Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blur and Abstraction

Consider this image by Mitch Goldman, heavy on distortion/ blur (you will want to click through to see the blur at full size, it doesn't make sense in the thumbnail view). First, is it photography? Of course, but is it rail photography? It isn't representational photography, for the most part, and it doesn't really try to convey anything in particular about railroading. But as an abstract, and one that abstracts not through cropping or careful composition but through what I will call an artistic effect, it might have merit.

Thus, one might consider this image more in the realm of certain types of painting than in photography. Of course, photography has always pursued such types of abstractions, but in doing so, is this image still a rail image? Is it an interesting abstraction of railroading and of a particular event, or is the abstraction disconnected from the subject, call it a random interpretation?

My first impression of this shot was rather positive. Heat distortion is always attractive, and by presenting overall blur with sufficient definition of subject this image offered a consideration of what is the essence of a rail setting. But ultimately the image shrunk on me (or whatever the antonym of "grew" is). For one, I found the elements unnecessarily muddled. The endless blurred posts are heavy handed. They are bright and take the eye away from

the more important parts of the image. It isn't so evident what they support (signal bridge? pedestrian overpass?), in that the top is cropped too tight for my tastes, I want to see a clear bar across and not something merged into the upper margin. The bright rectangles behind the posts on the left are bad in this regard also.

The image does have an interesting deliniation between top and bottom, the top having all the verticals and the bottom having diagonals, with the action at the line - nicely done! But the bottom is rather dull, especially in color, all brown, and the ballast lacks in interesting contrast, it is a muddle. Perhaps I just find it washed out and ugly.

The point of interest, the train and person, is problematic also. The pilot of the train looks weird, too tall, something going on under the coupler I don't understand, and there is this large black area behind the person that at first I thought might be a dog but then realized was the shadow of the train. And there is this weird orange-y area on the left, below the posts.

The issue for an abstraction, I conjecture, is whether the abstraction offers a good balance between taking one away from the object captured but also maintaining identification of what that object is or was. This image suffers from both, I think, odd as that seems. The individual elements are identifiable (especially to a railfan), catenary posts, many rails, engine, etc. There is a line between interpretation and blur, and this one falls into the blur zone, I think because there is sufficient detail remaining, and that detail is sufficiently distracting (posts! orange! rails!) to suppress whatever mood or pattern the abstraction would otherwise convey. And at the same time, perhaps because one expects certain things at trackside, the distraction gets confusing. What is that behind the posts on the left? What is that orange zone? Some details are abstracted (ok, blurred :) ) to the point they cannot be identified, but others are not, and this is a problem here.

Put differently, what is the subject? I find that abstract works often put a focus either on one important element, or they put the focus on no subject, instead being primarily works that consider pattern, or texture, or other dimension. Here, there is a clear subject, there is an interesting event, a trespass, with the train bearing down. But, the blur confuses rather than focuses, it takes away attention from the action but does not replace it with something else for the viewer's attention, merely distraction. The eye recognizes the event and one wants to know more (does the person have a face of fear or of distraction?). But there is no more here, it is eliminated and replaced with other stuff. The balance between identification and abstraction does not fit the subject.

So, I am no longer a fan of the image. But this is inappropriate as a full consideration of the image. The additional question is where do we/Mitch go from here? Can one do full-blur rail photography in an effective manner? I don't know, but here are some dimensions I would consider. First, what spot make for a good subject for a blur? The poles here are awful, in my view, unless they become a focal point. At least in this take they are too strong as a secondary element. How much detail at trackside is too much for this level of blur? Are there other magnitudes of blur that work better, and does that vary by location? I would look first to locations with less detail.

Second, what is the blur, the art, trying to do? Is the focus going to be on color? On patterns? What are the elements that remain after distortion/blur that capture a viewer's interest? I suspect those will have to do with interesting color variation along with a simpler division of the image area, simpler forms that hold up well to blurring.

Just some thoughts. (BTW, I presume I took this waaay more seriously than Mitch did. I just find it worth pondering.) I view this as an interesting first attempt. We will see if Mitch or anyone else pursues this and finds images of greater artistic merit. Nice try!

PS: I encourage you to read the comment from Mitch regarding what he intended, what he did, and why he likes the result.


Mitch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitch said...

Wow - what a wild photo!

Having seen this photo elsewhere, I can only say, unlike you, it has furhter grown on me. Having been the one who took it, let me share my story and perspective.

Typically, if an image requires an explanation, it may not have worked for that particular viewer. On the other hand, I've always enjoyed your blogs and perspectives, Janusz, and at times you have been able to show me the magic I did not originally realize. Hence, the reason artists will at times describe thier work and create a title for it as well.

Far from a grab shot, this composition was planned. A wide angle shot was dull at this location so I went with a 200 mm zoom. It was at this point I discovered the mirage like effect that resulted. My first thought was to capture just the train in the distance with all the associated distortion created by
the waves of heat. This would result in a photo capturing what appeared to be a mirage.

Imagine being in a desert for days without water - you start to see things you want. Now imagine railfanning for long periods of time without seeing a train. Hence the concept I was after.

The trespasser was unplanned and added some context and drama. On a side note, I visuallized the graphic for JAWS substituting the AEM-7 for the shark and the trespasser for the swimmer. The distortion, all natural and as seen through the lens, made this a true to life unaltered image that had a plesaing Monet-like feel to it.

Since this was not set up in the studio, the orange and silver poles could not be posistioned nor could I remove signage.

As for framing - I like it. Cutting off the cantenary bridge would leave dangling wires. Showing more would leave cut off poles above. So, I included enough to show where the wires were hanging from without engine up with a thick black line at only the top of the frame.

As for the foreground - the crop was intentional with the intent to lead the eyes to the subject which seems blatantly obvious - the train and trespasser.

(Edited for spelling)