What’s Valid and What’s Not, and Why?

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Sam G. wrote: “For me, the more interesting idea is whether camping at a spot for hours on end removes the genuine serendipity. If you want a person to stand in a very specific spot in order to complete your composition, is it that much different to wait of hundreds of passers by to randomly walk through rather than just ask them to stand in the right spot? In both cases, you are imposing your vision on the scene rather than letting the scene present itself to you.”

He was talking about Jeremy Paige, whose work I like (what little I’ve seen of it, in the video)—I didn’t know of him before this. He comes off as the real deal. I’d like to see more of his work.

The issue of what’s valid and what’s not in getting a picture is interesting, although perhaps overblown in most cases. Of course it’s a thorny thicket. It has has to do with psychology, status, and assumptions and expectations. It also seems to have a lot to do with Internet culture, which has a marked petty-and-vindictive streak. People can get criticized severely for almost anything, because…well, because they can, I guess.

What’s okay and who says so? People can slammed for all sorts of alleged transgressions. A photographer once shot a project in the dark, using IR film and an opaque red filter. She put a bunch of nearly-nude friends in a room and shot away, discovering later what she had gotten. Were those not “her” photographs because she couldn’t see through the viewfinder what she was shooting at the time the shutter fired? What about a guy who shot from the hip for weeks and then edited severely? I know of a very good photographer who shot that way for years, although I can’t remember his name. Is it okay that Robert Frank exhaustively “worked” some of his pictures for The Americans to come up with a picture that looked like it was one quick and thoughtless snapshot? Robert Doisneau got Internet-shamed at the end of his life when people found out something that had long been known, which is that he wandered around Paris for several hours with the couple in Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville, taking many pictures of them in different locations. A friend who knew him said he was very troubled by the harshness of the accusations, which he shouldn’t have been, because the accusations were thoughtless, not to say mindless. How about setting up a camera with a motion detector to trip the shutter remotely when something happens in front of it? How about suspending a camera around a cat’s neck and setting it to fire at intervals for a cat’s eye view of the world?

All these things, which are all real examples by the way, have outraged somebody somewhere. Why? Who gave them the right to set the rules?

Jeremy Paige rediscovered Cartier-Bresson’s method, which in many cases was to find a scene and plan and wait. I use that method sometimes, as with the paddleboarder shot. That doesn’t mean the shot is staged. I didn’t know a paddleboarder would come along. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind until she came into view. (I was waiting for a canoe, which never came.) I didn’t tell her to stand, or how to dress, or instruct her where to look.

Anyway, if staged pictures are somehow tainted, then pretty much all fashion photographs and all still lives are tainted. If posing is bad, then most portraits in history can’t be good.

Is it inauthentic to take many shots of a scene to see what will work best? How about when a large-format photographer consults charts to find out when the sun will be in the right position, or finds a vantage point so she can exclude something intrusive? Is that dishonest? We were just talking about the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, which John Camp photographed showing the parking lot and commercial buildings that surround it. Are all the photographs and paintings that omit those things somehow lying?

Lying is at the core of the real issues here, of course. We’re mainly affronted or offended when we think someone was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Pretending something is one thing when it’s another thing. Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville looks like it was a snapshot, therefore people are critical when they find out it’s not. Of course, not very many viewers have a very subtle knowledge of what’s involved in making pictures, so the first thing that begs to be examined is their assumptions, not the pictures.

We all set our own rules. The real responsibility is to be considerate of viewers by acknowledging what is really going on.

And speaking of the paddleboarder shot, I’m interested in making a combination shot of that scene, one that includes both the geese and the paddleboarder. That was suggested by Ritchie Thomson in the comments. But of course, if I did, I would say, “this is combination photograph. The geese and the paddleboarder actually passed this spot about ten minutes apart.” I suppose I should look up the time stamp on the two images and give the interval in exact minutes and seconds! Because you can never be too careful.


Original contents copyright 2023 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Benjamin Marks: “Outrage is tiresome, and useless if we are talking about making art. The Internet has fooled us into thinking outrage is useful, or that it matters. It doesn’t. It is just a tribal marker, and folks must be pretty lonely and lost these days if they take such satisfaction in banding together in this cheap copy of community.

“Here’s my two cents. As long as no one is getting hurt in the making, all bets are off when art is being created. Plan, stage, pay, tech-up, tech-down, stalk, hide, buy gear, paint your belly with blue woad and howl. With the above proviso, all that matters is what the viewer of the art feels. There isn’t a ‘sin’ listed in your post, Mike, that would keep me from being moved by a beautiful image.”

Alan Wieder: “This is a very thoughtful post. Your examples are great and my thinking is that critics should make pictures of their own authenticity rather than condemning what other photographers do.”

Kristine Hinrichs: “Your inspiration was that couple in a canoe. Even if they were paddling, it’s likely a much ‘lazier’ scene than the paddleboard which (to me) exudes a different physicality.”

Niels: “I love the light and detail/texture of the photo on Flickr.”

Sam G. [the OP —Ed.]: “To be clear, I wasn’t passing judgement on the validity of a photograph. A staged photograph is not any better or worse than a serendipitous photograph as long as, as you said, the photographer is honest about what they are doing. I like Jeremy’s work. It is incredible! I just thought it was interesting how some of his photographs seemed to push the limits of what it means to be serendipitous.

“An attempt at an analogy…if you pick a number at random from the phone book, and happen to call your old friend from high school that you haven’t talked to in years, that’s serendipity. But if you continuously call random numbers from the phone book until you ring your old friend, that’s brute force.”


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