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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

David Mendelsohn - The Complexity Of Simplicity

David Mendelsohn is modern photography's John Henry, locked in a battle to keep image processing from completely dominating the creative process of taking a picture


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The Complexity Of Simplicity Digital photography and its infinite possibility can make us forget how to do things correctly from the start. The idea that anything is possible, and every mistake fixable, has taken a hold of an industry that used to know better. Not only that, but as much fun as Photoshop can be, it also can be the ultimate black hole. And the more hours spent tweaking in front of your computer, the less time you spend in the field.

Enter David Mendelsohn. “Way back, I could walk around, just squeezing off shots, but eventually, upon critiquing them, I wasn't quite satisfied,” says the photographer. “There were usually some elements that didn't quite belong. So I began to make images rather than lucking into them and shamelessly controlling as much as I could.”

It would seem that the complete control offered by digital postproduction would be the ideal medium for Mendelsohn. Instead, he has made a conscious choice to maintain physical workflow by setting up the shot to be as perfect as it can be from the first exposure.

“I try to do as much in preproduction as possible,” says Mendelsohn. “Perhaps I keep reaching into the past and the Jurassic days of film, but there was a need for inventive solutions to a problem prior to the introduction of software. Simply put, this way I know what I'm getting when squeezing the shutter, as opposed to what I might get over days in a darkened office.”

Digital Photo Pro offered a challenge to Mendelsohn: to illustrate his working methods by giving us a finished image created in real time and with real-world materials. He gave us the surrealism of the “Flying Iron.”

“I tend to work in abstractions,” explains Mendelsohn, “things stolen from the larger world and then condensed to a point where it's easily digested. All unnecessary or distracting data is eliminated, which I'll achieve through perspective, in-camera cropping or even pruning sheers—whatever it takes without destroying someone's property or being arrested. And for me, this is as simple and efficient as a conceived shot can get. Indeed, some small moves like curves and local color tweaks were applied, and though I'm pretty demanding in a final image, the full-res images were off my desktop in the space of an afternoon. Pretty much pixel heaven.”

Adds Mendelsohn, “Draw a contrast from that to working in 16-bits, heavy retouching, precise silhouetting of all the segments of the iron, applying various techniques of color alteration and level/curve adjustments, and all without compromising the textural and tonal qualities.”

“Don't misunderstand me,” he continues. “I love my digits. I love my pixels. I love my Macs and the possibilities that Photoshop opens for me. However, a while ago I decided that dealing with 20 layers just didn't excite me as much as nailing as much as I could before I ever crank up the computer. Shooting in real time has definitely saved me time and sanity. I'll optimize as much as possible in front of the lens and then just tweak it later. If that means having to dye a dog or a piece of fabric, then I will.

“The myth is still alive and thriving,” Mendelsohn concludes. “Digital is fast. Digital is easier. Anyone with some experience, however, knows that this just isn't true. I'm attracted to simplicity, both in technique and imagery. And the less complex, the happier I am.”


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