Plasticity in photography

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Plasticity is a word used very often by professional photographers, many of whom use it to describe an artistic attribute of their work.  A definition of what they are actually talking about is, however, rather elusive.  They know what they mean - they expect to be communicating with like minds, who also know what they mean – but when you are outside the loop, you are left wondering “what’s it all about”? 

Unfortunately the usual sources of Wikipedia and even the dictionary are of little help, giving you basically two distinct ideas of what plasticity as it applies to photography could possibly be.  The true answer may lie in some combination of the two, and a study of work by photographers using plasticity with these definitions in mind may be the closest we can get.

The first definition of plasticity is artistic – to do with the ability of materials to be changed by moulding or sculpting into a new, permanent shape.  Photographs obviously do not have the power to physically change materials from one form to another, but the imagination and technical skills of the photographer have the power to capture images which are not real or in which objects that have no relationship to each other in the real world come together.  Plasticity is not just the change from one form to another, but the actual process of transformation, so there is a mobile element to the definition, a sense of things changing shape over time.

Another element of plasticity can be the focus (in the photographic sense), where separate parts of an image are in different focus, thus creating depth and dimension through variations in resolution.  Modern, high speed lenses enable photographers to bring out a central figure with great clarity and emphasis whilst making the background fade away, a bit blurry and diffused.  Photographers using plasticity create images more related to paintings than to snapshots, also using other painter-like considerations such as light, composition and colour.

The second relevant definition of plasticity concerns our brain (neuroplasticity).  Brains can adapt to deterioration or loss of senses, and can use new experiences to alter neural pathways and synapses.  When our eyes register images which our brains tell us are impossible, or which involve objects in places or relationships that don’t make sense to us, our attention is immediately engaged and we are likely to experience an emotional response beyond that of looking at a conventional photo.

Impressionist art has a similar effect – people may hate it, but that hate is a strong response which has been invoked by the ‘new experience’ of viewing the picture.  The question is why do we experience such a strong emotion?  Is it because we have a picture in our heads that life is a certain way and such images do not conform, leaving us worried and puzzled?  The artist is probably not concerned about the emotion evoked, just that there actually is a response to the image they have produced.

Photographers make decisions about where their hobby/craft/art will take them, and those who embrace plasticity may feel their creativity flows more freely and is better represented as they manipulate images through light, composition and camera settings.  The images such photographers produce rise above other photos, even those of skilled photographers, into Art. 

The capacity of photographers to show a particular view or perspective of a subject/object in effect takes their own experience or attitude, turns it into something objective - separate from themselves - and displays it for the world to see.  Sometimes we admire, sometimes we mock or dislike – but we have been able to see outside our own reality into the photographer’s and we have experienced a response.

Plasticity is an effect of an art work, and is not in itself Art – it is the photographer’s skill and creativity which makes the crucial difference.  One of the main effects of plasticity is its ability to trick our eyes, making our brains take notice and, through close study, make sense of the picture s we are seeing.  When we understand how plasticity alters our perceptions of the world and its conventional forms our critical awareness is triggered, leading to a greater readiness to embrace new visual experiences.

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