A line in the sand
Yesterday I was reading an article about landscape photography by an award-winning Australian photographer. There was an image that preceded the first paragraph of the article, and my initial response to that image was that it somehow appeared artificial or “over-processed.” As I read on, it became clear that there was in fact a great deal of post-capture processing work done to create the final image. The author spoke of the poor quality of light at the time of capture, and explained that he chose to capture an image when he did because he wouldn’t have the chance to return again to this particular location. He then explained how his intention at the time was to later “recreate the light needed to bring this landscape to life.” Now I’m not sure “recreate” is the appropriate term in this case, since you can’t recreate something that never existed to begin with. I think the more appropriate phrase would be “manufacture the light.”
There are some fine art photographers who believe that the process of creating art gives them carte blanche to manipulate an image anyway they see fit, in order to fulfill their creative vision. Artistic license is a term frequently used – the freedom to manipulate reality to express one’s vision and emotional response to a subject. Well-known fine art landscape photographer Alain Briot has spoken about going beyond the Ansel Adams approach of adjusting global and local contrast using traditional darkroom techniques, which can now be accomplished in the “digital darkroom.” Mr. Briot has been known to digitally move, remove, duplicate, stretch, warp, and alter the color of significant elements of a scene. He has also combined elements from several images to create a single image.
I’m not an art historian, so I’m in no position to argue with the ethics of this particular point of view as it pertains to photography, and specifically to nature photography. I personally have no ethical problem with these types of images. I do however believe that if these types of manipulations are present in the works of nature photographers, they should be noted by the photographer. I assume Mr. Briot and others would disagree.
As for the results achieved with these types of manipulations, my response is generally similar to the response I had to the photo in the article of which I spoke. While it’s possible to create visually striking photos through extensive digital manipulation, such images – from my point of view – lack the very thing the artists are trying to achieve. They lack emotional impact. When I view such images, I can almost always see the “magic trick.” It may be a spectacular magic trick, something I could never match even with years of study and practice, and it may result in an image that grabs your attention… but more often than not it’s the magic trick you notice first, not the subject, light or composition.
For me, the very essence of photography is the act of finding the combination of perfect light and subject, and capturing it in a unique way that not only displays the quality of the light and uniqueness of subject, but also communicates my emotional response to the scene – without resorting to excessive after-capture trickery. Canon has assembled a group of some of the world’s most outstanding photographers, and they refer to these men and woman as “Explorers of Light.” I’ve always thought that was an excellent description of what photographers do, or what they should be doing. In a sense, I do indeed consider myself an explorer – the subject of my exploration is light, and the camera is my tool of capture, creation and communication. One of the reasons I could never be a studio photographers is because the notion of creating light is unappealing to me. There are people like Joe McNally who are geniuses with artificial light. His technical skills and imagination seem almost limitless, and I marvel at what he’s able to do with a few small strobes. Yet, my response to artificially lit photos is similar to the response I have to extensively manipulated photos – for me, they lack emotional depth. They feel manufactured, inorganic, a pale imitation of the real thing.
This of course is my personal view, my emotional response to certain types of images, and I know many would disagree. That’s okay – this is what makes the world an interesting place. It’s also important to note that I’m coming at this from strictly a nature photography point of view. There are obviously genres of photography where one does not have the luxury to seek out, or wait for perfect light. In those instances, the skills of a Joe McNally are an absolute necessity. There are other genres where extensive manipulation is simply a necessary part of the creative process.
Personally, I have chosen to limit myself to the “Ansel Adams moves”, as Mr. Briot has described them. This is important for me, not only because it fits my vision of what photography should be, but because it gives my work a connection to the past. We’re getting to the point where photography is evolving so much, the process may soon bear little resemblance to the process of creating images that came before. This troubles and even saddens me a bit. I don’t know where the line between past and present lies, but I try to stay as far away from it as possible, so as to not accidentally trip over it. I do not however feel constrained because of my choice to avoid certain digital techniques that others use freely. Placing such limits on myself actually helps me focus more intensely and spurs creativity, as limiting one’s self to a single focal length often can do. I have to work harder to express my vision in a unique way, because I know all I’ve got is what’s there at the time of capture. I think – and hope – that this has resulted in images that strongly convey my vision of and emotional response to the subjects and light that I photograph.