Monday, August 12, 2013

Ways to tell the truth (or, is photoshop a lie?)

gray jay...after Photoshop

same photo, before

Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la verite. -- Jean Cocteau, "Le Menteur"
You said the truth once/That was just a lie. -- Moby

A couple of days ago, I went to the Salt Creek Wetland, hoping to find some sandpipers. Shorebirds were few and far between, as the water level is still too high to create the nice sticky, stinky mudflats and shallow puddles that they prefer. On the other hand, I do have a souvenir of this trip, as I am now covered in itchy, oozy bites from some unknown insect (I suspect chiggers), including one in my navel.

As I schlepped along with my spotting scope tossed over my shoulder, squinting at great blue herons and ring-billed gulls through the heat haze over the water, I found myself wondering, "What would be the truest, most accurate way to depict this?" And is this the wetland itself, my experience at that particular moment, or some juxtaposition between the two?

This train of thought was sparked by something said at the first session of  the Illinois Master Naturalist course that I am taking, and also the fact that I am working on a sort of memoir, a series of essays about birding and nature in central Illinois, which is a work of what's known as "creative nonfiction." What was said in class was that  "Master Naturalists have the responsibility to accurately portray Nature with conversation, written word and image."

An example of the harm that comes from a lie was given--a person looking at "nature" photos on his computer, technicolor sunsets or impossibly pristine beaches, who is then disappointed by the sight of a real sunset or a real beach because the images were so much more vivid. How much Photoshopping can you do before your image becomes a lie?

My first reaction was to wonder how creative writing can serve the cause of accurately portraying nature. (Actually, my first reaction was to hang my head with shame as I Photoshop the hell out of everything, in service to the "lie" that I am not a lazy and impatient photographer.)

The path of the scientist, restricted to the physical reality of a thing, is valid and necessary, but it is not the only way of experiencing nature, and, indeed, to show only the physical aspect of a landscape, a bird or a flower is also inaccurate...not quite a lie, but woefully incomplete.

It's a lie of omission, because if I tell you only the physical aspects of what I have seen--the composition of the grasses, the Ph level of the soil, a snippet from an ornithology textbook on the habits of the great blue heron--I have left out the most important thing: that to me, why this matters, why I was there in the first place, sweating in the unwavering sunshine and offering myself as a feast for insects, is because the wetland and everything in it is numinous with life.

I'm still not there, at that accurate portrayal. This makes me sound like a mystic in a forest, and while I did not lie to you, I left out a lot of stuff, like the chiggers and how much I was sweating and how I wasn't thinking, Oh, this is so wonderful at all. I was thinking, Where the *bleep* are the sandpipers? and I was also thinking about lunch.

So let's get away from me, and back to the wetland. There were two dozen great blue herons scattered in the shallows, and only one great egret. A kingfisher slapped the water, diving for a fish. Juvenile green herons perched stumps by the water, staring at me for several minutes as if they were trying to figure me out. Soon they decided that, whatever I was, they didn't trust me, and took off for a tree.

The state of Illinois used to be filled with wetlands like this, linked one to the next like Indra's net of jewels, each teeming with life. One by one, they were drained, plowed over, paved into acquiescence. It's a sad story, but not without hope, for this wetland itself has been rescued from the agricultural wasteland rather recently.

My intentions--on this blog, in my memoir, and for becoming an Illinois Master Naturalist--are to both inform and inspire. Sometimes I do a facts-only post (such as my last one, about wildflowers I found at Weldon Springs), but to be honest, I find those the least fulfilling to write, and others must agree with me, for they get the fewest hits. If someone's is looking for something educational, there are people out there who are doing it better.

I hope more to inspire people to get out and experience nature for themselves, for the dual purposes that I honestly believe it will make people happier and healthier, and because I want these natural places to be protected and expanded, and if people aren't out there, they won't care when it's gone. If I had lugged a camcorder around with me at the wetland, and simply tossed that unadorned footage on You Tube, it would be the most boring thing ever. And that's a lie, too. As far as I'm concerned, nature is never boring.

Luckily I don't have to chose between creative writing and being a good naturalist, because some of the most famous naturalists are excellent creative writers. I present, as an example, this quote from Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, about the passenger pigeon.
The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of the forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no dimunition of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter of even a wisp of smoke.

Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.

The wonder is not that the pigeon went out, but that he ever survived through all the millennia of pre-Babbittian time. --Aldo Leopold

It's a bit fanciful (actually, I consider it to be poetry in prose form), but I aspire to tell the truth about nature as perfectly as Leopold does in this passage. This is creative nonfiction at its finest.

While I think that accurately portraying nature does not mean a facts-only approach, I am still wavering on the line of where the truth of one's experience, expressed creatively, becomes a lie.

Now, after all my philosophical blather, it's time for some concrete examples!

I don't think that anyone, except the most stringent of photography purists, would find fault with my Photoshopped gray jay, at the start of this post. I cropped the image to bring the bird closer, and arranged it so that the jay was more to the left and bottom of the image than the center, to make the composition more interesting. I also lightened it a bit, because even on a cloudy day, the jay did not look as drab as it does in the original. If I were a better photographer, I would have taken a better photo to start with, but I think that the retouched photo truthfully depicts the Gray Jay Experience.

I am not so sure about this pine grosbeak, however.

original photo

Once again, my intention was simply to crop and lighten the image, but in doing so, I made the bird turn out a bit...candy colored? The lie, if there is one, is subtle. I think this is still an accurate Pine Grosbeak Experience, but I wouldn't have posted the photo here if I wasn't illustrating an example of "a bit too much Photoshop." My dad also saw the before and after pictures, though, and he disagrees with me. He thinks the second one is fine.

Here's another example, from the photos I took for my post yesterday. Again, I think the difference is subtle.

big bluestem, before
Here I will defend my retouched photo 100%, as being not only improved, but more accurate than the original. For a haphazard photographer such as myself (my only intention is to amuse myself and illustrate my blog; I may aspire to be the next Aldo Leopold, but Ansel Adams is safe!), probably the most challenging sort of photo is one of prairie grasses. I mean, if you want to make a non-nature person start slobbering with boredom, just start talking about grass.

But, the prairie really is beautiful, and so is the sight of big bluestem against the sky. The original photo was kind of murky-looking (it was a bright day, so I don't know why), and the big bluestem was fading into the background. Lighten it up a bit and play with the contrast, and now the photo looks more like what I actually saw.

So far, so good. But the argument of distorting the facts (or the image) to better tell the truth is, as you can tell, a slippery slope, and I'll have more to say about it tomorrow.

In the meantime...when does Photoshop become a lie? Do you think any of my photos cross the line? Do you think it's dishonest to present candy-colored nature photos that look way better than real life?

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you, (and Aldo Leopold), that writing creatively and passionately about nature is more inspiring to read than a textbook! If the author isn't excited, it's hard for the reader to feel excited. I believe the only harm of too pristine and too perfect photos is that sometimes people feel that that's the only nature experience that counts; not the park down the road, or the scrubby banks of a local stream. We forget that we're IN nature; it's not "out there" somewhere, 500 miles away, in a National Park. MOM