The Spirit of Nature Photography: A Postscript

Long-billed Curlew photographed at sunset, on the dunes at Morro Strand State Beach in California.

These thoughts are an extension of the discussion that began under my piece on post-processing. Thanks to my blogging friends who shared their methodologies and perspectives, initiating some thought-provoking explorations of realism in photography.

I heard a lecture recently where Picasso’s view of photography was described this way: For Picasso, “photography was never an exact registration of a scene, but it was a creative device.” (Arthur I. Miller). The lecture was about conceptualism and perceptualism in both art and science, using Picasso and Einstein as subjects. Picasso’s view of the camera is obviously liberated by the fact that he was using it as a fine art tool, not a photojournalistic one.

Wildlife photography is necessarily framed by realism — which is logical and necessary to present an accurate picture of life in the wild. There are further constructs, some of which are firm, some of which are still in flux. If you go to nature photography boards, for instance, there are often defined ideas of what constitutes a proper bird photo, say (bokeh, no distracting elements, etc.). But because the camera (as Maria mentioned in the last post) is not a perfect reproduction of the human eye, there is still interpretation inherent in the medium. That’s not to imply a sense of ethical relativism so much as a variation in visual perception.

I received an email in response to the post-processing discussion which I’m not at liberty to share, unfortunately, but which, in sum discussed the fallacy of “truth” in the camera, as compared to how complex real vision is — that is, the camera’s inability to perfectly replicate what we see. Even within the camera, at its simplest, we use aperture and shutter to change the outcome of our vision. The point of the note being that we have the freedom, maybe even the obligation, to work with the process of capturing an image so that it more closely resembles the experience we see, not what the inherent distortions of a lens represent.

That’s a potent idea in nature photography: how do you truly represent your experience, when that experience also encompasses sensory applications which simply cannot be translated? There have to be guidelines about what’s appropriate in realistic images. In other words, nature fakery is not art. But, from a fine arts perspective, taking the holism of nature into consideration, you open up the canvas to multiple dimensions of thought and perception. This is precisely the challenge artists have struggled with over the years — how to translate the intangible into the concrete. In wildlife photography, that discussion would include how do you capture the spirit of an animal, beyond what we can reasonably see or even imagine?

I think the good nature photographers do this innately in their images. The people whose bird photos I love (you know who you are) bring much more to the photographs than a simple illustration. There are evanescent glimpses of the animal or the scene that speak to the viewer — elements that illustrate the true “nature” of nature, beyond the visual. When I played around recently with Snow Goose blurs, I was clearly manipulating the technology at my disposal, to infuse the image with something closer to the feeling of 10,000 wingbeats overhead.

As one counter example, I was doing research on some wildlife issues and came upon myriad sites where members of groups like Delta Waterfowl were posting their bird photos. With very few exceptions, these images were cold. I can’t think of a better term than to say “sterile” or wanting for life. Some of these same photographers were also proudly displaying images of dead ducks in the typical poses … draped over shotguns, truck beds, or decoys. And it occurred to me that in as much as one objectifies an animal without introducing the personhood and soul of the subject, the photo isn’t “real.” Sure, it’s a pragmatic illustration of flight, or feathers or the physicality of the bird, dead or alive. But, it’s not the whole picture of the bird. It represents what’s “real” to the photographer in a subtle way that can’t necessarily be found as a component of the photograph.

I’m inclined to leave my process open to all inspiration and interpretation, but within the caveat of full disclosure. Misrepresentation of an animal or a scene through manipulation is different than applying one’s creative filter to the event … under the auspices of artistic expression. In the former, the misrepresentation can be damaging to the animal by perpetuating incorrect ideas, and it’s damaging to the integrity of photography when you say something is what it is not. But, in the case of creative interpretation, fine art wildlife photography does not carry the whole burden of realism that photojournalism does. As such, I find myself straddling the two worlds, enraptured with the inherent “art” of what’s real, but also sometimes wanting for more realism that realism actually depicts. In those cases, my photos come with captions.

Curlew Dreams - ©ingridtaylar

Curlew Dreams – ©ingridtaylar

Processed using Lightroom, Photoshop (textures and layers), Nik ColorEfex Pro

Comments

  1. says

    Ingrid, I usually do very little post processing but have come to appreciate images like your Curlew Dreams very much too. For me Curlew Dreams embodies the Long-billed Curlew but also very subtly brings the other species that Curlews interact with in their lives. I could see this being used as a beautiful book cover.

    Some photographers only want to photograph in “Golden Light” but I think that can limit moods that I find in images that are taken in snow, fog, rain or other light conditions that aren’t seen as “Golden”. High key images, to me, can have a very artistic feel to them as well as conveying a mood.

    I think once I got the nuts & bolt of taking sharp, well exposed images of birds I want to go further than that.
    Mia McPherson recently posted…Coyote on a snow-covered hillsideMy Profile

  2. says

    Hi Ingrid,

    I stumbled across your website and I must say I appreciate the discussion of post-processing, realism, creativity and the million other things you can attribute to photography and nature photos. If I understood you correctly, I 100% agree that images should not be portrayed falsely (i.e. Saying an image wasn’t heavily or even lightly manipulated and “photoshopped” when it was). I’m not really sure who disagree with that. If I may continue to add my two sense, I don’t see a problem with Post Processing in Lightroom, Photoshop or whatever other myriad of programs you can use. I also don’t see a problem in NOT using those tools. Each method speaks to the photographer’s heart, soul and their audiences. I believe you touched on this, but if Lightroom can help convey the look and even the feeling you had at the moment your photo was taken then I’m all about that. I understand people’s frustration who don’t like any post processing but I think there frustation can be abated if people are truthful with their post processing. I look at it like this, it’s an art to be able to use your camera, compose and convey what you want through just light hitting your film (or image sensor.) But because the camera is severely lacking to the human eye I also think it’s art to be able to use tools and techniques in post processing to take that image even further to convey the feeling of being there. That can turn into total digital manipulation and compositing, but that is a completely different art form that I think is outside the realm of photography and this discussion. Sorry for the ultra long post, you just got me thinking! ~Joe

    • says

      Joe, thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree with your points, and I like what you have to say about the acceptability of diverse perspectives and methodologies. The original bit I wrote about post-processing came about in response to the World Press Photo winner … and the discussions about how he processed (in particular) the light in that image. The blog post that started my own thought process there was “Why do Photo Contest Winners Look Like Movie Posters?”

      In reading responses from other photographers, I’m always struck by the gap between one spectrum and the other: the purists who refuse to use PP, those who think it’s game on with all techniques, then those who fall in the middle. The upshot for most people, as you wrote, is disclosure — whether one discloses how a shot was taken (ethics) or how the effect was achieved (PP). The conundrum I had to answer for myself was where does normal darkroom processing end and disclosure begin? I generally don’t mention the basic tweaks I do on RAW images (sharpness, contrast, exposure, NR). Beyond that, there’s variability in what photographers believe needs a disclaimer.

      btw, I love the John Muir quotes you have at your website. One of my favorite quotes (of all quotes) is from John Muir, included here in my own bio. I had a chance to browse through your beautiful photos and am looking forward to perusing your whole catalog. I love the seasonal delineation in your galleries — and the winter ice. The ice-coated fence is unreal. It looks like a chessboard.

      Thanks again, for stopping by and laying down your thoughts. It’s always much appreciated.

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