Breaking New Ground With Digital Photography Creations

April 2nd, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions.”    – Henry James, 1888

Calathea #2, 2003 from the Photo Synthesis Series by Huntington Witherill. Photoshop creation from a Canon 10D original made in Huntington Witherill's Studio in Monterey, California.

Though this blog is primarily about landscape photography, it will cover other forms of interest. Landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, and Philip Hyde were known for their landscapes, yet it is well-known that they practiced other forms. Philip Hyde, like the others above made portraits and a significant portion of his work is considered documentary. He avoided commercial work for advertising but made a large body of architectural photographs for corporate and government clients. Today no genre of photography has more merit than any other, as long as the work is produced with the same artistic rigor as taught by the early masters. (For context, see the series of blog posts, “Photography’s Golden Era 3,” “Photography’s Golden Era 4” and others in the category “History of Photography.”)

Calathea #2, 2003, original digital capture with a Canon 10D by Huntington Witherill in his studio in Monterey, California. (Before Photoshop "Digital Transformation" process)

In the blog post “Photography’s Golden Era 2” I drew from several authorities to address a question asked in a comment on “Photography’s Golden Era 1” about the current time period and whether it is also a “Golden Era.” The discussion heated up, but several landscape photographers pointed out that because the current conditions are not conducive to making a living from photography, the period is not liable to incubate as much great art. However, even though photography is going in a million directions and what we see now is chaos, we may be in the beginnings of a new Golden Era. See the blog post “Man Ray On Art And Originality.” Also relevant to this discussion, are the words of discretion by Paul Strand in the blog post, “What Makes A Photograph Art?”

After some looking around, I found a few striking examples of fine art photographers that are doing truly new and innovative work. One of these is a young lady, Natalie Dybisz, who calls herself Miss Aniela. Her tastefully exotic digitally re-constructed self-portraits have reportedly developed a record-breaking following on Flicker. Another fine art photographer, Huntington Witherill, has practiced straight photography for 35 years but is now breaking new ground in creative digital photography with a series he calls Photo Synthesis.

“Absent the proper self-restraint,” Huntington Witherill said, “Working with Photoshop can be a bit like using a chainsaw to make Christmas tree ornaments. Photoshop is a marvelously powerful tool. But unlike a chainsaw, Photoshop is also capable of extremely intricate and detailed work when used with finesse.” Huntington Witherill has made some remarkable creations that measure up artistically to his earlier film photography.  The steps he takes in the process of one creation can be viewed in a video by Clicking Here.

“The perpetuation and validity of straight photography has already been well established,” Huntington Witherill said. “Edward Weston’s photographs remain every bit as valid as they were prior to the digital age. However, in my opinion, it is the aesthetic quality of the work itself which will tend to perpetuate and continue to validate the practice of straight photography.” Huntington Witherill and my father, Philip Hyde, both taught photography workshops at the University of California Santa Cruz Extension, along with other luminaries such as Ruth Bernhard, Cole Weston, Morley Baer, Wynn Bullock, Al Weber, Steve Crouch, Dave Bohn, Ralph Putzker, Glenn Wessels, Milton Halberstadt, Pirkle Jones, Dick Garrod, Henry Gilpin and others. Philip Hyde and Huntington Witherill were roommates once at a workshop teachers gathering and also spent time together at the Rendezvous, a meeting of photographers organized by Al Weber. Huntington Witherill recently had more to say about my dad’s landscape photography and how people see it today:

Were I to feel it necessary to argue the validity, importance or relevance of your father’s work, I would be doing so on the basis of the overall aesthetic quality and visually unique character and style of his photographs, and to a certain restrained extent, upon the context in which they were made. I would avoid the old “us” versus “them” argument which pits “straight” photography against all other types of photography (an argument which largely centers upon the chosen tools, materials, and methods, and the relative level of perceived manipulation used to produce the work). First, I think it’s beneath the dignity and importance of your father’s work to be forced into such a seemingly shallow argument. And second, I think the argument itself is completely unnecessary. Your father’s work was made at a time when few others were producing similar work. It could be superficially categorized as “straight” photography, yet aesthetically, it stands on its own even today, regardless of the specific kind of photographic characterization or classification one wishes to apply to it.

Your father used his heart and mind to produce images that met his own unique sensibilities. He saw the world in a way that others did not. Who cares how or in what style, or even when his photographs were made? To argue the “validity” or relative “importance” of a Philip Hyde photograph based upon the tools, materials and methods he used to produce that photograph, is beneath the dignity of the work. We’re all in the same photographic boat and we’re all working on differing forms of artistic self-expression. When your father’s work is considered in the context of photographic “art,” it must be compared with all other forms and manifestations of the art, not simply advocated because it happens to be “straight” photography. Edward Weston’s photographs are great because they are great photographs. It doesn’t matter to what style or method you compare them. Edward Weston’s photographs are not great simply because they are “straight” photographs. And… neither are your father’s.

All photographers and purveyors of photography working today are in the throws of negotiating the many changes in the medium brought on by digital cameras, Photoshop and other digital era methods. Everyone has a different approach. Some photographers have not only navigated the changes, they are thriving by leading the way. “Witherill has embraced the new technique and run with it,” Rick Deragon said in 1999. Rick Deragon is a painter of the natural scene, museum curator and art teacher. Rick Deragon also said of Huntington Witherill, “He’s run right into a new reality that he is able to define, unfettered by photography’s past, but still full of his reverence for the natural source.”

Railing, Fort Stevens, Washington, 2006 by Huntington Witherill. An example of his straight photography.

One look at Huntington Witherill’s photography and anyone can see it is not to be confused with much other photography today that suffers from heavy-handed Photoshop use that has somehow tainted and made the images look slightly overcooked. He himself describes the majority of the photography displayed on the internet today as low quality. The change to be feared is not the departure from straight photography through Photoshop. Nor is there harm in exploring new ways of making images that use methods or philosophies completely different from straight photography. The degrading of the medium lies in the vast quantities of aesthetically inferior work and the overuse of Photoshop to try to save otherwise tasteless images.

Photoshop is a wonder in the hands of talented creative artists such as Miss Aniela or Huntington Witherill. The problem lies not in new forms of photography, but in landscape photography that consists of what my father, Philip Hyde, called “pretty pictures for postcards.” In his artist statement he said, “Black and White is excellent experience for color work because it encourages sensitivity to form, texture, tonal gradations and the quality of light. Color photographs that lack these qualities and rely too much on the shock value of color alone will not sustain interest.”

In a 1979 letter to retired Outward Bound river guide and landscape photographer Chris Brown, Philip Hyde wrote that many landscape photographs tend to have too many elements in them and are “not tightly enough organized.” Philip Hyde went on to say:

Because it is big in scale does not mean that it can’t have impact as an intentional photograph. The camera only sees one frame at a time, and unless you get into some of the multiple-image techniques, you’ve got to rely on one image to make the impression. I tend to be careful in my own work, not to yield to the easy temptation to over-dramatize things just to make this impression—and as a corollary, I also tend to be less impressed with the group led by Ernst Haas, who make their point by highly romantic over-dramatics. They go too far, I think, but certainly something more than pointing the camera and making a snapshot is indicated. Snapshots have their place, but I assume at the outset that you want to make a deeper impression, create something that communicates a little more powerfully. The only recipe I know for it is a four-letter word: work (experience, practice).

Take a look at the following videos of Huntington Witherill, by Douglas Ethridge, posted on John Paul Caponigro’s blog. They show not only a new vision but also a depth of mastery of the medium, that developed through many years of experience and practice in straight photography, but that has now found a new direction through new methods and techniques that go way beyond those of the past. Welcome to the future, or at least one form of it…

To read more about cutting edge Photoshop methods see the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Photoshop For Pros.”

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17 comments

  1. Derrick says:

    Interesting food for thought.

    My initial reaction is that the prevalence of photoshop and other forms of photo manipulation (while often times highly skilled) makes a case for the continuation of “straight” photography.

    I do not see that as practicing a dying art form but a continuation and growth of the art form as practiced by the early masters.

    Despite the wonderful images capable of being produced by PS or in HDR – they lack a critical component in my opinion and that is they do not look real.

    To each his own, of course, but to me that lack of realism is a deal breaker.

  2. Hi Derrick. I agree. Huntington Witherill says that photographs inherently are not real. This is a good point and one to keep in mind while enjoying or making photographs. At the same time, for better or worse it also legitimizes many forms of photograph manipulation, which is fine if that is your art form, but if you are making photographs claiming they are straight photography and they are actually distorted, there are some gray areas, but generally I feel this lacks artistic integrity. Huntington says that manipulation starts with the framing of the photograph. In the purest sense this is true. I suppose everyone is free to define what they think manipulation is, but the early proponents of straight photography had a specific idea of what kind of manipulations they were against. Even though straight photography has always been an approach with a certain spirit rather than a law or set of rules, I am not alone in suggesting that the members of Group f.64 and photographers from their lineage would be disgusted by much of what is claimed to be “landscape photography” today. As I mentioned in the blog post “Photography’s Golden Era 4,” Edward Weston came to feel so strongly about straight photography that he destroyed his earlier pictorialist-style negatives. To me a good photograph is one that looks “real” but at the same time transcends reality, or is an abstraction because of the selection of subject matter or framing, not through post-camera manipulation of the image.

  3. Hello David, your title is an interesting one in relation to Miss Aniela’s work. I was reading this recently in The Photo Editor – http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2010/03/26/ask-anything-copying-other-artists/. Her picture, “The Smothering”, could have been used in the discussion cited there. I have no idea who photographed what, when, but it is interesting to wonder about our own source of creativity.

    Sharon

  4. Hi Sharon, thank you for sharing that link. It will perhaps spark an interesting discussion, or something for people to think about in regard to creativity. I don’t know that much about Miss Aniela, besides what anyone can read about her online. I have looked at a lot of her photography. It is very alluring. She is not only attractive, but also highly innovative. She does so many different types of work. Her compositions are excellent. Perhaps her images of herself floating have similarities to some of these other photographers’ images. Maybe they were part of her inspiration. However, even her floating images, are different in that they are in intimate settings around the household, bedroom, bathroom, sometimes in a forest or whatever but nearly always have some imaginative story line. Her photography, it seems to me, is more in the realm of fantasy and fictional exploration, whereas some of the other images, particularly the french photographer’s, are gritty, inner-city, urban and speak more of a stark twist on reality than an escape into a fantasy land. Also, the subjects appear to be jumping or falling, rather than suspended and floating. I appreciate you sharing the link also because it highlights two aspects of this discussion. One is the interesting process of inspiration and influences and how we get ideas. The second aspect is that it is unique to photography that many photographers are obsessed with concerns of people copying each other. Photography galleries generally don’t care if one photograph resembles another. In other art forms it is a compliment to the original artist, a tribute and a display of awareness of what has gone before. Throughout the history of art, there are many examples of artists making works that resemble pieces by the masters of the past that they admire. In fact it is the way of art to derive certain elements from other artists. There is a difference between being influenced or inspired by other photography and copying an idea. Copying to me only applies to using the same tripod holes, though not even all the time, and it applies to photographs that look nearly identical. Using someone else’s idea is part of the artistic process, as long as the idea borrower make it his or her own, puts a new twist on it that makes it unique and in legal terms, transforms the idea.

  5. David, I didn’t mean to imply that her work was bad. I just don’t know that I would call it Breaking New Ground. She is very creative.

    Sharon

  6. Hi Sharon, you may be right. I am not defending her work, merely stating my opinion about it versus the other photography in the discussion you linked to on The Photo Editor. Perhaps I haven’t seen as much of the stuff out there as you have. From what I know, some of Miss Aniela’s work is quite unusual. Perhaps some of it is derivative too. I can’t say for sure, though even that term is somewhat of a misnomer as I see it. On the other hand, I wonder what my dad would have thought of it…or of a lot of work that I find intriguing. I wish I could ask him.

  7. Last year, I took a picture of a sunflower. I thought the composition was very nice and so did other people. I was pretty embarrassed to realize later that I had seen this shot from a friend of mine a year before. I totally forgot it but I’m sure the appeal of the shot was the hidden memory of my friend’s photograph. The older you get, the more your forget.:-)

    One thing that no one can imitate is the sheer energy in Miss Aniela’s work. Wonderful.

    Sharon

  8. Hi Sharon, I would love to see that sunflower photograph. On the two sides of that: it is difficult to take a unique photograph of something that you know has been photographed a million times before. On the flip side, it is also hard to make a proprietary claim saying that someone else’s sunflower looks like yours. In your case it is among friends of course, but I am saying that certain things are forgivable even among strangers. When I saw Miss Aniela’s work, I thought, “Wow, she has an interesting look and she’s using that (herself) in her photographs and doing all sorts of great poses and settings. Then on top of that she’s obviously very skilled with Photoshop. If you isolate any one of her photographs, it might not be so far ahead of what has already been done, but taken as a body of work, she is doing something unique, in my humble (?) opinion. What do you think of Huntington’s new series?

  9. Richard Wong says:

    I’m always interested in looking at new work and new styles even if they are things I have no interest in doing myself. Some great examples from Miss Aniela and Huntington Witherill. I’m surprised at how artistic Witherill’s image looks when compared to the original.

  10. Hi Richard, thank you for the comment. Yeah, does it inspire you to try some creations yourself? I tried to do some Photoshop the way he did and I couldn’t do anything like it.

  11. Steve Sieren says:

    Happy Easter David, thank you for bringing up a new source of inspiration. Witherill’s body of work is very moving, hope I get a chance to see the other artist’s work. I completely agree with Witherill on manipulation right at the point of capture. We all just see things in our own way.

  12. Happy Easter to you too, Steve. Huntington has been so good for so long and the quality of the new work is right up with the best in photography. It just makes sense to endorse this kind of exploration by him, as it provides an inspiration for all of us. Glad you like it. Thank you for your support.

  13. Richard says:

    Hey David. Not really, but you never know when the inspiration might come in handy. Maybe I might get an idea 50 years from now as a result.

  14. Hi Richard, good point. Spoken like one who knows. All of these things are gestating, gestating. We never know when or what may come out of the subconscious or how, but it is in there stewing. I have a lot in there brewing over the years. It’s a wonder smoke doesn’t come out of my ears.

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