A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture


Winners World Press Photo 2013 :: nrc.nl

The winners of the best press photos of last year were announced today. Overall winner was Paul Hansen with a picture of a funeral in Gaza: two kids, killed in a rocket attack, are carried by men whose faces express terrible grief–and anger. Together with the almost haunting light, the atmosphere of the picture is very intense.

The light effect sets this picture apart for me. Of course, being a press photo, there is no elaborate studio lighting to create such an effect. If I see it right, the photographer made smart use of light falling through a (broken, or newly-built?) window on the left, while the grey concrete wall on the right helped light up the dark side, acting as a reflection screen. To see that light, while walking backwards, almost with your nose and your wide-angle lens in the faces of crying, angry men and–even worse–dead children!

Of course, the rest of the winners in the different categories are also worth looking at. You can see them here (captions in Dutch–sorry, folks!):
Winnaars World Press Photo 2013 :: nrc.nl.

But this overall winner will stay in my mind for a long time, I fear.


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!

Famous photographers get away with anything? Nieuwe foto’s ‘prachtige Beethovenstraat-meisjes’ Ed van der Elsken gevonden – Cultuur – VK

Nieuwe foto’s ‘prachtige Beethovenstraat-meisjes’ Ed van der Elsken gevonden – Cultuur – VK.

A Dutch newspaper announces that more pictures in a famous series have been found from Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken. His three hip young women, crossing the street in stride, became a sort of icon of the sixties. Now more pictures from the series have been found, which may help to find the women who were in it.

I was too young to know about that iconic picture, I guess and saw it for the first time reproduced here in the newspaper. I agree, it was a snapshot taken at exactly the right moment.

But how can famous photographers get away with pictures where the feet are cut off? While the red and shoes certainly add to the picture! Or is it the bad lay out of the newspaper that did it? I am not sure, but a picture with such composition errors would not get through my selection for postprocessing, let alone showing to others…

Festival at Iwakuni, Japan

To be honest, I don’t feel comfortable about taking pictures of people. Buildings, plants and even animals are much easier, because they don’t talk back. But when you see the joy of people at a festival, like I did today at Iwakuni, taking pictures of joyful people becomes irresistible. Snake parade

Photos, photoshop and reality

‘Between all the plastic surgery and Photoshop, who knows what celebrities really look like anymore?’ Something I just stumbled upon here.
Just for fun 😉

Truth and Beauty

Should I have photoshopped the spiral stairway picture to get rid of the reflections in the glass? How much ‘correction’ is allowed in pictures? What is the balance between truth and beauty? Of course, this has been a discussion almost since the beginning of photography in the mid-19th century. But it has not been finally solved and the possibilities to manipulate pictures have become larger, more sophisticated and available to almost anyone with Photoshop, The Gimp and all the other software packages. It is another subject that will return in this blog every now and again, for I keep struggling with it.

The idea ‘photo = truth’ has been naive from the very outset. At best, a picture gives a little part of the truth: that which can be seen in a certain light, at a certain location in place and time and in a certain frame. It never is ‘the whole truth’: there is so much else that was not photographed at the same moment! Photo journalism and documentary photography rely on their telling bits of truth: JFK shot, the misery of the homeless, etc. But was Robert Capa’s dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War real or was it a staged picture? Does it make a difference for the message Capa was trying to give? The picture functioned as if it were real and maybe that is enough. Yet it undermines the trust in pictures telling the truth if it were a staged picture; it would detract from the effectiveness of messages of photographs in the long run. So let us hope that evidence will be found that it was real in the famous briefcase full of Capa’s negatives that was recently found.

But my pictures are not documentary, they are more about beauty than about truth. Still, to me photography has to do with ‘reality out there’. Shaping ‘alternate realities’ on the computer screen with the aid of photographic images is not my thing. But a little embellishment is not a problem to me. At first I thought that I would draw the line at the tricks that I could do in the chemical dark room: leaving out the unnecessary foreground by enlarging just part of the picture, a little dodging and burning, or correcting the perspective. But the temptation of further corrections is so large: removing red eyes in flash pictures, retouching a few blemishes on the skin (makes the portrayed person much happier), and … and there you go. Where is the end? Is it a matter of ethics, of communicative effectiveness, of phantasy?

Anyhow, in this picture–another one of the street snapshots from the Queen’s Birthday–I did do some retouching, just to reduce a little bit the white glare of the sun on the woman’s forehead. Now that is not too much beauty for truth, is it?

Queen’s Birthday

Today is the Queen’s (official) Birthday. Spent the whole morning with my daughter, she trying to sell toys for which she grew too ‘big’, me looking at the people passing by. Just a few pics…

What are you looking at?

Let’s get back to basics, before we wander further off into the realm of estethics: photos are meant to communicate. I want to show you something, but as communication theory discovered, and as postmodernists made popular, the three elements sender – message – receiver are different. What are my intentions? What is embodied in the message? What do you see?

Most of us think of words or text, when we think about communication. Like this text. That is a difficult enough medium to pass a message from me to you. Quoting Karel van het Reve again: ‘it’s impossible to write so clearly that you are not misunderstood.’ In my work, which involves writing a lot of texts, I am acutely aware of that and I try to write clearly, I repeat my message in different words, I use ‘metatext’ to tell readers what I intend to do, what I am going to do, and I summarise to tell them what they should have remembered from the previous section. For the attentive reader there is redundancy in the text, and ‘tedium’ (as my former colleague Guy Neave once called all the reasonings and references that make up so much of social science writing). And still people quote me wrongly! Or students don’t understand and they fail for their exam. Sad, isn’t it?

One of our famous sayings is that a picture says more than a thousand words. That would mean that an average scientific journal article of about 6,000 words could be replaced by 5 or 6 pictures. My problem is that with a picture, I don’t know which 1,000 words I’ve captured! I know, of course, that something in a situation caught my attention, fired a signal in my brain that ‘this is a nice picture!’, and triggered my finger to push the button. What caught my attention, why was this man with dog a nice picture? I think, looking at it a few weeks after taking the photo in Taiwan, that it was the contrast of the large man’s head and the little dog, the fact that the dog was being carried instead of running on all fours along the pavement, and finally the curious yet friendly way both man and dog looked up to me as I held the camera aiming at something behind them (a garden, now no longer in the picture). Those are three potential messages in 55 words (way less than 1,000). Is it one of the three, or the combination of all three those messages, that makes this into a good photo to you? Or do you read something else in it that I did not intentionally put into it?
Reactions are invited!