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."
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.
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.