Subtractive Synthesis

The following image was included in last night’s omnibus post, but on further reflection I think I should give it its own space, because there are a couple lessons it can teach us.


I’d been wanting to try the 90mm on a bearded iris but the irises nearby kept dying before I could get to them. Miraculously, I found one not only alive but in full beauty, and had all my equipment ready to immortalize it. This is not a true macro shot, of course, but no other lens in my bag could give me what the Tamron did in this picture. I am pleased with this image and it prints very well, but there is one oddity that bears further examination.

Photography is a subtractive art. To borrow Saint-Exupéry’s definition of engineering elegance, a photograph is complete not when you have nothing left to add, but when you have nothing left to take away. Naturally, photography has developed many ways to take things out of the frame: choice of lens, choice of perspective, physically moving or rearranging objects, cropping, burning, airbrushing, and the various kinds of clone/heal operations available in Photoshop and similar software.

I did not notice the spider on the upper petals until I was reviewing my shots later that night. I could have cloned it out, as I did with the petal of another flower in the lower left corner (note to self: holding the other flower out of the way with one’s hand is far faster and easier), but I chose to leave the spider there. Why? First, I had another shot taken a few minutes before, featuring the same species of spider:


Second, I should have held the intruding flower out of the way before I photographed the iris, but the spider becomes both a unifying element across the shoot, and a whimsical oddity reminding us that life is not tidy. To eliminate all poossiblity of extraneous matter in a shot like this, I would have to cut the flower, remove any unwanted arthropods, take it to my studio, put it in water, light it against an appropriate background, and photograph it there. A studio shot was not an option here; apart from wanting to photograph the flowers in situ in the soft evening light, the iris belongs to my neighbor, so I couldn’t cut it in the first place.

By now you may be wondering “When is he going to talk about the ethics of image manipulation?” This topic deserves a post of its own, but briefly I can say this: I consider most of my photographic work to be fine art; that is, I seek to create photographs that depict what I felt, rather than scientifically accurate documents of a place or thing. In this context, there is no problem with cloning/retouching; they are legitimate tools of artistic expression. If I were doing documentary photography or photojournalism, the changes I made to the image of the iris would be completely unacceptable.

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