Friday, February 1, 2008


Charles Harbutt has been shooting pictures for a living for over 30 years. Before that he was a writer. Somewhere along the way he began to question the very center of the photographic enterprise... it`s relationship to reality. Harbutt decided that photographs had a life of their own, quite apart from the thing that was photographed.
This is dangerious ground for a photojournalist to be digging in to. Indeed, photographers who shoot pictures for publication in the news business seem to have sworn a blood oath to never question the veracity of the images they produce on deadline. News people are loath to question the process of gathering information, especially the question of why they raise certain questions and not others. Journalists are supposed to be objective, neutral, unbiased, etc.,etc.
So here goes Charlie Harbutt suggesting that the very act of making a photograph is going to transform that reality that was photographed...because the photographic process is not about reality.
Because he is a former writer Harbutt has, over the years, tried to put this notion into writing. Unfortunately pictures and words communicate on different wave-lengths and in different ways. Explaining pictures with words can be as difficult as explaining words with pictures. Words can be as ambiguous as pictures when it comes to trying to explain a concept as complex as visual transformation. Harbutt starts off with a simple..."cameras see different from people." That's pretty good. Simple and to the point. Problem is that does not dig to the gut of the idea. Okay, we did bring up the three dimensions into two, but what does that mean? Well, you have to go back to painting and the whole perspective thing. How painters try to give the impression of depth in their paintings. Because a photograph is a flat surface representation of a thing captured from the "real world", which has the dimension of depth, that flatness can transform that so-called "reality" into something surreal.
Believe it Charles Harbutt says. A few other folks have said believe it as well. Writer/critic Susan Sontag said it in her book ON PHOTOGRAPHY and raised a bit of a storm among the media and art world deep thinkers when she suggested that surrealim lay at the heart of the photographic enterprise. This uproar can be partially explained through a theory once presented by University of Florida artist John Ward, who wrote in his book PHOTOGRAPHY: CRITICISM AS ART, that most art critics don't really understand how to talk about photography because they don't understand the unqiue creative vision that photography brings to art. This is, in part, because photography is so different from anything else ever attempted in art before. Harbutt wrote that photography is about SEEING..simple as that. While other art forms are greatly concerned with technique, photography is an instant recognition in a fraction of a second, as Henri Cartier-Bresson often said, of everything that makes a situation a photograph. Other art forms start with a blank space of some sort and then give it some kind of form. With photography you start off with alot of confused stuff, and you somehow organize it into something else.
The art folks took a long time taking the photo folks seriously. It all appeared to be too EASY...a machine doing the creative work with the photographer merely OPERATING it. It took a few years for even the photographers themselves to figure out what it was they held in their hands. Once the technology evolved to the point where you didn't have to be a chemist to be a photographer the "seeing" aspect of the photographic act began to evolve into something that was unique to art and the photographer ceased to merely be a camera operator.
A lot of Charles Harbutt's thoughts about photography surfaced as part of his 1973 book TRAVELOG. In it he wrote," Photographic design is more related to jazz than to formal classical composition. It is a spontaneous, instinctive, even subconscious act, not rigidly thought out". Indeed. Jazz improvisation is born out of some formal design. Music is born from a kind of musical schematic, a pre-conceived design that is itself born from formal musical rules. Within this structure, which controls such variables as key signature, beats per measure and chord progression, the jazz musician creates a improvisation which may or may not follow that structure, but at the same time relies on that sturcture as a musical point of reference. How the musician creates this musical improvisation depends on a number of other factors...for example what kind of instrument is being played. The photographer also plays within a certain set of rules. The camera has certain controls that are used to control the flow of light on to the film inside it. A shutter controls the length of time the light is allowed inside the camera. The lens contains a round opening which is capable of variable sizes, which is called an aperture. This aperture controls the amount of light that strikes the film inside the camera. Different lenses allow the camera to see different fields of vision, from say a wide angle, which is actually beyond the eye's normal ability, to different levels of telephoto which brings the eye in closer...also beyond the eye's normal ability of sight. All these factors can be changed in one way or another. Within the variables of shutter speed and aperture opening there is a clearly defined right and wrong. This proper setting is called exposure.Too little light striking the film will result in a underexposed image which is too dark. Too much light striking the film will result in an image that is too light. Different films have different levels of sensitivity to light which also dictate definate right and wrong exposure settings.
The jazz musician has to deal not only with the technical demands of the music placed before him, but also the inherient charactoristics of the particular instrument being played. A trumpet has a different range of sounds from a baritone saxophone. The jazz soloist also has to consider what the other members of the musical group are doing while playing that improvised solo.
The photographer has to consider the particular charactoristics of the camera being used. The small 35mm camera has a portability that a 8x10 view camera user would find difficult to imitate. The photographer has to consider the elements of any given situation that is being photographed, level of light available, size and speed of those elements to be photographed.
The jazz musician considers the constraints set down by other members of the musical group who also have to follow the same set of rules, key signature, chord progression, and time signature. Within this set of supposed "rules" the musician and the photographer now allow their individual knowledge about how to use that camera or instrument, based on years of usage and inherient understanding, to allow them to "improvise." This act, grounded in solid knowledge, is actually putting the conscious part of the brain in touch with the so-called unconscious....the intuitive.
And here we get to the "gut" of Harbutt's point. Photography is also about how photographers respond to the world around them. What would make a musical piece by trumpeter Miles Davis different from a saxophone solo by Zoot Simms. Much of this response is based on an intuitive understanding of what makes a good photograph as you look at what is about to be recorded on film. As Garry Winogrand once observed, how will the thing look photographed...not what it looks like to the naked eye.
Indeed again.
Photographer Elliott Erwitt wrote in the introduction to his book PERSONAL EXPOSURES that being a good photographer was similiar to being successful at playing poker. According to Erwitt in photography and in poker you need insight into the other players, a good knowledge of the game, and last of all a little luck.Poker....Jazz....whatever analogy you choose to use to explain it all

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