A great image is more than a subject. Sometimes the obvious subject itself fades to the back and the overall effect of the art becomes dominant. I would call this making something out of nothing.
Geoffrey James, a Canadian photographer, has said “A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing.” He goes on to say “it used to be everything had to be beautiful, picturesque”, but he was now making images where the subject (something beautiful) was not the notable part of the picture.
I don’t exactly subscribe to his vision, but the phrase captured me.
I find myself frequently making something out of nothing. It’s subtle and difficult to explain. It is not normally about the beauty of a subject. And it is not “it didn’t work in color, try black & white“.
Liberated from reality
I am a fine art photographer. (the term is actually distasteful to me; I consider myself an artist who uses digital media, but that’s a subject for another article.) This is extremely liberating.
One of the things this means to me is that the pixels I capture with the camera are just raw material. I am free to transform them any way I wish to create art. The resulting image may be “about” something entirely different than the original capture. Occasionally I see an opportunity to composite 2 or more images to make something different. I love doing this and I am sometimes surprised at the result.
Back in my early learning curve, I was active in my local photography club. It was great experience and a good organization, except for certain aspects of the competitions. They were narrowly focused on the “purity” of the image. It could have some minor spotting and color correction and cropping, but that was about it. In other words, about what you could do in a chemical darkroom. I’m afraid I generated quite a controversy when I submitted (and won a blue ribbon for) a digitally manipulated image what had some serious warping applied. That was the beginning of my break from any assumption that an image should be “as shot”.
The joy of Photoshop
What a time to be an image maker! Photoshop is a marvelous tool for working with images. There are other tools, but I do not use them so I will not try to act like I know anything about them.
Photoshop brings us almost infinite control over our pixels. It is far better control than the best darkroom masters ever had. We can adjust tone precisely and in totally localized regions. We can adjust color balance and tint in the most subtle or extreme degrees. It allows us to color grade, convert to black & white, remove distractions, selectively sharpen, warp and distort the pixels, and basically do anything possible with pixels. Pixels are raw material.
So images are now completely malleable. There is no reason to stop processing an image until it is exactly what we see in our mind’s eye. When we get done, the image might have a completely different “meaning” or effect than the original. It has been fashioned into a different piece of art.
What do pixels mean?
This has been a difficult transition for me. Coming out of a background that valued a respect for the image “as shot”, it has been hard to give myself permission to push the original image into something completely different. But this is what art is really about. And I love it!
In one sense, pixels are just pixels – a grid of little colored spots. They are a resource the artist has available to work with. Like paint on a canvas, they are there for whatever the artist wants to make of them. If the intent is to enhance the original image, that is great. If the artist wants to shape them into something completely different, that is their privilege and joy.
We are no longer “stuck” with the image we captured. We can make it into something entirely different. In that sense, we make something out of nothing.
If I have misused Mr. James’ quote, I apologize to him. I transformed the raw material through my own values and perspective and made something out of nothing.
Please let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to address. I value your comments.