The Addendum

Style vs. Substance

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Beauty and Meaning: Two essential tensions of photography. Willamette Draw and the abandoned Atofina Chemicals terminal, Portland, Oregon, 2010.

One of the essential tensions of photography is that between a photographer’s style and the substance of his or her photographs.

I spend a considerable amount of time looking at photography on sites such as Flickr. Of those that catch my eye, many of them are stunning. Shimmering liquid colors, stunning effects, dramatic angles. Sometimes I think that everyone is shooting stills on the set of Kings of Convenience music video.

Perhaps I am imagining things, but it seems these honeyed images are typical of the direction of contemporary photography, an effect of the digital age. It is not, I think, that this is the only kind of photography that digital cameras lead to, but rather I think it is the thumbnail effect. Technicolor dreams attract your attention at 100×125 pixels, and look great on a computer screen with its typically dull whites and grays. Rich saturation, “HDR,” post-processed additions and deletions; it’s all eye candy in all of its intoxicating glory.

Digital photographers didn’t invent this sort of thing of course, they’re merely following a long trend of romanticism and fantasy. One of photography’s greatest, Minor White, made a series of photographs of seascapes. So did Robert Adams, which seems out of character given his far more rationalist visual sensibility.

I don’t dislike these images (or images like them), but I confess I don’t value them much.

A photographer is responsible for whatever goes into the frame of his or her image. Intention — the Big Why — is the first and most important thing any photographer can and should ask of themselves. When I look at pretty, windswept images of the sea by White or Adams — just as when I look at the Technicolor fantasies of Flickr — I am moved… for a moment. Once the moment passes, the value of the image fades.

For all the technical wizardry we as photographers are capable of, for all the gosh-and-golly eye candy we can produce, for all the golden moments on the shoreline, it must never be forgotten that photography is first and foremost a medium of making records. What we photograph matters as much as — no! More than! — how we photograph it. As beautiful as a day’s end against the Pacific can be, what are you, as a photographer, contributing to the world by making photographs of it?

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