The Photoshop Menace

In midsummer of 2005 my wife and I travelled to New York on one of our “theater plus” trips. As always, we intended to see five or six Broadway and off-Broadway shows and spend our spare time eating, wakling and going to museums.

I don’t remember much about that trip. We went to the city twice a year between the late nineties and the middle part of this decade. All the shows, all the restaurants and most everything else now runs together in memory. I could pull out our collection of Playbills and find what shows we saw in ’05, but neither you or I care.

I do remember visiting the newly renovated Museum of Natural History, Teddy Roosevelt’s living monument on the west side of Central Park. I’d been there as a child and remembered it fondly, particularly the dioramas of various environments. On our 2005 trip, on a cool, rainy New York afternoon, the place was crowded with young children whose shrill voices echoed painfully off the marble walls.

I had my new digital camera with me, a Canon PowerShot A300 I’d found at Wal-mart for a mere two hundred dollars. At three megapixels, with a fixed lens and little to no control over shutter speed, aperture or ISO, it was a modest little thing. Still, I was already aspiring to be an “serious” photographer and the Big Apple was providing me with numerous opportunities to practice my art.

In one of the smaller rooms in the museum a fifteen foot long model of a great while shark hung ten or so feet above my head, suspended from the high blue ceiling on several course wires. It looked remarkably real and menacing. Naturally I raised my tiny camera and snapped several photos of the thing. But when I got home and looked at my photos they were disappointing. The shark came out reasonably alright, but the background was cluttered and the relatively low light in the museum diminished the photos’ sharpness, color and contrast and added noise. Frankly, the shark,  so menacing in my imagination’s eye in New York, no longer looked very real. It looked like just another blue and white object in a busy and uninteresting photograph of a dim blueish room in a museum.

So I pulled up my new, marvelous tool Photoshop (Photoshop Elements to be precise) and spent hours playing around with my poor shark. After awhile I was beyond anything which could be called photography and into the realm of digital painting. You can see the results at the bottom of this post. I liked, and like, the result. The watery background and the hint of blood in the water both look passably real (to me) and restored the shark’s menace I had felt in New York.

But what I produced certainly wasn’t a “photograph”. But so what? Does that matter?

Not to me. I photoshop almost everything. If I could I’d photoshop my wife, my cat, my house and my car. I’d also photoshop away about seventy pounds on myself and half that number of years.

Photoshop a photo and it becomes a lie.

I don’t look at a photograph anymore looking for “truth”; I look at a photographic image looking for art. Ansel Adams used all kinds of tricks with camera lenses as well as dark room techniques to make his photos lie in an artistic way despite their sharply realistic look. I’m not Ansel Adams; I am to him what a guppy is to a whale. The second photo below is my unsuccessful attempt to convert a photo of an old building in Newport, Tennessee, into the way it might have looked in a contemporary photo taken when the building was new ( in addition to adding the ghastly color, I painstakingly spent hours removing all of the telephone poles and power lines in front of the structure).

I don’t photoshop images nearly as much as I used to; I try to be more judicious. Now I just fool with contrast, color tones, and other dark room sorts of adjustments. I also may remove extraneous elements (that jarring orange and white metal post in an otherwise lovely country landscape), or fool around with perspective. In the third image below, one of the more popular on my site, I used photoshop to stretch the photo’s width to twice the size of  the original image (and, of course, used photoshop to add the yellow line).

Looking back at a lot of my early photoshopped photos I recognize they, for the most part, do not benefit from the treatment. That’s the real menace of the software: its easy to make an OK photo infinitely worse. I rarely see an image on Flickr I think is transformed for the better by photoshop “enhancement”. This is particularly true when multiple filters are applied; it seems like pouring lots of sugar or salt on a glazed donut.

There are of course exceptions. Some artists know how to use all those tempting photoshop tools in a way that does enhance, that does transform radically a photo for the better. Those artists are few and far between (and I’m not one of them). On a related point, much the same can be said about HDR (see this gallery of HDR shots and see what I’m talking about). While it can certainly enhance an image and turn it into a totally different kind of art, it can also render a decent photo into something truly hideous, akin to one of those awful paintings on black velvet you can find at flea markets for five bucks or less.

“Less is more,” is a wise and ancient artistic maxim. Ninety-five percent of the time that applies to Photoshop, too.

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