Saturday, February 2, 2013

Manipulating Photographs

     I sharpened this illustration slightly in Photoshop!                                                                                       C. Leck

“Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop!”
by Charlie Leck

A gift came for me from daughter Cynthia. It’s a lovely book she bought for me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she had attended an exhibit called: Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. The book sent bears the same title and is a wonderful discussion about how the great photography masters of the early twentieth century used the tools of the dark room to skillfully adjust and manipulate photographs for production – far different, in the end, than the photograph that the camera originally took.
The book was written and assembled by Mia Fineman, who is the Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan. The exhibit was sponsored by Adobe Corporation, the creator and owner of Adobe Photoshop. The book includes an interesting statement by Maria Yap, the senior Director in Adobe’s Digital Imaging Department. In part, it says this…
“As the proud corporate sponsor of “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop,” Adobe has a special interest in the show’s thesis. For more than twenty years – since its first release in 1990 – Adobe Photoshop software has been accused of undermining photographic truthfulness. The implicit assumption has been that photographs shot before 1990 captured the unvarnished truth and that the manipulations made possible by Photoshop compromised that truth.
“Now, “Faking It” punctures this assumption, presenting two hundred works that demonstrate the many ways photographs have been manipulated since the early days of the medium to serve artistry, novelty, politics, news, advertising, fashion, and other photographic purposes…”
At a wonderful course I took last year at the Minneapolis Center for Photography, the instructor, Steve Bie, showed us an example of the way the American master of photography, Ansel Adams, would work in the dark room to greatly enhance a photograph that his camera took. This kind of touching up and altering of photographs has been going on for a long, long time.
In this book that my daughter sent me, another example of the way Ansel Adams worked a photograph is illustrated by using his very famous work “Moonrise.” The original is a fine photograph. The final, printed version, as enhanced by burning and dodging, among other things, is an extraordinary work of art. This paragraph explaining Adam’s attitude and his method in quite instructive…
“Ansel Adams, another renowned proponent of straight photography as well as an accomplished musician, often compared photography to music: ‘The negative is like a musical score,’ he said; ‘the making of the print is the performance.’ Nowhere is the virtuoso musicianship of straight photography more apparent than in Adams’ iconic image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. He took the photograph of a nearly full moon rising over the village of Hernandez on a late-fall afternoon in 1941, just as the sun dipped behind the mountains, its dying rays illuminating the little white crosses in the village cemetery. In his rush to capture the fleeting moment, Adams had time to make only a single photograph. With no light meter handy, he based the exposure time on some quick mental calculations, and the resulting large-format negative was less than perfect, with a severely underexposed foreground and an overexposed sky. For several years, Adams struggled to deliver a great performance of this flawed score, expertly burning and dodging prints to darken the sky and increase the contrast in the town below; in 1948 he even altered the negative itself by chemically intensifying the foreground.”
The final version of the photograph, after Adams spent hours and hours on it, is stunning, remarkable and beautiful.
Is it phony? No, it is much more like what the eye of Ansel Adams saw and what he very much wanted his camera to capture.
“This Moonrise – the version that has been reproduced on countless posters and Sierra Club calendars – is a skillfully crafted artifact, an artist’s dramatic interpretation of a lackluster negative. This moonrise may resemble what Adams saw – or imagined he saw – when he stopped his car on the shoulder of a New Mexico highway in 1941, but it is certainly not a ‘straight’ rendition of the image recorded by the mechanical eye of the camera.”
The exhibit at the Metropolitan showed-off photographs that had been altered and manipulated for reasons of art, comedy, advertising or just plain fun.
Certainly, the entire process is made easier today by the invention of Photoshop, but it would be wrong to say that the invention allows us to do something today that couldn’t be done before. Perhaps it allows us to do these things more conveniently and quickly – and even more precisely – but photographic manipulation has been part of the art for a long, long time. It has been especially going on in portrait photography for a hundred years or more.

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