Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reinventing Photography (Again): Infrared, the Magic Camera, HDR and Point of View

by Joe Nalven
'Travel' Photography in San Diego Art Galleries and Museums
If you walk down Prospect Street in La Jolla, you'll see some truly amazing landscape and animal photography. Thomas D. Mangelsen's and Peter Lik's art galleries indulge large format photographic nature images that are face-mounted with plexiglass.

Around the corner on Girard Avenue, the Joseph Bellows' gallery features rotating photography exhibits, often in black and white and often featuring different times and places. Scott White's gallery occasionally exhibits photography from unusual perspectives.
In Balboa Park, the Museum Of PhotographicArt, will occasionally feature a travel photographer's photographic insights. The same can be anticipated at The Art of Photography Show that exhibits annually at the San Diego Art Institute.
The San Diego County Fair Photography Exhibit embraces photographs from other countries, other cultures.

The Art Concept in 'Travel' Photography 
Why do some look with disapproval at 'travel' photography? Perhaps it is the stereotype of tourists taking photos of themselves in 'foreign' locations. Perhaps there is the too-early discounting of innovation and imagination simply because there is the literal viewing of the location and not the art.

With those biases in mind, I took two different cameras on my travels to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador - one camera was a dedicated digital infrared Nikon, the other a point-and-shoot Samsung that I refer to as my 'magic' camera. You'll understand why shortly.

As most artists claim, there ought to be a personal vision that marks the art style as one's own. This is a Rembrandt. This is an Andy Warhol. This is an Ansel Adams. This is a Joe Nalven. Especially when one goes public and exhibits in public spaces. 

So, how can an infrared image and one from a 'magic' camera be a platform for a distinct photographic vision?  Clearly, the camera is a tool, just like a paintbrush. The paintbrush did not make a Rembrandt, but Rembrandt used a paintbrush to make a Rembrandt-style painting. The same with a camera of whatever make or technology.

There are considerations of lighting, perspective, postprocessing and the like.

Still, there are starting points that can provoke a different conversation about what is it that we are looking at (the curiosity factor) and why (the vision factor). This is part of the challenge of differentiating one's images from the thousands of other photographs of the same location. How can one create an image that goes to the essence of the place in a way that others have missed or not seen? Perhaps that is a bit overstated, but that is where the photographer (and perhaps all artists) would like to travel to - not physically, but part of one's aesthetic.

Here the infrared camera provides a distinct look and invites the viewer to engage with the novelty, which, if done well, rises to the level of 'good' art. The dark early morning sky and the austere light falling on the buildings and surrounding mountains offer a more somber understanding of Quechua culture and its historical isolation. (Note: The 'Inca' are the kings that ruled Quechua culture.)

Joe Nalven   /  Machu Picchu, Early Morning (Infrared, 2013)
Bruce Gregory visited Peru last July with his infrared camera. Here is how he approached the open tombs at Ninamarca.

Bruce Gregory, Open Tombs, Ninamarca, Peru (Infrared, 2012)
Other Approaches:  HDR and the 'Magic' Camera
A quite different approach relies on brash color. In one direction, the fascination is with HDR images. Photoshop uses a filter to approximate the more complex and tedious method of true HDR. Bruce Gregory also uses HDR to set apart his photography.

Of his IR and HDR image treatment, Gregory notes: "I find that the use of a different visual perspective doesn't override the necessity to make an interesting photograph; it enhances an interesting photo, but does not make a bad photo a good photo. Blurring the lines of photography and illustration makes the viewer engage with the image and make decisions about the content and the presentation.  I still work with conventional images but enjoy mixing techniques to enhance the visual engagement."

Bruce Gregory, Napa Water Tower (2013 HDR)
I decided to take my 'magic' camera instead of a second digital DSLR. Part of my reasoning had to do with climbing Machu Picchu with two cumbersome cameras. However, as I learned in the field, sometimes technology can open the door to a warmer conversation with those being photographed.
The Camera as a Point of Entry into Another's Culture
The traveller's-eye view of men and women is not satisfying. A man might spend his life in trains and restaurants and know nothing of humanity at the end. To know, one must be an actor as well as a spectator. Aldous Huxley

Example of taking a painting / oil painting app (taken as a vertical image/playback is horizontal)
You've heard of some cultures that believe taking one's photograph is about stealing one's soul. In Andean culture, I noticed a "here comes the North American with his camera" attitude and a turning away from being photographed.  However, with my point-and-shoot, the individual was intrigued with how the image evolved on the LCD screen. (See example above.) It didn't look like a photograph; it looked like a painting. And, it wasn't just seeing the final 'painting,' but watching the painting unfold as if it were being drawn and colored on the LCD screen. "Amazing."  "Wow." A big smile. This camera invited wonder rather than antagonism.  Removing that barrier added to the photographic image in an unanticipated way.

Of course, to rise to the level of 'good' art, the image requires the same compositional strengths that an ordinary camera produced in the hands  of artist.  Same bottom line, but a different pathway. 
Here are two contrasting painting applications that this camera includes. Of course, I could always take a photorealistic image, but sometimes a different look is worth trying out.
I love fools' experiments. I am always making them. Charles Darwin

Joe Nalven, Street Scene, La Paz, Bolivia (Posterizing App  2013)

The mechanical (or electronic) process might be offsetting, but then the image  is subjected to additional processing in an image editing program to further enhance the image.

Joe Nalven, Inaida at Pisac (Oil Painting App, 2013)

These reflections are about discovering and making intriguing images - perhaps by traveling to places we find exotic, perhaps by taking some different image-making tools, but always in dialogue with oneself about whether these are visions worth pursuing.

You can preview a collection of my Andean infrared images, Andes Infrared.

In addition, you can preview my collection of Andean images taken with a 'normal' camera - TheVisible Andes.



  1. Excellent article and illustrations. The photos in Andes Infrared and The Visible Andes are wonderful!

  2. Nice article Joe. I think Bruce Gregory has really hit on something important for all digital artists - "Blurring the lines of photography and illustration makes the viewer engage with the image and make decisions about the content and the presentation."
    I'm doing a similar thing with my 3 Graces for Environmental Awareness project.

  3. The article was interesting and enjoyable to read. The information and insight details of one must be an actor in different cultures to understand it is very important. I think that the cultures which don't like being taken pictures is because they don't play a part of understanding how the picture took place since technology is so advanced. But the paintbrush magic camera gives them a visual understanding and also they are happy to be involved. I myself would like to visit Machu Picchu, Peru. Your infrared picture although doesn't have color gives me a sense that their is so much vivid green surrounding the mountains. I liked the quote from Gregory which says "A different perspective enhances an interesting photo, but doesn't make a bad photo a good photo", i wish my girlfriend would understand that because she thinks the other way around. Overall its an interesting observation on how these cameras can give you different photos but also how one of them gives the people who photos are being taken a positive vibe and approval.Acosta, Jorlling

  4. I find it interesting that no lens is created equal, just as no view of the world is the same. A camera is a camera as a person is a person but none function the same or pick up the same view because all are designed to function differently in accordance to specific features or specific cultures that each are "programmed" for.
    -Roselie E.

  5. I found this blog to be very intriguing, because I always looked at Photoshop and other programs that enhance pictures in a negative way. My reason for this was due to many artists exceedingly using these apps to present a picture with no "personal vision". However, after viewing pictures that were taken by Joe Nalven and Bruce Gregory that had exotic attributes and a deeper meaning, I realized that apps like posterizing and oil paintings can show a different side to a photo that wouldn't look as exotic or even detailed if they were taken with a "normal" camera. I also found it very interesting how an oil painting application can bring two different cultures together and change peoples perception about their photos being taken.

    I will definitely try these new techniques with my own Canon.

    -Lamba Aziz

  6. the different settings and types of camera technology make for very good imagery. I like the oil painting application because it makes the image look like a blending of reality and a video game.

  7. Reinventing photography has been an ongoing process and continues to evolve everyday. I've taken a few photography classes myself and i know that alot of elements come into play to make a good shot. Lighting, scale, angle, and other options can change the look of a photograph and give it more depth and life. I enjoyed these photos and the "magic" of your camera adds a new side to these already amazing photos. It gives these shots a surreal and almost oilbased painting look.

  8. This is a very interesting article. Now, I am not one that regularly shows “disapproval” of any art form, although I have heard some of the opposing arguments towards “travel” photography. The way this article uses a snapshot (pun intended) of the blending between photography and technology in regards to art was both entertaining and seems to open a wide range of possibilities for the future of the medium. From a cultural standpoint, using the term “magic camera” appears appropriate, and furthermore helped to bridge the gap between rejection and intrigue, as is shown in the Andean example. The conclusion of this piece mentioning a “dialogue with oneself” is a captivating thought, especially given the way the various artist references through travelling and uses of this art medium – including uses of technology - seems to allow for an external dialogue as well, even when language and cultural background may differ.

  9. I truly have to say I enjoyed reading this article. As photography is a passion of mine, this article gave me a new perspective on photographic art. The integration of anthropology and photography had been a missing factor to me. I now and forever will consider cultural awareness when taking a photograph thanks to this article. It is truly interesting to learn from your experiances that a simple after effect on a photograph can put a member of a distinct culture at ease and allow you to capture their everyday lives. I would have never thought of placing myself in the shoes of others in order to effectively demonstrate a culturaly meaningful photograph. As a photographer, looking through a lens can give you a sense of seperation from your souroundings and now I know I must avoid that to capture the true essence of art.

  10. I found this article about reinventing photography interesting. The thing that struck me the most was how different photography was perceived in other countries. I had heard the myth that they believed by having their picture taken was having their souls taken. The fact that the new form of taking pictures made it seem like a painting more than a picture caused people in different countries to be more open to it is astounding. I definitely agree that photography is complex and there are a number of elements that go into making a picture. It is to that individual person that picture has a meaning regardless but to be able to convey that meaning to others as well is remarkable.

  11. Great article. I find it interesting when you described the "here comes the North American with his camera", and how shy, or rather superstitious the Andean culture is with camera's "stealing" the soul. But yet, you mentioned how your "magic" camera seemed to sway them away from the stigma of soul stealing by watching their image unfold in front of them as a painting. All in all, very nice article to read, and great photos!

  12. It is a very interesting article on how it goes into talking about culture and cameras. How our culture can develop around pics and see different cultures through lenses. How a camera can help a person to see and enjoy other cultures and many more. It also mentions how photography is reinventing how things are seen.

  13. This was very enjoyable to read. What I found so fascinating is that people actually think that if someone takes a picture of them then it steals their soul. I also found it incredible how you used your camera to show them that it was a "painting" that was very clever of you and a great use of that camera. For them to be so against getting their picture taken then so exited to get there picture "painted" amazes me beyond belief. This article is overall a great read and is fully detailed thank you for putting it up.

  14. I particularly enjoyed this article because i extremely enjoy photography and have an experience with photoshop and turning pictures with a camera into an actual artwork. Thanks to reading this i found out to not look like a "North American with a camera" but more like an artist that can teach. I found this article very intriguing and was delighted to read it, thank you Joe.

  15. interesting idea of going by this, i have many acquaintances who call themselves photographers but not many put this much thought into what they do. even though not all of it is extremely difficult its still creative enough yet simple enough to have a little more depth to them. thanks for a good read

  16. This is an excellent example of how technology is a cultural adaptation. In your article, Joe, you ‘paint’ a beautiful metaphoric description of this concept, allowing me to visualize this particular form of anthropological adaptation. My mom travels quite regularly and although I do love seeing all of vacation photos, I tend to stereotype her as “such a tourist.” I think after reading this I may be more open to the cultural aspect of her travels and the “vacation pics,” since she takes many candid shots. Such as: music/dance festivals in Budapest, Hungary, and landscapes in Switzerland, New Zealand, and Costa Rica. Thank you for sharing this with us, and for shedding a bit of enlightenment on tourist photography.

  17. This article as well as the pictures are very interesting. There are new things that I have seen that a camera can show,that sometimes the eye can't see. I love the effect on the open tombs and how the effect makes them look. -Michelle Valdivia

  18. This article is superb because it opens the eyes of its readers. Joe Nalven is absolutely right, art cannot be defined by the size, price, and how sophisticated the equipment is nor by the "expertise" of the "tourist". (I personally have seen my friends wear Nikon SLRs like an accessory around my school... three out of five of them do not even know the full extent their cameras could go in the art of photography-- it's become the thing to have) My point is that if travel photography with an ordinary digital camera can make me feel undeniable connections with the stills and people captured, and even with the photographer himself, and even for just a brief moment.. isn't that what art's purpose is? Mr. Nalven accomplished the main goal of photographers and artists combined, and that is why this article is awesome. -vg

  19. I really enjoyed looking at both the Andes Infrared and the Visible Andes photo books. While some of the "magic" camera shots are very intruiging, my preference leans toward the infrared images. Those seem to portray a type of absence or emptiness in them.
    William B.

  20. Wonderful insight on landscape and time photography. I was amused how you tricked the indigenous people that you weren't taking a photograph, even though we know you were. It gets you to wonder how gullable people can be, but then again they just don't have the knowledge. Great images thank you for sharing them.
    Kevin G.

  21. First, I would like to say that I was immediately taken in by the infrared image of "Machu Picchu, Early Morning" by you, Joe. I have seen many images of the famous ruins but this version brought it to a new light and gave me a new appreciation for such untraditional lenses. I share a similar experience with the way photographic technology can assist in making a connection with the culture you are trying to capture. When I went to Puebla, Mexico, I stayed in one of the Totonaca communities who, although are not completely segregated from the more advanced societies of Mexico, don't have such technology immediately available. Thus the digital sport camera- although not as "magical" as the one you have used with different apps, was pretty "magical" to this community. The children, in particular, were most interested in seeing their instant reflection. It aided in the participant observation I was informally partaking in and allowed us to be accepted by the adults in the community who saw their children being so entertained by our visiting group. I can only imagine what a truly "magical" camera would have done to help us connect with that community.
    -Yvette Aguilera

  22. The images were all breath taking and gave an amazing percpective to the so many diffelerent places and people around the world. Seeing how magical something so simple -to us,as an app can be to others is an eye opener to the culture differences. I loved the "magic" camera photos but the infared of the andes is just anamzing.

  23. Great post. I found this relatable because I took a photo editing class 2 years ago that used the programs, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator which can make effects similar to the ones in the article. My favorite type of photography is long exposure. I think it is awesome that photos can take us to places that we have been to before. The bit about the magic camera was very neat because it can easily show how technology works to other folks who may have never experienced it before.

    I will keep this article in mind when I visit my grandma's family in Mexico this coming Christmas.

    - Marcus Slaughter

  24. I thought i was a really good read. The way people can take pictures ad its the same thing we look at but it can also be taken in a different perspective. Other people in different cultures may have never seen a picture that has been taken. It opens the eyes of people who have never seen a picture of what there actually looking at. the pictures look cool.