This three-part article is not intended to be a definitive treatment of what constitutes fine art nature photography. Most likely, that argument will continue to rage for at least another hundred years. Like most long-time photographers, I have identified and followed specific operating principles for each stage of the creative process as it relates to photography. The three stages are preparation, capture and post-edit.
Based upon the logical flow of the creative effort, Part I should start with how a nature photographer plans and organizes creative projects; and Part II should cover artistic techniques and concepts, with the final part dealing with interpretation and editing. However, I decided to cover these three areas in the exact reverse order, because the portrayal of nature in photographs carries traditional and ethical responsibilities that strongly influence the entire creative process from initial planning to the end-result.
Part I – Requirements and responsibilities of producing fine art nature photographs
Photography has its roots in two-dimensional art and is still heavily influenced by trends and attitudes in that larger sphere. The first cameras were camera obscura’s that focused light from a subject on a ground glass plate that allowed artists to trace outlines on translucent paper. This led to years of sustained effort to permanently fix projected images on an artificial medium, the sole purpose of which was to serve as an artist’s aid. At that time artists’ drawings portraits and renditions of scenes were extensively used by the early print media to illustrate their articles. A prime example of the extent to which publishers relied on skilled artists was the widespread distribution of books and pamphlets that featured the highly detailed realistic drawings of birds made by John James Audubon. His art was meticulous and time-consuming, something that was consistent with a much slower paced world.
That changed well within Audubon’s lifetime. In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the first commercially viable process for chemically producing images on substrates exposed to light and began selling cameras and chemicals to interested parties all over the western world.
It is no coincidence that “Daguerreotypy” was introduced to the United States in 1840 by Samuel B. Morse, a man then renowned more for his paintings than for his invention of the telegraph. After buying a Daguerreotype camera and supplies from Louis Daguerre, he returned to the United States in 1840 to give photography lessons to dozens of early photographers like Mathew Brady on how to set up studios and take portraits. He immediately understood the huge latent market for inexpensive and quick reproductions of people and events. The new light drawing, i.e. “photo-graphy”, increased fidelity and shortened production times. Ironically, it also played a part in the development of the Impressionist movement that started in Europe, as painters had to find ways to differentiate their product from the new more efficient art form.
The role of landscape photography in informing Americans about the nature and vastness of the Western lands is well known. Following the Civil War, pioneer photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins and William Jackson went west to see and photograph the lands described so dramatically by mountain men who preceded them. Some of them had spent time photographing the destruction and carnage of the Civil War, recording not only human tragedy, but also tremendous damage to the land and to wildlife. They were motivated to seek a fresh start in lands that were still virgin and largely unexplored. A few like Jackson attached themselves to government expeditions which were established to map the new lands for future settling and development. They were following in the footsteps of Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Jewish artist of Portuguese descent who taught himself Daguerreotypy, and joined Colonel Fremont’s 1854 expedition which was charged with exploring routes and recording images of what they had seen.
Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone in Wyoming territory ultimately led to the approval of America’s first National Park designation in 1872. Though most of these pioneer photographers considered themselves to be artists, they were aware of the need to create accurate, informative images of the new lands, as the war-torn country looked to the West for its future.
But, what few people realize is that in the first two decades of photography, prior to the Civil War, an earlier group of photographers had spent much time photographing and documenting landscapes east of the Mississippi River. This is the subject of an exhibit running from March 12th to July 16th 2017 in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This period was critical, as the settled eastern United States was transformed from a rural agricultural society to an industrial one in exactly that space of time. In many parts of the eastern states, the landscapes changed irrevocably; and the memory of “what once was” is preserved only in photographs and a few paintings. Richard B. Woodward, the Wall Street Journal writer who reviewed this exhibit probably said it best.
Referring to the works by an early daguerreotypist named Thomas M. Easterly, Mr. Woodward said: “Among his sharply observed views, of sewer dredging, steamboat traffic, and men standing atop a mysterious earthen mound, is one (c. 1854) of brindled cattle drinking from a pond in front of a factory belching smoke. It cogently summarizes the changes that the show wants to chronicle. America’s landscapes would never be the same after these years, and photographers were among the first to realize it.”
So, the tradition of combining art with faithful reproduction was a dual charge and tradition that photography inherited from the world of two-dimensional art. From that time on, many of the ideas and movements in the fine art disciplines echoed through the field of photography. Though there have always been periodic experiments using photographs to produce abstract art, the most valued trait of photography has been its inherent role as an “objective” observer and preserver. Realism will always be a dominant objective for art photography, and particularly when photographing scenes of nature. If further proof is required, the reader can consider how much money and effort is expended by camera and lens manufacturers to satisfy photographers’ collective lust for equipment that achieves the highest Image Quality (IQ).
The strongest proponent of producing images that faithfully capture the essences of their subjects is the world-wide fraternity of professional outdoor photographers, especially those who specialize in landscapes. They follow and preserve a tradition of locating and photographing uncommon scenes at rare moments to create images that awe viewers by causing them to understand that there are such places, rendered magical by special environmental conditions and moments in time. The ability of such images to inspire awe is dependent upon the hard work, persistence, and skill of these photographers to fully and faithfully represent what they witnessed while taking care not to overstate the image beyond that point.
This certainly was Ansel Adams’ mission, and he developed his Zone System to insure consistent attainment of that ideal. Of course, Adams made substantial use of common darkroom techniques like burning and dodging to maximize image detail. But, his objective was always to show Nature as it is revealed to a first-hand observer, and to foster conservation. Even in today’s more liberal world, Adams’ photographs are held as the ultimate high water mark of artistic landscape imagery. Though the limitations of black & white film and paper made it more difficult to achieve realism, the enhanced graphic effect in the hands of a master led to what is undeniably fine art. It is also fitting that, following the artistic endeavors of photography greats like Weston and Stieglitz, Adams’ work provided the final proof that photography is a legitimate art form, and that art does not have to transform what is already inspirational.
However, the battle for artistic integrity and legitimacy still goes on. The art world, consisting of museums, galleries, art schools, artists and other arbiters of art, has continually broadened its acceptance of art disciplines and movements of all kinds, perhaps to a point that almost anything resulting from a creative urge is considered art. Much of this wider view is good. Except that, in the rush toward diversity, have standards for artistic execution been relaxed? And, does this attitude now muddy the objectives and practices of younger photographers?
Certainly, there continue to be skilled artists who create fresh perspectives and simultaneously execute their concepts with integrity and deft precision. One excellent example is Jose Ramos, a young doctor and avid photographer living in Portugal who approaches his landscape photography with a sense of awe.
These images show that with knowledge, patience and skill, dramatic images of nature can be created without need for embellishment. The most impactful aspect of the Ramos images is their ethereal nature resulting from the motion of water captured over long exposure times. This is not an unnatural effect, and has been in use starting with Daguerreotypes and wet plates when shorter exposures weren’t possible. This effect is frequently used for waterfalls, as I did last August in Iceland.
But, for some there seems to be a prevailing “anything goes” attitude that values concept more highly than craft, and sometimes prefers short-cuts over study and hard work. Those who prize both creative interpretation and craft, and who are also honest about the nature of their creations, are most likely to produce fine art. Lazier photographers may produce art, but rarely fine art.
The digital age has provided computers, cameras, and software that give today’s photographers unprecedented control over their images. Because so many different exaggerated effects can be created in a landscape or wildlife image merely by moving digital sliders that are intrinsic to many editing software programs, it is easy and tempting for a digital photographer to produce impact that wasn’t in the scene, but which also doesn’t appear real. For those who are inexperienced and are at the early stages of their learning curve, excessive editing is understandable. In other cases, rather than seeking out rare moments when natural lighting creates spectacular natural modeling, some photographers try to create that digitally in an image that was taken under ordinary conditions during a single randomly chosen field trip. The most commonly abused components are the contrast, sharpening, saturation and vibrancy controls.
To illustrate this, I selected several of my conventionally edited images and exaggerated the contrast and sharpening to the degree that I’ve frequently observed. The first thing to notice is that the over-edited images do appear snappier, and will grab attention first. But, upon closer inspection, particularly with larger file sizes, there are noticeable losses in image quality and obvious departures from reality.
As expected the exaggerated image does grab attention more quickly. However, a closer look reveals that this image also loses shadow detail and has shifted the tones of the rocks from the usual mixture of light red and orange to more of an unnatural orange. Looking at the fine detail in the plants (admittedly more easily done with a larger file size), the detail has become harsh with highlight loss, and less believable, even for high contrast mid-day lighting.
Again, the higher contrast highly sharpened image stands out more. But the resulting lighting effect has a mid-day feel that doesn’t match the typically soft lighting seen at sunset.
Some inexperienced people may prefer the second of these two images. But, the sky has gone from dark blue-gray to almost black, and from that distance, the sharp detail in the rock formations might appear that way to an eagle, but not to human eyes.
In support of creative experimentation, exaggerating these aspects may be appropriate if the objective is to create alternate realities and perspectives, and the resulting image is presented and classified as “Computer Graphics” rather than as photographs. But, often this distinction is not made. Failure to make it undercuts the longstanding tradition of nature photographs as honest and faithful portrayals of striking scenes and special moments. On the other hand, abstractions drawn from focusing in on small natural patterns are legitimate forms of expression that generally do not violate the principle of accurately representing nature. To the contrary, such images expand the viewer’s knowledge and sense of awe of the visual richness to be experienced by observers.
Often, photographers that produce and market exaggerated images of nature will shrug and say: “That’s the way I saw it!”. Taking this sentiment at face value, I would respectfully advise: “Take another look!”.
The concern here is that we live in a society that always calls out for new sensations and stronger visual statements. This increases the incentive for some photographers to embellish their images to make them stand out from the crowd. If the consuming public is not educated to understand the difference between a truly exceptional image and an excessively manipulated one, then dedicated artists who work longer and harder to produce representative art are poorly supported, making it difficult for them to continue producing fine art. This is another version of Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money drives out good money. Just substitute the word “artists” for “money”.
Additionally, just about all fine art landscape and wildlife photographers devote much of their time and energy to capturing and creating images of nature because they feel that it is important to share them with the great majority of people who are not able to personally witness such scenes. The objective of building appreciation and support for conservation is almost always the implicit message integral to their images. Because of this, their work must honestly and faithfully represent the scenes, fauna and flora that they wish to see conserved.
There is nothing wrong with the above image. But, are there some photographers who would fail to mention that this image was taken in the Bearizona Nature Preserve in Williams, AZ?
Suggesting that there is no difference between animals kept in small preserves and zoos, and those sighted in the wild is disingenuous or naïve at best. National Parks are the biggest exception because of the large eco-zones that are preserved.
Credibility is vital to generating public support for any cause. And, most importantly, there is enough beauty and drama in nature to capture striking images that don’t require augmentation. The photograph shown at the beginning of this article is one example. Here’s one more:
This image is true to the colors and quality of light that is seen at sunrise in Teton National Park under good conditions. Embellishment is neither needed nor desirable.
Arts organizations from camera clubs all the way to schools and museums can and do play a vital role in setting standards for responsible work and for educating the viewing public in what to look for in fine art. They also play a role in educating photographers at all skill levels in what is appropriate conduct in the field and toward wild animals. NANPA, the North American Nature Photographers Association, is one such organization. After reading about their activities I decided to join and support them. There are also publications like Arizona Highways that have strict standards to limit editing to what is reasonable to do justice to a scene without embellishment. And they do look at the digital files of submitted images to make sure that the editing history is fair and reasonable.
Outdoor photography organizations might also follow the lead established in related fields by organizations like the Plein Air Painters Association (PAPA) which sets well defined criteria for what qualifies a plein air (outdoor) painting. Basically, the painting must be based upon what is directly observed in the scene. The painting must be executed outdoors, though finish work (comparable to post editing in digital photography) may be completed in the studio.
Presently, the imposition of photographic art standards is patchy and inconsistent. Photography schools and seminars are more likely to teach concepts of art and photographic technique (including how to edit) than to suggest ethical frameworks. This is a touchy subject, and there are those who rebel against any suggestion of constraint or regulation. However, there is a huge difference between imposing regulation that limits expression as opposed to fostering high standards that motivate artists to work and produce at a higher level. Of course, it is an uncomfortable issue which many photographers prefer to discuss in private. And one of the biggest issues is who should lead the charge.
Currently, there is much public discussion about unprincipled image manipulation in the fields of photojournalism and advertising. So far, there is little current discourse on this problem with respect to nature photography. Hopefully, this article will prompt more fine art photographers to add their thoughts to the mix. I would enjoy receiving feedback from any of you who are so inclined, including from photographers in other countries who might share varied perspectives.
Part II of this series will cover some of the most often used visual techniques and concepts used in nature photography to produce fine art.
Part III will cover how a fine art nature photographer typically selects and approaches his subjects, and the processes that lead to creation of fine art images.
Harvey Stearn has photographed nature and made his own prints for over 65 years. He was Chairman of the California Arts Council, a state agency in which he was a member for nine years. As such he was deeply involved with setting policy for public support of the arts. In a similar vein, he served on the State Arts Grants Panel of the National Endowment of the Arts for two years, and was the founding Chairman of the John Wayne International Airport Arts Commission which curates and organizes art exhibitions within the airport facilities in Orange County, California.