Are Digital Images Fair Competition

by ralph

Just as in the big world out there, computer manipulated photos have shown up more and more in camera clubs. At their first appearance some folks throw up their hands in horror and object because they feel the images aren't really photographs. Others think that the rather huge investment in computer electronics gives the photographer an "easy" way to create great pictures, leaving the less financially endowed in a permanently second class status.

One thing is for sure. Access to the glitziest, up to date digital equipment is no guarantee of producing great work, in fact I've seen some god-awful images that attempted to be very symbolic but really wound up being confusing, badly composed smears. Many of these were even covers on the digitally oriented Commercial Photo magazine. I suspect their creators were computer whizzes who could make the programs jump through hoops but lacked any clear visual ideas. In recent years I've created some composite images with outdated litho film and 5 year old kodalith developer that have often been mistaken for computer derived photos, so such images can be made inexpensively by conventional darkroom techniques. This was slow and laborious work however.

So does the computer make this creative process easier? That goes both ways too. The first time I saw a computer create posterization at the touch of a button, replacing half a week's work with multi-stepped and registered lithos, I realized I would never again go the darkroom route again. But in the more routine litho masking which is done to compose separate picture elements into one image, both darkroom and computer can create a mask quickly from a white background but both get bogged down seriously when it is necessary to trace the outlines of an object by hand, as with a confusing background. Some of the controls that computer people make frequent use of like changing overall color and darkening or lightening some areas are also simply done in the darkroom with a touch of the color wheel or dodging tool. Soft focus effects used in camera or darkroom seem to be better and more controllable than those offered in computers. On the other hand only the computer can offer a "sharpening filter" that raises sharpness above the level of the original image. Okay, as long as you don't delete, scramble or otherwise lose your projects (as most of us do), there's still a clear speed advantage with the computer, especially since you see the effects of all the changes immediately, instead of waiting for the film to be processed.

As far as the big bucks aspect of computerization goes, isn't it just the same kind of envy one feels toward the photographer who gets those great wildlife shots with the $6000 lens (like the 400mm f2.8) -- but since that's a photographic tool we know there is nothing to be said. Besides, the big price tags on computers are declining. The sort of muscular, high speed, high capacity computer, desirable for image manipulation, that cost $5900 in late '95 is now down to the mid $2000s due mostly to the spectacular decline in the cost of RAM memory and hard drive space. In fact machines costing up to $1000 less can still do a good job more slowly (but scanners, printers, etc. cost extra).

Several years ago I saw a demonstration where photographer-turned-illustrator Steve Grohe showed how he created a beautiful image of a blooming cactus for a cover of PDN photo magazine. The shape, shaded greens of the leaves, the needles, even their puckered roots and the flowers were all created from nothing, in the computer. The final result looked like a fine photo of an unusually smooth and defect free cactus. But it wasn't a photograph..

So the nub of the question is not whether computer manipulated images are acceptable in the company of other photographs -- they are or should be -- but whether computer created ones are. When the operator calls up a blank window in a
otoshop or drawing program, all the tools of the painter are laid out for them to use; the brushes, palettes, airbrushes, erasers, etc. They can proceed to create an image with the smooth tonality of a photo out of nothing but their imagination. That's very nice and quite commendable but despite the high tech tools, I'd have to say that when they're done, they've just made a painting (sans paint). There was a curious style in art circles a few years ago called Photo-Realism. By the deft use of finely graded, almost invisible brush strokes (or sometimes airbrush) the smooth tonality, gradation and even subject matter was made to look exactly like a photograph. The process was laborious and a bit pointless but the result was still hung proudly in art galleries, where it belonged among the other paintings. There was no question that it might be a photo just because it looked like one. Similarly, there shouldn't be any doubt that a computer created image is a painting, just because it looks like a photograph.

This is a very relevant question because there are programs out there that make it possible for hand-made-art-impaired people like myself to create computer images without having to brush in anything. For instance, fractal based programs like the inexpensive Bryce are ready to disgorge endless fantastic landscapes once the creative process is started. Of course they might look like they were taken on Jupiter or Venus but hey, no one else in the club has been there.

But they're still not photographs. In fact computer imagery has not yet developed its own time sanctioned forums like salons and galleries so the creators, mostly photographers, feel it's only natural to pull this work back into the familiar world of photography, and this is where the question of high tech resources creating a degree of unfairness comes in. I doubt that the best Grand Canyon shot can measure up to the Canyons of Mars. Furthermore, presentation of these images in the familiar materials of photography, like slides, seems to confer some photographic authenticity. What about slide copies of paintings --- even your own paintings. Are the images photographs just because the final presentation is on film?

I think we'll be seeing more of this so some acceptance may be inevitable, but there is a lot of deciding to do along the way.