Never Judge a Photograph by Its Image

 

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Digital images are, for all intents and purposes, the same as photographs.

That is a lie.

That is a lie that I think is damaging the medium of photography – particularly in the fine art category.

Now before everybody freaks out that this is one of those “digital is evil and film is the only way to go” pieces –  I’m not talking about digital images in the sense that digital capture of images is bad per se. I use a digital camera and print my photographs on an inkjet printer. Before that I used film and then scanned the slides and printed digitally. I am cool with digital photography.

This is also not a statement against digital manipulation of images. I’m not going to be discussing HDR or color saturation or frankenimages. Regular readers of my blog know that I’m pretty conservative when it comes to the manipulation thing, but that isn’t the topic today.

This is also not a call to stop displaying digital images of photographs on the Web. Obviously I do this myself since I always like to sprinkle some of my recent images over my blog posts. Digital images are fine and dandy if used for the correct purposes and in the correct situations.

So what am I talking about? Read on McDuff.
waterfall

I have recently seen two internet surveys basically asking the question, “How often do you print your images?” One survey found that better than 58% responded along the lines of “now and then” to “never”. The second survey came out 56% on the side of rarely to never. These may not be rigorous scientific studies, but I’m willing to buy into them since they fit well with anecdotal evidence from the people I talk to personally.

There seems to be a growing trend toward eliminating the photograph from photography.

On the one hand this is a good thing. It saves trees and avoids the use of a lot of chemicals. For the vast majority of the zillions of images taken everyday, it doesn’t really matter. A shot of Aunt Peg at the family barbecue seen on a computer monitor versus as a WalMart print, although different, isn’t different in any significant way.

On the other hand photography that strives to be more than just a snapshot that strives to be considered art, is being harmed in a serious way. The problem rears it head when photographs are JUDGED based on their digital representations. When galleries, grant making foundations, juried shows, and photography contests base their selections on computer representations of photographs, then we have a problem.

I’ve searched through dozens and dozens and dozens of calls for artists and almost all of them require digital submissions only. Not digital submissions optional. Digital submissions only! Some of these are from very prestigious organizations like the Smithsonian. People who should know better, but have swallowed the lie.

To illustrate my point let’s look at a personal experience. A local photography gallery announced a call for artists for a juried portfolio show coming up this summer. I was looking forward to entering some of my photographs for consideration. Then I read in the rules that submissions were limited to digital files only.

I make it a rule never to have my photographs judged by their digital representations. So I’m out.

Since I know some of the people at the gallery, I decided to e-mail them with a request that they also accept photographs. I laid out a spiel of arguments in hopes they would change their minds. Here is the gist of what I wrote.

waterfall

1.  Unless you plan to hang LCD screens around the gallery, you will be showing physical prints so why are you judging them on how they look as screen images?
 
2.  I shoot in RAW format and after editing I store in uncompressed TIFF format. A conversion to JPG will cause a loss of digital information as well as changes in the color profiles.
 
3.  I spend hours and hours calibrating my equipment toward the production of physical prints. I cannot control the equipment on which you will view the images. Your monitor may be set brighter than mine thus blowing out the highlights. Your monitor may have more or less contrast. Perhaps the color temperature is different. I have no idea what ambient lighting you will be using. What about viewing angles? Will embedded color profiles be honored or ignored?
 
4. I post some of my images to my website and to my blog just for entertainment value. I have four computers at my home – two with LCDs and two with CRTs. I know from experience that the images look significantly different on each and every computer even after I have tweaked them to be as similar as possible.
 
5. Computer monitors display images using additive colors from an active light source. A physical photograph uses reflected light and subtractive colors. There is no way they can ever look the same no matter how advanced the monitor. We are talking apples and oranges here.
 
6. I believe that reliance on digital images to judge photographs is eroding creativity and artistry in the photography medium.

  • a. It places an unfair burden on photographers that prefer to work in the traditional wet process. They are forced to complete double the work in order to produce a submission; after all the time and energy invested in producing their photos, they must also scan either the film or the final print and digitally process the file. This is a waste of time and degrades the quality of their work. If all images in the future are judged digitally, it will deter these artists from competing and ultimately destroy a valuable medium.
     
    b. The limitations of judging photographs digitally forces image makers toward the least common denominator rather than expanding their artistic freedoms. The only images that consistently look good on a range of computer monitors are those that meet certain criteria. They must be evenly exposed with all histogram values falling within acceptable display levels, they must have middling contrast values, they must have high color saturation values that fall within the color gamut of the average RGB color profile, and the image must not rely on fine detail or physical presence for its impact.
     
    c. Relying on digital images to judge photographs sends the message to artists that the print is not important – it is an afterthought that can be produced by merely pressing a button. Creating a print of a snapshot may be a trivial thing, but producing a high quality fine art print is another thing entirely. Personally I use a digital workflow, but all my work is aimed at producing physical prints. Using digital images to judge my photographs cuts out a significant portion of my artistic process. What printer I choose, what inks I choose, what paper I choose, what drivers and profiles I choose, and what color management techniques I choose all weigh heavily on the printed output. Maybe after proofing the print I decide to tweak the contrast or the brightness or the sharpness – for the print only not the screen rendition. The size I choose for a print is also part of my process. Some prints have more impact in large size and some in small. I have no control over the size at which a digital image will be viewed.

7. Although many people equate having seen an image on a screen as having seen a photograph, this is completely false. A print has a physical presence and dimensionality that no digital image can ever achieve. A digital image on a screen is merely an apparition. It is a collection of pixels lit up in a certain pattern. It is completely two dimensional – it has no feel, no weight, no depth, no texture, no subtlety, no smell, no sound, no movement. It has no tie to the long tradition of the photographic print from the first fixed image of his courtyard by Niepce to the mass appeal of George Eastman’s gelatin emulsions.

So there you have it. I have never heard anyone else mention anything about this issue. Maybe I just don’t talk to the right people. Maybe I’m just nuts.

Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”

I think I’ll keep making prints.

MDW

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14 Responses to “Never Judge a Photograph by Its Image”

  1. cutthroat stalker Says:

    Excellent points made!

    I do print the occasional snapshot. But I have never printed any picture as an artistic piece. As much as I admire many photographs by competent artists on the computer, there is nothing like seeing the piece “live.” I love art shows with massive prints. I love tiny prints that make a montage. I enjoy being able to step back many yards or press my nose as close as I can to real prints.

    I guess it would be like a bookbinding show/competition, or letterpress show/competition in which they only accept PDF files of the “book” to display their bookbinding talent–ludicrous!

    I’m not into shows/competitions enough to know anything, but I was always under the assumption that most of them wanted the actual print and then a RAW file to see how much post-processing occurred if they needed to verify a photo’s “accuracy to the actual,” or some such thing.

    Anyhow, very interesting that this should be the case. Once they are submitted, is it the gallery’s/show’s/contest’s intent to display the photographs? Would they make the decision how to print? That would certainly take the photograph out of the photographer’s hand and turn the entity printing the photograph into the artist’s uninvited collaborator. Wow! Definitely disappointing.

    • forestrat Says:

      Hey cutthroat,

      How shows and competitions handle display of the images submitted to them varies. Some are completely web based things like the ever popular “Photo of the Year!” type contest so the images are never printed. Others are printed only in magazines and promotional materials which is always handled by the organization. Some, like the gallery in my example, ask for digital image files in JPG format at a certain size for judging and then if your images are selected, they have you create and bring in prints for display.

      I have never heard of anyone asking for the RAW file for analysis although I have heard about competitions where teams are sent out to shoot for a day and when they return they hand over the memory card from their camera and the images are judged on the files straight from the camera – again no prints are involved.

      Here is a link to a blog about image manipulation that you might find interesting:

      http://www.hackerfactor.com/blog/index.php?/archives/269-Smithsonian-Magazine-Photo-Contest.html

      MDW

  2. alan R Says:

    There seems to be an indistinct border line between those who choose to have an image fit within certain borders — and those who have no such restrictions in mind.
    The initial capturing of images by my eyes and brain and some kind of camera is followed by the outward spread of those images in a dizzying choice of methods ranging from paper to electronic screens that instantly flicker across time and space. It opens up a whole different range of possible creative and accidental changes quite different from the initial image.
    So what?
    Creative artistic expression is a territory where “anything goes”. Between restrictive photography and expansive photography, give me maximum freedom of photographic expression with all its banality, coarseness, thievery, imitation and idiocy. That’s the diamond mine of images where only rarely you come up with a real sparkler.

    • forestrat Says:

      Thanks for coming by alan R.

      As I said I have nothing against digital imaging. If digital images are what someone is into then they should go for it. There are plenty of online virtual image galleries on the web – no problem. Someone could even open a brick and mortar gallery where all the images are displayed on LCDs hung on the walls – cool.

      I am just suggesting that we all understand that there is a difference between a photograph and a digital image. They are two different forms of art – as different as oils are from water colors. Neither one is right or wrong, they are just different. Unfortunately no one confuses the two types of painting, but they do confuse the two types of image creation.

      MDW

  3. cutthroat stalker Says:

    FR,

    Thanks for some clarification on how the gallery in your case works. So any digital post-processing is OK? But, as you said, the monitors they are looking on may have a completely different calibration than each individual artist’s monitor–that’s a big problem.

    The RAW issue I was thinking of concerns a photojournalism contest, a different beast than artistic competition/exhibits. Here’s the link: http://nppa.org/news_and_events/news/2009/04/denmark.html

    At the very bottom of that article is this line: “Read the entire account by Tønnesen online here.” That is an interesting link you should check out too.

    Thanks for the Smithsonian link. That was very interesting. The follow-up post with the luminance gradient overlay is pretty cool.

    • forestrat Says:

      I had seen the photojournalism article too. I know news agencies are cracking down on image manipulation which I think is a good thing. There is a time and a place for tinkering with photos – news pieces that purport to be unbiased and accurate is not one of them.

      MDW

  4. openpalm Says:

    oooooo..what did the gallery say in response?

    • forestrat Says:

      I’m afraid they didn’t buy my argument. They basically said that with each artist submitting 8 images it would be too much for the gallery to handle and too much of a burden on the artists to allow print submissions and besides the practice of accepting only digital submissions is becoming de rigueur so they are sticking with it.

      Oh well.

      MDW

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    I hadn’t really thought about this, but I see the real problem by your excellent discussion above.

    I photograph (digitally) mostly because I’m interested in subject matter for painting, although occasionally the photograph itself becomes the focus. I used to have an inkjet printer, but it just became a hassle. Now if I really have a print I like, I’ll pay someone else to produce it, but then one runs into all those calibration problems.

    My wife belongs to a local photo club and recently they’ve participated in several competitions where the submissions must be digital snapshots as you describe. As a selection process, you’re going to end up with a narrower subset of chosen images than what should be considered… A discouraging thought for the art photographer.

    Regards

    • forestrat Says:

      As I say, maybe I’m just crazy. Most people that I mention this issue to just look at me like I’m from Mars or something. I haven’t found anyone else concerned about it.

      Inkjets can be a pain in the neck especially if you don’t print very often. They clog up if not excercised regularly – although the newer models are getting better.

      Sending things out for printing can work once you get used to how the printer does things and sometimes you can get the printer profiles which helps too.

      MDW

  6. peter vernon quenter Says:

    Dear Forest Rat

    well said, indeed –
    your “lowest common denominator” is a point well recognized – thanks much –

    though I have never had dark room experience and always used dia-positives, being able, now, with pigment printing, to hold my own print in hands, has become one of the most satisfying experiences in the whole creative process of image making –
    At the local camera club competitions most events are digitally based ….
    and a common comment is heard of justifying judgments by stating the projected images do not quite represent the quality of the actual printed image –
    yet, the largest club in town has pretty much abandoned print competitions ….
    only the fewest seem to bother anymore …. “digital only is easier and cheaper …. ”
    right – sure – no interest in creating art of sorts – but $5000,- cameras …. and upset gestures when images are not judged as ‘Excellence’ ..
    go figure –

    The quality Epson printer in my tiny room, I would state, was the single most creatively valuable equipment-investment towards a photographic practice –

    On the other side of this trend, if we continue to create images of material quality, maybe we will find ourselves in a niche not too long from now; even with more and more people potentially able to buy less costly printers at better and better quality, I doubt that more than a dedicated (relatively) few will ever make use of what such printers could actually create, would they only invest the time and learning curve and interest –
    best
    peter

  7. forestrat Says:

    peter,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Who would have thought that printing photographs would become a niche thing to do?

    MDW

  8. Chadwick Cupstid Says:

    This is wonderful! Thanks for the information

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