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N an average year, according to the jacket copy for Migrations, Art Wolfe visits all seven continents and shoots more than 2,000 rolls of film. Indeed, Migrations might have served as a fine title for Wolfe's autobiography, had he not used it already for his work on the movements of animals. Like Galen Rowell, Wolfe is at home anywhere on earth -- in the cold of either pole or in African heat, in jungle or desert, taiga or tundra, under water or above. Whereas Rowell works in higher regions (he began as a climber, and mountain light still illuminates the core of his work), Wolfe has more experience down on the savannas and steppes. Like his predator namesake, Wolfe derives his bread and butter from following the herds. In his ubiquity with a camera, he seems almost to have cloned himself. He has become a whole pack of Wolfes. By his reckoning, he has taken a million photographs, and his files now amount to a Noah's ark of images. It is odd -- or perhaps not odd at all -- that Rowell and Wolfe, in many ways so similar, should find themselves champions of opposing views. When I caught up with Wolfe recently, between expeditions, we had not spoken for a couple of years, since comparing notes on a magazine story we did together on the island of Mauritius. I asked him about the digital imbroglio.
"Certainly I've been in the heart of the controversy," he told me. "But I can't really, honestly think it's been bad for my career. It certainly brought a lot of attention to the work I was doing. I think any artist or photographer -- or writer, for that matter -- would want that. A lot of people have noticed Migrations. A lot of people gave it a lot of praise. It also, as you know, got up the ire of some of my colleagues. But not most of them. I think a lot of people understood what I was trying to do with that book.
"Migrations is historically an old book now. It was published four years ago, and that's ancient history in the world of photography. We formulated a very clear policy as a result of that book. Since then we've published another book, In the Presence of Wolves, with five digital illustrations that were labeled as such, and no one objected. So we figured out that people were upset less because we used the technology than because we did not always say we had. We are using the technology now in developing stock photography -- photos or illustrations fed directly into the advertising market. We've completely backed away from doing digital illustrations that can look real, simply because once it's out of our hands, we lose our control of where it's used."
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Last September, Wolfe attended an ethics conference hosted by the National
Museum of Wildlife Art, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He and a number of other
nature photographers -- including Frans Lanting, Jim Blaylock, Nick Nichols,
Chris Johns, and Tom Mangelsen -- discussed the problems of digital manipulation and photography of captive animals. "We talked about where we thought photography was going," Wolfe said. "We came to a pretty clear understanding of where we felt it should go, and how it should go. We felt that whatever we agreed upon would probably become the standard in the industry in the years to come.|
"About three years ago I led the industry in demanding from my agencies that they start labeling digital illustrations as such. They concurred and started labeling. Now most stock agencies around the world are following suit. I think the rest of the photographers at Jackson Hole thought that that was the most appropriate way of presenting the work. They also felt that digital enhancement -- darkening of sky, say, and other things that had been done in the past by printing techniques in the darkroom -- need not be labeled."
Wolfe laughed. "Out of the million photos I've done, less than two hundred have digital components. I'm still not using the technology all that often."
"Has the controversy spoiled your fun in using digital?" I asked.
"No, not at all. I remain unbowed. I was clear on where I was going to use it from the very, very beginning. I knew it was going to be controversial before we even had the book printed. But also, to this day I would be in a quandary as to how to identify the digital work in Migrations. It really ran the spectrum from very radical combinations of photos to very minuscule fixes, where maybe a single head in a flock of two hundred birds would be changed just to complete a pattern. I know of no symbols that show that great a range."
ANKIND has lived through ages of stone, iron, bronze, exploration, enlightenment, the atom, space. Our own time is, as much as anything else, the Age of Falsification. The nip, the tuck, the face-lift, the silicone implant. The fascination with virtual reality in a world teeming with real realities. The vogue of the magical realists and their pale, nervous whimsy in a world absolutely ashimmer with real
magic. The Michael Jordan shoe. The sound bite and the injury it can do not only to content but also to honesty in our political discourse. (Lincoln required three hours of oration just to warm up.) The blockbuster movie in which story line and plausibility are sacrificed to digital effects and Dolby Sound. (At the present rate of entropy, all cinema will soon be one continuous explosion.) Those "Do people care?" Chevron ads, which have now suckled a whole generation. White female blues singers singing on National Public Radio in exactly the style of old black men from the Mississippi Delta.
Nature, in contrast, is always true. Throughout most of its history photography has been a chronicle of real moments. That is what is so disheartening about Art Wolfe's computer-generated flocks and herds. Nature photography is one part of our culture where authenticity might make a stand. It is dispiriting to see its practitioners turn and go with the flow.
Photofakery is pernicious to natural history. Lemmings do not commit suicide, either individually or en masse from cliffs -- Darwin and common sense forbid it. Yet thanks to Disney, several generations of Americans believe that lemmings do. Only elephants can pull off an authentic migration of elephants. A photographer may have spent his life observing elephants, and may believe that he knows their habits well, but when he begins cloning his own herds, error and falseness will inevitably creep in.
"Over the years, as I reviewed the material," Art Wolfe writes in the introduction to Migrations, "I often had to pass over photographs because in a picture of masses of animals invariably one would be wandering in the wrong direction, thereby disrupting the pattern I was trying to achieve. Today the ability to digitally alter this disruption is at hand."
Wandering in the wrong direction according to whom? Whose patterns is the nature photographer supposed to celebrate -- nature's or his own? In the human herd that animal wandering in the wrong direction would be the Buddha, or Luther, or Einstein. We generally regard these rogues and erratics as among the more interesting features of the big picture, and human history cannot be related without reference to them. Animals turned in the wrong direction are a truth of nature. If anything, they validate the pattern, as exceptions that prove the rule. The accidental and the unpredictable are vital to art. Without those elements art becomes boring. Reversing the contrary animal is wrongheaded, not only journalistically but also artistically.
Photofakery is pernicious to conservation. Photographers -- along with poets, painters, astronauts, reporters -- are a sensing element for humanity. The public increasingly depends for much of its environmental awareness on photographic images from around the world. These images need to be true. Zoo cheetahs, when subjected to digital fertility treatments and freed on a virtual savanna, can spawn huge litters, but real African cheetahs are in desperate reproductive trouble, their populations reduced to the point that inbreeding and its genetic consequences threaten their survival.
Digital photofakery creates problems for photographers who choose to shoot straight. Manufactured serendipity is so much quicker and easier than the genuine kind.
Digital photofakery is likely to be pernicious also, in the long run, to the continued good will of photography's audience. Photography and the public have an unusual compact. "The camera does not lie" is a proposition that most of us know to be false yet we half believe anyway. This is a dynamic unique in the arts. The "willing suspension of disbelief" that Coleridge detected at the heart of poetic faith becomes in photographic faith a nearly automatic suspension. Once betrayed, this sort of uncomplicated belief goes quickly past willing to unwilling. Art Wolfe's Migrations is the perfect example. The book is briefly entertaining as a "Where's Waldo?" exercise. Finding the reduplicated zebras on the book's cover requires a close attention to stripes, forcing one to appreciate as never before the wonderful painting on zebras. But soon one is just searching for Waldo and ceases to see wildlife. Interest evaporates as the pages are turned. Halfway through I found I did not want to look at the pictures anymore. Wolfe's defense -- that the book is not natural history but art -- does not wash. The title is Migrations, the subject is wild animals on the march, the text is natural history. The point of the book is not the artful composition of the images but the multitudes in them. Those multitudes are inflated and fake.
In Biographia Literaria, along with his famous observation on the willing suspension of disbelief, Coleridge listed "the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by modifying colors of imagination." In the digital doctoring of photographs these two cardinal points have come into conflict.
N my living-room wall is a Galen Rowell print, Evening on the Tingri Plain Below Cho Oyu (26,750 feet), 1988. A Tibetan woman leads a gray horse across a vast gravel plain, under icy peaks at the roof of the world. Bringing up the rear, in the long evening shadow cast by woman and horse, walks a small Tibetan boy. I know that this is a reduplicated moment, because years ago I asked Rowell about it. Rowell saw the woman lead her horse under Cho Oyu, but his camera was not ready. His local companion casually suggested that he could ask the woman to pass under Cho Oyu again -- it was the companion's wife on her way home. This minimal degree of setup hardly amounts to deception, and I still love the photograph, but for me a few lumens of brightness have faded from the picture. Rowell does not notice any such dimming. He sees only the triumph of one of his more wonderful pictures. The hard work of making a photograph is not like the easy work of looking at one, and a little crevasse will probably always lie between maker and viewer. Photography's task in the digital age will be to ensure that the crevasse does not erode into a chasm.
When one is not obliged to make photographs, one can easily take a position purer than the snows of Cho Oyu. On the matter of digital manipulation I have arrived at a view more pristine than that held by any of the photographers I have interviewed.
Galen Rowell, champion of the anti-digitalists, showed me a photo book called Brother Wolf, on the cover of which the titular wolf peeks out from behind a tree trunk. This wolf art was not by Art Wolfe but by the wildlife photographer Jim Brandenberg. "Brandenberg freely admits that this image has been altered," Rowell said. "He softened out the left side of the picture, where the title would go, and he intensified the eye. He brought out the color and whiteness to make that eye stand out more. I think that's okay."
But is it okay? Is it honest photography? How is it different from airbrushing?
Rowell opened the book to a photo of a running wolf. "In an image like this he edge-sharpened the nose. And I don't have a problem with that. I think that if you're tuning in an image with digital technique to look more like what you saw, to do what the camera couldn't quite do, to make something sharper so you could see it better, something that was really there in front of the camera, then all that's fine."
I suggested to Rowell that "tuning in an image to look more like what you saw" allowed abundant room for the photographer to fool himself, and us, about what he had really seen. Rowell agreed.
"But these are things you technically could have gotten," he said, "if you used faster film or owned a faster lens, and your technique was better."
I can sympathize. But shouldn't the photographer's solution be to select that faster film, buy that faster lens, improve that technique?
"It was something that was in front of the camera," Rowell went on, "rather than something that was added. That's a big difference. As a general rule, but not absolute, things that are added are a red flag, where things that are subtracted may not be."
This, too, seems a suspect principle. The reasoning strikes me as flawed in an almost mathematical way. If addition should be forbidden, why not subtraction? In their aesthetic tastes Rowell may be a reductionist and Art Wolfe a productionist, but no general rule of ethics can be abstracted from this.
One of a collection of Ansel Adams photos at a site hosted by the University of Arkansas.
In my talk with the printmaker Joseph Holmes I mentioned Ansel Adams's
Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California, and
Adams's excision of the "LP" from the picture. Holmes laughed. "He usually
wasn't able to delete it all that effectively," he said. "You can still see it
in the image. But he was right. It was a gross scar on the scene. It's like you
can have the scene back in at least one reality. There was no point in spoiling
it twice -- first by spoiling this great landscape, and then spoiling the great
picture of it, too."
When I asked Holmes if he had ever done digital manipulation that left him uncomfortable, he considered for a moment.
"The hardest decision I've had on a retouching job was whether to remove a really obvious road from a picture -- a road that I always thought spoiled the way the scene looked. Taking out a less obvious road I don't have the slightest qualms about, but in the case of something really obvious, something recognizable -- that's a problem. It's obvious to me, for example, that no recognizable landscape should be 'flopped.' Yosemite Valley you shouldn't flop. But if you have a picture of detailed vegetation, and it looks better backwards, you should reverse it. Because it doesn't make any difference to the natural history of the place. There's no left-rightness about the way the plants grow that would be misleading to a botanist. There's absolutely no reportage element in there of any value."
A one-lane road may be ripe for digital erasure, but a two-lane road is not? Logging road yes, interstate no? The rationale for the prohibition against flopping a famous landscape, I gather, is that if you flop it, the viewer might catch on. Is this the kind of relationship we want between photographer and audience? And who says that "left-rightness" has nothing to do with the way plants grow? Handedness is one of the enduring mysteries of life. If it manifests itself in molecules, perhaps it also manifests itself in trees.
"If I should pick up litter in a national park and thereby alter the landscape," Holmes said, "I would be just as happy to pick up litter in the virtual national park for the same reason exactly. If I don't want the national park to have litter in it, I'll pick it up."
He can pick it up if he wants, of course, but then what of the Buddhist doctrine of Extremely Hidden Phenomena? What of the photographer as sensing element for humanity?
A labeling system like the one settled on by the photographers and editors who convened at Jackson Hole last summer will help, but only marginally, I think. The labels will catch the attention of other photographers and editors, but will go largely unnoticed by the rest of us. I wish that the Jackson Hole gathering had included a consumer of photographs, not just producers. I find it odd that I, a word man, should be the one to point this out, but in photography the image is the thing -- a photograph's essential existence is entirely separate from words and explanations. Art Wolfe published a disclaimer in Migrations, but nobody reads the text of photo books, particularly the introductions -- as the author of many of them, I can testify to this. Bart, the brown bear who once roared on Galen Rowell's gallery wall, was identified in the caption as a trained bear, but few of the gallery visitors read the caption.
The photographer can insist till he's blue in the face that a given image is art, but the rest of us expect at least a measure of reportage there -- and we are half the equation.
ARLY in its history photography was dismissed as a lesser art, or as no art at all. A photograph, critics said, was just a record of the external moment -- a critique that the medium has never entirely escaped. Well into this century photographers found themselves apologetic about their work, and many were drawn to the abnegation of pictorialism. The Pictorialists produced blurred, symbolic, "poetic" prints in an effort to be painterly. The style was in vogue until the 1930s, with intermittent reinventions afterward. In 1932 a group of seven West Coast photographers, among them Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston, found themselves united in their distaste for the vapid ethic and misty look of pictorialism. One evening in Berkeley, at the house of a member of the group, Willard Van Dyke, the seven debated what they should call themselves. An eighth photographer, a visiting neophyte named Preston Holder, suggested "US 256," which was then a designation for one of the smaller lens stops -- a constricted aperture allowing for the clarity and depth of field favored by the group. Adams worried that as US 256 they might be mistaken for a federal highway, but he liked Holder's drift; he picked up a pencil and sketched out "f/ 64." The aperture f/ 64 corresponded to US 256 in a new marking system just introduced. The seven photographers liked the graphic elegance of the name -- the flourish of the long descender on the f Adams drew. They became Group f/ 64. The members believed in straight photography, in "pure" photography -- in what Adams called "clear images, smooth honest papers, and ... the complete absence of affected imitation of other art forms." They held their first shows, and the public quickly saw, with f/ 64 clarity, that the group of seven had found a better path. Pictorialism withered, and straight photography flourished.
History is circular, and we have come, it seems, to a similar crossroads. Digital technology now allows photographers complete freedom to rearrange reality according to their whims. This is what painters do. The computer has provided the new Pictorialists with capabilities the old Pictorialists never dreamed of, and in so doing has presented all photography, nature photography in particular, with both a wonderful new toy and a crisis. I believe we need a new Group f/ 64. It could start small, as before -- just a cell of believers committed to clarity and depth of field in images and ethics. The original Group f/ 64 believed that photography should encourage and celebrate its differences from painting, and so would the new. The members would just say no to prestidigitation. The Group f/ 64 of the 1930s was burdened, in Ansel Adams's words, with none of "the formal rituals of procedure, incorporations, or any of the limiting restrictions of artistic secret societies." He wrote, "We have issued no stony manifesto (such as the Surrealists did some years ago); we have stated in works and words what we consider straight photography to be, and we expect and welcome any fresh point of view." The new group would be similarly flexible. If I were a photographer, that is the bunch I would join.
One of the seven founders of Group f/64, John Paul Edwards, had been a prominent Pictorialist before going over to the other side. "The greatest aesthetic beauty, the fullest power of expression, the real worth of the medium, lies in its pure form," he wrote in Camera Craft, a magazine of the time, explaining his defection. "Witness the vogues which have in turn intrigued the worker: the soft-focus lens, carbon, carbro, gum, bromoil transfer, faint gray monotone printing, or its counterpoint, stygian blackness ... they seemed so important at the time, and are now almost forgotten."
If the revolution goes as I've imagined it, to this list of forgotten vogues we will soon add digital duplicity. The decisive moment celebrated in Henri Cartier-Bresson's epochal photo book The Decisive Moment will compress again to a very brief period of time, not the decisive hours and days spent at the computer screen by the prestidigitators. The eye, and not artifice, will have to solve the intimidating problem at the core of photographic art -- the creation of an image that no one has seen before. Photographers will wander the world more like the Zen archers we imagine them to be, with just thirty-six chances per roll.
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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.