Considering Photoshop

by Les Walkling on August 20, 2017

Les_Walkling_An_unspeakable_betrayalLes Walkling, An unspeakable betrayal 1999, 866mm x 864mm

First impressions of Adobe Photoshop can all too often be confusing, confidence sapping, overwhelming complexity, and fear about doing the wrong thing.  However despite Photoshop’s errors, inconsistency, incoherence and at times downright silliness, when employed in specific ways Photoshop can help produce truly stunning images capable of inflicting the deepest feelings and revelations.

So how might we begin an engagement with Photoshop that puts us on its ‘good side’ harnessing its magic and power while allowing us to transcend its limitations and our phobias about it?

Photoshop is what it is. Its inconsistencies aren’t going to be resolved anytime soon, and its errors can be equally of our making. Such as not understanding what we are doing, or how processes work, let alone confusion over what an image needs or can be.

Traditional non-inquiry based approaches to Photoshop education contribute to this problem. The training ‘industry’ that has evolved around Photoshop – its literature, websites, forums, tutorials, workshops and videos – is self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling. Inexperience and being ‘experienced at doing the wrong thing’ collude against knowledge and understanding. Recipes and tautologies substitute for comprehension and experimentation. And prescriptive teaching and learning outcomes conspire against creative objectives and inspired innovation.

So how else might we approach the teaching and application of Photoshop, and its integration into not just our workflows, but our creative life?

I believe there are three important considerations.

The first consideration is an ontological investigation into What is an image? That is, what constitutes an image? How do images do what they do?  And what are images capable of becoming?

Once we have grasped the foundations and limits of images, the second consideration is an epistemology inquiry into What can be done to an image? That is, what are the tools, the principles, and the process? How is an image made? And how do images influence our editing of them?

This in turn inspires the third consideration, a personal inquiry or rationale for Why we do what we do to images? That is, why do I attach certain feelings to one image and not another? Or the same image rendered in a different way?  And why render an image in one way rather than another?

Much of the ‘literature’ surrounding Photoshop, is defiantly silent on these matters. But by not understanding Photoshop within a broader inquiry into the nature and affect of constructed images, we risk denigrating our workflows into simplistic recipes, generalisations, mythologies, or plain misinformation. This in turn normalises Photoshop as a confusing, confidence sapping, overwhelmingly complex and fearful experience. This is grossly unfair to Photoshop, let alone the ‘problem’ of how wonderful images come to be created in the first place.

By understanding pictures first, and Photoshop second, we then only need to know how Photoshop helps or hinders picture making, what tools work as expected or required, and what promotes unwanted errors, collateral damage, leakage and mayhem.

Recalling that the grandest constructions evolve from, and are collaborations between, individual components and that solid foundations promote strength, stability and longevity, this seems a reasonable approach. For one thing it clarifies and separates what can be done from what needs to be done. It quickly and efficiently solves real world imaging problems thereby  freeing up time, energy and focus that can be devoted to the images’s emotional content.

Which is also how an image comes to ‘represent more than it shows’, or in other words, how an image can ‘capture hearts and minds’ independently of what it is an image of.


On Photographic Education

by Les Walkling on June 21, 2017

Les_Walkling_Moonrise_Daintree_2017_550pxLes Walkling, Moonrise Daintree 2017, inkjet pigment print, 800 x 1100 mm

Education entertains nearly a third of my professional life. Therefore why I teach, and why I teach in far away places like ‘the Daintree’ are important personal, artistic and pedagogical questions.

The answer, in part, is that ‘the Daintree’ doesn’t have Icelandic waterfalls, nor Patagonian peaks, nor Antarctic ice flows, nor other easily accessed spectacular spectacles. Though far away it is not a photographic safari. The Daintree is also downright hard to photograph. In other words, being without typical magnificent photographic ‘distractions’, it can therefore be an exercise in distancing ourselves from distractions, including those of our everyday lives, in order to concentrate on ‘being an artist’ and what that might mean in the 21st century. In short, the Daintree is an art-school where we can momentarily be out of the ‘line of fire’ and without prejudice work on our aptitude and priorities before returning to the ‘heat of the moment’.

There is also the answer that ‘the Daintree’ is rare, ancient, World Heritage listed, ecologically-sensitive, and hard to make sense of. The site of the workshop, the James Cook University Daintree Rainforest Observatory (DRO) and its dormitory accommodation, is also not about exclusiveness or privilege, but about coming together, belonging, and community building. The Daintree and DRO therefore take us out of our everyday commonsense, our expectations and comfort zone, and remembers that to share something is to more than double its worth. It is about what it means to indulge in things that matter the most to us, such as our creativity, and the responsibility we have to share knowledge, skills and thinking as a way of acting on our feelings and questioning our beliefs.

There is also the problem that formal photographic education all too often appears to prescribe staged outcomes that threaten the imaginative and the speculative, and in turn normalize these definitions and attitudes. Prescriptive teaching and learning outcomes can’t reward imagination because imagination (and creativity, innovation etc.) can’t be so easily judged or measured. Predefined outcomes, while perfectly fine in regulated industries – after all I would like my doctor to know certain things about medicine – end up discouraging the very thing that an arts education can foster, where personal objectives, shared outcomes, and speculative adventures are not only possible, but desired.

Our Daintree workshop is designed to counter these tendencies and the sad corollary that photography often means being expertly ignorant about what you are doing, or perhaps even worse, being incredibly ‘experienced at doing the wrong thing’. This leads to pronouncements ranging from simply stupid to down right misleading, if not fraudulent. An art-school therefore saves you some time, as well as many of the bruises (physical, emotional and creative) that can accumulate when you try to do this on your own. And while ‘how we interpret an image’ is as individual as we are and demands respect, how pictures push and pull on us is more reliable and can be learned, and worked with.

Therefore coming together in a far away place, and our relationship with photography, and photographic history and our contribution to it, is an act of defiance in the face of the multiple ahistorical instantaneous  ‘nows’ dominating the vastness of today, and it seems, much of our contemporary consciousness, let alone photographic education.

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