Do we owe nature more truth in photography?

On a recent morning visit to Torrey Pines (State Natural Reserve) I saw a group of three young people walk out towards a little vista point. Upon reaching the vista point, the girl in the group mechanically said “wow” (without any audible punctuation mark, more like a half-yawn), and they turned around and walked back. They’re standing at one of the last places with somewhat intact maritime chaparral, and home of the rarest pine tree in the United States, and that was it?

Coastal or maritime chaparral at Torrey Pines State Preserve, San Diego, California. February 2015.
Coastal or maritime chaparral – and some of the rarest pine trees in the US, at Torrey Pines State Preserve, San Diego, California. February 2015.

I wonder if that’s fatigue (see my previous commentary, Worn out Beauty) or if people are becoming increasingly unaware or unable to see the beauty that surrounds them – if it is not in a social media post, but in real life, that is. Which led me to wonder if landscape photography is perhaps to blame for that.

The artistic license that we take when we develop photos on the computer to our liking, the dreamworlds that we create with dragging the shutter in long(er) exposures, the measures we take to circumvent shortcomings of the camera… pair that with being at a certain place early or late in the day, when the light is special…

Long exposure photo of the Mono Lake "Shipwreck" tufa at dusk, near Lee Vining, California. August 2015.
Long exposure photo of the Mono Lake “Shipwreck” tufa at dusk, near Lee Vining, California. August 2015.

Maybe all of it combined twists reality too much, and special places don’t actually look special enough anymore to impress when seen in normal light? (but then again, what is “real” in terms of photography? Even before the days of digital – being stuck with a daylight white balance when using film yields pretty unrealistic results at times – and that’s how the magical “blue hour” got it’s name.)

Do we at this point perhaps owe a little more realism to natural world? And are we still contributing to conservation, when photos are so detached from reality? Is the vast majority of people who make landscape photos interested in conservation, at all? A little more color, a little more contrast, a little more detail, a little more “style”, a little more drama – aren’t we developing photos for “impact” and effect, mostly? You’ve got a maximum of two seconds to make an impression in the endless stream of photos on social media…

Tide pools during negative tide at Swami's State Beach, Encinitas, California, December 2016.
Tide pools and incoming storm during negative tide at Swami’s State Beach, Encinitas, California, December 2016.

I don’t have the answers, and instinctively, my first reaction would be to say that they’re my photos, and I do what I want to them and with them and don’t owe anyone anything :-} …but maybe it’s time to think a bit more about that. And I’m not even thinking about the effect of social media drawing crowds to once pristine and peaceful places here.

In addition to that all that though, the selfie stick generation has probably developed a disregard for one’s surroundings and our natural world in general – after all, it is a “selfie” stick, where the center of the world is oneself. Look at me in Iceland, look at me at Delicate Arch, look at me, me, me. And thanks to the instant gratification of “likes” and “hearts” and favorable emoji-laden comments on social media, that’s probably more important than what’s actually in the photo to a lot of people, unfortunately.

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10 Responses

  1. It’s troubling that a lot of the mystery and magic have been stripped away by ‘over saturation’ – both on social media and in the actual post processing of a lot of images today. I think a photograph should retain some elements that make you curious, want to see more, the imagination is fired. If all is not only ‘revealed’, but actually shoved in your face it kills a lot of the joy for me.

  2. The main problem I see is that landscapes/seascape get over manipulated. Not only with the use of PS/LR, but also when the photographers are at the scene. I’ve witnessed photographers wacking weeds, cutting branches down, placing leaves on rocks in streams, holding branches over mountains for the framing affect, and generally just not taking photos of what’s in front of them. Rather, they present to the world what they envision the place should look like.

    1. I admit that I remove the erratic blade of grass sticking into the frame when I make flower photos, or remove other minor distractions – large alterations like cutting branches though, seriously? That’s terrible.

      On the other hand, I do like to think that every photo presents the world not as it is, but as the photographer sees it. It’s the ethics that are a concern.

  3. I think/hope part of the resurgence of film photography is that it usefully limits how much the photographer can manipulate the scene. Yeah I remember velvia being way oversaturated but you still couldn’t do all sorts of local edits that are commonplace today.

    1. I don’t think film is any different. I don’t know much about the process nowadays but I’d be surprised if there were many film photographers that do NOT scan and process their slides/negatives on the computer. Also, as mentioned above, digital can be more truthful because white balance can easily be adjusted. Without the false color rendition of film, the blue hour and golden hour would not exist. There’s no definitive answer and no solution (at least not if you don’t want to cripple artist freedoms and expression).

  4. Great thought provoking, true, and insightful post! Nature provides a different “high”, more of a calmness than electronics, As you stated, the “new mindset” is instant high and gratification…and if its not in an emoji, it maybe hard for them to express the feeling:) Nature can provide that high and gratification, yet one has to stop and take notice. Glad some kids actually took time to be up there and who knows maybe they will return as it did provide some type of intrigue, peace, joy, excitement for them.
    Added thought – maybe that’s a good idea for an app – you are here and there are rare pine trees, etc. One way to engage them:)

    1. Thanks Christy – well, I thought about this “how do we engage them?” thing as well but, to stay with the example that I’ve given, the trail to the vista point begins with a large sign that explains maritime chaparral, then leads through a native plant garden were EVERY plant is identified with a little sign – I assume they can read, but they’re not INTERESTED.

      Placing all information at one’s fingertips with an app – I’m not sure if that helps to instill a desire to actually research and learn. When I come home with a bunch of flower photos (as I do often right now) it’s both annoying and exciting to try and find out what they really are. If I could point the phone at everything and it would spit out information, it wouldn’t mean putting WORK into something, and then getting rewarded with a result – and I think that motivates us to do the things we do.

  5. Sorry my friend, but you know I just do not agree with you on (some of) this.
    The lack of vision by one viewing nature will only be strengthened by their maturity and growth.

    You know my stuff…and little of what I do has to do with reality. My appreciation of nature came through my father’s insistence that I observe and appreciate it’s complexities by “being in it”. Not a place to go, but a place to be.

    I do agree with the idea that there may be unrealistic expectations due to the flood of available information….again, a case of immaturity.
    But I doubt that flat-real photos would change anything. Why would Instagram’s workflow include layering as an option before posting? (I have an IG account but rarely do anything with it)

    Everyone is in a different place, and ultimately, the message you wish to make should drive the final outcome…..if it an artistic piece.
    Of course, a piece that seeks a journalistic message brings different parameters.

    BTW – all beautiful photos you’ve included here. My preference….”I’m drawn” to the Swamis’ piece…with no expectations other than to see how this scene affected you at the time. Ominous (beautifully)

    1. Mark, what I wrote doesn’t apply to your photos. It is very clear in your artistic renditions that they are just that – artistic renditions. I guess I should clarify is that photos are often taken as a “documentary” because of the nature of the medium, and so many photographers are willingly playing on this. I guess what SOME landscape photography needs is more honesty…

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