Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Variations on a Theme

Today's image processing engines provide the photographer with surprising creative latitude.  Ordinarily I apply the tools to create a final image that resembles the scene as it was in front of my lens.  Increasingly I utilize post-processing tools to introduce enhancements infusing the image with elements that help tell a story, communicate my experience at the time or evoke emotional reactions in viewers.

In this post I decided to share multiple approaches I took to process the same original image, flexing the creative muscles I've been tuning in the digital processing gym.  These variations on a theme serve to underscore how 'subjectivity' can easily supplant the 'objectivity' once considered by some to be photography's supreme virtue and and by others to be its major artistic limitation.

I was out shooting on a cold winter afternoon and became intrigued by the complex pattern of interwoven oak branches seen against the flat, blue-gray sky.  My original intent in capturing this image was to create a very graphic image highlighting the rich network of irregular pattern of the branches. My intent was to create an abstract more than an image of tree branches per se. I am a sucker for patterns.

This first image represents the image directly out of the camera, without the benefit of any processing adjustments.

1. Directly from camera
After cropping the frame, opening up the shadows a bit and converting the image to black and white I pretty much had the very graphic image I had originally envisioned (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 'Pre-visioned' graphic image 
As is often the case, the 'prevision' version missed the mark a bit. So I decided to process another image with the intent of creating a more accurate reproduction of the scene that would convey the 'cold feel' of the scene (Fig. 3). In this case a cool blue tone added to the highlights and shadows made a cooler feel; giving the smaller branches a 'frosted' look.

Fig. 3 Cold and frosty
Emboldened by the latitude available to me I decided to try a few other variations on the theme.  I really wanted to try a graphic image that offerd a 'pencil sketch' look and came up with Figure 4. A pretty reasonable success if you ask me.

Fig. 4  Pencil sketch
Emboldened by what I considered to be the success of these variants I decided to try to push the envelop further.  In this case I decided to create a bold, colorful variant of the my pre-visioned graphic original. Although any number of other variants worked to some extent, the version depicted in Figure 5 really spoke to me.  This is no way that this image could be considered an accurate reproduction of what I saw at the time. It is clearly a 'creative' version satisfying a personal aesthetic.

Fig. 4 Fanciful interpretation
Since I was able to create an obvious 'unreal' version I decided to try to create a convincing "real' version that was a completely fraudulent rendition. How about a night shoot illuminated by moon light (Fig. 5)?

Fig. 5 Moonlight

I liked how the moonlight mood worked with the otherwise flat, uninteresting sky of the original.  How about making it interesting by substituting a sunset fell (Fig. 6)?

Fig. 6  Colorful sunset

Interesting, no? How about reaching for the stars (Fig. 7)?

Fig. 7  Milky Way

So there you have it. Seven variations on a theme.  

As photographers we have a responsibility to exercise our craft creatively, yet responsibly.  As viewers of photography we all have a responsibility to appreciate the intent of the artist but also need to recognize the latitude available in the artist's palette and to not blindly acquiesce to any photographic 'reality'.

More on this in future posts.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Just Flush It

Every photographer I know captures images that qualify as "stinkers'.  By virtue of poor concept, poor composition, poor craftsmanship or any combination of the three some images are just crap.  I know that I contribute more than my proportional share to the digital methane burning a hole in the ozone layer of the photographic ecosystem.

Original 'stinker' - I so wanted this one!

'Flushed' version - after hours of 'polishing'

You might think that serious photographers would be discriminating enough to just flush these losers down the digital porcelain throne. But for reasons of pride, lack of self-criticism, unrealistic hope, grand delusion or desperation we often try to make winners of these losers.  We spend hours tweeking the sliders of our processing software hoping that we can buff a great image from a flawed capture.  One leading photographer referred (indelicately, but appropriately) to this process as “polishing turds’.

Even fully aware of the futility of such questionable heroics I find myself having difficulty fighting the urge to “save” marginal images. To compound matters, many popular photography mentors, educators and vendors have developed bundles of presets - ‘development’ recipes - designed to squelch the ‘stink’ of photo ‘bombs’, magically replacing them with usable imagery. These bundles might be considered ‘digital imagery air fresheners.’

To their credit, these gurus caution us that their digital solutions aren’t intended to rescue bad digital captures, nor will they compensate for poor imagery. But these vendors underestimate (or perhaps they know all to well) how delusional we can become with our images and the lengths to which we will go to pull a miracle out of the toilet, so to speak. If truth be told, when used appropriately these ‘extreme’ preset solutions really do come in handy in some tough situations. When it comes to misuse ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ are the problem.

So, what’s my advice? Next time you have an image swirling around the proverbial bowl - just flush it. Rather than wasting time polishing a doomed image use the time saved to go out and capture new, better, ‘stink-free’ images.

Now, if only I can follow my own advice.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

"Non-photographic content"?

After years of familiarizing myself with the technical and compositional elements of photography I am capable of creating quality photographic images.  Abstract photography is my favorite genre. It allows me to create images that are personal interpretations rather than faithful reproductions of the object in front of my camera.

Blind Rage

But I want to go further. I want to make images that are less ‘interpretations’ and more ‘creations’ . I recently discovered a method for doing so using the camera as a ‘tool’ to provide starting material in the creative process.  Like the painter’s canvas or the sculptor’s block, the captured image is only the beginning. As with the canvas or the block, the final product bears little resemblance to its origin. Using this approach I have created a large series of colorful abstracts inspired by 20th and 21st century modern art traditions.

The response to these images has been positive. Yet viewers often ask “Is this really photography and are these really photographs?”  The greatest skeptics come from among my fellow photographers. Since the origin of each image is a photograph (sometimes more than one) I have always considered it ‘photography’. But, I admit that the final images may represent something other than photographs.

Until recently this distinction has been more of an academic than practical one.  But this week 500px, a premier photography hosting site which claims to be home to the best photography on the web, deleted the account of acclaimed light painting photographer Tim Gamble. His banishment came in response to complaints that he was posting ‘non-photographic content’. Despite the fact that Gamble creates 99% of his images in camera, 500px considered his work to be "graphic designs or illustrations".  Neither format is currently acceptable to the 500px photographic community.  In light of this development, the question of what is or isn’t photography becomes more than an academic exercise.

Now aware of Gamble’s banishment I worry about the classification of my new work (I have a 500px account).  I rely heavily on digital darkroom processes when creating images like the one at the top of this post. My work could thus represent an even better example of ‘non-photographic content’ than Gamble’s.

But after thinking about it more I am convinced that, like Gamble, I am creating art.  What you decide to call it or how you decide to define it is of little relevance.

Gamble and I are both artists.

PS: In response to a tsunami of criticism, 500px has restored Gamble’s account.  Phew!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Black and White Spider Award Honors

My image "Linked" was awarded 'Honorable Mention' honors in the Still Life category in the 13th Annual Black and White Spider Awards competition.  The Black and White Spider Awards is the leading international Award honoring excellence in black and white photography.

Linked - Honorable Mention Award, Still Life Category

"Linked" was taken in the old granary building at a friend's farm. Light from a small window illuminated a rugged chain, casting its shadow on the rough hewn wall.  Both chain and wall, complete with its bird droppings, splinters, scratches and rural hieroglyphics, symbolized for me the tough life of farmers. The shadow cast by the soft directional light added musculature to the already tough looking chain as if to drive home its virility and ruggedness.

I'm very proud of this one.

In addition to "Linked", three other of my images were selected as nominees in their respective categories:

HVAC - Nominee, Architecture

Prairie Cumulus - Nominee, Nature

Game of Thrones - Nominee, Abstract

These four were selected from over 6400 entries from around the world.  "It's an incredible achievement to be selected among the best of the 6,404 entries we received this year," said Basil O"Brien, the awards Creative Director.

Sharing in the honors this year were a number of my photography friends and colleagues: Carolyn Knorr, Michael Knapstein, Jim Sterne, Marcia Getto and Michael Rausch. I extend hearty congratulations to you all, and apologies to anyone I may have missed.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Heist on the Road to Arles - Part 2: Adding Insult to Injury

In "Heist on the Road to Arles" (right column) I recounted the details of the theft of one of my images from a recent photography exhibit. As a misguided coping mechanism I adopted the flimsy, delusional rationalization that the theft wasn't all bad since it indicated that the piece was liked and therefore had attained genuine "art" status via its abduction. This sequel is the painful conclusion of that portion of my personal journey along the Road to Arles.

In the weeks since the heist, authorities queried art fences, scourged pawn shops and scrutinized the collections of local art aficionados to no avail. Just as the sting of this painful ordeal was beginning to fade from my memory I received the ultimate call from the gallery to inform me that the piece was most likely lost forever.

The exhibit was not insured either by the gallery or by me.  Who figured a piece of mine would be lifted directly off the wall of a public exhibit venue? Anyway, in the course of the discussion I magnanimously informed the gallery that they need not worry about it, much to their relief.

And then came the insult.

I'm sure it was not intended as such, but a bruising insult it was none the less. You see, in trying to resolve what to do about the loss, the gallery board had discussed possible compensation, deciding to offer to compensate me for my loss - the loss of the frame that is!  After all, the stolen art was 'only a photograph' and it would be easy to make another; "it wasn't like a painting which would be difficult to replace."

I was stunned that the net value of my stolen art was assessed as zero by this crazy compensatory calculus!  As if that weren't bad enough, this valuation (or devaluation as it turns out) even undermined my original rationalization for the theft, causing me to question whether the thief had ever really liked the print in the first place. Perhaps they only wanted the frame! A double whammy!

"Oh the humanity!"

Once I had overcome my shocked incredulity I realized that the insult was far more painful than the original injury. But don't worry. Unlike my patron artist - Vincent, I still have every intention of keeping both of my ears.

This whole experience did give me an idea for my next exhibit though, so it wasn't a total loss.

I plan to just hang empty frames in an exhibit entitled 'Framed'.  Call it 'protest art.'

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

'And the winner is.... Say what?'

9:25pm, Liverpool
Selecting twelve nominees for my 2018 Best Photo of The Year award from over 2500 candidates was daunting but proved to be relatively easy compared with picking a winner.

2018 was an important growth year for my photography as a transition from ‘representation’ to ‘reference’ marked more and more of my work. While evolutionary changes featured prominently in the selection of the final candidate pool (11 of the twelve finalists employed ‘evolved’ capture or processing techniques to infuse the images with emotion, mystery or other emphases referencing my interpretation of the scene rather than merely providing an accurate representation) as well as in the selection of my favorite image from 2018, ‘revolutionary’ progression turned out to be the discrimating factor in the identification of what I considered to be my most important image of the year. So in trying to identify my ‘Best’ image from 2018 I was confronted with the need to pick between the ‘most important’ and ‘my favorite’. 

Or was I? 

After much hand-wringing I resolved the conundrum by making two choices. In short - I cheated. Only the second day of the New Year and I have already cheated!

By way of rationalization, I feel it is important to explain the categorical distinction between ‘Most Important’ and ‘Favorite’ categories since the criteria used to identify the most important image differ significantly from those viewers (including myself) likely apply in the selection of their personal favorite(s).

My Favorite image of the year is “9:25pm, Liverpool” (above).  This long exposure (50 sec) capture was the most and best planned image I’ve ever taken; location, angle, time of day and effect of shutter speed were all carefully considered and refined on site.  The resulting ‘blue hour’ image conveys the vitality of the Albert Docks of Liverpool by revealing the movement of the water, the clouds and the traffic while showing to advantage the bright colors of the Liverpool's illuminated iconic architecture and their reflections in their urban environment. The capture and processing decisions effectively convey my feelings and experiences of that evening, transcending a static view of the location that in earlier stages of my work would easily have qualified for best image consideration.

I consider “Kokopelli” on the other hand, to be my Most Important image of 2018. The creation of this image was far more ‘revolutionary’ than ‘evolutionary’ as it represents a complete fabrication of an image without reference to or interest in the subject of the original photograph.  The original photo (below) served only as the first step in a transformative creative process culminating in a final abstract image conceived entirely from my imagination. While a great image in its own right IMO, ‘Kokopelli’ takes on greater significance as a representative of a large body of unique abstract images created via a similar process of photographic assimilation and transformation inspired by modernist painting traditions. While perhaps not unique to me (though I haven’t discovered others doing the same thing) this approach to photographic art distinguishes my work from the overwhelming majority of other photographers and fine art photography. And it is just the first ‘revolutionary’ act in what I anticipate will be an exciting revolution in my art.

So there you have it. My Favorite and my Most Important images. 

So what is my Best Picture of 2018?  That's up to you ..... as it should be.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Heist On The Road to Arles

'Molten' joins the ranks of other famous stolen works of art

In 1888, determined to be a successful artist, Vincent Van Gogh moved to the small town of Arles in the south of France where he spent the rest of his life in his ‘yellow house’ pursuing his artistic ambitions.  One hundred and thirty years later I find myself on a similar journey of artistic self-fulfillment, albeit on a much less grand scale than that of my adopted patron-artist, the tormented Van Gogh.

Like the Dutchman, I contend with frequent bouts of self-doubt brought on by a lack of confidence, oft times evoked by notable failures. Recently, though, I have managed to reach some minor mileposts on my journey to my personal Arles; testament more to perseverance than talent, but progress nonetheless.

In the past couple of years I have had some of my images not only juried into exhibits, but also had one awarded the Grand Prize for that particular exhibit. I have had images published in magazines and even have had one selected as the cover for a novel (I always look expectantly for my cover photo when in bookstores, but alas the book always seems to be sold out). I have had some success internationally, winning a spattering of distinctions and honorable mentions in prestigious worldwide competitions.  I can now print my own work and get great satisfaction from ‘making art’ that I can actually hold in my hands.  I exhibit frequently and have enjoyed generally positive reactions to my work.  This past year has also seen a modest uptick in sales. Although sales are not my primary objective, having people willing to part with money in exchange for my images is a satisfying surrogate for ‘acceptance’, if not appreciation.  

So, my road to Arles is not without some encouraging milestones. Mind you, these milestones are separated by long stretches of road; road rutted by doubt, caked with the sticky mud of near misses and littered with detours of outright failures. But so far the road signs of progress appear on the road ahead with enough frequency to keep me from abandoning my journey, or from contemplating cutting off an ear. 

Well, yesterday I reached a surprisingly exciting new mile marker on my artistic journey, one suggesting I may be closer to my destination than I had anticipated. One of my framed images (Molten, above) was stolen from the exhibit - clean off the wall! We're not talking copyright infringement or piracy here - this was an outright art heist!!  

If giving up cash to buy an image is a crude indicator of its art-worthiness, someone's willingness to do time for stealing an image must be a sure fire sign that its art. Right?!

I must be getting closer to Arles!