Soft-focus photography is everywhere right now; a cursory glance at any fashion magazine, or indeed, any fashion-focused Instagram could tell you that. In new title, The Soft Touch, professional photographer Jim Cornfield delves deep into the history of the technique, showing readers not just how to craft soft-focus images, but why they might want to, and what historic photographic styles they’re referencing when they do.
We caught up with Jim to talk iPhone apps, travel journalism, wedding photographs and much more.
TA: The rise of soft-focus photography is widely being discussed in terms of the resurgence of vintage-inspired imagery in magazines and on Instagram, which often make use of the technique. As someone who’s been working as a commercial photographer for a long time, I wondered if you could talk a little here about the resurgence of ‘vintage-style’ images; how widespread do you think that trend is, and why does soft-focus photography fit in with it? Is it to do with creating a ‘nostalgic’ effect, d’you think, or something else altogether?
JC: It is nostalgia to some degree, but I prefer to think of vintage revival images as a form of photographic impressionism. The antique look is an interesting way to stylize an image – if it’s the right image. There’s more of this going on now, I think. Revisiting looks from the past plays better in times like ours, when it seems more comforting to look backward than forward to this wildly uncertain future. These days, with all the violent dust-ups around the world and looming problems with the environment, etc., tomorrow isn’t such a rosy prospect. This is one reason that, once again, vintage revival imaging comes back into vogue.
Actually, in one way, it’s literally back into Vogue. The area of the media where vintage treatments tend to show up first is editorial fashion images. This is where the mood impression of a garment is usually more important than the garment itself, and the current mood revolves, some of it anyway, around nostalgia; antiques; revival couture and accessories; old fashioned backgrounds and locations, etc. It’s the same with studio portrait work, that classic look of old imaging processes, tintypes and daguerrotypes that are très chic at the moment. And wedding photography of course, is another venue where vintage looks fit pretty comfortably. Think about it: the very idea of a wedding is nostalgic – one of our ancient tribal rituals – so the vibe can easily be antique.
So, yes, the passion for looking back in time does indeed have a lot of traction among photographers. With clients too, so the various techniques for creating this look are useful to almost any contemporary shooter.
You mentioned Instagram, which is mostly used by millennials and people younger that that – to those people, vintage effects are something of a novelty. Unless they’re students of history, younger people are less likely to remember seeing even their grandparents’ photo albums much less spend time poring through old magazines and newspapers -places where they’d be exposed to the characteristic look of older imaging processes. I show them pictures like the two below, but they have no frame of reference for the look of a callotype or a distressed collodian wetplate with the dirty borders. I’ll sometimes hear “Wow…that is so cool.” To me, the look is old photos; to kids, it’s some uber-hip special effect.
So, on the last part of your question, yes, soft focus technique is an important component of the vintage thing, and that part of it is more than just nostalgia. As you suggest, there’s a history to all those blurs and unsharp accents – blurred shadows bleeding into highlight areas, and the pillowy halos. This all goes back to the mid-19th and early 20th Century, and the pioneers of this craft. The techniques for intentionally altering sharp focus most definitely have a historical pedigree.
TA: You deal with that history at length in your book, as well as how soft-focus photography is being used in the present day. Of course, readers will need to read the book to get the full picture, but we were wondering if you could briefly summarise one interesting historical point about the technique here?
JC: Soft focus imaging became a big item very early on, in the mid 1800’s, when photography was still in its infancy, but about to explode into the collective sensibility of western civilization.
The problem for many early artists who got involved in this science was partly that it was a science and had little claim to being called an art form. The photographic image was too accurate – too cold and technological to be thought of as art. One vocal group of pioneering photographers who were beginning to dabble with this craft envisioned its role in contemporary life as an extension of painting, a palette for emotions and nuance and mystery, not as a soulless recording tool. So they launched the Pictorialist Movement. Its manifesto was to preserve a photograph’s intangible dimension. Pictorialists believed that a picture’s meaning should retain the enticing ambiguity and room for interpretation that were important hallmarks of art.
One of their solutions to this dilemma was to selectively blur areas of an image. They’d do this by adding soft focus accents to their images. The idea was not to totally camouflage a picture’s sharpness, but to blend it with indistinct shapes and figures and create the suggestion of something indefinable, something abstract that didn’t show in the frame. Thus… art.
TA: Do you have a favourite image that you’ve captured using soft-focus?
JC: It’s hard to select just one image as I have different favourites for each different style of soft focus imaging – as the book demonstrates, there are many! For now, I’d draw your attention to this image:
It’s a non-digital film shoot for the cover of Common Cause Magazine. The picture is loaded with history and meaning for me. Shigeku Sasamori is a survivor of the August 6, 1945 A- bomb blast over Hiroshima, Japan. She was less than a mile from Ground Zero, and miraculously survived despite severe burns. I photographed her both as an emissary from this climactic moment of WWII, and as the tireless activist she had become against nuclear proliferation. Clearly, it was important to show the scars she still bore after years of restorative cosmetic surgery.
But I also wanted this soft focus effect to convey a little of the mystique this tiny, courageous woman radiates. I used a darkroom diffusion technique – a piece of crumpled transparent cellophane was held over the enlarger lens. This forces shadows to bleed into highlights, creating a sort of Film Noir look It also had the bonus effect of suggesting the infamous ‘black rain’ that fell over Hiroshima after the blast. Anyway, I’m fond of this image for all of the above. I think it demonstrates the ‘soft touch’ as a powerful imaging and a powerful messaging tool.
TA: We agree! Moving on, The Soft Touch deals with the different lenses that can be used to achieve this affect when using SLR’s. What potential d’you think there is to recreate this with more ubiquitous technology, such as iPhones?
JC: Well, I have two words for you on this subject: ‘app store’. I’m not a responsible card-carrying member of the snapshot culture, but granted, it’s the coming thing. The Smart Phone will probably replace the DSLR one day.
Meanwhile, like all the corners of the digital world, iPhone filters and after-capture tools are in a constant state of mitosis, adding functionalities onto other functionalities by the minute. There are any number of choices for adding soft focus effects to your iPhone imaging. Just consult the various menus online and experiment. My one caution is simply this: it’s very easy to make photographs with these handy eminently mobile devices. But it takes vision to create images that actually communicate ideas to others. That’s far more satisfying than shooting endless selfies or thoughtless, random street photography. I’m an advocate for removing the shoot-from-the-hip content-free photograph from everyone’s life, in favour of thoughtful pictures that communicate.
TA: We were interested to read that you worked as a travel writer, and wondered if you had any great photography stories from the road?
JC: Tons – like any travel journalist. It’s total sensory overload whenever you’re in a new place for an assignment.
When I’m writing and shooting in a travel situation, that gets pretty interesting; you’re making editorial judgments and based on those, doing photography that fits the motif you’re laying for your text. You’re more involved with the subject than if you were just doing photographs to illustrate someone else’s piece. Here’s an example that involves soft focus imaging and fits in with the theme of our discussion:
In the Yucatan a few years ago to cover Yoga resorts for Continental Air Lines Magazine, I marvelled at the Mayan mystique that saturates that Peninsula. Shamans claim it’s a ‘power vortex,’ and given the local natural history, I can see why there should be some serious hoodoo there. It’s the site of the massive meteor strike 65 million years ago, that ended in the so-called K-T extinction which wiped out 75% of all living species on the planet – dinosaurs included. This catastrophe doubtlessly led the way for the emergence of mammals who could only thrive in the absence of the reptilian predators that had been their nemesis. When I shot this sun bleached little Mayan fresco, I thought I might want to evoke the ethos of that mammals rising story, and that there were things I could do in after-capture when I got back home. Here’s the before image as I found it:
A glimpse at the after capture process as I illustrated it in the book:
And the finished shot:
… where I’ve used several digital effects, including selective soft focus, to get this impression of my Mayan warrior, metaphorically rising out of the primordial haze.