We talked a lot last week about processing color photos, starting with the conversation around the Cuba portfolio at the Times. I thought that was interesting because it seems possible that the photographer(s) declined a byline on the basis of the processing choices.
I just wanted to add a few words about my own approaches to processing.
First of all there are two distinct approaches to work in this regard—the first is concerned with how you look at your own work, and the second is how you look at work by other people. I refer to that, casually, as my "artist's hat" and my "critic's hat"—two different perspectives, which can certainly overlap but are fundamentally different. Artists can be very uncompromising and quite passionate (even to the point of fighting about it, as anyone who went to art school probably knows) about their choices for their own work—because art satisfies a need, people can be quite partisan about what they like and what they don't. (One classmate in art school once said of two others, "no, they can't be friends because they don't like each other's art.") However, if you really want to appreciate a broad range of work by a rich variety of other practitioners, you need to be open-minded about other peoples' choices. If you only like one kind of technique for your own work, and you only look at other people through the filter of that particular litmus test, then you're going to severely limit your ability to experience and appreciate the wide variety of work that exists out there in the world.
For my own work, my basic approach is that the processing choices—the controls, or "tricks"—just shouldn't call attention to themselves. If they do, then you've thrown up an additional veil or filter between the viewer and the picture. You've created an impediment to its immediacy. I used to say that even if you work all night in the darkroom, the goal should be a picture that looks like it just fell out of the camera that way. Good processing is transparent, and gets out of the way of the pictures.
Pay attention to your own response to pictures, and notice your own first reaction. If your first thought is, wow, heavy on the clarity slider, rather than wow, what beautiful evening light (for instance), then I think the processing has failed in a significant way. Of course, makers of anything are more prone to seeing the techniques of the thing they're looking at...one of the structural flaws of figure skating (as an example) is that we almost always look at it behind the voice-over of cool appraisals of technique, which subverts the artistic effect the skaters are trying for. Another old joke of mine is that the difference between a photographer and a non-photographer is that when the photographer looks at a picture of a geranium, he'll say "look at that edge definition! Look at the purity of those reds!", whereas the non-photographer will say "that's a geranium." In this sense, non-photographers can "see" pictures better sometimes.
So my basic guiding principle is, whatever control it is that you're using, take care to make it invisible. If you want to juice up the color, don't cross the line such that most viewers' first reactions will be "that color is very exaggerated." You want to back off until your tricks fall below the threshold of immediate noticeability (at least).
So, then: keep it subtle. (That's just my personal approach.) Use all the tricks you want, but don't let them call attention to themselves first and foremost.
In the work of other people, what I look for is something different. First, consistency. Everyone is allowed their own way of working and they all have their own ideas of how pictures ought to look. But if you're really expressing your aesthetic (or "your personal vision" as it's now, awkwardly, said), then it had better hold true for more than one shot. Processing that's all over the place just fractures a body of work and prevents a cumulative effect from building, and it more or less proves that you have no real opinion about how you want your pictures to look or how you think photographs in general ought to look.
Secondly, I look for appropriateness. Good technique works in concert with what a photographer is trying to say with her photographs. There are no rules about what goes with what, but I think anyone with visual sensitivity and aesthetic awareness does have a sense of when a particular technique is adding to the work and when it's distracting or detracting from it. A good example is the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn that we looked at recently. We're all broadly familiar with the pictorialist aesthetic, but if you can strip the received ideas away, you can see his work is technically radical and quite extreme—very far removed, certainly, from today's conventions. But he's extremely consistent with his chosen visual language, and for the most part he made it work. His pictures fit his technique and his technique fits his pictures.
From a creator's perspective, it's good to let your work evolve toward what you love best, and what expresses you. You'll know it because it gets you in the gut. From a viewer's perspective, it's better to approach with an open mind and see if you can tell what another artist is trying to do, and whether they succeeded for you.
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Featured Comments from:
Richard Newman: "Photoshopping can be a sticky issue. In addition to the 'artist's hat' and 'critic's hat' there is also the 'reporter's hat.' The question is what degree of processing—if any—of a raw image is permissible for documentary use. And since the print or other presentation medium of the documentary photo will look different from the raw, on-screen file (or basic print if film is used), what 'corrections' can or should be made? That discussion could fill a couple of books, or a month of columns."
Mike replies: I think I disagree, for one simple reason: I'm a photographer talking to other photographers. That is, it would "fill a couple of books, or a month of columns" only if one's purpose were to formulate an enforceable code of how others must behave. For instance, if you're a news organization setting standards for permissible behavior for stringers in a thoroughgoing and legally defensible way.
How it becomes easy to answer is when we're talking about how we want to handle it ourselves, for ourselves. The answer then becomes that you should be as true as you can be to what you saw at the scene...even if you decide you're talking about the effect that the scene had on you, which is what Adams meant when he said a photograph should be "...the equivalent of what I saw and felt."
That is, it depends on whether we're defining it for others, objectively, or whether we're defining it to guide our own practices, subjectively.
My position has always been that a photojournalist is a reporter with a camera, but it's the person, not the camera, doing the reporting. The statements made with the camera should be true according to the person, not just according to the camera.
Henning Wulff: "Some years ago (over 20) I had a very good business for a while doing composites of architectural models and aerial siting shots. I'd done these for years, but doing them on film, printing them correctly, cutting out the model and pasting everything up, drawing in the shadows, rephotographing everything, printing and retouching again had been incredibly time consuming and few clients were happy with the bill, and I generally wasn't happy with the results. So, Photoshop to the rescue. I had used it from version 0.9 and was quite familiar with it. Being an architect as well, I knew the requirements of the construction industry as well as the rules of perspective. I also knew photographic lighting, loved aerial photography and could put it all together. It was a skill set that no one else in Western Canada had at the time, and I made a lot of money. Now to the point: After I inserted the new building and did all I could to integrate and blend it into the surroundings, I then took the building and made it a little crisper, a little brighter and a little more saturated than the surroundings, but just a little so that most would not notice, but enough so that your eye would be drawn to the project in question. Subtlety was the key—when my clients realized this, my orders took off."
Mark Hobson: "Re 'it just fell out of the camera that way': In his book Beauty in Photography, Robert Adams wrote, 'I think the success of a work of art can be measured not only by its freshness and the diversity of the elements it reconciles, but also by the apparent ease of its execution. An artwork should not appear to have been hard work...I think that the deception is necessary if the goal of art is to be reached: only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that Beauty is commonplace.'"
JK: "I've found this subject to be a sticking point with students. Many of them now seem to expect and even want images to have an obviously processed look. A conventionally good B&W or color print is likely to strike them as 'flat,' 'dull,' or 'plain.' I like to the think that the pendulum will eventually swing back to naturalness but right now it's all rather discouraging."
Markus Spring: "'Don't sweat it' was a tip I think I got from Carl Weese years ago when I was in my beginnings of raw conversion and post-processing. Despite being (usually) not the person to accept advice easily, in this case I followed the advice and still do. Probably my exotic raw converter (AfterShot Pro, formerly Bibble) helps me in this as its toolset is not as unlimited as the Lightroom/Photoshop combo (using Linux, I sometimes resort to the Gimp), but I've accepted those limits and enjoy the speed—and for my quite 'straight' style of photography I have all the tools I need. Not exaggerating any post-processing was and still is my guideline, both for my own pictures as well as those from others. HDR I dislike when it looks like HDR, and of all those Instagram-filtered images only a small percentage finds acceptance: it's too much like instant-sauce for my taste buds."