What is a Photograph? There is No Such Thing as the "Final" Image

After participating in the most recent Adobe Creative Campus event in Tucson, Arizona, I treated myself to a visit to the Center for Creative Photography, also on the University of Arizona campus. They were running an Ansel Adams exhibit entitled, Performing the Print.

I was not permitted to take photos in the exhibit itself, so these photos from the exterior and lobby will have to suffice.

Along with being a master photographer, Ansel was also a pianist. He referred to his photography in musical terms:

"The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance."

This analogy hit home with me, and has persisted in my brain since reading it at the exhibit. It has fundamentally crystallized how I feel about not just the capturing of an image, but also image processing.

After all, the making of a traditional silver halide (and many other emulsions) print is the analog cousin to processing an image in Photoshop or Lightroom.

It’s no accident that Adobe named its premier image processing program “Lightroom”, the opposite of the age old photographer’s closet, the “darkroom”.

The negative - or raw image file - is the score I create by selecting a suitable lens, and camera position, composing and framing through the viewfinder and lastly determining proper exposure for my desired result (brightness, depth of field, motion), be that a single exposure, or with the knowledge that multiple exposures will blended together.

The performance is the print(s) or resulting image file(s), after considered manipulation and interpretation.

Seeing the evolution of Ansel’s work in the exhibit, over time and as printing technologies changed, was inspiring. In "Moon Over Hernandez," I saw not only the original contact print but also three interpretations (prints) of the final image. Each print was a distinctly different “performance” of the original negative (score). I was both inspired and - in a way - relieved. In those different prints, all from the same negative, I saw that there is no ONE way to print an image. Or, in my case, process the raw file.

I’ve posted a few projects on Behance where I’ve revisited older images and - thanks to new experiences and newer technology - I thought I’d found I improved on what I once felt was the best rendition of my photo. My vision, pre (and post) visualization, evolved over time, to encompass my own personal growth, and the capabilities of the tools at hand. But something very important was missing from this perspective; the possibility that many renditions of the same original could be equal in quality and presentation. So, rather than "before and after" or "old and new", photographs could be considered in terms of "original and next".

Just like a live theatrical or musical production, each performance is not necessarily better than the last; it's simply different.

You can check out those projects at the end of this article, but here are a couple visual examples.

Before and after or - rather - 1st performance and 2nd performance
Current technology makes re-interpreting an image easier than ever.

More than ever, Ansel’s technique of print making has reassured me in my own process, relieving the tension I have felt when I read (or heard) statements like “straight out of the camera” or “over manipulated”.

I learned ... well, perhaps “learned" is not the right word; my workflow was vindicated by going through this exhibit. Add to that the fact that I clearly realize that perhaps I’m not doing as much as I could to get the perfect “performance”. I know from this point forward, I’ll be reflecting more on how I can truly make certain images sing.

"A good photograph is knowing where to stand." -- Ansel Adams

Links to my Behance Projects on re-interpretation

Created By
Jim Babbage


Cover image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures - "photo camera photography old retro film photo" All other photography captured by Jim Babbage