The Characteristics of Photography

The ontological nature of my photographic practice … …

The “characteristics” of my photographic practice took some time and thought to identify: I think we are much more accustomed to thinking about our photographic “style” than we are of thinking about our photography in terms of characteristics.

Szarkowski identifies the “actual” as one of five characteristics of photography. By this he refers to the reality of the situation where the photographer decides to capture a specific moment in time, photographing what is there, and uses that reality to infer something beyond – that which is seen and that which is not seen.

Does this perceived reality apply equally to all genres of photography?

One area where it may not hold quite so true is that of still-life food photography where images contain an element of both selection and synthesis –  the photographer chooses the subject and its environment (selection) which are then arranged to produce a visually appealing composition (synthesis).

The still-life photographer can exercise control over almost every aspect of a photograph including, for example, the texture and colour of the background.

This is in contrast to some types of photography where the photographer has less control over the subject and its environment, for example, street photography where the level of “control” the photographer has over the subject and the environment is limited to where to frame up and when to press the shutter release (excepting post-production manipulation of course).

Time is also given by Szarkowski as a characteristic of photography. This ties in with Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” where the photographer needs to decide when to operate the shutter mechanism: knowing when to press the shutter can mean the difference between “taking” and “making” a photograph. This implies a pre-obtained knowledge of events, for example, an awareness that a person’s image will be reflected in a window as they pass by a shop and knowing when to release the shutter in order to capture the person and their reflection.

You bring your own time to still-life photography. Images are constructed, possibly over lengthy periods of time taking into account the lapse between the initial spark of an idea and the final image being produced with small, incremental and progressive adjustments being made in order to achieve an abstract reality and add detail, another characteristic identified by Szarkowski, bringing authenticity to a less than real reality for the still-life photographer.

Shore describes prints as being “flat” and having “edges”. However, what I strive for as a photographer is realistic two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional experience. Again, detail plays a large part in achieving this, as does the skilful use of photographic equipment.

As stated in “Photography, Photographies”, Szarkowski’s characteristics focus on the photographer. However, I feel it extends beyond that with many of the characteristics relating to the way we operate our cameras with timing, for example, being linked to shutter speed, framing being linked to focal length, and the “actual” and detail being closely associated with the framing of the subject.

Perhaps, then, Szarkowski’s “characteristics” are as relevant when we actually take a photograph, the physical process of taking a photograph, as when we think about how, when, where and by whom the image will be consumed.

At this juncture, my photographic practice is split into two discrete areas: commercial and project work.

To date, commercial work, has been undertaken on a project brief basis for small, independent organisations operating in catering and food retail. Consequently, contexts for this type of work have been printed work, magazines, promotional literature and websites.

This area of work is greatly removed from my project work, the contexts for which are mainly my CRJ to date with an online gallery being in development.

Evaluating my photographic practice in terms of characteristics has been an interesting and enlightening process for me, one which has certainly given me a lot to think about.

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