Photography as Clay PDF
Written by Roger Bruce   


The plasticity of the digital photograph is astounding. Limited only by the imagination or possibly, processor speed, new tools offer seamless efficiency in intra-image editing for manipulation and montage. Occasionally, such new software capabilities will spawn a new fashion of graphical effect or visual cliché before assuming a reserved availability among all of the other tackle in the digital toolbox.


The skill and motivation to attempt recombinant photography appear early in the history of the medium, notably in the work of pictorialist photographer, Henry Peach Robinson, who refined the craft of combining elements of multiple images to effect the illusion of a single exposure. His print titled "Fading Away" portrays a young woman dying of consumption accompanied by other figures including that of an older man gazing through a window to clouds visible in the distance. To capture such a scene in a single exposure would have been close to impossible with the technology of the 1850s, so Robinson had little choice but to physically cut and paste picture elements. (Remember that he did not even have the advantage of an enlarger.) At our archives here at George Eastman House, close inspection of Fading Away does reveal Robinson's method, but the results are surprisingly good.


"Fading Away"


"Unused study"


Given that photographers have, for so long, demonstrated a reliable urge to re-arrange picture elements, the architects of Photoshop were safe to assume the desirability of tools that will enhance any illusion that the artist desires to achieve. The progressive refinement of image editing software will likely continue. For example, one recently added Photoshop (CS2) filter called "Vanishing Point" is designed to automate the repositioning of areas of an image across varying planes within a single photographic image. In other words, beyond augmentation of the two dimensional morphology of the photograph, this tool can be used to adjust image elements within the illusory third dimension of a picture.


It was in the 13th Century that Leon Battista Alberti (In his treatise "On Painting" completed in 1435) articulated a geometry of three-dimensional space represented on a two-dimensional plane. Today, these geometric principles are applied to variables in an application that allows a user to "dial-in" the illusion of spatial relationships.Large sectors of computer science are devoted to the challenges of modeling information -- performing "what if" calculations for every conceivable discipline. It is increasingly easy to imagine an interface in which the modeling "clay" is photography itself.

Roger Bruce

Director of Interpretation
George Eastman House

October 13, 2005


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