Favorite symbols?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by andrew_molitor, Jun 7, 2012.

  1. What are some of the symbols (and I mean to be pretty vague and wide with that word) that you like to see in photographs?
    What are some of the symbols you like to use in photographs?
    Extra credit: What is a "symbol", to you? ;)
     
  2. This is fascinating to me because photography lends itself so well to symbolism ranging from:
    • The most obvious use of unequivocal imagery (for example, nudes presented as nudes for the pure appreciation of nudity as its own aesthetic subset); to
    • Graphical symbols and icons that are usually immediately recognized as such (such as signs or advertising in humorous or ironic juxtaposition); to
    • Pop culture references, insider humor and memes, in which seemingly ordinary photos attain meaning only within a limited context by popular consensus (the "ceiling cat" lolcat and more recent UC Boulder "falling bear" photos); to
    • More obscure semiotics, in which shapes formed by lines and light evoke other imagery to which viewers attach certain meanings, emotions and interpretations, depending on their own personal beliefs, cultures and other factors.
    From my own personal perspective I find myself almost inexplicably drawn toward photos with strong diagonal lines, regardless of type or genre, and candid photos of people that give the impression -to me, at least - of a theatrical milieu, in which a moment frozen in time seems to confirm the impression that all the world is, indeed, a stage and all the men and women merely players.
    Because of that bias, I tend to assign meaning to photos that appeal to my personal sense of aesthetics, even when I know the photo was either the product of serendipity or carefully crafted to emphasize certain aspects. I know that I regard strong diagonals as a type of symbolism and recognize my own bias toward that symbolism, but haven't really explored why I respond that way. But I do tend to lurk in favorite spots where I know there are strong diagonals, either in the physical world or created by light and shadow, looking for opportunities to capture that.
    At another extreme - the choice to incorporate specific symbols - this year I'm intrigued by Roger Ballen's use of harsh objects and crude personal symbols or graffiti in his various themed projects over the years, both in photography and installations. There's a sort of tribal, cave drawing feel to his symbolism. I suppose it's reminiscent - to me - of a favorite local live theater that embraces regional mythology and a primitive aesthetic not only in stage productions but in the entire physical milieu to the extent that the entire grounds of the outdoor theater convey a sense of, as a local critic described it years ago, a treehouse that fell to the ground.
     
  3. Not necessarily what I "like" to use but one that I have used and seems natural for me to use and seems to garner a lot of attention and revealing, charged, strange, moralistic, and even sometimes juvenile reactions: the penis.
    Now, there are certainly phallic symbols, which tend to represent the penis. But I've been finding the penis itself symbolic, and sometimes taken to be by viewers as itself offensive (especially in a photograph that may not be demur about it) or otherwise worthy of a whole lot of seemingly-apologetic or at least explanatory and sometimes self-conscious discussion. As often, the discussions are mature and can be quite revealing, both about me and about viewers. I guess the penis symbolizes maleness, sexuality, and in some contexts, particularly my own usage, homosexuality as well as a whole lot of other things, from a positive kind of power or empowerment to a negative kind of force and even to impotence. For some, it's a symbol of immorality or threat. I've had all these reactions to the very same penis in the very same photo. Some viewers take a penis very much in stride, especially when it's a male nude.
    A while ago, someone wrote this under one of my nudes, shot from slightly below where the male subject had a semi-erection:
    "In police work and in eyewitness memory research, there is discussion of something called 'weapon focus.' A witness/victim of an event is distracted by/fixated on the weapon to the exclusion of most other elements in the scene.

    For some reason, with this photo, I have 'penis focus.' Perhaps it's the unusual presence of the penis in such form/position, but I keep looking at...the...penis."
    We often hear guns mentioned as penis substitutes or as being symbolic of penises. It was interesting to hear it the other way around, penis as weapon: That's symbolic alright!
    The great thing about symbols is that there are both very universal characteristics and also very palpable individual associations. We share in the symbolism of the cross. We all get the religious and historical "meaning" of it. But, we also each have very personal reactions to them.
    I find a great use of symbolism to be when "getting" the symbol isn't necessary to an overall appreciation of what's going on but adds a dimension when grasped. So, when Juliet uses a dagger (phallic) to kill herself and Romeo drinks poison from a cup (yonic), the drama is there whether we "get" or care about the symbols or not. But there's a nice sexual twist to their deaths and the final act of their relationship once the symbols are accessed.
    I think symbols are often not intended to be symbols (though they often are) but just sort of happen like vocabulary happens. They can reveal as much about their author/photographer as the author/photographer reveals about them.
     
  4. I don't have a particularly strong definition of "symbol" myself, but I definitely agree that, whatever they are, sometimes they are present without the viewer really responding to them, and conversely that sometimes the viewer responds to a symbol that is present without the photographer knowing it!
    Whatever a symbol is, it's surely something deeply connected to society and culture. Each viewer will have a slightly different set of symbols they are connected with, and each viewer will respond to each of those symbols in a different way.
    I include such things as "lizard on a rock" symbolizing "hot and dry" as well as more literary things like crosses and daggers. One could argue that a lizard on a rock is more of a trope thana symbol, I guess, but at that point we're quibbling.
     
  5. Andrew M. - "What are some of the symbols (and I mean to be pretty vague and wide with that word) that you like to see in photographs?"
    Ones that work. I favor those that are not blunt, though a conscious reworking of the nature of symbols is fair game.
    Andrew M. - "What are some of the symbols you like to use in photographs?"
    Effective ones. I have no favorite symbol any more than I have a favorite word.
     
  6. Well, Luis, which ones have you seen recently that worked?
     
  7. Quick - where is my Alvin Langdon Coburn book? It’s a good topic and fits well with some of the stuff we've recently been thinking about.
    Following on Lex's post that neatly summarizes things (I'm still working on getting Ballen):
    There still must be mystical, spirit-enhancing and, moralistic, hidden or public, symbolism of the ALC type happening somewhere in photography. The possibility of enduring universal symbols may decrease substantially or disappear altogether in the white noise of cultural diversity clamoring with memes.
    Personal symbols (with footnotes!) may be all that is possible beyond small clusters of viewers. I use personal symbols, iconography, and metaphors. Their subtlety and accessibility varies. I'm not ashamed to use a one-to-one, ironic juxtaposition, or equivalency - standard photographic goods. Or are those just puns? Having a supply of personal symbolic ready-mades facilitates creativity. Artists are usually delighted to reveal how things in their work aren't always as they seem.
     
  8. <<<I'm not ashamed to use a one-to-one, ironic juxtaposition, or equivalency - standard photographic goods. Or are those just puns?>>>
    It would obviously depend on the usage, the context, and even the body of work to some extent. Sometimes a body of work helps elevate something and sometimes it cheapens it, depending on the depth of the body of work as a whole and how the ironic juxtaposition fits in.
    Most often, I see these ironic juxtapositions in bad street work: the guy smoking a cigarette in front of a NO SMOKING sign, the woman crossing the street with a DON'T WALK sign in view, the old geezer simply walking under the billboard of the hot woman, with no attention to action, expression, composition, the sense of the street, etc. When those kinds of juxtapositions are accompanied, perhaps, by other layers, even a visually conveyed recognition of the cliché possibilities, they can work, but I find they rarely are. They are often simply too obvious and superficial and the only thing going for the photo, so I often don't care much. They can definitely serve, as you say, as bad puns. But I will certainly accept some on a case-by-case basis.
     
  9. "They are often simply too obvious and superficial and the only thing going for the photo, so I often don't care much."​
    Precisely my own view (and I am glad on occasion to agree with Fred) as well. Very evident symbols are for me often overdone and lose their power. Whether it is sexuality or some aspect of human life that is portrayed by a sexual symbol (penis, vagina, breast, navel) or another obvious symbol, it's often the symbol that becomes more important than the image. I divorce that of course from their non symbol use which can just be the facination with our own bodies (starting the baby discovering light and color and objects when he sees eveything as just obscure circular patters, then the young pre scool child who is fascinated by his navel, then a bit later the fascination with the sexual organs). Some other symbols, geometric or chromatic or form-based can also be too evident to make good partners with subject matter in many photographs, which I think should require somne analysis from the viewer than being too evident or repetitive of idea.
    When a symbol is used more subtely or is by its nature more layered or slightly obscure, I think it can often provide more power to the composition or even an emotional effect and better supports the long term appreciation of an image. Some very direct symbols have been overexposed in photography and tend to lose their impact as they are too readily identifiable and overworked. I am rarely unimpressed however by what I consider to be a beautiful or sensual human body, but that is not a question of symbolism, simply an aesthetic response or evocative of human biological response, which is part of our bagage.
     
  10. I like symbols that I don't understand. I expect that's a contradiction, but there it is. Obvious symbols — one's that I "know" often just irritate me.
    By "don't understand," I mean a kind of amygdala-ish disturbance that can't be accounted for by the literal meaning of what I'm looking at. I call it, simply, "weight" when I'm compositing (I am a compositor), because to move stuff around photo-realistically, I have to keep all of the native flavors and manifestations of "weight" in harmony for a successful transplant. Visual stuff is active, it's alive. It "wants" to go, or not go, it's thick/thin or heavy/light, or aggressive/timid, and so on. What or where this comes from, I don't know. I just listen, and watch the little buggers in their native habitat to learn what and where they'll work in my little private circus.
    [Surely the first symbols in the first B&W photography were/are light and shadow.]
     
  11. Just to nuance a little what Arthur and I seem to be talking about but, of course, to speak only for myself . . . It's the combination of obviousness and superficiality which can lead to a kind of triteness (or pun-ish-ness, if you will), that may, but doesn't always, bother me. Obviousness can sometimes be effective, blatant, even comical, especially (but not necessarily) if I sense the author is in on the joke. So, for instance, when Hitchcock, after having the two male protagonists meet in Strangers on a Train by tellingly grazing one's shoe against the other's, he pulls back to the train racing into the tunnel. That's a fairly obvious and blatant symbol but it's got that Hitchcock sort of cosmic comic touch. Attitude and context make a difference in how the obvious will or won't work. Hitchcock was a master at blending the subtle and the obvious and knowing when the power of the obvious could provide a chuckle, a fright, a foreboding, or a necessary sexual alert.
     
  12. One of the things about symbols is that fluency involves not just the rote learning about them, nor consciously applying them, but letting them settle into one's subconscious and getting out of the way so they can emerge on their own while making -- or viewing -- work.
    _______________________________________________________
    Symbols are like color. Their meaning is not fixed, but relative/mercurial, depending on what else is in the frame (otherwise they'd be signs, I know). Common signifiers can become symbols of convention and more when used in certain ways and contexts. Fluid and relational, it's hard, if not near impossible to make generalizations, or pin them down in a specific work. Plus they can easily function simultaneously in isolation, superpositions, and multiple combinations. I do not think of them as imprecise, though they can be, but more as potentially expansive (though some times they do the opposite). A playful, elusive, often lurking psychic amplifier that often sneaks in on cat's feet, unnoticed, into people's work (paintings, too).
    ______________________________________________________
    I love this photograph:
    http://www.jacksonfineart.com/henri-cartierbresson-4330.html
    Matisse, the Master/Artist as an old man, holding a white pigeon in his left hand, drawing with a riveting intensity. The other pigeons, having escaped or been allowed out of their cages, looking on, the white bird, a symbol for the soul, the cage, for the body, the trinity of cages surrounding Matisse, the lines on the chair echoing that of the cages, all come together for me.
     
  13. "[Surely the first symbols in the first B&W photography were/are light and shadow.]"
    They were the symbols of the art of the day, from Daguerre's...
    http://www.wired.com/ly/wired/news/images/full/Daguerreotype_Daguerre_Atelier_1837.jpg
    ...on.
    By 1844, this is evident in Talbot's "Open Door".

    http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2005.100.498

     
  14. "Surely the first symbols in the first B&W photography were/are light and shadow."​
    Yup, I try to think more in those terms, as well as struggling with the nuance Fred has described as "gesture", and Luis' comment about subconscious integration rather than consciously trying to Make A Statement.
    While I appreciate the art of using symbolism to make statements or suggest overt and occult meanings, I'm not comfortable using that approach myself, at least not in terms of constructing a tableaux or photographic equivalent to classic egg tempera icon paintings. I tend to prefer the found object approach.
    Recently I noticed an unexpectedly negative reaction I had to photos from a certain camera. The high ISO JPEGs just irritated me in an irrational way. When I looked carefully at the 100% JPEGs - not really pixel peeping - I noticed the in-camera processing created odd artifacts that resembled swastikas. Changing the default noise reduction reduced that appearance. After years of hearing other photographers babble and whine about noise, grain, contrast, etc., this was probably the first time I'd ever found myself emotionally irritated by some mundane technical quirk in any photo. But it made me wonder whether other viewers respond unconsciously to accidental symbolism in photographs.
     
  15. A number of thought provoking comments on this subject so far. Two that resonate most strongly with me from Julie and Luis --
    Julie: "…a kind of amygdala-ish disturbance that can't be accounted for by the literal meaning of what I'm looking at…
    What or where this comes from, I don't know."
    Luis: "…letting them settle into one's subconscious and getting out of the way so they can emerge on their own while making -- or viewing -- work."​
    "I don't know" is sometimes the most intelligent statement I can make. I like "I don't know". Or perhaps I should call it "I don't know, but I know it's there" because even though I don't know, I've got my arms wrapped around something. I like it, it resonates, there's something there..substance…signifier, call it what you will. I can feel it, but I can't fully explain it. I think this corresponds to Julie's liking a symbol she doesn't understand. And I suspect that it's less an absence of understanding than it is an inability to translate it into words. Those are the best symbols. They emanate or reflect or represent something else beyond our sight and language.
    I think symbols are a subconscious part of the editing process for some photographers. Out of 50 or 250 photographs taken, why select this one, or these three? Subject, light, desired focus or lack of focus, contrast, tone, bla bla bla, yes all those things enter into the selection process. But often there is something else, something that causes one to choose a particular image out of a series of similar images. And the reason is not always a matter of light, technical quality, or composition. The reason may be some element which "represents something else" as well as itself. It has an organic -- not forced or artifical -- depth. A symbol, personal or universal.
     
  16. Uncomplicated and non-philosophical symbol: a "V"
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alanklein2000/5262312155/
     
  17. I like these "now that you mention it" moments - things others pick up, as Steve refers to. They're more revealing, learn me more about what I do and do not see, or in case of my own photos what I subconsciously seem to have left there, or what other perceive. Conscious use of symbols can (too) easily lead to the pun-like qualities Fred and Arthur allude to. While I can appreciate those too, too often it does not have a lot of lasting power.
    The only things I recall having used consciously myself in symbolic ways are indeed light, and the lack thereof.
    (I need to add I regard lines and diagonals more as shapes, not so much symbols. To me, they help order a composition, they can seem subject, but usually it is still the play of light and shadows).
     
  18. I think some of the most powerful and accessible symbols are simply people. People dressed in certain ways, doing certain things, people in certain contexts, these are incredibly potent symbols. This is largely because of other photographs of people we've seen that are similar, but we ALSO have a rich visual vocabulary drawn from our own lives and the people we have known and met.
    People as symbols are unreliable means of communication, since we all have different associations (the guy in the pin-striped suit might mean "Mafia" to you, "Dad" to me, and "that one terrible boss I had" to another viewer) but they're likely to be powerful and evocative, at any rate.
     
  19. I guess that I consider the physical appearance of light and contrast as not symbolic of anything, unless of course they symboloize one medium of photography or way of transferring a three dimensional life subject to the flat canvass or paper. It dawned on me much later, but the first photograph of the 1820's realised by the great Nicephore Niepce symbolised for me something akin to "alltime", continuity or eternity, as the long exposure (8 hours) on bitumen necessarily showed the effect of the variable position of the sun's rays over the full daytime, without an ability to reference a specific hour.
    Symbols are often unconsciously a part of the images I make and what I choose to photograph, but more important to me than an application of symbols is a not fully understood ability to show subject matter in a unique or different way and which is related no doubt on how I am wired to perceive, contemplate and re-order or use the subject matter in the realisation of a photograph. This characteristic or ability was likely founded upon a long period of development of my particular approach and the distillation and absorption of what I have learned from other photographers and from studying and viewing art. However, it is more than that and not something that I succeed in bringing to bear on most images I make, only on some, but I recognize it immediately when it happens. I don't mean to vaunt something special in my approach, but it is very important to me and its somewhat fickle presence (that is, a not fully controlled application) is something I cherish above all else in photographic approaches and which keeps me strongly committed to this activity. It has little to do with the number or frequency of photos I make in any time period. It has more to do with my mind being heightened to its possibilities and benefitting from that condition.
    Symbols or other astute visual structures take a far back seat in that desirable process.
     
  20. I'm going to disagree with what Luis said earlier and which Steve picked out: "... but letting them settle into one's subconscious and getting out of the way so they can emerge on their own while making -- or viewing -- work."
    I think that "getting out of the way" kills symbols; let me see if I can explain (in the middle of my morning chores, so expect more than the usual incoherence).
    Symbols, to me, are the picture refusing to submit to your (the viewer's) expectation or intent. They are the picture teaching you; resisting you, denying you, witholding itself from you, refusing to submit to you. So far this may seem like "getting out of the way" might be what's called for, but I think that there has to be tension in this event. The symbolism *is* the tension, the friction, the stuggle of viewer wanting and picture refusing. By NOT "gettting out of the way" picture and viewer generate the heat, arousal, conceptual rearrangement. Symbolism seems to me to require a thwarted expectation; an awareness of a thwarted expectation, not simply a fluid addition of a layer of meaning.
    Here's a very mundane example: lawn (mowed) grass is soft, fluffy, comfy stuff that's fun to play or just lie on. But in black and white photographs, lawn (mowed) grass is a bunch of little knives, needles, spears, sharp, harsh, kind of nasty. Its symbolism in black and white photographs is in the friction between what I feel that it "is" and what the picture *is.* If I were to "get out of the way" and just let grass be sharp and pointy and uncomfy, then the symbolism goes away and I end up with just some nasty grass.
    I sure hope this makes some sense (I fear it does not; *sigh*). Back to my chores ...
     
  21. A viewer's relationship to symbols and to a photo isn't necessarily quite so active. Not everyone "gets" Shakespeare's symbols per se. Nevertheless they are part of the overall texture of his work and they can have a very quiet (and unknown) effect. I work on very fine details of my own photos knowing full well that few people would distinctly recognize each refinement or even care about each detail itself. But it becomes part of the fabric of my work and will ultimately have its effect, even though often remaining in the underbrush.
    Some symbols may never be recognized as such, and yet they will have all kinds of effects, intentional or not, and with the awareness of the viewer or not.
     
  22. Here's a neat article that addresses an aspect of symbolism.
    link
    Up until modern times art WAS messaging, hidden, or otherwise. Look at Bosh and Bruegel for familiar examples. See Umberto's Eco' stuff , or DaVinci Code, etc. The Performing arts were always thoroughly steeped in both sanctioned and subversive political messaging. The "dog whistle" coded message employed by politicians today originated with Og the Upright.
     
  23. "But in black and white photographs, lawn (mowed) grass is a bunch of little knives, needles, spears, sharp, harsh, kind of nasty."​
    Here I am still trying to grok the nuances of Fred's concept of gesture, and now Julie's got me wondering about the photographic symbolism of needle grass in Aeon Flux.
     
  24. Some symbols may never be recognized as such, and yet they will have all kinds of effects, intentional or not, and with the awareness of the viewer or not​
    I think that's very true, and makes for a lot of debate in works of painters, composers etc. as Alan refers to (I must say, I'm not always equally convinced about these post-mortem found hidden messages, though in some cases it is quite clear; Jeroen Bosch is a very nice example, Jan Steen may be even nicer in this context).
    As Arthur, I think the interesting aspect of symbols (both in using them and in recognising them) is that it happens on several levels - both conscious and unconscious, both literally and figuratively, both intentional and unintentional, etc. So, as far as I think I got Julie's morning musings, I do not see symbols adding tension, but instead I see it add a fluid addition of a layer of meaning. Making effective use of symbols may help create either a direct communication to the viewer, a layered unfolding message, or a hidden message of those initiated to read it.
    __
    Andrew, let me have a try at your bonus question too.... a symbol to me is a shape, object, occurance with an assumed implied meaning. That meaning does not have to be universal (rarely are), and can in fact direct a small group of initiated (i.e. the symbols of freemasons). As with many things, the definition has fuzzy edges - a strong use of diagonals in a composition tend to imply movement and direction, and it is usually perceived that way - this already would fit my definition.
    You could then even argue if the shape of the frame is already a symbol: rectangle or sqaure. Maybe it does - a circular fisheye photo always gives me the sensation of peeking through a hole, a sense of secretness and distance between me and the subject. Would I ever use a fisheye, I would probably use it this way, and its shape would have a symbolic meaning within my (rather loose) definition.
     
  25. Fred said: Some symbols may never be recognized as such, and yet they will have all kinds of effects, intentional or not, and with the awareness of the viewer or not.​
    For me this is the whole point of symbols. The symbols can be personal or they can be cultural, or even in the Jungian sense of being part of the “collective unconscious.” I believe as Fred has intimated here that we aren’t even aware that we are observing or photographing something symbolic at some levels. And on the viewers side same thing goes. Symbols can represent something that is more complex than conscious thought or reason, and not just the obvious. Lex mentioned being drawn to diagonal lines for instance. I like shiny things. It doesn’t matter what it is. Look at the horizon line and its importance in many photos. I think this is what Julie was referring to as well, that symbols stimulate the brain in some way that makes us all “tingly” even though we don’t exactly know why.
     
  26. Thinking about Wouter's comments about formal elements - formal qualities don't ,on their own, have much general symbolic value today. Contemporary use would be limited to reference to a symbol not a symbol per se. They don't do any symbolizing they just organize space. In the past they often indicated literal, hierarchical order such as: reserved use of color (Royal purple), and ascendance towards heaven or majesty. Circles, as well as other geometric shapes had all kinds of mystical properties.
    I suppose there are quasi-symbolic graphic conventions in cartoons that connote things and might be adapted to photos.
    In a photograph a bright, blown-out circle in the center of someone's forehead has to be a symbol of something, or it is just a mistake? A red smear on the wall of an empty room IS blood.
     
  27. Overuse of symbols in photography is much like their similar overuse in some advertising, art, cinema, political statements, and other communications. This can easily tend towards cliché visual statements or too often seen complicities between symbol, subject matter and intended statement.
    I believe that many of us have a mental toolkit that we apply in our photography and which can include, amongst other variables, favourite compositional approaches, lighting preferences, subject matter, personal values vis-à-vis our society, and symbols. How to use these and other aspects of our photographic approach and still create images that are fresh and challenging for the viewer? This is a mainstream consideration for successful photography, and I believe that here, as in the creation of other art forms, a subtle use of these parameters can lead to images that are more intriguing to the viewer.
    Overuse, or too evident use, of symbols often leads to a closed statement, a period or exclamation mark, rather than a comma and a continued appetite for what we are viewing.
     
  28. It's not just overuse, but the way they are used. The result can be something akin to blunt force trauma or a big yawn.
    The thing about the preferences, and this really should be a separate thread (so I will not go deep into it), is not limited to the viewers, but how do we keep ourselves from becoming desensitized to our own "tools" and tropes?
     
  29. Luis, I do agree with the way being important, but didn't go as far as to elaborate on the various aspects of use or overuse of symbols as that would take more time than I had. Preferences and maintaining or not one's approach is an important subject, as I think you infer, and I would look forward to seeing that discussion sometimes.
     
  30. Black and white and grainy a symbol. It stands for "Serious mood shift ahead." There has been nothing like digital's ability to radically change an image post exposure. Anybody can do it with a click. Have we a way yet of talking about that? What is it analogous to? I'll confess right here to having uncomfortable feelings about my Facile Finger of Fix. I'm loving my BW stuff too much for its "Classic Look" if for nothing else.
    00aUl3-473659584.jpg
     
  31. <<<Anybody can do it with a click. Have we a way yet of talking about that?>>>
    Here's my way of talking about it. Anybody can seriously delude themselves into thinking all it takes is a click. Good black and white conversion takes more than that, though I understand there are programs doing it in a more and more refined manner. Consider the importance of the image one starts with, the lighting, depth, and detail, not to mention content. Are there people using cameras and viewers who would be fooled into thinking a black and white is somehow a serious photo simply because it's black and white? Yes. So what? There are also people who see the symbol of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast.
     
  32. Alan,
    Black and white photography is not just a simple click transformation from a color file, it is a WAY OF SEEING. Whatever system of color you choose (additive, subtractive), seeing in black and white requires an understanding of how black and white represents color. If you had a panchromatic rather than an orthochromatic film, you interpreted the scene differently. With a digital sensor and the way different colors yield greyscale rendition (some very different colors yield similar greytones, which you then need to differentiate from each other by post exposure color filtration), you need to underrstand how certain color combinations appear in B&W and how to modify one or more of the three primary color channels to achieve a desired B&W tonality and effect.
    Just clicking B&W transformation from a digital file may fortuitously give a palatable effect in some cases, but not universally. That is why we see so many ordinary transformations. B&W has to be mastered, whether you use color filters and B&W film, or whether you pre-visualize your digital image as a black and white one and do a multi color transformation later to obtain what you saw, or to create something tonally appropriate to your purpose.
     
  33. Correction: Black and white and grainy is a symbol.​
    Post processing such as converting to BW for the effect of further abstracting an image may reduce the image information content but concentrate the artist's intentions with a new version of the picture. What is eventually produced stands on its own merits.
    Superficial decorative effects, are judged by some as unworthy of serious art. Everything the author includes in a picture, performance, or literary work must inform the work. That seems too harsh. Caprice and love for fortuitous events are also essential to art, particularly photography.
    Arthur,
    Anticipating how a scene might look is much easier because of the preview. Really good BW plug-ins have a ton of options. One has to know what a really good BW looks like, of course.
     
  34. <<<One has to know what a really good BW looks like, of course.>>>
    Yes. That was kind of my point. It has little to do with a single click. I'm not sure what your point was. Black and white does not stand for "serious mood ahead" except in the most shallow and superficial of contexts, IMO. Like I said, many people probably delude themselves into thinking converting to black and white creates an automatically "serious" photo. The vast majority of the time they are wrong. It does nothing of the sort, for someone who knows "what a really good BW looks like, of course."
     
  35. I sense a little diversion into religion, here. The relatively recent advent of insanely complicated tools for converting color images to b&w has given rise to an audiophile-like approach to it. Everyone knows what a "truly excellent" conversion looks like, but when you get up close you find that nobody agrees on it.
    One wonders how so many people muddled along with a couple different films and a couple different papers and managed to make so many compelling and powerful images, without the ability to tweak the blue channel down a hair in the mid-tones to make the watchamacallit really pop.
    B&W *is* a symbol, I think, in a loose sort of a way. And it *does* telegraph "serious image here". Whether it succeeds or not is irrelevant. Whether or not the aficionados can tell that it's a Really Good Conversion or whether it's a proper Good Black And White is irrelevant.
    What matters is that the viewer, who is generally not a Silver Efex 2.0 wonk, sees b&w and reacts in a particular way. More viewers than not will see b&w and say 'ah, this is meant to be artistic and serious' and THAT is what semiotics is all about.
     
  36. <<<More viewers than not will see b&w and say 'ah, this is meant to be artistic and serious'>>>
    Probably so. The paintings of Thomas Kinkade got "more viewers" as does American Idol. How does that affect what I do?
    I don't convert to black and white because I think more people will take my photos seriously. I do it if that's I how see the final image or print.
    Believe me, I barely know what Silver Efex 2.0 is. I use Photoshop's color channels to convert. I don't do it because I think Andrew or anyone else will care and I certainly don't do it to compete with what was done throughout the ages or not. I do it because I like getting photos that work for me, and controlling my b/w conversions helps that process along.
    As for most viewers, I don't believe most would consciously be aware of the quality of the black and white or the conversion. I don't believe most could articulate how different black and white images are affecting them. But a good conversion, known or not, recognized as such or not, has an effect. Many can't always say why one performance of a classic piece of music gets to them and another doesn't. Many wouldn't even notice the difference between a great and a mediocre performance. That doesn't stop the great classical musicians from achieving the nuances and subtleties that they feel to be significant and it certainly shouldn't stop photographers from doing so either without being condescendingly referred to as religious for caring about such things.
     
  37. You're quite missing my point. You can and should do whatever you like, whatever makes you happy. Symbols are things that stand in for other things, they carry meaning. They carry meaning to a viewer -- dismissing the viewer as an ignoramus is to dismiss the entire question of what is a symbol. A cross carries meaning to many people, and whether it's in-focus or not doesn't matter for the purposes of carrying that meaning. For the purposes of the symbol, the quality of the image doesn't matter.
    To be sure, the overall effect of the image on the viewer is going to vary a lot based on a lot of things. Is the composition strong? Does it hold the eye? Is the subject matter interesting? Do the semiotics, if any, work?
    To be fair, I suppose if people want to wander off and talk about all those other things I should let them and not get cranky about it. I apologize for my tone.
    Nonetheless, this thread was originally about the symbols, which exist apart from the other qualities of the photograph, and in this particular instance I maintain that "b&w" as a symbol, something which carries meaning, is completely distinct from any of the qualities of the conversion. It is the lack of hue, alone, that carries the meaning.
     
  38. I should add, of course, that history of creating good black and whites isn't as simple as a couple of different papers. The development, processing, and post processing was often done with great care, detail, and nuance and choices galore were made. Of course, many sent their film out to a lab and didn't particularly know all the choices that were being made for them or that were defaulting and not even really being made. But those who worked long hours in the darkroom, I suppose, were as religious about their black and white details as some are today. And those guys had to put up with all the fumes!
     
  39. I'd agree that the very use of b&w and grain tends to be regarded by many viewers as a symbol or signifier. It doesn't mean we need to agree that merely converting a color raw file to monochrome and slapping on some film grain in Picasa makes it "art". But there's no denying that a lot of viewers will regard it as artistic and appealing regardless of our opinions.
    To return to Alan's earlier observation about the overuse or misuse of symbols, I'm reminded of a photo.net post a couple of years ago in which a fellow asked for feedback on his business card design. He'd used a coat of arms as part of the logo for no particular reason other than he liked the look. It had no significance to his family or ancestry. And even after being informed of the history of the coat of arms, he wasn't concerned. He simply liked the look.
    The overall "look" of a photograph does symbolize at least some vague notions of how we perceive life in general or subjects in particular. Notice, for example, the "lifestyle photography" genre of portrait and wedding photography. It's typified by a low to moderate use of contrast, subdued color with pinkish or warm hues, bright highlights to minimize flaws and emphasize a glow and generally appeal to an idealized, romanticized notion of Life-Lite.
    Another, somewhat unrelated thought...
    Consider the "flashed face distortion effect" illustrated in this video. Our perceptions of visual cues are so subjective that it's likely we're also perceiving other objects and shapes in photographs in ways we may not consciously recognize.
     
  40. "But those who worked long hours in the darkroom, I suppose, were as religious about their black and white details as some are today. And those guys had to put up with all the fumes!"​
    Fred, we need to seriously talk B&W darkroom work sometime, although obviously this isn't the place (symbolically or otherwise) for an extended discussion on the subject.
    Just a few brief points that are important to state: I don't really spend much more time, and sometimes less, than that required to post exposure treat a more demanding digital capture. Performing similar types of manipulations (dodging, burning) on the computer can be lengthy.
    Effort is not an exclusivity of darkroom work. On the contrary, getting a very good quality B&W digital print is not easy unless you have considerable experience, a specialised B&W multi ink printer or the capacity to do that with a normal high quality printer and suitable paper profiles. Until I spend some time to calibrate and harmonize my monitor and printer I have little interest in wasting any more highly expensive digital papers and inks because there is visible bronzing on some B&W prints or less than ideal chromatic or brilliance to the color prints. I admit that I have much more experience in the B&W darkroom than fine digital printing, but I am probably not alone in that regard. Consequently, until I can get up to speed on printing digitally, the work will go to a custom lab.
    As someone who has indicated that he hasn't already worked in a printing darkroom you cannot realize how easy and satisfying the workflow is. Also, you are manipulating the light physically rather than letting some software do it, and there is some subtle pleasure in doing that in a different way (not to denigrate the pleasure of computer post exposure treatment, which I also do with Silver Efex Pro or other software). From the workflow point of view, my enlarger is retro-fitted with a computer light head that speeds the initial analysis of the negative before I contemplate any further modifications and that really takes the exposure determining test strip drudgery out of the equation, at least at the start of the creative process. The modern German computer light source costs much less than many better digital cameras and, as you know, enlargers are dirt cheap these days.
    On the question of smells, they are virtually non existent and especially so with certain products sold by some of the smaller chemical companies in the US. I work without any mask or even gloves, and never had any problems using the normal types of very diluted chemicals.
    Your reaction is typical of many who have not had the black and white film developing and printing experience and entirely comprehensible.
    Symbolism associated with darkroom work include Luddite analogies, antiquated practice andother similar qualifications. Nothing could be further from reality.
     
  41. <<<Your reaction is typical of many who have not had the black and white film developing and printing experience and entirely comprehensible.>>>
    Well, smell that!
    <<<Effort is not an exclusivity of darkroom work.>>>
    If you're talking to me or responding to something I said, I certainly didn't say or imply this. I work very hard on my digital images and prints.
    <<<As someone who has indicated that he hasn't already worked in a printing darkroom you cannot realize how easy and satisfying the workflow is.>>>
    You'd be surprised, Arthur. Where in the world do you get this stuff and what in the world are you projecting onto what I've said here?
    <<<On the question of smells>>>
    I've spent enough time around photo chemicals (I was a typesetter by trade and had to develop the galleys of type with film developer and fixer) and enough time in and around a darkroom (though not as a photographer myself), in the past, to know that they can smell and have smelled. What I said about smell above was said tongue-in-cheek, which I guess didn't come through in my writing. It wasn't meant to start a controversy over chemicals smelling or not. You're reading a hell of a lot into my post and are being incredibly defensive for no reason. I wasn't pitting darkroom work against digital work in the way you're taking it by any stretch of the imagination. I know enough incredibly gifted darkroom artists to have the utmost respect for them, and I've learned an incredible amount just by talking to them at length as well as by watching them do their thing. You seem not to realize that many of my comments were in direct response to Andrew and are taking things WAY out of context. GEEZ!
    <<<Symbolism associated with darkroom work include Luddite analogies, antiquated practice andother similar qualifications. >>>
    What I'd like to say in response to this would get me tossed from the forum, so I'll let you think about the deserved response instead of spelling it out. Let's just say you're being boorishly condescending.
     
  42. >>> Anybody can do it with a click. Have we a way yet of talking about that?

    I've yet to experience a single click "effects" color->B&W post-processing conversion that pleases me. Though over the
    years the manual tools I use (color filtration to accentuate/deaccentuate elements, local
    exposure/contrast/sharpness adjustments, etc), in the past with photoshop and over the last four years using LR, have evolved
    considerably making pretty quick work of the process. So much so it's second nature, no doubt from doing
    tens of thousands of conversions and knowing where I want to go.

    If "anybody" can do it with a click and get results they are happy with, I have no issues with that.

    My camera phone gets close by itself. But not totally...
     
  43. Fred, two things incited my extolling of black andwhite darkroom work, firstly your mention of "long hours", and secondly, the putting up with the "smelly fumes" context.
    Now, I agree that I may have taken your comments out of context, and I apologize if I have and I am sorry if you have misinterpreted that as some sort of aggression or disrespect.
    Of course, none of that was intended. Instead, your statement simply provided me with a springboard to tackle a subject that bothers me, which is the simplistic attitude some dispose (and not you, as is evidenced from your reply) about traditional photography and the darkroom art. I am quite tired of hearing darkroom photography categorised, by many who haven't experienced making B&W silver based prints, as some sort of slavery to time and something accompanied by an offensive environment, as "long hours" and "smelly fumes" (or the like) certainly seemed to imply.
    I am surprised at your rather heated reaction to my defence of darkroom photography. That latter aspect is all that is important to me in regard to your quote, not some sort of personal discussion.
    On the other hand I absolutely stand by my comments on darkroom photography and some of the frustrations of digital photography (which I can readily accept as I do both) and I can only hope that some will be enticed to enjoy that marvellous activity, as well as the pleasures and sometimes frustrations of digital photography.
    If a few decide to take up darkroom photography, then bravo to them! They will not have been derided by the popular and unwarranted perceptions about it.
     
  44. Brad, I am aiming to eventually get where you are now in digital post exposure modifications. I am relatively happy with PS and Nik software manipulations and my computer monitor image result, but not so much with the B&W print quality. Have you mastered that part of the process as well, or do you concentrate mainly on a digital image at the monitor rather than as a print?
     
  45. Getting back to black and white as symbol, I wonder if we can take the "black and white means serious photo" discussion a bit further . . .
    This is a photo I did in a low-rent oasis-like part of San Francisco, in the midst of a fairly congested area right near the downtown SF Giants Ballpark. In color, and done relatively straight, it would have been postcard-like, perhaps with a twist because of the decrepit nature of some of the houseboats. Converted to black and white, in a relatively straight manner, it might have come off, as people are saying, as a little more serious than a postcard, maybe even convincing some that it was art. I didn't choose to do it the way I did it for conscious reasons but rather the image and my feelings about it and the place just took me here, to this very graphic, two-dimensional, hard contrast view. Looking at it now, the black and white work flouts the black-and-white-as-symbol-of-art-or-depth view while also utilizing it to take it out of the realm of the touristy postcard which the content might otherwise suggest. Maybe this was my way of rejecting the need to do "postcard" even with a scene lending itself to that. Maybe it was my way of expressing the decline of an otherwise idyllic area of the city. Maybe it was the noise of the dense traffic going by above on the overhead freeway just out of view, that put this vision into my head. What does a hard contrast black and white photo symbolize? How does a lack of depth and dimension read, darkness without detail? Does an association of this type of photo with a woodcut, for example, have a visual or emotional impact? For me, yes. And, for me, there's some kind of play with the notions of kitsch, snapshot, postcard, more "serious" photography, and what a scene can hold. Most, if not all, of that comes after the fact, when I'm thinking about it. Taking and processing the picture was much more a matter of gut reactions and visualization without much specific thought to meaning or symbolism.
    Do you have a black and white that in some way or aspect recognizes, addresses, or plays with this notion that black and white is more serious or must be art?
    00aUsd-473773584.jpg
     
  46. >>> Have you mastered that part of the process as well, or do you concentrate mainly on a digital
    image at the monitor rather than as a print?

    Hardly "mastered," but I am pleased with the prints that I make. In the past, ie in the early 2000s, when
    decent digital B&W prints were the exception, many times viewers would assume my exhibition prints
    were darkroom-produced. Today it's relatively easy to make great looking B&W prints digitally with the
    right printer (any Epson with K3 inks). Most Costcos now have Epson 4880 professional printers where
    16x20 prints go for $6, and 20x30 for $9. The resultsI get are excellent. Of course that's driven from
    the beginning by good post processing and file prep.
     
  47. My favourite symbol is the hat on the bed. A not-so close second is the phone in the background, which doesn't work so well these days thanks to cell phones. Both are unobstrusive, and can add a layer to the present or future of the story, without disturbing the initial reading of the image.
    That said, it's a bit like asking the composer what his favourite chord is; you should be selecting the symbol for the photo, and not the other way 'round.
    To add to the B&W photo conversation ... it has been mentioned that grainy black and white can be symbolic. A corrolary: does using fine-grained black and white film have any symbolism over colour? And is grainy black and white film still symbolic if it is used out of necessity?
     
  48. To me, black and white is not more artsy, and if other people think it is, they're watching quite superficially. That does not exclude it from maybe being a symbol, but the implied meaning of the symbol isn't one I'd easily generalise.
    Why I use black and white a lot is for a completely different reason typically: devoid of colour, the shapes, forms, lines, points - the 'structure' - of a composition renders more clearly. It's indeed a way of seeing, B&W, but to me because it shifts attention to a more abstract reading of the image. It's also my reaction to Fred's example above - by eliminating colour and mid-tone greys, the image starts to become a 'framework' of itself, a 'bare essentials' version.
    Where it touches on the original topic for me is this: if there are symbols in the image, I think with B&W they're frequently easier to spot, unless obviously when the symbol is a colour.
     
  49. ...the most shallow and superficial of contexts, ...
    Who said symbols needed to be profound? The point is everybody usually gets them. They are often self-referencing. B/W stands for a specific style which stands for... and so on.
    BTW see today's MSNB RE B/W cinema:
    http://video.msnbc.msn.com/nightly-news/47780741/#47780741
     
  50. <<<Who said symbols needed to be profound?>>>
    No one. Well, at least not me, and that was me you quoted. I was talking about how we talk about symbols, not the symbols themselves. I was suggesting, Alan, not that black and white doesn't have profound character or symbolism to it . . .
    <<<The point is everybody usually gets them.>>>
    No, they don't. Most, even among those who read Shakespeare, don't get them. Yet they have an impact, often because they are a visual aid (which photography is good at!) I don't think of symbols as self-referencing, though some can be. I think of them as referencing something else. A cross references the suffering of Jesus. It often references religion. It can reference the church. Most people "get" the cross. But I'll bet there are plenty of subtle crosses put into paintings and photos that many don't even see, let alone get. And for every symbol in literature and painting that everybody gets, I'd bet there are 3 or 4 that everybody does not.
     
  51. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Well I put crosses in my photos and I don't "get" them unless there's vampires involved. I'm Jewish and my understanding of other religions (and Judaism to a pretty big extent) is minimal. But I like that they seem to symbolize something, so they're there and I don't stress it. My favorite use of the cross is the young woman with tons of exposed cleavage and a big cross in the middle. I don't get that, but it's amusing.
     
  52. Just want to add another voice to the B&W conversation. I shot black and white starting in the 60's, developing my own film and printing in the darkroom. It was really the only medium that I could afford (I was a teenager), because color film was more expensive and I couldn't process it myself nor print it. What I am saying is that I never choose this medium for its symbolic meaning, but rather, it was what was available. I really learned to use and love Tri-X 35mm, particularly with D-76, although I did try all the commercial developers out at the time, as well as making my own D-23 from scratch. When you are confined more or less, to one medium, you learn to use its characteristics in the way you "see" and shoot. After a while I knew instinctively what settings to use when shooting indoors with available light, and how much to develop it, and what to expect in the finished print. It becomes part of the way you think. Its like a wood carver using the same species of wood for years. I have to add that breaking out into medium format and large format gave me opportunities to explore a totally different feel to my work, which I greatly enjoyed. These larger formats were "smoother" and provided more detail, but also required a different way of working with natural light. Just to sum up: the medium and materials for me were chosen because its what was available in my budget, and not specifically for the particular "look" for symbolic reasons or because it was more "artistic." Many examples of this period are in my 70's folder here: http://www.photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=405901
     
  53. I think this discussion has gotten to the point where we're arguing if the chicken or the egg came first.
    Does black and white film make something arty, or do we know more artists that use black and white film? More specifically, did Postwar Japanese photographers (Hosoe, Domon, Kawada) choose to make grainy photographs because that was the style, or because it was a result of shooting the stock they had in the way they wanted to?
    Do symbols make a photograph more interesting, or are we more interested in the work because deciphering those symbols requires that we pay more attention to it? Is an artist good because of his use of symbolism, or do good artists see symbolism in existing scenes more readily?
    Unfortunately, for much of the discussion going on in this thread, figuring out who is right requires figuring out if the chicken of the egg came first, and I don't really see how we can do that.
     
  54. Zack, I'm not trying to figure out who's right. I simply enjoy hearing different takes on the matter and discussing these things. Others' ideas stimulate my own thoughts on the subject. Something that often happens is misunderstanding each other, which is its own problem. But I don't think anyone will be right. Because there is no right. Your chicken and egg thing is a good way of framing some of the issues, but doesn't forestall discussion. A lot of philosophy has a chicken and egg character and a lot of philosophy doesn't have a right answer. Philosophy is a seeking, as can be photography.
     
  55. Zack, the usage of these things in the past is precisely what makes them symbols now.
    Circumstance forces (for example, war) people to make contrasty, blurry, grainy photos, let's say. We see these in Life magazine for years, and they appear in retrospectives, all with loads of context and text around them telling us what it is.
    Then, later, we see a blurry, grainy, high contrast photo created by a contemporary artist. What do we think? That photo evokes memories of those other photos, and thereby connects the new image with the old ones. The new photo now evokes that sense of immediacy, danger, filth and destruction. That's the symbol working, right there. This is how symbols work -- we experience a thing in the same or similar contexts over and over, and we come to associate the thing with that context. If "most" people in a culture have a similar experience of that thing in those contexts, we'll mostly agree on what that thing stands for -- that thing becomes a symbol of that kind of context. The blurry, grainy, contrasty photograph becomes a symbol of war.
    Now the new image might not be about war. Maybe it's a picture of a flower. There's nothing wrong with that, but now the viewer is experiencing an image of a flower through the lens of war and so on, the flower is juxtaposed with the symbol, for good or bad.
     
  56. >>> More specifically, did Postwar Japanese photographers (Hosoe, Domon, Kawada) choose to make
    grainy photographs because that was the style, or because it was a result of shooting the stock they had
    in the way they wanted to?

    I think it was much deeper. And along with Fukase, Moriyama, and Tomatsu, it was the result of dealing
    with the war, and huge changes in Japanese post-war society; Hiroshima (Kawada's The Map), the effects of the
    occupation, rapid westernization, negative local effects brought by US bases, changes in government, etc, and wanting to develop a unique visual
    language that helped express their views, feelings, and moods about those dramatic changes.
     
  57. It was a shift in consciousness, and the visual language wasn't solely theirs. These shifts seem to ripple through the minds of many at nearly the same time, like a shared dream. At about the same time, R. Frank and others in the US were turning away from the cliche's of the '40s towards a different photographic reality. The grain was only part of it. Besides all the changes Brad mentioned, the Japanese became a defeated culture after WWII.
    Symbols do not always mean the same thing, even in the same culture. The cross in a church is not the same as the cross in cleavage, a natural cross form, upside down cross, equilateral cross etc. They're a lot like color, which is transmutable by other colors, shades, etc. around it.
     
  58. Fred, I think we're on the same page. I was thinking of contemporary symbols. Getting symbols used to bore the crap out of me in school. I think it ruined me for poetry and good literature. Damn English teachers! I didn't recover until middle-age.
     
  59. <<<Damn English teachers!>>>
    LOL. I had a great high school Shakespeare teacher, Mrs. Matthews. I can still see her as if it were yesterday (were, not was). She managed to find as many sexual references and symbols in Shakespeare as she could (and then some . . .), which was especially helpful to the budding adolescents she taught. It made us excited to look for symbols and gave us a way of diving under the text for all sorts of surprises, not just symbolic. I loved finding the hidden sonnets in Romeo and Juliet, too, especially when they were shared by two lovers. Symbols have long appealed to me, though they can devolve into academics and, of course, be heavy handed . . . not unlike saturation. At best they provide depth and add a dimension which can often be easily ignored. They can add a level of familiarity and, probably most significant to me, connectedness (to others, to the universe, something greater than) which can be enriching.
     
  60. I didn't have an English teacher I really learned from until sophomore year in HS. He was a science fiction author (Jack Williamson). Virtually everything referenced Cold War era fears - not too subtle for me to get.
    I'm always recalling stories with my wife about our shared academic experience (long, long ago) with the same female English teachers. She, and the other girls in the classes, did extra credit work. Sheeesh! The guys were intimidated and didn't want to seem like "sissies" (read effete).
    Women, I can fairly say, are more inclined to share feelings and seem to respond to symbols, at least the more subtle ones, better than men. I sense changes from back then in that feelings-focused gender difference. Perhaps it is due to a wider, and likely more feminizing, variety of families like single and same-sex parents. I would say more things are seeming less sissy.
     
  61. I'm not sure we're on the same page, Alan, so much as we may be in the same library. In that fantasy High School library, maybe the women are using appropriately hushed tones, the straight guys are sitting around burping and farting, and the real sissies are gettin' lucky in the bathrooms under the stalls . . . just as God intended it. :)
     
  62. I'm intrigued by the notion of film grain itself as a symbol of some concept of integrity or artistry... and perhaps more.
    Note the continuing debates over whether digital camera noise or grain effects added in post can ever satisfactorily mimic true film grain - tho' even as a fan of b&w film I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference in some prints and hi-rez JPEGs I've seen by others, and produced myself.
    I'm not so much interested in the disputes over aesthetic authenticity as in the visceral reactions some folks have to film grain. Why do "they" (let's use the hypothetical they for the sake of efficiency) want film grain? We get a lot of questions about that on the b&w forums here. Why do those other "they" object so strenuously to digitally mimicking film grain? That sort of emotional baggage implies there's more at stake here than mere aesthetics. It's reminiscent of the early 20th century outrage over les Fauves.
    It's tempting to believe these reactions are tied to the context of our own experience. Would a viewer who had no concept of film or film grain or notions of nostalgic attachments (whether personally experienced or longed by by proxy) react the same way? Or would they instead respond as they might to differences in brush technique between, say, Monet and Caravaggio? Would anyone declare Monet to be more authentic because there are actual grains of sand in some of his paintings?
     
  63. Lex, an interesting question. I think part of it you may have come upon in your post already, when you use the term mimic.
    I think there is a kind of beauty and inherent-ness in film grain. It is of the medium in a very physical and direct manner. So, if reproduced digitally, it can recall some of that, it can wax nostalgic, it can recall an era.
    Maybe the negative reactions to it have to do with mimicry, to some extent. There are qualities inherent to digital photography (you mention noise, pixels are another, backlighting of monitors another) that might some day come to mean and be used as effectively or "naturally" (I use that word with trepidation because I'm far from wedded to what's natural) in their own right. The imitation of grain, while I have no problem with it, might put some off because they see it as not moving forward, as an adherence to an aesthetic already accepted. Film grain. Been there, done that. Why not move on to what digital uniquely has to offer and exploit that aesthetically rather than mimicking things of the past? Again, this is not my point of view. My point of view is that we are in a transition from a film to a digital aesthetic and overriding that is a photographic aesthetic which transcends the particular medium and materials. So, it makes sense that there would be some keeping in touch with the aesthetics of film and some moving on to the aesthetics of digital, some doing both, and some just doing photography without paying too much attention to the changing materials. Tensions will result as they always do in evolving sensibilities and visions. Some people see monitor viewing as a substitute for print viewing and some are using monitor viewing as a medium and art unto itself. Backlighting is a strong element inherent to monitor viewing, much like grain was an element inherent to film. Grain and backlighting can simply be accepted, some will attempt to overcome them as nuisances, some will attempt to use them creatively, some won't notice either.
     
  64. Right, I completely agree regarding accepting a new aesthetic rather than continuing to emulate the past.
    Regarding issues like noise, I'm reminded of the audio equivalents to les Fauves, the musique concrete experiments that evolved into musical forms that are now well established and so pervasive we're seldom aware that we're listening to what some might consider "noise" rather than some narrowly defined concept of "analogue" music produced by traditional instruments.
    There may be an entire visual genre waiting to be explored in digital photography "noise", something akin to a subconscious steganography, a search for hidden symbols that exist only in our imaginations. And one day the first generation digicams may be regarded like the Moog, newly endowed with desirability by a generation experiencing nostalgia by proxy for the good ol' days when noise looked like noise rather than faux film grain.
     
  65. Lex, you said, (second-to-most-recent post, above): "It's tempting to believe these reactions are tied to the context of our own experience. Would a viewer who had no concept of film or film grain or notions of nostalgic attachments (whether personally experienced or longed by by proxy) react the same way?"
    I think not.
    That's what I was trying to get at in my Sunday post. It's my feeling that symbols are perceived "from the outside." In other words. they are "strange" in some way; they bring their own identity and are interesting and powerful *because* of this.
    As compared and contrasted to metaphor, which are perceived "from the inside." In other words, a metaphor tries to put you "into" the topic/subject; it tries to share embodiment, to find common kinetics.
     
  66. "In police work and in eyewitness memory research, there is discussion of something called 'weapon focus.' A witness/victim of an event is distracted by/fixated on the weapon to the exclusion of most other elements in the scene.

    For some reason, with this photo, I have 'penis focus.' Perhaps it's the unusual presence of the penis in such form/position, but I keep looking at...the...penis."

    Fred G.,

    That was in The Godfather. When they are instructing Michael Corleone on how to assassinate Sollozzo and McCluskey they advise him to walk not run out of the restaurant because the people will be looking at the gun not his face.
    The same thing was done in an episode of Deadwood. One of the whores goes to assassinate Hearst. She walks across a busy street with her tits out. Later a different whore is blamed for the attempted murder.
    Not necessarily what I "like" to use but one that I have used and seems natural for me to use and seems to garner a lot of attention and revealing, charged, strange, moralistic, and even sometimes juvenile reactions: the penis.​
    Male frontal nudity by and large is not attractive or pleasant to look at. I'm not a meat gazer but I can tell you from the few pornographic movies I've seen a flaccid phallus is not attractive. A small erect phallus just looks pathetic. Really the only phalli I've seen that don't mar the scenery are big erect members that are attached to usually hairless muscular dark men. And maybe I'm homophobic but even those images are only okay to look at if there is a female that is holding the thing and about to guide it into a female's orifice of choice.
    In contrast a female nude from the front, side, or back can look quite nice even when nothing particularly sexual is going on. The thing that separates nudes from pornography for me is sexuality. A nude looking in the mirror combing her hair is not sexual to me. For example I wouldn't think anything of a picture of nude children swimming in a lake. On the other hand an erection by definition is sexual.
     
  67. Russell, nothing you've said strikes me as homophobic. Phallic-phobic, perhaps. :)
    I look at both male and female bodies and find attractiveness, beauty, amusement, sensuality, physicality, earthiness, character, etc. I'm not perturbed in the least by the fact that you don't. More importantly, I can look at photos of both male and female nudes and find all those things in the photos, remembering that photos of nudes are something different from the bodies themselves.
    Many people find the curves, etc. of female forms more beautiful or aesthetic or attractive, what have you. Many gay men have said as much. I don't find that to be the case, but I understand why others feel that way.
    But, especially, consider that there is more to male (frontal) nudity than the penis, though it does seem to command many people's wrapped attention and seems to distract many. Also, there's much more to images of penises than porn.
    Check out Greek sculpture sometime . . . and be not afraid.
     
  68. In any case, I don't a think a penis has to be attractive, pleasant, or beautiful to the viewer in order for it to serve as a symbol.
    And a lack of sexual response to a penis doesn't have to prevent an aesthetic appreciation of photographs of them or photographs which include them.
     
  69. I look at both male and female bodies and find attractiveness, beauty, amusement, sensuality, physicality, earthiness, character, etc. I'm not perturbed in the least by the fact that you don't.​
    Well now you said "penis" not "male body." I like some female nudes but that doesn't mean I would put up snaps of a female's colonoscopy on the wall. I certainly enjoy looking at images of male athletes that show their anatomy. Those are some very powerful images. I just said looking at a pale shriveled phallus is not my cup of tea.
    But, especially, consider that there is more to male (frontal) nudity than the penis, though it does seem to command many people's wrapped attention and seems to distract many.​
    Which is why I wouldn't include it. It's like lens flare or a thumb over part of the lens. If it distracts I get it out of the frame.
    Also, there's much more to images of penises than porn.​
    Not it my book. Phalli in other contexts are just not very appealing to me visually. But of course that is a personal thing. People like to take pictures of different things. People like to look at pictures of different things. To each his own.
    Check out Greek sculpture sometime . . . and be not afraid.​
    Times have changed my friend. The Greeks considered large phalli comical. Nowadays if you drop trou and your phallus looks like the demure appendage of a Greek statue you are the one who will be a comic.
     
  70. <<<Well now you said "penis" not "male body." >>>
    Yes, that's what I originally talked about, but the reason I was now talking about male bodies and nudes was because you responded with this: "Male frontal nudity by and large is not attractive or pleasant to look at." To me, male frontal nudity is more than penises. Maybe I misunderstood what you were getting at. I'm not sure why you're so focused on shriveled-up flaccid penises as something not attractive. No one was talking about shriveled up flaccid penises. I was talking about penises as symbols, not different types of penises. As far as different types of penises, it would depend on the context and the photo they were part of how I felt about them. I, too, wouldn't want to hang a picture of someone's colonoscopy on my wall and can't fathom what that has to do with this discussion.
    <<<It's like lens flare or a thumb over part of the lens.>>>
    No it's not, and I suspect you know it's not.
    <<<If it distracts I get it out of the frame.>>>
    It depends, for me, on the cause of the distraction. White racists will be distracted by black people in photos, yet I wouldn't exclude black people from my photos because of that. If someone is distracted by a penis, I consider that their issue, not mine. I understand and like the fact that my photos won't appeal to everyone. I'm not in this as a popularity contest.
    <<<Nowadays if you drop trou and your phallus looks like the demure appendage of a Greek statue you are the one who will be a comic.>>>
    Being gay, I run into many size queens. Given several things you've said here, I will now count you among them.
     
  71. Yes, that's what I originally talked about, but the reason I was now talking about male bodies and nudes was because you responded with this: "Male frontal nudity by and large is not attractive or pleasant to look at." To me, male frontal nudity is more than penises. Maybe I misunderstood what you were getting at.​
    "Male frontal nudity" only means one thing. People don't say that to let you know an umbilicus is going to be in the picture. It's a civilized way genteel people let you know what will be dangling in your face.
    I'm not sure why you're so focused on shriveled-up flaccid penises as something not attractive. No one was talking about shriveled up flaccid penises.​
    I spoke about other phalli. It's just in the context of "art" one type of phallus seems to predominate.
    It depends, for me, on the cause of the distraction. White racists will be distracted by black people in photos, yet I wouldn't exclude black people from my photos because of that.​
    I would not equate the general desire to not see a limp phallus to racism. You yourself admitted most people are distracted by that symbol. Your response is, I'm going to use it more. Okay. I mean it's your choice. I'm not going to stop you. Sometimes I really like a picture and I don't care if anyone else does.
    Being gay...​
    I wish you had just said this in the beginning. Actually it's really not your fault. I am a victim of political correctness. My mind has been so brainwashed I just wouldn't allow myself to assume anyone who likes taking pictures of phallic symbols must be gay. I will not make that mistake again.
    Being gay, I run into many size queens. Given several things you've said here, I will now count you among them.​
    Just giving the ladies what they want. Don't hate the player... hate the game.
     
  72. <<<Your response is, I'm going to use it more.>>>
    Please don't put words in my mouth. I didn't say I would photograph a penis because others were distracted by it and I didn't say I would be more likely to photograph a penis likely to photograph more penises because others were distracted by it. I said their being distracted wouldn't dissuade me from including penises in my photos.
    <<<"Male frontal nudity" only means one thing.>>>
    Sorry, but this is juvenile thinking. Most of us got it out of our systems around Junior High School.
    <<<I just wouldn't allow myself to assume anyone who likes taking pictures of phallic symbols must be gay.>>>
    As well you shouldn't. I don't represent all gay men or all men. There are plenty of straight men who have penises in their photos. And I doubt it's as simplistic as their "liking" taking pictures of phallic symbols. Besides, I'm not sure why you keep insisting on using "likes." Making photos, choosing subjects, having a vision is about a whole lot more than "likes."
    <<<Just giving the ladies what they want.>>>
    Well, aren't you a catch!
     
  73. Great topic for discussion (well done on bringing it to light Andrew M) and fascinating reading of everyone's thoughts on this.
    For me its all about the light. Like colour (or the absence of it), light is not a static form of symbolism in real terms (its every changing and fluid), yet ironically enough in photography its very much both a momentary and timeless capture; an oxymoron if you will....
    And so for me light is the ultimate form of symbolism both as a viewer and a photographer. For me it represent the message being conveyed both obvious and subliminally, not independent of composition but part of it. As a simplistic example, for me, harsh light appeals to my sense of rawness/edginess/aggressiveness while soft light symbolizes an ethereal/soft/ gentle mood. I try to use soft light to symbolize the gentle nature of animals that may hopefully appeal to one's environmental consciousness , as an example.
     
  74. It is a nice overall conversation here. Thinking about symbolism. I used to photograph woods in snow with a slide film that gives blue tones. It meant to stand for a 'magic', 'fairy' world. For me blue colour can depict the liveliness, vibrancy of life in the forests. It's all connected to the legends, fairy-tales of the Middle Age when life in forests was more abundant then it is today.
    Recently I was working on a book that is all about flowers as a symbolic representation, or allegories for human characteristics - emotions, thoughts, fertility; and comprising also of human power to idealised the life through beauty, love, religion beliefs. I saw in my husband's pictures of flowers another world, symbols and allegories and have based the book on a completely different side of what he was expecting. I looked at his images of flowers and got ideas about them. It was instantaneous 'light bulb' in my mind! So his flowers reminiscent of various human conditions.
    I remember that the famous Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas, said that his ballerinas aren't really about ballerinas. They are a symbol for something else. Maybe femininity, gracefulness in the body movements, etc.
    Krisi
     
  75. Kristina, thanks. Your post stimulated me to see what Degas had to say about his dancers and I found an interesting quote and then a couple more gems.
    "They call me the painter of dancers. They don't understand that the dancer has been for me a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and for rendering movement."
    I like his use of the word "pretext" rather than symbol. It goes along with some of his other thoughts, which can sound a bit radical but convey a lot, I think.
    "In painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false."
    "Art is vice. You don't marry it legitimately, you rape it."


    _______________________________

    Art, regarding your post, it is thought-provoking. I'm left considering whether there's a difference that matters between light symbolizing certain feelings and light evoking certain feelings. I think there is, but need to think about it a little more.
     
  76. [this is for, or in response to, Art X (see his post, above)]
    For light is in the language now,
    Carbon and sullen diamond break
    Out of the glossary of earth
    In holy signs and scintillations,
    Release their fiery emblems to
    Renewal's room and morning's room
    Where sun and fire once again
    Phase in the figure of the dance
    From far beginnings here returned,
    Leapt from the maze at the forest's heart,
    Oh, moment where the lost is found!
    -- part of a Howard Nemerov poem
     
  77. Fred,
    I think that 'pretext' in Degas terms is more complex than 'symbol'. I like 'pretext' word as well.
    His other two radical ideas are too complex for me to understand, more or less. The first one about achieving something that is true by means of the false can be apply in a narrow and particular field. Just like his paintings of the ballet dancers. Thinking more about it, well, what about mythological and Christian scenes in the time of the Renaissance?( Also, I think in the Classic Greek architecture - whole Necropolis. Which is for me beautifying of gods sanctuaries.) That can be put into this quote. I don't know what else. I think that as you go north in Europe, the paintings are about ordinary, working people in everyday life.
    Best regards,
    Kristina
     
  78. My favorite would have to be symbols that are not used anymore showing up in pictures. Something to the effect of a hammer and sickle being juxtaposed into a modern photograph. There is something about the history involved with the symbol itself and the archaic nature of it in modern photographs.
    The use of symbols recognized around the world is a great way to connect with people through art and make them think of what the symbol means and how is oftentimes doesn't pertain to the modern day situation.
    A good example might be a place that was once irradiated that is now safe to inhabit. Many of the symbols of the danger are still present while the area is safe. I think this gives a really good depiction of how the world can change.
     
  79. Railway tracks are one of my favourites. And flights of stairs or steps. And doors. I myself photograph a lot of doors. They all have to do with the idea of movement, progress towards or movement away from, and thresholds or transitions.
    00adj5-484037584.jpg
     

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