Conceptual Awareness – Surfaces and Presentation

How we present our images to the world has a great deal to tell us about why we make them, and how we think about them. In this article I want to explore the first of five points that Minor White elucidated in discussing how analyzing a photograh can reveal information about the conceptual process of the photographer.

In outlining his framework of analyzing images he takes the approach of working from the outside in. His initial points have to do with the appearance of the image as it exists in the world and is experienced by a viewer. The first point it about the quality of the surface of the print itself.

Is the surface of the print apparent, and do we notice the paper itself, the texture the grain the substrate? Or is the viewer under the impression that they are looking into a scene, through the picture as if a window.

Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau by Gustave Le Gray, MET collection online. 1849-52. Wax paper negative creating an impressionist-like quality of light and texture rather.

In the days during which White was an instructor, pre 1950, there were limited options for printing and viewing photographs, at least in comparison to what we have available to us currently.

He focused attention on this point rather simply, in that either the image was produced to be crisp and clear and to eliminate the sense that it was printed on paper at all, or it was produced in such a way as to cause the viewer to perceive that it was itself an object to be considered.

Artist who have made the choice to emphasize the paper, the printed and produced quality, are drawing from a background or conceptual world of painting, drawing and built images. These artists are broadly working from a mindset of producing an image rather than presenting one. Allowing the paper to become an element of the whole allows for additional layers of created meaning and expression.

In contrast were photographers whose images were presented so as to make the paper invisible. The goal to create a sense that the viewer was directly on site and seeing what was depicted. These artists were likely coming from a conceptual mindset that utilized the camera as an extension of vision itself, a tool to aide in seeing.

Currently, the options for printing out images on different surfaces seems endless. While the majority of fine art prints are still produced on high end specialty photographic papers, there has also been a rise in producing museum quality images on acrylic, glass and metal. Some images are projected onto surfaces, and other images are never intended for printing at all, but only ever exist as viewed on a screen.

Artists working in the commercial sector are able to produce images on just about anything. Third party manufacturers specialize in applying images to drink ware, decor, textiles, wall coverings, personal accessories and pretty much any kind of material. Images are printed on phone cases, sneakers and can even wrap cars and busses.

Does this myriad of options destroy the ability to meaningfully assess such quality in images being produced?

I think it is helpful to always think about it in terms of choices. There may be more choices available, but the essential dichotomy remains intact: Is the artist seeking to present their images in a way that emphasizes the scene as a scene to be viewed beyond the substrate, or is the type and quality of substrate an integral part of the art as a piece of work?

What does it add to an image to be printed on metal as compared to glass, or textured matte paper? When a photographer produces and image with the intention of removing a barrier between the viewer and the content, is an image printed on ultra-crisp acrylic less of a barrier than high gloss archival paper?

The response will be different for each image and substrate. There may be qualities of a photograph that are simply so geometric and abstract, so unusually composed within the frame that no matter what sort of clarity of printing the viewer will never be able to see it as a “real” scene, as a witness.

Similarly, there may be images, a street scene perhaps, which are printed directly on a wall, but sized and represented in such a way that the wall itself disappears, and the average viewer would have difficulty seeing it as anything but a convincing portal.

A variety of options, as if often the case, does not damage the core ideas, it simply muddies the waters.

Most photographers producing images today, likely do not spend much time thinking about the effect of the print itself on the viewer. Even fine artists are often only concerned about a reasonably priced and archival option.

We have all been living in a world drowning in created images. We are used to a porous sense of reality. Scrolling through a social media feed, watching television or even out and about in a world of commercial imagery we are constantly seeing images of scenes which do not match our reality. If this is related to a sense of fantasy, or suspension of disbelief, we are all professionals. As a consequence, we are probably very forgiving and dismissive of the substrate for any given image. This may be considered as a maturing sense of visual literacy in the general populace.

How do you think about the representation of images? Does it matter the format in which you are viewing something? When creating your own work, do you spend time considering the choices you have made about how the surface of the photograph is present or absent to the viewer?

The magic of such a framework isn’t that it gives any specific answers. Like all forms of investigation, it will lead to more questions.

To spend the time considering these qualities will provide the artist with more tools. Rather than producing something unthinkingly, we can utilize a broader range of tools to convey meaning, deepen our connection with viewers, and learn more about the values we have in place while we are creating our own work.

The next post continues with the second point of White’s five point framework and deals with something that has become a whole new reality since his initial writing: post processing and the vast array of options for editing images once they have been captured.

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