Month: May 2013

To shop or not? A rhetorical question in response to another.

I often struggle with the same dilemma that Randall Amore expresses in his blog post:http://petapixel.com/2013/05/10/to-shop-or-not-the-hard-part-of-being-a-good-photographer/, but sometimes come to a slightly different conclusion.

Photographers, I think, in general, agree that to digitally composite two or more street photos to achieve a better image is “cheating”. This is clear in the realm of photojournalism, where we need to believe that a photograph represents a moment that actually happened. Many prominent photojournalists have discovered a shortcut to the unemployment line for attempting just such a deception. And the genre of “street photography” has also developed a strong ethos around the authenticity of the original capture. Most hardcore street shooters won’t even crop a picture, and take great pride in capturing the image entirely “in camera”. Digital compositing would surely get an aspiring latter day Winnograndite excommunicated from the cult. Once consigned to the cutout bin of the art world, this style of photography is now (re)emerging into the mainstream of photographic fine art. But the author of this blog piece does not mention another common argument that used to be advanced AGAINST the recognition of photography as a fine art– that because the photographic image is a mechanical process that forms at the moment of exposure without further control of its compositional elements once the time, place, angle of view, lens, and camera have been selected, it lacks the element of human control that would make it a legitimate work of art. Of course that argument has been debunked at least as many times as there are street photographs in the world over the last 180 years or so, but now we do have the ability to control every element of the “photographic” image down to the microscopic level- arguably far more control than the painter has ever enjoyed, according to the terms of that now ancient and perhaps irrelevant argument of photography’s Art vs non-art status, shouldn’t it be the manipulated version of the photograph that we accept as art, rather than mere document? Like those of most street photographers, I am quite sure, my digital “contact sheets” are chock full of sequential images just screaming to be composited. The equation of an overwhelming number of images in my archives and the very finite amount of time available to edit and publish or print them had had as much to do with my restraint in terms of NOT doing so as any traditional purism I may feel about the sanctity of the original moment of capture. After all, no matter the documentary nature of most of my imagery, I function as a fine art photographer, not a photojournalist. My goal is to show the viewer how I perceive things rather to claim an objective view of the world.

Of course I also make digital photomontages, but I don’t call them photographs, and I don’t think anyone but the most visually unsophisticated would ever mistake them for actual photography, despite their photographic origins. A more subtle use of digital composite technique, however, when applied to similar sequential photographs, as described in Amore’s post would easily fool most viewers into believing that they were seeing a true photographic rendering of an actual moment. Isn’t such sleight of eye common currency in the art world? Painters are never accused of “faking it” when employing techniques of photo realism or trompe L’eoil to render a convincing fictitious scene in paint, but rather celebrated for their skill. Of course I have experimented a bit with this idea- even going as far as showing a few of the resulting images to a well known photo editor and photographic fine art gallery owner at a portfolio review a few years ago. Rather than seeing the images as an interesting conceptual experiment in the limits of what can be considered a photograph, and given assurances that i never would have passed these images off as unmanipulated documentary photographs, he was obviously displeased at my violation of the medium’s accepted traditions. He argued that despite my disclaimer, the images in question would be so easily mistaken for straight photography (whatever that means) that their publication could destroy my credibility as a photographer. Although I disagreed with this point of view, his strong negative reaction certainly had a profound chilling effect on further exploration of this avenue.

With several years to mull this vexing quesrion over, however, I find it more than a little ironic that photography, once considered the most transgressive of mediums, seems to have so quickly lapsed into such unquestioned adherence to tradition and conventionality. It took us a hundred years to earn the keys to the exclusive Art World Country Club, but once we gained admittance, we are the first to bar the doors to prevent the riff raff from getting in and drinking all the champaign. We cling to tradition harder than rednecks to their guns and religion. You can pry that Leica out of my cold, dead hands. If cameras were outlawed, only outlaws would have cameras! But I digress. And just because I hate being told I can’t, or shouldn’t — I’m gonna.

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8×10 geekery

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Freight Train to Anywhere

Freight Train Passing, Denver CO, March 2012

This March I spent a few days in Denver to give an artist talk, along with Sama AlShaibi, and see my work at the CVA as part of the Semblance show, curated by Tomiko Jones and Cecily Cullen. I brought along my old speed graphic and some new 4×5 film that I hadn’t had a chance to try out, Arista EDU 200. This was to do a workshop on large format portrait photography for one of Tomiko’s classes. The demo was a bit of a fiasco with some untested technology, but it was a lot of fun trying out some new techniques and learning along with the students. The next day we had a bit of free time, so Tomiko took me cruising randomly around Denver looking for pictures to capture with our view cameras. What fun! I’ve not done that in ages. We found this desolate spot by the train tracks and set up our cameras on opposite sides of the snow pile to the right of this shot. As it happened, it seems that at least with my lens, a rare 165mm f/2.5 Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar ca. 1920, made for a half plate “tropical camera” that doesn’t quite cover 4×5, I should have rated the film more like ISO 100, but who knows, as I really didn’t meter the scene & this was the first time I”ve used this particular film. The light was fading fast and the train was going faster, so I just guessed the exposure, and managed to fire off 6 shots as it rolled by. They all turned out pretty thin, so I tried an experiment by rephotographing the negatives on a light table with the macro lens on my NEX-7, then stacking the exposures as layers and merging the digital images in Photoshop. In spite of, or maybe because of its convoluted workflow, lack of critical sharpness, vignetted corners, and gloomy tonality I quite like the resulting image. The multiple layers of the passing train speaks to me of time’s relentless erosion, while the location, the gritty Denver train yard, brings me back to youthful readings of Jack Kerouac’s Denver adventures. The pile of melting snow signals the demise of winter, and the ensuing rush of restlessness and wanderlust that always arrives with the season. All of that makes me want to hit the road. This year the feeling is even more acute, as for the first time in more than a decade, I don’t have the slightest clue what I am going to do a month from now. Once my grades are turned in, student work documented, and my office cleaned out, I’m going to be officially unemployed. Trying to make plans amidst this uncertainty seems almost comedic, as I cope with a Molotov cocktail recipe of feelings including anger, loss, fear, anticipation, and excitement.

Right after I made this image, in my rush to make one more composition in the fading light, I unscrewed the wrong knob on my tripod head, sending the camera crashing onto the concrete. The good news is that my precious lens survived the fall undamaged, and I’ve taken the undamaged body & shutter box of the wrecked camera and converted it into a behind the lens shutter so I can do fast exposures on my 8×10 camera with old shutterless lenses. Maybe I can find an old Petzval to put on there. This little project has distracted me a bit from the stress of not knowing what I’m going to do next. Meanwhile, I will take that comfort in knowing that the train was going somewhere, even if I don’t know its final destination.

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