Thursday, April 7, 2011

Forget the Process, Look at the Image

Forget the Process, Look at the Image

by  on 04-06-2010 09:04 PM

I was out to lunch with two fellow photographers awhile back and the discussion turned to the alternative-process crowd, the photographers who use the very old photographic processes (such as cyanotype and gum bichromate) as their printing method. We agreed that these photographers are often overly concerned with the process. So that is what I want to discuss in this post.

Process is, of course, important in photography. It doesn’t matter whether the process is analog (involving film, chemicals, wet stuff and darkrooms) or digital (involving memory cards, software, and mice): there is a process involved in photography from capturing the image to getting it in the final form. Process is an important part of getting what you saw in the shot to the magazine cover or framed wall print. But it is not the most important part.

Another name for this process that is now common to digital photographers is workflow: the stages your image goes through after capture to its final form. Most photographers would benefit from formalizing this workflow and getting it down pat so that it works quickly and easily for you and provides consistent results.

But there are sections of the photography community that seem more interested in process than the end result. Irecently reviewed a series of alternative process exhibitions and I closed it off with the observation that while I saw some excellent work I was hard-pressed to find any of it that was, in any real way, contemporary.

In fact, a lot of the alternative process work that you see, while exquisitely printed, is so boring and old-fashioned that you’d rather dig your eyeballs out with a tripod leg than look at it. Most of what I see you would think was shot in the 19th Century. Now I love 19th Century photography but I’d like to think that people shooting now are doing something of our time.

Other groups that are often overly concerned with process are camera club people. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve spoken at a camera club and have had people ask me what software I’m using or which lens I used to take a particular shot I showed. As if it matters. Far more important questions would be what I saw initially in the scene that caught my attention and what I was trying to say with the image.

The three of us grumpy old men at lunch came to the conclusion that a lot of the blame for this sorry state of affairs rests with the camera magazines. Since they started listing the camera, lens, film, aperture and shutter speed used in the captions accompanying the photographs they publish, photography magazines  have inadvertently misled beginning photographers into believing that it really matters. Now I could be cynical and say that they focus on the equipment used in order to keep their advertisers happy. But in reality, I think it is just that too many magazine editors don’t really understand photography and what is important to the growth of a photographer. Magazine publishing is, in the photography area, mainly an educational process but most editors are not educators.

I am sure that the great misunderstood Ansel Adams has turned over in his grave so many times his body is tied in a knot. Although he is well remembered for his classic books The Negative and The Print, most people don’t understand that he developed the Zone system to create a workflow that allowed him to concentrate on the image.

So my advice to you is to, yes, develop and refine your workflow but never lose sight of what matters: what you saw and how strong the resulting image is. If the resulting image is as boring as a holiday photo album to everyone other than the owner you have failed, no matter how perfect your process was

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