From Algorithm To Gut Reaction…

High Dynamic Range imaging marks  a significant advance in digital photography. Although the technique—actually numerous techniques—has been around for a decade or so, its popularity has been growing steadily. While not yet an artistic movement, such as  Dada or Surrealism, HDR attracts passionate proponents, and has spawned numerous books and blogs, as well as hardware and software designed to aid in its creation. 

The one element that threatens the continued growth of HDR is its adoption (appropriation) by advertising. Indeed, the current cult status of HDR was largely generated by commercial images.

The radical art and politics behind Surrealism which blossomed in France, wilted as soon as it arrived on Madison Avenue. Once it became a branded, generic style, it ceased to exist in any revolutionary context.

The HDR style(s), on the other hand, was largely pioneered  by commercial photographers, and has no intrinsic philosophy behind it, other than a celebration of the image as trumpeted by photographer Trey Ratcliff and popularized on his impressive blog:

It will be interesting to see whether HDR is a short-lived fad, or rises to the realm of high art beyond  its current “hip” status in fashion and advertising. After all, commercial photography must inevitably move on to the next “hot” technique.

HDR has its share of detractors, of course, i.e. photographers and purists who consider it a kind of visual blasphemy.  Some critics loathe the style as if it were toxic (especially in it most extreme manifestations (XDR) where it’s reminiscent of surrealist painting. And that’s OK. In the hands of an artist, algorithms will be used as a weapon to elicits gut reactions.

Let them eat pixels.

My hope is that HDR finds an André Breton…someone to write an HDR Manifesto. (“Shutterbugs of the world, unite…you have nothing to lose…only countless pixels to gain!”) Someone to inspire photographers to take the techniques as far as they will go.  Someone who can eroticize those logical three letters, rip them right out of the alphabet and the cold grasp of technicians and geeks, and toss them to a crowd of hungry artists.

I wouldn’t dare predict how all this will play out. But I can safely say HDR is enormously seductive; it has influenced and shaped my own photographic  style for over a year, and is still taking me in new directions.

For now, its potential seems limitless. High Dynamic Range brings the viewer deeper into a photograph, revealing details unseen at the time the photo was captured. It opens up hidden information (and treasure) contained in a scene. It solves some mysteries while creating others. It seems ignorant of boundaries, can go from subtle “pop” to atomic hyperrealism, from surreal and alien, to vivid and serene. Its effects can be Duchampian, minimalist,  barely perceptible, absurdist, outrageous, as blatant as a billboard.

With HDR. a photographer not only must find “the decisive moment,” but the decisive dynamic range s/he wishes to unveil.

For all these reasons (and more) you can color me a cultist.