The argument of whether photography is art is not something I want to touch with a ten-foot sable-haired No. 3 paintbrush. Let us just say that, in my experience, there are times when a photographer sees something, and it sparks a vision.
That vision might lead, as it so often did in the case of photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, to an idea for a print. The photographer would figure out (or would serendipitously arrive at) the time and place to snap the picture. Said photographer would then take the processed negative into the darkroom and begin the labor-intensive practice of making the print.
Photographers have a huge collection of techniques for manipulating prints – burning, dodging, water baths, hot swabbing, bleaching (to name a few) – to achieve a vision that may lie outside the range of unmanipulated film and paper. Since these were manual, analog techniques, some of which require skill and practice comparable to an artist with brush or pencil, each print was a performance, and it was rare that two prints would be exactly the same.
In the modern photo world, good photographers spend no less time putting their vision into a form that successfully translates to a print (or, increasingly, a screen of some sort). The available tools for manipulating image files are vastly larger (Photoshop alone has hundreds) and the time spent is scarcely less, in my experience, than it was in the old analog days.
The big difference is that everything the digital photographer does is captured in the image file – both the original information and everything the photographer does to nudge the image closer to the vision. Once the photographer has a successful interpretation, that image can be reproduced any number of times, with great precision in every case.
While my goal as an analog photographer was usually a print, my goal as a digital photographer is the ‘digital master file’ that captures both the image and my intent (so-called ‘meta’ information). The photographer’s version of a ‘digital master’…