To Tweak Or Not To Tweak: What constitutes good Art photography?

Photography and post production are two parts of a skill set that can result in fortifying a creative concept when it comes to achieving beautiful imagery. Or so some would have you think.

Traditionally photography was always about capturing the moment. The emphasis was on the act of using the camera as a tool to record the exposure. To do that effectively,  a science process was employed. Measuring the light combined with correct film development made photography a two-part equation: a) exposing the film material and b) developing the film and print materials.bjo

In CNN’s blog titled, ‘Art photography: When ‘reality isn’t good enough’ writer Ashley Strickland talks about the rise of digital manipulation in photography and infers the question, ‘What constitutes art when it comes to photography?’ Strickland interviews commercial photographer David Allen Brandt.

From Brandt’s point of view, a photographer should try to make an optimal image in camera, that is to say, when shooting the subject matter. Years ago before digital memory cards replaced films such as Kodachrome and TriX,  the professional photographer distinguished him or herself from consumer photography with the use of extensive lighting knowledge.

Pedestrian or ubiquitous photographic works today flood the visual landscape. It’s hard to decipher if the image maker is a professional – someone who makes income from their works, and more importantly, if they are good.

From what appears as original photography seen on Facebook or Tumblr,  I might call pedestrian photography. I mean ‘pedestrian’ in the sense of frequent and over abundant snapshot-like photos. I do not mean to diminish the quality unecessarily, but to emphasize the quantity of photographic works that have resulted since the impact of digital apparatus, cameras and computers. The use of software technologies to enhance what might otherwise be a straight forward image, has also contributed to a proliferation of imagery.

The question then becomes, as Strickland so simply states, “What happens (to photography) when you can do anything?”

That question implies: manipulating a photograph changes the inherent representation, (and I say this questionably), of what, reality? I think the writer refers to what is understood in a general sense, that an unmanipulated image, like a quick snapshot, appears as an unbiased recording of a moment.  But this too I find questionable because any image whether intended to be unbiased or not, is taken from the point of view of the taker and therefore somewhat subjective.

Isn’t the point of any creative visual endeavor to pursue the limits of the medium in a manner that bests explores the intent of the maker?

Initially what piqued my interest in Strickland’s article was the title, ‘Art Photography: When ‘reality isn’t good enough’ because it seemed to say, photography which is perceived as a medium that captures reality, is in fact misleading. I think the point being made was that straight, unmanipulated photography is a more accurate record of capturing what appears to be real, as opposed to images that are obviously manipulated. That would have been a more accurate statement.

This is made clear in the popular Instagram app. Take for instance these two images below. The first image is taken through the Droid mobile device with no adjustments made to the exposure.

In the second, the same image is manipulated using the Instagram app.  Does one image appeal more to the eye than the other? Does the use of the manipulation make the source image seem less interesting in comparison?

Both images are neutral subject matter. Some would say the 2nd is more interesting because the contrast is deeper, resulting in an overall effect of drama.

Would you say if using software increased the interest level of an otherwise boring image, and is just part of employing a processing workflow? Or do you think relying on software defeats the purpose of getting good images in camera?

The tools one uses to get to an end result, I think, is a personal choice, similar to that of framing a view with camera in hand and making selective decisions when to click the shutter. That is just as personal a choice as using Photoshop or Instagram. I don’t think relying on any one tool is going to be the answer to making better pictures overall. A combination of composition, lighting, and tweaking are all ok to use as long as you, the image maker, is pleased with the result.

What do you think – to tweak, or not to tweak? Should there be rules that define what constitutes art in photography?

Photography: Darkroom vs. Digital

One of my favorite activities is photography. If I have a camera in my hand I can lose myself  to a free flow of thoughts. By looking at things I quiet down from the internal stream of messages of things I should be doing to what I’m doing – now.  It helped to read ‘Be Here Now’ by Alan Watts where I became aware of how a distracted mind can be anti- productive.

This proved to be a good practice for me. Photography is a stress buster while at the same time, a challenge. To endeavor to make good images you have to have some idea of how to work the camera and perhaps what it is you’d like to accomplish visually.

When I’m on an assignment for a story, the main subject is pre-determined. What isn’t scheduled is what the subject will do. My strategy when documenting an event is to observe what happens, shoot and interpret later.

When it comes to self-assignments or art photography it’s a completely different approach. Starting out with a blank canvas, you have to determine everything up front – what will the photo consist of?  Will it be a person, an object, an abstract, and what mood will it convey?

I recently discovered Matt Wisniewski, a digital collage artist whose work intrigues me. Wisniewski’s uses a composting method that layers different imagery together. Years ago before digital, this type of work was created using very labor intensive manipulations in the darkroom via multiple exposures by Jerry Uelsmann, a master of photo montage. In a December, 2011 interview appearing in The New York Times Lens Blog with James Estrin, Uelsmann said it takes days to make one print. That would be after a cumulative time editing different negatives from different days of shooting. Adding up all the time curating the pieces that make up the whole, one image can take much longer.

Using either digital and darkroom techniques takes time to create a finished image. I think it’s interesting to see the results of both in comparison to each other.

‘Symbolic Mutation’ 1961 ©Jerry Uelsmann
Wreckage Series ©Matt Wisniewski

Does knowing what goes into making a work add anything to the resulting image or influence your regard for the image? Here are two images of similar subject matter – do you have a preference?