Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Ian Copland, Jul 28, 2017.

  1. Not sure if this a philosophical question or not.
    Does the 'sense' of place, person or object in an image that is produced by some photographic means make it a photograph?
    A current short discussion on the 'street and documentary' forum is discussing whether street photography requires a street or at least an urban environment. In one of the responses the concept of 'sensibility' has been raised: 'street photography is not limited by location. It is more a sensibility than a geographical cage (Fred G).
    This, combined with the announcement of the winner of the $20,000 2017 Olive Cotton Prize for Portraiture (Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraiture) has raised some questions in my mind.
    Firstly whether there is any usefulness or validity at all in any applying labels to images (or forums/genres) such as street, portraiture, landscape, abstract etc. Are we in an era where the boundaries between genres are so fluid that categorising doesn't make sense any longer?
    Secondly does the use of a photographic process and/or material make an image a photograph? In the case of the portrait prize winner many are questioning whether it is a portrait or indeed a photograph. The image certainly has a 'sense' of the subject - is this enough? Does this make it a portrait? Photographic materials have been used. Does this make it a photograph?
  2. Not sure if this is relevant. Here is a photo I took sometime back. I had a strong feeling, it was a portrait of my 3 year old daughter. I actually uploaded it to a gallery named portraits on PN.

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  3. A very good, but difficult question, in my view. Is it useful to label photos as a certain genre - well, yes, in many cases I think so, but.....
    I don't know whether we're specific in an era where the boundaries are specifically vague. I think there has always been grey areas. There are no clear, universally accepted, definitions for each genre to start with. Sometimes people try to insist on specific, hard rules ("it cannot be landscape if there is a house in it"; "street must be done in black and white" and rubbish like that) - but those attempts always seem to backfire, or at least fail to hold up. And personally, I think it's important to be fluid and open-minded about these categorisations. Nobody is served with a long discussion whether a photo can be regarded abstract, or not (for example) without actually discussing the merits of the image itself. So, yes, for street, I concur with what you quote from Fred.
    Yet, at the same time, I see no need to abandon these categories either. They're a bit a crutch maybe, but they do help us describe images, give a sense of an tradition/style/culture (both technical and estetic) to which we reckon an image belongs, it frames its likely intention and, gives clues to comparison material. And sometimes it can even help the viewer understand better what the photographer aimed to do. A photo of a single flower in an messy, chaotic street in a folder called "Macro - Flowers" or in a folder "Street" might make a different impact.

    Again difficult to answer, but in my view it's much as the above: the definitions aren't clear or unambiguous. There are grey areas, plus things do not have to be mutually exclusive. SOmething can be a photograph and a portrait at the same time, if people argue it is one or the other, what are they trying to accomplish (other than jealousy on a $20k price) ? What good would it do any viewer, the artist, the work to state "it's a portrait"?
    I don't know what makes a photograph a photograph. Use of photographic materials - which, and are we going to discount whatever does not make use of the list of accepted photographic materials? Not trying to mock it, but rather to indicate that it will open a can of worms of zealots who insist that their process (be it digital, be it film, be it prints, be it slideshows) is the One and Only True photographic process. Again, in my view, better to just accept that things don't always fit in a cage and that the definition in the dictionary isn't covering 100% of the cases - and that they're all the better for it!

    Supriyo, love the example (as example and as photo).
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  4. PapaTango

    PapaTango Itinerant Philosopher

    So your daughter is a small stuffed lion? How cool is that! This place becomes more Kafkaesque by the day... :rolleyes:

    Be back later with some considered comments after I collect my thoughts and replace my recalcitrant grandson with a rabbit stuffy.
    Ian Copland likes this.
  5. (LINK)

  6. If you take labels as endpoints, targets to which you think a picture (your picture?) should conform, if you use historical precedent as the definition to which you hope to conform, then a label has a closed, and specific meaning. You'll think about and make something that "looks like" what that label expects.

    If, on the other hand, you take the labels as starting points, from which you will then expand, explore and otherwise not conform to historical precedent, then a label is an open invitation to contribute new, diverse, and unexpected developments.

    "Art doesn't reproduce the visible. It renders visible." — Paul Klee

    If you do what Klee advises, you'll work from the inside, not from outside precedent and expectation. What you get won't be an end result, a hitting of the target. Rather it will be a beginning, your attempt to make visible what wasn't otherwise visible. What has no historical precedent and therefore does not fit the current expectations of that label — but which may in future enrich what is labeled by it.

    In all of my above comment, I think the' label' and/or categorizing is very useful, whether it be endpoint of starting point. It is what is being worked either to or from.

    [To my eye, the linked portrait prize winners are interesting examples of Klee-work.]
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  7. :D:p:eek:

    Well, jokes aside, its not just the stuffed toy, but the whole ambience, the table with the crayons, scribblings on the paper, part of a hairband. It all points to the missing person. The person, by virtue of her (very notable) absence becomes the dominating theme of the photo.

    One can also see it as the memory of a relaxing afternoon, or a still life. There comes the fluidity among genres.
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  8. Supriyo, I think your photo, in being a POV shot and adopting the point of view of the child, doesn't literally show me the child but instead has me identifying with the child. In that sense, it's a different sort of portrait than the more common type. Yours is a portrait that is not only a spectator sport. It's a portrait where we may be put in touch with the person in a way other than as subject or object of our gaze.

    Karsh gets us part of the way toward where your photo is moving, with his LINK-PORTRAIT OF CASALS, where we identify with Casals but he is still obviously the subject/object, from our perspective above.

    Have you ever seen Dark Passage, a Bogart/Bacall film noir directed by Delmer Daves (with a great turn by Agnes Moorehead)? For a good portion of the beginning of the film, the camera adopts what's called a first person point of view and, instead of seeing Bogart's face, for reasons that become obvious later but I won't give them away, we see what he would have been seeing and the camera sort of becomes his eyes. (There are problems with the actual filming in that there are some inconsistencies that undermine this very point of view, but it's certainly an interesting approach and still a good experiment and worthy film of the era.)

    I've seen your photo before and actually didn't think of it as a portrait, probably because I don't tend to think in categories. Had I been asked to categorize it, I probably wouldn't have said "portrait." Honestly not sure what I would have said. Yet, it seems to suit this thread well and adds dimension to the possibilities of ways in which portraits can tell us things about people, their spaces, their absence, their effects, their implied presence. I like it when categorization is approached a little differently/creatively/freely and suggests a way of seeing something a little differently.

    The category is rarely, if ever, a DEMAND, unless a viewer has no will power. It can simply be an offering that goes along with the photo.
  9. Fred,
    I can feel your point of view. I haven't seen the movie you mentioned (heard of it), but I can envision the scene the way you described. The photo is both adopting the POV of a little girl and become a part of her world, as well as imagining her in the empty chair scribbling away. To me, it's both. I think, the absence of her in the photo makes me think of her in a different way than I would have, if she was there. It's probably similar to a feeling you get when you stay in a place where other people live but not present there. It makes you think of them in a special (intense?) way, compared to if they were present. I think you are still visualizing them, but in different ways than looking at their faces. That different visualization could be due to memories and other senses compensating for the lack of direct visual cues of the person's face?

    I did not shoot the photo meaning to be a portrait. It's when I reviewed it later, the feeling of a portrait came to me, among many other things. I chose to categorize as a portrait because the thought inspired me. As you said at the end, categorization is a suggestion or offering to go along with the photo rather than a verdict, and it helps when that categorization inspires you for thinking differently.
    Ian Copland likes this.
  10. .......

    I expect that many people, without thinking, equate 'portrait' with 'face.' But if they do think about it for more than three seconds, they'll notice that the two are far from synonymous.

    What's a face?

    What does it do?

    Going way back in history to the time when portraiture was 'invented' we find:

    "The dramatic improvement in representational techniques that initially took place in Italy from the early fifteenth century on gave promise of what writers of the time called “an artificial imitation of nature” capable of somehow delivering the life of the soul in the likeness of the body. But if the mimetic skills that produced good likenesses were prized, so also was the ability to idealize the likenesses.

    [line break added] Visual artists may have had a field day showing what bones and muscles were doing under skin and clothes, and graphically depicting every wrinkle, whisker, and wen. Patrons obviously appreciated these skills, but apart from a natural inclination to demand wenless portraits, they were interested in displaying other things under the skin besides bones and muscles: greatness of soul, for example, distinction of mind, force of personality, and purity of blood; the warrior’s or courtier’s high spirit, the cleric’s deep spirituality, the merchant’s prudence, the aristocrat’s inborn grace, the ruler’s godgiven majesty."

    "... At this point I think it is worth pausing to ask whether and why, confronted from the start by the highly evolved skills of homo hypocriticus — and by the widely disseminated (if variously interpreted) opinion that life is a play, the world a stage, and all the men and women merely maskers — people accepted the opinion of the experts that the face is a totally reliable and authoritative index of the mind, or that the body is necessarily an index of the soul."

    "… The face should be the index of the mind, the natural expression of the subject’s inner nature, but in early modern Europe the interpenetration of technical with social change imposes a new and unsettling semiotic task: the face is now required to be the index of the mind’s ability to make the face the index of the mind. This may be called the credo of physiognomic skepticism, or the credo of sprezzatura. The representation of interiority can no longer be left or delegated to nature. It gets promoted as a skill to be cultivated, a technique of performance essential to successful participation in public life: something princes, courtiers, statesmen, lawyers, merchants, prelates, doctors, and even artists and poets have to learn — not to mention their daughters, wives, and mothers." — Harry Berger, Jr.

    The face as message board or presentation mode (pose) put on for others is certainly one idea of 'portrait,' but another idea of 'portrait' goes to identity and it may be better served without the face or with the face in a subordinate role in the composition, IMO. Because 'portrait' has, as noted at the top, come to be thought of as 'a picture of a face,' such pictures are not seen as portraits, by (thoughtless) definition.

  11. The Philosophy Forum reminds what a philistine I am, when I saw the name Harry Callahan my first thought was of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry.
    I looked it up though I'm better informed now.
  12. Gerald, lol. There's nothing philistine-like about those Dirty Harry movies. Donald Siegel is, I'm sure, as good a director as Callahan the photographer was a photographer. In the small world arena, Siegel also directed the original movie "The Beguiled," with Clint and Geraldine Page, which has just been quite nicely remade by Sophia Coppola.

    Anyway, getting back to Callahan, the photographer, my brother gave me a signed copy of his book, Color, many years ago and it remains one of my favorites. His under-spokenness speaks volumes!
  13. I did too years ago and I kept looking for that quote re-ferring to that boundary of the possible, and fantasy when he said "A man's gotta know his limits" (Harry Callahan)
  14. My favorite Dirty Harry quote: "Nobody. I mean nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog!" I guess I'm nobody...
  15. To stay in tune with the original topic of this thread, somehow every time I saw Clint Eastwood in a movie, I couldn't help but think "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five'?".... Actor and role has become a bit too much one. Until Gran Torino.

    Which maybe draws a bit of a parallel - I like Fred's description of a category for a photo as "an offering that goes along with the photo". Ideally, it is just that, and as the ideal viewer, we consider it or not as we watch the image. Ideally, an actor can cover a wide range of roles, from drama to action to comedy, and we just judge his performance for that one role. Realistically, many actors (rightfully or not) are type-casted or excel at one specific type of role (Clint Eastwood being an example of overcoming that, actually). As viewers, a good part of our expectation is set this way, and most viewers will automatically categorise based on this expectation.
  16. Keeping in mind what Wouter says about expectations and categories:

    I just saw an Irving Penn exhibit at the Met. He photographed in a variety of genres. One of his more profound series—in a show that featured fashion, street, still life, and portraits—was the elegantly photographed and lushly printed cigarette butts. He found them on the street and photographed them in the studio, presenting them as stunning black and white prints. Are they still life photos? Is there a sense in which they can still be street photos, though not shot on the street and without the the usual trappings of so-called street photography? Does showing them alongside other of his more traditional street photos make a difference? Regardless of how we categorize them, they were certainly provocative in many ways and defied expectations. Penn had a built-in disdain for cigarettes, as his father had died from lung cancer caused by smoking. And yet he portrayed these so beautifully. How does his defiance of what might have been expected play into our response to these photos? Is he setting aside his disdain by portraying them in this way or is the seeming contradiction between our feelings about cigarettes and seeing them presented with a strong aesthetic in itself effective?

  17. ...............

    I think maybe there is an expectation that a portrait will "capture" or hold something permanent. Which, I suppose it does (the picture itself is semi-permanent) but what's meant by 'portrait' is probably not what is "captured."

    "Thou yet beholdest me?" asks Antony. Yes, says his man servant. To which Antony replies:

    Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish,
    A vapor sometime like a bear or lion
    As water is in water
    Even such a body, Here I am Antony
    Yet cannot hold this visible shape.​

    William Shakespeare

    From Harry C:

    "... it is not a certain kind of style that I am concerned with. For me that is not enough — that is like spending a lifetime gathering a butterfly collection.

    "I think that nearly every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness — the point where you can't go any farther."​

  18. Interesting to consider Callahan's words with regards to Penn, who had to have been somewhat concerned with style to shoot fashions so well. And my guess is that Penn thought some about style with regard to his cigarette photos, which is why he brought them back to the studio and made them look like he did instead of shooting them on the street as found. Style and content together often form a deep bond and developing a style (both consciously and not) can mean a personalizing of content and subject matter that's significant.

    As to Callahan the photographer, he probably had quite a bit less style (or at least less flare) than Callahan the detective, and he may not have been concerned with style but he did have it. I'm most familiar with his color work and his style is distinctive and fairly consistent.
  19. "quite a bit less style (or at least less flare) than Callahan the detective"

    " Go ahead ,make my day".

    A cool film icon who cuts the crap.

    " Go ahead make my day".

    Who is the other dude?
  20. "Does the 'sense' of place, person or object in an image that is produced by some photographic means make it a photograph?"

    Methinks this young lady has the answer.

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