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In The Eye Of The Beholder

Photography As Art • Everything Old Is New Again

Art Vs. State Of The Art. Lepp offers two floral images—one is scanned film with soft effects and one is tack-sharp from edge to edge, front to back—as fodder for the discussion of nature photography as art. ABOVE: A California poppy photographed in 1998 with a Canon film camera and EF 100mm macro lens on Kodak E100S Ektachrome film. BELOW RIGHT: A rain-spattered tulip, photographed in May 2014 with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EF 180mm macro lens on a tripod, 23 captures at different focus points and composited in Zerene Stacker software to render the flower sharp from front to back.

Photography As Art

Q Toward the end of a recent seminar, you were emphasizing the importance of tack-sharp focus in an entire image (from the center to all the corners, from foreground to distance). I think I heard you say, almost as an aside, that you can leave the edges blurred, or selectively blur a part of an image if you want to do so, but “that is art”—and by implication, not photography, or not the photography you do and teach. Do you draw a distinction between photography done “as art” from the nature and landscape photography you do?
L. Rankin
At A Seminar

A I sometimes poke fun at the notion that photography can be called “art” only if it’s technically deficient—that is, out of focus, devoid of color, lacking any compelling or even recognizable subject, design or compositional integrity, or created with outdated and limited media (that is, film). If your logical sense resists the notion that only bad or technically outdated photography has artistic value, just do a little research about what’s being exhibited in art museums, being reviewed in serious publications, and being taught in some college and university art departments these days. So, when an unmoving subject, such as a flower, is portrayed with blurred edges, is it (a) an indication of the photographer’s lack of skill or inadequate equipment, (b) an attempt at capture to achieve creative interpretation of the flower, (c) a digitally altered sharp image intentionally blurred to create a softer and presumably more interpretive image, or (d) a digitally altered blurred image intentionally rendered even more blurry to disguise the lack of technique (i.e., save it in Photoshop)? Which of these is art? Is art the more or the less manipulated image? Does it make a difference if the result is a 60×60 print on the photographer’s gallery wall or an 8×10 matted print on an art museum wall? Is it art if the photographer looks like an artist, or refers to his/her work as, well…art?

Actually, the concept of art is very inclusive and invites participation by creator and viewer at every level of our experience. Most simple definitions of art use the terms “skill” and “emotional response.” That is, the creation of the work is deliberate, and viewers feel something when they see it. As anyone who has been in my classes will know, I value technical skill and feel that it empowers photographers by giving them the tools to realize their photographic (okay, artistic) visions leading, when successful, to the viewer’s intense response to an understanding of that vision, be it beauty, humor, folly, tenderness, grief, science or horror.

That said, I don’t undertake photography with the idea that I’m creating art, and I’ve never been much concerned with the idea of being an artist. I have a vision and I’m compelled by my nature, my training and my habit to turn that vision into something that others can share. My primary objective as a photographer is to convey a subject to viewers in a way they’ve never seen it before. Applying this criterion has always produced my best photography, from my years with Car and Driver Magazine, to nature and wildlife, street photography, outdoor action, portrait photography, and my current obsession with high-magnification macro subjects in the studio. Still, it was easier to achieve the goal of unique perspectives four decades ago when I undertook my professional career, when the field of photography, and I, were younger, the tools of the trade more precious, the opportunities to travel more limited, and access to the market controlled by gatekeepers who, presumably, knew and applied artistic and quality standards.

So, back to the seminar you attended, where I was pushing the idea of sharpness in every dimension of the image. Unlimited depth of field is a technique that speaks to skill: It enables the photographer to convey intense detail and color, and lots of information about the subject. If you’ve been spending much time in art museums lately, and you’ve actually seen photography there, then you know that tack-sharpness is also a style that should generate at least one emotional response: Surprise! But, is it art?

Everything Old Is New Again
It has been awhile since we’ve written about bringing film images and old video footage into the digital age. Although we occasionally encounter “modern” photographers working with film who regularly digitize their output, the typical reason to scan slides and old film is to recover and renew them, to render them relevant, storable, sharable, searchable and safe. And to clean out the attic.

I recently was asked for digital files of some vintage Kodachromes. (My spelling checker didn’t recognize the word “Kodachrome”. Now that really does make me feel old.) I fired up my old Nikon Super COOLSCAN 5000 film scanner and went to work. I’ve mentioned before that Nikon COOLSCAN software doesn’t work with today’s computers; I’ve switched to SilverFast 8 software from LaserSoft Imaging. This is a very sophisticated professional product with many features and a steep price ($450). A less expensive option with fewer features is VueScan scanning software; it’s $50 for the basic version and $90 for the professional edition.

The question for many is: Can a flatbed scanner be used to digitize film (both slides and negatives)? The answer is yes, although in my experience, a film scanner gives better results. Flatbed scanners cost less, and offer the advantage of processing a number of slides or negatives at once. A number of inexpensive flatbed scanners and software are available to accomplish the task with a result that will be acceptable to most photographers.

Whether using a film or flatbed scanner, the software will offer opportunities for improving the image as it’s digitized. Underexposed images can be significantly enhanced, while less can be done for overexposed film. Dust, fingerprints and other imperfections on the emulsion can be automatically removed. The “curves” function in the software mitigates some excessive contrast, and color saturation can be adjusted. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should; you’re making a new master of the image, and it’s better to apply changes conservatively in the scan, and then finish each individually within your image editing software, where subtle changes can be made on layers and don’t represent permanent changes to the file.

Resist the temptation to apply a one-size-fits-all fix to your files; if you’re going to run a basic batch process, you might as well send them out to a contractor for mass conversion. Yes, this means you’ll be making decisions about scanning and postprocessing each image individually. Presumably the investment of time will help you to determine which of those old images are truly worth saving for posterity.

Converting old motion film such as 8mm, 16mm and Super 8 reels is an analog endeavor. The machines that play this media have no connections to digital, so it’s necessary to project the movie onto a screen and recapture it with a digital video camera. A small rear-projection screen works best; the film is projected from the back, and a digital camera captures it from the front, in direct line with the image. The biggest challenge will be finding a projector for the cartridges or reels, but that’s what eBay is for. As always, it helps to be part of a club that can purchase one set of machines for all of its members to share.

There are more options for converting VHS cartridges. One is an adapter that connects the VHS tape deck and a computer, enabling digital capture at whatever the resolution is on the tape (which isn’t very high). This is pretty important because VHS tapes can be rendered useless in as little as 10 years by oxide shredding or even tape-eating bacteria. Amazon offers a number of VHS converters for direct copying VHS to either a computer or to a DVD recorder deck. The adapters run from about $35 to $80. Toshiba’s DVR620 DVD/VHS Recorder will do it all in a single machine for $147 at Amazon. And, finally, there’s always the option of sending the tapes to a commercial company such as iMemories to get it done.

Follow George Lepp‘s exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page:

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.