“Shaping a Photographic Art Image” from Expression Methods for Photographic Art, by Wu Yinxian
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Wu Yinxian (1900-1994) was a famous photographer and cinematographer who documented the life of major Chinese Communist Party leaders such as Mao Zedong, as well as the activities of the Eighth Route Army in Yan’an from the late 1930s to the 1940s. He also wrote instructional materials to train younger photographers in the Party. Beginning in 1956, he was Dean of the Department of Photography at the Beijing Film Academy. Expression Methods for Photographic Art was the first textbook written by Wu for the Department of Photography.
“Shaping a Photographic Art Image” is one section of the introduction to this book. Referencing Marxist and Mao Zedong’s thought on literature and art, Wu analyses the differences between photographic art and other forms of art and stresses that a photographic art image is “a documentary, model (both typical and ideal) scene from life”.
As we all know, art uses images to represent real life, to express people’s thoughts and emotions. Images are the most significant feature of art. There are many ways for people to understand reality, and the artistic image is the embodiment of an artist’s understanding of reality.
Although all the arts make use of images to represent reality, each takes its own form. For example, photographic art and literature are different. Photography employs visual images to represent life, to express people’s thoughts and feelings. It also enables people to directly observe, or sense, the height, width, and depth of the subject, to perceive a concrete, image that appears to be in three dimensions. Literature, on the other hand, uses language to stimulate the reader’s imagination, using such sensory images to influence the reader. The particular visuality of the image is the common feature of all the plastic arts.
Shaping an image is the fundamental question for all literature and art, and naturally photographic art is no exception. So, adhering to the particular character of photography, how does one shape an image?
First, we need to clarify what this character is. In this respect, photographic art differs from literature, yet also differs from drawing, sculpture and other plastic arts. The photographic art image is a documentary, model scene from life. It represents true and vivid events from real life. They are not simply mechanistic or naturalistic copies; rather, they should be more beautiful, loftier, more focused, and more representative. It is very important to correctly understand this particular feature of photographic art. Mastering this feature is the only way to make distinctive and touching photographic art images, realizing photographic art’s potential. If this feature is not properly understood, one is certain to violate the principles of photography, and fail to succeed.
In the process of shaping an image, there are both similarities and differences between photography and other forms of art. All artists must enter deeply into the thick of everyday life, to select materials and shape something “representative”. When a writer delves into everyday life, he must observe, investigate, and analyze life’s complex phenomena. He must make the leap from perceptual knowledge to the level of rational knowledge, and eventually use words to create an artistic image with unity of form and content, a model image ripe with aesthetic value and art’s power to influence.
In contrast, a photographic art image is created primarily to represent real people and events, as well as the context of their reality. In photography, the selection of which actual events and figures to portray is crucial, within the process of observing, investigating, and analyzing subjects, and of shaping the model image. The image of those real people and events is the specific subject of photographic practice. The treatment and transformation of artistic images through photographic practice occurs simultaneously with the unfolding of tangible events and human actions.
Photographic images differ from other art forms in the following ways:
- The creation of a photographic art image cannot stray from the subject it means to depict. In fact, if one strays from the subject’s unfolding action, the result is not an art image.
The action photography depicts can be only that which occurs in the present, not something that happened in the past or will happen in the future. Unlike other art forms, which offer favorable conditions and ample time, photography allows only limited time, for example, in which to choose the angle or the lighting or to adjust the subject. The moment is everything, and the span during which an image is “decided” and photographed is very brief.
This feature of photographic practice is different from literature and other art practices, in which there is sufficient time for the author to synthesize and generalize the images, thereby making them “model”. Photographic practice does not possess such conditions; it can only be practiced in the field of real life, with specific, actual people and actual events. Therefore, the photographer must pay particular attention when it comes to selecting a subject.
- While in the field, the photographer may not be able to act freely, being limited by the available angle, position, or other factors.
- Once the image is produced, there is no way to alter it; photography is not like drawing, in which changes can continuously be made to the depiction of the subject. After a photographic image is exposed, it is basically fixed: although one can adjust the tone when making a positive copy, or crop the frame, one still cannot really alter the basic image. And if the choice of people, or the relationship between people, or between people and their environment, needs to be modified, one can only rephotograph the scene. The “processing” and “revising” of the photographic image mainly applies to the subject, not to the image-form. Compared with other art forms, in photography the potential for “processing” and “revising” an image is limited. One cannot alter the basic form of an image’s subject.
These are the particular features of photographic practice. The advantage of photographic art lies in the image’s credibility, and its sense of familiarity. Since there is no dogmatic formula for art practice, despite the limitations above, it is still possible to produce excellent works. The challenge is how best to seize the subjective initiative, according to the demands of the subject matter. If one masters these principles, and can continue to work creatively, then it is possible to produce successful works. We must recognize that under these conditions, the photographer’s artistic accomplishment, creative skill and practical experience are the keys to achieving outstanding works.
These are the skills a photographer must master for the creative process to be successful:
- When entering the thick of life to select material, he should be able to assess every facet of the scene. At any one time, one should always see the bigger picture, searching for that specific subject that is most representative of the scene as whole. If one strays from the bigger picture, seeking out only certain details instead, the art image will become biased, and one will fail to create a good, model art image.
- The photographer should firmly master the principles of shaping a photographic image and fully exercise his subjective initiative. He should make use of objective conditions, skillfully choosing the lighting, angle and the precise moment to shoot.
An artistic image should contain meaning, both representative and distinctive; that is, it should become a model image. Literature, theater, and the fine arts all use “synthesis” and “summary” to create a model image. As Lu Xun writes: “[T]he character is a mixture of a mouth from Zhejiang, a face from Beijing, and clothes from Shanxi.” The unique constitution of the photographic art image, which should be representative, determines that this method of “appropriation” or “construction” cannot be employed. The documentary character of photographic art requires that its image must be an event from within real life, a scene from life, such that it cannot be constructed. Instead, photography refines a model artistic image from amidst the complex phenomena of life. It uses a method of selection, not appropriation or construction, seeking the essential, specific individual events which are representative, to shape its own model image. In the case of photographic art practice, selection is an important way of creating a typical, ideal image.
A model image includes two components: model figures and a model environment. Occasionally, however, these two aspects are not in accordance with each other; for instance, the figure is a model figure but not the environment, or vice versa. It requires clarity of mind from the photographer to appropriately adjust those not-so-representative factors and unify them without contradiction. In artistic practice, even the smallest details should not be overlooked.
In the domains of literature, the fine arts, theatre and so on, artists can employ methods such as imagination, speculation and fabrication to shape rich artistic images. However, the shaping of a photographic image has its own rules. The specific subject a photographer faces is always objective. Generally speaking, photographers should not influence how events unfold, nor should they fabricate things. If this objective nature is violated, it will damage the authenticity of photographic art.
To sum up: the shaping of photographic art has its own principles and expressive techniques, which revolve closely around real life. While interpreting and expressing life, the photographer should never abandon a specific subject; nor should there be any “taken for granted” elements in the image-shaping process. If a photographic art image does not make people feel that it comes from real life, this will affect its educational usefulness. The photographer must be absolutely sure about what his duty is, keenly proficient in photography’s means of expression, and clearly understand his own style. Only in this way can he effectively create a photographic art image.
Art has the capacity to educate people, and the art image we shape should have the capacity to encourage people to learn and develop. Its content should be progressive and wholesome; its form should be beautiful. The photographer should strive to meet these requirements when shaping an artistic image. In real life, there are also backward phenomena; this is a fact. Certainly, we must concentrate most on positive aspects of life and heroic figures. However, the responsibility of art workers is not simply to teach people to learn from progressive figures, but also to teach people to “lash the residual life in the past”. Therefore, it is also very meaningful and indeed necessary for photographic works to depict negative images. In this way, the imperfections of our people’s character can be pointed out, in order to help them improve and move forward.
Chen Shuxia is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, researching amateur photography groups active in China in the 1980s. As an artist and curator, her work was featured in the 2013 OZ-Asia Festival, Adelaide. Curated exhibitions include “Shen Jiawei: Brothers and Sisters” and “Make Yourself At Home” 2012, Sydney.