Digital Composite Imagery

When thinking of composite imagery, think of an old public kiosk or hoarding with years of encrusted theater bills, ‘for rent, lost, found, wanted, buy/sell, ’ notices - torn fragments of people’s lives, little bits of urgent and forgotten pleas for action and attention pasted in layers from then to now. Think also of the ‘happy snap’ montages of remembrances of things past in the family photo album, the ‘carving with colour’ paper cutout collages of Henri Matisse in his later years and oh yes, the ‘gulag disappearances’ of Stalin’s apparatchiks from government photographic records. This is the stuff of composite imagery, both additive and subtractive.

Never having been too adept at creating brush and pencil art, I have nevertheless sensed an aesthetic impotence in the renderings of my ‘found’ WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) photography. What choices do I have as a photographer except to recreate what I hope are unusual subjects, angles, framing, lighting and moments using the most favourable grasp of the techniques of my medium? Can I add anything that is not there? Can I selectively alter the content of my pictures to create another level of understanding? Can I fix the moment I missed by being too late or too distracted to correct in hindsight the missed opportunities? The limitations imposed by the camera cry out for more. The visual tsunami of life in the present needs to be represented by more than just a record of its existence. Emotional impressions are far more interesting than CCTV video mundanity. Such is the stuff of art.

Digital composite imagery is the currently modern form of the juxtaposition and layering of objects, allowing the artist to combine elements at the microscopic level of pointillist pixels, which can be rendered in a variety of ways. The pixels of different images can be mixed in a blender, streaked seamlessly, blocked out in geometric forms or allowed to merge in selective ways so that contrasting or sympathetic layers can converse together in the third dimension. Photographic images can be cut up into component forms and remixed into new blends of an imaginary but credible (or incredible) reality. Former methods of doing this involved the use of scissors and paste or precise darkroom masking manipulations. Hand drawing on glass plates was also tried with varying degrees of success as has the coherent staging of individual components of the picture, Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman style. From Ansel Adams to Jerry Uelsmann, photography is a plastic medium allowing the artist a wide range of imprimaturs, but the pixelation of images opens up new creative possibilities

Pixel manipulation software has come a long way in a quarter century, mirroring the progress of the silicon chip with its exponential increase in power and the rapid advances of computer components. The digital camera too has evolved to the point where film cameras are now pretty much a retail memory. Pictures are taken in pixels today, even in high-end advertising and fashion studios. For most users, the camera and computer are inseparable, which leads to experimentation in image manipulation. Current software users are presented with a confusing variety of methods to take that happy snap to the next level of creativity. For lovers of traditional painting techniques, images can be made to look like they were layered with a palette knife, sketched with a pencil, pastel, ink or charcoal, fragmented into stained glass, craquelured, watercoloured, bas-reliefed, coloured, chromed, textured, mezzotinted, blurred and sharpened to name only a few of the 100 basic filters, with each filter providing many more treatment choices. Image editing software also makes it possible to select all or part of a photograph (including fine hair detail) and transform its size and shape, even wrapping it around objects in a 3-D likeness. Then colour print it with a high resolution giclée (ink jet) printer with inks that will last at least 100 years without fading. All this from a home computer. But where, you might ask, is the skill?

Before I start signing my work ‘Intel Inside’, I must explain how computer art can be defined as a new medium which, although created by a machine, is still linked to the traditional parameters by which ‘fine art’ is judged. Content, originality, framing, colour, technique, skill of tool use, innovation in concept design and execution and the evocation of empathetic feedback from the viewer all apply to computer art as well. If an input stylus is used instead of a paintbrush, the effect of turning, pressing and loading the brush is duplicated with the stylus. The use of acrylic paint or India ink cannot define the difference between skilled and unskilled art, since the medium only conveys the message. Does the use of algorithms in creating an effect such as a ‘wash’ make the treatment any less affective to the viewer? The use of manual techniques instead of electrons in creating a work of art cannot be used as a criteria of value any more than the number of duplicate editions can, providing they are known. The skill lies in the effectiveness of delivering the visual message, not in how the message was formed.

As evocative as unaltered photographs may be (and there are many), it is almost always possible to add, subtract or otherwise transform the various elements within them to more clearly state the intended subject. I have found this in my own career as a photographer when my expectations exceeded the results as I examined a freshly-developed film knowing that very little could be done in the darkroom to make things right. Then along came the image editing software Photoshop.

At first, the most appreciated capability of Photoshop was to forever eliminate dust specs and other blemishes, such as when a roll of b&w film from my West Coast Trail adventure was developed with old fixer which resulted in severe spotting. One of my favourite images was resurrected from obscurity after some retouching using this software. The traditional darkroom techniques of ‘burning and dodging’ (the darkening and lightening of selected areas) could be done more easily and realistically and colours could be corrected or altered. The detail of an image that was lost to ‘camera shake’, a common malady, could be sharpened and ‘graininess’ could be mitigated with other filters. As the software evolved, it became possible to move around or replace parts of a photograph and to layer images and blend them seamlessly together.

This is what particularly interests me now with Photoshop. Since most pictures have a theme, it is possible to ‘pile on’ bits and pieces of harmonious imagery to develop a more intense expression of an amalgamate using elements not present in the original form. The blending of images in layers is a difficult process. A picture that consists of composited adjacent images can easily look like a ‘ransom note’ of inappropriate juxtapositions relative to content, scale and lighting, or it can ‘flow’ from layer to layer as if part of a surreal, but believable harmonious gestalt. Therein lies the skill of digital composite imagery.

Traditionally photography has been viewed as a tool for recording a likeness of people, scenery, historical records, important cultural events and other unique moments. These functions were formerly reserved for painting and drawing, but the advent of the camera freed these disciplines to express more abstract and interpretive renditions of their subjects. The same evolution is happening today with photography.

Photojournalistic storytelling first became a unique capability of photography and opened windows into the world, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Margaret Bourke-White to Annie Leibovitz, from Life Magazine to the National Geographic to Paris Match, still photos told our stories. For more and more people today, video has become the new window and ‘straight’ photography is expected to move beyond realism to convey advertising, fashion and design concepts that have more to do with mood than information. Abstraction has migrated, photography has been freed.

This window of expression no longer has to make documentary sense or describe real objects to aid in the visual mapping of our culture. Abstractions such as found in modern paintings with no reference to anything real have always been found in photography through such things as the use of close-ups taken from isolated sections of objects or by selective framing. Abstractions can also be created with filters which may be influenced by other media, by pixel-based software algorithms, and by direct stylus input. Photography is free to convey unrecognizable forms, shapes, textures and colours just as the other visual arts have been freed to do, with the added benefit of its photo-realism.

Since the ‘default’ rendition of photography is to capture the world as we see it through our eyes, the artist can selectively alter this familiar reality through deformation and juxtaposition to show the dichotomy of what we visualize with our emotional reaction to our perceptions. For example, a portrait of a person who looks lonely and depressed could have half of their face turning to liquid against a background of a deserted street in the rain, or with a lost love. Another example might be a Beijing skyline in the smog blended with a clear Arctic panorama of melting glaciers (added choking humans and drowning bears optional). Two superimposed layers can be made to interact by selectively masking or changing the opacity of the top layer, or by using the various blending filters which compare the tonality of the layers in choosing how they are rendered. There are many ways to change representational objects into abstractions and its all in the pixels.

Separate images when combined can often add greater impact through a common theme or can tell an emotive story when they are mixed together in a collage. Taken as the sum of its parts, composite imagery creates an impression of a state of mind, mood or situation which can better describe how we feel because it is both familiar and abstract - blending identifiable objects with our perceptions of them. Digital photography (pixels in their native form) initiates new parameters of control over how an image looks at its root level, thus creating an ideal culture for the growth of a new type of visual confluence - the circumscribing of photography with other recent abstract artistic expressions.

Abstractions and collages are just two bands of the spectrum that encompass digital photography in the panoply of other modern art forms. The skills required to create and manipulate digital images are but a more recent permutation in the evolution of all artistic tools, although the mastery of their use depends less on manual dexterity and more on stochastic reasoning. The sheer variety of artistic possibilities available with digital composite imagery ensures its place in the lexicon of present and future visual art forms. What you dream is what you get.

July, 2007
Michael Sturdy