Monday, February 03, 2014

Is Renown an Aesthetic Trap?

Brooks Jensen writes today on Lens Work Daily that he got a copy of the new SabastiĆ£o Salgado book Genesis and expressed dismay at the grain that is apparent in the photographs. As a landscape photographer Brooks likes smooth gradations of tone and wonders aloud why Salgado chose to make the images so grainy and choose to do so he did. An earlier discussion of DXO Film Pack on The Online Photographer revealed that Salgado now shoots digital but runs the images through DXO Film Pack to simulate Tri-X 400 or T-Max 3200 and then prints the images to 35mm recording film from which he makes prints. He does this complex process to make the look like they were shot on aforesaid films as he feels that is part of his style that makes his work recognizable.

If you have been following this blog you may remember that I did a review of several B&W conversion plug-ins and that DXO Film Pack was among them. I commented at the time that I did not purchase the DXO offering after using the trial copy because its primary aim was to simulate film (including the characteristic grain) and that was not my objective so I suspect you will not be surprised that I tend to agree with Brooks Jensen's puzzlement and dismay at Salgado's decision to deliberately degrade otherwise beautiful landscape images solely to conform to the look of his more renown street photographs which were made in the decades before digital photography came of age.

Like Salgado I began photography well before digital and like him I shot a lot of Tri-X  and T-Max 400 35mm film. Unlike him I did not and do not regard the grain pattern as part of my "style". It was simply a by-product of the technology available at the time. Whenever I could I tended to use larger format and slower (smaller grained) films which I then developed to minimize the grain. What I regard as my style is the subject matter I am attracted to and the particular way I see and photograph it.

The photograph above was made on film some years before I switched to digital, probably in the early 1980s. Even with medium format there is considerable grain in both the snowy foreground and the sky. While the grain does not necessarily detract from the image I don't feel it really adds either. Had I shot it with digital I certainly would not choose to add imitation grain. I suspect Mr. Salgado's desire to make it look like his earlier images derives for a need to have a consistent "look" with those for which he is known.

As technology improves so can the work we produce with it. To tie one's style to the limitations of an earlier era so that your audience will recognize it seems sad to me. We are in a changing world and we should all be growing and changing with it. I want to make it clear that I have no problem with modifying images for aesthetic effect when the image calls for it but going to great pains to tie a new and unrelated body of work to an earlier body by imitating the earlier technology suggests that Salgado feels trapped by the earlier work, that he has to create an artificial connection to his earlier work for the new work to be accepted by his audience. Of course he may simply like the look of grainy images but, like Brooks, I wish he had chosen to take full advantage of the capabilities he had available for the new work.

The photo above is of a barn in Gabriels, NY in the northern Adirondacks. It was made with a 645 camera on T-Max 400 and has been cropped top and bottom. I don't know the date. I'm a lousy record keeper and unlike digital, film cameras didn't record such things. I couldn't make this photo today. Although the barn is still there a number of trees have grown up in the foreground and there are the beginnings of a housing development behind it. The world moves on and we have to move on with it.

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