Featured Customer Image: By Katie Hughes

We see so many amazing photographs it's difficult to select favorites, but this week we certainly were stopped in our tracks. Not an eclipse, lightning or a stellar sunset. It was quieter than that. A mat tucked under her arm, a woman walked into the gallery on her way to Yoga Flow upstairs and wondered what we thought of this shot from her recent vacation. She flipped through images on her phone for a few minutes and then showed us this. We were floored.

Katie Hughes, Camden Harbor, Maine, 2017

Katie Hughes took this photo with her iPhone7+ a few weeks ago. This simple image of her boyfriend's less-than-perfect dive in Camden Harbor continues to make us smile. Why do we like it so much? It's not any one thing: it works on a number of levels. Aesthetically, the colors are cool and muted, it doesn't shout for attention. The composition is clean. There's a crispness to the diver, the splash, the position of the legs. The fog is a great environmental fill—it keeps the top portion of the picture from being too detailed, from drawing your eye away from the subject, but it's just enough, with the mist lightly revealing the boats in the background. And the gradient from clear in the front to hazy in the back... it's seamless and smooth, which also serves to make the subject and splash all the stronger. The elements combine to make for an elegant photograph.

The printmaster, Carlos in this case, did relatively little post production. He removed some adjustments Katie had initially made when she posted it on her social media. He restored the smooth green tint across the image. And he did one small bit of retouching, to remove some bubbles that looked like a scratch on the image. The photo worked either way, but Katie felt the bubbles looked like a mistake. It was a nominal adjustment.

But here's the high bar: we weren't on this vacation. we don't know this diver or this place. All of those factors are key for Katie perhaps, but to the rest of us, it could be anyone, anywhere, and yet it has a sort of universal quality. It's the universalness of the image that we're attracted to. Content-wise, it's just anonymous enough to let us be included. Visually it's elegant. Uncluttered. And when these elements are combined in an image that has the more important quality of being something personal and emotional for the photographer... that's a fantastic combination. 

Katie Hughes' photo is currently available for purchase and on display at Neomodern through September.

Katie Hughes' photo is currently available for purchase and on display at Neomodern through September.

It could almost have been taken by any number of masters: Hellen Levitt or Elliott Erwitt maybe. So it's a classic kind of image, beautiful and universal and still intimate. We see a lot of beautiful images get printed, but a few linger in mind, fun, hard to forget. Iconic. This is a great example.

"Photo Ops"

A sunset is a photo op. it's a beautiful thing, how can you NOT take a picture when this happens. But photos can feel a little thin when it doesn't feel personal.

The hairs stand up on my neck when i hear the expression "photo op" as in "you should go to Burning Man; good photo ops there." The term isn't meant to be pejorative: there are always legitimately cool environments and events that are hard not to point a camera at—full of interesting things to look at. I certainly love any foggy day in San Francisco, where light is diffuse and sexy, and objects fade off magically into distances... i guess, for me any overcast day is a photo op.  

Of course, those obvious photo ops—whether sunsets or Burning Man—are going to have lots of cameras trained on them, which means it's that much harder to find your unique view of this thing. There is thinking that the best photos couldn't have been taken by another person even a moment before or after: they're unique combinations of time and place. So personally i try to avoid taking my camera out when everyone is taking pictures. 

But there's this other negative side. As if photography is about the subject matter and not the photographer. There's a line in Susan Sontag's classic "On Photography" where she points out the distinction between a beautiful photograph and a photograph of a beautiful thing. Artist after artist repeat this notion in their own words. Bernice Abbott described it as "learning to see" and Elliott Erwitt said "...i've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."

What could be more mundane than the discarded shell from breakfast eggs...  it's not a pretty scene in the sense that it's not colorful, but the combination of the light and cracks is sweet, (maybe even nicer than the scene "looked").

You don't need any particular subject to explore how to see it, how it looks around the prevailing light, how it moves in a visual space. You can do this in your bedroom. You can do this in your town. While it's fun to go to Burning Man, you don't need wedding or spectacle to take some photos. The idea of a "photo op" puts the ownership in the wrong place, and i guess that's why it irks me.

When people ask themselves the question: what makes a great photo," i'd suggest it's only partly about the the external thing, it's BETTER when it's has something of you in it, your relationship with this thing you're looking at, and not just seeing. The best photos have both: you and the subject. So don't blame (or rely) on beautiful subjects to make your best images—any odd thing might be the subject of your best work.

Photographic "Synecdoche"

The term synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-da-key) is a literary construct introduced in ancient Greece where a word describing part of something is used to represent all of something. People say "a part for the whole"; it's a kind of shorthand.*  Common examples include:

  • "Hired hands" to mean "workers" or "Lend me a hand" when you want more than a hand;
  • "Wheels" to mean "a car"
  • "The Pentagon", a building, used to represent the institution of the military;
  • "Capital Hill" generally being used to represent houses of government;
  • "Kleenex" used generically for all facial tissues.**

Synecdoche is a marginally interesting literary form, but i'd suggest it's the very essence of photography. When we take a photograph we are selecting a very small piece of visual space and cutting it out of our 360 view of the world, and saving it. It's not a comprehensive surveillance of some moment or scene, it's just a tiny slice; we're not (usually) journalists documenting every angle of a news story, we're just selecting a small moment that will represent a larger event.

We also might not show a subject in its entirety: every portrait isn't a head-to-toe, front lit, face shot. We might just show someone in silhouette, or just their eye or legs. This is another kind of synecdoche: a part of a body to represent the entire person. A part of a building to represent the entire building (or city, or vacation...)

In time as well: video (or 360 VR) might be considered a fuller representation of something, and yet we take a surreal slice in time, a fraction of a second, and we expect it to capture something much longer. 

Everything about photography is about synecdoche. I'd suggest that the art of photography is in the creative application of this process—how to chose what slice in space and time is going to well-represent this other thing we want to show. Can one image capture a person's spirit? an entire vacation? The wedding? And when you're really good, the question might be: can a single image represent your childhood? Your hometown? Freedom? The better the photographer's ability to produce synecdoche could be the very core of "great" photography—it's more than a documentary recording; it's more nuanced, it's more poetic, it's generalized such that the photo is iconic.

That word "iconic" speaks to synecdoche. In some ways this is also the effort that brand creators and graphic designers do when making a logo—a small visual element they hope will represent an idea for consumers. Great photographs are often described as iconic: they get pulled into popular culture and become something maybe the photographer hadn't intended, representative of a larger zeitgeist.

Joe Rosenthal, 1945 "Raising the flag on Iwo Jima" = patriotism.

Robert Doisneau, 1950 "Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville"  = romantic love (and currently on display at Neomodern)

Jan Saudek, 1966 "Image 35" = fatherhood

But your iconic photograph doesn't have to capture the national mood, but it could still represent your love for your children or your sense of adventure. Icons come in all sizes.

This is precisely why editing is so important to the definition of photography: it's not enough to take a bunch of pictures, and as photographers we abdicate our responsibility by simply producing hundreds of images of events or people and say "here, pour through my feed..." The process of printing is so challenging in part because our pictures don't stand alone very often, and selecting "the one" is either painful or impossible. But it's also essential. When i say "it isn't photography if you don't print it" i'm not only saying that photography is about the creation of a photographic object, but that the selection process itself (since it takes effort and some money to print just one or a few) is part of the creative work.

Next time you take a whole bunch of pictures of something, see if you can boil it down--first to just 5 images, and then from five to ONE IMAGE that represents all those shots: both content and composition would come together, beautiful and meaningful. And if you do that work then you can truly call yourself a photographer.

I'm speaking and giving workshops on these topics at the VIEW Conference in Turin Italy this October. Come work on your photographic "synecdoche." And if you can't make it to Italy, just come to Neomodern to let us help you with this work. 

 

 


*It also works in reverse, where the general larger thing is used to represent the smaller.

**It's what happens when a branded product name gets appropriated as the generic name for a class of products ("Band Aid" "Zipper" or "Google")—something legal-business people refer to as "genericide" because that sort of use can kill a trademark.

Post Production

Ansel Adams once said that great photos were made, and not shot. And damn if he wouldn't know.

"Floating Tree" 1969 by Jerry Uelsmann

My darkroom, circa 1979 (high school-era). Note 3 enlargers and the wall of Uelsmann prints.

My photographic education began with the work of Jerry Uelsmann, famous for his multiple image creations. His darkroom (and mine) had a series of enlargers in use at one time, with a different element in each, and he'd construct his photographs in the darkroom, not the camera. Where Ansel Adams preached "previsualization", Uelsmann was the king of "post-visualization" and i enjoyed the darkroom work to build an image. From that foundation I recognized both the surreality of all photography (manipulated or not) and the degree that post production was implicit in all photography. Even as Adams spoke of previsualization, he truly was all about "fixing it in post."

In my post about color i describe the handful of reasons that monochromatic printing is more interesting than color. The adjustments to a color image are generally about preserving (or recreating) the color in the actual scene, which may or may not be feasible. But in b&w, all color and light is somewhat arbitrary, and its far easier to make a statement. By way of example, here's a regular color image I snapped one morning in my neighborhood:

It was early morning, the light was flat, the colors muted. Visually it was sorta dull—the church almost indistinguishable from the buildings in the background. It's not that strong an image.

If you just remove the chroma, or use a simple filter, it doesn't get a lot better:

It's easy to reject this. But with a skilled printmaster (or with the right skills), the church can be brought up, and the city brought down, and while it's only done with burning and dodging, it feels like a different image:

This is the nature of printing well, and working with experts in photography. Seeing the photograph in the original image is something you start to learn. As one more example i offer this family classic from 2011; i've always loved the composition and how everything is in motion. It's not well exposed though—the woods were dark and the kids were backlit. This image was rescued from a far more marginal color original and it took awhile before i realized what was buried in the darkness. Here they are, "after" and "before".

 

These things can't be executed with basic filters, and are nice examples of the contribution of a printmaster to the post production of your work. 

 

What to Print?

Contact sheet of Elliott Erwitt's famous "Chihuahua, New York" (the final print is on display at Neomodern).

People assume that the toughest part of the printmaster's job is the computer part: the optimization of an image. It's not. Our greatest contribution isn't always the improvement of an image, but rather, helping customers determine precisely what image to print. We end up looking at a lot of vacation photos. We see many babies. There are dogs dressed up in top hats. 

Selecting what to print is a non-trivial problem. You'd think it was just "what is my favorite picture?" but we like pictures for different reasons:

  • Photos where we look great.
  • Photos that connect us to a place and time.
  • Photos of a beautiful thing (a sunset, a person, a mountain...)
  • Photos that are beautiful (not to be confused with photos OF something beautiful—a different thing. There are many beautiful photos of very mundane subjects.)

These are each important, but there are also photos that will never get boring. There are photos that get better the longer you look at them. There are photos that don't simply document, but become iconic, something that captures the essence of a place or time or person...

Cartier-Bresson's "Amusement Park" This is a great photo and many people enjoy it -- but it works outside of "context" -- you likely don't know these kids nor where they are or even when it was taken. And yet: still works. Are your photos enjoyable even if someone doesn't know you or anything about the image? It's a high bar.

Cartier-Bresson's "Amusement Park" This is a great photo and many people enjoy it -- but it works outside of "context" -- you likely don't know these kids nor where they are or even when it was taken. And yet: still works. Are your photos enjoyable even if someone doesn't know you or anything about the image? It's a high bar.

And then there's a level we're trying to help people reach: a photograph that is interesting even without context—you don't have to know who the people are, or where it was taken, to enjoy it. Context makes a picture MORE enjoyable, but isn't required.

So while many clients show up at Neomodern with an image they love and want to see printed, many others arrive with a stack of favorites, unsure which one would be the best. There are often many "bests." But we believe this selection process is the essence of photography, and something we're particularly suited to help with. Perhaps the most under-reported use of Neomodern is helping you select what to print.

It's why our reservation blocks out an hour, even if it only takes 30 minutes to print and frame your photograph... figuring out what to print is an important part of why we're here. Let us help.

The Weight of Photographs: More Than Just an Image

A photograph is an object, a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. It has weight. It has an image on it.  It lasts. It’s a little like parchment. It’s kind of magical. A photograph is not just the image. The image is important, but the object is special.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

While photographs can be pumped out by machine, its good to remember they can also be hand crafted, more like other handmade art projects than technology and apps. The mat and frame are not only vehicles for display, but maybe more importantly, methods to protect. And while photographs are great ways to remember important moments and people, it’s good to be reminded that they can also be beautiful. And when an image is both—beautiful and meaningful—a hand-crafted photograph becomes a true heirloom, something that will last through time, beyond shifts in media and technology.

Not every picture deserves to be turned into this kind of photograph—most of our pictures are fun but disposable. But some, our best, our most important, demand this treatment. These are the images we are excited to help you with.

Color at Neomodern

Yes, we print color photographs at Neomodern.

Boardwalk, 2011

Boardwalk, 2011

But clearly, I have a strong bias toward black-and-white images. Why? Is it simply nostalgia? Because they look like classic photos? Is it to make them seem more like "art"—since so many masterpieces of photography have that look? Nawww... there are lots of reasons:

First, a color print almost always is post produced to make it look like the original scene, and make it a realistic reproduction of the reality shot. This is great in a documentary sense, but it is very limiting and frequently frustrating. There's no way to make a digital image (let alone a physical print) have the richness of light and color we see with our eyes. So every effort will be somewhat disappointing, no matter how beautiful the result.

Second, philosophically, it's a reminder that this image isn't mistaken for 'reality'. Whether color or b&w, a photo is a fiction created by an artist—it's cropped from time and space, it forces a point of view. So the monochromatic nature is a signifier that the entire process is surreal, a creation. The color seems to deny this sort of abstraction.

Third, emphasis. The post production of an image is furthering the work of the shooting, to highlight subject matter, to convey a feeling. When you optimize a color image you're generally trying to make it "more real." There's no such possibility once you remove the chroma. In a b&w image, you have remarkable latitude to adjust light, shade, contrast in order to better emphasize elements in the image. A red shirt on a person is strong and attracts attention, perhaps away from a face or gesture; in b&w that shirt is dark and attracts no special focus. Moreover, the printmaster can make a purposeful decision about how certain colors will look in b&w—a blue sky or green leaf become controllable shades of  grey: the artist can decide if blue or green should be almost-white or almost-black—this adds a separate layer to the creation of a photograph and is an important part of the process.

Fourth, poetic forms. For me, color tends to trump other elements in an image. It's used to make drab images 'better' (or at least 'pretty.') Take the color away and you can see just how dull the original photograph was. Harder is making the monochromatic image beautiful—the photographer is forced to create beauty through composition and content. Unless the photo is specifically 'about' the colors (a golden sunset, a warm cast from a streetlight...) it is often instructive to explore the monochromatic image. The story says Ansel Adams once criticized color by saying "Anyone can take a color photo, but it's harder to take a black-and-white..." I have yet to find this quote, but i like the sentiment: i simply enjoy the photographic constraint: it's harder to take a black and white photo that's beautiful, so it makes the taking of photos more of a game for me. Like haiku, it's a poetic form, not better or worse than others, but an enjoyable medium on its own. 

Eggs, Palm Springs, 2015

Eggs, Palm Springs, 2015

So while i aspire to taking great black and white images, and suggest it's both fun as a hobby and instructive in making all your photos better, yes... neomodern will print whatever images customers bring to us. We might show you how your image might look in greyscale, but in the end its up to you to decide what kind of prints to make.