Technical Versus Artistic Issues

It appears that an internal debate has always existed within photographers about the relative importance of learning technical aspects or learning artistic aspects. Most lean toward the technical, feeling that they have a handle on the artistic side, but lack the technical proficiency or expertise to produce truly good photographs. This is especially true of digital users who almost invariably conclude that if they can just nail down all the tools of Photoshop or get the latest app they will become great photographers. But most ignore the basic issues of understanding light, composition and, perhaps most importantly, the subject matter that truly means something to them in their search for photographic greatness. Without those basic understandings, they won’t make much progress, no matter how proficient they become with the tools. Furthermore, most photographers today seem to equate a photograph that’s tack-sharp with a good photograph, but that’s not the case. Ansel Adams once noted that, “There is nothing as useless as a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept.” He was right. Sharpness shows a superbly manufactured and well-focused lens, but nothing more. By itself, it does not indicate a great photograph.

The artistic part includes the true understanding of light, because the only thing that film or digital sensors record is light levels, so it’s the only real tool for photography. It also includes the understanding of composition: the relationships of lines and forms and colors within the image area. And it includes the imagination to transform the scene in front of the camera (which the photographer generally finds but rarely creates) to the image that you show to others (which is purely the photographer’s creation).

It turns out that the technical and the artistic are integrally connected, with each drawing upon and supporting the other. As a quick example, suppose a photograph was made with exquisite lighting (either indoor, with controlled lighting, or outdoors with ambient lighting), and with magnificent relationships among the various forms within the image, and with excellent imagination that transforms the scene into an insightful photographic image, but the printing of the image is awful…perhaps it’s much too high or low in contrast, or much too light or dark, or the manipulations used to achieve the final print are blatant and obvious…than all of the artistic values are lost.

On the other hand, a tack sharp image that is printed beautifully, but was made under flat lighting, and/or has no interesting relationships in its line or forms, may have nothing to say to the viewer. Yet I often hear people praising how incredibly sharp it is. But it’s a fuzzy concept…or no concept at all. It’s technical perfect, but meaningless.

These two examples tell you that a photograph has to be artistically excellent, and it also has to be technically excellent to pass the test of true excellence. Turning to Ansel Adams once again, he said that there is often a small difference between a print that’s acceptable and a print that’s exceptional. That small difference can come from either the technical or the artistic side.

But it goes farther than that. The technical and artistic are not only integrally connected, they should be viewed as building upon one another. The truth of that became obvious to me many years ago, and the story is worth telling .

During a photography workshop I was teaching in October, 1979 with co-instructor Ray McSavaney, Ray explained how he had discovered a method of controlling contrast in excessively high contrast situations through the use of an extremely dilute negative developer. The dilution he used struck me as too dilute to develop anything. It seemed to me that you could almost drink it if you got thirsty.

On the way back home from that workshop I stopped at an abandoned factory in the middle of desert/sagebrush country to test his development scheme. My plan was to compose a photograph with the camera inside the abandoned factory featuring the inside walls and ceiling of the factory, but also including the sunlit desert landscape visible through the window opening (the glass, itself, had long since been destroyed). This was an extremely high contrast situation, including the dark factory interior and the sunlit landscape outside. But convinced that Ray’s dilution was too extreme, I doubled the concentration, and was shocked to see the developed negative as far too high in contrast to be easily printed. That seemed to indicate strongly that Ray may have been right all along.

About a month later, in early December, 1979 I had occasion to attempt another test of the method. This time, following Ray’s formula exactly, I achieved remarkable results in an outdoor situation that I previously would have labeled “impossible to photograph” due to excessive contrast.

At the time, I thought it was purely a technical advance. Surprisingly, it turned out that the resulting photograph became a popular one, selling many times. At the time, it simply struck me as a good technical exercise that worked. It showed me that in an extremely high contrast situation I could control contrast to a degree I could not have imagined previously. I suspected that the number of times I would need to to resort to that development method would be very low.

I could not have been more wrong. Less than a month later, on January 1, 1980, late in the afternoon I walked into Antelope Canyon, Arizona. It turned out to be a turning point in my life and my photographic career. So a short background explanation is necessary.

My lifelong ambition, from the time I was a small kid in elementary school, was to be a researcher in sub-nuclear physics (studying particles and forces at the smallest scales)…and also to be a researcher in cosmology (the study of the universe at the largest cosmic scales). I majored in mathematics and physics in college, eventually obtaining a Master’s degree in mathematics. But along the way, I realized I was not in the class of Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman or Neils Bohr or Erwin Schrödinger or any of the storied physicists of that time. I never achieved a Ph.D. in mathematics and never went on to research the universe at the largest or smallest levels. I eventually turned to photography, but my fascination with forces at all levels never diminished.

Walking into Antelope Canyon, with its curving sandstone walls sweeping around me was like walking into a force field, like the ones I could have been studying at the universe’s largest or smallest scales. I distinctly remember thinking that I could have been studying this theoretically, and now I’m actually swept up into these forces. It made me feel that I was so far ahead of those guys (the researchers). I felt I was in the type of force fields that I could have been studying theoretically.

At the same time, it became immediately obvious to me that I had never seen a photograph of a place like this. In other words, this was totally new subject matter, never previously explored by any photographer. (In the back of my mind, I considered the possibility that I could be wrong, but to this day I’ve never discovered a body of work in any of the “slit canyons” that preceded my own.)

Antelope Canyon was not only new and different and awesome, it was also the highest contrast location I had ever encountered, or could have imagined in any natural setting. Suddenly, the dilute development procedure became something of central importance. Had I not proven to myself just a month earlier that there was a way of controlling such impossibly high contrast levels, I would have been forced to walk away, thinking that I had entered a magical place, but one that simply could not be photographed.

For my purposes, Antelope Canyon was not a super-narrow sandstone canyon; it was a force field. From the instant I stepped into it, I could not escape the feeling that I was being swirled around in a force field (think of iron filings spread on a piece of paper with a magnet held under it, and how those filings align themselves into the magnetic field of force). Hence I had no desire to show the canyon in a way that would make it understandable, or give it any sense of scale. Forces have small or large dimensions, and they have no orientation. There is no up or down or sideways to forces; instead they are attractive or repulsive (think of how a positive and negative side of two bar magnets will attract, but how two positives or two negative sides will repel one another), some at tiny sub-nuclear scales, others at grand universal scales.

As I slowly walked deeper into Antelope Canyon that afternoon, too late and too dark to photograph…I was so stunned by what I was experiencing that I was unable to speak (I had entered with a friend, but was unable to communicate with him). Furthermore, I had no camera with me when I entered…yet I saw what was to become my first exposure the next morning. Even with no camera in hand, that instantly became my favorite photograph, even though I had not yet exposed the negative!

The next morning I went back to the spot, carefully placed my 4x5” Linhof Technika camera to optimize the relationships within the frame, and exposed the Kodak Tri-X negative for 3 minutes. The resulting image gives no sense of scale nor any sense of the direction that the camera was aimed. It tells very little of the canyon, if anything. It is purely abstract. But I was able to control the tonalities because of the technical advance that I had heard about two months earlier, and had proven to myself just how to use it less than a month earlier.

It will always be my favorite photograph. The astounding impact Antelope Canyon had on me cannot truly be conveyed, but it is a great deal of the reason why that first photograph is so important to me. Even if that initial image were not so appealing to me visually, it still would be among my favorites due to the impact that the canyon had on me. But it is visually appealing to me. It also is perfectly representative of the forces I could have been studying: the massive curved black form that juts into the center of the image could represent the black hole at the center of so may spiral galaxies (including our own Milky Way) with the stars of the galaxy revolving around it, or it could be the nucleus of an atom with its cloud of electrons circling around. To my way of thinking, it’s the perfect analogy of the forces that I felt upon entering Antelope Canyon.

So, it was a combination of the technical advance that I had discovered just weeks before entering Antelope Canyon, combined with my lifelong fascination with forces in the universe that merged to create an artistic advance for me that I could never have imagined without the good fortune of entering Antelope Canyon. The artistic leap from canyon to force field was one that I never needed time to think about; it was there from the instant I entered the canyon. In those days, nobody else was wandering through Antelope Canyon, or other slit canyons in the near vicinity. Nobody had any interest in any of them. They were unknown, unloved, and even despised by the Navajo who lived in the region because those canyons could be the death of a cow if it fell into one, and that cow could have been one of a few sources of sustenance or income. Even though I was there with a friend, I was effectively alone, with nothing to distract my thoughts from my emotions. Today, Antelope Canyon is a tourist magnet, filled with people daily paying high prices to shoot digital images while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others shooting digital images by the thousands.

My solitary, emotional experience can never be replicated today. But the technical advance that tied directly to my artistic advance can be replicated because it’s thoroughly explained in my book “The Art of Photography.” In fact, an improvement of that method that I conceived 16 years later, in 1996, is also fully explained in the book.

Not only did I use the dilute development method for many subsequent images I made in a number of slit canyons in both Arizona and Utah, but also in the English cathedrals, those incredible structures that I also “discovered” in June, 1980, and subsequently turned that discovery into a major photographic study in 1980 and 1981, employing the dilute development method—“compensating development” as I call it, and fully explain it in my book—for many of the images made during that study.

Thus, the technical advance that I learned about in late 1979 became a central part of several subsequent artistic advances almost immediately. The two—the technical and the artistic—cannot be separated. They should not be separated. Over my career I have found that every technical advance has led to an artistic advance if employed properly. I emphasize the need to employ it properly because I see so many photographers misusing techniques in ways that destroy, rather than enhance and improve, imagery. This is especially true in digital photography, with the myriad tools and apps that are as often misapplied as they are properly applied—perhaps more often misapplied—by those who lack the artistic control or insight to apply them in a sensible, subtle, meaningful manner. By even those using film and the traditional darkroom, as I do, often tend to go overboard with the wonderful array of tools available. Numerous traditional tools and techniques are available, as is the unmatched contrast range of film. They can all be applied intelligently. Use them, and use them to amplify your artistic voice in creating magnificent photographs. And, above all, have fun doing it.