At a photography Web site that I frequent, I read a series of comments about “manipulated photographs.” One of the comments by a very good photographer said: “Once the shutter is pressed…it is done anything after that is digital art.” Upon some reflection, I would like to share the following for your consideration.
Once the shutter is pressed you have a latent image on film, then what? In order to make it visible, it needs to be processed. What kind of developer? Is cross-processing allowed? What about high acutance developers? Are they off-limits too as they add an increased sense of sharpness around the edges where dark meets light areas? And if we are making prints, what kind of paper, how many developers can I use? Can I use a two-bath process with or without a water bath in between? Could I be allowed to use toners, sepia, or selenium? What about the use of filters, polarizer, ND, graduated, warming, color correction, …
Any answer to the above questions will result in defining some sort of “manipulation” from a certain viewpoint. I especially tried to remain on the film-based photography side to emphasize the elusive nature of what we mean by “manipulation.” Although the word seems to be used exclusively for digital photography, without manipulation and altering reality, whatever that may mean, we cannot engage in photography. Generally, people tend to use the word to mean “anything that alters reality” which I will show applies to any kind of photography.
I think it is very naïve to think “once the shutter is pressed it is done.” Photography, by its very nature, is extremely dependent on “manipulation” of some sort. The digitizing process creates its own distortion as does recording images on film. Cameras are programmed to correct for this distortion. Periodically, manufacturers release firmware updates. Installing any one of these updates will also change the earlier processing parameters and produce different images. Is this acceptable? Further, if I do not allow my digital camera to make any of the corrections and do it afterward why is my software is considered different from the software the camera uses? If we apply this line of thinking to film-based photography a new question emerges: “which film records reality”. If I decide to use Fuji Velvia for my slides am I manipulating the result as this film records different parts of the spectrum with varying intensities compared to Kodak Ektachrome. Which one do we take as the “true reality”?
The medium does not make photographs; it merely records, hopefully as a close facsimile of the photographer’s mental image. As the medium has gone through its evolution, this relationship remained the same. If we insisted on using what was prevailing at any given time, because the new medium was a different one and “distorted reality,” then we would still be coating our glass plates. Of course, I have not even mentioned the changes in film technology that produces colors that are different depending on the choice of the film the photographer makes. Researchers on the subject, at Kodak and Fuji just to name a couple of big names, found that people perceive a scene more vividly than it is “realistically” recorded, and therefore, become quite disappointed to see their “dull” images compared to their vivid mental image. To make their film more competitive, both Kodak and Fuji introduced, and continue to sell super saturated films. These films are specifically designed to alter reality.
What is necessary to discuss is “what are the boundaries of manipulation for specific uses of an image?” That is a more productive discussion I believe. So, let us take that subject.
A painter, an artist with a different medium, has infinite liberties to add, subtract, reposition, enlarge, reduce, and otherwise distort what he or she sees, or better yet, imagines. Nobody questions whether the painting has added elements or not, primarily because they perceive the painting as a piece of creative work rather than a correct depiction of reality. On the other hand, a photograph is assumed first to reflect reality. Thus, the viewer expects an accurate reflection of this perceived reality. Anything that may interfere with “pictures don’t lie” adage is seen as heresy in photography. I believe the adage itself is in error, pictures only tell a “slice of the truth” at best.
By this example, I am offering a dichotomy of purpose for photographic work: artistic expression, journalistic representation. If the purpose of a photograph is to reflect reality as journalistic representation, I will agree that nothing should be added to, nor be subtracted from the photograph. Its purpose, and consequently its claim, is to reflect the slice of reality the way it was at that moment in time. If, on the other hand, a photograph is presented with the purpose of artistic expression, I have no problem with a new sky being added or lighting emphasized. In order for this artistic work to remain in the realm of photography I look for “plausible reality”, that is, the image I am looking at can indeed be a photograph. Using the sky example, if it was rendered as sheepskin instead of blue and its shades, I may consider that a different kind of artistic expression, a surrealistic photographic expression.
I have presented for your consideration three positions, all of them offering their “expressed reality”. They are expressed-reality because at best they represent a model of the scene as it was photographed, and they are all distinctly different from the photographer’s perceived reality at the time of taking the photograph.
- Journalistic photography has no room for altering reality, recorded reality
- Artistic photography may have altered reality as long as it remains plausible as a photograph, plausible reality
- An artistic expression that begins with a photograph but alters it in such ways that it is no longer plausible to imagine it as a photograph, altered reality
Out of the three positions, only the last one may not be in the category of a “photograph” in some competitions. Even then, that category represents a wide gray area that also includes cross-processed slides, deliberately over or under filtered color prints and the like. The other two clearly represent photographic work to me and are accepted as such in club competitions, salons, and other juried events.
Just as it is not correct to tell a painter not to use a particular color, brush, or type of paint, we should refrain from telling photographers not to use a particular technique or equipment because it alters someone’s perceived reality, often without even seeing the actual scene.
Of course, I have not even started discussing “which reality,” “whose reality” matters yet. I may address them later.