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Is It Real?


Maple Leaf in Ice and Reflections
Frozen Maple Leaf and Reflections,
White Mountain National Forrest, New Hampshire

I am frequently asked questions like, "Are these colors real?", "Is that the way it really looked?" or "Did you manipulate this image?".   I used to always answer, "Yes" to the first two types of questions and "No" to the last type.  Lately, I have rethought that response after reading essays like Alain Briot's "Just Say Yes" on the Luminous Landscape web site and re-reading some of the books and essays about Ansel Adams' printing techniques and Galen Rowell's book Mountain Light.

I now believe the answer to all of the questions is, "Yes".

As Alain Briot points out in his piece, a photograph is a two dimensional representation of what the photographer observed and chooses to include in the composition both as the photographer makes all the choices necessary before pressing the shutter release and after the image has been captured and while the photographer makes the final print.  Pictures show the photographer's view of reality at that moment, but they don't include all the other sensory data that we humans use to define what is real.  The viewer doesn't feel the cold of laying on the freezing cold slab of granite on which I was laying to get the image of the frozen maple leaf above.  The viewer can't hear the stream that was burbling a few feet away from this frozen pocket of water or smell the clean mountain air.  Another photographer may have come along after me and found that the ice had thawed, and the leaf was just floating in an uninteresting pool. I've been to this spot many other times and found other images such as the ones below on those days.

Fall Colors and Reflections, Swift River, White Mountain National Forrest
Fall Colors and Reflections, Swift River, White Mountain National Forrest
Fall Colors and Reflections on the Swift River,
White Mountain National Forrest, New Hampshire
Fall Colors and Reflections on the Swift River,
White Mountain National Forrest, New Hampshire

So now you may ask the questions again and wonder what limits I impose upon myself as I create my images.  Were those maple trees really that bright?  Is that reflection real or some clever trick in Photoshop?  Was the moon really there that morning at the Jefferon Memorial?  Yes it was, and it took me three years to get the image I really wanted.

My photographs contain what I saw, the way I saw it and the way I chose to record it.  I use various techniques and tools to capture the images in the camera such as using a neutral density filter to balance the exposure between the brightly lit trees and the much darker reflections in the two images above.  As I print my images, I use the tools available in Photoshop to pull all the information out of the image that I want and need to make a print that matches the image in my mind, and to correct for errors like a piece of dust that I can't remove from a slide or that I didn't notice on the lens.  

Will I use curves and masking in Photoshop to bring out details in shadows while maintaining those highlight details that might have been lost in a traditional wet darkroom print?  Yes.  Will I remove a wire running through the sky or a piece of trash littering a landscape?  Probably.  Would I add the moon to a scene or enlarge the moon beyond what I originally captured in the camera?  Probably not.  Will I use Photoshop to blur the motion of moving water or blowing leaves?  No since I have those tools within the camera through slow or multiple exposures.

Like Georgia O'Keefe is reported to have said when asked why she painted such outsized images of small delicate flowers, I hope that my images will help you to recognize the beauty around us that you might have otherwise missed perhaps even while looking at the same scene and wondering about that foolish woman laying on the ground at the edge of the Tidal Basin or standing in freezing cold water of some mountain stream.