Sunday, October 28

When To Sign A Photograph?
• An Essay

The last time I was in Rome…. Gosh that’s a cool sentence, it rings like a fork against fine crystal. “Twinnnnnnggggg!” But anyway, the last time I was in Rome we, like every other Roman tourist who ever lived, we visited St. Peter’s Bascilica at the Vatican.

And like every one of them, I took pictures. Here’s one, which I haven’t - and won't - sign.

><- Click here

Why is that? Because this image was actually taken by the engineers at Canon Industries. What I brought to this image was their EOS 20D camera and a standard zoom lens. What I contributed was a lifetime of work that let me save enough money to take the Canon stuff and myself from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to a spot in the middle of the massive stone square in front of the Cathedral.

Photographers have wrestled over four things that a camera can do. They anguish over whether an image they “take” is objective or subjective. And they sweat over whether it demonstrates or illustrates.

Say what?

Lemme ‘splain by example. This picture I’ve shown you demonstrates what this view of St. Peter’s looked like on a mid, very sunny, October day. Except for earning the ticket and the camera paraphernalia, my only contribution was to point and click. And what I took was what people all around me were taking. It is an objective demonstration of what you would have seen if you stood there at that time. Get it? Objective (there is little if any of “me” in the picture I took) so while it demonstrates exactly what was in front of me, it fails to illustrate anything about the thoughts or feelings it invoked. I bring nothing to this.

Canon ‘took’ this picture; I did not ‘make’ it.

For me to sign it would be actually vulgar. Who am I to claim any credit for St. Peter’s Basilica? What I brought to this photograph was the mindless craft imbedded in a Canon camera and its lens. Now, I am not dumping upon craft, merely recognizing if for what it is in photography. For me to claim any sort of ownership for this image would be as if I opened up Shakespeare, photocopied a bunch of lines, and then grabbed credit for them. Just as that is the act of plagiarizing someone else’s ideas, claiming credit for a found image is also plagiarizing. And it doesn't matter if you are slavishly copying Renaissance architects or artists, or in some other case plagiarizing nature by displaying an un-processed snapshot of a sunset.

Notice I wrote, “un-processed.”

Artists process. They bring their ideas and feelings to the making of a photographic image. The picture they make, as opposed to pictures snap-shooters take, is a subjective illustration of them. And processing can happen before, during, and after a photograph is taken. Processing demands some intellectual intervention.

But let’s go back to the last time I was in Rome… “Twinnnnnnggggg!”

My first thought was to convey a sense of place: to communicate the classical grandeur and mass of this space in front of the seat of Catholicism. How to say, “Holy Basilica, Batman! This place is HUGE, OLD, and RICH!”

So I did this.

<- Click here

See, here’s a triptych which taken together as a totality conveys through details what I couldn’t do in a single vista. Why couldn’t I? There were a zillion people all around me that seemed to be that many distractions from this place. Now they also could have been the subjects of a different idea, but it wasn’t the one that overwhelmed me. Plus the mid-day light is a photographer’s nightmare searing contrasts across marble, which no camera can hold throughout the tonal range. I also dealt with them by my points of view and processing.

Traditionally photography was governed by technical standards that made genuine achievement hard to accomplish. Unlike a poet or painter, I have a machine between my ideas and the thing I have ideas about. That machine’s the creature of strict engineering principles. Until the birth of digital enhancement, every action I took to offset one of the machine’s limitations, every one of those things (lenses, filters, formats, chemicals, papers, lighting, makeup, costuming, whatever…) resulted in corresponding intrusions upon the final result. Everything a photographer did to ‘make’ an image was a work-around that left its own shadow.

Great photographers came to master those enhancements in both pre-processing (getting the right equipment to the scene) and post-processing (usually in the darkroom, but sometimes later with razors and hand applied coloring… like that).

My triptych is essentially quite traditional. Through the careful selection of viewpoint, lens, aperture, speed, polarizing filter, and some digital darkroom enhancements I selected three full-frame images that together communicate my awe at the size, age, and wealth of this place. Together they form a subjective (my own) illustration of how St. Peter’s front stoop impressed me. That’s what I’m telling you with this trio. Hence it is no longer vulgar to sign it, indeed while I have difficulty signing any of the parts individually (for the same reasons I wouldn’t sign the first image I posted up there) the trio of parts is my statement, not Shakespeare’s not a Renaissance architect’s… Mine. Ted Byrne’s.

When an image conveys subjective ideas to illustrate a feeling or an idea (or both) it transcends craft… Goes beyond it. That’s art baby (um, whether it’s good art is never the artist’s call). There are still photographers who cannot believe that what they do in an instant can possibly be art. After all, how long did it take Michelangelo to release David from that block of marble?

Art isn’t measured in time put in. If it were then all you’d need to judge its existence would be a stopwatch, clock, or calendar. Many photographers seem to feel that art making is something pretentious. No, they argue that they aren't doing art at all, merely finding, recording, observing, witnessing, or measuring. And photographs can do all of those things in science, in court, and even on occasion in photojournalism. And they can do them better than any other representational craft.

But they can also illustrate ideas and feelings. Photographs can be as fictional as the works of Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, or Ingmar Bergman. In fact, Bergman used cameras exclusively to tell his feelings. No one objects to any of those doers of fiction signing their work.

In photography the subject always bleeds through. And when the subject matter seems to dominate the subtlety of the artist's layering of emotion or thought – it seems pretentious to find a signature on the photo, right? The subtler-seeming the photographer’s enhancements, the more likely the viewer is to mistake an image for an objective, point-and-shoot representation rather than a deeply personal subjective illustration of the meaning which the artist conveys. The fewer seams that show as a result of stunningly hard work the less likely the photographer is to get credit for the artiness of the work. Odd, I can think of no other area where that kind of rule applies.

Imagine if the smile on the prima ballerina were taken to indicate that her art were effortless and therefore banal. Imagine if the virtuosity of a violinist or the technique of a sculptor led people to conclude that they were incapable of communicating feeling, or thought!

So, do we stop here? Can a photographer only make signing-worthy photographs when they are in groups like my triptych? If that were so, then the only photographic artists would be some sort of time-lapse cinematographers. Which brings me to this image.

<- Click here

Once again, I stood out there in front of St. Peter’s at the same time I both took the first image and when I made the triptych's pieces (notice the “took” versus “made”). But this time I wanted in one frame to create a piece of illustrative art. I wanted you to understand something about me, and how I began to look at St. Peter’s. I wanted to convey the rich color of medieval pomp. The contrast between the softness of flowing time (water) and the solidity of wealth (the immutable structures). I wanted your imagination to embrace one idea, “opulence” in contrast to another “piety”. And I wanted you to wonder if the two might really co-exist or if they were mutually exclusive. And if so, at this place… which one won?

And I wanted to capture your attention with technique, palette, and strict composition. But most importantly I wanted to create … to make… an image you could look through to find these ideas and feelings.

Now, it is quite arguable whether I succeeded. But it is not arguable that the final image is one that is unique to my mind at that time. It is a subjective illustration of the way my mind wrestled with those things. I did not plagiarize Shakespeare or that Renaissance architect with a click of my shutter. Canon did not take this image, I made it.

Which means I can sign it as proudly as any artist signs his work.

From their first years photographers wrestled with a feeling of artistic inferiority which painters in particular were happy to reinforce. One would think that photography’s claim to art making had been settled long ago. Yet I believe it’s a lingering sense of insufficiency which leads photographers to the conclusion that signing their work is either vain or coarse.

It is the making of photographs into illustrative art which proves that photographers have the same license to brand their creation as any other artist. Which explains why I sign most of the images I post here, including this third image I built from the last time I was in Rome… “Twinnnnnnggggg!”


Eric said...


Another thought provoking teaching moment, thank you! Your blog is one of my frequent stops and I often go clicking onto the next stop wondering if it is your imagery or your thoughts that I enjoy more. Both leave a lingering trail in my thoughts.


Ted said...

(Eric) Nice of you, thanks Eric. I think I got carried away with this essay, but I've never seen this before in one place, yet I've heard folks (sometimes talking at me) who are critical of us signing our images. I wanted to spell out my motivation as thoroughly as I could. Hope this fills in a tiny niche re. all the smart stuff that's been written about photography.

I hope others will react to my argument here.

Debra Trean said...

triptych - that is the oddest word but I love the art form of the triptych !!! I think you should sign every piece that your proud of. Your work is amazing and I think people get off to being critical of others especially if they are not producing strong images. Who knows but I follow your way of thinking! In our own ways we sign it without doing so just by having your own style don't you think? I know I can find your work or Andres in a heartbeat.

John M. Setzler, Jr. said...

I can, to some degree, understand your intent and idea in this thought process. I, however, don't believe that signing a print is really a process of taking ownership of anything. In your first image in this series, you may not have consciously injected any 'self' into the process of making the image, yet that element of self still exists. What we, the viewers, see in the image is not just the objects you are showing us, but the ideas and thoughts that made you decide to raise the camera. All elements of a photograph, or any form of art for that matter, aren't just physical.

Ted said...

(John) Your point reinforces one of the strongest arguments for photography as an art form. You are saying that it is impossible to take a photograph with out expressing a Point Of View. As I guess you know, there are those who argue that the only pure photographs are those printed full frame which are the result of an automatically adjusting camera, mounted on a swivel atop a tripod that is whirled around with the timer set to go off at a random moment during the hands free twirling.

Of course the act of setting up the tripod adds a subjective dimension, doesn't it? Along with lens chosen? And any filters mounted? Along with the time of day and the geographical location? Etc.... etc.... etc....

Still, that first snapshot in my essay was genuinely random. I took a quick panorama array from left to right, clicking as fast as I could so that I could remember the place. My location was just off the street where the car had to park. So my control re. POV was reeeeely restricted and the camera was set on fully automatic, at the widest lens setting.

Yet with all of that said, you are still powerfully supported in your argument by a herd of photographic thinkers. Which I think reinforces my point that when you impose a range of personal subjective variables atop those you mention, and you further develop the concept through PP enhancements such that the final image reflects fully what you felt, thought, and imagined such that the final image is identical to an allegory or a metaphor... then you are not only entitled to sign it... You deserve to. It is not a photograph of someone else's creation, it is yours.

Thanks for sharing John....

Ashley said...

Great article... really puts things into perspective as to those who call themselves photographers. Wonderful shots. I love the triptych... What does that mean exactly, I don't know. But it looks wall-worthy!
Thanks for checking out my blog.
The movies are in both Thai and English. I believe our movie was subtitled.
As for the silk wears... the Thai women still wear a great deal of silk if they are working in the public eye. However, because it is expensive, it is not a daily garment for them. (However, in Vietnam, it seems that everyone wears silk!)
I designed a dress and had it made for $50. So I would say you could get a custom made silk blouse for $20 max :) Now you have a good reason to go to Thailand!
Can't wait to see more of your photos. I really wish I had your talent!

Anna said...

What a great post. I travel a lot as well Ted and I love your perspective on this subject...and agree by the way!

Have a good week!

Marc Beckwith Photography said...

You're laboring under a misapprehension when you speak of certain types of photography being "an objective, point-and-shoot representation." No camera records "what's out there"; they're limited tools capable of capturing perhaps one-tenth the dynamic range available to the human eye. Marvelous, wonderful tools but limited nonetheless.

You think painting a "pure" art because no technology comes in between the artist and his expression? Do you have any idea of the engineering that goes into creating a good brush or canvas or pigment? What about the writer's word processor, his pen or pencil? Would the wordsmith express himself differently if doing so on stone with chisel and mallet? Of course.

So if you or anyone else wishes to sign an "image" or "photo" you "took" or "made," sign the damn thing. I won't think it vulgar. But strutting and preening about how you are above something so infra dig.--now that's vulgar.

Ted said...


Hey doesn't matter what you say about me as long as you spell my name right! :)

But seriously I think our communication ain't so "co" because I think that I said everything that you said in your reply. Of course all media are subjective, but it is quite possible for the subjectivity to be the result of the Japanese engineers who made my camera rather than mine. When it is intentionally not, then it is an expression of my ideas/feelings/thoughts. In that case... I have the same right to sign my stuff as any other artist.

If that's not what you are saying... well... we are not "co" mmunicating. Pity....

LSqrd said...

I really enjoyed this article, Ted. And I agree with your viewpoints (at least in general)... It did raise an interesting realization: I don't think I've ever actually signed anything I've printed. How odd, I now think. Perhaps it says something about my deep dark insecurities, an unwillingness to sully an image with the stigma of my name. Or perhaps I simply dislike my signiture and feel that it distracts from any image I would present??? Hmmmmm...

There is no doubt that I take "snapshots, as well as images, often at the same time. But I don't mean snapshot is an insulting way. Your first photo here (call it a snapshot) records a moment, a place, whatever. It is a memento... The others reach deeper, into that vague realm we call art....

Anonymous said...

Great blog! Beautiful photos!

Is have to disagree that your signature implies credit for any building or architecture. You aren't signing or stamping the building itself, and like most "art", its understood that your signature only means you were there, you composed, processed this shot.