By John Lehet
I've been doing Buddhist practice for about as long as I've been doing photography—a long time. I took them both very seriously a long time ago, and I'm quite immersed in both again in this decade. And it's funny, they both have the some of the same effects and are synergistic with each other. What photography reveals to meditation, and meditation reveals to photography is the same: little of what passes for ordinary reality is real; it's all ephemeral illusion. No photograph is real. Looking right at something without any camera around is very seldom getting close to grasping reality either. We are lost in our thoughts and our ideas of the world, and we so rarely see it. The camera sees something, and records it. Is the exposure reality? Are we getting closer to understanding what's real when the image is straight? I don't think so. I think we go farther astray.
Twenty-five years ago I was only shooting with a view camera, and I carried sheets of infrared film as well as Tri-X. I'd studied technique; I knew a thing or two about making a good print, which meant manipulating tonal values. As a good printer I knew that almost any print was a departure from a straight print by the time I had done my Zone System work on the negative chemistry and burning and dodging on the paper. Since the infrared sheet film so rarely worked out in those days, I always exposed a sheet of Tri-X for a given subject if I bothered to set up the camera for infrared. Sometimes the IR exposures were unreal. But sometimes at their best looked more "real" than the Tri-X, more accurately conveying the luminous vibrance that I can experience from foliage and light.
The barn photo was made on infrared sheet film in 1981. I used to print it on silver chloride paper, and then tone it heavily in selenium. The split toning effect sometimes was a good thing—Olivia Parker made at least one beautiful portfolio of contact prints using this technique way back. Now I still use this technique, but I use a Photoshop layer instead of the long selenium soak. It was spring, and the grass and foliage was new and practically glowing. I was only shooting black and white then.
The maple tree (top picture) also was made on 4x5 sheet film in the late '80s. The light was changing and a storm moving in. Both of these infrared shots convey the luminosity and intensity of the scene much better than the regular film counterparts. Both actually need a bit of work to be printable, especially the maple.
The jawbone is straight, 4x5 Tri-X (or was it Plus-X?). There is a little bit of burning to get the tones of the foreground in line with the image.
Now I'm shooting digital. Are my images any less real? Were my straight photos any less strange or unreal?
A good photographer is an artist, unless he or she is just a good photographer hired to document architecture or horticulture—and even then there's room for art. What being an artist might mean is too long for this post, but it means something far different from "stenographer of straight, unadulterated reality." Perhaps through vision and technical skill the photographer can convey some reality. Hopefully the reality communicated by a good photograph resonates much more depth in the human heart and spirit than the merely clear and accurate portrayal of some subject in front of a lens. The distinctions of "straight" and "digital" are not helpful, I think, compared to the bigger questions of what makes a good photograph and other questions of how technique and vision work together to create one. Or the bigger questions of what is real, and what might be real in a photograph. I mean really real, from a human perspective. How we resonate with our world, and create it with our minds.