Depth of Focus
I've been thinking about the matter of focus in photography, a subject that’s received a lot of attention recently because of a continuing trend toward shallow depth-of-field imagery.
I’m not certain when this first began, the trend toward emphasizing a narrow plane of focus at the exclusion of an image’s fore- and back-grounds but, while I can appreciate the quality that subject isolation affords a portrait, for example, I’m just getting tired of seeing it. Shallow depth of field and its related attribute of bokeh - that term derived from Japanese culture to describe the quality of the out-of-focus areas within an image - seems to have become a means of exercising equipment-related bragging rights, since larger format (hence more expensive) cameras exhibit a shallower depth of field, all else being equal, and more expensive lenses often are engineered to exhibit a more pleasing bokeh.
In my constant perusal of the online photography world I’m seeing more and photographs that are big on form and little on content, all style with little substance, more like experiments in optics than photography applied to the real world. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Shallow is a good word for it, speaking to more than just the quality of focus.
My formative years of photography were in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which I’ve studied the work of many of the major landscape and documentary photographers of the 20th century. Almost without exception, content reigned supreme above form, and any obvious optical attributes evident in such images were the result of systemic limitations, rather than the intentional stylistic self-consciousness evident now in much of contemporary photography. Subject matter was of paramount importance, necessitating sharply rendered images. Above all else, clarity of vision and transparency of intent were deemed critical, isolated from any attributes contributed by the mechanics of the process.
There is this term “artifact” that I would like to introduce to these thoughts. Artifacts are unintentional or inessential modifications to pure image, brought about by the mechanics of the process, and at the very least are unavoidable. While in our imaginations we might behold some concept of the ideal image, in the real world of physics, optics and physical materials such images are imperfectly represented through the agency of some external medium, be it through silvery films, or colored dyes, or glowing specks from some crystalline screen. These physical media impart their own signature to the image-making process in the form of artifacts that might be recognized through careful scrutiny.
Many artifacts of historic media are so easily recognized as to have become cultural memes, like scratches in phonograph records, streaks and lines in film-based cinema or sprocket holes in roll film photography. Less obvious are the optical effects from the lens itself, replete with aberrations and distortions that inevitably follow from the laws of physics.
In the never-ending pursuit of the ideal image, many forget that using optical refraction as a means to project an image brings with it inevitable compromises, imparting its own artifacts. Different wavelengths of light refract differently, while only one subject plane can be in near-ideal focus at any one time. So we make compromises and adjustments based on limitations to our acuity of vision and precision of mechanical reproduction. We say “this is good enough,” and assign hard numbers to things like depth of field scales on lenses, for example. We learn to ignore the imperfections in our process long enough for the suspension of disbelief to take hold.
Our brains seem to be able to look through the imperfect haze of our cobbled-together image-making processes to catch a glimpse of that ideal image, if but for a brief moment, which we then retain as mental signposts for how to interpret all future imagery, teaching ourselves to see photographically, all the while learning to ignore the artifacts of the process, like squinting through scratched spectacles and seeing not haze and clutter but a more clearly defined mental picture of the scene before us.
The classic era of mid-twentieth-century documentary photography beheld the photographic image as having the power to mimic objective reality through careful management of the medium’s artifacts, the resulting images made transparent enough, through a cooperative process between image and viewer, to suspend one’s disbelief and make it appear as if some reasonable semblance to objective reality were being represented.
This is the power of photography, when its artifacts are properly managed, to appear to represent objective reality, all the while remaining literally a momentary snapshot culled out from time and space through the limitation of someone else’s (certainly not the viewer’s) editorial perspective. Which is why photography, and its child video, are so ideally suited as vehicles for propaganda and manipulation.
Perhaps my criticism of these recent stylistic trends in photography, like shallow depth-of-field, is shortsighted. Ours is a culture raised from birth inundated in photographic imagery from a multiplicity of media sources. The common person is now more apt to be a visual sophisticate, being more deeply articulate in the visual language than their predecessors, and more cynical, possessing some intrinsic pragmatism, of mediation’s intentions. It is no wonder that more photographers now choose to turn up the volume on their image’s mediated artifacts, as if to boldly declare that they now know the game to be over, that they are aware of photography's power to deceive and exploit, as if their intent were toward a more introspective photographic art that more clearly delineates what photographs do, as if to say “this is how lenses see the world, and it is not how the eye perceives of it.”
There is a refreshing honesty in this approach, I must admit, to free the photographic medium from the clutches of the propagandist, though I wish it were more universally true amongst the majority of photographers today, indicative of the medium’s slow maturation from propagandist’s tool toward artist’s implement.
This progression, we must recall, also happened to painting which, while once the medium of propaganda for king and bishop alike, has evolved since photography’s birth to become an entirely abstracted, introspective medium of self-exploration. Abstract expressionists applied paint to canvas to see, as Garry Winogrand said of his photographs, what paint looks like when applied to canvas, a thoroughly visual experiment, entirely disconnected from any representation of objective reality.
While it remains a naive pipe-dream to expect more people to turn off the propagandist’s media channels within their own lives in search of a more pure artistic intent, at least we can educate ourselves to the medium’s intrinsic power to deceive, and adjust our methods accordingly. Photographs serve us in more practical terms than to deceive and exploit the masses. We are not only consumers of mass media but are also ourselves creators of imagery, and in numbers vastly larger than the purveyors of corporate propaganda. Through our own efforts, via cell phone or point-and-shoot, we document our own lives, whether to humble or to flatter, and yet there remains that constant tension between the power of the medium to describe as well as to deceive. We desire our own pictures to be flattering above and beyond what might be the harsh reality of our personal visage, or attempt to capture in picture the romanticism of some landscape experience that in strict visual terms might be more cluttered or confusing than memory might ascribe. We use photographs in our own lives to self-propagandize the memory of our experiences into some more idealistic form.
It is for these reasons that I am attracted to the snapshot’s aesthetic charms, for under the surface appearance of some less than ideal composition by the agency of the amateur image-maker there remains the latent intent to invoke the power of memory for the purpose of preserving the preconceptions underlying our personal existence. We want our own photographs to preserve for us the recollection of more deeply personal meanings, rather than function as mere documents of our daily existence. In this aspect snapshots function as the implements of a deeply personal spirituality, helping us to fulfill what we might regard as a search for some sense of personal truth.
The action of focusing light upon some recording medium from an otherwise objective reality is intrinsically an editorial phenomenon, in as much as what can be seen excludes all else that remains unseen. To focus upon the specific is to lose sight of the larger context. As faithful as photographs are to record, they fail us in those moments between frames to remain objective, which demonstrates the limitations of the medium, of which it would do us well to remember.
Post-Script: Selective focus is now so popular that smart phone photo apps like Hipstamatic use software to blur parts of an image in an attempt to mimic shallow depth of focus, being as how the typical smart phone camera lens’ focal length is too short to provide any reasonably shallow focus effect optically. The images associated with this post are from Hipstamatic.
The antithesis of shallow focus is employing pinhole optics to the problem of photography, which produces images with near infinite depth of focus, but at the cost of long exposure times and an overall softness that has come to be recognized as that classic pinhole look.
I am simultaneously amused and befuddled by Internet discussions wherein people declare that they cannot make “professional looking” images absent shallow focus, hence necessitating the use of multi-thousand dollar camera systems. I can remember back to the 1970s and ’80s when the watchword was maximizing depth of field, rather than minimizing it, and the aesthetic at that time more generally appreciated images that were corner-to-corner sharp, with tack-sharp optics to match.
Photography at that time had yet to break free from its former role as tool of the journalist and photo essay magazine, and so description was its primary role, necessitating that the camera remain invisible to the resulting outcome.