Commenting on this post recently, my buddy Dubh David Black said “You sir, have the eye!”. It’s always nice to get compliments like this but it got me thinking about what this actually means. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it said something interesting about this series of photographs, though maybe not in the way Dubh intended.
Saying that someone “has the eye” is usually taken to mean that they know how to take a good photograph. If we want to be a bit more precise we might say that it means the photographer knows how to choose interesting subject matter, or instinctively knows when something they see will translate into a good shot. It might mean that they know how to compose the shot well and how to choose the right moment to press the shutter.
If we want a more formal definition we could turn to John Szarkowski‘s book The Photographers Eye (1966), which I wrote about on this blog before. Szarkowski spent three decades as Director of Photography at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York and probably did more than anyone to promote the acceptance of photography as an art-form in its own right, albeit within the very formal parameters of the Modernist tradition. The Photographers Eye is an attempt to identify those things that make photography a unique medium and support the case for its acceptance as an art-form on a par with painting, sculpture and so on. He talks about how the photographer creates photographs out of things that exist in the real world (as opposed to a painter who creates things from the imagination) and that photography is therefore largely a process of selection rather than synthesis. This is its unique quality, and how the photographer goes about carrying out this selection is the core of the process, and defines whether or not they have the so-called ‘eye’.
So what are the things that the photographer selects? Well the first thing would be the subject matter. In these photographs I don’t really get to choose that. There are a limited number of venues in Dublin with balconies and a limited number of nights that I can get into these venues to photograph. I do choose to some extent which gigs I would like to shoot, but by and large, after making the initial decision that I was going to shoot bands with long exposures from balconies in music venues, there is no lee-way in terms of subject matter – it’s predefined and fixed.
The next would be what Szarkowski calls the vantage point. Again I don’t have any choice here either. The vantage point is dead-centre in the middle of the balcony and that’s it. Szarkowski also talks about the selection of the frame – in other words the decision about what to include and what to exclude from the picture. Given that the vantage point is fixed and that I am going to point the camera at the stage I don’t have much room to manoeuver here either. I don’t even have a choice of lens focal length as I only have two fixed focal length lenses for my camera. I therefore can’t zoom in for a closer view or zoom out to include more of the venue surroundings. In practice I use the wide angle lens in all the venues except The Village. I can point the camera up and down a bit though. So, for example, I can place the stage in the upper part of the frame or the lower part, but that’s about the limit of the framing that I can do.
The photographer also decides when to press the shutter, selecting the so-called decisive moment. There is no decisive moment in this kind of photography though, I photograph each song and press the button on the shutter when the song starts. The next thing that the photographer can do is choose the aperture and the shutter speed. Unfortunately the shutter speed is chosen for me (or in a sense is chosen by the band) as I just open the shutter at the start of the song and close it at the end. I can choose the aperture but in practice the level of light normally present in the venue chooses that for me too. It’s f32 for Whelans, f22 for Vicar Street and so on.
So what’s left? Not much really. Anyone could do this, or at least anyone who knows how to operate a 4×5 camera. I have often thought of providing someone else with a precise set of instructions and getting them to go along some night and take the shots instead of me. Would the results then be my photographs or theirs? Presumably theirs, since they took them – but does that mean that they would then have ‘the eye’ too?
The photograph up the top is of Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra playing in The Button Factory earlier this year. I have posted a shot from this gig before but I much prefer this newer version which I created by digitally combining two different negatives from the night. Here is what they sound like. Fantastic band.