The Camera Needn’t Lie

The question of the role and the importance of realism in landscape photography is one that keeps coming up over and over again. On the one hand we have the purists, holding onto old fashioned notions of truth, arguing that landscapes should be true to the land; on the other the free creatives, raising that millennia old question ‘What is Truth?’. And, broadly speaking, the former seem to have long lost the argument.

This was brought into a clear focus for me about a year ago listening to the Alex Neil and Erin Babnik debate on the Matt Payne podcast. I was routing for Alex, for I tend to identify with the traditionalist side of the argument (in spite of, or perhaps because of, being a child of postmodernity, and having long given up on simplistic notions of objective truth). But that afternoon Erin won the argument, and did so comprehensively.

So over the last year, while waiting for the light, or lugging the gear up somewhere in a hope of a good picture, I have been pondering why it is that, in spite of all the arguments (and in spite of understating the inadequacy of the old modernist and positivist models of truth), realism in landscape still matters to me, and why its widespread absence in contemporary photography hasn’t stopped bothering me. So here are some thoughts.

The gist of the creative side of the argument is that photography is always a distortion of reality, and hence the quest for realism is naive and bound to fail. This assertion is, on the most basic level, true. That is, it is true the same way as the assertion that the earth is not a sphere. However, it fails the same way naive postmodernism did, by dismissing the question of a degree of distortion as inconsequential.

The distortion of reality in a photographic image has several different origins, and in my own thinking I have come to split it into five categories: fundamental, systematic, compensatory, interpretative and re-interpretative.

Fundamental Distortion is one that comes from the most basic aspects of producing a photographic image, and is always present, regardless of how, or by whom, the image is taken. The most obvious fundamental distortion is the flattening of a three dimensional reality into a two dimensional space.

Systematic Distortion is down the characteristics of the technological process used to generate the image, that is, it is not introduced by the photographer per se but by the equipment. It will vary between different equipment, but is independent of the operator. This includes things such as the loss of colour information when using B&W film, lack of dynamic range and/or colour shift due to the physical limitations of a CMOS sensor, or a geometrical distortion introduced by the lens.

Compensatory Distortion is the result of steps taken to counteract the effects of the fundamental and systemic distortion to better match the perception of a human observer. Some of this is done automatically by the equipment (lens profile, sensor calibration, auto ISO, etc.), some of it as a conscious choice of the photographer (graduated filters, colour cast removal, etc.). Given several photographers with different equipment, following compensatory adjustments the images would all be quite similar (but not identical, hence this too is a form of distortion).

Interpretative Distortion is where the photographer’s ego fully enters the equation, it’s where we are no longer taking a photograph, but start making it. Interpretative changes take different forms and involve different tools, but they are essentially about emphasis and mood.

Re-interpretative Distortion is where the connection between the image and reality is severed and the image becomes an expression of the creator’s vision inspired by a place, rather than being an image of the place per se.

The categorisation above is not about the tools used, but simply about the kind and degree of distortion they introduce. And while the boundaries are somewhat fuzzy, they are distinguishable from each other, so that, e.g., if I were running a photographic competition, I would be able to write up a set of rules such as to clearly define acceptable entries.

For example, a +/- 1 stop HDR, or a 1 stop burn-in can be well argued to be compensatory for the dynamic range limitations of sensor or photographic paper, but +/- 5 stop HDR takes us well beyond the usable dynamic range of the human eye, and hence beyond that which can be humanly observed. A removal of a transient object (a passing car) can be interpretative, since the object is not a property of the landscape itself, but the removal of a building is re-interpretative, for it presents a scene which cannot be observed.

To put it differently, for me the basic question with reference to the landscape genre is this: if a third party observer present at the taking of the image were shown the final product, would they say ‘yes, this is what we saw’? If the answer is yes, then the distortion in the image is no more than interpretative; if the answer is no, then we have departed the genre of landscape photography by any meaningful definition, for such a definition could be applied to any and every photographic image.

(The other point worth noting here is that the fundamental and systematic distortions are qualitatively different from the rest: you don't get to remove a building and justify it by the limited dynamic range of your sensor, this kind of argument is incongruous, yet incredibly common in this debate.)

But why should any of this matter? If my images are simply about expressing my creative urge, or, perhaps, bringing pleasure to others (for me photography is largely about the former), then all of this is of no importance. But is this really all there is to a landscape photograph?

To come back to the aforementioned podcast, the most important point in the discussion there is made by Erin Babnik noting that unrealistic expectations of realism in photography by the viewer are dangerous: if we believe photographs to represent reality, we are sooner or later going to be deceived.

This observation is valid, but the underlying analysis, and the conclusions drawn from it are not. The issue at hand is very similar to the problem of ambiguity of language in human communication, and just as the fact that language is always imprecise and ambiguous doesn’t mean that we can’t ever understand each other, so the inherent distortion present in all photography doesn’t mean that all images of a place are equally false representations of it, and that no photograph can ever be a realistic representation of an external reality (you do have a photograph in your passport, don’t you?).

The problem with landscape photography for me is that, whether I like it or not, a landscape photograph is not merely an image, but also an act of communication. It doesn’t just entertain, but also informs, let’s the viewer experience land that they might not have first hand knowledge of. Furthermore, a landscape photograph is a record not solely in space but also in time -- our knowledge of land as it once was is entirely dependent on such imagery.

The earlier observation that severing the tangible connection with observable reality voids the landscape genre of meaning leads to the necessary conclusion that the landscape genre comes with an implicit contract between the viewer and the photographer that what is being shown is real. The issue here is not the legitimacy of creative post-processing; I have no quibble with that, do what makes you happy. What I do object to is presenting creative fantasies, no matter how good and aesthetically pleasing, as landscapes.

Breaching the genre contract has consequences for the viewer: on the more innocuous end of the spectrum is the disappointment when the wild place you travel a long distance to looks nothing like the photographs that brought you there (someone thoughtfully cloned out all the car parks), on the more insidious end our carefully manicured ‘photos’ obscure the real state of the planet, its environment and our impact on it. (The former doesn't bother me too much, but the latter at least should give us a pause for thought.)

But there are also collective consequences for the photographer: the contemporary cavalier attitude toward reality is breeding a generation of cynical viewers who increasingly see less and less value in photography -- I suspect contemporary landscape photographers are unwittingly Photoshopping themselves out of existence.