If you’ve been asked this about your photos, you are not alone. It’s a common question people have because for most of the history of photography, there has been an assumed veracity attached to the medium. While I think that illusion has been largely shattered, the question still remains, and in the realm of landscape and wildlife photography, there are still expectations of a sort of truthfulness. It is still a career ender to manipulate news photos, and for scientific publications as well as many magazines like National Geographic, there are still strict rules regarding what can, and can’t, be done to a photograph.
But at it’s simplest, when a viewer is before a landscape photograph and asks this question, I think what they are trying to connect with is the experience. They want to know “Is this something that really happened? Is this something I could see with my eye? Or is this a ‘trick’ of processing?” I use landscapes as an example because I think this genre is particularly linked to this question. People are drawn to nature in part because of it’s realness. There is a desire for authentic experiences, and therefore, photographs that capture that authenticity.
I was taking about this the other day with a friend who texted a passage from Looking at Ansel Adams by Andrea Stillman where Ansel describes his making of “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome”
“I felt I had accomplished something, but did not realize its significance until I had developed the plate that evening. I had achieved my first true visualization! I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. The sky had actually been a light, slightly hazy blue and the sunlit areas of Half Dome were moderately dark gray in value. The red filter dramatically darkened the sky and the shadows of the great cliff.”
For my friend, saying “I don’t try to capture what I see, but what I felt” is a way for him to answer the numerous times he’s asked “did you enhance this?!?!” when showing his work.
I agree with that statement, as it is what I seek to do in my own photography, but I think it warrants further discussion. And as much as I wanted to discuss it further with him over beer and tacos at our local taqueria hangout spot, writing about it will have to suffice.
I find I have very different lines for acceptability in the changes I make to a B&W photo versus a color photo. In B&W, I do not feel constrained at all because it is naturally abstracted from reality once color is removed. Large changes in tonality and contrast can be applied without the viewer noticing that something was done, because we don’t see in black and white.
However, we do see in color. We know what things are supposed to look like, and we have a lifetime of experiences built up to inform us. Because of that, in my photographs, I feel there needs to be a certain relationship to reality to be believable, or at least be beautiful.
Software can be our enemy here. Oversaturated colors or strange hues are just a slider adjustment away. Anyone can make fluorescent green aspen leaves or a sunset so colorful it never could happen. Having the trained eye to use those sliders to make a natural result takes study, time, and patience. It’s so easy to get seduced by the "wow" factor of rich saturated colors, which often denies the inherent beauty of the subject as it really is.
Like most things, loud is easy, but subtlety is hard. It’s true of any art from music to cooking, to craft beer. Making a IPA that is so bitter it makes you cringe is easier than making a beer with complexity and subtle notes of all the ingredients. That subtlety and complexity is my goal in making a color print because it’s the integrity of the subject and the experience it created that most interests me. My color photographs are capturing experiences, things seen that I want to re-experience and enjoy over and over.
I think that also speaks to the why of the question. When people ask “did you manipulate this?”, they are really asking “can I actually see this, or is the wow you are creating in me a falsehood?” It’s speaking to their personal connection to nature, to the world around them. The question is a very human reaction, a desire for truthfulness. They would never ask that of a Bierstadt painting of Yosemite, because they understand it’s a painting. But a photograph brings along with it a certain expectation of capturing reality, and that pre-programed viewer expectation is something that the photographer always has to consider and deal with in their photo. I feel that departure from reality needs to be done in such a clear artistic style that the question becomes moot.
So much more could be said, which makes great conversation over beer & tacos, or in the comments below. What is your take on “Is it real?”
Photographer, educator, and fine art printmaker Rich Seiling works to push the limits of printing technology to create beautiful Museum quality photographic prints for his clients and himself.