Saul Leiter, another one of the great American street photographers, died recently. He stood out among the others of his era because he liked to use color, but in one respect he did resemble the rest; a number of his most famous shots, such as “Hats,” are blurry.
Blurriness has always vexed me. I have not figured out how to determine the difference between an unusual technique producing a unique interpretation of a subject versus a plain mistake decorated with mounds of pseudo-intellectual high-falutin’ bull hockey. I get why the Magnificent Eleven are all blurry photographs; Robert Capa was splashing, flopping and crawling through rough surf under intense enemy fire during the D-Day landings. But what excuse do photographers have when they can set up a camera and gear and then wait for a shot to walk by?
So I walked to Union Square tonight to photograph the holiday lights whilst experimenting with extremely long exposures (5″ to 30″) using my Nikon D40, a 2007 model discontinued in 2009, but still adequate for my DSLR needs. And now I have 60 pictures–and no idea if any of them are good.
Two of my few relatively quick shots (1/15 second):
That is the Macy’s annual Tree. In the second, I include a WWI monument in the shot. As a contrast, here are two of my 30 second experiments.
The top is a different view of the tree with a 30 second exposure, the middle is the skating rink with a 10 second exposure, and the bottom is Geary Street with a 15 second exposure. I’m kinda sorta maybe perhaps possibly semi-half-convinced that all three are pretty bad, but I don’t know. What do I examine to determine if a deliberately blurry photo is good or bad?
My current guess consists of this: a long exposure should have a single object that never moves so that it will come out crisp and clear whilst all around it becomes blurry. I’ve seen this in the work of night photographers, a curious bunch who will think nothing of taking 4-8 hour exposures for a single photo.
The next is a 5 second exposure of a photographer photographing the tree.
Kind of OK. I think. But check out this last picture. I had set up my camera for a 30 second shot on a nice steady railing and began the exposure when some dumb 10 year old boy ran up to the railing about six feet to my left and began shaking it for absolutely no reason at all. I told him to stop that, showed him my camera, and since I didn’t know how to stop a 30 second exposure once it started, waved my poor little old DSLR at anything lit up. And this is what I saw after the upload:
Jackson Pollock in lights.
What am I supposed to do here? Should I go around brightly lit exteriors at night, set my exposure times for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds, wave my camera around like the random madman that I am, call my virtual smudges my “unique Cubist photographic interpretation of the urban metropolis of San Francisco in all its energy and excitement,” and then sell the gosh-darned prints for $10,000 each? Is that ridiculous or what?
Wait a minute. What’s so ridiculous about earning $10K/photograph?
Hmmm. Time for more experiments.
Vonn Scott Bair