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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.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Stretching Essential…Apparently

Dead Vlei atv Dawn

Photographic salons and competitions are not new to controversy. The World Press Awards, Veolia Wildlife, The British Landscape Photographer of the Year and now the International Landscape Photographer of the Year have drawn public, or at least photographers’ ire over the selected winning images and photographers. Less serious than the issues plaguing the World Press Awards over journalistic authenticity, the ILPOTY Awards this year did raise consternation in various quarters over the amount of digital manipulation inherent in a large number of the selected 101 top images, as well as the winning portfolios. The result is that we once again find ourselves with the that old question regarding PhotoShop; at what point is it no longer a photograph? 

This isn’t the first year that the ILPOTY awards have received criticism over the winning images and their rather loose attachment to reality. The creation of the Natural Landscape Photographer of the Year competition was partly in response to the perceived rise of heavily manipulated images making it into and winning what were in the past conceived as traditional photographic awards. Not many people can remember the hoo-ha over David Byrne’s disqualification from the 2012 Landscape Photographer of the Year for an image that was discovered to have been had too much digital manipulation in regards to the competition rules. The irony is that were the image entered today, no doubt it would have passed muster (there were also issues over plagiarism at the time, but it was for the digital manipulation that he was disqualified)

Art for Art’s Sake

It’s important to quote from the ILPOTY website in regarding how the competition views ‘landscape photography’:

"Our philosophy is that all approaches to landscape photography are valid. It is not up to us to say whether an image is a landscape or not. As a result, in the 2021 International Landscape Photographer of the Year awards, you will see exponents of many different styles presenting their rare and carefully considered compositions. Some of the landscapes are straight out of camera, others are from the photographer's imagination.
I find it quite compelling that what drives one landscape photographer can be so different to another. For some, the capture of nature at its most wonderful is reward enough. In fact, these are the moments photographers live for and being out in the landscape is often as enjoyable as shooting it with a camera.
However, the history of landscape art is much broader than merely creating a record of nature. It is interpretive, imaginative and inspirational. Other photographers take their captures and re-map the tonality; some take several captures to produce a landscape of the mind."
The ire towards the competition comes mostly from landscape photographers who follow more traditional concepts of what a landscape photograph entails. In full honesty I don’t like the winning images; they look a little too Sci-fi for my personal taste. I do recognise that they are very good digital works though. There are a number of images that were selected that go beyond what could possibly be ‘real’ and delve into full on image layering of individual images taken at different time periods and even location (sky replacement anyone?). Several images are of prominent landscape locations, so it isn’t difficult for photographers familiar with scenes (like those of Kirkjufellfoss in Iceland or iconic views of the Alps in Italy) to notice that something is not quite right. Perhaps it’s a view from a cave, where no cave exists, or a shot of a mountain peak, where the mountain itself is distended and elongated to something out of Tolkien’s imagination. Some of the photographers whose work was selected have gone on to use their selection in the competition as a marketing tool for their editing courses (as they should and have every right to do…it’s one of the perks of being selected in a prestigious award). What raises eyebrows amongst - call it the more conservative landscape photographers - is that these editing techniques fully embrace the layering of images that are not taken at the same time, or even of the same places.  

ILPOTY front page

The organisers of ILPOTY are correct when they state, “It is not up to us to say whether an image is a landscape or not”. Except that the very title of the competition is that it is a Landscape photographic salon. Surely there should be some sort of definition of what a landscape is then? I actually agree with the concept of art for art’s sake. However, if you are going to ostensibly judge one image against another (and let us not forget that there is money involved at the end of the day along with a plethora of kudos points that can generate potential income in future for winners), then there needs to be some grounds for comparison between the two. A very real result is that more ‘traditional’ landscape photographers will simply stop entering the ILPOTY, as it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to compete against stretched mountains and impossible skies.

There is also of course something to be said for constructing an image of an idealised world. When I teach on workshops I am always insisting that photographers try to recreate what they ‘feel’ as well as ‘see’. This means that an artistic interpretation of the a scene isn’t necessarily a realistic interpretation. Even the most conservative of landscape photographers still photograph in a way that idealises, even glamourises, the landscape and scenes that they photograph. If you use a 10 stop neutral density filter to extent the shutter duration so that water and grass turn into milky tones of colour rather than textual detail, then you are also guilty of manipulating the scene in some way for artistic effect. The compositing of disparate elements is in some ways the logical conclusion of this type of landscape photography. Certainly practitioners of this would argue that this is the case. 

Professional Jealousy


One of the first things non-photographers ask when they hear photographers discussing the issue is whether this is simply not a question of professional jealousy? That’s a fair point actually. Those most vitriolic tend to be the ones who were passed up in lieu of the extraordinary - and heavily manipulated - images that are selected as winning entrants. To be completely transparent, I have had several images selected by the ILPOTY awards in the past (as their Top 101 images) and also made it into the Top 202 in this particular competition. Looking at the scoring that was used, the image of mine in question would have made it into the Top 101 if heavy handed digital manipulation were not allowed, thereby clearing the field so to speak. ILPOTY, as evinced above, are pretty open about accepting any interpretation of a landscape though, so any person entering should be aware of the field that they are competing against. 
Perhaps, rather than jealousy, there is more a concern of the direction that so-called landscape photography is heading. We already have the problem of a heightened expectation of the world thanks to Instagram and social media glamorizing locations. I suspect that throwing digital manipulation - passed off as real - thrown into the mix can only dilute the genre. It leads to a basic cynicism towards landscape imagery as whole, regardless of whether the image depicts reality, or an overactive imagination. I already find myself defending images that were photographed ‘as is’ against accusations of Photoshop use because the general belief now is that if it is a great photograph, it must be fake. Competitions like ILPOTY unfortunately contribute to this general cynicism.

So what is too much, when it comes to editing anyway? If you want to fall down the rabbit hole of ethics in editing, just do some simple google searches on the ethics of digital manipulation. Thousands of hours have been spent discussing and debating what should be accepted and what shouldn’t. In the early days of digital photography simple exposure blends were not allowed, now they are. Focus stacks were considered manipulation, now it’s just one of many techniques to ‘faithfully’ reproduce a scene. Same with panoramic stitches. So the problem arises that what is considered valid, is a moving a target.

Art photographers, who playfully manipulate images to create an artistic rendition of their understanding of a scene are obviously going to jump at the chance to showcase their work. ILPOTY is one of a growing number of international competitions that allows these forms of expression. It’s also unfortunate that photographers who lean towards to the more traditional practice of landscape photography have a habit of vilifying those who do manipulate their images. It gets ridiculous actually and you would be forgiven for thinking, based on the language used in some online forums, that the manipulation of images for artistic intent is a crime similar to child abuse. People get nasty! 

A note on plagiarism


I mentioned at the beginning of this article David Byrne's image that was excluded from the Landscape Photographer of the Year in 2012. A secondary concern raised by his critics was that the image was a similar, if not direct copy, of another photographer's work. Herein lies a problem for judges the world over. Good photographs beget further renditions of similar scenes. Images and photographers influence each other. A few years ago a friend and colleague of mine, Hougaard Malan, won the Waterfall category in the ILPOTY awards. It’s an outstanding photograph and one of the best images he’s produced (and his work is extraordinary to start with). Then last year Anette Mossbacher won the landscape category in the Veolia Wildlife Awards with a very similar (it isn’t the same, just similar) image. A small amount of fuss came up on social media and several photographers pointed out the similarity. Here I have to part ways with the aggrieved voices. Taken in its own merit the later photograph is an exceptional image. It is not necessarily a direct copy of Hougaard’s earlier winning image. No photographer has the ‘right’ to a particular view. 
It's useful to remind readers here of Cherry Alexander's winning image in the 2014 Veolia Wildlife Awards - A truly beautiful image of chinstrap penguins on a blue iceberg photographed in Antarctica. The only controversy here though is that it was shot mere feet from where the workshop leader, Frans Lanting, was also shooting. Lanting went on to have his image published in National Geographic, and it continues to come up as one of his favourite images on his website and print media. Does the fact that he is famous make his image more authentic? As usual it was the arm-chair critics who kicked up the fuss, and Frans Lanting probably wasn't fazed in the slightest.

Should we consider all images taken from a particular point as copies of the photographer who first published a particular image? Surely not. Were this the case several iconic landscape views would be verboten in any future salons. So forget about entering any images from places such as Vestrahorn in Iceland, Dead Vlei in Namibia, or the classic view of Yosemite in The US. The problem is that the more noteworthy an image, the more likely that other photographers will flock to that location. The particular tree photographed by both Hougaard Malan and Anette Mossbacher has been there a long time. The water is released on the Kunene River during the flood season around the end of March, early April. There are a limited number of viewpoints that you can view the falls…it is not inconceivable that two independent photographers create similar images of a particular location. 

This particular point hit home for me recently on reading an article by Erez Marom (another photographer whose work I admire, but I am not familiar with the library of images that he has published). I was reading the article with interest when I suddenly came across an image that looked identical to one of mine, one that I am particularly proud of (I even used the image to illustrate an article on perspective). I came across this particular composition on a workshop and reached it with some difficulty as it not an easy access to this particular view. At the the time I was ecstatic as I thought (incorrectly) that I had stumbled across a ‘new’ composition. Here’s what Marom has to say about the composition: “An image I took in Kolmanskop, Namibia. It has been since copied many times over without any mention of my being the original creator.” Really? The original creator? This was the first time I had seen the image other than my own shot of it, so I thought the wording a touch misplaced by the author. It was with some chagrin that I noticed in comments to his article that the composition had been shot, some considerable time before by Freeman Patterson, one of the originators of the traditional photographic workshops in Namibia and author of numerous photography books. Neither Erez Marom nor I can call this an original composition, it just happens to have been ‘found’ multiple times by different photographers.

There are a number of locations that lend themselves to a particular viewpoint. Published and respected photographers can feel aggrieved as much as they like on seeing similar compositions to their own, but there are certain views that will be ‘found’ based on fairly standard compositional tenets and preferences. You don’t need to have seen other images to have created a near identical composition; you just need to have a similar way of viewing the world. I just need to look at my images of the Drakensberg in particular, and see similar compositions from other photographers, even when I haven’t gone to find that particular view.



The last point on plagiarism is perhaps why more and more photographers are leaning towards the unreal in landscape photography. It is becoming increasingly difficult to create original content. It’s worse when luminary photographers stake a claim as if they own a particular view. How then can one be original? The easy answer is to fake it; create a whole new image that has never been done because what it depicts does not actually exist as depicted. Literally the only thing holding the photographer back is their imagination. I can see why the jurors on some of these competitions select the unreal images. It’s because its a new shot. When you have seen dozens if not hundreds of images of the same iconic scene, something different jumps out at you (It’s why Andy Gibbs won the ILPOTY in 2021 with his extraordinary, but real, images of forest scenes - they were different to what had come before).
This isn't a problem that is going to disappear unfortunately. Competitions seem to emerge and diminish every few years; with their passing usually related to the images that bring the entire competition into disrepute (loosely speaking). Photoshop and the valley of the uncanny is going to continue apace, if anything become even more mainstream as a way of interpreting the world visually. It would also do well to remember that competitions are not philanthropic ventures. They are there to make the organisers (and by virtue of association - the sponsors) money. I for one will think twice about entering the ILPOTY next year. It's expensive to enter and if I am being judged primarily on editing prowess and imagination behind a computer, then I'm unlikely to fare well in the competition. I don't want to stretch my mountains or create fantastical skies that weren't there when I photographed the scene. Troublingly for the organisers of ILPOTY, I am not alone in thinking this. One voice is nothing in this, but if enough other photographers feel the same way, the income stream for the competition will slowly dwindle. 

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