Process, Abstraction, and the Edge of Disbelief

The nature of the process and creative constraints

Garry Winogrand,  Hollywood and Vine, Los Angeles,  1969

Garry Winogrand, Hollywood and Vine, Los Angeles,  1969

I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.... — Garry Winogrand

I take that idea of respect for the medium as extending to the nature of the process itself, and with digital photography, that means not introducing artificial analog artifacts that you might find specific to toy cameras, hand coated processes, or the kinds of edge defects you might find with Polaroids or wet plate processes. You can't get very far without finding holes in that argument, and I'm ok with that. All art making is inherently personal and the idea of respecting the nature of the medium is simply something I have used to set limits on what I am willing to do when creating my own work.

I realize that with digital photography, it can be argued that its nature doesn't actually exist outside of the arrangement of electromagnetic charges, which can be endlessly manipulated to fit whatever the artist's vision might produce. If part of your personal approach is blending aspects of other processes, great, but for my work and how I teach, I tend to shy away from that. I prefer to work with what was in front of the lens, and the "believable" tonal edits that are an extension of the larger tradition.

That idea of “believability“ is something I have been chewing on for a while, and why some people are often drawn to black and white photography, and abstraction in particular. It is something I call the "Edge of Disbelief.”

Black and White and the Edge of Disbelief

Over the course of the last 150 years, we have come to understand and perceive photographs as representations of reality, in the sense that what was in the picture was (more or less) what was in front of the lens. I also think that is partly what makes landscape and abstract photography so interesting. A photograph can be a window into the world, a look through the window in which the maker sees the world, and into the maker themselves.

Lincoln County, Colorado, 1977   Robert Adams   from the exhibition  Landscapes of Harmony and Dissonance

Lincoln County, Colorado, 1977
Robert Adams from the exhibition Landscapes of Harmony and Dissonance

Why People Photograph and Beauty in Photography, both by Robert Adams, are two of my most loved books on photography. One particularly relevant quote from Why People Photograph has to do with the wonder of what was there in front of the lens:

At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect--a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known.

It is one thing to push against conventions, and another to push them over the edge of the cliff. Since we now have the power to easily and drastically alter what was in front of the lens, if the edits (vastly increased saturation, sharpness, contrast ranges, copied and pasted trees, etc.) are too pronounced it will look "unreal" and we have a hard time accepting it as a representation of the world. It goes over the edge of disbelief and we don't accept it. Simply put: if not done well, it will look wrong. I think that I what is behind the aversion to the Tray Radcliffe HDR approach. I also think that is why Jerry Ulseman's photographic creations are so interesting and why John Paul Caponigro's earlier digital creations are less so. It’s not exactly the same, but similar to why, when I see white dove wings cloned onto a "fine art nude," I roll my eyes, sigh dramatically, and hurry along to the next thing.


In* Beauty In Photography* Robert Adams writes about not photographing in color:

If, as a personal matter, I have chosen not to make color pictures, it is because I have remembered how hard it is to write good free verse, with which color photography has some similarities, both being close to what occurs naturally.

I’ve heard other people refer to the same idea and tend to agree that when working with black and white it begins as being one step closer to abstraction—already separate from the “real world.” Because of that, you are free from the tie to the reality that color photography represents, which can lead you to take more creative liberties when editing and printing.

Edge of San Timoteo, San Bernardino County, California Robert Adams from   Los Angeles Spring

Edge of San Timoteo, San Bernardino County, California
Robert Adams from Los Angeles Spring

That idea might be why some people are more drawn to spatially ambiguous and abstract photographs than the "easier" and less visually dissonant photographs. In the more abstract photographs, there is something more to discover—some mystery that continues to hold the viewer’s attention over a longer period and repeated viewings. Some of the criticism of the "St. Ansel" landscapes and their derivations is that once the initial awe has worn off, there might be little left to sustain further interaction. I also think that it is why it is so hard to make color photographs that work well at that deeper level. I'm not saying that it can't be done with color photographs, but that you are more limited in the adjustments you can make because color can too quickly go over that edge of disbelief and simply look wrong. 

I recently went back and made better scans of a bunch of my older 8x10-inch contact prints. these were not all of the photographs from the last 15 years, but there are about fifty that I keep in the "showing set" and that have withstood the continuous culling over the years. In some cases it is because of the way they fill in the sequence in the showing set. There are about 50 print from between 2002-2012 that continue to hold my interest. Those are the ones where there was not only a strong sense of abstraction, but also a sense of belonging to a recognizable and believable world.