Published On : 3 June 2021 |Last Updated : 6 June 2021 |3231 words|13.6 min read|0 Comments|

A few years ago, I went camping and hiking in semi-wild Quebec, on tracks that had not been maintained for several years, made of collapsed wooden bridges, 20 cm wide paths on the edge of a fallen cliff and fresh brown bear turds. I thought to myself something strange : Canadian nature is much less nice than French nature. It is by experiencing this wild nature, not really fun to walk around, that we realize, by contrast, that the nice nature we are used to is in fact not very natural.

In France, we call “nature” any place where vegetation grows and where animals live that have not yet been exterminated by pesticides. Except that, in fact, different organizations carefully manage and maintain these places, by selectively felling trees to make room for young ones, and by removing the felled trunks. As a result, the French forests are passable : you can see through them, you can pass through them, you can even find your way through them because they are marked out. In fact, since ancient times, forests in Europe have been maintained by the hand of man, at least to allow hunting on horseback and to obtain firewood and construction wood.

In Canada, given the size of the country, most forests are simply left abandonned. Progressing through it is more like crossing than walking, and the fallen trunks remain on the ground or on the others. As no selective felling is practised, the result is not beautiful clear-cut stands but a dense and compact mass of vegetation that hardly exceeds the shrub stage. In a word, it’s an inhospitable mess, and a far cry from the romantic nature of the English garden.

From there, what is left that is really natural ? “Natural” is to be taken here in the strict sense of “untouched by man”, and therefore as antonym of cultural since man is inseparable from the culture in which he evolves (unless he was raised by wolves on a desert island).

We like the idea of nature because it brings us back to our fantasies of original purity, uncorrupted by culture and society (the good savage). The problem is that, precisely, nothing exists outside of any society and therefore outside of any culture (except possibly in Antarctica). Even a child, not yet educated, behaves by imitating the adults around him, and these encourage him by rewarding his conformity and punishing his deviations. Nature dies under education, domestication and development. What remains of it is a deceptive illusion of nature, which caresses our romantic aspirations of authenticity so well that we forget how artificial it is.

More than an ideal of virginal purity, nature is above all a proxy in the quest for the absolute. The absolute is the comfort of the mind, which hates exceptions, special cases, heuristics, and all those things that abuse our cognitive faculties with footnotes and contextual parameters. The absolute is the ultimate simplification, which unifies without fatigue.

In the minds of many people, what exists outside or independently of culture is necessarily absolute and fatally universal. The equation to solve is then very easy : non-cultural = natural ; natural ⇒ absolute ; absolute ⇔ universal ; thus natural ⇒ universal. In other words, anything not specific to a particular culture would in fact be a universal constant of all humanity. At this point, one gains the right to make sentences without circumstantial complements or restrictions of domain of validity, vague and general, which have the value of profound truth. Universality and absolutes are two old imaginary friends of mankind, which produce false scientific theories (we are always looking for the theory of everything…) and metaphysical principles that are inapplicable without punctually arranging with one’s principles when no one is looking (cf. the catechism of the monotheistic religions, ending in innumerable branches each having their reinterpretation of the n-th retranslation of the sacred texts).

In art, the fantasy of universality is old, and of all the arts, it is in music that it is easiest to dismantle. How many times, during my music studies, have I heard bullshit like “music is the only universal language”… I leave you with Hildegard of Bingen, reconstructions of ancient Greek music, Mongolian throat singing, pentatonic music, the oriental quarter tone, and Schoenberg’s atonal music, and you tell me if you were immediately sensitive to this aesthetic universality or if your first reflex was to turn down the sound :

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Music is a language and any language requires learning. Call it acquired taste, call it conditioning, whatever, but each era and culture develops its own aesthetic language, and you don’t spend 20+ years in a particular musical language without needing time to adapt when you change era and/or continent.

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Even assuming that singing is natural, what is universal about the fact that Asia spontaneously converged to a pentatonic scale, that the West converged to a heptatonic scale cut into 12 semitones (10 chromatic semitones, 2 diatonic) available in 2 modes (minor/major), and the Middle East to a heptatonic scale cut into 24 quarter-tones, available in 96 modes ? All this long before musical scales were formalized and theorized…

The fantasy of the universality of art (or of emotions…) is nothing more than that, since it seems difficult to conceive of art outside of any artistic language, that is, without a set of codes and aesthetic norms that conventionally associate certain colors, certain graphics or certain modes with certain emotions (red with anger, blue with sadness, black with mourning, right with the future, left with the past, up with domination, down with submission, minor mode with sadness, major mode with joy, Eb minor with blues, etc.). And if universality falls, so does naturalness as a means of achieving it : one cannot escape the cultural and local relativity of the aesthetic object without judicious, if not dishonest, omissions to shoehorn reality into one’s risky modeling.

Where is the naturalness in disciplines that require not only technically elaborate instruments, but also several years of study before reaching a basic mastery ? Dance, singing, painting, music… training consists first of all in gradually pushing back the physical limits of a human body which is certainly adaptable, but not initially adapted to these practices (holding an instrument, developing one’s thoracic capacity or ligament flexibility, individually controlling groups of muscles little used by the average person, training one’s eye or ear to perceive micro-differences, etc.), then in theorising the practices in order to be able to teach and improve them (if one accepts that theorisation is the consequence of analysis, and that one cannot teach a discipline without having analysed it).

In a world where nature is not so natural, especially when it looks “harmonious”, and where art is a cultural and local aesthetic object, why do so many photographers always try to find THE naturalness in their pictures ?

For any photographer, nothing in the act of photography is natural. After all, the camera they are handling converts photons into electrons by the photoelectric effect, after the light rays have converged through micro-coated optical glass lenses polished to a tenth of a micrometer. All this is based on nearly 450 years of technical innovations and scientific discoveries, and on a colossal know-how on the whole optical-electronic-computer chain. Behind it, the electrical current is measured on the sensor, and the raw digital values have to go through several arbitrary computer correction steps to finally become perceptually correct color. Finally, the image will be displayed by a reverse process, converting the values into electric current, and then back to photons on the screen. Where is the naturalness in that ?

For a documentary photographer, the simple act of holding a camera in front of a group of people changes the social dynamics of the group : people will stop what they are doing, pose or hide, smile or refuse the shot. Even when trying to define an idea of nature (which would be more like spontaneity) in social behaviour, the mere presence of the photographer will disturb it.

For a studio photographer, who is going to photograph subjects taken out of their context and posed in an artificial setting, even before defining the contours of the natural, how does one decide on these contours ? What is the basis for setting the cursor of naturalness in a situation where all the ins and outs are artificial : situation, means, objectives ? The injunction “be natural” dismays many models, who are obviously the only ones to realize the paradox : be natural on demand ? Contradiction in terms.

What does it mean to be natural for a human being ? From a behavioural point of view, the totality of socially acceptable behaviours are cultural facts forced and validated by education. Does being natural mean being a savage sociopath and biting when frustrated ? From the point of view of appearance, is it still natural to cut your hair and nails ? If so, what about hair removal ? Otherwise, how do we solve the kerato-hair double standard ? Are we still natural with a layer of foundation ? What if foundation is only there to camouflage temporary redness ? Does moisturizing dry skin still make it natural ? Does washing make us less natural ? Are we still natural when wearing jewelry ? Or even wearing clothes ? And with glasses ? What does a face with a natural expression look like ? What is the natural body position ? The further we go, the more obvious the deception : what passes for natural is a set of culturally transmitted and arbitrarily chosen stereotypes, nothing is essentially and fundamentally “natural”.

I’ve seen photographers who refuse tattooed models on principle, but have nothing against dyed hair. Others (and often the same ones) who have nothing against earrings (pierced ears) but refuse piercings (navel, breasts, nose, etc.). In both cases, under the excuse of looking for natural bodies. Now piercing the skin is conceptually the same thing, no matter what part is pierced, the difference is purely in the aesthetics and in the level of social and historical penetration of these practices : if piercing one’s ears or dyeing one’s hair has been common for a long time in the West, and is therefore accepted, dyeing one’s skin or piercing other parts of the body is marginal and represents a deliberate social marker, for people perceived or positioned on the fringes of the society The use of naturalness is hypocritical, using an objective external concept to justify what is an individual preference. Personal preference is perfectly acceptable ; in fact, what is not acceptable is twisting concepts in a grotesque way to avoid simply saying “I don’t like”. Just assume it.

In fact, the resolution of the paradox of being “natural on demand” is found at the same level as the image itself : in the appearance. We don’t look for the essence of nature, we don’t need it because we produce images, we only look for its appearance. The image is only about appearance. In which case, what we are looking for is verisimilitude, credibility or plausibility, i.e. the appearance of truth, since the image only fixes the appearance anyway. In the same way that, in a movie theater or in a novel, you know that the story is fiction (or a fictionalized version of a distant reality), that it’s just actors playing and stuntmen taking the hits, and that no one dies for real, but you accept to be mystified by the story and you even experience each of the emotions at the physiological level (which can be measured by the increase of the heart rate, the rise in body temperature, the production of tears, etc.), provided that the characters are not too caricatured in their psychology and that the scenario is credible. If the script becomes nonsensical, too bombastic, or the characters lack depth and humanity, you’ll get out of the story and start to pick up on all the inconsistencies. It is interesting to note that verisimilitude does not need to be graphic to feel empathy and feelings towards the characters in the story, for example cartoons showing anthropized animals are just as touching as movies with real actors. It seems that it is rather the plausibility of the characters that is important.

Many photographers continue to deny this poetic license, which allows for falsity in favor of expressiveness, by continuing to seek an unattainable metaphysical truth and a disembodied abstract naturalness in their artificial subject within an artificial setting, like a tourist desperately seeking an authentic cultural experience in a city that is commercialized by the tourism industry.

This goes as far as “natural light”. Many photographers, struggling with studio lights, have made it their duty and virtue to shoot only in natural light. That is, when we talk about natural light, we mean shooting next to a window. How does the window provide natural light ? On the contrary, when it comes to windows, it is rather the wall that supports it that is needed, to block the light in a general way and channel it only in one direction, and thus create a flattering contrast between the shadows and the highlights, necessary to restore the volume in a 2D image. How can we call the result of channelling daylight through pierced masonry, a “natural” light ?

Natural or artificial, light is just a beam of photons, and we control its color (understand : its spectrum of wavelengths), its direction, its extent and its diffusion exactly the same, whether the photons come from the sun or from a light bulb. Any light bulb with high color rendering index (CRI), with a colour temperature between 4500 K and 7000 K, diffused by a large surface, can become a false window lit in daylight, and thus a quite convincing pastiche of what people call “natural light”. And if the color temperature is not exactly what you want, as long as the CRI is high and the light spectrum is close to daylight, you can correct it very well in software (and, no, there’s no point in adjusting the white balance on the camera…). Movie directors are very good at reproducing fake sunsets inside Hollywood hangars. YouTube is full of proud photographers showing you how they simulate daylight through a window, very convincingly, with €1500 softboxes. That’s one way, there are cheaper ways.

Daylight has no intrinsic virtues, it only has properties that must be understood and that competent photographers know how to reproduce and control. “Natural” is neither a property nor a virtue of light. “Natural light”, using a window in a wall to separate light and shadow, is no more natural than a large softbox. Truly natural light, that is, outdoors and without modifiers of any kind, would be incredibly harsh if the sun is visible, or incredibly bland if the weather is cloudy ; in any case, complicated to work with and probably not very interesting graphically.

“Natural” and “authentic” are words I banished from my vocabulary a long time ago, and they set off a bullshit alarm in my head every time I hear them. I’ve met a lot of artists who bury their approach under pseudo-metaphysical dissertations that sound as if they were written by a 12 year old child, so much so that the concepts they unfold sound good but turn out to be hollow upon analysis, when they are not downright opposed to their actual practice. Surface philosophy, in this genre, inevitably provokes ridicule and makes those who practice it quite difficult to respect. Stop it, seriously.

An English garden is not a virgin forest, it is a stylized interpretation of the abundant nature. True naturalness is not harmonious and practically impossible to find in a world that has become so anthropized. What passes for natural is usually artificial and a little more hypocritical than average. The graphic arts are about appearance, and verisimilitude (the appearance of the real thing, that is) is all that is needed to work.

One would expect image craftsmen, who are a priori aware of the artifices involved in the making of a graphic work since they practice them, to be sensitive to the plasticity of the image, to its artificiality and its intrinsic lie. And yet, it appears that many of them see in the technical complexity of the camera and the image processing chain a form of objective truth that protects them from arbitrary choices and interpretations. But this technical complexity is really just an accumulation of arbitrary design choices made by engineers somewhere. The reason is very simple : no image processing algorithm is free of defects, so we have a plethora of them that will fail at different places and times, and we choose the algorithms used according to the defects we can tolerate or that we know how to correct.

Well locked in an unopenable black box, expressed as algorithms and transfer functions that are incomprehensible to the average person, these arbitrary choices have a non-optional impact : a camera distorts the scene being photographed, no matter what you do, and fixing light on a permanent medium is done at the cost of messing around with color, which depends mainly on the graphical opinions of your camera manufacturer’s engineering director and your software editor. This whole complex imaging technique from which you are excluded does not operate neutrally or objectively, it is only that you do not realize its hidden and vicious subjectivity. Just because there are calculations in the box doesn’t mean the algorithm is neutral and objective.

No camera records natural colors. No screen displays natural colors. No image is reality. No shooting process is natural. By the way, human color memory does not record natural colors either, memory embellishes colors[1] and can even completely deviate them after the fact[2]. More recently, it has even been shown that a priori knowledge of the color of an object conditions the color perception of that object[3]. Naturalness is a knife without a blade that lacks a handle : it is not because we can define it theoretically that we can find it, so why waste time looking for it ?

Life is about bereavement. It’s still time to grieve naturalness. The good news is that it won’t change anything from the point of view of the result in the image : you weren’t doing natural before, even if you tried very hard. On the other hand, it will relax an unrealistic and untenable constraint for you and your collaborators : to say the ineffable, to seek the intangible, to show the invisible. Such goals are unrealistic, doomed to failure, and can only degenerate into malaise, since they remain the target that everyone is chasing because no one has asked whether they exist in the first place. Just be credible in your graphic lies, that’s all that matters. The rest are lying words.


  1. SIPLE, Patricia et SPRINGER, Robert M. Memory and preference for the colors of objects. Perception & psychophysics, 1983, vol. 34, no 4, p. 363-370.  

  2. LOFTUS, Elizabeth F. Shifting human color memory. Memory & Cognition, 1977, vol. 5, no 6, p. 696-699.  

  3. WITZEL, Christoph et HANSEN, Thorsten. Memory Effects on Color Perception. Handbook of Color Psychology, 2015, ch. 3, p. 641-665, Cambridge University Press.  

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