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Wednesday, 02 April 2008

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That's not really the cover of the book, right? Tell me it's really an illustration for the chapter on "How not to use an ND-grad so that it's really obvious you're using an ND-grad".

Since people don't seem to be knocking down the door with comments, I'll add one, in the form of a question, or a series of questions.

What kind of photography is this?
When you talk about "straight" photography, as in the f64 group, you're usually talking about people who are struggling to create art. But the stuff you see in Arizona Highways has never seemed to me to be the kind of thing you hang over the couch. It seems too simple-minded, too self-consciously picturesque, too desperately in need, earlier, of Velvia, and later, the "saturation" slider on digital work-flow software

So what would you call it? Illustration? Travel photography? Adventure photography? Professional photography? What do you call it when a bunch of people fly thousands of miles to New Mexico to shoot landscapes, without ever having been there before, because there's nothing worth shooting in Oshkosh? (I would call it a "vacation," especially this winter, but I wouldn't expect to make art while I'm there.)

And why would you shoot it if it's not art? So you can remember having taken a photograph of a scene that you were too busy photographing to really appreciate? These are sincere questions -- I regularly read Luminous Landscape, as one of the best places on the net to learn stuff about digital photography, but I have often wondered what Mike Reichmann and the people who go with him on these expeditionary shoots are really *doing.* They go places they have never gone before, and will probably never go again...for (sincerely) what?

Is the camera just some sort of mediating or justifying device for what's basically adventure travel? A common interest that can hold disparate people together while eating strange, dysentery -inducing foodstuffs? Is it all a technical exercise? Somebody on LL, and I think it might have been Reichmann, mentioned one time that he was shooting someplace around Jackson Hole, or Yellowstone, I believe, and they photographed a well-known mountain scene at the appropriate time of day, and there was a whole gaggle of photographers at the same spot doing the same thing. What exactly were they doing? Could it be called in any way creative? I'd like an answer to that question, because I'm really curious about it. (None of this should be taken as a criticism of Reichmann, who runs a terrific and useful forum and IMHO has an exceptional eye.)

JC

John,

I have often wondered the same thing. My work for a very long time centered around the county in northeast Indiana where I grew up. I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana's second largest city, but the surrrounding county is still largely rural and includes a couple of interesting small towns. People around here claim that there's NOTHING worth photographing in Fort Wayne/Allen County or anywhere else in the Hoosier State. These people fly to California, New Mexico, Nevada, etc. to photograph because that's where the "Interesting stuff" is at. Then they look at my photos from Indiana and ask where I find all those beautiful places! LOL

Funny thing is a couple years ago I packed everything I owned (I own very little) in my 1995 Chevy Caprice and drove to Santa Fe. Funnier thing is the reason I did this: I met a woman online and drove there to live with her! Yes, I actually did that! She turned out to have self-esteem issues and was psycho so I came back to Indiana last October, but I did take pictures in New Mexico. Not the usual indian pueblo churches or the well known landscapes like Cabozon Peak (never went there or to an Indian reservation the whole time i lived there!). I explored small towns that no tourist visits, and I met a lot of interesting people that the photographers who can't find anything interesting in Oshkosh or Fort Wayne never see when they fly to New Mexico. I also learned to speak Spanish (the woman I lived with was from one of the old Hispano families that founded Santa Fe in 1610, and my own family immigrated to Indiana from Spain around 1900). I had fun, learned about my Spanish heritage, met a lot of really cool people, and managed to photograph things I have never seen anyone else photograph (probably because I made the effort to get to know the REAL New Mexico). I missed Indiana though. A lot. You can't imagine how happy I was to see FOG soon after I got back home to Fort Wayne. The midwest is home, and to me its far more beautiful than New Mexico or Arizona or anywhere else.

Holy Cow... its now sold out??? Is this the first time the T.O.P. effect has emptied amazon?

@John Camp

I enjoyed your questions, which I think need asking once in a while – anyone who thinks they’re easy or obvious probably needs to try writing some answers to them…

“And why would you shoot it if it's not art?”
In the UK we have a chain of shops called “Athena” which sells posters of Ansel Adams images and similarly artistically unchallenging material. The shops thrive; partly no doubt on sales to students and office decorators, but also because there’s a significant proportion of the population with – allow me to use this term gently and respectfully as I can – “simple tastes” but taste they follow in enough to put a value on images. And images that they have little hope of and no interest in making for themselves.

Against that background, if you put a role of Velvia in a Nikon, go to Eilean Donan castle (for North American readers, insert Monument Valley/Yosemite or summat) slap on an ND filter and catch some crepuscular rays or a misty sunset, you gain bragging rights as a “photographer” and an image you could hang on a wall and be proud of.

Regular readers of TOP may consider this photographic achievement to be craft rather than art. But I think they would be very curmudgeonly not to recognise and applaud two things: 1) Craft can be a step on the way to Art. 2) In getting the Nikon, learning how to use it, choosing Velvia over Safeway’s 100ASA negative film, choosing a location, placing the tripod, waiting to see the slide, our man has had an adventure. He/she has made choices, expended effort, gained experience, made a commitment. Probably less of an adventure and commitment than some of Capa’s or Lange’s, but his choice within his comfort zone.

“Is the camera just some sort of mediating or justifying device for what's basically adventure travel?”
So my answer is “Yes”, but let’s take out the “just” because it feels pejorative. Now you’re bored because I’m writing some sort of politically-correct celebration-of-lfe justification: time for some salt. Of course, while Craft can be a step on the way to Art, it’s pretty easy to get distracted; after all, ‘ooman beans are social animals. “I’m a Photographer [TM], and I took my new Canon 4D [penis extension] to Antarctica [damn I’m rich !} on a course with Michael Reichmann [PBUH.]” It’s easier to become a gearhead, or go for the bragging rights (on the basis of equipment, airmiles, rare/exotic subject or inconvenience experienced) than it is to sit in Milton Keynes/Oshkosh working hard at the craft in the hope that you’ll develop your vision and learn some art.

I trust it’s clear where I’m teasing and to whom I intend disrespect (ie. no-one !) I used to read LL more than I do now, but I still learn a lot from it. I learned I needed to work at the craft. I went to Iceland for a camera-based holiday and did some journeyman work, and one of my tenant’s parents bought a print from me. Many years later, my girlfriend, now wife, insisted that I’d get more out of a DSLR than waiting for Moore to inflict his law, so I’ve been able to spare myself the hard labour of self-improvement by learning digital post-processing for a while. If you want to see my pictures, you’ll have to visit my downstairs loo or my father-in-law who’s rendering one or two as watercolours. Now, this may be wallowing in mediocrity, but wallowing can be quite pleasant, particularly if you can see the stars from your pit.

Sincerely,

Y

"And why would you shoot it if it's not art?"

There are probably as many reasons for making a photograph as there are people who make them, and it annoys me to no end when someone wants to sit in judgment of another photographer's reasons for making an exposure. The pursuit of "art" is likely a minority objective among the total number of camera owners, but so what? Simply recording a scene because one found it beautiful or interesting, or even to merely preserve a memory doesn't make photography a waste of time as Mr. Camp seems to imply. Keep in mind that when the house catches fire, it's usually the album of family snapshots and vacation photos that people will risk their lives to save, not the "art" hanging on the wall.

I'll take a whack at John's question. I think most of us can agree that landscape photography is a legitimate art form. Furthermore, landscape as art didn't die with Ansel Adams. One can argue with the validity of the completely un-ironic landscape in an age of 6 billion humans and global warming; Robert Adams or Edward Burtynsky surely do with their work. But it's still possible to make a beautiful landscape photograph that's reverential toward the earth.
I'm in complete agreement that the world doesn't need another dozen versions of "sunrise under mesa arch". But a workshop can indeed be a pleasant learning experience in a beautiful location, sharing time and thoughts with like-minded individuals. Yes, the photos of Yosemite I might bring back with me won't add much to the world's sum total of "art". I like to compare such photos to the repetitive exercises musicians perform imitating the masters; "compulsories" you might call them. But the skills I take back home with me can then be applied to my little corner of the world, the surface of which has scarcely been scratched photographically. And I love showing folks around here how beautiful our area really is, if only we have the eyes to see it.

Geoff.

Personally, I don't really like the idea of a book that lays out all the specifics to go take a good landscape photo. I hope its not a snob thing to say, but thats kind of like "paint by numbers"

Half the fun in taking great landscape photos is tramping off to find something interesting in an out of the way place, then ending up taking shots of something else you found on the way.

It adds so much to the fun of taking photos.

I don’t know if it is Art, but…I’d like to bring your attention to the cover of Arizona Highways April 2008 issue www.arizonahighways.com. The cover shows another spectacular “photograph” of a lone diner sitting it a desert, advertising their picks of the “25 Best Restaurants in Arizona”. But wait! As Peter Ensenberger, the AH Director of Photography explains in page 9 of the print edition (this text does NOT appear in the online version):

“Photoshop has become a household word. At this magazine, however, it is something we use sparingly….By now you probably noticed the striking photograph on the front cover of this issue, and you might be wondering why AH has never used this place before – a place with a quaint little diner standing like a neon mirage in the middle of nowhere. The answer is simple. It doesn’t exist…

“What we did is called photo illustration – digitally melding disparate elements into one believable [sic] fantasy…This isn’t the first manipulated photo AH has ever published, but it breaks new ground in our use of digital technology to create a cover from multiple photographs.

”The challenge was finding a restaurant or diner that would be visually appealing. As you know, many of the best restaurants are known for their food and service, not necessarily the beauty of their architecture and surroundings.”

Mr. Ensenberger goes on to explain the herculean process the photographer, Edward McCain, went to get the photograph “approved and put into production.” This director of photography justifies their photo illustration practices by saying: “I don’t have a problem with it. I do have a problem with photographers retouching images to ‘improve’ them without letting the reader know.”

The editorial comment is a full page, so I will not include all of it here. But iIt is interesting that AH now goes to such create lengths to justify their use of Photoshop to “improve” images and make them “believable” (their words, not mine). In all the time I lived in Arizona as a teenager and college student, AH has always held itself up as the best in Arizona Photography. Older issues seemed to have straight photography that was “real”. Even Ansel Adams has been included in past issues. I thought is interesting how AH now goes to such create lengths to justify their use of Photoshop to “improve” images and make them “believable” (their words, not mine).

Rick

P.S.: I did find the full text of Peter Ensenberger's editorial in the online version by doing a site search on the title "The Right Touch"

John Roberts said, "There are probably as many reasons for making a photograph as there are people who make them, and it annoys me to no end when someone wants to sit in judgment of another photographer's reasons for making an exposure."

I'm not sitting in judgment. I have no problem with almost any kind of photography. Most of my own photography is documenting my life and the life of my family. Most people would find it boring, and I love it. Same for family vacations, portraits of friends, and so on. Hell, I don't really care what people do. What I was asking -- sincerely -- is, "What are people doing when they take Arizona Highways shots?" These shots really aren't much in the way of art. But what else is it? One good answer is "photo illustration for a magazine that I get paid for, and that promotes Arizona as a tourist destination." I'll buy that...but why would anyone not getting paid for it travel to Arizona (or anywhere else) to take shots like these? If you know nothing about the landscape, little about the culture, probably will never go back...why are you there taking photographs? Some reasons: I'm learning about photography which I will apply to my own landscape (workshops), I like to travel, I'm killing time until I die, etc. But that doesn't answer the question of what the photograph itself is...or why anyone would look at it...or what it means, or tells us.

When I look at work by the Turnley brothers, which Mike is writing about today, I think I know what they're doing, and I really like it. But some guy shows me a well-exposed picture of a cactus with a sunset behind it, and I literally do not know what that is.

JC

My dad subscribes to the monthly magazine, and sends me the issues when he is done with them. The photography is sometimes quite amazing. I'll have to go back and see if I saved that issue (I don't think I did)...

One thing I did not know was that it was published by the Arizona DOT. I guess my surprise there comes from the fact that I always thought the magazine was a for profit venture due to it's "dot com" status online. Usually, if it's a municipality, govt or gov agency, they assume a "dot gov" address. Apparently this is the exception to the rule.

I also did not know about AH eschewing the use of Photoshop and that very few digital shots make it into the magazine. That is kind of disappointing to learn (since I am a digital shooter after all), given that this is a government agency publication. If it is a govt agency, couldn't the dearth of digital post processing techniques be construed as favoritism (or, conversely, negativism) against digital imagery? That would suggest that litigation could be a conceivable course of action if one felt "infringed" in this regard.

Having said that, if this were a private venture, with a corporate designation (as suggested by the dot com status, as well as the for-profit notion that seems present on the website), then it would be of no consequence because as private organizations, those that run them are entitled to do whatever they like in publishing their material - and the digital photographers be damned.

This does present an interesting dichotomy though, because on closer inspection, the State affiliation and DOT tags are included in the copyright notice on the bottom of the site, suggesting that this is a hybrid of sorts. Can state agencies take part in for profit ventures? Are there restrictions on what state agencies can and cannot do in these ventures? Perhaps someone affiliated with PPA could chime in and enlighten here...

For those interested in the editorial and the image, a web link is here (http://www.arizonahighways.com/static/index.cfm?action=group&contentID=57) on using Photoshop with a visual of the photo, both thumbnail and larger. I don't know about others, but the "air of believability" they claim must be inherent in all imagery seems sufficiently lacking in this image. To me, the use of PS is evident as an enhancement of the original.

Ironically, they also acknowledge that the cover is intended to "grab" your attention, which also suggests that the cover serves a different purpose from the images displayed inside. In another manner of speaking, the cover is about selling the mag, not about great photography. It's like anything in government it seems - use one reason until it doesn't work for you, then drop it like a load of bricks and pick up another one that is more suited to your needs. Joe McNally also talked about this briefly on his blog today. Check that post out for a similar, if not a little tangential story that follows a similar theme.

I was in Arizona just last week (photos on the website, thanks for asking).

It is a state full of gorgeous deserts and intriguing geology buttressed by long, fast roads that rush you past incredible scenic vistas to the new wave of polished suburban cities that lay on top of the ruins of the old and wild west.

Driving through Arizona, I was most struck by the irony of moving 80 miles per hour, the whole while wanting nothing more but to stop the car and just breathe in the intense enormity of all this accidental beauty.

In many ways, the environment IS the art, and the photograph merely a recording. A photographer who injects too much style into a great landscape photo stands a good chance of spoiling that record, of making the viewer aware of and attentive to the process of recording rather than its result. And so the goal becomes to capture as closely as possible the vision that so captivated the photographer. As a result, style isn't something you have to inject; it's what's left over after you tried your hardest to remove yourself from the scene, and let the earth speak for herself.

I went to every gallery I passed in AZ and encountered a lot of photographs. The work of Michael Fatali and Alain Briot especially impressed me, because they had style but were, at the same time, very much recordings of an environment. On the other hand, I found Peter Lik's work to be manipulative and overblown, making fantastic what should be natural through extreme manipulation of sharpness and saturation. This is just personal taste; others, I'm sure, have opposing opinions. However, the one thing they all had in common: their best photos are all tack sharp, and they all followed the same basic rules of landscape photography.

Dear Geoff,

That's a very nice and thorough review.

I am afraid I cannot resist nitpicking your nit-pick.

"For instance, he states that "The shorter the focal length of the lens, the more depth of field it will provide," when strictly speaking it’s subject magnification that determines depth of field."

No, the author is correct. If you hold subject magnification constant, a shorter focal length lens does provide more depth of field. The effect of focal length is insignificant in close-up work where, to a good approximation, your statement is correct. The further you get from the subject, the more focal length matters. It dominates at landscape-scale distances.

Picky picky picky, I know. [ grin ]


~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
======================================
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photorepair.com
======================================


Jason,

There is no legal right to use digital cameras instead of film. If the state of Arizona wants to use only film images, that's their right, they're the customer. They can use anything they like and can discriminate all they want...cameras have no rights. People do, so they couldn't discriminate against a photographer for being black, or Hispanic, or a woman, but they sure can refuse digital images.

Dear Chris,

This leaves me with a political/legal quandary.

Would I be better off with protected class or endangered species status?

A major lobbying effort hangs in the balance...

pax / Machiavellian Ctein

Oops.
At least there's some comfort in being corrected by such an eminent expert as Ctein.

Dear Geoff,

This is something that almost no one gets right, even real technical experts. Not sure why that is, but take my word for it that you're in good company.

pax / Ctein

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