By pascaljappy | Monday Post
Photo podcaster Matt Payne, recently published an interesting article on PDNPulse entitled : A Treatise on Landscape Photography’s Dark Side. It covers the digital-age old topic of digital photography editing and its impact on photography as art. Nothing new here but some compelling points are made.
My position on this topic has always been simple (some would say basic, possibly backwards) : all photography is a lie.
B&W is a lie because we do not see in B&W. In fact, come to think of it, we don’t all even see in the same way since some of us are colour blind (and not all colour blind people are colour blind in the same way).
Framing is a lie since we artificially and subjectively frame, choose focal lengths and crop to suit our personal compositional intentions.
And, more to the point of this article, post processing is the most obvious lie of all since a same object can be represented in wildly different final appearances.
So, if the most basic of photographic techniques are a lie, why ban the more elaborate ones on the basis that they alter the truthfulness of the final work? Maybe, as Payne points out, the more digital alterations you add the more you distance yourself from the world of photography but it’s still art if it is done on purpose to convey a feeling / emotion / meaning to the viewer.
But the article pushes a little further than this naïve approach.
For instance, music is apparently another art form in which purists question digital help. Loops and effects can be viewed as easy and cheating. If anything, this bothers me even less in music than it does in photography. Which means that, maybe, hidden behind the cool air of liberal do-as-you-like openness, there might be the tiniest smidgen of conservative resistance to the fake and the manipulated in me. And I have to assign that to the fact that I’ve been practising photography one way for decades, and music for zero hours. Maybe a daily hour of neighbourly torture on a violin, for a quarter century, would make me think differently about the fairness of digital auto-tune and recorded-loops.
Maybe the more we practise a way of thinking, the more rigidly adverse we become to other approaches. Kids dance to music whether it is computer aided or not, after all. And the topic will only grow more important as AI chime in to compose sonatas and shake up visual arts in the coming years.
There is no doubt in my mind that many artists of the future will be manipulating algorithms, not brushes or picks.
There is no doubt in my mind that many artists of the future will search for ever-more natural, organic, approaches, at the opposite end.
AI won’t make platinum printing redundant.
Matt Payne goes on to present a continuum of post-processing practises (amusingly noticing that purists who do no processing at all are in fact relying on opaque in camera algorithms for their exposure, colour and contrast management, therefore representing the least artistic togs of the bunch).
It’s really worth reading that part to see where you stand. It made me feel like a virgin.
There are some forms of digital manipulation that make me cringe. But only because I can’t help asking myself “why would you do this ?”, not because they feel dishonest. It’s a matter of taste, not integrity (unless, as mentioned, if you pretend to have captured as real scene when, really, you assembled it from bits and pieces). To me, there’s no difference between a fiction novel and a composite image. Both can be utter crap. Both can be rivetting and excellent.
But this point of view is again challenged by Payne’s great argument about landscape photography as a trust-based economy (a notion that fascinates me professionally) and the impact of manipulated images on how we perceive reality and realistic photographs.
Challenged though I might be, I’ll stick to my guns, steadfast in my opinion that the author of a picture has every right to propose such editing and that it is up to the viewer to understand the work for what it is. Your everyday hiker will never see the mountains like even purist landscape togs depict them, great light, polariser and all. Caveat videntium, if you will.
Unlike Payne, I don’t think that “you’re eroding that economy based on trust [by] creating something that was more amazing than what existed”. Not any more than Dan Simmons did by making Hyperion more exciting than yesterday’s newsflash.
And I also don’t agree with : “There are landscape photographers busting their ass to get a photograph, including: doing research on locations, watching the weather, spending hundreds of hours driving, spending countless days and nights at a location to capture something special, being in the right place at the right time, and of course, using their equipment correctly. With some of these post-processing techniques, you literally can eliminate almost all of the hard work involved and shortcut the entire process to create fantasy-like photographs of places and times that never really occurred.” So ? No economy I know of rewards the amount of work that went into creating an object. Sorry Karl, we all know that doesn’t fly.
Another interesting argument is the demoralization of purist photographers faced with the amazing creations of photoshop (ab)users. Beyond the porn-star induced complex of many (male) teenagers, I think we can look at this very differently. The real question isn’t “is mine more impressive than yours ?” but “what was the intention, and how well did I succeed at that ?” Flashy is great for social media. Immediate impact, immediate dissolution.
Flashy wears off pretty quick. Meaningful lasts forever.
You won’t catch Michael Kenna or Hiroshi Sugimoto anywhere near a photoshop compositing script (or a digital camera, for that matter) but their photographs are stunning and have a lasting effect on you (and, in the case of Sugimoto, on your wallet). They go for meaning. If a budding photographer feels belittled by a digital wizard, he or she is doing something very wrong. Meaning doesn’t require digital. If you’re going for impressive, then why not use photoshop in the first place ? If you’re going for Zen, then study Zen artists. But don’t create a half-baked Zen photo and regret that someone has made a more spectacular one than you have using other techniques.
The final point (Landscape Photography as a vehicle for conservation) is perhaps the most compelling and Payne sums it up beautifully by suggesting that people who employ these compositing techniques probably have very little connection to the landscape. That is troubling because it impacts them far more deeply (as individuals) and it impacts us all (as a society) in a ricochet.
The psychological discussion that follows (particularly the section on moral disengagement) is also really interesting but I don’t want this to turn into a point by point argumentation of someone else’s work. Instead, I’d like you to read it and let me know what you think.
As you’ll have noted, some of my opinions differ quite a bit from those expressed in Payne’s article. But the logic and arguments presented in it are really compelling and you’ll probably fall somewhere else on the spectrum of possible reactions to it. So what do you think ?
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Very interesting! There is another case I’d like to make. By presenting a wealth of ultra-spectacular landscape pictures from a given scene, photographers build expectations in people going to visit/shoot that scene. Who are then let down. Ugh! This is the sort of comment that Rita Hayworth made, about her male partners: every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me. ‘Nuff said!
Poor Rita. Most men would be lucky to wake up with ‘only’ her 😉 To avenge her, I suggest we name a lens after her.
Photography is a visual conversation…to talk about “lies” is an argument finding fertile ground in politics or a court of law. Any artistic medium is a means to express some aspect of consciousness, some subtly of thought or emotion…a reaching out between the artist and viewer in an attempt to communicate a unique sense of the human predicament and is ultimately self referral in nature.
You’re right, of course. “Lie” isn’t the proper word here. “Interpretation” is better one. But I hope that doesn’t get in the way of my argument 🙂 Cheers.
Percy and Pascal
If you have been sold (literally or figuratively) a composite when you thought you were seeing a regular landscape photograph, then yes I think the word “lie” is appropriate, happy for you to disagree with that of course, there will always be some grey areas.
If you state clearly and succinctly what or how you produced/ created an image it should not change anything to do with expression or communication. If you honestly feel that your “photo” is better for composite work or similar then you should be proud of it and say so, you won’t lose any real appreciation, and you will not be called a fraud either.
Hi Noel, I agree 100% (on this subject, not the other, see below 😉 ).
The fact that compositing can be a form of Art (Jerry Uelsmann, for example) in no way means that being deceitful about the reality of the scene is tolerable. When somebody peddles a composite as something else, it’s fraudulent and dishonest. There’s no other term.
I think the important consideration (value and honesty of transaction aside) pointed out by Matt Payne is the connection to the landscape. Anyone truly connected will not want to add stuff and will either find something meaningful to photograph or not make the photo at all.
All the best, Pascal
If we flip what you have pointed a finger at regarding photography being a lie, and state the farcical that it never lies, we can see, maybe a little clearer, the exaggeration in both points of view.
In sum, photography just maybe something else that’s neither truth nor fiction, but is actually something based on magic.
Ah, I like that idea ! The magic is human creativity.
Bingo, Pascal. Got it in one. Click.
Thanks Sean 🙂
Every time someone over processes an image or creates a composite a photo fairy dies, as a result the ‘real’ extraordinary photos are now less magic 🙁 .
More seriously if you value integrity you should have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed off either just label the photo as a composite, or whatever process you used. If you are in any way an artist then an artifice should be explicit.
Now for the disagreeing 😉
“‘real’ extraordinary photos are now less magic :)” Do you really think so ? Again, to me the connection aspect is most important here. A composite is just the creation of a mind, in an additive process whereas a “straight” photograph highlights a connection to a scene or subject. To me at least, that carries a lot more weight than the quick-fading WOW effect of the composite. I have only one composite on my walls. It is an artificial recreation of traditional Chinese landscape paintings using modern elements (pylones, buildings, power plants …) and is a real reflection on our times. Other than that, all my other pet photographs are very simple and lasting. Myabe that’s just me, of course, but I think we shouldn’t just rely on spectacular to evaluate the quality of a photograph. Michael Kenna, for example is quite unspectacular (small square B&W film …) but very meditative and fascinating. I can’t think of a composite artist that comes close in terms of pull (Maggy Taylor is great for example, but not in the same ballpark if you ask me).
Peter Lick is a great topic for discussion and there’s a very good link in the original article.
All the best, Pascal
Pascal, Not sure that we disagree.
Yes, for me, the oversupply of over processed/faked landscape images is devaluing the experience of viewing more traditional landscape photography, for most of the reasons stated in the article by Matt, if not quite agreeing with everything he wrote. Hyper-processed images reduce “the connection” for me, and composites presented as natural will sever “the connection” completely.
I would agree that images like Michael Kenna’s are less affected; his work is quite heavily processed and edited, just not for instantaneous attention online. His style is not immune to corruption from superficial stylistic adaptation or composite fakery either, you can get pre-sets for similar stylistic effects. Ironically his work stands out with online viewing because of the contrast from being still and quite.
Maybe this will interest others:
In her thesis titled “Truth in Photography: Perception, Myth and Reality in the postmodern World” Leslie Mullen states that “… photographers manipulate their pictures in various ways, from choosing what to shoot to altering the resulting image … The manipulation inherent to photography brings to light questions about the nature of truth. All art forms manipulate reality in order to reveal truths not apparent to the uncritical eye. Photography today is largely seen as a postmodern art form, and postmodernism states that truths do not necessarily last, but instead truths alter and shift with changes in culture … Understanding of photographic truth, like all other truths, depends on an understanding of culture, belief, history, and the universal aspects of human nature …”
That is super interesting Sean. Thanks a lot for sharing. I’d like to read the rest of that ! Is is available online ?
Thanks for asking. The following should get you to Leslie Mullen’s 1998 Thesis PDF download point:
“Truth in Photography: Perception, Myth and Reality in the postmodern World”
Photography was originally considered a way to objectively represent reality, completely untouched by the photographer’s perspective. However, photographers manipulate their pictures in various ways, from choosing what to shoot to altering the resulting image through computer digitalization. The manipulation inherent to photography brings to light questions about the nature of truth. All art forms manipulate reality in order to reveal truths not apparent to the uncritical eye. Photography today is largely seen as a postmodern art form, and postmodernism states that truths do not necessarily last, but instead truths alter and shift with changes in culture. Modernism, however, states that some truths do last, and these truths reflect basic, universal conditions of humanity. These lasting truths are often expressed in mythic themes and archetypes. Science, journalism and art make use of the connection between myth and truth, most notably, in the mythic archetype of form: beauty. Scientific, news, artistic and documentary photography all use the archetype of beauty as a connection to truth. Beauty, however, is based on the beliefs of a culture, and does not necessarily define truth. In the end, both postmodernism and modernism have their place in photographic philosophy. Understanding of photographic truth, like all other truths, depends on an understanding of culture, belief, history, and the universal aspects of human nature.
Fancy being asked to say what I think? Have you got a few minutes to spare, Pascal? 🙂
Let’s see what we have – dissect it and look at the bits.
Well I shan’t reach for a dictionary – I’ll wing it instead. A statement can be “untruthful” without being a lie. A lie connotes a deliberate intent to mislead, with false information. Simply being “wrong”, without realising it, might connote ignorance – but not the dishonesty inherent in a “lie”. With the composites you refer to, it’s more complicated – the “artist” produces the result, but says nothing.
Is silence a lie?
Does it matter anyway? The picture stands or falls by what it is.
Is it now compulsory to list not only the meta data, but the GPS co-ordinates, the weather details, the time of day, any other details inherent in the menu functions within the camera, the aberrations in the glass plugged on the front, the make & model of the computer used in PP, all the PP software used, all the adjustments made during PP?
Seriously – NEVER raise them in front of me – to paraphrase the words of WS Gilbert’s hero in “The Pirates of Penzance”, young Frederic – I regard “opinions” with a detestation unspeakable. Probably just as well, too. I could drown you all with my views on that subject.
Sigh – opinions have no intrinsic validity – they can either co-incide or differ – beyond that, they have one purpose (stimulating discussion at a more adult level) and one horrible side effect (provoking arguments and, even, rage). Critics are susceptible to having opinions – artists bust themselves trying to ignore them.
3 We don’t all see in the same way:
Hmm – is there any method by which anyone can establish whether the blue that I see, in the sky above me, is the same blue as any one of you – let alone all of you – also sees?
OK – I’ll let that one pass – I won’t pursue it. Instead, try this one.
What you “see” is generally three dimensional. How you “see” is heavily regulated by instantaneous processors within your eyes and brain. I presume few if any of you have the least idea of the MAJOR differences between the way that Australian aborigines “see” and the way everyone else does – that adds yet another dimension to this argument.
But hang on – back to the start of that paragraph – how many of your photos are “three” dimensional? Are the issues you raise about depth of field a surrogate for the missing dimension? How many pixels are there in the image in front of your eyes, without the introduction of a camera?
Pascal, if you want a “lie” that stitches up the whole field of photography, surely the biggest whopper of all is reproducing three-dimensional reality in a two-dimensional form? The rest of the data manipulation is small, by comparison – surely taking the world as we see it, and then squashing it flat, is vastly more manipulative?
4 This is all starting to remind me of Catch 22 – where the Padre tries to rationalise his discovery of the joys of the flesh, by explaining it away on the basis that he’s merely trying to spread the love of God. I think his interpretation gave a whole new meaning to the words “the love of God”. But the breathless impertinence of his thought processes exploded all further possibility for logical discussion or debate.
And the underlying reason is that we can all be TOO analytical. But it doesn’t take us anywhere. What is the point of trying to “rationalise” things like pre-sets; a stockpile of images for replacing bland and uninteresting skies with dramatic ones we’ve accumulated; or even just attacking the way blue sometimes drifts off into a green hue, because the medium we use relies on two batches of colour – RGB and CMYK – resulting in a distortion of the “true” colour of the image we have capture.
So – at the end of this, we have critics on the one hand – and people trying to be creative on the other. I voted with my feet, on this one, over half a century ago. I do as I please, and I ignore the critics. If ANYONE out there appreciates any of my photos, that’s very flattering. If not – good manners prevent me from expressing how I react. If you want an “opinion” from a person who despises them, I would suggest this discussion and debate is too analytical, and prone to cause problems by unsettling people, rather than solve any problems by demanding some higher standard of behaviour.
Interesting Pete. I’ll try to respond to some of your points.
(1) There is no law to support this, obviously. It’s more a question of morals and ethics, really. To me, misleading someone (deliberately) to think a composite is an unedited (in terms of adding stuff) rendering of an actual scene crosses a line. We’ve all come to understand that framing, and editing contrast, colour and exposure are all part of the photographic process, that photography is a set of choices that separates the craftsman from the layman. And we’ve always expected painters to create pictures from imagination or memory, starting from scratch with no direct link to reality. Mythology makes up for a huge percentage of classical paintings. But those paintings are clearly stated as representing a fable, not a real scene. Since art has a purpose, the line is to be honest about the purpose.
(3) We all share commons physiological and psychological mechanism linked to vision (eye brain system). Some of us have “deficiencies” such as my short-sightedness or someone else’s colour blindness. So we perceive scenes in ways that are different from the norm.
Yup stealing a dimension requires a lot of thought (focal length, perspective, depth of field, …) and that’s part of the creative process in most visual arts. But it’s a common constraint, not a deliberate choice. Whereas adding a second moon in the sky is somewhat more of a personal choice 😉
(4) You’re right. No point in rationalising this. I don’t really care about the reason we do it or don’t. But it does seem important to understand that our relationship to the final product will be very different based on how we have built it. A bit like a ready to bake cake vs one made entirely from separate ingredients following a recipe honed over 20 experiments.
Conclusion. I don’t believe in telling people what to do. It seems better to highlight the consequences of each chosen path. It makes me sad to see people like Matt Payne suffer because of a change in habits but you can’t resist change by criticising it. You need to know what you enjoy doing, why, what you stand for and just keep at it whatever others are doing. If that’s not profitable, well … markets change, it’s just a reality of life. Business is about understanding what customers want, not about doing what you think is right. If customers love composites, then the market belongs to the composite makers. However, they should be honest about what it is they are selling.
I wasn’t thinking of “laws” – a “lie” has a connotation of deceit – and deceit has a connotation of a deliberate intent to deceive. I seriously doubt whether the vast majority of people who use any form of PP ever have anything of that nature passing through their heads – they are just trying to finish off what started when they switched their cameras on.
Markets & customers are another dimension. But I confess to being startled, here. If a person wants to buy a picture, why on earth would it matter to him whether it was post processed or not? – he’s seen it, he’s decided he wants it, and there it stops. It’s not the same as producing fakes of the paintings in the Louvre!
Maybe there’s some kind of argument in that paddock – but it eludes me – it’s the kind of objection people running photographic competitions in Photo Clubs come up with, and I can’t see how it could be relevant to a buyer who has decided he likes what he says and pulled out his cheque book.
I have a hangup about presets, for instance – I won’t deny I’ve tried them, but I really don’t think much of them. I’ve not actually dubbed in a “sky” from stock shots, but I would be prepared to if I thought it would add something.
But “retouching”? – I mentioned the two colour sets involved, and drew attention to the fact that they often [always?] lead to chromatic distortion.
Is it “wrong” to look at a photo which has made its way from the camera to the computer screen, only to show up with a cyan sky instead of the blue one that was there when the photo was taken?
People can argue over it – I don’t care – but for what it’s worth that’s just compensating for a “defect” in the photographic process, by restoring truth – not lying. The cyan in the sky is a lie, if everything that isn’t true to nature must be given a label like that.
And to make “full disclosure” – that makes my head hurt – where do you start, and where do you stop? Filters would require compulsory disclosure – what about tinting of lens elements? – differences between the sensors in different cameras? – even restoring all the menu functions to factory settings wouldn’t completely eliminate these issues – and that’s before the image leaves the camera. Any interference with “natural” lighting?
What about those milky waterfalls created by long exposures? Or scenes in busy cityscapes that are emptied of pedestrians by similar exposure techniques?
And even if anyone has the time or energy to produce “complete product disclosure statements” to accompany each photo – who on earth is ever going to read it all, let alone understand what it signifies (since the reader is assumed to be a non-photographer)?
I will continue to behave as I always have – badly – doing whatever I please. I have a deep seated aversion to doing as I’m told, as my poor long suffering mother discovered by the time I was 8 years old.
And when I produce a print of one my photos, anyone who expresses interest will be told “there it is – take it or leave it”.
I would like to put forward an analogy for food. Yes I know I risk crashing the discussion, but I think an analogy is worth consideration. We are not talking about full disclosure statements(recipes), just simple honest information ( nutritional information, origin, classification or standards compliance.) .
If a chef or baker were to claim that he used better ingredients or more complex cooking methods than they actually did to produce a meal/loaf would that be acceptable? The answer is NO if you are not sure 😉 . The analogy then falls apart because food standards and consumer laws are real, so don’t over think it.
For food or drink, both complexity and/or simplicity of ingredients and/or cooking methods can be desirable attributes, and the proprietors can go crazy with the sales pitch so long as everything is true.
Why are artist immune from telling the truth?
The “what is truth anyway rebuttal” is not acceptable where there is a simple straight truth to tell. Like for food, where something has been done well there will be a lot more to appreciate than just a straight description of production or product, the art if you like.
We have a right to basic information about our food, why not our cultural nourishment?
Noel, I think it’s better if I shut up.
I can see the point of the argument, if we’re talking about “art” photos, where a multiplicity of things are stuck together to create something entirely different from any shot the camera ever took. But then I don’t – because the viewer would have to be unconscious, not to notice it’s not “just a photo”.
I don’t like pre-sets and “dubbing” something like a sky, so I’d happily say yes to disclosing them – but they’re pretty obvious most of the time.
But what DOES the group think should be mandatory disclosure? I can’t even feed my printer without passing the photos through PS – it’s the delivery system. Whatever is the point of telling anyone that? My example of ridding a shot of an UNrealistic cyan tinted sky, and reverting the sky to the blue it was when I took the shot? Should I leave it cyan and tell the world that the CYMK and RGB colour gamets simply can’t do the job?
Are we going to mandate that artists as such disclose the brand of paint or pastels or whatever that they used?
I’m going to sneak out of it, repeating my view that opinions have no validity anyway. Encouraged by the fact that while this discussion has been waging back and forth here, in another group precisely the opposite line was being pushed. That group’s line was that the photographer has the right – not just the power – to produce the image he wants to. And it’s then up to the viewer to make their decision as to what they see and whether or not they appreciate it or hate it.
Besides, it’s time to walk the dog. 🙂
Pete, that’s an interesting point. To me, it’s more a question of ethics than a question of law. ie, there’s is no correct answer, it’s open to debate and context.
In everything linked to buying, caveat emptor applies. Plus, I agree that photographers should have the right to produce the photographs they want. The opposite would be akin to a restriction of free speech, a rampant disease in our modern societies …
Ultimately, though, I think the question of connection is what matters. Someone who loves the landscape as it is won’t want to manipulate it beyond recognition. Also, a buyer who loves nature won’t want to acquire heavily modificated photographs that do not represent the true nature of the place.
Framing, dof, PP … there are all selective ways of showing the landscape at it’s best possible. It’s like makeup on a person, I suppose. But anything additive is like glueing a second nose on someone’s face, it represents what isn’t naturally possible in nature.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with compositing (I’ve added a few swans to empty lakes, in the past 😉 ) and so there’s no reason to hide it either. The only thing wrong is pretending you haven’t when you have. That’s deceitful and, apparently, what the original author claims Peter Lik did in some of his shots. Don’t you think that’s crossing an invisible line ?
Have a great walk. I bet it’s hot and lovely in Perth, these days … 😉
The weather in Perth? – sunny one day and perfect the next! 🙂 We’ve only had about 4 hot days this summer, and theoretically summer ends next week.
Ansel Adams notoriously “retouched” his photos. Perfection doesn’t stop with finding the place to set up the tripod – that’s only part of the “hard work”. Oh – and I spent many happy hours in my darkroom, in the days of analogue, getting up to all sorts of mischief, to achieve the effect I was after. Dodging – tilting the table that held the paper – and after it was all over, poring over the print and dabbing minute amounts of water colour onto any blemishes. No ducks, I’m afraid – it would be possible with ducks, but very difficult with our black swans. 🙂
Adding a second moon? – just read an article on tracking the moon across the sky, taking a series of timed shots, with moons in a steady curve from one side of the frame to the other, and if anyone is so stupid they can’t figure out that that’s not what you see in nature, in a single shot, then let them suffer – it’s the price they pay for being so ignorant.
One kind of alteration that offends is “morphing” – everything from thinning a girl’s thighs down in a fashion add, to changing a model’s complexion, to giving a body builder 26 inch biceps. With a special rate for other more provocative alterations.
This is not about retouching, selective processing, pushing the saturation contrast or sharpness, or for example in some of Adams prints rendering the sky very dark in some of the monochrome images. It is about presenting something as real, looks quite convincing, but is actually false.
It is not about rejecting composites, it is about being honest. An image of Beijing with an Australian sky composited in lieu of the usual grey sooty atmosphere should be called a composite, because that is what it is, and people expect photos to be real. If you or I happened to like it or have an opinion on its merit is not the point. In addition, why would that be acceptable if body morphing is not?
“Then let them suffer – it’s the price they pay for being so ignorant.” No way, that is elitist and not in the DS spirit. It is not like the movies where you know that Superman is not real and that the actor is not actually flying. Cloning and compositing techniques are so easy, accessible and convincing these days that fooling is easy, I have been fooled and I do not consider myself ignorant (not extremely smart or particularly knowledgeable about photography either 😉 ).