Do you really need a philosophy for your photography?

Do you really need a philosophy for your photography?


Keith Beven

Keith Beven is Emeritus Professor of Hydrology at Lancaster University where he has worked for over 30 years. He has published many academic papers and books on the study and computer modelling of hydrological processes. Since the 1990s he has used mostly 120 film cameras, from 6×6 to 6×17, and more recently Fuji X cameras when travelling light.

He has recently produced a second book of images of water called “Panta Rhei – Everything Flows” in support of the charity WaterAid that can be ordered from his website.

mallerstangmagic.co.uk

There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.~Garry Winogrand1

When looking for positive guidance from philosophy, we must rest content
with some vague generalizations about the need to be specific.~Alan Chalmers2

Do you really need a philosophy for your photography? Clearly not! We take photos all the time for all sorts of reasons, sometimes thinking about our technique but almost always without thinking about any philosophical implications. Indeed, philosophy is not very good at providing definite answers to the problems we encounter but can be good at defining the questions we need to think about. So, this might be a question worth thinking about if only because as, consciously or not, we develop a style of things we like to take photos of that might reflect a certain philosophy. Mostly, I suspect that amongst landscape photographers, this will be one of the varieties of realism 3, particularly if the things that we like to take photos of are those that reflect and record our experiences in the landscape. This recording of our experiences might be done for a variety of reasons: to provide income as a professional, in the hope of impressing our peers, or simply to record our personal experiences and life journey without necessarily being shown to others.

Do you really need a philosophy for your photography? Clearly not! We take photos all the time for all sorts of reasons, sometimes thinking about our technique but almost always without thinking about any philosophical implications.

Most of the well-known, more philosophical writers about photography (Susan Sontag, John Berger, etc) did not have too much to say about landscapes. Vilém Flusser, who wrote Thoughts on the Philosophy of Photography (1983), also hardly touches on landscape, even if his concept of differentiating informative from redundant images has only become more relevant in the digital age4. His idea that, as photographers, we are complicit supporters of the post-industrial economic complex is also still relevant, at least to those of us who suffer from that gear acquisition syndrome.

We can, of course, turn to Guy Tal and his recent series of philosophical On Landscape articles and his books More than a Rock and Another Day Not Wasted for more direct commentary on the act of photographing the landscape and living with nature as an artistic endeavour.

The primary reason to practice any art, in my opinion, is the subjective experience of the artist. Whether the resulting work falls into any greater philosophical framework, or whatever information it may contribute, can only be considered as measures of importance or validity in an objective, academic, or practical sense; but to find satisfaction in one’s work, to elevate (using Thoreau’s words) “the quality of the day,” and other subjective aspects that may arise from practicing photography or any other creative work, are more than sufficient justification for doing it.~Guy Tal, 2020 5

A number of previous articles in On Landscape are relevant here, particularly those that discuss the nature of realism in photography 6. For many landscape photographers a certain degree of honesty or realism in the presentation of an image is important (hence the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, NPLA7 ). We can perhaps contrast this with landscape photography as a creative act where there is an active choice not to present an image in a realistic way. Some examples in photography are the use of photomontage (for example, David Hockney’s Joiner collages), extreme post-processing (colour saturation, HDR, time stacking, sky replacement, element removal etc), and the use of intentional camera movement. Such images can still have realistic elements (e.g. each of the images in a time stacked image or a Hockney joiner), but the philosophical aim is evidently not to be realistic but to provide an alternative artistic view of the world, to go beyond the limitations of the two dimensional view of an instantaneous single image. Hockney’s joiners, in particular, have resonance back to the cubist and conceptual artists at the start of the 20th Century (Braque, Picasso, Delaunay, Gris, Duchamp and others) who strived to move from a mimetic to an expressive art8. As David Hockney commented in 1982 before exhibiting his early joiner collages (a couple of the more landscape examples are included here):

Photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world
from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops – for a split second.~David Hockney, 19829

David Hockney, Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986 No. 1

David Hockney, Merced River, Yosemite Valley, 1982

Of course, the boundary between these categories of realism and artistic expression is somewhat fluid. Take the simple case of a waterfall recorded using a shutter speed of ¼ second or longer10. The water becomes blurred. All the better to demonstrate the patterns of water flow perhaps, but we do not see water like that. It is not realistic in the sense of our experience; even if after long exposure (so to speak) to such images we understand what is going on and how it relates to the actual experience of water falling. It is already a creative interpretation, albeit surrounded by realistic renditions of the adjacent rocks and vegetation. This is a simple example of how a photograph can be a “noble lie”11.

Of course, the boundary between these categories of realism and artistic expression is somewhat fluid. Take the simple case of a waterfall recorded using a shutter speed of ¼ second or longer. The water becomes blurred.

Blurred Water, Gérine, Switzerland, 2022 (f22, 1/15s)

We could take this example further. Let us say it is autumn and a selection of colourful leaves have fallen onto the rocks adjacent to the waterfall from the surrounding trees. We can then reflect on the opportunity to arrange those leaves in a pleasing pattern, giving prominence to the most colourful in the foreground, perhaps using tilt or focus stacking to get the depth of field required. The colours can be enhanced in camera by slight underexposure. We can, in fact, treat the composition like an artist as a still life – “improving” the arrangement and representation of the elements in the image. Everything in the image is “real” (as recorded in the RAW file); but much has already been manipulated It is perhaps a simple example of a “less-than-noble lie”. More extreme cases (such as sky replacement that is provided in several post-processing programmes now) might then be considered as “ignoble lies” (or, to many, perhaps the application of artistic license). A painter artist might traditionally have had more flexibility in choosing not to include everything in the scene, but even that is now less of an advantage with AI-aided element deletion. In viewing an image, it is sometimes possible to identify ignoble lies, but the degree of post-processing in the final image is not always obvious and might only be revealed by the meta-data or comparison with an original RAW file (hence the requirement to provide such files with submissions to the NPLA).

So are you a naïve realist?

In philosophy there are many forms of realism12. The concept has been the subject of argument since the time of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato and Aristotle. Many well-known names have contributed to the debate about realism and, in particular, the potential differences between our experiential perception of objects as conditioned by the brain and the actual characteristics of those objects, what Kant referred to as the thing-in-itself (Das Ding an sich13). The fundamental problem of realism is that what we experience may not be the nature of reality. When viewing a rock in the landscape, we can experience that rock through our senses, but we cannot be sure that those sensations reveal the true nature of the rock, nor everyone will see the form and colours of that rock in the same way (and none of us see it in exactly the same way as recorded by a film of digital sensor)14.

Scientifically, of course, we can dig deeper. We can analyse the minerals and chemical composition of that rock and can infer things about its history using analyses of its isotopes, magnetic properties, thermoluminescence and surface lichen growth, but those inferences will still depend on the observational techniques available to us (which themselves depend on some theoretical constructs about the nature of matter that might be superseded in future).

The naïve realist will see a rock and not think anymore about it. It exists (at least in this realisation of the multiverse) and is there to be photographed in the landscape.

Going deeper still, we meet the limitations of understanding associated with the inherently uncertain sub-atomic quantum world. That need not concern us here; we can assume that the quantum probabilities are resolved in a way that reveals the apparently unchanging rock that we see before us (but at the quantum level, there may certainly be more to that rock than we currently understand).

The naïve realist will see a rock and not think anymore about it. It exists (at least in this realisation of the multiverse) and is there to be photographed in the landscape. There is certainly more to that rock as a thing-in-itself (or, alternatively, as an imperfect indication of its Platonic form if you prefer), but that is not really of concern, it can be experienced in the landscape and recorded in an image without worrying about any deeper nature.

The emotional response of a viewer to an image of that rock can certainly be conditioned on how it is represented (as in the examples of enhancing the colours of the leaves on it or blurring the water passing by it), but the means of the landscape photographer to influence that representation are certainly far more limited than other artists. The essence of the photographic image is that it remains realistic in some sense by recording the light that arrives from that rock and its surroundings in the landscape. Referring back to the quotation of Garry Winogrand, the fact of that rock is clearly described at the instant that the photograph is taken.

So where is the mystery? I think there are two philosophical aspects to that, ontological and aesthetic. The first is the deeper levels of understanding that might be associated with the nature of that rock. We have only one “fact” of that rock as we experience it (though if we stick around or return several times, the fact might be changing with light and season and it might even have rolled or moved), but there may be other characteristics that are beyond our perception (or that of our cameras). This is an ontological mystery (or potential possibility) for us as individuals. In recognising such possibilities, we need not be naïve realists in approaching the landscape; we can allow that there might be some deeper levels of understanding about the nature of a rock (or any other element of the landscape), even if they might not impact on the taking of an image as a record of our experience.

The second mystery concerns the aesthetic impact of an image. It is a mystery because the responses to an image can be highly personal and might be quite different for the photographer and the viewer(s). It necessarily contains a subjective element for each individual in terms of both beauty and emotional response15. What might be obvious for the photographer or one viewer might not be appreciated by another. There has been a long philosophical debate about the nature of beauty16 and how its appreciation has evolved in different societies (for example, the difference between classical beauty in the ancient world, the Impressionist reaction against the classical concept of beauty, and the quite different concept of wabi-sabi and the beauty of imperfections in Japan17).

The history of contemporary art (as in many other fields, including philosophy) suggests that individuals need to differentiate themselves in some way, but that not all will attract an audience19. However, a photograph of a rock does have a certain intrinsic interest in that it permits the question as to just why the photographer chose to frame that rock at that moment.

It is the aesthetic properties of an image that allows a rock to be more than a rock in quite a different way18. But while there are indeed very many photos of rocks, identifying those that are more than rocks is rather difficult since they all look like rocks. Of course, the concept of “more than” might only be a construct in the mind of the creative artist that need not be shared by the viewer. In creative photography, anything goes …. but anything might not necessarily evoke an emotional response from the viewer or gain an audience. The history of contemporary art (as in many other fields, including philosophy) suggests that individuals need to differentiate themselves in some way, but that not all will attract an audience19. However, a photograph of a rock does have a certain intrinsic interest in that it permits the question as to just why the photographer chose to frame that rock at that moment. It is, at least, more than any old rock in that sense, given value by the very act of what Barthes in Camera Lucida referred to as photography decreeing the “anything whatever” as notable20.

A more recent work of David Hockney is interesting to consider in this context. It is enormous (3m x 5m) and has also been produced by the manipulation of multiple photographic images, including multiple framed iPad drawings of flowers that can be exhibited separately. The image is clearly intended to be “unrealistic”: the flowers are Hockneyesque in their abstraction and it includes two images of the artist himself on either side of the frame, in the same white cap and shoes but sitting in different chairs and wearing different suits. In an interview he comments “This is not an ordinary photograph [which cannot be] the ultimate depiction of reality: you have to look at these through time, unlike an ordinary photograph, which you see all at once.21 As with the earlier joiner collages, the intention seems to be to break the barriers of the still image (albeit here rather simplistically, if on a grand scale). Landscape photographers have also creatively tried to express the passage of time, of course, through the means of time stacking over a day or through different seasons. Personally, I do not find such constructed images that convincing. The resulting artificiality seems to result in the whole detracting from the sum of its parts.

David Hockney, 25th June, 2022, Looking at the Flowers (Framed)

The view of a pragmatic realist

I suspect that this response on my part is perhaps because of my predilection and fascination with images of water. One of the particularly interesting aspect of Images of water is that they illustrate the potential for photos to be hyper-realistic in showing things in ways that the eye cannot see (see the pictures that follow). Freezing a water flow in time allows the eye to explore the complexity of a flow in ways that are not possible in “real time”. In the same way, we can explore the details of rocks, of mountains, of skies and of forest thickets by taking time for the eye to range across the image22. We can do the same with the Hockney (especially given its size) but somehow that is philosophically different: an exploration of the intentions of the artist rather than any impression of reality. In the landscape photograph we might wonder about the intentionality of the photographer, in choice of composition and execution, but what we generally explore is the semblance of the real. And we can view it with some heightened hyper-real sensibility, both as the image taker and as an image viewer.

Hyper-reality Abstract 1, Zinal, Switzerland, 2022

We might define such a position as pragmatic realism23. It is an intention to convey the experience of a landscape while accepting that the impression conveyed can only be an approximation to the real;

I would suggest that there is intrinsic value and satisfaction to be gained in this noble approximation to the real. This is, I think, Tim Parkin’s position in his discussion of honesty in landscape images24 and the position of the NPLA in which what is realistic (the “natural”) is effectively defined by what is considered as unacceptable and rejected (as referred to as the “ignoble lies” earlier).

an approximation that necessarily depends on the limitations of our experience in and personal understanding of the real landscape and the technical choices and limitations of the equipment we use. But while we might enhance an image in some way for aesthetic reasons (the particular choice of film, filter or shutter speed; some post-processing of digital files), for the pragmatic realist there needs to be an element of authenticity in representing the experience at the time of capture. I would suggest that there is intrinsic value and satisfaction to be gained in this noble approximation to the real. This is, I think, Tim Parkin’s position in his discussion of honesty in landscape images24 and the position of the NPLA in which what is realistic (the “natural”) is effectively defined by what is considered as unacceptable and rejected (as referred to as the “ignoble lies” earlier).

I am happy to be a pragmatic realist. I find that there is enough fun, challenge, and reward in recording experiences in the form of noble lies without excessive manipulation. This does not preclude, of course, different philosophies, including more creative approaches to photography, such as the example Hockneys shown above. This might be as simple as a choice of film (Kodak Aerochrome, anyone?), or filter (CPL? Graduated Tobacco? 720 nm Infrared?) or some of the more extreme post-processing methods mentioned earlier. Artistically we can allow that anything goes (and need not be “ignoble” in intent) – but with a quite different philosophy of image making. Not better, or worse, but different. So perhaps you do need a philosophy for your photography (or two) after all…..

Hyper-reality Abstract 2, Gérine, Switzerland, 2022

Hyper-reality Abstract 3, Gérine, Switzerland, 2022

Hyper-reality Abstract 4, Gérine, Switzerland, 2022

Hyper-reality Abstract 5, Gérine, Switzerland, 2022

Hyper-reality Abstract 6, Gérine, Switzerland, 2022

Hyper-reality Abstract 7, Hauterive, Switzerland, 2021

References

  1. Quoted in The Man in the Crowd p.157. Patricia Bosworth in Diane Arbus: A Biography also quotes the photographer Lisette Model (1901-1983) as saying “The most mysterious thing is a fact clearly stated” p.187. There may well be earlier statements of the same aphorism.
  2. Chalmers, A. 1989 Is Bhaskar’s realism realistic? Radical Phil. 49, 18–23. (P23).
  3. Despite the arguments to the contrary – see for example most recently Guy Tal’s article https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2022/10/the-straight-handicap/.
  4. See https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2020/06/landscape-and-the-philosophers-of-photography/
  5. Guy Tal in a comment on https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2020/06/landscape-and-the-philosophers-of-photography/
  6. See Guy Tal, https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2018/04/morality-realism-photography/, the response by Tim Parkin at https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2018/07/realism-and-honesty-in-photography/ and the comments that both articles inspired. Also, Guy Tal’s series of philosophical articles:
    https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2021/12/disinterested-interest/,
    https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2022/06/transcendent-forms-and-noble-lies/,
    https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2022/08/existence-precedes-essence/.
    Also my own https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2019/10/creation-passing-ducks-representation-reality/ .
  7. See https://naturallandscapeawards.com
  8. There is an interesting discussion of the late 19th Century origins of conceptual art in the recent book by Michel Onfrey, Les Anartistes (Editions Albin Michel, 2022), where he recounts the history of a group of artists in France known as Les Incohérents (Jules Levy, Paul Bilhaud, Alphonse Allais, and others including the pseudonymous, Dada) some 20 years or more before Cubism, the Black square of Maleovich, the urinal of Duchamp.and the Dadaists. Alphonse Allais even published a piece of silent music in 1897 (Marche Funèbre composée pour les funéreilles d;un grand homme sourd – Funeral March composed for the funeral of a great deaf man) some 55 years before the famous piece 4’33” of John Cage.
  9. Quoted in the Daily Art Magazine, https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/david-hockney-photographs/, 26th June 2022
  10. Ansel Adams did not generally approve of the use of such longer shutter speeds in the representation of water, but suggested speeds of 1/250 sec or shorter so that some of the structure of the flow could be seen. It is not always evident that he followed his own advice.
  11. See the Guy Tal article https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2022/06/transcendent-forms-and-noble-lies/
  12. For example, Metaphysical realism, Immanent realism, Positivism, Idealism, different varieties of Transcendental realism, Structural realism, Pragmatic realism, and Speculative realism. We should expect nothing less, since even philosophers have to make careers and reputations, so they need to differentiate themselves from what has gone before.
  13. See the recent articles by Guy Tal, https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2022/06/transcendent-forms-and-noble-lies/.
  14. Bertrand Russell illustrates this Kantian concept with the thought experiment if everyone was born with blue coloured spectacles. We would all still see a rock, but the thinking philosopher might recognise that we might not perceive the true essence of that rock.
  15. Though we can now learn how to create mood in our photographs in less than 5 minutes … see https://fstoppers.com/lightroom/how-master-mood-landscape-photography-under-5-minutes-618467
  16. See https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2021/12/disinterested-interest/ and the discussion that follows
  17. It seems that wabi-sabi photography can also be considered as a genre, see https://www.discoverdigitalphotography.com/2016/wabi-sabi-photography-the-art-of-the-imperfect/
  18. From the quotation of Edward Weston: “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”. See also Guy Tal’s book More than a Rock, Rocky Nook, 2nd Edition.
  19. What becomes famous might depend on circumstances, analogous to the Black Swans in the financial world, including hedge fund managers, discussed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see also his book Skin in the Game). Certainly I have friends who are very talented artists but who have not had the success that perhaps they deserve.
  20. See again https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2019/10/creation-passing-ducks-representation-reality/.
  21. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/oct/08/david-hockney-new-5-metre-digital-artwork-self-portrait
  22. There are other ways in which photography can be hyper-realist, notably in the macro and microscopic domains, and also in the domain of astrophysics with the Hubble, James Webb and soon to be launched Euclid satellites. The latter will have the largest digital camera ever constructed for a space mission and will be in orbit some 1.5 million km from Earth – see article of 25th September 2022 at https://blog.insolublepancake.org
  23. I have discussed the problems of pragmatic realism in the context of my professional sphere of environmental modelling in the 2002 article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rspa.2002.0986
    See Tim’s article at https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2018/07/realism-and-honesty-in-photography/