When the 2021 International Landscape Photographer of the Year (ILPOTY) awards were announced in early 2022, the internet had a meltdown. Purists denounced the contest winners as “digital artists”, while others countered by expounding on the shortcomings of camera technology, and how in some cases, the edits were necessary to improve the image quality. One of the winners, Chris Byrnes, even went so far as to post a before and after with his Raw image to defend his image. His winning image was almost straight out of the camera.
After spending a long time in the “Who cares” camp, I sat down to have a think about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that in today’s digital age, we can’t fully trust most things we see as being true.
On the one hand, I fully understand the mentality of upholding photography’s integrity. In journalism, for example, one of the basic assumed premises of journalistic photography is that it is a snapshot of something that actually occurred, and you, the viewer, can trust it. When we erode our confidence that an image is true to life in one realm of photography, there are fears that we erode trust in other genres, like journalism, where viewer acceptance is fundamental to the entire process.
If I’m being honest, though, my initial reaction was twofold. First, contests and art are inherently subjective both on the part of the creator and the judges. No two people see the world the same way, and that will always influence our art, as it is a form of communication. What’s more, by entering your images into a contest, you are making a conscious decision to abide by whatever guidelines they set forth. In a statement on their website, ILPOTY says, “Our philosophy is that all approaches to landscape photography are valid. It is not up to us to say whether an image is a landscape or not. As a result, in the 2021 International Landscape Photographer of the Year awards, you will see exponents of many different styles presenting their rare and carefully considered compositions. Some of the landscapes are straight out of camera, others are from the photographer's imagination.”
ILPOTY’s Chairman of Judges, Peter Eastway, is very clear that they are putting both heavily edited photos in the same category as lightly edited one, and makes no apologies for it. ILPOTY sets forth the terms of the contract, and the entrants agree to them. Complaining about the results after the fact seems reactive at best. Yes, the more people get rewarded for heavily edited manipulation, the more it skews the industry in the favor of edits. But that is the nature of both capitalism, where popular demand controls the market, and the nature of art, which is constantly evolving as our desire to communicate things changes.
For those people who prefer a light hand when editing, there is at least one contest out there specifically with that in mind: Natural Landscape Photography Awards. (naturallandscapeawards.com) The website’s opening statement reads, “Welcome to the second Natural Landscape Photography Awards, a competition created to find the very best landscape photography of the natural world. This is a competition for digital and film photographers who value realism in their images and edit with this in mind. As a result, we have a few more rules than other competitions but we hope the result will be a fantastic showcase of not only photographers' talents but also the true wonder of the landscape.” They also set out the terms of their contract, and all entrants must agree to said rules in order to participate. When compared to the winners of ILPOTY, in my opinion, their winning images from year one were equally fabulous. It is simply a different contest upholding different criteria. In fact, given enough time and interest, one can scour the internet for any number of contests that suit their particular artistic leanings.
So here is where I make a confession. All that said, I will concede that upon further reflection, I can see where the potential for problems lies.
Let’s circle back to my initial example of integrity in journalistic photography, and the fear that distrust in landscape imagery will seep into all genres of imagery. In my mind, I immediately compared the written equivalent of journalism to an epic fantasy novel, like Lord of the Rings. No one I know would confuse the two. Journalism is a newspaper reporting on recent events, while epic fantasy relies on magic and elves and the occasional sassy unicorn.
But then I thought of American politics. Of sayings like “fakes news” casting doubt on news agencies, and the wide gulf between how liberal and conservative reporters interpret events. Of how thin the line between reporting and propaganda is. Of how popular conspiracy theories are, and how difficult it can be to trust anything you read on the internet. Of how these problems aren’t new, they just had a spotlight cast on them in recent years.
In other words, the sassy unicorn infiltrated journalism.
When viewed through that lens, I can see the importance of maintaining photography’s integrity. I’m no soothsayer, so I can’t know if creating new labels for heavily manipulated images will ever really matter. Broad labels indicating unrealistic vs true-to-life images (fiction vs non-fiction, so to speak) aren’t so easily applied, given that many edits are meant to counteract technological limitations. They help us re-create a photo closer to the actual experience. Diving deeper into sub-labels likely wouldn’t affect a viewer’s trust either. Modernism, cubism, surrealism and impressionism are all still paintings. Having labels within labels likely just appeases the biological urge humans have to put things in boxes, so they can be easily recognizable as one thing or another.
However, I do think, at the very least, transparency on the photographer’s part is important. I don’t feel the need to post RAWs, or outline every step in my editing process. Nor do I feel like I need to defend focus-stacking, for example, since it’s a way to combat my camera and lens’ shortcomings. But if someone asks how I edited something, I’ll tell them. If they say I adjusted the color sliders, and I did, I’ll agree. I firmly believe art is a means of communication, and if, at the time I was editing an image, a purple sky felt right to me, then so be it. It’s an artistic choice. But I will be transparent about those choices, so as to not confuse people later.
The problem in written journalism is that everyone presents their stories from a position of absolute authority. Doing so sustains our trust in the institution. Unfortunately, that means any differing interpretation–which is inevitable as reporters all have very different life experiences and belief systems–leads to tribalism and suspicion. I think the way to navigate journalism is to read or listen with an open mind and seek out different viewpoints so you can form your own, educated opinions. Similarly, I think viewing images with some disbelief in mind can prevent misunderstanding and a collapse of all trust on the part of the viewer.
In the case of landscape photography, the artist is trying to evoke a feeling or line of thinking with their art. Sometimes, that feeling is one of mystery and intentional surrealism. Sometimes, it is simply reminding you how beautiful a blue sky on a summer day, sans edits, can be. Neither are wrong, and either can be the product of both perfect conditions in the field or digital rendering and composites. Transparency on the part of the artist and maintaining a healthy scepticism means you, the viewer, can still enjoy them both without feeling misled.