Digital image manipulations: Whose style is it anyway?

(Author: Mark Ware MFA) I recently came across an article featuring the winning images of a natural landscape photography competition.  Of the 10 top photographs selected, 8 were very strongly enhanced in Photoshop.  So much so, that the landscapes were unearthly and certainly not representative of what we see with the naked eye.  Some were of landscapes more in keeping with Disney than reality.  Why are these types of images being created?  Why do we appear to need to create and see ‘perfect’ images of landscapes that don’t exist in reality, that are distorted representations of what is real?  I can’t show the competition photographs due to copyright issues, but I can illustrate the approach to photography I’m referring to:

Unprocessed photograph of Sevenoaks Nature Reserve
Unprocessed photograph of Sevenoaks Nature Reserve

Above is a photograph I took of a footpath at Kent Wildlife Trust’s Sevenoaks Nature Reserve last May.  The image has not been enhanced in Photoshop and is a reasonable reproduction of the scene I was looking at.  Below is the same photograph enhanced by using Photoshop to exaggerate the colours and raise shadow detail.  The enhancement image took about 30 seconds to create.  Although this version of the photograph might be appealing to some people, it is not a true representation of the natural environment I was immersed in.

Processed photograph of Sevenoaks Nature Reserve
Processed photograph of Sevenoaks Nature Reserve

Yes, I fully understand that photographers have always manipulated images (dodge and burn and retouching etc), but this is different somehow.  Heavily manipulated photographs are now being presented as reality, but they are images of scenes that we don’t experience in real life.  The above enhanced photograph of the footpath in Kent shows green leaves that are brighter and greener than I’ve ever seen in the natural world, and a warmth of sunlight that wasn’t there when I took the photograph. Does all this matter?  There is clearly a need to see this type of photography, but for me it lacks integrity.  I firmly believe that photographs featuring the current excessive use of Photoshop enhancement will look ridiculous and dated when people look back in years to come. The other issue concerning this kind of image manipulation concerns style. In his book entitled Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich claimed that the history of art is not possible without recognisable styles of work.  If that is the case, then whose style is behind Photoshop enhanced photographs?  Is Photoshop just another tool and therefore the style belongs to the photographer, or does the style of these photographs belong to Photoshop? This question of style extends to other forms of image manipulation, for example those created using digital pattern makers.  Kaleidoscope 2.1 is one of a number of fun free Photoshop plug-ins that can be used to make pretty patterns within seconds. Below I’ve taken the enhanced image of the Kent woodland footpath and transformed it into these three patterns using Kaleidoscope 2.1  The process of creating these three patterns took me less than 30 seconds:

Kaleidoscope 2.1 generated patterns
Kaleidoscope 2.1 generated patterns

Is the style of these pattern images mine?  Is it art? I believe the answer to both questions is no.  Yes, they may be pretty images, but they are not art as I understand art to be.  Rather, they have artistic qualities (at most). My objection does not concern the level of intervention on the part of the artist.  It concerns what is claimed by the artist.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, many artists have produced work that has challenged our preconceptions of how much artistic intervention should be expected in the creation of art, as in the cases of Duchamp’s urinal, Jackson Pollock’s paintings and Carl Andre’s bricks.  But all of those artists had solid conceptual reasoning behind their work and did not claim the work was anything other than what is was. The variety of image manipulation possibilities is vast and mostly very easy to produce including these six examples:

Six art effects applied to a photograph
Six art effects applied to a photograph

I was trained as a professional commercial photographer during the pre-digital age, which may explain what might appear to be my grumpy old man views on digital technology.  However, I do welcome the fact that photography and image manipulation is now being enjoyed by millions of people around the world.  I simply think we need to be cautious when evaluating the content of what is being created.  It all too is easy to be seduced by ‘pretty’ pictures.  The question I would ask artists involved in digital manipulation is:  ‘If everyone in the world could have access to image manipulation software, what would you create that would be different and meaningful?’