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MONG photographers, opinion on digital manipulation seems to fall into either of two schools, the principal spokesmen for which are Galen Rowell and Art Wolfe, who have both been collaborators of mine. These men are energetic in a force-of-nature way, tireless travelers, prodigiously productive. Neither is a photographer so much as a little but prolific photographic industry, producing books, prints, postcards, and advertising images.
Mountain Light Photography, Galen and Barbara Rowell's shop, is a converted warehouse in Emeryville, California, not far from the shore of San Francisco Bay. When I visited recently, I was greeted at the door by Khumbu, the Rowells' fifteen-year-old golden retriever. Khumbu wore a bandanna around his neck -- a memento of a recent grooming visit to Dogs by Diane. The hair on his head and face had gone completely gray since I had seen him last. The bandanna and the salon pampering it symbolized seemed an indignity to an old outdoorsman like Khumbu, but he bore it cheerfully enough.
Mountain Light is bright and spacious inside, the white walls of the first-floor lobby museum-lit and hung with an ever changing gallery of Rowell's prints. Waiting for the photographer to appear, I made a circuit of his walls: Sunset Over Machu Picchu. Last Light on Horsetail Falls. Polar Bear Resting Against Its Mother. I lingered before Rowell's most famous photograph, Rainbow Over the Potala Palace, Lhasa. The rainbow strikes the palace dead center. This would put the pot of gold in the throne room or the pantry of the palace, formerly owned by Rowell's friend the Dalai Lama. On the evidence of this photo, Tibetan Buddhism is the answer. The rainbow seemed much brighter than in other prints of it I had seen. I gave it a hard look and then the benefit of the doubt. I moved on. At Cuernos del Paine at Dawn, Lago Pehoe, Patagonia, I paused again. For years I never quite believed this picture -- the febrile radiance of the yellow-flowering shrubs in the foreground, the improbable aquamarine of the glacial lake in the middle distance, the sheer, phantasmagoric granite towers of the "Horns" of Paine in the sky. Then, last February, on an assignment to southern Chile, I found myself at dawn on the shore of this very lake, and I saw that it was all true. I crossed the room to Alaska Brown Bear, Katmai National Park. The bear is standing in the white torrent of a cascade, a salmon poised in mid-leap just inches from its open jaws. The shutter had arrested the fish forever in the instant before its demise.
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Another brown bear was once on this wall, rearing to its full height and
roaring directly into the camera. This bear was an actor named Bart, a grizzly
everyman, the brown bear you see in all the movies and commercials requiring
brown bears. When Bart was mounted here, roaring his signature roar, Mountain
Light's visitors all gravitated to him. How in God's name, everyone asked
Rowell, had he managed to take this photograph and survive? When Rowell
explained that the bear was an acquaintance and a thespian, he saw a little
light of admiration die in their eyes. It seemed to him that they now looked
differently at all his pictures. He retired Bart from the wall.
Rowell, appearing at the head of the stairway, invited me up to his projection room. Khumbu followed at my heels. Khumbu was named for the Everest region of Nepal, one of his master's favorite hangouts. The dog was a climber once, but now his ascent of the stairway was labored and slow.
In the photography workshops Rowell teaches, he must, he believes, do more than impart technique. These days he needs to impart ethics as well. Even as images grow sharper with digital enhancement, the honest path grows murkier, and Rowell feels that students need guidance. Today's class was just Khumbu and me. Rowell loaded the carousel of his ethics lesson on the projector, closed the curtain at the door, and pressed the button. The first slide showed an Eadweard Muybridge sequence of running horses from 1872. This particular series had settled a $25,000 bet over whether all four hooves are ever off the ground at the same time. (They are.) The Muybridge was a relic of the day when the photograph was incontrovertible, prima facie evidence. The second slide showed a photograph doctored by Senator Joe McCarthy to juxtapose one of his targets with some Communist or fellow traveler. Guilt by association is a dubious proposition to begin with. This was fake guilt by association. The McCarthy represented the photograph as hoax. Rowell pressed the button again.
Elephants. A herd on the move, its subgroups tinted in several colors.
"This picture is from Art Wolfe's book Migrations," Rowell said. "This is how it appeared in a story on digital manipulation in The Denver Post. They've color-coded the animals to show groups that are identical and have been cloned." He walked to the screen and began pointing. "This whole group of seven is this group of seven. Three of these seven, up here, are these three down here -- which have been cloned yet again, right here. This one is this one is this one is this one. This pair is this pair, and this pair is this pair. Fifty-four elephants in a picture that originally had fifteen."
The Pyramids at Giza in the smoky light of evening. Three camels and their riders in the foreground.
"The famous National Geographic cover," Rowell said. "The Pyramids were moved in relation to the camel riders to make room for the logo. Originally the cover was to be a picture of mine of a Tibetan boy. They kicked it off because the Chinese Embassy objected. The Chinese said they wouldn't let National Geographic writers and photographers into Tibet again if they ran that picture on the cover. It was already at the printer's. When they decided to yank mine out, they needed an instant replacement. They chose this picture, which was a horizontal. In making it a vertical they reset the riders."
Zebras. A tapestry of stripes, the herd standing so close together that not a speck of ground or wildebeest or anything else non-zebraic shows in the frame.
"This is a close-up of the cover of Migrations," Rowell said. He pointed to the face of a zebra just above the t in the book's title. Then he pointed to another zebra face just below the e in Art Wolfe's name. "Zebras have a 'fingerprint' in their patterns," he said. "These are different frames of the same zebra."
Cleft rock in silhouette against pale evening sky, with pink, ethereal cirrus above.
I recognized this photo as Rowell's own, one I had always admired: blackness versus brightness, earth versus sky, near versus far. Solidity of stone versus ethereality of vapor. "This picture was digitally altered on the cover of my book Mountain Light," Rowell said. "In order to make it fit the cover, they did two things -- with my permission. They 'chopped and channeled' it, like an old hot-rod. They took a section of sky out, which moved the cloud down so they wouldn't have to crop it so much. I felt there was a very good rationale for doing it, and that it preserved the original image I had in mind."
Negative space has positive virtues in art. Whole essays have been written on the dynamic interval -- the electric synapse -- between God's outstretched finger and Adam's on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I asked Rowell which he preferred of the intervals between the heaven and earth of his own picture. Without hesitation he answered that he liked his original cleft rock and cloud. "That's why I took it that way. But if I had just stepped back and bent down, I would have gotten a picture with the cloud a little lower. I thought that the alteration was a little bit on the edge, but okay."
Cheetahs. A mother cat reclining on grass, six cubs piled upon her.
This cheetah family portrait, according to Rowell, was an Art Wolfe composite of two zoo photographs, one of a mother and single cub, the other of five cubs. Wolfe had digitally removed a zoo fence from the background and reseeded the area with virtual grass. The image had drawn fire at a conference of the North American Nature Photography Association, where an editor from the World Wildlife Fund had objected to it. "The complaint," Rowell said, "was that cheetahs can't have six cubs. Art's defense is that the zoologists who declared this were wrong. Apparently the literature says they can have as many as eight. So Art says, 'Yep, it's good natural history. They can have up to eight.'"
Whether or not six or eight cubs made sense, something was wrong with the photograph. I could not quite put my finger on it. It might have been in the attention of the cats, which seemed divided in an unnatural way. (Two things of considerable and absolutely equal interest seemed to be approaching the group of felines from different directions.) It might have been in the calm of the mother. She did not look like a cheetah inundated by six cubs. She had the relaxed eyes of a mother of one -- which was what she was. The more I looked at the picture, the more artificial it appeared.
"In summary," Rowell said, and he pushed the button to advance the carousel. Bald eagle. "Totally wild photo, no problem." Bust of bald eagle, filling frame. "Totally captive photo. No problem for a lot of markets. Federal Express. Post Office. That's my photo, but it's a captive eagle, and I wouldn't sell it for a story on wild eagles without putting 'captive' on my slide mount. Some people would." Eagle soaring against snowy ridge. "Here's a photo that I manipulated years ago. That was an eagle on a gray sky that I superimposed against a ridge of Mount McKinley -- a 'sandwich.' I did it for a slide show about twenty years ago, set to music. I never put it out for publication. Now I wouldn't even create it. I feel it would compromise my work."
Polar bear. A rear view, the bear relaxing on its belly, facing away across a channel of open water and small icebergs.
"This photo, advertised here in an ad for Tony Stone Images, became very controversial. National Geographic Online, representing the Discovery Channel and the Explorer TV series, bought this image from Tony Stone without passing it by the editorial side of the magazine. It appeared in a full-page ad in National Geographic. As soon as it was discovered, National Geographic pulled the ad. This is a bear in a zoo in Ohio, superimposed digitally against the Lemaire Channel, in Antarctica, where there are no polar bears."
The Arctic is named for its arctos, its bear. Its antipodes have never had one. The photograph had reversed the polarity of the planet. I laughed at the boldness, or perhaps it was the oversight, that allowed the photographer to fill this empty Antarctic niche. The bear was a hoax and an oxymoron, but it was funny. The setting, Lemaire Channel, could have fooled me -- its icebergs looked Arctic enough. But again I was nagged by something wrong in the picture. The longer I looked at it, the more it seemed to fall apart.
The bear's stubby tail and the dark pads of its rear paws faced the camera. It lay completely oblivious of the cameraman behind. Polar bears are far-ranging predators with wonderful sensory equipment. They inhabit vast solitudes and always know when they have company. In all the photographs of wild polar bears that I have seen (save those taken at Churchill, a town in Manitoba, where the bears are semi-habituated to human beings), the bear's nose is elevated as he tries to get a whiff of the cameraman, or he is moving off uneasily. This supposed Antarctic bear was indifferent to the human being behind it, and that was not natural. The bear's backside and the hams of its legs were matted and stained yellow. The pattern looked peculiar. In sedentary periods wild polar bears are often tinted an attractive old-ivory yellow all over, by their urine, but here the yellow was localized. The bear had dyed itself, I suspected, by sitting for long periods in its urine, before its digital liberation from a concrete slab in Cincinnati and its transport to the wrong pole. Rowell himself had not noticed this pattern. "I think you're right," he said, staring at his screen. "You wouldn't see it like that by open water."
Earthrise. Whiteness of moon in foreground. Across the barren lunar terrain a message scrawled in longhand: "To Tony, I hope you can see this someday. Bill Anders, Apollo 8."
"This was taken by Colonel William Anders in 1968," Rowell said. "He held his Hasselblad up to the window and fired away." Rowell, an acquaintance of Anders's, had begged a copy for his son Tony, and the print had arrived with its dedication in longhand, along with a cover note: "Here's a picture your dad asked me to send you that I took on my last vacation."
Earth levitated for a while in the darkened room, against the blackness of eternal space. Khumbu, the golden retriever gone gray, had no interest in earthrise. For dogs, compelling terrestrial images are much closer under the nose. Khumbu put his chin on my thigh and looked soulfully into my eyes for attention. He was highly redolent of old dog, not a bad smell, and I scratched him behind the ear. Khumbu's master, for his part, seemed hypnotized by the image. "This is all about lifting the camera and taking a picture of what you see," he said finally. "It's different from a remote picture that you don't quite believe in the same way because there was no human being there behind the camera."
Snapped robotically, NASA photos of earthrise, more detailed and tightly composed, have been published, Rowell said. In his opinion, none has the poetic power or has evoked the sentiment and acclaim that this one has -- the shutter tripped by a human finger. Rowell believes, along with many, that Anders's earthrise is epochal, that it is the most important photograph in the history of environmental awareness.
The colonel's earthrise reminded Rowell of the words of another colleague, the Dalai Lama. The two collaborated on the book My Tibet -- photos by Rowell, text by His Holiness. In 1987, at a symposium of neuroscientists, psychologists, and artificial-intelligence experts, Rowell said, the Dalai Lama was asked how Buddhists validate their perceptions. The scientists wondered, among other things, whether Buddhists accept the existence of external phenomena apart from concepts already in place in their minds. The answer, the Dalai Lama said, was in the Buddhist concept called Extremely Hidden Phenomena. "I know the earth to be a round bluish globe," he explained, "although I have never seen it and have not done any conclusive reasoning about it. I know the earth is round by relying on the words of someone who has seen it and proved it with photographs. First you must prove that the person is reliable by various reasonings -- that there is no reason he should tell lies with false photos. After this you understand that the earth is round, although you haven't seen it. This is called inference based upon belief. You have to rely on a person who has already had this kind of experience and has no reason to tell lies."
Rowell glanced at me to see if the aptness of this had sunk in. Then he quoted another astronaut, Rusty Schweickart, who had followed Colonel Anders into space. "You are the sensing element for humanity," Schweickart reported on returning. "And that becomes a rather special responsibility." That special responsibility, in Rowell's opinion, is shared by photographers, too.
Cranes taking wing in Africa. Above them an impala leaping.
"Final picture," Rowell said. "This is from Ernst Haas's The Creation. The impala was in the middle of one of those high bounds. Back then, when The Creation was published, this was just a wonderful serendipity. Now the first thing somebody would think is 'Ah, how did he fake it?' And that's what we've lost."
Downstairs, as Rowell and Khumbu herded me toward the door, we paused at a computer monitor in the stockroom. Rowell asked an assistant to call up a particular image for me. The assistant searched rank upon rank of icons. Each icon marked the file of a photograph. The assistant double-clicked on one, and the computer chattered faintly to itself, making its thousands of binary decisions. Then the image formed and clarified. It was a photograph of Khumbu cloned many times, in the manner of Art Wolfe's elephants. A formation of dozens of identical leaping Khumbus filled the sky, and a few Khumbus in the lead were alighting with a splash in a marsh. "This is called Golden Retrievers Migrating South," Rowell said, grinning.
"He was more athletic then, wasn't he?" I said, laughing. "And he was more numerous."
This fabrication was a riposte to Wolfe, I understood, and yet, as a friend of Khumbu's, and as someone who had just lost his own sixteen-year-old dog to the indignities of age, I found I liked the picture. It was winningly surrealistic, like something by Magritte or Escher. The apotheosis and replication of Khumbu made Rowell's point nicely, and yet it was somehow stirring.
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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.