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Is Nature Photography Too Beautiful?

A move toward “truth in labeling” would bring photographic arts more in line with ecological science.

Robert Louis Chianese

One strategy to bring the camera’s images a little closer to reality is a practice I call “photographic calming.” This is a technique of toning down, so that the gleaming light and colors in typical nature photography become subdued, tuned to meditative reflections on our threatened world. The range of exposure levels, contrasts, color saturation, and what Photoshop labels “vibrance” can be narrowed, not to take the blush off the rose, but to avoid depicting it with an enhanced ultra-radiant perfection.

Practicing this sort of tonal control would reveal by contrast that much of nature photography today is overly saturated with light and color. (This effect may be partly an artifact of our state-of-the-art digital cameras, monitors, and projectors, whose multibit pixels enhance light and color and seem to “tone up” or brighten most photos.)

Perhaps such calming is itself a distortion, an environmentally correct pall draped over the majesties of nature. But those glories are fading, and distorting them toward a subdued and tonalist register may be approved as a distortion that clarifies. We don’t need a Natura Noir, a dark and forbidding photographic vision of the grim fate of the Earth; nor its contrary, the blare of Natura Gloriosa, with its hyped gorgeousness, which also obscures. Both enhancements and diminishments reflect values about what we see and understand about the natural world.

I’ve adjusted my own photo of Yosemite Valley both ways—hyped and calmed. We would not know from the hyped view that human-caused global warming afflicts Yosemite with a variety of ills. The massive Rim Wildfire nearby burned with such fury in August 2013 because of prolonged drought, brittle-dry vegetation, insect infestation, and numerous other effects exaggerated by climate change. Luckily the fire did not encroach into the valley itself, though smoke obscured its vistas. Ozone from cities floats into the valley as well. Heightened temperatures make it difficult for alpine creatures, such as picas, to survive at lower elevations as they once did. With less snowfall, trees proliferate and overshadow mountain meadows, stunting wildflower growth, and warmer temperatures shrink Yosemite’s glaciers. None of this finds direct expression in either photo.

2014-01ArtsLabF3.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe less color-saturated photo, with its browner and grayer tones and less luminous sky and paler green vegetation, still expresses the scale and majesty of this famous prospect, but it insinuates all is not well, which it is not. It hints at fire, air pollution, and drought. Is it a lie? Perhaps, as is the one on the left, but its image is closer to the scientific and ecological truth rather than the glory shot on the left. The eyes of a viewer without environmental knowledge of the growing threats might “see" the hyped view, while the ecologically informed might look on the famous scene with a combination of respect and dread. Our conceptions drive our perceptions, and more accurate conceptions point to the calmed photograph as more “honest.”

Photos of that nearby Rim Fire conflagration might serve a larger ecological purpose if they themselves did not become exciting, inflammatory icons with their own pop fascinations. Slightly more effective might be shots of the blighted aftermath of the fire, with dead trees littering the scoured, lifeless Earth. However, they provoke a whole new set of environmental concerns, from extensive winter flooding to demands by logging companies to clean up the 400-square-mile area by extracting trees, without regard to the ecological process of successional forest regrowth that requires them.

Finally, the features of Yosemite at risk from global warming can’t fully be seen in the calmed photo, nor in the shots of flaming redwoods or burned forest floor. To convey that would require a narrative. We can therefore argue for a “truth in labeling” feature for nature photography. This would require an up-to-date scientific gloss on any subject, using the latest ecological information about the environmental health of it, visible or not.

More than a short comment about the scene, animal, or plant, such a science-based label would bring photographic arts in line with ecological science. Surely professional nature photographers, who are usually environmentally informed, need to affix such comments to their works the way news photographers or editors do, clarifying what we are looking at; they can consult with scientists as well. Nature photography would find a purpose uniting visual aesthetics with ecological explanation. It would help revise both our stubborn percepts and concepts about nature along more realistic lines, and add to our general scientific literacy. Images of nature with commentary then could be in the service of preservation, bringing photographic art back to a classical program of being aesthetically “pleasing” and useful at the same time.

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