What’s in a Name?

Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.
“Bridge to NoWhere” –Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.

I want to share something that you may take for granted, or perhaps never even thought about, and that is “..where do art titles come from?”

As art lovers, we’re accustomed to seeing titles on artworks. Titles are a convenient way to refer to a particular painting or photograph. So instead of saying “that photograph by Gurski of the Rhine River that someone bought for $4,200,000” we simply know it as “Rhine II.”

Photography lends itself very well to titling of images using nominal or geographic descriptors. That’s the tradition of photography. Whether it’s Weston’s “Pepper” series or any number of Ansel Adams’ titles (“Half Dome,” “Snake River”), or even Gurski’s “Rhine II.”  The title of the image often reveals the name of the subject itself, no question about it, just call it what it is.

I find such an objective approach to titling photographs a bit lacking. When I stand before a scene in the field,  I try to think about the concept I want to communicate, the story the scene is telling me. It is this story that I want the title to describe and not so much the physical entity in the picture. The title I give to a finished photograph often reflects the story that struck me at the time of capture. In fact, I often write the “working title” on the field log I keep for every picture I take.

For me, it’s important to title my photographs this way. It helps me recall how I felt when I discovered the scene, and it helps me know how I want to interpret the picture to extend and clarify that feeling.

“Bridge to NoWhere” is a good example.  This historic bridge over the Potomac River completely disappeared into the heavy fog on this particular morning. The far end of the bridge and the far river bank had completely lost all identity, at least in this story. In reality, I knew where the bridge went, but a title such as “Point of Rocks Bridge over the Potomac River” wouldn’t have communicated the mysterious nature of events that I saw when under the darkcloth.

Every artist has their own way of titling their artworks, and none of them are wrong. I have to admit, though, that when I see a piece of art titled “Untitled,” …well, I just don’t get that. Regardless, whatever the artist has named a particular scene, don’t let it keep you from dreaming up your own story. It’s your fantasy, so write it however you want!

Where are the photography gurus today?

gu·ru  /goo’ roo/  noun: 1) a teacher and especially intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern; 2)  one who is an acknowledged leader or chief proponent; 3) a person with knowledge or expertise

Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter, copyright J. Riley Stewart, 40x32 in archival pigment print.
Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter, copyright J. Riley Stewart, 40×32 in archival pigment print.

I crave learning from others about the art in photography. Unfortunately, those I grew up learning from about what it takes to make a truly fine art print are no longer with us. I truly miss them. And I bet I’m not alone.

When I started seriously making and printing photographs in the 1970s, my favorite subscription was to Fred Picker’s monthly newsletter. I received it for 3 years or so, then had to abandon it for a couple years, during which he became ill and stopped publishing. But while it lasted, I poured over those pages time and time again to glean every bit of information he shared about making “the fine print.”

I also bought every one of Ansel Adams’s photography learning books, and read them all even though I found them a bit technical and stuffy. Picker’s writing, on the other hand, was fun to read and easier to understand. And he covered more about the art in photography than did Adams.

More recently, I found the wonderful content published online through “The Mindful Eye” by Craig Tanner. You can still access the great lessons he created over several years, but discontinued in 2011: http://www.tmelive.com/index.php/login.html

I consider Adams, Picker, and Tanner to be true gurus of the art in photography. I am unaware of any that today come close to teaching us about the making of artful photographs in any consistent manner.  Sure, there are tons of folks who write short articles about gear (God do we need any more of this???), and others who offer field workshops that focus on shooting tasks, and even some who sporadically write about how they realize their photographic vision, but where are the true gurus today?

Who are the experienced photographers who write specifically and selflessly solely to teach us what we need to know to be better artists?

It’s true that in this internet age, access to information is so much better than it used to be. You’d think that my question would be superflous as we sit in 2015. So, perhaps a better question would ask: “Have these gurus been replaced by Google search, from which we can get hundreds of relevant hits linking us to dozens of articles relevant to the art in photography?”   Uhhh, I don’t think so. I have to admit that when I want to know more about a technique, I can find very useful hits by doing a Google search. But try to find a hit to a credible person writing today about HOW and WHY they approach the making of fine prints to realize their artistic vision. Good luck.

As scant as it is, so much of what is written today about photographic art relates to web viewing and the ‘6 second’ mentality associated with such images. There is very little written about the making of beautiful, large exhibition prints. For example, large clipped areas in an image may be acceptable in 800×640 pixel format, but just try to get away with that in a 16×20 inch or larger print…..ghastly. And how many B&W images have you seen where convergence of gray tones has reduced the artistic impact to zero?  But where are developing photographers (or even experienced photographers) to turn to learn these fundamental lessons, short of trial and error?

If you know of such a source, please share it in the comments below. I’d really like to find them! Who are your gurus?

Happy Learning!SignatureLogo 200x75


PS> Want to see examples of my work? Go to Galleries and more…  Have fun!

I’m not that interested in stepping into the 21st Century

Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River, SC
“Lowcountry Cypress” (Copyright 2015, J. Riley Stewart), 40×32″ Limited Edition photographic print.

See more at J. Riley Stewart’s galleries

If you still shoot film, what would you do if, for some reason, its supply suddenly dried up? What if film was no longer available at any price?

I know it’s a small possibility, at least in the mid-term, but…. what if?

To most photographers–amateur or professional–this is a moot point. They’ve already turned to digital capture, and most likely don’t care about the availability of film. It’s that very phenomenon that has drastically reduced the supply of film over the past 20 years. Sure, we can still buy film in almost all formats, but the number of brands and types of film is nothing like it was in the past, and those films still available costs us a lot more. But I should add, the modern films available today are exquisite and well-worth the cost.

I still shoot film, mostly large format 4×5 and 120 in both B&W and color. The biggest reason I use film is that it gives me “a look” that isn’t yet possible with digital capture, especially when my goal is to make larger scale photographic prints, i.e., anything larger than 16×20 inches. Film capture enables large prints that are alive with delicate details and textures and tones; prints that make you want to step into them and explore.

So what’s a guy to do if a precious resource behind his passion dries up? I plan to be making pictures for the next 20-30 years, and there’s no guarantee that film will be accessible during that span of time given the direction analog photography is going. Will I have to step into the 21st Century “digital” age?

I think I’ll do just the opposite. Before the digital revolution, and even before Kodak’s release of the first “Brownie” camera in 1900, people were making exquisite photographic prints from wet plates, dry plates, tin-types, and paper negatives printed on albumen-, silver gelatin-, and platinum-coated papers. The earliest photographic processes didn’t require manufactured film to produce beautiful photographs.

All these old processes excite me much more than bits and bytes. Sure, some of my excitement relates to the craft involved with these processes (the “magic” once associated with photography), but most of it relates to the aesthetics of the resulting prints, which we can still see in many of our finest art museums 150 years after they were made.

In fact, I may not wait for the disappearance of film, even if it never comes. If Mathew Brady could do it, so can I.


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Why I never talk about my “photo gear”

A nostalgic scene from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia
“One Morning at Liberty Furnace”–A nostalgic scene from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia

As an art photographer, I’m continually amazed that so many of my peers think that everyone else must be as enamored with photographic equipment as they themselves must be. Why else would they make it certain that I know what f stop, shutter speed, ISO, camera model, and lens they used to take a particular picture?

Maybe they think my knowing this information will be critically helpful when I show up at the same vantage point, and same time of day, and even the same day of the year and under the same lighting conditions, just so I can replicate that very same picture. I can’t think of another reason why someone else would want me to know this information.

Or maybe their web gallery software assumes they want to communicate all the EXIF  data, and there’s no way to turn it off. EXIF data are all those pieces of crap technical information the camera (largely digital cameras) embeds into the picture file where it remains forever. Photo sharing sites like Flickr, Pbase, and others don’t make it easy to make EXIF data invisible to viewers. But it can be done, and they probably should make it easier.

Or, maybe they have nothing else to say about the picture, but they think they have to say SOMETHING….

I’ve written before about the importance of storytelling in art and especially in photographic art. Whether we, as artists, write a narrative that helps viewers see the same story as us or if we choose not to tell our story, the story is still there. Sometimes, the title we give an image is the story. Sometimes the story is meant to be ambiguous, so the less said the better.

The problem I have with overt disclosure of EXIF data is that I find it very distracting. It may be because when I look at an art photograph, my mind wants to  swim among the neurons on my creative, subjective right brain. Then BANG, I notice that the picture was taken with a Canon Mark XXXI with 10-500mm lens at f64 and 1/10,000 sec, and the mood is destroyed. EXIF data excites the objective left brain which competes for attention with it’s right side. Too often the left brain wins.

If you are among those who think that disclosing all that sexy EXIF data is important to anyone besides your camera, you should reconsider that thinking. It can turn people from enjoying the image on its artistic merits to, in some cases, objective revulsion.

So if all you have to say about an image you created is contained in the EXIF data, perhaps it’s time you began saying nothing at all.









Who likes art, anyway?

Sunrise Over the Nez Perce, Yellowstone NP  (Copyright J Riley Stewart)

I admit I’m as a newborn when it comes to knowing about art and artists. I’m not professionally trained in the arts. I can’t draw a straight line. And for most of my adult life, I lived in the left-brained, analytical world of science. But I now see that art has always been a large part of my life. I just didn’t know it. Perhaps it’s the same with you.

If someone were to ask me 35 years ago if I liked art, I would have said “no.” Loving art wasn’t a macho thing in the 80s. I didn’t really know what art was unless someone told me something was “art.”  I hadn’t the exposure to art required to have an opinion about it one way or the other.

It turns out I was in the majority.  It’s commonly thought that only 25% of Americans claim to like “art.” And about half of those actually buy or collect significant art pieces.  I wonder if that’s really true, that only 1 in 4 of us “like” art.

Thirty-five years ago I was art stupid. When I later saw Michaelangelo’s “David” in real life I was awestruck. But this didn’t make me an art lover. When I saw the “Mona Lisa;” again, awestruck. But that didn’t make me an art lover either. When I saw an original Ansel Adams’s “Moon Over Half Dome?”…. Again, awestruck; again, not a convert.

I know now that I remained art stupid through all these experiences (and many more), but something was changing in my mind and heart. I began respecting the emotions that art could evoke in me, if I just gave it a chance. Each of these experiences added just a bit of knowledge to my personal art appreciation toolkit, but not enough to know what to do with these bits. I just knew that I enjoyed the individual experiences beyond words.

Creation and love of art is a uniquely human attribute. Something in our DNA compels us to consciously create and love art.  This is not speculation or hyperbole: study after study has shown the value of art in our human lives. Some even believe that art isn’t merely a luxury as others claim; that art is, in fact, necessary to healthy, happy human lives. Why else would our earliest ancestors spend valuable time drawing on the walls instead of gathering food if they weren’t compelled to? Why do hospital patients heal faster when they have art as part of their treatment?

If art is such a universally valuable thing in our lives, why do so many discredit that value? Perhaps one explanation involves motivations developed in us as youngsters. From our earliest days we are encouraged to develop skills that can lead to a commercially viable trade or profession. Being an artist is not known as one of those promising enterprises, is it? When we think of “artist” we tend to attach adjectives such as “starving” or “quirky” to it.

We can’t truly appreciate art (or anything else for that matter) until we know something about it. At some point in my past something clicked in me that made me want to experience again those feelings I felt when I saw “Mona Lisa” and “Half Dome.” I remembered pouring over pictures of those marvelous landscapes by Thomas Moran and Bierstadt even as a kid, lost in the fantasy of it all.  I eventually was drawn to photography and fine prints, and developed a voracious appetite for photography’s history, its heroes, its processes, and its masterpieces. Ask me today if I’m an art-lover and I would say “absolutely.” I’m a convert.

Here’s a challenge:  Make a New Year’s Resolution to learn more about how art can add value to your own life. Visit local galleries and art museums. Talk to artists about their work (they love to talk about their passion, by the way). Check out photography and other art books from your local library. Subscribe or follow art sites on Facebook or Pinterest. And if you see something you love, buy the damn thing before someone else does. Live with it and you’ll find it will soon become part of you.

Don’t fight the natural inclination to embrace art. To do so only violates what’s in your DNA. And who needs that stress?

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Summer is the Season for Photographing in B&W

When nature loses her colors, I focus on scenes full of shapes, shadows, and light.

Summertime can be a challenging time for taking pictures in nature. Nature’s summer colors are largely limited to yellow green vegetation and blue sky, and not much else. So at this time of year, I tend to load my film packs with Black and White (B&W) film. Let me tell you why.

Great oaks witness a veil of summer fog.

I love B&W photographs. Nearly all of the landscape photographers who truly inspire me create in B&W.  In my opinion, it’s the absence of natural color in a B&W photograph that makes it beautiful.  Or more precisely, it’s the millions of shades of gray that make it beautiful.

My featured photograph is a good example of my ideal summertime scene. I captured “Fog in the Forest” anticipating a much different picture when I left the house that morning. The heavy fog wafting among the oaks was a happy surprise (fog anytime in Virginia is a happy surprise). The bright sunlight shining through the leaves and across the landscape created an enormous range of brightness, from very dark shadows to delicate highlights. This moment in time really fit my criteria for capturing it on B&W film: simple composition, plenty of light, plenty of shade, and a bit of mystery.

When I select a scene to capture in B&W, I’m always thinking about the grays that will be in the exhibition print, not the pure blacks or pure whites. For example, in the exhibition print of “Fog in the Forest,”  only the deepest crevices in the tree trunks are truly black; only the brightest center of the sunlight coming through the fog is truly white. Everything else is a delicate shade of gray. It’s the grays, not the black or white, that provide the realism and sense of depth in such a scene, inviting us in.

The next time you stand in front of a large B&W exhibition print, take a minute and see if you agree with me about the beauty of the grays. I’ve always thought the term “B&W” for such fine art photographs sells them short; nothing could be further from the truth.


Technical note: I captured “Fog in the Forest” on 4″x5″ B&W film along Cannonball Gate Road in Fauquier County Virginia, scanned it to extremely high resolution, and printed it on heavy 100% cotton paper using a warm-tone pigment ink set. I then hand coated the print with an archival varnish. Prints are available up to 32×40 inches, framed or unframed. This title can be found in my “Pastorals” Collection.

Timing is Everything

“Oconaluftee Sunrise”–Autumn poplars and pines absorb the warm rays of sunlight in the Great Smoky Mountains

Timing is Everything

When photographing in nature, success not only depends on where you are, but when you are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately how important timing is to my coming home with an image on film that I can get really excited about, and more importantly an image that others will get excited about (after all, it’s all about sharing our experiences, right?)

Photographing landscapes beautifully can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. Ansel Adams once wrote: “Landscape photography can be one of the most rewarding activities, and one of the most frustrating.” Finding interesting subjects, in an unobstructed setting, with beautiful lighting, and unadulterated by Man (you know-trash, aggressive signs, ugly junk, etc) is rarer than most people think it is.

I love the part of my work that I call “the hunt.” In landscape photography, this involves driving around until I find something that tells an interesting story; not unlike an eagle soaring above in search of prey. And, like an eagle, sometimes I come home with bounty, and sometimes not. I’ve driven around for hours, pumped with inspiration and motivation, my eyes constantly peeled and ready to discover something new, only to pull into my driveway at the end of the hunt without having taken a single photograph. I’ve just become a hungry eagle.

Even when I find an interesting story in the landscape, I’m very picky when deciding whether to stop and take a picture or not.

Because I use larger format film to capture my scenics, ‘taking a picture’ requires a significant commitment on my part.  If I decide to photograph a particular scene, I’ll spend at least 30 minutes at that one spot, and often much longer. During that time, almost everything in front of my camera can change (and thus, so can the story): the sunlight can become too harsh or too subdued, calm wind can become breezy, dry conditions can turn to rainy and wet, etc, etc. Mother Nature has a mind of her own, and she is the author of the story.

The scene in “Oconaluftee Sunrise” (above) happened when my timing was in synch with Mother Nature’s, God bless her heart. I’d been to this site before; it’s one of my favorite in the Smoky Mountains. On this particular morning, I arrived before sunrise, not knowing what to expect. Some sunrises are really bland; some are glorious.

After a several minutes scoping on this particular morning, I noticed how the veiled sunlight began breaking through the clouds and spotlighting the fall colors of the trees lining the distant hillside. During just a very few moments, the lighting became intense and made this scene possible. Just as quickly, the colors of the sky and of the trees became muted and washed out.  It was a perfect time; one that I wouldn’t have experienced (or photographed) had I been a bit less patient with Mother Nature.

Like I said, ….timing is everything.

My point is this:  Any art photographer can follow all the rules and still walk away without the “money shot.”  He/She can be at the most beautiful, interesting spot on Earth, during the “golden hour’ surrounding sunrise or sunset, with all the best gear, full of inspiration, and still walk away with nothing except the experience.  So many things beyond our control can totally freak up all our plans to make something beautiful.  I’m learning to accept this risk, enjoy the experience for what it has to offer, and not get so hung up about  missing something that never was meant to be. Patience with Mother Nature will only get you so far…after all, there are more adventures and other opportunities just down the road. Take them as you find them, when you find them.

Creative Photography: Making Snow Look (and feel) Like Snow

Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter

I like photographing snow because snow can create settings that are absolutely beautiful and very photogenic. My favorite rendering of snow scenes is in black and white. I think the absence of cold colors lets the textural and tactile beauty of snow really shine through.

Texture in any fine art photograph is critical to our acceptance of the scene as something worthy of our interest and engagement.  In wintry snow scenes, we need to see the texture before our brain really recognizes snow as snow instead of just white blobs. Once your brain recognizes snow as snow, it then encourages you to enter the scene and become a part of it, and then you can enjoy it!

It’s somewhat of a paradox, but to recognize snow as snow, it can’t be pure white. In fact, my favorite snow scenes have many shades of gray, from very light to very dark. Here’s a general tip: It’s the gray tones in a B&W photograph that make it beautiful; all you need is a very little bit of pure white to give a sense of light to the scene.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I offer “Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter.” I took this picture during 1/30 second just after our snow storm of December 2003. It was a beautifully calm snow fall, allowing the delicate white flakes to cling to the smallest branches of the barren trees. As they say, timing is everything: 15 minutes later the wind came up and caused the flakes to lose their grip and fall to the road, turning the page from the story I’d seen when I clicked the shutter. Does the snow look (and feel) like snow to you? How much pure white do you see?

At this time of year we see lots of snow scenes on Flickr, Facebook, and Pinterest. As they catch your eye and your emotions, ask yourself why that happened. Chances are, it’s because the snow actually looked like snow, full of texture and details that give it identity!

Stay warm!


The downside to the digital photography revolution

Update Oct 2019: I wrote the article below in 2012, and much has changed in the digital photography realm since then. Unfortunately, much has stayed the same.  First, hi-end digital camera resolution has improved greatly, and has surpassed 35mm film captures. But that has very little to do with art photography. Second, processing software now enables anyone with a digital image to ‘stitch’ captures and make huge digital files capable of huge prints. But that also has very little to do with art photography. Third, we now have very good graduated filters that help manage the luminance range of landscape scenes to accommodate the (still) limited dynamic range (DR) of digital cameras. I have nothing critical to say about DR management filters; I never use them; never need them with my analog workflow.

But the biggest change in digital photography has been, in my opinion, that many digital photographers have learned how to create magnificent images from digital cameras. There are more photographic artists who have converted from analog to digital and forced themselves to learn how to use the digital tool, and they’ve done it very very well.

Article from 2012..

I was recently talking with a friend about digital photography. As we discussed the differences between digital capture and film capture, I blurted “..I think digital photography is the worse thing that could have happened to photography as art.”

The conversation went on, “blah, blah, blah…” and we finally went on about our business. Later, however, I thought “why did I say that? Did I really mean it?”

Those of you who follow my blog know I consider myself to be among the shrinking class of photographers who still use film primarily. I use my Nikon D200 digital camera for some things, but if I’m taking a picture of something I think is important, I’ll use my Nikon F5, my Mamiya RB67 medium format (film) camera, or my Cambo 4×5.

“Purple Mountains Majesty”  Captured using a Mamiya RB67 Pro S camera onto Kodak Portra 120 size film and scanned using an Epson V700 film scanner.

But back to my topic: why did I say such a terrible thing about digital photography? Here’s a list of serious consequences that I think represent the downside to the digital revolution; you be the judge how important they are to the art of photography as you practice it.

First a caviat: I consider photography to be the technique of creating an image that depends on light reflecting off a physical entity(ies), striking a light sensitive surface, and thus creating a 2-dimensional representation of that physical entity. Significant manipulation of the 2D representation  after capture can cause a departure from photography and into digital art (each artist defines his/her own limits in this regard.)  While digital art may use a camera as a tool to create such art, I do not consider digital art and photography to be synonymous.

My other bias is that I also have a personal dislike for what we used to call “chalk and soot” in fine art images.  These are large spaces in a photograph that are devoid of any detail in the shadows (soot) or in the highlights (chalk). In either case, such artifacts become distractions because our brain sees them as “unbelievable.” If you’re creating landscape photographs that have distractions, and there are many types, it will discourage many viewers from further engaging in the image. In digital terms, “chalk and soot” is the same thing at “clipping” at the extremes of the light spectrum.

So, here’s my list of reasons why I think digital technology, as applied to photography, has destroyed the art of photography:

1.Tiny, low resolution pictures are the norm. There was a time when most pictures we saw were at least 4×6 inch prints; and commonly 8×10 (the size of a magazine cover) and larger, and printed at 300 dots per inch or greater. The norm today is 3×3 (or less) shown on an excessively contrasty monitor showing us  much lower resolutions of 76 dpi.

I believe one of the great human values that photography provides is the opportunity to see and explore real, factual subjects with much greater depth than is possible in the ‘blink of an eye.’  Studying a low-resolution 3×3 inch thumbnail on our display monitors is just, well, impossible. It’s a superficial study at best, and therefore misses the whole point of the value of photography in our lives. While many photographers who post images to the internet exceed 3×3 inch (thankfully), resolution is still largely limited by the display technology. To really see an image for what it is, you need to see it in print, big, and in Hi-Def.

2. It’s not about getting good pictures now, it’s about getting fast pictures. There was a time when most people who took pictures truly wanted the picture to be “good.” Sadly, the norm today is to snap the damn thing, get it up on Facebook to share, and don’t worry about fuzziness, poor lighting, distracting objects, etc. It’s fun to share, but the ease of taking pictures today that don’t cost a dime has certainly reduced incentives to ‘make a good photograph.’ If you want to see an example of my point, just scan a few Facebook galleries of your friends. I’ll bet you’ll agree with me that the vast majority are really bad photographs (but we’ll never say that in public; nor should we I guess.)

3. With a digital camera, “this is the best I can do”. There was a time when skilled photographers took great care to avoid distracting artifacts in their imagery. Proper exposure, proper placement of the camera, and proper selection of camera and lens were fundamental considerations any serious photographer made for every click of the shutter.  Today it’s common to see artifacts such as distracting, featureless blacks and pure blown-out whites, fuzziness, photographic noise, and others that are typical with digital capture,  even from experienced, well-known photographers. This is, perhaps, my biggest gripe: that serious photographers seem to have compromised photographic quality for ease in ‘picture taking.’ Some say digital is the form that today’s photographic art has taken. And based on the popularity of digital cameras over film cameras, perhaps they’re right…. but I hope not.

4. Digital is a plastic technology. Digital photography is very “digital.”  Our eyes don’t see things in digital format, they see things in analog format. So does film, by the way, it responds to light in analog form.  WIth digital image capture we get super crisp lines and sharp transitions between colors. Perhaps the best way of characterizing this effect is “plastic.” Yet our eyes see and interpret lines and colors  having smooth transitions.  If you want to produce images that most closely mimic what our eyes and brains see, you must capture the subject using an analog technology, not a digital one.

This list is a start. While digital technology has given us the ability to take and share pictures so much more easily than before (and this is a good thing, much like the Kodak Brownie introduction in 1888), digital’s popular adoption for fine art photography, and especially for landscape photography, has so far been overwhelmingly bad. As the technology develops further it may overcome its present limitations for capturing subjects having wide latitude, with minimal noise, and excessive “plastic” character.

But that day isn’t here….. yet.

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Are there limits to artistic freedom in photography?

Most people who take pictures use them just as they come out of the camera. But this is rarely the case with photographic artists.  Artists may spend hours on the best images to transform the image provided by the camera into an image that meets their own artistic vision of the scene: this is the creative phase in photography. In this regard,  the photographic artist differs from artists who use paints or charcoal only in the medium used to fix the subject within a defined frame.

The creative approaches used by photographers during the creative phase–that phase in which the artists exercises the most artistic freedom– vary greatly. While one artist might limit his/her manipulation of the image to adjusting the lighting to create a more dramatic effect, another might take that same scene and compile it with several other images to create a ‘scene’ that departs drastically from what the camera saw; in fact drastically departing from reality. Jerry Uelsman was among those who exaggerated that definition by merging various photographs to create composite images. He became quite famous doing this (see http://www.uelsmann.net/).

Photography has been traditionally a documentary technology used to capture on film an image produced by light waves emanating from a scene in front of a lens.   Because of this documentary aspect of photography, most people today still believe, and  expect, that a photographic image is essentially a factual representation of an actual scene, setting, subject, or incident.  When you ask the the man on the street  whether a picture is “real,” they will tell you that it is unless it obviously isn’t (such as the proverbial rabbit head on the body of a moose or the beautiful but fantastical composites by Uelsmann).

In the digital camera age using photo editing software, it’s a simple matter to overlay 2, 3, or 16 different camera shots into one “photograph.” Whether it’s Uelsman’s merging of several negatives or a modern digital photographer’s merging several digital files, the essence of fact that distinguishes photography as a documentary technology can be completely lost. So my question is.. “When does artistic freedom begin to contradict the fundamental definition of photography?” If compositing multiple images isn’t photography, then what is it?

When it comes to artistic freedom in general, I say “to each his/her own.” But that’s not my opinion when it comes to defining photographs. Photographs should be kept a pure art form. I think that every pixel (or grain of silver) should represent a wave of light that entered the camera and struck the sensor/film at the time of capture of the subject or scene.

Artists who paint or draw can put whatever feature(s) they want on the pallet before them and no one questions it because no one accepts a painting as representing reality: we all know it’s the artist’s imagination that we see on the canvas. I believe those who do the same using photographic images aren’t photographers, but they are artists, still. But what do we call this if not photography? Perhaps it’s more precisely an illustration.

Why should this matter to the fine art community and to photographers specifically? Because if we continue to merge multiple photographs into one image and still call it a photograph, then the art form we know as photography will revert to a tool no different than the paintbrush, spatula, or pencil in the hands of a skilled realist. Photography will have no distinction as an art form itself because it will not longer have a distinctive “form.” In fact, fine art photography may cease to exist. Beautiful vistas of the Grand Canyon will no longer be credible (“was that ridge really in the scene or did the photographer merely put it there?”). We’ll know this has happened when our viewing public expects that an image has been “photoshopped,” whether it has or hasn’t.

Where should photography draw the line regarding artistic freedom in image manipulation?

My opinion is that as long as the image doesn’t contain a physical entity that wasn’t there when the shutter was clicked, it’s a photograph. So putting a boat into a picture of a mountain lake, when that boat wasn’t there at the time the mountain lake was captured is not photography. But enhancing lighting by dodging and burning or setting levels, cropping, or enhancing colors, none of these change the content of the photograph as it was captured, and thus remains a valid documentation of light hitting the film (or sensor) when the shutter was clicked.

I’m certain this opinion will be hotly debated..I’m not the first to raise it as an issue for our times. What do you think… are then ANY bounds is how we define photography today?  When does a photographer stop being a photographer and start being an illustrator? Do we owe it to our art public to keep photography ‘real?”