Everytime a photographer in quest of creative images slips a fractal picture in a photographic exhibition, he must prepare himself to be asked whether such a work still lies within photography. The question does not often comes from the public, which is more interested in the images than in the recipes to get them, but rather from other competitors and more specially from those who have been rejected from the exhibition.
In fact, the interrogation is wider. From time to time, somebody considers the limits of "pure" photography, and proposes that any image which has been subjected to digital manipulation should be placed in a special category, "fractals" being the extreme example of the process. At "official" level, the major federations have decided that no distinction should be made between digital images and others, but the common photographer still resists. He lives in the world of photographic competitions, and it is by no means certain that the newcomers, the digitals, have the right to take part, specially with abstract pictures that look like nothing known so far.
Could it be that the right questions have not yet been asked ?
If a modern Salon displayed the distortions of André Kertesz or the montages of Jerry Uelsmann on its walls, an ignorant public would without fail talk about digital processing. As they are nothing of the sort, it is not logical to try to keep techniques which produce the same results in separate categories, Q.E.D. The problem is that digitisation opens the door to many other effects, and that there comes a point when the image is no longer a "photograph"... must we therefore bend before an unavoidable development, and convince ourselves that our rejection amounts to no more than an ill-advised conservatism ? Or should we rather think seriously about the fact that retouching photographs (or almost-photographs) is just as possible with Painter as with Photoshop?
There now exist "digital painters" with a painter education, who are using the same kind of software but who produce rather different images. I do not believe that Paul Carbone would propose the picture on the left to a photographic competition, although he did most of the work with Photoshop and its filters. One can justly ask, what is the difference between a photograph, a painting, or an art print, when in each case one is looking at an image on paper or on screen?
Classically, a photograph should result from the action of the light on a photosensitive medium. I would hazard the proposition that a photograph is an image of our real, or a virtual, world, captured all in one piece, whereas a painting or art print must be built up little by little, stroke by stroke, one mark at a time, at least in the main part of the picture (in the above picture by Paul Carbone, the ground and the sky background probably were provided by a landscape generator, but they do not constitute the main part of the picture).
Capture, as a method of imaging, applies to cameras classic or digital and to all procedures followed by viewing on a screen, the digital camera falling into this last category. From my point of view, all scientific images are thus photographs. It may seem exaggerated to accept the blurred pictures produced by X-ray or ultra-sound scanners, but how can one reject the images obtained by scanning electron microscopes, so remarkable in their sharpness and their strangeness, or the sumptuous pictures of the soil of Venus, obtained by radar? And yet light plays no part in the creation of these images.
Seen from this point of view, the virtual 3-D images are perfectly acceptable as "photographs", being virtual scenes visualised and captured as a whole. One may object that virtual scenes are constructed bit by bit, like an art print, but this construction must never be confused with the process of visualisation. Once achieved, a scene exists as such, and can be visualised in many ways, by changing the frame, the focal length, or the lighting, just as one takes many shots in a real scene.
As to fractals, with which we started this article, they are nothing but visualisations of mathematical objects, and thus quite acceptable as "photographs". They can be compared with polarised light photomicrographs, which had their hour of glory in the sixties. Let us recall ourselves of the technique: dissolve a chemical in water, place a droplet on a microsope slide, allow it to evaporate, examine the resulting crystals under a microscope between two sheets of polarising material. You can "see" constructions, or fantastic landscapes with vivid colours which change as you turn the polarisers.
For their part, fractal programs are nothing but digital microscopes. As soon as the first overall fractal design appears, the game consists in calculating smaller and smaller details, coloured as one pleases, or as the programme allows. In either case, polarised photomicrograph or fractal, the photographer is limited to choosing the amount included in the frame, and to a lesser extent, to choosing the colours. The artistic possibilities stop there. Although far from being nothing, is it enough? Furthermore, as the majority of amateurs make use of the same programmes, there is a risk of always seeing the same images, and one can easily become bored, once the first amazement is over. By now, everyone has seen the fractal images from the Mandelbrot set; some are very fine, but only as a butterfly's wing is magnificent. Such images have a discoverer, but not a real creator, and these days anyone can make or collect them. Is it possible to use them artistically and convince a jury ? Here again too we have another story...
However, it can be objected that these reserves about the artistic status of Mandelbrot pictures do not hold as firmly when other fractals less popular are considered. A few recent programs, like Fractint, offer a great variety of them and they even allow the user to input his own formulas. This possibility then becomes a full part of the artistic process.
Lastly, when it comes to creative photography, the original image is often subjected to a variety of treatments, for instance mixing with other images using various collage techniques. Some of these treatments would have you believe that they cancel the difference between photography and painting, by transforming the image into a "Picture" (cf Paint Alchemy, a plug-in for Photoshop). But the result remains in the realm of the photograph; it is hardly more than a new variation on the old pictorialist tradition of the 1900s, or at least one of its trends. Other contemporary photographers, working apparently non-digitally (e.g. the images of Yves Gontier published in France Photographie #146, April 1996) have produced similar results without raising any special questions. On the other hand, some plastic artists use a great deal of photography without thereby claiming photography for themselves.
Modern applications for the treatment of images permit different artistic approaches, and, inevitably, allow a mixing of media. To what extent will a work, half-photo, half-painting, remain a photograph ? And does it really matter ? It certainly matters for other competitors, if they are taking part in a photographic event; but it will be difficult to evaluate what is and what is not tolerable. We shall have to trust to the wisdom of the juries which, no doubt, will vary from time to time and from place to place.
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