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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

by Kenneth Brower

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.
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  • Digital Image Processing
    A "Young Scholars in Computing" project that explores ethical and technological issues surrounding photo manipulation and photojournalism.

  • 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.

    The controversy over digital manipulation has been simmering for some time. It first surfaced in 1982, when National Geographic ran a computer-altered photo of the Pyramids at Giza on its cover. To the traditional adjustments of reality that the photographer had already made -- shooting with a telephoto lens to exaggerate the scale of the Pyramids and persuading three camel riders to pass a second time before those great tombs -- the magazine's editors added a new one: digitally moving the camels backward a few paces.

    In 1991 the board of directors of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), noting that emerging electronic technology enabled "the manipulation of the content of an image in such a way that the change is virtually undetectable," adopted a statement of principle: "As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public."

    The North American Nature Photography Association has yet to agree on any principle so strong. Many NANPA members feel that they have a poetic license broader than the one issued to their cousins, the photojournalists of the NPPA. Still, at the first Annual Nature Photography Forum, held by NANPA in 1994, the ethics session was dominated by fierce debate on the issues of nature photography in commercial game farms and of digital manipulation. Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer from Jackson, Wyoming, lamented the new trends and tallied the damage they had caused the profession: the loss of incentive to compete in the wild, the loss of the sense of adventure, the loss of pride in one's work, and the loss of the public's respect for wildlife photography.

    Art Wolfe, a nature photographer based in Seattle, was the first in the crowd to respond. "We're living in an age of back-swinging toward conservative ethics," Wolfe said. "Whenever I hear the word 'ethics,' it raises the hair on the back of my neck. The point here is that we all have different standards. I certainly don't want to be told by somebody else what I should be doing."

    The debate intensified in 1996, when exposés in The Denver Post and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed how Wolfe's 1994 book Migrations had been fabricated. In about a third of the book's images the wildlife -- caribou, zebra, geese, greater sandhill cranes -- had been digitally enhanced, and some had been digitally cloned and multiplied.

    "Nature photographs are generally accepted as and trusted to be straightforward records of what the photographer witnessed and recorded on film in a single instant," the photographer Gary Braasch wrote in a letter to the NANPA ethics committee in June of 1996, as the debate over Migrations fulminated in the camera magazines. "This is an acceptance hallowed by years of communication among photographers, editors, publishers, and viewers."

    The fact is that this acceptance has often been "hallowed" in the breach. As the advocates of digital doctoring like to point out, the old boys faked it too.

    Recently I checked my recollections of Eliot Porter with John Rohrbach, the associate curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum, in Fort Worth, and the custodian of the Eliot Porter collection there. Rohrbach confirmed my impression that Porter did not believe in setups but was sometimes tempted. He corroborated my sense that Porter was uneasy discussing the matter. "We actually have a picture of him hacking away at a cactus to get a picture of a roadrunner nest," Rohrbach said. "Paul Strand was even more adamant that no retouching at all should occur. But there are prints where Strand drew in manholes or etched out people to balance his compositions."
    Related link:

  • Ansel Adams
    A brief biography with links to sites showing Adams' work.

  • In his first years of printing his most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, Ansel Adams, in his words, "allowed some random clouds in the upper sky area to show." They always annoyed him, and in the 1970s he arranged in the darkroom for those clouds to evaporate. In his celebrated Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California, Adams deleted from the dark foothills of the middle ground the big "LP" that the little town's high school students had laid out in whitewashed stones.

    This image of the Sierra at sunrise -- distant horse grazing beneath a horizon of bare aspens in sunlight; dark, unblemished foothills in shadow; and finally the bright, jagged cordillera of the Sierra in sunlight -- opens This Is the American Earth, the first volume of the "exhibit-format series" that my father, David Brower, began in 1960 at the Sierra Club. Under my father's editorship the series eventually grew to thirty volumes, thirteen of which I wrote or edited. As a fourteen-year-old, well before my father thought to press me into service, I watched This Is the American Earth come together at Adams's house in San Francisco. The creative excitement among the three principal contributors -- Adams, my father, and Nancy Newhall, the author of the text -- was a wonderful thing to behold until the martinis kicked in, always derailing Newhall first. I remember the print of Lone Pine on Adams's table. I have a vague recollection that the photographer was less than proud of having excised the "LP." My father recalls otherwise -- that Adams simply thought the town's initials messed up his picture and he wanted them out of there.

    In 1964, taking a kind of sabbatical after my freshman year at Berkeley, I assembled my first exhibit-format book, a photo essay on California's Big Sur coast. Early in the editing I worked for two weeks out of Adams's new house in Carmel Highlands. By day I collected the work of the several photographic geniuses resident along that shore. By night, back at Adams's house, I watched the maestro "dodge and burn" in his darkroom. To dodge -- to withhold light from an area of the print for a timed period in the developing process -- was once considered, as the term suggests, somewhat underhanded, but it had long since become accepted practice. The same was true of burning, or concentrating light on an area of the print. Adams's darkroom, then just two years old, was state-of-the-art. He had designed it to produce mural-size prints. The enlarging camera was huge, like a Brownie from Brobdingnag. The bellows on the thing would have worked for Vulcan at his forge. Mounted on rails, the camera faced a rail-mounted easel holding the print paper. Adams wore a blue apron that protected everything but the turquoise-and-silver clasp of his string tie. Working over the nascent print, Adams would aim his great deviant beak at it appraisingly. (He had broken his nose when he was four years old, in the San Francisco quake of 1906, which had thrown him against a garden wall. In crushing his septum, the great earthquake was also responsible, I have always assumed, for the strange adenoidal quality of his voice.) His fingers, gnarled by arthritis, would hold the dodging wand. Making little incantatory circles with the wand over the area he wanted lightened, he would laugh his crazy, nasal, Mephistophelian laugh.

    It was all white magic, I can't help thinking. The small adjustments to reality that occurred in Ansel Adams's darkroom, if crimes at all, were misdemeanors. That photographs should be "straightforward records of what the photographer witnessed and recorded on film in a single instant" still seems a worthy ideal, despite the fact that some of our greatest have stretched and jiggered it. Many fine principles are hallowed in the breach. This does not mean that they exert no influence, or that we should dispense with them entirely.


    MOST of my commerce with photographers has been in the field, not in the darkroom. Digitalization overtook photography some time ago, but I have been a Rip Van Winkle in this matter -- if not exactly asleep for twenty years, then inattentive for about that period. To bring myself up to speed, I called at the photography studio of Joseph Holmes, in Kensington, California. Holmes is an old friend whose heroes are my heroes. "Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Edward Weston," he says. "A little Brett Weston. Monet. Van Gogh. O'Keeffe. Thomas Moran." Holmes is a consummate and obsessive printmaker, in the tradition of Adams, and he has a Porterlike eye for composition. He has published several books of photographs, among them the exquisite Natural Light (a promising title, in view of my prejudices), yet he has thrown himself completely into digitalization.

    Holmes's downstairs workroom did not look like any darkroom I remembered. It held no red light, no developing trays. A scanner and ink-jet printers of various sorts lay atop a large table in the middle of the room. Stacks of books, manuals, and papers overspilled the table and completely covered the floor, except where Holmes had cleared a narrow corridor to his computer. "My curse is perfectionism," he had once admitted to me. As we picked our way through the room, I realized that this curse was confined to his printmaking. It has not yet afflicted his housekeeping. He lifted a book to clear a chair for me.

    "I wind up reading stuff like this," he said, flipping through the pages. "Engineering manuals for hard drives. It's ridiculous." Opening to a diagram, he thrust it at me. "Here's how you should cool the hard drive. I like to read about stuff like this when my hard drives die from overheating. It's horrible when your hard drive dies on you."

    Closing the curtain on the window above his computer monitor, Holmes sat at the keyboard. I offered to close the side door as well, which stood half open to the sunlit yard outside. For a moment Holmes seemed baffled by this suggestion. No need, he said, after an awkward pause. The color out there -- the warm light on the concrete -- was hardly the sort that would interfere with the fidelity of the colors on the screen.

    With a stylus on a Wacom ArtZ tablet in his lap, Holmes summoned an image: Lily pads, Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1979.


    Clockwise from top left: Joseph Holmes's photograph Lily Pads, Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1979, with two hundred and eighty-five megabytes in the image. With each successive frame the magnification increases by a factor of four.

    If these lilies had begun as homage to Monet, Holmes had managed to put his own stamp on them. In Monet's Giverny lilies, on canvas after canvas, the life is in the colors of sky and vegetation reflected on the water. In Holmes's Tennessee lilies the reflected sky is colorless -- a luminous gray -- and all the life is in the verdant topography of the pads and in the gems of dew on them. If the eye stops anywhere in the Holmes picture, it is on a great, glittering Hope Diamond of dew cupped in the green tureen of the largest pad.

    "In this special format there are two hundred and eighty-five megabytes in the image of lilies," Holmes said. "There were two ten in the original format. A two-ten-meg file -- that's seventy million image pixels. A very large number of little squares." Here, too, Holmes diverged from the master. Claude Monet was no pointillist. He liked to load up his brush. In the most detailed of Monet's lily ponds the number of brushstrokes falls well short of 70 million.

    Holmes proceeded to deconstruct his lilies. With light touches of stylus on pad he instructed the computer to open an image with lots of edit layers and then to peel away layers. As he removed each layer, a kind of shiver traveled through the image. It was ominous, somehow, as if a gust of ill wind had blown across Reelfoot Lake. The lilies would darken or lighten imperceptibly. The edges of the pads would shift and refocus in subtle, indescribable ways. These tiny metamorphoses caused me to consider the great mystery of how the world -- its shapes and colors -- looks to others. The computer, it seemed, was trying to solve the mystery -- to educate the solipsist in me. This was like gazing at Reelfoot Lake through a succession of different corneas.

    "I'm turning off the upper layers so we can move quickly into the picture, just to give you an idea how many pixels there are in this image," Holmes said. "This is one magnification factor of two."

    The computer enlarged a section of the image that Holmes had selected. Like a detail from a painting, the fragment -- a single lily pad, and the pad's dark shadow on the water, and the bright water beneath the shadow's curving edge -- became more interesting than the totality of the canvas.

    "Here's a second factor of two."

    We were plummeting headlong into the lily pad, it seemed, but Holmes apologized for the slowness of our journey. He explained that the computer was reading the compressed image, decompressing it on the fly, and displaying it on the screen.

    "A third factor of two," he said.

    We were plunging now into the darkness of the lily's shadow, and I found myself, contrary to all expectation, very excited. I had come prepared to dislike everything about digitalization, but I loved this sensation of being pulled into the microcosm. The fascination at the core of Antonioni's movie Blow-Up was all here in Reelfoot Lake.

    "A fourth factor of two."

    Each time we lurched deeper into the picture, the image on the screen, though it could only be accidental now, continued to look composed. The arrangement looked intentional. What is the magic in the frame? In any frame? The simple act of framing with the hands, or a viewfinder, or a computer screen, causes a scene to jump out at us. Throw a frame around almost anything, and the elements within try to harmonize. Composition resides more in nature, maybe, and in the effort of the viewer, than it does in the sensibilities of photographers and artists.

    "A fifth factor of two."

    "Oh, my goodness," I heard myself say. It sounded awfully prim, like something Dorothy would cry on her departure from Kansas. I was pixilated and pixelated. Another few factors of two, I calculated, and we would be probing the atomic structure of Reelfoot Lake. The darkness of the lily-shadowed water would soon flicker with the dance of electrons and quarks.

    "I could change one pixel in the image," Holmes said. "I have infinite control. This is a small part of the picture, and you still don't see any little squares. The trick in digital imaging is always to have more than enough pixels to not see them." He added that if necessary he could build something called a ramp within an individual pixel. "You can dodge and burn the tiniest thing. When you have access to complete digital control, then you can get total tonal control."

    He gave me a sidelong glance and then delivered an apostasy. "I don't know if you've ever gone back and looked at Ansel's stuff. At the Ansel Adams Center, in San Francisco, they have a collection of his prints on permanent display, all dated from the early seventies. I looked at them recently, and I was shocked. They're miserable compared with recent reproductions, because the reproductions were done on a drum scanner that gave tonal control sufficient to add separation to the highlights and to the shadows. Photography has a terrible problem with highlights and shadows. It's one of the big reasons why photographs look like photographs. Highlights are washed out, usually, and shadows are black -- 'the soot and the chalk' that Ansel used to rail against. That's not the way the world really looks."

    Holmes's favorite piece of two-dimensional art is not a photograph but an oil on canvas, a Van Gogh painting of olive orchards. The richness of the Van Gogh, which Holmes first saw on loan at the National Gallery, stunned and overwhelmed him. Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party drives him insane, he says. Renoir's ability to explore details in his shadows far exceeds anything a photographer could do.

    "Most people are oblivious of the way their eyes work," Holmes said. "They just see. They take it in, they extract the particular fact they need to deal with, and they entirely miss the mechanisms of seeing. It never occurs to them that they have a vast dynamic range in their eyes, and that they can adjust through vast light-level changes, from sunlight on snow at high altitude to starlight at night -- an incredible ten-million-to-one range. Photography is this miserable, weak little thing that can show you a print with a hundred-to-one brightness range. Or a two-hundred-to-one brightness range, tops."

    Joseph Holmes's quest for the perfect print -- a crusade he does not seem to find at all quixotic -- has occupied the past twenty-three years. Ansel Adams, who shared this almost religious dedication to the print, turned to music for his metaphor and mantra. "The negative is the score," Adams would recite. "The print is the performance." Holmes spends most of his time directing the performance. His servitude to the print requires him to spend his life in the studio; his time in the field toting a camera has been reduced to three or four weeks a year. He does not like this imbalance but sees no way around it.

    "Every time I try to print by a new method, it's another five-year project to get it going," he said. "It took five years to get going on dye transfer, it took five years to get going on Cibachrome, and it's taken five years again to get going on digital imaging. But it's unavoidable. I have no choice."

    The rewards of his latest five-year project -- which is now actually in its eighth year -- would soon be enormous, he predicted. His average labor time on a Cibachrome print had been four hours. With digital imaging the time is reduced radically. "I could make only a few hundred Cibachrome prints a year, maximum," he said. "Ansel made, what, twenty-five thousand prints in his lifetime, of about eighteen hundred different subjects. So far I've printed a hundred subjects. I need to print several hundred subjects to have what I think is a reasonable life's work."

    I could understand the allure of any process that reduced the hours of printmaking and freed the photographer to roam. I remembered Ansel Adams's old lament about the prison of his darkroom. Beside his house in Carmel Highlands, overlooking the Pacific, beneath a hill covered in chaparral and floodlit beautifully at night, was the fireproof bunker in which Adams stored his negatives. He would complain often that several lifetimes' worth of work lay there underground. It really made no sense, he said, to take a single new photograph. He laughed at the irony, but I believe that it truly depressed him. I think it diminished his thrill in spreading the legs of the tripod and disappearing under the black cloth. The backlog of negatives meant that most of the images he had seen through the viewfinder, and visualized as prints, and captured with his camera, would never grow past the embryonic stage represented by the negative. Much of his lifework would never be seen by others.

    Joseph Holmes, after eight years of work with digital imaging, has become an expert in the new science of color management. Much of his income now comes from consulting for fine-art printmaking companies, lithographers, publishers, museums -- anyone with imaging problems. "It's sort of like herding an infinite number of sheep over rough terrain," he says. "All the sheep are individual colors, they're all trying to get away, and you're trying to keep them in order. It's the science of device-independent color, where the color characteristics of every device in your system -- the scanner and the way the scanner sees film, the monitor, the printer and the way the printer prints on a given substrate -- are all described in device-independent terms. Their colors are described in absolute color numbers that become a common language of color. When it all works right, the colors you see on your monitor are the colors in the print, but there are a vast number of ways for it not to turn out right."

    Digital-imaging technology is evolving by leaps and bounds, Holmes said. A number of companies are racing to develop the best printers, and each year's ink-jet machines are twice as good as those of the year before. "It's endless," he said. Hearing the weariness in his voice, I asked if he worried that his labors might be Sisyphean, given the way the technology keeps changing. He denied it. He was familiar now with computer systems. Once digital printmaking really started to work, he said, it would only get better and easier.

    I hoped he was right. I hoped that the grail would not keep receding -- that digital imaging would free him to take his good eye out under the sky more often. It will be terrible if he winds up an old shepherd, hunched at the screen, driving his obstreperous, bleating, multicolored flock through ever more mountainous Himalayas, stretched out range on range through cyberspace.

    When I asked Holmes his opinion on the controversy over digital manipulation, he shrugged. The issue did not interest him much. "It's obvious that Art Wolfe should have mentioned in his book that he was adding extra animals," he said. "That's a substantial distortion of reality. One of the things that nature photographs do, inevitably, is to report on nature. But they don't necessarily do it in literal ways. It's not easy to define how much of a given landscape photograph consists of reportage and how much is an artistic interpretation."

    "If Wolfe had acknowledged a little more clearly what he had done, it would have been okay?" I asked.

    "Well, certainly. Why not? People paint things all the time. We don't think they're criminals for making paintings."

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

    Kenneth Brower is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, specializing in ecological issues.

    Illustrations by Istvan Banyai

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Photography in the Age of Falsification; Volume 281, No. 5; pages 92 - 111.

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