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

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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.


Bend it like Von Donnersmarck 2: the most brilliant illumination of the recent past can be useless as a guide to the future

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New Year’s Day supermoon with an unidentified turquoise celestial neighbour (or was it an Air Canada plane? See comments below our last post.)

Can a critical shift in a country’s cultural pulse and tone be detectible almost instantly by someone travelling into its cities after a year of rural seclusion? Without going into details, our answer — based both on what we saw and heard last week, and reports from other people-watchers in America and Britain — must be an unequivocal yes.

It is as plain as can be that large segments of the populations of these nations whose power was founded on trade with the whole world or massive, intercontinental migration, are now drawbridgers intent on shutting out the globe. Their history makes the shift almost incommensurable with the rise of xenophobia elsewhere.

It’s a reversal that should be of interest to anyone reflecting on interpretations by experts of the subject of our last post, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly conjuring — by taking infinite pains over subtle minutiae — of the look and feel of an actual surveillance state in modern times. Just as a camera can sometimes show us what can’t be seen by the naked eye, films can thrust us deeper into the textures and emotional atmosphere of the ‘truth hidden in plain sight,’ whose unveiling is conventionally said to define the task of journalists.

Only by studying images created by a camera flash could we see the whole scene, including the naked branches of the bush in the foreground of another picture from our New Year’s Day camera-clicking, a shrub whose outlines we were not so much looking at as sensing.

A story well told has the same capacity for higher-wattage illumination, but — sadly — what it exposes about the past or present can be no guide at all to what lies ahead. This becomes clear from rereading a 2007 review of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) by a British journalist, Tim Garton Ash, who actually lived in the GDR (East Germany); had the unwanted honour of being subjected to Stasi monitoring; and acquired his own file in their archives. Unsurprisingly, no other review begins to approach the insight his has to offer. But the confidence he expressed in that commentary about the wholesale rooting-out of xenophobia after Germany’s reunification in 1990 would prove to be misplaced a mere decade later — the inescapable conclusion from an essay he published in December last year.

The contrast between his earlier and later pulse-taking does not make good bed-time reading for anyone mulling the question of where the new fear of foreigners in the rest of the West could take us by, say, 2028. (Anyone with a good crystal ball is specially invited to comment below — as are any astronomers, amateur or professional, who can identify the turquoise blue satellite (neighbour?) to the left of the moon in our photograph.)

In the excerpts that follow, the second set is taken from his assessment of ‘the cultural struggle for Germany’s future,’ focusing on the rise of the nationalist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD or the Alternative), which is the equivalent of Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National. Most baffling, other than the speed at which this ultra-conservative organisation has grown, is that its supporters’ hatred of immigrants appears to have no connection to economic hardship or disadvantages, and that one of its leaders lives with a partner of the same sex of Sri Lankan descent.

from ‘The Stasi on Our Minds,’ Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007

One of Germany’s most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world’s imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words “Nazi,” “SS,” and “Auschwitz” are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word “Stasi” is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. The worldwide success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s deservedly Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others will strengthen that second link, building as it does on the preprogramming of our imaginations by the first. Nazi, Stasi: Germany’s festering half-rhyme.

… The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world’s imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land …

from ‘It’s the Kultur, Stupid,’ Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, 7 December 2017

… Xenophobic right-wing nationalism—in Germany of all places? The very fact that observers express surprise indicates how much Germany has changed since 1945. These days, we expect more of Germany than of ourselves.

… The Alternative scores best in what we still loosely call East Germany, that is, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. There is a striking inverse correlation between the number of immigrants (or people of migrant origin) in an area and the populist vote: East Germany has the fewest immigrants and the most AfD voters.

… It would require a longer essay to explore the collective psychology of this East German vote, but its ingredients certainly include the poisonous legacy of a society behind the Berlin Wall that was anything but open and multicultural. There is also a resentful feeling among East Germans that they have been treated as second-class citizens in united Germany: not given enough attention, not paid due respect. When a street protest in a small town in Saxony was totally ignored by the visiting Chancellor Merkel, a protester complained, “She doesn’t look at us even with her ass!” One can imagine a Trump voter saying something similar about Hillary Clinton. In explaining the populist vote in many countries, the inequality of attention is at least as important as economic inequality.

… Unlike in Britain and America, economic factors play only a small part here. It’s not just that Germany as a whole is doing well economically. In a 2016 poll, four out of five AfD voters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.” This is not a party of the economically “left behind.” It gathers the discontented from every walk of life, but those who predominate in its ranks are educated, middle-class men. A leading CDU politician told me that the angry protest letters he gets from defectors to the Alternative will typically be from a doctor, businessman, lawyer, or professor. This strong presence of the educated upper middle class distinguishes German populism from many other populisms.

… As for Alice Weidel: this former Goldman Sachs and Allianz asset manager, white, blonde, always neatly turned out in business attire, lives just across the border in Switzerland, in a same-sex relationship with a Swiss filmmaker of Sinhalese heritage and two adopted sons. These are not the German equivalent of the American rust belt manual worker, or of what is known in England, with liberal condescension, as “white van man.” (The van is white as well as the man.)

“It’s the economy, stupid” simply does not apply to Germany’s populist voters. Rather, it’s the Kultur. (I say Kultur, rather than simply culture, because the German word implies both culture and ethno-cultural identity, and has traditionally been counterposed to liberal, cosmopolitan Zivilisation.) …

Bend it like Von Donnersmarck: how to manipulate cameras and colours to make the vital truth truer and unforgettable

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Supermoon, 1 January 2018: same scene, different cameras (above and below)

Of course cameras tell lies, even if ‘The camera cannot lie’ was so widely accepted as a truism, for decades, that it became an irritating cliché. The power of cameras as tools for sophisticated manipulations on the side of the angels, not devils, emerges from the most generous, revelatory interview with a film director that we have ever watched — a feature among the bonuses on the DVD version of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s eleven year-old masterpiece, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).

We remembered a section of that conversation titled Authenticity — about how von Donnersmarck used colour to engage and work on his audience subliminally — as we were studying startling divergences between pictures we took of the New Year’s Day supermoon, using two cameras whose factory settings we have never changed. Why, we wondered, did the baked-in choices (‘default parameters’) of one device yield the souped-up indigo sky of a Disney production, as in the image below, while the other — same view, different angle — gave us virtually what we had actually been looking at (above), no patch of any shade of blue discernible, and conveying what it felt like to be shooting nearly blind into darkness that was somehow both peaceful and faintly dangerous and, except in the pictures’ shimmering focus, dense and deeply inky?

In his account of making The Lives of Others, the director described his chief dilemma. How do you tell the truth about something horrible of the highest importance, giving your viewers a palpable sense of what it was like, but without repelling them, and holding their attention for two hours and seventeen minutes?

He explains how he decided that using a radically constricted colour scheme could help him to steer his tricky course between those objectives to tell his story about the transformation of an officer in the Stasi, the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), after this officer’s discovery — through his  unintentional absorption of poetry and music — of his heart and conscience.

Von Donnersmarck, who was born in West Germany but travelled with his parents to the GDR as a child, felt that he had to immerse his audience in the claustrophobic atmosphere of this surveillance state whose citizens lived in fear of sadistic punishers — a culture of informers, collaborators and liars in which friends betrayed friends and lovers. It was a place that looked drab, above all, but if he portrayed this with a straightforward representation, he risked losing that audience.

Here is how he describes the evolution of his central idea for his drama, in which the Stasi officer is played by Ulrich Mühe, who was once — in real life — an actor in East Germany and actual Stasi target whose Stasi file was part of 110 miles of such files crammed with details of the lives of individual GDR citizens, stored in archives in which von Donnersmarck’s team was the first to have been granted permission to film:

I once read this Lenin quote in a book by Maxim Gorky [in] which Lenin said to him, ‘I don’t want to listen to my favourite piece of music — L’Appassionata by Beethoven — any more, because it makes me want to stroke people’s heads and tell them nice things, and I have to smash in those heads to accomplish my revolution.’

And that quote kind of stuck with me, because it seems one of those extreme examples of someone shutting out their own humanity and just going by principle.

And so I thought about creating a film situation where I could force Lenin to listen to the Appassionata and thereby give history a different course. And Lenin turned into Ulrich Mühe and L’Appassionata into that beautiful piece that Gabriel Yared wrote for our film.

Though The Lives of Others has been showered with prizes and awards, including the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it has been criticised for the very hyper-reality that von Donnersmarck went to such pains to engineer. An American specialist in German studies, Wendy Westphal, concluded in a minutely argued paper about it in 2012 that ‘while Das Leben der Anderen strives to be an authentic representation of the past through its incorporation of real props and on-site filming, […] its plot serves as a subtext that exposes the very concepts of “truth” and “reality” as, at best, elusive ideals.’

This and other objections to the film are well worth reading — especially by those of us who recognise some of the criticism as legitimate, yet still cannot praise it enough. Continuing controversy means continuing attention, and this is a work of art that should be dissected and discussed everywhere, by as many viewers as possible — not least because the amassing of information about us by governments and companies could hardly be more disturbing and topical, thirty-three years after 1984, in which it is set.

To that end, we offer the following transcript of the section of the von Donnersmarck interview by which we were most surprised. There is one other director paying exceptionally close attention to colour that we’d love to hear expounding on this subject — Pedro Almodóvar, whose electrifying interiors of his early films, drawing on a radically different part of the spectrum from von Donnersmarck’s GDR, put apricot and cherry red next to turquoise blue and chrome yellow in ways we’ve found equally indelible.

After I’d finished the screenplay, I realized that one of the main challenges would be, how do you create a world that people would want to sit and watch for two hours and seventeen minutes. And if I’d just created a kind of drab, completely realistic GDR, people wouldn’t want, er, … wouldn’t want to do that. It would just be too visually exhausting.

So I thought of something that people used to do a lot — and in American films too, actually — which was come up a very clear colour concept and with a very clear palette of colours and thereby create a visual world that was so consistent that it became beautiful.

It’s just like, if you take a film like Indiana Jones, for example. That is a film with a clear and beautiful colour concept, almost going as far as to have a texture concept. It’s just like if you close your eyes and think of Indiana Jones and think, what colours do I think of? You see the brown of Indiana Jones’ hat and whip. You know, that’s one clear colour. You see that kind of yellow sand. And you see maybe some kind of red of a desert sunset. It’s of those colours that the film is made up and they stay with that pretty consistently.

So when you think back to that film, when you feel back to that film, [… it’s …] like they created a universe for you that you can go back to in your fantasies. And I wanted to do the same here. And so I thought, what can I show that would still be true? And so with my production designer, with whom I spent about half a year developing that concept, we watched many, many, many films from the GDR. We looked at hundreds of photo books and searched in our own memories.

Then I realised that there was not so much clear blue in the GDR, and not so much red, and that maybe we would achieve an authentic GDR and a beautiful GDR by eliminating those colours altogether. And then I tried that out just by cutting out objects and saw that basically, if we replaced everything that was blue with green objects, if we replaced everything that was red by a kind of brown-y orange, then we would actually create a slightly stylized world that still felt functional and still felt like the actual GDR.

Our brilliant costume designer also made costumes to fit that and to fit every individual set. Actually, that was an amazing thing — the communication between the production designer and the costume designer. They really worked for one another, and a few sets we changed based on a beautiful costume, and the other way around of course, very often.

We created a GDR which is in a way truer than the true thing. [… When we travelled around the GDR for the presentation of the film …] people would come up to us and say, wow! it’s incredible, you know, that’s exactly how it was. […] And you know, that’s because in our memories things become stronger than they were — so if there was a dominance of certain colours, those other colours we almost forget about. So in a way, we’ve created a GDR that is truer than the real thing. That is real-er than the actual GDR and, I hope, more beautiful.

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