On photography and art

Today’s topic is one that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.  There are a number of factors that lead to this week’s topic including my prep work for the start of a new semester teaching the History of Photography class at Washington State University.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's (1826) "View from the Window at Le Gras"

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s (1826) “View from the Window at Le Gras”

Photography was introduced to the world in 1839 but there were efforts to create a permanent image with a camera leading up to that time.  The above image was made by focusing light onto a pewter plate covered in what you can basically think of as asphalt (Bitumen of Judea).  As the light hit the plate, it essentially hardened the asphalt in a way that was directly related to the amount of light that it received (more light, harder bitumen) so that when the exposure was complete (we think it was at least 8 hours but maybe days), the bitumen in the shadow areas could be washed off leaving a permanent image.  This image is believed to be the first permanent image ever made.  This achievement sparked the research that lead to two competing photographic technologies being introduced to the world in 1839.  But here’s the thing – they didn’t consider these earliest ‘photographs’ art but rather viewed them as scientific advances.

Except that might not be entirely true.  See, even from the start, there were people pushing for photography as art and others that pushed for photography as a technique for recreating a scene – and they both kind of had a point.   Fast forward to today (which skips some pretty important photographic history) where we are decades into the post-modernist art movement (where the concept can be the art) so you’d think any question of whether or not a photograph is art would be long dead, but guess what, there are still naysayers claiming that photography is not art.  Could their arguments have any merit?

#firstselfie #notreallydead #isitart

Hippolyte Bayard (1801 – 1887) is credited for making the first ever self portrait and the first ever photographic narrative. #firstselfie #notreallydead #isitart? #1840

First, I’ll pose a few questions to you to get you thinking.  Do you think every image made by a photographer is art?  If no, does it depend on the intent?  If yes, can we expand that to include any image made by a camera?  How about automated exposures (like those made from infamous red light cameras)?

Personally, I think it is fair to make the claim that a certain amount of intent is needed for a photograph to automatically be deemed a work of art.  I’d even go so far as to say that not every photograph that an artist makes would qualify as art.  After all, I use my cameras to create images solely for the sake of documentation and I think it would devalue the idea of what art is (even if that is tricky to define) by saying that every image I create is photographic art.  Maybe a photographic equivalent to King Midas exists in the world but I’ve not been introduced to their gift yet.

I made this masterpiece because I wanted to have a record of the phone number on the sign.

I made this masterpiece because I wanted to have a record of the phone number on the sign. Contact me for pricing information. Oh, and can I suggest that you opt for the gallery wrapped canvas instead of a Giclée?

I think I’ll leave it at that.  Give some thought to these questions and let me know what you decide.  Next week I want to pick up where we left off and discuss the topic in the context of the work of master photographer Peter Lik.  If that name sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen him (on the Weather Channel) or recently saw that his work was in the headlines because of a recent sale of his work.  Check back for details next Friday.

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Tips for Winter Photography

Happy New Year!

I hope the holidays treated you well and that 2015 will be a fantastic year for you all.

We started off the year with snow here in Tucson which got me thinking that it was the perfect time to share some tips for winter photography.  This week’s post will be relatively short and sweet so that you can get out there to make some great photos.

Snow topped prickly pear.

Snow topped prickly pear.

Have you ever thought that a snow filled scene would make a great photo only to be disappointed with an underexposed image?  If so, this first tip is for you.  It all comes down to understanding how your camera works.  Today’s cameras (and their light meters) are very sophisticated but here’s the thing, the cameras don’t know what you are pointing them at – they just measure the amount of light hitting the sensor and calculate the exposures based on the tonal values of an average scene.  So what’s average?  Middle gray – and that’s the problem with a snowy scene – you want your snow to look fresh and white, not dingy and gray like the Wisconsin snow you see piled up mid-February (or mid-April for that matter).

So I know what you’re thinking and no, you do not have to use your camera’s manual mode to make a correct exposure.  The trick is to use what’s called Exposure Compensation (EC) and it is something that should be available on your camera too (yes, even your smart phone camera).  The general rule of thumb is that you need to add about +1.5 to your EC setting for a snowy scene (you’ll probably want to bracket making exposures at a few different settings from maybe +1 to +2 EC to be safe).  Of course you’ll need to read your camera’s manual because just about every brand and model is different when it comes to the way the setting is changed.  For example, on my professional camera, it is as simple as pressing the shutter button half way, releasing the button, then rotating a dial but on my smart phone, it is buried in the settings menu.  Learning how to change your exposure compensation setting really is worth your time and not just for winter weather.  Another example of a time you might need a positive EC exposure would be when you escape the cold to hit the beach (the wet sand reflects a lot of light too).  Or perhaps you are shooting a sunset and it is coming out too bright, then dial in a negative EC value.  Play around with the setting and I’m sure you will quickly get the idea.

Check out these examples (note the first two pictures are both relatively unprocessed to show how the image looks out of the camera followed by an edited version of the brighter photo for the sake of this comparison).

This image was made allowing the camera to use the default exposure setting.

This image was made allowing the camera to use the default exposure setting (0 EC setting). Kind of dreary, right?

This image was made after setting the camera to adjust for the brighter scene and is much closer to how the scene actually looked.

This image was made after setting the camera to adjust for the brighter scene and is much closer to how the scene actually looked. I used a +1.33 EC setting for this image.

This is the same photo as above after a bit of post-processing.

This is the same photo as above after a bit of post-processing. The snow is nearly white without losing detail.

I promised tips but if you take anything away from this post, focus on the exposure compensation. To give you an idea about how important of a setting it is, unless I’m shooting in the studio, it is a setting I adjust on just about every shoot. So then, read on for the rest of my winter photography tips.

Snow covered Santa Catalina Mountains.

Snow covered Santa Catalina Mountains.

Dress for the weather.  If you are cold, then two bad things will happen – you’ll rush (so you’ll miss opportunities) and you’ll shiver (so you are more likely to introduce camera shake and have blurry photos).  One of the things I’ve found to be very useful is a pair of gloves with no finger tips but with a fold back mitten flap.  They come in a wide variety of styles but mine are a basic black.

Bring a tripod.  Even if you plan to dress for the weather, you still might be cold.  A camera mounted on a tripod with a cable release is the best way to avoid camera shake.

Bring an extra battery or two and put them in a pocket inside of your coat.  The cold will have a big impact on your battery’s charge.  It isn’t enough to have a spare or two, you need to keep them warm to maximize their charge.

As much as possible, avoid taking your camera (and lenses) from one weather extreme to another.  If you are going to work at multiple locations, put your camera in its bag in your trunk so that it will stay cool (go ahead and bring the battery into the warm car though).  Under the wrong conditions, you can fog the lens elements.  If you are really unlucky, the moisture will leave water spots on your lens and your only option might be to send the lens in for a cleaning.  After the session is over, leave your camera in its bag so that it slowly comes up to room temperature to avoid this problem.  Throwing a desiccant in your bag might also help.

Finally, experiment.  Take the shot (or shots) that you had planned but then give yourself the freedom to play.  The last photo that I’ll leave you with today was made because I spent a few extra minutes outside.  I didn’t plan to make an image like this when I went out but I’m glad that I took the time to look around before heading back in to the warm house.

Silhouette of a prickly pear back lit by the sun sparkling through thousands of drops of water.

Silhouette of a prickly pear back lit by the sun sparkling through thousands of drops of water.

That’s it.  Thank you for starting 2015 off with me.  Tune in next week for a discussion on photography as art.

Happy shooting!

 

 

 

 

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Tips for night photography

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  And of course, let’s not forget that Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights.  Even if you don’t celebrate any holidays in December, I’m sure you’ll agree that the holiday lights are dazzling and you might be thinking about documenting some of that holiday cheer with your camera.  That makes it a perfect time to share a few tips about night photography.

As I’ve mentioned before, you really have just three settings to adjust so that you can make a good exposure – aperture size (larger hole lets more light reach the sensor), shutter speed (the longer the shutter is open the more light reaches the sensor), and ISO (the higher the setting, the more sensitive the sensor).  Before we get too far, if that doesn’t sound familiar, you might want to review my post about exposure.

Also, it probably goes without saying that these tips are great for any night photo session.  Like anything else in life, a bit of practice goes a long way so if you are disappointed by your first results, don’t give up hope – just keep trying.  And of course it is a whole lot nicer (for most of us anyway) to try our hand at these skills when the weather is pleasant because the cold definitely complicates things a bit.

M_Kloth_Moon_3270

The holidays are not the only reason to bring your camera out at night.

The first and best tip I can offer for better night photography is to use a tripod.  Or lacking a tripod, find a way to create a stable base for your camera.  It is difficult to hold a camera perfectly steady for long exposures (especially if you are shivering!) so finding a stable platform for your camera will allow you to get a sharp image regardless of the shutter speed.  The trick to making a good tripod mounted exposure is to make sure that you are careful when you press the shutter because even that little amount of force can nudge your camera causing camera shake.  If you are cold or you don’t think you have a delicate enough touch, then give your camera’s shutter delay feature a try.   That ten second wait or so can make a big difference in ensuring your camera is perfectly still for the entire exposure.

The Parkway in Richland, WA photographed on Christmas Eve 2008

The Parkway in Richland, WA photographed on Christmas Eve 2008. Notice everything is relatively sharp? That’s because I didn’t use the widest aperture setting for this shot.

 

The next step is to consider your aperture setting.  Again, opening up your lens so that the aperture is as wide as possible will allow you to have a faster shutter speed which might allow you to hand hold your camera.  Just remember that a wide open shutter speed will give you a shallower depth of field (area of sharp focus) so just be sure that you set your focus so that the most important part of the scene is sharp.

Richland in December after it snowed on Christmas Eve, 2008

Next, crank up the ISO if needed.  Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of having a tripod handy and your lens aperture can only be opened so far.  If that’s the case, then increase your ISO setting because sometimes even a photo with a lot of noise is better than no photo at all.

Finally, consider that including an entire scene might not be the only way to convey the mood of your scene.  If you get in close, then those Christmas lights are a whole lot brighter to your sensor which will allow you to have a faster shutter speed.   (Warning – physics here.)  The inverse square law states that every time you double the distance between yourself (or camera) and your light source, it will only be one quarter the strength because the light will be covering four times the area.   Don’t believe me?  Well next time you have your flashlight out in a dark room, shine it against the wall.  The closer you are to the wall, the smaller the area that will be illuminated but that area will be much brighter than when you shine your light at it from farther back.

This is a macro photograph (extreme closeup) of Christmas lights.

This is a macro photograph (extreme closeup) of Christmas lights. If I had moved two feet back, my 1/15 second exposure would have had to have been about four times longer (roughly 1.2 seconds).

So there it is – four tips for night photography to help you capture that Christmas cheer.

Happy holidays!

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On Inspiration

Think about some of the famous artists in history.  Chances are that you think of their masterpieces but, amazing as they might be, they only tell a fraction of the story.

Detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  The fresco was created by Michelangelo.

Detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The fresco was created by Michelangelo.

Isaac Newton famously wrote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  (Newton even chose those words with meaning – the metaphor predated him by 400 years or more and using the metaphor only further gave emphasis to his point.)

Anyhoo, like every other discipline, art doesn’t happen in a bubble and it always builds on the work that has come before it.  Those master artists that we hold in such high esteem were often credited for their new and innovative ideas but it is probably more accurate to say that those artists recombined old ideas and presented them in a different way.  My point is, that in order to grow as an artist (and as a person really), you need to get out and experience new things.  Lucky for me, I live in Tucson.  (Is it okay to mention that we are expecting a high of 71 today?)  And Tucson is FULL of inspiration.

Last week Robin and I went to visit the Tucson Museum of Art.  We regularly visit (it is free on the first Sunday of every month) and I think it is fair to say that every exhibition we’ve attended has been very good.  The current exhibit is really something special.  Running from Oct 18, through Feb 22, The Figure Examined:  Masterworks from the Kasser Mochary Art Foundation is a collection of work by some of the most important artists of the 19th and 20th century.  The museum writes:

Comprising approximately 120 works of art, this survey examines the portrayal of the human figure through paintings, sculpture, and works on paper by noted 19th- and 20th-century European and American artists.  Included in the exhibition are works by Pablo Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Edgar Degas, Andy Warhol, Auguste Rodin, and many others.

So, I think it probably goes without saying that I found inspiration there.  And I’m sure that I’ll go back to really take it all in because exhibitions like this one rarely travel to small cities so it only seems right to take advantage of it while it is here.  One of the things that I found very interesting about the exhibit is that it isn’t an exhibition full only of these artists’ most famous works but rather much of it is from earlier or later in their careers.  And it is fascinating to see hints at what these artists will later create in their work in these earlier pieces.

Take Jackson Pollock for example.  Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ll undoubtedly recognize some of the work he is most famous for creating.  He was an Abstract Expressionist and created a series of drip paintings.  Take a quick look at this video of his work courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to learn about how he created those paintings.

Pollock did his first drip painting in 1947.  He created this untitled piece in 1943.

Jackson Pollock,  Untitled, 1943 ink, gouache, watercolor on cut paper, mounted on blue paper

Jackson Pollock,
Untitled, 1943
ink, gouache, watercolor on cut paper, mounted on blue paper

It really isn’t hard to see Pollock had been setting the foundation for the work that he would become best known for creating.

Here’s another one you probably know.  Pablo Picasso made his mark as THE force behind Cubism. (The audio recording discussing the painting below it is also courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art)

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, (1907), Oil on Canvas http://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/271/w500h420/CRI_151271.jpg, accessed 9/12/13

This painting is credited as being the first Cubist painting.  Picasso (and Georges Braque) made additional Cubist works over the next seven or so years (and some looked much more cubic) but this painting is important because it very clearly shows where Picasso found inspiration for this new style of painting.  Can you see it?

It turns out that Picasso saw some African tribal masks when he visited the Palais du Trocadéro musuem in Paris in May or June 1907.  He reportedly didn’t care about the cultural significance of these masks but found these masks aesthetically fascinating and that inspiration led to the creation of an entire art movement.  Pretty cool, right?

Picasso might be best known for his Cubist work but he continued to find inspiration throughout his career.  Check out this Bacchanale that he painted decades later.

Pablo Picasso Bacchanale (1955) Lithograph with gouache on paper

Pablo Picasso
Bacchanale (1955)
Lithograph with gouache on paper

I’ll leave it here for the week but before I go, I’ll share a bit more from the exhibition (I still can’t believe they allow photography in the exhibit).  I hope you enjoy!

M_Kloth-3825

Andy Warhol Heads of Men (a.k.a. Group of Men) (1954) ink on paper

M_Kloth-3827

Paphael Soyer Woman by the Window (1980) etching on paper

M_Kloth-3829

Auguste Rodin Young Mother in a Grotto (1885) Marble

M_Kloth-3844

Edouard Manet Premiere Dancer of the Royal Theater of Madrid (a.k.a. The Ballet Dancer) (1862) etching on laid paper

M_Kloth-3860

Auguste Rodin Adam (modeled 1880-81, cast 1970) Bronze

M_Kloth-3879

Wolfgang Hutter Rebus Game (1961) oil on Masonite

M_Kloth-3880

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Draped Woman (1908) oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

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Who owns that image

I said I was done with the copyright thing but, well, I couldn’t help myself.  There were a few more things I wanted to address that didn’t fit neatly in part two of the copyright series.  So here we are again.  Today’s topic is authorship.

Before we go any further, let me ask you a question or two.  Have you ever asked somebody to take your picture with your camera?  If so, do you think that person (even if it is a complete stranger) has any ownership claim to that image?  If you read my earlier posts on copyright then you might just have some doubts.

Back in the first copyright post, I made a couple of points that are relevant to day’s discussion.  First, copyright is established at the time of creation (the execution of the idea into something tangible) and the person doing the creating typically is the copyright holder.  With that background, I want to write about two examples that you may have noticed in the news this year – first, the Ellen DeGeneres led group selfie at the Academy Awards, and second, the monkey selfie.  I think you’ll find this interesting if maybe a bit surprising.

I’ll start with the Ellen group selfie.

 

The above photo (and tweet) was made at the last Academy Awards ceremony.  Ellen DeGeneres brought a bunch of really famous people together, gave Bradley Cooper her phone, and then he pressed the shutter.  There are two potential points of view here.  First, the group portrait was clearly Ellen’s idea – she got the crowd together for this portrait, gave her camera to Bradley Cooper because he had the best vantage point in the group, and then told him to take the photo.  Her role as the creative force behind the image gives her a credible claim to authorship.  On the other hand, Bradley Cooper took the photo and unless there was a clearly worded written contract in place prior to the creation of the photo, he might also make a legitimate claim of authorship.

So who do you think is the rightful owner of the copyright for the photo that ended up being one of the most retweeted photos in history?  The easy answer is that Cooper owns the image because he composed and took the photo but DeGeneres also likely has a valid claim to at least co-ownership because the image was made under her direction.

This scenario is really very common in today’s age however these questions are largely academic because unless someone asserts a claim to ownership, we will never really know which way a court might decide.

The second example I want to share today is the monkey selfie.

Monkey-Selfie

Have you heard about this one yet?

In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater went to Indonesia to photograph the endangered species Celebes Crested Macaques with the hope that if he raised awareness of these animals, that he’d be able to build support to protect the monkeys.  At one point during his trip, this monkey picked up one of the cameras and made a self portrait with no direct involvement by Slater.  Which is to say that Slater put in a LOT of time and effort to create the conditions that led to this photo having been taken BUT he did not press the shutter on the camera when this exposure was made.  It was an incredible experience and it resulted in a dynamic photograph.  Slater, rightly so, wrote all about his experience and how this image came to be made because, let’s face it, having a member of the endangered species create such an expressive self portrait was exactly the kind of image that he wanted to create for his trip to raise awareness.

Soon after, a Wikipedia editor made an entry about the image and uploaded a copy of the photograph to the Wikimedia Commons site which is a repository for ‘freely usable media files’.  This was done without Slater’s permission and when he asked them to remove the image, they refused saying:

“copyright cannot vest in non-human authors” and “when a work’s copyright cannot vest in a human, it falls into the public domain.”  (1)

Slater then filed a copyright infringement suit.  So which side do you think won?

As it happens, Slater lost because the court agreed with the Wikipedia argument.  That is, because Slater represented the image as a selfie (i.e. the monkey composed and created the image without human involvement), he essentially gave up authorship of the image.   I can’t say for sure, but I highly suspect that had he claimed all along that he set up the image but said that the monkey’s role in the image was just to hold the camera, then the case would have turned out differently.

So do you think that the ruling was fair?  Personally, I think it sounds like a case where the letter of the law trumped common sense, but then again, there is no law mandating common sense.  Okay, now I promise to leave the subject alone for a while.

 

(1) http://www.newsweek.com/lawyers-dispute-wikimedias-claims-about-monkey-selfie-copyright-265961

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