November 16, 2016  •  Leave a Comment



Wikepedia defines photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy that can later be used to fuel the organisms' activities.

Phhht. We know that photosynthesis is really about photography - it has "photo" in it fer cryin' out loud.

But ok, maybe photosynthesis is a valid description of photography too. We do a lot of light energy conversion, do we not? Which fuels other activities, like lens purchases, pre-dawn bushwhacking, strobe setting, post processing, monitor calibration, happy hour, and of course our favorite, banging our heads on a table in frustration.

But there's more!

Synthesis is a powerful catalyst that can reveal new levels in a photograph. Synthesis is the "combination of ideas to form a theory or system" or "the process of combining objects or ideas into a complex whole." Well now, what a beautiful description of photography! It's what we do every time we lift a camera to our eye or develop an image in Lightroom. We are creating something new from a variety of raw materials.

That little word "combination" is important. Synthesis is not compromise; it doesn't require that something be thrown out or sacrificed in order to make a mediocre agreement. Instead, synthesis creates something "other" from its sources and that "other" is transformative, sometimes revolutionary.

Synthesis doesn't just happen; it requires things or ideas that differ from one other. Let's simplify and suggest that synthesis requires two opposing forces to create a third. Visual tone for example - black and white. Synthesis of the two, if perfectly balanced, results in neutral gray, or "Kodak 18%." OK, you could argue that neutral gray is compromise, not synthesis. But if unbalanced a bit, we get shades of gray, and we know how delicate and varied they can be. Nobody would call black and white photography a compromise; instead, a master of the zone system has the capacity to create powerful, emotive work by synthesizing highlights and shadows in just the right locations and amounts.

The color wheel is built upon the foundation of synthesis. Mix two primary colors and you get a secondary color (blue and yellow result in green). Mix a primary color with a secondary color and you get a tertiary color. Add black and you get a shade; white and you get a tint. And so on. It's why there are so many freaking colors and so hard to zero in on just the right one. Each new color has a mood, a feel, a magnetic attraction (or repulsion) that is more than the sum of its parts.

Mix a rectangle with a triangle and you get a nearly infinite number of "complex" shapes. Throw in a circle and the Taj Mahal happens. Or the female form. Or a 1963 Corvette.

Synthesis can be reverse-engineered, too. The most complex shapes, colors, tones, chords, or ideas can be broken back down into their original components. They can be reshuffled into new shapes, colors, tones, chords, or ideas. Musical synthesizers create new bleeps and blats with knobs and sliders. So does Photoshop. One hits the airwaves; the other, Instagram. 

What happens when you unleash synthesis into the atmosphere of ideas, cognition, emotion, creative art? Relationships, politics, religion, scientific discovery, family dynamics, or which socks to wear all stretch our boundaries of this that and the other thing. We rubber band our way through every day in our real lives, inventing new coping mechanisms, pushing artistic boundaries, daring to fail. We're not the same person today we were yesterday. And tomorrow? We'll photosynthesize it as we go.

So then, how can we apply synthesis to photography? Here are a few ideas. I know you'll come up with more and better ones.

  • Photograph something simple, then photograph its opposite. Think about what the opposite really is - maybe it's not what you first think. Put those two photographs side by side and study them for awhile. Be patient, wait for some idea to emerge - maybe just a thread - that taps the energy from both images. Use that energy to create a third. Don't think too much, just use that energy to play and create.
  • Think of synthesis as a triangle. The two bottom points are the opposing forces. The top point is the synthesis, the "new idea." Start at the top and work down into the opposing components. Is something revealed you didn't notice before? Make a photograph of each point.
  • Consider actual photosynthesis. The sun, a giant superheated yellow ball of screaming atoms emits invisible rays that strike the earth's soil, warming a tiny humble seed that a few weeks later blossoms into a giant yellow sunflower. How weird is that? Nowhere along the process could a sunflower be predicted. But it's here anyway, daring you not to believe it. So prepare to be constantly surprised with synthesis.
  • Butterflies. Same deal. Except even weirder.
  • Remember a dream. What didn't make sense? Dig into that part - it's probably the third point of the triangle and has something to tell you. It would make a pretty cool photograph, wouldn't it?
  • Run with scissors... no, don't do that. I didn't say that.
  • The yin/yang symbol is a brilliant symbol of synthesis. Two opposing halves create a new and unbroken whole, yet is in constant changing motion. A bit of the positive exists within the negative, and vice versa. Positive and negative space plays a similar role in a photograph. Create a photograph where the whole would fall apart if one element is removed.
  • Baseball is synthesis on a grand scale, and it has hot dogs and beer. Damn. Cubs win.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS will run for two weeks, from Nov 16 through Nov 29.


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