A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture


Photo quotes

Here’s a link to 25 famous quotes about photography.

If you don’t read Dutch, don’t worry and just skip to the quotes–they’re all in English. (Though I bet Henri Cartier-Bresson’s must have been French in the original).


Zo’n bekende foto komt niet vanzelf tot stand: Obama’s omhelzing voor de ‘Four more years’ tweet

Leuk stukje in NRC Handelsblad over hoe de nu zo bekende foto van de omhelzing van Michelle en Barack Obama tot stand kwam. Fotograaf Scout Tufankjian zei onder meer over de foto die hij al in september maakte: ‘Omdat ik nogal een softie ben en zelf ook kort geleden ben getrouwd, vind ik hun relatie inspirerend; ze hebben respect voor elkaar. Dus ik probeer ze altijd te benaderen als een koppel, en niet als publieke figuren.’
Het artikeltje in de NRC is hier te lezen.

Use people images in PowerPoint presentations

Online, you can find many lists of ‘to do’s’ regarding PowerPoint presentations. Most list, like this one on Lifehack, contain of the same (true!) things: focus on your message, don’t use too much text on any slide, be careful with colours, fonts, animation effects, etc. But one I did not see before is a smart suggestion to help you communicate better with the audience, whatever your topic is. Garr Reynolds, who also blogs about presenting, wrote:

“I often use images of people in my slides, as photography of people tends to help the audience connect with the slide on a more emotional level. If the photographic image is secondary in importance, then I decrease the opacity and add a Gaussian Blur or motion filter in Photoshop.”

Communication through a presentation is more than giving the facts, it is about getting a message across to your audience, and using emotion is a fair method of rhetorics, so using photos, preferably with people in them, seems a good way to engage on the emotional level too.

I for one will keep this tip in mind!

Mondriaan and Photos (1)

Months ago I mentioned Dutch 20th century painter Piet Mondriaan a few times in this blog series. Famous—or notorious?—for his ultimately abstract pictures with squares and rectangles in red, blue and yellow, what has he got to do with photography, and of landscapes to boot? That is a long story. Mondriaan (outside the Netherlands also spelled Mondrian) started out, around 1900, as a pretty conventional painter. He lived in very interesting times, however, when painting was being revolutionised, not least because of the invention of photography, over half a century before. Cézanne, whom I also mentioned a few times for his problematising the relation of the painting as a canvas with depicted reality, was only the beginning. Fauvists and Cubists followed the (post-)Expressionists and then this other Dutchman, Theo van Doesburg, invented De Stijl. Mondriaan’s extremely pure application of the Stijl principles make up his most famous paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, with rectangles in only the primary colours (for paint): red, yellow and blue, on a fond of white with black stripes.

I guess that I was like many people who at first could not find any sense or beauty in these utterly abstract paintings, but after reading a little and especially after seeing—quite a few years ago now—a chronologically organised overviews exhibition of Mondriaan’s paintings in The Hague, I started to find them fascinating and, yes, beautiful. The big fascination was to see Mondriaan struggle for finding beauty in the landscape and trying to express beauty without the viewer being distracted by the representation. I plan to get back to this movement later on, but let me here look at an early stage of his quest.

You can paint—or photograph, for that matter—the windmill in Domburg against the evening sky (see these and a few more of his paintings at the website of the Domburg tourist agency). Mondriaan did that in 1909 in a more or less naturalistic style (first picture), although the blue colour of the mill as a suggestion of the late evening light could not have been made ten years earlier in the history of painting. I wonder, by the way, if that blue was a correct representation of how our eyes work: in dark circumstances, the receptors for colour (cone cells) in the retina are almost inactive and we only see light-and-dark (rod cells) —any strong colouring then is fantasy, I’d say. But let’s look at how he painted the same mill in 1911: against again a night-blue sky there is a red shape with details in the sky’s blue (a window and the axis of the mill’s wings). In the tints of blue we see a vague differentiation between sky and earth; similarly, a darker shade of red suggests some volume in the mill. This is not yet an abstract painting, but clearly Mondriaan made a lot of steps in his thoughts in those two years. No longer even an effort at more or less naturalistic colouring: the blue of the sky is way too blue for that and the earth should not be the same hue of blue and just a bit darker. And most of all, of course: the mill has turned red! We have two of his later three primary colours here, with much contrast. It is all about strong shape and strong colour; the viewer must be struck at the very first moment by a strong impression. It is not about being true to what the painter’s eye saw. For me, that was the eye-opener about this painting: think of what the viewer will experience!

Bonus puzzle for you, dear readers (and to me!): interesting that Mondriaan chose to keep the sky coloured close to nature and to think that the man-made addition to the landscape was the more mutable one, of which he could change the colour. Why did he not do it the other way around: a darkish, bluish or perhaps black mill against a red sky?

Another bonus, as an aside: does Mondriaan’s red mill show influence of photography in the strong perspective as if the mill was photographed through a wide-angle lens? Ans dhat about his cutting of the wings, is that not also in imitation of an ‘error’ of photography? Or am I anachronistically over-interpreting things here? For instance, did they have such strong wide-angle lenses in 1911?

Oscar van Alphen – Dutch photographer

Photo magazine ‘Focus’ in its December 2008 issue has an article on photographer Oscar van Alphen–a bit of an advertorial, since they are publishing a book about him. I did not find his documentary photos that remarkable, but was triggered by the remark that he was a pioneer because of his ‘asking often fundamental questions about the medium that others found to be essential only much later’. How could I–thinking that I too am interested in the question of what does photography do?–be unaware of him?

After all, he is mentioned in the standard anthology ‘Fotografen in Nederland’ (not at Amazon, but sold by Proxis) and there I may find the clue why I was not triggered to his work: one of his major books is praised for being an ‘associative whole’ and that is the type of artistry that puts me off: I want a formal Auseinandersetzung with basic questions, even if I have to admit that photography works more directly through the senses than through formal logic and reasoning. At least you should know why it works the way it works, I’d think. Stil this Van Alphen seems an interesting guy to look into. Some of his photos from Amsterdam (oh, how 1968!) are found at the local council archive, and one of his apparently most famous installations is revived in an exhibition right now in the Rotterdam Fotomuesum.

If I find time [big if!], I’ll check his basic questions (he wrote some books about photography) and then I’ll come back to him in due course.

Pioneers of Travel Photography – Vaut le détour

The Teylers Museum in Haarlem has an exhibition of 19th century travel photography, bringing together photos from the national Rijksmuseum (still in a state of mess due to over-long reconstruction works) and its own collection. The collection of tremendous, detailed, purely registering, photos is worth going to Haarlem for if you happen to be in Holland—’vaut le détour‘ in terms of the Guides Michelin. You have time to make the detour until the turn of the year; the exhibition lasts until 4 January 2009. As I happen to live in that country, I went to see the exhibition.

‘Purely registering’ I said, thinking back to the comments from Frank Boots. These pictures had no pretension to make an impression as artistic images, but only to show those back home the exotic world beyond one’s own town and region. And we should remember that until the mid-20th century for most Europeans town and region made up the ambit of their geographical and cultural knowledge. Alright, the bourgeoisie, the intended audience of these photos, may have travelled a little further: I’m still impressed with the stories from late-19th century novelists who took up residence in Southern France or even Italy for the winter and coming home to northern Europe only when the weather was supportable there, in summer. Or who made their career in the colonies. Those people travelled, spoke their languages (at least French), and had a broad view on cultures and cultural differences. Those differences must have been much larger than now, with our globalised culture: whether they call it MacDo in French or MacDonald’s in English, you find the same fast-food counters everywhere, the same fashion shops, etc. Alright, there are some variations in the fast food assortment per country, and size schedules for fashion differ a little depending on the usually wider shoulders and hips in e.g. Germany compared to Southern Europe. But those are details, compared to the wide variety of local food, local dress, etc. of the 19th century.

But even then: to see photos from other continents must have been a stunning experience in itself to the 19th century audience. No need to do anything artistic; these pictures brought Das Andere suddenly close to many people. ‘Registering’ that was more than enough. Everyone knew about the hardships of the audacious men (and a few women) who made expeditions to wild places—they could read that from the pictures just by seeing the exotic buildings, landscapes, ruins and—a little later—the ‘types’ of the peoples from those world regions in their typical state of (un)dress. So ‘registering’, ‘documenting’ was what they did in tremendous detail. What a richness of grey tones (of all shades from cold to warm/sepia)—no graphic blacks and whites! What a cornucopia of details in every picture—no cropped buildings or portraits for them, but full shots!

Do the photos show European superiority as it was believed in during the 19th century? It was the time of establishment of vast colonial empires by European countries, after all. In a way, the pictures cannot but be a show of European superiority: Europeans took those pictures—they had the technology, they looked through the viewfinders (or how do you call it with those big glass plate cameras?), they released the shutters. And yes, there were some indications of Western supremacy in some photos. Not that there were any hunting scenes, with the white man standing proudly with a foot on the killed tiger, elephant or hippopotamus. But it was revealing enough to see “our camp” as the caption of a photo of tents among the ancient ruins. Or to see the new railway bridge, with a steam train running over it, above the old and decrepit rope bridge deeper in the valley of the Padanger highlands on Java. Yet for the most part, it was not superiority, but astonishment at the diversity, the other-ness that struck me in those pictures. They were an effort, according to me, to show those back home how strangely beautiful the world was.

Forced by the technique, no doubt, but fitting in that idea of showing in as few hard-to-come-by photos as much as possible, they not only show a number of details that we now would divide up across half a dozen of pictures at least, but they also were sharp from front to horizon, a depth-of-field that we almost find overwhelming.

In short: have a look if you can, also at the amazing stereoscopic pictures in the Kaiserpanorama.

By the way: the picture in this entry of Gizeh in the late 19th or early 20th century was googled from the Internet, and I believe it to be not copyrighted.

Hardware again: what you see is…what you criticize

In this blog I wanted to focus on photos and their content. Still, every now and again I threw in some remarks on hardware (my camera’s and lenses’ limitations) and software (my use of LR2, for instance). So this time I cannot refrain from remarking on the use of a good monitor. I had the pleasure this week of trying out an Eizo monitor–not a super-professional one, but a ‘mid-range’ CE-series wide screen of 21″ (Eizo CE210W). Something a serious amateur might still afford. And was it an eye opener! It promises to show sRGB, not the biggest colour space, but at least they say what the monitor can do–you don’t find that on the “normal” brand monitors.

And the combination of good colour representation and a fairly good size (21″ as I said, 1600×1000 pixels (rounded down)) gives you a very crisp and detailed view of your photos. They never looked as bad as this–gee, does one get critical of sharpness, colours, and all other technicalities! So again, I am not writing about photo content, but a good monitor shows how many conditions have to be fulfilled before you can start thinking about a good photo. It gets ever more difficult–but I’ll keep going! Stay tuned, once we’ll get there. I hope…

Now this focus on sharpness, colour space and what not may be a typical photo-club amateur view: do you have to be technically perfect to make a photo that is saying something to your viewers? Does technical perfection not stand in the way of creativity, intuition, use of the ‘decisive moment’? Is it not a problem of photo-club pictures that they are always striving for technical perfection only, forgetting about the artistic communication?

I suppose that there is a bit of a tension there, and that many amateurs (including me) should try to focus more on the content than on the form/technicalities. There is another side to it, of course: creativity is not a license to ignore technical high standards (I don’t want to say ‘perfection’). And that can be trained; technical correctness must become like second nature, something you do without taking your thoughts from trying tomake a meaningful photo. In turn, that means photography has to be trained like any craft or skill: do it often. Repeat, repeat and repeat till you know what your camera and other equipment without do even looking at it. ‘A thousand repetitions and suddenly perfection emerges from one’s true self’ How comes I end with a zen-saying again?