I honestly do not know why I feel the need to argue this point. Perhaps it is because I do not view myself as an “Art Photographer” and that I work very hard to capture the world around me as accurately and faithfully as I can minimising behind the camera manipulations. Do I take the image (Sontag) or do I make the image? It is possible to do both with photography and I think there is a difference. A painter clearly makes their image and Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton elaborately create and stage the scene they are to photograph and so in that regard are much closer to a painter than a strict documentary photographer. Martha Rosler begins with indexical photographs and then behind the camera heavily manipulates the original image to “construct” the political statement she wishes to convey. She too is more like a painter. These photographers create tableaus.
Every photographer makes choices, selections of what, where, how and when to photograph, but those selections are first and foremost from real things that are in front of the photographer’s camera. One cannot photograph what is not there, or as Barthes put it “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (Barthes, 1981: 76) Certainly this is equally true for all photographers whether they come to the scene accepting it as it is, or if they choose to rearrange “what was there” before taking the photograph. And this is where I feel the need to challenge the assertion that every photograph is a construction, or at least challenge the way the term is used.
Every photograph involves choice and selection, but I argue that is different than construction. Just because I cast my gaze and that of my camera in a particular direction, I did not “construct” what is in front of me. Only when I purposefully rearrange the scene by moving objects or posing people have I constructed the scene that will become my image.
To argue that the “camera” coverts the light from the four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation of that scene and therefore the image is made, and while true, it is not something over which the photographer has direct control and is in my view a lazy argument. By painting all photographs with that unnecessarily broad brush it fails to recognise the spectrum or continuum of photographic practice and creates a false equivalency between a Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman and Edward Burtynsky or Lynsey Addario. While this spectrum has no distinct boundaries at any given point on the continuum, I think it useful to acknowledge that there are differences in practice without having to necessarily assign a label or pigeonhole any photographer.
I do believe it is valuable to consider the spectrum of photographies in more nuanced way. Obviously, the grey areas in between are what create the difficulty and there are no hard and fast rules of distinction with regard to how much constitutes a truly constructed image versus one that is intended to be indexical. It is usually the case that the most highly constructed images and studio portraits for example make no pretentions of being anything other than constructed and it is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers. With the advent of digital imaging, it is less obvious on the documentary end of the spectrum and there are plenty of documented cases of photographers and publications surreptitiously altering or intentionally choosing an out of context moment or vantage point to support a particular political or editorial point of view.
With the majority of my work out of doors and either landscape, wildlife, or action shots, I can with absolute certainty tell you the scenes in front of my camera that comprise my images are not constructed. I acknowledge the argument that because the light that enters the cameras lens is transformed and ultimately results in something made there are those that would consider that a construction. As well, any post processing is fundamentally an action that in some way alters that which the film or sensor captured and could be argued as constructive in nature. But I continue to hold that, as long as I am trying to remain faithful to that which was in front of my camera and not alter it in any substantive or significant way I am not constructing. I am taking, with the tools at my disposal and all their inherent capabilities and limitations, a representation of what I saw, not making something that did not exist before I arrived or a representation of something that was not there. This to me is the essential distinction in what constitutes a truly “constructed” photograph.
The following image for instance involved me carrying 20kg kit several miles and sitting in the same place for about 5 hours observing the tens of thousands of nesting seabirds as well as predators like the ravens. I took over 500 photos with 600mm and 840mm focal lengths. I didn’t direct the pair of ravens to the Razorbill nest they raided, but my knowledge of bird behaviour and observational acuity allowed me to see the situation developing and record it in its entirety. This is only one shot in a sequence. Now I suppose one could argue the final product, since it was cropped slightly and minor adjustments to the tonal quality were made in Lightroom, was constructed, but again I don’t find that distinction nuanced enough, and it creates a false equivalency with staged or posed images.
Raven Burglar – Ashley Rose
Another example would be the following photograph of a 9-day old colt out for its first run around the arena with its mother. This photo required knowledge of how horses move and what positions are most telling about a horse’s innate ability and potential as a world class dressage horse. This is an extraordinary example of an “uphill canter” and shows how well this young colt gets his rear legs under him and how light he is in the front. Once again other than some minor cropping and tonal adjustment, nothing about this photo was constructed in my view. Like the previous photo, planning, patience and a bit of luck were involved.
Falcon Caledonia at 9 days old – Ashley Rose
I know this notion of constructed versus not constructed is one that will continue to spark debate, probably for as long as photography exists. It is complicated further by the ease in which digital photography can be manipulated and frankly weaponised. And perhaps in the end the discussion is moot because photography has gone from the paragon of “objectivity”, to the perhaps the most suspect and mistrusted of the visual media. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons taints the broader world of Photography. It is an unfortunate reality of our time.