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  • Steve Silk

Stephen Colbert had a word for it: Truthiness. It being something that might look or feel to be true, in spite of not necessarily being true at all. That word is useful for photography, especially in the era of A! and Photoshop. The pair of photos above displays that idea visually, The processed picture on the right appears to be genuine and authentic, but when compared to the original straight-out-of-camera image on the left, well, then what? Is it true? Or is it truthiness? Or is it something else entirely?

First, how'd I get here? I loaded the original image into Photoshop, selected the tree and then used content aware fill to remove the tree and replace the gaping hole the tree's removal left in the background (I also copied the selected tree to a new layer, then turned that layer's visibility off). I took the resulting landscape, sans tree, and went to work cloning, darkening, and cleaning. I then warped it a bit, and got rid of the ditch using, again, a selection and content aware fill. Once the background was ready, I went back to the layer that had just the tree to add the tree back in. I then created a luminosity mask on the yellows, and used it to brighten the leaves on the tree and on the ground. Lastly, another luminosity mask allowed me to selectively brighten the tree trunk and a few branches, Boom! And if it matters...yes, I pre-visualized the whole thing.

So you might say the finished image represents a kind of truthiness, a fiction created from the facts ( that is, the original pixels) which were then bent, twisted, and revised to create the image in my mind's eye. But is it really untrue? Given the proper hardware, weather and time of day, I might have been able to shoot something in camera that was A LOT closer to the finished image. Instead of camera technique, I used Photoshop to make refinements. To me, the finished image is in fact truthful. Not in the strict, documentary sense of truth, but rather in the artistic-liberty sense that it is true to the scene and true to the moment. To me, it is altered reality, but still real. You could have seen it yourself, if you were walking through the park. Maybe it helps that it is all derived from a single frame, and not a composite of several different times and places.

What would make it untrue? Say I added a dog or, better yet, a unicorn napping under the tree, or put the tree in front of an office park or made it appear to be growing out of a glacier. It's a rather long way from my leafy tree to some fantastical only-in-photoshop creation, but it's an interesting road, with many intriguing stops along the way. One of my hopes for the future of the blog is to visit some of those stops in an effort to consider where, in contemporary landscape photography, truthiness lives. And where it doesn't.

  • Steve Silk

Updated: Feb 25

Every now and then, the stars align and I make a great leap forward. It might be mastering a new camera technique, a processing breakthrough, or even a magic moment of serendipity. The best is when it's all three, but the net is a picture that pushes my image-making capabilities further along in an image that sums up what I hope to be accomplishing photographically. I love when that happens!

One of those magic moments took place a few months ago during a September visit to Iceland, One of my favorite areas there is the tiny peninsula on which the town of Hofn is located. There is so much in that area, most majestically the nearby peaks of Vestrahorn and Eystrahorn, incredible mountains that I could happily photograph for days. Which I do, when given the chance.

But on one of those afternoons it all came together. I was in position near the lighthouse on the peninsula at the foot of Eystrahorn. Skies were stormy and it looked as if I was going to get skunked, but then the sun peeked through a rift in the clouds and cast light of almost tactile beauty across the peaks and their slopes of scree. It was intensely windy, so I set my tripod a foot or two off the ground and started shooting, trying all kinds of different foregrounds. Big stones, little stones, a bit of this or that plant, anything that might potentially work. Nothing really seem to do the job.

But when I returned home, downloaded everything and started processing, I realized I had a good foreground and good moment of the mountains, but that the two were not in the same frame, nor were they taken from the exact same perspective. I rarely make composites, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I combined the images in Photoshop, which allowed me to take the leading lines created by the rocky foreground and align them on a visual path to the mountains. Although there is a bit of trickery in the composition, it remains to me an essentially truthful image-everything is from the same time span, and nearly the same perspective.

Processing was a bear-matching the white balances was a real challenge, and it took numerous attempts. But in the end I had an image that was instantly one of my all-time favorites. It hits all the hallmarks that I hope exemplify my best imagery -a fantastical dreamy view of a wild, dramatic and expansive scene without a hint of humans. Oh, and a tightly controlled color palette, can't forget that.

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  • Steve Silk

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

RAW file straight out of camera
Edited file

This question, or some variation of it, is one every photographer hears from time to time, The truth is, if you are looking at a digital image, it is almost certainly photoshopped, if not with intention by the photographer then by the camera itself, as its internal processor employs its own built-in algorithms to interpret the image for viewing. So yes, it's "photoshopped."

But that 's not what people mean when they ask that question. What they mean is, was some digital sorcery performed to transform this image to something far different than the original capture? They want to know: is it real? Or is it fake?

When I began my professional photographic journey, it was as a staff photographer on a metro daily newspaper. We used film, souped it on return to the newspaper's darkroom, and then made prints which went out to the news desk and from there onto newsprint. Our images were journalisitc, and even in the rare circumstances where we may have manipulated our subjects, the resulting image bore a pretty close association to objective reality, They were "real." In those days there certainly were photographers who were creating wildly manipulated imagery (I'm thinking of you, Jerry Uelsmann!), but we as news photographers never strayed far from the truth.

I'm no longer a journalist. I'm not trying to document anything. As a landscape photographer, I am trying to recreate the feeling I had when I took the image. Though it has been a challenge to shake off my deeply ingrained journalistic ethic, as I have become more proficient in the use of Photoshop and other image processing software, I have become more fluid in my interpretation of what exaclty I saw. The ideal remains the single frame with minimal retouching, but I am just as apt to combine several exposures into a single image, bursting the boundaries of time and space. If I use a wide angle lens for a landscape, I might warp and stretch mountains in the far background to make them appear more as they did in real life. I might edit in a different sky, though I rarely do. I may make profound chages to the colors or to the values of dark and light. There are so many ways to alter an image, and I readily employ whatever ones best serve my purpose in the pursuit of creating a picture with the "feels" instead of one that slavishly adheres to the objective reality of the scene. to me the ends justify the means. But I'm not hiding anything, if I use extensive editing to create an image, I say as much.

Still, the subject of manipulation in photo processing is of deep interest to me. I have considered creating a reality rating for my images, marking step along the trail in the creation of a given image. It would begin with minimal manipulartion, say some simple cropping, some burning and dodging, and perhaps some basic digital cleanup. At the other extreme, are composite photos, where i might combine images shot in different places and in different times, and then use warping and stretching techniques and color and tone manipulation and maybe even a touch of AI assistance to get me where i want to go. For me, the ends justify the means when it comes to processing photos. The question for me is not, is it real, but rather, is it true to my experience? Does it have all the feels?

The photos at top of a Lilac Breasted Roller at Etosha National Park in Namibia demonstrate the lowest degree of manipulation-the original RAW file is on the right, and the finished image on the left. Cropping and correcting white balance, along with some burning and dodging, was all the maniplulation needed to create what I saw in my mind's eye.

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