Red tailed mother carrying avocado branch © Robert Sommers 2023

Monday, January 25, 2016

Brave new world.

There was a thought provoking query recently on a photo forum that I frequent, DPReview, that questioned if it was ever appropriate to blur a background "bokeh" on a photograph or if it was somehow cheating. Bokeh is what happens to backgrounds when a lens is shot close to wide open with a short depth of field.

And it got me to thinking about all sorts of things regarding digital media and various arts, photography included, and the notion of artistic purity.

I love classical arts, arts that have stood the test of time. I am the sort who favors ballet over break dancing or the latest modern fad. I used to be involved in martial arts and there all always new hybrid schools springing up, melding a multitude of styles that I was always a bit contemptuous of. My school tradition traced its origins back to the 17th century. I both pay attention to and respect tradition, but I am not a slavish devotee to it.

Film and photography reach back much shorter in time of course then the 17th century. Thomas Wedgwood first captured an image from a camera obscura on leather or paper coated with silver nitrate around the year 1800.

Nic├ęphore Ni├ępce and his partner Louis Daguerre created what was ostensibly the first actual photo etching in 1822.

George Eastman marketed the first roll film in 1885 and Kodak started selling cellulose acetate or safety film in about 1908. Photography really took off in the early part of the century, in my opinion hit its high water mark in the 1940's and 50's with Weston and Adams and continued to flourish until the advent of digital photography. The split between the strict representationalists and those that used the medium to embellish with a more painterly approach actually occurred very early in the 19th century.

Digital photography was born the same year I was born, 1957.  Russell A. Kirsch at the National Institute of Standards and Technology developed a binary digital version of a wirephoto drum scanner, so that alphanumeric characters, diagrams, photographs and other graphics could be transferred into digital computer memory. The CCD or charge coupled device was created in 1969 and in 1986 Kodak developed the first megapixel sensor.

Digital photography is a young and nascent art. The rules of the road are still being considered. There are so many ways to now convey our visual message. Is there a right and wrong way? Is it mandatory to follow the old conventions? The line between the photograph and graphic image is fuzzing, getting its own slightly blurred bokeh.

Film these days is frankly going the way of the woolly mammoth. Fuji just announced major hikes on film prices because demand is so weak and there are fewer and fewer processors. I am having a hard time selling a very nice Leica enlarger. Why, because there are very few people shooting film these days. I still do, on a rare occasion, but I am an exception. I love film, it goes with my decidedly analog nature, but the ease and cost of digital can not be discounted.

You can do a lot with a digital camera and a camera. There are a plethora of powerful tools available today, many incredibly sophisticated. I can pick a look, a specific old film to emulate, let's say I want Kodak ISO 32 Panatomic S, I can dial it in in Silver Efex Pro 2 with a few keystrokes. Grain, structure, whatever you want. And it hard to disagree with the notion that a photograph looks better on a backlit monitor than it ever did on a coated paper.

The purists, titans like Henri Cartier Bresson, wouldn't even crop. A photograph was an image developed by light passing through a lens for a period of time, a capture of a specific moment  and that was that. I can imagine his horror today watching people remove telephone poles with content aware patch tools. We have lost an essential element of honesty in the medium, since ex wives or husbands can now easily be removed from old photo albums with a few swipes and keystrokes. Can photography still be trusted?

I can make an image graphic, change its color, do all sorts of interesting things, things that film photographers could never dream of back in the day. And this leads me to the root of my question. With a digital tool with near unlimited options for creating an image, how important is it to obey rules that were dictated by the nature and evolutionary crawl of the old film medium?

My first thought was about one of my favorite rock and roll bands, the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia, the late brilliant guitar player, started experimenting with a midi setup when Doug Irwin first started crafting his guitars sometime in the late 1970's. And Jerry got real good at utilizing the new tools and all of a sudden his guitar could sound like a trumpet or a flute or countless other band instruments.

And while it was cool, I sometimes asked myself, why be derivative? The midi can also sound like a thousand new instruments, things that haven't even been invented or conceived of yet. Would it not be cooler to start an entirely new idiom or lexicon than to trod on the old ground? Get a trumpet to play trumpet, ain't nothing like the real thing.

Do we penalize Van Cliburn for playing Bach on a piano instead of a harpsichord, the instrument the music was written for? Of course not. But many digital photographers believe that we should be adherents of a puritanical sect of photographic Calvinism and obey the hard and fast rules of the old order.

I am not going to rehash the analog v. digital debate, it has been done too many times. I stopped subscribing to Stereophile when people started writing articles about how expensive power cords could make your stereo sound better. But I  can hear the bloom of analog, can hear the room on a good Van Gelder recording. A recording engineer friend says that he can perfectly recreate all the cool things I like digitally. I don't believe him.

Thom Hogan, a very well respected writer on all things photographic, wrote an interesting article recently, Are you better technically or aesthetically? And Thom makes the point that you have to have good technique. There are rules that have to be followed, no matter if we are dealing with film or digital. Things like composition, color, light value. Thom is right. You learn it in art school, before you can turn into a wild abstractionist, you better take a life drawing class or two and learn to draw. He also weighs in on something else that strikes a chord with me:
...I’m not immediately struck by the “lack of noise” or “the extremely long tonal ramp” or the “micro contrast of the fine mid-tone edges” or anything else you might call technical when I see a photo. First: does it strike my visual and emotional response in any way? Second: is it a moment I didn’t see or haven’t seen before? Third: do I want to keep looking at it? Thom Hogan
I have said the same thing many times. Better to have something technically imperfect that speaks than the opposite condition. Still it amazes me how many photographers and even artists lack basic compositional sense or create extremely boring work. Embarrassing really. I meet people who have taking pictures professionally for forty years that still frankly suck.

I think that expecting digital photography to follow the same protocol and dictates as the mother ship of film is like living in Williamsburg, Virginia and dressing up in period costume like a puritan. Pretend that electricity has not been invented. I know devotees of the arts and crafts tradition who hate turning the lights on in their homes, favoring the customary illumination of say, 1915.

I hate to go off on my familiar rant again, how stupid humans are. But think about it, the car manufacturers now pipe fake engine noise into automobiles, so that enthusiasts can experience that big engine sound that has now been largely eclipsed by new technology. Like putting playing cards in the spokes of our bicycle tires. Failing to grasp the new paradigm, being bound by outdated modes and memories.

So what about photography? I say do whatever the hell you want to do. If you want to blur a bokeh, go right ahead. Extract and declarify your girlfriends wrinkles, have at it. If you chose to emulate the masters of the past and stay allegiant to the harpsichord, that is fine too. I believe that each of us as artists creators has to decide which rules and conventions we choose to keep, if any. That is essentially who we are, it is our recognizable signature or artistic hand. What works for us.

We may love each other's work, we may abhor it. As they say in the art business; there's an ass for every saddle. I am pretty simple myself. I hate photographs that move and I hate HDR. I like photos that say something.

So don't ask me to follow your dictates of what you deem permissible and I promise to do the same for you. We all make our own rules. It's a brave new world.

Eadward Muybridge - Boston Public Library


Douglas Keller said...

To over-simplify a vast topic...I'd agree that, generally, composition is king. And Van Gogh also thought that drawing was the surest path to serious work.

Anonymous said...

I agree, learn the rules, break the rules and do whatever you want.