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Mail Bag: Photoshop & 'Weak Fundamentals'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Despite my intemperance about Photoshop ["...Photoshop is a hell of a tool that also can cheapen and devalue photography – as a craft, as a profession, as an art..."] I was surprised to see, in the e-mails I received on the subject, that the majority of you seem to agree with me.

The views I got in response to various columns about this remarkable imaging tool were striking because your comments came from so many different perspectives: from that of the seasoned pro to that of the comparative beginner; from the dyed-in-the-wool large format film user to the ex-film user who has gone totally digital.

Your responses were as simple as a few paragraphs to, in one case, a long, thoughtful (and as yet unpublished) essay from writer/photographer David B. Jenkins.

In essence, you seemed to share my own huge misgivings about the effect Photoshop can have, not only on how photography itself is viewed as an art form and as a documentary medium, but also on how it can dull a photographer's own skills and perceptions – in effect turning a discerning, thinking visual documentarian into an almost robotic visual vacuum cleaner, sucking up all manner of picture information for possible use or manipulation later.

Importantly, the reservations you voiced had almost nothing to do with digital photography, or on digital's impact on traditional film. That's a whole separate issue. Suffice to say; the folks who took the time to e-mail me from all over the country (and parts of Canada) were aware of Photoshop's potential for abuse, whether or not they themselves shot film or digital.

"As an amateur photographer I don't have the time/patience to gain the skills necessary to create a fine print," declared e-mailer Doug Howk. "I take short-cuts – film scans manipulated in Photoshop – that help cover sloppy technique. But it's all too easy to go down the digital road; and it's becoming ubiquitous..."

Howk recalled how at his local camera club, judges [who as far as I'm concerned should know better] kept remarking during slide and print competitions how images "could be improved in Photoshop – remove a branch, flip an image, etc..."

I could not help but think about all the times I have judged camera club competitions and how I would sooner cut off an arm than tell someone to artificially manipulate a picture. How many times have I echoed what photographer Jay Maisel told me and my fellow students in a Maine master class so many years ago: "You are responsible for everything in your frame." The implication, of course, is that you, as a photographer and (gulp) as an artist, have a responsibility not only to look but to see, and to be aware of that errant twig, phone line or foot before you make a picture. That's an important part (arguably the most important part) of being a photographer.

Photographer John McDermott echoed this point in his own e-mail:

"We all choose what to include or exclude in our compositions, just as we sometimes choose not to push the button when just as easily we could. But one thing that really disturbs me is that there seems to be a growing population of younger photographers who are not so concerned about making the 'negative' as perfect as it can be because they know they can deal with imperfections and unwanted content after they take the picture.

"In other words, one consequence, unintended I'm sure, of the success of Photoshop has been an actual decline in the basic technical competence of photographers – what a baseball coach might refer to as 'weak fundamentals.' And I think that is not a good thing, if only because it encourages sloppy work and the attitude that you can always 'fix it later in PS.'"

Lest you think I am going to cast out Photoshop as a tool of Satan, I should note that I retain my view that it is, in fact "a hell of a tool." But only a tool. A tool to help you as a photographer achieve your vision, not necessarily to create one out of whole (electronic) cloth. Anyone who wants to go that route is welcome to do so with my blessing. Only here I echo correspondent David Jenkins: "...don't call it photography!"

But what of the pros who have been using PS, especially those, like my friend and colleague Paul F. Gero, who began his career as a photojournalist shooting film every day in Washington for the Chicago Tribune?

Simple: Paul loves it – bigtime. But note how his comments refer to Photoshop's ability to get the most out of an existing image, not to its ability to change the stripes on a zebra, or to move one of the great pyramids of Egypt.

"Glad to hear you're beginning to explore the power of Photoshop," Paul wrote from his new stomping grounds in Ladera Ranch, California. "I hope you're on version 7 because it is amazing...the healing brush alone makes it worth the price of admission."

[Tech Alert: the following is a bit of geek-talk that I understand, well, for the most part. More adept PS users than I likely will find it very helpful]...

"One trick I have learned is to convert a photo to 16 bit and do my levels adjustment (even if it's a JPEG image that opens in Photoshop as an 8 but file.) You'll be able to do your levels adjustment and unless [the image] is really blown [out] or under[exposed] this will help preserve pixel information.

Convert back to 8 bit to do your levels and masking."

[End Tech Alert]

Paul noted that he is "totally into using layers to create areas that I paint back and also darken...the control and precision is amazing...long gone are the days of the old homemade dodging tools and HOPING to get the dodge exactly right with each subsequent print."

Here, I only can echo my friend. I was simply amazed at Photoshop's ability to act as a "dry darkroom." Good though I am as a black and white printer, I must concede that I never have had such precise control over dodging and burning-in as I have had in Photoshop. In fact, Photoshop may be the way to realize one of my fantasies for a great invention (the other one being for a dog toilet – but that's another story).

I long have wondered about a way for a traditional enlarger to record dodging and burning-in information, store it, then somehow use that information to automatically duplicate a traditional photographic print – over and over again.

In Photoshop, one can create the precise effect one wants (using layering to gradually build the final image) then press a button to create multiple, identical digital prints.

Only here, I would output the final image to a perfect negative, so I could then create gelatin silver prints in the darkroom – without the hassle of repeated dodging and burning. The only drawback so far, is a medium that will create a truly fine-grain negative. If it's not already out there, I suspect it will be.

It is heartening to me, a documentary photographer and journalist, to realize that I am not alone in worrying about Photoshop's insidious effect on photography's ability to record the real. "Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened," notes writer/photographer David Jenkins. "It revels in the beauty, the mystery and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created."

So why muck things up with Photoshop?

Part of the problem may be in the nature of photography itself. Remember: photography is among the youngest of the arts – barely more than a century and a half old – and when this "art of fixing a shadow" became widely disseminated among the public its effect was profound, even disturbing.

"Uniquely among the arts, photography seems unable to be accepted for itself by its own practitioners," Jenkins maintains. "It is the redheaded stepchild of the arts, unloved by those who should love it most..."

"Since it rendered three-dimensional reality in two dimensions on a flat surface, photography soon came to be regarded by painters and critics as a form of drawing, albeit inferior because it was achieved by mechanical and chemical means."

For years, photographers, especially those in the Pictorialist school, tried their damndest to make their photos look like paintings – toning the bejeezus out of them, scratching negatives to mimic brushstrokes, etc.

Is it any wonder that some photographers today simply can't leave well enough alone and choose to rely on the dubious crutch of Photoshop to compensate electronically for what they lack photographically?

Some, but by no means all.

"It confuses some people that I still can't cozy up to digital cameras yet...but [that] I'm absolutely mad for the digital darkroom," notes e-mailer Barrett Benton. But Benton notes, he loves his computer "not as an absolute replacement for the wet darkroom...but as a beautiful adjunct to it.

"And, like you, I tend to regard Photoshop as a transcription device for my negatives and transparencies since photographs are, to me, part of memory and, to loosely quote [photographer and teacher] David Vestal, they will remember certain things better than I'm likely to, from here on out..."

From his note, it is obvious Barrett is a serious printer, both wet and dry, and it is just as obvious that he revels in the process. "As you get your sea legs, as it were, with PS, I predict you will have a ball [too]" Barrett told me. I suspect he may be right.

Interestingly, Barrett Benton continues to shoot film almost exclusively, not necessarily because film is better than digital, but because this allows him to keep his options open.

"I can work with my images 'wet' or 'dry'," he notes, adding: "And there really are days when I don't want anything to do with a computer monitor in my face."

[My sincere thanks to all of you who wrote to me on this important subject.]

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.


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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