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26 February 2006 @ 05:32 pm
Photographic [RD]evolution  

[Cross-posted from my MovableType Blog]

[It's official. I suck at this whole "blog" thing. The genesis for this entry is exactly one year old. It's been rolling around in my head since I was in Maui. It's a big topic, and one that's very important to me, so I wanted to be sure that I captured it. Invariably, that meant I'd put it off. -ed.]

For some time, I've been yearning to produce/get "something more" out of the pictures I take. A year ago, I started down the path toward figuring out what that really meant.

While I was in Maui, taking and processing 1900 photos, I had two distinct (and, in fact, conflicting) epiphanies. The first was that with some thought, planning, and work I could automate much of my workflow.

The second epiphany was the real start of the revolution, and may have been jiggled loose by the first. I think the mechanical nature of automating my workflow (and having some time to dwell on that fact) was the straw that broke the camel's back. I realized that for some time I haven't been completely satisfied with much of the fruits of my labor. Exploring that dissatisfaction led me to an awakening.

Over the . . . nearly 20 (eep!) years that I've been taking and developing my own photographs, I've become quite adept at the technical aspects of creating a photograph[*]. Without that, granted, the clearest vision in the world will be unrealized, but there's more to photography than making a print.

My style (and it still feels weird to call it that) has been firmly planted in what I've taken to calling a "photo-journalist" mode — a near-neurotic attempt to capture "la scène vraie" as closely and as accurately as I can. I had a better term than "photo-journalistic" for it at some point (after rejecting "hyper-real" since I am not worthy^Wevoking what Baudrillard (or even my beloved Eco) was (and yet, there IS an element of that . . . )), but I have lost it (much to my chagrin).

It is easy to see how I got there: my formative photographic experiences were mostly spent getting lost in the perfect balance of one Ansel Adams print or another. I ingested the Group f/64 Manifesto, and their "photography of the West." It nourished my youthful exuberance and skepticism of all that had come before.

(end first cut. LJ'ers, if you want to take a break, you can come back to the second cut)

It has taken a long time for me to realize that their vision is not my vision, their voice is not my voice. And there is still a part of me that suspects that it could be, if I were a better photographer.

I also think that the rush I felt viewing Vladmir Kush's canvases helped push open this door, after I'd cracked it. I started to realize that there was more out there for me than what I'd been doing.

The second epiphany I had that led to this deeper awakening was that I could do more than minimal color correction in Photoshop. I had these "mad Photoshop skillz" (or so I thought) that I wasn't tapping. I could use them to make a print that more closely matched (or *GASP* improved upon!) my memory of a given scene. It sounds so simple to spell it out, but it was a major breakthrough, and I was giddy with the prospect.

(And, to be fair, in the end, Adams's prints are almost as much about what he did in the darkroom as they are what he did in the lens)

It didn't take long for that giddy feeling to dissipate, and I was left feeling that while I was doing all I could in post-production (more on that in a moment), I need some serious help in my through the lens composition. At a loss for where to go next, I floundered a bit. I became hyper-critical of everything I did.

Along about this time, Tom & I had a (long overdue) Really Good Conversation™. And, in explaining this conundrum to him, I realized that the UCSC Composition class that I was mildly intrigued in might prove to be a first step out of this rut, especially coupled with the "Real-World Digital Photography" class in which Chiara & I enrolled.

These classes were quite good, and definitely pushed me back on the track of growth and exploration.

The Composition class was good because it re-introduced me to concepts I'd learned in my studies of design, and helped me apply them to the photographic world. It also reminded me of that fundamental axiom of photography: "Zoom with your feet!" Get closer than you think you need to, and when you're done with your first shot, get closer still. Turn the subject inside out. Then turn (it) around. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Possibly the most important transformation that came out of that class, it finally broke my habit of using the subtractive (pigmentary, RYB) color-wheel in favor of the more intuitive additive (luminary, RGB) color-wheel. It's funny, for so long, I would mentally calculate rough complimentary colors (when I thought about color at all, when I thought about composition at all!), and now that I've made the switch, it feels SO natural, that I'm barly thinking about it.

Unfortunately, I couldn't conjure the force within me to be creative during the workshop section of this class, and so I wasn't able to apply these techniques while I could enlist the help of the instructor to flesh them out.

The Real World Digital Photography class was also good. It was geared more toward getting the most out of Photoshop, and the most important thing I got out of it was a deep understanding of how a RAW file is structured, and why my habit of clicking through the RAW Plugin dialog to do my correction only in Photoshop was doing a LOT more harm than good. I also learned why "exposing to the right" (over exposing as much as you can get away with (without blowing out highlights)) will generally yield a much richer photograph when it's corrected (provided you're shooting RAW). Finally, we spent some time using compositing to extend the ~4-5 stop contrast range of your average CCD sensor, allowing wide-contrast images with a lot more detail in both the highlights and the shadows.

All of this is great, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was basically the same artist (again, a term that feel very strange and uncomfortable to me) I was a year ago. I need to push myself into the abstract. I need to push myself to capture more than "the moment," but to capture an emotion, a mood, a story!

My latest inspiration came from an odd source: a book that deserves (and will be given) it's own, separate blog entry. Why is that odd? Well, the book in question is all about working with color in Photoshop, it has nothing to do with the composition side of photography. But it has invigorated my photographic desires.

[*] Ok, so maybe I no longer have a rote imprint of the developing tables for Dektol & D76, allowing me to skip looking up anything in the range of "room temperature." You get the idea.

So where do I go from here? More inspiration, more practice, more experimentation. To that end, I'm getting very excited about the UCSC Extension Field Study I'm doing next week in Death Valley. (Thanks, mom!) I'm really looking forward to having four days in the wilderness to do nothing but think, compose, shoot, and evaluate. Particularly, I want to spend a lot of time working at night and more in the abstract realm (both together and separately).

But as with any experimentation, I must be open to mistakes, they often lead to the most profound breakthroughs. For those of you subscribed to my Flickr stream, things are likely to get worse before they get better...

And this is what happens when I don't post things, but let them percolate for a year, and end up rolling up what should have been 3 or 4 different entries into a single entry. 1300 words. Yeesh. If you read the whole thing, my hat is off to you.

EDIT: Screw it. I can't seem to make automatic formatting do what I want. Time to beat it with a stick.

 

 
 
Current Mood: excitedexcited
Current Music: "Renaissance Man" — Midnight Oil
 
 
 
nickpalmernickpalmer on February 28th, 2006 08:57 am (UTC)
Glad you are digging on your new discoveries. I have been thinking more and more about how I need to improve my photoshop skillz and photography knowledge in general. I am little more than a snap shot shooter now, though I am learning. I forget more than I know most days though. So many damn settings.