Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Congratulations Michelle and Mike!

My wonderful clients Michelle and Mike Peterson had their wedding featured in the latest issue of Her: Nashville! It was a beautiful wedding, and I was thrilled to be a part of it! Check out the latest issue of Her on newsstands now!

The pics:

More photos on my weddings website: click on "featured wedding: Michelle & Mike!"

Saturday, January 24, 2009

An Abbreviated History of Photo Manipulation

Let me preface this post by acknowledging that yes, in fact, I am sitting at home on a Saturday night writing essays on photographic history for fun. My wife and I are not exactly wild and crazy party people. This essay was written largely in response to some fairly heated discussion to which I've borne witness where participants discussed the place of Photoshop in photography. I feel that some historical perspective could help clear the air.


The first practical photographic method was devised by Louis Jacques Daguerre in 1836. This painstaking technique, called a "Daguerrotype" involved sensitizing silver-coated copper plates and exposing them to light passed through a lens for time periods generally lasting a goodly number of minutes. This technique produced a single positive-image plate that did not lend itself to the production of separate prints. Calotypes, which soon joined Daguerrotypes, utilized a sensitized paper. Both processes required that the photographer sensitize the recording medium themselves shortly (days to minutes) before use. Dry plates came to prominence in the last quarter of the 1800's, offering standardized shelf-stable media. What we call film didn't come to prominence until the end of the 1800's and only became truly ubiquitous with the introduction of the Kodak brownie in 1900.

The first well-publicized case of photo manipulation occured in 1860, when in search of a suitably heroic portrait of Lincoln, and unidentified artist ironically appended the statesman's head to the body of noted slavery advocate John C. Calhoun. While I cannot find documentation to this effect, the image was almost certainly a composited Albumen print, which was the first widely used method of creating a sensitized negative recording medium to produce positive paper prints.

Lincoln's Retouched Portrait and its Source Material Lincoln Headshot by Mathew Brady John C. Calhoun portrait and retouch artist unknown Circa 1860

To illustrate how sophisticated these albumen print composites could be, its amazing to observe Henry Peach Robinson's 1858 piece "Fading Away." This somewhat morbid image, depicting a young woman's last moments, is actually a composite based on 5 separate negative images. Having inspected a print of this work in person, I can verify that the standards of manipulation far exceed much of the digital trickery in contemporary media. I never would have pegged this image for a composite, had I not been informed of that fact in advance. Henry Peach Robinson would not have wound up on Photoshop Disasters.

Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson 1859

As the medium passed through its adolescent phases, photographers self-consciously sought to stylize the medium in an effort to establish photography as a true art form. The pictoralist movement began in earnest during the late 1800's after the introduction of the dry plate process, and took much of its inspiration from the work of the impressionist painters of the era. Pictoralists created highly subjective images utilizing soft-focus lenses and a variety of esoteric darkroom techniques. One of my favorite examples is this beautiful photogravure from William A. Fraser. In this image, a cityscape softens into dreamscape of rain, reflection, and mist.

Wet Night, Columbus Circle by William A. Fraser 1897-98

Pictoralist manipulations ranged from the aforementioned soft-focused lenses to more extreme methods such as using needles to alter the actual negatives. Its interesting to note that many pictoralists pursued these manipulations specifically to differentiate themselves and their "art" from the "snapshooters" that proliferated with the introduction of Eastman's inventions. While art historians have long given short-shrift to pictoralists for failing to embrace the unique qualities of their own medium, its possible that the modern era of digital artists will usher in a renewed respect for the achievements of this period.

Pictoralism began fading in the first part of the 1900's, when even such leading lights of the earlier pictoralist movement as Stieglitz were heard to say "It is high time that the stupidity and sham in pictorial photography be struck a solarplexus blow." As a movement, Pictoralism gave way to straight photography, which fully embraced the unique qualities of the photographic medium: sharp, detailed, and frequently instantaneous images that accurately reflect the scene before the camera. Perhaps the fullest expression of the straight photography aesthetic found fulfullement in Group f/64, a loose conglomerate of like minded artists including Westin, Adams, Cunningham, and Van Dyke. Group f/64 took their name from the smallest aperture on a large format camera, which renders a large depth of field and very high resolution.

From the f/64 manifesto:
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

Its tempting to think of the f/64 crew as in-camera purists who eshewed darkroom trickery, but this is in fact far from the truth. Ansel Adams, for one, was a master of dodging and burning in the darkroom. His influential book, The Print, details his highly developed techniques for manipulating images in the darkroom to conform to his artistic vision. In truth, many members of f/64 were skilled manipulators in the darkroom, even if they did not attempt to disguise the fundamental nature of their medium.

Moonrise, Hernandez Mexico by Ansel Adams 1941

Incidentally, issues of photojournalistic integrity predate the founding of Adobe by a goodly margin as well. In this classic case, a furor was raised over Dorothea Lange's depression-era masterpiece when it was discovered that she had retouched out a thumb from the bottom right corner of the original image.

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (Retouched)

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (Untouched) 1936

Techniques for manipulation and retouching of images grew increasingly sophisticated as time passed. Below, you can see an amazing example of Hollywood glamor king George Hurell's "makeover" skills as performed on Joan Crawford, using a variety of labor-intensive techniques.

Joan Crawford, by Geoge Hurrell
date unknown brought to my attention by ksmahgrts on

My final example of darkroom manipulation will be, of course, Richard Avedon. In this case, Avedon used liberal retouching to overcome the limitations of location shooting with the Kennedy family.

Jackie Kennedy by Richard Avedon

Photoshop version 1.0 was first shipped in February of 1990 by Adobe Labs Inc. It was orignally designed by a college professor named Glenn Knoll who maintained a darkroom in his basement. Many of the early tools and icons were modeled after tools of the traditional darkroom, such as dodging and burning. Much has been made over Photoshop's ability to distort reality, and perhaps lower the standards for image capture as young photographers assume they can "fix it in post." However, almost all of these abilities have existed as long as there have been photographs to alter, albeit with a little more manual labor.

My hope is that a survey of these techniques and ideas throughout the history of the medium will demonstrate that whether an image is fully realized at the time of capture, or whether extensive manipulation is used to achieve the desired result, artistic vision and judgement lies at the heart of every great image. Laziness and a half-hazard "fix it in post" mentaility utilizing pre-formulated actions will not elevate a pedestrian image to greatness, but a judicious application of carefully executed techniques can elaborate a theme more fully, and occasionally correct inconvenient realities that intrude on an artist's design. Ultimately, post-production is neither requisite to, nor inhibitory of greatness.

Some non MLA-format Bibliography:
An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital by Keith F Davis
The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family (Images by Avedon)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Modern Photographer!

I'm pleased to announce my acceptance into the family! is a directory of photographers where every member is only included after rigorous peer review. Standards are high, and its an honor to be included with such distinguished company.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Portrait of Nashville 1

Billy Block has been a force on the Nashville music scene for years now. Mr. Block describes himself as an "artist advocate," who seeks out, nurtures, and promotes independent talent in the world of "Americana" or "roots" music. A drummer himself, Block tirelessly works to raise awareness for a truly authentic sound that he describes as America's greatest indigenous musical style. In addition to hosting radio and television, he is well known for his long-running showcase that was originally known as Western Beat, but is now simply "The Billy Block Show."

This image from the sitting I believe successfully illustrates some important aspects of Block's character: his kindness, his honesty, his visionary qualities, and perhaps a hint of the concern that makes him such a successful advocate.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I :heart: Film

There's just something about B&W film. This is from my session with Lonnie the other day. Once the print comes back from my genius printer out in LA, I'll try to get a halfway decent reproduction as opposed to this awful scan of the contact sheet.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Objet Trouvé

Objet Trouvé is a school of modern art originated by Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century, in which everyday objects become art solely by being identified as such by the artist. Duchamp is perhaps most famous (read: infamous) for his submission of a urinal to a modern art gallery in 1917.

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp

I've seen an awful lot of folks arguing lately about what constitutes art and what doesn't. Duchamp proposed that art was simply a matter of discrimination and context. We've all seen creations that, were they not in a book or museum, we would not have accorded them the status of "art." Anyone who has participated in an online photography forum has recognized the phenomenon where the "rockstars" may get a pass, or even be praised for lesser work while the lesser-known photographers are critiqued much more harshly. The context under which we view something determines the artistic value we assign to it (at least initially).

The reason I bring up Duchamp is that I believe that all photographers share a crucial commonality with the "ready-made" artists.

As photographers, our creative process lies not in brushstrokes or subtle manipulations of clay. Mechanical and electronic equipment facilitates our act of creation. While various manipulations are available to our use, our most important artistic tool ultimately lies in our ability to discriminate. As photographers, we assign the designation of art to our subject matter by including it in our frame. Our artistic designation is also applied in what we choose to exclude from the frame. We chose what goes in and what stays out. We choose what stays in focus and what is blurred away. We select which moment is decisive and which will recede into history.

When Westin photographed his Pepper #30, how was that fundamentally different than him simply placing the pepper on a pedistal in a museum? Of course, Westin controls our viewpoint and the lighting in the still image, but all of this is ultimately secondary to his impulse to say "Look at the beauty in this pepper as it exists. This pepper is art."

Edward Westin's "Pepper #30"

Our single most potent tool as photographers is our ability to instantaneously designate a scene before us as art. Our cameras give us the ability to say "hey, take a second look at this!" We confer significance on the insignificant, we apply order to chaos, and we elevate the purely factual to aesthetic elegance.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

You're SO Manipulative

I suspect that many of you are new readers subsequent to my participation in Weddings: The Bridal Show yesterday. Welcome! I occasionally use technical terms in this blog, but try whenever possible to offer definitions at the bottom of the entry. Further, note that not every image on this blog-site is mine, and that such images will be clearly identified in the text. All of my images will have the white "Evan Baines" border. Thanks for reading! I hope that I don't bore you to tears!


Most dictionaries define a portrait simply as a likeness. However, in practice the use of the word "portrait" usually implies an artistic representation of a person in which they are aware of the likeness being made. In cases where the person is unaware that their image is being recorded, one typically uses terms such as "photojournalism" or "candid." For the purposes of this discussion, the word "portrait" will be limited to such applications where the subject is aware of the image-making process.

Physicists discuss a rule referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle*, which may be paraphrased by stating that it is impossible to observe an object without altering it in some manner. This is directly applicable to portraiture in that the moment the subject becomes aware of the camera, a photographer has already manipulated that person's behavior by his presence. Anyone, photographer or otherwise, has observed individuals for whom when the camera appears they put on their "photo face." We all do this to a greater or lesser extent.

Further, despite what one might think, a photographic representation of a scene isn't "picture perfect:" it is only a mediocre representation of what the human eyes observe. The first and most obvious limitation of the medium is that a photograph freezes a fixed view of a moment in time, and lacks any of the motion or surrounding context that our vision provides. Second: our stereoscopic visual system provides an ability to interpret what we see in three dimensions, while a photograph is typically a two dimensional representation of three dimensional space. Thirdly, a typical camera usually only records 6 to 9 f-stops** of information while the human eye is estimated to record 24! A photograph is a recording of reality that has been manipulated by the technical constraints of the medium.

You may be surprised to learn that there was a lively debate among early photographers on whether or not a photograph created an accurate likeness. Even once the initial challenges of the long exposures and optically mediocre equipment were overcome, many photographers found that their portraits simple didn't accurately reflect how they viewed the subject. Only as artists achieved a mature understanding of the medium did they realize that manipulations of lighting, perspective, and pose were actually required to make a person's photograph reflect his or her actual appearance! A modern photographer may choose to flatter a subject, achieve an "accurate" likeness, or even make the subject appear in an unfavorable fashion using focal length***, lighting, posing, composition, makeup, and Photoshop.

It should be established by now that portraiture is, by definition, a manipulative act. However, the type of manipulations that are perhaps the most interesting are those that a photographer uses to elicit a desired appearance from the subject.

There's a humorous story about my hero Richard Avedon in which he was commissioned to photograph the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. However, during the sitting Avedon found the couple to adopt an aloof and unapproachable demeanor. Knowing that the couple was renowned for their love of dogs (more specifically the pugs they bred), Avedon fabricated a story on the spot about his taxi running over a small dog on the way to the sitting. The Duke & Duchess reacted just as Avedon hoped they would, and he snapped a photograph of their slightly distressed appearance. This portrait, while not neccessarily "flattering," humanized a very reserved set of subjects in a remarkable way. The image is probably the only one produced in which the couple dropped their courtly facade, and one can empathize with their distress.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
Photographed by Richard Avedon in 1957

In another famous moment in portraiture (that I've mentioned on this blog before), Yousuf Karsh famously ripped a cigar from Winston Churchill's mouth to provoke a scowl that became symbolic of British resistance to the Axis Powers in World War II.

Winston Churchill
Photographed by Yousuf Karsh in 1944

My instinct is to celebrate the ingenuity (or some might say audacity) of the photographers in the instances above. In both cases, the manipulation was utilized to elicit a genuine response that accurately reflected an aspect of the subject's character. And importantly, "no dogs (or subjects) were harmed in the making of these photos." However, I'm somewhat less comfortable with Jill Greenberg's methods in obtaining the images of crying children for her "End Times" series. In many cases, a piece of candy was given to the child and then shortly taken away: quite literally taking candy from a baby. No wonder Ms. Greenberg entitles her website: "The Manipulator"

"Torture" from the collection End Times
photograph by Jill Greenberg

While assurances are given that the children were only sucrose-deprived for about thirty seconds, it just seems a little mean to intentionally provoke that level of distress in toddlers, even for the sake of art. Perhaps its a double standard, but I'm much more comfortable with Avedon's slight needling of grown adults who have chosen to be a part of a sitting than this artist's provocation of unsuspecting children. Ms. Greenberg has subsequently received further attention to her manipulations-of-subject for her work during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. While on assignment for The Atlantic to produce a portrait of John McCain, she intentionally created some unflattering "outtakes" to post on her website with anti-McCain slogans.

John McCain
photographed by Jill Greenberg in 2008

Regardless of one's political views, intentionally producing unflattering images of a person of whom she was commisioned to produce a (presumably flattering) likeness is professional malpractice, and ethically bankrupt. The issue here is not that Greenberg created the images: it's that she created them while under a mandate to produce a certain kind of work, and where the subject had made himself available in good faith assuming that every effort would be made to produce a fair image.

Given that manipulation is inevitable in portraiture, the question is NOT whether certain practices are "manipulative," with all of the associated negative connotations. I view the sensitivity and ingenuity that a portraitist evinces during his interactions with his subjects to be a crucial measure of his talent as an artist. The question is whether both the ends and the means of manipulation stand up to moral scrutiny.

*In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the values of certain pairs of conjugate variables (position and momentum, for instance) cannot both be known with arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one variable is known, the less precisely the other is known. This is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, but rather about the nature of the system itself. (from WikiPedia)

**An f-stop is a photographic term that is used to describe how bright something is. In this context, I am using it to describe the difference between the lightest and darkest things in a scene. Have you ever wondered why you can see a person in front of a sunset perfectly, but when you take the picture either the person is black or the sky is white?

***Focal length refers to how far away the lens "sees." A short focal length gives you a wide-angle view, and a long focal length is referred to as telephoto, which sees far away. By using lens selection, a photographer may stand either close to or far from a subject, which changes the way they are rendered in the camera.
Certain focal lengths may make a subject look tall or short, fat or thin.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

Here's wishing you all a happy new year!!!