writings blog

A Photograph is like a Woman/Niko J. Kallianiotis

 

About five years or so ago, a friend asked me in the early morning hours, “What is a photograph to you, Niko?” I responded promptly by saying “A photograph is like a woman” or a man depending on your preference. I still abide with this metaphoric assertion and simultaneously find it to be a good recipe in lifting the veil.

There you are sitting at your favorite beverage establishment or library when you spot the person of your dreams. In this moment, you have no idea who this person is. Are they a serial killer? Can they carry on a meaningful conversation? Do they only eat organic? Is there empathy in their soul? Despite all of these uncertainties, you stood up and made contact strictly based on aesthetics and how things looked, to put it bluntly. If someone believes or says otherwise, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the shallow stigma is either a liar or in denial. Yes, Maria (m lovely girlfriend and soon to be baptized or it’s all over) ended up being, simply put, a wonderful person overall.  Last night and every night was made possible not because I was initially intrigued by her intellect and kind soul; I was strictly going by looks, shallow, indeed. We can relate this futile but seminal proposition to anything, but the integral part of the story is that over a myriad of possibilities, the gaze becomes a thought, which motivates action. Attraction is what prompts you to stand up and approach a stranger with hopes that overtime you might end up watching Netflix together. Amongst all the others, you approach a particular person and in the past, you did the same towards another and sometimes things worked and on occasion, they did not; just like a photo. And each and every time you went by how things looked. Yes, I know that aesthetics can or are subjective, but they should aim to the common good which consists of knowledge and the simultaneous acceptance of facts.

Photograph by Niko J. Kallianiotis, 2017

Photograph by Niko J. Kallianiotis, 2017

It’s a nice Sunday morning, you get in your car or take a walk to enjoy the warm fall weather and explore your rural or metro environment with your best friend, your camera. At one point you stop and take a picture and out of all the locations, moments, instances and possibilities, you chose to capture a particular one. You did so because you recognized or were intrigued by the aesthetic possibilities of the moment, sometimes predictable and sometimes peculiar. Regardless of this metaphorical correlation, the aim or expectation during this subtractive process of framing was to create something aesthetically pleasing but at the same time simultaneously valuable. Engaging in a more substantial dialogue on a personal and universal level relies on some level of a visual intrigue. Many believe and rightly so, that aesthetics are subjective and people are attracted to different things, sometimes deviating from the conventional perceptions of what looks good. But again, I am using this as a metaphor. If aesthetics, technical and formal ability is eliminated you will never reach the ultimate goal, which is about a deeper dialogue.

I do not consider the formal qualities in a photograph to result in a photo of substance and purpose, but I do consider those qualities to be the foundation of grasping my gaze, making me want to get deeper into the frame and to learn about the photographer's psyche and personality through the photograph. I want to feel his/her pulse bouncing on the 2-D surface. I don’t want to read a ten-page essay about the reason behind the work but I do believe in the use of text as a supporting element to the image or a series of photographs. The text brings you closer; it’s about additional chemistry but it will never lead you to the image making.

Good photography has become intimidating and aesthetics in a photograph have become irrelevant and subjective. This is sometimes due to preserving some unknown legacy or maybe because the act of photographing exceeds the act of submerging into the environment and dialogue. It should be the other way around, but it isn’t. Just like when respectable magazines promote the same dull blast with flash vulgar aesthetic as the new thing, which pollutes my visual periphery. Again, good photography has become intimidating. If you eliminate, accept everything and omit constructive criticism, there is no point of having this or any conversation, and maybe, there isn’t one. And even worse there is no point in teaching the fundamentals of photography, both technical and formal. And if all is relevant and there are no standards what is the point? 

 

by Niko J Kallianiotis

Buy one get one free/Niko J. Kallianiotis

Besides the mechanical differences between a 1967 Chevy Impala and a 1985 Buick Regal, there are stark formal and aesthetic characteristics that differ from one another. Possessing a more edgy interior and exterior than the Buick, the Impala tends to be a little more aggressive with a rawer attitude more suitable to the macho man or tending to the imagination of Supernatural fans. Like photography’s “subjective” tenor and contemporary motif, this disposition might be utterly debatable, as it should be. One thing is for certain though, and regardless of your preference between these two fine machines, what makes them unique is the fact that they are aesthetically different. For the car experts out there, please abstain from any auto-commentary, since I am using this as a metaphor. I admit that I am a fan of the Chevy Impala and one day my dream may come true (crowd-funding?), but I believe the above example is prevalent to the current state of contemporary photography in all its manifestations. The pernicious fad for visual innovation and forceful relevancy has pretty much resulted, and still results, in imagery that pretty much looks the same.

© Photograph by August Sander

© Photograph by August Sander

But how and why did we get here? My hybrid background and spicy personality (my friends would agree) would suggest that what makes us unique are our cultural differences, controversial histories, as well as our identifiable physical characteristics, and God Bless the Balkans for that. That’s pretty obvious you might say, and indeed it may be, but within our current photographic affairs and the strive for relevancy and instant fruition has resulted in imagery that lacks distinct visual characteristics that truly reflect a unique or developing vision. From example, you can probably spot a Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, August Sanders or Irvin Penn (and many more) photograph from a distance, and although each worked within different parameters and motifs, which at times overlapped, there are visual differences in their style. Differentiating photographers today is not an easy task.

To clarify, I am not suggesting that photography that offers an intriguing style lacks today, but what we see promoted thtough popular platforms (too many to name and there is no point in naming) is a consistent and canned aesthetic that often oscillates between a reincarnation of the masters or a new overused style that I don’t find to be effective nor inspirational.  Basically, you can take twenty photographers from any genre and make a portfolio that can be mistaken for one individual. Please don’t ask me to actually demonstrate this because I can, but I am not interested in the particular task.

© Photograph by Harry Gruyaert

© Photograph by Harry Gruyaert

The usual large-format portrait of the visually interesting person of a particular social class, embellished with glorious and divine light, bluntly looking at the camera with a passport aesthetic, has become a common theme that lacks depth and purpose. I am fortunate to have not been exposed to art and artists at a young age and blessed (many people don’t like the word blessed, but I love it) to have worked in a newspaper environment. Since I was not influenced by an artistic background and education, when my photos sucked, they would tell me, and I would tell them if there’s did, always in a fun and entertaining way. I appreciated and valued that relationship. This is how we learn and grow both as photographers and as people. Within the fine art/contemporary photography, this simply does not exist, with a few exceptions here and there, of course.

Now getting back to the main point and question, the reason that I find this to be resulting in a pastiche of similarity has to do with the reason of why one makes work. I feel, that the goal for instant success and the obsession with particular visual fads, or what sells, has become a major problem within our medium and hopefully there will be an end, or at least a dialogue about the issue. Life experiences and reason of intent, in my opinion, plays a pivotal role in this “accepting everything not to be rude” era. Again, I am not interested in showing examples of this kind of photography because my intent is to start a conversation with my colleagues and friends.  What is more worrisome is the fact that although there are a myriad of great photographers and projects out there, they often go unnoticed and we always end up with the same bland aesthetic that reflects the ultimate disconnect between image maker, subject, and intent.  Word of mouth has been a frequent research tool of discovery.  The theoretical gurus of our medium as well as friends of friends, who do not want to hurt their friend’s feelings, therefore, doing favors, are the villains of our medium.

© Photograph by Lee Friedlander.

© Photograph by Lee Friedlander.

I am not suggesting this approach in making work is intentional (although sometimes it is) nor do I dismiss the effort and value put in the work. The process of making something of substance that will identify the photographer with his work on a deeper and more meaningful dialogue is a challenge, an invaluable lesson as well as a personal struggle.

All copyright belongs to the respective owners of the photographs. All materials are used for educational purposes only. 

 

 

 

 

 

by Niko J Kallianiotis

....and that's the truth/Niko J. Kallianiotis

Photography from its inception was and still is, the ultimate medium of recording, with a scrutiny and precision unprecedented to the gaze 19th-century citizens. In regards to the representation of self, paint of canvas was a thing of the past (do not take this literally) and in a package that was more affordable for the working class and in such oneiric synthetic collaboration between human and a machine. What separated one between illusion and reality were a couple of seconds or more depending on the process. But this post is not about the history and influence of the photographic medium; it is more about the apotheotic insistence in denying to some of us romantics, the notion of truth. We live in an era of utter manipulation both on a social and visual level but since we are talking about photography, let us stick to the latter. I am sensing an alarming and amiable acceptance of manipulation tactics under the aegis of subjectivity;  formidable, disturbing and at times comical. The fear of being perceived as polarized, bitter, jealous or dismissing,  is a motif and a recipe which has resulted in lackof criticism, leaving us hostage to visuals, writings and at times vague symposiums (the few would know)  which are highly embellished and fabricated to accommodate and satisfy a passive populace; a little heavy? It should be. But I am from the Balkans and I like it raw and honest. That conversation about the contemporary affairs in our medium is pretty absent. I am not a writer but I love to write, I am not a photographer but I love to photograph, and I use these two entities to have an honest conversation with myself and my friends, and maybe you.

There is no truth, everything is subjective and open to interpretation to one’s visual appetites concerns and life experiences. The quest for truth and objectivity in a photograph is a farce and one who believes in such a malice notion, a fool; said the con artists of the pseudo-visual culture, if you wish to call the contemporary and poetic visual sewage a culture. I will come back to this theme on a separate topic; keeping things light for this first post is a priority which aims to start a dialogue and have a following of epic proportions. So let's get down to business.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis, from the ongoing project Motherland, 2016.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis, from the ongoing project Motherland, 2016.

The beauty in our medium and in general in the genre of “straight” photography in all its manifestations, street photography, landscape, portraits, etc. is in the ability translate a moment in time, whatever that moment might be, placing it in a frame which reflects your aesthetic sensibility both on an external but also internal way (descriptive/ emotional). The seduction in our medium and its distinct difference from painting is in the ability and the potential of the photographer to create an unmanipulated image, which is a result of a reflexive or deliberate vision. You can argue for eternity with my proposition since there are many visual artists that manipulate and make interesting imagery that has been an integral part of the medium discourse and contribution to the arts. I totally agree with you but I do not consider visual artists photographers; I consider them exactly that, visual artists using photography as the medium to communicate their concept. For example, I do appreciate and value the work of Gregory Crewdson but I do not consider him a photographer, but I highly respect the work and process. On the other hand, I do consider Steve McCurry a photographer, one who also constructs and manipulates his images for ultimate effect from an exotic location. Steve McCurry, for those not familiar with his work (this is a post for all people so bear with me), took the iconic image of an Afghan girl which made the cover of National Geographic Magazine. No, I am not going to do the work for you by providing you with a link so feel free to google it. And while you’re at it, be exposed to a myriad of recent articles regarding the manipulation fiasco of his images.

   Photograph by Steve McCurry. Top image: Original, Below: Manipulated. Image source:https://aphotographicmind.net/2016/05/07/spot-the-differences/

   Photograph by Steve McCurry. Top image: Original, Below: Manipulated. Image source:https://aphotographicmind.net/2016/05/07/spot-the-differences/

Considering the successful career of McCurry, under the title of a photojournalist, the futile responses from adamant supporters of subjectivity, some of them “elite” figures within the photojournalism/documentary circles, was mind-boggling and that's putting it mildly. The photographer’s response, one who made a name for himself as a photojournalist declared himself a visual storyteller, dismissing his previous title. If you need to remove or add elements in an image while you are photographing in India, you need to reconsider your mode of operation. I am not dismissing work that is done in the region but my point is you have to be visually impaired to not be able to come up with something decent from that region. McCurry, of course, is not the only one; I am using him as an example. Why him and not someone else? Simply for the reason that the responses to his manipulation of travel photography style pictures of people within inferior situations were taken very lightly. If you, me or the average Joe working for a newspaper, magazine or news organization performed these acts on mediocre photographs, all rights would be stripped and would never see the light of day of another assignment. That’s a fact and that's the truth.

Photograph by Eddie Adams.

Photograph by Eddie Adams.

Some declared that facts are not always the truth after the McCurry incident and implicitly supported such actions, or did not consider them such a big deal. The moment you place yourself in a particular environment, the choice of your lens and aperture, you’re manipulating the scene. Let us reason; Yes, the above observations stand accurate, but to relate and evict the medium and strip it of its objective and truthful qualities is simply docile propaganda. Was Eddie Adams photo of the execution an objective and truthful representation of what happened? Or are we suggesting that if there was a man eating a banana or playing the banjo to the right of the frame, and by positioning himself, Adams excluded him/her from the frame a manipulation? It’s fascinating that we are seriously debating or dismissing the qualities and beauty of our medium in its power to accurately represent a moment, unlike any other medium. The above choices are simply and blandly that, choices. Maybe it applies only to documentary/ photojournalism standards, but the above decisions are far from manipulation.

Personally, and although the basic photography student conventions apply, what I am showing you in my photos is an accurate representation of a moment, seen through my vision, heart and emotional response to the frame. It is not the “truth” but it's a truthful depiction of what I placed in the frame; it is not a manipulation and quite frankly what I experienced at the moment is pretty f--ing objective. And objectively I declare that if you feel the need or urge to add or remove elements in a photo, regardless of the genre please do consider painting or declare yourself an artist that uses photography as the medium to express your intent.

North of Athens, Greece, my beloved grandmother lays at rest. On her grave, there is a photograph to testify two distinct and truthful facts. One, that my grandma existed and the photo of her is an objective and truthful representation of her, unmanipulated in all its glory. Secondly, that death is an unavoidable and objective truth. I have made two trips back home since she passed, and I have not found the strength to visit the grave because some truths are unbearable.

 

by Niko J Kallianiotis

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