"The Art of Mistakes and Miscalculations" - TDS Podcast

This is The Digital Story Podcast #701, August 20, 2019. Today's theme is "The Art of Mistakes and Miscalculations." I'm Derrick Story.

Opening Monologue

Mistakes are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. An off-center subject may be viewed by one person as poor composition and seen as dynamic by another. After visiting the exhibition, Don't! Photography and the Art of Mistakes at SF MOMA, I have 5 techniques that can be dazzling to some folks and head-scratching to others. Tune in and see which camp you fall in to.

The Art of Mistakes and Miscalculations

I want to start by reading you the opening text to the exhibit at SF MOMA, because I think it frames this conversation well.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proscriptive texts by self-proclaimed photography experts proliferated in amateur manuals and periodicals. The next generation saw the rise of photographers who challenged these rules and strictures.

Pairing modernist images by artists including Man Ray, Florence Henri, and Lisette Model with historical documents, this exhibition examines the shifting definitions of "good" and "bad" photography, while considering how tastes evolved during this transformative period for the medium.

BTW: This show runs through Dec. 1. So if you're in San Francisco, I highly recommend visiting MOMA and seeing it for yourself.

So here are five of these "mistakes" that could turn into real works of art.

5 Techniques that Could be Wonderful

  • Off-Framing - In the early days of photography, tripods were required because of the low sensitivity of photo medium. Compositions tended to squared up and realistic. But as film speeds increased and handheld photography became more common, so did composing mistakes and victories. One of my favorites is the 1956 image, "Little Man, Stepping Off a Cable Car" by Dorothea Lang.
  • Reflections - Shop windows, for example, can be perplexing for photographers. If you shoot straight on, you see yourself in the picture. From an angle, the surrounding environment appears in the shot. Many books recommended avoiding this situation all together. That is until more adventurous photographers began to integrate these reflections into their shots showing dual realities at once.
  • Motion Blur - Standard advice to prevent motion blur was to use faster film, adequate lighting, and increase the shutter speed. But later artists discovered that blur could actually convey motion or indicate speed. And to even get more creative, a blurred moving face could convey an emotional state.
  • Distortion - Photographers were instructed to not position an arm, hand, or leg closer to the lens than the other parts of the body because distortion would elongate or enlarge that body part. But then more adventurous artists discovered that they could create abstractions, similar to modern art techniques, that departed from making photographs always look realistic.
  • Lens Flare - Photographers were cautioned about pointing their lenses in the direction of strong light sources, such as a bright lamp or the sun, because it increased the chances of lens flare. But because of its unpredictable nature, art photographers embraced the technique and were eager to see how the effects of flare impacted their compositions.

Photography is an ever-evolving medium. And the rules are seldom adhered to for very long. And to be honest, sometimes images that feature these "mistakes" are far more interesting than the "perfect" ones.

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Alfred Stieglitz: 5 Random Don'ts

From the SF MOMA exhibit: Don't! Photography and the Art of Mistakes.

  • Don't believe you must be a pictorial photographer... Bad pictorial photography, like bad "art painting," is a crime.
  • Don't plagiarize if you can help it. It can't give you any real pleasure to know yourself akin to a thief.
  • Don't believe you became an artist the instant you received a gift Kodak on Christmas morning.
  • Don't believe that experts are born. They are the results of hard work.
  • Don't go through life with your eyes closed, even though you may have chosen photography as your vocation. The machine may see for you, but its eye is dead. Your eye should furnish it with life. But don't believe that all open eyes see. Seeing needs practice - just like photography itself.

PS: Don't believe I claim any originality for the above random remarks.

From Photographic Topics 7, January 1909.

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Updates and Such

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See you next week!

More Ways to Participate

Want to share photos and talk with other members in our virtual camera club? Check out our Flickr Public Group. And from those images, I choose the TDS Member Photo of the Day.

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