There are a number of important questions about being a photographer that I don’t know the answers to. I suspect this is not because I’m being thick or stupid, which I sometimes am, but because there are no right or wrong answers. In many other cases, I have strong feelings about an issue‚ but I can completely respect photographers who have come to the opposite conclusion (if their work convinces me of their conclusions, that is). That’s because I realize that there is no right and wrong; some things, we each have to decide for ourselves.
A number of the common locutions amateur photographers use‚ mainly without thinking‚ bother me. One of them is the phrase “this bothers me.”
One of the ways that amateur photographers make their pictures “stronger,” one of the basic tricks‚ is to zoom in and crop things out. Zooming in and cropping out (which are different ways of saying, and doing, the same thing) tends to simplify compositions, either by making the viewer’s attention center on one discrete object or else by reducing one aspect of a scene to a design element (pictures often known as “abstractions,” another annoying dumb locution). This impulse to zoom in and crop out seems to be so strong for many people that it’s one of the few ways they can think of to talk about a picture. And “this bothers me” is the common shorthand way for an amateur critic to say that the photographer has not zoomed in enough or cropped enough out.
Typically, the bothersome thing is something random or partial that the photographer has allowed to impinge on the edge of the frame. If a bit of a power or telephone line nips the corner of a frame, if a leaf seems attached to the line of the frame edge, if something like a street sign or a half a telephone pole split vertically is allowed to form a border, well, it will “bother” some bourgeois camera operator somewhere.
Personally, I suffer just the opposite prejudice. If the subject of a picture is too cleanly isolated, too efficiently cropped, it makes me feel existentially antsy. I feel it makes me look like a guy who doesn’t know or isn’t willing to acknowledge that the frame excludes a great deal and that the world outside of the frame is a hodgepodge, the picture merely a choice view plucked from the continual visual drone of the mundane, the banal, and the ordinary.
Ugly but honest
In 1979 I went to Ireland alone. I had planned to meet a girl, but she fell in love with an Englishman during her semester abroad‚ and neglected to inform me of that fact until after I’d bought a plane ticket. You know what they say: “oh well.”
I listen and observe a lot anyway, but when traveling alone I do it even more. In Ireland I listened to waitresses chatting as I hunched over smoked salmon salad; old men regaling each other with elaborate story-jokes over their pints in pubs; the give-and-take of families of tinkers and beggars by roadsides; the excited chatter of a group of schoolchildren on the deck of a ferry on a field trip to the Aran Islands.
One evening on the beach near Galway I overheard an American couple evaluating their vacation. “The problem I’m having,” the woman said at one point, “is that Ireland doesn’t look quite enough like pictures of Ireland.”
I thought it was amusing that she didn’t phrase that the other way around.
Years later, I went to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. One of the most famous pictures in Steamboat is a poster of two cowboys on horseback in a snowstorm passing in front of a barn. The barn in the famous picture is still there. But without the benefit of the obscuring snowstorm, the mountains behind it are revealed to be pockmarked with houses and condominiums, and, scattered all around the barn almost at random, as if broadcast over the ground by a giant hand, are modern buildings of every description; I remember there being a muffler shop. I took a picture of the famous barn from the road below it, showing all the architectural detritus around it, but the light was dull and it looks so unlike the setting for the poster that it wasn’t even recognizable as the same place.
So what’s better in your opinion—to show something in a way that is beautiful but false, or ugly but honest?
This is one of those things we each have to decide for ourselves.
© 2002, 2023 by Michael C. Johnston
Ed. note: This was originally published in 2002 on The Luminous-Landscape. I’m surprised at how economical it is; I’ve become more prolix in my portly years. There are also a few markers of arrogance that took me aback upon first re-reading. “Bourgeois camera operator”?! Ew. I hope I’ve become more compassionate since then.
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Featured Comments from:
John Camp: “You may not remember this, but years ago I sent you a photo of the famous San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Taos New Mexico, the one painted by Georgia O’Keefe and photographed by Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and lots of other famous photographers. The church is really kind of fascinating for its form, but I stopped across the street and shot it, as it sits in a really very ragged shopping plaza that crowds in quite close to the church, which is also obscured by parked cars, etc. There’s a guy here in Santa Fe who runs an interior design store, who has a collection of fifty or so paintings, drawings and photos of the church, and not s single one of them even hints at the overall environment. I still find my photo a little shocking, and also a little amusing.”
Mike replies: Oh, I remember very well, and it made a great post.
Robin: “This article seemed familiar, and by the end I realised that it was. :-) I came to Ireland in a similar way. The difference being that I stayed. What I have found is that none of the things that make this place ‘Ireland’ can be captured by a camera. Because it’s the atmosphere, the chat, the music, and so on. Visual particulars, when you see them as they are, are often not nearly as photogenic as some photos would have you believe. Which, perhaps, is another way of saying something similar to what you wrote.”
Ben: “Whenever you post something like this I’m reminded of Rondal Partridge’s image of Half Dome, with the overstuffed parking lot in the foreground. Is this ‘worse’ than a different image of Yosemite? I’m sure it’s hasn’t sold as many copies as Ansel Adams’ view of Half Dome, but that’s a bit of a fraught measure of ‘good.’ Why do I have to choose? Can’t there be good photographs from both perspectives?”
Mike replies: I think there can be, yes. And here’s that picture (in the addendum).
lynnb: “It bothers me that your rural picture with the 9th street pole appears to be a case of scannus interruptus. That’s where the computer goes to sleep during the scan and when you wake it up, there’s a clear break (vertical division and tonal change) that marks the point where it was awakened from its slumbers. As to cropping and simplification, I remind myself that life is inherently messy, as you unfortunately found out in Ireland. I prefer to think of those edge of frame ‘imperfections’ as a reminder that there’s always a wider context and a bigger story. To quote another saying, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Mike replies: Yes, all my scans with that scanner had the same break! I ended up throwing the darn thing away, but not before it aged me several years. And yes, I agree with you about details on the edges implying the greater chaos of the wider world. I can’t look at a studio fashion shot without seeing the rest of the messy set in my mind’s eye, with that little island of perfection in the middle of it.
JOHN B GILLOOLY: “Reminds me of a workshop with Jay Maisel at his bank maybe 10–12 years ago. My greatest takeaway from the week was his insistence ‘that nothing in the frame is neutral. Everything is either working for you or against you.’ That is a great lesson for a photographer to live by. It forces you to ask yourself whether something belongs in the photograph or not. It’s not always a matter of cropping or zooming, it’s often a matter of moving a few feet, or even inches, one way or the other.”
Roman Boiko: “I agree with you Mike, and I would not change the crop or tilt/shift projection of either image. I will just throw it out there that the preference for orthographic structures might by influenced by the physical screen or print size. Standing in front of a big print, the apparent ‘keystoning’ is lessened and mimics what you see with your eyes in front of a real building. Seen on a small screen with the framing of a monitor bezel and columns of text, etc., it is easier to be much more critical of tilted horizons and distorted structures.”