We all know that media lies to us. There is no such thing as an honest photograph, and the smarter of us realize that. Sure, you’ll get some (often loud) people who think that a shot straight out of the camera (SOOC) is as close to truth as you can have, and any form of processing otherwise is evil. But, perhaps someone forgot to tell them that your camera merely collects the number of photons at a certain site. It then makes its own decisions on what gamma curve, exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, sharpness, and noise reduction to interpret that data with. Hell, you can even tell it to change several of those to different values yourself. And, before digital, in the darkroom you had dodge, burn, contrast filters, film choice, color packs, paper choice, and even the aperture you set the enlarger to. In short, there has never in the history of photography been an honest photo.
And, very often, the difference between an OK photo and a great photo is in exactly what lies the photographer chooses when developing the photo. Contrast, exposure, dodging, burning, and crop make huge differences without ever bringing things like direct manipulation into matters. The sooner people realize that this is the case, and has always been the case, the sooner we can drop all this useless hullabaloo about the dangerous world of digital manipulation.
But, as a consumer (and, if you see a picture ever, you are a consumer), it helps if you know exactly how you are being lied to, and not just some vague understanding that you are. Lucky for you I maintain this handy behind-the-scenes how art is made blog, then. Here’s an example from my recent gig with EclecticPond Theatre Co, for their upcoming production of “Dracula: The Panto.” From left to right, you have the photo as Lightroom interpreted the data with all sliders set to 0, the photo as developed using digital darkroom techniques (crop, exposure, curves, burn, saturation, contrast, clarity, sharpening, white balance), and the final comp for the poster with all the real manipulation applied. Do notice how much better the middle one looks, compared to what I started with. That’s why you learn how to handle post-processing, kids. The camera rarely makes the best decisions. You do.
Also, if you’re in the Indy area, or are going to be so this month, do make sure to get out and see ETC’s production of this. They’re excellent people, and I love them to itty-bitty pieces with all of my caffeine-addled heart. They have yet to put on a bad show. They’ll be performing this as part of Indy Fringe, and that’s where you’ll find all the relevant info.
Dracula: The Panto – Indy Fringe
"Lost No 7", by Tian Taiquan
Working through my backlog of neat art, I found the work of Tian Taiquan. Or, rather, it had been so many months since I bookmarked his show that it wasn’t up any more and I had to go and re-find his work. But, whatever, I’ve got it here now.
I found several series of his work, and most of them revolve around exploring what might be the last Red Army graveyard. I’m not up to speed on my Chinese culture as Cor and Roose might be, and so far the best criticisms I’ve found of Tian’s work are rather badly translated, so I might miss some of the context here, but he apparently works a lot with the concepts of ghosts to try and reconcile the undeniability of what happened and what the graveyard signifies while at the same time speaking to how Chinese culture has a seeming intent to ignore it, to purposefully forget about it. In a refreshing bout of translation lucidity, one critic said of Tian’s work:
He is trying to express a sense of sensibility between the forgotten and the unforgettable, as well as between the forgotten and the recollection.
Stepping more comfortably into what I can grasp, his work often uses photomanipulation to convey figures–typically a young, attractive woman in military garb–in various states of spectrality or dissolution. There’s a feeling of haunted in most of the pieces, and while some push the manipulation too far, many more succeed in creating an atmosphere of nostalgia, and of concern. The series “Lost” features this motif most strongly, while “Marks” absracts the idea of the female figure down to glimpses and fragments melded with the cracked and breaking tombstones. “Totem” apparently explores the re-emergence of sexuality after the Cultural Revolution.
The series “Salvation,” though, strays from the more photomanipulative body of his work into what I’m comfortable calling photo-illustration (a term more loaded now than ever, thanks to online forums and the ongoing war about what a photograph is and isn’t in the digital age). They communicate much more abstractly, and combine photograph elements with a more illustrative flair and nuance.
A good chunk of Tian Taiquan’s work, including all the series above, can be found here (at least as of writing this post):
And, should you want to wade through the iffy translations for some critical insight into his work, find that here (click on Articles in the upper right):
by Diego Gravinese
So, let’s get it out of the way: there is no doubt in my mind that artists who work in a photo-realistic style– that is, in a style that without immense scrutiny is indiscernible from real life or a photograph–have immesne and extraordinary talent, and deserve all due recognition for it. But, other than feathers in the cap for technical skill, I don’t get the point. Technical skill does not itself make art, if it did Flickr’s approximately 18 billion technically flawless macro shots of flowers and elapsed landscape shots of water crashing on rocks would seriously threaten Christie’s business model.
by Juan Francisco Casas
And that’s because—for photography, at least—we’ve accepted that technical merit alone does not equal art. It equals technical merit, while art is retained for something that captures an idea, emotion, or moment. So why is photo-realism in painting, a medium that long ago abandonned capturing life verbatim once the camera tripped onto the scene, so popular right now?
Don’t get me wrong, artists like Diego Gravinese and Juan Francisco Casas (both pictured, linked, and found on Artist A Day) make good images. I’m just saying I’d like them identically as photographs and not just paintings (or ballpoint pen drawings) that look just like photographs. Again, other than the “oh wow” factor, which is transient, I don’t understand what this retrogressive technique adds to the image.
I suspect, whatever the artist’s intentions, the popularity has to do with the notable trend currently of ditrusting anything but the most authentic image, because of a fear of forever being lied to spurred by the digital revolution. It’s popular currently to cling to the insane notion that there’s an ‘honest’ way to create images that doesn’t distort, alter, edit, and lie the moment you frame a slice of infinite, 3 dimensional life elapsing in time into a single, 2 dimensional frame. Which, I also don’t understand. But, I welcome your thoughts and debate on the subject.
Mr. Colberg’s lucky old book find has lead to a decent day of reading for me. Obviously I’ve known that photo retouching is much, much older than the modern “that’s been photoshopped” outrages, but having an entire book now over 60 years old on how to do it adds a whole new level of fascinating to it.
Colberg highlighted one passage and I think it’s worth repeating here again, because I think it’s immensely true and it’s why I defend the use of photo retouching and manipulation in my own studio work:
The photographic lens is an instrument of great precision, but it does not discriminate between the essential and the unessential, and so when the lens is used in such a way as to give clear definition of detail where it is wanted, there is often equally clear definition of detail where it is not wanted. The lens does not create lines and wrinkles and blemishes on the face, but it merely reproduces them when they are there and makes these unimportant details just as prominent as the important ones. Therefore it is sometimes necessary to subdue such imperfections or to remove them entirely by means of the knife or the pencil.
This has never been truer than in digital, where a perfectly flat sensor plane (film, being uncurled celluloid was virtually never truly flat and therefore introduced inconsistencies and looser tolerances), lenses that are being improved through new materials and computer-aided designs to be incredibly sharper and with more resolving power, and with continually increasing pixel resolution and color fidelity all add together to create final pictures so unerring in how they represent reality that it can look absolutely artificial.
I’m unconvinced that retouching in the modern world doesn’t carry the stigma it does because digital imaging demands retouching so frequently to subvert the relentlessly mechanical feel of perfection. Because, it’s not like retouching is new or that we’re even doing it to more extremes. It’s long been established, and as this book evidences long considered a necessity in portraits. It’s just the fear that digital might be lying, as it’s easier to manipulate than analog mediums, that frightens us. Which, is really ironic since digital is far and beyond better at showing us the unflinching truth, which very few people I know want to address in quantity.
Anyway, hit the source link below to read Jorg’s article and go grab the book in question in PDF form for yourself. It’s a good read.
So, I know it’s popular right now to cry foul at any retouching and it hurts our ideas of self-perception and blah blah blah. And, by and large, I agree. That said, I usually come out on the side of supporting mild to moderate retouching, especially for studios purposes. How far is mild to moderate is–of course– the real issue of contention here. And it’s not a hard line, so I can’t define it. In general, I believe in allowing retouching to correct for stupid things introduced by bad posing or lighting. I believe in retouching as a way to convey what a person looked like when you were there, and not just how a frigid moment of compressed 2-D perception looks. I do not approve of this (give it a moment to load and it’ll animate between before and after:
David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images
The Sept. 14th Newsweek cover line — “Is Your Baby Racist?” — should have included a sub-head, “Is Dick Cheney a Butcher?”
So starts David Hume Kennerly in a blog post on the New York Times’ site concerning a photo of his of Dick Cheney that had been cropped to create a far more insidious vision than the original image suggested.
Yup, it’s another post about photojournalism, which is apparently becoming the biggest topic I didn’t realize I was interested in. In this case, I think Mr Kennerly is clearly viewing this right when he gets outraged about what was done with his shot. Instead of a nice family dinner, good old Dick gets cropped out and stuck under some editorial commentary about interrogation as he slices meat. Mm-mm manipulation.
OK, so, I hate Dick Cheney (or at least his politics and effect on the US during the Bush admin), no doubt. I get a nice giggle out of him being the meat slicer. I am 100% for using photos to lie. But only when lying was the intent.
Given that the intent of the original is quite clearly to document the Cheneys in a domestic setting, I’m going to have to rule this a black flag. You get’em, Mr. Kennerly, raise hell.
Original Article, With Before and After Pics (via NY Times)
So, I’m not a fan of the argument that altered photographs aren’t photographs, but photo-illustrations or some other nonsense. Photography is the act of recording light, and lying about it makes it no less photography than writing fiction makes traditional writing a different beast. The medium remains the same, the intent changes is all.
I’m a notorious photo tweaker. I don’t release a shot that hasn’t seen a stint through Lightroom, and Nick gives me crap over my tendency to do light retouching to any of our more fashion-oriented shots. But, it’s not because I want to pander to a world that idealizes women and bodies to the point of obsurdity, but rather to fulfill a basic baseline of expectations as to what a photo of that type is. An evil, sure, but a minor one.
The real argument for me about photo-doctoring and it’s negative impact comes from the world of photojournalism, and within that sphere I do finally take a stand ont he side of not doctoring. Using photographs to create a visual world of empty spaces and whatever else I’m trying to convey in a gallery is one thing, editing wedding photos (weddings being such creations of fantasy already that the notion of calling untruthful on them seems to verge on irony), is one thing, editing in, say, a successful missile launch to inspire fear in an America at war, well now, that’s a different beastie, you ask me.
So, if you want to read the first decent article I’ve read on photo manipulation in the digital age and how it’s eroding our trust in the photograph (and about time, too), check out this post over at IEEE Spectrum: http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/seeing-is-not-believing/0 (found via Conscientious, natch.)
OK, so here’s a topic that’s been bugging me for a while, and one I’m going to think about the next couple days and try to come up with some sort of concrete statement, but it really bothers me the way the current photo equipment market handles the idea of what makes something “professional.” As is no secret, I’m a pretty loyal Olympus shooter for a number of reasons, and part of being an Oly shooter and working in camera retail is this sorta disparagement towards small sensor systems. It’s a very strange phenomenon that, I think, over-emphasizes certain aspects of technological development and complete slights the idea of photography as an artistic medium and not just a journalistic tool. (Photography vs photojournalism and The New Realism as I’ve come to think of it is a related topic I’m definitely going to tackle soon as well.)
I’ll be back with more.