[This advanced discussion of visual aesthetics was presented to the Princeton Photography Club in December, 2012. Photographs by Ricardo Barros, unless otherwise noted.]
We often refer to photographers who move us as having vision. But what does this mean? The word “vision” has been over-used, even abused, such that power in the word’s meaning has been diluted. Vision seems to refer to something that is generally focused, but whose particular qualities are entirely unspecified. The word is neither meaningful nor helpful.
In point of fact, what evidence do we have that photographic vision even exists? And, if it does, how do we recognize it? Can we identify the work of a photographer with vision upon first sight?
These are loaded questions.
Consider this playful vignette. Were we to be so privileged, we might direct our chauffeur to a particular gallery with instructions to purchase a specific landscape we had admired. Armed with a brief description of the work, our chauffeur could identify the exact piece we wanted even though he had never laid eyes on it before. But how can we direct him to a group show in this same gallery and reliably expect him to identify the particular artist whose work possesses vision? That would entail a great deal more subjective reasoning.
Does the attribute of photographic vision, like beauty, reside in the eye of the beholder? Surely we know which artworks we like. But describing an artwork as such (i.e., works we deem beautiful are those that we like,) is simply a statement of personal preference. This criteria cannot used to define photographic vision; its boundary is much too permeable.
Now imagine a large stream of interested viewers passing through a gallery exhibition. Assume that a group of competent, professional artists produced all of the works on display. All of the exhibiting artists are unquestionably “good,” whatever that means, but only one has evolved to the point of maturity. Only one has truly developed his or her artistic vision. Can the stream of viewers identify which artist this is?
Anecdotal evidence answers with a resounding “Yes!” Time and again, in real-life experience, viewer consensus has converged upon certain works (or artists) in precisely such a scenario. Discussing the exhibition later, independent viewers emphatically agree about their response. There is no doubt about whom, or which works, stole the show. Moreover respected critics routinely and independently affirm the accomplishment of precisely these same works or artists. Lay-viewer consensus tends to coincide with expert opinion.
This is not a new phenomenon, but only recently have we named it. We now know this as crowd sourcing. Crowd sourcing is the engine behind Wikipedia and other Internet knowledge bases. As it turns out, the consensus reached by a population of interested, lay reviewers tends to reflect the expert opinion of authoritative analysts. It just does.
So, getting back to our topic, photographic vision is something that DOES EXIST and CAN be identified. We can identify photographic vision through crowd sourcing and by expert, critical review. But that still does not answer the central question: What is it?
To approach a rational answer, let’s unpack the terminology. What does the word “vision” actually mean? There are two, principal meanings. Vision relates to something seen, and to something imagined.
So, in the simplest case, vision is sight. To the extent that we see things that are really there, one can say that this type of vision is an observation of the status quo.
The second meaning for vision is a vivid anticipation of what will, may, or can come to be. This type of vision refers to a compelling plan or conception for a different state of affairs. Of course, future developments depend upon our present involvement, so this type of vision is often an agent for change. This second type of vision can catapult us from the role of a passive seer to that of an engaged player.
If photographic vision were reduced to one or the other, either something seen or something conceived, we could easily find prominent photographers in either camp. Consider Mathew Brady and Ansel Adams. Mathew Brady, in photographing the preparations for, and aftermath of, Civil War battles, communicated to his distant audience the reality of those bloody encounters. Brady intended for his photographs to be seen as unembellished accounts of significant events. His vision was a form of documentation.
Ansel Adams photographed the American landscape. While he also provided a firsthand account to a distant audience, his testimony was that of a natural beauty. Viewers were awestruck by Ansel Adams’ photographs. Yet capturing images of beauty was only part of Adams’ agenda. His larger vision included a lifetime crusade to preserve and protect wilderness areas. Because Adams could vividly imagine the specter of commercial development, he deployed his photographs as emissaries on behalf of wilderness preservation.
Photographic vision is not an either/or proposition. Photographers can communicate both what they see and what they conceive in the same body of work. Lewis Hine, who photographed child labor during the industrial revolution, did so expressly to bring about change. His goal was to end the practice.
Yousef Karsh, a portraitist of twentieth century artists, writers and statesmen, projected upon all of his subjects a heroic, romantic sense of nobility. This treatment actually revealed more about the photographer than it did about any of his subjects.
Edward Curtis photographed the vanishing peoples of North America. He believed that they possessed certain grace that was just then being defiled. Curtis was compelled to photograph this purity before it disappeared. Perhaps he felt he arrived to late, though, because in his quest to portray Native Americans in their unadulterated state, he found it necessary to manipulate nearly every photograph he made of his subjects. What he saw did not quite match what he imagined, so he touched up his photographs.
What do all of these photographers have in common?
First, they all engaged with something that they cared deeply about. Brady documented the most significant event of his time. Adams responded to a threatened natural majesty. Hine was compelled to fight the immoral exploitation of children. Karsh championed heroism in authors, artists and statesmen. And Curtis lamented that progress necessarily soils purity.
Second, these photographers used the cumulative knowledge and technology of their day to express ideas relevant to their time. Ansel Adams was not photographing Civil War reenactments, and Mathew Brady was not illustrating Greek myths. Even Edward Curtis, whose vision was perhaps the most imaginative, created tableaus that invited critical scrutiny of modernity (as it was then perceived) in his time. Each one of these photographers was firmly rooted in his respective, present day.
Third, they all had something to say. They each carried a message, and the message each carried was his own.
Now consider the following message:
I went to the store
This is as straightforward as a straightforward message can be. It is simple, direct, and can only mean one thing. Or is that so?
I went to the store.
I went to the store.
I went to the store.
I went to the store.
I went to the store.
Without changing the message content, in this case five words, and by changing only the relative emphasis with which each of the five words is spoken, the original message takes on five, new, different meanings. There are many more possible meanings, of course, and these depend upon the tonal inflection with which the five words are spoken.
We are familiar with this in our daily lives. Who has not heard the word “Yes” spoken in response to a question, and yet from the way in which the word was spoken we had no doubt that real answer was “No.”
The tone matters! Photographs have a tone, just like spoken words. Tone adds nuance, flavor, and even spin to the message delivered. Tone is an important part of photographic vision.
But there is more. Who is it that is delivering the message? One might be tempted to think this doesn’t matter, arguing that a message lives through its content, but this is not necessarily so. Consider the claim that a car will easily sustain another 100,000 miles of driving. This statement may be completely true. If a salesman on a used car lot makes it, however, we should take his words with a large grain of salt. Similarly, we can expect understatement in all pronouncements made by the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He speaks cautiously because financial analysts parse each of his words and considerable sums rest on the balance. We attribute understatement to the Chairman’s tone, but perspective is conveyed through the voice of whomever is speaking. In this case, the voice is authoritative.
Tone, voice and message are essential to our communication. We understand this so implicitly that most of us take these considerations for granted. These considerations are relevant to photography, also. Whether intended or not, photographs have a tone, voice and message. (Sometimes the tone, voice and/or message is so nondescript, or insignificant, that we dismiss the image upon first glance.)
If we acknowledge the presence of these three elements, and if we understand their contribution, we can enhance effectiveness in the statements we choose to make. We can ward off misunderstandings. We can influence as much as we inform. We can assume creative control of our expression. And, perhaps most importantly, we can choose the combination of tone and voice that is most appropriate for the message we want to express.
So what do the elements of tone, voice and message entail? This is more of an art than a science, and my own understanding is still evolving, but thus far I have settled into the following framework.
Emotional state of subject or photographer
Who is speaking
What and why
The goal or objective
An altered state of viewer
An editor once told me that tone is the most difficult quality to control in developing one’s writing skills. I’m uncertain whether this is true for photography. With a modest amount of determination, especially in the age of PhotoShop, one can develop quite an arsenal of tones for visual expression. Sepia tone B&W to evoke nostalgia, High Dynamic Range (HDR) for candy-colored, punchy effects, high contrast for emotional starkness, and so on.
Tone is nested within voice. For any one voice, many tones are possible. Realizing that there are choices, and selecting the most appropriate tone for that voice, is an important responsibility of the photographer. In fact, sensitivity to tone and voice is perhaps the strongest indicator of a photographer’s maturity.
Voice is a slightly different matter. We all have a voice. We use it all the time. There may be some question as to whether a particular voice is truly one’s own, but by hook or by crook a voice comes out when we speak. Some of us, through the good fortune of genes, have an extensive range in our voices. We can hit both low and high notes. Others of us are more limited in our range and may substitute a change in volume for a change in pitch. Regardless of our natural assetts, discipline and training can bring out the best our voices have to offer.
The most famous, greatest photographers expressed themselves with a clear, strong and unique voice. (Note that not not all of them had an extensive range!) For the most part, they found this voice early in their careers and continued to develop it for the rest of their lives. This voice became synonymous with their identity. And, for reasons that have to do more with marketing than with creative achievement, a clear, strong, unique voice facilitates recognition and makes the achievement of fame more accessible. There are many, good reasons why photographers should strive to develop a clear, strong and unique voice.
But I do not believe that every photographer need limit him or herself to a single voice. Many of us, if not all of us, are capable of expressing ourselves in different voices. Within an individual, there may reside a range of voices just as within any voice there resides a range of tones. It would greatly confuse our message if we were to randomly switch between voices as we expressed a single idea. But knowing that we have a choice in voices forces upon us the responsibility of choosing that one which is most appropriate for our message. We may use a certain voice in one project, and a different voice in another. While multiple voices are not helpful to our pursuit of fame, they can accomplish something else. An appropriately customized voice diverts attention away from the photographer and onto the photographer’s message.
The message is where one arrives as a result of exerting effort in the expression of tone and voice. Without advocating that the message is more important than tone and voice, because all three are critically important, I will say that pure expression devoid of message amounts to noise. Noise is not communication, it is a sound. The message may be explicit, such as a photograph depicting who did what, or it may be considerably more abstract. A non-figurative image of sheer beauty could convey the invitation to enter a sublime state of contemplation. In any case, tone and voice direct the audience to the message.
The message flows out of one’s engagement with life. There is no substitute for an engagement with life. Photography is not about photography, it is about the things one photographs, why, and how. Wanting to say something isn’t enough. You have to have something to say. Unless photographers photograph something that they care about, their photographs won’t matter. This is why I repeat: photography is not about photography.
So, to answer the original question, what are we talking about when we speak of photographic vision? Photographic vision refers to something either seen or conceived. We relate to a vision when it is genuinely and vividly expressed. The elements comprising photographic vision are tone, voice and message. As photographers, we are responsible for choosing the most appropriate tone and voice to craft our message.
Now that we understand photographic vision is comprised of tone, voice and message, let’s rearrange the model just slightly and place emphasis where it truly belongs.
Message is comprised of Tone, Voice and Photographic Vision.