Mountain Photography And Manipulation (2) Friday November 15, 2013

In a previous article I referred to the aesthetic limits of traditional film photography and how they remain an important part of the digital medium. This is historic if you are interested in the cultural history of photography and pedagogic, aesthetic, and ideological as follows.

Many young people have little or no experience of photography beyond an automated compact camera or iPhone. It’s peculiarly difficult teaching such people – and with adults too – for those whose understanding of photography derives from old school methods where the parameters of shutter speed, aperture value, and film speed were the means whereby you learnt the art. You introduce people to the history of photography which their iPhone circumvents. It’s like trying to teach the instruments of an orchestra when someone has never seen an orchestra, nor a musical instrument, nor any visual or educational representation of the craft of music. Digital technology is responsible for this.

On one occasion teaching a group of school children, a girl flinched in fear when she clicked the shutter of a mechanical film camera. She’d never seen one and didn’t know what to expect. On other occasions with adults I had to deal with two technical layers adding further complexity. Perhaps one third of the group had small compact cameras with automated functions and I had to explain I was not familiar with the menu system of every model: I had to teach them about shutter speed, aperture and ISO and explained it was those parameters the camera was adjusting each of which has pictorial implications. If their camera had no manual function that was another issue I had to address. I felt like a conductor: it’s challenging but fun to respond to everyone’s needs and create a coherent teaching environment. This means you cannot follow a linear teaching plan but have to improvise and think on your feet.

A digital SLR is so distant from the work of Daguerre and Fox Talbot I’m not sure it has any value as a teaching subject when the aim of most students in adult education reduces to three issues: how to use your camera, how to use your computer and editing software, and how to be creative. I don’t include Daguerre in my teaching but I do include Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Hine, Robert Frank, Kertesz and similar and more contemporary work such as Shirley Baker’s as an example of both social documentary and the colour and black and white difference. History is thus a significant part of photographic teaching. You would expect this, comparable to English Literature teaching and similar.

The aesthetic parameters of film photography are a means for providing a coherent teaching environment. Photoshop in particular has almost unlimited power to adjust and transform a RAW or JPEG file and the result is a ‘graphics’ experience with an unstable connection to lens based photography. Photoshop was not originally intended for photographs and after using it for more than ten years there are parts to it I never use and never will. More lately I’ve been using additional software which automates and accelerates complex adjustments of colour, contrast, tone, highlights, shadows, black and white transformation and so on and the related implementation of layers. The complication of additional computer code offers a paradoxically simpler flow. Photoshop plug ins provide me with working methods more consistent with a darkroom process which, while clumsy, laborious, and wet, is essentially simple: you expose light sensitive paper and dodge and burn the illumination to create the effect you want while also considering the effect of varying paper and chemicals.

There is nothing to prevent you from making photography a ‘graphics’ process if that’s what you want. Transform a shot of your friend into an Andy Warhol picture. Change your shot of Scafell Pike into a Wainwright style drawing. Adjust your image of Great Gable in such a manner that it has a tenuous connection to the reality of the moment. Note the way I say that: the reality of the moment which rests on sensory experience. If you’re not Samuel Taylor Coleridge or similarly inclined with drugs or otherwise, these are sensible and coherent terms to use and they lead me to conclude with reference to ideology and theory.

In the book Photography After Photography various writers suggest photography as such no longer exists. What we now have is a digital code environment where there is no distinction between the information on your CF card and the image at your blog as viewed by a worldwide audience. The immense difference between this situation and the medium of a negative and print is such – so they say in the book – as to create a concomitant semantic shift. We now have “photography” but not photography. I don’t entirely agree with this albeit clever idea for one particular reason: while photography has been (and remains) a craft based practice it has never been wholly concerned with the medium but rather with documenting the world. It is on such terms whereby it makes no difference if you use film or binary code.

Photography – as a ‘pencil of nature’ and the art of ‘painting with light’ – is a medium which looks out onto the world through a lens albeit there are cameras being developed which have no lens. As such, the art of photography is not part of the digital Matrix but crucially points towards the world in which we live and it is mountain photography where this is especially resonant. I take as little as possible with me into the hills which means no cell phone, no GPS, and no hand held computer although I’m considering the use of a reading tablet. I don’t want to be in the web I want to be free from its sticky confines. The strange experience of feeling connected to the world through a hand held screen is the antithesis of climbing Bein Eighe, Snowdon, Bowfell, or Posets. My senses are fooled with the former but – crucially – not the latter.

In our mediated, digitised, homogenised dumbed-down world with fast food and computer pop music the hill experience is a precious and contrary resource. Writer Jeanette Winterson describes this feeling eloquently in her autobiography in a different context:

I remembered, my body remembered, what it was like to be in one place and to be able to be there – not watchful, not worried, not with your head somewhere else

This final point connects to wider philosophical issues articulated famously by theorist Jean Baudrillard. We live, Baudrillard says, in a simulacrum which not so much mediates the world as is constituting the world where we think, imagine we experience, form ideas, perceive, and communicate. The (first) Gulf War Never Happened he says, because all we saw of it was green blips on a computer screen with little correlation to the death the missile shots represented. Media reporting is part of the simulacrum, the internet is another and the ideologies and lies of politicians and their kind another again.

These are extrapolations away from Photoshop and your camera but represent a set of ideas I invite people to consider if they are interested in a wider context of photography and its digital methods in particular. Philosopher Martin Heidegger coined the term technological determinism which refers to the capacity technology has to limit and direct our thinking and behaviour. Technology typically liberates and empowers us but may also control and restrict us.

A car gets us from one place to another very effectively but we are simultaneously separated from the flowers, the wind, the sun, the rain. After climbing the hills I may choose to emphasise and dramatise the rain and the sun with increased contrast and adjusted dynamic range – but only so far as I could have achieved with film and I will not add Photoshop flowers.