Friday, December 23, 2011

Genesis Moment

It is incredibly faint– ghostlike. Moving your gaze about in the dim shrine, you occasionally catch a glimpse of something long gone. Attempting to refocus, you strain your eyes to see something that might not even be there. A certain patience is required to see something so rare as this...

Estate at Le Gras
Support the Nicéphore Niépce House–
© Spéos
Nearly two centuries ago in rural France, Nicéphore (Joseph) Niépce climbed the stairs in the early morning hours into the second story of his family's country estate and set up a scientific experiment, the likes of which the world had never before seen, and which would change the world forever. Just inside the window, he set up a camera obscura consisting of an imaging lens mounted on a wooden box, with a special pewter plate at the rear. He had previously coated the plate with a thin layer of a unique material– bitumen of Judea dissolved in oil of lavender. After carefully focusing the lens, he could easily see on the pewter plate the upside-down, lit image of the roof and farm buildings outside the window.

Nicéphore had previously experimented with such photo-sensitive plates in his successful attempts to reproduce graphical materials (mainly artistic engravings) through the use of light imaged through a lens. Wherever the brightest light of an image struck the special coating on the plate, the bitumen became solid and permanent, forming a long-lasting material image. Now, he sought to reproduce not just simple graphics, but the physical, natural world itself through the medium of light. What an audacious dream– to reproduce what the world looked like, through the agency of nature itself, and without the intervention of an artist's skill and tools! Could such an enterprise be possible? It seemed too good to be true.

Satisfied that the focused image was as clear as possible, he settled back on a wooden chair and girded up his patience, knowing that this would take the entire day. As he waited, the brilliantly sunlit scene outside poured its photonic energy through the window. The scrambled beams of light were precisely redirected and reordered as they pushed their way through the glass lens, finally impinging upon the sensitive surface of the polished metal plate.

Nicéphore continued waiting, eating his lunch while the sun rose high in the French-blue sky overhead. The foreshortened shadows on the ground eventually began to lengthen, and still the photons in the image were building up a physical, material image on the plate. Thin layer upon thin layer of solid, permanent bitumen were formed in the brightest regions of the image.

Hungry again as the sun descended in the west, he supped on bread and sipped on wine, waiting the fullest extent of time for the image that was developing on his plate. Finally, the sun sank below the horizon and he removed the plate from the rear of the box. Working in the dim, golden light of a few oil lamps, he carefully rinsed the surface of the plate with more oil of lavender, hoping to see a real, physical image on the substrate.

He dried the remaining solvent and then examined the plate in the light of the lamps. At first, the metal surface seemed as it had before– simply a shiny gray, metallic gleam. But as he turned and tilted it in the light, something finally caught his eye...was that an image? He couldn't quite decipher what he was looking at until he turned the plate 180°– he had been looking at it upside down, forgetting that the projected image on the plate had been inverted!

Having now seen something that the world outside had not yet imagined,  Nicéphore set himself to refining his process. He began collaborating with Louis Daguerre, who would ultimately stand in the spotlight of public celebrity as the pioneer of photography. Nicéphore Joseph Niépce eventually receded into obscurity, remembered by only a handful who appreciated his foundational role in the invention.

His original photographic plate, containing the image of the estate at Le Gras was given to an admiring botanist and artist in England, Mr. Francis Bauer. Bauer wrote a detailed description on the back of the photograph in both French and English, proclaiming it to be the first artifice "...fixing permanently the image from Nature."

In the mid-twentieth century Niépce had been generally acknowledged as the inventor of photography, although there was no known physical evidence of this work. But Helmut Gernsheim, photographer and photographic historian and collector, and his wife Alison, devoted three years to researching and tracking down such evidence– if it still existed. Tantalizing, obscure references in the literature beckoned them to press on in the pursuit. Through hard work and perseverance they would track the possession of this treasure through at least a half-dozen separate individuals who had owned it through the period of more than a century.

Niépce's "View From the Window at Le Gras"
©, Harry Ransom Center and J. Paul Getty Museum
In February 1952, the culmination of their search took them to the final owner, a Mrs. Pritchard of London, England. Although her family had previously expressed to Gernsheim that the plate had been stolen or otherwise permanently lost from them, it had recently been rediscovered. The long sought image had been found in a dusty old trunk beneath "old clothes, books, and other family relics." A meeting between Mrs. Pritchard and the Gernsheims was at last arranged and they would have the opportunity to see it with their own eyes. As Mrs. Pritchard handed the ornately framed article to Helmut, she expressed her dismay that the image had totally faded away. Looking at the back, he first noticed the clearly worded description of the transaction of this item from Niépce to Bauer. Turning it over, he saw what appeared to be simply a dark, polished metallic plate. But where was the photographic image?

Just as Niépce had done more than a century before, he turned and tilted the plate in the light streaming through the window, until he finally began to see what was there– an image of the country estate at Le Gras, outside the upper floor window. His heart pounded as he realized the fruition of his quest.

Sometime later, the plate passed into his own possession, and eventually into the archives of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, a part of the University of Texas at Austin. The "First Photograph" is currently and permanently on display in the lobby of the Harry Ransom Center.
The First Photograph Shrine,
in the lobby of the Harry Ransom Center

If you possess a serious interest in photography (or the arts and communication in general), and you find yourself in the vicinity of central Texas you should seriously consider a pilgrimage to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. The Center, itself, is reason enough to visit the area but the "First Photograph" makes it mandatory. This relic is simply the Holy Grail of photography. Like viewing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in the National Archives, this is a unique and memorable experience.

As I reflected in the opening lines of this post, the image is difficult to see and at first glance it appears to be nothing more than a mirror. However, your patience will be rewarded as you find the proper angle to observe it, and Niépce's family estate at Le Gras reveals itself once again. A photograph of this photograph (as can be seen above in the Getty photo) is always less than satisfying, and it can only truly be seen in person. This is an experience that should not be missed.

one of only five complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible
in the United States, Harry Ransom Center lobby
While you are in the lobby of the Center you can view another amazing genesis of modern communication– one of the very few existing complete copies of Gutenberg's printed Bible. This was where printing, as we know it, began so many centuries ago. To see these two incredible inventions in the same room at the same time is a priceless experience.

Finally, read the details of the amazing journey that Helmut and Alison Gernsheim took to rediscover the "First Photograph,"

and discover for yourself the intriguing new finds at Niépce's family estate (and now a photographic museum) in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Fun

The first day of December I embarked on what has become an interesting photographic project. My daughter recently moved to Kharkiv, Ukraine for a couple of years, to be with her husband who has been running a small software development company there. Since she was going to be out of the U.S. and away from most of her family for much of the holiday seasons, I thought I would attempt to bring some of "home" to her, by way of the internet.

When our daughter was a little girl, growing up in our home, one thing she always looked forward to at Christmas time was the Advent calendars we had. She enjoyed the daily ritual of opening up each day's new "surprise." So, I thought I would come up with my own Advent calendar for her this year, by daily taking a new photo of some little Christmas tidbit around our home, and posting it in a private Christmas Advent page for her somewhere on this blog.

Three Muses Attempt To Stay Warm
This has been a very interesting experiment and project. Each day I have had the challenge before me of how to come up with something entirely new for her. I didn't want to spend a long time composing and taking each shot, but wanted to have something much fresher, and even casual in manner. Some days the resulting photo has been serious in tone, sometimes it has been decidely humorous. But each day, I have tried to produce something that might grab her attention personally, as this project is specifically aimed at her.

It is wonderful every once in a while to take on a photographic project that requires us to stretch ourselves, to do something consistently (maybe even every single day) over an extended period of time. When our subjects are limited but we have to produce something effective anyway, in a very limited amount of time, it can cause us to advance as an artist, and to think and create in modes we might not find otherwise.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Photographic Purity– (Distortion or Not)

Panoramic photographs have their own brand of geometric subtleties (some would call this "distortion"). Much of these effects are because of the extremely wide angle of view (as much as a full 360 degrees) that panoramics rely on. When photography was relegated to capturing a view that simulated looking through a window, the geometry was narrow enough to keep geometric effects below the surface.

As long as a panoramic photo is captured in the "conventional way" (with its plane of rotation parallel to the horizon) so-called distortion is minimal- maybe even undetectible. When that plane begins to tilt away from level, distortion begins to be perceived. If a full 360 view is captured, any planes or lines that are parallel to the horizon appear as a sinusoidal curve.

HARVEST WAVE, © Bill Brockmeier, all rights reserved

This curving of features that otherwise should appear as lines is entirely a consequence of geometry, rather than a deficiency of the imaging system. Imagine that the rotation of a panoramic camera setup sweeps out a cylindrical view of space as it rotates through 360 degrees. If a planar feature in the view (the earth's surface/horizon, for instance) is perpendicular to the cylinder (the rotation is level) the plane will trace out a feature on the cylinder that is a straight line when unwrapped (which is what happens when the pano photograph is printed on a flat sheet of paper).

But if the plane (the horizon) is tilted with respect to the cylindrical view, and the cylinder then unwrapped, you will see that the traced out pattern is now a complete sine curve. The amplitude of the curvature (distance from peak to valley) is a function of the degree of tilt between the plane and the cylinder.

Well, enough on this. I believe I've beaten this dead horse more than sufficiently, and I think you can see that "distortion" is really a matter of personal perspective. What one person might consider a distortion of physical reality is merely one of the myriad (NOTE for Michael: "myriad" is a Greek word meaning, specifically, "ten thousand") ways of reasonably mapping or interpreting the real world onto a finite piece of a two dimensional surface. I don't believe anyone can categorically or authoritatively state that any one particular mapping or interpretation is to be absolutely preferred over another.

I believe it is ultimately important in the arts (of which photography is certainly one) to remember the treachery of images– that the image (the artistic creation) is NOT the reality which inspired it. And it is good to remember that photographic "purity" is more a phantom than a reality...that "distortion" is really the foundation of the photographic arts rather than its bane.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Photographic Purity– (Building a Panoramic)

We've seen that distortion is built into the process of producing a conventional photographic image. If we take a few regular photographs from the same location, slightly rotating the camera for each frame, we effectively cover a greater field of view with the shots. If the shots slightly overlap each other at the sides, we ought to be able to easily combine  them to produce a single wide-angle image.

Unfortunately, this process will not work because the built-in distortion of the camera lens causes all features in the view to change shape when the camera points in a different direction. When a particular feature is on the right side of the field of view it's one shape, and when on the left side of the field of view it's a slightly different shape. So, when the right side of the first image is overlaid on the left side of the second image, the shapes do not match. This results in either ghost images, missing information, or otherwise mismatched overlaps in the final pano image.

For a proper, undistorted blending of conventional camera shots into a wide angle panorama, the built-in distortion of a standard camera lens must be eliminated, or at least minimized. Once the distortion has been removed the separate frames may be simply overlaid on each other, with the overlapping parts of the images matching well and the images blending into one.
Panoramic sequence of nine frames that have been geometrically remapped to remove camera lens distortion

In the days before modern digital computing, this distortion elimination was nearly an impossible task. Now, this process has become not only possible but even fairly simplistic to the user. Although it seems easy from the outside of the computer, there are actually many billions of calculations and transformations being carried out for a single panorama to be compiled.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Photographic Purity– (Distortion By Intent)

The whole idea of producing a precisely rectangular  image of a known rectangle in the real world is suspect, and actually a distortion of reality. I say this because a rectangular object cannot truly appear as precisely rectangular.

At first blush this sounds counter-intuitive. You might say: "Of course rectangular objects look rectangular- what else would they look like?!" But do they? Under most circumstances, rectangular objects appear mostly rectangular, but widen the view that a rectangular object encompasses, and the picture becomes clearer.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a very large one story building- let's say that it is 10 feet high, 200 feet wide, and you are 20 feet away from it. The left end of the building stretches way off to the left, and the right end to the right. Those ends of the building appear very small, while the middle of the building right in front of you appears quite large. How then, can the front of the building appear as a rectangle?

In fact, the top of the building and the bottom of the building must actually appear as curved edges, with the two curves farthest apart in the middle, and closer together at the two distant ends. This is a simple consequence of the fact that closer objects appear larger and distant objects appear smaller. For a rectangular object centered on the direct axis of view, this causes all sides of the rectangle to appear slightly bulged out away from the center.

While this scenario is certainly an extreme example, it is still true for all other situations, just to a lesser degree. This is the effect that the built-in distortion in a camera lens attempts to mitigate. This lens design tries to force the object to actually be imaged as a rectangle, when, as we've already seen, it can't really look that way.

For the most part, this purposeful distortion in a camera lens is actually a benefit (why else would lens designers go to such great lengths to design them this way?). But when attempting to reconstruct a panoramic image from separate camera images this built-in distortion makes the effort problematic. I'll look at this issue in my next post.

Image by camera lens with built-in distortion to
produce precisely rectangular shape
View of rectangular object as it might actually
appear as a consequence of geometry

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Photographic Purity– (Geometric Distortion)

Another question that occasionally comes up when people are viewing my art at shows revolves around something they usually refer to as "distortion." The question commonly sounds like this: "I thought that panoramic photos were usually distorted, but these don't look distorted," or: "Is that hill really there, or is that just distortion?" I believe that what they are concerned about is whether or not the photograph looks something like what they would have seen if they had been standing there as I took the photograph.
SEA OF COREOPSIS, © Bill Brockmeier, all rights reserved
The answer to these questions is not a simple one. Much of the problem in answering them stems from the fact that the basis of photography is the attempt to map visible features in the three-dimensional real world onto a finite area, two-dimensional plane. While that may sound simple enough to the uninitiated, it is actually a very complex geometric and human perceptual problem. There is not a single way do to this mapping, but probably dozens of ways, with each method having its own merits and short-comings.

I won't bore you with the details of these dozens of methods, but many of them were devised over the past few centuries as the globe became circumnavigated and every far-flung corner of it became a goal of human exploration. At that time, it became important to be able to precisely represent this three-dimensional sphere we call "earth" on a flat piece of paper, so it could be easily rolled up and carried in a captain's quarters on a ship, or in the saddlebag of a horse-borne explorer. The profession of a cartographer was an incredibly demanding and important job.

When photography came along, this ability to conflate a three-D world down onto a simple two-D representation became an incredibly "easy" transformation to accomplish– automatic, in fact. The photographer didn't even have to think about it, the camera just "did it." But what determined the actual geometric transformation was hidden in the details of the optical system: the precise optical makeup of the lens system and the geometric relationship of the lens to the photosensitive plate (and its shape).

The devising and engineering of optical/lens systems has been a rich field of innovation for the past century and a half. Some of the world's brightest technical minds have been devoted to this pursuit. Their efforts at devising new lens systems have been aimed at things like sharper image focus (better detail), improved light-gathering ability, and decreased geometric distortion– whatever that means.

Lens designers have a very limited definition of what "geometric distortion" (or "image distortion") means. I won't go into what that specific definition is here, but it has very limited significance for most of the photographs that most people take. For instance, if one was trying to exactly reproduce the type on a printed, flat sheet of paper, this narrow view of distortion might be important. But if someone's portrait, or a distant landscape are more likely the subject, it's not clear that this "distortion" is an important consideration.

Most people don't know, and even most photographers don't realize, that most photographic lenses are actually designed with a certain distortion built in. It's easy to demonstrate this with almost any camera, and the more "wide angle" that a lens is, the easier it is to see.

Look through a camera's viewfinder, or at its digital display, and look carefully at some scene before you. Then, start panning the camera to the right. As the camera is in motion you will notice that objects in view will change their shape and size somewhat as they move from the right edge of the frame, to the center, and finally to the left edge. The real objects are obviously NOT changing in shape just because the camera is moving, rather, their image is different because it is passing through the lens in a different direction, thus revealing the lens's built-in distortion.

In both of the photographs below, the camera was placed at a point precisely perpendicular out from the center of the clock. The only difference in the two photos is that in one of them the clock was placed at the right edge of the camera's field-of-view, in the other it was at the left. Notice how the square of tiles immediately surrounding the clock is not square but trapezoidal in nature, and that in one of them the top and bottom lines converge to the left and in the other they converge to the right— their shape has changed. Remember that the location of the camera for each photograph was identical, and that only its direction changed.

clock at right edge of camera's field-of-view
clock at left edge of camera's field-of-view
This distortion is a by-product of the lens designer's determination that if the photographer is taking a photograph of something that is known to most people to be rectangular in nature (and that is fairly far away, and exactly centered on the camera's optical axis, and precisely perpendicular to that axis), the final photographic print should also display a precisely rectangular feature. Although that sounds reasonable enough, this is definitely a distortion of the truth, and, in fact, rectangular objects cannot really appear precisely rectangular, even if the restrictions noted above are followed.

I'll leave the proof of this final assertion for my next entry.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Photographic Purity– (Beyond B&W: Color)

Black and White photography transitioned to color imaging before most people alive today can personally remember. Bill Watterson, in his Calvin and Hobbes creation (probably the high-water mark of daily cartoon strips), probed this technological shift with an amusing and thought-provoking perspective. Out of respect for Watterson's copyrights I won't provide a direct link here to this particular strip, but you can find it out there if you search for it.

When the ability to capture "true color" images arrived, this new tool was widely seen as nearly miraculous and bringing the viewer ever closer to a "true" recreation of the original scene. This shift from B/W to color was almost (but not quite) as profound as the shift from painted images to photographs had been most of a century earlier. Instead of recording only values (light/dark), this new capacity could acquire the various hues and saturation levels in a scene as well. For nearly the first century of photography, paintings always had the upper hand when it came to coloration– photographs just could not compete in this arena. Now, with color added to the mix, the sky was nearly the limit. In fact, the sky no longer had to suffer the dreary limit of endless stretches of gloomy gray, but could now burst forth with the beauty of its truly blue self.

EARTH AND WATER INTERWOVEN, I, © Bill Brockmeier, all rights reserved
Of course this ability to record the colors apparent in a scene has to be closer to the reality of the original...or does it? It would be instructive here to ask a simple question: "What is color, anyway?" It might come as a surprise to find out that color is not actually a physical parameter, but, in fact, is simply a human perception, a construct of the mind.

While one might say that color is just a matter of the wavelength of the light, this is stripping down the truth of color far too simplistically. There are actual, perceivable colors that don't even exist on the complete spectrum of "all the wavelengths" that are spread out from white light as it passes through a prism. And any specific, perceivable color can actually be created from an infinite number of possible combinations of different other colors. Even more amazing, it is possible for there to be two things that appear exactly the same color under one lighting condition, and yet appear to be dramatically different in color from each other in a different lighting condition (metamerism).

Here is a short list of conditions that can substantially affect the perceived color of an object:
  • color of the light illuminating the object
  • brightness of the illumination
  • color of the object's environment/surroundings
  • colors and intensity of light viewed previous to viewing the object
  • color characteristics of any transmitting medium between the object and viewer

Most probably know that it is in the retina, the light sensitive back surface of the eye, that color is initiated when photons are preferentially absorbed by the different cone (color) receptors. While this is true, this is only the beginning (the barest beginning) of color perception. This is no simple RGB (red/green/blue) modeling of the light that is intercepted, as in a camera. The neural network of the retina takes this simple color "information" and already begins massaging it and reacting to it, before it sends it on to various locations in the brain, which further process these signals into a whole host of responses and outputs, gaining even emotional and visceral components along the way.

While the truth of color perception is highly complex and cannot be quantified unambiguously, what about the "simple" RGB (trichromatic) model used by photography? It turns out that even if we restrict ourselves to discussing this stripped-down technological version of "colors" it is a complex issue. First, there is the camera that takes the complex mix of light and turns it into an array of values that represent the "original colors." Of course, these values are necessarily compared to some "reference white" (would that be an incandescent lamp? a fluorescent lamp? or maybe natural sunlight...and at what time of day?).

The numerical values that are produced by this method are also limited in various ways. First, there is the sensitivity/detection function of the three separate color channels of the camera (basically, the filter transmission curves of the camera's detectors). Then, there is the dynamic range of the values (lightest to darkest) and the size of the steps from one value to the very next. There is also the issue of color gamut– how much of the totally perceivable color "real estate" can be covered by these numerical representations?

Finally, when these numerical values representing the colors in an image have been determined, how will the image be reproduced so it can be seen? Here, the loop is closed by somehow converting the values back into color representations either emitted by the light of a digital monitor, or by the density of different colored ink droplets on paper media. In both these cases, the representations themselves convolve the dynamic range and color gamut limitations as mentioned previously for the camera. On top of that, there are now even more considerations that effect the final colors– things like color gamma in monitors; and for printed images, dot gain, media brightness and whitepoint, and illumination whitepoint, color rendering index, and brightness. And if that wasn't enough, high-end photographic printers now boast of as many as ten or twelve different ink colors to represent those three original RGB colors. As you can see this is a highly complicated issue, and it is an amazing thing that the whole system works as well as it does.

It's clear that there really is no such thing as photographic "purity" when it comes to color. Attempting the photographic reproduction of the "original colors" of a scene may (or may not) be a worthy goal to strive for, but it is simply not possible today (and really never will be). And that's OK. After all, this is an art, and van Gogh did not mix his colors like Gauguin did.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Photographic Purity– (B&W vs Color)

In my previous post I mentioned that the basis for photography was producing "an analog of what the original subject 'looked like.'" That thought was a kind of off-the-cuff remark, but thinking about it again, I believe it now even more strongly. It is significant that a photograph is aimed not at simply reproducing a physical duplicate of the original, but, rather, in producing (or re-producing) a human perception ("...looked like"). The photographer may be interested in reproducing/conveying whatever her own human perception was of the subject at the time, or she may be interested in producing a particular and wholly new internal perception in the mind of the photograph's viewer (or both).

I believe this matter sets photography apart as an art, rather than as simply a science. There certainly is a place for photography's use as something closer to a science when it is used more simply as a documentary device. In my own work as an optical engineer, I sometimes use photography to purely document the external surface state of a material sample after it has been exposed to laser radiation. And its use in medical and forensic science to document both simple and complex systems and circumstances is invaluable. Even photo-journalism uses something of this documentary power of photography, but in this case, it is equally used to form a perception in the viewer and persuade.

When photography began, it's aim was an image that was composed of light and dark areas, to represent the light and dark areas that were seen in the original subject. This light/dark nature lacked any reference to the original colors in the subject– it was what we now call B/W ("black and white") photography. In this infancy of photography there was not much thought given to what the original colors might have been. At that time the only pigment available on the photographic artist's pallet was a single, simple stick of charcoal. Colors were not what mattered; only values mattered. These early innovators of photography probably never even imagined that photography would someday capture colors as well as values.

Today, there are very few people alive who can remember a time when there were only B/W photographs. And the days of choosing between an inexpensive B/W television and an expensive color unit are decades in the past. In this day, B/W photography is seen as sort of an avant-garde artistic technique, rather than the primitive progenitor of modern photography. B/W is now seen more often than not for its substantial artistic possibilities rather than as an older and cheaper form of photography. This is a good thing.

EARTH AND WATER, INTERWOVEN I, © Bill Brockmeier, all rights reserved
The considerable benefits that monochrome photography brings to the art are wide in spectrum and deep in subtlety– far too great to exhaust in this short article. However, I must at least mention its unique ability to bring the form and structure of an image's composition into clear focus. In some respect, it can offer also distinct abstract qualities to an image, somewhat distancing the observer from the original scene, and thereby bringing them into a closer interaction with their own (or the photographer's) thoughts, impressions, and emotions about the image.

With only tonal values present in the image, color can no longer distract the viewer from the image's underlying structure. This monochromatic vision is a very foreign way of seeing, and usually only experienced under extremely low light level conditions. Perhaps it is this foreign nature of the experience that helps us to see in more than a simply natural and commonplace way. Geometric interplay between various forms and shapes in the image can become paramount. Light and dark, airiness and weight, levity and gravity sing and dance a duet.

It is strange to think that in limiting our ability to see– by removing all color information– we can see things that may have been invisible before.

Of course the final irony in the whole thing is that B/W photography is not truly monochromatic. The white in a B/W image is what a physicist would refer to as "broadband" or "full spectrum" light. This is light that is composed, not of a single wavelength (color) of light, but, rather, of all wavelengths/colors. And even in the original capture of the image, all colors (not just one) came together to produce the image. Truly, "less is more" and "more is less."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Photographic Purity– (What is photography?)

As I show my work publicly, a frequent question I am asked is— "Do you digitally 'enhance' your photos, or are they 'straight' shots?" Although I think I know what they are generally asking, the real answer is not quite so simple as they might imagine.

What they probably want to know is whether or not I have intentionally used an image editor (like Adobe's PhotoShop) to "pump up" the photograph's color saturation, or contrast, or sharpness, or whatever. They want to know whether I am a photographic "purist" or not. Although I usually respond that "I try to keep the shot as 'straight' as possible," the answer to this question is still not clear cut. Maybe what we should begin asking is "What really is photography, anyway?"

TIME IS MONEY, OR IS IT AN ANGLE?, © Bill Brockmeier
Photography is the process of using the light energy that is coming from a subject to form some sort of physical image that is an analog of what the original subject "looked like." What I mean by "analog" is using one thing to represent another. For example, an "analog clock" uses the angular motion of the clock's hands to represent an amount of elapsed time. In this case, 30° of movement of the hour hand is used to represent one hour of elapsed time. Of course, that 30° is not the exact same thing as one hour, but it is a useful representation of it, since we can't actually see time.

In a similar way, photography aims to represent a view of an original subject by substituting some other "image" that is a function of, or is dependent on, the subject. The specific details of what this representative is, and how that transformation is made from the subject's light to an analog/photographic image, have varied greatly over the history of photographic technology. During most of this history, however, one particular transformation has been king: that of photosensitive silver salts.

From almost the beginning of photography, this process had as its goal the production of an "image" composed of analogous dark areas (due to microscopic particles of silver) that resulted from similar dark areas in the original subject (assuming a positive image). <<<The complexities of that process are far too deep to expound upon here.>>> And, conversely, the lighter areas in the image (resulting from light areas in the subject) were simply due to a lesser concentration of these silver grains, with the lighter substrate showing through to a greater degree. Images produced in this way were eminently recognizable as having a correspondence with the original subject.

It is important to keep in mind here that this "image" made up of silver particles is not actually reproducing the original subject at all. Although we can recognize a photograph of a railway steam locomotive, it is totally obvious that this photograph is NOT a steam locomotive! <<<see Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images>>> Not only does the image totally lack the weight and substance of the original, it is only a two dimensional pattern, lacking the critical third dimension. At any angle of observance other than perfectly perpendicular, it quickly becomes obvious that the image is severely limited in realism (we won't approach holography in this discussion of photography).

On top of this, the brightness of each little area in the image cannot even begin to replicate the range of brightness exhibited by the real object. About the best the silver image can do is a ratio of brightness to darkness of about 100, while the eye can see a ratio of something more like 1,000,000, and the real object can have a ratio that is nearly unlimited.

These limitations are immense, nevertheless, the transformation of light energy into tiny silver crystals has been an eminently useful, and immensely successful, analogy. Eastman Kodak's billions of dollars, and probably hundreds of billions of photographs taken by the world's population over more than a century are a strong testimony to that success. And the creation of a whole new art-form, distinct and separate from painting, is credited to this transformation of light energy to a pattern of matter.

Then, we have the issue of light frequency/wavelength, or color, which we'll look at in my next post on Photographic Purity.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Art of Discovery (Part 3)

I started what has become a three-part article by looking into some of my own recent experiences of Discovery. I will finish it with some cautionary advice, also gleaned from personal experience.

There are those who warn against using the word "create" and its derivative nouns and adjectives as being something akin to blasphemy.  They reason that using this word for anything other than referring to the Creator's direct creative acts and the resulting Creation attempts to dilute the power and uniqueness of that primary act. I can certainly understand that viewpoint and even have some sympathy for it. However, I believe there is still an appropriate use of these terms, when humans are involved in what has come to be known as creativity.

God's highest achievement in His creative work was undeniably the creation of humankind. In the first part of Genesis, God is seen finishing off the perfect work of creating by saying: "Let us make man in our image— our God created man in his own image...male and female he created them...God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." There is a rich depth of meaning bound up in the phrase "made in his own image," but for this brief article I would like to consider just one aspect.

In the opening narrative of Genesis, we certainly see God primarily as Creator of all. It would be surprising, therefore, if this creative talent/skill/bent was not among those aspects of "his own image" that He placed in His highest creation, mankind. Because of this, I believe strongly that the ability to "create" (in the secondary, not primary sense) is an integral part of who "Adam" is (and we, by derivation) . This ability to take what is unseen, unmanifest, and bring it into physical reality is a gift beyond words, beyond imagining. This gift, along with other God-like aspects of our character, is worlds apart from the rest of the Creation. Why God put this absolutely stunning power within us defies explanation. But nevertheless, there it is.

CREATION, bronze sculpture,
© Irene McCoy, all rights reserved
The power to "create" (and this is the last time I will use quotation marks to differentiate our abilities from God's) is so amazing, so astonishing, that it is also intoxicating. Just as a rare and exquisite wine can have the wonderful attributes of color, clarity, bouquet, and other gustatory delights (and, apparently, Jesus made/created some amazing wine Himself!– see John 2.10) it has the ability to stupefy, as well as uplift the senses. I have written previously about the exhilaration that can come with the adventure of discovery, and with anything that is so exhilarating comes the potential for "drunkenness." We can easily become "drunk" with our ability to create, and not appreciate it for the gift it truly is.

Being a creative being carries with it tremendous responsibilities. First among them is to realize that God Himself, alone, is THE CREATOR. All creative ability and acts are purely a gift from Him. There is nothing of merit that we can do, apart from Him. Because of this, it is incumbent upon the creative person to seek this Creator God, to know Him, and to know His direction and guidance for the whole of our lives, including our creative work. Then, in the final analysis, it is only right for us to thank Him for this grace, and to appropriately give Him all the praise and glory for the outcome.

This last part can sometimes be difficult. It can be so fulfilling and pleasurable to receive praise from others for the artful works that come about by our agency. But this is a trap that can only serve to sever the channels of creative flow that come from our God. If we believe, and if we allow others to believe, that this creative ability is our own isolated possession, we cut ourselves off from the true Source, the true Spring of creating. By claiming to be the sole source of the creative pulse that flows through us, we set ourselves up in the place of the Creator and forget Who He is, and we are then simply left to our own paltry devices.

Know the Creator God, and glory in His wondrous work, whether it comes through us, through others, or simply and directly from His own capable hands!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Two Thumbs-up!

The 2011 Hill Country Invitational show was a very satisfying and productive venture for me. I have had the opportunity to place four new images of mine before a large gathering of people who care a great deal about serious art- and they have given me an overwhelming "thumb's up!"

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Art of Discovery (Part 2)

I believe that creativity and faith are parallel journeys to be taken.  The Writer of the "Letter to the Hebrews" defined faith this way: "Faith is the evidence (or substance) of things unseen."  There exist eternal things that yet reside in secret and are hidden in darkness— invisible— but nevertheless have a certainty and reality.  That reality is held and ultimately manifest in this physical universe by the exercise of faith.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Art of Discovery (Part 1)

The OPEN PORTAL image continued to grow on me for a few days, and I was very much looking forward to sharing this view of Mission San Jose (and more) with those who would attend the Hill Country Invitational show in Boerne.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that something was yet missing.  The image itself continued as a high point for me, but it seemed I was still waiting for something more to come.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Looking Further Up

I wrote earlier that I encountered interesting surprises as I began my preparations for the fall show in Boerne, Texas.  No matter how much I think I have prepared ahead of time for an upcoming show, things always seem to be somewhat of a moving target and the last few days I am usually found scrambling.  This show has been that and more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Learning to Expect the Unexpected

Recently, as I was preparing images for exhibition in the fall Hill Country Invitational show, I had some surprising, but not totally unexpected experiences.  In my previous post, I mentioned the serendipitous nature of the particular photographic arts that I have been pursuing.  I have seen enough of this that I have come to expect the unexpected.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Looking Up

The conventional format for a panoramic photograph is a "landscape," or horizontal, layout, and perhaps this is due to the fact that we humans possess binocular vision, with the two eyes paired in a horizontal arrangement.  This arrangement causes our field of vision to be spread out left and right, taking in as much as possible of the horizon and, in fact, the horizontal plane on which we stand and walk.  This mostly horizontal orientation to our vision (and much of our life) becomes the main reference from which we tend to view and understand things.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A New Art Venue in Boerne

The Boerne Professional Artists group held its annual spring show— the Parade of Artists— last April.  This exhibit is always a very intimate look at the work of each of the participating artists.  Most of the artists in the group have a local Boerne presence (galleries, etc.) where there work is presented to the public on a permanent/continual basis.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Like-Minded Artists in Boerne, TX

Late last year I was granted membership alongside some well-known and quite accomplished artists in the Boerne Professional Artists group.  Previously, my association with them had been being invited by them twice to their wonderful fall show of fine art, the Hill Country Invitational. This show had, both times, been a marvelous time for me, not only because it had always been a financial success for me, but also because I had a thoroughly enjoyable time those weekends.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blanco Lavender Festival

The lavender fields and farms clustered in the Blanco, Texas area have suffered mightily from the nearly nine months of extreme drought, but you wouldn't have known it had you visited my photographic exhibit early in June. My photographs of private lavender farms in the area (taken last year just after an exceedingly rainy spring) showed fields of the fragrant blooms so lush, you'd swear you could smell them!