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Friday, 07 March 2008

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Oh ho- excuse me while I sit back, open my eyes wide and expel a bemused/entertained/slightly stunned "whewwwww" at the combination of photographic knowledge I just gained and the very clear, literally thought-provoking opinion as well.

Thanks for posting, Mike - I had not read that one.

I don't think you could describe my thoughts on lo-fi photography any better if you tried.

[Posted for Rod S.]

Mike,

This article is of the genre that I enjoy most on TOP and regard as your forte: provocative writings on the practice of photography. In this piece you have skilfully assembled, into a coherent argument, observations that have tumbled around in my head only as separate bits. Bravo!

Some years ago I was told by a number of sources that a significant number of commercial photographers constantly chase the latest piece of equipment or technique for the sole purpose of making their work look distinctive. It struck me as sad that these photographers rely on bought gimmicks, rather than on the quality of their seeing. Perhaps quality seeing is rare. Then I wondered if I was guilty of using wide-angles, or colour, or B&W itself, as a gimmick. Thanks again for the food for thought.

Regards, Rod.

Heh, I had a much longer comment partly written in my head, until I got to your postscript.

I think my position at this point is fairly self-contradictory: I'm absolutely opposed to using gimmicks in my own photography... except when I think it makes the photo work.

I'm totally fine with other people doing whatever makes them happy... except that so much of the filter madness popular with some photographers makes me ill.

I'm reminded of my response to watching Massimo Vignelli and David Carson arguing different sides in the documentary "Helvetica": I agreed 75% with both of them, which doesn't add up, but it makes sense in my head.

Mike, great article. So I take it you don't like infrared wedding photo's either. I never saw any of Minors IR stuff, didn't even know he did them. It's time to write a new one on digitally manipulated photos. I do have a problem with gimmick or technique. Applying this to an artist, of which we know there are may kinds. Why can't I apply all the tools of photography to express my thoughts and how I see things whether they are reality or my fantasy.

Mike,

Nice thoughts; as I was reading I was thinking that I agree with a lot you say, and disagree with some. The summation was very enlightening, as you answered some of my disagreements. I dislike infrared, hate is a little too energetic, and cannot understand what is creative about an FX filter, but manipulation is just part of the process, so, like most, I'm contradictory.

What T.O.P. is tops at.

Time to send some more support, but as a self-employed orchestra, it will have to wait for the mythic "check is in the mail, honest". Why do the bills arrive quickly, but that envelope with a check in it has come by way of Singapore?

Well, thanks for dogs.

Bron

Composition is everything.When I see a good composition, I don't see the gimmick used, be it infra-red or fisheye lens or whatever. That is secondary to what the picture is.
Just like in music- remember when the Beatles(or one of them) started incorporating the sitar of Ravi Shankar? The sitar could've been a gimmick; or if blended well, it added to the dimension of the music without drawing selfish attention to itself. So it is with infra-red- the composition should be good to begin with, so the medium adds to the dimension of the picture without drawing attention to its own "gimmickry".
You're giving a good reminder, Mike.
ps I use a lot of infra-red myself!!

Well, as you know, I do make albumen prints, and despite the effort required, part of the attraction is the self-masking property, which they share with other printing out processes. This wasn't of as much use in the days of ortho plates, since they didn't record much of anything in the sky, but with modern films, it means you can take a negative with a very wide contrast range, like a landscape with bright clouds, and maintain good detail in the shadows and the clouds--no grad filters, polarizer, dodging, burning, or contrast masks required.

Color grads--they're kind of interesting sometimes for B&W landscapes, even if they're completely hokey for color. I know one or two other people who use them this way. If you use a tobacco grad to darken the sky in a landscape, you also increase the contrast in the sky without changing the contrast of the land.

Infrared--it's not a bad way to cut through heavy haze, but then it doesn't look like a gimmick. Ansel Adams did this occasionally.

David A. Goldfarb

"What kind of idiot would “ooh” and “ahh” over a visual effect they know is fake? We’re not talking about fiction here. To allow your work to depend on effects is to assume that your audience will be composed of dolts who are too stupid to catch on to your tricks, or too uninformed to realize what’s legitimate and what’s not."

The answer is: one who is aware of artifice and nevertheless appreciates a particular use of it, or a vision that works within it.

I think you're not considering an aesthetic sense that doesn't rest reflexively on a sense of authenticity. Not only that but the language and the venom suggest that you are not only stuck in your own idea of what is authentic -- fair enough -- but you're using that to hit people over the head with it.

It's suspicious that you resort to all of this name calling ("stupid" "idiot" "dolts") and then claim that some ways of working are "legitimate" if only those idiots would realize it. Who's the authority that passes these visual laws?

I'll say here that I'm not in love with many of those effects and "tricks" mentioned, I roll my eyes at a lot of heavy handed effects, and my instinct goes towards black and white, and spare crispness--I loved the picture you featured a few weeks back about Grant's tomb with only a hint of color. But I realize that that is just as much an affectation, a style with its own rules, as anything else. It's just that some people accept those styles as realism because they're more familiar.

Look at someone like Loretta Lux (http://www.lorettalux.de/) who certainly uses tricks to make her work special. Does she display a "disposition to dishonesty"? Well, no, because the viewer has no doubt that this is not exactly real. Maybe that's the fiction that you mention. But I think it's real enough to make an unsettling impression, and interesting enough to include her in a list of current photographers that I like.

Think about Jimi Hendrix and his use of distortion, volume, and effects. It's central to his music. Was it trickery? Sure. But music is show business. So is making things for people others to look at. Think about Bob Dylan playing at being authentic. He's in on the gag, whether or not his audience is, and that tension of him playing with it adds a level of interest.

I think this topic relates well to the dialog about rockism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockist) going on the world of popular music, and even design (http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/design-rockism).
Basically that discussion is about people assuming that one way, rooted in the past and with only the effects available during that golden era, represent the authentic. Check that out a little, if you have a moment. Your essay has points in common with the critique of rockism, such as when you recognize that someone emulating the past in a search for what's authentic is fooling himself. But then you come out guns blazing against people who use tricks. I just don't understand such strong dislike. Some infrared pictures are kind of cool.

Isn't BW conversion - deliberately throwing away about half of the information in your color image - just as gimmicky today?

I'd rather see both IR and BW - and Macro, and micro, and panorama and x-ray, and... - as ways to show or accentuate something you would not normally see; exposing hidden or obscured aspects of our surroundings. BW shows us form over quality; IR shows us the world from a whole different spectrum. It's only gimmicky if it's used unthinkingly to make your pictures "different".

"Isn't BW conversion - deliberately throwing away about half of the information in your color image - just as gimmicky today?"

Janne,
With digital, I photograph in color. Not because of any decision, not because I like it better, but just because it's what the cameras do. If I could buy a B&W-only DSLR I probably would, but as long as the cameras I'm using "see" in color, then I will too.

Mike J.

P.S. Although I will make a confession: I sometimes watch reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" just because I like the B&W cinematography. Whoever lit and shot that show really knew his shit where B&W film is concerned, I'll give him that.

Mike J.

Good read Mike. As my photographic tastes mature I realize that the true uniqueness of photography is capturing and preserving a moment in time. No art form can be so real, so spontaneous and so honest. Matters not what the subject is, if it moves or if it doesn't. Most all the iconic photographs that have obtained fame, at least the ones I can name are simple B&W. Steve Mcurry's "Afghan Girl" is the only famed color icon I can think of. Sure there are famous, talented photographers who shoot color but that's not quite the same. So folks lets throw away that excess Photoshop and give the big one finger salute to HDR. The real moment is here. LOL

Mike, we must be getting old together -- I share your distrust of tricks, including IR, especially those white trees that are undistinguished by anything other than their whiteness -- but I've also come around to the point of view of, "Relax. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean it's a sin."

However, with digital, I'm having trouble deciding what, exactly, constitutes a trick. February 29 was declared "Leica Day," by some members of a Leica forum, and a couple hundred members went out and took a shot and posted it on that day. I took a shot from the I-94 bridge where it crosses the St. Croix River from Minnesota to Wisconsin, of some ice-fishermen down on the river. When I put the image up on my computer monitor, the clouds were completely washed out; I had a sort of 19th Century image of a bunch of ice fishermen, with a white sky. No problem -- just move a slider, and the clouds magically reappeared. The actual clouds, as I saw them...but the photo had to be manipulated (burned in.) Is that a trick? Looked sort of unnatural, to people whose eyes are accustomed to the normal range of exposure...

JC

I second the motion!
You might want to add Holga's and fish eyes lenses to the list.

Please check Mr. Rorslett's work in UV at http://ultraviolet.foto.no and tell me it is just a gimmick.

Technique is what you make of it. IMO the more 'gimmicky' a technique is the tougher it is to produce art from it but when one does the results are worth it.

To add a detail to your postscript: I saw an exhibit of Sally Mann's recent work last summer in Charlottesville, and she has gone to hand-coated glass plates.

I suppose it all depends on whether we want to be an "authentic" photographer (whatever that is) or not.

I live in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. Its flat, empty, and parched brown for most of the year. Coupled to endless blue skies with not a cloud to be seen. Its not the most visually stimulating environment at all. So every now and then I play around experimenting with various techniques (I think Mike you'd see them as tasteless gimmicks) and this seems to revive the ailing and jaded creative in me and its back to business as normal. So to my mind they serve a purpose to help overcome photographers block. Would I inflict these pictures on anyone? Well lets put it this way after 25 years of intermittently playing with IR I've only taken 2 photos which I am happy with.

David Mayer:

"Many photographers do to their photographs what my mother did to her vegetables: they overdo it. And when they do, I most heartily sympathize with the spirit of your post, Mike. However, if such special effects are applied sparingly or at least in moderation, they can add to the flavor (aesthetic appeal) of a photograph."

So in the context of the original subject, were talking something like an M8? ... :-)

Personally I don't mind looking at the occasional IR shot, though I can't see myself ever doing any. Brown skies set my alarm bells ringing. My pet loathing though is HDR.

Didn't Jill Enfield do a lot of Infrared black and white, which she hand colored with oils...the old fashioned way...back in the 90's? She's the only famous photographer I know of who did an extensive body of work on IR, but Mike says there weren't any. I liked her work.

People will experiment with all given technologies, most of it is awfull but eventually all this experimenting will lead to something which will be pleasing to look at.
Personally I find Ansel Adams images very boring, they might be technically perfect, but nevertheless boring.... I would hesitate to call his work "Art" just a well perfomed piece of engineering, no more no less.

Some HDR and IR images are refreshingly new, thank god for that otherwise we would all still be peeking at Yosemite and images of ducks....

.... I would like to add this link, many might know it allready, but I fined these images quite appealing....

http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/cambridge-gallery.htm

"My own position evolved as well; I came to believe that photography is essentially harmless and aesthetics are not intrinsically a moral issue, and therefore people should do any bonehead thing they please as long as they're not hurting anyone."

I'm so glad you added this statement to your postscript. That one sentence gave balance to the rest of the article, and balance is what I've come to expect from your writing, Mike. Many seem to have forgotten that photography is a means of PERSONAL expression, even if I don't care for what is being expressed, or how.

Personally, I have no problem with someone who says, "I don't care for ________ in photographs", or "I have no appreciation for the _______ technique." It's when people try to raise their personal preferences to the moral high ground that I get annoyed. It's the small man that tries to make himself appear more knowledgeable or important by tearing down others or their preferences. Over-saturated colors, star filters, Lensbaby pictures, overly dark B&W's, etc. - none of these are signs of moral deficiency or a lack of intelligence. Still, many of the self-annointed web experts will try to rank such things right up there with the Seven Deadly Sins. Photography elitists irritate me much more than garish colors or tobacco grad filters.

Mike spring is almost here. Maybe if you get some sunshine/vitamin D you will feel a little less cranky. Oops, I forgot that you live in Wisconsin, land of two seasons, winter and road repair.

Thanks, Mike, for articulating what I have long felt.

David Mayer, I always knew there is a deep relationship between cooking and photography. I myself am lousy in the kitchen (which I want to change at some point in the future) but I appreciate how my girlfriend literally feels how to mix spices to achive a certain taste. This is a form of art in my opinion, at least a sophisticated craft like knowing how to look for the right light and exposure to achive a certain tonality.

I won't chime in and rant about oversaturation and all these misused techniques and gear for compensation of one's lack of inspiration. As a former software engineer I was in danger of following this vein, but at one point it turned out that I only need one camera and one lens (not so important which ones) for my own kind of thing. I owe this awareness partly to TOP amongst other influences... and especially to threads like this one.

best always
Andreas

Great rant, Dagnabit!
I've messed with infrared. Yeah, most of the time it's a gimmick, for me, but sometimes it just helped me say what I wanted to say.
I had a friend, one of those unknown genius photographers that you run into every few years, whose vision was best expressed with infrared. I never looked at one of his prints and thought "gimmick". It was his work, and it worked.
What sets me off are the photographers who resurrect ancient photo processes like wet plate collodion. Most of that work shows more interest in the fun involved with messing with noxious chemicals and working with cool-looking cameras. But then I come across some work like this:
http://prifti.net/
(See Portraits 2)
and I realize that I am, in fact, just a crank.

"I came to believe that photography is essentially harmless and aesthetics are not intrinsically a moral issue, and therefore people should do any bonehead thing they please as long as they're not hurting anyone."

Ah, but those who take on the role of teacher in some form are promoting gimmicks all the time, probably because in the final analysis, you can't teach people to see. We've all seen the "Top Photos" on the large photo sharing sites and it's hard to ignore the damage they're doing.

But part of the problem is that "we" don't seem to be able to provide an alternative venue for sharing bodies of work that don't rely on tricks. Wouldn't it be nice if we could explain why we like some photographs as easily as we denigrate others.

I have a number of photographs that rely on "tricks" to get the point across, and I make no excuses for them, but it is telling that they're isolated images, rather than extensive bodies of work. Basically, it boils down to the reasons people give for liking something that you've done.

Rorslett is marvelous- some inspirational stuff, but I like his others better than the IR.
Within the IR category, there are a few eye-openers and you're right, it's about how one uses the technology, not just relying on it- the IR ones that really work there, IMHO, are because the shot would have worked anyway-
it's just a great shot.

Maybe the idea is don't do IR just for the sake of doing IR?

Whew,
I also have pet peeves, but Infrared is sure not one of them. I've seen infrared shots that I really love, I've got one on the wall that makes me smile every time I see it.
As far as graduated filters, what's the difference between using a graduated filter to make the tonal range fit the paper or having to burn in the sky like Adams, Weston, or any number of darkroom junkies (myself included) have done?
Anyway, I appreciate the food for thought.

Ultimately, everything is just a tool to achieve a particular vision--orange filters, B&W conversion, ND grads, Disneychrome (I mean Velvia), IR, lith printing, etc....

For me, if the vision is true, good stuff results. If the tools are applied to an underlying image that that doesn't have any "there" there, then it's just applying lipstick to a pig.

Mike, what do you think about Tim Rudman's stuff? How about lith printing in general?

Haw!

Last year I posted a comment about IR photography in the same vein as your article. (IR photography makes my head shake, too.) But you wagged your finger at me and told me, "But some people do like IR photography.".

Haw!

Dear Mike, what a strict article! Almost made me feel guilty about my shooting b/w film. Kind of escapism now? In the Age of Digital?
All I can say is that I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition... But then again as you undoubtedly know-nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition :). BTW I agree with your own "sadder but wiser" comment:"... photography is essentially harmless and aesthetics are not intrinsically a moral issue, and therefore people should do any bonehead thing they please as long as they're not hurting anyone".

Very interesting opinion - on one of my country's photographic forums someone once undiplomatically (quite common in most online forums) declared that infrared photos posted there tended to be snapshots more often than not.. Which was perhaps 40% true. You should have seen the response thereafter. :)

I'm not going to argue about why I do infrared, even I do not know sometimes, but I first started with it because I came across a few pictures done that way, and I still do it regularly. How do you put it - it's just another way to look at the world, as cliched as it sounds and sometimes I get tired of looking at what this one looks like in my eyes.

I once put forth the question as to how one attained one's style, and whether there was even a need to do something new to establish yourself as a "good photographer" or be tagged as such, in one of those phases when I was depressed that all my photographs all seemed to be taken by 800 different people.. And someone, whom I would think could be said as wise said that the only way to do that was to stop trying to achieve a style in the first place.

To be honest, there is probably more to infrared pictures than just plain old "surreality", just as one previsualises a black and white photo today in the digital world to be able to bring out the best with the post-processing afterward, there are many things to take note of..

On the other hand, I find it hypocritical that I hold the same disdain you do for infrared (at least in the article) for things like star filters. :)

I'm a little bit torn. I like some instances of effects (I especially like processing to make things look dirty or grungey), and hate others (most applications of HDR).

I guess there is 'real photography', and then 'photographic art', and due to the internet I think the latter has taken over for the former. Maybe this isn't really a bad thing?

Must be one chapter in Lenses and the Light-Tight Box that I never read, probably because I agreed with the title and never found the time to read your rationale for hating infrared.
Thanks for reminding me of the unread chapter Mike, it was worth a look.

Cheers, Robin

Mike, your post was certainly thought provoking, but in my opinion it says too much. I personally don't like most infrared photography and haven't done any myself, but every once in a while I see an infrared photo that makes me sit up and take notice. The composition is usually excellent and while I can't compare it to a "straight" BW version, I can say that in the particular instance in front of me the qualities of infrared seemed to have added something.

Yes, it can be the refuge of the lazy. But that doesn't mean it is always so. And to compare it to star filters and the like seems a bit unfair. The use of those gimmicks reminds me of paintings done on black valour material. While the use of infrared seems to be just another way of seeing, not a case of inherently bad taste.

David

What is interesting is that you wrote this many years ago, before the computer and digital era of photography had arrived. Am I correct?

Anyway, what I see happening in still photography parallels motion pictures in this respect: editing, special effects, self-conscious camera work, and the general obsession with surface has taken over. The values of Hollywood are suffocating all art.

The film directors of 50, 60 and 70 years ago used to pride themselves on creating films that were graceful and entertaining to the audience, not merely amusements for the creator. Technology was sublimated to a story; and now we have little story and the bullying bravado of digital theatrics.

I don't hate technology for giving us the great gifts we have today in enabling illusions to seem life-like. What I do miss is that life and what we create with our cameras is no longer perceived to be true. Integrity and trust, from viewer to creator, has been lost, and in its place is the belief that everything is fake and post-processed.

I think it runs deeper than just a distaste for certain practices. Mike wants photography to be about of honestly looking at the world, spiritually aligned with science. Art can be like this, great literature often is.

And his foes want it to be about themselves, about style and fashion and your peer group. To be boxed in safely by their imaginations, like science fiction writers.

As you can probably tell I'm with Mike on this. I've never both noticed the infrared / HDR / supersaturated effect and liked the picture.

I honestly don't see the effective difference in terms of gimmickry between IR and B&W--both are special effects, as far as I am concerned, as neither represents the world as I see it or remember it. In fact, over-saturated images are often a better representation of my memory, which is perhaps better suited to color than tone.

Additionally, I don't see the need to create something that rings as real all the time--it is like arguing that fiction is not a legitimate genre, because things are made up. While I agree that gimmicks do not make great photographs, alternate ways of seeing can produce interesting and thought-provoking results, which is a worthy goal, in my opinion. Like all things, a bad IR photo is a bad photo (though like all things, this is subjective, as the winners in my camera club's show prove). I, for one, love the aesthetic or IR done well, just as I love pictorialism and romanticism (though I do not think I shoot that way personally).

Mitch Dobrowner is doing great work with a 50/50 mix of IR and visible light: you can find his work at http://www.mitchdobrowner.com and in a recent issue of Lenswork.

-Sean

Long winter really getting to you, Mike? Do all those white covered trees and fields remind you of infrared? Don't fret...it WILL go away!
I love infrared, at least when it's done subtly (#25 red filter). It was probably 80% of what I did for ten years or so. No nudes, very few graveyards or wide-angle face pictures...just the regular stuff of nature and some beautiful portraits. Old cars rusting away in the woods were a favorite, too.

After reading your rant, I laughed to myself and stuck a #403 B&W Ultraviolet filter (visually opaque)on the Leica MP. Yes, film.
Hope to get some good "gimmicky" stuff tomorrow.

Peace;>)
Joe

Mike, have a look at these before making such a blanket statement. Great photography augmented by the infrared effects, not subservent to them.

http://www.jeffzaruba.com/

In reading the article and the comments/posts, I have to agree with Sean. If used as a tool and not a gimmick, IR can be a extremely power tool. As also meantion above, Ansel Adams did use it (IR) at times too - just as he used 25/red, yellow green or polarizing filters while shooting.

As an example, (again) look at the IR/B&W work of Mitch Dobrowner

http://www.mitchdobrowner.com

In my (humble) opinion it is some of the best, modern day landscape images I've seen in many years.

A lot of this seems to condense down to "If I don't like it, it's a gimmick; if I do, it's a technique."

E.g., motion pictures of 50-70 years ago were VERY gimmicky on the technical level. Some of us just happen to like the look. That glamourous B&W high-contrast lighting made famous in drama, film noir and movie star PR photos? It's a trick-- it hides a multitude of sins (both technical and aesthetic) and it's almost unbelievably easy to set up.

Doing it brilliantly takes real skill, but that's true of any trick. Doing it adequately? A monkey could do it-- I know 'cause I could do it in 5 minutes, and I'm a lower simian when it comes to studio lighting. Really.

The Technicolor stylings of the 50's? Entirely driven by technical issues of keeping the lighting ratios very low so the repro media would stay linear and to make colors POP. Looked fine on a sound stage, but the supposed 'natural light' scenes outdoors looked about as real as TV studio lighting in the 1970's.

Doesn't mean the stuff didn't look great, but it was gimmicky and demand-driven as all get-out.

Before dissing the modern excesses, might be good to (1) look at the technical theatre side of it, and (2) find out what the modern audiences like.

pax / Ctein

A lot of this seems to condense down to 'If I don't like it, it's a gimmick; if I do, it's a technique.'"

Ctein,
You could of course argue this, and argue it well, but no, I don't agree. In fact, I would *define* "gimmick" in such a way that it's non-equivalent to technique.

Funhouse mirror pictures are always a gimmick, even if your name is Kertesz.

Of course, what is a gimmick in one person's hands can be an effective technique in another's, I'll grant that.

Mike J.

Dear Mike,

I don't think your argument was one that reduced to that; it was substantially more complex. But many of the comments did strike me in that vein.

Something I found interesting and thought-provoking. I visited all the recommended links in this and the related columns, both the cautionary and the praiseful referrals to other photographers' works. My reactions to those works was highly unpredictable.

Sometimes I liked works that others had derided (not uncommon-- my tastes are broader than most); other times I found recommended work lacking in substance. There seemed to be no correspondence between my reactions and those of the person providing the referral.

I propose this says something of interest. Not as to whether those works are good or of any import whatsoever, but whether they can be easily dismissed as 'gimmick.' When several thoughtful observers do not agree on what they're looking at, something is going on, at least among the observers, that is hard to pin a label on. I think. Maybe. Kinda sorta.

That said, I felt a lot of the recommended stuff was 'gimmicky' ... but I'd hate to have to defend that opinion!

pax / Ctein

How about "Why I hate HDR: the search for the unreal"?

I recently obtained a copy of Aperture 2.0. Good program.

There's a new de-vignetting feature, which I was excited to try. My first lens had such bad vignetting I could barely stand it, and I was excited to be able to clean up this aberration without launching photoshop.

Along with it is anothing feature: Add vignetting. "Why in the hell would anybody want to add vignetting to an image," I asked myself rhetorically, knowing full well why: vignetting, by dimming the corners of the image, subtly draws attention to the center of the image. Which can be a great effect, when you want it.

Looking through my library, I found a number of portraits that had harsh lighting around the edges; a bit of added vignette did wonders for their communication. I found still more images whose crop I wasn't a fan of, but that I couldn't change without losing some vignette which, in that case, helped make the image. I re-cropped 'em. Added the vignette.

And so, this hated distortion -- for which I replaced an otherwise useful lens, at an expense of several hundred dollars -- I am now re-creating on my own terms. Gimmicky? You bet it is. But damn does it look good. What's zone exposure but a gimmick? What's the rule of thirds but a gimmick? What's depth of field but a gimmick? What's film choice but a gimmick?

I find this article maddening because it contains some truly insightful ideas along with some highly questionable ones. First of all, it is notable just how relevant this article is in today's digital age, something that is truly impressive considering it was written in the 1990's when digital was not even a blip on the radar screen. It is clear that this article has touched a nerve, and that is because it goes straight to the heart of the most pressing issue in photography today: is photography in danger of losing its soul and its identity in the digital age?

I would argue that photography's single most important attribute is that it is perceived to be an authentic document of reality. While most photographers know this was not completely true in the film age, this was still widely accepted by photographers and the public. In the digital age, however, the perception of photography as documentary is in serious danger. Photography's legitimacy as a document of reality sets it apart from all other art forms, and once that is lost, then photography becomes no more special than any other kind of art.

Some of you may have seen the movie, My Kid Could Paint That. In the movie, a little four year old girl is discovered to be painting these complex and beautiful abstract canvases, and soon becomes a celebrity featured in high places like the New York Times. She is labelled a genius for creating these Pollock-like canvases at the ripe old age of four, and soon has her own exhibitions where her paintings are going for tens of thousands of dollars. However, her fame and success comes to an abrupt halt when a media documentary calls into question the authenticity of the pieces, arguing that they may have been covertly directed or even painted by her father. The important point here is that the paintings were only considered valuable as long as there existed a perception they were painted by this little four year old girl. As soon as this perception evaporated, so did the value of the paintings.

So where Mike hits the nail on the head is that so-called gimmickry, which should more accurately be called reality distorting effects, are dangerous to photography because they "open a credibility gap that takes a lot of truth-telling to close again." The other important point that Mike identifies which many readers appear to take issue with is the arbitrary judgments on what is allowable in photography. In the article, Mike lays waste to a whole array of popular techniques (or gimmicks, depending on your perspective), such as infrared photography, graduated filters, and even 19th century orthochromatic glass plate photography. The specifics of what Mike deems as morally acceptable are extremely debatable, which is unfortunate because they undermine his legitimate underlying argument which is that if photography is to be an authentic record of reality, then there will need to be inevitable distinctions between what are acceptable techniques and what are not, and in many cases, the drawing of these lines will need to be arbitrary.

This ties into the part where I find Mike's article maddening, which is where he undermines his very relevant arguments by bringing in a moral dimension that is way off base. It is one thing to say "I don't like infrared photography" or perhaps even "infrared is not a legitimate part of photography" [in the sense of documenting reality] but it is completely outrageous to suggest that all infrared photography is illegitimate, morally bankrupt, manipulative of its audience, and in complete bad taste.

This argument goes wrong, first of all, because it implies that infrared photography documents a fake reality, whose sole purpose is to manipulate viewers through false colour. This is completely absurd: astronomers document the universe throughout the entire electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from gamma ray to radio, and of course including infrared. They do not do this to create pretty false colour photographs over which the public can "ooh and aah" (though this is a fortunate side effect) but in order to learn something more about the universe by seeing it from different perspectives. Just because human eyes are limited to seeing a very limited section of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light does not mean that reality ends where the capability of our eyes falters! In the same way, infrared photography can legitimately capture a different perspective of the world in which we live but we have never been able to experience because of the physical limits of our eyesight. Using infrared photography simply in order to create false electrifying colours may be artistically questionable but is certainly not an illegitimate way to document the world. Infrared photography is certainly deserving of the label photography, with its implications of documenting reality, although it is not in the same category as traditional (visible light) photography.

The second and more important way in which Mike's argument goes wrong is when it suggests that any deviation from a strict and arbitrary set of rules is morally wrong and manipulative. This is wrong first of all because it implies that one set of tastes (or in this case, one person's taste) is somehow better than any other set of tastes. Taste, and art, are completely subjective. What I believe to be tasteful and interesting another may find chintzy and fake. That is your opinion, but that is not by any means somehow transformed into a universal truth or value. I think 2008 Mike recognizes that with his "live and let live" postscript but this is still a very dangerous argument that many find seductive, the idea that my taste is somehow better than your taste. Frankly it reeks of elitism whose sole purpose is exclusionary and whose primary use is as a tool to put down others. Although this was probably not Mike's intent, this is still its effect and inevitably the way in which such arguments are employed.

In fact, Mike's argument fails to make clear a small but crucial distinction. There is nothing inherently wrong with manipulation. The fact is that people are drawn to bright and funky colours, strong contrasts, dramatic tobacco coloured skies. In fact, an image that has been significantly enhanced and manipulated in Photoshop can often be very artistic and beautiful. There is only one thing you can't do, and that is to call that photomanipulation a photograph, ie a document of reality, because it is not. THAT is the manipulation and the trickery, and to go back to my initial argument, that is the threat to photography and its credibility as an art form that is inherently documentary.

Mike is right to worry about photography's future health because it is indeed in danger of disappearing, to be replaced with "digital imaging" or "photomanipulation" or whatever you would like to call it. For photography to continue to be photography in the digital age, a concrete set of rules of what constitutes photography and what is morally acceptable will need to be developed, and more importantly, somehow enforced. In the film age, as Mike has identified, photography largely kept chaste to reality due to the physical limitations of the medium, film, which greatly impeded deviation from reality. Digital cameras and Photoshop have removed all of those limitations, and consequently, have removed the barriers to significantly deviating from reality.

I cannot pretend to know how such measures might be achieved. However, to begin conceptualizing what such a framework might look like, I would first suggest that what could be considered acceptable manipulation should closely follow what was possible with film photography, because the standards of film photography are more than one hundred years old and have already been accepted as the standard by which reality may be documented. Second, I stress that the enforcement mechanism is one of the most important aspects, and could be implemented, for example, as a "digital lock" on digital camera files, that could be voluntarily turned on, and which would mark the image as a true photograph and which would allow only limited postprocessing manipulation, in alignment with the standards of photography, however they may be determined.

I recognize that what I'm saying here is nothing new, and I don't mistake it for such. I am aware, for example, that journalistic organizations have started to publish sets of rules dictating what manipulation is acceptable within a photograph. This is one of my inspirations, but I might note that such rules are intended for strictly documentary photography, and may not be appropriate for a more general art photography community. I have simply attempted to synthesize here several ideas that may prove useful to the photography community.

The necessity of having a formalized set of rules describing what constitutes a digital photography is the only way in which I foresee photography as we know it continuing to survive and thrive in the digital age. I would like above all to emphasize that this mission to preserve photography should not be perceived in any sense as a moral or ethical battle, but simply as a movement to adapt a unique and beautiful form of art to the challenges of the digital age.

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