A photographer friend, Nancy, told me about once entering a hand-coloured, black and white photograph in a local art exhibition. The organizers advised her that they had a problem deciding where to place it, with paintings or with photography.
Wanting to be creative, and a bit traditional, she had used black and white film to photograph a scene and printed it in the old way, using chemicals in trays, with black and white photo paper. She then used translucent oils to colour specific areas of the black and white photograph. Please remember that hand-colouring black and white photographs has been in practice as long as photography has been around.
The individuals, who organized the exhibition being ignorant of the history of photography (I was told they were all painters), believed that because she had applied something on the surface of the emulsion-coated paper that her photograph now had become a painting. I think that, lacking respect for photographers as artists, they regarded her work as something one would do with a colouring book.
We both wondered what the opinion of those exhibition judges would have been if she had captured a scene with a digital camera, used PhotoShop to convert the image to black and white, and then placed colours on some areas of the image. She could have erased some items in the image, cloned others, or added items into the image that came from different photographic digital files. Would they still call it a photograph? The artist had used the medium of photography to create the final image, but I have met people that would not want to call that photography.
Ignorant of the strong tradition of creative modification by photographers, many will refer to film-created images as “real” photography, and digitally created images as “digital” photography that are somehow unreal, as if film based photographs have never been altered or manipulated.
It is not bad enough that many patricians of other artistic mediums have a hard time including photography as art; but there are also photographers that want to dismiss digital or digitally manipulated images as not being “real” photography.
In my opinion if the original image file or “negative” (whether it be paper, or film-based, or digital) came from a camera of some sort, the final print, no matter what is done to it between the time light is captured on a sensor or film and presented as a final picture, should still be called a photograph.
I am excited that the medium of photography is continually changing with modern technology. Film emulsion has gone through an amazing amount of changes since 1826 in France when Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent image. Incidentally, his picture took eight hours to expose. I can only presume that if he were handed one of the latest digital cameras he would be excited, and would not foolishly hold on to outdated technology, and as a photographic inventor he probably would be happy to experiment with today’s cutting-edge technology. Yes, if we want we can still produce images with 100-year-old techniques and materials; or we can embrace the medium as it changes.
The problem those judges had with photography might have been is that it is used in so many different ways and has become so accessible. Try to find some aspect of our society that is not impacted by photography. The medium has reached a place that, through emerging technology, makes it very usable for many people.
There are those that use it only to document their lives, but it can also be used easily for creative purposes. One only has to check out the multitude of online photography sites to find the truth in that. That might also be why those judges struggled to accept changes to my friend’s original image.
Nancy photographed an interesting subject, and, instead of choosing to use a digital file, or colour film, she decided to use black and white film to create a mood to help the viewer feel what she felt when she released the shutter. Then further, she continued to visually discuss the subject and the surrounding scene by adding hand colouring to enhance specific elements of the photo and produced an image that was able to go beyond being a documentary of a moment in time. I think photographers like Nancy are as much artists as those in any other creative medium. There should not have been a problem in deciding if her print was a photograph or a painting.
I am surprised that there aren’t many exhibitions held in towns and villages here in British Columbia solely for photography. Yes, photography clubs hold private exhibitions, but those aren’t generally open to the public at large. I think lots of people would participate and lots more would attend. I certainly would. I suggest that if there are not ongoing photography exhibitions in your community, get together with some other photographers and make one happen.
I really do appreciate your comments, John
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