Pestilent error and ‘The legitimacy of skies in photographs’

25 Apr

I am apparently in pestilent error. Worse yet, according to Henry Peach Robinson, I may be having “a detrimental effect on the unthinking.”  It appears I am a lingering member of a school of critics that for Robinson, was in 1869 “now, happily, nearly extinct.” While I would not say that I “teach that anything beyond mechanical copying or dull map-making is heresy in photography,” you all know that I believe we must distinguish between photographs (images that capture real people, places and events) and photoART (photographic images that have been enhanced or manipulated).

This is the stance that Robinson rails against in his essay “The legitimacy of skies in photographs” from his book Pictorial Effect in Photography in which he recommends to his fellow photographers that they should be combining photographic negatives to insert better skies into photographs. He states that “nature is not all alike equally beautiful, but it is the artist’s part to represent it in the most beautiful manner possible; so that, instead of its being death to the artist to make pictures which shall be admired by all who see them, it is the very life and whole duty of an artist to keep down what is base in his work, to support its weak parts, and, in those parts which are subject to constant changes of aspect, to select those particular moments for the representation of the subject when it shall be seen to its greatest possible advantage.”[1]

As I discussed in Photoreality, what a concept, Henry Peach Robinson is an early and famous practitioner of photo manipulation. His Fading Away image, made from 5 negatives, is an enduring fixture in the history of photography. Although no one has ever reliably deconstructed this image, based on his comments above, I think we can assume that at least 1 of the 5 negatives compositing the image was the sky outside the window.


Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson – one of the earliest composite images made with 5 photographs [2]

In Robinson’s world, photographic manipulation is not to be criticised, but lauded. Robinson advises photographers to “heed not … the thoughtless objector, or bogus critic, who tells you that the landscape can only harmonize with that sky with which it was illumined when you obtained your negative. Remember that the portion of the sky which produces lights or shadows on your landscape is rarely that which the eye sees in looking at that landscape.”  In other words, don’t worry about using a different sky because no one will notice it anyway.

Now to be fair, Robinson’s and my experience of photography is separated by 147 years of change. Whereas I can easily produce 200 photographs in one session and still have time to do a half day’s gardening, Robinson’s situation was considerably different.

To create merely the negative image using the wet-collodion technique popular at the time, Robinson and his assistants had to make the syrupy collodion by dissolving gun-cotton (ordinary cotton soaked in nitric and sulfuric acid and then dried) in a bath of alcohol, ether and potassium iodide.  Then, they had to follow the process described by George Baldwin in his book Looking at Photographs[3]:

In the wet-collodion process, collodion was poured from a beaker with one hand onto a perfectly cleaned glass plate, which was continuously and steadily tilted with the other hand, to quickly produce an even coating. … When the collodion had set but not dried (a matter of some seconds), the plate was sensitized by bathing it in a solution of silver nitrate, which combined with the potassium iodide in the collodion to produce light-sensitive silver iodide.  The plate in its holder was then placed in a camera for exposure while still wet … After exposure, the plate was immediately developed in a solution of pyrogallic and acetic acids.  … When enough detail became visible … the negative was removed from the developer, washed in water, fixed with a solution of sodium thiosulfate to remove excess undeveloped silver iodide, and thoroughly washed to remove the sodium thiosulfite, and dried.  With an addition of a protective coat of varnish, the negative was ready to be used to make prints.


Frederick Douglass 1818-1895 [4]

However, lest we consider this onerous process solely with the modern sensibilities of digital photography and Pinterist, we must cast our minds back to the rarified role of photography in ordinary lives of the nineteenth century.

Consider how many photographs any one person from the mid-1800s expected to own in their lifetime.  Given the high cost and logistical issues (adequate dress, ability to access to studios) many families might aspire to only one or two.

Even the most photographed person of the 19th century, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who frequently sat for photographs to provide a counter-example to the extant stereotypes of African-Americans in the 1800s, can boast only roughly 160 surviving photographs.

Compare such a stellar record (by nineteenth century standards) to today’s prominent individuals like Barack and Michelle Obama for whom over 400 images can be seen on the first page of Google Images alone (a sample of which appears below.) There must by now be millions of photographs of the Obamas in existence; I feel strongly that Frederick Douglass would have approved.


Small sample of Google Image results for Barack and Michelle Obama taken 25 April 2016

If it was so difficult to create a photograph in the mid to late 1800s, then one might well understand making the argument as Henry Peach Robinson did that it was imperative that a photographer use all his tricks to make it a good one, including swapping out a ‘poor’ sky for a ‘good’ sky in an image.  However, the resistance to this argument was heated even in his time.  For example, Quentin Bajac relates the following story in his The Invention of Photography[5]:

“In 1855, a lively debate on the subject of retouching occurred within the Société française de photographie between the critic Paul Périer and the photographer Eugene Durieu. Périer defended the practice in the name of art: ‘Let me touch my negatives and even my positives if I can improve them and embellish them even one degree.’  Durieu was opposed to manual intervention of any description, as ‘using a paintbrush to help photography under the pretext of introducing art into it actually excludes the art of photography. … One will merely obtain something indefinable, which at most would be a curiosity.'”

Perhaps it is better to lift our perspective out of an argument about whether photography is a scientific representation of people, places and events into a broader view.  In this broader view, perhaps we could acknowledge that when photography came into being, it also spawned new, photoARTistic mediums in which photography plays a supporting role.

If we recast photo manipulation this way, then Durieu and I are no longer in ‘pestilent error,’ but simply discerning scientists / artists who can appreciate both photography and photoART, but most definitely make a distinction between them. I find that the more I research photography and its derivatives, the more strongly I take the view that once we begin making significant changes to our photographs, they cease to be photographs, and become photoART.

So, in photography, please give me the sky that was in the scene of your photograph at the moment you took it, not some ‘better’ version. But if you are creating and acknowledging a work of photoART and another sky suits your artistic vision, there is no reason to cavil.  In photography, the limit is the sky; in photoART, the sky’s the limit.


Sabrina Caldwell  25 April, 2016


 [1] Robinson, Henry Peach. [1869] The legitimacy of skies in photographs. Pictorial effect in photography, being hints on composition and chiaroscuro for photographers. Piper & Carter, pp. 58-62 (Reprinted edition by Helios, 1971)
[2] Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. By Henry Peach Robinson.
[3] Baldwin, George.  [1991]. Looking at photographs: A guide to technical terms.  The J. Paul Getty Museum in association with British Museum Press. p. 27
[4] Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. By George Kendall Warren – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 558770.
[5] Bajac, Quentin. [2001] The invention of photography: The first fifty years. Thames & Hudson, p.64



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