Stephen Johnson Keynote: Photography and Realism
Internationally recognized digital photography pioneer, designer, author, and teacher, Stephen Johnson spoke during one of the keynote sessions at the recent 10th annual PIA Color Management Conference in Phoenix. His photography explores the concerns of a landscape artist working in an increasingly industrialized world. His international teaching has led him to England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Mexico, and on two voyages to Antarctica. Johnson's photographs have been exhibited, published and collected in Europe, the US and Japan. In 1999, Folio Magazine declared the publication of Johnson's digital photographs in Life Magazine to be one of the Top 15 Critical Events in magazine publishing in the twentieth century. He is arguably the Ansel Adams of our time.
The underlying theme to Johnson's presentation was that the whole advent of digital photography represents a whole new level of the ability to record reality.
Photography Aids Conservation Movement
Johnson said that early photographs were instrumental in the development of the national park system. "There is a long tradition of photography in the environment. And the reason that relates to me for color management is because ultimately these places are wondrous almost beyond belief. And we've had lots of different ways of looking at them over the years in various states of unreality." Johnson said. "There is a greater power now to portray them for what they are, both in their beauty, their nuance, their subtlety, and their wonder. And along those lines, I've spent a great deal of my adult life." he added.
Writing With Light
"Photography means writing with light. It is in fact a depiction of what was before the lens. It has nothing inherently to do with pushing pixels around after the fact. You do not fix a photograph in Photoshop, you make a photograph in the camera. You try and process the photograph into something use able in Photoshop." Johnson stated. "Very rarely do you take a lousy photograph and make it interesting in Photoshop. More often you end up wasting a lot of time, and may end up with something that is even uglier than what you started with." he added.
Johnson said that the photograph is made at the moment of inspiration. He emphasized that photography is a sort of enchantment that you then distill. He said that it is a fascination with a place, a moment, a passing of events where you are trying to distill it down to a two dimensional representation that can be fit into the color or dynamic range capabilities of the camera. He referenced photography to what Van Gogh said about his own work - That his job was to exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague. "That's where photography rises from document to artwork." Johnson said.
"I don't believe that photography talent has anything to do with manipulating media. I still believe that despite this ability in the digital age to manipulate images into being almost anything other than what they were, the fundamental power of photography is the fact that we believe it." Johnson said.
Johnson displayed a number of examples showing how photography has been messed with for a long time in lots of different ways...
Examples of photographic manipulation: A famous Civil War photo depicting a Gettysburg battlefield scene (left) by Alexander Gardner is controversial because some claim that he actually went into the scene and moved the body of a dead soldier around to get a better photo. A more current photograph (right) published by the Weekly World News shows President Clinton shaking hands with an alien. This photo manipulation helped sell a lot of t-shirts and other memorabilia. Or is it real, and this explains a lot about the Clinton Presidency? Hmmm...
Hyper Color Photography
Johnson spoke about the current state of color photography in landscape, "...The contemporary stylistic choices are one of exaggeration, heavy contrast and a world bathed in the perpetual golden light of eternal sunset. Of deep saturation... where we get this sense of hyper, intensified reality. It was bad enough before Photoshop. Boy is it bad now!" Johnson said. "It's gotten to the point where hyperbole is the medium and there seems to be an irresistible relationship between the hand and the saturation slider in Photoshop that just can't resist being pulled over to the right." he added.
Johnson asked the question, "What does the world look like to your eyes? Does it look like this hyped up reality? Is the world that we are capturing somehow lacking, so that it needs enhancing? To enhance a photograph, by definition, it seems to me to be talking about a bad photograph, a boring place or an untalented photographer." Johnson said.
"When we get to the idea of photography and reality, it's gotten to the point that photographic views of the world are so pervasive, that we expect the world to look like the photographs." Johnson said. To prove his point he told the story about an experience he had at the edge of the Grand Canyon on a hazy day... He was watching people get out of a tour bus, walk up to the edge of the canyon, look out over the hazy scene and say, "It sure doesn't look like the postcards" as they turned around and left. "Their preconceptions had been so skewed by these photographic exaggerations, that they weren't even willing to consider looking at the real place. That says a great deal on how photography has influenced our perceptions." Johnson said.
"It's called fog..." was Johnson's response one day when asked by an art director what went wrong with this seemingly washed-out photo of Misty Lake at Arcadia National Park in Maine. This example underscores his approach to photography and realism.
He asked if shadows are, in fact, black. He said that if you look at any magazine, you will see plenty of black shadows, yet if you walk outside, black is not the overriding feeling that you get. "Photography has grown into a harsh, dark, somber view of the planet earth.... The world is a troubling place, but it is also a delightful place. A place filled with light, not filled with darkness. Your photographs don't have to reflect that." Johnson said.
The Digital Epiphany
Johnson moved on by discussing the difference between film and digital sensors, and the day film died for him in 1994. "It was a brutal and ugly death." Johnson confided.
The enlargement above of a San Francisco street scene taken in 1994 shows why Steve Johnson realized that film was going away. The top image shows detail from 4x5 E100 transparency film scanned with a Linotype Tango drum scanner. The bottom image is the same detail from a prototype BetterLight digital camera back. He said that was the point he knew film was dead as he looked at the difference between the two images.
Johnson discussed how with digital, we can shoot RAW and balance on something known to be gray and get some degree of accuracy in the original color reproduction.
He then reviewed many different photos from his years of work within the US National Park system.
"Maybe it's time to get out of the way and let the beauty we see, be the beauty we try and record. Real light and color from the most ordinary scene can have an intrinsic beauty. I continue to be amazed at the narrow vision, the blinders that so many people have on, as they walk around the world and don't notice things. Even photographers, who have the audacity to characterize the planet earth bathed in the sun's light as sometimes being "bad light". They have to wait around for the "good light". What a huge opportunity missed..." Johnson said. "Being a witness to wonder is what photography is about." he added.
Johnson concluded by reminding the audience that there is a ways to go. "We are not in an age of digital photography. We are in an age of electronic photography that we are digitizing. The Bayer pattern itself is an early-on in the process technology. We need to be able to color manage our cameras - having a spectrophotometer in the cameras, understanding the sensors color capabilities and starting to move toward image specific profiles is where we need to go with digital cameras." Johnson said.