a reasonable (if misguided) question …

jetty, Norfolk, Virginia

Several months ago, I wrote about an exhibit – Faking It: Life Before Photoshop – that prompted a heated (and fruitless) discussion with a friend and some useful soul-searching on my part.  I was reminded of it again for two reasons – one, the exhibit is now here in the District of Columbia and two, the recent controversy surrounding some prize-winning photographs.  I said then that the question of whether or not our photographs are ‘manipulated’ is a bogus question, confusing more than it illuminates.  Even the word we use is loaded with a negative value judgment – manipulated, not processed.  Unfortunately, the Met exhibit does not help this discussion – the premise of the exhibit is that manipulation should be acceptable because it has been practiced for over 100 years.  I will see the exhibit because I am interested – I don’t expect any help in answering the question when it’s addressed to me.

I do have a few more thoughts on the question now.  As photographers, I think we have to understand (and accept) why it is that people raise this question.  As a medium, photography has a relationship to reality that other artistic mediums do not have.  Also, most people’s exposure to photography has been in the form of documentary images (yes, that could include celebrity magazines as well as news organizations).  To be fair, it’s not difficult to see why people would assume, even if incorrectly, that photography always represents something real, something that exists in the real world.  They could reasonably expect to go to the same spot and see what is in your photograph.  We know this isn’t true but you can see how someone might think so.

The best. and clearest, analogy for me is to writers.  No one would ever ask a novelist if they ‘manipulated’ words – they are expected to do precisely that.  We know to expect that of a novelist – in fact, novelists will be asked what part of their story is based on actual events.  And we don’t have to go back far to see what happens to the journalist who makes up some or all of a story.  The bottom line is that people make assumptions, not always accurate, and more than anything, they do not liked to be fooled.  If we’re clear about what we are doing, they may still not like it but we can’t be accused of deceiving our audience.

Would you have seen the photograph above if you’d been standing on the beach next to me?  Perhaps not but I hope you might say, oh I know that feeling.

I will add if you shoot black and white, you very rarely get the question – did you manipulate that? 🙂

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8 thoughts on “a reasonable (if misguided) question …

  1. Interesting. Even before digital, photographs have been manipulated. Slow exposures create a completely different shot than what the eye sees. I used to dodge and burn in the darkroom (my skills were limited!). Perhaps, as High Def alters photos so much more than a tweek here and there, the discussion has changed considerably! When the photo no longer looks real…has manipulation gone too far? Removing unwanted power lines from a shot – debates can rage for ages. At the end of the day, photography is still an art form. Perhaps too much editing is only unreasonable in photo journalism where the story can be altered from the truth!? Have I gone off topic here? Hmmm….gives me something to think about as I bundle up for a walk…thanks for giving me my philosophical thought of the day! Have a great afternoon!

  2. Enjoy your walk Anita – I agree that photography is an art form, that’s what I do. Like words, though, it can be used to produce art – and it can be used in a documentary fashion. Because of the different objectives, it’s fair to expect that the ‘rules’ for one (art) would not apply to the other (documentary). The problem for photographers as artists is that people expect that we follow the ethical guidelines that would apply to, say, National Geographic or the New York Times. Maybe I should stop calling myself a photographer and refer to myself as an artist. 😉

  3. I think that there are photographers that build a reputation on journalistic ethics. Like all journalists they pride themselves on documenting “real” things. As is clear from history, not all journalists are ethical. Other photographers don’t represent themselves as journalists, but rather as artists. They ascribe to artistic values and modes. History is replete with photographic artists who misrepresented another persons work as their own. Art and journalism have different histories and ethics. I think it is up to the photographer to make it clear which field they are affiliating with. I am used to others misunderstanding a variety of avocations and careers. I am not comfortable with individuals who use misunderstandings for their own gain. Artists have for all of recorded time struggled with explaining their work to others, especially if it is unfamiliar or overly familiar. Some art is clearly art, some art looks like the same snapshot you took on a walk or travel. It is harder to define, qualify, or validate. But lying about your work or misrepresenting it, that is not about art vs journalism, it is about character.

  4. Good points all, Stephen. You’re right – lying about the work isn’t a question of art versus journalism but character. And perhaps I mixed things up a bit myself – I’m thinking more here of the judgment photographers/artists suffer the minute someone learns an image has been ‘altered’ in some way. There is no intentional lie on the part of the artist and yet some are inclined to judge the work that way.

    • I guess I have never found an avocation where someone didn’t judge others. My experience is that the more one understands all elements of photography, the more they understand there are no “unaltered” photographs. That is true for film and digital. The process from capturing an image (camera settings, sensor design, internal camera software) to creating a finished product (conversion software, imaging processing software, printer drivers, and the medium the image is saved to) all effect in subtle and not so subtle ways the outcome. Anyone who has tried to print a photograph realizes how hard it is to get the image you see on the camera to match the image you see on the monitor to match the image you see on the print. Trying to figure out how to make those images more similar will drive anyone nuts. When I took up digital photography it looked so “easy”…. not my thoughts now. I see many people buy cameras with the same idea I had. They have great mementos, but that is different than art. Art requires much more. To get better you have to have informed, reflective, and seasoned feedback. And that can feel judgmental or it can feel constructive. I wish it didn’t rest more with my perspective of it rather than his or her skill at providing it.

  5. Even photo journalist manipulate the content and of there images by using a point of view or a crop to move the story the direction they want. One example that came out a few years ago was a image used to report a “Riot” at an embassy (I don’t remember which one) the frame was edge to edge people. The photographer used a very tight crop to give the impression of large crowd of people packed against the embassy gate when in fact there were only about a dozen people. All photos lie.

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