Conceptual Awareness – Fix it in Post

What do you notice when you look at your own work? Minor White created a five point framework for helping his students break down elements of photographs to try and categorize the conceptual foundation that helped create them. Teaching just after WWII he and his students used this method to discover new ways to discuss their work, and often turned up insights about who they were as photographers.

The first element of this framework was developed in my previous post: Compositional Awareness – Surfaces and Presentation, and discussed the physical format of the printed image.

In these second element of White’s framework, he discusses alterations and decisions made about the image during the processing and development stage.

When photography was a purely mechanical process of lens, light and shutter release, the photographer was required to either project the negative itself through a projector, or process the image onto paper using chemicals. There was no escaping the need for some kind of processing in order that the image could be shared with other viewers.

The conceptual framework he was describing was intended to help photographers place themselves within the larger context of a conceptual spectrum. Most broadly described, White outlined to two poles of the spectrum in this way: those whose aim was to process and develop their images in such a way that the image itself would be most clear, most accurate to the image as initially witnessed within the viewfinder, as compared to photographers who were interested in using elements of the development stage to adjust the final image, and in this way push the medium as the creation of a work occurring through further stages of printmaking.

That was a mouthful, perhaps we can even more simply say: those artist who want to leave the image as pure as possible, compared to those who are interested in what they can add or adjust in what we now think of as post-processing.

White described these two conceptual uses as different philosophies towards how the camera itself is being considered. The first type of photographer is seeking to use the camera as extension-of-vision, whereas the second is using the camera-as-paintbrush or drawing tool.

Dark room practices had evolved considerably as the art form matured, but artists from the beginning had been experimenting with ways to alter or enhanced the image on film during the process of actually developing the negative. Some artists adjusted the chemical compositions while others made physical manipulations to the print which White described as handwork.

One excellent example of handwork and aggressive alterations during the dark room process can be seen here, from photographer Sigmar Polke, who was also a painter, but created my photos during the 1970’s. Below is an excerpt from the description of his process for this image which is in the collection at The MET and can be viewed online.

Untitled, Sigmar Polke, 1975, MET online collection

Polke considers the darkroom a sort of alchemic laboratory in which he can explore infinite mutations of imagery. With the negative in his enlarger, the artist developed this large sheet selectively, pouring on photographic solutions and repeatedly creasing and folding wet paper. The resulting abstract organic forms thus issue from and re-express the boozy, convivial energy of the scene.

The MET Online, excerpt from description on piece. LINK

Post-processing, as the practice of making adjustments to images or film using editing software, is a full time profession for many creatives. The suite of tools and technology available since the development of Photoshop has continued to expand.

Some of these alterations bring options to artists who are considering the camera-as-brush which enable them to achieve previously unimaginable outcomes.

The evolution of post-processing as an art form on its own right has created so much distance between the initial photograph and the final image in some instances that it no longer makes sense for us to think about the work as photography at all.

In my own work I have taken many pictures specifically to be used as elements that would later be used in works which have been confused for paintings. My initial creative inspiration while taking the images was with this end goal in mind, firmly placing me on the painterly end of the spectrum.

In my own work I have taken many pictures specifically to be used as elements that would later be used in works which have been confused for paintings. My initial creative inspiration while taking the images was with this end goal in mind, firmly placing me on the painterly end of the spectrum.

This image, “Cloud Mountain” was created in the way described above, using two different digital images, reduced and composited one on top of the other.

When presenting my work I describe the photographic base of the final image, but cannot being myself to call them photography. The label simply doesn’t not make sense to me in this application, though the level of post processing isn’t as far removed from the initial image as it might be assumed.

Ultimately it isn’t the end result, or the label of it, which matters in the context of this thought experiment. It is enough to consider the edits being made and how they are applied. If they are being undertaken as a conscious creative step in the process towards the intended final expression, then they can be classified as a camera-as-paintbrush approach.

Photographers from the mindset of camera as extension-of-vision, may have found the development process a technical challenge in keeping the purity of their images intact. As digital photography came into existence, it was perhaps seen as closer to the reality of the image as envisioned. No longer would it be necessary to go through the technical steps of film processing, and perhaps accidental alteration, of the original image. Beyond even that, mirrorless cameras, cell phones and similar contemporary devices have done away with the optical viewfinder. Now, the image that we hope to capture is what we see on the screen, and therefore, exactly what will be seen in the final image.

This is a rabbit hole that I will spend significant time on when we are discussing White’s fourth point of the framework, but for now, focusing only on post-processing, it is quite clear regarding the “straight” photographers. They will generally reject the use of any alterations to their work after the image has been “created”…or will they?

Many photographers who consider themselves “straight” photographers still have a dedicated set of Lightroom presets which help them dial in the image clarity, sharpness and color balance. If we were to accuse them of changing the original image we might be met with frustration and alarm. These photographers are using post processing in order to enhance the initial image, to bring out the “true” image that they imaged as they looked through the viewfinder.

There are many who fight over the use of post-processing, and argue that any adjustments are impure. They view the “real” photographers, and the “real” art of photography as something that happens within the camera itself. Any need for adjustment afterwards means that the initial capture simply wasn’t done well enough.

What if the edits make the image easier to read, and actually allow us more opportunity to experience it? Focus stacking may be a very interesting development for “straight” photographers who wish to present an image as a scene which the viewer can enter as if using their own eyes.

Focus stacking is the process of taking many exposures at different focal lengths, and then combining them together into one final image. The human eye, and the camera lens, can normally only focus within a selective range when looking at any scene.

Any one image will be able to capture a limited range of focus, which means that the viewer will be able to experience as seeing from their own eyes, within that limited range. A viewer trying to focus on an out of focus area of the image may encounter a break in the fantasy that they are within the image. For the photographer seeking to bring a viewer fully into a scene, the use of focus stacking allows them a hyper-realistic creation. One in which the viewer can focus where they choose, and have the experience that they are able to remain within the scene.

None of these philosophical perspectives are individually the goal of our discussion here. White’s framework is not in place to hold one area of purism up over another. What it does as us to do is to think about what has been done, and why.

If using focus stacking, is the photographer trying to create a more realistic illusion for the viewers to enter and experience, or is the hyper-reality of the image actually meant to act as an alienating factor to set the work apart in its own reality in contrast to our own?

Thinking about the decisions that were made and applied is the way in which he pushed his students to look within.

If there is any value judgement occurring, I believe it is the setting artist intention against happy accidents. For White, the photographer can only be given more tools by understanding the concepts at work behind what they choose to create. We are always in the process of creating from the subconscious and cannot escape harnessing influences which we are not aware of. As much as we can, however, delving into the workings of our individual processes can teach us much about what we value, and give us more tools.

Where do you fall on the spectrum within this regard? Do you eschew post-processing and let the images stand as they do out of the camera? Is there an artistic opportunity that you have found in the manipulation of images that allows you to express your unique vision? Which sort of work do you find yourself gravitating to when looking at the work of others? Has asking these questions helped to tease out an element of your own work that you hadn’t thought about before?

I am currently balancing the highly abstracted work as exampled above, with a turn towards a more “purist” approach of trying to capture as many elements of the final image within the camera as I possibly can. I see this as a challenge for myself, and a way to get closer to expressing (and discovering) the way my eyes tune in to the world around me. For me this is a central question for why I make art at all, and I am hoping that digging further in will provide me some answers.

During the next section, the third of five, I will be talking about composition, and the way in which images are framed.