In this series, I'm tying philosophy, post-processing and the nature of beauty together through the genre of landscape photography. We're going to take a closer look at what beauty actually is, before I propose a new definition for photography.
Art and beauty
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At least, that’s the classical understanding about beauty. It’s supposed to be a deeply personal, unfathomable concept of the human mind. Beauty is also culturally determined. People that share a common (recent) history are prone to respect the same works of art. Professor Denis Dutton argued that it’s more complex than that. Beauty, according to Dutton, is a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins.
In his last TED-talk, back in 2010, the late Denis Dutton starts his case by stating that works of art from one country (let’s say Japan) make their way across the globe and are regarded as things of beauty in another country (let’s say Canada). The reason for that is that we all stem from the same evolutionary tree and that we’ve established both emotionally and socially, that beauty has certain aesthetics.
Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.
Darwin himself said that the peacock’s tail was beautiful to the eyes of the peahen. The peacock evolved its “beautiful” tail from mating choices made by peahens. Dutton then argues that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination (or even obsession), in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.
Professor Dutton had an interesting vision on what that means for the perceived beauty of landscape imagery in humans. What is it that makes a landscape photograph aesthetically pleasing? All over the world, people from very different cultures tend to appreciate a particular kind of landscape. A landscape that shows up everywhere today; in postcards and on calendars, through the design of golf courses and public parks. It’s a landscape that features open spaces of low grass, and a tree here or there; a landscape that’s very much akin to the stone-age savannahs where we evolved and have spent most of our time as a species. It wouldn’t surprise you that the presence of water in the view also helps to create an attractive image and that indications of animal life, as well as diverse greenery, support the concept of beauty through landscape photography. An included path or road, perhaps a riverbank or shoreline that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it… This type of landscape is internationally regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don’t have that landscape.
The ideal savannah landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.
In the first article in this series, I’ve talked to astrophotographer Adam Block, who agrees that beautiful landscape images are effectively “evolutionary echoes.” By the grace of our genes, we care deeply for specific scenes and compositions, because such a landscape would increase our chances of survival. The next article was about the processed image and how photographers change what their camera could not. But the cornerstone of controversy isn’t the way he or other "post-digital" photographers process their images. It’s about the way they capture images in the field.
The art that is photography
A couple of weeks ago, well-known landscape photographer Marc Adamus uploaded his controversial “Mystic Park” on photo sharing social platform 500px, in which he admitted he replaced the sky. Adamus then got discredited in the comments as being a photographer in the first place. The title in this article refers to the fact that we, albeit subconsciously, share a defined framework of what a beautiful photograph looks like. But Adamus proved that it doesn’t end with what we see. A key aspect that influences what we think about an image, essentially came after the infancy of digital photography. With Photoshop becoming commonplace, we have to ask ourselves if a photograph was manipulated. Had something been put in that wasn't there with the photographer? It raised awareness that documentary photography too might be doctored and we have a hard time believing if anything is real anymore. We have become skeptics to the image.
And that's a good thing. But we need to distinguish between art and recorded history here. The assumption is, that if any photographer changes a photo in any way, he must be trying to deceive the audience. I have never put my actions in photo editing under rugs. I want you to learn to be a better photographer yourself. The above image, titled "Domain," had the hue of the leafs shifted from green to orange until I thought it looked pleasing. It was an experiment. What I had done in post-processing, I've written in every description that accompanies this image. While also the most controversial of my works, it's one of the most successful images I've put online.
Adamus is not actually trying to tell you that something looks a certain way. He's working hard to make a pretty picture and like many other photographers, he creates art through the aid of a camera. I've spoken with many photographers who feel the same way and it's material for a couple more articles. Now, Marc Adamus never claimed to be a photo journalist, so he doesn’t need photographic proof of a given scene. His approach to creating art through photography and editing sparked an interesting, but negative tinted discussion about the nature of photography that resulted in him taking the photo offline.
A new definition for photography
It’s about time that we part with the idea that “the camera captures the true image.” That little black box has its JPEG-recording algorithm programmed by really smart people to help us remember, but it doesn’t help us to be better artists. Restriction isn’t the key to a new definition for photography, so let’s not have words describe what we can and cannot do within the realms of this fantastic passion of ours. The image really does say more than a thousand words and the artists of our time our not out to deceive us by not telling you everything about the image editing process. The audience for photography is more broad than you can imagine. Some don’t care at all for knowing why a scene was focus stacked or had multiple exposures blended to overcome the dynamic range. Others would just like to learn techniques that help create a more pleasing end result, while others still are here for the entertainment purposes of both visual storytelling and the colourful story behind each and every shot.
Colourful or not, it's fair to say that a beautiful image isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is seated deep in our minds. Denis Dutton concluded his last TED-talk by saying that it's a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors and that the concept of beauty is here to stay.
That’s very interesting, isn’t it? Remember that we’ve talked about how reality is also very much a concoction of the human mind as we’re trying to make sense of the world around us?
Fact is, I don’t care that much for accurate representations of any landscape, since I don’t need photography to help me remember. Photography to me, is the ability to capture something fleeting; something evocative and emotional. Processing too, is integral to my path to a great looking image. If it’s just one person who picks up some of the awe I felt as I witnessed an incredible moment in nature, I’m a happy artist. To other photographers I’d like to say: Show me something new and exciting; something I haven’t seen before. But don’t do your best to cover up the truth; don’t say it is one image when it isn’t. You don’t have to tell me how it was made, but I’m here, listening. I'm here, interested in your story; eager to learn.
In the next episode, I’m meeting three fellow landscape photographers to discuss the technology involved in creating landscape art. We’ll also look at some of the technology that’s right around the corner that will potentially open a whole new discussion about “The Real Versus the Beautiful.”