Is vitality important in your photographs?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by aplumpton, Sep 7, 2014.

  1. Listening on a national radio program interview this morning to journalist Clive James on what he considers to be art added an element for me of the notions or indicators of originality and aesthetic impact in a work.
    He considers vitality to be a key to such success. I think he refers to the ability of any work (I assume he refers to writings, painting, photography, architecture, design, a new car form, whatever) to be vital, to be able to remove any other preoccupations and thoughts you may be having from your mind as you become aware of its presence. This criteria avoids, or at least overlays (without removing entirely) the usual criteria we apply of composition, emotion, symbolism or any other usual appreciation benchmarks. I have had some of my images reacted to by others where they are surprised or pleased by the result, without sometimes realizing why. Is this an example of such vitality? Here below are two images that may be examples.
    I could show others, maybe better ones, but I am more interested here as to what you may think of James's criteria of vitality? Is it a factor in your appraisal of photographs. Does it affect your appraisals of the art of others, or your intentions or approach in your own photography? Vitality can take different forms, perhaps also on different levels of intensity or kind. Do you think, on the contrary, that it is usually not very relevant as a criteria?
  2. SCL


    I think lots of people strive for it, but personally, it rates pretty low on my list of criteria of successful photographs. To me, originality of content or perspective, and effective conveyance of "mood" rate much higher than "vitality".
  3. Stephen, thanks, I understand your priorities of approach.
    I just want to add at this point that vitality in the sense used by James and me is not vitality in terms of the joy of expression we may often see in photographs of family or friends or in commercial ads, for example, but vitality exhibited as a cause in arresting our attention to the work and turning us away from other thoughts. Perhaps identified as an energetic communicative quality of the work, or exhibiting the power of continuance (of an idea, or of an image in our minds)?
  4. Vitality is a label that will have different meanings to different people. It's subjective as we all know. It's hard for me to describe, but some artworks just have a certain quality, something about them that commands a level of scrutiny and consideration that other works nearby such as in a gallery do not possess. We've all been in a gallery or museum and walked around looking at the works until we come to one that stops us cold and we spend more time with it then with the others. It's like scanning the radio dial and landing on a piece of music that you've never heard before but it immediately strikes you as being something extraordinary. I'm this way with J.S. Bach. I can listen to the classical music station in my car and hear a new piece and even though I've never heard it before, I can almost with complete accuracy predict it's a piece by Bach. It just has that certain something. Who can say what this may be? For some, they may define vitality in an artwork as being very colorful with cheerful, energetic subject matter and for some it may be different. I find enormous vitality in the photographs of Roy DeCarava even though his prints are often on the darker side of the tonal scale. I think the more any one particular work strikes a certain chord in you, then the more vitality that work will have for you.
    So do we as photographers seek to add this mysterious element in our work? Well, it's certainly worth considering, but as I described above, some people may feel it and others may not. We are responsible for creating the work, but we have no control over how other people will interpret it and think about it. So, I think we should just continue on doing our best every step of the way.
  5. A couple of days ago catch my attention a book in the library called Basic Techniques of Photography, Ansel Adams Guide by John P. Schaefer. I grabbed it, opened it and read this line "“Memorable photographs, moving speeches, music we want to hear again and again, sculpture we return to, ballet, poems and novels that endure, masterpieces of painting-genuine art in any form-all have two elements in common: the artist has an important statement to make, and that statement is made with eloquence. Eloquence and substance are what we should strive for in any form of expression. ”. I got the book and read it, but this line was enough for what I was looking for, actually.

    May be it's what you mean.
  6. I've always thought of vitality as very important, but I'm using the more commonly-used and understood and not a subjective definition. So it's hard to know how to answer the question. That something is able to preoccupy me to the exclusion of other things has happened and is important, but to me that's more a question of something's reach and magnitude and it's about my level of attention. I think the actual quality of vitality is more interesting and is a quality not in the same league as color or composition but would stand as a category, instead, alongside things like intimacy and empathy. I'm comparing it to intimacy and empathy only in kind, not in how they feel.
    Here's what the dictionary says:
    the power of something to continue to live

    exuberant physical strength or vigor; power to live or grow; purposeful existence (vital force)

    life force; dynamics

    Vitality in a photo especially exists in terms of something's having a dynamic life force, something feeling like it's alive or breathing, something that has a kind of exuberance (its being somewhat unrestrained). Visual rhythm can give a photo vitality. Multiple and dynamic relationships can provide a sense of vitality. For me, it would be less about any particular subject matter or even an awareness of subject matter as much as HOW that subject matter exists in the photo. Vitality is more active than passive, IMO. A still life (which may at first glance seem passive) will have vitality to the extent we forget it's still (or as the French say, dead) and see signs of life. Sunlight can help add vitality. The effects of wind such as blowing hair can add vitality. Fog that seems like breath can imbue a photo with vitality. A particular twinkle in the eye, that shows signs of life, can add vitality.
    Energy and dynamics are tough because it can be hard to determine why something has it or doesn't but I think it's a great topic to explore, and a consideration that can really help an artist tap into something very significant and humanly relatable. Something with vitality makes me breathe in deep.
  7. Arthur -- Thanks for posing the question, as well as for providing a break from "feeling in photography", Buchloh, and deconstruction. ;-)
    My first reaction is similar to Marc Todd's -- vitality is so subjective. I'm not sure how Clive James intended the term to be understood in relation to a work of art, or a work which strives to be considered art (I know, I know -- the work itself does not "strive", the creator of it does -- please let's not go down that road....). My other thought, which mirrors Fred's, is tied to the problem of how we define "vitality". Removing other thoughts and preoccupations can be the result of many different qualities possessed by a given work: symbolism, technique, atmosphere, etc, not just vitality. I honestly don't know how to understand James notion of vitality. Even if we refine the definition of vitality along the lines of the classic definitions listed by Fred above, it is still highly subjective. I may look at a street photograph, for example, and see great and compelling vitality in it. Another viewer may find it "too busy" and distracting. (*nods at Fred*)
    As for the two photos you link to. I think each can be seen to have a certain vitality (again, dependent on definition). "Free flight" could be seen to meet both James version of vitality, and the classic version of vitality. "Identity No. 1" has less literal vitality on the surface, but in different ways, it too could meet both criteria.
    Sorry to be so wishy-washy about this, Arthur, but I'm just not clear on what James means.
    Adriano Ficarelli: "...all have two elements in common: the artist has an important statement to make, and that statement is made with eloquence."​
    Adriano -- I'm going to be a bit snarky here, but I do not aim it at you personally. It does not surprise me that this absolutist statement on common elements in a work of art comes from a book related to Ansel Adams. It may be one way of judging art, but as to being the only way, I reject it unequivocally. And I think most informed scholars, artists, and critics, past* and present, would also reject it. It is so restrictive, and excludes so much of what is considered to be art that it is reactionary, almost fascist, in its absolutism and rejection of works which do not fit into its mold. Then again, to temper my own admittedly strong reaction, maybe, in the context of the book, the author intended "important statement" and "eloquence" to include elements which are not normally associated with those terms.
    (*the past reaching at the very least to the first decade of the 20th century and arguably even to the late decades of the 19th)
  8. I am digesting what Fred, Steve, Adriano and Marc have said and am impressed by the reactions. I went to Adriano's website and found one photograph that speaks vitality to me, as it is original in perception (I think) and has (for me) that quality that goes beyond simple originality and composition.
    "What is impressive is that you are looking at things differently than what I imagine most observers would do. Haven't had time to see all your photos at your website, but the image that pleases me there is called "Fort Lauderdale" (in Landscapes) where you have nicely assembled the various curves of the rainbow, the small wall and the trees in a pleasing composition under good light. That image has "vitality" for me".
    Perhaps it is simply the specific angle chosen, its graphic qualities and the quality of light, but the image, however communicated to my senses, wants to stay in my mind while many of the others reviewed briefly do not. I think James and myself (apologies for associating myself with such an accomplished journalist) look upon vitality as the step beyond the recognition of originality that is the ability of the work to pervade and rest in our consciousness and stimulate our own thoughts. I would define vitality like that rather than the common dictionary definitions. Sometimes communication goes beyond the usual aesthetic definitions of beauty.
    I can think of other photos of those posting here that can do the same, one of which is Fred's own image link in the "Cheesecake"discussion in Casual Photo Conversations. It has a vitality.
    I don't think vitality requires understanding everything that makes a work vital. Often the mystery element is enough to make it a renter of our imaginations.
  9. It could be that photos that exude vitality do so because their subjects exude vitality.
  10. Thanks Arthur .... and your chair series ...

    It's funny because that specific photo I shot with a point-and-shot. Revisiting that photo I saw something that wasn't there and a lot of retouch on lighting was necessary to archive that result. Am I breaking the magic ?

    From my Italian roots I associate vitality directly to Life, Vita in Italian. And in my vision every work of art once done has a life for it's own, it's not expression from the artist, but says by itself.

    Also funny to read "not surprise me that this absolutist statement on common elements in a work of art comes from a book related to Ansel Adams" because for me Ansel Adams it mostly boring, good technique but don't say to much for me. And that statement from Schaefer about eloquence call my attention also because don't look like related to Ansel Adams, where rarely we can feel any emotion.

    Wikipedia: "Eloquence (from Latin eloquentia) is fluent, forcible, elegant or persuasive speaking. It is primarily the power of expressing strong emotions in striking and appropriate language, thereby producing conviction or persuasion."

    Something what we see plus something to express makes a good picture, and is really good when it lives by itself, speaks by itself. Vita propria. Sometimes we are surprised with what it says, from our own works.
  11. I think landscapes can produce awe, from a majesty that humbles us in the greatness of the universe. Anyone who has stood at the appropriately named Inspiration Point and looked out on Yosemite Valley understands this feeling. It's never matched in photos although many people try.
    If people did not get a feeling from landscape photos and paintings, they wouldn't admire them as much as they do. Vitality, life, is made up with all our emotions - love, fear, hatred, beauty, and awe, and all the rest.
  12. Sounds like he was redefining some of the admittedly obscure concepts and opaque terms used by Barthes, notably punctum. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Bathes wrote clearly and engagingly on photography - at least within the context of the English translation - but his penchant for obscure terminology seemed at odds with his overall writing style. I got the impression he was in love with language for its own sake as much as for communicating.
  13. Adriano Ficarelli: "...for me Ansel Adams it mostly boring, good technique but don't say to much for me."​
    My apologies for misunderstanding, Adriano. Anyone who finds Ansel Adams "mostly boring" is A-OK in my book. ;-)
  14. Arthur, one of the reasons I find vitality in your Free Flight photo is probably similar to the reasons for your naming it such. Imagine the same scene but with the chairs sitting by the side of the pool instead of floating in the pool as they are. I think the implied sense of movement, that the formation was different a minute ago and will be different in the next moment, helps to add vitality to the shot. It would be a more static-feeling picture, IMO, if the chairs were on the ground.
    In another thread, we've been talking about titles or captions that lead the viewer, and many people are against such titles. I tend to take them as they come and titles work sometimes and don't work other times and I don't have pre-determined guidelines of what kind of titles work. Free Flight seems to add a good punctuation mark to me and the fact that it does that doesn't mean anything is missing from the image or that you're trying to make up for something that's not being shown. I think, in this case, the title enriches the photo, even though I think the photo could certainly stand on its own without the title. To me, a good title can actually add vitality because it brings in another dimension (the written word, the discursive) to interact with the visual. So the title has the ability to breathe some accompanying life into the mix. A good title can be like good studio lighting or a good mat and frame around the photo. It can be a good complement.
  15. Fred, Steve, Lex, Alan, Adriano - some interesting and thoughtful comments. I am stuck at our construction/renovation site these days but will try to react to them as soon as I can. Please continue with your thoughts as I hope others also will do. Thanks.
  16. Thanks for presenting the topic Arthur just wanted to add that I'm not sure what Clive means exactly by vitality, but I equate the word with energy which I've thought about before. Energy to me doesn't necessarily mean movement, dynamism etc. there can be many many manifestations of energy. For instance when people talk about "tension" or dynamic balance, or intensity or even when a photo has a quality of "quietness" or calm, all of these to me are forms of energy or vitality. Not easily definable but it can be perceived and I think it is an important quality, even if its not necessarily obvious. Maybe its one of those zen like ineffable qualities.
  17. Barry, the reason I talked of dynamism, etc. as opposed to the quieter types of energy was that Merriam-Webster, for example, has "lively energy" as its first definition of vitality, and several of the dictionary definitions use exuberance as well. So I have always thought of vitality not as a synonym for energy but as a type of energy. For example, delicacy is listed as an antonym of vitality, and yet there are many delicate types of energies which I think would be excluded from an understanding of vitality.
  18. No problem Fred. I didn't mean to say that dynamism is not vitality, and I would contend that "lively energy" can encompass a lot of the most quietness of expression. Also I was not trying to say that all energy equates to dynamism or vitality even if its very energetic. I was trying to broaden the appreciation of forms of expression that I find vital, or dynamic if you wish that doesn't equate with just being covertly energetic such as movement or capturing action.. I'm talking about quietness, meditative, enigmatic that is more of the magnetic feminine expressions of vitality. The Mona Lisa isn't action type dynamism, yet its very vital and dynamic in the enigma it provides. Leroy Nieman on the other hand is all kinds of swirling motion yet I don't find any vitality in his work, despite its action.
    Another instance is the work of Miro and Dali. Dali certainly exhibits vitality, energy and dynamism in his work. Cats and water flying around,watches melting in a weird evocative "landscape" etc. those are more obvious forms of vitality. Yet Miro is no less vital, in my view, His dynamism is achieved by much quieter means especially his sort of "microcosmic" paintings, which I've always loved. He uses shapes and color and also creates this other compelling "landscape" that is totally evocative yet not outwardly active.
    I think that for me, I would include some very quiet forms of energy, even stillness, contemplative and tension, mystery, etc, inward types of vital energy as having equal potential to achieve vitality and dynamism.
  19. Barry, one of the reasons I like the addition of the Mona Lisa to a list of art with vitality is that, even though as you point out it has a more soft-spoken type of energy, that energy has so much to do with life and DaVinci's ability to give the portrait such a life force, a lot of which comes from the light and her countenance.
  20. Barry, building on what you said above, I didn't mean to equate vitality with dynamism and was just thinking that dynamism can be a sign of vitality, though as you point out all things dynamic don't have the quality of vitality. That's probably why Nieman's work doesn't seem to have vitality to me either, because though it has a fair amount of dynamism and movement, it's dead in terms of emotion and reach, IMO. Probably my example way above of fog often giving a photo vitality is one of those less dynamic forms of vitality, again because fog so often makes the overall atmosphere feel so alive (thick with a naturally-occurring kind of breath). Interesting that in many photos, a bright sunny day, for me, would lack the vitality that fog or mist can provide.
  21. Maybe and not to hijack the thread, but perhaps Arthur might enjoy this, why don't those who wish to post a photo of their own which thy believe expresses a quality of "vitality" and possibly why. The thought being sometimes conversations can get a little abstract and it might be good to post illustrative examples.
  22. I just listened to the entire 37 minute interview with James from the Sept. 7 CBC broadcast and, assuming that's the program Arthur had in mind, I didn't hear any notable discussion of particulars involving vitality. Most of the interview was rambling anecdotes about a long career. I couldn't find a transcript to review to see whether I'd missed something in the conversation.
    It's difficult to suggest anything that might add to the discussion without more context from James, perhaps from other interviews. As I suggested before, it sounds as if he might have been restating some of the familiar concepts of Barthes regarding punctum vs. studium, a nebulous enough term that I suppose might be redefined as "vitality". And from that perspective a relatively static portrait might possess greater "vitality" than a photo of an athlete at the peak of action.
  23. Here's what Google search considers vitality images. Mainly happy people in nice surroundings with big smiles and outstretched arms.
    Type vitality images into Google search then click on Images.​
    Yes, they probably equate the term with energetic happy consumers
  24. Arthur, too bad you never got a chance to return. Would have been fun to continue the conversation and hear your further thoughts.
  25. Arthur -- Your thread came to mind recently when I was going through the Fine Arts department website for my daughter's high school. Like both her parents, she leans heavily toward the creative (the old right/left brain classification). Theatre, orchestra (cello), choir and an auditioned a cappella group. I'm on the parents board for both theatre and music departments. I occasionally see student photographs posted in the hallways of the school and was curious as to the teachers and curriculum because my daughter is not involved in painting and photography and I have not met or been involved in the visual Fine Arts department. I found a link to one teacher's work assignments and her Pinterest board where she put up examples and student photos divided into different categories. One of them was "Street Photography", another "Documentary" (the genres I currently have the most interest in). As I went through the student photos in "Street" I noticed that even the few photos in which a student got very close to a subject lacked something. That's when your thread came to mind and I thought, "vitality! The photos lack vitality."
    Now, this is not to disparage the student efforts. I see a lack of vitality in much beginner street photography, and in a large portion of my own work. I just edit it out in terms of what I choose to work on, post, or print. But I well remember my excitement when I first began -- where every close shot of a stranger (and even some not so close photographs) in the street was new, exciting, and a triumph of sorts. And, as has been covered somewhat in this thread already, the "vitality" or lack thereof does not necessarily mean literal physical action or decisive moment -- it can be atmosphere, a surreal feeling, quality of light and shadow, juxtaposition of contrasting elements, visual puns, etc. And, like Lex, I keep coming back to Barthes notion of "punctum".
    I like Barry's suggestion of linking to concrete visual examples, rather than ust leaving this to the abstraction of words. Alas, I have none at this time!
  26. In regard to Barry's suggestion, I thought I would link to 2 of my photos. One is an example of an image in which there should not really be vitality, and another image in which there is literal physical, and facially expressive vitality but which I do not think really has vitality in the sense of Arthur's original post.
    1. “Man with scarf, Michigan Ave 2014”
    The photo is taken of a man from behind. Strike One in terms of classical SP dogma. Outside of the large and unusual scarf wrapped around his neck, there is not much going on here, no “decisive moment”. Strike Two. The scarf, while mildly interesting or amusing (and even that may be a stretch) does not give really give us much of a clue as to the man's character (unlike the explication of a Vivian Maier photograph we discussed in another thread, where a claim was made that her frayed hat gave provenance to her aspirations and socioeconomic standing). Strike Three. There is some geometric contrast (the circular patterns of the scarf and the linear stripes of the shirt), but still... Big deal. Who cares? Yet, for me, I find a certain odd vitality in it that I can't quite put into words. The man, seen from the back, is to me much more effective than if I had photographed him head on. (Maybe this is not such a good example because the judgement of vitality may be mine alone. Still, I'll go with it for this example...)
    1. “Outside the Marriott”
    The subjects fill the frame. Two are seen face on, possible looking directly at the photographer. There is an expression, possibly of surprised amusement, on the faces of the two men facing the camera. They are directly engaged and one seems in mid gesture of some sort. Yet outside of these literal expressions of physical vitality, I don't really care much for this photograph. (“Then why did you post it in your portfolio?” The man on the left vaguely reminded me of my friend and fellow PN photographer Jack McRitchie and it amused me to post the photograph.)
    I don't think technical aspects play that large of a role in these two examples, but photo 1 was taken in direct midday light, low ISO, and I had more time to focus and compose. Photo 2 was taken quickly, on the fly, in late afternoon skyscraper canyon shadow, high ISO, and utilizing preset zone focusing.
    There may be better examples of what I'm trying to say, using the photographs of other photographers, but this is what I came up with for now.
  27. Today I peaked at PF, and was rewarded with Aurthur P’s great topic and the good, thoughtful responses to it. It seems to me that ALL the feelings expressed here about vitality in a picture meshed in a comprehensive and stimulating way.
    A year or so ago, PF was draining my vitality so I went on a sabbatical from it (didn’t even lurk) and only did a personal art journal. Over-all the journal has turned out to be about vitality.
    I am satisfied if only I get a picture. I like my pictures to arouse others, of course. I don’t believe (as James may) there needs to be a check-list of criteria for art. But “good” art has significant layers of interest. Intentionality isn’t necessarily required. I agree that how art is conceived is the artist’s business. Liking it is the viewers’.
    Some looked at the topic as depicting vitality in some kinetic or formal way. Some saw a more felt, latent, or potential vitality - the kind that grabs you and you can’t at first see why.
    I photograph all the time but am limited now to producing pictures only for screen images and Blurb books. Finding a creative, enjoyable, and personally distinctive method to replace material-media is my quest.
    I continually worry if my screen-only work is purposeful and engaging on a par with traditional material media. I gain comfort in the fact that the audience is fully capable of being in the moment with the terms and conditions of every media. My No.1 fear is that it over-reaches and is only a poor substitute for more venerable media. The curse of photography!
    Being a product of “60’s-think” -- originality and creativity is everything and anything else is “so over”, and the idea of there even being “contemporary art” - I’m always decades behind – is angst-producing. I have to talk myself out of it in my journal.
    I wrote in reassurance to myself:
    All art is contemporary”
    “Cultural memories dissolved in the stew of global communities are felt more than consciously acknowledged.”
    “ Something about a picture (or the moment) just seems right for that picture”
    Old camera store sign: "Photographs Live Forever"

  28. Outlook of each person about vitality may be different if I take it like an amateur imitation of thought without seriousness than it is fruitless and only opening in thinking and sinking. What is in real means its result will be enough for achievement. So I think it is a inner quality and how someone leading with his thoughts, means… actual words or only requirement of thoughts that have to be fulfilled.
  29. To be perfectly honest I have a nagging feeling that the vitality and other such terms too often relate to an aging photographers or any artists need for connecting with their former attitudes and outlooks but with hopes of applying their acrued experience "this time around".
    To this end I would think that terms like vitality are often psychologically connected with the idea and need for virility.
    A photograph can depict a subject that symbolises vitality or expresses vitality either as a cultural archetype or a psychological archetype (ala Jung) of some type but as a universal property I cannot really find a place for the term vitality when it comes to photography as a whole.
    A photographer can have vitality but can a photograph have vitality? Upon an additional separate ponder in between writing this, I have to still say no.
    My personal experience with other photographers, especially those older than me and even more so especially those who I had contact with at places of artistic learning so to speak, was that many of them where personally obsessed (that is their personal lives seemed to revolve around it more than their proffesional lives) with applying their control over the form to the goals of their youth and somewhat obsessed with youth in general.
    I think photographers want to have vitality - that is they do not want their photographs to suffer from the lack of vitality in the author so to speak. I think it is more about the perception of getting weaker or older or less viral. Photography to some extent is a technological struggle so that pushes the scale towards the general feeling of becoming progressively more dead if one does not actively try to do something to balance it out.
    In comparison in music I am experiencing something similar when it comes to sound engineering where it seems that everyday spent on it ages me a month so ever since I've been working in that field I suddenly feel the need to play an extended blues and crank up the amplifier while before that I felt plenty alive styding Charlie Parket transcriptions.
    I appreciate Shakespear but I cannot shake the feeling as a reader that he is very much dead, even as I am fully trapped in the context of a given play. Considering the immense heft of the tomes collecting his work I would conclude that me not getting a sense of vitality from his work (even from Midsummer Night's Dream) does not damage his artistic stature.
    Shakespears voice on youth seems to come out of an old mans mouth to me while Jules Verne voice even on the topic of old age still seems to come out of a youthfull mans mouth to me.
    So maybe there is some quality like vitality to be had but again I feel it's all about the author and what we can gleam of the authors attitude, not about the work itself.
    Communicated through the work but about the author and on the side, not the main substence of the work itself. In my opinion it's not related to the work being great or not. Then again these days many people make the substence of their work to be about them and their own identity so achieving the desired perception in the viewer of who the artist is could be considered an artistic success.
    As for my own goals I want to remove my self personally from the substance but impose my self on the eloquence aspect - To close a loop, I feel some older photographers are trying to add something fresh to how they work by inserting themselves into the substance more now that they have a handle on the eloquence or so it seems to me. I am not yet an older photographer yet so I personally do not want to go that way and do not strive for it - I feel it's not nessesary to produce good work either. I might change my mind as the technological struggle grinds me down further though.
    Is this of any insight? Is it even relevant, I don't know - I think our global culture is obsessed with virility so because to me vitality connects in my laymans understanding of psychology with virility I feel constant sensory overload with images of virility and people striving to express all it's representations.
    I suppose an artistic success could be had by expressing vitality in a very clever way by doing it in it's most typical way (ala Venus de Milo) but without people as subject matter, to express the same angular properties and the same proportions, the same balance of composition. If those chairs in that photograph posted would cleverly read with all the shapes and ratios of the classical world's idea of vitality then it would express eloquence I suppose - I'm just again very tired of this kind of thing because I think too many people in the higher structure of creative learning are using that as a gimmick in some form or other so I almost refuse to try to read these things out of a work.

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