Cameras Without Film

With the rise of digital photography, utilizing a photograph as a starting point in the creation of an artistic image has become effortless. Within some quarters of the creative community, this practice is viewed as a form of cheating. The contention is that a “real” artist begins with a blank canvas. Should a Corel Painter user feel a twinge of guilt when employing this assistive technique?

Ever since artists have been drawing on flat surfaces, they have employed techniques to aid in their quest for realism. Prior to the Renaissance, most art was primarily employed to aid in the teachings of the Church to an illiterate population. Symbolism, rather than realism, was paramount to the artist and to his audience.

With the Renaissance came humanism and the flowering of the sciences. The Florentine architect and artisan-engineer Brunelleschi is credited with the invention of linear perspective. This mathematical system accurately describes the visual fact that the apparent size of an object decreases with increasing distance from the eye. The use of perspective enables the depiction of a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional surface.

Due to our visual sophistication, it is difficult for us to fathom the emotional impact of a three-dimensionally painted image upon a population unfamiliar with perspective representation. Its awe-inspiring, heightened realism provided artists with a powerful tool for visual communication. As the theory of perspective spread among artists, various mechanical perspective aids were created to assist in the transcription of reality to a two-dimensional surface.

Concurrent with the Renaissance was the development of scientific optics. Finely ground lenses were used to magnify the heavens as well as microscopic objects. One of these lenses was eventually fitted to the pinhole of a camera obscura, a technique which employed a darkened space, such as a room, to project an exterior scene upon a two-dimensional surface within the room’s interior. This was essentially a room-sized camera without film.

Around the mid-17th century, paintings began to appear depicting images that possessed stunning optical accuracy. This is the same time period in which the lens- and mirror-based camera obscura became known to artists, particularly the Dutch oil painters. The work of painter Jan Vermeer has been the subject of scholarly analysis demonstrating his use of the camera obscura as a tool in the creation of his depictions of everyday life.

Vermeer’s work exhibits a dramatically accurate representation of light and color. The apparent size differences of objects relative to the viewer are consistent with an optically projected image. The optical effect of soft halation around brightly lit objects is present. To maintain a competitive edge, artists that employed the camera obscura were highly secretive of its use, leaving the public in awe of such painted realism.

Today’s camera obscura is the computer screen. A photograph can coexist effortlessly within Corel Painter’s art studio of brushes, the artist free to dip their paintbrush into a photograph. Just as the theory of perspective and the camera obscura before it, Painter is another technologically advanced tool of interest to artists. With each of these tools, an image of reality is presented as a starting point. The artist then develops the image with the touch of humanity.

The Artist is the Film.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

There is a lively discussion going on at the TexasPhotoForum debating the validity of "photoshopped" images represented in the International Print Competition held annually by the Professional Photographers of America.

One point of view is that the notion of "pure photography"—photographs unmanipulated by imaging software—is being superceded by heavily manipulated imagery (I cringe at the word "manipulated"; it has a negative connotation undeserving of the world of creative results achieved by talented individuals).

I am PPA member and have an image represented in the PPA International Print Competition. I have another point of view.

I do a lot of "straight out of the camera" photography, and have been doing it for more years than I care to admit. I also have a background in painting. Much of my painting-applied-to-photography has been utilized commercially in the area of interpreted portraits—photographs made to appear as oils or watercolors. I eventually wanted to utilize this skill and associated tools (Painter, Photoshop) in conjunction with my personal photographic work. I like to shoot scenics that have already-present abstract quilites in them.
Here's an example:

Click on image to view full size.

When I reviewed the series of photographs that the above image came from, I was immediately struck with how much it inherently had an almost abstract expressionist painting quality. It became the canvas upon which I applied my painterly strokes.
Here is the result:

Click on image to view full size.

I am in the process of pursuing what has become a lifelong goal: To blur the distinction between photography and painting. Why would I do that? Well, both photography and painting are creative mediums that I am adept at. Technology has leveled the playing field. These two formerly exclusive mediums now co-exist effortlessly on the computer monitor. I can now literally dip my paintbrush into a photograph!

The genie is out of the bottle—there is no going back with respect to tools like Photoshop and Painter as applied to photography. That's not to say that there isn't room for pure photography. I still love shooting what I see in an effort to freeze a moment and its unique emotional charge.

Photographs of this intent are difficult to add to with any of the myriad of technical gee-gaws we now have at our disposal. I have banged my head against many such images in an attempt to "improve" them with little or no success: the image stands on its own—further interpretation detracts from the original moment.

I think that the headlong rush of technology and its impact on photography is straining the PPA's International Print Competition to its current limit. Photography is in the throes of a major sea change. There will always be—and must be—a place for pure photography, but as I said: the genie is out of the bottle.

Photography will continue experience upheaval as photographers become acquianted with the new tools that are emerging. Let's not fail to recognize that ever since the first photographic image was developed there have been subjective decisions applied by the photographer.

I'm guessing that the PPA higher-ups will be adjusting the categories and criteria for the Print Competition in the near future. As many who visited the PPA Print Competition recently in San Antonio have noted, it is becoming top-heavy with manipulation. No—make that top-heavy with creative expression.

I would love to see an expanded categorization that allows each approach to shine on its own. I will always believe that there is room for creative expression within any medium.