Commentary # 44: October 2010
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Is Infrared Photography Just a Gimmick

and a Crutch?

October 2010

- by Craig Wassel

I had been wanting to do infrared photography for quite a while. I attempted some years ago with very limited success, but was ready to give it another try and even had a Nikon SLR ready to go. Film infrared photography, though, is not easy. Loading, light leaks, blind composition, and getting successful focus and exposure make for a low percentage of “keepers”. The nail in the coffin of revisiting film infrared photography is that film and processing are so much less available than when I first tried it years ago. I finally took the plunge and had a DSLR converted for dedicated IR work.

Since starting my infrared journey in August of 2010, I launched a new website – The Fox Valley Photography Project – as a gallery home for my infrared work. I have really been enjoying working weekly on this self assigned project, and so far have about 10 galleries and 150 photographs.

Infrared has a definite and different look to it, but certainly not everyone likes it. In fact, one accomplished photographer I have tremendous respect for wrote about his extreme dislike for it. The Online Photographer is one of the best and most visited blogs, and it is run and edited by adroit photographer Mike Johnston. Mike does not just dislike infrared; he downright hates it, and he gives very good reasons why in his commentary here (link).

To boil it down, Mike’s assertion is that by its very nature infrared is special looking, and that “look” is used as a crutch or a trick to get “ooohs” and “aaahs” from viewers. I think Mike has very valid points. Yes, that’s right. I am doing infrared, I am going to keep on doing it, and yet I largely agree with him.

With the new relative ease (compared to infrared film) of infrared photography via digital, there is a surge of it on display online. Much of it may be relying solely on its special look rather than on subject and composition, may be boring and repetitive and “me too” in quality, and mine may be guilty of all that as well. That is for others to decide, and I am fine with whatever anyone thinks of my work. Really.

Really though, just how “gimmicky” is infrared? At what point in landscape photography do we call something a “gimmick”, and label it as fakery? Let’s work our way backward in time and start to throw some other things under the bus that could be argued are fake. Presently, right there beside infrared and with an even larger number of critics is HDR. It has to be considered as much of a gimmick as infrared, so we will throw it out. Next are stitched panoramas. My eyes can’t see in a 1 x 12 aspect ratio, so let’s throw that out, too. Next come colored gradient filters, and Johnston noted his dislike of Galen Rowell’s heavy use of them. So, let’s get rid of them, along with all of Rowell’s work as well. While we are at it, we may as well get rid of polarizing filters. Next in line are all of Ansel Adams’ red filters and all those photographs with dark skies he made with them; into the trash they go. What about the use of neutral density filters to get those silky waterfall shots?

This is not to mock Mike Johnston in any way. I really do have utmost respect for him. I am simply and seriously asking a question: where is the line between gimmick and tool in landscape photography? I was in one of Peter Lik’s galleries in Las Vegas last week, and saw an amazing photograph of his that my photographic eye immediately knew was made with a tilt-shift lens. Is extreme depth of field a trick? Are tilt-shift lenses gimmicks? Even outside of landscape photography, is a monochrome image made by Cartier-Bresson with a Leica rangefinder and a 50mm prime an exact representation of what he saw before him? How much straying from the way our eyes show us the world is acceptable?

I know one of the counter points here is that I have no name in any facet of the photography industry. I am not Mike Johnston or Galen Rowell or Ansel Adams or Peter Lik or Henri Cartier-Bresson. I am just an unknown ordinary guy who is probably doing ordinary photography and ordinary infrared. That’s the way it goes for most of us. I try very hard, but not all of us are born with the talent and originality of a Carr Clifton.

So, what about the rest of the unknowns like me who like making infrared photographs? Is it strictly a gimmick or crutch? I think it can be, but I am not going to stop my project just because I somewhat agree with Mike. When I am out shooting infrared, my first thought is never, “this is going to look so cool in infrared”. For me, my thought process is rarely different than when I am shooting in color. I am thinking about dominance, focal length, negative space, perspective, lines, balance, reflective and ambient light, contrast, shadows, and simplicity of subject. I am drawn to infrared because I love the way it can reveal form by removing color, and show a subject in literally a different light and contrast.

I just don’t feel infrared is by default resorting to trickery or fakery, and I am certainly not trying to fool anyone with mine. Besides, experienced photographers immediately know infrared when they see it, just as they recognize monochrome photographs made with a red filter or extreme depth of field created with a tilt-shift lens. Whenever a non-photographer asks me about how my infrared photographs are done and/or if I “Photoshopped” them, I never hide anything. I always give a laymen’s explanation of why the photos look as they do.

To me, infrared can be as ordinary or extraordinary as any other approach to photography. I don’t live in an obviously extraordinarily beautiful place like Hawaii or Africa or Nepal, etc. I live in northern Illinois – a region that most probably consider plain and un-interesting. Yet, there are beautiful shapes and forms and lines and light around us in this region, and most of us rush right by them day after day without ever noticing them. I see beauty in what I discover peering through the infrared looking glass, and I find enjoyment in making IR photographs. That is all that really matters on the journey. If anyone else finds beauty in something they never gave a second look to before, than that is real enough and worthy enough for me.

". . . A photograph has always been a lie. We cannot freeze time, we are not 2 dimensional, we are not the size of an 8 x 10 glossy, we are not composed in geometric patterns, but we are real. Photos have power because of this illusion. Using the power and exploring it as communication of the collective sub-conscience can be fun too . . ."

~ Misha Gordin ~

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" . . . Really though, just how “gimmicky” is infrared? At what point in landscape photography do we call something a 'gimmick', and label it as fakery? . . . "

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