Is it just me, or did we seem to have more open, free time as kids than children do today? Likewise, are our adult lives filled to the brim with activities and distractions? When was the last time you took a moment — on purpose — to just sit? No phone, no computer, no spouse and no kids. When was the last time you just spent some time with yourself and your own thoughts?
Maybe for some people, the possibility of being alone without the umbilical cord of the internet tying them to their friends, family and the world yawns ahead like a sentence of doom. But I’m going to put out there that we should schedule more unscripted free time for both ourselves as adults and for our kids. It’s seems like such a rat race today where you must be the first to post something pithy, or you don’t want to miss a second of the stream of data bytes coming from your smartphone. But there’s plenty of research out there that, ironically, to be healthy, creative and happy we must have downtime for our brains and bodies. We must ‘check in’ with ourselves, take the temperature of our emotional health, and hopefully create space to relax. For kids, not having everything scheduled (or over-scheduled) lets them figure out how to entertain themselves (especially if there are blocks of time when they aren’t allowed to plug in to their devices). For adults, we get to play again, maybe even finding weird universes at the bottom of our coffee cups.
This blog post is part of Darwin’s 50 at 50 project which chronicles the stories behind the making of 50 of Darwin’s favorite images after hitting the milestone of 50 years old.
The Making of the Image
One of my favorite images I have taken over the years is the photo of a great gray owl and a tree swallow together on a fence. Although I really like this image, once viewers know the backstory of its creation the image loses its power. Read on to see if your initial impression changes once you know how the image was made.
When I was living in Water Valley, Alberta I would take Brando (our dog) in the car and go drive to a quiet country road where the two of us would go for a jog. I was on my way to my favorite jogging road when I saw this owl sitting on a fence post. I stopped the car and watched it for a few minutes; it did not seem disturbed by my presence. I did not have a camera with me so I turned around and drove back home to get a camera and a 300mm lens. When I returned 15 minutes later the owl was still there. I got out of the car, sat on the edge of the ditch and photographed the owl for nearly one hour!
At one point a tree swallow landed on the barbed wire a few feet away from the owl. The owl looked down at the tree swallow. With a 300mm lens I could not get both the swallow and the owl in the frame at the same time. If I had a 70-200mm lens I could have gotten both in the frame together. I quickly photographed the owl staring down at the swallow and then swung the camera to the left and captured a frame of the tree swallow. Later in Photoshop I merged the two images into the one image you see here.
Is this an accurate representation of what I saw? No, of course not… the two birds were not that close together (they were probably twice the distance apart in real life). For me, the image records a very cool moment I experienced in nature and it’s my interpretation of that moment. For most viewers they won’t have the same emotional connection to the moment and so this image just becomes a faked nature photo. Fair enough.
But How Far is Too Far?
Moving birds around in a photo or adding or removing elements like a sky or a moon is often deemed too far to be ‘nature photography’ by most people. But what about the common and seemingly acceptable practice of altering tone and colour in a photograph? Samantha asked me this question after looking at some of my processed landscape photos. She pointed out that the finished images were fairly removed from how the scene looked to our eye. The images are ‘interpretations’ of nature but, as Sam suggested, there is a tendency when looking at nature photos to believe that they are accurate representations of a scene…similar to what the human eye would perceive.
Which got us both thinking – when an image has distinctly altered tones and colours from the ‘real’ scene is that not just as ‘false’ as adding or removing elements from a photo? If we were to guess, we would suppose that many photographers probably will be OK with manipulating tone and colour but not content. After all we have accepted the alteration of tone in photography for a very long time. For example, Ansel Adams took pains in shooting, developing and processing his images with selectively altered tones to direct the viewer’s attention to various parts of the scene. His images are considered ‘realistic’ although they are highly manipulated black-n-white images and look nothing like the reality we see with our eyes.
Most of us shoot digital in raw format and then bring our photographs into Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop and ‘develop’ them. We easily do as much work or more with alteration of tone as Ansel did in the darkroom. But perhaps one thing that is new over the darkroom tradition is the ease with which we manipulate colour. And manipulate colour we do! Just check out landscape photography on the internet; things look better than real life! Changing the hues, the luminance and saturation in our photos is super easy with image software. Often we will selectively alter some colours in parts of the scene and not in others. Many images we see of the Rockies or of Iceland don’t look anything like they do to our eye – and we’ve seen these places in person. The images on the internet are fantastical or romanticized versions of the place and not a ‘reality’ as our eye sees things – nature images are interpretations, plain and simple.
And why should there be anything wrong with this? Isn’t it up to the photographer to express their artistic goals and present their work to the viewer, who then decides if they appreciate the work for itself? Why do many of us believe a photograph of nature is documentary?
So back to that owl and swallow…the tones and colours are accurate, and the subject matter (the owl looking at the swallow) is real, but the content is forced to fit into the frame. In the photo above, the content is accurate but the tones and colour have been manipulated. Is one more acceptable than the other? We guess most photographers will feel fine with manipulated tone and colour but not with manipulated content (although most photographers we know have no problem cloning out sticks, branches, bright rocks and other distractions from their photos).
Would it be less acceptable if the swallow wasn’t even in the same scene, having been photographed at a different time, and the owl was looking at something else? Is altering colour and tone for interpretation purposes more acceptable than adding or subtracting elements from a scene? Or are both equivalent sins? Has photography moved from documentation firmly into interpretation – and is it time to not take as a literal truth every photo we see? How far is too far… what do you think?
In this post we are introducing a new series designed to generate discussion about the art and culture of photography. With so many people picking up the camera, and society accepting photography as a means to document and spread the happenings in our lives, we thought it was timely to ask some ‘big picture questions’. One of the first questions on our minds is this:
In order to make a living at photography, how necessary is it for the photographer to be a ‘personality’ to ensure success?
There are a lot of really talented photographers out there making stunning imagery. But many of these creative photographers are struggling to make a living while others are doing very well. We got to wondering why some photographers’ careers soar while others languish even when the quality and creativity of their images is comparable. A common factor seems to be that successful photographers all market not only their photos but their personalities as well. In some cases they seemed to market personality first and photos second. The successful ones all seem to be social media whiz kids who talked not only about their photos but their personal lives as well. We often know more about them personally than we know about their portfolio of photographs. So we wondered: “In the world of the internet and social media, do you need to be a celebrity to be a successful photographer?”
Becoming a celebrity is a tough gig for many photographers. Let’s face it; most people who are in photography (at least nature and landscape anyway) are introverts. That’s why we are behind the camera instead of in front of it! And introverts are not that great at marketing themselves. In short, many photographers lack the confidence and skills necessary to push their wares and especially put their personalities out there! The internet and social media has made it easier for introverts to market themselves because they can do so hidden behind their laptops and smartphones. But even then it’s tough to be a personality if it’s against your nature.
Throw an extrovert into the photography/social media mix and you have the making of a celebrity. Dare we say that our culture has a tendency to be dazzled by spectacle rather than reward substance? We see some popular photographers out there gaining recognition not necessarily because they have exceptional work but because people know who they are.
It’s rare that photographers who are true artists, those making compelling and unique work, are also good at marketing. Most often the artist’s focus is solely on their art and the marketing of their work suffers. On the other hand, those people who are constantly pushing into the spotlight are often more interested in basking in the glory rather than making art and in this case the art suffers. In a perfect world a photographer should be able to negotiate a fine balance between the obsession of art and the need (and sometimes the obsession) of marketing. We find this balance hard to achieve ourselves. When we push marketing our creative energies get used up. When we push our art, our marketing suffers. It is a tough balance. How do you make the most of both? And do you believe marketing your personality (e.g. becoming a celebrity) is necessary to make a living at photography?