Unified Theory of Photography

Discussion in 'Leica and Rangefinders' started by travis|1, Jun 28, 2003.

  1. Einsten almost equate how the universe function with an equation...or
    did he not?
    Almost all human diseases can be tracked, diagnosed, treated and
    researched. They even mapped the genes of SARS in no time.

    Most physical phenomenona can be explain with physics, maths and
    higher sciences.

    Even serial killers can be profiled and studied. Human emotions can
    be explained somewhat.

    Art, most specifically photography, cannot yet be explained. There is
    no universal explanation for SUBJECTIVITY. No true determinants of
    what makes a good picture and what makes a not so good one.
    Photographers and critics are constantly evaluating others/own work
    based on their personal experience, attachments/detachments and

    In your opinion, will there ever be a day when we can put an EQUATION
    to photography?


    Bad picture/Good picture = (composition x exposure x media used x
    subjects x tones x timing x camera used etc) in their various
    predetermined proportions and functions?

    SO in year 2050, a 6 year old kid would follow that equation and
    respectively produce a bad/good picture based on what variables he
    chooses in that equation?

    Or will art continually be sujective, which isn't a bad thing IMO ;)

    I know, I have too much time. Thx for looking out. ;)

    Happy shootout!
  2. Travis, you mention many of the endeavors of man to understand the world around him.

    "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know", so says Keats.

    No greater truth than God, from who all truth resides, and all beauty flows trough his Creation. We as men, cannot quantify this, but can enjoy it.
  3. I think I'd rather spend my time making photographs than entering into philosophical debates which do nothing but waste valuable time.
  4. Here is the equation for good photography:<P>"Astound Me!" -Alexei Brodovich
  5. Travis, Travis. From anyone else I'd suspect a troll :)

    There is no such thing as good photography or bad photography. There's only images you like and images you don't like, same as all art.

    At this point some idiot will jump up and tell us how his degree in the philosophy of art qualifies him to pronounce some things good and other things bad. At moments such as that I wish I lived in America so I could reach for my gun...
  6. "There is no such thing as good photography or bad photography. There's only images you like and images you don't like, same as all art. "

    Harvey, I believed I heard the above from you first sometime back and I really like that statement. I wish I can carved it somewhere. Did you come up with that by yourself? ;)
  7. I firmly believe that art, like love and really good mexican food, just cannot be quantified. If you can put an equation to it, it's just not ok anymore. Much as I respect math and physics, I don't think they parallel music and art, and when the two mix, I stop watching/playing/listening. Feel free to flame away showing the precise mathematical relationship of musical theory (I play guitar)...but that's just my 2\
  8. The subjective areas of an image, to me, are always the most interesting. The film, "The Dead Poet's Socety, at one place, sort of addressed the issue of rules and formula. Over the years, I've encountered many articles that espoused a contrary view, that is, they presented a plethora of adamant *laws* that covered all the usual considerations - composition being one of the principle issues.
    (I think it was Edward Weston who remarked that "composition is the strongest way of seeing" - maybe a little enigmatic, (hardly an edict), but fulfilling upon sufficient reflection!)

    The real poetry of an image - that elusive but compelling layer of metaphor, symbolism, or association - will never fit easily into any academic formula (or assessment) because the variables are contigent upon the viewer. I've wrestled with the issue of uiversality for years - undoubtedly the only art that can hope to rise above all the different cultural biases is the most basic, minimalist, sort - the least moving and the least mysterious (for me)! But if one wanted something that is quintessentially emblematic of *high art*, modern minimalist stuff would easily fit the bill. Perhaps the non-quantifiable layers of personal passion and affections, fears, dangerous psychic explorations, and so on, are truly (as described by Nerdrum) - kitsch, and hardly worth the notice of art-world professionals at all. Along with this, it's easy to conclude that the most poetically complex imagery would necessarily belong to the same world and, along with other "kitsch", be self-invalidating by reason of its obstinate non-conformity.
  9. Bravo Travis.

    Of course photography is scientifically measured.

    I just read it here. 99% of us are inferior.
  10. I tried to do a HCB in the temple today. I whipped out my calculator, but nope, didn't work..
  11. A writer, Borges, I believe, was asked what books he would recommend to aspiring young writers. His reply: "Read what you like; write what you must." Paraphrasing that to "View what you like; shoot what you must" sounds ok to me.

    Science is definitely linked to subjectivity, I think. There are principles that help make something work, or not, whether or not you're conscious of using them. But nothing is carved in stone, either; the ground beneath are feet is shifting all the time. I think that's what allows novelty, surprise and delight.
  12. Fibbonachi (sp?) once claimed that the ideal proportions in art were given by the ratio of 1:1.618. In recent times, we often use the "rule of thirds" to obtain results that look right to us. But there's no ratio or equation that separates worthy from trite subject matter. I think that to an extent, what looks right depends on the expectations that have been programmed into us. Fibbonachi's golden section and the rule of thirds may just be examples of this programming.
  13. "There is no such thing as good photography or bad photography. There's only images you like and images you don't like, same as all art. "

    If that is to mean that any image you like is art, then the statement is just tosh. It's perfectly possible to like the most naive snapshot, but that doesn't make it art. Art in any medium requires some rigor on the part of its producer to communcate with an intent, not with an accident. This goes for Winogrand, Pollock, or Beethoven. Simply put, its the before and after editing, mental and physical, that makes it art. Society then has to be talking the same language for it to be understood beyond the individual.
  14. I just read it here. 99% of us are inferior. Not me Ray, i'm putting myself in the elite 1%. So There!
  15. Travis, how do you find the time to take pictures AND comtemplate navels?

    The UTP: Preparation + Serendipity = Art (photography or otherwise).
  16. Travis: You clearly have way too much free time on your hands :)

    Actually, scientists (psychologists) have studied this very topic, and you can research it yourself by browsing some obscure tomes on the subject... In simple summary, they found that a work of "art" was more pleasing to test subjects if it had any of the following characteristics:

    1) It had symmetry -- and the closer the symmetry was to perfect, the more beautiful the object/subject was said to be.

    2) It had a balance of "complimentary" colors OR any non-complimentary colors were balanced by even distribution throughout the object/image. (I believe black and white were considered non-complimetary, but I'm not 100% sure.)

    3) The image/object brought on "pleasant" memories from childhood.

    There were more "traits" that I cannot remember, but these were the main ones.

  17. Art can be good or bad, or even great. I know enough to appreciate why Shakespeare is a great writer, but I still prefer Marlowe: more violent deaths in each act (but cf. Titus Andronicus).

    A lot of greatness, as Steve pointed out, has to do with the place of the work of art in culture, society, history and other vague terms, and these things change. People change, too. Late Beethoven is a very different beast from early Beethoven.

    But maybe a good picture is one that succeeds on its own terms. Your thoughtless flash snapshot at a party may be a better photo than some carefully-planned artistic selective-focus thing that I haven't quite managed to pull off. Similarly, we look for things in a 4x5 that we don't demand in 35mm. A successful colour photograph has things that a successful B&W one doesn't. A interior-design photograph for a glossy mag has different standards from a PJ shot for a newspaper. We don't read a lyric by Ashbery in the same way we read a novel by Faulkner. They do very much different things even though they both use the English language. Etc., etc.

    It helps to be first, too. Muybridge will always be more famous than anyone else who tries to take an action sequence of a galloping horse, even though we now have better lenses, better metering etc.
  18. The whole point about the arts is that they are not predictably quantifiable, and that there is much room for personal tastes and preferences. Best examples are in music: from monastic chanting in all cultures, to native american, asian and african drum styles, to Mozart to Karlheinz Stochausen to R&B to rapping: just when society figures there's a set formula for what is enjoyable, something intrudes with a new set of rules. It's happened in the world of painting and sculpture too. Photography is a little behind; I think it's held back by the too-frequent insistence on technical and compositional(rule of thirds, etc) perfection. I LOVE naive snapshots. I really enjoy pictures that break rules(and succeed): otherwise we all go to work in Fuji's new ad campaign and grind out "masterpieces" according to whatever formula the agency is using.
  19. "Did you come up with that by yourself?"

    Er, I think so. On the other hand, it seems self evident so perhaps I picked it up somewhere.

    "If that is to mean that any image you like is art, then the statement is just tosh"

    Aha! The thought police step out of the undergrowth, eyes glimmering, jowls quivering, ready to stamp out the slightest trace of unorthodox thought. After all, they went to school and were taught how to think so everyone else who has a different view is wrong...

    So let's try this: Suppose a giant intelligent amoeba arrived here from Proxima Centauri in a starship that was clearly thousands of years beyond our technology, took a look at all of humanity's 'great art' and fell about laughing. Suppose he/she/it then looked at a watercolour daub produced by a three year old and pronounced it great art of the finest quality. Who's right?

    If your answer is anything other than 'everyone' you are in urgent need of a fascistectomy.
  20. you've got too much time.
  21. To me, art is probably the closest humans can come to sheer utter creativity. Math and science are usually derived from nature. The concept of humans coming up with something that has no basis in nature is like working with nothingness. But, art to me seems to kind of transcend this requirement. Kind of, but maybe not fully.
  22. Travis

    Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong was asked "What is Jazz?" He replied: "If you have to ask, you will never understand."

    The same adage is applicable to music: "The are 2 kinds of music. Good music is music you like and bad music is music you don't like."

    Thanks for all the stimulating posts.

    Cheers Lah
  23. .. some time ago, a year or two.
    I know how to put together everything, so the elements and lagnuage of pictures can be rationally taught and learned. I wrote a number of articles, and wanted to write a book - it was to be a good, lively book full both of deep sense and amusing anekdotes. I do not believe in academism in explaining ideas. I am great - but no one wanted to read it.

    So here I am, sometimes showing my indefinitely superior puctires (because I know, now to make them, I understand the language of art, I am grrr.. - already told you, though, didn't I?) - and bark at a bunch of tyros at photo.net forum, that crawl helplessly like blind newborn puppies.

    It is hard to be a genius.
  24. pcg


    Unbeknownst to you, Travis, there's a new site that defines the exact rules of making Art. I've followed them myself for the last month, & my photographs have all improved immeasurably. I highly recommend you check it out (& that you memorize the rules in the exact order they're given). www.10RulesforMakingPerfectArt.org Good luck, man!
  25. Patrick, that image looks like a close shot of a worm-shell colony.....Petaloconchus varians perchance?
  26. Although the thought of reducing art to an equation seems incredibly complex at first, I'd suggest that it's really quite simple. While not an equation in the true sense, the answer is . . . 0.
    That is to say, whatever elements are included by the artist, they are included in such a way as to be in perfect balance, and thus result in a solution of 0.
    And, while off-topic, for Harvey's benefit, how to shoot slides in America:
    And, no, if you had any doubts, I'm not really serious about any of this. ;-)
  27. travis - You might want to read "The Elegant Universe," by Brian Greene, then reformulate your query.

    Yes: I'm serious.
  28. "Suppose a giant intelligent amoeba arrived here from Proxima Centauri in a starship that was clearly thousands of years beyond our technology, took a look at all of humanity's 'great art' and fell about laughing. Suppose he/she/it then looked at a watercolour daub produced by a three year old and pronounced it great art of the finest quality. Who's right?"

    Why Harvey, humanity is right, the aliens are wrong. How can you take 'art' like say the Mona Lisa (and now putting it into a human context and not a fantasist context), and point it in the direction of a lost tribe in the Amazon, AND expect it to be understood? You are both taking the piss out of them as ignorant of 'our' culture, and taking the piss out of our culture as not being above mere reflex gut approaches to complex concepts. This isn't a 'thought police' idea to stamp out unorthodox thought, its a human idea to stamp out woolly thought. If everything goes, without some form of explanation, whats the point? You wouldn't even get to work in the morning, never mind understand a work by Rothko. A happy accident is just that, happy, but no more.
  29. direction of a lost tribe in the Amazon. Lost to who? Perhaps they have their own culture and art. Maybe where they live gives them all they need.
  30. There's more scientific knowledge about aesthetics and photography than you would think. It's obviously not perfect, but also not complete ignorance. So, we must ask Travis who claimed his calculator did not help him take that "nice" photo of the little girl in the alley: Why didn't you move over to the right so you could photograph her dead center down the alley? Why off to the left so you had that nice oblique or diagonal line leading the light to the little girl? Random, uneducated, ignorant shot, right? Wrong. You may have taken some of those other shots, but you chose this one to show us and keep. Why? You have some answers. All the beginners rules about photograhy -- golden rectangle (geometry), rule of 2/3, warning against centering (unless it works for other reasons, like Travis' diagonal line to the girl in the center), etc. Then what's missing from geometry and 1000s of years of art and photography, we can take from Shannon's Information Theory, a mathematical model of the distribution of information as measured in 0/1 bits. It tells us in lay terms that what informs must have some "surprise" or rarity value, in probability terms. Now we know what makes a snapshot: horrible redundancy and similary and repetition. They all look the same, only the background changes a little. But poke through any books of the masters of photography and you find yourself going "Ah!"
    "Wow," never saw or thought about that before! Look how the angle of light made that happen! Where is that girl going? Who is she? What story is unfolding before my eyes? And so forth. Now if we go out to take the same photograph and get a good copy, it's not the same. We must create something ourselves. And it can be similar, but must be different enough to be interesting. The masters never took a shot exactly or perhaps even closely to the one Travis just showed us. Color? There are rules of what colors contribute to one another and so forth. Some of this a child would know intuitively, but that does not mean there are no general rules in a scientific sense, probably related to the light spectrum and the way our eyes evolved in that light spectrum. The rest is art. But it's not random.
  31. While i'm in the mood.
  32. Larry: you're probably right,but it is scary. We've come to a time in human history when we feel we can quantify these things and reduce them to formulas. Hollywood knows this, as does the recording industry and advertisers. Still, fortunately, I think, the best they can do is manufacture brittle empty star vehicles, pop records with lotsa hooks, and the well-done but meaningless "Be an artist" photos in the Fuji ads, because all the information they're feeding their machines and people is already in the past. Not that it doesn't sell, and it *is* art of sorts, in the way that Krispie Kreme is food. I think it's information we were better off without: instead of Britney Spears we'd have another "96 Tears"; sort of a home-fried ksispie kreme.
  33. However, obvious enough to us, guys who studied information theory and a bunch of other mathematical stuff.<br>
    You are moving in the right direction, now you need to make a next step and find out WHAT surprises, and what the MECHANISM of surprise is to make it of practical value: the understanding should be reduced to a number of principles that are rationally explicable and can be taught.
    I only half-joked when said that the theory has been created already - it has.
    My brilliancy is in that I simply applied the approach to the visual arts, but a complete explication of those surprise mechanisms has been available since the ancient Greeks, and formulated by structuralists in the 20th century.
    (and the answer is not structuralism as such, there is nothing impractical philosophical and abstract in the approach).
    I wish my texts were translated and available to the discerning public of people like you, Larry, but...
    It's still hard to be a genius in this world.
  34. Having recourse to every variety of rule or formula would never, in itself, guarantee the production of art. I guess, however, one could apply a formula to the craft of photography (or any other medium) and produce an example that might be considered "good" - having adjusted every conceivable attribute to some conventionalized standard. Art is not created piecemeal through subservience and dutiful compliance. Art is the manifestation of the artist's intent - vision. It is not surprising that certain *rules* or formulae can be gleaned perennially from classical examples - but to believe that art can be generated from such *rules*, is really putting the cart before the horse!
  35. Like Art said, trying to make a great photo by calculating its composition, colour etc. before taking it is "putting the cart before the horse". But that doesn't mean that there aren't consistent 'laws' or 'rules' or criterea that help us to make photos better.

    These rules or guidelines can't always be put scientifically. For example, there's one rule for portraits that recommends that if the background is too cluttered, the camera should be placed higher up, thus looking down at the subject, so that the ground or floor becomes the background.

    Even the rule of thirds is a guideline - it works and there's no doubt about it - but it's still a guideline. There are many great photos that don't follow this guideline.

    Most people think that Elizabeth Hurley and Kate Moss are beautiful women. And if we apply all sorts of golden means and natural laws to their faces we see something remarkable: their facial structure conforms to natural 'laws' (remember that documentary series with John Cleese about the human face?). And yet... both women look different and of course are different people.

    But then if somebody truly believes his girlfriend, whose face does not conform to natural laws, is pretty (and is not just being polite about it) then no mathematics can change that.

    Have a look at this photo from Randy Jackson's PAW site:


    It works, doesn't it? Yet not all of it is apparently explicable in terms of natural law. Or is it?

    A bit of the track, here, but not even Hollywood's biggest studios can predict how well a project will do. Audiences seem to think that the studios know, but this indicates a severe gap between the studios' knowledge and the audiences' understanding of that knowledge.

    A good example might be 'Titanic'. Many people thought it would be another 'Waterworld'. But although it was a *very* average movie, the subject matter, which fascinates almost everyone, most likely played a part in making it one of the most successful movies in recent times. It just goes to show...
  36. err.. well, but.. what I mean to say, khm.. is that<br>
    http://www.mayads.com/jacksonpaw/docs/week13.html <br>
    is a poor snap below average... If other whots of that person are comparable, he is just a raw beginner.
  37. to answer your question, travis...no.
  38. We need a multitude of "new" words other than "art" for this topic. Unfortunately, the current English word "art" is not a word, nor carries enough scope for using in today's modern "art" discussions. We have all kinds of new technical words for the current technology era, but not in "art" ..... huh ! :) :)
  39. If there was a formula, or equation for photography, and it was taught and used by everyone, wouldn't the results all look the same? If all photography looked the same, would't it be rather boring?
  40. I couldn't agree more, Henry. In fact I began to post a response that was to begin with something like: The word "art" (like "love") is used easily, variously, and indiscriminately......

    For some, anything that is appealing may be designated "art", others bow to the tastes of the art establishment, believing that academia is the sole arbiter, others trust to the public's popular trends (if its's selling it must be "good"="art"), etc., etc.

    Personally, (and this is no facile solution on my part) I believe that art is the evidence of the artist's personal committment to his/her own vision, and is a tangible manifestation of that need for exploration, expression, and celebration.
  41. artist's personal committment to his/her own vision, and is a tangible manifestation of that need for exploration, expression, and celebration.

  42. Art, like music, is the voice of the tortured soul.
  43. Travis,

    I think we have already tried to incorporate equations: Rule of Thirds, charactoristic curves, DOF charts, etc.

    But the question still remains: why to photos that do not follow the rules still work? Maybe the equation you are refering to is not the input, but the output: heart rate when looking at the picture, how much you relate to it, how it locks your attention, etc.

    One additional thought: as soon as we boil it down to an equation that we all have to follow and agree on (no matter what your perspective or tastes) photography for me is dead.

  44. Chad and others. You are ALL right! ;)
    Subjectivity is a chaotic variable. We can never quantify it or measure it, NEVER!

    In the distant future however, when we all pass on, there'd be cameras that through its viewfinders, beeps when a scene fits into its alorgarithim(sp) that says "good picture, take it". If it's not a good picture, the shutter cannot be depressed.

    Well, just maybe.;)

  45. Oh, if only science was as dull and meaningless as non-scientists tend to believe, even the village idiots would find it too easy.
    Both special and general relativity, quantum physics and a lot of other theories of science (not just physics) can tell you more about subjectivity and other subjects than any of us are able to grasp, but the little we have understood so far makes nature more marvellous and beautiful than any who lived before us have had the chance to experience.
    Now if you can put that into your photographs, you would truly be a master...
  46. Too much time, yes! But still an interesting question...The answer is no. We can come up with certain elements that art is likely to have, but the art-creating-point-and-shoot will be a disappointment.

    I'm not buying for one minute the statement that Information Theory provides "what's missing from geometry and 1000s of years of art and photography." Information Theory can be very useful for explaining _measurable_ phenomena. The very problem here is, as many others have said, it's practically impossible to measure whether something is art or not. (For evidence of this, I refer to this forum.) Without an acceptable definition of "art", no math, no matter how fancy, can hope to define it.

    Sure, we could survey a whole bunch of academics, or artists, or regular folk (which data set are you going to use...I bet they'll be pretty different) about their reactions to a whole bunch of images to get a bunch of data, and pick some parameters that have been mentioned here (symmetry, color complimentarity, adherence to various "rules", etc) and even a simple linear model would probably do a decent job of categorizing "art" vs "not art." (I'd guess this is essentially what they did in the work that Jack referred to.)

    After some tweaking, we might come up with a model that would "correctly" categorize, say, 70% of prospective works of art. We won't get anywhere near 100% classification, precisely because of all the variables that we will not be able to measure to plug into the equations (eg, the ability of the work to evoke pleasant memories from childhood is not something we're likely to be able to quantify). Even if we could get 90% accuracy, have we succeeded? No! We've just encouraged the next revolution in the art world, in which, again, the old rules are thrown out and the new "post-model" art movement is born, in which anything classified as "art" by our wonderful model is passe'. All new works must be rejected by the art classifier before being considered art. So much for all of our effort.

    I'm a scientist. I use information theory (as well as other fancy math) to try to understand how the brain encodes information. Does this mean that I could figure out somebody's emotions or personal feelings if I measured the activity of their brain? No. Never. With some work I could do a decent job accounting for certain _measureable_ quantities (did you see that light flash on your right or your left? did you move your arm or your leg? was that item you touched hot or cold?), but I can't measure your private thoughts so I can't begin to figure out how to predict them. This is a very good thing! And it's the same issue we have with trying to fit "art" to an equation. Until I see some of Michael's brilliant work on the subject, I'm unlikely to be convinced otherwise. :)

    Incidentally, like Ivar, I think the interactions between science and art are fascinating. However, I like to go the other way and ponder the ways in which art impinges on science...even science is often more an art than a science.
  47. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Lost to who? Perhaps they have their own culture and art. Maybe where they live gives them all they need.
    This is a gem in a sea of useless philosophical thrashing.
  48. "its a human idea to stamp out woolly thought. If everything goes, without some form of explanation, whats the point?"

    That is the point. Everything does go and explanations may or may not be relevant. Saying that this is woolly thought is, itself, woolly thought. The bottom line is that what you like is good, what you don't is bad. The point of my little thought experiment is that by the art expert's standards, the amoeba is right - after all, he's got thousands of years extra experience on us. hasn't he? But my view is that he's no more right than anyone else, when it comes to judging art.

    Which brings me neatly to...

    "Both special and general relativity, quantum physics and a lot of other theories of science (not just physics) can tell you more about subjectivity and other subjects than any of us are able to grasp"

    Once upon a time there was a branch of science called physics where, as with any science, theories were proposed and experiments designed to disprove those theories. Whatever was left standing, however bizarre, was considered proven. The point was, anyone could do the experiments because if that wasn't so, the experiment was highly suspect or to use a technical term, a con.

    Then the mathematicians, who were pretty angry that they'd reached the practical limits of the real world, started sidling in and taking over physics. They started postulating ever more outrageous theories which, almost by definition, couldn't be disproven by experiment because it simply wasn't within our technology to do the experiments. Being mostly failed theologians, these mathematical physicists employed the methods of the Inquisition to deal with doubters: if you disagree with us you simply don't understand the question.

    Interestingly, when technologists actually did do some experiments which disproved their theories the physicists more or less attempted auto-da-fe on them only to discover that the technologists, being able to actually produce things that people wanted, simply laughed at them while waving hand fulls of gadgets.

    Currently, The physicists keep up their standing and standard of living by writing books which tell people that the new theology of physics is right and they're too stupid to understand it anyway.

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