Improvement or interpretation?

Here I needed to make some adjustments to a photograph I had taken without making it obvious, just ‘improving’ it to make it stand out more from it’s surroundings. The image in question needed to be a portrait taken in the shade. The shade element presumably takes away the high dynamics that appear in portraits taken in direct light which would make the process of subtle improvement quite difficult.

I shall outline the process I used with the images below.


Quick mask

I started by using quick mask in Adobe Photoshop to shade in the subject’s face. I zoomed in so the subject’s face was filling the screen for accuracy). I used a brush that was 50% soft to avoid hard edges on the subjects features when I had finished selecting the head. I then painted in the red area.

inverse selection

After exiting quick mask, I inverted the selection to give me the marching ants around the subject’s face. I then started to apply some contrast, brightness and a little vibrance. I found that unless I was going to alter the rest of the image, if I used too much alteration it would look very abnormal and stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Hence (as per the course notes) it is very difficult to see the difference between the original and the edited version. The two are below for comparison.





Looking closely there is slightly more detail in the hair and slightly more contrast on the face once I have finished editing. The eyes are slightly lightened due to the global lightening and puts a little more sparkle in the eyes. In fact, to my mind, his face looks a little orange and unnatural.

I am asked in the course notes to ‘Consider the limits that you would accept for this to remain an innocent, legitimate adjustment.‘ The words ‘innocent‘ and ‘legitimate‘ are very subjective and ultimately require me to have had an aim in the first place. In this case the actions are legitimised by the request of the exercise (although the tabloid editor asking the Photoshopper to perform a change of features on a celebrity would also be legitimate in this case). Innocent is a word which causes me a few problems. There are a few ramifications. At no point are any alterations innocent in my opinion. They are done with the full knowledge of the editor and as such can never be innocent. If, on the other hand the text is suggesting that it doesn’t do anyone any harm, again there could be an argument against it. In the case of the image above, any alterations are done due to a shortcoming in my technical ability in making the image in the first place. However, any photograph taken in RAW must by definition be edited/manipulated to some degree.The same is true of the celluloid negative, whilst no dodging/burning/cropping may take place, the decision has been made as to how long the negative should be exposed to the light, at the very least. A test strip of different exposure times will surely have been made prior to the final print being made. This in turn will drastically affect how the final printed image looks. None of this would be termed as wrong, indeed in the case of film it is absolutely necessary. But it is still intervention and interpretation. Many classic photographs can be seen in many different exposures from one publication to the next. This is all down to the printer and photographer.

Assignment 5 – TAoP – Reflection on assignment

As my pre-shoot posts revealed, I had some trouble with the set up of this shoot at a late stage and had to move location and factory to get a story. This was quite disappointing as I couldn’t get the larger picture as previously discussed with both my tutor and my Magnum mentor. I still think it would be an interesting project to follow to it’s natural conclusion. I was even scuppered at the last when I wanted to photograph in one of the outlets that stocked the sarongs. I was told politely but firmly that I would not be taking any photographs (they then followed me round the store). Unfortunately I had no come back as the owner had asked me not to mention her or the company when going in to the outlet. But this is all part of the trials and tribulations of these sort of stories. Nothing ever goes absolutely to plan so I just had to make the best of what I got.

In the end I was pleased with what I shot and felt that the story did ultimately do what I wanted it to do. The family felt at ease with me taking photos, especially on the second day when they were very relaxed and I think I got the most out of it at that point. I can see in the shots from the first day that they are not quite as receptive and relaxed, making the shots slightly more stilted although this may not come across in the final images.

I saw the benefits of planning ahead even if some parts of the story didn’t come to fruition. The brief shot list I compiled helped me through the shooting and meant I didn’t miss anything that I really needed. Technically I was lucky with the lighting as if it had rained or been dark then I would have had a job to show the detail that I was wanting to show. Fortunately the light was pretty much perfect for both faces and fabric.

Another area I wish I could have expanded on was that the family were joined by extended family towards the end of the last day of shooting. There evidently was to be a celebration the next week and all the men were in drinking coffee, smoking and chopping onions in prep It made for some great photos but after thinking about it long and hard, it just didn’t fit in with the narrative I was attempting to tell with the image numbers I was allowed. I daresay I could have gone over spec and it wouldn’t have mattered. However, the brief was there in front of me. If I had sent an article to an editor with 15-18 images for a 12 image brief, they would have been cut. So I decided to stick with the brief given. The same was true with expanding it beyond the ‘four’ walls of the factory. I thought about some general photography outside in the town but realised it would be just that, ‘general’. It would not have impacted on the story in a positive way.

I also wanted to get across that although this was hard work, it was not some sort of sweat shop that we all get used to seeing in the media. They were working for the family business (which of course can be the hardest), but the humour and apparent relaxed atmosphere really shone through. Hopefully this also came across in the series of photographs.

Technically I thought quite hard, in advance, about how to make the photographs. Which lens lengths to use and the style to employ in the main as the rest (lighting etc), would be out of my control. Of course this would be documentary photography. The main feedback throughout my Magnum mentorship was to get closer, be more personal (à la Robert Capa) and to take a few more risks (à la Robert Enoch, my AoP tutor). I have definitely got closer but have I taken more risks? In hindsight possibly not, at least not with my photography. My risk was more about taking on this project in the first place and getting out of my comfort zone personally. I suspect the risk taking in photographic terms will come along once I have become more comfortable with the personal risk taking, if that is not an oxymoron.

I now suspect I could have used photographs like the ones below. Less defined regarding the narrative (at least the narrative line I took), but slightly riskier regarding content. So, more graphic and less pretty.

ass5-3376While I’m still not sure this would have mad the final cut, I enjoy the different outlook that it gives. It shows the bruise on his back and the rips in his shorts. The muscular working arms and fingers are more pronounced, the fingers smudged with paint. The lack of personal attachment as I have neglected to get his head in to frame. If I look for a punctum here, the red underwear actually draws me in. Something about it disturbs the rest of the image, just the common workman-like appearance of the underwear showing I suppose. The image as a whole is much less romantic than the other images in the series which is probably why it wasn’t included, as my mind was set down a different road of explanation and narration.

ass5-3387The image above was much closer to making the final cut. I wanted expressive movement and expressive colour. This gave me both in a very graphic way. The triangle of black, top right, is big and quite appealing but for no apparent reason (technically it is a black hole which shouldn’t be there). There is a certain ‘yin’ and ‘yan’ in the set up of this graphic. Yet again, in the end, it just didn’t fit in with the narrative that I had decided to tell.

With both of the above I liked the individual photographs but using them and images like it in my final edit would have told a disingenuous story. It would have been far darker than my intention and indeed the reality which, in the end what I was trying to put across to the viewer.

In summary then, I was happy with my final assignment but possibly happier with what I have learnt along the way and from my assessment of it. The application of that learning is the next step.

Studium and Punctum

Part of my feedback on assignment 4 from my tutor regarded my lack of recorded research on photographers and the thought process of photography in general. He suggested that I,  “Have a look at Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, thinking about his two key terms “Studium” and “Punctum”. Write about these when you think you’ve understood them and apply the learning to the way you write about your own photographs.

I remember approaching this book a number of years ago and being completely at odds with the way it was written. The language did not resonate with me at all (I was in my twenties at this point) and subsequently I found it very difficult to understand (which led immediately to boredom, especially with the insistence that I did actually need to read it). Much less was I able/willing to disseminate it as my tutor wanted me to. I suspect I did not appreciate at that age the fact that it was translated from French to English. No matter how faithfully it was reproduced, the language subtleties, turn of phrase and inflection were never something that could be entirely subjugated to the Queen’s English, much less understood by yours truly.

So, it was with some trepidation that I approached it again twenty years later. The crux of me reading, disseminating and understanding the text centred on how I write (and therefore think) about my own photographs. In opening the book and reading the first few pages, the memories came flooding back. Indeed, the flowery, Gaelic flavour of the text makes for a big struggle in reading. I am not adverse to philosophical readings but his seems more of an artistic ramble than constructed and constructive philosophy. In the same period (late 1970s) there were other publications on offer regarding the philosophy of photography, chief among them On Photography by Susan Sontag (1977). Sontag’s take, though, is eminently readable and enjoyable albeit entirely different.

In situations where I struggle with the language of a book, I do try to persist at least for a few chapters. In this case, although it never made for pleasant reading I did at least, by the time I arrived at the area of my immediate interest (studium and punctum), start to glean a modicum of what the author was trying to impart to the reader.

I shall try and break it down the way I understood it. Then I will attempt to relate that to how I would and maybe should read my own photography.

Studium – That which by cultural learning, a generality, draws the viewer (spectator) to the photograph in the first place. The scene (photograph) in front of us is the base intention of the photographer. What they want us, the viewer to see. We are the vessel of the photographer, becoming complicit with their thinking and aesthetic views of what they present before us. Ultimately, Barthes say, we may ‘like’ this image, but the studium, the base intention, is only enough to bring us to initially view the photograph. To ‘love’ this image, there has to be a further ingredient.

Punctum – This is where, quite literally, the ‘pointed’ interest gives us the ability to ‘love’ the image before us. Barthes uses words such as ‘prick’, ‘bruise’ and ‘pain’ to describe his emotion towards what makes him linger longer over the photograph and moreover to become emotionally attached to it. I like these emotive, evocative words which in themselves make me want to read further and understand more about what is being said on the subject. Further more, the punctum is an accidental bruise; something the photographer did not intend to be in the scene (either physically or metaphysically) in the first place or may be did, but not for it to be read in the way that this particular viewer read it. It is, argues Barthes, a deep seated personal relationship to the punctum that gives it its strength. This expands to the point where any image or photograph can have punctum as each photograph is unique. What may only be studium (the average, the mudane) to one spectator may to the next, be a revelation of punctum or even puncta. So, punctum is unique to the individual viewer. It can be the smallest physical or metaphysical unintended facet of an image and yet it becomes larger than the studium to fill the spectator’s gaze and wonder. The lack of explanation for the appearance of punctum makes it all the more ‘bruising’ and surprising.

To extrapolate from this, some photographs will contain punctum that spike more than one viewer’s imagination, therefore becoming more popular. With that, the images are reproduced on a wider scale (via social media etc) with even more viewers seeing what is now a celebrated punctum and it has a (forced) resonation or emotion pull with a vastly wider audience than Barthes may have thought. Does this turn the now somewhat manufactured punctum to studium?

Such words as ‘prick, ‘bruise’, ‘shock’, ‘wound’ used to describe punctum by Barthes, excite certain emotions. All are somewhat violent and some are almost sensual in their definition. Taken to it’s natural conclusion, pain leads ultimately to death. Barthes’ obsession with the subject becomes more and more pronounced as the book unfolds, as though it has been written linearly, the author discovering more about himself and the issue of mortality as he journeys further in to his attempt to understand his own mother’s death. I feel he is almost chastising himself in someway using these emotive descriptions of what he is trying to put across to the reader. On page 51 of Camera Lucida (2010, published by Hill & Wang), Barthes states, ‘What I cannot name, cannot prick me‘. Clearly another way of saying what I cannot see cannot hurt me. Can we assume then, that each time he finds a photograph with punctum (such as the boy’s bad teeth in William Klein’s ‘Little Italy, New York, 1954’), it is as though another piece of him dies? A dramatic assumption to make about the photograph and the man maybe, but this is not a man drawn to understatement in his language.

Sontag says in On Photography (p.70, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008), “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.” Indeed a recent exhibition (“A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005“) that I went to see by Annie Leibovitz in Singapore showed this prophecy finally came to overwhelming fruition for Sontag as Leibovitz photographed and documented her partner’s distressing demise and finally death from cancer in 2004.

So then, this need for a punctum in a sea of studium is what Barthes craved, demanded to notice a photograph beyond the surface value.

How apply this to the way I write about and read my own photographs?

  • Clearly not to take everything on face value.
  • Intrinsically there may be more value in the less obvious image.
  • Each image is unique and as such the viewer will see different aspects in each which are pleasing or displeasing.
  • It is not simply a case of reading an image that I suppose will ‘fit the remit’, but looking deeper and seeing other areas that I did not see when in the act of making it.
  • The critique returned from a third party will undoubtedly be right…. when made by that individual, but will be wrong in the eyes of another party (whether photographer or viewer).
  • To be more emotional about my reading of the image and subject. Much more subjectivity than just observance.
  • Just because I see the punctum doesn’t mean others will. My process of selection has to meet a higher criteria.