Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Framing an Image

here you point the camera is the most crucial decision in photography. This may seem, on the surface, to be an over-statement of the obvious; but in fact, the mere act of pointing the camera, regardless of subject matter, is at the very heart of the photographic process.

etting aside the commonly considered issues of contemporary photography such as camera brands and formats, lens resolution charts and focal lengths, exposure settings, megapixels, dynamic range, post-processing workflow, printer output and other technical minutiae, the essential act of photography is, in its purest state, the process of selectively isolating a solitary image upon a screen within the camera.

istorically, the device first used for this purpose was known as the camera obscura, or dark chamber, and had been developed centuries before the advent of light-sensitive chemical photography. At its heart are three components: a lens to project an optical image, a screen to receive a projected optical image, and an enclosure to shield the screen from stray light. Substitute any type of light-sensitive surface for the view screen, whether of silver gelatin emulsion or photo-electric sensor array, and the ancient camera obscura becomes any possible iteration of modern photographic camera technology; yet the essential camera obscura principle remains unchanged.

etting aside a dizzying variety of contemporary technical issues that serve to merely obscure a deeper understanding of photography, the prototypical camera obscura shares with its progeny the basic operating principle of selective framing, differentiating what is to be viewed upon the screen from what is not through selectively choosing a particular image from a multitude of diverse options. Among an almost infinite assortment of possible photographic viewpoints from which to choose from, the photographer uses the frame of the camera to select one image at a time, to the exclusion of all others.

ow the photographer works with the camera device to frame an image varies with the type of viewfinding mechanism employed, with the various types having their strict adherents. One device used in some cameras to overcome the inevitable optical interpretation of a lens is to view a scene strictly through the borders of an open framing device -- the so-called wire frame viewfinder -- or the field lens of a rangefinder type of viewfinder. These devices have been used extensively throughout the history of photographic technology as an alternative to the through-the-lens viewfinding approach, promising the photographer a more untainted view of the scene at hand. Although such devices function as clear windows, offering a view interpreted solely through the photographer's vision, their photographic utility appears to be less accurate than the through-the-lens approach because the recording process intrinsic to photography inevitably imprints the image with the optical peculiarities of the camera's projecting lens, whose effects remain invisible to the wire frame or rangefinder style of viewfinders. However accidentally or intentionally the photographer's previsualization of the scene through the viewfinder matches the recorded image at the film plane within the camera, the net affect is that photographs function as mechanical interpretations of visual reality strictly through the framing offered by the image's border, along with the optical projection of lens upon viewscreen.

his process of framing an image is not merely one step among many others within the photographic process, but rather is at the very crux of photography, for the lines that define the edges of the image do so by discarding all other possibilities. Prior to aiming the camera intently upon some specific subject matter or viewpoint, an indeterminably large set of photographic images simultaneously exists as a theoretical field of probability. The photographer can muse on these innumerable possibilities ahead of time, wondering whether the light or the subject matter will cooperate just so, pondering their potential significance as any artist would prepare himself for the work ahead. All of these possibilities simultaneously coexist until the moment that the lens of the camera is turned upon a specific subject matter or viewpoint, at which time all other possible images are discarded except for the one under examination. Because the photographic process is essentially subtractive, removing all other possible viewpoints except the one currently being framed, it is just as much about what was excluded from the image as what was included.

he rectangle of the camera's viewscreen can be thought of as the boundaries of a mathematically closed set. The external objective world, that which encompasses all else excluded from the camera's gaze, is an open set of all possible photographic vantage points, while within the closed boundaries of the frame's edge is a closed set of only one specific perspective, to the exclusion of all others. Over time, as the camera's aim is shifted and moved by the photographer, countless other possible scenes are permitted to enter the closed set of the frame, one at a time, while those fleeting moments once framed and drawn in light upon the screen now disappear from view, evaporating back into that indeterminably large, amorphous set of hypothetical imagery. The photographer works to constantly bring new vantage points into focus upon the view screen, if but for a brief moment, then release them to vanish once more back into the flux that is the sum totality of our visual experience, a continuous process of selective exclusion. The sequence of images recorded by the camera serve as a testimony to that sequential process of selective isolation.

ecause the camera's grasp is finite and limited by physical laws, this Exclusionary Principle results in photographic imagery containing much less information than the surrounding open field of visual context from which it was derived. It is as if we could gain a more complete understanding of the photographic image strictly by examining the surrounding contextual field from which it was excised, rather than the photograph itself.

he conclusion we find inescapably obvious yet paradoxical is that photographic imagery entirely lacks context because the very visual elements which would provide such context are by definition excluded from the image by the very borders that define the image. This paradox operates simultaneously with the process of framing the image, as the photographer chooses which elements to keep and which to discard from the camera's gaze.

model boat, a man, a police car. Enigmatic, logically troublesome, problematic. We don't know who the man is. Could he be the police officer, off-duty, engaged in a pastime? Or perhaps the police officer is elsewhere, behind the photographer, addressing some trouble up ahead. We just don't know. What about the model boat? We don't actually see evidence of water, merely dirt and trees in the background. Maybe the man stole the boat, maybe he's posing for someone else's' camera, maybe it's a movie prop; we just don't know. Further examination of the image reveals a pair of shadows, as if someone else is lurking behind the man with the model boat. There's something unsettling about this juxtaposition of discordant elements, composed upon the camera's square frame. What we lack within the borders of this image is context, the deeper understanding; instead, we are relegated to mere supposition and inference.

ecause photographic imagery lacks intrinsic context, both the photographer and the viewer supply their own purpose and meaning through shared norms of popular culture, and personal and historic contextual understanding; often these respective implicit contexts operate at cross-purposes, this disconnect between creative intent and viewer receptiveness being purposefully exploited for the purposes of power, control, manipulation or propaganda. The crystal-clarity of the photograph's visual acuity, its power to render objective reality with an appearance of total validity, lends reinforcement to the deceptive power of the medium to present what appears to be an objectively accurate portrayal of reality, while in fact offering little of the more important contextual clues necessary for creating informed judgement.

he photographer Garry Winogrand understood this dichotomy when he stated that he created photographs "in order to see what things look like when photographed." In Winogrand's view, seeing the world merely with one's eyes was not the same as seeing it through the eyes of the camera, because the camera's view, though appearing to be optically faithful to one's intrinsic biological perspective, operates upon entirely different aesthetic principles. His body of photographic work bears testimony to a deep understanding of the Exclusionary Principle which, while upon a cursory glance appear to be snapshots of ordinary life exposed on black and white film, upon closer inspection reveal a Master's ability to excise a peculiarly personal interpretation of otherwise objective reality; place any other photographer within the same venue at the same time and an entirely different aesthetic would have emerged.

usan Sontag, in her seminal work "On Photography", gives us a sense of the medium's power to accede to the photographer's will, wherein she writes "Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context within which it is seen".

he camera obscura's viewscreen intercepts optical wavefronts at a particular distance from the projecting lens, translating three-dimensional data into a two-dimensional facsimile. This projection technique serves to interpret optical data through the mechanical interface of the lens/aperture device, inscribing the fingerprint of the optical device's characteristics upon the scene. Thus, the same scene, viewed from the same perspective, can be rendered with a multiplicity of various interpretations, depending upon the optical characteristics of the particular lens and aperture in use. These affects are uniquely photographic in nature, yet have become ingrained within the nomenclature of our visual culture so as to become virtually invisible to an all but purposeful deconstruction of the process of photographic seeing.

egardless of the evolution of photographic technology, its essential modus operandi remains little changed since Plato wrote of the fire projecting shadow-like images upon the cave's walls, the essence of which is to abstract from the temporal continuum a moment, or moments, from that which we call time, while in the spatial dimension it is to collapse three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional facsimile, leaving us a mere image of objective reality. It is therefore the power of imagery itself that is at the heart of photography's ability to captivate and hold our interest, mapped upon the internal film plane of our imagination, and which also implies the necessity on our part to seek a deeper understanding of the power of visual art, in an age when we can anticipate greater and greater manipulation of visual imagery for purposes ulterior to our own.


Anonymous Earl Johnson said...

I don't think you got to the essence until the last paragraph. I see the photographer's role as more than subtractive, as much more than editor. A photograph is a mapping of reality onto an object meant to be viewed as art - I think that this definition implies much more purpose and direction on the part of the photographer than you impart to him in your essay. My choice of a wide angle pinhole camera or my use of a curved film plane certainly does more than filter out pieces of the scene in front of me. My choices of tools and materials affect the end result as much as my actions in the decisive moment when I choose my subject. My mapping of reality may be more obviously directed to differ from what the eye sees in the live scene, but I would argue that my actions and my purpose are no less than those taken by any artist mapping that reality to a work of art.

I am not sure that I articulated that well, but I thank you for causing me to stop and think about it.

Earl Johnson, pinhole photographer

8:30 PM  

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