Veracity & Digital Image Processing
Who's Zooming Who?
A reader recently pointed out an on-line editorial comment by photographer Christopher Burkett. In it Mr. Burkett makes some sweeping and rather disparaging remarks about digital image processing. In fact his main page has an eye-catching "No Digital Prints" logo, so clearly this is something that Burkett feels strongly about.
The "Veracity" of Digital Image Processing
Two comments to start. I have the utmost respect for Christopher Burkett's skills as a photographer and master printer. He is a very fine artist indeed. Secondly, I don't see myself as having any particular role to play as a defender of digital image processing, though for the past several years the computer and Photoshop have been my tools of choice, in preference to the enlarger and print processing drums. My Cibachrome / Ilfochrome darkroom of 20 years is now closed forever. The reason for this is simply because I find myself able to produce higher quality prints for display and sale using these new tools than I could using previous traditional techniques.
If Mr. Burkett were only taking the opposite position — that his preferred tools produced superior results for him, then there would be no debate. This is a personal value judgments and not subject to anyone else's censure or disagreement. But instead Burkett takes a strong stance against digital image processing in general. His main thrust is the issue of veracity.
(vuh ras'i tee) n. pl. <-ties>
1. habitual observance of truth in speech or statement; truthfulness.
2. conformity to truth or fact; accuracy.
3. correctness or accuracy.
4. something veracious; a truth.
Random House Webster's Dictionary
Burkett says, "Veracity is at the heart of why I print my work by hand onto conventional photographic materials. My images must be trustworthy if they are to be believable."
This statement suggests through inference that digital means inherently produce "untrustworthy" images. This is the core of his argument. Of course it's a complete chimera. There is nothing inherent in digital image processing that allows one to produce prints that are any more or less trustworthy or believable than ones produced with chemical means.
One only has to look at the work of countless photographers over the past 150 years of traditional printing — from Lewis Carroll to Jerry Ulesman, to see that chemical printing techniques were never an impediment to the creation of fantasy images. Without dispute though, digital techniques make this easier, and thus I suppose more controversial. From the infamous Pyramid cover of National Geographic some years ago to the countless "polar bears on sand dunes" produced by overzealous students of Photoshop, digital imaging deserves its rap for making ugly, bad and silly images that much easier to produce.
But — and this is the crux of the matter — these same tools make the adjustments traditionally done by darkroom workers much easier, offering greater flexibility, and I would argue, therefore that much better.
Burkett continues with, "When I work with Cibachrome, I often utilize unique masking and printing techniques to adjust the contrast, sharpness, brightness levels, and relative weight of tones and colors".
Clearly he is not adverse to controlling the traditional variables that all photographers and printers utilize. From some 20 years as a Cibachrome printer I can state with experience as my guide that the tools available in Photoshop to a skilled worker far exceed in power and flexibility those that even a master printer has available in a wet darkroom.
Finally Burkett says, "Significantly, actual photographic image quality can also suffer with the scanning and/or digitizing process."
Here we have an issue which is open to differing points of view. I won't dispute Burkett statement other than to say that in my experience he is in a minority among fine-art photographers, if they have made a concerted effort to master digital image processing tools. The learning curve is very steep. Just as Mr. Burkett did not become a master Cibachrome printer overnight, or likely even over a few years, mastering Photoshop, high-end scanning and colour management issues is a daunting task.
Just a few hours with Photoshop and a decent book or a simple tutorial like my Instant Photoshop may be enough to get an amateur off the ground and making acceptable prints. A year or more of constant work is needed though until a serious printer can feel confident in his or her ability to produce high quality prints.
My intention in writing this rebuttal to Mr. Burkett's published position is to help those who are new to the world of digital image processing to understand the various perspectives being promulgated in print and on the Net. A strongly worded position by a famous photographer, whether Burkett, me or anyone else, does not of itself ensure either accuracy or correctness.
It is my belief that fine-art photography and print making is being enriched by the new technologies. They are tools — nothing more, nothing less. And, just as with any tool, can be the subject of abuse or the means to enhancing ones art. The position taken by Mr. Burkett, that digital images are somehow less "truthful" than those produced with tradition tools, is one which I hope readers will look at with a judicious if not cautious eye.
Michael Reichmann — March, 2001
There are many routes from the capture of the image to the final product, which can take many forms. All of these forms are characterized by a balance of advantages and disadvantages. And that balance wavers depending on your needs and purposes.
Tao of Photography
Update: March 24, 2001
Just one day after the above editorial was published, the Sunday New York Times featured on the front page of their Art / Architecture section a review of Epson's America in Detail, a traveling exhibition of inkjet photographic prints visiting several US cities this spring. Most interestingly it discusses how archival inkjet prints surpass some traditional media in image quality.
Regarding photographs by Andreas Gursky, currently on exhibit at the the Museum of Modern Art, "... none have anything like the precision of these prints" — referring to the large Epson 7500 and 9500 prints which form part of the traveling Epson exhibition under review.
My comments on the Times review and this issue in general are now found in an essay titled Is it Art Yet?
A related article, on Inkjet prints as Object D'art may also be of interest.