The beauty of
To write informatively about art is inherently difficult. When the work under consideration is one's own, the challenge is compounded. Robert Adams, in Why People Photograph, nicely summarized the problem of mixing words and photographs: if the words are stronger than the images, then the images are a failure; if the words are weaker than the images, then the words were unnecessary. Many artists simply refuse to discuss their own work, and I believe their reticence is worthy of respect. It is said that a student once approached Robert Frost and asked him to "explain" one of his famous poems. Frost replied, "Do you want me to say it worse?"
The cartoon presents a completely different, and certainly more contemporary, viewpoint. There is truth lurking behind its blunt cynicism, as a visit to one's local art museum is likely to confirm. We live in an exhibitionist age, and for every Robert Frost there is a Calvin only too eager to talk about himself. The results are often pretentious, sometimes funny, and rarely illuminating.
In spite of all this, I am unwilling to dismiss the power of the written word to convey important ideas about art. There are artists and critics who write persuasively, and without their efforts our appreciation of art would be much impoverished. On this thought I plunge ahead hopefully with my own statement. If the outcome is less than successful, well, it's my web site and I can blather a little if I want to.
There are many reasons to take a photograph, among them being the intention to create a meaningful work of art. Why can the making of a photograph, a commonplace event in the modern world, become artistic expression? On a primitive level a photograph is nothing but a data record: in traditional photography a pattern of silver grains, in digital photography a set of numbers. The result is mathematically related to the pattern of light that entered the front end of the camera at a particular time and place. In this sense a photograph differs from a painting or a musical composition, which must be synthesized in its entirety out of the human imagination. Each note of a Beethoven quartet was put in place by the composer's creative intelligence, whereas in a photograph it seems as though much of the hard work is being done by lenses, film and chemicals.
Nevertheless a photograph is the conscious result of a certain number of decisions made by the photographer. One of my teachers has said that a photographer must decide "where to stand and where to put the edges of the frame." To this can be added the choice of film, the realization of the image in the darkroom, the selection of images to be printed, and even how to arrange them for presentation. Given the complexity of the world and the infinite number of possible photographs that can be taken, the photographer's creative palette is no less rich than the painter's or composer's.
In the specific case of landscape photography, it is appropriate to ask another question: why do we sometimes say that a particular place is beautiful? A mountain, after all, is a random act of nature; it is neither inherently beautiful or ugly but simply is. The answer to this apparent dilemma is to be found, I think, in the Robinson Jeffers poem at the top of this page. A certain mountain is said to be beautiful because it appeals to "our human sense of beauty." That sense, says Jeffers, provides us with a metaphor of the mountain's excellence. It is not the mountain that possesses beauty but its metaphor, which exists only within the human mind.
What the landscape photographer seeks is this same kind of metaphor. The creative photograph is not a scientific record of a mountain, but an abstraction intended to serve as a metaphor for its beauty. When the photographer is successful his metaphor will be both compelling and new. Such a photograph delivers to its viewer what mathematics delivers to Jeffers' astronomer: comprehension of "the powers and the flow of things."
Most of my work in photography, and all of the photographs shown on this web site, can be described as "landscape." Where people and manmade objects appear it is primarily as compositional elements. I favor this branch of photography not because I consider it to be better or more important than other branches, but because I find it to be more personally satisfying. The main reason for this, I am sure, is that I enjoy visiting places where the landscape is inherently interesting. The urge to photograph them follows naturally.
I take a resolutely literal approach to photography, avoiding any extensive retouching or modifying of the image. By restricting my technique in this way, I can simplify my thinking in the field. This seems to work best for me. On the other hand, I try not to be dogmatic: I will indulge in minor retouching to remove a scenic wart from an otherwise good photograph. You will not see a small water tower in the center foreground of Black Butte from White Rock, because I expunged all traces of it - digitally, of course. On every photograph I use standard image enhancement techniques such as dodging, burning, and sharpening, but my goal is always, in Ansel Adams' elegant phrase, "to remain faithful to the image formed by the lens."
In preparing this web site, it has been my intention to create as best I could the atmosphere of a museum gallery. You will see each image with a minimum of what Edward Tufte calls "administrivia," the clutter that is so common on computer screens. There is no background music, animated graphics, or other distractions. Just pictures. This little virtual museum has some big advantages over the real thing: (1) it's free; (2) it's uncrowded; (3) you can eat and drink while you look at the stuff. It's something to consider while you're waiting for the pictures to download.
I think the Internet presents an exciting new opportunity for disseminating many forms of art, particularly photography. The technology for viewing images over the net is fairly well advanced, and while it is not yet perfect it will undoubtedly continue to improve. In its current state of development it deserves to be taken seriously, as I hope this web site demonstrates.
Whether an image is to be made on paper or shown on a monitor, in most respects the process of making a fine print remains the same. Cropping, dodging and burning are as important to the on-screen image as they have always been to the paper print. To some degree the computer facilitates and speeds up the work. The photographer's most mundane printing task, dust spotting, is almost fun on the computer, and can be done without any chance of dropping those little bottles of spotting dye on the floor. That alone was enough to attract me to digital photography.
In preparing these images I discovered some interesting differences between the traditional darkroom print and the on-screen "print" displayed by a computer monitor. The most striking of these is contrast. The monitor, being a light source, has an intrinsically wider tonal range than a piece of printing paper, which produces its effect by scattering a fraction of the ambient light back to the viewer's eye. Intellectually this is obvious, but its significance cannot be grasped until you make a side-by-side comparison between a good darkroom print and its digital equivalent on the monitor. Only then do you realize how stunning the monitor display is, and how much different the presentation of the print should be.
After some experimentation it became clear to me that the monitor shows highlights brilliantly and shadow detail relatively poorly. This turns one of the accepted principles of fine darkroom printing on its head: in the darkroom it is important to render the shadows correctly, since the impact of a fine print is often a function of the shadow areas. The monitor image is most effective if the highlights are brought out carefully. I have found this to be more true of black and white than color images; there is a limit to how far the highlights can be stretched before unpleasant color shifts occur.
Another important difference between the monitor and paper is resolution. A good paper print is capable of containing more detail than can be seen with the naked eye; a monitor is not. I would estimate that an 8x10 print contains 100-1000 times more "pixels" than a monitor can display, and thus a paper print will look sharper than its on-screen equivalent. This drawback of the digital images can be partially overcome by the judicious use of "sharpening" filters, which are included with all image processing software. Sharpening filters, unique to the world of digital imagery, increase the local contrast on a pixel by pixel basis. In favorable cases this gives the impression of overall sharpness. The effect can easily be overdone, and it is difficult to choose the right amount of sharpening for a particular image. All of the images on this web site have been sharpened to some degree, and if you load any of them into an image processing application and enlarge them this will become apparent. The sharpening effect also causes the images to look grainy if you print them on a photo quality printer. That was a necessary sacrifice to get the best image on the monitor.
The color photographs shown here were considerably more difficult to prepare than the black and white ones. It seems that colors are not always handled the same way by different software applications, for reasons that I cannot explain. Sometimes the same color image will vary in appearance from Internet Explorer to Netscape Navigator, and sometimes neither browser's rendition matches that of the image processing software. Other images do not show this effect. Additional problems are caused by differences in monitors, graphics cards, and even operating systems. I expect that this technology will improve, but for the moment it is not possible to guarantee that your hardware and software will show you the same photograph that mine does.
It is with some hesitation that I mention the equipment used in making these images, since such information tends to dominate many discussions of photography. All the photographs in the New Mexico section, and many of the others, were taken with a Pentax 6x7 (medium format), a heavy but extremely rugged and well-made camera. It is completely manual but produces excellent negatives. The film is either Kodak TMAX 100 or Kodak Tri-X for black and white, or Ektachrome 100 Professional for color.
The digital images were taken with an Olympus D-600L. Despite its many limitations it can produce acceptable images under the right circumstances. The digital cameras of today are far less sophisticated and capable than film cameras of comparable price; nevertheless they are useful tools and have their place. One suspects that these cameras represent the beginning of a new age.
The film images were digitized with one of several scanners equipped an adapter for scanning transparent materials. This setup is adequate for making images that will be viewed on a monitor, since the scanning process produces far more pixels than the monitor can display. For printing onto paper, however, the resolution of the scanner would be a limitation. After some trial and error I discovered that the best technique is to scan the negatives in color (even the black and white ones). When I scanned black and white negatives in "gray scale," the data exhibited a noise pattern that could not easily be removed. For the medium-format images I found that I got noise-free black and white images by scanning the negatives at a resolution of 900 DPI, applying filters to remove the noise in the data, and then converting to gray scale.
For image processing I have used Micrografx Picture Publisher 7.0, and more recently an excellent program named "Picture Window." It's available for free evaluation from Digital Light and Color, and I highly recommend it. It was designed specifically to meet the needs of photographers, and it works beautifully. It costs about one fifth as much as Adobe Photoshop, but for me it does everything I need.
Revised October, 2000