The Argument for Photographic Purism

Stan at Netflix, 2008

These days, when I look at an image, I often want to know if it’s “true.” Now true is a dicey word. Photography by its very nature is an abstraction, and even the pioneers of “pure seeing” realized, as Edward Weston wrote in 1932, that photography involved a “willful distortion of fact.” It’s a slippery slope — from removing the color from an image, to changing the exposure to make it clearer, to removing dust from a negative, to removing some wires that cross the frame, to adding beautiful clouds above your family picnic, to putting a UFO in those same clouds. And instead of drawing a hard line between any one of those efforts to discern true from false, we have to both accept that all photography is a sort of falsity, and that its inherent communication of truth — which it totally can do — comes external to the image, from a trust in the photographer.

No amount of metadata can protect us from images designed to deceive. Because photos used to be work to create and harder to fake (and expensive to disseminate), we developed a reasonable presumption that photos were true unless proven otherwise. Today this has to be reversed. Every photograph is a painting, literal artwork, designed for our attention and enjoyment— a syringe that efficiently injects the creator’s agenda deep into our psyche (which could also be to sell us or convince us of something). Today it’s in our best interest to presume they’re all faked, unless somehow verified. That’s new.

A disconnect is that photos present an optical illusion when it comes to the human visual system — we have an instantaneous visceral reaction to what we see in a photo — even before we do the higher-order processing for the question of its veracity. Like telling the jury to disregard the outburst in the courtroom, it’s hard to get the genie back in the bottle. Which makes the fakes that much more pernicious.

In the end there is no absolute way I can know, so I am forced to rely on individuals or organizations that I trust to share a common understanding of authenticity; I only unwaveringly “believe” images from a few limited publications: National Geographic and, perhaps Scientific American. I also tend to give The New York Times the benefit of the doubt. From almost any other source (particularly online) I have to pause, if I can muster the restraint, to decide if an image was “faked.”

Two Kinds of Photos

At Lucasfilm in the ’80s I was concerned with the digitization of media, and later, at Netflix and Adobe, my work involved democratization of the tools for manipulating and sharing media. But my personal interest has long been with shooting and studying photographs.

It is from this vantage point in technology, media, and photography that I felt it was important to classify images differently — and today I divide all photos into one of two camps. On one hand are the pictures that are “pure seeing” or “organic” — just seen and captured. We can poke around at the edges what pure seeing means, certainly, but I believe we all generally understand what it looks like to see through a camera and save it.

Of inorganic shots, they can be inorganic in a number of ways. I want to know if the scene being photographed was under the control of the photographer in any way. Was it created for my benefit or for the photographer’s exploration— people put in place, told to do something? Was work done to configure it? Objects moved or directed? It matters. There is a kind of truth in the candid photograph and we can feel the difference between that moment frozen, and the image wonderfully crafted and assembled.

I used to love Doisneau’s “The Kiss by the Hotel De Ville” (1950) — but when I learned that he had staged the photo I loved it less. That’s a shift from organic to inorganic.

Cartier-Bresson

With just these delineations, we can slice the body of modern photography into images that are organic and those that are inorganic (which I prefer to call “crafted).” Weston set things up in his studio to shoot them, and directed Charis, his model-partner. Adams wasn’t much for setting up his photos, but of course famously fixed them in post. The rise of 35mm cameras and faster films made snapshots possible. Kertesz played in both realms, shooting moments of his life, and setting up interesting things to look at and shoot. But it was Cartier-Bresson who most embodied the organic ethos — he composed in frame, he noticed things in the world around him, and caught them beautifully. When he printed he wanted the viewer to know with certainty he didn’t crop his photos, and he left a black line around the outside verifying the edges of his negative. Cartier-Bresson is the godfather of this organic real-world composition in photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Hyeres, France” ( 1932)

Photojournalism is by its nature organic — it has ethics that prohibit the photographer from constructing the scene or adjusting the moment. The Magnum photo agency is legend for its zealous commitment to this kind of veracity — but great photojournalists (e.g. Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, Salgado, Koudelka) go farther, and artfully compose each image in fractions of seconds, which is in part what makes their work so beautiful and powerful. They moved beyond the journalistic to visual poetry.

Sebastiao Salgado, “Firefighter and Fireball, Kuwait” (1991)

Fine Art Photography

As to inorganic “crafting,” fine art photographers do this routinely — assemble a subject in some sort of juxtaposition, or in any variety of vignettes, to tell a story or convey an idea. I’m attracted to this kind of conceptual creativity, but it’s easy to see how it’s inorganic. The photographer is not trying to trick us into thinking “this really happened” or “this is real.” It’s a painting done with real objects. It can be overt collage — like Jerry Uelsmann or Maggie Taylor — or it can be nuanced refinement, from ten million Photoshop users.

(l) Stephen Sheffield “Ascent” (2009); (r) Irving Penn “Frozen Foods” (1977)

“Studio” work is also inorganic —whether literally in an artists’ studio or in a set-up outside — the control the photographer has over the subject and scene is significant. How can you not love the conceptual and studio images of Irving Penn, Kenro Izu, Ruth Bernhard, Willard Wegman; but their approach is wholly distinct from street photojournalists like Robert Frank, Ilse Bing, Marion Post Wolcott and Erika Stone. These latter photographers have more in common (photographically) with the average person with a camera phone than do the studio artists.

(l) Marion Post Wolcott “Unemployed Coal Miner’s Child Carrying Home a Can of Kerosene” (1938); (r) Erika Stone “Lower East Side” (1947)

Clients sometimes ask wedding photographers to add in Uncle Charlie when he missed being in a photo, or to make brides look more beautiful than biology granted. People are allowed to sculpt their memories, even if that forces their images to prove the untrue. We don’t flinch with the addition of studio make-up and lights, but are sometimes uncomfortable with Photoshopping out wrinkles. I don’t want to debate the ethics here; I only want to propose that these creative efforts are different from the “pure” photographs I take and want to see, and different from how I’d like people to look at my photos.

If I cannot metadata my way to proving to you that I composed that photo by noticing something inexplicable and catching it perfectly — then I need another way to make that case. I want the presumption to be that I’m presenting a straight image when I show my work — I do a “different kind of photography” than most professionals. This is a new problem.

Modernism in the Digital Era

I think of what I’m doing as “pure seeing” and consequently I think of my work as a sort of return to many of the old notions of photographic modernism, although now as a reaction to both the digital malleability of images and the sheer quantity of images we experience. Some of the environmental conditions are here again: the proliferation of quality 35mm cameras that lead to modern photography is akin to the exponential growth of phone cameras today; Like many amateur photographers, I reject the effects and modifications that are increasingly accessible and believe that the camera and straight composition is sufficient — and an appropriately challenging way — to create new and delightful ways of seeing. And it’s important to know a work is straight.

A couple recent Instagram posts from friends; Nate (at left) usually shows photos that are organic, so for this “amazing shot” he has to qualify it as faked. It would only take one share of his image for that note to be lost and this to be consumed as a true photo; conversely Russell Brown (at right) is one of the pioneers of Photoshop and has to qualify that he really saw the bird and this is an organic image.

There are a few somewhat-related attributes to images that are shot as organic photos. At a practical level, it is creative photography regular people can do walking around with their phones, in part because it is the very least amount of organizational work — it involves no planning or equipment, no conceptualization, and little technological skill—and is very much spontaneous. It is the application of journalistic and poetic principles to everyday picture taking. Here in summary are the tenets of this approach, which I believe will resonate.

Half Moon Bay, 2017

Pure Seeing

It is the act of catching a real moment, of real things. Images are discovered and caught, not montaged together in software. They present the ephemeral or overlooked, they see the commonplace in a fresh way. They are unset-up, undirected, completely in vivo.

Davenport Sea Glass Hunters, 2016

Formally, But Naturally, Composed

Like a painting, every element of the image is purposeful, but not contrived. They are harmonious in their spontaneous placements. They hold a rhythm of discovery that presents an experience of delight. They embrace the nature of “the decisive moment.”

Lake Chautauqua, 2009

True

Whether an inner or external truth, they speak to something that is real and personal in the world, a feeling, a moment, something intimate, maybe something known and forgotten.

San Francisco, 2015

Moment, More than Object

They are very much about time — they couldn’t have been taken by another person at another moment; they embrace the essential nature of a camera to reveal the fleeting.

Palm Springs, 2015

Without Commercial Intent

Photos taken for the love of photography, not for a client or the public.

By creating and noticing these distinctions, I find it’s easier to discuss and teach photographic creativity and I propose it is useful for an entire body of creative work — both in the past and today.

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M. H. Rubin

M. H. Rubin

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.