By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH THIS GENERATION’S NEARLY UNIVERSAL EMBRACE OF CONSUMER-FRIENDLY EDITING SUITES LIKE PHOTOSHOP has come a new vocabulary to describe the new freedoms made possible by their use. Terms like painterly, dreamy, and atmospheric signal the reemergence of a far more interpretive kind of photography that has finally broken the long reign of the Cult Of Sharpness that valued crispness and “realism” above all other considerations in picture-making for nearly a century.
The idea, espoused by Ansel Adams and other from the photo group f/64 (a name that refers to what was then supposedly the sharpest f-stop possible), was that only a keen, precise measurement of light and tone could be regarded as “straight” photography and that all other more impressionistic renderings were somehow less authentic. This idea was itself a severe reaction to an even earlier school of photography called Pictorialism, which favored the tweaking of processing and printing tech to manipulate mood in much the same way that painters had always done. Some shooters like Adams regarded P-word pictures as the dead opposite of photography, as a non-scientific surrender to the painting tradition. Ansel, never the mealy-mouthed observer, once even went so far as to refer to Pictorialist William Mortensen as “the anti-Christ.” And so, as a consequence of the f/64 coven’s influence, the historical door on the dreamier side of photography was officially slammed shut and the word went out for decades afterward, to both pro and amateur alike that Sharpness is King.
City Of Ambition, a Pictorialist photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz (1910)
Pictorialists’ images, like the NYC scene from Alfred Stieglitz seen here, were created by odd mixes of cross-mixed chemicals, the etching of pictures on printing plates, deliberate degradation of negatives, and dozens of other interventions done after the shutter click to deepen contrast, soften hard edges, and widen the range of tones for dramatic effect. Think of it as analog beta-testing for the tricks we now do with a few mere mouse clicks. Several generations of tech later, the sheer number of editing choices in the present day has led to a strong reassertion of soft or selective focus, of textures and tones that go beyond the real world in amazing and exciting ways. It’s led even those who still shoot film, like the toy camera devotees of Lomography, to re-evaluate what focus and sharpness are in a picture are actually for, and when to attenuate or even turn them off completely. It’s also led to the success of companies like Lensbaby, who sell all-manual lenses to digital shooters who want an interpretive tool, rather than a scientific instrument, to help them make images.
And so everything old is new again. Indeed, photography may have finally entered a phase in which “eras” and “trends” are just words, a time in which all times (and schools of thought) are equal. Here’s to the opportunity that that implies, and to an art that is just beginning, in its third century, to spread its new butterfly wings.