Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Photographer as Villain

I got a book celebrating the great LIFE photographers for this past holiday, and I was looking through it with the hope of learning something about photography and improving my own craft. Here are some thoughts skimming the surface of my mind.

Two things I notice in this book of LIFE photographs. First, that a lot of these photographs are compositionally pretty dull. Not all, certainly, and probably not even most, but quite a few. If I shot a roll of film (well, I shoot digital, but still), and some of these shots came out, I'd pass them over for duds. Now, generally, I don't think that's a result of me not "seeing" the shot (although I'll allow for the possibility here and there), but the result of the fact that a compositionally-dull shot can be very captivating if it captures a particularly interesting subject, or manages to tell an interesting story. Indeed, a lot of these LIFE photographers, the ones who are more the 'photojournalist' or 'street photography' types, will say outright that they are not 'artists'.

Take, for example, one picture of Judy Garland on stage. It's not a particularly good picture, if you ask me; it doesn't even flatter the subject very well. Now, you could say that the fact that it's a 'dull' picture speaks volumes about the normality of people who are celebrities, or because it speaks to the public's interest in seeing celebrities depicted in a less than perfect context, or because it symbolizes in some way the troubles or vices a celebrity may be going through. You could say any one of these things, and they each could legitimately bring interest to the picture, but at the end of the day, visually and artistically it's not that interesting a picture.

I'm not trying to disparage these photographers and say they aren't very good - I'm just pointing out the observations I'm making about the different styles of photography, and my discovery of the different sorts of things that can make a picture interesting other than good composition, or simply an appealing subject. For example, a picture of a celebrity will be interesting to people the way the exact same picture of a non-celebrity wouldn't. At the same time, non-celebrities (even if they're not particularly attractive, or especially when they're particularly unattractive) can appealingly represent 'the salt of the earth' if depicted in a way that tells the viewer of the photograph something.

The other thing I've noticed is that photography is a very intrusive medium (in a way that is about as far off from being 'a fly on the wall' as you can be - even to the point of war photographers too frequently becoming casualties), with a very obvious and also unashamedly voyeuristic element. People complain about photography all the time because it's obtrusive of their privacy in a voyeuristic fashion. But that's where good photographs come from - capturing people being themselves, doing what they do - and you have to get in there, as the photographer, to get those pictures. And anyway, people love engaging in voyeurism - as long as it's not their own lives that are being peeked into. But in most cases, I think, the fear of being 'exposed' in a photograph is vastly overrated (unless, maybe, you're committing a crime or something, but even then...).

So anyway, my conclusion is that photographers may be seen, in a sense, as a type of villain, invading people's privacy. But then, people love photography, so their product is celebrated in the end. I don't want to say that the ends justify the means, and certainly a photographer should not seek to step over the bounds, instead preferring to work - where applicable - with trusted friends and people who are not particularly averse to photography. Again, where applicable. But if we're too cautious, we'll be sacrificing the sort of opportunities that make photography so compelling. And in the end, I suppose it's inevitable that photographers will continue to be seen as villains in a certain context, by some people, and that if I want to be a good photographer, I have to accept that. That's one of the things I'm struggling to come to terms with. I just hate to resign myself to a label like 'villain'...

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