A couple of weeks ago, someone whose opinion I respect described my photos as painterly. She went on to say that I apply the overlays with a very aesthetic consideration. I got the sense that she’d *heard* about the trend of using overlays but that she’d written it off as a fad, that she’d never thought it might have aesthetic value. Until she saw my pictures. I took it as the compliment I’m quite sure she intended, but the word painterly bothered me.
Somewhere, some time ago – I can’t remember when or where – I heard or read someone say that they don’t put much effort into trying to explain their photography. That’s the critic’s job. The photographer expresses him or herself visually, not verbally. What a relief that was for me! It gave me permission to stop pressuring myself to explain everything. That said, I think it’s important to question myself, to explore my intentions, and to challenge myself. I try to use discomfort as a signal to look at something more deeply.
I’ve never set out to make a photo painterly. I very much agreed with David Hurn in the summer who said photos should never attempt to be painterly because paintings will always do it better. I didn’t make note of that comment in my post about the Contact Festival, but he said it and I still remember it.
So what *have* I been trying to do with all these overlays?
My initial thoughts on the subject were that overlays introduce an element of spontaneity to the post-process. It’s all about trial and error, and some overlays change the lighting in an image and bring focus to an area previously ignored. I mostly just thought they looked cool. I don’t use overlays on all my images, although sometimes it’s just because I couldn’t find the right overlay for the image. That said, I’m not at all tempted to use overlays on my portraits from the drop-in centre – I wonder why? I think that may be a question for another post.
When I apply an overlay, I think I’m trying to make the image look old and worn or damaged. I’m trying to call attention to the edges of the frame, to push the contrast and distort the colour ranges beyond the plausible. I can see how someone might see the effect as painterly; I do want to make it look less real, I think, more processed, although I’d hate for anyone to see them as anything other photos. Why? Is that contradictory? I wonder if I’m trying to emphasize the fallibility of any single image? To challenge the expectation that photos carry capital-t Truth? I don’t believe there is such a thing as Truth, only a plurality of truths.
What do you think? If you’re a photographer, what kind of effects do you use in your work and why? If you’re a viewer, what do you think of images with overlays? Do you react differently to them than to less processed images?