Category Archives: Photography

Thoughts on the nature of Photography, Part 1

(I’m calling this Part 1 because I’m sure I will want to revisit and/or expand upon this at a later date, perhaps multiple times)

Perhaps surprisingly, there are still debates to this day as to what exactly photography IS – is it art, is it a mechanical reproduction tool, is it truth, is it false? And this debate continues to roil without conclusion one hundred eighty-one years after its public debut.

Today I would like to tackle the question of photography and its relationship with truth. I would lay claim to the statement that photography now, and historically, has never really been about truth. It is barely about facts.

To define some terms before we go farther – there is a great deal of confusion about the difference between truth and facts. The use of the Boolean binary of True or False (positive or negative) leads many people to believe that Truth is equally binary – something is True, or it is not. Quite the opposite – Truth is very closely tied to faith. Truth is an absolute belief in the correctness of something, either without proof or even in the face of proof to the contrary. An example of this is that many contemporary practitioners of religion will argue that even if the historical facts surrounding the founding of their religion fall somewhere between muddy and non-existent, there is a greater Truth to the writings of their religious texts that extends beyond any need for factual accuracy. Facts are things that are provable – there is a rock on my desk. I own one hundred daguerreotypes. I live in Washington DC.

So what does this have to do with photography? I read many discussions among people with passionate feelings regarding the nature of photography. Many will assert that there is such a thing as “pure”, “true” photography, and that the specialness of photography as a medium is its fundamental relationship with truth. They make statements such as photographs are accurate, true representations of the things photographed, they cannot lie because the objects photographed had to be in the same place at the same time in the same light in order to appear in the frame together. They make this argument especially when arguing for an analog, chemical-based photography and against digitally generated photographs. They claim a superiority of the analog, chemical photograph because it is un-manipulated and therefore demonstrably “true”, whereas digitally generated photographs are untrustworthy because they can be easily manipulated into appearing to be true but in fact the things depicted never appeared in the same place at the same time in the same light when the exposure was made.

Bad Photoshop- sharks, T-rex, and man…

 

The Great White, the T-Rex, and the man at the edge of the cliff certainly never existed in the same space at the same time. It’s a ridiculous example, to make an exaggerated point. It is a photograph, but a heavily manipulated one that bears only the most tangential relationship to reality.

Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858

But what about this image? “Fading Away” by Henry Peach Robinson, is far more emotionally “true” than the shark and the T-Rex, but as a photograph, it is no more true- this 1858 image is every bit as manipulated as the photoshop fantasy. None of the people in the photograph were in the same room at the same time. It is a hand-assembled collage of at least six different images (each of the people, the room, and the view out the window were all distinct exposures on different plates). It is every bit as factually false, yet the scene, a young woman being comforted by her family as she dies of tuberculosis, is so emotionally resonant that we WANT to believe in the truth of it.

The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, by Alexander Gardner, Gettysburg, PA 1863

What about this image? While everything in this photograph was in the same location at the same time in the same light when the single exposure was taken, the entire scene is manipulated. Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan were walking the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 6, 1863. They saw the body of a Rebel sharpshooter, and photographed it where they found it. As they continued walking, they came across this spot and felt it was where the sharpshooter must have been positioned earlier, so they picked up his gun and his body and moved it 40 yards to this location, in the name of making a more emotionally resonant photograph. They certainly succeeded, as this is one of the most recognizable photographs of the entire Civil War. But there is not an ounce of factual accuracy in the scene. As journalism or documentary photography, it is a fraud and would have no value as evidence in a court of law.

Yes, photographs can be taken for the purposes of showing evidence, be it to an engineer troubleshooting a part failure, a court determining guilt or innocence in a trial, or even more prosaically, that I in fact did visit Niagara Falls on June 17, 2013. But the fact that a photograph CAN have evidentiary value does not mean that all photographs MUST have evidentiary value, and that in order to make a photograph, one is required to have a one-to-one correspondence between representations of objects within the frame of the image at the time of making a single exposure. Just as a tea kettle can also be an object of art, and it can also be functional. Neither art nor functional object have exclusive domain over a tea kettle.

Portrait of a Stainless Tea Kettle, © Scott Davis, 2021

And even within the confines of “straight” photography, there is not a literal absolute truth to a photograph. The tea kettle above, as photographed, is absolutely unmanipulated via software. But I doubt anyone looking at the image would say that that kettle looks just like that – with a basic understanding of the mechanics of photography, a viewer knows that the lens used to make the recording was operated at a large aperture that created a shallow depth of field, rendering only the spigot sharp. While this looks LIKE the tea kettle, nobody would argue that it is a 1:1 representation of the actual kettle, or that they could be deceived into thinking there was a kettle before them that they could pick up.

It is an illusion of an illusion – we know it is a distorted representation, but it bears minimally sufficient verisimilitude that we imagine that we can interpret the actual object from the photograph.

COVID Emptiness

Poor lonely Frappuccino in the corner – COVID emptiness.

A poor lonely plastic Frappuccino, tucked away in the empty would-be dining area of a Starbucks. The emptiness is wrought by COVID, and the plastic liquid dessert in a cup shelters alone, unwanted and unloved, lurking in the shadows for another time when it can come back out and challenge the insulin production of thousands, once more.

Still life – Through a Glass

Another series/theme in my still life project is glass and light – both reflected and transmitted.

Still Life- Trio Mexicano

Trio Mexicano is a very literal treatment of glass bottles. It’s about form and shape, and is easy to interpret. We know what we’re seeing.

Still Life- Shadows of Glass

Shadows of Glass is a first attempt at a concept- I want to project the shadows of glass bottles in varying arrangements onto seamless paper and then photograph the resulting projection. I’m working on building a suspension frame that will let me be more free in the arrangement and layering of the bottles. For now, I’m somewhat limited by having to support them on a table, so my compositions are constrained by how I can group and position them.

Still Life In Stainless Steel

With this ongoing home confinement due to the pandemic, I’ve been taking a lot of looks at domestic objects, particularly cooking implements, since I’ve been doing more of that lately. This is just a few articles of stainless steel things I have that photograph well. The modern tea kettle got me started, really, as it is a very sculptural piece and made me think of a show of Bauhaus photos I saw at the Goethe Institut two years ago.

The colander is obviously NOT new any more, unlike the IKEA tea kettle, so it has plenty of battle scars from two decades worth of washing and scrubbing. The swirly marks on it add something, I think, as it makes it clear this is not an advertisement for a colander but rather a portrait of an object that has had a life.

The colander and the shadow it projects gave me inspiration to take a different look at my grater with all of its different size and texture perforations. It’s a very formal presentation of the object, But I like the way it becomes abstract and about repeating geometric patterns. It almost becomes architecture, like a series of Japanese gates in a garden.

Behind the Scenes – Still Life

I thought it might be fun to show a behind-the-scenes look at doing a still life shoot, particularly showing my lighting scheme. Studio lighting is something that mystifies many people, but it doesn’t need to be complex or intimidating. Here is the finished image, at least the iPhone version thereof. How do you think it was lit?

Answer: one light. Yes, it’s a somewhat specialized light, a 10” focusable Fresnel, but that’s it. No fill, no reflector, no background light, just the main. After all, there is only one sun.

I’m using a single LED continuous light source (a GVM 80s LED lamp). Continuous lights are great because they let you see exactly what you’re getting, and they allow you the luxury of playing with time as a component of the exposure.

Pay attention when photographing in the studio to how close or far away things are to the background, and how close or far your light is to that background. You can shoot a subject on a white background but have it appear dark just by withholding light from that background, or if needed, you can do the opposite and take a black background white by pumping enough light at it.

Here’s a prime example – same setup, same light, same camera, same backdrop (light gray seamless paper). The only difference is that I blocked light from the backdrop with the barn doors on the Fresnel. Amazing, isn’t it?

It’s the season for still life

So, with the happy happy joy joy that is the COVID pandemic, I wanted to find something I could do to keep exercising my photography muscles. Still life seemed like the perfect thing, as I can do these little tabletop setups in my living room with a minimum of fuss, just a patio table for the base, a roll of seamless paper, one light or at most two lights, and my 5×7 view camera.

I’ve been shooting exclusively with my Sinar Norma 5×7, using the Sinar shutter (which lets you adapt any number of barrel lenses that don’t have a shutter of their own) and my ca. 1915 Cooke Series II 10.4″ Anastigmat. It’s not one of the more famous soft-focus Cooke Series IIa models, but it produces gorgeous out-of-focus areas, so I’m not complaining. It was silly cheap. I’m really loving the Sinar shutter because it has built in speeds as long as 8 seconds, which is a godsend when doing studio tabletop with large format – it’s very easy to get slow speeds to begin with, and then add on two stops of bellows compensation you have to do and voila – 8 seconds coming right up.

I’ve been doing a lot of work around textures – anything from rough paper to smooth stainless steel/chrome to the skin of vegetables like onions and garlic. I’m also starting to play with translucent objects and projections, but that’s for another post.

This tea kettle is something that I was so inspired by the design that I had to buy it, even though I didn’t need another kettle. I wanted to photograph it as soon as I saw it at IKEA. So I brought it home and here it is – it made me think of the Bauhaus photos I saw of industrial objects last winter at a show at the Goethe Institut here in Washington DC.

A still life can also be a portrait of an object. Here is a rice container from some Chinese takeout I got one night last week. It’s one of those ordinary things we handle all the time and never pay any attention to, until they’re presented in a formal way and then all of a sudden we see the beauty in them.

Last but not least, the onions, garlic, shallots, rice container and a wrapper for Ritz crackers. It’s all about “skins” – things that have them, and things that serve as skins as well.

All these images were shot with a single, continuous light – in the case of the very first image of the coffee beans and coffee mug, the light was a single 1000w halogen lamp in a 6″ fresnel light. The rest were done with an LED lamp in a simple reflector or in a large beauty dish with grid. I’m really liking LEDs now as a light source. They’re a lot more compact, light weight, and they generate a lot less heat and use a lot less electricity compared to an equally bright halogen lamp. About the only time a halogen might be preferable is if you’re working with nude models and want to keep them warm in your studio. No worrying about accidentally cooking the food in a food photography shoot, or wilting the vegetables. And no worrying about setting your light modifiers on fire.

Still Life in the Time of Pandemic

The Cooke in action on the Sinar Norma. Starting today off with some chrome/stainless steel, then moving to glass.

While not a requirement for doing still life (you can shoot still life with ANY camera – a point & shoot or a pinhole will work just as well as a DSLR or a view camera, if you understand the operating parameters of the camera), I love using a view camera because it lets me place my plane of focus and depth of field exactly where I want them, and I can have a razor thin zone of focus or I can have it be total, and I can control the shape of the image.

The camera’s eye view.

Coming in March, I’ll be teaching a still life photography class online through Glen Echo Photoworks (check their website later for details on schedule and sign-up). We’ll look at the history of still life and have weekly shooting assignments. I’ll show you how still life isn’t just bowls of fruit or flowers, and how it can be every bit as exciting and dramatic a story-telling genre as street photography, plus you can do it in your home with minimal space and equipment (all you really need is a camera, a table and a window!). Of course, I get fancier, but you don’t have to!

In Memoriam – Ed bearss

Ed Bearss, 2016

Some of my more dedicated readers might remember my fondness for Ed Bearss and taking his history tours through the Smithsonian, exploring Civil War battlefields. Ed passed away on September 16 at the ripe age of 97. I remember seeing him speaking in public and taking that tour with him in 2017 when at the age of 94, he was still leading groups with more energy than many people I know half his age. He used that microphone and mini-speaker he had not because his voice was weak but because his crowds of groupies on his tours would regularly number over 50 people, and he needed the boost so the folks in the back could hear. I can still hear the echoes of his narration in my head… “And, MISTER Lincoln… “. Semper Fi, Ed, and know that you’ll never be forgotten. I have linked to his obituary

https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2020/09/ed-bearss-past-chief-historian-national-park-service-dies-97

Working with the Voigtlander

The set up

I got the mounted flange back from the machinists shop this week, so yesterday I got a chance to put the big Voigtlander on my 8×10 and shoot it. I set up my little outdoor studio with some quick still lifes using Coke bottles. I like my lighting simple and dramatic so I used a single 1000w fresnel. I wanted that longer duration from the light because the Voigtlander, being from 1863, has no shutter. I would need exposures long enough that I could use a spare dark slide as a manual shutter.

The Voigtlander on the camera

Here’s the lens mounted on the camera- it uses Waterhouse stops for apertures. I have one with it currently, that’s probably the equivalent of f/8.

What the lens sees

One of the cool things about working in a studio setting like this is that the ambient light is so low that you don’t even need a dark cloth to focus and compose! I will be developing my film from last night’s shoot today, but it was nice that I could give a preview of my results right off the ground glass.

Residual Proof of the Outside World

I’ve been engaging in series of work in response to triggers from my environment – there was that moment of eureka that started the six year journey resulting in the Sinister Idyll series and the gallery show at Gallery O on H. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been trying to work on a series coping with being in a near-quarantine situation, and how do we respond to/deal with the stress and anxiety of walking around every day in a public space that could kill you. After barely leaving my house for the last four months, I noticed that certain things were turning into patterns, most specifically, delivery food. I was cooking at home more, but I was also getting delivery from places I hadn’t in the past, and due to “contactless” delivery those delivery items and their remnants looked different.

Chipotle, Mexican Coke, Corona

Since I’m not leaving the house, and now I had all this accumulated subject matter, I decided that my response would be in the form of still life images. I brought out my 8×10 view camera and set up a small studio on my patio where I could work.

DC Noodles Delivery

These are just two preliminary images from the series. I’m continuing to work on ideas and presentation, but it’s a planted seed that will grow into something. Working on a series like this is very different from my documentary series Sinister Idyll because there, I had to go out and photograph my subjects in the places where I found them, in the circumstances they existed in (it might be rainy, or crowded, or the wrong time of day). Inspiration came from what I found when I found it, and I just had to interpret. Here, with doing still life, it’s a very different discipline because you’re creating something entirely de novo – yes, the delivery bags and food containers and beverage bottles are what they are, but I have to arrange them in a cohesive and aesthetic manner, I have to choose the juxtapositions, the backdrop, the lighting, the depth of field… everything. There’s nobody to blame for a shot not working but myself. I like the discipline of it, but it’s a big challenge.

As is customary for me, these are all going to be palladium prints. I love working in a hand-made medium, and the tactile nature of the photographs is so pleasing to me. The entire process of making them, from setting up the studio through using the large view camera, to developing the film and making the print, really, means that I put so much of my soul into the practice of making the photograph.

Here’s the little studio set up, if you want to see it. It serves as proof that you don’t need much to work with to make images- just a will to do something and a vision to make it happen.

And the camera in action.