Sunday, April 05, 2009

With the grain

I was wandering around Manhattan and Brooklyn snapping a few pictures today and I found myself musing on why I've taken a liking to photography recently. (If you haven't been paying attention, it's my latest obsession.)

I realized that I like taking pictures that are at the limits of a camera's capabilities; I've always liked low-light photography, and I also like images with extreme dynamic range. The phenomenon is similar to "euphony" in the sound world, which is when a sound reproduction technology fails to reproduce the source realistically, but does so in a way that is pleasing to the ear. The canonical example is electric guitar amplifier distortion: the amplifiers which created the sound of rock couldn't reproduce the electric guitar signal cleanly at the volumes guitarists needed, but the distortion added harmonic content to the signal and actually made it sound better. Today it's hard to imagine electric guitar without it.

Cameras do something similar. In fact, they capture images far less transparently than today's audio recorders do; they have trouble dealing with light levels in which our eyes function near-perfectly, and even in the best of conditions, transform the captured image. Film grain (or digital noise and artifacts, as in the picture above) can be pleasing or ugly, and of course I prefer it to be pleasing. But I think there's something a bit deeper than that at work: while audio pretends at perfection, the camera makes no attempt to hide the fact that it cannot make perfect copies of reality. As its image loses its focus or softens to noise, it allows a veil of modesty to be drawn between the viewer and reality.

Our perceptions are far from perfect, and the camera does not hide this but actually accentuates it. It tells us not that we are all-knowing (and by extension all-powerful) but reminds us that we have limitations. It advises us not to grip too tightly to our ideas, because there is some knowledge that will always be beyond our grasp. And perhaps best of all, it tells us to know our limitations, and use them to our advantage.
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