Being one of fairly robust opinions on just what the world should look like, it should come as no surprise that this extends into my philosophy of photography. I’m well-settled in the camp of those who decry technology over technique, who would rather look at good but grainy and slightly out-of-focus over banal but pin-sharp and HDR’d to death. It’s a relatively short step from that position to preferring photos be authentic; not unmodified – plenty of realist photographers altered their negatives in printing – but faithful to reality. Mood, tone, and color should all be representative of the actual scene.
But photography in this narrow definition has its limits. Lots of photographs have been heavily altered and used successfully – look at Andy Warhol’s work. In fact, one could make the case that some of the photographs used this way may be better for it, not as photographs but more broadly as art. The photograph becomes merely one component of the work, not its sole object.
This is often polarizing. People love it or hate it. Some (often photographers) may decry the ruining of a perfectly good photo, while others (often not) will proclaim that this new interpretation transcends the staid medium of photography. This is understandable, and probably the way it should be. An artist who seeks universal popularity isn’t focused on art. They’re concentrating on popularity, which is far less interesting.
So why is Your Humble Filmosaur rambling on about this like some self-righteous second-year Fine Arts major at their first real cocktail party? Well, mostly because I’m about to post some photos that have been modified. A lot. And you know what? I like them.
I started fooling around with digitally altering photos years ago, but aside from relatively innocuous corrective adjustments I’d pretty much put it aside when I started shooting seriously. Recently, however, having seen prints in several exhibitions that were toned in various ways (selenium, palladium, etc.), I decided to see if I could replicate the look digitally. Turns out you can, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it, without too much difficulty. Certainly, it doesn’t work for everything (don’t worry, I won’t be applying this technique to every photo I post from here on), but on some photos it adds a little something to the final image.
As one who shoots film primarily, one of the more interesting filter sets available in GIMP (via G’MIC) is an extensive collection of film emulation presets. Why would you need film emulation when shooting film, you ask? Well, for one, given that Kodachrome is dead, the only way you’re going to get the look today is digitally. It’s also useful for desaturating color photos if you want to give them the look of a particular black-and-white emulsion, or as a quick way to change the appearance of photos taken with a less-than-ideal film for a particular scene. This little exercise in experimentation can eat up countless hours. Again, it’s not something to be applied everywhere at all times, but in certain circumstances it’s a neat trick to have available.
This revelation led me down the rabbit hole of more and more extensive modification. Being much more familiar with the software than the last time I tried, I started fooling around with the many filters and scripts that GIMP has to offer and found a few I liked, at least as a starting point. More fiddling and I actually began to be pleased with the results. Who knew?
I was then confronted with a philosophical dilemma (of my own making, to be sure): which photos should be given this treatment? If I began altering some of my favorites, I was sure to be disappointed with them; after all, these are photos with which I was satisfied in their natural state – why would I mess them up? The answer soon became clear: mediocrity. Anyone who takes photos knows exactly what I’m talking about. The majority of photos are mediocre: not bad, nothing glaringly wrong with them, but nothing special. These are the photos that had the potential to be improved, made into something more interesting than they were in their original form, by this sort of tinkering.
So, with full acknowledgment of that mediocrity, and of potentially putting some people off, I offer you some of the results of my journey down the murky path of digital alteration, a veritable Lost Weekend of photographic experimentation masquerading as high art. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll sober up soon enough – the morning after is bound to be ugly.