Editing of photography is as old as the artform itself and is widely accepted as a means of artistic expression. The topic has almost always been at the forefront of any conversations about photography's legitimacy as an art form since I can remember. Indeed, whenever this conversation arises in debate in relation to landscape photography, someone is always quick to point out that Ansel Adams proclaimed that "the negative is the score, and the print is the performance," as if to imply that intellectual debate about photo editing is pointless since the god of landscape photography deemed it so. In reality that often cited quote from Ansel is paraphrased and misconstrued from a much longer text found in his books. Of course, careful examination and a deeper understanding of Ansel Adams and his role in forming Group f/64 may cause one to question his stance on photo editing; however, I digress. At the core of this perpetual debate, and something that is often overlooked, is the use of language and very human emotions, ideals, and definitions for deception, and your personal views on whether or not intentional lying or deception is ethical. Additionally, there's a tremendous chasm between the act of creating our work versus the act of lying about our work. I'm here to discuss the latter not the former.
Anyone who knows me or has listened to some of my podcast episodes knows that I have strong personal opinions about digital manipulation and popular post-processing techniques in landscape photography, and often these passionate opinions are misconstrued thanks to the ambiguous and dehumanizing nature of social media, character limits on Twitter, or the lack of important language cues such as body language, voice inflection, and facial expression. It is no wonder that we see so much division and vitriol online when conversations are stripped of their most human components. If you are looking for a good place to start to fully understand the nuance of this debate, this podcast episode with Alex Nail and Erin Babnik is a good starting point. Additionally, this article is by no means meant to imply that I'm a "better photographer" than anyone else - in fact, I'm often found making fun of my own artwork and I think I have a long way to go! Shall we begin?
What Kind of Photo Editing Are We Talking About?
First of all, I want to make it clear that I hold no ill will towards people that wish to create photographic digital artwork that utilizes a variety of popularized post-processing techniques to maximize the perfection of the final product. I also personally believe there is a huge difference between cloning out a few power lines and doing some color grading versus taking a completely new sky from another place and dropping into the scene. I think playing around with some of these tools can be quite fun and obviously they can produce some head-turning results. The techniques I'm referring to in this article include but are not limited to:
- Focal length blending (where you take a wide angle image of the foreground and combine it with a longer focal length of your background).
- Compositing objects and other elements to make a more perfect composition or effect.
- Using Photoshop to replace the sky to visually enhance a scene or to "salvage" an outing where blue skies were not desired.
- Painting in light that did not exist in the scene in order to maximize visual impact.
- Warping or stretching objects in the frame such as mountains, rivers, flowers, or other objects in order to accentuate the subject or 'wow' the viewer.
Language Matters in Landscape Photography
My passion for landscape photography has always been inextricably linked to the incredible experiences I have in nature and I feel that landscape and nature photography, by definition, honors that link for me and helps to elevate my experience and relationship with nature and the places I love to photograph. I completely understand that not every landscape photographer cares about the link between our artwork and our actual experiences; however, this relationship lies at the core of my own work. It is disappointing then, that so many landscape photographers that choose to heavily digitally manipulate their work using some of the above techniques present it with language that implies that it represents a reality they experienced. Again, I am not referring to moving around a few sliders in Lightroom here. I'm talking about photo montage and the common practice of introducing objects, beams of light, etc. from other photographs into the final result. Yes - these techniques can produce a visually stunning image, but I have a hard time seeing how this can ethically be paired with a pedestrian description about how amazing it was to see.
Again, I don't care at all that the work is created, I care that it is presented as a photograph representing truth, experience, and real beauty when in fact it doesn't at all - a subject covered at length in a podcast I recorded with the amazing Anna Morgan. At worst, this is clearly bald-face lying; at best, it's deception. Often these artistic creations are presented to us, the viewers, with language that implies certain truths about the experience that was accompanied with the making of the photograph. For illustration purposes, I wanted to show you a couple of examples using my own digital art creations and potential language that I would personally find deceptive and harmful.
Typical harmful verbiage that might accompany a "photograph" like this one:
"On a freezing cold fall night in Colorado I stayed up all night and shot this photo Milky Way arching over my favorite mountain range. It was so amazing to see the Milky Way right over the top of Wilson Peak! Seeing the night sky emerge over huge mountains is the pinnacle of mountain photography and it always sends chills down my spine!"
What really happened, and some proposed language:
Right after sunset, I captured a panorama of this fall mountain scene. The mountains had clean blue skies above them. I photographed the Milky Way seen here a year prior in Utah in the month of May using a star tracker and I combined the two captures into one image. Here is a possible alternative way to describe this digital art creation:
"I composited two panoramic images together to create a fun artistic creation that sparked my imagination. I just want to make sure viewers understand that this scene cannot and does not exist in reality, but it can be fun to playfully explore my artistic side sometimes."
Let's look at another example:
Typical language seen on Instagram when people share a "photo" like this one:
"Iceland is such an amazing place. I loved seeing the Aurora rise over the mountain Kirkjufell and just loved how the lines of the Northern Lights led to the waterfall below. Nature is so incredible!"
What really happened:
I showed up to this popular and iconic scene, which I probably will never be able to photograph again in my lifetime (this part is important, and we'll cover it later) with hopes of seeing the Aurora overhead; however, we had a huge bank of dull grey clouds over the scene and the entire scene was quite flat. We were lucky to photograph the Aurora later on in the trip, and so I used that as my sky here.
Here's how I honestly describe it:
"On my visit to Iceland, my second stop was Kirkjufell, an impressive mountain on the coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We had pretty miserable weather, with lots of cloud cover, so I decided I wanted to see what the scene could look like if we were lucky enough to get the Aurora while there. I took some artistic liberties and I composited an Aurora I got to see a couple days later in Iceland into this scene."
Here is the original, by the way:
The former example of language intentionally misrepresents the actual experience of the photographer as to lend credence to the veracity of the final image. In other words, the artist is intentionally misleading the viewer so that the viewer thinks the artwork was a real moment in time. This is why language matters.
How we describe our landscape photography artwork matters. When photographers present artwork as being representative of an experience or scene that did not exist, I posit that they aim to deceive the viewer. I am not referring to abstract renditions of something that the photographer is attempting to use to represent other ideas, or minor adjustments to a few sliders in Lightroom. I'm talking about cases where photographers present a photograph and say it represents an experience or event that never occurred, which has become commonplace on social media.
Deception Through Omission
Another consideration worth examination that often leads viewers to feel deceived is the ubiquitous practice of omission. Often we see descriptors for digitally manipulated photographic artwork lauding the amazing "nature" scene being presented to the public. It is common for landscape photographers to present their digitally manipulated photographs with generic language or verbiage that exaggerates their actual experience to seem as if it matches the final edited image while omitting any reference to the fact that they did not experience anything remotely close to what the final image represents. An example of this would be an image of a winter mountain scene with fiery sunrise clouds above them, through which the photographer swapped out a 'boring' blue sky with fiery sunrise clouds taken on another day, accompanied by a description like, "I had amazing conditions this morning at X,Y,Z Mountain! This is what landscape photography is all about!" While deception through omission is certainly a lesser form of lying, one certainly has to wonder why that information was conveniently omitted from the description in the first place. Alternatively, I'm happy to see photographically-based digital artists such as Cath Simard use language that specifically explains the techniques and EXIF data for the multiple photos that were used in their composite art so that the viewer knows what it is they are looking at. While it does seem rather silly to "require" photographers to include every single manipulation they made when they describe their photographs (and I'm not proposing that), perhaps thinking about why they are choosing NOT to include it is of value and worth examination.
Why Do Landscape Photographers Digitally Alter?
In my opinion this particular question lies at the crux of this entire debate and the "why" often separates compelling and interesting digital art like that of Serena Dzenis, or art created 'for fun' - from digital art created for the purpose of maximum aesthetic shock-and-awe, personal monetary gain, or to satiate one's ego. How can you tell the difference between these motivations? For starters, look for an artist statement about the work that gives clues about the purpose of the work that goes beyond mere aesthetics. What topics or themes is the artist trying to explore? Is the artist up-front about the fact that their work is heavily altered? Does the photographer get defensive or upset when people ask about it or do they embrace it for what it is and explain their why with passion and excitement? Lastly, photographers often composite, sky replace, or drastically enhance iconic scenes that they may never be able to visit again as a way to "salvage" their trip. Perhaps if we focused more on the experience of being in nature than the end result of our photographs, we won't feel as compelled to do this sort of thing, but again, I digress.
Social Media's Impact on Landscape Photography
In 2021, I wrote quite an extensive article about Social Media's impact on landscape photography for PetaPixel. In summary, there are powerful psychological forces at play, including physiological needs, safety, love & belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Social media algorithms demand that we continually raise the bar for visual impact in our landscape photography in order to boost our signal-to-noise ratio and stand out. Lastly, there is strong evidence to support the idea that digitally-altered images shown on social media are bad for our mental health.
Digital Manipulation is Rewarded by Competitions
As far back as I can remember, the largest and "most respected" landscape photography competitions highly score images that have been significantly digitally altered. This reality has not gone unnoticed by the community, and for many it means choosing between representing the landscape honestly but not gaining recognition or notoriety versus going full-bore into digital art and hoping to win and gain a following, status, and monetary gain. Indeed, after the most recent ILPOTY, one winner posted their winning images paired directly with a call-to-action to purchase his compositing tutorial. The message being consistently delivered to the community by some competitions is that if you want to find success in landscape photography, you must digitally enhance your work - the more extreme the better! While I agree that if the rules of any given competition don't preclude this sort of editing that it shouldn't matter, I do think that it certainly encourages people to push images further and further to win.
Heavily Manipulated Work Stands Out and Makes Us Feel Good
As human beings, we all want to be liked and we typically crave attention and want to belong to a group. As photographic artists, this typically occurs when we get positive reactions from viewers of our images. These reactions reinforce our behavior, and we make the realization that to get more of those positive feelings, we need to push our photography even further so it continues to stand out. One can't go a day on Instagram without noticing the sharp differences in likes and comments between digital art and realistic landscape photography art - both valid in their own right yet one is built for shock and awe.
There are No Rules in Art!
For starters, I totally agree, there are no rules in art! But, we're not talking about that, are we? We are talking about the rules for conducting yourself professionally and conscientiously and not intentionally deceiving people. So, by all means, create that digital art, just don't tell me it represents reality! Often when this subject is brought up, one of the first things people will say is, "there are no rules in art," as if that will just magically end the debate or alleviate any of the problems with lying about our artwork. Likewise, often when individuals are caught in their lies, they simply retort with, "it's art, who cares." In my opinion, both of these responses do little to advance the debate in any meaningful way, erode trust in photographers, and often serve as a catch-all to excuse any number of ethically questionable behaviors we see everyday on social media, including lying, or stealing other photographer's work and presenting it as our own.
Why Do Landscape Photographers Lie About Their Artwork?
Firstly, not all landscape photographers who create digital art are liars! Many embrace their creations as being digital art and take pride in their work. They absolutely should! Unfortunately, it is fairly common practice for landscape photographers to create digital art and then present it as reality through their language and description, and as demonstrated by cognitive scientists, most viewers of photographic artwork can't detect manipulation, and I think that those doing the lying are depending on that fact. Philosophers have debated the merits of lying for centuries; however, as noted in the Scientific American article, The Art of Lying, German philosopher Bettina Stangneth argues that lying should be an exception to the rule because people rely on being told the truth in most aspects of life.
To understand why people might want to lie about their digital art, we first must examine why people lie, in the general sense. According to research from Paul Elkman, people lie for one of nine reasons, four of which seem quite relevant to lying in photography:
- To obtain a reward not otherwise readily obtainable. In landscape photography, this could include competition wins, workshop sales, money from print sales, notoriety in a crowded field, or a boost to self-esteem.
- To win the admiration of others. This seems fairly self-explanatory as it relates to landscape photography. We like to be liked by others and when compliments rain on us, it feels awesome.
- To avoid embarrassment. Have you ever noticed how some photographers jump to being defensive, lash out with insults, or clumsily answer questions about obvious manipulations in ways that feel disingenuous and dismissive? It's embarrassing to be caught in a lie.
- To exercise power over others by controlling the information the target has. If one can successfully convince the broader consumer base of landscape photography that their digital art represents reality, it can really impress the heck out of folks and may even lead to them buying prints of the photo.
Perhaps it can best be summed up sharing one of my favorite quotes from one of the most talented and well-respected mountain landscape photographers of the modern era, Galen Rowell:
"When we alter an image to draw attention to an effect that wasn't there in the original scene or in the eye of the beholder, we are using the belief system inherent in 160 years of photography to create a false impression that this unusual image represents something that was actually recorded in the natural world. To say that somewhere in there remains a real vision of nature is as bogus as trying to convince someone that a counterfeit $1000 bill created by adding zeros to a ten-spot is really okay because the original bill does represent a certain value held in trust in the national coffers."
Lying Can Be Good for Art
In Guy Tal's excellent book (which you should buy), More Than a Rock, he includes an essay entitled, "Lie Like You Mean It" where he outlines the case for lying in photographic art by sharing a quote from Picasso. This quote excellently showcases that the why of our art is of import and that the ulterior meaning of the work can transcend reality through lies:
"We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."
However, Guy is also quick to point out that this form of lying is quite different than literally lying to your audience, stating:
"Regrettably there are also those photographers who lie about lying; those who follow trends and recipes without questioning, contemplating, or contributing anything of their own; those who try to pass off their work as representing objective reality because its what their audience wants to believe, rather than take the time to educate their audience about the nuances of art and the many things that one can express in a photograph beyond, 'this is what it looked like."
Here, Guy offers up the subtle yet significant difference between photographic digital art that is created for the purpose of passing off a photo as objective reality or to impress an audience versus photographic art that is created for a higher purpose. This matters a great deal and how we communicate with our audience is the first clue to seeing the difference.
Dehumanization and Social Media
It was recently suggested to me through a private message sent to a friend of mine that I am a "bully" for speaking out against people lying about landscape photography. It's also been suggested that I'm a "bad person" for openly talking about photographers who regularly deceive their audience. I don't find these assessments to be fair, but I can appreciate how they came to be. While I don't think these people are "bad," I do find these practices ethically disturbing and ultimately bad for landscape photography. My strong beliefs, which have partially been forged by my own experiences of having my own photography passed over in competitions and publications where digital art represented as reality is chosen instead, put me at odds with digital artists on social media, and them with me. This can create powerful negative emotions in people and we start to dehumanize our fellow photographers and view them as a threat to our existence. I'm guilty of this myself and want to be better!
This dehumanization effect can be explained through examination of Terrell Northrup's theory of intractable conflict which demonstrates three stages of interaction that create these negative interactions on social media:
- Threat: people in one group perceive another group as a threat to their identity. Traditional landscape photographers vs. digital artists.
- Distortion: Group A will not engage with new information regarding the other group. Instead they will distort it or dismiss it as irrelevant for some reason (they are bullies, bad people, etc.).
- Rigidification: People become locked into their positions, making it impossible to change their views of the other group. This is where dehumanization occurs, and we see people using insults to describe the other group.
This dehumanization of fellow artists has really got to stop. Instead of reacting in a typical triggered response, we should reach out to the other person and ask them questions, see how they are doing, and express our opinions politely.
A Path Forward
With all of the doom and gloom I've illustrated above, it can feel pretty hopeless to think there are any solutions to the problem of lying in landscape photography; however, I think there are some objectively interesting things we can do to provide a path forward.
- If you are landscape photographer that digitally manipulates your images to the extreme, consider referring to yourself as a "lens-based artist," or "photography-based artist." This immediately differentiates your work (in a positive way) from those of traditional landscape photographers and they will not feel threatened by you. While I'm not suggesting that you're "not a photographer," perhaps the distinction will completely alleviate any perceived threats from those that practice in a more traditional sense.
- Eliminate the ideas that other artists are a threat to us. By differentiating ourselves in ways that accurately represent the type of work we do, we have the opportunity to reach a new audience while diminishing the idea that other people will feel threatened by us.
- The photography industry should stop rewarding people that blatantly lie for attention and admiration.
- Be open to having a conversation with artists that are not like you and explain your views human-to-human. Listen to what they have to say.
- Strive to create work that goes beyond simple aesthetics or tropes about the human condition. How can your work create curiosity, foster hope, instill reverence, ask questions, or answer questions? By the way, I'm still working on this for my own work, which I think is mostly aesthetically-based!
- Be transparent about your photography-based digital art. People that admire it won't admire it any less, and they will want to learn how you did it. Win-Win.
- Avoid calling people out with negative emotion when you catch them in a lie. Ask questions and be courteous. We're all human after-all!
- Accept the fact that what makes art so amazing is that it can be celebrated and loved by one person and hated and rejected by another. If everyone liked the same stuff, and all of our photos start to look the same, photography would become really boring (some argue that this has already happened).
- If someone expresses their opinion that they don't like digital art, don't take offense to it. If you are a true artist, and are doing it for the love of the art, you shouldn't care that some people don't like your work. In fact, you should come to accept it as part of being an artist!