Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2001/03/23

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Subject: Re: [Leica] The snapshot ethic
From: Johnny Deadman <>
Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2001 15:52:09 -0500

The snapshot ethic is an interesting thing. To me it signifies a picture
that looks casual, but when you look at it closely, it's a tight-woven mesh
of relationships and balances, all perfectly arranged. It's only then that
you start to appreciate that although it might look casual, the photograph
is actually completely formally aware. It just doesn't show off about it.

That is not the same as a snapshot.

Winogrand's work, for example. Formally adroit, formally preoccupied you
might almost say (the arrangement of the surfaces of things), but all done
with an apparent flick of the wrist, almost infuriatingly casual. The
pictures look throwaway, until you look at them hard.

Maybe you don't buy this, so let me try to convince you with an analogy from
literature, and another from documentary movie-making.

First, lit. There is nothing, nothing so hard as writing casual, vernacular
prose. Prose that sounds totally natural and unaffected, but that hits you
in the guts with what it's saying. Writers (I'm one) slave and slave over
every word to get something that just flows off the tongue, sounds
effortless. Oftentimes readers make the mistake of thinking if it's easy to
read it must have been easy to write. The opposite, usually. But prose like
that aspires to look easy. As soon as it looks as thought it was tough to
write, it sounds wrong. The most extreme example of this would be, for
example, a sonnet that you could speak in conversation and it would sound
like ordinary speech. Wordsworth aspired to this, and often fell flat.

Second, documentaries. I have spent months in editing rooms editing the
dialog of 'real' people until it sounds natural. The rhythms of ordinary
speech, with all their ums and ahs and non-sequiturs and blind alleys and
misprononciations and outright lies and all the rest, are stunningly dull to
listen to at length. "Why can't that person talk properly and get to the
point!!" the viewer thinks. So most doc dialog tracks are actually a frenzy
of cuts as soon as the talking head disappears behind a cutaway. The
greatest compliment is when the interviewee watches the film and *doesn't
realise their dialog has been edited*. More than once I've had some poor
inarticulate stumbler ring me up afterwards and say "I wasn't as bad as I
thought. Actually I was quite good, wasn't I?" and you have to swallow the
temptation to send them a transcript of what they actually said as opposed
to how you edited it down.

But again, as soon as it's obvious the dialog has been edited, you're lost.

So in photography. The 'apparent' snapshot convinces us of something, a fact
or an emotional truth, precisely because it *looks* like a snapshot. But
that doesn't mean it isn't a riot of formal concerns, nor that massive
efforts mental and physical didn't surround the taking of it. Just that it
looks like a snapshot, and doesn't wear its effort on its sleeve.

That doesn't make it a snapshot.

(I think all of the above really demonstrates that rhetoric is not a dead
- -- 
Johnny Deadman