© Harold Davis. All Rights Reserved.
Road Less Traveled © Harold Davis
When I lead workshops, I often find myself repeating the common saying, “Want to make more interesting photos, put yourself in front of more interesting things.” This is fair enough. As Ansel Adams memorably put it, “Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”
Planning and researching can increase the odds of arriving at the right time and place. Planning tools on my iPhone also make this easier to achieve than it used to be.
But I think a more important idea is that to make more interesting photos, become a more interesting person. Really, a photo is a manifestation of how we see, and our vision is one of the most important characteristics of who we are.
Sure, anyone can occasionally make an interesting or beautiful photo—just as a monkey pounding on a typewriter might occasionally bash out a Shakespeare sonnet. But to consistently create interesting and original images requires becoming a more interesting person—and past a certain point the work created even serves to sum up who one is as a person and an artist. This is a little analogous to George Orwell’s dictum that at 50 everyone has the face they deserve.
In other words, since I have been at it a while, my work as an artist and photographer can be said to be the face I deserve. My work in large measure defines me, although of course I am also a husband, father, and lover of wild things.
The definition works both ways round: my work in part defines me, and who I am defines, energizes, and bounds my work, and gives my art the power that it has. To fully understand my art and the man behind the lens, one needs to understand the unique path I’ve taken—which is definitely a “Road Less Traveled”—and learn a bit more about who I am.
Self Portrait with Moustaches © Harold Davis
I Was Born and All That
The Photographer’s Eye on a Stalk © Harold Davis
When I was five years old, we lived in rural Connecticut. I remember that once a week the trash collectors took the refuse away, and this was a very important day with much fuss, and a very large, loud, and colorfully painted truck arriving up our small driveway. So my first career goal was to be a garbage collector since such a large fuss was made and because this seemed to be so important, and because the truck was so noisy.
Pretty quickly, I left this ambition behind. We moved to New York City. I wanted to write the great American novel, and next I wanted to be a fine art painter. My parents gave me a Kodak box camera, and I loved making photos.
My Dad was a computer scientist and my Mom was an artist. So I come by both these strands in my life—technology and art—honestly both in terms of nature and nurture.
From the standpoint of the visual arts, I had a very rich childhood: I was intimately familiar with the great works of European art, personally visiting the cave paintings in Lascaux as a child, studied figure drawing and painting, and loving the impressionist and expressionist painters.
I was always a loner, and mostly preferred ideas and books to people. In high school, I spent all the time I could painting. This hand-eye practice proved invaluable when I began to alter digital photos; for example, by painting in clouds at sunset.
Towers of San Gimignano© Harold Davis
What a Tangled Web We Weave
Falling Flowers © Harold Davis
For reasons I won’t go into here, I never graduated high school. My first stint in higher education was at a small liberal arts college, where I studied creative writing and fine art painting. Eventually, I transferred and finished my degree at New York University, where I majored in Computer Science and Math. So already the holy trinity that has dominated my adult life—writing, art, and working with computers—was beginning to be in place.
After college I spent some time taking odd jobs. One of the most memorable was working as a photographer doing portraits of elementary school kids. Then I bit the bullet, and went to law school. This was partly in an attempt to find a career, and partly because I thought I could change the system from within.
I hated law school, except the writing part—and seeing the legal system from within made me doubt I could make much of an impact as a lawyer. I can picture many alternative lives for myself, but one that is hard to visualize is what I would have been like if I had continued with law.
Intricate Detail of Nature’s Perfection © Harold Davis
Wings of Man © Harold Davis
After I graduated from law school, I opened a photo studio in New York City at 18th Street and Broadway in the heart of what was then the photography district. In those days, New York was a much “scruffier” city than it is today. “Opening a studio” meant signing the lease on a loft with windows facing airshafts for $400 a month, sleeping on a platform over the darkroom, and taking whatever photography work came along.
I photographed models, did headshots for actors, worked for clients in the architectural and jewelry industries, and learned to make my own color (Type-C) prints. In those days I took my portfolio around to anyone who would look at it, a list that included some notable art directors and photographers. I also orchestrated a number of photo-composites for clients, for example, enclosing New York City in a crystal decoration for a catalog cover. These were complex and expensive affairs to get right, as Photoshop had not yet been born.
An exciting assignment took me aloft in a helicopter with the door removed above the World Trade Towers. Another project had me interviewing residents who remained at Love Canal, site of an environmental disaster near Buffalo, New York. I was an official photographer of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in its early years, which led to collaboration in a coffee table book published by Columbia University Press.
But my real love was the wilderness landscape.
During those years I spent every moment I could away from New York sleeping outdoors, and photographing. I hiked the entire John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. I spent a good deal of time in Alaska, and walked solo across the Brooks Range, the northern most range of mountains in Alaska.
The Brooks Range was a bit of a frightening experience. A bush pilot dropped me off, and I trekked across a wilderness without trails through grizzly country until I found my way out to an Inuit village. There were many river crossings. It’s an interesting and enlightening experience not being at the top of the food chain. On the third or fourth day, I was sitting on a log resting beside a waterfall. There had been a break in the constant August rain, and a rainbow was visible above the precipices of the mountains above me.
I felt the log shift, and looked around me. A big brown bear had sat down on the log next to me. As I turned toward the bear, he spoke and said, “You may pass through my wilderness safely!”
Call this what you will—vision, coping mechanism—the rest of my trek was much less stressful, because I was no longer afraid.
Back in New York, I exhibited my nature and wilderness work in a number of venues, notably at Arras Gallery on 57th Street, and the New-York Historical Society.
A fine art graphic publishing company, Modernart Editions, published a poster related to the Arras exhibition, and this got me started with fine art graphic posters. Eventually, I started a company, Wilderness Studio, and published a run of successful posters, as well as a national line of notecards of nature scenes.
Becoming a publisher of my own work had two unexpected side-effects.
First, many artists came to me, asking me how they should best get their own work published. Did they want to approach an existing publisher, or should they self-publish as I had done? So I wrote an article to try to answer the most frequently asked questions, since handing this out was easier that answering the same questions repeatedly. A book publisher saw my article, and asked me to write a book. Publishing Your Art As Cards & Posters became my first published book, and was in print through a number of editions for over twenty years.
Second, I couldn’t find decent software to run my business, and a way to automate accurately paying the sales commissions to the national network of sales reps who were handling the Wilderness Studio notecards (remember, this was a while ago, and software applications have come a long way!). So I sat down, and wrote a database program to manage my business. This got me back in touch with my passion for computer programming.
Lonely Islet © Harold Davis
The Technology Interregnum
Falcon Motorcycle © Harold Davis
The truth is that I get bored pretty easily. I was getting bored with film photography, and I also discovered I could make a much better living as a software guru than as a photographer. I wrote software for JPMorgan, Chase Manhattan Bank, and other important clients. Writing software is a creative endeavor, and the best programmers are original and creative people. I also moved on from writing books about photography and the art world to writing books about software and programming languages.
When I met my second wife, Phyllis, she was a performing classical musician. Pretty soon she was writing books too—in her case mostly about the design software that became InDesign and Photoshop.
One day we looked at each other. Our eyes said, what are we doing living in a noisy, dirty city when we can do what we do from anywhere? So we moved to a farm on a dirt road off a dirt road on a mountain in Vermont. This didn’t last beyond one winter and seventeen major snowstorms. Also, the technology revolution was happening in California, and I wanted to be part of it.
I applied for a job as a developer and consultant, and got a major software company to move us to the Bay area.
Sleeping Angels © Harold Davis
And Writing Too
Mathew © Harold Davis
My writing and photography have also been inextricably bound together. After all, it was Ansel Adams who said that the most important tool in his bag was his notebook and pencil.
I am the author of over 50 books on diverse topics including technology, Google’s advertising tools, elementary algebra, web development, the art world, and (of course) photography. My most recent nineteen books are all related to digital photography.
Here’s how I got back into photography. In the early years of the 21rst century, my only subject matter was my kids, mostly with point-and-shoots or disposable cameras. In 2004, one of the publishers I worked with asked me to write a book about digital photography. I said, “I can do this. I know something about photography.”
I went out and bought a DSLR at Best Buy, and haven’t looked back. I like digital photography as an artistic medium far more than I liked film photography, because there are so many possibilities in this wonderful new medium. At first I felt a little like Rip van Winkle because I had slept through the digital revolution, but in many ways I feel this has actually worked to my benefit because I have been able to come to the new medium of digital photography when it is already fairly fully formed.
I like to write books about digital photography that explain cutting edge techniques, that synthesize principles of film photography with ideas that derive from digital painting techniques, and that help folks become more creative in how they approach photography. My most recent books are Monochromatic HDR Photography (Focal Press), Achieving Your Potential As a Photographer (Focal Press), and The Photographers Black & White Handbook (Monacelli Press). I am also particularly proud of Photographing Flowers.
Writing about photography has taught me about photography. To really understand something you need to be able to explain it. I have written my blog about photography, Photoblog 2.0, since 2005, with ten or fifteen stories a month since then. These stories are my notes about photography, and a Daybook, in the sense that Edward Weston maintained a photographic Daybook. My Daybook in blog story format is an important part of my work.
Nautilus in Black and White © Harold Davis
Post-Photography Photography: Photography 2.0
Alone I Stand © Harold Davis
During my Photography 1.0 career had I realized the possibilities inherent in digital photography and post-production I would have been astounded. Techniques that were very difficult in analog photography are almost trivially easy in Photography 2.0. I like digital photography as an artistic medium far more than I ever liked film photography, in part because it allows me to combine photography with digital painting and the power of software.
With great power comes responsibility. Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it. While we all have our over-the-top moments of exuberance, part of the challenge of digital photography is staying centered amid the boundless creative possibilities.
Yosemite Dreams © Harold Davis
Digital Painting with Photos
Coming to Life © Harold Davis
Sometimes I call myself a photographer. Sometimes I call myself an artist. Both labels are fair enough, but what I really am is, a digital artist using photos as my source material.
This self-conceptualization is important to me. As a digital artist using photography I can take good advantage of my training and skills as a fine art painter, and also my digital skills. My self-definition as an artist using photography frees me from the restraints of conventional photography, and places me squarely in the broader traditions and experiences of art generally.
Of course, it is still possible and useful to accept the vernacular idioms of photography. This means that folks can think they are looking at a “photo” and suspend disbelief—because the subject matter of photography is supposedly always “real.” Many of my images take advantage of the visual prejudices of viewers who like to think that they are viewing a version of reality, while of course the fact is that no such thing is even theoretically possible, and all my works are really digital constructions.
Concretely, to create my digital art based on photography, I start with the creative controls inherent to cameras and photography. I extend these using compositing, Photoshop, digital painting on layers and layer masks, and special effect filters such as those provided by Topaz. The Topaz filters provide me with an almost endless palette of possibilities. Provided I “paint” the filters in carefully, monitoring opacity on individual layers, I can achieve almost any effect I want.
Panorama of the Kumano Sanzen Roppyaku © Harold Davis
Impressionism and Surrealism
Go Van Gogh © Harold Davis
Working broadly as an artist, rather than specifically in the genre of twentieth-century film photography, allows me to incorporate ideas and visual effects from many kinds of art. I like to play with creating images that properly ought to be categorized as impressionistic, expressionistic, or surrealistic—and that pay homage to the great artists who worked in these areas. This can range from images that are in homage to Vincent van Gogh, to the surrealistic Escher-like scene shown in Stair Knot, to an impossible composite of a spiral staircase and a spiral Nautilus shell.
Stair Knot © Harold Davis
Spirals © Harold Davis
The Colors of the Night
Starry Night © Harold Davis
The great impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo that the colors of the night were brighter and more vibrant that colors during day time. Van Gogh was right about this, but it takes a good digital sensor and a long time exposure to actually see and capture these colors.
One thing that fascinates me about night photography is that you usually don’t know how the image will come out, or if it will come out, until after the fact. There is something wonderfully anachronistic about pointing the camera on its tripod into the darkness of the night, exposing for hours, and never knowing if or what was captured until later.
It is also the case that night photography takes some good, old fashioned photographic skills. Focus and exposure are very “seat of the pants”. No light meter is going to help you. So this is a kind of photography that is still experimental and up for grabs.
It’s also a way to get photos of major landmarks while skipping the crowds making selfies. Did I mention that I am not really a great fan of selfies? For example, my image of The Bridge of Sighs at Night was taken from a position that was several people abreast in tourists all day long, with folks off the tour boats jockeying for position with their mobile phone cameras and selfie sticks. In the watches of the night, however, I was the only photographer on the scene.
Bridge of Sighs at Night © Harold Davis
Photographing Flowers for Transparency
Clematis on Black © Harold Davis
A number of years ago, a client asked me to experiment with translucent and transparent imagery for an art publishing program. I used an old slide sorting light box for backlighting, and experimented with high-key HDR in post-production.
The process I invented for photographing flowers for transparency is explained in the FAQs on my website. It is been much imitated, and some of my bestselling and most recognizable work has been created using this set of techniques.
I was very pleased when a major photography publication pointed out the “almost spiritual” aspect of this body of my work.
Translucency of Rosa © Harold Davis
Inversions, Solarization, and LAB Color, Oh My!
Translucency of Rosa on Black © Harold Davis
LAB color is the widest-gamut color space available, and operates much like human vision. Two of the properties of LAB are that it is color opponent, and that grayscale information is separated from color information. This is also true for the mechanics of how our human brains see things.
Using these two characteristics of LAB color, it is possible to achieve powerful creative color effects in LAB—such as inversions and virtual solarizations—that cannot be achieved in any other way.
It’s important to keep creative photography experimental, and trying new techniques in post-production is part and parcel of this experimental approach.
Black Anemone © Harold Davis
Having More than One
Dance in the Rings © Harold Davis
Les Desmoiselles of Avignon © Harold Davis
High-end digital cameras can be set to create in-camera multiple exposures. This often produces effects that would be hard to reproduce in post-production.
In recent years I have been working with models to create this kind of multiple exposure. This approach requires careful communication and collaboration with the model, because it involves a kind of choreography. Each exposure that is included in the final blend has to be chosen for its role in making the overall shape of the composition.
While the images I’ve created in this way, such as Les Desmoiselles and Gates after Rodin are primarily photographic creations, of course much of the fun for me begins only when the photography ends! That’s when I can apply digital painting effects, and multiple filters, all on different layers.
Gates after Rodin © Harold Davis
Towards a Synthesis
Kiss from a Rose © Harold Davis
A creative artist’s work is like the glide path of a shark: you have to keep swimming forward, and there’s no point in trying to reverse. The artists I admire most in music, the visual arts, and movie-making have all moved on to new projects and approaches. These creative artists are not stuck working a formula from the past, and will move on to new artistic ventures even if the new work gets less applause than their older material.
So a retrospective article that looks back, such as this Behind the Lens piece, is a tad dangerous. By the time a work of art is worthy of memorialization, its most creative aspect may be in the past, and hopefully the artist has also progressed.
That said, there are so many wonderful ways one can approach the very new and very rich art form of digital photography. This is a novel marriage of photography with computer software and digital painting! After all, a digital camera is simply a computer with a scanner at one end and a lens at the other.
I look forward to experimenting, trying new things, and making art as I feel it.
Technique without feeling is banal, and feeling without technique is usually boring. And no knowledge is ever wasted. So I urge you to learn as much as you can about as many things as possible. Keep curious!
Even more important than staying curious: Create! Build things! Make art! Even if no one else appreciates what you do, if you don’t create work, then you won’t grow as an artist.
Creating is the most satisfying thing I know. It is my sustenance, my spirituality, and my reason for being.
Manarola © Harold Davis
Low Geostationary Orbit © Harold Davis
Venice of Dreams © Harold Davis
Long Exposure Waves Study 2 © Harold Davis
Harold Davis is a digital artist and professional photographer whose work is widely collected. Harold is a bestselling author, a popular workshop leader, a Zeiss Lens Ambassador, and a Moab Master. You can learn more about Harold and his work on his website, www.digitalfieldguide.com, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/davis.harold. His books are on Amazon at amazon.com/author/harold. Harold is also a Topaz Labs Webinar presenter. To see the current available Webinars go to blog.topazlabs.com/webinars.