The Real Versus the Beautiful (Part 3): The Consensus of the Beautiful Photograph

The Real Versus the Beautiful (Part 3): The Consensus of the Beautiful Photograph

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.”

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Andrew Ashley's picture

Love this series! Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts, it has kept me thinking. And so far, can't agree more with what you've said. In the end, all art is very personal, and like it or not, art is about eliciting an emotion (a good friend always has to remind me of this, especially when visiting some of the more "interesting" exhibits at MOMA PS1), and be that anger, fear, sadness, happiness, joy, disgust, or whatever, the fact that an image on the screen can bring out that emotion makes it art. Love what you said about photo journalism vs everyone else in the world. I have a cousin that constantly asks if I "processed" an image. "Well of course I did," is my usual response. I try to explain that shooting in raw virtually requires at least a minimum amount of "processing" because the camera does very little, and if I were to post the "unprocessed" image it would look flat and icky. Try as we might, there will always be someone who says it isn't "real"... no matter the argument. But again, thanks for your thoughts, keep 'em coming!

Daniel Laan's picture

Thanks, Andrew. The reason for starting the series in the first place was that very same question coming from a family member as well; so I feel you. :)

Photography is an unknown art to many people, so don't be discouraged or fed up with those questions. Think of them not as criticism, but as questions of them wanting to know what photography today entails. Try not to make excuses, but teach them about your passion and I'm sure it will somehow settle. Even when it doesn't land like you have intended. Eitherway, it's your passion which you intrinsically still need to pursue. Don't let the black box decide for you.

There are a couple more of these coming, but the end is in sight.


Bill Irwin's picture

Op touches on a point that I think is important to note about how some perceive images. Some people have the silly notion that a photograph that is digitally altered is no longer "real" and you are not a true photographer for having broken this notion. One photographer was stripped of his Nat Geo award for simply removing a bag or something like this from a photo to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Did it change the message of the photo? no but he lost the award nonetheless. If the removal of the bag changed the message then I would agree but it didn't.

Landscapes that are pre-visualized and then rebuilt to match what the human eye sees is in the similar vein of being called out as "not true" photography. Sorry, even Ansel Adams manipulated things with development and metering, should we also call him a non-photographer for his manipulations? I think this point is getting more silly each year.

Daniel Laan's picture

Thanks for the addition, Bill. Appreciate it.

Dave Hachey's picture

Exactly! Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is arguably Adams' most famous work (and my all time personal favorite), but SOOC it's a rather boring image. Because of his artistic vision he was able to make the image glow before the viewer. Unless you have a scientific or technical need to reproduce a scene as accurately as possible, I say let the creative juices flow!

Matthew Saville's picture

I'm surprised by the opposite, actually: why do folks have such a hard time coming to terms with the notion that there can be a clearly defined line between categories of manipulation? Who decreed that it was unwise and/or uncreative to try and draw a line somewhere, whether on an individual basis, or for a genre of photography as a whole?

Ansel Adams did wonders in the darkroom, yes. But, he also did NOT re-photograph the moon with a super-telephoto lens and superimpose it over Hernandez to make it 1/4 the size of the entire frame. And make no mistake, he sure as hell could have if he'd wanted to, it wasn't impossible back then.

My point is this: Photography will forever be both art and science. It is time we stop scoffing at those folks who enjoy the science of it just a little bit more than others, for whatever reason.

Personally, I find great thrill and satisfaction in the art of capturing my vision with a single click, at a single focal length, at a single time of day, instead of piecing together a puzzle of whatever focal lengths, times of day, or locations are required to achieve my vision. It also produces, in my humble opinion, a more productive, useful body of work in the long run, that endures beyond the number of "likes" it garners on Facebook or Instagram or 500PX. In 10 years, or in 100 years, some bodies of work will just be "eye candy" that depict a style of art during a particular era, while other bodies of work will depict what the world actually looked like, un-altered, (by a certain measure, at least) and yet still clearly portraying the style and creative vision of that person.

Anonymous's picture

Im not sure what to make of this, but perhaps thats because Im one of those old farts that always bores you by saying 'I remember when we shot on film and all you had was an F body and a 35mm prime blah'

It seems implicit in the author's analysis that the real 'art' is in the manipulation after the act and not the actual picture taking, which is reduced to a mere 'gathering of digital information'

The reason Im interested is because one of my clients, who I have worked for for over fifteen years, a well known lifestyle publication in Europe, the Art director said to me 'you need to do more photoshopping on your images'

When I pressed him on this as to his reasoning he said well thats the fashion now, to make everything look 'really photoshopped'
so there's nothing actually 'wrong' with my work all of a sudden?' 'oh no, its as good as its always been its just it doesn't look as post processed as some of the other stuff we are getting in'

I appreciate times change, and my work as a fetish and glamour photographer 'on the side' actually pays me a lot more so Im not complaining but there was something about that obstreperous art directors comments and the thoughts echoed in this article that point to a disappointing, for me anyway, future.

Daniel Laan's picture

Hi Mark, thanks for the input.
While it may seem implicit that the real 'art' is in the manipulation, it is not my intention to reduce photography or photon gathering to pressing a shutter button. At all.

I understand your concern in the changing landscape of photography of all genres; not just the landscape of landscape photography. The future really does hold more manipulation, but that does not, in any way, take away from the fact that as a photographer, it's you that both takes and makes a great photograph. So in that, I disagree with Ansel Adams when he said that we are here to make photographs.

While the reasoning behind this art director's lacking a foundation, it's even more unsettling that a person holding such a position should actually decide a stance and style of photography; not "do what everyone does".

What I do like to underline, is that the art of photography comes in the whole package. Translating it (back) to film: Lighting, composing, choice of film, settings, angle, focal length... The press of the shutter, the development, dodging and burning, fixing, drying... scanning and printing and every correction in between those steps to achieve the vision of the photographer. The art of photography is not just the press of a button and it's certainly not 'just processing' an image.


Anonymous's picture

Thanks Daniel, your piece is thought provoking and deserving of reading more than once and I totally appreciate your points, perhaps more cogently now I have had more time to digest it.
Our medium of creativity and self expression is still evolving, it promises an amazing future.

I decided to tell that Art Director to forget about it and we have now parted company.
I look forward to more pieces from you.

Owain Shaw's picture

Really enjoying this series, all three articles have been great to read and I'm inclined to agree with the points you're making. Keep writing and I'll keep coming back to read. Thanks.

Daniel Laan's picture
Owain Shaw's picture

And read, already looking forward to the fifth installment. Again, a very interesting topic, thoroughly and thoughtfully approached and covered.

Charles Mcdonald's picture

This has been one of my favorite articles here.. Very thought provoking.

I’ve seen a few quotes from Ansel Adams throughout the articles and comments section and here is one from one of his books that I have read recently that really stood out for me;

“It is important to realize that the expressive photograph (the “creative” photograph) or the informational photograph does not have directly proportional relationship to what we call reality. We do not perceive certain values in the subject and attempt to duplicate them in the print. We may stimulate them, if we wish to, in terms of reflection density values, or we may render them in related values of emotional effect. Many consider my photographs to be in the “realistic” category. Actually, what reality they have is in their optical-image accuracy; their values are definitely “departures from reality.” The viewer may accept them as realistic because the visual effect may be plausible, but if it were possible to make a direct visual comparison with the subjects, the differences would be startling.” ~ Ansel Adams

Daniel Laan's picture

Nice one!
I love this: "The viewer may accept them as realistic because the visual effect may be plausible..."
That ties in with the final article in this series, in which we will discuss the hyper real and the environment.

Thanks Charles, it means a lot to me.

Charles Mcdonald's picture

Well I'm glad I posted that then!

Mountain Woman's picture

You say that Marc "in which he admitted he replaced the sky" - is an error in reporting in this article and slants the truth about what really happened and is a true point of contention, sorry, because that statement is simply not entirely true and suggest bias reporting on your part - shame shame. It wasn't until AFTER Marc was caught in the lie did he cop to faking the image. And if he truly is an 'artist' then why did he 1. care and 2. remove it? It should be understood that most folks are not at issue with artist using photography to create whatever they want to create, it is the lying (particularly in landscape photography) that is taking place to the general public and even within the professional 'public' as well - and seen so clearly when Marc (well) lied to the world. And is that why Marc removed it - because he lied and wanted to remove the evidence? There is a really interesting article published by Popular Photography's Jan 2016 issue called "The Implicit Lie" by renowned and highly respected landscape photographer Rodney Lough Jr. It's well worth a read. His point isn't about 'creation' of art, it's simply about lying about it. Where is the line crossed? Perhaps when the artist says "Opps", "did I forget to mention that I completely faked that shot but suggested it was real...sorry."

Matthew Saville's picture

It seems that this series is beginning to repeat itself rather...repeatedly

Yes, anything goes, if the final result is pretty to look at. But there is more than one motivation to pick up a camera, and I'm confused as to why folks don't understand that.

Angela Bueckert's picture

If we are to say we are a composite photographer fine artist doing it for sake of a pretty end image as the only goal, than it's okay to do whatever you want...but it isn't photography anymore. Therefore, they really need to just spell it out "It's a creative composite using some photos I took". And it has NO place in the photography competitions and shows without being entered in it's own separated category.

if the difference is not identited also, it really makes it harder for those who are trying to strive to be a good photographer but all the best examples they are looking up to are....not even taken in the field at all, or not even real to begin with.
This harms the process of growth and confidence, made me doubt myself. Sure, I knew I was missing something, a skill or a tool because I'm still pretty bad with the technical parts of photography, I'll just admit it......but I didn't realize just HOW MUCH was fabricated.

So, now I don't even really know what defines "professional" photography anymore. What is professional level, what isn't? you can do HDR on smart phones, so, does that make them pros now too? I doubt it...but trust me, it will make them all think they just as good.

If you want to compare it to hunting, it's probably akin to shooting a caged lion vs finding the lion yourself and wrestling with it in the wild (I don't hunt, but what I hear is called "hunting" these days is a sick joke).

I believe if you want to be fully considered a nature photographer for ie, you also need to submit to being part of sterwardship for your subjects and just embrace the unpredictable aspects without trying to take complete control.