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.

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