Saturday, July 9, 2011

Making Light of Art or Art with Lytro?

If you were an “image maker” back before 1800, odds are you worked in paint, ink, clay or stone, and your objective was representation.  Etch the critter you want to kill on the shaft of a spear or the wall of a cave and you increased your chances for a successful hunt.  If you were both a good hunter and a talented artist, maybe Og would slip you an extra hunk of Mastodon haunch to do some painting on his wall or weapon.  Fast forward 20,000 years, and the ability create a particularly godly rendering of the monarch or prelate could get you a pretty cushy stay in Athens, Alexandria, or Rome. 

Come the 14 and 15 hundreds, and the dominant artists of the Renaissance were employing canvas, oil paints, and occasionally ground glass from the thriving foundries out on Murano to craft portraits and landscapes that seemed real enough to stride off the wall and stroll around the piazza.  Brush and palette-type image-makers continued to thrive well into the 1800s.  Anybody who was anybody had a cluster of oils adorning the walls – like some eerie foreshadowing of today’s refrigerator doors or cubicle walls.  Consider James Whistler’s homage to his mother; still mainstream when painted in 1871.  But by then the game was definitely afoot.

As far back as 1826 Frenchman Joseph Nicephore had used a camera obscura to burn a permanent image of the view from his garden onto a doped pewter plate.  He called it heliography, or sun-drawing.  It was, in reality, the beginning of photography.  By mid-century image-makers were toting boxes of various shapes and sizes in to the halls of congress, the homes of the high and mighty, the backwaters of jungles, and onto any battlefield to which they could finagle access.  Photography arrived and changed image making for forever.

Photography was a double-edged sword.  It certainly loped the legs out from under the portrait painter.  Who needed a “close to real” painting when you could have something else that was “picture perfect”?  On the other hand, from this newly mandated supine perspective, artists began to look beyond the blinders of representationalism.  It is not by chance that Impressionism sprang onto canvases in the late 1800s, just as photography was claiming control of portraiture. 

Almost without exception, significant innovations in our ability to create images change the entire spectrum of human expression.  Consider these three connected innovations:
Point and shoot digital cameras, their inclusion into cellphones, and, the Internet. The result? At the end of May of this year, Facebook announced that its users photo archives had exceeded 100 billion images.  That is a lot of refrigerator doors, and an incredible number of dumb cat pictures.  But it is also a phenomenon that we should not ignore.  The iconic photographer, Ansel Adams, used to distinguish between “scenic beauty” and artistic beauty.  Scenic beauty is what you see on postcards.  Artistic beauty is what you see in images created by Adams, and Margaret Bourke-White, and Yousuf Karsh.  I would hazard to guess that the majority of Facebook photos contain neither scenic nor artistic beauty.  They are images of convenience posted as a shorthand peek into our experiences.  Neither the intent nor the impact is aesthetic.  They are reportorial – because the capabilities of the technology incline us to that usage:  Point. Click. Dog. Child. Vacation. Flat tire.  Photography trivialized.

But there is a new game in town.  Its name is Lytro.

The short explanation is that Lytro is a company founded by a freshly-minted Stanford Ph.D. by the name of Ren Ng that is going to put the light field camera in to our hands.  Whether it will be in our phones or a stand-alone unit is still up for grabs, but we will have it.  Dr. Ng intends to see to that.

“Cool.” I thought.  .  .  .  .  “What’s a light field camera?” [And, I’ve taught photography in a very respectable university!] 

I now know that a light field camera is one that grabs and stores all the light being reflected by whatever is in front of the camera.  That, too, seems something of a yawner until you think about what it means to have ALL the light that is reflected by whatever is in front of a camera.

Remember Joseph Nicephore and his heliography? Sun drawing?  And remember what it became? Photography?  That’s right – photo = light.  Photography is “light drawing.”  Photography has, until Lytro, grabbed SOME of the light being reflected by whatever is in front of the lens and makes a drawing with that little bit of light.  Without getting all warm and geeky about this, being able to grab ALL the light, store it, and play with it all you want AFTER clicking the shutter is, well, incredibly warm and geeky – and artistically awesome.  I understand that it used to take scads of cameras and computers to generate those “ALL the light” images.  Lytro does it with cellphone size technology.  Truly wonderful.  Why?

Just three examples:

Depth of field.  The depth of field in any photograph is the range of the image that is in focus.  Think of a photo as a loaf of sliced bread.  You are looking in one end of the loaf and the picture ends at the other end of the loaf.  The depth of field is the number of slices that are in focus.  Depth of field is one of the things that photographers who are concerned with artistic beauty agonize over.  Focus draws the eye, de-focus feathers attention.  Deciding which slice or slices of the loaf you want to be in focus is an artistic decision.  BL [Before Lytro] you had to decide on the desired slices beforehand and adjust light sources and the opening of the lens and the shutter speed that would – depending on the light sensitivity of your film – allow just the right amount of light into the camera so that it would draw the loaf of bread so that only the slices you wanted to be in focus, would be in focus.  Clear?  Of course not, and it no longer matters.  What is important is that an “ALL the light” image let's you determine depth of field AFTER you take the picture – and you can keep changing your mind and/or create multiple depths of field.  Make slice one clear, fuzz out 2 through 6, 7 and 8 clear, and so on.  Old images quickly become, well, toast.

Example two: Shutter delay.  Gone.  You had to push the shutter halfway so that, WAIT, the autofocus could decided which slices of the loaf you wanted in focus, adjust the light and shutter speed and NOW you can take the picture.  Oops.  Baby smile gone, speeding athlete out of frame, whatever.  Not with Lytro.  One click of the shutter gathers ALL the light – gobbles the whole loaf.

Example three: Flash.  Surely you jest.  Lytro grabs ALL the light, and rarely needs more.

I better stop now.  I’m feeling a little lightheaded.  Oh, I know, people will do silly things with it.  We’ll see images with more focus highlights than anyone could absorb.  Those will be horrible.  But the others?  Oh, the possibilities .  .  .  .

All right, way down here is the link to the Lytro picture gallery.  I knew if I put it up higher on the page, you’d never get here.  Enjoy.

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