Friday, 30 November 2018

Putting on the Style

In May, I was out walking on Southampton Common. The day was glorious: an early hint of the unusually long, hot summer to come, with clear air, fair-weather clouds, and strong sunshine casting bold shadows from trees that were just coming into leaf. As you would expect, I took a few photographs. The one above is fairly typical of the set.

It's a nice picture. The Fuji X-70 is a superb little camera, and I'm a pretty reliable photographer these days, even when working on autopilot with unremarkable subject matter: there's always a picture there, somewhere. The photo is sharp enough, with good depth of field; the colours are reasonably accurate (although I've partly de-saturated the colours: those famous "Fuji greens" are really over-excitable yellows); the exposure is good, and I've managed to avoid my technical bĂȘte noire, white skies and blown-out cloud highlights; and the composition is interesting, in an unassuming sort of way. But, as you probably realise by now, I have become restless with "straight" photography's ability to achieve, well, whatever it is I'm trying to achieve with picture-making.

Now, that photograph is doubtless a passably accurate and objective way of showing what that scene at that moment in time looked like from where the camera was positioned: those rays of light were actually reflected off those actual objects, gathered by the lens in its characteristic way, focused onto the array of little light-bins at the back of the camera, and then snapped off by slamming the bin-lids shut quickly enough to make a clean break and keep the tiny bits of light-ray fresh. Or however it is that a digital camera works. But, for me, it is not an entirely satisfying way of showing how it felt to be there: what is actually missing from the scene is me.

Some would say the absence of the photographer is photography's core strength; others would say that "style" is how a photographer inhabits a photograph. To an extent, the latter is true, or can be true. Photographic style exists, but is elusive. Sure, a good photographer makes many choices in the act of photographing, the sum of which may amount to a style. But, even in the days of film, "style" was really a product of second-level selection – choosing exactly the right frame from a contact sheet, for example – and skilled darkroom work [1]. It's worth checking out the book Contact : Theory (if you can find a copy: it was published in 1980 by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press); seeing the contact sheets of some big-name photographers quickly demystifies any self-serving nonsense about "decisive moments" and such. Style is a set of choices you apply to your raw material rather more often than it is some inherent quality of your unadorned photographs.

Curiously, one effective way of putting yourself in the picture seems to be to degrade it, to make it less photographic, but at the same time more expressive. How this is done is an entirely personal business – I have a favoured set of steps which suit my purposes, but probably no-one else's – but that is precisely why it can get closer to the way you felt, as a sentient participant in that scene, rather than as a robotic observer of it. If that's what you want. Also (and I think this may get to the root of a key difference between "straight" photography and other forms of visual art) by taking away detail and adding visual ambiguity you are giving the eye (or, strictly speaking, the brain) work to do. And it seems to be the case that the eye/brain combo takes pleasure in being asked to do this work, which it does whenever it looks at some ambiguous surface. Hence "pareidolia", our tendency to make faces and other meaningful patterns out of random marks and splotches. This may be one reason why so many people favour bad paintings over good photos to hang on their walls. Like a poor teacher, an unambiguous photograph, by giving the illusion of being a clear window onto reality, directs your response so firmly that there's nothing much left for your sensory apparatus to contribute to the transaction [2]. Even a bad painting is more generous, in the sly way of a good teacher, in the amount of work disguised as optical recreation it encourages your brain to do.

Degraded, or improved?

Another thing. The rectangular sample, edit, or interpretation of the world framed by most representational pictures, whether painted, printed, or photographed, is so basic to our culture that we hardly see it. It is the "normal" from which other shapes deviate. It's a good shape, no doubt about it, probably the best for most pictorial purposes. Attempts to "subvert" it usually end up looking gimmicky and attracting more attention to the unconventional "frame", at the expense of what is within it. But, being of a mildly contrarian nature, I do have a liking for the more unusual shapes and combinations: the panorama, the triptych, the arched top, the oval or circular image, and so on. The circle in particular says, now this really is an edited view, and yet everything always seems to compose itself gracefully within the even tension of its circumference. There is a satisfying harmony to the circular picture (in some contexts referred to as a "tondo") that is both highly artificial and yet somehow entirely "natural", a magical charge familiar to anyone who has been enchanted by the view through a telescope, or who has gazed down at a miniature world played out in real time on the white dish of a camera obscura. It's as if you can sense a lens-based image's essentially circular nature, out of which the rectangle has been cropped [3].

So, when I put the "degraded" version of the Southampton Common photograph into a circular frame, I think we end up with something that is much more like how it felt for me to be there on that May afternoon. Something rather like walking into the background of a Constable painting; heightened, slightly sentimental, even a little kitsch, and slightly soft... Blurry, even: the fact is that I really ought to wear glasses, these days, but never do, mainly because I find them uncomfortable and also distracting: the world was never that sharp – as sharp as an over-sharp photograph – to begin with.

1. Most people are blissfully unaware of the amount of work that goes into producing a top-quality print from a negative. Until you have watched a master printer perform the necessary darkroom prestidigitation in the dim red light, you don't know anything about top-end analogue photography. Really. Check out the first minute of this, for example.
2. I am increasingly of the view that most colour photographs are not best seen framed and hung on a wall. They look ... tacky. Whereas in a book (or on a screen) virtually any photo can look superb. I wonder if this has something to do with the inevitable "degradation" of the image by the process of reproduction?
3. I have always loved the "circle in a rectangle" photographs of Emmet Gowin, created by mounting the lens from a 5" x 4" camera on an 8" x 10" camera, so that the entire image circle is recorded on the sheet of film.


Thomas Rink said...

This post elicits a couple of thoughts in my mind, but I'm struggling to bring them into a logical order. OK, so here we go: I do not generally agree that a personal 'style' relates to a particular way of processing one's pictures, and I think your pictures are a case in point. Having seen some of your work, at least in my opinion, it's more down to an aesthetic taste, and a certain kind of "subject matter" (or things you like to photograph). Anyway, for me, your pictures are clearly recognisable as "yours".

The picture which accompanies the post is what I would call a "small" picture. I make those, too, these little gems which I quite like, but I always have that nagging doubt like "OK, but is it really up to anything?". Of course there is "something" about the picture; otherwise, we wouldn't have taken it, no? Probably one should take these pictures for what they are: small samples of beauty - no "message", no "story". But - is there a story in Monet's lily ponds, or Van Gogh's radiant landscapes??

I agree that those "small" pictures are best printed small, so you can hold them in your hand. But, I think they are even more at home in a book, in company with other small pictures ...

Best, Thomas

PS: You asked me for a German blog - you might like this. I think it's interesting and well-written.

Mike C. said...


Good to hear from you again. You may well be right, but of course you don't see the pictures I choose not to show (or don't even process out of the raw state! God, some of them are bad...). If you add in the processing I *do* do then you have at least two levels of "post-selection" that may have contributed quite a lot to my personal style, such as it is.

"Small" pictures: yes, definitely. I rather like small, though, and cannot imagine ever displaying a print bigger than A3. A friend once blew up one of mine to a staggering 1.5 metres square: he loved it, but I hated it! In fact it was an image that, when I exhibited it in 2009, was printed 15cm square...

I'll check out the blog. Looks interesting, and a liquorice fan! In recent years I've become an addict of the various Scandinavian varieties, though I can't quite get the hang of the "rotten fish" salmiak-flavoured sort...


Huw said...


Fascinating post which provoked a number of thoughts. To unpack them briefly and badly:

1) I like the first, ‘straight’ photo. It has a strong sense of place and atmosphere that the others don’t.

2) Bad paintings v good photos is an interesting one, and thinking through the rooms of our house a valid point, although I’d like to *think* we have the visual literacy to show reasonable paintings and excellent photos :-) The language of ‘bad’ photos is a whole other avenue of investigation, and something my wife finds incredibly boring when I start to expound on.

3) Yes, to the point about the amount of work that goes into a top quality print. I love a good exhibition for the sheer ‘thing-ness’ of the prints that the catalogue or on-line pictures can never reproduce. Photos are fundamentally mechanical reproductions but a good print, large or small, is something special. You are therefore wrong about books and screens mostly being better than framed prints.


Mike C. said...


re, (3): even colour photographs? I've come to dislike the glossy, material reality of most colour work, and fancy inkjet papers, unless very well chosen, tend to remind me of those horrible "canvas prints".

These are questions of taste, though, and, as I'm the host, you are obliged to quietly acquiesce in my taste until you get home... ;)


Huw said...


Yes, even colour photographs. They can be terrible for exactly the reasons you state, but a really good one is special. I remember repeatedly visiting the 'In Camera' exhibition by Patrick Snowdon a few years ago because the prints were astonishing. They were 'things'. Not at all canvas prints!

The only large photo in our house is a black & white print by James Ravilious. So maybe you are right.