Digital photography has transformed the fine-art world. Beyond merely allowing commercial photographers to produce more efficient and cost-effective imagery, the digital revolution presents artists with new tools to create broad-reaching, high-impact images that can be seen around the world, instantly, with the click of a button. The potential of the digital image is tremendous, but it faces a challenge in the art world of being cast aside as amateurish, simplistic or even mechanical rather than being driven by true artistic inspiration. It’s a hurdle that professional digital photographers and fine artists have been struggling with since the onset of this vast and potent medium—where communicating the effect of the work isn’t hindered by the effects used.
One of the greatest fallacies of digital photography is that it’s a replacement for traditional wet photography. These two are so different in the capabilities of capture, manipulation and reproduction that a strong argument could be made that they’re each a discrete medium. Each requires a mastery of specific skills and techniques, and the ultimate art created by each can vary greatly.
The concept of what constitutes fine art deserves some consideration. Those who would criticize digital photography for the way in which it’s created lack an understanding of the impetus behind fine art, as well as the diligent craft, skill and vision that’s needed to create any fine art—digital image-making included. Fine artists are individuals who choose to convey a specific statement utilizing the tools at their disposal, which are inherently those skills, techniques and mediums that they have mastered in the pursuit of visual communication. Choosing the right tool for the job is a requisite step in conveying a fine-art message, and professional digital photographers are demonstrating time and again that their craft, approach and tools meet those same requirements.
The best artists working in every medium understand the potential of their process and utilize their medium to maximize the potential of their statement. These individuals choose the tools of their trade and create images that demonstrate their unique vision and commentary because they understand the strengths of the medium that they chose to employ. The digital fine artist can alter an image in an understated fashion, optimize a complicated set of variables for perfect results, use the interfacing capabilities of modern technology to enhance their vision or even employ the traits of the digital medium to comment on the modern art world. Over the next few months, these techniques will be discussed in several focused articles, but it’s important to remember that each expresses one possible tool in an arsenal for visual communication. How each artist chooses to use a single tool, or a combination of several, to convey his or her vision is what sets him or her apart as a fine artist and ranks him or her among the digital pros of the fine-art photography world.
Among critics, art collectors and gallery owners there’s a common misconception about digital fine art that images will be vastly manipulated simply because the possibility exists that they can be. Even though there are instances where immense postproduction manipulation can be an effective communication tool, it’s simply that—a tool that should be evaluated and chosen based on the desired effects of the final artwork. Changing something in the final image with photo-editing software simply because you can is an amateurish approach to the subject and tools at hand. Changing something because you want to change the influence, the statement or the atmosphere of the final image in an attempt to elicit a certain response from your audience establishes a fine-art sensibility. This approach is how fine artists hone their skills, their message and their presentation in harmony. Just as painters have no need to use every brush in their collection or paint on their palette, neither must digital fine artists employ every type of postproduction device at their disposal. In many cases, the more understated use of the tools available creates the more effective and significant imagery.
Take, for instance, the subtle digital manipulations of fine-art newcomer Mallory Morrison. Her fashion work maintains a crisp, controlled vision in line with prevalent industry expectations, but she’s not afraid to add a touch of whimsy with slight alterations of her images. By using minor, yet evident, digital manipulations, Morrison is acknowledging her medium while simultaneously creating a new and evocative style that sets her images apart in the highly competitive world of fashion photography. Having been trained in both fine art and commercial photography, Morrison has a unique perspective on the potential of digital fine art as applied to commercial endeavors.
In one image, for instance, Morrison incorporates the initial garment drawings of designer Carol Yip into her final image of the realized outfit, creating a fashion life cycle that not only is intriguing, but adds to the ambiance of the image, the clothing and the industry itself.
“I really liked experimenting with combining graphic design and fashion with this shoot,” Morrison remarks of her work with Yip, which produced a series of images for the designer’s clothing line. “I shot everything on a white background so I could easily play with multiples, overlaying and rotating the images.”
Morrison demonstrates the mentality of the fine artist with this shoot and her approach to it. Encompassing the preproduction, studio session and postproduction in her initial concept of the final product allowed her to work in concert with her collaborator and client. Because of her forethought, Morrison could reference the original sketches while working with the model and choose how she was going to approach the model during the shoot itself, ensuring that all necessary components would be in place when it came time to digitally formulate her final vision. She ended up with a series of images designed to be slightly adjusted in postproduction. But don’t mistake the minor alterations for easy fixes. Though Morrison isn’t heavy-handed with her digital manipulations, there’s a specific intent with the design and implementation of each element of her final image.
In another of her images, Morrison utilizes the original photo of her model resting her chin on her hand to create the feel of cascading motion with the model’s arm. Morrison’s application of increasing transparency as the arm moves away from the model gives a sense of immediacy and mobility to the work that remains subtle, but is thoughtful and designed. In another image, several different stances of a single model have been collaged together to create a vibrant dance where the viewer is aware of several stages at once, but is also driven to evaluate certain moments more than others. In each of her images, Morrison demonstrates a control over each of the elements that she uses to capture her vision. Although the digital alterations are intentionally evident, they have been managed and implemented in service to a greater intent.
It’s that type of understanding of the medium that sets true digital fine artists apart from digital photographers. The myth that image manipulation is synonymous with vast alteration is being put to rest by photographers like Morrison. They’re demonstrating that, in practice, using the subtle enhancements and variations of the digital medium can draw focus to certain elements in the image while not overwhelming the viewer or the subject with a sense of fakery. Just because you can manipulate every element of an image doesn’t mean that you should.
Yet it remains evident that the images of Morrison have been manipulated. This admission of alteration is liberating to the application of her methodology. In this day and age, the curiosity of whether or not an image has been altered can be paralyzing in terms of accepting the image as a whole and being able to see the forest instead of just the digitally suspect trees. With the subtle but evident alterations that Morrison uses, there’s suddenly no question of whether or not the image has been modified, but instead poses the question as to why it was modified. The mood of the image becomes playful, vivid and fluid. Now, rather than merely seeing the new fashion designs as displayed on a mannequin, the images have a flow and ambiance that give new life to the model, her clothing and the feel of movement within the image.
Now, rather than merely seeing the new fashion designs as displayed on a mannequin, the images have a flow and ambiance that give new life to the model, her clothing and the feel of movement within the image
Of course, there are many ways to create a similar type of ambiance in an image, digital or otherwise, but this is another effective way to do it while also acknowledging the craft of the digital image. The photographs still are constructed using tightly controlled lighting and specific environments with intended outcomes. The mastery of Morrison follows the tradition of other fashion photographers working in the vein of fine art. The difference here is that she’s also demonstrating a whimsical control over her toolbox, and heavily featured in that toolbox is the digital medium itself.
While there still will be occasions when the digital nature of an image will be masked, the presence and use of digital technology shouldn’t be feared and shelved in an attempt to re-create an analog sensibility. Digital image-making should be embraced and used for its new potential. It’s important to recognize the varied tools required to make each type of image and to choose, as an artist, the means most appropriate to a specific vision. Knowing a wide range of tools to choose from allows the digital fine artist to steadily progress toward that vision. Gathering an arsenal of skills, tricks and processes is the first step in realizing the vision of a digital fine artist. The same types of skills are requisite for every art form and support the artist in his or her own quest. Truly understanding your instruments is no different for the digital fine artist, and understanding them includes knowing when and how to use them, and when to leave them alone.
Morrison is one of many digital fine artists working today utilizing the characteristics of digital technology to make her imagery stand out from previous traditions, as well as embrace modern times. She isn’t trying to re-create a sensibility from other mediums, including that of analog photography, but rather trying to push the boundaries and find out what the digital medium has to offer the worlds of fine art and fashion. She understands each element of her trade, from concept and visualization to final image postproduction, and she has applied only the necessary modifications to each of her images to convey her intended message. The result is a set of fashion images full of whimsy and character enhanced by, and embracing, subtle digital manipulation.
Ultimately, like Morrison, those who are willing to explore the affect of digital photography, rather than just the digital effects available, will continue to bring us innovative, expressive imagery that will reinvent the possibilities of the digital image in the world of fine art.
Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Diego, Calif. She received her MFA in Still Photography in 2009 from Brooks Institute and continues to study fine-art theories, methods and practitioners, as well as produce her own fine-art photography. Visit her website at www.amandaquintenz.com. Mallory Morrison has a degree in fine art from UC Santa Cruz and a commercial photography degree from Brooks Institute. She’s an international award-winning photographer who travels often, including shooting fashion in Paris, Milan and New York. She’s based in Los Angeles. See more of her photography by visiting her website, www.mallorymorrison.net.