Photo Post Production: Fiction “Truer” than Fact

People often ask of photographer who produce eye-popping landscapes, “Did it really look like this?”

The implication is that the photographer added some color intensity (saturation) and maybe cleaned up the scene a bit, so that it now looks closer to a movie set than something the viewer has actually scene in reality.

And it’s true, that we sometimes (often?) crank up the color a bit. But more pertinent to the art of photography (rather than the impact of a landscape, though they may overlap) is the treatment of nature in black and white.

Of course, everyone thinks of Ansel Adams on this subject, with his classic images of Yosemite National Park taken in the 40s, 50s and 60s of the last century with a large-format view camera in black and white. He was a supreme darkroom technician, enabling him to turn visible, 3-D, nature in color into compelling, eternal black and white statements of the sublimity and balance of the natural world. He wrote a famous book on “The Negative,” inspired generations of photo artists of nature, and was, in the 1960s, the person most responsible for photography’s acceptance into the world of upscale fine art.

Black and white landscapes remain a challenging and popular art form, though it has certainly lost ground to color in recent decades. However, in the domain of mostly abstract miniscapes, as illustrated in Earthforms, black and white is usually the medium of preference, often offering more powerful versions than ones in color of the same image.

One major reason for this is because the spatially limited subjects of miniscapes often don’t include much color variety. The blue of the sky is excluded, as is most or all vegetation. The rock or mud may not contain much  color. This situation gives us the opportunity to remove an element of dullness and intensify contrast and structure in the image. Mud mosaics provide a perfect example.

Here is the photo as originally taken of the mud mosaic from Cathedral Wash included in the Earthforms collection:

cathedralwash.mr.051It is not an uninteresting photograph, having many intriguing formal elements: the irregular shapes of the plaques, the corrugated textures including the sand, their illuminated edges set off by the harsh shadows between the plaques and created by the dried curls of the mud. But it only rises to the level of “interesting study” at this point.

Removing the color abstracts the image to a degree from its substance as mud and underscores the formal interplay among the above elements:

cathedralwash.mr.051.mono.reverseNotice that I’ve left the image slightly toned. But now the corrugations are more dramatic, the tonal contrasts have taken on a somewhat metallic aspect, further pulling the view away from the association with mud, and the jagged outlines stand out more.

But there is one more process I discovered to move the image closer to abstraction, away from the association with mud, and I found it quite by accident: turning the image upside-down.

cathedralwash.mr.051.monoNow, suddenly, what were concavities become convexities; the small rock at the center of the small plaque in the middle becomes a crater, giving it a lunar aspect. The light seems to be coming from the left in both cases, but we read it as hitting a bulge first, which then casts a shadow against the separated wall of the plaque. We know it’s mud, but there’s something bizarre about it, even astonishing that those oddly textured tumescences could have such irregular rings and spaces around them. (It even reminds me somewhat of Archile Gorky’s style of painting, with floating masses inside separated outlines). The reversal of relief perspective turns it from an image of parched dryness to one of fullness.

The image doesn’t quite match as anything one has seen before, yet as a photograph it had to have been there. The anomaly draws us in.

I’d be very interest to know what other people think of this image and my explanation.

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