Photography in the Age of Falsification

The wildlife photography we see in films, books, and periodicals is often stunning in its design, import, and aesthetics. It may also be fake, enhanced, or manufactured by emerging digital technologies that have transformed—some say contaminated—the photography landscape.


The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

THIRTY years ago, in the age before the cruise ships came, I spent four months in the Galápagos Islands with the photographer Eliot Porter. The Galápagos were wilder, less-visited islands then. They had yet to become the most photographed archipelago on earth. Porter was making the pictures, and I was gathering notes, for the first volume in what would become a vast library, that ponderous collection of large-format Galápagos books now decorating coffee tables everywhere. Porter, our first great master of nature photography in color, was then sixty-four, the grand old man of his art. I was twenty-one, just beginning a career that was to be spent in large part outdoors in the company of nature photographers. Among my duties in the Galápagos were helping to lug Porter's 4X5 camera and tripod up volcanoes, rowing dories in through surf, and hunting meat, like Robinson Crusoe, on various islands with our guide's old bolt-action .22. It was one of the best times of my life.
Accompanying our expedition was Tad Nichols, a former Disney cameraman, and in the islands we crossed paths with the British nature photographer Alan Root, then just beginning his own remarkable career. In the Galápagos I had my first opportunity to study the habits of cameramen in the wild.

Anchored off Santiago Island one evening, over a dinner of feral goat, the photographers grew expansive and the talk turned to nature fakery. Porter was a purist. He believed in shooting straight. He admitted to having occasionally moved a stone or feather or piece of driftwood to improve one of his compositions, but he was generally opposed to this sort of manipulation, and he grew uneasy talking about it. Root and Nichols came from a more pragmatic, rough-and-tumble school of commercial nature photography. Root told us the story of a Life cover a colleague had done. The image had begun in the mind of one of the magazine's editors. By a kind of redactional clairvoyance this editor, seated comfortably at his desk in Manhattan, had seen it all clearly: leopard and its kill in thorn tree, branches framing a setting sun. The photographer set off in quest of this vision, traveling the East African savanna for weeks with a captive leopard, killing antelopes, draping the carcasses in the branches of various thorn trees, and cajoling the leopard to lie proudly on the "kill," a tableau that the photographer shot against a succession of setting suns. Tad Nichols laughed ruefully yet appreciatively. He told the story of his own work on Disney's The Living Desert, most of which was filmed on ersatz dunes built on a vast sound-stage table. Root countered with a story of some clever photoduplicity, the details of which I have since forgotten. Nichols came back with a tale of how Disney's minions bulldozed lemmings off cliffs for the famous lemming-suicide sequence.

And so it went, confession piling on confession. Both Root and Nichols affected a sad cynicism about the unseemly things they were called upon to do, but underneath, clearly, was a grifter's glee at various con jobs well executed -- and under that, if I am not mistaken, was a soupçon of genuine shame. At twenty-one, I was scarcely weaned from the Disney nature documentaries. I particularly remember one revelation of how Uncle Walt's men had fabricated the hawk-kills-flying-squirrel episode. (Assistant grip stands on tall stepladder with pouch of flying squirrels. Grip tosses squirrels -- unpaid rodent extras -- skyward one by one, as in skeet shoot, until trained hawk, after dozens of misses, finally gets it right.)

Penguins posing

Photofakery, then, is nothing new. The first attempts at it no doubt followed shortly upon Daguerre's initial success with his camera obscura. But photography of late has entered a brave new epoch. No photographer today would bother cruising the bush with trained leopards to fake a sunset shot. Anyone with Adobe Photoshop ($589 when I last checked; $599 with a scanner thrown in) could find a perfectly adequate leopard in the zoo, digitally edit out the bars of the cage, tree the cat with subtle movements of mouse, bloodlessly procure a dead antelope (if his computer held any in files), and then set the whole collage against a virtual setting sun. Indeed, he could tree his leopard against the rings of Saturn if he was so inclined. A leopard can't change his spots, but the modern photographer can easily do it for him. With some of the applications now available to filmmakers, the photographer could arrange for the leopard to lose a fight with John Wayne, or to dance with Fred Astaire, who has been shown dancing with a vacuum cleaner in a recent television commercial.

"In a strict sense photography can never be abstract, for the camera is incapable of synthetic integration," Ansel Adams wrote in 1932. Synthetic integration, unimaginable sixty-five years ago by one of the art's great technicians, is now full upon us. The old magic is fast becoming a kind of prestidigitation.

More and more digitally doctored images are appearing in the media. The trend alarms a number of photographers. It worries certain editors, and it worries me. I am troubled not only as a colleague -- a nonfiction writer whose text often runs alongside photographs of wild lands and wildlife -- but also as a casual student of the history of nature photography, an admirer of the art, and a friend of many who practice it. I have shared tents and blinds and small boats and even the mouthpieces of scuba regulators with these people. I love them for their hardiness, their courage, and their constant griping about the weather, sticky shutters, leaky housings, bad strobes, native customs, the myopia of photo editors, and the intransigence of wild animals. I am always impressed by their skill at improvisation in the field. I admire -- to a certain extent -- their ingenuity. But it is clear to me that the photographer's work philosophy is not always congruent with the expectations of those of us who view the work. Too few photographers, I think, appreciate how directly the new technology aims at the heart of the credibility that distinguishes this art form from others.

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