The first time that I saw Bruce Barnbaum‘s Chair & Shadow photograph was over 20 years ago in college during Photography 102. Most of those classes began with a look at well-known or really good photographs, with a discussion of why these pictures were special, and Bruce’s photo was one of those. At the time I had no idea who he was. I remember being struck by how this simple image could be so moving. The Zone System was mentioned, as well as dodging and burning and perhaps some other technical stuff.
I didn’t see Chair & Shadow again for more than a decade, when it was featured on the cover of The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression. I bought the book and read it cover-to-cover. It’s a great resource for those wanting to be more artful with their images. Note that the current edition of the book has a different cover photo.
Bruce’s picture is of a simple folding chair inside a large empty room with a door cracked open. The building looks old. The picture leaves far more questions than answers. Where is this? What is the significance of this place? Why is the chair in this large and otherwise empty room? Who sits in it? Why is the door partially open? What is outside? Is this a good place or bad place? These and other unanswered questions are likely why this image produces an emotional response, and, depending on the answers your mind invents, it might be good feelings or uneasy feelings—either way, you likely had an emotional response to the photo. Ultimately the picture is about shadow and light—more shadow than light, with light piercing the darkness—and utilizes a simple (yet effective) composition to make that point.
Yesterday I visited PetaPixel and saw that they published an article (which apparently first ran in Medium Format Magazine) in which Bruce Barnbaum explains the story behind his famous photo. It was such a fun read for me, because of my own experiences with the image. Many of my unanswered questions were answered in an interesting way. I very much enjoyed it!
Then I read the comments section. Big mistake. It’s amazing how people can be so negative yet full of unsubstantiated pride. You see it everywhere on the internet, including photography websites. I suppose it is easy to do that when you can hide behind anonymity. I learned awhile back not to Google my own name, because people have said some really awful things about me, largely because they simply disagreed with something I said. You can imagine, since I encourage people to shoot JPEGs, that it rocks the boat a little.
What’s great about the Fuji X Weekly community is that you’ll find very little of this nasty negativity here. Yeah, it’s seemingly everywhere else, but not among you. You guys and gals are extraordinarily kind, and it shows. You are like the light shining through the door in Chair & Shadow, illuminating the room. It’s really refreshing, and seemingly uncommon. Thank you for being a light in the “darkness” that is the internet. You are the best community in all of photography—I’m certain of it—and I appreciate you!
Hi Ritchie 😊 What a nice letter, thanks for your words wich are so true. I think you widely contribute to make Fuji x weekly community so kind.
I appreciate your kindness and encouragement! Thank you!
Nice article Ritchie and totally true.
It is inconceivable what people – disguised in anonymity – are all saying on the Internet. As I see the world, you have creators and people who can only comment on creators. The first group sticks its neck out, adding something to the ‘world capital’ the second group will never do anything but just consume and criticize. As a creator, writer, creator, you are always vulnerable. Because all of a sudden there’s something. And if there is something, the second group (those without imagination) can put away some of that capital and make the shine disappear.
Makers just keep going, regardless of the criticism, because there always is!
That’s very true. There are those who do, and there are those who criticize those who do, but don’t actually do themselves (yet sometimes talk as if they do). Thanks for the comment!
Let there be (Fuji-) light! 😉
I enjoyed reading your article very much effect it has been a pleasure being associated with all of the members other who use Fuji cameras.
It’s an honor to be a part of this community. Thanks for the comment!
The psychology behind the negative comments is deep and disturbing. Let’s just say it’s based in insecurity and leave it there.
I find I can start arguments saying anything, no matter how factual. Probably even each of these three sentences could do it if presented in certain places. :p
I find that if I see a comment that upsets me (whether on this blog or somewhere else), that if I walk away and return to it a little later and re-read it, I most often feel differently about it the second time. I released that much of the time it is my own misunderstandings that lead to my negative feelings, and the person didn’t intend for me to feel negatively about what they wrote. But other times, for sure, I can see it stemming from a “deep and disturbing” psychology, and nothing I could say or do would make any difference. I appreciate the comment!
The one that really gets me: a few folks trying to explain the Rule of Thirds and leading lines. The chair is in the middle, but the shadow points to the door, therefore the picture is bad. Someone spent 15 minutes in Composition 101, thinks they know everything, and wants to look clever.
But basic composition “rules” are only ever the beginning of the story. A small empty chair in a large empty room, shot wide to give a sense of the size of the space, with the door to a whole world outside illuminating everything. There’s power in that composition, well supported by an excellent use of light and texture.
But Internet Commenter said “Chair in middle bad.” *sigh*
Last I heard, there aren’t any rules in art. The “rules” in photography, which aren’t rules but perhaps are generally accepted good practices, sometimes lead to a great images, and sometimes great images come when the rules are ignored, and the artist follows their instincts instead. Internet/Photography Commander isn’t THE authority on what is a good photograph. Thanks for the comment!
As always a great read. Insightful and positive. Your a rarity in today’s world, you give so much with no expectations of receiving anything in return. Keep up the amazing work Ritchie.
I appreciate your kind words and encouragement!
Nice article about an extraordinary photo! I shall buy the book. I read also Burnbaum’s story, but I think that the image stands by itself and that art is more direct and rich than its explanation.
I think sometimes the mystery is what makes the image. If I were seeing the image for the first time, I’d definitely not want to know the story behind it right away. I appreciate the comment!
Due to exploding social media and internet commentary, there is also the opposite effect. An hyperbolic and exaggerated compliment in everything posted. In some cases to get “like4like” followers or, even, to get a product review. Generic comments as “it is so dope/lame” or “I realy !·”$!”·$ love/hate this” are symptoms of the same defect: narcissistic individuals that envy the perceived popularity of others and either want some of that for themselves or want to damage the popularity of the others. Which is a pity because real criticism is buried under “negativity.” For example, in architecture, I dislike modernism style. Save few exceptions I think is rather in service of economy than humanity; but academy practically indoctrinates in the minds of students the idea that it is somehow purer, and it is theoretically but in the practice it ended being an imposition of cold boxes to persons that should had a chance to have a happy place to live in.
I agree. Unfortunately, constructive criticism (and with it the opportunity to grow) is lost, because most often the criticism is destructive, or the praise unwarranted and insincere. I appreciate feedback (positive or negative) by someone with whom I know is trustworthy and sincere.
You peaked my interest and curiosity this morning. I just finished ordering Bruce Birnbaum’s book, “The Art of Photography: A Personal Approach to Artistic Expression”.
Awesome! I appreciated reading it, I hope you do, too.
Yet again a fabulous article. So succinct and poignant! I loved the journey, however short, you sent us on.
I felt so inspired I also bought the book.
Off to read it now!
Awesome! Thanks for the input and encouragement!