Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When the darkroom is on your hard drive

Digitally altered photos can be a blessing and curse. Our ability to snap - and upload - at the click of a button means we are inundated with more images than ever before. Tweaks in Photoshop can uniquely capture a shared moment in our culture or dangerously reshape our notions of beauty. But it is most often in the art world that digitally crafted images end up looking downright surreal.
In a 2008 image by Khuong Nguyen, a 10-year-old blonde boy stands on the uppermost ledge of a six-story building, his chin up and arms crossed as a white cape flaps behind him in the wind. Dark clouds loom above. The boy’s precarious position creates a sense of physical discomfort. In reality, of course, he never teetered on that ledge; the picture is a product of Photoshop, pieced together and tweaked with great care by the artist.
Dozens of composite photographs like this one - some equally hypnotic, others more dark or whimsical - are currently on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. As photo studios increasingly meld into computer labs, the Digital Darkroom exhibition examines how each photographer uses technology to bring their vision to life.
Acclaimed commercial photographer Joel Grimes uses High Dynamic Range (HDR), a larger tonal range than can usually be captured in one exposure, to capture the deepest of blacks and the brightest of whites in his images. The HDR technique involves meshing three pictures - one underexposed, one overexposed, and one in-between - in Photoshop, which uses a tonal map to piece together a single, dramatic image. His 2009 photo Jenifer Ann, Swimmer is a washed-out close-up of a swimmer confronting the camera as she takes off her goggles. It’s serene as well as affronting.
Photoshop is a powerful tool for some. French photographer Jean-Francois Rauzier takes compositing to a new level by layering over 3,500 images in his pictures, making a resulting “hyperphoto” almost 40 gigs in size. French Cancan, which shows hundreds of colourful turkeys milling about in front of the Moulin Rouge, makes for a busy, wild, yet fun spectacle.
Artist Maggie Taylor - wife of renowned “analog darkroom” compositor Jerry Uelsmann, also featured in Digital Darkroom - uses Photoshop, too, but she starts with a scanner. Taylor scans things like live goldfish, dry leaves, and dead bees and stitches the resulting images together with other photographs to create Alice in Wonderland-like colourful yet stoic animal-people hybrids.
One of the most eye-catching photos in the exhibit is Chris Levine’s holographic portrait of the Queen of England, commissioned in 2004. Like a Cracker Jack novelty card, the stereoscopic image juts out towards the viewer; the queen’s eyes follow you and her head bobs as you walk past. It’s not a new technology, but Levine improves on it by using thousands of images in the portrait, giving the Queen an eerie, psychedelic presence. To make it, Levine patched together thousands of images taken from slightly different angles, mounted it on glass that contains thousands of tiny cylindrical cut-outs, and lit it from behind with blue LEDs.
Jean Marie Vives’ Cube 2006 resembles an Inception-like cube city, hovering above a serene swath of grass. To make it, the artist took dozens of shots of urban and suburban Paris and pieced the images together, putting the late day shots in the shadow part of the cube and the mid-day shots on the sunny part of the cube.
(Image: Jean-Marie Vives)
Other artists in the exhibit use the more familiar 3D technique of taking two pictures (some artists rig two digital cameras next to each other and click simultaneously), messing around with the colour channel for one, and layering them in Photoshop so you get red and blue halos. Ted Grudowski creates messy portraits of Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Nimoy, Mike Pucher makes 3D portraits of plants, and Claudia Kunin makes symbol-laden, dreamy 3D works. All you need is 3D glasses and they jump off the page.
Many of the artists in Digital Darkroom have never been shown in a gallery. It took decades for them to develop their own specific techniques to match their vision, and the works’ very status as museum-caliber pieces might still be contentious. Even curator Russell Brown, a senior creative director at Adobe and Emmy-winning instructor, concedes, “I don’t necessarily think people are going to come in and say, “It’s art!” It will be more like, “It’s creativity!”
But maybe one day Photoshop layers will be considered as vital to artworks as layers of paint on a canvas. After all, as Brown acknowledges, “It’s the talent behind the tool that really makes it sing.”


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