If I may be permitted for inserting my $0.02 about Ctein's column on Wednesday (and that's really all this is worth), I thought I might just provide a little helping of perspective. In the 1990s, I undertook a pretty broad survey of the hobbyist literature in photography going back to the 1800s. I still have a number of antique "how-to" manuals, articles, and references from that period of my career. And I thought I might say—if you're flexible-minded enough at parsing the following from an epistemological standpoint—that exposure is a problem that appears to be trivial on a superficial level but difficult, arcane, and involved on a fundamental level. Let me see if I can find another way of saying that: it's simple on the surface but gets deeper the deeper into it you go. It seems to respond with an appropriate level of complexity at whatever level you choose to engage with it.
It's also something photographers have always fought over. One of the low-level headaches I had editing Photo Techniques (at which my outgoing predecessor told me that the three things any reader needed to fully participate in the conversation were a view camera, a spotmeter, and a densitometer(!)) was what I referred to as "battling gurus." Various authorities had each devised their own methods for simplifying the deep matter of exposure into simpler methods and conceptual frameworks, and the problem was that these various "systems" either didn't conform easily to each other—in which case each expert tended to defend his own system and attack his competitors'—or else they did conform too closely, in which case various people might accuse each other of plagiarism, appropriation, or worse. Behind-the-scenes jealosies, resentments, and, sometimes, clashes between the various writers contributing editors, as well as experts outside the magazine's community, were forever furtively simmering beneath the surface. The editor (me) sometimes had to be referee. The worst case was when I received an ultimatum from one contributor who said that if I dared to publish so much as one more article from another contributor, who he felt was stealing his ideas, he would never write for us again.
Looking back over the literature, it appeared to me that such disputes go way back. I can't swear that I could document cases from the 1800s convincingly, but my impression was that, budgeting enough research time, one could probably find experts arguing over the most effective ways to understand and implement exposure in virtually every era in which amateurs have been involved in photography. And disputes over who came up with what go back to the very cradle: witness the contest between Daguerre in France and Talbot in England, and the symbolic suicide of Hippolyte Bayard (who had a good case, actually, if you look into it). The pictorialists argued over who invented and owned various alternative processes and styles and methods of manipulating prints; and many people appropriated the Zone System of Ansel Adams, reformulating it according to their own tastes referring various degrees of credit back to the master—who himself was helped in his formulation of the system by Fred Archer, whose name has by now settled beneath the waters, and by the redoubtable C.E.K. Mees of Eastman Kodak (Eastman bought Wrattan and Wainright in 1912 specifically to secure the services of Mees, who then set up and ran the Kodak Research Laboratories in Rochester) and his gifted assistant Loyd [sic] Jones.
One of the reasons I published my graveyard picture the other day was that it's almost an exercise in exposure. It consists of three separate camera exposures melded together to recreate what I saw at the scene. (Many of my pictures have a phototechnical or photohistorical subtext. It seems to be something I can't quite help.) I even once published my own "system" of exposure and development for black-and-white film, which I dubbed Johnston's Not Much of a System System.
Of course, some people aren't fighting at all. They're merely pinging off each other in various routes to expressing the facts most effectively.
At any rate, exposure is a wonderful puzzle, a sometimes frustrating control, and—let's be honest—something that nobody ever quite completely masters. I'm not saying that it constitutes a rewarding locus of study over time all by itself, but it's certainly an ongoing topic of learning, mastery, and, occasionally, debate...
...Same as it ever was.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.