When Photographers Are Neuroscientists – Issue 26: Color

In the summer of 1867 American photographer Carleton Watkins hauled a mammoth wooden camera through the wilderness of Oregon, taking pictures of the mountains. To prepare each negative, he poured noxious chemicals onto a glass plate the size of a windowpane and exposed it while still wet, developing it on the spot. Even then, his work was not complete. Because wet-plate emulsions are disproportionately sensitive to blue light, his skies were overexposed, utterly devoid of clouds. Back in his San Francisco studio, Watkins manipulated his photos to resemble the landscapes he’d witnessed. His finished prints were composites, embellished with a separate set of cloud-filled negatives.

Nearly a century and a half later, Elena Dorfman—another American photographer porting a large-format camera—spent several summers in the rock quarries of Kentucky and Indiana, landscapes as dramatic as Watkins’s Oregon. Dorfman had none of the old limitations. Her digital Hasselblad instantaneously captured 32-megapixel photos in full color. But it didn’t satisfy her. In postproduction she created composites on her computer, layering as many as 300 images to obtain effects unlike anything seen in nature.

In one sense, Dorfman was doing the opposite of what Watkins achieved with his library of clouds. While his intervention made the…

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