Copyright © Roger Hicks
GIRL WITH GLASS: For me, this is a snapshot. A bit more carefully composed than most, perhaps; better quality than many; slightly cropped from the original; even burned in a little in places, to emphasize the principal characters. But it looks like a snapshot, and it is meant to. It’s at a vernissage (opening night) at the Rencontres at Arles. Would I call it an “image”? No. As I was going through pictures for this article, I realized that I couldn’t find a single example of my own street photography that I would call an “image”; and I’m not sure I can find any from any other photographers’ work, either.
The word “image” is strange, multi-layered and to some extent elusive. It has many meanings: consider the second of the Ten Commandments, for example, about not worshipping graven images. But what’s the difference between an image, a picture, a photograph and a snapshot? For that matter, when does a snapshot become a snap or a happy-snap? What does it mean to call someone a photographer (let alone a street photographer), a portraitist, an Artist (with or without the capital A), a documentarist?
A lot of it is fashion: every era has its slang, its jargon, its ways of showing that the user is in the know. Outdated slang has the opposite effect, marking the user as either of an earlier generation, no longer in touch, or as one who never was in the know and has tried (but failed) to look clever and knowledgeable. Think of the once-popular word allegedly invented by the late Monte Fresco to describe a newspaper photographer: “smudger”. Who would say that nowadays? For that matter, consider “street photography” and “street photographer”. I for one prefer the old French idea of “humanist photography”.
By the same token, the phrase “artist who uses photography” is all too often the mark of the incompetent, the pretentious, the outsider, the deluded: of someone who is desperate to distinguish himself from anyone so common and ill-bred as a mere photographer, and his precious images from anything so everyday as a photograph. Others prefer reverse snobbery, calling themselves “snappers” or indeed “smudgers”. For that matter, except for a more or less convenient pigeon-hole, what does “street photographer” add to “photographer”? At worst it becomes a stick to beat people with: “That’s not real [or proper] street photography”.
As for those who take pains to distinguish between “taking” and “making” photographs, well, clearly words have failed them. All photographs are “made”, by a long and more or less complicated process which usually begins with pointing the camera in the right direction (there are exceptions, such as photograms) and properly ends with showing someone the finished product. What does “made” add to “taken” at this point? Except to attempt to say, unconvincingly, “I am cleverer than you, because I make things instead of merely taking them.”
Copyright © Roger Hicks
BALCONY, GIRONA: Somehow, at least for me, this picture has more claim to be an “image” than the one above (the girl with the glass). Why? I have not the faintest idea. It may be the rich, warm colours, which remind me of a candle-lit icon in a church. It’s an absolutely dead straight, un-cropped, un-manipulated image, taken in Catalunya. I was able to shoot at a level with the balcony because the house is built on a street that falls sharply away from the square in which I was standing.
For all the reasons given above, I believe that the word “image” is over-used in photography, especially in street photography. On the other hand, there are at least three perfectly good reasons for using the word “image”.
The first is “elegant variation”. It can be monotonous to read the same word again and again. Picture… picture… picture… picture… So we add a bit of variety, alternating “picture” with “photograph”. There is probably more scope for unforced elegant variation in English than in any other language. Although “picture” covers a far wider field than “photograph” there is rarely any disadvantage in using the broader term.
Picture and photograph also provide useful adjectival forms: “picturesque” and “photogenic”. The differences in meaning are often negligible, but they can also be significant: an attractive young model may be “photogenic” without necessarily being “picturesque” whereas an elderly peasant might be both photogenic and picturesque. Although “image” provides us with additional elegant variation, there is no similar adjectival derivative: “imaginative” and “imaginary” don’t really cut it.
Be grateful, too, that I was never so good at Latin that I have any sympathy with the poetic style of two thousand years ago. Many Roman poets were rabid users of downright inelegant variation, calling (for example) a chariot not just “a chariot” but also “thundering wheels”, “spinning axle-stem”, “breathless horses” and lots more. If you are turned on by this sort of thing, look up synechdoche and metonymy. Reflect though that we do the same sort of thing when we refer to a lens as “glass” or a “bottle” or even a “zoom”.
The second excuse for using the word “image” is Adobe Photoshop, which was originally conceived as a tool for graphic artists: people who deal with all kinds of images, not just photographs. This is almost certainly how the term “image processing” came about, though it’s also a useful contradistinction to “photographic processing”, which historically refers to film, developers, fixers and all the other paraphernalia of the traditional wet darkroom.
Adobe Photoshop also raises the question of exactly what constitutes a photograph. Manipulate it enough, and is it still a photograph in the strict sense of being “written with light”? It’s akin to the difference between a manuscript and book. You might start out with a photograph, but is it still just “written with light” by the time you’ve changed or removed the colours, distorted the shape, electronically overlaid one image on another, and cut and pasted different photographs together? It’s still a picture, though you might have more excuse for “image” as elegant variation; and the more it is constructed, assembled or otherwise contrived in non-photographic ways, the greater the excuse for using the word “image”. My own belief is that extensive manipulation is rarely needed or wanted in street photography, and that even when it is used, it should be so unobtrusive that the picture looks more like a snapshot than like something that has been laboriously contrived or re-worked: art should conceal art.
Copyright © Frances Schultz
THE CHURCH AT AUVERS: Even without Adobe Photoshop, you can start out with a photograph and end up with something else: an image, maybe. Frances Schultz photographed this church, famously painted by Vincent van Gogh, with a fish-eye lens and then further distorted the image (see? I used the word) by bending the photographic paper on the baseboard of the enlarger. She then hand coloured it heavily in the style of Vincent, using Marshall’s Oils. I’d still call it a picture, and possibly even a photograph, though in her own words “that’s the image I have in my head of the Church at Auvers.” But it ain’t street photography.
The third and possibly most defensible excuse for the word “image” in photography is that it is an entirely legitimate technical term. A camera lens projects an image onto the film or sensor; an enlarger lens projects an image onto the paper on the baseboard. This is the sense in which I used “image” in the description of the picture above of the Church at Auvers. The image in question may or may not be a picture, though this immediately calls into question the meaning of the word “picture”. Suppose I scratch a fogged negative with a needle and make a photographic enlargement from it? It is definitely a photograph, because I have “written with light”. But is it a picture? It is if I say it is, on the grounds that art is what artists say it is. Is it, however, a photograph and a picture in the same sense as even the Church at Auvers?
A fourth and very minor excuse for “image” is that the French tend to call photographs images, not least because a photographe is a photographer; but at this point, we’re beginning to veer into pretentiousness again. What, pretentious, moi? Remember too that one of the meanings of cliché in French is “photographic plate” or “negative”.
Copyright © Roger Hicks
ARLES: This looks suspiciously like a 1950s French humanist picture; a third-rate Doisneau, perhaps, though he would have provided a witty interaction between the respectable couple and the improbable nude, which is actually a poster for a William Ropp exhibition. It’s fairly timeless, and is rendered more so by the sepia conversion. Even so, does it qualify as an image, except in French?
In the light of all this, can we call a photograph an “image” in English? Well, of course we can. We do. But should we, except in the narrow context of image processing or the wider context of elegant variation? My feeling, as you will have guessed by now, is that mostly we shouldn’t. In fact, things can get worse. A popular phrase is “iconic image”. Well, no. Or then again, yes. An icon is normally an object of devotion, and some people do have this sort of attitude to certain pictures, especially worshippers of Ansel Adams. I may even have used the phrase myself in moments of weakness; but I hardly feel proud of having done so. Is there such a thing as iconic street photography? Quite probably. Are there iconic street images? Not if you have any regard for the English language.
So to sum up, yes, there are plenty of times when you can use the word “image”. Very few are however related to photography. Your personal image, the way you dress and speak and wear your hair, is one thing. Your image as a photographer, whether as an exponent of cutting edge street photography or as the person who always comes last in the local club competitions regardless of subject, is another. I’ll defend the use of “image” as elegant variation (albeit without much enthusiasm) in everyday use; in association with Adobe Photoshop; and in its technical sense of a projected or recorded image. But photographs? Well, they’re photographs. Or pictures. Images? Not usually.