Yesterday I blogged a photo that won the British Life Photography Awards 2015. It was a striking image of dawn at Stonehenge, captured on a field of camera phones. There was something odd about it though: as I noted in parenthesis at the end, “why do I have a faint wonder if it’s been Photoshopped?”
I had a closer look at it last night. It may be real. But I think the photographer, and the award, need to prove it. There are too many things with the image that don’t seem right.
Here are some recent views of the same event.
The above image is a still from a video on the Guardian website, published in June last year. The video shows a typical recent scene at Stonehenge as the sun rises on the midsummer solstice dawn.
Here is another screenshot from the same video.
Here is a photo taken on the same day, published by the Telegraph:
And finally a photo taken at the same event in 2010. This was published by the Daily Mail:
What do we see? Overall, the British Life Photography Awards picture (BLP) has a quite different look about it. It shows a relatively monochrome view of people crammed together all apparently holding up phones at a similar height (see the crop below). None of the other photos shows this. We see a lot of phones, but most people are not taking photographs. The crowd is more varied and colourful (note how the colour in the sky is reflected in the foreground, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the BLP image). If you look in particular at the BLP hands, light seems to be coming from a variety of directions, which is odd as there should be no direct light on the back of the hands at all.
Most significantly, I think, as with the BLP image, in the press images above we can see pictures on phone screens. But they are not all identical (see a selection in the lower row above). They show different views, as we would expect, and the clarity depends on the type of phone and the angle of the phone relative to the camera that shot the photo. In the BLP image the cameras all show an almost identical shot, the same view, the same light, and all extremely clear (look at the highest phone on the left: is that really the view that would have been seen from that point?). There’s no depth in the image. It has something of the manic impact of a John Heartfield photomontage, but it’s not a straight photo. It’s a clever desktop composition.
Why does this matter? Could we be seeing a new Heartfield in the making? That would be good, the world needs more satirists.
The BLP Awards is a website competition, with an impressive list of judges, including Chris Steele-Perkins and David Yeo. It’s cheap to enter (you can submit three images for £10, and up to a total of 40). The entry requirements are simple and open, and encourage phone images. This is the second year of the awards, and it comes with the second book… which has the Stonehenge image on the cover:
There are submission guidelines. They include this:
Physical changes e.g. adding or removing objects, people; or stripping in sky from another image etc.
Digital collages, sandwich shots and composites.
The rules allow “digital adjustments” (“Minor cleaning work including removal of sensor spots and dust, moderate adjustments of: contrast, tonal values…” etc). But the winning 2015 image seems to me to go well beyond such tinkering. If so, whatever we think of it, someone else should have won.
Elena Marimon Munoz appears to be a student at the Centre for Digital Entertainment, working on image acquisition and image enhancement in digital radiography. She clearly knows a thing or two about digital imaging. But was her entry to the BLP Awards fair?