On (Not) F*cking It Up: Photoshop and the Perfect Picture
Don't revise too much or it turns into patchwork. — W.G. Sebald, paraphrased by Richard Skinner from notes taken during a workshop with the great writer.
About five years ago I worked on this picture, as usual using Photoshop. I thought it was going well. So I kept working on it for quite a while—anybody who knows me also knows it takes me a long time to complete an image. In fact, I wound up spending months on it. I still have the image—as a psd file tucked away somewhere on a hard drive—but you'll never see it and no one else will either. That's because, at some indiscernible and undramatic point, I managed to fuck it up.
How did I go wrong? As the existentialists say, a big part of the problem was freedom. Or, put another way: choices, choices, choices. When it comes to photography, another name for limitless possibilities is Photoshop. You can do practically anything with the digital juggernaut.
And I came close to doing just that. I took the image (for clarity, let's call it ScrewedUpPicture no. 1, though it's hardly my first) which had some promise, and I poked it, tweaked it, cajoled it, added to it, cleaned up this thing and that, removed something I thought defective, made it a little more complex here and there and elsewhere too—all to the point that somewhere, somehow, it reached an invisible tipping point where the image no longer worked. Through my well-intentioned efforts (the road to hell being paved with these), ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 had become a hodge podge of stuff, the sum of which was mysteriously yet mightily less than they were individually. ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 had lost something fundamental, including the indefinable energy that attracted me to it in the early stages. Whatever promise the image had for saying something that interested me deeply—that was gone too. I didn't care about the picture anymore. So I ditched it, which was the probably the first good decision I'd made in at least a month.
On one level I could blame Photoshop. All those tools. A candy shop with Baby Ruths, Pop Rocks, Toblerones, Jawbreakers, Twizzlers, and Tootsie Rolls, and that's just the first shelf: what kid wouldn't eat himself comatose with those temptations? So many ways to improve the image. So many ways to add layers, literally and metaphorically, to a picture. In the stone age of darkrooms, I wouldn't, I couldn't, have tried to do what I did; the limited and infuriating (and wonderful) magic of chemicals, paper, tray tilting, water variance, humidity, and the bazillion other variables that perpetually reconfigured themselves in combinations and permutations, (sometimes leaving me in a fetal tuck of despair, other times astonishing me with their beauty) wouldn't have allowed it. That's no guarantee that ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 would've become SublimePicture no. 1 but the path would have been different, that's for sure.
(I am not lauding the good old days of the darkroom. Traditional photography had its pluses as well as its many minuses and drawbacks. Photoshop photography can do the hitherto undreamed, but ultimately it's a different medium despite sharing some superficially descriptive language.)
Of course, the real problem was me. I forgot to respect the power of ones's tools—reminder # 1 being: nobody's making you use them all. I didn't use the power of time and distance—looking back, I was excited and in such a rush to make a great picture that I didn't pull myself back from the hunt, meaning: put the thing away, wait a while and look again with fresh, less invested, eyes. Instead of paying attention to the process, I let my ego get invested in the result. And, dutifully following the work ethic I was brought up with, I thought working more and more on ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 would make it better and better, when what I was really doing was burying it a few spoonfuls of dirt at a time. To really mix my metaphors, I did what my friend Dimitri calls "overcook the image." (To this day, when I show Dimitri works-in-progress, he'll sometimes end his feedback, which I cherish, by saying "And don't overcook it, Frank." Bless his heart—may you have such good friends with keen eyes.)
So, here are a few takeaways from the saga of ScrewedUpPicture no. 1. Some might seem pretty basic and they certainly overlap but they're here as reminders for me that I happily share with you.
- Don't think that adding/subtracting/changing is necessarily an improvement.
- Beware the perils of perfectionism. Not only is that often the road to ruin but some so-called "imperfections" are decidedly beautiful if we take the time and effort to look at them.
- Make every decision an aesthetic decision. That means you don't do something simply because you can. Watch that you don't shift into automaton mode, which can be easier with Photoshop because it's a whole lot quicker and more repeatable than what we did in the darkroom age. (Conversely, making every decision an aesthetic decision also means you don't avoid doing because you haven't adequately mastered your medium—in that case, you need to do what we all must, which is go back and work on craft.)
- Pain and effort, including near-death experiences, in creating your work do not count in its final value. This is not grade school where a kindly teacher may goose your grade for Herculean effort. You can grind and slave and spit blood on the carpet and your work can still turn out like shite, though your Trickster Ego will try convincing you that such a cosmic injustice cannot be. And beware the Trickster Ego— he (it feels right to make him masculine) is no match in the long run for the Universe's indifference to our pain.
- Keep many versions of your images-in-progress. Photoshop is perfect for this and hard drive space is cheap. Version #3 may turn out to be a whole lot better than Version #34 and you'll be glad you can go back easily and work from there.
- Label (intelligibly) your versions as well as your layers so you'll have some idea what the heck it was that you were doing in case you want to do it again sometime. Make notes directly in the file if it helps.
- Limits, including those self-imposed, can be great things. If you're stuck, think about that.
- Let your work sit. Put it away for a while and come back to it. It's amazing how a picture that looked like it might place you in the company of Michelangelo looks kind of, well, bleh after a few days or weeks. Conversely, it's a good sign when an image retains or gains power in your eyes after a cooling off period.
- Find yourself a cadre of people you trust and who have good eyes—people whose opinion you value and who are honest enough to tell you that, no, your sweat does not smell like honey. Show them your works-in-progress and don't just ask for feedback, listen to it. If they tell you that, no, this image doesn't work, ask them why, listening quietly, taking notes perhaps, and resisting the all-too-human temptation to insult their shoes or tell them their new baby is ugly.
- And remember—don't overcook it, Frank.