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Nature Photography - Art and Natural History - Ethical Conflicts

Jun 2011

Copyright © 1993-2011 Ganesh H. Shankar

[ PS : A related article written 4 years back about my frame of reference for digital post processing and indication of how I processed each image in my galleries is here.]

I think Nature Photographer is a generic title which badly needs some qualification in terms of intent behind the photography that we do. Absence of such qualification is often the source of explosive arguments among nature photographers and audience of our work on ethics of post processing, fair representation of nature, boring copy, sterile imagery, zero creativity etc.

We see mix of two categories of nature photographers and their respective audience. One stream of nature photographers who focus more on documentation and the natural history while the other stream of nature photographers who focus more on nature photography as a form of art. Discussions about digital ethics arise when one takes both the paths simultanoeusly and shares his work without stating which image belongs where. I think it is very important for a nature photographer to clearly state where he belongs to avoid meaningless criticism of the work by the group to which he does not belong to or the work in question does not belong to.

Very interestingly it is a painful decision for nature photographers too to clearly state where they belong ! We as nature photographers often tend to keep one leg in art boat and the other one in natural history boat. We want to make an image of that one unique rare species of the bird and also we want to make an artistic monotone image of a flying egret using extensive use of burning and dodging and other post processing techniques necessary give it a feel of art. We tend to create mix of work and present it to two different audiences together who have completely different scale of measurements. When we present these two different stream of work to generic group of nature photographers or nature photography audience we get to hear criticism from both - about unethical post processing, digital manipulation, twisting truth etc to boring photo copy to creativity starved images to noble thoughts like 'can nature photography ever be an art' !

Isn't it better to state where we stand and define the intent behind our imagery ? What is our primary focus as a nature photographer ? Natural history or art ? Often it is not an intuitive task for a viewer to decide. To make sure the end product can still be called as a photograph in artistic creations photographers often focus on retaining the photographic feel while using extensive post processing like selective burning and dodging, selective blurring/sharpening, cloning elements that does not add to the composition etc. This part real and part post processed feel does not go well with natural history audience. They seem to think they are seeing the half truth and they start raising "concerns" about ethics and integrity of the photographer. The fact however is that the photographer never made that image for a natural history person to look at and share his generous critique ! I have seen several criticism of Nick Brandt's work as digital manipulation. For me his work clearly does not belong to the world of natural history and there is no point in criticizing it as digital manipulation. It is meant to be enjoyed as an artistic end product yet belonging to the world of photography. Photographers' interest in this case is creation of work of art. Questions related to whether he has used extensive burning/doding/selective manipulations are definitely misplaced and irrelevant. Similarly if you search net you will see several discussions about can nature photography (photography in general) ever be an art. I think such discussions keep mostly natural history work in mind. The world of natural history does not care for such thoughts and such criticism does not belong to them either.

Now, back to the topic of whether we are in art boat or natural history boat, it is clearly an individual's choice. Should we be in one of them only ? not necessarily, as long as we clearify our stand on different creation of ours - free mixing of our work might cause confusions. Being a nature photographer for more than a decade I feel it is a tough decision to focus on only one path. I know where I want to be but I can't leave the other stream. If nature photography is more than a time pass for you, if it is a passionate hobby, if you want to show your signature to the world then I think time will force you to make a decision some day. For me as a photographer that day has arrived and I have almost made up my mind.

Here are some images I made which illustrates simultaneous journey in two paths so far and related notes to drive home some of these points.

Above I have a raw unprocessed image and the corresponding processed image with a natural history intent. Discussion like whether I have cloned out a twig, did I enhance the color too much, did I do lighting corrections beyond what is fair - all these are valid discussion here. But are clearly misplaced for the below one where the intent of making this is entirely different.

First of all the B&W or monotones (most often) does not belong to natural history in this age of color.

Am I true to the original image ? No - so what ?
Did I do selective processing ? Yes - sure.
Did I selectively sharpen the image ? Yes - of course.
Did I do some selective dodging and burning ? Yes - you bet.

My intent here is to see the image as an artistic monotone while retaining the feel of a photograph. Discussion about usaual ethics of post processing in my view is misplaced in this context. This is not the image for a natural history person to critique. As a photographer I would be interested in critiques related to artistic merits of this image - should I have rendered the elephant darker to give a little more emphasis ? Should I open up the background a little more to increase the contrast ? Should I have retained trace of grass blades at the edges ? Is square crop any better or the original portrait might have worked out better ? These are some of the relevant discussions - not the ones related to usual nature photography ethics. As nature photographers where do we state our intentions behind images that we make ? No where !

Below is another unprocessed raw image and my intent as a nature photographer to make that image was to convert it into an abstract artistic curves offered by nature. Am I true to what the nature has to offer ? No - Who cares whether it is an elephant back ? The intent was not to capture an image of an elephant. It stemmed from a desire to isolate beautiful curves and shape from what nature has to offer keeping monochrome rendition in mind.

The issue is we mix and share both kinds of images together. For example in my own galleries you see them together without proper classification. This might lead to misplaced critiques of our work. For example along with images made with an artistic intent you also see images like these below which are natural history moments.

These above images being natural history images I am supposed to tell you the truth. All the criques related to honest represenation of nature applies to these two images above. For example it is not ethical for me to clone the lower part of the perch in above image to make it more photogenic or atleast I should make a note there saying I cloned off the perch to be fair. These are result of keen observation of behaviour of our subjects and patience to capture right thing at right time. These are not the images for an artist to critique and say 'what a boring photo copy'.

Often we share images made with two different intents side by side without any note leading to confusions and critiques about our digital ethics. In these two images below - one is made with natural history intent and the other with an artistic intent. Without any note the same ethical scale will be applied for both, worse yet, often such critiques are generalized to all the works of the photographer !

Coming back to the discussion of should we be taking one of these paths ? As a nature photographer I think it is desirable to do so. Focussing our time and energy on one intent I think is more rewarding in the long run. Have I made a decision?

Well, almost yes with a few caveats :)