the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


The bell of an engraved sousaphone, converted into a negative and color-boosted to resemble a faux vortex.

The bell of an engraved sousaphone, converted into a negative and color-boosted to resemble a faux vortex.


FOR THOSE OF US WHO SWEATED IN LITERAL DARKROOMS (as opposed to digital ones), there has always been a fascination with the print photographer’s equivalent for “RAW” files, the celluloid negative. Manipulated properly, one neg could yield an almost endless variety of print results, as the sciences of burning, dodging and pure imagination were applied to coax subtle tonal changes and modulations out of either color or monochrome images. Ansel Adams’ frequently quoted remark that the negative was the score and the print was the performance was born out in his own visual “symphonies” along with those of millions of others.

But the negative need not merely be the understudy for the “final” version of a picture, but the final itself. And as we’re freed to experiment via new digital apps, we are more frequently re-imagining shots with reversed tones, often creating dramatically more effective results than the “positive” originals. Again, apps are speeding the time of practice and development in a way that chemically-based, film-based manipulation never could. Tap and you’re done. Tap, tap, and the result is either sent to the keeper pile or re-done in an instant. It’s pretty irresistible.

There have always been amazing examples of artists who made their negatives the “official” version of their pictures, although the neg is traditionally thought of as a step in a process, not an art form it itself. I remember being thrilled when, as a teen, I first saw F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Nosferatu, which includes a thrilling, eerie scene with a ghostly, horse-drawn carriage on its way to Count Orlok’s castle, deliberately printed in negative to boost the creepy drama of the sequence. And with new phone-based apps, it’s easy and fast to get a basic version of this effect, albeit with some limits.

The app I use, called Negative Me, is a very basic (and free) tap-on layer. Choose a file photo, apply the effect, and you’re done. It’s also possible to shoot new pictures directly through the app. Yes, it’s frustrating that you can’t attenuate the tone or the intensity in any way, but, you can always take the extra step of feeding the first negative image into additional apps or editing suites where more precise processing can be added. It’s still easier than any process that was available in the film era, and, while it merely adds strangeness to many photographs, it allows some to be reborn as abstractions that are unearthly and dramatic.

Producing a negative variation on certain shots is just another way to re-interpret a shot, no less useful than any other color filter or post-processing tool. Like anything else, it’s the impact of the result, not the effect itself, that makes the shot.


2 responses

  1. I grew up in the darkroom; spending hours manipulating negatives. Happy times! 🙂 I hear what you’re saying about apps and plugins now with digital, they can do the coolest stuff to images with a click…really, I love that way too!

    July 9, 2015 at 8:43 AM

    • The tools change, but the real determinant of “art” resides in how we use them. Just to read about what it took to achieve evenly-lit exposures in the earliest days of the medium is enough to exhaust me, then fills me with gratitude at how many barriers between conception and execution have been removed just in our lifetimes. Thanks so much for your visit and come back anytime!

      July 9, 2015 at 9:25 AM

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