Witness with a camera

Award-winning photographer Vincent Versace talks about his inspiration, developments in the field and his views on ‘photoshopping’.

August 17, 2013 05:12 pm | Updated 05:12 pm IST

Vincent Versace

Vincent Versace

Art is the lie that tells the truth.

Pablo Picasso

“And I agree with him,” says Vincent Versace, an award-winning photographer and pioneer of digital photography. Hailed for his creative and technical innovation in the digital imaging field, the biggest feather in his cap was the institution of the Vincent Versace Award for Digital Photography Excellence by the National Association of Photoshop Professionals.

Besides undertaking commissions and teaching digital photography at numerous institutions, Vincent has also authored the bestselling Welcome to Oz 2.0: A Cinematic Approach to Digital Still Photography with Photoshop , and From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black & White Technique Known to Mankind . His third book, he says, will be “the outcome of the promise I made to Aung San Suu Kyi ‘to do right’ before I was allowed to photograph her. I am planning a book titled Turning the Last Page of the 19th Century with the goal of building a school from the profits.”

Versace will conduct a series of Natural Light Photography workshops in Varanasi, Kolkata and Mumbai in September, organised by Tumbhi, a talent pooling website. Vincent Versace’s body of work speaks for itself, but here he lends it an additional voice by talking about his inspirations, ethics and “photoshopping”. Excerpts from an interview:

You are a conservatory-trained actor and a graduate of USC film school. Do you look for some element of drama in your photography as well?

The simple answer is “yes.” The more useful answer is: we are all a culmination of the experiences that led us to the moment we find ourselves in. The journey is always the destination. In the sense of looking for some drama, an image that contains no “drama” is truly a flat image indeed. You need contrasts between things — light-dark, sharpness-blur, emotional tension, point of view etc. My training as an actor has given me the skill set to improvise in the moment and to know how to connect emotively with my subject. Singularly the greatest lesson I have learned from my acting training is how to be taken by the moment

You’ll be handling workshops in Varanasi, Kolkata and Mumbai. These are some of India’s most photographed cities. What is it about these cities, or India in general, that attracts you as a photographer?

The meetings of the spirit and the spice of life in one place, all at once. The vibrancy of colour — both in the actual sense of the word and the “colorfulness” of the people from inside out and outside in. The openness of the people is what is most inviting. Being a witness to life with a camera is what is compelling about India.

Talking about

Photoshop and other photo-enhancing software, how much is too much?

When it starts to look bad, that’s too much. Photoshop should be used as an emery board, not as a jack hammer. The goal is to remove everything that is not your vision of the image.

So when you are done, what is there is exactly what is meant to be there. No “chalk marks”. The viewer should not see the work you’ve done being referred to as a verb, “You Photoshopped this.”

An image when done should leave the viewer believing that this was the way it was at moment of capture.

What are your personal ethics of photography?

Use photography but don’t let it use you?

What constitutes a good picture? The one rule of photography that you always follow?

One that moves the viewer in the same way that the photographer was moved. As to the one rule I follow, if it looks cool; take a picture of it.

What are the current problems in the field?

At the risk of upsetting a few people, it’s the belief that ‘I am a pro’ because my cell phone has a 16mp camera. What is happening is that “just good enough” is now acceptable. Frequently mediocrity is embraced as if it was an ancient Greek philosopher. Run-and-gun photography is frequently the approach to taking an image. Figure it out later and fix it and post.

Lots of youngsters have taken to photography both as a hobby and profession. What do you think will come of this trend?

It’s the best and worst of times, to be honest. The best is more people are experiencing the creative impulse and expressing themselves artistically, which means happier people. The worst is the growing belief that ‘I own a camera, I am a photographer’. You can’t go in to a music store, buy a cello and say “I’m a cellist”. I am hoping that, as has always been the case, water finds its own level and people who pick up a camera will strive to be better. Not allow “good enough” to be enough.

Do you miss anything about the old-school technique of shooting that involves a film roll and manual developing?

I really don’t miss the anxiety of “Did I get it?” or the fumes and the chemicals. What I think is being lost is the discipline that these limitations caused. I feel that, as much as I am happy to never do analogue photography again, what made me the photographer I am today is my training in silver-based photography. I think that everyone who wants to be a serious photographer should spend time in a darkroom. The cross pollination of techniques makes for a better informed photographer.

How do talent pooling sites help photographers?

As the world becomes a smaller place because of the volume of people in it, the need to be found and effectively heard increases. Let me go a little out of the way to make the point. I collect vintage matchbox cars from the 1960s.

Before eBay, my collection took years to grow slowly. With eBay, my collection grew rapidly and its value has increased because all the people who share my interest interact with each other. Talent pooling websites allow all inter-related disciplines to interact as well as give potential clients a place to find what they need. It is a great way to expand your knowledge base.

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