Learning Through The Convergence Of Art And Technology; Technical Perfection Isn't Always Key

Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of ink jet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

Here's how to get involved: write us an e-mail at editorial@shutterbug.com or send us a letter with a proposed topic and a synopsis of your idea. Once approved, we'll ask you to send us about 500-1000 words on the subject chosen. The idea here is not to push any product or wave any flag, but to create discussion about photo and imaging topics of the day. We reserve the right to edit whatever you send in, although we will never edit intention or opinion but only for length and, hopefully, for clarity. We reserve the right to publish your work on our web site as well, so you can join the archives and be a resource for opinion for years to come.

So, get thinking and writing and share your Point of View.
--George Schaub

As an amateur photographer and an enthusiast, one of my favorite things to do is to study the photographs of the masters such as Dorothea Lange, Ed Weston, and Alfred Eisenstaedt. I don't ever try to replicate their styles but I do try to learn from their techniques. I may not be able to capture my own Pepper #30 but at least I may pick up on the fact that the odd piece of fruit hanging around my kitchen may have some photographic value, if captured correctly.

The Digital Gallery
Part of my learning, too, is something more involved. A wonderful consequence of the digital revolution in photography is the ability to submit photographs to online photography forums where people from around the world critique your submissions. It's a very democratic process where hundreds of people not only have access to your images but can also leave comments and critiques. No longer do you have to haul your portfolio around to teachers, friends, and family members hoping that they will have the time to offer a piece of advice or two. I enjoy today's digital galleries because I learn about picture-taking technique and also about digital editing, especially since I am a fan of Adobe's Photoshop.

One of the things that is striking to me, however, is the number of comments dealing with what I alluded to earlier about "technique." A few people will comment on how the model's face should be sharper, or the subject should not have been cropped this way or that, or what have you. My impression is that with autofocus, autoexposure, essentially "auto-everything" cameras, people will think a picture is good only if it is technically "perfect," e.g., the subject is in the center of the picture and totally sharp. Sometimes, I'll even get comments about how a picture should not be in the center, that I should follow the Rule of Thirds, and, by the way, clarity is the key to photography. I have often received opposing critiques about the same photograph, adding to my confusion and despair.

Duplication Vs. Interpretation
I would submit that this sometimes misses the point of photography, turning it into an exercise in duplication rather than what it is, the art of interpretation. I prefer to use old cameras, such as my Canon AE-1 and Canon A-1 (essentially the 8-track tape decks of photography), because I believe they force me to think more about a subject rather than just clicking away. With them I live the quote of Henri Cartier-Bresson: "We are passive onlookers in a world that moves perpetually. Our only moment of creation is that 1/125th of a second when the shutter clicks, the signal is given, and motion is stopped..." Granted, there have been times of weakness when I wished for that magic "

auto-everything" camera but I usually get over it when I discover that 1-out-of-24 gem. Then I'm glad I took the time to get that picture. Patience is the handmaiden of photography.

We should realize that good pictures are not always technically perfect but those that bring out an emotion. A recent picture by Antonin Kratochvil that I viewed online of a Burmese prison comes to mind. In the image is a guard in the foreground, with the prisoners sitting in a forced lotus position in the background. It is dark and somewhat out of focus. However one can see that the look on the guard's face is stern and that the prisoner's situation is painful and, most likely, hopeless. The plight of not only the prisoners but of the photographer, who obviously struggled to get this shot, is felt. While it is not technically "perfect," the picture is very emotional and was "good enough" to win World Press Photo's Picture of the Year in 2003.

Back To Basics
With all of this in mind, the question is what do you do after you have submitted them to an online forum to take advantage of this convergence of art and technology? Review the comments carefully. There are some very good photographers who participate over the Internet. I for one have received tips from professional photographers who have been published in either books or periodicals. The most helpful information, to me, comes from those who know their way around Photoshop. One recent exchange turned a good picture of mine into an excellent image because the online commentator knew how to enhance my photograph in the digital darkroom.

There are times, however, when despair does set in after you received a string of online comments trashing your technique. It's at that point I go back and pull out my portfolio books or even visit some of the online web pages of professional photographers. A good example of this last category is the website for World Press Photo (www.worldpressphoto.nl). I then study those pictures and think about their techniques. After a while, you'll begin to notice a pattern: the pictures are not always "perfect." The consistent theme is that they do bring forth some basic emotion, whether it is the pain of war or the feeling that comes with the warm sun of a tropical beach. It is then that I realize that "art is the affirmation of life."

So with the introduction of technology to our art, we can make better pictures and reach more people than ever envisioned before. With that, however, we should be cautious that we don't forget what Alfred Stieglitz told us: that photography is an art form. To help us remember this very important point I propose that we should all turn off our autofocus, autoexposure, our "auto-everything" modes for a day and try shooting like the masters. Who knows what will happen? We may not capture that Moonrise Over Hernandez like our predecessors, but at least we'll have a better appreciation for their accomplishments.