The Shock of the New
by Paul Seawright

Source - Issue 3 - Winter - 1994 - Click for Contents

Issue 3 Winter 1994
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We have all become, at various levels, aware of the radical changes to photographic practice in the nineties. I don't refer to a new style or application in the context of what we hold dear to photography, but an extreme and revolutionary shift in the possibilities and probabilities of the future. It seems that the further I delve into electronic imaging methodology the closer the future becomes. What is apparent to anyone who has seen explanations of contemporary advertising is that the notion of reality or truth has become obscured completely by the ability to construct photographs from A to Z without ever going near film, chemical or darkroom. The related discussion in photographic circles has ranged from panic to a scramble for information, workshops and access to hardware. But as the learning curve climbs ever steeper in front of us is it time to take stock of how the 'ordinary' practitioner might apply such innovative advances? Is it all beyond us, hidden in the province of advertising agencies and media giants? How accessible is the future or should we stick to our Durst in the garden shed?

Several years ago it was almost impossible to find photographers who where using technology in the way described above. Design houses and ad agencies flouted the possibilities as expensive assets only to be flirted with by the blue chip client. There has been a quantum leap since then , one local commercial photographer telling me recently of a clients request to digitally remove some packing tape from boxes in the middle distance of a 5x4 transparency. The reality however is still that a reshoot would cost less, but not for long! Labs like the mighty 'Metro' in London have now installed a Mac-based electronic imaging bureau and run (as do almost every gallery and arts centre in England) courses on using Adobe Photoshop, the definitive computer software for manipulating photographs. So what is the attraction? There are two strands to the process and they simply describe the fundamental process of 'electronic imaging' and photography.

  • Digital camera
  • Apple Mac (Photoshop)
  • Colour Printer or Film Writer
  • Conventional camera
  • Scanner
  • Apple Mac with Photoshop
  • Colour Printer or Film Writer

In the first scenario the initial image is recorded digitally, without film, stored on a disc and put directly into the Macintosh computer. At this stage the image can undergo a range of manipulations that are almost limitless. In terms of Black & White the push of a button allows the photographer to change the size, contrast, focus and resolution of the image. It can have elements cropped out and replaced almost seamlessly as if they had never existed. Many images may be combined, montaged, coloured. The colour image can be posterised, separated colours shifted, made partially black and white. A final image may be produced that combines many elements in a new imagined reality. The final stage is the output or print. This can be a professional colour print but must usually be brought to a bureau (the computer equivalent of a photo lab) and outputted on their equipment. The other option is a film writer that can produce a colour transparency of the manipulation up to 10"x8". The second scenario uses the conventional camera, taking a normal photographic print and making it into a digital file by placing it in a scanner. The rest of the process remains the same.

Back in 1989 the Canon ION RC251 was the only digital option. It has been developed to become the ION RC560 and is used for high volume small ads, video, presentations and as a cataloguing image storage device. For example press photographers in Bosnia would normally have to process film and send it on a wire machine back to London, an expensive and lengthy process. A digital image can be put into a laptop computer along with captions, copy and other communications and sent by modem down a telephone line. The receiving Macintosh displays the material and an operator using Photoshop can enhance, crop and send the completed information straight to the printing press. This is the closest photography has come to live satellite broadcast. The quality of ION has never really been acceptable beyond A5, and is a hybrid format, unlike conventional cameras.Using Photoshop, Derek Brennan has created a new image of his mother and her now deceased grandparents. 
Using Photoshop, Derek Brennan has created a new image of his mother and her now deceased grandparents. 

Kodak in cooperation with Nikon have produced the Kodak DCS 200. Built on a Nikon 8008s it uses normal shutter speeds and is compatible with other Nikon Lenses. The back is interchangeable between colour and Black & White and stores up to 50 images. This is a professional camera and carries a professional price - £6995. The quality however is excellent considering the portability. Arca Swiss, the large format experts, have developed the not so portable CF1. Using it in the studio connected to the Mac allows real time composition exposure and focus with every movement displayed on the monitor. The applications are endless, allowing telephone linkup to art directors elsewhere etc. The cost unsurprisingly - £13,685. The third solution is the Hasselblad with Scitex digital back DB4000. It has much higher resolution than the Arca Swiss, but uses more memory per image and hence a bigger more expensive computer. The quality is unsurpassed and connected to a Hasselblad 553EXL would cost you $40,000. Discussions are underway for five key photographic centres to set up a rental service for the DB4000 as most photographers will find it ever so slightly out of their price range!

Photographers from David Bailey to local photographer Peter Neill (see page 6) have already started to find applications for the new technology. The reality for most of us is to take existing images to workshops or resources that have the hardware and try it out. Like making a photographic print for the first time, it all becomes a bit addictive. I have found myself reading Mac User instead of Creative Camera, and seen whole nights disappear in front of a glowing computer screen. It is important to not only be aware of the developments but to engage them at any level available. How you apply it is only for you to decide. David Bailey describes it as the most exciting development since the SLR. I don't know about that, but it certainly opens new doors in terms of contemporary practice.

The computer is a new tool, challenging, demanding, exciting and actually user friendly. My immediate concern is that in the pursuit of software applications aesthetics are discarded. When the excitement dies down there will be a huge amount of mediocre work to sift through. I am confident that ultimately we will applaud the electronic age of photography, but will the applause drown out the last essential prerequisite - talent?

Paul Seawright, photographer and Lecturer at Newport , Gwent.

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