Welcome friends - I'm posting published articles and sundry items as time allows. Most subjects pertain to conservation, photo trekking and tourism in borderlands Arizona, USA. More of my articles can be seen on my publisher's website

Monday, June 13, 2011

Article: "No Faux-tography!"

(Published January 2010 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you, the borderlands photographer: Don’t succumb to temptation.
With the proliferation of digital image technology, it’s easier than ever to abandon purity for manipulation. It’s so easy, and so cheap, in fact, that there is little effort required to transform a perfectly good photograph into an awful one.
“Convento y Calabazas” – my original 
photo of the grounds of Mission San José 
de Tumacácori.
My friends Sam and Cass moved to southern Arizona earlier this year, determined to become accomplished art photographers using only their cellphones. This is a medium, they say, that is already sweeping the art world in major cities like New York, with gallery shows devoted to I-phone use of the many software “apps” for image creation.
Sam and Cass are enthralled by the burgeoning world of digital enhancements, and argue that digital technology does nothing to harm art; it’s quite the contrary.
This type of discussion pays many salaries of art educators and critics across the globe. Manipulation? What manipulation? A tool is a tool. Art is what sells. Anything goes.
Photography has two phases: pre-hit-the-shutter and post-hit-the-shutter. In the past, it was more critical than it is today to get things right during the pre-shutter phase; this fabrication mostly involved using filters, and still does. Among nature photographers using filters, the great Ansel Adams was a masterly craftsman of filtered images. His pictures of blackened skies shot at mid-afternoon attest to that.
Exhibit B: The result of Mom’s first 
outing with the Fujica in 1952, sort of 
ruining the pictures due to having no 
training with “all the knobs and stuff.” 
Also the negative got washed 
through the laundry.
In photography’s post-shutter phase, the old-fashioned photographer’s darkroom, now replaced by the digital darkroom complete with a hunched geek (like me) staring at a flat-screen, was routinely the scene of all sorts of interesting developments.
Foremost among these common techniques were dodging and burning, both also employed by Ansel Adams. These procedures involved manipulating the light of the photo enlarger. With the film negative suspended over photo paper lying on a flat surface, and the light of the enlarger turned on, dodging blocked that light from selected portions of the paper. Burning applied more light to selected areas of it. To obstruct light from the enlarger, anything could be used, including a piece of cardboard or your sweaty paw.

Many other technical variables entered into the equation to produce the desired result. Choice of camera and lens and film, use of a hand-held light meter, choice of exposure duration, choice of aperture setting, choice of photo paper, and choice of chemicals and duration of their use were all part of the artful calculus of photography.
Exhibit C: The very famous Civil War
photographer Matthew Brady visited
Tubac, Arizona, with Abraham Lincoln
and took this picture right after the war
on vacation.

No more! It is now effortless to produce art.

But doesn’t effort and skill correlate with value? “Lighten up,” Cass smiles. “There’s a world of opportunity with software.”
Yes, I think, the opportunity to overdo it by anyone with a wrist quivering over a mouse. The most common example: the oversaturation of contrasts and colors. It’s the photographic equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

The dreaded mouse eliminates
creative techniques. Through-the-viewfinder photography, or TTV, briefly was a mechanical process. A digital image was created using a contraption linking a new camera to the viewfinder of a very old camera. Why would anyone argue with such things? I don’t – they require inventive effort and neat materials like duct tape.
Exhibit D: Grandpa accidently ran over this 
picture with the Rambler and spilled 
battery acid on it too.

The problem is that now you can digitally simulate these effects in a blink of a gnat’s eye while bent over the keyboard, with no effort at all.
The new-generation TTV is my favorite. With it you can apply a lot of nice dust and scratches to your clean, unblemished image. First you start with a good picture, and then you go ahead and ruin it. Or, you can start with an unremarkable image and cover up the mediocrity with dust and scratches.
Ultimately, when the dust settles, will classical photography outlast digital mania? I think not. A thundering herd of fads threatens to overrun the poor old purist, lumbering along in a rut.
Exhibit E: This negative disappeared for 
many years after the summer car trip to 
Arizona and was discovered by Uncle Bart 
in the trunk wedged under the spare tire.
Trying to convince Sam and Cass that, in my quest for purity, I’m not being arrogantly self-serving, I entered a figurative courtroom of artistic reason. I showed them six images, vile exhibits of excessive cruelty to a good picture, my painstakingly composed photo of Mission San José de Tumacácori.
Sam studies the photographic atrocities, raises an eyebrow and declares earnestly, “Hey, these are great – you should sell 'em!”

Exhibit F: The outcome of Sister Clara’s
 first attempt at age nine with film 
in a shoe box taped shut and using mom’s 
sewing pin to make a hole.

1 comment:

  1. I can relate to your conflict. Years ago I worked as a photographer's printer for an Swiss photographer. I asked to learn the craft and was told that I couldn't possibly be good at it because I am an American but after one week he was telling me that I was the best printer he had known. I didn't understand it since it was a natural talent for focusing on the tones and values and making choices that enhance the photographic image. It didn't seem that I was doing any thing special-I actually understand what I was doing back then in perspective now that I use the same talent- just with a different tool in digital editing. The skill and the art is all in choices that one makes. As an artist I prefer to consider those choices well. Digital tools make it easier and most importantly less expensive than it once was but the talent and the decision to focus that talent in a well considered way- that is wherein lies the art.

    This spring the local dump manifested a giclee printer which showed no signs of wear and so I invested in the inks and papers. I consider the printing and digital editing processes as part of the art process. With so much out there - the challenge to create something distinctive is great.