A fine line for a fine print

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?

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About krikitarts

Welcome to Krikit Arts! I'm a veterinarian; photographer; finger-style guitarist, composer, instructor, and singer/songwriter; fisherman; and fly-tyer. Please enjoy--and please respect my full rights to all photos on this Website!
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25 Responses to A fine line for a fine print

  1. hellenjc says:

    Very interesting post… if I was choosing it would be the 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st. ( though with the last 2 I would have added a little light ;) )

    • krikitarts says:

      Thanks, Hellen, I intentionally left each first example as it looked straight out of the camera. If I’d used just one image for the final “print,” I would have worked with it, but none of the three had enough information to say what I wanted to say.

  2. Meanderer says:

    I agree with Hellen’s comments.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful post! I thoroughly enjoyed this! Thank you! I prefer 2, 2, 1, 1 (it looks like the same that Helen has identified), although would have offered a bit of fill-light to the first image with the little shack (is that what Helen also meant?)

    • krikitarts says:

      You are most welcome! I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time and finally prodded myself to put my thoughts down in print. I don’t often wax philosophical, but I felt it was time. If I’d used just the one image that had enough detail in the shadows of the shack, the sky would have been completely blown out and totaly uninteresting.

  4. Food for thought in this post. I found it very interesting because I myself go back and forth on the issue of whether an image should be altered or not. I love when what exists in the photo is not really changed but is simply enhanced to bring its beauty to an even higher level. To me, that’s what you did in photos #1, #2 and #4. They are simply beautiful! In all honesty though, to my mind photo #3 is overdone. It’s just too bright and too green. That’s just my opinion though. Thanks for this post. You got my mind working at 6:30am LOL. :)

    • krikitarts says:

      My after-capture processing on #3 was one of my relatively early HDR projects, and I now agree that it’s a bit too bright, too green–too garish. I haven’t had (no–haven’t made) the time to revisit and rework it, but it’s now on my short list–perhaps in a new post in the near future. I thought it a good idea to include it here as an example of more extreme processing. When seen by itself and not next to the original “negative,” it’s not quite so startling. I really do love the way the orange lights pop out from the otherwise green background, though. I’m delighted to get your opinion!

  5. So much to think about. I believe that nearly all photos must go through some kind of image processing due to the camera’s limited ability to capture the full spectrum of what we see at the time of the shutter release. Image manipulation can be done at the moment of making the image through filters, shutter speed, depth of field, etc., or afterward in the dark room (traditional dark room or a photo processing program such as Photoshop).

    I remember reading that people remember the extremes of their environment, not the norms, so if you photograph something and then push it to its believable extremes when processing it, people will accept it as normal. And that’s ok. I will boost saturation and contrast, since that is something I have discovered I like, but not to the point of it not being believable (unless I have another vision for it).

    Once you move past the believable, then it becomes something else, much like what you did in #3. Is it photography? Yes and no. A camera (and post processing) was the tool but the subject has has become fantasy. I don’t accept it as an honest photograph of the truck, but I do accept it as an artistic vision and really like it on that level.

    • krikitarts says:

      Excellent comments, Dezra. I did not plan this truck image, in its current iteration, to be perceived as “an honest photograph,” but rather–as you said–as an artistic vision. In response to Cindy’s comment, I agreed that, when I re-process it, the new iteration will be considerably “toned down.” This was an early HDR treatment, a step in my learning process–and a valuable one. I’ve learned a lot more since then, and now I’m more eager than ever to see what comes of it the next time around. Thanks very much for your opinion, and stay tuned for the next chapter!

  6. Frank Wallace says:

    This is a very thought provoking post. To me, photographs are just fixed memories of a certain time and place and the current conditions. I will process an image to the point that satisfies MY recollection of the situation. Since I am not trying to sell anything, I can be happy to stop at that point. When I look at your and others images I think I can get a feeling of what they were experiencing at that moment. If using HDR or some other technique enhances your remembrances, then that feeling is conveyed to me the viewer. In other words, it’s all good! Thanks Kriki.

    • Frank Wallace says:

      Oh, and I DO appreciate others’ comments on my photos. It quite often gives me great ideas for making an image more pleasing.

  7. wolke205 says:

    Great to see the “negatives” & “fine prints”. I can’t decide which ones I like more. The negatives are amazing, all natural and have their own charme. The fine prints look like they are drawn, it s a pleasure to look at them. For me, as you know, I post photos the way I took them – without any use of PhotoShop or so. I m always open to comments on my photos how to take them in a better way, but I close my mind to bitchy comments like “Du hast das Licht nicht bearbeitet, es ist zu hell, darum ist das Foto scheiße!” ;)

    I think it s all about a great motiv or mood that is captured on a photo, not just the best “fine print”. :)

  8. Louis says:

    This is a fascinating essay. I would like to offer two other quotations. The first is by Kees van Aalst:
    ‘A picture is about something, not of something. You need to interpret your subject not imitate it.’
    The second is from Ernst Haas: ‘The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of the cameras record what you are seeing. But you have to SEE.’
    Both in their different ways are saying something similar. The most important aspect of picture creating, whether painting or photography, is visualisation – knowing what it is you are trying to express. Adams, I am sure, would have agreed.
    You also, importantly, quote from his thoughts on printing: ‘…. we accept the negative as a starting point that determines much, but not all, of the character of the final image.’ It is a fact that printers in the black and white era used every technique available to them in order to modify their images – dodging, burning, soft-focusing, smudging, tilting etc. What has changed is the range of techniques at the photographer’s command, and it is likely that Adams would have used them were he alive today. But Photoshop did not arrive until 1990, six years after his death.
    It seems to me that the two essential qualities of a good photo are the photographer’s visualisation and his/her ability to bring that vision to fruition. How that is achieved matters not a jot. Drawing lines and creating pigeon holes is a non-creative activity when compared with picking up the camera and helping others to see something anew.

    • krikitarts says:

      Louis,

      I fear I am sadly delinquent in acknowledging your thoughtful response to my post. I have not forgotten it, but have been trying to find a few quiet moments in which to thank you properly and just not fire off a casual reply. I had not intended that it would be more than three weeks in coming; you may have given up on my by now. I do try to answer every serious comment to each of my posts, but I’m afraid I’ve fallen down on the job with yours. I apologize!

      It is so rewarding to be able to tap into the technological advances that have come to pass since I first learned to burn and dodge! Oh, the joys of polycontrast paper and the array of filters, mechanical and digital timers, the grain-focusing microscope, subjects for major essays indeed. I am in complete agreement with your “two essential qualities.” I would add that one of the essential qualities of a modern photographer is the ability not only to be able to consider—but to take at face value, as necessary—the negative comments put forth by critics who have not taken the time to understand and appreciate the vision of the artist, but also to keep the faith in that vision and to be confident that, sooner or later, another viewer will be able to take the extra step and see what the artist intended.

      And one of the best rewards is, as you said, “helping others to see something anew.” When we can inspire others to deepen their understanding, appreciation, knowledge, skills, and abilities, the art has come full circle and we’re passing it on.

      Thanks again for sharing something of your insight, Louis!

      Gary

  9. Adrian Lewis says:

    Excellent post, Gary, very interesting. I agree with you entirely – and, yes (for the moment at least!!!), I don’t think I’d introduce material from one image into another. Your four pictures? No contest whatsoever, the lower one of each pair – nice photos, good manipulation! Adrian

    • krikitarts says:

      Thank you, Adrian, it’s really good to get such positive feedback from colleagues whose work I also admire. That’s what keeps us working to our best abilities.

  10. MikeP says:

    Well put…very well written and researched, and perfect examples of your vision (art). I could not agree more!!!! My photo club is divided into 2 groups Nikon and Canon.. that in itself makes for very colorful discussions. You can only imagine what happens when a group of say 150 get together once a month and this topic comes up. Not only do I hear from the art (painters,,,etc) but from inside the photo circle…its lively, but exhausting.

    • krikitarts says:

      From what you describe, Mike, I don’t think I would very much enjoy (all of) one of your photo club sessions. I have relatively little tolerance for those critics who are unable to tolerate, accept, and appreciate the work of those of us who have embraced different approaches to the things we see around us in the natural world and choose to develop our images so that they reflect our visions, even though they differ from the expectations of the critics. Nikon vs. Canon–what’s the big deal? But that’s surely not where the real sparks fly–it’s hard to imagine a group of 150 potential artists discussing where “reality” should stop and “vision” should begin. That’s not my idea of a fun evening. I’d rather sit with you and maybe also a couple of other kindred souls with a wee dram (or two) of Lagavulin and share some favorite photos from our personal archives with each other. Thanks for the compliment on my post–I think I spent more time on this one than I have with any other.

  11. Jeff Sinon says:

    Very well written and thought provoking. I will freely use all the tools at my disposal in the “digital darkroom” to enhance, manipulate, alter, “photoshop” an image to achieve the result that I had in mind at the time of capture. I recently had a friend stop by the location of one of my more popular photographs. He said that my photograph looked nothing like the scene before him. My response, “The scene before you was not the photograph I had in mind, the resulting image is.” I consider myself an artist, not a photojournalist, so my images are representations of how I see a scene, not necessarily how the scene actually looked.

    My thoughts on HDR. You know who hates HDR? Photographers. You know who loves it? The buying public. Is it overdone far too often? In my opinion, yes. But, like any other art form, beauty and what is considered art is subjective, and open to interpretation.

    For the record, 2,2,2,2, although I do think there is too much green going on in the photo of the truck. The truck just does not stand out enough to me.

    • krikitarts says:

      Jeff,

      You and I appear to be on precisely the same track regarding the philosophy of developing our images so as to be able to present what we visualized when we made them. There are those who will never understand, embrace, or even tolerate any apparent departure from “reality.” And I pity them, but I understand them.

      I differ, however, with your thought that photographers hate HDR, though I’m pretty confident that you didn’t mean it as an absolute. I know many photographers whose work I admire and enjoy who employ it to wonderful effect. Yes, it can be taken to extremes—as can any art form. I tend to shy away from these (usually), and as I grow and refine my techniques, I tend to produce ever-increasingly subtle results.

      Oh, and I do agree about the truck. That was an early attempt when I was just learning how to use my new HDR program, and it clearly leans pretty far toward the extreme category-though I could show you others that belong there with both feet firmly planted. I included it in my series of examples for the very reason that it demonstrated a somewhat more exaggerated effect. I’ve had several comments on just this, and I intend to rework it and re-present it in the near future.

      I am very grateful for your taking the time to share your thoughts with me and to articulate them so well. It’s really important to get honest feedback, not just back-scratches (although they’re nice, too).

      Gary

      • Jeff Sinon says:

        We both seem to share the same philosophy when it comes to feedback as well. While I love all the accolades I’ve been receiving lately, who wouldn’t, I also appreciate a good honest critique as well. I don;t know everything there is to know about photography, no one does, so any advice or suggestions that can help me better my craft are more than welcome.

        That being said, I very seldom feel comfortable offering my opinions and suggestions for fear of offending someone. One area I find myself lacking when it comes to offering my 2 cents on an image is articulating why I like it. Sometimes I now exactly what draws me to it, but quite frequently I just like it. I couldn’t tell you why if you put a gun to my head :-P

      • krikitarts says:

        It doesn’t really matter why you like a particular image, does it? The important thing is that you do like it and share that feeling. I empathize completely with your hesitation to offer what we consider to be not only constructive criticism, but also honest suggestions. It’s always quite possible that we may have another angle of vision on a particular subject that the artist may not have considered during his/her development of the original capture. I hope that I will always be receptive to the alternative views of my work by other colleagues. They may very well help me to improve my own art as I refine my understanding and my presentations. So please feel completely free to let me know what you think about what you’ve seen of my offerings, and rest assured that I will do the same. Thanks again, Jeff, for sharing your time and your thoughts with me.

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