Is It Real?

“I like my pictures to look exactly like the real scene I was looking at.” The Assembly Line Portrait Photographer says as she shows me a picture on her laptop of an alligator. “I don’t like using Photoshop.”

“So you mean this alligator was really 13 inches wide and a few millimeters thick and lived in a monochromatic electronic universe totally unlike the one we all inhabit?” I say as I lean in to look at the digital photo.  She just gives me a go-to-hell look.

I remember being greatly impressed by the images that Ansel Adams created.  I loved all those ‘nature’ shots of mountains and trees and rocks.  I remember thinking something along the lines of, I could have taken that photograph, if only I had been there.  But then I read one of Ansel Adams books on making fine art prints. Taking the picture was often difficult, involving scouting out locations, hauling heavy equipment, trimming trees and brush that would distract from the composition and then getting back to his lab with his 8×10 glass plates still in one piece. Once in the lab Adams went about the endless dodging and burning and cropping that went into bring his finial visions to reality.

I remember feeling a bit betrayed by the fact that Adam’s prints were not an accurate representation of reality.  I’m sure that some of this feeling came from my own photographic efforts, which were nothing more than snapshots straight out of the camera.  The idea that a carefully selected composition could then be turned into something more than a mere photograph was an idea that had never occurred to me.

There was a big uproar about ethics and nature photographers a few years back when a photographer used Photoshop to merge a half dozen separately captured images into one scene with every African cliche he could find.  Some photographers have this odd idea that an image out of the camera is a sacred artifact not to be tampered with, does this mean Ansel Adams was a liar and a cheat because he manipulated his photographs?

It’s worth noting that the same Assembly Line Portrait Photographer who insisted on the authenticity of her images also thought it was alright to call herself a Vegetarian while still eating eggs and drinking milk, neither of which, need it be said, is a vegetable.   Let’s just say her ethical standards need a little fine tuning.

In the opening pages of David duChemin’s Vision & Voice I find out that I’m not alone in thinking it odd that every photograph I see is not exactly as it was created in the camera.  But David is used to this questions, and says that there is nothing real, per se, about any photograph.  The Photographer decides what to put in the frame and what to leave out.  What settings to use in the camera that will effect how the scene is recorded.  What lens to use, which determines how much of the scene is captured and how much of that scene is in focus.  In the good old days, there was also the choice of film, which effected the tone, grain, and quality of the image.  We now have near infinite choices with modern photo editing software for use once the image does leave the camera.

A news reporter might want an image that is as true to reality as possible, but a fine art photographer or a portrait photographer?  Well, anything and everything goes.  Well, almost anything and everything.  At some point you have to stop shooting every random item that you wander by, and start to think, really think, about what you want your images to say.

People my age no longer appear on sitcoms, though some make cameos as parents.  An annoying number of people close to my age have died recently, reminding me that I should have already achieved any level of glory I was likely to reach and that it really is all downhill from here.  I still have these odd ideas that I might get a flat in London one day, or have a Hawaiian Shirt shop in Maui, or at the very least, take Beach Portraits in North Carolina.  I think about moving to Edinburgh, just so I can sit in a coffee shop and finish one of those books I’m always talking about but never actually writing.

I’m following a good deal of David duChemin’s advice about tweaking my images in Adobe Lightroom, a brilliant program that I have fallen madly in love with.  At some point the problem becomes not so much how to make my images look better, but how to capture better images in the first place.  It was pretty embarrassing while looking at the photos of my fellow Assembly Line Portrait Photographers to see how many images we had captured that were all but identical.   And not just the portraits we shoot for work, but our personal images, many of which show a longing to be an artist, but an eye for the mundane.

So, as Bill and Ted noted near the end of one of their movies, it’s time to stop playing around and get good.  Hmm, wonder where I can find a cheap used time machine?

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