People are self-obsessed. As we discussed in the last article, subjects in photographs can't see themselves as design elements, and make assumptions about the reasons for a photographer's interest—often negative ones. Continuing our exploration of some of the modern impediments to street photography, we turn next to the self-obsession of spectators.
The miracle of photography is also one of its greatest detriments: the ability to capture a moment of time and then study it is not only unnatural (something beyond the ability of the human mind's innate capacity) but—ironically—the realism of the detail in a photograph makes it difficult for a spectator to get the perceptual objectivity necessary to appreciate the uniqueness of the moment. Instead, what most often happens when a spectator views a photograph is that the subject of the photograph predominates the spectator's perception of the moment.
As an example, consider a portrait. Most spectators (including photographers themselves) will examine the subject and find a way in which to relate to the person. This is certainly one of the goals of any photograph. But unlike a painting, where the technique and labor of the painter is apparent on the canvas, most spectators find it difficult, if not impossible, to look at the photograph not only as an image of the subject, but as the content of the frame filled by the artist, one element of which includes that particular subject at a particular moment chosen by the artist. Because of the realism of a photograph, it is difficult to perceive that the moment was not only selected, but that the entirety of the composition and all of the technical choices combined are what makes the photograph.
An unorthodox portrait compels the spectator to look beyond the subject to the context of the moment.
The difficulty of appreciating the artistic considerations of the photographer has been one of the major impediments to photography being evaluated alongside any other visual art, and few efforts have been made to over come it. One of the few to tackle the problem was Alfred Stieglitz. During trips to Europe, Stieglitz met artists including Cézanne, Rodin, and Matisse. Stieglitz viewed artistic efforts of whatever type from the same perspective: the medium isn't relevant—only the artist is:
Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.
At Gallery 291, Stieglitz mixed photographs with paintings, drawings, and sculpture to make the point that art is about the idea expressed and not the medium used to express it.
The problem of getting spectators to see the artist's expression over the choice of medium is an ongoing one, and it is not simply a matter of getting artistic credit. Spectators include not only the Facebook/Instragram/Twitter viewing public, but art buyers, curators, and graphic designers. Those people determine the price of images, and if they think it's all about the camera, then there is no reason to pay the photographer much of anything.
Accordingly, photographers themselves have a vested interest in taking the yeoman's oar in finding solutions. It's incumbent upon the creators of art to present it in ways which make it easier for the spectator to see the value of the artistic labor required to make the work, and not make it easy for spectators to attribute the creation to something beyond the artist, like the camera or the software.
Like any complex problem, the solution isn't easy. Becoming aware of it, however, is the first step toward solving it. Knowing that spectators are quick to identify with a subject and quick to dismiss the artistic endeavor involved in capturing a moment by attributing the creation to the tool, photographers can choose to make decisions to reorient the spectator. My present approach is to use every opportunity of contact I can to help spectators understand my role and to orient them away from the tool. Here are some ideas:
Activate the Haptic
Small prints are problematic on the most basic level because they're the size of print the casual user of a camera gets. When your spectator looks at a print the same size as the one the drugstore provides, it's easy to make assumptions equating the images—and casual users often attribute their good images to the camera itself rather than their own efforts. So even before the spectator has looked at your image, there is an assumption about its quality and importance based merely on the size. Something as simple as making bigger prints disrupts that thinking and alerts the spectator to the fact that you made a choice about your image that was more costly and took more time, and therefore must have some significance which deserves a different level of consideration.
High quality, cotton art paper is never a bad choice.
With a smaller print, the spectator will bring it up close to examine it, but can't interact with it at much distance. Handling a print made on quality, heavy paper is a wholly different experience than one printed as a thin glossy. Moreover, handling the print itself causes positive feelings of ownership and connection, as well as providing the ability to reference visual points with the hands.
Let them See What They're Missing
From a presentation standpoint, bigger prints are also better because they allow the spectator to see all the things you included in the composition, and not just the dominant subject. There is more information for the eye to use, and the longer spectators look at an image the more likely it is for them to realize the importance of all the elements in the moment the photographer captured.
The context of the event is important, but so is the father's expression. If the print is too small, it will be hard to discern.
Larger prints also invite more active visual analysis. Bringing things close up uses the foveal portions of our vision, which can show lots of detail, but only in a very narrow range—only 7.5% of our visual field. Close examinations require the eyes to move around quite a bit, piecing together in the mind what the eyes see. That's not a kind of looking that encourages a "larger" view of appreciating all the elements in the image. For that, we need our spectator to use macular vision. Macular vision requires a print large enough that important information is still discernible at a distance, while still also allowing the whole image to be taken in.
Something as simple as a caption can direct the spectator to the appropriate context within which to consider the image and help orient the spectator toward acknowledging the significance of the photographer as the creator.
Without a caption, this image isn't as easy to understand. The subjects are Roma gypsies, who were taking a break. The woman smoking, on the left, is key to the scene, but her significance might be missed without written context or more images.
Even a poor caption works because of how the mind processes written language. We associate written language with the communication of ideas. Accordingly, the very presence of a caption provides a clue that there is an idea being communicated which the image illustrates or supports. It is in this way that a caption can provide what psychologists call a "scaffold" for the spectator to find the photographer's message.
In an upcoming article, we'll discuss another great way to solve the problem: by telling visual stories.
Meanwhile, please share your solutions in the comments!