Being There vs. Art

"Nothing is ever so screwed up that it can't serve as a bad example." (axiom)

Documentary photograph:

  1. A record of having visited a location or viewed a subject,
  2. Photographic proof the photographer was "there".

Neither sounds very artistic, does it?

What do you do when you're in a great location but the light, or other conditions, are not so great? What do you do when you've got a desirable subject in your viewfinder, but golden hour is long past, or the wind (or rain, or snow, or...) is making a mess of the surrounding scene? What do you do when the dreaded white sky can't be eliminted from your composition? When you've traveled many hours to reach a destination for photography only to find the weather there is lousy, how do you handle it?

For most of us there are two choices: don't photograph and wait for better conditions, which may or may not be easily done, or photograph your subject anyway, knowing the outcome will be something less than anticipated or desired. Which we choose might depend on the time, difficulty, or expense of getting to the location and the likelihood of someday being there again, the rarity of the subject and the odds of seeing it again, the shear determination to bring home a photo, any photo, of the subject, or some combination of these and other factors.

When any of these considerations apply I suspect most of us choose to make the attempt. This is when we get our documentary pictures.

Let me clarify an important point before going on, so you won't have to email to tell me I'm an idiot: For this article my definition of a documentary photograph does NOT encompass photojournalism or other picture-taking used to chronicle significant (or not) events. It also does not include photography intended for scientific or educational purposes such as journals and papers, textbooks, research and associated publications, and the like. I am not talking here about Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans or Gordon Parks, people who elevated documentary photography beyond art. I have great respect for people who have done this kind of photography well. But I'm looking at the issue as a photographer of landscapes and wildlife; that is, one who attempts to make photographs as an art form, intended to show beautiful locations and subjects in beautiful light, often with the goal of making a print one would want to display in a home or office to help make that a lovelier space. If those photos also happen to have educational value, that's wonderful, but it's not my main objective.

A Ducky Example of a Bad Example

Pat and I spent some time in Yellowstone National Park in May this year, as we typically do. Early one morning we drove from our hotel in Gardiner down to LeHardy Rapids in the Yellowstone River, a reliable spot to find Harlequin ducks in spring. Thanks to a few diversions along the way, of which Yellowstone has more than its fair share, we did not arrive at the rapids until shortly after 9:00. The sky was clear and blue, and already the light was a bit harsh.

Harlequin Ducks in bright sun, Yellowstone N.P.

Part of a larger group of Harlequin Ducks at LeHardy Rapids in the Yellowstone River. In the bright morning sunshine the highlights are slightly blown. Blown is blown; no amount of effort in Photoshop will restore detail that isn't there.

We hit the jackpot this year, finding more of these somewhat rare birds than we'd ever seen together in one location. Harlequins, especially the males, are difficult to photograph in bright light; they have pure white markings, and also very dark areas, with intense color in between. In bright light this easily exceeds the dynamic range of a camera's sensor (or film). There are no magic filters to help control this, and because the ducks are frequently in motion, typical HDR techniques for blending multiple exposures are often less than useful. Clearly I wouldn't be making quality images this morning.

I was at that two-choices point: Do I photograph these ducks, knowing I won't be able to use the images for my intended purpose, or do I enjoy watching them for a while and leave with no pictures? We'd driven over 400 miles (645 km) to get here, I'd never seen so many Harlequins in one place, and the setting was perfect, reflecting the sort of environment in which one expects to find Harlequin ducks in spring. Of course I was going to make the attempt, knowing full well I was doing little more than documenting my viewing of the ducks. The result was completely predictable. Either the highlights were blown out (no feather detail) or the shadows were blocked up (no dark detail). It was great fun being there, but after shooting about 80 frames we left to visit areas farther south along the park's Grand Loop Road.

If You Can't be Good, be Lucky

We'd driven no more than ten minutes when the sun disappeared behind high clouds that hadn't existed when we were at LeHardy Rapids. We soon turned around and went back to the ducks. This time, under bright but somewhat diffused light, the Harlequins were much more photographable. We had about half an hour of this softer light, during which I made about 40 exposures. Among these are the keepers from that day.

A male Harlequin duck in bright, but cloud-diffused, sunlight.

A male Harlequin in LeHardy Rapids. There is good feather detail in both the highlights and shadows, thanks to the diffuse light of bright cloud cover.

Getting What You Want, Wanting What You Get

I recently spent some time with my brother-in-law in South Dakota's Black Hills region, photographing in Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks. We were always out early and late for golden hour and I'm sure we both got some great photos. In between we did some hiking, usually in late morning and early afternoon. These walks in the parks were pleasant and interesting, and we saw some beautiful scenery, animals, and flowers. Steve's encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna added greatly to my enjoyment of our time together. Not surprisingly, the sky was often white or clear blue and the light was harsh. With the sun directly overhead, shadows were short or nonexistent, which eliminated the depth and texture often created by early- or late-day light. Colors were washed out. On these walks I'd leave my heavy photo backpack behind, choosing to carry only a small point-and-shoot camera. I used this to document being there. I may show some of these pictures to my wife, who's never been to the area, but the photos have no artistic value to me. It's likely none will ever be printed or displayed.

That's not to say one shouldn't make pictures in these conditions. We all have our own reasons for making pictures, and our own purposes and expectations for the results. Steve took hundreds of photos during our afternoon walks in the parks — landscapes, insects, flowers, wildlife. He acknowledges these aren't likely to grace anyone's walls as high-quality prints. For him, this was an academic pursuit and he was having fun doing it. He'll use these pictures in presentations, as illustrations in publications, as examples in the photography classes he teaches, and of course as mementoes of our trip. The pictures are documentary in nature; they chronicle what he saw on our hikes, which is exactly what he wanted when he made them.

June, 2010