Wolfgang Wiebach's Light Musings on Heavy Subjects

    Out of this world:
    Velvia and the end of photo realism

    It used to be that an outdoor photographer worked with either Kodachrome or Ektachrome slide film. Kodachrome is sharp and lasts a hundred years, and the original ISO-12 type produced darn good colors. The later K25 was too red and K64 was too green; so for accurate colors, the choice became Ektachrome. After about 1965, it was much improved and named Ektachrome-X, and it looked really good when the E6 processing chemicals came out. It changed its name, without much change of its characteristics, to Ektachrome 64, and is still available as EPR. So that is what I used for the last thirty years with entirely satisfactory results. An occasional 81A filter to suppress the blue cast, a polarizing filter once in a while to reduce the haze, and the pictures came out just fine. Of course, the colors varied according to the prevailing light, as they should - nicely saturated under full sunshine, containing more shades of gray otherwise.
    Occasional glances at pictures published by professional photographers in magazines, calendars and advertising brochures convinced me more and more over the years that these guys must have waited around for months to shoot these pictures with these unbelievable stunning colors as I never saw in my life, obviously under light as it appears once in a blue moon. Of course, an ordinary tourist who just rushes through this same area in a day or even a week has no chance whatsoever to snap the same sort of pictures. Okay, so be it, not necessarily the early bird, but the patient bird catches the worm, and all that. But still, funny, that they all seemed to get these fantastic colors all the time...

     Then, thanks to the generosity of United Airlines who did not want to let my meager supply of infrequent flier miles slip into oblivion completely unrewarded, I received a subscription to Outdoor Photography and began to read the fine print underneath those once-in-a-lifetime-lighting shots, and discovered -
    These rascals!
    A new definition: There are lies, damned lies, and Velvia film.
    All their pictures are lies!
    What are we up to here? Making travel brochures for planet Earth to bolster tourism from Mars? When the Martians arrive and look round, they'll call us the biggest liars of the solar system.
     The surface of the earth is not painted with crayons! The outdoors are colored, at times even colorful, but not garish. And, in my book at least, photography is supposed to be realistic. What good does it do me when I try to enjoy a picture but must always keep in mind "It ain't necessarily so..."? Look at it but must have my mental adjustment computer running, "there is probably 40% less green here, and 30% less blue there, and God knows what the red level really was"...     It is so obvious - I can flip through the magazine and put my finger on the Velvia pictures with 90% accuracy without reading the captions (and I'm not certain that the remaining 10% are not misreported).
         Velvia film is to outdoor photography what Norman Rockwell is to photo journalism.

     Is there a way to ever rid us of this malice? What if one magazine editor would declare "No more Velvia et al! Back to real photos in our magazine X." Great. Now an opinion poll is taken of John Q. Public, faithful reader of magazine X. I quote John Q.: "Yes, of course, magazine X is still a very respectable publication, and I still enjoy it tremendously, but, you know, like, lately, I almost think magazine Y has the better pictures". Needless to say what type of pictures magazine Y happens to print practically exclusively.
    So I resign myself to my circle of trusted friends who know that my vacation slide shows are definitely not sleep-inducing, but concise, spirited, stimulating, with one memorable picture after another. And they sure are enthusiastic again, "Really great pictures, you should really get published, definitely. But you know - I recently saw some pictures by some professional photographer, you know, in a magazine, and he probably had all the equipment and time in the world, but they really knocked my socks off. These colors were out of this world!"
    They sure were. Intended for Mars.