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Book Review: "Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography"

200701bc_johnsonReviewed by Ellis Vener

The title harkens back to "On Photography," the first of Susan Sontag's two book-length philosophical meditations about the role of photography in society. Like Sontag, Johnson has a well defined philosophical stance about the subject. The difference is that Johnson comes at the subject from the view of someone who is a maker and not a consumer of photographs.

"Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography" (O'Reilly Media, $39.99) begins with a brief history of the origins of digital photography and then zooms through the rapid evolution of technologies and techniques over the past 20 years, much of which the author was deeply engaged with. Johnson makes an eloquent plea for the sanctity of straight photography in photography's digital era, and rightly points out that if we compare it to the evolution of mankind, electronic photography is still in its Stone Age period.

Like any good digital photography book, "Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography" covers the basics, and I mean the very bare bones basics, of what you need to know about working with digitally captured images in Photoshop to control tonality and color, color-to-monochrome conversions, color management, printing and other output methods. There is nothing covered in these sections of the book that isn't covered in much greater depth by other writers, but still there are some useful techniques to be learned here, and here the technical is only part of a bigger story: the issue of the authentic world being endangered by the synthetic one.

The concept of straight photography has often been misunderstood to mean that no alteration of the image from the moment the shutter closes to the time the print is allowed. In the real world, such a thing doesn't happen. Latent images, captured on either film or digital media are developed, and what follows is the result of a very complex set of editing decisions and printing decisions made and implemented. By straight photography, what Johnson means is a respect for what was in front of your lens and a responsibility to future generations about what was really there:

"With digital technology we can synthesize things rather than explore the world. There is something disappointing about that. It tends to supplant the desire to provide information with the the desire to merely entertain. It is a kind of reality enhancement instead of documentation, creating our own fiction of what the world is. It's fine if it's contextualized as fiction, but enhancement is becoming so widespread that we are becoming desensitized to the impact; adding a little more color saturation here, a little more sharpening there … All of these things are small decisions on their own, but the cumulative effect of all of them is potentially very damaging …

"Commercial portraiture has some interesting implications with these issues as well. In a commercial photography studio the implied contract is to 'please make me look good.' I want that for my ego, and it's a normal expectation … I don't want to look bad as a result of your photography nor pass up an opportunity for your skill to make me look better. But what can that do to our perception of our family histories? If it goes beyond careful posing and lighting, you're not going to be able to look back and see what people really looked like. That is a loss that needs to be considered."

Consistent with his advocacy of digital straight photography, and his long involvement with environmental issues, Johnson is an advocate of very high definition high dynamic range photography and does the bulk of his landscape photography with a BetterLight scanning back on a 4x5 camera. Much of the technical portions of "Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography" deal with Johnson's work with the BetterLight backs in creating his landmark "With a New Eye: The Digital National Parks Project." He really does seem to be able to pull off some amazingly fresh and richly detailed and luminous images.

All in all "Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography" makes for a good read as it is more of a "why to" than a "how to" guide to digital imaging.