Sunday, August 22, 2010

Photography as a spiritual practice … a review of Vision & Voice by David duChemin

Digital photography is about seeing an image, capturing it on a sensor, and expressing it on paper, website, or some other appropriate medium. According to David duChemin in the introduction to his latest book, Vision & Voice, “[T]here are three images that make a final photograph: the one you envision, the one you shoot, and the one you develop [p. xii].” Vision & Voice is about how duChemin uses Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to get as close as possible to his envisioned image.

But this book is not a manual filled with recipes and formulaic steps. It isn’t a how-to-wow book or a book of tricks-and-tips. It’s first and foremost a book about previsualization and paying attention to the emotion we feel when we view a scene. It’s about cultivating a sensitivity to an interior experience provoked by what we see, and holding a conscious awareness of this experience, so we can use the tools available to us in post-capture processing to express what we felt at the time we made the photograph. It is about technique, specifically as applied in Lightroom, but only insofar as it is subservient to vision. As the subtitle to the book states, it’s about Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

David duChemin is one of my favorite photography writers, and I check his blog daily. His images of places and the people who inhabit them are stunning, and his writing resonates with my own aspirations as a photographic artist. He writes as a travel photographer whose client-base is primarily smaller NGO’s. Though I have no doubt he would consider himself a spiritual person, he doesn’t write about his spiritual life and the role photography plays in that. But his book goes to that place in me.

I don’t know if duChemin would express it this way, but for me his book is about the spiritual practice of photography and how to effectively use the technology of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to serve it.

Photography has become part of my own personal spiritual practice because it brings me close to something that’s much bigger than myself, and deepens my awareness of a connection to what is around me. To create a photograph in the camera requires me to focus in two realities. I have to focus the optical image on the sensor, paying attention to all the technical stuff that capturing the image entails. And I have to focus on the feeling or “felt sense” that accompanies that moment in order to sufficiently visualize the image I want to produce. One is exterior, the other is interior. One affixes an array of pixels on a string of digital information, the other affixes on my neurons and soul the memory of feelings and emotions using all my senses and responses. My world expands when both occur together. Combined, they constitute what might be termed a secular spiritual aesthetic.

DuChemin hints at this when he writes about using the Develop module in Lightroom “to bring the image back to the one you saw in your mind’s eye – your heart’s eye…” [p. 11]. The image journeys “[f]rom eye, heart, and mind to the camera and through the digital darkroom to the print” [p. 22]. The core element in this process is the feeling evoked in the photographer at the time of capture. If the photographer grasps the felt sense, then it is possible to answer the question, “What is this picture about?” If the printed image re-evokes that feeling, in the photographer and in others who view it, then the image successfully expresses the photographer’s intent. The vision finds a voice. As duChemin says, “Im not chasing the ‘Did it look like that?’ I’m chasing the ‘Did it feel like that?’” [p. 98].

The first third of the book is about what I would call consciousness-based aesthetics. “You should know what your image is about, how you feel about it – and, therefore, how you want others to feel about it – and where you want to direct the eyes of the reader…. [U]ncovering our own intention is difficult, but it’s something we need to be in touch with on some level before we can hope to communicate it” [p. 23].

DuChemin gives this process a different name, calling it vision-driven workflow or VDW for short. He explains it this way:

A vision-driven workflow is a process of creating images, specifically in the digital darkroom, that begins at the point of conception and ends upon output of the image. VDW is guided by the intent of the photographer, and it is the means by which we bring the image conceived, the image captured, and the image developed into one photograph. More simply, VDW is a series of decisions about the aesthetics of an image that are based on 1) your vision, or intention, for that image, and 2) your voice, the tools at your disposal [p. 21].

The rest of the book is one long chapter called 20 Visions, 20 Voices. The author illustrates the VDW with 20 examples, beautifully reproduced through the multiple stages of correction and enhancement in the Develop module of Lightroom. I consider myself an advanced user of Lightroom, but I still learned so much more about the capabilities of this software from duChemin’s book, always subordinated to the vision and intent of the photographer.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone endeavoring to bring more soul into their images, more feeling into their pictures. It will inspire as well as instruct.

Vision & Voice – Refining Your Vison in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, by David duChemin. Newriders, 2011 [sic]

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