Confounding Confusions… ruminations on Life and Altered Reality by John Cogan

Confounding Confusions… ruminations on Life and Altered Reality

By John Cogan ARPS

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Prague.  I even managed to wave to Walter as our aeroplanes passed.  Whereas Walt managed to make a great image of a red umbrella at a tram stop I ended up trying to avoid capturing tourists in my shots of the ancient Jewish Cemetery.

And then, last night at Durham Photographic Society, we had the RPS 2013 International Images for Screen Exhibition results projected from DVD.  Ah, I thought as I watched the screen swell with galleons trapped in the sand and men on velocipedes peddling madly against the wind… I guess I was being anally retentive when I noticed the red pennants at the mastheads… it took a great effort of will not to become “Disgusted of Hetton”… you can’t be an Englishman AND not know how wind effects a set of sails!  But this image, if I remember correctly, came from central Europe… so that might explain things!

We were all heartened when Neil’s magnificently moving image, “Age”, appeared.  Certainly a worthy winner of the Gold.  However, there were murmurings that not every entry had played fair so I spent Friday talking to a young lady at RPS HQ.  Dropping Neil’s name (something I rarely ever do… name drop I mean) worked in my favour: “Our Neil won Gold, don’t you know” and this charmed the young lady who sent me some bumf… especially definitions of the three categories… they make fascinating reading.

Those images made In Camera were allowed a measure of manipulation.  The main criteria was that they should not “… alter the truth of the subject.”  You could adjust in all or part of the image: levels; curves; brightness; contrast; colour balance; tone; straightening; removing blemishes; burning and or dodging; cropping and converting colour to mono.  That explains why some of the images were more vibrant than they would otherwise have been.  Some, if not all, of these techniques were available to us in the dark room… well, to those who were talented enough to use them.  Sadly, I rarely progressed beyond a bit of mild dodging and a little blemish removal.

Back in my Prague hotel room I looked over the images from the Jewish Cemetery.  Not one had captured the deep silence of the place nor its sense of timeless enclosure.  The gentle chaos of weathered old stones and the occasional mass of tumbling leaves washing up against them like so much spume, the canyons of remembrance and the closeness of people who, in death, had made a compact with their ancestors… nothing of that came through the pictures.  For one thing the light was diffuse.  Over-arching everything were trees that had been allowed to grow unchecked.  In so doing their roots had ruptured the smooth surface of the soil creating hillocks that distorted the lines of tombstones.  Once back in Hetton I was faced with the problem of how best to manipulate the images, and to what purpose?

And then I sat and watched the section on Altered Reality.  Photographers had, supposedly, followed the guidelines and used an image that “… must have originated as image or images captured by media sensitive to light or other electromagnetic radiation.  All elements of the image must have been captured or generated by the creator of the image.”  Ah, what, then are the restrictions?   “The use of third party images such as clip art is not allowed.”  What, then of montages?  And are HDR images acceptable?  It seems they are.

I’m still worrying about my cemetery images… if I clone out a little of one of the tombstones is it an Altered Reality or have I merely removed a blemish?  But this removal of an intrusive element has altered the truth so I should regard it as an Altered Reality.  But, what constitutes the TRUTH of my cemetery images?  You can’t use a filter or an HDR process, as these distort the truth but… and it’s a big but… If I were to stick to the TRUTH of the subject then I should leave the images free from manipulation.  As made in the camera the images would appear bland and somewhat under-exposed, the straightening would look better but negate the reality of the chaos of tilting tombstones.  Yet, I want to reveal a greater truth, one that is deeper and more resonant with the history and narrative of the Jewish community of Prague so, to leave the images as they came straight from the camera might be reality but would they be the TRUTH?

Christine Widdall is a fine writer and photographer and has a sharp mind.  On her website she has written an article about the subject of separation.  By this she means the current trend to allow manipulated images to fall into either In Camera or be Altered Reality.  She argues that there should be no separation.  Her rationale is that an image is an image and those who might wish for separation between In Camera and Altered Reality images seem to wish to create what, for them, is a level playing field.  She has obviously been assailed by emails and other communications from people who believe that manipulation is the work of the devil and Photoshop is an alchemist’s dream come true.  How can the purist compete, they argue.  How can a manipulated image be classed as photography?

From the first image captured back in the nineteenth century the struggle for respectability has been a battle with painters and allied artists.  The Pictorialists fought hard to have photography seen as an art form in its own right and I doubt if anyone now would consider it as a scientific pursuit or merely a hobby.

Surely, the advent of Photoshop and other programs allow for creativity on a grand scale regardless of whether we use them or not.  It is up to the photographer to either limit him/herself in what they use or explore all that is on offer.  Each one of us is on a personal journey and no matter how many years we’ve been making photographs we continue to develop.  But this has been so from the very beginning.   For some reason people see me as a mono photographer (can’t think why?) but back in the day there were choices to be made and if I purchased a roll of Tri-X my subsequent images were, to a certain extent, limited.  Talking with Angy Ellis about her images, she told me that the final print was there, inside her head, before being committed to the printer.  No doubt there are many DPS members able to do this… and this is a skill developed over time.  There are also some of us for whom this is difficult to achieve.

One of my favourite artists is Eric Ravillious.  His delicate watercolours and the construction of his images (including his work for Wedgewood) are masterly.  Tragically, he lost his life during the War when his Coastal Command aeroplane disappeared off Iceland.  At the Laing Art Gallery there is one of his monumental works… Norway in 1940.  I’ve been privileged to see it close-up and even Ravillious doctored his art work… there are elements scratched out so as to remove the surface paint and return to the paper-white; a large section of the mountainous background has been physically added by the judicious application of fresh paper and a pot of glue.  For all that you realise Ravillious had integrity and a gentle sense of being committed to the essential emotional truth of his art.  By adding these small touches and removing what he wasn’t satisfied with he created a well-composed image that encapsulated the essence of one midnight in the far north of Norway while the British and French forces were trying to stem the Nazi expansion. There, rocking at anchor are the protective mine-clearing trawlers surrounded by the forbidding landscape… rugged and anonymous, resisting all man-made attempts to subdue it; a land impervious to petty events.

Every artist who picks up a pencil or applies paint to canvas or paper creates an altered reality.  Lady Butler painted what many of us used to regard as a valiant historical endeavour… the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo.  The picture entitled “Scotland Forever” is entirely fictitious.  In reality, the ground was so churned up and dangerous that the horsemen were unable to proceed above a canter.  Where she had conjured up the furious charge of shouting horsemen from can only have been her imagination.  Still, it is iconic and valiant and remains the legend we believe in rather than the truth.

So, where does all this rumination leave me?  For one thing I return (yet again) to the notion that we, as photographers, are on the cusp of such transition that we should take stock of what we are trying to achieve with our own images and those who set the challenges should be aware of the changes happening.  If we are to fragment the competitions then so be it.  Perhaps there should be other formats… mixed styles for instance à la swimming where you enter three images (one that is an altered reality, one that is mildly manipulated and one that has restricted work applied to it)… perhaps we need to take Christine’s article seriously and see where it takes us?  Whatever the outcome it is a matter that needs to be openly discussed and the various opinions considered but in a way that keeps us, as a community, intact.  Whatever happens fragmentation is not the answer… for we are all photographers and as such creative beings…  

John Cogan ARPS

December 2013    

Link to Christine Widdall’s article, “Creative photography – to separate or not to separate”

Link to Neil Maughan’s Gold medal winning picture, “Age

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