Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

What Should Photographs Look Like?

I had the opportunity to visit the "Yours Truly: Privately Collected Photographs" exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh last weekend.  The exhibit was really an excellent way to see beautifully crafted photographs from a number of well known photographers such as Eisenstaedt, Frank, Winogrand and a host of others. Without question it is well worth a visit to the exhibit, though that is not what I want to write about today. Two things really struck me when viewing the photographs. The first was how much emotional impact they held.  Once I absorbed that, the second thing that I noticed was just how different these prints looked compared to what we consider to be excellent technical quality today. Or maybe I should rephrase that and say that I noticed how different the prints looked compared with what I expected to see as excellent technical quality.

With few exceptions, none of the photographs had the degree of sharpness or level of contrast that images I am used to seeing today have. But yet they carried far more emotional content than most of what I have seen in recent or contemporary photographs.

The photos simply were not as sharp as we often see in today's digital prints (and I am not talking about the over the top grunge look....just regular prints).  I am not sure if that is a 'limitation'  of film grain or related to the type of sharpening and tonal separation we can achieve in digital editing software.  Likewise with the image contrast, which may be related to the brightness of the paper the gelatin silver prints were on.

Please don't get me wrong, I am not criticizing the photographs nor in any way saying that the technical quality or aesthetics of todays prints are better.  In fact, I am really saying just the opposite.  Because there were apparently some 'limitations' compared to today, the emotional impact of the image has to carry it far beyond the technical aspects.

One Of My Favorite Images From The Exhibit

Unfortunately, I Have Forgotten Who The Photographer Was

And I wonder if the 'digital generation' has come to expect a certain type of visual and technical aesthetic that is simply different (no better or worse) from what has been the aesthetic or yardstick of quality in the past.  Do we have our own idea of 'what photographs should look like'?  How does one determine 'what a photograph should look like'?  Is the look of a photograph determined by the generation of viewers and their the look merely a fad?  Have we taught ourselves that images need razor sharpness and certain levels of contrast to attract our attention? Are we paying too much attention to the technical and not enough to the emotional impact of what we see?

I am not sure of the answers, but I do know that the exhibit got me to think about a lot of questions.  And, after all, if an art exhibit can make you start to think about these types of questions, then it must be an exhibit that is well worth taking your time to see!