Philosophy & Reflections

Photographic Nostalgia and the Myth of Soulfulness – By Ailbíona McLochlainn

January 18, 2022

My interest in tableaux photography now spans nearly two decades. And one type of scene I like to enact can perhaps be described as stills from a fictitious 1960s Soviet film set.

When I first began taking these photos, I was armed with a Nikon FM3A camera and Kodak TMax film. In my youthful enthusiasm, I longed to connect with the ‘film community’ – and attempted to do so by going on an online photography forum and posting about my project …whereupon I was immediately told that my equipment was all wrong. Both the camera/ lens I was planning to use, and the film, were too modern. The photos would not look period-correct. But more importantly, they would look clinical. I needed an older, more characterful camera setup – perhaps a Rollei or Yashika. And TriX film. Definitely TriX film! 

Having already used TriX enough to know I disliked it, and conversely having used TMax enough to know it offered exactly the look I was after in combination with my Nikon manual focus lens, I did a polite virtual nod, backed away slowly, and proceeded to do my thing. But this served as my first introduction to the idea of ‘clinical’ vs ‘soulful’ photos being factors of modern vs vintage equipment. Now visiting photography sites 20 years later, I still come across this narrative as if it were an objectively established fact. I disagreed then and I disagree now.

My personal view on the matter can be summarised with the following three points:

1. The ‘soulfulness’ of a photo is at the hands of a photographer’s technique. This includes everything from their ability to effectively compose a shot, to their ability to establish rapport with the subject and strategically pose them, to their grasp of lighting, and their choice of background/ set design.

2. Images generally benefit from the use of technically superior equipment and supplies. For analogue photos, this includes film with minimal grain. And for both analogue and digital, this includes multi-coated lenses made with technology that reduces all manner of aberrations.

3. Relying on artefacts – such as film grain, vignetting, field distortion, excessive bokeh, lens flare, etc. – for ‘character’, results in dated-looking photographs rather than characterful photographs.

The distinction made in Point 3 is at the heart of what I hope to communicate here. I would stipulate that, our nostalgia for the analogue era has created a confusion of sorts – whereby we have come to associate the look of old {usually amateur and technically flawed} photos, with soul and character. But the vintage look of an image and the soulfulness of its subject matter are two separate things. And my personal interest lies in the latter.

Is it possible to define ‘soulfulness’? Of course it is not. And to be clear, my view on all this is by no means meant as prescriptive. The way I see it, the soulfulness of a photograph is in the mood or emotion it evokes, in the sense of subjective narrative it builds. Whereas a so-called clinical photo captures a scene with impartial matter-of-factness, in a soulful photo the scene has been infused with a distinct emotion and a sense of narrative. And while to do so with the aid of lens artefacts or film grain is possible, for me relying on this method feels like a creative crutch. Instead, I have tried to explore the ways in which technique can be used to create characterful images.  And if I haven’t alienated you yet with that point of view, I would like to share some aspects of my process.

To start with: I aim for personal images. It is my belief that, in order to capture a person’s character the person needs to reveal it. 

And to accomplish this, it is essential to develop rapport with the subject. For all the blog posts and forum discussions that focus on the technical aspects of portraiture {and I would include the genres of street portraits, certain types of tableaus, and even event and wedding photography under this umbrella}, I am continually surprised by how few focus on the human factor. If I am photographing an anonymous-to-me model, the photos will look anonymous and impersonal. If I am photographing a person who feels uncomfortable in front of the camera, the photos will likewise reflect that. ‘Bedside manner’ is essential in evoking soulfulness. For me, getting this part right has always been the most important factor in creating characterful images.

Closely related to this, and perhaps more easily under the photographer’s control, is the subject’s pose. As a former research psychologist who specialised in emotion and non-verbal behaviour, I know that posture and gesture – in particular lean and head-tilt – can communicate enormous amounts of emotional content. Doing some research into the topic of nonverbal communication is worthwhile for anyone pursuing this line of creative inquiry.

The background and composition of a photo likewise tend to be an overlooked factor in pursuits of soulfulness. Every element that fills the frame – from lines and negative space, to the symbolic meaning of objects and shapes that surround the subjects – contributes to creating a mood and establishing a narrative. 

Factors such as depth of field play a crucial role here as well. A shallow depth of field can be used effectively to evoke a sense of nostalgia, as it mimics the way our mind’s eye replays a sentimental memory. On the other hand, going overboard with this – to the point that the background is completely obliterated rather than merely out of focus – will result in an artificial tunnel-vision effect that fails to provide the necessary context for a narrative to develop.

In that context, colours matter a great deal as well. Anyone who has ever worked on a film set {I have, albeit very briefly!} knows the importance that is placed on the colours used for every single object present in the frame. This is done not merely to create a pleasing and cohesive colour palette, but to establish a mood. For anyone interested in exploring this topic further, the psychology of colour theory is worth looking into.

Finally, there is the dreaded issue of lighting. And I say ‘dreaded,’ only because I myself work exclusively with natural light and have been resistant, to the point of hysteria, of any suggestion to ‘professionally light’ my photos. However, I eventually came to realise that a preference for natural light did not excuse my wilful ignorance as to how lighting contributes to a photo not only technically but creatively and emotionally. Having learned to understand natural light has helped me tremendously to control the mood of my photos. In the images posted here, for instance, the low light coming in from the side contributes to the nostalgic look of the photos {taken with a recent-production Leica Summarit 35mm – a lens not often accused of ‘soulfulness.’}

Granted, none of these strategies are new or especially surprising. Photographers have been employing them for ages… which is precisely my point. Professional photographers who worked in the analogue era {for lack of a better term}, did not revel in the technical limitations of their equipment, but rather tried to overcome them. They employed the aforementioned strategies, along with other techniques, to create the striking/soulful/ characterful photographs that still affect and amaze us many decades later.

Over the years I have managed to get my hands on various books on Soviet cinema, which contain fairly large reproductions of film stills. I am time and again amazed by the technical quality of those photographs – their sharpness, the liquid-smooth look of the film, the lack of lens-related aberrations. And yet they exude soulfulness in abundance. It is in the twinkle of the eye, in the subtle rise of a shoulder, in the lighting, in the camera angle and composition.

With all that being said… by no means do I intend to imply that I shun, or don’t see the value in, vintage equipment. Neither do I subscribe to the view that recent-production, technically advanced equipment is always ideal {Hamish wrote an interesting article addressing this some time ago – and I don’t disagree}. I routinely use 1970s lenses on my digital camera body. My favourite analogue camera is the Leica IIIf, made in 1951. I own, and use, cameras and lenses from as far back as the 1930s. I also quite enjoy some of the ‘lens artefacts’ I referred to earlier, in particular the field distortion I get from my Zeiss Jena and Helios lenses. I just don’t equate them with character per se. With this article, I merely hope to offer a different perspective; to suggest, as non-pedantically as I can manage to do so, that perhaps there is now a tendency to over-rely on equipment-related artefacts to simulate a look that can more effectively {and authentically} be accomplished by cultivating nuanced techniques… which, in turn, might  make us better photographers and artists.

__
Further reading for anyone interested:
The Future of Nostalgia, by Svetlana Boym
Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, edited by Clay Routledege
Nonverbal Communication, by Albert Mehrabian
Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture…, by Charles Riley

Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional info and images, visit www.ailbiona.com.

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Rob
    January 18, 2022 at 11:15 am

    So often I find the technically perfect images deliver a hyper-reality that distorts the very reality they purport to depict, or do not in fact depict anything with a sense of existence at all.
    The equation of equipment + subject +technical prowess = good picture can work and may be essential for some clients, but so often it’s the undefined and accidental flaws, other quality, or lack of it, associated with the medium that really make an image ‘pop’
    For me your image of the Accordian player is nice, it would probably win a prize, but he feels stiff, posed and contrived to the point where any emotion or ‘soul’ seems to have been compressed like the instrument he is pretending to play – all the spontaneous joy has been squeezed out to leave us with a slightly awkward pause.
    But of course, it’s all subjective.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 18, 2022 at 11:28 am

      That is an interesting way to put it.

      This may seem contradictory to what I wrote in the article, but I agree with you. As well as with your descriptions of the specific pictures I posted.

      There are so many layers to all this, and in a sense I am describing only one, rather thin one. The truth is somewhere …not even in between… but maybe through a cross-section of overlapping ideas.

  • Reply
    Ken Rowin
    January 18, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    It shows how subjective images are – I happen to like the accordion player, but only in monochrome. The light falling on his eyes looks contrived in the color version and the bottles in the background are annoying to me in color, rather than helping to set the mood. But isn’t that the same with everything in life? Your friends rave about a book, a movie or a play and you hate it. We all bring our own experiences into life and art and the object has to stand on its own, for better or worse. If only I could go back to 19th century Paris to pick up a few bargain price Van Goghs.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 18, 2022 at 12:44 pm

      Not sure how true this story is, but you might enjoy it…

      A Dutch friend’s grandmother recalls – when they were children living in the countryside – finding some ugly paintings in a shed and painting much better pictures over the canvases. Later it was somehow discovered the ‘ugly paintings’ were Van Goghs. Unfortunately the children used glue and all sorts of other devastating materials in their quest for painterly improvement and I don’t think the canvases were rescuable. Makes for a nice bit of family mythology!

  • Reply
    Michael J
    January 18, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    That’s funny about the forum-denizens and their advice… and the mythic aura of certain bits of kit. There are a few photographers I can think of who really get something like an Aero-Ektar LF lens to bend to their will but otherwise I think it would end up being a very expensive paper-weight.
    Some folks are maybe less diligent with themselves, and won’t apply their technical mind to their poetic sense and analyse *why* this nice old lens or film stock makes them feel this way. I certainly agree that it’s short-sighted to just get hold of supposedly mythic equipment and expect what the kids call #allthefeels.
    My minor Andrei Tarkovsky obsession has led me to some reading around the Soviet film-makers and they certainly prized intellectual rigour alongside technical prowess, AT himself railing against lazy metaphor.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 18, 2022 at 1:08 pm

      I would love to try the Aero-Ektar LF lens!

      It is only very recently that I have gotten sucked into reading lens reviews, photography forums, and the like again, after studiously avoiding that genre of literature for a while. In fairness, a lot of what the kids are into seems to be an ‘overcorrection’ reaction to past trends, which is understandable and kind of interesting. I feel like there is a lot to be learned from the chafing of these conflicting ideas out there, and in that sense it’s an exciting time.

  • Reply
    Bill Brown
    January 18, 2022 at 3:36 pm

    This idea of flaws = interesting image crosses into numerous areas of present day analogue rhetoric. Having worked in the film(not cinema) industry since 1976 as a retoucher I have experienced first hand what professionals are wanting in the final look of their work. Getting wrapped up in all the extraneous minutiae of the process does not necessarily produce quality results but having an understanding of lighting, composition, film type, etc. can definitely impact the outcome.

    Having retouched for architectural photographers as well as portrait photographers I can tell you that the desired final look is different for each but both achieve a professional look. I never encountered an architectural photographer shooting for a vintage look. It was always 4×5 view camera and tack sharp lens combined with low grain film and everything in focus. Portraits on the other hand can cover a broad range from everything in focus to just a single eye. I can be just as moved by razor sharp technical perfection as only a single eye in focus so there is definitely more at play than equipment used. One method is no more correct than another. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding as the old adage goes and the final judge is the person who is laying out their hard earned cash for the work. Is the client or collector happy? If so then it is a success. Like it or not.

    On the subject of the use of color in cinema my recommendation is to check out the collaborative work of Powell and Pressburger.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 18, 2022 at 3:59 pm

      Re Powell and Pressburger: Thank you; will do.

      That is fascinating to me, that you worked as a photo retoucher. I have many questions that I will refrain from bothering you with!

      For context, I am probably making myself seem older and wiser than I actually am with the ‘two decades’ reference. I am 42, and entered the world of film photography as a young adult just as digital was taking over. One of my first experiences was working with a professional portrait photographer who must have been in his 70s then. His philosophy was to shoot everything at f8, unless the light conditions absolutely forced you to do otherwise. I still remember how surprised I was to see a portrait (taken by his colleague) shot wide open, with ‘bokeh’ in background. I hadn’t realised that was allowed!

      • Reply
        Bill Brown
        January 21, 2022 at 3:29 pm

        Ailbiona, I too was trained in the f8 and be there school of photography. I think it kept me focused on the basics of composition, subject, lighting in my early learning days. I am a person who can become overwhelmed with too much information too early when I am learning something new so this was a good method for me. The f8 philosophy in conjunction with Kodachrome 64 made me always have a tripod to shoot from and this enabled me to have a better keeper rate. To this day a tripod is always part of my kit when I am shooting seriously.

        I am actually still quite busy as a retoucher even though I am of retirement age. I have devoted my adult life to helping professional photographers achieve their vision. I also specialize in the restoration of damaged photos either through the use of PS or by actually working on the original photo if requested by the client. Having retouched tens of thousands of photos over my career, from film to digital, I can say with all certainty that it has impacted my shooting style and as a hybrid film shooter I would not be considered a purist in my methods for achieving a final print. A print is always my ultimate goal for my work as this is how I was trained to think about photography.

        I would be honored to try to answer any retouching question from a younger generation interested in learning from an old-timer.

  • Reply
    Marco Andrés
    January 18, 2022 at 8:26 pm

    Perceptive article. But there are other takes…
While « soulfulness «  may be the photographer’s intention, the perception is the viewer’s.
    The benefit of «  technically superior equipment and supplies » is overrated. We work with what we have. Lo-fi, hi-fi. The image matters, not the technique/equipment. Photographers flaunt conventions: bokeh [as you note] or colour [when monochrome was de rigueur] – Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston. Or distort – Uta Barth, Thomas Ruff, Sol Leiter. Or abstract – Harry Callahan. Or use cameras that are not « state of the art » – Andy Warhol with a Polaroid/ Minox EL, Stephen Shore with a Mick-a-Matic camera, Minor White and Duane Michals with an Argus 35. Or don’t use a camera – Anna Atkins [cynaotype], Man Ray [photograms]. Or don’t use a glass/plastic lens – pinhole camera [35mmc: Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2021].
    Relying on artefacts certainly has a place. They can be exploited. Again the final image matters.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 18, 2022 at 8:53 pm

      ‘… We work with what we have …The image matters’

      That.

      For a new photographer, it is no less futile/ financially damaging to chase ‘technically superior’ equipment as it is to chase ‘characterful’ equipment. It is perfectly viable to use whatever camera & lens we have at our disposal to express our creative intent.

      I have yet to try a pinhole camera!

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    January 18, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    I think many times creative progress was achieved by escaping the representation of reality that photographs always convey. When using very grainy films, William Klein for instance was perhaps escaping plain reality but overall innovating. Decades before started pictorial photography, beginning with a never end dichotomy. Using for example nowadays pinhole devices or alternative processes goes in the same direction. Mentioning distortions like Kertesz ones can be a good example too.
    Does that mean that sharp technology images are not soulfully capable, or as you propose that looking for a vintage look through the use of say crappy cameras, out of date films , etcetera, or even digital filters, is the way to soulfulness. I don’t think so.
    At the other end photoshopped photography is able to definitely detach from the real, and has a lot of success and fans.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 18, 2022 at 11:53 pm

      I somehow never connected Kertesz Distortions to what I talked about in the article, even though they are of course connected. I have not looked at his work for some time; thanks for the reminder.

  • Reply
    shawn granton
    January 19, 2022 at 12:02 am

    Thanks for the post, Ailbiona! And good to see you blogging again, even if it’s a different subject matter than I was used to seeing from you!

  • Reply
    Markus Larjomaa
    January 19, 2022 at 5:31 am

    Completely regardless of equipment or lighting… The pictures in this article would gain instant soulfulness if you had photographed an actual accordeon player in action, not a model (mis)holding a prop instrument.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 19, 2022 at 9:18 am

      Oh without a doubt, if it were a portrait. Although purpose and context matter. This is a tableaux photo. It is by definition contrived. In fact it’s a tableaux photo referencing a Soviet realism film still, so one could say there are 2 levels of intentional contrivedness.

      The accordion is real/ functional! I use it as a prop quite a lot, and the other day a model surprised me by actually starting to play it as I was taking photos. It was a fun moment to capture.

      • Reply
        Markus Larjomaa
        January 19, 2022 at 6:22 pm

        Ach, sorry, I completely forgot it was a tableaux photo. I was then just judging based on my own experience and preferences. See, I never arrange a photo setting myself, I just “find” them, or anticipate them and then wait for them to (hopefully) happen.

        As a musician, I still hate to see instruments held the wrong way, but I guess it’s just my problem 😉

  • Reply
    Martin Siegel
    January 19, 2022 at 11:59 am

    I agree on the three points. No buts, because everything that comes before the but is a lie 😉
    Maybe the attraction to the imperfect comes from our early memories, an acquired taste from childhood when we viewed those pics mum made during the holidays and we still could smell the sea just by looking at them. The soul of those pictures was the memories and we carry that over to pics that have the same appearence as our memories of a better and happier past that was shot, mainly, with the (cheap) family camera.

    Vignetting, when used as an instrument can lead us into a picture, like good lighting. But vignetting can also distract.

    Someone mentioned Andy Warhol who was by all means a great artist, and by using a Polaroid camera ourselves we can live in the dream that we are, too. Only that we don’t have the chance to take pics of John and Yoko but only of Charly and Betty from next door. The attraction of those photos come from Warhol’s body of work (and the fact that he was Andy Warhol) not from the pics per se, IMO.

    From well known photographers we mostly know what they want to show us, what fits into THEIR personal narratives. We don’t see what was thrown away the moment after it was developed or the unedited shots/portraits.

    All I wanted to say is that bad equipment does not make soulfulness of it’s own but a good photographer does no matter the equipment.
    Grain used to be something that was not seeked but accepted as unavoidable at a certain point.

    So seeking the imperfection just for the sake of it does not make us great photographers – learning to know the flaws of our gear and to making the best of it does.
    Digital photography can teach us a lot here, with lenses that are far better than what was availabe only two decades ago we have to work harder to get the clinical look out of our pics as it is the default setting of the cameras.

    This was fairly long and I’m not sure if I made my point the more as English is not my first language.
    All I wanted to say is that one has to find their style/visual narrative/whatever-fancy-word there-is-for-it and make the gear work for it not let the gear dictate your style. I’m certainly still looking for it.
    And sorry for the typos

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 19, 2022 at 3:54 pm

      No worries, English in not my first language either.

      What you wrote in your first paragraph is a more elegant and sympathetic way to express what I meant by ‘nostalgia …has created a confusion of sorts – whereby we have come to associate the look of old …photos, with soul and character.’ And I too can smell the sea, and forest, by looking at old photos. There is nothing quite like it.

      • Reply
        Martin Siegel
        January 20, 2022 at 12:29 pm

        Thanks for replying, Ailbíona.

  • Reply
    klaus wirz
    January 21, 2022 at 9:29 am

    Ailbiona, great article. I went to your website to fully understand what you mean by “tableau photography” and enjoyed the trip. Your ” 3 points” very much sum up what I think about the “soulfulness” or rather the idea of it in the photography forums. The comments on your piece cover the valid points to be made-so I just leave it at that. Maybe one addition: Today we have all the choices concerning the technical aspects of our photography: low light photography, correction of lenses, post production, low grain or no grain films–you name it-but no constraints means you have to make a lot more creative decisions. And exactly here starts the problem IMO. I think the idea that the “soul” of our content could be found in the hardware rather than in our own creativity is bordering on the funny side. If you have any ideas on why the idea of the hardware based soul has gained such a following I humbly suggest you write an article on this too…..

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      January 21, 2022 at 12:49 pm

      Thank you Klaus… I think what it really comes down to, is our human discomfort with ambiguity and vagueness. If a person is told ‘You can achieve Your Goal by tapping into your creativity,’ the vagueness and subjectivity of what this involves, causes anxiety, maybe even hopelessness. If a person is told ‘You can achieve Your Goal by obtaining This Specific Item’ … now, that is a lot more concrete and makes the Goal seem more attainable; our undercurrent of anxiety is relieved because we know there is a clear path to making our dreams come true. This is innate to how the human mind has evolved to function. And it is what fuels consumerist behaviour…

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