I love photography, and have since I was a small kid (many years ago).
My dad was a Boy Scout Leader for many years. (Troop 25, Belleville Illinois). Because he was the scout leader, and my mom really liked getting rid of me for a couple hours every week, I attended troop meetings every Monday nights from 7-8pm, way before I was old enough to join the troop. As such, and because I wasn’t worthy of the older kids attention, I my spent time scrounging around the basement of United Methodist Church killing time while the other older kids did important crap, like tie knots.
A distinct memory during my UMC scrounging was finding boxes and boxes of postcards, which I assume now came from a past, and apparent unsuccessful church fundraiser. Each box contained maybe 20 Christmas card like cards, only instead of Christmas themes, they had 10 or so different landscape photographs on the cover. The photographs on these cards blew my mind. They included a range of landscapes ranging from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon, to the massive Redwoods of California. While the exotic locations (for an eight year old living in Southern Illinois) were part of the draw, the photographs were by far the captivation. As silly as it sounds, these photos sparked an interest that started me down the path of photography.
So in the late 1960s I started taking photos. It didn’t work well. I starting with an old polaroid camera, with a collapsible body and film you would peel off the back of the camera, followed over the years by ‘new’ polaroid cameras that’s spit the photo out the bottom. I shot many pictures. The pictures were of friends, and dogs, and frogs, and ducks. Few remain. None leave an impression.
In the 70s I bought my first 35mm Canon. I then shot friends, and dogs, and frogs, and ducks. And while the photograph quality was much improved, the photography was still relatively bad.
So I dumped my friends for better looking friends, got new dogs and frogs, and I tried again. Still bad.
So went back and I looked at the photographs that so inspired me in the storeroom of United Methodist Church ten years before. (Side note: I procured a box from the church using my hard earned money. That’s a lie. Actually I took a box. I wasn’t a Boy Scout yet. Back off.)
In looking at the photographs from ten years before, I realized that the same photographs that changed my life at age eight, were now only nice landscapes. What happened? What changed?
What changed is the photographs no longer captured my imagination. They didn’t challenge my brain to interpret and imagine. What happened in the mind of an eight year old, didn’t happen in the mind of an eighteen year old. And while the photographs did exactly what camera’s do by freezing a subject in a slice of time and space, the photographs no longer stimulated any response from my imagination beyond the recognizing the image that they captured.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with photography. Photography is different than other art forms in that in its unadulterated state, it is an actual replication of the image of what you see when you look at something. In many cases it requires no interpretation, and it requires no imagination. It’s a reproduction of exactly what your sense of sight does. Your brain is fed, and interprets a moving picture of your life every waking hour. So in short, in my view, a static image captured by a photograph has little impact unless it can break through and get outside your brain’s sense of vision and stimulate your imagination.
With that revelation, I present Greaney’s First Rule of Photography.
Greaney’s Rule of Photography: ‘Most photographs are perceptually boring to everyone other than the photographer’.
I think it’s pretty simple. Because photography, in its unadulterated form, is an actual reproduction of an image, your brain simply processes it just as it would if you looked at the same image in real life. Compared to other art forms, a water painting, a sculpture, a sketch or an abstract, there is no mental interpretation needed. Your brain simply recognizes the image unless the image somehow demands interpretation, or its subject is particular dramatic or peculiar. If the photo doesn’t require some type of interpretation, or strike a chord with your imagination, it simply is processed and bounces out of your memory in seconds, or minutes. It’s just one of a million images your brain must routinely interpret.
Why isn’t this boredom perceived by the photographer? Simple, they don’t just see the photo. They recall the place and time of the photograph. It may sound odd, but I have excellent recall, sometimes incredibly recall, of time, place, and conditions of photographs I took 40 years ago. When I see the photo all of that comes back to me. Those memories cloud my opinion of the photograph.
So then what makes a great photograph? An obvious answer is those that either captures your imagination, or creates an emotional response. And while everyone has their own tastes, I believe that there are some iconic photographs that most everyone appreciates, either for their form, or their message. To make my point, let’s talk about four examples include Ansel Adam’s iconic black and white’s (pick one), Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’, Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’, and Joe Filo’s photograph of the 1970 Kent State shootings. If these don’t ring a bell, google them. I promise (hope?) that you will recognize at least some of them.
I chose this range of subject matter on purpose. Ansel Adams brought the beauty of the American West into the American consciousness at a time when few had the ability to see it. ‘Afghan Girl’ captures, in color, a dramatic and eerily beautiful example of the human condition. Both of these examples are positive and captivating.
The next two are also captivating, but very dark and in a very different way. ‘Napalm Girl’ is the horribly mesmerizing photograph of Vietnamese children running and screaming in pain and fear following a napalm attack on their village. And, in final example, Filo’s powerful photograph of the young college student kneeling and screaming over the body of a fellow student, truly captures the horror of the situation. Both ‘Napalm Girl’ and Filo’s photographs had a very significant impact on the emotion of the country during a very difficult time, and frankly played a role in changing US history. I personally still cannot look at either of those two photographs without tearing.
So in the end a great photograph doesn’t have to be pretty. And in the end, what’s good is based on the same subjectivity defined by Supreme Court Judge Stewart’s famous quote on pornography, ‘I know it when I see it’. The problem and the beauty of the situation is everyone has their own vison of what makes a good photograph. And that’s the way is should be.
Greaney’s Second Rule of Photography: ‘A good photograph challenges either your emotion or your imagination. Or Both.’
Other than serenity, and maybe natural wonder (and bewilderment of what the photographer is thinking), I don’t believe I take a lot of photos that pack emotional punch. That said, I do enjoy playing with interpretation to stir imagination. I purposely manipulate some of my photos in effort to grab your attention. In some cases the manipulation is subtle, others not so much. Some of the manipulation is through cropping. Other types of manipulation include changing tone and or and exposure. I take long exposure shots to create abstracts and capture the essence of speed and movement. I also digitally manipulate photos to create photo based art that I enjoy. None of my manipulation it is meant to deceive. All of it starts with a photograph.
A friend of mine commented that he thought a special edition of a sockeye salmon that I had produced had a strange quality about it when he studied it. That minor manipulation was on purpose, and I was happy he noticed it. On the other hand I once overheard some friends of my daughter debating on whether a photo I had hanging in the studio (‘Wood Duck #3), was a photograph or a painting. At first I was pleased that one of my manipulations had captured their imagination. Later I was a bit puzzled because I realized the photo hadn’t been manipulated in any way. Manipulation. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t.
Greaney’s Third Rule of Photography: ‘Make your own choices, and like what you want to like. Life’s too short.’
We live in a dangerously politicized world where we are bombarded by opinions, often supported by misleading information created to validate a political position. This information is then delivered by self-proclaimed pundits who cater to those who don’t really want know the whole truth, and instead want reassurance of their particular political position. They live the saying ‘Never let the truth stand in the way of good story’.
In best cases the self-proclaimed pundits are entertainers that live in the world of the absurd and make their points through humor. They can be very entertaining, but you do have to remember that’s it is entertainment.
The darker, and more dangerous, breed of false pundit attempts to disguise and regurgitate their view as ‘news’. These are TV/Radio personalities guising as experts, who make millions of dollars telling you what to think. And it works, because as a people we are too lazy to try to fully understand the issues at hand.
I’m politically independent, so I put all of these clowns in the same bucket, and I bet you know them. On the right, Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, Coulter, Hannity etc. etc. On the left Olbermann, Moore, Maher, Behar etc. etc. And that’s not even getting into the Sharpon, Jackson, Palin and Bachmann bucket of stupid. And finally what to do with poor Sweaty Teddy Nugent? A classic example of an entertainer (and there are many on both the right and left), who feels their opinion is worth shouting. ‘Celebrity’, and ‘intelligent’ are not close to another in the dictionary. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As Frank Zappa once said, ‘Shut up ‘n play yer guitar’.
And to close out my rant. It’s not the fault of any of the above that they have a following. It’s the fault of the millions who are willing to be lead down the path by bozos, who are paid to spew the extreme in effort to develop a following, and make millions. This following is the true cross between sheep, who blindly follow their leader, and people (Sheople) who exist on both ends of the political spectrum. Can we at least try to see both sides of a discussion? It would solve most of our national issues.
Sorry…I digressed! Too much coffee. We are talking about photography.
So, like politics, there is a huge range of opinion on any type of art, including photography (nice transition eh?). And like politics, is up to the individual to choose what best fits you.
Don’t group think!
Photography, and art in general, can be hijacked by group thinking, much like politics, as discussed above. That is the heart and soul of my ‘Crap on a Bagel’ theory of art. ‘Crap on a Bagel’ originally described the end result of over popular art forms and artists. For me, it describes art that not only doesn’t resonate with the individual, it becomes popular simply because it’s the fad.
So where does crap on a bagel gets its name? Simple. If Andy Warhol would have photographed (or painted) a piece of crap sitting on a bagel it would be worth millions, and he would again be described a genius. Not because the art resonates, but because in the pop culture, it would have been destined to be great… because it’s Andy Warhol. That’s my original definition of Crap on a Bagel.
Since my original coining of the phrase, I’ve widened its use to simply become the bucket of all art work that doesn’t move me in one way or another. I now go through life categorizing work into two buckets. ‘Art’ and ‘Crap on a Bagel’. Mind you that many pieces are in art purgatory while I decide where they belong. And each of us have our own two buckets, and our own opinions on what goes in which bucket. So get out there and fill your buckets!