Writings and Rants

Beyond Para­noia and Sour Grapes
Debunk­ing the stigma of dig­i­tal art in the fine art world

An Essay by Robert McClin­tock, photo-digital artist

Pre­sented Sep­tem­ber 18, 2005 at The Soci­ety for Imag­ing Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy — NIP21: Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Dig­i­tal Print­ing Tech­nolo­gies in  Bal­ti­more, MD;

As a full­time pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher and artist over the past 25 years I have come to real­ize that being on the front edge of any medium can be dan­ger­ous. It seems that the art world has to give its golden nod of approval before the ball can drop and you can be rewarded with a kind review and maybe even a show. As some­one who has been con­sis­tently in the van­guard of exper­i­ment­ing with new medi­ums, crit­i­cal acclaim has always been hard fought, but the per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion of cre­at­ing some­thing new and dif­fer­ent is very reward­ing… “Yeah right”.

My whole life as an artist has been some­what defi­ant to the tra­di­tional paths of the art world. I’m a col­lege dropout and 100% self-taught artist pho­tog­ra­pher. I’m def­i­nitely con­sid­ered an out­sider in the fine world because I decided long ago that I would actu­ally make a good liv­ing as an artist, which to me includes hav­ing a nice house, a nice car, eat­ing well, hav­ing cable and HDTV.

As a com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher I treated every­one as a client, and if I was to pick up my cam­era it was because I was being paid. I didn’t bring my cam­era to wed­dings as a favor. Although I was very good pho­tog­ra­pher who would always come home with what the client wanted, I never thought I was truly out­stand­ing. I started to con­sider myself a “mas­ter plumber of pho­tog­ra­phy.” I could shoot any­thing, any­where. I’d work all day on a great cover of a bath­room caulk cat­a­log with edgy light­ing, all in focus or inten­tion­ally out of focus, but I knew 5 other guys that could have done it. I became more and more frus­trated with my com­mer­cial future and finally after about 15 years I burned out. Although I could of course still be bribed into a job here and there if I was late on the cable bill.

At that time in 1996 the dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy world was mak­ing itself known. I bought an Apple Quick­take 100 and started shoot­ing and play­ing around with the then arous­ing 320x240 pix­els at 72 dpi. I had also begun free­lanc­ing at a full dig­i­tal stu­dio here in Bal­ti­more shoot­ing cat­a­logs and com­mer­cial adver­tise­ments. There were two Mac­in­tosh work­sta­tions, and we were shoot­ing with Fuji GX680s with triple pass color wheels and Leaf­s­can backs, and there were two Pho­to­shop experts doing full ser­vice pre-press work, out­putting proofs on a Fuji Pic­trog­ra­phy. It was def­i­nitely cut­ting edge tech­nol­ogy and Polaroid test shots and color trans­parency film were on the way out. Things were chang­ing in the old photo world and with Pho­to­shop you really didn’t have to be that great a tech­ni­cian any­more. Pho­to­shop trick­ery was becom­ing the norm. The days of one great shot on a 4x5 view cam­era were gone and $500 an hour Sci­tex fixes were def­i­nitely gone.

For many years I had been paint­ing on and scratch­ing my photo prints and was hav­ing great fun. In 1978 I bought a new SX70 Polaroid Cam­era. Even­tu­ally I became some­what known for my SX70 Polaroid art, get­ting accepted into the Inter­na­tional Polaroid Col­lec­tion in 1991, and then being selected from the col­lec­tion for the Amer­i­can Per­spec­tives Exhibit with other artists like Andy Warhol, Joyce Ten­nyson and Chuck Close. Nev­er­the­less, manip­u­lated Polaroid pho­tos proved to be a some­what mis­un­der­stood medium by the purists, I felt there was just so much I could do with it, and I began feel­ing like my work looked like every­one else’s. So the process had begun for me to find a new medium. I was get­ting hands on train­ing at the dig­i­tal stu­dio, shoot­ing and learn­ing color cor­rec­tion and help­ing to sil­hou­ette the hun­dreds of cat­a­log shots of paint cans and bricks pavers. I started to think that I could prob­a­bly cre­ate some orig­i­nal art using this new­found medium. I acquired Adobe Pho­to­shop v3.5 (legally, with a bun­dled scan­ner pur­chase!) and loaded it on my scream­ing Mac­in­tosh Quadra 610 with 32 Megs of ram, one of the fastest machines in the Apple lineup.

I knew Pho­to­shop as a image edit­ing tool was unsur­passed, and I played around with the stock fil­ters effects like water­color, palette knife, paint daubs and sat­u­ra­tion slid­ers and got some whacked out look­ing stuff that was def­i­nitely intrigu­ing, but once again I got the feel­ing that every­one could do this to a photo. The desk­top pub­lish­ing phe­nom­ena had fos­tered the idea of “cre­ate pro­fes­sional look­ing brochures in min­utes,” and now Pho­to­shop and Frac­tal Painter was head­ing out to con­quer the art world with ads say­ing “Sim­u­late painting…transform your pho­tos with real­is­tic paint­brush effects with dif­fer­ent can­vas tex­tures.” Yet I pushed ahead and bought one the early Wacom tablets and started to make broad brush strokes and blend col­ors the way I wanted them to be, which was some­thing the com­puter could never do.

Hon­estly, I’m not that big of a dumb-head to think no one but ME can do this because I’m the only artist capa­ble of “dig­i­tal great­ness.” I’m really try­ing to get beyond my “para­noia and sour grapes” about this being legit­i­mate art. The thing is that find­ing unique­ness in what you do should be the high­est goal. If we all cre­ate art the exact same way then there’s a prob­lem, mak­ing art should not be a turnkey fran­chise oppor­tu­nity that always works. Con­versely, I really encour­age every­one that if it makes them happy to take pic­tures of their kid’s birth­day party and then run it through the com­puter and whack out the faces, and they’re hav­ing fun doing it, then they should do it. No doubt there can great per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion in doing that. I just want peo­ple today to under­stand the dif­fer­ence between the fren­zied point and click dig­i­tal world and what I con­sis­tently do cre­at­ing an inten­tional thought­ful piece of art.

No one ever asks the car­pen­ter what brand saw he used to build the house. For the writer it makes no sense to ask if she used Word Per­fect or Microsoft Word to write her book. The tools don’t cre­ate, peo­ple cre­ate. It’s inter­est­ing in my expe­ri­ence when peo­ple view my art and say “Oh, its Pho­to­shop…” My ears get hot, because I think they think they know exactly how it’s done because they have a dig­i­tal cam­era and Paint Shop Pro. And I think they think they sud­denly grasp my whole life lead­ing to this moment in one fell swoop and now they “get it”. Par­ents for cen­turies have nudged their child while look­ing at art and say, “you could do this.” Whether or not the kid ever picks up a pen­cil or paint­brush remains to be seen, some do, most don’t. But they do go home and click on Paint Shop Pro before soc­cer prac­tice and make up some­thing in min­utes and bang it out on their lit­tle Epson, and that’s the way it is now. Whether it’s fine art or music. Even I sit down to Apple’s new Garage Band and lay down a groove that makes me think I should send this to Sting and let him know that I got it too. I some­times suf­fer from the syn­drome of “the world has waited long enough, when is Amer­i­can Idol com­ing to Baltimore?”

Peo­ple often come to me and ask if I can make a series for them like an Andy Warhol with the dif­fer­ent color back­grounds and hues of the same image repeated. I, of course, say “No, that’s what Andy Warhol did; it’s very cool but that’s not what I do.” Go to Google and type in “Andy Warhol Effect,” you’ll find at least 150 hits and 20 web­sites telling you how to do it or some­one that’ll do it for you using image adjust­ments, thresh­old, then sat­u­ra­tion and hue slid­ers. There, the secret is out; that’s not how Warhol did it, but close enough for most people.

Writ­ing this paper has been very dif­fi­cult for me in a num­ber of ways. First, I’m a huge pro­cras­ti­na­tor, and I’ve never been asked to write a paper like this. Sec­ond, writ­ing is a lot harder than it looks. My writ­ings are usu­ally on-the-fly emails and angry “I want my money back” let­ters to eBay sell­ers. And third, the sub­ject mat­ter directly chal­lenges me. While I love what I do, receive tons of pos­i­tive feed­back and have my new Sony HDTV as a result of my art busi­ness, I still fall prey to pot­shots from peo­ple who ques­tion the valid­ity of “dig­i­tal art.” But some­thing inter­est­ing hap­pened through writ­ing this paper that’s mov­ing me beyond para­noia and sour grapes. I’m real­iz­ing that I really do not need not to be ashamed of this new­found medium; I am, in fact, very proud of my “prod­uct,” and the pub­lic has responded to me in a very pos­i­tive way. I’ve decided why should try to hide the fact that my work is dig­i­tal, and I’ve sud­denly found myself say­ing “Yes, my art is 100% dig­i­tal, start­ing from a dig­i­tal pho­to­graph and made on a Mac­in­tosh,” but I always add that it’s not com­puter gen­er­ated. I use the a hand held dig­i­tal paint­brush to craft and work the image, and the most impor­tant tool of all are my eyes and my life expe­ri­ences lead­ing up to the choices I make on the screen. And I now can also add that for the last two years I have been one of the top 30 final­ists in the Mac­world Dig­i­tal Art Con­test, which is an inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion with over 500 entrants.

As I researched the stigma of dig­i­tal art on the Inter­net, I came to find out that this topic is widely debated, and I found other artists who are also out to defend the medium. The stigma attached to the medium arises from the belief that many peo­ple think any­one can do it. In my research, one author asks if the great mas­ters like Da Vinci would be work­ing in this same man­ner today. You know Andy Warhol would have assem­bled a team of super cool “art work­ers,” and he’d be milk­ing his Macs for all they’re worth. Per­haps if he were around today, he would be a great pos­i­tive force in help­ing to legit­imize this new medium.

All this writ­ing has lead me to the ques­tion, “So why does Robert McClin­tock use this medium?” It all leads back to my early days as a boy pho­tog­ra­pher. I think I was first attracted to the speed at which i could cap­ture a moment or a scene. Then there was the excite­ment of hav­ing the film devel­oped and the mys­tery of wait­ing a week and then look­ing at the pic­tures while still stand­ing in the store. I nat­u­rally built a lit­tle B&W dark­room and the excite­ment was taken to another level, one of con­trol and more inten­tional vision. The next step was mak­ing big prints and see­ing the work become sub­stan­tial. I remem­ber the adren­a­lin I felt look­ing at the prints while they were still hang­ing to dry. I then stum­bled into the instant Polaroid realm and became totally immersed in the SX70 process, first tak­ing the pic­ture, then watch­ing it develop before my eyes and then scratch­ing and push­ing the hard­en­ing emul­sion. Adding color and enlarg­ing the images fol­lowed. Then dig­i­tal hap­pened, and I just jumped in, there was no big ques­tion of should I or shouldn’t. The speed of the medium really did the trick for me. So I guess ulti­mately, my impa­tience led me this way, but the actual process itself is what con­tin­ues to moti­vate me. It pro­vides me with a high degree of speed and flex­i­bil­ity to accom­plish my evolv­ing vision. So more time is avail­able for me to check out alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties and to cre­ate spin offs or deriv­a­tives of the original.

I’m truly flat­tered when peo­ple see the con­nec­tion between my old Polaroids and my new dig­i­tal work. I’m also able to see my con­sis­tant style of cap­tur­ing a scene on cam­era, which helps me to real­ize that I have always been on the right track, and there is a dis­tinct con­nec­tion to what I’m doing now and my his­tory as an artist and pho­tog­ra­pher. I tend to be very pro­lific in cre­at­ing new work. My works are cur­rently based on the famil­iar­ity of local cityscapes, and the unique per­son­al­i­ties of cats and dogs. Lately in my work, I’m try­ing much harder not to over shoot a scene. Just because I can take 500 dig­i­tal pic­tures doesn’t mean I should. Believe me, 500 bad pic­tures are still 500 bad pic­tures. Admit­tedly, I am a “more is bet­ter guy,” and I love the fact that I can shoot a lot of pic­tures for cheap, but then I have to edit them and store them on hard dri­ves and DVDs, so there is a cost one way or the other.

In tak­ing a hard look at debunk­ing the stigma of dig­i­tal art, I think I’ve come to real­ize that it really shouldn’t mat­ter how a pic­ture is made. Even as a com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher, I always said, “If it looks good, then it is good.” It made lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the end if I used my Nikon or my Has­sel­blad, and only the techies would ever ask what f/stop I used. But it does mat­ter to some peo­ple; and maybe it will ulti­mately help them to bet­ter under­stand the cre­ative process and to appre­ci­ate the skill and thought­ful­ness required to inten­tion­ally use dig­i­tal processes to cre­ate art. Dig­i­tal art is here to stay, and presents an excit­ing “new” medium that pro­vides tremen­dous flex­i­bil­ity and possibility.

As dig­i­tal imag­ing tech­nol­ogy rock­ets ahead, it’s impos­si­ble to ask the indus­try to only make them­selves avail­able to the pro­fes­sional com­mu­nity. The appeal to the mass mar­ket is inevitable and, in fact, vital. I guess, as with all things new, it will take time for the gen­eral pub­lic to under­stand and appre­ci­ate these new “tools” as tools, not as tech­niques or styles in themselves.

Seems we’re all look­ing for ways to save time so we can do other more impor­tant stuff, but mak­ing art is impor­tant stuff. Art has always influ­enced cul­ture, and the dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy of cre­at­ing and repro­duc­ing it is sim­ply the only way I see for myself to expand fur­ther into the future. I’m over­com­ing the stigma through pro­duc­ing strong works of art that peo­ple eas­ily relate to, so the medium really doesn’t mat­ter, and we all know that pio­neers are never val­ued in the begin­ning. Dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy has pro­vided me with the level of con­trol and flex­i­bil­ity to cre­ate unique new works, and I’m stay­ing with it for a while until some­thing bet­ter comes along and I jump on that bandwagon.

So, like the saw is to the car­pen­ter, you still have to know how to use it if you’re going to build a house.

All rights reserved
Copy­right Robert McClin­tock
p. 69–71; ISBN / ISSN: 0–89208-257–7