Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Not Quite Seeing, but Close Enough

Pretty close to 90% of taking satisfying pictures is seeing the picture that you want among the chaos and clutter in which the visual world presents itself. Every photographer has days when seeing is easy, when good images just jump out of scenes he has seen hundreds of times before. I suppose that good photographers have a lot of those days. For most of us, on most days, it's not that easy. You can look where you know there's got to be a good picture and not find anything.

Then there are the days in between. On a recent visit to an airport in southern California I ran across this plane. It's a Lockheed PV-2, a reliable but not very famous US Navy patrol bomber from World War II. This one doesn't look like much now, but it's at the beginning of a long restoration by an owner famous for top-quality restorations, so in several years it should be quite a showpiece. What fascinated me about the aircraft was the way the late afternoon light brought out the patina in its metal surfaces.

But where was the picture? With other aircraft, cars, and clutter all round, it was not easy to find. I tried to clear my mind ("let the force guide you"; "be the ball"; whatever) as I walked around it looking for the angle, the composition I wanted. I didn't quite get there. But I did sense that the front of the engine nacelle and the cockpit area were of the most interest to me, and I felt that I would want a telephoto perspective to focus attention on the surfaces rather than the 3-dimensional forms. I took this shot, which I knew I didn't like, but which I hoped might contain something I liked somewhere.

When I got home, I took another hard look at it. Obviously those cars at lower right would have to go. At length I realized that I could remove them, isolate attention on the bits of the image that I really wanted, and also solve the distracting diagonal aspect of the plane's posture by rotating it 11 degrees to the right and cropping carefully. Had I been seeing better that day, I would have twisted my camera and made that picture on the spot. Luckily I had composed widely enough to give me room for the rotation. This gave me the composition that I wanted, with the things I wanted to be in the frame present, and nothing looking artificially cut off.

All that remained was to bring out the patina with a slight increase in saturation, and address California's air pollution issues by tinting the sky slightly blue. I'm not saying that the result is a great picture, but it was what I wanted out of this situation, and satisfied me enough to justify my walk around the airport. And it was almost -- but not quite -- seen at the time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Can Airplane Photographers Learn from Robert Capa?

This is the first in an occasional series in which I introduce a famous non-aviation photographer and discuss what contribution his or her body of work can make to our shooting of airplanes.

Robert Capa (1913-54) is the most legendary of war photographers. Born in Hungary and originally named Endre Ernő Friedmann, he photographed five different wars from 1936 more or less continuously until he himself was killed by a land mine while covering the French campaign in Indo-China. Capa has so many things to teach us that I had difficulty picking just three.

Capa is famous for saying, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Capa lived by this motto, coming ashore on Omaha Beach with the second wave of infantry during the D-Day landings and getting amazing pictures that could have been achieved no other way. He not only lived by that principle but also died by it, with camera in hand.

I am reminded of Capa's motto when I see legions of people at airshows pointing their long lenses at the airplanes flying by. About 99% of their pictures are an attempt (not usually acknowledged as such) to imitate air-to-air photos taken from a camera plane, and inevitably they are not as good. Even with the best lenses and image stabilization, they have less detail and the characteristic long-telephoto compression of perspective as compared to air-to-air shots. Only a very few of the best ground-to-air airshow photos are as good as even mediocre air-to-air, basically because the photographers aren't close enough. It makes me wonder whether, rather than investing in expensive equipment and specialized skills to get these inferior pictures, we would be better off either investing in the access and relationships necessary to get a seat in a camera plane for better (closer) shots, or else concentrating on other types of photos that we can do well with such access as we have.

Capa's most famous single photograph was made early in his career during the Spanish Civil War, and depicts a Loyalist militiaman at the moment of being killed by a sniper a few feet away from Capa. Besides the striking nature of the photo, it has also become famous because of the controversy over whether it is real or staged, a question that still has impassioned advocates on both sides. This in turn has sparked discussion of the broader question of whether it matters whether the photo was real or staged.

The real vs. fake debate has come into greater prominence in the digital era. The stakes are greatest, obviously, in the photojournalism area. This would encompass Capa's war photography, but what happens when a photo goes beyond reportage and is "repurposed" as a work of art, or a political symbol? Opinions differ as to whether, and how much, its original authenticity as journalism still matters.

Most in the art-photography community understand that every photo is a creative and selective product, no matter what it pretends to be, and regard any type of manipulation for expressive purposes as fair game. The audience for aviation photography is more conservative. In my experience they don't like a lot of retouching or fakery. They perceive aviation photography as quasi-journalistic in nature, and are more interested in "truthful" depictions of the planes than in the photos as aesthetic objects.

The photo above is an angle that I've always wanted to get of a Spitfire in flight but, recalling Capa's maxim, could never get close enough. In Canada recently I found a full-size replica Spitfire mounted on a pylon, and walked around it shooting photos with fakery in mind. After some Photoshop work, though it is no masterpiece, the picture does what I wanted in revealing the subtle shape of a Spitfire's fuselage in dramatic lighting with a suggestion of flight and movement. I would expect most aviation buffs on seeing the photo initially to be excited at a shot of a Spitfire in unfamiliar markings (serious buffs know how each of the approximately 50 real flying Spitfires is painted), then to find a few telltale clues that it is not a real plane, and come to regard the picture as uninteresting, if not dishonest.

One final lesson from Capa's life. Capa's photos from the Normandy Landings on Omaha Beach in 1944, where he came ashore with the second assault wave, are legendary. Part of the legend concerns the fact that only about 10 of them, including the one at the top of this thread, survived to be published. The rest of the approximately 100 that he took on the beach were destroyed in a darkroom processing mishap back in London, while Capa was still out shooting. How would you feel about taking the same risks as the soldiers that stormed the beaches of Normandy, armed only with a camera, only to have almost everything that you did it for ruined by a lab assistant? But Capa never expressed any bitterness over the loss of the images. Most photographers will tell you that their most treasured images are those yet to be taken.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Greatest Aviation Photo Ever

On the morning of December 17, 1903, a lifeguard named John T. Daniels activated the trigger of a 5x7-inch glass plate camera, set up on a tripod by Orville Wright, and took a picture of an airplane taking off. At the time, to put it mildly, this was a novelty. The resulting photo, usually cropped to eliminate the empty space and missing piece of glass on the left, is one of the most famous of photographic images.

People, especially aviation buffs, are so accustomed to this photo as a historical document that it is rarely, if ever, evaluated as a photograph. But it is well worth close scrutiny.

The photo is technically excellent. At the Library of Congress web site, you can download a scan of this photo that is 7500 x 5406 pixels, consuming 232 megabytes. (That's about 40 megapixels, for any digital users interested in how far photography has "advanced" since 1903, and the negative probably could support an even higher resolution scan.) At that resolution, every bracing wire on the plane and every fold in the Wrights' clothing can be seen in sharp relief. The exposure is perfect, and the tonal range would do credit to Ansel Adams. Someone with today's best equipment would be hard pressed to do as well.

More to the present point, the photo is a great aesthetic success. Compositionally, its main elements are the two slightly drooping white wings and the running figure of Wilbur, with the launching track leading the eye to the plane and pointing directly at Wilbur's chest. The action is caught precisely at what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call the decisive moment; the airplane is clearly flying, but has not yet left Wilbur behind. Wilbur's presence provides scale and dynamism to the picture, and also makes it satisfying for those with knowledge of what the photo depicts: both of the airplane's co-inventors at their moment of greatest triumph. The background with its indistinct horizon heightens the sense of flight into the unknown, but the vague shadow of the airplane clarifies what otherwise would be an ambiguous spatial relationship with ground, sky, and Wilbur.

It would be hard to overstate the fame of this photograph. The compositional structure of the photo is known to every visually literate person in the developed world. Draw a sketch of two drooping white slivers joined by a forest of sticks with a running figure just to the right, and almost anyone can tell you what it is. It has been adapted on many media, from the North Carolina 2001 state quarter-dollar to countless pieces of kitsch. It may be not just the greatest aviation photo ever taken, but the only great aviation photo ever taken, from the standpoint of the overall history of photography.

It might be objected that my evaluation of this photo's aesthetic merits is tainted by the famous historical event that it depicts. To this there are three responses. First: So what? Many photos are great partly because of the significance of their content. Joe Rosenthal's photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, would not be so well regarded if it had been taken on a training field at Camp Pendleton. Second: a momentous event does not necessarily produce a great photo. Other important events in aviation history, such as Louis Bleriot's first crossing of the English Channel and Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, were extensively covered media events, yet all of the photographers present failed to produce an iconic image that has come to symbolize the achievement. Finally: This photo helped to create the historical significance of the event it documented. The Wrights waged a campaign for decades to establish themselves as the inventors of the airplane and this moment as the airplane's birth, and this photograph was their most compelling piece of evidence. And like so many photos, it stretches the truth. Viewing the image of the craft floating serene and level, apparently under full control, one would never imagine that, as aerodynamicists and replica builders have learned, it could barely fly. Not only was it incapable of a controlled turn, but it could be flown only under a highly specific set of conditions and probably only by one of the Wrights, with their vast experience in its predecessor gliders of similar configuration. The aesthetic brilliance of Daniels' photo should be understood as a cause, not just an effect, of its historical significance.

I'm presenting this as the first post to this blog for a few reasons. I want to start on a high note, showing you a picture I like and explaining why. I want to convey something of what this blog is about: using aviation photography to explore the aesthetics of both airplanes and photographs, within the historical contexts of both. In future posts, I'll be talking more about photographic icons like Adams and Cartier-Bresson, about aviation photos and photographers, and a little about camera gear and techniques. I hope you enjoy it.