Talking Photography With Alexander S. Kunz

After enjoying the landscapes and nature portraits by Alexander S. Kunz, I wanted to talk about photography with him; the self-taught artist graciously agreed.

Photography — in it’s original concept, anyway — was the means by which to capture a precise moment in time, the way a person, place, or object was. But your works capture something less literal and more ethereal, more emotive and fanciful than a documentation. Before we get to the philosophy, let’s address the issue of “how”… The photos are taken with digital cameras, but are they digitally manipulated or “photoshopped” as well?

Yes, my photos are definitely digitally manipulated. I’m using only raw data – and I process it only in Lightroom. That’s the short answer. But it’s not easy to keep that apart from philosophy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Forgive me if I get a bit techno-philosophical right away: in my opinion, every photo is “manipulated” somehow. There is no such thing as a “pure” and truthful depiction of reality in general (no matter if it’s film or digital). Reality is simply very different from that what we can and will capture on a photo.

Without getting into too much detail, and oversimplified: the digital sensor records nothing but luminance (and then color through a filter array), and my personal take is: everything that comes after that is part of the manipulation already. Even contrast, saturation, sharpness, color hue are just parameters of that manipulation (different films are different in that regard too). The only fix point in the world of digital photography is the light that the sensor captured. So why should I bother to NOT manipulate anything else if it’s in favor of my perception and what I want to convey with an image? It’s a mindset that frees me from being bound by the “realistic” and documentary approach to photography.

The term “photoshopped” often implies cheating. My alterations are limited to, for example, removing small unwanted elements in the frame, like a piece of paper in the grass of an otherwise unspoiled scenery, or the tip of a twig, a power pole sticking into the frame somewhere. That might be cheating to some of course. And I manipulate color, contrast, light and dark without shame. ๐Ÿ™‚ And needless to say, it also includes creating the balance between that what our human eye can see, and that what the sensor is able to capture.

What’s your photographic or artistic philosophy? How would you describe the process of developing the photographic technique to match your philosophic vision of photography?

My philosophy: I want to show beauty, and I picked landscapes and nature because I love being outdoors, I love hiking, walks at the beach, forests and deserts all alike. The beauty that I look for is often found in “small scenes”.

And while I always liked making photos, using film and polaroids or my first digital compact camera was… too static. I felt like not being in control. Having grown up as part of the “generation C64” (one of the first widely spread home computers), and also being something like a computer freak ever since, the marriage of photography with the digital darkroom on the computer was probably the best thing that could happen to me. I’m a digital child.

I quite often find myself looking at some beautiful scenery and making a photo of it, but at home I find that it just doesn’t transport the entire beauty and emotion that I had seen and experienced when I released the shutter (and I also think that’s something that happens to almost everyone). And it can’t – it’s just a photo! A 2D snapshot of a very very short moment in time that lacks the sense of movement, depth, smell, sound… I find that what the camera captures often needs to be refined, increased, idealized, reduced, distilled… to the essence of what actually made me lift the camera and release the shutter.

So, to conclude… it’s this technology that makes my photography possible, and that what my camera captures is the starting point. Sometimes, it’s a long way from there to the final image and requires and includes heavy manipulation, sometimes it’s a light path with just some touches here and there.

“Creating the balance between that what our human eye can see, and that what the sensor is able to capture” is an interesting statement… I want to say something very clever about Le Petite Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupรฉry — about how “The essential things in life are seen not with the eyes, but with the heart.” How do you feel about using the “cold” sensor of photographic equipment to move the human heart and emotion?

I find the attribution of “cold” a bit odd. The camera with that sensor is just a tool. Like a chisel, or a brush. Using “technologic devices” to create something that (hopefully) stirs the beholders heart and creates an emotion is common in many art forms, isn’t it? But we have this tendency to refuse anything that is new or modern it’s acceptance at first. Our grandparents didn’t like music made with electric guitars, it was “only noise”, and so on… ๐Ÿ˜‰

As long as it works, it doesn’t matter what that tool is, or how old or new the technology is that we’re using when we create something. (but needless to say, “seeing with the heart” and the wish to capture that what you love with a photo is what makes any passionate photographer get the camera out and make a photo first place.)

What prompted me to contact you was this image, Ask The Mountains:


I continue to be amazed by the crisp nearly pristine quality — something, which when coupled with the cool color tone, I normally would regard as “mechanical” and “cold” — how it moves me in a very good, elated, way. …I guess there’s no real question there. *wink* What were you trying to create with that image?

I wanted to create something that was “more than just another layers” photo. My question to you would be: why does it move you?

I can tell you why it moves me: I’ve been there, and I had this feeling of wide, open spaces, I understood the history and the (in human terms) “infinity” of these mountains, of nature in general; the promise that the world is big and has something new for us every day, the temptation of the unknown and the longing and the thrill of exploration, to find out what these ridges and mountains are, hear their call, go there…

And well… it can serve as an illustration to what I said regarding my philosophy: if you take all that what I felt away, you’d end up with the hazy and somewhat dull original scene that my camera captured. That’s why I bumped up the contrast and the blue saturation so much. I wanted it to look “over the top”, it had to “pop” just that much to give me back that feeling. And hopefully transport some of it to others as well.

Back in the days of film photography, photographers would joke (or ruefully muse upon) the number of shots or even rolls of film they took, wasted, before they took the “good one.” Do you think that’s still true in digital photography? (Minus the rolls of film, of course lol) How many photos do you think you take, even manipulate, before you have “the good one”?

To answer your first question: I think that it’s even WORSE with digital photography. Being freed from the “every click costs” thinking with using film, one tends to simply make more photos. That includes me. ๐Ÿ™‚ We’re not wasting rolls of film, we’re wasting shutter actuations. That’s not a bad thing, but culling has become the most important thing for the digital photographer. Very very rigid and extensive culling. (wishful thinking here *grin*)

And to the second question: That’s really hard to answer. If I’m really hard on myself, maybe it’s 1 “long term portfolio quality” photo for 1000 shots taken. I’m happy if I can find 10 really really great photos for my personal selection of a year’s top 10.

A little background. Let’s say I’ve been on a hike for a day and I come home with… 100 photos? Only some 30 of them might actually be different enough to keep them apart – the rest is experiments with different exposures, depth of field, compositions. (It’s the luxury and curse of digital photography. A curse because it’s a lot of material that one SHOULD get rid of and delete pretty soon. The problem is: we’re not doing it.) Of the 30 individual photos, maybe 10 are keepers (for whatever reason). Sometimes, one of them might be “the good one”, portfolio quality. Maybe long-term portfolio quality, ie. it will still stand out in a year or two. Only time will tell that.

Certainly digital photography is much less expensive than film and print photography, and it’s far more instantly gratifying — just slip in the memory card, and voila! No waiting to develop prints. But still many would-be photographers hesitate to begin… What advice or tips do you have for those folks?

Do whatever you’re comfortable with. The hords of tech-gurus that preach things like “if you really want to learn how to use your camera, use the fully manual mode” or “if you want to get the maximum out of your photos, use raw data” might be right, but from a beginner’s point of view, it’s just not the most important thing. If someone decides to get a camera, it should be FUN to use and operate it. Shooting JPEGs in full-auto mode is just fine. The feeling that it might be limiting will come all by itself sooner or later for those who pick up the photography virus. ๐Ÿ™‚

I learned a lot about the tech-side of photography solely through the internet and with the information that is available there for FREE. That’s awesome!

But I wouldn’t really trust “the internet” (photo forums or platforms) to get good advice and learn about (more than the basics of) design and composition though. I bought books for that. The average internet crowd might know little about photographic design, style and composition, and still put “nice composition!” as a comment to your photo. Or self-proclaimed “experts” criticize your photo while the only thing they ever heard about somewhere somehow was the rule of thirds (and then no one everrrr is allowed to break it!). It’s annoying to say the least, not very helpful quite often, or even dangerous if you really want to grow as an artist.

I’d like to thank Alex for making the time for the interview and invite you all to keep up with him at his blog.

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