it because it was a well done photograph. The reasons I have heard all fall in line with the reasons listed above :)

Just some thoughts...

12/12/2003 10:22:47 AM · #2
This goes right along with what I was trying to say in another thread (albeit badly) about our voting habits on the challenges. Personally, I know I tend to vote based on my emotional reactions to the photos. If a photo doesn't stir something within me at all, I tend to avoid even casting a vote, and many times, what I find appealing is not what gets the higher votes. Conversely, it seems to me, that what I find rather mundane is what sometimes achieves higher votes. Art is definitely, to my way of thinking, in the eye of the beholder. And, therefore, when someone else does not see the beauty in a shot that we do, we should not be discouraged or irritated with their lack of our vision.
12/12/2003 10:37:29 AM · #3
Originally posted by jmsetzler:

"Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important." -Henri Cartier-Bresson

Why would one who recognized as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century say something like this? Why do technical aspects not matter to him? He's about 92 or 93 years old now and still selling prints for over $5000 each. There must be something about his work that allows it to command such a price.



Cartier-Bresson's work is about the "decisive moment", capturing the critical moment when all the elements come together and make the image. He did not set up shots or pose people. He walked around and when he saw a shot, he'd pull out his little Leica, shoot a frame and put it back. He was very quick, no fiddling with exposure settings or focus. Often his subjects and the people around him did not even know they had been photographed.

He quit photography sometime in the 1980's, expressing a lack of interest and went back to painting, which he always maintained was his great passion.

He didn't care about the technical aspects, because his work didn't require him to. Once he understood enough to make his method of working work and had made it automatic to him, that was enough technical knowledge and the subsequent changes in technology became irrelevant.
12/12/2003 10:42:39 AM · #4
Originally posted by kaycee:

This goes right along with what I was trying to say in another thread (albeit badly) about our voting habits on the challenges. Personally, I know I tend to vote based on my emotional reactions to the photos. If a photo doesn't stir something within me at all, I tend to avoid even casting a vote, and many times, what I find appealing is not what gets the higher votes. Conversely, it seems to me, that what I find rather mundane is what sometimes achieves higher votes. Art is definitely, to my way of thinking, in the eye of the beholder. And, therefore, when someone else does not see the beauty in a shot that we do, we should not be discouraged or irritated with their lack of our vision.


Voting on artistic work, always reminds me of that scene in "Dead Poets Society" where Robin Williams' character is talking about how ridiculous rating poems is and has the students tear the page defining how to do just that from the book.
12/12/2003 12:05:53 PM · #5
I guess I interpret Cartier-Bresson's statement differently. (Perhaps if I read it in context I might interpret it the way you do, in which case what I'm about to say would be completely irrelevant, not to mention possibly incorrect.) :)

Cartier-Bresson seems to me to be saying that since the inception of photography with the camera obscura and the Daguerreotype that the only way the art itself has changed is by the technical aspects of cameras, lenses, films and digital technology. And that perhaps THAT does not matter to him, only the resulting image.

But maybe I'm wrong... That's just the way I interpreted it... :)
12/12/2003 12:13:09 PM · #6
Is he refering to technical aspects such as camera technology (my inference from that quote), or the basic technical merits of a photograph such as composition, lighting, focus, etc.? I agree with your thoughts on the emotional aspects - that people will more likely pay for something they have an emotional reaction or connection with. But your statement "none of them told me they bought it because it was a well done photograph" has a flip side: would they have bought it if it was not a well done photograph. I would suspect a photo will need to have some level of photographic merit before a person can look at it without being distracted by those flaws, and can move beyond the photo and into its contents or message.

Message edited by author 2003-12-12 12:13:55.
12/12/2003 12:15:03 PM · #7
Originally posted by jodiecoston:

...But maybe I'm wrong... That's just the way I interpreted it... :)


Yeah, what you said. :-)
12/12/2003 12:15:48 PM · #8
Originally posted by kaycee:

...Art is definitely, to my way of thinking, in the eye of the beholder...


I'm uneasy with generalisations like the one above (although it is, here, qualified by personal subjectivity). The phrase has got to be the most quoted one on this site.

I am uneasy with it, because it leads us away from any possibility of a collective consensus on matters of art. I do know from a lifetime of involvement with both the subject of art and the people who create, further and appreciate it, that there is, in fact, considerable consensus. That collective and shared sense may well be articulated in diverse and contradictory ways, yet those sufficiently steeped in the arts come to it by convictions drawn from a profound involvement and, by my experience, find as much to share as they disagree on. It is more profitable, I believe, to seek out that which leads toward an already acquired sense of a thing than to consider the size of the difficulty.





12/12/2003 12:22:02 PM · #9
Originally posted by ScottK:

Is he refering to technical aspects such as camera technology (my inference from that quote), or the basic technical merits of a photograph such as composition, lighting, focus, etc.? I agree with your thoughts on the emotional aspects - that people will more likely pay for something they have an emotional reaction or connection with. But your statement "none of them told me they bought it because it was a well done photograph" has a flip side: would they have bought it if it was not a well done photograph. I would suspect a photo will need to have some level of photographic merit before a person can look at it without being distracted by those flaws, and can move beyond the photo and into its contents or message.


Obsiously, I don't have an answer. Take a look at Cartier-Bresson's works in the link I provided and tell me if you would pay $5000 for any of it if you were planning to spend $5000 on a photograpic print.
12/12/2003 12:37:18 PM · #10
Originally posted by jmsetzler:

Originally posted by ScottK:

Is he refering to technical aspects such as camera technology (my inference from that quote), or the basic technical merits of a photograph such as composition, lighting, focus, etc.? I agree with your thoughts on the emotional aspects - that people will more likely pay for something they have an emotional reaction or connection with. But your statement "none of them told me they bought it because it was a well done photograph" has a flip side: would they have bought it if it was not a well done photograph. I would suspect a photo will need to have some level of photographic merit before a person can look at it without being distracted by those flaws, and can move beyond the photo and into its contents or message.


Obsiously, I don't have an answer. Take a look at Cartier-Bresson's works in the link I provided and tell me if you would pay $5000 for any of it if you were planning to spend $5000 on a photograpic print.


There are several of his images that I would purchase, if I were in a position to spend $5000/print of photographs. He is at the top of my list in terms of photographers whose work I would like to own.

Specifically, these images from the gallery linked to above:

#1
#2
#3
#4
12/12/2003 12:41:58 PM · #11
When looking at Cartier-Bresson's work presented here, I can appreciate many of the images as evocative of things I've read about. None, however really affect me on a personal level. There are some that I can appreciate their artistry, but there are some that really evoke no response whatsoever. Much like I find here perusing profiles. Again, I do appreciate technically difficult shots - but that's not necessarily what I appreciate most as an artistic shot. But, I do think that there are some basic "norms" to which most of us gravitate - hence clearly successful multiple challenge winners.
12/12/2003 12:43:29 PM · #12
Its also almost impossible to evaluate the quality of prints from online versions or book reproductions.

If I had $5000 to spend photographic prints I'd be banging on Keith Carter's door though. His prints glow with light - they are just luminous. If you haven't seen a good print by someone like Ansel Adams or Weston, you'd also not understand the fuss about their pictures - books and online versions just don't do it justice at all. Cartier-Bresson was sensible enough to employ master printers for his art too, as far as I understand it.
12/12/2003 01:11:50 PM · #13
Will someone here choose a photograph by Henri Cartier Bresson which would survive a DPC contest.

His photographic style holds an immense appeal for me but I do not believe he would get any ribbons here.
12/12/2003 01:16:19 PM · #14
Originally posted by zeuszen:

Originally posted by kaycee:

...Art is definitely, to my way of thinking, in the eye of the beholder...


I'm uneasy with generalisations like the one above (although it is, here, qualified by personal subjectivity). The phrase has got to be the most quoted one on this site.

I am uneasy with it, because it leads us away from any possibility of a collective consensus on matters of art. I do know from a lifetime of involvement with both the subject of art and the people who create, further and appreciate it, that there is, in fact, considerable consensus. That collective and shared sense may well be articulated in diverse and contradictory ways, yet those sufficiently steeped in the arts come to it by convictions drawn from a profound involvement and, by my experience, find as much to share as they disagree on. It is more profitable, I believe, to seek out that which leads toward an already acquired sense of a thing than to consider the size of the difficulty.


What?
Didn't you contradict yourself here?

I've spent most of my life in the art world. If there is one fast and true thing I've learned it is; that anyone that is truly appreciative of the arts in general and has an open mind, will with out a doubt agree that art appreciation in and of itself is a purely subjective thing.

I've not met anyone that meets the above criteria that does not agree with that. (I qualify by saying, that I'VE met) They will agree to disagree on the technical merits of an object under scrutiny. They will agree to disagree on whether an object should be considered worthy of museum inclusion, etc etc etc.

They will agree, however, that the object that is created with the intent of creating art, is by that act of creation, art. Whether or not it is good art is where the discussion begins.

I've lost track of the number of times I was at a show (American Crafts Council, juried) with my glass work and had people coming up with textile swatches to hold against pieces to be sure they'd match the sofa.

We, in the US, live in a Walmart - Martha Stewart - government that hates the arts unless they're flattering society. ( I do have my asbestos underwear on by the way) We have been taught to value art as a consumer product. Not inherently valuable. Just show me the bottom line.

Would I spend $5k on one of those prints, if I had that kind of money, in a flash! To own a piece of history, yep, you betcha.

Look at what they are, what the purpose was to create them. etc

Ok,,
off my soapbox.
12/12/2003 01:23:24 PM · #15
Originally posted by JC_Homola:


Would I spend $5k on one of those prints, if I had that kind of money, in a flash! To own a piece of history, yep, you betcha.


And that's one of the reasons that HCB's pictures command those prices - independantly of they are really good or not. They are part of the photographic art historical record. They are antiques and in very limited supply (artifical or not). I'd spend the money on Keith Carter prints because they bring me joy whenever I get the chance to see one.

Though I'd never recommend buying any sort of art for its investment value unless you also happened to love the image.

I'm also guilty of using photographs for decor based on dominant colour values. Does this make me a bad person ? :)

Message edited by author 2003-12-12 13:23:59.
12/12/2003 01:32:52 PM · #16
Originally posted by Gordon:


I'm also guilty of using photographs for decor based on dominant colour values. Does this make me a bad person ? :)


Hell no. The point I was trying to make, albeit badly, was that there are people who's consideration for a purchase of art is, either investment or if it matches the sofa or both.
There is no appreciation of the inherent art of a piece.

12/12/2003 01:35:36 PM · #17
Originally posted by jmsetzler:

Obsiously, I don't have an answer. Take a look at Cartier-Bresson's works in the link I provided and tell me if you would pay $5000 for any of it if you were planning to spend $5000 on a photograpic print.


I forgot to comment on his work at that link. But looking at those pictures at least partly formed my comments. While some are less "technically perfect" then others, overall there's are strong elements of composition and light in most or all of them, and most generally have an strong focal point that's relatively well focused. It is, however, the emotive, "moment in time" aspects of many of them that really grabs you. I just think that if they were all out of focus, had poor tonal ranges, and were all askew or haphazard in composition, it would detract from the emotional impact.

Another thought or angle (and an honest question): What separates these photos from snapshots?

I personally can't relate to spending $5000 on any art. But I certainly could imagine purchasing some of these prints. 2 and 3 in Dan's list stood out for me, as did Siphnos, 1961, Seville, 1933 and Simiane-la-Rotonde, 1970 - he has a really great sense for framing his images. I also liked the landscapes.

12/12/2003 01:46:45 PM · #18
It's worh mentioning as well that Cartier-Bresson did not crop from the negative when printing. All his prints are full frame.
12/12/2003 01:47:19 PM · #19
Originally posted by JEM:

Will someone here choose a photograph by Henri Cartier Bresson which would survive a DPC contest.

His photographic style holds an immense appeal for me but I do not believe he would get any ribbons here.


Define "survive". Win? That's a fickel prospect, and too dependant on the weekly whims of both the individual voter and the crowd as a whole (i.e. who votes in a given challenge).

I do, however, think several would do well, assuming no issues with appropriateness to or interpretation of the challenge theme. :-) I think many of them would score in the high 6s or 7s. Obviously, I like the ones I pointed out above, and think they'd do well, especially in a "photo-journalism" themed challenge.

On the other hand, I agree there are several on that page that would get pummeled for technical aspects. I could just imagine all the comments this picture would get along the lines of "you cut off the person on the left - should have framed it better".
12/12/2003 01:49:29 PM · #20
Originally posted by ScottK:

Originally posted by jmsetzler:

Obsiously, I don't have an answer. Take a look at Cartier-Bresson's works in the link I provided and tell me if you would pay $5000 for any of it if you were planning to spend $5000 on a photograpic print.


I forgot to comment on his work at that link. But looking at those pictures at least partly formed my comments. While some are less "technically perfect" then others, overall there's are strong elements of composition and light in most or all of them, and most generally have an strong focal point that's relatively well focused. It is, however, the emotive, "moment in time" aspects of many of them that really grabs you. I just think that if they were all out of focus, had poor tonal ranges, and were all askew or haphazard in composition, it would detract from the emotional impact.

Another thought or angle (and an honest question): What separates these photos from snapshots?

I personally can't relate to spending $5000 on any art. But I certainly could imagine purchasing some of these prints. 2 and 3 in Dan's list stood out for me, as did Siphnos, 1961, Seville, 1933 and Simiane-la-Rotonde, 1970 - he has a really great sense for framing his images. I also liked the landscapes.


I think you answered your own question :)
12/12/2003 02:01:59 PM · #21
a decisive moment, restricted editing, challenge would be fun, although no doubt a masacre at the voting stage....

"what a decisive moment"

"this would have been better 10 seconds later, even though I wasn't there and know nothing about it"
.
.
.
12/12/2003 02:06:41 PM · #22
Originally posted by jmsetzler:

I think you answered your own question :)


...or, I clarified my own opinion of his meaning. :) Still don't know for certain what HCB intended.

Did a google on the quote, and came up with this page filled with quotes from him: Quotations in Today's Emails (BotzBlog * Kevin Bjorke). One that I think you'd all love (and refutes some of my own thoughts above):

"Sharpness is a bourgeois concept."

12/12/2003 02:10:39 PM · #23
Originally posted by Gordon:

a decisive moment, restricted editing, challenge would be fun, although no doubt a masacre at the voting stage....

"what a decisive moment"

"this would have been better 10 seconds later, even though I wasn't there and know nothing about it"
.
.
.


And then the arguements on what level of restrictive editing: "No levels!" "No cropping!" "No rotating!" "No converting to JPEG or resizing!" ;-)

Good idea in theory though...
12/12/2003 02:10:45 PM · #24
All I care about these days is painting - photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing. -Henri Cartier-Bresson
12/12/2003 02:14:06 PM · #25
Unless a picture shocks, it is nothing. -Marcel Duchamp
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