Photographic dissonance

I follow blogs of several other camera-collecting photographers and I get the sense that they all process their photographs in Photoshop or some other image-editing software.

I feel like I run a little against that grain because I use such software sparingly. I’m not opposed to processing; I can see how it is a tool for achieving an artistic vision.

But I shoot my old film cameras mostly for the experience of it. I just want to see what turns out, how the camera responds to the light and my composition. I realize that film, processing, and scanning play a large role in that, so last year I began trying to be consistent with these things. I stick to the same films, the same processing, and the same scanning so that the camera and lens are the variables. (Unfortunately, I have to choose a new processor as the one I was using got out of the business.) When I do use software to manipulate images from my film cameras, it’s mostly to crop or straighten them.

I’m more likely to manipulate the images that come from my digital cameras, adjusting color, brightness, contrast, and sharpness. I tweak subtly, enhancing it to match what I saw that made me want to shoot the scene. I barely know what I’m doing with these tools, not because I find software hard to use, but because I have much to learn about photography as art. Still, I recognize which tweaks please me and which don’t. I save the former and pitch the latter.

This is one of my favorite road-trip photos. Believe it or not, this is the original alignment of US 36 in Parke County, Indiana. When the US highway system was founded in 1927 it was largely routed along existing roads, paved or not. When the state got around to paving US 36, it straightened and moved the highway in this area, leaving this original alignment behind. I visited this spot in 2007 and shot this photo. This is exactly how it came out of my Kodak EasyShare Z730. (Click here to see it larger.)

Old US 36

I love this photograph. Some of my feelings for it come from the memory of that trip and my excitement over this discovery. But I also love this photo because the road, the light spot where the trees part, and the Bridge Out sign all guide the eye to the center of the image. And I can’t get over how deeply, vividly green the scene is, with that shock of tan dirt road, the battered red Stop sign, and the lurking red house. I love this photograph so much that I printed and framed it. It hangs prominently in my home.

The other day a copy of Photoshop Elements found its way into my hands, and I spent some time trying its tools on various photos. I had this photo open when I tried the Auto Smart Fix tool. I was astonished by how it affected the image. (Click here to see it larger. You can compare the two photos better at larger sizes.)

Old US 36

The processed photo immediately seemed more realistic to me than the original. The vivid but monolithic green gave way to varied shades, which created greater texture in the image and, I realized, reflects nature’s actual variety of color. I doubted the original photo’s accuracy. But then I wondered if I can even judge realism in this image. It’s been five years since that road trip. My memory of the scene’s actual color and texture at that moment would have faded anyway – but the original photograph had actually become my memory. (I distinctly remember nearly backing my car into the ditch as I turned it around on this narrow road, however.) I reeled in these realizations.

I had always thought that a photograph was a record, a factual statement. But no; a photograph is just a perspective. And clearly a photograph’s perspective can become my reality.