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Nature Thru Photos

More Than                 A Picture    

To Photoshop or Not

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The above barn utilizes HDR and other editing software to enhance the photo.

In general photographers are a pretty docile group. They have more of that artistic personality which may at times make them envious of each other’s work but keep it inside. They all have their own individual flavors of editing and with each year that passes, seems to separate them more and more. One makes Picassos, the other Monet’s and some we won’t mention. If there is one thing that brings controversy and is an explosive discussion it is the question of “to Photoshop or not.” Clubs have broken up over this question and individuals have never joined a club over this question, choosing to go their own way. One group says a photo is a photo and it shouldn’t be doctored in any way. The other says anything goes and leans towards graphic art. It’s a taboo subject that needs to be addressed. Many years ago I had a Nikon 35mm, shot mainly landscapes and liked black and white exposures. I quit taking pictures and then started again a short time ago now with a Canon in a digital format. The world had changed for me. Not only were the cameras more sophisticated but now I had to learn how to edit. I just couldn’t send the roll of film in for processing and wait to see what I got and how much money the bad shots cost me. I used to be more careful taking a shot but I still didn’t know what I was getting. Now I can look at the back of the camera’s led, adjust and click away. I was convinced by others, who were purists that a good shot was required and anyone using Photoshop was cheating. There are even photo contests that require no editing beyond a certain point, although they never really point out what it is. Not knowing how to properly edit I fell into the group of photographers who said no editing. Probably the reason that I fell into this group, even though I wouldn’t admit it was that I didn’t want the other guy having an advantage and I didn’t know how to accomplish effects myself. Three things happened to me that changed my mind 180 degrees. So I will discuss this topic and give my view today. 

The first thing that changed my mind took a couple of years. It was my own lack of software knowledge. Slowly as I gained a feeling of comfort with different software I thought it was great. No longer was it one shot out of a hundred that I could call a keeper. In the beginning I could sharpen, adjust color and do some work on lighting. Over time I kept adding other functions to my abilities. I now can go back and spend time looking at old shots and correct them when at the time I thought they were lost causes. The second thing that happened, at the same time, was reviewing other’s photos in my photography guild. I had to say to myself “wow” on some of their work. There is one thing that each of us has to keep in mind; art is in the eye of the beholder. I could never stand Picasso but I loved Monet.

      It’s interesting sitting at a meeting when we review photographs and listening to the comments. We view an image that has had an effect put on it. Some of us say “I really like it” and others have no real comment. Some images really look best having no effect put on them but with others, the effect is what makes them. It’s interesting when we all take the same photo and work on it individually. It could be a rather ordinary image but out of the group there is always someone who really makes a piece of art out of it. I have also noted that my group is open minded and more are now using effects trying to come up with something different. Now when I see some unaltered photos they also look great. You still need to have a great shot and know how to compose and use such things as leading lines or rules of third. Even some of the photos that break the rules are great shots and on some photos effects tend to make them much better.

The third item that changed my viewpoint was a trip to the George Eastman House. It had the largest impact on me. Every photographer should make a trip to the site, which has one of the most extensive collections of photographs anywhere. Within the house is the history of photography from the beginning through today. I examined the equipment, film media and processing techniques used from the beginning of photography to today but what struck me most was the evolution of techniques used by artists. The important word is artists. Photography is an art and nothing more than a type of media used. Why did it begin? If you go back to an era of 1830 family members did not have a long life. To capture an image of your loved ones an artist would be contracted, to paint in oils, an image of your family members. Not only did the painting cost large sums of money but may have taken weeks to create, therefore only the wealthy could afford the time and money. 

To reduce the cost and time miniatures were created in lockets to be worn in remembrance of loved ones. See above. With the advent of photography miniatures could be created of family members not requiring the time or the high costs.

Although the time and costs were more in line with what an individual could afford the quality still had something to be desired.  The images were technically correct having a true image and not an artist’s interpretation of the individual. They were bland and colorless. To improve the technique photographers would add water colors to the photograph making it more lifelike.  Now the question arises was this type of image Photo shopped, did other photographers say it is not a true or a real photograph? I don’t think so. I would imagine that many artists copied the technique to improve the quality of the image. Color photography was not available so editing was utilized in a crude form by adding water color. In the last twenty years photography has taken a greater jump than in the first one-hundred and fifty years. In the first one hundred years a photographer was little more than a documentarist. He would capture an image for posterity. 
They were also limited in what they could do for images. Portraits required clamps holding subject’s heads in place and the only landscapes were city buildings that did not move because of long exposure times.

George Eastman’s contribution allowing the masses to take photos did a couple of things. One the use of film technology allowed for quicker shutter speeds and the ability to capture some movement. Two you could only take so many pictures of grandma. People started to experiment shooting everything and the race started. Unfortunately editing was limited, some work could be done while taking the shot with exposures and during developing an image again some limited measures could be accomplished.

Walking through the exhibit I came to the great guru of the purists, Ansel Adams. I examined his work and it was very good. It was great for his period of time. Here was one of the first people to go out and shoot landscapes and the images were shot at some of the great sites in the West. During his period of time equipment was still limited and film was still primarily B&W. He was shooting something different that people had not seen and scenery that did not exist in the East. His work was good but to me I see work today, by other artists, which is as good or better. If you were to take a good photographer from today with today’s cameras and editing and put him in the same spot he would do as well or better than Ansel. Now this is what the purists point out as great photography unaltered with no Photoshop. So was Adams one of the biggest “cheaters” of his time? He would use any means available to create a great image. He had one of the most extensive selections of filters one could own. Why use filters for B&W images? He was trying to create effects and bring out the best contrast he could achieve. When he developed his negatives he would spend extensive lengths of time adjusting photos by adding, deleting and manipulating shots. There were not a lot of options but early in his career he softened images later he sharpened. Below is his most famous photo “Moon Over Hernandez”.

Notice the image before and after editing. He used dodging and burnishing to remove the light clouded sky, darken it, and he enhanced the moon itself to bring out the face. Today some would call this cheating. Ansel Adams was an artist and used any means he could to enhance his work. The difference was he only could affect about 10% of the shot because of the technology at that time but he utilized as much as he could. He did not like color because Kodachrome faded and Ektachrome looked unnatural. The few color images he took were typically with Polaroid film which he liked. A good article to read was an interview Playboy magazine held with Adams. It is available on line. He thought future technology was going to be a great thing but died before it became widely available. I did think he was also a little biased. It was ok for him to edit in fact he said if he made five copies of a print over time none of the copies would be the same. He thought artists like Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell would never be popular because they took too much liberty with their work. So Ansel Adams was a great artist. He started with great raw images and enhanced them to achieve works of art. Yes, you do have to start with good techniques and a great scene.

Some of the other early photographers who pushed the limits, at their time are shown below. Were these Photoshopped? Sure in their own way.

 John Heartfield; ” Dialogue at the Berlin Zoo” 1934

Alexander Rodchenko “ Montage” 1923

Karel Teige “Montage” 128b

Through the timeline of photography numerous types of media have been utilized to print images. Various types of paper, leather and metal have been used. Ansel Adams thought his work should only be copied onto gloss paper. Today the types of paper available are countless. It may take a trial on different paper to find the best match in your eye, creating the best effect.

So what is my conclusion? It’s a free country or at least it used to be a free country. From the beginning of photography artists used what editing was available to them. Photography is an art form and nothing more. Like oil paintings it could be in any form or style. It is up to the artist to determine what he wants to do, as long as it satisfies himself and possibly no one else. Like today in this country one group wants to dictate what another group should do. One should achieve the best raw photo they can accomplish and improve upon it through editing. Few of us will become millionaires from our photos so do what you want to do. Be creative and push the state of the art. If in 1905, an edict were put out that no one was able to drive anything but a Model “T” imagine where we would be today although an Edsel never achieved any popularity. Who knows fifty years from now what we will look back at and say what art in photography is. Anything is acceptable as long as you like it and don’t let anyone tell you that an image has to stay untouched but also realize that some images may look best untouched. Editing and creating a look is fine.

Credits due to:

Ansel Adams, Karel Teige, Alexander Rodchenko, John Heartfield and Playboy Magazine.

Paul Anderson

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