Idealizing The Landscape

| June 6, 2009

Another topic I thought about at length on my recent desert trip was the degree of creative license employed in artistic landscape photography and defining my own comfort zone.

With time on my hands to explore astounding scenery and rationalize ways of expressing my reverence for it, I also wondered about the extent to which such feelings can even be expressed in a photograph, and the inherent desire to glamorize and idealize the resulting image to enhance its visual impact.

Let me first disabuse you of the notion of “manipulation” – a term now so loaded with ignorant prejudice as to be useless for any meaningful discussion. To put it plainly – every photograph is manipulated to some extent. There is simply no way to make the transition from reflected photons to a print or a digital file without some degree of subjective decisions on how the final image will appear. Anyone telling you their images are not manipulated is either exposing their own naiveté or trying to exploit yours.

More troubling is the fact that in many misinformed (if sometimes well-meaning) minds, common image processing techniques are somehow linked to such lofty ideals as morality or honesty. Let me be very clear: the fact that any method of processing was employed is in itself completely meaningless. Honesty is not a quality of images but rather of people; and comes into play in how the work is presented. A dishonest artist is one who deliberately misrepresents their work. Presenting a heavily-modified image as a documentary one is dishonest. On the other hand, presenting any image as a work of creative interpretation implies (to borrow a term from Ansel Adams) some departure from reality. As responsible (honest!) photographers it is our role to educate our audience on the difference.

And so, the real issue is one of extent – how much of a departure is “acceptable”? A subjective question if there ever was one.

Answering for myself, I strongly believe that photography is the most restrictive of the visual arts but also has the potential to make the most impact with the viewer for one reason: a binding connection with real events, real elements, real light, and real moments in time. Any obvious departure from these realities will cause an image to be dismissed outright regardless of any other aesthetic qualities it possesses. The artist’s tools are primarily composition, and extremely careful adjustment within very narrow margins. The goal is to produce images that inspire without venturing outside the realm of the believable.

A skilled photographic artist, using nothing but available elements and light, the ability to successfully arrange their compositions, and the sense to apply just enough processing to dress up the final image, is still able to greatly influence the mood of a scene portrayed and express their own voice without offending their viewers’ sensibilities.The ability to imbue a photographic image with a personal touch is indeed what puts the “art” in Fine Art Photography.

Even with such limited range of motion, results can be made to appear dramatically different. A skeptic will always wonder “is this what it would have looked like to me, had I been there to see it for myself?” I’ll let you in on a small secret most fine-art photographers may never admit to – the answer is almost always “no”. This is for a very good reason: if anyone could perceive, compose, isolate, notice, visualize, capture, process, and present the same image given nothing but the same opportunity – there is no art, and there is no need for the artist. We all take the raw materials from the field and work them into the final image in our own unique ways; be it minor adjustments of contrast and color saturation, or going as far as to remove distracting elements, diffusing light, changing the ambient color temperatures etc.

Some photographers indeed choose to take their light into realms of near-fantasy, creating works of breathtaking grandeur and glamor that may quite significantly vary from the original experience. Doing so successfully requires not only a mastery of tools but also incredible discipline and understanding of the viewer’s sensibilities. Such images are indeed works of creative art and should be regarded as such with no prejudice. Consider for comparison paintings of the Hudson River School artists – idealized imagery that stirred souls, was instrumental in the creation of the world’s first national parks, and incited the spark of romance and adventure in generations of explorers and pioneers. How many “straight” photographs can claim to accomplish anything near that or be remotely as memorable? I personally admire those who can create moving images, by any means, and who present their work honestly for what it is.

In my own work, I tend to shy away for excessive processing for one simple reason: I have always pursued photography of natural beauty because I find beauty and inspiration in the real things. If I didn’t experience something myself, I have little motivation (and admittedly little skill) to manufacture it. I do work hard, though, to emphasize in my processing and presentation the things that drew me to make a photograph. I have no qualms about enhancing color and contrast (even to the extent of eliminating color altogether,) removing minor distracting elements to strengthen a composition or employing selective adjustments to improve visual balance.

The guiding principle I adhere to was perhaps best articulated by the late Eliot Porter in his preface to “Intimate Landscapes”:

Ultimately, to be successful as a work of art, a photograph must be both pleasing and convincing. It must not leave the viewer in doubt about the validity of its subject, whether representational or imaginary.

Category: All Posts, Rants and Raves, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

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  1. Roberta says:

    Excellent post and so much truth in what you say. I cringe when I hear photographers say, with that tone of superiority, they don’t alter their digital images. I can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy thinking about the potential some of these unaltered images have.

  2. Jay Goodrich says:

    A perfect solution to an ever growing argument in today’s world of photography.

  3. Another well written piece on a popular topic. I always get mad when film guys at the shows try to discredit digital or trick the public into thinking theirs is the true scene and they do nothing to alter. They don’t mentioned they shot velvia or had it scanned. =) Just be honest with the public, I think I push my images for more impact but I haven’t had someone not believe the scene I presented. If they asked if it was photoshopped, of course it was. I really like that last quote.

  4. Amen! I love this article. I’ve been meaning to write on this very topic but could never articulate in satisfactory way. As usual your writing is crystal clear and inspiring.

  5. I agree, we do need to educate the public on this. Here’s my attempt, posted only a couple of weeks ago:

  6. Very nice article, Guy. I have had dozens of instance where people have left comments on my photos where they made a comment praising my skilled use of HDR, the automated process of a program creating an image using multiple frames exposed a different levels. It’s a process I don’t use, but the assumptions and statements kept occurring with increasing frequency that I eventually started posting along with my photos, “No HDR”. But that’s not to say that I don’t use other tools and techniques related to EDR – Expanding Dynamic Range, I just won’t / don’t rely on automated processes for the sloution. But by whatever means I employ, I am making choices every step of the way while trying to maintain what I call the fidelity of the scene; the balance between artistic choices, interpretations, and viewer believability.

    BTW How come I can’t think of many Bierstadt “RAW” paintings that show Yosemite Valley at high noon on a hot, hazy summer afternoon?

  7. Fascinating. I stumbled upon this blog article from Darwin Wiggett’s blog. I have just written a similar article on my blog and I find it refreshing that other’s are struggling with their stance on digital manipulation and remaining true to themselves and others.

  8. Anil Rao says:

    > “…Ultimately, to be successful as a work of art, a photograph must
    > be both pleasing and convincing…”

    I my humble opinion a photograph doesn’t need to be pleasing in order to be successful as a work of art. So I think I can say that I don’t fully agree with what Eliot Porter said, although I admit I love his work.

  9. Another great post Guy! I love this quote:

    “Anyone telling you their images are not manipulated is either exposing their own naiveté or trying to exploit yours.”


  10. Dan Baumbach says:

    So clear, to the point, and well written. I would love to see this published someplace frequented by more people than just photographers.

    – Dan.

  11. Mark says:

    Wonderfully expressed piece – as usual Guy. It is right on mark with my own feelings about this topic.