HUE MUST REMEMBER THIS….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DECADES INTO THE DIGITAL ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY, we are still coming to terms with just how much the shift away from film-based technology has profoundly changed the way we make pictures. Much has been written, for example, about the “instant feedback loop” that allows us to correct our errors on the fly, which is huge. Even more has been said about the increased intuitive nature of our devices in digital, and that, too is a massive factor. In fact, it was in stopping to catalog all the treats and toys that are at one’s fingertips in even the most basic cameras these days that I lit on what I think is the most profound change: our relationship to color.
One of the most universal tweaks engineered into cameras, for years now, is the incredible power to control saturation, with the option becoming the most common feature in all cameras from disposables to Leicas. Of course, even in analog days, we were able to play somewhat to the color properties of a particular emulsion, or to shape it with adjustments in lighting or white balance. But now the ability to attenuate color both before and after the shutter click, even without post-processing software, is instantaneous and universal. Depending on your perspective, this is either good or…oh, who am I kidding? No one thinks this is bad. The fact that control of one of the most crucial determinants of picture quality is forevermore in the hands of the user rather than the lab technician is an obvious net gain.
However, simply because we have the ability to tweak color to our liking doesn’t mean we need to do it uniformly, even though, admittedly, saturation is rewarded mightily in the marketplace of public opinion. Show someone an image dripping in color and ask them what they like about it. Chances are good that they’ll say it looks “realistic” or “natural”, neither of which, of course, is accurate. Ansel Adams, skeptically slow to come over to the color camp, criticized editors for boosting hues just because it met with popular applause, saying “if all else fails, make it red”. The irony for photographers, who at one time or another fancy themselves as recorders of the authentic, is that most of them love, love, love them some bright tones, and find it hard to resist goosing up the numbers beyond what the eye actually sees. But since a photograph exists in the mind before it ever exists in the camera, we can only assume that we, personally, regard many “real” things as, well,…. drab. Thus we creatively lie, in the harmless way that a fisherman increases the size of his catch every time he repeats the story of how he pulled it onto the boat. We give reality a little help. Well, sometimes more than a little. So much for the mythical construct of “straight out of the camera” which is as elusive, and as attainable, as a blind date with Sasquatch.
Am I without sin myself? Not on your grandma’s Kodachrome, as demonstrated in the above frame. However, photography (and this little hometown newspaper of ours) is about questioning intentions just as much as snapping the shutter. Maybe more so. Because if you never wonder if you’re on the wrong path, chances are good that you are. The best artists in any field ask just one more question.