Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Photoshop & Geezerdom

"Beware of the young doctor and the old barber.” (Benjamin Franklin)

I had the dubious distinction of visiting the doctor today for a check-up. It was my end of a pact made with a friend – I’d go to the dermatologist that I had avoided for five years if she’d visit her doctor, where she hadn’t been seen in two years. So basically, I think it was her sneaky way of caring about me.

The nurse/receptionist asked the obligatory questions. Allergies? No. Medications? No. Any medical conditions? Just old age, I said. She shot back, “You can’t be old because your birth date is close to mine.” (Note to self – make sure nurse is way younger than you before making age jokes.) She left the room, and I started wondering if maybe I’m younger than I give myself credit for. Maybe there is still a Young Buck hiding behind these Old Geezer gray whiskers.

I must have been the rare male patient, as there were approximately 347 “People” and “Self” magazines, along with one “Newsweek.” Thumbing through the news magazine, I started to keep track of how many of the photographs were subtly or boldly manipulated with Photoshop. Blemish-free skin, cut-out backgrounds, three grizzly bears running through a snowfield with three Angus bulls. It quickly became a search for a photograph that wasn’t obviously manipulated. Finally, towards the back, there was one small image that basically looked like somebody’s innocent snapshot. Still, I know that it had been adjusted for density, color balance, and contrast – at a minimum.

People sometimes ask if a particular photograph of mine has been “manipulated.” They’ve never worked with Photoshop, but they’ve heard it used as a verb, and they think this must be a bad thing. My short answer is, “yes,” every digital image must be manipulated in order to make a viewable print. In fact, except for some top-of-the-line professional cameras, every digital camera makes lots of “manipulations” to every image every time you press the shutter. What we might think of as a “pure” snapshot is in reality very altered by the camera. And lots of times, the decisions made by the camera are wrong and need to be corrected (“re-manipulated”) by editing software, such as Photoshop.

(Most professional photographers capture images in what Nikon and Canon call “raw” digital form, but even this is not 100% pure. The goal is to remove the decision-making from the camera and place the responsibility instead on the photographer, working at her computer and wishing she was outside taking more photos instead. Most of the time, her goal is to take the electrons recorded by the camera and work them over until they match the scene as she sees it in her mind – which, by the way, may well be different from the scene that her assistant experienced. It’s still subjective!)

For the most part, photographers are using software to overcome the limitations of digital cameras. (Just like we used to do in ancient places called "darkrooms" by dodging and burning areas under the enlarger while printing our negatives.) There are also some very creative people who are using this software to take various parts of many images to create something totally new and unrecognizable from the any of the parts. Some of this new art is stunning, and I’m envious of the amount of creativity these folks snuck off with. (Some fine examples here from Magdalena Wanli.) These creations still fall into the photography category, but I suspect that they are eventually destined for a new description.

So yes, Photoshop is a valuable tool used by virtually every professional photographer – to one degree or another. I have no problem with this, with a few caveats. No propaganda -- truth must remain the playing field. And photojournalism must remain minimally affected by editing. Nothing more than corrections of camera shortcomings. Digital editing is still fairly new, and I wish that people were more aware of it and could tell, just by flipping through a news magazine at the doctor's office, how each image was altered. This, I think, will take many years.

I was feeling better about my years while driving home from the doctor’s office. I’d faced my fear and lived to tell the tale, so I must still be a prime specimen, I reasoned. It was then, while driving down a long straight-away, that I noticed a blinking light on my dashboard. Right turn signal. I’d been driving for miles, telling all of the other drivers that at any moment I would turn -- right into the muddy stubble of a fall wheat field.

“Old man!” I chuckled.

I was guilty of the one thing that officially defines Geezerdom. Oh well, at least my friends still care about me in my golden years…

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