A CALAMITY IN THE WORLD OF ART
THE USE OF DEFECTIVE, DISTORTED PHOTOGRAPHIC SLIDE
REPRODUCTIONS IN JUDGING ART WORKS
©1984 Mark B. Anstendig
The use of photographic reproductions for the evaluation and judgment of large quantities of artworks presents the art world with a problem of truly calamitous proportions. Artists and reviewers alike are not aware that, in the world of photography, no available focusing device is capable of achieving exact focus.1 In photography, the depiction of tonal gradations as well as many other extremely important picture elements can only be exact at the point of absolute focus, i.e., only at the focal point. Photo-reproduction is therefore an unperfected, flawed process incapable of reproducing the essential aspects of fine visual art. Reproductions that share little more than their bare outlines with the original artwork are being evaluated for important grants, prizes, and long-term financial assistance, all of which have profound effects on the artists’ careers and on the development of the modern art world.
In the visual arts, millions of dollars of public and tax-free monies are awarded yearly without the judges ever seeing the original artworks. The government-funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and numerous philanthropic, tax-exempt foundations award large grants to artists in the visual arts. These grants are almost universally awarded on the basis of photographic reproductions of the artworks in the form of 35mm slides. At the current state-of-the-art, all photographic reproduction, but especially the 35mm format, is so technically flawed that it is incapable of duplication of these artworks. Picture detail is lost or distorted. Colors are changed and their tonal gradations falsely rendered. All subtlety is obliterated. In three-dimensional art, the impression of the relative size of the objects is falsified. But the point of fine art is conveyed in just those qualities that are lost in the duplicating process. The resultant slides are, therefore, artistically different from and not at all representative of the original artwork...in a word, they are falsifications. Since few artists can live without extra financial help, many artists are already turning out artworks conceived only from the point of view of whether or not they will look good as slides. Sad and difficult as it is to say, this amounts to an ultimate degradation of art.
The use of photographic duplication as the method of presenting artworks for serious evaluation is based on the assumption that current photographic technique is capable of duplicating the artworks in a faithful manner. But it is not. All photographic reproduction processes suffer from a fatal flaw: the focusing devices available in all cameras without exception cannot achieve focal-point-exact focus. The achievement of focal- point-exact focus for a desired subject plane is the true definition of focusing. Because the patent that could achieve this accuracy was not in the hands of the large camera or optical manufacturers and because their own cameras were inexact, this definition of focusing has been suppressed by the photographic industry.2
Most people think of focusing only in terms of sharpness and higher resolution of fine detail. Those are the least interesting results of true focusing accuracy. The tonal gradations of a subject can only be accurately depicted at the focal point.3 This little-known fact about focusing accuracy is of crucial importance to art reproduction. Because of the inability of reproduction cameras to locate the focal-point, the reproduction of color tones varies with each camera setting, making it impossible to standardize the reproduction of color tones. The manner in which colors and their tonal gradations will be reproduced remains a question mark that varies with each new reproduction.
Of great importance is that the results of focusing precision--accurate depiction of the tonal gradations, together with greater resolution, less impression of grain, and increased impression of depth-of-field--result in the effect called plasticity, which is the impression of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Plasticity is crucial to the reproduction of all art that has depth or texture, including oils, some water-colors, and sculpture. Such artworks, which depend upon three-dimensionality of texture or form for their artistic effect, are particularly disadvantaged by the use of slides. One other effect of focal-point focusing precision is that the viewer’s gaze is always drawn to the focal-plane in all photographs. That means that, since most photographs do not have the focal-plane on the most important point of the picture, the viewer’s gaze is constantly drawn away from the compositional point of greatest interest when viewing conventionally-focused photographs. This point has great importance in the correct rendition of three-dimensional art-works. An additional flaw is that the relative proportions of any subject can only be precisely depicted at the focal-plane. Even small changes in focus change the impression of the size of the subject and cause the viewer’s gaze to be attracted to different parts of the subject.4
The innate problems of accurate photo-reproduction are aggravated by the use of the small 35mm format mounted in glassless frames. The 35mm format is universally acknowledged as inferior to larger formats for reproductions. Its small size demands great amounts of enlargement, which magnifies the defects of inexact focusing. Without a means of achieving perfect focus, decent, though still flawed, reproductions are only possible with film sizes larger than 4 x 5 inches. Mounting the slides in glassless frames worsens an already bad situation because the 35mm film cannot lie flat. It usually expands, and thereby changes its position while it is being warmed by the heat of the projector. Correct focus of the projected image is, therefore, undependable and usually impossible.
It is of particular importance to understand that the submitted 35mm slides are not merely a flawed reproduction of the original artworks. They are different works of art. The Anstendig Institute has the original prints of a number of focal-point- exact photographs of which 35mm side-reproductions were submitted for evaluation to the NEA.5 The slides were commercial duplications of those photographs made by highly recommended, reputable photo-labs. A comparison conclusively demonstrates that the slides change the originals in such appreciable ways that the effect of the art-work is not conveyed at all. By no means do these slides convey the point of the art.
These photographs are particularly pertinent because they utilize focal-point-exact placement of the plane of focus as the means to artistic effect, working artistically with the resulting effects of such precision.6 Naturally, the results of such precision are the first to be obliterated by the non-focal-point-exact inaccuracies of the reproducing process. But focal-point-exact focus is the artistic point of these photographs and is demonstrated by them. Since it is the solution to the whole reproduction problem and is itself obliterated in the presentation, these photographs present clear, ironic proof of the faults in the presentation methods used in evaluating visual artworks. It should be added that the experts at the NEA do not seem to have recognized the extreme pertinence of these photographs to their own evaluation procedures, probably because the contents of the photos were obliterated by the required 35mm slides.7
National Endowment for the Arts is the leading single source of support for the
arts in the
The NEA acknowledges the technical points in The Anstendig Institute’s papers on focusing, which were sent to them, but claims that slides “allow all applicants’ work to be introduced to the jurors; in a consistent and as equal as possible manner under the circumstances”. But the NEA has not fully realized that the artist’s work is not being presented to the jurors. Art is art, not something similar to but different from and inferior to the artwork. The point of an artwork is to convey a particular experience which is inherent in that artwork. But these flawed reproductions no longer convey that experience. Using these slides to judge art is just as futile as judging art on the basis of verbal descriptions. More so, since a good communicator might be able to verbally convey the magical impression that a great work of art has on the viewer, while the slides destroy it.
Since the NEA is now aware of the truth about focusing accuracy in relation to accurate reproduction of artworks, we feel that they can no longer claim to be reviewing art. What is reviewed is falsifications which are definitely not the “art” of the artist under consideration. The reviewing procedures are designed to accommodate the NEA’s needs for a rational reviewing procedure in the face of thousands of applications, not the demands of art. Its review of reproductions would have validity if the art were not falsified by the reproductions. The circumstances are worse than using counterfeits to judge or place a value on the great masterworks of Rembrandt, Raphael, et al, because a good painter could conceivably copy the Rembrandt with great accuracy, but the slides cannot. If a washing machine faded and disfigured the clothes, that machine would never be tolerated. There is little difference between washing haute couture masterpieces with such a machine and reproducing visual art with 35mm slides.
If photo-reproduction were capable of highly accurate reproduction of an original so that the only problem were seeing the artwork as a projected slide instead of in the original form, the prevalent arguments that the use of slides is fair to all would have some validity, although the slides would still be a format for which the artworks were not conceived. But the photo-reproduction process can never achieve the results necessary for the purpose of true evaluation of artworks until it has a dependable means of achieving focal-point-accuracy. Until that time, photo-reproduction will remain flawed and unable to perform the function the reviewing procedures demand of it. Realizing this creates a real dilemma because the procedure of using 35mm slides is essentially invalidated. This, in turn, could be interpreted as invalidating all awards and grants that have resulted from those procedures.
If available repro-cameras had the means to achieve focal- point precision, the other factors (exposure, contrast control through developing procedures, etc.) could be quickly worked out by each lab. The field of photo-reproduction would then be able to achieve an accurate technique that could very closely convey the impression of a visual artwork. It would even be possible to accurately convey the impression of depth in such artworks as sculpture and oil paintings with textured surfaces. The Anstendig Institute’s photo-materials prove this. But, with the present possibilities of photo-reproduction, the artists should be allowed to show their work in its original form, or not at all until the reproduction process adopts a means of focal-point-exact focusing precision.
The use of slides has the further effect of unduly influencing the choice of materials which an artist submits. Many extremely effective artworks simply do not work as slides. The Anstendig Institute has found, in researching this aspect of the problem, that the prevalent need to use slides in order to acquire support for their work has resulted in many artists compromising their inspiration by painting pictures specifically to look good as slides. Many artists have emphasized that the practice of using slides is so universal that it is virtually impossible for even the most conscientious of them to remain true only to the demands of their inspiration without dooming themselves to enormous material sacrifices. But there has not been persistent protest because everyone has assumed that the problem is only a matter of some works not showing up to best advantage in slide-reproduction, not that the reproduction process itself is flawed.
The Anstendig Institute is the first to recognize and make known the truth about the photo-reproduction process. Many problems of reproductions are widely known, such as changes in tonal contrast and slide-buckling. But it is not understood that reproduction can only be accurate at the focal-plane, nor has it been widely made known that precise focusing is impossible with the focusing systems that are used. Now that the scientific facts are known, and the NEA has not questioned or proved our technical arguments to be false, we would expect the NEA as well as other grant-giving foundations and the artists themselves to join us in trying to remedy the situation.
There is really no possible compromise with 35mm slides, even with the good intentions of trying to process the most applications in the most expedient manner. Either the artwork is evaluated or it is not. Even using the slides only to gain a first impression of the work of each applicant, after which the originals of the most apparently interesting artists are viewed is untenable because 1) many deserving candidates will be passed up and, 2) first impressions are the strongest and will usually influence and even determine how the originals themselves will be evaluated.
Since it would be a great loss that would create a crisis in the art world if grant-giving activities were stopped due to the imperfections of the viewing techniques, the logical remedy is to perfect the reproduction and presentation processes. Since a practical, easy-to-use focusing device that can achieve absolute focal-point-exact focus exists and is well-known by much of the industry, the situation could be quickly remedied if this focusing device were made available by the camera industry and grant applicants were specifically directed to insist on having their slides made with it.8 All grant-giving institutions and artists should demand that it be made available.
Certainly no one expected to be confronted with hard facts proving that current photo-reproduction in the 35mm slide format cannot accurately reproduce an original. We are sympathetic to the plight of the grant-giving institutions in relation to this new information and understand the dilemma that such proof creates. But The Anstendig Institute, like those institutions, is dedicated to the uncompromised preservation and furthering of artistic standards and is obligated to make our material and its ramifications known to the public and to persons and organizations to whom it is pertinent. The use of slides as the basis for visual-arts evaluations has to ultimately be seen as a disservice to art that invalidates the whole purpose of such visual arts programs.
1 The Anstendig Institute’s papers on focusing detail the problems of focusing, explain the important results when absolutely precise, focal-point-exact focusing is achieved, and explain how to prove for yourself that your camera cannot focus.
2 Instead, the industry pushed the concept of depth-of-field focusing, which in reality deals with hypothetical tolerances for unsharpness and does not deal with sharpness at all.
3 In front or in back of their precise focal-point, all tonal values are irradiated, i.e., diluted.
4 The Anstendig Institute possesses photographs, made with a focal-point-exact focusing system which has never been marketed, that clearly demonstrate all of the effects of focusing accuracy described in this paper.
photographs were made using the Messraster, the only
focusing device that can achieve focal-point exact focus. This device, the
invention of the late Joseph Dahl of
6 This use of the focal-point as the basis for photographic-artistic effect is an essential requisite of all photography that wants to call itself art. So many essential factors of a photographic image are dependent upon and controlled by the location of the focal-plane that, without the precise control of the focal-plane, photography is pure chance, not art.
7 A few original 8x10 enlargements accompanied the slides, but the slides are looked at first and other submitted material is only perused if the slides make enough of an impression on the judges.
8 Our papers describe this device in detail and explain some of its peculiar history. Suffice it to say that, while the industry was not putting it on the market, no less than 9 patents were applied for utilizing its principles in auto-focusing, none of which can be as accurate or practical to use as the original in normal picture-taking situations.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide the research and explanations that are necessary for an understanding of how we see and hear.