A lot has changed in the photo world over the past decade or two. One big change has been how the focus has shifted from artist intention to end product — the photograph. A good photo is a good photo because it is a good photo. Or is it?
Guy Langevin is the former editor of Photo Life Magazine. Unfortunately, Photo Life, which was Canada's premier print-based photography magazine, did not make it through the pandemic. Despite his recent misfortune as the gatekeeper over a magazine's deathbed, Langevin has a lot of praise for his time at the helm of the famed magazine. Indeed, he claims that one of the most impactful things he learned during his tenure at the magazine is that artist intention still matters.
What makes the difference is the intention of the person behind the camera. That [a photograph] doesn’t have to be in focus to be powerful and that you cannot please everybody with your images, which is a good thing. Everything has been photographed, but not everything has been photographed by you. Photography is a language. If you have something interesting to say, it will show in your work.
Langevin is very passionate about the idea of photographer intent, partly because his own work centers on this very idea. Langevin makes his own lenses, from parts of other (old) lenses, and shoots street photography. If one is to simply casually look at his photos, with no knowledge of the photographer's intent (or process), one may not quite understand what they are viewing. Or, one may think they are viewing rather casual or pedestrian images. It is not until one uncovers the fact that these images are made with old, broken, and then reassembled lenses that one becomes more engaged and enraptured by the work. The homemade lenses are central to the whole idea — the whole vision.
I’ve always been interested by how things work. One day, I dismantled an old lens that was gathering dust to see its insides. Of course, I went too far and couldn’t put it back in its original state. Instead of discarding it, I built a new one using the parts. The result was a disaster, but I was hooked. I’ve accumulated quite a few orphan lenses over the years, so I dismantled a second one, then a third and built more horrible lenses. I kept at it for so long that slowly I got something interesting out of them.
Langevin was hooked, for sure, as he reports that he now owns hundreds of these discarded lenses and has assembled many "Frankenstein" lenses as a result. But the trouble he encounters is in the end result, is in getting people to understand the resulting photograph within the right context. Indeed, that is an issue that many contemporary photographers face. Today, more than ever, photographers are presented with a range of ways to alter their photographs and realize a unique vision. This can be done in a very passive way by applying digital filters, for example, or a very laborious way by using bespoke lenses (like Langevin) or (analog) developing techniques. By the way, I do not mean to suggest that digital is always passive and simple, and analog is always difficult and deliberate. Yet, many simple filters are digital and many more difficult techniques (like wet plates) are analog. So, it is not just Langevin who faces an uphill battle when they go to present work made in an unconventional way — a way that requires some explanation. And, an explanation of the artistic process is not so well-tolerated today. Many people base their judgment (which is almost always immediate) on what they — on the image as it presents itself. But, as Langevin explains, he cannot simply allow his work to just be the result of a casual point-and-shoot experience.
There’s more than meets the eye, and it’s important to stay curious because you may find what works for you is off the beaten path. Technology made it so easy to create beautiful, well exposed, well composed, in focus images. That’s a good thing, but as a photographer, the feeling of being involved in as many aspects of the image-making process as I can is important. I couldn’t just point and click to take ownership of my work. I need to get my hands dirty.
I get it, but I was still not convinced. I mean, why can't we, if the end product is the same, just get these results from a filter process? Why do we need to break and remake lenses and do all this "analog" stuff to produce the same result? I pushed the question with Langevin.
A filter’s a filter. You can apply it to any photo that you want until you’re happy with the result. That’s not what I’m after. Again, it’s about the process and about how the idea is executed. I need my images to be true to the scene I captured. Granted, my lenses alter the reality, but what I see through the viewfinder in the fraction of a second I take the shot is what appears on the image. I cannot 'undo' the blur or hide the fact that I distorted the lens so much that there’s vignetting.
I think what Langevin is feeling is partly nostalgia for an old way of making photographs. The hands-on manipulation of bygone eras was, in some way, interesting, and that story added value to the resulting photographs. I'm not sure we still consume images in the same way today. Some people still care about the process yes; some people also still use typewriters and gramophones too. Most people judge based on the final product, on the photograph itself. In this way, I feel Langevin still faces an uphill battle when it comes to explaining that his work is unique because it was made with a unique lens — a one-of-a-kind lens that he created by hand. But Langevin has been an image lover for all of his life, as far back as he can remember, he tells me. He has not been in this for a short ride. He is prepared to take the long road to success for his work. And, from his work as editor of Photo Life for many years, he is confident that artist intentions still matter. Intent still marks the difference between good work and bad, or interesting work and hackneyed junk. Yes, he says, the intent is important. The story of how the artist made the photograph is important. All I can say is that I hope he's right, because what a world it will be when we only care about the photograph in front of us and not of the story behind it.
All photos used with permission.