420 – Until The Real Thing Comes Along

Let’s play a game, shall we?

Before you read any further: please take some time to look at this image. Try to come to a conclusion about what it means to you, how it makes you feel, and finally whether you like it or not.



Done? OK. Now, when you think of your own images: do you take them or do you make them?

Most of mine are made, and this doubly so. When I left work in Vienna and headed for the train, I was lucky, it just did not rain, but as it had poured down only minutes before, the camera was safely packed away anyway. Finally on railway station territory, down in the tunnel below the platforms, the tunnel where I had shot He’s Right But He Can’t Spell and When Lights Are Low, I found myself without an image again. This is pretty much the last chance to photograph, next comes the train, and there I wanted to already post-process and write the text.

I took the camera out and began shooting along the tiled walls, using the Nikon 18-200 at 200mm and insanely low shutter speeds. The image that I finally used, was shot at f8 and 1/4s. Using a tripod, I could certainly have achieved much more sharpness, but as I planned most of the image widely out of focus, the small strip of near sharpness absolutely suffices. This is not about sharpness.

Actually, while shooting, I had no idea what this would be about at all. I just wanted to have some material to work on later. Had it proved unworkable, I would have thrown the images away and shot something else upon arrival in Carinthia.

In this case it was near. I had a bunch of images, some straight, some with an angle, some with the focus in front, some at the back, but they all were more or less uniformly red with a bit black and white. There was no depth and no flow.

Then I remembered what I had done to an image of rotten tomatoes some years before. I had applied a radical change in hue, making reds blue, and with a mask I had restricted the change to part of the image. Having four hours on the train before me, without much chance to get better material, I decided to try it. I shifted the image to blue, applied a soft, curved mask restricting the change mostly to the background, darkened the blue part, shifted part of the blue further into cyan, lightened the cyan spot slightly, producing a glow, and finally used a vignetting layer. At least that’s what was important, the rest were cosmetics. You see, this image was entirely made. Not often do I go that far, but if need be, I have no inhibition either.

Let’s get over to part two of our game. Think again: now that you know what I have done, do you think different of this image? Have your feelings about it changed? Is it less art now? Or more? And if so, why? Do you feel that this is not photography any more? Do you feel manipulated? And if so, why do you think that photographs ever don’t manipulate?

Have you ever felt that hotel rooms did not live up to the images in the catalog? That the swimming pool was much smaller? You were cheated by the wide-angle lens. Does this make the wide-angle an illegitimate lens? And if not so, why not?

If it is not the means of production, is it then the time of using them? Is the wide-angle OK because I use it in the instant of taking the image? Are the color shifts not OK because I do it later, in post-processing? If so, why does it make a difference, when both results in you being manipulated? And what about the fact that you only know about what I’ve done, because I have chosen to be completely open about it? If I didn’t have done so, would not knowing have been better? After all, this image is nothing that couldn’t have been taken in camera, assuming the right light.

I am in a very fortunate position here. I say that this is my art and that is the way it is made. I don’t claim it to be entirely photographic or belonging to a certain school or into a certain tradition. It is only an expression of what I dreamed up in an hour on the train, when I had a bunch of boring images and tried to look through them, into a world of mystery and depth. Can you attack me on that ground? And if so, how? Show me. I won’t move.

The Song of the Day is “Until The Real Thing Comes Along” from Mary Coughlan’s 2000 album “Mary Coughlan Sings Billie Holiday“.

2 thoughts on “420 – Until The Real Thing Comes Along”

  1. I enjoy what you have done here, and in no way do I feel cheated.

    Manipulations are fine in my book. (I was going to try and qualify this with some sort of abstract statement about “artistic honesty” or some such baloney, but such qualifications are ultimately so hollow in their ability to cover every scenario that I decided against it.) The bottom line is up to the viewer anyway. We can lead and coax with color, line, sharpness–everything in the toolbox–and it’s still up the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.

    I like your test. The image made me feel excited, nervous, and even a little scared. The colors are vivid and wild, like those you might find after sundown in a district you are better off visiting with a friend. Indeed, your whole treatment of the image led me down that path. Was this what you intended? Does it really matter?

    I think about these things sometimes when I create images, if for no other reason than because I will be a viewer, too. So it starts with my vision, even if it doesn’t get developed until after I take the shot.

    In other words, my snapshots are still snapshots until I do something more with them. After that, its up to the viewer.

  2. No, I don’t feel cheated. The image reminded me of a public WC (with shower cabinet [Duschkabine?] and it’s unsettling. The warm reds and oranges give way to the cool blue towards the shower.

    I don’t worry about post-processing. I bought my first camera in 1983, long before I first tried PhotoShop in 1990. It was easy to see the two coming together.

    At that time, there was a lot of talk about “authentic” photographs. But I was young and of the mind that PhotoShop was a perfectly acceptable tool to refine (or even create) a vision.

    I still take photographs and I still use PhotoShop. I’m happy that so many photographers now post-process their work.

    Once upon a time, there were bands who refused to use synthesizers because the sound “wasn’t real.”

    And before that, there were artists who refused to recognize photography.

    Times change. Art changes. And photography, one art, has never been better — just like music. Both have benefited from technology, when well-applied.

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