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Is this photography or art?

Discussion in 'Birds' started by Gordon Large, Dec 15, 2005.

  1. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    A few days ago I posted a photo of a Northern Cardinal, asking for feedback about whether my extensive cloning away distracting branches and twigs was done well enough that it was not noticeable. The verdict - no sign of cloning.

    Later I showed both the shot I posted and the original, out-of-the-camera image to a friend who is incredibly talented - birder, photographer, painter and poet - and also very opinionated and not afraid to express his opinions. His conclusion - the edited image was much better than the original, but was art, not photography.

    I've posted both images below. Do you agree that the finished product is art and not photography? Does the finished image still qualify as legitimate nature photography? Does the fact that I acknowledged the heavy cloning influence your answers? Should I have also disclosed the fairly heavy tweaking of exposure, levels and curves to make a more dramatic image?

    I hope this starts a healthy discussion!


    Here is the original out-of-the-camera image -

    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    And here is the finished product -

    View attachment 20968
  2. nfoto

    nfoto Guest

    It is a straight-forward depiction of a bird. The retouching work doesn't change that fact. Art needs a much broader scope and deeper commitment than this picture indicates.

    As a picture of the species, the original probably functions best for printing, but you could process it to be slightly darker though.
  3. Gale


    Jan 26, 2005
    Viera Fl
    Well open mouth and stick in my feet, here we go.

    I think the second image is fantastic.
    Great job :>)))

    I would not have known. As posted.
  4. HarryB


    Jan 28, 2005
    Viera, Florida
    Hey Gordon,

    One of the classes I took at our wildlife festival down here was called "photography is art". It was taught by a professional photographer. I agree with the title of the class and I'm gonna say your pic is photography and since photography is art its also art. The only question you have is "is it good art/photography or is it bad art/photography".

    The pro told us how he went into one gallery to try to get them to give him some wall space for his shots:

    gallery lady: "We don't display photographs only art works"

    pro: "aren't photographs art?"

    gallery lady: "No, anyone can take a photograph"

    pro: "Well, anyone can draw"

    Gallery lady: "Not everyone can draw well though"

    pro: "exactly"
  5. As I have said over and over, an image is not complete until it has been tweaked in the darkroom, a.k.a. computer. Ansel Adams did it and so do many others. You have taken an image of a Cardinal that was overexposed and unsaturated and made it into an excellent image. The fact that you have boosted the color, darkened the background and elimanate a few brances does not alter the fact that you took it with your camera, you composed the shot and then you made it the best that it could be. It is a photograph and a good one at that. Art can be seen on the Retouching fora and many times it hardly resembles the original.

    You can't tell me that some of the B&W images that Ansel Adams took, looked that way right out of the camera. He was a master in the darkroom.
  6. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Hi Bjorn -

    I hope you understand that I make no claim that my second image is art. My own feeling is that my friend has a very narrow definition of art. In his view any photograph that has been modified, especially a significant modification, is not photography and therefor is "art". My view is that it may or not be a better image, but for sure that doesn't necessarily make it art. (Although it can; think Ansel Adams.)

    In your second paragraph, are you saying that the cardinal in the original is closer to reality. (I certainly did try to make the image more dramatic; did I go too far?) Or that the second would print too dark and not look as good as it looks on a screen?

    Thanks for looking and commenting.

  7. cmpalmer


    Jan 27, 2005
    Huntsville, AL
    First of all, an on-topic comment. Yes, it's "art" in the sense of improving the aesthetics of the picture by creativity, but in a nature observation sense, it's still a realistic, "natural" photograph of a cardinal (it isn't purple or tentacled, for example). I remember National Geographic running a special sidebar on a story they ran that had digitial manipulations done on some photographs and saying that, for journalistic integrity, they would always label photos that had been touched up digitally as such. So, if you were presenting this to birders, you could say, "This photograph was digitally color corrected and some editing of the background was performed" -- kinda like the disclaimers on movies shown on TV that it was edited for length or content.

    Now for my off-subject remark. Harry's story reminded me of an old joke/anecdote.

    A huge power plant had one of their turbines freeze up. The equipment was old and no-one knew how to fix it without shutting down the whole plant to tear it down, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars. Before they decided on such an expensive solution, they called one of the old, retired engineers who had worked there for many years. Reluctantly, he came to the plant and looked at the frozen turbine for about five minutes, then asked for a hammer. They brought him the hammer and he walked over to a certain spot and hit the side of the turbine as hard as he could and it immediately started up. He sent them a bill for $5000. The manager objected to the price and wrote him a letter asking for an itemization and justification for such a large bill for 15 minutes of work. He sent back the itemization:

    Labor for one hammer blow: $5
    Knowing where to hit it with the hammer: $4,995
  8. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Thanks Gale!
  9. nfoto

    nfoto Guest

    I share your opinion as far as your friend's views are concerned. It's an OK bird picture no doubt about that, but art needs vastly more. Just editing the picture won't by magic generate art. I'm a believer of reporting the habitat of any species without doing too much "cleaning" up of the image, other than the steps done prior to the shooting in which you select the framing and general composition. So in view of this I'm not automatically willing to trade accuracy (original image) for a "cleaner" look (second image), since no information really has been added, just left out. The bird itself conveys its specific features equally well in either case.

    I'm not familiar with the bird species as such, but my experience from years of delivering and processing images later to be printed is that one should not make them too dark, since they will appear even darker in print.
  10. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Hi Harry -

    This is getting fun. I have a slightly different perspective. "Art" is very hard to define; I know I can't do it. I think it is possible to take an excellent photo that makes no pretense of being art - think of Frank's GBHs. (Sorry, Frank - it's just my opinion.) In fact, the folks in this forum post amazing photos but very few are "art" as I understand it. I think Bjorn in his post stated the issue very well: "Art needs a much broader scope and deeper commitment than this picture indicates." Tough to achieve with a photo of a birdie. Without meaning to insult anyone in this forum, by that standard I see lots of great images but very little art in this forum.

  11. bpetterson

    bpetterson Guest

    The second one is the best of the bird.

    But the first one with the bird removed could be called art.
    Of course you might crop or reframe it.
  12. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Hi Gordon -

    I think your position is the closest to mine so far. I'll quote you so I don't pat myself on the back too hard - the retouched photo is "an excellent image." But I also agree with Bjorn's comment that "Art needs a much broader scope and deeper commitment than this picture indicates." By that standard - and mine - there are many superb images on this forum but few are "art".

    Ansel Adams is a great example for two reasons. First, in many cases you wouldn't believe that he produced such superb images from very different negatives. But I think many of his images do reflect the "broader scope and deeper commitment" that Bjorn refers to. My cardinal certainly doesn't.

  13. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Hi Chris -

    Thanks for your comments. (I haven't left out your very funny story. Just moved it down the page.) I thought I might be starting a controversial but fun thread, and it's shaping up as both. My friend who made the original comment used the word "art" in a perjorative way. To paraphrase - "This isn't a realist photo because you messed around with it, and therefore it's art." You seem to be saying something similar, but to you the "messing around" improved the image. And at the other extreme, you may have seen in Bjorn's comment his opinion that "Art needs a much broader scope and deeper commitment than this picture indicates." I agree with both you and Bjorn, depending on how one defines "art". Thanks for commenting!

    Now for your story, which I think is great -

  14. nfoto

    nfoto Guest

    To me, the "messing around" did nothing to the image. It was neither improved nor degraded, just became two different versions stating effectively the same message - hi, I'm a bird, and this is what I look like.
  15. Gale


    Jan 26, 2005
    Viera Fl
    Every image is an art form, regardless of the brush, pencil, or tool that is used. It is a vision. Art is beauty in all media.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
  16. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Hi again, Bjorn -

    Putting aside the "art" issue on which we seem to be pretty much in agreement, I think there are two ways to approach bird photography that both fall short of being art. But both in my opinion are equally legitimate. To use your words, accuracy vs "cleaner" look. I tend to think about this when capturing the image, and then make a final decision when I see it on my screen. I actually thought I had both when I took the shot, but I felt the original image wasn't particularly interesting as an "accuracy" shot. So I processed the other way.

    You may have noticed that I have frequently quoted your definition of what art is. It is a much better definition than I could have come up with, so I hope you don't mind me quoting you so often.

  17. PJohnP


    Feb 5, 2005
    Chris :

    As an engineering contractor (among a few other things), I know another piece to this.

    After the manager objected, the engineer nodded thoughtfully, and tapped another spot on the turbine system, which immediately shut down. He walked over to the manager, smiled, and said, "The hammer's yours to keep - no charge", then sauntered out the door whistling. :biggrin:

    John P.
  18. nfoto

    nfoto Guest

    Well, I hold no claim to knowing a workable definition of "art", but I do know for myself when I encounter it. I guess we have to look into ourselves to find the deeper meanings of this concept, which cannot exist in a vacuum. You have to have artists feeling the need to express their visions and being able to communicate the results to a wider audience. The onlookers cannot get pre-digested art, they have to commit themselves to the process of absorbing and interpreting the artwork. So the entire system is basically flowing in both directions.

    And for the record, most bird shooters here on the Cafe are much more able practioneers in this field than I'm likely to be myself. I decided long ago that I had no interest of delving more deeply into bird photography. I do the occasional bird shot, and then always just for getting a sellable image for my stock library. After all, selling pictures constitutes the foundation for my living, but not for my visions.

    Finally, also note I have absolutely no objection to what you did in terms of post-processing (or "editing") the image. I just felt it didn't confer an improvement that's all.
  19. Beautiful work Gordon on the second one.
  20. Gordon Large

    Gordon Large Guest

    Hi Birger -

    Could you expand on your comment on the second picture. Consider the bird gone. What do you see here that could be called art? The abstract pattern of the branches?

    By the way, do recognize my avatar? It was cropped from one of the portraits of you, me, Frank and Harris that you set up in your studio when we visited last May.

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