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|| News Item: Posted 2008-04-29

Burning Desire
By Kim Komenich, San Francisco Chronicle

©2008 Kim Komenich

Greetings from the "He's Got Way Too Much Time on His Hands" department here at Sports Shooter. Today we're going to look into the origin of the name of one of the buttons in Photoshop.

(There are some Sports Shooter readers who might never have made a darkroom print. If this is true in your case, the next three paragraphs are for you. If you're an old hand in the darkroom, please skip ahead.)

Nestled between the Sharpen and the Pen tool buttons in CS3 you'll find the "Dodge/Burn/Saturation tool" button. While the saturation tool is a relatively modern control, the dodge and burn tools are holdovers from the earliest days of photography.

For those of you who are new to the game, the little pancake flipper-looking thing represents the dodging wand, the tool we photojournalists used to use in the darkroom to cause a shadow to hold back enlarger light from certain parts of the projected negative while exposing the paper, making parts of the print lighter when developed.

The little "OK sign"-looking thing is the "burn tool". It represents the hands of the photographer as they shield the rest of the paper from the enlarger light while they add additional exposure to certain areas of the paper, making certain parts of the print darker when developed.

It occurred to me that "dodge" was an interesting term for this process, so I looked it up. One of the definitions offered by Webster says that a "dodge" is " evade a duty by low craft; to practice mean shifts; to use tricky devices; to play fast and loose..." In Dickens' Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins was the guy who introduced Oliver Twist to Fagin. A consummate pickpocket, Dawkins was known as the "artful dodger".

(Bert adds that the Brooklyn Dodgers got their name based on their ability to avoid getting run over by streetcars.)

One of the earliest references to "dodging" in photography came in 1869, in Henry Peach Robinson's Pictorial Effect in Photography. He wrote, "Any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer's use. It is his imperative duty to avoid the mean, the bare and the ugly, and to aim to elevate his subject to avoid awkward forms and to correct the unpicturesque." Robinson's composite photos, such as "Fading Away" (made with seven negatives in 1858) and Oscar G. Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" (made with more than 30 negatives in 1857) are among the best examples of the photographic "passion plays" of the pictorialist era.

These "painterly" images were probably the highest form of photographic expression in an era when exposures took several seconds. These images, along with the early street experiments by Hill and Adamson, and John Thomson are some of the earliest attempts at photographic story telling on record.

As technology advanced and photographers realized that the camera could be a tool for selecting and recording a tack sharp moment in time, the "straight photographers" and the pictorialists parted ways.

Fast-forward a hundred years to a loft near the corner of Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in New York. In a building inhabited by jazz musicians, abstract expressionist painters and beat poets, W. Eugene Smith is printing Madman, Haiti, 1959

Smith's "dodge" (as defined above by Webster) in this case is a "burn". The image comes from a 35mm negative. In fact it comes from a negative which shows the subject and several other people. Smith chooses to burn in the frame to the point where only the subject's face remains. The context is lost, yet few would disagree that the feeling of madness is intensified by the heavy-handed burn.

For me Smith has always resided in a cheap room at the Hotel Don Quixote next door to Jack Kerouac and Charlie Parker. Jackson Pollack is down the hall getting some ice and Lenny Bruce is on the phone trying to get a pizza delivered. Each, in their own self-destructive way, has helped to redefine their art form.

Fast forward another fifty years, give or take. The number of photographers who now have the ability to "print" like Smith and Peach Robinson and Rejlander has grown exponentially, as evidenced by the portfolios we see not only on the journalistic websites, but also on non-journalistic sites like the National Association of Photoshop Professionals

For the first time in the history of our craft, the photographer doesn't have to master the alchemy of silver-based photography. All they have to do is invest a thousand bucks or so to get the digital equivalent of Smith's darkroom. There's no doubt that the stunning imagery being produced by non-journalists is having an effect on the comparatively stodgy, ethics-managed world of photojournalism.

Advertising photography has begun to revert to the composite era of Rejlander and Peach Robinson. The scene of a location ad shoot is starting to look a lot like a location movie set, with the photographer lighting and shooting sometimes dozens of individual pieces of a scene which are fed, real-time, to a trailer where an art director approves the fragment to be used in the final "shot".

There's no doubt that the composite will find its way into newspapers. Look for it first in food and fashion as well as portraiture and the world of editorial illustration. But what happens when a photojournalist "assembles" a sports or a news photo from multiple images after the fact? It hasn't been a solid career move for the photographers who've done it so far. Should there be two sets of ethics-- one for the "hot" sections (news, sports and business) of a newspaper and one for the feature sections?


Henri Cartier-Bresson believed that photography should be "in the moment". He spoke of a "quiet anxiety" that builds as the photographer remains outwardly calm to his subject while trying to anticipate the simultaneous geometric, environmental and emotional crescendos that collide into a spilt second that is a photographic "decisive moment." Although he called himself a "visual pickpocket", the book Henri-Cartier-Bresson: Photoportraits shows Cartier-Bresson's ability to be "in the moment" in sometimes lengthy portrait sessions.

In 1986 Cartier-Bresson discussed Eugene Smith's time as a member of Magnum with a visiting photojournalist. "He didn't get on well with some of the members," Cartier-Bresson said. "I thought his photos were often too sentimental."

It was a clash of cultures, no doubt. In those years Smith had set the standard for the picture story and the photographic essay -- building, picture by picture, to an emotional crescendo. Most Magnum photographers, on the other hand, would never presume to tell anyone what to think. In the film "Henri Cartier-Bresson?", Cartier-Bresson says that photographers should "be very careful about the anecdote. The anecdote is just a picturesque attitude". Like many Magnum photographers, Cartier-Bresson left the printing of his work to a person whose passions in the darkroom were similar to his passion for shooting.

Photographer Garry Winogrand said that photographs couldn't ever be trusted to tell stories. "Photographs -- they're mute. They don't have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looked like, but you don't know what's happening," he says in a segment of "Creativity" hosted by Bill Moyers. "(...Photographs) show you what something looks a camera..."

Most of the time, general assignment newspaper photojournalists are problem solvers. Often our assignments are appointments to meet a subject who is waiting to have their picture taken, and to illustrate a reporter's idea. Look at any daily or weekly publication and you'll see how many "appointments" end up in print every day.

When a photograph truly happens "in the moment", and is not the result of a contrived situation for a newspaper photographer, it's a gift to the reader.


After the moment has passed and the pictures have been taken, the circumstances, which led to the moments in our images, cease to directly influence the telling of the story. At this point, in no small part, our pictures are about us. We can choose to keep them to ourselves or we can select some images to show to the world.

The very process of deciding which pictures to show make them "about" us. Further, decisions about the sequence, the cropping, the toning and the layout/Web presentation are all reflections of what strikes us about the subject. It's at this point that we must be careful to not condescend to the viewer through the use of overbearing technique. The key is to humbly call attention to the subject's situation with as little photographic melodrama and sentimentality as possible.


The eye "grazes" a scene, concentrating on one thing at a time. Picture yourself on a freeway overpass looking at three lanes of oncoming cars as they pass under you. You can pay attention to this scene in hundreds of different ways -- you can concentrate on three lanes of traffic, or one, or just red cars, or just drivers with sunglasses.
Researchers who study perception and how the eye sees things call this "foveal vision":

Another great book on visual perception is Richard Zakia's Perception and Imaging:

The camera doesn't have the benefit of foveal vision. It can only look at everything all at once, like a copy machine does. So as photographers anticipate their moment, they draw upon tools such as near-far perspective, subject distance, depth of field and lens choice, coupled with light and moment, in a compositional "working hypothesis" that will guide the reader's eye.

Photographers sometimes devise their own ways to direct the eye or exclude extraneous background elements in-camera. Magnum's Bruce Davidson said he chose to use flash for many of the photos his 1986 book Subway because it helped him deal with the boring fluorescent light on New York's subway cars. "It reminded me of using an underwater camera and flash, " he told a class at the San Francisco Academy of Art College in San Francisco in 1990, "I'd come up to a subject and the light from my flash would only fall on them, like in an underwater photograph."

Davidson got essentially the same effect in- camera that Smith got with heavy burning in Madman, Haiti, 1959. As in the case of many of the great W. Eugene Smith images, including "Walk to Paradise Garden" the burning in of the edges served to direct the eye.

The picture represents the photographer's best attempt at a composition that brings all of these variables into harmony (or chaos, if that's the goal.) Once the "moment" part of the process is complete, the cards come out of the cameras.

This is where sublime can become the ridiculous very quickly.

Nobody shoots a news picture with a crop or a burn in mind. It's after the "moment" that the idea for a crop or a burn comes into our heads. When we are in the field we can practice the art of exclusion in three dimensions by changing the ways we juxtapose the subject against the background. When we try to compose photographs "after the moment" we are limited to using the crop tool and the burn tool, which are two-dimensional controls.

I think it should be pointed that only we, the photographers, burn our photos, while everybody and their brother -- the artists, the page editors and the editorial assistants -- crop our photos. This could lead to the reactions we get when we burn.

Which brings us to the reason for this piece. Recent reports of overzealous edge-burning and the removal of extraneous limbs in backgrounds caused the editors of Sports Shooter to put out a call for opinions. Here's mine: I think that directing the reader's eye "in the moment", like Cartier-Bresson, is always preferable to doing it after the fact in the darkroom, like Smith.

So, the "burn rule" as I see it is: The more you screw with it the more it becomes about you. In the worst cases it can be a downright lie. Photojournalists who use technology after the fact to "overpolish" an already powerful moment usually end up having a column written about them.

(Kim Komenich is a staff photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle. He won the Pulitzer Prize in news photography for his coverage of the revolution in the Philippines. He was a visiting instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism from September 1998 to June 2000.)

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