Joseph Holmes’s quest for the perfect print—a crusade he does not seem to find at all quixotic—has occupied the past twenty-three years. Ansel Adams, who shared this almost religious dedication to the print, turned to music for his metaphor and mantra. “The negative is the score,” Adams would recite. “ The print is the performance.” Holmes spends most of his time directing the performance. His servitude to the print requires him to spend his life in the studio; his time in the field toting a camera has been reduced to three or four weeks a year. He does not like this imbalance but sees no way around it.
“Every time I try to print by a new method, it’s another five-year project to get it going,” he said. it took five years to get going on dye transfer, it took five years to get going on Cibachrome, and it’s taken five ears a am to et going on digital imaging. But it’s unavoidable. I have no choice.” The rewards of his latest five-year project—which is now actually in its eighth year—would soon be enormous, he predicted. His average labor time on a Cibachrome print had been four hours. With digital imaging the time is reduced radically. “1 could make only a few hundred Cibachrome prints a year, maximum,” he said. “Ansel made. what, twenty -five thousand prints in his lifetime, of about eighteen hundred different subjects. So far I’ve printed a hundred subjects. I need to print several hundred subjects to have what I think is a reasonable life’s work.”
I could understand the allure of any process that reduced the hours of print-making and freed the photographer to roam. I remembered Ansel Adams’s old lament about the prison of his darkroom. Beside his house in Carmel Highlands, over-looking the Pacific, beneath a hill covered in chaparral and floodlit beautifully at night, was the fireproof bunker in which Adams stored his negatives. He would complain often that several lifetimes’ worth of work lay there underground. It really made no sense, he said, to take a single new photograph. He laughed at the irony, bull believe that it truly depressed him. I think it diminished his thrill in spreading the legs of the tripod and disappearing under the black cloth. The backlog of negatives meant that most of the images he had seen through the viewfinder, and visualized as prints, and captured with his camera, would never grow past the embryonic stage represented by the negative . Much of his lifework would never be seen by others.
Joseph Holmes, after eight years of work with digital imaging, has become an expert in the new science of color management. Much of his income now comes from consulting for fine-art printmaking companies, lithographers, publishers, museums—anyone with imaging problems. “It’s sort of like herding an infinite number of sheep over rough terrain,” he says. “All the sheep are individual colors, they’re all trying to get away, and you’re tr in to kee them in order. It’s the science of device-independent color, where the color characteristics of every device in your system—the scanner and the way the scanner sees film, the monitor, the printer and the way the printer prints on a given substrate----are all described in device-independent terms. Their colors are described in absolute color numbers that become a common language of color. When it all works right, the colors you see on your monitor are the colors in the print, but there are a vast number of ways for it not to turn out right.”
Digital-imaging technology is evolving by leaps and bounds, Holmes said. A num-ber of companies are racing to develop the best printers, and each year’s inkjet machines are twice as good as those of the year before. it’s endless,” he said. Hearing the weariness in his voice, I asked if he worried that his labors might be Sisyphean, given the way the technology keeps changing. He denied it. He was familiar now with computer systems. Once digital printinaking really started to work, he said, it would only get better and easier.
I hoped he was right. I hoped that the grail would not keep receding-that digital imaging would free him to take his good eye out under the sky more often. It will be terrible if he winds up an old shepherd, hunched at the screen, driving his obstreperous, bleating, multicolored flock through ever more mountainous Himalayas, stretched out range on range through cyberspace.
When I asked Holmes his opinion on the controversy over digital manipulation, he shrugged. The issue did not interest him much. it’s obvious that Art Wolfe should have mentioned in his book that he was adding extra animals,” he said. “That’s a substantial distortion of reality. One of the things that nature photographs do. inevitably, is to report on nature. But they don’t necessarily do it in literal ways. It’s not easy to define how much of a given landscape photograph consists of reportage and how much is an artistic interpretation.”
If Wolté had acknowledged a little more clearly what he had done, it would have been okay?’ I asked. “Well, certainly . Why not? People paint things all the time. We don’t think they’re criminals for making paintings.”
A FLOCK OF
A MONG POTOGRAPHERS, opinion on digital manipulation seems to fall into either of two schools, the principal spokesmen for which are Galen RowelI and Art Wolfe, who have both been collaborators of mine. These men are energetic in a force-of-nature way. tireless travelers, prodigiously productive. Neither is a photographer so much as a little hut pro-lific photographic industry. producing books, prints, postcards, and advertising images.
Mountain Light Photography, Galen and Barbara RowelI’s shop, is a converted warehouse in Emeryville, California, not far from the shore of San Francisco Bay. When I visited recently, I was greeted at the door by Khumbu, the Rowells’. fifteen -year-old golden retriever. Khumbu wore a bandanna around his neck—a memento of a recent grooming visit to Dogs by Diane. The hair on his head and face had gone completely gray since I had seen him last. The bandanna and the salon pampering it symbolized seemed an indignity to an old outdoorsman like Khumbu, but he bore it cheerfully enough.
Mountain Light is bright and spacious inside, the white walls of the first-floor lobby museum-lit and hung with an ever changing gallery of Rowell’s prints. Waiting for the photographer to appear, I made a circuit of his walls: Sunset Over Machu Picchu. Last Light on Horsetail Falls. Polar Bear Resting Against Its Mother. I lingered before Rowell’s most famous photograph, Rainbow Over the Potala Palace, Lhasa. The rainbow strikes the palace dead center. This would put the pot of gold in the throne room or the pantry of the palace, formerly owned by Rowell’s friend the Dalai Lama. On the evidence of this photo, Tibetan Buddhism is the answer. The rainbow seemed much brighter than in other prints of it I had seen. I gave it a hard look and then the benefit of the doubt. I moved on. At Cuernos del Paine at Dawn, Logo Pehoe, Patagonia, I paused again . For years I never quite believed this picture—the febrile radiance of the yellow flow- ering shrubs in the foreground, the improbable aquamarine of the glacial lake in the middle distance, the sheer, phantasmagoric granite towers of the “Horns” of Paine in the sky. Then, last February, on an assignment to southern Chile, I found myself at dawn on the shore of this very lake, and I saw that it was all true. I crossed the room to Alaska Brown Bear, Katmai National Park. The bear is standing in the white torrent of a cascade, a salmon poised in mid-leap just inches from its open jaws. The shutter had arrested the fish forever in the instant before its demise.
Another brown bear was once on this wall, rearing to its full height and roaring directly into the camera. This bear was an actor named Bart, a grizzly everyman, the brown bear you see in all the movies and commercials requiring brown bears. When Bart was mounted here, roaring his signature roar, Mountain Light’s visitors all gravitated to him. How in God’s name, everyone asked Rowell, had he managed to take this photograph and survive? When Rowell explained that the bear was an acquaintance and a thespian, he saw a little light of admiration die in their eyes . It seemed to him that they now looked differently at all his pictures. He retired Bart from the wall. Rowell, appearing at the head of the stairway, invited me up to his projection room. Khumbu followed at my heels. Khumbu was named for the Everest region of Nepal, one of his master’s favorite hangouts. The dog was a climber once, but now his ascent of the stairway was labored and slow.
In the photography workshops RowelI teaches, he must, he believes, do more than impart technique. These days he needs to impart ethics as well. Even as images grow sharper with digital enhancement, the honest path grows murkier, and Rowell feels that students need guidance. Today’s class was just Khumbu and me. Rowell loaded the carousel of his ethics lesson on the projector, closed the curtain at the door, and pressed the button. The first slide showed an Eadweard Muybridge sequence of running horses from 1872. This particular series had settled a $25,000 bet over whether all four hooves are ever off the ground at the same time. (They are.) The Muybridge was a relic of the day when the photograph was incontrovertible, prima facie evidence. The second slide showed a photograph doctored by Senator Joe McCarthy to juxtapose one of his targets with some Communist or fellow traveler. Guilt by association is a dubious proposition to begin with. This was fake guilt by association. The McCarthy represented the photograph as hoax. Rowell pressed the button again.
Elephants. A herd on the move, its subgroups tinted in several colors. “This picture is from Art Wolfe’s book Migrations,” Rowell said. “This is how it appeared in a story on digital manipulation in The Denver Post. They’ve color -coded the animals to show groups that are identical and have been cloned.” He walked to the screen and began pointing. “This whole group of seven is this group of seven. Three of these seven, up here, are these three down here—which have been cloned yet again, right here. This one is this one is this one is this one. This pair is this pair, and this pair is this pair. Fifty-four elephants in a picture that once, originally, had fifteen.”
The Pyramids at Giza in the smoky light of evening. Three camels and their riders in the foreground. “The famous NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC cover,” Rowell said. “The Pyramids were moved in relation to the camel riders to make room for the logo. Originally the cover was to be a picture of mine of a Tibetan boy. They kicked it off because the Chinese Embassy objected. The Chinese said they wouldn’t let National Geographic writers and photographers into Tibet again if they ran that picture on the cover. It was already at the printer’s. When they decided to yank mine out, they needed an instant replacement. They chose this picture, which was a horizontal. In making it a vertical they reset the riders.”
Zebras. A tapestry of stripes, the herd standing so close together that not a speck of ground or wildebeest or anything else non-zebraic shows in the frame. “This is a close-up of the cover of Migrations,” Rowell said. He pointed to the face of a zebra just above the “t” in the book’s title. Then he pointed to another zebra face just below the “e”. in Art Wolfe’s name. “Zebras have a fingerprint’ in their patterns,” he said. “These are different frames of the same zebra.”
Cleft rock in silhouette against pale evening sky, with pink, ethereal cirrus above. I recognized this photo as Rowell’s own, one I had always admired: blackness versus brightness, earth versus sky, near versus far. Solidity of stone versus ethereality of vapor. “This picture was digitally altered on the cover of my book Mountain Light,” Rowel l said. “In order to make it fit the cover, they did two things—with my permission. They chopped and channeled’ it, like an old hot-rod. They took a section of sky out, which moved the cloud down so they wouldn’t have to crop it so much. I felt there was a very good rationale for doing it, and that it preserved the original image I had in mind.”
Negative space has positive virtues in art. Whole essays have been written on the dynamic interval—the electric synapse between God’s outstretched finger and Adam’s on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I asked Rowell which he preferred of the intervals between the heaven and earth of his own picture. Without hesitation he answered that he liked his original cleft rock and cloud. “That’s why I took it that way. But if I had just stepped back and bent down, I would have gotten a picture with the cloud a little lower. I thought that the alteration was a little bit on the edge, but okay.”
Cheetahs. A mother cat reclining on grass, six cubs piled upon her. This cheetah family portrait, according to RoweIl, was an Art Wolfe composite of two zoo photographs, one of a mother and single cub, the other of five cubs. Wolfe had digitally removed a zoo fence from the background and reseeded the area with virtual grass. The image had drawn fire at a conference of the North American Nature Photography Association, where an editor from the World Wildlife Fund had objected to it. “The complaint,” RowelI said, was that cheetahs can’t have six cubs. Art’s defense is that the zoologists who declared this were wrong. Apparently the literature says they can have as many as eight. So Art says, “Yep, it’s good natural history. They can have up to eight.”’
Whether or not six or eight cubs made sense, something was wrong with the photograph. 1 could not quite put my finger on it. It niight have been in the attention of the cats, which seemed divided in an unnatural way. (Two things of considerable and absolutely equal interest seemed to be approaching the group of felines from different directions.) It might have been in the calm of the mother. She did not look like a cheetah inundated by six cubs. She had the relaxed eyes of a mother of one---- which was what she was. The more I looked at the picture, the more artificial it appeared.
“In summary,” Rowell said, and he pushed the button to advance the carousel. Bald eagle. “Totally wild photo, no problem.” Bust of bald eagle, filling frame. “Totally captive photo. No problem for a lot of markets. Federal Express. Post Office. That’s my photo, but it’s a captive eagle, and I wouldn’t sell it for a story on wild eagles without putting •captive’ on my slide mount. Some people would.” Eagle soaring against snowy ridge. “Here’s a photo that I manipulated years ago. That was an eagle on a gray sky that I superimposed against a ridge of Mount McKinley—a sandwich.” I did it for a slide show about twenty years ago, set to music. I never put it out for publication. Now I wouldn’t even create it. I feel it would compromise my work.”
Polar bear. A rear view, the bear relaxing on its belly, facing away across a channel of open water and small icebergs. “This photo, advertised here in an ad for Tony Stone Images, became very controversial. NATIONAL GEO-GRAPHIC On-line, representing the Discovery Channel and the Explorer TV series, bought this image from Tony Stone without passing it by the editorial side of the magazine. It appeared in a full page ad in National Geographic. As soon as it was discovered, National Geographic pulled the ad. This is a bear in a zoo in Ohio , superimposed digitally against the Lemaire Channel, in Antarctica, where there are no polar bears.”
The Arctic is named for its arctos, its bear. Its antipodes have never had one. The photograph had reversed the polarity of the planet. I laughed at the boldness, or perhaps it was the oversight, that allowed the photographer to fill this empty Antarctic niche. The bear was a hoax and an oxymoron. but it was funny. The setting, Lemaire Channel, could have fooled me—its icebergs looked Arctic enough. But again I was nagged by something wrong in the picture. The longer I looked at it, the more it seemed to fall apart.
The bear’s stubby tail and the dark pads of its rear paws faced the camera . It lay completely oblivious of the cameraman behind. Polar bears are far-ranging predators with wonderful sensory equipment. They inhabit vast solitudes and always know when they have company. In all the photographs of wild polar bears that I have seen (save those taken at Churchill, a town in Manitoba, where the bears are semi-habituated to human beings), the bear’s nose is elevated as he tries to get a whiff of the cameraman, or he is moving off uneasily. This supposed Antarctic bear was indifferent to the human being behind it, and that was not natural. The bear’s backside and the hams of its legs were matted and stained yellow. The pattern looked peculiar . In sedentary periods wild polar bears are often tinted an attractive old-ivory yellow all over, by their urine, but here the yellow was localized. The bear had dyed itself, I suspected, by sitting for long periods in its urine, before its digital liberation from a concrete slab in Cincinnati and its transport to the wrong pole. Rowell himself had not noticed this pattern. “I think you’re right,” he said, staring at his screen. “You wouldn’t see it like that by open water.”
Earthrise. Whiteness of moon in foreground. Across the barren lunar terrain a message scrawled in longhand. “To Tony, I hope you can see this someday. Bill Anders, Apollo 8.” “This was taken by Colonel William Anders in 1968,” Rowell said. “He held his Hasselblad up to the window and fired away.” Rowell, an acquaintance of Anders’s, had begged a copy for his son Tony, and the print had arrived with its dedication in longhand, along with a cover note: “Here’s a picture your dad asked me to send you that I took on my last vacation.”
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