Photography and Art

Monday, March 31, 2008

Is it the Camera or the Photographer?

There is a nice little tempest in a teapot going on right now between Ken Rockwell and Michael Reichmann. Ken wrote an article here called Your Camera Doesn't Matter where he pointed out that cameras don't make good photographs - people do. A good photographer can make great photos with primitive gear and bad photographers can make terrible snaps with great cameras.

Michael Reichmann, for some unexplained reason, rose to the bait and wrote this comeback called Your Camera Does Matter where he states that artists are very fussy over their gear and choose cameras that enhance their work.

Who is right?

I'm going to side with Ken Rockwell because I think Michael misses the point of Ken's article. Ken's web site is aimed primarily at people like me -- enthusiastic amateur photographers. His thesis, even though not explicitely stated, was that the average amateur photographer would improve their photographs by working harder at their craft (either by taking lots of pics or by taking seminars and joining camera clubs) than they would by investing in lots of advanced gear.

Michael responded by saying that advanced photo equipment is important to artists. While that may be true, that totally misses the enthusiastic amateur audience who read Ken Rockwell's daily blog. Ken is saying to us, his audience, that we should take more pictures, become more creative and not sweat the gear so much.

There is empirical evidence to back up Ken's advice. If you go to one of my favourite photo cruising sites,, and do a search by camera, you'll see that has photos taken by every conceivable type of camera, everything from Canon to Zunow. There is some segmentation. If you look at random photos taken with point and shoot cameras, you'll see a predominance of family snapshots.

However, if you look at the photos taken by enthusiastic amateurs, who tend to own digital SLR's, you'll see very little correlation between the price of the camera and the quality of the photography.

Here are some random good galleries taken by low-end DSLR's:

Trains in the French Alps
Composition and Texture

Without picking on anyone, have a look at the Canon 1Ds Mark III random gallery and you'll see many snapshots that don't demonstrate much command of the art.

I've used many cameras and they are nearly all capable of generating good work. However, Michael does have a point (shared by Ken) that better equipment makes it easier to produce good work, all things being equal. But, you have to have talent and ability in order to reach the full potential offered by your camera.

Let me close with a golf analogy, because I think the golf mindset and the camera buff mindset are very similar. Most amateur golfers spend a small fortune on equipment, but very few can break 100. The conventional advice is that a dollar spent on lessons will outweigh money spent on equipment, but the lure of the marketing message is impossible to resist and golfers opt to buy the latest driver or yet another putter. The new equipment rarely, if every, makes a difference and most golfers have a stack of equipment in the garage that came and went, failing to deliver on the manufacturer's promise.

Camera equipment is kind of like that. Amateur photographers will likely compose and take the same shot, regardless of whether it is with a Canon Rebel or the latest 21 megapixel 1Ds. Yes, there will be a difference in resolution, but the lighting, composition and subject matter will still reflect the talent of the amateur photographer. It won't look any better at 21 megapixels if it doesn't already look good at 6. The lesson here is to find a way to take better photographs by improving your skills, before upgrading your camera equipment.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Training, Phoenix Arizona

This past week-end, I flew down to visit my brother and his family who live just outside Phoenix Arizona. We had a great time and played a little golf and enjoyed each other's company. On Sunday, we went to the Oakland A's/Texas Ranger spring training baseball game. The ball game was mildly interesting, but the fans were just a riot. I spent most of the game photographing the people in the stands. Here's a selection.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Toronto Found Art

I work in an exciting area of Toronto near the Queen Street West art gallery district. It doesn't always work out, but I try to get out for a walk every day and usually carry a camera of some sort. There is a lot of art on the walls of buildings in this neighbourhood and I've been taking photos of some of my favourite works. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do...

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Third Dimension Part II

It's funny that once an idea grabs you, evidence of it appears everywhere. Even though I've read tons of photo "how-to" books, none of them has talked about visualizing your photograph in three dimensions, yet some artists just naturally do this.

Here's a case in point. Today, I saw a cool exhibit by a young Montreal artist called Jessica Auer. Jessica won the Roloff Beny prize at Concordia University in 2006 and used the funds to travel the world, adding images to her "Re-creational Spaces" project.

These images are large, vibrant C-color prints that depict man's impact on tourist areas such as Las Vegas, Machu Picchu and Niagara Falls. These are non-judgmental photographs that challenge the viewer to make up their own minds as to the effect of man's intrusion on nature. Think of it as Burtynsky for the tourist trade. Funnily enough, the images are on display at the Toronto Imageworks Gallery (owned by Ed Burtynsky) right now.

Here's a sample image (the size obviously doesn't do it justice)

As you can see, the artist has created a wonderful sense of depth with this composition. The choice of vantage point puts all the lines on the diagonal, leading the eye from the foreground to the background.

Contrast this with many of my images that tend to have lots of parallel lines across the image, leading to a lack of three dimensionality.

The only thing I didn't like about this exhibit was the choice of C-print as the medium. I just find C-prints to be very plasticky and not a natural photography medium at all. Yes, the colour gamut is wonderful and yes, you can print some truly large photos on this medium, but the photos come out looking like they should be mounted on the wall at MacDonalds'. They have that feeling that they would stand up to spilled Coke and a good mopping. These prints were lovely, but could have better presented.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Third Dimension

Today, I went for a walk at noon hour and dropped in at the Stephen Bulger Gallery on Queen West here in Toronto. The current exhibit is by a wonderful Canadian photographer called Larry Towell.

Towell earned his stripes as a photo journalist, travelling the world to document the dispossessed. Wearying of the continual wars and general trampling of human rights around the world, he moved to Lambton County in south-western Ontario, bought a 75 acre farm and started raising crops.

His current photo exhibition is entitled "The World from My Front Porch", a huge departure from photographing worldwide human disasters and hardship. The photos are traditional black and white prints, 16x20 or larger, depicting Towell's family and pets in and around their farm. The scenes are pastoral, the mood is tranquil and the images are absolutely fabulous.

I first saw the photos in a newspaper article, then on the web, but I was not at all prepared for the impact that these photos have in person. The thing that strikes you when you stand in front of each image is the powerful depth of the composition. It's almost as if viewers were armed with 3D glasses at the front door of the gallery. There is something about each one of them that creates a powerful suction that pulls your eyeballs out of their sockets and into the image. Part of it is the quality of the prints themselves. These are traditional gelatin silver prints and the tonality of the images is just a thing of beauty. But, there is more to it than that. Each image is constructed so that the scene is three dimensional. There are cues to the eye and the brain everywhere, like dirt roads going into the background, a porch littered with trikes and toys leading to the subject, a boy in the foreground painting a picture of a truck in the background.

Towell has this amazing gift to see things in three dimensions and arrange the elements of the image to convey his vision. Here's an example. In the photo, you see three boys standing on a dirt road. The road recedes into the background. But, the boys are not arranged in a row - they are standing one behind another, all in focus. As a result, the image takes on this wonderful third dimension from the front boy, through to the middle, the back and then on down the road.

It reminds me of one of those optical illusions that were all the rage years ago, where at first you see a random pattern of coloured dots, but if you stare at the photo for long enough, you start to see a 3D image emerge. I get the same feeling as I stare at one of Towell's works. At first, you see a nicely composed black and white image with some handsome children or a pretty wife. Then, the image slowly resolves itself and the third dimension starts to appear. The photo seems to extend backwards into the wall.

This has given me lots to think about indeed. I look at my images and I see a lot of two dimensional works. In fact, when I take a photo, I tend to visualize the result in two-dimensional space. I compose the objects in the photo using guidelines like the rule of thirds that arrange them in a pleasing way along the x and y axis.

Now, I'm going to have to engage with the third dimension. I'm going to have to look for cues that place objects in relation to one another on the z axis, extending back away from the camera. The choice of lens probably factors into this as well. My guess would be that Towell uses telephoto lenses to compress the image and stress the depth of the scene. This calls for some experimentation!