a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Worth a thousand denials?

Ronald Reagan (I think) said that one picture was worth a thousand denials. Although digital photography has rather blurred the issue of course since Reagan’s day, we still have that sense that photographs are – or ought to be – somehow more reliable and truthful than the written or spoken word.


I was struck by this belief during a visit last summer to London’s Bankside Gallery to see the winners of IGPOTY – the International Garden Photographer of the Year awards. Many of the exhibition images were in fact created by blending two or more photos. The handsome picture of the mole below, for instance, appears to show his right paw in motion from the efforts of digging – but the effect of movement was apparently created by merging together more than one image.


This felt at first like fakery. But all digital images are ultimately manipulated, by what the photographer chooses to include in the shot, when he/she takes it, choice of camera, lens and settings, and how the image is processed afterwards. Professional photographer Charles Hawes has more interesting things to say on how all of the IGPOTY images will have had “quite a bit of work done.” Indeed, the US garden photographer Saxon Holt frequently reminds his students that “the camera always lies.” Maybe there is an argument that such manipulation allows us to see a greater truth? Or at least that professional photographers ought to be allowed to use hard work and expert skills to improve what would otherwise be just a snap?

Now the winners of this year’s IGPOTY have just been announced. It’s interesting that the overall winner (the lovely shot below of a prairie garden by Rosanna Castrini) is particularly praised by the judges for being a “straightforward rendering … in lovely light and with no tricks.” I wonder what sort of interventions the judges consider trickery? And why they feel the need to deny that anything somehow underhand has taken place? 


Judge for yourselves the extent and acceptability of the trickery involved as exhibitions of the winning photographs tour the UK and further afield.

6 comments on “Worth a thousand denials?

  1. Anne Wareham (@AnneWareham)
    February 21, 2014

    I think we have to accept that digital images are creations in their own right. But that does make the judges’ comment disingenuous.

  2. Cathy
    February 22, 2014

    I have to be honest, I struggle with the manipulation of digital photos. I admire Saxon Holt’s work, but he is also very much up front about when he has manipulated something and he will even demonstrate how he’s done it. I can enjoy and appreciate his artistry because he shares his techniques and he is very straightforward about how he presents his work.

    I think in a competition, there needs to be some limits set if things are to be judged as a “photograph” vs. a digitally enhanced piece of art. To capture the image of a tiny rodent digging is a major photographic achievement. To manually create a rendering of something that did not happen, in my view, may be a form of digital art, but it pales next to the photographer who sat still in a cramped position for an hour to get the same shot.

    Even with print photography, pictures could be cropped, light and contrast could be adjusted, and other minor edits could be made. But what you always knew is that what was in the frame actually existed. With digital photography, that is not only not the case, complete scenes can be fabricated almost from thin air. That may be art, but to me it’s not “photography” as I define it. If anyone can create the same image aritificially, then the competition doesn’t fairly judge the photographer’s actual skill as a photographer. Rather, you might as well compare how well one person manipulates an image vs. another person’s ability to do the same thing.

    I love to study a well composed photograph and try to sort out how the photographer set up the shot, how he used light or perspective, or distance, or any number of variables to achieve an image. Digital manipulation, especially when it is taken to an extreme, ruins that for me. I feel the same way about the air-brushing of models for magazine covers. Nature is beautiful in her own right. Why do we feel we have to “improve” on it?

    • landscapelover
      February 23, 2014

      It’s such an interesting question – why do we think it is OK to spend hours beforehand setting up shots, adjusting light, choosing perspectives etc but not OK to crop or merge or airbrush afterwards? How is one true and the other fabricated? Is there really a fundamental difference between deadheading a plant before you take a photograph, and cropping or airbrushing out a dead flower afterwards?

      Why do professional photographers acting as judges feel the need explicitly to reward something because it is “straightforward” – as if the term is the highest praise? Would poets or painters or architects win competitions because their work was more straightforward (which my dictionary defines as “easy to do”) than their peers?

      I must post another time on the manipulation of moving images, which is probably easier and more widespread that most of us realise, as I came to see through my involvement in a TV programme…

  3. Ah! You really pointed in the right direction. Let me say first that I praise for direct photography, as in documenting what you see. I am proud of saying that I only use natural light for my photos, it is my aesthetic and professional statement. I like it like this even making it more difficult due technical constrains. Now I would start by adding that no photography is straightforward, in your words: easy to do. Photography is always about tricking, in the simple sense, you are tricking the light, the objects, the perspective to make 3d objects become 2d images. But if tricking means no use of photoshop, then I embrace that, but we also have to admit that I have to say that all great photographers use one or another trick, meaning tricking the camera to shoot what their eye see. Ansel Adams worked in the darkroom for hours until he was happy with results. Photoshop is the digital darkroom. So the problem shouldn’t be the use of digital retouching, but the intention and denial of that retouching. We all have seen the “photoshop lapsus” in fashion ad campaigns.
    Talking about IGPOTY here, I have browsed the different images, and cannot understand the criteria used for awarding prizes I find more interesting many images that are in the last positions.
    But, I should stop here, or this can get so long that I will steal you post. Thanks for sharing this topic!

    • landscapelover
      March 7, 2014

      Thanks for the comment. It’s good to get a professional photographer’s view. You make such thoughtful points, about the amount of manipulation involved in Ansel Adams’ work, for instance, and about the importance of intention. I think you should definitely post on this, maybe with some examples of different ‘tricks’ and whether or not you think them acceptable in that particular context.

      • Lula
        March 9, 2014

        Well that’s a god suggestion. I will try to write a post about it. Thanks

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This entry was posted on February 21, 2014 by in Gardens and tagged , .

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