Jun 1, 2009

Digital photography is a big fat lie...



...just like acting, writing, music and painting.

What is the biggest obstacle to creating art?  I would say the need for validation. For instance, my love-hate addiction to photo-blogs and Flickr's parade of troll-critics has resulted in too much second-guessing of photos, and not enough shooting of photos. 

A good photographer would just shrug his shoulders and unplug. To be fair, I'm doing more of that these days — because my daily quest for professional opinion and technique has come with the heavy baggage of 'analysis-paralysis'. Now that everybody with two years behind a lens thinks they're a seasoned pro, the subtext question seems to be: what kind of photography is valid, anyway?

Having ranted on this before, I am now conceding two things: 
  1. Digital photography – and it's manipulation – is a big lie.
  2. I'm okay with that. 
When weenie-boy purists hunker down for a good session of cyber-snobbery, digital photography makes a perfect target because it has now fallen into the hands of the goobers. The "democratization" of photography, through affordable hardware and user-friendly software, has generated legions of new artists who can produce images way beyond their reach ten years ago. And there's nothing members of a club hate more than new members.

To compound the insult, motivated noobs are able to draw from a bottomless well of professional, online tutelage (I'm looking at you, Strobist). Trade secrets and word-of-mouth tips have been liberated from the House of Hasselblad and delivered into the hands of nouveau shutterbugs - most of whom previously thought Matrix Metering was a way of ranking Keanu Reeves' crappier movies.

"But, he doesn't use film"... "It's Photoshopped"... "That's HDR"... Just a sampling of sour grapes from bloggers who are unhappy with all the good photographs out there. When you can't criticize the result, you attack the method. A purebred film-aficionado only has time for a photograph steeped in hard work and pedigree — either a serendipitous one-timer or a painstakingly constructed in-camera opus. Trickery and manipulation seem to render amateur photos null and void. 

True photogs should be able to expose like Adams and capture like Cartier-Bresson; without resorting to layer masks and machine-gun frame rates. (It helps if your photo is original size — 5x4, or better yet, 6x6 — to "prove" that you never cropped it digitally.)

A couple of weeks ago, an otherwise intelligent acquaintance of mine suggested that the whole "Nikon vs. Canon" thing was moot because... at this point I enthusiastically tried to complete his thought by suggesting that "it was the final image that mattered, and no one could ever tell the difference anyway"... He patiently shook his head and gestured proudly to the point-and-shoot Leica around his neck. 

We were at a kindergarten recital.

For many of the Director's Cut generation, the experience is not complete without knowing how it was made. Which is not to say I don't fall victim to photo-snobbery.  I once enjoyed Robert Doisneau's print of the couple kissing in Paris... until I heard they were paid models. Then I hated it. I mean, it was never going up on my wall, but this was like learning that your ex-girlfriend faked it. Anyone could shoot a posed couple kissing, right? (Well, not really — but the sin wasn't that the photographer posed them, it was that he denied that he had.)

Quick tangent:
I finally saw The DaVinci Code on Saturday, and many things occurred to me - prime among them: I can't believe this film received protest. A Catholic getting huffy about Dan Brown is like a feminist getting huffy about Andrew Dice Clay. They give far too much credit to their nemeses. Memo to Catholics: no one believes that albino masochists are offing people under orders from the Vatican, any more than they believe Miss Muffet gave blow-jobs. And if you took anything away from The DaVinci Code, it should be this: fiction is a word meaning not true

By the way, they call it 'acting' for a reason. People don't really talk like that. No one ever answers a question with, "Yes... No... I don't know." People don't explain their phobias by looking away from you and eloquently recounting a tragic event from their fifth birthday.

Ever watch people lying to each other on TV? Television characters are terrible liars. They pause awkwardly, look around furtively and lick their lips... and they're never called on it. My three-year-old daughter lies better than Robert DeNiro in most of his movies. The reason? (Spoiler alert: it's not DeNiro's acting ability.) It's because otherwise great directors seem to be telling them, "Your motivation in this scene is to emulate Jon Lovitz buying a bottle of vodka for his sixteenth birthday."

People want to be entertained, and a good chunk of that entertainment comes from not feeling like an idiot. We want things explained to us, and one (shoddy) way to achieve this is by having the characters explain things to each other. Note: ideally nothing in a movie should be explained through dialogue, but that's rant for another day.

Backstory and plot details are crammed down our throats because studio honchos don't trust their own product. Hollywood's speak-and-spell screenplays demand that we in the audience know everything, especially if it's irrelevant to the story arc. 

Mysteries should be left to our imagination — they have more power there. When Obi Wan told Luke that his father fought in the "Clone Wars", he left it at that. Smart move on the writer's part  — too bad Lucas felt compelled to make an entire trilogy explaining the reference.

So, when you're watching The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, ask yourself: Does a Professor of Religious Symbology really need Latin translated for him? Does he really need to be refreshed on the back-story of The Last Supper? No, but for those in the audience who assume The Tudors is a series devoted to sports sedans, it's nice to be spoon-fed a bit of interesting trivia.

Since you were asking:
  • CSI techs don't really need to explain what Luminol is to their colleagues.
  • Firemen do not need to be briefed on the physics of a "backdraft". (They actually call it a "flashover", btw.)
  • Fighter pilots need not describe the geometry of a "split-s" to their wizzo.
Whew, that was a tangent. 

My apologies. But, I hope I've proved my point by actually becoming a film weenie for a minute. It's nobody's place to explain why you should love or hate something. As Dennis Miller said, "if you want the Red Skelton clown painting, buy the Red Skelton clown painting."

So I'm okay that it's only a paper moon. Movies are big, fun lies — even documentaries are made from a premeditated vantage point. No drawing or painting exists to tell the truth, and popular music is a stew of artificial ingredients (like Auto-Tune and other effects) that doesn't reflect reality. 

And to me, photography is all about the final image. If you P-shopped the Loch Ness Monster in there, that's your problem, not mine. I'll try to love it or hate it at face value.