Friday, March 1, 2013

Those Two Questions

For anyone that is serious about trying to make compelling photographs, two questions are sure to get their blood pressure rising.

First, there's the tried and true...

      "That's been photoshopped right?"
Then the equally old standby...
      "Wow!  Great picture!  What kind of camera do you have?  You must have a great camera!"

I had these questions asked of me recently and happened across several references this week that are interesting on this topic so I thought I'd share some thoughts.

Some may wonder why these questions sit as backhanded compliments.  It's easy to think that the advancement of tools reduce photography to a lab experiment where if you follow the steps with the right technology, a pretty picture will result.  And to some degree that's true.  Digital technology has made it much much easier to get the technical aspects of photography right.  Cameras are increasingly better at capturing exposure and focus at the push of a button and software can do remarkable things to not only enhance photos but alter them.

And yet no matter what the tools, photography is still a creative endeavor.  Great tools can help make great photos but great photos can always be made by great photographers with any tool because in the end the image is about seeing something that others don't.  When the image was made, what is in the frame, what is left out, what lens is used, what's in focus and even what sort of software processing is applied are only a few of the creative decisions that make an image what it is.  These are not the result of the magic of technology.  They are the unique vision of the photographer and, when everything is really working, an expression of some feeling and experience they want to convey to the viewer.

So on to those references...

I thought this blog was particularly interesting.  I share part of it here, but I encourage you to take a look at the link provided.  Ansel Adams is arguably everyone's favorite photographer.  His approach to photography and that of his peers in what became known as the f/64 group featured sharp focus and a realistic image.  His work was done on large format view cameras long before digital technology.  And yet it has been widely written that Adams was an investor in new technology to enhance his photography.  He was a master printer and his iconic images are the result of manipulation... not in software, but in the darkroom.

Ansel Adams has a well known image of moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico.  The negative for the image was made in 1941.  There were many iterations of the print, but the image that we are familiar with was not made until 1949!  Earlier versions are far less dramatic with significantly less depth.  Eight years after making the image, Ansel Adams had developed his skill and vision and acquired the tools to manipulate light and tone to make an iconic print.  It was "darkroomed"

The blog offers Adams' answer to the question "Once the photograph is taken, is the development and printing a mechanical process?"  Here's his answer...

"No, it is not mechanical. Although there is a procedure, there is much judgment involved on the part of the artist. Ansel said that the negative for Moonrise was difficult to print. He tried many methods using different chemicals and times and papers. With the negative in the enlarger, he increased the light hitting certain areas (burning-in) which made the sky blacker and the clouds less bright so the moon would stand out more. With all these artistic adjustments, Adams said "it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same."

The next reference are a couple of quotes from Vincent Versace.  If you're not familiar with Versace's work, definitely take a look at his beautiful images.  Vincent is a digital imaging pioneer and has written several books on digital processing of photographs.  I've heard him speak a couple of times and it's a bit like a physics lecture.  He's a smart guy and he knows the technology.  But to be clear, his images are not outlandish manipulations of reality or abstracts.  He's creates amazing landscapes and portraits.  Truly an artist pursuing a vision.  I'm a lover of quotes and I thought Versace's comments on this topic were great and the perfect parting thoughts...

     "Photoshop is not a verb. It is a noun. It is the means to an end, not the end itself."

     "The belief is once you buy a camera you are photographer. SO that means if I buy a Cello...... I own a cello."

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