• Andrew K. Thompson

"When are you going to start making good photographs?"

A colleague has asked me, "When are you going to start making good photographs?" The implication being my intentionally cut, punctured, and messy photographs are not "Good." Through a particular lens, my pictures are not "good." They break conventional standards of photographic norms, regularly manipulated or distressed in some fashion.

My initial response to his inquiry was, "look at my commercial work." I have kept a faint but regular commercial practice, most commonly photographing artwork for galleries and other artists. In this role, I must disappear as a photographer. I must naturally light the object as if it solely exists for that bronze Erté sculpture to look most fabulous. My photographic signature is removed or at least reduced to a whisper.

However, he did not accept that answer. "That is your digital work. It does not count," he replied. While I agree that the "analog vs. digital" debate comes down to cooking food instead of microwaving it, a particular photographic dogma reared its head during our conversation. It is the idea that "good" photography requires proper exposure, a considered composition, and "The Perfect Print." The negative must be a perfect score that will harmoniously perform all ten zones with the decisive moment's subject.

Yes, they are good photographs. Great even. Still, I am left deflated by this argument. I, too, was trained that way. It was the prevailing aesthetic of the generations before me. Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Edward Weston were like the Eagles to a young Black Flag fan. Bloated. Their images were iconic but overwrought—towering monuments of Romantic formalism for folks to look at nostalgically. Yes, through the propagandistic use of Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter's photographs, the Sierra Club could sway public opinion enough to save large swatches of land for conservation. Good photos can be used for great things.

Those photographs were made at a different time when things were more "innocent." The Cerro Gordo Mines were still operational, extracting California silver and shipping it to a Rochester factory to be manufactured into the film. Silver halides have a price, though, and like compound interest, it adds up over the years.

Now the closed Cerro Gordo Mines are a remote ghost town situated near the dry bed of Owens Lake (an ecological disaster in its own right). At the same time, the Kodak factory still produces film despite bankruptcy and historical environmental impact reports. How does one ignore the contradiction that "Good Photographs" also carry the weight of ecological exploitation? How does a photographer working today honestly reflect the environmental impact of human exploitation of the Earth's resources?

Avoiding analog photography is not the answer. In digital capture technology, cameras have been a giant waste of resources. A Pentax K1000 manufactured in the late 1970s will still function, while a top-of-the-line digital camera a decade old is nothing more than a paperweight. There are plenty of examples of digital waste choking the environment.

This is why I am not interested in making "good" photographs. I am no longer interested in attempting to conform to photographic orthodoxies. Prevailing customs are not critical of their contradictions. If our environment is a mess, I want my images to reflect that mess, not merely a record of the mess. I want my pictures to look like the environment I dwell in: scarred, broken, and rundown, not "good."

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