Don’t Just Shoot, Create Photos

The announcement we’ve been waiting for, twiddling our thumbs all year round, waiting for that “Apple-esque” keynote speech. How many megapixels can they shove within a single sensor? How far can we push the ISO in the next iteration of this camera before an image becomes digital vomit? Finally, that sexy machine revealed to the world. Blog after blog, review after review. And there we were, wasting our night pixel peeping on a photo of a bird.

I must clarify, I love technology. Everyday I am impressed by how the industry is pushing the medium forward with some major advancements to their systems. But may we pause and reflect for a second on the intention of these new improvements. The irony is that most of the commercial consumers have been sold via an overly compressed example photo, most likely shot by a key opinion leader, appearing on a social media app on a screen the size of the palm of their hands. We’ve reached a day and age where photography has been highly focused on the gadgets, yet we forgot about the principle of capturing an image.

Very recently I have been reflecting on the cameras and gear accumulated throughout the years, and decided to set a task to challenge the way I produce images. Long story short, I ended up creating on an Epson V800, yes, Epson. Let’s just say it will not follow focus on your dogs eyes unless you’ve laid a taxidermy on the flatbed. Before I delve into my recent experiments, I would like to highlight a few people who’s been quite instrumental in forcing me to push boundaries.

It was a summers day in 2017, sitting in a stuffy library, studying Man Ray for photo history. I must say, despite the appreciation for his bravery historically, I was not motivated by the images I was seeing. A slinky contorting centre frame above a sea of defocused household like items, reminiscent of the masterpieces I created whilst mum left the photocopier on. Little did I know a newfound appreciation would take over me years later.

Man Ray, 1922, Untitled Rayograph, gelatin silver photogram, image/sheet: 23.5 x 17.8 cm (9¼ x 7in.)

Foucault’s description of an episteme is the boundaries of our knowledge at a given time, we’re born into a system predefined by the subjectivity of our predecessors, the ones who defined the culture we were raised in. Culturally it becomes difficult to break out of the limits of power-knowledge systems without questioning what’s certain in our times, definition of words, the absolute truth.

Although not in a sociopolitical context, perhaps we are oppressed as photographers to be born into a generation where the world is on a neck to neck race to invent the highest spec camera. Perhaps we need to be brave enough to question and experiment with our existing tools, be the photographic equivalent to postmodernist thinkers, break out of a priori methods and assumptions on photography. Rather, reject the photographic episteme we were born in. Man Ray was just one of those who didn’t see a camera as a camera, he just wanted to create pictures as the technological improvements rendered useless in representing his evocations.

Richard Prince’s Cowboy fascinates me. He was able to recapture a Marlboro advertisement with limited technical skills, yet provide a powerful recontextualisation, is a testament to the boundless possibilities to photography beyond our obsession with gear.

Richard Prince, Untitled (cowboy), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Which brings me back to contemporary photographers. I have noticed a shift to recapture the past with artificial film grain and frames. Could it be the photographer’s romanticisation of the past? Or rather, creatives who were drowning in taught photographic practices and knowledge, trying to stick their head through the surface, to create in a different epoch and break out of the dominance of mainstream photography culture.

Jack Bridgland was a name that I discovered flicking through the pages of a recent GQ magazine. He somehow captures the nostalgia associated with older magazines with his digital photography. The texture of the paper, the shift to magenta. Although unclear about his process, his photos resemble a scan of memorabilia found in an attic, untouched and accumulating dust.

Jack Bridgland Studio

I find his work aesthetically powerful and motivating. Someone who rejects the modernisation of commerce and culture.

There I was, intrigued by Bridgland’s Instagram page, quite a refreshing routine change from flicking mindlessly through short bursts of joy brought to me by baby corgis.

Recently I was fortunate to be hired to shoot a catalogue for a brand who prides itself in marrying east and west, old and new. The photos feature a model in front of an artificial backdrop of a sky (captured by another photographer) intentionally printed to be the wrong perspective. I somehow thought it was quite interesting to be able to pull off my own Richard Prince experiment. 

Pixel peeping into the scan

Looking back at it, I cannot say I am proud of my own work, what have I provided for this photo beyond the humour of a badly selected backdrop? After my client sent me the completed catalogue of the collection of photos, I suddenly had the urge to scan the printed catalogue, somehow adding another layer to these photos I shot with a high spec medium format camera. I feel like I have rejected the idea of megapixels brought to me by the camera manufacturer, and have alchemised these pixels into something more. As I pixel peeped into the scans, the CMYK dots became evident from the paper. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony that I bought a camera which is capable of shooting millions of colours, and I have managed to degrade it back to the four basic building blocks of printing.

I will not even dare to compare myself to the pre-mentioned photographers, and in no way do I find this within my stronger works, but it definitely triggered a different thought process. I also found myself elated creating images in a more physical manner, printing, flicking, scanning. I may or may not employ the same methods in my future works, but let this be a lesson for me and hopefully anyone reading this to break out temporarily from what tools tell you to do. Continue thinking laterally, you are the god of your creations, you define the rules. For all I know my friends’ remarks of their old flip phone photos being comparable to being “shot by a potato” could potentially become a reality.

About the Author

Chester Siu

Chester Siu is an Australian Hong Kongnese photographer and cinematographer based in Hong Kong. With his medical school foundations prior to art school, he continues to be fascinated by science and humans, and is passionate about exploring the human condition and it’s progress.

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