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Exploring A New Photographic Dialect

by George Murphy on October 23, 2011

Things may have been a little quite on the Firsthand Journal of late, but it hasn’t been for a lack of developments on the photography front. Apologies for the extended silence. In reality I’ve been diving headlong into exciting new visual territory that I just haven’t been ready to share until now.

The three images that follow are examples of the beginning of my own exploration into developing a visual language that allows me to go beyond simply capturing and sharing an experience of the world and people around us, to also reveal them in fresh and inspiring new ways that are distinct from the literal presentation of photography alone. It’s a style that I’ve actually nibbled around the edges of for a long time, but am only now realizing a commitment to developing in earnest.

Sonoma Countryside Clouds and pasture land near the Sonoma/Marin County border south of the town of Petaluma in Northern California.

This new work still relies on me pursuing the creation of strong photographic images, but it also now allows me to distill the presentation of those images down to their essential elements, subduing the non-essential aspects to present the main subject or idea in a way that the viewer can connect with more immediately on an emotional level. In some ways, if you think about it, it’s not unlike why we sometimes present a subject in black-and-white instead of color…it works to simplify the subject to reveal it’s emotional content. This is really that same idea, but pushed beyond anything we can still think of as pure photography.

My earlier hesitation may have come from just that…the idea that this was not true photography. Despite my background in feature film visual effects, I have always held on to my photojournalistic roots and it has remained an important ongoing thread in my current photography efforts. There is a power that an image has, that comes from trusting its content is real, especially when that moment has been captured in a compelling and surprising way. There is also tremendous satisfaction in pushing yourself to create that kind of image; and this past summer, in particular, has offered me great opportunities to focus on pursuing just this kind of photojournalistic shooting (such as my coverage of the last Space Shuttle mission).

But my creative interests have always been diverse (I swear it’s some  kind of creative ADD!) and I have never been willing to focus on just one kind of visual expression. Especially, now as you look at how publishing, and the way we experience media is changing, the potential for telling stories in richly engaging and creative new ways…it’s the kind of thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night imagining the possibilities.

Le Noir Dynamo Jab (yes that would be my daughter Katie’s horse) ridden by trainer Ryan Sulonen at the Woodside Fall Event near Palo Alto, California a few weeks back. Justin Oliphant poses in the parking garage for the apartment he is about to give up, as he prepares to set out last February on his Friend-of-a-Friend project to meet and document the people at the other end of his social network and explore the world through their lives.

So, as I took a little time off to wrap up summer and help get my daughter off to college, I used the opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at what I am really now trying to achieve through my images and stories, and how that fit into the diverse kinds of media I am interested in using to make that happen. I was already exploring multimedia styles that would bring together images, text, sound and motion, but as I looked at specific concepts, I knew that a literal visual approach just wouldn’t be enough, by itself, to communicate the concepts I hoped to explore.

I really wanted to hone in on developing a visual style that would be distinct enough to stand out from the visual noise being generated by so many other sources, yet give me the flexibility to apply it across a variety of media from fine art work, to story essays, to multimedia content and digital publishing. More importantly, from a practical point of view, I wanted an approach that I could apply to both editorial and commercial work while keeping true to a consistent and distinct style.

As I delve into the visual style that is represented by these first images, I am excited by how it speaks very directly to what I have been trying to achieve creatively through my photographs and stories (many of which have been stuck in limbo as I struggled, searching for an approach that would present them as I envisioned); and going forward, I’m excited to explore how I can apply this approach to the cross media formats I mentioned above. Sure, if we’re being really honest , I’m not inventing anything entirely new here: You can see related variations of this technique in a lot of other works by other photographers and graphic designers. What I do intend is to apply this approach in unique ways that draw upon my own particular photographic and artistic styles and which bring to bear an extensive background in the digital arts. In the end I am hopeful that I can create something that is fresh and distinct; and more importantly, that offers a uniquely interesting perception of the subjects they portray.


NOTE: Clicking on the images will open a higher resolution version. You can see these images at even higher resolution (worth it to understand the fine detailing) by going to my portfolio site HERE and selecting the gallery called PHOTO-GRAPHICS.


While you can’t call it photojournalism any more when you start pushing an image around like this, and in some circles it would readily be labeled, “photo illustration,” it’s worth noting that–at least in these particular images–the subject content of the photographs is actually quite real. No elements have been added or removed beyond the textural components of the presentation (Yes, that includes the clouds in the sky over the Sonoma landscape). My manipulation here has been in the presentation of the subject, but not in the subject itself. Could you thus consider this a valid, if highly stylized, form of documentary photography?

I’m sure passionate arguments could be made for either side of that answer. I’m curious if I had simply printed the original photographs on old worn paper or coated metal, instead of having weaved the style into the image itself, would you think differently of how honest a portrayal of the subject these images are? Just curious how this affects our perception of what is a “real” photograph of something. [My own strong opinions on this subject were touched on in a couple of earlier FirstHand Journal posts. You can check them out HERE if you’re curious.]

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Below is a crop of the photograph of Justin to show the texture detailing and how I’ve balanced preserving photographic detail in some areas like Justin’s face, while applying heavy texture treatments to nearby background areas. This can be a painstaking process of testing and discovery, not unlike working in a chemical darkroom exploring different methods of development to draw out different looks from the image. It’s always a surprise to discover how the textural elements affects the contrast and color of the underlying photograph as they are worked into the image.

Detail crop of image.

Below is another crop. The texture layers in the image of Jab jumping take a finer detail approach that evokes fiber based papers. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just “a” layer. Several types of materials were combined from old books, new art board materials, art papers and other distressed materials. Each added not only texture, but affected the color, contrast and saturations of the main elements when applied through various compositing and masking techniques. It’s also worth noting, that I scouted a number of antique fairs and art shops to find the raw materials I wanted for the starting textures here. The main photograph itself is essentially what you see, with various levels of processing to simplify and isolate the horse and rider from their background.

Crop detail of Jab and Ryan.


The Legal Stuff: All images are Copyright © George Murphy | FirstHand Pictures and cannot be published or reproduced without express permission. All rights reserved. To license the use of these images please contact or visit the FirstHand Pictures Media Exchange at . Note: Not all images published here are available in the Media Exchange site.

One response to “Exploring A New Photographic Dialect”

  1. steve m says:

    Fantastic work! I can’t wait to watch as your new Dialect moves forward.

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