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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!”

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