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Author Topic: The 4 Levels of Art II  (Read 16053 times)
opgr
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« on: September 30, 2005, 06:20:35 AM »
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I thought to try at an example. Recently someone pointed at a website of an icelandic photographer. There are images of Siberia. Two images in particular came to mind when thinking about the criteria.

Siberia_014
It is an image of a local, who seems to straighten up for a formal picture. The photographer fortunately had the wits (or training) to also shoot the important moments before and/or after the formal shots.


Competence
It is clear that the image is competently photographed. It seems to be correctly exposed. What appears to be the subject is sharp and in focus, and the supporting elements are reasonably sharp but not distracting.

Composition
There is an unambiguous subject, the remaining elements are clearly background support or context definition. At first glance I thought there may have been some excess information at the sides. The junk to the left is at the verge of being distracting, but I later realized it strengthens the narrative and metaphor.
The context is clear and supports that subject. The lining provides depth, points directly at the subject etc... The beam that directly crosses the person's neck would normally be disastrous, in this case I believe it supports the narrative perfectly.
It clearly is a weathered local which belongs in this environment which displays the same weathering. Both in the elements as in the clouds. (The elements therefore need to be reasonably sharp). If you take the person in this pose, and put him in a different context like the californian beach, it wouldn't work. If you say this is in Siberia, it is believable, if you say this is in New York...

Narrative
This clearly tells a story of what someone living in this environment may look like. It also shows that regardless of environment or origin, people have a universal dignity and pride. It is easy to empathize with the person (or the photographer). There is a clear relation between the person and the environment. The person seems to straighten his shirt, trying to button the shirt at a point that has never been buttoned but on the rarest occasion.

Metaphor
The entire image shows a casual, weathered environment with a weathered person that completely blends in, and even so he is self-conscious in trying to straighten up with a kind of vanity that he doesn't need at all. The casual junk on the left points straight at the neck button struggle. This person is not comfortable with a tight buttoned shirt, and clearly doesn't need dressing up to retain his dignity and stature in this environment. It is unnatural, for this naturally casual, weathered person to be formal in this casual, weathered environment.


Mind you, I don't want to be too strict about the rules or criteria, and I don't know whether the photographer actually intended this interpretation, but it is just that this image depicts the criteria in one way or another, and does so brilliantly, and is very complete in all its elements. It is this sense of completeness that I am trying to describe and formalize.

if I would be an aspiring photographer with an artistic ambition, this would be the type of image I would like to produce, preferably with predetermination, but if this can be done intuitively, why not.

Note that the next Siberia image, with the 2 kids next to a waterpump, almost completely fails the criteria. I'll try to formalize later, but I would suggest to see if you also intuitively "feel" there is something missing or something wrong with that image.
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Oscar Rysdyk
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« Reply #1 on: September 30, 2005, 12:13:29 PM »
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It is this sense of completeness that I am trying to describe and formalize.

if I would be an aspiring photographer with an artistic ambition, this would be the type of image I would like to produce, preferably with predetermination, but if this can be done intuitively, why not.

Note that the next Siberia image, with the 2 kids next to a waterpump, almost completely fails the criteria. I'll try to formalize later, but I would suggest to see if you also intuitively "feel" there is something missing or something wrong with that image.
To answer your question: No, I don't think that anything is missing from the picture of the two boys at all. If anything, I probably like it a bit better than the one of the man.

I also believe that your criteria show very clearly what YOU like to see in a picture, but I would not consider them suitable to describe a common denominator for what constitutes a good photograph or "art". I personally cannot relate to your criteria because the strong language analogy seems to me to be applicable only to non-abstract visual art, excluding many other variants of art, including music. I also have a problem with any definition that even hints at "great art=fits the rules", but that may just be me.

I believe that any notion of art (art may be too elusive a concept to yield to any kind of "definition") has to start with the artist and what you may call the "artistic process". Specific works of art resulting from that process may be more or less "successful", from the artist's or the viewers' point of view, but, ultimately, are presumably less important to the artist than the next as yet unfinished work (I'm sort of paraphrasing here my understanding of "Art & Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland).

Finally, I believe that great visual art, great photographs, are emanations that work, but for which it can never be completely described WHY it works. It may be fun and even useful to try, but I doubt that you will ever succeed.

By the way, I love Ragnar Axelsson. I have a print of this photo here: Old man
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opgr
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« Reply #2 on: September 30, 2005, 01:35:03 PM »
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To answer your question: No, I don't think that anything is missing from the picture of the two boys at all. If anything, I probably like it a bit better than the one of the man.
But would you be able to rationalize or put in words why you like the image as much or better?

Ah, the old man:
The age-old coastal rock that defies the white sprays of the rough sea in the background shows a direct repetition of the old man's white haired head and shoulders. This man knows stories, age-old stories, of life. This man is still standing firm and strong. No ocean sprays, no storms, no adversaries have broken this man.

Competent photography, a slightly blurred, misty background that exactly depicts the information required. Perfect composition, even the slanted horizon is very necessary and useful.
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Oscar Rysdyk
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russell a
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« Reply #3 on: September 30, 2005, 01:49:02 PM »
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opgr:  Your little personal narratives would be very comforting if you were a tour guide in a museum for a group who wanted someone to "see" for them so they wouldn't have to be troubled.  However, by their nature visual and aural works (and olfactory, as well, refer to all the fatuous scribbling in the wine journals) cannot be rendered by verbal equivalencies.  Verbal narratives are the way we can reduce something to a label so that we don't have to experience it, either again, or indeed for the first time.  Your whole approach is thereby hopelessly flawed.  As Robert Adams opens his essay Beauty in Phototography with a quote by poet William Bronk "Ideas are always wrong".
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Bobtrips
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« Reply #4 on: September 30, 2005, 02:49:49 PM »
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Siberia_014
It is an image of a local, who seems to straighten up for a formal picture. The photographer fortunately had the wits (or training) to also shoot the important moments before and/or after the formal shots.


Competence
It is clear that the image is competently photographed. It seems to be correctly exposed. What appears to be the subject is sharp and in focus, and the supporting elements are reasonably sharp but not distracting.

Composition
There is an unambiguous subject, the remaining elements are clearly background support or context definition.
Straight Man in a Crooked World

I find the rotation distracting.  The out of plumb elements draw my attention away from the subject.  Is this something that adds to the 'value' of the photograph or merely sloppy presentation by the photographer?

I tried straightening the verticals and the resulting image makes the man more interesting to me.  He leans to his right and becomes more dynamic.  Different strokes I suspect....
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Bobtrips
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« Reply #5 on: September 30, 2005, 02:56:38 PM »
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opgr:  Your little personal narratives would be very comforting if you were a tour guide in a museum for a group who wanted someone to "see" for them so they wouldn't have to be troubled.  However, by their nature visual and aural works (and olfactory, as well, refer to all the fatuous scribbling in the wine journals) cannot be rendered by verbal equivalencies.  Verbal narratives are the way we can reduce something to a label so that we don't have to experience it, either again, or indeed for the first time.  Your whole approach is thereby hopelessly flawed.  As Robert Adams opens his essay Beauty in Phototography with a quote by poet William Bronk "Ideas are always wrong".
Verbal narratives can serve to allow us to peek into the brain of another.  When someone shares "see what I see, taste what I taste" we are offered an opportunity to enlarge our perceptions.
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opgr
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« Reply #6 on: September 30, 2005, 03:23:20 PM »
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Your whole approach is thereby hopelessly flawed. As Robert Adams opens his essay Beauty in Phototography with a quote by poet William Bronk "Ideas are always wrong".
The approach may be flawed, but, as a consequence of human nature, never hopeless...

I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that Art is beyond ratio, but what stops me from going through the dark tunnel of ratio first, in order to end up in the full glaring clarity of pure emotion? If, by that time, I stop exchanging ideas in words, and instead produce meaningful images, even if I never intended to, then I made as useless a travel to nirvana as any other student of Art. Break reason with the unreasonable truth, not with the unreasoned truth...
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Oscar Rysdyk
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opgr
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« Reply #7 on: September 30, 2005, 03:33:17 PM »
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I find the rotation distracting. The out of plumb elements draw my attention away from the subject. Is this something that adds to the 'value' of the photograph or merely sloppy presentation by the photographer?
I'm not the photographer. I presume the rotation helps put the person's stand more straight as if chest-forward. It emphasizes the dignity and pride theme. It is one of the things that bothers me about the second image, where it doesn't seem to contribute anything useful.

Your attention may be drawn away from the subject, as long as it is clear what the subject is. The context has relevance to the theme as noted in the narrative and metaphor, so you should be aware of it. It should however not be so distracting as to become a second subject.

Obviously, I don't know whether this image finds that balance for everyone, but I think it makes a very good attempt at it.
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Oscar Rysdyk
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russell a
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« Reply #8 on: September 30, 2005, 03:48:34 PM »
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The four stages of learning, attributed to the Chinese:  1) unconscious incompetence, 2) conscious incompetence, 3) conscious competence, 4) unconscious competence.  It's therefore understandable to wish to celebrate having achieved state 3.  Just don't get stuck there.
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KSH
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« Reply #9 on: September 30, 2005, 04:36:32 PM »
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Ah, the old man:
The age-old coastal rock that defies the white sprays of the rough sea in the background shows a direct repetition of the old man's white haired head and shoulders. This man knows stories, age-old stories, of life. This man is still standing firm and strong. No ocean sprays, no storms, no adversaries have broken this man.

Competent photography, a slightly blurred, misty background that exactly depicts the information required. Perfect composition, even the slanted horizon is very necessary and useful.
That, of course, is's in the image, but, again to me, is not the whole story, indeed, there is not only a story in that picture, but also an interplay of the forms you describe, but not as information, but as forms and shapes arranged within the frame of the picture. To me, this is not merely, or at least not only, a means to an end, to convey some sort of story or information, but also an end in itself, the reason why Rax wanted to make the picture the way he did.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that it's pointless to discuss pictures and share ideas about them, I am just hesitant to do it under the terms of some kind of catalogue of quality criteria.

Thanks for sparking the discussion!
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howard smith
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« Reply #10 on: September 30, 2005, 04:41:18 PM »
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"Verbal narratives can serve to allow us to peek into the brain of another. When someone shares "see what I see, taste what I taste" we are offered an opportunity to enlarge our perceptions."

Bob, I have experienced that myself many times. How often has soem one explained something to you and you get it, and arrive at an appreciation of something new? I took a wine tasting class. The instructor would say, "Taste the fruit?" No. Then he offered spiked samples, I could then "see" what he meant, and I had a positive learning experience. I used to taste a wine and I knew whether I liked it or not. I couldn't describe it, even to myself. Now I can, to a limited degree.

"It's therefore understandable to wish to celebrate having achieved state 3. Just don't get stuck there."

russel, state 3 isn't all that bad. Better than 1 or 2, in my opinion. The problem is state 1 is a kind of ignaorant bliss, and no progress is made. State 2 would seem to be the area of most rapid learning. I know I don't know something. A chef is state 3 uses recipes. No real problem. Some folks in state 4 cannot help any one move from the other states. The chef knows it tastes good but can't say why.
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Bobtrips
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« Reply #11 on: September 30, 2005, 05:42:24 PM »
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I find the rotation distracting.  The out of plumb elements draw my attention away from the subject.  Is this something that adds to the 'value' of the photograph or merely sloppy presentation by the photographer?
I'm not the photographer. I presume the rotation helps put the person's stand more straight as if chest-forward. It emphasizes the dignity and pride theme. It is one of the things that bothers me about the second image, where it doesn't seem to contribute anything useful.

Your attention may be drawn away from the subject, as long as it is clear what the subject is. The context has relevance to the theme as noted in the narrative and metaphor, so you should be aware of it. It should however not be so distracting as to become a second subject.

Obviously, I don't know whether this image finds that balance for everyone, but I think it makes a very good attempt at it.
I think this is a good example of differing tastes.

I don't like the image as presented, certainly wouldn't have chosen it as an example of good competence/composition.

As presented the background shouts "Look at ME!" simply because it is 'wrong'.  I can't find meaning or metaphor.

A straightened version says a lot more about the subject 'straightening up'.  Both in terms of adjusting his clothing and his posture.

(Give it a quick tweak and see what you think.)

(You're allowed to have a different opinion.  ;o)
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Anon E. Mouse
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« Reply #12 on: September 30, 2005, 10:38:29 PM »
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I would say your description is very subjective. I am not sure you understand the meaning of "metaphor" either. You seem to be trying to make the picture fit your hypothosis.

Lets look at a few things. Competence. The printer/image processing guy is good. He saved a very badly exposed negative that was a little soft. Fortunately it was only for display at 72dpi on the web. He is always saving the photographer's butt.

Composition. The horizon line is crooked. The subject almost in the center. The man is an ex-surfer from California on a tour. The setting juxtiposes him with his usual environment, but is unsuccessful because you cannot know that. The weather is usually sunny in that region and they have a drought making the clouds unnatural.

Even you "narrative" is questionable. He could have just told his boss to stuff his job and is unbuttoning his shirt after leaving the office. He is smilling because he can now get out of the town because he thinks it is a dump.

As far as metaphor, you have not given one. I do not find the image "metaphoric" of anything.

This "aesthetic theory" is a personal one. If it helps you produce good results, then keep it. By to imply it is "universal" on any kind of level, you have not made an argument for it. If it is somehow true, this theory then must fit all "art." Not just one selected image that SEEMS to fit your criteria.
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Anon E. Mouse
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« Reply #13 on: September 30, 2005, 10:41:34 PM »
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I think Howard's point is a good one. "Art appreciation" is the intellectual understanding of art. The problem of course is "art" an intellectual process?
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Jonathan Wienke
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« Reply #14 on: October 01, 2005, 12:59:09 AM »
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While there can certainly be intellectual and objective aspects to art appreciation, there is also a subjective aspect to defining, understanding, and appreciating art. It's fairly easy to objectively define an image as sharp or contrasty, or to measure the color accuracy of the final print relative to the original subject (at least in some instances), but deciding whether the level of sharpness or color saturation is appropriate to the subject or "works" as Art is a value judgment, and finding a universally agreed-upon framework of values that define "good art" vs "bad art" or "art" vs "a complete waste of time and money" is about as likely as everyone agreeing on religious doctrine and politics simultaneously.
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opgr
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« Reply #15 on: October 01, 2005, 03:34:52 AM »
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That, of course, is's in the image, but, again to me, is not the whole story, indeed, there is not only a story in that picture, but also an interplay of the forms you describe, but not as information, but as forms and shapes arranged within the frame of the picture.
I agree that there is a beauty in that image that goes beyond the mere compositional elements or a reasoned story. There is an intuitive appreciation which goes both beyond the conscious and beyond the subconscious. I don't need reason to immediately "sense" that there is a greater beauty in that image, as well as a greater message even if I don't get it. Intuitively I know the old man represents iceland itself. And the image can be appreciated merely for its composition and tonality. There is a certain comfort radiating from it, regardless of story. (However, this certain comfort may be a feeling of home that the photographer may have when thinking of iceland).

This ease of appreciation is however less obvious (if you will) for the siberia image. That is why I choose it for the example.

And please don't take this too literally, for all we know this could well be that same surfer dude from siberia, he just pulled his mask off (which is what he was really doing in the other image) and that is why his hair is like that.
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Oscar Rysdyk
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« Reply #16 on: December 21, 2005, 04:19:25 AM »
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The four stages of learning, attributed to the Chinese: 1) unconscious incompetence, 2) conscious incompetence, 3) conscious competence, 4) unconscious competence. It's therefore understandable to wish to celebrate having achieved state 3. Just don't get stuck there.
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A brief note from Siem Reap in Cambodia. I like the idea of unconscious competence. That must surely be the goal of all aspiring artists. Keep it simple and true. The heavy intellectualisation of the artistic process is off-putting and appears phoney; almost a substitute for the real thing.

Artists create because they have to and need to. The commentary is the artistic work of the critic.

It's drizzling on my first day in Siem Reap so no dawn shots of Angkor Wat yet.
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