Truth in photography

“Camping on the Diving Board” by Matthew Saville

This spectacular shot of Yosemite’s Half Dome at night was taken by Matthew Seville and is an entry in the National Geographic 2015 Traveler Photo Contest, which closes at the end of June. Thousands of photos, viewable on the NatGeo website have been entered and there’s enough eye candy there to send any admirer into diabetic shock.

I was first captivated by this shot, selected as an Image of the Day several weeks ago, when my eye went immediately to the lone, lighted tent. What magnificent solitude this represented, alone high on the mountainside under the arch of the Milky Way.

The page includes this description with the photo:

As technology shrinks the world around us, it becomes more and more difficult to find ourselves truly lost in the outdoors. This makes those particular moments and scenes that much more special. Getting to the Diving Board was quite a challenge, as there is no official trail. For anybody who is prepared, careful, and respectful of nature, the reward is one of the most breathtaking views in all of Yosemite, in my opinion.

I’d not heard of the Diving Board, specifically, and starting browsing for information. Was the Diving Board where the tent was or the place where the photographer stood? It soon became clear that there is confusion about which rock or outcropping is actually the Diving Board. In trying to sort that out I  came across a discussion with Matt Saville about this photograph. (Naturally I can’t locate it now). As it turns out, he didn’t just happen across that tent sitting over there on the cliff and seize the opportunity to capture the scene. No, he and a friend climbed over there, set up the tent, left a camp lantern burning inside, and returned to the original vantage point to take the picture. They never stayed in the tent, which the title implies. It was too perilous, too close to the edge for safe sleeping, Saville said. But the majority of the discussion was about exposures for the cliff and stars, and how the arc of the Milky Way followed the arc of the mountain, etc.

Meantime, I was having a silent fit over the fact that the most important detail in the shot to me — the lone tent — was a plant. It was added to the scene by the photographer, just for effect. It wasn’t a beautiful, natural scene that he happened across but a scene that he deliberately staged. Where at first I’d loved the photo, I now hated it as a fraud.

I know photographers use all kinds of tricks to get great photos. Changes in lighting, angle, exposure, contrast, processing, dodging and burning. Not to mention the ubiquitous PhotoShopping of just about everything. And photos are shot for a variety of purposes which require appropriate engineering to achieve. I enjoy beautiful photographs, but as in decades past, I still tend to think of photos as exact reproductions of moments in time. With fidelity, without the addition of props or subtraction of items deemed somehow inappropriate. There’s a fine line, one I can’t even explain to myself, where “adjusting” a photo to improve it becomes an unacceptable change that renders it invalid as a representation of reality (assuming, of course, that reality was the intent).

Note, Aug 6, 2015: Still haven’t located the original remarks about setting up the tent, but did find a related comment: “The tent in the picture was for aesthetic purposes only, I DO NOT recommend camping in that exact location!”

7 thoughts on “Truth in photography

  1. I’m with you on that (up to a point) . . . If I stage something (very rare), I will mention it up-front. Out in the wild, I get what I get.

    It’s one thing chancing on something by sheer luck or waiting for the right moment, but it’s another setting things up.

    That said, I also don’t get too upset about the above . . . imagine, for a moment an artist painting or drawing that scene (or any other scene) . . . we don’t fault the artist for showing us his vision of something.

    So, while I would not do it, beauty is beauty no matter how presented, and that feeling you got? You would have had the same one if it had been painted. Would you have felt cheated by the artist?

    1. No, because a painting is by definition an interpretation, created by the artist’s hand. A photo at least begins by capturing the reality in front of the camera. What’s done to the image after it is captured … that’s a subject for a long, long discussion. The lines have become so blurred these days, I don’t know if distinctions are even valid anymore.

    2. Hmmm . . . perhaps, but I think you saddle photography with more responsibility than warranted. Think of it like fiction versus history (and even history is subject to interpretation). It’s all writing, but you don’t expect fiction to accurately reflect the real world (although it draws from it).

      There is room in photography for both a faithful representation of reality and of a stylized version of it (this being the latter).

      Photojournalism has a higher standard than casual photography and even that is subject to the photographer if not staging, at least highly editorializing (although I think staging is a common practice). One need only look at the photos of the Old West . . . they show you the people and places, but they are posed with the trappings of the times (sometimes literally).

      Look at some of the early “nature” shows (Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom); most of them presented staged scenes to give the viewer an idea of what happens in real life. Most viewers did not know the difference, and producers were not misrepresenting what happens in nature.

      When I look at the above photo I see a long exposure shot that no one would ever see in real life. You can’t resolve that kind of detail and color with your eyes alone, certainly not of the Milky Way.

      How is it then different than an artist painting an interpretation of the real world? You focus on the staged tent (which the photographer voluntarily explained), but not on the fact that the whole photo is “reality” completely distorted to show you something you would not otherwise see. He purposefully put the tent there (probably to evoke exactly the feeling you had), and then you fault him for it.

      I already said I agree with you in principle, but I apply it to the whole photograph, not just the tent. Ultimately, the photographer wanted to show an interpretation of reality. I don’t see a difference between that photo and a painting (but I like the photo better than nearly all painting I have ever seen).

      1. Photojournalism’s standards have fallen right along with journalism standards. We can no longer believe what we see, read, or hear.

        I don’t consider the long exposure here to be deceit. But knowing the tent was planted ruined it for me. If only I hadn’t seen that particular discussion …

  2. A photo is a record of an instant in time. A factual record. It’s not supposed to be staged.
    A painting is an interpretation/ a subjective view. We don’t expect it to be factually correct.
    The image is beautiful except that tent. As a artist, that yellow is too flat to fit that location. It looks like a kid’s sticker stuck on there. Really out of place for me. Litter on the scene.

    1. It was a real letdown for me. The tent made the photo for me. Then after I found out it was a plant, it ruined the photo. Now it’s just another photo of Half Dome — notable only for the planted tent.

... and that's my two cents