Sunrises and Simulations
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, September 1996

On an early morning hill run in the fog, my partner stopped in his tracks just above me. We had topped out of the mist at the very moment of sunrise as crimson god beams began appearing out of nowhere and vanishing before our eyes. Although I wished I had a camera, I knew that I would always hold this vivid natural event in memory, regardless of whether I made a photograph to validate my experience.

As we set off again, we talked about never having seen anything quite like it, although we' d been doing the same weekly run for years. Then my non-photographer partner added, "It's incredible how the sunrise never looks the same. Seeing all these dawns is like being in a giant theater watching an ever-changing panorama."

His comparison took me by surprise, because I wouldn't think of describing my experiences in nature by comparing them to artificial simulations. I revere the great natural scenes that have passed before my eyes as the core experiences that center my being, whether or not I have a chance to photograph them. I sense them as vastly superior to any form of artificial visual input that seeks to imitate them, including photographs, computer simulations, movies, and stage productions.

At best, I want my photographs to reflect what was really there before my eyes at an unusual moment. Original sensory experience comes first in our lives. Despite all the photography of national parks, we feel the need to "see" for ourselves. Despite the finest efforts of the world's greatest still and cine photographers, no secondary documentation of a war or an environmental problem ever matches the power of direct observation in real time.

These thoughts passed through my mind as my body was rapidly moving uphill again. That relationship of a moving, active, living body with an imbedded intelligence- the conscious life force that we all share- is what separates us from the increasingly smart machines that we produce to assist us in our pursuit of wealth and happiness.

Nature photography, among other things, validates that all-important personal experience. To see a nature photograph is to simultaneously become cognizant of its subject matter and the experience of another human being witnessing a natural event. Every photograph tells a story that we accept in the long tradition of the tales our ancestors told around campfires. We only believe a story if we believe in the human being telling it. This is why I feel so deceived if I later learn that a nature image I've contemplated with awe doesn't reflect what the photographer actually saw.

One of the most common arguments for digital compositing of nature photographs without disclosure is that manipulating photographs is as old as photography itself. A recent feature in a Seattle newspaper quotes a photographer as saying, "Did Ansel Adams deceive people when he darkened the sky in 'Moonlight over Hernandez'? He didn't say, 'I darkened the sky." The comparison to modern digital illustrations is ludicrous. The sky was there in front of Ansel's lens. His tonal interpretation of a scene that he actually saw and recorded on a single negative isn't in the same league as assembling an image from disparate sources and calling it a photograph. The well-known fact that he chose to represent the deep blue evening sky as nearly black on his gray scale in no way lessens the value of one of his most famous prints.

The general consensus about Ansel's integrity gives print buyers good reason to believe that he photographed a full moon rising over Hernandez on that evening in 1941. I'd bet my life savings on it, but for the sake of argument, suppose I'm wrong. Suppose that someone proves Ansel assembled the town, the sky, and the moon from separate negatives. Then the value of the print might drop like the stock market in 1929, and as with a devalued stock certificate, the image on the piece of paper would not have changed a whit.

Perceptions are all important, as is a long-term perspective. Given some time, the devalued print might become more valuable than ever. Its new value would no longer be based upon it being a nature photograph, but upon its place in the world of creative illustration.

Time magazine now gives its altered covers captions that say "digital illustration" instead of "photograph." The term implies the positive, creative side of an illustration, rather than the negative implications of "digitally manipulated" or "altered."

So long as the form of an image matches that on the original sheet of film, I believe that it should be called a photograph, even when colors and shadows have been altered to increase the viewer˙s emotional response to a witnessed natural event. There is, however, a point at which a photograph ceases to function as a photograph anymore. With an eye toward the future, the time has come to clearly define that point. The emerging world of digital illustration may have a great future in art, advertising, and education, but these images should not be categorized as nature photography. In the absence of a genuine primary experience- a singular scene that existed in front of the lens, no matter how contrived-the word "photograph" cries to be redefined. All else is illustration.

I've been told that this is an elitist position. I agree. Without coming to terms with my own elitism, I can't justify wanting to have the finest primary experiences for myself, but also making my living feeding the voracious marketplace for artificial visual input. I search out and thrive on primary experiences in nature that most others cannot have, such as climbing the big cliffs of Yosemite, visiting the poles, or having the tops of the local hills above the fog to myself at dawn. I'm very aware of the need for balance in my life, of the need to seek out meaningful direct visions and hold them dear for their own sake, regardless of whether I can photograph them.

I'm even more aware of the dreadful trap that lies at the end of the road for those elitists who pursue perfection in secondary imagery without understanding the critical value of primary experience. On the way home from that sunrise my friend compared to a theatrical light show, I imagined a hypothetical scenario in the not-too-distant future.

A top scientist has focused his life's work on virtual reality simulations. His goal is to produce moving imagery in real time of such high quality that it becomes indistinguishable from primary visual experience. He devises a tiny implant to trigger neural synapses on the retina that closely match those which we receive from the objective world. Visual information from a vast, global database can be selected, mixed, and downloaded by satellite. The subject has no awareness of an intermediate entity, such as a photograph, a screen, or a head-mounted display. All visual input is modulated by the implant, and as the scientist begins to master the final problem of subduing other sensory perceptions that might conflict with the veracity of the artificial visual image, he finds himself occasionally slipping, for a moment or two, into a state where he loses certitude over whether the world he is seeing is real.

At first, he is in ecstasy. This state represents his ultimate personal success, a life's goal achieved after a long pursuit along a pathway that appears to coincide with scientific truth. But the episodes of certitude soon become long enough to be frightening. His very perfection of means no longer allows him to know which world he is observing. His need to know his own "truth" borders on desperation.

The more he subjects himself to his own experiment, the more he questions the validity of his own life experience, which is no more or no less than memories of events that are becoming ever more tainted by synthetic constructions, devised by his own hand, that he cannot detect. His observations begin and end with the pressing question: Is it real? In the process of making this external judgment, he starts to lose a major element of what it means to be human: the ability to emotionally respond to scenes that appear before our eyes.

The moral of this story is that there is a price to be paid down the line for passing off imagery that can't be distinguished from primary experience. Whether the effect is directly on us, as in the case of the fictional scientist, or on our audience, as in the case of outdoor photographers, the human process of emotional response and appreciation begins to shut down when we stop to ask "Is it real?"

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