Two Roads, Two Art Forms…?

Artists' Palette, Death Valley National Park - Plus 40 Saturation

A few years ago, while thumbing through a major calendar, I saw a remarkable photo taken at Artists’ Palette in Death Valley.  I was astonished by the vividness of colors, an intensity that did not match my memory of the place.  I was so curious, in fact, that the next time I was in the valley, I tried to reproduce the picture myself, if only to understand how it was done.  I went at sunset, used a polarizer to cut reflected light and bracketed widely to get just the right exposure. In other words, I did everything I could within the conventional arsenal to capture the colors in that picture. Nothing worked : my colors were hopelessly drab by comparison. Later, however, I simply opened the best image in Photoshop – and cranked up the saturation about 40 points.  Bingo.  The result precisely matched the shot I had seen in the calendar.

My question is this: is this still photography? I think we can all agree that digital technology, and our increasing skill level with programs like Photoshop, has changed both how we see, and how we create images. When I was just getting started, some thirty-five years ago, the goal was to get the greatest possible image embedded in the film, so that a slide presented to a publisher would be the most beautifully composed, and perfectly exposed, image that it could be. That meant that nearly all of the work – exposure, focus, composition – took place before the shutter was released. Today, that has largely changed, and as anyone who has spent long hours in front of the computer can testify, much of the work that goes into a final image takes place after the picture has been recorded.

I worked for several years for Galen Rowell in the early 1980’s, and still believe that his contribution to modern landscape photography was immeasurable. He saw, and waited for, moments of perfect light, and his images carried the power they did precisely because we believed that they accurately captured the incandescent moments he witnessed.

I wonder, therefore, what Galen would have said about the digital exaggeration that is increasingly commonplace today. My Artists’ Palette illustration is only a modest example of what I now see nearly everywhere – the use of digital tools to make images more colorful or dramatic than the scene they originally captured.

More and more, I am seeing images published that have wildly exaggerated color saturation, extreme contrast, and extensive use of dodging and burning to create images with undeniable, but deeply enhanced, visual power.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not here to condemn the creative skills of photo-artists. As most practitioners of these digital effects are quick to point out, the practice has an unassailable pedigree: after all, they protest, Ansel Adams did it!   Yes, Adams used his mastery in the darkroom to create some of his most memorable images. But because this kind of post-production work was beyond the reach of color photographers, this did not become a widespread practice in that realm until the advent of digital.

The giants of color landscape photography – Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, Galen Rowell – did not have these tools at their disposal, and therefore had to rely on the limits imposed by camera, lens and filters.  We are now largely free of those constraints, and this begs the question: where are our new limits?  Is there any difference between “capturing” nature and “improving” nature? Should digitally enhanced (I hesitate to use the loaded phrase “manipulated”) images be measured against pictures that are meant to be accurate representations? Do they belong side by side in calendars, magazines, exhibits?

Do enhanced pictures raise the bar impossibly, requiring all photographers to use the same techniques if only to compete in competitions, or in the publishing marketplace?   And finally, do they cheapen nature – suggesting that a more-or-less accurate rendition of the natural world is somehow lacking in beauty or inherent drama?   (To avoid angry rebuttals I must stipulate that yes, real accuracy is largely impossible in any photographic image)

I will not answer these questions here, but invite your comments: it seems like a conversation well worth having. In the end, art should have no limits, but I wonder if we are, in fact, talking about two quite different art forms.