S. Heiner fine art photography
Untitled (Blue Morpho on Vase). 2014.
Inkjet print, approx. 5.5"x7.5"
It’s exciting trying to get a butterfly to walk on your finger and then stay there for the trip to a more photogenic place, where, if things go right, it will walk off of your finger to its new spot. Some types of butterflies occasionally are amenable to the trip, e.g., malachites; others, not so much, e.g., blue morphos. In fact, up until I encountered the one in this photo, I’d never had any luck escorting a blue morpho from one place to another, which is why when I first saw this one, my first inclination was to walk past it and try to find a more agreeable type.
I had either a malachite or a Grecian shoemaker in mind when I bought the small vase on Ebay three weeks prior to going to Costa Rica. With ten days planned there, I figured there’d be enough time to get something involving a butterfly and a black vase to work. When the vase arrived, I discovered that its surface was too reflective to be of any use; and over the next couple of days I painted and sanded, and repainted and resanded until I got the shiny off. I rolled it in bubble wrap and, not wanting to take any chances, packed it in the front pocket of my travel vest, where it securely but uncomfortably sat until I arrived at the hostel in Costa Rica.
The next morning was too cloudy and dark, at least ordinarily, for shooting; but everyday counts when traveling so I headed off for a butterfly garden to give the project a whirl. As soon as I got there, I placed the vase on a black bench and then turned to begin looking for a malachite willing to make the journey. Right away I saw the morpho with its wings closed on a bush, maybe thirty feet from the vase. It’s been my experience over many years that on a lucky day, a blue morpho might, just might, walk on your finger; and if the gods are smiling, it might travel a few feet with you, but never but never will it stay for the distance; and if it does, forget about it successfully getting off at your destination; and if by some miracle it does, you can confidently bet the farm that it’ll take off in a flash. Add to that, they rarely open their wings unless it's sunny. So when the morpho got on the vase and stayed there long enough, its wings still closed, for me to back up and set the camera for very low light conditions, I was ecstatic about the possibility of getting something cooler than I’d been thinking about for the past few weeks. Even though I was now ten feet away, I barely took a breath for fear of disturbing the scene. And then, while I was clicking away as the butterfly walked around the top of the vase, it happened: the morpho stopped and slowly began opening and closing its wings. It was surprising and stunning and strikingly colorful against the dark background. In fact, after all that went into getting to that point, those few moments for me were, well…glorious, very unlike the disappointing few moments many people experience looking at the photo when I often hear them say, “That looks pasted,” before they move on.
Still, before the photo was ready to exhibit, there was a lot of post-shot doing, which
raises issues; after all, when a work is designated as photographic, there’s the expectation that, unless otherwise specified, the world was as it’s now shown to have been. But allowances, of course, are made with respect to this expectation. Many serious photography competitions, for example, will allow for brightness and contrast adjustments, though the degree to which each can be adjusted is often not specified, leaving open the option to select, say, a subject’s background and turn it to black. And some serious photography competitions have no rules at all about post-processing. In short, outside of journalism, the waters are murky with respect to what generally counts as a photograph.
What is clear, however, is that when the shutter opened, either the world was, with respect to what counts, pretty much as it’s now shown to have been or it wasn’t; and “what counts” depends, of course, on the viewer. For most viewers, a blue morpho’s wing adjusted to appear red, for example, counts as the world not having been as it’s now shown to be. Most of those same viewers, on the other hand, wouldn’t give the removal of an errant leaf in the background of the original photograph a second thought.
The range of what counts in terms of whether a photograph shows the world as it was is as wide as viewers’ interests and concerns. A composited piece, generally speaking, doesn’t show how the world was when the shutter opened on any of those composited elements; however, sometimes it does, as with the case of focus stacking, where multiple images are combined into one to provide sharpness throughout the depth of field. And most viewers would consider a focus stacked image a single photograph inasmuch as the world stayed the same throughout the openings of the shutter, i.e., the world was as it is now shown to have been. Thus, some composited images are widely considered to be a single photograph; most are not. If there’s a common thread which runs throughout what typically counts as a photograph, then, it’s that with respect to what counts, the world was pretty much as it’s now shown to have been in the image.
As to what counts, it’s almost safe to say that the putative subject of the piece always counts. Add to that, any other elements which support an observation as to how the parts of the whole piece cohere with respect to the subject also count. If any of these subject related elements are composited such that the world wasn’t as it’s now shown to have been, then the piece is not a single photograph but rather multiple photographs. It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would add non-cohering and, thereby, distracting, elements to a photograph, but were that to be the case, then that piece would be multiple photographs as well.
With respect to removing elements from subject related areas of an original photograph, we’re back, of course, to asking the question if, post removal, the photograph shows the world pretty much as it was when the shutter opened, the principal issue here being whether or not we’re to understand the space filled by the removed element as composited. Once again the answer to this question depends, of course, on the interests and concerns of the viewer. It’s worth noting, however, that software tools used to remove distracting elements aim to show what the world would have looked like had there been no distracting element
in the first place, and these kind of fixes, done in moderation and in such a way as to recreate how the world would have looked without the distracting elements, are as good a yardstick as any for what’s commonly accepted as a single photograph and not a composite.
At bottom, the issue is about deception. And that’s why the observations “That looks pasted” and “That looks photoshopped” are so often said dismissively, the subtext being “I’m not fooled by that.” Short of accompanying a photo with a list of every alteration and the degree to which it’s executed, it looks like there’s no way to label the piece which would sufficiently address the range of viewers’ concerns. Perhaps guidelines derived from the above distinctions would be useful for exhibits though I have no doubt that there are plenty of trouble-making counterexamples to the claims I’ve made about single versus multiple photographs. In the meantime, THAT butterfly, the blue morpho, was on THAT vase when I took the photograph and when it opened its wings, it was truly something.