What is the difference between taking pictures and making photographs? Artistic vision – nothing more. Photography is art, though many artists in other mediums refuse to acknowledge this. Even the general public these days has come to question the validity of photography as art, claiming that digital photography and therefore the use of photo editing software is but deception. A local gallery owner recently complained to me that such views were the bane of his profession. Daily it seemed, people walked in, admired the photography that lined the walls of his gallery, but then turned to ask whether or not the images were “photoshoped” or “out of the camera.”
Any time this sort of argument comes up, I picture Ansel Adams standing in his darkroom waving his dodging wand through the air as he tirellessly manipulated his prints to meet his artistic vision. Adams would spend hours working on prints to get them just right simply because he knew the camera would never allow him to directly “capture” what he saw or what he wanted you to see.
Lets look at it this way, the human eye can see at least 12 distinct stops of light. Slide film had a latitude of three, negative film 5, digital 7. Basic physics therefore dictates that what you see, will never be what you get with photography.
Photography is art. And an image that a photographer creates is a subjective representation of what HE/SHE sees before them. Therefore photography by its very nature is artistic interpretation, it never has been, and never will be a 2 dimensional carbon copy of nature.
Nothing about photography is pure or true. The human eye is a very complex and powerful thing. Millions of years in the making, we will not be able to rival its power any time soon. Add this to the fact that this eye is then attached to a brain and you find that our God given technology is light years away from what we fumble around with by our own creation. This brain has biases, it interprets, it has distinct likes and dislikes, etc . . .
Lets say I am walking along, tripod over shoulder, looking for that perfect sunrise. I come across a beautiful scene at Cape Hatteras National Seashore where there is a wonderful carpet of flowers – say the Indian Blanket or Fire Wheel – that stretches out before me. The dunes just happen to break in such a way that the ocean is revealed and the sun will be rising right in between this gap. As the sun begins to envelop the world in light, my mind races with excitement. The Homeric rosy fingers of dawn stretch out across the sky, a ball of orange begins to emerge above the horizon, there is the blue of the water, the gold of the sand, and the kaleidoscope of colors that make up the petals of the Fire Wheel. This is what I see. This is what moves me. Only problem, I cannot photograph this without manipulating the scene.
Even though my eye sees the colors of the flowers, the many tones of sand, the blue of the ocean, the pink of the sky and the fire of the sun, my camera is never going to be able to record this. If I want you to see the flowers in the full glory of what I see, than the sky and anything slightly brighter than the flowers will be WHITE. If I want you to see the stunning colors of the sunrise, than anything darker than the sky with be BLACK (of nearly so).
In the days of film, you manipulated the scene by using split or graduated neutral density filters which had its own signature on the image that any trained eye could spot. In the days of digital, you create an HDR image by combing images exposed for different key elements of the composition.
The HDR is actually truer to what the eye sees that the filter. Yet this is “digital manipulation” even though it is a better representation.
Use flash to highlight an element in your composition and you just manipulated the image. You will be hard pressed to find natural strobes in nature illuminating the world for you.
The image that I have included with this journal entry is a case in point. After uploading my images to the computer I slightly decreased the exposure value, cropped, and sharpened the image – that is all. Yet if you had been beside me when I made this photograph, instead of a moody portrait, you would have seen a horse coming in and out of sleep standing in front of a big house that was in much need of a pressure washing and paint job. The scene was terrible. There was nothing sexy about it, nothing artistic or photogenic. I was out photographing horses in the snow. Yes, it actually snowed AGAIN here for us (horses in snow to come in the next journal entry). It was early morning and the sun had just crested the horizon and those first rays of light and warmth were beginning to bathe the world around me. I found this band standing just a few feet from the side of a house both trying to stay out of the 20 mph wind and trying to warm their bodies up with the sun. Temperatures had dropped into the low twenties the night before and with food buried under 8 inches of snow, every one was just trying to find some modicum of comfort. What I wanted was horses walking through deep snow or cresting over snow covered dunes, what I got was hagard looking equines trying to survive the cold.
This was one of those scenes that time and time again, workshop participants ask me why we would even stop to taken a second look. Yet instead of a beach house I saw that part of the house was in shade directly behind this one horse. The light was angled in such a way as to also only illuminate one side of the horse while the other side fell into deep shadows much like the background. Pulling out my Nikon 200-400 f/4 lens however I was able to isolate this wild horse’s head into a much more pleasing portrait. By metering for the highlighted area of the horse I was able to force the shaded areas into dark shadow. The results are by no means what the scene looked like – a horse standing in front of a house – because of the way I manipulated the scene with my choice of lens, composition, positioning, and exposure.
So is this fakery? Or, is this art?