Monday, March 19, 2012

Come on, "Vogue".

Can't help but think I should crop this square. Allie hit a couple of knockout poses her first time out and this was one of them. Most all of the retouching was on the log to get rid of graffiti. I know, graffiti, on a log. A log.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ethics of Retouching

Basically, these are images from a recent shoot. I'll have more to say about that later.

OK, it's later.

These are images wherein some retouching was used. The problem which came up was the type of retouching. There's some software around now which is pretty sophisticated, and aside from just touching up skin blemishes you can pretty easily balance skin tones, give somebody tan skin or apply lipstick without a lot of meticulous hand work in Photoshop. A lot of people want their photos touched up in this way. But the technique in question on the images above is one of facial sculpting. If you do it a little, a lot of folks will rather like it and not realize that it's been done. If you do it a lot, then the person in the photo doesn't really look like themselves anymore. A lot has been said about retouching in the media in a very critical way. I'm not here to argue one way or the other about that. All in all I do not want young women or men for that matter comparing themselves to crazily photoshopped images thinking that those images are reality and that they need to lose weight, or grow longer legs or a longer neck or wider eyes, or bleach their teeth or any of that stuff. But the fact of the matter is photographs have never been reality, the best photographers have always been great at bending reality to suit the needs of the image and we're just better at it now, and also much worse, by means of technology. You can now create beautiful images, or hideous images and everything in between with alarming dexterity.

One thing which happens from time to time is that I get asked some variation on the question "are those the real colors?"  or "did the sky really look like that?" etc. And the answer is, "how should I know?" Nobody can compare a moment in time with a photograph. The moment has passed. Cameras, lenses and all associated gear distort. Computer monitors for the vast majority of people have never been calibrated, therefore the colors, contrast, brightness are typically preset at a fairly inaccurate factory default. From there, translating an RGB image to a CMYK for print is a pretty sketchy process-- far from exact. The other answer, the one I really want to give to the question which is pretty much asking if I represented reality correctly is: "I don't know and I don't care, because that is not what I'm going for." I notice nobody asks a painter if his colors are accurate. You either like a painting or you don't. I guess the whole problem began with the idea of "photo realism". Well it's not real. It never is and it never was and it never will be.

However, getting back to the images above. They have been retouched, really I should say "manipulated" so that the image of the person photographed no longer looks enough like that person to be truly recognizable. In essence the image is now a different person, a person who doesn't exist. Just so we don't get confused, an image is never a person, an image is always an image and only a person is a person. So, is there a problem? Yes, there's a big problem if you're doing a portrait for a person. They want to look like themselves, only better. The "only better" part is only slightly hypocritical. Of course people want to look their best in a photograph, even if they never really look that good anywhere else. Sorry, but it's true. However I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that a lot of people who look great in real life don't photograph very well. "Photogenic" just means you tend to photograph well and rather easily from a variety of angles and with a variety of facial expressions. A photograph is a distortion of real life, always.

 If, for example, somebody shot a photo of me and then presented me with an image which looked like Brad Pitt, well there's a problem because I don't much resemble Brad Pitt. I'm pretty OK with looking like myself, and I wouldn't want others looking at a photo ostensibly of me and saying, "Who is that guy? He looks a bit like Brad Pitt?"  So the weird part about being a good photographer and retoucher is, if you use the techniques skillfully, and "enough" you'll get lots of compliments and maybe even some money too. If you're really skillful you might even push the envelope a little, thus getting more compliments and money. But if you go too far, now you're not only bad at what you do, but are somehow a sinner; a person who has done wrong. You've insulted your subject. Maybe you've insulted some sacred concept of what humanity is, especially if you tend to manipulate or erase family genetic characteristics or even "racial" characteristics.

I'll admit I'm in some conflict over this. The painter/artist side of me prefers to be free to use brush and paints as I wish. There's an old photojournalist side of me wants the entire art to be capturing a moment in time perfectly. The counselor side of me cares more about the truth of an "honest" image, and of course I care most about people.

But as a portrait photographer  I look for good light and if I don't find it I create it. I try for the best camera angles which will distort in a complimentary way. I select lenses specifically to flatter my subject. I turn off any in-camera "sharpening" and let the bayer filter fuzz things up pretty good. In essence I put the rose colored filter (figuratively) on before we even start. People pay me for that, people hug me for that and get all teary eyed over it. So far nobody has said, "Oh come now, I don't look that good. Go back and ugly it up."

I mean, it could happen, anything could happen. But really I think that if I create an image it should simply be judged on it's own merits like any image. Any resemblance to reality is superficial anyway. If I go too far, I haven't ncessarily ruined an image, but shifted its usefulness from one realm to another. You know, Bugs Bunny doesn't look much like a real rabbit, but he still has his place in cartoons, because after all real rabbits don't talk, wisecrack or outsmart Elmer Fudd, but there's a place for Bugs, and we accept that.; not as a real representation of a rabbit, far from it, he's a created illusion with distinctly unique characteristics, much like a photograph. Still, you'd be right if you said that Bugs was a bit cartoonish . . .

And the fact of the matter, the reality of where we are today with digital photography, is that images approaching the ordinary likely won't get any attention at all. They won't stand out. And if a potential client gets the idea that they, or cousin Jimmy, could take photos just as well as you do, you won't get hired. This sets up an unfortunate scenario of escalation. The slippery slope being that manipulation of images becomes the "norm" to an extraordinary degree, and that any image not employing wild techniques is considered inferior or sub-standard.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! 2012

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!  May the luck of the Irish be with you! Have fun, be safe. Model Credit, Allie

Thursday, March 15, 2012

With change comes controversy

Aaah yes, so here it is, the source of great controversy. The image above, believe it or not.

A young, aspiring model contacted me and asked me to help with her portfolio. Turns out she's enthusiastic as all get out, raring to go and loves to try new things. I've had a few model contacts so far and nothing has panned out, so my portfolio is limited to some photojournalistic work, a couple weddings, some portraiture and a whole lot of art, nature and wildlife photography primarily.

So I met Allie at a cafe and brought my camera, took a few impromptu headshots and we had a little conversation and a day later we did a very rudimentary shoot in the park. The light was terrible, it was windy and a little chilly and sunny at the same time. No foliage to provide deep shade, no assistant, but Allie was such a trooper she just carried the day, never complained once even though unbeknownst to me she wasn't feeling well. I was pretty impressed with her ability to "vogue it up" working with the environment, the bad light, and any props handy including and old dead log with grafitti on it ( most of which I have now removed in post production ).

So anyway the shot above ended up being one of two of her favorite shots of the day. She called it, "perfect". As a photographer I can't ask for more than that. Allie had told me that her tastes run towards the edgy and dramatic, so it didn't surprise me that she'd pick two images where she wasn't smiling. She smiles a lot, like, all the time, but she knows when the camera is turned on her she needs to mix it up a bit.

I posted the photo on my facebook page, with the comment that the subject doesn't always choose the same favorite images as the photographer in every case, and I was actually referring to another shot which I never did post because I like this one all right. I don't think it's "perfect" but I like it all right.

Then the shit hit the fan. Somebody didn't just dislike the photo, they seemed to in some way, hate it. I was so surprised that i asked them to clarify, and that was my first mistake. I don't really want to go into it all, because it was really just a few people making negative comments, but then it expanded into what appeared to be a feminist based rant or two, and I could see it was going to snowball. Even really well meaning people were now speculating about the model based on a single image.

 I've seen this happen before on the internet, they call it a "dogpile" and it can go positive or it can go negative. What I think this was turning into was a lot of really good people trying to work out their "stuff" on a single image. As an image then, it's a success. You might want an image to get noticed, get under your skin even, disturb you somehow. Not every image should be entirely palatable.

But the comments were starting to piss me off because I know that an image is just an image and yet there are real people behind it, like, in this case, a young college student just trying her hand at modeling. I know what a trooper she was for this shot, that she brought her own clothes, changed them in the chilly wind, did her best to work with what she had and did a truly admirable job, far exceeding my expectations for the day. I don't want to hear that you don't like her shoes. If you're so concerned about that, I'll send you and invoice for two hundred fifty bucks and you can handle the shoe fund. Don't tell me that you think she's "in pain" just because she decided to shoot an intense look at the camera for this one image. Literally 3 seconds later she was grinning, just like she was for most of the day. I don't even want to hear about the pose being unnatural because to me all poses are unnatural, and I especially don't want to hear how concerned you are for her well being while directly engaging in gossip gossip gossip. Not so bad at modeling the first time out is she? Modeling is acting, and she fooled the hell out of some people. Further she zoned in on the one image out of about 200 that was going to mess with people big time. Mess with them. And honestly, this is a young woman kicking back on a log, fully clothed. My hat is off to Allie. She rocked the house.