Art is currently leading a workshop group in Bhutan and he sent us some iPhone images. Enjoy.
And last week’s klipspringers.
Photographer, writer, and podcast producer Jim Goldstein spent a little time interviewing Art about the current status of digital photography.
As more people take an interest in photography, the debate seems to surface frequently to the merits of using digital technology to enhance wildlife, nature and landscape photographs. It’s been over twelve years since the Atlantic released its article “Photography in the Age of Falsification” and yet much debate on this issue persists. Whether you call it digital editing, photo manipulation or photo fakery, I thought it might be of interest to a wide audience of photographers to revisit this topic with you.
Question number one, back when you put together Migrations, the book that was the heart of controversy in the mid to late ‘90s, what was the motivation to create digitally altered photos at this time?
You know, what I maintained back there, and you say it’s ten years or 12 years. Anyway, what I maintain when I debated my critics, I have never waivered. I have never waivered on what I said. I found that digital, and we called it digital illustration, right from the get-go, right in the opening paragraphs introducing this body of work, that there are different places and usages of content – whether it’s pure photography, enhanced photography, artistic photography, and what I tried to do is bridge the gap between artistic photography and nature photography. I believe I pushed the boundaries as any artist actually should do and grow through the experience. I maintained that what we were digitally illustrating was natural and not falsifying numbers. And in most cases, in that book, it was taking one or two elements and changing or filling in the gaps of sheer numbers.
For instance, it was, you know, swarms of bees or flocks of birds or herds of mammals, and we were just filling some open spaces to complete a pattern because this truly was what the book was about. It was an artistic designee book about patterns in nature. Had I called it ‘Wallpaper’ it probably would not have been as controversial as it became. It’s interesting to note that designers and art critics throughout the world rallied around the book while some photographers took exception with it and downright condemned it. I think had we not introduced it openly and honestly in the beginning of the book and called some of the contents “digital illustrations” we would be really held up for criticism. But had – since we did do that I debated very vociferously that what we were doing was fine.
Okay, that’s great. Even though as you were quoted as saying “Out of the million photos I’ve done, less than two hundred have digital components, I am still not using the technology all that often.” Why was creating digitally altered photos considered so controversial?
I think that people have this perception and certainly within the bastions of nature photographers, there’s this perception that photography is real, and that whatever you aim the camera at is a pure recording of reality and I’ve never maintained that. I’ve never maintained that whatever I was photographing was absolutely real. I could alter its content by compression through the use of telephoto lenses, I could conversely distort the angles by using wide angles, I could change the color depending on the film I chose, I could change the reality of the image by what I chose to include in the composition and exclude in the composition.
For instance, if there was a telephone pole along a beautiful patch of forest if I just simply zoomed in, and eliminated it from within the frame, it would just imply purity and pristineness. So I’ve always looked at photography as no different than any other medium of artistic endeavor. We have so much control and photography has always been really a reflection of how the artist could use that tool. I think Ansel Adams was exemplified – the fact that he could take an image and through the black and white process, burning and dodging in the zone system, really make that image, that perhaps was very bland in initial capture, and turning it into something magnificent and artistic. Had he been alive today he would definitely have embraced the digital technology.
What lessons – what lessons were learned that you could share with other photographers that relate to the current state of wildlife, nature and landscape photography?
Certainly what I learned from this whole process is some of the people that had the most vigorous debates with me were not all that agitated over the use of digital illustrations, and I – I refuse to this day to recall it manipulation, I think that the very word implies something derogatory or negative. I think even the word ‘altered’ implies something different than what I was trying to do. Certainly what I’ve learned is the press would write without quotes, would write without confirmation and often – and this is a very small part of the press I might add, the very conservative [indiscernible] Monthly or U.S. News and World Report, would not have access to me, because I was travelling in South America at the time, and they simply filled in what they think I would have represented which was often far from the truth. So I’ve learned that the press is often not, you know, waylaid by truth. They will print what they think is correct and stand by those words.
What are your feelings on the terms photo manipulation versus digitally altered versus digitally enhanced? Is there an undertone that you think is fair, or more accurate other term than another?
I should be clear that I have led the way, I think, through the whole debate, that identification is key. If I know that I’m looking at a work that has been digitally illustrated, then I would look at the work somewhat differently than had I not been informed. I think the legitimate criticism of Migrations was on the fact that we didn’t identify each and every image that had been altered or illustrated. And I think that’s a legitimate concern, it was something that we went into eyes wide open. We debated within my staff on how to present this work because do we in fact just ‘carte blanche’ as we chose to do, introduce this book as containing it or do we try to illustrate or identify every element that had been changed within a photo. And there was, out of a book of a hundred images, there were no more than 30 images that had some sort of change. And some were radical and most were very innocuous, something that most people would hardly even register. And so, rather than illustrating what was done in every photo and the idea was to avoid making this a book of “How to’s” we simply looked at this book as an art book based on nature, and we thought that if everybody understood that this book contained illustrations, they would just look at the work as a body of work and a body of art. And many people did look at that, because they’re actually intellectual, but there were certainly a lot of people that loved to see the world in black and white which I’ve never done.
And so, I think I’ve – since that I actually insisted that Getty changes the way they label photographs that had been changed or altered, if you will, through the digital process. Certainly, I created a handful of images after Migrations that were purely commercial in nature. They were combining two very radically different elements into a final illustration. It was pretty obvious that that had been done and that was sold strictly to advertising and yet within the edge of the image it was embedded “this is a digital illustration” and Getty adopted that as identification, probably for the next five to ten years. I think that whole resolve and issue has kind of subsided as people have seen all sorts of incarnations of digital illustration or altering. I remember clearly a lot of the debate was not so much the exception of how I introduced it and what I did, but they – a lot of the ‘naysayers’ said that this would inevitably lead to people going overboard with it and to not identify what they were doing and to sell it as real nature which was never our intent.
There has been a handful of photographers that have created pure fantasy and tried to palm it off as being real, so I never believed that that was possible but people have done it and so I was proven wrong. I would argue that they would have done it whether I did Migrations or not.
Is there a term you prefer used over another and you’ve already said that you prefer digital illustration over any other. Given your background as a fine art painter prior to photography, how does photography fit in with your perception of art?
Well in fact I teach quite regularly the connection between art and photography. I show through demonstrations and fairly lengthy thought out lectures how I make a connection between impressionists as painters and photography through abstract expressionism and photography, I draw largely from the art world to find – help me find and define my subjects. So I’ve completely given over to the art world in the realm of photography and in fact in more recent works I’m blending the two. I actually do paintings and photography of the same subject, combining those two medium. So I’m not, you know, a naturalist. I should say I’m actually a naturalist because I certainly know what I’m photographing but I don’t try to come from a naturalist bent to the work that I do.
Taking this question one step further, how does digital editing lend itself in your eyes to photography as art?
Okay, let me take a stab at it. I mean I will be the first to say that since the book Migrations, just a handful of photos have been illustrated digitally where, if we’re very clear what we’re talking about here, where we’re bringing in two very different elements into a final proposition, that has a very small part of what I do, a very small part. In fact, I can’t even remember how many years ago since the last one we created. It was a specific project, Migrations, did it moved on from there to some illustrations for Getty, and beyond that it’s just one book out of a career of 30 years and 60 books. And, so, probably the last ten books there’s been no reason – or no reason to actually include digital illustrations within the pages of the book. It’s not that I was firmly rebuked, it’s just that identifying a appropriate place for that. Migrations was, again, a art book based on nature and that’s why we – and that’s what we said in the Introduction. I think that if we’re talking about digital enhancing colors, certainly every single digital capture I take, goes through a series of adjustments, whether we’re boosting the contrast and the levels and saturating the color a little bit to resemble the film that I wound up using during the last five or six years of my film taking. It was Velvia, and so a digital capture is somewhat flat compared to that and we just restore it to look closer to the film that we liked.
For those who find this debate of constant curiosity, what do you feel is the most important take – sorry, most important take away to remember as they evolve as photographers?
Well, I mean I think it’s how they see themselves. The photographers purely see themselves as natural history photographers, recording the rapidly diminishing natural world. I don’t see a real natural place to use digital illustration. If you’re a photographer that loves the art, and you’re making art work for art galleries, I think everything is subject to interpretation. So it really depends on, I wouldn’t consider using a natural history photo to build a campaign to preserve this environment or that. So I believe that there’s a perception of purity in the capture. Even withstanding what I said earlier about how you can really alter the impression of the environment through choice of lens, and angle, and composition, I still think we know what we’re talking about here. If it’s digital illustration, where you are combining elements, I don’t see a logical place for that to appear in any kind of natural history preservation campaign. So two different uses depending on what you want to do with it.
Do you feel there would be any differing takeaways for editors, gallery curators, et cetera?
Well, you know, I think that this debate about digital illustration versus “purity” has been lost on many of the young editors that have come into the field in our magazine editors these days. I find that many of these young editors have a very minimal background in natural history knowledge, and so consequently, you know, photographers that create fantasy can probably get those photos often passed and the editor’s notice, and I’ve been one of the first people to rise up against that and to criticize the photographer for not being truthful to the editor and for the editor for not simply knowing what they’re publishing.
Art’s photographic tour of Alaska has become the standard volume of its class. These 150 images take the reader from the lush Southeast to the singular Denali Mountain and across the northern tundra. The tenth anniversary edition of Alaska features gorgeous landscape-format photography, with sections including “Mountain,” “River and Lake,” “Tundra,” “Sea and Coast,” “Forest,” and “Island.” With text by Nick Jans, author of many books about Alaska, including The Grizzly Maze.
A titan of the American environmental movement has passed. Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Stewart Udall (January 31, 1920 – March 20, 2010) was largely responsible for the enactment of environmental laws in Johnson’s Great Society legislative agenda, including the Clear Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the Land and Water Conservation [Fund] Act of 1965, the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, the National Trail System Act of 1968, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
Pictured here are a few photos from some of the lands protected under his tenure: Assateague Island National Seashore, Canyonlands National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Redwood National Park.
And last week’s elephant.
“In retrospect of my recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia I like to thank Art and Gavriel for their wonderful help and assistance during our travels to interesting places. I always seemed to be in trouble with my awkward tripod, the technical aspects of my camera, etc. But Gavriel and Art were present, helped and blocked out the technical difficulties to make a decent shot. How much did I learn!!! Many, many thanks. I have a different approach towards photography now. I am not only reporting a trip in images, I am composing my picture. Your way of looking at a scene had quite an impact on my photographic approach. Thank you, Art and Gavriel for inspiring me. Photography will be a lifelong passion, I cannot stop anymore.”
Art proudly supports the research being done on tracking poached
elephant ivory by the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation
Biology. They have identified poaching hot spots and potential trade
routes by developing a genetic method to track the geographic origin of
Read more about the Center for Conservation Biology
Read the paper that has just been published in Science Magazine,
published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Read the article here.
In addition, Sam Wasser, the CCB Director, will be attending the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Qatar to press for further elephant conservation.
There was a post this morning on NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124592439
And last week’s leopard.
The history of conservation photography did not begin with the creation of the iLCP. Although it is true that as a collective of concerned photographers we coined the term and gave the concept new impetus, the idea has been around almost since the advent of the camera.
There is a long legacy in conservation photography that has blazed the trail for the way we currently use photography for environmental advocacy – William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter are among earlier photographers whose advocacy work, in one way or another, translated into the protection of special landscapes. Jackson’s 1871 photographs of Yellowstone, for example, provided the visual argument that convinced legislators to create America’s first national park, and since then, photographers all around the world have used images for advocacy.
How we use conservation photography today demands a higher degree of urgency, as the issues challenging our planet are ever more complex, pressing and devastating. Addressing these issues by simply making pictures and hoping they reach the right audiences is not enough. Photographers today must take on a very active role in finding ways for their images to impact the right people. Sometimes the audience consists of legislators and other decision-makers, others it is made up of influential people whose opinions and recommendations move attitudes; more often than not, we are trying to educate end users, corporations and extractive industries on the impacts of their activities and how to mitigate them. Rarely is the image made by a conservation photographer used as mere entertainment.
Today’s conservation photographers must strive to be visual activists – activism here defined as “the use of strong actions in opposition to or in support of a cause” – because if we fail to be activists, we will inevitably be merely “inactive”. The difference between making great images and making great images that work hard to protect our planet is what really defines conservation photography.
International League of Conservation Photographers
To read the whole newsletter head to the iLCP’s website.