The perfect picture, April 2014

Many millions set out into the world of photography. Thousands linger in the limbo of technical forums, many content themselves to sit and contemplate the aesthetic. But to be a rounded and complete practitioner you must cast out into the dangerous waters of meaning. Even the word will have postmodernists throwing up over board.

There are three main areas involved in making the perfect picture. Two are familiar- the technical and the aesthetic. How to take it and what it looks like. The third is the elusive and often ignored element of meaning. This trinity allows us to dissect and judge the near-infinite possibilities of photography. We develop and improve our work advancing toward the centre where the three elements find balance. We may not ever find perfection but some images close to transcendent. In them this trinity holds together.

1. Technical 

Techniphobes are people who value the idea more than the machinery. Thoughts are more valuable than things. Concepts more than contraptions.

At the other extreme, we have the technophilic photographers, often found in camera clubs and on-line forums.  Focal length and megapixels are the two iron-fanged snares that trap herds of photographic enthusiasts early on. And generally the male sex.  I know many brilliant women photographers, many feisty feminists who could attack this observation but it seems to hold true so they don’t. This is not to say women don’t learn technical practice, they do but they use it to make pictures rather getting lens envy.  Men, and some women, love talking about the latest technology- f-stops, photoshop plugins or those age-old existentialist problems- Canon or Nikon? Mac or PC? Analogue or digital? So let’s resolve this once and for all and move on- Canon, Mac and both.

Technical mastery deepens the artistic endeavour and is a vital foundation and the driver of innovation. This must become second-nature, the camera becomes something to look through rather than our adversary. In one day I can take photo newbies from ignorance to shooting manual on complex DSLRs not by Jedi mind tricks alone but by clearly outlining the interplay of light through the shutter, aperture and on the sensor.  There is delight in this understanding and so begins the journey of photography. This technical discipline is essential.

2. Aesthetic 

The first element we notice in a photograph- what it looks like.  The composition of objects in the frame, the balance and tone of colour, placing of focus, motion and direction of light and choice of subject. All work together to produce the visual element of a work but it is not just gloss on the surface.

Recently, the glass on my cooker hob cracked. The warranty people refused to fix it because the damage was “cosmetic” not “functional”.  So I asked, if I remove the glass can I cook my quails eggs? “No!” they exclaimed in shock at my refined but dangerous ways. “Well its functional then?” I replied, shocked by the power of my logic. My point is this- the look of an image is functional not cosmetic.  The aesthetic conveys both physical and emotional information. The awesome mountainscape is both awesome (emotional) and mountainous (physical).  The angry protesters are both angry (emotional) and protestors (physical).

The aesthetic conveys this function across a range of subtle levels. Often we see the aesthetic as the thin gloss to bring out the technical skill. Often it is the motive to take a shot- “that looks nice!”. But the aesthetic also functions as narrative. 

Within this realm we talk of people having an ‘eye’ for photography.  A natural gift at seeing what is beautiful and arranging it in the frame to communicate that to the viewer. But I think it can be learned too.  We may need to unlearn our styles.

Photography is about our worldview and it is deeply personal.  The best actors can understand the subject they are imitating but they also interpret.  But if we imitate another photographer’s style by aesthetics alone we are more like a poor mime serving canapés at a party. If we connect to the photographer’s thinking we can avoid plagarism and find our own voice.

Aesthetic has a narrative function, it can be learned and is the second member of our photographic trinity.

3. Meaning 

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies, we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved” Ansel Adams

This is Meaning with a big M building on the emotional and physical meaning the aesthetic has already conveyed. This is the forethought or driving motive behind all our work. It may be simply “I think that looks nice, do you agree?”.  Or “thousands of innocent families are dying in civil war”.  Meaning matters to give photography its power. 

Photojournalism and fine art are close kin in this regard. The only tangible difference seems their family tree or the context in which they work (publication or exhibition). Their lives overlap.

If I can return to my vomiting postmodernist for a moment, who may have died at my continued assertion of a perfect standard. The aesthetic is the design of the ship that helps it function The technical practice is the engineering that holds it all together.  Meaning is the rudder and sails to direct us to the destination of the perfect picture.

Meaning drives the photographic endeavour. Without meaning people perish.  And so does art.

PS.  I have never taken a perfect picture.

Kieran Dodds The perfect picture, April 2014