An Impassioned Plea For Art’s Sake

Venus and car light streaks

This is 5 shorter exposures stacked in order to increase the car lights. Would you like the image better if this was a single exposure? And if so, what would you think about Venus recording as a streak instead of a pinpoint, which would be the result of that long exposure?

Hello, my name is Kevin Adams, and I’m addicted to layers. There, I said it.

Yes, I use Photoshop. And Photoshop layers. I even—gasp—shoot and stack multiple exposures for some of my images. Now that I’ve admitted committing such a crime, I don’t expect anyone to look at my images ever again without suspicion. How could they? Nothing I do is real.

However, before anyone breaks the legs on my tripod and smears dirt on my lenses, I ask that only those without reality sin cast the first stone. So, if you like infrared, Lensbabies, black and white, textures, orbs, star trails, or any number of other popular photographic techniques, you have no grounds to stand on. Your photos aren’t any more real than mine are.

Actually, my photos are more “real” than most people realize, and certainly more so than the majority of light painters’ work. While I do some pretty wild things, I’m not a huge fan of whimsical creations. I like to photograph real subjects in nature and the outdoors and apply light-painting techniques to them, rather than creating an image from scratch with only light paintings.

So I find it ironic that some view my work as unreal and therefore less valid, while at the same time they applaud the work of other photographers who create wild imagery that has no basis in real subject matter.

All because of layers. That’s right, as soon as I mention Photoshop layers, a defense goes up for some people and from that point on I’d have better luck selling a box of matches to a trout than in convincing them of the benefits of layers.

Several folks have cited a well-known light painter who prides himself in creating all of his images on a single frame, as opposed to using multiple exposures and stacking them. For some reason, they view some of my work as less valid than his because I choose to it with layers, even though the finished image is the same. But the real loser here is art, or more to the point, our perception of art.

If we are calling our photography art (the photographer I’m referring to above calls his light paintings an art form), by definition it defies categorizing into any sort of neat definition of what is right or wrong or best or not. It is art, simple as that. Most important, it is art no matter how it is created. (I doubt this photographer realizes that his statement referring to his creations as art forms as opposed to being a photographic technique is contradictory to his exclamatory statement about how his creations are produced in “real time” on a “single photographic frame.”)

If you judge an artistic creation only by how it was created, you are not judging the merits of the work in its ability to elicit an emotional response, which is the very definition of art. Your evaluation is biased according to what you feel is the correct way to create the art. But, of course, when we are talking about art, there is no correct way. There is only the finished piece and its value can only be judged rightly by the response it elicits in the viewer.

Would it make any difference to you to learn that Monet used layering techniques similar to what we use with Photoshop? Would that make you view his art differently? Or would you simply admire him for his ability to exploit the means available to him to create his impressions. Do you judge Ansel Adams’ prints by how he produced them, or by their emotional response? Adams created his prints using laborious darkroom techniques that are very much similar to some of the techniques we use today in Photoshop.

I would argue that many light-painting creations can be produced much easier, and sometimes better (using “better” here only in addressing some of the inherent lighting  shortcomings  of having to get it all in a single frame), by utilizing the capabilities of layers in Photoshop. Never would I argue that any creation produced in this manner would be better in the sense of artistic interpretation. In fact, I’m talking about producing the same result. It is simply an argument that I can accomplish the same thing by using a different technique, one that is easier and more comfortable for me to execute. In fact, some of my light paintings would have been impossible for anyone to create in a single exposure.

Your argument might be that the process we take is as important as the finished result. And I would say that you are right. To the creator, the journey is most important. Photographers judge their own images based on that journey. They rate images based on how difficult they were to create, or by how they felt when they clicked the shutter. A gorgeous sunrise shot captured after hiking for three hours up the mountain with a flashlight is more meaningful than one shot from the balcony of a hotel room. This is an important reality of how we perceive our images. The importance is that we need to understand that the viewer does not have the same context. They only see the finished image.

Let me be clear, this is not an argument for using Photoshop as a crutch. The attitude of “I’ll fix it in Photoshop” has no place in an artist’s repertoire. However, the approach of “I’ll use Photoshop as a tool to help me convey what I wish in my art” is as valid as Ansel dodging and burning in his darkroom.

I offer this as a final stab of my professorial pitchfork. Frankly, I have no horse in the philosophical race of artistic endeavor, as I’m perfectly comfortable and content with what I do and how I do it. However, as a teacher and as someone who fields questions on this subject on a regular basis, I feel compelled to make sure your eyes are fully open. You should explore all the possibilities and then choose the route that works best for you. I only ask that as you travel that route, you keep in mind that there are others following different paths that may work better for them.

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