What do we owe photography?

This blog comes from a place of contemplation and discussion.  What, as photographers, do we owe photography?
Recently I saw an image that was quite impressive from a photographer that had visited Kauai in the last year.  However, as I studied the shot I realized something wasnt quite right.  After approaching them privately about it, it seems that we dont share the same perspective of full disclosure.  And thus my question.   As photographers it is our gift to be able to capture nature in a way that can really connect with others.  Being able to bring them to where we were at the time of capture.  Experience that ephemeral moment.  With the advent of digital photography (though these techniques were going on long before digital), the reality of an image constantly gets called in to question.  With computers we dont need to capture something when we can just hit a few buttons and remake the image to our own will.   At least these are the thoughts that cross people’s minds when they often view photographs these days.  I’ve experienced it first hand in my Galleries.  That utter disbelief that nature could do something so spectacular.  “You must have done something”…nope.  Those Rainbow Eucalyptus really do look like that, the sky really does have that many stars and waves really do make crazy shapes.   That doesnt mean that a photo is done once the shutter is pushed.  Cameras are just tools.  They dont think, feel or do anything but capture light.  It is our job as photographers to take that negative and make a final product out of it.  In fact, most of the same techniques that were available now were possible in the darkroom, just with a few more chemicals and trial and error.   Then there are techniques such and dynamic range and focus blending which aim at expanding past the limitations of our gear.  Further beyond that we get in to the realm of adding in elements or manipulating a scene so that it fits the image that is in the mind’s eye.  The thing is, photography is art.  And everything and anything is possible with art.  It is what is inside of us that needs to get out and for us that medium is photography.  So to achieve the end result by any means is perfectly practical.
So, if I’m ok with image fabrication why all the hubbub?  In the end it comes down to disclosure and transparency.  As landscape photographers I believe that we owe it to the scene that we witnessed, the general public and other photographers to be true to our art.  By misrepresenting a photograph and not disclosing ‘artistic liberties’ one is further perpetuating the skepticism that the general public and collectors already have about the art itself.  Furthermore we disrespect that which nature has to offer for us.  If getting the perfect conditions were easy well….
Lets continue to evolve as artists.  Create what visions are in our mind’s eye.  Chase that light.  But always maintain consistency and integrity.  We owe it to photography 🙂
Much thanks and good light,
P.S.  It seems that this post as garnered some attention and after rereading it I realize I that I forgot to clarify a point.  I dont believe in spelling out the entire process when ‘creating’ an image but just a simple “artistic license or liberties or whatever you want to call them where taken in this photo” or something along those lines is good enough for me personally.  This tells us the viewer that the artist had a goal in mind and bent the rules to fit their vision.  If we want to know more, we can ask and this way the artist doesnt need to go in depth all the time.
Should have explained that initially so my apologies there 🙂

17 thoughts on “What do we owe photography?

  1. You mean adding [sic] isn’t good integrity in landscape photography?
    Funny, why stop at faking rainbows, be a real cutting edge artist and #photoshop in a unicorn !


    1. I’m an iPhone ameteur photographer who fell upon A Feinberg’s photographs of several years of Burning Man, then explored his wonderful portfolio on this web site. I love your work A Feinberg. I can’t completely relate to his opinion piece regarding integrity and disclosure in photography because I’m such an amature. For example, I recently captured my german shepherd and my cat sharing a morning sun beam pouring through my bedroom window. They were photographed at a downward angle on the floor with a messy chair with clothes thrown on it and the cord of my hair dryer conspicuous. I would have liked a tidier backdrop, and I improved it somewhat by photoshopping the electrical cord out of the photo (the dryer was hidden under the clothes). Because the composition focused as a close up of the animals, I wanted to eliminate the distraction of the electrical cord dangling from the chair behind the animals. It seems to me that a photoshopped photo that maintains the primary intentionality to bring beauty, interest and meaning is the ultimate object of the artistic endeavor. If photoshopping is used to deceive or engage in some kind of trickery or material misrepresentation, then I would agree that the photographic work by the photographer is lacking in integrity. This is how I understood Mr. Feinberg’s blog message on this subject. Is this an accurate understanding?

      1. Aloha Jeanne!

        Thank you for your time responding. As you mentioned at the end it is about the integrity. As long as we are honest in what we are portraying, especially when it comes to street/photojournalism/landscape, then it shouldnt matter what the artist does to accomplish their vision. Think you understood well my intended discussion and keep on clicking! 🙂

  2. There’s a general misconception that photography is made less pure by utilizing tools beyond the shutter and aperture. People use the phrase #nofilter proudly as if they’ve done something more geniune artistically by not exploring things like contrast or polarization to further develop and deepen their work. To me its about the image as a final piece of work and employing the tools that have been in play by photographers since the dawn of the medium. People forget this or maybe don’t realize but photographers have always used filters for effects both on the camera and in the printmaking phase with enlargers and today with computers. The filters and parameters you have in the form of software today mirrors those that photographers used in the days of film, like you said. It is an art form and so should never be pigeoned-held by a singular vision or ‘reality’ of what is possible. I agree with your take on disclosure. It is important for the integrity of the art form that capture details are presented along with the art work whenever possible. On the other hand, would a world class chef be made to share the recipe details of his award winning dish? Or a music producer expected to divulge the full extent of his/her production technique to achieve the sound of their hit song? Thanks for the insightful piece.


    1. Thanks V!

      I forgot to add, which i did in a PS to the blog, that I wasnt calling for the full reveal from artists about how their final product was acccomplished more that when it does get a bit overly creative that “artistic liberties” or similar but put in the description as to allude the image is the result of the artists vision. Hope that clears it up a bit. Glad you enjoyed and thanks for the thoughts!


    2. Back in the bad old days of film I would use filters, different films, development processes, toning, papers, darkroom techniques and more to get the affectation of the scene that I was looking for.
      I (we) would use every trick I could learn to alter or capture the scene in such a way that it individually expressed MY impressions in the final image.
      Now I tell me students, “A filter does not make art.”
      Also, I feel that I have EARNED the right to use Photoshop or any other process I can learn or come up with to alter the scene to fit my vision.
      And, “If you can tell it was ‘Photoshopped’ then it is a failure. The image needs to stand on it’s own merits.”

  3. I agree with you 100% and think some people are missing the point of your post: art comes in all forms, and photographic elements are an undeniable part of the modern art landscape. However, calling something simply “photography” rather than “digitally manipulated photography” or “digital art” – which is what people are creating when they add, subtract or montage elements and/or colors into a photo that weren’t there when they snapped the shot (there’s a big difference between enhancing what’s actually there, and turning it into a technicolor version of itself, for instance) – I think is disingenuous.

    I’ve even seen someone’s piece in a show that was clearly a photograph altered with photoshop filters that they then printed on canvas, painted clear acrylic gel “brush strokes” over and then labeled it a “painting” and tried to sell as such. I’m not saying their creation wasn’t valid, but it should have been labeled what it was: digital art. Otherwise it’s misleading to the general public and can cause mistrust and confusion in buyers.

    And it’s always refreshing to know whether what you’re looking at is naturally occurring or an artistic interpretation – neither is inherently better than the other, but I’m sure it can affect one’s real-life experiences and appreciation of nature when, after pinning hundreds of “landscape photographs” of dream vacation spots, one finally arrives at their longed-for destination only to realize those trees bloom in white, not fuchsia 😉

  4. I know a prominent photographer who proudly announces, repeatedly, that he never uses photoshop. That elicits the ooohs and aaaahs about how great he is to just capture those great colors and contrasts. What he happily leaves out is that he processes with Lightroom and Nik Software.
    This, I believe, is part of the mis-representation you are talking about.
    I will add clouds from other images, insert, or remove objects, resize portions of the scene for composition purposes, clone details into areas where they may be needed. At this point I identify myself as a “Digital Artist.”
    There are other times when I will not move a single item in the composition or use any artificial light at all. I also label these as “Found Art.” And while I still use image processing programs to adjust tones to what they need to be (in my opinion), I identify them as such.
    Photography is an art form. The only thing that separates professionals and artists from the Billions of point and shoot, single filter applying, hacks and amateurs is our skill at seeing the scene and using the tools at hand to create artistic 2D expressions of a 3D world.
    Robert Gaines

  5. Aaron,

    I think it’s within the ARTISTS’ right to use whatever tool sets available to produce his/her final vision. In my opinion I still don’t think it’s necessary to state how the final product was made, even if reality was bent. The viewer will certainly be able to relate to it and judge for themselves. Just because the tools used caused the final product cannot come up as a disclaimer !

    Where I would agree on the disclaimer that you mention would be during the usage of the photographs. If they are used say for example in advertising a location and the reality has been bent, then it should be stated their.

    I have visited your gallery in Kauai (or may be Maui I think) and I love your work on display. But I didn’t judge it that it was photoshopped! Now, with bit more understanding of photography I know that no tool can come close to how our eyes and brain view!


    1. Thanks Anand.

      My point was that it doesnt matter how the final product is produced as that is the vision of the artist. It just becomes detrimental to all when an image is created that could not normally exist (moving skies, adding elements, changing colors) and passing it off as real. That gives the viewer an unrealistic account of what actually happened and does a disservice to those that spend lots of time getting the conditions to make that perfect exposure. If excessive measures are taken, that’s fine, “artistic liberties” were taken is all we need to suspend belief. Glad you had a chance to visit the work in person here on Kauai (Maui opens mid June 2015) Thanks!

  6. Provocative comments, Aaron.

    Ultimately, I think the power of photography is the photographer’s ability to connect with the viewer…
    using whatever tools he has mastered…

    You are able to do this by capturing images I cannot forget! At times what you capture, Aaron, is beyond
    what words can define… It’s like the hours you have put in have given you the power to draw closer to
    Truth – and to present it through your artistic medium of photography…

    It’s that rare quality that a brilliant musician, artist, photographer can sometimes capture- where what is perceived and translated for us – leaves us breathless…

    It’s made all the more profound by the person’s ability to utilize the tools he has integrated over time.

    Thank you!

  7. Man I hesitate to way in on this as it would take a lot of time to get into the many aspects and particulars of what you purpose in this thread. So I will, at least for the most part, resist the temptation and keep it short.

    First, let me say that I recently spent a short stay at the St Regis and of coarse being into photography visited your gallery there and enjoyed the experience. I found more Images and PhotoArt that I liked when visiting your website. I think you are talented and thanks for sharing what you do and aspects of how you do it.

    That being said I respectfully and in my very humble opinion do find that some of what you express in your opinion leaves out needed information (at least for me) to come to any real conclusions.

    The 1st thing is, since you mentioned it, what was the image that you alluded to (a link maybe) so we can judge for ourselves. You indicated that you approached “them”? Was it more than one person? You indicate that they did not share the same perspective of full disclosure but I can’t tell what their perspective was.

    Whereas I would be in total aggrement that misrepresenting anything is not good, I think the big elephant in the room is “Full Disclosure” when it come to Photography, PhotoArt, Art in it many forms. The big question I would offer is who is to be the judge?

    I will leave it at that as I think you opened a big can of worms and are stepping on a lot of very sensitive toes. LOL I think there is no simple answer to what you query and the debate would never end. Hence my initial hesitation to respond.

    Kindest Regards: Will

    1. Thanks for the comment Will and glad you got to see the work in person. Yes, the in-person experience will always be better than in front of a screen 🙂 To answer your questions it was a singular photographer that I chose not to mention on purpose because the one person is not the issue so much as the whole idea behind disclosure. My post is purely aimed at the fact that because so many people see heavily manipulated images that are not disclosed it further skepticizes (I’ll © that word later) the work that others do that is more true to life. As with any art it is within ourselves to express what we like but when sharing photographs, of which were once expected to be what we actually saw, it is our responsibility to simply state ‘artistic liberty taken’ to educate the viewer as to something is being seen that was not there at the time of capture. Keep on and thanks again for the time!

      1. Aaron thanks much for your response. I think I understand a little better where you were coming from when you say “something is being seen that was not there at the time of capture”. Again I have so many thoughts that come to mind I still resist the temptation and will keep it short if for no other reason that I think that it will make little or no difference no matter what any of us say, barring the creation of an International Governing Board of (landscape?) Photography that sets certain standards, rules, and guidelines. Kinda like only wines that were produced within strict documented guidelines can be labeled Champagne or Ice Wine. I’m not sure I would want that. As I mentioned who are to be the Judges and can their assessments be trusted in a an art form so broad as photography?

        I admit that I’m curious as to what you think about one aspect of the many that would have to be vetted is “what we actually saw…at the time of capture”, considering the many aspects of post processing and editing in the digital and for that matter film darkroom. That being, do you feel the same for something being removed that was there at the time of capture?

        The last thing I’ll mention is as you know different people enjoy or purchase Photography/Art for many different reasons and what may move us as photographers, which can include not only is it a pleasing or compelling image but the technical and logistical aspects that went into capturing the image and processing it to it’s final presentation, may have little to do with why someone else wants to purchase or enjoy viewing. They may care less about manipulations.

        Again I am certainly not in favor of misrepresentation but in my most humble opinion it’s a complex issue with no simple answer that all would except or comply with. I guess in some sense it comes down to style and some are certainly more photojournalistic in Nature (Pun Intended ;>) than others.
        Best Regards: Will

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