Reflections on Photography & Art - 4
Of Cameras and Art
Each problem that I solved became a rule
which served afterwards to solve other problems
1 - Introduction
I hear it regularly at art shows: “Your photographs are beautiful. You must have a very good camera.” I also hear, “Your colors are beautiful, you must use filters.” And finally I also hear, “Your images are fantastic, you must use Photoshop.” This statement comes in different variations, but the message is essentially the same: for a certain audience, the reason why my work is beautiful is not due to my artistic skills but to the equipment I use.
At first I was dumfounded. Later on I was insulted. After talking to other photographers and learning that they received the same comments, I started wondering why people thought this. I now believe I have an answer.
2 - Good cameras equal good photographs
The fact that part of the public believes that the camera is responsible for the quality of my work got me dumfounded at first. How can they believe that? After all, the camera is but a tool, a mechanical recording device and nothing more. As the comments kept coming, under difference guises, some commenting on how good my camera had to be, others commenting on how bad theirs was, all to make the same point – i.e. that my photos were better than theirs because I had a better camera – I started getting insulted. I argued that years of work and study, and not simply ownership of a good camera, were responsible for the work I had on display. I also argued that my early photographs, of which some are on display at my shows, were not taken with that great of a camera because I could not afford one when I started. All this to no avail. While some believed me, most left the show still convinced that a good camera is the key to getting good photographs and that, should they have the camera I have, they would get good photographs too.
Hold that thought I would say, but again to no avail. The fact that they did not have the camera I have made them revel in the fact that their theory, which really was an entrenched belief, was at no risk of being challenged. I could have loaned them my camera, told them to take a couple of photographs with it, but unless I followed them home, waited for them to get their film developed and their photos printed, I would not be in a position to make my point.
What point? That their photos were not as good as mines even though they were using the same camera? And how do you compare? By putting side by side a print made at the local drugstore and a print made by a master printer, both from transparencies taken with the same camera?
3 - A matter of filters
Suspicions in the public at large about the veracity of photographs, and about potential reasons for cameras delivering results that are significantly superior to those of the general public, have been around for a long time. To follow my thesis that the non-initiated public believes that everything happens in the camera, let me bring up the matter of filters.
If at a show of my work I somehow do not have someone tell me that I must have a good camera, chances are that I will have someone ask me which filters I used. The assumption being that filters are a magical tool that professional photographers use to turn an average scene into a stunning photograph.
With this belief the audience follows the same logic as I discussed previously. That is, the quality of the photograph as we see in it print was sealed when the shutter was released. It may be that the photographer used an excellent camera, or it may be that this photographer used filters, and it may be that he used both: a good camera and filters. How can an amateur compete with such equipment? It is simply not fair, and, for part of the audience, it explains everything in regards to the quality of my work.
Well, not really. In fact, not at all. We all know that filters can have some effect on photographs – for example polarizing filters darken the sky or remove reflections, gradual density filters reduce contrast and colored filters either color balance a scene or introduce a noticeable color cast - but to my personal chagrin, a filter that has the ability to turn a scene remarkable for its banality into a stunning image, a filter that can create beautiful photographs at will, simply does not exist.
Round Rock Clouds
Linhof Master Technika 4x5, Fujinon 90mm, Fuji Provia
I saw the clouds building up over Round Rock. I waited patiently for the clouds to create a composition that I not only liked, but that also gave movement to the scene, from the top left cloud, the largest in the scene, to the bottom right clouds, which diminish progressively as they recede in the distance.
I used an excellent camera.
4 - And then there are those who manipulate . . .
A problem well stated is a problem half solved
Charles Franklin Kettering
From there, you can see the problem that the audience I just described has with Photoshop. Here is an application whose purpose is to modify what the camera captured. For the general public, Photoshop serves one purpose and one purpose only: to manipulate the photograph. Since a great photograph comes out of a great camera, without any additional work required, why would anyone take that photograph into Photoshop? Nothing needs to be done to this photograph! There can therefore be only one reason to do so: to manipulate the photograph, to do things to it in order to deceive the audience into thinking that what is in the photograph is real when it really isn’t.
This belief, on the part of the audience, is strengthened by photographers who claim that they do not manipulate their photographs in any way, shape or form. Photographers who claim that their efforts stop when they press the shutter. Photographers who claim that the negative, transparency or raw file is somehow printed without any changes to the appearance of the original whatsoever. Photographers who explain that “they do not use digital.”
Now, I have no doubt that some, if not all, these photographers are saying the truth. But the fact is that they still have to work with a master printer, or be master printers themselves, in order to get a fine art print. And to do so, countless things have to be done to the original, whether the process is digital or chemical. And by the time this multitude of things have been done, the look of the printed photograph is different from the look of the original negative or transparency. How much different varies from photographer to photographer, but different it is. It has to be because there isn’t a single print which is an exact representation of the negative, transparency or raw file.
3 - A photograph is only as good as the print one makes from it
It might help to have a name for the problem
Nina Allen Freeman
The difference in print quality is really what I was arguing about without really knowing it at the time. That was the key to explaining the frustration I was experiencing when hearing remarks about my camera being better than the cameras most people have.
What I came to understand is this: many people believe that, by the time the shutter is triggered, the appearance of a photograph is sealed. In other words, the prints that they see framed at my shows, prints which are the result of days and days of work adjusting contrast, color saturation and countless other details, are believed to be the direct reproduction of the negative or transparency I exposed in my camera, or of the raw file created by the camera’s digital sensor.
The fact that each photographic film and sensor has a specific color palette, contrast ratio, resolution as well as grain or noise structure, is of no consequence to people who share this belief. They assume that the capture device is a neutral variable. They assume that all films and all sensors are created equal, that whether we use negative film or transparencies, low or high color saturation, slow or high ISO, small or large films or sensors, makes no difference whatsoever as far as the resulting photograph is concerned.
Similarly, the fact that a raw file has a very low saturation and contrast level when in its original state, and that virtually no raw files are printed without some amount of saturation and contrast adjustments, is equally of no concern to the audience.
The fact that, until a few years ago, the general public used low-color-saturation negative films, and had their prints made at the local drugstore or other mechanized photo printing service, and the fact that the resulting images did not look like mine, was blindly believed to be due to their camera not being as good as mine and not to the mass-production processing labs that they used to process and print their work.
The fact that the general public now uses digicams and shoots jpegs, which are processed in-camera and to which saturation and contrast control are applied “invisibly”, and the fact that this public either takes their CF cards to the local drugstore or prints their jpegs themselves without further image processing, changes little to this situation. It does, however, raise the issue of “manipulation” which I mentioned previously.
Such is the logic at work. Somehow, my camera has magical properties that theirs does not have, and no amount of explaining on my part will cause them to think otherwise. For this audience, the photographic process is something that involves a camera and a camera only. This is the only part of the process they are familiar with. And because of that, the camera, and specifically the quality of the camera, is the only thing they consider when trying to determine how a good photograph was created.
4 - It’s the print, silly
Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.
Indeed. Books after books have been written on how to create a fine art print. Countless workshops are offered each year on how to use Photoshop to get the finest print from either your scans or your raw files. As experienced photographers, we know that there is no such thing as a straight print, and that even if we wish to remain as faithful as we can to the original, a machine print from a negative or a transparency, or a print done from a raw file converted with automatic or ‘standard’ settings, will only be a pale version of what can be achieved from the same original processed and printed by a master printer.
The title Master Printer itself says it all. Why would we need a Master to print our work, or why would we need to become Master Printers ourselves, if the print was but a straight enlargement of the original film or raw file? A technician, with basic knowledge of how to operate printing equipment, should suffice.
Most, if not all, photographers know the importance that printing –fine art printing as it is called- plays in the final appearance of their work. But for the audience at large this knowledge is not so widespread. In fact, it is not widespread at all. I am not trying to put anybody down. I am simply expressing a fact that I learned by exhibiting and selling my work to tens of thousands of people who are not very knowledgeable about photography. It is their lack of knowledge in regards to the photographic process as a whole that is responsible for their belief that the camera is solely responsible for the quality of the photograph.
For most people who fall in this category, what happens after the shutter is pressed is inconsequential insofar as the appearance of the final print is concerned. By the time the shutter is pressed, the camera used has sealed the fate of the photograph captured by it. The rest of the process – development, raw conversion, scanning, printing, etc.- are steps that must be done in order to get a print, but steps that are inconsequential in regards to the quality of the photograph in front of them. The camera, somehow, does it all. As hard as it is for me to believe that, I know that this belief really exists. The hundreds, if not thousands, of remarks I have heard are there to testify to it.
Barrio Abstract Two
Canon 1DsMk2, 17-40 zoom,
Lexar 80x 2GB CF card.
I rarely do abstracts, but on this one occasion I just couldn't help. I was leading a workshop in the Barrio Historico, during which we focus on the colorful Spanish-influenced architecture of this historic area of Tucson, when I found a fence made of corrugated aluminum sheets covered with patterns that can best be described as “a photographer's dream come true.” I don't know exactly how much time I spent photographing it, all I know is I filled several CF cards on the 1DsMk2 and had to stop because the rest of the group had abandoned me.
I used the best CF card money can buy.
7 - I should have known
The field of consciousness is tiny. It accepts only one problem at a time.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I should have known about these beliefs a long time ago. I should have seen the writing on the wall. When I was in college I showed a collection of my photographs to my roommate. All but one were 5x5 color prints from medium format negatives taken with a Hasselblad 500C. The one I am referring to is a 3x9 panoramic print of a negative taken with a Kodak disposable panoramic camera. All the photographs were mounted in the same fashion on cream mat board, bringing visual unity. through the size and the presentation, to this grouping. The print from the disposable camera was a sunset scene of Totem Pole in Monument Valley. It showed bright red spires and canyon walls and a deep blue sky overhead with some streaked clouds in it. It was a machine print, but somehow it printed very nicely, at least to my eyes at the time, in part because the camera had somehow exposed the negative properly.
I showed the panoramic print last, and my roommate loved it. Since all the previous photographs I had showed him were taken with medium format, and since I had told him so, his comment when looking at the panorama, which was his favorite so far, was a classic: “It is very good. But again, you have a Hasselblad!” I had to go get the negative out of my files, and show him that it was taken with a disposable camera and not a medium camera for him to believe me. Proving my point was easy: the exposed area was 1/3rd the size of a regular 35mm frame because what the disposable panoramic camera did was crop the top and bottom of the full-size 35mm frame. I loved every minute of it, because for once I was able to make my point without the shadow of a doubt. I don’t think I changed his mind though, I just think I gave him a headache.
Monument valley Panorama
Kodak Panoramic disposable camera, Kodak negative film, plastic lens.
8 - The artist and his tools
The belief that a good photograph is the result of a good camera places the importance upon the equipment rather than upon the photographer. It emphasizes the machine rather than the man, the tool rather than the artist, the technology rather than the artistic intent. It is as if Monet had been told that the reason why his paintings were so beautiful was because he had such good paintbrushes. Or as if Paul Bocuse’s culinary excellence was explained away by his use of superlative pots and pans. Or again if Yo-Yo Ma had been informed that his Stradivarius was solely responsible for the stunning quality of his music.
Certainly, a master needs a masterful instrument, be it a camera, paintbrushes, pots and pans or a violin, as in my examples, or other tool, since this list can be expanded to include many other professions. But to say that the quality of the art is caused solely by the quality of the instrument is to miss the point altogether about the importance of the artist. It is missing the point about the human factor, about the man or the woman that actually made use of this instrument. After all, art is made by artists and not by tools. Tools are inanimate objects that need someone to set them in motion. And to set a tool in motion so that art is created through the use of this tool, an artist is needed.
Monument Valley Shadows
Linhof Master Technika 4x5, Schneider 150mm, Fuji Provia
This light and shadow situation happens only at a specific time of the year. I planned to be there on that day,
and the only thing that could have prevented me from capturing this scene were clouds obscuring the sun.
Clouds there were, but they parted just in time for the sun to shine at sunset and cast the shadow I wanted to capture.
I used a great lens.
9 – Conclusion: It’s only a matter of time
The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it.
Certainly I may be here preaching to those who are already converted. If such is the case let it be known that I am not trying to convince you as much as I am trying to provide you with explanations and arguments, so to speak, that you can use should you find yourself in the situation I found myself in. And you will find yourself in such a situation if you exhibit your work. Maybe not the first time, maybe not the second time, maybe not the third time, but eventually. It is only a matter of time. And when that time comes it is best to not take it personally, and instead to see it for what it is: lack of understanding of a process that, to the non-initiated, is still arcane and unfamiliar.
My next essay, number 5 in the Reflections on Photography and Art series, will focus on the nature of the differences between what we see with our eyes and what the camera actually captures. In many ways, this next essay is a continuation of the essay you are presently reading. It is also a case in point against the popular belief that the camera is solely responsible for the quality of the photograph.
A follow up commentary to this essay, by David White, is available on my site at http://beautiful-landscape.com/Thoughts40.html Titled A Response to Cameras and Art this commentary shows another photographer’s take on the issue discussed in this essay.
As always, I welcome your response to my essays. Don’t hesitate to email me. I personally answer all courteous emails, whether you agree or disagree with me.
One of the most effective ways to improve your photographic skills is to attend a workshop. Each of my workshops includes photographic skill exercises designed to strengthen your skills in specific areas. Find out which workshops are currently open by visiting my web site at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com or e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.