Digital photography could be a major art form in the next century. It may be the
culmination of the development of photography. I have been working with a very
simple Casio QV-100 camera for over a year, and I am still amazed at the variety
and depth of imagery I can achieve without a flash or a zoom lens. (Of course I
will eventually get a more sophisticated camera, but not until I have exhausted
every aspect of this basic Casio.)
Read on and I will explain why I think digital photography is so different from
previous photography and why I think it has such great potential.
Many people do not realize and even experienced photographers can forget, that
photography is all about light. Photography literally means light (photo)
writing (graphy). The action of light on film (*1) creates the image.
As I used to teach in a basic photography class 25 years ago, photography is not
about objects or people or scenery. Rather it is about how the light reveals
those things. As any beginning photography student knows, a cube can be lighted
so that it almost disappears or so that it is virtually three dimensional. The
key is the light.
These images were not manipulated in PhotoShop or other graphics software. All these effects were created with traditional photographic adjustments in a basic darkroom program.
Color photography is a relatively recent invention. Taking pictures in color
means that it is not only the intensity of the light, but also the color of the
light that creates the image. Yet color is not simple. For example, a scene may
include several light sources which have their own particular color. There are
many subtle aspects to working with color film.
In the middle of this century, the single lens reflex (SLR) camera was a
technical breakthrough. For the first time the photographer could see exactly
what the lens saw. This solved a number of problems such as parallax. Digital
photography goes one step further and lets the artist see what the film is
seeing in " real time " on a LCD screen(*2).
Digital photography is a radically different kind of photography, because the
photographer can finally see what the film sees. This is more important that the ability to manipulate the image in a
This is especially important in color photography because different light
sources (color temperatures and wave lengths) and subtleties of color may be
seen differently by the film than by the human eye. For example, various street
lamps can be seen by film as having unusual colors. This street lamp pictured here on the left looked simply yellow
to my human eye, but appeared to have many colors on film.
I sometimes like to add flare to my pictures which can produce a rainbow of
colors. I have found that most lights have a precise point where the camera must
be aligned to get the full effect of flare. Before the digital LCD screen
this kind of exact positioning was impossible.
For a variety of reasons the real time LCD screen lets a photographer " paint
with light, " light that is in the real world.
While some of these effects could be approximated with the aid of a computer,
images created in the real world have a vitality to them that a computer
manipulated image cannot approach. It is the difference between the real and the
artificial. I believe the real world has much more power. For example, the true
story of the Titanic grabs us more than the fictional story of a luxury liner
disaster such as " The Poseidon Adventure. "
There is another aspect to this LCD screen: it allows a photographer to review
pictures that he or she just shot. Again this is a radical development.
Immediate feedback is vital to learning.
In a personal note I have spent years trying to shorten the time between taking
pictures and seeing the developed images. I have used black and
white slides and color slides that I processed
immediately, along with instant Polaroids. When not using any of these techniques, I developed negative film
on the same day it was shot and made contact sheets to get some idea of
what I had just done.
There are many psychological studies that point to the importance of feedback in
learning. People who aimed bullets at a target, but were not told where the
bullets hit until later, could not learn quickly. However, those who were told
immediately improved rapidly. While this seems obvious, it is often forgotten.
(Sorry for the gun example, but that is what the study involved.)
Digital photography allows an artist to learn quickly in new situations. For example, I took pictures at a fall carnival (see picture at left)
and wanted to get a sense of movement with blurred images. When the pictures did
not turn out as I hoped, I started to move the camera in relation to the ferris
wheel. In less that one hour I went from traditional night shots to some of the
most unusual pictures I have ever taken. The immediate feedback was crucial.
The bottom line is this: in the past still photography couldn't get no respect,
color photography in particular. It was rarely considered a valid art form. It
was thought of as a mechanical process, or a trade rather than having any
potential for an artistic vision. Of course, those of us in photography knew
Now with digital photography, those with artistic ideas can realize their
imagery in strikingly individual and unique ways. A full understanding of light and color means that, in the hands of a master, modern photography is a rich, complicated,
sophisticated and expressive art form. Even the permanence of color photography has been solved with the digital process because the digital file can be stored indefinitely.
My own personal quest in photography involves a number of " purist " notions added
to the capabilities of a digital camera: I try to do most of my work at the
moment of taking the picture rather than later with a computer. This vital
instant is the " decisive moment " of snapping the shutter as stated by Henri
Cartier-Bresson. I believe that the most powerful images are spontaneous and not
reworked. This gives them a vitality which is similar to the difference in music
between a live concert and a studio recording. As a result, I rarely crop; I
rarely manipulate the image in a computer graphics or paint program or in PhotoShop. (Notice
the word rarely; never say never.) I do use the traditional photographic
controls of adjusting brightness, contrast, color balance and range. This is
all I need to achieve my effects.
I would like to propose a new term for this photography. The term is " photo
-expressionism. " (*3) By this I mean photographic imagery that is both personal and
expressive, photography that is as artistic as the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch (The Scream), or Jackson Pollock.
I suggest the term " photo-expressionism " for digital photographs that are as personal and expressive as the expressionist paintings of the recent past.
*1. For the sake of simplicity I will speak of film and electronic film instead
of electronic light sensitive material or other term for electronic photographic
media. Back to original paragraph.
*2. The LCD screen is an approximation and is separate from the electronic film.
All viewing screens show less than the full image (also true for SLRs), the
resolution is much lower than the final image, and the LCD may see light
somewhat differently that the electronic film. There is also a delay in the
" real time " display. If you snap the shutter in a fast moving situation, you
will find you get the next frame, not the one you thought you got. In short you
have to learn to anticipate.
However, the approximation is good enough so that a photographer can learn to
work with it. As in all photographic processes part of the art is being able to
accurately guess how the final image will turn out.
There is only one true image that shows you exactly what you shot; that is the
final output form for your image. A picture displayed on a computer monitor or
on the Internet will look quite different than one printed out on the best
quality photographic paper or reprinted in a magazine. Photographers find
themselves unconsciously adjusting their imagery to match the final output form. Back to original paragraph.
*3. I derived this term from two movements in painting: expressionism as practiced by German and other painters (Kirchner, Klee, Kandinsky) at the beginning of the century and abstract expressionism as practiced by artists in New York in the 1940s and 1950s (Pollock, Rothko, Frankenthaler) along with others around the world. Also I realize that van Gogh is not strictly an expressionist, yet his work is considered to be one of the foundations of expressionism by virtually all critics. Clay Riley, the director of the local arts council, the Carteret Arts Council, looked at my work and said that I was " action painting " with a camera. That thought started me thinking about the idea of photography as an expressive medium. Back to original paragraph.