Speculation on Photographs (Part 2)

This is a continuation of Speculation on Photographs which includes a discussion of Erroll Morris’s exhaustive examination of the two Roger Fenton images from ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’, one with cannonballs on the path and the other without.

Morris seems to me to be unduly concerned with reality and with establishing a connection between photograph and reality. To him it really was important whether those cannonballs were where they landed, while to me it seemed unlikely in view of both momentum and gravity. (I wroteYou might also ask why so many balls should have stopped rolling on the smoother road rather than going down into the gully by its side, especially if you’ve ever played bagatelle.”)

Fenton was of course working before there were any well-established conventions about what was ethical in news photography (which he was more or less inventing), let along in art, and there can be no doubt that he saw himself as an artist, and that he was someone who carefully composed his pictures.  I imagine that he took one picture as soon as he arrived, unsure about whether it would be safe to stay long enough to make a second exposure, then set about getting things arranged in a more artistic fashion.

Soth goes on to show an example from his series Broken Manual which is a kind of re-creation of Robert Frank’s image through a curtained window in Butte Montana, though in various respects a very different picture. Without the reference to Frank’s earlier image it would I feel have very little interest, and I would certainly wonder why the photographer took it. He does give some answers to that question in the link he provides to How to Revisit an Iconic Photograph which includes some other of his re-creations of well-known images. Soth says that he learnt a lot from re-visiting these pictures, which I’m sure is true, but I feel that I gain much from looking at the re-results of his learning experience.

Another image he has used as a starting point and is illustrated in the article is Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’, and he raises an interesting point when he mentions that her “are dramatically out of focus.” It’s worth downloading the digital file LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516 made from the original negative from the Library of Congress to examine this claim (the link to the larger 55Mb file fails for me) which is used for the image below, displayed here to a smaller size – right click and select ‘ View image’ to see it larger. Unlike some of the other images on the LoC site, including some versions of this image, it does not appear to have been ruined by excessive sharpening* of the digital file (which doubtless seemed a good idea given the different standards of the 1990s), and apart from a difference in tonality is a good match for the vintage print reproduced there.

LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection. Public Domain

The image above is an actual 821×1024 pixel file, and I’m looking at it on my screen at actual size as I write, where it displays at roughly 8 x 10 inches (a twice linear magnification from the original 4 x 5 negative, made by Lange on her Graflex RB Series D. Working with this format and probably with the camera hand-held, depth of field would have been pretty minimal as a fairly wide aperture such as f5.6 or f8 would have been used to avoid camera shake. Film was slow in modern terms, and generously exposed negatives were desired.

Critical sharpness occurs more or less on the ear and check shirt of Florence Owens Thompson, and I suspect as Lange peered down into the reflex viewfinder that the squares coming sharply into focus caught her attention. The eyes are certainly not as sharp, but sharp by the standards of the day which were much less rigorous than ours.

Way back in the 1970s I happened to be around when a very distinguished ex-President of the Royal Photographic Society was setting up a panel of his work for a workshop about gaining the awards of that body, and made the mistake of commenting that the pictures on it  – prints around 20 x 16″ were unsharp – as they clearly were. He overheard my comment and I got very firmly told that I didn’t know what I was talking about, his pictures were sharp enough. By his standards they were, but not by our more modern expectations – and things have got worse now we are used to zooming in to the actual pixels on screen.

Soth is of course correct to say that the eyes are “dramatically out of focus” in that their slight unsharpness actually increases the dramatic effect of the image, although for me it is perhaps the blurring of the wrinkles on her forehead that is more telling. There is a contrast between the biting sharpness of the hair of the child at the right of the image and the softness of the woman’s face as she stares into an unknown but apparently hopeless future.

For me the most successful of Soth’s re-creations is clearly based on Ruth Orkin’s ‘An American Girl in Italy’. As he clearly says, what gives his picture and the original their “energy is that a real event took place.” Though I still think Orkin’s image works so much better that I would hesitate in showing the new work if it were mine.


*With scans, standards of sharpness and tonality have also changed considerably but differently over a shorter period, as scanner technology has improved. The Library of Congress (and on a much smaller scale myself) suffers from having been one of the pioneers of putting photographic images onto the web. Many of those old scans now look more like caricatures rather than reproductions of the images the represent, with drastic white fringing and obvious jpeg artifacts.

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