Friday, November 7, 2014

On Filtering

John Rosenthal
The Dish recently excerpted an interview with the photographer John Rosenthal, whose work I hadn't been familiar with. His photographs—many of which you can find on his website—are utterly terrific: mostly black and white images of cities (Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s and New Orleans post-Katrina in particular) and of rural places and small towns and the people who inhabit them.

In the interview Rosenthal speaks on the ethical dilemma of photographing people. "A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything)," he argues.
It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty.

...generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.
I never have, or I avoid them at all cost. (I tend to favor abandonment, here and here.) I've never quite understood if my disinclination to photograph people, even to allow them to wander into the frame, is ethical rigor on my part or simple cowardice. As an introvert, I think I natively shy away from capturing someone in a photo against her will, or at least by surprise. I know that I've missed many opportunities: last summer I was taking photos at the old Tiger Stadium site in Detroit when a man, possibly homeless, clearly indigent, wandered into the park with two large shopping bags and began going through the trashcans located behind the backstop. I stopped photographing out of respect, recognizing at that I might be sacrificing a killer image of a foraging human foregrounded against an abandoned historic ballpark foregrounded against an epically crumbling city. I looked the the other way instead.

A comment Rosenthal makes later in the interview struck me. Asked to describe his equipment, he says, "Well, I should start off by saying that I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for a while now. Probably out of necessity."
I spend as much time working on digital prints as I used to spend in the darkroom, but now I don’t have to stand on my bad left foot.

In my case, switching from film to digital was a matter of convenience, and that’s about it. Even though I am using a new technology, the reasons why I take photographs haven’t changed. The digital camera is, really, just a camera, and the world I want to photograph is the same old world. The old challenge remains unchanged: to use my camera to disclose some sort of hidden meaning that lies below our common awareness. A poet’s task, neither more nor less. So I trained myself to look closely for the little thing that nobody was paying attention to, the quiet thing that didn’t want to give away its secret importance. An unmade bed. A chessboard in Tompkins Square after a rainstorm. Something you might walk right by.
Good stuff. Then, he says:
I guess I have faith that the actual world, as it is, is enough. It’s my guiding principle. I think that if I move things around in my photographs, arrange expressions, say, or digitally create a dream effect, then I won’t meet the criterion of perception that I’ve set for myself. I want to distill reality, not modify it with software.

Of course I’m describing only one approach to image-making—one that I inherited from a certain time and place. It’s just the way I do things. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other ways of considering and making photographs. It’s just mine.

I'm relived by his generous admission there at the end that his way is not necessarily the best way, and yet the old worrisome scab is pulled at again: I take photos using my iPad, and filter virtually every image through Hipstamatic. I've wrestled with this for a long time, recognizing that any effective image I do end up producing is as much a testament to pre-set filters and lenses as to my own eye for composition (not to mention random luck). I guess that I'm comfortable with sharing a successful photo with Lucas Buic and Ryan Dorshorst, the founders of Hipstamatic, but here are questions that keep me up at night: Have filters ruined me? Are photos taken with and subsequently manipulated via Hipstamatic any less authentic than photos taken with a film camera and adjusted in post-production process? Does a filter produce an ersatz experience, or texturally heighten, intensify an experience that's already there? I'm not sure. Certainly Hipstamatic has eliminated the laborious processes of the dark room—which I never experienced, anyway, being an amateur—but I still need to manipulate my camera in such a way as to take best advantage of light, perspective, composition, etc. I only utilize the filters and lenses that came bundled for free with Hipstamatic when I first downloaded the app, and I often marvel at the effects—though, as in any creative enterprise, for every good image there are dozens that don't work. And luck, as always, plays as much of a powerful role as anything.

If I sound defensive, it's because I am. I'm not sure where in the continuum of photography history I'd locate my inessential self and the filters and lenses vouchsafed me and millions of others. 

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