A few days ago in the poorly lit photography gallery at the new De Young Museum, I was asked a question about why the horizon in a particular street photograph (not available in the “ImageBase” on the de Young site) was tilted. Winogrand might have responded “what tilt?”, and the more the questioner considered it, the more they realized the subject wasn’t tilted at all; the world was tilting around the subject, if at all.
The episode got me thinking that believing in a level horizon is a bit like believing the earth is flat. The world must be one way and one way only. You either see it or you don’t. I started wondering about what it means to have a flat horizon, how it’s compositionally restrictive and technically impossible to consistently achieve without a level or a plum-bob. Most photographers crop a full-frame in order to rotate and de-tilt an image. I can understand doing this when the tilt isn’t working for the image, but why do it all the time? Force of habit? Or seasickness?
Even though all kinds of art have been tipping and twisting the horizon for the last hundred years, tilt’s still taboo.
Case in point: I opened today’s paper to an article about Ansel Adams’ birthplace, printed with a photograph that contained this caption: “The composition of the photo makes the house in the background look tilted.” (Here’s Penni Gladstone’s photograph, and the article on Adams.)
Newspapers may be Jason Blairing all over themselves to achieve verite, and lord knows someone’s gonna call and complain, so the Chronicle explained why this picture isn’t really “real”. I like how this occurred in an article about America’s favorite realist photographer — it’s as if Ansel’s ghost flew out of the compact flash card and demanded the caption.