Naturialism and photography

Sunset on Gorton Road, Alabama.

When I was 16 I remember arguing with a friend and classmate about the kind of music we would try to make together.

He played bass. I played guitar.

He liked Rush, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes.

I preferred the Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Ramones.

We argued about musical direction and never formed a band. I found prog-rock pretentious. He found punk rock simplistic.

As I grew older, my musical tastes evolved, from rockabilly, to country, to blues, and anything that sounded “authentic” to me.  While I eventually gained a level of appreciation for some of the music I scorned in my youth (I’d even eventually own a Yes CD), my heart and soul has always gravitated toward music, for lack of a better way to describe it, sounds just as good if it’s one guy and his guitar or a whole band.

I’ve also always preferred movies with a gritty realism like Saving Private Ryan over horror films (though, on the non-realist side, I have always loved Star Trek, though that’s far more realist based than, say, Aliens).

I thought of these things after reading Michael Johnston’s blog post at the Online Photographer.

And here’s a curious fact: the more contrived I find a work of art to be, the more difficult it is for me to remember it. I even like naturalism in music recordings: I often respond to records that document a real event. I’d rather listen to a live recording made in a jazz club than a work of art “built” of dozens of tracks, real instruments played in real time rather than synthesized sounds that never existed as vibrations in the air. I like Wes Montgomery’s Full House or Thelonious Monk’s Thelonious in Action and Misterioso* more than Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Coil’s Love’s Secret Domain.


Mike’s post made me realize there are dots that connect my tastes in literature, music and, now, photography.

Those who have been following my photography of late know that I never go for the whimsical, nor do I try to create images that can’t be found in a single frame (I’m not even much of a fan of HDR).

The photography that excites me — whether it’s taking pleasure in my own work or studying masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams — is taking a single frame and making it mean something.

It’s not that a photo need to be completely documentary — I love the work, for example, of Cindy Sherman, who sets up elaborately staged shots. It’s that the art is created in-camera.

Photoshop (and Lightroom) are wonderful tools for enhancing a photograph — to make details pop, to draw out color and contrast, to sharpen edges. But I have no interest, other than curiosity, in creating composite photos.

That’s not to say I can’t appreciate the beauty of composite photos created by masters of the art. But it’s not for me.

And this tendency toward naturalism, I think, is why I’ve been so fascinated with film photography of late. Once an exposure is committed to a single frame of film, there’s no second chance to click the shutter. There’s no “trash” button my my Nikkormat. Either I do what I can to get it right in a single click — taking care with exposure and focus, but more, paying close attention to framing, composition and depth of field, knowing what f-stop and shutter speed will produce what results — or I get it wrong. Whatever is captured on that single exposure will either stand or fall on what I make of it in camera.

Photography is changing quickly. Just in the past week we’ve seen advances in focus control and anti-camera shake software. Within a few years it will be impossible to take a photograph that is technically imperfect. The person who clicks a shutter will be able to pay little attention attention to focus, exposure or shutter speed. The camera and post-production software will be able to correct any technical flaw.

I’m not sure what that will mean for photography. There may come a time when a photographer won’t came create stunning works of art in post-production — instead of in camera — won’t be valued.

The photo naturalist may be a doomed breed.

But I would like to think that there will always be a place for the photographer who take some time with composition and subject matter to create an image that is visually interesting. I guess we’ll find out.

But for me, I can’t imagine taking any other approach to photography than I’ve already mapped out. I just hope there are always a few people around who appreciate the images I publish and that somehow I can find a way to get better at capturing interesting images.

Revolutionary War re-enactor from the Seneca Nation

Bidders visit a vacant building in Batavia, NY

2 thoughts on “Naturialism and photography

  1. First, your pictures are really strong. You’re in that funny middle ground between photojournalism and art, but it works.

    Second, you’re right to say there’s no trash button on your Nikkormat, but here’s my question: just because your DSLR has a trash button, who says you have to use it? (I think the answer is ‘Because the tool gives you the button, the urge to use it – and adjust your shooting accordingly – is pretty much irresistible.)

    Third, thanks for the post. You got something here that needs to be rediscovered.


    Scott Atkinson
    Watertown NY

  2. Scott, thank you very much for your comment. It was great to read.

    As for the trash button — have you seen this video:

    There’s a few of these contact sheet videos from Magnum on YT.

    It’s fascinating to look at the work of old masters through what they discarded and consider the creative choices of what they kept.

    With digital I — and I imagine others — are often deleting our contact sheet shots.

    Besides the fact that it seems incredibly arrogant to even hope to imagine that someday somebody might care about my “contact sheets,” there’s a thing about digital photography — those of storage is exponentially expensive. In manners of time, cost and effort, the more RAW files you pile up, the greater a burden it becomes. I think more so than negatives and contact sheets. It’s just no economical to save shots that shouldn’t be saved. I think.

    But again, loved your comment. Thanks.

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