“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” -Marcel Duchamp
My last year of university my art professors gave me the freedom of a grad student; I was left to paint on my own, and I would meet with them once a week to show my newest work. One semester I had the two most respected painting professors simultaneously, and when I would meet for coffee and critiques with each one I showed them the exact same paintings. I would line up five canvases, and the first professor would point and say “good, good, bad, good, bad” and then proceed with his explanation of why. A few hours later I would take the same paintings and line them up in the same order in front of the other professor, who would say “bad, bad, good, bad, good.” They had totally different opinions, and there was no way to paint something they would both like. But that was the great lesson that has stayed with me; once you go beyond the technical ability, art is subjective. As Marcel Duchamp said, it is 50% what the artist creates and 50% what the viewer adds. Each person’s view is a result of their personal history, imagination, and taste.
This week I used Facebook as an outlet to involve friends and family in the photography editing process. The photos were of a leathery old fisherman in Puntarenas. Editing is often more difficult than shooting, especially when you get several great photos of the same subject. I guessed totally wrong about which ones people would pick, which made it all the more enjoyable for me to read. (That does make me wonder though how many photos I have buried away that people would like more than what I show the public!) If you were one of the friends that voted for a favorite, remember that I am no different than one of the art professors I mentioned before; I have an educated opinion that you can learn something from, but it doesn’t mean my choice is any more right than any other choice. Ultimately, choosing a “best” photo from these is purely subjective. I said I would reveal my pick and describe the photos today, so here it goes:
All of these photos were shot with a Nikon D700 + a 50mm 1.4 lens. It was in a carport/ boat ramp with filtered light that created a lightbox effect, and the color contrasts were what made me jump out of the car.
This is actually the photo that I thought most people would pick. It was my runner-up, but was actually the 4th place in the public votes. What works here: 1) Direct eye contact- eye contact in a travel portrait engages the viewer. 2) great expression; the subject is totally at ease… this stoic look reminds me of an indian chief. He is relaxed, comfortable, and open to the camera (and the viewer) 3) Composition- natural framing (the red pillar, white door frame, and log) frame his body and draw focus to the man and his weathered body. The eyes are the entry point, the landscape of his skin the path, and the exit point is with his legs going out of the frame. This photo is all about the man.
What it doesn’t have: Don Miguel had three main features that were eye-catching- his leathery reddish skin, his thick white wavy hair, and his two bottom teeth. In comparison with the other photos his hair isn’t as dynamic and his teeth aren’t visible, but for me his gaze made up for that. I also de-saturated this photo a little, so the colors are slightly muted by comparison to the other 3. I did this because I thought it matched the mood of the picture, and gave a hint of a weathered feel to the photo. I don’t know if that had any impact on the comparison, but it is the only photo that the saturation was lowered. The Japanese have done market research that proves people are more attracted to bright colors and deeply saturated images; this is why point-and-shoot cameras are now pre-set to saturate colors so intensely.
This was the crowd favorite, receiving more votes than all of the others combined. It was the only wide shot, showing more of the surroundings. What it has: 1) A story- It is obvious that he is telling a story, and that encourages the viewer to look at the surroundings and imagine what that story could be. Since it was a wide shot, there are more “puzzle pieces” to work with. 2) Gesture- His gesture at first glance implies motion, but at closer inspection seems as solid as a bronze sculpture. 3) Balance- this photo has a unique balance to it, and a lot of layering. The colors are balanced, the shapes (despite being curiously “off kilter” as it was pointed out) are balanced, and even his gesture makes him seem like he is balancing the photograph. 4) The 3 elements- this photo also shows all three of the characteristics that were so intriguing about Don Miguel; his skin, his teeth, and his hair.
What it doesn’t have: I don’t know that this photo is necessarily missing anything, but side by side choosing between a wide shot and a close-up I personally tend to go for the close-ups (assuming they are equally interesting). I am also probably a little burnt out on doors because I’ve photographed so many over the years.
By naming this photo “The Composition” I don’t mean to say that it has the best composition of the 4, because it doesn’t. I mean that it seems that composition is the dominant characteristic. What it has: 1) Gesture- I love his right arm in this photo, and gesture of the left arm is nice too. 2) Don Miguel’s 3 traits- again, here we see his great hair, skin, and two teeth. When I saw this photo the name for the series and this blog popped into my head and stuck. 3) Balance- The balance in this photo is between the texture rich subject in the bottom heavy right corner and the empty blue wall behind him that he is pointing to. This photo is more dependent on the high color contrast to stay balanced than the others, but it works.
What doesn’t work:
Eye contact (well, the lack of, I should say). I think the fact that his head is facing me but his eyes aren’t looking in my direction made me skip over this one. The other thing, which no one would ever know, is that this is the only photo that is cropped. I think it is common for photographers to be more proud of the compositions that they made through the viewfinder than ones they made in post-production.
The Digital Painting
This was my pick of the 4 photos. To understand why I like it you have to remember my frame of reference; my formal education was as a painter. I’ve studied a lot of photography as well, but regardless of whether I’m using a brush or a camera I’ll always be a painter. Painters battle “flatness” from the first stroke, trying to represent 3 dimensional objects on a 2 dimensional canvas. Painting makes you keenly aware of the tools that you have to do this. These tools, or attributes, are: line, shape, value/ tone, space (positive and negative), light/shadow, texture, color, perspective, and composition. There isn’t time to go into these in depth now, but let’s just say that for me this photo has a successful sum of these parts; they make Don Miguel almost reach out of the photo. In this case it doesn’t bother me that he isn’t looking at the camera because he is looking in the same direction that his hand is gesturing. There is something effortlessly graceful about it that grabbed my attention.