sheldon bachus
imagery from the edge

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My thoughts here are mostly reflections on the photographs I have taken over the last two decades of looking at the world through the lens of a camera. From the outset, a lifetime of hiking, fishing and camping in the mountains and valleys of California has led to the realization that the edges of the natural world will often produce photographs with the most interesting and artistically compelling subjects -- maybe an eight point buck hiding at the periphery of a mountain meadow, or the dappled rises of trout feeding along a lake's cobbled shoreline. In this sense I believe as photographers we should look to our ancestral roots and, as our Native American brothers and sisters did for the millennia preceding us, we should learn to stalk the subject of our craft. This is our primordial challenge: to prowl the edges of our empirical domains, for that is where the often hidden but prized objects of our photographic craft reside.

For photographers, the existential boundaries they traverse provide a cognitive structure for understanding the meaning immanent in the images they take from the objective world around them. The notion of taking an image from the natural or physical world remains fundamental to the foundations of photography as an artistic and intellectual discipline. The act of making an image is a replicative one, a Pavlovian tripping of the camera's shutter that transfers the empirical attributes of an independent objective reality to the reactively subjective media of what was once film and is now digital information. Photographers do not make, but take, a little bit of objective reality and craftily steal it with their constant accomplice, light.

Etymologically, the English word photography was derived during the mid-19th century from two Greek roots, respectively, φωτός meaning light and γραφή, meaning drawing, which in combined form literally mean drawing with light. For the ancient Greeks, just as for photographers and astronomers today, objective reality cannot exist if there is no light. In Books VII and VIII of the Republic, Plato presents this in the classic existential dilemma posed by the allegory of the cave. Only, if the cave's prisoners move out and away from the ideational shadows projected by a fire on the cave's walls, can they perceive the pure truth of the sun's full light.

For photographers, Plato's message conveyed by the allegory of cave is corroborated operationally by modern physics, which hold that the white light cast by the full noonday sun includes all the colors observable to the human eye. When these colors are captured by a digital camera's image processing unit (IPU), they are stored as individual pixels. Each pixel is assigned a color value based on the spectral attributes of the light reflected through the camera lens from the object being photographed.

Digital camera IPUs are currently designed so that every image pixel is assigned an unique numeric code ranging from zero (black, although technically not a color) to 16,777,216 (white, or all colors). Using these quantitative parameters, an unique code representing each possible color is constructed as an equivalently unique six digit hexadecimal (base 16) number, each digit of which can assume one of sixteen possible values ranging from "0" to "9" followed by "A" through "F". Therefore, within a digital camera's IPU a black pixel assumes a value of "000000" and a white pixel is represented as "FFFFFF".

This color coding scheme becomes important for photographers when they recognize that, for a completely unexposed image, every one of its constituent pixels has an hexadecimal value of hex: 000000 (black) and, conversely, a fully over-exposed image has all its pixels set to hex: FFFFFF (white). Looking at either image, a physicist or information scientist would say that both images represent a condition of total systemic entropy. Within those polar image opposites, there are no distinguishing elements of organization or order. Visually, framed within the system of pixels that is each photograph, everything would be unordered chaos, there are no edges or boundaries.

Fortunately, black and white monochrome imagery provides the photographer with an easily used but facile technique to reduce the entropy potentially produced by the absolute presence or absence of light. Operationally defined, this technique is called "grayscaling", and it serves the photographer as a way to reveal the order immanent in a contingently entropic physical reality. Arguably, the binary presence of only black (hex: 000000) and white (hex: FFFFFF) might be used to create a somewhat recognizable image. But, for that image its cumulative entropy -- i.e., the combined presence of only black and white pixels -- produces a stark silhouette, something realistically and aesthetically less than a shadow on an ill-lighted cave wall.

Nonetheless, using a subset of the visual light spectrum, i.e., the grayscale, photographers have a technique literally to expose the finely tuned nuances of the existential order and structure inherent in the physical world they photograph. Compared to the color spectrum with 2^16 or over 16 million colors, there may be something troubling in the fact that the grayscale continuum contains only 2^8 or 256 possible shades of gray, including black and white. But what is at issue here is really a whispered persuasion that color photography is more aesthetically valued than monochrome black and white. Granted, color photography with its 2^16 versus 2^8 spectral gradations is exponentially a richer gamut than grayscale. However, an equally strong argument can be made that in their simplicity grayscaled monochrome images more clearly, simply, and elegantly reveal the inherent order and structure of the natural world.

No photographer understood better the power of monochrome grayscale technique to reveal the immanent structure of observable reality than Ansel Adams. This technique Adams defined, refined and crafted into his now well known "Zone System", a system of image organization which reveals the order or structure of the physical world as distinctly bounded areas of eleven shades of gray.

Unfortunately, many photographers assume that Adams intended the Zone System to be used as an a priori shutter technique. As an example of this pre-shutter approach, Mary Street Alinder in her biography of Adams posits that, when Adams photographed his classic Moonrise, Hernandez he placed the moon in a Zone V backdrop to establish a f.8 exposure aperture and a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second speed. We are further led to believe that Adams calculated in his head the foot-candle units of ambient light to come up with a Zone V value, and then he correctly computed the resulting aperture and shutter speeds -- all from the top of his ancient 1940s station wagon with enough time to get one exposure before the New Mexico night shut the scene down completely.

To her credit, Alinder makes a point that Adams really viewed his Zone System to be used as an a posteriori shutter technique most appropriately operationalized in the "dodging and burning" of darkroom images prior to printing. For example, Adams "dodged" several of the original Hernandez zones significantly to produced a low key backdrop that structurally enhanced, i.e., "popped", the cloud band along the ridgeline above the village, its cemetery, and indeed the high key foreground zones of the original image. In no way could these structural and ultimately aesthetic issues have been effectively conceived and addressed in a color photograph.