Have digital cameras condemned us to looking at ever more pixels, ever less art?

2 supermoon interior 2 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Scrolling through machine-tooled, precision die-cast supermoons photographed by engineer-robots and posted on Twitter

Sorry, that’s not quite right. We meant to say that in inspecting other photographers’ pictures of the same moon to which we were trying to pay homage in our own inept way, in recent entries here, we wondered whether anyone else had noticed that skyscapes with too many pixels can be like high-definition digital portraits that make beautiful people ugly. Also, that while it is growing more common for photographers clicking away on digital cameras to think that you can never have too many pixels, sharpness can be ruinous — making photography steadily more workmanlike and less like art.

The answer from an online search was — yes, at least one other person had noticed both the trend and its effect. His guesses about the explanation for the epidemic of pixelholism were identical to ours but unlike us, he couldn’t be accused of sounding superior about the aesthetic judgements of people with different interests and inclinations. He was brave enough to chide his own tribe. On the Peta Pixel site,  we saw that Eric Kim, too, wishes that members of it would think of the magic that the Impressionist painters wrought with inexactness if not brazen fuzziness. He said:

A lot of us who get started in photography are gadget-nerds or geeks. I myself have always been obsessed with technology … [A] lot of us nerdy photographers come from sciences, engineering, or computer-programming. We think we can quantify the “quality” of a photograph by the technical settings—the sharpness or resolution of an image.

Designers of digital cameras are apt to be gadget nerds, which could be why maximising precision appears to rank higher than other conceivable improvements in successive generations of these products. It was heartening to see a techie suggest why this has gone too far. Kim’s post also observed:

Here’s the thing: good art is often un-sharp.

Consider the impressionists. They didn’t seek to make picture-perfect images of reality. Rather, they used dreamy and imperfect brush-strokes to evoke a mood; to evoke a feeling.

They realized that the importance of a picture or an image wasn’t whether it reflected reality or not. The more important thing: whether it reflected their personal mood, or view of the world.

We once saw a parallel to what the Impressionists achieved in a headline somewhere that encapsulated it as outing the inside of an artist.

Kim’s post concluded:

Avoid gear review sites, sharpness tests, and all those nerdy places. Be satisfied with the gear you (already have), and remember what photography is all about: making meaning in your life; not making photos.

Well said. But did he foresee the sour reaction to his advice in Peta Pixel’s comments section — and a 21st-century equivalent of tarring-and-feathering? One reply read:

Kim may have his own obsessions (demons), but that does not mean everyone else shares them. He seems to trying to convince himself why he should change his mindset by projecting it onto us.

The obsessive discussion of sharpness can be as seductive for outsiders as a conversation between cement mixer-truck mechanics. For instance, this snippet from one commenter (who must have had Spellcheck turned off) — someone partially supporting Kim:

I prefer to have a slightly unsharp lens (comparitively) but one that works nearly as well in the corners as the centre. This is why, for much of my landscape photography with a digital camera, I prefer to use f/16 rather than the ‘sharpest’ aperture which is supposedly f/4 or f/5.6. That’s because at f/16 most abberations are subdued and I can sharpen back to get enough acuity. It’s also why I shoot large format where the corner sharpness is almost identical to the center sharpness for nearly all size prints. (OK, not true for some tele lenses and cheaper ultra wide large format lenses but for most semi-symmetric lenses it’s a given)

It is time to ask, are we going backwards?

Thirty-two years ago, John Russell, the English art critic of The New York Times, wrote about the Impressionists’ rebellion — which, he explained, was not just about refusing to submit to the dead hand of convention in classical painting, but tossing out what would now be called the marketing or business model that shaped the economic lives of professional painters in late 19th-century Paris (described in detail here). Some might recognise a parallel to the most successful indie writers rejecting traditional publishers in our day.

We see differently, and we see better, because those painters lived.

[…]

They proved that it was possible for painters to break the monopoly of the Paris Salons by showing on their own, on a regular basis, and prosper.

When they defied the once-sacrosanct old rules for painting, the Impressionists were rejecting excessive orderliness and precision — that is, moving in the reverse direction from the shift towards hyper-precise, hyperrealism among many, if not most photographers today.

[T]hey introduced a completely new mode of expression — one based […] on ”the brush moving at will in any direction, freed from traditional centered drawing […]”.

This movement of the Impressionist brush is by now so much a part of our universal inheritance that we no longer think of it as something that could present a difficulty. Yet it is the achievement of Monet and his colleagues that, more than 100 years ago, they broke a monopoly far more deeply entrenched than the monopoly of the Salon painters. This was the monopoly of traditional Western composition, with its centered pictorial structure, its balanced and rhythmic ordering of forms, and its careful, preordained, seamless presentation of what are in reality the wandering, disorderly, often frantic procedures of seeing.

Seamless, yes – pixelholics love that. Some of them insist that their work is inspired by the Photorealism school of painting, which dates from the 1960s. That seems reasonable enough, even if one condition a painter must satisfy to qualify as a bona fide worker in this tradition is confusing — with a touch of tail-wags-dog-why-bother about it. According to experts cited in the Wikipedia: ‘The Photo-Realist must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic.’

In other words, some of Eric Kim’s photographer-nerds are imitating painters whose rules require that their paintings must resemble photographs as closely as possible.

Right. So glad we’ve got that sorted!

We hope to return to these subjects soon, in a future post — not necessarily our next one.

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