What’s “Wrong” With This Picture?

Carrizo Rainbow by Steve Shuey

This is not my picture, but it is one that sparked a lively discussion that I thought might be worth sharing with those of you who follow this OP forum. It is a shot of a spectacular rainbow over a vast field of Tidytip flowers on California’s Carrizo Plain, taken just a few days ago by my friend Steve Shuey.

We had gone to the Carrizo, not chasing rainbows, but rather endangered Kit Foxes, part of a long-term project I am doing on this vanishing mammal. While I was maintaining a vigil at the fox den, however, Steve went off to shoot landscapes, and came back one morning with this zinger from a brief, intense rain shower in this little-known, but beautiful, corner of California. When I asked how his morning shoot went, Steve said it was OK – but that this image, among many others, had been “ruined” by a staggering number of contrails in the sky.

This comment initiated a long discussion on the nature of beauty, honesty and expectation. I’d love to get your thoughts on it, for despite Steve’s concern that his picture was diminished by the presence of the contrails, I thought it was terrific – who cares if there are lines in the sky?  But I was also puzzled – why is this even an issue? After all, if a photograph has merit, it should be because of its composition, and the quality of the light that inhabits it. So how does the presence of contrails (which some viewers might not even recognize as such)  diminish either of those criteria?  To suggest that it does is to imply that the picture has failed some standard of “image purity” – that the REAL world had intruded into an image in a way that could not be cropped out (like, say,  the nearby fence, or the road that passed a few yards from where Steve was standing) .

Why is it that we insist that our photography exclude things that we otherwise consider unavoidable elements of modern life?  Think about it; the only time most of us have not seen a contrail in the sky was immediately after 9/11 when the skies were closed to air travel. Other than for those few days the skies are typically filled with planes, often accompanied by the vaporous traces of their passing. We all accept this, and I, for one, do not feel that my time in the wilderness is significantly degraded by their presence. So why do we obsess about a few puffs of steam in the sky when they appear in a landscape photograph?

As nature photographers, we often say we want out pictures to be authentic representations of the world around us – but where is the authenticity if we simply Photoshop out the things that undermine, or offend, the imagined “perfection” of nature?

In my view, Steve had three options when he saw this scene:

1) he could have decided that the contrails ruined the shot – and simply not taken it.

2) he could have g0ne ahead and taken the picture – and then tried to “fix it” in Photoshop after the fact.


3) he could have taken it and celebrated the moment  – the light and the joy of a desert Spring – and ignored those damn lines in the sky.

Option one, it seems to me, would be a sad choice, ignoring a scene of beauty because it failed to measure some twisted standard of purity.  Option two sends a very mixed message; it was worth a picture, but you might want to hide its “imperfections”. Understandable, maybe, but not entirely honest. (Question: Are contrails the same as offending blades of grass snipped out in Photoshop? I can tell you, they’re a lot harder to remove!)  Then there is Option three:  the only reasonable choice.

I think it’s a terrific shot,simple and direct. But consider this: such a picture will probably never be chosen for a nature magazine cover, or appear in a Sierra Club calendar. Why? Because we cling to the idea that nature exists in some sort of ideal vacuum, one that humans apparently do not inhabit. Is it any wonder that the entire field of nature photography has been accused of being a trivial celebration of eye-candy?  Hey, if a few contrails are enough to undermine this picture’s value then let’s just abandon the idea that nature photography represents anything but a soft-focus, hyper-saturated, idealized world of nature –  one that barely exists in 90% of the planet.  Is nature photography just a form of ecological nostalgia, a way to cling to a world that has largely vanished?

OK, I’ve had my rant. I’d love to hear what you think.  And I expect that Steve might weigh in as well, since he may not agree with anything I’ve said beyond being willing to have his terrific picture held up for discussion. By the way, he also provided me with another shot from the same morning – one with a gentler composition (and no contrails). Is this one more successful or less so?  Why?

Carrizo Rainbow #2 by Steve Shuey

Both Photos (c) Steve Shuey 2011