Monday, January 11, 2010

The Digital Photography Revolution, or The 'If You Give A Mouse A Cookie' Spiral

     It all starts with the switch to digital.  Photography, always an expensive proposition for hobbyists and professionals, is suddenly available to the masses with a seemingly more reasonable initial investment.  No more costly film labs, no more delayed gratification waiting for those prints to get developed.  If you are a do-it-yourselfer, no more smelly chemicals or hours on your feet in a darkroom.  No more pressure to get it right the first time.  No more counting seconds, retouching with a paintbrush, dodging, burning, filtering,  bleaching, rinsing, standing, agitating, drying, waiting...  For many, digital photography is the streamlined solution.  The act of photographing can be just as fun and rewarding as it was before, but without the lengthy post-processing hassle that goes along with film photography.  Its easier, its cheaper, and you can do it all sitting down in your comfy, lumbar-supporting office chair -- with the lights on!  What's not to love?!  
     With all of the major advancements taking place in photographic technology today, photographers face some very difficult decisions.  How much computer editing or digital manipulation is too much?  When do your image files stop being photographs and start being collages?  Just because you can do something with your commendable level of computer savvy, does that mean you should?  
     When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was 'If You Give A Mouse A Cookie'.  For those who aren't familiar with the story, it features an energetic and demanding mouse who is offered a cookie and then requests a glass of milk, which naturally, is expected to accompany a cookie.  Once he receives his milk, he has a new related request, which leads to another related request, which leads to another related request and so on and so forth until he sufficiently overstays his welcome by demanding too much and completely exhausting his host.  My concern is that the more we allow for the infiltration of what is digitally possible into what we classify as 'photography' the more we will need to allow in the future.  Digital brightening of an image begets contrast adjustment, begets color and saturation adjustment, begets spot removal, begets removal of distracting telephone poles, or birds, or people, and on it goes until... this, or this, and while they're both really cool, they're not really real.  
     Digital manipulation has become such a regular way of life in approaching photography that the French government  is working on a law to feature disclaimers on photoshopped advertisements, fearing that its population's self esteem is based on fabricated images of beauty.  Many portrait photographers and digital photo-labs offer levels of service based on how much physical alteration their clients would like.  Removal of braces, wrinkles, or extra weight from the holidays can be purchased for an hourly photoshopping rate.  Two years ago my Dad's side of the family (all 35+ of us) gathered on a beach in Cape Cod for a family portrait.  We were photographed by a well-reviewed photographer who seemed to pay very little attention to the light levels, location of the sun, direction of the wind, or overall composition within the beach environment.  He told us that he would photoshop out any issues in the environment, and if anyone blinked he could "trade heads" from another shot.  How confident have we gotten in our skills as digital manipulation artists to become so lazy at the time of shooting?  Perhaps a better photoshopper would have been able to perform the head-trade trick successfully, but I have to say that one of my cousins had a definite Exorcist appearance from the neck up.        
     So how do we keep up with the times, the trends, the technology without selling our souls to our computers?  How do we maintain our credibility as photographers -- in the original definition of the word -- without losing clients or opportunities to those with fewer scruples on the subject?  There's no easy answer. The purity of photography is relative.  I may consider myself to be a purist, but to someone who is a die-hard tintype-er I'm about as authentic as Disneyworld.  We can only hope to please ourselves with our art, making small concessions to the tide of constant advancement in photographic technology, and hope that what we stand for is enough to set us apart from the rest.
      Below I have included my first few photoshop efforts  in the burgeoning tide of HDR.  As digital collages, I find them appealing and compelling.  There is something to be said for the beauty of an HDR image.  But as my father so succinctly put it yesterday when I asked his opinion of these images, "they're not photography."

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