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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Changing With The Times

How a landscape photographer reinvented himself for the digital era

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“For us film photographers who have our library in film,” he adds, “digital has created like five times the amount of work we used to have. And a huge learning curve is part of the work also. But the end result is a much finer image and much truer to our vision. It’s just nicer. It’s a lot nicer.”

Clifton believes there will come a time—very soon, in fact—when he won’t have to scan everything he shoots. He’ll be serving his creative vision with a digital camera in hand.

Digital Manipulation Of The Landscape
carr clifton
Carr Clifton says some viewers decry any digital retouching of an image, but he’s quick to point out that it has always been done. And since it’s all in the service of a creative vision, there’s no right-and-wrong rule book.
“Some people complain: ‘Oh you’re digitizing and manipulating,’” he says. “Well it’s just an artistic expression. Now we can be even more of an artist. You have more tools and creativity at your hands. It’s phenomenal.”

Take cleaning an image of an errant pinecone, for example. Clifton explains that he does the same thing in the computer that he’s always done with film. “We used to digitally remove them anyway with the digits on our hands,” he explains. “Grab that pinecone and throw it out of the scene. People pretend ‘Oh, I didn’t touch a thing.’ But I don’t know. Moving the camera is manipulation. Move a little to the left or right… So taking garbage out of the picture? Absolutely. Taking a jet trail out of the sky? Absolutely. Taking the dirt off of it? Absolutely. Moving a person into the image? I haven’t done that. I haven’t moved a sky into the image either. I’d love to do that with some photos, but I haven’t done it yet. Pretty soon, nobody will even care. It won’t even be an issue. It’s all part of the creative process.”

“I think it’s like writing,” Clifton continues. “You have fiction and you have nonfiction. And you believe the person who writes a nonfiction novel—that it’s true. You know the fiction writer made it all up. It’s the same thing. We trust the news to have total truth in that newspaper; they didn’t make that story up. This is a creative endeavor. People can do whatever they want. If they want to change the color or put a bird in the sky, they can do it. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. It’s just who wants to do it. I don’t care to, but if they care to, that’s their own business. As long as they’re not saying it’s nonfiction. If they’re claiming that this is true nature in their image, well that’s one thing.

“It’s like writing a story,” he adds. “You could have 10 people see something happen and then they all write a story about what happened. Well it’s all nonfiction, but people have accentuated certain things that happened—they each saw it from a different angle. It’s the same thing with photography—like when you make a print. You’re going to tell the story, and you’re going to put certain things in parentheses and you’re going to capitalize certain words. It still tells the truth!”

“Absolutely,” he says, “probably within the next six months. If you want to be more fluid in your image capturing, you need to be less stiff out there. You need to be quicker on your feet, to maybe photograph some things that, at one time, you didn’t want to expend the film [to capture] because you didn’t want to load the film that night in your dark bag. The fact that you can see the digital image right when you get it—what a phenomenal teaching tool. That’s unbelievable”

The biggest problem Clifton has with digital is the amount of extra work it creates. It’s not that he’s opposed to hard work—it’s just a tough pill to swallow when his tried-and-true approach produced amazing results over an entire career. He knows the new results can be even more amazing. He just wishes he could step in after all the bugs are worked out.

“Right now, we have the Model T,” he says of digital technology. “I want to be the driver, not a mechanic. But right now you have to be the mechanic also. And it’s really hard to immerse yourself into that digital realm with the computers and all the programs and things not working together. I’m not sure that artists are the best people to do all that analytical and mechanical work. We’re much more attuned to just going out and getting feelings from imagery. So at some point, we’re going to be drivers only, and I think we’re going to be extremely creative then. But we’ll know the workings of the mechanics of the machine. So we’re going to be stronger that way.”

“I think the creative curve is going to level,” Clifton continues, “and people are going to learn quicker. Photography, the visual aspect of it, is going to evolve so much faster now. The creativity out there is phenomenal. That’s really the goal. It’s not the detail and the sharpness of the image—it’s the feeling it gives you. Sometimes sharpness and detail give you that feeling, but most of the time it’s the image itself. And if you miss that image because you’ve got this slow, cumbersome view camera that you’re stumbling around with, well then you don’t capture what you really wanted to capture.”

Focus Control With Smaller Formats
“You know the Scheimpflug,” Clifton says of the principle of controlling the plane of focus in a view camera. “The focus near and far is probably the biggest one. You can work on perspective control in Photoshop. Yeah, that’s manipulation, but it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. I’ve shot some medium format where I’ll focus in close, focus far away and put the images together. That’s totally doable. The smaller cameras have such a depth of field that I don’t think it’s an issue anymore. Maybe because of that way of focusing, we large-format people have kind of gotten stuck in a certain style—shooting our toenails and the far mountain. And I think it’s been overdone now, totally overdone. I think there are better ways to see.”

manfrottoClifton’s Tools Of Choice

Toyo 4x5 field camera
Assortment of lenses
—every kind of lens that’s made in 4x5. “I think the 90 and the 240 are great lenses—I like them all. The photographers in different regions have learned to use different lenses depending on the subject matter they’re working with.”

Pentax 67 medium-format camera. Fujichrome Velvia film, Kodak film
on occasion “That’s how I manipulate in camera.”


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