BH: How you first became aware of the impact of technology on your photographs, your 'look' or palette?
MS: My father took pictures with a brownie box camera. When I was a teenager, I looked through the album and noticed the quality was different between the old and new prints. He'd used the same drugstore to develop all his film,
so I realized that as time passed he'd been using something I call the emulsion of the day from Eastman Kodak. I recognized that this film had an intrinsic quality, so also did the paper used for printing. That was when I recognized that the emulsion of the day decided the destiny of most photographers; not like (Edward) Steichen in his early years when he coated a sheet of glass with emulsion by hand himself. If he did it on a cool day it would be different from if he did it on a warm one.
He had no real control any more than you would over how much hair you are going to lose. And his photos from that period, like the flatiron building [ed: link here] are his most interesting versus the later ones at Harper's Bazaar where he used the slick emulsions of the day; basically
just buying the same palette as everyone else. His early work was different because the characteristics of the homemade film had the imprint of an individual vision, sometimes quirky
because the emulsion dried unevenly or at times reticulated; but the end result was a truly original hand-made image.
BH: What do you think about the state of fashion and commercial photography today as an art form?
I was shooting a commercial with an 11-year-old kid and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said Donald (Trump). I asked him why. The money, he replied. "But all the money," I asked, "What can you do with it?" "Oh if I had the money I could tell you plenty of things I would do with it," the kid tells me.
Money is important, but I can't imagine it as an end in itself. If Trump did something architecturally interesting in any of his buildings that perhaps I could relate to on some level. But you walk into the lobby of any of his buildings and it's enough to create cavities in your teeth.
I want more than just technical perfection. I want to discover something new each day in my life, something that moves and ignites my interests creatively. With that I wish those embarking on photography to think of ideas being more important than mega pixels or sharpness.
We are living in a strange period of time. We worship technology more than ideas and artistic vision. The tools of technology have become more important than the content of the image.
BH: A technological transition as well as a cultural one?
Throughout history there was always a resistance to change. Many contemporary photographers believe that shooting film is the only true photographic medium. I do not believe there is a universal truth. Does a negative reveal more quality than a transparency? Are the inter-negatives for platinum prints less true or valid than the original negetive? All these questions bring to mind, that throughout art history classic protocol was considered more important than the impact of final image? It is my belief when a photographer makes a decision to release the shutter, the resulting image is only the truth of that specific photographer. Who is the arbiter of what is true or valid? Most of the great artists were rejected when they did not follow the accepted protocol of their time: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso; I could go on and on.
BH: The final effect is not real?
As humans we are all trying to communicate our own a personal vision that we would like share with others. We do not take photographs for decoration purposes only.
In my opinion, the author of 'Photoshop' was the first caveman who tried to alter an image he painted on the cave wall‚ no derogation intended to Mr. Thomas Knoll the author of Photoshop - painting on the cave wall trying to alter his vision in order to please himself and communicate with other cave dwellers. That's basically the way man is wired.
We are at a time where the old guard says digital capture is artificial and unreal looking as compared to film. Nostalgic attraction is an addiction that is a difficult habit to kick. If you examine the most important photo collections of any museum you would find that 90 percent of the pictures on display are not really sharp. I am of the opinion that the only reason to take a sharp picture is because the sharpness enhances the idea and content of that specific image.
Nature presents remarkable images that photography can reproduce faithfully; but without personal insight and vision faithfully produced images ring hollow. I believe the axiom of the new technology, if I am interpreting it accurately, is if you have no vision or idea, then sharpness and resolution becomes the idea. Whatever the technical merits of a photographers palette, it is that palette that becomes the individual fingerprint that either touches or repels the viewer.
The digital age has freed me from an interface that in the past has interrupted my rhythm and continuity of thought. When George de la Tour was painting a candlelight scene he worked in a room at his own pace, uninterrupted by the interface of others. It is my belief if a photographers artistic intent is interrupted by social interface, as in a collaboration of minds, or something as simple as waiting for the film to be developed; that gap in continuity and flow compromises the photographers artistic intent. With digital capture, the instantaneous workflow allows you to express and discover from moment to moment the motivation that initiated that particular journey.
BH: How else has digital altered your work?
Digital capture in conjunction with Photoshop has allowed me to create a specific palette for each new idea. That new palette embeds the idea with a look that enhances the spirit of the photograph.
There are many photographers and critics who believe that digital-images are inferior to film-images. The word 'Digital' has become a coded metaphor for 'Bogus Image'. I find the quality of digital-capture in conjunction with PhotoShop gives me more control and refinement in all aspects of image making than I have ever experienced as a photographer.
BH: Digital offers a more refined quality?
Digital capture offers a new set of diagnostic tools that are readily available to professional and amateur photographers. We use light meters to determine the proper exposure of the scene to be photographed.
If the film is not up to spec or has not been stored properly you might be in for a not so pleasant surprise; as you would not know the result of the exposure until after the film was developed. Now every kid out of school has a camera and a computer that displays a histogram that instantly evaluates the proper exposure for the image in question. In light of these great tools,
I see very few photographers who can create images that in my opinion are worth considering. It is only those Photographers who have ideas and vision that make great pictures. Technical expertise is not the passport to the land of great images; without the idea you have nothing. Photoshop is like a mechanic's toolkit. You can't make a Porsche without plans. You must have the blueprint of an idea to create a work of art.
BH: What concerns have you about the impact of such powerful technology on photography as an art?
My concern is that the attractiveness of photography in conjunction with the tools available to everyone has created a subculture of photographers who are more attracted to the technology than the potential the tools offer them as image makers . The watchword in most of the debates about photography is about resolution and mega-pixels more so than content. We are now able to shoot by candlelight with a handheld camera, which has magnified the landscape of expectation tremendously. Today anyone can shoot quality images by candlelight, but with out any thought about composition or reason, the images other than technical accomplishments are shallow.
BH: As a professional photographer, how has the change to modern digital photography changed the photography business generally?
Digital Photography is changing the landscape of how images are presented to the art director and the public. In the past the photographer shot and developed the picture, edited the chromes on a light table, and then sent them to the art director. The images were then scanned by the prepress team who in most cases interpreted the look of the image. Photographers have always complained about the bad reproduction of their images. Think about it, the fate of an image you may have spent months thinking about or working on is determined by someone you have never met.
The business is changing faster than we can imagine. I think all the great presses, the Heidelbergs, etc. will go by the wayside and the new printing presses will print straight from the disk and yield amazing inkjet quality. Imagine a printing press one block long, like a giant Epson inkjet printer, running at high speed printing the new Vogue magazine in extraordinary ten-color photo quality reproduction.
BH: How did you come to use custom labs, like BowHaus, and master printers?
I was working on my book 'Seeing Fashion' and was complaining to a photographer friend about how very disappointed I was by the scans and LVT's I was getting at a highly recommended lab in town. My friend smiled and said. "If you are looking for a scan that is as good or better than your original negative or chrome see Joe at BowHaus." Joe (Berndt) is possibly the Last of the Mohicans in terms of that personal touch you expect with a laboratory not to mention it is also nice to be working in an atelier atmosphere.
I'm a fairly decent technician but I quickly realized in both conventional and digital photography that for my needs, I was more interested in the final image and less interested in being the world's greatest printer.
So I decided to leave my museum quality prints to someone who prints everyday and keeps up with the latest technology. Joe is a problem solver who enjoys the involvement of collaboration. It reminds me of the movie making process, you need people around you who know their craft, and it also saves you time and money; and bottom line your vision becomes a reality.