Reflection on “Discussion on Definition”

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“2:30 in Westport” (Ireland, 2015)

In April of 1923, Weston describes a discussion he had with Johan Hagemeyer, who visited him in Glendale where Weston lived at the time. This discussion started when Hagemeyer showed Weston some prints he had made and Weston said they were lacking in definition, “an inexcusable fault when it comes to photographing modern architecture and machinery, even the mood could be better interpreted with sharp – clean lines.”

Hagemeyer claimed that was the way he saw things and he must render them as he sees them. Still, Weston answered that “photography has certain inherent qualities which are only possible with photography – one being the delineation of detail – so why not take advantage of this attribute?”

“Why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have such an opportunity to extend your vision?” – Edward Weston

He goes on to compare a portrait done by Hagemeyer to one of Bertha Wardell that he took and Hagemeyer agrees that in that case (a portrait of his sister) “searching definition would have unveiled and exposed the very suffering and strife I have tried to portray.” But Hagemeyer also says that “in some other prints I show you – it seems almost necessary that there should not be so much revealed.” (This is of course not what Weston had been told by Stieglitz “Nothing must be unconsidered, there must be complete release.” And “A maximum of detail with a maximum of simplification”.)

The discussion continues:

“If in a certain mood why should I not interpret that state through my picture and not merely photograph what is before me? In such instances, the use of diffusion would aid me.” – Johan Hagemeyer

“Yes, it (diffusion) would aid you – to cloud and befog the real issue and prevent you from telling the truth about the life towards which your lens is pointing. If you wish to interpret why not use a medium better suited to interpretation or subjective expression – or – let someone else do it. Photography is an objective means to an end – and as such is unequaled. It comes finally to the question: For what purpose should the camera be used? And I believe you have misused it, along with many others – including myself!” – Edward Weston

A couple of things come to mind reading this. Weston does not accept diffusion or blur at all. Not in the images of modern architecture or machinery and not in portraits. Well, the year is 1923 and it was just in the year before that Weston had met Stieglitz and had taken the ARMCO photographs. All detail was for him the way to go. But to call using diffusion misusing the camera (even if he admits to having done so himself) seems a bit rich.

Diffusion or blur is used to separate the subject matter from the background and is more than acceptable today. Vincent Versace went even further saying that only what you focus the lens on and what lies on that plane is sharp, the rest of the image can be acceptable, but you will never have everything in focus. So the majority of any image is out of focus, even if it is barely detectable, even if it just exists as physical / optical fact. But according to Mr. Versace, we should be probably dealing with the pretty in the blur at least the same as with the in-focus parts of the image. I guess one should consider this as a concept, but as long as you don’t live in the world of 2% (meaning these kinds of things will improve the quality of your image by this small amount), this should not really have an impact on your workflow.

Also, should we always use anything that extends our vision just because we can? I am with Hagemeyer on this one, at least looking at it from a 21st-century point of view. Stieglitz himself told Weston about how he “broke every photographic law, optics included” and now it seems he is setting up new rules himself. Sure it seems to him that using diffusion as a step back towards pictorialism. But to some extent, we can use techniques or concepts from the past if we achieve something with it we can call our personal vision. If that is what Hagemeyer saw, I see no reason to tell him he can’t do that, do whatever he feels is necessary to make his image feel right to him.

Looking at definition, we could talk about sharpness, depth of field and – at least in this day and age – about resolution. I think Hagemeyer and Weston were talking about sharpness as a concept, but depth of field would be the technical aspect of how to achieve that. Just as Stieglitz put his lens “a foot from a sitter’s face”, Weston was pushing the technical limits of the view camera. When photographing the famous bell peppers, he needed to get close to the object, which posed a problem as the lens would only go to f/64 and with a view camera that close apparently, it wasn’t possible to get everything in focus. So Weston made his own stops which were basically pinhole. “Pepper 30”, the most iconic of the pepper photographs was shot at f/240 at a four to six-hour exposure.

I won’t discuss the resolution issue in-depth, as there (as in most everything I write about here), there is no right or wrong. I am perfectly happy with the 12.3MP D300 and the 24.1MP D7100. I don’t need more for the sizes I print and I am with Ted Forbes when he said that we all have cameras that were (when it comes to specs) better than anything Ansel Adams had. It is SO not about that.

The last point and one of the major points is reality. This has always been an interesting aspect of photography and any photographer should have thought about this at some point, I think.

Weirdly, for the longest time monochrome images in the newspapers were something we accepted as a representation of the real world, conveying additional information to news stories. Even when color TV was already a common thing, the newspaper images continued to be black and white.

And we do realize today that a photograph is not showing reality. There are so many aspects to a photograph that can change what the viewer takes away from it, even if you’re not editing it. And of course, the world is not just black and white or two-dimensional. So what about your image is real? What aspects of reality are represented in your work? How does the reality in yourself influence what is in your image? And what do you think about reality, to begin with?

Weston told Hagemeyer, that diffusion is clouding and befogging the real issue and prevented him from telling the truth. That photography is an objective means to an end. But he wasn’t simply recording reality. As quoted from Ben Maddow’s book “Edward Weston – His Life and Photographs”:

“Weston’s power, to use his very words, lay “in his ability to re-create his subject in terms of its basic reality and present this re-creation in such a form that the spectator feels that the is seeing not just a symbol for the object, but the thing itself revealed for the first time … a heightened sense of reality … that reveals the vital essences of things.”

This goes back to the question I said two paragraphs earlier – What do you think about reality, to begin with? Reality doesn’t mean the same to everybody, or this analysis would make no sense. And it does. One’s reality has a lot to do with perception. Perception beyond the optical capabilities of the human eye. It is what we as intelligent and emotional beings can do with everything we experience in this life. And don’t let anyone tell you there is just one truth, one reality, one life.

The rest of the entry is mostly a wonderful description of an evening at a greek cafe near Los Angeles Street where they went after visiting the Philharmonic. The way he describes it reminds me of similar descriptions Jack Kerouac wrote. The negro droning on the saxophone along with another picking the banjo, the pickpocketing waitresses, the sailor prizefighter having them feel his muscles and relating his life history. Even in writing, he was painting a picture full of detail.

2 thoughts on “Reflection on “Discussion on Definition””

  1. Here are some of my mottos:
    Sharpness is overrated.
    There’s beauty in imperfection.

    I don’t think Weston and I would have got along very well.

    (I wrote this in English to keep it in the same language as your post because I guess you intend to address an English speaking audience.)

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    1. Thanks for keeping it in English. I think you‘ll have to see where Weston came from. In an historical context it makes sense. You and me might not like it, but it makes sense. And of course: A technical imperfect image with gesture (check Jay Maisel about „gesture“) beats an empty but technical perfect image any day of the week …

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