Jim Goldstein Interviews Art About the Age of Digital


BLOG: Migrations – Images by Art Wolfe

Photographer, writer, and podcast producer Jim Goldstein spent a little time interviewing Art about the current status of digital photography.

Jim Goldstein

As more people take an interest in photography, the debate seems to surface frequently to the merits of using digital technology to enhance wildlife, nature and landscape photographs. It’s been over twelve years since the Atlantic released its article “Photography in the Age of Falsification” and yet much debate on this issue persists. Whether you call it digital editing, photo manipulation or photo fakery, I thought it might be of interest to a wide audience of photographers to revisit this topic with you.

Question number one, back when you put together Migrations, the book that was the heart of controversy in the mid to late ‘90s, what was the motivation to create digitally altered photos at this time?

Art Wolfe

You know, what I maintained back there, and you say it’s ten years or 12 years. Anyway, what I maintain when I debated my critics, I have never waivered. I have never waivered on what I said. I found that digital, and we called it digital illustration, right from the get-go, right in the opening paragraphs introducing this body of work, that there are different places and usages of content – whether it’s pure photography, enhanced photography, artistic photography, and what I tried to do is bridge the gap between artistic photography and nature photography. I believe I pushed the boundaries as any artist actually should do and grow through the experience. I maintained that what we were digitally illustrating was natural and not falsifying numbers. And in most cases, in that book, it was taking one or two elements and changing or filling in the gaps of sheer numbers.

For instance, it was, you know, swarms of bees or flocks of birds or herds of mammals, and we were just filling some open spaces to complete a pattern because this truly was what the book was about. It was an artistic designee book about patterns in nature. Had I called it ‘Wallpaper’ it probably would not have been as controversial as it became. It’s interesting to note that designers and art critics throughout the world rallied around the book while some photographers took exception with it and downright condemned it. I think had we not introduced it openly and honestly in the beginning of the book and called some of the contents “digital illustrations” we would be really held up for criticism. But had – since we did do that I debated very vociferously that what we were doing was fine.

Jim Goldstein

Okay, that’s great. Even though as you were quoted as saying “Out of the million photos I’ve done, less than two hundred have digital components, I am still not using the technology all that often.” Why was creating digitally altered photos considered so controversial?

Art Wolfe

I think that people have this perception and certainly within the bastions of nature photographers, there’s this perception that photography is real, and that whatever you aim the camera at is a pure recording of reality and I’ve never maintained that. I’ve never maintained that whatever I was photographing was absolutely real. I could alter its content by compression through the use of telephoto lenses, I could conversely distort the angles by using wide angles, I could change the color depending on the film I chose, I could change the reality of the image by what I chose to include in the composition and exclude in the composition.

For instance, if there was a telephone pole along a beautiful patch of forest if I just simply zoomed in, and eliminated it from within the frame, it would just imply purity and pristineness. So I’ve always looked at photography as no different than any other medium of artistic endeavor. We have so much control and photography has always been really a reflection of how the artist could use that tool. I think Ansel Adams was exemplified – the fact that he could take an image and through the black and white process, burning and dodging in the zone system, really make that image, that perhaps was very bland in initial capture, and turning it into something magnificent and artistic. Had he been alive today he would definitely have embraced the digital technology.

Jim Goldstein

What lessons – what lessons were learned that you could share with other photographers that relate to the current state of wildlife, nature and landscape photography?

Art Wolfe

Certainly what I learned from this whole process is some of the people that had the most vigorous debates with me were not all that agitated over the use of digital illustrations, and I – I refuse to this day to recall it manipulation, I think that the very word implies something derogatory or negative. I think even the word ‘altered’ implies something different than what I was trying to do. Certainly what I’ve learned is the press would write without quotes, would write without confirmation and often – and this is a very small part of the press I might add, the very conservative [indiscernible] Monthly or U.S. News and World Report, would not have access to me, because I was travelling in South America at the time, and they simply filled in what they think I would have represented which was often far from the truth. So I’ve learned that the press is often not, you know, waylaid by truth. They will print what they think is correct and stand by those words.

Jim Goldstein

What are your feelings on the terms photo manipulation versus digitally altered versus digitally enhanced? Is there an undertone that you think is fair, or more accurate other term than another?

Art Wolfe

I should be clear that I have led the way, I think, through the whole debate, that identification is key. If I know that I’m looking at a work that has been digitally illustrated, then I would look at the work somewhat differently than had I not been informed. I think the legitimate criticism of Migrations was on the fact that we didn’t identify each and every image that had been altered or illustrated. And I think that’s a legitimate concern, it was something that we went into eyes wide open. We debated within my staff on how to present this work because do we in fact just ‘carte blanche’ as we chose to do, introduce this book as containing it or do we try to illustrate or identify every element that had been changed within a photo. And there was, out of a book of a hundred images, there were no more than 30 images that had some sort of change. And some were radical and most were very innocuous, something that most people would hardly even register. And so, rather than illustrating what was done in every photo and the idea was to avoid making this a book of “How to’s” we simply looked at this book as an art book based on nature, and we thought that if everybody understood that this book contained illustrations, they would just look at the work as a body of work and a body of art. And many people did look at that, because they’re actually intellectual, but there were certainly a lot of people that loved to see the world in black and white which I’ve never done.

And so, I think I’ve – since that I actually insisted that Getty changes the way they label photographs that had been changed or altered, if you will, through the digital process. Certainly, I created a handful of images after Migrations that were purely commercial in nature. They were combining two very radically different elements into a final illustration. It was pretty obvious that that had been done and that was sold strictly to advertising and yet within the edge of the image it was embedded “this is a digital illustration” and Getty adopted that as identification, probably for the next five to ten years. I think that whole resolve and issue has kind of subsided as people have seen all sorts of incarnations of digital illustration or altering. I remember clearly a lot of the debate was not so much the exception of how I introduced it and what I did, but they – a lot of the ‘naysayers’ said that this would inevitably lead to people going overboard with it and to not identify what they were doing and to sell it as real nature which was never our intent.

There has been a handful of photographers that have created pure fantasy and tried to palm it off as being real, so I never believed that that was possible but people have done it and so I was proven wrong. I would argue that they would have done it whether I did Migrations or not.

Jim Goldstein

Is there a term you prefer used over another and you’ve already said that you prefer digital illustration over any other. Given your background as a fine art painter prior to photography, how does photography fit in with your perception of art?

Art Wolfe

Well in fact I teach quite regularly the connection between art and photography. I show through demonstrations and fairly lengthy thought out lectures how I make a connection between impressionists as painters and photography through abstract expressionism and photography, I draw largely from the art world to find – help me find and define my subjects. So I’ve completely given over to the art world in the realm of photography and in fact in more recent works I’m blending the two. I actually do paintings and photography of the same subject, combining those two medium. So I’m not, you know, a naturalist. I should say I’m actually a naturalist because I certainly know what I’m photographing but I don’t try to come from a naturalist bent to the work that I do.

Jim Goldstein

Taking this question one step further, how does digital editing lend itself in your eyes to photography as art?

Art Wolfe

Okay, let me take a stab at it. I mean I will be the first to say that since the book Migrations, just a handful of photos have been illustrated digitally where, if we’re very clear what we’re talking about here, where we’re bringing in two very different elements into a final proposition, that has a very small part of what I do, a very small part. In fact, I can’t even remember how many years ago since the last one we created. It was a specific project, Migrations, did it moved on from there to some illustrations for Getty, and beyond that it’s just one book out of a career of 30 years and 60 books. And, so, probably the last ten books there’s been no reason – or no reason to actually include digital illustrations within the pages of the book. It’s not that I was firmly rebuked, it’s just that identifying a appropriate place for that. Migrations was, again, a art book based on nature and that’s why we – and that’s what we said in the Introduction. I think that if we’re talking about digital enhancing colors, certainly every single digital capture I take, goes through a series of adjustments, whether we’re boosting the contrast and the levels and saturating the color a little bit to resemble the film that I wound up using during the last five or six years of my film taking. It was Velvia, and so a digital capture is somewhat flat compared to that and we just restore it to look closer to the film that we liked.

Jim Goldstein

For those who find this debate of constant curiosity, what do you feel is the most important take – sorry, most important take away to remember as they evolve as photographers?

Art Wolfe

Well, I mean I think it’s how they see themselves. The photographers purely see themselves as natural history photographers, recording the rapidly diminishing natural world. I don’t see a real natural place to use digital illustration. If you’re a photographer that loves the art, and you’re making art work for art galleries, I think everything is subject to interpretation. So it really depends on, I wouldn’t consider using a natural history photo to build a campaign to preserve this environment or that. So I believe that there’s a perception of purity in the capture. Even withstanding what I said earlier about how you can really alter the impression of the environment through choice of lens, and angle, and composition, I still think we know what we’re talking about here. If it’s digital illustration, where you are combining elements, I don’t see a logical place for that to appear in any kind of natural history preservation campaign. So two different uses depending on what you want to do with it.

Jim Goldstein

Do you feel there would be any differing takeaways for editors, gallery curators, et cetera?

Art Wolfe

Well, you know, I think that this debate about digital illustration versus “purity” has been lost on many of the young editors that have come into the field in our magazine editors these days. I find that many of these young editors have a very minimal background in natural history knowledge, and so consequently, you know, photographers that create fantasy can probably get those photos often passed and the editor’s notice, and I’ve been one of the first people to rise up against that and to criticize the photographer for not being truthful to the editor and for the editor for not simply knowing what they’re publishing.


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