Hamlet, the Photographer

During a screening of the National Theater’s latest production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch at Symphony Space on Sunday, I was reminded of a few lines where Hamlet advises his actors, prior to the ‘play within a play…’

He begins with “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…” as the speech progresses, Hamlet the Life Coach suggests…

…you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

Seemingly directed towards actors playing a part, these lines are universal.  In so short a text, Shakespeare cautions us to beware our own eagerness of showing and not telling.  He is putting us in control of presenting our work, be it poetry, acting, photography, and betting that we will see our audience as a discerning group.  They will most certainly be aware of our attempts at deception through over-editing or cliches.  In other words, play to the finest.

Photography’s ability to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ runs a wide gamut.  To begin with I will use an obvious, and some might say vulgar, example (apologies in advance). The subject of HDR photography came up with a group of students during my Art on the Tracks workshop with Janina McCormack.

In HDR Imagery we see an attempt to maximize detail throughout the tonal range of a picture — and while I will leave the ‘Issue of Taste’ to another post — these images often sacrifice the very things they aim to maximize, impact through contrast.  What is often created is an image that is essentially all mid-tones.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but if we are looking at scene encompassing deep shadowed areas and bright highlights, employing techniques such as this might make things look a bit… o’erdone?

In contrast, I recall standing before a print by Amy Lamb in a private collection in New York City.  Here are pictures that clearly define their subjects. As she says:

“I noticed that the forms I observed in flowers were found throughout the universe in spiral galaxies, branching rivers, layered rock formations, beautifully symmetrical organisms, and more.”

The beauty is in the order with which these objects fall.  Lamb doesn’t have to overstate her subjects for her photographs to have impact, but she understands how to accent their natural elements so that one may see the thing as clearly as possible.  Within the studied restraint of her work, lies power.

… the mirror up to nature.


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