DPP Home Profiles Jay Maisel - Going With The Flow

Friday, June 8, 2007

Jay Maisel - Going With The Flow

The master of color and self-diagnosed nontechie talks about keeping your artistic priorities in the JPEG-versus-RAW world

On Photographic Veracity

Digital presents certain inherent problems on a philosophical level. We always knew the camera could lie, but those of us who were “straight shooters” were given the benefit of the doubt in the past. Now the image is in doubt.

I was sitting in my editing room with a friend of mine, Gary Winter, who's a documentary filmmaker and a freelance editor. We were watching a WWII “documentary film” and picking it apart, finding fault with, among other things, the insertion of music, which we felt was redundant, if not inappropriate. I asked why the hell they did that, and he said it was because “They don't have confidence in the image.” I think that's a very profound observation that relates directly to the thing that has always bothered me about digital.

There's a purity about finding things and showing them to people. You're saying, “I was there and this is what it looked like,” as opposed to, “Well, it's a better image now because I added three lions and took out two telephone poles.” Fine, but don't call it a photograph; call it what it is—a manipulated image. Let people know that it's now not a photograph, but a photographic illustration. Why is this so important to me? It's important because I want people to “have confidence in the image.”

The manipulators say, “Don't cropping, dodging and burning all manipulate the image?” Yes, but they don't put in the lions that weren't there and take out the telephone poles that were there. At best, it's a slippery slope you're on when you go digital. “I'll take out the dust spots, I'll change the color to what I remember, oh, and I might as well darken the sky for drama, and as long as I'm at it, maybe a couple of lions….”

When photography came along, artists who used it were suspect. Now photographers who “paint” or manipulate their images are suspect. Times and fashions change. David Hockney wrote that many Old Masters used a camera obscura to trace images for paintings. This raised the hackles of curators and art historians today. But as Hockney pointed out, wasn't it amazing that all subjects became left-handed (due to the reversal of the image)?

So what if they traced? Should they have said “painting with the aid of photography?” It was the 14th century. They had no idea what a photograph was. We, however, do know the difference between a photograph and a manipulated image, and to ensure veracity and honesty, each should be labeled.

On The New Digital Empowerment

Digital has enabled me to make images that I've never been able to make before. In that sense, its most important contribution has been on a conceptual, aesthetic and content level rather than a technical one. Here's why.

I can shoot in lower light levels because digital is inherently much more sensitive to light than film.

I can handhold the camera steadier at slower shutter speeds than I ever could with film due to a shutter system less dependent on jarring mechanical systems.

Finally, I can crank up my ISO to where I need it and change my light balance to what's required. I can shoot in low light, in mixed light and in light I can hardly see in.

Some may say that all ISO changes will lead to a larger degree of “noise” (which, to some degree, is the digital equivalent of grain). But I'm looking at it as an issue of content, not form. I'm interested in getting the image. I don't want to lose it because the parameters of the technique aren't perfect.

Gary Winogrand once said that he was trying to take pictures where the content crowds out the form. I may not have the phrasing perfect, but if you can understand the gist of it, it's brilliant. If you look at any of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, at many gripping newspaper photos and at almost all the telling war images, technique or form is rarely the hook. The subject, the content, the narrative is the guts of the issue, and it's that which is of paramount interest to the viewer. If I rave on about this it's because there has been an escalation of concern in terms of pixel size, noise, resolution, PPI and the like. It tends to make one forget that what this is all about is the emotional content of the image, not the technical construction of the image.


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