My notions of 'simple/simplicity' seem to center on clarity ("to the point"), balance/equilibrium (often emphasized in composition/framing), minimal visual distraction from the central element, the intuitive (appealing to personal and subjective understanding: grokkage), and the direct and the succinct (not requiring elaborate explanation).A Flickr album to which I will continue to add over the next 3 weeks seems the appropriate distribution medium for this work, which I'll plan to annotate with comments and expatiations.
Another pathway toward Simplicity is simple/simplifying action: symmetrical mirroring is a simple transformation, which often makes a coherent [ordered? simplified?] something out of a jumble of apparent disorder. Inversion (white to black, black to white) is another seemingly simple transformation that can disclose unanticipated realities. And abridging the visual spectrum (as in infrared photography, or via desaturation to black-and-white) simplifies, as does blurring or defocusing.
And some questions have arisen as I photographed and processed the results during the last few weeks. The outstanding wonderment of the moment is how the intermediate steps of processing fit into Simplicity, which we've mostly considered from the perspective of a state of mind while taking the photographs.
Clearly, the processing of latent images has always been an important part of making photographs, and that's no less—indeed, perhaps even more—true of digital images. The analogies between traditional and digital processes are many, complex, and don't offer much help with the problems of process and consciousness in the digital realm. So how shall we think about the process and the consciousness, beyond the digital mechanics of "workflow"? Wherein lies the digital Tao?
This is a non-trivial question, and the language matters. "Post-processing" just seems wrong, both semantically ("post" what? the "preprocessing" done by the digital camera's chip?) and in terms of the importance of the intermediate activities to the finished product, be it a print or a jpg or some other format. A lot can (in fact, must) happen between RAW and end product, and it's very definitely a matter of conscious control, practical knowledge and skill, AND keeping one's heart pure. (How many times have you been asked "did you Photoshop that?", as if the verb 'to Photoshop' was somehow a de-authenticator of the end product). Similarly, the term "workflow" seems downright antithetical to the meditative engagement with subject matter that we hope to emulate in camera work.
Or so I was thinking until I looked again at George DeWolfe's Digital Masters: B & W printing (2009) (see Andy's magnificent review of the book), in which DeWolfe provides eloquent reasons and clear instructions for a Lightroom/Photoshop workflow that makes practical sense, and also offers a primer on meditation for photographers. DeWolfe says
I only manipulate my images in Lightroom and Photoshop to transform what the camera captured into what I actually saw and felt. (pg. 94)He warns against what he calls the "sandbox" workflow:
They start anywhere they want and jump from one tool or technique to the other seeking the perfect image... My advice? Don't even go there. (pg. 63)The workflow he prescribes as an alternative is a series of seemingly-objective steps, to be followed until the on-screen representation feels right—until subjective criteria are met. Then a couple of pages later:
Until you get the print in your hand and it dries, you don't know what you will get. So, I just print until it's right. (pg. 96)I'm still feeling that something is missing, still wondering what attitude the mindful photographer should strive for in the intermediate steps, so as to flow from inspiration to finished image. What intermediate manipulations are a step too far, and how is one to know when tempted to excess? Ansel Adams had things to say about these problems, back when noxious chemicals were the order of the day:
The reader is urged to keep in mind the fact that the photographer's expressive idea is always of greater importance than are technical rituals. (The Negative, pg. 95)What oh what would Ansel make of presets? of Lightroom's Clarity slider? of split toning? Of the work of John Paul Caponigro?
I feel that although certain precise mechanistic controls are of the utmost importance in making a negative, there should be a minimum of rigid mechanical control in making a print. A purely expressive approach can be used if the original creative concept is clear and the photographer has adequate technical ability. ...However, I believe that the border line of good taste usually lies this side of retouching or employment of texture screens, diffusion and distortion devices, paper negatives, and methods such as bromoil and gum printing, all of which, in my opinion, deviate from strictly "straight" photographic procedure. (The Print, pp v-vi)
Paul Caponigro (John Paul's father), who does nothing digitally and is still teaching and exhibiting in his mid-80s, may have a perspective on the middle process that's adaptable to the question I'm asking in this post:
I don't bother with work prints. I just go straight to work and play. I make myself happy in the darkroom by communing with my friends, these new negatives, a box of fresh paper and some chemicals. By noon I might have arrived at a workable print. Then I go to lunch, have a cup of coffee, and take a breather. I come back and say, "Oops. We have to do this rather than that."
There's a voice of the print. You can hear it if you come at it in the right way ... These negatives have a voice of their own and I have to divine what is really going to render what's in there. If the individual gives a certain kind of attention to his materials, they will teach. They're not superficial, inanimate objects that you push around; they have a voice. If you can see it that way, they will show you things. What I do is favor the light that is available for the subject. With a lot of experience, you begin to know what a silver print might look like for that particular subject and range of values ... You pick up a way of seeing what the print might look like. But it's never exact.
A lot of people fuss at me, saying, you're wasting too much time printing your own pictures. Let somebody else do that. But that interrupts the process for me. I can't have someone else print my prints. They cannot feel what I feel, and it cannot be released emotionally into the print unless I'm there and yank it from the developer at exactly the right time. They have no sense of that. They've got their own rhythm and their own emotional system to deal with. And that usually gets imposed on the print.
from Paul Caponigro: the hidden presence of places (ca. 2013) pg. 15.
Perhaps what I need is a different vocabulary for those intermediate steps, something to replace "workflow" that's more descriptive of what I think I'm engaged in while using Lightroom. A couple of days I woke up wondering about modulation, a concept that I first bounced off of at an early age as I tried [unsuccessfully] to grasp what my electronics genius brother was talking about when he tried to answer my question about the difference between AM and FM (I was probably about 6 or 7). The word came up again a dozen years later, in the context of light modulators, when I was introduced to photograms in the introductory photography course in 1963, so I had a practical (if hazy and imprecise) working knowledge of what 'modulation' might involve when applied to photography. And of course modulation shows up in music, referring to progression from one key or scale (or raga or maqam) to another.
The senses of 'varying' and 'transforming' are what stick best for me, and seem directly relevant to describing what happens in the processing of RAW images in Lightroom and Photoshop, as presets are invoked and sliders are moved to produce the desired subjective qualities in the digital image. The various controls are discrete enough to facilitate a subtlety of tweakage far beyond what my (former, utterly obsolete) darkroom skills allowed, but my approach is mostly ad hoc, and really too sandboxy for comfort: I try settings until the results please me, without really understanding what 'luminance' or 'clarity' is in terms of what happens to the pixels. I could repair that ignorance, but I'm having too much fun with seat-of-the-pants processing.
This morning I woke absurdly early and wrote down the cascade of thoughts that rumbled through:
Our perceptual apparatus [our wetware] is analog in nature, but we have learned to model and approximate its operation with digital tools. Thank you Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, William Shockley, ... Bill Gates, Steve Jobs...and then I ransacked the bookshelves for sources that might shed some light. Here are a few especially toothsome bits:
It's a distraction to art to inquire too deeply into how the [digital] magic works, how the code was written and assembled to create and sustain the illusions of digital-to-analog magic. We modulate the values of parameters within a grid of pixels; the sliders are the handles that facilitate algorithms acting on arrays of pixels. We perceive analog shifts on our screens, because the digital changes take place below our threshold of resolution.
We are engaged in a grand game with our senses, which are extended and amplified so that we can see more and deeper and further, via algorithmic magic carried out on human perceptual apparatus. A lot of our supposed perception is Maya, illusion that we happily accept as real.
And we are mostly content to marvel at the changing display on the walls of the cave, without needing to inquire too deeply into how the magic is done. Do we really want to see the manipulations of the man behind the curtain?
...what the images look like on the camera LCD or at default rendering in Lightroom or Camera Raw is not imperative. What you can get out of an image is limited only by what you start with at default and what you can then add by careful image adjustments. (pg. 68)and one more of potential use:
Clarity is an image-adaptive contrast control for increasing or decreasing midtones contrast ... really a hybrid control: one part tone mapping, one part sharpening [or unsharpening], and one part magic. (pg. 79) (both from Jeff Schewe, The Digital Negative: Raw Image Processing in Lightroom, Camera Raw, and Photoshop)
The idea of images as metaphors rather than literal depictions ... is often a revelation to photographers ... Creativity requires something beyond objective qualities that are inherent in subject, tools, or circumstances—something subjective originating from the unique mind of the photographer that would not have existed had they not created it. (pg. vii) (from Guy Tal More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life pg. vii)
In photography it might seem that we frame our subject with the viewfinder, then with the enlarger easel or the computer screen, and finally with a picture frame. But should we think in such contained terms? Just as the camera viewfinder is often described as either a window or a mirror, so the computer screen could be considered an easel and, rather than containing the print, a picture frame might be said to set a picture free from its surroundings. Our own photography is likely to fail if we use any method—traditional or digital— to contain an image. (from Eddie Ephraums Darkroom to Digital: Photoshop for Black and White Photography pg. 42)
When is a photograph made? At what points in its production should we locate its creative and temporal boundaries? Is it when the photographer depresses the camera shutter, submitting a chosen scene to the stasis of framed exposure? Is it when the photographer singles out this exposure for printing, thereby investing a latent image with the personal significance of selection, labor, and, most crucial of all, visibility? Or is it when the image is first exposed to the public gaze, the moment when, if only by adding itself to a culture's collective visual archive, the photograph could be said to enact some sort of residual effect? (from Geoffrey Batchen Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History pg. 83)
Adobe Photoshop Master Class: John Paul Caponigro (since I mentioned him above; dated in terms of version of Photoshop, but eloquent in re: how to do the astounding things JP does with the tool)That's enough, even maybe too much, for now.