The Preservation of Artistic Integrity

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth — Pablo Picasso

A debate continues to rage on within the photography community. I was recently reintroduced to this debate, through a fellow photographer’s blog post.

I’m here to offer another angle.

Me. In Matanuska Glacier’s icefall. Photo Courtesy Jody Overstreet

Not so much a counter point, as I do agree with the over-arcing sentiments of over-manipulation, loss of integrity, and an overall lack of transparency regarding the “building” of our images. Rather, I believe there is another, deeper, issue at stake here.

This debate also boiled over into the consumer world a long time ago. One of the earliest cases found the iconic National Geographic magazine in the crosshairs of public ire, when their February 1982 cover featured two of the Great Pyramids. They later admitted to having “compressed” the scene — by physically cutting the photograph (with a knife, as this is B.Ps. — Before Photoshop), and merging them together again, in order to fit the vertical orientation of the cover. Since the public outrage, National Geographic has taken a strict “no-manipulation” policy.

In 1994, world-renowned photographer, Art Wolfe, published “Migrations” — a large format, fine-art photography book that studies the incredible patterns found in nature, as migrating animals & insects are photographed from unique perspectives. He digitally manipulated a full third of the images in the book, including the cover photograph of a herd of zebras. This issue was taken up by a lot of photographers, at the time. Even the late, great, Galen Rowell chastised him in a personal letter.

Why?

Because people were uncomfortable with the manufacturing of nature, and the imagined sleight they felt was aimed directly at them.

Maybe it was because they were fooled, and no one likes to feel gullible.

Perhaps it was because it tainted their personal vision of what nature photography should represent.

Regardless, this division has always held photography back, in a grand sense, from being considered a true “fine art”, and is held in the fact that a photograph isn’t created from scratch. It isn’t paint on a blank canvas, or a depiction of a perfect human form chiseled into a block of stone.

Photography, at it’s most basic form, is a documentation of an event. This has led to photography, as a whole, being greatly under-valued by the art community. Within our own photographic community, it is both greatly under-valued by some, and greatly over-valued by others.

Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art. — Ansel Adams

Many of us, myself included at times, think awfully highly of ourselves.

We believe our photographs are truly unique.

Destined to change the world, elevate discourse, and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity.

It is all bullshit, of course.

The fact is, many people no longer trust photographs. Most have accepted that the majority of photographs are altered, or manipulated, in some way. Furthermore, 99% of digitally altered images are never labeled as such. Skies are replaced, scenes are compressed, mountains are stretched, dynamic range is exaggerated, and celestial bodies are augmented.

There is an additional issue with many of the “heroic” tales behind the making of many of today’s nature photographs. Too many of them are false narratives; a pixel-induced, ‘roid rage-esque, “fish-tale”-mimicking, attempt at adventuring-up what would otherwise be a bland, albeit honest, description of “a walk in the woods”, carrying a camera.

This is why I have a strong distaste for reality-tv. If I want “drama”, I’ll watch TNT. They know drama.

Of course, there is no Federal, International, or Universal governing body that has transparency standards, or labeling regulations to let us know the validity of the image we are consuming.

Would this appease you?

The adventuring-up of our photographic backstories (make no mistake, I’ve fallen in that trap too), and the amped-up saturation/HDR/time-blending boosts, some bordering on psychedelic, seemingly LSD-inspired events, are all symptoms of the same disease.

The need for attention & affirmation outside of ourselves.

We’ve all heard the same stats: on average, over 350 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook. Every. Single. Day.

Obviously, only a small percentage of those are uploaded by amateur/aspiring/professional photographers. Even so, that is a mighty onslaught of imagery to compete against. Facebook is a scrolling experience — Instagram is as well. Our eyes are constantly in motion, scanning the never-ceasing content, as it rolls by at 1250 pixels-per-second.

Close friends/family and favorite accounts catch our attention more easily, so their status updates catch the bulk of our attention. We likely comprehend less than a quarter of what passes by our gaze; everything else is lost in the ether.

A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms. — Sensei Ogui, Shin Buddhist priest

How does one stand out?

Speed, saturation, contrast, perfection (or complete lack thereof).

Shock and awe, my friends. Shock and awe.

Make no mistake, I’m not claiming to be immune from this affliction. We all crave positive reinforcement.

Social media and photo sharing sites have hyper-developed our sense of community, comparisons, and competition.

Competitions are for horses, not artists. — Béla Bartók

We all started on this journey with a pure passion for beautiful things. Many of us simply loved to be in nature.

How many Bio Pages have you read that started something like this:

“Joe Blow/Suzy Smith established his/her love affair for the outdoors at a young age, while on camping trips with his/her parents…”

Heck, I had that opening line, at one point in time. We all started with that uniquely, cloned, experience. It was honest. Pure.

It was, until it wasn’t.

Somewhere along the line though, in the midst of our maturation, we slammed it into reverse. We were told, “Hey, that’s a beautiful photograph!”

An idea popped into our collective noggins. “Why don’t we share more of our adventures, through our photographs?” Because, who doesn’t like accolades and admiration? Then, for many of us, that became a driving force.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot who to make photographs for. We began to make photographs for others. We began to ask ourselves, “Will this composition be popular?”, “Is this good enough to share?”, or “how many likes/shares/comments will this generate?” — rather than lowering the camera for 5 minutes and immersing ourselves in the experience.

An artist cannot fail, it is a success just to be one. — Charles Horton Cooley, American sociologist

I’m not fine with any of this. I’ve suffered from bearing this attitude, and I despise seeing others shoving it in my face. But the real issue is a topic I’ve seen reappear frequently over the last several years. It was covered again in the blog post that spurred this, my own, rant.

What I see as a darker, deeper, concern, is the concept that the photographic community should be “policing” each other. We should set “standards”, and force others to adhere to our stringent requirements. The phrase which alarmed me most: “We must draw a line in the sand. And not cross it.” “We need to define boundaries of acceptability” — in regards to image manipulation.

How arrogant of us to think we could do such a thing.

We can’t “draw a line in the sand”, because it isn’t our sand to draw a line in — not for anyone else, anyway. This isn’t a private stretch of beach, people. This is public property — paid for by everyone’s contribution of blood, sweat, and tears.

We also have to remember that lines drawn in sand, by their nature, are quickly washed away by incessant waves, and are frequently stepped on, and muddled by 2-year olds with over-flowing diapers. Just so we are clear about this last reference, in my analogy, “2-year olds with over-flowing diapers” are art critics.

Yeah. I went there.

Photographers compete with each other, knowingly or not, all too frequently. We try to out shoot each other’s iconic locations, because — somewhere, somehow — art became a disgustingly competitive sport. The problem is mis-directed at worries of “image purity”, when the real issue is actual the purity behind our reasoning. If all you are concerned with is topping someone else’s Arches shot, Merced River and El Cap image, or Rialto Beach photo, you are starting out in the proverbial dumpster, before you consider “how much manipulation is enough/too much”?

Here’s the problem — we care too much about attention — either that someone else is getting too much, that we are getting too little, or that it is warranted or unwarranted. Most of us started out with a pure passion for beautiful things, but somewhere along our reversed maturation, we came to care too much about perception, and too little about our own vision.

Art has never been a popularity contest — James Levine, American conductor & pianist, Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera

Photography, like business, isn’t a place where we get to dictate how someone else practices their craft, or how successful they are. All we can do is observe, learn, and focus on our own craft.

Stressing and fretting over someone else’s business is wasted time and useless energy that could be put to better use in handling our own art. Try as you might, the opinions of “creatives” will never drive public (or peer) perception of an industry. It’s far too big for that. You may not like the fact that another photographer is inserting dramatic skies in scenes where there was none. You may despise someone talking up their experiences — the “epicization” of a likely drive-by shot. But integrity is solely an individual’s choice. We may lament the lack of “artistic integrity” in the modern art world, but that is all it is — lamentation. Lamentation is the expression of grief, or sorrow — but wouldn’t our time be better suited using art to express something else?

What can you do about someone else’s actions? Are we supposed to police our own, shame and shun (publicly) those who don’t meet our “exacting criteria”? Who gets to decide what actions are too much, and which actions are “within respectable boundaries”? Who nominates these guardians of all that is holy? What are the repercussions of breaking the rules?

And, in the end, who cares? We aren’t curing cancer here. We are playing with pixels. What we produce IS undervalued in much of the art world, and over-valued by most photographers. It isn’t the product that holds the value; it is found in the experiences we collect in their pursuit.

I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create. — William Blake, English poet, painter, and printmaker

While I, personally have chosen not to merge content from different locations/times, who am I to say no one else may do it? I’m not going to be the hall monitor for landscape photography. I’m too busy pursuing my art. If everyone else took that stance, I think we’d be much better off.

The fact of the matter is, artistic integrity isn’t found in pieces or people that conform to someone else’s standards. It is found in precisely the opposite direction — those that create for themselves, for art’s sake. For the experience of it, rather than the end result. 
Art, like happiness, is found in the journey. Not the destination.

The work of art is a scream of freedom — Christo, environmental artists

The most beautiful thing found in art, is its lack of rules. As soon as you inject rules into art, you must cease calling it “art”. Rules allow for comfort. Safety. Something to lean against. Rules are the lip at the edge of the deep end of the pool that keeps you from floating free, or from diving deep. Rules constrain & define our endeavors before we even begin to create. Rules draw a halt to innovation and creativity & limit possibility. 
Rules are for people that will follow them. 
Art is for everyone else.

Repeat after me:

You do you.

I’m gonna do me.


If this article resonated with you, it’d be awesome if you clicked the little green heart below.

If it didn’t resonate with you, I hope you’ll give my future articles a chance — because I’m going to keep trying.

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Photo Courtesy Jody Overstreet