Adobe Photoshop & the Art of Photography
John Paul Caponigro Interview
January 4, 2007
by Steve Weinrebe
SW: Please talk a bit about your journey into digital photography, especially since you were well aware of the art of traditional photography growing up.
JPC: I grew up in an artistic family. My father is a well known photographer and my mother is a painter, turned graphic designer, and she often oversaw the production of artist’s monographs. The first time I saw digital imaging was in the mid 1970’s when she was overseeing production of Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes book. The printing press had a Scitex machine that she called ‘the million dollar coloring book’. The minute I saw what it could do I asked the question: ‘What would happen if artists got a hold of these, rather than a corporation trying to produce a clever ad?’ Few artists had access to the technology. I left wondering how I could ever afford a million dollar coloring book. That dream came true in 1991, with a Macintosh and Photoshop 1.0, at the Center for Creative Imaging. The background that I had from my father in traditional photography, from my mother in painting and prepress, helped a great deal. Photoshop merges many disciplines. Photoshop is also for photographers, illustrators, web designers, graphic designers and the list goes on. It’s a cross-pollination of disciplines that I find exciting.
SW: A photography instructor told me that there is a debate among the teachers at her school as to whether digital photography is really photography; can you comment on that?
JPC: Photograph means ‘light drawing’. There are many ways to make drawings with light. The history of photography is very diverse. There are many ways of making photographs. One of the first photographs was a photogram by Fox Talbot. There was no camera or lens. Man Ray made photograms in his day and Adam Fuss makes photograms today. All are considered photographs. There has been a history of compositing starting very early in the history of photography. The Hill brothers and LeGray used the practice to overcome technical limitations while Reijlander and Heartfield created new images not before the lens at the moment of exposure, expanding the creative potential of the medium. Many kinds of photographs are made in scientific applications. Photography has had a long and varied history. Individuals use it for their particular needs. Individuals are influenced by their time, and so is their perception of the medium. What we’re going through now is the most rapid paradigm shift in a continually evolving medium. It helps to understand where we’ve come from. History is important. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We have inherited many ideas. This inheritance can be both empowering and limiting. We need to liberate ourselves from limiting concepts about what the medium is, what can be done with it, and how it can be done, because there are so many new possibilities before us. Our practices in photography today contribute to what photography becomes tomorrow. It’s a very exciting time to be involved in the medium.
SW: With photography moving away from film cameras, darkrooms, and silver based papers and emulsions, do you see a shift in the underpinnings of the art form?
JPC: Yes and no.
You can define an art form based on materials used. Yes. Though not all are, many are using new materials in photography today. A change in materials begs a reconsideration of workflow, the steps in a process. There has been a continual process of change in materials in photography; before CCDs photography used paper negatives, glass plates, and gelatin emulsions. No. Some things remain the same. For the most part, we’re still using lenses to focus light into a camera obscura.
You can define an art form based on the modes of perception used and the objectives they’re used for. Yes. It’s now possible to create new kinds of photographs; for instance ones where observers are remote or where the majority of information an image contains is synthetic. No. Even when using new materials, photographs are being made in the same modes and with the same objectives they have always been made, in some cases advancing those objectives.
There’s a tendency to try to create a single unified definition for photography for the entire medium, set of practices, modes of perception, and objectives. Photography, photographers, and photographs are so diverse that any single definition that encompasses them all would likely be too broad to be useful. Is the question ‘Is it a photograph?’ an appropriate question? Many times it’s not. More often than not the more meaningful question is ‘What kind of photograph is it?”
We’re close to some very important questions. What types of photography are possible? What are the practices involved in each, and how do the materials and processes affect relationships between author, artifact, and viewer?
Arguably, photography is the most influential visual medium in history. One of the key things that it addresses is representation. There are many different objectives, modes, and methods devised for representation.
We have inherited a too simple myth that photographs represent objective truths. At best, photographs represent facts found by an observer with a specific point of view, at a specific point of time, adopting specific practices with regard to a medium, with an agenda (conscious or unconscious). You can’t separate the individual and his or her age from the things he or she creates. A reconsideration of documentary and journalistic objectives and practices is essential. This is extremely important for all of us. We use photographs to help shape our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Photographs influence social, economic, and political decisions. As we go through this process of reconsideration we need to bring the past forward, learning and benefiting from it. We don’t need to be limited by it. We need to advance. I think it’s a very healthy process to reconsider all of these things. In that reconsideration process we can make the value of the past our own, but we can also do new things. I think, in the near future, digital photography will become the hallmark of ‘truth’. Metadata enriches documents. Some digital photographs have GPS coordinates, compass directions, and altimeter readings in them. Some have voice clips recorded before, during, and after capture. Some offer moving pictures. These are more information rich documents. You can track the provenance of how a digital file has been altered, when it’s been altered, and by who; and so it becomes a more useful text. Does it necessarily become more objective or truthful as a result? Not necessarily. Meaning is created, and we need to know how it was created and who created it and for what purpose in order to truly understand it. Disclosure empowers readers. And education informs and empowers readers.
We have new tools for this. Consider the world wide web.
A well known, all digital, national documentary project asked me to participate. My first question was, ‘Are you sure you have the right person?” I’m best known for creating altered images. One of the people on their team knew my photographic practices are diverse. They said ‘Yes, we understand a portion of your work meets the criteria of journalism and if you’re willing to work in this mode, we’d love to have you be a part of the project’. I said ‘Terrific.” At the time this was a great way to get back to my roots and out of my current comfort zone. So, it’s an all digital project. Digital capture, digital darkroom, administered on-line. I asked, “What’s acceptable practice? I know you don’t want floating stones or impossible symmetries. Can I composite? Extend the field, make a panorama, increase dynamic range?” They responded, “Oh no. You can’t do anything that you can’t do in a traditional darkroom.” I emailed them back two words. Jerry Uelsmann, the foremost surrealist in the history of photography. Why then is it an all digital project? I understand that they didn’t want to take on the conventions of representation within documentary circles because this requires cultural consensus to create a meaningful document for the culture at large.
We need to devote a lot more attention to these issues. Practitioners of the medium and the media at large need to disclose their practices in meaningful ways frequently and in durable ways. We need the media to give us reports on itself. Educators who are helping people make these distinctions and make more useful distinctions are doing an extremely important service to culture. Inform viewers. Empower them to make their own choices. Communities need to engage in an ongoing dialog to address what is considered acceptable practice in various contexts. We’re all going through a process of continuing education; it never stops.
SW: One of my favorite descriptions of the act of creating an artwork came from James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ where the main character has an epiphany, the shining moment that defines his artistic experience. Does the ability to go back and alter the moment using Photoshop change that view of creating art?
JPC: No. The ability to alter images after capture adds more moments where epiphanies can occur. People ask me, ‘Do you pre-visualize or post-visualize?’ My answer is ‘Yes.’ Anytime I hear a dichotomy like that I think ‘Remember, ‘either or’ questions lead too strongly.’ I try to reframe the question as a dialetic, one that generates a ‘both and’ answer and a spectrum of possibilities.
SW: A teacher once told me that the most provocative surrealism is only slightly removed from reality. Your work seems to have that quality. Do you find yourself reigning yourself in sometimes?
JPC: Absolutely. When I first got started I was working on things that were much more narrative and complex. They tended to get overwrought. I try to use an economy of means. I also find it ironic that in moving from painting to photography, from hand-based media to photo-based media, I’ve been increasingly drawn towards abstraction.
SW: How does color come into play in expressing what you want to say in your work, especially as a choice over black-and-white.
JPC: There’s a well established dichotomy I’d like to destabilize - color or black-and-white. One could ask “How do you choose color in black and white images?” Black-and-white are colors. They’re very specific colors. A neutral palette is a very specific palette. We have a different physiological and psychological response to neutral colors than we do to fully saturated colors. Incorporating hue and saturation adds more variables, complexity, and possibilities. Color is a strong force that can overpower other aspects of an image. Ask, “How can color best serve an image?” To use that complex a force well is a challenge, but painters have been doing this for the longest time. Color is a physical response, a cultural code, a catalyst for individual associations. It’s a very interesting phenomena with many layers.
When I was a kid, my dad taught out at the Ansel Adams workshop. One of the directors there was going through the old song that color photography is merely representational, black-and-white photography is more expressive because it allows the artist to exert more control over the image. That’s a very interesting argument for representational artists using the medium of photography to be making. The director was saying ‘I think we are going to see a new era in color photography.’ I instantly agreed. Today we have an unprecedented level of control over color relationships. Photographers have a lot to learn from painters and vice versa.
I’ve always been puzzled by differences in art markets. I go to the painting galleries and the big color canvases are selling for tens of thousands of dollars, the small etchings for only a few. I go to the photographic galleries and the small, black-and-white 19th century images go for tens of thousands of dollars, and the large color prints go for a few. In part it’s based on the history of the mediums. That history is full of one medium defining itself against another. Does it make sense? Not a whole lot. You understand how we got there, but at a certain point we just need to get down to the basics of visual response and human response.
SW: There seems to be a unique palette of colors in your work, do you know where that comes from?
JPC: I use a wide-ranging palette. I explore color in such depth, color itself is a primary subject in my work. Because I rarely use a truly neutral palette, many people don’t see my work as being black-and-white, even though many of the images are akin to cross-toned platinum prints or cyanotypes. Entire series within my work are about the colors black, gray, and white - but they must be reproduced in color to achieve their full expressive power. I often use a restrained selection of hues (monochromatic or analogous palettes) and emphasize gradations within and between them (dark and light variations, warm and cool variations, saturated and less saturated variations within a single color). I use polychromatic supersaturated color infrequently. I describe local color (the color of the object) and ambient color (the color of objects modified by atmospheric conditions and other light sources) more frequently than arbitrary (subjective) color – though the color relationships in my images are often significantly enhanced. I use color to describe space and time – measures of change.
SW: Where do you see the art of photography going in the future?
JPC: Everywhere. Our tools are changing. How we use them is changing. The array of options for physical prints is multiplying. We view images in more media than before. Some media are light emitting. More people have seen my images in electronic form or in reproduction than in exhibition prints. Some of my images have never been printed, and yet they’ve been reproduced. We’re becoming more cybernetic. Robots allow us to make photographs remotely. I think we always have to remember that the artifacts that we create, and the images that we see in these devices aren’t products of our direct experience. In these instances photographers making photographs in this way are different kinds of witnesses. In some respects, we can already capture more information than the witness or even the human eye can see and this process will continue. And we’ve been using other types of imaging and mapping them down into photographic equivalents. It’s very interesting to think about visually representing things that we can’t see, directly or physically. Some people are using video cameras. Stills are extracted and the decisive moment is determined long after it has passed. Holography may experience a resurgence. Incorporating moving pictures has become an option. Interactivity is a critical issue that impacts medium, process, authorship, artifact, uniqueness, originality, and stability.
All this, without leaving the past behind. There’s been a resurgence in the practice of historic photographic processes. And hybridization abounds.
So photography is going everywhere. We have a tool. We’re trying to find out what the limits are. Before, during, and after we ask ‘What’s the best use of this for a particular intention and a given contex?” It’s dizzying and exhilarating to try to keep up with it all. I would be disappointed if people restricted possibilities. These are the communication arts.
SW: Which people?
JPC: Anyone who seeks to restrict freedom. Rather than limiting artistic practice, I’d rather see artist’s empower viewers with information. Viewers can then draw their own conclusions and make their own choices.
I understand limiting practices for specific objectives and contexts. Though I would challenge many assumptions made both inside and outside the journalistic community I very much appreciate their practices. My friend Jim Nachtwey and I use the same equipment. We do very different things with it. The restraints he adopts and the way he places them in the context of journalism add an important quality to the kinds of images that he creates and the impact they have. They become more meaningful in specific ways as a result. People like Jim restore my faith in the media; I place my faith in individuals, not in the tools they use. I wouldn’t want him to do many of the things I do to my images to his images. Does that mean I shouldn’t do what I do? Absolutely not. It does mean that many of my images should not be displayed in the same contexts as his. It does mean I tell different kinds of stories about my images and sometimes express different concerns. It does mean that my images tell different kinds of stories and elicit very different reactions from viewers. We’re just different.
Lots of people are doing really interesting things. Keep doing really interesting things. Some people are making really interesting observations about what’s happening. Keep making really interesting observations. We all benefit from this process.
SW: Thank you!
JPC: Thank you!