the possibility of what can be seen

If photography is about seeing and showing, then could photo editing have something to do with the possibility of showing and what is seen? I’m not talking about the endless scandals of hazardous photoshopping in which a model’s ribs, hips, or appendages have been eliminated for the sake of preserving some strange ideal of “beauty” or, quite simply, to market and thus sell things. No, I’m referring to the art of photo editing in which a digital image taken of the world is made to look somehow celestial, even as it maintains a representation of this reality.

In short, I have been captivated recently by the work of Leanne Cole, a photographer whose blog is full of such artful photographic treatments. What first brought me to this blog escapes me, but I know that I keep revisiting it and at first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing — only that I was full of questions about how and what. Only later did it become clear that what I was seeing were artistic renderings of photographs.

Here’s an image of Leanne‘s that I absolutely love, in large part because of its Hopper-inspired quality:

Counter

The red face of the counter corner is, of course intriguing, but with each look — and there have been many — the street, the back of the road sign, the lampposts and trees become increasingly interesting. And the wooden floor, weathered and reminiscent of the surface being meticulously attended to by Caillebotte’s scrapers: (image courtesy of Musee d’Orsay website)

The Floor Scrapers (Gustave Caillebotte)

But Leanne Cole does not keep her secrets secret. She has shared some of the photoshop techniques she uses, including posts that offer excellent tutorials full information about sliders, layers, masks, and more. I haven’t tried it yet, but, inspired by her technique of seeing and then seeing again I present a respectfully doctored image of a stone staircase near the beach in Cromer (manipulated using the basic exposure, contrast, and saturation functionality allowed by iPhoto).

Cromer Beach Stairs (edited)

Cromer Beach Stairs (original photo)

How to explain the strange fact that the first image is what I recall seeing when I first decided to take this photo? Has a camera yet been invented to do what the eye seems to do effortlessly? That is, processing color and shape and shadow and scope, all while triggering memories, intertextual connections, and adjusting for light exposure.

Hung on the walls of the cafe from where I write are paintings, several of them by the same painter, most of which depict people in naturalistic settings — next to foliage or biological life of some sort. The painter’s brush and palette of paints here work in the same way that the mouse and video editing software does in the images above. An entity exists in the world, and instruments are used to render a version of it — never can a painting or photograph or film or even exact replica be the thing, itself. So, if all representations are, at most, approximations of the truth, why not dabble in the practice of creating entirely new worlds with their own truths? That is, to conceive of photographs as paintings, as not merely captured or clicked, but composed long after the shot is taken.

What kind of photography is this? In a world of instagram filters and readymade schemes anyone can apply to enhance a photo, what is this practice of carefully manipulating an image to create an altogether different artifact? Are we all just auto-tuning our pictures?

In John Berger’s words, “Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation.” In asking questions of photographs, therefore, we are implicitly questioning the photographer who is implicated in every image, in every choice made to document or not, and in doing so, to “bear witness.”

What does one do with a manipulated photograph? How do we read an image that has been stripped of color? Whose shadows have been augmented or minimized? Haven’t photographers always dabbled in photo making? In deciding how long to let an image burn onto the photo paper or how quickly to take it out of the developing liquids — no image is free from mediation, yet the chase for some unreal sense of purity persists (though not among photographers, I suspect).

For the inspiration, for the provocation, and for the beautiful work, my thanks to Leanne.

“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” — Emerson

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3 Responses to the possibility of what can be seen

  1. Apna Thacker says:

    The manner in which the human eye works has always left me in awe. I have for several years, attempted to capture and replicate the brilliant green that one sees when one looks at light through a leaf. I often end up dissatisfied. The luminosity is so rich that it’s an incredibly difficult task to achieve a somewhat similar color with paint.
    Not only has your post given me food for thought, it’s also pushing me to watch Berger’s Ways of Seeing again. Thank you!

    • sabonseine says:

      That green is magnificent, isn’t it? And impossible to “capture” — as if such a thing were ever possible!

      It always gives me great pleasure to remind people of Berger, and you in turn have reminded me that I haven’t seen the doc in a very long time. I often refer to the printed text that grew out of it.

  2. I feel the same: if altering a photograph can get it closer to a minds-eye image, for arts sake – then why not?

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