September 29, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
The camera, even in my childhood a rare item, is a gadget that everyone I know now possesses. We used to choose our shots carefully. There were only 24 or 36 frames on a roll of film, which then required time and money to be developed and made into prints. Any movement led to a blurred, wasted result: an error discovered only some weeks later. We now get a cost-free instant image, stored in pixels, that we very rarely bother to print. Any number can be snapped indiscriminately, the worst discarded only if memory space becomes an issue. Many of these photos are of people stood in front of landmarks, smiling uncomfortably, including a fair share of rather comical selfies.
Despite this rather light-hearted majority use, photography is nevertheless capable of an artistic function. I remember not too long ago when people used to ask whether photography was art, as if there were doubt. At its best, I expect everyone now acknowledges that it can be. There is technique to be learnt, certainly, but also creative choices to be made about the subject matter, angle, framing, focus, depth of field, lighting, and so on. The camera can be just for holiday snaps but used skilfully produces beautiful or thought-provoking images.
The differences between the camera lens and human eye have always intrigued and frustrated me in equal measure. It is very hard to get a camera to reproduce what the human eye sees. The eye takes in a wide angle yet is able to attend to just one part of what is seen. Peripheral vision is not exactly blurred, and you can attend to it if necessary, but we seem capable of ‘looking’ at something that is just one part of the whole scene available to us. Often my attention is directed towards some such focus, I snap my photo, and am disappointed that the feature I wanted to pick out gets lost in the picture, where every part is more or less given the same degree of attention. A skilled photographer might try to alter the focus of the camera, or frame the shot such that the eye naturally follows to a certain spot. I have seen some special effects that attempt to reproduce the look of the biological act of perception but it is never wholly successful. I think it is clear that the photograph is a rather unnatural reproduction of this natural, organic activity. But perhaps that is one factor that makes it capable of an artistic usage.
My interest in photography has been rekindled through Twitter where a number of those I follow are keen photographers, posting freely their pictures. One recommendation is Juliana de Albuquerque Katz (@the_stardust). On her travels she picks out interesting faces and scenes. Sometimes she uses black and white that creates a heavy mood but other photos are a more light-hearted record of urban culture.
The juxtaposition between the natural human eye and the unnatural photographic image seems even more apposite when the subject of the photo is nature itself. For a few years now, Inger Haapasaari (@IngerHaapasaari) has delighted the philosophical corner of Twitter with her photos from a tiny village in the Arctic Circle. She has an eye for the dramatic imagery, colours and shapes of the north Norwegian landscape (I am providing a couple of examples here, used with permission). I usually think of my photos as hindering what the unaided eye would see but Inger I think has an amazing skill of allowing us to see more in the photo than we would have done in person. Perhaps it is because of the Arctic stillness she captures, but she creates an image upon which we like to dwell. It is as if she creates a game for the viewer: what can you see? There is never any person in the shot, though we might occasionally find an animal of some kind, and this allows us to contemplate the peacefulness of the environment. For those of us facing the stress and bustle of big-city living, her work is a welcome transportation to Sjøvassbotn: a village becoming increasingly famous due to the artistic possibilities of the photographic image.