Conceptual Photography - Confessions of a Digitalist by Jim Respess PDF Print E-mail
 Sample ImageWhen I discovered Photoshop, I realized that I had been waiting much of my life for its invention.

When I discovered Photoshop, I realized that I had been waiting much of my life for its invention. While I could not have predicted I would build a career around the software, I was driven to make use of it in my art. I was still in recovery from a career in molecular biology and gene therapy, locked away in a darkroom, attempting to splice photos together in a manner not unlike recombining strands of DNA. In one project, for example, I wanted to create a beach scene with surfers, folks strolling and sun bathers, only in the middle of the night with a full moon and moon bathers. I set up my camera overlooking the beach in the late afternoon, avoiding the sun but catching the sunlight on the water. I took one underexposed shot of the scene (three stops down for thems that shoot). With the film not advanced, I placed the moon in the correct position so that the double exposure would look as if the light on the ocean was coming from the moon. I then took a photo of the moon on a new frame and subsequently double exposed it with a scene of the beach. I repeated this behavior until the moon no longer looked full. The result (with considerable darkroom contortions) was Crystal Pier Moonlight. I would soon learn that with Photoshop I could spend more time with concept and less with the execution of the final image. At least, that’s the case with relatively simple compositions. 

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Crystal Pier Moonlight

While I was struggling through the basics of Photoshop 3.0, I wasn’t struggling a bit with the many crazy concepts that I wanted to visualize. In one of my first projects, I took a look at a picture of (my lovely wife) Jan that was taken on the Acropolis in Athens, There she was, scabby kneed from a motorcycle spill, standing in front of the Parthanon in her miniskirt. It should be noted here that my liberal education included three years of art history as well as numerous painting and drawing courses. I was not unfamiliar with the artistic joke in which a familiar image is taken out of context. In this case, I thought it would be cute to imagine a budding architect/artist wanting to create a caryatid (a female figure as a column). So, I cut and pasted Jan into a nearby column. In the crude manner that I cut her out, I was left with her disembodied legs standing on a stone. I had another column to work with so I created a second caryatid in which just the female legs supported the temple. The result is Caryatid.

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As my technique progress, so did the technology. Photoshop became more sophisticated and inkjet printers got better and more affordable. As I required larger prints of my work, I discovered that while there were a few folks locally that could print my art, almost none of them knew how to deal with color and tonality. I realized this was the perfect opportunity for me to support my digital habit and keep close to my art. My day job became making fine art prints (giclee) for artists. The best that I could do for my clients was exactly what I needed for my own work: excel in Photoshop and get the fastest computer I could afford and the best printers and scanners as well.

In the meantime, I was happily turning concepts into images. For much of my work, I imagine more or less the completed image before I begin to assemble it. In Book Beat for example, I took a photo of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. That store became famous in the ‘50s as the west coast center of Beat literature. When I got back to San Diego and looked at the image, I was struck by the notion that the thin building looked like a book. Or better yet, I could make it a bookend to hold two-story Beat paperbacks. I brought my project idea to the owner of the Blue Door bookstore in San Diego, a good place to find Beat literature. I incorporated her, her store and her children in my final image. In order to visually draw attention to the books, I broght the color down from the sky and desaturated until it was completely gray at street level. There, only the books and the people looking at the books get color. (The young woman gets a little color because she is holding the hand of the fellow looking at the books.) I was encouraged with my art when this image took two Guru Awards from the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (including Best of Show).

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Book Beat 
Not everything I create is conceived in advance. Some things are just discovered. Last year, I was photographing a model, emerging from water with the idea in mind that I could make her emerge from something more solid. As it happened, however, the model was too tall to fully immerse herself in the jacuzzi, making the rise from the water somewhat ungraceful. My partner in art had some other ideas for the model, including some scenes in the bathtub. Her bathtub was an antique claw-footed beauty in a small bathroom. I had finally purchased my first digital camera earlier and took use of a wide-angle 15 mm lens. (I had decided not to buy a new digital camera until I could afford one that was better than my film camera.) The antique tub in a modern bathroom made a perfect segue from bright and new to old and decrepit. I found an image that I took in the ghost town of Bodie. That image, while taken with film, was shot with a wide-angle 17 mm lens so it wasn’t too hard to merge the sites together. The final piece, Dream, not only merges the old and new visually, it also, on a personal level merges old and new photo technology.

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In a couple of my most recent works, Stuff of Life and The Source, I have come around to including an element of my previous career in gene therapy. Both of those pieces include electron micrographs of DNA. The foreground of Stuff of Life is covered with the lacey nucleic acid and flowing water from The Source contains the genetic material as well. In both of these works, the symbols of ancient humanity and DNA are meant to draw the viewer’s attention to the continuum of life, art and technology. I feel a certain satisfaction, knowing that the digital medium I use to express my thoughts is part of a tradition that spans all of humanity.

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Stuff of Life 


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The Source




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San Diego to Belgrade by Vladimir Konecni

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I was thrilled
to find that
art photography
travels well
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Poetry arrived in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don't know how or when.

Pablo Neruda

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