Post from October, 2019

The Nipple Effect

Sunday, 27. October 2019 23:07

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I look at a lot of images. Lately that has been mostly on Twitter and Instagram, and occasionally Facebook. Some of the images I look at are nudes. Over time, I have observed an evolution in those types of images specifically and other types of images as well. For the moment, let’s deal with nude images.

All three of these platforms have restrictions on “adult content.” Definitions are somewhat similar but treatment is different. Facebook restricts images of real nude adults where nudity is defined as “visible genitalia except… visible anus and/or fully nude close-ups of buttocks unless photoshopped… uncovered female nipples except….” The “excepts” include breastfeeding, birth-giving and after-birth moments or health-related situations or “an act of protest.” Instagram’s restriction includes “genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples.” Both platforms exempt photographs of paintings and sculptures, but that exemption seems to be unevenly applied. Twitter says that you cannot share adult content within live video or in profile or header images. However, Twitter does allow “consensually produced adult content within Tweets if you mark the tweet as “sensitive.”

All of these rules, of course, limit the photographic images that can be posted. Limitations are not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes having limits actually makes the artist more creative. And certainly, even though it seems that these platforms are public forums, they are really commercially owned, and the owners are within their rights to set the rules to be whatever they want them to be (although one would wish that they are applied even-handedly and objectively). And one could certainly question why only female nipples are forbidden, but again, the owners can set their own rules.

In response to these rules, Photographers who do nude work must modify their images. The ones I have observed have taken three primary paths of response: (1) they push as far as they can and end up being banned (2) they pixelate or otherwise cover nipples and genital areas; (2) they pose models so that the offending bits of her anatomy are concealed—sometimes quite awkwardly, creating images that deny their own story-telling. (3) They restrict their postings to those they know are safe.

Sometimes photographers evolve, first trying one approach, the adopting another so that they can stay online and garner as many “likes” as possible. This, in my mind, becomes problematic from an integrity of art perspective. Those artist are essentially tailoring their art to fit the platform. And that is smart—if what is important to the artist is the continuation online and the collection of “likes.” Certainly, some photographers are savvy enough to monetize the number of “likes” they receive. Otherwise, they are modifying their style and content of their work to suit platform censors simply for vanity.

And this trend is not limited to photographers doing nude work. If you look long enough you can observe that photographers are tailoring all images to fit he platform. For example, images that might be square or landscape in orientation are rendered in portrait orientation. This is particularly true on Instagram, where almost every image is optimized to the platform’s ideal image format. That means that aesthetics other than the platform’s don’t matter; the artist is giving up his/her autonomy for the sake of platform optimization.  (Twitter, incidentally, is much more forgiving, rendering all images initially in landscape mode, but allowing all proportions when a viewer clicks on the image.)

Social media are here to stay and have become the primary way many artists become known. However, we must be careful that we do not become slaves to what we think are the most obvious choices in marketing ourselves on social media. We must maintain some artistic integrity and remain true to our individual artistic aesthetics. Otherwise what we are “selling” on social media is not really representative of who we really are as artists. As David Bowie said, “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Regardless of the ego appeal of “likes,” we do not want to lose our uniqueness as artists to the seeming demands and expectations of social media. There are better choices.

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Tiny Adjustments

Sunday, 13. October 2019 22:27

On Twitter earlier this week, Andy Williams posed the question, “Photographers: Do you MAKE a picture or TAKE a picture?” Ansel Adams, one of America’s great photographers, answered the question years ago when he said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” I must agree. Of course, every photographer wants to take a good picture, but that’s only the beginning. Adams made prints from his superior negatives, but not without a bit of darkroom magic to enhance the picture. Today, when most photography is digital, we strive to get a good capture, and then we turn to computer software to do our digital legerdemain to improve our images.

It is at the computer that a number of decisions are made which can make or break an image. One of those is the decision on how to crop the image, i.e. deciding what to keep and what to discard. Several years ago, I posted about the importance of framing, determining what information stays within the borders of an image and what gets left out. It’s a task that most photographers do instinctively without overthinking the process.

However, I have a colleague, a fine art photographer, who has developed a process of making 5×7 prints of certain images and attaching them to his refrigerator with small magnets. “It allows me to think about them over a period of time,” he says of the process. “I find that it makes my work better.” He pins the images to the refrigerator where they will stay for sometimes a month while he considers what will make them better. Sometimes he decides to reject them entirely, but usually, he will make cryptic marks, noting what modifications he wants to make in the image. In answer to my question about the process, he said, “These are the problem children. Most images are easy to edit in the computer, but some are more difficult to get exactly right. I find it hard to see exactly what they need unless they are on paper and I can study them off and on for a while. As far as the decision goes, I just look for what will make it better.”

He is a firm believer in creating the best image he can imagine and ruthless when it comes to adjusting what stays in the image and what gets cropped out. This sometimes means making images which do not fit any standard frames; he says that he gave up on standard sizes long ago, and is concerned only with making the best possible image. The other day, I got to see the current collection of images in his kitchen. One long, thin image had a mark slightly less than 1/8 inch from the top with some words I couldn’t read. In answer to my question about what it was, he said it was where the image needed to be cropped. “But that’s a tiny amount,” I said. “Yes, he said, but it will make the image better. The new crop line removed just a little less than 2/100 of the overall height of the image, a tiny adjustment if there ever was one. However, he made that adjustment and reprinted the image. It was indeed better.

And so it is with all art. Tiny adjustments can make a piece radically different: an actor changes one line, which then cascades into an entirely different performance. The addition of two measures completely alters the nature of the musical composition. Minute brush strokes modify the meaning of a painting. The examples are endless.

But to be clear, this is not about perfection; it is about using (usually small) adjustments to make a piece the best it can be. And it’s about understanding that making such adjustments might allow us to reclaim some projects that we had before considered failures.

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