My Response to Mark Dubovoy
Over at Luminous-Landscape — one of my favorite websites for stuff photographic — Michael Reichmann posts the occasional article from Mark Dubovoy. I know Michael, but I've never met Mark. I have no doubt that he is an accomplished photographer and a nice guy, two qualifications I know Michael would require of anyone he allowed to grace the pages of his website.
However, Dubovoy's recent article, Everything Matters, is a perfect illustration of one of the schisms in photography that goes way, way back: the debate between equipment and artmaking. I respect Dubovoy's position, but I find it exactly 180-degrees out of phase with my own. Were I to title an article that represents my position, it would probably be Nothing Matters Except the Art.
With the hope of stimulating thought and furthering the discussion, let me comment on Dubovoy's conclusions which I'll reproduce here:
There are a few things that I hope you will always keep in mind after reading this article:
- Everything matters. It is all about the small details. Celebrate these details. They are what makes photography so exciting.
- Do not ignore details. Even the smallest ones can be crucial. The weakest link in a chain will always determine the ultimate quality of the entire chain.
- Do not rely on specifications, measurements or marketing claims. Trust only your eye/brain system.
- Search for the unseen. The first step in creating a great image is to show something heretofore unseen.
- It is not only the subject matter that contains the unseen. It can be a special angle, a special view, unusual lighting, a distinct vantage point, Hyper-Reality or something else.
- Prints and screen images from larger format captures always look better, regardless of the size of the print or the screen image.
- Avoid myths. This is why I busted the first one and will bust a few more in the second part of this essay.
- a.) It's not about the small details. In fact, pursuing the small details may make for a boring photograph, not too dissimilar to some of those long passages in Dickens where he describes the stone work on a bridge for 5 paragraphs while we all wait impatiently for the story to continue. Worrying too much about the small details places the artist in the precarious position of losing sight of the forest while they count the nubbins on the branches of the trees. To say that it's about the details is to say that the weave of the cloth on the Migrant Mother's blouse is more important than the expression on her face.
b.) Details are not what makes photography so interesting. It's photography that makes photography so interesting; it's what is communicated that makes photography so interesting; it's its ability to transport us through time and space that makes photography so interesting; it's the way it connects your mind/heart to my mind/heart that makes photography so interesting. Ansel Adams (king of photographic craft) said it far better than I when he said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept."
- Don't pay any attention to the details if they distract you from the task of connecting to the heart of the matter. Because time and effort are the limiting commodities in the process, focus your energies on feeling and let your eyes and your camera take care of the details. Let go of the minutia and stay connected to your art. Besides, the camera will record far more than you will see — a self-evident statement that is proven every time you look at one of your images and discover a detail that you hadn't noticed at the moment of exposure. Yes, the weakest link in the chain will determine the quality, but you, dear photographer, are always the weakest link. You can tire, become distracted, have nothing to say, fail to plumb the depths, miss something crucial, think with fuzzy distortion, allow habits to control what you perceive: the camera just records, mechanically, robotically, with the dumb intelligence of a machine. If you really want to use a stronger chain, pay attention to that link that forges everything the art-making process: your heart and your mind.
- Trust the specifications the manufacturer states. If they claim there are 12 megapixels in your camera, you need not test to see if there are actually only 10 megapixels or if there might be 20 megapixels if you use the right post-processing magic bullet. There will be 12 megapixels, you can count on it. If that is what you need, plunge in and start making photographs. You will discover quickly enough if the equipment allows you to create what you envision. If not, change your equipment. If it satisfies, forget about it and make more photographs. The best criteria to judge will almost never be your eye or your brain, but rather your heart and your soul. Photographs that satisfy your eye/brain but fail to connect with your heart/soul will be best tossed in the round file for they have no future, no power, and no ability to speak or connect us with one another.
- I agree with Dubovoy here, but only if the "unseen" is understood to be something that is heretofore hidden by the veil of mystery or numbness. The role of the artist is to show us what we cannot see for ourselves — a statement that has absolutely nothing to do with optical resolution. The role of the artist is to see the unseeable, to say the unsayable, to know the unknowable. Theirs is a gift, both from the cosmos and to their audience. Artists are conduits, not human magnifying glasses. The first step is never to show, but always to know. In fact, that is the Achilles heel of photography: it is far too easy to show without knowing. The first step is never action, but passivity. The first step is never to expose, but rather to repose. The first step is to listen and learn, to absorb and feel, to let go and let in. Everything after this is just mechanics. It also explains why so much of photography is merely pictures, and why so little of it is art.
- a.) By definition, hyper-reality is a form of not being real. There is a place in photography for fantasy, I suppose, but stating the case for realism was precisely what the f/64 movement was all about. Those pioneers understood that observing and connecting to reality is a much higher thing than the fanciful and the unreal. As Shakespeare said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The thing the camera does so eloquently is to connect us to the real in a way that no other art medium can. When a photograph is pushed to the hyper-real, it enters the realm of the cartoon, where the laws of physics and biology evaporate into a dream world of what can never be. Again, there is a place for this and such images can be interesting, but notice how cartoons are not about the details.
b.) Angle, views, lighting, vantage points — these are all the stagecraft of photography. Craft should not be underestimated nor under-controlled, but it should also not be confused with the heart of the matter. One cannot see the unseen by changing angles, views, lighting, or vantage points alone. Yes, we may — and probably will — use these tools to create the photograph, but only employ these when they are the best tool to tame craft to the vision. The vision is the thing. As Minor White said, "We should photograph not only what it is, but what else it is." The else will not be revealed by a clever angle, but may be revealed by a clever angle. Now there is a Zen paradox that even Minor White would approve of.
- Large format captures will always look better? I cannot believe Dubovoy wrote this with a straight face. I suppose it depends on how one defines "looks better" — sort of like what the definition of "is" is. See point 2 above. This statement feels more like a premise or rationale, than a conclusion. Of course large format captures will always look better if your definition of looking better means things made by a large format capture. I'll move on because I'm getting dizzy just thinking about it.
Avoiding myths is, I suppose, good advice providing one has the discernment to know when a statement is a myth and when it is wisdom. But, how are we to judge? Isn't it possible that Dubovoy's entire thesis is a myth based on the premise that more detail implies a better photograph? Isn't it possible that my entire thesis is a myth based on the premise that photography is (or can be) an art-making medium? This is precisely why genius cannot be taught and why art schools can only teach craft. We each are the arbiters of information and the victims of the myths we believe. The maxim "Seeing is believing" is exactly backwards. What we believe determines what we see; that is to say, our belief systems filter our perceptions. To take this concept — the belief that photographs are better when they have more detail — then the best cameras will be those that produce the most detail. Isn't this obvious? But, if you believe that photographs are better when they reveal feelings, emotions, moments or perhaps even thoughts and ideas, then the best cameras will be those that most successfully allow the photographer to liberate their mind from the photographic process and focus their attention on the emotional content of the art.
Photography's history is a constant ping-pong of these competing myths. I'm not sure either is ultimately right or wrong, but they do offer choices about how we choose to relate to the craft and to our art making efforts.