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Of Art, Photography and Photoshop

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

What prompted my ice-age ancestors to paint pictures on the walls of their caves? Certainly it was not vital to their survival in that brutal environment; however, they found the time and materials to do so.

Why? Because the artistic impulse is an integral part of being human.

And that artistic impulse did not end in the caves. Humans continued to pursue the visual arts throughout the ages. What did change was the technology of artistic mediums. I would guess that in those caves the first drawings were using sandstones or possibly charred sticks. As such drawings would be transient at best it was not until the technology of permanent paints arrived that the art could be preserved in all but the most remote of locations.

As the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, art moved from stone painting and carving to metal casting and textiles. Parchment, inks, more vivid paints were all technological innovations that led to an ever more profuse artistic world. My Nordic and Celtic ancestors left behind beautiful work in bronze, gold and semi-precious stone. Their decedents learned the craft of mosaic and fresco from the southern Europeans to adorn their homes, places and churches. With the advent of stretched canvas and oil paints Northern European art hit it’s golden era with the great Dutch masters.

Does that suggest that Van Dyke or Rembrandt were more artistic than their Bronze Age forbearers? No. They only had new technologies and the passed down skills not available two thousand years before.

When photography arrived, it was a direct challenge to artist and the artistic tradition. It pushed the artistic community to look beyond the visual realism that had been the Holy Grail for millennia, back to the more basic artistic desire to express in visual means those things that the artist felt in his heart. A perfect reproduction of real life by a machine pushed painters to expand their vision from what they saw to how they felt, something not easily done with a camera.

A few photographic artists in the early 20th century attempted to fuse the ethereal emotional quality of traditional art with the hard clarity of photography. Results were mixed and often became more exercises in technical skill than in artistic vision. Those who few who succeeded had to be consummate masters of the composition process, the technical photographic process and the darkroom process. As such few had the will or ability to master all the necessary steps.

I learned photography the traditional way: manual camera, black & white film and the darkroom. However I lacked the financial resources necessary to try and fail a thousand times at each of the three skills to become a master of all. Like most photographers, I hired a skilled print maker as opposed to mastering the skills required for post-production work. Yet still, I was shooting a hundred carefully composed frames to get one “good” shot made it very difficult to get the practice necessary to become a true artist.

Then came digital!

Now photographers can experiment to their heart’s content. They cost factor of learning photographic artistry nearly disappeared. Those of us from the old school resisted. “Real photography is with film!”, we said. But all but the most committed have yielded to the new technology and the associated digital darkroom ubiquitously called Photoshop, no matter what software is used.

With digital imaging and processing, photography can now be used to create those, not quite realistic, but emotionally powerful images of painters. It is not that digital has debased photography, but rather it has liberated it from strict realism. For the first time in the history of mankind all people, no matter their motor skills can be great artist. With digital imaging, I can make my imagination come true in the screen (or print).

Once I was asked by a potential client “Do you Photoshop?”. What he was asking was do I fix wrinkles and remove zits from photos. His question revealed a profound misunderstanding about the how digital manipulation has elevated the artistic possibilities. There have been many very justified complaints that images in women’s and girls’ magazines are present a false view of reality due to the use of Photoshop; however, an artist does not purport to present reality, but rather the artists vision. What those who fault the use of Photoshop fail to realize is that the image was manipulated long before the use of Photoshop. Lighting, camera angle, cropping, props, setting, make-up and wardrobe all have been used to manipulate the image to conform to the photo artist’s vision. The image was a fantasy the moment the shutter was released.

No, this is not some anti-woman conspiracy, as some feminist want to claim. Photoshop does not uniquely demean female models. The same techniques have been to capture powerful images of leaders since the dawn of photography, and for millennia before than in sculpture and paintings. If the artist/photographer seeks to demean the model, it matters not the technique used.

When I start a photo-shoot, I as the artist, choose the location, the lighting , the wardrobe, the props and how I compose the shot. All that is part of my vision. However, just as important is how I plan to use Photoshop. I set up my photos knowing I will use Photoshop to alter lighting to compensate for the limitations of digital photography. I skip steps so as to make the process more enjoyable for my client model, knowing I will repair it later with Photoshop. A great example is that when used to shoot at may makeshift studio at the nudist resort; I didn’t usually use a backdrop, even though I know the background is a little cluttered. If I did not have Photoshop I would set up a black backdrop and have to move it each time I moved the camera. I would have the same image, but it would make the process slower and less fun for my client/model.

No matter where I shoot the background is always used to create an effect. Location shooting is great because the background setting is as important as the model. Both with studio and location images, I might then use Photoshop to create the image I wanted, but could not get with by my non-existent set budget. Take this example:

In the first frame you see what was latterly happening as I shot Paula in chainmail bikini. (Yes, that is me before all may hair departed) Not that is was a bad photo to begin with, but it was not what I had in my mind. Not only did I add the castle in the background but I manipulated the lighting significantly. So while Paula looked more or less the same in the second photo, the finished product is very different.

Let me show you a second example:

In this image of a couple. I used Photoshop to eliminate the fine details that a photo captures so that it has the texture of an oil painting. Then I manipulate the background to emphasize the geometric shapes. The intent was to mimic the style of the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka who is one of my favorite artists.

I would suggest that we are in a golden age of digital art. It’s all new and fresh. Inevitably, in time the most appealing methods and styles will become conventions. These conventions will provide an attractive, but homogeneous vision of digital art, crowding out much of the innovation. In time the digital conventions will happen, this is inevitable, but for now, let’s enjoy this golden age.

For years I watched the steam of great nude and erotica images on my Tumblr dashboard I couldn’t help but realize that the advent of digital technology, including Tumblr itself, had ushered in an era like nothing before in the history of art.

So, I unapologetically told the potential client that I use Photoshop on every finished image, because that image is my artistic vision, not reality.

A fairly typical example of how I use Photoshop. In this case not only did I crop the photo, balance the color & light and remove background items; but, I also balanced the perspective. Shots made closer than about 15 feet often get lens distortions, that Photoshop lets me correct. Oh...and you can see I also fixed how her panties had slid down during the shoot. None of this changed the basic subject, but it greatly improved the photo.

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