Truth, Beauty and Fine-Art Photography
Jerry Buley, Ph.D.
Copyright 2007 by Jerry Buley, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
Consider two hypothetical
situations. First, the rug in front of your door way is out of place. You reach
out with your foot and move it back. You want your home to look its best. It
pleases you when your home looks a particular way, especially if you have spent a
lot of time putting it in that state. And, you want others to see it the same
way you do. Or, suppose in our second hypothetical, someone put fingerprints on your car last night. Its
Saturday, you have the time so you decide to put another coat of wax on it. You
bought the car because you like the way it looks. You want others to see it the
same way you do.
Are you creating fiction
when you do these things, or are you merely showing what is already there in the
best way possible? I don’t think we even think about this for the most part.
It is simply human nature. We want things to look their best.
However, I have
frequently heard in museums, galleries, and art stores the question, “is it
or has it been 'photoshopped?'” For a some time, I and I am sure other
photographers, reacted to that question by diminishing
to others the importance of using
photo-editing software in my workflow. “I only increased the contrast a little
to make it look more like what I saw that morning."
In a similar vein, recently I was browsing in a photography gallery in
Carmel, California. It was a wonderful gallery with original
prints by many of America's most famous landscape photographers -
including Adams. I was solemnly informed by the young clerk that
none of the photographs in the gallery had been manipulated by the
photographer between the click of the shutter to the print before us.
It is really quite humourous to hear jibberish like this. All
photographers manipulate their photographs in some way. Ansel
Adams spent weeks in his darkroom on a single print dodging, burning his
way to the final product. Of course, some gallery owners have the people
working for them saying things like this to differentiate those
photographers who use digital media. This distinction will soon
pass as more and more photographers move to digital.
The distinction is, of course, false.
But, it brings up a distinction held in the minds of some viewers of two
dimensional art forms. Ostensibly,
a painter can include or
exclude things from the final image, In the minds of many viewers,
photographers are locked into solely representing the scene that was
before the camera at the moment of capture.
At one time I had a picture I had taken of two gondola on a canal in Venice. The
colors and the design of the picture were good, The problem is that on the front lip of the
first boat lay a one-liter
water bottle thrown down by an insensitive tourist. I also knew
that taking it out would violate the truth of what I actually saw. While
thinking about this I was doing some reading about Ansel Adams, one
of our country’s most renowned photographers.
Adams, well known for his spectacular landscapes, has left several books (e.g., Examples: The Making of 40
Photographs, and, The Print.) and considerable documentation as to
the hundreds of hours and many steps he took in the darkroom on each of his final prints.
Consider one of Adams' master pieces Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada,
California (1944). In The Print, p. 126, he describes
the many ways he manipulated the negative to create his final print.
More telling, to me at least, was what he said about the same picture in
another of his books called:
The Making of 40 Photographs:
The enterprising youth of the Lone Pine High School had
climbed the rocky slopes of the Alabama Hills and whitewashed a
huge white L P for the world to see. It is a hideous and
insulting scar on one of the great vistas of our land, and shows
in every photograph made of the area. I ruthlessly removed
what I could of the L P from the negative (in the left-hand
hill), and have always spotted out any remaining trace in the
print. I have been criticized by some for doing this, but I
am not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby
destroy -- for me at least -- the extraordinary beauty and
perfection of the scene. (pp. 164-165).
The fact that Adams manipulated his images from negative to print is
obvious from reading his books, but not from viewing his pictures.
He was truly a master inside and outside of the darkroom.
Though Adam's darkroom tools were more primitive than those available in
modern photo-editing software, they were nevertheless quite powerful in
his hands. He left nothing to
chance. He decided, first, where he wanted us to look. Then, he dodged, burned
and manipulated elements in the picture to create the final image. In The
Making of 40 Photographs, Adams even provides us with the details
of all the steps he took to make prints.
Immediately upon reading the quote above, I realized what my problem
was. I was mislabeling myself. I was thinking like a
photo journalist, not like a fine-art photographer. For my
purposes as a fine-art photographer I realized that beauty had to be
more important than truth. Journalistic photography is a type of
photography in which the photographer is primarily concerned with
portraying events exactly as they happened. Hopefully, little if
any photo editing is done. Perhaps, because a photograph was taken
while the photographer was running, the horizon line is sloping and needs to be straightened.
A journalistic photographer would do this to make the resulting
photograph more readable. Ultimately, truth is
much more important than beauty in journalistic photography. (For more on
the differences between photo journalism and fine-art photography see
A Nomenclature for Photography.)
instead is an attempt by the photographer to create photographs that people want to look at. The fine-art photographer may do significant photo
editing on a given picture to bring out the beauty that is already there, much
as you moved the rug to make your home look its best, or put another coat of wax
on your car. Though both truth and
beauty are important to a fine-art photographer, in the end, the primary goal is
beauty, not truth. Once I had made the distinction, I had no problem taking out
the water bottle, and I have never regretted it. I've even toyed with the
idea of making the blue tarp gray. Hmmmmm.... maybe
someday I will.
Each of us as
photographers have to decide what goal we are attempting to meet when we snap
the shutter and when we process the resulting picture. This does not mean we can only be one kind of
photographer. However, journalistic photography, because it is based on the
trust of the viewer, is more fragile. The more a given photographer bends the
boundaries of trust, regardless of whether it is in the name of beauty, the less
credibility that photographer might have for a viewer looking for truth, and the
less credibility people have in photo journalism, in general.
As a fine-art photographer, all I ask is that you permit me to create
the wonderful illusion of beauty, just as you would a painter or a
By the way, I think the real reason why people ask the question, "is it real, or has it been
photo-shopped?" is because something about the photograph they are viewing
doesn't look right. The question points to incompetency in the use of
photo-editing tools. No one looks at an Ansel Adams picture and suspects
it has been manipulated - even though it has. Thus, the best way for the
photographer to hear
that question less is to do her or his craft well.