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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Filters, Photoshop, and Reality - Is it Real and Does it Really Matter?

An image from a series of limestone outcrops on the western shore of Madagascar. Purists would look at the relative paucity of post-production and claim that the image is somehow more real (although detractors of neutral density filters might claim otherwise), yet the black and white, almost infra-red view of the image is quite far from the lived visual reality.

Depending on where, or who, you are reading, perceived reality seems to matter a lot. Looking through some image forums on the internet I came across a fairly large trove of vitriol towards images that were perceived as ‘unreal’ by the viewers. An image by a fairly well known American landscape photographer seemed to arouse a surprisingly amount of ire amongst armchair photographers the world over. These screen grabs were taken from the image in question:

Despite some of the negative criticism of being unreal, the commentary was actually relatively tame (probably due to being moderated). One often comes across personal written attacks against the photographer who has posted an image that looks a little unreal. I don’t need to point out the image in question as anyone who has looked at any incredible photograph of blurred water, the night sky, vehicle trails, star trails, high dynamic range images, sun stars or any number of imaging techniques has seen similar comments by disgruntled armchair critics. Some forums attract these naysayers more so than others (DPreview, PetaPixel and of course FStoppers where almost every forum post ends up in an American political or gun-debate mud slinging contest). Basically, if the image shows some technical artistry beyond the accurate reproduction of visible tones, it garners negative commentary as something that is somehow not real.

I have seen the same criticism of my own images when I have used either optical filters to achieve a blurred motion image (see the series on selecting a filter system for landscape photography), or Photoshop to adjust tones and colours. Is the image really not real because of a technique that a photographer uses? Are the images from Mars - captured by the Curiosity rover - less real because they are stitched panoramics, or that they have been colorized since the original capture is actually black and white? The same gies for just about any image captured by the Hubble telescope, or any image shot through the use of a electron microscope. Or what about the incredible detail captured through the use of stacking images to collect as much detail as possible in photomicrography? These are images used for science and have to be as real as possible, but are certainly beyond the scope of what our own eyes can see. 

What about the choice of lens? If an architectural photographer employs the use of a tilt/shift lens to straighten the verticals in an image of a building, does this make the image fake? If I do the same in Photoshop (or a similar bitmap and now even RAW editor) to ‘straighten’ the vertical, is this fake? When analogue film photography was the norm you could also simulate the use of an expensive tilt/shift lens by tilting the enlarger head or simply raising one edge of the paper easel. In a similar vein, are images shot with ultra wide lenses fake because they show a field of view we ourselves cannot see without actually moving our head?

I am not trying to make the claim that since the use of technology is used for one purpose, we should unquestioningly accept for all photography. What is apparent though is that the accusation of ‘fake' tends to extend to anything that we don’t perceive with our own eyes unaided. So images of the night sky elicit cries of foul since they show something that we can not necessarily see with our own unassisted vision. Similarly, blurred water created through the use of a solid neutral density filter elects disparage by some photographers, despite the fact that the image creation is very much rooted in reality. Digital has heightened viewer’s awareness around what is real and what is not. Now, photographers have the ability to blend images in Photoshop to create artistic montages that look real, but are not. 
In the world of commercial photography, as opposed to landscape photography where practitioners see them themselves in a more reified artistic light, the question of reality is hardly ever brought up. This image for instance was shot on a dreary late afternoon for Viglietti Motors in Umhlanga. The light was terrible and dull (not to mention cold) and sky a mess of overcast wet clouds. The final image is a composite of the several gelled hot-shoe flashed layers and a sky shot year's before in a different part of the country. As a photograph I'd never try and pass it off as something that is real. As an advertisement...?

Photographer’s don’t help themselves though. As I was considering penning this article, the well known British landscape photographer Alex Nail was interviewed in a podcast by Matt Payne. Alex Nail’s particular ire is against photographers who push processing to it’s extremes - in particular adding or removing elements that weren’t there - and then not being open about the process. Basically, lying. Payne followed this up with a great writeup in PDN Pulse where he tries to identify the different types of processing that landscape photographers are likely to resort to in working with their images. Usefully he tried to create a sliding scale between the types of post-production with zero manipulation on side, espoused by supposed purists, and full on visual manipulation on the other end with resultant scenes of the impossible (imagine Torre del Paine abutting the Namib Desert for instance). I am not going to repeat Payne’s excellent article here, but suggest reading it if you are interested in the topic at all. It makes for thought provoking reading as to the possible motivations for ‘cheating’.

In the arguments that are presented back and forth there has been some truly thought-provoking commentary, alongside the usual personal attacks and questioning of the opposing view’s intelligence and even morality. Some of the vitriol is truly evangelical in it’s self-righteousness. Those who profess to a kind of visual purity shun, and indeed condemn, those who see little harm in the manipulation of imagery for the sake of art, or of one’s own vision. A common trope used by the purist side of the argument is that it is not photography, it is painting, if the artist is going to completely warp reality into something that it is patently not.

On the other side, practitioners of image manipulation will defensively claim that the purists are delusional as to their own ‘purity’ (it’s a digital photograph, meaning that that there is no way that the resultant image is actually not processed in some form or other), that they form an elitist clique that isn’t open to new viewpoints, and that manipulation is as old to photography as its actual birth (no doubt bringing up Ansel Adams in the mix, and no doubt mentioning Moonrise over Hernandez in the offing).

A storm in a teacup is personally how I view the debate. Both sides have valid points but can be quite inflexible as to their own views. I find it interesting in particular how individuals will defend the techniques that they themselves use, but vilify techniques that they don’t…that is until they find some use out of a particular technique and their viewpoint changes. When mainstream* compositing of images first came on to the scene with digital in the early 2000s it was considered by many purists as almost akin to heresy. Fast forward a decade and a bit and compositing for certain use is now deemed fair practice (by many, though not by all). The increasing use of computational photography is only going to further influence and affect the way we perceive the creation and consumption of the photographic image (see Ross Rubin’s recent article and Allen Murabayashi primer on computational photography and the imaging problems it solves )   

I find it interesting that of all the genres of photography, other than photo-journalism, the one whose practitioners attempt to ground their work in a supposed objective reality is that of landscape photography. It’s understandable why. Avid landscape photographers work extremely hard and in often difficult conditions to be at the right place at the right time. I often joke with workshop photographers that if you are uncomfortable, cold, wet and tired you are probably in the right place for a great photograph. The apparent social media kudos that accompanies a great image seems also to confirm that dramatic images taken in difficult to reach locations will win out over their their more mundane counterparts that were obviously created in comfortable conditions. The ‘story’ that now seems to be de rigeur as an accompaniment to the image adds to the mystery of both the photographer and of the image itself. 

Star trails are currently going out of fashion as the high ISO abilities of cameras enable us to instead portray the Milky Way. When Milky Way shots first appeared as a contrast to trails, armchair critics claimed they were more 'realistic' than the trails were. Now images of the studded Milky Way elicit the same claims of being 'unreal'.

Interestingly, although the landscape photographer claims to want a reality, they then proceed to idealise the scene to an almost extreme level. Whether they use filters or photoshop, the resultant image is usually only an idealised mirror (or even a mirage) of the reality that was viewed. Even landscape photographers who claim zero manipulation through Photoshop will resort to optical filters, lenses and creative compositional techniques to create an image that is related to, but not identical to the scene they actually photograph. I find it interesting that photographers who truly, genuinely, eschew the current landscape bent don’t perform particularly well on the internet, but are rather represented in the hallways of traditional fine art. Consider some of Stephen Shore’s work for instance. Realism taken to the banal is how I would classify much of it. Don’t get me wrong. Shore’s work is brilliant, but presented to the armchair surfing internet critic, it would be tossed out as uninteresting and plainly executed. This because those who study the imagery on the net (and subsequently get involved in the forums and debates) have come to expect a certain visual punch to drag their eyes and attention from the vast multitude of images that are created and consumed on a daily basis.

The brouhaha over manipulation also dims the fact that there is some really interesting work that utilises the advantages made in image capture over the last decade. Beth Moon’s astounding celestial studies evoke a kind of mythical realm that the trees she photographs reside in. There is no way a person could see these scenes with their naked eyes - they require a leap off faith and willing suspension of disbelief to view them. Similarly much of Jackie Rankin’s humorous landscape images with kitchen utensils tossed into view relies heavily on digital compositing techniques. In particular the layering of a texture layer which is then selectively masked away.

In all this, I agree that purposely lying about a photograph’s genesis is wrong. But it isn’t necessarily wrong to abut the Andes to the Namib Desert if you are trying to demonstrate something and say so. Being honest about the work and it’s intention is perhaps one way to quell the raging argument. Unfortunately, the ugly side of social media and the internet is that photographers all vie for their fifteen seconds of fame and a ‘faked’ photograph with as much visual ‘pop’ as possible accompanied by a fake story claiming veracity is the best way to get noticed (and pray like hell that no-one calls the bluff). Just look at the perpetually contentious World Press Awards to see the same issue with photo-journalism.

Ultimately, for the love of creating photographs, why do you personally create images? Is it to create a realistic representation of the world in front of your lens. If so, do so. Is it to somehow convey a sense of the emotion that you yourself feel as you photograph the scene? Is it to document the world as it currently stands, maybe even with an activist view to protect? Is it to create a fantastical representation of an other-worldly reality that is somehow linked to our own? Go for it. The problem is that all of these goals and more fall under the encompassing genre umbrella known as ‘landscape photography’. Purists who vacillate between the first of these examples struggle to accept that painterly like imaginings rooted in photography are often also considered photography, and good art at that. Possibly, we should consider why we want to shoe-horn images into specific genres in the first place? Do we need to?

This article doesn’t seek to create answers to the questions it poses. What I would hope though, is that the questions themselves are internalized and continue to have us questioning. Photography IS art. It is also science and it is also reportage. It is a medium that is continually contested in it’s execution, purpose and consumption. Why else do its practitioners feel so strongly about it. Personally, I think that’s fantastic. The fact that we can consider an image - which itself is separate entity to the thing that it depicts - and consider whether it is real, is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the photograph as a medium. The argument that raises ire today as to the reality of the image is incredibly similar to the arguments of the reality of the photograph back when Henry Fox Talbot was espousing his ‘heliography’. The debate as to the fake and real right now, will still be about for as long as photography exists.

*I say mainstream as compositing of images dates right through to the advent of the wet collodion process and plate photography. Consider Gustave Le Grey’s work from the 1850s for instance. In Niall Benvie’s more recent (2001) ‘Creative Landscape Photography’ he discusses shooting high dynamic range images in film and then combining them either in the darkroom or through scanning and then in Photoshop - this long before the term ‘high dynamic range’ had even become fashionable.
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