What difference does it make if you really know your subject?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Julie H, Feb 19, 2017.

  1. I would assume that all of us take pictures of people, places and things that we know really well, and we all also take pictures of people, places and things we don't know much of anything about.<br><br>
    Those that you know — home, family, all the objects that fill your day, you know what they are; if they're wonderful or terrible or somewhere in between — you know. You know how you feel about them. The way that you photograph them inevitably incorporates that knowing. Would you agree?<br><br>
    Compare that with how you photograph stuff that you don't know; you don't know exactly what it is, or you don't know how you feel about it or how it feels about you. You may not even know exactly where whatever it is is that made you stop or made your hackles stand up or made you turn suddenly and stare or listen. How do you photograph that?

    Do have a preference for shooting subjects you know really well, or do you prefer shooting subjects you don't know at all? <br><br>
    How would you describe the difference in your shooting method of the familiar from your shooting method of the unfamiliar?<br><br>When shooting the familiar, does your familiarity make you see things that aren't there? Conversely, when shooting the unfamiliar, does your ignorance make you not see things that are there?
  2. The following is a portion of an interview of W. Eugene Smith published in Camera magazine in 1977:<br><br>
    ... <br><br>

    Can you say why he [Robert Frank] is not a journalist? <br><br>
    I don't think he gives a damn about being a journalist, or from what I've heard, he doesn't. A journalist has to thoroughly understand the subject, and you have to try to interpret that subject, keeping true to what is is. I think Bob photographed only for himself, regardless of whether he was being exactly fair to his subject or not.<br><br>
    Would you call the position that Robert Frank took that of an artist? <br><br>
    No. He just didn't have the other interest. He's as much an artist as any other photographer, but I think I'm as much an artist as any other photographer, too. ... for me to be the best journalist that I could possibly be, I have to be the best artist.<br><br>
    You said that one of the reasons that Frank is not a journalist is that he's more true to himself than he is to his subject? <br><br>
    No. He's being true to himself at the expense of his subject.<br><br>
    But don't you think that is the case for any photographer? <br><br>
    I have to consider the subject, and I have to be true to it, and find my own way of presenting the truth to myself as well. I think it's much tougher to be a journalist-artist than to be the free artist who doesn't have that responsibility.<br><br>
    Robert Frank took that responsibility by producing a book called The Americans, didn't he? <br><br>
    It was one man's very opinionated statement about what he saw in America. I think that's fine.<br><br>
    Don't you think you did the same thing with Albert Schweitzer? <br><br>
    Bob [i.e. Robert Frank] would not have written 200,000 words to himself trying to figure out who the hell Schweitzer was. I think one of the vast differences between, say, Diane Arbus and myself is that if we both photographed the same subject, unwittingly, there would be a great difference in the way people would come out. I think it is necessary to know the people well before I photograph them. But Arbus utilized people for her own ends, and I don't think she really bothered to know them. That is perfectly legitimate. I'm not condemning her for it, but I think they would have looked much more human if I'd photographed them, because I would have seen a different set of values — or perhaps not, I don't know. I think Bob is one of the best photographers there have been.<br><br>
  3. I'm always looking outside,<br>
    trying to look inside. Trying to say something that's true.<br>
    But maybe nothing is really true.<br>
    Except what's out there.<br>
    And what's out there is always changing.<br>
    Robert Frank
  4. The thing that's important is that you never know.<br>
    You're always sort of feeling your way.<br>
    Diane Arbus
  5. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    How does the light fall, what is your mood, how sharp is your mental focus and therefore your "eye"?
    Do you love, hate, or barely care?
    "There is no one true thing, it is all true." Hemingway said that.

    A conundrum.
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2017
  6. As I mentioned in another forum, what matters is that you know what to shoot when you get that "Yes!" feeling, and grab your camera. Obviously, that's not always going to work if you're working under other requirements, such as a photo journalist who has to be conscious of the needs of his/her editor, as well as knowing what the public wants to see...
    sjmurray likes this.
  7. I've been photographing people and things for almost 50 years now. I have to say that I agree with what the above posters have stated. I also add that for myself, when I look through the viewfinder/ground glass, my mind shifts into an intense state of awareness and concentration on the "visual." Everything else is tuned out. My shutter finger trips the shutter when the right moment "coalesces" for want of a better word. Its a combination of composition and when its a person, a certain "connection" is felt. Hard to describe. This process is the same whether its something/someone familiar or not.
  8. SCL


    Perhaps a lack of objectivity.
  9. Julie, I'm not quite understanding your meaning of "familiar" and "unfamiliar". Why would I point my camera at something I don't know or are unfamiliar with what I'm shooting? Does this mean I just randomly point the camera at a subject I don't know what it is and trip the shutter? Photography for me has been an intimate closeness with reality. If it's interesting, I shoot it, if not I move on to something else that is. But I think if I understand you correctly my soap bottle bubble macro shots was actually a subject I overlooked. Didn't think it had that much potential. But my mind changed once the sunbeam peaking through my kitchen blinds during winter months lit up iridescent colors and weird shapes and forms inside the bottle is when I became familiar with a beautiful and interesting macro world. I know it peaked the interest of a one hour Walmart Fuji Frontier Dry Lab operator. At that point I was glad I became familiar with the unfamiliar.
  10. Hitler, your Dad, or a complete stranger. You'd shoot all three the same?
    Mother Teresa, your Mom, or a complete stranger. No difference in how you would shoot them?
    You're visiting a prison and there are two men in the exercise yard. The guard tells you one is a jay-walker, and the other is a mass-murderer, but he doesn't tell you which is which. Shoot them the same?
    Tim, would it make any difference to you if the bubbles making the beautiful colors and shapes were incredibly toxic, or radioactive? Or coming from the nose of a dead person?
  11. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Actually, there was a study done on this which I came across some time ago -- last couple of years? If I recall correctly, they had a number of photographers do shoots of people they had been told different back stories on. The images were different based on the story. I might have seen it on DP Review, but it definitely was on one of the photo sites that have a magazine article format. A bit different than your idea, since there were deliberate outside influences, but possibly similar enough to be interesting. Someone may recall where it is.
  12. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    I suppose I am more adventurous with the unfamiliar.
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2017
  13. <br><br>
    Those are people you listed, Julie. Knowing them or being familiar or not can never be fully discerned. Familiar with their character in the way they act or their looks might make me shoot them under different quality and character of light or whether to shoot them in their home or outside, at different angles, etc. But I wouldn't know how that had any connection to me being familiar with them.
    Photography for me is not suppose to be an accurate representation of how much I intimately or otherwise know about reality or any subject. It's about creating an alternate reality, a dream or an enhanced reality. If I'm shooting people, I'ld shoot them having them do something they like to do or around things they adore but that's kind of a cliched approach much like you see on Facebook. I frankly don't know how anyone can depict truth (whatever that is) about any subject in a photograph. I want people who look at my photos escape reality or see it sans its ugly truth.
  14. And just to add, I'm not sure being familiar or not with a subject can show up in the results due to so many other variables that can affect the final outcome of the photo and how it is perceived. Some of the dodge & burn instructions to lab processing technicians of famous B&W photographers from the past is just one of many variables. Why all the fuss? What's being communicated that wasn't coming across from being familiar or not with the subject that required all this extra work?
    You raise a very interesting point in this thread topic, Julie. It got me to examine myself in how I go about looking for subjects to shoot which are all strangers to me, but not for long.
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2017
  15. "Do have a preference for shooting subjects you know really well, or do you prefer shooting subjects you don't know at all? " <br><br>

    Making photographs of people I know doesn't interest me very much...<br><br>

    Most of my non-candid people photography comes from walking around in urban areas, striking up a conversation with a stranger, and ultimately making a few portraits. I enjoy learning something interesting about the person and/or the neighborhood they live in from someone I know absolutely nothing about. I think that also provides a lot of flexibility in how I make the portrait. After doing this for so long I still don't know what I like more; the conversation or the portrait I eventually make. <br><br>
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2017
    Spearhead likes this.
  16. Story and connection as opposed to detached observation (thinking, thinking ... ).
    <br><br>Notice how different what Brad does is from this description of the anonymous (hidden side-lens shooting) photography of Paul Strand (Walker Evans and Helen Levitt also sometimes used this hidden camera method:
    "Strand reduced story content in order to obtain an elemental rawness of view; his abrupt treatment of these underdogs confers on them a great power of earthiness and sorrow. To look at these stolen portraits is to be drawn into an uncomfortable complicity with the photographer's voyeurism, yet even as his pictures effect great intimacy, they short-circuit any feeling of connection — a very urban kind of dissonance. This tough approach may not have derived from any social judgment. Rather, it seems to have come to Strand as detachment, reflecting his claim to an asocial freedom of perception that could be developed only in the metropolis of strangers." — Max Kozloff
    If you don't know the subject, what motivates your decision to make the picture? Why do you press the shutter release button just then and not before?
    Is it tacit knowledge, defined as "skills, ideas and experiences that people have in their minds and are, therefore, difficult to access because it is often not codified and may not necessarily be easily expressed." See more on tacit knowledge here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacit_knowledge.
    Or is it play: "The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the actual stress of existence. This is also seen in the spontaneous tendency to repetition that emerges in the player and in the constant self-renewal of play, which affects its form (e.g. the refrain)." — H.G. Gadamer
    Or maybe this: "One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune. Along sonorous, gestural, motor lines that mark the customary path of a child and graft themselves onto or begin to bud "lines of drift" with different loops, knots, speeds, movements, gestures and sonorities." — G. Deleuze
    But then again: "The schemas and languages that are already there, there are already a great number of prescriptions that are prescribed in our memory and our culture. All the names are already preprogrammed. It's already the names that inhibit our ability to ever really improvise. One can't say whatever one wants; one is obliged, more or less, to reproduce the stereotypical discourse. And so I believe in improvisation, and I fight for improvisation, but with the belief that it is impossible. But there, where there is improvisation, I am not able to see myself, I am blind to myself." —J.Derrida
    In August Sander's multi-volume People of the Twentieth Century, he was interested in types (the familiar) as manifested in 'examples' who were people he did not know (unfamiliar).
    <br><br>In Peter Mesenhöller's essay on Augustus F. Sherman's photos of new immigrants, Ellis Island Portraits, he describes how the immigrants judged each other according to ethnic expectations and by their clothing: "While the various national costumes and folk dresses were distinct, if picturesque, markers of "otherness" for Sherman and his contemporaries, they symbolized connectedness to the immigrants, a codification of their cultural and social identity. Yet they reveal still another meaning: 'The softness and ultimate fragility of [their] materials capture the vulnerability of humans, whose every relationship is transient, subject to the degenerative process of illness, death and decay.' ... leaving it up to the viewer to understand them as signifiers of either inevitable destiny or of a passionate love of life."
    <br> See some of Sherman's work here: http://www.photoeye.com/bookteaselight/bookteaselightnopopup.cfm?catalog=AP492
    Is that what you do with any stranger on the street, on a micro scale? How do you 'meet' him or her?
    What role does the stranger's character and personality play in any of the above situations? How are character and personality known? In which cases does the photographer implicitly include him or herself in the picture? W. Eugene Smith does not include himself (though his judgment is the driving force of his photography), but yes in Arbus and very much so in Brad's, to my eye. Robert Frank's seem to be only about himself (which is not a criticism; it's the thread that binds his narrative).
  17. Tim, I think you and I shoot very much the same way when out and about. But I would describe what I do is not shooting the unfamiliar but making the familiar unfamiliar (again).
    <br><br>I would think that you know perfectly well what bubbles are; what they look like etc. You've seen them all your life. But the fun or the interest is in seeing them fresh: in taking the time to let them be seen fresh. <br><br>
    An example that I recently enjoyed was David Gibson's pictures of water falling. Is there any more common cliché subject in photography than waterfalls or water falling? He shows me a picture of water falling. It's lovely, yes, but ... it's a waterfall. Been there done that.
    <br><br>But Gibson does it again. And again. There are ninety-six pictures of waterfalling. After about the fifth or sixth, I found myself looking at the pictures, not the 'waterfall.' By about the twentieth, I was really into the variations in texture and movement. He's managed to make the very familiar (the very tired) into something gorgeous and mysterious: the familiar turned into the unfamiliar, at least for me. Here are links to the first four pages of twelve images per page:<br><br>
    http://davidhgibson.com/html.pages/archive_pages/Columbia_River_Gorge_1.html <br>
    http://davidhgibson.com/html.pages/archive_pages/Columbia_River_Gorge_2.html <br>
    http://davidhgibson.com/html.pages/archive_pages/Columbia_River_Gorge_3.html <br>
  18. In a previous life I worked as a newspaper reporter. Interviewing family, friends or others familiar was a no-no unless it was newsworthy and all personal connections with the subject were disclosed. Reasons for this are obvious. I was lucky enough to work for publications that sought fair and accurate reporting by, among other things, ensuring that reporters avoided conflicts of interest. When I use my camera now I am still guided by similar thinking. Certainly I shoot family and holidays and vacations. But what I love to do is capture naturally occurring emotion in people. I prefer unfamiliar subjects because they can surprise me. They choose their emotions much like interview subjects chose their own words. Familiar subjects may also choose their own emotions. But we are all changed by our familiarity. They might try to act certain ways to please (or displease) me. Likewise, I might avoid certain shots knowing they could cause embarrassment. Unfamiliar subjects release me from such constraints. While strangers might still alter their behavior in front of a lens, I believe the chances for honest emotions can be improved.
  19. "Do have a preference for shooting subjects you know really well, or do you prefer shooting subjects you don't know at all? "

    No preference.

    Photograph with a empty mind and look for a essence of character....a telling.

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