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What Should Photographs Look Like?

I had the opportunity to visit the “Yours Truly: Privately Collected Photographs” exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh last weekend.  The exhibit was really an excellent way to see beautifully crafted photographs from a number of well known photographers such as Eisenstaedt, Frank, Winogrand and a host of others. Without question it is well worth a visit to the exhibit, though that is not what I want to write about today.

Two things really struck me when viewing the photographs. The first was how much emotional impact they held.  Once I absorbed that, the second thing that I noticed was just how different these prints looked compared to what we consider to be excellent technical quality today. Or maybe I should rephrase that and say that I noticed how different the prints looked compared with what I expected to see as excellent technical quality.

With few exceptions, none of the photographs had the degree of sharpness or level of contrast that images I am used to seeing today have. But yet they carried far more emotional content than most of what I have seen in recent or contemporary photographs.

The photos simply were not as sharp as we often see in today’s digital prints (and I am not talking about the over the top grunge look….just regular prints).  I am not sure if that is a ‘limitation’  of film grain or related to the type of sharpening and tonal separation we can achieve in digital editing software.  Likewise with the image contrast, which may be related to the brightness of the paper the gelatin silver prints were on.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing the photographs nor in any way saying that the technical quality or aesthetics of todays prints are better.  In fact, I am really saying just the opposite.  Because there were apparently some ‘limitations’ compared to today, the emotional impact of the image has to carry it far beyond the technical aspects.

photo1 What Should Photographs Look Like?

One Of My Favorite Images From The Exhibit

Unfortunately, I Have Forgotten Who The Photographer Was

And I wonder if the ‘digital generation’ has come to expect a certain type of visual and technical aesthetic that is simply different (no better or worse) from what has been the aesthetic or yardstick of quality in the past.  Do we have our own idea of ‘what photographs should look like’?  How does one determine ‘what a photograph should look like’?  Is the look of a photograph determined by the generation of viewers and their expectations….is the look merely a fad?  Have we taught ourselves that images need razor sharpness and certain levels of contrast to attract our attention? Are we paying too much attention to the technical and not enough to the emotional impact of what we see?

I am not sure of the answers, but I do know that the exhibit got me to think about a lot of questions.  And, after all, if an art exhibit can make you start to think about these types of questions, then it must be an exhibit that is well worth taking your time to see!

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4 Responses to “What Should Photographs Look Like?”

  1. Sheri Says:

    “Have we taught ourselves that images need razor sharpness and certain levels of contrast to attract our attention”
    Well if Instagram is any indication, I do not think so. Considering posts on FB where people ohh and ahh over baby photos with crooked horizons and things coming out of the kid’s head in the background (on a professional’s page mind you) it would seem to me the masses are expecting LESS. Maybe it is only those of us who view photography as an artistic outlet that are expecting more ? Hoping that something we deem important enough to put out there will stand out from everyone else. Maybe many of us pay a little to much attention to perfection in the technical area of photography and not enough attention to feelings and vision. I understand the technical has to be there. I also understand that not everyone will feel the same about a photo I am proud of or one I find moving in some way. I also understand that for those trying to make a living or even a partial living with their photography, they hope and pray that the extra attention to detail will catch the attention of a buyer, make them stand out.
    You like the above image.I like the above image. Post the above image in most forums, even the few where constructive criticism is given in a pleasant way, and what do you think the first thing posted would be?
    ” Many blown highlights on the model’s face. Run it through (insert pp program here) and fix that and you will have a good shot”
    Well to me those ‘blown highlights’ let me feel how hot that sun was out there on that sandy beach , how it added to the heat felt between those lovers.

  2. Howard Says:

    Sheri, first thanks for taking the time to comment. I totally agree with what you are saying. I was referring to ‘fine art’ photography, as you suggest, as opposed to the 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook daily (that is a real number, by the way) and Instagram.

    And you made me smile because I think you are totally 100% correct that if you posted the image to a forum everyone would say that it was technically poor and tell you how to correct it. But as Adams said (and I paraphrase) better a fuzzy image of a great concept than a sharp image of a dull one.

    We need both technical excellence and emotion, but I think the emotion has to weigh even more….particularly these days when technical excellence is so much more easily achievable.

  3. ken bello Says:

    The difference between a conventional silver based photo print and a digital printed photo is something I noticed a few years ago at the George Eastman House. One advantage of working there was that I saw all the new exhibits and I couldn’t help but notice that the digital files printed with exceptional sharpness and clarity as opposed to some conventional prints, which were outstanding. At the time I was new to digital photography and was told that there were tools and techniques available in digital that enhance those characteristics that make a print seem sharper. A few months later I purchased my first DSLR in the hope of getting that look. And that’s after 40 years of making the highest quality prints I was capable of in my own darkroom. I guess that’s progress.

  4. Howard Says:

    So both digital and gelatin silver has a different look. It doesn’t feel right to call one more perfect than another because they each have limitations in appearance and in what is able to be achieved from a technical standpoint. They should both be able to carry the same emotional content as that has to do with the photographer. They are, as you say from extensive first hand knowledge, different. They look differently and we should therefore not expect them to look the same or judge them against each other technically I guess.

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