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  • Writer's pictureJae Hodges


"The camera is in some ways a sketchbook drawn in time and space, and it is also an admirable instrument that seizes life just as it presents itself." Henri Cartier-Bresson

I think about this, and I look at one of my "drawings" and I'm struck by the duality between his concept of a sketchbook and my photos as sketches. Cartier-Bresson likened his photographs to sketches, a means of fixing reality without manipulating it, a representation of his intuition and the spontaneous record of the world immediately before him. I don't disagree. But, when I devolve my photos -- and I use this word only because the process starts with the photo and ends with the sketch-like image, not to take any value away from the true sketch done, say, by van Gogh -- into these pictures that might, at first glance, be seen as something else, I feel that I've somehow stepped into another dimension or onto another plateau. Something opposite yet comparable to what Cartier-Bresson is saying.

This bothers me in a way. As I worked to develop some level of competence in my photography, my mind was always on those black and white images that are so clear and crisp you might think you're peering through a window. I recently attended a gallery opening of photographic works where I saw some truly extraordinary examples of this. This is technical skill in using the camera. I saw also examples of the truly imaginative variety, a capturing of a thought or concept with the camera. The image might be hazy, or there might be tricks involved using the camera or the computer which I've just begun learning . . . and appreciating. I guess what I'm saying is I began my photography journey thinking I wanted to be a purist; I wanted to take breath taking photos with nothing but my eye and the camera, but I don't (yet) have confidence in either.

So here's where the computer comes in.

A photographer friend pointed out that the computer is just another tool to be used by the photographer and/or artist, no different than the glass or tin plates on which chemicals were used in the early days of photography to produce negatives from which a print could be made. Collodion photography is still practiced by many, and that in and of itself is an art. But when those same people pick up their Nikons or their Canons, as they will invariably do, or when they turn off the lights in their darkrooms and open up Lightroom on their computers, as they will to highlight that one color or sharpen that one spot, they aren't surrendering their title as photographer. They're simply using different tools. Wikipedia defines a photographer simply as someone who uses a camera to make photographs, and a photograph as "an image created by light falling on a photosensitive surface" whether that be chemicals and light-sensitive materials or a lens that captures the visible wavelengths of light and electronic image sensor technology.

Okay, so I'm not being disingenuous when I claim to be a photographer. That's a relief. But can I still claim my sketches as photographs, or do they now become just another piece of digital art. Well, both I'd say. There's no argument for the fact that this image, and the others like it that I've created, began with a photograph. They are perfectly adequate pictures, though I'd have to say they evoke little emotion aside from the warmth of the memory of having been on that road at that time and noticing the interplay of lines and shadows as the sun was rising. And there's also no argument for the fact that I employed several computer elements to manipulate the photo to get to the image as a sketch. So if I wanted to show this work, I really can't claim it as a digital photograph in the purest sense.

This brings me back to Cartier-Bresson. I think what he is saying in this quote is that an artist captures the scene in the very moment he is seeing it, whether that be with his pencil and paper, his camera or even a notebook description. It is that scene, at that moment, in that time and space, which will change with the next step or with the movement of the clouds above, or the entrance of a character into the evolving story. When I take a photo, my gee-whiz camera sees the scene as it is at that moment. That's its primary function. But I'm often seeing it in a different time or a different space. This image shows a road running through an old and remote village, with old and archaically-constructed buildings. The scene is not in synch with the present. My camera, thus, cannot capture what my mind's eye sees, but the computer allows me to take the present, drain it of color, add an overlay, change the highlights and shadows to enhance the depth of the scene, and establish a state of convergence between the scene in my imagination and what my camera has captured. So, instead of the photo being in some way a sketchbook, it actually becomes the sketch that an artist from the past might have made before he set up his easel and took out his paints and set to work to seize life as it was presented to him.

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