The 2014 UK National category in the Sony World Picture Awards was won by Sean Batten for his photograph of the interior of Canary Wharf underground station designed by Norman Foster. The station is empty and the picture is called The Calm Before the Storm, presumably because it is about to be full of people.
The composition is banal, simply a central point looking up the escalators, the lens being wide enough to take in the primary features of the roof. It could well serve as a picture taken as publicity material for Foster Associates. It made me feel sick.
What made me sick was the texture. It looks like an oil slick, a kind of greasiness about the way the light falls. This suffuses the entire picture in such a way that what is, in reality, a large airy space becomes clogged. One feel suffocated, as if the very air had turned to oil.
The photo is a composition of three bracketed shots – each is taken at a slightly different exposure. It is an example of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. This is the current Big Thing in snappery – especially amateur. It is also the most controversial. Google ‘I hate HDR’ and you will come upon a tirade of abuse, claiming it is ugly, unrealistic and, above all, a cheap way of drawing attention to – and sometimes selling – a picture.
You will also come across many fierce defenders of HDR. Why, these people ask, should we not be able to do anything we like to a picture? And surely HDR is doing nothing more than compensating for the limitations of our technology and – important point here – our eyes.
Neither film nor digital sensors can match the human eye’s ability to balance different light levels. If you look at a landscape your eye will compensate for the bright sky and the darker land. The camera, however, will tend to expose for one or the other. If the dynamic range exceeds the capabilities of the sensor or film then either the sky will be bleached out or the land blackened – the information will be lost. Almost since the beginning of photography in the nineteenth century, there have been efforts to overcome this problem – multiple exposures, graduated filters and, in the dark room, dodge and burn. (Dodging means reducing the exposure on some parts of the print; burning means increasing it.)
In contemporary digital photography software automates the process. It can now even be done on phone cameras with a little trickery, but the classy way of doing it is with multiple frames, each taken with a slightly different exposure setting, on a proper camera and then combining
them into one shot. So HDR digital just provides an easy way of doing something that we did anyway. What could be wrong with that?
Nothing, in principle. The craftsmen dodging and burning in their dark rooms were aiming at realism. This does not – cannot – mean capturing reality but rather what the human eye sees. To achieve this capturing more of the dynamic range of a picture seems reasonable enough.
But it is important to be aware that it will always end in failure, as will all attempts to transform what we see into a still, two-dimensional image. What the human eye sees is intimately bound up with how it sees and this involves constant movements – known as saccades – very rapid refocusing and subtle adjustments for light variations. It also involves the vagaries of psychology – mood, attitude and so on. The human eye, in short, always shoots movies – drama and emotion included. To take a photograph, therefore, is not an act of realism, however you choose to define it, but a distillation. This is why the great artist Garry Winogrand was speaking the most elemental truth about his art when hesaid, “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”
Some would say that could justify any degree of image manipulation. This would be a misinterpretation because the important words in the quote are “the thing”. As his work proves, Winogrand was not suggesting cutting the picture loose from what is pictured, he was expressing an understanding of the complex interaction between the photograph and “the thing” that has been photographed. This interaction is a movement, a dynamic, that brings the still picture into the emotional and mobile world of human seeing. A photograph of a tea cup is both a tea cup and not a tea cup and we move back and forth between the two interpretations. This is photography.
It is also painting. This is important because photography is often claimed to be a distinct art, separate from the making and history of all other visual arts. It isn’t, it can’t be, no matter how hard we try to be radical and new. Take composition, perhaps the most basic and necessary skill in photography. Apart from helpful concepts like the rule of thirds or the golden section, which seldom work very well anyway, composition is almost impossible to teach. You’ve either got it or you haven’t and, if you have got it, the chances are that’s because you’ve spent a lifetime looking at – and being moved by – pictures. This applies to all aspects of picture making. You don’t have to think about them every time you press the shutter because if you have absorbed them you will be unable NOT to think about them.
This is to say that in making art you are not free and you shouldn’t want to be. Complete freedom in self-expression would be useless, destructive and incomprehensible – like Luis Suarez biting a defender. This is because you communicate with audiences by starting from something you both know and ending with something you have both just discovered.
Somebody will make the point that, in the Twentieth century, previous artistic traditions and culture crashed into the brick wall of modernism and everything changed. We learned the distortions of Picasso and, later, the dripped paint of Jackson Pollock as well as the shark of Damien Hirst and the bed of Tracey Emin. Surely these unleashed a wave of real creative freedom. Not really. All these things were commentaries on the traditions of – primarily Western – representation. Like all additions tothat tradition, they were just original enough to add something new but not so original that they were incoherent. If they were then they would simply fade with the passage of time. Imagine Emin exhibiting her bed in the 18th century. It would have been meaningless. It is only meaningful now because the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries happened.
There is nothing wrong with HDR, Photoshop and all other forms of digital manipulation as tools but, in the wrong hands, they create the illusion of freedom. The result is a kind of cheap circus trickery. Perhaps the oddest thing about the results of all this freedom is that they have tended to converge on a single style. (Perhaps this isn’t so odd. When people are free to wear what they like, they always end up wearing the same things.) This style produces a kind of overcooked, airless, greasy-looking picture which, typically, is dominated by a raging, ominous sky. Batten’s picture has gone some way down this road. Pick up any photo mag and you will see what I mean. Worse still, read the admiring comments of the ‘pros’ appended to the amateur pictures submitted. I would like to be able to say that this ugliness is confined to amateurs, but I am afraid it isn’t.
Apart from their obvious ugliness, I was trying to work out what I found so objectionable about these pictures when suddenly I realised what it was. One way in which HDR and Photoshop work is by dividing the picture up into zones – exposure zones, colour zones, compositional zones and so on. The bad user is overwhelmed by the power of this and earnestly draws his lines around sky, building, face, river, whatever, and does something special to each zone. The result is a gross partitioning of the image. It becomes a jig-saw of banal aesthetic preconceptions – sky should look like this, water should look like this and so on.
This is a betrayal of my Winograndderived notion of the dynamic to-and-fro between image and ‘thing’. It is also an affront to the intrinsic nature of human sight. When we look at an image we see one thing and many things simultaneously. Our brain tries to come to one conclusion from the billions of bits of information flowing from our eyes’ saccades, but it never quite does. If you slavishly rig the image to come to a series of simple conclusions – one for each part of the jig-saw – you are sucking all the fun out of the experience.
The point is that when we think “sky and river” we think of two different things; when we see them both in a landscape we see them as part of one thing. Everything is in movement, referring to and modifying everything else and the whole makes a new meaning out of this perceptual dance. If we take a photograph of this landscape, the entire process starts all over again but it grinds to a halt when we put up giant HDR or Photoshop signs, telling us what everything is and what to think about it.
In this context, what is troubling about Sean Batten’s picture, apart from the texture, is its aggressive stasis. It passively borrows its aesthetic quality from Foster’s building and then pins the viewer’s role down even further with a process that limits any possible response. The title – The Calm Before the Storm – drives a nail into the coffin of humane and thoughtful interpretation. Does Sony really want photography to do this? Evidently so. Do photographers really want photography to be like this? Some do. But digital photography and image manipulation are not the business of any artist – to pluck significant form from the formless and, thereby, to teach us to feel. ●