Category Archives: Photo credibility

The most important category for my blog and core concept I’m researching.

Must include an actual animal: AIPP’s APPA (Second of 2 parts)

Lisa Saad – The 2016 AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year


Lisa Saad’s stunning images are the heart of a controversy about ‘real’ photography recently addressed by Rocco Ancora and Peter Eastway.[1]

APPA category rules as a reflection of real world professional photography

In discussing the role of illustration and reality in the Australian Professional Photographers Awards, current APPA Chairman Rocco Ancora emphasised to past APPA Chairman Peter Eastway that the requirements for photograph entries to be ‘real’ or illustrative varied between the categories, and that the categories were meant to reflect different types of professional photography common in the real world. 

Based on this assertion, the types and the rules associated with the 18 APPA awards might be considered to provide a multi-faceted looking glass, reflecting the state of professional photography today.  To that end I analysed all 18 categories against the various elements of manipulation allowed or not allowed in the categories. 

19 measures in the rules that can be said to impact upon the nature of images

I was quite surprised to find so many different measures that came into play across the categories; my list of 19 measures is as follows:

  • explanatory caption required/not required
  • single capture required/not required
  • combining elements from different image captures allowed/not allowed
  • explicit statement “It has to be real!”
  • proof files may be requested/ will not be requested
  • 100% photographic in origin required/not required
  • non-photographic elements allowed/not allowed
  • staging allowed/not allowed
  • adjustments allowed/not allowed
  • dodging/burning allowed/not allowed
  • cropping allowed/not allowed
  • retouching allowed/not allowed
  • cloning allowed/not allowed
  • erasing allowed/not allowed
  • textures/texture layers allowed/not allowed
  • borders allowed/not allowed
  • backgrounds allowed/not allowed
  • converting to b&w allowed/not allowed
  • 3D allowed/not allowed

I gave these measures different scores depending on how much I felt that they impacted on the illustrative vs representative nature of the final image.

APPA category profile on the reality / art continnuum

These 19 possible measures for 18 different categories required 342 separate assessments, and I was left with a lot of data (Excel file provided below) and some question as to how to see into it.  At length it occurred to me that, much like wines have flavour profiles, each category had its own representation/art profile.  I settled on presenting the category profiles in a similar fashion, with measures and intents substituting for flavours and aromas.

In the graphs presented in the gallery below, each of the 19 representative vs illustrative measures have been converted so that they express the illustrative freedom allowed in each of the 18 categories.  This means that a category with a reality/art profile covering a small area and closely adhering to the center of the graph is one where the role of representational photography is more greatly valued.  By contrast, where the area of a profile is large and approaches the outer edges of the graph, the illustrative values of photographs in this category are more highly prized.

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Reality / Illustrative ‘profile’ of each category of the APPAs

As you can see there are some reality/art profiles that are common to more than one category.  The profiles for Advertising, Commercial, Album and Photography Book are identical, and Landscape varies from them in only one aspect (must be 100% photographic in origin rather than simply substantially photographic in origin). Another profile is repeated across the Newborn, Family and Pet/Animal categories.  Portrait and Illustrative share the same profile. The remaining 8 categories have unique profiles, usually stricter. [4]


How free are photographers to ‘play’ with photos in the 2016 AIPP APPA categories?

The chart above shows the different levels of freedom to ‘tinker’ with original images based on their total score in my assessment data.  It makes it clear that post-processing is a highly desirable addition in most of the categories.  At the same time, there is a smaller subset in which post-processing is unwelcome. 

Explicit permissions that I find particularly notable are that ‘head swaps’ are permitted for the newborns and family categories. Also, the rules for the Landscape category state that “Photographs must depict the natural or human/urban environment, but may be interpretative (in other words, they need not be literal images of a scene) [2]. This means that APPA winners could be photos of a newborn with swapped heads, or landscape photos of places that don’t exist. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry that it seemed necessary to comment in the Pet/Animal category rules that the photograph “must include an actual animal.”[3]

However, to be honest, I’m rather proud that Australia’s Professional Photography Awards are tackling this problem, even if it isn’t obvious, and even if there is a need for more rigour in the methodology. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s have a look at the way the current and previous APPA Chairpersons and organisers have corralled different types of professional photography.


Current state of ‘photojournalism’ vs ‘open’ nature of APPA categories

In a landscape such as this, the overall winner for the year will more often than not come from the pool of highly post-processed images just by dint of proportions: there are almost double the number of illustrative categories. Lisa Saad’s win is consistent with this strategy.

Despite this emphasis on interpretative/illustrative photography, the categories as they currently stand demonstrate a lot of sincere and experienced thinking across the realm of professional photographic process.

Yet, one thing really struck me as I looked at the rules: the two sub-categories for Wedding. I think this is an important variation of perspective in the APPAs.  For the Wedding category, though there can be only one overall category winner, AIPP has made a distinction between representative and illustrative Wedding professional photography. For me, this is a hint as to a sensible way to distinguish between representative photography and photo art. 

Representative photography can co-exist in harmony with illustrative photographic art

There are categories which will almost always be illustrative photographic art (advertising and commercial), and ones which will almost always be representative photographs (documentary and science), but there are many categories in which both approaches are valid for different purposes.  Perhaps a good way to conceptualise the solution to the controversy around photography as science (representation of the real world) vs art (evocative of the emotion and ideals of a moment in time), is to look at the awards as a set of categories aligned with photoart, photojournalism or both.  Something like this perhaps:


What about making room for both types of photography in more categories?

In addition to being more balanced and providing new opportunities and greater clarity for participants and the general public as to the nature of competition submissions and winners, it rationalises the no-doubt difficult to maintain sets of disparate rules.  In this methodology, illustrative categories could be all assigned to the one ‘open’ profile, and representational categories could all be assigned to one ‘photojournalistic’  category, with both types available to the categories where both types make sense.  The representative / illustrative profiles could thus be rationalised to only a few, which would remove confusion and doubt.  Any remaining exceptions that truly represented a distinct difference could then be included.

What do you think?

Now, you may have a different point of view on the reality/art aspects I defined based on the various APPA category rules provided, or perhaps you feel that the measures I assigned are too fine-grained or not fine-grained enough.  Or you may disagree with my assessments.  Or you may feel the categories are just fine as they are, thank you. Or you may be one of the people who wonders how we retain our sense of photography as representative of the real world, when post-processing is seriously softening the idea of reality in photography.  However you feel, your opinion is valid and valued.  Please let me know what you think, because this is very much an open question and the more we can discuss it, the closer we can come to thoroughly describing the landscape of photo credibility within the larger framework of photography as a versatile science and artform that serves many purposes in society.

Thank you Anthony Brown for bringing the Rocco Ancora / Peter Eastway interview to my attention.  It has been an enlightening journey to consider their words and the rules of the categories and how all this rich information sits within the framework of my research.  Much obliged.

Assessment data (comments welcome) appa_2016_category_illustrative_freedom_assessments_sabrina_caldwell

[1] These images are thumbnail illustrations of Lisa Saad’s much larger images available at the APPA website located at They are used in keeping with ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright for research. Request for permission to use larger versions of the images is pending.
[2] Accessed 23/12/2016
[3] Accessed 23/12/2016
[4] Accessed 23/12/2016.  Note that the Science sub category requirements, particularly the astrophotography sub-clause are not represented at present in the worksheet or graphs pending working out the complicated nuances of these rules.

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Transcript of “Ancora and Eastway chat” on the role of illustration in photography: AIPP’s APPA (First of 2 parts)

Lisa Saad – The 2016 AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year


Lisa Saad’s stunning images are the heart of a controversy about ‘real’ photography recently addressed by Rocco Ancora and Peter Eastway.[1]

The winner of this year’s Australian Institute of Professional Photographers (AIPP) Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPA) created a lot of controversy. Many said that Lisa Saad’s winning Advertising portfolio was not photographic, but illustrative. To respond to this, Rocco Ancora and Peter Eastway (current and past chairmen) posted an interview-style video on APPA TV.  I have transcribed the interview because what was said was very interesting and it is easier to absorb the details when you can read it.  In a future post I will weigh in on my perspectives on what is being said, but first, I would be very interested to hear what you think.

Transcript of “Ancora and Eastway chat” (September 9 2016) in which the past and present Chairmen of the AIPP APPA discuss the response to the illustrative images of the 2016 winner Lisa Saad.


Peter Eastway on left, past AIPP APPA Chairman and Rocco Ancora on right, current Chairman [2]

Peter: Well here we are live at APPA TV.  I’m Peter Eastway, I’m a past AIPP APPA chairman, and I’m with the current AIPP APPA chairman, Rocco Ancora.

Rocco: Hello

Peter:  Good day Rocco.

Rocco: Good day Peter.

Peter: There’s been a little bit of consternation on Facebook and in social media about the term illustration and how it applies to photography. We’re worried that maybe illustration is taking over photography and photography is dead and buried. Lisa Saad’s amazing portfolio of advertising shots, they’ve sort of really got things going and I just wanted to know what you felt about the observation that the awards have been lost to illustration.

Rocco: Well, two things, consternation, what does that mean? (laughter) Just kidding. Let’s go back into illustrations. Now a photograph is an illustration, isn’t it?

Peter: Sure, I agree with that.

Rocco: But the awards are made up of many different categories Peter, some allow, you know, the illustrative element to be included in the final image, and some don’t. So when you’re talking about high jacking the awards can you be a little bit more specific.

Peter: Well how many categories do we actually have?

Rocco: We have 18.

Peter: And some of those categories are…

Rocco: Some of those categories are Sport where no visual manipulation is allowed, you’ve got Documentary where no visual manipulation is allowed, you’ve got Wedding, where some visual manipulation is allowed. You’ve got Advertising where the whole thing is about visual manipulation.

Peter: Let’s talk a little bit about advertising, I mean, we are professional photography awards, so it’s not just photography, it’s professional photography – how we do stuff for our clients.  So what do we do, what is the real world of advertising like? I mean, isn’t it true that if I’m going to shoot a car the chances are it’s just going to be a backdrop and the car itself is done by computer graphics?

Rocco: Absolutely.

Peter: What about the backgrounds that we are dropping in?

Rocco: Well this is part of what advertising photography is about. So when you look at the categories at APPA, they reflect what happens in the genre in the real life world.

Peter: So you do wedding and portrait photography …

Rocco: Yes.

Peter: …but if you are doing portraits for weddings, there’s an awful lot of retouching going on. I mean are those faces real faces?

Rocco: It’s called vanity, Peter.

Peter: And is there a little bit of illustration happening to those faces over and above the photography.

Rocco: Absolutely I mean with wedding photography or portrait photography you are creating a product for your client, ultimately speaking. Now clients expect to look the best that they possibly can.

Peter:  Can you do anything for me? …  Anyway, okay, let’s go back.

Rocco: Let’s not go there, I’m not a magician (laughter) let’s take it from there.  So what we are talking about here is having a reflective, I guess, the institute reflects what happens in the real life world.  So in weddings, I retouch my brides because that’s what they expect. We want them to look the best they possibly can. Portraiture is no different.  Advertising is no different to the fact that we are using different elements to create or sell the product, to sell the idea if you like.

Peter:  So I guess there’s some sort of a line isn’t there where we look at a photograph and we say, that’s pure photography, the photographer has just gone click and then we come to the other side where we’ve created something with composites, where we might have taken lots of different elements and put it together, and we might have done a little bit of brushwork to join it, and I suppose we’ve the beginning and the end and somewhere in the middle there’s a line where one is photography and one is illustration. Could you tell me exactly where that line is?

Rocco: (laughs) There’s a line here and there’s a line there, and then it shifts – it’s constant shifting sands.  When you talk about pure photography, what is pure photography?

Peter: Well, obviously what I do must be impure photography because I muck about with my photos.  I guess when we talk about pure photography, people looking at what comes out of the camera – there’s no further work is required. But I can’t think of doing that in the last twenty years, to be honest ever since digital came in, or never!  We always used to do more in the darkroom, we always used to do – even when it came to processing trannies you know you would push or pull, warm up the first developer a little bit, get a little bit more colour, a little bit more contrast … so that line is a real challenge. What do we do with the awards, though? Do we have one line or are there different lines?

Rocco: There are totally different lines, this is why the categories come into play. You have categories where it is about the authenticity of the original capture like Documentary, Sport, you know you can’t, you can’t alter the truth because this is what gets published in the magazines and newspapers; and once again the categories are reflecting what’s happening in the real world. But then you do have categories like Illustrative, where it is about the creative process being pushed to the nth degree using Photoshop – so there’s different lines. We don’t try to put everyone in a box, we try to evolve with the image making process.  And it has evolved over the years, you would agree, with the introduction of digital and now this constant evolvement of what photography is.

Peter: So I guess the danger for the AIPP in some ways is when we have a PPY[3] winner and it is representative of one genre of photography. It has to be because it is a category that wins it in many ways. That we get seen as only being interested in that type of photography But if people had come along to the awards a couple weekends ago, what would they have seen on the walls, I mean we put all our silver and golds up, I mean what’s your take on what we’re presenting at the moment?

Rocco: They would have seen first and foremost the best in Australian photography, or the best in Australian image making.  Because on the walls there was sport photographers, illustrative photographers, there was some incredible landscapes, probably not any of yours, but, um incredible landscapes.

Peter: I didn’t do too badly this time, I mean, a bit better.

Rocco: Did you beat Tony Hewitt?

Peter: I did beat Tony Hewitt, do you know, oh, and I love that. Anyway we’ll get back to the point you’re talking about.

Rocco:  So excellence in each of the genres is what we hang on the wall. So APPA is about celebrating that, it’s about celebrating every genre for what it is. Whether it’s um perceived as being the pure photography genre, or whether it’s perceived as being you know the more creative, not that, not that you can not be creative in single capture, but where you start to pull in other elements and start to play around with brushes in Photoshop to be able to create something that is not really there.

Peter: So as the APPA chairman I guess that is your challenge, to set up awards that are basically going to be representative of all the different genres of photography. And I have got to say that I think you’ve been doing a great job with that with all those different categories.  I just hope that in this way we’ve helped people to understand that while Lisa’s amazing portfolio was winner this year, it hasn’t always been the case. We look at the past winners, the different genres that we’ve had and it shows that what we really are is representative of all photographers.

Rocco: Absolutely, when we look back at last year’s winner, John Ansell, he won it with 4 tintypes. Now remarkably the 4 tintypes were entered into the Illustrative I believe. So he went with a very traditional process in a very modern genre, and it paid dividends because they were amazing images.  The year before that we had a Wedding portfolio. Obviously there was Photoshop involved…

Peter: James Simmons, yep.

Rocco: …in producing those [indistinguishable] beautiful monochrome images but they were real photographs if you like; they were perceived as being real photographs. Even before that we had colourful landscapes by Tony Hewitt.

Peter: So is Tony, ‘cause those landscapes didn’t necessarily look real, I mean when you looked out of the plane at the landscape below it wasn’t that colourful, so we’ve actually, I guess Tony has moved the slider a little bit. Is that the same as illustration? Is that now no longer straight photography? How far can we go? We’ve, we’ve got this line again haven’t we?

Rocco: At the end of the day we’ve got to think about it this way: when we capture an image it’s about visual communication and what we’re trying to convey as an artist to the viewer. Now Tony captured it, he perceived to be to be a totally different thing and he, he I guess he, he showed us what he felt. And that’s important because that’s part that’s a huge  part of the creative process. So we saw things things that not necessarily looked like landscapes but they were landscapes but they really took you to a different place and that why he did so well with the images that he did and it was groundbreaking really because we hadn’t really seen anything like that before.  So he took landscape photography with a little bit of Photoshop cause there’s not a lot of Photoshop in what he’d done except the perception of colour, and colour plays a huge part in the emotive communication side of things.

Peter: So when we bring that back to Lisa’s portfolio this year, those 4 really strong, and they are all very graphic in nature, they’re all captured with photographic elements, there’s a real style, a real look.  I think that what the judges were responding to was the imagination. And isn’t that what we as professional photographers have to take to the public? If we’re not going to take something that’s a little bit more than a straight capture these days, it’s very hard to compete with those 1.6 billion photos that are taken every day on Instagram.

Rocco: Absolutely, and I think as an advertising photographer you have to take people to a place they’ve never been before because that’s what sells the product. So Lisa did an incredible job with that. But taking it a little bit further than that, when you look at the PPY protocol to judge, you’ve been in that room many times, you know what I’m talking about.  You’ve got 11 judges, you’ve got 18 portfolios.  When you analyse each submission, it’s not about the amount of Photoshop that’s used – you know it’s beyond that.

Peter: It’s all about the image, isn’t it?

Rocco: It’s about the image, it’s about the level of creativity. It’s about whether an image moves you or not regardless of whether Photoshop was used, it’s irrelevant.

Peter: So is this photography?

Rocco: What is photography, Peter?

Peter: I think it is photography, isn’t it?  I mean, if we go back in history people often bring up Ansel Adams as being  the grandfather of photography, and I think that sometimes they forget that Ansel was pushing technology as far as he could. A friend of mine, twenty, thirty years ago, just before Ansel died, when he was a young fellow, and we were youngsters, he asked Ansel Adams what would you be doing in the future and Ansel said to him, there’s this new thing called electronic imaging that’s coming, he said geez I’d like to get involved with that. When we honour what came before, when we honour the tradition, sometimes we forget that the people we honour were trailblazers.  And so I see Lisa Saad as being a little bit of a trailblazer. She’s got a little bit of flack over her award and I, I think she can stand up to it. But I’d just like to congratulate her because she’s pushing us along, We mightn’t have to agree with what she’s done, but she’s certainly pushing our profession along, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Rocco: Absolutely Peter, and this is what the award system and this is what the institute is all about.  It’s about encompassing all aspects of photography, and it’s about evolving with the image making process and I think we are doing that quite, quite well.

Peter: Rocco, audience, thank you very much.

— end of transcript —

Your thoughts?

So that’s what leaders of the Australian Institute for Professional Photographers Australian Professional Photography Awards think, and they make some very interesting points.  How do you feel about it?

[1] These images are thumbnail illustrations of Lisa Saad’s much larger images available at the APPA website located at They are used in keeping with ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright for research. Request for permission to use larger versions of the images is pending.
[2] Screen capture of the interview on taken 16 December 2016 from As with the Lisa Saad images, this image is used in keeping with ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright for research.
[3] PPY stands for Professional Photographer of the Year

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Push the button, Max! : On publishing new photographic evidence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Read in Spanish 

Big American Wild West news about
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid!

For the past year I have been involved in a very secretive mission with my brother, Brian Mida Bleecker.  We have been investigating, researching and authenticating a photograph from the late 1800s of what we suspected, then proved, was an unknown photo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That secret mission has now come to fruition in a new Kindle eBook called Butch & Sundance: The New Evidence [1].

This past weekend, the book, with Brian’s investigations and re-imaginings and my 14 page academic paper was finally completed, integrated, and polished. So many months of hard work came down to a moment, in which, with a fantastical expression in which both trepidation and excitement played equal parts, my brother pushed the button to upload the book to Kindle.


Brian ‘pushes the button’ on “Butch & Sundance: The New Evidence” [2]

The excitement is understandable of course, but why did he and I feel a sense of trepidation? Because like Professor Fate and his sidekick Max of The Great Race, who often pushed a diabolical button on their Hannibal Twin-8 race car to explosive effect, who knows what could happen next?

Up until now, there has been only one known photograph of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid together (the Fort Worth Five photo below) and one additional known photo of each man separately.


Known photograph of the Wild Bunch. The Sundance Kid (Harry Alonzo Longabaugh) is seated at far left; Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker) is seated at far right. [3]

But guess what?  There’s a new, real, photo to add to that short list, and Brian discovered it, and I authenticated it!  Together, Brian and I have told the story of an amazing ‘new-old’ photograph.  It is old, because it is a cabinet card from the late 1800s. It is new, because after a year of investigation, we are presenting it to the world and rewriting an important corner of American Old West history.

As Brian says in the description that in these electronic days passes for a book’s dustcover jacket:

“…after almost eighty years, a new look at these famed desperados is presented by art collector and historian Brian Mida Bleecker. In “Butch and Sundance ~ The New Evidence” he brings to the table a totally unknown photo of both outlaws, posing together in a canvas tent near the mines of Southwest Colorado. His research also uncovers the forgotten saga of a pioneering photographic family, whose youngest son unknowingly captured a fleeting moment in Western History then went uncredited for well over a century. …”

It was uncanny that the project needed an experienced Wild West art historian and a digital image scientist, and there we were, just the two right people for the job. The bottom line is that this is big news for anyone who has ever been interested in the American Old West generally, and Butch & Sundance in particular. 

Of course we would like a lot of people to buy the book (in which you get a well-told and carefully researched tale, a re-envisioned story of the early days of Butch & Sundance, and a full academic paper), but if you visit Kindle you can still see the photo right now for free in the preview. If you do buy the book, it would be great if you could write a review and rate it because it may take an effort to cut through the Internet noise.

This has been a wonderful, fun, exciting journey so far.  At the moment we feel like we know something that very few other people do. However this exciting project unfolds, I’m glad we pushed the publication button!

[1] Bleecker, Brian Mida. (2016) Butch & Sundance: The New Evidence. Pub Amazon Kindle eBook.
Bitly address is
[2] Photo by Sabrina Caldwell – photo taken with IPad Pro of computer screen during Skype call. Cropped to reduce screen reflections.
[3] Other members of theWild Bunch gang are News Carver (standing left at back), Kid Curry (standing back at right) and The Tall Texan (seated middle front).  Photograph in Public Domain per Wikimedia Commons; downloaded 9/11/2016 from

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Photographer reputation: our immediate jewel


SiO2 two ways – 2016

Photographs with gravitas

Can you call to mind any photographs you’ve seen recently that you think stand out from the rest? That are worthy of retaining in your precious and limited mind-space? That have a place in the story of your life, your family, or your community? Perhaps even in our global human story?

Unlike the others whose provenance and prospects are of no more than momentary interest, these few note-worthy  images arouse more than a momentary pique of curiosity, and somehow inherently seem to matter.  What they represent is important. How they came to be is important. Who created them is important. How they can be used is important. Somehow, they just seem to have gravitas.

For these sterling images, we widen our field of vision and consider more than just the meaning and aesthetics being communicated by the image. Depending on our experience and perspective we might consider some or all of many things: provenance, photographer, context, resolution, identity of subjects, and more. What constitutes ‘an important photograph’ is not the same for everyone.

An environmentalist might want to preserve an image because it appears to capture a rare event of black swans flocking in enormous numbers on the New South Wales south coast but she might wonder if the swan numbers were artificially inflated by image cloning (they weren’t).


60 Black Swans – Coila Lake, New South Wales Australia – 2015

Parents might love a particular photo of their children and want to know where the photo was taken.


What *he* said –  Harry and Obi Ward – Nisi’s, Cootamundra,  2012

Conservators might be especially interested in the date of the photograph.


Christchurch Cathedral entrance prior to the 2011 earthquake – Sept 2009

In all of these cases, the person standing behind the photograph, the photographer, is indispensable.  She or he is needed to tell the story of the photograph – what it depicts, when it was taken, what has been done to it.  The credibility of the photographer reflects on the credibility of the photo.

Our photographic reputation

So what about when we are the photographer? As a photographer, we are not judging photographs, we are judged by our photographs. We stand behind them. We have a role to play in acting as a witness not just to the event we photographed, but to the meaning and context of the photograph itself.

Just like any witness, we may be able to rest on our solid reputation such that even unusual photographs will be believed because we are believed.  Or we may be unable to convince anyone that we haven’t manipulated an image because we have a reputation for producing images that are more art than true representations of the world around us. Like any other walk of life, our reputation precedes us.


Living in the digital age has both opportunities and challenges.  As photographers, the best of our work can be preserved for as long as there is interest in what we accomplished.  Unfortunately, so can the worst of our work.  From simple sins of omission that leave our photos orphaned because they cannot be understood without context, through to sins of commission like deliberately misleading photo editing, or acts of inappropriate image publication, our worst photographic choices will forever cast a shadow over our best.

And our work can last for a very, very long time. For example, my post “Keep ’em Flying” about  a photo of 9 WWII era matchbooks illustrating the early days of pilot training is a perennial favourite despite the events of the story and the matchbook covers being over 70 years old.


Detail of 1940s matchbook cover

By the same token, Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away,” has lingered for over 150 years, and, while a poignant illustration of human frailty, is also a image with no representational truth, being created with staged actors and 5 different negatives. It is photographic art, but not a photograph. It is difficult to know which, if any, of Robinson’s ‘photographs’ are real, and which are fabrications. In the 1860s photography was relatively poorly understood, so it may not be that Robinson’s reputation preceded him, but it certainly succeeded him.


Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away, 1860

No one is perfect, but I believe it behooves us to act as honourably as possible in our photographic practices, not just because it is the right thing to do, which should be enough, but in enlightened self-interest. If we care enough to take photographs, we probably care enough to want them to endure.  The photographical canon of the future is likely to be an amalgam of the many useful photographs taken by photographers with integrity and character, and the relatively fewer infamous ‘doctored’ photographs that serve as a warning of what not to do.  Everything in between, the dubious, the unknown, the incomprehensible, the orphaned photographs may well just be visual noise, given short shrift by our descendants.

The great difficulty is first to win a reputation; the next to keep it while you live; and the next to preserve it after you die, when affection and interest are over, and nothing but sterling excellence can preserve your name. Never suffer youth to be an excuse for inadequacy, nor age and fame to be an excuse for indolence.

– Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846)

60 Black Swans, What *he* said,  and Christchurch Cathedral entrance prior to the 2011 earthquake, photos by Sabrina Caldwell, other than resizing for web use, no alterations have been made
Detail of 1940s matchbook cover, photo by Brian Bleecker, image cropped and resized for web use by Sabrina Caldwell
Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson, public domain
SiO2 two ways, photos by Sabrina Caldwell, image was cropped and resized for web use


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Pestilent error and ‘The legitimacy of skies in photographs’

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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2016 Photo Competitions: Reality rules!

Here we are a year later. 2016 has arrived on our doorstep, and the photo competitions of last year have in the main been renewed.

Less_image_editing_quoteHappily, it seems competitions are placing even more value on real photographs. Most of the pre-eminent photography competitions have been firmly grappling with the issue of photo manipulation, with World Press a particularly notable advocate this year of reality in photography.

Overall, in 2016 we can expect less image editing by major photographic competition entrants, and more transparency in that editing when it does happen. Contextual elements too have been targeted, with misleading captions, copyright infringement and false representations of staged photos as naturally occurring all under more scrutiny.  Some of these changes took place mid-year, and not all photo competitions (Canon, National Geographic) have yet to publicly confirm 2016 competitions and their rules. I will update this post as news comes to hand.

First and foremost, hats off to World Press.

World Press Photography Competition 

Estimated schedule: assume entries for 2016 due in December as they were in 2015

Fig 1 World Press Code of Ethics

After the debacle of having to disqualify a crafty winner in their 2015 photo competition (World Press Photo Award Withdrawn), I was interested to see if World Press was going to make any changes to its competition terms and conditions for this year. I am very pleased indeed to see that they have taken this issue seriously. World Press conducted a global consultation within the press community not just to adjust rules relating to manipulation, but to create a Photo Contest  Code of Ethics (Fig. 1).

Specifically, they noted in their consultation brief that:

“This review process is paying particular attention to the question of manipulation, and includes the drafting of a code of ethics for the contest, as well as clear guidelines and visual examples to inform contest entrants what is and is not acceptable.” [1]

They have done an admirable job in developing a well-considered Code.  There are many welcome stances against mis-representative photographs including resistance to staged scenes, avoidance of misleading content, caption and context, and insistence on transparency in image processing. In effect the Code gives practical direction for competitors to keep it real:

“Entrants to the World Press Photo contest must ensure their pictures provide an accurate and fair representation of the scene they witnessed so the audience is not misled.” [2]

World Press, I am delighted!

Canon Photography Light Awards

Estimated schedule: to be confirmed but in 2015 they were themed monthly competitions rolling up into an annual judging event

As at 28 December 2015 Canon’s 2016 Light Awards competition had not been confirmed for 2016.  However, at some point in 2015 Canon made the image manipulation rules for their Light Awards even more explicit, thus removing any ambiguity about their desire for entrants to submit unmanipulated photographs:

“Entries must be true photographs and not composites or digital manipulations. Basic editing such as cropping and basic colour adjustment is permitted. Selective colour adjustment is not permitted. Other than cropping, removal of pixels is not permitted.”[3]

By ruling out selective colour changes and pixel removal, Canon has effectively ruled out most of the more harmful types of image manipulation. So another well done!

Epson International Pano [PhotoART] Awards

Estimated schedule: entries for 2016 open in April

As you can see, I have not given the Pano Awards the distinction of being photography awards but instead have named them as photoART awards.

This is because after a close examination of the rules, and a very detailed critique of the 2015 winning image, Max Rive’s The Ice Prison, I do not feel that this competition can be said to be judging photographs, but is rather a contest of photographically-based photoART submissions.

This is because the Pano awards actually encourage photo-manipulation, and reward images that have significant elements of photo-manipulation. As I noted in my critique, their statement about manipulation for 2015 says only that manipulation may lessen the photographer’s chances:

“Images may be from single capture or stitching software, film or digital capture, but must be 100% photographic in origin. Manipulation is allowed but excessive manipulation may be scored down by judges.” [4]

National Geographic Photography Awards

Estimated schedule: to be confirmed but in 2015 entries were accepted between 1 September and 16 November

Like the Canon Light Awards, as at 31 December 2015 National Geographic’s photography awards for 2016 had not been confirmed.  However, at some point in 2015 National Geographic made the image manipulation rules for their Light Awards even more clear, tightening their definition of acceptable manipulations, with compositing having been removed from their definition of what is acceptable:

“Only minor burning, dodging and/or color correction is acceptable, as is minor cropping. High dynamic range images (HDR) and stitched panoramas are acceptable. Any changes to the original photograph not itemized here or in the NGS Your Shot Photo Guidelines are unacceptable and will render the photograph ineligible for a prize.”[5]

Additionally, they have made stated that misleading captioning or statements of originality will not be tolerated.

“The caption must be complete and accurate, sufficient to convey the circumstances in which the photograph was taken. Disguising or misrepresenting the origin of your content is cause for disqualification.”[5]

Smithsonian Photography Awards

Estimated schedule: to be confirmed but in 2015 entries were accepted from March to November
The Smithsonian competition has not yet released 2016 rules, however, the current rules clearly rule out manipulated photographs:
“Cropped photos are eligible in all categories. We do not accept digitally or otherwise enhanced or altered photos, except for those entered in the Altered Images category. Minor adjustments, including spotting, dodging and burning, sharpening, contrast and slight color adjustment or the digital equivalents, are acceptable for all categories. If the judges determine that a photographer has altered his or her photo, they reserve the right to move the photo to Altered Images or to disqualify it.”[6]

In summary…

These enhanced photo credibility-related terms and conditions in photographic competitions are welcome news.And as ever, I welcome the growing importance being placed on the relationship between the aesthetics and meaning of photographs and the real world they purport to interpret on our behalf.

Postscript: If you believe there is a competition I should include in my investigations into photo competition credibility rules, please don’t hesitate to let me know in a comment to this post.


[1] World Press Photo gathering feedback for 2016 Photo Contest.
[2] World Press Code of Ethics.
[3] Canon Light Awards Terms and Conditions
[4] International Pano Awards
[5] National Geographic Photography Contest Rules.
[6] Smithsonian
All websites listed [1-6] above accessed 28-31 December 2015

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Max Rive’s The Ice Prison: Photo-critique of Epson 2015 International Pano Award-winner

In Spanish

Recently I’ve been thinking it’s time to do another photo-critique.  Strangely, as I mused on the possibility of doing the critique on a recent Epson Pano award-winning photograph taken in the Himalayan mountains (which appealed to my appreciation of ‘effortful’ photography), a reader of my blog sent me a query asking what I thought of that very photo.  That was the added incentive I needed to spur my thoughts into action. In undertaking my photo-critique, I am using the steps I arrived at in my post Critiquing photography: A different perspective. Based on this approach, here is my review of Max Rive’s The Ice Prison.

The Ice Prison The Himalayas, Nepal 2015 Epson International Pano Award Winner

The Ice Prison [1]
The Himalayas, Nepal
2015 Epson International Pano Award Winner

The Ice Prison by photographer Max Rive

The photograph – artistic elements and impressions

Max Rive’s award-winning panoramic image of the interior of a Himalayan ice-cave with a view to the Ama Dablam mountain is exquisitely beautiful. Sinuous folds of sheet ice sweep in a wave up the right side of the cave egress, drawing the eye from the soft ice curves to the wickedly sharp icycles depending from the cave mouth. To the center right, an ice formation resembles a seated, cowled woman gazing through the aperture of the cavern out to Ama Dablam, whose peaks thrust proud of the clouds in sunlit shades of white and ochre. Her almost subliminal presence lends a sense of human scale and warmth to an otherwise gelid landscape.  To the left and right, the fenestrated walls of translucent ice allow soft light to inflitrate the cave. The scene is balanced, serene, majestic.

Content and meaning

There is a genius in the way Rive engages with us, the viewers, by figuratively placing us inside the cave, looking out through the icycle fringed cave mouth towards the sunlit peaks of the distant mountain range. Immediately, we are connected to the image because to understand it we almost compulsorily must place ourselves inside the grotto, surrounded by ice walls, looking out. And it is in this placement that the meaning behind the title of the image becomes intelligible – we are the prisoners, in a cold cell, whose enclosure is completed by the long, dangerous looking icycles that bar our way. Mutably, it could also be that the ice figure of the woman is the prisoner, forever entombed and immobile in her ice prison. In the best artistic tradition, it is probably both. Yet according to Rive’s comments on the photo, the grotto from which we look out is actually quite small. He says that “The camera was almost put inside a small hole in the wall. Using a tripod was not possible.”[2] So clearly, we can be inside it only through our imagination facilitated by Rive’s photographic imagery. Effectively, Rive has taken us where no-one has gone or ever could go.

Technical components

Technically, the image is almost perfect. All elements of the image are in balance and harmony but not predictably so. There is an energy in the balance, a range of forces that move our vision around the image, from side to side and from inside to outside. In Rive’s image the tiny becomes vast, and the vast becomes tiny. There is a play of proximity and distance, light and dark, smooth and sharp. The colour is deft; the image is almost monochromatic shades of blue-gray, with just those crucial touches of yellow and orange ochres in the Ama Dablam mountain peak to draw the eye from the almost overwhelming foreground ice landscape out and into the far distance.  There is one element in the image that slightly jars my immersion in the scene and that is the far left trapezoidal gap in the ice wall whose margins do not seem completely integrated into their surrounds and this could be usefully reviewed.

In his short description of the photo, Mr Rive comments that he hiked up a snow covered mountain with crampons to a small opening that he thought might have a view of one of the prominent mountains in the Himalayas, Ama Dablam. His subsequent extensive work in his digital darkroom to bring this image to us was done with a masterful hand. For me, this is certainly an example of the ‘effortful photography’ that I have commented on and admired in the past.

Photograph or PhotoART

Is the photograph real?  From researching photos by Max Rive online,[5] I found that many of the photos attributed to him appear highly post-processed.  They are beautiful atmospheric images featuring long exposure water shots, and panoramic landscapes, water reflections, star strewn night skies. They have lovely balance and composition, and many are a visual feast for the eyes. Many are no doubt evocative of real locations, but difficult for me to fully believe. The Ice Prison has many of the supernal characteristics of his other works. Rive comments that “The Ice Prison” is a stiched panorama made largely from his fourth and last try at taking the multiple photographs needed: “After shooting the right part with my face just outside the frame I had to switch sides to do the same with the center and the left part.”[3] And he also notes that the various photographs were blended in Photoshop: “Without the blending this shot was technically not possible.”[4] So, as a researcher in photograph authenticity, I have to say that for me this image is an admixture of photograph and photoART (as I have defined in previous posts).

However, the Epson Pano awards do not require entries in the Open Award category to be fully photographic.  In fact, the rules state “Manipulation is allowed but excessive manipulation may be scored down by the judges if not well executed.”[6] Further, I believe that something like this exists, based on Rive’s assertions and description of method, despite his (for me) heavy hand with post-processing techniques. His body of work as I found online seemed to be rooted in the main in the real world, especially those parts that he has special access to by virtue of his mountain-climbing lifestyle.

However, would I expect that this is exactly what I would see were I capable of Rive’s mountain adventures, were I to find the right spot under the right weather and light conditions, and were I to be a miniature person who could stand within the small grotto and look out?  I suspect not.


Although it’s other-worldly qualities are a bit too glamourised and ethereal for me to whole-heartedly embrace this image as a representative photograph, I like it very much as a brilliant photographically-based artistic image. The Ice Prison is masterful, and a gift from Max Rive to us, enabling us to not only see parts of the planet both great and small that we would otherwise never have seen, but to almost experience them for ourselves.

[1] Image sourced from Max Rive’s Facebook page at Also available at the Facebook Epson International Pano Awards page at  Copyright Max Rive. Used in accordance with Fair Use provisions of copyright law. Accessed 22 October 2015
[2-4]:  Title and description from Max Rive on the Facebook page for the Epson International Pan Awards:
“This 6 shot panorama was taken in the Himalayas during spring. It was a small distant gape in a snow covered mountain which caused my attention. I mainly wanted to check it out because this ice or snow cave had a view on the 6812 meter high Ama Dablam. Finding a cave is one difficult thing but find one with a great view is much more difficult. After a hike up the mountain with crampons I entered this Ice cave. It was frozen water finding a way through the rocks.
    The composition you see with a view both on the left and the right chamber was very difficult to achieve. The camera was almost put inside a small hole in the wall. Using a tripod was not possible. After shooting the right part with my face just outside the frame I had to switch sides to do the same with the center and the left part. It was a matter of trial and error to get the composition I wanted. The required use of photo stitching made everything even more difficult. It was later that night I discovered that a lot of individual shots were out of focus or unsharp because of camera movement. During both the 2nd and 3rd try the mountain Ama Dablam was totally covered in clouds. My 4th attempt was successful even though I still had to do a lot of blending in photoshop. Without the blending this shot was technically not possible.”
[5]To see 44 of his photos, you can visit his site Accessed 22 October 2015
[6] Pano awards rules sourced from Accessed 22 October 2015

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