The Experiment Part 2

If the first part of the experiment might have been subtitled “as real as it gets”, the second part might be subtitled “breaking all the rules”. In this series, all but one of the images has had significant post-production work; and the challenge I created for Flickr viewers was to identify the image that was “real” (i.e. straight out of the camera).

As someone who likes to take photographs, I am also interested in the image-making processes: the technical process up to a point; but to far greater extent, I am fascinated by the thinking process. Consequently, when I see an image that I like, I often wish that I knew the story of how the image was captured; and when I see an image with strong creative content, I often wish that I knew what the photographer had in mind when capturing the shot and how he or she used artistic devices to communicate that idea visually. In my wrap of Part I of this experiment, I briefly attempted to give that information for the images I had used and I initially intended to do the same for the images presented in Part II. But having seen the response to Part II and read the comments, I have arrived at a different conclusion. Basically, I now feel that if an image cannot stand on its own without explanation, then it is not a good image and the less said about it the better. That doesn’t mean that I expect others to interpret an image exactly as I had envisaged it because each viewer will integrate it with his or her own experiences and arrive at a personal conclusion; but that it should provoke a clear response and not just a bewildered shrug.

Last week’s essay touched on the question of artistic integrity; and whether it is permissible to alter the image captured in the camera in what, for the purposes of this essay, I will call post-processing. My contention then and now is that the image captured in the camera is not any form of absolute and sacrosanct reality, but a perception of reality determined by the skill of the photographer and the constraints and capabilities of the camera. Nevertheless, the image thus captured becomes a reality in its own right. Should the photographer carry out post-processing, yet another reality is created; and every person who views that image thereafter, interprets it according to their own experiences, thus creating their own personal version of the story. My goal is to create images that authentically reflect what I feel when I look at a particular part of reality at a particular moment in time. And I still believe that it is permissible to use any means available to achieve that.

In Part II of the experiment, I selected a group of images where, with one exception, I had made significant changes to the image in post-processing. By “significant”, I don’t mean making minor adjustments to brightness and contrast; but making changes to the content of the image that fundamentally altered the impression it created.

I purposely uploaded these images in the order of least to most successful, from my own point of view, in terms of creating an image that most accurately reflected my original intention. In the first upload, I really didn’t have an intention – I just needed an image to complete the series. In the third upload, my intention was clear and I think that the idea behind the image was strong but I was not entirely happy with the final outcome. The fourth image was an opportunistic shot. I saw it, liked it, took it and was happy with the result in that it reproduced with acceptable accuracy what had first attracted me. And the fifth image was the most successful in my opinion because it accomplished exactly the outcome I had hoped to achieve. In some cases, I don’t believe that the outcome could have been achieved without post-processing; but of course, everyone is entitled to judge for him or herself whether the end justified the means.

The Images

In each case, I will show you the image “straight out of the camera” followed by the image to which post-processing has been applied and let you judge.

Monday

Out of Nowhere (Original)

Out of Nowhere (Original)

Out of Nowhere (Edited)

Out of Nowhere (Edited)

You can see here that I have added a blurred effect and removed a section of the building visible above the left side of the train in the original.

I’d love to tell you the story of “why” I took this image but that’s not the purpose of this article. What I will say is that, although I have written a lot about post-processing recently, staunchly defending the right of the photographer to use it as he or she sees fit, I don’t do this sort of thing very often myself and I actually struggled to find five images to upload for the experiment. In the end, I chose this shot, applied a “soft focus” effect in Picassa, and added it to the fleet. I agree that it does look like a tilt-shift process but it was simpler than that. And full marks for Mantosz for his analysis. This couldn’t possibly have been achieved in the camera with the equipment I was using.

In my opinion, this was the least worthy of the images in the series, there just to make up the numbers; but quite a few of those who left comments on Flickr  seemed to like it (which just goes to show the diversity of tastes and interests people have) and to my great surprise it was Explored on Flickr. (shakes his head in disbelief). As always, I really do appreciate the comments and feedback I receive from friends and visitors on Flickr and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think I will ever understand Explore.

Tuesday

Fashionista (Original)

Fashionista (Original)

Fashionista (Edited)

Fashionista (Edited)

To give you a context for this shot, it was Fashion Week in Sydney and the area around the venue for the show was buzzing with photographers and models and designers and all the fashion wannabes in the city. As far as I know, the young lady photographed here was not in the official party but I was attracted to her hairstyle and took a few shots of her as she passed through the area. The blur, as you can see, was created in the camera with the intention of creating a plastic, artificial look; but when I reviewed the image afterwards, it hadn’t achieved the “pop” I wanted, so I used post-processing to increase the saturation. I don’t know if I could have achieved the same effect directly in the camera; but I used the skills I have to produce the effect I wanted and I was reasonably happy with the result.

Wednesday

Shinagawa Magritte Factory (Original)

Shinagawa Magritte Factory (Original)

Shinagawa Magritte Factory (Edited)

Shinagawa Magritte Factory (Edited)

Once again, I would love to give you the story behind this shot; but I’m not going to. I admit that the end result looks more like an accident than an intended outcome; but without the post-processing, the original image does not come close to representing the idea I had when I captured this scene. The first thing to catch my attention was the opposition between the schoolgirl, walking away from camera, and the array of people in business attire walking towards the camera. My immediate thought was that the girl was going into the education system to be transformed into another zombie sarariman like those coming towards her. The shot had to be a snap decision. There weren’t many people walking away from the camera at that time in the morning and for the narrative to be meaningful, the one person walking away had to be a schoolgirl, because schoolboys in Japan wear uniforms that, from behind, would not distinguish them clearly from the sararimen. I had an instant in which to make all the decisions; and in fact, I made a poor one: I used a normal exposure for the ambient light.

As fabuchan pointed out in his comment, this effect could have been produced in the camera, had I thought quickly enough. Then there would have been no need to employ post-processing. But my point is, the end product would have looked just the same…so what does it matter if it was produced in the camera or in post-processing? Either way, the image doesn’t reflect reality…and it was never intended to.

The “Magritte” reference in the title was inspired by the painting called Golconda by Rene Magritte.

Thursday

Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now (Original)

Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now (Original)

Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now (Edited)

Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now (Edited)

For me, there is no deep meaning to this shot. I saw something that was visually appealing to me and I captured it…end of story. Well, not quite. Of primary interest to me was the street in the background. The girl, especially how she was dressed and how she was walking, provided the focal element I felt the shot needed. That is why the exposure and the focus are on the street rather than the girl. I did darken the street a little to increase the sense of drama in the scene because that is how I had seen it in my mind’s eye (and it is true, I could have achieved that too in the camera with a variation in exposure); but this is the shot where I didn’t use any post-processing special effects to alter the content. With the minor adjustments you see here, this is the image you were challenged to identify.

Having said that, I chose this particular image because the girl looks like she might have been pasted into this shot from a completely different capture. There are no shadows or reflections linking her to the background. This could have been a Photoshop creation, producing the same result. But I assure you, that there were no tricks in this one. I didn’t even see the red shoelaces when I was taking the shot (from across the street) but they were really there – I didn’t add or colour them later. Sometimes, one just gets lucky.

Friday

Where did I leave my *@#$%^ car? (Original)

Where did I leave my *@#$%^ car? (Original)

Where did I leave my *@#$%^ car? (Edited)

Where did I leave my *@#$%^ car? (Edited)

I saw this guy, seemingly pulling his hair out, and I snapped him. I don’t know why he was so stressed. I made the story about the car up because that’s what the pose suggested to me. This is the thing about street photography, how can we talk about defending reality when most of the time, we haven’t a clue what is really going on in the pictures we take?

On the other hand, I have (on more than one occasion) experienced the panic of going into a multi-storey car park to get my car, only to find that the bay in which I (thought I had) left it, was empty. In this picture, I wanted to convey that instant of panic, that blinding flash of disbelief, when you first see the empty parking bay where you had expected to find your car and all the ramifications of its apparent theft swarm through your mind like an cloud of angry wasps. I don’t believe that there are any settings on my camera that would adequately create that effect in the original capture. And I don’t believe that there is any enforceable law, written anywhere, that says I cannot use post-processing to produce the effect that I see in my mind’s eye.

Conclusion

During the week, I received an email from a Flickr friend asking what the future in photography holds for me. It was a timely question and I was reminded by it of a story I heard as a child, growing up in Scotland.

There was a young man who was learning to play the bagpipes. One day, he performed an act of kindness for a stranger who, as it turned out, possessed magical powers. To repay the kindness, the stranger promised to grant the young man a single wish, to which the young man immediately replied that he would like to become the “greatest piper the world had ever known”.

But the stranger was wise, and he told the young man, “I can grant you talent, without fame; or fame, without talent; but you cannot have both. You must choose.”

The young man thought long and deeply about the choice he had been given; and in the end, he chose talent over fame.

I am constantly humbled by the talent I see on Flickr; and I admit that there have been moments (of despair) when I have been tempted to court popularity when the prospect of raising my own game seemed particularly remote. But when I see an image of mine like “Out of Nowhere” on Explore, while others I have taken that are far more meritorious in my own opinion are not recognised in that particular forum, popularity seems such a hollow achievement to me.

So, I will go on taking the images I like to take, uploading them to Flickr, trying new things, taking risks, making mistakes, stumbling, falling, picking myself up and carrying on; and using the feedback I get from friends and visitors to be my guide; being inspired by the best and learning from everyone. I need to go on pushing myself, breaking the rules if necessary, but striving to achieve results that I can look at and feel proud of, for a moment, before pushing ahead towards new targets. I don’t expect to please everyone all of the time; but I do hope to please each of you at least some of the time. So I will leave you with a couple of comments I received from Luca Napoli this week that kind of sum up what the experiment was all about:

Commenting on “Fashionista” and in response to my explanation that this experiment was about “breaking all the rules”, Luca wrote: rules? which rules? In Photography there are no rules and your superb job is the demonstration of this statement. An awesome piece of pop art. Terrific. Great Job Keith!” Later in the week, however, commenting on “Where did I leave my *@#$%^ car?” Luca wrote: “I do like the framing. The post to be honest to me it’s too strong but actually does not disturb in this case. I like the setting of the “model” and the red spots adds to the scene a weird and funny atmosphere. Well done Keith!”

You might not like some of the images (or any of the images) I uploaded this week and whilst I might be able to talk you round to liking some of them a little better by explaining how I came to take them and what I was trying to achieve in the techniques I used, it is more important to me to understand what you didn’t like than to coerce your approval. Luca was being honest, and I value his honest criticism as much as I value honest praise, when I receive it. So thank you to everyone who participated in this experiment with me. Thank you for what you said; and thank you for the spirit in which you said it. I appreciate it so much.

One thought on “The Experiment Part 2

  1. Keith,

    I enjoyed this essay/blog very much. The specifics of the photo, and even the specifics of what you were thinking at the time, didn’t matter to me very much; what mattered was that you reinforced my own feeling that there *is* something going on in your mind at the moment you snap the photo, which explains why you decided to take it in the first place, what it made you feel or think about, and what you were trying to capture.

    If you had not recorded all of these details, I wonder if you would have remembered them a year later, or even a month later … or even the next day.

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