Wednesday 26 October 2022

Homer Jackson

I made my first rail trip up to London in over two years a couple of weeks ago. It still seems strange to consider something as mundane as a train journey as a risky experience, but Covid numbers have started to climb again, and yet virtually nobody was wearing a mask in what turned out to be quite a crowded train, all of us sitting in carriages in which any attempt to mandate empty seating space between passengers has lapsed. Surely the connection between these things doesn't really need pointing out, does it? Or maybe it does, not least to the guy with a persistent cough seated somewhere near the front of my carriage. I felt sorry for anyone sitting next to him.

I was accompanying my partner, who was catching a Eurostar connection to an academic gig in Paris. I didn't feel like tagging along, as I have done in the past, but did think it was time finally to venture into the capital before everything is shut down again. To be honest, the whole Covid experience has made me quite travel-averse, despite being up to date with my booster shots and, after two years, now taking elementary precautions as a matter of habit; my hands have never been so clean! So instead I arranged to meet up with a friend at the National Gallery who had expressed an interest in seeing the exhibition of paintings by Winslow Homer on show there.

Apart from the one very famous but slightly hysterical picture of a man in a damaged boat being menaced by large sharks and an oncoming storm, I was more or less unaware of the work of this American painter, and I get the impression that I'm not unusual in that regard. Unlike, say, Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth, his renown as a "realist" painter seems not to have travelled much outside North America, and I had no real idea of what to expect. But the reviews were enthusiastic and it was a good enough excuse finally to catch a train to London.

Actually, some of the reviews were ecstatic:

I neared the end of the Metropolitan Museum’s grave and vital Winslow Homer exhibition shaken by its accumulation of tragedy, struggle and catastrophe. And then I encountered a large painting that overwhelmed me with a climactic rush of dread. My heart accelerated, my eyes welled up and I tried to turn away from a scene that was both inconsequential and epic.

Ariella Budick, Financial Times April 20 2022

Crikey! I know climate change is happening fast, but outbreaks of Stendhal Syndrome in Trafalgar Square? This is getting serious.

Despite the enthusiasm of the professional reviewers, I have to say that – apart from one or two large canvases ("The Veteran in a New Field", for example), some of his Civil War paintings (which reminded me of nothing so much as the gruesome Civil War bubble gum cards we used to collect in primary school), as well as the very different work done while Homer was living at Cullercoats on the English north-east coast – I really could not see what all the fuss was about. As another friend commented, a lot of it is borderline kitsch. There is also a sublimated eroticism running through the work that, once noticed, is hilarious: at least, that was our reaction, confronted by yet more women in clinging wet clothing, this time rescued from the waves by posturing WASP-y hunks in trunks. And, no, that wasn't the one that caused Ariella Budick's "climactic rush of dread".

When it comes to paintings worth travelling to London to see, I expect at the very least to admire bravura technique, but Homer's work in oils could mostly be described as rough to the point of slapdash (Jonathan Jones, despite reviewing the show favourably in the Guardian, called it "clunky"), and for a "realist" his rendering tends to the perfunctory – he seems to have been less interested in surfaces, or indeed people, than in shapes. Curiously, he could handle the far more tricky medium of watercolour rather better. In the end, it seemed to me that some good illustrative work – the sort of thing that would work well reproduced in a magazine alongside a short story or feature – was being over-scrutinised for its comment-worthy metaphorical content at the expense of its actual achievement as painting. Take that famous one, "The Gulf Stream": is the Black man in the leaky boat menaced by sharks and an approaching waterspout really a comment on racism in America? Are those by any chance "great white" sharks? (Actually, no, they're not). Well, yes, you can certainly choose to read it that way; but it could equally well be seen as an overwrought scenario of multivalent peril, from which the only possible hope of rescue is by some comic-book superhero, or indeed by the ship appearing over the horizon in the background. It would be a decent illustration to "Gripping Yarns of the Caribbean", but is poor stuff, to my eye, as a painting.

Quite what was intended by the exhibition's subtitle, "A Force of Nature", in particular, seems mysterious to me, assuming the "A" refers to Homer himself. These are not the paintings of some tempestuous wild man, channelling nature's power like a human turbine; they are mainly rather static scenes taking place at the ocean's edge, or on placid inland waters, or even on genteel croquet lawns. The rather unconvincingly-painted ocean waves do rise up in solid-looking peaks, it's true, but he seems less interested in "natural forces" than the semi-silhouettes of things like umbrellas or long skirts blowing in the wind. So I was underwhelmed, shall we say, and felt we had been sold a false prospectus by the reviews. But, then again, I was also glad not to feel the need to stay in the exhibition rooms for very long, as it meant there would be more time for catching up with an old friend over coffee in the gallery's restaurant.

Oak and Beetles
(Kurt Jackson, 2018)

A rather safer and, as it turned out, more satisfying recent excursion was to Kurt Jackson's travelling exhibition "Biodiversity", currently at Southampton City Art Gallery, but due to close at the end of this month before moving on. For some while I've been in receipt of his emailed newsletter, and it was a reminder in the most recent one that prompted me to make a Saturday afternoon visit to the show before it was too late. Who is Kurt Jackson? Well, he is at least two unusual things: a scientist (well, OK, a zoologist) who became an artist, and a decent artist who has managed to turn himself into a brand without the preening self-regard of others who have managed the same trick. I doubt his work is rated highly, if at all, by the sort of critic or gallerist who has dizzy spells over Winslow Homer – the national newspapers haven't deigned to review "Biodiversity" so far – but he is popular, prolific, and an activist in some very laudable causes (although being court painter to the Glastonbury Festival strikes me as a dubious honour, these days). Rather than go on, I'll link you to his website, where the full range of his work and activities is on show. There's also a nice appreciation of Kurt here.

Now, my previous acquaintance with Jackson's work was almost entirely based on print (I have a couple of his books), and online viewing. As I'm sure I've said before, an awful lot of the painting I enjoy, like an awful lot of the photography, has only ever been seen by me (and is, in my experience, often best seen) in reproduction. The things that turn on true fans of paint – transparency, impasto, brush strokes, imposing size, and all that – can only be experienced when stood before the Real Thing, but that's not an experience many of us have in our formative years. Like any small-town kid with an interest in art, I grew up looking at colour reproductions in Sunday colour supplements and the glossy black paperbacks of Thames & Hudson's "History of Art" series. In my mind, all famous Renaissance paintings, for example, were about as big as a 1000-piece jigsaw; I knew they weren't really that small, obviously, but it was still quite a shock the first time I stood in front of the gigantic originals. Anyway, one surprise in store for me at the City Art Gallery was that some of Kurt Jackson's paintings are very big indeed, and others are really quite small. In reproduction, it's hard to tell which is which.

Oak and Beetles, up close...

As they say, it's not size that matters, but what you do with it (settle down at the back, I'm talking about painting). Working on a large scale does give Jackson the space to work freely with his favoured splatter and impasto techniques, and the sheer quantity of paint on a large support a couple of metres wide is impressive in itself. Standing with your nose close to a very large painting made by flinging paint at a large canvas out of doors is a very different experience to seeing it reproduced in a book, not unlike "pixel peeping" a digital image at 100% on a screen. I must admit I found myself seriously wondering, how much did something like this cost to produce? How much does it weigh? Can you buy oil paint by the gallon, like emulsion paint? Maybe this is emulsion paint? Take a few steps back, of course, and the thing comes together as a picture, not unlike the one in the catalogue, just a lot bigger and more ... bumpy. It's nice to be in the presence of the Real Thing, but "Oak and Beetles" above is not particularly large (roughly 60cm square), and to own the original will cost you £8,500. So I'm happy with my own snaps, and the small, un-bumpy version in the catalogue, which gives you everything in the show for just £25.

Mind you, if it's big paintings you're after, as in BIG, Anselm Kiefer is your man. He's an engaging character, in that mischievous-but-sincere Germanic vein exemplified by Werner Herzog, and there are various videos online of him at work: here's a nice one talking about his chosen materials, which include straw and a machete (and in which he reveals his talent as a cowherd; who knew?). I like Kiefer's work a lot (as I'm sure he'll be glad to hear) but I have never quite forgiven the hangers of the 2018 Royal Academy Open Exhibition for what they did to some of that year's successful entrants, whose works were used as a sort of frame and cordon sanitaire around one of Kiefer's more modestly-sized works. If I'm ever selected again for the RA Open – so far it's been 1 out of 5 (or 2 out of 5 if "shortlisted" counts as 0.5) – I just hope they don't put me at "binoculars only" height. What would be the point?

Friday 21 October 2022


This is a prospective submission I made for the "Southampton City of Culture" open exhibition, which I've decided I probably prefer to the one I did actually submit. Like that one, it has a (slightly adapted) extract from Marx's Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:
The less you eat, and drink, the fewer books you buy, the less often you go to the theatre, the dance-hall, the pub, the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, etc., the more you will save, and the greater grows your treasure which neither moths can devour nor thieves take away: your capital. The less you are, the less you express your  own life, so the more you have; the more of your life you give up, the more you store up of  ...  Well, what?

The framing version of the text ends with Marx's original words: "... the more you store up your alienated being", and "ghosted" behind the main version is the original text in German in a Fraktur font. A nice decorative touch, I thought, but one that would mark me out as precisely the kind of elitist intellectual snob (as if!) the judges would reject on sight. Which they did anyway!

Also, I guessed that the image of our city as occupied by alienated folk largely remote from cultural life living in rows of Victorian terraces in the shadow of the docks (as if!) might not be the modern, multi-cultural, bushy-tailed look they were after. We'll never know. It would make a nice poster, though.

Monday 17 October 2022

Hipstamatically Tintypical

One of the easy (guilty?) pleasures of an iPhone is the use of apps like Hipstamatic and TinType to produce something instant and eye-pleasing from an otherwise unremarkable photograph. They're fun to play with, and I do have both on my phone. However, I rarely use them except in moments of boredom, for the same reasons that I rarely if ever use the canned effects and simulations that are built into most digital cameras and image-editing software. But, it's fair to ask, what are those reasons?

Well, let's start with the obvious. Call me a deluded snob (actually, don't) but I like to think my photography is a cut above the average, aspires to the condition of "art", and is primarily an exercise in pure seeing. In other words, I think what makes at least some of my photographs special is my own inbuilt perceptual apparatus – what programmers are pleased to call "wetware" – and the learning process I have subjected it to over decades, and definitely not any effects drizzled over the resulting images, like tasty sauce on an indifferent meal. I'm not talking about my digital collage work, here – which you might legitimately say is effects all the way down – but the "straight" photography that has sustained my creative impulse, and earned me several exhibitions and whatever little reputation I may have as a picture-maker.

Now, there is an argument that, unlike film photography, digital photography can never really be "straight", given the many transformations an image has to undergo before ending up as a print on paper (assuming it ever gets that far). Some like to take this argument further, and claim that therefore anything goes to a far greater extent than with film, up to and including outright fakery, such as dropping in a more picturesque sky, or enhancing the eye-appeal of a portrait's sitter from a six to a nine. I wouldn't go that far, but – documentary and photojournalist photography aside, where strict rules against "manipulation" still apply – this is simply the name of the digital game; it is not a crime to "improve" a picture, although most would-be improvers do seem to lack the taste to avoid a descent into tackiness when doing so.

Even if you are only making monochrome images from colour originals using a plug-in filter like Silver Efex then you, too, are faking it, strictly speaking. One of this blog's favourite ugly words is "skeuomorphic" [1], and there can surely be little argument that a photograph which has been filtered to resemble, say, the grain and characteristic tonality of a classic film-stock like Tri-X is a skeuomorph. If you've ever worked in the darkroom, you'll appreciate the difference between the experience of adjusting a few sliders on a screen – job done! – and driving yourself slowly crazy with repeated rounds of test prints made in trays of noxious chemical baths. The latter is by no means a superior experience – far from it, in my view – but it is the authentic experience behind the Tri-X look.

By and large, though, I think we're mainly inclined to accept straightforward B&W digital photos without much complaint, as the elevation of tone over colour is such a traditional aspect of photographic practice. Similarly, by using a different filter or with a few shoves on various sliders you can just as easily push a naturalistic colour photo into the garish fantasy world of crunchy "high dynamic range" (HDR) imagery and super-saturated colours, and still get few objections; it's just as fake as, say, a "watercolour painting" filter, and not at all to my taste, but ubiquitous and very popular. Mostly, we judge all such "looks", however achieved, on their merits; do they work, or are they just the liberal application of photographic MSG to appeal to jaded palates?

However, the biggest step along the skeuomorphic path is to fake the look of so-called alt-processes –  wet-plate collodion, platinotype, tintype, and the like – with an app or filter. Now, these venerable photographic techniques are elaborate, expensive, and sometimes hazardous to health, and require a set of hard-won skills, the use of a cumbersome view camera yielding large negatives, and a well-equipped darkroom. In other words, those coveted alt-process "looks" are achieved by application, determination, and a considerable outlay in time, money, and experiment. To produce an instant simulacrum of them, simply by passing a photo through an app on your phone, is rather like taking a taxi from the start of a marathon to a few blocks short of the end, and collecting a finisher's medal. Fine, if you're just amusing yourself; not so fine, if you're passing off your "achievement" as something it is not.

To be honest, I'm ambivalent about alt-processes, anyway: the line that divides authentic expression from gimmickry is one that is very easily crossed. It's fair to ask, what is gained by showing contemporary reality using the representational modes of the 19th century? Difficult and complex procedures may be rewarding in themselves to those so inclined but, as many people have said: nobody else cares how hard you worked. Which is not entirely true: buyers of prints care very much that what they are buying is what it appears to be, and that a certain amount of an artist's blood, sweat, and tears have become infused into the paper, figuratively, if not literally. I have argued elsewhere that this is one of the reasons for the widespread prejudice in the art world against digital work.

As always, everything depends on whether the final characteristic look of the result reinforces the aesthetic intentions of the photographer. Sally Mann is an obvious example of an artist who has made wet-plate photography integral to her work, and in small doses Joni Sternbach's tintypes of surfers work for me, though I'm never sure why; something about sun, sea, and surfer dudes just seems to suit that approach. But (let's not name names) anyone who dresses up models in antique clothing with antique props simply in order to make an old-fashioned-looking photo look even more old-fashioned is wasting everybody's time, aren't they? As the book of Ecclesiastes (almost) says: of the making of many pointless photographs there is no end.

So, if it's really just a look you're after, I suppose you might as well take a shortcut to your pointless photograph. After all, there's an app for that. And what is more fun, photographically, than fooling around with fakery, forgery, and fabrication?

1. Which I would define as "ornamental design features on an object, imitating or copied from an older or more prestigious form of the same or similar object, whose distinctive features are the result of the use of different materials and different techniques". For example, imitation leather grain and stitching on a plastic phone case.

Thursday 13 October 2022


On Monday night around half past nine there was a knock on the door. This usually means only one thing. We live in a street which has a very similar name to several adjacent streets, and most weeks some semi-literate but over-worked, poorly-paid, and well-meaning person will attempt to deliver takeaway food to us which we haven't ordered. I do my best to be patient, and redirect them from 47 Easy Street to 47 Easy Drive, or possibly Easy Way, with a cheery wave. After all, they have negotiated the various booby traps laid on our front drive in the dark, ignored the "cold callers will be summarily executed" sign, not to mention the tape loop of a pack of angry dogs, all for the sake of handing over a tepid pizza in a greasy box.

But instead, standing there in the dark, was my Filipino next door neighbour, Jay, holding a large plastic bowl, and saying, "Hi, Mike, do you eat fish?" Which was both sufficiently similar to and yet utterly different from the anticipated scenario as to induce a state of severe cognitive dissonance. I reached deep into my reserves of wit, tact, and common courtesy, but the best I could manage was, "Um, what?"

It turned out he had been sea-fishing out near Weymouth, and returned with more mackerel than he, his wife, or even their cat knew what to do with. So, once perception and reality had realigned in my head, I gratefully accepted two plump mackerel, both about a foot long and still with that stiffness and reproachful gaze that are the marks of truly fresh fish.

Now, the simple answer to the simple question, "Do you eat fish?" is "Yes, yes we do eat fish, thank you very much", but that does need some qualification. Most Saturday nights we eat haddock and chips, and most weeks we'll fry up some salmon on one evening. But – and this is the qualification – it has been some time since I last bought whole "wet" fish, in need of gutting and preparation before cooking. It seems few of us do, despite being surrounded by sea on all sides. In fact, it seems most of the catch of our hardy fisherfolk goes to Europe; if it isn't filleted cod or haddock, coated in batter and deep-fried, then this "island race" ain't eating it, mate. You have to wonder why they bother to put that wet-fish counter in the supermarkets, for all the custom it gets.

So, as I sharpened a knife and got busy with those mackerel, a stream of thoughts and memories passed through my mind.

The striking thing about gutting any creature, I think, is how empty the cavity containing its vitals actually is. A few tugs and strokes of the knife, and it's clean and clear, like a ribbed boat or a vaulted roof. When I was a boy, most of my surviving older relatives were country folk, for whom gutting ("drawing"), skinning, and jointing a rabbit or cleaning and plucking a chicken were everyday kitchen skills, as routine as boiling cabbage. One Christmas, my grandfather gave us a brace of pheasants – he'd been a beater that year for the local gentry's shoot – which had to be hung in the larder until they were sufficiently "gamey", then prepared. He delighted in showing me how, by pulling the tendons protruding from the severed legs, the bird's feet could be made to clasp and unclasp. Dead and butchered, it was still a working machine of sorts; an instructive, Frankensteinian horror for a seven-year-old with a precocious interest in natural history.

On the other hand, my mother, who worked nine to five – first in a shoe-shop, later in the admin offices of a department-store chain – was a reluctant cook, at best. She was more than happy to feed us the new "convenience" foods of the 1960s, things like frozen fish fingers and MSG-laced burgers and anything with the word "instant" on the packet. An aspect of modern life that, I'm certain, appalled the mother of a close friend and near neighbour who was a domestic science teacher. When we went on school trips, his packed lunches were full of nutritious, wholesome sandwiches and fruit, never the crisps, sausage rolls, and other tasty processed snacks the rest of us happily gorged on.

But I suppose the main thought I had was about how remote we as consumers in the industrialised countries have become from the real "facts of life". How the ingredients of something as sophisticated as mackerel pâté, bought in a fancy delicatessen, start with a hook in the mouth of a fish, roots and tubers taking their chances with weather and pests beneath the soil, and cows separated from their calves to ensure our supply of their milk. I see no reason to be squeamish or judgmental about any of this, the heritage of thousands of years of hunter-gathering, farming, and peasant life, although the effects of industrialised food production and the over-processing of food "products" on the health of both humanity and the planet on which we depend really should be giving us urgent pause for thought. Vegetarianism is surely not the answer, though, if it means covering the landscape with monocultures, and polluting rivers and the seas with the runoff of pesticides and fertilisers.

The pre-packed meats and filleted fish, the ready-trimmed and washed vegetables in our supermarkets, and above all this turn to a diet of takeaway meals are all a telling metaphor and a reproach. It can't just be a question of being "too busy" to cook anything requiring the preparation of basic ingredients: too busy doing what? What essential, creative labours filled the forty minutes during which your Chinese meal was cooked, packed, and mistakenly delivered to my door, you who live in 47 Easy Way? Do you really not know how to boil rice or make a stir-fry? It seems we no longer see the connection between poor diet, obesity, and ill-health, even though I'm pretty sure my childhood friend's mother could already see it happening back then, sixty years ago. And a major cause of this blindness is simply that we're no longer prepared to get our hands dirty, to do the elementary labour in the kitchen that reconnects consumption to production.

It is a conundrum, though. Industrialised food is a necessity in a hungry, overcrowded world, and cheap food is essential in societies where poverty is systematically priced into the economy. Even if you knew how, you can't grow vegetables living in a flat, and I'm pretty sure the authorities would have something to say if you tried raising and slaughtering livestock at home. It's true, my grandfather did keep a succession of pigs at the end of his garden during and after the war, and they didn't die or end up as bacon, chops, and sausages by accident, but the days of the peripatetic pig-man with his buckets and sharp knives are long gone. And even those of us who do cook daily from basic ingredients depend on supply chains that should induce feelings of disquiet, even guilt. Sugar-snap peas from Kenya? Out-of-season brussels from South Africa?

But mackerel straight from the sea off Weymouth, delivered as a gift from a friendly neighbour! What's not to like? Unless, of course, you either don't eat fish, or know what to do with one. Happily, I do.

Sunday 9 October 2022

The Big Little Picture

In a previous post (Restraint, Lack of) I remarked that I make my digital collage files as large as I practically can because "an unresampled reduction of a large file always gives far better results than a resampled enlargement of a small one"; an uncontroversial observation, but it seems that even fairly experienced users of image-editing software find it hard to understand whether or not to "resample" a file when resizing it. So, here, for what it's worth, is my attempt at an Idiot's Guide to resizing. Not interested? Only ever look at your photos on a phone screen? You're excused this class.

What follows may be confusing. The trouble, where digital imaging is concerned, is that it's a case of metaphors all the way down: until and unless you print the damned thing, there is no actual "picture", just various analogue interpretations of some digital data held in your camera, computer, or phone. We're in the perplexing world where analogue meets digital. Where, for example, on an RGB device like a computer screen "white" is also "255255255" (i.e. red, green, and blue all at the maximum value of 255), and "black" is "000000000" (i.e. red, green, and blue all at the minimum value 000), with nearly 17 million other nameless but precise colours in between.

However, a technical understanding is not needed to grasp the basics. No-one really needs to get into pixel binning, demosaicing, Bayer filters, and all that, just in order to edit an image. So, let's be bold and over-simplify some essential concepts: for a start, let's say that a digital camera captures a real-world image by turning it into a two-dimensional grid of identically-sized square dots (pixels), each filled with just one of those 17 million nameless colours.

Megapixels vs. Megabytes: The size of the image captured by a digital camera or phone is expressed in "megapixels" (MP) i.e. millions of pixels, which is simply the result of multiplying the length in pixels of one side of the grid with the length in pixels of the other side. For example, an "eight MP" iPhone image has dimensions 2448 px by 3264 px: so (2448 x 3264) = 7,990,272, which is close enough to eight million for jazz. However, 8 MP is is not a measure of the size of the resulting digital image file, which is measured in bytes (kilobytes, megabytes, or even gigabytes) just like any other digital file. Some confusion arises, I suspect, from the use of the word "size" to refer to both the image's dimensions and the size of the file containing it.

File types: If no processing is applied to the image data "in camera" (stuff like sharpening, contrast, white balance, etc.) then all the original data captured by the camera can be saved as what is known as a  "raw" file. However, although raw files have advantages for the advanced user, they first have to be be re-interpreted by a raw-file converter into a standard file type like TIFF or JPEG before they can be used in any image-editing software, and this is a step too far for most camera users [1]. Most users prefer to use files which have been pre-processed in the camera by its inbuilt algorithms to some standard notion of optimum attractiveness and saved in the standard and widely-used JPEG format (most phones only offer this option, anyway).

It's important to know, however, that there are so-called "lossless" file types and "lossy" file types. That is, there are file types which keep all the image data when an edit is made, and types which throw data away. A TIFF file is an example of the former, and the ubiquitous JPEG of the latter. The maximum quality and flexibility is achieved by using lossless files, but because they preserve all the image data they are relatively large. The process of discarding image data is known as "compression", but more often referred to as "quality" within editing software. A maximum quality JPEG (i.e. one with the least compression) is an excellent image file, and a good starting point, but the more compression that is applied in order to make the saved JPEG file smaller – which is convenient – then the lower the final image quality, because more and more image data gets thrown away with each step down the quality / compression ladder. The thing to realise is that these lost data cannot be recovered: "compression" is a misleading term, with its implication that the image might be able to bounce back to its original full quality.

So, let us now – finally! – discuss image resizing and resampling.

Let's assume you've transferred your image files onto a computer, and are using some image-editing software (I use Photoshop Elements 10, nothing fancy). Let's also assume you know how to open your resizing dialogue, and have noticed that there is a setting (usually a tickbox) labelled "resample". There are essentially four inter-related quantities that come into play when resizing: the image resolution (the number of pixels per inch); the image's linear dimensions measured in inches or centimeters; its linear dimensions measured in pixels; and the file size in bytes [2]. All of these will normally be visible in a resizing dialogue. So:

If you resize an image without resampling, you are saying, in effect, "give me that exact same grid of pixels, but with its outer dimensions changed to this new size". No changes will be made to the pixels, as such, just to the size of the grid containing them. If you make the grid smaller, the pixels shrink to fit (the resolution, measured as "pixels per inch", goes up, as there are now more pixels per inch); if you make it bigger, the pixels expand (the resolution goes down, as there are now fewer pixels per inch). In a non-resampled resized file all the pixels remain exactly the same – they're just coloured squares – and simply shrink or expand to fit the new grid dimensions. The converse is also true: if you resize by changing the resolution, there will be a resulting proportional change in the linear dimensions.

But, in a non-resampled resize, although the resolution and the linear size in inches/cm are linked together proportionally – as one goes up, the other goes down – the file's size in bytes and its pixel count are constant. No change has been made to the actual grid of pixels, no image data has been lost or added, and so the file's size in bytes remains exactly the same.

If you resize by resampling, on the other hand, you are saying, in effect, "resize the grid dimensions for this image, and also recreate all the pixels to fit the new grid at the specified resolution". To achieve this, the image is completely reinterpreted by the image-editing software, and a whole new grid of pixels is created.

In a resampled resize the resolution, the dimensions measured in inches, and the dimensions in pixels can all be changed, separately or in combination. For example, if you enter a new image width in inches, the file will be recreated at the existing resolution unless you also specify a new resolution value; similarly, if you enter a new resolution, the file will be recreated at the existing width in inches unless you also specify a new width. And, because the grid of pixels will have been reinterpreted and fully recreated by the software to fit the new grid at the required resolution, there will always be a change in the pixel count and the file's size in bytes.

Resampling a file also means that, once it has been saved, irreversible changes will have been made to the image, changes which may also have an effect on the image quality, especially if a "lossy" filetype like JPEG is used. If an image is made smaller and/or not compressed too much it will look fine, but if it's enlarged too much and/or over-compressed it will almost certainly look bad – unsharp, pixelated, and full of "artefacts" – because the image editor is working with maths and little coloured squares, not the original real world image.

So when would one choose to use which of the two methods of resizing?

Most often, resizing by resampling is done in order to reduce the dimensions of the image, the size in bytes of the image file, and/or its resolution. As an example, let's take a photo from my iPhone 12 mini. It produces a 12 megapixel image, with dimensions 3024 px by 4032 px, at a resolution of 72 pixels per inch (ppi).

Now, 72 ppi is the traditional resolution for images to be viewed on a screen but, without resizing, the length of this image is (4032 / 72) = 56 inches, which is impractically huge for viewing on a screen [3]. So, if I wanted to use it in a webpage, for example, I'd need to resize it radically; let's say to 8.5 inches long at 96 ppi (a more suitable screen resolution for modern devices). In that case, I would resize it by resampling: I'd tick the "resample" box in the resizing dialogue [4], set the resolution to 96 ppi, and the long edge length to 8.5 inches. The pixels would then be reinterpreted to fit into a new, smaller grid of 612 x 816 pixels, resulting in a much smaller file, one which is not only just the right size for the webpage, but will also be a lot quicker to load online.

In other words, the picture was re-interpreted by the image editor so that those 12 million-ish pixels became a mere 499,392 pixels, which nonetheless still represent the same image adequately at the new dimensions and resolution required. The actual new size of the file in bytes and the quality of the picture will depend on the level of compression I choose, assuming I save it as a JPEG (the file type mainly used in webpages). But even at the highest quality it will have become a much smaller file.

On the other hand, let's say I want to print it. Generally speaking, you wouldn't resample a file for printing purposes. For good-quality printing, 300 or 360 ppi are the gold standard, but anything over that is fine: you don't need to resample a large image down to 300 ppi when resizing in order to print it. This example iPhone file has sufficient pixels to print well at a decent size at 300 ppi: (4032 / 300) = 13.44 inches. So if, let's say, I wanted to print it 9 inches wide, I would do a non-resampled resize: untick the "resample" box, set the width at 9 inches, and let the resolution change in proportion to 448 ppi. [5]

Making an image larger either with or without resampling is more problematic, and is where case-by-case judgement comes into play, especially for printing purposes. It's a subject in its own right, and I won't discuss it here. You can get specialised "up-ressing" software that uses all sorts of cunning AI ploys to achieve a better result, allegedly, than the standard tools available in regular image-editing software  handy, I suppose, if you want to make a poster out of a postage stamp  but I have no experience of these, and to be honest I distrust their claims. There's only so much you can do with maths and little coloured squares.

Finally, at some point you will also need to make an informed choice of what file format to use if you need to save your new, resized version of an image file.

If you choose JPEG (most people seem to), then you will be offered a choice of levels of "compression" (or "quality") as described above. A high-quality JPEG is great for finalised images, even for printing exhibition-quality work, especially as the smaller file size is more practical for uploading to a commercial printer; it's not so great if you might want to make further edits, as a little more data will be thrown away each time you re-save it. Also, if you compress the file too far because you want to save disk space, you will very quickly lose image quality as more and more data is discarded.

A "lossless" format like TIFF is the best option for anyone wanting to work at the highest levels of quality, but this will make for much larger files, even if your camera or phone is rated as modestly as 12 or 16 MP, never mind some 100 MP monster. The TIFF version of a raw or JPEG file produced by a camera or phone will always be significantly bigger than its source file, simply because of the different way that format codes its data.

An example. That 12 MP image from my iPhone 12 mini is:

5.6 MB in its "native" HEIC file type [6]
10.5 MB when the HEIC is converted to the highest-quality JPEG
10.5 MB as a "raw" DNG file created on the phone by the Halide app 
35.8 MB when either the JPEG or the DNG file is saved as a TIFF file.
361 KB (tiny) when the TIFF is resized by resampling as a high-quality JPEG, 8.5 inches long and at 96 dpi for my blog.

Despite this, I always save any photo I want to work on as a TIFF: did I mention I was running out of disk space?

The crucial thing to remember, though, is never to save a file which you have resized by resampling with the same name and file type as the original file. NEVER! The changes made by resampling are irreversible. In fact, I'd recommend that you never save a file edited in any way with the same name as the original. Just get in the habit of adding "_v2", "_v3", or something of the sort to the filename, and saving it as a new file. It's far better to use up precious disk space than to lose even more precious file data. (Says the man with the disk-space problem...)

Phew, what a lot of words to explain something so simple... OK, there's the bell, lesson's over. Don't forget your homework, and no running in the corridors!

(xkcd cartoon 2671: mouseover text:
"It's OK, we can just feed the one-pixel image into an AI upscaler and recover the original image, or at least one that's just as cool")

1. Those of us who prefer to work with raw files do so because we believe, rightly or wrongly, that working with all the image data as captured keeps more options open than working with the over-tweaked subset delivered by the camera's preset algorithms. It does require work, but it can take just as much work to undo the over-saturated eye-candification of a smartphone JPEG image made under grey British skies, and TBH not much can be done after the event to remedy the over-enthusiastic noise-reduction and sharpening that make a photo look so gorgeous on a tiny phone screen.

2. It is unfortunate that resolution tends to be measured in inches, but image dimensions and paper sizes (in civilised countries, anyway) in millimetres / centimetres. To keep things simple, I'll use inches. Also, all of my examples presume that the original picture proportions ("aspect ratio") will be kept, so that the short side of the image is automatically resized in proportion to the long side, and vice versa. There is usually a tick box in the dialogue to ensure this, which can be unticked, but madness lies down that road...

3. So why doesn't it look huge on my phone, I hear you ask? Well, they don't call them "smart" phones for nothing... The phone's software creates a temporary display-sized version of the actual file without being told to do so.

4. Don't ask me about which of the resampling methods is best (usually offered as a dropdown menu of choices). I have always used the Photoshop default of "bicubic" without any problems. As I say, this is about maths and tiny coloured squares...

5. Printing is a whole other zone of confusion, of course. I remember struggling to explain to one guy, a very competent photographer, why he didn't need to resample his images to 1440 ppi to match his printer's output of 1440 dpi ("dots per inch"). Having read this post, you probably sympathise with him.

6. The newer "High Efficiency Image" file type is claimed to have various technical advantages over JPEG, and has been adopted by Apple. The main problem for us users of cheap, old editing software is that these files can't be opened, and must be converted into JPEGs using a standalone utility anyway! Despite being rather smaller in size, the actual image quality of HEIC images does look identical to me.

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Return of the Slacker

One of the intriguing aspects of writing a blog is looking at the stats to see which old posts have been picking up readers in the last week. Sometimes it's obvious why. A few of my posts are pretty much the only item on the Web reflecting on someone in whom a small community of people still have an abiding interest or curiosity: photographer and educator Mike Skipper, for example. Comments still arrive on such posts, many years after the item was originally posted. Other posts just seem to have been stumbled over by someone somewhere, struck a chord with them, and perhaps been passed around, although I have no way of knowing by whom or why unless they do comment. We're usually talking about just a dozen or fewer readers, though; disappointingly, I have never yet had a post go "viral" on social media. In the past week a post from June 2011, The Inner Slacker Speaks, has picked up some traffic and, on rereading, it seemed interesting and apposite enough to repost, lightly edited. It's hard to believe eleven years have come and gone since I wrote it. Here it is:

There have been fewer photographs on this blog recently. Occasionally, I find my need to get out and take photographs declines, and the last month has been such a time. It doesn't usually last long, but such fallow periods are usually the result of a temporary victory of my Inner Slacker over my Inner Puritan and his work ethic.

Photography, as an art medium, has a core problem of being thought to be too easy. Let's be honest, photography is easy. The difference in the levels of skill, time, and dedication that are required to practice, say, watercolour painting to the same level of representational adequacy as even the crudest snapshot is enormous. Photography removes those elements – let's call them an "investment" – from the equation. It's a low-investment medium. People tend not to value low-investment activities, however, and so artists using photography – wanting their work to be valued – generally go in one of three compensatory directions.

Some make photography difficult. For example, the investment in exposing large-format film, processing individual sheets by hand, and printing the images out onto hand-coated paper using various complex (and hazardous) "alternative processes" is quite large. But this is a "technical" investment. The core process – letting light in through a hole to expose a light-sensitive medium – is still the same in its essential simplicity. And a concentration on process, and the use of recalcitrant mechanisms like tilts, shifts, and even tripods, can – shall we say? – divert the photographer's attention from the image-making. Difficult photos are not necessarily good photos.

Some make a virtue of that simplicity. Photography is a good match for certain art-philosophical concerns about agency, intention, craft, and the relative merits of "conception vs. execution". Skill and talent have had a bad rep in the contemporary art world for some time (what, you hadn't noticed?) and using a camera in "idiot" mode neatly sidesteps such embarrassments. "Look", the artist can say, "I am curating, not creating, these mechanically-made images, which do not have any undesirable ideological or aesthetic agenda imposed on them from within my brain. There is no craft fetishism here! They are simply the world as it is". If you are so inclined (and can afford a good lawyer) you can even take this a logical step further, and "appropriate" photographs made by other people. Yes, we're looking at you, Richard Prince.

Others rely on subject matter. The kit may be simple to operate, but it can be used in situations that are intimidating or inaccessible to most people. Approaching or confronting complete strangers is astonishingly hard to do, for example, especially if they are hostile, and/or armed and unpredictable; not many are prepared to risk death or injury for a photograph. Placing oneself in a landscape and waiting for the right combination of light and weather requires a high level of planning, persistence, and patience. Even carefully composing and lighting a portrait or still life is beyond the capacity of 99.9% of camera owners. The work of such "subject" photographers has an obvious "wow" factor. At its best, you have documentary work like that of Sebastião Salgado or insightful explorations of landscape like Richard Misrach's; at its worst, you have the exquisitely dull, self-described "fine art" photography of any number of calendar-candy landscape photographers.

I don't consciously take any of these approaches, and have to say that, for me, the low-investment factor of photography is its big attraction. Not for any ideological reasons, but because I have tried a number of high-investment media, and know that I am too lazy to achieve anything worthwhile in them. I suffer from an urge to make pictures, have a reasonable degree of picture-making talent, but am totally lacking in application.

Take etching, for example. I love the look and feel of intaglio prints, and some while ago decided to learn how it was done. First, you must prepare a plate. The simple technique I was shown involved cutting, polishing, bevelling and degreasing a zinc plate, then heating it and applying a waxy coating or "ground" to the plate. You then make your drawing using any tools that can make marks through the ground to expose the metal. When you have finished, the plate is immersed in an acid bath to etch away the exposed areas of plate, carefully monitoring the depth of the etch, repeating as necessary, then ...

No, I'm sorry, I've already lost interest, and so have you, I can tell. It can take weeks to finish a decent plate. Suffice it to say I only ever managed to make four or five etchings in total. The end result (depending on your skill at both drawing and making the prints) can be very seductive – check out the work of Leonard Baskin, a frequent collaborator with Ted Hughes – but it can equally well be very dull, as such complex and time-consuming procedures encourage a conservative approach to picture-making. Spontaneous it ain't.

Like most people with a persuasive Inner Slacker, I'm a great one for trying things out, and then dropping them. Over the years I have made drawings and painted, etched and made lithographs and linocuts, but still couldn't fill a halfway decent portfolio with my work. But, since starting to photograph seriously around 1995, something clicked, and damned if I don't find I have now exhibited locally and internationally, self-published a dozen or more books, and have made enough coherent bodies of work to rival the output of all but the most prolific artists. How did that happen?

Sometimes my Inner Puritan worries that making photographs in this low-investment style isn't difficult enough to warrant the embarrassing attention-seeking that being an "artist" entails. That's OK, counters my Inner Slacker, we don't really want that much attention anyway, do we? Otherwise, how can we take the odd month off? Relax...