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. 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 with the caveat of disclosure where necessary. 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. Captions, then, can be the bridge between those worlds.
Processed using Lightroom, Photoshop (textures and layers), Nik ColorEfex Pro