Window or Mirror

In a storm? Standing bravely?

It has been observed that photography can be either a window or mirror. The idea has some merit. But like most real world things, it depends.

Szarkowski

The idea originated with John Szarkowski, at the time the head of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was expressed in an exhibit named “Mirrors and Windows, American Photography since 1960” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.

Mr. Szarkowski was a huge influence on photography for many years. I don’t agree with many of his ideas, but I believe there is something to consider in the ideas behind this exhibit.

The press release for the show states that “In metaphorical terms, the
photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.”

Let’s try to unpack that.

A window on the world

At the beginning of photography, it was seen as a way to quickly capture real scenes. The “writing with light” aspect was a big thing. A landscape or a portrait could be captured much more quickly than by previous artistic media. What a breakthrough! To make a portrait in a few seconds instead of having to sit for days while a painter works! And it was “real”! Indisputable. Unaltered. Exactly what the person or place looked like.

This notion that a photograph is true to reality carries on strongly today. I see photographers who refuse to alter anything in the frame for fear of being dishonest. And most viewers have a natural belief that what they see in a print is real. Unless an image obviously looks like a fantasy illustration, it must be fact.

A great many photographers follow this tradition. I started there, too. The idea that an image represented exactly what was there at the time. No illusion or tricks or modification. Many great photographers like Ansel Adams and Gary Winogrand could be placed in this group.

This could be described as the “window on the world” view. What I choose to frame in the image is bringing the viewer an exact representation of reality. It is an outward looking viewpoint. The photographer is silently in the background. It is not obvious what he was thinking or feeling. There is little clear message beyond “look at this”. And there is always the implication that you could go there and see the same scene.

A mirror reflecting the artist

Somewhere in the mid twentieth century (around 1960 according to Szarkowski), many photographer’s intent started to shift. This would describe some great artists like Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann. It was no longer sufficient to just bring reality. It was important to express my beliefs, to make a statement, to convey my feelings. And it was no longer important that the image depict the scene literally.

Now the goal became to express the scene as I perceive it. That may require extreme processing or compositing or absolutely anything as long as my intent is brought through. The final image may bear little or no resemblance to the original. That is OK, though, because it is an expression, not a capture of reality.

There was one idea in the exhibit notes that resonates strongly with me. The image that a scene projects on the artist who then internalizes it and interprets it to the viewer. This seems to me to capture a large range of what is done in art now.

A natural evolution?

I believe this movement from window to mirror was fairly natural and predictable. By the 1950’s or 1960’s people had become used to seeing images of the world. Major publications like Life and National Geographic flooded us with images of the world, both landscapes and people. Pictures were becoming commonplace.

To take landscapes, for instance, there is only room for a limited number of shots of the major sights of the world. The market was saturated. So artists started to differentiate their work by allowing their own personality to show through. The notion of a personal style became important.

The part of this that seems valid to me is that, while there are millions of photographers out there shooting everything imaginable, only I have my personal point of view and style. Therefore, my images are unique. Even if they are of the same scene many others shoot. That seems to me to be the only chance of artists to carve a niche in the crowded market.

Both?

Even Szarkowski was quick to point out that this was not intended to be a clear division of artists. It is an axis, with strong window view points on one end and strong mirror view points at the other. Most people will fall somewhere in between. And they may move back and forth on the axis with time. Although I think the movement is typically from window toward mirror. At least that was my path.

But even with that said, I do jump around. It depends on the context and what I am feeling at the time. So, for instance, when I go to a new location that excites me, I may start out taking “window” shots. To capture the locale, the scenes I am loving. Many of these are consciously for my own memories.

If I have the opportunity to spend time in the location, I move past the “window” shots and start feeling a personal view that begins to be expressed. This is now drifting toward the “mirror” end of the axis. But in the same day of shooting I will probably do both. In familiar territory where I spend a lot of time, there is a greater tendency to concentrate on mirror views, since the conventional views are well gone over.

The metaphor is useful to help us reflect on how we are seeing subjects at any time.

Neither?

This idea of window vs. mirror views is just Szarkowski’s concept. That doesn’t make it right or some universal truth. I must admit, though, the model has merit. It is a valuable metaphor.

Photography started out as a window on the world. Just the fascination of being to quickly capture as “real” scene in all it’s complexity was one of the things that propelled it into popularity. And I think many new photographers still start out intending to shoot realistic scenes of nature or architecture or people. It is a great way to hone our technique.

And I believe that many who stay serious about the art move toward the mirror end of the axis. It is no longer enough to just present a scene and say “here is what it looked like”. We feel a need to express how we felt about it, or how we perceived it differently than other people.

Fine Art

Flowing color, impression of spring.

Fine art is a very nebulous term. I don’t like the term, but I don’t have a suggested replacement. What is “fine art” photography? How do I know if I am doing it? Is there a right and wrong way to do it?

Photography genres

Photography is a large domain. It contains many specialized disciplines within it. Each has unique focus and techniques.

I will not attempt to list them all. I don’t even know them all. But some that occur to me are portraits, street photography, photojournalism, architectural photography, food photography, commercial photography, fashion photography, macro photography, and landscape photography. Cross-cutting differentiators within that are things like High Dynamic Range (HDR), Intentional Camera Motion (ICM), and black & white.

In addition, the majority of the photos shot in the world every day are on cell phones. And a lot of these are selfies used to make other people think we are having a better time on vacation than we really are.

Each of these areas has different goals and motivations and markets. It is very hard to talk about “photography” in general.

What is Fine Art?

But narrowing it down, what is “fine art photography”? How do you know if you are doing fine art?

Fine art photography is distinct from most other genres of photography in that it is first and foremost about the artist. It is not about capturing what the camera sees; it is about capturing what the artist sees. In fine art photography, therefore, the artist uses the camera as one more tool to create a work of art.

One thing you should never hear asked about a fine art image is “is that the way it looked?”. It is not intended to be representational. That is, unlike traditional landscape or photojournalism, it is not a literal representation of what was there.

What are the rules?

We have to define our own rules. This form of art is about expression and interpretation. I want you to participate in what I saw and felt about the image. That may be considerably different from a straight photograph of the scene.

But depending on the situation, sometimes the captured image is the artistic impression I want. It is not a rule that an image must be modified extensively. There are no rules except those you adopt. If I am able to achieve my intent in camera, so much the better.

When I capture a scene for art, I consider it to be raw material. It needs to be shaped and molded to become the final image. So even if the captured image is essentially my final vision, approaching it with this attitude gives me more freedom to be more creative. When I expect to modify my images I have little inhibition to doing it.

Politics and causes

I try to avoid politics in my work, but that is a personal choice. Some photographers are very caught up in a cause and want to do work to support it. You might consider Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell to be advocates for the Sierra Club. David duChemin does publicity for the charities and non-governmental organizations he is involved with. There are many more examples. It is natural to want to use your talent to support things you believe in. I do not make any judgement one way or another on that.

I believe, though, that the first job of an artist is to make art. This is completely my own value that I cannot bind on anyone else. I see many artists get so caught up in their cause that everything becomes deathly serious. There is no more fun and enjoyment. No more creativity for its own sake. Everything is pushing their cause, and if you don’t agree, then you are evil.

To me, the end result of this is that you become a propagandist and cease to be primarily an artist. If that is what you want, great. But it seems very difficult to balance creative, inquiring, free ranging art with propaganda. One or the other will be dominant.

I do fine art

Whatever fine art is, I have concluded that is what I do. I want you to feel what I was feeling, and see what I thought was significant. Whether I achieve that in-camera in one snap of the shutter or through something that is edited extensively or even composited from multiple images is immaterial. No more important than how many layers of paint a painter applies to his canvas. He does what he feels he needs to do.

My work is intended first and foremost to satisfy my creative urges. It exists purely for its aesthetic qualities. I am my primary audience. No one gets to tell me, no, you should do this. Well, my wife can, but even then I may not listen to her.

My work is intended to be art, not documentary. I am not presenting literal truth, I want you to respond to it emotionally. And for an introvert like me, dealing in feelings is a stretch goal.

Don’t Rush

Unsuccessful Panorama. I decided on reflection that I do not like it.

It seems most people rush to share results of any photo outing on social media immediately. But why? Does that make sense? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until you have a few great images ready? Let your work and vision mature.

Don’t be a slave to social media

I am freely admitting my prejudice here. I am not a fan of social media and I don’t participate in much of it.

A lot of people I see feel compelled to post some of everything they do to social media as soon as they are within cell phone range. They put themselves under a lot of pressure. If you are dependent on the “likes” and upvotes you get online, you serve a very capricious master. And what if several people don’t like your work? What do you do? Change? Abandon what you are doing? Who is deciding your style and artistic interests?

It’s not collaboration

Is your art a group process or are you, the artist, solely responsible for your creations? “Collaboration” is one of those powerful sounding words thrown around in corporations these days. I’ve been there. I know there is a place for it in corporations where they’re trying to achieve at least an average result and wanting to make several special interest groups feel included. But I claim it is not appropriate for our art.

Our art should be a highly personal expression. To a degree, it should not matter if it is not universally popular. Maybe we should not try to be universally popular. If it appeals to the masses and looks like “everybody else’s” art, is it a creative expression? My work is going to be my own total responsibiity.

Ask why you are sharing

If you are sharing on social media, I think it is important to ask why you are doing it. Likes feel good, but do these people actually buy your art? Sorry to be crude and talk about money, but isn’t that the grease that lets things run?

If your social media strategy is well tuned and you have a good mailing list of people who are real customers and eager to buy your work, good for you. That is a reason to publish on social media.

But, how fast should you do it? Conventional wisdom on social media is that you should show work in progress. This is where I tend to disagree. I believe we should never show our work until it is ready.

Curating takes time

A lot of my art has to mature. I may have an idea of something I want to pursue, but my first attempts are usually not representative of where I will end up. It is typical for me to have to work with an idea or a subject for a while to refine my view, to understand my underlying feelings about it. The ideas have to age, to mature some. This can take from days to years.

So if I’m shooting a project, the first images I shoot may be scatter shots all around the idea I haven’t really “discovered” yet. After dong work on the project a while I begin to understand what I really want to say and what will make the best visual presentation. It could be that one or more of those original images actually work for the final project, but that is almost an accident. It usually means I shot an image instinctively even though I did not consciously understand where I wanted to go. But projects can last from weeks to years, so my vision likely evolves over that time.

In a similar way, it is sometimes the case that I shoot an image, I like it, but something tells me it is not complete yet. Maybe it needs to be worked as a low key black & white image. Maybe I need to do some serious cropping to isolate the part that really interests me. Perhaps I need to composite it with some texture or other elements to complete the look. Or maybe it just isn’t as good as I originally thought.

Be patient

If you’re like a lot of photographers, you shoot a lot of images when working a scene. Sometimes it is not immediately clear to me which is the pick of the group. I often have to live with them a while to understand what I was really drawn to. It may take days or weeks before I can look at the set and say “this one” is the one that captures what I was feeling at the time.

If I am under pressure to get a quick look out to social media, I would find that what I am publishing is not really representative of what I end up with. Maybe that is OK for you. But I do not want anyone to see what I would consider inferior work. A secret of most photographers is that they seem very good because you only see about 1% or less of what they shoot. They throw away or rework what doesn’t work before it ever gets out of their studio. What you do see is good.

A line from a famous old Paul Mason ad said “We will sell no wine before its time.” I don’t know if this is still true or if it ever was, but the idea has merit. Don’t be in such a rush to get things out. Wait for them to mature. A few great images is more impactful than a bunch of mediocre ones.

Today’s image

This is a pano I shot earlier this year. At first it was a pick of the day. I really like the clouds and mountain shapes. After living with it for a while, though, I realized I do not like the foreground or the middle ground (the lower forests are too dark). And there is more visual clutter to remove than I wanted to do. So this went into the “eliminated” pile. There was another one that I liked much better.

Recording the Obvious

Balanced between. Which path to take? Uncertain.

The great photographer Edward Weston once said “I see no reason to record the obvious.” But isn’t recording the obvious what most of us do most of the time? What are the alternatives?

Cameras record everything

As I have pointed out many times, our marvelous high tech sensors are great recording devices. They do a great job of capturing what they are pointed at.

Because of that, these days our phones have become an invaluable data capture device. We record a sign we want to look into later, or a wine label we want to remember, or selfies of us and friends. When I rent a car I always do a 360 degree bracket of it before leaving the lot, just in case there are and disputes about when some damage happened. We have our phone with us, so when in doubt, snap a picture.

Most of this is never intended to be considered art. It is just data. Maybe memories. They are a ubiquitous part of our lives.

Most pictures are of a clear, well defined subject

Most of these images, whether on our phone of our “real” camera, follow the rules of composition we have been taught. The subject is centered and as sharp and well lit as we can do. Perhaps we have a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. Maybe we have made the lighting interesting: high key or low key or strong side light.

What is common is that the photos are “of” something. They are generally straight representation or even utilitarian.

I do not dismiss this as unimportant. But it is not art. If we want to make art we have to take a different path.

Can there be more?

Trillions of pictures are taken every year, no exaggeration or typo. One more image I take is just a drop of water in the ocean. Why should I bother? How can I stand out? What can we do to be a new voice?

We are often told to be creative. But almost everything has already been tried. True creativity, in the sense of something that has never been seen, is very rare. We may never do something truly creative, but we can do work that is fresh, because it captures our feelings and point of view.

If we try to get in touch with what we feel and our reaction to a scene, we can capture it in a way that no one else has seen. We are unique, in that our thoughts and experiences and values are different from anyone else. Therefore we should be able to see things somewhat different.

This difference that is unique to us is what sets our work apart from everyone else. We just have to follow our unique view and not try to make our work look like everyone else’s.

Look for the story within the story

You walk up to a beautiful landscape. There are 20 other photographers there snapping away. What do you do? Are you going to make the same image as all the others?

Go ahead and shoot it. Capture a record of that standard scene. Get that out of the way. Now start responding to it at a deeper level. What do you really see? It may be a famous scene, but what draws you? Everyone else is using wide angle lenses. Maybe you feel like using a telephoto to isolate just part of it. Small sections of a scene can give an impression of the whole. This is making the picture “about” something.

It doesn’t matter what people expect to see there. What do you see? What tweaks your interest? One fresh, interesting frame is better than a whole memory card full of “me too” shots. You are the audience you have to please.

Look deeper

I find it useful to keep asking myself questions and demanding an answer. Especially “why?”. Forcing myself to go through 3 or 4 levels of why questions about a scene can reveal a lot. But only if I make myself answer truthfully and with some detail. It is too easy to accept a vague idea of what I feel. No, be specific.

Can you find something more there than the surface image? Is it actually interesting? Does it excite you? Paraphrasing the great Jay Maisel, “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, what makes you think it will excite anyone else?”.

So peel back the layers until you discover the truth or essence of what you are drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a deep, profound truth. It could simply be “I really like the way the water is flowing over that rock.” But you have identified what part of the scene you are drawn to and why. Now the resulting image can clearly convey your intent.

Edward Weston famously told us “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” (Guy Tal based a whole book on the idea. It is good. Get it). This statement is pretty Zen-like, but it brings up a lot to think about.

How can a picture of something as simple as a rock actually be about a deeper idea? Maybe it can or maybe it can’t. I have to say that some of the pictures in Mr. Tal’s book did not bring deep concepts to me. That is the problem of conveying feelings to another person. It doen’t always work. But, the artist attempted it and discovered something meaningful for him. Perhaps I cannot perceive it, but it was there for the artist. It is an honest attempt to bring me more than a rock.

Get over the obvious

So I encourage us all to dig below the obvious when we are creating our images. The obvious may be pretty, but is there any substance to it, in the sense of engaging our brain, our thoughts, our feelings?

I have come to believe that I just bring you the same images you would have shot if you were there, I have probably not added much value for you. I owe it to you to force myself to understand what I was drawn to and capture my feelings, while making a beautiful image.

Today’s image

New Orleans French Quarter comes alive at night. The color and interest of this scene really drew me in, but it lacked depth. I had an idea of what I would like to see and I refined it as I watched various people stop and look in. This person finally paused there in the entrance, alone, questioning, swiveling. He seemed torn between conflicting ideas. Go in or keep going? To me this captured inner conflict and moral ambiguity. Choices.

Reality

Paint swirls with water drops. Not real, but close.

Is reality objective? Is there one reality that we all share? Do our perceptions and experiences and values form a reality for us? How do we know?

Objective reality

Is there an objective reality? Sorry to disappoint you, but I will leave most of this discussion to the philosophers. I have know some of them and listened to them discuss this, and I know I cannot follow the twists of their arguments. It’s above my pay grade as some would say.

I believe most of us wish for an objective truth. It would seem like it would make this chaotic and confusing world make more sense. While I can’t help much with arguments for objectivity, I can give some perspective against it.

It’s personal

Even though there may ultimately be a “true” reality, doesn’t it seem like we each perceive our own version of it? Why else could we have a society so polarized? In America these days, if an event happens about half the people see it one way and the other half see it the opposite way.

Are half the people at any time totally foolish? More likely nearly all of us are wrong. We have lost sight of the societal norms we used to share. When we collectively believed in certain rights and wrongs, in shared goals, in expectations of behavior, it was much easier to share a common view. To see roughly the same reality.

I cannot solve this problem and it would be foolish to waste effort here trying. My point being that each person’s reality seems to be based on their values and perceptions, on their beliefs, and on who they listen to and talk to.

Do we form it?

I think I can safely say we form our own reality to a large degree. The conclusions we come to may be false. There may be objective reality we completely miss. But our own reality is what we perceive. The way we choose to react to what happens to us.

There is an old story, completely made up I”m sure, about a psychologist studying kids to understand their perceptions. They made 2 identical rooms piled high with horse manure. One boy was put in each one with a shovel. In the first one, the boy cleared out a little space and sat down and did nothing. When they interviewed him and asked him why he did that, he said the place was filthy and smelly and there was nothing of interest there and he couldn’t wait to get out. But they found the other boy gleefully digging through the piles of manure and throwing it all over. When they asked him why he was having so much fun he said with all this manure , there must be a pony around.

Reality is based on perception and our choices of what to believe. Each of us can look at the same facts and perceive a different reality. We do it every day without even realizing it.

There are, of course, limits to this. Objective reality often intrudes on us. You may truly believe you can levitate, so you step off a cliff to prove it. Objective reality wins.

Just because we believe something strongly does not necessarily make it true. Even so, it could form our personal reality. At least until objective reality crushes us.

Seeing through our own lens

But this isn’t a blog about philosophy. It is about art. Where does that come in to this discussion?

I have touched on this before, but I believe a photographer can either think they are capturing and presenting objective reality or they can realize they have a subjective viewpoint.

I know I have been on both sides of this dilemma. Way back as a young photographer and engineer, I thought the goal was to be impartial and objective. Being an engineer pushed me strongly toward the objective side. “Pure” photography. Think Mr. Spock.

Now I realize it is almost impossible to be truly objective. Even if I attempt to present a scene “just the way it is”, I am making subjective decisions of framing and composition and lighting and timing. These selectively view only parts of the scene and strongly influence the perception of the viewer. Any scene I photograph is influenced by my point of view and feelings.

As I push further and further into fine art, I realize strongly that my point of view and subjective judgement are a primary component of the image. It is the reason for the image. One of the mantras is “is the image I made the same as what anyone else there at the time would have made?” If it is, then why did I bother? I am not adding anything. I am not sharing my experience or my perception.

A work of art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t art at all.

Paul Cézanne

Photography as seeking reality

But let me come back for a moment to the perception of reality in a photograph. I think this is a trap most people fall into because we don’t really examine our perceptions.

I believe most people consider a photograph to be reality for 2 reasons. First, they know the sensor records the live scene it was exposed to, so therefore this must be real. But second and more subtle, I believe most people are wishing for truth.

We want confirmation that there is truth and absolutes, even if we do not really know what they are. So we invest photographs as a symbol of truth.

This is one reason why people love pictures of beautiful landscapes, sunsets, waterfalls, forests, etc. It is a reality to grab onto. We wish it to be real, so we believe it. We want truth.

I confess that I love to take these beautiful pictures, too. It is good for the soul sometimes. Please take pictures of beauty when you find it. But remind yourself it is a subjective view of reality.

Whose reality?

So do not be too quick to accept a picture as truth, an objective reality. It can be beautiful. We may love to hang it on our wall and look at it every day, but it does not necessarily represent reality.

The reality we see is the artist’s reality. It is the sum of their perceptions and feelings and values. Do not lose sight of the fact that, if you were standing next to them at that time, you might have perceived something different. You might have pointed your camera in a different direction or framed it different. Your reality could differ from this other artist.

A photograph is reality, but it is the artist’s reality.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, then he would cease to be an artist.

Oscar Wilde