Photoshopping-Crime or Gift? A thought piece.

Photoshopping-Crime or Gift?  A thought piece.
Reality as a Parking Meter v1. Fujifilm X-E1, 14mm/2.8 R. ISO 200, 1/110s @ f8

Reality as a Parking Meter v1. Fujifilm X-E1, 14mm/2.8 R. ISO 200, 1/110s @ f8

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
― Albert Einstein

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
― John Lennon

Kia ora tatou:

In a recent review of Oloneo PhotoEngine, one of the readers made the following acerbic comment:

That’s great if you want your pictures looking like a cartoon.

He was probably referring to the application’s ability to give a very strong HDR look, which when applied without any sense of aesthetics, can give a look which departs a long way from “reality”, whatever that means. The option is there, if you decide to take it.

Or not.

However, in making the comment, he probably said more about himself and his own photographic preconceptions and beliefs than he did about the worth or otherwise of the software in question. However, it got me to thinking about whether PhotoShop or its use is a good thing or a bad thing.

In fact it is neither. To apply the epithets “good” or “bad” to a piece of software and the way in which we might use it is to pass judgement, and in so doing, to define your own prejudices about what photography “should” be.

Photography simply is.

It seems to me that giving a particular photograph the tick of approval or cross of disapproval based on how close to a perception of reality it is self-limiting. In doing so, we draw a line in the sand which cannot be crossed. However the only person liable to stay on that side of the line is us. While we are telling others they should never cross the line, they are busily doing so and finding their own way. Saying this is our way of attempting to cling to our own belief and persuade others to do so. We believe we have the “answer”, so we raise a rampart around the castle of our own misconception and keep out Attila and his rampaging hordes. All that happens however is that the barbarians take a good look at us, laugh out loudly, and carry on. All we have achieved, in fact, is to imprison ourselves in the Fortress of our own limited view.

In its earliest days, photography was a technology which came into being as a way of creating a more accurate and efficient record of the world in which it found itself, the Victorian era where discovery and exploration were taking place at a furious rate. Prior to that the early explorers had used pen, ink and paper to draft as accurately as possible the world they were finding, the plants and animals, the newly discovered species they came upon almost every day. Sit Joseph banks, who had accompanied captain cook on his travels to the bottom end of the planet, used his exquisite drafting skills to make records of the plants he found as accurately as possible. It would be nice to say that he was getting as close to the truth of his discoveries as possible, however a close examination of any of his drawings will reveal that he was editing the truth as well. He omitted things like dried out leaves and insect-chewed petals, since that would detract from the beauty of what he had found.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Early photographers may have headed out into the field with the idea that the technology they were using would provide an accurate record of what they found. The canny ones, men like Timothy O’Sullivan, quickly found that it was possible to “edit” truth, because photography by its very nature is a selective process. In the act of framing we make choices, we choose to see the world in a particular way, and no matter how hard we may try to be objective, it simply is not possible. Each of us sees the world, our own unique perspective, a perspective born of context, learned behaviours, our own life experience and of course the physical structure of our own eyes and mind. No two people see the world in the same way, and therefore in the act of framing, we will make choices about content, approach and technique which will, of necessity, create a unique perspective.

Objective truth in photography is a mirage, the rainbow whose end we can never reach.

So why bother?

Throughout photography’s journey with film, there were limitations, technical boundaries which were for a long time difficult to transcend. Editing a single grain of silver on an emulsion, either negative or print, was simply too difficult, and so a set of accepted practices, of technically-constrained mores came into being, and over time came to be accepted as truth. Even today collectors of photography will often prefer a silver gelatine print made from a film negative, believing that in some way it is a more objective view of the observed world, somehow more truthful.

Film photographers, however, have been tweaking the truth since Day One. Darkroom trickery has been a fundamental part of film practice since the 1900s. Adjusting the tonal values on a print to make a visual statement was an intrinsic part of Ansel Adams’ picture making process. New Zealand pictorialist photographer George Chance Senior had no qualms about compositing his images, combining parts of different negatives to create a work which was anything but an objective observation of a moment in time. Some of his most iconic works involved refashioning objectivity. Even today people who work in film and chemical processes are happily working towards an image which is the expression of a moment rather than a dry document of it.

For those people desperate to convince others that their view of the world is more objective than thou and therefore of greater validity, PhotoShop must appear as the Great Digital Satan. Now we have the ability to manipulate a single pixel, to adjust the value of each  one of the 24,000,000 picture elements in our image. Now we really can take truth and refashion it in our own image. Truth can be whatever we perceive it to be. We can remove people, add people, or clone one person onto another. We can turn day into night and night into day. Changing the paint scheme on a house or automobile is ridiculously easy to do.

This is why, perhaps, a well-founded suspicion exists around the veracity of any image. Sometimes it is amusing, as in the case of the Iranian government, who created a clumsy attempt at convincing the rest of the world that they have developed a stealth fighter plane better than anything flown by the West (or the East for that matter), and in doing so, showed the world just how inept their digital manipulators really were. At other times, however, the manipulation is much more insidious, designed to confuse and obfuscate. Now everybody knows that a digital image probably has little to do with reality, or rather the desperate need to many of us have to find a solid rock in the shifting sands of perceived reality.

But does it really matter?

If all of us know that an image may or may not be true, then why not put that need to one side and accept the joy of the journey, why not throw away the ticket with our destination upon it and enjoy the ride?

I suspect that full acceptance will only come when people release their reality angst, when they accept the reality is only an individual perception, that a concrete and objective view of the seen world is simply not possible and not worth worrying about, that the eye-mind combination is illusory, that our sensory equipment gives us a limited and transitory set of inputs which are then interpreted in a completely subjective way by a mind itself prone to often-unknown influences.

We can no more anchor any visual reality than King Canute could hold back the tide by the strength of his position and will. Visual reality is whatever we choose it to be, a product of conscious choice and, more significantly, of unconscious and subconscious factors.

Perhaps this explains why many photographers are so tribal, why they organise themselves into groups, societies and organisations. Perhaps this explains why they band together, and, in doing so, develop rules, a group aesthetic, and as a consequence, a sense of what is both correct and incorrect. We believe therefore we are (reassured). There is safety and comfort and stability in numbers. There is nothing like having a tribe  to support you when you are out in the middle of nowhere and a shrieking hoard of questioning Vandals and Visigoths suddenly thunder over the horizon.

I was recently exhibiting some of my landscape work, and I was approached by a number of people, themselves camera owners (who is not?) but not photographers. A number of them would look at the work and asked me the Curse Question:

Have you PhotoShopped this?

Of course, I merrily replied. All photographs are PhotoShopped in one way or another. All photographs are manipulated to some degree. They always have been and they always will. From Day One of Photography photographs have been manipulated, adjusted and edited. That is the very nature of photography.

They were not happy.

My answer dissatisfied them.

And, needless to say, they did not buy the work which had attracted them in the first place. They needed to  buy a piece of bedrock, not a bucket of shifting sand.




3 Responses

  1. Troy Baker says:

    Nothing is as it seems from the time we lay eyes on a scene to the moment the ink prints the last line of a print as all eyes, minds and hearts are not the same.

    This is a hot topic amongst a small group of camera owners up my way so perfect timing Tony. Fantastic post.

  2. laroquephoto says:

    Fantastic post Tony. I’ve been working on a similar rant for my own blog and I’ll make sure to link to this one when I get around to publishing it.

    There is no truth. Only interpretation through our eye, our culture, our prejudices, our life experience. Period.

    Thanks for this.

  3. greg g says:

    OK, well I think we need a little counter balance in this ode to digital manipulation. There is a point at which any “art” ceases to be itself and becomes something else, This is very easily accomplished with the full photoshop software suite. The end product ceases to be a photograph per se and becomes digital graphic art based to some extent (measurable or not) on (somewhere in the chain) a photograph, but it is no longer a photograph which to be itself must still (however interpretive) representational (no matter how abstract). I’m not here to say where that line is exactly and surely I have no interest in labeling one side of the line good and the other bad. Nevertheless, at some point one is a photograph and the other is, well, other.

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