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| p.1 #6 · Blended landscape images - legitimate or not. |
David Baldwin wrote:
I am not trying to be controversial, nor am I picking on any particular image or photographer.
And I realise I am asking a question nearly as old as photography itself but but I do wonder if some photographic genres are being image manipulated to a point waaaaaaaaaaay beyond any relationship to a real scene (does that matter btw). In particular:
On FM I am seeing more and more "night" photos made up of composite exposures, partly based on day or twilight images, and partly based at night. The results are spectacular, and are very, very difficult (read impossible) to achieve...Show more →
This is a perennial question, and I'm positive that no one here, including myself, will have the last word on the subject. In the end, it comes down to a matter of personal perspective, values, and what you are hoping to find in photographs.
For me, an important question has to do with how the photographer presents such images. If there is an intent, either explicit or implicit, that the viewer regard them as somehow representing the "real," then my response includes disappointment regarding the deception. (Stick with me, though - I'll temper that remark in a moment.) One aesthetic approach to the landscape and similar subjects is based on the notion that the landscape itself offers up astonishing wonders that can stop you in your tracks, and that a talented landscape photographer can find those wonders, see how to make photographers of them, and cause you to look at and see such wonders that you might otherwise not have noticed or had the chance to experience.
So, many people begin by looking at so-called landscape photography as being something that, while in cannot be a perfect analog, is an honest and believable portrayal of the subject. This is most certainly not to say that a landscape photograph is a literally objective identical version of the landscape - it cannot be that - nor that no post processing is allowed, or any of that other silliness. Often the modifications simply compensate for the fact that other portions of the real experience are missing and that we must, in a photograph, rely entirely on a two-dimensional visual experience that does not include other cues. (This is something like the necessity in audio recording to balance sounds in ways that are not identical to how they are balanced in a live performance, but I digress...) The photograph cannot be the same as the thing, but it is possible to make a photograph that is both effective and faithful to the experience of the original subject, while also optimized for viewing in an idealized form as a photograph.
So, what about those impossible images? I saw one recently that included a very bright Milky Way sky stopped dead in its tracks above a waterfall and cove in which the water had been obviously blurred by an exposure that was several minutes long. My response was complex. On one hand, I was impressed by the thought process that had no doubt led to the visualization of this composite image - consisting of a large aperture shorter exposure of the sky in combination with a smaller-aperture and much longer exposure of the other elements - and could regard it as an interesting and attractive "fantasy landscape" of the sort that we might find, perhaps, in the CGI constructed environment of the movies. If it is OK to construct some an image in the CGI world or paint such an image, then why would it be wrong to use photographic imaging techniques to create something that is far less "unreal" than, say, Van Gogh's "Starry Night?"
The tricky thing is that "burden of the real" that photographs carry. All (or at least virtually all) photographic images begin with "captures" of the images of real things. Since the beginning, photography has carried the burden of being attached to the real world. Unlike painting, in which (at least in most cases) every element of the image is constructed and "known" by the person whose hand created it, the photograph begins by "capturing" (in most cases) the world, cannot be fully "seen" at that time, and only reveals what it contains (even to the photographer) over time. So when we look at a photograph, we start with the presumption that we are discovering something about the real world that the camera captured, but then we go on to understand that we are really looking at something about how the photographer viewed the world whose capture was the initial point of departure for creating the image.
So, back to those overtly impossible images... If the photographer, again explicitly or implicitly, invites us to consider it as a fantasy that cannot possibly be, then it is hard to criticize it for diverging to uncomfortably far from the real. Jerry Uelsmann's work is a great starting point for thinking about how photographs might work in this way, and he is by no means the first or the only person to go (effectively) down this path. One can hardly criticize his landscapes (or other work) for not being real or for being manipulated since that is the obvious intention and point of his work!
But things get fuzzy, for me anyway, when the image is presented in a way that does not acknowledge its fantastical nature or which even explicitly allows or even urges the viewer to make the mistake of thinking that it represents the real. My response goes in the direction of thinking that the work is "cheap" and deceptive and dishonest and unbelievable. While I don't think "unbelievable" when I look at Uelsmann - since it is supposed to be unbelievable - that is my first thought when I look a work that is obviously impossible but not acknowledged as such: gigantic full moons, skies full of stars that never look remotely like that in reality, colors that are patently false, the marriage of land and skies from different times and places, shorebirds inserted into desert skies, and more.
Now, don't get me wrong. I believe in post-processing as in integral part of the process of producing photographic images. I use compositing and stitching on occasion. I use the clone tool. I alter color balance and I dodge and burn. I use exposure and focus blending techniques on occasion - though you would probably not know this if you saw the photos. Sometimes I create photographs that are obviously the result of significant modification in post, and which make no pretense of being "real."
For me, the ultimate test is one of honesty and believability. Is this image what it purports to be?