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What is photography, after all?

by George Lepp | October 1, 2005

NatureScapesI keep hearing that traditional photography has changed—digital is killing it—photography is on its way to hell in a hand basket. To those who feel this is the end of traditional photography, my question is: What is photography? For that matter, what is traditional photography?

Yes, the mechanics have changed. Still, though, the end result is the same as it has always been. Nothing has changed when it comes to the fact that capturing an image from light is what photography is all about. You still have to compose the image, wait for the right light, expose properly, and look for quality in every aspect of the process—no matter which process.

Traditional photography is using film, giving your unexposed film to a person at the lab who wasn’t personally involved in the creation of the images, getting prints that seldom match your expectations, and storing your results on plastic sheets in a file cabinet or little boxes stored somewhere in the closet. I don’t miss traditional photography.

As the equipment and technology has expanded to include digital tools, the learning curve has certainly gotten steeper. In the beginning—only a few years ago—the equipment and results were rudimentary at best. Those of us who embraced digital early on knew it wasn’t ready for prime time, but we stayed with it with the expectation that it would get better. The end result was that we got valuable early experience and developed our techniques as the technology developed. Many other photographers scoffed at the digital direction despite its inevitability. Some continue to discredit digital and swear that they’ll never participate. But even those who eschew digital are involved in some way in the digital process. Photography that ends up in print goes through a digital production at the printing stage. Someone scans the film, brings it into the computer, and tweaks the image for color and sharpness to optimize it for the printing process. Why wouldn’t a photographer want to be the one to do the optimization when it’s on his or her image?

Ansel Adams, the Westons, and many other early photographers of black and white insisted on doing their own processing and printing. In fact, one of the basic tenets of traditional photography was that the photographer did the processing and printing. I could make an argument that digital photography resembles early photography more closely than shooting with film and sending it off to the lab for processing. In the latter, we have little or no hand in the final vision other than choosing film type.

Today we can have almost complete control from capture to editing to optimizing to the final process, be it print, projection, or web. The final result is the product of the photographer’s vision from start to finish. He/she can take all the credit or be responsible for the failure. Maybe that’s too much for some photographers to bear.

Ansel Adams made the observation that the negative was the score and the print was the performance. And so it is again. Digital gives us the opportunity to take control of our image and be involved with the process from capture to finished print. If Ansel were alive today I think he’d embrace the digital process to optimize his vision and his print. I use the word optimize rather than the negative term “manipulate,” which conjures up visions of photographers sneaking around and putting things into captured images that weren’t ever there and having unfair advantages through unscrupulous methods. Hey, we have been enhancing our images since the first caveman who added an extra Saber-toothed Tiger to his wall painting to make himself look braver. We just call it a photo illustration. And, we have every right to optimize as long as it isn’t misconstrued as fact.

An argument against digital photography that I often hear is that the photographer doesn’t want to be stuck in front of a computer screen when he/she could be producing images out in the field. Again, Ansel understood the need to follow the process through to the end and did spend some of his time in the darkroom, missing a few sunrises and cloud formations. I would rather produce a few excellent images that I can take complete credit for than a body of work that I have little connection to. I still think that the totally involved photographer will have results that more honestly reflect his or her original intent. Still, there are those photographers who don’t belong inside and shouldn’t set foot in a darkroom or touch a keyboard. Many famous photographers never did more than find and expose the subject.

Even though an image is digital in nature, captured with sophisticated electronic equipment, and optimized in a computer, it is still the basis of a visual art. The final result must be judged considering aesthetic values based on human experience. All those sensors and hard drives are just tools as are film and E-6 chemistry. Photography by the numbers without consideration for aesthetics will look just like painting by the numbers.

Digital photography can be new, different, and bewildering, but the goal is still the same. The final picture needs to be a communicating piece of art that evokes an emotion or conveys information, and that hasn’t changed in more than 170 years.

About the Author

George Lepp, an iconic figure in natural history photography, is a book author who teaches and lectures nationally and internationally. With his wife, Arlie, he owns and operates George Lepp & Associates, in Los Osos, California. For the latest digital darkroom technology from capture to print, George publishes a quarterly journal, the Digital Image, and offers popular and innovative workshops at the Lepp Institute of Digital Imaging.

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