Keynote Address
IPSW – 2004

Good evening, I want to thank you for the opportunity of being with you at your annual meeting. I cannot tell you what an honor it is to be asked to give the keynote address at your annual banquet.

I have been involved in photography for nearly 28 years. In that time we have seen numerous changes in our industry. There have been amazing improvements in film quality. Color fidelity, grain structure, image and edge sharpness all have seen great changes. There have also been improvements in the tools we use. Lenses are much sharper and faster, camera bodies are faster, much more reliable and are capable of things we could only dream of twenty years ago.

We are currently involved in what many consider to be the largest paradigm shift in the history of photography. The advent and popularization of electronic imaging has changed everything. No more do we have to wait two weeks for the proofs to come back from the lab. No longer do we have to take the chromes over to the lab to be processed and wait for them to show the client. No longer are we required to spend hours in the darkroom printing client work, or send them out to the lab and hope that the printer follows our instructions and gets it right the first time. Most photographers are able to do all editing, retouching, and color corrections with the simple stroke of a computer key and then send the digital file to the Epson printer and have finished work the next morning.. Being able to delete unwanted grooms and meddlesome mothers in law is now very simple; select the problem subject, push delete and they're gone! These changes are powerful tools that allow us the freedom to have complete control over every aspect of the creative process in our businesses and give unprecedented levels of quality control.

It is entirely possible, however, that in the most important areas of our art there has been no paradigm shift; the most important aspects of the art of photography haven't changed at all. Color harmonies haven't changed, principles of composition haven't changed. Light still behaves in the same manner as it always has. We are still bound by the laws of optics. Great photographs are still great photographs whether they originate as changes in a molecule of silver or are recorded as a bit of data on a silicone chip. Who knows what changes the next 20 years may portend? We may very well see our images recorded using man made diamond crystals, rather than silicone, and be images from our imagination; generated by our thought processes, and no longer bound by the laws of optics and physics whose parameters we are bound to today.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole digital revolution, as we have it today, is the tendency to let down on "craftsmanship". I have heard more than one imaging professional say, in regard to what would commonly be considered an image flaw: "I'll take care of it in Photoshop"! Pre Photoshop we would work very hard to get just the right camera position so that the image recorded on film was as close to perfection as we could make it. Indeed, one of the greatest arguments for photography as art was that the photographer recorded the scene as it originally stood; that the image before the viewer represented an actual moment in time. If perspective control was needed, we did it in camera. If there was a potential depth of field problem we solved it before the film was exposed. We knew that we had one chance to get it right, and that pressure pushed our level of “in camera craftsmanship” to ever greater levels. If there were compositional problems, they were solved in the field. The willingness to accept "slop" in our images may be one of the worst responses possible to those of us involved in the art of photography. In the words of Edward Weston; "…craftsmanship, there is no substitute for craftsmanship". In my view we, as photographic artists must be as vigilant as ever to push for ever greater levels of artistry and craftsmanship; otherwise, what is it that separates us as professionals from everyone else out there with a camera? We have been remiss as professionals, in separating ourselves from Uncle Fred and his Nikon, and the mistaken illusion that photographic problems can be solved with new and better gadgets, and that action has caused a diminished respect for our craft and a subsequent loss of business and revenue. If we are to continue as professionals we must offer unique vision, craftsmanship and service, which is what separates us from everyone else with a camera.

What factors work together to constitute a good photographic image? In my judgment an artist must have a passion, first of all for the subject material being portrayed, and second for the art of photography; to paraphrase Eliot Porter.

When there is a passion for the subject material there will be a tendency to learn as much as possible about it. From that research, an intimacy with the material will arise, and out of that intimacy greater insight and with it the ability to add something to the library of visual information about that subject. What do you have to say about the material you are photographing that hasn’t been said by someone else already? What is contained in the uniqueness of your statement that is new and therefore validates your vision; your image? Would you photograph this material even if you weren’t being paid to create the image? Do you feel that strong about it? You should. Great photography is still the result of very intelligent people working very hard; and smart. There is no substitute for “boots on the ground” imaging. By that I mean that you have to be on location when the conditions are right. You must be fully prepared, and well enough acquainted with your material to know where to be, at the right time, with all of your tools ready to work. I would say that the number of times that you will just happen upon a great photograph in a lifetime can be counted on one hand. All of the great photographs with which I am personally acquainted are the result of great planning, and many times came after some personal sacrifice on the part of the photographer.

When there is a passion for the medium of photography there will be a desire to let the image stand or fall on its own merits. No longer will we feel the need to make our photographs look like a painting; no longer a need for the photograph to appear “painterly”. Have you ever heard a painter say that the liked their images because they were able to make them look “photographerly”, or used the phrase, what a great painting, it looks just like a photograph? No probably not. We have an obligation, in my view, as photographers to create images that stand on their own merits; not as weak imitations of someone else’s work, but as strong photographic images. Photography is not a second rate medium to be pursued out of an impotent desire to paint. It is a legitimate, first rate art medium with unique qualities and limitations, just as any other art media. It must be pursued with passion and abandon. In my view the shutter should never be opened on an images unless and until a there is a clear concept of what is expected in the final image. That is not to say that the finished image has to look like the original concept, as conceived at the time the original exposure was made. But, at the very least you should have an idea of the final image when the shutter is opened. A truly great photograph will never leave a question in the viewer’s mind of the intention of the photographer. The only thing worse than a sharp image of a “fuzzy concept” is a fuzzy photograph of a sharp concept!

In the end it isn’t about the equipment being used; or indeed whether we are using film or digital, or some other yet to be discovered process. It’s about the image.

In this new digital age; what are the criteria of a great image? To quote the sage; “…the more things change, the more they stay the same”. The defining factors of a great image remain exactly the same. Only the mechanical methods of image capture have changed.