What does the Time breastfeeding cover tell us about photography?

time breastfeeding cover Jamie Lynne GrumetWhen I saw this cover mentioned on TOP I wondered what it told us about photography (the actual cover is not pixellated). This photo of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old reminds me that photography can be an artistic medium (i.e. making a photo when the primary intent is to create something that is aesthetically pleasing), a tool used to achieve an end (e.g. when a photo of a cracked engine part is made), or both.

In this case photography is being used as a tool, i.e. it is intended to sell magazines by creating a lot of talk on the internet and catching eyes on magazine stands: any artistic component is secondary to that purpose. The function of this photo reminds me of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and of newspapers that put large photos of crash scenes above the fold. This Time cover is a variation on “if it bleeds it leads”.

Journalism is not neutral or objective, it is coloured by the world view of the writers and is often overtly pushing a certain set of beliefs. You could argue that Time is using photography as a tool in an attempt to change generally accepted standards of decency, and/or to foster acceptance of fully exposed breastfeeding in public places, and/or to promote attachment parenting, but it would be very difficult to prove such intentions.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with using a photo to sell magazines, I’m simply saying that this photo is a tool and that when looking at a photo it is helpful to discern whether it is intended to be aesthetically pleasing, to be a tool, or both. Why is this helpful? Well, one of the interesting aspects of making a photo is that it is possible to manipulate the minds of almost all the people who look at that photo. Sometimes that manipulation is as simple as causing viewers to lock onto a certain part of the scene (directed attention). Emotional manipulation is also part of the art, e.g. this shot and this one. Emotional manipulation can also be a tool, and is commonly used in advertising. At other times photographers are trying to push an agenda: a common example of the latter is publishing a photo of an accused person standing in court which makes that person look mad or bad, and in such situations it’s good to identify what’s happening and decide whether or not you want to go along with it.

What does this magazine cover tell you about photography?


A response to “Photography vs. Image-making”

Art by Xanti Rodriguez. FEP European Photographer of the Year 2011 commercial section winner

On T.O.P. Roger Overall has written an articled titled Photography vs. Image-making. He talks about heavily manipulated images such as the one you see here and asks the following questions:

What exactly is a photograph these days[*]? Should we make a distinction between photography and image-making? If so, where exactly do we place the divide?

The first step to answering those questions is to look at the two fundamental categories of art, which are (1) additive and (2) subtractive.

Arts such as drawing and painting are additive. The artist starts with a blank piece of paper and only what he decides to add to that paper will appear in the final result. His creative process is one of deciding what to include in his piece of art.

Photography is subtractive. The photographer starts with the huge world that is all around him and decides which part of it is going to appear in his photo. His creative process consists of deciding what to exclude from his final result, and whatever he does not exclude will appear in his photo.

If a photographer clones a distracting element out of a photo that is a subtractive action and he’s operating within the photographic paradigm. If that same photographer adds something to the photo – as seen on the right – he’s moving out of the photographic paradigm and into that of the traditional arts.

To answer the question, the division between “photography and image-making†” is the division between additive and subtractive art. Roger also asks if we should make such a distinction, and images such as the one you see here indicate that making such a distinction is futile because the creativity that is built into humans drives some of them to start in one paradigm and end in another.

* Strictly speaking, an image made with a digital camera isn’t a photograph: it’s a reprograph.
† Photography is image-making (not “taking”), so in this context I would prefer to say “digital art”.

Cameras are interpreters

In an article on Digital Photography School the author says

The camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation.

I must respectfully disagree, because a camera always interprets – alters – what is “sees”. There are many factors involved in this interpretation including shutter speed, aperture, lens (extreme example: fisheye lens), focal length, film (think about black and white), sensor, and processor (the computer in a digital camera which processes the data coming from the sensor). Just as an interpretation of language never captures the full nuances of the original speech with all its cultural connotations and subtleties of meaning that a native speaker would pick up, so does a camera never provide a true and full rendering of a scene that matches what we would see when viewing the same scene with naked eyes. If you put on rose tinted spectacles they will interpret or alter what you see, just as viewing a photo puts an interpreter/camera between you and a scene.

Consider these two examples (clicking on a photo will enlarge it):

Click to enlarge

This photo is close to what came out of the camera, but it looks nothing like what I saw at the time, because when we look at a scene we think that everything is in focus. I controlled the camera's interpretation of the scene by selecting a particular focal length and aperture (focal length is the "measurement" of a lens in mm. The same focal length and aperture would give a different result when used with a camera which had a sensor smaller or larger than the one in my camera, but I don't want to get too technical here).

Click to enlarge

This photo is close to what came out of the camera, but it looks nothing like what I saw at the time due to the shutter speed I chose and the fact that I moved the camera while the shutter was open.

The great thing about photography is that we can control the interpreter – the camera – and make it produce a pleasing interpretation of a scene: that is the skill and the art of photography. This where previsualisation is invaluable, i.e. knowing what you want the final result to look like before you pick up your camera/interpreter. When you know what the destination is you can guide the interpreter accordingly. When I was watching the people that you see below I visualised a photo with silhouettes, lots of motion blur, drama, and a strong sense of movement. In closing, this is the final interpretation of that scene, which looks completely different to what I saw at the time*:

Click to enlarge

* The great thing about digital photography is that it is easy to continue the interpretation process on a computer, as I did in this case when I converted to monochrome (black and white). Apart from that what you see in this photo is essentially what came out of the camera.

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