Lessons from the Scene: HDR Part 3, A Historical Perspective by Jim Austin

by  Jim Austin MA, ACE, www.jimagesdigital.weebly.com


 Stained Glass
Our current HDR controversy revives a similar argument from the history of photography. The 1880's were years that reached a crescendo of the Realists vs. Impressionists in photography.
The English photographer Dr. Peter Henry Emerson proposed a theory of vision, arguing that photography should imitate the eye. He knew the eye saw sharpness only at the center of what was viewed, while the periphery of vision appeared blurred.
He used platinum prints that have a wide and beautiful tonal range. Emerson printed his images with a sharp center and slightly out of focus towards the edges. He was seeking what he considered to be a naturalistic photograph.
Prior to Emerson, edge-to-edge sharpness was a photographer’s main concern. Although criticized for being in a “fuzzy school,” the work of Emerson and his promotion of photography as an independent Pictorial Art became the foundation for the Photo-Secessionist school of Stieglitz, among many others. This controversy, over what is a natural photograph, is recycled and repeated by our 2010 debates about how HDR images should appear.

There is no absolute truth

HDR did not meet our initial expectations, that it should be factual and accurate. We forgot a lesson from photography's history. There is no “Truth” in a photograph. We like to think that if we went to the same place and looked at the identical scene, we would see exactly what is shown in pictures.
We’re wrong. The scene always looks different than the picture of the scene. People never resemble their portraits; actors always look different in person than in their movies. In fact, the more we recognize “just another rock, just another tree” in a picture, the more boring that picture becomes.
At first, early tone mapping looked so unusual, it caused a common response “that's not real.” Getting stuck in fact-fantasy argument is not a reason to throw the HDR instrument section of the photographic orchestra.
Buy a popular photography magazine at the store, one would read about HDR as photography's new Messiah. It is not. Those of us who were early adopters of HDR were so enthusiastic about it. A familiar adage surfaced among photographers, “the use of the technique in itself was honorable”.