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Is post-processing more important than camera work?

I think that today for many young photographers, post-processing is the most important part of the creative process.  While it's certainly true that the creative process does not end after we've released the shutter, sometimes photographers get lost in a sea of "I'll just fix one more thing. Just one more tweak. Just one more..." and can lose sight of what makes a photograph special.  Here's an example; below is one of Edward Weston's most famous photos.



Weston was on his way home from a day of shooting when he happened upon his wife, Charis, who was sunbathing on the back porch.  He stopped, she looked up and then put her head back down, striking the pose we see.  He quickly set up his camera, exposed a plate, and continued on inside.

Interestingly enough, it is said that Edward always disliked the shadow on her right arm.  Now, many people have noted that it would have been easy for him to simply re-take the photo.  After all, the model was his wife and it was taken at his home!  If Edward had lived in the digital age, he could have used ‘content-aware’ Photoshop to fix the annoying shadow.

However, he never changed it.  Never re-shot.  Never fixed it in the darkroom.  Why?  He didn’t need to, that's why.  The photo is perfect just as it is.  The most important part of the process for him was complete; he recorded what he saw with his heart and presented it to us, shadow and all.

Something else that I find interesting about this photo is that I never noticed the shadow until I read that he disliked it.  Oh, I saw it, but it was just a small part of a whole that was truly greater than its parts.

And that is why the post-processing step that today's 'passionate' photographers swoon over, is really the least important.  Sadly, these photographers won't understand this example-- for them, the enjoyment of digital manipulation (their toys) are what is important.
  

In this case, the shadow is part of the work but not something that detracts from it.  Removing it wouldn't improve the image, so why bother.  But, so many photographers today would point to it and say "I would have removed that shadow and that's why my photos are so good."  Ah, yes, spoken like a photographer of the modern age!  However, unknown to these digital artists, very often those nuances are just what gives a photo its charm.

All I can say is that I'm glad the shadow is there.  It reminds me that no photograph will ever be perfect and that in some cases overzealous use of post-processing technique can hurt more than it helps.

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Where the digital revolution has taken us.

News of the first Daguerreotype: 6 January, 1839:

"M. Daguerre has found a way to fix the images which paint themselves within a camera obscura, so that these images are no longer transient reflections of objects, but their fixed and everlasting impressions which, like a painting or engraving, can be taken away from the presence of the objects."1

This was great news; "transient reflections" were made permanent.

That was 1839.

Today, the digital age has brought us full circle; magnetic impressions are again just transient reflections of what was. They lack the permanence of grains of silver.

We have returned to 1838.


1Newhall, Beaumont (ed.). Photography: Essays & Images; Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography. The Museum of Modern Art, 1980.




A few thoughts on 'passionate' amateurs...

Amateurs with cameras in the 21st century are no doubt as much of a pest to photographers today as the 'Kodakers' were to Alfred Stieglitz and the pictorialists of the last century.

This ubiquitous breed of photographer proclaims they have become 'passionate' about photography to all who will listen.  This awaking of artistic spirit was no doubt born of the ease the digital revolution wrought.  They state this quite proudly on their websites.  Loading film on a reel in a darkened room?  Too difficult.  Purchasing a memory card?  Easy.  Understanding how to arrest motion with exposure?  Too difficult.  Setting their camera to the running-figure symbol?  Easy.

The technique and craft of conventional silver photography, for most of the last century, was a means to an end.  That end was a finished print.  Whether dry-mounted and hung behind glass, or published, the image was all that mattered.  Today, it's really only the tools that count among the ranks of digital amateurs; "what's your work-flow?", "how many mega-pixels?", ad infinitum.  I find that increasingly, discussions about a photographers work tend more toward technique than content. The over-use of Photoshop has become a crutch for photographers that can't, or won't, previsualize.




Why are so many of my photos untitled?

I think the answer to this can be found in Robert Admas' book Why People Photograph (pp. 33).

"The main reason that artists don't willingly describe or explain what they produce is that the minute they do so they've admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not fully there in the picture."

Mind you, I don't have anything against a snappy title! But, I just don't like to have to add too much to the work. I'd rather let the photograph speak for itself.




Some recommended reading...

The History of Photography, by Beaumont Newhall

The Magic Image, by Beaton & Buckland

Photography: Essays & Images, by Beaumont Newhall

Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams



   
 

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