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Come in! There are a few adventures I’ve written about, but most of the content offers classes in photography and mentoring for photographers, including photo theory, which, although a vital part in our profession, is largely an overlooked subject in all published media that profits from and feeds our gadget minded mindset today.

Mentoring: When is the output of a camera no longer a photograph?

February 29 2016 - Blog, Studio Press

When can we no longer call the output of a camera a photograph? This is a question posed by Dr. Neal. A photograph is the output of a camera. This is consistent throughout the history of photography, even in this digital age when algorithms insure that even a chimpanzee can take a well exposed picture.

Throughout the history of photography, the photograph produced by the camera has always been subject to a degree of post-production. In the chemical darkroom enhancements and retouching were limited, even in the hands of master artists, if we compare it to the unbelievable possibilities today through digital software. Furthermore these new products allow users a lot of hit-and-miss applications and opportunities that were not possible with the analog darkroom and retouching techniques of the past or otherwise they would add significant costs to often achieving only marginal improvements.

So at what point is the output of a camera, being applied with digital software no longer a photograph?

Possibly it is better to first consider when a photograph is simply a bad or boring picture. Let’s face it; most pictures are to photography what most elevator music is to the classics.

There is no absolute, but I will argue that in general an exceptional photograph can stand on its own and requires the minimum in post-production to stand out. I would add that the more post-production software applications are applied the less any value can be attributed to its photography. The outcome may be considered some other fantastic form of art, but most still end up to be suitable elevator images.

We know compography, the blending of pictures in a computer to output an altered image, which can be viewed the most aesthetically pleasing piece of high art. What we don’t know is what to call a camera picture severely altered, enhanced and retouched to hopefully somehow come out to be meaningful.

Now there have been the added questions about my photographic art (that can be viewed on http://jamesschotgallerystudio.com/gallery/james-schot/). These were creatively made in camera using multiple exposures and other camera, optical and lighting techniques. With these techniques used, up to the point of pressing the camera shutter, does that mean they are no longer photographs? Are photographs any output traditionally produced by a camera, or are they only represented by what a camera records, however creatively?

There are those who will shriek “what difference does it make!” To reply, I’ve raised the question about sculptures made by 3D printers. Will we differentiate Michelangelo’s stone, chisel and hammer sculpture of David from a version made from a 3D printer? I would like to think so for the sake of both the master Michelangelo and the master 3D printer.  In the same way, I would like to question the meaning of authentic photographic output vs. post production digital software output. If the essence of the output wasn’t produced from a camera, why can’t this altered output have its own identity? As for my photographic artwork using pre-camera-output techniques,  I can’t speak for their aesthetics as this is a subjective call, but we can say they are well executed in the camera (most on a single piece film and some in a single file), and therefore I will argue for them to be called photographs.

Taking and making a really great photograph is far from easy, it is very difficult. It’s not an armchair exercise.  Even with technology making it easier, being completely on target in the photographic attempt is a rare special celebratory happening. I know it’s disappointing to think in this way, especially in an age when so much more is accessible to so many more, and where everyone is entitled to win and be gratified. Digital advances have made altering easy, but in many ways have made it increasingly difficult to recognize standards, know the limitations, and accept that parameters still exist. Such a challenging view may be resented in mutual admiration societies, but the same high standard holds true, or should for post-production artistry that transforms a picture into some other non-photographic creative image expression. It’s not my concern as a photographer; it is the post-production artists who should determine what this spin-off art form is named, the standards they should follow, and benefit from doing so. Let’s face it; if all post-production artistry is viewed as equal it is equally meaningless.

If we continue to believe in masters, be they Zen, Painters, Photographers, or Compographers, I can’t think of anything created for its time that through time has remained meaningful if not correctly identifiable and having required exceptional knowledge, experience, skill, dedication, perseverance, talent, even suffering for the medium embraced.

James Schot