When I first caught glimpse of what was the original winner of this year's Landscape Photographer of the Year - admittedly a small image on my phone - I was quietly impressed, it seemed to have many qualities I would look for in a landscape photograph and in my naïveté not the least of these was an unusual degree of originality and passion.
Now David Byrne has been disqualified for breaking the rules of LPOTY. His sin? Overt digital manipulation, which is explicitly against the rules of the competition. While everyone seems to think this process should be banned I have some thoughts on this which may go a little way to widening the discussion from the purely technical issues and the obvious dishonesty of the entry.
A digitally created image is no less a piece of art than a painting. Digital art has been around for years and is even gaining some degree of acceptance in the art world, painting after all has little relationship with reality either. They both spring (to a greater or lesser degree) from the imagination of the creator. A little manipulation to prettify a scene strikes me as a minor sin in this context, except, of course, where competitions explicitly forbid it. It's not a bad thing intrinsically if the creator is open and honest about it. But if he/she is denying its existence and using it as a lie to make their photography look better, then it is rather more questionable.
On top of this is the question of degrees of separation. How many purists use use no photoshop at all I wonder, if not with an actual intent to deceive? At the end of the day and outside the realms of this competition it's always a personal decision as to how much we use. For the most part that for me the digital equivalent of darkroom techniques, but let's not forget how even they can be extreme and transformative to the finished image. This question of the 'photographic’ representation of a scene is just not as simple as many seem to think. And let's not forget that compositing images is as valid a darkroom technique as any other. It has a long and honourable history and tradition and has produced significant works of art. One only has to look at the work of Jerry Uelsmann to realise this.
Stepping back from the arguments that have been raging around this (I can't but help think that nobody has stopped to think about the broader context) as with all things artistic we should be open to the question of its value as art, it's purpose or intent.
All photography is manipulation, whether you choose film or digital, are a technical wizard or a master of craft. We all edit the real world simply by pointing our camera at a tiny part of it. Not to mention your choice of lens, film, exposure time, aperture etc, etc. When it's printed or seen on a screen it's not real anymore it has been transformed by the hands of the photographer. That for me is why I love photography, it is it's transformative potential that excites me. Even just choosing where we point the camera can reveal much more about the subject and the photographer.
Quite why digital manipulation is the reason he was excluded over the issue of copying someone else's work is perhaps the most shocking outcome of the whole episode for me. It reveals the empty nature of so much of landscape photography far more incisively than a mere clone tool.
I'm more than happy to allow that there is a stage in most of our creativity that involves copying the work of others, to a greater or lesser degree. I've been through it and I wouldn't mind betting the vast majority of the readers of this blog have too. It's part of the process of learning. And I'll also allow that the judges weren't aware of the original - I wasn't. But doesn't it seem odd that the judges should be rewarding someone still at that early level of their creative journey? Surely at the very least the winning image should be all their own work, should have come from some form of personal insight and vision? It is after all just one image they have to choose.
It seems to me that this reveals fundamental flaws in the structure of the competition. I know so many landscape photographers who are straining every sinew of their mind and body to achieve that grail of the personal vision, yet it seems the majority of them think this is no longer the competition for them and will not enter. That includes myself.
The problem is that the competition is essentially a commercial proposition - that they profit from the greatest numbers of entrants. We all know, inside, the only way to appreciate a photographer's art and craft is to follow their work, probably over many years. To see the slow incremental development of their vision, and to realise it has unique qualities not shared by others. That's a tough proposition if you have to sift through the work of thousands upon thousands of unknown entrants.
On a final note, if you despise digital manipulation then you should most probably despise my Songs of Travel series as well. It is created digitally, although mimicking the idea of multiple exposure in camera. But it just wouldn't be possible to take the numbers of exposures that I use if I was using film. I've had many people who seem to like the project asking how I create the images, yet very few who seek to understand why. Yet I developed the techniques to tell the story I wanted to tell, about how we really experience the landscape outside the artistic sphere; it is about travelling, time, remembering and forgetting. For me this illuminates the problem, if technique predominates it is style over substance, nothing more. What is most important is purpose, not style.
Just because a camera excels at doing one thing - capturing the scene before you - it doesn't mean that's all it can do. Most notably it can also be used to illustrate what is in your head, your thoughts, ideas and emotions. So don't tie one creative hand behind your back because of this. Creativity is potentially boundless, make your own decisions, but make them well.