Friday, February 19, 2010

Color pigments of the past

I just heard the most incredible presentation about the history of colors in art (Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color), and it made me think about photography in a similar way. Understanding where colors get their pigment, whether organic, mineral or modern chemical, as well as how it's bound to the surface (albumen vs. oil) makes me look at old paintings with a greater respect. If I were a painter, I'd definitely have more respect for the old masters who had to mix their own pigments with those various limitations.

From my experience, I began photographing as a pragmatist. It was far easier to take a picture and jot a couple notes about who, what & where, than it was to write a full page in my journal about that experience. Recalling the scene was definitely easier to see it in that instant, instead of taking the time to read a thousand words of inadequate notes. Growing beyond that, I wanted to share my vision with others, and not just save images for myself. I learned to better compose the picture, create visual interest and capture those moments.

My engineering brain had to understand how it all worked, and that was followed by the aesthetic beauty. When I began, digital imaging was not yet available to the public. In elementary school, the camera I used was the same camera my father used on his mission, and it took 126 cartridge film. In high school I used a point and shoot 35mm film camera. About 9 months into my mission, I bought an SLR and two lenses. When I returned, I spent my spare time between classes studying photography, reading more about equipment, analyzing other photgraphs, and understanding photographers. It was great to understand how daguerrotypes required a mercury vapor on the metal plate to work. I was amazed at how silver suspended in albumen and applied to glass plates was the way Ansel Adams and other nature photographers worked in the field. They would only take a couple dozen 16x20 panes, and if they didn't like the image, the glass got scraped clean and then re-exposed and processed in the field. Math was required to calculate exposure, depth of field, push-processing and other development for images.

I was very frugal in my film days too...every image cost money, so understanding the exposure was important for getting the shot. I took great notes, and when the film was processed, I checked to see whether I was successful or how to improve. Now, it's much easier because I can instantly review my shots digitally. The adjustments can be made and new images taken. In my opinion, beginners should take the time to understand the mechanics of a camera and the process of making an image. The appreciation gained will add respect to those who had to do it manually in the past.

I've worked in wet darkrooms (developing film and processing enlargements), as well as digital. I've used enlargers with black and white as well as color print films. I've also printed images which were born digital. Lately, I've even captured images at events, and immediately displayed them on screen, giving them a full digital life from the input to output stages.

Those hundreds of rolls of film each year were not a wasted expense. I have that experience and tens of thousands of images which refined my craft and are the foundation of the hundred thousand digital images which followed. My images are still carefully composed and exposed in the same mindset, giving me better results than someone who shoots everything, hoping to find a few gems during their lengthy post-processing step.

I am grateful for those who paved the way and became the giants whose shoulders I stand on today. Thank you as well to the modern masters who can and do share their knowledge with others.

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