Quietly Battling Photographic Orthodoxy

About nine years ago, I moved into a new community where I knew few people and I became, frankly, a bit lonely. I heard that there was a local photography club so I decided to check it out hoping to learn about the art I love and perhaps make a friend or two.

I was relatively new to digital photography and hadn’t had a decent film camera in years but my passion was still there. In terms of getting images to work to spec in printed documents, I had some experience with image-editing software as a pre-press technician but wanted to learn more about getting the most from digital photography from the standpoint of creativity. Surely an established camera club would be the ideal forum for the exploration of the new possibilities digital photography had to offer.

On the first night I learned that submissions to their periodic assignments and competitions were subject to some rather strange rules — rules that fettered creativity. The permitted digital manipulation of images was limited to global corrections, i.e. you could make changes to an image’s overall colour cast , for example, but making slight changes to a section of the image or performing some radical change to the entire image was forbidden. The members shooting film were not similarly constrained. They could “dodge and burn” while printing or use infrared film if they so desired. The attitude of the club seemed to be that digital treatment was an unfair advantage. Creativity and the possibilities offered by digital photography were being oppressed to preserve “the purity of the art”.

I didn’t bother returning for a second meeting.

The introduction of each photographic innovation was likely met with disapproval from the old guard. The introduction of the shutter (instead of just removing and replacing the lens cap) was probably seen as a gimmick by some, roll film was seen as a cheapening of the art by the large format guys, colour film for the masses was most certainly viewed with disdain by the people who had spent their lives or careers shooting monochrome, built-in exposure meters were laughed at, zoom lenses were snubbed, and still today there are those who look at digital as not being true to the art unless you constrain yourself to the limitations of chemistry-based photography. I have a funny feeling that some painter responded to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s landmark world’s-first-ever photograph by saying, “Sure you’ve set up a box and after an eight-hour exposure you got an image, but it’s not art unless you dab a brush in paint and cause each line and shadow to appear with your own hands.” But is art defined by the process, or the product itself?

Warhol's "Campbell's Soup I" courtesy Wikipedia.

Let’s take Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup I painting as an example. Frankly, it does nothing for me (but maybe the message that is the key to its artistic merit eludes me). Could I paint it? Not on your life. But would I ever claim that Mr. Warhol wasted his time painting it or would I ever suggest it should not be displayed because through conventional photographic processes a more accurate and literal depiction of the can could be had? No! Warhol’s reasons for creating this painting were his own and he was pleased with it. That is what makes it art. If I was a judge at an art contest where Campbell’s Soup I and The Mona Lisa were submissions, which would I vote for? I would vote for The Mona Lisa because it says something to me, but I would be open to comments from others as to why a fairly literal rendition of a common soup can was held in such high regard.

That being said, I do believe that there is a time and a place for restricting creativity in the visual arts. I am of the opinion that photographs used in legal proceedings and serious journalism should be as literal as possible and true representations of reality. Advertising is a different story where photos are used to spark an emotional response so there’s more latitude allowable, as far as I’m concerned — if Revlon wants to Photoshop Cindy Crawford’s mole off her face and Cindy gives her OK, then it’s OK with me too. But something really should be done about submarine sandwich ads… there should be a federal law that says food product photos must contain the exact same ingredients and quantities as the product sold!

Fine art photography and pictures created for the sole purpose of visual enjoyment are another story altogether.  In recent years I’ve noticed trends, like the revitalization of the Street Photography genre, and photographers whose work includes a lot of heavy vignetting, muted colours, or specialized techniques — most of these stylistic approaches are no doubt due to the ability of the common person to edit their images digitally and digital cameras’ ability to store a large number of photos.

One of these techniques is High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) and, to a lesser extent, Fake High Dynamic Range Imaging (FHDRI), the latter’s method I quickly describe in my post Weekly Photo Challenge: Hidden. A couple of years ago it seemed like everyone was creating HDRI images and some photographers were only posting HDRI images on their Flickr pages. Frankly, at the time I felt that it was a little overdone. So I tried it myself and found it to be a useful way to convey my vision of a scene that could not be realized any other way.

Sometimes, though, you might want to convey a scene as realistically as possible but for one reason or another the finished image just doesn’t live up to what you had envisioned for it. Other times you try to create something otherworldly, but that doesn’t work out. Here’s a case in point…

The best of the bracketing set.

The image above was taken as part of a set of nine photos bracketed in one-stop increments. I bracketed because I wasn’t sure what I would end up doing… whether one of the nine would be good all on its own, or maybe I’d take two and combine the best exposure of the concrete and place it around the best exposure for the foliage. Maybe the HDRI treatment to the whole scene would bring out what I saw at the original scene.

After uploading the images to my computer and reviewing them, no single image recreated what I saw in the parking garage that morning. The foliage was pretty good, but none did justice to the concrete so I decided to go the HDRI route. Maybe I’d get even more out of the garden beyond!

An HDRI image of the entire scene.

So after creating several HDRI images from all nine exposures, the photo above was the best of the bunch. I got what I wanted out of the concrete, but the foliage lost its “freshness”. So I masked out the concrete and went to work trying to revitalize the greenery. After the better part of an hour, I gave up and decided to insert the original non-HDRI foliage behind the HDRI concrete and this is what I came up with…

HDRI foreground with "conventional" foliage behind.

This is what I was shooting for! In this final image I also tweaked the garden’s colours a bit by removing the blue cast and I corrected the lens’ spherical aberrations. Unfortunately, when I shot the image I wasn’t aiming square at the wall so things are a little lopsided. I didn’t bother correcting for that but, hey, I’m no Warhol and that’s no can of soup!

So the lesson learned from this is that strange new techniques can be used to bring out the realism of a photo instead of defeating it. Used judiciously, what was taboo at the photo club helped me preserve a scene pretty much as my mind’s eye saw it.

Go forth and create, no matter what the pseudo-artistic purists say about how you do it!

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About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

21 responses to “Quietly Battling Photographic Orthodoxy

  • Carl D'Agostino

    Many of the painters, for example, whose work although considered deviant in their time, are valued today precisely for their originality, creativity, uniqueness and in the pioneering of new art forms. Personally I find the view of the outside through the window from the inside and the inside’s surroundings intriguing. Many of the masters that worked like Rembrandt show light entering the room from outside as well.

    • HoaiPhai

      I absolutely agree, and innovators in fields other than art are often set upon by the traditionalists as well. I personally feel I’m a hack, artistically speaking. I enjoy the beauty of the world around me but don’t really create, I’m more of a beauty scavenger who is weak in composition, balance, and colour. I feel a need to create but don’t have the skills or talent to draw or paint so pointing a machine in the general direction of what tickles my eyes is the best I can do. I enjoy it, so I keep doing it. I find that when I frame something within another, I’m paying more attention to composition and things tend to work out better. I’m in awe of you guys who can imagine something and transfer it to a mediun with just ink or paint.

  • Dave Farmer

    I whole heartedly agree with on the Subway marketings shots deal. I recently purchased a Burger King Double Max Wopper Extreme Delux megadeal Plus…or whatever it’s called, based on the juicy looking food in the photo. What I got was a slimy slice of meat between limp slithers of bun and warm non-crunchy salad. The poor burger sat in its polystyrene container like a puppy dying of pneumonia.

    I think art is the final product, what we see and experience rather than the actual process itself. If that were the case then an audience would have to sit around an artists studio for hours or days watching the artist create.

    • HoaiPhai

      Food photography really bugs the snot out of me but I cannot decide if the fast food industry’s exhaltation of their product by making it so much larger and fresher than life, or fine cuisine’s taking a scallop with three stalks of asparagus balanced on top in tee-pee fashion and trying to make it look “fun”, “haphazard”, or, even worse, like a sculpture are the worst offenders. For example, when McDonald’s arrived in Montreal when I was a kid, my friends and I shot down to try it out. We ordered their cheapest burgers and were shocked at the puny size that was insufficient to quell the hungers of four guys with Adolescent Tapeworm Syndrome… the burgers were more like what we call “sliders” now. By the way, isn’t McDonald a Scottish or Irish name? So how come we never see McHaggis or McStew on the menu?

  • jennygoth

    i love watching my daughter work and i can see how much effort and enjoyment she puts into it your images are great from start to finish xxjen

  • The Good Greatsby

    I can understand photography purists feel they need to make up a philosophy to support what is and isn’t art when they spent so much time developing skills that they feel technology is duplicating or making obsolete. But is the goal to make the best art possible within established and old techniques or is it to make great art while constantly thinking outside the box and developing new techniques? I think the goal should be creativity and that’s always made more difficult if you’re given restrictions.

    • HoaiPhai

      And there we have it… you’ve encapulated in your comment what I struggled to say in my “trimmed-down” to 1300+ word post! McLuhan’s view that “The medium is the message” is held by a lot of people who miss out on a lot of good content when they reflexively throw out the bag it’s carried in. I just find it surprising that photographers, whose art is very technology dependant, would equate artistic merit with a limited repertoire of technique or level of technology. After all, you’re likely to get a better picture from Ansel Adams armed with a 5 megapixel cellphone camera than me with a 2,800 megapixel technical camera. On the other hand, even the purists would agree that were Adams to shoot with both those cameras, images would no doubt result from both that they would consider art.

  • The Hobbler

    Have you ever heard of Thomas Barbey? https://www.artifactsgallery.com/art.asp?!=A&ID=787

    Each year I buy a calander of his work and cut out the pictures for rotating art exhibits in my hallway. (Yes, I’m cheap, but it really looks impressive). I love those type of photocollages. A photo, painting, or other work that causes an emotional response is, to me, the best art.

    • HoaiPhai

      I’ve never heard of him but I followed your link and he creates great images. His cats remind me of the works of painter Fernando Botero in their faces’ geometry. If you find yourself flush with calendars and are looking for a use for them, we used to wrap Christmas gifts in calendar pages (occasionally even ones without images).

  • Cameron D Smith

    Great comments – really informative and instructional on HDRI treatment – agree completely that art is subjective – in the eye of the beholder – and however you get there is as individual as the result

    • HoaiPhai

      I’m glad you liked the post, Cameron, and the photos on your site show how an individual inputs a lot of him/hershelf into their images. Photographers deal with scenes that are dealt to them and it is the individual’s own perspective on the subject and the manner in which he treats the resulting image is what makes the photos so personal and interpretive.

  • hotelnerd

    Great post. I don’t see why as a matter of art form, judicious use of editing can’t be used to create your vision. George Lucas has been going back to edit and re-edit his films as technology improves, so that he can arguably bring it closer to his original artistic vision (and get us to pay him more money over and over again). I can see why a competition might have strict requirements on what can and can’t be done, but for a regularly meeting photo club that does seem silly. It seems like you should be able to express yourself as an artist in whatever way your medium allows you realistically. I understand placing artificial constraints on your art for the sake of challenge, just to show that you can do it, but that doesn’t mean it has to be done the same way every time for every vision. Good on you for not sticking around for that garbage. Progress isn’t bad just because it’s new and makes old methods of doing things irrelevant. If we had that mentality on everything we’d still be living in caves.

    • HoaiPhai

      You make some great points. I can understand in formal situations where the photographs are used in some expository fashion or in a formal competition where they are constraints in place to level the playing field and to limit subject and/or treatment to make the judging process easier (or to fulfil some ulterior motive, like when the contest’s sponsors would to be able to use submissions for the promotion of their own product). But in the case of a camera club not wanting to look at someone’s work because dodging and burning were done digitally instead of by sticking your hands in the light projected by an enlarger? That’s just silly. I think you’ve touched on something in your reference to relevancy… it’s probably insecurity on the part of the old guard that makes them fear progress but chemistry-based photography, even with its limitations compared to what is possible digitally, will remain relevant as long as the world’s supply of silver halides holds out.

  • Mike Lilly

    I think the key is to not listen too much to what other people say you should be doing, in other words follow your own muse! Easier said than done though. I find myself constrained in a camera club or online critique setting as well, invariably I end up shooting/processing to meet the expectations of others.

    • HoaiPhai

      I agree. What’s the point of having a camera and not using it as one sees fit in the pursuit of self-expression? I can understand if photography clubs set parameters for individual categories of competitions, like stipulating there is a human (or, perhaps, even any animal) as the central subject in submission to collections of portraits, but completely shunning a particular type of digital treatment from all submissions seems unreasonable and closed-minded. Why not just have a “free style” category and have discussions on the merits of the images themselves regardless of the processes that brought them into being?

  • The Hook

    You have a knack for words AND pictures – very rare indeed!

  • elmediat

    From the point of Media Literacy it is all about how different Media have different codes and conventions. Just as painting and older photographic processes continue, so will film photography. It will fill a particular niche that can not be truly duplicated by the digital process.

    • HoaiPhai

      Absolutely. I’ve spent more years shooting film but am increasingly impressed with digital and the amount of control it provides for the kind of stuff I like to do. My “conversion” occurred during my training as a graphic designer where a digital images really make life easier. Film requires a lot of discipline, a fair amount of skill, and a really dark room to exercise control after the image is captured but I’d still like to get my hands on a Minox 8mm, a Hasselblad C, or a Graflex Pacemaker.

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