Thoughts on straight photography

Lately I have been very fond of what is known as "straight" photography. What is straight photography? Well, as the name suggests, it is when you pick up your camera and photograph what happens to be before you at the moment. As Paul Graham put it in his brilliant essay "Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult", "It's the view of this pen in my hand as I write this, it's an image of your hands holding this book, drift your consciousness up and out of this text and see: it's right there, across the room – there... and there". Despite its seeming easiness, however, straight photography is as difficult as any other genre of photography.

As I have been looking at and thinking about straight photography it came home to me how different the difficulties inherent to straight photography are from those pertaining to other prevalent types of photography. In case of most popular genres of photography the difficulties are primarily related to logistics; in straight photography, they are mostly about aesthetics.

Take, for example, landscape photography. Aesthetically, we have a fairly good idea what constitutes a good landscape photograph. In particular, we expect to see a picture of a striking subject—a grand lake, an impressive glacier, a dramatic mountain, etc.—that we do not see in our daily life. Next, we expect to see it in an unusual or beautiful light that does not last long and is not seen often (which is why the time right after sunrise and prior to sunset is precious for landscape photography). Of course, we expect decent composition, too. And finally, we expect the scene to be captured with immaculate technique, so that such things as unsharp foreground, blown highlights, rough tonalities, etc. do not distract us. From the other side of the equation, as photographers we know what has to be done to produce a decent landscape picture: we have to hone our photographic technique, research and find the right place to photograph, and then travel to that place at the right time; once we are at the right place at the right time and provided luck is with us, too, we need to use all necessary gear and techniques to capture the beautiful moment appropriately. Is landscape photography difficult? Hell yes. All things considered, though, logistics constitute a considerably larger portion of the difficulties than aesthetics, because aesthetics have been largely defined by several generations of landscape photographers before us.

The same holds for a number of other popular types of photography. Wildlife? Place, time, gear and technique. Sports? Place, time, gear and technique. Aesthetics, of course, matter here a lot, too; but if you have not got logistics right, no depth of aesthetic perception will save the day.

With straight photography, on the other hand, logistics are relatively easy—after all, you photograph what there is right there before your eyes at this particular moment. Granted, you still need to understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and focus, as well as a number of other nuances. However, straight photography generally does not require as much logistical preparations as, say, landscape photography. Most of the time you do not have to travel to exotic destinations and chase light—your neighbourhood in ordinary light will suffice.

Aesthetics of straight photography, however, are much more difficult to pin down. This, in my opinion, is primarily due to the fact that there are no "standard" aesthetic expectations—by the very definition of straight photography anything at any time in any light can be a subject of straight photography. Thus, you have to have a good idea as to what and why you are photographing; furthermore, you cannot expect that everyone will appreciate your photographic vision for the same reason of the loosely defined aesthetic anchor.

Although on the surface you photograph what happens to be before your eyes, it does not mean that straight photography is random—we do make aesthetic choices and they are more difficult because, as mentioned above, there is no standard starting point and no standard criteria of evaluation; you have to define that point. Nonetheless, if you look closely at good straight photography, there is always something undeniably attractive in it, and it is seeing, capturing and appreciating that something that makes straight photography so difficult.

In other words, straight photography is straight only in the sense that there often is no apparent main subject in striking light that immediately draws your attention and makes you exclaim "wow"; otherwise, straight photography is anything by straight. Then again, though, who said that all photography has to be striking, screaming and forcefully grabbing attention? Just as beauty does not require a red tie and green socks to exist and be noticed, photography can be simultaneously low key and deeply expressive, too.

So what is straight photography about? Well, I do not know, really. Some of the photographs that I like fall into the category of visual poetry; others contain things that, at closer examination, tell a much deeper story than what they seem to convey at first glance; yet others attract me by evoking complex psychological associations and connections. And of course, some photographs can have multiple layers filled with all these traits.

I have started trying my hand at straight photography, too. As expected, I find that logistics are fairly simple most of the time; it is seeing something unusual and meaningful within ordinary arrangements of mundane things that is really challenging. Below is one of my feeble attempts at straight photography. As one of my friends commented when seeing the image, "it looks pretty ordinary". That, indeed, might be the case; to my eye, though, there is a bit more to the photograph than what first meets the eye.


Old Beijing apartments, entrance
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film