Back in the olden days of the darkroom—the 1990s, in this case—I remember suddenly seeing Photoshop images everywhere: layered photos and skillful composites. Some were stunning, though a lot of them looked alike. I was also working with layers and composites, but I created my images with age-old darkroom techniques. To get a layered image, I had to double- or triple-expose, line things up precisely, make endless calculations—and ruin a lot of photo paper. I resented the idea that a bunch of spoiled lazy artists were making magic with a few mouse clicks.
Actually, I was secretly dying to get my hands on the program, and I jumped when an acquaintance invited me over to have a look at it. In her large Emeryville live-work, she booted up her Mac, opened the program, and demonstrated some of what is possible. I smiled. My smile grew wider as she showed me all the images she’d been working on.
I walked out an hour later still smiling, my reservations all but gone. I’d been suspicious of Photoshop because I had the impression that almost anyone could sit down and turn out wonderful images with the click of a mouse. It was a revelation to see that her computer creations were as sloppy and amateurish as her paintings. I’d discovered that Photoshop isn’t cheating: it’s simply a tool, like a brush, a pencil, or a negative. It responds to the mastery of the person using it. I got Photoshop as soon as I could and learned to use the program. I worked hard at it.
I try to remember that lesson when I find myself scowling over the latest HDR photo-monstrosity.
When I first heard about High Dynamic Range photography, I was excited. Even the best digital sensor doesn’t come close to capturing the range of tones that the human eye can perceive, so I imagined that great photos would follow.
If I look hard, I can find lovely HDR images, like this one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lynchburgvirginia/407618927/ but the vast majority of them make me cringe. Something about the process gives the resulting photos a freaky glow and super-saturated funhouse colors. “Like a bad Japanese postcard from the 60’s” according to a friend who also has HDR issues (although to me they’re more like bad acid trips from the 80’s). And they all look strangely alike. “Icky”, in many cases.
Again, I feel some resentment, because a tool has been invented that artists can use to get superficially spectacular results.
And again, the answer is to quit my bitchin’ and shoot my own damn HDRs. I’ve attempted a grand total of two, and both totally sucked. But I will keep at it. I have faith that this great power can be used for The Good.