Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stealing the Soul

In addition to painting, another familiar form of visual arts is photography.  Technically, photograph is an image created by light projected onto a light sensitive material.   Indeed with the advances in science and technology, the devices and making of photography have come a long way since the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in1814 using a camera obscura made by Charles and Vincent Chevalier in Paris.  For the purpose of our discussion here, we will just focus on the static 2-dimensional images and ignore videos/movies or 3-D images that are created with a sequence or multiple related images. 

My first experience of photo taking dated back to my secondary school days when my late sister got a Yashica twin-lens reflex (TLR) film camera (probably a model Mat 12 or 24).  Years later I got a Minolta SR-T101 SLR film camera as a gift from the family when I left home for U.S.  The expectation was clear – take some photos and let us know how you are doing, which I did.  Since then I have been taking photos of family events and during trips like many.  I wasn’t immune to the digital camera revolution either, having gone thorough few point-and-shoots and a compact super zoom camera with a less than $400 dollar budget each. 

Eventually I reached a point when I began to ask myself:  am I going to continue staying at the level of selecting a scene and pressing the button?  What make a photo great?  What distinguish a good or great photographer?  What can the (digital) dark room do in the process of creating a photo?  Here is where I am at, halfway through my 15 weeks digital photography class with a Nikon D5000 entry level digital SLR camera, shooting in RAW format and editing with Photoshop CS5, and creating presentations in custom-cut mattes. 

It has been a truly enjoyable and rewarding experience.  Most importantly I am no longer slave to the technology and I am taking back control of the device – the camera.  We go back to the basic and shoot in manual mode and set aperture, shutter speed and ISO (sometimes) with the aid of built-in light meter.   We practice with themes like still life, portrait, light, etc. that forces one to think and observe with sensitivity before one press the button.  We learn to control the depth of field to deliver what we want to tell the viewers. We appreciate the framing and impact of different choices of perspectives and placement of subjects.  Beyond these two attributes of craft and construction, we began to develop a sense of the third attribute - content - through discussions, critiques and shooting assignments. 

One way to appreciate the fluid concept of content is to ask yourself what do you want to express and how well does the photo communicate the message.  It has been reported throughout the history of photography that some people are afraid of being photographed for a variety of reasons.  The most often quoted reason was that it would steal the person’s soul.  I would like to think that a great photo must capture the state of the soul of the subject and that moment in a larger context of time and place.   Further, it must communicate and connect the feeling and emotion with the viewers through the visual image without sound or text, and yet, leaves sufficient space for imagination.  Possessing with those qualities, a great photo will transcend the time and space and become a permanent part of human history.   Below are few examples of great photographs.

William Albert Allard (1937- ), one of the greatest photojournalists, published the photo below in 1982 on the National Geography.  It was taken when he traveled in Peru and saw this boy Eduardo whose family sheep had just been cut down by a hit-and-run taxi.  Have you ever seen a human face that is so frightened, so broken, so helpless, and so desperate?   When the photo was published, many readers spontaneously sent in donations to help the boy and his family without any prodding.

Another example is the following photo shown in a Retrospect Exhibit recently held at MoMA (Museum of Modern Arts in New York) of the work by the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004).  He took this photo in Shanghai in Dec 1948, 10 months before mainland China fell into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party after years of a bloody civil war.  This black and white photo captured the run on bank after the Nationalist Government’s Currency Reform with Gold Yuan instituted in August of 1948 failed to slow down the hyperinflation in that country.  You can see clearly the mass panic on people’s faces.  While juggling the position and defending the line, some looked to the camera with puzzle, probably wondering why this foreigner is taking pictures when the world is collapsing around them.

Then there is the photographer and conservationist Ansel Easton Adams (1902 – 1984) whose black and white landscape photos of the west helped persuade many to protect the nature and to establish, among others, the Yosemite National Park.  Here is his shot of the iconic Half Dome of Yosemite.  Wouldn’t you want to see this natural beauty and enjoy the parks and sceneries of the Sierra Nevada?

Before I go, here are few of the better ones of my class work so far.  The first one is an exercise with still life.  The good and bad thing is that they can’t change their expressions and thus the photographer can freely make arrangement of the objects to project his or her own expressions.

The second one is a portrait.  Now there is one more huge variable, thus the challenge, which is the expression and interaction of the individual with the environment. 

Last one is an exercise with light.  Similar to what impressionists had noted, the importance of capturing the statement of light in photography simply cannot be overstated.

By now, you can see that I have a long way to go but that makes it fun and worthwhile, doesn’t it?  Talk to you soon!

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