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Slouching Towards Photoshop

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The funny thing this summer was to hear folks' reaction when I told them I was taking a course in Photoshop.

"Taking a course?" they would say, "you mean you're not teaching it?"

Ah, the simple, childlike faith of friends.

Just because I'm a professional photographer who also has spent a fair amount of time behind a lectern spouting off about this and that, my friends naturally assumed that I was up to speed, and perhaps even expert, in the use of this wildly popular, incredibly complex, photo-editing computer technology.

But in this aspect of modern photography I was chronically, pathetically, weak. In fact, if you were to put me on the hot seat and ask what I did know about Photoshop, I could echo Sergeant Shultz in the old "Hogan's Heroes" TV program:

"I know nussing!"

Never mind that, in my capacity as a photography writer, this was getting embarrassing. In fact, I did know one thing: that as a commercial photographer, ignorance of Photoshop was becoming not only foolish, but a business liability.

So when my friend and colleague Leslie Bowman, whose work you read about here last week, notified me that she was teaching an intense week-long Photoshop workshop at the University of Maine at Machias, where she is an assistant professor of art, I signed up immediately – even if it meant that I had to spend a week of my summer cooped up in a computer lab.

Was it worth it? Am I a Photoshop expert now? Yes to the first; no to the second. At most I'm like a new driver with a learner's permit. I have a reasonably good idea where the controls are; I have woefully little experience using them.

Leslie's information-packed, tightly organized, yet delightfully informal, class gave me a firsthand look at the amazing tools the then-current incarnation of Photoshop, Photoshop 7, afforded even a novice student like me. Within two days, I was transforming photographs in ways I never imagined.

Which, of course, is both the blessing and the curse of Photoshop. For all of its ability to create mind-blowing imagery, it also is the means by which too many people can produce hideously ugly pictures with far too little effort in far too little time.

I should know; I produced my share of them. But I also was able to produce a fairly slick-looking poster for a talk Judy and I were to give about our Venice book project – as well as a first-rate (if I do say so myself) interpretation on watercolor paper of "Fernshadow," one of my favorite black and white nature photographs from Maine.

Still, I think it is fair to say that I never will know enough about Photoshop to use it to its full potential. But that's fine. In fact, I am told that hardly anyone can do this, so powerful and wide-ranging is this electronic tool. I take the following as gospel, from author Gregory Georges, in his excellent, user-friendly book, 50 Fast Photoshop 7 Techniques (Wiley Publishing, $34.95, including CD):

"Photoshop is – big – way big! It can take years for professionals who work with it all day long, every day, to become proficient with it – and then there are still many features that they do not know how to use or may not [even] be aware [of]! If I had to make a single recommendation about how to quickly learn to successfully use Photoshop 7, it would be to learn all about a few features that you need to use to get your work done – and ignore the rest."

In talking to Leslie Bowman early on in the workshop, she noted that all Photoshop really does is give a photographer the same kind of control over his or her image that I, for example, exercise as a writer when I compose a column or write text for my books.

"It's the word-processing of the image," Leslie said.

Still, over the course of my workshop, given all the palettes, masks, layers, lassos – and the ever-popular Gaussian Blur – available to us first-time Photoshoppers, I couldn't help think of the story one of my Italian aunts told me about working as a young girl on a candy-maker's assembly line in New York.

Sure, the boss said on my aunt's first day, you can eat all the chocolate you want. And so she did, gobbling virtually as much stuff as she packaged.

That night, she thought she would die. After that she hardly ever glommed another chocolate – just as her boss had figured.

Photoshop can be like that. The tools can be so easy to use that proportion and taste fly out the window. Forget the artistic concept that Less is More. Photoshop in inexperienced or unsophisticated hands can fairly shout "More is More" and produce some really awful stuff.

And I am not talking about our class. I am talking about the over-produced, overblown, art-directed to a fare-thee-well images that are all over commercial magazines, newspapers, television and movies. I will forego the chance to riff again on how the computer, and tools like Photoshop, have helped rob photography of its already shaky reputation for truth-telling.

What I will say is that author Gregory Georges' admonition to use only the Photoshop tools one needs can apply as easily to a veteran photographer, art director or illustrator as it can to a novice.

Then there is the fundamental question of how one views Photoshop itself. For a photographer especially, is Photoshop a way to create totally new images from old ones, employing multiple electronic bells and whistles to sometimes questionable effect? Or is it a way to enhance existing images by using technology to get the most "information" out of, say, a slide or a negative?

I have to say the latter path is where I come down.

Interesting though it was to turn photographs inside out and sideways, the real benefit I got from this remarkable week-long class at UMM was to appreciate how Photoshop can be a vital – even thrilling – tool for even a wet darkroom troglodyte like me.

[Next week: the making of "Fernshadow" ]

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
Gathering material for my Photoshop class, I made this slow shutter speed-zoom pic of a tuba-playing musician during a concert.

©Frank Van Riper
Using the Photoshop "Curve" feature, as well as saturation controls, I was able to turn the picture into an image that unhappily calls to mind psychedelic record album covers of the 70s. But, hey, as an exercise it was fun.

©Frank Van Riper
After a day or two, I felt more comfortable with more sophisticated changes. In this unmanipulated original, made at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, I liked the way the woman was standing like a stork.

©Frank Van Riper
Why not have her see some of my work too? Using several tools, including masking and perspective controls, I was able to put one of my floral still-lifes on the museum wall. Perspective controls helped make the picture "hang" more naturally.


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

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Leslie Bowman: Family Album

Bad People, Gizmos and More Airport Grief

FZ-1: A Pro-Level Digital Point & Shoot

Venice and Lubec: The Obvious (?) Parallels

Tight Fit + Offbeat Lighting=Great Shot

Digitally, Now It's Easier Being Green