I’ve been reading several posts recently about the philosophy of not “taking,” but rather “making” photographs, some in reference to a recent lecture given by legendary National Geographic (among many other prestigious publications) photographer Sam Abell. I’ve been saying for years that I make photographs, seldom correcting anyone who talks about my having taken one, but using it consistently when I’m discussing my work with anyone who really seems to care. I don’t remember where I first heard the distinction, but it’s so long ago that my memory can no longer retrieve the source. Be that as it may, that isn’t really what I wanted to discuss here, but it has spurred me to share some of my philosophy regarding photo developing. I have heard many criticisms of the works of friends, acquaintances, and others (and of my own), such as “that doesn’t look real” or “it surely didn’t really look like that,” or “the colors couldn’t have been that bright,” or other comments to similar effect. A friend recently referred to an attempt by someone to separate us into two distinct groups—“photographers” and “photoshoppers.” But before I get into that, if you will allow me, I’d like first to present a bit of background…
I bought my first single-lens reflex camera in 1969, a Pentax Spotmatic. Within a few months of my purchase, a good friend showed me how to print a black-and-white photograph. The first time I saw my creation gradually appear in the developer bath, something very powerful stirred and awakened deep within me, and I was, quite frankly, hooked for life. I spent many happy hours in that primitive darkroom and learned by trial and error the arts of burning and dodging to bring out or soften areas that appeared too weak or too harsh, respectively, and gradually sharpened my skills with frequent practice—and I never viewed this as work, but rather as a labor of love.
When I discovered the work and the teachings of Ansel Adams, soon thereafter, I became a late disciple. If any of you out there are not familiar with the work of this true genius, I cannot urge you strongly enough to make his (posthumous) acquaintance. He worked with large-format view cameras, frequently capturing his images on 8×10-inch (and larger) negatives and created, among other works, portraits of our national parks, containing astounding detail, that are still revered today as among the finest photographs ever made. He, probably more than any other, was directly responsible for popularizing serious black-and-white photography among the fertile minds receptive to the creative photographic urge.
Among his publications are three classic books: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Although he was writing for an intended audience of black-and-white film photographers, more than 30 years ago, nearly all of his inspired insights are as applicable to (both monochrome and color) digital photography as they were to the classical monochrome film medium. The Camera needs little explanation, for the purposes of this essay, and I’ll not go into it here. The Negative, in short, deals with the technical aspects of making an exposure that contains all the information necessary to produce a “fine print” [his term]—i.e., neither the shadows so deep nor the highlights so bright that details are lost due to under- or overexposure, respectively. The Print is a true masterwork that guides the photographer through the art of converting the information on the negative into an image that portrays what the photographer had in mind—Adams coined the term “visualization” for this process—when he/she made the initial exposure. And in order to achieve this, he/she must always work with the information available to produce that visualized result. Here are a few quotes from the first chapter of The Print (© 1983 by the Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Trust):
…It would be a serious error to assume that the print is merely a reflection of negative densities in positive form. The print values are not absolutely dictated by the negative, any more than the content of the negative is absolutely determined by the circumstances of subject matter.”
“In printing we accept the negative as a starting point that determines much, but not all, of the character of the final image. Just as different photographers can interpret one subject in numerous ways, depending on personal vision, so might they each make varying prints from identical negatives.”
“A great amount of creativity lies in the making of a print, with its endless subtle variations which are yet all tied to the original concept represented by the negative. I have often said that the negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when “performed” as a print.”
“In some instances the physical or social meaning of a subject may demand only a “factual” representation. But once you admit your personal perception or emotional response the image becomes something more than factual, and you are on the doorstep of an enlarged experience. When you are making a fine print you are creating, as well as re-creating. The final image you achieve will, to quote Alfred Stieglitz, reveal what you saw and felt. If it were not for this element of the “felt” (the emotional-esthetic experience), the term creative photography would have no meaning.”
A further word about the concept of visualization: To paraphrase Adams, the purpose of serious photography is, nearly always, not to attempt to reproduce exactly the subject as observed at the time of capture, but rather to process the information captured with the intent of creating a “fine print” [or image for display] that represents the photographer’s vision of how he/she envisioned that the viewer should perceive it. And to return to the start of the process, the initial capture is made, carefully and intentionally, so that the information captured will enable the photographer to effectively make the photograph that he/she visualized in the first place.
And, finally, to my point: Where is the line of distinction between photographic art and artificial (“artful?”) manipulation? My answer: It’s indistinct and open to interpretation. The ready availability of photo-editing programs (of which Adobe PhotoShop is probably the most popuar but is only one of many) and other photo-enhancement programs (such as those enabling High-Dynamic-Range—HDR—imaging) has certainly provided many users with photo-editing tools that, a mere decade or two ago, most of us never dreamed of, and there’s no doubt that they can be learned quite readily and applied, in the eyes of many observers, to gross excess—yet, there is a place for that tangent of creativity as well. For my part, there is no clear line, unless it be drawn where subject matter that was not present at capture is brought (cloned) into another image; such works are often described as photo manipulations, and certainly have their own value as artistic creations, but should be viewed as a separate and distinct genre. But for the most part, I am quite willing to accept and appreciate images that have been subjected to the modern electronic versions of the classical arts of burning and dodging (and this includes HDR imaging) as legitimate art forms and as the results of serious artists’ renderings of their visualizations of their subject matter. After all, there’s really nothing in the final image that was not there when the capture was made. And, as is the case with any art form, the intrinsic value of the finished work lies in the eye of the beholder. So if you feel that some of the colors in a particular final work are too intense for your liking (or not intense enough), then feel free to say so! But, on the other hand, accept that, at this moment, the photographer intended them to be as you see them. He/she may well take your comment into careful consideration and, in time, make another, different image with that in mind. Two final quotes from The Print:
“I do not believe that anyone can (or should) attempt to influence the artist in his work, but the artist should always remain alert to comment and constructive observations—they just might have potential value in prompting serious thought about the work.”
“I do not suggest that there is only one “right” print, or that all prints from one negative must be identical…as months and years pass the photographer refines his sensibilities and may change the value relationships within an image according to his evolving awareness…all I, or any photographer, can do is to print an image as I feel it should be printed at a particular time.”
And, in conclusion, four examples of some of my “negatives” and “fine prints:” Which do you prefer?