Week 5: No Ideas But In Things

Basic Digital Photography with Matthew Swarts

Frederick Sommer.

Andy Goldsworthy.

Abelardo Morell.

James Casebere.

Thomas Demand.

Hans Bellmer.

Vik Muniz.

Matthew Gamber.

David Levinthal.

Carol Golemboski.

For Next Week:

Download and review the slides from this week’s lecture: arts1850 slides noideasbutinthings

Read: No Ideas But In Things (about William Carlos Williams)

“Abelardo Morell’s Poetry of Appearances,” by Charles Simic,

“Thomas Demand’s Junior Suite: Whitney Houston’s Last Supper”

 and “Of mere being,” by Wallace Stevens.

Photograph things. Discover ways of looking at an object where shape and metaphor begin to merge.  In other words: photograph things in such a way that they carry your ideas.

Expose at least 60 images and upload your best 6-8 adjusted files (as small jpegs) to Dropbox.

Questions to consider while making your work:

1. Think about the range of approaches to this problem taken by the artists discussed in class. Lee Friedlander found most of his things in the street as part of his daily (and somewhat secret) survey of the facts of the world. Other artists like Frederick Sommer, Abelardo Morell, and Josef Sudek collected and arranged objects (albeit very different kinds) before photographing them. James Casebere, David Levinthal, and Thomas Demand constructed new objects with materials and shapes that convey very specific feelings. Which method feels best to you? If all of these feel uninspiring, one could say you have arrived at the problem of the artist: coming up with a new way of seeing. You are the one responsible for making things interesting!  Make sure you never feel hemmed in by others, for there’s no reason to be—you should always be reaching to articulate the uniqueness of your own vision.

2. Think of the brilliance of Vik Muniz (artist at the center of the film we saw entitled Wasteland) but also think of his playful joyfulness at confronting his work. Certainly things would go better for you if you were actually enjoying what you do, right? What steps do you need to take to make this the most fun project possible, one that engages you far beyond the scope of this class?

3. It’s up to you to make your spaces, as Abelardo Morell says of his own images, “containers of drama.” When dealing with fixed and often unmovable objects, how can you get pieces of your pictures to “have conversations” with each other, implying relationships that may or may not exist in real space?

4. How is light driving your pictures? Especially with inanimate objects, it becomes even more important to be sensitive to how the light in your image may affect how we perceive it. If, like Diane Arbus, you choose not to arrange your subjects, then arrange yourself in space. Study the light. See things with different illuminations, from different angles and distances. If your objects are small, by all means, move them! Bring them to a window. Light them with house lamps. You should always be wrestling to discover new ways to use light itself as subject matter.

Making Selections and Applying Localized Adjustments

Often it is useful to isolate certain parts of an image in order to apply adjustments in a more specific way. Within Photoshop’s toolbar (all the way on the left hand margin of your interface) there are a number of tools to make and modify selections. The most basic of these, the Rectangular and Elliptical Marquee tools, allow for geometric shape selections to be applied to areas of the active layer. These tools, like others in the toolbar, are nestled in the menu. They look like this when selected:

Selecting either the Rectangular or Elliptical Marquee tools will allow you to draw selections inside your image, denoted on the screen by what is commonly referred to as ‘marching ants mode’, an animated pixel boundary that describes your selection. A rectangular selection (in this case half the image to the right) might look like this:

What’s really interesting about selections is that once you are in marching ants mode and an area of your image is selected, it is possible to apply an adjustment layer to that selection only by simply clicking on any of the Adjustment icons in the Adjustments Panel. For example, with the rectangular selection above, I clicked on the Curves icon in the Adjustments panel and was able to apply a curve adjustment to darken just one half of my image:

When I select the Curves adjustment icon with this selection active, a new layer appears in the Layers panel, with graphical representations of the selection represented by a mask icon. This mask describes the area where the curve will be applied in white, and unaffected areas in black:

Just so you don’t think you have to work only with rectangles, here is a similar example using the Elliptical Marquee Tool to lighten a selection with an adjustment layer:

Obviously, these are gross exaggerations simply to demonstrate the basic usage of these tools. In real work flows, it’s important to be able to refine selections with great precision, allowing you very specific control over any area of your image.  The next grouping of selection tools, the Lasso Tool, the Polygonal Lasso Tool, and the Magnetic Lasso Tool, allow for just that: more precision. They are located directly below the Rectangular Marquee and Elliptical Marquee Tools, and look like this:

The first of these tools, the Lasso Tool, allows you to freely draw a selection inside your image. Anywhere you move with your mouse draws marching ants, to be activated only when you enclose a loop around an area of your image, like this:

You can add to your selection at any time by holding down the shift key while you draw with your mouse. Be certain to enclose your selection! Likewise, you can subtract from the selection by holding down the option key and drawing with your mouse. Practice refining selections this way, in coordination with holding down the command key and zooming in or out by pressing the (+) or (-) keys.  This is a great way to make selections even more precise.

Luckily, there are powerful algorithmic tools built in to Photoshop that greatly speed in the refinement of selections. When the Lasso tool is selected, there should be a toolbar present in the upper left of the interface window. Look for the button that is labeled refine edge.

When you select refine edge with any active selection, a powerful interface window appears that aids remarkably in the honing of very precise edge selections. It looks like this:

The most important slider in this window is the Edge Detection slider. When you increase the radius with this slider, Photoshop looks for very precise differences in contrast between edges nearby your selection.  For example, if I wanted to refine my crude hand drawn lasso tool selection to include just the barely noticeable details of this boy’s hair and skin contours (just his body, isolated), I could move the edge detection slider until I noticed the selection becoming appropriately precise in the image window. In my case, since I am working with a very detailed image, I needed to move the slider all the way over to the right, to maximize the radius of the detected edges nearby my active selection:

Furthermore, within the refine edge interface, you can refine how your selection will appear after the refinement. Here are two examples, the first of which is ordinary marching ants mode:

To show you how precise the selection is after applying the radius adjustment, here is the same selection presented on black:

Once you click ok, the edge refinement is applied to your selection and afterward, you can apply an adjustment by clicking on any adjustment in the adjustments panel. In my case, I again applied a curves adjustment to just the selection of the boy in the foreground of my image. The refinement of the selection allows me the luxury of being able to independently adjust this aspect of my image apart from any other areas, which will remain unaffected:

Note the mask in the shape of the boy’s figure that appears in the Layers palette, denoting my refined selection and an applied curves adjustment layer:

Check out the other tools in this nesting of selection tools. The second tool is the Polygonal Lasso Tool.

It allows you to draw straight line polygons as selections anywhere in your image. Again, you have to decide what tool is appropriate for your task and then experiment with the way to best make and then refine the selection.

Much more accurate at detecting contrast between edges in your image is the Magnetic Lasso Tool.  It looks like this:

Like it sounds, the Magnetic Lasso Tool allows you to point the mouse toward an edge in an existing image, and Photoshop will ‘sense’ the contrast in the edge pixels and lay down selection points as you move the mouse. The tool is modulated and controlled by a toolbar that looks similar to this:

The input boxes for width, contrast, and frequency adjust the appropriate characteristics of the way in which points are laid down by this tool. Increasing the frequency drops more points, while increasing the width and contrast extends the edge radius sensitivity. If you are dissatisfied with the way in which the magnetic lasso is behaving, chances are you need to modify these settings. Experiment, again with broad changes at first, and then refine them.  Remember that all selection tools allow for you to refine edges when you are finished making gross overall selections.

One of the more interesting selection tools is the Quick Selection Tool. It is located in the cluster below the Lasso tool and looks like this:

The Quick Selection Tool uses mathematical algorithms to determine what tonal and color values you seem to be interested in with your mouse activity. When selected, this tool is perhaps the quickest and most efficient selection tool of all. The tool’s menu bar (located in the upper left hand corner of the interface window) looks similar to the following, and allows for both additive and subtractive selection operations. Note: it’s a good idea to use the ‘auto-enhance’ feature of this tool, but experiment with and without it to see the difference in the smoothness of your selection edges:

The Quick Selection Tool behaves as a brush and therefore has an appropriate brush options window, for changing the size and nature of the brush. Be sure to adjust the brush size here if the tool is not behaving the way you want it to:

With the Quick Selection Tool selected, you can ‘draw’ a selection very quickly in your image by toggling between the (+) and (-) states of the tool. To do this, simply use the option key to toggle to the subtract mode. Click and drag to add (or subtract, depending on which mode is selected) inside your image, and watch in the image window as the selection is defined in front of you. When you have made a selection, you always have the option to refine edges! 

Please experiment with these tools to apply local adjustments. They give you much more control than is available with other tools, such as the burn and dodge or saturate tools.

Using Color Range to apply a localized Adjustment Layer

Under the Select menu in the topmost section of the navigator window, there is an option to make a selection based upon color range. When you pull down the Select menu, it appears in the list as follows:

Pull down and select Color Range and your interface will change to show a smaller window representing a grayscale map of your image. The cursor will change to an eyedropper. Anywhere you click inside your image will create a selection based upon the color sample below the eyedropper cursor. For example, when I click on the clouds in my image to more or less select the whites, my interface looks like this:

By selecting the cloud areas with the eyedropper and adjusting the Fuzziness slider, I was able to create a selection that ultimately protected the clouds while I darkened the rest of the image with a curves adjustment layer. To accomplish this I simply pulled down the Select menu and moused over Invert. This selected everything but the clouds, and allowed my curves adjustment to provide a final pop to the image:

First View: The Layers Palette

When working with the Adjustments panel, you will notice new Adjustment Layers in your layers palette, and it is very important to keep track of the active layer when performing additional adjustments to your image. It’s easy to get lost in layers, and to have your hard work lost or ineffective because the wrong layer was selected in the layers palette. For example, with a few adjustments under my belt, my image looks like the following, with six active layers (5 adjustments and the base image layer):


We will work extensively with the layers palette in coming weeks, but for now keep an eye here always, as you must be certain you are working in the right place, with the right pixel information. To select a layer, simply click  on its name in the layers palette. Deleting a layer can be accomplished by dragging that layer into the trash icon at the bottom right of the layers palette. Likewise, a new, blank layer can be easily created by clicking on the new layer icon next to the trash. Layers can also be reordered easily, by selecting and dragging where appropriate. Be careful when reordering adjustment layers, as the layer will apply to all information below it in the stack. Therefore, a reordering operation may (or may not) affect how your image appears on the monitor.

Understanding the History Palette

Photoshop allows for virtually unlimited undo states, provided you set up the History options accordingly. This non-linear feature of the program is immensely useful as you begin to amass increasingly complicated operations within your image. The history palette is located in the upper right hand corner of the image window, and a pop-out window will appear if you select the history icon from the side panel:

When you select this tool, if you have performed image operations in succession, a window will appear listing your image states and the operations you have already performed. It will look similar to this:

Navigate through your history by clicking on any state. The image window will reflect the image as it appeared when you applied that particular image operation. Notice how some states are white and some are greyed out. The greyed out states will disappear if you perform an image operation subsequently, unless you allow for non-linear history states by clicking the appropriate checkbox in the history menu panel (located in the upper right hand corner of the history window.) This pull-down panel allows you to move up or down in the chain of history options, create a new snapshot (an independent, saveable history state), clear the history, or change the history options.

It’s a good idea to come to the history menu here and adjust the options to allow for non-linear history. Make sure your history options box looks like the following if you want non-linear options while editing your image:

With this checkbox selected, you can travel back and forth ‘in time’ while you edit your image, and there will be no lost states, which can be immensely useful!


Many images require some cropping, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with the crop tool:

Obviously, the crop tool allows parts of an image to be deleted. The interface is a bounding box with moveable points on all four corners. A toolbar modulates and controls the characteristics of the crop box, which appears overlaid on top of your image. The toolbar looks similar to this:

In the first pulldown window you have the option to control the ratio of the crop box. If you want your cropped image to resemble the other images made from your camera, it is important to correctly select the appropriate ratio. In my case, I am using a full-frame 2:3 camera, so I will select 2:3 from the pull down menu. (Note: many digital cameras are 4:3!).  It’s a good habit to uncheck the ‘delete cropped pixels’ button. This will preserve cropped pixels for later decision making. Also, I like to select the grid option from the ‘view’ pulldown. It’s a bit more precise.

Using the crop box is easy. Here’s how my image appeared before cropping:

Here is a view of the same image during cropping. I didn’t like the extraneous parts of the image, so I used the four corners of the crop box and abbreviated what was visible, also applying a slight rotation to the image to correct for the sloping horizon line:

When I was satisfied with how the image appeared inside the cropbox, I simply hit return. The result is my cropped image!

The crop tool will delete any information you do not want, preserving your adjustment layers nicely. While it is powerful and elegant to use, try your best to frame things perfectly within the viewfinder of your camera!

Artist Spotlight: Martin Parr

Martin Parr, Rochester, New York, 2012.