#433. Every Story Tells a Picture : A Bleak Winter Day

By pascaljappy | How-To

Dec 07

France is in pain. A few weeks after terrorist attacks, agonising from a never-ending financial crisis while watching so many of its neighbours and partners flourish and thrive, France is currently voting for its regional representatives. A tidal wave of extreme political change has started to swell, indicative of instability and discontent.

I will not judge the political result, everyone is entitled his/her opinion in what still remains a democratic country. What matters is that a solid portion of the electorate has taken a strong stance against traditional politics, a situation that France has been contemplating for years, decades in fact, but one that few seem able to fully understand and deal with positively.

Those were my thoughts as I walked to the pretty little school in which our village holds its polling station.

Winter has yet to settle in our area, temperatures are well above normal averages, beautiful autumn colours are everywhere, but I wanted to create something with a bleak atmosphere that was more in tune with the national social climate.

This is the result.


A bleak winter photograph of young trees in a Provence field



Lens, Position & Framing

This group of young trees was a few meters away from me, on the roadside. I was carrying the Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM with me, which didn’t cover the whole field. So I captured two vertical frames to stitch into a square.

The lens was used wide-open to isolate the group from the surroundings and lower acuity a little.



The first step was to assemble the individual frames into a (roughly) square panorama. Then, I added a (truly) square crop that cut out the top of the trees but left enough room around the trunks to suggest isolation. My metaphor for a stranded family, I guess.

I then got rid of the vignetting (and it would have made a whole lot more sense to do so on each frame before assembling the panorama).

Then came some desaturation and lowered contrast, to create the dull atmosphere. This from the man who usually goes berzonkers on the other end of the slider ranges 😉

And to finish it off, I added local contrast enhancements in the trees themselves, to augment the sense of 3D and realism.


It’s all a lie

Many will be bitter about the National Front’s triumph at the regional elections yesterday and lament the fall of democracy.

Personally, I see the fall of democracy in the media, not the party chosen by the people. It’s the media’s role to educate and maintain democracy, a role which I feel they are no longer playing adequately. Bias is everywhere.

Don McCullin recently proclaimed that photography is a lying experience (good read). He was mainly referring to digital post-processing. And many competitions or professional organisations have now implemented measures against the use of post-processing in photography-based reporting.



Autumn colours in Provence


I personally find that ridiculous, as the very choice of perspective, timing, framing and composition are far more subjective than any amount of post-processing. The opposite would reduce the value of HCB’s legacy to a handful of darkroom techniques …

The photograph above was processed to add a bleak feel to an otherwise colourful scene on a cloudy day. So, in a way, it is a bit of a lie. But doesn’t that pale into insignificance compared to the fact that Doisneau staged the “Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville” or – far more importantly – the fact that Dorothea Lange staged her migrant mother (Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children, interesting read), however sincere their intentions?

Both photographs below were made within a day or two of one another. I could choose either to represent my feelings about the season and the season’s events and tell a completely different story. Both would be a personal interpretation and, therefore, a lie, far beyond my abilities to doctor the results in LightRoom.



Autumn (Fall) in Provence – Sunny


Autumn (Fall) in Provence – grey


The fact that I chose the picture at the top of the page to represent my feelings about the political climate rather than the one below this paragraph is also manipulative. In his rebuttal of digital photography, Don McCullin argues that photography isn’t a form of art but a form of “communication and passing on information”, I couldn’t agree less. This, not to reopen the “is photo art” can of worms again but to argue that photography is self-expression and interpretative and manipulative.

Security cameras convey information, human beings write stories. It’s our responsibility, as authors, to be truthful about our intentions. Something the media would do well to remember. Also something very well presented in Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”, the book (author) that gave this blog its name. Highly recommended.



Blackthorn on a colourful background

What say you ?


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  • David A. Mack says:

    I believe in keeping definitions and writing as plan and simple as possible. I think that photography adds a element in communication that invites the viewer to respond with an emotion to the photo that is unique to the reader, hence its value. Does that mean we shouldn’t use photos in media because of the danger of post processing conveying the wrong or editorial bias, possibly, but isn’t all media suspect by its very nature?
    This article does a great job of explaining the subtleties of both media and photography to create an emotional response by the viewer, hence its value to all of us. We just have to be cognizant enough to recognize it and use it ourselves in our work.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly, I’d like to see the anti-post-processing brigade elaborate rules to eliminate figures of speech from the text 😉 I think interesting media offer points of view withing a neutral setting. Asking questions is better than imposing answers. Photographs in the media are not there for forensic evidence. If the journalist is honest in his worldview, let the guy write and photograph strongly. I fear we are moving in the opposite direction with weak points of view and low integrity. And trying to impose an ISO norm over photography will do nothing to help.

  • richard warren says:

    Each country chooses its own politics. While I have some French ancestry (my father’s family originally came from l’Occitan), and I am deeply distressed by recent events (the Bataclan theatre is only a couple of hundred metres from where we stayed on our honeymoon – we were married in Paris!), I do not feel it is my prerogative to have opinions on French politics.

    However, on photography . . .

    When someone says “this is the ONLY way”, then I see their contribution as annihilistic. “You must not post process – if you do, it will not be a ‘photo’!” That is silly, frankly. OK – let them have their competitions on that basis. And yes, it MAY encourage people to take more care before pressing the shutter button.

    But to suggest that post processing is unacceptable is a lot like the reaction of the l’Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Paris Salon to the impressionists. I like both – the kind of art promoted by the Académie, and the work of the impressionists. That said, I PREFER the work of the impressionists.

    And I feel exactly the same way about post processing.

    At its simplest, even cropping is a form of post processing. And I refuse to be told I cannot crop. Cameras are equipped with a “one size fits all” frame for photos, which simply cannot suit every photo the camera will ever take.

    In its most extreme form, post processing enables us to take the light and shade, the colors, and the forms that the camera captured and manipulate them into a work of art. What can possibly be “wrong” with doing that? Photograph IS a study of light and shade, colors and forms – this is simply another way of exploring it.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Richard, I agree 100% and find the analogy with the impressionist “censorship”. What all these regulating board don’t want to admit is that the intention is far more important than the processing itself. Even minor retouching is bad if done with the intension of distorting the message and pre-visualisation itself has far more impact on the image than removing a smudge in photoshop.

  • Ron Teffs says:

    With the digital revolution the potential for abuse of (photographic) truth has grown exponentially. The perfect lie is now within reach of anyone with Photoshop and a smartphone. That said, we should remember a bit of misdirection wasn’t unknown in Photojournalism’s past……consider the circumstances surrounding the photo most of us think of as “flag raising over Iwo Jima”.
    The Digital Dinosaur

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly! Digital has only made it more accessible to everyone. But anyone who’s seen work by Jerry Uelsmann will know that film photography can alter reality just as much. When it comes to journalism and photojournalism, the situation is somewhat ironic. Journalists are becoming brands that can compare (in power) with the brands of some media. And at the same time, the profession is asking them to act as soulless machines. Is it any wonder than the whole business model of the media has crumbled to the ground?

  • Bumpy says:

    What wonderful essays. This is a very enjoyable blog.

    Accurate documentation, like a strong artistic vision, requires immense technical skill and a deep understanding of the intent and limits of visual communication. It is far easier to produce an unfit likeness, or weak artistic vision, than to convey to a viewer what the photographer intends – be that a passing of information or an emotional rapture.

    I see no right or wrong in this debate as the medium is capable, in the right hands, of expressing truth, beauty, facts, emotion, deception, and more. Photography is a technology and a skill; a photograph may be art, or documentation, or deception, or all three!

    Surely a photograph communicates, but limiting that communication to ‘passing on information’ is as impoverished as suggesting that writing is [limited to] passing on information. The limit of human communication lies not in representation but in the imaginations of creator and consumer.

    A great photograph has integrity in the sense that the viewer can discern what the creator intended. Only the best photographs are able to achieve integrity across a wide range of viewers, regardless whether the intent is ‘art’ or documentation. When the intent is artistic, and the image has integrity, I have no question that the photograph is a work of art.

    That just leaves the small matter of achieving integrity in my photographs – a matter about which this blog is most helpful, and toward which I strive.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Bumpy, thank you very much for the kind words and very interesting comment.

      You are right to stress that there is no right and wrong in the debate. And photography can indeed convey information as well as emotion.

      My point of view is always driven by the need for self-expression (which arises as soon as essential life-supporting needs are met) and personal empowerment (if I may strip the term of its New Age connotations). Any dogmatic attitude that tries to force us into a mold (often, to the benefit of those inflicting the formatting) rubs me the wrong way. I wish no too photographs looked alike. And, you are correct, it’s hard and occasionally heartbreaking to take a look at our photographs and find them sub-standard. But I believe it’s that permanent introspection and comparing our work tp the masterpieces that others have left us, that helps us create that integrity you seek. If the throughs in this blog can help you, even a little, in that direction, I’m very happy.

      • Bumpy says:

        Pascaljappy it is exactly that “permanent introspection and comparing our work to the masterpieces” that comes through in your blog, subtly and very humanly so that it is not overbearing. I completely agree that such comparison and study is essential to achieving integrity in photography. Your blog helps illuminate the path toward integration of technical mastery with self expression to achieve images that communicate with integrity.

        Dogma, on the other hand, is the absense, or even suppression, of vision. The more rigid the dogma the less room there is for either self expression or technical mastery – it reduces everything to ‘color by number’. Some take great comfort in dogma, but the very thought of being confined by a dogma makes me uneasy. The problem with such rigid molds is that they do not lead to truth or integrity as some seem to hope, but instead leave ample room for distortion, as you point out in replies to other comments. Dogmas also stifle the innovation that comes from the heartbreak and striving one faces when nothing but ones own limits is revealed in comparison to the masters. This is as true for the reporter as it is for the artist. The fight against dogma is a far more worthy topic than debating whether photography (as opposed to a particular photograph) is art or documentation.

        If dogma is not the answer to deception, what can be done to promote integrity and foreclose deception? I believe this is a very hard question. I do not envy the position of the editors seeking to assure integrity, particularly when sensationalism is so strongly rewarded.

        Thankfully this blog is about self expression where self deception is its own punishment and integrity is richly rewarded. Much more pleasant reading.

  • Mer says:

    A nice article and some good comments. I can see why veracity is important in documentary and reportage as it’s the content that’s important; content that often makes for uncomfortable viewing. There’s a contract of trust between the photographer and the viewer – the photographer records an image of something they believe should be seen and the viewers trust that what they’re seeing is truthful. I can understand why some people might be getting concerned at the way this contact has been twisted and stretched.

    In creative photography it seems a tad different and the blackthorn image at the bottom of this article is a good example. My subconscious likes it. Even before I took a good look at what was going on, I’d decided that the arrangement of shape and colour was something that works for me. I don’t care how it’s been edited because my appreciation doesn’t rely on the content – which, as is often the case with creative photography, isn’t particularly earth shattering and doesn’t need to be. The first image, Triangular, doesn’t work so well for me – it’s the pale structure in the background; my eyes are continually drawn to it, I keep trying to focus on it and of course that isn’t possible due to the shallow DOF.

    The holy grail are those photos that get their hooks into my subconscious at first glance and then reward further viewing with suggestions of deeper meaning. If I was to filter my photos with this set of rules, then all but a handful would get curated into oblivion. They’re gold dust. Out of interest, the colour image at the bottom of the canyon trek has a touch of this. I instantly liked it and on clicking through to the larger image found plenty to keep me interested, I’m not sure that going b&w in the interests of consistency did the rest of the images any favours. Different article, off topic, apologies.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Mer, I like your concept of “contract of trust”. But I also think that contract is breached by intention no by post-processing. It’s the media’s role to ensure they employ honest journalists and have them work with integrity. Accounting is a strongly normalised activity and that never stopped big banks from laundering fortunes. I believe normalising is an easy way of looking the other way and not taking responsibility for fact checking. Soon, we’ll be seeing wrongful pictures that haven’t been tampered with on a computer.

      Interesting comments about the two photographs (blackthorne and triangle), thanks. You’re right about the structure in the background, of course. I could have moved left a couple of meters to get it out of sight, but that changed the balance of the trees and the “stranted family” look.

      And now, you forced me to take a look at that former Canyon post 😀 I see what you mean. My fave on that page is the one of the guide taking care of the fire. Possibly the sun rising on the cliff. And that’s what so great about photography, we all have different tastes and preferences. Thanks!

  • philberphoto says:

    This debate about “what is fair game, and what isn’t in post-processing” reminds me of that on genetic engineering. Let me refresh the minds of those who feel that genetic engineering is “tinkering with nature” that we have been doing it for centuries, and that Mother Nature has been doing it forever in the process known as “survival of the fittest”, “natural selection”, etc…

    It is not because we use computers and software that we are the first to produce images that are deliberately different from the reality being photographed. Simply, we aren’t. Managing the output is as old as photography itself.

    After that, it is up to the photographer to decide what he/she wishes his/her picture to be, to show, to suggest, to convey, to evoke, to stir… beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder….

    And, in the words of Alfred de Musset, qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse… the flask does not matter, the drunkneness does…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Philippe, if you start quoting de Musset and justifying curve editing in your pictures, I will ask the thought-police to set the aperture of your OTUS at a fixed f/4 and set the impedance of your loudspeakers at a fixed 8ohms! We shall have none of that freedom of editing nonsense on this blog!

  • Artuk says:

    An interesting article, and a sentiment I share some sympathy with photographically.

    As for the post processing debate, much of what we do on the computer is little more than what film photographers do when choosing their emulsion or dodging and burning their prints or choosing a certain paper and chemicals. It’s not a lie, just a form of artistry is my opinion. Of course as you say, that artistry can be used to “manipulate” the viewer by the choice of mood and visual emotional language (autumn sun versus grey).

    I think that editing – that is actual manipulation of the content of an image – probably isn’t appropriate in some fields of photography such as news. When we clone out a dust spot we don’t change the history of what we recorded, but when we clone out a party member who has now fallen from grace, we do change history. These things have happened for decades, but perhaps digital just makes it easier. Trying to ban any form of post processing, rather than merely manipulation of the image content, just seems “wrong headed” to me. Perhaps we should all use officially sanctioned colour profiles and approved photo paper too?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Banning colour profiles, now that would be fun 😉 But you’re right and, more seriously, during the migrant crisis that occupied all the media a few weeks ago, we are all given to see the dead body of that poor 3 year-old child drowned on a beach. That image went around the globe. Viral in the sickest sense of information propagation. The media all focused on it. With the greatest hypocrisy, some actually debated why they used it or didn’t. The real question is why that image was chosen and not the other that circulated more confidentially of beheaded little girls in their villages. It was obvious to me the media were focusing on the migrant tragedy at the frontiers of Europe rather than the tragedy that forced the migrants to flee their homes. It’s their right to do so, but making such a strong narrative choice and, at the same time, bemoaning post-processing … that, I don’t understand.

  • richard warren says:

    This is really one of the most interesting discussions on Dear Susan.

    Reflecting on the scope digital provides for “falsifying” results, I was reminded of what we did when I was young – a LONG time ago – LOL.

    Chemical baths sometimes didn’t wet the printing paper properly and we found spots – quel horreur! – so out came the brushes and the various tones of dye, and a giant magnifying glass with a built in circular lamp, to touch out those blemishes.

    Enlargers were wonderful – we could “dodge”, to bring up some parts of a photo or make some other area less prominent.

    If we are to be ‘pure’ about it, selecting different grades of printing paper is also a form of post processing. Shifts in contrast, for example, to soften a photo or to add depth and drama – surely that is also a form of manipulation or post processing?

    And there were other techniques we all used, too – to take our ‘raw shot’ and make a ‘better photograph’.

    Now we have digital – and yes I still post process. When I receive my wife’s photos, from the aging compact camera she adores, I sometimes labour over a single photo for an hour or more, to breath some life back into it (and pray for the day she decides she needs a new camera!) -With my own, my driving ambition is to get right through all the various software I use en route, without making any adjustments at all – but it’s a target I hit all too rarely, to be honest about it, and a ‘good run’ is one where I can belt straight through with a minimal amount of adjustment.

    But I also seem to remember that with colour photography on film, since I didn’t have the facilities to do my own colour processing, ALL the colour labs used to ‘post process’ our photos. Some were awful and some were astoundingly good. And it was perfectly obvious that they were HEAVILY into post processing all our photos.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Richard, you bring back some great darkroom memories. I was self-taught with the help of books such as the Adams trilogy (camera, negative, print), Basic Photographic Materials and Processes (Streobel, Zakia …) and many many, often furstrating hours in the darkroom. I was fortunate to spend my university years next to a micro-electronics lab that had recently moved from photo based microscopy to electronic gear and the superb darkroom was basically mine for 5 years. No one else used it and it was a tremendous learning experience. And, yes, it was post-processing alright. The sort of PP that inspired the design of LightRoom over Photoshop and I don’t many of the great photographs we admired today received no PP at all.

      Adams used to compare the negative to a musical score and the print to the interpretation. Refusing PP is refusing interpretation. Does it get more dictatorial than that?

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