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July 2005 Vol. 20, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

Is Digital Imaging Photography?

not if it’s in the hands of master manipulators

from the July, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

No one has held such a wide range of posts in the diving industry as Bret Gilliam. I first encountered him when I reviewed his dive operation on St. Croix, but since then he has been CEO of UWATEC, started training agencies (TDI, SDI), authored or coauthored twenty-two books and more than 800 articles, many illustrated with his photographs, founded Scuba Times and Deep Tech magazines, and now publishes the highly regarded Fathoms Magazine (www.fathomspub.com).

And as you’ll see from this twopart piece by Gilliam, he and the renowned underwater photographer Chris Newbert have a lot to say about the trend toward manufacturing dive photographs.

* * * * * * *

I have spent thirty five years in professional diving trying to embrace technology to advance safety, efficiency and enjoyment of the sport. I have spent an equal amount of time as a professional photographer and writer, including most of the last fifteen years in dive magazine publishing ventures. So I approach the topic of digital imaging with a conflicted ideology coming from my purist origins in a manual exposure, manual focus, film ethic.

Since I first took photos underwater in 1959, I knew the only way to capture striking shots would be to place myself in the perfect symmetry of position, habitat, and subject matter to allow me to meld exposure, focus and composition into a “freeze frame” moment that my camera would record on film. If I failed to get the light right, blurred the action, or my subject eluded close approach to fill my frame, then those slides or negatives went into the garbage pail, leaving me furious at my ineptitude.

If I blew the chance to get a great white shark, humpback whale or a tiny macro subject while braving depths, strong currents or freezing water . . . well, that was my tough luck and I hoped I’d get another chance. Sometimes it could be years before the same opportunity would present itself. And I could usually expect that when I was presented with that magic moment again, I’d have about three frames of film left in the camera.

Still, those who persevered were rewarded and found an eager market for their efforts. Only a handful of photographers ever really achieved commercial success. Paul Tzimoulis, Doug Faulkner, Carl Roessler, Ernie Brooks, Al Giddings, and Ron Church emerged from the sixties as extraordinary talents. They were followed by current masters such as Chris Newbert, Birgitte Wilms, Doug Perrine, David Doubilet, Amos Nachoum, Michele and Howard Hall, etc. who learned their craft with a combination of photographic skill, diving technique, and constant study of marine life habitats and behavior.

It’s been my pleasure to work with most of these folks. At times I’ve been left slack-jawed in mute appreciation of some incredible shot because I knew first hand how difficult it could be to coordinate camera, diver and marine life into the time/space continuum. You couldn’t fake it. You had to be there and get it right.

The Dawn of Digital and Controversy

With the arrival of digital cameras and the nearly miraculous back-end software that goes with them, the entire ethos of photography has changed forever. And it has blurred the reality of what the viewer is presented with to view when rendered finally into print.

It’s now possible to “create” just about anything if you’re adept at PhotoShop or the other endless programs that allow to you to grab a breaching whale here, a sunset there, and combine them with your snapshot of Uncle Festus standing in his canoe holding a strawberry daiquiri to produce a captivating image. The only problem is that it never happened.

Still, I can live with that . . . as long as you don’t try to pass it off to me as the real deal. That’s where the battle lines are being drawn and passions run hot among the purists. Consider the perspective of Chris Newbert, one of the world’s most gifted underwater photographers who has produced, with his wife Birgitte Wilms, the award winning books Within A Rainbowed Sea” and “In A Sea Of Dreams.” Chris is normally one of the most soft spoken and considered guys I know but the topic of digital manipulation strikes a raw nerve in him. He told me:

“I’ve seen fish with colors that don’t even exist in nature illustrating articles in dive magazines. I’ve seen animals depicted in habitats they literally wouldn’t be caught dead in because some computer geek manipulated a pygmy seahorse onto a fire urchin. It probably looked good to him as he clicked his mouse in PhotoShop, but the animal would have died if it ever wandered into that situation.”

Yet what really frosts his, um, tentacles, is that many in the diving press allow this to be published as “reality” without noting that the image has been “created” not “photographed.”

Newbert continues, “My biggest concern is that the digital process robs photography of its credibility and authenticity. As more people become aware of the capabilities of digital manipulation, ‘great’ images will increasingly come under suspicion by the viewer. Something very precious is being lost. Digital systems have devalued the skill of the photographer. It has made PhotoShop expertise far more important than photographic technique and knowledge.

“Look, I’ve got no problem with digital cameras and the stuff they can produce with back end effects. Just don’t insult my intelligence by calling it photography! Because it’s not.”

Newbert spent thousands of hours with his eye jammed into the viewfinder struggling to catch that exact moment when some peculiar or artistic behavior from a fish presented itself. The subtle colorations, the composition, the background, the animal itself, all had to fuse into a palette that he captured with a squeeze of a shutter and the burst of a strobe. If he was lucky, the image was preserved on film. More often than not, perfection was not attained. But Newbert is famous for his patience and his body of work speaks for itself. Perhaps no other professional has produced finer macro and fish portraits.

Chris and I are nearly the same age, 56 and 54 respectively. We didn’t grow up with computers from the time we entered grade school. So it’s not surprising that the generation following us has a different take on the issues in play. Ethan Gordon, a talented 34 year-old writer/photographer, is a contributor to Fathoms and many other U.S. diving magazines and he offers his input courageously.

“Digital photography should be considered as much a form of photography as traditional film photography,” he begins. “After all, at the very heart of photography is a machine or device that the photographer controls. It is how the photographer chooses to use this device that makes his photography his own. There have always been advancements in the device itself since the beginning of photography. From better, faster mechanical cameras to electronic cameras, the addition of auto-focus, auto-exposure, etc., the only difference now is the fact that we no longer need emulsion to capture the image.

“I’ve seen animals depicted in habitats
they literally wouldn’t be caught dead in
because some computer geek manipulated
a pygmy seahorse onto a fire urchin.”

“The confusion is what happens after the image is taken. Manipulation of images has always occurred, whether it was airbrushing a traditional print or “photo-shopping” a digital file. If people perceive a digital file as being easier to manipulate, they are mistaken. It is just as easy to manipulate a scanned digitized image that was originally shot on film. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether a photo was made with film or a digital chip. A quality image has intangible properties that only a true photographer, who happens to be an artist, can capture.”

Newbert’s response to Ethan’s assertions is about what you’d anticipate. “The very heart of photography, from my view, is the truth and how a photographer portrayed it, not some machine. An original 35mm transparency is the closest to pure truth in photography. What you see is exactly what came through the lens, for better or worse.

“Digital is only the latest in a steady march of technology designed to reduce the requirement of the photographer from knowing anything about photography to produce a technically acceptable image! These images are, in too many cases, the result of programmed features built into the camera, from auto exposure, to auto focus, such that photographers do not have to make their own decisions. They simply point and shoot. And yes, it does generally improve the work of the average person. But all this is accomplishing is elevating the level of mediocrity.

“It is the very manipulation of the basic camera functions, the combination of individual decisions about how each camera control will affect the final image, that the personal imprint of the photographic artist becomes meaningful. It embraces the concept of previsualization, which to me is the heart of the image. When the camera does it all, the photographer is just along for the ride. They remind me of someone sitting in front of a player piano, moving their fingers up and down the keyboard and grinning foolishly as the sound pours out. He has somehow deluded himself into thinking he has participated in creating music. Even worse, he wants to take credit for it.”

Continued next issue

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