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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

'Bums out of Photographers...'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Two photographs of which I am proud look for all the world as if they had been made on the computer.

Both images were made from the water, in the fog, which probably accounts for their mystery.

The first photograph, of the huge carcass of a finback whale washed up onto the beach of Lubec, Maine, is from my book Down East Maine/ A World Apart . The second photo, of a traghetto making its way across the Grand Canal in Venice, will be in my next book (still in-progress) and tentatively titled Serenissima: Venice in Winter.

I'm proud of these photographs for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that I had the wit to make the pictures at all. For the whale shot, I decided to leave the handful of other tourists and gawkers on the beach and actually wade into the water in my high boots to make a picture from the reverse angle, as a few ghostly and tiny figures approached the whale from the distance. The thick morning fog, I knew, would obscure the horizon and make the whale appear to be floating. The approaching men would only emphasize the whale's huge size.

For the traghetto picture, I was on one of Venice's ubiquitous water buses, or vaporetti, trolling for nighttime images with Judy, my wife and partner – and for this project, my collaborator as well. The evening fog only added to Venice's magic and, as we approached a brightly lit traghetto stop, I put my Leica to my eye (with the lens wide open) and made ready to shoot the tiny vessel as it made its way across the canal just as we passed.

I remember panning just slightly as I shot, probably at 1/15th or 1/30th of a second, with Ilford Delta 3200.

The traghetto shot, like the one of the whale, has iconic elements within it, which I like. Even if a traghetto is not strictly a classic gondola (a traghetto being a smaller version of a gondola and far less elegant) the photograph fairly screams Venice, especially foggy, mysterious, romantic Venice.

So too in the other picture, the whale, in its desolate isolation, exemplifies the isolation of Eastern Maine from the more crowded, tourist-haunted places to the south. With the distant arrival of the men in the background, there also is a hint of the forthcoming drama: how the hell will they deal with this thing? [For the record, at low tide they dug a huge grave and buried the whale where it lay.]

I can imagine someone approaching me (or have they already? – frankly, I can't recall) asking how I "did" the whale picture. Only the question would not pre-suppose my capturing the moment in real time. Rather, it would assume I put the elements together after the fact – or at least digitally obscured the horizon line – to make the scene look more surreal than it actually was.

Likewise, someone looking at the Venice shot might conclude that the elements are too perfect: that I must have added something – the fog, perhaps? A little atmospheric blurring to the two figures in the boat? – to make the shot work as well as it does.

This is yet another reason I view digital manipulation, especially the comparatively effortless tweaking one can achieve in Photoshop, with very mixed feelings.

As bluntly as I can state it, Photoshop is a hell of a tool that also can cheapen and devalue photography – as a craft, as a profession, as an art.

Those who follow this space will see that this is the fourth straight column I've written about Photoshop and digital manipulation. I'm not trying to be a Johnny-one-note, though I can understand those who might view me as one. However, the issues raised by this remarkable – and still very new – technology deserve, if not demand, examination from a number of different angles.

So I hope you will bear with me – and send me your feedback.

Modern news photography underwent a huge change from the mid-1930s to the mid-60s, as huge leaps in technology changed the tools that people used to cover news. The old hand-held view camera, the venerable 4x5 Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic, gave way in the postwar years to the twin lens Rolleiflex – a much smaller, easier to use machine that used roll film instead of 4x5 film holders. Finally, inevitably, the 35mm "miniature" camera – tiny Leicas and other such cameras during World War 2, and especially the landmark Nikon F SLR that came out after the war – swept away everything and every format that had come before.

Modern photojournalism was born.

But there were some old hands who bristled at the fact that a generation of newer, younger photographers was elbowing them for room, never having had to learn to load a 4x5 film holder, or, in the era before motor-drives, had to wait until exactly the right moment to try to nail a shot. To make matters worse, some lamented that the 35 mm camera was making things too easy even for the veterans.

Declared one crusty Washington veteran, now long dead:

"The 35mm camera made bums out of photographers and photographers out of bums."

I hope the same will not wind up being said about Photoshop.

I fear this because the very thing that makes photography unique – its ability to capture real world events in real time – can be compromised, diminished, or at least called into question, by Photoshop and the new digital technology.

It used to be that, glaringly crude manipulations and doctoring aside, the mere fact that something was a photograph lent it a certain credibility and verisimilitude. Had it been published 30 years ago, for example, my whale picture would have been viewed as a hell of a shot of a real event. Now, however, because of its own magic, Photoshop by its mere presence, can diminish the impact – the magic – of the real thing.

That's one reason one of the greatest Italian photojournalists alive, Gianni Berengo Gardin, recently published a 50-year retrospective of his glorious work with the prominent disclaimer that nothing he showed had been manipulated by computer.

That Berengo Gardin felt compelled to even have such a disclaimer in his book says volumes about the impact of digital manipulation and its pervasiveness in the public's mind.

I will concede that my reservations and public bellyaching about Photoshop ring hollow in the area of fine art photography. Haven't photographers been bending reality for decades, and don't they deserve the right to use any tool that best helps them achieve their vision?

Yes and yes.

But even here, Photoshop takes something away from the very craftsmanship that makes a well-wrought photograph a thing of beauty.

A few years ago, one of the most respected photo dealers in New York told me that, lovely, dramatic and archival though computer-generated bxw Iris prints on watercolor paper may be, his clients always would prefer bxw platinum/palladium prints [made on the same paper] simply because they genuinely are one of a kind and are made by hand.

Maybe my friend and colleague Tom Beck, curator of photography at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is right. His view, offered only half in jest, is that the more Photoshop and related technologies push computer-assisted photography into the forefront, the more old-time methods like archival silver printing will be viewed as "antique" processes, and therefore able to command higher prices for the resultant prints.

That having been said, maybe I should get back into the darkroom and help finance my retirement.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
I made this totally unmanipulated shot on the town beach in Lubec, Maine, knowing that the morning fog would obscure the horizon and make it appear as if the dead whale were floating. Today, I probably could have constructed a similar shot in Photoshop and never have gotten my feet wet.

©Frank Van Riper
Can a picture have too many perfect elements? Here, in Venice, the boat, the fog, the night, the water – even the ambiguous blurry figures – contribute to a wonderful, mysterious whole. It's enough to make one wonder if I helped the process along electronically.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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