4. Feedback

Critical Essay – Grey Areas: The Ethics of Skies and other manipulations

brief – submission – blog – feedback – rework


Tutor feedback received 16th July

Dear Nick
Great essay – loved reading it,
Hope that this helps and set a few more directions to travel.

Overall feedback

I very much enjoyed reading your essay. Its structure takes the reader through a logical sequence of explanation of a number of technical elements that connect to current and historical methods of making images with photography. You also hint at the relations with other forms of image making such as painting. There’s a sense that your capacity to itemise and pick out the very ‘real’ and relevant debate and argument in order to present a coherent position is well made.

Reading back over the essay the one thing that comes to mind is that, although your title does indicate that the ‘sky’ is not the sole focus of your attention, I’d have liked to read more about the sky. [1] I mean in the sense that how the form and subject have over the recent past (in photography and further in the past) has been examined. It’s a big topic and I’m sure one could spend a lifetime on such a topic – but given it’s a fundamental element then perhaps some indication to the representation of the sky might be worthwhile. Is it not interesting that the development of digital photographic technology is the product/result of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who in 1961 was trying to figure out how to digitize light signals so that astronauts could take better images and thus better ascertain their position when out in space? In effect being in the sky – at distance forced a leap in visual image making.

I’ve copied a few sections here which seemed to me to be significant.

[My tutor quotes the essay at length and inserts comments. In this reformatted version of the feedback, the essay quotes are indented and italicised and the quotes highlighted blue. There are four main sections of quotation and these are separated by a line of dashes.]

Whenever a photograph is taken (used often – suggests a quickness – a pejorative term perhaps) [2] there are choices of position, framing and timing; with more versatile equipment, the photographer may have additional options such as focal length, focus, depth of field, shutter speed, filters; and perhaps, film stock and lighting. All these choices are exercised before or at the moment of exposure and all rest on the fundamental matter of subject — what is at the object end of the lens.

Another approach is to bracket the exposures and combine the images either in post-processing (from an analogue or digital source) or in-camera (digital only): these high dynamic range (HDR) digital composites can result in excessively garish images that meet with disapproval in many circles of photography.

(why might this be? Which circles?) [3]

If a landscape photographer’s purpose in a particular project is to depict a subject and its environment accurately (that is, as seen by the human eye, to use Mees’ phrase),

Might be worth expanding on the issue of (accuracy) – yes of course many think a photograph is an accurate representation – and of course you and I both know it’s not – having said that fundamentally the wider population also know that too… it’s a question of sociology – i.e., Instagram (filtering etc etc…) [4]

As an example, the current Landscape Photographer of the Year (LPOTY) competition, limited to UK subjects, includes a number of categories, in most of which….

I wonder how one proves these issues? would they (the competition organisers and more set up some kind of Ingsoc (Orwell) to oversee these rules? [5]

Badger (after examining the disparity in market prices for images by such as, on the one hand Robert Adams and Lee Friedlander, and on the other Gursky and the Düsseldorf School and then describing the working methods of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall) suggests that “photography has separated into two parallel worlds … [n]ot art and documentary, but something much more fundamental — between recreating a real world and recreating a fake world.”

Huge topic – current TPG Instagram takeover this week features an artist or photographer using VR etc. Where does the delineation take place – when is an artist an artist and photographer a photographer – when is a photographer an artist – when is what is created art when is it photography… etc? it runs on and on.
The debate connects to the famous Rumsfeld “unknowns” quote. The debate illustrates both continuity and discontinuity, there are many who would offer definitive opinions. And as long as there are philosophers, critics such as Badger and more – then there are the artists, the galleries and gallerists, new media, photographers etc there will be those trying to communicate these complexities and those reconciled to take a position. [6]

Finally, I think it’s a great essay that could produce some firm foundations for practical work too. It’s a very rich area of study that could offer very many strands [7] – sort of rhizomatic trails towards your photographic work.

Feedback based on Learning Outcomes
L01 Visual and conceptual strategies
Specified terms of references concerning visual subject matter were well identified.

L02 Social, cultural and ethical consideration
Takes some specific areas for discussion that might be expanded further (i.e., reactions
to terms and conditions when entering competitions connected to landscape genre) [5]

L03 Exploring a range of ideas
Concentrated on specific in title – potential to jump across disciplines. 

L04 Research, managing time and resources
Much time was given to research and this is evident in notes and reflection.

L05 Autonomy, voice and communication
Specific evaluative comments identify how own terms and references interpolate with
others is user groups and in wider discourse.

Action points
Sugimoto and his thought about where sea and sky meet might be worth looking at.
and-sky [8]

Where might the sky feature in other visual work – sci-fi is a rich area of study in this
element – for obvious reasons. Look for the term ‘sky’ – if you can watch the film take a
https://offscreen.com/view/natural_modern_solaris [9]



17th July

1 I’d have liked to read more about the sky.

The stated purpose of the essay was to discuss the ethics of various forms of manipulation, beginning with skies, because, historically, that can be regarded in some ways as a special case. A book about skies in photography is a good idea — I would probably buy it — but that was not my aim here [i].

2 Whenever a photograph is taken (used often – suggests a quickness – a pejorative term perhaps)

In his introduction to Post-Photography (2014, p.8) Robert Shore quotes Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”. No citation is given.

Geoff Dyer (1999, p.37) in surely the most penetrating, knowing and informative essay that there is on Cartier-Bresson states that,

Cartier-Bresson has said that he does not take the photograph but allows himself to be taken by it.

Dyer, 1999, p.37

In on Photographing People and Communities (2019), Dawoud Bey wrote,

I discourage my students from talking about photographing as “shooting” or “capturing” or “taking,” because it’s really about trying to figure out a way to describe with the camera, to make something.

Dawoud Bey, on Photographing People and Communities, 2019, p.29

I first read Bey’s book during I&P (see blog). It made sense and for a while I wrote about making photographs. It is remarkable how many of the shutter-related verbs relate to violence and appropriation. In due course, it seemed to have become an affectation and so I reverted to normal usage.

3 HDR digital composites can result in excessively garish images that meet with disapproval in many circles of photography. (why might this be? Which circles?)

Anecdotal evidence suggests that HDR excess is more common in amateur photography than in academic and gallery usage. It is a subjective aesthetic judgment, but nevertheless, from personal experience, this seems to be the outcome. I will revisit this paragraph in the rework. See Leach, 2020, Rittmuller, 2019 and Wright, 2020.

4 If a landscape photographer’s purpose in a particular project is to depict a subject and its environment accurately (that is, as seen by the human eye, to use Mees’ phrase),

Might be worth expanding on the issue of (accuracy) – yes of course many think a photograph is an accurate representation – and of course you and I both know it’s not – having said that fundamentally the wider population also know that too… it’s a question of sociology – i.e., Instagram (filtering etc etc…)

Mees’ 1909 quote in full, as given earlier in the essay, is,

the sky is usually of much greater intensity than any other portion of the gradation scale, and it follows that, in order to obtain detail in the shadows (seen by the eye because of the expansion of the iris), it is often necessary to over-expose the sky.
This over-exposure, which destroys differences in intensity which are perceived by the eye (clouds for instance), can be removed by the use of contrast colour screens, which, by absorbing the sky light, seem, in certain cases, to lengthen the scale of intensities which the plate is capable of rendering.

Mees, 1909, p.52

In Stephen Frailey’s view (2019, p.142)

Often, the photograph has little actual resemblance to what was depicted. In the most obvious case, a black and white photograph, regardless of its legibility, is an interpretation, an encoded conversion of the complex and shifting color of the world into gradations of grey. Likewise, the simple act of framing is a set of decisions that has a fundamental effect on the translation of information. In both cases photographic rendering is subtractive.

Frailey, 2019, p.142

While Frailey is correct, the matter I was seeking to address in the essay was narrower and more specific. Accuracy — representation of a subject as the photographer sees it in terms of dynamic range, colour rendition and so on — is an option available to the photographer and was at the heart of the essay.
Not to pursue this aim of verisimilitude may be a conscious choice with (presumably) some aesthetic, political or other overriding purpose or it may be an act of simple carelessness or ignorance.

I should have made that more clear and will do so in the rewrite.

5 As an example, the current Landscape Photographer of the Year (LPOTY) competition, limited to UK subjects, includes a number of categories, in most of which….

I wonder how one proves these issues? would they (the competition organisers and more set up some kind of Ingsoc (Orwell) to oversee these rules?

I am not a competitive photographer and so have no direct knowledge of such matters. I believe that some competitions require the prize winners to submit the Raw images for inspection, though not all photographers record JPEG + RAW and in any case EXIF editors are available (again, I have no direct knowledge), and some entrants will use scans of analogue film.

Amateur Photographer‘s annual competition is in progress at the time of writing and the rules are available online, including

Image Manipulation
There are no restrictions regarding the manipulation of images using software or other techniques in these awards, provided that all imagery is the exclusive work of the submitting photographer and does not include any element that is the copyright of another. That includes not using any image elements such as skies that are available in some image editing software.
Image sharpening, noise reduction and colour saturation
Excessive sharpening, noise reduction and colour saturation techniques should be avoided. We appreciate that entrants will attempt to prepare their entries to optimise appearance and appeal on screen, and this may include these techniques. Excessive use of any or all of them can result in an entry that will be unsuitable for printed media and therefore become invalid as a result.

The Promoter reserves the right to request from the entrant a copy of the original camera file and a screengrab of their editing software showing other images from the same shoot, and to eliminate entries where such a request is ignored or where it is suspected that the rules have been infringed.

The Promoter and Photocrowd reserve the right, in their sole discretion, to disqualify or remove any entry that does not comply with the rules or the spirit of the awards, at any stage of the awards.

Amateur Photographer, 2022

Given the two examples detailed in the essay and in these responses, image manipulation is a live issue in competitions and it is likely that the matters these rules deal with reflect the values of the expected participants, amateur enthusiasts (see Leach, 2020, Rittmuller, 2019 and Wright, 2020).
For those aspiring to other audiences, “if it’s good enough for Gursky it’s good enough for me” might apply.

6 when is an artist an artist and photographer a photographer – when is a photographer an artist – when is what is created art when is it photography… etc?

In his narrative of the gradual transformation and acceptance of photographs as art, Andy Grundberg identifies as crucial the period when artists moved outside the gallery and studio (for Land Art, Happenings and so on) and had to rely on photographs of the pieces and events to record their existence: photographs became de facto part of the art and this allowed it to finally transform into art in its own right.

Grundberg concludes,

[Gordon Matta-Clark’s] reliance on photographs and his fascination with the plastic qualities of camera images challenged the boundaries I had absorbed of what photography was supposed to look like and do to be art. What offered itself as a quandary turned out to be a blessing; I lost my interest in the old questions – Is photography art? What kind of art is it? – and started thinking about a new one: Would the art of our time exist without it?

Grundberg, 2021, p.34

As I have observed elsewhere, venal gallerists and auctioneers ensured that the job was completed. All photographs are transactions and in this case the principal motive was financial.

7 L03 Exploring a range of ideas
Concentrated on specific in title – potential to jump across disciplines

I am not sure whether this is a criticism or just a comment. Given that the Overall Feedback ends “a very rich area of study that could offer very many strands”, I will assume the latter. As noted under my responses #1 and #4, I sought to address limited and specific issues concerning manipulation of landscape images.

8 Sugimoto

In the video interview of Sugimoto suggested by my tutor, https://www.world-architects.com/en/architecture-news/film/sugimoto-between-sea-and-sky, the artist describes an early memory (aged 3 or 5) of the sea and sky on a family holiday. His father bought a Mamiya 6 (for himself) when Sugimoto was 12 but found it too complicated and so gave it to his son. Sugimoto Jr. also liked train sets, built dioramas and so photographed railways as input.
He recalls an early image when he photographed a full moon over the sea but never showed it because it was romantic rather than conceptual: recently he rotated it 90° so that it (paraphrased) “looks like the view from a spaceship” (fig. A2) and thus was born a new series. The original (horizontal) sea series arose from a desire to photograph water, at first waterfalls and then the thought that they flow to the sea led him there. He explained the equal divide of sea and sky given equal emphasis, “without worrying about being exact.” He has created his own process to develop the large negatives. He suggests that seascapes are one of the few views that would have been identical both for primitive man and us today. He ends by saying that capitalism’s quest for continual growth will end in the depletion of all natural resources and seascapes allow us “to revert to our innocent minds”.

Frailey (readers will not be surprised to learn that I am reading his Looking at photography, 2019, while writing these responses) describes how Sugimoto has,

photographed a series of seascapes in black and white using a large format apparatus that is capable of great visual precision. Shorn of any identifying detail (save for the captions), they place the horizon consistently in the center of the horizontal frame, and depict a range of atmospheric conditions and characteristics of light, some exacting and lucid and vivid, but others a smudged and atonal grey. The photos gently provide an inquiry into photographic representation and recognition.

Frailey, 2019, p.66

Dominic Willsdon (2005) describes one of the “smudged and atonal grey” images, Aegan Sea, Pilion, 1990, fig. B1.

Willsdon quotes Sugimoto’s approach,

I just open the map and then read the map carefully and the name of the sea is sometimes very interesting; it is a very important factor in the series . So I choose the name and then choose the location and then study the topological map very carefully.

Hiroshi Sugimoto quoted by Willsdon in Howarth, 2005, p.100

Willsdon then embarks upon a multiphase, freewheeling exercise in association, listing what Sugimoto’s series and this particular location bring to his mind (this is a similar process to Kate Orff’s unpacking Richard Misrach’s images described in Part 5). Willsdon invokes the birth of European culture from its Hellenistic roots; Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1809-10), fig. B2 (we met Friedrich in Part 1 while considering the sublime); Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean series, fig. B3; and compares Sugimoto’s project to Ansel Adams’ devotion to Yosemite.

Willsdon attributes the diffusion in Aegan Sea, Pilion as being due to a “heavy mist” — I had assumed it was deliberate. And he suggests that Sugimoto’s images are usually exhibited “in groups of three or more” to emphasise the “disciplined variations between them”.

Willsdon’s Friedrich reference is a useful one because of the obvious parallels and the fact that I was not previously aware of the image; the Mondrian (although the series marked an important phase in his road to abstraction), less so. My tutor’s signposting of Sugimoto is a blessing: I had been aware of the work, but did not regard it highly. I now have a perception of its importance as an intriguing example to land (sea) scapes that are in many superficial ways identical but, in more important ways, simultaneously so different. The sea is essential in achieving this.

9 sci-fi


I had the good fortune to grow up in the second golden age of science fiction, the 1950s and 60s and have never tired of the genre.

The feedback link is to an essay by David Hanley on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 1972.

David Thompson’s view of Solaris (2010, p.954) is,

Solaris is on as grand a scale as Roublev. A science-fiction movie, from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, it is 165 minutes long, and again in Scope and color. Its central scientist, Kris Kelvin, is posted to the planet Solaris where a crew has been all but wiped out. The “enemy” on Solaris is the way the planet can generate the people that its inhabitants are thinking about. I do not mean to be snide when I say that an episode of Star Trek explored this theme with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a third the length. Kelvin is confronted by a wife who committed suicide, which is a long way to go for a story about a failed marriage and enough of a gimmick to evade an adequate study of how love failed. The visualization of Solaris is as senselessly elaborate as in 2001, and the philosophy as mediocre.

Thompson, 2020, p.954

Hanley, as might be expected, is more complimentary, describing Solaris as, “a vision of contemporary society as one that has become cut off from nature”. The key contrast is the gulf between urban and rural life and this is emphasised by (the central character) Kelvin’s tranfer to Solaris where the differences are emphasised. It is ironic that, for a science fiction film, the urban lifestyle is depicted by an almost real life Tokyo, with what Hanley describes as, “a few token gadgets”.

Hanley quotes Tarkovsky as saying “the controlling idea of Solaris is that human beings have to remain human beings, even if they find themselves in inhumane conditions’” and this parallels Sugimoto’s point in note 8 about reverting “to our innocent minds”.

There are a number of other eco-oriented films to consider (taking advantage of lists by Kong, 2021 and Burkart, 2020): Kong looks at documentaries and the list includes  No Impact Man (Gabbert & Schein, 2009), Food Inc. (Kenner, 2008) and The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004). The Burkart list favours eco-driven fiction and lists several older films, including Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), China Syndrome (Bridges, 1979) and Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh, 2000). (The plot of Chinatown has interesting parallels with Carleton Watkins’ photographs of the Malakoff Diggins described in Part 5.)

Broadening to consider science fiction more generally, book covers are, perhaps, the richest source of graphic art in the genre, but, in my view, skies do not feature greatly, with the exception of the common trope of a low-hanging planet or moon to establish an alien location, see one of the many designs for Heinlein’s Farmer in the sky ( fig. C1). As for my favourite cover and one of my favourite classic stories, Norman Spinrad’s The Solarians (1966) — regrettably, none of the seven covers found in a cursory search has any sky detail to speak of. There are no skies worth mentioning in Shortlist.com‘s 40 Coolest Sci-Fi Book Covers (DeWolfe, 2014), nor in 23 science fiction and fantasy book covers that are out of this world (Kipp, 2017).

Another notable source of fictional imagery is video gaming. I declared in C&N (see blog) my intention to use screen grabs from World of Warcraft to fulfil one assignment in this degree and hope to do so in DIC next year.

Notes on the notes

[i] My first thought for a book pitch was 100 photographs that include a sky and a facing page of text on each pulling together some themes. Here’s a better idea. Take some existing books of similar format:

Szarkowski’s Looking at photographs and American Landscapes
Dyer’s See/Saw
Frailey’s Looking at Photography
Ewing reGeneration 1 and 2
Campany’s On photographs
are to hand as I write and if they don’t each have 100, then no matter

and assemble 100 photographs from those with significant skies; write about what the authors say and, more importantly, what they don’t say about the skies. Assemble themes and reach conclusions.



Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Amateur Photographer (2022) AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR 2022 [online]. photocrowd.com. Available from https://www.photocrowd.com/photo-competitions/photography-awards/apoy-2022/ [Accessed 18 July 2020].

Bey, D. (2019) On photographing people and communities. NY: Aperture.

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.

Burkart, K. (2020) Top 10 Environmental Films of All Time [online]. treehugger.com. Available from https://www.treehugger.com/top-environmental-films-of-all-time-4868664 [Accessed 22 July 2022].

DeWolfe, D. (2014) 40 Coolest Sci-Fi Book Covers [online]. shortlist.com. Available from https://www.shortlist.com/news/40-coolest-sci-fi-book-covers [Accessed 21 July 2022].

Dyer, G. (1999) Anglo-English attitudes. London: Abacus.

Frailey, S. (2019) Looking at photography. Bologna: Damiani SRL.

Grundberg, A. (2021) How photography became contemporary art. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Hanley, D. (2011) The Natural and Modern Worlds in Solaris [online]. offscreen.com. Available from https://offscreen.com/view/natural_modern_solaris [Accessed 21 July 2022].

Howarth S. (2005) Singular images: essays on remarkable photographs. London: Tate.

Kipp, M. (2017) 23 science fiction and fantasy book covers that are out of this world [online]. 99designs.co.uk. Available from https://99designs.co.uk/blog/creative-inspiration/science-fiction-fantasy-book-covers/ [Accessed 21 July 2022].

Kong, C. (2021) The 21 Best Environmental Films of 2022 [online]. earth.org. Available from https://earth.org/best-environmental-films/ [Accessed 22 July 2022].

Leach, R. (2020) Is it CHEATING to Replace a Dull Sky in Landscape Photographs? [online]. shutterbug.com. Available from https://www.shutterbug.com/content/it-cheating-replace-dull-sky-landscape-photographs-video [Accessed 21 July 2022].

Mees, C.E.K, (1909) The photography of coloured objects. London: Wratten & Wainwright.

Rittmuller, R. (2019) Is Sky Replacement Cheating? [online]. medium.com. Available from https://link.medium.com/c6a4jpE4Prb [Accessed 21 July 2022].

Shore, R. (2014) Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera. London: Laurence King

Thompson, D. (2010) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. 5th edn. London: Little Brown.

Willsden, D. (2005) Aegan Sea, Pilion , 1990, in Howarth, S. (ed.) Singular images: essays on remarkable photographs, London: Tate, pp. 99-104.

Wright, J. (2020) The Debate Continues: Is Sky Replacement a Valid Technique or a Photographic Cheat? [online]. fstoppers.com. Available from https://fstoppers.com/originals/debate-continues-sky-replacement-valid-technique-or-photographic-cheat-528145 [Accessed 21 July 2022].