Week 6: No Friends, All Strangers

Basic Digital Photography with Matthew Swarts

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

“THE MIND and the spirit are constantly formed by, and as constantly form, the senses; and misuse or neglect the senses only at grave peril to every possibility of wisdom and well-being. The busiest and most abundant of the senses is that of sight. The sense of sight has been served and illuminated by the visual arts for as long, almost, as we have been human. For a little over a hundred years, it has also been served by the camera. Well used, the camera is unique in its power to develop and to delight our ability to see. Ill or indifferently used, it is unique in its power to defile and to destroy that ability. It is clear enough by now to most people, that “the camera never lies” is a foolish saying. Yet it is doubtful whether most people realize how extraordinarily slippery a liar the camera is. The camera Is just a machine, which records with impressive and as a rule very cruel faithfulness, precisely what is in the eye, mind, spirit, and skill of its operator to make it record. Since relatively few of its operators are notably well endowed in any of these respects, save perhaps in technical skill, the results are, generally, disheartening. It is probably well on the conservative side to estimate that during the past ten to fifteen years the camera has destroyed a thousand pairs of eyes, corrupted ten thousand, and seriously deceived a hundred thousand, for every one pair that it has opened, and taught.” —James Agee, from the Introduction to Helen Levitt’s A Way of Seeing.

For Next Week:

Download and review the slides from this weeks’ lecture: arts1850 no friends all strangers

Read James Agee’s Introduction to Helen Levitt’s A Way of Seeing.

Read “Twentieth Century Man: The Photographs of August Sander.”

Read “Photographers: Know Your Rights,” by the American Civil Liberties Union

Photograph people you don’t know. (You must leave the perimeter of campus!) Make at least 60 exposures of strangers, using both Helen Levitt and August Sander as models for your work.

Edit and Adjust your images and upload 6-8 of your best images in small .jpeg format to Dropbox.

Things to consider:

1. August Sander carefully set up each photograph he made, while Helen Levitt passed seemingly unnoticed by her subjects as something of a secret observer.  Which method of working feels most comfortable to you?  For this assignment, try both methods of investigating the worlds of strangers.  Ask permission to make some images and, for others, act like a shrewd voyeur.

2. Both photographers were highly skilled at using objects to propel the narrative of their frames.  How can you similarly use things in the picture to tell or at least complicate your story?  Include as much information as possible in every frame.  Can you photograph people and their things with equal weight?

3. This assignment is meant to bring you face to face with some of the “problems” of photography, in particular with issues related to representing others.  What does it feel like to lurk unnoticed, making images like a spy?  How is this different from negotiating a picture?  Is one method “wrong” in comparison to the other?  Do you (or should you) have an unobstructed right, in other words, to your sight?

4. Photography ideally spans gaps in both language and understanding.  Like it or not, your pictures are very loaded facts about both you and your subjects.  How can you use them to investigate your own (visual) preferences or prejudices?

5. Often the simple act of photographing something or someone can transform that object or person into something other than first recognized.  The way we make a picture also articulates our intentions.  With this in mind, how can you use your camera as a device for both understanding and transformation?

6. Move your body when you photograph!  Even if working from a tripod, consider things from several different vantage points while making pictures.  Think of how athletic Helen Levitt’s frames are, with elements stretching your eye to each corner.  How can you “stack up” information like this to complicate your images?

Saving and Loading Selections

By now you are catching on to some of the ways in which selections are immensely useful within Photoshop. Often making a careful selection takes time, and thankfully, there are ways to save your work! In the image below I have carefully selected the body of the boy emerging from the pool, and my selection is active in marching ants mode:

Perhaps I want to apply a curves adjustment layer to this selection, perhaps to be followed by subsequent adjustments, so it might be very useful to save the selection for later use. To save the selection, I simply go to the Select menu and pull down Select>Save Selection:

The Save Selection dialog box appears and looks like the following. Photoshop automatically selects a new channel for the storage of your selection data. It’s usually a good idea to name your selection for clarification purposes, so here I have called mine “body”:

Clicking ‘OK’ will create a new Alpha Channel in your Channels palette, which is located on a tab behind your Layers palette, in the lower right hand section of your screen interface. Here, Photoshop allows you to see either composited RGB channel information, or individual channels for Red, Green, and Blue. Later, we will examine the Channels palette in more detail. For now, take note of how the new, named channel will appear in the channel listing as follows:

Notice how the new channel has a graphical representation of your selection in the form of an editable Mask, in this case a grayscale representation of your selected image area. Active areas appear in white while masked areas appear black:

Clicking to the left of the Mask icon will activate the eyeball icon to turn the channel on. In my case, my selection had some feathering (softening to the edges to reduce jaggedness). The feathered areas of the image appear in grey, and represent partial selections of pixels:

In this mask representation of your image, it is possible to edit your selection by painting with the paintbrush (or any other) tool using shades of grey to represent partial selections and black and white to represent either deselected or selected areas. Note: even though this is possible, it’s not really recommended, as there are easier ways to edit a mask using Quick Mask mode (see below). For now, know simply that you can see a graphical representation of any saved selection by clicking on the eyeball next to its name.

If you want to convert your saved alpha channel back to a selection, it’s very easy. Simply locate the marching ants icon at the bottom of the channels palette. It’s the leftmost icon on the bottom:

Clicking here will make the selected alpha channel into a selection visible in marching ants mode, and you can then apply any adjustments. The same result would occur if you went to the Select menu and chose Load Selection. 

Remember that you can always go to the Select menu once you’re in marching ants mode and invert any selection to save for later use. With photography, this is an immensely useful operation, for it allows you to quickly edit the relationship between foreground and background in your image. In the case below, I made my previous (boy’s body) selection active, selected Select>Inverse, then selected Save Selection and named it “background” to create an alpha channel of everything but the boy’s body. It looks like this:

Now I can toggle my selections (and adjustments) very easily by simply selecting the boy’s body or the background from the alpha channel list and clicking on the marching ants icon to make the selection active. Very useful!

Adjustment Layer Masks

Any adjustment layer is always accompanied by a pixel image layer mask, which always appears in graphical form next to the adjustment icon in the layers palette. This mask is editable, and controls how the adjustment will be applied to underlying image layers. You can edit any mask by using the appropriate paint tools and painting in white to reveal (and apply adjustment) and painting in black to mask. This is a little counterintuitive to master at first, but you will get the hang of it promptly with a little practice.

In the properties window, there are two icons (an adjustment icon and a masks icon) that allow you to alternate between the adjustment and the mask. Look for them in the upper left hand corner of the properties window. When selected, each will look approximately like this:

Note the slider controls for Density and Feather. These sliders independently control the strength of the mask and it’s softness or hardness. One of the great secrets of successful photographic image editing is knowing how to feather (or soften) selection edges, so that edits are not so jaggedly visible. These controls allow you very specific power to adjust the adjustment layers even further and more subtly.

The Density slider controls the overall strength of the mask, its density. By default it is always set to 100 per cent. By adjusting this slider, you adjust the mask contrast, for it weakens the overall effect of the adjustment. Play with this slider to see how it can help you submerge your edits beyond what is visible to any viewer:

The Feather slider is used to soften the mask edges. Again, by default it is set to its hardest setting, 0.0 pixels. Watch your selection soften and spread as you adjust this slider further to the right, increasing the pixel radius of the selection mask:

Next down the line in the Masks properties window, there is the option to refine Mask Edges. This will bring up the refine mask dialog box:

The Refine Mask dialog box allows you to do just that: refine the mask edges further. You can adjust Edge Detection, and then in the Adjust Edges section, there are sliders for Smooth, Feather, Contrast, and Shift Edge.

Remember that you have the ability to control the View. In my example above I placed the selection on black to highlight the body of the boy escaping the pool. This allowed me to easily see how my adjustments to the sliders (above) effected my selection and mask. I recommend you experiment with these view options often, as sometimes different ways of representing your image can help you identify areas of your selection that need improvement and editing.

Lastly, in the Properties panel mask controls, there are buttons for Color Range and Invert, which we have already discussed.

Editing Selections in Quick Mask Mode

Especially when you start to feather your selections, it is important to be able to properly edit the resulting masks. One of the easiest ways to do this is in Quick Mask mode, which converts any selection into a rubylith representation. First, make a selection or convert a mask to a selection, then look for the Quick Mask icon in the lower left hand section of the toolbar. There is actually only one icon that changes when you click on it. When you are in marching ants mode, it looks like this:

Click here and you will enter Quick Mask mode, and the icon will change to look like this:

In my case, when I selected the boy’s body in my image and entered Quick Mask mode, my image window changed to this:

Entering Quick Mask mode means that your image selection is represented by the clearer, more transparently-un-red parts of your image. The masked, or unselected areas will appear red. Again, somewhat counterintuitively, it is possible to paint new mask areas by using the paintbrush tool, which is located about a third of the way down in the toolbar to the left of the interface window. Look for the icon, it looks like this:

Any paintbrush tool you select is modifiable further by the horizontal toolbar that appears in the upper left hand section of the interface window. It looks like this:

This toolbar allows you to change your brush into nearly limitless variations, adjusting the size, the softness, the shape, the blend mode, the opacity, and the flow of the paint you will apply. We have already seen how the brush size can be modified by clicking on the second icon (for brush size and shape). Doing so will pop out a window like this:

It is here that you select your brush and adjust it’s size and hardness. What color you paint in is determined by the color picker, located in the lower left hand corner of the vertical toolbar in the interface window. The color picker icon is as follows:

When in Quick Mask mode, if you select your color picker, you will be presented with a window like this, which allows for supreme control over the color and tonality of your paint for masking:

As I mentioned already, painting in pure white will reveal sections of your image in the adjustment layer you are working on. Painting in black will mask. Painting in any color or tonality of grey will effect your image in different ways according to the way that your color selection is translated into transparency in the mask. This is hard to conceptualize, the only way to figure it out is really through experimentation. To begin, try painting with all white or all black first, then try some shade of grey or a color variant to see the more subtle effects of your brush strokes. Once you’ve selected your color, to apply a brush stroke to the mask area, simply click and drag inside your image window where you want the painting to occur. For example, in my image I drew a fat stripe through the boy’s body to demonstrate the effect on the resulting selection. Here’s what it looks like in Quick Mask Mode:

The resulting change in my selection is as follows in marching ants mode (notice the deselected area in the center of the boy’s head):

Obviously, the art in mask editing is to use the paintbrush tool with appropriate shades of grey or color in such a way as to create soft, evenly feathered selections. That’s the only reason you should be in Quick Mask mode: to edit and refine your selections! Experiment, and develop the discipline to create stunningly beautiful masks:

Artist Spotlight: Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra.