Synchronicity

Sometimes, weird coincidences happen across state boundaries, across gender lines and even across periods of discrete time. 

Irritated by the emergence (or more accurately, resurgence) of the age-old debate over whether photography is a purely documentary or artistic endeavour, Darwin and I wrote “Photoshop and Nature Photography: How Far is Too Far?” as a guest column on Jay Goodrich’s blog on August 7, 2009 (see link below).

Since then, this topic has been surfacing in other forums like a breeching whale.  And why?  Because it matters

As far as I can tell, the photographic industry is in a period of profound transition.  Gone is the old model of the lone, male wolf loping on the prairie, or skulking in the pre-dawn gloom, searching for his photographic prey:  the alpen-kissed peak, the trophy animal headshot, the dripping reds of a rare sunrise.   Electronic technology has burst into warp speed, and all kinds of new creatures have been encountered on the way.

I am one of them.

I had a film camera, and I dabbled.  But the instant feedback of a digital image has leapt my creative ‘focus’ to a new level–me and thousands of others who did not have the time/patience/interest in the old ways of putting image to output.

Change is scary.  The ‘Other’ is scary.  Especially when it rocks the foundation of what we call ‘reality’.  It is not a rhetorical or philosophical question to ask:  What is reality?  Our politicians tell us that reality is Us vs. Them.  Their politicians tell their people that reality is Them vs. Us.  If some alien race threatened mankind, we would save our neighbour whether black, white, red or yellow, gay, straight or bi, old, young or not saying. 

To get to the point.

Read the links below.  Think about what it means to you to be a photographer.  Think about why you take photographs.  If you could make someone feel what you felt when you took an image, whatever the image, wouldn’t you?  Isn’t that why we take pictures?  Isn’t it about us, and expression, and sharing our ‘reality’?

August 7, 2009: “Photoshop and Nature Photography: How Far is Too Far?” by Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett

November 2, 2009: “Art and Prejudice: What is the Real Truth in Photography?” by Guy Tal, guest column on Jim Goldstein’s blog

November 2, 2009: “Photography’s Eternal Identity Struggle” by Jim Goldstein, guest column on Guy Tal’s blog

November 5, 2009: “A Disturbing Trend in Landscape Photography” posting and thread on Nature Photographers Online Magazine

Forest Scene--Straight or Manipulated?

 

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~ by Samantha on November 8, 2009.

6 Responses to “Synchronicity”

  1. Sam, what it means to me to be a photographer falls generally on the art side of the equation, not the documentary or journalistic side. Not photography instead of art, but photography AS art. One of the primary callings of the visual artist is to creatively filter reality to present to the viewer something that is not just literal & factual, but interpreted. Otherwise why would the viewer care to look at one artist’s work over another’s, or indeed any artists’ work at all? I think in this context people don’t want raw facts, they want some kind of personal insight and resonant interpretation.

    “In camera” motivations on the art side the street are fine – as long as the artist is deliberately choosing to limit his or her creativity to what the camera, as a tool of choice, can do. I don’t choose to be limited in that way. I apply other tools as well. To me photography is the end-to-end, intentional, creative process. I don’t necessarily want somebody to see the reality I saw, or feel what I felt; I think the viewer brings too much subjectivity to the table for that to be a reliable artistic goal. But I’m definitely trying to be expressive, interpretative, evocative, creative… while still trying to harness at least some aspects of the true essence of the real scene.

    Maybe some would quibble over using the term “photography” for this, and wish it to be called something else. Well, to me “photography” fits… it’s (loosely) “drawing or painting with light” as long as I’m working with the detail, color and tonality that were captured from a real scene by light passing into a camera. Digital has turned photography around a corner, of course. Our photographic expression is no longer determined by chemical formulations in film manufacturing and wet darkroom processes, rather it’s determined by digital hardware and software. Software on the desktop is just an extension of software in the camera. Some things that only could be done in computers are migrating into the cameras and this will continue to happen; it blurs the line of what is “pre” vs. “post” processing. It’s really all just processing, now… some driven by camera engineers back in the lab, some by me much more directly.

    As the artist, ultimately the responsibility for creative choice must be mine, and the image must resonate in some way with the viewer. If it clicks, then I’ve met a big part of my goal. Otherwise it’s just a technical exercise… artifice instead of art.

    Fortunately, I also recognize that photography, as a discipline, is very broad. Digital has not changed photography or corrupted it, rather it has broadened the discipline into an even more encompassing space that offers a point of reference for many more people than ever before. I don’t need people to agree with my view of photography to feel justified in pursuing my goals, nor do I need to discredit their version of photography. The pie is big enough for all of us.

    But one key area that I feel must be addressed in the implicit relationship between photographs and reality, in the mind of the viewer. Even though all photographs – even documentary or journalistic ones – are only simulations of reality that have been edited and composed by the photographer’s choice of view point, focal length, framing and many other factors, I think it’s a reasonable duty of all photographers not to sow confusion about where their own work falls on the spectrum. That’s why I practice and believe in a high level of disclosure about my creative process… what I do and why I do it. Informed viewers are better equipped to make their own good judgments, rather than blindly relying on fallacious chestnuts such as “photographs don’t lie”.

    My catch phrase is that photographs don’t have integrity, photographers do. I can absolutely lie through a purely in-camera composition, by biasing the shot or outright staging the scene. Many examples of this exist within photojournalism. Likewise, I can communicate something essential that leads to true belief and sound judgment, through a “manipulated” expressive photograph. Having thus dispensed with whether photographs are true and art is a lie, we can focus on the real heart of the matter – the success of what the photographer-as-artist both intended and actually conveyed to the viewer. That is the proof of the pudding. In my humble opinion. 🙂

  2. I enjoyed reading your article written with Darwin. It hits the nail on the head, but with one caveat… from the view of non-documentarian photographers. For documentarians what is captured requires minimal to no editing to keep the accuracy of the scene intact. Photojournalism will never sway from this and many would argue rightfully so. From an art perspective anything goes and should be embraced. Sadly there will always be an us vs. them mentality on such debates. If the canon vs nikon debate has lasted this long I expect this particular debate to last an eternity. I often find such debates are distractions that weigh creatives down. Those that free themselves in regard to their thinking on this issue excel creatively. Why limit yourself?

    Assuming more people adopt a similar philosophy I think photographer etiquette is what will require adjusting. Ansel Adams never had an asterisk next to his titles that his images were manipulated in the dark room. The medium in which he shared his work was substantially more limited than what is available to modern photographers. Those who view a nature or landscape print are less likely to think in terms of photo manipulation than if someone views the same image online. Somehow seeing an image on a monitor in this day and age with numerous online photo forums has us constantly thinking in terms of digital manipulation. Why? Likely because we’re at a computer with digital editing software at our finger tips. What some might argue is required in relation to etiquette is properly labeling your photos as photography or digital art. Of course that label is subjective and ripe for debate. Could this be yet another distraction? Likely but is it necessary to label a photo a cyanotype or a straight photograph? Would someone get twisted out of shape if someone didn’t specify the type of print? Probably not its more of a courtesy, but would others have the same reaction of a digital art piece went unlabeled? Tough to say but for most nature/landscape photographers I think there would be more of a negative reaction by not being transparent on the issue.

    Interesting times we live in.

  3. Hi Sam, I just wanted to say I enjoyed your article and although I disagree in some respects, I imagine we have more in common than is evident from our writings.. Anyway – my thoughts are at http://www.timparkin.co.uk/blog/what-is-landscape-revisited

    The summary is that I beleive an honesy in subject matter is something that I feel is essential to landscape photography. Misrepresentation of the actual subject matter of the photograph is where I personally draw the line and historically I think this is where most landscape photographers seem to (e.g. Ansel Adams may have manipulated his pictures but he never created something that didn’t exist or manipulate something to the point where it lied about the symbols represented in the image; mountains, trees, rivers, etc)

    Great subject!

  4. Hi Samantha, I loved reading your article. I am one of those people who embraced digital photography and totally fell in love with it. To me photography is art and is an expression of the artist, the photographer. I enjoy looking at all photographer’s work and seeing how they interpreted the subject. If everyone took photographs the same way then I wouldn’t be inspired. I got into a huge debate the other day on this subject and I’m going to be referring this person to your blog. Thanks:)

    • Hi Conseulo,
      I’m glad that you are enjoying the artistic side of photography! While there seem to be many in this field who see their camera brand/price as a statement about themselves, there are still plenty of us photographers who view their camera as a wonderful, mechanical tool for expression. Stay tuned in to your artistic impulses, and you won’t go wrong.

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