Photography Ideas: Mountains, Representation, And Manipulation Sunday October 20, 2013

There are no rules to photography and there is no definitive advice. There’s only the photography you like, the photography that sells, and the photography you want to pursue. It is possible however to articulate these parameters and assumptions and thereby give people conceptual tools which are ultimately the basis for every picture you take. Photography is not about the camera: it frankly bores me to state the obvious and often repeated, but the reason for doing so is to dispel a mystique you sometimes encounter. But then – what is it about?

It is the ‘art’ component of mountain photography which is most relevant for most people. How do I create a beautiful image, how do I find a beautiful image, is there a difference between finding and creating, and how do these questions relate to mountains? There are no definitive answers because it is personal, but as a photography educator I encourage people to engage with the questions. It is possible to clarify and articulate why a photograph works, why it does not work, and why you disagree when someone else thinks differently. We have literary analysis and we have visual analysis: as critical practices they have some similarity, both of them a combination of intuitive response and technical knowledge. In both cases however, analysis does not lead to creativity. You can understand theme, plot and character, but not be a writer like Shakespeare. You can understand the convention or ‘rules’ of composition but that doesn’t mean you can translate that into the mountains.

With photography education people sometimes think you study the iconic work and learn to emulate it. It is a valuable process to study Cartier-Bresson for example, and then read about his theories, but this will not give you the skill of Cartier-Bresson. What it gives you is thinking and aesthetic material for contemplation. Towards the end of his life he returned to painting and stated he was an artist more than a photographer. His working life was essentially that of a journalist so this raises photographic questions about ‘art’, aesthetics, and documentary images. The discourse continues today when we see ‘beautiful’ shots of human suffering in one form or another: a specialised topic on which Susan Sontag wrote after her more general book called On Photography (which I recommend).

A picture exists as a visual fact and what you say about it is another matter. This is particularly relevant for mountain photography which I will explain further below. However as ‘art’, we might consider how this topic appears in a different context to understand it better. Tracy Emin and Damian Hirst were conceptual artists expressing ideas rather than craft, sensory, or aesthetic work. As an idea I might find the unmade bed interesting, more so insofar as it may question and undermine the art establishment and its commercial framework. Punk rock did the same in regard to the excesses of the music industry, stripping away vapid glamour with a Johnny Rotten sneer. But as music there’s not much of it I still listen to and an unmade bed is boring. Occasionally I listen to the Sex Pistols, Stranglers and Clash because I like the sound if it. I like the idea of punk too, but you don’t hear an idea. Art for me means sensory pleasure not a thought, which is why I found the conceptual art trend vacuous and irritating. Emin, Hirst and the others mocked the art establishment by substituting ideas for craft, but became very wealthy as they mocked it, substantially because of the patronage of Charles Saatchi and his investment interests.

As with art, so with photography. In the Pyrenees 2013 I noticed a magazine called Le Pyrenees featured a lot of abstract images: the close up of field patterns, the isolated view of mists against rock, the distant abstract shapes of mountains. I sense there’s a fatigue with traditional landscape imagery in magazines and people are trying ‘new’ ways of doing it leading to ‘graphic’ shots which are effective when arranged with text, whether copy or advertising. This raises aesthetic questions about ‘authenticity’ which is where I will tie together the different strands of my ideas. By ‘authenticity’ I mean that which is consistent with the quality of the subject. This is a simple technical point. In a photographic studio you ‘build’ a photograph by arranging a still subject, human or otherwise, with lights, backdrop, and props. You ‘make’ the photograph rather than ‘take’ it or ‘find’ it as you do in the mountains.

Consider this picture below, looking across to Pic du Midi d’Osseau in the Pyrenees:

How would you feel if I told you actually the moment was boring and dull and the lighting effect is Photoshop trickery? The point about such a shot is to say it was thus: to share a moment of beauty with those who love the mountains as I do.

Photography began as an inflexible chemical process where, to give one example, film speed was a significant handicap in relation to light sensitivity and print quality. A modern digital camera is capable of astonishing high ISO results compared to the degraded effect of high speed film described as grain. Similarly with Photoshop you have unlimited visual power and can achieve in a few seconds that which may have taken hours of trial and error in a darkroom.

It is this point, regarding the malleability of the digital image which far exceeds film technology, which is currently problematic across the photographic medium. For documentary work it is unethical and professionally dangerous to doctor your picture excessively beyond routine limited adjustments of contrast, saturation, and so on. Cartier-Bresson famously championed the original image rather than darkroom manipulation and cropping but this was slightly mythologised. He did crop some of his pictures and he produced a large quantity of negatives and contact sheets he never used, which itself represents a form of editing whereby you select one shot or none at all whether you crop them or not. In a major UK competition a winner was recently rejected when the judges discovered his landscape work was largely the result of Photoshop.

It’s a question of balance – not because there is something inherently wrong with Photoshop photography as such, but because my goal is to represent the mountains and nature which I love and an artificial (strongly manipulated) image has a different rationale. You can theorise this if you wish, and a good starting point is a book called Photography After Photography although it has little reference to landscape work. Otherwise the situation is simple and pragmatic: do you want people to think you are using Photoshop and possibly reject your work because they expect ‘authenticity’? The choice is yours.

Note: You may imagine a perceived notion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when considering these ideas but it doesn’t exist. More pernicious actually, is when ideas get aligned with social or political attitudes. The ‘left wing’ is a position favouring social equality as opposed to social hierarchy and inequality. The terms Left and Right derive from the French Revolution and a seating arrangement in the Estates General where those who sat on the left opposed the monarchy and supported revolution, republicanism and secularisation, while those on the right supported traditional institutions. In the left wing universe there is no differentiation between high culture and low culture. I use these terms deliberately because they prompt the left wing argument. The same applies to national cultures where none are supposed to be better than another. If we “discriminate” that women are treated badly in one culture that is ‘politically incorrect’ but the ‘correct’ view lies with the fact that everyone is equal! It’s absurd, and the same absurdity gets spliced onto art. If I “discriminate” that Ansel Adams’ work is superior to yours or mine, that is equally valid as saying it isn’t. What follows however is a kind of ‘cultural Marxism’ whereby you become demonised for such differentiations. Richard Mabey and George Monbiot were subjected to the same stupidity in a different arena: for daring to “discriminate” about ecological matters they’ve been labelled “fascist.” When left wing values are applied to ‘art’ the result is an aesthetic universe devoid of differentiation. The word “discrimination” is corrupt: how dare you discern difference! It was originally neutral but now it’s pejorative and political.

With digital methods we can ‘take’ a photograph and we can ‘create’ or ‘make’ a photograph. This has always been characteristic of photography whereby Ansel Adams is a pertinent example. He was a skilled camera practitioner but also used extensive darkroom control to ‘create’ his famous images. There’s a spectrum: at one side you do little or nothing to the picture in your camera, and at the other side you do a great deal to the extent that it’s no longer an ‘authentic’ shot of that mountain. Rather, it’s an image expressing more about you, or graphics, or possibly ‘art’, but an ‘art’ which has a tenuous link to the reality of the moment.

There is no moral implication, only the aesthetic impact and how that can vary. A strongly edited image may look ‘unnatural’ which is where I begin to dislike it. In my film photography days I decided I didn’t want to use starburst filters for that reason. You have to decide how you feel about this. It is not a ‘moral’ debate but one which potentially links to wider issues concerning relations between nature and culture. As such, these are practical and sensible ways of thinking which hopefully clarify and inform your own photographic direction: what you want to do, and why you do it, and then how you can do it, although that’s a topic for another time.

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